Thursday, September 4, 2008

Action over deliberation

"Action over deliberation, decision over debate" -- Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

This is one of the election promises that was made at the Republican Convention tonight. Makes sense for those who eschew thought, study, reflection, and discussion, who would frankly rather fight than carefully consider the consequences of throwing a punch or pulling a trigger. But is this any way to govern or lead a nation?

A more complex view of the role of reason and passion in civic life is presented in a new book Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation by Sharon Krause. I have not had the opportunity to read it yet, but I am intrigued by the Introduction. It's a bit heavy with academic prose, but it does speak to some of what strikes me as wrong with the current political climate. Consider the following excerpt:
Deliberation is demanding, and for many people this fact may recommend against it. The truth is that citizenship imposes certain burdens on us. Liberal democracy makes these burdens light when compared with some other forms of government but it cannot do away with them entirely. The notion that liberty and equality—the great promises of liberal-democratic government—could be had for free is a dream. The realization of liberty and equality demands many things of us as citizens, but one of them surely is impartial deliberation. Unless public deliberation achieves impartiality, our decision making will be hostage to prejudice and the vagaries of power, with the result that those who have less (less status, less power, fewer resources) will get less (less freedom, less equality). Impartial deliberation is a key to making the promises of liberal democracy real for all of us. Yet liberal democracy also is necessary to the development of impartiality, or so I shall argue in the chapters to come.

There is a circle here, or at least a relationship of mutual dependence. If human beings were not fallible by nature, if we were not naturally limited in the extent of our sympathies and concerns, we would not need liberal-democratic institutions and practices to foster the extensive moral sentiment that impartial judgment requires. If the liberal-democratic principles of liberty and equality were self-justifying and self-actuating, and if the institutions of liberal democracy were self-guiding, we would not need impartial deliberation. As it is, we need both and they depend on each other.

While the demands of impartial deliberation are high, they are demands that we can satisfy, at least so long as we acknowledge the affective dimensions of deliberation. Again, to acknowledge these dimensions is not to bring more passions into politics. There are plenty of passions in politics already. Moral sentiment does involve the public communication of sentiments and a refined faculty of sympathy, and justice will require that some previously silenced sentiments find a new voice on the public stage. But the communication of sentiments is already happening all around us; deliberation is steeped in passions as it is. The challenge is to civilize the passions that we cannot avoid and that practical reason cannot fully transcend....
Read the rest at Introduction.

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