Frontiers of Democracy Conference: The Emerging Agenda and Logistics

Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University since 2019.

Please hold the dates for this summer’s conference (June 13-15), register and purchase tickets, and consider proposing one or more sessions for the conference.

The deadline for session proposals was April 16, and we received many strong proposals, but we can still accept proposals by April 22 at midnight.

On this year’s agenda so far:

  • An interactive plenary session on “Prime Time Propaganda: Using Narrative, Dialogue, and Facilitation Techniques to Confront Violent Forms of Communication” with Jessie Landerman and Keisha E. McKenzie from Everyday Democracy 
  • Many concurrent interactive discussions or trainings, including sessions that introduce Baha’i and Buddhist approaches, efforts to lower the voting age and pass Equal Rights Amendments, community responses to violent incidents, democracy in schools and colleges, media training, and various specific methods for community conversations.

the humanities as civic education

Heads bent over copies of the same text, young people discuss how the author presents matters of high moral import. Their teacher is a facilitator who asks thoughtful questions and demonstrates reading with attention and care.

This is how I was introduced to college, through the Directed Studies “great books” program at Yale in the 1980s. Similar methods persist and are being revived at institutions like Stanford, which has recently enacted a Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirement.

The approach dates back at least to 14th-century Italy, when Cicero’s phrase studia humanitatis became the name for a curriculum and pedagogy designed mainly for future political leaders. We might render his phrase (from Pro Archia 2:3) as the “studies appropriate for making people humane or urbane.” Gradually, a humanista became the word for a tutor–often a layman–who helped gentlemen read literature, history, and moral philosophy in order to become eloquent and virtuous. This is the origin of the “humanities,” a word that has been closely associated with notions of civic leadership and civic virtue.

I appreciate this humanistic style of civic education and would support using it more widely. By the way, there is no good reason to restrict the assigned texts to a portion of the world labeled “The West” or to label the curriculum “Western Civilization” (using a phrase that’s not very old). Texts can come from anywhere, although it makes sense to choose traditions or dialogues that extend across time. For example: from the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels to Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Or from the Republic to al-Farabi to Utopia to Rousseau to the Communist Manifesto to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

However, this version of humanistic civic education conflicts with several other plausible educational theories.

One rival idea is that the humanities are cumulative research programs that benefit from specialization. On this account, we don’t want a person who wrote a thesis about Plath to teach Plato. Plato should be taught by a scholar who knows Greek, the original context, and the recent literature and its interpretive problems. Reading texts from across time and space is amateurish. It extracts the texts from their contexts and teaches students that they are free to form opinions without doing much homework.

Another rival idea assumes that citizenship is really about addressing current social problems. In that case, the most important intellectual skill is understanding and applying relevant empirical information. Instead of reading Plato or Plath, students should create literature reviews of recent social science and learn how to assess abstracts, methodology sections, and results critically. Quantitative skills become more important; interpreting texts, less so.

A third idea is that people should prepare for responsible civic engagement by learning a set of concepts. We can debate the list, but it might include separation of powers, opportunity costs, social stratification, and habeas corpus, among (many) others. Maybe students won’t remember long lectures or textbook assignments about these topics, in which case a more engaging pedagogy would be more effective. But the point is to transfer such concepts to the learners.

A fourth idea is that civic learning must be deeply experiential because it is primarily about interpersonal relationships, practical knowledge, and an appreciation of one’s specific communities. It cannot come primarily from books. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey are famous proponents of the idea that we should learn the arts of citizenship from civic engagement outside the classroom.

It’s tempting to endorse all five of these ideas, but they trade off, especially given limited time and resources.

See also: core curricula without the concept of the West; “The world wants the humanities”; the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)–from 2013;

Jonathan Healey, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689

(Palo Alto) I recommend Healey’s 2023 history of 17th-century England as an important and enjoyable work.

I grew up thinking about this topic, since my Dad was a scholar of English intellectual life in the 1600s and he regularly taught British political history.

In that century, England was on a path toward global power and influence and was already forming the colonial societies that later became the USA, the Irish Republic, and the Anglophone Caribbean. England also experienced the ferment of revolution, radical political and religious ideas, and the Scientific Revolution. Key interpretive questions, such as the causes of the Civil War and the originality of the early Enlightenment, have long been contested; and the rival interpretations of Whig liberals, Marxists, evangelical Christians, and others have implications for the present. The events of 1640-1690 cast long shadows, and I wanted to get one current interpretation of them.

Healey meets my criteria for good historical writing. First, he makes broad points but is not locked onto a few reductive theses. He tends to emphasize the cultural aspects of the Civil War, particularly the clash between radical puritanism and traditional forms of recreation and worship that the Puritans sought to ban. This explanation may compete with political or economic accounts, but Healey doesn’t exclude a range of evidence as he makes a case for what he calls a “culture war.”

I was left thinking that it was unfortunate that a culture war coincided with the effervescence of republican ideas, because the backlash to puritans’ religious reforms may have prevented them from building a durable republic with a broad base of support. However, perhaps 17th-century political radicalism needed religious inspiration.

Second, Healey chooses stories with vivid protagonists to make serious points. For example, his title comes from a science-fiction novella of the same name that Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1666. Cavendish is a fascinating character, and Healey relates her life for several pages. But he chooses his stories to illustrate general patterns, not to entertain with zany anecdotes or to present historical figures as strange and colorful (as popular historians often do).

Finally, Healey documents facts, quotes, interpretations, and stories by citing a large number of primary and secondary sources. Although he wears his learning lightly, I felt in safe hands, since he has obviously read widely and carefully. This period is very well documented, compared to earlier times, and Healey takes advantage of the evidence. (For example, weekly and daily publications devoted to political news originated during the year 1641 and then proliferated manically.)

I learned much from The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, but a few larger points stand out for me.

I was surprised by the scale and cruel destructiveness of the Civil War. I knew about the set-piece battles but not the massacres.

I see more clearly how the intense political debates of the 1650s morphed into the intellectual debates and innovations of the Restoration period–the English Revolution shifting into the Scientific Revolution once many thinkers became disillusioned with political conflict.

I hadn’t realized the extent to which England developed economically from 1600 to 1700–with slavery serving an essential role in the nation’s substantial growth and development.

Healey doesn’t dwell on the following point, but he provides support for it. I would describe England in 1600 as a country with a monarch but very little national government. The government could not field a standing army or collect taxes from a broad spectrum of the society; it didn’t even have a rough idea how many people, farms, and businesses lay within its borders. One reason for high rates of violence was a lack of capacity for social control. Each Stuart monarch struggled with parliaments because the only way to obtain enough revenue to project power was to persuade the big landowners and towns to provide it by consent, although sometimes a king would amass enough money to rule for a time without the legislature.

In contrast, the England of 1700 had a government with considerable capacity. As Healey notes, it occupied the former location of the royal palace at Whitehall, while the monarchs moved west to St. James and Kensington. The government had officers, employees, and statistics. This is the fundamental reason that the monarchy was now much less significant and on it way to irrelevance.

See also: civility as equality; introducing republicanism; the Dutch secret; the oscillation between dictatorship and parliamentary institutions (a game theory model)

What was Nietzsche doing?

I enjoyed guest-teaching a course on Leo Strauss last evening that enrolls an extraordinary group of students. Deeply steeped in political philosophy–and especially Nietzsche–they are able to cite Nietzschean texts by heart, with references.

I had assigned a selection from Will to Power for this session because, in my early work (and even in a roman-a-clef), I presented Strauss as thoroughly Nietszchean. As we discussed the earlier philosopher, I asked–without premeditation–what we think he was up to. Was Nietzsche …

  1. A therapist
  2. A political actor
  3. An artist
  4. A philosopher with views
  5. A scholar

Any forced-choice question about a major thinker is reductive, but I recommend this one to provoke conversation.

Students provided some alternatives that were not on my impromptu list, such as “a recruiter of philosophers.” For what it’s worth, I would choose c. (an artist), while recognizing that a. and e. are also true, to a degree. I am not so sure that Nietzsche was political, in even the loosest sense of that word; in other words, I am skeptical that he wrote to change society. And I don’t think he had philosophical views, in the standard way, because his core doctrines were meant to be self-refuting. I think that Nietzsche wrote to create beautiful, original, and formally fascinating works, in which the author is also a character.

See also: Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness

applied ethics need not mean applying ethical systems

Recently, hearing a distinguished technologist talk about the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI), I recognized a familiar style. People in a given technical field realize that they face an ethical issue. They turn to the relevant academic discipline (philosophy), and they think that they discern a set of available ethical “systems.” These options include at least utilitarianism and Kantianism/deontology. They apply each system to the issue at hand and explore its apparent conclusions. The various systems seem to disagree about at least some cases, and the analysts conclude that ethical questions are hard and unresolved and that people who happen to start from different premises will probably reach different conclusions. The last slide of the PowerPoint is a head-scratcher about the difficulty of ethical reasoning.

I suspect that these “systems” look authoritative because they have been discussed in vast numbers of peer-reviewed publications. If you want to mention deontology, you can cite Kant (1788) and innumerable subsequent works. For utilitarianism, you have Bentham (1789) and its successors. (See Stahl 2021 as just one example.) In a technocratic world, this form of authority seems weighty. You are not just expressing a personal opinion if you can mention a book that has thousands of citations.

The mental model behind this kind of analysis also resembles technical forms of reasoning. The various philosophical systems are seen as very general and internally consistent premises that generate conclusions algorithmically. Ethics is treated as a Normal Science.

To be fully satisfactory, a system’s premises should apply to all cases. Trolley-problems and similar thought-experiments are fascinating because they suggest that the general premises of different systems conflict in select cases. Different algorithms yield different results. The methodological assumption is that analyzing such exotic thought-experiments should clarify principles that will then apply universally. Since this method doesn’t seem to have succeeded (yet), the analyst is entitled to conclude that ethics is unresolved. Hence the last slide of the presentation is about not knowing what to do.

It is often acknowledged that there are more than two or three ethical views for which we can provide fancy citations. What about Thomism, Stoicism, Marxism (of various flavors), feminism, the Five Precepts of Buddhism, Confucianism, African “Sage Philosophy” as explored by H. Odera Oruka (1990), deep ecology, Nietzsche, Levinas, etc. etc.? The notion that there are two or three available systems has a specific history in secular, 20th-century, Anglophone philosophy departments, and it was always controversial even there.

Then again, when people extend the list of available philosophies, often they reach even more relativist conclusions. If “systems” from distant times and places disagree, then surely there can be no right answers. Now the PowerPoint really ends with a head-scratcher.

But in order to conduct this kind of analysis, one must assume that very general premises should apply across all relevant cases. In other words, the appropriate units of analysis are broad generalizations. It is either right or wrong that we should maximize aggregate welfare or that we should treat people as ends rather than means.

One of the leading systems, deontology, may not purport to generate guidance about specific cases. In the Shadow of God (2022) Michael Rosen gives an up-to-date argument that Kant did not intend for his principles to answer questions of applied ethics. If that’s true, then it’s a bit odd to treat utilitarianism and Kantianism as rival “systems.” Utilitarianism might even be the only available philosophy that can really work like an algorithm, and only in some of its forms.

If you are a particularist, you believe that generalizations are not the appropriate units of analysis. What is right or wrong is the specific act, not the generalization. Most people aren’t true particularists, but many are somewhat leery of pure abstraction. We presume that general ethical statements can have some validity and value but that generalizations rarely settle particular cases.

I like Jonathan Dancy’s aesthetic analogy: the best object of judgment is a painting, not a feature (like a splotch of red paint) that recurs in many paintings. Aesthetic judgment is holistic, and the whole is the work of art. Likewise, ethical judgment is often about a whole ethical situation that has many features, not about each feature taken abstractly.

One irony is that applied ethics derives its authority from the academic discipline of philosophy, yet not very many current philosophy professors apply ethical “systems” to cases. I think that approach comes most naturally to technologists who expect reasoning to be algorithmic, whereas philosophers are often humanists who prefer close readings and thick-description.

The applied ethics that I admire most is much more attentive to the empirical and pragmatic details of specific cases, much more closely engaged with the dilemmas of practitioners, more focused on real situations instead of thought-experiments, and more open to normative insights from a range of sources (literature, history, folklore …). It aims to address problems, not to provoke skepticism. And it accepts responsibility for its own consequences.

My favorite applied ethicists work in the world (almost always with collaborators) and are willing to reflect on whether the outcomes are good or bad. Their final PowerPoint slide says: “This is what we’re building, what we hope to accomplish, and why. What do you think about it?”

See also why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; how we use Kant today; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life.