February 13, 2009

Dewey, the GOP, and moral dilemmas

Let's suppose that, like Dewey, you endorse both of the following:

deliberative democracy: All reasonable views should participate in and be satisfied with deliberation over public policy.
pragmatism: Swift implementation of the best available -- albeit imperfect -- course of action should not be delayed on the basis of purely ideological objections.

(And no, I'm not going to define `purely ideological' here.)

Due to your deliberative democratic views (and one or two auxiliary beliefs), you believe, in particular, that conservative Republican views should participate in and be satisfied with deliberation over economic stimulus. However, at the same time, due to your pragmatism, you think that implementing the best available course of action for stimulating the economy -- something like one of the three plans the Congress has approved over the past tenish days (new girlfriend + lots of schoolwork = I have no experience of the passing of time) -- should not be delayed on the basis of the purely ideological objections of laissez-faire conservative Republicans. To sharpen the example, let's stipulate that these conservatives will not be satisfied with deliberation over economic stimulus until their purely ideological objections have been met. (Much the same goes for libertarians and other fans of the free market that are not conservatives. But, for better or for worse, they don't have much presence in public deliberation in the first place. I think we should figure out what to do with the most pressing and obvious case first, and then move on to the harder cases.)

What the hell should you do? You can define `reasonable' such that the views of laissez-faire conservative Republicans turn out not to be reasonable. But that just sounds like watering down your commitment to deliberative democracy; you might as well just toss the latter, really.

This isn't just a one-time problem. Deliberative democracy and pragmatism will conflict whenever there are reasonable views that object to the best available course of action on purely ideological grounds; and this will be inevitable so long as there are reasonable views that make purely ideological objections. That is, deliberative democracy and pragmatism will come into conflict so long as there are reasonable views that reject pragmatism.

I don't have an answer to my question of two paragraphs ago. But I do think this is a good example of a genuine moral dilemma, at least for fans of Dewey.


Drew said...

Interesting post. Could you expand a little bit on the satisfaction element in your definition of deliberative democracy? I'm not sure what you mean when you say that all reasonable views should be satisfied with deliberation.

Noumena said...

While I am using it as a technical term, I actually don't have anything in particular in mind. Very roughly, the idea behind that clause is that something undemocratic has happened when a policy is implemented without assuaging critics and answering reasonable objections.

At one ideal extreme, satisfaction would require effectively removing all opposition -- the reasonable objections have been answered (with reasonable replies, not threats of force, naturally), and the critics have consequently become enthusiastic proponents. The other ideal extreme would be some entirely minimal, procedural satisfaction -- the critics are just as unhappy with the proposal as ever, but Robert's Rules of Order have all been followed, and hence the debate leading to the acceptance of the proposal has been acceptable.

Obviously the definition should fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe the major objections should have received replies (though perhaps not absolutely conclusive and convincing replies), and the most prominent critics grudgingly concede that further debate at this time is liable to just be a waste? That's not perfect, of course, but it's where a lot of thoughtful debates seem to end up.