July 28, 2010
We're going to Europe until August 5, taking advantage of frequent flier miles to get to Munich and then driving south into the Tyrolean Alps. I'll be as offline as the nuns in this ancient convent (or maybe more so) and won't post until next week.
July 27, 2010
what parents (and other adults) want from schools
These are some interesting tidbits from a recent (June 2010) Public Agenda survey of 1,400 Americans, including 646 parents of kids currently enrolled in k-12 schools.
First, people are more concerned about behavioral issues than about academic "performance," as that is typically measured:
|The most pressing problem in your local schools:||parents||all respondents|
|social problems and kids who misbehave||63%||56%|
|low academic standards & outdated curricula||27%||31%|
Second, although people value basic writing and math skills, teamwork ranks higher on their list of priorities than scientific skills and principles.
|Which of these are absolutely essential to learn in schools?:||parents||all respondents|
|basic scientific ideas and principles||60%||56%|
|being able to work in a team||80%||74%|
Third, when asked what should be taught more or less in their own kids' schools, elementary school parents seem basically satisfied, but the most common request for more time is for computer and technology skills. I wish parents wanted more social studies, but that's second-to-bottom on their priority list, right above art. Middle- and high-school parents rank it a bit higher, above advanced science, advanced math, fine arts, and sports/gym.
July 26, 2010
we need more branches of government
Two very different authors whom we assigned in our summer institute both advocate adding branches to the traditional troika (legislative, executive, and judicial).* In general, a "branch" is a part of government with distinctive guiding principles and forms and functions appropriate to those principles. It has autonomous powers, checked by other branches. These checks are not only designed to prevent tyranny but also to promote various kinds of inter-branch collaboration for the public good.
The principle of division into branches could be carried further than it was in the US in 1788. Bruce Ackerman writes, "The separation of powers is a good idea, but there is no reason to suppose that the classical writers have exhausted its goodness. To the contrary." He favors a powerful elected legislature, "checked and balanced by a host of special-purpose branches, each motivated by one or more of the three basic concerns of separationist theory."
Here are my own top three ideas for new branches.
1. A regulatory branch. We pretty much have one of those already. Even though the US Constitution explicitly vests "all legislative powers" in the elected Congress, everyone knows that laws are also made by regulatory and administrative agencies. Ackerman advocates thinking of these agencies as their own branch.
I have written critically about the delegation of democratic responsibilities to appointed agencies and also against over-estimating the value of expertise, which is the trump card of bureaucracy. But it seems unrealistic and unwise to imagine that we can dispense with lawmaking administrative agencies in a modern economy. So perhaps the best course is to think of administrative agencies as part of a separate branch with its own virtues and principles but also with strict limitations.
The elected branches should not be able to interfere with administrative agencies in illegitimate and corrupting ways, e.g., with rampant earmarks, miscellaneous mandates, and patronage appointments. But they should be able--or even compelled--to review important value judgments and choices that the agencies make. Agencies should embody principles of professionalism and rule-of-law. That means, for example, that they should be required to codify their own decisions in consistent, transparent, and stable law rather than miscellaneous, ad hoc decisions. Courts should be able to review their procedures for adherence to these professional principles.
Note that some of this "reform" program is already embodied in the Administrative Procedures Act and case law, so all we need is to to think of administrative agencies as a branch and to tinker with the law accordingly.
2. An integrity branch. This is another suggestion of Ackerman's. It is scandalous that we permit incumbent politicians to draw the legislative districts in which they will run for reelection; that we hold partisan votes for the secretaries of state who administer elections and decide where to locate voting machines (etc.), and that we allow private interests with financial stakes to fund campaigns. Many other countries have rigorously independent electoral commissions or agencies. The US version could be empowered to draw electoral districts, administer the vote, and subsidize qualified candidates with public funding (guaranteed by the Constitution or by a durable statute).
3. A reconstructive branch. This idea comes from Unger. It is aimed at the problems of sclerosis, corruption, entrenchment, and inertia--in the private and public sectors, local and national. Unger's proposal is to let this new branch seize troubled entities temporarily, reconstruct them, and then let them go back about their business. Clear candidates for such reconstruction lately would include bankrupt Wall Street banks, bankrupt auto manufacturers, the state of California, and (due mainly to events beyond its own control), the city of New Orleans.
The obvious objection to this third proposal is the lack of democracy--a bunch of "suits" from Washington would be able to seize anything they wanted and revise it according to their pet theories. But that problem could be overcome with two provisions. 1) The reconstructive branch would itself be chosen in regular, competitive, popular elections for term-limited positions. 2) When reconstructing public institutions, the branch would be required to create fully democratic processes, not impose its own ideas. So both California and New Orleans would use popular constitutional conventions (or charter reviews) to design their new systems of governance. The process would be managed by the reconstructive branch, but the outcomes would be up to citizens.
*Bruce Ackerman, "The New Separation of Powers", Harvard Law Review, 113 (2000): 642-729 and Roberto Unger, "Democracy Realized: A Manifesto" (pp. 263-77).
July 22, 2010
scrambling the ideological spectrum
Here is a quote from a text that we assigned for today's session of the Tufts Summer Institute of Civic Studies:
The first [kind of knowledge] is what may be acquired through intelligence, through the book or classroom, and skill in ratiocination. It is large in rules, prescriptions, and generalizations. The second is strictly limited to experience, to the doing of something, and to the making of what is learned an inalienable part of one's very mind and personality.
Especially if you were told that the writer prefers the second kind of knowledge to the first (as he does), you might presume that he was a "progressive" educator, a Deweyan who promotes experiential education, service-learning, and constructivism as opposed to learning from the "book or classroom." But this is a passage from Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dream and Reality (p. 32). Nisbet offers a full-throated defense of conservatism, arguing for authority and property as the two basic conservative values. In his opposition to abstract, theoretical knowledge and his celebration of experiential, emotional learning, he stands rather surprisingly with Dewey.
July 20, 2010
A Nation of Spectators
In 1998, the National Commission on Civic Renewal issued its final report entitled A Nation of Spectators. (I was the deputy director of the Commission; Bill Galston was the director.) It had a website: static and simple by today's standards, but fully capable of presenting the report and some important ancillary information. The website lost its server as the years passed, and I did not keep a PDF of the report--although I do have a stack of very nice bound printed copies in my office. A Nation of Spectators had an influence on the civic engagement field. People periodically ask for it, and today I discovered it online thanks to the wonders of the Wayback Machine (an archive of the World Wide Web).
So here is the website of the National Commission and an html copy of A Nation of Spectators. The graphics and formatting have been lost because of the way the server was reorganized, but the content remains. The authors were:
William J. Bennett
Senator Sam Nunn
Elaine L. Chao
The Heritage Foundation
John F. Cooke
Walt Disney Company
Jean Bethke Elshtain
University of Chicago
Henry J. Fernandez
Yale Law School
Mary Ann Glendon
Harvard Law School
Peter C. Goldmark, Jr.
International Herald Tribune
Lloyd V. Hackley
Character Counts! Coalition
Anna Faith Jones
Michael S. Joyce
Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
Richard D. Land
Southern Baptist Convention
American Enterprise Institute
Jewish Theological Seminary
Share Our Strength
Arthur R. Taylor
Gail L. Warden
Henry Ford Health System
Robert L. Woodson, Sr.
National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise
July 19, 2010
the visionary fire of Roberto Mangabeira Unger
We are deep into our annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, with as much as six-and-a-half-hours of class and many hundreds of pages of reading each day. The most blogging I can manage will be less-than-daily notes about the texts we discuss. Today, one important text is Roberto Mangabeira Unger's False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy. (Unger is a Harvard Law Professor and cabinet member in his home country of Brazil.)
Unger takes "to its ultimate conclusion" the thesis "that society is an artifact" (p. 2). All our institutions, mores, habits, and incentives are things that we imagine and make. We can change each of these things, "if not all at once, then piece by piece" (p. 4). When we observe that people are poisoning their environment or slaughtering each other--or are suffering from a loss of community and freedom--we should view the situation as our work and strive to change it. He "carries to extremes the idea that everything in society is politics, mere politics"--in the sense of collective action and creation (p. 1)
Unger is a radical leftist but a strong critic of Marxism. He views Marxism as one example of "deep-structure" theory. Any deep-structure theory identifies some "basic framework, structure, or context" beneath all our routine debates and conflicts. It treats each framework as "an indivisible and repeatable type of social organization." And then it explains changes from one framework to another in terms of "lawlike tendencies or deep-seated economic, organizational, and psychological constraints" (p. 14-5). So--according to Marxists--all the politics that we observe today is a function of "capitalism"; capitalism is a unitary thing that can repeat or end; and the only way forward is from capitalism to a different deep structure, namely socialism.
Unger argues that this theory fails to acknowledge the virtually infinite forms of social organization that we can make (including, for instance, many definitions of private property and many combinations of property with other laws and institutions). It suggest that perhaps nothing can be done to alter the arc of history. The only possible strategy is to start a revolution to change the unitary underlying structure of the present society. But that solution is generally (perhaps always) impractical, so the leftist thinker or leader is reduced to denouncing capitalist inequality. "Preoccupied with the hierarchy-producing effects of inherited institutional arrangements, the leftist reaches for distant and vague solutions that cannot withstand the urgent pressures of statecraft and quickly give way to approaches betraying its initial aims" (p. 20).
Instead, writes Unger, the leftist should be constantly "inventing ever more ingenious institutional instruments." The clearest failure of actual Marxism was its refusal to experiment, which was legitimized by its deep-structure theory. (Once capitalism was banished, everything was supposed to be fixed). "The radical left has generally found in the assumptions of deep-structure social analysis an excuse for the poverty of its institutional ideas. With a few exceptions ... it has produced only one innovative institutional conception, the idea of a soviet or conciliar type of organization" (p. 24). In theory, a "soviet" was a system of direct democracy in each workplace or small geographical location. But, Unger writes, that was an unworkable and generally poor idea.
In contrast, Unger is a veritable volcano of innovative institutional conceptions. He wants a new branch of government devoted to constant reform that is empowered to seize other institutions but only for a short time; mandatory voting; automatic unionization combined with complete independence of unions from the state; neighborhood associations independent from local governments; a right to exit from public law completely and instead form private associations with rules that protect rights; a wealth tax; competitive social funds that allocate endowments originally funded by the state; and new baskets of property rights.
None of these proposals is presented as a solution. Together they are ways of creating "a framework that is permanently more hospitable to the reconstructive freedom of the people who work within its limits" (p. 34). The task is to "combine realism, practicality, and detail with visionary fire" (p. 14)
On deck: Madison, Hayek, and Burke--all defenders of tradition and enemies of the Ungerian project.
July 15, 2010
Bent Flyvbjerg's radical alternative to applied social science
Bent Flyvbjerg is one of the authors we teach in our Summer Institute of Civic Studies. He is a Danish social scientist who has developed a radical ideal of social research that he calls "phronesis" (Greek for "prudence" or "practical wisdom"). I would introduce it as follows:
A very common method is to identify some feature of practice or policy that can be described generically. It may be an "approach," a "strategy," or an "intervention." The goal is to show that this thing works in general, all else being equal. The ideal method is a randomized field experiment (individuals are randomly assigned to receive or not to receive the intervention, and we measure the differences in results). Alternatives to experiments are acceptable, but overall, social programs are treated like drugs. If something is effective, it should work reliably in whole categories of contexts. So any positive finding should be replicable.
In reality, we find many programs that work in their original contexts for the people who enroll, but very few that prove replicable when tested in randomized studies. One conclusion might be that government and nonprofit agencies just can't do any good; they aren't up to it. But that seems very odd because no one wants to (say) disband all the schools in a suburban, middle-class town on the theory that interventions never work.
An alternative conclusion is that there is something wrong with the method. Social interventions don't work like drugs because the behavior of groups of human beings is not law-like. People know what is going on and influence any treatment, as well as being affected by it. They have a variety of interests and motives that do not all align neatly with the experimenter, and they adjust as they are being experimented on. People act differently if they feel that a social process is theirs instead of someone else's experiment. Context is highly variable and very important. That includes the "macro" context of major events in the world, which constantly change people's values and beliefs. There are complex interactions between subjects, researchers, and contexts.
Flyvbjerg goes so far as to say: "The natural science approach simply does not work in the social sciences. No predictive theories have been arrived at in social science, despite centuries of trying. This approach is a wasteful dead-end."
On one hand, I want to say that Flyvbjerg is wrong. In our Institute, we read work by scholars like Elinor Ostrom and Archon Fung who identify methods and approaches that seem to work fairly regularly in various contexts. Ostrom has identified design principles to use if you want to manage a public resource voluntarily. Fung shows that certain formats and strategies for public meetings work better than others for various purposes, under various circumstances. Such research seems very important for reform efforts.
On the other hand, these are not literally "predictive" theories. They do not deny people's freedom to change outcomes. There is nothing inevitable about the recipes that Ostrom and Fung identify. Further, the search for powerful explanations, regularities, and generic solutions in social science does seem disappointing overall. As the volume of data rises, analytical tools improve, publications proliferate, and more and more people work at understanding social issues, faith in actual solutions only seems to recede.
Flyvbjerg has a constructive alternative, based on his own intervention as a researcher in the city politics of Aalborg, Denmark. In his model, "social scientists and social science professionals [are] analysts who provide food for thought for the ongoing process of public deliberation, participation, and decision-making." They do so by immersing themselves in a concrete situation and asking (with all due methodological rigor) the following four questions:
(1) Where are we going?
(2) Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?
(3) Is this development desirable?
(4) What, if anything, should we do about it?
Note the following features that are absent in purely positivist social science (although they are practiced by many fine scholars): a combination of values, facts, and strategies; a forward-looking orientation; a sensitivity to power that does not preclude hope that something good can be achieved; and a presumption that the researcher is part of the community that must act ("what should we do?").
July 13, 2010
I presume the world is still going to hell ...
... but I am not paying the normal amount of attention to it, because we are deep into the Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts: five-and-one-half hours of seminar each day (plus the regular flow of work). Blogging will be light until after July 23-24, when the Institute culminates in a public conference.
July 12, 2010
how a community can own a resource
Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" is one of the most frequently cited articles of the 20th century. Hardin argued that a valuable resource must be owned. If it is left unowned, it will be consumed and not replenished. There appeared to be two kinds of owners: (1) private individuals or corporations, and (2) governments. There was heated debate about the relative advantages and dangers of each, but the consensus held that one or the other type of owner ought to own everything that matters.
As a result, reformers (governments, international lenders, and experts) turned forests, grazing lands, fisheries, and other resources all over the world into property: either privatizing and marketizing these assets, or else nationalizing them. In many cases, the results were devastating. As Elinor Ostrom (2000) writes, "In many settings where individuals have managed small- to medium-sized resources for centuries, drawing on local knowledge and locally crafted institutions, their disempowerment led to a worsening of environmental problems rather than their betterment." This was no small matter: human famine and the extinction of natural species were sometimes the price.
Part of the problem was conceptual, an assumption that if something is property, it must be state or private property. As Ostrom and colleagues have shown, a community can own an asset. That does not mean that a government that represents the community owns it, as my town of Belmont, MA (an incorporated municipality) owns Clay Pit Pond. Nor does it mean that a nonprofit corporation manages the asset as the community's trustee. The community can actually own the resource. It needs rules, norms, traditions, or processes that limit the asset's use and/or cause people to replenish it.
Those rules may include large doses of individual property rights. For instance, you may own your fishing boat and nets and any fish that you catch. But the community owns the fishery if only approved people can fish there and if each can only take a certain number of fish. If those rules are local government ordinances, we may say that the community owns the fishery and uses the government as one of its instruments of control. (It will almost certainly use other tools as well, including private vigilance.) In many cases, the rules are effectively enforced without official government endorsement. Violence and threats of violence may never be necessary, either, if local ties are strong and outsiders are rare.
An asset can belong to a community in a meaningful sense if it is true collective property, or if it is divided among private owners who collectively regulate its use, or if it belongs to just a few official owners who depend upon and are accountable to the whole community. For instance, many houses of worship all over the world belong to the state or a private party who holds title to the land and the building. Yet those religious institutions are genuinely owned by the community in the sense that they could never move or survive without the community's support.
Opening one's eyes to the possibility of community ownership that is not state or private ownership provides new options for managing resources, allows us to evaluate and appreciate traditional arrangements, and calls attention to the impressive skills and values that people employ all over the world to manage common assets.
Thomas Dietz, Nives Dolsak, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern (2002) "The Drama of the Commons," in Elinor Ostrom, ed., Drama of the Commons, pp. 3-26.
Ostrom, Elinor (2000), "Crowding Out Citizenship," Scandinavian Political Studies (23)1
Ostrom, Elinor (2004) "Covenants, Collective Action and Common Pool Resources" in Karol Edward Soltan and Stephen Elkin, eds., The Constitution of Good Societies.
July 9, 2010
on hope as an intellectual virtue
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.
July 8, 2010
celebrating the intelligence of the worker
As the economy stalls, the earth bakes, oil streams into the Gulf, and politicians and reporters quarrel childishly, misanthropy is a temptation. It is tempting, too, to embrace manipulative or authoritarian politics to compensate for the evident frailties of humankind. This is an excellent time, then to read Mike Rose, The Mind At Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker.
I have read the whole volume but would like to focus on chapter 1, "The Working Life of a Waitress." Rose doesn't romanticize waitressing or minimize its physical and emotional toll. But he reveals how complex and difficult the job is and how much pride individual waitresses take in doing their work well. By the hundreds of thousands, waitresses demonstrate excellence in ways that can restore faith in humankind, if you pay attention.
Time is in short supply in a restaurant: customers, owners, and wait-staff want things to move quickly. Space is limited, too, and designed to satisfy other people more than the wait staff. A waitress navigates this crowded space under conditions of uncertainty.
- No matter how efficiently designed the physical layout of the restaurant ... the waitress's motion will be punctuated by the continual but irregular demands made of her. ... A basic goal, then, is to manage irregularity and create an economy of movement. And she does this through effective use of body and mind. The work calls for strength and stamina; for memory capacity and strategy; for heightened attention, both to overall layout and to specific areas and items; for the ability to take stock, prioritize tasks, cluster them, and make decisions on the fly.
Her interactions are not merely physical, but also emotional. "Remembering orders, being vigilant, and regulating the flow of work all play out in an emotional field." A waitress must resist abuse, inspire positive feelings that enhance tips, collaborate and compete with co-workers, and use "skill and strategy to regulate the flow of work. 'The customer has the illusion that they're in charge' [one waitress says], 'but they're not.'"
Depending on the situation, the waitress has to play "servant, mother, daughter, friends, or sexual object." One says, "You've got to be damned good, damned fast, and you've got to make people like you." Overall, the restaurant provides a place "to display a well-developed set of physical, social, and cognitive skills."
Rose moves on to describe hair salons, construction sites, operating theaters, and other everyday "arenas of competence." The net effect is to remind you that you live among people who achieve great things when contexts call on their intelligence and diligence. (Thanks to Harry Boyte for the reference to this book.)
July 7, 2010
Millennials set the record for low trust in other people
Whether you trust other people (in general) affects whether you collaborate voluntarily. Trust has been linked to prosperity, happiness, and health. It has been falling for young Americans--not in a smoothly downward path, but notably. And 2008 set the record, in a bad way, with just 21.4 percent of young Americans saying that other people can generally be trusted.
I am generally supportive of the kind of analysis that's summarized in today's New York Times: "surveys show that the majority of the nation’s millennials remain confident ... that they will have satisfactory careers. They have a lot going for them. 'They are better educated than previous generations and they were raised by baby boomers who lavished a lot of attention on their children,' said Andrew Kohut, the Pew Research Center’s director. That helps to explain their persistent optimism, even as they struggle to succeed."
But it's a mixed picture. Optimism about careers is one thing; confidence in other people is a different story. Perhaps protective Baby Boomers failed to raise kids who trusted the outside world, or perhaps it's a simplification to say that today's generation was raised by protective parents. The young man in today's Times profile was raised by a married couple in exurban Grafton, MA, with a family income in the national top ten percent. But 258 students enrolled in the Chicago Public School system were shot last year--quite a different context in which to grow up. And most young Americans fall somewhere in between: neither coddled nor terrorized, but hardly secure.
July 6, 2010
moral thinking is a network, not a foundation with a superstructure
When we talk together about public concerns, a whole range of phrases and concepts is likely to emerge. Imagine, for example, that the topic is a local public school: how it is doing and what should change. In talking about their own school, parents and educators may use abstract moral concepts, like fairness or freedom. They may use concepts that have clear moral significance but controversial application in the real world. For example, fairness is a good thing, by definition. It is not the only good thing, and it can conflict with other goods. But the bigger challenge is to decide which outcomes and policies actually are fair.
Other concepts are easy to recognize in the world but lack clear moral significance. We either bus students to school or we do not bus them, but whether busing is good is debatable. (In this respect, it is a very different kind of concept from fairness.) Still other concepts have great moral weight and importance, but their moral significance is unclear. You can't use the word love seriously without making some kind of morally important point. But you need not use that word positively: sometimes love is bad, and the same is true of free and achieve.
People string such concepts together in various ways. They may make associations or correlations ("The girls are doing better than the boys in reading"). They may make causal claims ("The math and reading tests are causing us to overlook the arts.") They may apply general concepts to particular cases. Often they will describe individual teachers, administrators, events, classes, and facilities with richly evaluative terms, such as beautiful or boring. Frequently, they will tell stories, connecting events, individuals, groups, concepts, and intentional actions over time.
All these ways of talking are legitimate in a democratic public discussion. But the heterogeneity of our talk seems problematic. So many different kinds of ideas are in play that it seems impossible to reach any principled or organized resolution. We talk for some arbitrary amount of time, and then a decision must be made by the pertinent authorities or by a popular vote. It is not clear whether the decision was correct based on the discussion that preceded it.
It seems beneficial to organize and systematize public discussion, and several kinds of experts stand ready to help:
- Social scientists propose to organize public discussions by identifying reliable causal relationships among concepts that can be empirically identified in the world. For instance, success comes to mean passing a test or graduating on time, and class size is found to influence (or not to influence) success. The hope is—if not to end the discussion—at least to focus and rationalize it.
- Managers (both actual administrators of our institutions and experts on management) hope to limit or organize public discussions by pronouncing on which strategies will work and which are permissible under the current rules and policies.
- Ideological thinkers try to simplify the discussion by putting heavy weight on certain moral concepts, which then trump others. (For example, personal liberty is a trump card for libertarians; equal welfare, for social democrats.)
- Lawyers are trained to guide public discussions by explaining which options are legal or obligatory under laws, precedents, and constitutions.
- Moral and political philosophers have less public influence than the other groups mentioned so far, but they hold the most subtle and sophisticated views of how public discussions ought to be improved. Contemporary academic philosophers are often disarmingly modest about their contributions, yet a core professional goal is to improve discussions by identifying morally clear and invariant concepts that should then influence decisions. Depending on which philosophical school one defends, those concepts might include rational autonomy, maximum utility, or virtue.
All of these forms of expert and disciplined guidance can be useful. But they often conflict, and so the very fact that they all help should tell us something. There is no methodology that can replace or discipline our public discussions or bring them to a close. This is because of the nature of moral reasoning itself.
Moral concepts are indispensable. We cannot replace them with empirical information. Even if smaller class sizes do produce better test scores, that does not tell us whether our tests measure valuable things, whether the cost of more teachers would be worth the benefits, or whether the state has a right to compel people to pay taxes for education.
But moral concepts are heterogeneous. Some have clear moral significance but controversial application in the world. (Fairness is always good, and murder is always bad.) Others have clear application but unpredictable moral significance. (Homicide is sometimes murder but sometimes it is justifiable.) Still others are morally important but are neither predictable nor easily identified. (Love is sometimes good and sometimes regrettable, and whether love exists in a particular situation can be hard to say.) A method that could bring public deliberation to closure would have to organize all these concepts so that the empirically clear ones were reliably connected to the morally clear ones.
That sometimes happens. For instance, waterboarding either happens or it does not happen. The Bush Administration's lawyers defined it in obsessive detail: "The detainee is lying on a gurney that is inclined at an angle of 10 to 15 degrees to the horizontal. ... A cloth is placed over the detainee's face and cold water is poured on the cloth from a height of approximately 6 to 18 inches …" Waterboarding is, in my considered opinion, an example of torture. Torture is legally defined as a felony, and the reason for that rule is a moral judgment that torture is always wrong (in contrast to punishment or interrogation, which may be right). Therefore, waterboarding is wrong. This argument may be controversial, but it is clear and it carries us all the way from the concrete reality of a scene in a CIA interrogation room to a compelling moral judgment and a demand for action. The various kinds of concepts are lined up so that moral, legal, and factual ideas fit together. There is room for debate: Is waterboarding torture? Who waterboarded whom? But the debate is easily organized and should be finite.
If all our moral thinking could work like that, we might be able to bring our discussions to a close by applying the right methods--usually a combination of moral philosophy plus empirical research. But much of our thinking cannot be so organized, because we confront moral concepts that lack consistent significance. They are either good or bad, depending on the circumstances. Nevertheless, they are morally indispensable; we cannot be good human beings and think without them. Love and freedom are two examples. To say that Romeo loves Juliet--or that Romeo is free to marry Juliet--is to say something important, but we cannot tell whether it is good or bad until we know a lot about the situation. There is no way to organize our thinking so that we can bypass these concepts with more reliable definitions and principles.
A structured moral mind might look the blueprint of a house. At the bottom of the page would be broad, abstract, general principles: the foundation. An individual's blueprint might be built on one moral principle, such as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or it might start even lower, with a metaphysical premise, like "God exists and is good." At the top of the picture would be concrete actions, emotions, and judgments, like "I will support Principal Jones's position at the PTA meeting." In between would be ideas that combine moral principles and factual information, such as, "Every child deserves an equal education," or "Our third grade curriculum is too weak." The arrows of implication would always flow up, from the more general to the more specific.
I think most people's moral thinking is much more complex than this. Grand abstractions do influence concrete judgments, but the reverse happens as well. I may believe in mainstreaming special-needs children because of an abstract principle of justice, and that leads me to support Mrs. Jones at the PTA meeting. Or I may form an impression that Mrs. Jones is wise; she supports mainstreaming; and therefore I begin to construct a new theory of justice that justifies this policy. Or I may know an individual child whose welfare becomes an urgent matter for me; my views of Mrs. Jones, mainstreaming, and justice may all follow from that. For some people, abstract philosophical principles are lodestones. For others, concrete narratives have the same pervasive pull—for example, the Gospels, or one's own rags-to-riches story, or Pride and Prejudice.
We must avoid two pitfalls. One is the assumption that a general and abstract idea is always more important than a concrete and particular one. There is no good reason for that premise. The concept of a moral "foundation" is just a metaphor; morality is not really a house, and it does not have to stand on something broad to be solid. Yet we must equally avoid thinking that we just possess lots of unconnected opinions, none intrinsically more important than another. For example, the following thoughts may all be correct, but they are not alike: "It is good to be punctual"; "Genocide is evil"; and "Mrs. Jones is a good principal." Not only do these statements have different levels of importance, but they play different roles in our overall thinking.
I would propose switching from the metaphor of a foundation to the metaphor of a network. In any network, some of the nodes are tied to others, producing an overall web. If moral thinking is a network, the nodes are opinions or judgments, and the ties are implications or influences. For example, I may support mainstreaming because I hold a particular view of equity; then mainstreaming and equity are two nodes, and there is an arrow between them. I may also love a particular child, and that emotion is a node that connects to disability policy in schools. A strong network does not rest on a single node, like an army that is decapitated if its generalissimo is killed. Rather, a strong network is a tight web with many pathways, so that it is possible to move from one node to another by more than one route. Yet in real, functioning networks, all the nodes do not bear equal importance. On the contrary, it is common for the most important 20 percent to carry 80 percent of the traffic--whether the network happens to be the Internet, the neural structure of the brain, or the civil society of a town.
I suspect that a healthy moral mind is similar. It has no single foundation, and it is not driven only by abstract principles. Concrete motives (like love or admiration for a particular individual) may loom large. Yet the whole structure is network-like, and it is possible for many kinds of nodes to influence many other kinds. My respect for Mrs. Jones may influence how I feel about the concept of the welfare state, and not just the reverse. I need many nodes and connections, each based on experience and reflection.
I do not mean to imply that a strong network map is a fully reliable sign of good moral thinking. A fascist might have an elaborate mental map composed of many different racial and national prejudices and hatreds, each supported by stories and examples, and each buttressing the others. That would be a more complex diagram than the ones possessed by mystics who prize purity and simplicity. Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, wrote Sören Kierkegaard, and the old Shaker hymn advises, "'Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be." A righteous Shaker would do more good than a sophisticated fascist. But even if complexity is not a sufficient or reliable sign of goodness, a complex map is both natural and desirable. It reflects the real complexity of our moral world; it reduces the odds of becoming fanatical; it hems in self-interest; and it is resilient against radical doubt.
Four conclusions follow from this discussion.
1. We should banish a certain kind of moral skepticism which arises from thinking that moral conclusions always rest on foundations, but alas there is nothing below our biggest, most abstract ideas. For example, you may believe in the Golden Rule but be unwilling to say why it is true. You may feel that there is no answer to the "Why?" question, and therefore morality is merely prejudice or whim. Your moral house has a foundation (the Golden Rule), but the foundation is floating in air. Fortunately, our whole morality does not rest on any such rule, nor must a principle rest on something below it to be valid. The Golden Rule is part of a durable network. It gains credibility because it seems consistent with so many other things that we come to believe. If it or any other node is knocked out of the network, the traffic can route around it.
2. Moral thinking is influenced by worldly experience, by practice and by stories, and not only by abstract theories and principles. I wrote that it "is influenced" by experience; I have not shown that our thinking should be deeply experiential. But at the least, we can say that there is no reason to put abstract thinking on a pedestal, to treat is as if it were intrinsically and automatically more reliable than concrete thinking. I can be just as certain that I love my children as in the truth of the Golden Rule.
3. We can handle diversity. If individuals' conclusions derived from the foundations of their thought, we would face a serious problem whenever we encountered people who had different from foundations from our own. It is hard to tolerate them, let alone deliberate with them. The existence of a different foundation can even provoke vertiginous skepticism in our own minds. If my worldview rests on utilitarianism, and yours depends on faith in Jesus' resurrection, perhaps neither of us has any reason to hold our own position. But if our respective worldviews are more like networks, then they probably share many of the same nodes even though they differ in some important respects. What's more, each person's network must be slightly different from anyone else's—even his twin brother's. Thus when we categorize people into "cultures," we are crudely generalizing. There is actually one population of diverse human beings who are capable of discussing their differences even though they may not reach agreement.
4. Expertise plays a limited role in reaching good decisions. The moral network in my mind cannot be--and should not be--radically simplified by applying any sophisticated methodology. I can learn from experts about what causes what and about how we should define various concepts and principles. But at the end of that process, I will still have my own moral network map, nourished by many sources other than the experts, and I will have to make decisions both alone and in dialog with my peers. There is no substitute for thinking together about problems and solutions.
July 5, 2010
why is this not terrorism?
I have no brief for Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who died on Sunday. But I was struck by this paragraph from the New York Times obituary:
The C.I.A. is thought to have carried out an assassination attempt against the ayatollah in 1985, in which a 440-pound car bomb was placed along the short route between his apartment and mosque. Ayatollah Fadlallah narrowly escaped the explosion, but 80 other people were killed.
I do not know whether this claim is true; the Guardian attributes it to Bob Woodward. If it accurate, our government murdered 80 people by detonating a car bomb in a crowded urban street, with the intention of killing one person whose main crime was to endorse terror attacks. By what definition of "terrorism" were we not guilty of it?
July 2, 2010
the corruption that the financial reform bill reveals
I support the pending financial reform bill as about as good a product as our legislative system is likely to produce, but it also illustrates how badly that system is broken.
Congress has negotiated for months to produce a bill that is 2,000 pages long, full of special exemptions and breaks that no individual could even count, let alone understand, prior to passage. The legislative process has offered rich opportunities for professional lobbyists and their clients. Steven Brill estimates that $15 million was spent to lobby on one particular technical provision that reduced corporate tax obligations by $10 billion--an excellent return on investment. Brill observes:
Complexity is the modern lobbyist's greatest ally. Three lobbyists showed me three different proposals for rewording what may be the bill's biggest-money section: a provision in the Senate version that would force the five major banks that do most of the country's trillions of dollars of trading in derivatives--and make nearly $23 billion a year doing so--to spin off those operations. Even holding the dueling paragraphs side by side by side, I found it difficult on first read to appreciate the differences. But with some pointers from the lobbyists, it was clear that billions in profits depended on the variations in this nearly impenetrable language.
The passage of the bill will by no means end the process of negotiation. Binyamin Appelbaum writes in The New York Times:
Well before Congress reached agreement on the details of its financial overhaul legislation, industry lobbyists and consumer advocates started preparing for the next battle: influencing the creation of several hundred new rules and regulations. The bill … is basically a 2,000-page missive to federal agencies, instructing regulators to address subjects ranging from derivatives trading to document retention. But it is notably short on specifics, giving regulators significant power to determine its impact--and giving partisans on both sides a second chance to influence the outcome.”
Part of the problem is campaign finance: firms that are regulated by the federal government also fund elections, in a scandalous conflict of interest. Another contributing factor is the fillibuster, which gives individual Senators far too much leverage. But I would like to draw attention to a different problem that will persist even if (unlikely as that may be) we remedy the other two flaws.
Law-making has been substantially replaced with rulemaking and administration. In a republic, "law" classically means consistent, durable, binding principles that are enacted after public deliberation. Laws should not change arbitrarily--without substantial changes in the outside world--nor be subject to exceptions and negotiations after passage. The Constitution (article 1, section 1) vests "all legislative powers" in Congress, although the presidential veto power gives the White House a role in lawmaking as well. Under our system, Congress and the president are supposed to make laws that are as durable and coherent as possible. Interest groups and party blocs will inevitably negotiate before a law is passed, although there is also supposed to be a public deliberation about matters of principle and philosophy. Once the president signs the bill, it is supposed to be fixed until significant changes in the world require reform.
But meeting those standards would be hard for elected politicians. They could be held accountable for their own momentous decisions, and they would have nothing to offer interest groups once they had passed any important law. They are tempted to act in quite a different way. First, instead of deliberating and passing coherent, durable statutes, they issue voluminous and constantly amended statutes--too long for anyone to read before the vote. That may be inevitable in a complex modern society, but Congress compounds the problem by delegating its lawmaking role--not so much to the president and the cabinet as to administrative agencies, civil servants, and special courts within the executive branch.
They do this by passing statutes that empower regulatory agencies to make policy within very broad outlines. In 2004, federal agencies generated 78,851 pages of proposed rules, filling 69 volumes of the annual Federal Register. The number of pages has crept almost steadily up, from one volume of 2,620 pages in 1936 (when the government was more powerful and activist, but also more coherent, than it is today).
This process has several advantages for legislators. It defers decisions and makes them provisional and negotiable, so that no interest group ever loses a fight definitively. It allows elected officials to take credit for general principles, even if they conflict, and then blame bureaucrats who actually make choices. A classic but not atypical example is the "dual mandate" that Congress gave to the Federal Reserve: to maximize employment and control inflation. Those goals often conflict in practice, but Congress claims to have mandated both and can critically question any Federal Reserve Board Chairman who fails to achieve both. Finally, a process of continuous negotiations favors organized interest groups, the very ones that give campaign contributions and physically appear on Capitol Hill.
James Madison explained why such "mutable" policymaking is disastrous, using words that now seem prophetic:
To trace the mischievous effects of a mutable government would fill a volume. … It poisons the blessings of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed? Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uninformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce of revenue, or in any way, affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the FEW, not for the MANY (The Federalist, number 62).
July 1, 2010
W.S. Merwin, "The Drunk in the Furnace"
On the occasion of Merwin's being named Poet Laureate, it's worth taking a look at a 1960 poem that marked his move from formal and referential to vernacular. He also started telling short stories in poems.
The opening phrase, "For a good decade," is casual, American slang: it means, "For a decade at least." But the word "good" also poses a question. Was there a good period after the construction and abandonment of the furnace (which may have poisoned the creek and stripped the valley) and before its occupation by "someone"? Was the furnace better empty than turned into a "bad castle"? I think its re-use is "bad" only from the perspective of the Reverend and his flock of haters, but the question floats.
This poem is no allegory--it resists decoding--but we are entitled to explore associations between things in the text and objects outside. For example, what if the gully is our natural world and the furnace is our industrial exploitation of it? Or what if the abandoned landscape is poetry and the person inside the furnace is managing to get some "twists of smoke" out of the old sounds and forms? (He seems to be comfortable in there, and enjoying himself.)
There are three sets of characters on stage: the person "cosily bolted behind the eye-holed iron / door"; the observers who start in ignorance, become astonished, speak (I think) in the third stanza, and "hate trespassers"; and finally, their "witless offspring" who, at the end "Stand in a row and learn." The guy inside is surely the hero--in fact, there is a vague air of disciples and sermons on mounts. His "spirits" aren't necessarily alcoholic, despite the title. If it's a self-portrait, it's modest but also very bold. When all the old forms have crumbled, it takes brains and hard work to create regular, seven-line stanzas that can make the young "stand agape." At 82, Merwin is still hammering and anvilling away.