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Does lack of rhetorical skills make you less deliberative? November 20, 2009

Posted by Sverre in : Methods in political science, My master thesis, Uncategorized , trackback

I’m working on a master thesis about political deliberation, and I’m interested in finding a good method for measuring and evaluating the level of deliberation in a discussion. Two current methods I’ve been looking into, the Discourse Quality Index and pragma-dialectics, both seem to share the same validity problem: They register low rhetorical or logical skills for a lack of deliberative attitude.

Put simply, deliberation is a term that is used about discussion when people engage in a rational dialogue about something in which they are dedicated to the “forceless force of the better argument”. According to Jürgen Habermas, its most famous theoretician, it should be characterized by sincerity, inclusiveness, equality, reasoned critique, reflexivity, respect and be free from the influence of money and coercive power1 . In the more realistic conceptions of the term, we are willing to consider a discussion as more or less deliberative, realizing that a few real world discussions are likely to be perfect.

As I mentioned, I’ve been looking for methods to analyse discussion in order to determine how deliberative it really is. I’ve been trying to find a method that satisfies the criteria of:

  1. Significance – Must be a method we can expect a large portion of empirically oriented political science to accept.
  2. Usefulness – Must be a method that is suitable for comparative study of cases, preferably on a large scale and with a multitude of institutional arrangements.
  3. Completeness – Must be a method that is theoretically consistent with established theory of deliberation, for example Habermas’ discourse ethics.

Lately I’ve been looking at two such methods: Pragma-dialectics2 and the Discourse Quality Index3 . They both have their strength and weaknesses, but they share one interesting problem with validity.

In order to determine whether or not a debate is really deliberative, they both focus on the correctness of arguments presented. According to the DQI method, they evaluate the level of justification, classifying each speech act as either containing no justification (0), inferior justification (1), qualified justification (2) or sophisticated justification (3). The pragma-dialectical method does something similar when it examines entire debates for logical consistency, identifying so-called fallacies that constitute bad arguments which should not be part of  reasoned discussion.

My claim is that both these methods measure something separate from the level of deliberation, they measure the level of sophistication of the debatants. They measure how good their rhetorical and logical skills are, not their dedication to reasoned debate and fair discussion. This is not a major problem when you compare debates where you can expect people to be at a similar skill level, as when comparing two parliaments. The problem arises when you want to compare the debates in parliament to debates in other areas of society. If you compare two groups with different levels of rhetorical skill, the less sophisticated group will register as less deliberative even if they really were more dedicated to the ideals of deliberation. The core principles of deliberation dictate that the best argument should prevail no matter who presents it, but if we use rhetorical sophistication as a measurement criterion, we are already violating it by derogating the arguments of the less educated.

This is still a work in progress, but it seems likely that this specific find will play a major part in the conclusions to my thesis.

  1. My rewrite of the rules presented in his book discourse ethics []
  2. described most elegantly in a conference paper by Nicole Curato []
  3. Outlined in: Steiner, Jürg, André Bächtiger, Markus Spörndli and Marco R. Steenbergen (2004). Deliberative Politics in Action: Analyzing Parliamentary Discourse, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. []


1. Torbjørn - December 11, 2009

Hmmm, lets start with some principles.

1. When two participants claims incongruous statements about the world, at least one of the them is wrong.

2. One participant having objectively right conclusion about the world, does not mean that neither premises or arguments he presents are valid.

3. Some discussions are on areas where it’s hard or impossible to say that something is objectively correct. Here correctness could only be said to be logical consistency, both with regards to own arguments, and how they stand in relation to the opposition.

I think with these 3 principles in mind, it becomes easy to see where the grey areas are, and how they should be handled, if possible.

The three points implies that what you call level of sophistication could both be valid and invalid in a discussion, and the difficult way to decide what it really is, is to find what is objectively correct.

The best argument prevails. You say that’s the principle for deliberation. I think that is not precise enough. You need to include something about the premises as well. You need to separate between arguments which has a premise that is proven to be objectively correct, and one that cannot be proven as such.

With this you can sort out some of the sophistication, but it will still remain for discussions about values, politics etc, but that is ok for those discussion. Btw, don’t confuse sophistication with rhetoric in this case. Sophistication should mean advanced use of logic, whereas rhetoric means all sorts of techniques, excluding logic, to convince your opposition or listeners.

2. sverrebm - December 11, 2009

Crap… the browser ate my first reply… Abort, retry:

What is important to know here is that I don’t aim to measure the effectiveness of the debate, merely to measure to what degree a debate is deliberative in nature – that is to what degree it conforms to Habermas’ Ideal Speech Situation.

As I interpret Habermas, it is quite possible to conduct a very deliberative discussion based on bad premises and logically inconsistent arguments. It will be ineffective insofar as the goal is the search for truth, but it will still be deliberative as long as all participants stick to the principles of deliberation.

You ask for the inclusion of something about premises. The most important thing about premises as far as level of deliberation goes, is that they are sincere. Participants must not withhold information, present arguments and premises they do not believe to be true (or know to be logically inconsistent) or in other ways attempt to manipulate the debate through other means of coercion.

If a conclusion is accepted on the basis of bad premises or faulty logic, the debate can still be considered deliberative if this was not the result of deliberate manipulation by one party or the other.

By labelling any unsophisticated argument or logical fallacy as non-deliberative, one appears to presuppose that such speeches only come as the result of a lack of devotion to the ideals of deliberation. Especially when one wants to compare discussions where the participants can be expected to have different levels of sophistication this becomes a major methodical problem.

To further worsen the problem with the DQI method, its reductionist analysis also means that debates will register as less deliberative if arguments are presented and refuted one by one in short, simple speeches rather than presented in long speeches with many arguments at once. In particular I fail to see how this can be justified.

3. Torbjørn - December 13, 2009

Haha, hate that! 🙂

I’m not sure if you can just use Ideal Speech to analyze if a debate is deliberative. I think it’s better to say Ideal Speech provides a platform which one can build such a system for analyzes on. Ideal Speech says something about the requirements put on the participants in the debate, however, it fails to mention quite a lot of other things.

I’m not sure if Habermas himself considers Ideal Speech to be the same as deliberative discussions? It’s a long time since I read Habermas, but as you quote yourself in the main post: “According to Jürgen Habermas, its most famous theoretician, it should be characterized by sincerity, inclusiveness, equality, reasoned critique, reflexivity, respect and be free from the influence of money and coercive power” This goes far beyond Ideal Speech, which I guess you can recognize.

I agree with you that according to Ideal Speech you can ignore both premises and logical consistency, but I disagree that you can call this deliberative. That makes no sense.

About premises. Yes, I agree that it’s important that the premises are sincere and that you can have a conclusion on the basis of bad premises, and still call it deliberative. The problem is how to measure sincerity. Sincerity has to be assumed, and interestingly enough, the only way to disprove sincerity is using facts.

I’m not sure what you mean by unsophisticated arguments? Could you provide an example?

However, logical fallacies must be non-deliberative. It would be hard to ask for “reasoned critique” and allowing logical fallacies at the same time. The presupposition you claim stands completely unsubstantiated if you ask me. You better back it up with some facts/arguments, or it’s just an opinion.

Reading through your main post, I think I see where the main problem for your claim is in my opinion:

“They measure how good their rhetorical and logical skills are, not their dedication to reasoned debate and fair discussion.”

You are confusing issues here I believe. A reasoned debate is pr. definition ruled by logic. (what else?) Remember that rhetoric is divided into three different sets. Logical, emotional and ethical (logical being only a tool, the emotional definitely being dodgy and ethical more a set of premises if anything). My point is that it doesn’t make sense to mention rhetorical(you use it in a different meaning, I get that, but it still leads to problems) and logical in the same sentence.

And what is a fair discussion? You cannot assume that all participants have the same knowledge and skill, you can only give them the rights as mentioned in Ideal Speech. Using logic to present the better argument is the correct way. You cannot call it unfair for the discussion itself that some might not understand the logic implied. It might be unfair that those persons haven’t received education, or simply lack the ability to grasp it, but that shouldn’t give them any special treatment in regards to any discussion.

In short, your claim is wrong. You simply cannot say that logical skill measures sophistication, and not reasoned debate. By any definition, you will bite your own tail.

I’m not familiar with DQI, but if what you say it correct, it does sound a bit strange. 🙂