Theories of Deliberation

While deliberative theorists generally agree that, as John Dryzek writes, “democratic legitimacy resides in the right, ability, and opportunity of those subject to a collective decision to participate in deliberation about the content of that decision,” there continues to be much disagreement around exactly what constitutes ideal deliberation.

The word “deliberation” itself has multiple interpretations: Joshua Cohen argues that deliberation “focuses on debate on the common good.” Jane Mansbridge defines it as “mutual communication that involves weighing and reflecting on preferences, values and interests regarding matters of common concern.”

Regardless of the precise definition used, perhaps the more fruitful discussion is around what standards deliberation should be held to. That is, if we are to judge the health of a democracy by the quality of its deliberation, it begs the question: what constitutes high quality deliberation?

Earlier theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls held what Mansbridge considers the “classical” model of deliberation, with an ideal of “deliberation to consensus on the common good.” This model, Mansbridge argues, “implied a relatively unitary conception of the common good, contested but discoverable through reason.”

Mansbridge sees modern theories of deliberation – “evolved” theories as she calls them – as better embracing pluralism of our diverse world. While she considers the classical ideal to rely on a collective discovery of the “common good,” she sees modern deliberation as still having value “when interests or values conflict irreconcilably.” In these cases “deliberation ideally ends not in consensus but in a clarification of conflict and a structuring of disagreement, which sets the stage for a decision by nondeliberative methods, such as aggregation through the vote.”

It’s not clear, though, that other deliberative scholars accept Mansbridge’s delineation between classical and evolved theories. Mansbridge considers Cohen, a student of Rawls, as a classical theorist though he himself might dispute the term.

While Cohen does continually consider deliberation as an exploration of the common good, he also plainly embraces pluralism, arguing: “A deliberative democracy is a pluralistic association. The members have diverse preferences, convictions and ideals concerning the conduct of their own lives. While sharing a commitment to the deliberative resolution of problems and of collective choices, they also have divergent aims, and do not think that some particular set of preferences, convictions or ideals is mandatory.”

Regardless of which theorists are “classical,” though, this divide raises important practical and theoretical questions about the nature of civil society and the ideal outcomes of deliberation.

While Cohen sees deliberation as a critical tool for shaping “the identity and interests of citizens in ways that contribute to the formation of a public conception of the common good,” theorists such as Mansbridge question whether a “common good” is attainable or even desirable.

This theoretical dispute, then, raises the more practical question – should deliberation culminate in a decision?

In what she sees as a break from “the definitions given by various other theorists,” Mansbridge intentionally leaves decision making out of her own definition, highlighting that “communities concerned with the quality of citizen participation seem to find deliberation an increasingly helpful concept in contexts unconnected with binding decisions.”

In contrast, Dryzek names “decisiveness” as one of the core elements of good deliberation, insisting that deliberation ought to be “consequential in influencing the content of collective decisions.” He does give a nod to non-decisive deliberation, pointing to worthwhile discussions in South Africa and Northern Ireland, and commenting that “deliberation also can play a part in healing.” 

Here to, though, Dryzek sees a certain type of decisiveness at play. “These exercises yield not consensus interpreted as universal agreement on a course of action and the reasons for it but rather an agreement to which all sides can reflectively assent—if for different reasons (including fear of what might otherwise happen),” he writes.

While not explicitly restricting his definition to include decision making, Dennis Thompson, on the other hand, does take a particular interest in “deliberation that leads directly to binding decisions.”

Thompson thoughtfully articulates why decision-making deliberation is special: “Structuring a discussion that in effect asks participants, ‘What do you, as an individual, prefer?’ begins to resemble the aggregative democracy (adding up the well-informed preferences of individuals) that deliberative democrats criticize. Discussions framed by asking participants, ‘What action should we, as a group, take?’ come closer to the deliberative democracy (creating a genuinely public opinion) that they favor.”

Cohen has a similar approach, defining deliberation in terms of its role within a democracy. He contrasts two approaches to democracy: the aggregative and deliberative. The aggregative conception requires “equal consideration for the interests of each member…along with a ‘presumption of personal autonomy’—the understanding that adult members are the best judges and most vigilant defenders of their own interests.”

Cohen, though, prefers the deliberative approach which has at its core “the idea that decisions about the exercise of state power are collective.” He goes on to add that the virtues of the deliberative view “are allied closely with its conception of binding collective choice.”

While reflecting deeper discussions about the nature of the common good in a pluralist society, this debate about decision-making surfaces another normative theory implicit in the deliberative literature: good deliberation has a positive effect not only on a community, but on individual participants.

This positive impact on the individual is inextricably linked to deliberation’s benefit to the community, and is often overshadowed by that broader narrative.

Both Thompson and Cohen articulate deliberation as a process of creating a shared understanding of the common good. People may enter deliberation with various beliefs, but they leave transformed, having co-created a shared understanding which had not existed prior to deliberation.

As Cohen says, “the relevant conceptions of the common good are not comprised simply of interests and preferences that are antecedent to deliberation. Instead, the interests, aims and ideals that comprise the common good are those that survive deliberation.”

Even Mansbridge seems to agree on these points, adding “epistemic value, or better knowledge” as the newest standard for good deliberation.

She sees communal epistemic value as being canonical to deliberation – which must, by her definition be “mutual” – but she leaves room for deliberation to be of directly value to the individual participants. “Although any mutual deliberation will include deliberation within the minds of the individuals involved,” she write, “the word mutual requires some two-way communication.”

Furthermore, Mansbridge has argued strongly for the inclusion of self-interest in deliberation – two elements which are classically considered to be in opposition. In a paper co-authored with some of today’s leading deliberative theorists (James Bohman, Simone Chambers, David Estlund, Andreas Føllesdal, Archon Fung, Cristina Lafont, Bernard Manin and José luis Martí), Mansbridge argues, “even in a deliberation aimed at consensus on the common good, the exploration and clarification of self-interests must play a role.”

Yet, the impact of deliberation on an individual is a vastly underexplored topic, as scholarship to date has focused largely on deliberation as a democratic process for collective decision-making.


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