medieval iconoclasm and modern prejudices

More than 1,000 years ago, the Christian world was consumed with a violent conflict over religious images: whether they should be venerated or destroyed as idols. That conflict, which brought down emperors, has resonances today. But even before the days of ISIS, modern historians were mining the obscure quarrels of medieval Christian iconoclasm for evidence of their own prejudices.

For instance, in this passage, John Julius Norwich (1929-) explains why iconoclasm declined during the 9th century:

The times, too, were changing. The mystical, metaphysical attitude to religion that had originally given birth to iconoclasm was becoming less fashionable every day. Of the eastern lands in which it had first taken root, some had already been lost to the Saracens; and the populations of those that remained, beleaguered and nervous, had developed an instinctive distrust of a doctrine that bore such obvious affinities with those of Islam. There was a new humanism in the air, a revised awareness of the old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity, and had no truck with the tortuous, introspective spiritualizings of the Oriental mind. At the same time a naturally artistic people, so long starved of beauty, were beginning to crave the old, familiar images that spoke to them of safer and more confident days. And when, on 20 January 842, the Emperor Theophilus died of dysentery at thirty-eight, the age of iconoclasm died with him.

I don’t like to speak evil of the living, but this is pretty bad. I can pass over the undocumented and surely exaggerated claims (“less fashionable every day”; “so long starved of beauty”). I can forgive the emphasis on royal biography and chronology as explanations for larger trends, because the medieval sources focus on affairs of court. It’s much harder to ignore Viscount Norwich’s view of “the Oriental mind” as irrational and mystical.

Edward Gibbon, although just as judgmental as Norwich, organized his prejudices differently. In the Decline and Fall, he associates the veneration of images with the “long night of superstition,” when Christians forgot the “simplicity of the Gospel” for the “worship of holy images.” The “holy ground was involved in a cloud of miracles and visions; and the nerves of the mind, curiosity and skepticism, were benumbed by habits of obedience and belief.”

He is talking about the centuries when Norwich’s “old, familiar images” were still venerated. But then Leo III began the iconoclastic era. Although the emperor was less learned than a classical Roman, “his education, his reason, and perhaps his intercourse with the Jews and Arabs” made him criticize images. Leo came from the East and may have been influenced by the still-further-eastern Muslims. Yet Gibbon has no hesitation in claiming that Leo’s movement showed “many symptoms of reason and piety.”

Ultimately, it was a female ruler who restored the “idols,” which were always “secretly cherished by the order and the sex most prone to devotion; and the fond alliance of the monks and the females obtained a final victory over the reason and the authority of man.” A final victory, that is, until the “reformation of the sixteenth century, [when] freedom and knowledge had expanded all faculties of man: the thirst of innovation superseded the reverence of antiquity; and the vigor of Europe could disdain those phantoms which terrified the servile weakness of the Greeks.”

If you’re going to use medieval theological controversies to reinforce modern stereotypes, Gibbon’s version at least seems to make more sense that Norwich’s. Norwich tries to establish a spectrum from the iconoclastic East to the reasonable West. But consider the Pilgrim Fathers who founded New England. Surely they favored “tortuous, introspective spiritualizings”; and their churches were stripped of all images, even crosses. Their brethren in Cromwell’s England and Protestant Holland also smashed religious pictures, as did the later secular republicans of revolutionary France and civil war Spain. “According to Georg Kretschmar, ‘Calvin built up the most precise and radical position opposed to the icon theology of the 787 Council of Nicea.'” As a consequence [of Calvin’s iconoclastic writing] Protestant places of worship have a stark austerity in comparison to Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches.” Yet, according to Norwich, a starkly austere church is “oriental,” whereas one bedecked with sparkling icons recalls the “old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity.”

The moral of this post is not that historians are biased or that orientalism prevails. I have cited just two writers, one of them dead since 1794. Real professional historians work hard not to let such prejudices determine their views. But Gibbon and Norwich are influential authors–the first redeemed by his superb style and enlightened spirit; the second, a poor substitute.

Posted in The Middle East, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

making big donors part of the political debate

Peter Beinart quotes an estimate that $5 billion may be raised from private donors for the 2016 election, much of it coming from extremely rich individuals who are able to keep relatively low profiles. Some of these donors may personally give amounts in the hundreds of millions. Here is a case for forcing them onto the public stage.

On one hand, there is no doubt that their money conveys power. You can’t make a serious run at the White House without raising hundreds of millions of dollars. Barack Obama did comparatively well at raising small contributions, yet (according to our good friends at the Center for Responsive Politics), 68% of his support–almost half a billion dollars–came from “large individual donors” in 2012.

On the other hand, the only true power is the vote, which is distributed to adult citizens equally (leaving aside felony disenfranchisement and a few other exceptions). Billions are spent to persuade voters how to use their power. But voters have the ability not to be persuaded, and they have–collectively–far more persuasive power over their fellow citizens than all the big donors and professional campaigns in America.

So campaign money is both a massive force and a kind of phantom, theoretically susceptible to being ignored and therefore becoming irrelevant.

Of course, there is something romantic and bootless about that latter point. It’s like saying that HIV has no real power because we could all just stop having unprotected sex and the virus would go extinct. Its power is very real because human behavior is predictably imperfect.

Likewise, we could imagine, per Habermas, that the only power becomes the power of the stronger argument. But real people (including me) will miss valid arguments unless they are loudly and repeatedly delivered, and we will accept invalid arguments that are effectively transmitted. Since expensive political communications are generally untrustworthy, it would be better if everyone ignored them all and decided how to vote based on personal discussions and reflections and high-quality news media. But as long as they are pervasive, they will matter.

The question, then, is how to break the spell of money. Beinart has a suggestion. He observes, “Right now, while presidential candidates experience proctological scrutiny from the press, mega-donors experience relatively little. As a result, they wield enormous power over government policy without facing the public glare that, in a democracy, those with great political power should have to endure.” His proposal: the news media should put the mega-donors under close scrutiny, reporting all their statements and positions and financial interests. Then a candidate who takes money from Billionaire X would gain power to communicate but also become associated with the embarrassing personal opinions and interests of the said Billionaire.

This is not a direct strategy for getting people to ignore what money buys. It actually makes money more central (while perhaps discouraging candidates from taking funds from some sources). The reporting that Beinart recommends will encourage ad hominem arguments, i.e., not “You are wrong because your premise is mistaken” but “You are wrong because you took money from a guy who said offensive things.” But once you are using large amounts of money to purchase influence over voters, your motives and goals do become relevant. If campaign spending is “speech,” then a donor is a speaker in the public sphere who can be held to account. And Beinart’s proposed strategy could be a disruptive move that, while it does not create an ideal political conversation, breaks the spell of the current one.

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the parable of the bricklayer and the Cathedral

(En route to Chicago for an #OFA event) Two people are working side by side, laying bricks at a similar speed. When asked what they are doing, the first says, “Laying bricks,” and the second says, “Building a cathedral.”*

In civic or political organizations and campaigns, we need the activists to feel that they are building cathedrals. Then they will be motivated to go beyond their assigned quotas, they will contribute their ideas to improve the whole structure, they will bring other people into the team, they will hold their fellow workers accountable, and they will go on to start new cathedrals when the current one is finished. On the other hand, if they are just laying bricks, the best we can hope is that they will do what they are asked.

Also, in any political context, we are not working with inanimate objects, like bricks. Rather, people are working with people, which takes enthusiasm, listening, and tact. So the subjective attitude of the worker is even more important in the political domain than on a construction site, although it matters there as well.

In order to get their workers or volunteers to build cathedrals instead of laying bricks, some organizations try to tell them about the overall goal in inspiring ways. They use exalted language and charismatic leaders. That approach will not work if the workers really are laying bricks—just implementing the instructions they have been given. They will only feel that they are building a cathedral if they are building a cathedral.

That means that volunteers and paid employees must (on the one hand) be treated as serious and important workers and held accountable for results: attractive and strong walls. They should not be patronized by being praised for just showing up and trying; results matter. But (on the other hand) they must be given opportunities for creativity and innovation. If they can figure out a better way to lay bricks, or a better brick, or a better wall, or a better cathedral, they should be encouraged to try it.

That recipe—measurement and accountability for outcomes along with scope for creativity and agency—is what Wellesley College professor Hahrie Han, my fellow speaker tonight in Chicago, finds essential for developing leaders and building strong and effective organizations.

*Google tells me that I took this story (like much else) from Harry Boyte.

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voting and punishment: Foucault, biopower, and modern elections

Michel Foucault wrote a great deal about punishment as a tool that governors use to discipline the governed. Voting seems like the opposite: a device for the governed to discipline the governing. But Foucault’s concept of bio-politics can be illuminatingly applied as a critique of modern voting.

Foucault begins “Security, Territory, Population” (his 1977-8 lectures at the Collège de France) with a “very simple, very childish example” of punishment in three forms.

  • Juridico-Legal: The law defines a category of actions as a crime (e.g., theft), and sets a certain punishment to follow it in order to restore justice. This punishment is usually conducted in public and on the body of the accused.
  • Disciplinary: Punishment is used to influence behavior, both of the person being punished and of others who may be deterred. Punishments are now designed to have results; for instance, prisons become “houses of correction.” If a given punishment lacks beneficial consequences (as Cesare Beccaria argued of torture), it should be repealed. But in Discipline and Punish, Foucault interprets this apparent humanity or leniency as a reflection of an ominous improvement in the efficiency of discipline, whose purpose is “not to punish less, but to punish better.'”
  • Security: The objective becomes to influence the frequency of undesirable actions (such as theft) in the population as a whole. Outcomes are measured statistically, for instance, in terms of crimes/capita or probabilities of recidivism. A given punishment, such as imprisonment, is now a mere tool for security, to be assessed by its aggregate costs and benefits and compared against other tools, such as paying or training people to behave as desired or subjecting them to surveillance and monitoring.

Foucault emphasizes that these three “modulations” of punishment have not simply replaced one another in a historical sequence. Even medieval law sometimes aimed at security; juridico-legal thinking remains alive today. But security has become far more prominent in the current era than it was before.

Like punishment, voting has adopted relatively durable forms but has changed its purposes and rationales in profound ways. Drawing on Michael Schudson’s accessible history, I would identify the following three stages in the history of US voting:

  • Nineteenth Century: Voting is mostly a public expression of full membership in a group. By voting at all, a man shows that he is a full and free US citizen. By voting for a party, he shows his loyalty to a sub-population, e.g., Southern white Protestant farmers vote for Democrats. Voting is conducted in public (ballots are not secret) along with torchlight parades and other public rituals. Generally, everyone in a given community votes alike and reinforces each other. Voting is an obligation.
  • Progressive Era: Voting is a private choice among independent candidates and ballot questions. Voting maximizes the degree to which the government represents the voter’s interests and values. Elections also punish corrupt or incompetent incumbents by rotating them out of office. To enable a free and precise choice, the ballot is now secret; candidates are distinguished from parties; numerous offices are made elective; and important questions are put to referenda. Reporters, experts, and civic educators purport to assist voters in making up their own minds. Voting is a source of power that should be employed responsibly.
  • Post-Watergate: For individuals, voting is one means of influencing the government (at a time when other means have proliferated) and is one optional way to spend time and energy. A prospective voter is assumed to weigh the costs of voting–including the costs of becoming informed–against its benefits. The population is assumed to vote as a function of large external factors, such as the billions of dollars spent on campaign advertising and the constantly shifting procedures for registering and voting. Candidates are entrepreneurs who make heavy use of Big Data to target and influence citizens. Some prominent political scientists and jurists defend private campaign finance on the basis that the various campaign donors cancel each other out in a competitive market. Voting, running for office, and giving money are choices; aggregate results can be predicted.

The three stages of voting resemble those of punishment. In each case, we see a move from 1) symbolic to 2) deliberately manipulative to 3) scientific and statistical. We also see a move from 1) automatic to 2) individually tailored to 3) designed at a social scale. And a sequence of 1) physical impact on bodies, to 2) influence over individual minds, to 3) tweaking the milieux that shape mass behavior. Foucault calls scientific control over the contexts that shape human behavior “bio-politics,” which is the ascendant norm.

In the case of punishment, the tool’s effectiveness has increased, but control is increasingly dispersed. The medieval king was fully in charge of the gallows, but he couldn’t influence much of his realm with it. The modern regime of schools, prisons, and police is much more effective and pervasive, but there is no single king. Power strengthens but also multiplies.

In the case of voting, the tool may possibly have become more powerful, but the individual voter pretty clearly has less influence today, for other political acts (from drawing district lines to allocating campaign dollars) have become highly sophisticated and effective. Voting looks more like a dependent variable than the cause of anything.

If this portrait of the current situation is accurate, we need both an assessment and a strategy for improvement. Foucault proposes some theses about assessment and strategy at the outset of “Security, Territory, Population”:

I do not think there is any theoretical or analytical discourse which is not permeated or underpinned in one way or another by something like an imperative discourse. However, in the  theoretical domain, the imperative discourse that consists in saying “love this, hate that, this is good, that is bad, be for this, beware of that,” seems to me, at present at any rate, to be no more than an aesthetic discourse that can only be based on choices of an aesthetic order. And the imperative discourse that consists in saying “strike against this and do so in this way,” seems to me to be very flimsy when delivered from a teaching institution or even just on a piece of paper. … So, since there has to be an imperative, I would like the one underpinning the theoretical analysis we are attempting to be quite simply a conditional imperative of the kind: If you want to struggle, here are some key points, here are some lines of force, here are some constrictions and blockages. In other words, I would like these imperatives to be no more than tactical pointers. … So in all of this I will therefore propose only one imperative, but it will be categorical and unconditional: Never engage in polemics.

Contra Foucault, I would like to assert that the current system of elections (and much worse, of prisons) in the US is bad; that this is not a merely aesthetic judgment; that making such judgments is worthwhile if you defend them; and that effective polemics are badly needed. But I take Foucault’s point that a paper argument against the status quo can be valueless or arbitrary. As always, the question “What should we do?” requires tough-minded analysis that is about strategy as well as facts and values. Specifically, if we want to defend the Progressive Era ideal of voting, we must take seriously the deep shift toward what Foucault called “bio-power” in the society as a whole.

See also:when society becomes fully transparent to the state; qualms about Behavioral Economics; citizenship in the modern American republic: change or decline?

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talking about lowering the voting age on Wisconsin Public Radio

On Wednesday, I was on the Kathleen Dunn show, which airs in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest. The title of the segment was “Partisanship among the Generations,” and Jocelyn Kiley from the Pew Research Center talked about the interesting results of their recent study on that topic.

By the way, what jumps out at me from their survey of 25,000 people is that a person’s specific birth year seems to influence her political orientation, with each year differing quite a bit from its neighbors. For instance, my birth year cohort (1967) seems more liberal than the years on either side. A likely explanation has nothing to do with the year of birth but rather the political events that occur about 18 years later, when the cohort first votes. The year-by-year variation undermines broad generalizations about 20-year generations.

After 30 minutes with Jocelyn Kiley, Kathleen turned to me and was mainly interested in our argument for lowering the voting age to 17 so that people can vote while they are still in high school. I’ve discussed that idea on other radio shows, but the Wisconsin public radio audience was much more enthusiastic. There were lots of callers; the audio is available here.

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will young voters prefer younger candidates?

We are often asked whether young people prefer young(er) candidates, and this question is arising again as Sen. Marco Rubio emphasizes his relative youth as a selling point. CIRCLE has now collected evidence–which I find pretty compelling–that the age of a candidate is a very modest factor in influencing young voters, if it matters at all. See “Does the Age of a Presidential Candidate Matter to Young Voters?,” which is new on the CIRCLE website

Posted in 2016 election, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

what should a college do to improve teaching pervasively?

Here are five potential answers to that question, each of which depends on a different premise.

  1. Teaching would be better if the conditions improved. For instance, class enrollments should be smaller, and teaching loads should be more reasonable. (Premise: faculty/student ratio is too high.)
  2. Teaching would improve if professors went through specific recommended experiences, such as short courses on designing curricula or classroom visits from peers. To make those experiences common, provide them–along with incentives or mandates. (Premise: these experiences reliably improve the actual outcomes of students.)
  3. Teaching would improve if faculty focused more on teaching. That would happen if they were rewarded for good teaching outcomes or possibly penalized for bad ones. This implies changes in tenure and promotion criteria and the like. (Premises: motivation is a core problem, and the impact of teaching can be reliably assessed so that the right people are rewarded.)
  4. Teaching would improve if we employed better teachers. Some people are just better in the classroom than others, and we could marginally improve outcomes if we altered whom we hired and retained. One subtle version of this strategy would involve moving talented teachers into a track where they are responsible for more students, and untalented teachers into a research track where they can teach less. (Premise: talent for teaching is measurable and fairly invariant.)
  5. Teaching would improve if faculty collaborated more and held each other accountable for excellence. Students should also be part of the conversation. (Premise: such collaborations can be made widespread.)

I buy #1 for campuses with very scarce resources; I don’t think it applies at the higher end of the scale. I am philosophically most friendly to #5 but don’t know how you make it happen more than it already does at most campuses. Options #2-4 seem to rest on insecure assumptions.

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Chicago OFA forum: how organizations develop activists

I am enjoying Elizabeth McKenna’s and Hahrie Han’s book Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America in preparation for this free open forum in Chicago on May 19. Register here.
OFA

 

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assessing a discussion

We discuss in order to address public problems together. We also develop morally through discussion–which, by the way, I would define very broadly to encompass a conversation with your neighbor over the backyard fence, with Leopold Bloom in the pages of Ulysses, with Angela Merkel through the New York Times, with Jesus in prayer, or with your late parent through memories and imagination.

I posit that the quality of discussion is a function of the skills, attitudes, and beliefs of the participants; the nature of the question under consideration; and the format. An individual’s contribution to a good discussion must be understood in context, because a given discursive act (such as making a concession or repeating a claim) can either be helpful or harmful, depending on the situation.

The tool I would use to assess discussion is a network map, where the nodes are the assertions made by the participants, and the links are explicitly asserted connections, such as “P implies Q” or “P is an example of Q” or “P is just like Q.” The network grows as the conversation proceeds–except when people stop adding new ideas and links–and each contribution can be assessed in terms of how it changes the network. A person’s statement can (for example) make a network larger, richer, denser, or more coherent.

As an illustration, I’ve mapped a 2005 Pew Research Center debate on the right to die (prompted by the then-recent Terry Schiavo case) that involved Daniel W. Brock (a medical ethicist), R. Alta Charo (a law professor), Robert P. George (a political theoriss), and Carlos Gómez (a hospice physician). The transcript is here and my map can be explored here:

This topic (end-of-life decisions) has certain features: it raises fundamental metaphysical questions rather than empirical questions that could be settled with data. It poses absolute and irrevocable decisions, unlike questions about the distribution of scare resources, which can be negotiated. As for the format, it involved relatively long prepared statements by just four experts, in contrast to a free-for-all among a larger group, which would have a different structure. And the speakers, although diverse in perspectives, were all accustomed to a certain style of argument (relatively abstract and organized). It would be interesting to contrast this transcript to, for instance, a New England town meeting about a budget.

Dan Brock goes first and has a chance to lay out a position in favor of allowing a patient or her surrogate to end life support. His position is neatly organized, with the principle of autonomy at the center. He names that principle as the underlying rationale for a series of professional reports and court decisions that represent what he calls the current consensus. He connects autonomy to several related concepts: bodily integrity, privacy, self-determination, and choice. He draws the explicit implication that an autonomous patient must be able to choose or refuse any treatment. He adds the idea that when a person is incapable of exercising autonomy and has not made an advance directive, the best course is to empower a surrogate to choose. And he denies that the patient’s or surrogate’s choice should be constrained by supposed distinctions between starting versus stopping care, hydration/nutrition versus medical treatment, or a terminal versus a stable condition. Below is his position, isolated from the rest of the network.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 5.56.20 PM

Brock’s position is consistent (no nodes contradict each other), coherent (all nodes are connected), and centralized around the concept of autonomy. I would attribute those features of his position to: 1) the format (he gives prepared remarks that come first in a debate), 2) the professional style of the speaker (a professional philosopher), 3) the nature of the topic (bioethics), and 4) Brock’s position as a liberal who strongly favors autonomy. Indeed, Robert P George, the conservative theorist, says later in the debate: “liberals have to come up with a justification for placing autonomy in the central position in the first place, and that requires the defense of a moral proposition.” Note George’s use of a network metaphor to characterize Brock’s view.

Dr. Carlos Gomez speaks second. Unlike Dan Brock, he doesn’t produce a single, organized argument with explicit connections than link all of his ideas. I count nine different clusters of points in his remarks. Gomez’ points–isolated from the rest of the network–are shown below.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 1.11.34 PM

An important claim for Gomez only becomes evident to me (although this might be my own limitation as an interpreter) during the following exchange from the Q&A:

MODERATOR: Actually, before we go to the next question, when you said autonomy misses something essential in this sort of doctor-patient relationship, would you elaborate a little bit more on what that means in the real world?

MR. GOMEZ: Yeah, I’ve never had a patient knock on my office door, come in, sit down, and say, “I’m here to exercise my autonomy.” Now I may be a little too glib there, but what I’m suggesting is that one of the reasons that they are coming to me is precisely by nature of what I profess as a physician, by nature of what I know in terms of my skills, and also by nature – and on this I think Robby is dead on – by nature of the fact that there is a moral construct to what it means to be a physician or a nurse, or any other professionals that professes publicly what they’re going to do.

I think what Carlos Gomez has been implying all along is that nurses and doctors are required to show care for a patient, and an ethic of care is inconsistent with ending the patient’s life. Further, caregivers should have a strong voice in the debate about bioethics. Unlike Dan Brock, however, Gomez does not present that position as an organized argument but alludes to it with relatively scattered claims about how, for instance, there is actually no consensus about end-of-life treatment and the press is uninformed about hospice care. If I were to evaluate Gomez’ participation, I would say that he is less rhetorically effective than he might have been because he never states a claim that actually is central for him. The moderator assists not only Gomez but also the group by drawing out one central node that had not been clear before. On the other hand, Gomez clearly contributes ideas to the conversation and connects many of them to points already introduced by Dan Brock; so he broadens and enriches the discussion.

Alta Charo, a law professor, speaks third. She makes a cluster of points about how people mistake biological patterns for moral imperatives, and a related cluster of points about how sometimes the law appropriately creates “fictions” that are not based on biology, such as the idea of adoptive parenthood. She also makes at least nine other points that don’t explicitly connect to these two clusters. Her view is about as coherent as Carlos Gomez’. However, she is in a different position from him. She generally holds the same liberal position as Dan Brock, who has already spoken. It would not contribute to the conversation for her to repeat Brock’s argument for the centrality of autonomy, although she does state that choices about life must be personal and free. Instead, she builds ideas around the structure than Dan Brock has already laid out.

George follows Charo, and he lays out an alternative view to Brock’s, in which autonomy is explicitly not the central idea. Instead, “human life, even in developing or severely mentally disabled conditions, [is] inherently and unconditionally valuable.” His structure is about as consistent, coherent, and centralized as Brock’s, but it has a different center. Below is shown a network consisting only of the ideas proposed by Brock and George. “Human life is unconditionally valuable” is a central node in the top third of the picture; autonomy is a different center about two-thirds down.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 1.30.00 PM

The two networks touch at multiple points, either because George contradicts Brock (I show explicit disagreements with darker lines) or because he acknowledges specific areas of agreement.

Later, in the Q&A, George makes a discursive move that can sometimes be helpful to a group. He says, “As much as I love disagreement and dissent, I think that on one point on which Carlos and Dan thought they were arguing, there’s not actually a disagreement.” This is an example of tying together two points that have already been made in order to increase the coherence of the network. It is a helpful move–unless the two points are not actually alike.

By the time the session ends, the whole network is fairly connected. But certainly, no agreement has been reached, and two nodes remain central for different people but mutually inconsistent. That may be an inevitable feature of debates about the ends of life, or it may be a function of the way these speakers reason about such questions. Although they are speaking lightly at this juncture, Brock and Gomez imply a serious point about the impasse between them:

Dan Brock: Well Carlos and I first met on a PBS show about assisted suicide I guess 15 years ago, was it, Carlos? And we disagreed then roughly the way we do now, so –

MR. GOMEZ: I’m unteachable.

MR. BROCK: So am I.

I would hope that more mutual learning can occur when issues are either more empirical or more negotiable than this one is.

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it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organized

We come into the world with no moral ideas at all and must learn them from others. We learn not just from arguments and explicit principles, but also by observing practices and experiencing emotional reactions.1 We must make judgments about complex, evolved, historically contingent phenomena (such as, among many others, marriage, democracy, and art) that we cannot apprehend as wholes but must learn to assess from accumulated and vicarious human experience.2 In Habermas’ terms, we begin with a “Lifeworld” formed of our shared experiences and improve it through explicit deliberation with diverse people in civil society.3

Some people are much better at this process than others are, and we can explain why by understanding their moral worldviews as networks of ideas and connections and considering how their whole networks are organized. Consider these hypothetical discussion partners:

  • Aaron constantly returns from any situation or moral consideration to the same value. He considers that value immediately relevant to all others and nonnegotiable. It defines his moral identity and appears to him manifestly true. Deliberating with Aaron is impossible, but not because his network contains a foundational belief in the sense of one that is “infallible, or indubitable, or incorrigible, or certain.”4 What makes him a poor deliberator is rather the over-centralization of his network of moral ideas. One cannot find a route around his core principle.
  • Bao endorses a lot of moral ideas, examples, and principles. But he cannot connect one to another. Asked why he believes P or Q, he has nothing to say about his reasons, let alone can he offer a chain of reasons that connects P to Q. It is hard to talk to Bao because his network is disconnected.
  • Carlos simply has nothing to say about many choices, dilemmas, and cases that arise in conversation and practice. He can discuss some topics cogently, but many others seem not to interest or concern them. The problem with Carlos’ network is that it is too small (having too few nodes) or has too restricted a scope.
  • Dominique cheerfully holds both P and not P, depending on her mood or perhaps her self-interest or convenience. Dominique frustrates deliberation because her network harbors blatant inconsistencies that she does not attempt to resolve.
  • Eduardo is committed to one idea, like personal liberty or economic equality, and he will not recognize the legitimate pull of other values that conflict with his summum bonum, e.g., order and security, solidarity and community, or democracy. Eduardo’s network is consistent but impossible to connect to if one holds other values.
  • Fiona holds many ideas and can thoughtfully connect them to each other. But asked whether she has tried to apply any of his ideas in practice or observed them in application, she demurs. Fiona’s network is well structured for talk but disconnected from experience.

This list can be extended. The point is that the structure of a moral network is important. That follows from the premise that we each begin with whatever ideas and connections we happen to hold, and our responsibility is to refine the whole set in discussion and collaboration with others. In that case, we should be concerned not only about the various values that we endorse, but also with how they are configured. The best networks for discussion are likely rich, complex, connected, not overly centralized, and not necessarily fully consistent.

Notes

  1.  Cf. Owen Flanagan, “Ethics Naturalized: Ethics as Human Ecology,” in Larry May, Andy Clark , and Marilyn Friedman (eds.) Mind and Morals: Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1998) p. 30: “The community itself is a network providing constant feedback to the human agent.”
  2. See Richard N. Boyd, “How to be a Moral Realist,” in Geoffrey Saye-McCord, Essays on Moral Realism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 205: ““Much [moral] knowledge is genuinely experimental knowledge and the relevant experiments are (“naturally” occurring) political and social experiments whose occurrence and whose interpretation depends both on “external” factors and upon the current state of our moral understanding.” Cf. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 59-65
  3. Habermas’ preferred metaphor is a horizon, but he explicitly mentions networks in Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. by William Rehg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), p. 18.
  4. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, “Coherentist Epistemology and Moral Theory,” in Saye-McCord, p. 154.
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