Introduction to Hauptli's Political Compromise and Deliberative Democracy Course Spring 2019

Copyright 2019 Bruce W. Hauptli

Amy Gutmann and Denis Thompson are not interested in developing a theory which has no application in the real world.  Instead they believe they have developed a view which can be applied to resolve our political malaise.  They begin with our society, which they take to be a multicultural democracy which embraces religious freedom and allows for (or tolerates) differing conceptions of the good life. 

  That is, they believe that we must both allow for and provide a mechanism for dealing with moral (and religious) disagreements and conflicts.  They contend we must be able to engender “compromises" between citizens who adhere to differing moral or religious orientations or who have very different conceptions of the good life.  If we are to understand the view they champion, we must start out with a quick and dirty understanding of what moral (or ethical) theories are generally understood to be, and how they differ from (and are similar to) religious orientations and disagreements.  Following this I will offer a quick introduction the core elements of their theory.  Finally I will turn to their own “Introduction.” 

I. A Quick Characterization of Moral/Ethical Theories[1]:

  In his “The Case of the Obliging Stranger,” William Gass draws a “moral” from an imagined case wherein he asks the reader to

imagine I approach a stranger on the street and say to him.  “If you please sir, I desire to perform an experiment with your aid.”  The stranger is obliging, and I lead him away.  In a dark place conveniently by, I strike his head with the broad of an axe and cart him home.  I place him, buttered and trussed, in an ample electric oven.  The thermostat reads 4500 F.  Thereupon I go off to play poker with friends and forget all about the obliging stranger in the stove.  When I return, I realize that I have over-baked my specimen, and the experiment, alas, is ruined. 
Something has been done wrong.  Or something wrong has been done.    Any ethic that does not roundly condemn my action is vicious.  It is interesting that none is vicious for this reason.  It is also interesting that no more convincing refutation of any ethic could be given than by showing that it approved of my baking the obliging stranger.[2] 

  In her The Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum maintains that:  

...the challenge of medicine is always to make connection with people’s deepest desires and needs and their sense of what has importance.  It must deliver to them a life that they will in the end accept as an improvement, or it cannot claim success. 
So much, the medical analogy [prevalent in several ancient philosophies in regard to ethics] claims, is true of ethics.  We do not inquire into the human good by standing on the rim of heaven; and if we did, we would not find the right thing.  Human ways of life, and the hopes, pleasures, and pains that are part of these cannot be left out of the inquiry without making it pointless and incoherent.  We do not in fact look “out there” for ethical truth; it is in and of our human lives.[3] 

  Finally, in her “The Need for More Than Justice,” Annette Baier maintains that:

one cannot regard any version of morality that does not ensure that caring for children gets well done as an adequate “minimal morality,” any more than we could so regard one that left any concern for more distant future generations an optional extra.  A moral theory, it can plausibly be claimed, cannot regard concern for new and future persons as an optional charity left for those with a taste for it.  If the morality the theory endorses is to sustain itself, it must provide for its own continuers, not just take out a loan on a carefully encouraged maternal instinct or on the enthusiasm of a self-selected group of environmentalists who make it their business or hobby to be concerned with what we are doing to mother earth.[4] 

  These three theorists offer distinct brief characterizations of might be called “conditions” which they claim ethical or moral theories must meet.  It is of course open to us, or to others, to question these constraints, and there certainly are other constraints which should be included on the list.  At this point I will not argue for these views, or discuss the arguments offered by these theorists or those who disagree with them.  Rather I hope they can help us begin to understand what leads moral philosophers to develop detailed theories like utilitarianism, virtue ethics, the categorical imperative, etc. 

  In order to get a clearer first approximate answer to the question: “What is moral philosophy (or ethics)?” I recommend Louis Pojman's “What Is Ethics?”[5]  In this short work he draws a distinction between ethics (or morality), on the one hand, and etiquette, law, and religion and on the other.  According to him, each employs evaluative terms and language—words like ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘obligatory’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘evil’, ‘ought’, and ‘should’.[6]  Moreover, each is essentially tied to action, and, indeed, tied to the concept we have of ourselves as agents. 

  By itself the use of evaluative terms alone doesn’t make a statement a moral evaluation—even when the terms are applied to considerations generally within the province of morality.  Consider:

 Abortion is illegal in some places. 

Vigorous sexual activity can be good exercise.[7] 

-In “technical” language, we can say that employing evaluative terms (even in regard to ethical considerations) is not sufficient for ethics.  The distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions may be made in a number of ways.  Necessary conditions may be described as “those which must be there for an event to occur” (thus paying your registration fee is necessary for enrolment), while sufficient conditions are conditions such that the event must occur (thus a direct double shotgun blast to the head is sufficient for death).  Note that conditions may be sufficient without being necessary (as in the example), and that necessary conditions need not be sufficient (as in the example).  An alternate way of drawing the distinction is to say that “p is a necessary condition for q” means “if q is true, then p is true” (symbolically q p), while “p is a sufficient condition for q” means “if p is true, then q is true” (symbolically: p q). 

  In addition to employing evaluative terms, judgments in morals, law, and etiquette[8] provide standards of behavior, and call for certain sanctions where individuals fail to comply with those standards.  Here again, we do not quite get to the full story however.  To get yet clearer as to what differentiates moral from legal evaluations note that the very possibility of civil disobedience suggests that the standards set by morals might best be considered to be over-riding standards—they are generally considered to “cut deeper” than conventional and legal standards (and certainly cut much more deeply than do standards of etiquette).  In short the ethical laws are considered to be “higher" than are civil laws. 

  For an excellent example of a claim that moral concerns override civil laws, review Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail--it is a long piece, but it is well worth the reading.  Note that he is writing from jail.  He is explaining why he broke the law and why it was the right thing to do. 

  If you do review it, note that while it is possible to read what King says as a moral argument for his actions, it is just as clearly intended to be a religious argument (the letter is, after all, written to fellow Christian pastors who criticized King and his followers for breaking the civil laws).  While King is in favor of civil disobedience, it seems clear that his view is also a deeply religious one.  Of course one should suspect that Christian ethicists might not want to separate moral considerations from religious ones! 

  In discussing the relative roles of religion and ethics, at least for the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions, the story of Abraham and Isaac is extremely important.  Generally speaking, religious evaluations, standards, and sanctions ultimately rely upon an appeal to authority,[9] and in ethics (or morality) the evaluations, standards, and sanctions must be grounded in an appeal to reason.[10]  But while philosophers often contend that reason should override authority, one should remember Kierkegaard’s view that religious concerns are “higher” than moral ones—that they are “overriding!”  Of course Kierkegaard is not the only one to maintain this. 

  For the purposes of this course, however, we do not need to decide whether moral concerns override religious ones (or vice-versa).  Broadly speaking, our democracy is characterized by a commitment to religious freedom.  Individuals are free to choose their place along a spectrum which runs from atheism through theism to polytheism, as well as to adopt non-theistic religious orientations, but they are not free to impose their religious beliefs on other citizens.  Of course this is true (in varying degrees) of other democracies, and it is also true that broadly speaking our (and other modern) democracy differs from a core commitment of much of the Western culture's tendency to believe that there is a single, universal, highest good.  The idea of an unique ordering of goods, goals, ends, etc. so that there is to be a uniform, universal, singular answer to the question: “How should we live?" has been a core belief in the Western Culture, but our pluralistic democratic culture is much more clearly prone to accept the idea that just as there are many different cuisines that one may choose from, so there are many different sorts of “good lives;" and that individuals are free to choose the one they wish to live.  Together this “pluralism" and religious freedom make it inevitable that there will be moral and religious disagreements amongst citizens, and this sets the stage for Gutmann and Thompson's concerns and their discussion of deliberative democracy.   

  On August 10 of 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his nephew Peter Carr discussing his educational plans.  In the fourth section of the letter he offers his advice regarding the study of religion.  Please read at least this section of the letter at the above link.  There this Founding Father of our Republic recommends when studying religion (or when considering whether to believe various religious claims) one should not lightly accept (or assign much weight) to claims (or authorities) where doing so requires that one contravene secure dictates of the natural sciences.  Thus in reading the Book of Joshua where one is told that the sun stood still for several hours, he recommends, one should recognize how utterly improbable such a report must be.  We will discuss this in class. 

  Throughout this course, we will further clarify what ethics is, and I will not attempt a “definition” at this point.  Indeed, one of the possibilities we should be open to as we begin our study is that the question itself may be a misleading one.[11]  Consider the question “Have you stopped cheating on exams yet?”  Note that either an affirmative or a negative answer to this question accepts the presumption that you have had a past history of academic dishonesty!  Similarly, the question “What is ethics,” asked in the way it is often asked, carries the presumption that there is some (presumptively limited) determinate set of characteristics which can be offered—some set of necessary and sufficient conditions—characteristics which will help us specify the “essence” of the ethical or moral.  This may be fallacious!  There may be no single, uniform answer to “What is ethics”—because there may be a variety of over-lapping considerations which “shade off” from one to the other as we take up a set of interrelated questions and concerns.  Whether or not there is a simple and single answer to this question, however, at this point we are clearly not ready to offer such an answer. 

II. A Quick Introduction to “Deliberative Democracy:”

In their Democracy and Disagreement: Why Moral Conflict Cannot Be Avoided In Politics, and What Should Be Done About It Gutmann and 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.[12] 

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.[13] 

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.[14] 

For them making 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.[15] 

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.[16] 

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.[17]  

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.[18]   

So, our authors develop a view of deliberative democracy 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!  I began by saying they want do develop a theory which can be applied in our case, but it seems that they could well be further from reality than Plato who recommends that states be ruled by philosophers or Mill who contends that everyone will embrace a political system wherein each will desire the greatest good for the greatest number.  How can they bridge the gap between theory and reality which we all recognize (whether or not we yet fully understand their theory? 

III. Gutmann and Thompson’s “Introduction:” to Their The Spirit of Compromise:

Our authors say: “compromise is difficult, but governing a democracy without compromise is impossible.”[19]  As they see it one of the factors which makes compromise so difficult is the necessity of campaigning (p. 2).  The situation is analogous to the reasons why there are so many books like Getting to Yes[20]—books which attempt to teach the techniques of successful negotiation to those who rely on negotiation for their livelihood. 

  For them the key to compromise involves understanding two differing mindsets:  

the uncompromising mindset (which stands on principle and mistrusts opponents)


the compromising mindset (which favors adapting principles and respecting opponents) (p. 2). 

  While they recognize that both political polarization and money play a role in making compromise difficult, they want to focus attention on these mindsets because they believe this is necessary if we are to successfully address the problem. 

  Our authors discuss three compromises in some detail:

first, on p. 1, the Summer 2011 Sovereign Debt Limit increase, of which “…he best supports could say for it was that its terms were less bad than the consequences of doing nothing.”   

second, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (pp. 5-7) noting: “compromises…never satisfy pure principles.”   

and third, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (pp. 7-9) which was not a bipartisan compromise, but was the result of compromise amongst democrats on the same order of magnitude as was the tax reform bill. 

In each of these cases, compromise was not only difficult, the results were legislation which fell far short of dealing with the underlying problems (p. 9).  As the authors note in “Characteristics of Compromise” (pp. 10-16), political compromises are not developed through consensus, nor are they “integrative agreements” (which develop “win-win” agreements).  Instead:

legislators are much more likely to find themselves confronting conflicts that cannot be resolved without sacrifice on all sides.  If they want to make gains over the status quo, they  will have to give up something of value. 

  In “Mindsets of Compromise: (pp. 16-24) they develop contrasts between the two mindsets

the “compromising mindset” displays “principled prudence” (willingness to adapt one’s principles to the context of the disagreement) and respecting (and valuing) one’s opponents (pp. 16-17)  

while the “uncompromising mindset” manifests “tenacious standing on principle” and distrust of opponents (p. 17). 

 To varying degrees each of the three “successful compromises” relied upon a majority of the participants adopting the “compromising mindset.”  Our authors note that many believe that political polarization is so pervasive that the only solution which may be available is “political domination”—the control of all the levers of government by one of the two dominant parties (pp. 19-20).  They note, however, that the underlying political reality seems to make it difficult to see such dominance as long-lasting. 

  Given this, compromise seems necessary and we need to explore how to make it more possible.  As they see it, one big difference between the case of tax reform and health care was that the former was not a real campaign issue, while the latter was a significant campaign issue in 2008 and 2010 (and continued to be so in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018).  They note that:

21-22 campaigning in an uncompromising style—making unconditional promises and discrediting rivals—plays a moral as well as a practical role in democratic politics.  It enables candidates to communicate where they passionately stand on important issues and to differentiate themselves from their opponents. 

They do not believe a single party is to blame for the problem, but the increasing prevalence of the “permanent campaign,” makes compromise yet more difficult (pp. 23-24). 

They conclude the Chapter with an outline of the rest of the work. 

IV. Some Questions to Consider As We Discuss This Material:  

1. Do “independent” or “third party” candidates offer hope for more compromise? 

2. Does “ranked choice voting” offer hope for more compromise? 

3. Has the “problem” become significantly worse than it was in 2012 when the book was published? 

4. Could a “parliamentary system” (akin to that in The United Kingdom” improve prospects for compromise? 

5. How much of an improvement would it make if the time for campaigning (and raising campaign funds) was significantly restricted? 

6.  Are we capable of the sort of compromise which a “deliberative democracy” hopes for? 

7. Would it be better if citizenship required adherence to a single uniform moral code?   

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

[1] I will use these terms synonymously throughout the course. 

[2] William H. Gass, “The Case of the Obliging Stranger,” The Philosophical Review v. 66 (1957).  Reprinted in Gass’ Fiction and the Figures of Life (N.Y.: Vintage, 1958), pp. 225-241, p. 225. 

[3] Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1994), pp. 21-22, emphasis added to the passage. 

[4] Annette Baier, “The Need for More Than Justice,” in Annette Baier, Moral Prejudices (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1994), pp. 18-32, p. 29.  The essay was originally published in Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supplementary volume 13 (1987), pp. 41-56. 

[5] Louis Pojman, “What Is Ethics?” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (6th edition), ed. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 1-7. 

[6] Philosophers use single quotes to surround a word when they are mentioning it rather than using it.  For example in the sentence “‘Long’ is a short word,” the word ‘long’ is mentioned (discussed) while the word ‘short’ is used! 

[7] These examples are used by Fred Feldman in his Introductory Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978), on p. 4 as he offers his characterization of ethics. 

[8] In her Talk to The Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door (N.Y.: Gotham, 2005), Lynne Truss rejects what I say here, contending that matters of etiquette are moral matters:”…rudeness is a moral issue and it always has been.  The way people behave towards each other, even in minor things, is a measure of their value as human beings” (p. 196). 

[9] Divine Command and Natural Law theories of morality, of course, assign an important role in morality to religious considerations.  This is a qualification which takes us too far afield at this juncture however. 

[10] For a more fulsome characterization of the philosophical activity see my supplement “What Is Philosophy?”  If I were to try and give” “he full story” here, I would have to say that they must be grounded in reason, the emotions, and the appetites; and I would have to add some qualifications regarding culture and society.  At this stage in this course, however, these refinements are too technical! 

[11] A Wittgenstenian should be suspicious when she is tempted to define the essence of anything, and a naturalist should be wary of those times when she is tempted to speak about intrinsic values, but there are centrally important aspects of moral theories which stand out if one pauses to reflect on them.  In his “Plato's Euthyphro” (The Monist v. 50 (1966), pp. 369-382), Peter Geach maintains that the Socratic/Platonic search for essences is a fallacy.  I concur, at least, that the search for such has led many philosophers into deep confusion.  Nonetheless, I believe it useful and important to theorize about centrally important aspects of moral theories. 

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

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

[15] Ibid., pp. 79-80. 

[16] Ibid., p. 25. 

[17] Ibid., p. 26. 

[18] Ibid., pp. 93-94. 

[19] Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It And Campaigning Undermines It (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 2012), p. 1.  All further citations to this work (in this or subsequent “Supplements” will be followed by the appropriate page reference. 

[20] Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (NY: Penguin, 2011 updated and Revised Edition). 

Go to the Supplement for the Second Class

Last revised on 03/17/19.