a technique for measuring the quality of deliberation

(Ann Arbor, MI) I’ve proposed that we can map an individual’s thinking about moral and political issues as a set of beliefs and connections. For instance, if a person says that she favors abortion rights because she is committed to individual freedom, she is linking two nodes in a mental map. Because her overall epistemic framework is a network, it will have formal properties, such as density and centrality.

When two or more individuals interact on moral or political issues (talking and/or working together), their respective network maps will come into contact and change. The community formed by people who so interact can be viewed as a larger network of beliefs and connections that also has formal properties.

Certain network structures are better than others for deliberation and interaction. If you are a good deliberator, you enrich other people’s network maps and learn from theirs; you are not rigid. In the context of a liberal democracy, you must be able to “route around” your own faith commitments. You don’t have to drop them, but you must be able to make an argument that doesn’t depend on them. Likewise, your various ideas should be connected rather than isolated, so that you can give reasons for each of your beliefs.

We should be able to observe a moral network map evolve as one person interacts with others, and we should be able to rate individuals and conversations for moral excellence (by asking independent observers to assess them) and then see whether what we posit as the formal criteria of good moral networks are actually found in the best deliberators.

For example, Bloggingheads TV organized a discussion between columnists Bryce Covert (liberal) and Ramesh Ponnuru (conservative) on the topic of why women are paid less than men and what to do about it. I assert that this is a good discussion because I think it is, but also because in a study led by my colleague Felicia Sullivan, this video and several others were shown to representative samples of Americans. Most viewers liked this particular discussion, and they tended to move toward less ideologically consistent views after they watched it–evidence that it had complicated their opinions.

In the slide show below, I begin to diagram the discussion as two interlocked networks of ideas.

I didn’t finish mapping the discussion, but I got far enough to conclude that we should be looking for:

  • The number of nodes and connections. (A higher number implies a richer discussion.)
  • The density of connections. People should tie together more, rather than fewer, of their points.
  • The overlap in the two people’s networks (They need not agree but they should address each others’ views)
  • Change in their respective networks in response to the other’s.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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