A General Statement of Views

[NB: I wrote the following statement in 2001, emphasizing deliberation. I would now emphasize "civic participation" instead.]

I am interested in our public conversation about values. It seems to me that our ideas about right and wrong are only as good as our conversation is, and that public deliberation faces a host of challenges that range from theoretical to highly practical.

At the most practical level, our conversation takes place within institutions such as political campaigns and legislatures, the mass media, and civil society. If the agenda of campaigns is distorted by private money, then campaigns won’t generate useful deliberation (see article). If Congress refuses to debate moral questions, but turns these matters over to allegedly value-neutral experts in the executive branch, it further undermines public deliberation (see article). Nor can we deliberate if we lack healthy non-governmental associations, such as newspapers and civic or fraternal organizations. Finally, various cultural groups in America should adopt a more deliberative stance. (For the avant-garde art world as an example, see article).

My most recent book, The New Progressive Era, outlines ideas for reforms in campaigns, journalism, regulation, and civil society. I view my new projects on unions and the Internet as continuations of this work, because public deliberation can be fostered by the labor movement and by computer networks.

I am also interested in other questions about public deliberation. For instance: What arguments do people actually make when they talk about values and policies? What kinds of reasons should they offer? Is consensus possible? Is truth obtainable? (I list many of the unresolved issues in this document, which is in .pdf format.)

It seems to me that there are two main theoretical challenges to an optimistic account of "deliberative democracy." The first is irrationalist: some skeptics argue that we cannot talk rationally about moral issues, because people’s beliefs are always the mere product of their cultural backgrounds. I proposed a new argument against relativism in my Nietzsche book. My novel, which is a roman à clef about the followers of Leo Strauss, addresses the same themes.

The second theoretical challenge to deliberation is hyper-rationalist. It claims that we do not need to conduct public conversations about values, because either philosophical analysis or economic methods can show us what is right. In Living Without Philosophy, I argued that the use of general moral principles often leads to stalemate, and that literature is a better source of guidance. My ongoing project on Dante complicates matters somewhat by suggesting that literature, although a worthy guide, also creates serious moral pitfalls. I have made a parallel argument against economics (as a replacement for public deliberation) in an article for the Higher Education Exchange. In this article, I also define "public intellectuals" in a particular way and defend their role in a deliberative democracy.