Monthly Archives: February 2010

university-community partnerships for research

Tufts President Larry Bacow holds an annual symposium for Tufts faculty, students, and staff and various nonprofit leaders, government officials, and residents of the communities in which we work (Somerville and Medford, Massachusetts, plus Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood). Today’s symposium attracted more than 100 participants and was focused on research.

I like Bacow’s framing: The University has two “products”: educated graduates and knowledge. Some of the knowledge we can and should produce can be generated privately: he mentioned pure philosophy. as an example. But some faculty must create knowledge in partnerships with communities, because of the nature of their research. For example, one cannot envision, develop, and implement an experimental “treatment” to address a social problem without serious input from people in the communities affected.

Mixed groups worked at small tables to discuss fictional scenarios involving research. (For full disclosure: I had written those scenarios.) At our table, the fictional story began with a nonprofit service agency that had done no evaluation before it approached Tufts for help. Colleagues at my table rejected this premise. They argued that community organizations inevitably evaluate; it’s just that their evaluations may not be formal or explicit. That was interesting feedback for me, because we are approached at least once a month by nonprofits that say, “We have never done any evaluation; can CIRCLE help us?” I’m thinking that a good response may often be, “You have evaluated, and we should start with what you have learned already.”

Two important practical challenges emerged. 1) Universities tend to capture the lion’s share of funds, especially overhead, from joint grants. And 2) it is very hard to get tenure for the kind of patient work that community partnerships require.

On that second point, I think the best advice comes from Imagining America’s report, Scholarship in Public. These are some key points in that report: 1) There is a huge range of quality in community research, and by no means all of it should be rewarded; we need standards of excellence. 2) Community research often takes the form of multi-part projects or programs. Tenure committees should evaluate whole projects, not publications. 3) The issue of promotion is especially sensitive because faculty from minority backgrounds are the most likely to do community-based research.

idea for a moral philosophy survey

I suspect that people make moral judgments based on a mix of principles, rules, virtues, moral exemplars, and stories. My own philosophical position is that these factors are on a single plane. Principles need not underlie stories, for example. There can be a web of influence or implication that connects all these different kinds of factors. It can be legitimate for a story to imply a principle, a principle to imply respect for an exemplar, the exemplar to suggest respect for a virtue, which implies a different principle. None is necessarily primary or foundational.

As an empirical matter, people differ (I assume) in how their moral thought is organized. If you envision each moral factor as a node, and each implication from one factor to another as a network tie, then we each have a moral network map in our mind. But for some, the map will look like an organizational chart, with a few very broad principles at the bottom, which imply narrower principles, which imply specific judgments. For others, a single story (like the Gospels, or one’s own traumatic experience) lies at the center, and everything else radiates out. Some may have a random-looking network map, with lots of nodes and connections but no order. And some–whether by chance or not–will have what’s called a “scale-free” network, in which 20% of the nodes are responsible for 80% of the ties. That kind of network is robust and coherent, but not ordered like a flow chart. The 20% of “power nodes” may be a mix of stories, exemplars, principles, and virtues.

I would further hypothesize that people of similar cultures have similar moral network maps.

How to find out? I wonder if you could give people an online survey that led with a fairly realistic but fictional moral situation.* It would be something close to lived experience, not a scenario like a trolley problem that is contrived to bring abstract principles to the surface.

Respondents could then be asked:

1. What principles (if any) influence you when you think about what you should do?

2. Whom would you imitate (if anyone) when you’re deciding what to do?

3. What virtues (if any) would you try to embody when you’re deciding what to do?

4. What stories (if any) come to mind when you’re deciding what to do?

All of a respondent’s answers could then be displayed on a screen, randomly scattered across the plane. The respondent could be given a drawing tool and asked to draw arrows (one- or two-directional) between factors that seem to influence or support other ones. Those data would generate a moral network map for the individual, and we would see how much the structure of people’s maps differ.

*It would be very challenging to write a scenario that didn’t bias responses toward one kind of moral factor. It would also be difficult to create a fictional scenario that had salience for different people. But the general idea would be to create a nuanced, complex, realistic situation demanding a moral response. For me personally, the kind of fictional story that would resonate would be something like this: “Your child attends a local public school. She’s doing well academically and learning some academic material in classes, although not as much as she could. The school is racially and culturally diverse, and she benefits from learning about people who are demographically different. White, middle-class students perform better on standardized tests within this school than their peers who are children of color. The principal is caring and concerned with equity but does not seem to have a vision. The teacher is not especially nice but does seem effective at raising all children’s test scores. Options for you include moving your kid to a different school, becoming more involved in the school’s governance, or advocating for a policy change. What do you feel you should do?”

going deeper on gay marriage

At a meeting last week, we discussed whether gay marriage makes a good topic for discussion in a philosophy or civics course at the high school or college level. Some participants argued that there are no good secular, public reasons against gay marriage. Students (at any level) may have personal convictions against it, but they can only disclose those convictions (if they dare). They will not be able to make arguments relevant to fellow students who hold different convictions. All the neutral arguments favor gay marriage. And that makes it a poor choice for a discussion topic.

I’m not certain that’s correct, but I do think that gay marriage is nested in broader issues that make better discussion topics. IF we should live in a liberal, democratic state that is neutral about religion, AND IF that state should give special legal recognition and benefits to “marriage,” defined as a very specific contract between pairs of consenting adults, THEN that recognition and those benefits should be available to gay citizens as well as straight ones. That argument seems very straightforward to me and virtually impossible to refute on its own terms. But …

Should we live in a liberal, democratic state that is neutral about religion? That’s a good, complicated, heavily-discussed topic. It raises thorny cases. For example, Martin Luther King was a Christian minister and theologian who made brilliant, “faith-based” arguments against segregation. Those arguments influenced policymakers and voters in our liberal democracy. Was his influence appropriate? If so, why?

Second, should the state recognize and provide benefits for only certain kinds of contracts, defined as “marriages?” Today, in some states, gays may marry legally. But everyone who marries enters into a contract that has certain features. It is designed to be permanent, although there is an intentionally difficult escape hatch in the form of divorce. It combines in one package monogamous sexual intimacy, economic unity, parenting and adoption rights, cohabitation, tax benefits, inheritance, and other legal privileges. Clearly, these elements could be unpacked and offered a la carte.

In practice, marriages do differ. Some people who marry are never sexual partners nor plan to be. Some couples do not expect or value monogamy. Prenuptial agreements may override the principle of economic unity or common property. Yet it remains important that the state — and social custom — favors one model of marriage (even when gay marriage is permitted).

I think this second issue (standardized legal marriages versus a la carte contracts) is pretty interesting. If legal marriage became very flexible, it would be like forcing everyone to negotiate their own prenuptial agreements. I would personally hate that idea. It seems extremely stressful to have to invent one’s own model of marriage as a couple and then write it all down in legal terms. I would much rather buy into an existing legal and social norm. But this seems like a worthy topic of discussion.

complaint choirs

According to the folks at,

    In the Finnish vocabulary there is an expression “Valituskuoro”. It means “Complaints Choir” and it is used to describe situations where a lot of people are complaining simultaneously. [Talervo] Kalleinen and [Oliver] Kochta-Kalleinen thought: “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to take this expression literally and organise a real Complaints Choir!”

Thanks to their work, there have been complaint choirs around the world. Here’s an example from Chicago:

In a serious mode, I would complain about these complaints–where are the solutions? But I’m happy to lighten up and enjoy the show, in particular the natural juxtaposition of the merely personal with the grandly political: “Our president is a cowboy / I hate my homeowners association.” It’s the lifeworld and the public sphere all mashed together and set to music. A democratic art.

stop problematizing–say something

In the humanities today, a pervasive rhetorical style is to raise questions or “problematize.” A humanist will describe his or her work as “putting into question” technology, or marriage, or Jane Austen. I think this style is problematic (irony intended) for the following reasons …

It’s usually a way of expressing an opinion. You put technology in question (for instance) because you’re against some aspect of it. But vague question-raising allows you to duck accountability for your own views. If you said, “Technology is harmful,” people would be able to test your thesis, cite difficult examples, and put alternative opinions on the table. If all you say is that you want to raise questions about technology, the accountability falls on your interlocutors and you avoid having to defend your position (even to yourself).

This style also allows you to avoid specifying the degree of certainty or generality of your views. Are you just vaguely uncomfortable about a popular enthusiasm, or do you have reasons and evidence in favor of a critical view? If all you do is “problematize,” you don’t have to say.

Perhaps scholars adopt this style in modesty, but it comes across as insufferably arrogant. Picture a literary critic or a philosopher who is talking to students or other citizens who have marriages in their families. The humanist says that he or she wishes to “problematize” marriage. Well, marriage is subject to criticism. But the style of simply raising questions implies that you’re smart and sophisticated because you see problems with other people’s deep commitments. Yet you don’t have solutions or alternatives. The clear implication is that other people are stupid. In contrast, if you said that there were reasons to scrap marriage in favor of free contracts between consenting adults, you’d be putting your own views on the line, subjecting them to debate. That would come across as much less arrogant, because you would risk losing the argument. (If all you do is raise questions, you can’t lose.)

As a pedagogy or as a way of intervening in public debates, merely raising questions seems to imply that our problem is credulity, or prejudice, or a failure to grasp difficulties. In fact, when it comes to moral matters, I think skepticism comes all too quickly and conveniently, justifying self-interest and complacency. As Bernard Williams wrote, “Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.” (More on that here.)

I suspect that the questioning style reflects a deep skepticism about normative judgments. The reasons for this skepticism include cultural relativism and a cult of expertise (which implies that scholars should only address what they are trained to address; and no one but a moral philosopher is trained to make moral claims.) If such skepticism is appropriate, then there really isn’t much social value to the humanities, and it’s not surprising that those disciplines are under-funded and under-appreciated. But if we can make valid ethical/normative statements, we should do so.

Note that you can make an explicit moral claim with due humility. You can propose it for argument, noting that there are valid alternatives and that even you aren’t sold on it. But I think responsible participation in the public sphere requires making explicit statements about what you value, and why. As long as the prevailing style is to problematize, the humanities will continue to hold a marginal role in public life.