Exercising our Freedom and Intelligence: Part 7

BirdsThis series of blog posts is about collective intelligence and teams.  We have applied John Warfield’s collective intelligence methods in a variety of projects. In parallel, we have sought to build upon John Warfield’s vision for systems science by describing how collective intelligence methods can be embedded within an educational support structure. More recently, I have been thinking about the principle of freedom as non-domination and how it can be used to inform both structural and relational design choices that facilitate more impactful collective intelligence work on a larger scale. My next blog post will focus on the application of collective intelligence to the design of technology supporting participatory democracy.

However, before presenting the results of our collective intelligence design work I want to clarify, in general, how the principle of freedom as non-domination can be used to inform both structural and relational design choices in our democratic practice.  Following on from earlier blogs, I draw directly upon the work of Philip Pettit in this regard.

This is a long blog post, but I think it’s important to clarify the link between freedom as non-domination and the design of democratic systems.

Let’s consider first the broad historical roots of Pettit’s view on freedom.

In the Roman Republic, freedom had a unique meaning – it implied that citizens have control in their personal affairs and a status that guarded them against private power ordominium and public power or imperium. As outlined by Pettit, this republican view of freedom was maintained and developed in Medieval, Renaissance, and early Enlightenment thought. It was associated with belief in the need for a constitutional division and separation of power and an active citizenry willing to monitor and contest government. This long-standing republican view of freedom primed the revolt of the American colonists against the control of the British Parliament in 1775 and, later, that of Irish revolutionaries in response to British rule in Ireland in 1916. However, the political substance of this manifest view of freedom struggled to survive in the face of competing philosophies.  For instance, French republican ideals, influenced by the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, rejected the idea of a mixed constitution in favour of a single sovereign assembly, whereby citizens would act as participants in government rather than simply monitor and contest the policies and practices of government.  While this ideal of participation may seem reasonable, Pettit notes that Rousseau ultimately endorsed a communitarian view whereby citizens become dependent on a sovereign assembly of the people. As such, Rousseau replaced the idea of freedom as non-domination with the idea that a free citizen is someone who enjoys the right to participate in communal decision-making.  The point that Pettit makes is that freedom as non-domination cannot be compromised, regardless of what might be perceived as a ‘collective’ approach to decision-making.

As such, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the central principle of republicanism was fading, says Pettit, but the true political death of republicanism came from Britain and, in particular, the advent of a new ideal of freedom grounded in Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism.  Pettit describes the scenario:  anxious to extend freedom to all women and workers, but with parallel awareness of traditional dominance structures within the emerging industrial and free market world, Bentham argues that freedom simply requires the absence of actual interference, not the absence of a power of interference.  In this way, without altering the dominance structures within society, Bentham’s Utilitarianism made it possible to argue that women and workers could be free, provided their masters did not misuse their power of interference.  Thus emerged the classic liberal or libertarian perspective, whereby the state does not promise or grant freedom as non-domination, but rather protects citizens from outright violence and leaves them to their own devices in either working for themselves or in contracting to work for another.  In this new industrial world dominated by long standing dominance hierarchies where a husband had power over his wife, a master had power over servants, and an employer had power over his employees, Bentham’s ideal that everything should be ordered toward “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” could not accommodate the radical notion that freedom as non-domination be extended to every citizen. As noted by Pettit, the republican ideal of freedom was too radical for Bentham and thus he advanced a weaker ideal of freedom.  Bentham ultimately argues that freedom as non-domination is an ideal that is unattainable – it will disturb the social order in a way that no wisdom or compassion of government can accommodate. Classic liberalism emerges as an alternative and with it comes a radical zeal to remove constraint and interference and promote freedom of contract, such that contractual arrangements in the workplace and market are increasingly open to negotiation, but, ultimately and unfortunately, with the power of negotiation squarely in the hands of the powerful members of society.

Thus, while government was viewed by 18th century republicans as the great champion of freedom, providing a system of law in which citizens could enjoy the basic liberties that uphold their freedom from domination, 19th century liberals increasingly view government as a source of interference for all those seeking negotiated freedom of contract.  As Pettit notes, classic liberals would have thus cheered Ronald Regan’s claim two hundred years later that ‘government is the problem, not the solution’.

As described by Pettit, although the new liberal model of freedom was ultimately retained and dominates modern political liberal philosophies and practices to this day, the push and pull of social and political influences resulted in the emergence of a number of liberal schools of thought.  First, right-wing libertarians assert that freedom as non-interference is always open to negotiation and they have little or nothing to say about constitutional forms: they largely reject the constraints and regulations of government. Second, left-wing libertarians assert that freedom as non-interference is important but so too is material equality, which implies enactment of specific laws and regulations. Third, constitutional liberals assert that freedom and equality are both important but so too are constitutional arrangements such as the rule of law, the separation of powers, and embedded legal rights.  While some forms of modern constitutional liberalism approach the republication view, Pettit notes that the republican tradition remains distinctive in emphasising that freedom requires power against interference, not just the absence of interference.  This unique view of freedom has implications for our approach to the design of systems that uphold social justice, democracy, and sovereignty.  Drawing directly upon the work of Pettit, we will focus below on some major implications for democracy, which in turn has further implications for the high-level political, structural and relational design of applied systems science.  By understanding democracy we come to understand key aspects in the design of applied systems science, and by understanding the design of applied systems science we can further ongoing efforts to redesign participatory democracy.

Democratic freedom as non-domination

Pettit notes that the ideal of freedom as non-domination implies that citizens are granted a status that guards them against private power or dominium and public power or imperium.  In order to guard themselves against private power or dominium and ensure social justice in the horizontal relations between citizens, the state must treat everyone as equals in providing for their freedom as non-domination, identify a broad set of basic liberties, and provide citizens with the resources and protections necessary to enjoy freedom in the exercise of those liberties. The infrastructure, resourcing, and protection provided to citizens in this context, says Pettit, argues for the development of a rich and contextually plausible set of demands in what the state should provide for its citizens.  Notably, the provision by the state of appropriate infrastructure, resourcing, and protection to citizens implies that the state has the power to interfere in citizen affairs (e.g., to protect citizens from private power). At the same time, in order for citizens to be protected against public power or imperium, the principle of freedom as non-domination implies that people share equally in controlling the state. If the people achieve control in this way, Petit argues that the legislation, regulation, and taxation of the state will not be dominating — it will be an authorized form of interference.

As such, democracy should enable people to enjoy freedom in relation to public power, in much the same way that justice enables them to enjoy freedom in relation to private power.  Naturally, with varying conceptions of justice at a population level, a democratic government of this type is certain to impose some laws that one would consider objectionable. But with processes for contesting laws and for contributing equally to the law, Pettit argues that a democratic system can support egalitarianism and uphold the norm or norms: no one is special and the arguments made for any policy, or any process of resolving policy differences, should be relevant from the standpoint of every citizen.

Democracy should allow citizens equal status in controlling and influencing their direction and societal development.  Most modern democracies involve open, periodic electoral competitions, with different parties or independent candidates seeking to win office and thus represent citizens.  Quoting Schumpeter, Pettit highlights the reality of most modern democracies —  democracy does not enable citizens to control their political leaders; they form no agreed views that they might impose on leaders, and even if they did form such views,  Schumpeter says, they have no way of imposing these views on the party boss and party machine.  The people have not been granted access to the party. In the characteristic competition for votes, the people are generally granted the status of listener, not speaker: they listen to the policy proposal of candidates. Their concerns may be noted by the candidate in any brief opportunity they have to speak and be heard. Not only is this diametrically opposed to everything we know about productive and effective groups and teams, it is diametrically opposed to the principle and practice of freedom as non-domination.  Unfortunately, this pattern of communication echoes a pattern that most school children will have become accustomed to and thus they may not consider it unusual when they reach adulthood and interact with those who possess power over them. For example, studies of discourse and dialogue in classrooms have consistently reported that teacher’s talk dominates the conversation during lessons, with less than 5% of in-class time allocated to group discussions. Teachers rarely allow enough time for students to respond to a question before rephrasing, asking a different question, or asking another student. Given the fact that the extent to which students learn from collaborative activities depends on the depth and the quality of the dialogue peers engage in, it is difficult to justify this over-reliance on teacher-driven discussion. The same might be said of democracy.

But what types of processes and mechanisms would serve to evolve our democratic systems? Clearly, the social activity system underlying democracy and collective design needs to change if it is to be consistent with the principle and practice of freedom as non-domination.  We need to operate more like effective teams across all levels of the design process.  One of the reasons scholars and politicians balk at the idea of popular control is because they have simply not considered it very deeply and they may thus confuse it with majority or mob rule, or ignorant decision-making in the absence of expert knowledge input. But this is not what Pettit has in mind.   A single participatory assembly, even a virtual assembly, would be too unwieldy, says Pettit, and would preclude the type of deliberation needed for coherent, collective decision-making.

Here are some of the key proposals made by Pettit: A pattern of election to public office should be maintained as part of an underlying political infrastructure.  However, electoral influence is insufficient: it does not imply equal influence and it does not imply control.  At least three problem arise, says Pettit:  (1) minorities with divergent views get neglected and invariably lose out in the decisions taken by elected representatives; (2) party interests, particularly those centered around maintenance of party control, bias decision-making and result in the exploitation of political power to ensure electoral advantage (e.g., those in power draw electoral district boundaries, set interest rates, gather and report national economic and social data); and (3) powerful lobby groups (e.g., those who provide election campaign finance) may come to control party politics and usurp the power of the state to their own advantage.

According to Pettit, the exercise of democratic control on the part of the people requires the design of structures and processes that divide, constrain, regulate, and sometimes even sidestep elected representatives. For instance, in response to the challenge of ensuring minority influence, regular courts, special tribunals as well as ombudsmen, equality commissioners, and other watchdog agencies need to have the power to make and enforce judgements on how far minority interests should be protected against majority rule; in response to the problem of party interest, decisions around electoral districts, the setting of interest rates, and the collection and reporting of national economic and social data needs to be under the control of independent commissions who maintain a set of common standards around transparency and just decision-making processes; and powerful corporate and media influences need to be regulated and constrained from influencing electoral decision making and policy decision-making. In a democracy, everyone has equal influence and no one is special. As such, Pettit argues that we need a constitutional electoral system that allows both for the appointment of independent regulatory authorities that monitor and modify government behaviour, and a system that also mobilizes and supports citizens in questioning and contesting government proposal and decisions.

For Pettit, a distinct infrastructure is needed for citizens who can thus operate with growing expertise across a range of public interest bodies to influence the direction of policy in a complex society.  While many modern democracies include a variety of independent commissions designed to regulate, monitor and modify government behaviour, the infrastructure for citizens is generally quite limited. Pettit proposes that we move from a constitutionally restricted democracy, to a democratically shaped constitutionalism. This implies a progressive, democratic approach to the redesign of political systems.  Public interest bodies would make their arguments in public and base their arguments on considerations that everyone can see as relevant: for example, considerations of equality and inclusion, transparent process and accurate reporting.  Citizens selected for these public bodies would count as our ‘indicative representatives’ and would conform to a set of expectations, constraints and briefs that guide them in a way that we the people would want them to act. In addition to monitoring and deliberating and contesting government policies, says Pettit, indicative representative bodies could also be established to advise on specific matters.  What this suggests is a complex and differentiated team structure, or a form of networked governance, matched to the complexity of the societal challenges the people face – a structure that support the people in controlling the direction of government.

Pettit provides the example of the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Report, which comprised just over 150 citizens selected on a statistically representative basis and which provided a recommendation on the voting system to be used in the province. Their recommendation was put to a popular referendum and the broader citizen population arrived at a decision in relation to the recommendation. This example illustrates how a flexible, multi-group set of ad hoc citizen’s assemblies could be established to generate recommendation across multiple policy domains, which in turn could be either further developed by Government or put to a popular referendum.

This resonates with the political decision making model used in Switzerland. Switzerland approaches a model of popular control by holding a mandatory referendum for any proposed change in the constitution. Furthermore, for any change in a law, a referendum can be requested (i.e., an optional referendum), and through referenda, citizens can also challenge any law voted by federal parliament and thus introduce amendments to the federal constitution through a federal popular initiative.  All that is needed are 100,000 valid signatures in 18 months and a national voting day for the population as a whole will be organised for every proposed modification to the constitution. The authorities cannot prevent an initiative from being held. In Switzerland, these popular initiatives operate at the federal, cantonal (cantons) and communal (town) levels.

As noted by Pettit, a system supporting democratic control on the part of the people implies contestation and deliberation on the part of citizens, and a certain vigilance that, according to some scholars, is the price of liberty.  These ideas of vigilance, deliberation, and contestation will become very important later when we describe in more detail our specific approach to applied systems science and the types of cooperative and conversational dynamics, and argumentation capability and support, we seek to cultivate in democratic working groups. Notably, vigilance and contestation need not be equated with stress and conflict. Instead, I propose that we equate vigilance with mindfulness and contestation with exploratory dialogue and argumentation.  Certainly, stress and conflict can operate in successful working groups.  However, as long as there are a broader set of affordances that support successful team dynamics, stress and conflict can be managed. Much like we design other aspects of the environment, a democratic system providing a broad set of affordances that support successful team dynamics needs to be designed using processes of democratic control and collective intelligence.  As we will see in my next blog post, this implies an iterative design process.  As described by Pettit, “republican democracy is an essentially emergent and evolving institution” (p. 145)

The model that Pettit proposes implies multiple, separate teams work together: no single, unconstrained body has the exclusive rights to exercise lawmaking and other government functions, and even outside of these multiple groups and decision-making bodies it is important, says Pettit, that individual citizens retain the right to contest and put a check on what government does.  But could a system of popular influence truly impose a direction on government? Pettit suggests that Schumpeter and others who discount the possibility rarely look far beyond the effects of short-term electoral voting: they discount the existence of established and evolving attitudes in the electorate, the potential for display of those attitudes in the things voters accept and reject, and the potential for citizen attitude and behaviour to force a government to abide by community-wide standards in the processes of decision-making it follows and in the content of the decisions it makes. Opening all public decision to discussion and moving toward a more deliberative and participatory democracy allows for equal, shared control and allows everyone to accept the norm of norms. Again, no one is special and the arguments made for any policy, or any process of resolving policy differences, should be relevant from the standpoint of every citizen.  As such, people with different viewpoints approach deliberation in light of non-partisan considerations that all can see as relevant to support their proposals, and relevant to the group project. Decisions may be slow in emerging and deliberation may go through multiple iterations, but the norms and standards and considerations shaping the approach to deliberation itself, and the outcomes of any specific act of collective deliberation, emerges from a system that is built upon a fair and open and reasonable democratic process, a process supported by an evolving infrastructure and rooted in a common principle of freedom as non-domination.

Pettit notes that the evidence of history suggests that such a system is plausible and thus worthy of further intelligent design and experimentation.  For example, Pettit highlights the case of Victorian England, where a system of popular influence generated a cascade of reforms in relation to the employment of children, the treatment of women, the preparation of food and drugs, the conduct of affairs in mines and mills and factories, the organisation of the civil service, and so on.  The reform process was the same in each case: the initial revelation of an intolerable problematic situation led to popular outrage, which in turn led to a political response and associated reforms. Intolerability of a problematic situation, in every case, was the catalyst for change, but a system of popular influence and a reinforcing trajectory of positive social change upheld these repeated cycles of reform. Pettit points to similar case studies illustrating how popular pressure in the United States led in the same way to the enactment of new norms of equal citizenship, market openness, and personal security.  Unsurprisingly, these case studies highlight the importance of moral principles and associated emotional reactions in directing individual and collective action in response to intolerable problematic situations. Research in psychology confirms the powerful role of emotional and moral responses in shaping individual and collective behaviour.  Thus moral principles that reinforce characteristic patterns of behaviour are an essential part of the scaffolding that shapes our collective response to problematic situations.  But the critical lesson from history is that, without a system of popular influence, no change would have occurred – moral principles need further structural and methodological support and scaffolding that allows for an effective collective response to problematic situations.  In this context, principles, structures, and methods co-evolve, and in my view revisiting fundamental principles is key to sustaining this co-evolutionary process. As we will see in the next blog post, the ideal of participatory democracy and networked governance is gathering force, and as democracy evolves, continuously embracing freedom as non-domination as a principle will reinforce a unique scaffold that supports our emotional, cognitive, behavioral and collective problem solving in response to problematic situations.  As Pettit describes it, republican democracy is emergent and evolving “in the sense that the control it gives the people emerges from the interaction of many different bodies operating at many different points and in many different ways….And it is evolving in the sense that popular control may only appear over the longer run … it is an essentially slow, and ideally developing process” (p. 145).

Much like individuals have been described as thinking fast and slow, with much of our fast, heuristic, intuitive thinking seen as influential in shaping our behavioral responses in context, so too can our democracy act fast or slow – and we should not discount the slow change processes.  The vision of democracy that Pettit envisions implies directed influence and control over the long haul; it involves slow deliberation, not simply the fast (and often intuitive) electoral responses of citizens in a particular round of elections. Historical case studies suggest that popular control is possible, but it requires sustained effort, sustained deliberation and reflection and, importantly, a social and political infrastructure that supports the ideal of popular control, which is a much more demanding infrastructure than is currently designed and made available to citizens throughout the world.

Pettit believes that, accepting the norm of norms that no one is special and the arguments made for any policy should be relevant from the standpoint of every citizen, a democratic system can impose a direction on government that all have equal reason to welcome.  Much like a system of social justice allows each of us to look one another in the eye without fear or deference, a democratic system should allow each of us to accept that any unwelcome decision on the part of government that affects us is just tough luck and need not be cause for resentment.  As Pettit notes, we have equally shared in the control of the democratic system and we equally share the positive and negative consequences that emerge from our decisions.  Much like need to work hard to cultivate our capacities for mindful deliberation in the context of a system of popular control, so too do we need to learn from experience and become resilient in the face of negative consequences, and failures, as we work collectively to adapt to and shape the world we live in.   Echoing Kant, Pettit notes that although being dependent on many external things is hard, the subjection of one human being under the will of another is much harder still. By shaping norms of social justice and democracy together, we work against any tendency to expose ourselves to the malign will of others – we guard ourselves against private power or dominium and public power or imperium – and we open the potential for an emerging and evolving collective intelligence and collective action in response to shared problems.

Now that we have outlined the ideal, we can approach the science with a new perspective, and consider some of the constraints and affordances that shape democratic forms of collective intelligence.  These new democratic forms of collective intelligence provide a key foundation stone for applied social science, which in turn informs our response to societal problems.  I will argue that research evidence supports the idea that norms of behaviour aligned with the principle of freedom as non-domination are essential to the success of teams.  The list of behaviours is long and the behaviour in context is subtle and complex in many ways, but it includes a number of obvious candidates such as equality of conversational input, freedom of expression, shared empathy, shared support, reflective and exploratory talk, peer feedback, and so on.  There is a strong co-dependence between these behaviors and the emotional climate of working groups.  The sense of psychological safety that these behaviors reinforce can help groups to maximize their collective intelligence.  As described by Edmundson (1999) team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.  In a study of 51 work teams in a manufacturing company, Edmundson found that measures of team psychological safety were associated with learning behaviors, and these learning behaviors mediated the relationship between team psychological safety and team performance. The collective intelligence method and the approach to applied social science I advocate is fundamentally a learning activity.  Applied social science is fundamentally about learning and problem solving in the context of complex ill-structured problems. Feelings of psychological safety are important to sustain the resilience of working groups in this context, as failure and negative consequences are inevitable as part of the learning process.  There are no perfect solutions, but there are better and worse solutions that are open to discovery as part of a group learning process. The construct of team psychological safely resonates further with the construct of a secure attachment in close relationships, and the findings linking team psychological safety, learning and team performance resonate with research findings on the many benefits of establishing and maintaining a secure attachment in close relationships (Hogan, 2010). Fundamental to the emergent and evolving secure attachment is the freedom to explore in the context of a warm, caring, supporting relationship.

Building upon these behavioural norms at the group level, we will highlight a set of methods that support exploration, learning and collective intelligence, allowing teams to combine their talents using tools that support them in generating ideas, structuring ideas, and building a shared understanding that supports collective action planning. My next blog post will showcase an important application of these methods.


Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly 44 (2): 350–383.

Hogan, M. J. (2010). A secure base. Review of Mikulincer & Shaver, Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. The Irish Psychologist, 36 (5), 99 – 101.

Pettit, P. (2014). Just freedom: A moral compass for a complex world (1st Edition. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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