My favorite empirical research programs try to help something good work in the world. For instance, scholars who study Positive Youth Development assess initiatives that give young people opportunities to contribute to their communities. Scholars of Common Pool Resources study how communities manage common property, such as fisheries and forests. Scholars of Deliberative Democracy investigate the impacts on citizens, communities, and policies when people talk in structured settings.
These are empirical research programs, committed to facts and truth. They do not seek to celebrate, but to critically evaluate, their research subjects. However, an obvious goal is to make the practical work succeed by identifying and demonstrating positive impacts and by helping to sort out the effective strategies from the ineffective ones. Underlying these intellectual efforts is some kind of hope that the practical programs, when done well, succeed.
As a philosopher, I am especially interested in that hope and why scholars have it. I like to ask what motivates these research projects. The motives are largely hidden, because positivist social science cannot handle value-commitments on the part of researchers; it treats them as biases to be minimized and disclosed only if they prove impossible to eliminate. Often the search for motives is critical and suspicious: one tries to show that a given research project is biased by some value-judgment, cultural assumption, or self-interest on the scholars’ part. But I look for motives in an appreciative spirit, believing that an empirical research program in the social sciences can only be as good as its core values.
Note that it is not at all obvious why we should hope that Positive Youth Development, Common Property Resource Management, and Deliberative Democracy work. These are expensive and tricky strategies. For instance, the core empirical hypothesis of Positive Youth Development is that you will get better outcomes for youth if you help them contribute than if you use surveillance and remediation. But it would be cheaper and more reliable if we could cut crime with metal detectors in every school instead of elaborate service-learning programs. So why should we hope that Positive Youth Development is right?
Likewise, it would be easier to turn all resources into private or state property than to encourage communities to manage resources as common property. And it would be easier for professionals to make city plans and budgets than to turn those decisions over to citizens. So why do scholars evidently hope that good common property regimes produce more sustainable and efficient economic outcomes than expert management, and that deliberations generate more legitimate and fair policies than governments do?
I think part of the reason is simply that things are not going very well in the world, and scholars seek alternatives that may be uncontroversially better: more efficient or sustainable, less corrupt and wasteful. That’s part of the reason, but it doesn’t fully explain the focus of these research projects. If you’re worried about violence in American high schools, you should look for something new that works. But why should that new approach include service and leadership programs, instead of better metal detectors and video cameras?
Ultimately, all three of my examples are anchored in commitments that I would describe as “Kantian.” The individual is a sovereign moral agent and our responsibility to others is always to help develop their capacities for autonomy and voluntary cooperation. Real Kantianism is dismissive of utilitarian outcomes (such as efficient public services) and is willing to defend autonomy even if the consequences for health and welfare turn out to be bad. But real Kantianism just doesn’t fly. It doesn’t influence power and it doesn’t satisfy most people’s intuitions. So I think the research projects I have mentioned here are motivated by a kind of soft or strategic Kantianism. The best initiatives, on this view, are the ones that achieve efficient and reliable improvements in tangible human welfare by enhancing people’s autonomy. Strategies like Positive Youth Development and common property regimes stand out as worthy of study because of their Kantian values. But they deserve critical scrutiny on utilitarian grounds. If they fail to deliver the promised practical outcomes, they should be improved before they are abandoned. The same attention should not be given to surveillance systems or top-down managerial structures. In theory, those solutions might work just as well, but helping them to succeed would not enhance autonomy.
I realize that it is a risky strategy in our culture for scholars to admit their core moral commitments. The smartest move is to pretend that a research program is simply scientific and all the outcomes of interest are utilitarian. But those assumptions have the disadvantage of being wrong. They distort research in various subtle but damaging ways. Even though it is idealistic, I think we should take on positivism directly and not accept the presumption that values are simply biases.