abortion as a multi-dimensional issue

As many have noted, surveys that present Roe v Wade as a binary choice simplify public opinion. One reason is that people may not be very clear about what Roe says. In addition, individuals hold diverse views on a whole set of questions, of which these are examples:

  1. Why have some societies sometimes prohibited some abortions? Are restrictions and bans evidence of patriarchy, of partisan political strategy, of specifically religious values, or of hard choices and disagreements about conflicting values?
  2. To what extent should we think of the pregnancy rate and the abortion rate as outcomes of free individual choices; of social structures, pressures, and inequities; or of violence and coercion? Do the answers vary systematically by social class and race/ethnicity?
  3. Is is possible to have better or worse–more or less ethical or valid–views about issues like abortion, or are such views simply personal opinions?
  4. Presuming that there are better and worse views, who has the standing to form views about which cases? Specifically, whose business is it to reflect on whether abortion in general, or any specific abortion, is OK?
  5. Presuming that someone–perhaps only the pregnant person–reflects about abortion in a particular case, which considerations are relevant? Among other possible considerations, what about the circumstances of the pregnancy, the health and circumstances of the pregnant person, or the stage of fetal development?
  6. As a general rule, who do we want to make laws: courts, Congress, state legislatures, or citizens through referenda? Does our general stance about how to make laws apply to the definition and limitation of individual rights? If we want courts–more than voters and elected representatives–to define rights, which rights do we want courts to define?
  7. If one thinks that in some cases or circumstances, abortion should be prohibited, what should happen to the people involved in violating such prohibitions? Who should enforce such rules, and which penalties (if any) should apply?
  8. What does one think about other closely related policies, such as health insurance and child welfare? Would changing policies on those matters change one’s stance about abortion?
  9. What is the metaphysical status of a fetus? When does human life begin, and–a distinct question–when does personhood begin?

If you are pro-choice, as I am, and you are interested in political strategy and messaging, then my sense is that you should hammer away on #7. Public opinion will break favorably when citizens think about possible penalties for women and doctors. I would not emphasize #1, #3, or #9, because I suspect that many Americans see abortion as an authentically difficult issue due to the status of the fetus.

But let’s resist thinking about everything in terms of political strategy, especially if we are not actually political strategists. For the rest of us, all of the above questions (and more) may be relevant, and I’d wager that most groups of people will encompass diverse views on many of them.

See also: what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; views of abortion by gender; support for abortion rights: a generational story; and notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds.

what republic means, revisited

Basic political words (including the word “political”) tend to be appropriated by diverse movements and parties over time, which causes them to accumulate diverse and even opposite meanings. “Liberal” is a great example.

Another example is “republic,” which is now millennia old and appears in the official names of major parties as well as 110 sovereign states (by my count), ranging from the Laos People’s Democratic Republic to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and including such odd couples as both of the Koreas.

Some would say that any real republic is a regime with a popular or majoritarian element that is limited by checks and balances and restraints on the powers of government. These limits distinguish it from a democracy. That usage is not wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily track the terminology of the US founders. For instance, Jefferson defined a republic as a “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.” As the image shows, many of Jefferson’s contemporaries agreed that a republic was a democracy.

For others, a republic is a system in which the people own and control the most important goods. That is why communist states have generally named themselves republics. One justification may be etymology. The Latin phrase res publica means the public’s thing (or good, or wealth, or interest). Thus, if you believe that things like factories and farms should be public property, you may be inclined to use the word “republic.” In addition, the French revolution has often inspired communists and other left radicals. That revolution called itself “republican.” There is also a less prominent tradition of radical commonwealth thought in English; and “commonwealth” is a direct translation of res publica.

For some political theorists of the last 30 years (e.g., Philip Pettit, Ian Shapiro) republicanism means opposition to domination, which is arbitrary power over others. A republic is a regime that successfully combats domination, and modern republicans debate the necessary and ideal tools for that end. Rule of law, popular participation and responsive government, civil liberties, and checks and balances are among the options.

A different school of modern theorists see a republic as a regime that expects a particularly high degree of virtue from its citizens. For instance, Hannah Arendt defines a republic as a community that allows and expects participants to display civic virtues in public forums.

Until recently, I would have held onto one fixed point. I would have proposed that any definition of republic should cover the regime that governed Rome between the overthrow of the kings and the reign of emperor Augustus and his successors, because the word first arose to name that system. In analyzing the Roman republic, we might prefer to emphasize its appreciation of civic virtues, its empowered populace, its mixed constitution with limited popular power, its defense of private rights, its public property (the forum, the army), or its commitment to rule of law and other protections against domination (for free men)–but one way or another, we would have to tie our definition to the ancient regime. And a monarchy would be incompatible with a republic, since the Roman republic is what we call the interlude between the era of kings and that of emperors. Today, most of the countries that do not call themselves republics are monarchies.

But then I read Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Harvard, 2015). Kaldellis shows that almost all Romans believed that their republic persisted under the emperors. The structure of its government changed, but Rome remained a republic–indeed, until 1453. To call a limited period of Roman history “the republic” is to impose modern terminology on the past.

I suspect that one reason that many moderns have believed that the emperors ended the Roman republic is Tacitus. He is a superb author, enormously valuable and timely, but he does have an ax to grind. As a senator and a member the hereditary senatorial class, Tacitus views the emperors’ usurpation of the Senate’s powers as a fundamental blow to liberty. In modern times, his account has been a powerful inspiration for anyone who wants to defend representative legislatures against tyrants. But the Roman senate was never representative; it was oligarchical. Other Romans could disagree with Tacitus that weakening the Senate really undermined the republic. For many of them, the defining feature of a republic (per Kaldellis) was its coherence as a community. Some Romans viewed emperors as good guardians of their community, in which case the republic could thrive under Augustus or his successors. Their main concern was whether a given monarch really served the public good; if not, he was illegitimate.

The conclusion, for me, is that “republic” can mean many different things, and no one should assert that it has only one true meaning. I am interested in anti-domination and civic virtue and prefer to use the word “republican” for combinations of those ideas. But mainly, one should define and clarify one’s terms.

See also: do we live in a republic or a democracy?; civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes; The French Republic denounces the French State; citizens against domination; James Madison in favor of majority rule etc.

Institute of Civic Studies and Learning for Democracy

Call for Applications

(open for applications from USA, Germany and Ukraine)

We are happy to invite you to participate in the Institute of Civic Studies and Learning (ICSLD) for Democracy that will take place in Augsburg, Germany, from August 19 – 28, 2022. The ICSLD is organized by a team from North Carolina State University (Prof. Chad Hoggan), the University of Augsburg (Dr. habil. Tetyana Hoggan-Kloubert), with the support by Tufts University (Prof. Peter Levine) und University of Maryland (Prof. Karol Soltan).

Objectives and topics

The Institute of Civic Studies and Learning for Democracy is an intensive, ten-day, seminar and residential retreat—bringing together practitioners, graduate students, and faculty from the U.S., Germany, and Ukraine, and from diverse professions and fields of study. Participants will be staying in the same hotel and participating in workshops, planning sessions, and social events all day and evening throughout the ten days. Costs for hotel and meals will be covered by ICSLD.

The ICSLD deals with issues related to the development of civil society, the role of the individual/citizen in society, the role of education in promoting democracy, the role of institutions in the development of a civil society, and questions related to the ethical foundation of civic issues in a (democratic) society. These topics will be examined in international and comparative perspectives, considering European (especially German und Ukrainian) and U.S.-American civic traditions.

The ICSLD engages participants in challenging discussions such as:

  • What kinds of citizens (if any) do good regimes need?
  • What should such citizens know, believe, and do?
  • What practices and institutional structures promote the right kinds of citizenship?
  • What ought to be the relationships among empirical evidence, ethics, and strategy?

The Institute of Civic Studies and Learning for Democracy is a continuation of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which was organized annually by Peter Levine, Karol Soltan, and Tetyana Hoggan-Kloubert from 2015-2019 (and at Tufts University since 2009).

How to apply

All application materials must be submitted in English. The application must include the following:

  • A cover letter telling us why you want to participate in the ICSLD and how the seminar will help you promote civic capacities and engagement in the area in which you live (currently or in the future) (maximum 2 pages)
  • A curriculum vitae
  • All application material can be sent as an email attachment in DOC or PDF format to tetyana.kloubert@phil.uni-augsburg.de.

Decisions will be announced before the end of May 2022. The total number of participants will be limited to 20 (approximately 5 from the U.S., 10 from Germany, and 5 from Ukraine. We are interested in applicants who have a long-term interest in developing the civic potential in their respective countries.

The working language of the Summer Institute will be English. Your mastery of the English language must be sufficient to read and understand complex texts from multiple disciplines, and to take part in a lively discussion.


For best consideration apply by May 20, 2022.


Selected participants will be provided with accommodation, meals, and full event access. (In cases of urgent need, reimbursement for travel costs may be possible.)


For more information about the Institute of Civic Studies and Learning for Democracy, please contact tetyana.kloubert@phil.uni-augsburg.de. We encourage you to share this message with your networks of people who might be interested in attending.

on the tension between equity and liberty

The idea that liberty and equality are in tension has distinguished sources. As Danielle Allen wrote years ago,

By the Cold War, both communists and libertarians structured their ideas, to an important degree, around the tenet that there is “an Eternal Conflict” between liberty and equality, to quote the title of a 1960 article from the Freeman, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education. Iconic thinkers on the right adopted the theme and built economic theories around it: Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. But liberals and thinkers on the left — Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin — also assumed a basic opposition between liberty and equality, even if they sought to undo it.

On the left–that is, left of the liberals whom Allen named–it has been common to deny that equity and liberty are at odds. Karl Marx writes at least as vividly about freedom (or “emancipation”) as about equity, and anarchists are even more likely to see the two values as consistent. In today’s leftist social movements, people talk more about liberation than equity, and (in my experience) they often reject the suggestion that these may be rival goods. To some extent, they may define freedom or liberty differently from classical liberals, seeing it as something other than individual choice. But I also think that some contemporary leftists support the freedom of classical liberalism–freedom to do what you prefer–and believe that it is fully compatible with equity, or even depends on it.

I agree that these two goods do not have a zero-sum relationship. For one thing, it is possible to improve institutions so that they yield more freedom along with more equity. That can result from reducing corruption, rent-seeking, and discrimination and making institutions better at learning and more responsive to valid ideas and arguments.

Besides, it is unlikely that an ordinary increase in equity will cause a proportional decrease in freedom, or vice-versa. For instance, a 5-percent increase in a given tax will probably not cause liberty to lessen by some comparable measure. Taxing wealthy people to fund education and healthcare for poor people may even enhance the freedom of the latter without really affecting the former appreciably. Or it might not be helpful. The outcome is an empirical question; mileage may vary. I am just making the familiar point that there is no inevitable relationship.

Yet I do believe that the two goods conflict, and I think that sophisticated social democrats and left-liberals implicitly realize that. After all, the most impressive social democratic societies tolerate a great deal of inequality. They have social classes and social hierarchies, wealthy citizens and welfare recipients.

Sweden, for example, has a GINI coefficient of about 29. This is one of the lowest in the world, much lower than the USA’s 41.5. It nevertheless represents a great deal of inequality, which persists inter-generationally. Sweden stopped creating nobles in the 17th century. Despite the industrial revolution, emigration, democracy, and socialism, families whose names indicate noble heritage are still richer than other Swedes. Indeed, mobility is about the same in Sweden as in the USA when measured by the odds that children will attain different percentile rankings than their parents, although there is a smaller absolute gap between the richest and the poorest in Sweden.

At the same time, social democracies offer a lot of individual freedom. The conservative Heritage Foundation ranks Sweden 11th in the world in freedom, above the USA at 25. This example reinforces the point that freedom and equity do not simply trade off–Sweden does well on both dimensions. But it also reminds us that social democratic states are not very equitable, even though they are quite free.

To make Sweden much more equitable, as measured by the GINI coefficient or a metric of mobility, someone would have to take a lot of wealth away from the upper strata. Once everyone had the same wealth (or everyone had resources equally proportional to their needs), someone who have to keep that situation stable, intervening whenever individuals moved above the mean due to luck, talent, or anything else. That “someone” might be a state, which would face opposition and would have to use tools like police and prisons to accomplish its agenda. Or it might be an energized mass movement, like the mobilized workers of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (presuming those workers weren’t arms of the state). Either way, the force that accomplished equity and then policed it–I use the verb advisedly–would pose a threat to liberty. It would be coercive, probably violent, and certainly involved in everyone’s business all the time.

This is not an objection to the social democratic ideas of people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These leaders want to increase taxes and regulations somewhat and increase government spending somewhat. They are also fierce defenders of specific liberties. I am sure they would oppose (on principled grounds) the amount of coercion, surveillance, and control necessary to accomplish real equity. They are in the liberal vein of Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin–the writers Allen named as proponents of a tradeoff between freedom and equity. They implicitly recognize this tradeoff and wouldn’t sacrifice much freedom to achieve equity.

In short, we can strive to have more equity and more liberty than we have now. That is the objective of left-liberals in the US. (State-capacity libertarians also share this goal, albeit with different practical assumptions.) However, we should not deny the conflict between equity and liberty when either is pushed near its limit. In those situations, I maintain that liberty is more important, which makes me a liberal. I would claim that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are also liberals, in this sense. Liberals should acknowledge that we are not radical egalitarians; we are just more egalitarian than most US elected officials are.

See also: explore equity and inequity in the USA; debating equity; defining equity and equality; sorting out human welfare, equity and mobility; better governments tend to be bigger; when social advantage persists for millennia; why some forms of advantage are more stubborn than others; the Nordic model; six types of freedom;

alerting people to their privilege

Two recent studies:

  • Skinner-Dorkenoo, Sarmal, Rogbeer, André, Patel & Cha find that showing White Americans information about “the persistent inequalities that produced COVID-19” resulted in respondents reporting lower fear of COVID-19, less “empathy for those vulnerable to COVID-19,” and less “support for safety precautions.” White people who were already more aware of racial disparities were already less concerned about COVID-19; giving them more information further reduced their concern. This study builds on previous findings that informing White people about racial disparities in the criminal justice system reduces their commitment to reform.
  • Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong report in The New York Times that “a group of Ukrainian activists, government officials and think tanks, called the Information Strategies Council of Ukraine, has sent emails and social media messages to 15 million Russian men of draft age, between 18 and 27.” These activists find that “Russians tend to dismiss messages highlighting Russian war crimes as American propaganda …, and pictures of Russian casualties run the risk of inciting anger at Ukraine, rather than the Kremlin.” Instead, “The most successful posts [focus] on the incompetence and corruption of Russian military leaders,” which highlights the suffering of Russian soldiers.

On one hand, we must speak freely and frankly about injustice. We must be able to address the powerful with moral critiques. Otherwise, crucial issues will be absent from the public debate, moral growth will be near-impossible, truths will be hidden, and those who suffer will lose their voice.*

On the other hand, it is a pretty safe bet that telling human beings they have unfair advantages is a good way to alert them to privileges they will want to protect. I am hard pressed to think of examples of progress that resulted from telling people they held advantages–no matter how eloquently or cleverly.

I can think of fairly large groups of people who have demonstrated moral growth, but generally at a slow pace and without major cost to themselves. For instance, the Federal Republic of Germany now recalls its Nazi past responsibly, but that happened well after World War II. First, foreign nations destroyed the Nazi regime; then Germans gradually accomplished moral growth. “In Germany, despite Allied efforts at de-Nazification, many Germans in the immediate postwar era maintained strong prejudice against Jews, even as they denied all knowledge of Hitler’s crimes,” writes Robert S. Wistrich. It took another generation and favorable political and economic circumstances for opinions to shift.

This does not mean that radical and rapid change is impossible; it frequently occurs. There are alternatives to moral persuasion. Advantaged people can be forced to change (as in the WWII case), they can be paid off, or they can be persuaded that they will benefit from change.

For instance, in the current war, Ukrainians are not, for the most part, trying to persuade Russians of any moral case. Instead, they are trying to destroy Russian battalion tactical groups, aircraft, and ships in order to defeat the invasion. Meanwhile, if Russians can be persuaded that they are suffering unnecessarily at the hands of their own government, so much the better. That message may give the Kremlin some headaches. (And it is true, even though it is extremely selective.)

The great Bayard Rustin criticized people who

survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts. … To believe this, of course, you must be convinced, even unconsciously, that at the core of the white man’s heart lies a buried affection for Negroes–a proposition one may be permitted to doubt. But in any case, hearts are not relevant to the issue; neither racial affinities nor racial hostilities are rooted there. It is institutions–social, political, and economic institutions–which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let those institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.

From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement” (Commentary, 2/39, Feb. 1965).

Both morality and politics matter. They are related but not identical. Morality demands speaking truth to power. But politics is about accomplishing beneficial change. Often, politics is more urgent; morality is better addressed in the wake of political success.

*To be sure, people sometimes make unfair or invalid critiques, but those should be aired, too, so they can be rebutted