An Ethical Argument for Philosophy Co-Authorship; on Friendship and Disagreement

This piece was co-written and co-published with Eric Schliesser.

The most dazzling example of co-authorship is Paul Erdős, who co-wrote more than 1400 papers in mathematics with 485 collaborators. (What is your Erdős number?) To do this, he became functionally homeless: “His modus operandi was to show up on the doorstep of a fellow mathematician, declare, “My brain is open,” work with his host for a day or two, until he was bored or his host was run down, and then move on to another home.”

In the sciences, co-authorship is normal. In the humanities, it is uncommon. In philosophy, it is almost non-existent. (See chart.)[1] Yet philosophy is not without famous co-authors (e.g., Marx and Engels). What’s more, some monographs ought properly be considered co-authored, like John Stuart Mill’s collaborations with Harriet Taylor Mill: “when two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common it is of little consequence, in respect of the question of originality, which of them holds the pen.”

There is little scholarship on co-authorship in philosophy, but a steady trickle of blog posts suggests that there is interest and anxiety on this point. (Helen de Cruz, Mark Zelcer, Robert Paul Wolff)

1.      What is co-authorship generally?

Co-authorship in the sciences is ideally ruled by two rules rooted in a particular sociology of labs and research groups. First, co-authors contribute to the scholarly endeavor for a piece of publishable scholarship by planning, executing, or analyzing the results of some sort of research. Second, co-authors compose the written portion of the research, either collectively or through some division of labor.

Both of these ideals are violated, of course—there are plenty of massive multi-authored articles where scholars receive token authorship (gift authorship) or someone who made substantial contributions is not credited as an author (ghost authorship.) In that way, these are “endorsed” norms, not the “enforced” ones: violations abound and are even legitimated as common practice in some “big science” research areas. But this remains the practical ideal.

2.      Why is co-authorship deprecated in philosophy?

Professional philosophers collaborate, usually through disputatious conversation, but usually not in a way that counts multiple thinkers as the author of a single paper. We are also much less likely to cite our peers than the agenda-setting papers in our sub-fields, especially as a part of a generic literature review. (See Kieran Healey’s data.) It is more common for close collaborators to co-edit than to co-author: for instance, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum famously created the “capabilities approach” together without co-authoring any of their foundational papers. They did, however, co-edit the seminal volume, The Quality of Life in 1993.

So while we do not imagine ourselves to be lone geniuses communing with the ancient canon, it is the case that many philosophical papers are projected as manifestos of a single principled thinker. Indeed, philosophers are particularly prone to a kind of “subauthorial collaboration” that is formalized in lavish acknowledgements in the text or an early footnote. (Cronin, Shaw, La Barre, 2003)

David Lewis, who understood philosophical politics as well as anybody (recall),  comments on this kind of “ghost” authorship in his paper, “Causation as Influence:”:

“This paper mostly presents the latest lessons I’ve learned from my students. Under the customs of the natural sciences, it should have been a joint paper, the coauthors being (in alphabetical order) John Collins, Ned Hall, myself [David Lewis], L.A. Paul, and Jonathan Schaffer. But under the customs of philosophy, a paper is expected to be not only a report of discoveries but a manifesto; and, happily, the five of us have by no means agreed upon a common party line.”[2]

Yet analytic philosophers often imagine themselves by analogy to the natural and social sciences, and American and continental philosophers increasingly emphasize the collaborative nature of our enterprise. Why, then, do we not use co-authorship more?

One obvious reason is the relative paucity of grants and research support compared to the natural and social sciences. Without an incentive to adopt the lab or research group model, most working philosophers are not members of a funded research unit with reporting requirements. Rigorous research is understood to support ‘research-led teaching,’ and so the single-author model is based primarily on the single-teacher model. We should thus expect the introduction of larger private grant-making institutions, like the Templeton Foundation and the Berggruen Institute, and public European grant agencies, to usher in an era of increasing research group size in philosophy, and the more frequent co-authorship.

We expect that  new collaborative technologies will decrease the costs and difficulties of collaboration to the extent that philosophers will more often overcome them, even without any increased funding or benefits. Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, and simple Microsoft Office sharing, versioning, and commenting will all tend to ease the speed with which scholars of all varieties—including philosophers—create collaborative documents. Social media, chat programs, and email ease collaboration over distance to replicate the proximity by which labs and research groups co-compose.

Lastly, we might think of philosophical research as long-shot bets (Langhe and Schliesser, 2017) that explore concepts, methods, or techniques that may be generally applicable. As such, it will be difficult to trace any particular result in the world back to a paper or monograph, and it is preferable to have many such long-shot bets rather than focus the efforts and attention of a highly skilled research team on sequential elaboration of just one of these gambles. It will generally be better to encourage idiosyncratic work done by individuals and small teams in hopes that one of those bets pays off. In the age of increasingly easy collaboration some enduring, virtual small research teams will emerge without, hopefully, fully displacing lone wolfs and disputatious research groups.

3.     What norms of co-authorship might philosophers embrace?

If philosophers do adopt co-authorship norms, which ones should we adopt?

We should start with the ideal of recognition of actual contribution to the research and knowing participation in the composition. Co-authorship should never be merely “honorary” inclusion for a member of a team or department who contributed to neither the research work nor the writing endeavor. However, the division of labor in some disciplines has the result of producing co-authored pieces where some credited contributors don’t even understand the paper they have helped to produce. Should we extend co-authorship to a student assistant who writes the literature review for a piece of research without understanding the rest of the paper? Should we accept co-authorship for a paper whose conclusions we do not endorse, if we supplied the formal modeling or computer code that underwrites it?

Our current professional ideal is consensus. On this ideal all authors must give credence to every jot and tittle of the work, even if their confidence varies slightly. Co-authorship in philosophy is stricter because philosophers can and should endorse all the claims, arguments, and conclusions of the paper. Papers can be thus be co-authored in philosophy when two or more researchers find a common interest, discuss it at great length, and truly co-compose the entire paper, contesting each argumentative move and turn of phrase until agreement is reached. As such, it should be very unlikely to see large groups of co-authors writing together, given the difficulty of producing such an exacting meeting of the minds, and we even look askance at philosophy papers co-authored by three or four scholars.

Another possibility is that philosophers working on closely-related research might try to divvy up the tasks in a field of research around some question such that only one or a few of the authors of a work understand the whole thing, while others are credited for their contributions without being “first” or “lead” author status. This requires trust in each other to handle sections of the paper that address relevant issues from their sub-fields; perhaps a paper that is 12,000 words long is written in two halves, with only the introduction and conclusion truly a joint project. On this ideal, co-authors retain to right to veto truly abhorrent claims made outside of their assigned sections, but only by threatening to dissolve the partnership. Otherwise, they can only register objections and hope to be heard.

A third possibility would be to follow the norm in law courts, where empaneled and en banc judges issue both dissenting opinions or in some cases join the majority in parts of their decision but not others, perhaps affirming the result but not all of the methods used to arrive at it. In such cases, a minority might dissent vehemently, while the court is understood to have rendered the opposite verdict: that minority dissent is clearly a separate research project in philosophical terms. They are not understood as co-authors of the majority opinion but as co-authors of a distinct opinion which did not win a majority of support. The more instructive question is what to do when judges affirm parts of the main decision but not all of it, and by analogy, situations where co-authors affirm parts of a research project but not all of it. Can it be possible for one of the co-authors to “sign on” to parts 1, 2, and 4 of a paper, while dissenting from arguments found in part 3 and in the conclusion? For example, in the past one of us has used a footnote to signal an alternative position from the one arrived at in the body of the paper.

A fourth possibility is majority voting. Bright, Dang, and Heesen (2017) argue that scientific work should aggregate researchers’ judgments. Claims and propositions should be made in a paper that receive the assent of the majority of the authors. One might well find oneself outvoted in some cases, and this would be fine so long as there was agreement that voting had not produced a contradictory or logically incoherent set of claims.

A fifth possibility would be a kind of deliberative dictatorship: a lead author could write a paper, assign sections for others to compose, and bounce ideas off of possible co-authors. At the conclusion, all participants who agreed with the final product could sign on as co-authors, while dissenters could produce their own dissenting papers to be published alongside. This is related to proposals that might allow peer reviewers to receive more recognition for their work as initial gatekeepers.

Could all of these modes of co-authorship flourish in philosophy? Are some of them inimical to the discipline?

4.      Philosophers should co-author more of our work

Given the fact that some forms of collaborative recognition do exist, why suggest co-authorship as an alternative model for philosophy? Let’s start by dividing the reasons for co-authorship into roughly epistemic and roughly ethical categories, even if this is a division that is easily collapsed. Co-authored papers may simply be better for having multiple composers, readers, and researchers attached to them. The division of epistemic labor will often lead to better-written, more carefully crafted, or simply more copious publications: many minds make light work.

At the same time, co-authorship is partly about recognizing the contributions of our peers. In that sense, it is ethical. This is a weaker defense of co-authorship, since there are alternative methods for providing recognition. If a paper issues from a conversation with a colleague or a good objection raised at a conference or blog post, we philosophers would normally expect to mention that in a footnote, not to grant the colleague or objector co-authorship status. Philosophy papers are sometimes imagined to be the record of the thoughts or analysis of a single agent, and group agency seems much more difficult in these cases because we are so rarely in anything resembling agreement. We are rarely of a single mind, ourselves, so this is no big impediment, but this also ignores the fact that one can commit to a written product while having varying confidence in its disparate elements.

But there’s a significant ethical claim that might recommend co-authorship: the ideal of scholarly friendship. Co-authorship can be a way to channel professional philosophical relationships in productive ways, a norm for guiding conversations and arguments towards shared, potentially overlapping projects. There is independent reason to believe that shared projects are an intrinsic good tied closely to well-being. (Korsgaard, 1992) Thus we should, if possible, prefer to share the tasks associated with philosophical research with others, not just after publication but throughout the scholarly endeavor. Philosophical co-authorship is desirable just because philosophical friendship is desirable.

Shared projects are possible both between equals and between mentors and students. As such, co-authorship is a way to encourage productive collaboration within departments and with undergraduate and graduate students. In the pedagogy-first model of much philosophical research, departmental colleagues at most small schools should not co-author their research because this leads to overlapping areas of interest and knowledge. A department with only a handful of philosophers should instead hope that its faculty have as little in common as possible, even if they must share governance of their department and spend their careers working side-by-side. But if co-authorship underwrites philosophical friendship, then even a maximally pluralistic department should seek opportunities to co-create research, actively seeking agreement and shared methods, research areas, and conceptual terrain.

Like friends, co-authors need not agree on everything.[3] Finding some method for adjudicating those disagreements is important, but philosophical writing can encompass these minor dissents or majoritarian procedures, just as our departments do. The key is that the commitment to co-author—like the commitments of friendship—is a commitment to resolve disagreements using whatever methods are available. Friends do not obsess over decision-procedures, though we adopt them to ease tensions for the sake of shared projects. The same should go for co-authors.

Like friends, co-authors need not be equals. We see in the sciences that co-authorship allows a kind of scholarly mentorship, and in philosophy graduate students experience intense collaboration for the first time while writing their dissertation with a senior scholar. We even acknowledge that this is akin to co-authorship by treating dissertation advising as something close to co-authorship for some professional purposes.

More of this sort of mentorship should be encouraged. The practice of learning from another scholar does not end when a philosopher receives a PhD, and probably we shouldn’t pretend that it does. Perhaps newly-minted PhDs aren’t yet ready for the full burdens of a research program, or perhaps they would benefit from mentorship when they move on to a new research program. Or perhaps not: perhaps this would end with more domination by senior scholars, as the division of labor creates permanent hierarchies. But it’s not as if our current, academic political economy is hierarchy-free.

A final reason is merely accuracy: our authorial norms give a false idea of our practices to the rest of the academy. We should consider revising them to align ourselves with our fellow academics. Let’s not pretend that scholarly productivity metrics are irrelevant or that Deans do not look askance at our publication records compared to other disciplines.

[1] Despite the best efforts of some of the authors of this post!

[2] The quote and suggestion comes from Christopher Hitchcock, who offered it as a comment to an older post on philosophy coauthorship at New APPS.

[3] We are indebted to Andrew Corsa’s and Eric Schliesser’s unpublished research on Margaret Fuller’s ideas on friendship and magnanimity.

6/7s Abolition

It’s France’s fête nationale–Bastille Day–marking the storming of the Bastille Saint-Antoine. The crowd of revolutionaries were mostly looking for guns and ammunition held by the garrison of soldiers stationed there, but they also suspected that the prisoners were being tortured. (They weren’t.) Seven prisoners were freed that day: four forgers, two mentally-ill people, and one aristocrat.

In the US we should celebrate today as Prison Abolition Day.

I consider myself a prison abolitionist in the same way that Angela Davis is: I think the United States massively over-incarcerates its citizens, especially its Black citizens. I think that prisons ought to be spaces of education and care rather than domination. And I think that our communities must be redesigned to prevent the crimes for which we send people to prison.

In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of using an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population. (Abolition Democracy, pg. 96)

But what this means in practice is that I wish the US were a bit more like normal, rather than such an absurd outlier. Rather than incarcerating “more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories,” I’d like to see us free about 2 million prisoners, so that the number is closer to about 300,000.

That’s still a lot of people, of course, but we currently incarcerate roughly seven times the global average of our population, without having seven times the crime. Our violent crime rate is on par with or even much lower than countries like the UK–though it’s true that our gun ownership rates make our assaults more often fatal murders–but we incarcerate many, many more people. So I propose we should start by aiming to shrink our prison population by 6/7s. This is an odd fraction, but it just represents the over-incarceration rate in the US compared to the rest of the world. It’s also deliberately a bit inexact: many countries have fewer than 100 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. Perhaps the US could achieve the lower, more civilized rates of incarceration found in Finland and Norway, over time, but in any case, 6/7s abolition strikes me as a good place to start.

Sometimes I hear from other prison abolitionists that this is still 1/7 too many. But I don’t really know what to make of this. The majority of American prisoners are incarcerated for violent crimes, and I don’t know what it means to wish for impunity or restorative justice in every such case. Surely some people deserve some punishment; all I ask is that we radically remake the entire carceral character of American life.

This means drastically lower sentences: closer to the sentences prisoners served in the 1970s than the ones they serve today. It means prosecuting fewer crimes, too. But it doesn’t mean sacrificing our safety: it means focusing policing and imprisonment on the kinds of wonkish policies that we know work, while reinvesting the savings from incarceration in social supports.

Of the seven prisoners at the Bastille, I propose that one–perhaps the stray aristocrat, the Comte de Solages, who some records suggest was a rapist and attempted murderer and whose noble birth very nearly granted him impunity–deserved to be there. For the sake of the other six, however, we must still storm the carceral state!

Touchstone Terms: The Accursed Share

This is a part of a series on terms and concepts that I find particularly resonant.

We usually say that the fundamental rule of economics is scarcity: there are never enough widgets (food, housing, gadgets) to meet all the demand And even where we seem to be endowed with wealth, we still face opportunity costs for doing one thing rather than another: we have finite time and attention, and at a fundamental level we cannot both have the cake and eat it. Economists study the allocation of that scarcity and costly selection among those opportunities. Thus (in his famous call for the reintroduction of slavery in the Carribean) Thomas Carlyle called economics a dismal science, since it forced such unhappy choices upon us. All the more reason to explore alternative framings, just as George Bataille did in his book The Accursed Share.

Imagine you and your friends are splitting a pizza, and there is an extra piece. Who gets it? And what happens next? Perhaps it becomes the prize in a game of trivia. Perhaps the winner has a little extra energy, perhaps they get fat. Perhaps it goes to one of your friends who is pregnant, because she is “eating for two.” Perhaps the most popular or amusing member of the group gets it. Perhaps you decide to throw it out. If your group always gives the extra piece to the same person, though, patterns of preference emerge.

In George Bataille’s three volume The Accursed Share, he imagines a primitive subsistence society that gathers just a little more food or other basic goods than it needs: who gets the extra share? What do we do with the remainder? Bataille uses this simple concept to construct a remarkably compelling just-so story of the political economy of both inequality and culture. Even recognizing that it is a kind of ahistoric just-so story, I continue to find the “accursed share” deeply intriguing and I return to it often.

As a framework, it strikes me as particularly important for those who work on political economy, like an artist using a camera obscura to see a scene differently for more accurate drawing or painting. The “accursed share” allows us to rethink economic problems in terms of the distribution of the excess rather than scarcity. It takes the economist’s tool of limited resources and flips it on its head. As Bataille puts it: “it is not necessity but its contrary, ‘luxury,’ that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems.” (pg. 12)

As he spins out the concept to apply it to historical and traditional societies like the Aztecs and Tibetans, or to 20th century questions of political economy, societies that find themselves with growing productivity and wealth become increasingly stressed by the excess. They often develop techniques for expending their growth, like potlatch gift ceremonies, monastic non-working sects, or invasion of other countries. Yet these are, fundamentally, coping strategies for a problem: there is more than enough to go around. And he claims that the modern industrial capitalism has broken all of these coping strategies by creating not just an excess but a growing one, a continual disruption that gets reinvested and accelerates the next crisis of extravagant, opulent luxury.

Luxury and Culture

On Bataille’s account, culture just is the by-product of the accursed share. As patterns of “who gets the surplus?” develop, societies produce not just subsistence but hierarchy, not just inequality but cultural justifications for that inequality.

In other times and places, societies cultivate a class of religious or scholarly ascetics to whom the “accursed share” is owed. Perhaps, as in Tibet, monks adopt ritualistic poverty alongside disciplined unproductivity: they beg for their meals and yet do nothing to participate in the agricultural labor that makes their meals possible. In this sense, the remaining share is “accursed,” but also blessed and sanctified.

On Bataille’s view, then, variations in culture are the product of the patterns in our distribution of the excess. In that sense, Bataille has a version of Tolstoy’s dictum: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” All subsistence societies are equal; richer societies develop patterns of inequality that make them distinct.

In a deeper sense, the allocation of the surplus is closely tied to meaning-making, as well as to status. Sometimes it is easier to simply burn the excess. But someone must do the burning, and esteem and status are be left over as a residue of that role (along with, perhaps, a few items or treats snatched from the fire before they are consumed.) Or the excess can be expended on a class of artists, who make art, music, or literature that aspires to be uselessly beautiful. (Some part of the excess might even be devoted to philosophers….)

Still, the remainder is a kind of live grenade in an egalitarian culture. It (and its recipient) is cursed unless it can be invested in increased productive capacities or expended harmlessly. Industrial innovations have historically been quite difficult, so instead the extra is given over to some class whose “true” purpose is to expend the remainder harmlessly in mere luxury, in the creation of beautiful things, in the telling of stories that bind the community together, or in the maintenance of norms of sexual abstention and productive authority.

The problem is that most of these “useless” projects find their way to a kind of usefulness: authority guides and directs labor efficiency; communities bound by solidarity better weather crisis and better plan for the future; beauty can motivate and inspire. The useless has a dangerous tendency to become useful, and even necessary.

The General Economy as Economic Existentialism

Bataille’s general economy is like a kind of metaphysical macroeconomics: it includes not just the financial economy but tries to be an economics of energy, time, attention, and lives itself. It’s supposed to capture the way that economic thinking can be applied to ecology and physics and art and pornography.

Perhaps this goes beyond mere accuracy, but there’s something temptingly provocative about his great insight that there is a convincing way to turn our protestations and anxieties of finitude and lack into realizable superabundance and excess. For Bataille himself, this was a reason to reject the instrumental attitude almost completely. He sees human reason and culture as servile to a base pragmatism that fails to take seriously the teleological issues with our efforts to perpetuate endless growth.

By focusing his “general economy” account on excesses instead of limits, Bataille flips the script of ordinary economics. The focus on “scarce resources” and “opportunity costs” tends to emphasize the idea that economics is about not having enough to go around: surpluses and profits then become a fortunate break from the unfortunate status quo. And yet a moment’s reflection shows that any stable economy has “enough” to sustain its current distribution. Certainly some people have better or worse lives, some people die later and others earlier. Infant mortality has been 50% in some places or 2% in others, but everyone dies eventually. It’s the patterns that matter, that mean something: it’s the patterns that make meanings. (And economics itself has tried to capture this insight with its work on signaling theory.)

Absent supply shocks an economy can plod along doing what it does in equilibrium, but the negative shocks (famine, plague, war, revolution) aren’t the only sort of shocks that should concern us. In fact, the positive shocks of population growth, the industrial revolution, the green agricultural revolution, and the digital revolution have shown themselves to be even more disruptive. When fewer workers can produce more stuff–but not yet enough to distribute it equally–what are we to do with the extra?

Often there’s something vaguely eroticized or pointedly orgiastic about efforts to expend the accursed share, Bataille argues, because the natural “primitive” response to plenitude is to have more babies. But societies usually learn that this kind of response to excess is not a good idea: when the accursed share is gone, there will be more people to feed and not enough to do it. Thus, eroticism–and indeed fetishes and perversions–are a “safer” alternative, culturally. Yet for cultures that are built on sexual propriety, this safety is also unsettling.

The Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution are supposed to have led to our downfall: the combination of normative thrift, sexual repression, and massively increased productivity created a massive and growing accursed share. In Bataille’s time it seemed that the most likely outcome of all that postponed saving and investment would be a final, self-destructive nuclear war! Bataille thus prescribed perversion and indolence as an alternative, which is why he was able to write provocative and gripping political economic theory as well as surreal fetishistic pornography. (Or perhaps because he felt driven to write both he found ways to meld them.)

I don’t see Bataille’s main value in his role as a romantic defender of uselessness, though he does help illustrate some of the consequences of that view. Instead, I find the concept of the accursed share most apt when we talk about wealthy societies that somehow, still, face budget crises or allocation problems. It’s never that there’s not enough: we’re well past “enough,” nor is “more” often the solution. We’re usually fighting over the particular patterns of excess and deficiency we’d like our society to embrace, and the fight itself is always one of those luxuries. So when we talk about wealth and inequality, I think it behooves us to keep the “accursed share” in the back of our minds.

A Civic Liturgy

My friend David O’Hara writes on Facebook:

On certain days of the year I return to readings of civic importance that suit that day. It’s a political parallel to the liturgical calendar, I suppose. So on Independence Day (July 4) I read the Declaration of Independence; on MLK Day (third Monday of January) I read one of his speeches; on Constitution Day (Sept 17) I read the Bill of Rights; and so on. Most of this is a habit that’s in my head, but I’ve decided to put together a calendar I can share with others, and I’d be glad to have your suggestions for what to add. My informal rules: (1) It should be short enough to read in a few minutes. (2) It should be a significant document that ought to be read by everyone at some point. (3) It should remind us of an important idea or event that is a legal or ethical or cultural landmark that has shaped our nation, and that should help us find our bearings when we lose sight of them.

If you have suggestions, I’d like to hear them. Don’t be bound by my rules, or by my nation and traditions. What would you include? What would you gladly read aloud with your neighbors each year on a certain date? Please include the date you’d set for the reading, and tell me why that date matters.

This is an obvious nod to the liturgical tradition in which a year’s worth of sacred texts and meditations are laid out for repeated reflection, with themes that build towards a traditions’ major holidays.

I have something like this practice, and indeed I think of Facebook as trying to establish personal liturgies through its continual reminder of photos and events from each day in past years. So here are some thoughts:

  • New Year’s Day (January 1st): I like to read and reflect on habit-formation at the beginning of the year, rather than jump into making resolutions. For instance, William James’ “Habit” from The Principles of Psychology.
  • Martin Luther King Day (Third Monday in January): Usually “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” though sometimes his last speech or his “Where do we go from here?” speech.
  • President’s Day (Third Monday in February): I don’t really celebrate this holiday, though for a while I liked to read the Farewell Address. It’d be a good day to read selected Federalist Papers (I’m a fan of #9 and #10.)
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages

(I imagine the ironic points of light are muzzle flashes or bomb explosions exchanged by the putatively Just. The “irony” is that their violence is almost always unjust.)

  • Constitution Day (September 17th): This is the day to read as much of the constitution, including the Bill of Rights, as you can. But it’s also a good day to read Juan Linz’s “The Perils of Presidentialism.”
  • Election Season (Technically October and November, every two years. But when is it not election season?): The text that always inspires me during this period is Bruce Ackerman’s “The New Separation of Powers.” But that’s highly idiosyncratic.
  • Election Day (the first Tuesday after November 1st): Of course most of us spend this day reading exit polls. But perhaps it would be better to read the chapter in Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy on “Socialism and Democracy.” And  perhaps Amartya Sen’s “Democracy as a Universal Human Value” would be even more appropriate.
  • Thanksgiving (Late November): In the US we have dual duties on this day: to remember our massacre and colonization of the indigenous peoples, and to practice gratitude with friends and family. So I propose: Robert Frost’s The Gift Outright and Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Apologetic History of the Indies(I often post The Oatmeal’s comic on Las Casas to social media for a similar purpose.)
  • Christmas (December 25th): Like it or not, the US treats Christmas as a secular public holiday. And that means that everyone should watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

There are also irregular events that become opportunities for a civic liturgy. Like birth, marriage, and death, they don’t happen on a regular schedule but they deserve recognition in a civic liturgy.

For instance, from time to time we are called upon to serve on juries. At times like this, when it happens to me or friends, I like to share Alexis de Tocqueville’s discussion of the jury in Democracy in America. After national tragedies, I will sometimes read Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense, though I struggle with whether it lets us off too easily. After many mass shootings, I re-read Dan Kahan’s “Modeling Facts, Culture, and Cognition in the Gun Debate,” but it doesn’t seem to help.

This is far from a complete list. But I think the idea of a civic liturgy is an important one, and I’d like to see more work done filling in the calendar. A liturgy creates a shared set of texts, a shared opportunity for reflection, and perhaps even the preconditions for shared values. Join me, and David, won’t you?

(I’m going to keep coming back and updating this as I get new suggestions.)

The Frustration of Dialogue and Deliberation

It’s the third day of the Frontiers of Democracy conference, and the mood is different than I can recall. Last year during the conference we received news that Great Britain had voted to leave the European Union: this year the conference began with a preconference on authoritarianism. Many attendees answered an ice-breaking prompt from Caesar McDowell about what they don’t want to talk about here with some variation of “the election” or “Trump” or even “the party system.” Yet we also had a plenary session on US democracy’s vulnerabilities led by the Democracy Fund, where they delved into the crosstabs of their latest voter study group report.

Later today we’ll discuss Peter Levine’s framework for responding to the election of Donald Trump, which one plenary speaker described as reminiscent of “the John Birch Society” for its resolutely anti-administration approach. And I’ve also heard devoted deliberative democrats talking about refusing to “trust the system” and even “blowing up the system.” One panel was titled “How to start a revolution,”  though I had to miss it because it conflicted with the panel I ran on Civic Games. (An attendee of the revolutionary conference reported to me that she walked out a lot less optimistic than she began.)

Yet my colleagues here are certainly not contemplating the violent overthrow of the current order: one of the most popular plenary speakers was the President of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict. He presented on the work of Chenoweth and Stephan, who used a century of data to show that nonviolent resistance movements are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones–and that the results of such civil resistance are nine and a half times more likely to be democratic when they do succeed than violent movements.

I rather suspect that this is a minor aberration, but for a conference that began in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama titled, “No Better Time,” and spent many years afterwards bemoaning the lost civic engagement of that campaign season, it has been interesting to watch how attitudes change and methods evolve. Many many of the civic professionals I know are embracing Black Lives Matter and the implicit rejection of deliberative methods therein. Professional mediators and dialogue facilitators are talking about the importance of action, symbolic speech and protest, and resistance. They are–we are–frustrated. I can’t wait to see what we do together next.

Resisting the Fatalism of the Behavioral Revolution

I love Peter Levine’s latest post, “don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic.”

“Tversky’s and Kahneman’s revolutionary program spread across the behavioral sciences and constantly reveals new biases that are predictable enough to bear their own names. […] These phenomena are held to be deeply rooted in the cognitive limitations of human beings as creatures who evolved to hunt-and-gather in small bands on African plains. Not only has the burgeoning literature on cognitive biases challenged rational market models in economics, but it undermines the “folk theory” of democracy taught in civics textbooks and widely believed by citizens and pundits.”

I think Levine captures something important about the literature on cognitive biases and heuristics: that they tend to put people in labs and poke them in such a way as to show the ways in which individuals are prone to mistakes. Yet this is widely known, and many of the worst mistakes to which individuals are prone are things we have developed solutions for in ordinary life.

“Behavioral science would have predicted the demise of the independent newspaper–but about a century too soon. In fact, “the press” (reporters, editors, journalism educators, and others) sustained the newspaper as a tool for overcoming human cognitive limitations for decades.”

As such, the lab work undermines methodological individualism but doesn’t actually help us understand communities of inquiry or institutions of knowledge-production. We are extended minds, always dependent on cognitive “prosthetics.” We depend on watches and newspapers and Google and our friends to remember and process information. And yet I think Levine is perhaps too optimistic about the possibilities of “prosthetics.” (One of Levine’s finer qualities is that he regularly make “too optimistic” seem realistic in retrospect.)

I think we should especially push on the idea that journalism is or has been a solution to cognitive limitations. The golden age of journalism was a short period of time marked by very low elite disagreement on major issues as they joined forces against communism and to first suppress–and then manage–the Civil Rights revolution for women and Black people. This cynical potted history of the trustworthy news ignores much–but so does the optimistic one.

I’ve always thought that the main power of the “behavioral” revolution was to give scientific precision and credence to insights from earlier philosophy, political theory and psychology, as well as parsing the size of effects and the disagreements between cliches that would often emerge. So sure: you can find a lot of Tversky and Kahneman in Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but you can also find a lot in those authors that has been overturned or rendered more carefully in later work.

And the big insights about democracy’s weaknesses–the ones that go back to Plato and Aristotle–those didn’t go away in the middle of the 20th Century. They were perhaps suppressed by the Cold War abroad and the race war here at home, but something big happened when the demographic models for redistricting got an order of magnitude better in 2010 than they had been in 2000. And those models are just getting better.

What’s more, the behavioral revolution can also be used for good: I’ve repeatedly defended these insights when applied to criminal justice, for instance. And one of the most famous “cognitive bias” studies come not from the lab but from the real world. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso showed that:

“experienced parole judges in Israel granted freedom about 65 percent of the time to the first prisoner who appeared before them on a given day. By the end of a morning session, the chance of release had dropped almost to zero.

After the same judge returned from a lunch break, the first prisoner once again had about a 65 percent chance at freedom. And once again the odds declined steadily.”

This is the kind of thing that we might have suspected before. Any professor with a stack of papers to grade might have suspected they were more lenient after dinner, for instance. But this is definitive, real world proof of a problematic bias, a result of the behavioral revolution.

Ironically, it doesn’t actually make me very fatalistic: it gives me hope. I hope that Israeli judges are reading this and worrying about it. I hope they are taking snacks to work. I hope that parole lawyers everywhere are taking note of these facts and acting to protect their clients from these biases. New information about our cognitive limitations doesn’t have to make us hopeless. And really, that’s Levine’s point.

“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?

Hannah Arendt on Academic Freedom

We often say that colleges and universities deserve some sort of freedom from political interference. But for Arendt, freedom just is politics. The idea of freedom from politics is largely oxymoronic for her, and involves fundamental misunderstandings of the component terms “freedom” and “politics.” But of course, we seem to know what we mean when we use “freedom from politics” so these misunderstandings are obviously institutionalized in ways that are at odds with Arendt, such that it takes some excavation to determine how this divergence is possible, and whether we can adjudicate the disagreement:

“As long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community so that they then can be granted, either as individuals or social groups, a freedom that lies beyond both politics and life’s necessities, we are indeed justified in measuring the degree of freedom within any political body by the religious and academic freedom that it tolerates, which is to say, by the size of the nonpolitical space of freedom that it contains and maintains.” Hannah Arendt, Introduction into Politics.” The Promise of Politics (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), pg. 136.

The disdain with which Arendt articulates the justifications for religious and academic freedom in this passage is remarkable.  What seems obvious to us seems equally absurd to Arendt, such that she has to spell out our mistake: “as long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community….”

(She might as well write, “if you insist on starting from absurd premises, then yes, it’s true, absurd conclusions will follow….”)

She is not just exasperated that we are so devoted to universities and churches that we’ve set them outside of and above politics, but seems to believe that when we see the assumptions required we will reject them. (Loyal readers will recall this post on Christianity and the flight from politics.) For Arendt, politics is not merely about providing the bare necessities of communal life: if anything, communal life serves to provide the conditions of possibility for politics. But our communities are decidedly non-Arendtian: why should we accept that reversal?

Here, a brief Arendtian recap may be in order: she argues that the Platonic (née Parmenidean) ideal of freedom from politics is predicated on the belief that speech carried out before the many becomes corrupted or deceptive, while speech among the few can achieve truths “higher” than political freedom. We now regularly encounter these “higher” or “realer” truths: science, religion, justice, beauty, family, wealth, health, culture, morality, and happiness are all often celebrated as the true purpose of politics, those ends that politics must achieve but for which politics should be forsaken. So obviously Arendt is on to something in her diagnosis. But it’s thus striking that Arendt is nearly alone among political theorists and philosophers in claiming that the true purpose of politics is politics–the coordination of collective action–itself!

For this she is often accused of romanticizing the Greek polis. She goes so far as to say that many people and places have taken the “higher” purposes of politics so seriously that they’ve lost track of politics in the first place:

“Politics as such has existed so rarely and in so few places that, historically speaking, only a few great epochs have known it and turned it into a reality.” (Arendt, Promise of Politics, 119)

But I don’t think this is properly-speaking a romantic view of the Greeks, since the Greeks are to blame for losing track of the meaning and significance of politics (for themselves and for Europe too) when they built the Academy:

“In order for their institution to succeed, the few had to demand that their activity, their speech with one another, be relieved of the activities of the polis in the same way the citizens of Athens were relieved of all the activities that dealt with earning their daily bread.” (Arendt, Promise, 131)

Arendt has often received criticism for her view that politics is only possible for those who are free from necessity because others (slaves, peasants, capitalist workers) labor. She always acknowledge the horror of this dependency and exploitation, but it’s hard to ignore how elitist she sounds in those moments. Here she accuses those seeking academic and religious freedom of a similar kind of elitism: to turn politics into a means-to-an-end of something that cannot equal it.1

Universities are not, then, havens from politics, but in their purest forms they become hierarchical substitutes for politics. This helps to explain the kinds of inconsequential wrangling that often trouble departmental life: having determined that only academic merit can satisfy our fundamental political needs, we then get lost in minutiae in a fight for recognition.

And then there is the not-so-pure form: acknowledging that the university is partially shielded from politics, we retreat to it with a fantasy that Arendt diagnosed as an Archimedean (“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth”) whereby we desire to engage in politics without being engaged by it, to act on the world without being acted upon. The university becomes a place to engage in politics, to affect policy and act as a political agent, but one that is sheltered from the consequences of ordinary political spaces. It becomes a microphone or a platform with which to shout one’s projects without having to listen.

It’s this conception of academic freedom that both inspires and worries me. It inspires me because I’d like to think we can find some shelter from the political currents of the day to think through the problems that confront us and investigate matters that require it, and that when that thinking and investigation is done our fellow citizens should listen to what we’ve figured out. It also inspires me because the company of disagreeing friends is one of the major sources of joy in my professional life. (Recall: 1, 2, 3)

But it worries me, too, because governments fund these havens, and they are growing increasingly disenchanted with our work. And it’s only natural that when political actors recognize a source of influence in their communities–an unmoved mover that is both powerful and claiming shelter from power–they will move to capture the “commanding heights” of that influential position. An Iowa state legislator even proposed partisan balancing tests for new faculty. (And the backlash surrounding his Sizzler certification is ample evidence of the exclusivity and signaling role of college education.)

Now, a standard reply is that the university has earned its role as a place outside of normal politics by welcoming a diversity of viewpoints. We inoculate ourselves from the claims of partisanship by encouraging educated disagreement, and take a voluntary vow of nonpartisanship in exchange for that freedom. But this is no longer sustainable. It’s both at odds with the evidence of partisan affiliations, and at odds with the consensus-building towards expertise we expect from the sciences.

We really don’t and shouldn’t welcome a diversity of viewpoints on race and IQ, for instance, which is both reasonable (internal to the disciplines involved) given the methodological shenanigans required to justify white superiority stories, and reasonable (writ large) given the fact that pseudoscientific racism actively hurts our students and our society.

I am tempted to end on the idea that academic freedom debates are a part of local, nested norms of safety and collegiality and freedom-from-interference, such that there is no generic answer about academic freedom, but rather a set of internal institutional norms that get articulated and adjudicated in practice. But sometimes in all that sophisticated distinction-making and precise line-drawing, I think we miss the fact that universities are parts of society as a whole, inhabited by faculty and staff with multiple conflicting allegiances and communities of interest. We don’t need principles of academic freedom because we are discovering the eternal and unchanging truths of these systems, but rather we need these principles as simple coordination mechanisms. Sometimes we need to be able to say: “This is not what we do, this is not who we are.”

1. It’s worth noting here that most legal defenses of academic freedom either make a professor’s rights subordinate to the public welfare via the claim that unimpaired investigations into the natural sciences produce public goods (i.e. Sweezy v. New Hampshire) or treat academic freedom as a tacit custom that governs university contracts with faculty. (i.e. Greene v. Howard University)

Trump, Trust, and Civic Renewal

Here are three observations I take to be axiomatic:
  1. Citizens must trust their government if they are to invest it with responsibility.
  2. Trust between citizens is a good measure of civic capacity.
  3. Trust in institutions is a requirement for collaboration.

After the last few days, it seems obvious that we are headed for an alternative set of arrangements where a less trusting press and a less trusted Executive Branch part ways. I have a hard time seeing the upside of this divorce for progressive goals: since government needs trust to accomplish a lot of its goals, citizens with good reason to mistrust their government are very likely to respond by handing that government less responsibility. That will frustrate populists but not laissez-faire elites. Thus, less trust seems to be likely to increase the uptake of libertarian and neo-liberal ideas.

In some ways that’s the best case scenario: incompetence also lends itself to side deals and rent-seeking. We can end up with the minimal state via incompetence quite easily, but we could also keep the larger state but replace its technocratic reasons with pure regulatory capture and clientism. Think Tammany Hall or Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Yet mistrust did not begin recently. Except for a brief moment of post-9/11 patriotism, the US Congress has rarely been very popular in the modern era. Meanwhile, other indicators of mutual trust among citizens that have recently been quite low are on the rise, like those charted by Robert Putnam and the National Conference on Citizenship, which found in 2010 that in 2008 and 2009 only 46% of Americans talk with their neighbors and only 35% of Americans participate in community groups and organizations. Yet that number is on the rise: a follow-up study for the year 2011 found that 65.1% of Americans did favors or helped out their neighbors, and 44.1% of Americans were active in civic, religious, or school groups.

I would be remiss if I did not point out at that the Women’s Marches on Washington and elsewhere in the US brought out more than 1% of Americans. That’s a mass movement by any standard, to have so many women and men marching on a single day. Every indication is that this was the largest organized protest in the history of the US. Organizing and expanding that group is a major task, but it is one that will both require and create trust.

All of this suggests a rebalancing of trust and energy that is not so much progressive as local and civic. What we’re seeing today is a loss of trust in traditionally trustworthy institutions. Yet I wonder whether this mistrust may have something like a pneumatic quality, where losses of trust in one place are matched by increases elsewhere. It’s possible in the worst regimes to destroy trust everywhere–this is one way that totalitarian regimes operate–but there may be some net-positive transfers at the margin in our as-yet democratic society.

This move to the local is sometimes equated with conservative ideology, because of the long-standing equation of states rights arguments with conservatism. But localism can work to the advantage of progressive cities, too, if the same principles are applied equitably. (They may not be.) More than anything else, the current political climate shifts the kinds of solutions for which our fellow citizens will reach. Rather than hoping to make change at the national level, we must organize our political lives around more local efforts. Rather than seeking assistance from state institutions we must organize and act ourselves.

I have seen four  specific projects suggested that I’d like to endorse:

  1. Replacing defunded programs: we should commit to privately fund programs cut by the Trump administration using any tax cuts that result. That means that if he follows through on the plan to cut school lunches or the National Endowment for the Arts, we should commit to meet the need. It will be much harder to replace Planned Parenthood, however, without state legislatures that can commit to meet any federal shortfalls.
  2. Replace lost federal regulations: The biggest cities rival many small countries as sources of carbon emissions and and as sites of action to slow climate change, so if the EPA cannot act, those cities must overcome free-rider problems to act on their own. If crucial aspects of the Affordable Care Act are eliminated, we should organize within our states and municipalities to replace them. If immigrants and refugees are threatened, we must protect them and act privately. The same goes for LGB (and especially T!) rights.
  3. Rejoin forgotten civic associations: I’m not a Christian, but atheism tends towards civic isolation. That’s why the first thing I did after the election was go to a Quaker Meeting. I also subscribed the New York Times after spending the last five years avoiding its paywall. And I’m signing up for Teen Vogue, too.
  4. Reinvigorate local party politics for both parties: Very few people participate in party politics. Very few people vote in primaries and local elections. Very few people trust either political party. It’s time to fix that. Here’s how Keith Ellison, candidate for DNC chair, describes one fix:

The real idea is not the big events. The real idea is the canvassing, the door knocking, the calling. Then the other thing we do is we continually ask people to help us. We’re asking people, “There’s a vote coming up. What do you think? There’s a vote coming up. What’s your opinion? Sign up on this petition. Sign up on that petition.” People are constantly feeling like they’re partnering with me as the member of Congress from their district.

Both parties can gain strength by becoming more inclusive and engaged. And when they do that, they’ll both serve their constituents–us–better. I continue to believe that partisanship has reduced our efficacy as citizens. But as the Big Sort continues, parties may be the best remedy for the harm they have done.