Thesis Thoughts

12 Jan 2015

With 6 months of funding left, I have some concerns about my thesis structure and whether or not my argument will be satisfactory. To condense my thesis to a sentence, it would currently read something like this:

We can’t have moral obligations to obey democratic authority if those obligations require coherent theoretical justifications.

And I was planning to argue this position thusly:

  1. There are good reasons to believe that moral obligations require coherent theoretical justifications, but

  2. The existential paradoxes of democracy (that I will so artfully articulate) render any theoretical justifications of obligation to democratic authority incoherent.

The first part I take to be relatively straight forward. Political theorists theorise; they are paid to, and perhaps occasionally enjoy, theorising about justifications of democratic authority. So it should come as no surprise that most contemporary political theorists accept this premise to be the case.

Now of course, there will be those who disagree; most notably the anti-foundationalists who claim that no theoretical foundation can be viewed from outside the lens of theory, and the post-modernists who are want to wax lyrical about the subjective nature of truth.

This does not concern me; those objection are, after all, from anti-foundationalists and post-modernists. But more importantly, and perhaps somewhat more charitably, my thesis is framed as a conditional. If obligations require coherent theoretical justifications, then we can’t have moral obligations to obey.

The meat of my thesis and well as most of my original contribution, will be the examination of the existential paradoxes of democratic theory: why an inability to democratically justify political inclusion undermines consequentialist justifications of democracy; why an inability to independently justify a particular brand of liberalism undermines liberal justifications of democracy; and why an inability to democratically decide on decision mechanisms undermines procedural justifications of democracy.

In each of these chapters, I am reasonably confident in my arguments. Democracy require a people, democracy requires limits, democracy requires procedures. But those requirements can’t be determined democratically and neither can they be determined non-democratically.Each chapter tears away at an Achilles Heal of democratic theory and fells a particular justification of democratic authority.

So what then is my concern? Well, this doesn’t seem enough. My argument is essentially an 80k word modus tollens. I am confident that I can show that three types of democratic justifications can’t be theoretically coherent, but even if I can do that, that doesn’t entail that all justifications of democratic authority can’t be theoretically coherent.

Because that’s what I want to do. I want to show that obligations to democratic authority can’t be justified; they can only be rationalised. Democracy is a response to arbitrary external rule, not some noble or magical political system. It’s a power play by the demos against minority rule. So obligations to obey democratic authority can’t be thrust upon us, but they can be accepted by us.

Now it may very well be democracy is the least worst system of government that modern society has come up with. And it may very well be that democracies work well enough in practice. But I want the contribution of this thesis to be that people realise, assuming of course that more than four people actually read it, that democracy requires constant political struggle in order that our collective interests are properly served.

So where to from here? Sadly I’m not sure :( Perhaps I can identify a deeper, general inconsistency that applies to all democratic accounts. Or perhaps I narrow the scope of my thesis an focus on one particular problem in more detail. It’s time to think.