‘New System’ Priorities: Diversity or Unified Vision?

A Fog Island Tavern Discussion

– Hey Bog-Hubert – got over your post-election excitement yet?
– Not exactly, Vodçek.
– Not exactly – what does that mean, exactly? Or, well, approximately, if you don’t do exactly?
– Well, right now I’m just wondering about all the blogs and sites that are oh so urgently proposing this or that ‘new system’ that should be adopted instead…
– Haven’t they been doing that for a while?
– True. Maybe I’m just starting to pay more attention.
– And?
– And I’m getting more and more confused and aggravated.
– Why is that? Well, the confusion part I understand: there’s just too much of all that floating around. But what’s aggravating you? Isn’t it encouraging that people are starting to think about these issues some more?
– Sure, if they just were the right issues.
– So you think they aren’t? Hmm. I could use some explanation…
– Okay: I know you’ve been looking at things like that too. Briefly, what are the main groups of controversies you see?
– Main groups? You mean the political parties?
– No, Vodçek. Sorry, my question wasn’t clear. I’m talking about the groups that are basically saying those parties, and the system they’re a part of, need to be replaced with something new.
– Not all of them are suggesting something new; aren’t many of them claiming to be ‘conservative’?
– Right: but they don’t mean conserving things as they are, more like going back to some mythical previous better state of affairs, aren’t they?
– I see what you mean. Even if it’s something traditional, inherited, it wouldn’t be just like that old system, but something new based on old principles? Well, I see many ‘New System’ groups calling for a more or less radical re-thinking of how society should be organized. Ditch the current ones, all parts and subsystems. I don’t see much specific detail in those, of the New Systems, that one could examine and discuss. And then there are all those groups that are doing very specific ‘alternative’ things: the commons projects, alternative currencies, sustainable agriculture or permaculture communities, alternative energy technologies, etc. Many good ideas, but hard to see how they’d fit into an overall picture.
– I agree with your impressions there. Any of those well-intentioned causes you would want to join, become a part of to create the new society, saving the human race?
– Oh man, I have enough trouble keeping my humble tavern going from day to day. But you are right. I can’t say I share the enthusiasm some of those people seem to have.
– And do you think about why that might be? Other than that some of those guys are just trying to make you feel guilty by accusing you of laziness, apathy, stinginess for not giving them money, or worse?
– Well, do you have a good explanation? You aren’t doing much of that enthusiasm-activism yourself, am I right? Other than scribbling in your little notebook there when there’s nobody else here you can shoot the breeze with?
– Touché, my friend. But hey, there are some ideas in this little notebook, some thinking about those issues, that explain why I am not out there ‘doing’ things. Well, as long as there’s nobody else keeping you distracted here, perhaps we can discuss some of it?
– Okay. Starting with why I don’t think the world is ready for THE BIG NEW SYSTEM yet? Apart from the fact that those websites and flyers mostly consist of complaints about how bad things are and how those current ‘isms’ – capitalism, industrialism, neo-liberalism, globalism etc. – need to be ditched. As I said, few convincing specifics about what the new system should look like.
– I agree, we aren’t ready for another big system. Not sure I agree with your ‘yet’ – whether we should go for one big ‘unified’ system again. The record on the few experiments we had with those grand schemes hasn’t been too encouraging, would you agree?
– I really don’t know, Bog-Hubert. Human societies today, — technology, trade, travel, politics, communications — have developed too far to really ignore the calls for some global agreements and order. We can’t really go back to a state where we fumbled around in small isolated tribes, assuming the things we do have no effect across the globe. But I don’t think we really have any good ideas yet about what a better system should be.
– ‘Yet’, yet again – we need to get back to that. For now, I agree: Even among the people who think they have the key to the design of THE NEW system, there is precious little agreement about what it should look like. So I’d say the chances for consensus about that unified vision they all call for are pretty slim. We — if you talk about humanity as a whole – still do not know and can’t agree on what that better new system should be. We don’t really know what provisions in such a system would work and what wouldn’t.
– So?
– So we should take a closer look at those alternative initiatives, experiments. Right now, I have come across estimates of such efforts already counting in the millions. No idea if it’s true, or what the bases for those numbers are. Most seem to be small, local, and struggling with limited resources. I think we can say that most of them are working in isolation, many trying to stay under the radar of ‘official’ systems that tend to see tem as subversive or worse. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see that they communicate well either with the outside world or among themselves. If they do, it’s mainly promotion pieces focusing on their ideas and hopes and successes, if any. Not a good basis for accumulating systematic, valid information about what works and what doesn’t.
– Don’t some of them see their main focus as the very key to making the BIG system work, and ask the entire world to awaken and accept it? And give them all more money?
– True. But okay, they are entitled to their faith. What I’m saying is that we need those experiments – many more, and as different and diverse as possible.
– I agree; that’s why I list that as a high priority. There should be a concerted effort to encourage and support those – on the condition that they are voluntary, not forcing people to participate, don’t get in each other’s or the existing systems’ ways in disruptive or aggressive manner, and most importantly that they agree to share their experiences in some coordinated and systematic fashion that allows others, the world, to learn from what they are doing.
– Hmm. Sounds good – but hey, doesn’t that already require some kind of global system?
– You are right. But that is, first off, not a BIG BROTHER governance and decision-making system, only a documentation, evaluation and discussion platform. You could say that the development of such a platform itself is an experiment. Starting small and local, but yes, aiming at involving many or all such initiatives, so global.
– The agreements of that system, or platform, as you call it, will require some decisions though. Beyond local, so: global, after all?
– Right again. But the decisions are not all-embracing whole system design decisions. Not even excluding alternative forms of communication or interaction, or replacing other institutions. So to the extent decisions – yes, ‘global’ decisions – are aimed at, they are sufficiently innocuous to serve as the basis for experiments about how to develop better decision-making modes? Because the current decision-making modes are part of the problem, aren’t they?
– Getting into treacherous territory there, Bog-Hubert.
– Perhaps. But isn’t it getting more obvious every day that Voting – the crucial element and crux of democracy — it’s more of a crutch? Simple and straightforward, sure. But I don’t think you can say it guarantees that the democratic principles of self-determination or that all concerns people may have about common plans will actually be heard nor given ‘due consideration’. Majority voting by definition permits ignoring the concerns of the minority…
– Okay, okay. So what you are saying is that thee will be a need to design such a platform, and that one of its features will have to be better decision-making methods. Well, I agree, that is an agenda that we don’t hear much about in the public media and political platforms: Can you draw a diagram of all that while I get some more coffee going?
– Sure. Got a napkin?

new-system-priorities-1a

– Ok, looks good. I see you added some issues down there — getting carried away already?
– Well, think about it. So far, we agreed that what’s needed are
• The ‘alternative’ experiments
• A forum and provisions for sharing and evaluating their experiences
• A ‘discourse’ platform for working out the global ‘road rules’ agreements
But since those agreements are not within any governance jurisdiction, wouldn’t there be a need for
• Some provisions for ensuring that those agreements are actually adhered to ?
Because they can’t be ‘enforced’ by any of the usual government policing and jurisdiction systems, they would have to be a different kind of arrangements. So that will need some innovative work. And I think that there will be a need for a better way of
• Selecting and appointing ‘leaders’ – people in positions to make decisions that can’t wait for the outcome of lengthy discussions.
And to the extent these people will wield power, won’t we have to rethink the problem of how to prevent that power from becoming addictive, leading to the temptations to abuse their power? I seriously feel that some better
• Tools for controlling power should be on the agenda. We don’t say anything about their order yet.
– Good grief, that is quite a package of work you’ve lined up there. No wonder our fearless leaders and candidates are a bit, shall we say, reluctant to even mention some of those. Hard to make meaningful campaign promises about those, eh?
– Sure. Quite controversial – which is precisely why they should be on the agenda.
– Okay, Bog-Hubert: at least there should be some meaningful discussion about those issues.
– More meaningful than their current treatment in the media, is that what you are saying? Because at least for some of the issues that are being talked about, the flood of opinions and rhetoric is already unmanageable. Almost meaningless for guiding sensible decisions.
– I agree. But…
– But — what’s bothering you?
– Well: those headings in the diagram, they are still so general that they don’t say much more than the usual complaints about problems with this and that. Calls for something to be done, but no specific details yet that one can get behind, don’t you agree? So you’d face the same kind of lack of engagement on the part of the public I think you’d want to enlist for that discussion?
– You are right. In the current form, the diagram doesn’t convey much substance yet. We’ll have to discuss some details: explaining why some new ideas and agreements are needed, sketching out what each of those components would do.
– And indicate why you think they can be made to work. We may need some help from our friends there. Let’s think about it for a while, until some of our usual suspects turn up.

– Hi guys, what’s that napkin doodle you are poring over there?
– Hello Commissioner, welcome to our little team. We are trying to figure out what the agenda really should be that you folks in government ought to be working on. Priorities…

Alternative Initiatives and Experiments

– Hmm. What’s this thing about ‘alternative experiments at the top here? Sounds subversive.
– We should have known that would look odd to you, what with all your calls for unified vision and purpose?
– Well, isn’t that what we need these days, come together to work on the urgent, common project of a more viable system to get us out of the mess we’re in, and the bigger mess we’re going to be in if we keep working at cross-purposes?
– Hear, hear, Commissioner. Yes, we need a unified vision we can all work on. It’s just what I have been saying for a long time, too.
– Hi Sophie, good morning. Amazing: you agree with our politician for a change? Well, can you tell us what that great, unified vision is going to be?
– Wrong question, Bog-Hubert: it will emerge once we get everybody to become aware of the whole system and acquire a consciousness of all of us being part of that whole together with the entire ecosystem. A new ethic…
– Oh yeah, that will take care of the economy, solve unemployment, inequality, and crime, eh?
– Whoa, Commissioner, is that a trace of sarcasm I hear, already? Suggesting a profound disagreement about the kind of unified vision we are supposed to embrace?
– Well, Bog-Hubert, it’s not the same thing. Sorry, Sophie, but that consciousness thing is just wishful thinking. Not a sound practical basis for reorganizing society. It needs negotiated compromise. Don’t hit me…
– Hey people, cool it, okay? Let’s not get into a brawl about specific Unified System Visions here. You are actually making the argument here, about why we need all those alternative experiments.
– How so? You’ll have to explain that, Vodçek.
– Okay, in principle, I’d agree: it would be great if we found that unified vision of the new and better system so many groups out there are talking about. But look at our first attempt to describe what it would be or should be like: big disagreement erupting before we even got started, about what it means and how to get there.. And I don’t’ think it’s just the two of you. Too much disagreement about it out there, all over. Doesn’t that tell us something: we – I mean humanity in general – don’t really know what that system, that vision should look like? Even if somebody really knows, too many others have different ideas about it. Too many to expect a unified consensus about the common effort we should start to get there any time soon. So… I think what Bog-Hubert is trying to say here is…
– Yes. We should just acknowledge that we don’t know. We’ve been through that before you guys came in, but it can’t be said often enough. Especially about the big, global system many think is needed. We have tried a few big systems, and so far none of them have met with universal approval, in spite of the intense propaganda from their promoters that flooded the media. Can’t we admit: we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t work for the big challenges we are facing? And spending all our chips on another big system without better evidence looks like an even worse idea than the muddling through we are doing now.
– Hmm. You’ve got a point there – and that’s why you’d let all those alternative crazies work on their separate blueprints to save the world?
– Right. I’d try to avoid the kind of name-calling though; many of those initiatives are run by very intelligent and well-intentioned people. Some of their ideas actually make a lot of sense, and I think we need to learn how they work out. The people doing that are often just working on a volunteer basis, — much cheaper and often more effective than big government contracts to big think tanks. Though to be fair, I’m sure some useful work is done there too. Most of them are small, local projects, and many are unquestionably improving matters – take the sustainability, organic and permaculture food projects – and do no harm, which can’t be said of all the big corporate activities. So they should be encouraged and supported rather than treated with suspicion and bureaucratic obstacles. The more diverse, the better. We need to learn from their experiences. But…

Sharing and evaluating experiences

– I knew it; there’s a but butting in.
– Yes, Sophie. As far as I can see, most of those initiatives and projects don’t really communicate well – not with the society and media in general, not even among themselves. So there’s little valid information available about their real experiences – what works and what does not work. Not much systematic evaluation. Much of the information they put out is just promotion — focused on the promises and whatever success they claim to have. Nothing about their obstacles and problems, other than that they really really need your donation.
– Yeah, and many of them actually are trying to sell the premises of their initiatives as THE basis for the next BIG system, for all to adopt.
– True. They should be given the opportunity to show some actual evidence for their claims, and a forum for fair but critical assessment. So the overall strategy should include encouragement and support. But on condition of sharing their experience in some organized and useful manner.
– ‘Organized’? That sounds like it will require some big system after all, Bog-Hubert? If those numbers you mentioned are real?
– Yes, that’s true. You’ll need some common format not only for compiling and documenting all that information, but also for the criteria and method for assessing the successes and failures. Big task. But there’s a significant difference: this ‘system’ can be designed and developed by those projects and initiatives themselves – not just ‘participation’ but actual decision-making, based on the interests and concerns of all the players involved.
– So there will be a ‘data base’ or documentation system for all the project information, and an ‘evaluation’ component with some common criteria and measures of performance based on what those initiatives are aiming at achieving, and a process for developing and displaying the results?
– Yes. And because that is not an all-powerful Big Brother Government system imposing its will upon all aspects of society, it will be a much less ideological and controversial process, don’t you think?
– Ah: if you are right – which remains to be seen though – it will be a good exercise project in itself – a testing ground for developing a better ‘self-governance’ system with all the aspects further down in your priority list. Sneaky.
– It was Abbé Boulah’s idea, that one, yes. He’s the sneaky one.
– So let’s look at those other parts of your list.
– Okay: which one?

Discourse platform

– The process you are talking about – developing the data base and evaluation system – already requires some common forum or platform where development ideas can be brought in, discussed, and decided upon, doesn’t it? Is that what that ‘discourse platform’ is supposed to be?
– Yes, Dexter. Glad you could join us, this gets into IT territory. And it will not just be like some of the social network platforms we know, nor a ‘knowledge base’ compilation of data, a data bank or encyclopedia-like system, but a ‘planning discourse support system’ aimed at developing, proposing and displaying, and discussing designs for the system itself, and then helping participants to make decisions based on the merit of those contributions – ideas, proposals and arguments pro and con. So that discussion must be accessible to all the participant entities.
– I see. It sounds plausible. But apart from the integration of the different programs, — feasible, but will take some work — won’t there be big practical implementation problems to do that? Just think of all the different languages all over the world, in which those contributions will be brought in. You can’t expect people will agree to one global language for that anymore – not in this post-colonial age. So there will have to be a massive translation effort to translate that discourse into all the different participant languages?
– True. And not only that. Much of the needed information will actually be in the form of scientific research, statistics, systems projects from many different disciplines? Each with their own vocabulary — disciplinary jargon, — replete with acronyms and greek letters and math equations. For a viable discussion, the content messages of those contributions must be translated into conversational language that ordinary citizens can understand. So yes, it will be a major project to coordinate that, and not an overnight process.
– And you’ll have to deal with all the problems we already know from the current scene of collaborative projects under various political systems.
– Such as?
– Well you have the ‘voter apathy’ syndrome – even in projects open to and relying on public participation. Many people just don’t participate or vote because they don’t really have the feeling that their input will count in any significant way. Then you have the ‘information overload’ problem – how can anybody digest all the information that’s flooding the media and social networks? You have the ‘trolls’ that just try to derail any meaningful discussion with irrelevant posts; personal attacks and insults and erroneous information – not even to talk about the problem of deliberately ‘false news’ – lies and distortions. And last not least the fact that the decisions — by so-called leaders or by referendum-type voting – can blatantly ignore even the most significant information and concerns of large parts of society.

New decision methods

– Yes, you are getting into the details of what’s needed to make any such planning platform work properly – in the best interest of all affected parties, in a really democratic way. So first, the system should provide some real participation incentives. And it should be organized so as to eliminate or at least reduce repetitious, irrelevant, erroneous and maliciously distractive and misleading content, and give people a good informative overview of the state of the discourse, don’t you think? Those are major design challenges – but we do have some ideas for improving things. Better decision modes for such planning systems remain a major issue.
– Hey, Bog-Hubert: all that doesn’t sound like a small local project anymore. You keep calling it a ‘planning discourse platform’ as if it were only a minor item on the agenda – but it is really a blueprint for the Big Global Discourse System, isn’t it?
– You are right in that any global governance system – as well as any local governance system if it wants to be really ‘democratic’ – will have to deal with the same issues and find acceptable solutions for them. The difference is that this is not a proposal for a ‘revolutionary’ upheaval replacing all the ‘evil’ current systems with another BIG System overnight.
– Or just a ‘get rid of the crooks’ effort that ends up just replacing the old crooks with different ones who will become just as bad and corrupted because the new systems hasn’t solved those problems you are pointing out here.
– So it looks like the ‘new decision models’ item on the priority list is really a high priority one. And that whatever the solution may be will look somewhat different from the ‘voting’ methods that are now considered as the key principle and guarantee of democracy? Can you give us some more details about what might make such methods work?
– Hey, putting a problem on the agenda doesn’t mean that we already have a solution, does it? Just that there is a problem and that we feel it is possible to fix it. But a key aspect, I think, is this: there must be a closer, more visible and recognizable connection between the merit of the information and arguments brought into the discourse, and the decision. That link is currently just a sanctimonious ideal: ‘let’s talk and then decide’.
– Sure, but a vote can, and too often does, ignore all the talk. So there’s work to do on that. But some of your Abbeboulahist ideas also justify hope – for example: if we can get a meaningful measurement tool for the merit of contributions, that measure can become a more decisive factor in the decision. And we have some ideas for that, too.

Few main ‘global’ agreements to facilitate ‘diverse’ aims

– True, Vodçek. So this system will be developed and emerge as a ‘parallel’ structure within the existing system, at first only dealing with the kinds of common agreements needed to draw useful lessons from the experiences of all those ‘local’ efforts. And aiming only at few decisions needed to facilitate the process – decisions like the ‘global, unified’ rules of the road – which side of the road to drive on to let everybody get to their ‘diverse’ destinations; or like the international rules for air or ocean traffic.
– Yeah, with all the translation and communication problems of such a global discourse, there won’t be that many decisions being agreed upon by that process, if you ask me. But I agree that some such common ‘road rule’ agreements will be needed, in this partial system as well as in the overall global system or non-system, if the Big Brother World Government is too scary a prospect.

Provisions for ensuring adherence to agreements:
‘enforcement’, sanctions?

– Hey, none of that is talking about any kind of World Government, I hope. Is it?
– Well, Sophie, think about it: Any kind of agreement or treaty or law – different names for essentially the same concept – will need some provisions for making sure that the agreement is kept, the rule is followed, and about what to do if it is violated. Deliberately or inadvertently.
– If all such agreements are reached by consensus by all the well-intentioned folks in a well-informed, spiritually conscious and aware community, and with more adequate decision procedures giving each participant’s concerns due considerations, will there still be such violations? Or at least not as many?
– Wouldn’t that be nice, Sophie. Won’t there always be people who feel that they aren’t getting as much of a benefit from a common decision as others, that they even get ‘the short end’ of it even if they couldn’t come up with sufficiently persuasive arguments to persuade the community or to justify a ‘no’ vote preventing the precious consensus decision? Peer pressure to agree resulting in a temptation to just bend the rules a little bit…? And then a little more?…
– I see where you are going here, Bog-Hubert, you cynic. You didn’t even mention all those sheer ornery or even pure evil folks. The problem isn’t just that there will still be such violations, but also that we – society – have not gotten past the traditional ways of dealing with them that we inherited from times when rules and laws were imposed by rulers who didn’t give a hoot about whether people were really adhering voluntarily to the rules because they agreed to them…
– What are you talking about, Vodçek?
– Law enforcement, of course, Sophie. The traditional approach is that laws have to be ‘enforced’ – that violators have to be punished so that they wouldn’t do it again, and to deter everybody else from even trying. And what Bog-Hubert is aiming at, — I have heard him talk about it with Abbé Boulah before – is that enforcement, prevention and application of force – requires that the enforcer must have more force, be more powerful, than any would-be violator. Otherwise, it’s not effective. So he is saying there should be different tools for ensuring that agreements and laws are adhered to – ‘sanctions’ that do not require ‘enforcement’. Am I right, Bog-Hubert?
– Couldn’t have said it better myself, Vodçek. One alternative would be something like sanctions that are triggered ‘automatically’ by the very attempt at violating a rule. Like the car ignition key that can sense if you are drunk and just won’t turn on if you are.
– Like that kind of thing can really fight crime and corruption. But what’s wrong with the ‘enforcement’ approach?
– Two things, Commissioner. One is escalation of enforcement tools. If criminals are getting better weapons than the police, the police must get better weapons, eh? Then the bad guys get even better gins, and so on… Not supportable, in the short or long run.
– Hmm. There oughta be a law…And the other reason?
– Power. You see it already at the local level, but it becomes critical on the level of international relations. It’s the reason people are very uncomfortable with the idea of World Government.
– I don’t get it.
– Well, you’ve heard the quip about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, haven’t you? Now if you have an enforcement agent or agency which does have better weapons, more powerful tools, than any would-be violator, what’s keeping that agent or agency from becoming tempted, ever so slightly, to bend the rules a little for itself? If the theory is true that it would take an enforcer with more power…
– Well, we have the balance of power of the different branches of government, and term limits, and impeachment rules, and so on, to constrain such power abuses, don’t we?
– True, and the claim is that they have been working adequately for quite a while. But many people are saying that those tools are getting to the limits of their effectiveness even al the local, regional and state levels. And seeing how often and how cleverly they have become ineffective, allowing power-holders to become evermore worried about the infringement of their power and their little abuses, and therefore seeking more power, and more clever, even ‘legal’ ways to circumvent their balance-of-power constraints. At the extreme, having to convince themselves that they really have the inviolate power by engaging in reckless activities – the Caligula syndrome.
– But those guys have always been brought down in the end, haven’t they? Well, most of them?
– Have they? At what cost of their own impoverished, murdered and ‘disappeared’ or otherwise oppressed citizens before they are stopped? Or that of other countries’ forces trying to bring them down? But think: if we have a World Government – one whose legitimate role is to ensure that agreements and treaties are adhered to, as we discussed – but whose tools for that are only ‘enforcement’ tools: weapons? And so-called ‘’security’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ systems that have to constrain the liberty of all citizens in order to be effective: With the kinds of weaponry we have nowadays, what could keep such a ‘government’ from falling victim to the temptations of power if there’s no more powerful agent to keep it in line?
– Right. So the concerns of people who oppose such governments are, shall we say, not entirely unfounded? And the governments who are supposed to ensure their citizens that they are not, — ‘trust me, trust me’ – in any way tempted to take some additional advantage of their power, are naturally and inevitably hesitant of divulging all the safeguards they have, so they won’t fall into the wrong hands: the secret service must be secret, after all. Mustn’t it?

Control of Power

– Okay. You’ve got us all worried, happy now? So the first conclusion is that we need some sanctions that don’t rely on enforcement, to ensure adherence to agreements. Keep it on the agenda. But what do we do about the issue of control of power itself, apart from the law enforcement aspect? Do we have any new ideas about that, or even grounds for optimism that better solutions can be found? Because I see that just the right of citizens to keep arms is not a solution, given the escalation problem and the other means of exerting power.
– No, Sophie, nobody has a brilliant solution up his or her sleeve yet. Just perhaps some different principles to bring to bear on the problem.
– Such as?
– Well, look at the concept of power itself, for starters. For the poor, the ‘disempowered’, the recurring slogan is always ‘empowerment’ – as if power were a universal human right, which we could argue is a good way of looking at it. Just like life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we always invoke. But we expect people to pursue, to work for, or pay for those things, not just to be ‘given’. At best, what’s ‘given’ or ‘endowed by the creator’ – or what a society agrees to grant all its members — is the right to pursue, not the right to get it without one’s own effort.
– That’s a concept that would need some discussion, my friend.
– Yes, we can discuss that, and what it means in detail. But to explore its implications here: what if we apply it to the power issue – specifically to the power to make decisions and take action on behalf of others, or that affect others in one way or the other. What if, say we’d ask people with such power to ‘pay’ for the decisions they make? Just like we expect the poorest fellows to pay for their loaf of bread they are allowed to buy at Wal-Mart to survive? By ‘paying’ we probably would need a different kind of currency than money.
– We might also look at some older forms of power control – patterns that have come to be despised lately, such as the hierarchical organization of societies.
– How did that control power? Wasn’t that the ultimate form of power abuse?
– Not always, Vodçek. See, in a hierarchy, the person at each level had a certain amount of power – the power to control and direct the activities of the subordinates, within certain limits set by their superiors. The unresolved issue was of course always the lowest and the top positions: the lowest ones had little or no power until they ‘earned it’ by whatever degrading means, and the top position had no one else to answer to – except supernatural ones in the afterlife.
– But there were some useful provisions in the form of controls by parallel boards with members from lower levels of the hierarchy, term limits and the like. They also tended to be older folks who weren’t as much tempted to certain distracting abuse as younger people. But again, the traditional controls seem to break down again and again, so the issue of meaningful and effective control for governance folks on the global level is still up for grabs. So I agree: the issue of control of power should be a high priority item.

Choosing the people for power positions

– All that sounds like you want to do away with all kinds of leadership positions. I’m not sure I can go along with that.
– You are quite right feeling uneasy about that, Sophie. But that’s not the intention at all. We do need people in positions of leadership and power.
– After all you went through show how they will be corrupted by power? I say kick the big shots out!
– Whoa, Renfroe. I understand how you can get impatient with some of their shenanigans. And how you might get the impression that with a better functioning ‘democratic’ decision-making system, we don’t need those bigwigs anymore.
– I’d say!
– But not all decisions need to run through such a process, and some can’t wait, they need a quick decision to deal with new situations. Think of a ship that finds itself suddenly on a course towards an iceberg. There has to be someone – the captain – who will have to make a quick decision: pass it on the port or starboard side? You can’t have a lengthy palaver to reach a decision: it must be done fast. And the problem is to have a process to appoint people to such positions, yes, power positions – whose expertise, skills, experience and judgment you can trust. And what safeguards have to be in place to prevent such people from getting tempted to abuse that power for purposes of his own that are contrary to the well-being of the ship and its crews and passengers.
– Okay, I see what you are saying. So do you have any trick up your sleeve for that problem? It’s what you’d call a dilemma, isn’t it? Giving a guy – or a gal – the power to make big decisions, but keeping them from making the wrong ones when they have all that power, and by definition, as you explained, no greater power to keep them in line?
– Well, can you see how that problem should have some better solutions for people in such positions in ‘global’ institutions, in world governments?
– Okay, it belongs on the list of priorities too, I agree.

Solutions?

– I still would like to know what gives you the idea that there are better solutions in sight for these problems. If a problem doesn’t have any solutions – like a genuine paradox or dilemma, why waste our time, money, and energy trying to find one?
– Good question, Commissioner. But for some of these issues, there actually seem to be some improvements in sight that should at least be explored and discussed.
– Explain that, please. I’m getting curious.
– I’ll leave it to Bog-Hubert – I think the way he drew that diagram shows how some answers to simpler questions in the list can help suggest solutions for others. Bog-Hubert?
– I’ll try to keep it simple. Take the idea we have discussed here before, of awarding contribution rewards to people who contribute ideas and arguments to the planning discourse we sketched out before. Basic credit points that simply will be an incentive for participation and providing information.
– That’s trying to get at the voter apathy issue, right?
– At least part of it. Now, the rule that only the first entry of an information item will get the credit, but not repetitions, will speed up the process. The assume we can put a process of evaluation in place, for the assessment of merit of each such entry – is it plausible, important, is there evidence or adequate support for the claims, do the arguments have weight. Then the original credits can be adjusted, upward for good merit items, downward for erroneous or unsupported, implausible claims and arguments. That will all help making better decisions, as a first effect. But in the process, participants are actually building up a ‘record’ of their contribution merit points.
– Ah, I see: and that record can be made part of the ‘qualification’ criteria for appointing people to positions of power? If they have made consistently meritorious contributions to the policy discourse for important issues, they can be considered better qualified than others whose entries have been shown to be unsupported and implausible?
– Right. Better judgment. But that’s not all. Those merit points can become a kind of alternate ‘currency’ for various purposes. One is the sanctions issue for violating agreements and ‘laws’. The penalties can be in the form of subtracting credit points from their accounts. Especially if some means can be found to identify attempts at violating agreements and laws as the attempt is started or going on, so that penalty points can be applied immediately, without having to involve heavy-duty law enforcement. So the size and extent of enforcement forces could be reduced, as well as the worry about enforcement by force and associated escalation, would you agree?
– I think that would take some fine-tuning, but yes, it’s an idea that should be explored. What about the power issue itself – didn’t you mention something about that as well?
– Yes indeed. The idea is to make people in positions of power ‘accountable’ for the decisions they make by having to ‘pay’ for each decision – again, with their merit credit points. If the decision is a flop, they lose the points – if it’s a good one, they earn them back, and perhaps more. ‘Profit’, eh?
– What about decisions that are so important, and therefore so ‘costly’, that officials can’t afford to make such decisions with their own points?
– Well, if you feel that such a decision should be made, that is, you support the leader who has to make it, how about transferring some of your own credits to his account? In that way, you are also ‘accountable’ for the decision – and perhaps less likely to let a populist loose cannon go around making disastrous decisions? If the decision is a good one, your ‘investment’ can ‘pay off’ in that you get your points back, perhaps with some ‘interest’? And if not, you lost your points just like the leader who made that dumb decision with your support…
– Oh man, you are getting way out there with these wild schemes.
– Well. It’s all up for discussion. Do you have any better ideas to deal with these challenges?

new-system-priorities-1f


Combining systems modeling maps with argumentative evaluation maps: a general template

Many suggested tools and platforms have been proposed to help humanity overcome the various global problems and crises, each with claims of superior ability or adequacy for addressing the ‘wickedness’ of the problems.

Two of the main perspectives I have studied – the general group of models labeled as ‘systems thinking’, ‘systems modeling and simulation’, and the ‘argumentative model of planning’ proposed by H. Rittel (who incidentally saw his ideas as part of a ‘second generation’ systems approach) have been shown to fall somewhat short of those claims: specifically, they have so far not been able to demonstrate the ability to adequately accommodate each others’ key concerns. The typical systems model seems to assume that all disagreements regarding its model assumptions have been ‘settled’; it shows no room for argument and discussion or disagreement, while the key component of the argumentative model: the typical ‘pro’ or ‘con’ argument of the planning discourse, — the ‘standard planning argument’ does not connect more than two or three of the many elements of a more elaborate systems model of the respective situation, and thus fails to properly accommodate the complexity and multiple loops of such models.

It is of course possible that a different perspective and approach will emerge that can better resolve this discrepancy. However, it will have to acknowledge and then properly address the difficulty we can now only express with the vocabulary of the two perspectives. This essay explores the problem of showing how the elements of the two selected approaches can be related in maps that convey both the respective system’s complexity and the possible disagreements and assessment of the merit of arguments about system assumptions.

A first step is the following simplified diagram template that shows a ‘systems model’ in the center, with arguments both about how the proposal for intervention in the system (consisting of suggested actions upon specific system elements) should be evaluated, and about the degree of certainty – the suggested term is ‘plausibility’ – about assumptions regarding individual elements.

A key aspect of the integration effort is the insight that the ‘system’ will have to include all the features discussed in the discourse under the terms of ‘plan proposal’ with its details of initial conditions, proposed actions (what to do, by whom, using what tools and resources, and the conditions for their availability), the ‘problem’ a solution aims at remedying, which is described (at least) by specifying its current ‘IS’ state, the desired ‘OUGHT’ state or planning outcome, the means by which the transition of is- to ought-state can be achieved; and the potential consequences of implementing the plan, including possible ‘unexpected’ side-and-after-effects. Conversely, the assessment of arguments (the “careful weighing of pros and cons”) will have to explicitly address the system model elements and their interactions – elements that should be (but mostly are not) specified in the argument as ‘conditions under which the plan or one of its features is assumed to effectively achieve the specific outcome or goal referenced by the argument.

For the sake of simplicity, the diagram only shows two arguments or reasons for or against a proposed plan. In reality, there always will be at least two arguments (benefit and cost of a plan), but usually many more, based on assessment of the multiple outcomes of the plan and actions to implement it, as well as of conditions (feasibility, availability, cost and other resources) for its implementation. The desirability assessments of different parties will be different; the argument seen as ‘pro’ by one party can be a ‘con’ argument for another, depending on the assessment of the premises. Therefore, arguments are not shown as pro or con in the diagram.

 

AMSYST 1
The diagram uses abbreviated notations for conciseness and convenient overview that are explained in the legend below, that presents some key (but by no means exhaustively comprehensive) concepts of both perspectives.

*  PLAN or P Plan or proposal for a plan or plan aspects

*  R    Argument or ‘reason’. It is used both for an entire ‘pro’ or ‘con’ argument about the plan or an issue, — the entire set of premises supporting the ‘conclusion’ claim (usually the plan proposal) and for the relationship claimed to connect the Plan with an effect, usually a goal, or a negative consequence of plan implementation, in the factual-instrumental premise.
The ‘standard planning argument’ pattern prevailing in planning discourse has the general form:
D(PLAN) Plan P ought to be adopted (deontic ‘conclusion’)
because
FI (PLAN –>R –>O)|{C} P has relationship R with outcome O given
Conditions {C} (Factual-instrumental premise)
and
D(O) Outcome O ought to be pursued (Deontic premise)
and
F{C} Conditions {C} are given (true)

The relationship R is most often a causal connection, but also stands for a wide variety of relationships that constitute the basis for pro or con arguments: part-whole, identity, similarity, association, analogy, catalyst, logical implication, being a necessary or sufficient condition for, etc. In an actual application, these relationships may be distinguished and identified as appropriate.

*    O or G   Outcome or goal to be pursued by the plan, but also used for other effects including negative consequences

*    M —   the relationship of P ‘being a means’ to achieve O

*     C or {C}     The set of a number of
c conditions under which the claimed relationship M between P and    O is assumed to hold

*     pl ‘plausibility’ judgments about the plan, arguments, and argument premises, expressed as values on a scale of +1 (completely plausible) to -1 (completely implausible) with a midpoint ‘zero’ understood as ‘so-so or ‘don’t know, cant decide’) in combination with the abbreviations for those:
*       plPLAN or plP plausibility judgment of the PLAN,
this is some individual’s subjective judgment.
*       plM plausibility of P being effective in achieving O;
*       pO plausibility of an outcome O or Goal;
*       pl{C} plausibility (probability) of conditions {C} being present;
*       plc plausibility of condition c being present;
*       plR plausibility of argument or reason R;
*       pl PLAN GROUP a group judgment of plan plausibility

*       wO weight of relative importance of outcome O ( 0 ≤ w ≤ 1; ∑w = 1)

*       WR Argument weight or weight of reason

Functions F between plausibility values:

*      F1     Group plausibility aggregation function:
n
pl PLANGROUP = F1 (plPLANq) for all n members q of the group
q=1, 2

*      F2    Plan plausibility function:
m
Pl(PLAN)q = F2 (WRi) for all m reasons R, by person q
i = 1,2…

*      F3   Argument weight function:

WRi = F3 pl Ri)* wOj

*     F4   Argument plausibility function:

Pl(Ri) = F4: {pl(P –>Mi –>Oi)|{Ci}) , pl(Oi), pl{C}}
The plausibility of argument R is a function of all
Premise plausibility judgments

*     F5     Condition set plausibility function:

Pl{C} = F5 (pl ck) pl of set {C} is a function of the
K = 1,2… plausibility judgmens of all c in the set.
n
*     F6 Weight of relative importance of outcome Oi: wOi = 1/n ∑ vOi
i=1,2…
Subject to conditions 0 ≤ wOi ≤ 1, and ∑wO = 1.

*    System S The system S is the network of all variables describing both the initial  conditions c (the IS-state of the problem the plan is trying to remedy), the  means M involved in implementing the plan, the desired ‘end’ conditions or goals G of the plan, and the relationships and loops between these.

The diagram does not yet show a number of additional variables that will play  a role in the system: the causes of initial conditions (that will also affect the  outcome or goal conditions; the variables describing the availability, effectiveness, costs and acceptability of means M, and potential consequences of both M and O of the proposed plan. Clearly, these conditions and their behavior over time (both the time period needed for implementation, and the assumed planning horizon or life expectancy of the solution) will or should be given due consideration in evaluating the proposed plan.


Some speculations regarding the possibility of a moral code without religion.

On a Linked-In forum, the question was raised whether a moral code without religion could be developed. My effort to look into ways to achieve better decisions for planning, design, policy-making issues suggests that it is indeed possible to develop at least a partial system of agreements — for which ‘moral code’ would be an unnecessarily pretentious term — but which has some of the same features. For problems, conflicts of interest or proposed actions or projects that require the consent and cooperation of more than one individual, (this does not cover all situations in which moral codes apply), as soon as parties realize that ‘resolutions’ based on coercion of any kind either will not really improve the situation or are fraught with unacceptable risks (the other guy might have a bigger club… or even one’s own nuclear weapon would be so damaging to even one’s own side that its use would be counterproductive) the basic situation becomes one of negotiation or, as I call it, ‘planning discourse’. Such situations can be sustained and brought to success only on the basis of the expectation that parties will accept and behave according to some agreements. The set of such agreements can be seen as (part of) an ethical or moral code. For the planning discourse, a rough sketch of first underlying ‘agreements’ or code elements are the following:

**1 Instead of attempting to resolve the problem by coercion — imposing one side’s preferred solution over those of other parties — let us talk, discuss the situation.

**2 The discussion will consist of each side describing that side’s preferred outcome, and attempting to convince the other side (other parties) of the advantages –or disadvantages — of the proposal.

**3 All sides will have the opportunity to do this, and all sides implicitly promise to listen to the other’s description and arguments before making a decision.

**4 The decision will (should) be based on the arguments brought forward in the discussion.

*4.1 The description of proposals should be truthful and avoid deception — all its relevant features should be described, none hidden; no pertinent aspects omitted.

*4.2 The arguments should equally truthful, avoiding deception and exaggeration, and be open to scrutiny and challenge, which means that participants should be willing to answer questions for further support of the claims made in the descriptions and arguments.

Simplified ‘planning arguments’ consist of three types of claims:
a) the factual-instrumental claim
‘proposal A will bring about Result B, given conditions C’
b) the factual claim ‘
‘Conditions C are (or will be) given’;
c) the ‘deontic’ or ‘ought-claim’
‘Consequence B of the proposal ought to be pursued’;
and also
d) the ‘pattern’ or inference rule of the argument (that is, the specific constellation of assertions, negation of claims and relations between A and B) is ‘plausible’.
While such arguments (just like the ‘inductive’ reasoning that plays such a significant role in science) are not ‘valid’ from a formal logic point of view, they are nevertheless used and considered all the time, their plausibility deranging from their particular constellation of claims, and the ‘fit’ to the specific situation.
The plan proposal A is itself a ‘deontic’ (ought-) claim.

*4.3 The support for claims of type (a) and (b) takes the form of ‘evidence’ provided and bolstered by what we might loosely call the ‘scientific’ perspective and method.

*4.4 Support for claims of type c) will take further arguments of the ‘planning argument’ kind and pattern, containing further factual and deontic claims in support of the desirability of B.
The deontic claims of such further support arguments can refer to previous agreements, accepted laws or treaties that imply acceptance of a disputed claim, claims of desirability or undesirability for any party affected by the proposed plan, even moral rules derived from religious domains.

**5 Individual participants’ (preliminary) decision should be based on that participant’s individual assessment of the plausibility of all the arguments pro and con that have been brought up in the discussion.
That assessment should not be superseded by considerations extraneous to the plan proposal discussion itself — such as party voting discipline — but be a function of the plausibility and weights assigned by the individual to the arguments and their supporting claims.

**6 A collective decision will be based on the overall ‘decisions’ or opinions of individual participants.
(The current predominant ‘majority voting’ methods for reaching decisions do not meet the expectation #4 above of guaranteeing that the decision be based on due consideration of all expressed concerns: here, a new method is sorely needed).

A decision to adopt a plan by the participants (parties affected by the proposed plan) in such a discussion should only be taken (agreed upon) if all participants’ assessment of the plan is positive or at least ‘not worse’ than the existing problem situation that precipitated the discussion.

**7    Discussion should be continued until all parties feel that all relevant concerns have been voiced. Ideally, the discussion would lead to consensus regarding acceptance or rejection of the proposed plan. If this is the case, a decision can be taken and the plan accepted for implementation.
Realistically, there may be differences of opinion: some parties will support, others oppose the plan. The options for this case are either to abandon the process (to do nothing), to attempt to modify the plan to remove specific features that cause opponents’ concerns; or to prepare a different proposal altogether and start a new discussion about it.

**8    Individual parties’ ‘decision’ (e.g. vote) contribution to the common decision should be matching the party’s expressed assessment of the arguments and argument premises.
For example: if a participant agrees with all the ‘pro’ arguments and disagrees with the ‘con’ arguments (or expressed lesser weigh of the ‘con’ arguments) the participant’s overall vote should be positive. Conversely, if the participant’s assessment of arguments is negative, the overall ‘vote’ should be negative. Participants should be expected to offer additional explanations of a discrepancy between argument assessment and overall decision.

**9 A common decision to accept a proposed plan implies obligations (specified in the plan) for all parties to contribute to implementation and adherence to the decision provisions.

**10 The plan may include provisions to ensure adherence and contributions by the parties. Such provisions may include ‘sanctions’, understood as (punitive) measures taken against parties guilty of violating plan agreements.
There undoubtedly might be more agreements needed for a viable planning ‘ethic’. It is clear that some of the above provisions are not easy to ‘live up to’ — but what moral system has ever been? And for some provisions, the necessary tools for their successful application are still not available. For many societal decisions, access to the discussion (to be able to voice concerns) is lacking even in so-called advanced democracies. Some expectations may sound like wishful thinking: The expectation of transparent linkage between argument assessment and overall (individual) decision and even more the linkage between arguments and collective decision are still not available. The approach for systematic and transparent argument assessment (My article in the Dec 2010 issue of “Informal Logic” on ‘The structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments’) suggests that such a link would be feasible and practical, if somewhat more cumbersome that current voting and opinion polling practices. However, its application would require some changes in the organization of the planning discourse and support system, as well as decision-making methods.

These observations were mainly done in response to the question whether a ‘moral’ not based on religious tenets would be possible (and meaningful?). That question may ultimately be taken to hinge on item # 10 above — the sanction issue. The practical difficulties of specifying and imposing effective sanctions to ensure adherence to moral rules may lead many to the necessity of accepting or postulating sanctions and rewards to be administered by an entity in the hereafter. But it would seem reasonable to continue to explore such agreement systems including sanctions in the ‘here and now’ beyond current practices, since both non-religious and religion-based systems arguably have not been successful enough reducing the level of violations of their rules.


Some rules for effective evaluation and mapping of planning arguments.


The various crises facing humanity will require significant changes in current practice, habits, behaviors. Such changes cannot be imposed by governments or other authorities without running the risk of creating resentment, resistance and possible violent confrontation, adding to the dangers. The decisions to be taken must arise from a participatory discourse that is accessible to all parties potentially affected by a plan or decisions, in which all contributions, questions, suggestions and arguments are heard, and in which the merit of such contributions will have a visible impact on the decisions taken. Current governance practice does not provide this. The missing elements are first, a platform or framework for such a discourse, and second, a way of measuring the merit of contributions, the merit of arguments. Without such a measure, decisions can all too easily ignore or even go against the result of discussion; the perception that this is the case even in current ‘democratic’ regimes explains the voter ‘apathy’ — the declining participation in elections: the sense that one’s vote does not really make a difference in the decisions made by the people elected.

There are various commendable efforts and programs on the market that aim at improving planning and policy-making, political discourse. A common concern is ‘argument mapping’, ‘debate mapping’ — the effort to provide a convenient overview of the discussion through graphic representations of the relationships between the discussion elements: issues, claims, proposals, arguments. The tools currently on the market do not yet meet the requirements for a systematic and transparent evaluation. To encourage the further development of these tools, it may be helpful to summarize these requirements: the following is a first attempt to do so.

The arguments we use in such planning discussions have not received the attention of logic, even informal logic, or rhetoric, that one would expect given their ubiquity: humanity quarrels about ‘what we ought to do’ as much if not more that about the ‘facts’ of the world. The arguments used in such discussions are of a type I have called ‘design arguments’ or ‘planning arguments’. Even in informal logic textbooks, where they are discussed, for example, as ‘proposal arguments’ , their structure is not analyzed sufficiently well to permit a systematic evaluation. An approach for such evaluation of planning arguments has been presented e.g. in the article ‘The structure and evaluation of planning arguments’ in Informal Logic December 2010. Elaborating on that discussion is the following brief exploration of how planning arguments should be represented, and presented in argument maps, for example, so as to facilitate evaluation.

Recapping: The typical planning argument can be described as follows:

The proposed plan or decision — denoted here as ‘x’
is supported (or attacked) by the argument:

‘X ought to be adopted (implemented) (the ‘conclusion’)
because
x is related to effect y (the ‘factual-instrumental premise)
and
y ought to be pursued. (the deontic premise)

A more elaborate version might include some qualifications , say, of conditions c under which the relationship between x and y holds, and an assertion that those conditions are indeed (or are not ) present, now condensed in a form that uses the symbol ‘F’ for a factual premises, ‘and ‘D; for the deontic (ought) premise:

D(x)
because
F(x REL y | c)
and (D( y )
and
F ( c )

The relation REL is a common label for any of the usual links between x and y: a ‘categorical’ link or claim (e.g.: ‘x IS y’); a causal claim (‘x CAUSES y’) or a ‘resemblance claim’ (‘x is LIKE y’); according to each case at hand, there may be variations or other connections invoked.

In textbooks discussion of ‘proposal arguments’, this structure is usually not presented completely. Thus, an argument maybe rendered as ‘x should be adopted because it causes y’; or ‘x ought to be because its effect y is desirable’. In both cases, only one premise is explicitly stated. The practice of omitting premises that ‘can be taken for granted’, (resulting in an ‘enthymeme’ — an incomplete argument) is common, as already Aristotle made clear. But such an argument can be opposed on very different grounds: An opponent of ‘x’ may not be convinced that x will indeed result in y. Another opponent may agree that x does cause y but does not consider y desirable. A third participant may feel that yes, y might be a good thing, and even agree that x may be helpful in getting y, but only if certain conditions are present, and since they are not, hold that implementing x is not warranted. Yet another observer may simply feel that x is not the best way to get y: a different plan should be considered. These objections are aimed at different premises, some of which are not explicitly stated.

This means that if the argument is to be evaluated in any meaningful way, the elements at which these opinions are directed must all be stated explicitly, visibly. This is the first of several ‘rules’ needed to ensure meaningful evaluation:

The Premise Completeness Rule:

All premises of a planning argument
— the factual-instrumental premise, including qualifying conditions as applicable;
— the deontic premise;
— the factual premise regarding qualifying conditions
must be stated explicitly.

It is necessary to clarify that some claims of arguments — that are often part of argument pattern representations in popular textbooks — should NOT be included in the display of a single planning argument because they are really arguments about ‘successor issues’: issues arising from challenges to main argument premises. Even the widely accepted representation of arguments by Toulmin (The Uses of Argument, 1958) makes this mistake: his argument diagram

D (Datum) ————————–> Q (qualification) —–> C (conclusion)
|
since
|
W (warrant)
|
because
|
B (Backing)

though not a planning argument, is an example of selective inclusion of premises that really are parts of successor issue arguments. Here, the Warrant (W) is the premise making the connection between D and C; the backing B is the arguer’s preventive move in anticipation of a challenge to that premise. But any premise can usually be challenged on several kinds of grounds, not only one. So either the backing should properly include all those grounds (which of course would make the argument unwieldy and complicated), or the inclusion of one such ground to bolster the warrant is a selective complication of the main argument with one partial argument for the successor issue: Is the warrant W true? (or plausible?– the preferred term for argument evaluation). For that matter, isn’t it possible to also challenge the Data (D)? So could the argument not contain another claim supporting the veracity or validity of the data claim? The upshot of this is that for a useful representation of the arguments in a map, or a tool for evaluation, the argument itself should be reduced to its basic structure. For the planning argument, a resulting ‘map’ would look like this:

Issue / argument map, generic

Issue / argument map, generic

The Overall Argument Completeness Rule

The generic map above shows only three arguments, which may be all that have actually been entered in a discussion. In argumentation textbooks, the emphasis is usually on the analysis of individual arguments — just as in formal logic, or even scientific method, the truth or falsity of a claim is taken to be adequately established by means of one single valid argument with true premises. It is curious that the familiarity of the ‘careful weighing of pros and cons’ often heard in official speeches is not reflected in the academic analysis of the arguments that constitute such pros and cons, specifically in the examination of the question of how such weighing might actually be done. The practice of argumentation in the political arena looks even less reassuring: political advertising tends to focus only on a few ‘key’ issues and arguments, and the relentless repetition of those points in TV and radio spots.

A modest amount of reflection should show that for some thorough deliberative effort of evaluation of the merit of pro and con arguments to reach a meaningful decision, all pro and con arguments should be included in the evaluation. That is, all potential effects of a proposed plan should be looked at and evaluated. The rationale for greater citizen participation in public planning and policy-making is in part the fact that the information of all such effects is distributed in the citizenry — the people who are affected have that knowledge, so they must be called upon to bring it into the discussion. Reliance on experts (who are usually not or very differently affected by government plans) cannot guarantee that all such pertinent knowledge is brought to bear on the decision. The only area where a thorough examination of all aspects is attempted is the practice of ‘benefit / cost analysis’ applied to big government or business planning. But this technique is invariably carried out by experts, public participation is mostly prohibited by the specialized terminology and technique.

The implication of this issue is that the discourse about public plans must be carefully orchestrated to ensure that all ‘pros and cons’ are actually raised and identified so that they can be included in the evaluation. On the one hand, people must be encouraged to contribute that information; on the other hand, the ‘overview’ representation of the set of aspects should not be obscured by repetition and rhetorical embroidery. Both requirements are difficult to satisfy.Some participants may not wish to reveal advantages a plan would bestow upon them — that other might consider unfair; or identify disadvantages to other parties (that these are not aware of) if this would require remedies reducing their own benefits. This has led me to suspect that the discourse must be considered systemically incomplete (and therefore, evaluation results should not be used directly as decision criteria). Nevertheless, the aim must be for all pros and cons to be brought out to be considered.

For the map representation of a discussion, this raises the question whether maps should ‘suggest’ issues that might be important to examine — even if they haven’t been raised by actual human participants but by some enhanced search engine, for example. Maps might show ‘potential issues’ in shades of grey as compared to highlighted issues that have actually been raised. The systematic generation of issues, even the construction of potential arguments by artificial intelligence programs based on information stored in data banks are both within reach of technological feasibility, and should be discussed carefully. This is a topic for a different investigation, however.

Besides other criticisms of the methodology — for example, the difficulty of assigning monetary costs or benefits to ‘intangible’ aspects — a key problem inherent in cost-benefit is that the effects of a plan must be declared as costs or benefits (by the experts) as perceived by some entity (e.g. the government funding the analysis) — an entity that is just one party, one side in the controversy. This is the subject of the next point:

The Pro / Con Identification Rule

In cost-benefit studies as well as in most if not all argument mapping programs, aspects and arguments are identified as ‘pro’ or ‘con’ (‘costs’ and ‘benefits’) — a practice that on the surface seems crucial for anyone trying to carefully review all the pros and cons in order to reach a deliberated decision. And in discussions, arguments are certainly entered by participants as supporting or opposing a proposed plan. So it seems eminently plausible that the maps should reflect this.

However, this practice hides the fact that effects of plans may not be beneficial for all people affected; indeed, one person’s ‘benefit’ (and thus ‘pro’ argument) may be another person’s ‘cost’ -(and thus a ‘con’ argument). In addition, once beginning the evaluation process, people will assign different weights and expressions of agreement / disagreement to different premises. these can have the effect of turning an an argument intended as a ‘pro’ argument and even initially accepted as such by the evaluator into a ‘con’ argument for that person: I may look at an argument meant to support plan x by pointing out that it will cause effect y given conditions c, and find that while I indeed believe that x will produce y, upon reflection y does not seem such a good idea. Or that I believe both that x will cause y under conditions c, and y is a worthy goal, but that conditions c are not present, which makes the effort to implement x a futile one. But seeing the argument identified in a map as a ‘pro’ argument may make it look like an established point, and that I have made a mistake: the map is ‘taking sides’ in the evaluation, as it were: the side of the agency funding the analysis, or simply the side of the participant entering that particular argument.

For that reason, it is better to refrain from accepting the intended ‘pro’ and ‘con’ label of arguments in the map. Whether an argument is a pro or con reason for a specific person is a result of that person’s assessment, not the proponent’s intention. Therefore, both in the list or collection of arguments, in evaluation forms and in argument maps, the labeling of arguments as supporting or opposing should be avoided. (This is a main reason for my rejection of most ‘debate-mapping’ and ‘argument mapping’ programs and techniques on the market today.)

The Rule of Rejecting some Arguments
(e.g. characterization, ad hominem, authority arguments, ‘meta-arguments’)

The previous ‘completeness’ rule may be misunderstood as advocating the admission of all kinds of arguments into maps and in the evaluation process. There are some important exceptions: for instance, arguments or premises that merely characterize a plan or claim, but don’t offer a reason for such characterization. The remark “This is a crazy idea” is indeed a forceful opposition statement against a proposal. But it is not really an argument — and therefore should not be entered into either formal evaluation forms nor argument maps. The same is true for positive (‘like’ or “wow, what a beautiful, creative proposal) expressions of support. They have the same status as ad hominem arguments (‘the author of the plan is a crook’) or arguments from authority (the principle goes back to Aristotle!’) — they suggest that the number of supporters, or the character of proponents, the fame of a philosopher who endorsed a concept, are adequate reasons to accept a claim. Once stated fully as such, the fallacy usually becomes obvious. Now sure, we agree that denigrating the messenger because of his flawed character is not by itself a good indication of the quality of the message — but is the citing of authorities not a common practice, even a condition for respectability in scientific work? How can it be wrong or inadmissible?

To the extent such expressions do have a legitimate place in the discourse and evaluation process, they are recommendations of how we should evaluate the plausibility of individual claims of an argument, they are not arguments about the plan x themselves. We accept an argument from a scientific authority because we assume that such a famous scientist would have very good reasons, evidence, data, valid calculations, measurements to back up his claim. Even so, such arguments often deteriorate into silly discussions not about that evidence for a claim, but about the reliability of the authority’s judgment, hurling stories about many other silly, untrue things that person also believed against the authority’s unchallenged record — all having nothing to do with the merit of the claim itself. So the venerable academic practice of citing sources belongs in the body of arguments and evidence of successor issues, not in the main argument about a plan nor in the maps showing the relationships between the issues and claims:

The first-level arguments about a plan should not contain
– arguments of characterization;
– ad hominem arguments (positive or negative);
– arguments from authority;

The same reservations hold for ‘meta’-arguments that make claims about the set of arguments in the discussion, or even in principle: “There is no reason to support this proposal”; “All the arguments of the opponent are fallacious”; “We haven’t heard any quantitative evidence questioning the validity of the proposal…” and the like. This is not to say that such observations do not have a place in discussions. They can serve an important purpose — such as to remind participants to provide substantial evidence, data, and support for their arguments. But these meta-arguments talk about the state of the discourse, not about the proposed plan — and therefore should likewise be omitted from representations of the discussion, argument maps, or evaluation tools of that plan itself. Perhaps there should be a separate ‘commentator’ rubric for such observations about the state and quality of the discussion itself.

The Rule of Rewarding Participation

The last observation above raises another important issue: that of the degree and sincerity of participation in the discussion. Just like the phenomenon of ‘voter apathy’ held responsible for low voter turnout in elections, the experience with efforts to engage participants in online discussion to ratchet up their contributions from just exchanging comments to the more demanding task of collaborative writing more comprehensive summaries or reports on the results of their discourse has been disappointing. Even the extra effort to switch to a different platform without the normal length limits of online discussion posts, and permitting the inclusion of visual material (maps, pictures) has been ‘too much’ for discussion participants normally quite eager to exchange arguments and share material researched on the web.

It is misplaced to accuse such people of ‘apathy’ or merely being motivated by the excitement of the online discussion (the nature of this motivation may not be very well understood yet). The reason for voter apathy and this reluctance of discussion participants might be more properly seen in the lack of meaningful rewards for such engagement. Voters who perceive — with or without justification — that their votes do not have a significant impact on government decisions, will be less eager to vote; discussion participants who don’t see what difference a summary of their contributions would make in the larger scheme of things will not be eager to go beyond the venting of their frustrations and exchange of opinions. Most online discussions ‘die down’ after some time without having reached any meaningful resolution of the subject debated.

Online social networks have tried to respond to this phenomenon with features such as the count of ‘friends’ or ‘network connections’ — or simple evaluation devices in the form of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ (thumbs up or down) buttons. These efforts turn into quite meaningless competitive numbers efforts, which suggests nothing more that how meaningless they are (how many ‘friends’ do we have on Facebook that we wouldn’t even know if we met them in the street?) — but are encouraged by the networks because they help the advertising part of their enterprise.

It turns out that the suggested tool of argument evaluation for the discourse framework might offer a better approach to the problem of rewarding participants for their contribution. Going beyond the mere count of posts in a discussion, the evaluation of argument plausibility and argument weight (the argument’s plausibility modified by the weight of relative importance of its deontic premise) of planning arguments, as evaluated by the entire group of participants in the evaluation exercise, can be directly used as a measure for the value of a participant’s contributions. (The details of scoring are developed in more detail in a paper on a proposed argumentative planning and argument evaluation game; draft available on request.)

This feature leads to the possibility of building up a reputation record of different types of contributors: for example, a participant’s contribution to the development (through modification) of the plan eventually adopted or recommended; the ‘creative’ contributor supplying innovative solution ideas; the solid ‘researcher’ finding information pertinent to the discussion on the net, the ‘influential’ participant whose arguments lead other participants to change their minds; the ‘thorough / in-depth deliberating participant’ who is delving more deeply into the evidence and support for argument premises in successor issues; the person with the most reliable offhand judgment whose initial assessment turns out to be closest to the final deliberated result by the entire group, and so on).

The possibility of building up such cooperative contribution records — that might be included in a person’s resume for job applications or profile for public office positions — could provide the needed reward mechanism for constructive participation in discussions about significant public issues.

The Rule of Improving Proposed Plans rather than forcing a decision

One aspect of the purpose of public discourse deserves some special consideration. There are various reasons for the widespread perception of argumentation as an adversarial, divisive activity. For example: the spectacle of many ‘debates’ of candidates for public office, where the aim of each debater is to make the opponent look less fit for the job by refuting the opponents arguments, or goading the opponent into making foolish assertions (that can then be used in ‘attack ads’). Even more so, the decision mechanism applied both in elections and decisions in ‘decision-making bodies’ in government and private enterprise: majority voting. It will provide a decision, which may be convenient or even critical in some cases — but at the expense of ignoring the arguments, the concerns of a significant minority of participants. The practice of enforcing ‘party discipline’ in voting in parliamentary bodies is entirely obviating discussion — if the majority party has the votes, no debate is necessary. The victory celebrations of the winners of such votes overshadow the fact that the quality of the plans or policies voted upon has totally disappeared from the process.

The introduction of merit of discourse measures into such discussions could help reverse this problem: the contribution rewards to individual participants could — and should — be structured to favor the development of ‘better’ proposals. By this is meant, here, plans modified step by step from the initial proposal by amendments or changes, in response to concerns expressed by participants, and with the aim of achieving a greater degree of approval from a larger group of participants, and at least acceptance as ‘not making things worse than before’ by the adversely affected minorities. The goal of ‘complete consensus’ is an ideal that may be too difficult to achieve in many cases, and tempt lone dissenting holdouts to adopt a position of de facto ‘dictating’ no action. But a discourse participation reward structured to encourage the improvement of plan proposals rather than mere majority vote decisions may help improve not only the discourse about public issues but the resulting decisions as well.

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