Monday, April 16, 2007

Broad Deliberative Democracy

What does "deliberative democracy" really mean? At the broadest level, I'm committed to the notion that public debate has a vital role in flourishing democracies, such that "democratic legitimacy" derives from the free exchange of reasoned arguments rather than the whims of an ill-informed majority. In short, I think that politics should be driven by public debate about the common good. Call this position "broad deliberative democracy".

While I was in Arizona, Thomas Christiano pointed out to me that many prominent deliberative democrats today are really expounding a much narrower position, which adds further restrictions on what can count as 'public reason'. Any views which fall outside the 'overlapping consensus' must be excluded, for fear of forcing one's comprehensive moral views on others. But, Christiano pointed out, it's not clear what justifies the asymmetry here. In excluding the first group's views from consideration, isn't this effectively forcing on them the other group's rejection of their position? (This is, of course, a common argument against strict secularism.)

I'm not too sure what to make of all this. I'd like my position to remain as 'broad' as possible, but I wonder whether the internal logic of it entails further restrictions. I previously suggested that receptivity could guide us here. That is, we should welcome anyone (with any views) to join the public conversation, so long as they remain open-minded and receptive to the views of others. This criterion would at least rule out dogmatic sectarian groups that demand unshakeable faith (and hence are closed to opposing views). But is that enough? Is it really 'receptive' to offer the sorts of religious or otherwise 'private' reasons that you couldn't reasonably expect others to recognize? Or is it a precondition of reasoning together that we first commit to arguing only from the common assumptions that can be shared by all?

If so, what would that leave?


  1. Richard,

    It is hard to imagine that the assumptions that can be shared by ALL will be sufficient to generate the kind of deliberation you are after. And if you replace ALL by MOST, then it seems that you are building Christiano's asymmetry into the justification of the asymmetry. I would prefer something of a truth-tracking condition: a view (or a view and an attitude towards the view and reasoning in general) is permitted so long as its incorporation is conducive to the best politics [supplemented by something of a Millian theory that many different views is conducive to the truth].

    Also, in general, I find public epistemology very interesting.

  2. Richard,

    I recall this sort of democracy, a deliberative one, being stressed in one (maybe several; I don't remember exactly) of the essays in the Federalist Papers. The American democracy (I cannot speak for other democracies) tends now to be more impetuous than deliberative, as far as I can tell, which is sad.

    I think the "broad" position is the way to go. But this would require many current changes. For instance, citizens in such a democracy would have to participate in the discussions, and not merely the elections (in which few participate already). Who dialouges on politics anymore? People just argue, which isn't dialoguing. They think it's more important to have an opinion than form, through dialouge, a reasoned one. The citizens would also have to be trained, or educated, on how to reason properly. (Your and Michael Bycroft's posts on education are informative here.)

  3. This post reminded me of some of the work of Charles Blattberg who attacks the the 'deliberative democracy' in favor of what he calls 'patriotic democracy'; but it's clear he has the narrower notion in mind, since his argument for 'patriotic democracy' is that it is both more democratic and more deliberative. He has a very different view of public deliberation, as well: on his view, I take it, people shouldn't have to conform their views to 'standards of public reason' in order to dispute and discuss; rather, they should dispute and discuss on the basis of their actual reasons, and use the public forum to hammer out agreements and disagreements, compromises and oppositions. I'm inclined to think this is a pretty weighty point: there's something suspiciously top-down about the Rawlsian conception of public deliberation, making people conform to an abstract standard, whereas one would think that democratic deliberation would be bottom-up, starting where the people actually are and building standards on the fly based on their interactions.

    Blattberg's interest in this point has to do with the complicated relations between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians, both of whom contribute a great deal to Canadian culture on their own terms. But one of the problems is precisely that we can't presume beforehand to know what assumptions, if any, Francophones and Anglophones have in common. Rather, the most natural way to look at the interaction is to say that French Canada has to proceed on its own assumptions, and English Canada on its own assumptions, and build a united Canada out of what they both(perhaps for radically different, and maybe even mutually exclusive, reasons) value.

  4. For a narrow view of deliberative democracy, check out this new book: Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation.

  5. I’d echo Don’s advocacy of a broader deliberative democracy model here – and go further. Why advocate a deliberative democracy without much evidence of constructive public deliberation. One thing appears certain to me – a deliberative democracy can’t be handed down as a result of existing power-structures voluntarily abolishing themselves – and even if that did happen, you would have an officially organised deliberative model with all of the questions that this entails.

    Apologies for linking to my own blog, but I’ve argued that the representative model and the deliberative one are not necessarily at odds with each other, and that one could prove a stepping stone to a limited version of the other.

    Please note, I’ve written this very much in the context of British current affairs.


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