Argument & Deliberation: An Introduction

Deliberation is the collaborative process of discussing contested issues by considering various perspectives in order to form opinions and guide judgment. Effective deliberation incorporates sustained and appropriate modes of argumentation. Deliberative practices can take many forms—from discussions, to role-playing exercises, to formal debates. All of these activities lead to exploring differing perspectives and informing various decisions.

What are the basic components of argument and deliberation?

Contest issues. Deliberation involves a controversy or unsolved problem in need of resolution.

Exchange opinions. Deliberation is not individual monologues, but a substantial consideration of ideas by multiple group members who advance different perspectives.

Reflect. Deliberation encourages members to acknowledge others’ viewpoints and consider them in relation to their own viewpoint. The inability or unwillingness to consider opposing viewpoints leads to uninformed, and often indefensible, resolutions.

Synthesize. Deliberation combines and builds upon individual contributions to create intellectual activity greater than the sum of its parts.

Reform opinions. Deliberation between individuals sparks deliberation within themselves, challenging and expanding their opinions on issues.

Judge. Deliberation fosters conclusions on critical issues.

What can one argue about?

Facts. Rarely are interesting and non-trivial facts so obvious that they invite universal agreement. We do not argue over the location of the Pacific Ocean or the temperature that water boils, for a resolution to such issues is easily reached. However, not all scientific or "factual" issues are beyond dispute, such as the effects of global warming and the cause of AIDS. However, deliberation provides ways to expose the areas of contest and to compare and provide alternate views on competing facts.

Values. The clash of values is a defining marker of contemporary society. Deliberation can raise questions about the tensions between and within value systems that guide decision-making. Most Americans support free speech and the freedom of religion, but when these values come into conflict (such as posting the Ten Commandments outside a courthouse), it is the deliberative process that attempts to resolve these conflicts.

Policies. The range of possibilities for action is almost limitless. Deliberation about policies encourages in-depth analysis of possibilities for change. These debates inevitably incorporates issues of facts and values, but policy deliberations center on legal or legislative changes.

Definitions. Much conflict is ultimately definitional. Deliberation forces advocates to defend their definition against the scrutiny of others. For example, what constitutes "freedom" or what determines "life?"

Interpretations. Competing interpretations of texts or data are prevalent in a complex society. Deliberation can compare interpretations for correspondence to truth, authorial intent, or social productivity; essentially, what someone or something "means" and why that is important.

Research. Studies, data, and articles offer many issues for deliberation. Deliberation can involve issues about methodology, findings, conclusions, or the implications of research. They say statistics do not lie; but the way one uses statistics in an argument or how the statistics were developed are clearly open for debate.

Criteria. The process of decision-making always involves criteria for judgment. Deliberation about criteria assists in making judgments that are satisfactory and legitimated. There are criteria for determining the admissibility of evidence in a courtroom or the viability of a scientific finding; however, the standards themselves are often the subject of intense deliberation.

Theories. Theories are hotly contested in science, social science, and the humanities. Deliberation tests the strengths and weaknesses of theoretical paradigms.