Intersubjective Reasoning and the Formation of Metaconsensus

Intersubjective Reasoning and the Formation of Metaconsensus

Simon Niemeyer (The Australian National University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-091-4.ch002
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Group deliberation, according to deliberative theorists, is supposed to produce better outcomes, but there is relatively little specification on the nature of improvement beyond appeals to consensus and improved reasoning. This chapter identifies two inter-related concepts of metaconsensus and intersubjective rationality as outcomes that an authentic deliberative process ought to produce. Importantly, these deliberative ends are consistent with ideal deliberative procedure. They are also empirically tractable, where preference transformation can be described in terms of underlying values, and judgments. Methods for assessing deliberative ends are provided and demonstrated using the Bloomfield Track case study.
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To date, the outcomes that group deliberation ought to achieve have been the subject of some confusion and contestation. The most widely recognised benchmark is that proposed by Habermas. In very concise terms this involves a dialogic procedure of reason giving amongst a receptive deliberative group of all those affected by a decision, where the ‘force of reason’ reveals agreement in the form of complete rational consensus (Habermas, 1984). Habermas’s original theory of communicative action is heavily procedural in orientation and much of the debate in deliberative democracy has followed this lead, including consideration of what sort of dialogue should or should not be treated as ‘deliberative’. The original ideal is strongly ‘rationalist’ and has been met with rebuttals from critics as unrealistic and fraught, yielding undesirable side-effects. These critics seek a more inclusive form of deliberation, involving non-rational speech acts, such as storytelling and rhetoric.1

While the debate about procedural norms about deliberation continues, perhaps more problematic is that, the Habermasian example of rational consensus aside, deliberative theory is vague about deliberative ends. It is a lacuna that is both a cause and a consequence of an empirical blindspot in deliberative democracy, and is borne out of its strongly normative foundations. The counter-factual orientation in much of the early foundations of deliberative democracy has rightly led to criticism regarding its feasibility in the real world. Deliberation in its ideal form is viewed as desirable, but patently unobtainable. Moreover, it is difficult to judge deliberative outcomes because there are few clear and normatively defensible benchmarks that can be used (Burkhalter et al., 2002). Such conceptual uncertainty about deliberative ends has opened up multiple avenues for critiquing examples that claim to represent deliberation, but may not actually be deliberation in a normative sense. The literature is littered with experimental and real world ‘deliberation’ (criminal juries, social psychology experiments, opinion surveys) as well as theoretical explorations the results of which have been used to critique the deliberative project. In many cases the connection with normative deliberative democracy is tenuous at best (Steiner, 2008).

It seems clear from the above that clarification of the sort of outcomes that deliberation ought to produce is needed. But how should this be done? Simply following the same lines of reasoning regarding ideal normative procedures into the domain of ideal outcomes is risky for two reasons. Firstly, political philosophers particularly good at seeking out dead ends using reason alone: deducing situations in which ideals that are impossible or irreconcilable.2 Secondly, such ideals — and the related problems identified — may bear little relationship with how real-life deliberation works. One the face of it there is a dilemma between deducing normatively appealing ideals regarding deliberation (as in the case of Habermas) or observing actual outcomes in practice, which might otherwise be undesirable.

However, there is a good deal of room, and need for interaction between theory and empiricism (Bohman, 1998). This is the space occupied by this paper. Here I seek to reduce the conceptual uncertainty by identifying two types of deliberative end (metaconsensus and intersubjective rationality). Both ends have been identified through a process of intensive exploration of real world deliberation — designed, as far as possible, to replicate the basic normative ideals of deliberative democracy — with the results contrasted to deliberative theory. These ends are phenomenological to the extent that they represent updates of deliberative theory in light of the empirical results. The emergence of metaconsensus and intersubjective rationality is consistent with the idea that the deliberative project should be open to revisiting its normative commitments in light of empirical findings (Rosenberg, 2005). They are observable and have been observed in the analysis of numerous deliberative processes.3 Not all are recounted here. For simplicity and space I will resort to a single case study for illustration: The Bloomfield Track Citizens’ Jury (see Niemeyer, 2002; Niemeyer, 2004).

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