Living with Our Differences   /   Spring 2001   /    Interview

An Interview with Amy Gutmann

Amy Gutmann

Amy Gutmann (2007).

In Democracy and Disagreement, you and Dennis Thompson present “deliberative democracy” as a model for the way in which we as a society should handle our moral disagreements. You write: “When democratic citizens morally disagree about public policy, what should they do? They should deliberate with one another, seeking moral agreement when they can, and maintaining mutual respect when they cannot” (346). Would you say more about what deliberative democracy entails? What makes a disagreement a moral disagreement? How do the principles of reciprocity, publicity, and accountability guide our efforts to make decisions together?

Deliberative democracy is a conception of democratic politics in which citizens, or their accountable representatives, seek to give one another mutually acceptable reasons to justify the laws they adopt. A theory of deliberative democracy usually contains both a set of principles to evaluate actual democracies, and a specification of a process to realize the principles. The principles include some familiar ones from theories of justice, such as reciprocity, liberty, and opportunity, as well as others more common in theories of democracy, such as accountability and publicity. In a deliberative theory the content and interpretation of these principles are subject to the deliberative process, which in turn is evaluated by the principles. Deliberative democracy therefore should not be identified with the process itself: its principles are no less important than its process.

Deliberative democracy is distinguished from theories that rely primarily on procedures that aggregate the preferences of citizens (such as most varieties of procedural, aggregative, pluralist, and game theoretic approaches). These theories tend to treat preferences as given, turning them into collective decisions through processes such as voting or bargaining. Without rejecting these processes, deliberative democracy provides critical standards for assessing preferences, and encourages the possibility of changing them through political discussion. Deliberative democracy also differs from theories that take fundamental rights as given and designate them as constraints on democratic decision making (such as natural law conceptions and many forms of constitutionalism). Deliberative democracy accepts the idea of rights but permits their interpretation and application to be challenged by means of deliberation in the political process. Although at any particular time, some rights are protected from majoritarian decision making, rights are not completely insulated from deliberative democratic processes.

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