Monthly Archives: May 2014

teaching in Mexico City

This week I will be in Mexico City, working with a group of social science professors from the Tecnológico de Monterrey. We will investigate “civic studies,” which I summarized in my last post. It will be an intensive short course, so I will go offline for the duration and not post here this week. Although I am extremely interested in the world’s third-most-populous metro area, I don’t think I will be able to explore it much; my focus will be in the classroom.

what should we do?

You are a citizen of a group (regardless of your legal status) if you seriously ask: “What should we do?”

The question is what we should do because the point is not merely to talk but to change the world. Thinking is intrinsically connected to action. We don’t think in focused and disciplined ways about the social world unless we are planning to act; and we don’t think well unless we learn from our experience.

The question is what we should do, not what should be done. It’s easy enough to say what should be done (enact a global tax on carbon, for instance). The tough question is what we can actually achieve. That requires not only taking action but obtaining leverage over larger systems. Since our tools for leverage are mostly institutions, this question requires careful thought about real and possible institutional forms. It is also, by the way, not the question “What should I do?” Of course, that is also important, but I cannot achieve much alone and–worse–I cannot know on my own what I ought to aim for. I must collaborate in order to learn enough about what to do.

The question is what should we do, so it is intrinsically about values and principles. We are not asking “What do we want to do?” or “What biases and preferences do we bring to the topic?” Should implies a struggle to figure out what is right, quite apart from what we may prefer. It is about the best ends or goals and also the best means and strategies. (Or if not the best, at least acceptable ones.)

Finally, the question is what we should do, which implies an understanding of the options, their probabilities of happening, and their likely costs and consequences. These are complex empirical matters, matters of fact and evidence.

Academia generally does not pose the question “What should we do?” The what part is assigned to science and social science, but those disciplines don’t have much to say about the should or the we. Indeed, the scientific method intentionally suppresses the should. In general, philosophy and political theory ask “What should be done?” not “What should we do?” Many professional disciplines ask what specific kinds of professionals should do. But the we must be broader than any professional group.

Civic Studies” is a nascent effort to pose the citizen’s question again. We have an emerging canon of authors, which is merely exemplary and not complete. They are all recent or current thinkers and each offers a distinctive method for combining normative, empirical, strategic, and institutional analysis in the service of action.

I don’t offer my own method but merely some eclectic principles. I think:

Our methods should be interactive and deliberative. I will not decide what we should do; we will. Yet procedures will not suffice. It is not enough to say that a diverse mix of affected people should sit together and decide what to do. If I am seated at that table, I must decide what to advocate and how to weigh other people’s ideas. A deliberative process creates the framework for our discussion, but we still need methods to guide our thinking.

Our methods should be conscious of intellectual limitations. This is what I take from conservative thought: a serious doubt that we will come up with a better plan than what our predecessors devised, what the community in question already does, or what emerges from uncoordinated individual action. That doubt can be overcome by excellent thought; but we must be reasonably cautious and humble about ourselves.

We should not pay excessive attention to ultimate ends, to a theory of the good (let alone the ideal) society. First, the path toward the ideal is probably not direct, so knowing where you ultimately want to go may send you in the opposite direction from where you should set out. Second, we should be just as concerned about avoiding evil as achieving good. Third, our concept of the ideal will evolve, and we should have the humility to recognize that we do not believe what are successors will. And fourth, we are a group that has value– the group may even give our lives the value they have. It is just as important to hold the group together as to move it forward rapidly toward the ideal state.

We should not look for “root causes.” That is a misleading metaphor. Social issues are intertwined and replete with feedback loops and reciprocal causality. There is no root. Sometimes it is better to address an aspect of a problem that seems relatively superficial, rather than attack a more fundamental aspect without success.

Our critique should be “immanent,” in the jargon of the Frankfurt School. That is, we should try to improve the implicit norms of a community rather than imagine that we can import a view from nowhere. However, I would alter the idea of immanent critique in two ways. First, we should not only look for contradictions and hypocrisies. Holding contradictory ideas is a sign of maturity and complexity, not an embarrassment. And if you look for contradictions in order to advance your own view, then you are not actually practicing immanent critique. You’re hoping to score debating points in favor of a position external to the community. The immanent critique I recommend is subtler and more respectful than that. Second, it is not always directed at communities, whether geospatial, ethnic, or political. Sometimes it is directed at practices and fields. In fact, I see special value in intellectual engagement with fields of practice whose expressed aims are appealing but which need help with the details.

Finally, we should pay attention to whether our substantive beliefs are structured so as to permit interaction and learning. The question is not (only) whether you believe in equality or liberty, in God or science. The question is how you use those ideas in your overall thinking. If, for instance, you immediately return to a few core principles, that frustrates deliberation, collaboration, and learning. It is equally damaging to drop ideas quickly in order to avoid conflict. The ideal is genuine intellectual engagement with other people, through both talk and action.

using a role-playing strategy game to explore a public problem

A workshop on civic engagement and technology that I attended today was unusual in one important respect. We played @Stake, a card game developed by The Engagement Game Lab, which was one of the conveners of the event. A handsomely produced and cleverly designed game, @Stake randomly distributes roles and secret objectives to the players, who then discuss strategies for a hypothetical nonprofit and win small rewards for seeing their objectives included in the final plan.

The cards made me a CEO concerned about my organization’s financial condition, a statistician eager to make more use of data, and an artist volunteer. With my fellow players, I had to develop and choose strategies for addressing various challenges, like how to get more community members involved in our nonprofit or how to make better use of technology.

I came in fourth out of the four players in my group, but I learned a lot about the topic and had fun. Role-playing and trying to win helped my learning, I believe. The fictional roles made me think seriously from perspectives other than my real-life position. The competitive aspect made me really concentrate on these agendas. And the structure of the game rewarded both competition and cooperation. (Basically, you scored higher if you could get other people to include some of your agenda in their proposals. No horse-trading was allowed, so it was all about persuasion.)

I see lots of potential for using this kind of game in serious strategic planning.

why romantic relationships do not function like markets

It would be discouraging if humans’ choice of mates and romantic partners operated just like a market. That would violate our idealistic notions of romance, and it would imply a deep source of inequality. Above the level of basic subsistence and safety, many people care about nothing more than their partners. And if the pairing process works like a market, then some people have much more market power than others. That would be a form of inequality that is very hard to address, since we must have the freedom to choose whom we love.

Indeed, much of the previous literature suggests that romantic pairing does work like a market. Everyone has a perceived value. You try to snag the person with the highest value, and what you offer in return is your own value. Thus more highly valued individuals can expect higher ranked partners. As Eastwick and Hunt summarize previous research:

The classic perspective on mate value suggests that people possess romantically desirable qualities to different degrees; that is, some people are more attractive, more intelligent, or more popular than others. …

The most consistent finding in the mate value literature is that people with higher self-reported mate value (i.e., higher self-esteem in the mating domain) report higher standards for the qualities that they desire in romantic partners … . This finding is consistent with both the social exchange and evolutionary predictions that people should pursue the best partner that they can realistically obtain …—that is, people with wonderful traits should expect that their partners will have wonderful traits.

It’s also true that college students converge in rating the same students as most romantically desirable–evidence that they each have a market value:

participants tended to agree on which of their opposite-sex classmates did and did not possess these desirable traits. They also achieved consensus regarding which of their classmates were popular with members of the opposite sex—another classic measure of mate value.

But Eastwick and Hunt offer news to warm the hearts of romantics and idealists. Once college students know a group better, their estimations of who would make the best partner diverge dramatically. After they have interacted, everyone is not drawn to the same target; they diverge substantially in their valuations of the pool:

Participants exhibited considerable uniqueness in their judgments of who was attractive, intelligent, and popular, and they strongly disagreed about who was likely to be a good relationship partner. When the Study 3 participants reported on opposite-sex individuals whom they had known for a considerable period, they reached very little consensus about these qualities and exhibited huge amounts of relationship variance.

That finding could mean at least three different things. First, people could be “settling,” once they can see who is a realistic partner for them:

Participants could be using their self-ratings as a guide to settle for the best partner they could realistically obtain. … For example, participants could rate a target as especially high in vitality/attractiveness to the extent that the participant’s self-assessment and the target’s self-assessment on vitality/attractiveness are similar.

But the study finds little empirical support for this first explanation–in fact, it is empirically refuted.

Second, people could have very diverse tastes. Some like brie; others prefer Velveeta. There is nevertheless a market for cheese, and each brand has a price. It just happens to be a very segmented market. Once you have tried both kinds of cheese, you will realize which fits your tastes.

If the same were true for relationships, it would mean that after we get to know people better, we go beyond superficiality and form more accurate perceptions of them; and once we have that data, we vary more in our assessments. It would be like seeing two pieces of cheese and rating them the same, but deciding after you chew them both that you much prefer one. This would be modestly good news because more people could be fully satisfied by their romantic choices on account of their varied tastes. But brie still costs more than Velveeta because more people (with more money) want to buy the former. In the same way, Molly might have a higher market value than Sally even if some actually prefer Sally. Inequality and disappointment would persist, just not as badly as would happen if everyone liked Sally better.

The third explanation is most idealistic–yet still consistent with the data. Perhaps what matters is not what the other person brings to the pair but what you build together. As Eastwick and Hunt put it, “Given that two people can uniquely inspire the expression of traits and the experience of positive affect in each other, much of the variance in mate value judgments may be a function of the dyad.” We imply that romantic relationships are functions of two inputs when we talk about “chemistry” or “compatibility.” The result would still be beyond the control of the parties if the function were automatic: if Sally plus Barry (or Molly) equals a good result. But it could rather be that Sally and Barry make the relationship, and they can do that either well or badly. They are not consumers of each other but co-producers of a new thing. People change their estimates of the romantic potential of others while they are getting to know one another because they are already starting to construct relationships, and it’s the relationship that matters most.

Although consensus emerges on desirable qualities in initial impression settings, this consensus is weaker than the tendency for participants to see one another as uniquely desirable or undesirable, and over time, relationship variance grows while consensus declines.

This all sounds very dry and clinical, but it’s conceptually interesting because it suggests that the market metaphor is not useful for understanding relationships. That’s actually the cheeriest scientific finding I have heard in a while–unless you prefer to know that mice love to run on wheels and will choose to do so even if they’re free.

(See also: Dickens and the right to be loved.)

Source: Eastwick, Paul W., and Lucy L. Hunt. “Relational Mate Value: Consensus and Uniqueness in Romantic Evaluations.” Journal of personality and social psychology 106.5 (2014): 728-51. ProQuest. Web. 21 May 2014.

are religions comprehensive doctrines?

John Rawls saw a “plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines” as a “fact” about the world, or at least about the modern world. He explained: “a reasonable doctrine is an exercise of theoretical reason: it covers the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent and coherent manner. It organizes and characterizes recognized values to that they are compatible with each other and express an intelligible view of the world” (Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. xvii, 59).

Since my first book, I have been criticizing this assumption that the world is divided into separate, internally coherent worldviews. It’s certainly not Rawls’ assumption alone. I would define “modernism” as the premise that there is a plurality of incompatible comprehensive views. And I would assert that modernism is a mistake, driven by certain confusing metaphors: culture as a perspective, culture as a structure built on a foundation, culture as a table of values. I’d prefer a metaphor of overlapping horizons or a model of cultures as interconnected networks of ideas.

If anyone holds a “comprehensive doctrine” that is incompatible with other views, it would be a religious authority in one of the Abrahamic faiths. For instance, in 2011, during the turmoil of the Egyptian revolution, the most senior cleric who had been appointed under the old regime of Hosni Mubarak, the Grand Mufti of al-Azhar University, gave a sermon against political “extremists”:

They preferred to learn in their own beds at home from The Book with neither a methodology nor a master, so they stopped at the outer shell of Islam without realizing its goals and meanings. They stopped at the surface and they failed to realize the truth behind matters and the truth behind rules. They stopped at the partial and failed to see the whole. They favored the specific over the general. They favored their own interest over the interest of the ummah [nation or community].

Here a theologian and jurist asserts that his religion is fully coherent and centralized. This cleric, Ali Gomaa, goes on to address particular issues; for example, he opposes destroying the idols of other faiths, which he calls  an act of extremism. He argues that to make such judgments correctly, one must apprehend the core of the true faith—or else follow a master who possesses such knowledge.

This is a familiar rhetorical move within any faith tradition. For an outsider, it may seem obvious that the faith is a “comprehensive doctrine,” uniting all believers into the same structure of reasoning. But a learned member of the faith always knows that almost every element of it is contested within the tradition. Certainly, Gomaa would be aware that the Islamic Brotherhood and Salafi sheiks were preaching different messages in Egypt at the same time.

Gomaa did not actually specify how the core truths of Islam led to his particular judgments. He wanted his listeners to picture a chain of reasoning that flowed from the core of the faith to the particular cases, but he did not spell it out. That is because his purpose was to assert authority, not to offer reasons. One can offer reasons within a faith tradition, but that will be a matter of picking a path through a complex web. And many of the nodes and connections in that web will be shared with other faiths, so much so that the borders between faith traditions are often blurred.

The problem for liberalism is not that citizens hold strong and controversial metaphysical commitments. Citizens in a liberal regime may believe that Jesus is their personal savior or that science delivers the only valid truths. The problem is a moral network that is overly dependent on a few central ideas. And that is not intrinsic to a religion. To put it a different way: It is not a fact that the world is divided into comprehensive and incompatible doctrines. It is a choice to view it that way.