what should we do?

You are a citizen of a group (regardless of your legal status) if you seriously ask: “What should we do?”

The question is what we should do because the point is not merely to talk but to change the world. Thinking is intrinsically connected to action. We don’t think in focused and disciplined ways about the social world unless we are planning to act; and we don’t think well unless we learn from our experience.

The question is what we should do, not what should be done. It’s easy enough to say what should be done (enact a global tax on carbon, for instance). The tough question is what we can actually achieve. That requires not only taking action but obtaining leverage over larger systems. Since our tools for leverage are mostly institutions, this question requires careful thought about real and possible institutional forms. It is also, by the way, not the question “What should I do?” Of course, that is also important, but I cannot achieve much alone and–worse–I cannot know on my own what I ought to aim for. I must collaborate in order to learn enough about what to do.

The question is what should we do, so it is intrinsically about values and principles. We are not asking “What do we want to do?” or “What biases and preferences do we bring to the topic?” Should implies a struggle to figure out what is right, quite apart from what we may prefer. It is about the best ends or goals and also the best means and strategies. (Or if not the best, at least acceptable ones.)

Finally, the question is what we should do, which implies an understanding of the options, their probabilities of happening, and their likely costs and consequences. These are complex empirical matters, matters of fact and evidence.

Academia generally does not pose the question “What should we do?” The what part is assigned to science and social science, but those disciplines don’t have much to say about the should or the we. Indeed, the scientific method intentionally suppresses the should. In general, philosophy and political theory ask “What should be done?” not “What should we do?” Many professional disciplines ask what specific kinds of professionals should do. But the we must be broader than any professional group.

Civic Studies” is a nascent effort to pose the citizen’s question again. We have an emerging canon of authors, which is merely exemplary and not complete. They are all recent or current thinkers and each offers a distinctive method for combining normative, empirical, strategic, and institutional analysis in the service of action.

I don’t offer my own method but merely some eclectic principles. I think:

Our methods should be interactive and deliberative. I will not decide what we should do; we will. Yet procedures will not suffice. It is not enough to say that a diverse mix of affected people should sit together and decide what to do. If I am seated at that table, I must decide what to advocate and how to weigh other people’s ideas. A deliberative process creates the framework for our discussion, but we still need methods to guide our thinking.

Our methods should be conscious of intellectual limitations. This is what I take from conservative thought: a serious doubt that we will come up with a better plan than what our predecessors devised, what the community in question already does, or what emerges from uncoordinated individual action. That doubt can be overcome by excellent thought; but we must be reasonably cautious and humble about ourselves.

We should not pay excessive attention to ultimate ends, to a theory of the good (let alone the ideal) society. First, the path toward the ideal is probably not direct, so knowing where you ultimately want to go may send you in the opposite direction from where you should set out. Second, we should be just as concerned about avoiding evil as achieving good. Third, our concept of the ideal will evolve, and we should have the humility to recognize that we do not believe what are successors will. And fourth, we are a group that has value– the group may even give our lives the value they have. It is just as important to hold the group together as to move it forward rapidly toward the ideal state.

We should not look for “root causes.” That is a misleading metaphor. Social issues are intertwined and replete with feedback loops and reciprocal causality. There is no root. Sometimes it is better to address an aspect of a problem that seems relatively superficial, rather than attack a more fundamental aspect without success.

Our critique should be “immanent,” in the jargon of the Frankfurt School. That is, we should try to improve the implicit norms of a community rather than imagine that we can import a view from nowhere. However, I would alter the idea of immanent critique in two ways. First, we should not only look for contradictions and hypocrisies. Holding contradictory ideas is a sign of maturity and complexity, not an embarrassment. And if you look for contradictions in order to advance your own view, then you are not actually practicing immanent critique. You’re hoping to score debating points in favor of a position external to the community. The immanent critique I recommend is subtler and more respectful than that. Second, it is not always directed at communities, whether geospatial, ethnic, or political. Sometimes it is directed at practices and fields. In fact, I see special value in intellectual engagement with fields of practice whose expressed aims are appealing but which need help with the details.

Finally, we should pay attention to whether our substantive beliefs are structured so as to permit interaction and learning. The question is not (only) whether you believe in equality or liberty, in God or science. The question is how you use those ideas in your overall thinking. If, for instance, you immediately return to a few core principles, that frustrates deliberation, collaboration, and learning. It is equally damaging to drop ideas quickly in order to avoid conflict. The ideal is genuine intellectual engagement with other people, through both talk and action.

About Peter

Director of CIRCLE and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Jack A. Becker

    Thanks for this discussion, Peter. I’m interested in hearing more about this paragraph, either in a comment or in a future post:

    “We should not look for “root causes.” That is a misleading metaphor. Social issues are intertwined and replete with feedback loops and reciprocal causality. There is no root. Sometimes it is better to address an aspect of a problem that seems relatively superficial, rather than attack a more fundamental aspect without success.”