Category Archives: philosophy

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.

what secular people can get out of theology

I’m teaching a course on the thought of Martin Luther King, who obtained two graduate degrees in theology and contributed substantially to that discipline. I happen not to be a Christian, and I am teaching in a predominantly secular context with students who have diverse faith commitments that they rarely bring explicitly into the conversation.

It’s easy to say why we should read theology if we want to understand the thought of MLK, which is a historian’s task. But why should we want to understand the theological aspects of his thought if we are in a secular context and our interests are politics and justice?

Of course, I welcome all responses to these questions from my students, including opposition to religion (although I have not actually heard that lately). These are my own, personal thoughts.

First, it is not self-evident how to distinguish religious beliefs from other beliefs. MLK believed that all human beings are created by God in God’s image. I believe that all human beings have infinite intrinsic moral worth. What is the basis for saying that he is religious and I am not?

Second, we all think with the materials we find at hand. We cannot view the world completely anew. But we can make better or worse selections and enhance (or spoil) the things we select. Christian thinkers will start with Christian materials. We can learn from how they use those ideas and add to them. It’s as if you don’t want to be a biologist but you can improve your thinking by learning some biology. (Or change the analogy to ceramics if a craft seems more apt than a science.)

Third, it is illuminating to think in a hypothetical vein. Two Christian thinkers are on my mind this week. One is Howard Washington Thurman (1899 – 1981), whom I assigned. The other is Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham, who shows up in my social media feed denouncing homosexuality on biblical grounds.

Thurman notes that God could have expressed the divine in any form–for instance, as a Roman. “But the fact is he did not.” God chose instead that the only-begotten Son would be a poor Jew “in a sad and desolate time for the people”; “a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group”; and a non-citizen, someone lacking “that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into the ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in the ditch.” The Son of God was then tortured to death for nonviolently resisting the state.

I happen not to be able to think, “So it was,” but I can think: “If there is/were a God, this is how that God would act and feel.” And I can gain ethical insight–as well as inspiration–from this reasoning. At the same time, I am sure that if there is/were a God, God would not command and act the way that Laura Ingraham assumes.

I happen not to agree with the whole story that either Thurman or Ingraham believes. However, when I move into a hypothetical mode, I am confident that Thurman is right and that Ingraham is badly wrong. And making this distinction feels like a valid way to explore ethical and political issues.

Moving further away from specific authors, I can find specific value (and pitfalls) in each of the great world religions without happening to agree with some of the core metaphysics of any of them. For instance, I can compare Christianity to Judaism or Islam, or to Buddhism and Hinduism, without ever leaving the hypothetical level.

Source: Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), pp. 17, 18, 33. See also: Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time; Martin Luther King as a philosopher; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; and Jesus was a person of color.

Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set himself against two false conceptions of time and offered a profoundly original alternative.

One false idea was what he called in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail the “tragic misconception” that time flows inevitably toward justice. This is a linear, progressive theory. It has always been popular in the United States, where the white majority has tilted toward optimism and self-satisfaction. We tell ourselves that although we have faults, “the current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms” (John Dewey). This kind of optimism has also been influential in liberal Protestantism and can even have a metaphysical underpinning: since God is omnipotent and good, things will work out, both in this life and the next.

It can imply that people should calm down and wait for justice. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is King’s response to messages like this one, which he says he received “from a white brother in Texas”: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”

Rev. King answers, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never. We must come to see … that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

King was equally opposed to the idea that time is static, that a society cannot fundamentally change. One version of this idea says that White supremacy is evil but also foundational and highly unlikely ever to yield. A different version is held by white supremacists. George Wallace, for instance, emphasized that history was, and must remain, static. When he cried, “Segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever,” Wallace was denying the passage of time. And he presented this stance as nothing new: “we sound the drum … as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history.”

King’s alternative view had three features.

First, the flow of time is up to us. History is neither a tragedy–with a foreordained evil conclusion–nor a comedy, inevitably moving toward a happen end. Nor are we stuck in a changeless present. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Second, the past is always present. It infuses our own time. In the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King says, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check.”

The founding of the republic was almost two centuries in the past, yet the promissory note was still on the books. (And still is today.) That was not quite a metaphor, because King was quite literal about the need for repayment, for reparations. But the idea that the debts of the past are still carried on the nation’s books was one of many tropes he used to convey the continued existence of the past.

Third, we can make the future present. We can envision a better conclusion and pull that vision into our own time. For instance, we can imagine a future when the government founded by Jefferson and Madison pays its debts to the descendants of the people they had enslaved, thus changing the relationship between the past and the present. Once we imagine that moment, we can work to accomplish it.

King’s “Dream” that Black and white Georgians will “sit down together at the table of brotherhood”–while Mississippi is “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”–is not a prediction or a forecast. It is an invention whose purpose is to motivate the quarter of a million people who gathered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963.

And it was remarkable that they had gathered there. Popular movements–and especially nonviolent popular movements with idealistic causes–defy realistic predictions. Individuals usually calculate the costs and risks for themselves against the benefits for themselves. To join a social movement, especially in the face of vicious opposition, is costly and dangerous. Any benefits are speculative. It is rational to stand aside and see if other people struggle for justice. If they do, the problem may be solved without an individual’s having to take the risk. And if they don’t, the individual’s sacrifice would have been pointless anyway.

Yet people occasionally defy this logic and rise up together in large numbers in the same time and place. Montgomery in 1955, Birmingham in 1963, the Washington Mall later in 1963, and Selma in 1965 were moments when the future suddenly broke into the present. To delay them would have destroyed them.

In his last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” King diagnoses the challenge (oppressed people calculate their individual interests and fail to congeal as a movement) and reminds his audience of the power of acting in concert:

Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. (Yeah) We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. [Applause] But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [Applause] Now let us maintain unity.

Note again the analysis of time. Pharoah wants to keep things static, to “prolong the period of slavery.” As soon as the slaves “get together,” the future comes into view.

People sometimes quote King’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” to suggest that progress is inevitable–perhaps because of divine providence. He said those words at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, which had been fraught, controversial even within the movement, and very nearly a failure. That day, a tragic conclusion was all too easy to imagine. After envisioning a future when “society [is] at peace with itself” and “can live with its conscience,” King says, “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?'” He gives a series of calls and responses, each beginning “How long? Not long, because …” This is the context in which he mentions the arc of the universe. He does not mean that it will surely carry us to justice and that we can confidently wait for that day. No one who had marched with him to Montgomery would have imagined that. He is telling his audience that they can bend the arc, that they can move the future closer.

In short, the past is always still present, the future can break into today, we can move our vision across time, and we can determine how things end.

Wallace had imagined waves of white supremacists standing in the way of justice, one generation after another. King instead invoked a series of prophets, “extremists for justice,” who were able to envision history’s conclusion and thus speak to us from their own times. In the “Letter,” King names five religious prophets–Amos, Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, and John Bunyan–and two secular democratic ones, Jefferson and Lincoln. He also credits six contemporary white men and women (most of whose names I do not recognize) for writing “about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.”

Prophesy means transcending the present to affect the future. In Stride to Freedom, King had written, “Any discussion of the Christian minister today must ultimately emphasize the need for prophecy. … May the problem of race in America soon make hearts burn so that prophets will rise up, saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ and cry out as Amos did, ‘. . . let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.'” As his career progressed, he constantly returned to the nineteen biblical books traditionally called Nevi’im, prophecies. For instance, in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King again quoted Amos 5:24 along with Isaiah 40:4 (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”).

This genre of prophecy typically begins with a moral condemnation of the present, often directed explicitly at the most powerful people: the kings, priests, and rich men:

Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.

For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right.

(Amos 5:11-12)

The prophecy may forecast the punishment and fall of these wicked men. “Woe unto you,” says the Lord, through Amos, six verses later. The prophet then envisions a better time, a time of justice. This is not a forecast based on continuing the current trends into the future. Rather, it is moral and hortatory. If the people begin to act righteously, then God will help them make the world better. “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15).

King’s last–and arguably greatest–speech was also his most explicitly prophetic. He had come to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. A mass march had gone badly from his perspective. It had turned violent, at least around the edges. Film of the event strongly suggests that police instigated the violence. King blamed the press for focusing on some “window breaking” instead of the structural violence against Black workers. Yet he was shaken by his own inability to preserve nonviolent discipline. This was the first time he had joined or led a march in which the protesters had failed to turn the other cheek. He was also exhausted and ill, unwilling to speak or even to travel to the venue in the midst of a thunderstorm. He forced himself to go anyway.

We know that he had one less than day left to live, and we must read the speech with that hindsight.

He starts with the now. He says, “something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.” From there, he moves immediately out of the linear flow of time. He asks us to imagine him “standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now” and conversing with the immortal Almighty. He traverses history, mentioning some of the high points, and concludes that the time when he would most like to live is the present. Things certainly seem bad, “but I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Once again, he sees the future in the present, taking the form of a voluntary popular movement. “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up.” At the beginning of his career, he would have emphasized the protesters in his immediate surroundings, but now he sees that the uprising is global. People are “assembled today” in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Accra, New York City, Atlanta, Jackson, and where he stands, Memphis. “The cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.'”

He rehearses the glorious moments of the movement so far, emphasizing the mightiness of a unified nonviolent struggle. He commends the preachers in attendance for their prophetic voices and quotes Amos as the exemplary prophet. He makes the case for economic pressure. He acknowledges people’s fear and exhorts them not to stop when the time is so critical. He recalls when he was nearly assassinated and gives thanks that he survived, because then he could witness the moments when unified people overcame oppression: sit-ins, freedom rides, Albany, Birmingham, Selma. Interestingly, he includes tactical failures, like Albany, and moments when he was not personally involved.

And then he turns to the future, which we know and which he seems uncannily to foresee with less than 24 hours left to live:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Applause]

I am influenced here by David Luban, “Difference Made Legal: The Court and Dr. King.” Michigan Law Review 87, no. 8 (1989): 2152-2224. Luban insightfully compares King to Walter Benjamin. See also:  the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theologynotes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts); Martin Luther King as a philosopher; learning from Memphis, 1968; against inevitability; “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era,” etc.

individuals’ ideologies as networks

Hypothesis: People not only hold opinions about parties and specific issues; they also explicitly connect their various beliefs together to create more-or-less coherent logical structures. Understanding these structures yields insights about individuals that we would miss if we only knew a list of their opinions.

This thesis challenges a common assumption in political and moral psychology. Although scholars meticulously analyze the structure of the arguments in books, essays, and speeches, several streams of research suggest that ordinary people have no such structures–their political preferences are random, or chosen by elites, or driven by latent variables of which they are unconscious. I think that we won’t find the conscious structure in average people’s thinking unless we develop tools that can detect it.

Looking at some individuals

To that end, last summer I collected data from 100 Amazon Turk participants. I restricted the sample to liberal residents of the USA, in order to control the range of issues that would appeal to them so that I could analyze the small dataset effectively.

I showed each person a list of 30 ideas they might favor, about half of which leaned left. I simply asked, “Which of these would you like to see happen?” and encouraged them to be selective. Consistent with my effort to recruit liberals, they chose almost exclusively liberal items. For instance, 80% chose “health insurance for all” and zero chose “a return to traditional values.”*

After subjecting respondents to a bit of explanation and training, I showed them their own chosen items in pairs (in random order). For each pair, I asked, “Are you in favor of X because you are in favor of Y?” Each time they said yes, that created a link between two nodes (or an edge between two vertices, if you prefer the technical language). From these responses, I was able to generate network maps for each person and for groups.

Here is one such map. This person is a white man, age 32. He places himself as far as possible to the left on a unidimensional ideology scale and he says that he agrees with AOC most often, followed by Bernie, then Warren, then Obama, and finally, Biden. He believes that eight things that he would like to see happen (e.g., health insurance for all) provide reasons to reduce corporate influence on government. He also sees an indirect link between reducing corporate influence and racial justice (by way of reducing incarceration) and an indirect link to the environment (by way of enabling a tax on carbon). However, he doesn’t connect political reform to free college or LGBTQ+ issues, although he cares about those issues and connects them.

In short, his network is highly centralized around reducing corporate influence. This seems like an important fact about how he thinks.

Below is another map, this time for a white woman, age 30, who ranks the Democratic politicians in precisely the opposite order as the man did (Biden first; OAC last). However, she ranks herself as a one on a 0-10 ideology scale, i.e., very liberal.

Her graph is more complex than the man’s. She is 3.6 times more likely than he was to see any given pair of ideas as a connection. Two-thirds of her arrows are double-headed. (She favors less crime because she favors more trust in government, and vice-versa.) You can move around her graph from one item to the next, and then onward. It is not centralized around any single node.

As noted, I first asked respondents whether each of their goals provided a reason for another goal. It was up to them what counted as a “reason.” I believe, however, that we can put ideas together in numerous ways, with a range of logical connectors. A justification is one link; a cause is another.

Therefore, I next showed respondents pairs of outcomes and asked whether each one would cause the other one. I included outcomes that they had not selected in the first place, because you might not select something as a high value even though it causes an outcome that you do value highly.

Here is the first respondent’s map with the causal connections added in:

It becomes complicated–perhaps too complicated to understand visually. But it’s clear that he believes higher voter turnout and a more responsible electorate are “upstream” factors–they cause many desirable outcomes–even though he did not initially choose them as his priorities. It makes sense to me that they are means to the ends he favors.

Finally, I showed respondents random pairs of items and asked, “Imagine x happened. Would that change your opinion by making you more supportive of y?” This produced another kind of connection (hypotheticals), which I can add to the first respondent’s map along with the causes and reasons:

Metrics suggest that this addition doesn’t actually change this person’s map very much, although it adds a few ideas at the end of arrows.

An example: the role of reparations in the mentality of the left

Months ago, I hypothesized that reparations for slavery play an important role in the thinking of left-liberal Americans. Progressives oscillate between hostility to the US government and desire to expand federal economic action. If the government paid reparations, progressives would trust it more and would therefore tilt to democratic socialism.

I can identify some individuals who may exhibit this logic. For instance, here is a 40-year-old white woman who favors a set of progressive outcomes and sees all of them as reasons to reduce corporate power over government (rather like the first man discussed earlier):

She did not select reparations as one of her original priorities, but she was asked whether actually seeing reparations happen in the world would make her more favorable toward other outcomes. She said it would make her more supportive of 10 things, including trust in government and civility. One can imagine that she thinks: if the government paid reparations, I would want people to trust it and would want citizens to be civil to each other, because the regime would be more legitimate. However, this is largely my inference about her responses, and it’s not a common pattern in the data.

These are three examples from the 100 cases that I collected. I have many more to look at, and I have IRB permission to interview selected respondents about their reasoning.

Aggregate results

I am also interested in examining the aggregate data. One evident finding is that people’s top priorities for how they would like to see the world change are not the same as the factors they see as most influential.

In my sample, the most frequently chosen goals are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a solution to climate change
  3. a higher minimum wage
  4. racial justice
  5. more school choice

The items that are seen as having the most direct effects on other items are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a less corrupt government
  3. less corporate influence on government
  4. a more responsible electorate
  5. more equitable education

And the items that have the most links of any kind to other items are:

  1. health insurance for all
  2. a less corrupt government
  3. racial justice
  4. more trust in government
  5. economic growth

Healthcare hangs in there as the top priority however you slice it. However, better government and economic growth–which are not chosen as high priorities from a simple list–emerge when people think about various kinds of premises or causes for the things they do value.

Another method would be to measure the relationships between people’s networks of ideas and a different variable of interest. I was planning to look at self-placement on an ideological scale, but my sample clusters together too closely. Seventy-four percent rate themselves between 0 and 2 on a 0-10 scale.

Instead, I am using as the dependent variable how people rank AOC compared to other Democratic politicians. I chose that outcome because her ranking correlates most strongly with ideological placement, and also because the biggest negative correlation in the whole matrix is between her rankings and Joe Biden’s (-0.67). Plus, her rankings have a nice distribution: the median is 3 on a 1-5 scale. So I take her strong supporters and opponents to mark the ends of a meaningful spectrum within the US left.

If we simply correlate the priorities that people choose (or don’t choose) with their rankings of AOC, then the correlations that are significant are:

  • more school choice and racial justice (which were chosen by identical people*)
  • equity for LGBTQ+ people
  • (not choosing) economic growth
  • (not choosing) less crime
  • (not choosing) a reduction in government debt

These correlations make intuitive sense to me. Among liberals, those who care less about crime, deficits, and growth would like OAC best.

If you put all the choices together with the demographics and ideology in one linear regression model to predict support for OAC, it does a decent job (r-squared = 0.488).** However, none of the individual items (including ideology) are statistically significant. One could conclude that knowing which items people pick helps you to predict their opinion of AOC, but you need to know most of the items.

If, instead, you look at which items people thought were reasons for other items, the model is more predictive (r-squared = .608 with the same number of variables) and ten items become stat. sig. on their own (p <.05). Knowing that an individual sees one of these items as a reason for other items gives a basis to predict that this same individual likes (or dislikes) AOC.

That seems like confirmation of my original hypothesis. The structure of people’s beliefs–more than the things they support–predicts a consequential opinion. However, I am still working on the regression and other aggregate methods; suggestions are welcome.

*Increasing school choice was also popular. I am not surprised to see support for that idea among liberals. One thing that may be surprising is a perfect correlation between racial justice and school choice: the same 49 people chose both of those items. **For this model, I omitted the people who placed themselves in the right half of the ideology scale, who looked to me like outliers. See also: ideologies and complex systems;  it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedthe pivotal significance of reparations for the American left; etc.

freedom of the will or freedom from the will? (comparing Harry Frankfurt and Buddhism)

In a famous paper,* Harry Frankfurt argued that we have freedom of action if our desires match our behavior. I want a chocolate chip cookie; I eat the cookie; thus I demonstrate free action.

But we have freedom of the will insofar as we can control the desires we have. I want the chocolate chip cookie, but I wish that I did not. If I can influence my own desire for cookies, I demonstrate freedom of the will.

Thus the ability to have second-order volitions (desires about desires) is the trait that we value as moral freedom–it is what people have tried to express by describing human beings as metaphysically free. “A person enjoys freedom of the will [if] he is free to want what he wants to want.”

For Frankfurt, the difference between free, morally responsible agents (“persons”) and all other actors (“wantons”) is not that persons can control their desires; it is that they can form desires about those desires. In contrast, “The essential characteristic of a wanton is that he does not care about his will.”

Although Frankfurt does not use the language of identity in this paper, he offers an implicit theory of it. We are the coherent structure of our own desires, and if our desires fail to cohere, our identity is at risk. He imagines a person who has conflicting second-order desires that prevent him from preferring some of his first-order desires over others. Frankfurt doesn’t offer a concrete example, but perhaps this person wishes that he were more conservative and also wishes that he were more radical, and he cannot resolve that difference. In that case, the person would be torn every time he saw a tweet by AOC. “This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person.” He becomes a “helpless bystander to the forces that move him.”

This is strong language, and I’m inclined to interpret Frankfurt’s theory as a matter of degree. We are more or less free to the degree that our first-, second- (and even third- and fourth-) degree volitions cohere and are consistent with our actions. Nobody has 100% freedom of the will.

Frankfurt says his position is compatible with determinism. That is, even if our minds are caused in the same way that other complex objects (computers, forests, stock market prices) are caused, we have free will to the extent that we form effective second-order desires. He even entertains the possibility that whether we have free will or not is determined. For instance, some kinds of parenting develop a capacity for second-order volitions and some don’t, but we don’t chose our parents. (This is my illustration, not his).

Now consider a certain tradition in Buddhism, which I derive mainly from US academics like Owen Flanagan, Mark Siderits, Bryan Van Norden, and Emily McRae and the classical Asian texts they quote.

Buddhism is a deterministic philosophy: all of our thoughts result from ordinary causes, just like the causes of the weather. (That is the doctrine of Dependent Origination.) We have desires without wanting them. Some of these desires are undesirable, and we can use mental techniques to marginalize or neutralize them.

So far, the view seems similar to Frankfurt’s. But in Buddhism, all desire is problematic. It has an intrinsic connection to suffering. That means that even if some desires are worse than others, we are wise to reduce desire per se.

Furthermore, we have no identity. (That is the doctrine of No Self). We are only a stream of specific feelings and beliefs. Wisdom comes from recognizing that there is no stable entity beneath that stream, and certainly nothing there that should concern us.

Frankfurt does not spell out practical or spiritual implications. To apply a distinction from Pierre Hadot, he is an academic or a scholastic philosopher, not a practitioner of Philosophy as a Way of Life. But his theory could imply that we should reflect as self-consciously as we can about our own desires. When we experience a bad desire, we should acknowledge that it partly defines our identity, so we had better get rid of it. A good way to counter bad desires is to give oneself reasons against them. Reasoning is also our way of knowing which desires are bad in the first place. For instance, if you feel a sexual desire, that partly defines you unless you decide that it is immoral and renounce it. A moral exemplar is someone who looks deeply and uncompromisingly into herself for the purpose of self-improvement.

In contrast, the advice from Buddhism is not to dwell on the desires that arise for us. Do not embrace them or cling to them, but also do invest emotion in denouncing or shunning them. Name them, acknowledge them, and try to set them aside, recognizing that their origins are natural (for everything that happens = nature), and we are not responsible for them (because we don’t cause anything), but we are better off without them.

Compassion functions differently from other first-order volitions in Buddhism. Because compassion is the desire for others to suffer less, it is not strictly a form of will. Spending more time and affect on compassion thus reduces our will, overall.

You could say that Buddhism recommends a second-order volition to be a more compassionate person. But Buddhism does not see us as persons. Therefore, an alternative interpretation is that Buddhism simply recommends compassion. Buddhism encourages you to practice or habituate yourself to compassion rather than reflecting abstractly on whether your identity is compassionate.

As long as we consider examples like wanting to eat chocolate chip cookies, this issue feels harmless or even amusing. But once we start thinking about serious personal vices, like envy and lust–or real social injustices, like sexism or racism–the stakes rise. Then it becomes a compelling question whether we should exercise freedom of the will by relentlessly critiquing our own desires or else freedom from the will by putting all our desires (apart from compassion) to the side.

*Frankfurt H.G. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 14, 1971), pp. 5-20. See also Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Foucault’s spiritual exercises; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives), how do we perceive an identity?, etc.