Philip Pettit (Princeton University): "Can the People be Sovereign?"

Thu, Sep 9, 2021, 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm
Marx Hall, Room 301 (due to current health protocols, open to PUID holders only)
Program in Ethics and Public Affairs

Preregistration for this event is open to PUID holders only and is required. To register, click here.

Abstract:  The notion of sovereignty goes back to Jean Bodin, a C16 French jurist. For him and for other ‘absolutist’ thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau, the sovereign must be a single individual or a majoritarian committee, whether a committee of an elite or of the whole. And for them, crucially, the sovereign must be able to dictate the law without external, uncontracted constraint, including the constraint of previously established laws. From the late C18, many argued that in a representative democracy or republic the people were sovereign, although not by constituting a majoritarian committee of the whole. The claim retains currency in popular and academic circles—it is a centerpiece of populism—but has always defied reconciliation with the original definition. 

The claim and the definition may both stand, however, under a conception of the people as an organization that operates, via a multitude of mutually checking channels, as a corporate agent. Those who act in the name of that corporate people may each be externally constrained by organizational checks, but those checks will represent only internal constraints on the body as a whole; they will be analogous to the constraint of majoritarian voting that absolutists allow. Hence the collective people, suitably organized, can be sovereign, being free to dictate law without external, uncontracted constraint. 

Will that entail democracy? Alas, no. Democracy requires that within the organization of the sovereign corporate people, ordinary individuals must enjoy equal powers of a kind that corporate popular sovereignty does not ensure. It requires power for individual citizens, not just power for the collective citizenry. 

Bio: Philip Pettit works in moral and political philosophy and on background issues in philosophical psychology and social ontology. His single-authored books include "The Common Mind" (1996), "Republicanism" (1997), "A Theory of Freedom" (2001), "Rules, Reasons, and Norms" (2002), "Made with Words: Hobbes on Mind, Society, and Politics" (2008), "On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy" (2012), "Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World" (2014), "The Robust Demands of the Good: Ethics with Attachment‚ Virtue and Respect" (2015) , and "The Birth of Ethics: Reconstructing the Role and Nature of Morality" (2018). He is the coauthor of "The Economy of Esteem" (2004), with Geoffrey Brennan, "Mind, Morality, and Explanation" (2004), a selection of papers with Frank Jackson and Michael Smith; "A Political Philosophy in Public Life: Civic Republicanism in Zapatero’s Spain" (2010), with Jose Marti; and "Group Agents: The Possibility, Design and Status of Corporate Actors" (2011), with Christian List. "Common Minds: Themes from the Philosophy of Philip Pettit" appeared in 2007 with Oxford University Press, edited by Michael Smith, Geoffrey Brennan, Robert Goodin, and Frank Jackson. "Philip Pettit: Five Themes from his Work" appeared with Springer in 2016, edited by Simon Derpmann and D.P.Schweikard. Pettit holds his appointment at the Center jointly with an appointment as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Australian National University, Canberra. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy and a Fellow of both the Humanities and Social Sciences Academies in Australia. Pettit was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2017.