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Alfred Moore is a lecturer in political philosophy. He teaches the 3rd-Year module 'Knowledge and Democracy', and his research focuses on the role of experts in democratic politics.
I had a slightly unusual route into studying politics
I studied Physics and Philosophy as an undergraduate. I then did a Masters in European Politics, so only really came into politics at graduate level. I had a particular interest in the issues of science and politics at that point, and that's what I focused on for my PhD.
I work in political theory - democratic theory in particular. One of the subfields is deliberative democracy: thinking about the ways in which public debate can be done better. I look at how it can go wrong, and what role it plays in supporting democratic legitimacy. Is it important that we, the public, think about and talk through political issues?
I saw a gap in political theory
There were problems that everybody was talking about, but political theorists weren't. Problems like: how should we organise knowledge about climate change? What does it mean that scientists are in consensus about man-made climate change? Does that tell us what we should do? Should it tell us what we should do? It seemed to me like these were important questions.
We’re in societies which are dependent on expert knowledge. It surprised me that very little had been written about the role of expert knowledge in democracies. By quirk of my background, I was interested in health and vaccine controversies, climate change, these kinds of topics - and they weren’t being addressed in political theory.
There’s a difference between political authority and expert authority
Experts can tell us what to believe, but they can’t tell us what to do. Whereas political leaders can tell us what to do, but not what to believe.
Roughly speaking, one of the basic principles of democracy is that we should consent to the authority that we’re subject to. One problem that expert knowledge poses is that it’s hard to see how we can consent to something that we don’t understand.
A good example is what’s happening with Covid-19. The boundaries between expert authority and political authority are becoming pretty blurred. Are we all obeying these demands because experts told us to, or because politicians told us to? Or some weird mix? It’s made these questions of the proper relationship between expertise and democratic decision-making processes really relevant.
There’s a kind of politics within expertise
The way we construct and produce expert claims also has its own institutional settings and biases. Which is all a long way of saying that experts can sometimes over-value and direct attention to the things they happen to be expert on, to the detriment of all other things.
I can see this is something I do myself! When I see articles on expertise and democracy, I say, “Aha! It’s just like what I said in my book!”. Then I focus on the things which remind me most of the things that I’ve already thought about. It’s a natural thing to do, but it’s something we should try to guard against.
We can't just look at things that make us comfortable and happy
In the 1st-Year Introduction to Political Theory module, we study some classic books, and grapple with the questions that they raise: the ways in which they speak to us, and the ways in which they don’t. There are great works which have enduring interest, but they’re also problematic in various ways, and we can’t ignore that. We also can’t just throw them out.
Think of John Stuart Mill, the classic liberal thinker - he was also a colonial administrator, and spent half his life sitting in London 'administering' parts of India. What do we do with that? Ignore it? We raise those kinds of questions.
You might not look at political theory again, depending on how you choose your modules. A comprehensive introduction to some of the key thinkers and key concepts that you’ll encounter will be useful in any area you go on to study.
York is a really interesting place to study Politics
We’re a big community - there’s work going on that I have no idea about. We have a large and diverse political theory group, which I think really sets us apart from most other UK universities. We have specialists in the history of political thought, contemporary political philosophy, and critical theory. That’s pretty unusual. Many universities tend to have a kind of specialism, but we have quite a pluralist remit, and I personally really like that.
It makes our seminars really interesting. I’m always surprised and happy to go to our research seminar and get a glimpse of people’s work, when I only know them from chatting in the coffee room. It challenges you to engage with different topics, and see work from a range of perspectives, which is so important for keeping your mind open to new ideas.