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Democracy: Philosophy, Politics, & Power

This course is expected to run but has not yet been scheduled.

Course Description

Most countries claim a commitment to democracy, America especially, but we must always ask how well they live up to its ideals. What is democracy? How does it work? How should it work? How can we all be good citizens despite the enormous differences between us? Must we all vote, campaign for and lobby elected officials, or would we be better off occupying public spaces in protest? Can we be good citizens if all we do is challenge sexist speech and attitudes in our everyday lives? This course seeks to foster critical understanding of the key philosophical conceptions of democracy and their relation to modern social practices and will be particularly useful for any student considering further study in philosophy, politics, or the wider humanities and social sciences.

It is always vital that those about to assume the full rights of citizenship possess an informed understanding of the possibilities and responsibilities of democracy. The objective is to challenge mainstream conceptions of democracy as essentially defined by representative elections and to introduce students to the role of democratic values in all spheres of social life, formal, informal, private, and public. The course focuses on the relationship of democratic values of equality, liberty, and self-rule to contemporary social practices, especially those that unavoidably escape the purview of coercive law and the traditional nation state.

We will interrogate the ways in which the dominant democratic practices of modern societies both realize and undermine the equality of citizens, their freedom to live fulfilling lives, and their capacity to exercise effective control over their own social environment. Students will be given the opportunity to (democratically) choose one or two key social issues around which to structure their work, such as immigration and citizenship rights, intellectual property and the internet, or climate change.

Students will apply their theoretical and practical findings to the task of formulating their own utopian vision of how people could live together differently than they do today. They will be challenged to imagine possibilities for social life that reflect their interpretation and evaluation of democratic values. These utopian visions can be creative and even far-fetched or grounded very solidly in gritty reality. The key challenge for students is to use their imagined societies to ground a coherent critique, warning, or example to contemporary citizens in light of their analysis of a pressing social problem.

By the end of the course, students should be able to:
• Identify, analyze, and critique the key claims and assumptions of notable philosophical defenses and critiques of democracy.
• Define, design, and pursue an imaginative research project in close collaboration with their fellow students.
• Articulate and defend a coherent critical perspective on an important social issue and offer suggestions as to how best to understand and address the problem as they see it.
• Recognize the way that democratic values can be manifested, or not, in a wide range of aspects of social life beyond those traditionally recognized as the home of democratic politics.

Students should have a solid working knowledge of the main institutions of government and mechanisms of democratic rule in contemporary societies. They should be politically engaged, in whatever way, and aware, at least in outline, of some important social questions and issues. Students will benefit greatly from the experience of studying history, politics, economics, philosophy, or other similar subject to a fairly high level.