A Quick Introduction to “Deliberative Democracy”


Copyright © 2022 Bruce W. Hauptli


In a pluralistic society where moral disagreements are commonplace the demands faced by democratically-inclined citizens are incredibly difficult.  In their Democracy and Disagreement: Why Moral Conflict Cannot Be Avoided In Politics, and What Should Be Done About It Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson maintain that


there are better and worse ways of living with moral disagreements, and among the better is political democracy.  Democracy seems a natural and reasonable way since it is a conception of government that accords equal respect to the moral claims of each citizen.  If we have to disagree morally about public policy, it is better to do so in a democracy that as far as possible respects the moral status of each of us.[1] 


As Gutmann says in her Democratic Education:


…citizens and their accountable representatives owe one another justifications for the laws that collectively bind them.  A democracy is deliberative to the extent that citizens and their accountable representatives offer one another morally defensible reasons for mutually binding laws in an ongoing process of mutual justification.  To the extent that a democracy is not deliberative, it treats people as objects of legislation, as passive subjects to be ruled, rather than as citizens who take part in governance by accepting or rejecting the reasons they and their accountable representatives offer for the laws and policies that mutually bind them. 

  Deliberative democracy underscores the importance of publicly supported education that develops the capacity to deliberate among all children as future free and equal citizens.  The most justifiable way of making mutually binding decisions in a representative democracy—including decisions not to deliberate about some matters—is by deliberative decision making, where the decision makers are accountable to the people who are most affected by their decisions.[2] 


As Gutmann and Thompson see it,


citizens who reason reciprocally can recognize that a position is worthy of moral respect even when they think it morally wrong.  They can believe that a moderate pro-life position on abortion, for example is morally respectable even though they think it morally mistaken.[3] 


For them making deliberative democracy work requires that each citizen must treat every other citizen reciprocally—that is as a political equal worthy of respect.  When this attitude is present each “side” in a disagreement can work deliberatively to address, and potentially resolve the issue.  Even where this is not successful, it can yield understanding. 


the principles of accommodation are based on a value that lies at the core of reciprocity and deliberation in a democracy—mutual respect.  It is what makes possible cooperation on fair terms.  Like toleration, mutual respect is a form of agreeing to disagree.  But mutual respect demands more than toleration.  It requires a favorable attitude toward, and constructive interaction with, the persons with whom one disagrees.  It consists in an excellence of character that permits a democracy to flourish in the face of fundamental moral disagreement.  This is a distinctively deliberative kind of character.  It is the character of individuals who are morally committed, self-reflective about their commitments, discerning of the differences between respectable and merely tolerable differences of opinion, and open to the possibility of changing their minds or modifying their positions at some time in the future if they confront unanswerable objections to their present point of view. 

  Mutual respect not only helps sustain a moral community in the face of conflict but also can contribute toward resolving the conflict.[4] 


Note the ‘can’ in the above.  They don’t claim that reasoning reciprocally guarantees understanding (or agreement), instead they claim it can lead to respect!  For them:


the distinctive characteristics of moral argument in politics—most notably reciprocity—support the possibility of resolution.  If citizens publicly appeal to reasons that are shard or could be shared, by their fellow citizens, and if they take into account these same kinds of reasons presented by similarly motivated citizens, then they are already engaged in a process that by its nature aims at a justifiable resolution of disagreement.[5] 


We reach some resolutions, but they are partial and tentative.  The resolutions do not stand outside the process of moral argument prior to it or protected from its provocations.  We do not begin with a common morality, a substantial set of principles or values that we assume we have, and then apply it to decisions and policies.  Nor, for that matter, do we end with such a morality.  Rather, the principles and values with which we live are provisional, formed and continually revised in the process of making and responding to moral claims in public life.[6] 


The perspective of deliberative democracy, then, does not require a consensus on public policy or even on constitutional law.  At its center stands instead an appreciation of principles that set the conditions of political discussion—reciprocity and its companions publicity and accountability.  This shift in focus of what democratic citizens should share is significant, theoretically and practically.  Theoretically, a deliberative perspective expresses as complete a conception of a common good as is possible within a morally pluralistic society.  Recognizing that politics cannot be purged of moral conflict, it seeks a common view of how citizens should publicly deliberate when they fundamentally disagree.  Practically, this perspective encourages the cultivation of a set of civic virtues that can guide citizens through the maelstroms of moral controversy in a pluralistic society.  It can help citizens resolve moral conflict with fairness and, when they cannot resolve it, enables them to work together in a mode of mutual respect.  This is the counsel of the principles of accommodation, and ultimately the sense of reciprocity.[7] 


Gutmann and Thompson develop a theory which requires citizens to reason respectfully with one another regarding political disagreements on moral and religious topics with respect and toleration hopefully producing understanding and some tentative agreements on laws!  They also want to develop a theory which can be applied to our current social situation and, so, we need to consider whether their proposed version of democracy could bridge the gap between theory and reality which we all recognize.  Above, in introducing their theory I noted that deliberative democracy requires that each citizen treat every other citizen reciprocally—that is as a political equal worthy of respect.  While this is clearly a theoretical good, is it a practicable requirement?  Could the good deliberative democracy promises arise if a large proportion of the citizens exemplified the trait?  Could a "simple majority" be sufficient?  Suppose a significant majority had the recommended character trait, might that produce a better democracy that we have at present? 



Notes: [click on the note number to return to the text for a given note]

[1] Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement: Why Moral Conflict Cannot Be Avoided In Politics, and What Should Be Done About It (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996), p. 26.  I used this work in a Course I taught on Political Compromise and Democracy for Midcoast Senior College in the Spring of 2019 and there are more extensive supplements available on that course's webpage. 

[2] Amy Gutmann, Democratic Education (Princeton: Princeton U.P., [1987] 1999), p. xii.  Emphasis (bold) added to passage at several points. 

[3] Gutmann and Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement, op. cit., pp. 2-3. 

[4] Ibid., pp. 79-80. 

[5] Ibid., p. 25. 

[6] Ibid., p. 26.  Emphasis [italics] added the passage. 

[7] Ibid., pp. 93-94.  Emphasis [bold] added the passage. 

Use the Top Left Arrow to navigate to your previous link

Bruce Hauptli Home Page

Send me comments on this hauptli@fiu.edu 

Last revised: 03/29/22