Association for Moral Education 2016 conference theme is civic engagement

(Arlington, VA) Tisch College is a cosponsor of the Association for Moral Education’s 42nd Annual Conference: 8–11th December, 2016 at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA, USA

Conference Theme: Civic engagement: a cultural revolution? The expanding definitions of ‘civic’ participation, their intersections with ethics, and the implications for education

The challenges and innovations in civic engagement in and beyond formal education are gaining worldwide attention. There are interesting links, synergies and dialogues among civics, ethics and moral development, including the significance of new media.

Submissions are welcome from scholars, students and practitioners across the many disciplines that contribute to the study and practice of moral and civic education, including psychology, education, sociology, philosophy, interdisciplinary, cultural studies, among others.

Submission deadline: March 14, 2016.

For submission details, and/or to register or the conference, please go to the conference website.

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Korsgaard on animals and ethics

(Northern Virginia) I made some comments about animal rights and welfare at one of the Tisch Talks in the Humanities last week. I have contributed no original scholarship on this topic, nor even followed the vast literature closely. But in the course of a quick lit. review, I came across the line of argument that Christine Korsgaard has developed, and it struck me as persuasive. I’d put a central point like this:

  1. There are two kinds of beings, those that have wants and those that don’t.
  2. There are two kinds of beings, those that can “reason” and those that cannot (where to reason is to have reflexive thoughts, or the ability to assess wants, desires, etc. critically).

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Inert objects like rocks and stars neither have wants nor can they reason. It follows that nothing is good or bad for them. All members of the animal kingdom, including human beings, have wants. That implies that some things are good and bad for each of them. Perhaps we alone are rational, in the Kantian sense. In that case, we and not animals have moral duties. But our moral duties are not only to those who are rational, but to those who have wants, which includes animals.

(I put God in the space for “can reason,” but “has [no] wants,” because I’ve been reading Spinoza this winter, and that’s his view. It’s theologically plausible that if there’s a God, God has wants. In that case, God would be in the same zone with us.)

Kant wrote:

If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.

Korsgaard is a major Kantian, but in her Tanner Lectures on “Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals” (2004) and subsequent work, she disagrees with Kant’s reasoning here. What is wrong with shooting the dog is not that the man somehow neglects his duties to other humans. He has done wrong by mistreating the dog. Just like the man, the dog has desires, and there are things that are good for the dog. The man has negated the dog’s good in his own interest.

It is likely that dogs do not have the capacity to reflect on or change what they want. Therefore a dog does not have the right or obligation to participate in creating moral norms that are binding on itself or the man. It “cannot judge” in the way that a person can. We don’t blame it (or genuinely esteem it) for acting like a dog; that is simply its nature. But the man’s duty to reflect on his own desires is precisely the duty to take others’ desires into account. It doesn’t matter whether the others can judge; it matters whether they have desires and goods. Likewise, our duties to other human beings are not contingent on their acting like Kantian rational subjects.

See also: latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare and my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfare.

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what the Sanders youth phenomenon means for the future

(En route from NYC to DC) Early reports from the New Hampshire exit polls suggest that Sen. Sanders won about 8 in 10 voters under 30. Follow CIRCLE tomorrow for exclusive estimates of the size of the youth turnout. That will be important for helping to sort out whether Sen. Sanders’ dominance so far is a sign of his appeal–or of Hillary Clinton’s weakness.

I drew the latter conclusion while talking about Iowa last week on WGBH’s Greater Boston show with Jim Braude. Here’s the video clip. He and the other guests were very excited about Sen. Sanders’ large lead among young voters, both in the Iowa results and the Nrw Hampshire polls. Although I should try to avoid the role of the graying curmudgeon, I drew attention to Hillary Clinton’s poor showing in Iowa. Less than 5,000 young people caucused for her in the whole state, which seems to me an alarming sign both for Democrats in November and for anyone who cares about youth participation.

Just to put my comments in a broader context, I do think that Sanders’ youthful following is important. True, only about 35,000 youth voted for Sanders in Iowa. That is about one percent of the state’s population, and it was favorable terrain for him. Still, thousands of young people are having formative experiences as activists on the American left through his campaign (even as others come up through Black Lives Matter or the Dreamers’ or Marriage Equality campaigns). We know from extensive research that such experiences leave lasting imprints. A classic work is Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer. It’s amazing how many leading figures of the left went to Mississippi in 1964, and McAdam shows how that summer shaped them for decades to come. I suspect when we read the biographies of leading progressive activists in 2030, many will say they worked for the Vermont senator in the winter and spring of 2016.

In the short term, the American left will struggle if Hillary Clinton is elected president (as I expect her to, unless a Republican beats her in November). While a centrist Democrat holds the ramparts against a Republican House, Republican statehouses, and a conservative judiciary, people to the president’s left will face constant pressure to pipe down. Concretely, the organized left may face a shortage of money, paid positions, media attention, technological innovation, and other forms of capacity–much as I recall from the Bill Clinton years, when I myself was young.

This is not ground for despair. Young activists can find solutions. For some of them, experiences with the Sanders Campaign will prepare them for the next four or eight years. Their activism will help President Hillary Clinton to do a good job, because (as FDR said) leadership is deciding who to cave to. She’ll need some pressure from that side.

All of which is to say that the youth support for Sanders is a real phenomenon that is worth following and caring about. But if one is interested in who will win the 2016 presidential election, I am afraid the Sanders phenomenon is likely to be something of a footnote as the primary campaign moves to larger and more diverse states. In that context, the important question is whether Senator Clinton can improve her showing with youth, whom she will absolutely need to win in November.

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Selim Berker on moral coherence

In “Coherentism via Graphs,”[i] Selim Berker begins to work out a theory of the coherence of a person’s beliefs in terms of its network properties. Consider these two diagrams (A and B) borrowed from his article, both of which depict the beliefs that an individual holds at a given time. If one beliefs supports another, they are linked with an arrow.

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Both diagrams show an individual holding three connected and mutually consistent beliefs. Thus traditional methods of measuring coherence can’t differentiate between these two structures. However, Graph A is pretty obviously problematic. It involves an infinite regress—or what has been called, since ancient times, “circular reasoning.” Graph B is far more persuasive. If someone holds beliefs that are connected as in B, the result looks like a meaningfully coherent view. If you find coherence relevant to justification, then you will have a reason to think that the beliefs in B are justified—a reason that is absent in A.

Berker also proposes a subtler but more decisive reason that B is better than A. Below I show A again, now with the component beliefs labeled as P, Q, and R. If the law of contraposition holds, than A implies another graph, A’, that is its exact opposite. A’  includes beliefs -P, -Q, and -R, and the arrows point in the reverse direction.

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But that means that if belief P is justified because it is part of a coherent system of beliefs, then the same must be true of -P, which is absurd.[ii]

The overall point is that coherence is a property of the network structure of beliefs. That should be interesting to coherentists, who argue that what justifies any given belief just is its place in a coherent system. But it should also be interesting to foundationalists, who believe that some beliefs are justified independently of their relations to other ideas. Foundationalists still recognize that many, if not most, of our beliefs are justified by how they are connected to other beliefs. Thus, even though they believe in foundations, they still need an account of what makes a worldview coherent.

I have been developing a similar view, with a narrower application to moral thought (and without Berker’s deep grasp of current epistemology). I am motivated, first, by the sense that what makes a moral worldview impressively coherent cannot be seen without diagramming its whole structure. Imagine, for instance, a person who holds two major moral beliefs: “Never lie” and “Do not eat meat.” Assume that this person has not found or seen any particular connection between these two main ideas.

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His or her set of maxims is perfectly consistent: there is no contradiction between any two nodes. And every idea has a connection to another. But if we wanted to judge the coherence of this worldview, we would not be satisfied with knowing the proportion of the components that were consistent and directly connected. It would matter that the person holds two separate clusters of ideas—two hubs with spokes. This person’s network is fairly coherent insofar as it is organized into clusters rather than being completely scattered; but it would be more coherent if the two clusters interconnected via large integrating ideas. You can’t see the problem without diagramming the structure.

I also have another motivation for wanting to explore moral worldviews and political ideologies as networks of beliefs. In moral philosophy and political theory, constructed systems are very prominent. Although diverse in many respects, such systems share the feature that they could be diagrammed neatly and parsimoniously. In utilitarianism, the principle of utility is the hub, and every valid moral judgment is a spoke. That theory is so simple that to diagram it would be trivial. Kantianism centers on several connected principles, and Aristotelian, Thomist, and Marxist views are perhaps more complicated still. But in every case, a network diagram of the theory would be organized and regular enough that the whole could be conveyed concisely in words.

In contrast, my own moral worldview has accumulated over nearly half century as I have taken aboard various moral ideas that I’ve found intuitive (or even compelling) and have noticed connections among them. My network is now very large and not terribly well organized. A narrative description of it would have to be lengthy and rambling. Many of my moral beliefs are nowhere near each other in a network that sprawls widely and clusters around many centers.

I suspect this condition is fairly typical. No doubt, individuals differ in how large, how complex, and how organized their moral worldviews have become, but a truly organized structure is rare. (I have asked a total of about 60 students and colleagues to diagram their own views, and only one of the 60 gave me a network that could be concisely summarized.) That means that such constructed systems as Kantianism and utilitarianism are remote from most people’s moral psychology.

Further, I think that having a loosely organized but large and connected network is a sign of moral maturity. It is a Good Thing. That is obviously a substantive moral judgment, not a self-evident proposition. It arises from a certain view of liberalism that would take me more than a blog post to elucidate. But the essential principle is that we ought to be responsive to other people’s moral experiences.

Berker includes experiences as well as beliefs in his network-diagrams of people’s worldviews.[iii] In science, it should not matter who has the experience. An experience of a natural phenomenon is supposed to be replicable; you, too, can climb the Leaning Tower and repeat Galileo’s experiment. But in the moral domain, experience is not replicable or subject-neutral in the same way. Since I am a man, I cannot experience having been a woman my whole life so far. Thus vicarious experiences are essential to moral development.

If we are responsive, we will accumulate sprawling and random-looking networks of moral beliefs as we interact with diverse other people. These networks can be usefully analyzed with the techniques developed for analyzing large biological and social networks. It will be illuminating to look for clusters and gaps and for nodes that are more central than average in the structure as a whole. The coherence of such a network is not a matter of the proportion of the beliefs that are consistent with each other. Its coherence can better be evaluated with the kinds of metrics we use to assess the size, connectedness, density, centralization, and clustering of the complex networks that accumulate in nature.

On the other hand, if someone adopts a moral view that could be diagrammed as a simple, organized structure, he has not been responsive to others so far and he will be hard pressed to incorporate their experiences in the future. At the extreme, his simple graph is a sign of fanaticism.

See also: envisioning morality as a network; it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organized; Stanley Cavell: morality as one way of living well; and ethical reasoning as a scale-free network (my first thoughts along these lines, from 2009).


[i] Berker, S. (2015), Coherentism via Graphs. Philosophical Issues, 25: 322–352. doi: 10.1111/phis.12052

[ii] “Coherence, we have been assuming, is a matter of the structure of support among a subject’s beliefs, experiences, and other justificatorily-relevant mental states at a given time.” But we can use directed hypergraphs (in mathematics, networks in which any of the nodes can be connected to any number of the other nodes by means of arrows) to represent all of those support relations. That is, we use directed hypergraphs to represent all of the relations that have a bearing on coherence. It follows that coherence is itself expressible as a graph-theoretic property of our directed hypergraphs (p. 339).

[iii] “Many theorists hold that a subject’s perceptual experiences are justificatorily relevant (in these sense that they either partially or entirely make it the case that the subject is justified in believing something).”

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you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happiness

Two theses for today: 1) You have a right (and even an obligation) to be concerned about your own inner wellbeing–call it happiness, peace, lack of suffering, equanimity, satisfaction, or mental health. And 2) Inner wellbeing is a complex issue, not just a matter of maximizing a simple mental state, such as pleasure. Continue reading

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the library of Edward R. Murrow

MurrowLast week I reported from the AFT building in Washington, where I’d attended a meeting in a room lined with the personal library of Albert Shanker, the late and very controversial leader of the teachers’ union. Earlier this week, I got to hear my excellent Tufts colleague Kelly Greenhill present on “The Security-Related Effects of Rumors” in a Tufts room that is furnished with the books of the late broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965).

The arrangement of the two rooms is similar: the books fully surround a long wooden table, leaving just enough space for chairs.

Murrow was best known for his courageous WWII broadcasting and then his postwar opposition to Sen. McCarthy. He was perhaps a more consistently admirable person than Shanker, although opinions on that would vary. His books, however, were much more middle-brow. Shanker owned ponderous tomes of 20th century Continental philosophy. Murrow had more volumes like The Lady and the Vote (1956) by Marion K. Sanders. Then again, Sanders turns out to have been a crusading feminist journalist, a psychological warfare operative in WWII, an interviewer of Saul Alinksy, and a one-time congressional candidate. I’d guess that Murrow knew her professionally, which is reason enough to display her book and many like it.

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Sanders got about as many youth votes in Iowa as everyone else combined

My colleagues at CIRCLE are producing a stream of detailed and almost instantaneous analysis of the caucuses and primaries. Keep checking the CIRCLE homepage for the latest.

Here I use CIRCLE’s evidence to illustrate how Sen. Sanders’ dominated the youth vote in the Iowa caucuses. Consider the Democratic and Republican caucuses as one event: the voter first chooses which party to caucus with, and then selects a candidate. By that reasoning, about 50,000 young Iowans (ages 17-29) caucused, and about 58% of them chose the Democratic side. Sanders drew 84% of the Democratic youth, while the Republican youth split their support. As a result, Sanders drew about 49% of all the young caucus-goers put together. Cruz came in second with about 11% of all the youth, followed very closely by Rubio, then Clinton, and then Trump.

Iowa 2016

Sanders got about eight times as many votes as his main opponent on the Democratic side, and about eight times as many as Trump, with whom he is sometimes paired as a supposed enemy of “the establishment.”

That raises such questions as: Can Sen. Sanders do better among older people in other states? Can he perform as well among youth in states where young Democratic voters are far more diverse than they are in Iowa? Can Sec. Clinton narrow the generation gap, and can she get out the youth vote if she wins the nomination? (She only drew about 4,000-5,000 young Iowans on Monday and came in fourth in that age bracket, which ought to ring some alarms.) Finally, where will young Republicans land as their field narrows?

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Sanders dominates the Iowa youth vote

Below is CIRCLE’s press release from this morning. Additional data can be found on the website.

Young Democrats Propel Sanders to Virtual Tie in Iowa; Record-breaking Participation Among Young Republicans, who Choose Cruz, Rubio Over Trump

Medford/Somerville, MA – Youth turnout in last night’s Iowa caucuses is estimated to be 11 percent, according to youth vote experts from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) – the preeminent, non-partisan research center on youth engagement at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

Highlights of the youth vote in Iowa include:

  • An estimated 11.2% of eligible Iowan youth aged 17 to 29 participated in last night’s Republican and Democratic caucuses.
  • On the Democratic side, the youth choice was decisive. Of the estimated 31,000 young people who participated in the Democratic caucus, 84% supported Senator Bernie Sanders, contributing to a virtual tie between Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Sanders.
  • Young Republicans selected Senator Ted Cruz as their top candidate (with 26%), closely followed by Senator Marco Rubio (23%). Youth support for Donald Trump, which came in at approximately 20%, trailed the support he received among older Republicans.
  • Since 1996, youth turnout in Iowa has exceeded 4% only twice: in 2008 (14%) and yesterday (11.2%).
  • A record-breaking 22,000 young people voted in the Republican caucus.
  • About 31,000 young people participated in the Democratic caucus, the second highest level since 1996 (behind 2008).

“Last night’s Iowa caucuses demonstrated the potential power of young people to shape elections,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of CIRCLE. “In the Democratic caucus, young voters helped to propel Senator Sanders to a virtual tie, and Republican youth broke their own record of caucus participation. One message is clear: when candidates and campaigns ask young people to participate and inspire them to get involved, they respond.”

For CIRCLE’s full Iowa caucus analysis, please see here. Throughout this election season, CIRCLE’s 2016 Election Center will offer new data products and analyses – such as a preview of youth participation in the NH primary – providing a comprehensive picture of the youth vote, both nationally and in targeted states and congressional districts across the country. You can view trend data on youth turnout via CIRCLE’s interactive maps.

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we are for social justice, but what is it?

Schools and colleges, daily newspapers and broadcast television channels, and certain civic associations are prone to present themselves as neutral about politics. They say that they provide information, spaces for discussion, and opportunities to learn skills. Their students, readers, or citizen-members are free to form their own opinions.

Activists in social movements observe that these organizations are not truly neutral (but rather full of implicit values) and argue that grave current injustices require all organizations to take explicit stands.

In response, at least some of the ostensibly neutral organizations declare that they are actually against specific injustices and committed to a better society. Nowadays, they often name their positive objective as “social justice” (a phrase whose deepest historical roots are in Catholic thought). In past decades, they might have talked instead about democracy or freedom.

But although some things are obviously unjust, reasonable people disagree profoundly about what constitutes a positive vision of social justice, and why. Thus–I contend–virtually all of the valuable debate that occurred under the aegis of self-described neutral organizations recurs within organizations that declare themselves for “social justice” without providing a detailed definition of that phrase.

The return of debate is not in itself a bad thing; politics is about persistent disagreement, which responsible citizens can embrace and even enjoy. But it is somewhat naive to expect that a commitment to a vague ideal of social justice will bring consensus. And it is a shame if that expectation leads to disillusionment.

In our current time, this is the main pattern I observe: educational, journalistic, and civic associations strongly proclaim neutrality in response to what appears an uncivil and polarized political debate, and then activists demand that they take a stand in response (mainly) to climate change or domestic US racism. Those are matters of grave concern and they have generated social movements that are particularly effective at influencing schools and colleges, the media, and local associations (much more so than governments or corporations). In decades past, opposition to US foreign policy and war played similar roles in challenges to neutrality.

But if there is any doubt that people can be committed to something called “social justice,” abhor the same specific injustices, and yet disagree about the very definition of “justice,” consider the current debates between #BlackLivesMatter and Sen. Sanders, #BlackLivesMatter and Secretary Clinton, or Clinton and Sanders.

Those three people/movements place themselves on the left, but the debate about social justice is certainly broader than that, even if the phrase currently has leftish resonances. In an interview with Eric Liu for a project that Eric and I conducted together, Mark Meckler, who had founded Tea Party Patriots, called the police presence in Ferguson “outrageous.” He acknowledged the salience of racism but mainly viewed police violence as an example of a government depriving individuals of liberty. “The state has a lot of power and only recently it is outwardly manifesting that power in costumes and equipment that demonstrate military might. … That is not of society, by and for society; that is against society.” A democratic socialist might agree with much of that and yet read Ferguson more as a story of disinvestment in industrial cities and the failure of our economy to value workers. I’ve quoted Julius Jones of #BlackLivesMatter as a proponent of a third view: that anti-Black racism is a fundamental chord in American history. Note that all of these positions could simultaneously be true, yet the proponents must disagree about solutions. More government? Less government? Remedies targeted at race? At class? Any of those could constitute “social justice.”

To have a theory of justice, you need principles and a way of ranking or adjudicating among them. Maybe equality is one of your principles, but equality of what? (Opportunity, status, power, welfare?) Equality for whom? (All the students who are already in your classroom or at your college? All major demographic groups within America? All American individuals? All human beings?)

And even if equality–defined in a particular way–is a very high principle for you, what about freedom (which comes in at least six different and incompatible forms), sustainability, security, creativity, innovation, community, rule of law, tradition, diversity, prosperity, and efficiency? A reasonable view of social justice is surely an amalgam of many of these principles, reflecting tradeoffs and rankings. We develop such views in part by reflecting on what is bad about the status quo and what we have learned about practical solutions that work. (For instance, we wouldn’t advocate equality of education if we thought that schools were a waste of time.) Thus a theory of justice typically rests on a narrative about the failures and the successes of our society so far. All of that–the narrative, the assessment of actual institutions, the abstract principles, and their ranking–is contestable.

An organization can claim that it is thoroughly neutral, just a platform for its members to debate what is right. Or it can assert that it is for social justice, and then its members will debate what is right. The difference matters–a bit. A claim of perfect neutrality is inevitably false and distracting. A commitment to social justice can usefully raise the question, “What is justice?”

The choice remains how specifically to define the content of social justice. Organizations face choices between ideological diversity and unity and between scale (attracting lots of people) and depth (intensively relating to their members). The more precisely an organization defines its objective, the less hospitable it is to diversity but the more it can achieve unity and advance an agenda. The smaller it is, the better it can work through disagreements, but the bigger it is, the more influence it can have.

I think that organizations that strive to be ideologically diverse and also relatively big are relatively weak and scarce today. Universities and schools and large civic associations can fill that quadrant. It won’t hurt for them to declare themselves for “social justice,” but they would be wise to invite a genuinely diverse debate about what social justice is.

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the library of Albert Shanker

IMG_0193This is part of the library of Albert Shanker (1928-77), which lines the walls of the conference room of the Albert Shanker Institute, which is inside the American Federation of Teachers’ Building in Washington. I was there earlier today. It seems fitting that such a library should rest in the heart of the AFT, exemplifying the long, rich, and living tradition of intellectual life within the labor movement (and—importantly—outside of universities).

The collection itself reflects a mid-20th century canon. There are books on Freud and idealist philosophers like Collingwood and Croce, as well as pragmatists like John Dewey, who was a founder of the AFT. There are many books about schooling and education, from a variety of perspectives. Several thousand volumes line the shelves.

Shanker was a highly controversial figure. In “Sleeper” (1977), Woody Allen’s character awakens 200 years after being cryogenically frozen and asks what happened to civilization. He’s told that a man called Al Shanker got hold of nuclear weapons. On issues of unionism, race, school choice, and foreign policy, Shanker made many enemies as well as friends, and probably deserved some of both. I don’t really know the whole story well enough to praise or bury him. I take the library more as a monument to the intellectual life of our unions, which is something to prize when they are under such threat.

Cf. Harry Boyte’s recent blog post on agrarian intellectuals during the New Deal and the powerful popular education movement they led.

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