Deliberation is the activity of probing the various and contrasting findings, claims, and positions that reasonable persons may choose to accept in regard to contestable matters. At its root is the Latin term liber, to weigh carefully. Deliberation typically proceeds important decision-making. When choices of action or belief are at hand, we deliberate over the possible courses of action, points of view, and perspectives that lie before us. We deliberate our ways toward a conclusion or claim. To do that, we can take three steps:
- Gather: Deliberation is rooted in conversation among a gathering of participants who offer contrasting claims and arguments about a subject of mutual interest or concern. But deliberation doesn’t require face-to-face dialogue. An individual may deliberate alone by bringing to mind or researching the variety of possible claims and arguments that have been or might be made regarding an issue and work to examine and assess them by way of critical analysis.
- Listen: Carefully consider each alternative argument, giving each argument a generous and fair hearing. Seek clarification and exemplification when needed. Differentiate between and among alternatives. Infer the core assumptions upon which each different claim and argument rests. Be open and authentically curious.
- Assess: After attending critically to each position and argument, formulate a position that acknowledges and accounts for alternative claims, reveals the key assumptions and evidence on which your conclusion depends, and demonstrates to others how you have arrived at your position.
Deliberation and Democracy
Deliberation is well-suited to democratic arrangements, as when citizens or elected officials deliberate about a course of action or members of a jury deliberate about a verdict. Successful deliberation depends on all those who are interested in an issue or disagreement having an opportunity to weigh in, to make their positions known to an attentive audience. By nature, deliberation has an idealized character. Participants in a democracy may declare that everyone has a voice, but experience tells us that some points of view are often silenced, that participatory rights can be partial, and that rhetorical power is typically unevenly distributed. It is unlikely that such inequities will completely disappear, but the best possible forms of open participation can be actively sought and the suppression of views remedied. If it is not, the deliberative process becomes truncated or inert. Autocracy, the advocacy of a single idea proclaimed by a singular entity, eschews deliberation principally because of its liberatory powers.
Deliberation holds a liberatory potential to free participants from their long-held beliefs or fossilized ways of thinking, delivering up a transformed understanding of any issue at hand. Some believe that the robust dialogue at the heart of deliberative practice is the only way to arrive at truthful understanding since all positions receive collaborative scrutiny. Democratic decision-making entails participants navigating toward contingent agreements sought through reciprocity and a strong faith in collectivist ethics. The activity of deliberation is woven into the DNA of a liberal arts education. The term often appears in the mission statements of small liberal arts colleges, marking the ethical actions of unfettered and robust inquiry, a refrain from hasty judgment, the accommodations of various forms of reasoning, and a willingness to change one’s position in light of good reasons. The practices associated with intellectual life—an omnipresent curiosity, productive disagreement, a tolerance for contingent understandings—are the same behaviors that fuel deliberation in a democracy.
Deliberation as an Alternative to Blunt Persuasion
Most of us, steeped as we are in the way in which debates are framed by politicians and the media, are familiar with the rough and tumble of non-productive disagreement on the floor of the senate and town meetings and have lost touch with deliberation as an alternative to bargaining, bluster, badgering, and bullshitting. We take stands on issues by simply inheriting or subsuming ready-made perspectives. We take iron-clad positions and batten the hatches to prevent the infiltration of alternative points of view. At times, we are unsure exactly when what we think of as our commitments began or where what we call our core beliefs came from. Our minds are frozen into stalwart shapes or idle in “neutral” ready to stare down the opposition or rev up the agonistic engines for defensive combat.
But when we engage in deliberation, either alone or in groups, we give ourselves an opportunity not only to evolve but also to rediscover the qualities and characteristics of our own (stalwart) positions since in deliberation we’ll become accountable for our beliefs, as others probe and inquire into our reasoning. Deliberation, ironically then, can strengthen or enrich a position that was merely taken for granted or accepted blindly. There are benefits all the way around. Yet, deliberation shouldn’t be confused with an inevitably “kinder, gentler” way of interacting with our interlocutors. Deliberation asks us to be neither non-committal or weakly relativistic—a “whatever” attitude. Its goal is both enhanced understanding of all positions and, if possible and appropriate, the birth of a negotiated claim or argument, an agreement to do something, or to define something, or to value something in a certain way. Deliberation doesn’t require its participants to leave their commitments, desires, and interests behind. That’s not possible. What is possible is to seek clarification, welcome correction and transformation when warranted, and to welcome “the other” into one’s world of decision-making.
Holding Oneself and Others Accountable
Deliberation asks that we look beyond the assertions we and others make. Claims don’t crystallize on their own. They are based on assumptions about the nature of the world and our activities in it and are drawn from evidence and experience. Deliberation requires something akin to an archaeologic sensibility as we become conscious of the emergent forces and factors that gave rise to a particular way of thinking, a certain interpretation of a phenomenon, a recommendation to act one way rather than another. Such an archaeology requires a set of analytic tools and techniques.
Deliberation takes patience and a degree of principled fortitude. It also depends on a working attitude of contingency, as we recognize the circumstantial and contextual forces and factors that must align in order for a claim to take root and flourish. To accept contingency is to acknowledge that our claims are forged at certain times, in certain places, in particular communities and cultures, with available evidence, within the grain of particular ideologies, worldviews, and methods for investigation. With few exceptions, we expect that we’ll revise or renovate our claims and positions over time, in the face of new evidence, new experimental methods, new findings, and the collaboration of new participants in deliberative conversations. It is unlikely that any of us will stop deliberating, if for no other reason than the emergence of new issues, the re-emergence of old controversies, and the expectation that our understandings grow and change.