Research

The following is an overview of some of my research. Please feel free to email me at lachlan.umbers@unsw.edu.au if you would like a copy of anything outlined below.

Compulsory Voting: A Defence (Forthcoming in The British Journal of Political Science)
Early view available, here.
Turnout is in decline in established democracies around the world. Where, in the mid-1800s, 70%- 80% of eligible voters regularly participated in US Presidential elections, turnout has averaged just 56% since 1972. Average turnout in general elections in the UK has fallen from 76.64% during the period 1945-1992, to 64.68% since 1997. Average turnout in Canadian federal elections has fallen from 74.52% during the period 1940-1979, to 62.5% since 2000. For most democrats, these numbers are a cause for alarm. Compulsory voting is among the most effective means of raising turnout. However, compulsory voting is also controversial. Most of us think that coercion may only be employed against the citizenry if it is backed by a justification of the right kind. Opponents of compulsory voting charge that no such justification is available. This paper resists this line of argument in two ways. First, I offer an argument from free-riding which, though gestured towards by others, and widely criticised, has yet to be defended in any depth. Second, I consider a range of objections to compulsory voting as such, arguing that none succeeds.

What’s Wrong with Vote Buying (Forthcoming in Philosophical Studies)
Early view available, here.
Almost everyone would agree that vote buying is morally wrong, and that prohibitions on vote buying are morally justified. Yet, recently, several philosophers have argued that vote buying is morally permissible, and (in some cases) that it should be legally permitted. This paper begins by examining and criticising arguments that have been offered in defence of vote buying. I then go on to consider existing attempts to explain the wrongness of vote buying, arguing that none is wholly successful. I then advance a novel account of the wrongness of vote buying. Vote buying is objectionable, I argue, because it involves a failure of respect for one’s fellow citizens as autonomous agents. I also consider the implications of my account for a number of other controversial practices.

The Climate Duties of Sub-National Political Communities – co-authored with Jeremy Moss (Forthcoming in Political Studies)
Early view available, here.
In recent years, several actors at the sub-national level (e.g. California, British Columbia, New York City) have taken unilateral steps to mitigate climate change by reducing their emissions. These developments have commanded considerable attention in the empirical literature. In this piece, we consider the philosophical dimensions of climate action at the sub-national level. Specifically, we argue that many sub-national political communities have moral duties to take unilateral action on climate change, where the national communities to which they belong fail to do so. Along the way, we consider complications arising out of the inevitable fact of partial compliance, and the phenomenon of carbon leakage.

Against Lottocracy (Forthcoming in European Journal of Political Theory)
Early view available, here.
Dissatisfaction with democratic institutions has run high in recent years. Perhaps as a result, political theorists have begun to turn their attention to possible alternative modes of political decision-making. Many of the most interesting among these involve reliance on lotteries in some way or other – as a means of distributing the franchise, selecting representatives, or making social choices. Advocates of these ‘lottocratic’ systems contend that they retain the egalitarian appeal of democracy, while promising improved political outcomes. The aim of this paper is to defend democracy (or, at least, universal suffrage and majority rule) against the challenge posed by these proposals. I argue, firstly, that lottocratic systems necessarily involve the establishment of objectionable social and political inequalities that democracies do not. Secondly, I raise a number of doubts with respect to the purported instrumental benefits of these proposals.

Enfranchising the Youth (Forthcoming in Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy)
Early view available, here.
Children are, almost everywhere, denied the right to vote. Democratic theorists tend to assume, without a great deal of argument, that age-based discrimination in access to the franchise is justified. In this paper, I challenge the orthodoxy. I argue that all major, plausible accounts of the justification of democracy require the enfranchisement of a substantial proportion of the child population. Along the way, I consider and respond to a number of major objections to child enfranchisement.

Democratic Legitimacy and the Competence Objection (Forthcoming in Res Publica)
Early view available, here.
Elitist scepticism of democracy has a venerable history. This paper responds to the latest round of such scepticism – the ‘competence objection,’ articulated in recent work by Jason Brennan (2011, 2016). Brennan’s charge is that democracy is unjust because it allows uninformed, irrational, and morally unreasonable voters to exercise power over high-stakes political decisions, thus imposing undue risk upon the citizenry. I show that Brennan’s objection admits of two interpretations, and argue that neither can be sustained on close examination. Along the way, I consider the merits of Brennan’s preferred ‘epistocratic’ alternative to democracy, and argue that it is likely to lead to lower-quality outcomes. 

Going it Alone: Cities and States for Climate Action – co-authored with Jeremy Moss
Ethics, Policy & Environment, 21(1), 56-59.
Available, here.
Several US states and cities responded to President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement by committing to take unilateral action – i.e. to reduce their emissions, even in the absence of an adequate national-level climate policy. In this piece we consider the climate duties of sub-national political communities. We argue that many such communities have capacity-based duties to reduce their emissions.

Democracy and Cognitive Disability (Conditionally Accepted in Social Theory and Practice)
The vast majority of democratic nations restrict the voting rights of persons with cognitive disabilities. Several democratic theorists have recently argued that such restrictions ought to be abolished, arguing, inter alia, that such restrictions lead to the disenfranchisement of persons on morally irrelevant grounds, express objectionable attitudes about the cognitively disabled, and do not plausibly prevent harms of any kind. I agree with such arguments. Yet some have also expressed the hope that the enfranchisement of such persons might give politicians more powerful incentives to attend to the interests of the cognitively disabled – a group who, by all accounts, are poorly served by governments the world over. In this paper, I argue that, for several reasons, such hopes are likely to be disappointed. If we wish to ensure that such persons’ interests are taken seriously in the political process, we must consider reforms of other kinds. I consider several possible reforms in this paper, arguing in the end for a deliberative solution, modeled upon the 2004 British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on electoral reform.

Partisanship, Compulsory Voting, and the Right Not To Vote (In Progress)
A popular objection to compulsory voting holds that it violates the ‘right not to vote’. In this paper, I argue that existing attempts to establish the existence of such a right, as well as existing responses to this objection, fail. I then propose a novel account of the right not to vote. Citizens, I argue, have respect-based claims against being compelled to express certain attitudes – specifically, where the content of such attitudes is inconsistent with their equal moral standing. Voting compels citizens to express partisan attitudes – i.e. the endorsement of particular political parties, candidates, projects, or ideals. Under certain conditions, the content of such attitudes is inconsistent with the equal standing of certain social groups. Members of these groups, in such cases, therefore have claims against being compelled to vote. I then go on to consider the implications for institution of compulsory voting. I argue that the right not to vote does not undermine the case for compulsory voting, in general. Rather, it argues for allowing certain limited exceptions for members of oppressed social groups.

Partisan Gerrymandering and Respect for Autonomy (In Progress)
Partisan gerrymandering – the manipulation of electoral boundaries for political advantage – has long been a feature of many democracies. It is also almost universally regarded as morally wrongful. Surprisingly little attention has been paid, however, to the matter of what makes partisan gerrymandering objectionable. In this paper, I show that many apparently attractive explanations of the wrongful nature of partisan gerrymandering cannot withstand close scrutiny. I then propose a novel, respect-based account, respond to several objections, and consider a number of practical implications.

Citizens, Climate Change, and Collective Action (In Progress)
Virtually everyone in the climate justice literature agrees that states are presently failing to discharge their duties to mitigate climate change. Very little attention, however, has thus far been devoted to the normative implications of that fact. One possible implication, discussed in recent literature by Elizabeth Cripps (2013), is that individuals may have duties to help promote collective action on climate change. In this piece, I argue that individuals may indeed have such duties, but that existing accounts of their normative foundations are all problematic in various respects. I therefore propose and defend a novel, fairness-based account of citizens’ duties to promote collective action on climate change. The paper concludes by exploring some practical implications of this approach.

Climate Justice Beyond the State – co-authored with Jeremy Moss (Book Manuscript, In Progress)
Virtually every figure in the climate justice literature agrees that states are presently failing to discharge their duties to take action on climate change. Few, however, have attempted to think through what follows from that fact. In Climate Justice Beyond the State, we argue that states’ failure to take action on climate change has important implications for the duties of the most important actors states contain within them – sub-national political communities, corporations, and individuals – actors that have been largely neglected in the climate justice literature, to date. Sub-national political communities and corporations, they argue, both have duties to immediately, aggressively, and unilaterally reduce their emissions. Individuals, on the other hand, have duties to help promote collective action on climate change. Along the way, we make contributions to a range of important related debates on topics including the nature of collective duties, what agents are required to do under conditions of partial compliance, and the requirements of fairness.