Is Interest-Based Mediation Derived from a Misunderstanding?

(Originally published in DIALOGIC Mediation)

Regular readers of this blog know that I practise mediation using the transformative model. (For more information, please see the tag, transformative mediation.)

The most prominent and dominant approach to mediation is, however, the interest-based model, derived from the concept of

homo economicus, that posits that a human being "acts to obtain the highest possible well-being for himself given available information about opportunities and other constraints". This concept in turn was developed from ideas found in Adam Smith's, Wealth of Nations, from which comes this celebrated passage:
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love."
Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize laureate in economics in 1998, believes that by and large Smith's ideas in Wealth of Nations have been impoverished by a neglect of the framework he developed in his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This framework was drawn on substantially in Wealth of Nations.
"Beyond self-love, Smith discussed how the functioning of the economic system in general, and of the market in particular, can be helped enormously by other motives. There are two distinct propositions here. The first is one of epistemology, concerning the fact that human beings are not guided only by self-gain or even prudence. The second is one of practical reason, involving the claim that there are good ethical and practical grounds for encouraging motives other than self-interest, whether in the crude form of self-love or in the refined form of prudence. Indeed, Smith argues that while "prudence" was "of all virtues that which is most helpful to the individual", "humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit, are the qualities most useful to others". These are two distinct points, and, unfortunately, a big part of modern economics gets both of them wrong in interpreting Smith."
In other words, self-interest is not a sufficient lens from which to understand economic systems; there's more than self-love to motivate human beings. As well, the germ of the relational ideology of human nature can be seen in the distinction between "most helpful to the individual" and "most useful to others".

If Sen is right in his view of Smith and implicitly the model of

homo economicus, the theoretical and ideological foundations of interest-based mediation may be due for re-thinking. If people in conflict have motives that are not exclusively related to self-interest, interest-based mediation outcomes may not be sustainable or, as important, comprehensive enough to comprise all of the things that really matter to the parties.

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Comment by Debra Healy on May 1, 2010 at 1:43pm
Hi, Arnold -

Interesting post. I'm curious about your statement:

"The most prominent and dominant approach to mediation is, however, the interest-based model, derived from the concept of homo economicus, that posits that a human being 'acts to obtain the highest possible well-being for himself given available information about opportunities and other constraints.'"

I've never considered interest-based mediation to be limited to those in conflict who have motives "exclusively related to self-interest." I'm interested in knowing how you arrived at this conclusion.

Thanks very much.

Debra Healy
Healy Conflict Management Services
Comment by Arnold Zeman on May 1, 2010 at 8:06pm
Thanks for your comment & question, Debra. I was trying to say that interest-based mediation rests on a view of human nature and action. If parties in conflict can be helped to understand somehow the rational interests that underlie their differences, opportunities may be created for developing outcomes that are mutually satisfactory for all, most or some of their interests. When through the mediation process, the human being can obtain "available information about opportunities and constraints", she will then act to obtain her highest possible well-being. So it's not that the parties have motives exclusively related to self-interest, but rather in the process of mediation, they may start to view their situation more dispassionately through the lens of rational self-interest that may in turn prepare the ground for options on which they can agree.
Hope this sheds further light on what I was trying to say.
Comment by Debra Healy on May 3, 2010 at 11:02am
Thanks very much, Arnold. Sorry to be so dense. :)

I got the sense that you were possibly saying that interest-based mediation focuses on self-interest as the motivation for resolution. In my mind, interest-based mediation focuses on both individual and joint interests - and, through the process, people come to realize that when we collaborate to meet everyone's interests as best as possible, durable agreements become possible.

Are we both saying the same thing but in different ways? I feel like I may be missing an important nuance of your post.

Hope you had a nice weekend.

Comment by Arnold Zeman on May 3, 2010 at 12:08pm
Actually I think my writing may have been too opaque to convey my meaning!
I'm trying to draw an implication for the theory on which interest-based mediation rests. If the theory of homo economicus is deficient because Adam Smith never conceived interests as the exclusive driver in the marketplace, then perhaps interest-based mediation is correspondingly not the royal road to dispute resolution. There's more to working with conflict than focusing on individual and joint interests.
Regret any confusion I've caused.
Comment by Debra Healy on May 3, 2010 at 12:37pm
Actually, it was my thinking - not your writing - that was too opaque!!

I guess I've never thought of interests as the "exclusive driver" of interest-based mediation. I see interests as being one component - a component that, when thoughtfully explored, can lead to the awareness and understanding of deeper components inherent when there is a perception of conflict.

I really don't see any particular model or theory of mediation as being the "royal road to dispute resolution." I think if I did, I'd be relying too much on the science - and remiss in leaving out - the art of mediation.

And, now it's my writing that's opaque. :)

Thanks for the conversation. I always look forward to your thoughful posts.

Take care.


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