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Can we design a perfect democratic decision procedure?

(public lecture at the "Visions in Science" conference, Berlin, September 2014)

Lecture podcast


Condorcet famously observed that majority rule has some desirable properties, but sometimes produces inconsistent outcomes. The aim of this lecture is to show that there is a conflict between three initially plausible requirements of democracy: ‘robustness to pluralism’, ‘basic majoritarianism’, and ‘collective rationality’. For all but the simplest collective decision problems, no decision procedure meets these three requirements at once. At most two can be met together. This ‘democratic trilemma’ raises the question of which requirement to give up. Since different answers correspond to different views about what matters most in a democracy, the trilemma suggests a map of the logical space in which different conceptions of democracy are located. (Click here for background paper.)

Democracy and deliberation

The two most influential contemporary approaches to theorizing about democracy - social choice theory and the theory of deliberative democracy - are often considered mutually disconnected or even inconsistent.

The former sees the aggregation of conflicting individual opinions as central to democracy, the latter their transformation in deliberation.

In several papers, some jointly authored with other colleagues, I have argued that the two approaches are complementary, investigating, for example, the role of deliberation before aggregation.

One key hypothesis is that group deliberation leads participants to develop a shared understanding of a decision problem ('meta-agreement'), while leaving room for disagreement about the best alternative. If true, this opens up an escape from several social-choice-theoretic impossibility results.

Together with James Fishkin, Robert Luskin and others, I have been involved in empirical work testing this and other related hypotheses about deliberation-induced opinion change.

On the theoretical side, I am involved in the development of formal models of group deliberation, drawing on ideas from the theory of judgment aggregation and the theory of belief revision. 


Democratic Deliberation and Social Choice: A Review, Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy, in press

Independence and Interdependence: Lessons from the Hive (with A. Vermeule), Rationality and Society 26: 170-207, 2014

Deliberation, Single-Peakedness, and the Possibility of Meaningful Democracy: Evidence from Deliberative Polls (with R. C. Luskin, J. S. Fishkin and I. McLean), Journal of Politics 75(1): 80-95, 2013

The Logical Space of Democracy, Philosophy and Public Affairs 39(3): 262-297, 2011

Group Communication and the Transformation of Judgments: An Impossibility Result, Journal of Political Philosophy 19(1): 1-27, 2011

Can there be a global demos? An agency-based approach (with Mathias Koenig-Archibugi), Philosophy and Public Affairs 38(1): 76-110, 2010

Social Choice Theory and Deliberative Democracy: A Reconciliation (with John Dryzek), British Journal of Political Science 33(1): 1-28  

Two Concepts of Agreement, The Good Society 11(1): 72-79, 2002 (revised version, 2008)

Other papers

The Discursive Dilemma and Public Reason, Ethics 116(2): 362-402, 2006

When to defer to supermajority testimony -- and when not, 2006

Disaggregating Deliberation's Effects: An Experiment within a Deliberative Poll (with Cynthia Farrar, James Fishkin, Donald Green, Robert Luskin and Elizabeth Levy Paluck), British Journal of Political Science 40(2): 333-347

Social Choice Theory and Deliberative Democracy: A Response to Aldred (with John Dryzek), British Journal of Political Science 34(4): 752-758, 2004

Deliberative Polling als Methode zum Erlernen des demokratischen Sprechens (with Anne Sliwka), Zeitschrift fuer Politik 51(1): 87-105, 2004 (English translation)

Edited book

Deliberation and Decision (edited with Anne van Aaken and Christoph Luetge), Aldershot (Ashgate Publishing), 2003


Last modified June 2018

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