looking for deliberative moments

It’s not so unusual to enter a discussion without having a firm view of what should be done (perhaps without even having focused on the agenda), to listen and speak for a while, and finally to reach a collective decision that wasn’t predictable in advance. Before the discussion begins, some of the participants may know what they want, but others are unsure or flexible, and the conversation forms or shifts the consensus.

However, it is not easy to find recordings or transcriptions of such processes. I spent part of the last long weekend reading the minutes of US school boards and city councils, scanning the translated transcripts of 50 village assemblies in southern India, dipping into legislative records from several countries, and even searching for archives of email exchanges within organizations that have come to light due to leaks or lawsuits. I found brief moments in which a few people seemed to be listening to make up their minds, but no sustained examples of that phenomenon.

My belief in the existence of deliberation might seem naive, except that I have experienced it many times–even in the past few months–and nobody seems surprised when it happens. I think we are used to it, but recorded examples are scarce.

Two reasons occur to me, and they may have some significance for political theory.

One is a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for deliberation. Once you record a conversation and make it publicly available for public review, the tenor shifts. Participants know that they are speaking to an audience composed of people who are not part of the conversation, not accountable for the decisions, and not able to reply in time to affect the outcome. Participants begin articulating positions and reasons that strangers can assess later, instead of trying to decide what to do. Thus the presence of an observer shifts the phenomenon, especially if the observer is an anonymous audience in the future.

The other reason involves the typical function of official meetings. As I scan town council minutes, legislative records, and transcripts of Indian village assemblies, I see people talking under tight time pressure in order to convey specific positions. For instance:

[Member of the] Public: You have read that street lights are going to be fixed. When are you going to install?

Male (Officer): We have passed resolution, made a budget and allotted the work. Very soon we will do it.

Public: We need ration shop at Pappanaickenpatti. There are more than 300 cards in our town. Every time we have to come all the way from our village. By the time we reach the shop, all the items will be sold out. We request you to consider our petition. We are very badly in need of separate ration shop at our village. We are ready to construct a building for this purpose.

Male (Officer): We will discuss with the civil supplies officer and let you know. (source)


[Board of Trustees] President Raymond remarked she was impressed by the commitment to distance and blended learning by the District through the creation of the Department because it illustrated the learning models were ones the District was interested in fully developing and not just using during the current school year.

Trustee Taylor wondered if the vision was to have a single platform for all distance learning in the District.

Ms. Anderson cautioned it was important the District not make any major shifts at the present time related to the changing of learning platforms since the current model was very fragile. She would like to focus more on developing best practices for the platforms currently being used, due to the current strain teachers and students were under, and then look at creating more of a sustainable model in the future.


I think these people are doing valid public work. They are putting concerns, questions, directives, and commitments on the record. Before and after these recorded moments, the same individuals may have had many conversations in which they tried to learn about the situation and about other people’s views. The public event may also spur later discussions in their community.

These transcripts do not make me cynical about deliberative democracy. I imagine that the same people listen and learn. But deliberation is very rare during the moments that are captured on the public record.

This is a challenge for me because I am helping to develop methods for modeling deliberative conversations, and I am not finding a lot of material to analyze. I am especially interested in the regular decision-making processes of governments and other organizations. Yes, I also like citizens’ forums or “minipublics”–venues where representative people are convened to discuss public questions. I even co-edited a Handbook about them! But I think they are atypical, which means that evidence derived from them would not generalize well. (Besides, Indian village councils are minipublics, and they sound a lot like US public meetings.)

If you have suggestions for transcripts or videos that I could model, I would be grateful. In any case, I think our theories of democracy should take account of this pattern. Although we imagine that deliberation should occur in legislatures and town meetings, this is unlikely. A public meeting is a moment in a larger stream of discourse. Its function is to memorialize a set of positions and reasons, while the learning and the change take place elsewhere.

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Civic Studies as a response to crises in American higher education

This is a panel at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, part of a daylong conference on “The Future of the American University: Civic Education, Past and Present.” I am on the panel with Justin Dyer, the dean of the new School of Civic Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin, and our moderator, AEI’s Yuval Levin. I made a case for Civic Studies as a new field and then enjoyed the discussion with my two colleagues and the interesting questions from the audience.

The rest of the day was interesting and valuable and can be explored here.

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choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy

It’s very common for people to use different explanatory and evaluative ideas to describe the same concrete situation, whether it’s the Israel/Palestine conflict, or bias in law enforcement, or almost anything else.

We should navigate between two obstacles, I think. One mistake to view rival ideas as simply subjective, because they are often value-laden, and to view politics as a mere clash among people with different subjective views. The other is to imagine that empirical research can settle such disputes by validating one model or (at least) refuting some of them. We can deliberate about competing models, but the discussion requires more than data.

It is often assumed that a model generates hypotheses, and we can test the model by testing its hypotheses. Nancy Cartwright disputes this assumption. She suggests that models are not like vending machines that yield hypotheses, but more like “fables” that present vivid scenarios and “morals”—suggestions for behavior—that we should look for in the world (Cartwright 1999, 185-6; Cartwright 2010).

Similarly, Max Weber understood an “ideal-type,” such as feudalism or the state, not as a hypothesis but as a “conceptual construct” that “offers guidance in the construction of hypotheses” (Weber 1905/1949, 93, 90). This means that disproving a hypothesis suggested by a model does not disprove the model, although repeated failures to suggest valid hypotheses might encourage us look for alternative models.

The fable of the tortoise and the hare does not pose an inference about reptiles and rabbits, or even a ceteris paribus hypothesis that moving slower yields better outcomes. Rather, it defines two personality types that may be worth looking for in the world; it cautions against arrogance; and it may suggest hypotheses, e.g., that making decisions more rapidly reduces the quality of information (Rae, Heathcote, Donkin, Averell & Brown 2014). Similarly, the model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma suggests that we should look for problems and form empirical hypotheses that involve individuals choosing independently. The model also makes a conceptual contribution by sharply defining cooperation and defection (Johnson 2020). Choosing any such model is a matter of judgment or practical wisdom, not a question of deciding which model is true

Forming and selecting an explanation for a specific situation is the logic of abduction. Deduction means drawing inferences from known premises; induction means generalizing from cases; but abduction involves connecting a single case to a relevant general idea. Charles Sanders Pierce coined the word (Douven 2021). Pierce was a pragmatist, and abduction is a pragmatic necessity, even in the natural sciences.

I would add that it is appropriate to apply normative principles when forming and selecting models of a society. First, the point is to improve situations, not only explain them. Second, any given model incorporates normative elements, even if it pretends to be strictly explanatory, and it should be assessed as such.

For Weber, an ideal-type is “an attempt to analyze historically unique configurations or their individual components by means of genetic concepts” (Weber 1905, 93). An ideal-type cannot be the basis of deductive conclusions about reality, because “a description of even the smallest slice off reality can never be exhaustive”; the “number and type of causes which have influenced any given event are always infinite”; and “there is nothing in the things themselves to set some of them apart as alone meriting attention” (Weber 1905, 78). Instead, we rightly choose our concepts to address aspects of specific situations that provide insights about our own problems, as we see them from “particular points of view” (Weber 1905, 81, italics in the original). Ideal-types are “model types which … contain what, from the point of view of the expositor, should be and what to him is ‘essential’ … because it is enduringly valuable” (Weber 1905, 97).

Weber objects to the assumption that we study phenomena to derive general laws that we can then apply deductively, as if a concrete investigation were the means to the end of general knowledge. He claims that the reverse is true; ideal-types are means to understanding the unique constellations of events that rightly concern us (Weber 1905, 79).

In the article that originated the concept (now almost a cliché) of “wicked problems,” Rittel and Webber posit that often solutions to social problems “are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.” They write, “Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions,” and “their judgments are likely to differ widely in accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 162-3).

They mention that “‘Crime on the streets’ can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, phrenological aberrations, etc.” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166). In fact, evidence has overwhelmed phrenological explanations for crime, while other explanations have become more persuasive since Rittel and Webber wrote. But they are right that reasonable people may choose different explanatory models and frameworks for the same phenomena. Like Weber, they argue that data cannot settle such choices, but “attitudinal criteria guide” rightly us. People choose explanations that are “plausible” and useful for their “intentions” and “action prospects” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166).

Our diverse starting points do not guarantee that we must reach divergent conclusions. We can learn from one another, and to do so, we should collect and share evidence. For instance, imagine that my initial model presumes a root cause, such as structural racism. Someone demonstrates that it is possible to disrupt a cycle of inequality by adopting a policy, such as reforming employment contracts for police, that does not address the root cause. My initial model was not refuted, but the evidence may persuade me that I could achieve more with a cyclical model that has no “root.” I have learned and shifted my view, but I have not refuted the root-cause model, which I might even use again on another day.

This is a pragmatist conception of the relationship between evidence and models (cf. Aligica 2014, 166-199). Note that in this conception, evidence is not merely instrumental to an outcome, because it may also persuade us to change the outcome that we think is best to pursue.

See also: what must we believe?; different kinds of social models; making our models explicit; social education as learning to improve models. Sources: Cartwright, N. (1999). The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press; Cartwright, N. (2010). Models: Parables v fables. In R. Frigg & M.C. Hunter, Beyond mimesis and convention: Representation in art and science (pp. 19-31). Springer Netherlands; Weber, M. 1905/1949. “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press, 50- 112); Rae, B., Heathcote, A., Donkin, C., Averell, L., & Brown, S. (2014). The hare and the tortoise: Emphasizing speed can change the evidence used to make decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(5), 1226–1243; Rittel W.J. & Webber, M.M., (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4, 155-69; Douven, Igor, “Abduction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Aligica, P. (2014) Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press

different kinds of social models

In my public policy course this week, we used a Harvard Kennedy School case entitled “A Rising Storm: Eric Garner and the Explosive Controversy over Race & Policing,” which introduced questions about criminal justice, violence, and race in New York City.

In my own work based on national survey data, I find that being Black raises the odds of being mistreated by the police almost five-fold (4.6 times) when considering gender, education, age, English-language proficiency, household income, housing type, county-level income, and any mental health diagnosis. However, the Kennedy School case also draws our attention to the 75% drop in homicide and 50% drop in rape in New York City between 1990 and 2013, which require explanation and assessment.

I suggested that we all use mental models (simplified representations of the world) to think about such issues. Our models may be more or less precise and articulated in our own heads. If we want to know what’s best to do, we are obliged to clarify our models to ourselves and seriously consider whether alternatives might be wiser.

I asked students to consider models of different forms and types:

  • A root-cause model explains many phenomena as the result of one underlying cause. Just as you should expect a weed to return unless you pull it up by its roots, so you should expect a social injustice to recur unless you remove its roots–that is the implication of the metaphor. “Radical” comes from the Latin for “root,” and proponents of root-cause models often feel that they are the radicals.

In this case, the root might be white supremacy, invoked to explain police bias, the distribution of wealth and poverty, the unequal impact of public schools, and other current realities.

Classical Marxism recommends a different root-cause model: the economic system always gives rise to the state, and a bourgeois state employs police to protect the economic elite. Substantial reform is impossible without a revolution. Finally–as a student astutely noted–some libertarians might offer a root-cause model in which the underlying problem is state power, always fundamentally violent (regardless of the economy); police violence is a predictable manifestation.

  • A cyclical model is built of components that affect each other, often reciprocally or in loops. For instance, perhaps racial discrimination worsens poverty, poverty increases the prevalence of crime, and crime exacerbates poverty by raising costs for victims and perpetrators and by discouraging investment. Those elements might be only a few parts of a more elaborate cyclical model.

This kind of model resists the notion of a “root” and instead encourages us to “break the cycle” by acting on vulnerable links. For example, reforming police union contracts would not address white supremacy, but it might break a specific cycle that involves impunity for violent officers, and that change could have positive effects across a connected system.

  • An organizational model would treat the NYPD as an entity with a mission, budget, personnel, and outcomes. We might presume that by changing the organization, we can get different outcomes. For instance, it may matter what the NYPD measures when it assesses its employees. Should officers be promoted for making many arrests for minor offenses, or not?

We might consider two variants of an organizational model:

  • In one, the NYPD is fundamentally a bureaucracy, per Max Weber. It is made of people who have clear responsibilities within a hierarchy. Bureaucracies are supposed to make reliable, predictable decisions. However, some degree of discretion is inevitable, and bureaucracies strive to handle human choices by either (a) minimizing discretion or (b) ensuring that bureaucrats are as professional as possible. Professionalism means competence and trustworthiness. Per Michael Lipsky (1969), police are “street-level bureaucrats,” faced with constant discretionary decisions. If data show that actual police officers’ choices are biased or otherwise detrimental, then they should either (a) lose discretion or (b) become more professional as a result of better hiring and training.
  • In another variant of the organizational model, the NYPD is a public agency. The people of New York vote for elected leaders, who appoint senior police officers as their agents. If we object to the outcomes, then (a) a majority of voters have the wrong beliefs or values, or (b) the electoral system is flawed so that elected leaders don’t represent the people, or (c) those leaders’ will is being frustrated by their agents.
  • In a genealogical model, the NYPD and related institutions (such as the New York City Public Schools) derive from predecessors. Like you and me, these organizations have ancestors that are responsible for much that’s true about them today. Among the NYPD’s predecessors were slave patrols that arose in 19th century America to prevent enslaved people from escaping to freedom. However, institutions typically have many ancestors, not just one, and the NYPD could also be traced back to village constables in England or to law enforcement bureaucracies in 19th century France and Germany. (After all, the word “police” is French.) The point of a genealogical model is to uncover historical causes that may require recompense, reparation, and repair.
  • In a behavioral model, you might think of human beings as a species that has proclivities to violence (including sexual violence) as well as tendencies to cooperation and care. You might think that mass societies with high degrees of anonymity will permit violence unless it is surveilled and deterred. Relatedly, you might think of peace and social order as collective goods that pose dilemmas at large scales. (Why should individuals sacrifice to protect strangers against violence?) In that case, police departments might represent solutions to a problem of collective action. This analysis is not necessarily conservative–in the sense of protective of the status quo–because the 30,000 armed police officers of the NYPD represent at least an implicit source of violence. A behavioral model might suggest that the police also need surveillance and deterrence. And we might consider alternative ways of achieving the collective good of peace, without armed officers.
  • In an interest group model, the population of New York City is configured into many organized groups, although some people (such as unlicensed street vendors like Eric Garner) may not have effective organizations. Groups gain power from numbers and/or money. Among the most relevant groups in this case are the police unions, civil rights organizations, the city’s Democratic Party and specific political campaigns, and business interests. The reality on the streets is the result of competition and negotiation among interest groups. The best way to change outcomes is to form or strengthen groups that reflect the interests that concern you.

Different types of models can certainly be merged. That said, a model should not be excessively complicated, because the point is to enable wise judgement. A huge page of symbols and arrows will not yield clarity.

Also, there is a risk of letting our initial assumptions drive everything, so that we go looking for any components that confirm what we already thought. (A genealogical argument here, a bit of root-cause rhetoric, a specific proposal for breaking a vicious cycle ….) I think we are more likely to learn something new by following the logic of a particular model to its conclusion and then seriously considering alternatives to it.

See also: social education as learning to improve models; making our models explicit; police discrimination, race, and community poverty; the political economy of policing; professionals as grizzled veterans or as reflective learners; what must we believe?; and Complexities of Civic Life.

social education as learning to improve models

Some theses for consideration:

  1. Everyone who acts to change society has a mental model that represents portions of the social world.
  2. It is better for our models to be explicit in our own minds, so that we can be clear about what we are assuming and open to changing our assumptions.
  3. Our models must be sufficiently complex. (For instance, if you think that the Israel-Palestine conflict has just two parties, that is unacceptably simple.) But a model cannot be as complex as reality. Modeling is a matter of judicious simplification.
  4. Our models may include causal elements: e.g., “This phenomenon affects that one.” But they also inevitably reflects values. It is better for the value components to be explicit. They may take the form of ideals, goals, specific injustices, and other objects. Or they may be normative connections among objects, such as: “This situation merits that response.”
  5. A model may be an application of a more general framework to specific circumstances. In that case, we are obliged to have a good framework and to apply it correctly.
  6. We must check our models against events, observations, and other kinds of information from the world.
  7. We must compare our model to other models (and our framework to other frameworks) and constantly reconsider whether the alternatives offer insights. The assessment of social models is comparative: it’s a question of choosing the best model for the situation, given the alternatives. If we don’t seriously consider other models, we are not thinking hard about our own.

I think that educating for responsible civic participation is substantially about developing the skill of forming and improving social models. I am very skeptical of curricula–at any level–that offer students one model. That is not even a satisfactory way of understanding the model that is presented, because full understanding requires comparison. And it discourages the essential civic skill of critically assessing one’s model.

See also: making our models explicit; decoding institutions; a template for analyzing an institution

introduction to Gandhi

This is a lecture that I pre-recorded for Introduction to Civic Studies this semester. It provides some background about the life and fundamental ideas of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Students will also read these texts:

  • Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (2018), chapter 16 (on the Great Salt March)
  • Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing Co., 1951): excerpts
  • Gandhi, Notes, May 22, 1924 – August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes,  28, pp. 307-310

In class we will will discuss such questions as these: How (if at all) can one organize voluntary collective action at a sufficient scale to bring about change in Gandhi’s preferred ways? Is Gandhi right to demand sacrifice and to see sacrifice as intrinsically meritorious? How can Gandhi know whether his stance is correct when he finds himself in conflict with other idealists, such as B.R. Ambedkar? And is it fair for Gandhi to claim that he only knows the means, not the result, of the struggle, if the end is actually predicable?

See also: Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha; Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends; Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Rev. James Lawson, Jr on Revolutionary Nonviolence; etc.

making our models explicit

We owe it to ourselves to develop an explicit model of any situation that concerns us. Whether we choose to share our model with other people is a choice, but we should always be ready to describe it to ourselves.

A good model simplifies reality in a way that enables wise judgments. It should include the most significant components of the situation and link them together. It will certainly not be complete or conclusive; in fact, an important reason to make our model explicit is to help think about what it may omit, what it assumes without sufficient evidence, how it may appear wrong to people who’ve had different experiences, and how it would change if the world changed.

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course so far this fall, we have already explored various models. For instance, Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues developed a template for modeling almost any institution, the Institutional Analysis and Design (IAD) framework. I discuss that framework in this 11-minute recorded lecture. (I also offer an introductory lecture about Ostrom). Later, we examined the social theory of Jürgen Habermas, which I presented as a model involving the Lifeworld, Public Sphere, and Systems in this 29-minute lecture. Both examples can be represented in the form of flow charts. But we also unpacked Robert Putnam’s model of social capital, in which the main construct–composed of numerous elements–causes good social outcomes (see this 18-minute lecture). And we discussed the mental model that guided the leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott when they chose to target the city’s bus company.

As these examples suggest, models can come in many forms. They need not be presented visually; Putnam’s model is an equation, and narratives also work. (We read a little of Pierre Bourdieu, who presented a model in the form of an emblematic story.) The components can be many kinds of things, from actors to psychological constructs to ideals. And the connections can be equally various. One component may cause or influence another, or it may exemplify, help to compose, encompass, intend, ground, block, explain, or evolve into another part of the model.

I would go so far as to describe making and critically assessing one’s own models as a fundamental civic skill.

See also: two models for analyzing policy; why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon

decentralization and civic capacity in Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

turning away from disagreement: the dialogue known as Alcibiades I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generous Listening Symposium

This week, I am helping to lead a research symposium on “Generous Listening in Organizations” in partnership with the Vuslat Foundation. The main topic is listening to colleagues, including supervisors and employees. This practice is important for society and it matters to me, as a long-time middle-manager in a large organization (a university).

I also come into this conversation as someone who studies politics, broadly defined, and who believes that a better understanding of listening may create fruitful openings for strengthening democracy.

There is a vast literature on political communication, speech and rhetoric, deliberation, debate, and the public sphere–defined as the institutions in which people express their views. This topic is important because we do not automatically hold opinions, even about our own circumstances. We usually obtain our views through communication, which can go either well or badly. We can be persuaded to sacrifice for the common good or to become murderous racists. We can be persuaded that we are citizens of the world or members of narrow communities. Political action then follows communication.

Listening is one side of this exchange. It is certainly not absent in the literature but is less often discussed than the other side: speaking.

The research on political communication is diverse and nuanced, but quite a lot of it is critical. Survey-based research in the United States–and in many other countries–often finds that people are ill-informed, biased, and incoherent. I semi-facetiously summarize the overall message of current political science as: “People are stupid and they hate each other.”

The specific findings are often valid and worth consideration, but the overall message may hamper efforts to improve civic life. The message is most discouraging when the specific findings are linked to general claims about human beings, e.g., that we are naturally self-interested or that we evolved to use heuristics helpful in small groups of hunter-gatherers that fail to equip us for responsible self-government at a mass scale. If human beings have deep psychological limitations for participating in democracy, then perhaps we had better shore up our most basic safeguards (especially the peaceful transition of power after each election), and not be distracted by more ambitious democratic ideals.

I start with a different assumption. I presume that we exchange ideas in artificially designed settings that can help us to be wise or foolish: assembly halls, churches, newspapers, classrooms, laboratories, online networks, and many more. Designing and expanding good settings requires a degree of optimism about human potential. Therefore, research that implies we are hard-wired to be foolish can discourage people from working to build better institutions. And when our institutions are weak, we tend to think and behave in troubling ways that research then reveals, thereby reinforcing the researchers’ skepticism–a classic vicious cycle.

A focus on listening might help break the cycle. The evidence is pretty strong that when we form and state opinions, we are not as wise as we believe. We offer reasons for what we think and value that sound good to us–they sound like explanations of our views. But often, we have formed our views intuitively and then merely rationalized them in speech. Furthermore, our intuitions are unreliable, because they often reflect cognitive biases, selfishness, and limited empathy.

However, there is also evidence that we can be pretty good at listening. We can assess the reliability and competence of speakers and the cogency of their claims. In turn, our assessments of others’ statements can shift our intuitions. Indeed, Mercier & Sperber (2017) argue that we evolved to do this–to scan our human environment for people whose views are worthy of trust.

But then the questions include: How can we listen well? And how can we design institutions to enable and reward good listening?

Reference: Mercier, Hugo and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2017. See also: how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach; how the structure of ideas affects a conversation; An agenda for R&D for democracy etc.