Josh Cohen on Deliberation and Power

by Henry on March 19, 2009

I liked this discussion of the relationship between deliberation and power from a forthcoming piece by Josh Cohen1.

the importance of background differences in power is not a criticism of the deliberative ideal per se, but a concern about its application. Deliberative democracy is a normative model of collective decision-making, not a universal political strategy. And commitment to the normative ideal does not require commitment to the belief that collective decision-making through mutual reason-giving is always possible. So it may indeed be the case that some rough background balance of power is required before parties will listen to reason. But observing that does not importantly lessen the attraction of the deliberative ideal; it simply states a condition of its reasonable pursuit.


Thus, in Habermas’ account of the ideal speech situation, or my own account of an ideal deliberative procedure, inequalities in power are stipulated away for the sake of presenting an idealized model of deliberation. These idealizations are intended to characterize the nature of reasoned collective decision-making and in turn to provide models for actual arrangements of collective decision-making. But actual arrangements must provide some basis for confidence that joint reasoning will actually prevail in shaping the exercise of collective power, and gross inequalities of power surely undermine any such confidence. So discussion that expresses the deliberative ideal must, for example, operate against a background of free expression and association, thus providing minimal conditions for the availability of relevant information. Equally, if parties are not somehow constrained to accept the consequences of deliberation, if “exit options” are not foreclosed, it seems implausible that they will accept the discipline of joint reasoning, and in particular to reasoning informed by the democratic idea of persons as equals. Firms retaining a more or less costless ability to move investment elsewhere are not, for example, likely to accept the discipline of reasoned deliberation about labor standards, with workers as their deliberative equals.

Saying “if you don’t listen to reason, you will pay a high price” is not a joke: it is sometimes necessary to resort to destabilization, threats, and open conflict as answers to people who won’t reason in good faith. A sucker may be born every minute, but deliberative democracy is not a recommendation that we all join the club. But if the willingness to reason does depend on the background distribution of power, doesn’t that defeat the point of deliberative democracy by reducing deliberation to bargaining under a balance of power? Not at all. Once people do listen to reason, the results may not simply reflect the balance of power that defeated their previous imperviousness, but their attentiveness to reasons that can be shared. If I need to drink some espresso to concentrate hard enough to prove a theorem, it does not reduce theorem-proving to a caffeine high. So similarly, paying attention to power and threats to exercise it doesn’t reduce deliberation to bargaining. To suppose otherwise is like thinking that if you need to trust your math teacher in order to learn how to do a proof then there is nothing more to proof than trust. It confuses conditions that make an activity possible with that activity itself.

This does a very nice job, I think, in clearing away some conceptual brush, and emphasizing how deliberation shouldn’t be a substitute for radical transformation of power relations, but instead a way of building on it. Some of the existing literature on deliberation (e.g. the kinds of deliberative polling advocated by Ackerman and Fishkin) do seem to me to be naive about power relations, in that they assume that the existence of a deliberative consensus on issues will, in and of itself, have potent political consequences (this might sometimes be true, but only, I suspect, under relatively stringent political conditions). Cohen’s argument seems to me to be considerably more realistic (while I am probably more skeptical than he is about what deliberation can accomplish, even under these conditions, the case he advances is a much stronger one for its attention to the consequences of power asymmetries).

1 Joshua Cohen, “Reflections on Deliberative Democracy,” in Thomas Christiano and John Christman, eds., Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009).

{ 6 comments }

1

Sebastian 03.19.09 at 4:29 pm

“Thus, in Habermas’ account of the ideal speech situation, or my own account of an ideal deliberative procedure, inequalities in power are stipulated away for the sake of presenting an idealized model of deliberation.”

Inequalities in power are stipulated away, but I’m not totally convinced that it is for the sake of presenting an idealized model of deliberation. It is because if you want to start tinkering with the procedural methods based on inequalities in power, you are going to have to pre-decide who is right in the argument. You can’t just tilt the scales against those with more power, you have to only do it (or at least largely do it) when they have more power AND are wrong on the merits. But to decide who is right on the merits, you need to engage in a reasoned deliberation without weighting procedures by power level.

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Matt 03.19.09 at 5:02 pm

Very interesting. I’m looking forward to this volume quite a bit- the pieces I’ve read from it so far (Jon Mandle’s on cosmopolitanism and Samuel Freeman’s on constructivism in relation to the Rawls/Cohen debates) are excellent. It looks like it will be very good. Josh Cohen’s argument here seems closely tied to the Rawlsian “strains of commitment” argument- one of Rawls’s more misunderstood arguments, I think. I’m not sure if he (Cohen) draws the connection explicitly or not, though.

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Henry 03.19.09 at 5:21 pm

Sebastian – Josh would disagree strongly with you on this (and I think that I would agree with him here, or at the least I am not getting your argument as to why you have to pre-decide who is right).

4

geo 03.19.09 at 5:23 pm

Sebastian: It is because if you want to start tinkering with the procedural methods based on inequalities in power, you are going to have to pre-decide who is right in the argument.

Not sure I follow this. You might simply be willing to run a greater risk of arriving at the wrong answer for the sake of encouraging those who normally haven’t the confidence to speak.

And there’s another objection: in matters of policy, “right” or “wrong” often don’t apply in any useful sense. Rather, it’s a matter of accommodating preferences. A very significant example: deciding who should bear what kind and degree of various financial, environmental, occupational, or health-related risks.

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Sebastian 03.19.09 at 5:35 pm

I can’t read the whole paper, so please understand that I just have the quotes here.

Maybe I don’t understand his goal. Is he attempting to merely describe power relationships in the context of deliberation? That can certainly be done.

If he is saying merely that some sort of commitment to the process is necessary, he is probably right in a way that Habermas et al. would certainly understand.

But it sounds (and again this may be overreading) that he might want to do somthing about it. Forclose exit possibilities for example (make politicians put their children in inner city public schools perhaps?)

At the point where you try to reweight the power dynamics, you have to be pretty sure that you are correct, which means that you aren’t likely to be actually engaging in the deliberative process. At that point you are engaging in an exercise of power, not an exercise of deliberation. In order to be sure you are right enough to do that, you either need to have a revelation from some sort of ideology or you need to have already engaged in the deliberative process.

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Tracy W 03.20.09 at 9:30 am

Saying “if you don’t listen to reason, you will pay a high price” is not a joke: it is sometimes necessary to resort to destabilization, threats, and open conflict as answers to people who won’t reason in good faith.

Couldn’t this have been written by any tyrant in history? Well, allowing for translations into modern English.

His analogy with mathematics is wrong. Mathematics is independent of our motivations in a way that political decision-making is not. Politicial decision-making is based on beliefs about the consequences of policies, mathematics is based on proofs. If you believe that someone will hurt you if they decide that you aren’t reasoning in good faith your decision-making process is going to be biased in a way that caffine can’t bias mathematical reasoning. Decisions about, say, how many resources to spend on health care versus the environment are fundamentally different to mathematical logic.

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