Monthly Archives: May 2014

Striving for “Collective Reasoning”

Consider the example below from Sunstein of “incompletely theorized agreement.” Incompletely theorized agreement is when two groups in disagreement agree on the preferred outcome but disagree on a more general theoretical rationale. A deeply religious Christian and a scientist might both want to protect a living species from extinction and work together to accomplish that but for different reasons. The Christian may be motivated by the belief that the species is part of God’s grace, and the scientist justifies his preferences on the basis of a balanced ecological system. The solution is incompletely theorized because they agree on the most practical problem solving level but disagree at a deeper theoretical rationale. Israelis and Palestinians disagree on a deeper fundamental level. An Israeli Jew might believe the land was bequeathed to them in the Bible and they are doing little more than returning to a historic homeland. A Palestinian would hold that the Jews were colonialist in their domination of the land, and that the Arabs are the indigenous population. The goal is not to battle it out trying to change the mind of the other on such fundamental issues, but to move to a different more practical level of cooperation that is shared by the participants rather than focusing on the theoretical rationales that divide them so. This is collective reasoning.

You have heard the quip “come let us reason together.” Well, it is possible to reason together and during quality deliberation it is termed “collective reasoning.” It is primarily concerned with what is termed “rational cooperation” with particular emphasis on conflicts between divided groups. Collective rationality involves more than decisions about desirable outcomes that benefit only an individual’s judgment about value. For example, if everyone in a community contributes a small amount of money to improve the road in their community and incurs an individual cost, but a collective benefit (improved roads in the community), then this is a decision based on collective rationality. It is sensible for the whole group to accept such a decision. Of course the individual cost can be too high for some or repugnant to others, and there can be debate about the actual cost and required contribution, but this entire process still represents a form of collective rationality. A decision to contribute in this example is not governed by pure individual rationality otherwise an individual might decide to free ride or not contribute at all.

Part of the power of deliberation is its reliance on collective reasoning which is mutually beneficial cooperation. This prompts the question if collective reasoning is based on mutually beneficial cooperation then the deliberative theorists must ask how do we produce this cooperation, and how do people benefit from it? The communication patterns and social conditions that move people from their individual rationality to collective rationality are also of considerable interest. Most people begin a conflict with a clash of individual perspectives, narratives, and data. The first impulse is to conclude that one’s own choices are best for him or her and then go about the individually rationalistic process of trying to maximize your own rewards and not deviating from these efforts. It is only when groups continuously fail, or when they are experiencing a hurting stalemate, that they begin to shift their thinking toward cooperation rather than conflict. At some point when the efforts at resolution get serious, or when the likelihood of failure and loss increase, participants in conflict begin to reason seriously and collectively. But if deliberation is assumed at one point to be worthy, and not only for its democratic proclivities, but for its epistemic possibilities then cooperation in tasks such as gathering information, challenging interpretations, and making inferences is germane.

Collective reasoning is a communicative exchange designed to manage a problem. It is distinct from conversation in that collective reasoning seeks to answer questions and solve problems and is a more structured form of social contact. It includes justified judgment which is a conclusion or decision supported by relevant information and reasoning. To be a little more specific, collective reasoning expects the participants to acquire a justified judgment that would be superior to their individual reasoning. This superiority includes the benefits of cooperation; in other words, the collectively justified judgment may not meet all the desires of an individual but it satisfies them sufficiently as well as others. By way of illustration, if everyone in a group had the same information and made the same judgments about it then there would be simple agreement and deliberation to solve problems would be unnecessary. But if the group is characterized by unjustified judgments, and the accompanying tensions and disagreements, then they must expose themselves to some exogenous input – new information contact with someone outside their group experiences that can contribute to additional collective reasoning. This is conceptually similar to Simons’ problem of bounded rationality which is that individuals cannot go beyond the boundaries of their own abilities and knowledge. Deliberation and collective reasoning improves the availability of information and allows for the cooperative advantages that come from deliberative discussion. Even if someone else has inappropriate, inaccurate, or manipulative information such conditions can still sharpen my own considerations and potentially lead to new ways of solving problems.


What Do Condi Rice, Jean Kirkpatrick, J Street, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali Have in Common?

lightbulbHere is a simple quiz for you: What do and J St., Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jean Kirkpatrick, Condi Rice all have in common? Give up? The answer is all of them have been excluded, disinvited, and prevented from speaking just because they disagree with someone else. They have suffered from a political ideology and a form of political correctness in the worst sense of the word considered to be so fundamental on the part of some that deviation from that ideology amounts to heresy. Hirsi Ali is a passionate and committed human rights advocate who pays special attention to the rights of women. She was disinvited from speaking at Brandeis University because some thought she was too offensive to Islam. The same fate awaited Jean Kirkpatrick and Condi Rice two people who are little more than a slight verbal threat, but maintain clear political positions, to only those who disagree with them. The conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has excluded J Street from their organization on the basis of a description of J Street as “out of step with mainstream Judaism.” In other words, J Street is too liberal.

Leon Wieseltier’s article on J Street in The New Republic is an excellent critique of the decision by Major Jewish Organizations to deny J Street cover under their umbrella. Ruth Wisse of Harvard wrote about the closing of the academic mind in the Wall Street Journal because anyone who makes a slightly controversial statement must be vetted for ideological purity, to ensure that someone is not offended, before they can be an acceptable speaking candidate.

I grant you that civility and inclusion sometimes clash. There is a line, and I cannot define it but I know it when I see it, where including someone in the communicative process is counterproductive because their behavior or political positions are so odious as to be more destructive than constructive. But this is a decision that should be the exception rather than the rule. We must error on the side of inclusion.

The arguments and analysis pertaining to this issue are powerful and fundamental to American democratic principles as well as political theory. Inclusion is crucial if any sort of communication is going to achieve political legitimacy. Anyone potentially influenced by a decision has a right to be part of the influence process that determines the outcome.

And, as has been well established, listening to those with whom we disagree and exposure to the other side improves the quality of thinking and decision-making. Being inclusive increases the chances of moving from individual to more general appeals. A decision even if you disagree with it will be more acceptable and legitimate if it is arrived at through an inclusive process. The decisions to rebuff J Street for admission to a collection of Jewish organizations, to deny Ayaan Hirsi Ali the right to speak critically of treatment of women in Islam, and to shun Condi Rice and Jean Kirkpatrick because of their conservative values or association with some foreign-policy decision do little more than impoverished the marketplace of ideas.

Thomas Edison’s well-known quote applies equally to political rhetoric and the pool of arguments seeking consensus around an issue. Edison said the 2000 times he tried to make a light bulb were not a failure, he just learned 2000 ways not to make a light bulb. By listening to someone with a political position such as Kirkpatrick or Hirsi Ali or the position of J Street you are not diminished but enriched by exposure to the larger pool of arguments that will ultimately lead to improved understanding, or consensus, or whatever the rhetorical goal. Even the requirement of pluralism requires the ascent of citizens and for political positions to be reached by “public interest” and not the private beliefs of a few.

Managing Ethnic Conflict – Moscow Style

If we want to treat Moscow’s interventions into Eastern Ukraine and Crimea seriously for the moment we might ask about any legitimate concerns on the part of Moscow. But the issue of “legitimate” concerns that justify aggression against others conjures up the rhetorical history of the Soviet Union and their claim to have spheres of influence. Hitler and Stalin used phrases such as this to intervene in the business of others and claim their “legitimate” rights to land and military presence in order to protect Russian citizens or interests.

This is exactly the situation in Eastern Ukraine on the lands that border Russia. Even though these territories have culture contact with Russia and a history of political engagement, the current tensions are not so much the result of locals agitating for stronger associations with mother Russia but with interference by way of propaganda and Russian adventurism. Moreover, it continues Russia’s persistent attention to breakaway regions of the former Soviet Union. Russia has desperately tried to hold on to influence in some of the states (e.g. Georgia, Azerbaijan) but this typically backfires. Ukraine and Kiev will probably be even more oriented toward the West and Ukrainian nationalism will soar.

Ethnic Conflict without the Conflict

The old Soviet Union, like so many political actors, wore blinders that allowed them to see primarily the colors of ethnic groups. The Soviet Union divided and assigned groups to territorial units predominantly on the basis of ethnic heritage. Stalin in particular created ethnic territories and established a broad array of territorial units defined as states. These states were supposed to be homelands for particular national groups (Azeris, Armenians, Uzbeks, etc.). The strategy was to keep groups separate so they could not easily organize against Moscow. It worked for a long time until various groups began to demand independence. Soon, there was ethnic violence and Moscow had its excuse to maintain influence by stepping in and claiming to calm the situation.

Russia has felt quite comfortable intervening in the affairs of its former territories. Russia felt, in fact, very secure and justified by its movement into Crimea. About 58% of the population of Crimea is Russian so the claim to a sphere of influence has some standing. But if Russia feels as if some international commitment has been violated, then they should use diplomacy and the avenues available to them through international law.

The Basic Instruments of International Conflict Management

For my money, Russia has never been particularly good at managing ethnic conflict. Even though historically they oversaw with the old Soviet Union 15 Soviet socialist republics all of which had minority groups, Moscow is sort of a “bull in the china shop.” There are typically four intervention possibilities – military interventions, economic interventions, diplomacy, and dialogue – but Russia relies mostly on military options. In designing a macro level institution meant to facilitate ethnic conflict resolution, the Russians have never been very innovative or creative. Take the case of the Chechens for example. In the northern Caucasus of South Russia Chechens are increasingly a higher percentage of the population, and there are about 20% Russians. Even without Russia agreeing to Chechnya’s autonomy assuring fair treatment, increased cultural autonomy, and more political rights would be reasonable.

When it comes to designing macro structures for divided societies Russia seems to ignore all of them. First, an ethnic group must address the issue of territorial organization of the state. The Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Chechnya and territories, Georgia, and other points of Russian interest are yet to resolve these territorial issues properly. Secondly, is the matter of the governmental relationship between the minority and the majority. And finally, Russia rarely concerns itself with the protection of identity groups and individual rights.

Putin may have successfully grabbed territory in the Crimea but he is increasingly competing with the West rather than a lesser prepared minority. And he may be banking on the fact that the EU will never consider Ukraine a proper European project, but this may be a dangerous wish as Ukraine increasingly turns its attention to the West and thereby makes progress on territoriality, sound governmental relations, and the protection of identity and minority groups.

Hamas and Fatah Unity: The Theory of Contamination at Work


The unity and reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas holds promise for the future. Clearly, we have to take a wait-and-see attitude. But I consider it potentially a turning point in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Israelis reacted negatively to the news and quickly assumed that Hamas would dominate. But let’s consider a few issues.

Hamas and the Theory of Contamination

The argument that this reconciliation will result in something positive is based on the assumption that the PLA will moderate Hamas rather than Hamas “contaminating” the PLA. The theory of contamination is based on the theory of disgust. Briefly, disgust is an evolutionary emotion probably related to knowing what to eat and avoiding food that is bad or contaminated. We always assume that contamination passes from the dirty to the clean and therefore “contaminates” the clean. If I drop a piece of food on the floor, the dirty floor contaminates the clean food. Nobody assumes that cleanliness passes to the dirty and purifies it; the “clean” food does not pass to the dirty floor and make it cleaner.

And so it is psychologically. Things that are considered dirty, harmful, or just plain “bad” are always assumed to contaminate the “good.” A racist will consider his or her neighborhood “contaminated” if a member of an undesirable minority group moves in. Most people assume that Hamas will “contaminate” the PLA. But in the realm of human interaction, in the socio-symbolic world, it is possible to avoid contamination and have influence move in the other direction. The normal theory of contamination would clearly have Hamas contaminating the PLA and making matters worse between Israelis and Palestinians.

But the extension of theories of contamination and disgust into the social world has its limits. It is not inevitable that desirable social processes be contaminated; in fact, contamination as a psychological construct is culturally created. It was learned, and that means it can be unlearned. Let’s hope the PLA can withstand the normal flow of contamination and have a positive influence on the culture of Hamas.

First, a united Palestinian people are going to be more responsive to the peace process. Did anyone ever really think the peace process would be successful with Hamas and Fatah separated and in conflict with one another? Did anyone ever really think a solution to the conflict would include a separate West Bank and Gaza, under separate political entities? The unity of Hamas and Fatah was inevitable. This will be especially true if the two groups unite on some fundamental issues regarding the peace process and international recognition. The United Nations and European Union welcomed the efforts toward reconciliation and the possibility for new dialogue.

Everybody with an opinion on this matter could turn out to be wrong. Two possibilities bound the ends of the continuum. The worst-case scenario is Hamas overtaking the PLA and the government and security services. Hamas maintains its rigidity and continues to call for the destruction of Israel. Hezbollah continues to prosper in Lebanon and the Islamic Brotherhood gains a stronger foothold  and provides support for a Hamas driven Palestinian Authority. This scenario will guarantee war, not peace.

The best case scenario, and the one that I think is most likely, is that Hamas is moderated by the PLA and becomes more normally integrated into a Palestinian governing body that realizes the need for certain practicalities. The new Palestinian unity government gains credibility and brings a fresh voice to the peace process. It will take some time for the Palestinian unity government to prove itself to the Israelis. Netanyahu will not go gently into a relationship with Hamas. The Israelis and PLA currently share certain security responsibilities, and it’s hard to imagine continuing this shared security relationship with Hamas. But a Fatah Hamas reconciliation is necessary to a successful peace process. It solves the problem of Israel needing someone to talk to who represents all of the Palestinians.

Hamas is an Islamic militant group and Fatah is a secularist party. The two groups have always opposed one another with respect to tactics and their relationship to Israel. They have separate security systems and there are plenty of stories of Palestinians who are arrested one day by the PLA and the next day by Hamas. But the unity arrangement will strengthen the Palestinians in their quest for a Palestinian state – not two states (Gaza and the West Bank) but one state. This unity agreement could be a new era for the Palestinians.

According to some analysts, it was Hamas who made most of the concessions that enabled the unity agreement. They are perceived as weak and known to have difficulty carrying out legitimate elections. The reconciliation between Hamas and the PLA will present a unified stance for the Palestinians. There is a clever sleight-of-hand operating here also. The United Nations will undoubtedly support a Palestinian state and this will confer legitimacy on Hamas. Hamas will go from a militant Islamist party steeped in violence with extreme political attitudes that are unsustainable in any context, to an internationally recognized political operation that represents the Palestinian people. Although there is an irony to this, it does pressure Hamas to yield to international demands.

The United States and Israel should see this reconciliation as an opportunity. Hopefully, talks can continue and Hamas will find itself in a situation where it must cooperate and engage with United States and Israel. This will include stronger pressures on Hamas to maintain cease fires, eliminate rocket attacks into Israel, and control violence. There’s a good chance that any resultant political platform will be more consistent with the PLA than Hamas. The hope is that Hamas will not contaminate the PLA, but the influence will run in the other direction.

Revised slightly from May 8, 2011.


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