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Democracy, State Secrecy, and Leaks


Admission requirements

Admission to one of the following programmes is required:

  • MA Philosophy 60 EC: specialisation Ethics and Politics

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Law

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Political Science


Whereas the importance of transparency seems undisputed, many feel that complete transparency would undermine the effective functioning of governments, and that some degree of secrecy is needed. Take the public responses to the Wikileaks disclosures: many of the disclosures were assessed favorably, but few people defended the idea of total transparency that inspired them. If both complete secrecy and complete transparency are to be rejected, what ratio of secrecy and transparency in democratic politics should we seek? For example, does democratic commitment to transparency require that classified intelligence programs or closed-door political bargaining be abolished?

How are we, furthermore, to judge unauthorized disclosures of state secrets (think of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, for example)? Are they morally wrongful? If so, can they ever be justified, nonetheless? And how do such disclosures relate to democratic principles?

To answer these questions we will study texts from the history of philosophy (e.g. Bentham and Kant on transparency), from contemporary democratic theory (e.g. Dennis Thompson on how to accommodate a measure of state secrecy within a democracy), and from recent political philosophy (e.g. John Rawls and Kimberley Brownlee on the justifiability of civil disobedience).

Course objectives

This course aims to provide insight into the difficult balance between the necessity of state secrets and the democratic demand for transparency.

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • democratic theory and how it relates to questions of state secrecy and transparency;

  • philosophical debates concerning the permissibility of civil disobedience and whistleblowing.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • critically analyse recent literature in democratic theory and political philosophy generally

  • identify, articulate and critically assess key concepts and arguments in this area.


The timetable is available on the MA Philosophy 60 EC website

The timetable is available on the MA Philosophy 120 EC website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

  • Attending seminars: (13 weeks x 3 hours) 39 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 121 hours

  • Completing presentation and papers: 120 hours

Assessment method

  • Presentation, participation, and weekly discussion notes (10%)

  • Midterm paper (max. 1500 words) (30%)

  • Final paper (max. 4000 words) (60%)


The final mark for the course is established by determination of the weighted average of several subtests (midterm, final test). A subtest can be graded as unsatisfactory.

Attendance and class participation is a mandatory requirement for taking the tests or resit.


The resit will consist of a written final paper, which will have to be defended in an oral exam. The grade will replace previously earned grades for subtests. Students who have obtained a satisfactory grade for the first examination(s) cannot take the resit.

Exam review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.


Blackboard ( will be used for:

  • Turnitin assignments

  • Course documents (providing some guidance for the essays, for example)

  • Announcements (in the case of changes to the reading material, or changes of venue/time, etc.)

Reading list

  • Chambers, S. (2004). 'Behind Closed Doors: Publicity, Secrecy, and the Quality of Deliberation', The Journal of Political Philosophy, 12(4), 389–410.

  • Christiano, T. (2008). The Constitution of Equality: Democratic Authority and its Limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (excerpts)

  • Gutmann, A., & Thompson, D. (1996). Democracy and Disagreement. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

  • Kant, I. (1996). 'Toward Perpetual Peace. A Philosophical Project'. In M. Gregor (Ed. & Trans.), Practical Philosophy (pp. 316–351). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (On the publicity principle)

  • Luban, D. (1996). 'The Publicity Principle'. In R. E. Goodin (Ed.), The Theory of Institutional Design (pp. 154–198). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Sagar, R. (2013). Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (excerpts)

  • Thompson, D. F. (1999). 'Democratic Secrecy', Political Science Quarterly, 114(2), 181–193.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetables for courses and exams.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. E.R. (Eric) Boot


Not applicable.