1. There are very good grounds for believing that strong public debate over a short period of time, say five years, is extremely effective in changing public opinion and consequently political decisions to the extent that they are responsive to thoroughly well-considered public opinion.
I list a few triumphs for critical moral discussion in more or less random sequence in my experience:
- The abolition of the White Australia mentality and the laws that implemented it.
- The recognition of the rights of Indigenous people as the original owners of this land.
- The recognition that women should be able to take full part as equals with men in every public activity.
- The abolition of the assumption that women should be paid less than men.
- The recognition of unions that are not formalised by marriage, and of the rights of people to premarital sex.
- The recognition of the right to equal respect for same-sex couples as different-sex couples.
- The rights of colonies to complete independence.
- The rights of individuals and groups to cultural freedom within nation-states.
- The abolition of racism as a basis for inferior treatment, socially, economically and politically.
- The recognition of the need of the disabled to be able to participate fully in community activities.
All of these changes were brought about primarily by critical moral thinking coming to very generally accepted by people who had been educated in the contrary view. In hardly any respect were those who embraced those changes people who themselves benefited from them. The only sense in which they benefited was in their self-esteem and, as agreement grew, in the esteem of others. In almost every case, explicit political recognition of these changes followed enlightened, critical opinion. That is the core meaning of democracy, in my view, and my concern is to extend it.
2. Why does it need extending? For two reasons:
A. The sort of arguments that have appealed to people and changed their views in the matter listed above are instances of applying with increasing consistency the humanist morality of treating people as deserving of the sort of respect we would like to claim for ourselves, unless they explicitly forfeit it. That simple, basic morality is easy to understand and apply by ordinary people reflecting on their own experience and putting themselves in the shoes of other people. It works well as long as people are in a fairly secure position, even across significant cultural boundaries, as long as they focus on everyday social interactions. Moral arguments are not so clear when it comes to many important economic and political decisions. Thinking to help people, it is easy to do harm by neglecting the systemic consequences of our actions. The result is that it is relatively easy for those who enjoy political and economic power to gesture at public opinion in matters of personal morality, but ignore or confuse it when it comes to important systemic questions of production, exchange, employment and the use of force, secrecy and adversarial tactics.
So I conclude that we need a more focused sort of public discussion to bring these questions into the domain of effective public discussion, involving, not just considerations drawn from everyday experience but the best understanding available of the economics and politics. Of course, there is already a huge amount of such discussion, but predominantly of the wrong sort. It is dominated by those who want to convince us to adopt a very general theory of how everything in economics and politics works. Such views are commonly directed to practical applications that enable the power holders to ignore factors that don’t suit their agendas. It is clear enough that arguing about such ideologies is futile, as is judging what is to be done about specific problems by dogmatising about what is relevant to problems of a more general kind. It is the sort of thinking that assumes that ice and steam cannot have very different properties from each other because they are wholly made up of molecules of H2O. We need to understand each factor in a situation in its own general characteristics. But the same stuff forms very different wholes when organised in certain ways.
B. We face very severe problems that are largely unwelcome results of our own making, but now aggregated to a global scale, such as our global financial system and global warming. There may be no solution to such problems, but it is certainly most unlikely that they will go away or that we will chance on solution. We need to act, but only on the best understanding we can get of how these problem arise and what can be done to solve them. Just because an explanation or a line of action looks attractive to “common sense” does not mean that it won’t make things worse. On the other hand, we cannot leave it to the experts. Effective action on such problems is almost certainly going to demand coordination on a large scale and some hard -to-accept consequences. People generally have to be convinced that it is needed. So the experts must be examined in public discussion and plans developed that make as little demand as possible on people. I think that meeting these challenges is going to require resourceful, organised debate along the lines I have suggested.
Filed under: Deliberation |