Moral Deliberation

As I’ve waded through the literature on deliberative theory, I’ve been struck by two disparate schools of thought: some authors focus their attention on political deliberation while others focus on moral deliberation.

The difference in focus is not trivial. Consider Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s explanation of where deliberation thrives:

In politics, disagreements often run deep. If they did not, there would be no need for argument. But if they ran too deep, there would be no point in argument. Deliberative disagreements lie in the depths between simple misunderstanding and immutable irreconcilability. 

Gutmann and Thompson do write extensively about moral deliberation, but this passage hints at incentive for avoiding moral discussion in politics: moral disagreements seem more intractable.

Two people of opposing beliefs may never find common moral ground on an issue, but that doesn’t neccessarily preclude the possibility of reasonable having productive political debate on an issue.

To what extent, though, is it possible to disentangle moral and political interests?

On the topic of abortion, for example, even if people tried to restrict their comments to the political issues of funding and access, I suspect that most dialogues would still find their way to a fundamental, moral impasse.

Perhaps not all issues are so morally charged, though – in discussions of education, healthcare, and the environment are morality and politics so inseperable? Either way, I’m actually more interested in the related question: in general, should morality and politics be so intertwined?

Our political sensibilities seem to say no – as good citizens, we ought to have rousing debates over politics while also embracing the pluralistic nature of our fellow citizens’ views.

Yet separating morality from politics seems undesirable, even if it were possible. Discussing the environment without discussing environmental justice is inauthentic and unproductive. Discussing education without tackling the moral issues raised by deep, educational inequality fails to get to the heart of the mater.

The personal is indeed political and the political is fundamentally moral.


This brings me back to the excellent work of Diana Mutz in Hearing the Other Side.

Mutz illustrates an inherent tension in political theory: should a citizen’s social network be composed of people who are “politically like-minded or have opposing views?” While the ideals of political theory seems to indicate that the answer should be “both,” Mutz shows that this is not possible.

We must choose, she argues, between a homogenous network of people who agree politically or a heterogenous network of people who are apolitical:

A highly politicized mindset of “us” versus “them” is easy so long as we do not work with “them” and our kids do not play with their kids. But how do we maintain this same favor and political drive against “them” when we carpool together?

Her analysis is compelling, but I find myself fighting against believing it. I don’t want to think that political agency requires self-sorting into like minded groups and I don’t want to think that political action is impossible in heterogenous groups.

One thing I struggled with as I read her work is exactly what it means to be “like-minded.” I have many productive debates with my equally liberal friends. We agree – but we don’t agree. Does that that make us like-minded?

This idea of political “difference” here can perhaps be better understood as one of different moral views. That is, we can have productive political debate among people of different views, as long as they are morally “like-minded.”

Again, this may provide incentive for avoiding moral debate – just as Mutz demonstrates that social interaction across political difference must be apolitical. That would be a depressing conclusion – although, perhaps, an inevitable one.

But if taking morality out of politics lessens the value of political dialogue, we must find some way overcoming that challenge. Or, at least, as Mutz argues, we must greatly rethink our ideals of deliberation.


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