“the self is moral”

Summarizing a body of empirical research, the Duke psychologist Nina Strohminger argues that what constitutes our identity is our moral character, not (for instance) the memories that we have stored so far. Asked what characteristics a soul would hypothetically carry into another body, subjects choose the soul’s moral character. Asked which psychological changes would make someone into a new person, subjects select moral changes above total amnesia or an inability to recognize moral features. Given a chance to improve their own moral character with an imaginary pill, people say they would decline because that would mean abandoning their selves.

According to Strohminger, “moral features” constitute “the most important type of information we can have about another person.” She continues:

So we’ve been thinking about the problem precisely backwards. It’s not that identity is centred around morality. It’s that morality necessitates the concept of identity, breathes life into it, provides its raison d’être. … What is it to know oneself? … When we dig deep, beneath our memory traces and career ambitions and favourite authors and small talk, we find a constellation of moral capacities. This is what we should cultivate and burnish, if we want people to know who we really are.

I would like to connect this discussion to psychological research on how we perceive the identities of ordinary objects, such as apples and chairs. (This link may have been made already; I have not looked.) According to experiments by Sloman, Love, and Ahn, people perceive as integral or essential those features of an object that could not change without affecting many other features. Therefore, a network model is useful. Think, for instance, of the many features of an apple (its crunchy texture, sweet taste, origins on a tree, function of protecting seeds, color, size, role in Greek myths, etc). These features can be seen as nodes in a conceptual network. The nodes that we see as more definitive of appleness are the ones that have higher network centrality.

Likewise, I would model any person as holding many ideas in his or her head at any time. The individual ideas are all subject to change. Some are linked to others, forming a large, complex, and evolving conceptual network. Some of the nodes are moral ideas, however you define morality. When we think of another person’s identity, we should not cite just one or a few clear-cut principles or virtues. That would reduce the complex person to an abstraction. But we should have in mind a cluster of connected–although not always mutually consistent–nodes that are relatively central to that person’s whole network. These nodes cannot change without setting off a cascade of other changes that may be sufficient to alter the person’s whole character.

In short, as Strohminger writes, “the self is moral”–and I would add that the moral self is a network of ideas defined by the cluster(s) of relatively central nodes. That is what our souls would take with us into new bodies or a new life.

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sometimes it’s better to listen

Sometimes you should recognize that your own voice doesn’t have any special value and concentrate on listening and learning instead. (Perhaps the president should have thought that way before he made his brief and palid address last night.) I have been thinking about Ferguson today, but I would yield my time to others more eloquent and better placed to comment than I. For instance:

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do younger Americans think they lack the knowledge to vote responsibly?


According to a HuffPost/YouGov survey reported by Ariel Edwards-Levy, younger Americans are the most likely to believe that you should only vote if you are well-informed. According to the same poll, younger Americans guess that a majority of their fellow citizens vote in midterm years. They overestimate national turnout far more than older people do. Yet many of these younger respondents do not vote themselves. (We know that actual youth turnout is only about 20-25% in midterm elections). They must see themselves as outliers–in a bad way. They are critical of their own political knowledge and believe that other people know more than they do.

The ones who do vote are quite well informed. According to the exit polls, 77% of 18-29s who voted this November claimed to have followed the midterm election at least “somewhat closely.” But many others may have told themselves that they don’t know enough to vote. As I said to Edwards-Levy, “If anything, they might be putting themselves through too stringent a test.”

Of course, you should inform yourself before you vote. But I don’t think our main problem is uninformed people casting ballots; it’s people staying home because they are actually uninformed or think they are. It is hard to collect political information all on your own just so that you can vote. The traditional solution is to enroll people in multi-purpose organizations that are also conduits for political information. But those organizations are shrinking. As I said in the article, “Twenty or thirty years ago, there were devices for getting information to working-class young people like labor unions, which they belonged to still, and also churches. … Those things have really weakened, so they’re kind of on their own. If you’re a high school dropout and you’re working at Walmart, there’s no way for you to get information except for you to actively seek it.”

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viewing concessions dampens rancor

In the Atlantic, Robert Wright describes research that my team at Tufts University conducted in partnership with him. He summarizes the research question:

Suppose you’re a conservative or a liberal, and you’re watching a debate, and the debater you consider your ideological opponent throws in a “to be sure” sentence—a sentence that qualifies his or her basic policy position, underscoring some point of agreement with your ideological ally. Will that make you more favorably disposed to the person—more likely to take their views seriously, less likely to demonize them?

This was the method:

The study involved some 1,600 people, about half of whom identified themselves as liberal and half as conservative. Everyone watched an excerpt from one of two debates: one between Tim Noah and Glenn Loury on whether the minimum wage should increase, and one between Sarah Posner and Michael Dougherty on whether the government should be able to mandate that employer-provided health insurance cover contraceptives.

The excerpt shown to each viewer was short, but it clearly conveyed which person supported which position—in other words, who was the conservative and who was the liberal (on the issue in question, at least). For half of the viewers, the clip also included, at the end, a segment in which the speaker on the other side of the ideological fence from them added a to-be-sure.

Our conclusions:

The researchers at Tufts found that “viewing a concession created a more positive reaction to the ideological opponent.” Viewers who saw their ideological opponent make a concession were less likely than viewers who saw no concession to call their ideological ally the more credible of the two or the more knowledgeable of the two. And they were less likely to say they liked the ally more than the opponent.

Finally, Wright draws out two implications:

First, a message to people on the left and right who opine in public: Don’t forget to throw in a to-be-sure sentence; it may sound like a “concession,” but it could wind up helping your cause, especially if your cause includes not seeing America consumed by bitter acrimony. And it’s especially advisable to do this when you’re in “enemy territory”—when liberals are on Fox News, when conservatives are on MSNBC.

Second, it would be nice if the formats that mediate our discourse made it practical to add a to-be-sure sentence. For example, a pet crusade of mine is to change the structure of Twitter in a way that, while maintaining the 140-character limit on tweets, would nonetheless make it easier to add a short elaboration.

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the cultural change we would need for climate justice

One way to think about climate change is that “we” (however you define that) have the wrong relationship to nature. We are exploitative and wasteful. We must change our basic orientation to save the world and ourselves: “The survival of the globe is dependent on a fundamental, philosophical shift in the way we relate to nature.”

I have three concerns about this approach. First, I don’t believe a fundamental philosophical shift is coming. If we need it but it’s implausible, then resignation ensues. Second, this stance seems inappropriately moralistic, based on beliefs about the superiority of unadulterated creation and the fallenness of humankind that I don’t share. It is not intrinsically bad for people to change the world. The question is whether we are improving it or making it worse. Third, even if the philosophical position implied in this view is correct, a lot of people won’t share it for principled reasons of their own–thus it is politically divisive.

A different way to think about climate change is that putting carbon into the atmosphere is an externality (a way of changing the world for the worse) that is free right now. If we taxed emissions at a rate equal to the public cost, people would cut back–a lot. If the biggest economies of the world imposed a carbon tax on their own economies, they could bend the curve. The tax would cost money, but it would generate revenue that could cover a big cut in current taxes. My Tufts colleague Gilbert Metcalfe testified to the US Senate that if we taxed carbon at $20 per ton, we could cut payroll taxes by about 1.5 percent and come out even. I don’t know if a tax of that size, enacted simultaneously in the US, EU, China, and Japan, would do the trick. In a different paper, Metcalfe notes that we cannot be sure how much tax is necessary to stabilize the climate (pp. 512-13). But if we need more than $20/ton, then we can also cut payroll taxes more deeply. William Nordhaus recommends a tax equal to 1 percent of GDP.

Why don’t we do this? Because of interest group pressure by carbon producers and a global prisoner’s dilemma. If the US enacts a tax but no one else does, the results are insufficient, and that gives us a reason not to enact the tax. Industry opponents make this point explicitly.

Note that we can explain our failure to act without blaming ourselves for having the wrong fundamental orientation to nature. The overuse of carbon is a classic collective action problem of the type that inevitably arises when goods are public. Such problems can be solved by appropriate policies, such as taxing the externalities. To get decent policies requires a political struggle and the application of countervailing power against carbon producers. In turn, building an effective political movement requires confidence in rather conventional tools: elections, laws, and treaties. In the face of organized opposition, this is a hard enough task. If we believe that we first need a fundamental change in our culture and souls, I fear we will overestimate the magnitude of the task and thus decrease the odds of success.

There is, however, a more modest cultural shift that we do need: we must reinvigorate our engagement with public life. There is little question that citizens of the major democracies are dispirited about government and about the potential of their own political action. The climate change movement is wonderfully diverse and heterogeneous, but Harry Boyte argues that it still fails to offer a model of broad-based, effective, and authentic political action. Any viable model would have to appeal across a wide spectrum to be effective. We have seen such models before, and they have achieved more difficult reforms than a tax equal to one percent of GDP. But people do need confidence in their ability to change systems.

See also: Sen on Climate Change.

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why do the disadvantaged not participate?

In last week’s election, 51% of the voters said they were college graduates. Among adult Americans (by my calculation), 34% have associates’ degrees or higher and 29% have a bachelor’s or more. If a college degree is a mark of middle-class status, then the 2014 electorate was far more middle class–and less working class–than the population as a whole.

Many explanations can be given, and they are cumulative. Voting is harder for people who have less pertinent information ready at hand: for instance, those who do not already read political news. They may also face higher burdens in taking time off work or getting to the polls. Their confidence in their own opinions may be lower. They may see themselves and their concerns less reflected in politics. They hear fewer plausible messages about how the political system will address their needs. They are certainly less likely to be contacted and encouraged to participate–not only in the election of the moment, but in all forms of politics.

We can address these problems. Gaps are smaller in some other countries and used to be smaller in the US when turnout was higher here. In India, the lowest castes have higher turnout than the Brahmins.

But it is also striking how old and persistent are the patterns of unequal participation. In Beyond Adversary Democracy (1980), Jane Mansbridge found unequal levels of voice and influence in both a current Vermont town meeting and a radical commune, the two settings she studied. For comparison, she looked back at the earliest town meetings of colonial America. For instance, Dedham, MA (founded 1636) expected and required that everyone attend its meetings. The stakes were high, as the town set taxes and owned much common property of essential value to the residents. It was more like a commune than a modern municipality. But Mansbridge remarks (p. 131):

Even though no more than fifty-eight men were eligible to come to the Dedham town meeting and to make decisions for the town, even though the decisions to which they addressed themselves were vital to their existence, even though every inhabitant was required to live within one mile of the meeting place, even though each absence from the meeting brought a fine, and even though a town crier personally visited the house of each latecomer half an hour after the meeting had begun, only 74 percent of those eligible actually showed up at the typical town meeting between 1636 and 1644.

I don’t think we have evidence about how the participants differed from the nonparticipants in Dedham; but in nearby Sudbury, when a “crucial meeting” was held to decide whether common land would be apportioned equally or given in larger amounts to the wealthier landowners, the poor stayed home even though by attending they could have changed the outcome in their favor (p. 133).

Opportunities for political participation, such as votes, should be made convenient and actively encouraged. The recently enacted barriers, such as restrictive photo ID laws, may worsen inequality and also send a discouraging message. On the other hand, we have seen dramatic efforts to encourage participation, such as vote-by-mail, Motor Voter, and early voting. Those have done little good. And 17th century Dedham shows that even rules and processes highly favorable to participation are not sufficient.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for effective bottom-up political movements that drive agendas favorable to working people. The ideology of consensus and common interest in colonial Massachusetts may have discouraged participation by suggesting that there was no place for interest-based criticism and advocacy. If every good Christian agreed, then the town gentry might as well make all the decisions. In a somewhat parallel situation today, working class Americans lack a vital social movement that can make a real pitch for their votes.

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six varieties of politics

If “politics” means all interactions on public or common matters, here are six varieties of it. They overlap, yet no category is coterminous with any of the others:

1. Adversarial politics: The parties hold incompatible interests or goals, but some resolution must be reached. We can divide this category into three subtypes:

1a. Negotiation: the parties reach a satisfactory conclusion that partly meets each one’s interests.

1b. Authoritative decisions, which may be made by a ruler or ruling body, by an outside mediator, or by the group as a whole using an authoritative process, such as majority rule.

1c. Doing without agreement by protecting individual liberty and letting the aggregate outcome be a function of private decisions.

2. Unitary politics: The parties either have or are able to create a genuine consensus of interests. As Jane Mansbridge argues in Beyond Adversary Democracy, this can happen if their interests happen to coincide from the beginning, if they persuade one another to agree (see variety 3, below), or if they all take the interest of the group as paramount.

3. Deliberative politics: The parties exchange reasons and attempt to persuade others to change their authentic goals and interests. Deliberative politics differs from Negotiation (1a) in that deliberators hope to make interests coincide rather than treat them as fixed and try to maximize everyone’s satisfaction. It differs from Unitary politics (2) because it may not generate anything close to a consensus and may, indeed, be rather contentious.

4. Co-creative politics (“public work” in Harry Boyte’s phrase): The parties create or build something together, whether the object is open-source software, a physical playground, or the norms and traditions of a community. Public work differs from Deliberative politics (3) because it may not be very discursive; and if the participants do talk, they may not need to address conflicting interests and values. They may share goals and only discuss means and techniques.

5. Relational politics: interactions among people who make decisions or take collective actions knowing something about one another’s ideas, preferences, and interests. Each participant has at least the potential to influence and be influenced by each of the others; thus relational politics is interactive. It need not be face-to-face if available technologies (letters in 1776, the Internet today) allow sufficient interaction at a distance. Nor does relational politics depend on or produce unity; people can have close political interactions with their opponents and critics. The defining feature of relational politics is mutual knowledge and influence.

6. Impersonal politics: yields decisions and actions without the participants having to know one another. Examples of impersonal politics include populations that vote by secret ballot, consumers who determine prices by the aggregate of their purchasing decisions, and rulers who issue laws, orders, or edicts that apply to unknown individuals. Each of these is an act of leverage in the Archimedean sense. As actors in impersonal politics, we can move distant objects, even if our impact is minuscule or outweighed by others’.

My own view is that we need all of these varieties. Relational politics, in particular, is by no means ideal or sufficient. The phrase “office politics” has a negative ring because so many interactions in a workplace where colleagues know one another are manipulative, unfair, exclusive, or just tedious. The extreme case is torture, which is as relational an interaction as we can conceive. David Luban observes:

The torturer inflicts pain one-on-one, deliberately, up close and personal, in order to break the spirit of the victim–in other words, to tyrannize and dominate the victim. The relationship between them becomes a perverse parody of friendship and intimacy: intimacy transformed into its inverse image, where the torturer focuses on the victim’s body with the intensity of a lover, except that every bit of that focus is bent to causing pain and tyrannizing the victim’s spirit. (David Luban,“Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb,” Virginia Law Review, vol. 91 (Oct. 2005), p. 1430)

Office politics and (much more so) torture are marked by inequality, yet even under conditions of rough equality, relational politics can be inefficient or unproductive.

Yet I would argue that relational politics fills an important need in a society dominated by impersonal and adversarial institutions. It is best when it is also deliberative (3) and co-creative (4). That combination deserves active support. Further, since powerful institutions have no incentives to promote such politics and may have reasons to subvert, coopt, or repress it, someone must fight on behalf of productive relational politics. That requires some use of adversarial and impersonal tools (votes, lawsuits, mass communications) in the defense of relational interactions. How to accomplish that seems to me one of the hardest problems for anyone concerned about civic renewal.

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The Future of Democracy in paperback

The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens has been selling slowly but steadily since 2007 and has filtered into the literature on youth civic engagement. It has now been issued as a paperback, priced at $23.83. I believe an e-book edition is also coming soon.

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top 8 takeaways about young voters and the 2014 election

In lieu of a post of my own, here are CIRCLE’s eight summary points about youth voting in 2014:

Each election year, the headlines about youth voters tend to be the same. The relatively low turnout rate is usually lamented, and sometimes there is some analysis of whether one party (usually the Democrats) benefited from youth support. But it is important to see complexities and derive subtler lessons. Here are our eight takeaways from the 2014 election, each of which suggests only the beginning of a story about young people and politics.

#8. Youth turnout in 2014 election was around 21.5%.

Our estimate of youth turnout in 2014 (based on the Exit Polls and the number of votes counted two days after the election) is 21.5% of youth. In other words, about one in five young adults who were eligible to vote did vote.

#7. Turnout of youth in 2014 was pretty standard, and comparable to previous midterms.

Voter turnout among all age groups is lower in midterm elections when compared to presidential election years. The drop has been consistently more pronounced among young people, so that midterm elections are best compared to previous midterm elections. By that standard, 2014 was highly typical, right near the average for the last 20 years. Note that some analysts are estimating that 2014 was the worst turnout year for the population as whole since 1940.

#6. Midterm exit polls don’t define a generation.

It is unwise to draw generation-wide conclusions based on 21.5% of youth. For example, as indicated in the graph below, while young people with a bachelor’s degree or higher make up 20% of the overall young citizen population, they made up 40% of voters in 2014. It is likely that the non-voters held somewhat different opinions of issues and candidates from the voters.

#5. Neither party has a lock on 18-to-24 year olds.

There has been some discussion of a possible shift to the right among the latest cohort of Millennials. The oldest Millennials were first-time voters during the 2004 election, so their formative experience was the George W. Bush Administration. People turning 18 in 2014 are fully ten years younger and have come of age under Barack Obama. It would stand to reason that their views would be different.

Small differences do emerge by age among the young voters who participated this year, but the differences indicate both more liberal and more conservative attitudes with slightly more of the latter. Comparing youth who voted in 2010 and 2014, there is no clear sign of a shift.

In the past few election cycles, people have been more likely to vote Democratic the younger they are. In 2010, there was a substantial gap in preferences for House candidates between voters under 30 and those 30 or older. In 2014, the gap seemed to fall around age 45. Compared to 2010, voters under 30 were one percentage point less likely to vote Democratic this year, but voters between 30 and 44 were four points more likely to vote Democratic. It could be the case that some of the youthful Democratic voters of 2004 and 2008 are still voting Democratic as they enter their 30s. There was no difference at all in partisan preference between the 18-24s and the 18-29s.

In some respects, the youngest cohort might be seen as somewhat more liberal than older Millennials, and considerably more so than voters 30 and older.

  • On abortion, the 18-24 and the 18-29s held similar views (59% and 60% favoring legal abortion), while to a lesser degree the older age groups were for legal abortion.
  • Asked whether they believed that immigrants should have a path to citizenship, the strongest support came from 18-24s (71%) followed by 18-29s (68%), compared to 57% of all voters.
  • On the general question of whether government should do more to solve problems, there was a steep age gradient. Fifty-three percent of 18-24s but only 35% of 60+ voters agreed. The 18-24s were slightly more favorable than the 18-29s.

Yet members of this younger cohort were less likely to report being enthusiastic or satisfied with the president and his administration than the overall youth voting bloc (42% vs 45%) and were more likely to cast their vote as a sign of opposition to the president (26% vs. 22%). Offered a choice between Hillary Clinton and an unnamed Republican presidential candidate in 2016, young people who voted in 2014 were more likely to answer “It depends” than other age groups. However, compared to 18-29s, 18-24s were also more likely to indicate that they would vote for the Republican candidate in 2016 (36% vs. 31%) and they were slightly more likely indicate a preference for a candidate like Rick Perry than Rand Paul in 2016 than the overall youth voting cohort.

#4. More differences emerge among youth by race and ethnicity.

While 54% of youth (18-29) nationally voted for Democratic House candidates, significant differences consistently emerge by race and ethnicity. In both 2010 and 2014, Black and Latino youth were considerably more likely to choose Democratic House candidates than White youth were. In 2014, White youth gave a majority to the Republicans in House races (54% to 43%).

Slightly more than a majority of young men and women of color who voted considered themselves to be Democrats. After Democrats, young Latinos who voted were next-most likely to identify as Independent/other, and 22% of Latinas who voted identified with the GOP.

#3. Gender also matters.

While White youth looked more conservative than people of color in 2014, White women approved of Congress and President Obama at a higher rate than White men. At the same time, White women were slightly more likely to see the Republican Party favorably than White men were (54% vs.49%), but largely split their vote between parties (50% for Republicans in House races, 47% for Democrats), while young white men overwhelmingly supported House Republican candidates (58% vs. 39%). Young White men were more likely to identify as Independents (40%) followed closely by GOP (36%), while young White women’s top choice was the GOP (41%), and 30% identified themselves as Independents.

Forty-six percent of young voters in 2014 felt that Secretary Clinton would make a good president, compared to 49% who did not. Thirty-two percent said they would vote for her in 2016, 31% for “the Republican candidate”, and 35% said “it depends.” Thirty-seven percent of White men who voted in 2014 said that Secretary Clinton would make a good president, compared to 48% of White women. (Unfortunately, sample sizes were too small to estimate responses to this question for people of color by gender.)

#2. Youth propensity for being independent poses a conundrum for political parties and democracy

While party identification among youth who voted in the 2010 or 2014 election has not changed dramatically, a larger issue for parties is how to draw in youth who are not already affiliated. Even among voters in 2014, 33% identified as Independents or “something else” (as compared to 37% who were Democrats and 31% who were Republicans). Young voters were split in their opinion of the Democratic Party and slightly more were unfavorable to the Republican Party. Gallup polling suggests that close to half of 18-29 year olds identify as Independent. The Pew Research political typology released earlier this year shows a considerable proportion of youth part of the independent, “Young Outsiders” group.

Since party affiliation is related to voter turnout, the lack of identification among youth poses problems for parties as well as future democratic participation.

#1. Missing Mobilization?

We know from previous research that outreach and mobilization of youth does have an impact on turnout. Yet, in 2014, young people were the age group least likely to be contacted, according to Pew Research data from October. The reason that youth turnout was comparable to previous midterm years may be that there was no more outreach this year. In 2010, 11.3 million youth were registered to vote but did not cast a ballot, and many of those were not contacted. To raise the level of youth electoral participation, we can give more attention to drastic gaps among youth.

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Jonathan Gruber and progressive arrogance

(Westfield, MA) Progressives must denounce this statement by Jonathan Gruber in no uncertain terms:

This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. So it’s written to do that.

In terms of risk-rated subsidies, in a law that said health people are gonna pay in — if it made explicit that healthy people are gonna pay in, sick people get money, it would not have passed. Okay — just like the … people — transperen— lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get anything to pass.

I see partial defenses from the likes of Jonathan Chait, Kevin Drum, and Sarah Kliff, but they won’t do. Calling the American people “stupid” in this context is unjust and deeply damaging. It reflects a subsidiary stream of progressive politics but a real one. When your political movement harbors discreditable views, you must denounce them or you will be associated with them. Michael Kinsley once defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” We can’t let this be a gaffe for the whole progressive movement, whatever Dr. Gruber may privately believe.

The Affordable Health Care Act is fine public policy: see the New York Times’ roundup of its positive effects. It could not pass our deeply flawed political system in the face of determined opposition without the kinds of tortured moves Gruber is describing. It is a good thing that it did pass. And it should be more popular than it is.

On the other hand, it is pretty unpopular, and that is because Americans are deeply distrustful of the government as a solution to their problems. Three reasons for their distrust are reasonable: 1) The legislative process is indeed deeply messed up, as Gruber says—but that raises questions about whether government can work for the people. 2) The sheer competence and capacity of the executive branch is questionable, witness the rollout of the ACA. And 3) progressive reformers sometimes harbor arrogant and dismissive views about most Americans. Many do not, but I have personally heard comments about the stupidity of the American voter. I think those sentiments convey to the people they describe, who are then not so keen about handing over money and power.

More broadly, I have argued that the worthy core of conservatism is humility. Actual conservatives honor that principle inconsistently, at best. But it is a valid principle, and the corresponding evil of progressivism is arrogance. I am still a progressive because I believe we can combat arrogance and do some good. But when we see it plainly, we must denounce it.

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