Democracy, deliberation and disagreement
The Rousseauian perspective that we have been exploring and
modifying stresses agreement with respect to the basic principles
which motivate the adoption of a democratic constitution and further agreement concerning the application of those principles in
the processes of decision-making. Rousseau assumes that the
foundational principles will yield a right answer to questions
brought forward for decision and he believes that a majority of
right-thinking citizens will register that right answer as required
by the general will. In what follows, I want to examine two criticisms of these assumptions. The first concerns the space for disagreement; the second concerns the mechanisms of citizens’
Rousseau’s citizens recognize prudential goods, and recognize,
too, that fellow citizens have similar prudential concerns which
deserve their respect. They value liberty in the domains of autonomy, civil liberty and political participation. They value equality
of political power, rough material equality and the equality
enshrined in the rule of law. For Rousseau, this characterizes a
powerful measure of agreement. I propose that universal acceptance of these values is just as readily seen as a recipe for
DEMOCRACY widespread disagreement. Disagreement is possible in the following circumstances, amongst others:
(1) A policy decision may affect the self-interest of different citizens in different fashions when nothing else is at stake. The
council wishes to build a road bypassing a village. Farmer A to
the north of the village would like the road to cross his land so
that he can sell up for a favourable price. Farmer B, having land
to the south of the village, disagrees. He would like to sell up,
too, looking forward to retirement on the basis of his compensation payments. Farmers C and D, to the north and south of
the village respectively, disagree with their immediate neighbours because they do not want the land they farm to be
covered in asphalt.
(2) A policy dispute may concern the general welfare. Citizens who
may or may not have a personal stake in the outcome may differ
in their judgement of the consequences of alternative policies
in point of welfare. Should the country protect a nascent
industry by the application of favourable tariffs? Two economists disagree as to the likely effects – one predicting retaliation which will cause irrecoverable damage to export
industries, the other believing that long-term gains will
outweigh the imminent costs.
(3) Citizens may broadly agree on specific elements of the value
conspectus but disagree on the contents or applicability of the
constituent principles. They may agree on the importance of
civil liberty, yet disagree over whether e.g. the right to private
property is an element of it. (Indeed this is one of the great
problems of political philosophy since many believe, following
Hegel, that freedom is the most plausible justification of private property. Philosophers who discuss distributive justice
without examining the basis of private property sweep it under
the carpet. Rawls is a conspicuous example.) Or they may agree
on the importance of a particular liberty, but disagree on the
application of the principle. Accepting the importance of freedom of expression, citizens may disagree as to whether this
licenses the sale of pornography. Accepting the importance of
religious freedom, citizens may differ as to the legitimacy of
forced marriages or ritual animal slaughter.
(4) Elements of the complex value of liberty may conflict with
each other. Citizens who value liberty in each of these forms
may disagree when conflicts between different aspects of liberty arise. That measure of autonomy which is gained through
mechanisms of social self-control may infringe civil liberties.
Paternalist policies may be an example of this. Prudent but
weak-willed citizens will endorse them. Strong-willed libertarians will dissent. Civil liberties, as we have seen, may be compromised by majority decisions taken by citizens exercising
rights of political participation. Citizens may disagree on the
best policy to adopt in these circumstances, whether to accept
the cost in liberty or restrain the powers of the majority.
(5) Conflicts between liberty in its different forms and commitment to the different types of equality will be endemic, particularly if private property is included amongst the list of civil
liberties. Liberty to dispose of earned income may not be the
noblest cause, as we saw when discussing Nozick’s views on
taxation, but it should carry some weight in our deliberations.
Policies which limit contributions to political parties and, in
compensation, direct government funds to party organizations,
doubly constrain liberty in the pursuit of equality of political
power.31 Policies which enforce the disclosure of sources of
party funding (common democratic wisdom in the United
States, but a novelty in the United Kingdom) are deemed to
offend privacy in the service of political equality according to
spokesmen for the Conservative Party. Since each of the conflicting views in these debates is not obviously ridiculous, we
can expect citizens who subscribe to the conflicting values to
take different views on how the conflict is to be resolved.
(6) The values of liberty and equality will conflict (again,
endemically) with both prudential values and general welfare.
Readers are invited to give their own examples.
All of the disagreements we have considered so far have been
based on conflicts within, because between the elements of, Rousseau’s value consensus. They could be solved if there was an
explicit ordering of these values, but I see none, other than the
submergence of prudential (particular) interests under the direction of the general will, nor any prospect of a systematic ordering
in the face of unflinching and conscientious contrary intuitions.
Fundamental disagreement is the fate of even those who agree to a
prospectus of values which is promoted as a list of independently
justifiable principles. No doubt hard philosophical work can
reduce the possibilities of conflict – and we have tried to advance
this prospect in our discussions of liberty and distributive justice –
but the likelihood of a plausible and practically implementable
synthesis of all good things should not be judged promising, as
Isaiah Berlin insisted.32
The potential for disagreement concerning policies which
demand legislation, or, by default, endorsement of the status quo,
is magnified as soon as we consider controversies which do not
engage the political values we have canvassed thus far. As philosophers, we know that disagreement over the legitimacy of abortion is likely to be premissed (in part) on such values as the sanctity
(or otherwise) of human life or moral personhood as embodied in
the foetus, that disagreement over capital punishment reflects a
contested valuation of the evil of the irremedial punishment of
the innocent, that disagreement over voluntary euthanasia is
based on differing judgements over the locus and subjects of
rational consent. We cannot force debates about these issues,
which demand political resolution by way of a judgement as to
the permissibilty or illegality of alternative actions, into the
strait-jacket of the general will where that has the content that
Rousseau prescribed.
Disagreement, we have found, is endemic even amongst those
who agree on political principles. It is deepened when we acknowledge a range of moral problems which cannot be isolated from the
political process, since partisans of the moral views in conflict
demand that the regime either permit or forbid the actions in dispute. Disagreement is judged to be even more pervasive when the
moral conflict which grounds political disagreement is the product
of religious or cultural differences.
We have been contesting Rousseau’s assumption that political
differences can be resolved by the application of agreed political
principles and have noticed that disagreement in respect of fundamental moral principles cannot be bracketed from the political
process. If we look beyond the staples of philosophical controversy
to the reality of life in the modern nation-state, we see that the
position, in point of disagreement, is even worse. We find that the
modern nation-state is a multicultural phenomenon, either
because a political settlement has integrated distinctive historical
cultures into a contingent political unity, or because patterns of
immigration have introduced alien cultures into a previously
monocultural state, or, most likely, because over time both of these
processes have been working together. Where, as in the United
States, the dominant culture is that of the immigrants, we find
competing metacultural ideologies, commending on the one hand,
the ‘melting-pot’, an integrative process whereby prior allegiances
are dissolved through common acceptance of a novel social
settlement, on the other hand, multiculturalism, wherein the
distinctive constituent cultures are to be preserved as valuable
contributory elements of a dynamically innovative way of life.
Whatever the historical story, whatever the metacultural establishment or controversy, we can expect that the sociological reality
will reveal moral differences which are ineliminable. If, as is
usual, they are based on differences of religious belief which
cultural ancestry imports, the moral disagreements will often be
aggressively divisive.

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