Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Rise of Deliberative Democracy

Over the past few years I have become deeply disillusioned with the armchair theorising that runs rampant in a good deal of contemporary political philosophy. Such theorising is most prevalent in debates concerning distributive justice. When one constructs what Jeremy Waldron amusingly calls a “I-expect-you’d-all-like-to-know-what-I-would-do-if-I-ruled-the-world” (Waldron 1999, p. 1) theory one devalues the importance of democracy by presupposing that one can determine what justice requires independently of any real democratic process.

Furthermore, most contemporary discussions of distributive justice function at the level of “ideal theory”, which means they bracket a number of real-life constraints that complicate the story of what justice requires (e.g. the facts of non-compliance, pervasive disadvantage, indeterminacy, etc.). I think this is also problematic for a whole host of reasons (see here).

One way of reducing our armchair proclamations and overtly idealized assumptions is to bring democracy back into the fold. This has occurred over the past decade or so as the “deliberative turn” (Dryzek, 2000) in democratic theory has enjoyed greater prominence in discussions about distributive justice. But even discussions of deliberative democracy can fall prey to the same pitfalls that have plagued abstract philosophical discussions of justice. This is perhaps unavoidable given that deliberative democrats defend a moralized conception of democracy and thus some degree of armchair theorising is inevitable as deliberative democracy is meant to be a transformative ideal, not a defence of the status quo.

So, like discussions of distributive justice, deliberative democrats need to determine what the appropriate level of fact-sensitivity ought to be if they are to defend deliberative democracy as a viable political ideal (rather than as “pie in the sky”).

One important challenge is to address what John Dryzek calls the “problem of large scale”. Michael Walzer raised this problem when argued that "deliberation is not an activity for the demos… 100 million of them, or even 1 million or 100,000 can’t plausibly ‘reason together'" (Deliberative Politics, p. 68.) For more details on how some deliberative democrats have tried to address this issue see my review article “Making Deliberative Democracy a More Practical Political Ideal” European Journal of Political Theory, Vol. 4(2), 2005, pp. 200-208. (Sage Publications).

In addition to tackling the problem of large scale, deliberative democrats must also take seriously other empirical realities- like the problem of group polarization. See my discussion here (especially the links to the important work of Cass Sunstein).

I recently read Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s latest book Why Deliberative Democracy? and I think they present two important features of deliberative democracy that can help us ensure that deliberative democrats avoid becoming entrenched in the same problems that have plagued debates on distributive justice.

Firstly, they present deliberative democracy as a “second-order" theory. First-order theories are theories "that seek to resolve moral disagreement by demonstrating that alternative theories and principles should be rejected" (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 13). So most contemporary debates in ethics and political philosophy are first-order debates. Utilitarians champion the principle of utility. Along comes Rawls who claims that we should reject utility in favour of his two principles of justice. Then along comes Nozick who claims we should defend the principles of entitlement. And a diverse range of egalitarians are currently debating what the appropriate first-order egalitarian principles are- equality of resources, opportunity for welfare, democratic equality, complex equality, etc….

What is appealing about a second-order theoretical analysis is that one does not have to get drawn into these first-order debates. The aim of the theory is not to win a philosophical argument, but rather to help us enhance public deliberation about legitimate public policy in a morally pluralistic liberal democracy. Deliberative democrats will agree that the values of freedom, equality, inclusion, etc. are important but the real important task is trying to determine how we can fairly accommodate these fundamental values (rather than crowning one as the "supreme" principle). No one or two fundamental principles are going to win the day. So what do we do in this kind of scenario? Enter democracy!

A second distinctive feature of Gutmann and Thompsons’s version of deliberative democracy is that it takes seriously what they call “provisionality”. Deliberative democracy is both morally provisional and politically provisional. "A theory is morally provisional if its principles invite revision in response to new moral insights or empirical discoveries" (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 57). And they define political provisionality as follows:

Political provisionality means that deliberative principles and the laws they justify must not only be subject to actual deliberation at some time, but also be open to actual reconsideration and revision at a future time. Like the rationale for treating principles as morally provisional, the justification for regarding principles as politically provisional rests on the value of reciprocity. From the perspective of reciprocity, persons should be treated not merely as objects of legislation or as passive subjects to be ruled. They should be treated as agents who take part in governance, directly or through their accountable representatives, by presenting and responding to reasons that would justify the laws under which they must live. (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 116)

The stance Gutmann and Thompson take can be contrasted with the stance taken by, for example, John Rawls. Rawls serially orders the two principles of justice and the principles are arrived at via the construction of the hypothetical original position. Furthermore, Rawls invokes a number of simplifying assumptions, like society being closed and full compliance, that result in his bracketing many of the kinds of concerns that might lead real societies to revise their stance on liberty or equality.

Deliberative democracy now enjoys a prominent place in contemporary political theory. I think this is a welcome development as it has forced justice-theorists to consider more seriously the relation between democracy and justice. But deliberative democrats must also ensure that they do not place too much faith in armchair theory or ignore important empirical constraints. To do so would be to jeopardize the viability of deliberative democracy as a political ideal.