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April 2, 2003

the evolution of deliberation as a field

I made a presentation today at the Society for Values in Higher Education's conference at a beautiful rural retreat in northwestern Connecticut. This was my outline:

Deliberation is a hot topic in philosophy, law, and political science, generating shelves of books and articles. I believe that there are three reasons for this:

  1. Until the 1960s, many scholars assumed that politics was mostly a struggle among groups with fixed interests. Often, groups' goals were assumed to be selfish, although the really important point was that they were inflexible. Therefore, discussion, argument, and reason-giving were inconsequential. This was the Marxist view, but it was also the view of "pluralists" and "realists" in political science, many of whom were quite conservative. So it a broad ideological spectrum agreed that rhetoric was politically insignificant. Politics meant the deployment of power in competitive situations.
  2. Then the power of argument, persuasion, and rhetoric was rediscovered. But rhetoric is not always a good thing; people can be persuaded to hate others against their self-interests. Conceivably, a society of rational individuals who maximized their own interests would not be racist, since racism is irrational. People are persuaded to be racists.

    If persuasion is politically significant, but often harmful, then we clearly need to figure out how to improve it. "Improved talk" is a rough definition of "deliberation."

  3. Until the 1960's, the positivist distinction between facts and values held sway in English-speaking countries. Facts were testable and debatable; values were just subjective matters of opinion. There was no debating morality.

    Then, around 1970, moral philosophy was revived, demonstrating that there can be powerful, rational arguments for moral conclusions. However, almost all contemporary political philosophers are democrats. They do not believe that philosophers can decide what is right by sitting in their studies and applying philosophical methods. This approach would be undemocratic; it would also be foolish, since good decisions require the input of many people with different backgrounds, values, and experiences.

    A belief in rational moral argument plus a belief in democratic participation yields a commitment to deliberation.

  4. "Civil society"—an old term—suddenly became hugely influential in the 1980s and 1990s, for various reasons. Definitions of "civil society" vary, but a core idea is that societies form "public opinion" in nongovernmental groups such as clubs, civic associations, newspapers, and political parties. This means that no public opinion can form at all where civil society has been suppressed or destroyed (e.g., in Iraq?). It also means that democracy depends upon having a good institutional base for civil society. Thus there has been a lot of research into what institutions support good discussions and valuable public opinion.

These three trends have led to a lot of research on two types of deliberation:

  1. Deliberation in formal, decision-making bodies such as legislatures, official juries, and appeals courts. The research mostly asks: "Do good arguments count in these fora?" and "How could we make them count more?"
  2. Society-wide deliberations occuring in civil society and the media, e.g., America's discussion of gender-roles since the mid-1800s.

Meanwhile, there have been many interesting experiments that involve actual citizen deliberations at modest scales outside of the government. Many of the groups that promote such experiments are now gathered into the . Their work is influenced by the intellectual trends described above, but it also continues an American tradition going back to the Chautauqua Movement, the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, etc.

These experiments have not been much studied. We need to ask: What is the point of convening a group of citizens to discuss a public issue, if the group is not a legislature or some other decision-making body? What outcomes should we hope for from such experiments? Are they intrinsically valuable, or only valuable as part of a movement that somehow "goes to scale" or changes official institutions? What are the best ways to structure citizens' deliberations? And what makes them successful?

April 2, 2003 12:16 PM | category: deliberation | Comments


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