Values in Public Deliberation

I had to chuckle when I read one comment to a recent piece…it questioned in a humorous way how we could get our neighbors to feel comfortable with any ‘touchy-feely’ emotional methods as part of an NIF forum. I think we all know that many people would run…not walk…to the nearest door, and we’d never see them again…even in California! After my initial chuckle, I became a bit sad in reflecting on how our suspicion and distrust have made many of us ‘politically disabled.’ We find ourselves living in a complicated catch-22…the issues that are most urgent and important to us touch our lives so deeply that we get emotional when we talk about them, but when we express our natural emotion about an issue our opinions are discounted because we’re just getting emotional and that mean we’re not thinking clearly. We need to figure out a way to include our strong emotions on critical issues in a way that is effective and is culturally accepted.

I think we could all agree that knowledge and understanding alone seem to be insufficient in motivating us to take action, particularly on those actions that involve some degree of moral dilemma or ethical uncertainty. For many years now, I’ve been strongly influenced by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when we’ve discussed moving from talk to action. When we include Maslow’s hierarchy in our discussion, we have a perfect opening to talk about what’s really important to us and why. In essence, we get to talk about how we as individuals and as a public apply our deeply-embedded values to make decisions that matter. As long as our conversations are limited to what we think, we’re able to insulate ourselves from any expectation of action. When, however, we include our real-world needs and the needs of others, there seems to be increased pressure to figure out what we need to do. 

One of the strongest bonds we have as humans comes from the fact that we share a hierarchy of needs. Every breath we take fulfills a need. Every caring touch fulfills a need. Every talent we develop and use fulfills a need. Maslow’s elegant way of linking our human needs makes it possible for us to understand some things about our own motivations and the motivations of others to take action in specific ways and in specific contexts. In our NIF Practice, we gather folks to ‘work through’ the complex dilemmas of a public issue in order to identify those actions that best resolve the unmet needs of the most at-risk stakeholders in ways everyone can live with. Deliberation is never just a head-trip…it’s always about real people with real needs. The awareness that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is instrumental in how we feel and think about an issue helps us as individuals…the awareness that others are wrestling with their own personal and family context can transform a conversation into a powerfully catalytic experience.

Within this framework, we are constantly assessing the ‘value’ of actions in relation to the fulfillment of our most essential and timely needs. As Steven Quartz is quoted to say in the recent David Brooks Op-Ed, “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but … what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.” In terms of deliberation, the ‘preferences’ to which Quartz refers are actually mini-tradeoffs between a variety of actions that meet one or more need. Moment by moment, we’re ‘pricing’ the action options we have available with the knowledge of the situation we have available. When a decision is made, we’ve chosen pay the current ‘price’ for the action in order to get the resulting fulfilled need…or we choose to have someone else pay for our needs.

Concerning our NIF forums, we can include Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at every level of our work. When we look, for instance, at Yankelovich’s seven-stage model on public judgment, it’s all about human needs…and it’s all about the personal and public ‘price’ we fix on each of the action options identified to meet those needs. We, the public, ultimately decide whether we’re willing to pay the best ‘price’ for the most effective actions. In our various roles in the NIF Practice, we can face our ‘political disability’ head-on with clear talk about real needs where everyone shares in paying the ‘price’ of responsible, public judgment.

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