putting philosophy back in developmental pyschology

I’m involved right now in several collaborative projects with developmental psychologists. I constantly learn from these empirical colleagues. However, it often strikes me that civic development is rife with “normative” purposes and controversies. We educate people for citizenship because of our conceptions of ethics, character, liberty, and social justice. If I have anything to contribute, it’s by drawing explicit attention to those issues.

Below the fold is the draft of a chapter that I’m writing to alert psychologists to some normative questions that ought to concern them if they are interested in “citizenship.” My strategy is to introduce the various major schools of modern moral/political philosophy (utilitarianism, Kantianism, and the rest) and ask what each school would make of current forms of civic education. I’m not fully satisfied with this approach. It leads me to offer simplistic accounts of the main schools of modern philosophy. Besides, many real philosophers are eclectic, seeing the intuitive merits of more than one school. At the moment, however, I cannot think of a better way to begin. …


Educating young people for citizenship is an intrinsically “normative” task. In other words, it is a matter of choosing and transmitting values to citizens so that they will build and sustain societies that embody particular forms of justice and virtue. Adults who teach history, civics, or social studies, who guide adolescents in community service projects, or who recruit youth as activists generally do so for normative reasons—because of values that they hold and wish to transmit. Likewise, most scholars who evaluate and study such work do so because of their own demanding moral principles. Yet it is relatively rare to disclose and defend the precise normative reasons for particular forms of civic education in schools or other institutions.

This lack of explicit attention to normative reasons is unfortunate. Reasonable people have defined “good citizens” in various ways: for example, as dutiful members of communities, as independent critics of public institutions, as bearers of rights, and as proponents of social justice. Deciding which of these values to transmit is a public task in which everyone has a stake. Adults who lead and/or study civic education may have considerable influence over youth, who are not fully capable of making their own choices. As a matter of accountability, these adults ought to explain—both to the youth they serve and to other adults—which civic values and habits they are trying to develop, and why. In short, they must be willing to participate in a democratic discussion about their public work.

Second, explicit discussion of values can reveal the tradeoffs that often arise in civic education. One category of tradeoff (as an example) involves quantity versus equality. Many voluntary programs attract adolescents who already have relatively strong commitments to civic engagement and relatively strong skills for civic and political participation. Student governments, for instance, usually draw students who are already on a leadership track. Those students tend to be successful in school and thus likely to hold privileged social positions as adults. Offering them civic opportunities may enhance their capacity to participate in politics and community affairs. That is a good result if we want to increase the total amount of civic engagement in the next generation. But it is a bad outcome if we are mainly concerned about equality of civic participation by social class.

Another type of tradeoff involves freedom versus moral authority. Even if it is desirable for young people to become tolerant, trusting, caring, and committed to the common good, there is a separate question about whether any particular group of adults (e.g., parents, teachers, policymakers, or taxpayers) has a right to inculcate these values.

Third, explicit normative argumentation can provide persuasive reasons to invest in civic development—reasons that would otherwise be overlooked. Today, the default justification for any educational investment is its impact on individual students’ long-term “human capital”: their value in the labor market, as revealed by their grades and degrees. There is evidence that some civic opportunities increase human capital. For example, mandatory service-learning in high school seems to improve students’ grades and increase their likelihood of completing college. However, many adults who organize such opportunities have defensible motives other than enhancing human capital. By elucidating these alternative reasons, we may be able to increase public support for civic development. We may also reduce our dependence on fragile empirical rationales. For instance, even if service-learning enhances students’ grades, it may turn out that other interventions do so more efficiently. Should we therefore give up on service-learning? That would be an appropriate conclusion if the only purpose of service-learning were to increase human capital. But there are other plausible reasons for it.

Contemporary moral and political philosophy provide rich and diverse resources for thinking about youth civic development. After several decades of ground-breaking empirical work on civic development (including a paradigm shift to “positive youth development”), it would now be useful to renew the dialogue between psychology and philosophy. One starting point is to ask how each of the main current schools of moral philosophy would assess major forms of civic education. Actual philosophers are often eclectic, drawing from more than one school or tradition. Nevertheless, these main schools provide useful heuristics.

One major stream of modern moral reasoning is consequentialist. It assesses any action or institution by measuring its net outcomes or consequences. The leading subset of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which presumes that the consequences that matter are measures of human welfare. Welfare, in turn, can be defined in terms of subjective satisfaction or happiness; objective indicators, such as life-expectancy; or the ability to satisfy preferences. Utilitarianism has had an enormous influence on welfare economics and, more generally, the social sciences.

A utilitarian might favor civic opportunities because they have been found to enhance students’ welfare. For instance, an evaluation of the Quantum Opportunities Program studied randomly selected students and a control group. For about $2,500/year over four years, QOP was able to cut the dropout rate to 23 percent, compared to 50 percent for the control group. QOP’s approach included academic programs that were individually paced for each student; mandatory community service; enrichment programs; and pay for each hour of participation. For a utilitarian, the cost of this program would be a disadvantage (because having to pay taxes presumably reduces the welfare of the taxpayers); but the social benefits might outweigh the costs. People who complete high school generally have more welfare than those who do not. They also contribute more to the economy, thereby enhancing other people’s welfare.

One standard argument against utilitarianism is that it overlooks fairness among individuals by focusing on aggregate welfare. There are situations in which making disadvantaged people even worse off can increase aggregate social welfare; in such cases, simple utilitarianism is blind to fairness. However, utilitarians can provide indirect arguments for focusing resources on the most disadvantaged young people. One argument is that the marginal benefits are likely to be greatest when we offer opportunities to adolescents who would otherwise be “at risk” of failure in school. For instance, the QOP program obtained efficient outcomes because it was directed at disadvantaged middle-school students who were otherwise likely to become pregnant.

The other utilitarian argument for equity is political. Jeremy Bentham, the first utilitarian, asserted that representative democracy was the form of government that would best promote aggregate welfare. Democratic governments were most likely to address genuine public needs and allocate resources efficiently. Our actual democracy, however, is marked by highly unequal participation and does not respond equally to everyone’s needs. In order to achieve more equitable representation, we need to help young people develop the skills, habits, knowledge, and motivations that will increase their participation.

Utilitarianism does not provide direct reasons to protect individual freedom and choice. It values freedom only insofar as empirical evidence shows that people who are free in particular respects are therefore happier. Utilitarians should support mandatory civic education programs that enhance social welfare even if youth do not wish to enroll. Indeed, most Americans have utilitarian intuitions with respect to adolescents: we are willing to override young people’s freedom to promote their welfare.

Unlike utilitarianism, Kantianism puts autonomy at the center. Immanuel Kant is perhaps best known as the proponent of the Categorical Imperative, which says that we must be able to generalize the “maxims” of our actions so that they would apply to everyone in similar circumstances. This principle proves vague in application, and many contemporary Kantians believe that the useful heart of his philosophy lies elsewhere. Kant argued that we had two fundamental duties: to develop our own rational autonomy, and to help others develop and pursue reasonable goals of their own choice. The measure of an action was not its consequences, but the quality of the free human will that lay behind it. To be autonomous, goals had to be freely chosen, but they also had to be rational (i.e., examined, coherent, and capable of public justification).

A Kantian would not be concerned about the impact of civic programs on objective measures of welfare, such as graduation rates. However, a Kantian might be very impressed by programs or opportunities that seemed to enhance the autonomy of their participants. Programs would seem especially promising to Kantians if they encouraged young people to reflect upon moral issues and choices, form and defend their own opinions, and act accordingly. (Some of these behaviors can be measured empirically.) Kantians might also value outcomes such as success in school, but only as indirect evidence that students were developing autonomy.

Both Kantians and utilitarians have reasons to favor programs such as QOP (assuming that the evaluation cited above is accurate). However, their reasons are quite different, and this difference matters when we confront questions such as whether to mandate service-learning, whether youth should always lead their own service projects, or whether to count economic welfare as a positive outcome of service. These issues are complex, and Kantians need not always take different sides from utilitarians. For instance, although utilitarians are not directly concerned about freedom, they might be dissuaded from imposing service requirements if such obligations usually breed resentment. Kantians care a great deal about freedom, but they might support a service mandate if service reliably expands young people’s sense of options and possibilities and therefore enhances their autonomy. Nevertheless, the two kinds of moral analysts will seek different evidence and may reach different conclusions in concrete cases. They will also justify the very same program in different ways; and justifications matter in the public debate.

A third relevant stream of modern philosophy is civic republicanism. Its core idea is that civic participation (deliberating, collaborating, volunteering, advocating, and voting) is not a cost. It is not work that we must unfortunately do in order to sustain a just society. Rather, it is a good, an intrinsically dignified and rewarding form of human behavior. Some civic republicans rank various human pursuits and place political activism high on their lists. Aristotle, for example, considered politics the second-highest way of life after philosophy itself. Others are pluralists. They do not believe that there is one universal and objective ranking of human goods, but they consider civic participation to be a good rather than a cost.

Civic republicans may view civic opportunities for young people as intrinsically valuable, regardless of their outcomes. For example, a one-time service project is unlikely to boost any long-term outcomes; thus it has weak appeal for utilitarians. But civic republicans could argue that schools and colleges are communities. Good communities offer opportunities for collaboration and service. Therefore, even one-time service projects are valuable.

Civic republicans could argue, further, that young people should be exposed to the satisfactions of participation so that they may choose to be engaged when they are adults. We are barraged by advertising for other goods, such as consumer products. Civic participation is not widely promoted. Civic republicans might see effective forms of civic education as advertisements for participation.

The philosophical schools mentioned so far consistently apply a few abstract principles to all relevant cases. That methodology has itself been criticized, most notably by proponents of an “ethic of care.” Drawing on Hume, Hegel, and other classic sources, they argue that our duties are not abstract and general, but derive from our particular connections to fellow members of our own communities and families, with whom we have common histories. Certain kinds of civic opportunities–especially voluntary service–seem to embody an “ethic of care.” But critics charge that care is inadequate without a conception of social justice.

As mentioned earlier, many actual philosophers draw on more than one tradition in developing their views. An important and relevant example is the “capabilities approach” as defended by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Sen and Nussbaum share the Kantian intuition that autonomy is an essential human value. They criticize objective measures of social welfare, because free human beings may reasonably choose not to pursue these outcomes. For example, some communities are committed to religion rather than affluence. The fact that monks do not eat well does not mean that they lack welfare. Likewise, an individual may choose hardships in order to be closer to nature.

On the other hand, Sen and Nussbaum reject the idea that autonomy is simply a matter of free choice. First of all, some actual choices harm the true interests of the individual: using addictive narcotics would be an example. Other choices reflect a narrow sense of what is possible, constrained by cultural biases. Moreover, people need goods before they can be truly autonomous: for instance, education, legal rights, and a sense of self-respect.

Therefore, Sen and Nussbaum recommend “capabilities” as the criteria of social justice. In a good society, everyone has certain core capabilities, such as working, playing, raising children, participating in politics, and appreciating nature and art. These capabilities can be expressed in various ways or even forgone, depending on the free choices of individuals. For example, if I have a capability of raising children but choose not to act on it, there is no injustice.

The capabilities approach would support certain forms of youth civic engagement, for several reasons. The youth themselves would develop a capability for political participation. Some of their other capabilities might be strengthened as well; for example, service appears to boost educational success. Finally, Sen and Nussbaum believe that communities must decide democratically how to develop and promote the capabilities of their own members. Their list of human capabilities is intended to be objective and universal, but many subsidiary choices remain to be made democratically. By developing young people’s skills of social analysis and deliberation, we help to promote democratic decision-making.

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