Monthly Archives: May 2013

character understood in network terms

In a random network, like (a) below, each node has an equal chance of being linked to any other, and the number of links per node will show a normal distribution. However, in most real networks (see “b”), a few nodes hog most of the links; the distribution is skewed. A rule of thumb–not a law of nature–is that 20% of the nodes draw 80% of the links in a naturally occurring network.

Two phenomena, among others, explain the tendency for links to cluster. First, some nodes are simply more important than others for reasons independent of the network’s structure. For instance, if an asteroid hit South Dakota, web pages devoted to asteroids would get more incoming links because the topic would be timely.

Second, the rich get richer. A node that already has a lot of links is easy to find and provides short pathways to other nodes, so there are reasons to link to it. In the case of websites, that phenomenon may be artificially exaggerated by Google, which uses the number of links to rank search results. But in a naturally occurring human network, it is smart to connect to people who are already well-connected. Regardless of their intrinsic merits, they draw more attention because they have more attention.

Now, consider one’s worldview as a set of ideas connected in various ways to each other. This network changes constantly. It tends to grow as you learn new things. You also forget or reject things that you once knew, but growth is the main tendency, at least for the first 25 years of life. Every time you are confronted with a new idea (from other people or direct observation), you will be inclined to connect it to existing ideas.

The two phenomena introduced earlier will encourage you to link the new idea to nodes that are already well-linked.

First, you will believe (rightly or wrongly) that some of your existing ideas are important, and you will link your new ideas to those. For instance, if you believe in God, that’s pretty important, and you will be inclined to ask of any new idea whether it connects to God. Perhaps it is evidence of His will or a sign of His glory.

Also, you will prefer ideas that you have already used to support other ideas. In network terms, you will look first to your high-traffic nodes as potential links to the new nodes that you are bringing into your map. They are more salient, and they allow you to connect the new idea to many old ideas.

This tendency to cluster has its dangers. It can be a cognitive bias, limitation, or “heuristic” in the bad sense of that word. It locks people into their current views. A fancy term for one relevant form of bias is asymmetric Bayesianism. Whenever a new idea or observation seems relevant to one of your favorite beliefs, you connect them and make the original belief even more central to your network. Whenever a new idea conflicts with an existing belief, you find reasons to shunt it off to the edge of the network. All your experiences reinforce your original idea.

But although clustering has dangers, I would defend it to a degree. For one thing, some ideas deserve more links than others. Whether a given moral belief deserves a lot of links is an important question. For example, it is true and bad that millions of children are hungry. But it is a different question whether that idea is linked to enough of our other beliefs. Their hunger should be relevant to many other questions, such as what I do with my own surplus income. To take a different example: the Holocaust was unthinkably bad. And it is relevant to the existence of the state of Israel. But I believe that the Holocaust is connected too often to other issues involving the contemporary Middle East, such as Israel’s relationship with Palestinians. It is not that each link is false or illegitimate, but the network is centered in the wrong place.

So your moral network should skew in favor of the right things. That is not question-begging: it rather poses an important question. Which beliefs should be central nodes?

Your moral network will also skew because of the rich-get-richer principle: ideas that you have already linked to many other ideas will attract new connections because of their prominence. I would like to challenge the premise that this is pure bias, a mere limitation.

If morality could be truly rational, then one of its hallmarks would be a lack of bias toward existing beliefs. All your ideas would also be mutually consistent. And there would be a reason for everything. You would not just believe P, you would always be able to give a reason for P.

I am afraid that I see morality differently from that. I think it is a tissue of beliefs and commitments that is relatively hard to construct and sustain. Each piece is easy to reject if we ask “Why?” But if we tear away at the tissue, we have nothing keeping us from just doing what we want. Morality is “faith-based,” whether the faith is in God or in the equality of human beings (a moral assumption not at all suggested by science).

Morality is also a means of building up a common worldview with other people. It is “socially constructed,” and constructing it allows us to live together, not merely in parallel. Again, if we ask “Why?” about each component of morality, we will just weaken the common tissue that we have spun together.

This does not mean that any moral beliefs will do, or that we needn’t be concerned about justification, consistency, logic, and other hallmarks of rationality. An inconsistency should be a source of concern and reflection. Automatically returning to a few well-traveled ideas is not satisfactory; we should strive to broaden our minds. On the other hand, we know that strongly clustered networks are robust. They work better and last longer than random-looking networks. Thus, even if two people endorse the same list of moral beliefs, I would wager that the one whose beliefs cluster will act better. I hope that my moral worldview does not center on false or bad nodes, but I do seek beliefs to which I can frequently turn. Those centers of my network map define my character or moral identity.

the new civic education article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

(Washington, DC) I am proud to announce that a new article on “Civic Education” is online on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is a peer-reviewed, free resource that I use regularly for a wide range of topics. Jack Crittenden originally wrote the article and did a very good job with it. At his request, I have thoroughly revised it, so that it now has two authors. Here are the philosophical questions that the article poses at the outset:

  • Who has the full rights and obligations of a citizen? This question is especially contested with regard to children, immigrant aliens, and individuals who have been convicted of felonies.
  • In what communities ought we see ourselves as citizens? The nation-state is not the only candidate; some people see themselves as citizens of local geographical communities, organizations, movements, loosely-defined groups, or even the world as a whole.
  • What responsibilities does a citizen of each kind of community have? Do all members of each community have the same responsibilities, or ought there be significant differences, for example, between elders and children, or between leaders and other members?
  • What is the relationship between a good regime and good citizenship? Aristotle held that there were several acceptable types of regimes, and each needed different kinds of citizens. That makes the question of good citizenship relative to the regime-type. But other theorists have argued for particular combinations of regime and citizen competence. For example, classical liberals endorsed regimes that would make relatively modest demands on citizens, both because they were skeptical that people could rise to higher demands and because they wanted to safeguard individual liberty against the state. Civic republicans have seen a certain kind of citizenship–highly active and deliberative–as constitutive of a good life, and therefore recommend a republican regime because it permits good citizenship.
  • Who may decide what constitutes good citizenship? If we consider, for example, students enrolled in public schools in the United States, should the decision about what values, habits, and capabilities they should learn belong to their parents, their teachers, the children themselves, the local community, the local or state government, or the nation-state? We may reach different conclusions when thinking about 5-year-olds and adult college students. As Sheldon Wolin warned: “…[T]he inherent danger…is that the identity given to the collectivity by those who exercise power will reflect the needs of power rather than the political possibilities of a complex collectivity” (1989, 13). For some regimes—fascist or communist, for example—this is not perceived as a danger at all but, instead, the very purpose of their forms of civic education. In democracies, the question is more complex because public institutions may have to teach people to be good democratic citizens, but they can decide to do so in ways that reinforce the power of the state and reduce freedom.
  • What means of civic education are ethically appropriate? It might, for example, be effective to punish students who fail to memorize patriotic statements, or to pay students for community service, but the ethics of those approaches would be controversial. An educator might engage students in open discussions of current events because of a commitment to treating them as autonomous agents, regardless of the consequences. As with other topics, the proper relationship between means and ends is contested.

Q&A on the IRS tax exemption controversy

Q. What is the main scandal?

Tax-exempt 501(c)4s, organized to promote “social welfare,” spent $254,279,733 to influence the 2012 election, despite an IRS regulation that “The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”

Q. Was it OK for IRS to search for the words “patriot” and “tea party” in 501(c)4 applications?

Absolutely not. The IRS and all federal agencies must be extremely careful about bias and even the appearance of bias. The predictable consequence was a political firestorm that will weaken regulation. The IRS staff also used a bad methodology because they missed the American Action Network, which spent $30.6 million on elections, and the American Crossroads GPS which spent $71 million. Both had 501(c)4 status. And they missed liberal groups which have also abused the 501(c)4 loophole.

Q. Are the Republicans going after the IRS to protect undisclosed private money in elections?

I don’t know. Norm Ornstein says they are. I would guess it’s a mix of motives–sincere anger and fear of the government, partisan advantage (because the Tea Party can be made to look like victims and Obama can be associated with Nixon), and a preemptive strike against campaign finance reform.

Q. Were any groups victimized?

Not really. They were free to operate while their applications were pending. They were even allowed to wait until after the election to file with the IRS. They may have been worried that their applications would ultimately be denied. If that was a worry, they could have registered instead as tax-exempt Section 527 organizations. But then they would have had to disclose their donors.

Q. Why didn’t House Republicans publicize the problem in March 2012?

Marc Tracy raised this question. I think I can answer it. The story had to break in the media in a way that put the “Tea Party” search term at the center. If the House GOP had raised the issue, especially during an election, the press would have treated it as a campaign finance story. Reporters would have asked questions about whether the 501(c)4 applications really had merit–what were these groups doing in the election? I don’t know whether House Republicans intentionally waited, but they certainly have more reason to emphasize the story now than a year ago.

Q. What will happen?

It will drag for many months. Public opinion will be polarized, and very few minds will be changed. There will be scattered stories that tie political officials to the IRS, and other scattered stories that reveal genuine abuses by Tea Party 501(c)4s. Different people will read the two kinds of articles. General trust in government may erode by a couple of points. Any legislation that emerges will be harmful–loosening the disclosure rules. But House legislation will die in the Senate.

the place of social impact in a university

social_impactTufts University has undertaken a strategic planning process, and one important development is a proposed revision of the traditional triad of teaching, research, and service. In the new scheme, “service” would be replaced with “Impact on Society.”

I served on a strategic planning committee devoted to “Impact on Society.” As someone who has advocated service and civic engagement since the 1980s, I welcome the turn to impact, because service is too often an afterthought and fundamentally un-serious. In practice, it means committee work or local volunteering that is disconnected from the academic mission of the university. Service never really counts for much in decisions about admissions and grading, hiring and promotion, or funding. Impact, in contrast, raises serious questions: What have you done for society? How much did it cost? Was the impact welcome? Was it good or bad?

Although I welcome the turn to impact, it does raise difficult questions that are now being debated on our campus. Here is just a sample:

  1. Isn’t everything we do “impact?” For example, don’t we have impact on society through all of our teaching and research? Put another way: what belongs in segment “e” of the Venn diagram above? Perhaps only clinical medical services and such policies as opening the gym to neighbors belong in “e.” In that case, the triad doesn’t really work, and we should return to calling teaching and research the core activities of the university, expecting both to have social impact along with other kinds of benefits (purely intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual, etc.). This suggests that the addition of “impact” is not very significant. Maybe it is just public relations, a way of claiming that our core activities have public value.
  2. On the other hand, does this triad imply that every department, every student, and every scholar must always be concerned about impact? What happened to the intrinsic purposes of research and the idea that universities ought to be shielded from utilitarian and pragmatic considerations? Is the “impact” circle in the diagram above too big? Does it threaten to swallow too much of teaching and research, to their detriment?
  3. Where do the humanities fit in the diagram above? This question especially interests me because my humanist colleagues seem most concerned about the turn to “Impact,” and also because I have written and thought a lot about reviving the humanities. It seems to me one might adopt any of these views: (a) The humanities belong in the parts of the Venn diagram not covered by “Impact on Society,” and should be protected as such. (b) The humanities have impact, especially on public deliberations about values, and their impact should be valued and expanded. Or (c) The university should maximize its impact, and that means less investment in English and musicology and more in public health and engineering. I reject (c), but (a) and (b) both have attractions even though they are mutually inconsistent. By the way, in listening to the debates about “impact,” I am struck by the great remove from which most non-humanists view the humanities. They tend to equate the humanities with the arts and creative disciplines, when humanists see themselves as analytical, theory-driven, empirical scholars.
  4. How does impact relate to engagement? Impact is unidirectional. The university has impact on society when Tufts scientists discover a cure for a disease. Engagement is reciprocal or bidirectional. Two people are engaged when they intend to marry one another. Two gears are engaged when they are locked together. Tufts engages with a community when there is some kind of exchange of ideas and mutual influence–ideally, when both sides change for the better. Will “impact” submerge “engagement?” Should all our impact take the form of engagement? Or should we have various kinds of impact, of which engagement is a subset?
  5. How is “Impact on Society” to be measured and assessed? It’s common enough to have bad impact, so we must decide which effects are excellent, acceptable, neutral, and bad. Normative evaluation is difficult because values inevitably conflict. Sometimes, colleagues invoke “social justice” as a goal, and I think they mean equity of material welfare. But we should also consider liberty, excellence, innovation, security, peace, growth and development, tradition, solidarity, sustainability (etc.). Any valid conception of social justice is a controversial amalgam of these competing values. Further, everyone claims to resist simplistic, one-sized-fits-all metrics. But if there’s any value to strategic planning, then one must be able to compare disparate activities on some kind of common scale. After all, a marginal dollar must be spent either on Tufts’ amazing Project Perseus or on “the technological reinvention of silk.” The same dollar cannot be spent on both. So how can we assess diverse activities with due attention to competing moral goals and still yield metrics that inform decisions?
  6. At what level should impact on society be expected, measured, assessed, and rewarded? Should each student and professor be asked about her or his impact? Should each department or school have a portfolio of activities, only some of which are meant to have direct social impact? Or should we be thinking about the whole university’s net impact?
  7. How should decisions about impact be made? The default is for the university to continue doing what it has always done except for some marginal changes: maybe the president and provost direct extra endowment funds to new purposes, and somewhat different criteria are used to select applicants for open faculty positions. Universities are extraordinarily resistant to more radical changes and rarely debate–let alone make–fundamental choices. That is good insofar as it protects against faddish ideas. We are still teaching philosophy after two thousand years even though people have periodically declared it dead–because they can’t practically get rid of the philosophy department. But if deeper changes are desirable, how can we make them wisely and effectively?

Stanley Cavell: morality as one way of living well

I have been dipping into the works of Stanley Cavell for 20 years, but my recent reading of Tony Laden’s Reasoning: A Social Picture and my re-reading of Cavell’s The Claim of Reason have given me, I think, an inkling of Cavell’s whole view. He is a dense and difficult author, and I found it rewarding to type the quotes embedded in this post because each word, emphasis, and parenthesis rewards consideration–and you miss a lot if you read too fast.

A standard view of morality might treat it as (ideally) a comprehensive guide to good judgment and good action. It should cover everything that is good or bad, from minor questions to the relations among governments. In fact, everything that we do should be subject to moral evaluation. Morality should be internally coherent, or correspond to some kind of moral truth, or both. If there is actually no moral truth, then morality is not what it purports to be and is really just a set of conventions, biological urges, or subjective opinions.

Cavell instead views morality– “mere morality”–as a particular way of engaging other people at a human scale:

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