political reform in Massachusetts

This is the video of me presenting our study entitled MassForward: Advancing Democratic Innovation and Electoral Reform in Massachusetts at the Boston Foundation in November, with discussion by Jay Kaufman, a former state representative and Founder and President of the Beacon Leadership Collaborative; Beth Lindstrom, former Executive Director of the Massachusetts Republican Party; Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson, Interim Director of the Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy at UMass Boston; and Pavel Payano, an at-large city councilor in Lawrence.

The report was covered in MassLive WGBH , WBUR CommonWealth NEPR WPRI SouthCoast Today, and The Salem News (an editorial) 

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education and political party support in the UK

A common pattern in the 21st century involves much of the working class shifting from a broad center-left political party toward the right.

One way to measure class is by educational attainment. In Germany, the Social Democrats have lost much of the working class to the right, and the highly educated professions have migrated to the Greens. In the US, where third parties have a much harder time, highly educated people are unlikely to exit the two big parties. Instead, they use their effective voices to dominate at least one party. Recently, the most educated groups have voted Democratic. At one point during the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton led college-educated whites by 5 points, but she trailed Trump among whites who don’t have college degrees by 39 points: 62% to 23%. Democrats would be in big trouble except that race is at least as important as class in the USA, and people of color of all educational backgrounds also tend to vote for Democrats.

What about the UK? Much has been written about the demographics of voters in the recent British elections, but I also like a time-series from the European Social Survey that asks which party people feel “closest” to. This question is asked regularly in even years. It gives you a trend that’s less tied to candidates and specific campaigns.

Above, I show support for Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats for six educational strata, from less than secondary education to doctoral degrees or the equivalent. The education question changed in 2010, so I have done my best to keep the categories consistent.

In 2002, Labour’s support correlated negatively with education; the Tories did better with people with more education. The Liberals were far behind but drew best from people with university degrees (teachers and other “knowledge workers,” I would guess).

Fr0m 2004-2008, that pattern continued, with the very important change that the Liberals battled Labour for the support of the most educated, who oscillated between those two parties.

In 2012, the classic pattern recurred, with Labour receiving smoothly declining support with educational levels. In 2014 and 2016, Labour did much better with the best educated. In 2018, the most educated voters essentially shifted to the Liberals.

Based on what we know from constituencies’ demographics, it seems that since 2018, many working class English voters switched from Labour to the Tories or stayed home.

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Brexit: a personal reflection

(Fremont, CA) I’m saddened by Brexit for personal reasons that I’ll relate below. But first I should offer three caveats.

First, Brexit is not about me. It will affect the residents of the UK and EU; my feelings don’t really matter.

Second, the “remain” side is not self-evidently right, either ethically or practically. There are democratic arguments in favor of withdrawing from the EU. “Leavers” are not simply bigoted or victimized by propaganda. Both of the biggest parties have been divided by the issue. The EU has served some Britons better than others.

And third, the UK election is about much more than Brexit. Austerity is the main policy that has won.

Having said all that, I’ve had a deep, lifelong commitment to European integration–and to a Europe that has Britain in it. My family spent almost half of my first 15 years in London. My primary school, Prior Weston, was situated immediately next to a weedy lot that was still empty because of the bombs of 1940. That was a powerful reminder of the cost of European division.

Britain had entered the European Economic Community by then, and my Christian-Socialist-oriented state primary school embraced the ideal of the EEC. We studied the culture of each EEC member country in turn. I recall the teachers making some prejudiced remarks. Germans ostensibly had no sense of humor, for example. (This is false.) But the overall message was one of interconnection and shared fate.

London was a global city, anyway–a great entrepot. We knew many, many immigrants. The largest share had come from former colonies in the Global South, but many were Europeans. What made London great was its cosmopolitanism, and that has been true since the medieval days of Lombard bankers and Flemish weavers.

When I was a young teenager, now attending a much more conservative independent secondary school, most of my English friends would have denied that they were European. The continent was a foreign place to them, and basically inferior, in their eyes. My English friends would have identified more with the global Anglophone sphere created by British imperialism, and especially with the white-majority countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

But I wasn’t British, or European–I was an American in London. And from my perspective, the UK clearly belonged to Europe. Although the little islands had been spared from invasion since 1066 because of a narrow strait, they had participated in all the cultural, economic, diplomatic, technological, sociological and even biophysical developments of the continent as a whole. Even then, I thought it was basically ignorant to distinguish between Britain and Europe.

Years later, sitting by a summer ice cream stand outside of Oslo and watching school children on a field trip, I felt palpably how much the whole scene resembled my childhood in London: the ice cream novelties, the buildings and the park’s layout, the way the kids interacted. If you travel from London to, say, Tuscany, you have changed your milieu. But from London to Oslo or Rotterdam is no distance, culturally.

To build one Europe has always seemed to me a humane and creative project (even though we should acknowledge the barriers around the EU’s perimeter and the often technocratic tendencies in Brussels). Britain–and specifically, England–belongs in the project. It has been more open, more sophisticated, and more humane because it’s been part of “Europe.” And it has shared its own worthy ideals with its European partners.

After today, the EU will go on, but it will be somewhat worse without Britain in it. It’s also hard to imagine the United Kingdom staying united for long. I find this very sad.

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what does the word civic mean?

I use the word “civic” every day. It is in the title of my college (The Tisch College of Civic Life) and the major that I direct (Civic Studies) and in the names of many topics and fields that I work on, from civic education to civic media.

But what does it mean? In my own mind, “civic” has certain associations and resonances, although I rarely articulate them. During a recent conversation with colleagues, I realized that most don’t hear the same meanings I do. I don’t blame them; there is no agreement about the definition, and the word has been used in many ways. I’ll turn to its history below.

Today, some people hear in the word “civic” a disciplinary intention, an effort to draw a boundary around respectable and approved behaviors (the “civic” ones). Sometimes it is almost synonymous with “civil.” In turn, “civility” sometimes means almost the same as “politeness.” People may use “civic” to identify approved behaviors, or else they may oppose the word as too restrictive and controlling.

Others want to make the word strictly empirical, rather than a value-laden adjective. Then “civic” may refer to a list of activities, from voting to marching in a protest–regardless of the participants’ values and goals. For example, a march would be civic whether the marchers were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or Mussolini’s Brown Shirts. (But if we take this approach, why are certain activities on the list, and others not?)

I’d like to make space for a more inspiring use of the word that has deep historical roots. My dictionary-style definition would go something like this:

Civ’-ic. adj. 1. Of or pertaining to a group of relatively equal self-governing people. Hence, 2. virtues, values, or skills for self-government, e.g., civic courage, civic knowledge. 3. Assets belonging to or created by self-governing people, e.g., a civic forum. 4. Activities or other phenomena related to self-government, e.g., civic engagement, civic dialogue, civic education.

By a “self-governing people,” I mean to include all the citizens of any republican country, but not only such groups. A town or city within a larger country can have self-governing power. So can a voluntary association or even some kinds of firms; and they may be self-governing even if the states in which they operate are authoritarian. Thus, institutions of various types and scales can be civic.

The history of a word helps explain how it has accrued its diverse definitions and resonances.

The English word “civic” derives from Latin civicus, which primarily refers to relations among fellow members of the same city. In turn, the classical city (the polis or urbs) was self-governing: not usually egalitarian, but quasi-autonomous and governed by a deliberative assembly. So civicus always had echoes of a deliberative forum.

“Civic” enters the Romance languages to translate Latin texts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the very first use in English (1542) refers specifically to the ancient Roman oak-leaf-and-acorn garland awarded to men who had saved fellow citizens in war.

A kind of garland was its only meaning in English until the time of the Commonwealth, when Parliament overthrew the monarch and declared a republic. During this period, the Company of Mercers of the free city of London put on a pageant entitled “Charity Triumphant,” parading a female allegorical figure through the streets of the city. Edmund Gayton (“considered a hack writer” and then imprisoned for debt), published a long descriptive and celebratory poem about this pageant, including the sentence, “I cannot here set forth the reason of the late extinguishing these Civick Lights, and suppressing the Genius of our Metropolis, which for these Planetary Pageants and Pretorian Pomps was as famous and renouned in forraign Nations, as for their faith, wealth, and valour.”

Gayton probably deserves his obscurity, but he does seem to coined the word “Civick” in one of its important senses: “of, belonging to, or relating to a citizen or citizens; of or relating to citizenship or to the rights, duties, etc., of the citizen; befitting a citizen” (OED).

In his time, the English were enthusiastic about self-governance and the ideal of a commonwealth, itself a translation for “republic,” meaning the good that a people makes and owns together. Of course, this was also the period of Puritan self-governance in New England and the invention of important activities that we now naturally call “civic”: town meetings, local elections, and civic education, which Massachusetts had required in 1642.

Just one year later, in 1656, Blount’s dictionary defines “Civick” as “pertaining to the city.” Since then, one of its meanings has always been akin to “urban,” as in “Civic Center” for the name of a city’s convention hall. But I think that “the city” had a different original meaning. Now we think of large, dense municipalities. Originally, an urbs or polis was any autonomous community. For instance, the whole Massachusetts Bay Colony was meant to be a City on the Hill.

By 1747, “civic” was used to modify “virtue.” By the end of that century, the word “civique” (with similar associations) had become influential in France. According to the Constitution of 1791: “The Civic Oath (le serment civique) is: ‘I swear to be faithful to the Nation to the law and to the king and to preserve with all my power the Royal Constitution, decreed by the National Constituent Assembly for the Years 1789, 1790 and 1791.‘”

Across the Channel, Edmund Burke denounced the French revolutionaries who would overthrow traditional values and institutions, including religion. He added:

These enthusiasts do not scruple to avow their opinion, that a state can subsist without any religion better than with one; and that they are able to supply the place of any good which may be in it, by a project of their own—namely, by a sort of education they have imagined, founded in a knowledge of the physical wants of men; progressively carried to an enlightened self-interest, which, when well understood, they tell us will identify with an interest more enlarged and public. The scheme of this education has been long known. Of late they distinguish it (as they have got an entire new nomenclature of technical terms) by the name of a Civic Education.

Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

According to the OED, this was first use of the word “civic education” in English. It referred to a radically republican, secular, and patriotic project to which the author, Burke, was hostile. To bring civic education to England would be “the most dangerous shock that the state ever received.”

Thus the first English use of the phrase “civic education” was a denunciation. Yet the ideals that animated the French Revolution–self-governance, commitment to the common good–have deep resonances in England and the USA.

By the way, the word “civics” is a noun, in my opinion: short for “civic education.” It is often used adjectively in the phrase “civics education,” but I think that’s a grammatical mistake. In any case, “civics” is strictly American, and its first attested use is in the Boston Daily Advertiser in 1885: “Henry Randall Waite, Ph.D., president of the American Institute of Civics, was the next speaker… The use of the word civics for political science was explained.”

In short, “civic” has many meanings, but some of the oldest and most recurrent ones refer to a republican ideal: concrete communities of people should decide and act together and develop the rules, values, resources, and habits necessary to succeed.

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participatory action research in the City of God

Equipe Construindo Juntos (The Building Together Research Center) is based in Rio de Janeiro’s City of God neighborhood, made world-famous by the 2002 film. One of the key team members is my Tufts colleague Anjuli Fahlberg, a sociologist. She works as a close colleague with Ricardo Fernandes, Mirian Andrade, Jacob Portela, and about 20 Research Assistants, all from the neighborhood.

Among their projects is an elaborate survey of residents from 989 City of God households. Characteristically, the study began with open-ended discussion groups that chose the questions. The data was collected by fifteen trained and paid residents. To summarize the findings for neighbors, the research team produced “3,000 colorful pamphlets,” made presentations at local nonprofits, and earned press coverage in the major Rio newspapers.

This is an exemplary case of Participatory Action Research. Tisch College is proud to support it.

See also Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies; and nonviolent civic work under conditions of extreme violence (also on Anjuli Fahlberg’s research).

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give to grassroots organizing for civic participation

(Philadelphia) On Giving Tuesday, I am reluctant to name specific organizations to contribute to, other than my own employer (Tisch College) and the grant-seeking organizations on whose fiduciary boards I sit: Street Law, Discovering Justice, Everyday Democracy, and the Civic Series. But I do want to make a general argument that might influence your choices. As I showed in this post, “A total of $23 million–.0.43% of all democracy funding and a little less than one cent per American per year–has been spent on [nonpartisan] grassroots organizing for civic participation.” This kind of work should be a priority, especially for the small donors who form the grassroots base of democracy.

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how have political science and k-12 civics diverged?

It’s risky to generalize about k-12 civics. In the USA, there are no national standards for civics, state standards tend to be incoherent and not firmly enforced, and textbooks divide the market. Some teachers in some classrooms present highly critical accounts of US politics. Others are committed to American exceptionalism and celebratory narratives. The whole woke-to-MAGA spectrum is represented.

Many k-12 teachers try to avoid adopting positions in the classroom by presenting only hard facts about the constitutional process or by organizing deliberative discussions in which many perspectives are honored. Yet even an ostensibly neutral approach must reflect choices about the most important questions, topics and themes.

It is also risky to generalize about the discipline of political science, which encompasses more heterogeneous subfields than most disciplines. Whole subcultures of political scientists strike me as pro-regime, while others are radical. (See this post for some observations about the balkanized profession.)

But I’d still tentatively hypothesize that the center of gravity in political science stands apart from the center of gravity for k-12 civics, especially if we look at mass-market textbooks and state standards documents for evidence about civics. And I’d suggest that these are the three main gaps:

  1. Political science has haltingly recognized a wider range of perspectives on American political history and institutions, giving more attention to women and people of color as political thinkers and critics. That has meant more attention to critiques of the US system, but also alternative ideals and visions of progress. Again, this generalization ignores woke high school teachers and conservative or traditionalist political science professors, but I’d still venture the generalization.
  2. Political science has widely embraced versions of the New Institutionalism. I have written a primer on that movement, but in essence, it finds that institutions rarely operate as intended because they have their own logics and incentives. This means that it is unlikely that the US government would work as its authors planned. James Madison was an early and brilliant institutionalist who designed constitutional provisions to prevent certain kinds of corruption and failure. But the New Institutionalism has vastly expanded the list of threats, and few political scientists would argue that the US Constitution’s design addresses all these threats in a satisfactory way. Much of the high school curriculum is designed to teach students why the framers designed our system to work as it does. Many political scientists would emphasize that it does not, and could not, work as intended but rather faces serious perils. By the way, here I am not referring to intended “features” of the original Constitution, such as white-male dominance. I am referring to unforeseen “bugs.”
  3. Political science has experienced the behavioral revolution. Human beings evolved to make decisions without full consideration of relevant facts and information, employing heuristics and biases and rationalizing our biases with cherry-picked reasons. It’s common in civics curricula to present a model of the citizen as an independent thinker who decides on the best policy and chooses the candidates who come closest to those views. At least according to political scientists like Achen & Bartels (Democracy for Realists, 2016), this model is a myth. Citizens inevitably join up with large groups and vote to demonstrate loyalty to their groups.

The solution to this gap is not to move k-12 civics all the way to the center of gravity of professional political science. For my taste, the professional discipline is too cynical, not sufficiently normative or interested in problem-solving. Exposing students to cutting-edge political science is unlikely to make them more active and efficacious citizens. A big dose of New Institutionalism plus Behaviorism could kill anyone’s interest in politics unless the insights of those movements can be combined with some creativity and optimism.

At the same time, to ignore the findings of modern political science is increasingly untenable. We need new combinations.

See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right; on teaching the US Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; and constitutional piety.

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how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives)

I. Buddhist arguments

A Buddhist argument for “no self” goes like this: Look inward–as hard as you want–for some unchanging “I” or “self.” You cannot find it. All you’ll find are physical sensations, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness, coming one after another, free from your control, and constantly changing. The Buddha himself says, “mind, intellect, consciousness, keeps up an incessant round by day and by night of perishing as one thing and springing up as another” (quoted in Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy, p. 41). This stream cannot be you if “you” means some durable, controlling thing. But since that is all that you can find within, there is no you.

The idea of a durable, independent, yet fragile self is evidently not “Western” or “modern,” because Buddhists have been working assiduously against it for more than two millennia. It seems to have been endemic in their various cultural contexts. Buddhagosa (a 5th-century thinker) implies that the sense of self arises automatically from having sensations.

When there is rupa [physical sensation], O monks, then through attachment to rupa, through engrossment in rupa, the persuasion arises, ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’

When there is feeling … when there is perception … when there are volitions … when there is consciousness, O monks, then through attachment to consciousness, through engrossment in consciousness, the persuasion arises, ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’

Buddhagosa, in Siderits, p. 37.

Even if this is a universal human phenomenon, it is still bad and worth trying to combat, according to Buddhists. We should not think, “This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’” That thought has two ethical drawbacks (where “ethical” is defined very broadly, to mean anything concerned with thinking and acting well and living a good life).

First, a theory of the self as real but fragile encourages selfishness and love or regard of self at the expense of compassion and altruism.

Second, this theory causes avoidable discomfort or even suffering. For me, a common example is nostalgia. I remember an earlier stage of life–say, being a young parent with a toddler in my arms. I experience a desire to be that person again, or to have that experience directly instead of as a memory. As a result, my memory is infused with loss. But this is a mistake. The memory is an experience, just like any other impression. I can have the memory now, which is a blessing. There is no “I” that could possibly possess the object of the experience more directly, transcending time. The past doesn’t exist; all experience is current. Recognizing that truth spares me loss.

The same is true of fears of death or great old-age. I can imagine those states, but there is no reason to tie them to my present state. I am not old or dying. The idea that those states attach to me is based on a false sense of the self.

A third example is a kind of envy. I see a person who is a young parent now, with a child in arms. I want to have that experience instead of just observing it. Envy is not very virtuous in any circumstance. In this case, it also reflects a metaphysical error. The young parent’s experience is real, and I can see it. But, as a logical matter, it cannot attach to me. I should be glad for the existence of the experience and drop the nonsensical idea that the experience should (or could) somehow be mine. The root of that mistake is a false view of self.

The crucial point is that a spiritual or ethical failing derives from a metaphysical error. Truly believing the metaphysical truth of no-self would prevent or cure the spiritual and ethical fault.

II. Kant’s defense of the self

Kant was aware of the argument that the self is not real, because we cannot find it when we introspect. All we find is a set of specific experiences. He got this from David Hume.

But Kant argued that experiences are logically structured. Consciousness is not like a big screen with lots of disconnected pixels that change color randomly. I perceive three-dimensional objects moving through space, interacting with each other, and having sounds, weight, and smell as well as shape. The fact that I perceive such things implies that I (= my self) must have categories like space, time, and causality. These categories are built into what Kant calls “reason,” which we might more comfortably call human cognition.

Kant calls his conclusion the “transcendental unity of apperception.” That phrase is certainly a mouthful, but we can break it down. “Apperception” means perception with an element of understanding and self-awareness. You apperceive something as a 3-D object moving toward you. That can be a true belief about the world. “Unity” refers to the fact that our apperceptions are coherent across time and space. And “transcendental,” in Kant’s specialized vocabulary, refers to something that is a necessary explanation of something that we know from direct experience.

Could a creature inhabit our universe and have different categories from ours? God might, or Michael on “The Good Place.” But to say that such a creature has different categories is basically empty, because we have no inkling of what that is like. For us, our categories are logical necessities. The best way to think about metaphysics is to begin by understanding what we must believe, and then believe that. We must believe in space, time, and the self, which is tantamount to saying that these things are real. That is a transcendental argument.

III. Should we try to shake the idea of the self?

One aspect of the question is empirical/psychological. Is it possible–by means of concerted introspection, philosophical argument, sudden enlightenment, practice, or some other means–to rid ourselves of the idea of the self as a durable, independent agent? I am not sure, but I am open to the possibility that this happens.

A different aspect of the question is metaphysical. By ridding ourselves of the idea of the self, are we coming closer to the truth? That is a central point of disagreement between some Buddhist thinkers and Kant. But maybe it’s not a gap between the Buddha and Kant, since it’s possible that the Buddha is only interested in the good life. (“Buddhism in both its classical and contemporary forms is first and foremost a theory of personal flourishing.” – Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, p. 122. MIT Press.)

That brings us to the third aspect of the question: Is it virtuous or ethical or otherwise a good idea to strive to rid ourselves of the idea of the self? Here I am inclined to a Middle Way.

On the one hand, Kant is right that the concept of the self is logically prior to many ordinary thoughts. At a minimum, it would be an arduous task to escape from this concept. That would take a lot of time and effort and probably involve a lot of wavering and backsliding. I am not convinced that it’s likely to accomplish the ethical goals of reducing selfishness and improving equanimity. There is a risk that it might promote narcissism (excessive interest in moulding one’s own cognition) or even avoidance of ethical responsibility. It is an empirical question how trying to attain non-self affects the character. Even if its net impact is positive, maybe there are better paths to virtue.

However, we should try to shake certain theories of the self that are not only false but also ethically problematic. It is wrong (both logically and ethically) to feel nostalgia, existential dread, or envy. These feelings are not only harmful but also reflect a mistaken theory of the self.

The mistake is not to believe in anything called a self. The mistake is to imagine that the self could time-travel or jump from one body to another. Reminding oneself of these mistakes might help to prevent or address certain spiritual ailments.

Kant tells us that time is a necessary aspect or component of cognition. But we don’t jump from an awareness of time to a possessive attitude toward time. We don’t think, “Time is mine; I want to hold it forever.” We do make that jump in the case of the self, and that’s our mistake. We move from relying on the concept of a self to loving the self possessively. This is something we could teach ourselves not to do.

IV. The relationship between ethics and metaphysics

An underlying issue here is how metaphysics should connect to ethics. Owen Flanagan writes (p. 116), “Buddhists claim a connection between understanding one’s own self, paradoxically as anatman—as no-self—and an ethic of compassion and lovingkindness. …. Diminishing the grip of the illusion of metaphysical egoism is causally connected to being good. What sort of connection is there—might there be?”

One answer is that we are obliged to believe whatever happens to be true. The truth is independent of our good,; and perhaps it is a virtue to recognize the truth whatever it may be.

Kant begins the section on the Transcendental Deduction with a legal analogy. He says that law professors distinguish “the question of right (quid juris) from the question of fact (quid facti).” They call a demonstration of right a “deduction.” In a similar way, we go around making lots of “empirical conceptions” without checking whether we have a right to them. Some of these are fine, but some are “usurped conceptions, such as fortune, fate.” Although these words are used by almost everyone, they “are occasionally challenged by the question, ‘quid juris?’” Kant wants to ask whether the concepts of space, time, causality, and self are used by right or are more like “fortune” and “fate”–unjustified ideas. (Critique of Pure Reason, trans J. M. D. Meiklejohn, A84=B116.) He concludes that they are in fact obligatory.

A Buddhist might respond that it’s actually a choice whether to remain wedded to standard conceptions of time and the self, or else to devote energy to trying to shake these conceptions. Kant says we “must” use these categories, and that is the basis for his claim that they are true or right. A Buddhist might challenge the ethical sense of that “must.” If it is possible–through concerted effort–not to think with the category of self, then Kant’s argument fails. It is then not necessary to use this category; and if it’s not necessary, it doesn’t have a transcendental basis for being true.

In the following passage, the Buddha moves from making a metaphysical claim (there is no self), to offering an existence-proof (a person can avoid believing in the self), to actually liberating his followers (they lose faith in the self and become free):

“the correct view in the light of the highest knowledge is as follows: “This is not mine; this am I not; this is not my self.”

“Perceiving this, O monks, the learned and noble disciple conceives an aversion for rupa, conceives an aversion for feeling, conceives an aversion for perception, conceives an aversion for volitions, conceives an aversion for consciousness.

“And in conceiving this aversion he becomes divested of passion, and by the absence of passion he becomes free, and when he is free he becomes aware that he is free; and he knows that rebirth is exhausted, that he has lived the holy life, that he has done what it behooved him to do, and that he is no more for this world.’”

Thus spoke The Blessed One, and the delighted band of five sramanas applauded the speech of The Blessed One. Now while this exposition was being delivered, the minds of the five sramanas became free from attachment and delivered from the depravities.

[Samyutta Nikaya III.66–68], in Siderits, pp. 38-9

This is a different way from Kant’s to put metaphysics together with ethics. But it depends on an existence-proof: actual examples of people who have become “free from attachment and delivered from the depravities.” The question is whether that happens.

See also: nostalgia for now; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happiness; on philosophy as a way of life

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judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view

  1. Judgment or practical reason (i.e., deciding what is right to do) means forming beliefs about facts, values, and strategies. It is sometimes worth trying to isolate the factual beliefs in order to test them empirically. But no claims are purely empirical, and the goal of distinguishing facts, values, and strategies is ultimately misplaced. (See right and true are deeply connected.)
  2. Individuals hold many opinions at once, and often some of our opinions are connected logically, causally, or in other ways. This means that we have structures of opinions. The form of our structures matters as well as their content. For instance, a structure can be too scattered or too centralized. These structures are better modeled as networks than as foundations plus superstructures. Only some networks of beliefs have nodes that function like foundations. (See an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory.)
  3. Individuals develop their opinions in constant interaction with other human beings, living or dead. We start with no explicit views of the social world and borrow most of what we think from other people. Whenever a person influences us, that reflects a link in a social network. And those who influence have their own networks of opinions that are linked by logic, causality, or in other ways. Therefore, developing judgments is a matter of participation in a network of people and their networked ideas. (See what makes conversation go well: a network model.)
  4. A culture is a name for a cluster of individuals with overlapping networks of ideas. It is a useful simplification for a world in which each individual at each moment has different ideas from the same individual at another time and from all other individuals. Some cultures hold foundational beliefs about some questions (e.g, monotheism is a foundational belief in a monotheistic culture); but in general, it is misleading to define a culture in terms of its foundations. (See everyone unique, all connected.)
  5. Often, we must judge institutions as opposed to concrete acts. (See Moral Foundations theory and political processes). For instance, we may need to assess the United States or marriage rather than an individual statement or action. Institutions also generate the material for our judgments, including most of what we take to be facts. (See decoding institutions.) Institutions exhibit patterns that are not intended or designed. (See the New Institutionalism.)
  6. Institutions are not best modeled as networks of individuals, because they have salient features–such as rules, incentives, and boundaries–that are not like nodes and links. (See a template for analyzing an institution.)
  7. The whole system of networked individuals, networked beliefs, and institutions is dynamic, not static. Individuals develop over their lives; institutions are founded, decay, and change; social networks form and shift; and networks of ideas change. (cf. Dewey’s pragmatism.)
  8. Power operates at all points in this system: e.g., when one individual influences another, when one person is put in contact with or separated from another person, when an institution is designed, and when its norms change. (See decoding institutions.) Power is not intrinsically bad; it just means that A can affect B. But some power is bad, and power shapes the materials of judgment.
  9. Liberty is a genuine value (see six types of freedom), but it should not be understood as freedom from others’ power or a right of epistemically free individuals to act according to their own judgments. Our judgments are formed by the communities we belong to (see the truth in Hayek).
  10. There are better and worse individuals, ideas, judgments, and institutions, but telling the difference between better and worse is a deeply social and iterative process. (See structured moral pluralism [a proposal].)
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talking about gerrymandering and political reform on WCAI (Cape Cod and Islands)

I was on Mindy Todd’s show The Point yesterday, for a program on “Strengthening our Representative Democracy.” The other two guests were David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy,” and Judy Zaunbrecher, co-president of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters. The audio is here. If you start at 42:00, you can hear Mindy ask Judy whether Massachusetts has been gerrymandered; Judy accurately summarizes the research by my colleagues at Tisch College. (Spoiler alert: not really, although it would still be better to use a nonpartisan districting commission.) I join shortly after that to discuss why our state government is so dominated by white men.

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