By John Leiner, DCI Fellow
Perhaps it comes as a surprise that a philosophical work written in 350 B.C.E. provides one of the most useful practical frameworks for deliberative democracy. In any case, the crux of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that balance is virtue can help guide polarized groups—no matter the setting—in making better participatory decisions.
Aristotle argues in his Classical-era treatise that the most practical action each human should take is that which is the most virtuous, thereby leading to one’s happiness and justice. Aristotle explains that these acts lie between acts driven by vice. In other words, an act of virtue is neither excessive nor deficient in its inherent value. To this point, an act of courage strikes a balance between rashness (excessive) and cowardice (deficient) in the same way that the ideal participatory decision strikes a balance between a decision driven by false consensus (excessive) and a total lack of consensus (deficient).
Dr. Carcasson made several references to Aristotle’s Ethics throughout his workshops last week, in which he provided faculty, staff and students valuable strategies for ‘striking the right balance’ through deliberation. In his first workshop on “Deliberative Pedagogy and Program Design” for faculty and staff, Dr. Carcasson introduced Sam Kaner’s model for deliberative decision making. The key to Kaner’s model, Dr. Carcasson emphasized, is that balance is virtue. By identifying pure convergent thinking (i.e. groupthink) and pure divergent thinking (i.e. “talking past each other”) as more or less ‘vices’ in the Aristotelean sense, Dr. Carcasson stressed that educators should embrace both students’ convergent and divergent thinking in classroom discussions.
Consensus, he pointed out, is not the balance sought by deliberation. Instead, mutual understanding and clarification of both areas of agreement and disagreement is the goal. Kaner’s model suggests that by allowing student deliberators to first bring out tensions towards ideas by encouraging divergent thinking and then identifying areas of common ground through a process of convergent thinking, educators can strike the right deliberative balance between perspectives. For Kaner and Carcasson, this balance should be one of the key aspirations of any deliberative process.
Beyond pedagogy, finding balance in deliberation is equally important for facilitators and their efforts to manage the polarization within a group. ‘Passionate impartiality’ is the modus operandi for us as DCI facilitators. Dr. Carcasson stressed passionate impartiality’s importance in facilitating from the standpoint of striking a balance between various tensions, such as impartiality towards ideas, honoring equality and inclusivity towards people and perspectives, and respecting sound data and reasoning. Facilitators should, above all, “model and encourage democratic attitudes and skills” while helping participants “identify the values and interests that motivate their perspectives.”
When facilitators strike a balance between their own tensions, they can assist deliberators in fostering a balanced deliberation. Even outside of deliberation, when competing interests cause groups of people to become polarized in their approaches towards a shared problem, balance is not an elusive concept. By recognizing inherent democratic tensions and placing them on a spectrum—how much we value something versus how much someone else does—we can more easily locate where these tensions balance each other out.
Such polarity mapping/management allows us first to think about and express how we ourselves prioritize different values, and then also to see how others respond to these tradeoffs. Such a process highlights the underlying tradeoffs that are present in an issue and can help deliberators better understand the underlying drivers of their disagreements. Dr. Carcasson says that this balance between values is both a short- and long-term goal and is the essence of deliberation. Like justice in Nicomachean Ethics, this deliberative balance is hard to locate precisely. Yet, let this not dissuade us from seeking it.
Watch Dr. Carcasson’s Deliberation-in-Action workshops and keynote address here.