Improving the political discourse

Improving the political discourse:  Clarifying the meaning of ‘weighing the pros and cons’:  an innovative tool for the political discourse.

How often have we heard the sanctimonious assurances from ‘people in charge’ to ‘carefully weigh the pros and cons’ of controversial proposals and decisions?  But has anybody ever explained just what that means, and how it is or should be done?  Done in some, well perhaps somewhat systematic but above all transparent manner?

The closest helpful advice I know of is still Ben Franklin’s suggestion to write the pros and cons in separate columns on a sheet of paper;  and then to inspect then carefully.  There are some that add to this the idea of assigning numbers — ‘weights’  to each item, and then to add up the numbers. Even the ones among us less guilt-ridden by our failure to apply proper rational reasoning  to this task can see that this  is a rather crude, not very convincing methodology.

There are some plausible reasons why there are no  better explanations  and tools.  One reason is that the pros and cons  used in such planning and policy and political discussions — which are, of course,  arguments — are not very solid arguments, from the point of view of logic.  In fact, logic, the discipline ‘in charge’ of rational reasoning and critical examination of arguments, has all but ignored these arguments and neglected to offer useful tools to evaluate them.  This is because they are ‘inconclusive’ at best, not like syllogisms which guarantee a true conclusion if all their premises are true.  And ‘true or false’  does not really apply to the ‘ought-statements involved, either.  This neglect  seems rather strange, since arguably, humanity argues at least as much about what we ought to do, or more, than about the questions of ‘true insight’ in the way the world IS, that Aristotle claimed as people’s main knowledge quest.

This could be part of the explanation for the strange and confusing state of the political discourse we witness today:  in part reduced to extremely simplified  brief ‘sound-bites’ and slogans of sometimes reassuring but more often inflammatory nature, and in part ornate rhetoric, at best inspiring but mostly equally inflammatory, and not because of its superior reasoning but often merely due to its choice of loaded words.

The promise of help I am proposing comes, strangely enough, not from the discipline of logic or its newer relatives, nor from political science, but from architecture and planning. First developed in my obscure dissertation about  the assessment of design arguments, and only later applied to general planning and policy-making and political issues, an approach to the analysis of the ‘standard planning argument’ and its premises and suggestions for their evaluation is now described in my little book “The Fog Island Argument”. It presents the ideas in the form of a tavern conversation among several strange customers, explores what the planning and political discourse and planning process might be like with this approach as its core element, and proposes a course of studies of the resulting planning problems as part of a general studies education.

The main suggestions involve the following:  A discourse with broad participation  by all people affected by a proposed plan or measure, invited to contribute pros and cons. A concise abbreviated version of these arguments in something like the form  “Plan x should be adopted, because implementing it will result in consequence y, and y is desirable”, perhaps a qualified versions such as “X ought to be  done because under conditions c it will produce y;  these conditions c are present, and y is desirable”. The listing of these condensed arguments is displayed in an appropriate format for overview of the entire spectrum of pros and cons, supported by visual issue and argument maps. The participants then assign a plausibility judgment,  on a scale of +1 to -1, and a weight of relative importance to the ‘ought statements y . For each argument, an argument plausibility measure is derived from all premise plausibilities, and an argument weight by combining this plausibility score with the weight of the respective goal or objective. The value of this approach is seen less in the possibility of obtaining some overall plausibility score. In fact, I warn against using such a measure as a decision criterion not only because all these judgments are, of course, subjective assessments, but because the discourse is also inherently incomplete — there is no guarantee that all pertinent concerns are actually articulated and brought into the discussion. Rather, the analysis of the plausibility and weight scores can give useful indications about where the crucial disagreements are located, where more information and debate is needed to settle issues.

Far from claiming the approach to be a panacea for the improvement of the political discourse, the proposed ideas are offered for discussion and more research — the book concludes with a tentative research agenda. The questions posed for discussion include, for example: what are the basic mutual agreements the participants must enter for constructive, cooperative planning? (An important issue merely raised but not discussed in detail is that of appropriate sanctions for violations of those agreements). To what extent must the design of the planning process be considered an integral part of the planning task, and as such equally subject to design?

More detail and pdf  files of the book (which can of course be obtained from  my web site, fromXlibris, or the usual distributors) are available upon request. My question and hope is to find others interested in and working on these problems, and engage in discussions that can further the development of better solutions.

Thorbjoern Mann


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