Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2007
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 20A

Democracy & Disobedience

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber


Deliberating Together About the Public Good

Exporting Democracy 2007

"Democracy requires deliberation for at least three reasons. First, discussing public issues helps citizens to form opinions-on matters ranging from HMO regulation to global warming-where they might otherwise have none. Second, deliberation offers democratic leaders better insight into public concerns than elections do. Did voters choose a representative because of her views on Social Security, her family life, or the weaknesses of her opponent? To understand the meaning of votes, leaders must listen to public discourse. Third, public deliberation offers a way-perhaps the only acceptable way-of getting people to justify their views so that we can sort out the better from the worse. If you say, "I demand lower taxes because I don't like paying them," you will persuade no one; but if you argue that you deserve more money in your pocket for some specific reason, then you may build public support for a position. Whether your position is true or sound can then be tested by other participants in the debate. In short, deliberation encourages people to provide general justifications or reasons, not just private preferences. And democracy works best when the public debates the public good." - - - Peter Levine.

As is evident from the selection above Peter Levine makes a case for making the democracy more deliberative. He makes the case in "Getting Practical about Deliberative Democracy", published in the quarterly newsletter from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy in the fall of 1999. He acknowledges, however, that "the United States will never become a perpetual town meeting in which citizens devote most of their energy to debating the public good. Nor can we divide our nation (or any of the 50 states) into small, self-governing units that would function like idealized versions of the Greek polis."

He also notes that "talk of a 'deliberative democracy' often implies a lofty, informed, serious, fair, productive, and ceaseless conversation among all citizens-in other words, a fantasy."

"In Rousseau's ideal society, for instance, "every man flies to the assemblies.... " [And] other enthusiasts have envisioned toga-clad sages deliberating in a marble amphitheater or earnest Pilgrims at a town meeting. These [expectations and hopes] are certainly utopian when applied to a nation of [303] million busy people. They are also somewhat frightening, because they assume that everyone should be of one mind - if not about issues, then at least about the proper methods and styles of debate. But people have (and ought to have) various and conflicting interests and customs. Besides, there are other things to do in life than to deliberate about public affairs."

Still Levine believes that "we need practical, institutional reforms that will raise the quality and quantity of political talk in a society like ours. If the public became more engaged, our government would be forced to become more accountable and principled. In turn, better government would increase trust and confidence and make people more likely to participate in public life. We have certainly seen the opposite: a vicious cycle of official misconduct and public withdrawal, each reinforcing the other.

The paper is intended to provoke some thought about whether we should begin "a modest spiral upward" towards making the democracy more deliberative. What are several good reasons for or against doing so? And what are some of the chief benefits of even modest success as well as some of the main obstacles that might stand in the way of that success? The basic question is simple and straight-forward; the answer (perhaps) less so:

"Make a case for or against this modest proposal for making the democracy more deliberative, think of several strong objections to your argument and respond to them?"

The basic question is a simple one. Are you for or against making the democracy more deliberative? If so, why? If not, why not? If so, how would you respond to critics of deliberative democracy? If not, how would you respond to its proponents? In the course of responding to objections and criticisms, you may wish to give some thought to how you might modify your conception of deliberative democracy to accommodate this or that objection or criticism and ask yourself (subsequently) whether you do or do not support this new modified (revised) form of deliberative democracy.

Obviously, in the course of coming up with an answer to the "simple" question you will need to say a word or two about what deliberative democracy means. Arguments for and against deliberative democracy will make sense and take hold only against a conception of what's "deliberative" about deliberative democracy. Here you will be helped by the positive account put forward in the readings.

"Deliberative Politics" edited by Stepehn Macedo contains essays that "probe the value and limits of deliberative democracy as such." The primary concern of the contributors is not to defend deliberative democracy or to think of it in a sympathetic light, but to examine critically its importance and feasibility. But the positive account given by Gutmann and Thompson is fairly neatly and clearly summarized by Macedo in his "Introduction," see pages 5 - 10, and there is, of course, Gutmann's and Thompson's reply to their critics at the end, see pages 243 - 279.

For a positive account Macedo's five page summary is an excellent place to start as well as with Peter Levine's "Getting Practical About Deliberative Democracy."

But the paper topic is in two parts. And I have begun with the second part.

The first part puts forward a proposal, a proposal to adopt a new public policy and asks you to debate this proposal with one or more of your fellow students, friends and/or relatives in an effort to gain their assent.

Clearly, whatever deliberative democracy may be, it is a process for involving citizens more fully in the making of law and public policy.

Consider the following proposal originally made by John Harris in 1971, but consider it here (now) as something put up for adoption by citizens living together in a democracy.

As John Harris wrote at the time his essay, "The Survival Lottery," was first published:

"Suppose that organ transplant procedures have been perfected; in such circumstances if two dying patients could be saved by organ transplants then, if surgeons have the requisite organs in stock and no other needy patients, but nevertheless allow their patients to die, we would be inclined to say, and be justified in saying, that the patients died because the doctors refused to save them. But if there are no spare organs in stock and none otherwise available, the doctors have no choice, they cannot save their patients and so must let them die. In this [latter] case we should be disinclined to say that the doctors are in any sense the cause of their patients' deaths. But let us suppose that two dying patients Y and Z, are not happy about being left to die. They might argue that it is not strictly true that there are no organs which could be used to save them. Y needs a new heart and Z new lungs. They point out that if just one healthy person were to be killed his organs could be removed and both of them be saved . . . Y and Z . . . insist that if the doctors fail to kill a healthy man and use his organs to save them, then the doctors will be responsible for their deaths."

As a preliminary step on the way to deciding whether or not to adopt the public policy that will be proposed, what do you think?

Do you agree or disagree with Y and Z?

If so, why? If not, why not?

But now consider the following:

" . . . to remove the arbitrariness of permitting doctors to select their donors . . . and the tremendous power [Y and Z's initial demand] would place in doctors' hands [and] to mitigate worries about side-effects . . . Y and Z put forward the following scheme: they propose that everyone be given a sort of lottery number. Whenever doctors have two or more dying patients who could be saved by transplants, and no suitable organs have come to hand through 'natural' deaths, they can ask a central computer to supply a suitable donor. The computer will then pick the number of a suitable donor at random and he will be killed so that the lives of two or more others may be saved."

See the accompanying copy of the original article by John Harris in which Y and Z make their proposal for a survival lottery handed out in class and available here as a PDF FILE: THE SURVIVAL LOTTERY

Imagine this proposal has been put forward for adoption as public policy in your state or nation for debate in the House and the Senate.

What do you think "we" should do?

Should we adopt the proposal?

If not, why not? If so, why?

Debate this proposal with one or more of your fellow students, friends and/or relatives in an effort to gain their assent. The point of engaging others in a dialogue about the public policy proposed by Y and Z is to provide information and experience in miniature, as it were, about the deliberative process itself.

How might it work?

Where is it most likely to break down?

How might some of the qualities and habits of mind that being more deliberative require in practice be cultivated and developed? Do you think American citizens, for example, will ever be able to develop the qualities and habits of mind required of citizens to deliberate more effectively in a deliberative democracy?

In the course of working your way to reaching agreement with others with whom you have begun a dialogue, you may wish to discuss some of the other cases we have talked about in class with them, such as "The Trolley Problem" and the variant of "The Trolley Problem with Bridge and the Trap Door" or "John, the Mad Transplant Doctor" or "The Baby Theresa Case" or "John on a Botany Expedition in the Amazon" - all but one of which involve organ transplantations.

Drawing on the reading, your experience engaged in dialogue with one or more persons in the class, friends and relatives as well as your own considered good judgment, would it be better to decide to adopt Y and Z's proposal by making the decision to adopt it more "deliberative" or would it be better to let the decision be made by the system of democracy currently in place?

In thinking about whether it would benefit us to make the democracy more deliberative in deciding whether to adopt public policies such as the survival lottery proposed by Y and Z, think of the obstacles that might exist or arise in attempting to do so and how these obstacles might best be overcome.

Think, too, about the sorts of objections that have and could be raised to making the democracy more deliberative and depending upon the position you ultimately take, offer a reasoned response to those objections.

So there you have it.


Make a case for or against making the democracy more deliberative in deciding whether to adopt the proposal put forward by John Harris in "The Survival Lottery" as public policy, think of several strong objections to your argument and respond to them.


(Fill in the Blank)
Alien Opinion 2004





[PHIL 20A] [Syllabus] [Handouts] [Home] [Bio] [CV] [PHIL DEPT.] [E-MAIL]

Send comments to: Andreas Teuber
Last Modified: 09/26/07
Instructor's Toolkit
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College