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Estlund: Beyond fairness and deliberation

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Estlund. 1997. Beyond fairness and deliberation. In Deliberative Democracy, eds. James Bohman and William Rehg. MIT Press.

In Brief

Estlund's position on democracy resembles a discussion of the criminal justice system. We want a fair procedure (see Frey), and of the fair procedures we want one that yields the best decisions (as in the Condorcet Jury Theorem, but weaker). Democracy, then, has both procedural and substantive value. It has procedural (intrinsic) value for being fair, and substantive (instrumental) value for yielding the best decisions.

More generally, Estlund sets out to move beyond the dichotomous proceduralist (intrinsic) versus consequentialist (instrumental) debate by arguing a "third way" which he calls epistemic proceduralism.

Normative Approaches to Evaluating Social Decision Making

Estlund reviews several normative approaches used in discussing democracy and other decision making methods.


Equality of means, equal power over the outcome (e.g. "one person, one vote"). Does not evaluate the outcome against any standard (e.g. "justice" or "morality"); as long as the procedures are followed faithfully, then the outcome can appropriately be anything.


An idea based upon the premise of Condorcet's Jury Theorem: under majority rule the group will be virtually infallible provided the size of the group is sufficiently large. Requires that there be a "correct" answer (according to some standard, e.g. Rawlsian justice), or else this approach makes no sense.


Outcome/ends should be evaluated. Argues a procedure independent of epistemic standards to be used to judge the quality of an outcome. Agreement to the procedure (placing a decision before a democratic vote) should not bind the voter to give up her moral judgment regarding the outcome.

Epistemic Proceduralism

Estland's approach. He argues that it overcomes limitations of the above. He is trying to argue there ought to be accommodation for moral judgment after the fact, thus parting from Rousseau. However, he argues these on epistemic grounds (because there is inherent epistemic value in the democratic procedure).

Comments and Criticism

The Correctness Theory (Epistemic arguments) is stochastic (probabilistic) and not deterministic or causal. The analysis and arguments ignore the truthfulness of the inputs (if voters have false information). In politics, those who vote are often fed false or less than perfectly true information (e.g. weapons of mass destruction vote in Congress). Assigning authority to the outcome based upon an inherent epistemic value in the democratic procedure ignores this reality.

How to Test this Argument?

Historical cases and empirical analysis of outcomes, but counterfactual "what would have happened if XYZ" would be merely hypothetical.

Research on similar subjects


Estlund, David (author)Political TheoryDemocracyDeliberative DemocracyVotingNormative Theories of Voting

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