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Democracy and Disagreement presents a compelling approach to how Americans might resolve some of our most trying moral disagreements and live with those that will inevitably persist, on terms that all of us can respect.
Gutmann (Politics/Princeton Univ.) and Thompson (Political Philosophy/Harvard Univ.), authors of Ethics in Congress (1995), propound a theory called "deliberative democracy." With this, they say, moral arguments over issues such as whether the government should fund abortion or enforce affirmative action can acquire a depth beyond the usual sound-bite level. Such an enriched process of deliberation, they maintain, would force citizens to truly take into account the moral claims of others, in place of a self-righteous denunciation of other points of view. The authors propose a program of town meetings and other public forums where moral issues can be discussed, and offer abundant real-world examples that show how their theory might apply. They consider at length, for instance, an actual Tennessee case in which a group of fundamentalist Christians refused to allow their children to use assigned textbooks that encouraged tolerance of other ways of life. After considering all sides of the story and examining the respective moral claims involved, the authors conclude that "there is a public interest in educating good citizens, and no citizen can fairly claim that what constitutes good citizenship is whatever happens to conform to his or her particular religion." This is classic utilitarianism, but the what's-best-for-most model doesn't always prevail. As the authors remark, "Aggregating what citizens want individually . . . does not necessarily produce the same result as asking citizens to consider together what they want collectively." They examine the ethics of surrogate motherhood, children's rights, preferential hiring, and other ticklish issues, offering deeply considered commentaries.
All this makes for fascinating, engaged readingbut always with the caveat that the authors' vision of a thoughtfully conversational politics is the unlikeliest of pipe dreams.
In a new and meditative book on America's social conflicts, Democracy and Disagreement, Princeton professor Amy Gutmann and Harvard's Dennis Thompson suggest that citizens owe each other a more deliberative approach to governance, where moral disagreements like affirmative action are not winner-take-all matters.
Democracy and Disagreement, by two well-known philosophers, makes a significant contribution to the debates currently plaguing us...[It is] intellectually satisfying. Gutmann and Thompson confront the culture wars head on, asking how we can deliberate our way through our disagreements. Their answers are thoughtful, original, and powerful...What gives the book so much power is not just that it thoughtfully defines the principles that should guide moral argument. Gutmann and Thompson go on to apply their framework for moral discussion to some of the most difficult and controversial questions facing Americans today, including affirmative action, health-care rationing and abortion...They do not always succeed, but they provide a stunning model of how to conduct serious moral discussion in the face of fundamental disagreement...Everyone who considers himself a responsible citizen should read Democracy and Disagreement...It actually might help us resolve our current moral crises.
In Democracy and Disagreement, Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson go a long way towards filling the gap [between proceduralist and constitutional democrats]. The co-authors provide an appealing and yet not entirely unrealistic standardcalled 'deliberative democracy'to evaluate the workings of 'actually-existing' democracies. This book, despite its flaws, is a landmark contribution to democratic theory. It should help to set the terms for moral debate on democratic ideals for many years to come. Its core idea is simple: when democratic citizens disagree with each other about public policy, they should continue to reason together in order to reach mutually acceptable decisions, rather than resort to power politics or interest-group bargaining. The complex part is the debate over the moral principles which should guide political argument in democratic systems. No one else has developed a systematic, book-length argument in this area. Moreover, the co-authors use examples from everyday, real-life politics to make their case.
Daniel A. Bell
In Democracy and Disagreement, a collaborative effort that itself represents the product of deliberative accommodation, Gutmann and Thompson lay the theoretical foundation for their political vision...[Their] study attempts to link political theory and practice, using relevant and often compelling case studies to illustrate the implications of their philosophical principles...Using the standards of reciprocity, publicity, and accountability for the conditions of deliberation and the guidelines of basic liberty, basic opportunity, and fair opportunity for its content, they offer a thoughtful and methodical analysis of recent and ongoing debates to illustrate their theory...Their book represents a thoughtful and important step towards valorizing and normalizing rational and open discussion in public policy-making.
In Democracy and Disagreement Amy Gutmanand Dennis Thompson take as their point of departure the inescapability of moral conflictstemming from value pluralism and incomplete human understanding as well as from scarcity and limited generosityin political life. Their proposed response is not to eliminate such conflict (this would be impossible in theory and coercive in practice) but rather to find ways of narrowing the scope of disagreements and living with those that remain...Gutmann and Thompson have long championed the use of case studies as a spur to moral reflection on contested public policy problems. In this book, they successfully integrate the discussion of case studies into a broader theory of deliberative democracy. The result is a systematic account that should serve as the point of departure for further discussions.
William A. Galston
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Of the challenges that American democracy faces today, none is more formidable than the problem of moral disagreement. Neither the theory nor the practice of democratic politics has so far found an adequate way to cope with conflicts about fundamental values. We address the challenge of moral disagreement here by developing a conception of democracy that secures a central place for moral discussion in political life.
Along with a growing number of other political theorists, we call this conception deliberative democracy. The core idea is simple: when citizens or their representatives disagree morally, they should continue to reason together to reach mutually acceptable decisions. But the meaning and implications of the idea are complex. Although the idea has a long history, it is still in search of a theory. We do not claim that this book provides a comprehensive theory of deliberative democracy, but we do hope that it contributes toward its future development by showing the kind of deliberation that is possible and desirable in the face of moral disagreement in democracies.
Some scholars have criticized liberal political theory for neglecting moral deliberation. Others have analyzed the philosophical foundations of deliberative democracy, and still others have begun to explore institutional reforms that would promote deliberation. Yet nearly all of themstop at the point where deliberation itself begins. None has systematically examined the substance of deliberation-the theoretical principles that should guide moral argument and their implications for actual moral disagreements aboutpublic policy. That is our subject, and it takes us into the everyday forums of democratic politics, where moral argument regularly appears but where theoretical analysis too rarely goes.
Deliberative democracy involves reasoning about politics, and nothing has been more controversial in political philosophy than the nature of reason in politics. We do not believe that these controversies have to be settled before deliberative principles can guide the practice of democracy. Since on occasion citizens and their representatives already engage in the kind of reasoning that those principles recommend, deliberative democracy simply asks that they do so more consistently and comprehensively. The best way to prove the value of this kind of reasoning is to show its role in arguments about specific principles and policies, and its contribution to actual political debates. That is also ultimately the best justification for our conception of deliberative democracy itself. But to forestall possible misunderstandings of our conception of deliberative democracy, we offer some preliminary remarks about the scope and method of this book.
The aim of the moral reasoning that our deliberative democracy prescribes falls between impartiality, which requires something like altruism, and prudence, which demands no more than enlightened self-interest. Its first principle is reciprocity, the subject of Chapter 2, but no less essential are the other principles developed in later chapters. When citizens reason reciprocally, they seek fair terms of social cooperation for their own sake; they try to find mutually acceptable ways of resolving moral disagreements.
The precise content of reciprocity is difficult to determine in theory, but its general countenance is familiar enough in practice. It can be seen in the difference between acting in one's self-interest (say, taking advantage of a legal loophole or a lucky break) and acting fairly (following rules in the spirit that one expects others to adopt). In many of the controversies discussed later in the book, the possibility of any morally acceptable resolution depends on citizens' reasoning beyond their narrow self-interest and considering what can be justified to people who reasonably disagree with them. Even though the quality of deliberation and the conditions under which it is conducted are far from ideal in the controversies we consider, the fact that in each case some citizens and some officials make arguments consistent with reciprocity suggests that a deliberative perspective is not utopian.
To clarify what reciprocity might demand under non-ideal conditions, we develop a distinction between deliberative and nondeliberative disagreement. Citizens who reason reciprocally can recognize that a position is worthy of moral respect even when they think it morally wrong. They can believe that a moderate pro-life position on abortion, for example, is morally respectable even though they think it morally mistaken. (The abortion example-to which we often return in the book-is meant to be illustrative. For readers who deny that there is any room for deliberative disagreement on abortion, other political controversies can make the same point.) The presence of deliberative disagreement has important implications for how citizens treat one another and for what policies they should adopt. When a disagreement is not deliberative (for example, about apolicy to legalize discrimination against blacks and women), citizens do not have any obligations of mutual respect toward their opponents. In deliberative disagreement (for example, about legalizing abortion), citizens should try to accommodate the moral convictions of their opponents to the greatest extent possible, without compromising their own moral convictions. We call this kind of accommodation an economy of moral disagreement, and believe that, though neglected in theory and practice, it is essential to a morally robust democratic life.
Although both of us have devoted some of our professional life to urging these ideas on public officials and our fellow citizens in forums of practical politics, this book is primarily the product of scholarly rather than political deliberation. Insofar as it reaches beyond the academic community, it is addressed to citizens and officials in their more reflective frame of mind. Given its academic origins, some readers may be inclined to complain that only professors could be so unrealistic as to believe that moral reasoning can help solve political problems. But such a complaint would misrepresent our aims.
To begin with, we do not think that academic discussion (whether in scholarly journals or college classrooms) is a model for moral deliberation in politics. Academic discussion need not aim at justifying a practical decision, as deliberation must. Partly for this reason, academic discussion is likely to be insensitive to the contexts of ordinary politics: the pressures of power, the problems of inequality, the demands of diversity, the exigencies of persuasion. Some critics of deliberative democracy show a similar insensitivity when they judge actual political deliberations by the standards of ideal philosophical reflection. Actual deliberation is inevitably defective, but so is philosophical reflection practiced in politics. The appropriate comparison is between the ideals of democratic deliberation and philosophical reflection, or between the application of each in the nonideal circumstances of politics.
We do not assume that politics should be a realm where the logical syllogism rules. Nor do we expect even the more appropriate standard of mutual respect always to prevail in politics. A deliberative perspective sometimes justifies bargaining, negotiation, force, and even violence. It is partly because moral argument has so much unrealized potential in democratic politics that we believe it deserves more attention. Because its place in politics is so precarious, the need to find it a more secure home and to nourish its development is all the more pressing. Yet because it is also already' pert of our common experience, we have reason to hope that it can survive and even prosper if philosophers along with citizens and public officials better appreciate its value in politics.
Some readers may still wonder why deliberation should have such a prominent place in democracy. Surely, they may say, citizens should care more about the justice of public policies than the process by which they are adopted, at least so long as the process is basically fair and at least minimally democratic. One of our main aims in this book is to cast doubt on the dichotomy between policies and process that this concern assumes. Having good reason as individuals to believe that a policy is just does not mean that collectively as citizens we have sufficient justification to legislate on the basis of those reasons. The moral authority of collective judgments about policy depends in part on the moral quality of the process by whichcitizens collectively reach those judgments. Deliberation is the most appropriate way for citizens collectively to resolve their moral disagreements not only about policies but also about the process by which policies should be adopted. Deliberation is not only a means to an end, but also a means for deciding what means are morally required to pursue our common ends.
Despite the revival of academic interest in deliberative democracy, the kind of moral reasoning that it prescribes is not the dominant method in any of the relevant disciplines in universities today. The tendency in moral and political philosophy has been to carry on its inquiries at either the micro or the macro level of politics, ignoring the vast territory in between. Most studies of morality assess the interrelations of individual actions, analytically isolated from any social context, while most theories of justice prescribe the basic structures of an ideal society, morally removed from prescriptions for any non-ideal society.
Much of the best work in philosophy seeks secure foundations for moral principles-at the level of the most fundamental and general philosophical justification. The aim is more often to find out, for example, whether the basic premises of utilitarianism or contractarianism are correct than to determine whether a government is justified in legalizing abortion or prohibiting preferential hiring. Perfectly proper as the aim of a foundational philosophical inquiry, it takes us in the wrong direction for understanding the nature and value of political deliberation. In politics the need is to find some basis on which to justify collective decisions here and now in the absence of foundational knowledge of the sort that would (presumably) tell us whether the fundamental premises of utilitarianism or contractarianism are correct. While philosophers dispute about theoretical foundations, citizens must decide moral issues.
Nevertheless, philosophy is neither helpless nor useless in the face of foundational disagreement. Some contemporary moral and political philosophers employ a form of moral reasoning that is well suited to deliberative democracy. Leading theories of justice and constitutional democracy provide invaluable guidance for understanding the conditions and content of deliberation. Important philosophical work on problems of public policy-such as abortion, affirmative action, and health care, among other issues-also furthers public understanding of particular moral disagreements in politics. We draw on much of this important work, and indeed could not develop a theory of deliberative democracy without it.
The approach we use in this book also owes much to the method that some philosophers adopt to develop their own foundational principles.(1) This method posits a process in which deliberators move back and forth between general principles and considered judgments about particular circumstances, successively modifying each in light of an appraisal of the other. In our use of the method, the principles operate in the middle range of abstraction, between foundational principles and institutional rules; and the judgments apply as much to particular decisions and policies as to basic structures of society. Furthermore, in our use the method does not presuppose any strong assumptions about the philosophical status of moral judgment or knowledge. We treat the method as an informal reconstruction of a form of moral reasoning familiar in everyday life, a pattern of argument that many people use when they try to justify to others in moral terms the positions they take and the decisions they make. The principles of deliberative democracy that we develop here are variations on familiar themes in political theory and practice. They reflect the subjects of actual political debate in our time. We try to clarify the themes and bring them together into a coherent whole, which we call the constitution of deliberative democracy. Although we believe that the principles are relevant for societies other than our own, we develop them in the context of American society. As political theorists we begin from where we are, with ideas and concepts in our traditions, broadly understood to include all the cultural resources available for our critical and creative use. As citizens we also begin with these same cultural resources. We can deliberate in politics about only what we can understand, or what we can come to understand through political action with our fellow citizens.
Deliberative principles depend on context in a more specific sense. They are developed and defended through reflection on actual cases. This is one reason why casesaccounts of actual episodes in democratic politicsplay a much larger role in this book than in most works of political theory. Another reason is that an adequate conception of deliberative democracy must attend to actual arguments that citizens and officials use or could use in political discussion.
Because context is important, we rely largely on cases drawn from domestic politics in the United States in recent years. Since most readers are likely to be familiar with the social conditions and historical background in which the events take place, we can avoid extensive discussions of the circumstances of the cases and concentrate more on the competing values at stake. The contexts are not primarily the occasions of constitutional cases or national crises. Instead, we feature a number of less renowned episodes, which have taken place in state and local as well as national politics. Part of the reason for using such cases is to emphasize that important moral deliberation goes on at all levels of politics. Deliberation should be part of the fabric of political life throughout government and in public life generally. (Debates in government are prominent here only because they are more often on the record.)
Although the examples we use are specific, their implications are general. We do not claim that the cases prove any sweeping empirical propositions about deliberation. But we expect that readers will recognize features in the examples that are common to many other circumstances. The cases have two main functions in the book. First, they illustrate problems and principles: they help clarify what is at issue in formulating principles of deliberation and what the implications are. Second and more important, they serve as a concrete expression of considered judgments, provisionally fixed points in deliberation, to which we can appeal in justifying or criticizing principles. They are in this sense a critical element in the method we use in this book as well as in the method of deliberation itself.
Neither our discussion of the cases nor our analysis of moral arguments purports to prove empirically that deliberation produces the morally best decisions and policies. We suggest some reasons to believe that deliberation has good consequences for a democracy, and some reasons to value deliberation in the face of uncertainty about its consequences. But we do not undertake any systematic comparison of deliberative and nondeliberative processes or institutions. We focus on what we believe must be priorto any empirical investigation of this kind: the clarification of the character of deliberation itself, the conditions and content that are necessary to determine to what extent adequate deliberation is taking place in democratic politics. For similar reasons, an extensive discussion of the institutions for promoting deliberation is premature. At several points we mention some institutional changes that could facilitate deliberation, and in our conclusion we identify some general implications for institutional reform. But again we believe that the task of institutional design is likely to be misguided without a better understanding of the conditions and content of deliberative democracy we begin to develop here.
Chapter 1, "The Persistence of Moral Disagreement," prepares the ground for this understanding by examining the most important challenge to any moral conception of democracy. We argue that conventional conceptions of democracy do not meet the challenge of moral disagreement as well as does deliberative democracy. They fail to make enough room for moral deliberation in the normal processes of democratic politics.
The three subsequent chapters present principles that express the conditions of deliberation. The principles refer to the reasons that should inform political debate in a deliberative democracy-the kinds of reasons that should be given, the forum in which they should be given, and the agents to whom and by whom they should be given. In each chapter we aim not only to clarify a deliberative principle but also to subject it to various moral challenges, which come either from values based on rival principles or from values intrinsic to the principle itself. In each instance we try to find ways to acknowledge the truth in the competing values while maintaining the core of the basic principle.
In Chapter 2, "The Sense of Reciprocity," we argue that the principle of reciprocity is a more appropriate basis for democratic politics than an approach based on impartiality or one based on prudence, which favors a strategy of bargaining among political interests. We show how reciprocity can accept bargaining under certain conditions while escaping the moral problems that bargaining creates when taken as a comprehensive method for democratic politics.
Chapter 3, "The Value of Publicity," argues that the reasons that citizens and officials give should be public, partly to ensure that they are reciprocal but also to realize the independent moral value of openness in government. We then show how the value of publicity can be reconciled with the values of secrecy and confidentiality, which democracy also demands on occasion.
In Chapter 4, "The Scope of Accountability," we explain how a principle of accountability can be compatible with the process of democratic representation. That principle seems to imply that everyone should give an account to everyone else, but in a representative democracy some people give reasons while others look on. To satisfy the demands of democratic accountability, representatives need to consider the claims not only of their electoral constituents but also of what we call their moral constituents, who include citizens of other countries and members of future generations.
The principles of reciprocity, publicity, and accountability give citizens and officials some guidance in making political decisions, but they also leave a lot of moral disagreement unresolved. The question therefore ariseswhether some other approach might resolve more disagreement. The most influential theory that claims to be able to do so is utilitarianism, and in Chapter 5, "The Promise of Utilitarianism," we assess its claim to be a comprehensive guide to dealing with moral disagreements.
In Chapter 6, "The Constitution of Deliberative Democracy," we show how a deliberative perspective, without claiming to be comprehensive, can provide better guidance in dealing with the substance of moral disagreement in politics. The "constitution" of deliberative democracy refers not only to the conditions discussed in the previous chapters but also to three substantive principles that govern the content of deliberation: basic liberty, basic opportunity, and fair opportunity. Each of the three subsequent chapters discusses one of these principles.
Chapter 7, "The Latitude of Liberty," analyzes the principle of basic liberty. In the spirit of the approach we took in the chapters on the conditions of deliberation, we defend and revise the principle in response to challenges posed by competing values. In this case one challenge comes from moralists, who would legislate on the basis of social morality in the absence of individual harm, and the other from paternalists, who would legislate on the basis of individual welfare in the absence of individual consent. We show how basic liberty can be preserved while acknowledging some value in the claims of both the moralists and the paternalists.
In Chapter 8, "The Obligations of Welfare," we explore the implications of the principle of basic opportunity, which governs the distribution of goods that enable people to live a decent life and enjoy access to other opportunities. We consider two challenges to guaranteeing either a job or a basic income to all individuals. One challenge asks why society should support people who are unwilling to work, while the other asks why children should be made to suffer for the sins of their parents.
In Chapter 9, "The Ambiguity of Fair Opportunity," we turn to the principle that governs the distribution of goods on the basis of qualifications. We examine two competing interpretations of fair opportunity as applied to skilled jobs-a liberal one that implies a policy of fair competition, and an egalitarian one that calls for a policy of preferential hiring.
The concluding chapter shows how the principles of deliberative democracy interact with one another, and how they can help sustain a conception of democracy with a capacity for moral improvement. Deliberation is an ongoing process, producing results that in a deep sense are always provisional.
In this book, as in deliberative democracy, we neither begin nor end with comprehensive moral agreement. While the locus and content of particular disagreements shift over time, moral disagreement is a permanent condition of democratic politics. We believe that a deliberative perspective can help resolve some moral disagreements in democratic politics, but we suspect that its greater contribution can be to help citizens treat one another with mutual respect as they deal with the disagreements that invariably remain.
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Cass R. Sunstein, University of Chicago Law School
Robert A. Dahl, Yale University
Alan Wertheimer, author of Coercion
Meet the Author
Amy Gutmann is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.
Dennis Thompson is Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy and Associate Provost at Harvard University. He is the author of The Democratic Citizen: Social Science and Democratic Theory in the Twentieth Century, John Stuart Mill and Representative Government, and coauthor (with Amy Gutmann) of Democracy and Disagreement.
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