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Demos21: Beyond the Democratic Boundary Problem

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On Wednesday, December 9, 2020, the Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS) – a research center at The American University of Paris dedicated to promoting the practice, study and life of the democratic – hosted the first event in its year-long series of lectures, roundtables and workshops titled Demos21. The series aims to explore how we may build political and social solidarity within and beyond the nation in order to confront today’s essential challenges. Laura Valentini – a professor of politics, philosophy and economics at King’s College London – was the invited speaker. In a virtual lecture, Valentini presented her recent paper on the deconstruction of the “democratic boundary problem” in political theory, which concerns the question of how to delineate the demos: who, in other words, should take part in decision-making?

After an introduction from Julian Culp, CCDS fellow and professor of philosophy at AUP, Valentini outlined three dimensions of decision-making: Who gets to make decisions? (This, she argued, was the dimension most closely linked to the boundary problem.) How, or through what processes, should decisions be made? And, finally, what should be the content of such decisions? Through a series of examples, ranging from deciding to which charity one would like to donate money to which candidate should be appointed to an academic post, she argued that the answer to who should be involved in the decision-making process varies depending on context – there is no hard-and-fast rule that holds in all cases.

Next, she outlined a working definition of democracy as a set of institutional process through which decisions are made, as opposed to a system of morals and values that governs the comportment of such institutions. Democracy is, therefore, only one possible response to the boundary problem: a way of implementing a series of those other values – such as human rights and equality – that society deems most effective and appropriate. The boundary problem, Valentini argued, should concern itself with who has the right to be involved in decision-making in any given context: not solely democratic contexts. “We seem to all agree that not every decision and not every context is fit for democracy,” said Valentini. “There may be situations where there are deep ethnic divisions where having a democratic system might backfire.” The solution to the “who” question may often look like democracy, but, according to Valentini, it doesn’t have to.

In the closing section of her talk, Valentini looked back on some of the historical conceptualizations of the boundary problem and argued that they do not provide a generalized solution to the question at hand. Covering two such proposals – the all-affected principle, which argues that any and all parties affected by a democratic decision should be involved in the decision-making process, and the all-subjected principle, which limits involvement to those impacted by the outcome’s coercive or authoritative elements – Valentini showed that neither solution provided a general governing principle for the question of who participates in decision-making.

Following her talk, Valentini answered questions from the livestream’s chat function.

Demos21 will continue this Spring semester and throughout the rest of 2021. The next event, scheduled for Tuesday, February 2, will see Wayne Soon, Professor of History at Vassar College, present on the subject of “Global Medicine in the Republic of China, 1937 to 1970.” To register for the event, and to learn more about upcoming lectures in the Demos21 series, visit the AUP website.