Monday, May 02, 2011

It's A Floor Wax And A Dessert Topping!

I just finished Why Deliberative Democracy? and I have to say that it was a terribly unsatisfying read. Gutmann and Thompson are clearly smart people who know their subject matter well, but they presented the material as if driven by a desire to obfuscate, rather than elucidate, their views on the topic at hand. If someone asked me at this point to explain of what, exactly, deliberative democracy consists I'd be hard-pressed to provide a coherent answer.

Part of the problem is that Gutmann and Thompson seem to have made something of a fetish out of provisionality. They actively reject the notion that their is some immutable set of principles to which deliberative democracy may uniquely lay claim:

Deliberative democracy does not seek a foundational principle or set of principles that, in advance of actual political activity, determines whether a procedure or law is justified. Instead, it adopts a dynamics conception of political justification, in which change over time is and essential feature of justifiable principles. The principles of deliberative democracy are distinctive in two significant respects: they are morally provisional (subject to change through further moral argument); and they are politically provisional (subject to change through further political argument).1

Which is fine and dandy, except for the fact that they make assertions to the contrary in about a zillion other places throughout the book. For example:

An implication of taking the problem of incomplete understanding seriously is that the results of the deliberative process should be regarded as provisional. Some results are rightly regarded as more settled than others. We do not have to reargue the question of slavery every generation.2

Well... why not? What is particularly special about slavery, or the history of the deliberation thereof, that makes it unnecessary to reconsider it in the future? This strongly suggests that deliberative democracy (as conceived by Gutmann and Thompson) contains some mechanism by which certain arguments may be foreclosed.

The authors would not doubt reply that reconsideration of the issue of slavery is precluded by virtue of their notions of reciprocity and mutual justification. I can certainly accept that argument, but believe that it undermines another of their assertions, that their conception of deliberative democracy is a second-order theory. Consider their statement on the topic of first-/second-order theories:

To begin to show why deliberative democracy is different from other theories, and how it can more readily accommodate moral conflict, we need to distinguish between first- and second-order theories of democracy. First-order theories seek to resolve moral disagreement by rejecting alternative theories or principles with which they conflict. . .

Second-order theories deal with moral disagreement by accommodating first-order theories that conflict with one another.3

By this definition deliberative democracy is not a second-order theory. The principle of basic liberty4 is incompatible with various forms of communitarianism, while the principle of basic opportunity5 runs afoul of certain flavors of libertarianism. Gutmann/Thompson's conception of deliberative democracy must then reject these first-order theories, undermining its claim to be a second-order theory. Of course, they've got a rejoinder to this as well:

Is there any reason to define democracy so narrowly that it excludes substantive principles? The reason cannot be because the content of basic liberty or basic opportunity is reasonably contestable.6

Fail. Robert Nozick spent a great deal of time carefully laying out the case that basic opportunity is incompatible with liberty. He may not be right, but to hold that his ideas aren't worthy of rebuttal is to prematurely close the discussion.

Alternatively, we can argue that basic liberty and fair opportunity are themselves provisional, thus allowing (at least theoretical) compatibility with communitarianism/libertarianism and rescuing deliberative democracy as a second-order theory. But at that point needn't we also reopen the discussion of slavery on the ground that reciprocity and mutual justification are also up for debate? In which case deliberative democracy is vulnerable to the same criticism that the authors make of procedural theories, that it can lead to decisions which violate substantive moral principles.7

Ultimately Gutmann and Thompson fail by trying to produce a theory that is both substantive and second-order. Maybe it can actually be done, but they haven't managed to reconcile the accommodation of all first-order theories with the inclusion of substantive principles. It's not even obvious to me why they're so intent on calling deliberative democracy a "second-order theory"; why not just admit that they've developed a first-order theory that accommodates a wide variety of perspectives within a democratic, deliberative framework? Surely there's no shame in that?

1 P. 132
2 P. 12
3 P. 126
4 P. 137
5 Ibid
6 P. 136
7 P. 132


Anonymous Stefanie said...

Such a great article which They actively reject the notion that their is some immutable set of principles to which deliberative democracy may uniquely lay claim. In which the principles of deliberative democracy are distinctive in two significant respects: they are morally provisional. Thanks for sharing this article.

9:03 AM  

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