An imaginative program for recasting the conduct of American political dialogue. Gutmann (Politics/Princeton Univ.) and Thompson (Political Philosophy/Harvard Univ.), authors of Ethics in Congress (1995), propound a theory called ``deliberative democracy.'' With this, they say, moral arguments over issues such as whether the government should fund abortion or enforce affirmative action can acquire a depth beyond the usual sound-bite level. Such an enriched process of deliberation, they maintain, would force citizens to truly take into account the moral claims of others, in place of a self-righteous denunciation of other points of view. The authors propose a program of town meetings and other public forums where moral issues can be discussed, and offer abundant real-world examples that show how their theory might apply. They consider at length, for instance, an actual Tennessee case in which a group of fundamentalist Christians refused to allow their children to use assigned textbooks that encouraged tolerance of other ways of life. After considering all sides of the story and examining the respective moral claims involved, the authors conclude that ``there is a public interest in educating good citizens, and no citizen can fairly claim that what constitutes good citizenship is whatever happens to conform to his or her particular religion.'' This is classic utilitarianism, but the what's-best-for-most model doesn't always prevail. As the authors remark, ``Aggregating what citizens want individually . . . does not necessarily produce the same result as asking citizens to consider together what they want collectively.'' They examine the ethics of surrogate motherhood, children's rights, preferential hiring, and other ticklish issues, offering deeply considered commentaries. All this makes for fascinating, engaged reading—but always with the caveat that the authors' vision of a thoughtfully conversational politics is the unlikeliest of pipe dreams.
Read full book review >