Monthly Archives: April 2019

More Temperate

Most trees have leafed out for two or three days.
Each leaf unfolding in place to fill its space, green;
But the trees that flowered are wilting now,
Bold blooms shrinking to leave more space between,
Dwindling to stipples along each bough.
Superimposed: a lacy screen, damascened,
Patches on a slate background--the dripping sky--
Grey except at some hidden place where a break
Must let the sun flood up to certain high
Shingles, a wire, a spire that's a streak
Of brilliant white. All silent, a still sheen,
Sheer, stretched thin to fade or end in a blaze.

considering censure

The question of the moment should not be what decision to reach in re Donald Trump. Justice is always best served by a process that generates evidence and permits a defense before any decision is reached. A process conducted by Congress cannot avoid being political, but it can be structured so that all sides get heard and the conclusions are open rather than foreordained. This is important for fairness and legitimacy.

Not to hold any kind of process at all would itself be a decision. It would be a clear statement that presidents enjoy impunity when their party controls at least one house of Congress. That would be another step in the degeneration of our system. I think this degeneration reflects fairly deep flaws built into the Constitution. But that is no excuse for non-action.

An impeachment process would require public hearings and debates, which would be valuable for the American people to see and to assess. It would count as a “judicial proceeding,” thus justifying the release of key documents, including those involved in grand jury proceedings. It would also justify sending the president written questions, and if he refused to answer, that refusal would be material to the decision. It would force all members of the House to take a position; all Senators, too, if the House voted to impeach.

On the other hand, impeachment is not much of a sanction if it doesn’t lead to conviction in the Senate. A split result might further cheapen the constitutional remedy of impeachment.

Although Jeffrey Isaac is right that members of the House and presidential candidates can address other issues while an impeachment process unfolds, their attention and the public’s focus are finite resources. Impeachment would dominate politics. If that helped Trump by keeping him in the spotlight or by obscuring a truly substantive debate about policy and philosophy within the Democratic primary, it would not serve the public interest.

Senators should be forced to take positions on Trump’s alleged obstruction, but an impeachment vote could be more politically costly for Democratic incumbents than for Republicans. The Post is reporting that the public is currently against impeachment, 56%-37%. Opinions certainly could shift as a result of the process, but you have to assume that attitudes toward Donald Trump are now pretty durable. It doesn’t make sense to punish a president by subjecting his opposition to a tough political battle.

The considerations against impeachment make me wonder about censure. Like impeachment, censure would not be a foreordained decision but a choice for each house of Congress to consider after due investigation and public debate. The practical consequences of censure are the same as those of impeachment if we assume that the Senate would fail to convict. The civic advantages of the debate and public vote are the same. I suppose nobody knows whether censure counts as a “judicial process,” but the House would certainly argue so when demanding sealed grand jury documents. The public might be more receptive to censure than impeachment, and it could be done quicker.

The main disadvantage is that a process to determine whether to censure the president forecloses the possibility of removing him from office. It says that Trump will finish his term unless something else arises that necessitates impeachment. That implication is hard to swallow but might make the best sense overall.

Volodymyr Zelensky, servant of the people?

I’m very curious what my politically diverse but well-informed Ukrainian friends think about their presidential election. It’s mostly framed in the West as: “comedian with no political experience is elected president.” That is a little misleading: it suggests a stand-up comic winning on the basis of one-liners. Volodymyr Zelensky is actually the founder and creative leader of a company that produces successful movies and TV series in which he stars.

His most recent show is Servant of the People, which is available on Netflix with English subtitles, and which my wife and I have been watching. Zelensky plays a high school teacher who goes on a profane rant against corrupt politicians that his students film and post on YouTube. They also crowd-source his campaign funds and get him on the ballot, and he’s elected president.

Ukrainians have now voted to make the writer/actor of this role their actual president. It is roughly as if Americans chose Amy Poehler for president because of her role as Leslie Knope on Parks & Rec–either selecting Leslie to lead our real country (a naive reaction) or choosing the creator of Parks and Rec because of the show’s values and its portrayal of America. Or it might be a little like electing Ronald Reagan as governor of California because of his fictional personas plus his political speeches (which made a seamless whole in the 1960s).

Servant of the People is well-made, well-acted, funny. I can totally understand why people would be interested in voting for its creator, who is utterly appealing on screen.

Of course, the show is also a powerful device for persuasion. In the controlled environment of a fictional world, Zelensky can construct events to make his character the good guy and to sideline difficult questions. Plato’s warnings about the power of theater come to mind. Instead of describing Zelensky as a “comedian,” I would call this entrepreneur/actor with a law degree a highly skillful rhetorician. On screen, he is without guile. But to create that persona took artistry.


What is the political thesis of the show? The targets are corruption, hypocrisy, arrogant elites, and social unfairness. Those are very real problems in Ukraine and many other countries. It can, however, be misguided to treat integrity as the only goal while neglecting contested policy questions. Zelensky’s fictional character dodges policy questions from the press because they are ridiculously wonky and because he’s a a draftee into politics who doesn’t know the answers. The real Zelensky has avoided interviews and press conferences even though he seriously ran for president. This strikes me as problematic.

What does Zelensky stand for? Reading scattered quotes available in English, I would guess he’s basically a Europhile liberal, in the Ukrainian context: in favor of civil liberties, some market reforms, and tilting West. But not a hardcore nationalist–for example, Servant of the People is performed in Russian rather than Ukrainian. He’s ethnically Jewish, which should give no one a free pass but which rarely accompanies xenophobia in that part of the world. On the other hand, it’s not great to have to guess the president’s positions from scattered quotes.

Is he qualified? I don’t believe that political leaders must be, or even should be, policy wonks. They should learn from experts (and from others) while setting the tone and direction. Zelensky is a very capable person–again, not just a stand-up comic but the author of complex (if problematic) political fiction and the founder and leader of an enterprise. He did study law. I would think his resume is fine if he demonstrates an ability to share power, delegate, and learn.

Ukrainians have rolled the dice. Given the alternative, I fully understand why they took this risk. It’s not the textbook version of how a democracy should work, but the status quo has been intolerable, and at least the explicit values of Servant of the People are benign. Nor does the textbook account ever fully apply. My fingers are crossed.

civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?

It sounds like a parody of a professor’s life, but I have actually attended conferences since 2016 on the themes of: 1) empathy and compassion, 2) civility, 3) responsiveness, and 4) tolerance. I missed an excellent-looking meeting on 5) humility and conviction, but I teach those concepts in classes on Gandhi’s political thought. Nobody has invited me to a meeting about 6) openness or 7) fallibalism, but I would consider attending.

In case you’re wondering, the participants in these meetings have been delightfully humble, empathetic, civil, and so on. It doesn’t mean we were right.

The question is: which intellectual virtues should we develop in ourselves and in others in various settings? This is not a matter of rules or controls. In many settings, people have–and should have–rights to talk and respond to others as they wish. It’s more a matter of what we should strive for, ourselves, and sometimes how we should assess others. For example, if I’m a high school teacher who assigns students to discuss a contentious issue, on what basis should I assess their interactions?

The full list of criteria would also include 8) truth and 9) justice. For instance, you can make a claim that is admirably civil, empathetic, and responsive, yet demonstrably false. That is not generally desirable. Or perhaps you could engage in an admirable way with other people while making claims that are simply unjust. You could be an avuncular and gracious Nazi. Unless we adopt a completely procedural understanding of justice (it just is what people decide that it is, by discussing), there can be a gap between a good discussion and a just outcome.

But the first seven criteria seem important even if we leave truth and justice aside for the moment. First, it matters how our discussions go because it’s one way that we explore truth and justice. Second, we should simply relate to each other well. By conversing, we form or sustain a community and share a social space. So the quality of discourse affects the quality of the commons.

So which of the first seven are virtues, for whom, and in which combinations?

  1. Empathy is an affective reaction that can distort our judgment (for instance, by focusing us too much on a concrete case) and that can be unwelcome or unhelpful. If you’re a victim of racial injustice, you don’t want me, a white guy, to say that I feel your pain–or even to try to feel it. You want me to keep a clear head and do something about it.
  2. Civility is sometimes defined in terms of rules and norms of politeness. For instance, to use an offensive word or to yell at another person is uncivil. Politeness actually has value in many circumstances, but civility-as-politeness doesn’t seem to be the core issue. You can say horrible things with polite words, or valuable things laced with profanity. As Tony Laden notes in his contribution to A Crisis of Civility?: Political Discourse and Its Discontent, there is a different scholarly literature in which civility means not politeness but “a form of engagement in a shared political activity characterized by a certain kind of openness and a disposition to cooperate.” That seems the right direction but not easy to assess in practice. It takes us to …
  3. Responsiveness. We all have a valid interest in others’ being responsive to us. It seems to be a virtue. But … should you respond positively to a heinous new idea? Does being genuinely responsive entail shifting your views closer to the speaker’s? Or can you be responsive without changing your mind? If so, what does that entail?
  4. Tolerance is much better than intolerance, as a general rule. But it doesn’t seem sufficient. We don’t merely want to be tolerated, but also welcomed and listened to. At the same time, some ideas are intolerable. Tolerance doesn’t seem necessary or sufficient for good interactions.
  5. “Humility and conviction” is the name of a great program at UConn. This combination of words has the advantage of balance. We should be humble, because we can easily be wrong; but we should also take a stand. Humility alone is compatible with being wishy-washy. But conviction without humility is zealotry. This is (in the broadest sense) an Aristotelian way to think about virtues–as the mean between extremes. It raises the standard problem for Aristotelian accounts: What is the mean in each circumstance? Who should be more humble, and should should be less so?
  6. Openness is one of the Big Five personality traits. It seems desirable but needs some balance and moral direction. Otherwise, it shades into prurient curiosity or thrill-seeking. For example, openness correlates with use of illegal drugs. Although I am not an alarmist about drugs, a psychological trait that could either cause you to listen well to new ideas or experiment with ecstasy doesn’t seem to be reliably a virtue.
  7. Fallabilism means knowing that you could be wrong. “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women” (Learned Hand). We should all be fallibalists, but again the question is what this means in practice. For example, I know colleagues involved in Science and Technology Studies who are primarily concerned about the excessive authority of science and want to preserve skepticism about climate change. My own view is that we should declare anthropogenic global warming a settled issue and decide what to do about it. But that would be less fallibalist.

See also: Empathy and Justice; civility: not too much, not too little; what sustains free speech?; responsiveness as a virtue.

what constitutes coordination?

[W]e addressed the factual question whether members of the Trump Campaign “coordinat[ed]”-a term that appears in the appointment order-with Russian election interference activities. Like collusion, “coordination” does not have a settled definition in federal criminal law. We understood coordination to require an agreement–tacit or express–between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference. That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests. We applied the term coordination in that sense when stating in the report that the investigation did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

— from the Mueller Report

That faint sound you hear is hundreds of philosophers paging through their thumb-worn copies of seminal books and articles about shared agency and collective intentionality and revving up their word processors to write lecture notes and articles.* I have not investigated this literature sufficiently to have useful views, but it is a rich topic of current investigation that bridges ethics, metaphysics, and philosophy of language and mind.

What does it mean to say, “We are doing something?” Is the “we” a real thing or just a shorthand for several “I’s”? If a bunch of people all run for shelter at the sound of thunder, are they coordinating? What if they take exactly the same actions as part of a dance? Does the “we” mean something different in the sentences “We all ran for shelter” and “We all performed a dance”? (This is from Searle.)

What if I say to you, “Let’s go for a walk”? Do I then have an ethical obligation to coordinate my itinerary and pace with you? (From Gilbert). Is the obligation just the usual one to honor a promise, or does it stem from my new relationship to you?

Let’s say that all the members of the Supreme Court believe that something is unconstitutional and issue a unanimous ruling to that effect. Later, the same nine people all think that dinner was awful. In one case, did the Supreme Court make a judgment, whereas in the other case, nine people made separate judgments? What if the nine issued a ruling and then found out that it was invalid because they weren’t properly in session at the time? Did they incorrectly believe that they were acting as a group? (Inspired by Epstein).

Robert Mueller says that whether the Trump campaign and Russia coordinated is a “factual question.” But it requires a definition of coordination. Apparently, the legal definition of that word (from statutes and/or precedents) is unsettled. But in any case, the deeper issues are philosophical–and not simple to resolve.

*e.g., Brian Epstein, The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences (Oxford Studies in Philosophy, 2015); Margaret Gilbert, “Walking Together: A Paradigmatic Social Phenomenon” in her 1996 book Living Together: Rationality, Sociality, and Obligation, pp. 177–94; Larry May, Sharing Responsibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Philip Pettit and David P. Schweikard, “Joint Actions and Group Agents,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 36, no 1, 2006, 18–39; John Searle, “Collective Intentions and Actions,” in P. Cohen, J. Morgan, and M.E. Pollack (eds.), Intentions in Communication (Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1990); Raimo Tuomela, “We Will Do It: An Analysis of Group Intentions;” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 51, no. 2 (1991), pp. 249–77; David J. Velleman, “How to Share an Intention,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol 57 (1997), pp. 29–51; and other such papers.