The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

Demos21: Eva Erman on the Democratic Boundary Problem


On Wednesday, October 20, 2021, AUP's Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS) continued its Contemporary European Democratic Theory lecture series – one of three such series forming part of the center's year-long convocation, Demos21. The talk was the second lecture to focus on 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?

Eva Erman, a professor of political science at Stockholm University, was invited to present her paper on her “function-sensitive view” on the democratic boundary problem, which is forthcoming in the journal Contemporary Political Theory. The hybrid event took place both online and in person in the Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons. Professor Erman’s research in the field of political philosophy engages with democratic theory, critical theory and methodology. She is the author of two books, The Practical Turn in Political Theory (2018) and Human Rights and Democracy: Discourse Theory and Global Rights Institutions (2005) and has contributed to numerous scholarly journals, including Ethics & Global Politics, of which she is founder and editor-in-chief.

Erman began her talk by explaining the two principles most commonly outlined in response to the democratic boundary problem: the all-affected principle, which argues that anyone affected by the decision-making process should be engaged in decision-making themselves, and the all-subjected principle, which limits participation to those experiencing coercion or subjugation. Erman argued that, rather than being in competition, these two principles can be considered compatible by taking a “function-sensitive view,” one accommodating of the different functions and values of democracy.

After outlining some of the methodological assumptions that responses to the democratic boundary problem often make, Erman explained how two values in particular are indispensable when theorizing how to regulate democratic functions: procedural fairness and political autonomy. The first of these, procedural fairness, is best promoted through a version of the all-affected principle that Erman calls the principle of public legitimacy. Essentially, all those whose fundamental interests are significantly affected by decisions must have them protected and promoted in a public way in the decision-making process. This doesn’t, however, presuppose political autonomy via participation in the democratic process. Political autonomy is therefore best understood through what Erman terms the democratic principle, in which all those subjected to decisions have a say in the decision-making process. “The demos demarcated by the principle of public legitimacy need not be the same as the demos demarcated by the democratic principle, which is only applicable to coercive decision-making,” she explains.

She concluded by outlining what she saw as some of the main objections to her account of compatibility between the two principles. One such objection is that it is problematic to link autonomy and coercion, as noncoercive actions may also impact autonomy. She explained that she viewed this criticism as both relying on too narrow a definition of coercion as solely physical coercion and making the mistake of equating political autonomy with personal autonomy. “We can lack political autonomy but still be fairly autonomous as persons,” she notes. “For example, if we are a wealthy and influential person in an autocracy.” Though full personal autonomy requires political autonomy, excluding an individual from a single decision does not systematically revoke political autonomy. Taking part in shaping the overarching goals of society is a long-term process upheld by the continuous involvement in decisions of those who are, over time, subjected to the results of those decisions.

After the presentation, Erman took questions from audience members both present in the room and online. You can watch the entire talk, including the Q&A, in the video below.