Monday, July 14, 2008

Is Deliberation Fatally Flawed?

Been reading Cass Sunstein's Infotopia and have been thinking about his argument in chapter 2 where he contends that deliberation as a means of decision-making is deeply flawed.

Philosophers have long held deliberation up as the key to finding truth. The Socratic method, the elenchus, is the template for virtually all philosophical methodology and is based on the idea that two people working off of each other will guide them both to truth. Aristotle, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, and post-Enlightenment figures like Popper and Habermas have placed open and fair competition in the marketplace of ideas as the cornerstone of the edifice of reason, as that which gives us the surest path to knowledge.

The idea is that when the arguments compete, the stronger will survive and unpopular views that turn out to be right will have a fair chance against widely held views that turn out to be wrong. Deliberation allows us to combine our perspectives and ideas into bigger grander visions and to test them stringently against competitors and counter-arguments.

Sunstein argues that when we look at the results of social psychology, the real story is completely different. Deliberation in some cases can be wonderful, but by in large deliberation fails for three reasons:

(1) As Alfred Adler said, "To be a human being means to feel oneself inferior," we are insecure beings and when we hear others, especially a majority of others disagreeing with us, we will tend to silence ourselves thinking that we were wrong or that our view is flawed. As such, minority views are often self-censored out of personal doubt and therefore not pressed allowing flawed majority views to win.

(2) Social norms are enforced. Those with minority views, even if they do not doubt them in the face of competing views, will often self-censor out of fear of reprecussions. Being different has its costs and this often impoverished the deliberative process making it ineffective.

(3) Even if someone has a good argument to support a view, there is not often sufficient motivation to partake in deliberation. You know you are right, why bother fighting the good fight, especially if you have an advantage of some sort by having a truth others don't?

The effect of these factors is that when you look at people's beliefs after a deliberative process, more often than not, what you get is not consensus around a universally acknowledged superior view, but increased polarization. Studies show that those who came in with a liberal leaning will leave with an even more liberal viewpoint and a stronger degree of certainty in it. Similarly, those who were predisposed to a conservative view will have a more hardcore right-wing position with a greater confidence in it. For this reason, he contends that the philosophers' dream of deliberation as a golden road is wrong.

I've been thinking about this a lot. Does it make sense to teach critical thinking as a philosophy class and not couple it with a social psych class?

But more interestingly (at least to me), there seems to be an important disconnect between Sunstein's argument and that of the champions of deliberation. The Enlightenment thinkers pit argument against argument in some sort of metaphorical Darwinian ecosystem. It is the view that wins or loses. But what Sunstein considers is not the abstract argument, but people's own views. The difference is like comparing Plato's idealism in which ideas have an independent existence of their own to Berkeley's idealism in which ideas require a mind to think them. Sunstein reduces the entire process to people's beliefs whereas the classical and Enlightenment views holds that truth is something other than belief.

The question, of course, is what. Sunstein gives us actual, operational, measurable variables. We can ask people what they believe and how much confiedence they have in it. If this is all we have to play with, then perhaps Sunstein is right. But is there more? If so, what?

We can talk about consensus belief. We do this in terms of "the scientific community" all the time. There is a wonderful passage in Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac where he makes the same sort of argument with respect to increasing sphere of moral considerability wherein more and more people became people, animal abuse became seen as morally problematic, and ultimately he argues we will have to consider the land itself in making moral decisions. Here we are talking not about individual beliefs but group beliefs. Could this move restore a long-view faith in the ability of deliberation?

Or do we need some sort of extra-personal status concerning propositions? Martin Luther King, Jr. famously quoted Stephen Oates in saying "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." This notion requires a metaphysical standpoint, something the Reverend King would not have been bothered by, but surely we don't need a god to have deliberation work as we hope.

Social psychology may have shown us that deliberation is not effective in the short run in terms of making individuals better decision-makers, but what would have to be true to make it effective in the long-run? Do the local failings of deliberation make it a globally flawed process?