Notes for The Ontology of Deliberation

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Colloque “Evaluations morales des technologies controversées dans les conférences citoyennes” – Lisbonne, 14-15 mai 2009

Ontologies of deliberation embodied in participatory procedures: the place for moral dilemmas


José Maria Castro Caldas (CES – University of Coimbra):

Laura Centemeri (CES – University of Coimbra):


Joao Arriscado Nunes (CES – University of Coimbra):


The authors of the present paper had recently the opportunity of participating as organizers and observers in a “deliberative forum” on nanotechnology held in Coimbra (Portugal) the 7th of March 2009, in the frame of the research project “Deepening Ethical Engagement and Participation in Emerging Nanotechnologies” (DEEPEN), funded by European Commission (6th Framework Program).

The DEEPEN project is a leading research partnership for integrated understanding of the ethical challenges posed by emerging nanotechnologies in real world circumstances, and their implications for civil society, for governance, and for scientific practice1. As part of the tasks of the project, questions surrounding the design and implementation of experimental approaches for deliberative fora, focusing on ethical issues associated with nano-sciences and nano-technologies, are explored.
One of the main features of experimental forms of public participation is the possibility of articulating a heterogeneous range of actors and modes of knowledge production, and aligning a diversity of publics, scientists and social scientists for the debate of ethical and social implications of new technologies. Still, engaging with new and emerging sciences and technologies (NEST), such as nanotechnology, raises a number of questions which have not been adequately dealt with in current or past designs of deliberative procedures. In particular, participants in debates over NEST are faced with technologies in the making, which cannot be assessed on the basis of their actual consequences for society, environment or health or for their effects on specific groups or collectives.
One of the key questions faced by the Coimbra DEEPEN team was therefore how to select the participants in the deliberative workshop. The criterion of involving “affected people” needed to be re-interpreted, since most of the effects of nanotechnologies are located in the future: already constituted public “matters of concern” (Latour, 2005) are in this case missing and what can be discussed are potential future implications marked by “radical uncertainties” (Callon et al., 2001). Under these conditions, the Coimbra team’s option was to select potential “carriers of concerns” which were likely to be broadly shared by “common citizens”. “Engaged citizens” were identified, in particular activists involved in groups, organizations and movements already constituted and active on a range of public concerns (from environmental issues to human rights). People already involved in discussions associated with new and emerging technologies (not necessarily nanotechnologies), like movements of popularization of science, groups working with alternative views of knowledge, therapeutic and body-oriented practice, were as well asked to participate. Two scientists working in nanotechnology were as well invited to take part in the deliberative experiment.
The deliberative forum started with a plenary session in the morning2. A brief presentation of the DEEPEN project team and the deliberative forum, its organization, rules and aims was made by one of the team members. A plenary session followed, starting with participants (16 in total, plus the DEEPEN team and three observers) introducing themselves. The morning plenary session continued with the presentation of the two topics selected by the research team as matters of concern of the deliberative forum: 1) control, regulation, public policies and nanotechnology; 2) political economy of nanotechnology. These topics were identified as relevant “matter of concerns” in a previous phase of the project, characterized by the organization of specific focus groups with different categories of potentially concerned citizens3. The presentation was divided into four parts, featuring respectively two “concerned citizens” selected among participants of the focus groups carried out previously, and two scientists working on nanotechnology, who offered their views as researchers, with a focus on the area of nanotechnology application in health.
These four presentations identified a number of themes, among them: nanotechnologies in military applications, surveillance, health and environmental risks of nanotechnologies, disparities in regulation and accountability between the health domain (genetic and viral therapies for Parkinson’s disease) and the industrial domain (engineering applications and materials), ethics and social responsibilities of science and scientific research, science communication, regulation, accountability and citizen participation, positive effects of nano research and nano technologies on economy and on the health domain.
Participants were then divided in two groups, maintaining as much diversity as possible in their composition. For each group, a facilitator and observers were assigned. These group sessions were organized in two parts: in the morning, participants were asked to draw a list of problems and concerns around nanotechnologies. After the lunch break, participants were requested to discuss possible responses to the problems and concerns previously identified. Both groups elaborated a list of contributions to the final session, where the recommendations proposed by the two groups were discussed in order to draw a “position document” meant as the output of the deliberative forum (see Annex).
Those of us less familiar with deliberative fora acting in the circumstance as observers were initially struck by the relaxed tone of the exchange. Having in mind the controversies on nanotechnologies this was indeed surprising. Seemingly the participants in the forum were engaged in a conversation with the attitude of people playing a game (jeu de salon) with no stakes involved. What might have been the comment of a game theorist occurred to some of us: this was just “cheap talk”.
However, as the organizers reminded that there would be a final statement of conclusions to be underwritten by the participants wishing to do so, the tone of the exchange was somewhat modified. Now it was becoming apparent that for some of the participants there was indeed something at stake. For the scientists and science communicators in the room, the reputation of science in general, and of research in nanotechnologies in particular, was at stake. However for others in the room the stakes were much less salient. It became apparent that this, and not only the differences in capabilities of argumentation and speaking in public –still present and easily detectable as elements of facilitation or obstacle to participation- might account for the more active and engaged role of scientists observed in the discussion process. In fact, in the DEEPEN experimental deliberative forum ,“lay” citizens, scientists in the field of nanotechnology and science communicators all shared the same space of discussion, but only scientists and science communicators could really be described as “stakeholders”, being in fact the only ones who had an identifiable stake in the exercise.
But what does it mean to have a stake in the exercise of deliberation? It involves first of all to have the resources, of knowledge and experience, to imagine effects of activities that can originate as products of deliberation and potentially affecting the person deliberating. It implies, as we are going to discuss in the following paragraphs, an action-oriented approach to deliberation, connected with the existence of attachments to the object discussed: changes in the object can affect the person in ways that the person can imagine.

The debate proceeded with meaningful silences and utterances. The former included: (a) the “ends” of society in pursuing research and development of nanotechnologies and the existence or non-existence of alternative means to achieve the same ends; (b) scientific uncertainties in respect to nanotechnologies and possible hazardous consequences. As for the first point, what we observed in the debate was that people participating in the discussion were considering “social ends” or “social goals” linked to the development of nanotechnology (basically the answer to the question “why we need nanotechnology?”) as taken for granted, external to the discussion. The result was that these ends/goals were never clearly stated during the deliberative process and they were never the case for an open discussion. A general idea of nanotechnology potentially contributing to the “good” for society, even if with possible negative side effects, was the taken for granted frame of the debate. This frame was in part induced by the “matter of concerns” the research team suggested as starting point for the debate: regulation and control were explicitly presented as main topics for discussion, thus contributing to increase the legitimacy of the frame. Scientists were as well actively engaged in stressing the central role of regulation and control as consubstantial to sound scientific development and practical applications of nanotechnologies. This went with their emphasis on possible negative side-effects of nano-technologies presented in terms of risks (with no reference to conditions of radical uncertainties), and the need to control them (through regulation). In fact, as we already said, radical uncertainties were never evoked in the debate. The issue of the “effective regulation” became rapidly the central issue in a debate dominated by the search for the “best means” available to assure a scientific and technological development of nanotechnology contributing to the (unexplored and underspecified) common good.

Discussing the experience of the DEEPEN deliberative forum, organizers and observers concluded that the design of the forum in fact contributed to determine the final outcome. This outcome was defined in terms of a type of “hybrid forum” not living up to current definitions of what a deliberative forum should be.
Determining what is wrong with the architecture of this forum calls for a reflection on what is meant by deliberation (the ontology of deliberation) and what we want to achieve through participatory processes of debate and decision making.
In spite of their variance, notions of deliberation are constructed, in general, in opposition to what may be labeled ‘individualistic conceptions of collective decision-making’ (aggregation of preferences or bargaining). The main point of contention is on the nature of preferences, but there are other relevant dimensions that contribute to differentiate these two positions, namely, means-ends separation, commensurability, communication4.

The main feature of the individualistic conceptions is in fact that preferences are taken as ‘given’, or even ‘fixed’. This is often considered as meaning that preferences, like Humean passions, are beyond the scope of reason. The given preference approach entails a whole conception of decision-making. Given preferences imply that, in decision-making processes, either individual or collective, the ends of action are fixed at the outset and clearly separated from means. As a consequence, what is to be decided in the process is the best means to achieve the given ends. Additionally the individualistic conceptions tend also to assume commensurability. For the individual, this means that all values present in choice can be reduced to a unique scale (usually ‘utility’) and traded-off ones against the other. For the collective, it implies that individual ‘utilities’ may also be aggregated and that in the event of a shift in a social state from A to B individual losses of utility of supporters of A may be compensated by those supporting B. Collective decision making, in this perspective, radically differs from individual decision making in that the ends of action, although fixed for individuals, may vary and clash across individuals, adding complication to decision-making processes.

The deliberative perspective is opposed to the former in that ‘preferences’ (wants, values, ends) may be shaped and reshaped in the deliberative process. Deliberating in this perspective is as much about ‘deciding what we really want’ as about ‘what we should do to get what we want’. This is as relevant for individual deliberation as it is for collective deliberation. Deliberation is therefore not a mere selection of the best means. Furthermore, means and ends are not clearly separable.

According to Dewey (1922, p. 215), there is a narrow use of reason which “holds a fixed end-in-view and deliberates only upon means of reaching it”, and a wide use which “regards the end‑in‑view in deliberation as tentative and permits, nay encourages the coming into view of consequences which will transform it and create a new purpose and plan”. The ends‑in‑view emerging in deliberation are not previously fixed. Or, as clearly stated by Joas (1996, p. 154), not only “the goals of action are usually relatively undefined, [but] only become more specific as a consequence of the decision to use particular means”. Nor are they detached from the context in which action is situated. In deliberation there is reciprocity of goals and means, signifying “the interaction of the choice of means and the definition of goals”. The consideration of means not only allows for the specification of ends, but also for the possible emergence of new ends: “Only when we recognize that certain means are available to us do we discover goals which had not occurred to us before. Thus, means not only specify goals, but they also expand the scope for possible goal‑setting” (Joas, 1996, p. 154).

Besides rejecting the idea of given ends and means-ends separation, Dewey, and many after him, also denied the presupposition of a final end or a commensurant of the various and conflicting tendencies operating in action. Dewey’s view of deliberation does not impose the commensurability of values as a precondition for rationality. Choice is rational when it is the outcome of a process in which the various reasons justifying choice are brought together, but not necessarily amalgamated in a single dimension. Justifying choice is meant to correspond to the way values are coordinated highlighting an alternative of choice that should be selected. This does not require that any specific combination of values has to offer a commensurant value or reason larger or better than others, determining choice (Dewey, 1922).
Deliberation, as represented in figure 1, may therefore be conceived in opposition to individualistic conceptions of collective decision-making along four dimensions: the fixity of preferences, means-ends separation, commensurability and communication.

There is however a fifth dimension of deliberation – action orientation – which if taken into account gives rise to a richer picture of collective decision-making and of deliberation.

Action orientation refers to the practical import of the outcome of the process. At one extreme there are exercises were the individual participating is brought into a situation where her opinion or valuation will have little or no consequence in terms of a final choice or decision (we will refer to this as detachment). At the other extreme there are situations in which the individuals are contributing to an actual (collective) choice with consequences for themselves and others (we will refer to this as attachment).
By inserting an action orientation axis in figure 1 (see figure 2) a frame for classification emerges.
Fig 2

The place of deliberation in such a frame is clear-cut. Besides open preferences, reciprocal means-ends, incommensurability and communication, deliberation, as understood, for instance, by Dewey, also presupposes attachment. Deliberation takes place in the action context. It is triggered by surprise – an unexpected event or opportunity – interrupting settled ways or habits. And it also makes it possible to resume action, once a choice is reached, the mind is unified (made up). Deliberation is “a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action” (Dewey, 1922, p. 190). This means that the consequences of each line of action occurring in future can only be experienced in imagination. However, there are consequences to be experienced by the decision maker and others. The agent knows that her choices and actions give rise to consequences upon the world in which she acts and upon her own character. As put by Dewey, deliberation involves a reflection about questions such as: “what kind of a world is in the making”, “what kind of person one is to become, what sort of self is in the making,” (Dewey, 1922, p. 217). For this reason, “[p]otentially (…) every and any act is within the scope of morals, being a candidate for possible judgment with respect to its better‑or‑worse quality” (Dewey, 1922, p. 279). Placed in the action context, deliberation inescapably involves moral dilemmas.

Having located deliberation in the classificatory frame of figure 2, three positions were left empty.
Starting with the second quadrant we find social choice as understood in neoclassic economics, namely by Arrow: “In a capitalist democracy there are essentially two methods by which social choices can be made: voting, typically used to make ‘political’ decisions, and the market mechanism, typically used to make ‘economic’ decisions” (Arrow, 1951).
Fig. 3

Voting for Arrow is simply “a method of amalgamating the tastes of many individuals in the making of social choices” (Arrow, 1951, p. 2). As he shows, in a framework were individual preferences are taken as fixed, there is simply no voting procedure that will always yield consistent preference orderings. Since consistence, in Arrow’s view, is a feature of rationality, his verdict for the rationality of democracy is harsh: “the only methods of passing from individual tastes to [consistent] social preferences (…) are either imposed or dictatorial” (Arrow, 1951: 59). The approach of the amalgamation of tastes or preference aggregation thus leads to a deadlock for democracy.

The market mechanism as a method of making collective choices, or rather replacing them by contracts, has been fully explored by Ronald Coase (1960). Coase argued that if there were no ‘transactions costs’, shifts from A to B in society could be achieved by contracts were those benefiting from the shift would compensate the losers. Social choice in this perspective is equated with bargaining.
The second quadrant where preference aggregation and bargaining are located is therefore populated with agents who have stakes in the collective decision making process. They are attached. However they are silent, quietly placing their ballots in anonymity or, at best, bargaining pair wise with each other.
Other mechanisms for public decision making are more detached. We find them in the third quadrant.
Cost-benefit analyses which has been advanced by some as the rational criteria for taking decisions in the public sphere is often confronted with the problem of imputing value to goods which are not marketable. It then resorts to methods of valuation – contingent valuation – which enact hypothetical markets. Typically, in contingent valuation surveys people are asked to state the price they would be ready to pay to preserve some environmental good or public facility, or would accept to receive in exchange for those goods. People are not ‘revealing a preference’ by offering money for a good they will actually consume or intend to, they are just put in imagination in a hypothetical market by asking to ascribe value to non‑marketable goods.
They are as silent as their counterparts in quadrant II, moreover they are detached, i.e. they are asked to make decisions concerning situations that have not clear impact on actions that will be undertaken.
In the fourth quadrant, people are as well detached, that is, they are asked to do an exercise in taking decisions, with these decisions having no direct impact on actions that will be eventually undertaken. However, in this case people are involved in a deliberative “mise en scène”, resulting in the definition of a common position with regard to the object of discussion/decision but with no clear stake. An example of deliberative “mise en scène” is represented by the four experimental focus groups organized by the DEEPEN team, as a preparation to the deliberative forum. These focus groups involved just “lay” citizens in discussing nanotechnology: they were thought as homogeneous (and not hybrid) forum, with basically nothing at stake. Each focus group started with a session of information about nanotechnology, followed by a debate. The participants in the focus group were then asked to do an exercise of scenario-building concerning nanotechnology and to “perform” it. The use of these techniques allowed a variety of formats of knowledge and communication to be expressed and to foster the debate. Besides, the exercise contributed to create an emotional involvement, a form of concern about nanotechnology, in particular thanks to the scenario building activity which engaged the participants in imagining a common future involving nanotechnology. The presence of an emotional involvement results in the moral dilemmas that were explicitly brought to the fore in discussions inside the groups. Still, as the dynamic observed in the DEEPEN deliberative forum shows (where citizens having participated in focus groups were involved), the fictional nature of this deliberative exercise makes it difficult to transfer these moral concerns elaborated in the “mise-en scène” as legitimate arguments inside more structured, more pluralistic, action-oriented and power-related settings, like the deliberative forum.

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