Author Archives: Peter Levine

how to save the Enlightenment Ideal

If there is such a thing as the “Enlightenment Ideal,” it says that individuals should hold general, publicly articulable, and correct moral principles that, in turn, guide all their opinions, statements, and actions. That is a view that–with some variations–Kant, Madison, J.S. Mill, and many others of their era explicitly defended. None of those writers was naive about the impact of “prejudice [and] voluntary ignorance” (Mill), “accident and force” (Madison), or “laziness and cowardice” (Kant) on actual people’s thought and behavior, but they presumed that ideals could have causal power, shaping actions. Reasons were supposed to be motives.

That assumption has seemed to recede into implausibility as evidence has accumulated about the scant impact of reasons or values on actions. It seems that people cannot articulate consistent moral reasons for their opinions. We choose our moral principles mainly to rationalize our decisions after we have made them.*

Scholars who reflect on this evidence seem either to dismiss the relevance of morality entirely or to defend a different model of the moral self. This alternative model presumes that our intuitive, non-articulable, not-fully-conscious, private reactions to situations can be valid, can affect our behavior, and can be improved by appropriate upbringings and institutions. The new model retains some Enlightenment optimism about the importance of morality and education, but at the cost of treating moral judgment as intuitive and non-discursive.

I would propose that we misinterpret the empirical findings and miss their normative implications if we rely on a dichotomy of conscious, logical, articulable reasons versus unconscious, emotional, private intuitions. There is more than one kind of valid, publicly articulable reason.

The Enlightenment thinkers cited above and their skeptical critics seem to share the view that a good moral reason must be highly general and abstract. They have in mind a kind of flow chart in which each of one’s concrete choices, preferences, and actions should be implied by a more general principle, which should (in turn) flow from an even more general one, until we reach some kind of foundation. This is not only how Kant thinks about the Categorical Imperative and its implications, but also how J.S. Mill envisions the “fundamental principle of morality” (utilitarianism) and the “subordinate principles” that we need to “apply it.” Consistency and completeness are hallmarks of a good overall moral structure.

But many people actually think in highly articulate, public, reflective ways about matters other than general principles and their implications. They think, argue, and publicly defend views about particular people, communities, situations, and places. They do not merely have intuitions about concrete things; they form reasonable moral opinions of them. But their opinions are not arranged in a hierarchical structure with general principles implying concrete results. Sometimes one concrete opinion implies another. Or a concrete opinion implies a general rule. That may not be post hoc rationalization but an example of learning from experience.

Moral thinking must be a network of implications that link various principles, judgments, commitments, and interests. We are responsible for forming moral networks out of good elements and for developing coherent (rather than scattered and miscellaneous) networks. But there is no reason to assume that the network should look like an organizational flowchart, with every concrete judgment able to report via a chain of command to more general principles.

I plan to support this argument by comparing two clear and reasonable moral thinkers, John Rawls and Robert Lowell. Both lapsed protestants who were educated in New England prep schools, drafted during World War II, and taught at Harvard, they shared many political views. In his writing, Rawls both endorsed and employed highly abstract moral principles, but Lowell was equally precise and rigorous. His moral thinking was a tight network of associations among concrete characters, events, and situations.

*One summary of the evidence, with an emphasis on sociology, is Stephen Valsey, “Motivation and Justification: A Dual-Process Model of Culture in Action,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 114, no. 6 (May 2009), pp. 1675-1715.

young people and the Osama bin Laden news

Yesterday, I was on KCBS radio news in San Francisco discussing why spontaneous public celebrations of the death of Osama bin Laden seem to draw mainly young adults. (A typical headline is this, from the New York Times: “9/11 Inspires Student Patriotism and Celebration.”) Given the format of drive-time radio news, I just had time to say that today’s 21-year-olds were at an especially impressionable age on 9/11/2001. They were first becoming aware of the big world of news and current events and did not yet have deeply held views. For them, the terror attacks would be especially influential, and Osama bin Laden would loom especially large.

I think that’s true, but in a different setting, I would mention some nuances.

First, it’s interesting that the celebrations were spontaneous and occurred in many different locations simultaneously. That suggests some breadth of interest and passion. Yet only a few thousand people participated, out of roughly 40 million young adults. I am not sure we should draw any generalizations at all.

Second, scholars like to try to distinguish between age effects and cohort effects. An age effect is the result of being at a certain point in one’s life when something happens. For example, people who are eight years old at any given moment in history are less interested in sex than people who are 21 at the same moment. That says nothing about generational differences; it is a pure age effect. A cohort effect is the lasting consequence of going through an event when one was young. For example, people who experienced World War II have differed from other generations all their lives.

In this case, we don’t know whether spontaneously shouting “U-S-A!” when Osama bin Laden was shot is an age effect or a cohort effect. It could be that people who are 21 (and especially if they are male) are always relatively likely to celebrate the violent death of a national enemy. Or it could be that people who were at an impressionable age when 9/11 occurred will always care more than others about the al-Qaeda story. There is not enough data to know which theory is right, if either one is. If I had to guess, I’d bet on an age effect.

There has also been a lot of discussion about a recent Red Cross poll that found: “Nearly 3/5 [of] youth (59%) – compared to 51% of adults – believe there are times when it is acceptable to torture the enemy.” One of the leading explanations is a cohort effect: today’s young people have (supposedly) been exposed to more favorable media depictions of torture than earlier generations were and are thus more likely to favor torture (now and in the future). Again, I’d bet on an age effect. I would guess that support for torture among today’s young cohort will decline, simply as a result of their growing maturity.

Yahoo reported this week that two thirds of the people who searched the web with the phrase “who is osama bin laden?” were teenagers (ages 13-17). This fact has been interpreted to mean that “a goodly number of teenagers don’t know who Osama bin Laden is.” Kevin Drum, in particular, thinks that’s an age effect: teenagers never know much about the news. I am not sure I agree: many kids who entered that search phrase may have been able to identify bin Laden but were looking for a biography or profile–a wise way to understand the news.

Finally, we don’t know much about the motivations and ideologies of the people who spontaneously celebrated. Were they into the dramatic narrative of a bad guy being gunned down by Navy Seals? Were they moved by the attainment of justice? Was their motivation basically patriotic? Or did they seek the “comraderie” of a shared, positive, public experience, as one of my CIRCLE colleagues suggests?

some surprising results from the 2010 NAEP Civics assessment

The headline in The New York Times says: Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis’. Whether that’s how you read the data is a matter of opinion, but I can shed a little light on the source.

The National Assessment in Educational Progress in Civics is our best measure of what students know about civic, legal, and political concepts and facts. It is a no-stakes test of a representative sample of almost 20,000 American students. It assesses knowledge and skills that are relevant to civic participation, but they are fairly academic skills of individuals, not skills that people commonly use in groups. For instance, students may be asked to interpret the text of a speech, but not run a meeting.

The NAEP Civics assessment has been given only sporadically but is now on a regular three-year cycle. I was on the committee responsible for the 2010 assessment and will help again with the 2013 version. I would describe it as a rather hard test which most adults would badly flunk. It is closely tied to academic content in American history and government, so you have to recall quite a few Supreme Court decisions and constitutional principles to do well.

Today, the results were released for 2010. In brief, 4th graders improved their mean scores, whereas scores for 8th and 12th graders did not change. This is interesting because our research has found that time devoted to civics shrank recently in the early grades but not in the later grades, where the number of credits earned in social studies actually rose.

To be specific, time spent on civics or social studies shrank in the first through fifth grades from 1999-2004. (We don’t know what happened after that.) Yet fourth-grade NAEP civics scores rose from 1998 to 2006 and again from 2006 to 2010.

According to the NAEP, 97 percent of twelfth-graders report that they have studied civics or government in high school. That is consistent with other research that finds most kids study the topic. It means that the solution to our concerns about civic knowledge should not be to require civics. It is already being studied. On the other hand, the high dropout rate means that a 12th grade assessment misses almost one third of our young people, and many of the dropouts received little civics education.

A closer look at the 12th grade results shows that most of our graduating seniors can identify an argument made in Marbury v. Madison or explain part of the Fourteenth Amendment. But very few can summarize the views of Reagan and Roosevelt on economics or compare the citizenship requirements of the US to other countries. They seem to score better on questions concerning constitutional and legal issues than on political matters.

youth volunteering rate much higher than in the 1970s and ’80s

At CIRCLE, we often receive questions about the youth volunteering rate today compared to past generations. The following graph, based on Census data, shows that young people are considerably more likely to volunteer than they were in 1974 or 1989, two years when the Census Current Population Survey included a volunteering question that has also been asked annually since 2002. There have been ups and downs in recent years, but the growth compared to 1989 is striking.

volunteering rate for ages 16-19

Data points from 1974 and 1989 were calculated by Grimm, Dietz, Foster-Bey, Reingold, and Nesbit (PDF). Data points since 2002 were calculated by CIRCLE. See more detail on recent years here.

the case for civic renewal

Below are the first paragraphs of a new article by me in the centennial issue of the National Civic Review.* They are also the first paragraphs of a book that is just about complete. I argue that certain types of citizen participation are the only plausible solutions to our deepest and most intractable problems, at this particular stage in our political history. In the book, I then present political strategies for renewing civic engagement against the powerful forces that would rather hold it down.

    We Americans are in a bad mood about our nation and our public life. By two to one, we think that we are heading in the “wrong direction” rather than the “right track.” Unemployment, bankruptcies, bailouts, and other repercussions of the Great Recession are surely on our minds, but our pessimistic mood started well before that. A majority of Americans said they were satisfied with the nation’s course briefly at the conclusion of the First Gulf War and shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At all other times during the last 20 years, most Americans have been dissatisfied.

    Perhaps this is because we face an accumulation of profound problems. They have been called “wicked problems” because better policies alone could not fix them (although our bad policies surely make matters worse). Our problems interlock, so that each one can be seen as a symptom of another. They are entangled with cultural norms and personal behavior as well as conflicting rights and limited resources. Any of the purported solutions could do more damage than good. How to define and diagnose our problems is fundamentally controversial, inseparable from our diverse religious and philosophical commitments. Advancing some of our interests and values would set other Americans back. For those who identify with particular interests and ideologies, watching our opponents express themselves in public can be deeply frustrating. For those who feel little stake in national debates, the bitter controversy itself is alienating.

    I do not claim that our condition is worse than it usually is. On the contrary, we are richer, safer, and more respectful of rights than we were half a century ago—and far more so than when Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office. A consistent theme in American politics is the Jeremiad, a lament that we have suddenly lost our way and face imminent destruction. James Fallows notes that “only six years after the Arbella brought John Winthrop to Massachusetts, a Congregationalist minister was lamenting the lost golden age of the colony, asking parishioners, ‘Are all [God’s] kindnesses forgotten? all your promises forgotten?” After four centuries of such Jeremiads, we should doubt that our current problems are unprecedented. The end is not nigh.

    But I do claim that the obligation to address our problems falls on us—American citizens—more profoundly than in the past. Our political institutions are inadequate to address our accumulated problems; and the prevailing ideologies offer no plausible solutions.

*Peter Levine, “The Public and Our Problems,” National Civic Review, Volume 100, Issue 1, pages 42–50, Spring 2011