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Stout and individual XVII

April 26, 2016

To the first and second characteristics, the author will add a third: social. Again, this term requires some reclamation from its everyday usage. Here, “social” merely denotes that which transpires between persons:

The reasons exchanged in ethical discourse pertain to commitments that individuals undertake and attribute to one another. The commitments pertain to such topics as conduct, character, and community […] Ethical reasoning, when fully expressed, involves claims, questions, arguments, narratives, examples, and various other linguistic units in terms of which ethical topics can be specified […] It is a social practice, first, because the reasons being exchanged pass from one person to another and, second, because each participants needs to keep track of the discursive process in terms of his or her own commitments. By exchanging reasons and requests for reasons with one another, participants in the practice hold one another responsible for their commitments and actions (DT, p. 209).

In light of her own commitments on conduct, character and community, the person provides the audience with her reasons for a given position. On the basis of those reasons, that same person will have certain commitments both implicitly and explicitly ascribed to her by the audience. This ascription can come nearer or farther from the person’s own estimation of her commitments, as revealed in the exercise of piety. At this point, either she may have another opportunity to address reasons to her audience or a member of her audience may have the opportunity to address her as the member of a new audience and resituate the deliberation with regards to his own commitments.

Regardless, deliberation’s back-and-forth character captures the meaning of “social” sketched in the passage above. The person’s commitments are first exposed in the form of reasons communicated. The audience at once take stock of those commitments, either inwardly or outwardly, and ask themselves how these reasons and the commitments expressed thereby fit with their own distinct commitments. In sum, the practice reveals itself doubly social as persons situate themselves with respect to one another and with regards to the process.

In such a way does Stout arrive at idiosyncratic usages of “democratic deliberation” and “public, secular, social practice”: unbound by institutionalized norms, lacking community-wide presuppositions, showing the back-and-forth between persons. The meaning which he lends to each of the terms shows how much his approach differs from other deliberative approaches, notably that of Rawls. As a point in case, we need only consider the author’s treatment of religious reasons.

Whereas other advocates of deliberative democracy see no place for religious reasons in the deliberation, Stout’s deliberation qua unbound and presuppositionless makes room for just such expression in that nothing constrains a believer from giving religious reasons for her various commitments. Moreover, given the back-and-forth character of deliberation, the audience ought to consider earnestly the reasons and the commitments being expressed. In truth, the believer stands to gain from critical examination of those reasons and commitments, both by herself and the audience, as another step in the work of piety. In such fashion can both participant and audience arrive at a charitable understanding of one another:

Members of a religious community can benefit from [reflective] expression by learning about themselves and putting themselves in a position to reflect critically on their commitments. Outsiders can benefit from listening in, so as to gain a better grasp on the premises that our fellow citizens rarely have an opportunity to articulate in full […] When it comes to religious questions, intellectuals in our setting can bring their own commitments, as individuals, into expressive and critical equilibrium. They can perform a similar service for a particular group to which they belong […] But when they do this, there is no point in pretending that they are articulating the implicit commitments and practices of their fellow citizens as a whole (DT, p. 112).

(For a lengthier treatment of the issue, see DT, Chapter 3, “Religious Reasons in Political Argument”, pp. 63-91.) So do the characteristics public, secular and social give initial shape to democratic deliberation. Yet, with the author, we must more closely examine the mechanisms by which the person addresses and persuades her audience, of which only the barest outline has thus far been given. For this, we must see how lessons learned in The Flight from Authority’s treatment of justification map onto the person’s role in democratic deliberation as seen in Democracy and Tradition.

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