listeners, not speakers, are the main reasoners

Robert Brandom offers an influential and respected account of reasoning, which I find intuitive (see Brandom 2000 and other works). At the same time, a large body of psychological research suggests that reasoning–as he defines it–is rare.

That could be a valid conclusion. Starting with Socrates, philosophers who have proposed various accounts of reason have drawn the conclusion that most people don’t reason. Just for example, the great American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce defines reason as fearless experimentation and doubts that most people are open to it (Peirce 1877).

Brandom’s theory could support a similarly pessimistic conclusion. But that doesn’t sit well with me, because I believe that I observe many people reasoning. Instead, I suggest a modest tweak in his theory that would allow us to predict that reasoning is fairly common.

Brandom argues that any claim (any thought that can be expressed in a sentence) has both antecedents and consequences: “upstream” and “downstream” links “in a network of inferences.” To use my example, if you say, “It is morning,” you must have reasons for that claim (e.g., the alarm bell rang or the sun is low in the eastern sky) and you can draw inferences from it, such as, “It is time for breakfast.” In this respect, you are different from an app. that notifies you when it’s morning or a parrot that has been reliably trained to say “It is morning” at sunrise. You can answer the questions, “Why do you believe that?” and “What does that imply?” by offering additional sentences.

(By the way, an alarm clock app. cannot reason, but an artificial neural network might. As of 2019, Brandom considered it an open question whether computers will “participate as full–fledged members of our discursive communities or … form their own communities which would confer content” [Frápolli & Wischin 2019].)

Whenever we make a claim, we propose that others can also use it “as a premise in their reasoning.” That means that we implicitly promise to divulge our own reasons and implications. “Thus one essential aspect of this model of discursive practice is communication: the interpersonal, intra-content inheritance of entitlement to commitments.” In sum, “The game of giving and asking for reasons is an essentially social practice.” Reasoning in your own head is a special case, in which you basically simulate a discussion with real other people.

The challenge comes from a lot of psychological research that finds that beliefs are intuitive, in the specific sense that we don’t know why we think them. They just come to us. One seminal work is Nisbett and Wilson (1977), which has been cited nearly 18,000 times, often in studies that add empirical support to their view.

According to this theory, when you are asked why you believe what you just said, you make up a reason–better called a “rationalization”–for your intuition. Regardless of what you intuit, you can always come up with upstream and downstream connections that make it sound good. In that sense, you are not really reasoning, in Brandom’s sense. You are justifying yourself.

Indeed, the kinds of discussions that tend to be watched by spectators or recorded for posterity often reflect sequences of self-justifications rather than reasoning. I recently wrote about the scarcity of examples of real reasoning in transcripts and recordings of official meetings. As Martin Buber wrote in The Knowledge of Man (as pointed out to me by my friend Eric Gordon):

By far the greater part of what is called conversation among men would be more properly and precisely described as speechifying. In general, people do not really speak to one another, but each, although turned to the other, really speaks to a fictitious court of appeal where life consists of nothing but listening to him.

Some grounds for optimism come from Mercier and Sperber (2017). They argue that people are pretty good at assessing the inferences that other people make in discussions. Although we may invent rationalizations for what we have intuited, we can test other people’s rationalizations and decide whether they are persuasive.

Furthermore, our intuitions are not random or rooted only in fixed characteristics, such as demographic identities and personality. Our intuitions have been influenced by the previous conversations that we have heard and assessed. For instance, if we hold an invidious prejudice, it did not spring up automatically but resulted from our endorsing lots of prejudiced thoughts that other people linked together into webs of belief. And it is possible–although difficult and not common–for us to change our intuitions when we decide that some inferences are invalid. Forming and revising opinions requires attentive listening, critical but also generous.

The modest tweak I suggest in Brandom’s view involves how we understand the “game of giving and asking for reasons.” We might assume that the main player is the person who gives a reason: the speaker. The other parties are waiting for their turns to play. But I would reverse that model. Giving reasons is somewhat arbitrary and problematic. The main player is the one who listens and judges reasons. A speaker is basically waiting for a turn to do the most important task, which is listening.

This view also suggests some tolerance for events dominated by “speechifying.” To be sure, we should prize genuine conversations in which people jointly try to decide what is right, and in which one person’s reasons cause other people to change their minds. This kind of relationship is the heart of Buber’s thought, and I concur. But it is unreasonable to put accountable leaders on a public stage and expect them to have a genuine conversation. None of the incentives push them in that direction. They are pretty much bound to justify positions they already held. Although theirs is not a conversation that would satisfy Buber, it does have two important functions: it allows us to judge people with authority, and it gives us arguments that we can evaluate as we form our own views.

Again, if we focus on the listener rather than the speaker, we may see more value in an event that is mostly a series of speeches.

Sources: Robert R. Brandom, Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. (Harvard 2000); Charles S. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), 1-15; María José Frápolli and Kurt Wischin, “From Conceptual Content in Big Apes and AI, to the Classical Principle of Explosion: An Interview with Robert B. Brandom” (2019); Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy D. Wilson. “Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes,” Psychological review 84.3 (1977); and Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason (Harvard University Press 2017. See also: looking for deliberative moments; Generous Listening Symposium; how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach and how the structure of ideas affects a conversation

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UK election results by social class

One of my obsessions is the social-class inversion that has been visible in several countries in the 21st century, in which parties of the left draw their strongest support from highly educated, “professional” voters and those on the right appeal best to the working class. Under those circumstances, left parties will block bold economic initiatives (which would cost their voters), and right parties may offer ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism, since libertarian economic policies have little relevance to workers. This is potentially a road to fascism.

The full exit polls from yesterday's UK election do not seem to be available yet (I assume they are still embargoed for the media companies that subscribe to Ipsos' service), so I have used Ipsos' final pre-election survey as a rough substitute. The interactive graphic above lets you see each party's support by social class.

The image above this post simplifies matters by grouping the Tories and Reform as "all right," and Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists as "all left."

You can see evidence here of a class inversion, but it is not as dramatic as in some 21st century elections. The Reform and Green parties illustrate the pattern best, drawing their support (respectively) from the bottom and the top of the social class structure. The Conservatives perform best at the bottom, but only by a bit. In all, the right does considerably better among semi-skilled and unskilled workers than among managers and professionals, but Labour holds its own across all categories, blurring the pattern.

I would argue that Labour must pursue policies that benefit the lowest social class category, not only for social justice but also to reverse the class inversion that threatens democracy itself.

See also: social class inversion in the 2022 US elections;  class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesissocial class in the French election.

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some basics

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
-- Wallace Stevens, "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" (1921)

For those who are interested in the most fundamental questions, it has often proven useful to ask about the thinker rather than what is thought. We can derive insights about the world by first understanding our own predispositions and limitations.

Hence the early Buddhists went searching for the self and found only the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, consciousness), Socrates tested various kinds of expertise, Aristotle based his system on logic, the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng found truth in his own original nature once all attachments fell away, Ibn al-Haytham explored optics to understand space and matter, Descartes proposed to ground philosophy on a critical theory of reason, Hegel analyzed the logic of history because he saw reason as cumulative, Husserl turned to pure experience, and Wittgenstein looked to the ordinary language with which we express thoughts.

These are examples of examining the subjective to understand what is objective.

For me, the most basic truth about our thought is that we use brains that evolved for specific needs, leaving us with severely limited cognitive powers and motives that are dubious, even by our own lights.

Indeed, we come into the world knowing almost nothing and hold most of our beliefs because of what other members of our species have told us. We are able to believe many different things, but what we actually believe depends in large part on who has influenced us, which is the result of our surrounding social structure–things like schools and publishers and churches and governments. And all social structures are dubious, even by our own lights.

I would believe very different things if I were a medieval Catholic, let alone a dolphin. Each organism has its own Umwelt (self-centered world), or kyogai (bounded consciousness, in Zen), or “mundo” in Stevens’ idiosyncratic vocabulary.

This relativism is grounds for humility but not an excuse for blanket skepticism. We can make and test specific inferences. Our understanding can accumulate, albeit from many starting points. We are obliged to think as well as we can and not to ignore what we have reason to believe.

Considering the knowledge that has accumulated for me, I think I discern two main pillars.

One is natural science, which assumes and reinforces a picture of nature as impersonal, purposeless. Things happen because things previously happened.

The other is ethics, in the very general sense that what matters is experience, not only my experience. “Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering” (Shantideva, 8.102-3).

Science and ethics stand separately. Neither lends support to the other. Each can be doubted in a very abstract way. Many human beings have denied each of them, and I could deny them as well. But such doubt is abstract because I have been formed by accumulated thought that supports both pillars.

Further, these two assumptions are responsible. Not to care about others is selfish; not to accept the basic purposelessness of nature is sentimental. We are to address suffering in a world that will not offer respite by itself. To doubt science or ethics is a mere temptation, not a responsible option.

On this planet, the general principles of a purposeless nature have generated the logic of natural selection, which causes increasingly complex organisms to proliferate against the current of entropy. In earth’s animal kingdom, this complexity has yielded sensitivity and, ultimately, experience.

Nothing suggests that evolution would tend toward happiness. On the contrary, a sensitive animal is more likely to survive if it experiences negative emotions, such as fear and aversion. Nor is there any reason to expect that an evolved brain would be able to understand itself. The first-person world–the stream of consciousness–is a slippery thing for us because we are not well designed for meta-cognition. We can describe the Umwelt of a deer-tick but not our own. We resort to crude words like “self” and “world” or “cause” and “effect” that seem inadequate to what we experience.

Recognizing the abstract idea that the world is experienced differently by other kinds of people and species reminds us that it has unplumbed depths. Attending very closely to our own experience offers hints of what we normally miss. Listening to others describe their experience enriches our own and encourages compassion by directing attention to their emotions and the causes of their experiences, something that our evolved brains seem able to do.

Genuine compassion demands action, and action to address suffering keeps one from marinating in one’s own concerns. We should listen not only to homo sapiens but also to other sentient creatures. But it is a mistake to attend only to others, since each of us is usually best placed to hear and respond to our own stream of consciousness, which is easy for us to ignore. If we can find ways to share what we find within, without burdening other people with self-indulgent confessions, then what we share about ourselves may be a gift for them.

Modern philosophers call the very close description of one’s own experience “phenomenology.” This practice has ancient roots. For Husserl, the ancient Buddhist Pali Canon was exemplary of phenomenology. He wrote that understanding its “joyous mastery of the world … means a great adventure” for those who start with different assumptions–in his case, with concepts derived from Protestantism (trans. in Hanna 1995). In other words, the Pali Canon offered both a skillful description of human experience in general and an alternative to Husserl’s local context. Exploring this alternative liberated him from himself.

Not only ancient Buddhist scriptures and dense modern phenomenological treatises but also many literary texts and images offer hints about consciousness as experienced by specific people. Since the mind is constantly attentive to the world and to other minds, a work that describes nature or people is also an account of the one who experiences such things. Thus a poem about a nightingale or a painting of a haystack or a fiction about one day in Dublin is also a kind of phenomenology. As Stevens said (I am on a Stevens kick right now), “Poetry is one of the enlargements of life.”

We have brains designed for survival, which means that they are destined for suffering. But this inheritance has equipped us with the capacity to “enlarge” ourselves by listening generously–listening to others, to nature, and to ourselves.

Again, to listen seriously compels compassionate action. If we act for the sake of a good outcome, we will inevitably be frustrated, so we must act just to be compassionate (which, however, implies thoughtfully choosing the most effective means). And since each of us is cognitively limited and motivationally flawed, we should almost always decide what to do together. This is where the inner life and civic life come together.

Sources: F.J. Hanna, “Husserl on the teachings of the Buddha,” The Humanistic Psychologist, 23(3), (1995) 365–372; Shantideva, The Bodhiicaryacatara, trans. by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford University Press, 1995). See also: Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness; verdant mountains usually walk; Montaigne the bodhisattva?; Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; the fetter; thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition; joys and limitations of phenomenology; and a Husserlian meditation.

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beyond Chevron

Since my 1999 book, The Future of Democracy, I have been critical of delegation: the practice of passing vague laws and asking regulators to work out the details. This practice has become pervasive, not only in the United States but in all the wealthy societies that I know about.

We are taught that the US federal government has three branches, but it has actually had at least four for the past century. The fourth branch consists of the regulatory agencies, which generate 72 pages of regulations for every single page of law passed by Congress.

Congress often intentionally enacts values that are in tension or impossible to achieve fully, so that regulators have the responsibility to make tradeoffs. For instance, the authorizing legislation for the Environmental Protection Agency requires the “Federal Government to use all practicable means, consistent with other essential considerations of national policy, … to the end that the Nation may … attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences.”

Of course, the whole Environmental Protection Act is more detailed than this, but it leaves a vast amount for the agency to decide. When an EPA policy does not avoid all undesirable consequences (and how could it?), legislators can complain and thereby act as if they were exercising “oversight” even though they have ceded their power to the agency.

Delegation would be appropriate if good policy could be determined by science, but policy choices always involve values. Delegation would be appropriate if utilitarianism (in the form of cost-benefit analysis) were an adequate theory of value, but it is not. Thus, in practice, Congress gives bureaucracies the discretion to govern. This is undemocratic, whether we think of democracy as majority-rule, public deliberation, or accountability. Delegation is also inconsistent with rule-of-law because it generates mutable and inconsistent rules that are hard to predict and follow.

Therefore, in 1999, I favored something like last week’s Loper decision, which held that “courts may not defer to an agency interpretation of the law simply because a statute is ambiguous.”

I favored this kind of ruling because I thought it would force the legislative branch to make important decisions instead of enacting vague statutes that might end up being decided by judges. This is not the Supreme Court’s intention in Loper. The decision anticipates that courts will decide what laws mean, using “the traditional tools of statutory construction” to resolve ambiguities, which is the “special competence” of judges. But no judge can decide what the law really means when Congress has written it vaguely. The court will simply make the law. I thought that Congress would be compelled to avoid this absurd outcome by passing clear statutes, which would return both power and accountability to the elected legislature.

What has changed is my confidence that Congress can actually legislate, in the sense of passing or updating substantive statutes. In 1965 alone, Congress passed at least 10 landmark bills that established agencies or dramatically altered national policies. Congress has passed fewer than 10 such laws in the last half century put together.

As an example, Congress has never passed legislation explicitly about the climate. Federal regulatory agencies are using the 1970s Clean Air Act (written before Congress was really aware of climate change) to try to regulate carbon. Likewise, federal financial laws were passed before cryptocurrency; and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 still governs despite some minor new developments, such as social media and smartphones.

I’ve previously explored several explanations for the decline of lawmaking, including the weakening of parties as actual institutions, the altered media system, a loss of confidence and clarity among both progressives and libertarians, and polarization.

A recent example supports blaming the media. Biden did sign landmark environmental legislation, but it has been almost entirely ignored. Why would a legislature be responsible and effective if it passes several trillion dollars of new spending and no one notices?

Another explanation is weak legislative capacity. I will digress briefly to explain that concept: A legislative body votes on bills. That is a zero-sum process: each “no” vote cancels each “aye” vote. But bills must come from somewhere. Developing legislation requires awareness, research, consultation, design, and persuasion. The number and sophistication of pending bills is not zero-sum; legislatures can have more or less capacity to develop legislation.

Today, only five percent of Hill staffers surveyed by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Partnership for Public Service believe that Congress has adequate capacity, and the other 95 percent are correct. Congress can barely get it together to pass budgets that merely modify current spending. With the exceptions of the environmental bills that Biden signed, Congress has little capacity to develop laws–whether conservative or progressive.

Under these circumstances, the Loper decision will shift power from the regulatory agencies to the courts. Given the composition of the federal judiciary, this shift will make regulations more conservative, regardless of what the public might want. Congress will not easily fix this problem, because Congress cannot write ambitious and extensive laws.

However, the best solution remains the same: responsibility must shift to Congress. Here are four ways to accomplish that:

  • Enhance the capacity of Congress. More people could work for the legislative branch, developing detailed statutes or amendments that determine outcomes without delegating decisions to bureaucracies. There are proposals for enhancing the Congressional Research Service, the General Accounting Office, and the Congressional Budget Office–all bureaus of the legislative branch. These agencies are about 20 percent smaller than they were in the later 20th century, and a fourth one, the Office of Technology Assessment, is now defunct (Select Committee, 2022, p. 127). Staff could also be added to congressional offices and committees; and whole new nonpartisan bureaus could be formed. The general strategy is to do the same kind of work now assigned to the executive branch but within Congress.
  • Taxing and spending instead of regulating: I believe that wealthy people and companies should bear most of the burden of addressing social problems. Regulations may shift costs and alter behavior for the better. However, the costs and effects of regulation are difficult to predict and account for. They do not appear on the balance sheets of the government. It is possible for burdens to fall on the wrong people (e.g., consumers instead of investors) or not to be efficient. In general, it is more transparent and democratic to impose burdens in the form of explicit taxes and then to use the revenues to purchase things that voters can assess. Taxing and spending are clearly constitutional; there is little that activist conservative jurists could do to stop it. What it requires is political will.
  • Codification: After a large body of detailed law has emerged over a long period, one option is to codify it: to impanel a committee that analyzes the whole corpus and replaces it with a much more concise and general structure. Justinian did this with Roman law, ca. 534. The Napoleonic Code of 1804 did the same for the many specific laws that the French revolutionary governments had passed since 1790. The Model Penal Code of 1962 was an attempt to codify US state criminal laws. At nearly 200,000 [sic!] printed pages, the Code of Federal Regulation is ripe for codification, either as one whole corpus or in big chunks, such as environment and labor. Today’s Congress certainly cannot codify, but a commission could produce a draft for Congress to approve. Congress could create this commission or, in theory, it could form in civil society and simply ask Congress to consider its recommendations. I am generally skeptical of AI, but codification is a task that computers might assist.
  • Public engagement: A commission would be dominated by experts, but representative people can be selected for juries or other kinds of deliberative panels that consider value-laden questions and make decisions. The US EPA offers a page about Citizen Juries, which is one such model. There is a burgeoning literature on “sortition” (randomly selected decision-makers), in both theory and practice, with many of the ambitious examples coming from overseas. Sortition is also a form of delegation, but random selection and a deliberative format provide a different kind of legitimacy. Congress might have to amend the Administrative Procedures Act to make courts defer to citizen panels, but nothing would prevent such an amendment.

Do I expect any of these solutions? Essentially, I expect very little positive to come from Washington over the next two years or more. Nevertheless, now is an important time to envision a better system. We are likely to experience instability or even chaos, and we should be aiming to come through that to a period of real reform.

Source: Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, Final Report, 2022. See also a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon, you’re talking real money; judicial activism when the legislative branch is broken; legislative capacity is not zero-sum

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Wallace Stevens, The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-- Wallace Stevens (1921)

After the first stanza, it’s reasonable to think: I should have a wintry mind so that I can regard this winter landscape appreciatively. I should be appropriately attuned to what I observe, especially if it is nature. I should be worthy of what I experience.

We are used to people who admonish us: “Little we see in Nature that is ours” (Wordworth). Before we can have “glimpses that would make [us] less forlorn,” we must change ourselves. Legions of religious thinkers have also urged us to make ourselves worthy of glimpses of the divine. As the Psalmist says, “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?”

This theory of the poem can survive the second stanza, where being “cold a long time” plays the role of having “a mind of winter,” and the objects are junipers with ice instead of pines with snow. It seems as if we should be cold like the trees. We may even feel a tinge of regret if we are too comfortable to regard nature’s austere beauty.

But this theory collapses in the third stanza, with the word “not.” It seems that we can regard a snowy landscape with or without a mind that resembles it. Only if the mind is not wintry and cold can we perceive misery. If we hear misery in the winter wind, we do not have a wintry mind.

Wintry mind + junipers shagged with ice = no sensation of misery
Non-wintry mind + junipers shagged with ice = sensation of misery

I, for one, assume that I ought to be able to feel suffering in nature. That would be an indication of my sensitivity, a virtue that poems often recommend.

Now I am beginning to wonder if I should avoid having a wintry mind and being cold for a long time. After all, the dead are the ones who are coldest for the longest. They are the ones without compassion.

Reading on (through the single sentence of this poem), we learn that the sound that could make us think of misery is a wind that blows “for the listener.” Does it have a purpose, an intention? Does it want to instruct us about misery–or about something else?

Before it concludes, the poem’s single sentence refutes such anthropomorphism. The land can’t think or talk. The poem instructs us that the listener (a “he”) is nothing; he only sees what the objective world offers, and he perceives nothing that actually is.

There isn’t misery in “the sound of a few leaves,” nor is there misery in the beholder (a listener and viewer), but there is misery–as well as “distant glitter”–in the experience, unless one is dead. The poem is a representation of the relationship between the mind and object (which, together, make a “snow man”).

One must have the wintry mind of an abstract modernist not to hear sadness in this.

[After I wrote this, I searched my own blog and found a response to the same poem that I’d written in 2012: the tree and the rock. See also: Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; and the fetter; Cuttings.]

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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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