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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