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.