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Book Club Week 3: An Aristotelian Understanding of Political Deliberation

This post is part of NCDD Book Club series on Democratizing Deliberation published by the Kettering Foundation last month.  In this post, we discuss Bernard Yack’s chapter about Aristotle’s understanding of political deliberation and how it compares to the views of today’s deliberative democracy advocates.

The authors of this blog post are Sarah Read of The Communications Center, Inc. and Lucas Cioffi of OnlineTownhalls.

We had different reactions when we first started reading this chapter. Sarah, who enjoys philosophy, thought it was an affirming and deeply rooted historical perspective on concerns she had noted in practice. As an entrepreneur, Lucas is usually reading material that is much more actionable and ready to be applied immediately (i.e. Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan that Works)–so he was impatient while reading this chapter (that’s not to discredit the author, because as we note it was initially written for an academic audience in mind). Ultimately we agreed that this essay provides some very useful insights, which we have both identified and comment on below.

For the ease of the reader and to reflect our desire to provide actionable insights, we have organized this post as follows: A summary of the key points made in this chapter, practical applications we see, and some thoughts for what you might do next to build on what Aristotle has to teach us.

Key Points From Chapter (or what Aristotle can teach us):

Overall this chapter concludes that the Aristotelian model of public discourse is more aligned with how political deliberation occurs in the real world than much of the scholarship on “deliberative democracy” (“DD”). This conclusion can be broken down as follows:

  • Traditional DD presupposes and tries to impose a type of “political moralism” (and in particular “rationalism”) that weakens rather than improves political deliberation.
  • When weighing questions about the potential effects of future actions and making commitments about the future, people naturally will consider how they feel and the character of those involved. This is why, in the Aristotelian model, deliberations about the future need to involve the “whole range” of “reputable opinion,” including the rhetorical “arts of persuasion,” and not be artificially constrained.
  • Political communities are formed based on shared interests and pursuing mutual advantage. When we move from this focus on shared interests and common good to moralistic “right/wrong”; ”either/or”; or “objective one answer” approaches, we are imposing a structure that does not work for the future-oriented issues before us. These approaches exclude information that we need in order to assess how we want to move into the future or to order our life together.
  • Aristotle recognized that political deliberation is necessarily different than other forms of deliberation because it is not limited to determining facts against predetermined principles. Instead, political deliberation is forward looking, considering the potential effects of future action on the common good or shared goals, and so must be informed by emotions and issues of character.

The chapter further points out that there are key lessons for structuring deliberations that flow from the Aristotelian model of public discourse. Because that model is rooted in the social relationships and expectations that structure political life, and because shared interests are what inspire us to form political communities, public discourse needs to be focused on those shared interests. Stated another way, public discourse needs to be focused on what would best serve the common good. That would include application of the following elements:

  • Self-serving arguments are not allowed, focus must be on the common good.
  • Speakers must be willing to take no for an answer because it is the listeners who will ultimately decide.
  • Proposals that focus on sacrificing or eliminating community life/common good are impossible to defend.
  • Those engaged in public deliberation should be motivated and persuaded by a passion for the common good (“our future”), and an understanding that we will share or face the risks and consequences of any decision together. Another way of saying this is, no-one in the deliberations is, or should be, disinterested in the outcome and its impact on the community.

Practical Applications/Further Reflections:

SARAH: One quote that really resonated with me here was: “If an examination of competing proposals is not sufficient to distinguish the truly advantageous proposals from those that merely mask the self-interest of their advocates, then we are going to want to know something about the character of the people who are urging us to support them.” As a facilitator I have worked with a number of future oriented conversations that involve a range of deeply held and differing values, and community members whose relationships are strained or who are distrustful of each other. In my experience, efforts to focus people on narrowly drawn issues or viewpoints can have the effect of decreasing trust further. Opening instead with a set of discussions on community, values, and how we work together, can build trust as people begin that effort of working together. I’ll be thinking further about how to use the structural elements of the Aristotelian model as a planning tool and also as an introductory topic in future discussions.

Another quote that resonated with me was: “A constitution, as Justice Holmes is said to have declared, is not a suicide pact. It is a political structure that makes it possible for large numbers of people to cooperate in projects of shared and common advantages.” The emphasis on common good as a structural element is something citizens themselves might use to help re-orient some of our political discourse. For example, think about how that discourse might change if candidates and others were regularly asked (and expected to answer) when a proposal is made: how does that help the common good? who will benefit and who is harmed? what do we have in common? how will this advance shared as opposed to private interests? The Aristotelian model also suggests that citizens could be better equipped to ask questions that might help them evaluate the character of the speakers — questions like: are those speaking more representative of private or shared interests? have they been trustworthy in the past? are there other alternatives that will better advance the interests of all and how do we bring those forward?

LUCAS: Once I adjusted my expectations and read the chapter, one quote seemed to be more important than the rest: “The most pressing issue for any advocate of political deliberation: the possibility that the public reasoning might diminish rather than enhance the rationality of political decision making.” I do agree with this statement, that it’s possible that a single day of deliberation may actually give participants the false impression that they sufficiently understand a complex issue (i.e. “We were able to balance our state budget in just four hours; why can’t policymakers do the same?”).

This chapter did not affect how I build software for online townhall meetings, but perhaps some folks will share some insights from the chapter which will have practical implications for how deliberative software should be built. I look forward to seeing the wisdom of the crowd shine through in the comment section for these and similar insights!

LUCAS AND SARAH: Being both interested in transparency in government and accountability, we thought this the model also provides some useful insight in how we might better track, report on, and evaluate the quality of public discourse and policy decisions made. We invite your thoughts and suggestions on this as well!

What You Might Do Next:

  1. Share your thoughts – post a comment or two!
  2. Dig deeper! Take one of our current political issues and map the discussions of it against the Aristotelian structural elements. Analyze which are present and which are missing. Think about how that discussion might flow differently if the structural elements were followed. What can that tell us about amending the deliberative model?
  3. Challenge candidates everywhere to focus on the common good!
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Lucas Cioffi
Lucas Cioffi graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Having served one year in Baghdad as an infantry officer, he realizes the need for effective dialogue and deliberation in preventing conflict. He is passionate about advanced online deliberative platforms and is co-founder of AthenaBridge.com.

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  1. Sarah and Lucas picked up on the most interesting thread in the article, Yack’s (and perhaps Aristotle’s) affirmation that political deliberation concerns itself with “how we want to move into the future together.”

    Per Yack, Aristotle then uses this affirmation to justify passionate debate, appeal to character, and minimal constraints on how the deliberation proceeds and writes: ” deliberation about what serves the common advantage requires a living reason, reasoning informed by the emotions.”

    But the argument is missing a piece: how does this justification work? Aristotle agrees that judicial deliberation should be dispassionate and, in a sense, objective. But judicial deliberations lead to future actions as well – people are sent to jail or set free, fined, and sometimes executed, and all these consequences take place after the deliberation ends. So judicial deliberations as well are future-oriented. So why is it reasonable to constrain judicial deliberation but not political deliberation?

    I’d argue that the core difference between judicial and legislative deliberation, the difference that justifies the loosening of constraints Yack/Aristotle argue for, is not the future orientation by itself, but rather that, after a political deliberation, it’s generally harder to know who will take action and what will count as a faithful implementation.

    In the case of the court, the bailiff and the sheriff are already on the payroll, and, generally, their implementation of the court’s decisions is not in question.

    In contrast, the identity and actions of those who will (or not) implement a political deliberation can be much more problematic.

    The Patients’ Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare”, is a timely example. Put aside the good or bad faith of various political actors, for a moment. I’d argue that the various lawsuits brought by 28 states demonstrate rather concretely that implementation can be fraught.

    So the important piece that Aristotle and Yack add, if only they would say it, is that political deliberation is generally but the beginning of a long process of change, and that a deliberation should be judged not by how tidy it is, but rather by how well it lays the foundation for meaningful, legitimate, and sustainable change in the community.

    • Sarah Read says:

      Although judicial deliberations may have consequences that occur following those deliberations, that deliberation (at least in theory) is focused on past facts and a determination then leads to application of a pre-ordained consequence. So as Chris notes, it is harder to know the consequences of decisions made in political deliberations focused on the future, about which much is unknown. In this context, the character of the actor — their capacity for follow-through and their willingness to take responsibility for what might unfold — is a significant factor. Chris’ final phrasing offers a useful criteria for evaluation of a process – one which can be analyzed at different points of time: “how well [does it lay] the foundation for meaningful, legitimate, and sustainable change in the community?”

  2. Simon Wright says:

    Kia ora Chris, in response to your comments about judicial vs political deliberation, I think there is another important dimension that relates to the different constraints: different levels of certainty. High levels of certainty are required for judicial deliberation. For political deliberations about what to do in a highly complex or chaotic world, high levels of uncertainty about what is and particularly about what will be in the future are the norm.

    Here’s a very simple observation: today’s societies are so much larger and complex than they were in Aristole’s day, so I’m not sure how useful his models are now. I read Peter Singer argue the other day that there has never been a time in history when so many different types of people and issues (e.g. women, the environment)are considered moral relevant. What a challenge for our political institutions and organisational structures! Whilst DD is, in theory, a way of working with this diversity and complexity, I don’t see it being embraced as the answer to the challenge by leaders in my polity. In fact I’m seeing the moves in the opposite direction in response to various crises.

    That’s enough of a ramble – I guess that’s what book clubs are about! Thanks Lucus and Sarah for your great chapter summary and to NCDD from providing this space.

    • Kia ora to you, too, Simon. Say more about how Aristotle’s precepts might be overmatched by today’s complexities and diversities.

      If you’re correct, it would suggest that deliberation relative to smaller political boundaries, e.g. town rather than state or nation, should generally be easier, since issues will often be less complex and there’ll often be less diversity in a town than in the nation. Is that what you find?

      • Sarah Read says:

        Consider whether the structural elements discussed in the post could help guide and focus some of the discussion of complex issues in positive ways. I thought the elements suggested some possibilities for moving away from the “us v. them” debates that so easily occur to exploring what could move us forward. And one of the things we may need to do is have more discussions about community, common good, and why we are one country rather than focusing just on issues. One reason cities and smaller communities are leading the way in testing new forms of civic engagement is because often there is more of a sense in the smaller polities that “we are a community” and “we can work together to help us all.”

  3. Dave Overfelt says:

    This chapter sounds a lot like it reflects 2009 work by Ameryta Sen, specifically his book called *The Idea of Justice*. His approach to dialogue utilizes both comparative and transcendental perspectives, recognizes the plurality of competing principles, allows and facilitates the re-examination of these foundational principles, permits the partial resolution of complex issues, arrives “at overall judgements… based on a diversity of perspectives and issues” (Sen 2009, 109), emphasizes precise articulation and reasoning, and seeks public reasoning in decision-making processes.

    Simon, today’s society is certainly more complex but that is exactly why D&D is necessary. Proffesionals don’t have all the answers and if they think they do they have lost sight of the world around them. There are plenty of cases where this have proven true, from the large scale participatory budgeting of Porto Allegre and the budget discussions conducted by AmericaSpeaks down to smaller scales discussed by a variety of authors in *Searching for a Just City* and elsewhere (see Robert Silverman for instance).

  4. My background is in rhetorical studies, and I still teach a history of rhetoric class, so I was particularly interested in this chapter, as it connects my past scholarly world with my current work in some interesting ways.

    What I pulled from the chapter is one of the classic philosophical arguments against the simple splitting of reason and emotion. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, believed that reason and emotion were separate. He used the metaphor of the charioteer led by a good horse (reason) and bad horse (passion), and believed philosopher-kings could control the bad horse. Aristotle rejected that, and argued that there was often a logic to emotional appeals. There are times, for example, that it is completely reasonable to be angry, afraid, or sympathetic.

    So here we have a clear explanation of why Aristotle would reject the “first generation” DD theorists that argued for purely rational deliberation. There is alot of gray area between the “deliberation should be purely rational” and “there should be no limits or expectations of quality” positions. So while I agree with Aristotle that we need to be careful with what limits we put on deliberation, I do nonetheless argue for the importance of intervening in order to improve the quality of public discussion. Right now, I think our political culture far too often rewards bad communication tactics and punishes good ones, and we need to try to turn that around, and I see that as one of the functions of my work.

    Yack’s comments concerning the limits of impartiality also jumped out at me. I have used the term “passionate impartiality” to explain my own perspective and the work of the Center for Public Deliberation. “Neutral” always seemed too detached, and while we serve as an impartial resource to assist our community, we are passionate about many things, such as helping our community, improving quality of life, honoring the inclusion and equality democracy calls for, etc. We are also partial to high quality communication, though I understand that defining and supporting “high quality communication” is certainly a tough task.

    • Lucas Cioffi says:

      Well said– passionate impartiality is a very fitting phrase!

    • Sarah Read says:

      I also like the term “passionate impartiality”. I have introduced this concept in group discussions by saying that while I am neutral on the substance I am not neutral on the process – it is my focus to provide a safe, inclusive, and effective process.

  5. Derek W. Barker says:

    I have been delighted to see all the interesting conversation that this book is provoking among the NCDD community. I wanted to get in sooner but am just now getting caught up. In any case, I anticipated that this might be one of the most difficult pieces for non-philosophers, so perhaps this is a good time to jump in.

    Just to elaborate on Martin’s remarks, I wanted to include this piece in the book for a couple of reasons. First, to demonstrate that inquiry into deliberation has historical roots prior to Rawls’ and Habermas’ turns to the rational consensus ideal. Aristotle’s may not be the best, but these earlier models might avoid some of the problems that Rawls and Habermas created, so it is worth going back to them (for example, Aristotle’s concept of phronesis – practical wisdom or judgment – strikes me as far more inclusive and complex than rational knowledge). Second, to raise the possibility that rhetoric might have productive value in a deliberative context (and indeed Aristotle seemed to think that rhetoric – using any means necessary – is to be fully expected). Again, going back to some of the earlier “book club” discussions, this may be old hat for practitioners. But by bringing in rhetoric, Yack’s piece to me is the most radical in terms of opening up deliberation. Finally, in terms of the contest between Plato and Aristotle, Plato was not only critical of rhetoric, he associated it (pejoratively) with democratic deliberation (as opposed to expert knowledge). This suggest that if we are going to make a case for public deliberation–especially if we no longer see deliberation as restricted to rational discourse–we may need to make a case for rhetoric, or at least have an answer to those who are suspicious of rhetoric. I hope these thoughts are helpful!

  6. Arlot Hall says:

    I have been struggling with the focus of this book on deliberation as a separate activity from dialogue which in my mind is the separation of rational discourse from the discourse that builds trust. My experience leads me to believe that all deliberation is based in dialogue, that choice making by a group proceeds from the trust inherent in group relationships. So Yack’s statement that “the issues of public morality are structured by the social relationships and expectations that make political life possible” is interesting. I wonder how politics and democracy are different? One answer is that politics is about the power of a political elite, while democracy is about the struggle and reluctance of people to recognize, understand and give voice to their interdependence. Yack’s conclusion that “Cutting out appeals to character and emotion that loom so large in everyday deliberative rhetoric could, it suggests, undermine the very practice that these theorists seek to improve” prompts the question “who are these theorists and what value do they offer to dealing with the life-world of today’s crippled democracy?

    Jonathan Haidt’s idea that our “intuition” or emotion is the basis for choice making rather than reason is intriguing and has relevance to Bohm’s ideas in “Thought as a System.”

    I am beginning to doubt that focusing on Democracy as a deliberative activity can achieve what we need. This article opens the door for me to explore how my experience of democracy as a swirling maelstrom of human needs and interests – often contentious and always emotional – is different from the reasoned deliberation that Haidt describes as confabulation. Democratizing deliberation may be useful as a theoretical or academic activity. I am not so sure how it serves the political challenges of a people struggling to achieve greater equality of wealth, income, opportunity and power – if it can be the origin and initiator of the political and social change necessary to restore, sustain, or embody democracy.

    I find hope in the proposition that emotion or passion may be just as important as reason. I like the Dalai Lama’s focus on interdependence and compassion as important to a public morality in his new book “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.” How does interdependence relate to the common good? How does compassion relate to deliberation?

    • Sarah Read says:

      I agree that much of the dialogue on deliberation has confused the terms! This is partly a definitional issue with the term “deliberation” which can mean when defined narrowly the decisional stage of a discussion when a group has assembled the input it needs and is sifting through options, and can also mean the entire process of thoughtful discussion including dialogue, brainstorming, information development and evaluation, defining options, and deliberation, narrowly defined. We need to think of stages and develop a way of more consistently identifying what we are talking about. When individuals in a group are talking over each other because the stages haven’t been defined well, and some think its time to make a decision, others are trying to understand the issue, and still others are trying to develop options unnecessary conflict is generated and trust in the process erodes. I also note that these “stages” are not necessarily linear in public discussion (more often are not). It is important when planning for a large scale discussion of a complex issue to plan for what I call “on-ramps” and “off-ramps”. As the discussion moves forward there may need to be different levels of discussion so people can join where they are most comfortable, and if interim decisions need to be made there has to be a way to provide for that and then integrate that into the larger, ongoing discussion. Martin Carcasson made a comment on the first post for the book group that fits in here, discussing the need for multiple “deliberative cycles”. All this reminds me of the de Tocqueville quote: “Democracy does not give the people the most skillful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create; namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, however unfavorable circumstances may be, produce wonders.” There is hope!

      • Sarah – So many interesting thoughts, thanks.

        I’d like to know more about how you plan for and do on-ramps, which I take to be way of bringing someone who is just coming into (or just coming back to, after a time away) a deliberation a way of getting up to speed and in some subtle way “in synch” with those who’ve been in the deliberation “all along”.

        Also, please say more about “off ramps” – debriefing? parting words of wisdom?

  7. llbritt says:

    For me a challenging part of the chapter is on page 45 in the discussion about political communities serving our “shared interest in establishing the conditions … that make it possible to lead the Aristotelian good life.” The next sentence is what troubles me “However high we reach in this community, it is our shared interest in making it possible to lead such a life that keeps us together.” This seems to imply that if we feel we deliberate about the common good and establish policies that allow for this that those who do not “reach” high enough are somehow deficient or lazy in not being able to lead the good life.

    I think it is our job as deliberative facilitators to avoid this type of labeling that masks structural inequities. We need to help participants think about these types of injustices that exist in the way we structure our political communities. We need to be certain that we consider whether the common good is indeed “common” and equally accessible to all citizens.

    Just curious if anyone else read this passage the same way.

    • Sarah Read says:

      I agree that as facilitators we need to avoid the type of labeling that masks structural inequities. I think the “good life” reference though refers to life of “active virtue” in a community which is not the same as what we culturally refer to as the “good life” (reflecting an economic state). A key questions for facilitators is how can we all work to make sure that all in the community have realistic access to ways to be heard and to have a say that matters in how our common life is shaped.

  8. I want to thank Sarah and Lucas for summarizing this week’s chapter. It was very helpful for me in making the connections between what Aristotle had to say and the reality of our current times.

    I agree that if there is a room full of differing opinions, the idea that to focus on the common good might bring about a willingness to listen more, think longer and talk more– rather than jump to conclusions. When the common good is the sentiment or focus of a group, it certainly does seem to me like it is absolutely necessary to have all the relevant players in the room, or the percieved common good could become skewed. This focus also supports the importance of properly framing an issue before discussion even begins.

  9. Phil Neisser says:

    A few thoughts:

    First, it seem to me that Yack’s argument about deliberation can be read as softening the line between deliberation and dialogue, in that it suggests that healthy political deliberation necessarily contain elements of dialogue, even when a decision hangs directly in the balance. I think we would all agree, for example, that dialogue tends to lead its participants to discover mutual interests and shared values, even if they remain far apart on the issues they’re talking about. And that discovery often feeds into new and higher estimations of the character possessed by those who had been thought to be other, which in turn sometimes leads to an increase in trust. And these are all thing Yack points to as inherent in democratic deliberation.

    Second, about legal deliberation as opposed to political deliberation, I think what Chris said is very important: when it comes to political decision-making “it’s generally harder to know who will take action and what will count as a faithful implementation.” To me that actually fits nicely with Yack’s point (and explains it further), in that it is precisely that feature of legal deliberation that makes it backward-looking in a sense. When a legal determination has been made the immediate actions that will follow are already specified by law, and thus the deliberation is not about the future but about the past, about whether, for example, there was in fact a violation of the law. This is one reason why the sentencing phase of a criminal procedure is separate, and (if the law gives the judge any discretion) more directly political.

    Finally, I have a thought about the difficult issue of whether or not Aristotle’s idea of “the good life” is elitist and “masks structural inequities.” There’s no doubt: Aristotle himself was elitist in the worst way, in that he believed that only a few people were capable of leading the good life as he understood it. By his lights the rest of us can only fulfill our nature another way: by supporting the good life that’s fully lived by that capable few. What there is doubt about is whether or not Aristotle’s idea of the good life ceases to offer anything once we take it out his elitist frame. I think it does. Take Aristotle’s idea that the life truly worth living is one that includes citizenship, meaning by that the activity of dialogue and deliberation among peers who are different from each other but nonetheless able to make community together. I think that idea can be rendered egalitarian quite easily. In fact I think Aristotle’s idea of citizenship becomes stronger when we toss aside his elitist understanding of human nature, because in that case the contradiction in his thought is removed. He called for equality among a few; we point out that we can and should have equality among the many. Put that way, Aristotle’s idea of citizenship be used to un-mask structural inequities, because now the claim is that everyone can and should enjoy citizenship, and that citizenship is not possible unless (to paraphrase Rousseau) “no one is forced to sell themselves and no one can buy another.” Under those conditions, and if society is also truly dialogic, we can indeed aim high. Instead of aiming at the mere reproduction of life (survival) or at endless wealth-creation as the be-all and end-all (two goals that tend to support and mask inequities), we can aim at inclusive citizenship that reproduces mutual understanding and widely distributes decision-making power.


  10. […] was a chapter moderator for the NCCD’s first-ever book club, helping lead the discussion on the Aristotelian model of public deliberation.  Sarah also spoke again on managing conflict at the Missouri Municipal League’s Elected […]

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