Etikk i praksis. Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics (2018), 12(2), 129–141

The Democratic Duty to Educate Oneself

Steinar Bøyum

Department of Education, Faculty of Psychology, University of Bergen,

I argue that democratic citizens have a duty to educate themselves politically. My argument proceeds in two stages. First, I establish a case for the moral importance of individual competence for voting, but I also maintain that the substantial content of the required competence must remain open. I do this by way of assessing Jason Brennan's provocative defense of epistocracy. I try to show that there is no notion of political competence that can meet with reasonable agreement among citizens and that voter qualification exams are therefore illegitimate. Second, I maintain that the basic premise of Brennan's argument, the right to a competent electorate, is valid and that it corresponds to an individual duty to educate oneself politically. This duty is, in Kant's terminology, a wide and imperfect duty that we owe to our fellow democratic citizens. Yet since the content of competence must be left open, this moral duty cannot be transformed into a legal obligation.


Keywords: competence, democracy, duty, education



Most of us would agree that democracy depends on education. In the words of John Rawls, “without widespread education in the basic aspects of constitutional democratic government for all citizens, and without a public informed about pressing problems, crucial political and social decisions simply cannot be made” (1997: 773). Or more precisely, decisions can certainly be made with an ill-informed public, but they are more likely to be bad ones, with potentially disastrous consequences. With that in mind, the great interest in democratic education recently is unsurprising. The focus of that interest has usually been on either the prudence or the obligation of the state, schools or parents to provide the education necessary for democratic participation. However, I would argue that it is also the responsibility of the individual citizen to acquire that education. We owe it to our fellow citizens to educate ourselves politically.

The present article consists of two parts. In the first part, I establish a prima facie case for the moral importance of individual competence for democratic participation, but also that the substantial content of the required competence is open-ended. I do this by way of assessing Jason Brennan’s provocative argument against universal suffrage (Brennan 2011). Brennan adopts a principle of competence asserting that citizens have a right to a competent electorate, which in turn leads him to support a version of epistocracy.1  I shall argue that his argument is not valid, due to the disputed nature of the required competence. Reasonable disagreement about competence leads to reasonable disagreement about any voter exam. This does not mean that the notion of competence is morally irrelevant, but it means that the content of the required competence is best thought of as open-ended. In the second part, I argue that the basic premise of Brennan’s argument, the right to a competent electorate, holds true in the sense that we have a moral right to expect others to base their participation in democratic decision-making on relevant knowledge. Moreover, this legitimate expectation gives rise to an individual duty on behalf of citizens: the democratic duty to educate oneself politically.2 I then outline the main features of the duty to educate oneself: what kind of duty it is; who owes it and to whom; what is owed and how much; and what follows if the duty is not discharged. By exploiting some of Kant’s moral vocabulary, I argue that the political duty to educate oneself is a wide and imperfect duty that we owe to our fellow democratic citizens.3

I shall make two assumptions. First, I shall assume that citizens do have some influence on policy through political participation, such as voting. Otherwise, it would hardly be a democracy. That does not mean that citizens have all the power: modern democracies are characterized by a complex epistemic division of labor, where experts, bureaucracies, and political parties, to name a few, also play important roles. Hence, citizens’ input is only a part, albeit an important part, of the collective decision-making process. I argue that even that limited part is significant enough to be accompanied by civic obligations. Second, I shall assume that basing decisions on better knowledge will usually lead to better decisions in the long run, so that widespread voter ignorance is at least a problem (Somin 2015). I shall leave the precise meaning of “better knowledge” open for now, for reasons that will soon become clear, and I shall also leave open what “better decisions” means: it can be read as “decisions contributing to a good and just society”, where the precise meaning of “good and just” is left open for the reader to fill in, according to his or her convictions.

1. The Problem of Competence

  I shall start by outlining Jason Brennan’s argument against universal suffrage. The first premise of that argument is that to vote is to exercise significant power over others. This claim has three aspects. First, to vote is to exercise power. Collectively, voters create or uphold laws that are imposed on citizens by force. Even democratic governments threaten violence in order to induce compliance with their laws. Second, to vote is to exercise significant power. The significance of our individual vote may be negligible, but collectively, voting can do great harm.4 Elected governments can alter citizens’ life prospects in dramatic and even disastrous ways, for instance, through waging wars or making economic policy. Third, to vote is to exercise significant power over others. In voting, we make decisions not only for ourselves, but for others. And whereas we may have a basic right to have a say in matters concerning ourselves, a corresponding basic right to govern others does not seem to exist. This power needs to be justified.
The second basic premise of Brennan’s argument is what he calls the principle of competence: “Citizens have a right that any political power held over them should be exercised by competent people in a competent way” (2011: 700). Brennan’s justification for this principle proceeds mainly by analogy to the case of juries, to which we shall return. It follows from these two premises that we have a right to a competent electorate, and that incompetent voting is unjust. Hence, we owe it to each other to exercise the right to vote in a competent manner. That is the core of Brennan’s argument.

Obviously, a lot hangs on the meaning of “competence”. Although Brennan does not give us a detailed account, we can deduce from his text three dimensions of competence. First, being competent includes having the requisite relevant knowledge, the opposite of which is ignorance. Second, being competent includes a certain quality of reasoning: how you assess evidence, draw inferences, and so on. The opposite is irrationality. Third, competence includes a moral component: voters should be reasonable. That is not to say that we must have the correct moral beliefs, but it invokes a common idea within political or public reason liberalism, such as the core idea of Rawls’ version of political liberalism. However, Brennan wants to leave the content of “reasonable” open, “to be filled in by the truth, whatever that is”, apart from noting that reasonableness excludes patent moral failings like racism (Brennan 2011: 705). His argument is therefore assumed to hold independently of any specific conception of moral reasonableness.

The controversial parts of Brennan’s argument come from what he thinks the principle of competence implies. His argument would be philosophically significant, but practically inconsequential if all voters were competent. Yet Brennan brings his philosophical argument to bear on an empirical claim: Many citizens are incompetent, in the sense of ignorant, irrational, and/or unreasonable (2007). Even this claim would not be overly radical if the right to vote took precedence over the right to a competent electorate. Yet Brennan holds that if citizens are not competent, they ought to be excluded from holding political power, including the power to vote. Only citizens of sufficient political competence should be allowed to vote. Epistocracy is more just than democracy.

Brennan’s conclusions are provocative and hard to swallow. He provides us with two sets of considerations to make them more palatable.

The first is the jury analogy. Like voters, jurors wield significant power. Their decisions can have serious consequences for the defendant’s life prospects. In a jury context, however, we already accept something like the principle of competence. Imagine that the jury is ignorant (jurors pay no attention during the trial and are ignorant of what the case is about), irrational (jurors make their decision “not on the basis of the evidence, but on the basis of wishful thinking and various bizarre conspiracy theories”) or unreasonable (the jury finds the defendant guilty because he is black, gay, or Muslim) (Brennan 2011: 703). To knowingly enforce decisions made from these kinds of serious epistemic or moral failings would be unjust. Hence, we rightly take steps to avoid such incompetencies in a jury context.

In the political context, however, many voters do the equivalent of the above juror incompetencies without anyone calling for them to be disenfranchised (except Brennan). We acknowledge the right of defendants to competent juries, but not the right of citizens to competent voters, even though the decisions voters make are just as serious, perhaps even more so. Brennan asks us to consider the political parallels to the juries above: The ignorant electorate, where voters pay no attention to the details of the election, have little or less knowledge of the issues at stake, and in effect choose their candidate at random; the irrational electorate, where voters pay some attention and have some knowledge of the issues, but vote “on the basis of wishful thinking and various disreputable social scientific theories they happen to believe”; and the unreasonable electorate, where voters choose the white candidate rather than the black out of sheer racism (Brennan 2011: 708). Voters like this exist, and may even admit it openly, but still, Brennan notes, nobody seems to bother about the injustice of having such voters participate in decision-making with potentially serious effects for other citizens.

The second strategy that Brennan employs to break down our resistance to his epistocratic conclusion is the argument from children. Epistocracy seems outrageous to us because we associate it with earlier practices of restricted suffrage, in particular the racist literacy tests in some American states in the first half of the twentieth century. Brennan argues that although people used to be excluded from voting for morally irrelevant reasons (sex or color), that does not make it wrong to exclude them for morally relevant reasons (competence). The moral relevance of competence is salient from the fact that we already deny a significant part of the population the right to vote because they are deemed incompetent: namely, children. Many adults are however less competent than many children, and instead of setting the limit arbitrarily at a certain age, we should rather restrict the right to vote to those who are deemed competent, Brennan argues. Competence, regardless of age, is the morally relevant limiting factor.

We can argue against Brennan’s position in several ways. Some of them will take us deeply into general political philosophy.5 Since my interest is primarily in the political philosophy of education, I shall here consider only one type of criticism, revolving around the concept of competence. Hopefully, this criticism will be sufficient to at least force a modification of Brennan’s claim.

Brennan himself discusses a criticism arising from what he, following Estlund, calls the qualified acceptability requirement. This principle requires that “any basis for the distribution of political power must be justifiable to all qualified points of view” (Brennan 2011: 701).6 Brennan notes that one way to implement his version of epistocracy would be by way of a voter qualification exam, which would test citizens for relevant competence: “The purpose of the exam would be to exclude badly incompetent citizens from voting, by screening out citizens who are badly misinformed or ignorant about the election” (2011: 714). Yet Estlund had earlier argued that such an exam would violate the qualified acceptability requirement: We cannot expect all, even all reasonable people, to agree on such a test (Estlund 2008: 33).
Brennan grants that epistocracy violates the qualified acceptability requirement—to a degree. He argues, however, that democracy and epistocracy are in the same boat in that they each violate one basic principle, the competence principle and the qualified acceptability requirement, respectively. Yet violating the competence principle is the more unjust of the two, he claims. We cannot go into the details of that comparison here.7 It is more important for our purposes that in his comparison of the relative injustice of the various violations, he seems to ignore the deeper aspect of how epistocracy violates the qualified acceptability requirement. It is not just the voting test that will have trouble meeting that requirement, but the underlying account of competence itself. Earlier on Brennan states, “We cannot expect all reasonable people to agree on where the line should be drawn between competence and incompetence” (2011: 714). Yet later he writes as though the problem was merely one of agreeing about a test. In doing so, Brennan may underestimate the depth of the voter exam’s violation of the qualified acceptability requirement. The problem is not merely one of constructing an acceptable test, but that there will be a partly political disagreement about what competence to require.

The problem may at first be approached as a threshold problem. How much does someone need to know in order to count as competent? How do we decide where to draw the line between pass and fail, competent and incompetent? In school settings, there are two ways of doing that. The first is to decide on a particular distribution in advance, say, a normal distribution. Under these conditions, someone who passed this year may be less competent than someone who failed last year. The other method is to develop criteria for passing: any graduate should know this and that. It is then an open question how many will pass the exam in a given year: none may pass, or everyone may pass. This second method must be the one that Brennan has in mind. Yet what are the criteria for using certain benchmarks instead of others? Within a school setting there are ways of answering that question. In some cases, the threshold is set by external standards, for instance what is necessary to do a proper job. In medicine, a future nurse must be able to take a blood test without killing the patient. In other cases, standards within a scholarly community provide the threshold. All philosophers think all philosophers should know certain things about Plato and Kant. In most cases a mix of internal and external standards probably applies. Yet regarding voter competence, no external standards and no expert community exist. There is no external standard because we have different ideas of what a proper society is, and there is no expert community apart from the people themselves.

This lack of standards and experts leads us to the deeper problem: there is reasonable disagreement about what should be known in order to take part in governing others through voting. Brennan may say that without an elementary understanding of economics you would lack something crucial for governing. Others might reply that without having immersed yourself in literature you would lack a capacity for empathy that is even more important for governing. And so on. Admittedly, the economist and the man of letters might agree on a disjunctive account: a voter will have to know either economics or literature. That helps a little, but not much. Some might repudiate the disjunctive account and argue that their favored candidate item for inclusion in the voter exam should be compulsory. Certain areas of knowledge might also be considered positively harmful. A Marxist might find a classical economist to be incompetent, not primarily due to a lack of knowledge, but precisely because of his so-called knowledge. The question here is not whether the Marxist is right in this, but whether his position is within the bounds of reasonable disagreement, which I think it is.