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A humble ethos for democracy

Christopher Hobson, Waseda University

Tue 1 March 2016

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


In the quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the confidence surrounding democracy has been replaced with growing concerns about whether it is now in crisis. What is needed is an approach to democracy that avoids both the excessive optimism of the 1990s and the more corrosive pessimism that has emerged in recent years. Responding to this situation, this paper considers the old idea of humility, which has moved from virtue to vice to now seeming irrelevance. This may seem like a strange alternative to explore at a time when democracy is facing a growing array of serious challenges, especially given that humility has often been associated with self-abasement or accepting a lower position than one is due. Certainly such passivity does not cohere well with democracy, but if humility is understood in terms of an awareness of one’s limits and an acknowledgement of what has yet to be achieved, it has the potential to offer a powerful way of approaching democratic government. This paper explores the different meanings the idea has taken, and considers what a humble ethos for democracy might mean. It is suggested that humility entails reflection on one’s own standing, but this is done in reference to others. In this sense, there is a social dimension to humility, which can have productive consequences for democracy. In developing this approach, the paper will also consider recent arguments by Aikin and Clanton (2010) and Kyle Scott (2014) that humility plays a valuable role in facilitating deliberation. If this is indeed the case, humility may be an idea that deserves greater attention by deliberative democrats.

About the speaker

Christopher Hobson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University (Japan). He has previously held positions at the United Nations University and Aberystwyth University, and has a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Relations from the Australian National University. His work lies at the intersection between democracy and international politics. He is the author of The Rise of Democracy: Revolution, War and Transformations in International Politics since 1776 (Edinburgh University Press, 2015), and has co-edited three books including The Conceptual Politics of Democracy Promotion (Routledge 2011). For more information, visit his website: or check his Twitter feed: @hobson_c

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