Debates and Decisions

Thu, 03 Apr 2014 11:21 | Written by Peter Emerson in Articles

In any debate, the purpose of which is to take a collective decision, the decision-making process to be used at the end of those deliberations will determine the nature of that debate. If that process is dichotomous, participants are likely to take sides and divide into two opposing camps; thus the atmosphere in debate is likely to become (perhaps bitterly) polarised.

If however, the final decision-making process is non-majoritarian; if, in other words, the outcome is to be that option which gets the highest average preference (and an average, of course, involves every voter, not just a majority of them), then the debate may well take place in a more convivial atmosphere.

Be it in the local community or in a national or even international forum, the democratic process should be a means by which all may participate in coming to an accommodation. This may happen directly, in the staff meeting, company board, neighbourhood association or whatever; or it may happen indirectly, as in the political sphere, via elected representatives. In the latter scenario, the collective will of those elected should, in theory, be a fair representation of the collective will of their electorate.

The procedures may vary. Participants may rely on a purely verbal process, or they may resort to additional practices such as straw polls and votes. No matter what procedure is employed, however, given the fact that the collective consensus or public opinion (if one exists) is fixed, the outcomes of whatever procedures should be (roughly) the same. Accordingly, in any debate, among any one set of participants, if there is such a thing as a best possible compromise waiting, as it were, to be identified, the process by which it is precisely described and defined should not too severely affect its final character.

In today’s world, many people use the purely verbal approach, and the outcome invariably enjoys a fair degree of overall consent; this is called their consensus. Such a process can, however, be very protracted and in many international gatherings, talks often continue well into the night. Furthermore, such a process inherently limits the number of participants. In other settings, many politicians and others use a process which is its opposite: a (simple or weighted)1 majority vote. This methodology, however, can not measure the degree of overall consent; in fact, it measures the very opposite – so many ‘for’ and so many ‘against’ – the degree of dissent. These two procedures might well, therefore, produce two entirely different outcomes; so at least one of them must be an inaccurate measure of the collective will.

What is needed, then, is a voting procedure (a) which can be used by groups no matter how large; and (b) by which can be identified, even in the most fractious of gatherings, the best possible compromise (if, that is, one exists), or, in more congenial scenarios, the consensus if not indeed the collective wisdom.

Having first defined the democratic process, this article talks about how a discussion, if it is to conclude with a divisive decision-making process, can deteriorate into an argument. Next, it describes a more inclusive voting procedure, the nature of its vote and count, the psychological effects on those involved, and then the means by which can be measured the degree of overall consent: the so-called consensus coefficient (para 3.3). Finally, it lays out the structure for and benefits of a consensus debate.

In any society which aspires to be plural, on any contentious issue, there will always be, or there should always be, more than two options ‘on the table’. On all sorts of questions – on structuring the next agm, on drawing up a policy document, on choosing an annual budget, or, to take an example from abroad, on accepting a new Egyptian constitution – there are bound to be more than two possibilities… if, that is, the question has been asked correctly. There are of course a few exceptions, like the question: “which side of the road shall we drive on?” Yet even here, there may be more than two ways of voting. The only country ever to hold a referendum on this topic – Sweden, in 1955 – had three options on the ballot paper: “left”, “right” and “blank”, so to enable those committed democrats who were actually indifferent on this matter to just “go with the flow” (Emerson 2012a, 15).

In a court of law, on matters of right and wrong, there is often a case for a majority vote: is the accused guilty or not guilty? In other settings, many issues are not so intimately concerned with moral values, and day-to-day business in community groups, company boards, local councils and national parliaments is often less so. In such instances, the use of a majority vote may be inappropriate.

In the Modified Borda Count, (MBC), as it is called, everything is ‘on the table’ and also, if need be in a short list, on the ballot paper. If there are five options on that ballot, and if the voter casts her preferences on all of them, her 1st preference gets 5 points, her 2nd gets 4, her 3rd 3, and so on.

In effect, then, the MBC encourages the voter to submit a full ballot. No-one votes ‘against’ any body or any thing. Every voter votes only ‘for’, albeit with various degrees of enthusiasm. And if she does cast a full ballot, she definitely supports her favourite option in so far as she can, but she also states her compromise position. Even with her 5th preference, while admitting that she does not like it very much, she nevertheless acknowledges its validity and implicitly accepts, if this option is in fact the overall favourite, that she will support this outcome.

Meanwhile, in the debate which precedes the vote, the protagonist will know that success depends on getting a large number of high preferences, some middle ones perhaps, but very few low ones. It is therefore worth his while to talk to his erstwhile opponents, so to persuade them to give his particular option not a 5th but a 4th, a 3rd or even a 2nd preference. There is much to be gained, therefore, from being inclusive. Indeed, the MBC can be the very catalyst of consensus. That which, in a majoritarian milieu, is at best a dialogue, becomes a ‘polylogue’.

In the human condition, it sometimes happens that we ourselves determine that which then determines us. If the decision-making process is to be adversarial, the preceding debate will probably be equally adversarial, and the consequences perhaps even more so. If, however, the decision-making process is to be inclusive, then the debate itself will also be more inclusive, and more civilised. Furthermore, the outcome of that debate and decision-making process will be a much more accurate representation of the collective will. That is, it will be more democratic.


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Emerson, P. (2007) Designing an All-Inclusive Democracy, Heidelberg: Springer.

Emerson, P. (2012a) Defining Democracy, Heidelberg: Springer.

Emerson, P. (2012b) ‘Majority Rule – A Cause of War?’ in H. Gardener and O. Kobtzeff (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to War, Abingdon: Ashgate.

Emerson, P. (2013) ‘The original Borda count and partial voting’, Social Choice and Welfare, 40 (2), 353-8.

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About Peter EmersonBrowse Author's Arhive

Peter Emerson is Director of not-for-profit NGO the de Borda Institute. His latest publication – Defining Democracy – was published by Springer in 2012.