Monthly Archives: September 2011

Good Society special issue on Elinor Ostrom

The Good Society has published a special symposium issue on the work of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School, which includes Lin’s husband Vincent Ostrom and their many colleagues and students. All study common property regimes, institutional design, the conditions under which voluntary collaboration occurs, and polycentric governance (governance understood as occurring at many levels and in many contexts). I contribute the first article, “Seeing Like a Citizen: The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to ‘Civic Studies.'” My good friends Harry Boyte and Karol Soltan also have pieces in the issue (“Public Work and the Politics of the Commons” and “A Civic Science”).

morality as a network (revisited)

(Syracuse, NY for a conference on Self among Selves: Emotion and the Common Life) Each of us holds many moral propositions. Some are abstract and general, like “Every person has equal moral worth.” Some look like rules or commands: “Do not kill human beings.” Some are more like positive or negative emotions about particular things or people, but we could translate them into propositions.

Some are intuitive. When they are very obvious, it can even seem obtuse to ask why they are valid. (“Why should you not randomly kill people for fun?” is a bad question.) But some of most important moral thoughts are rather particular, idiosyncratic, and in need of justification. For example, I sit here writing with a view of Tufts University, which is my employer. I feel some commitment to and fondness for Tufts, and I believe that my writing supports my work for Tufts (because it will ultimately find its way into an article). Those feelings could be translated into propositions. But each one requires justification and evidently connects to other propositions. To show that I am doing the right thing, I would owe a description of Tufts University and some premises about moral commitment (i.e., Why should one be committed to anything?). In the ensuing conversation, factual information might be relevant: Tufts actually does certain things. Morally evaluative terms would also arise and would need to be justified. The conversation about Tufts might well shift into related topics, such as the role of scholarship in a democracy, the value of democracy, the place of philosophy as scholarship, or the quality of my scholarly work.

We could view all the morally relevant propositions that I hold as nodes in a network. My relationship to each node may be a straightforward endorsement, but it may be more complicated than that. (See the concept of propositional attitude.) For instance, Anne Swidler finds (Talk of Love, 2001) that many middle class Americans have in their heads what they call a “Movie” ideal of love. They do not believe it. They view it with some irony. But they appeal to it in certain situations and they feel its force over them. If we translated that Hollywood ideal into propositions (e.g., Every individual has a perfect romantic match;  finding that person guarantees happiness), most Americans would both endorse and strongly deny those statements.

Many of my moral beliefs and ideas are connected to other nodes, but not necessarily in one way. Depending on what two nodes say, it can be the case that:

  • A logically entails B
  • A causes B
  • A makes B more likely
  • A is a step on a long path toward B
  • A and B are in fruitful tension: incompatible, yet both worthy of support
  • A resembles B
  • A prevents B
  • B echoes A
  • I am impressed by people who believe A, and they also tend to believe B
  • People with a given kind of experience tend to believe both A and B
  • A and B are examples of C

… and so on.

When we try to assess whether people are good, or whether what they does is right, we often ask about the separate propositions that these individuals hold. For instance, anyone who thinks that Jews are evil is worse for that reason, regardless of what else he may think or do. That is a node in his network, and we have a strong moral intuition about it.

But in many cases, we do not have confident intuitions about the separate nodes, nor should we, because they have no moral valence out of context. So a different question to ask about a network is: How is it structured?

I think that question has been addressed too narrowly (in the philosophical writing that I know). The question always seems to be whether the network is coherent and whether each component is entailed by broader, more abstract, more “foundational” premises. Kant, Mill, Rawls, and many others analyze morality that way. They presume that a moral network map should be organized as a tree, with abstract generalities at the root, and particular applications at the branches. But that is only one type of diagram. I see no reason to assume it’s the best; it is certainly vulnerable to skepticism about the premises that lie at the root. Nor is coherence evidently desirable: I admire more a person who is aware of moral tensions and inconsistencies than one who has simplified his principles to remove all conflict.

A very common goal of moral reflection (not only among professional philosophers) is to weed out the weaker aspects of a person’s network. “Critical thinking” is supposed to be a matter of getting rid of the mere prejudices and unsupported assumptions, conflicts, and fallacious connections. Professional philosophers often impose what Amartya Sen calls “informational restraints” to weed out nodes and links. They certainly disagree about which considerations to ignore: for example, Kantians reject consequences, Rawls erects a veil of ignorance to hide our place in society, and utilitarians screen out motives as primary evidence about what should be done. Most, however, will agree that anecdotes about specific individuals are subject to bias; that simple arguments from authority are fallacious; that strong emotional responses must be translatable into valid propositions; that evidence about consequences only matters to the extent that we can assess outcomes by an independent standard; that the use of precedents and comparisons requires justification; and that rules or principles that can be generalized are more reliable than those that are narrow and ad hoc.

As Bernard Williams writes in a slightly different context, theorists tend to criticize–and seek to delete–intuitive or conventional moral concepts, but “our major problem now is that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.”

Instead of seeking to delete nodes or connections that are unreliable, and instead of trying to make the whole network look like a flowchart with the summum bonum at the base, I would ask:

  • How extensive is the network?
  • How many connections does the person draw? (How dense is the network?)
  • Are the nodes that have the most connections intuitively correct?
  • Are the nodes that have the most connections intuitively weighty?
  • Have the conflicts been recognized and led to appropriate conclusions, or have they been ignored?
  • Are there free-standing nodes, and if so, are they justified in any way?

(I have  explored related ideas in posts on How to Save the Enlightenment Ideal and Moral Thinking as a Network.

because something is important, it doesn’t follow that we should require everyone to study it

  • According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history. … Thirty-five states [get] an F because their standards require little or no mention of the movement, [the report] says.” (New York Times, 9/28)
  • “Most states do not include in their social studies/history standards a direct mention of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to a new study [released by CIRCLE], and only four states actually name Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda.” (Washington Post, 9/9)
  • “California will become the first state to require public schools to teach gay and lesbian history. As expected, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill on Thursday that mandates that the contributions of gays and lesbians in the state and the country be included in social science instruction and in textbooks ” (New York Times, 7/14)

Like everyone else, I have opinions about what Americans should know. I think, for example, that the Civil Rights Movement should be understood by everyone. It is not only a story of race in America (which is an essential topic), but also an example of democratic participation.

Yet it seems crucial to distinguish among several issues:

  1. Which bodies of knowledge we wish everyone would know.
  2. Whether lasting knowledge will result if we teach any given topic for a limited amount of time in school.
  3. What kinds of educational experiences we want students to have, e.g., in-depth research projects on a few topics, or a lecture on a different topic every day.
  4. What are the effects of any given state law or mandate, considering not only its content (e.g., “Teach gay history!”), but also the carrots and sticks that the law imposes.
  5. Whether it is wise to standardize the curriculum across a whole state.
  6. Whether states, districts, schools, communities, teachers, or teachers-plus-students should make curricular decisions.
  7. Which signals we wish to send as a society about the topics we consider important.

I think almost all the discussion is about #7. If we don’t require the teaching of 9/11, civil rights history, or gay history, the lack of a mandate is interpreted as a sign of unconcern–hence disrespect. The result is a default presumption that everything important should be included in state standards. And the standards become voluminous lists.

But the other questions listed above also deserve consideration. We found, for example, that whether the First Amendment was included in state standards had no effect on whether students could answer survey questions about the First Amendment. It did matter whether they had studied the topic, but not what their state law or policies said. Presumably, statewide content mandates do not encourage teaching that leads to lasting knowledge.

All in all, I would prefer that some of our students do in-depth research projects on the Civil Rights Movement and really learn it, rather than require all our students to memorize a few key facts about the Movement that may show up on a standardized test. I make that choice with some reluctance, because I really do think the Movement has transcendent importance. But I would bet that kids will forget almost everything they cram for a test, especially if it covers a long list of topics, whereas they will benefit permanently from a deep experience wrestling with a complex topic that they and their teacher find interesting. I am not in favor of unilateral disarmament–dropping the Civil Rights Movement but leaving 9/11 and the Mayflower Compact in the standards. Instead, I’d like to see a radical shift from lists of topics to core skills and concepts.

does naturalism make room for the humanities?

On the New York Times “The Stone” blog (contributed by philosophers), the Duke philosopher Alex Rosenberg wrote recently that he is a naturalist. He explained, “Naturalism is the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge.”

Near the end of the article, Rosenberg asks whether history and literary theory “provide real understanding.” He acknowledges that these disciplines can be valuable even if they don’t. Maybe we human beings need them for psychological reasons or simply enjoy them–much as we enjoy fiction. But that doesn’t mean they offer knowledge. He doesn’t quite say whether they do or not, but he writes, “if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than forgoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.”

By the the last clause of this passage, Rosenberg seems to be saying that history and literary theory do not generate knowledge. (In a reply piece in “The Stone,” William Egginton simply says, “Professor Rosenberg’s answer is as unequivocal as it is withering: just like fiction, literary theory can be ‘fun,’ but neither one qualifies as ‘knowledge.'”)

But that can’t be right. Here are two examples of findings from the humanities. From history: “George Washington was the first president of the United States.” From literary criticism: Dante’s character Francesca da Rimini speaks almost entirely in misquotations from earlier literature. These are verifiable (or falsifiable) claims.

Indeed, if we had no naturalistic information about literary texts or about the past, it would very strange. Ordinary documents (novels, poems, etc.) would be mysteries, and we would be like amnesiacs, with no access to the past. Rosenberg can’t mean that.

I think the nub of the issue arises in this sentence:

If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.

Earlier, Rosenberg had mentioned history, literary criticism, and literary theory as disciplines that may not be naturalistic and that may not produce real knowledge. But his specific examples are all approaches to literary theory that arose in Germany and France  after 1900 and have powerfully influenced humanists at Duke University. They are approaches to reading texts–but more than that, they are philosophical doctrines. Most of them are explicitly critical of naturalistic philosophy in the tradition of David Hume.

Rosenberg is entitled to criticize those philosophies: they are in conflict with his own. (So are some views taught and studied in philosophy departments.) But his apparent identification of particular theories, such as structuralism and deconstruction, with the whole disciplines of literary criticism and history seems problematic. It reflects, I think, some lingering bitterness between particularly influential postmodernists and analytical philosophers at institutions like Duke.

Perhaps he means that the humanities are inherently untrustworthy because some of their most prominent practitioners have endorsed theories incompatible with naturalism, whereas hardly any biologists or chemists have done so. But Rosenberg doesn’t make that point explicitly and instead seems to raise doubts about our knowledge of the past (“history”) and of literary texts. Strangely, his skepticism seems to resemble post-structuralism. Or perhaps all he wants to do is endorse forms of history and literary criticism that make verifiable claims. So would many humanists. Unless I misunderstand him, Rosenberg is operating with stereotypes about humanists that are no more fair than some stereotypes that one hears about analytical philosophers.

why we are choosing to abolish the jury system

According to Richard Oppel in today’s New York Times, just one in 40 felony cases goes to trial, down from one in twelve in the 1970s. Mandatory sentencing laws have given prosecutors the ability to threaten long prison terms that can’t be limited by juries or judges. Almost all defendants plea-bargain to avoid those sentences. As one federal judge told Oppel, “We hardly have trials anymore.”

The mandatory sentencing laws were passed by referenda or by popular votes in state legislatures. Influenced by Albert Dzur’s work, I would say that the people (using the ballot box) have chosen to remove the people (convened as jurors) from criminal law. This choice perfectly illustrates my greatest worry: that we have lost trust in both institutions and one another.

A majority of Americans distrust the criminal justice system, and they are mainly concerned that the guilty will go free. Crime remains high, by comparative standards. People are afraid of it, in part because of media sensationalism. And attitudes toward crime are infused with race. Thus majorities vote to impose simple, understandable rules on the whole system, like “Three Strikes” in California. One ironic result is to transform criminal cases from transparent public events (full of explicit moral rhetoric) into bargaining sessions managed behind the scenes by lawyers. That is a recipe for even lower trust, which encourages even more draconian sentencing laws. Meanwhile, at least some American are angry because we have incarcerated 2.29 million of our people, with terrible effects for their lives and communities and high costs to society. People (like me) who are angry from that direction get outvoted but contribute to low confidence.

The old system for ensuring that the public trusted the law (dating to Anglo Saxon times) was to empanel members of the public to hear actual cases. We could go back to that system. But there is no groundswell for such a remedy because Americans trust one another about as little as they trust major institutions, like the courts.

The results are very bad: not only is our incarceration rate unconscionable, not only do innocent people have reasons to plea-bargain to avoid draconian sentences, but democracy is distorted. We the people are wisest when we gather to discuss with others and when we focus on complex cases in their particular contexts. Then our everyday experience, diversity of backgrounds, and human sensitivities improve our thinking. We the people are least wise when we make simplistic decisions in the ballot box, without expertise and under the influence of advertising campaigns. But because we distrust the government and ourselves, we are substituting our most foolish mode of thought for our wisest one.