A Quick Introduction to “Deliberative Democracy” and Democratic Education


Copyright © 2023 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] 


Of course, Gutmann wants to focus our attention on educating citizens so they can sustain a deliberative democracy over time—thus she is especially concerned with educating future citizens:


if democracy includes the right of citizens to deliberate collectively about how to educate future citizens…the enforcement of any moral ideal of education, whether it be liberal or conservative, without consent of citizens subverts democracy.[3] 


A democratic theory of education recognizes the importance of empowering citizens to make educational policy and also of constraining their choices among policies in accordance with these principles—of nonrepression and nondiscicimination—that preserve the intellectual and social foundation of democratic deliberations.  A society that empowers citizens to make educational policy, moderated by these two principled constraints, realizes the democratic ideal of education.[4] 


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.[5] 


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.[6] 


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.[7] 


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.[8] 


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.[9] 


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 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?  This set of questions needs to be considered both in thinking of “normal political situations” and in considering the education of children.  Here, one suspects “moral disagreements” are going to be much harder to resolve with “toleration,” let alone mutual respect. 


Many parents want to be personally and directly involved in their children’s education in a manner which disinclines them to tolerate or accept democratically-determined educational policies.  This explains the prevalence of religious schools, private schools, and charter schools in America today.  Indeed, it is perhaps difficult to imagine that without the possibility of sending children to such alternative schools public schools currently could to be models of institutions whose curricula and policies could be set by a deliberative and democratic process!  Here, I think we come to understand something John Dewey said in his Democracy and Education [1916]:


a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.  The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action to that of other, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, is equivalent to the breaking down or those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity.[10]


However one answers these above questions as to whether deliberative democracy could be possible if a large proportion of the citizens, or a simple majority, or a significant majority exemplified the necessary traits, it is clear that the more a democratic society ignores “the importance of publicly supported education that develops the capacity to deliberate among all children as future free and equal citizens”[11], the more democracy is imperiled.  Here Martha Nussbaum’s “Political Soul-Making and the Imminent Demise of Liberal Education” may be relevant.  In this article she maintains that


one thing that a society based upon equal respect needs to do most urgently is to teach young citizens that their society contains may religions and ethnicities, and that we are all committed to the fair treatment of all of them….Understanding this commitment is an essential prerequisite for citizenship….[12] 


She criticizes Kwame Appiah’s discussion of Mozert v. Hawkins “…the case in which a Baptist mother requested an exemption for her children from a series of primary school readers that presented children with pictures of different American ways of life, appealing to them to imagine these different lives.”[13]  As Nussbaum sees it, Appiah pays too little attention to society’s good and allows too much freedom for autonomy.  She argues this most strongly in the case of racism:


the constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of race.  So our schools should not simply teach that we have antidiscrimination laws; it should actively bring up small children as nonracist citizens, in the variety of ways that is familiar to us in daily life, since this is one thing our schools have learned to do pretty well: by not racializing the classroom; by strong opprobrium directed at racist behavior and speech in the classroom; by good teaching about the history of race, teaching that is in no way neutral, but which inculcates anger at racial injustice and hope for a world of racial harmony.  Small children will, as they so often do, put on plays in which some of the pretend to be people forced to sit in the back of the bus.  They will see how they feel when they sit back there, and those emotions will be a topic of classroom discussion….[14] 


…students are going to become citizens in a pluralistic society, so they had better learn about the existence of other ways of life, and they had better be encouraged to imagine those other ways  The mother’s claim that the truths contained in the Bible were all her children needed to know is just not reasonable from the point of view of citizenship and….If she does not accept the constitutional principles, then we do not have to give her equal treatment I framing the curriculum, any more than we need to give the racist equal treatment.[15] 


Clearly, Nussbaum believes in “publicly supported education that develops the capacity to deliberate among all children as future free and equal citizens.”  I believe she would not characterize such learning as “indoctrination” however.  Instead, the education future citizens receive should democratically foster values of reciprocity, political equality, and mutual respect.  


Nussbaum contends that while many ascribe high importance to the role of colleges and universities in providing “civic education” for democracy: 


…it was always my view that these values need to be cultivated appropriately by primary and secondary education.  Colleges will not get very far, unless students have begum much earlier. 

  Three values, I urge are particularly crucially to citizenship in such a nation….first is the capacity for Socratic self-criticism and critical thought about one’s own traditions.[16] 


Secondly she discusses the ability “to see oneself as a member of a heterogeneous nation,” and finally she emphasizes the importance of “narrative imagination.”  Nussbaum contends, however, that these three abilities are being taught less and less in primary and secondary schools and this has fearful consequences for democracy.  Her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education maintains


we do not fully respect the humanity of our fellow citizens—or cultivate our own—if we do not wish to learn about them, to understand their history, to appreciate the differences between their lives and ours.  We must therefore construct a liberal education that is not only Socratic, emphasizing critical thought an respectful argument, but also pluralistic, imparting an understanding of the histories and contributions of groups with whom we interact both within our nation and in the increasingly international sphere of business and politics.[17] 


In a section of her Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice titled “Patriotism in the Schools: Content and Pedagogy” Nussbaum, discusses the development of democratic citizens (though the whole chapter is needed to provide a fuller picture).[18] 


Both these books, like much of what I am most familiar with, focuses attention of the post-secondary context for civic education.  Throughout the past 30 years individual states (and groups of states) have developed detailed “Core Standards” and “benchmarks” for their primary and secondary schools, and have devised methods to test how well instruction is meeting these standards.  States, school districts, and educational organizations and associations, have developed curricular resources linked to these standards.  These often result in comparative grades being given to individual schools or districts. 


To gain more information regarding civic education in the primary and secondary context examination of the following resources provides a helpful first step (here I focus on the context in Maine, but each State’s Department of Education surely has such WebPages): 


Here is the overview of Maine’s “Core Standards” and “benchmarks” for the Civics and Government Strand of its Social Studies Standards, and here are the 2019 Learning Results by Grade Level for his strand. 


While there was an intention to develop the highest national curricular standards for the core educational curricula, there have been considerable changes to many of the standards, benchmarks, and tests over the years.  Moreover there have been some negative implications of these initiatives and changes.  So I also recommend Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s The Challenges Facing Civic Education” from the Spring 2013 edition of Daedalus which discusses the situation in  “civic education:”




This essay explores the value and state of civics education in the United States and identifies five challenges facing those seeking to improve its quality and accessibility: 1) ensuring that the quality of civics education is high is not a state or federal priority; 2) social studies textbooks do not facilitate the development of needed civic skills; 3) upper-income students are better served by our schools than are lower-income individuals; 4) cutbacks in funds available to schools make implementing changes in civics education difficult; and 5) reform efforts are complicated by the fact that civics education has become a pawn in a polarized debate among partisans. 


Jamieson notes that


as the states have revised their standards over the years, benchmarks have proliferated to the point that even the most skilled teacher would have difficulty meeting them within the available class time.  In short, rather than improving the state of civic education, the standards movement may in some ways have undercut it.  As the Guardian of Democracy report notes, “in social studies standards revisions…most states have added to the amount of material to be covered, rather than developing fewer and clearer standards that encourage an understanding of the vital importance of citizen engagement in our democracy.”[19] 


For all the concerns and criticisms of our nation’s efforts to educate future democratic citizens, however, I see significant progress throughout our life time.  I believe there has been a significant increase the capacity of our younger generations to deliberate as future free and equal citizens.  Indeed it seems to me that the very strong recent political backlash against this development is a testament that something was working so well that it motivated the less democratically-inclined citizens to action.  As Jamieson notes at the beginning of her essay, Dewey contended that “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”  The fuller passage from this oft repeated aphorism is drawn is:


only through education can equality of opportunity be anything more than a phrase.  Accidental inequalities of birth, wealth, and learning are always tending to restrict the opportunities of some as compared with those of others.  Only free and continued education can counteract those forces which are always at work to restore, in however changed a form, feudal oligarchy.  Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.  Moreover, it is only education which can guarantee widespread community of interest and aim.  In a complex society, ability to understand and sympathize with the operations and lot of others is a condition of common purpose which only education can procure.[20] 


Though this was written a hundred years ago, and the challenges to democracy were different from (yet similar to) those we now face, I share Dewey’s optimism, but also his belief that we must all become “educational midwifes.” 

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] Ibid., p. 14. 

[4] Ibid. 

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

[6] Ibid., pp. 79-80.  Emphasis [bold] added to the passage. 

[7] Ibid., p. 25.  Emphasis [bold] added to the passage. 

[8] Ibid., p. 26.  Emphasis [bold and italics] added the passage. 

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

[10] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (NY: Macmillan, 1916).  It is revised and reprinted in John Dewey: The Middle Works, v. 9.  A selection appear in John Dewey: The Political Writings, ed. Debra Morris and Ian Shapiro (Indianapolis: Hackett, 193) and this passage is found there on p. 110-111.  Emphasis (bold) added to the passage. 

[11] Amy Gutmann, Democratic Education op. cit, p. xii—part of the second citation at the beginning of this piece.  Selective emphasis [bold] has been added to the passage. 

[12] Martha Nussbaum, “Political Soul-Making and the Imminent Demise of Liberal Education,” Journal of Social Philosophy v. 37 (2006), pp. 301-313, p. 307. 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Ibid., p. 306.  Emphasis [bold] added to the passage. 

[15] Ibid., p. 308. 

[16] Ibid., p. 309. 

[17] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard UP., 1997), 295. 

[18] Cf., Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge: Harvard UP., 2013), pp. 204-256. 

[19] Jamieson cites Jonathan Gould, ed., Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools (Philadelphia: The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2011), http://civicmission.s3.amazonaws.com/118/f0/5/171/1/Guardian-of-Democracy-report.pdf. pp. 29-30.  Emphasis [bold] was added to the citation. 

[20] John Dewey, “The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy” first published in Manual Training and Vocational Education v. 17 (1916).  Reprinted in John Dewey: The Political Writings, eds. Debra Morris and Ian Shapiro, op. cit., pp. 121-124, p. 122. 


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