Consensus is a decision-making process that improves the quality of decisions by exploring differences until agreement is possible. The process is unitive and can be contrasted with decision making by majority vote, which is divisive.
Sometimes a divisive process is desirable, as when differences are so marked that a group should split. When there is a degree of unity within a given group, however, cohesiveness from the consensus process is the desired result. A criticism is that consensus is time-consuming, while voting is efficient. The opposite is more likely true if quality of decisions and results are important.
Consensus is not necessarily unanimity. Often a group will continue to have divided opinions on a substantive issue, but will be able to reach consensus on a course of action. In pursuing consensus, a unifying decision must emerge which can be perceived by the whole group as a solution. It is not possible to combine consensus with voting. To do so merely relieves the group from commitment. The value of the method is to develop a sense of the meeting -- a workable solution that is deeply perceived rather than devised or contrived.
Use of the consensus method lays serious responsibilities on all participants. The strength is that it requires the majority to listen perceptively to the minority, even a tiny minority of one. There is no assurance that the majority comprehends the significance or truth of any given issue any more accurately than a minority. It is equally important, however, that the minority not be allowed to dominate, since dominance by a minority is no more preferable than dominance by a majority. Thus while the majority must seriously listen to a minority, likewise the minority is responsible to re-examine its interest once it has been fully heard and its views not accepted.
An essential element in consensus decision-making is the presence of one person, the Chair, who retains a degree of non-partisanship and can thus clarify the points at issue, the possible lines of agreement, and eventually construct a unifying decision which satisfies the requirements of all partisans.
Often some other member of a group unobtrusively undertakes this role, particularly when the Chair has become involved in an issue and has lost sufficient objectivity or non-partisanship to be able to clarify differences or to propose unifying solutions.
When a group is seriously divided on an issue which requires an immediate decision, great care must be taken neither to violate the group's right to move forward, nor to arbitrarily squelch the minority. There is no simple solution in such an event, and many factors must be considered. In this respect, the process of decision making can be compared to the alteration of an airplane's direction of flight, rather than the backward-forward motion of a locomotive. It is important that the body as a whole learn something from the dissenters and consider persuasion to their view.
The skill and experience of the Chair is crucial in such instances. Some of the factors which must be considered are the depth of feeling on an issue, the complexity of the issue, the severity of the consequences, and the relative size of the minority. If an issue carries serious consequences, and there is strong division or several alternative views, discussion must continue, and perhaps further investigative work is to be done outside the meeting. If the alternatives are clear and the consequences fairly predictable, and a small segment of the group withholds assent, then it appears reasonable for the body, after having really heard the dissenting view, to ask the dissenters to stand aside so that the group can proceed over the dissenting objections, while dissenters still retain their objections, and accept a workable course of action.
[This essay is based on material prepared by Herb Foster.]
[Excerpts on the shortcomings of majority rule from an essay by Henry David Thoreau]
"But, to speak practically and as a citizen...I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government....
"After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a goverment in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?--in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience: but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result for an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, aye, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all?--or small moveable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts, -- a mere shadow and reminiscense of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments, though it may be"Not a drum was heard, nor a funeral note;
as his corse to the ramparts we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewaell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried."
"... but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purposes as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw, or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. [Note: Is it not uncanny that Thoreau anticipated DOD's "Autonomous Vehicle" Program over a century earlier?!]
".... All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail throught the power of the majority. There is but little virtue to the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slaverly left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote.
"I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to, shall we not have the advantage of his wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue.His vote is of no more worth than that of an unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. Oh for a man who is a man, and as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through...."