Deliberation Research Paper

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Deliberation is a biological need of the human species in order to survive. Human beings are not naturally adapted to the environment, like animals, a reason why they try to adapt the environment to them. To do that, they need to foresee and project their actions wisely and, therefore, to deliberate. Deliberation is the method of the practical reason, Aristotle said. Its influence in ethics diminished drastically after Aristotle’s death, and only during the last century has it been recovered. Today it is considered not only the best way to legitimate norms in the public domain but also the proper method of taking moral decisions.


The history of deliberation fits with the history of ethics. Deliberation is the Latin translation of the Greek word bou´leusis, which at the same time is an abstract noun derived from the proper name Boulé, the assembly of people who had the responsibility of discussing important questions and taking political decisions in Greek city-states. What Socrates did with the young people of Athens was deliberating, and Aristotle introduces deliberation as the proper method of practical reasoning in his works, especially in the Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle 1831, pp. 1112 a 18–1113 a 14, 1142 a 32–b 34).

This first characterization of deliberation gives the wrong impression that deliberation has been, from the very beginning and until today, the unavoidable and indisputable method of moral thinking. But this is not the case. Reality has been just the opposite. Only very recently, deliberation has acquired exact profiles as the proper method of ethics.

Aristotle: The Deliberating Animal

Deliberation is the mental process by which human beings try to make wise or responsible decisions. The target is always making decisions, and the procedure to take them wisely is what is called deliberation. It is a biological need. Human beings are not naturally fitted to their environment. According to the law formulated by Darwin of “survival of the fittest,” human beings would have disappeared from the face of earth immediately. The only way they have in order to survive is the use of a biological trait that makes them very different from the other species. This trait is its peculiar mind. From the biological point of view, the human mind is a biological character like any other. Its only difference is that it tries to adapt human species to the environment, through its transformation, making it adequate to human beings or humanizing it. What in the theory of evolution is described as the “adaptation to the environment,” in the case of human beings, changes to the “adaptation of the environment.” The consequence of this process is what we call “culture.” Animals live in “nature,” but human beings can only live in a transformed environment, that is, in “culture.” Human beings are cultural animals.

The human mind does that through a complex process of “planning.” Only planned actions are specifically human, and only they can be called “moral.” There are many other actions in human beings which are not planned. That is the case of the unconscious, reflex, uninformed, or involuntary actions. Only a short amount of human actions are really planned. And only they can be called strictly human and moral.

If this is so, then it is necessary to analyze the way in which human beings plan actions. It is not an easy task. Planning is a complex mental process, in which it takes part all our mental capabilities. In order to design a project, it is necessary, first of all, to collect the factual data about the question at stake. This is the cognitive moment of the project. Immediately after that, another moment begins, with the evaluation of these data. This evaluative moment is absolutely essential. In order to design a project, it is necessary not only to know “facts,” the facts at stake, but also to “value” them, through a process basically emotional. And only when the evaluation is positive, because the project is valuable or appreciated, can it be put in work. This is the third and last moment of the project, that in which we decide to carry it out. Each project has, after a cognitive or factual moment, another emotional or evaluative and a third decisional or conative. This last is the moment in which the decision has to be taken. And the question is how to take it in a right way.

The mental process we activate in order to take these decisions in a right or correct way is called “deliberation.” Deliberation is a process, its goal being to assure that the decision is wise, responsible, reasonable, or prudent. Practical wisdom or prudence, in the positive meaning of this term, is the most important intellectual virtue in human beings. Aristotle distinguished five types of intellectual virtues, wisdom, knowledge, science, practical wisdom, and art. The first three were typical of what was called in the Middle Ages the speculative thinking and the other two of the practical reasoning. The first type of thinking can reach universal and absolute truths through “demonstrations,” while the statements of the second are necessarily particular, made of mere opinions and not of absolute truths, and reached through the process called “deliberation.” More than a manifestation of reason, it can be called here a manifestation of reasonableness. Opinions are not true or false but wise or unwise; and the role played by demonstration in the first case is carried out in the second by deliberation.

But philosophers and theologians have been trying all over history to make from ethics an apodictic science, with some absolute laws and principles, applied in a deductive way to specific situations. Saying what all others thought, Baruch Spinoza wrote a book under the title Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata (Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order). This is what Pascal called Esprit de géométrie, opposed to the Esprit de finesse.

Aristotle didn’t follow the first way. He did not conceive ethics as a speculative science but as a practical discipline, in which deliberation is the method and prudence the goal. This was not only the destiny of ethics, a practical knowledge, but also of philosophy and metaphysics, which he conceived as an investigation about the principles of nature, something that cannot be demonstrated, because demonstration must always and necessarily depart from these principles. Therefore, the world of opinions is not an appendicular exception in the main world of science and apodictic knowledge but on the contrary the most important part of our lives and activities. The human mind deals with this type of knowledge continuously, and only in some exceptional cases can it use the apodictic knowledge. What traditionally was a rule comes now to be an exception.

Aristotle defined human beings as “rational animals” (zoˆon lógon ékhon) (Aristotle 1831, p. 1253 a 10). Here, the important word is lógos, reason, because depending on the way of interpreting it, the idea of human beings changes drastically. The traditional interpretation, which has been dominant for millennia, was that lógos should be translated by reason. The consequence was the Latin definition of the human being as animal rationale. But this translation is probably wrong. Lógos has not here the meaning of the apodictic or speculative use of reason but on the contrary that of its practical use. The right translation would be, in this case, animal rationabile, and, because deliberation is the proper characteristic of this way of thinking, also as animal deliberans, the deliberative animal.

This Aristotelian discovery disappeared immediately after his death. Hellenistic philosophical movements, especially Stoicism, stressed a dogmatic approach to reality, which received a new reinforcement when it was assumed by the theology of the three Mosaic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They interpreted the Stoic principles of the natural law as divine ideas and founded morality in the attainment to these laws, following the rules and prescriptions of the different religious leaders.

The Middle Ages: Deliberation And Counsel

The Greek term for deliberation, bou´leusis, was also translated to Latin by consilium, counsel. It was not counseling but counsel. Counseling is the process and counsel the result. The Greek word covered both meanings, but the Latin term consilium reduced its meaning to the second. Some clever people, especially religious leaders, had the duty of telling the others how to decide in moral questions. The duty of the first was to order and that of all others to obey. Deliberation was a matter reserved to the leading people, the so-called authorities, precisely because they had the power and the duty of leading all others. This leadership highlights in words like council, counsel, consul, or consulate.

Modern Times: Emotions, Values, And Duties

In modern centuries, the word deliberation was extremely rare in the books of moral philosophy written in continental Europe. It didn’t take an important role in the work of the main modern European philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, or Hegel. Only in the British tradition did it gain importance. Hobbes described in his Leviathan deliberation as “the whole sum of desires, aversions, hopes and fears, continued till the thing be either done, or thought impossible” (Hobbes 1974, p. 53). It is called deliberation, he continued, “because it is a putting an end to the liberty we had of doing, or omitting, according to our own appetite, or aversion.” We are free until the moment in which we choose between all our preferences :. “Every deliberation is then said to end when that whereof they deliberate is either done or thought impossible; because till then we retain the liberty of doing, or omitting, according to our appetite, or aversion” (Hobbes 1974, pp. 53–54). In his book Human Nature, Hobbes defined deliberation as the “alternate succession of appetite and fear during all the time the action is in our power to do or not to do,” which implies two conditions: “one, that it be future; the other, that there be hope of doing it, or possibility of not doing it; for, appetite and fear are expectations of the future” (Raphael 1991, p. I, 15). Deliberation is defined, then, as the process of election between appetites, in view of their consequences. In Of Liberty and Necessity he wrote: “To consider an action, is to imagine the consequences of it, both good and evil. From whence is to be inferred, that deliberation is nothing else but alternate imagination of the good and evil sequels of an action” (Raphael 1991, p. I, 96).

Deliberation, then, is a rational process of taking decisions, in which not only the intellectual evaluation of circumstances and consequences play an essential role but also the emotions at stake. The idea of David Hume was that the consequence of the process of deliberation is a feeling of approbation or blame, which he called the “moral sentiment.” “When a man, at any time, deliberates concerning his own conduct (as, whether he had better, in a particular emergence, assist a brother or a benefactor), he must consider these separate relations, with all the circumstances and situations of the persons, in order to determine the superior duty and obligation [.. .] The approbation or blame which then ensues, cannot be the work of the judgment, but of the heart; and is not a speculative proposition or affirmation, but an active feeling or sentiment. In the disquisitions of the understanding, from known circumstances and relations, we infer some new and unknown. In moral decisions, all the circumstances and relations must be previously known; and the mind, from the contemplation of the whole, feels some new impression of affection or disgust, esteem or contempt, approbation or blame” (Hume 1963, p. 240).

About the nature of the “moral sentiment,” there were different opinions. Hume supposed that this sentiment couldn’t be “utility,” and he identified it with “humanity” or “the happiness of mankind.” “Utility is only a tendency to a certain end; and were the end totally indifferent to us, we should feel the same indifference towards the means. It is requisite a sentiment should here display itself, in order to give a preference to the useful above the pernicious tendencies. This sentiment can be no other than a feeling for the happiness of mankind, and a resentment of their misery; since these are the different ends which virtue and vice have a tendency to promote. Here therefore reason instructs us in the several tendencies of actions, and humanity makes a distinction in favour of those which are useful and beneficial” (Hume 1963, p. 235). His friend Adam Smith thought that this was the sentiment of “sympathy,” called by others “benevolence.” Bentham wrote that the two primary sentiments were pleasure and pain: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do” (Bentham 1996, p. 11). Utility is the optimization of the reason for pleasure/pain. “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness” (Bentham 1996, pp. 11–12). Bentham called also the principle of utility, “the greatest happiness principle” (Bentham 1996, p. 14). He thought it was a sentiment that could be quantified and, therefore, “valued.” The previous feelings of sympathy or benevolence were not adequate because they could not be quantified. The result of this process was what he called the principle of utility. It is not by chance that utilitarianism, the moral system initiated by Bentham, reached immediately great success between the economists.

But the problem is that values are not always instrumental or measurable in quantitative terms. There are other values called intrinsic or values by themselves. This distinction has important consequences in the process of deliberation and, therefore, in the decisions taken. This question was widely discussed in continental Europe during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth (F. Brentano, E. Husserl,

  1. Scheler, N. Hartmann). And in Britain, a utilitarian philosopher, G.E. Moore, defended also in his book Principia Ethica the existence of intrinsic values. These are, he says, such things “that, if they existed by themselves, in absolute isolation, we would yet judge their existence to be good” (Moore 1993, p. 236).

Summing up, during the modern centuries, the idea of deliberation changed drastically, due to the importance acquired by the emotional dimension of the human mind. Duties, the proper and specific topic of ethics, are not only related with facts but also with values. Therefore, the process of deliberation should take into account both moments, each one with its own specificity. All this process is plenty of uncertainties. There is not here a place for demonstration but only for deliberation.

The 20th Century: Deliberation In Law And Politics

During the twentieth century, deliberation has been promoted by two different intellectual movements. One is the pragmatist tradition derived from John Dewey (1939). The human mind has the evolutionary purpose of fitting human beings to the environment. This is its only one end, and all other things have the category of means. Therefore, the process of valuing is merely instrumental. There are not intrinsic values. What we call values are interests. The value of each specific course of action is equal to its expected utility. This is the idea nowadays more frequent, not only in politics or in economy but also in education. Deliberative democracy and deliberative education are frequently understood this way.

The thinkers of the so-called Frankfurt School called this type of thinking, so widely extended in the twentieth century, “instrumental rationality.” It can be defined as that in which all values are taken as instrumental, denying the possibility of some intrinsic value. All are measurable in monetary units, and all can be sold and bought. More than values, they are called interests.

Reacting against this way of thinking, J. Habermas proposed a method in order to legitimate legal and political rules. This method is the Kantian principle of universalization but applied to people and not directly to ideas. This way, a rule can be called right when it can be accepted and approved by all the people affected by the rule in a symmetric and pacific dialogue (called deliberation) between them (Habermas 1990). This way, Habermas tries to give legitimacy to the public norms of society (Habermas 1996). This method is not applicable to the private moral decisions of individuals, thinks Habermas, because this is not the domain of rules or laws but of values, and Habermas thinks that in the pluralistic and emotional world of values, a rational process of deliberation is impossible. Quite similar is the theory defended by J. Rawls in the USA. Here, also the goal is to assure that public rules and norms are just, through a process of deliberation between all the people, in an ideal situation in which all the contingent conditions of advantages or disadvantages in real life were ignored due to the so-called veil of ignorance (Rawls 1971).

The problem with these methods is that they have been thought to legitimate political and legal norms and not to know how to proceed in ethics or how to take right or wise moral decisions. The difference is important, because in the first case it is possible to continue thinking, as it has been usual in our culture, that values are illogical and irrational, while in the second it is necessary to think they are reasonable and that deliberation can be applied not only to the analysis of facts but also on values, in order to determine in the more reasonable or prudent way our moral duties.

Moral Deliberation As Procedure: Facts, Values, And Duties

Facts, values, and duties are the three steps of moral deliberation (Gracia 2011). In the first, all the factual data available should be collected, in order to know as much facts as possible about the case in question. Gathering these data is in many cases a difficult task, because moral problems are today the consequence of the scientific and technical developments, which only a limited number of specialized people know in depth. In any case, the goal in this first step of the deliberative process is to know as precisely as possible what has happened (diagnosis), their future consequences (prognosis), and the practical ways of stopping or changing the situation (treatments) (Gracia 2001). Deliberation is required in each one of these three moments, in order to reduce incertitude. Waiting for a total certitude, no one could do anything.

After that, it is necessary to identify the values at stake. A moral conflict is always a conflict of values, and it is necessary to deliberate about the values in conflict. This is probably the most difficult moment of the process, because people are trained to deal with facts, especially with scientific facts, but they don’t know how to manage values. As heirs of the positivistic movement, we have ordered our culture around the idea of fact, which means that we value facts, devaluing all other things, that is, values by themselves. This is a true perversion. The consequence being that immediately people shift from values to laws which they consider more factual, making a legal analysis of the conflict instead of a moral one. The old religious dogmatism has been substituted by the new legal one. Both types of dogmatism are incompatible with a true process of deliberation (Gracia 2005).

The third and last step is the deliberation about duties. After the analysis of the factual data and the values at stake, it is necessary to answer the real moral question: what we ought to do. The best way of doing that is identifying the different possible courses of action in any concrete situation or in any specific conflict. If there are two values in conflict, there must be at least two possible courses of action, depending on the value chosen. These are cold “extreme courses of action.” Because they are only two, when they are unique, the situation is called “dilemmatic.” These situations are extremely rare. Conflicts do have in general many possible courses of action. They all are necessarily between the two extremes, being called “intermediate courses of action.” It is important to identify as much of them as possible, because this is the way of enriching the analysis. The “optimal course of action,” which promotes more all the values at stake or hurts them less, is in general one of the intermediates. As Aristotle said, the best solution is generally in the middle (Aristotle 1831, pp. 1106 a 33–1107 a 8). And a great mystery is that our mind tries to reduce, unconsciously, all the courses of action to only two, ignoring the intermediate and focusing only in the two extremes. The goal of this third moment of the deliberating process is to control our natural biases, trying to find the best course of action, because only this can be called good (Gracia 2003).


Deliberation is a very difficult task, especially when it is done collectively and not individually. It is needed not only of some particular knowledge but also of specific skills and, above all, of adequate traits of character. Here, the importance of educating people in deliberation from the very beginning, instead of preparing them to the opposite, the triumph over the others, considering them as adversaries and opponents, when not as enemies. In any case, some traits of character are incompatible with deliberation. Dogmatism and egocentrism hinder deliberation. But avoiding abnormalities or pathologies, normal people have also big difficulties in doing that. The reason is that deliberation is an intellectual process, in which each one must give reasons to all others not only of their ideas but also of their values and beliefs. And when trying to do that, one realizes that one has less reason than one previously thought or that reasons are not so clear, evident, and apodictic as he or she believed previously. This is the moment in which one is prone to assume that the values and beliefs of the others can be reasoned and that perhaps they are as reasonable as theirs. Only in this moment is it possible to assume one’s own weakness and fallibility and the importance of the other points of view in order to make wise or prudent decisions, which is the goal of this process.

Bibliography :

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  3. Dewey, J. (1939). Theory of valuation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  4. Gracia, D. (2001). Moral deliberation: The role of methodologies in clinical ethics. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, 4(2), 223–232.
  5. Gracia, D. (2003). Ethical case deliberation and decision making. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, 6, 227–233.
  6. Gracia, D. (2005). The foundation of medical ethics in the democratic evolution of modern society. In C. Viafora (Ed.), Clinical bioethics: A search for the foundations (pp. 33–40). Dordrecht: Springer.
  7. Gracia, D. (2011). Deliberation and consensus. In R. Chadwick, H. ten Have, & E. M. Meslin (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of health care ethics: Core and emerging issues (pp. 84–94). London: Sage.
  8. Habermas, J. (1996). Between facts and norms: Contribution to a discourse theory of law and democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  9. Hobbes, T. (1974). Leviathan: Or the matter, form and power of a commonwealth ecclesiastical and civil. New York: Collier.
  10. Hume, D. (1963). Enquiries concerning the human understanding and concerning the principles of morals. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  11. Moore, G. E. (1993). Principia ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  12. Raphael, D. D. (1991). British Moralists: 1650–1800 (2 Vols.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
  13. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  14. Gutmann, A., & Thompson, D. (2004). Why deliberative democracy? Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  15. Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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