The Practical, the Political and the Ethical seminar series

The Practical, the Political and the Ethical seminar series
28 May 2021, 4.00pm - 6.00pm
Online seminar.

Why Should Those Who Speak for Us Be Anything Like Us?

Wendy Salkin (Stanford University)

A descriptive representative is a party who is similarly situated to those they represent in at least one of a variety of respects. The descriptive representative may have characteristics, experiences, or backgrounds in common with the represented. Descriptive representation is widely regarded as having much to recommend it, particularly when those who are to be represented have systematically had their shared interests overlooked.

Descriptive representation strikes many as an attractive practice and seems to be motivated by commitments that, in our everyday lives, we quite reasonably endorse. It captures the spirit if not the meaning of the widespread and popular directive: “Let the people speak for themselves!”

Extant arguments favoring descriptive representation are specific to contexts of formal political representation—particularly, representation in legislatures—where a limited number of seats is to be filled by a corresponding number of representatives.

Informal political representation, however, is different: Informal political representatives speak or act for us in various contexts although we have neither elected nor selected them to do so by means of a formal, systematized election or selection procedure. The legally codified numerical constraints that shape the terms of debate concerning descriptive representation in formal representative contexts are absent from informal political representation, where there can be as many informal political representatives as you please, indeed as many as audiences will give the time of day.

In this chapter, I introduce and critically examine novel arguments for descriptive informal political representation and argue that, sometimes, nondescriptive informal political representatives are preferable.

The Institute of Philosophy hosts a regular workshop series entitled ‘The Practical, the Political, and the Ethical’. The series was created in 2015 by Véronique Munoz-Dardé (UCL) and Hallvard Lillehammer (Birkbeck) in order to discuss work in progress from visiting speakers. This year the series is convened by Kate Vredenburgh (LSE) and Jonathan Gingerich (KCL).  Talks are normally 50 minutes (no pre-circulation of the paper), followed by discussion. All are welcome. 


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