The following is a reflection by David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio.
From time to time, the Kettering Foundation updates its research or restates its findings to prevent misperceptions of what its studies show. For example, some may mistakenly characterize the kind of public deliberation modeled in NIF forums as one of several techniques used to facilitate small group discussions or as a tool for decision making unrelated to action or resolving conflicts. Of course, people use the NIF issue books for many different purposes, and that includes those who are only interested in policy education, which is fine. Still, the NIF books are based on a design taken from two sources: how people today actually make collective decisions in the face of disagreements about how to act and how deliberation has been described in many civilizations dating back thousands of years.
Deliberation is a term for the collective decision making that has always been integral to politics. Deliberative decision making is not a special or separate technique but rather a component of collective action, which nearly always involves coming to terms with disagreement and conflict. Similarly, public deliberation is an integral part of democratic politics.
One, possibly the primary, obstacle to acting together wisely is that people disagree, sometimes to the point of violent conflict, about what kind of action is appropriate. Dealing with conflict is inescapable. The most difficult disagreements are about what is the right thing to do; that is, the conflict is more normative than simply factual. Early on in human history, people learned that making decisions to act under these conditions requires exercising the best judgment possible. Such judgment requires, in turn, carefully and fairly weighing various options for action against the many things people hold dear, which is deliberation.
The ancient Greeks described deliberation as the talk people use to teach themselves before they act. It utilizes the human faculty for judgment. To deliberate is to learn, and learning can take place from the time problems are named through the process of implementing decisions. The power of deliberation is in constant learning through acting.
In the near future, the Kettering Foundation Press will publish a new book, Democratizing Deliberation: A Political Theory Anthology, on the nature of deliberation and its role in politics. Derek Barker, Noëlle McAfee, and David McIvor are coeditors.