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.

 

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Posted on May 27, 2014, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Don
    I like your comments on the concept of collective reasoning. I would like to see more emphasis on participants and less on the concept itself as the controlling factor. Let me elaborate.

    I think that it is important to put the behavior of participants squarely at the center of any effort to describe a process such as collective reasoning. In reference to your depiction of a situation in which a Palestinian and a Israeli Jew, you posit something collective reasoning and refer to it has having a goal. This may work as a short hand for what develops but I find it more helpful to think in terms of what the two people might choose to engage in, i.e., a process of collective reasoning because they have a goal of moving together to a more practical level of cooperation. Later on you state that
    “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.”

    If I understand you correctly you are talking about what participants do rather than what collective reasoning does. It seems go me that a concept such as that does not do anything. Rather persons following the concept do things, e.g, they attempt to reach a justified judgment in the expectation that it would be superior to one that could be reached if they did not reason together. In fact it is persons acting and speaking that accomplish all the things that you attribute to deliberation. It strikes me that you can make a much stronger case for the process that you recommend if you talk consistently about persons who act rather than a concept that does something. This would require a minimal shift in language away from passive voice as in the sentence “”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.” to active voice as in the statement “But if the participants assume that deliberation is worthy then they are ready to take up the tasks such as gathering information….”
    My point here is simple. Persons reason and deliberate and we create concepts to describe what they do. You might want to try this more direct active voice in your description. This might seem a minor point but I hope that you give it some consideration.

  2. I see your point and have no problem with it. I do think it is minor and of course people do things concepts don’t. I figured that was understood.

  3. George Robertson

    Hello Donald.
    I believe that collective reasoning depends on both sides being willing to accept a common set of facts.
    Israel’s claims to the land are based on acceptance of the information found in the Bible as historic fact rather than myth or legend. Palestinian claims to the land works for the West Bank but not as much for Gaza.
    First, the Israeli claims. There is no historical record prior to Greek and Roman times, other than scriptures which are riddled with myths and legends. Some of these are based on fact; the legend of Noah is common throughout the Mesopotamian area in accounts which pre-date the Bible and may record the flooding of the Black Sea basin at the time of the end of the last Ice Age. Similarly, the book of Exodus has now been found to strongly correlate to disasters which may have occurred after the eruption of the Thera volcano in Greece that ended the Minoan civilization. Nothing about these legends are unique to the Jewish people, and no one is mentioned in the Bible who is known to be a real historic figure until after 300 BC. There simply is no factual basis for any special “claim” to this land by Israelis, other than as a consequence of religious belief.
    The Palestinian claim is based on the idea that they are Arabs and it is an Islamic land. However, there situation is two-fold. The Palestinians who live on the West Bank are for the most part descendants of the original Canaanite inhabitants who later became Hebrews who later became Hellenicized Jews who later became Christians and who later became Muslims. Arguably they have the best claim to the land of anyone on that basis, but they do not use that basis because it predates Islam. However, the Palestinians in Gaza are mostly refugees who fled the Jaffa area, and are not mostly original Palestinian inhabitants. They are mostly the descendants of peoples who arrived in Ottoman and British times and do not have the same longevity onsite that the West Bank Palestinians do.
    Neither side wants to give up their religious arguments to discuss the situation in any kind of rational way. The Israelis do not want to accept the West Bank Palestinians as their long-sundered kin who were once Jews, because if they did they would have no rationale for stealing their land. The Palestinians do not want to acknowledge anything earlier than an Islamic identity, especially not if it means admitting that many of them were once Jews who became Christians and then became Muslims.

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