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The Ethical Dimensions of Deliberation

The Interactivity Foundation’s discussion process places much emphasis on producing contrasting possibilities as starting points and aids to citizen discussion.
There are many practical reasons for supposing that consideration of a range of alternatives may improve governance skills and outcomes.  The learning that accompanies this type of open-ended deliberation exposes participants to many interconnections between the elements of a topic and may help them envision wholly new approaches to dealing with public concerns.

Aside from these types of practical considerations, open-ended deliberation leading to the development and consideration of contrasting possibilities has significant ethical dimensions in democratic societies. This type of deliberation helps engender trust and builds communication between citizens of opposing viewpoints.

There are many ways one could look at the ethical dimensions of deliberation. I put my emphasis on the following three: authenticity, citizen skills, and professionalism. At first glance these dimensions might seem at odds, but I feel a case can be made for the crucial need for all three of these “legs” on the “stool” of democratic governance.

Authenticity may be seen as an ethical obligation in a democratic society to provide deliberative processes and opportunities that are real and have the potential to effect outcomes.  We all are aware of forums and hearings that give mere lip service to citizen input. Some are mind-numbing in approach, rigid in application, and, too often, rigged before they are announced.

For the democratic deliberative practitioner there is an ethical duty to build democratic authenticity into deliberative processes and disclose limits on the scope or outcomes of the conversation. There are multiple paths to democratic authenticity and many ways to adapt them to particular circumstances. But it is ethically important to ask the question, “is this the real deal or public relations”.

Citizen skill-building is an ethical obligation of all those connected to governance and to all who participate in civil society. It does little good to bemoan the poor quality of discussions and the decline in participation when citizens are fed mainly a diet of pre-packaged talking points designed by those who have already made up their minds.

For the democratic deliberative practitioner there is an ethical duty to build the deliberative skills and civic literacy of citizens. This would include not only access and transparency in governance, but pro-active means to develop participatory capacity. It is important to ask the question of whether a deliberative process leaves participants in a better position to make choices in the matter at hand and the question of whether those participants are better equipped to engage in future deliberative activity as well.

Professionalism in deliberative administration is also an ethical obligation for those entrusted with taking care of the public’s business. Some might see this dimension as potentially conflicting with authenticity and citizen skills, but it need not. Standards of professional competence and best practices in deliberative conduct can be put at the service of the two prior dimensions.

For the democratic deliberative practitioner in governance there is an ethical obligation to understand the various deliberative approaches. If one’s duties include the facilitation of public conversation there is a connected duty to become proficient in the group skills that encourage meaningful dialogue. Such a practitioner is constantly learning and always asking the question of peers and participants, “How might I been more helpful in that discussion?”.

I find these ethical dimensions implicit in much of the Interactivity Foundation’s process. We bring something that can be very helpful to governance situations where looking out over the horizon with fresh eyes might prove useful. We have a governance system of weak and blurred political parties, debilitated major media, and traditional civic organizations in decline. Those conditions, in my opinion, make it more important than ever to put the ethical dimensions of deliberation on the public agenda.