Wise democracy aims to minimize normal human limitations by providing conditions under which a broader and deeper diversity of wisdom sources can be tapped and brought to bear on the conditions of life. Wise democracy starts with creatively engaging the diversity of the citizenry – ordinary people using their heads, hearts, guts, and spirits together – and a full range of different perspectives and information on every issue we face. Using powerful conversational and deliberative methods like those noted in the accompanying essay on participation, we now know that we can generate considerable wisdom from ordinary people, wisdom we call “public wisdom”. The more diverse people hear each other well, get well informed, thoroughly consider an issue together, and together develop shared understandings about the directions we need to take, the more likely it is that those people will have tapped into the kind of fundamental insights and creativity that qualify as wisdom. Creating these conditions is the intention behind various citizen deliberative activities.
The role of experts
Wise democracy approaches often also engage diverse experts, although emphasizing that they are “on tap, not on top” of the people’s decision-making power. (After all, the people are guardians of their community’s collective values, which must ultimately guide democratic decisions, but they often need experts to help them understand how to actually bring those values to life in the complexity of the real world.) Among the most valuable experts in this effort are systems thinkers – who may range from indigenous peoples to ecologists, cyberneticists (for insight about feedback dynamics) and complexity scientists (for insight about unpredictability and probabilities – and thus the importance and power of humility). All these systemic, holistic experts think in terms of interconnectedness and “nonlinear emergent phenomena” with which we can work as partners if we are humble and attentive enough. Such systemic perspectives can help us avoid the pitfalls of hubris and thinking that the world is linear and totally subject to our rationality, our self-interested narratives, our shallow wishes, and our technological control. They can also help us expand our natural biosocial empathy into “Big Empathy” that sees beyond immediate suffering and destruction into their systemic sources which, when successfully addressed, produce very broad beneficial effects.
The wisdom of deeper needs that lie below fixed positions
A potent source of wisdom is to dig below the surface of what people say they want – especially their fixed ideas and positions – to the deeper needs and values that lie beneath their demands and desires. Pursuing people’s shallow cravings directly often results in conflict and damage without even truly satisfy the original hunger that drove their life energy. Once the true underlying needs and values are clarified, the people involved can work creatively together to satisfy them in ways that are far more life-serving.
Nature as a resource – for wisdom
And then there is the wisdom in and of nature. Nature isn’t just a resource for raw materials, energy, and recreation. Even if we insist on viewing it as such – rather than as a sacred Reality, a wise elder or a co-creative partner – we should at least realize that its greatest gift to us may actually be its wise guidance, and that it is worth preserving even if only for that reason. There is tremendous wisdom buried in natural patterns, organisms and systems and in the entire evolutionary story from the Big Bang until now
Public wisdom as ongoing learning together
All these can help us minimize sources of folly and enhance likely sources of wise insight. But there’s more: Taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long term broad benefit – a useful working definition of wisdom in the public sphere – is not something we just do and it is done. It is an ongoing effort and adventure; we’re learning as we go, and can always do better. It requires an iterative reflection and course-correction process, a high form of collective learning and intelligence that’s vital for ongoing public wisdom that is actually effective over the long-term.