Ritual Deliberation

Ana Tanasoca, Jensen Sass

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Deliberation is standardly regarded as a rational process par excellence, inviting actors to reflect on and revise their beliefs, preferences, and perhaps even values.3 Whether in science, ethics, art, or jurisprudence, deliberation is a primary means of reaching sound judgments about matters of fact, value, beauty, and legality. Yet in political deliberation actors routinely talk past one another. They offer arguments as a way of scoring points or rationalizing existing beliefs. They fail to reflect on the reasons offered by others and, in consequence, seldom learn from their interactions or update their view of the world. From the perspective of democratic theory, such discursive exchanges are pointless: they consume time, energy, and other resources, but do not achieve any standard deliberative ends. Despite this, political actors routinely engage in these practices, as we shall show, and political theorists need to find some way of accounting for that fact. Virtually all theorists would agree that for a discursive practice to count as “democratic deliberation,” it should display both democratic and deliberative elements. Yet many discursive practices fall short of being genuine “democratic deliberations”—some on the ground of not being deliberative enough, others on the ground of not being democratic enough. When they do, they are largely written off as “bad” (low-quality) or “inauthentic” deliberations.4 However, such responses fail to conceptualize these practices in their own terms, leaving us at a loss as to what they involve and why they persist. That real-world deliberation differs from ideal democratic deliberation, as conceived by normative theorists, is not, of course, a new argument—indeed, it may well be the oldest. Many empirical and theoretical studies have examined how real-world deliberation deviates from the ideal. A few argue that it is normatively permissible that it should do so.5 Most merely observe empirically that it actually does so.6 This article provides a fuller description of the characteristic features of one such deviant discursive practice, and describes some of the contexts where it appears. It does so by introducing a new explicative concept7 —ritual deliberation8 —which affords a better grip on a subset of puzzling, yet seemingly ubiquitous, deliberations in the wild. The article’s original contribution is to provide a systematic account of ritual deliberation and to distinguish it from other deliberative practices falling short of being “democratic deliberations.” Where situational constraints preclude authentic democratic deliberation, actors often engage in ritual deliberation. It is a second-best option that, though often regarded unfavorably, can still have considerable value. Indeed, there are numerous ways in which ritualized deliberation can yield positive outcomes of both a deliberative and extra-deliberative sort.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)139-165
    JournalThe Journal of Political Philosophy
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2019


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