decentralization and civic capacity in Ukraine

Ukrainian friends have been telling me for a decade about the value of decentralization in their country. Some have even argued that it helped prepare Ukraine for an effective and motivated military defense.

A new paper by Arends, Brik, Herrmann and Roesel (2023) offers relevant quantitative evidence. The authors explain that, in “2014, the Parliament of Ukraine amended the budget code to entitle villages and cities which amalgamated voluntarily into larger local governments, so-called ‘territorial hromadas’ …. Hromadas therewith become independent from local branches of the national administration. The newly created local governments also qualified for a 60 percent share of the personal income tax collected within their jurisdiction.”

In 2015, the hromadas gained power over schools, libraries, hospitals and health centers, local roads, and fire and emergency services. In 2018, they were also given “ownership of formerly state-owned land within their jurisdiction.”

The process was popular and widespread. By 2020, “more than 10,000 Ukrainian villages, settlements and cities were amalgamated into 1470 new hromadas now enjoying considerable autonomy over local affairs.”

Arends et al show that areas with and without hromadas started with similar levels of trust in local and national government, but the ones that created hromadas saw substantial increases in trust for local (but not national) government. This empirical evidence is strongly suggestive that the reform caused trust to rise.

Here are a few reflections based on theory and studies from other countries.

First, I don’t read the paper as a general argument for decentralization, per se. Independent Ukraine had inherited a highly centralized system from the Soviet Union, and it was wise to moderate that by strengthening the local layer. The study does not imply that more power should necessarily be devolved to localities if they are already strong.

More important, I suspect, was the way the reform was designed. Contiguous communities were permitted to assemble themselves voluntarily into hromadas. This was a bottom-up process, requiring substantial agreement at the local level. One advantage was avoiding corruption: politicians and bureaucrats could not extract benefits by deciding which new local units to create or by conferring autonomy on favored local leaders. Another advantage was civic experience. Quite a few local stakeholders had to come together to negotiate and present each plan for a new hromada. They would later be able to use their network-ties, deliberative experience, and confidence for other purposes.

Second, trust in government is not intrinsically desirable. People should distrust bad governments. Some have argued that “trust” is not quite the right word for an attitude toward the state, which should rather inspire “confidence” if it functions well.

But we have survey data on trust, and the authors make good use of it to support a valuable empirical case. Still, the really interesting question is whether governance improved as a result of the reform. For example, did corruption fall? Trustful opinions may indicate improvement, because citizens are well placed to assess government, but I think the accuracy of their opinions deserves further attention.

At the same time, trust in government is often found to be a component of the construct labeled “social capital.” And social capital is a resource that communities can use to address problems–including corruption. But although trust in government is empirically a component of social capital (meaning that it correlates with the other components), it doesn’t suffice. It would be interesting to know whether Ukrainians in hromadas also developed other aspects of social capital, such as habits of participating in discussions and meetings and helping each other voluntarily.

Reference: Helge Arends, Tymofii Brik, Benedikt Herrmann, Felix Roesel,
Decentralization and trust in government: Quasi-experimental evidence from Ukraine,
Journal of Comparative Economics, 2023. See also: two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own); civilian resistance in Ukraine, revisited.

the age of cybernetics

A pivotal period in the development of our current world was the first decade after WWII. Much happened then, including the first great wave of decolonization and the solidification of democratic welfare states in Europe, but I’m especially interested in the intellectual and technological developments that bore the (now obsolete) label of “cybernetics.”

I’ve been influenced by reading Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (first ed. 1991, revised ed., 2017), but I’d tell the story in a somewhat different way.

The War itself saw the rapid development of entities that seemed analogous to human brains. Those included the first computers, radar, and mechanisms for directing artillery. They also included extremely complex organizations for manufacturing and deploying arms and materiel. Accompanying these pragmatic breakthroughs were successful new techniques for modeling complex processes mathematically, plus intellectual innovations such as artificial neurons (McCullouch & Pitts 1943), feedback (Rosenblueth, Wiener, and Bigelow 1943), game theory (von Neumann & Morgenstern, 1944), stored-program computers (Turing 1946), information theory (Shannon 1948), systems engineering (Bell Labs, 1940s), and related work in economic theory (e.g., Schumpeter 1942) and anthropology (Mead 1942).

Perhaps these developments were overshadowed by nuclear physics and the Bomb, but even the Manhattan Project was a massive application of systems engineering. Concepts, people, money, minerals, and energy were organized for a common task.

After the War, some of the contributors recognized that these developments were related. The Macy Conferences, held regularly from 1942-1960, drew a Who’s Who of scientists, clinicians, philosophers, and social scientists. The topics of the first post-War Macy Conference (March 1946) included “Self-regulating and teleological mechanisms,” “Simulated neural networks emulating the calculus of propositional logic,” “Anthropology and how computers might learn how to learn,” “Object perception’s feedback mechanisms,” and “Deriving ethics from science.” Participants demonstrated notably diverse intellectual interests and orientations. For example, both Margaret Mead (a qualitative and socially critical anthropologist) and Norbert Wiener (a mathematician) were influential.

Wiener (who had graduated from Tufts in 1909 at age 14) argued that the central issue could be labeled “cybernetics” (Wiener & Rosenblueth 1947). He and his colleagues derived this term from the ancient Greek word for the person who steers a boat. For Wiener, the basic question was how any person, another animal, a machine, or a society attempts to direct itself while receiving feedback.

According to Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, the ferment and diversity of the first wave of cybernetics was lost when a single model became temporarily dominant. This was the idea of the von Neumann machine:

Such a machine stores data that may symbolize something about the world. Human beings write elaborate and intentional instructions (software) for how those data will be changed (computation) in response to new input. There is an input device, such as a punchcard reader or keyboard, and an output mechanism, such as a screen or printer. You type something, the processor computes, and out comes a result.

One can imagine human beings, other animals, and large organizations working like von Neumann machines. For instance, we get input from vision, we store memories, we reason about what we experience, and we say and do things as a result. But there is no evident connection between this architecture and the design of the actual human brain. (Where in our head is all that complicated software stored?) Besides, computers designed in this way made disappointing progress on artificial intelligence between 1945 and 1970. The 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned a computer with a human personality by the turn of our century, but real technology has lagged far behind that.

The term “cybernetics” had named a truly interdisciplinary field. After about 1956, the word faded as the intellectual community split into separate disciplines, including computer science.

This was also the period when behaviorism was dominant in psychology (presuming that all we do is to act in ways that independent observers can see–there is nothing meaningful “inside” us). It was perhaps the peak of what James C. Scott calls “high modernism” (the idea that a state can accurately see and reorganize the whole society). And it was the heyday of “pluralism” in political science (which assumes that each group that is part of a polity automatically pursues its own interests). All of these movements have a certain kinship with the von Neumann architecture.

An alternative was already considered in the era of cybernetics: emergence from networks. Instead of designing a complex system to follow instructions, one can connect numerous simple components into a network and give them simple rules for changing their connections in respond to feedback. The dramatic changes in our digital world since ca. 1980 have used this approach rather than any central design, and now the analogy of machine intelligence to neural networks is dominant. Emergent order can operate at several levels at once; for example, we can envision individuals whose brains are neural networks connecting via electronic networks (such as the Internet) to form social networks and culture.

I have sketched this history–briefly and unreliably, because it’s not my expertise–without intending value-judgments. I am not sure to what extent these developments have been beneficial or destructive. But it seems important to understand where we’ve come from to know where we should go from here.

See also: growing up with computers; ideologies and complex systems; The truth in Hayek; the progress of science; the human coordination involved in AI; the difference between human and artificial intelligence: relationships

the classical liberals versus the “egoists”

Principled classical liberals are sharply critical of basically illiberal people who claim the libertarian label. The Unpopulist is an important source for this critique. I think their cause is an important component of the broad front against authoritarianism. I am not a classical liberal, but if I were, I would be even more alarmed about illiberal currents within libertarianism as threats to what I would hold most dear.

Imagine that you are a principled libertarian. You want all human beings to be free. In a very abstract way, you share that commitment with socialists, anarchists, and New Deal liberals. But you add two ingredients. First, you are primarily concerned about negative liberty: freedom from coercion. Second, you see the state as the worst threat to liberty, because it has guns, prisons, and executioners, a huge budget, extensive files, and a hierarchical structure.

I happen to believe that corporate bureaucracies and markets also threaten liberty. I support the republican form of liberty that involves making collective decisions by debating and voting. I also believe in the Four Freedoms of the New Deal and the potential of governments to promote them. However, classical liberals make important points in these debates.

As a principled libertarian, you would scan the world for cases of states violating individual liberty and you’d try to help, perhaps even at your own expense. Maybe you are concerned about Uyghurs in Chinese concentration camps. Or maybe it concerns you that the government of the United States minutely controls the lives of almost 2 million prisoners, using its power to throw some of them into solitary confinement. When an agent of the state, a police officer, fatally suffocates a citizen who is trying to sell cigarettes to willing buyers, you see a gross violation of liberty, whether or not you are inclined to attribute it (as I would) to systemic racism.

Alternatively, imagine that your view is compatible with Ayn Rand or some interpretations–poor ones, I believe–of Nietzsche or Emerson. To be polite, I will call you an “egoist” (Rand’s term for her own view). You basically believe that it is right and virtuous to be concerned about yourself and either weak or patronizing to act for others.

You, too, will scan the world, but you will not be looking for coercive injustices against other people that you should help resist. Your eyes are open for threats to your own interests.

Insofar as these threats are state actions, you can walk the same road with classical liberals. For instance, you may want tax rates to fall so that you don’t have to pay as much money, whereas a classical liberal seeks to hamper the coercive power of the state and liberate other people’s entrepreneurial energies. If the issue is the rate of taxation, you and the classical liberal may vote alike. The same is true for school choice or marijuana policy.

But what if you are concerned that many women don’t seem to want to date you because they are (more or less) feminist and they dislike your values? Or what if your private employer wants you to experience a diversity workshop that makes you feel bad? Then your opponent is no longer the state. In fact, your values might be fairly popular, and therefore you may be tempted to use the state’s power to restrict and restrain the ideas and behaviors that hamper you, or that simply offend you.

As an exhibit of the latter view, consider Tucker Carlson:

Democrats in Washington have told you, you have a patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a mandate. … Before that happens, it might be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious. What is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs? These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is no. Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that.

Putin has indisputably violated the individual rights of many people, including Russians. But Carlson is not scanning the horizon for governments that abuse freedom. He is looking for things he doesn’t like, such as being called a racist, being laid off by a private employer, or hearing critiques of Christianity or expressions of other faiths. He doesn’t feel that Putin has hurt him; on the contrary, the Kremlin is imposing certain policies on its own people that Carlson rather likes.

Perhaps Carlson is not, in any sense, a libertarian. However, he is influential within the Republican Party, which–although never consistently libertarian, and always overly enamored with police power–was once a vehicle for promoting certain classical liberal ideas. Generally, it was the party that was more skeptical of government. But now a major voice in the party is defending an authoritarian.

The same debate is playing out within the Libertarian party itself. Reason Magazine’s Brian Doherty quotes a Libertarian activist who advocates the permanent incarceration of Anthony Fauci in Guantanamo Bay and decries “woke globalism”–even though classical liberals are universalists, skeptical of nation-states, and should be appalled by the very idea of an overseas federal detention center.

Again, this isn’t really my fight, because I am not a libertarian myself. Nor do I want to explore the nuances of debates within libertarianism, because I have more pressing interests. But I do appreciate the efforts of true liberals to safeguard their own movement. They are part of the broader struggle against right-wing extremism.

See also: on the tension between equity and liberty; the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right; trying to keep myself honest; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis

thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition

My dog knows many things about me, like whether I’m about to take him out for a walk and even what I mean when I say the words “dog park.” He has questions about me–for instance, when will I come home?–and sometimes gets answers. These are his “known unknowns.” He can let me know he has questions by cocking his head.

There are also some things he doesn’t know that he isn’t even aware of not knowing. For example, he’s allowed to run off-leash in the park because the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts has licensed him as a resident pet. That status is designated by the tag under his neck. He knows a lot about the park, and he’s aware of the tag (at least when it’s being put on him for the first time), but there’s no path to his understanding that a city is a political jurisdiction that derives power from the state to grant and withhold rights to dogs, which is why he’s running around in the grass.

To use the vocabulary pioneered by Jakob von Uexküll–which has been influential in very disparate intellectual traditions–my dog has an “umwelt,” a model of his world that is shaped, or perhaps “enacted,” by his biophysical characteristics (such as his sensitive nose and inability to speak) and their interactions with the objects he encounters (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991). I have a different umwelt, even though the two of us may be walking together through the same space at the same time. For me, we are in a city park, because I use words and concepts about social organization. For Luca, we are in a field luxuriously supplied with interestingly stinky smells and other dogs.

I know many things about Luca, such as his preference for the park over regular city streets. I know that his sense of smell is at least 10,000 times more acute than mine, and I can infer that he is much more interested than I am in the scents around the perimeter of the dog park because he derives far more information from them than I could. I could learn more about what specifically he smells there and even which chemical compounds are involved.

Some would say that I will never feel what it’s like to smell as well as he does. Others would reply that anything true about what he senses could be captured in my language and tested empirically by human beings, and it’s empty to say that we cannot know what he experiences.

I might have “unknown unknowns” about my dog. They could be unknown from my particular historical position, in the same way that people hundreds of year ago didn’t know to wonder about mammals’ neural networks. Or they could be permanently unknown to homo sapiens because we have a different experience from a dog’s and we don’t even know what to ask.

One view of that last statement is that it’s false, because dogs and people are highly similar. But what would we say about bats (Nagel 1974), or extraterrestrials with far bigger brains than ours? Maybe we miss aspects of their world, much as Luca misses the legal significance of the tag on his collar.

Another view is that talking about permanently unknown-unknowns is empty, or even nonsense. But nonsense is not necessarily bad for one’s character and state of mind. We might ask whether it is wise or foolish to reflect on the abstract possibility of thought beyond our capacity to think. A classic text for that discussion is the Preface to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, where he says:

The book will, therefore, draw a limit to thinking, or rather—not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought).

The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense.

Wittgenstein does not attempt to write about what lies beyond the limit because he does not write nonsense. But I think it remains debated whether he advises us to reflect on the limit “from both sides.” One way to do that would be to grasp and truly feel that we inhabit an umwelt that is not the same as the world in-itself–in other words, that there are things beyond our ken.

On one hand, I am a little suspicious of intimations about the actual nature of what lies beyond the line. I suspect that those vague ideas are generated by our very human hopes and fears and don’t represent signals from beyond our umwelt. On the other hand, I find it consoling that there is a limit to the field in which our sense can run (even with technical assistance), and that there must be much beyond it–just as a whole city begins outside the fence of our park.

This aphorism by Dogen (who lived 1200-1253 CE) suggests a similar idea:

Birth is just like riding in a boat. You raise the sails and you steer. Although you maneuver the sail and the pole, the boat gives you a ride, and without the boat you couldn’t ride. But you ride in the boat, and your riding makes the boat what it is. Investigate a moment such as this. At just such a moment, there is nothing but the world of the boat. The sky, the water, and the shore are all the boat’s world, which is not the same as a world that is not the boat’s. Thus you make birth what it is; you make birth your birth. When you ride in a boat, your body, mind, and environs together are the undivided activity of the boat. The entire earth and the entire sky are both the undivided activity of the boat. Thus birth is nothing but you; you are nothing but birth (p. 115).

References: Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The embodied mind, revised edition: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT press, 2017; Nagel, Thomas. “What is it like to be a bat?” The Philosophical Review 83 (1974): 435-50; Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, English trans. (London, 1922); The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt, Shambhala 2013. See also: joys and limitations of phenomenology; let’s go for a walk

on the pattern that progressives tend to be less happy

In the American Spectator, under the headline “Leftists Scramble to Explain Why Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals,” Ann Hendershott quotes our research, which I’d previously reported on this blog:

In the Tufts study, the researchers conclude: “[I]f a liberal and a conservative have the same income, education, race, gender, age, marital status, and religious attendance, the conservative will feel more fortunate … liberals are people who—regardless of their actual social positions—rate their own circumstances relatively poorly, and that attitude drives their ideology and makes them unhappy or else reflects their unhappiness.”

The ellipsis in her quote replaced these words from our report: “A critic might say that …” We hedged because we can’t tell whether negative assessments of one’s own life affect one’s political views (a causal thesis). But Hendershott is a critic of liberals, and she adds a positive assessment of conservatives: “The reality is that true happiness, and a truly satisfying life, comes from caring for others—being physically present to them. Conservatives know that marriage and family life make one happy. … They know that true happiness comes from selflessness—living for others. And this is why they are happier.”

I am not sure about her causal claim. Progressives are less happy than conservatives regardless of marital status (and religious attendance). Using General Social Survey data, I ran a simple regression to predict divorce based on party identification, income, race, gender, and education. Before 2010, identifying as a Republican was associated with lower divorce when these other factors were considered. Since then, party identification has not been related to divorce. Indeed, Democrats and Republicans have had statistically indistinguishable divorce rates in the past decade. These statistics do not settle the issue, but I’d be surprised if progressives derive less happiness from their family involvement than conservatives do in the same social circumstances.

In our model, progressives who are politically active are almost as happy as conservatives who are politically active. Like intensive involvement with one’s family, being an activist is also a way of “living for others.”

Our empirical contribution was the finding that it’s the people with actual depression who make the progressive sample less happy than the conservative sample. Individuals with depression are a minority of those on the left, yet depressed Americans cluster on the progressive side of the aisle. In that case, generalizations about why progressives are less happy than conservatives may be misleading–they don’t apply to people without depression. A better question would be why depression is disproportionately concentrated on the left even once race, gender, and income are controlled for. Musa al-Gharbi has collected previous studies that also find links between ideology and depression. Is this link causal?

Leaving the empirical issues aside, I would pose a very general question about the relationship between mood and knowledge of the world. A standard view might be that any mood is a bias, a source of error; objectivity requires countering all moods. The metaphor of “rose-colored glasses” suggests that optimistic people would have more accurate perceptions if they took off their lenses. Indeed, science since the Renaissance has sought to develop methods and protocols that decrease the impact of the subjectivity of the observer. If scientific methods and instruments work, then a scientist’s mood shouldn’t matter.

An alternative view, which Michel Foucault labeled “spirituality,” is the idea that in order to perceive things correctly, we must first bring ourselves into the best possible mental state. A mood is not a bias; it is the basis of perception. The question is whether our mood is ideal for perceiving well. For example, to perceive what another person is saying, we should probably attain a mood of receptiveness and equanimity. Likewise to perceive that nature is beautiful or that God is good requires an appropriate state of mind. These states can be labeled virtues rather than (mere) moods.

Positive states may not be the only ones that help us to perceive well. Heidegger, for example, sees moods such as anxiety and boredom as advantageous for revealing types of truth. As Michael Wheeler explains:

According to Heidegger’s analysis, I am always in some mood or other. Thus say I’m depressed, such that the world opens up (is disclosed) to me as a sombre and gloomy place. I might be able to shift myself out of that mood, but only to enter a different one, say euphoria or lethargy, a mood that will open up the world to me in a different way. As one might expect, Heidegger argues that moods are not inner subjective colourings laid over an objectively given world (which at root is why ‘state-of-mind’ is a potentially misleading translation of Befindlichkeit, given that this term names the underlying a priori condition for moods). For Heidegger, moods (and disposedness) are aspects of what it means to be in a world at all, not subjective additions to that in-nes

This general view of moods would suggest that being unhappy is not necessarily bad for perceiving the state of our social world. It might reveal insights about current injustices. There is no objective mood, but we might be able to shift negative attitudes into positive ones, or vice-versa. The question is which moods to cultivate in ourselves when we assess society and politics.

One answer might be that we need all kinds of moods and a robust exchange among people who see things differently. Nietzsche is hardly a deliberative democrat, but this remark from his Genealogy of Morals supports the goal of bringing people with diverse moods into conversation: “The more emotions we can put into words about a thing, the more eyes, the more different eyes we can set over the same thing, the more complete is our ‘concept’ of that thing, our ‘objectivity’” (III:12, my trans.). We might then be glad that our society includes both liberals and conservatives who are prone to different states of mind.

I wouldn’t be fully satisfied with that conclusion because it leaves unaddressed the question for individuals. If I perceive the political world sadly, or even in a depressed state, should I strive to change that attitude? Or should I try to convince the positive people to be more concerned?

To answer that question may require a more nuanced sense of an individual’s mood than we can obtain by asking questions about overall happiness (as we did in the reported study). We need a bigger vocabulary, encompassing terms like righteous indignation, empathy for loved ones or for strangers, generalized compassion, sensitivity, caring, agape, technological optimism or pessimism, quietism, acceptance, responsibility, solidarity, nostalgia, utopianism, zeal, and more.

Al-Gharbi reports that the correlation between happiness and conservatism is “ubiquitous, not just in the contemporary United States but also historically (virtually as far back as the record goes) and in most other geographical contexts as well.” He has reviewed the literature, and I am sure he’s right. But I suspect that once we add nuance to the characterization of moods, we will find more change over time and more diversity within the large political camps.

For example, I recognize a current kind of progressive who is deeply pessimistic about economic and technological trends and their impact on the environment. I don’t believe that mood was pervasive on the left immediately after the Second World War, when progressives tended to believe that they could harness technology for beneficial social transformation–not only in Europe and North America but also in the countries that were then overthrowing colonialism. I also recognize a kind of deep cultural pessimism on the right today that seemed much less prevalent in the era of Reagan and Thatcher.

Perhaps measures of happiness have continued to correlate with self-reported ideology in the same way over time and space, but there’s a lot more going on. The content of the ideologies, the demographics of their supporters, the pressing issues of the day, and the most evident social trends have all shifted.

Here’s a possible conclusion: You can’t avoid viewing the world in some kind of mood. Some moods can be more virtuous than others, and it’s up to each of us to try to put ourselves in the best frame of mind.

Liberals and progressives might give some thought to why there is a strong statistical association between their ideologies and unhappiness. Does that mean that we are prone to certain specific vices, such as resignation, bootless anger, or discounting good news? Does it mean that our political messages are less persuasive than they could be? What might we learn from people who seem to be happier while they assess the social world? And what should we do to assist the substantial number of people on our side who are depressed?

Although those questions may be worth asking regularly, they do not imply that we should drop our general stance. People who are happy about the world should also ask themselves tough questions and consider the possibility that those who are unhappy–or even the depressed–might have insights.

See also: perhaps it’s not that conservatives are happier but that people with depression cluster on the left; philosophy of boredom (partly about Heidegger); Cuttings: A book about happiness; spirituality and science; and turning away from disagreement: the dialogue known as Alcibiades I.


Dog in a shelter
Startles at unknown noises
So he’ll be put down

So he’ll be put down
On the long roll of heroes
He goes over the top

She goes over the top
Merges right and sees the long
Straight way to the end

Straight away to the end
Of the action flies the mind
Neglecting the act

Neglecting the act
The startled noisy mind
Bolts from shelter 

See also: Nostalgia for Now; Mindlessness; When the Lotus Bloomed

what I would advise students about ChatGPT

I’d like to be able to advise students who are interested in learning but are not sure whether or how to use ChatGPT. I realize there may also be students who want to use AI tools to save effort, even if they learn less as a result. I don’t yet know how to address that problem. Here I am assuming good intentions on the part of the students. These are tentative notes: I expect my stance to evolve based on experience and other perspectives. …

We ask you to learn by reading, discussing, and writing about selected texts. By investing effort in those tasks, you can derive information and insights, challenge your expectations, develop skills, grasp the formal qualities of writing (as well as the main point), and experience someone else’s mind.

Searching for facts and scanning the environment for opinions can also be valuable, but they do not afford the same opportunities for mental and spiritual growth. If we never stretch our own ideas by experiencing others’ organized thinking, our minds will be impoverished.

ChatGPT can assist us in the tasks of reading, discussing, and writing about texts. It can generate text that is itself worth reading and discussing. But we must be careful about at least three temptations:

  • Saving effort in a way that prevents us from using our own minds.
  • Being misled or misinformed, because ChatGPT can be unreliable and even unbiased.
  • Violating the relationship with the people who hear or read our words by presenting our ideas as our own when they were actually generated by AI. This is not merely wrong because it suggests we did work that we didn’t do. It also prevents the audience from tracing our ideas to their sources in order to assess them critically. (Similarly, we cite sources not only to give credit and avoid plagiarism but also to allow others to follow our research and improve it.)

I can imagine using ChatGPT in some of these ways. …

First, I’m reading an assigned text that refers to a previous author who is new to me. I ask ChatGPT what that earlier author thought. This is like Google-searching for that person or looking her up on Wikipedia. It is educational. It provides valuable context. The main concern is that ChatGPT’s response could be wrong or tilted in some way. That could be the case with any source. However, ChatGPT appears more trustworthy than it is because it generates text in the first-person singular–as if it were thinking–when it is really offering a statistical summary of existing online text about a topic. An unidentified set of human beings wrote the text that the AI algorithm summarizes–imperfectly. We must be especially cautious about the invisible bias this introduces. For the same reason, we should be especially quick to disclose that we have learned something from ChatGPT.

Second, I have been assigned a long and hard text to read, so I ask ChatGPT what it says (or what the author says in general), as a substitute for reading the assignment. This is like having a Cliff’s Notes version for any given work. Using it is not absolutely wrong. It saves time that I might be able to spend well–for instance, in reading something different. But I will miss the nuances and complexities, the stylistic and cognitive uniqueness, and the formal aspects of the original assignment. If I do that regularly, I will miss the opportunity to grow intellectually, spiritually, and aesthetically.

Such shortcuts have been possible for a long time. Already in the 1500s, Erasmus wrote Biblical “paraphrases” as popular summaries of scripture, and King Edward VI ordered a copy for every parish church in England. Some entries on this blog are probably being used to replace longer readings. In 2022, 3,500 people found my short post on “different kinds of freedom,” and perhaps many were students searching for a shortcut to their assigned texts. Our growing–and, I think, acute–problem is the temptation to replace all hard reading with quick and easy scanning.

A third scenario: I have been assigned a long and hard text to read. I have struggled with it, I am confused, and I ask ChatGPT what the author meant. This is like asking a friend. It is understandable and even helpful–to the extent that the response is good. In other words, the main question is whether the AI is reliable, since it may look better than it is.

Fourth, I have been assigned to write about a text, so I ask ChatGPT about it and copy the response as my own essay. This is plagiarism. I might get away with it because ChatGPT generates unique text every time it is queried, but I have not only lied to my teacher, I have also denied myself the opportunity to learn. My brain was unaffected by the assignment. If I keep doing that, I will have an unimpressive brain.

Fifth, I have been assigned to write about a text, I ask ChatGPT about it, I critically evaluate the results, I follow up with another query, I consult the originally assigned text to see if I can find quotes that substantiate ChatGPT’s interpretation, and I write something somewhat different in my own words. Here I am using ChatGPT to learn, and the question is whether it augments my experience or distracts from it. We might also ask whether the AI is better or worse than other resources, including various primers, encyclopedia entries, abstracts, and so on. Note that it may be better.

We could easily multiply these examples, and there are many intermediate cases. I think it is worth keeping the three main temptations in mind and asking whether we have fallen prey to any of them.

Because I regularly teach Elinor Ostrom, today I asked ChatGPT what Ostrom thought. It offered a summary with an interesting caveat that (I’m sure) was written by an individual human being: “Remember that these are general concepts associated with Elinor Ostrom’s work, and her actual writings and speeches would provide more nuanced and detailed insights into her ideas. If you’re looking for specific quotes, I recommend reading her original works and publications.”

That is good advice. As for the summary: I found it accurate. It is highly consistent with my own interpretation of Ostrom, which, in turn, owes a lot to Paul Dragos Aligica and a few others. Although many have written about Ostrom, it is possible that ChatGPT is actually paraphrasing me. That is not necessarily bad. The problem is that you cannot tell where these ideas are coming from. Indeed, ChatGPT begins its response: “While I can’t provide verbatim quotes, I can summarize some key ideas and principles associated with Elinor Ostrom’s work.” There is no “I” in AI. Or if there is, it isn’t a computer. The underlying author might be Peter Levine plus a few others.

Caveat emptor.

See also: the design choice to make ChatGPT sound like a human; the difference between human and artificial intelligence: relationships

Upcoming Florida Civics Summit!!!!

On September 8th and 9th, the Lou Frey Institute will be hosting our friends from SPHERE and the Jack Miller Center for a summit relating to civic education, with a particular emphasis on the 4 competencies of the Florida Civic Literacy Examination.

The Jack Miller Center, Lou Frey Institute, and Sphere Education Initiatives will feature constitutional and pedagogy scholars who will discuss the core content of the competencies and methods of addressing it with students.
This two day program is for social studies supervisors and one of their teachers. The program will be held at the University of Central Florida’s College of Community Innovation and Education’s Morgridge Reading Center and Teaching Academy.
Invitees will receive free books and materials, as well as a $200.00 stipend. The program will begin at 5:00pm, Friday, September 8, with a reception and sit
down dinner, followed by a keynote address by:

Saturday, September 9, will be in the Teaching Academy from 7:15am-4:30pm, and feature the scholars and speakers as they engage the audience through panels and small group discussions. Breakfast and
lunch will be provided. Registration is limited to the first 100 participants, and registration is open until filled.


To register, click here!

turning away from disagreement: the dialogue known as Alcibiades I

The dialogue known as Plato’s Alcibiades I is now widely believed to have been written after Plato’s death, hence by someone else (Smith 2003). Perhaps that is why no one has ever told me to read it. But it is an indisputably ancient text, and it’s a valuable work of philosophy.

In several places, Michel Foucault discusses Alcibiades I as the earliest text that offers an explicit theory of what he calls “spirituality” (Foucault 1988, 23-28; Foucault 1981, 15-16). For Foucault, spirituality is the idea that reforming one’s soul is a necessary precondition for grasping truth. One way to summarize Alcibiades I might be with this thesis: You are not qualified to participate in politics until you have purified your soul enough that you can know what is just. That is an anti-democratic claim, although one that’s worth pondering.

At the beginning of the dialogue, we learn that Alcibiades will soon give a speech in the Athenian assembly about a matter of public policy. He is talented, rich, well-connected, and beautiful, and his fellow citizens are liable to do what he recommends. Athens is a rising power with influence over Greeks and non-Greeks in Europe and Asia; Alcibiades aspires to exercise his personal authority at a scale comparable to the Persian emperors Cyrus and Xerxes (105d). However, Alcibiades’ many lovers have deserted him, perhaps because he has behaved in a rather domineering fashion (104c). Only his first lover, Socrates, still cares for him and has sought him out—even as Alcibiades was looking for Socrates.

Alcibiades admits that you should not expect a person who is handsome and rich to give the best advice about technical matters, such as wrestling or writing; you should seek an expert (107a). Alcibiades plans to give a speech on public affairs because it is “something he knows better than [the other citizens] do.” (106d). In other words, he claims to be an expert about politics, not just a celebrity.

Socrates’ main task is to dissuade Alcibiades from giving that speech by demonstrating that he actually lacks knowledge of justice. Alcibiades even fails to know that he doesn’t know what justice is, and that is the most contemptible form of ignorance (118b).

Part of Socrates’ proof consists of questions designed to reveal that Alcibiades lacks clear and consistent definitions of words like “virtue” and “good.” The younger man has no coherent theory of justice. This is typical of Socrates’ method in the early dialogues.

A more interesting passage begins when Socrates asks Alcibiades where he has learned about right and wrong. Alcibiades says he learned it from “the many”–the whole community–much as he learned to speak Greek (110e, 111a). Socrates demonstrates that it is fine to learn a language from the many, because they agree about the correct usages, they retain the same ideas over time, and they agree from city to city (111b). Not so for justice, which is the main topic of controversy among citizens and among cities and which even elicits contradictory responses from the same individuals. The fact that the Assembly is a place of disagreement shows that citizens lack knowledge of justice.

In the last part of the dialogue, Socrates urges Alcibiades to turn away from public affairs and rhetoric and instead make a study of himself. That is because a good city is led by the good, and the good are people who have the skill of knowing themselves, so that they can improve themselves. For Foucault, this is the beginning of the long tradition that holds that in order to have knowledge–in this case, knowledge of justice–one must first improve one’s soul.

Socrates verges into metaphysics, offering an argument that the self is not the observable body but rather the soul, which ought to be Alcibiades’ only concern. This is also why Socrates is Alcibiades’ only true lover, for only Socrates has loved Alcibiades’ soul, when others were after a mere form of property, his body.

The dialogue between the two men has been a conversation between two souls (130d), not a sexual encounter or a public speech, which is an effort to bend others’ wills to one’s own ends. Indeed, Socrates maintains from the beginning of the dialogue that he will make no long speeches to Alcibiades (106b), but will rather permit Alcibiades to reveal himself in response to questions. Their dialogue is a meant, I think, as a model of a loving relationship.

Just to state a very different view: I think there is rarely one certain answer to a political question, nor is there a decisive form of expertise about justice. However, good judgment (phronesis) is possible and is much better than bad judgment. Having a clear and structured theory of justice might be helpful for making good judgments, but it is often overrated. Fanatics also have clear theories. What you need is a wise assessment of the particular situation. For that purpose, it is often essential to hear several real people’s divergent perspectives on the same circumstances, because each individual is inevitably biased.

Socrates and Alcibiades say that friendship is agreement (126c) and the Assembly evidently lacks wisdom because it manifests disagreement. I say, in contrast, that disagreement is good because it addresses the inevitable limitations of any individual.

Fellow citizens may display civic friendship by disagreeing with each other in a constructive way. Friendship among fellow citizens is not exclusive or quasi-erotic, like the explicitly non-political relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates, but it is worthy. We need democracy because of the value of disagreement. If everyone agreed, democracy would be unnecessary. (Compare Aristotle’s Nic. Eth. 1155a3, 20.)

Despite my basic orientation against the thesis of Alcibiades I, I think its author makes two points that require attention. One is that citizens are prone to be influenced by celebrities–people, like Alcibiades, who are rich and well-connected and attractive. The other is that individuals need to work on their own characters in order to be the best possible participants in public life. But neither point should lead us to reject the value of discussing public matters with other people.

References: Smith, Nicholas D. “Did Plato Write the Alcibiades I?.” Apeiron 37.2 (2004): 93-108; Foucault, “Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault,” edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton (Tavistock Press, 1988); Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-2, translated by Graham Burchell (Palgrave, 2005). I read the dialogue in the translation by David Horan, © 2021, version dated Jan 1 2023, but I translated the quoted phrases from the Greek edition of John Burnet (1903) via Project Perseus. See also friendship and politics; the recurrent turn inward; Foucault’s spiritual exercises

Postdoctoral Fellow, CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University


The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life will award a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Youth Civic Learning and Engagement for the 2023-24 academic year (August 2023- July 31, 2024).

CIRCLE is a research-based think tank studying how young people in the United States learn to become active participants in our democracy. CIRCLE studies a broad range of topics, including K-12 civic education, youth organizing, youth and civic media, and community characteristics that promote civic development. The central focus of its work is expanding access to civic learning and engagement opportunities by illuminating and working with others to address systemic inequalities and marginalization.

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, where CIRCLE is based, prepares Tufts students in all fields of study for lifetimes of active citizenship, and conducts critical national research to build stronger communities and democracy. Tisch College promotes new knowledge in the field and applies evidence-based practices in its programs, community partnerships, and advocacy efforts. Central to the university’s mission, the college offers opportunities for students to engage in meaningful community building, gain civic and political experiences, and explore their commitments to civic participation.

Operating under the directorship of Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, CIRCLE is a team of twelve individuals representing diverse professional and academic backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences. In service of our goal to ultimately eliminate the systemic barriers that keep some young people marginalized from and underrepresented in civic life, we engage in impact-driven partnerships. By consistently seeking out opportunities to learn with and from people and organizations representing marginalized communities, we are able to intentionally iterate our approach to research and aim to achieve equal and just outcomes.

We take a systems-approach to understand and address barriers and widen pathways toward civic learning and engagement, which in turn drives a wide-ranging portfolio. CIRCLE focuses on the following major areas of inquiry through multidisciplinary lenses and a vision of equitable systems:

·       Broadening Youth Voting/Growing Voters

·       Equitable K-12 Civic Learning

·       Understanding Youth Attitudes and Beliefs

·       Youth in Media for Democracy

·       Youth Activism and Change

·       Civic and Economic Mobility

The postdoctoral fellow will be invited to provide their expertise and knowledgebase in the projects that CIRCLE currently engages in. The postdoctoral fellow will co-lead a major predetermined project, take significant responsibility on another, and also have a portion of their time (~20%) to conduct independent research of their choice within the major topical areas of CIRCLE’s work and will have access to many datasets for developing publishable research. These main projects focus on the (largely structural) relationships between civic media and information access, use, creation and youth civic engagement.  

The position is currently set up as a one-year engagement but will be renewed for another year pending availability of funds (over half is already raised) and mutual agreement between the scholar and CIRCLE’s leadership. This fellowship does not come with a teaching requirement, nor is that something that can be guaranteed. 


A scholar with a Ph.D. in any relevant discipline who is not yet tenured, or an ABD whose defense date is no later than December 31, 2023.  The scholar must have authorization to work in the United States for at least 12 months.  Tufts University is not able to sponsor a visa for this position.

Desirable qualifications, experiences, and skills include, but are not limited to:

Strong commitment to and track record of advancing equitable outcomes in a community through research, partnerships and/or civic action.

Expertise in at least one of the following areas: Civic media, youth media or participatory media; Media and youth development, specifically civic and political development; or, News, civic information and youth civic engagement.

At least two of the following: Experience leading a mixed methods research project; Implementation of a large qualitative research project; and/or Experience with community-based research implementation.

Ability to collaborate with colleagues and partners from varied backgrounds and to interact with practitioners of diverse backgrounds, views, and positions.

Strong interest in pursuing a career that involves partnership with community groups, public agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

Knowledge and experience in one or more of the following: Partnership with young people through research initiatives (including YPAR); Communicating about research with non-research audiences; Creating research-based products for non-research audiences (Not limited to written); or Articulating and/or organizing around implications of research for change. 

Capacity to function well in a fast-paced, impact-driven workplace working on several projects at one time. Although the postdoctoral fellow will not have the same expectations of a full-time CIRCLE staff member, they are expected to meet deadlines, respond to partner requests and project expectations in a timely, partner-centered manner.

More details here: