Grounded Normative Theory

We human beings must constantly struggle to understand justice: how society should be organized and what we should do to make it better.

We are cognitively limited and prone to bias, and we come into the world knowing nothing. Our only chance of reaching a satisfactory understanding of justice during the time we have is to join some kind of ongoing conversation.

People participate in many such conversations, including those in religious traditions and all kinds of communities. One venue–among many others–is academic work within political theory and political philosophy.

Like anyone else, an academic who seeks to understand justice must join a conversation. One way to do this–which I endorse–is to engage with significant written works. If such texts are old, they may have generated secondary literatures that include critical responses which are also significant. If they are new, they typically benefit from previous works. Contributing to the secondary literature is one way to advance the conversation about justice.

Another way is to learn from people who are currently striving to advance justice in various settings. We can learn from the writing (and audio and video material) that they produce for public consumption. That approach is like reading books about politics, except that the genres, authors, and audiences are different.

We can also learn from the less formal, less polished, less public discourse (and activity) that occurs within communities, organizations, and movements as they decide what they should do.

This is the approach that Brooke Ackerly and colleagues (2021) call “grounded normative theory.” Please also visit to learn more. Today, Ackerly is visiting the Institute for Civically Engaged Research, which I co-lead at Tufts with Samantha Majic and Adriano Udani on behalf of the American Political Science Association.

In my view, grounded normative theory is not descriptive qualitative research, although it often begins with that. Its purpose is not to interpret or explain what people are saying. Its goal is to decide what we should do, and the input or data is the discourse of practical groups. Activists, organizers, and participants in movements provide insights, and the theorist is obliged to respond independently. Ideally, both partners learn from the exchange.

Because a grounded normative theorist is interested in what people are thinking and saying to each other–not necessarily what they have produced for public consumption– the theorist must engage personally with such groups. For instance, Ackerly is a co-founder of the Global Feminisms Collaborative, not just an observer of it.

A lot of engaged normative theory looks to marginalized communities and adversarial social movements. There is an enormous amount to learn from such sources. I would add, however, that we can develop important normative insights from more “bourgeois” practitioners. For example, the Justice in Schools project “helps moral, political, and educational theorists ask the right questions about justice in non-ideal contexts, develops new language to talk about educational ethics, and provides empirically-informed frameworks for developing a philosophically rigorous and pragmatically useful theory of educational justice.” Justice in Schools has produced a large collection of “normative case studies” that are often written by teachers for teachers. The program not only serves an audience of educators but also enriches political philosophy by posing new questions, much as bioethics has done for decades.

Lately, I am being drawn into projects on Artificial Intelligence. I am most interested in deriving questions and insights from developers and computer scientists. At least at this stage in the history of political philosophy, the pre-cooked normative theories seem rather stale; but it is exciting to engage with novel ethical questions that emerge from practice.

See: Ackerly, B., Cabrera, L., Forman, F., Johnson, G. F., Tenove, C., & Wiener, A. (2021). Unearthing grounded normative theory: practices and commitments of empirical research in political theory. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy27(2), 156–182. See also why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; applied ethics need not mean applying ethical systems; bootstrapping value commitments

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nonviolence at the frontiers of democracy

Last Thursday to Saturday was the Frontiers of Democracy conference, the thirteenth of these annual gatherings at Tisch College. Our theme was nonviolence, because I believe that we are entering a new phase of political violence, with a real possibility that the presidency will be an instigator in 2025. I argue that we must develop skills, strategies, coalitions, organizations, and plans for large-scale, broad-based nonviolent resistance.

Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., had died the previous week at age 95. I’ll re-share a video of an interview that I was privileged to conduct with him and Ken Wong in 2022. His name will be a blessing.

This interview reinforces some points that I would emphasize today.

  • Nonviolence is not the absence of violence–not a decision to refrain from using violent methods. It is a powerful alternative, with a record of success. One of our panelists at Frontiers was Maria Stephan, who has worked with Erica Chenoweth to show that nonviolent civil resistance movements often win.
  • Protest is not the essence of nonviolent resistance. Protest actions can be helpful for announcing the presence of an organized movement, but most of a movement’s impact comes from boycotts, strikes, get-out-the-vote, popular education, work inside institutions, and so on. In the interview, Rev. Lawson says, “The march may the weakest tactic, not the strongest.”
  • Americans have by no means forgotten nonviolent strategies. It is interesting that neither proponents nor critics of Black Lives Matter are prone to label it a nonviolent movement, but it has been that. I don’t only mean that the vast majority of BLM actions have been nonviolent but also that BLM leaders have trained and planned for nonviolence. In fact, BLM has been the largest nonviolent movement in US history and has been associated with a lower amount of collateral violence than the classic Civil Rights Movement. (Then again, it is impossible to prevent all violence, which is an unreasonable expectation.) BLM is just one of several recent or current nonviolent movements.

I would add some points that may not be as explicit in that interview.

First, nonviolence is the only way that most people are willing to engage, particularly in a society that offers some civil and political rights and where political violence is below epidemic levels. The only way to build really broad-based movements (at least outside of dictatorships and civil wars) is to be nonviolent.

Second, at large scales, nonviolence requires organization. One thing we learned from the #Resistance in 2016 is that Americans have good skills for expressing their views and finding allies, but underdeveloped skills for building large and accountable organizations and coalitions.

Particularly if Donald Trump wins in November, the opposition will have no obvious leader. There is a lot of talent in the Democratic Party, but it will not be clear who carries the party’s mantle. Besides, many active opponents of the Trump Administration will not be committed Democrats. Much of the opposition will arise in civil society, in faith communities, perhaps in labor, in media and culture, on the far left, among some conservatives, and perhaps among some businesses. Only some opponents will appreciate the Democratic Party or want to use strategies that involve legislation and elections. Leaders will arise in various sectors and constituencies, and they may or may not cohere.

The role of apex leaders is easily exaggerated. Usually, they are symbols rather than actual causes of change (or of stability). Still, people like you and me will have to decide what to do in the absence of a widely recognized leader, unless one surprises us by emerging quickly. That situation creates specific kinds of challenges for coordinating large-scale action. Who will invite representatives of the aligned small organizations in a given state to a statewide convention? How will that convention make decisions? If there is a big march in Washington, who will determine the speaker list? How can you influence those decision-makers?

If Trump wins, I forecast bitter recriminations and divisions among people who are against him. Regular Democrats will be furious that radicals and others voted for third-party candidates, stayed home or (at best) failed to make the case for the Democratic ticket. Many others will be equally angry at the Democratic Party, for a variety of reasons.

Debate and ideological diversity are good. But intense intramural hostility could be problematic, especially if it soaks up energy or encourages factions to compete for attention by doing things that also alienate key constituencies.

I just finished reading Jonathan Healey’s The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England (recommended) and David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (medium-good). Gross generalizations from any chapters of history are risky, but I would venture these claims:

  • Large public majorities have a decent chance of getting their way, even when the political system is highly unequal.
  • Elite minorities have a good chance of dominating, if they control the levers of power.
  • Activated minorities that lack power may attract attention and leave their mark on history, but they will fail unless they grow into majorities.

If Trump wins, he will represent a minority with his hands of the levers of power. Such a faction can be defeated by a broad majority (particularly since this leader is undisciplined, lazy, and chaotic). But to build a majority requires a specific set of skills and values, including a genuine desire to listen across differences, a willingness to choose winnable battles, and a nuts-and-bolts understanding of nonviolent organizing.

Now is a good time to study, train, and plan.

See also nonviolence in a time of political unrest; BLM protests and backlash; the value of diversity and discussion within social movements; preparing for a possible Trump victory.

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the fetter

[Citta, a lay follower of Buddha, said,] “Suppose there was a black ox and a white ox yoked by a single harness or yoke. Would it be right to say that the black ox is the yoke of the white ox, or the white ox is the yoke of the black ox?”

[Several senior monks said,] “No, householder. The black ox is not the yoke of the white ox, nor is the white ox the yoke of the black ox. The yoke there is the single harness or yoke that they’re yoked by.”

[Citta replied,] “In the same way, the eye is not the fetter of sights, nor are sights the fetter of the eye. The fetter there is the desire and greed that arises from the pair of them.

“The ear … nose … tongue … body … mind is not the fetter of ideas, nor are ideas the fetter of the mind. The fetter there is the desire and greed that arises from the pair of them.”

“You’re fortunate, householder, so very fortunate, to traverse the Buddha’s deep teachings with the eye of wisdom.”

Samyuttanikaya, 41.1

Citta is a rich man, the treasurer of a town and the owner of estates. As a “householder,” he probably has a wife and family. He chooses not to renounce property, power, or intimate love. In several discourses, he receives instruction from monks, people who have renounced all these things. Here–meeting them in a wild mango grove that he has donated to their order–Citta instructs the monks.

Given Citta’s worldly way of life, his main risk is to treat the things of this world as ends and to strive to obtain or retain them. That is no path to happiness, because there is always more to want, and everything is fragile. It is certainly no way to help others.

But the monks face dangers, too, and one of them is to disparage the things that give meaning to human life and to derive pleasure from shunning those things. That is no better path to happiness, for oneself or others. As the story suggests, the monks have as much to learn from a wise layperson as he can learn from them.

Here is a 21st century gloss or response to this very ancient text. …

Evolution has equipped human beings with highly sensitive nervous systems that generate a vast range of feelings that matter to us–not just doses of pleasure and pain, but complex assemblages composed of such feelings as curiosity, concentration, attraction, aversion, fascination, awe, anxiety, distraction, horror, and almost infinitely more. We cannot talk about things mattering except by invoking these affective words.

Feelings differ according to the person and the objective situation, but they are also relative to the design of our species. A dog relishes urine smells that we are simply not designed to appreciate. It is not that sunsets are really beautiful and fire hydrants are actually stinky but that humans have positive reactions to some things, just as other creatures gain satisfaction from other things.

Therefore, beauty is not in the world or in us, but in the interaction. One ox is the world, the other is the mind, and what matters is the fetter.

Natural selection promotes survival, not happiness. Although the variations in people’s dispositions and life circumstances yield a range of results, from happiness to despair, suffering is an inevitable consequence of being designed for sensitivity. Bacteria survive by reproducing rapidly, but that is not why we have proliferated.

Trying to shun the things of the world is no use–the other ox must still be there. What deserves our attention is the way we relate to it.

I would add a point that I don’t think is likely to be found in the Pali Canon. We are not just natural creatures with nervous systems designed in certain ways. We are also profoundly historical creatures. We think in languages that previous human beings have developed over millennia. We assess natural objects using words and concepts that other people have made. And we live surrounded by things that people have fashioned on purpose. There are sunsets to watch but also paintings of sunsets. It’s impossible to watch the sun move behind the rotating earth without having learned how human beings have named and represented and explained and enjoyed “sunsets.”

That means that the yoke is not the relationship between my mind and the world. It is the accumulated history of all the minds and the world, where the world includes the products of all the other minds.

Much suffering and alienation is built into the fetters that we inherit. Improving them cannot be a task for individuals alone but must be accomplished together.

The advice of the Pali Canon would be to form affective communities that conduct rituals together, like the monks in the mango grove that Citta gave them. It’s an important question whether politics can also help–for example, whether making the earth literally more peaceful can create a better environment for our minds. (Citta devotes some of his time to political leadership.) I would also argue that the arts and humanities contribute by giving us new links between mind and world in the form of representations, interpretations, and objects that we can behold and use.

See also the sublime and other people;  the I and the we: the sublime is social; a Hegelian meditation; “Verdant mountains usually walk“; thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition; Montaigne the bodhisattva?; Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; and nature includes our inner lives

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an abundance agenda

Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.

-- from Songs for the People by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

To become a more just and sustainable society, we must produce a lot. For instance, to improve affordability and address homelessness, we need much more housing. One estimate claims that we need 7.3 million additional lower-cost rental units. But the graph above this post shows a long-term decline in new housing starts per capita.

We also need windmills and solar panels, more and better transmission lines, batteries, electric vehicles, commuter railway lines and intermodal transit points, heat pumps, and urban trees.

All this production will weigh on the environment, but I don’t see any path to a sustainable economy that doesn’t involve first making a lot of new things that replace the machines we depend on now.

The graph below shows rising production of renewables along with steady production of oil and coal. We need the former to accelerate, which should also push the latter down:

Trends in oil and gas production and renewable energy production, from St Louis Fed.

Regulation is important for health, safety, and other values, but it doesn’t produce stuff. Regulation can be a barrier to production, although the severity of that problem is open to debate. Certainly, regulations must be smart, efficient, and mutually consistent.

Redistribution is necessary to address inequities, but it is not the way to create abundance. To be sure, when disadvantaged people receive support, they are able to buy things, but that may not boost the total supply of the things we need. Besides, once we produce more, we can choose to distribute more.

Governments can boost supply by buying things. The massive Biden investments in green technologies and microchip manufacturing are at least well intentioned and may turn out to be crucial. However, the private sector is going to produce most of what we need, even if governments are important customers or investors. The question is how to expand the private production of good things, such as affordable housing and renewable power.

Steve Teles and Ron Saldin discuss an abundance agenda in political terms, presenting it as a response to certain tendencies on both right and left. They argue that abundance may create a new alignment and counter partisan polarization, which is rooted in zero-sum competition. They compare an abundance agenda to the Progressive Movement, which formed strong factions within both major parties. In the 1912 general election, three presidential candidates competed to be the best progressive, offering different but comparable interpretations of what progressivism meant.

Progressivism wasn’t about abundance, but their analogy is political. An abundance agenda could scramble the political spectrum today, as progressivism did from 1900-1924. Teles and Saldin argue that only the Democratic Party is really hospitable to abundance right now, for Trump has a “hold on the GOP.” But they envision a somewhat longer timeframe.

I find their political analysis interesting, and I am open to the argument that abundance could counter hyper-partisanship. However, I would separate political arguments from substantive policy issues. For the good of people and the planet, we must produce a lot more good things very soon, and that goal should determine our political strategies. In other words, we shouldn’t produce more to reduce polarization, but scrambling the political spectrum might help us to produce more of what we need.

See also: tracking the Biden climate investments; the major shift in climate strategy; class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; The New Progressive Era.

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setbacks for authoritarianism?

It’s easy to imagine authoritarianism as a ratchet: a device that can be tightened but not loosened again.

An authoritarian leader and/or party wins an election, perhaps with a substantial base of authentic supporters. Instead of blatantly overturning the constitution in a “self-coup,” the government uses a whole range of available tools to discourage opposition and secure continued power. These tools include changing the electoral system (perhaps subtly), taking over the state media, raising the cost of private media, altering curricula and removing hostile educators, selectively investigating and prosecuting opponents, heavily surveilling private communications, channeling economic benefits to supporters and potential supporters, forming close partnerships with local oligarchs, shifting power from the legislature to the executive, governing by decree and executive action, packing the civil service and judiciary with friendly appointees, encouraging opponents to emigrate while selectively refusing entry visas to journalists and activists, banning overseas NGOs and funders, encouraging the police and security forces to use visible violence, and using rhetoric that links authoritarian means to popular ends, such as prosperity or religious or ethnic domination.

Authoritarians have so many tools and opportunities that it’s easy to predict a one-way path.

Nevertheless, the following parties and/or leaders who meet at least some of the previous description have suffered setbacks or outright losses: Trump in the USA (2020), Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (2022), the Law and Justice Party in Poland (2023), Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP (2024), and India’s Narendra Modi and the BJP (2024). I would add South Africa’s ANC (2024), although I would anticipate disagreement about that case.

It appears that “backsliding” is not a rigid and predictable process, any more than “transition to democracy” was (Cianetti & Hanley 2021). Looking at data from many countries, Brownlee & Miao find that a one-way journey toward fascism really was a pattern in the 1920s and 1930s, but at other times, there has a lot of movement in both directions, with a slight predominance of shifts away from authoritarianism (Brownlee & Miao 2022). Regimes that combine some elements of democracy, such as genuine elections, with authoritarian practices appear to be unstable, almost always teetering to one side or the other in time (Carothers 2018)

I think that civil societies are more resistant than we might fear. To put it more forcefully, it’s not so easy to boss people around.

An authoritarian party always takes over at the expense of rival political movements and would-be leaders, who have strong incentives to push back at an opportune time.

Authoritarian governments and their opponents continually innovate. Every tool of control sooner or later produces a technique for subversion. (Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: each form of resistance meets a new form of control.) One reason for waves of authoritarianism or democratization is that one side may temporarily lead in this competition, but then the other side catches up.

It is also difficult for any administration to remain popular for long. Unanticipated events–such as the current global bout of inflation–will turn people against a leader even if he doesn’t deserve the blame. Once a leader is unpopular, there are rewards to opposing him. It is risky to permit elections, even if they are subtly manipulated, but it is also hard to avoid them.

By the same token, defeating a would-be authoritarian doesn’t end the struggle, as illustrated by the USA today.

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