Category Archives: philosophy

Buddhism as philosophy

Let’s say that a religion consists of beliefs–and, often, practices–that many people consider deeply important and that unite them as a community.

By this definition (derived from Durkheim), communism and some forms of patriotism may be religions, but there is no such thing as a solitaire religion. For one thing, most believers value unity and belonging. In the Abrahamic faiths, professions of faith are singular (“I accept Jesus as my personal savior …”), and an adherent could prefer–or be forced–to worship alone. Nevertheless, the basis of an Abrahamic religion is a revelation made to a group of people who formed a community when they accepted the revealed truths. To believe is to join that community. In other traditions, it may make even less sense to be a solo believer.

Finally, many religions claim–to various degrees–to be comprehensive and final. They offer conclusive answers to all the most important questions. This feature helps them to unify their believers and to occupy a major portion of their adherents’ inner lives.

In contrast, let’s call a philosophy a list of beliefs–and the relations among them–that a person arrives at by reflection. One’s reflection need not be rational as opposed to emotional, but it is personal. Everyone can arrive at a different philosophy. If we are wise, we assume that the beliefs on our own list are provisional and incomplete. When we bring our ideas into a public space, we expect disagreement, which may sometimes cause us to adjust our ideas.

By these definitions, a specific belief may play an important role within one or more religions and also one or many philosophies. The belief has the same content but a different function.

Over its long history, Buddhism has been a philosophy for many and a religion for many more. Ideas attributed to the Buddha and his influential followers have served to define and unite believers and have been deeply interwoven with other aspects of the believers’ shared cultures, such as their art, music, and ritual. In that sense, we can talk about Tibetan Buddhism or Buddhist architecture–cultural categories.

Meanwhile, individuals from diverse backgrounds have sometimes assessed ideas from Buddhism and have adopted one or more of them into their own thinking, often in an eclectic fashion, without considering them complete or final, and without necessarily feeling any sense of belonging. The latter is Buddhism as philosophy.

The philosophical approach involves assessing each belief associated with Buddhism, asking whether it coheres with your own experience and your previous reflections and with the other ideas on the list of Buddhist beliefs. This process actually requires a prior step: deciding which ideas are important to Buddhism–a sensitive task, given the variety of views held over more than two millennia of development. The outcome is a list of zero or more ideas that you feel you should provisionally endorse, along with any the other ideas from any other sources that you also hold. For example, I would ask whether each Buddhist idea coheres with major findings of 21st century natural science.

By the way, there is some textual evidence that this is how the Buddha wanted to be received, although I don’t know whether that evidence is historically valid. In any case, I would start the philosophical analysis with the Four Noble Truths, which are fundamental across the whole tradition.

The first is the truth of suffering. It is not wrong to try to phrase this as a proposition, in which case some candidates might be: “Suffering is inevitable,” or “Suffering is universal,” or “Suffering is intrinsic to life.” You can also consider which propositions are incompatible with it, such as “Everything happens for a good reason and works out well in the end,” or “Only people who deserve to suffer ultimately experience suffering.” Buddhism rejects such claims.

But there is a good reason that the noble truths are not usually presented as propositions. To endorse the first noble truth is to feel the significance and ubiquity of suffering: not only one’s own but also everyone else’s. The truth is closely connected to the mental state of compassion. To endorse it is to be compassionate, and vice-versa. The philosophical question, then, is whether such universal compassion is virtuous and valid.

The second noble truth is the truth of the origin of suffering. Spelled out in propositional form, the origin is said to be craving, desire, or attachment (tanha). This is certainly a claim that one can reason about. Does desire inevitably yield suffering? If so, why? Is the reason metaphysical, or is it a feature of human psychology? What kind of emotion (or action?) qualifies as tanha? These are issues within Buddhist philosophy and worthy of inquiry. But, again, the second truth is not typically phrased as a proposition because it is equally important to try it out. Does it seem right that craving, or clinging, or some such emotional state is involved (often or always) in the suffering that one feels and observes?

The third truth is the truth of the cessation of suffering. Removing the cause, which is craving, will remove the suffering itself. This claim is philosophically contestable. Assuming that craving does cause suffering, are we confident that ceasing to crave will remedy the damage already done? Is a life without craving and without suffering a good life? Is it the best life? Again, I think these are questions within Buddhism, not critical of the tradition.

The fourth truth is the path to the cessation of suffering. In medical terms, we have already explored the condition (suffering), the diagnosis (craving), and the cure (ceasing to crave). We need a prescription to accomplish the cure. The prescription is a set of right actions and right thoughts, often spelled out in detail. The specific content is contested and has varied within the tradition, but we can identify some typical elements.

First, right action is moderate. It is the Buddha’s “middle way” between asceticism and self-indulgence. You can’t remove the cause of suffering either by rejecting all pleasurable experiences or by filling your stream of experience with pleasure. You are wiser to put temporary pleasures in their proper place within a life that is ordered and responsible and attainable by actual human beings. By filling your life with this kind of moderation, you occupy time that would otherwise be colonized by immoderate will, which would worsen suffering.

Second, right action helps other sentient beings but without ignoring the actor’s condition. In Owen Flanagan’s phrase, the ideal is “equanimity-in-community.” By being a helpful part of a community while also tending to one’s own mental equilibrium, one fills the time that would otherwise be occupied with indulgence or asceticism, which would worsen suffering. This balance between individual and community complements the moderation of the middle way.

Third, right thinking (and right action) must be consistent with the noble truths. To start with, the first truth implies–or actually is–compassion; therefore, good thought and action must be compassionate. The more mental space we occupy with compassion, the less will fill with craving. The desire that others escape suffering has the unique feature of not causing the desirer to suffer. And if we are truly compassionate, we must act in others’ benefit. Emotion and action come together.

Fourth, right thinking reflects correct metaphysics, which has at least two important features.

The doctrine of no-self holds that there is no autonomous, durable (let alone immortal) self, the kind of thing that might be labeled a “soul” in other traditions. Introspection identifies many specific thoughts and experiences that arrive in a rapid flow. It does not ever identify the self that “has” these experiences, because there is no such thing. Per the second noble truth, the impulse to find a self and to preserve it amid the flux is a form of craving that inevitably yields suffering. Really believing the doctrine of no-self helps to accomplish the cure promised in the fourth truth. Apart from anything else, it makes one much less concerned about oneself, thus leaving more space for compassion.

The doctrine of dependent origination holds that everything happens as the inevitable outcome of the conditions that were in place before it. This is very much like a core metaphysical assumption of modern science. It rejects the notion of a “final” cause (in Aristotle’s sense). Things do not happen because of some independent end or purpose. For instance, I may believe I am raising my hand in order to get attention, but the real cause is the firing of neurons, which happens because of prior neurons’ firing and other physical circumstances. A related doctrine is impermanence: everything inevitably changes.

We should believe in dependent origination and impermanence because they are true and also because they help us on the path from suffering. Believing in final causes–that things happen for good reasons–and in permanent objects of value causes frustration because we constantly observe bad outcomes and change. Instead, we should acknowledge that things just happen. That includes suffering, which arises because of prior conditions, but especially because of prior expressions of craving. Compassionate action interrupts that causal cycle.

What about two famous doctrines that seem much less compatible with modern science and with the moral experiences of modernity: reincarnation and karma?

One way to interpret these ideas would be as background assumptions from the cultural milieu of the Buddha and his South Asian followers. Other Indian traditions also teach karma and reincarnation. In the Mediterranean region, the comparable background assumptions were the survival of the soul after bodily death and the existence of an afterlife. We don’t find it especially interesting when an ancient Mediterranean thinker assumes that souls go to the underworld. We could likewise attribute karma and reincarnation to the cultural milieu and not take these ideas seriously as core ideas of Buddhism–much as we might dismiss the classical Buddhist list of four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), which they shared with Mediterranean peoples. To be a Buddhist today does not imply belief in the four elements, and maybe it doesn’t imply karma and reincarnation.

A different response has the advantage of being more interesting. After all, the popular summaries of both karma and reincarnation contradict major points summarized earlier in this post. If there is no-self, how can the soul transmigrate to a different body after death? And if everything happens through dependent origination, why should good actions always yield benefits to the person who acts well? Why would the universe be set up so nicely?

Perhaps we should revise these doctrines to make them more compatible with the rest of Buddhist thought. In fact, the best any of us can do is to adopt the background material of a culture and revise it in the light of our own best thinking to create a framework that illuminates something about the reality of an existence that is too complex for human beings to grasp in full. In that spirit, let’s reconstruct what a believer in the four noble truths, no-self, and dependent origination would make of reincarnation and karma.

I think reincarnation becomes a doctrine of continuous rebirth. There is no self, just a stream of experiences. In that sense, the self is constantly being reincarnated. Furthermore, most of our experiences are not original to us. We feel things that others have felt before and that still others will feel after we are gone. Even the words we inwardly use to name these experiences belong to languages spoken before and after our time. Thus the components of our experience travel from organism to organism, and the process of rebirth outlasts the natural lives of individuals. This theory is but crudely expressed by the literal idea of reincarnation.

And I think karma gains an ethical gloss. It is not that some cosmic scorekeeper gives us positive points for good behavior and demerit points for bad behavior and calibrates our suffering accordingly (in our current and future lives). We are not literally paying the price for bad actions that we performed in past lives, for there is no self that carries over from yesterday to today, let alone from one death to another. Rather, there is a tendency for craving to cause suffering and for compassionate thoughts and acts to reduce it. Craving is like any other factor in a deterministic world of cause-and-effect: its influence tends to ripple out and affect other people. The best way to block it is to exercise compassion instead. Ideally, that will radiate out positively. In this sense, each of us experiences the total of the good and bad karma of many past lives. There is, however, no one-to-one correspondence between a specific past life and a specific current one.

If these glosses are correct, why are they not communicated more clearly and prominently, at the expense of the literal versions of karma and reincarnation? Here the “three vehicles” idea from Mahayana Buddhism is helpful. We can reduce suffering in several different ways, and any way that works is valuable. If it helps to believe that every bad action accrues to the actor and causes suffering later on–in the next life if not in this life–then that is a welcome result. One who believes this theory will strive to be compassionate and will thus tend to suffer less. However, this theory isn’t Really True. You might instead believe that everyone should be compassionate for its own sake even though the outcomes are uncontrollable and determined. This theory has the advantage of being more philosophically defensible, but it is not very inspiring–except for the wisest among us. So people need a choice of vehicles that they can ride on the path away from suffering.

None of this is meant to be original–it just represents my personal effort to explore some aspects of Buddhism as philosophy. If it has any value, it is as an example of a worthwhile exercise.

It is not final. I assent to several of the Buddhist theories because of my other experiences and my commitment to contemporary science, but experiences and scientific findings change. Also, I did not discuss in any detail my skepticism about some of the theories.

It is not comprehensive. What I have written here says nothing about political institutions or social justice, epistemology, or aesthetics. It is all about ethics and metaphysics (and incomplete on those topics). Of course, thinkers who identify as Buddhists have developed political, epistemological, and aesthetic ideas, but that doesn’t mean that their ideas are implied by the core tenets of Buddhism. If we treat Buddhist ideas as philosophical, we would expect any list to be incomplete and for specific ideas to appear in various philosophical structures that also draw on other sources. Comprehensiveness is impossible.

Finally, the result is not redemptive or salvific. The advice may be good, and you may tend to benefit if you follow it, but you will not be able to honor it completely enough to banish suffering. (It is said that the Buddha experienced headaches even after his enlightenment.) On the other hand, it is possible to envision a person who has followed these principles thoroughly enough to have overcome existential dread. That requires no suspension of the usual physical or metaphysical rules. It is a psychological accomplishment, and it offers as much consolation as one would derive from the news that there was a life after death.

See also: the grammar of the four Noble Truths; freedom of the will or freedom from the will? (comparing Harry Frankfurt and Buddhism); how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; scholasticism in global context; what secular people can get out of theology; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives); rebirth without metaphysics; is everyone religious?, three truths and a question about happiness; etc.

“you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”

One should accept the advice of those who are able to direct others, who offer unsolicited aid. One should be the pupil of everyone all the time.

– Shantideva, The Bodhicaryavatara 5:74, translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (ca. 700 CE)

The fifth book of this major work is devoted to “The Guarding of Awareness.” Here Shantideva offers many precepts, of which this is just one. For instance, in the previous verse, he recommends moving quietly: like a crane, a cat, or a thief.

No one could fully follow all these instructions all the time. That is a problem of which Shantideva is fully aware. Chapter 4, “Vigilance Regarding the Awakening Mind,” addresses the inevitable backsliding that comes after an oath to attain Buddhahood. “Swinging back and forth like this in a cyclic existence, now under the sway of errors, now under the sway of the Awakening Mind, it takes a long time to gain ground” (4:11). The best we can do is try. “If I make no effort today I shall sink to lower and lower levels (4:12).

Therefore, the question is not whether it is possible to be the pupil of everyone all the time (it is not), but whether that is a valid aspiration. It isn’t obviously so. After all, many people communicate false and even wicked ideas. Why listen to them? We are also very repetitious. I offer virtually nothing that hasn’t already been said better by others. Why should everyone be my pupil; and I, theirs? And if we are always listening to everyone, when are we acting to improve the world?

The first quoted sentence recommends taking advice from “those who are able to direct others”–presumably those who have something valuable to offer. It doesn’t imply the striking second sentence, which tells us always to be learning from everyone. Why?

Maybe it is hyperbole: an exaggerated reminder to be more open to other people (and other animals) than we would otherwise tend to be, but not a rule that the wise would apply literally.

Or maybe it connects to Shantideva’s core recommendation: compassion for all. The argument would go: Each of us knows the most about our own situation and context. We each have a world of our own, which is a portion of the whole world viewed from our particular spot. The best life is a life of compassion for all those individuals. To be compassionate toward them requires understanding their situation as much as possible. And that implies being their pupil, all of the time.

Is this right? How does it relate to the virtue of justice? And what should we think about scientific methods of discernment? For instance, is surveying a representative sample of Americans a way of being a pupil of them all? If not, why not?

See also: how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; Empathy and Justice; etc.

why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics

Most applied ethicists are skeptical that we can resolve significant problems by applying ambitious moral philosophies or theories of justice.

I report this skepticism anecdotally, but it comes from 15 years working in an applied ethics center and my peripheral involvement with educational ethics, media ethics, political campaign ethics, and related fields. People who teach ethics in college sometimes require students to apply the big moral theories to practical problems. (“What would Kant say about blockchain?” “What does utilitarianism imply about health reform?”) But these assignments are meant to convey the theories, not to resolve the problems. Professional ethicists rarely write their own “What would Kant say about …?” papers.

Why not? I think the following explanations are plausible. Some are mutually compatible, but they push in different directions:

  1. Stalemate: There are several academically respectable moral theories: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue-ethics, and maybe others. Some individuals are drawn to one theory over the rest, but that is a matter of intuition or sheer preference. Arguments have not resolved the disputes among them. To invoke one theory in relation to a concrete ethical problem just neglects the other theories. Invoking more than one often yields a dilemma.
  2. Pluralism (in Isaiah Berlin’s sense): Maybe the truth about the human world is that it involves many different kinds of good thing: various negative and positive rights, welfare outcomes, equity and other relations among people, procedural fairness, etc. These good things conflict, and one must choose among them. Each moral theory tends to illuminate and justify one kind of a good, yet practical wisdom is about balancing them.
  3. Particularism: The appropriate focus for moral assessment is not an abstraction, such as freedom, but a concrete particular, like the school in my neighborhood. In a parallel way, the most important focus for aesthetic evaluation is a whole painting, not all the instances of yellow ochre that appear in different paintings. You can believe that yellow ochre is a nice color, but that doesn’t tell you much about whether or why Vermeer’s “View of Delft” is beautiful, even though that painting does incorporate some yellow ochre. Likewise, you can’t tell much about a given situation in which there is some freedom just from knowing that freedom is generally good. If the appropriate focus of ethical evaluation is a concrete, particular, whole thing, then theorizing about abstractions doesn’t help much. (See Schwind on Jonathan Dancy, p. 36 or Blackburn, “Securing the Nots,” p. 97.)
  4. Complexity: Ethical problems often involve many people who have divergent interests, beliefs, rights, goals, etc., and who continuously affect each other. Their choices and responses are unpredictable. Given the resulting complexity, it is usually hard to model the situation empirically–regardless of whether one is more interested in consequences, rights, procedures, comparisons among people, or all of the above. Once you’ve modeled the situation reasonably well and you think you know what would happen if A did B to C, then a Pareto-optimal choice may become clear. For instance, reducing imprisonment in the USA would (I think) enhance individual rights, equity, utility, non-domination, rule of law, and practically every other value I can think of. However, agreement about Pareto-optimal choices is fairly rare, and the most common reason is persistent debate about the empirics. Moral theory really doesn’t help much.
  5. Narrowness of philosophy: To “apply moral philosophy” often means to apply Kantianism, utilitarianism, 20th-century virtue ethics, social contract theory, or perhaps one or two other idea systems. (Maybe some Levinas; maybe some Marx.) These systems have great value, but also limitations. They usually focus either on individual choices at given moment (Is it OK to lie?), or else on what Rawls called the “basic structure of society,” but not on the overall shape of a single human life, practices for enhancing virtues, deeply ingrained forms of oppression, institutions other than governments, or group processes other than lawmaking. Some of these matters are better explored in Hellenistic and classical Indian and Chinese philosophy or in applied social science fields; some have never received adequate attention. It’s not that abstract theory is irrelevant to concrete choices, but that the most widely respected philosophical theories are too narrow.
Lady Philosophy in Boethius: “On the lower fringe of her robe was woven the Greek letter ? [for practical reason]; on the top, the letter ? [for theory]; and between the two was a staircase from the lower to the upper letter.”

I think that large concepts or themes can help us think about what to do. Among the useful concepts for practical reason are the major concerns of modern Anglophone philosophy, such as rights and forms of equity. These concepts or themes do arise in concrete cases. But many other concepts are also useful. Depending on the circumstances, you might get as much value out of Albert Hirschman’s scheme of exit, voice, and loyalty as from Rawls’ account of justice, even though Hirschman’s theory is not explicitly normative. And examples, narratives, and concrete proposals also provide insights.

A reporter supposedly asked Earl Long, “Governor, should you use ethics in politics?” Long said, “Hell yes, use anything you can get your hands on!” I am inclined to agree with the governor–use whatever ideas help you to reason about what to do.

In turn, studying and discussing concrete problems can generate questions and insights that enrich abstract philosophy and social theory. If we must call pure philosophy the “top,” and practical reasoning the “bottom,” then influence should flow from bottom-up as well as from top-down.

(I am inspired here by a fine conference paper by Julian Müller, but I think these are my own established views rather than his. See also: structured moral pluralism (a proposal); Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); the importance of the inner life to moral philosophy; modus vivendi theory; consequences of particularism; etc.

what must we believe?

A study by Roland G. Fryer, Jr. provoked controversy because of its conclusion that Black and Hispanic people are not more likely than whites to be shot to death by police, although they are more likely to experience non-lethal force at the hands of police. In “Race, Policing, and The Limits of Social Science,” Lily Hu uses this study and the resulting controversy to explore important questions about the persuasiveness of social science. Her questions are not merely academic–they have existential significance as we each decide how to interpret and improve the world.

Speaking for myself (but in a similar vein to Hu), I would draw attention to the results in the tables near the end of Fryer’s piece (pp. 39ff). You’ll see familiar-looking columns of numbers, many of which are means or coefficients. They are labeled with text, including such words or phrases as “High-crime Area,” “Carrying Suspicious Obj,” “Incident type: Street Stop,” “Officer Unit Majority White,” “Pinellas County,” and “Hispanic.”

Why are we reading these tables? For one thing, Roland Fryer has captured our attention and a baseline level of trust. This is not a given. I crunched some numbers on police discrimination last year and drew modest traffic. I am not complaining: Fryer genuinely deserves much more attention because of the ambitiousness and originality of his paper (even if one criticizes it). Yet it is worth noting that we read his paper as a consequence of many causal factors, including Fryer’s talent and hard work but also his status and position.

In short, knowledge results–like everything else–from causes. The factors that cause us to know and to trust any given claim include power and social status.

Fryer’s specific findings are the result of methods that social scientists have developed and that he chose to use. Methods are always contestable, and, in this case, they have been challenged. I do not have anything valuable to add about his methods, but their contestability is important.

As for the data that Fryer uses, they result from social processes. He analyzed five million records from New York City’s Stop, Question, and Frisk program, which mandated a great deal of data-collection as part of its approach to enforcement/social control. He also used the Police-Public Contact Survey, which is a federally funded survey conducted by the US Census Bureau for the Justice Dept. Finally, he and a team coded reports from the files of the police in LA County, Houston, Austin, Dallas, Houston and six large Florida counties.

Thousands of people generate these data: randomly selected residents who complete surveys and police officers who file required reports. Many hundreds of people design these instruments and make sure that they are completed. A police officer files a report about an incident with a civilian because of other required reports: a personnel file on the officer, an evaluation of the unit commander, etc. Deeper in the background are previous efforts to measure our social world. For instance, racial categories come from thousands of previous surveys designed and fielded for other purposes. We code and analyze stored bodies of text (such as police files) thanks to techniques previously developed for other research.

Different phenomena could be measured, and different measures could be used. The government of France does not record race and literally does not know how many French residents are people of color. In contrast, the US has always categorized our population by race, albeit with changing categories and purposes. Already in the Census of 1800, Americans were categorized as free whites, other free persons, or slaves.

One way to think about such differences is in terms of choices. We could choose not to measure race, to measure it in a different way, or to measure things that we do not measure now. But this “we” is misleading. We citizens are not convened like a committee to review discrete choices. Instead, the practice of measuring any given thing often results from concerted efforts by specific people or groups. Some people develop and revise concepts and organize and advocate; other people then spend money or apply power to cause data to be collected. I have been involved in such efforts–for instance, helping to write the federal assessment of civics, and playing a role in generating voter turnout data for most US colleges and universities. These are purposive efforts, undertaken to change the world for specific reasons. They reflect people’s values and strategies.

People also undertake concerted efforts to build up social institutions. It is not natural or inevitable that we have police at all–meaning uniformed, armed, bureaucratically organized public-sector employees with unique rights and responsibilities. Having police is a choice, but again, it is not an item on a menu that was set before the public. Instead, policing is an institution with its own inertia, constituencies, and political influence. The choice that each of us faces is whether to support policing, assent to it, subvert it, or help to build up an alternative.

The same is true of the political jurisdictions listed in Roland Fryer’s tables. It is not inevitable that Houston and Pinellas County, FL are organized as entities with police forces and other state powers. Indeed, Elinor Ostrom showed that much smaller jurisdictions produced better policing, and she found especially good results in small Black-majority communities that had their own police forces. So it is a choice to have a Houston police force–but again, this choice reflects many decades of concerted efforts by many people with many agendas.

Particular facts are the results of power deployed through social institutions. Power is not necessarily bad: it is nearly synonymous with “capacity,” and we want capacity. Nor is power necessarily zero-sum: we can measure and value more than one thing at a time. Therefore, to say that knowledge emerges from power is not cynical. Whether knowledge is good or bad depends on the motives, the means, and the consequences that relate to it.

This implies that to assess knowledge is always partly a matter of values–it is a normative as well as an empirical matter. You can’t assess the crime rate unless you know which activities are deemed illegal and how the law is enforced. You can’t assess the employment rate until you know what counts as employment, which jobs are consistent with a good life, and what happens to the people who are labeled unemployed. The crime rate or the employment rate is not a simple fact: it is a result of social institutions that cause people to behave in various ways and that cause their behaviors to be measured and classified in various ways.

The next question (for me) is: What should we evaluate? I resist evaluating very broad and vague phenomena, such as capitalism or modernity or even the USA. That is a path to ideology, in the bad sense of that word: broad assessments prevent careful thought and nuance.

On the other hand, each social phenomenon is linked tightly with many others. A claim cannot be assessed all by itself. For instance, to accept that a city block is a “high crime area” (as in one of the datasets in Fryer’s paper) is to accept a whole system of social monitoring and control that gives some places that label.

We assess one thing at a time, yet each assessment is related to many previous ones. In this way, we gradually build up a worldview that combines normative judgments, empirical generalizations, causal inferences, and many other components. Hu cites “what philosopher W. V. O. Quine so charmingly called our ‘web of belief.'”

As she points out, a particular piece of information may come along that conflicts with some existing components of our web. For instance, Fryer’s specific statistics about police-involved shootings contradict what I had believed. In such cases, we must consider “what must be sacrificed so that other beliefs might be saved. And since our webs are not all identical, what rational belief revision demands of us will also vary. One man’s happily drawn conclusion (p, therefore q!) is another’s proof by contradiction (surely not q, therefore not p!). Or as the saying goes, one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.

Her rather startling conclusion: “Rejecting a study’s methods or its starting assumptions on the basis of disagreement with its results is a completely legitimate inferential move.”

Confronted by Fryer’s original paper, someone who is very concerned about police shootings of unarmed Black civilians might:

  • Doubt the sources of the statistics (although the paper uses several different kinds of sources);
  • Doubt the mathematics, either because of specific methodological concerns or because of a low threshold of trust in the author (who could, in theory, have made basic errors);
  • Doubt the conclusions because they conflict with other sources of information;
  • Acknowledge the specific conclusions but accentuate the part of the study that reinforces prior views: police use non-lethal force in a racially discriminatory way;
  • Modify strategies for police reform to focus more on the non-lethal uses of force; or
  • Revise basic beliefs, including beliefs about other sources of knowledge, such as news coverage of police homicides.

Hu implies that any of these responses might be rational, depending on one’s overall web of belief. For instance, it would be irrational for me to distrust Fryer’s basic mathematics, because I have accumulated trust in institutions like Harvard and the NBER. They have served me well on many prior occasions. However, other people might have no such basis for trust and might have very well-grounded reasons to doubt a result that contradicts their vivid accumulated experiences. Hu writes:

For those whose beliefs, empirical and ethical, are forged in participation in radical sociopolitical movements from below, to be ill-inclined to accept certain findings about race and policing is to remain steadfast in a commitment to a certain thick set of empirical and ethical propositions in their webs of beliefs: that systems of policing and prisons are instruments of racial terror and that any theory of causation, theory of race, and statistical methods worth their salt will see race to be a significant causal factor affecting disparate policing and prison outcomes. This just is the first test of “fitting the data.” It is not a flight from rationality but an exercise of it.

Bertrand Russell summarized a significant tradition when he wrote his Liberal Decalogue (ten commandments) for educators. He included these points:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

 5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

 6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
 7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

 8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

 9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

This list is “liberal” in the sense that it prizes autonomy, freedom of conscience and speech for all, a marketplace of ideas, and the individual’s exercise of reason. It is a version of Kant’s “enlightenment.” It has merit–perhaps slightly underplayed in Hu’s excellent article. We suffer from motivated reasoning, intellectual conformity, and polarization, and it takes work to keep our minds open. Russell’s advice is valuable for that reason. In this spirit, we might do well to wrestle with the specific claims in an article like Fryer’s–to see what insights we can get from them.

But Russell’s list is incomplete, for the reasons that Hu presents. Basically, he treats each “truth” and each observer as independent, when they actually belong to Quinian webs of belief and social institutions. Therefore, we should also remember to:

  1. Recognize the consequences or what we choose to say, including arguments and findings that we choose to repeat from other people’s work. In making these choices, strive to do no harm.
  2. When encountering new and troubling findings, don’t forget what we already know or neglect our debt to our existing sources.
  3. When encountering a new argument or study, be open to all of it, not just the headlines. (For instance, don’t forget Fryer’s finding that police discriminate in using non-lethal force.)
  4. Cultivate our whole webs of belief, which ought to be internally diverse and complex but also reasonably coherent.
  5. Value a range of sources of knowledge, including personal experience and testimony as well as statistics and models.
  6. Ask whether it is beneficial–or not–for each of us to speak publicly on any given topic.
  7. Critically assess the institutions that generate knowledge.
  8. Critically assess our own roles in such institutions.
  9. Never neglect the normative aspect of knowledge.
  10. Don’t take the questions for granted, but ask what we could be asking about.

See also: police discrimination, race, and community poverty; more data on police interactions by race; on the phrase: Abolish the police!; some remarks on Elinor Ostrom and police reform; what gives some research methods legitimacy?; six types of claim: descriptive, causal, conceptual, classificatory, interpretive, and normative; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; teaching about institutions, in a prison; a template for analyzing an institution; what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?, etc.

the ethical meanings of indigeneity

Quentin Gausset, Justin Kenrick, and Robert Gibb note that there are two separate conversations within their own discipline (anthropology) that involve different scholars and different families of examples.

In one conversation, the keyword is “indigenous,” and it applies either to “hunter-gatherers and nomads whose livelihood and culture is threatened by encroachment from their neighbours and state … or to groups who occupied a territory before it was forcibly settled by colonising powers and have struggled ever since to maintain some control over what was left of their resources.”

For instance, I am sitting on land where the Wampanoag are indigenous, a few miles from the offices of a federally recognized Wampanoag tribe.

In the other conversation, the keyword is “autochthonous” (born in the place) and it refers to large populations–often the majority in a given country–who “believe that their resources, culture or power are threatened by ‘migrants’.”

Anthropologists have had opposite reactions to these two families of cases:

[They] have tended to display sympathy and support for indigenous peoples (such as marginalised nomads) while often being highly critical of those advancing autochthonous claims (for example, extreme right-wing parties in European countries…). While indigenous movements are often idealised as innocent victims, or even as globally concerned and ecologically sound, autochthonous movements are, on the contrary, demonised and their agenda is reduced to ‘the exclusion of supposed “strangers” and the unmasking of “fake” autochthonous, who are often citizens of the same nation-state.’

As these authors note, a dictionary treats the two words as synonyms. Thus the existence of parallel discourses is noteworthy. We could add a third conversation about “irredentism,” a belief that a given nation should regain control over all of its former territory. Irredentist claims are usually seen as bellicose and nationalistic. Fascism is often autochthonous and irredentist. We don’t typically describe fascists as the “indigenous” populations of their countries–although they may see themselves that way.

Given the availability of these three terms–with overlapping meanings but different ethical valences–all kinds of intriguing uses emerge.

Erich Fox Tree observes that migrants to the USA from Central America increasingly identify as indigenous within the United States. Their claim is “somewhat irredentist, by asserting a super-territorial homeland” that spans the continent. However, in my view, they are expressing an understandable Latino/Native solidarity and opening possibilities for powerful coalitions within the USA.

According to Cheryl L. Daytec-Yañgot, “Tribal Peoples in Africa, such as the San or Maasai, self identify as indigenous to participate in indigenous discourses in the UN, even though their occupation of the region they inhabit does not predate those of other groups.” Meanwhile, “white Afrikaners from South Africa claimed indigeneity and attempted to forward their agenda to the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations.”

Daytec-Yañgot notes that the discourse of indigeneity is “Eurocentric.” To put it a slightly different way, I would say that concerns about the oppression of indigenous minorities arise in settler countries–places, like the USA, Australia, or Argentina, where European conquerors came in very large numbers and numerically overwhelmed the original inhabitants. This model does not fit well in much of Asia and Africa, where imperialism was also devastating but the imperialists were limited in number and have mostly gone back home. It also doesn’t fit contexts like the Caribbean, where the majority population was transported against their will to replace the older inhabitants. In at least some important cases, the most threatened groups are minorities who migrated in and are accused of being interlopers. For instance, Hindu Nationalism often presents adherents of the dharmic religions as indigenous, and Muslims (as well as Christians) as the legacy of imperialism. But Muslims are now the threatened group in India.

There is nothing wrong with the mixed affective responses of anthropologists and others. It seems right to sympathize with indigenous groups in places like Massachusetts and to criticize autochthonous majorities who want migrants to “go home” (even though the words indigenous and autochthonous are synonyms). These judgments can be consistent with appropriate theories of justice, ones that take account of past injustices, current patterns of inequality and domination, the intrinsic value of cultures, the equal rights of all human beings, and ecological considerations.

It is a curiosity that we have two sets of vocabulary for different categories, but the ethical variation is not surprising. As always, the empirical study of human beings is inseparable from value-judgments, and the objective is to get our judgments (as well as our facts) right. Being explicit about the basis of our judgments helps: it allows us to test them in dialogue with other people. But explicitness is not sufficient: the point is to improve our judgments.

See also these posts about ethical judgments embedded in social science: when is cultural appropriation good or bad? and what is cultural appropriation?; social justice should not be a cliché; science, law, and microagressions; morality in psychotherapy; insanity and evil: two paradigmsprotecting authentic human interaction;  is all truth scientific truth?; and don’t confuse bias and judgment.