my exchange with Beth Rubin about policy for civics

Paul G. Fitchett and Kevin W. Meuwissen have published Social Studies in the New Education Policy Era: Conversations on Purposes, Perspectives, and Practices. This edited volume is devoted to exchanges between pairs of scholars. My assigned debating partner is Prof. Beth Rubin from Rutgers, whose work I admire and who has influenced me a lot. There isn’t a whole lot of room between Beth and me, but we manage to disagree mildly in ways that might be illuminating.

I begin by arguing that the policies adopted so far by states and districts for civic education matter, but not as much as how such policies are implemented. Support for things like professional development makes policies either work or fail. I also note that the policy debate reflects disagreements about what should be taught. Given such disagreements, no one can expect to get the curriculum that she or he prefers enacted into law in all 50 states. I propose a division of labor: public schools should teach relatively uncontroversial, relatively basic civics, and community-based groups should add more politically charged content that reflects their diverse perspectives.

Beth understandably worries that the mainstream curriculum mandated by governments will, in fact, be biased. She argues that governments should make schools good places for learning, leaving civics curricula mostly unconstrained by policy. That would imply skepticism about policies like standards and tests, because they centralize decisions about the curriculum. I counter by offering a state policy agenda that includes standards, professional development, reforms of school discipline, and tests–if they are well done. This package is fairly minimalist, intended to create a baseline for all kids while leaving space for diversity. Beth ends the exchange with some concerns about whether the “baseline of knowledge” that I want to see in state standards can really be good for all of our kids.

The rest of the book is entirely devoted to similar debates, and it looks good throughout.

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the Kenya Youth Manifesto

The Kenya Youth Manifesto is great. It’s the product of an elaborate deliberative process involving Kenyans between the ages of 18 and 35 (a cohort that represents 57 percent of the electorate). The Manifesto offers 52 pages of detailed recommendations. I’m sure it has specifically Kenyan underpinnings that I have missed, but from my perspective, it looks pragmatic rather than revolutionary, concerned with participation and voice as well as economic outcomes, attuned to issues like gender and disability, and consistent with Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach.”

In his foreword, Willice Okoth Onyango depicts “youth as a distinct but heterogeneous population group.” He sounds like Sen when he calls for “build[ing] the capabilities and expand[ing] the choices of young people by enhancing their access to and participation in all dimensions of society.” And he calls for “young people and their representative associations” to be included “at all stages of the policy development and implementation process.”

Any group that writes a manifesto must avoid recommending policies that are simply unaffordable, settling for minor tweaks, demanding blatantly obvious reforms, neglecting the most obvious reforms in the interest of being original, setting vague targets, setting overly narrow or short-term targets, advocating elaborate processes (such as new commissions or research studies), ignoring process altogether, placing all the demands on target authorities, promising to solve all problems themselves, simplifying complex issues, or offering too much wonky detail. This sea is full of shoals. I think the Kenyan youth navigate just about as well as can be done.

Their product is more like a party manifesto (what Americans call a “platform”) than, say, the Communist Manifesto, which offered a compelling new social vision. The Kenya Youth Manifesto couldn’t simply be implemented, because it would need various kinds of scarce resources–not only money but also political capital. I know far too little about Kenyan social issues to be able to assess the recommendations. But it’s an impressive product that’s worth imitating elsewhere.

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what I like in historical writing

Simi Valley, in Ventura County, CA: Not that anyone has asked, but these are the history books that I remember reading over the past couple of years, ranked from my favorite down:

  1. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (Making of Europe) by Peter Brown
  2. A Concise History of Russia (Cambridge Concise Histories) by Paul Bushkovitch
  3. October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville
  4. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
  5. Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash
  6. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld
  7. China: A History by John Keay
  8. Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, by Stuart Jeffries
  9. A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

I appreciate history that makes arguments, but I like arguments that have limited scope. History isn’t just one event after another. It is definitely not a series of quirky decisions made by colorful characters on account of their personalities. On the other hand, when an author hammers away on a few big explanatory themes, I not only get bored as a reader, but I become skeptical. The past is always too complex for grand explanations.

A good example of an explanatory argument is Paul Bushkovitch’s observation–perhaps it’s been others’, too–that the Orthodox translate scripture into local vernaculars. Thus the Greek Bible could be translated into Old Slavic for Kievan Rus, and the Rus didn’t have to learn Greek. Nor was it necessary to translate other Greek texts into Slavic to complete their conversion. The early Orthodox Slavs thus missed the secular legacy of the classical world that had been so influential in Byzantium, until it started filtering in from the West in the 1600s. This argument helps to define and explain a significant phenomenon without resort to iron laws, inflexible patterns, or inevitabilities.

Because I am a lay reader, I don’t need a large scholarly apparatus or much explicit historiography. But I think I can tell the difference between a book that rests on extensive review of previous research (e.g., Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom) and one that basically just retells stories from chronicles (e.g., John Julius Norwich).

Finally, I like my history to have an ethical sensibility. It should demonstrate concern for the human beings it describes, who should be as diverse as possible. It is an ethical act to recover or reimagine the perspectives of people who would otherwise be forgotten or misunderstood. But I balk at moralizing history: at narrative with a layer of explicit value-judgments rendered by the author.

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talking about teens and the 2018 election

While traveling to Orlando to talk about civic education, I’ll post two recent links.

First is today’s episode of “On Point” from NPR. The guests are three teenagers who are running for governor in Kansas (which imposes no age limit on candidates)–and me. I celebrate the young politicians but try to broaden the conversation to other forms of civic engagement that can involve a lot more kids.

And here is a piece by me on civic education in America and specifically in Connecticut “PERSPECTIVE: Republic Still at Risk; Connecticut Edges Forward.”

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what does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?

According to Freedom House, “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world.”

This statement deserves unpacking if we want to understand in what ways democracy (or “freedom”) is declining worldwide. The statement combines several ideals that may not fit neatly together in practice. It’s not obvious why Freedom House mentions some rights instead of others. For example, if the key concept is “democracy,” we might look for equality of voice, power, and status. Finally, the statement never defines the alternative to democracy: what is gaining at the expense of the basket of values that Freedom House endorses.

I think what’s gaining is authoritarianism, meaning a system that relies on the arbitrary will of leaders. It is a government by rulers without (many) rules. An authoritarian leader can say “Do this” and can evade any explanation other than, “Because I said so.” Authoritarian leaders typically undermine precisely the values that Freedom House lists: fair elections, minority rights, a free press, and rule of law.

The opposite of authoritarianism is “non-domination,” in Philip Pettit’s influential sense. A system without domination is one in which, although citizens must follow rules and face restrictions, nobody can simply tell anyone else what to do. Pettit argues that non-domination was the core value in the long tradition of civic republicanism that began in antiquity and flourished in the Italian city states, the English Revolution, and the American founding. His framework suggests a spectrum that runs from an absence of domination (republicanism) to pervasive domination (authoritarianism).

Evidence like the material I collected recently shows that republican institutions are in decline in many countries. Republicanism is in retreat.

Within the republican tradition, there is room for debate about democratic processes. Do democratic institutions (such as popular voting) prevent domination or create opportunities for majorities to dominate? There is also room for debate about liberal rights. For example, do property rights prevent or enable domination?

I’ll leave liberal rights aside for this post, although they are important. If we focus on democratic participation (lively debate, mobilized citizens, and a strong scope for elections), then we can view it as theoretically distinct from republicanism. Below, republicanism is on the horizontal axis; democracy on the vertical. Quadrant A stands for a system in which the people rule, yet majorities or popularly elected leaders dictate results without having to justify themselves. B is a society with equal voice and power, where everything is open to debate and no one can dominate anyone else. C is classic authoritarianism: no rules, no voice. And D is a system in which the government is limited and rule-guided and obligated to explain itself, but the people don’t have much of a voice. (Austria-Hungary in 1890?)

It is then an empirical question whether democratic processes tend to accompany republican safeguards. Is B common? Is it even possible?

In the V-Dem database, in 2016, for nations that held elections at all, there was a correlation of 0.4 between the degree to which the executive branch honors constitutional constraints and the degree to which free elections were held without intimidation.

There was a stronger correlation between respect for the constitution and robust public discussion (.53). (This means that that “large numbers of non-elite groups as well as ordinary people … discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets”).

I show here the correlation between respect for the constitution and whether the government consults with a broad range of stakeholders before making decisions (0.6).

These results are consistent with the hypothesis that elections and a strong public sphere help to check arbitrary power. Perhaps limited governments are forced to permit elections, to consult with stakeholders, and to accept robust deliberation.

There are no examples in the world today of strongly rule-guided governments that don’t deliberate at all, nor are there any governments that consult and deliberate widely but pay no attention to constitutional safeguards.

However, the correlations are far from lockstep. Countries do fall in all of the four quadrants, albeit not deeply into A or D. If your values are strongly republican, democratic methods seem to be helpful–but they won’t get you all the way to non-domination. And if your values are strictly democratic, republicanism may get somewhat in your way.

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notes on John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons

A “plain” is a level place. Some plains are places that were leveled. Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

A “level” is a device for seeing whether things are flat. It helps us put different objects on the same level or on the same plane.

If you “level” with people, you give them the plain facts, no playing around.

“Play”: an activity conducted for enjoyment, not for a practical purpose. It is activity without an end. Two people can play, which requires cooperation as well as competition. You can be played. “To play”: to turn written music into sound. A play is also a thing with an opening and an ending.

“Attitude” is the orientation of an object, such as an airplane, relative to the level ground. A level would be needed to measure a plane’s attitude. If you were trying to hit a target with a plane, a level would help you keep the attitude right so that you wouldn’t miss it.

If you Google “division of grace,” the first hit is Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 111, “The division of grace,” which begins, “Whether grace is fittingly divided into sanctifying grace and gratuitous grace?” Part of his answer: “gratuitous grace … is bestowed on a man … not to justify him, but rather that he may cooperate in the justification of another …” Aquinas proves this point with authorities and reasons.

John Ashbery didn’t have Google. I have no idea whether these obscure puns that I found by searching the Web were on his mind. But he already lived in a world of words, excessive words, words that referred to each other, that demanded attention, that bored, that confused. “It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.”

(“It?” There is literally a missing word “it” in the phrase “And before you know /It gets lost …” What gets lost? “It” is so lost that it’s not even printed in the poem.)

A poem is just a string of words. That is all it is at a “plain level.” We are deluged with words. Most text is not poetry, but even poems are enormously common, and most of them are worth very little. To write something that qualifies as a poem is easy–you just type. You make a keyboard chatter until you have rows of words. Unless your name is John Ashbery, chances are low that anyone will read those lines.

Still, if you’ve poured yourself into those words, you want someone to follow them, to play with them, to concentrate on their levels of meaning, including the levels that were plain and the ones you never noticed. You don’t want them looking out a window and fidgeting. (Let alone pretending to fidget! Who pretends to fidget?)

A poem and you are like possible lovers, but the poem doesn’t have much of a chance; there are so many other words that you could notice instead. The poem will be sad if you don’t play with it.

But suddenly, in the final stanza, you and the poem are joined by a third party. “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.” Who is this “me”?

As long as the story is about a poem wanting to connect and feeling sad, it’s all fun and games: wordplay. But when you realize that the poem is the voice of a human being who wants to connect with you, suddenly it’s not just play but also love.

“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” from Shadow Train by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1980, 1981 by John Ashbery. Source. See also “signal” and “a poem should.”

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register and propose sessions for Frontiers of Democracy 2018

Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University since 2009. The 2018 conference will take place from June 21 (5pm) until June 23 (1 pm) at Tufts University’s downtown Boston campus in Chinatown.

Partners for the conference in 2018 include the Bridge Alliance, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, the National Conference on Citizenship, and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

2018 Theme: According to Freedom House, democracy has been in retreat worldwide for twelve years. Many people are pushing back, including activists and organizers who are nonviolently struggling, using tactics like strikes, boycotts, and mass demonstrations against entrenched power. Other individuals and groups take different approaches, some seeking a greater degree of neutrality and emphasizing deliberative dialogue, particularly when they work within institutions such as schools, public agencies, and newspapers. This year, Frontiers will bring people from these communities of scholarship and practice together to ask how they can learn from and complement each another.

You can now register and pay to hold a spot. Please note that speakers and session organizers must purchase tickets.

You may propose sessions using this form.

For best consideration, please submit your proposals no later than March 16, 2018.

Three kinds of proposals are welcome:

  1. A presentation by you (or by you with a colleague) that the conference organizers can combine with other presentations to create a session.
  2. A panel that you organize with several other confirmed presenters. Or …
  3. Another other kind of session that you organize, such as a design workshop, deliberation, debate, planning meeting, training session, etc.

Individual presentations are limited to 10 minutes. Sessions last 90 minutes and must use interactive formats. The submission form will require the names and contact information of your confirmed co-presenters. You may propose more than one idea using the same form.

You may add your name to the conference mailing list to receive updates.

Frontiers of Democracy immediately follows the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a selective 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students. Applications for the Summer Institute are being received until March 16, 2018.

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insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory

Elinor Ostrom was my favorite scholar. Her research was empirically rigorous and methodologically innovative. After working with Vincent Ostrom on water management, she turned to a series of studies of police. Her findings are pertinent today, when crime has fallen but we are (and should be) deeply concerned about racial bias in the criminal justice system.

The topic of policing scrambles ideological lines. Progressives who are otherwise favorable toward governments and unions get leery of police forces and police unions, for good reasons. Some conservatives who are normally concerned about limiting the state suddenly get enthusiastic about the police.

Placing Elinor Ostrom on an ideological map is also tricky. She was deeply influenced by works like James M. Buchanan’s and Gordon Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, a foundational text of neoliberalism. She opposed centralized control and could be skeptical about redistribution, thus aligning with libertarians. At the same time, she was a committed environmentalist, a defender of indigenous cultures (many of which are not individualist or freedom-loving), and a theorist interested in moving “beyond markets and states”–the title of her Nobel lecture. She was a great proponent of commons and common-pool resources, which are popular on the left. To bring her ideas into the debate about policing offers insights that both sides may be prone to overlook.

Ostrom saw police as consumers and providers of a whole set of “services” (training, forensics, traffic control, patrol, arrests, pretrial detention, investigation, and more). Each unit within the world of policing–whether a forensic lab, a police station, or a specialized investigative team–negotiated with many other units to do its work. Some negotiations were formal, e.g., a town’s police department paying a different city’s forensic lab for services. More often, the negotiations within and among police systems were informal. Citizens were also organized in numerous overlapping ways–towns, counties, states, voluntary associations, juries–that influenced the police.

Ostrom analyzed all this complexity from the perspective of individuals, some of whom might happen to be police officers or other kinds of “professionals.” Citizens–meaning all individuals concerned with solving problems–would generally benefit if: 1) there were many potential providers of services, so that they had some choice, 2) the scale and boundaries of problems matched the scale and mandate of organizations, and 3) they could influence the goals and priorities of the police.

Her main empirical finding was that consolidating police departments reduced the quality of policing–as defined by citizens. Consolidation limited the choice available for services like training and forensics. It reduced the leverage that local police had over larger entities. It kept front-line professionals from being able to define goals and priorities, because they got slotted into larger systems. It kept them from addressing local problems (e.g., dangerous streets) because they had to meet targets, such as numbers of arrests, that came down from bureaucracies. And it blocked citizens in diverse communities from defining what “good policing” should mean.

Public safety (with a dimension of fairness to all) is a common-pool resource. Everyone benefits when it’s provided, but anyone can degrade it by illegally harming others; and lots of people must actively contribute to make it available. Lin Ostrom and her colleagues developed eight design principles that help with the management of common-pool resources, writ large. I  list them below (from this summary) and offer some thoughts about how each applies to policing in the USA.

1. Define clear boundaries. Most police forces and organizations do have clearly defined jurisdictions. The fact that the geographical boundaries around police departments,  sheriffs’ departments, state police, federal agencies, etc. form a complex pattern is probably an advantage, not a source of inefficiency or damaging conflict, according to the Ostroms’ “polycentric” theory. Thus our police systems do OK on this first design principle.

However, if we move beyond “clarity” and use other criteria to assess the boundaries, we see problems. For example, at the time of Michael Brown’s killing, the government and police force of Ferguson, MO were dominated by Whites even though the majority of the city was Black, and the metro area as a whole was better aligned with the Black population than the city was. To put it another way, the borders around Ferguson were unrelated to real patterns of settlement.

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions. In the US, criminal justice works poorly by this standard. The laws governing citizens–and policies for the police–are set by state legislatures and Congress. Their decisions are not helpful in many specific contexts. For example, criminalizing drugs might have some benefits for reducing drug abuse, but it is harmful in the neighborhoods where drugs are sold.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules. Most Americans have a vote and free speech. But we exercise those forms of influence at inappropriate scales and within unhelpful boundaries. A citizen of Baltimore gets a vote in Maryland statewide elections but is outvoted by suburbanites. The police are more accountable to the city and the state than to the specific communities where they work.

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities. Here again, mandates by state and federal authorities clearly interfere. In fact, community members are hardly involved at all in making rules in the domain of criminal justice. Common-pool resources rarely survive when this principle is violated.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior. We have police review boards and other tools for monitoring police. There are some interesting and valuable examples, like Community Policing in Chicago Beat Meetings. Still, my sense is that monitoring is underdeveloped.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators. The general principle is that violations of rules should carry highly predictable costs, but the costs should start low. If punishment begins at a draconian level, not only may the perpetrator be unduly harmed, but the community is likely to excuse some violators entirely. A first-time offender should be able to pay the price and then be completely embraced by the community. Although penalties should start low, they should rise steadily with repeated infractions. For both law-breakers and police, this principle is almost uniformly ignored in American criminal justice.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution. In the context of criminal justice, that would mean helping citizens to resolve disputes without necessarily involving the police. It would also mean allowing citizens to resolve their disputes with the police without filing federal lawsuits. Both opportunities seem sorely lacking, despite important exceptions.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system. We do the opposite. Mandates flow down from states to cities to neighborhoods; and Congress influences the whole system without much accountability.

In short, criminal justice in the United States is a commons problem that we manage in ways that violate almost every principle for the management of common resources.

Because my concern is with racial injustice, I have no interest in marginalizing racial analysis of policing. However, it is important to structure institutions well. If we assume that the majority population is prone to treat minorities unfairly, that is an extra reason to design the rules right. We should also work on reducing racial bias, but we’d have to be awfully optimistic on that front not to give primary attention to institutions. The design principles are particularly important when we have good reason to mistrust some key actors.

I think restructuring criminal justice in line with common-pool management principles is a promising alternative to “abolition.” To be sure, we should ask the critical question, Why do we employ armed and uniformed paramilitary organizations to keep the domestic peace? The idea of abolishing police is worthy of debate. However, wholesale social transformation has a pretty poor record of success. Restructuring is a better place to start.

By the way, this approach is compatible with recognizing that American police serve many people in many communities very well. We needn’t reorganize everywhere, and we may be able to learn from the better examples.

Finally, this approach has the great advantage of viewing public safety as the job of many actors, of which the police are only one. There is growing evidence that voluntary citizens’ efforts are important for reducing crime. In an American Sociological Review article, Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar find that “every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9 percent reduction in the murder rate, a 6 percent reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4 percent reduction in the property crime rate.” That finding fits very nicely with the Ostroms’ theory. Vincent Ostrom told my friend Paul Aligica:

We do not think of ‘government’ or ‘governance’ as something provided by states alone. Families, voluntary associations, villages, and other forms of human association all involve some form of self-government. Rather than looking only to states, we need to give much more attention to building the kinds of basic institutional structures that enable people to find ways of relating constructively to one another and of resolving problems in their daily lives.*

The problem with policing is that we have not built structures that allow people to relate constructively across lines of race (and class) in order to resolve the problems that they define as important.

*V. Ostrom to P. Aligica, 2003, in Vlad Tarko, Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography, p. 49. See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we needHabermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II) or this video that explores Ostrom along with other “Civic Studies” thinkers.

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the moral significance of instinct, with special reference to having a dog

When dogs and their human owners look into each others’ eyes, oxytocin, a hormone involved in the maternal bond, rises in both creatures. When dogs are given oxytocin via a nasal spray, they want to look in their humans’ eyes (source). I find this result interesting, but equally interesting is my reaction to it. Why is this scientific finding heart-warming? Is it evidence of something good?

As members of an evolved natural species, we human beings have instincts. Maternal bonding is an example. Domesticating dogs may be one as well.

Instincts are not universal, nor are they necessarily desirable. For example, we presumably developed an instinct for violence against people outside our own kin groups. Yet many individuals never exhibit that instinct, it is generally bad, and we can create contexts in which it becomes marginal. To say that humans have an instinct for violence is a little like saying that bees sting. It’s true even though most bees never actually sting. It’s not a statistical generalization but a claim about the way we were designed through the process of natural selection. It’s about what’s “built in” to us, for better or worse.

One pitfall is to replace moral evaluation with such talk of instincts. To say that anything we are hard-wired to do is right to do is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. It excuses, for example, violence, exploitation, and dominance.

Another error is to romanticize the human species by defining only the good drives as our authentic instincts. An example would be claiming that we are naturally peaceful and made violent only by civilization. This seems implausible if it’s a testable claim; and if it’s meant to be true by definition, it’s an instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

A third error is to ignore the natural characteristics of the species entirely when making moral judgments. Perhaps ethics is species-independent, and we can first define the good (in general) and then use it to assess the actual behavior of human beings. What is right for us would also be right for angels, elves, Klingons, God.

One problem with this approach is that it’s unrealistic. A deeper problem is that it fails to demonstrate love for the species. To love an oak tree is to appreciate it for what it naturally does. And to love humankind is to appreciate us as the evolved natural species that we happen to be. To wonder whether we would be better without sex would be like wondering whether oak trees would be better off without acorns. (But then we shouldn’t wish that we had no proclivity for violence, because violence, too, is part of being human.)

Again, this doesn’t mean that there is a list of characteristics that are innate because of natural selection, and everyone should (or does) demonstrate those characteristics. Sex, for example, is an instinct that admits of great variation: some people want it and some don’t; various people want different kinds of it; and it can be good or bad for the people affected. Still, sex is not just a desire that some people happen to have, and it is not merely good if the net benefit happens to be positive. Sex is intrinsic to the species and is something we should encompass when we value human beings.

Back to dogs and people: It appears that these two species co-evolved very early, each taking its modern form under the influence of the other. I’ve even wondered whether guard dogs allowed our distant ancestors to sleep deeply; and deep sleep permitted cognitive development. Dogs certainly allowed us to spread into vast regions that had been dominated by big mammals with teeth. It’s not clear that we could have become who we are without dogs–or vice versa.

To say “Because having a dog is natural, it must be good” would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy. We can live without dogs. Some people much prefer to. Some communities bar them. And maybe those are the right decisions. Whether or not to have a dog is an ethical question. The rights and welfare of all affected people–and the dog–should be considered.

But it would also be a mistake to interpret (some) people’s bond with dogs as just another preference, a choice that happens to have hedonic value for them and that should be weighed against other desires and interests. Loving a dog is an instinct that influences human perceptions (we are good at interpreting dogs’ behavior) and even our hormones. That means that if you happen to love a dog, I think you are justified in believing that you are acting naturally. And if you happen not to like dogs, you should still recognize the impulse in others as a human capability. Like other capabilities, it is something that people should be able to choose to exercise so long as that is compatible with other important goods.

See also: latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare; my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfareKorsgaard on animals and ethics; and introducing the Capabilities Approach.

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analyzing Donald Trump’s speech patterns

Just before the 2016 presidential election, I wrote:

Donald Trump’s speaking style is extraordinarily paratactic. That is, he utters declarative sentences without any of the explicit transitional words that can explain why sentences fit together. No “therefore’s,” “on the other hand’s,” or even “well, I think’s.” He just plunges in. Many listeners perceive the content of his various sentences to be logically unrelated. However, he is remarkably repetitive when he speaks at any length, so the unity of his speech derives from his returning to the same phrases. Finally, he uses “I” sentences overwhelmingly, plus “you” when he’s talking to someone in particular. He makes relatively rare use of the third person. We could name his style “paratactic/egocentric.”

I have no expertise in linguistics. To the extent my observations were based on any disciplined research, I was thinking of attempts to model discussions as networks of ideas. I’m interested in how different network structures may allow people to deliberate better or worse with others. I implied that Trump’s “paratactic/ egocentric” style was bad for deliberation.

Unlike me, John McWhorter is a linguist, and he has an interesting analysis in The New York Times. He confirms my observation that Trump’s speech is “paratactic,” “repetitious,” and “subjective.” He also shows that Trump’s style has changed. When he was young man, Trump was much more hypotactic (favoring subordinate clauses and logical connections), more explicitly organized, and less emotive. But McWhorter does not think this is evidence of cognitive decline. Rather, everyday spoken English is much like Trump’s public speech nowadays. Most people most of the time produce disconnected, repetitive bursts of speech, linked by body language and other emotional cues rather than logical connectives. McWhorter thinks that young-man Trump spoke in an unnatural, elevated, formal way because he still thought he had to work at being accepted. Today, Trump thinks he can talk naturally in public forums, so he does. And for some audiences, it works.

This seems plausible. I would only add a normative question: what kind of speech do we have the right to expect from public figures in public forums? Hypotaxis is artificial for all of us; it’s how schools teach us to talk and write in public, to strangers. But it could be that people should talk that way in formal settings, just because the logical connections allow the listener to assess our arguments critically. Skipping over them is normal for private speech among people with strong affective ties, but it’s a way of evading accountability among strangers.

See also: Trump’s rhetorical style and deliberationDoes Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?  it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedtracking change in a group that discusses issuesnetwork dynamics in conversation; and assessing a discussion.

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