why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics

Most applied ethicists are skeptical that we can resolve significant problems by applying ambitious moral philosophies or theories of justice.

I report this skepticism anecdotally, but it comes from 15 years working in an applied ethics center and my peripheral involvement with educational ethics, media ethics, political campaign ethics, and related fields. People who teach ethics in college sometimes require students to apply the big moral theories to practical problems. (“What would Kant say about blockchain?” “What does utilitarianism imply about health reform?”) But these assignments are meant to convey the theories, not to resolve the problems. Professional ethicists rarely write their own “What would Kant say about …?” papers.

Why not? I think the following explanations are plausible. Some are mutually compatible, but they push in different directions:

  1. Stalemate: There are several academically respectable moral theories: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue-ethics, and maybe others. Some individuals are drawn to one theory over the rest, but that is a matter of intuition or sheer preference. Arguments have not resolved the disputes among them. To invoke one theory in relation to a concrete ethical problem just neglects the other theories. Invoking more than one often yields a dilemma.
  2. Pluralism (in Isaiah Berlin’s sense): Maybe the truth about the human world is that it involves many different kinds of good thing: various negative and positive rights, welfare outcomes, equity and other relations among people, procedural fairness, etc. These good things conflict, and one must choose among them. Each moral theory tends to illuminate and justify one kind of a good, yet practical wisdom is about balancing them.
  3. Particularism: The appropriate focus for moral assessment is not an abstraction, such as freedom, but a concrete particular, like the school in my neighborhood. In a parallel way, the most important focus for aesthetic evaluation is a whole painting, not all the instances of yellow ochre that appear in different paintings. You can believe that yellow ochre is a nice color, but that doesn’t tell you much about whether or why Vermeer’s “View of Delft” is beautiful, even though that painting does incorporate some yellow ochre. Likewise, you can’t tell much about a given situation in which there is some freedom just from knowing that freedom is generally good. If the appropriate focus of ethical evaluation is a concrete, particular, whole thing, then theorizing about abstractions doesn’t help much. (See Schwind on Jonathan Dancy, p. 36 or Blackburn, “Securing the Nots,” p. 97.)
  4. Complexity: Ethical problems often involve many people who have divergent interests, beliefs, rights, goals, etc., and who continuously affect each other. Their choices and responses are unpredictable. Given the resulting complexity, it is usually hard to model the situation empirically–regardless of whether one is more interested in consequences, rights, procedures, comparisons among people, or all of the above. Once you’ve modeled the situation reasonably well and you think you know what would happen if A did B to C, then a Pareto-optimal choice may become clear. For instance, reducing imprisonment in the USA would (I think) enhance individual rights, equity, utility, non-domination, rule of law, and practically every other value I can think of. However, agreement about Pareto-optimal choices is fairly rare, and the most common reason is persistent debate about the empirics. Moral theory really doesn’t help much.
  5. Narrowness of philosophy: To “apply moral philosophy” often means to apply Kantianism, utilitarianism, 20th-century virtue ethics, social contract theory, or perhaps one or two other idea systems. (Maybe some Levinas; maybe some Marx.) These systems have great value, but also limitations. They usually focus either on individual choices at given moment (Is it OK to lie?), or else on what Rawls called the “basic structure of society,” but not on the overall shape of a single human life, practices for enhancing virtues, deeply ingrained forms of oppression, institutions other than governments, or group processes other than lawmaking. Some of these matters are better explored in Hellenistic and classical Indian and Chinese philosophy or in applied social science fields; some have never received adequate attention. It’s not that abstract theory is irrelevant to concrete choices, but that the most widely respected philosophical theories are too narrow.
Lady Philosophy in Boethius: “On the lower fringe of her robe was woven the Greek letter ? [for practical reason]; on the top, the letter ? [for theory]; and between the two was a staircase from the lower to the upper letter.”

I think that large concepts or themes can help us think about what to do. Among the useful concepts for practical reason are the major concerns of modern Anglophone philosophy, such as rights and forms of equity. These concepts or themes do arise in concrete cases. But many other concepts are also useful. Depending on the circumstances, you might get as much value out of Albert Hirschman’s scheme of exit, voice, and loyalty as from Rawls’ account of justice, even though Hirschman’s theory is not explicitly normative. And examples, narratives, and concrete proposals also provide insights.

A reporter supposedly asked Earl Long, “Governor, should you use ethics in politics?” Long said, “Hell yes, use anything you can get your hands on!” I am inclined to agree with the governor–use whatever ideas help you to reason about what to do.

In turn, studying and discussing concrete problems can generate questions and insights that enrich abstract philosophy and social theory. If we must call pure philosophy the “top,” and practical reasoning the “bottom,” then influence should flow from bottom-up as well as from top-down.

(I am inspired here by a fine conference paper by Julian Müller, but I think these are my own established views rather than his. See also: structured moral pluralism (a proposal); Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); the importance of the inner life to moral philosophy; modus vivendi theory; consequences of particularism; etc.

civic education and the science of association

I have a new post up today on Medium, thanks to McGraw-Hill. It’s entitled “Reimagining Civic Participation Through the Science of Association.” It begins …

America’s constitutional democracy depends on us — the people — to organize ourselves in groups of all sizes and for many purposes. Voluntary associations address community problems, they make it possible to limit the scope of government, and they empower people to express their diverse beliefs and passions. Freedom of association is both a constitutional right and a pillar of American society.

Unfortunately, human beings do not automatically know how to associate well. Challenges arise that lack obvious solutions. How can we resolve disagreements so that disappointed participants don’t quit or just drift away? What is the best response when some members shirk their fair share of the work? What is an effective way to prevent leaders from dominating a group or even stealing its assets? How should an association communicate its purpose and values to busy outsiders?

The Science of Association

Answers to these questions (and many others) constitute what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the science of association.” Visiting the United States in 1831, he credited the success of our young republic to the people’s skill at this “mother science of a democracy.” He observed that Americans had perfected this “science” better than any other nation and had used it for the most purposes.

The traditional way to learn how to associate was to join functioning groups and watch how they worked. In The Upswing (2020), Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett show that associational life grew and strengthened from about 1890 until about 1960 as Americans developed the science of association to unprecedented levels.

But then rates of membership shrank just as steeply. Today, most citizens do not feel they associate much at all. Just over one in four Americans report that they belong to even one group that has responsible leaders and in which they can actively participate. (Of these groups, religious congregations are the most common; online groups are also fairly frequent.)

When functioning groups are scarce and fragile, we cannot count on them to teach a younger generation to participate. However, schools can play a role in reversing this decline. [Read more here about what schools can do.]

the future of working from home

Michael Gibbs, Friederike Mengel, and Christoph Siemroth (2021) examined the effects of the pandemic on employees of a “large Asian IT services company,” for which they have extraordinarily detailed data. As shown in the graphs, employees worked more hours and produced less during the pandemic. Staff also received less mentoring. Those who had children at home were the worst affected. The major reason appears to be an increase in the amount of time spent on coordinating activities. Productivity worsened as the months passed–there is little evidence that the firm solved its coordination problems.

Results from one organization may not generalize. A school, a house-cleaning service, or a physical production facility might see very different results. Even a different IT company (or a similar company in a different national and cultural context) might experience the pandemic differently. However, one would think that an IT services company would be especially good at managing remote work–not only because of its employees’ skills and technical capacity, but also because its products were already virtual before COVID-19.

If–like me–you are worried about the effects of remote work on life in cities, on restaurants and other small businesses, and on workers’ solidarity, then this paper offers some good news. Apparently, it is not easy to manage remote work. It is still helpful to bring workers together into one physical location. Maybe regular routines will return in 2021-22.

I wondered to what extent the findings applied to me. I’ve certainly spent more hours working during the pandemic than ever before. I don’t actually think I spent more time coordinating activities, e.g., scheduling. I manage my own calendar, travel, etc., but I feel increasingly efficient at that–thanks, in part, to a good scheduling app.

To some extent, for me, the past year simply continued a longer-term trend of increasing work-hours, which is very common. In addition, many programs, organizations, projects, employees, and students experienced crises related to the pandemic and the economy, Trump and the election, or racism, and those issues have demanded attention.

Finally, working from home removed any need to move around, whether from one room to another on campus or from one city or country to another. As a result, I could schedule meetings back-to-back all day, when previously I would have had to build in transit time. Arguably, I was more “productive” as a result–that depends on whether those meetings did any good. But I felt less able to reflect on things, to mull things over. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always done most of my mulling-over while walking. I blogged less this year than at any time since I started to blog in 2003, and that’s partly because I often felt I hadn’t had any time to think and had nothing new to say. Again, whether that change reflects a decline in my “productivity” depends on whether the content would have had any value–maybe the world was spared some extra bytes.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate through this whole period, and one great advantage is my ability to do my job basically as well as usual. I’ve watched many other people struggle to achieve their goals and maintain their vocations. I think my courses went well online, I completed a book, and I participated in many collaborative projects. I certainly did not feel isolated–in fact, as an introvert, I felt continuously challenged by the number of consecutive hours talking with other people on Zoom. But perhaps what I have missed most is time spent alone, moving through urban space.

Source: Gibbs, Mengel & Siemroth (2021), Work from Home & Productivity: Evidence from Personnel & Analytics Data on IT Professionals,” BFI Working Paper, May 06, 2021

Jeanine Michna-Bales, Photographs of the Underground Railroad

The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC is showing a series of photographs that Jeanine Michna-Bales has taken on key points along the Underground Railroad. She captures these images at night, as if to illustrate what enslaved people would have experienced as they made their way north. This is the project website.

Online reproductions do no justice to her original photos, which are amazingly luminous chromogenic prints; they grab your attention from across the room.

The forests, rivers, starry skies, and swamps are beautiful–a challenging sensation, since the overall topic of the series is human evil and resistance. Even while people persecute other people, the moon still glows through lush canopies of leaves. Although the natural settings are enjoyable to see in a museum, they would have been frightening at the time–try to imagine crossing a Mississippi swamp by night, even if there weren’t bloodhounds and shotguns behind you.

Most of the signs of human habitation are points of refuge along the way; they look inviting. Michna-Bales accentuates lights left in windows to welcome fugitives. Yet arriving at each “station” must have been a moment of terror, because who knew whether it had been compromised?

The view across the Ohio River into a deeply dark Indiana symbolizes the uncertain future–if one can get that far. (I illustrate this post with a different view, across the Tennessee River in Alabama.)

Survey Finds Regional, Racial Divides in K-12 Remote Schooling Impact During Pandemic

I did this analysis, which was released today …

New nationwide survey by Tufts University researchers finds that parents credit schools with limiting academic harms but see damage to social relationships.

More than 70% of K-12 students across the country experienced some remote schooling during the 2020-21 school year, with stark differences emerging along regional and racial lines and the worst effects on students’ social relationships, according to a new, nationally representative study conducted by Ipsos, using its KnowledgePanel, for the Tufts University Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth and Civic Engagement.

Thirty percent of students in the South attended entirely in-person, compared to just 11.5% in the West. Sixty-one percent of students in the West attended entirely remotely, significantly more than in the other regions.

Entirely in-person17%27%30%11.5%
Entirely remote50%32%26%61%
Mix of both30%36%35%23%
Did not attend school3%4%9%5%

White students were most likely to attend in person. Parents or guardians of color were somewhat more likely than white parents to report negative academic experiences with remote learning, but that difference was within the margin of error. (Given the sample size, analysis of specific racial and ethnic groups is not possible.)

The survey was fielded online between April 23 and May 3, 2021 and had 1,449 respondents, 248 of whom provided responses about their own children’s schooling experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics based on these 248 responses have a margin of error of +/- 6.2 percentage points.

About 24% of K-12 students attended school entirely in-person, 39% entirely remotely, 32% in a hybrid mix of both modes, and nearly 6% of school-aged children did not attend school at all.

Parents reported the worst effects on their children’s social relationships, followed by physical fitness and emotional wellbeing. On academics, slightly more parents reported positive than negative effects from the measures their schools took to limit the spread of COVID-19.

All data included in the survey was reported by parents or guardians describing their own children. Parents were not asked about the overall impact of the pandemic, but specifically about the measures that their children’s schools had taken to limit the spread of the virus.

“Many parents seem to credit schools with making the best of the situation, although some see bad effects, especially on social relationships,” said Peter Levine, an associate dean at Tufts’ Tisch College of Civic Life and co-principal investigator of this study.

Tufts University’s Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth and Civic Engagement was established in 2019 as part of a strategic effort to use resources and expertise across the university to address major global issues. It brings together researchers from across the university to discuss and investigate aspects of equity and inequity in the United States and the world. The research has been funded by Tufts University’s Office of the Vice Provost, the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, the Tufts Data Intensive Science Institute and the Tufts Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. 

For more data and findings from the Research Group on Equity, please visit https://equityresearch.tufts.edu/.

The group’s principal investigators are Jennifer Allen, professor of community health in the Tufts School of Arts and Sciences; Peter Levine, associate dean for academic affairs and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts; and Thomas Stopka, associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. Other members of the group can be found here.