10 theses about ethics, in network terms

  1. People hold many morally relevant opinions, some concrete and particular, some abstract and general, some tentative and others categorical.
  2. People see connections–usually logical or empirical relationships–between some pairs of their own opinions and can link all of their opinions into one network. (Note: these first two theses are empirical, in that I have now “mapped” several dozen students’ or colleagues’ moral worldviews, and each person has connected all of his or her numerous moral ideas into a single, connected network. However, this is a smallish number of people who hardly reflect the world’s diversity.)
  3. Explicit moral argumentation takes the form of citing relevant moral ideas and explaining the links among them.
  4. The network structure of a person’s moral ideas is important. For instance, some ideas may be particularly central to the network or distant from each other. These properties affect our conclusions and behaviors. (Note: this is an empirical thesis for which I do not yet have adequate data. There are at least two rival theses. If people reason like classical utilitarians or rather simplistic Kantians, then they consistently apply one algorithm in all cases, and network analysis is irrelevant. Network analysis is also irrelevant if people make moral judgments because of unconscious assumptions and then rationalize them post hoc by inventing reasons.)
  5. Not all of our ideas are clearly defined, and many of the connections that we see among our ideas are not logically or empirically rigorous arguments. They are loose empirical generalizations or rough implications.
  6. It is better to have a large, complex map than a simple one that would meet stricter tests of logical and empirical rigor and clarity. It is better to preserve most of a typical person’s network because each idea and connection captures valid experiences and serves as a hedge against self-interest and fanaticism. The emergent social world is so complex that human beings, with our cognitive limits, cannot develop adequate networks of moral ideas that are clear and rigorous.
  7. Our ideas are not individual; they are relational. We hold ideas and make connections because of what others have proposed, asked, made salient, or provoked from us. A person’s moral map at a given moment is a piece of a community’s constantly evolving map.
  8. We begin with the moral ideas and connections that we are taught by our community and culture. We cannot be blamed (or praised) for their content. But we are responsible for interacting responsively with people who have had different experiences. Therefore, discursive virtues are paramount.
  9. Discursive virtues can be defined in network terms. For instance, a person whose network is centralized around one nonnegotiable idea cannot deliberate, and neither can a person whose ideas are disconnected.  If two people interact but their networks remain unchanged, that is a sign of unresponsiveness.
  10. It is a worthwhile exercise to map one’s own current moral ideas as a network, reflect on both its content and its form, and interact with others who do the same.
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setback in North Carolina

Federal Judge Judge Thomas D. Schroeder has upheld a whole series of voting laws in North Carolina that, in my view, create barriers to participation. The plaintiffs included the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the United States Department of Justice. My colleague Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and I submitted expert testimony about the impact of the laws on youth. We were both deposed in the case, and I testified in federal court last summer. I don’t have an informed comment on the judge’s decision, much of which concerns matters of constitutional interpretation on which I do not claim any expertise. It’s a disappointing result, but the struggle for equitable and accessible voting continues.

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college application Bingo

We spent last week visiting prospective colleges with my daughter, which is why I was offline. The information sessions and tours are very well done but they do tend to blur because of institutional isomorphism. If you’re getting sleepy on your umpteenth tour, try playing this Bingo game:

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An admissions officer who wanted to command our attention could try saying this instead …

“We have simplified our admissions criteria to two numbers: your combined SAT score and your family’s net worth. If the multiple of those figures exceeds 16 billion, you are in. If it is between 160 million and 16 billion, you’re on the wait list, and we will work our way down until the budget is balanced. Below that, we’ll bank your application fee.

“Because we use these two very different metrics, we admit a diverse student body. Some students are rich but not too bright. Others have awesome standardized test scores but are merely middle class. Once they enroll, these two groups are completely isolated and mutually disdainful. We’d love to find some students who could bridge our two subcultures and promote interaction, but we can’t seem to get any rich geniuses to attend.

“You pay up front for each semester, so it’s in our interest for you to drop out. Most courses are vast lectures with arbitrarily difficult exams meant to weed out the untalented or the merely unfortunate. Since a small number of oppressed junior professors teach huge numbers of students, the rest of the faculty is free to wander around at will.

“Majors are assigned randomly on the first day of freshman year, and all credits must be in the major. Students are encouraged to study abroad, at other US colleges, or indeed anywhere they like, as long as they continue to pay our tuition in full, on time, and in cash. Extensive information about our loan program, interest rates, late fees, and penalties are contained in the prospectus, pp. 1-73.

“You may find that you learn and grow the most by exchanging ideas with your peers in informal settings. Go for it. We don’t really need to hear about it.

“We care about our host community. You can find out the name of it from Google Maps. The townies live on the other side of that barbed wire perimeter.

“Choosing a college is a very personal matter, as each student is utterly unique and unprecedentedly wonderful. For our faculty and administrators, however, you are basically an undifferentiated mass. You pay us and leave us alone; we don’t bother you. It’s all part of our extremely special and deeply considered educational philosophy, which has sustained us for 375 years and made our brand the envy of the world. Thanks so much and please leave your tips in the dish on your way out.”

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the Chicago police and NY State prison scandals reinforce the need for countervailing power

The past week has seen scathing reports of pervasive brutality in New York State prisons and the Chicago Police Department. Racism is clearly a factor, but I would like to highlight a different one. We must count on human beings to have bad motives. Racial animus and supremacy are important examples, but even in a racially homogeneous context, people cannot be trusted. Nor does it matter which principles we adopt or even sincerely espouse. It matters whether we are checked and limited by other people.

For example, no entity in the history of the world has had a stronger stated commitment to equality–or as much power and scope to expand equality–as the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman Mao. And yet that same Party is now an active proponent of the most rapacious and predatory forms of capitalism and is closely associated with billionaires. Why? Because it is in the interest of a ruling group to capture a lot of money, and a party without any rivals or limitations can do so–utterly regardless of its mission and philosophy.

In general, I am a fan of labor unions. They have several important advantages, one of which is countervailing power. In a unionized workforce, there is no longer just one institutional power (the owner); there are two. Gov. Scott Walker is trying to break the public employees’ unions in Wisconsin because they bring countervailing power against him.

But a public sector union that closely collaborates with a state government can obtain somewhat troubling monopoly power. Give the members of that union guns and handcuffs, and the dangers increase. Sentence individuals to live completely under the control of that group, insulated from public view, and the threat becomes alarming. In the US context, the specific content of the injustice may be racism, but a case like China reminds us that even in a racially homogeneous society, armed monopoly power never works out well.

Thus it is crucial to the New York case that the “New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision … has long been seen as subservient to the union,” and “the union is a formidable political force, protected in the Legislature, primarily by upstate lawmakers in districts where prisons are the biggest employers.” And the Chicago report, after citing racism and ends-justifying-the-means as two causes of police violence, cites a third: a lack of external accountability. “The collective bargaining agreements provide an unfair advantage to officers, and the investigating agencies—IPRA and CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs—are under-resourced, lack true independence and are not held accountable for their work.”

Note that both New York State corrections officers and Chicago police officers work for democratically elected governments. That is a check but an insufficient one because it isn’t pluralist. One government is one power with interests of its own. To the extent that we see progress in either case, it’s because of the countervailing power of other levels of government, the press, and social movements.

I support deliberative democracy. It is a much higher ideal than simple majoritarianism. I still don’t want everything governed by one big conversation, no matter how fair, free, and informed the discussion may be. We need organizations and groups that are impervious to public opinion, even reasonable and fair public opinion. I would also vote for social democracy, at least in a European context, but only on the proviso that it is shorthand for a mixed economy with multiple power centers, including autonomous firms. One Big Anything scares me, and our prisons and police forces just reinforce that fear.

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a great day for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

Taylor McNeil writes:

As the nation continues to engage in increasingly fractious political discourse, it’s more important than ever to develop a community of leaders who are able to rise above the fray and bring positive change to the public sphere. Fostering such change has been a cornerstone of Tisch College, and now, with a $15 million gift from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, A76, and a new name that more clearly describes its mission, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life is poised to extend its reach, both on campus and in the world.

The Tisches’ gift, announced on April 14, will endow professorships in the emerging field of civic studies, which examines why people get involved in causes and what happens when they do; support ongoing research on youth voting and political engagement, among other topics; and expand opportunities for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to participate in service learning and leadership development programs as well as internships.

The new professorships that will be created through the Tisches’ philanthropy are part of an ongoing effort to advance Tisch College as a national leader in civic studies. Faculty in these positions will hold joint appointments in Tisch College and in another school at Tufts.

The Tisch research program, including the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning (CIRCLE), the nation’s leading center on youth voting and political engagement, and the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, which is conducting a first-of-its-kind national study of college voting rates at 800 participating institutions, “is on a growth trajectory,” says Peter Levine, the college’s associate dean of research. “We have 10 social scientists on staff doing research. We have an agenda of trying to change civic life in America.”

And Daniel Nelson writes:

[the] recent gift will be used to grow Tisch College’s programs, including further developing its research and academic initiatives. Tisch College is home to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which is “the leading source of authoritative research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans,” according to the program’s website.

“The research is really an area of huge new interest,” Solomont said. “It’s a real expansion.”

He explained that the gift will help Tisch College and CIRCLE expand its research of young voters, a voting bloc he believes could be extremely powerful so long as it engages in its civic duties.

“You could change the political landscape dramatically,” he said, referring to eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29. “But you’re not showing up to vote.”

Tisch College’s current research initiatives investigate what drives the influential youth voting bloc to the polls, and how to better engage young voters in the overall civic system, Solomont said.

“What we’re seeing here at Tufts is that young people today want to be engaged,” Jonathan Tisch explained in the press release. “They want to make a difference. Hopefully they will bring the experience and knowledge from Tisch College with them as they work with others to create an even better world.”

A portion of the gift will also go towards the Tisch College’s establishing of professorial endowments “in the emerging field of civic studies,” according to the press release. These endowments will help Tisch College, provide opportunities in civic engagement across all seven of schools at Tufts, Solomont said.

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why Donald Trump is anti-conservative

Although not a conservative, I have sincere respect for conservative thought, because I think its core insight is human limitation. We human beings are too frail cognitively and morally to change societies wholesale without bad consequences.

You can come to that insight from a religious background, thinking that human beings are sinful but that we receive invaluable guidance from the divine. You can be completely secular, like Friedrich von Hayek, and argue that people lack the cognitive capacity to understand or manipulate something as complicated as a modern society, so we shouldn’t try to manage it centrally. Or you can be a cultural traditionalist, like Edmund Burke, and presume that much trial-and-error is embedded in all local traditions, whereas novel ideas are likely to go wrong, especially when imposed from without or above.

Regardless of your entry point, the conservative premise of human limitation leads to certain biases or tendencies: against central governments, against radical reforms, and in favor of durable constitutions, markets, and common law.

Of course, there is another side to each of those arguments, and I often land on the progressive rather than conservative side. (Just for instance, I don’t think that modern capitalist economies are really distributed systems that avoid top-down control; I think they are disruptive forces run by a few arrogant people.) But the conservative perspective is always worth serious consideration.

By this light, Donald Trump is not only the least conservative candidate in the current field, but the most anti-conservative candidate I can think of in modern American history. His whole argument is against human limitation. He promises that he can make everything radically better by applying his own amazing brainpower. He acknowledges none of the constraints prized by conservatives: religious revelations, cultural norms, constitutional checks, limited government in a mixed economy, or common law. I think his strong support in the primaries underlines the fact that the Republican electorate had become anti-conservative in basic ways, although a genuinely conservative GOP core is horrified by his campaign. As they should be, because he is the diametrical opposite of what is most valuable in conservatism.

See also: What defines conservatismEdmund Burke would vote Democratic; and the left has become Burkean.

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why we need theory for social change

Margaret A. Post, Elaine Ward, Nicholas V. Longo, and John Saltmarsh have edited the new volume, Publicly Engaged Scholars: Next-Generation Engagement and the Future of Higher Education. It’s a great anthology that describes 30 years of work reconnecting higher education to communities and proposes exciting futures for that movement. It highlights the work of a new generation of engaged scholars who are more diverse and in many ways more sophisticated and effective than their predecessors.

I wrote an Afterword entitled “Practice & Theory in the Service of Social Change.” Since many of the chapters by younger scholars are autobiographical, I allowed myself to reflect on my own experience as well.

When I was an undergraduate, I chanced upon a set of early discussions and experiments that helped create the current movement for engaged scholarship. I got to join a Wingspread meeting about national and community service that helped build momentum for George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light initiative and then AmeriCorps under Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, back on campus, my student colleagues and I started a program that provided paid summer service internships for students who agreed to present their work to the local alumni clubs. …

Thanks to my role in student government, the clerical and technical workers’ union asked me to sit at the table in a series of round-the-clock negotiations with the university that narrowly averted a strike. The university’s lawyers studiously ignored my presence because they took the position that there were just two parties in a contractual dispute; questions of public impact and justification were irrelevant, and therefore no representatives of the community had a right to attend. …

Also during my undergraduate years, I encountered deliberative democracy in a seminar on Habermas and during an internship at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, OH, which was then experimenting with practical deliberative democracy in the form of National Issues Forums.

That was 25-30 years ago, and in many ways, I am still in the same milieu–now a Trustee of Kettering and an Associate Dean of a college that promotes and studies service and civic engagement.

In the “Afterword,” I argue that the movement began as a result of deep and searching questions about the democracy and society as a whole. Some participants were motivated by the Habermasian argument that civil society is a space for the reasonable discourse that should generate public opinion, but it was being “colonized” by the market and bureaucratic states. Some thought more in the spirit of Habits of the Heart (1985) and believed that US society was becoming too atomized. Still others were involved in the debate about neoliberalism and the declining welfare state, either welcoming volunteerism as an alternative or seeing students’ civic engagement as a form of resistance to the market.

So the movement began with a rich and vital discussion of how to change America, which turned into concrete activities like service-learning and deliberative democracy as potential tools or tactics. The subsequent decades have brought much experimentation with those activities, as well as burgeoning research about them: do they work, why, and for whom? But I don’t think we are any clearer about how to change America–and the strategies that seemed to make sense in 1985 may now be obsolete.

In the “Afterword,” I acknowledge the value of the “emotions,” “embodied experiences,” and “personal narratives.” Yet, I argue,

we do face problems that can be posed in abstract and general terms. And I believe that to some degree, our experiences from service-learning, community-based participatory research, and campus/community partnerships have outrun our theories. Put more forcefully: we will be unable to address profound social problems until we strengthen our theoretical understanding of society, and that will come from books, data, and seminar rooms as well as from action in communities. …

This book has a generational focus and looks to younger scholars for new models and solutions. Those scholars will (and should) base many of their ideas on personal experience and identity. Their relatively diverse backgrounds and their relatively deep experience with engagement are assets. Yet I would also look to the next generation for groundbreaking theory, some of it highly abstract and challenging. The theories that are already embedded in their narratives must emerge; they may also need to develop new theoretical insights. We need theories not only about civic engagement, but also about how society works and what causes it to change for the better. Almost every successful social movement I can think of from the past has developed new bodies of such theory. The theories of gender that accompanied Second Wave Feminism or the range of theological and political philosophies that emerged because of the Civil Rights Movement are essential historical examples. I would expect nothing less from The Next Generation of Engagement.

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popular theories of political psychology, challenged by data

(Washington, DC) I’ve raised doubts about Moral Foundations Theory, which offers valuable insights but classifies individuals too crudely, overlooks the importance of deliberation and narrative in the construction of our moral ideas, and fails to explain historical change in moral opinions. I’ve also complained about research that classifies conservatives as having negative character traits. And I’ve argued that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s bestseller that purports to explain economic success is unscientific.

Research reported in the press during this week has reinforced my skepticism:

First, Kevin B. Smith and colleagues, writing in the American Journal of Political Science, cast doubts on three strong claims of the Moral Foundations Theory: that the dispositions labeled “foundations” are stable for individuals over time, that these foundations predict and explain political ideology (and hence explain ideological differences), and that the foundations are inherited–as they must be if they result from Darwinian selection. Surveying twins along with other family members, Smith et al. find that “moral foundations are not particularly stable within individuals across time, at least compared to ideology.” At a given point, individuals’ answers to Moral Foundations questions do relate to their ideologies, but their views change over time. The causal arrow seems to point from ideology to moral foundations, as much as the reverse. Presumably, people are influenced by events, experiences, and discussions to revise their political views, thereby changing their Moral Foundations (which are not actually foundational). Thus the stream of research exemplified in Moral Foundations Theory has been “overly dismissive of the role of conscious deliberation.”

Second, Steven G. Ludeke & Stig Hebbelstrup Rye Rasmussen use a large survey to dispute previous work that had associated conservative ideology with “psychoticism,” which means being “cold, impersonal, lacking in sympathy, unfriendly, untrustful, odd, unemotional, unhelpful, antisocial, lacking in insight, strange, with paranoid ideas that people were against him.” Quite to the contrary, they find a negative association between psychoticism and conservatism.

These authors still find that conservatives tend to be more authoritarian than liberals are. My complaint about that kind of finding is that it’s ahistorical. At various historical moments, the right or left may be more favorable to authority or to disruption and change. The current association between conservatism and authoritarianism in the US tells us more about the political situation today than it does about fundamental political psychology. But in any case, we can drop the association between psychoticism and conservatism, since it’s false.

Third (in the same journal), Joshua Hart and Christopher F. Chabris tested whether the Chua & Rubenfeld “Triple Package” of “impulse control, personal insecurity, and a belief in the superiority of one’s cultural or ethnic group” predict economic achievement in modern America. It does not. Parental education (a proxy for social class) does, as does the individual’s own cognitive ability and self-control. As one might expect, having rich parents, doing well on tests, and behaving yourself lead to prosperity in the USA. Believing in the superiority of your cultural or ethnic group is no help at all. (This is political psychology only in the sense that a view about ethnic groups has political implications.)

Sources: Smith, K. B., Alford, J. R., Hibbing, J. R., Martin, N. G. and Hatemi, P. K. (2016), Intuitive Ethics and Political Orientations: Testing Moral Foundations as a Theory of Political Ideology, American Journal of Political Science (doi: 10.1111/ajps.12255);  Steven G. Ludeke & Stig Hebbelstrup Rye Rasmussen, “Personality correlates of sociopolitical attitudes in the Big Five and Eysenckian models,” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 98, August 2016, pp. 30–36; Joshua Hart & Christopher F. Chabris, “Does a ‘Triple Package’ of traits predict success?,” Personality and Individual Differences, vol 94, May 2016, pp. 216–222.

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the last qualified president was Zachary Taylor

There has been lots of debate this week about whether various people are qualified to be president. Peter Shane once observed that the US Constitution, Art. II, § 1, ¶ 5, renders all the current candidates ineligible:

No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States.

It seems that to be president, you have to have been either a natural-born citizen or a citizen of the US on June 21, 1788, the date when the Constitution was ratified. Zachary Taylor was three-and-a-half years old at the time, so eligible. Millard Fillmore was born in 1800, so unqualified–along with all of his successors. It’s that second comma that makes it so. And we know that every jot and tittle of the Constitution is perfect.

(Those wacky Framers.)

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the advantages and drawbacks of precision in ethics

subject3I like to ask people to state their own beliefs that are relevant to ethics and then draw connections among those ideas to create networks that represent their moral worldviews. I put people (students and others) in dialogue with each other, invite them to explain their networks to peers, and watch connections form.

Usually the ideas that people propose are not precise. In explaining what we believe, we don’t employ many terms that we could define with necessary and sufficient conditions, nor do we often use quantifiers like “all” or “exactly one.” The connections we detect among our ideas are rarely logical inferences. They are looser links: resemblances, rough implications, empirical generalizations.

One impulse is to strive for as much precision as possible. That is a fundamental goal of analytic moral philosophy and it has significant merit. If someone proposed, “We should strive to improve everyone’s lives,” I would join mainstream analytic philosophers in requesting more clarity. Does that mean maximizing net human welfare? Does “welfare” mean happiness, satisfaction, or objective well-being? Does it trade off against freedom and autonomy? Does “everyone” mean all currently living human beings? (What about future generations?) Does “strive” mean actually maximize net welfare, or have a generally beneficent attitude toward others? These are valid and hard questions.

On the other hand, if the goal is descriptive moral psychology, it is a mistake to ask for that level of precision. We all hold–and are motivated by–rougher moral ideas and looser connections than could pass muster with an analytical philosopher. If you want to know what people believe, you must model those ideas and relationships as well as the clear ones. If you encourage people to map out many of their ideas and relationships, they will produce complex and elaborate networks that are useful for representing their mentalities and for provoking reflection.

That still leaves the normative question: how much precision should each of us strive for? I would say some but not too much. One of my favorite quotes is from Bernard Williams, in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985, p. 117):Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.”

I’d expand that remark as follows: Through direct and vicarious experience, we build up collections of moral ideas that give our lives meaning and restrain our basest instincts. We also connect our ideas; we say that we believe A because it seems somehow related to B. If we must pass all these ideas and connections through a screen for clarity, precision, and inferential rigor, most will have to go. That will leave us with less meaning and less constraint against mere inclination and will.

Seeking clarity can illuminate. It can, for instance, force us to disaggregate a vague idea into a set of related ideas that are worth seeing on their own. Or it can reveal gaps and tradeoffs that deserve consideration. Formal philosophy is also useful for developing specific ideas that are clear and precise and that relate to one another logically.

However, it is a false dream that we can convert our entire networks of moral ideas into structures of clearly defined concepts and implications. Even the best moral arguments carry just a short distance–from a premise to a conclusion, or maybe as far as another conclusion or two, but not all the way across the domain of the moral. It is good to have a dense, complex, and expansive network of ideas that draws on experience and demands constant reflection and reevaluation, even if its components are a bit vague and the links are hard to articulate. Better that than a crystalline chain of reasons that connects just a few ideas and leaves us otherwise free to be selfish or fanatical.

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