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Appeal of discursive deliberation

gary e. davis
April 3, 2007 / November 27, 2008

1: discursive appeal as moral gravity of leadership

1.1 – Infotopia (Oxford, 2006) by Cass R. Sunstein—Professor of Law at The University of Chicago and prominent liberal intellectual—admirably brainstorms deliberative potential for democracy in terms of the wisdom of crowds or collective intelligence expressed through new kinds of media: open source program development, wiki media, prediction markets, and aggregate trending of opinion through blogs. But he’s apparently pessimistic about the promise of deliberative processes in terms of writers on deliberative democracy. In particular, he has a mistaken sense of Habermas’ ideal speaking situation, seeing it as a form of “compliance” rather than as a facilitative and educational ideal (which, by the way, is not as such a regulative ideal).

1.2 – Sunstein’s discussion, geared for a general audience, vaguely senses an “internal morality” in Habermas’ communicative ethic (p. 72), but doesn’t dwell with this enough to see how his own later recommendations for improving prospects for deliberative validity in democracy mesh with Habermas’ sense of communicative ethics. One might just pass on the issue, since Sunstein gives so little attention to Habermas’ view that it’s just not worth attention. But Sunstein is quite concerned to see improved prospects for deliberative democracy through new media, and his case is quite interesting on its own terms. So, by showing potentially important connections between Sunstein’s case and Habermas’ communicative ethic, one might see opportunities for usefully integrating Sunstein’s practice with Habermas’ theory (which also associates to JH’s sense of a “discourse of application,” though my brief comments will not exemplify that). The notion of discursive appeal might be helpful here.

1.3 – My motivation is to (1) highlight a very topical book for progressive political interest; (2) emphasize the belonging of discursive appeal with interest in deliberative potential for political life; and (3) render the complementarity of my sense of discursivity with Habermas’ communicative ethic.

– A keynote of discursive appeal is its background investment in a realistic holism of relevance, as public policy challenges implicate broadly, maybe deeply, interconnected issues deserving due appreciation. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll emblemize the holism of broadly deep relevance as our planetary humanity. The public interest in our planetary humanity is integral to discursive appeal, as it’s an appeal to and of that which most belongs to each person (deeply) in belonging to all (broadly). The locus of universality in moral reasoning is no less than our planetary humanity. So, a notion of moral gravity in discursive appeal might easily make sense, whatever one’s moral intuitions that may respond to an appeal.

1.5 – If you cringe at the notion of leadership, you should recognize that it’s not inherently paternalist (which, even for paternalism, may be facilitative more than directive). There is no productive organization without leadership. Democracy idealizes highly distributed leadership, in the continuum from pure participatory processes (which at least require coordinators and points of responsibility) to highly-defined executive facilitation (and direction) that derives its mandate by design (e.g., constitution of job descriptions, recruitment processes, or elections). Leadership is necessary, though its definition may be highly variable and its reality highly flexibile.

1.6 – Expert leadership realistically appreciates discursive appeal, relative to organizational complexities, perhaps calling for broad-based participation in design and problem solving; and relative to real-time constraints on decisions. Discursive appeal isn’t a substantive requirement for formal review of everything; rather, it’s an ongoing due care that all relevances are fairly considered, which may call for a broad array of experience and expertise. Highly proceduralized organizations already embody a systemization of due care. Procedural rationality is commonly embodied by the decision complexities of organizational development. The moral gravity for common organizations is commonly expressed by due regard for professional ethical practices, critical review cycles for organizational development, appreciation of environmental consequences of activity, etc. Discursive appeal is a conceptual notion which is readily embodied in organizational life’s commitment to basic values such as quality of outcomes or reliability of service.

2: new media and deliberative potential

2.1 – Sunstein gives lots of attention to “the surprising failures of deliberating groups” (ch. 2), but seems to usually bypass the difference between apparently deliberating and really or genuinely deliberating, though the point of his book is to outline how deliberative processes can become more probably valid. He seems to argue that lots of genuine deliberation is failing, which calls for his recommended employments of new media (as well as better leadership of deliberative processes), rather than arguing that lots of apparent deliberation is just that.

2.2 – In light of his useful critique of actual “deliberative” processes, he asks: “Do these points amount to a challenge to deliberation as an ideal and as a practice? If so, what kind of challenge?” (71). Then, he offers his only—and brief—attention to Habermas’ communicative ethics (though mentioning JH in passing earlier and later), but misrepresents how a discursive ideal works in practice, which is not as something “imposed” (72). According to Sunstein, “Habermas’s famous ‘ideal speech situation’ [abbreviated as “ISS” below]….imposes its own requirements and preconditions. Indeed, deliberation has its own internal morality, one that should overcome some of the harmful effects of deliberative processes in the real world” (ibid). So, apparently to Sunstein, the governance of Habermasian deliberation is deontic: an imposing morality that, at best, is emancipatory and critical (rather than educative or facilitative). “It is right to say that deliberation, properly understood, contains an internal morality that can be invoked to challenge processes that only purport to be deliberative” (ibid). He acknowledges the difference between apparent and real deliberation, but has—throughout the chapter (now ending)—attended to failings of deliberation in “the real world,” rather than detailing how real deliberation might be facilitated (though he briefly attends to this at the end of his book). This suits his interest in the potential for collective wisdom through new media that could better inform deliberative processes (genuineness through better information?).

2.3 – “Unfortunately, compliance with such preconditions will not cure the problems on which I focus here. These problems are likely to arise among many minds even if discourse is public and inclusive, even if participants are sincere, and even if everyone has equal rights” (73). But those problems of information accuracy and opinion reliability aren’t problems of deliberation, rather problems which genuine deliberation normally faces. It’s no critique of deliberation, as kind of opinion formation or decision formation, to cite substantive problems that the kind of activity faces (just as it’s no critique of reading as such to cite the array of ways in which people read badly or fail to appreciate the value of reading).

2.4 – Sunstein apparently doesn’t appreciate that the ISS is a problem-solving and educational venue (whose character can be detailed [PDF]), applicable to the exact problems that he will spend the next chapter detailing (a point I can’t detail without discussing one of Sunstein’s problems). What the ISS provides is an evaluative and diagnostic standard for facilitative, educational, and problem-solving processes in constructive consensus formation, discursive learning, and egalitarian decision-making. The ISS is not a substantive regulation imposed for compliance. New media might profoundly inform deliberative processes, but the form of ensuring validity of consensus or decision-making is not intended to be substantively evaluative or regulative (as to which views should be preferred). Rather, the ISS models how to ensure that questions of truth, genuineness, etc. are given due consideration (each kind of validity according to its own kind of validation) on the way to agreement or confidence about a shareable belief, preference, reliability, or outcome.

2.5 – Sunstein’s laudable concern for the accuracy of aggregate opinion and the reliability of sources of “knowledge” and programs is profoundly important for deliberative processes which are always relatively small in scale: Participants are in contact with each other, at least indirectly (model-theoretically as oneself deliberating or forming a view about the interactivity of all participants). Such contact can be proceduralized so that persons who are out of direct contact with each other or with decision makers (or onself over time, processing lots of considerations) can have genuine confidence that the aggregate outcome of a resolution or design is fair or reliable. But deliberation itself always belongs to deliberators, which is an embodied reality, as to how much deliberation is satisfactory, given time constraints or urgency for action.

2.6 – New media can be great resources for decision makers and for participatory processes. But deliberative democracy is something else: It’s the broad-based facilitation and institutionalization of embodied deliberative processes across the manifold of political society.

2.7 – Democracy is always—and will always be—a work in progress because generations are gradually replaced by new generations and organizations dissolve, as well as develop. The need for education, facilitation, and organizational leadership is thereby endless. Open source program development and wiki media are exciting paradigms of collaborative work. But those are not models for deliberative processes, which incorporate inquiry, critique, and education in consensus formation and for decision-making. Prediction markets may be great resources for deliberators (e.g., decision makers and policy developers), but that has no bearing on the quality of deliberation with what information one has. Sunstein just doesn’t come near to thematizing deliberation as such (though I presume that he’s an expert deliberator—just as one can be an expert communicator without a satisfactory linguistic theory).

2.8 – He says “my central goal has not been to criticize deliberation as such….The basic goal should be to increase the likelihood that deliberation will do what it is supposed to do: elicit information, promote creativity, improve decisions” (200). But no: deliberation isn’t supposed to do all of that. Inquiry elicits information, and education promotes creativity. Deliberation supposes elicited information (e.g., reliable belief, which survey research, among many other resources, may provide), and deliberation elicits information as a subroutine of its activity. But deliberation is a process of resolution and decision-making. Deliberation might require creativity and promote employment of creativity in its activity, but deliberation itself isn’t about the promotion of creativity. Sunstein is evidently collapsing the holism of reasonability (if not all of productive intelligence) into deliberation, then finding the real world inadequately “deliberative”.

2.9 – Nonetheless, “[i]t is possible to draw many lessons from an understanding of alternative ways of obtaining the views of many minds” (200-1), which may do great service to deliberative processes. The quality of deliberation would be greatly enhanced inasmuch as “[g]roups…take firm steps to increase the likelihood that people will disclose what they know” (201), but that’s a different matter from what deliberative processes are.

2.10 – Laudably, Sunstein advocates bringing deliberative processes into collaborative production of information and products: “If people are asked to think critically rather than simply to join the [wiki] group,…then [insightful] disclosure is more likely….[I]t would be possible, and a lot better, to understand team players as those who increase the likelihood that the team will be right—if necessary, by disrupting the conventional wisdom” (ibid). Such a critical spirit is integral to Habermas’ sense of communicative ethics. Sunstein’s hopes for deliberative processes in collaborative work accords well with Habermas’ hopes for reflective rationality in communicative life, when Sunstein writes that “[a] strong norm in favor of critical thinking can reduce some of the most damaging pressures, and hence ensure that people will hear from many minds rather than a few” (223).

2.11 – Yet, the expansion of mind is also an opportunity for expansions of inquiry and education beyond given, situation-specific needs for deliberative resolution or decision. Perhaps Sunstein anticipates a potential for discursive inquiry and creativity in the meeting of minds by his association of deliberation with inquiry and creativity generally. The appeal of discourse—appeal for broader and deeper thinking that’s sensitive to the long-term and appreciative of legacies—anticipates potentials of inquiry and creativity that may, way down the road of applicability, improve the potential of deliberation to gain insight from—and integration of—all that new media information and collaboration which excites Sunstein. Appealing for broad and deep appreciation of our planetary humanity invites a commitment to the development of thinking that may develop deliberability across society (educationally, organizationally, in media), so as to better contribute to progressively deliberative democracy through better conceptuality, better analysis, more constructive critique, better reasoning with texts—more potential for insightfulness, and not shying from large-scale, detailed, and knowledge-intensive designs for democratic futures, always, in principle, open to rethinking and redirection.

Also: This discussion is associated with the “good thinking” area of