we should be debating the big social and political paradigms

[The following post is inspired by Rogers Smith’s recent APSA presidential address, and I believe is consistent with it, but I incorporate some additional elements.]

Consider a sample of articles about politics, or society more generally. One might be an interpretation of some remarks by Thomas Jefferson. Another reports an experiment in which people are more likely to vote when contacted one way rather than another. A third is a critique of a prevalent word (say, “security”) from the perspective of Michel Foucault. A fourth shows that rational agents in a certain situation are better off when rules are externally imposed on them.

Each of these articles presumes, and contributes to, a larger paradigm that combines values, causal theories, and methods. Perhaps the interpreter of Jefferson believes that the United States is still founded on its written Constitution and that the intentions of the founders matter today. The experimentalist presumes that voting in a regime like the modern USA is a consequential act, and it would be good to increase voting by several percentage points if possible. The critic of “security” sees a world of pervasive injustice sustained by ideology, in the sense of distorting views that preserve the status quo. The rational-choice modeler thinks that all (or many) institutions can be analyzed as the interactions of utility-maximizing individuals.

(For the sake of space, I have omitted a classical Marxist, a deep feminist, a post-colonial theorist, a Prospect Theorist, a radical environmentalist, and many others who deserve places on the list.)

In these articles, you will not see much about their larger paradigms, worldviews or schemata. Their paradigms may not even be mentioned. Instead, you will see evidence in support of the specific claims of each article (whether in the form of statistics, quotations, or equations).

Of course, journals offer limited space, and there may not be room to present a whole paradigm. In addition, citing your scheme may only hurt you in the review process. Reviewers who happen to oppose your overall paradigm may be alienated, when they would have been persuaded by your detailed findings if presented alone.

For instance, imagine that you discover that texting people increases their turnout more than emailing them. That is more persuasive as a bare finding than as part of an argument for the significance and value of voting in a mass democracy within a capitalist market economy.

A certain form of positivism (or verificationism, or empiricism) is still widely influential. It holds that facts can be verified directly. Larger mental constructs are fashioned by us and are only valid to the extent that they match all the facts. If big, general ideas influence our beliefs, they are sources of bias. Therefore, we may need to disclose our paradigms as caveats, but we don’t want to focus on them.

Some people would hate to be described as positivists but end up in a similar place for a different reason. They presume that they have a right to their fundamental views as a matter of identity. “As a migrant from the global south, I explore the colonization of indigenous spaces …” This is not a disclosure of bias, nor a defense of a thesis; it is a claim to be recognized as a member of the scholarly community. To disagree is to deny the author’s place in the community.

I believe that the really important task is to select our worldviews, our big normative/conceptual schemes. It matters which of the available choices we adopt, and maybe we can create better ones. Therefore–as I think Rogers Smith argued–it is a real weakness in any intellectual community if the paradigms are implicit or merely stated, rather than explained, justified, and put into competition.

Within political science, many contrasting worldviews are available. You can walk down the hall of the APSA Annual Meeting past rooms in which everyone accepts the basic normative principles of contemporary electoral democracy, and other rooms in which people are quoting Slavoj Žižek about ideology.

It is hard to compare such worldviews or paradigms, because they have different normative, epistemic, and sometimes metaphysical premises. A finding within one paradigm does not disprove a different paradigm. A certain kind of relativism interferes with comparative assessment.

However, we can consider a whole body of specific findings along with their shared overall claims. We can ask whether this whole literature is coherent, whether it generates persuasive specific findings by its own lights, whether it informs practice in any useful way, whether it makes sense of other literatures, how it handles criticisms and rival views, whether it is responsive to new evidence and events, and whether its normative implications are defensible when fully articulated. Each paradigm has points of relative strength and weaknesses.

It would be helpful if people had that discussion in print, instead of always only writing within paradigms (at least for journal articles.)

See also trying to keep myself honest, how philosophy is supposed to work

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AAC&U Webinar: Sept 19 2019

“The Confounding Promise of Community: Why It Matters More Than Ever for Student Success,” September 19, 2019; Online, 2:00-3:00 p.m. (ET)

In this webinar, I’ll be discussing my recent article in Liberal Education entitled, “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses.” Other authors in the same special issue of Liberal Education will also share their work.

Webinar Registration
Cost: Free for AAC&U members; $99 for nonmembers
Check your institution’s membership status here

What is the role of community—as a concept, an outcome, and an entity—in a liberal education, and how can community contribute to student success? How do students experience community, on and off campus? This webinar will examine emerging definitions of community, ongoing efforts to create inclusive pathways for engagement, and ways community-based practices can advance inclusive excellence. From multiple institutional perspectives, presenters will explore how a collective understanding of community can shape a commitment to equity and student success.

All webinar registrants will be eligible for a 20% discount on copies of the new issue of Liberal Education, which fully explores the webinar topic. In this issue, authors—many of whom are webinar presenters—share research findings, commentary, and recommendations on the confounding promise of community. 


Ashley Finley
Senior Advisor to the President and Vice President for Strategic Planning and Partnerships


Geoffrey Buhl
Professor, Mathematics and General Education Chair
California State University Channel Islands

Leeva Chung
Professor, Communication Studies
University of San Diego

Marta Elena Esquilin
Associate Dean, Honors Living-Learning Community
Rutgers University-Newark

Jason Leggett
Assistant Professor of Politcal Science and Criminal Justice
Kingsborough Community College

Peter Levine
Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Lincoln Filene Professor for Citizenship & Public Affairs
Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life

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translations from Kuruntokai

Kuruntokai (The Short Collection) is an anthology of classical Tamil verse collected by Pooriko Nachinarkiniyar in the sixth or the seventh century CE. The poems are lyrics of love and longing. Apparently they offer layers of religious symbolism. Here are two translations of #36, giving some sense of the original:

Poem from the purple-flowered hills

Talaivi says to her friend—

He swore “my heart is true.
I’ll never leave you.”

My lover from the hills,
where the manai creepers
sometimes mount the shoulders of elephants
asleep among the boulders,
promised this on that day
when he embraced my shoulders, making love to me.

Why cry, my dear friend?

Paranar, Kuruntokai, verse 36, translated by A. Anupama
She Said

On his hills,
 the ma:nai creeper that usually sprawls
 on large round stones
 sometimes takes to a sleeping elephant.

At parting,
 his arms twined with mine
 he gave me inviolable guarantees
 that he would live in my heart
 without parting.

Friends, why do you think 
 that is any reason for grieving? 

 Paranar (Kuruntokai 36), translated by A.K. Ramanujan

Or #46 …

Poem from the fertile fields and fragrant trees

Talaivi says—

Don’t you think they have sparrows
wherever he has gone, with wings like faded water lilies,
bathing in the dung dust in the village streets
before pecking grain from the yards
and returning to their chicks in the eaves,
common as evening loneliness?

Mamalatan, Kuruntokai, verse 46, translated by A. Anupama
She Said

Don't they really have
in the land where he has gone
such things
as house sparrows

dense-feathered, the color of fading water lilies,
pecking at grain drying on yards,
playing with the scatter of the fine dust
of the street's manure
and living with their nestlings
in the angles of the penthouse

and miserable evenings,

and loneliness? 

 Ma:mala:tan (Kuruntokai 46), translated by A.K. Ramanujan

I’ll try a reply:

We used to watch sparrows like this one.
They'd look up at her, at me, hopeful,
Head tilted: crumbs? fly away?

Now it's only me. This one flutters up
To hunch under an eve and wait.
When the rain stops, maybe it will find a bite.

See also: when the lotus bloomed, nostalgia for now, voices

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Syllabus of Introduction to Civic Studies, fall 2019

Fall 19 Civic Studies 0020-01 Intro to Civic Studies

Instructors: Peter Levine, Brian Schaffner. TA: Gene Corbin

Sept 4: Introduction

Introduction to the course and the instructors.

In class exercise: “The “Christmas Tree Crisis” at Sea-­?Tac Airport” (handout in class)

Sept 9: Problems of collective action

(In class, we will simulate a collective action problem.)

Sept 11: Elinor Ostrom’s solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons

Sept 16: Ostrom continued

Sept 18: Ostrom Continued

Sept 23: Social capital as part of the solution

Sept 25: Why do people voluntarily participate?

Sept 30: Discussing good ends and means

Reading assignment: the Harvard Pluralism Project’s case entitled A Call to Prayer (Links to an external site.).  In the discussion sessions this week, students will deliberate what the people of Hamtramck, MI should do. In the class session on Sept 30, additional discussion of deliberation (what it is, what it can accomplish, and what else is needed for good decision-making).

Oct 2: Habermas and Deliberative Democracy

Oct 7: Does deliberation work?

Oct 9: Other forms of discourse: 1) testimony and empathy

[Oct 14: vacation day]

Oct 15 (Tuesday): Other forms of discourse: 2) dissent

  • Tommie Shelby, “Impure Dissent” from Dark Ghettoes: Injustice, Dissent and Reform (2016)

Oct 16:  How can we design for deliberation?

Oct 21: Midterm in class

Oct 23: Exclusion and Identity

Oct 28: What happens when people experience diversity?

Oct 30 Guest lecture on political hobbyism (Eitan Hersch) 

Social Movements 

Nov 4: Identity and the Common Good

Nov 6: Social Movements 

(Nov 11: no class)

Nov 13: Community Organizing

Nov 18: Nonviolent Campaigns

Nov 20:  Gandhi 

Nov 25: Gandhi continued

  • Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes, vol. 28, pp. 307-310

[Nov 27: no class]

Dec 2: Does nonviolence work? Does violence work?

Dec. 4: Student presentations in class

Dec 9: Student presentations in class

Dec 17: Final exam (3:30-5:30 in the Rabb Room)

Conceptual Outline of the Course
(click for more information)
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voter suppression shows we have a democracy

An interesting panel at the American Political Science Association conference explored whether the conceptual distinction between democracy and authoritarianism is (still) useful. In arguing against this distinction, some panelists cited ways that a particular democracy–the USA–fails to honor democratic norms. An example of our failure (which didn’t provoke any overt dissent on the panel) was voter suppression.

To be clear, I oppose the policies that are described as voter suppression. I was deposed and testified as an expert witness in the successful federal lawsuit against North Carolina, and I have done other work to promote access to voting and to attack restrictions.

However, I would make the conceptual distinction in a different way from several of the panelists. “Democracy” is not the name for a just or fair society. A democracy is a society in which majorities govern (for better or worse). Having a democracy opens vistas for developing human potential and for improving the world. But it also presents characteristic challenges.

Two endemic challenges of democracy are relevant to voter suppression. First, when the majority of people hold problematic views, we get problematic policies. For instance, requiring photo identification for voting is unnecessary and creates a barrier, but it is highly popular among a broad spectrum of Americans. Second, because majorities are powerful in a democracy, you can expect bare-knuckled struggles over who actually turns out. When such struggles go well, they become competitions to boost turnout. But you will predictably see efforts to keep the other side home.

Precisely because it matters who votes in the USA, political actors play rough here. Conceptually, that just reinforces the thesis that the US is a democracy. Nobody would bother to erect subtle impediments to turnout if the vote didn’t matter.

These examples raise the normative question of whether a democracy is the ideal system. Most people would say no, at least insofar as they would want to modify the core idea of democracy with one or more adjectives: liberal, classically republican, social, deliberative, or otherwise.

Given my way of thinking, was the US a democracy before the Civil War, before women’s suffrage, and under Jim Crow? Is it a democracy now, when more than two million people are incarcerated?

These are profound injustices, but democracies can be–and frequently are–unjust. To the degree that large numbers of people are officially excluded from the polity, the system is undemocratic. Therefore, the US was not a full democracy until the Voting Rights Act. Yet a diagnosis of these past and current injustices must put some of the blame on the democratic aspects of our system. A reason for racist policies has been the racist views of many in the white majority. A major reason for mass incarceration is popular support (across racial groups) for draconian punishments. A motive for disenfranchising women and African Americans is that voting matters.

In short, I am against saying, “We are not really a democracy and should stop congratulating ourselves on being different from authoritarian regimes.” Instead, I favor saying: “We are a democracy, and that is why we (the people) must fight–constantly, effectively, and hard–for fairness.”

See also: do we live in a republic or a democracy?; from modest civic reforms to a making a stand for democracy; what does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?; “Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas.”

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civically engaged research in political science #APSA2019

(Washington, DC) Rogers Smith concluded his presidential address at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting with a call for more engaged scholarship, which I would define as co-producing knowledge with people who belong to the communities being studied. Smith said that if political scientists had conducted more civically engaged research with such communities as African Americans after the Civil Rights era, gay Americans after Stonewall, industrial workers after deindustrialization, or rural whites since 2000, the discipline would have been better prepared to understand important political developments that have ensued–and those constituencies would trust political science more.*

Strengthening engaged scholarship in political science is a personal commitment of mine. Thanks to Smith’s leadership, colleagues and I offer the APSA Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) through Tufts’ Tisch College. The first ICER was held last June, and the next one will be in 2020.

I believe that there are few fully documented, peer-reviewed examples of civically engaged projects in political science–especially compared to the large body of such studies in fields like public health. Many political scientists actually conduct civically engaged research, and they do it well. But peer-reviewed publications generally report only the findings of such studies, with hypotheses, data, and conclusions. It’s very rare to document the partnership that produced the research. The best examples that I have found are not peer-reviewed but are put online by institutes committed to the process of partnerships, such as MIT’s GovLab, or by the nonprofit organizations that collaborate with political scientists. There is also some important writing about collaboration, but without much detail about specific projects.

The shortage of fully-documented, peer-reviewed examples means that civically engaged research is not sufficiently valued in the discipline. The work involved in building and maintaining relationships only pays off to the extent that it results in generalizable findings that can be presented as if they came without a partnership.

Another result is that it’s hard to teach engaged scholarship. Appropriate reading assignments are scarce. Many of our readings for ICER did not come from political science. Relatedly, it is hard to discuss some of the serious issues that arise for engaged research in political science, because there is a scarcity of texts that explicitly address such issues.

A third consequence is that the partners who influence political science go unrepresented. One of my great heroes is Elinor Ostrom, whose work richly deserved the Nobel Prize that she won. She was an exemplary partner of many grassroots groups, from Indianapolis to Nepal, and learned a great deal from them. But they are not visible in her published work.

I suspect that one cause is the relatively strong grip of a certain form of positivism in political science, compared to fields like public health, education, and anthropology. The peer-review process focuses on findings and evidence, not process.

Another reason is that civically engaged research in political science presents special challenges. The discipline is not defined by a single methodological toolkit. Political scientists use methods that overlap with those employed in other fields, from the interpretation of classical texts to ethnography to econometrics. What defines the discipline is an explicit focus on power, authority, and governance.

When nonprofit organizations or social movements and networks focus explicitly on power, authority, and governance, we think of them as “political” entities. We readily assign partisan and ideological labels to them. For an academic, it can be tricky to work with groups that are political, let alone partisan. One solution is to downplay the partnership and simply report the findings. (Get-out-the-vote works, for example.)

The problem in a field like public health is that issues of power tend to be overlooked or concealed. But the problem for political science is that those issues are front-and-center.

Engaged research requires such values as loyalty, reciprocity, and trust. A scholar who forms a partnership with a non-academic group must commit (to some extent) to the needs and agendas of that group. If its agenda is political, such a commitment poses at least a potential challenge to the academic’s need to be nonpartisan, intellectually honest, and independent. We witnessed this tension during ICER when an excellent local elected official visited and basically told the political scientists that unless their work advances her agenda, it is part of the problem.

My conclusion is that Smith’s call for more engaged research in political science is an ambitious one. We do have the asset of plenty of political scientists who are quietly involved in exemplary partnerships. We do not–yet–have a sufficient body of explicit examples that help to build knowledge of how to do partnerships well.

*This is my paraphrase based on memory; some of the details may be wrong. See also: The American Political Science Association Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) at Tisch College this summer; engaged political science; scholarship on engaged scholarship; Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies; and conservative engaged scholarship

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courses that count for the Civic Studies major at Tufts, fall 2019

Required Introductory Course:

CVS 0020/PHIL 0020/PS 0020: Introduction to Civic Studies (Brian Schaffer, Peter Levine) (The syllabus from last semester is here, but it will change somewhat.)

Thinking about Justice:

ENG 176/CVS 0110/PJS 176/ENV 176: Earth Matters (Elizabeth Ammons)
CVS 0014/PHIL 24: Introduction to Ethics (Monica Link)
CVS 0018/PS 0041/PHIL 0041: Western Political Thought (Vickie Sullivan)
CVS 0015/REL 0001: Introduction to Religion (Owen Cornwall)
CVS 0210/UEP 0286: Environmental Ethics (Sheldon Krimsky)
PHIL 0092-03/Env 0095-01 Climate Change Ethics (George Smith)
PHIL 0191:03 Seminar: Race and Black Progress (Lionel McPherson)
SOC 188 Seminar: Du Bois’s Sociological Dream (Freeden Oeur)

Social Conflict, Inequality, and Violence:

CVS 0027/SOC 0011: Sociology of Race & Ethnicity (Staff) PS 121: Seminar: Political Culture in Comparative Perspective (Conuelo Cruz)
CVS 0121/SOC 113: Urban Sociology: Global Perspectives on Space, Inequality and Resistance (Anjuli Fahlberg)
CVS 0129/ECON 144: Income Inequality, Poverty, and Economic Justice (Elizabeth Setren)
HIST 109: Decolonization: Race, Empire, Archive (Kris Manjapra)
SOC 112: Criminology (Daanika Gordon)

Civic Action and Social Movements:

ANTH 144: Media of the Middle East (Amahl Bishara)
CVS 0033/REL 0042/HIST 125/AMER 15: Religion and Politics in American History (Heather Curtis)
CVS 0035/PSY 13: Social Psychology (Keith Maddox)
CVS 0131/SOC 106: Political Sociology (Anjuli Fahlberg)
CVS 0132/CSHD 165: Families, Schools, and Child Development (Christine McWayne)
CVS 0133/PS 0118-02: Organizing for Social Change (Daniel LeBlanc & Kenneth Gladston)
ENG 23/CVS 0031: Dissent & Democracy: American Literature to 1900 (Elizabeth Ammons or Nathan Wolff)

Civic Skills:

AMER 0145: Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement (Hilary Binda)
CVS 0049/PHIL 92-02: Philosophy for Children (Susan Russinoff)
CVS 0145/ENV 120: Introduction to Environmental Fieldwork (Staff)
CVS 0147/CSHD 167: Children and Mass Media (Julie Dobrow)
CVS 150-04: Dialogue, Identity, and Civic Action (Jonathan Garlick)
CVS 0170/CSHD 143-02: Developing Leaders Who Make a Difference: Leadership in Civic Context (Diane Ryan)
CVS 0183/UEP 0130/PJS 0131: Negotiation, Mediation, and Conflict Resolution (Robert Burdick)
ED 164: Education for Peace and Justice (Deborah Donahue-Keegan)
ENV 170/CVS 0149: Environmental Data Analysis and Visualization (Kyle Monahan)
EXP 0079: EPIIC: Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship
PJS 50: Science and Civic Action (Jonathan Garlick)

Internship Seminar:

CVS 099: A required internship. This includes a weekly 2.5 hour class with graded assignments and a final project.

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on gaffes as evidence of sincere beliefs

Among the many millions of words that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton uttered over the past decade are these two statements. Obama: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion …” Clinton: “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” These remarks are widely interpreted as evidence of the politicians’ authentic, private opinions about millions of Americans who are rural, white, lower-income, and tend to vote conservatively.

This method of analysis is practiced across the spectrum. In the midst of a long forum in Iowa, Joe Biden recently said that “poor kids” are “just as talented as white kids,” apparently revealing a hidden worldview in which poor = people of color and success = whiteness.

Michael Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Kinsley later clarified that the gaffe reveals “the truth about what he or she is really thinking” (not the truth about the world).

If you are trained to think in terms of representative samples, this method seems invalid. Take a large random sample of, say, Barack Obama’s public comments, and you will not find any pejorative comments about rural Americans. The “cling-to-guns” remark is constantly quoted because it is a statistical outlier. As Kinsley asked (criticizing his own concept): “why should something a politician says by accident — and soon wishes he hadn’t, whether true or not — automatically be taken as a better sign of his or her real thinking than something he or she says on purpose?”

In fact, there is a plausible theoretical reason to interpret gaffes as evidence of sincere beliefs. Let us assume that many individuals hold stable private beliefs about important topics, such as white rural voters or children of color. They realize that some of these beliefs are best kept to themselves. What they believe is unpopular and likely to be condemned. So they exercise mental discipline to block themselves from saying what they believe–most of the time. The problem is that we also have a tendency to state what we do believe. That tendency sometimes defeats the individual’s self-censorship, and out pops a gaffe.

You would not expect a sincere but impolitic belief to be common in the speaker’s discourse. It would not appear with statistical frequency, because self-censorship is pretty effective. But an anomaly is revealing. Why did Biden utter his remark about poor kids and white kids unless, in his private thoughts, poor = minority?

I summarize this theory because I think it can be valid in some cases, and I would not rule out the practice of pouncing on gaffes. But it is worth considering some alternative theoretical frameworks:

Perhaps in addition to some stable private beliefs, we also hold many unstable beliefs–ideas that come and go, that we half-believe or only occasionally believe, that we believe even though we also believe their opposite, that we adopted habitually early on but have sincerely rejected since then, or that we believe until we consider their logical implications, at which point we drop them.

Perhaps there are other common speech acts besides stating a sincere belief or not stating that belief. For example: trying out an idea that you’re not sure is true, saying something that you disbelieve by pure accident, saying something purely for its rhetorical affect, or saying something that you half-believe because you’re trying to make some other point that is salient for you at the time.

Perhaps what we believe is rarely stable because we are strongly influenced by the immediate context, by what we happen to notice at the moment from amid the Jamesian “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the world.

Perhaps conversation is highly relational, so that often what we’re doing when we talk is responding to a discussion partner. Responsiveness can turn into hypocrisy when we say one thing to one audience and a different thing to a different audience, just to win their favor. But responsiveness is also a virtue. Particularly if you consider a topic that isn’t politically or ethically loaded, it can be praiseworthy to be able to say different things to different people, just because you care about them.

To the extent that these theories obtain, deriving information from a gaffe is invalid.

See also character understood in network terms; stability of character; responsiveness as a virtue; marginalizing odious views: a strategy.

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conservative engaged scholarship

For the sake of argument, let’s define “engaged scholarship” as …

The organized production of knowledge by groups that include some professional academic researchers and some people who are not academics and belong to the communities, populations, or organizations being studied.

I don’t have a representative sample of projects of engaged scholarship, but I would venture these generalizations:

  1. Often the topics are issues that are priorities on the left or center-left, such as health disparities, access to government services, or environmental damage.
  2. Often the communities that participate in the research lean left: low-income urban neighborhoods, migrant farmworkers, etc. (In 2004, I met with Penn State faculty interested in community-based research and observed that most did not work in their surrounding communities–conservative central Pennsylvania–but drove to Philadelphia to do their engaged research.)
  3. Yet some of the underlying values of this approach can be seen as conservative: a preference for the local and the nonprofit/voluntary sector over Big Government, deep appreciation for local traditions, and a tendency to do something directly about problems rather than trying to win elections to change laws. I’ve even argued that the most authentically Burkean conservative field in the US today is the field that connects universities with communities through service, community-based research, and other partnerships.

Especially given the third point, you’d expect to see conservative engaged scholarship. The academic researchers might vote Republican instead of Democratic or Green, they would work in and with communities that preferred Trump over Clinton, and they would study issues like taxes, regulation, zoning, and abortion (as problems).

But I am hard pressed to find any examples. There are cases in which conservative adolescents conduct research on issues of their choice and scholars support them. But in those cases, the scholars’ focus is usually on the kids and their learning, not the issue that the students have chosen to address.

Why the dearth of conservative engaged scholarship? I can imagine five answers:

  1. It’s not missing; I just haven’t found it. Here is one program at Ashland University that might qualify, and maybe there are more.
  2. Conservatives are simply scarce in the social sciences and relevant humanities (especially in fields like public health and education, in which applied work is most common), and this scarcity explains why not many conservatives do engaged scholarship.
  3. Conservatives have found other rich veins to mine: quantitative economic modeling, Austrian School economics (which is not at all quantitative but is favorable to libertarian principles), constitutional law, and some domains of intellectual history. They’re busy there.
  4. Despite not liking government as much as (some) liberals do, conservatives are more aware of its power, including at the local level. Therefore, they are skeptical that working with a local nonprofit on a research study will make nearly as much difference as, say, running for office or advocating ideas that win elections.
  5. Principled conservatives haven’t yet figured out that they should embrace engaged scholarship. They should develop experience and exemplary cases that strengthen conservative voices in engaged scholarship.

I hope that the last point is true, because it would be good for the gatherings and networks of engaged scholars if they included more conservative concerns, populations, and thinkers.

See also: America’s authentic conservative movement; the left has become Burkean; ideology in academia and elsewhere; trying to keep myself honest; scholarship on engaged scholarship; engaged political science; loyalty in intellectual work; the state humanities councils, connecting the public to scholarship;

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Garret Hardin and the extreme right

Garret Hardin’s 1968 Science article entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been cited more than 40,000 times. It is appropriately influential, since the problem he analyzed is pervasive and profound. The example of global warming could kill us all, as could the example with which he began his article: the nuclear arms race.

Hardin saw ubiquitous “tragedies,” situations defined by the “solemnity of the relentless working of things,” “the inevitableness of destiny,” and “the futility of escape” (quoting Alfred North Whitehead). That stance provoked Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues to identify solutions. In place of the tragedy of the commons, Ostrom observed a drama that may end as either a comedy or a tragedy, depending on how we act. I find her response to Hardin extraordinarily important.

Several recent articles have explored Hardin’s apparent connection to radical anti-immigration campaigns. These articles have been prompted by the El Paso murderer’s writings (which have environmentalist echoes) plus the recent death of John Tanton, the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Tanton was inspired by Hardin, who served on the FAIR board. See, for example, Matto Mildenberger, “The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons (subtitled: “The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong”) and Alexander C. Kaufman, “The El Paso Manifesto: Where Racism and Eco-Facism Meet.”

I don’t have extra insights into Hardin and have not directly evaluated the charges in these articles. But I have long wondered about the strange normative claims in the “Tragedy of the Commons” article.

For instance, at one point, Hardin considers whether a system of private property plus legal inheritance is just. He answers that it is not, because “legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance–that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more.” Instead, in our system, “an idiot can inherit millions,” which we “must admit” is unjust, although it does help to prevent a tragedy of the commons by protecting property rights (p. 1247).

Hardin says that this conclusion about justice follows from his training as a biologist. But biology cannot demonstrate that the biologically fittest deserve the most property. Biology should not yield normative conclusions at all. From the perspective of science–the study of nature–there is no justice, not even a reason to prefer environmental sustainability over a tragedy of the commons.

One reason that some people try to derive ethics from biology is naturalism: they posit that there can be no truths about right and wrong, only truths about nature that science uncovers. Therefore, we should replace any ethical claims with scientific ones. In my view, this is misguided, but it isn’t necessarily pernicious; plenty of people who hold decent values are naturalists, in this sense of the word.

A different reason is some kind of enthusiasm for Darwinian nature, understood as a realm of power and selection-of-the-fittest, in contrast to our debased societies that coddle the weak. This is not naturalism but evil. Reading “The Tragedy of the Commons” many times, I always assumed that Hardin was a naturalist, but now I wonder if he was at least tinged by evil.

See also: Seeing Like a Citizen: The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to “Civic Studies”; against inevitability; is all truth scientific truth?; and does naturalism make room for the humanities?.

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