Skip to main content

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.

Comments

  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!
    https://juliagalef.com/

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Why democracy doesn't always require a majority

With the recent referendum in BC on electoral reform, which resulted in not only a defeat at the polls but also an abysmal voter turnout at 42.6% of eligible votes, there have been some renewed calls for policy decisions to be reviewed by a random assortment of voters through something like a Citizens' Assembly. A citizen's assembly would be an alternative, or a complement, to a public vote on a matter of public policy such as electoral reform; rather than putting the matter directly to the public, a random group of citizens would be selected and convened to give their opinion.

Further, over the course of the referendum, other important questions were raised about the process itself: what's a sufficient voter turnout to inform a policy decision? Shouldn't the ballot include the specific details of the voting system being proposed?

All of these questions serve as an important reminder of why democracy entails much more than showing up at a poll booth to submit a vote. A…

Accountability: getting information about public things...to the public

When it comes to democracy one term that gets floated around often is the notion of accountability. But what does accountability actually mean? What does it look like?

Further, in the context of government bodies, elected representatives, and the myriad different organizations that provide civil services in our communities, how does accountability happen? And what's required for a community institution to be able to say it is accountable?

The answer is different, for different institutions. For example, we often focus on the accountability of elected officials and government representatives. But what about Crown corporations, or state companies? In Canada, Crown corporations are publicly held entities that provide a public service, but that are not directly managed or overseen by any elected official. The first federal Crown Corporation was the Canadian National Railway, established in 1922, and there are now a diverse array of publicly owned autonomous public entities in diverse s…

The Problem with Voting

Voting at the polls is a cornerstone of democracy today. When we think about, and understand, democratic participation, we imagine casting some kind of vote for some kind of person or issue in some kind of election.

Unfortunately, a focus on voting narrows the possibilities for democratic participation, which is really all about shared decision-making. Don't get me wrong, voting is important. It took us about 2500 years to set up voting as an actual mechanism to make decisions, and even now it's certainly not a widespread practice. The right to vote is a contested aspiration in many corners of the world, and we should support the right of each and every person to an equal voice in community decision making.

However, an exclusive focus on voting carries a significant risk. The concept of democracy is an aspiration; an aspiration to share decision-making, and to enable each other, as equals, to participate in decision-making. Decision-making cannot always be achieved with a sin…