Monthly Archives: February 2016

Tamsin Shaw’s critique of moral psychology

I think that Tamsin Shaw’s article “The Psychologists Take Power” (New York Review of Books, February 25, 2016) is very important. I enjoyed an informal seminar discussion of it on Friday, but that conversation made me realize that the article is rather compressed and allusive, and its argument may not convey to readers who are unfamiliar with the research under review or with important currents in moral philosophy.

This is how I would reconstruct Shaw’s argument:

First, the psychological study of morality presents itself as a science; it claims to be value-neutral and strictly empirical. The phenomena under study are called “moral,” but the researchers purport or at least strive to be value-free.

Given that self-understanding, psychologists are attracted to three research programs: evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and game theory. Each presents itself as value-neutral. The three programs can be made highly consistent if one focuses on rapid human reactions to very basic stimuli, such as sexual desire or perceived threat. These reactions presumably arose well before cultural differentiation, they have Darwinian explanations, they would serve individuals or groups in competitive situations (e.g., while struggling for food or mates), and they light up specific parts of the brain. Findings that seem consistent with all three streams of research have special prestige because they seem particularly hard-headed and empirical. (A perfect example is the Times’ article yesterday: “What’s the Point of Moral Outrage? It may seem noble and selfless, but it’s also about improving your reputation.”)

People who think this way about morality are basically amoral. They have no independent moral compass. Yet they learn techniques that are useful for manipulating subjects, particularly in extreme situations where instinctive human impulses are most pertinent. Therefore, it is no surprise (Shaw writes) that some of them became professional advisers on torture during the first years of the Iraq occupation. Any argument against torture will seem to them arbitrary and subjective.

The last point may be a bit of an ad hominem, although it is certainly worth taking seriously as a warning. But even if all psychologists use good professional ethics, the agenda of making moral psychology strictly empirical needs to be challenged.

For one thing, you can’t study phenomena categorized as “moral” without independently deciding what constitutes morality. We have many deep, instinctive impulses. For instance, we are capable of altruism and even self-sacrificing love, but also of violence and greed. It’s plausible that many of these impulses have evolutionary roots and can be explained in game-theoretic terms. But only some of them are moral. Imagine, for instance, that I said, “Greed is a moral virtue that we developed early in our evolution as a species to motivate individuals to maximize resources.” This would not be a scientifically false statement. It would be morally false. The mistake is to call greed a “virtue.”

Jonathan Haidt likes to provoke liberals by describing “authority” and “sanctity” as moral values. They may be, but that requires a moral argument against the position that only care, fairness, liberty, and loyalty count as moral. The fact that some people see authority and sanctity as virtues does not make that opinion right. Hitler thought that racial purity was moral, and he was wrong. So moral reasoning is indispensable.

Further, when we reason morally, we are usually thinking about very complex, socially constructed phenomena that we don’t directly perceive. We certainly don’t experience them as immediate sense-data. I wrestle with my feelings about democracy, the United States, academia, capitalism modernity, etc. These things don’t appear in my visual field like violent threats or piles of yummy food. I experience such institutions through speech and text, through vicarious reports, and by accumulating experience and arguments over decades. Possibly the impulses that homo sapiens developed early in our evolution influence my judgments. For instance, I may have a deep, unconscious tendency to separate people into in-groups and out-groups, and that may affect my tendency to see the USA as my group. But I could treat another unit as my main group, I could be uninterested in (or even unaware of) the USA as an entity, or the country might not even exist. A nation is a social construction, built by people for complex reasons, that we understand in a mediated way. It would be a contentious assumption, not a hard-nosed scientific premise, that our most primitive impulses have much to say about institutions or our attitudes toward them.

See also: Jonathan Haidt’s six foundations of morality; neuroscience and morality; morality in psychotherapy; on philosophy as a way of life; is all truth scientific truth?; and right and true are deeply connected.

on the original meaning of democracy

We call ourselves a democracy and a republic. There’s a current right-wing talking point that we are only the latter, but I’ve argued that this claim deviates from a long bipartisan consensus that the US aspires to be a democratic republic. But what do these two terms mean?

This definitional question is challenging because the words come, respectively, from Greek and Latin, and they were coined to name specific regimes that had lots of eccentric features (huge juries in Athens; a host of executive officials in Rome) that no one considers definitive. The words have subsequently been used by many writers in many languages to name a wide variety of regimes–and sometimes as terms of abuse.

For instance, a “republic” presumably must name a regime that has something in common with the original, the ancient Roman res publica. One defining feature of the Roman republic was simply that it wasn’t a monarchy. Thus people who want to remove Queen Elizabeth II as the titular monarch of Australia (or Britain) call themselves “republicans.” Their proposal would change virtually nothing about the power structure; it would be almost entirely symbolic. But they have precedent for calling a regime without a monarch a “republic.”

In a very different vein, Jefferson defined a republic “purely and simply” as “government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority; and … every other government is more or less republican, in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of the direct action of the citizens.” For Jefferson, a “republic” is what others would call a direct and participatory democracy. Yet the original Roman republic was composed of legislative bodies and officers who represented various classes and interests. Some were elected and others were appointed. All were limited by various laws (albeit unstably so). Thus, for some, a republic is a government that avoids direct and participatory democratic elements.

Still other writers have noticed the ancient Roman penchant for civic duty and public service and have used the word “republic” for a regime that demands a great deal from its citizens and that encourages public engagement as a positive good. It is an alternative to the kind of liberalism that favors individual rights. Meanwhile, another tradition takes seriously the etymology–“res publica” means “public thing [or good]”–and translates the phrase as “commonwealth.” A “commonwealth,” in turn, could mean all the things that are commonly owned by the people. And if the people’s wealth extends to the land, then a certain kind of agrarian socialism emerges as the definition of republicanism.

That’s all about “republic,” but I’d like to address the term “democracy,” relying on a fascinating article by Josiah Ober.* Ober notes that if the Greeks had wanted a word that meant rule of the many (or the common people), they would have used pollo- as the suffix prefix. To name a regime in which all rule, they could have used “panocracy.” If they had wanted to emphasize the equality of all, they would have used iso-. For instance, isegoria meant an equal right to participate in deliberations in the agora. But they chose demo-, which refers to the whole people as one, without sociological distinctions.

Meanwhile, if they had wanted to specify who governed, in the sense of casting votes or holding offices, they would have used the suffix -archy. A monarchy has one ruler, an oligarchy has a few, and anarchies have none. The suffix -kratia is different. It does not imply an office or action but rather power, in the sense of capacity or an ability to make things happen.

Thus, in its original form, a democracy is a regime in which the whole population has the power to make things together. By the way, this definition comes close to uses of the word “republic” that emphasize the public’s role in making the res publica. So perhaps “democracy” means “republic” after all.

*Josiah Ober, “The Original Meaning of ‘Democacy’: Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule,” Constellations, vol. 15, no. 1 (2008)

humanities work related to incarceration

All are welcome to 2016’s second Tisch Talk in the Humanities, “Stages of Detention,” on March 4 at 2:00 pm in the Rabb Room, Lincoln Filene Hall, Tufts University’s Medford campus.

Increasingly, scholars in the arts and humanities are working in and around prisons. On March 2, we will hear from two distinguished practitioners and will have the opportunity to discuss their work.

Noe Montez is Assistant Professor of Drama and Dance at Tufts. Professor Montez’s project explores guided tours of Southern Cone detention sites that have recently been converted into spaces of memory in order to explore how trauma and commemoration are performed as part of an ongoing process of transitional justice. His work includes research on sites in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. He has also completed a monograph that explores a Buenos Aires theatre’s collaboration with human rights activists in Argentina’s post-dictatorship.

Amy Remensnyder is Professor of History and a Public Humanities Fellow at Brown. Since 2010, Professor Remensnyder has been teaching history to men incarcerated in Rhode Island’s medium security prison. She is the founder and director of the Brown History Education Prison Project. Her increasing interest in issues of incarceration spurred her to design a course on the global history of prison and captivity, which she has taught both at Brown and at the prison. She is beginning work on a book about the global history of captivity.

The moderator and organizer is the Tisch Senior Fellow for the Humanities, Diane O’Donoghue.

the 10 places where youth voters will have the most impact

The current homepage of NPR news is a feature article by Asma Khalid about CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI). My CIRCLE colleagues have identified the top 10 states and 10 congressional districts where the youth vote will matter most in Nov. 2016.

Politicians, campaigns, educators, and civic leaders should reach out to young people everywhere. But we recognize that political actors with limited resources will want to invest where they can have the biggest impact, and reporters may want to cover the youth vote where it counts for the most in electoral terms. Hence the YESI.


why don’t young people like parties?

Young Americans are not very loyal to parties. Many young people hold political beliefs that may make them almost guaranteed to vote for one party rather than the other–true “swing” voters are very rare–but they don’t identify with parties as organizations or devote their energy to parties as opposed to candidates and causes. I think that is partly why young people have so far been happy to vote for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton by 4:1 margins. Remember that the primary election process was set up to allow party members to choose their party’s nominee, but young people who vote in the Democratic primaries don’t blink an eye to support a candidate who has chosen not to be a Democrat during his political career. I am not saying they should behave differently; I just think it’s interesting.

I have often heard cultural/generational explanations of this trend. Supposedly, Millennials are less favorable to organizations of all kinds. They prefer and expect looser and less hierarchical networks. There may be some truth to that, but I would suggest a different hypothesis. Young people are less loyal to parties than their predecessors were because parties don’t do anything any more.

Parties used to have functions, such as recruiting volunteers, paying workers, and organizing events (not to mention controlling patronage). Parties are now labels for clusters of entrepreneurial candidates and interest groups. The change occurred because the campaign finance reforms of the early 1970s defunded the parties, and then the deregulation of the 2000s allowed vast amounts of money to flow to entities other than parties. The Koch Brothers’ political network, for instance, employs 3.5 times as many people as the Republican National Committee does.

If parties do nothing for or with young people, it is easy to explain why youth don’t care about parties.

The General Social Survey asks about partisan ID at least every other year. The proportion of younger people who are Independents has grown, but most political scientists argue that that trend is misleading since the number of undecided or swing voters has actually shrunk. More to the point are questions that the GSS has asked only twice, about membership and active participation in parties. We know that parties didn’t do much to engage youth in 2004, because Dan Shea surveyed local party leaders that year, and “Only a handful of [county] party chairs mentioned what we might call significant activities, programs that require a significant amount of time or resources.” The parties were already hollow compared to decades earlier. He also asked an open-ended question: “Are there demographic groups of voters that are currently important to the long term success of your local party?” Just eight percent named young voters.

Nevertheless, the GSS indicates that the proportion of youth who actively participated in parties was 3.6 times higher in 2004 than it was in 2014. The hollowing-out continues.