Chapter 2: The Sense of Reciprocity
Amy Gutman and Denis Thompson
Gutman and Thompson promote the principle of reciprocity as the basis of deliberative democracy. They emphasize that reciprocity is based on mutual respect. Political arguments should be based on reasoning that can be understood and accepted by other citizens interesting in reaching agreement. In cases, such as the abortion issue, where there is fundamental deliberative disagreement, Gutman and Thompson present the principles of accommodation. These principles promote the importance of affirming the moral status of their own views as well as acknowledging the moral standing of their opponents views. Based on mutual respect, citizens should aim to find an ‘economy of moral disagreement,’ emphasizing areas and solutions based on mutual agreement.
Deliberative democracy asks citizens and officials to justify public policy by giving reasons that can be accepted by those who are bound by it. It relies on the principle of reciprocity. We can compare reciprocity to its two main rivals: prudence and partiality. The foundation of reciprocity is the capacity to seek fair terms of social cooperation for their own sake. Under reciprocity, individuals aim to use mutually acceptable justification for their reasoning in the sense that they can be acknowledged by each citizen in circumstances of equal advantage. Citizens are motivated by the desire to justify their reasoning to others. Under reciprocity, individuals use deliberation with the goal of reaching deliberative agreement.
Prudence only aims to show that a policy is mutually advantageous. Individuals are motivated by self-interest. They use the process of bargaining to reach a modus Vivendi (agree to disagree). Impartiality aims at reasons and justifications that are general (universally justifiable): they should be acceptable to anyone similarly situated in morally relevant respects (reasons should be based on social or economic status, for example). The reasons provided should be impersonal; citizens should disregard their own personal perspective when making policies or laws. People are led by altruism to make laws for the common good. They establish the truth of their comprehensive moral view through demonstration of its correctness.
Reciprocity can deal with moral disagreement better than prudence or impartiality. It allows some space for bargaining as well as for comprehensive moral views, as long as these are constrained by reciprocity.
Since citizens in a pluralist society are likely to continue to hold competing comprehensive views, the principles of democracy must provide some guidance for living with fundamental moral disagreement, not simply resolving it. Reciprocity provides this guidance by setting standards for practices of mutual respect (principles of accommodation).
Reciprocity and Its Rivals
In democratic politics citizens must cooperate to make their lives go well. Reciprocity regulates public reason in a deliberative democracy, where public reason is defined as the terms in which citizens justify to one another their claims regarding all goods.
What Reciprocity Requires
Deliberative reciprocity expresses two related requirements – one moral, one empirical. The moral require asks that citizens appeal to reasons or principles that can be shared by citizens similarly motivated. For example, one might argue for national health care based on a principle of basic opportunity for all citizens. This would not be satisfied by a person who refuses to press public claims in terms accessible to their fellow citizens. The empirical reciprocity requirement asks that empirical claims be consistent with relatively reliable methods of inquiry, or should at least be based on plausible claims.
Religious fundamentalists may argue that their appeals are accessible to other citizens, as long as the citizens live a spiritual religious life, as they do. However, any claim fails to respect reciprocity if it imposes a requirement on other citizens to adopt one’s sectarian way of life as a condition of gaining access to the moral understanding that is essential to judging the validity of one’s moral claims.
In summary, reciprocity tells citizens to appeal to reasons that are recognizably moral in form and mutually acceptable in content. By comparison, prudence questions need for morality (If its mutually acceptable, why do you need it to be moral?), and impartiality challenges the need for mutual acceptance (If its moral, why do you need it to be mutually acceptable?).
What Prudence Prescribes
Much of everyday democratic politics consists of various forms of bargaining (deal-making, pork-barreling, coalition-building, etc.), and takes place over issues without moral disagreement. The problem is that prudence rests on too thin a conception of what citizens owe one. In bargaining, have no reasons to promote the well-being of other citizens, and can justify attempting to maximize our own advantage over the well-being of others. Citizens confront each other as adversaries rather than cooperators. Bargaining is even worse when considered under non-ideal (real life) situations in which we can expect conditions of inequality. The outcome of bargaining will not seem fair to a person that had a poor bargaining position.
What Impartiality Implies
Impartiality argues that political reasoning should be moral, but that it doesn’t need to be mutually acceptable in the way reciprocity prescribes. If moral claim is correct from an impersonal perspective, then that is all the justification it needs. In the face of disagreement, impartiality tells us to choose the morally correct view and demonstrate its correctness to our fellow citizens, who, if they are rational, should accept it. Disagreement is just a failing of moral reasoning – citizens should simply take a more impersonal view to solve it. This method creates a shared comprehensive moral view that applies to a variety of human activities. Some groups, such as communitarians seek such a comprehensive morality (within a particular community).
A challenge for these competing views is seen in the abortion debate. It does not seem possible to find conclusive reasons that can be accepted by all citizens who are motivated to find fair terms of social cooperation (reciprocity). Some believe fetus is a constitutional person with rights that trump those of the pregnant woman. Others believe the fetus is only a potential person, and therefore has no constitutional rights. Impartiality cannot address this issue, either. It would either lead to the majority suppressing the minority point of view, or in banning the issue from the political agenda to ensure toleration (just as religion is banned from the political agenda to ensure religious toleration). However, neutrality on this issue is not possible. Not legislating against abortion could be seen as legalizing abortion. Even if toleration were justified on impartial grounds, it would not leave open the option to resolve these moral disagreements in the future – it would lock in the moral divisions.
This type of persistent form of moral disagreement can come in a number of forms. There may be conflicting reasonable beliefs (about status of the fetus, for example) or a different balance of competing moral considerations (relative risks to the guilty and the innocent in capital punishment). In these cases, there is no mutually acceptable position from which either can be rejected.
Reciprocity in Practice
An example of reciprocity can be seen in the Hawkins County 1983 text book example. The Hawkins County Public schools aim to help students “become good citizens in their school, community, and society.” However, some parents objected to portions of a new textbook, because they felt it conflicted with Bible. Among the issues were the fact that 1) the book contained a story about a Catholic settlement in New Mexico, which the parents felt teaches children Catholicism, 2) it contained a story in which a boy cooks and girl reads, which parents felt undermined the gender differences taught in the bible, 3) contained an excerpt from Anne Frank’s Diary saying that nonorthodox belief in God may be better than no belief at all, which parents felt conflicted with bible teaching, and 4) included a passage about the Renaissance idea of “a belief in the dignity and worth of human beings,” which parents argued is incompatible with true religious faith.
The principle of prudence could not deal with this issue well. Bargaining may result in the school board having to change the text book, regardless of the merits of the arguments. Impartiality would simply result in a face-off between the two comprehensive moral views.
Reciprocity requires reasons that can be justified to all parties who are motivated to find fair terms of social cooperation. The parents reasoning appeal to values that can and should be rejected by citizens of a pluralist society committed to protecting the basic liberties and opportunities of all citizens. Teaching about issues such as “human dignity” is essential to the basis of deliberative democracy. The parents’ claims were not based on mutually acceptable reasons. Also, their empirical claims were not justifiable. For example, it is not clear that if students read about a religion, they are more likely to convert to it. The court of appeals decided in favor of the school board (not to change the text books).
At the Edges of Reciprocity
Many political disagreements cannot be resolved through reasoning that satisfies only the requirements of reciprocity, but it can provide standards for regulating the processes by which they may be resolved, and for sustaining the practices of accommodation when they cannot be resolved.
Bargaining in its Place
It is possible that at times moral stakes may be high, but the disagreement is not primarily over moral issues. For example, in debating NAFTA, both opponents and proponents expressed an interest in helping vulnerable workers and protecting the government. Lautenberg: argued that NAFTA would impose hardship on “the most vulnerable members of our economy,” while Bradley argued that rejection of NAFTA would make things worse for the most vulnerable workers in U.S. and Mexico. The disagreement was only on how to achieve the particular moral claims, and empirical methods were inadequate to resolve the disagreement. In this situation, bargaining would be more appropriate than leaving the issue unresolved. The collective results of individual deals should be considered on the merits, but it is possible to use bargaining to make a deal acceptable to all.
Bargaining is permitted by reciprocity even in some cases when deliberation would be morally preferable. For example, if some groups refuse to deliberate or if deliberation would put them at a further disadvantage. For example, Candidates should not refuse PAC contributions unless their challengers also refuse them, even though it’s better for the system if PAC isn’t taken at all. However, it’s not true that lying is ok, just because the other candidate is lying. In these cases (when bargaining is necessary because deliberation is unfair), reciprocity prescribes institutional change – reciprocity is not only a disposition of individuals, but also a quality of institutions.
Dealing with Deliberative Disagreement
A deliberative disagreement is a disagreement in which citizens continue to differ about basic moral principles even though they seek a resolution that is mutually justifiable. This can occur if moral understanding does not tell us which position to reject or if competing moral claims are incompatible. Though reciprocity cannot resolve these issues, deliberation can continue.
The public controversy over legalizing abortion is the paradigm of a deliberative agreement: both sides make fundamentally different, but plausible, claims that are reciprocal in their moral and empirical content. Pro-choice advocates make the moral argument that the fetus is only potential human being, and that women should have liberty to decide whether to bear a child. Pro-life advocates make the moral argument that the fetus is human being with constitutional rights, and that innocent persons should not be killed. Though both sides agree that innocent people should not be killed, and that women have a basic liberty to live their own lives and control their own bodies, they have radically different conclusions about abortion. This is due to disagreements about the status of fetus, and the different hierarchy of claims used by each. Pro-choice advocates make empirical claims about the effects of unwanted pregnancy and childbearing on women. Pro-life advocates present the scientific facts about the development of an egg into a sentient fetus. These empirical claims are testable or at least plausible. Given the different moral and empirically relevant claims, there is no way to rationally resolve the argument. Disagreement on this issue is fundamental and irresolvable, at least within the limits of our present moral understanding.
Some have tried to resolve disagreement based on common ground leading to a mutually acceptable conclusion. Ronald Dworkin argued for an agreement based on the fact that a fetus is a human life (pro-life view), but since it is not conscious or sentient, it has no interests, and since it has no interests, it should not be considered a constitutional person (pro-choice view). However, this rests on the assumption that human beings cannot have constitutional rights unless they have prior sentience or consciousness, and this claim is not defended on mutually justifiable grounds.
Deliberative democracy recognizes that the government must take a stand on questions involving such disagreement, even if reciprocity and its other constitutive principles do not determine the answer. Some might argue that in these types of cases, individuals should be uncertain of the truth of their own positions, and should just reach their own best judgment, avoiding dogmatism. The moral strength of their opponents’ case should be irrelevant to their political actions.
However, Gutman argues that unlike ordinary moral conflict, deliberative disagreement places some citizens in opposition to others who are no less committed to finding fair terms of cooperation, and who are offering reasons that cannot be shown to violate those terms. For this reason, one could respect someone arguing for abortion in a way not possible for someone arguing for racial discrimination, for example. It is important to acknowledge that opponents have some moral standing
The Meaning of Moral Accommodation
The principles of accommodation are based on mutual respect – the same value that makes up the core of reciprocity. This principle makes possible to cooperate on fair terms. It requires more that simply agreeing to disagree, it also requires that one have a favorable attitude toward and constructive interaction with the person one disagrees with. People should remain open to changing their minds or modifying their positions at some time in the future. This keeps open the possibility of a different, more accommodating solution in the future. Mutual respect discourages dogmatism (i.e. Either you’re for killing babies or your against it!) as well as moral skepticism (No one can tell who’s right, so let’s not try).
Mutual respect can be beneficial only if it’s translated to practices that guide actual political life – these are the principles of accommodation. The principles of accommodation explain how citizens who, after deliberation, still fundamentally disagree about an issue should treat one another – even when their deliberation results in legislation that favors one side of a dispute. The principles of accommodation make two kinds of demands on citizens. 1) How citizens present their own political positions, and 2) how they regard the political positions of others. These refer not mainly to style or rhetoric, but to attitudes in public action.
The first principle, civic integricty, states that citizens should affirm the moral status of their own political positions. They can do this through:
1) Consistency in Speech: Citizens should hold the same positions regardless of circumstances in which they speak. This indicates that a person holds the position for the reasons of morality, not (only) for reasons of political advantage.
2) Consistency between Speech and Action: Apparent inconsistencies call for candid explanations.
3) Integrity of Principle – Individuals should accept the broader implications of the principles presupposed by one’s moral positions. If you oppose abortion out of respect for fetal life, you should also be interested in other efforts to care for children adequately.
The second principle of accommodation calls on citizens and officials to acknowledge the moral status of the positions they oppose. This is done through:
1) Acknowledgement in speech: Citizens should treat the opposing position as expressing a moral rather than a purely strategic, political, or economic view.
2) Open-mindedness: Though they may hold firm convictions, individuals should maintain the possibility that citizens can be convinced of the moral merits of their adversaries’ position. Both the political mind and political forums should be kept open to reconsidering decisions that have already made.
3) Economy of moral disagreement: Citizens should minimize rejection of the position they oppose, and avoid unnecessary conflict in characterizing the moral grounds of their opponent’s argument. One should aim to search for points of convergence between one’s own understanding and others.
The Economy of Moral Disagreement in Action
Judith Jarvis Thomson narrows the range of reasonable disagreement between pro-life and pro-choice advocates to cases in which pregnancy results from largely voluntary sexual intercourse. However, her argument doesn’t deal with situations not involving rape or other force.
Roe v. Wade did not claim that fetuses is person, but it did state that the state has an interest in protecting potential life (though fetuses are not constitutional persons). This allowed states to continue to ban abortion in the third trimester, on the grounds that the state’s interest in potential life is compelling once the fetus is viable.
The court went further than normal pro-life or pro-choice arguments by arguing that the state has a compelling interest in protecting the health of pregnant women even against their own will. This was an argument against second trimester abortions, since they are riskier than normal childbirth. This resulted in people arguing about the effect of abortion on maternal health when their actual purpose was to protect prenatal life.
In Planned Parenthood v. Casey the court upheld state restrictions on first and second trimester abortions (such as 24-hour waiting periods) so long as they do not impose an “undue burden” on women’s liberty or pose “substantial obstacles” to women who want to have an abortion. This shows one way that pro-life concerns can be accommodated without giving up commitment to women’s liberty.
Some have suggested a moral compromise, such as making abortions legal, but not providing government funding for elective abortions. The idea is that pro-choice advocates should not have to give up legalization, but they should give up policies that would increase the number of abortions. However, the refusal to fund abortions for poor women, when childbirth is funded, creates an almost irresistible pressure on indigent women to carry a child to term and violates the basic liberty of the indigent woman to choose between these alternatives. Therefore, this is not a justifiable means for limiting the number of abortions. Though perhaps a scheme allowing citizens to elect whether or not to put some of their tax money towards funds for abortions would be a legitimate compromise.
Accommodation calls on citizens to promote policies where their principles converge, even if they would otherwise place these policies lower on their list of political priorities. For example, programs that help unwed mothers care for their own children may become more important as areas of mutual agreement.
Mutual respect likely requires institutional changes. Forums of political discussion should be designed to encourage officials to justify actions with moral reasons and give others the opportunity to criticize those reasons. Perhaps legislators, like judges, could explain in writing the basis of their decisions. Another possibility would be to create incentives for reconsidering important moral decisions and policies at regular intervals.
Democracy within the Limits of Reciprocity
Reciprocal democracy accepts the need to promote sustentative moral principles in politics – principles that could become part of a public morality for the society as a whole. In cultivating the virtue of open-minded commitment among citizens and in encouraging an economy of moral disagreement in politics, reciprocity orients citizens and public officials towards a deliberative perspective compatible with continuing moral agreement. The principle of reciprocity supports a political process that promotes moral learning. Deliberative democracy does not require consensus on public policy or constitutional law. Since politics cannot be purged of moral conflict, it seeks a common view on how citizens should publicly deliberate.