Category Archives: philosophy

what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?

In a course on policy analysis, we have been investigating these policy questions: Who should decide which kids attend which schools? (E.g., Should parents choose in a marketplace of schools? Should all kids be required to attend the nearest public school?) And on what basis should these decisions be made? My students have begun to investigate other policy issues of their own choice, using similar tools.

We have been applying a scientific paradigm, in this sense: We ask why questions, and the “why” is causal. What causes people to put their kids in certain schools? What causes schools to have certain outcomes? What might cause a government to choose a given policy for school assignment?

Answering these questions seems relevant to policy because we can decide what the state should want and then how to set up institutions so that those outcomes are more likely, given what individuals are likely to do in the situations that confront them.

Lots of factors can cause people to act in certain ways, including emotion, error, and instinct. But we have often assumed that people act in order to accomplish ends. Parents try to get their children into a given school so that their kids will be on a path to safety and wealth. Governments segregate schools to preserve white supremacy or else integrate them to promote a certain form of equity. These explanations assume purposive behavior toward ends. We could call them “functionalist” explanations. We are asking, “What is—and what should be—the function of public schools?”

In this context, I have assigned Clifford Geertz’ classic text, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Daedalus, vol. 101, no. 1, Myth, Symbol, and Culture (Winter, 1972), pp. 1-37.

Geertz and his unnamed spouse–both of them “malarial and diffident”—arrive in a village in Bali, Indonesia in the late 1950s to study it. They encounter many institutions and practices e.g., farming and Hindu temple festivals. Among these, cockfighting is prominent and also somewhat alien, since most Americans don’t participate in cockfights. It creates puzzlement for Geertz and his readers and seems to need an explanation.

Our puzzlement grows as we realize that cockfighting: 1) occupies a lot of energy and time; 2) persists even though it is illegal; 3) involves betting that is “irrational” in the sense that it is carefully contrived to cause a net loss of utility; and 4) conflicts with several pervasive Balinese norms. For instance, Balinese culture is integrated on sexual lines, but cockfighting is just for men. Balinese culture is very courtly, but cockfighting is violent and extremely competitive.

You could ask lots of “why” questions. Why do Balinese people engage in cockfighting? More specifically, why are the betting odds for the main event always set at 1:1 and why are there also side bets that are never 1:1? Or why do people from the same factions never compete in the main fight?

And you could pose functionalist explanations. The function of cockfighting in Bali is …?

But here is a different question. What is a Balinese cockfight? That question has many possible answers:

  • “A chicken hacking another mindless to bits “(p. 84)
  • An example of “deep play” (p. 71)
  • “fundamentally a dramatization of status concerns” (p. 74)
  • an “encompassing structure” that presents a coherent vision of “death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss, beneficence, chance” (p. 79)
  • “a kind of sentimental education” from which a Balinese man “learns what his culture’s ethos and his private sensibility (or, anyway, certain aspects of them) look like when spelled out externally in a collective text” p. 83

These descriptions range from “thin” (chickens fighting) to “thick” (a vision of death and masculinity)

Gilbert Ryle originated the thin/thick distinction here:

Two boys fairly swiftly contract the eyelids of their right eyes. In the first boy this is only an involuntary twitch; but the other is winking conspiratorially to an accomplice. At the lowest or the thinnest level of description the two contractions of the eyelids may be exactly alike. From a cinematograph-film of the two faces there might be no telling which contraction, if either, was a wink, or which, if either, were a mere twitch. Yet there remains the immense but unphotographable difference between a twitch and a wink. For to wink is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code.

You could ask, “Why did the boy’s eyelid contract?” That helps you answer the question, “What was that?”

According to Berry Tholen (“Bridging the gap between research traditions: on what we can really learn from Clifford Geertz.” Critical Policy Studies 12.3 (2018): 335-349.),

Three aspects of Deep Play are most often cited as exemplary for interpretive research in the social sciences:
• trying to understand people as they understand themselves;
• offering understandings by presenting thick descriptions and
• using text-analysis as the paradigm for studying societal meanings.

What is the relevance of this kind of inquiry to policy?

1) It reminds us that “what?” is often as hard and important a question as “why?”

I was recently the principal investigator for a social science research project asking whether a new arts venue in Boston’s Chinatown—the Pao Arts Center—benefits community members, specifically by improving their mental health. This is a causal question, and we investigated it using surveys and interviews. Ideally, researchers would randomly assign people to get the “treatment” of the Pao Arts Center, or not, and measure its effects on hard outcomes, like stress hormones.

But there is also a question of “what.” On a given afternoon at Pao, the auditorium might be a venue for a classical Chinese opera or a spoken-word performance by a young Asian-American artist. What are those things? I have so little background in Chinese opera that I can only give the thinnest description (“Chinese opera”). I cannot thicken those words to say, “This is an excellent, if conventional, performance of an opera from the Beijing court tradition.” Or, “This is a subversive postmodern version of a well-known classic.” Or, “This is an incompetent effort to perform a classic.” I do not know how to thicken the description, but I could ask better-informed observers or learn more myself.

Only once we know what the art is can we know whether that kind of art helps with mental health. Hence our project deliberately combined humanities scholars from Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies with public health scholars from the Tufts Medical School.

2) It requires certain methods.

How can we know what a culturally complex object is? How does Geertz go about knowing? This is a moment to talk about ethnography, textual analysis, and other methods of interpretation. And it is a moment to ask whether interpretations are arbitrary and subjective, or whether they can be valid.

3) It recognizes that human beings do not always act for outcomes.

Geertz asserts (citing Weber, vaguely) that “the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence” (p. 16). We sometimes act not to do things but to “increase the meaningfulness” of things. If that is true, policy analysts and policymakers should take meaning into consideration.

To return to our original policy question: What is a school in modern America? What is a school within a given system of school assignment? What is a “no-excuses” charter school, or a de facto segregated neighborhood school, or a small-town school that serves everyone?

Martin Luther King as a philosopher

I am teaching a seminar on the political philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. The salient issues include race and racism, peace and violence, the nature of democracy, and the meaning of American history. At the same time, I am personally interested in what it means to treat King as a philosopher and to define philosophy to include what King does.

His words are meant to affect events in the world. Often he reflects on what has just happened. His written and spoken words belong to episodes (such as specific boycotts), campaigns (like Montgomery or Birmingham), and the Freedom Movement as a whole. These episodes and campaigns are expressions of ideas that King puts into words, as do his colleagues in the same movement.

King is often obviously strategic. To name just one example, he says that he “should indicate why” he has come to Birmingham. The answer he gives–he is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which has a Birmingham chapter that asked him to come–is not in any respect false. But it is also far from the whole truth. King has good strategic reasons not to write, “We struggled in Albany, GA because the police chief there was savvy and media-friendly and avoided confrontation. His counterpart in Birmingham, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, is an overtly white supremacist bully who can be counted on to react violently, and we have rushed here just in time to confront him on national TV before his term in office ends.” This would be part of the truth but would not be smart strategy to say.

A more troubling example is the opening sentence of Stride to Freedom: “On December 1, 1955, an attractive Negro seamstress, Mrs. Rosa Parks, boarded the Cleveland Avenue Bus …” In these pages, King evades the fact that Rosa Parks was a deeply experienced and trained organizer whose main issue had been sexual violence against Black women, which (as he neglects to say) was relevant to the Montgomery Bus Boycott because White drivers harassed Black female passengers. But again, King is being strategic: picking his battles, reading his audience.

King is also prophetic, in a particular sense. The Hebrew prophets don’t have crystal balls and don’t pretend to make forecasts. They admonish their audiences to action. They are prophetic not in the sense of prediction but exhortation; they try to make things true. Thus, when King writes, “the goal of America is freedom,” that is not a description of a trend over time. It is an effort to make freedom become America’s goal. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God.”

A frequent interpretive question is whether we should take any given argument strictly on its face. For instance, King makes a quick but tight argument for natural law in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. To paraphrase: human beings have certain natural capacities to flourish; a law is just if it “uplifts” those capacities and unjust if it “degrades” them.

Does King believe in natural law? Or is this a strategic move in a letter to pastors? (I would say: both.) This exegetical question doesn’t really matter if you view King as a political leader, but it is important if you want to take him fully seriously as a theorist.

One view of philosophy is that it is all about truth and is carefully distinct from strategic discourse and prophesy (and religious faith). There is a sense in which King is less of a truth-teller than, say, James Baldwin in the same years. He is more likely to think about how a specific audience (including a morally unreliable white audience) will react to his words and tailors them accordingly to produce the results he wants. He is more likely to express ideas that he hopes will prevail in order to make them come true, even though he knows they have not ever yet been true.

On the other hand, all moral and political philosophy is writing (or speech) that aims to affect an audience. It always has outcomes, whether intended or not, and whether in the direction of change or stasis. Like King, Machiavelli and Hobbes wrote for explicit audiences and may have wanted to persuade other audiences implicitly. As Machiavelli addressed the Medici, so King writes a letter to white pastors that he knows will be read by many others.

King is, however, much more thoughtful than most modern professional philosophers are about the ethics of his speech-as-action. (To say that he is thoughtful does not mean he is always right, as the Rosa Parks example indicates). He must be more thoughtful because he bears a far heavier burden. As a leader of a movement of oppressed people, he doesn’t really have “freedom of speech.” He has a responsibility to use his speech effectively under severe constraints. And that makes his texts all the more complex as works of philosophy.

See also: syllabus of a course on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; some thoughts on natural law; “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses,” against inevitability; and what is public philosophy?

The French Republic denounces the French State

“In tribute to the thousands of Jews of the Rhone who were tortured and executed, deported and exterminated in 1942, 1943, and 1944.

Let the locations of their martyrdom be engraved in our memory:

Fort Montluc, The School of Military Medicine, the Hotel Terminus, Rue Sainte Catherine, Rue Sainte-Helene, the Catelin cul-de-sac, Venessieux Camp, Neyron, Rillieux, Dorieux Bridge, Bron, Saint Genis Laval.

Let those who helped them, at risk to their lives, be thanked forever.

The French Republic, in tribute to the victims of racist and antisemitic persecution and crimes against humanity committed under the de facto authority called the “Government of the State of France” (1940-44). Let us never forget.

This is a pair of plaques on the wall of the former School Military Medicine in Lyon, headquarters of Lyon’s Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie. The building was used for frequent torture and executions until it was destroyed by Allied bombers; the site is now a small Museum of the the Resistance and Deportation.

What should we make of the French Republic denouncing the Government of the State of France?

One view might be that individual human beings are always the only responsible parties. In 1940-4 in France, human beings denounced Jews, or killed them, or saved them, or did nothing. They also actively supported, complicitly upheld, resentfully accepted, subtly undermined, or bravely resisted the government of France as it was constituted before, during, and after WWII. They should be judged on whether they hurt or helped people and whether they strove to make their governments just.

That view denies all moral agency to groups and institutions, which would have some problematic implications. It would mean, for one thing, that responsibility never survives a change of generations. If an individual didn’t denounce Jews in 1941, that person has nothing to be concerned about. We are born with a clean slate.

Yet an individual can inherit the advantages of an institution, such as the French Republic (or the USA). Not only does a state have has a treasury from which it pays benefits–and which represents the accumulated balance of all its past debts and credits–but it also shapes and realizes citizens’ rights. Insofar as our rights are important components of our identity, a state helps to constitute us.

Another view is that France (again, like the USA) is a morally responsible entity to which its citizens are tied, like it or not. The past belongs to the living. Today’s French inherit the responsibility for Vichy as much as for the Third or Fourth Republic that bracketed it, because they inherit France.

But surely we bear more responsibility for democratic governments than for authoritarian governments that rule us in our name. In that sense, the sins of the French republics should perhaps weigh more on modern French people than those of Vichy. Yet we know that Vichy was pretty popular, and the Third Republic was rickety. Public support is a sliding scale, not an on/off switch. So is any government’s responsiveness to the public.

Also, the laws and policies that result from a democratic process depend on precisely how the democracy is organized. Americans would have different laws if we elected one unicameral legislature with 10,000 members as our sole branch of government. We are constituted in one way; we (the same people) could be constituted differently. The US has not been re-constituted since 1789, although some of the changes have been pretty basic. France was definitely reconstituted in 1940 and again in 1945-.

I am inclined to think that the French Republic is an institution that is distinct from Vichy, as proven by the armed conflict between the two. The Republic can describe Vichy as an “it.” The Republic speaks just as it pays bills or forbids you from walking on the grass: as a corporate body.

However, the Republic has particular corporate responsibilities for the crimes of Vichy, not because the two states are the same thing, but because the Republic inherited the debts and assets of Vichy, like a business that buys a bankrupt firm. One of the Republic’s many assets is the address at which Klaus Barbie tortured his victims, and France is obligated to memorialize that space in the right way.

Meanwhile, French citizens have a particular obligation to assess whether the Republic is saying the right things. Reading those plaques on the wall, a French person should not ask, “Do I say that?” The speaker is the state, not the citizen. Instead, the citizen should ask, “Do I endorse the Republic’s saying that?” If not, the citizen should speak to the Republic by expressing a public criticism, because it is, after all, the citizens’ state (res publica).

By the way, I think the first plaque is the statement, and the second attributes it to the Republic as its author. Although the second plaque has no punctuation, I think the last three words form an imperative sentence in the third-person-plural: “Let us never forget.” The Republic expresses its view and then refers to a “we.” The metaphysics is odd here, but I this may be a way of capturing the particular relationship between a people and their state. The state is telling its own people to do something as individuals: read and remember.

In turn, the people may–and should–judge the state, including this declaration that they can read on the public plaques. However, the French people cannot unanimously and directly decide this position about the Deportation, or any different stance. Rather, they can act as individuals through the mechanisms of government to make a corporate change.

(Written on the way home from Lyon. See also: against methodological individualism; why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; what constitutes coordination?; rebirth without metaphysics; is social science too anthropocentric?; how many foundings has the US had?); Social Ontology 2018: The 11th Biennial Collective Intentionality Conference; and system, organism, person, organization, institution: some definitions.

nature includes our inner lives

(posted in Montreal)

For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick up and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.

Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (1920), pp. 28-9

Here are three widely-held presumptions:

  1. All truth is scientific truth. Any claim that isn’t scientific is an opinion.
  2. Nature is everything that science investigates, including the human or social world.
  3. Science means a suite of methods that strive to represent nature without influence from the observer. A scientific truth is one that would obtain even if there were no scientist. This is an aspiration; any given scientific claim is actually subject to bias. But the goal is to remove subjectivity to understand nature.

Whitehead disputes these assumptions (as have many since him). I came across the quoted sentence in an article by Bruno Latour entitled, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.”* Latour’s provocative article sent me to Whitehead’s original text, which elaborates his argument. A little later in The Concept of Nature, Whitehead writes:

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.

Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. The meeting point of these two natures is the mind, the causal nature being influent and the apparent nature being effluent

I acknowledge that we have often made progress in understanding specific phenomena (in the social world as well as what we call “nature”) by employing techniques that isolate the object from the perceiving human subject. An astronomer wants to know how the universe works regardless of how people perceive it, uncovering truths that would apply even if there were no sentient observers at all. Many methods that we label scientific aim for that kind of understanding. Quantification and blind experiments are two rather different examples.

Meanwhile, we have learned about human beings’ subjectivity. We have studied people’s experiences, their causes, and how they differ. Sometimes we treat subjectivity as another phenomenon that we can study objectively. And sometimes we express or convey our own subjectivity in first-person terms.

The problem that Whitehead decries is the bifurcation. When the earth rotates so that the line of sight between a human observer and the sun becomes partially obscured, molecules and waves are involved in the process. But you, the human observer, also truly see something that you call a “red sunset.” It has formal qualities and significance, even symbolism, for you as a human observer. It is not true that only the molecules and waves are “nature,” hence that only they can be understood using science. Your reaction to the sun’s setting is also part of reality, even if you phrase it as idiosyncratically as Edith Wharton did:

Leaguered in fire
The wild black promontories of the coast extend
Their savage silhouettes;
The sun in universal carnage sets ...

-- Wharton, "An Autumn Sunset"

*Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 2004), pp. 225-248. See also introspect to reenchant the inner life and is all truth scientific truth?

some thoughts on natural law

Those RULES of old discover’d, not devis’d,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodis’d;
Nature, like liberty, is but restrain’d
By the same laws which first herself ordain’d.

– Pope, An Essay on Criticism (writing here of aesthetic laws)

… the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God  …

The Declaration of Independence

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

As I begin to teach a course on Martin Luther King–and while thinking about how to teach civics at all levels–I am giving renewed consideration to the idea of natural law. This is a matter for debate (and should be presented as such), but here are some personal thoughts:

A substantial part of any concept of natural law is a set of rights. Rights impose obligations. If I have a right to life, you have an obligation not to kill me. If I have a right to an education, someone has an obligation to pay for my schooling. These obligations fall on both individuals and institutions. For instance, my right to life implies not only that you may not kill me but that some kind of state must protect me.

To honor and protect others’ rights is obligatory. It is a moral and not merely a legal duty.

Governments do not create rights and obligations, because we can and must assess any given government by asking whether it protects the rights that people deserve.

Other animals have rights because people have obligations to treat them ethically. But non-human animals do not have rights in relation to each other. In that sense, rights are human, although they extend to humans’ treatment of other species.

Rights are linked to the organism’s characteristics as a natural species. For instance, we human beings are born helpless, remain interdependent, yet develop unique goals and desires that are rooted in our private mental lives. Our rights would be different if we had no need for each other, or no private lives at all–or if we differed in other fundamental ways from actual homo sapiens.

Rights are connected to happiness, which means–not the balance of pleasure over pain–but some deeper form of flourishing or self-realization. Flourishing for human beings is natural in the same way that a mouse or an apple tree has certain natural ways of flourishing.

At the same time, one of the unusual and fundamental features of human beings is our ability to flourish in many different ways, and so we have a right to choose our own paths or be the authors of our own lives. This right to choose is based on our ability and desire to choose, which is a natural characteristic.

I have suggested that fundamental interests, needs, and goods are rooted in nature. However, it is not a natural principle that anyone has an obligation to protect or provide for the needs of anyone else. An individual rabbit has a profound interest in not being eaten, yet a fox does not have an obligation to refrain from eating rabbits. Nature is red in tooth and claw.

We are obligated to honor everyone else’s rights, which are based in their natural interests, but this obligation is not natural. It comes from somewhere else. If you think it comes from God, that is fine, but the obligation is then divine and supra-natural, not (merely) natural.

Perhaps we have an instinct to universal beneficence that emerges from our everyday sympathy for other people and animals. That instinct could be seen as the natural (not divine) basis for our commitment to universal rights. Mengzi puts it very well:

Humans all have hearts that are not unfeeling toward others. Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: everyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion—not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among their neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sounds of the child’s cries. [F]?rom this we can see that if one is without the heart of compassion, one is not a human. If one is without the heart of deference, one is not a human. The heart of compassion is the sprout of benevolence. The heart of disdain (shame/disgust) is the sprout of righteousness. The heart of deference is the sprout of propriety. The heart of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom.” (2A6; see also 6A6)

Quoted in Owen Flanagan, The Geography of Morals (p. 57). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

However, we have many instincts, including warlike, competitive, and cruel ones. Universal beneficence seems a subtle and rare sprout in the wild garden of our instincts. To select and cultivate that particular sprout may be wise and right, but it is a choice that’s not itself directed by nature.

Nature can be understood as everything that science can explain (and science is any valid explanation of nature). So defined, “nature” offers no basis for obligations. A purely empirical study of nature would suggest that members of any species, including homo sapiens, are unequal in capacity, frequently selfish, and fully determined by physical processes rather than choice. We can broaden our understanding of nature to encompass things like obligations, purposes, and goods–for instance, happiness as the purpose of human beings, and non-domination is a good required for happiness. But then nature is not exhausted by positivist science.

Partly because positivist science does not comprehend things like rights, it is very hard for people to know the ideal list of rights and their correlative obligations. All of our ancestors were wrong about some rights–according to us–which means that we ought to be humble about our own ability to know the ideal list.

The best we can do is to decide, in reasonably fair and reflective forums, which rights and obligations ought to apply to whom. That means that although governments do not create rights, people must identify and determine rights through politics and in institutions such as governments. We should expect their outcomes to vary over time and space, not because rights are mere matters of opinion, but because the only way we can know real rights is to exchange and test our opinions.

In conclusion, I feel comfortable speaking of law that is importantly connected to nature, and especially to the nature of human beings. Understanding it requires reflection on our natural circumstances. But I wouldn’t call it “natural law” if that implies that it is part of, or determined by, nature, because it has sources other than nature itself.

See also: is science republican (with a little r)?; science, law, and microagressions; my self, your self, ourselves; the moral significance of instinct, with special reference to having a dog; is everyone religious?; is all truth scientific truth?; latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare; and Korsgaard on animals and ethics.