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Including rational thought in decision-making: novel idea?

The post last week brought up the idea that we need to think about what concepts and ideas are put forward in the public realm. From pop music to sports to local community events, our approach to decision-making is influenced by commonly understood cultural practices. Meaningful democratic decision-making requires that we think about the practices, ideas, and values that percolate throughout society.

More specifically, when it comes to engaging a group of people to get together and go through a democratic decision-making process, practitioners need to think about how participants are being, or have been, educated. By definition, democratic decision-making is not limited to specialists. "Rule by the people" means everyone gets to participate in decision-making, even about issues where we are not experts.

This does not mean, however, that democratic decision-making should be approached from a place of ignorance. Robert Dahl emphasized the importance of enlightened understanding as a key democratic principle, which he defines as: “citizens ought to have adequate and equal opportunities for discovering and validating the choice on the matter to be decided that would best serve the citizen's interests.” The discovery and validation are key points here; we need an opportunity to inform ourselves before making decisions about items in the public interest. 

Paul Woodruff raises a similar point in the book First Democracy when he outlines the notion of reasoning without knowledge. This phrase is meant to highlight the fact that when it comes to public policy, or big decisions facing society, we can't predict the future. We are making decisions without reliable knowledge of the future. From this standpoint, democratic decision-making must include a process of reasoning - to incorporate diverse perspectives, different ideas, and to reason through possible outcomes, before a decision is made. Decision-making processes must have opportunities for learning and reflection, reasoning, discovery, and validation. 

This is where discussion and deliberation is powerful, and it is important that deliberation can take place before a decision needs to be made. In BC, the Citizens Assembly on electoral reform met for months, heard from experts, and deliberated before they made a decision about what to recommend. The Citizens Initiative Review process in Oregon brings together randomly selected citizens to review and deliberate the implications of various measures being put forward as ballot initiatives. They are invited to deliberate and discuss the various measures before they are expected to jump into a decision.

There are two critical, distinct, dimensions to this knowledge-building in the context of decision-making. 1) Getting the information and 2) deliberation. Citizens need to be able to access information about the issues under review, to inform themselves. But the understanding, validation, and reasoning that Dahl and Woodruff highlight raises the notion of deliberating and discussing issues with others as political equals. How often does this happen at the ballot box? We may get access to information about issues, candidates, and policy platforms, but how often do we get to deliberate and discuss issues that are put forward for a vote?

It is our contention that this does not occur often enough. And so it falls to communities and civic groups, and you, to carve out opportunities for deliberation. It falls to each of us not to avoid talking about politics, but to get the information we need, and to build spaces where we can reason and deliberate with one another.


  1. Big thanks to colleague George for pointing me in the direction of Julia Galef on this topic, who runs the Update Project and the Rationally Speaking podcast. Great resource to understand our respective frames of the world!


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