civility: not too much, not too little

This is the summer for critiques of civility as a virtue or goal. See, for instance, the Color of Change video entitled “Civility Will Not Save Us,” or Tavia Nyong’o’s and Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ argument that “the accusation of incivility is a technique of depoliticization.” For them, the “opposite of civility is not incivility, but militancy.”

I take these points seriously. I have never made civility a core goal. I define my work as civic, but civic doesn’t equal civil. Civic politics surely encompasses militant direct action when the circumstances demand it. It’s true that “civility will not save us” because mass participation and resistance are often needed. If “civility” means being nice to political opponents, or accepting the validity of their claims, then sometimes civility is inappropriate. Frederick Douglass was asked to debate apologists of slavery. The British fascist leader Oswald Mosley invited Bertrand Russell to debate him. Both Douglass and Russell were right to refuse these invitations–some people should be shunned.

Further, demands for civility can represent efforts to suppress worthy activism.  William Chafee’s book Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom is a classic account of how calls for “civility” were used to try to block Martin Luther King.

Yet, I don’t agree that civility lacks value completely. For one thing, it can be rhetorically most effective to take the high ground. In 1965, Bayard Rustin made the case for talking directly to the undecided middle of the US electorate in ways that would persuade them to support the immediate political goals of the Civil Rights Movement (“From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement“). Whenever we move from protesting to trying to determine policy, we need rhetoric that appeals widely. Rustin was an architect of the March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” According to my friend Harry Boyte, the organizers of the March distributed flyers that said, “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” They saw that to demonstrate civility was persuasive and empowering.

To be sure, the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement was left unfinished. This week we read of a Trump voter in Alabama who remembers “that Rosa Parks time” as “just a scary time,” when “her parents, fearing violence, had sent her to the country to stay with relatives.” She believes Barack Obama is a Muslim and fears that the memorial to the victims of lynching may stir up “race war.”  The March on Washington hardly converted this person to justice. But it did help to shift more than 50% of American voters to support a set of landmark bills that made a significant difference, and I would credit these victories to a combination of militancy plus civility.

For his part, Donald Trump would be much more popular if he presided over a strong economy, pushed right-wing policies, but refrained from daily violations of basic civility. His tweets may cost him a friendly majority in Congress. They are contrary to justice, but they are also uncivil, and the incivility may cost him worse politically.

These cases illustrate that political success does not (necessarily) trade off against civility. The two can go together.

Further, we can understand civility not as a way of expressing our views but as a set of rhetorical techniques that invite the other person to talk. Douglass would gain nothing from hearing the speech of slavers. He knew from personal experience what slavery meant, and his position was correct. A debate had no value. But I am in a different position from Douglass. My views about most current issues are murky, evolving, and deeply fallible. I could be wrong–in fact, I certainly am wrong about many things, but alas, I don’t know which ones. For me, inviting others to speak is a way of learning. The Civic Commons says (or used to say): “We’re as interested in each other’s opinions as we are in our own. And we act like it.” If that is civility, then it is a valuable stance for anyone who may be wrong—which certainly includes me.

A third argument in favor of civility is that we should strive to live in a democracy that includes an element of public deliberation. Uncivil discourse is not the main barrier to that form of government. The major obstacles are disenfranchisement, the influence of money, and poorly designed political institutions. But the value of good talk should not be set at zero. Learning to listen and speak to all is part of a more complex formula for achieving a deliberative democracy.

In the end, I can’t help turning to old Aristotle for guidance on how to think about civility if we view it as a virtue.

Aristotelian virtues don’t come with algorithms for determining when and how to exercise them. That requires good judgment, attention to the particular circumstances, experience, and tolerance for uncertain outcomes. We can overdo or neglect any virtue by failing to apply practical judgment (phronesis).

The previous paragraph suggests that any virtue is a “mean” between too much and too little. Thus, in the case of civility, we should apply a Goldilocks principle: rhetoric shouldn’t be too cold or too hot for the circumstances, but just right. Both proponents and opponents of civility make valid points–aimed at the excesses and the deficiencies of civility. Exercising the appropriate amount protects you from both critiques. It’s just that it’s hard to know where the mean lies.

Aristotle would also suggest that each virtue intersects with others. A valuable way to reason about whether we are being too civil, or not civil enough, under particular circumstances is to consider related virtues and vices. Is someone’s civility a manifestation of intellectual humility and fallibalism, compassion, and love of peace? Or does it represent complacency, cowardice, and indecision? Is someone’s righteous indignation a sign of love for justice, commitment, solidarity, and courage, or rather a retreat into self-congratulation?

It takes judgment to know. We should be quick to judge ourselves and much slower to criticize others. And we should welcome a variety of responses, because the same norms are not right for all people in all social and political positions.

civic education that is less about the state

We are completing the tenth (!) annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which revolves around the three schools of civic theory outlined below. (Each “school” encompasses diverse views and criticisms.) Today we talked about what these theories would mean for civic education at various levels and in several nations.

I certainly don’t advocate assigning The Theory of Communicative Action vols. 1-2Governing the Commons, or Hind Swaraj in an 8th grade civics class. But we might involve 8th graders in managing common resources, incorporate them in the public sphere by inviting them to join public deliberations, and ask them to develop strategies for addressing power disparities at the human level. Indeed, we do all these things, but they tend to be somewhat marginal in civics curricula around the world, which focus much more on the state, the law, and the citizen in relation to those.

The Bloomington School of Political Economy (Elinor Ostrom et al) The Frankfurt School in its second generation (Jurgen Habermas et al) Nonviolent social movements (Gandhi/King)
Fundamental problem People fail to achieve what would be good for them collectively People manipulate other people by influencing their opinions and goals People fail to view others (or themselves) as fully human
Characteristic starting point People know what they want but can’t get it People don’t know what they want or want the wrong things Some people won’t recognize other people as fellow citizens
Prominent example of failure We destroy an environmental asset by failing to work together Government or corporate propaganda distorts our authentic values One national or ethnic group exploits another
Essential behavior of a citizen Working together to make or preserve something. Talking and listening about controversial values. Using nonviolent sacrifice to compel change
Keyword Collaboration Deliberation Relationships
Instead of homo economicus (the individual who maximizes material self-interest) we need … Homo faber (the person as a maker) Homo sapiens (the person as a reasoner) or homo politicus (the participant in public assemblies) A satyagrahi (the person as a bearer of soul force)
Role of the state A set of nested and overlapping associations, not fundamentally different from other associations (firms, nonprofits, etc.) Citizens form public opinion, which should guide the state, which makes law. The state should be radically distinct from other sectors A target of demands
Modernity is … A threat to local and traditional ways of cooperating, but we can use science to assist people in solving their own problems A process of enlightenment that liberates people, but it goes wrong when states and markets “colonize” the private domain For Gandhi: An imperialist imposition, undermining swaraj
How facts and values are combined Not explicitly. Implicitly by using research on collective action to liberate people for reflective self-government By proposing counterfactual ideals such as “the ideal speech situation” and diagnosing the reasons these are not met Through “experiments in living”

In a prophetic mode

Main interdisciplinary combination Game theory plus observations of indigenous problem-solving Normative philosophy (mainly achieved through critical readings of past philosophers) plus system-level sociology Critical theology plus military strategy

social justice from the citizen’s perspective

I believe that each of us is responsible for forming a view–even if it’s tentative and evolving–of social justice. This is our theory of how rights, goods, and powers should be distributed in our society and who should be able to change that distribution in various ways. Any decent theory must address much more than equity, because liberty, community, harmony, diversity, sustainability, efficiency, and democracy are also values worthy of consideration.

Classical liberals offer reasons not to ask the question of social justice. I ultimately disagree but believe that their concerns should influence us. We should make sure to ask the question of social justice in the right way. It is interesting, too, that Gandhi anticipated several of the main concerns raised by such classical liberals as Friedrich von Hayek. (As is often the case, the libertarian right and the highly participatory left share some common concerns.)

Here are the objections:

  1. Adding the word “social” to a personal belief is pretentious and arrogant. To say that your view represents social justice–instead of talking about what you think is “‘moral’ or simply good”–means substituting your “individual judgment” for what the society has come to believe collectively. Talk of social justice is “ultimately the result of a contempt for what really is a social phenomenon and of a belief in the superior powers of individual human reason” (Hayek, The Constitution of Justice, p. 65).
  2. We don’t know enough to define social justice. We are too cognitively limited, too biased. We cannot see moral advances that may arise in the future. We should respect local norms and diverse cultural heritages. As Gandhi said in opposition to a specific plan for Indian independence, “the only universal definition to give [the word “independence” or swaraj] is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’” They will desire something in 10 years that we cannot imagine now.
  3. By asserting a view of social justice, we implicitly adopt the perspective of the state and imply that the state is responsible for achieving justice. “Seeing like a state” may not be an inevitable result of discussing social justice, but authors as diverse as Martha Nussbaum, Philip Pettit, and John Rawls exemplify this move: they argue that if social justice demands something, then the state is responsible for it. That means that they talk like state-builders or advisers to states.
  4. People differ in interests and values. Consensus is neither likely nor desirable. No conception of social justice imposed by a state on a whole society is really compatible with our fundamental plurality. For example, since we disagree about the value of toleration, state-imposed toleration will not satisfy everyone (even if it’s better than state-imposed censorship and oppression).
  5. “The state” is an abstraction. Actual states (even dictatorships) are always complex amalgams of people, rules, and physical assets–such as guns and filing systems–with multiple power centers. And the people who work for or within a state also belong to other social institutions, including markets and families. So no state acts simply according to its official doctrines and policies.
  6. Even if we know what a state should do, it’s hard to see how we can make an actual state do it. To imagine an ideal state is like assuming a can opener on a desert island. The practical question of how to found, reform, or revolutionize the actual state is unavoidable.
  7. It’s not clear that what makes some states work better than others is the degree to which they embrace abstract theories of social justice. If you’re a libertarian or a social democrat, you have good reasons to consider Denmark one of the best societies in the world. It optimizes liberty and equality pretty well. That’s because its institutions are more capable and less corrupt than most other nations’. Much depends on basic efficiency and integrity.
  8. Steps toward social justice can be dead ends. Motion in another direction sometimes leads to greater social justice. For instance, if you lived in 19th century Scandinavia, you might have assumed that equity required curtailing the power of capital. Instead, a social system that made capital very comfortable seems to have created the comity that then allowed labor and capital to negotiate a more equitable distribution. The road that led to equity did not start off in that direction.

One conclusion–Hayek’s, for example–would be to discourage talk of “social justice.” You should say what you like, or what you believe is good, not what is “socially just,” because that is just a sign that you are seeing like a state.

I draw a different conclusion. We should not evade the question with which I began this post: What is social justice? It’s our obligation to reason about who deserves what across the whole society and even the globe. In all likelihood, reality will not meet our respective standards of social justice, and then we should try to change things.

But the point of the question is to guide our own behavior. We don’t (and shouldn’t) have the opportunity to pick a perfect social democracy, a pure free market, or a theocracy. Institutions are (and ought to be) plural, evolutionary, overlapping, impure, and internally inconsistent.  It’s a pitfall to imagine ourselves as the designers of brand-new societies or as voters able to choose among different systems. We are people embedded in complex systems who have limited reasoning capacity, limited empathy, limited imagination, limited resources, and limited leverage. In engaging the institutions we have, we should consider opportunities to advance social justice. When we talk about social justice, we are saying, in effect, “My fellow members of this specific community, this is how I think that the whole system should be organized, and that has the following implications for what we should do next.”

See also against state-centric political theoryGandhi on the primacy of means over endspolycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economyThe truth in Hayekwe are for social justice, but what is it?

polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy

I haven’t really studied Quinn Slobodian’s history of neo-liberalism, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, nor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy In ChainsThe Deep History Of The Radical Right’s Stealth Plan For America. I am following the controversy about the latter, but don’t have anything useful to add to it. I would, however,  offer a perspective that may be a little unusual and that would influence how I’d assess any arguments in this domain.

I am deeply committed to polycentricity. I believe that a society ought to encompass a democratic national government, regional and local governments, an independent legal system with its own logic, a civil service and regulatory agencies, bureaucratic firms, markets, voluntary associations, religious denominations that vary from hierarchical to congregational, labor unions, parties and political movements, an institutionalized press, autonomous scholarly and scientific bodies and institutions, loose networks, and various kinds of families–each as centers of power. None should dominate. Each should check the others.

I believe in polycentricity because unitary political systems degenerate into tyranny regardless of their objectives. The Chinese Communist Party has evolved from a radically egalitarian movement into a club dominated by rapacious billionaires. How could that happen? Because, in the long run, it doesn’t matter what you believe or say you will do. It matters whether and how your power is checked.

I also believe in polycentricity because I accept the Hayekian argument that we are incapable of designing highly complex systems that are any good. We are better off with emergent social organization. However, I disagree with those Hayekians (not necessarily including Hayek himself) who claim that a market plus common law is the perfect manifestation of emergent social order. Markets are actually designed systems, and they tend to colonize the other domains if unchecked. A truly emergent society encompasses many different forms and allows people to choose among the forms and innovate within them. In other words, a society that has an assertive state and a strong market is more Hayekian than one with only a market (as if that were possible.)

Therefore, I am not surprised to observe people trying to build up strong democratic states that have powers to tax and regulate, nor am I surprised to see people working to create pro-market institutions that are insulated from democracy, such as international trade regimes. Both efforts should be expected in a pluralist political economy. I don’t assume that the builders of welfare states are trying to command the heights of the economy so that they can suppress individual freedoms (as some hard-core libertarians would argue), but I also don’t assume that the designers of pro-market rules are trying to subvert democracy. It’s all part of the expected give-and-take of polycentricity.

This is not to minimize the stakes. Whether or not countries a sign free-trade agreement has real implications–good, bad, or both–for jobs, for the environment, and for other institutions, from governments to unions. It even affects cultures and mentalities. These are matters of grave concern. But I don’t interpret them as signs of a doomsday struggle between “the market” and “democracy.”

How conflicts are resolved has different effects on different people. For example, a free trade agreement might benefit consumers and firms but cost some people jobs, which, in turn, can damage and even shorten their lives. Therefore, it is appropriate to assess any arrangement from the perspective of distributive justice. However, if you think that you can design one sovereign institution–such as a government–that will consistently, wisely, and fairly define and enforce principles of distributive justice, then I want to see how this entity will be structured and who will be in charge of it–not only today, but once their grandchildren inherit their privileges. Even more important, I want to know how you will move our world from not having such an institution to having it, in the face of resistance.

My bias is that people must assess and enforce distributive justice, and we should do so through the various institutions available to us: a whole range of governments, movements, courts, media forums, etc. This is a citizen-centered rather than a state- or market-centered model. It doesn’t negate the significance of struggles between states and markets, yet it doesn’t assume that the relationship must be zero-sum. We could have stronger democratic states and more efficient markets (consider Denmark). I’d also emphasize that states and markets are only two of a dozen or more important types of institution through which people exercise authority.

See also: should all institutions be democratic?against state-centric political theorythe right to strikeChina teaches the value of political pluralism; and why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me. And see Paul Dragos Aligica’s Institutional Diversity and Political Economy (Oxford, 2014) for a generally congruent view.

outline of a session on civic agency

This morning, I enjoyed working with an impressive group of Rwandan professionals (academics, clinicians and others). The outline of the session could work for other groups and is “open source”–available for anyone to borrow.

I open with my formula that a good citizen is someone who seriously asks “What should we do?” I have probably overdone this refrain–it’s in video form here and here–but I see value in it. Imposing the discipline of this question blocks the cheap path of discussing what should be done (by someone else). It forces us to notice which groups we belong to and how they work. And it emphasizes the value dimension (“should”), which is often evaded in a culture dominated by science and technical expertise.

So I ask people to talk about a range of issues that matter to them and try to impose the discipline of discussing only what we should do about each one.

I then argue that in order to ask, “What should we do?” we must belong to one or more functional groups that offer agency to their members. (I don’t see a clear maximum size to such groups, but responsiveness certainly becomes problematic at large scales.)

I usually ask about the groups that people belong to or have joined in the past that enable their members to ask the citizen’s fundamental question.

Groups address an enormous range of issues, from putting on an entertaining show to challenging the patriarchy. Any group will also face three categories of internal problems–challenges to its own survival and functioning that arise more or less regardless of the issues it addresses. I present these categories one at a time, and we talk about examples (and solutions) that have arisen in people’s experience. The categories are:

  1. Problems of collective action: how to get people to contribute attention, energy, and resources to the group rather than free-ride or drain value from it. Note that these problems arise even in groups that pay their employees and require and assess their performance. Even then, degrees of contribution still depend on the norms of the group. A relevant concept here is “social capital,” which I would define as the rules and practices that allow groups of people to function well together.
  2. Problems of discourse: how to make wise decisions about the “should” part of “What should we do?” in the face of disagreement and moral uncertainty. People disagree about values. In fact, premature consensus is a threat to wisdom. But how can we disagree in ways that prevent manipulation, misinformation, balkanization, faction, etc.? (Rwandans are a little unwilling to talk about deep disagreements, for reasons I understand, and I didn’t push the matter.)
  3. Problems of the we versus the them. Any group needs boundaries, or it cannot function, but how should it relate to those who don’t belong? What if a dominant group doesn’t want your kind to join it? Groups commonly face ethical questions about how to treat outsiders as well as strategic questions about how to force their way in when they are excluded from where they want to be.

See also: what should we do?what if something is not your problem?; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.

ambition: pro or con?

How should we think about ambition? Here are four possibilities:

  1. It’s basically a sin. According to the OED, “ambicioun” already appears in 1449 on a list of “vicis” (vices), right between “pride,” and “vein glorie.” It’s the selfish desire to extract credit, regardless of the merit of one’s act. If it motivates good action, then the action is good, but not the motive. It would have been better if the actor had been moved by something else. In that sense, it’s like greed, which can spur people to make valuable products but still discredits the actor.
  2. It’s a natural motivation that human beings just have, to various degrees. There’s not much point moralizing about it. What we should do is figure out how to channel it to good ends. For instance, in a well-functioning republic, people who have political ambitions must persuade the public, and that channels their ambitions to public ends. The analogy is not to “greed” (which is, by definition, a vice) but to ordinary financial motivations. It’s neither good nor bad that people want money; the question is whether the economy rewards good products and services.
  3. It’s not an appropriate category for ethical assessment because it’s really two or more different things. There is the ambition to make the world a better place and be recognized for it, which is honorable. And there’s the ambition just to be famous or powerful, which is pernicious. Much as we can distinguish agape from lust as two of the many forms of love, so we should divide ambition into varieties and then assess them separately.
  4. It’s a good thing. John Adams observed, “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low . . . ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.” Hannah Arendt quotes this passage approvingly because, in general, she admires human beings who step into the public sphere to be “seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected.” That is not merely a motivation to do a good job; it is part-and-parcel of being a public figure, which is a worthy way of life. By exercising ambition, you become a persona of history, as in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: 

I may not live to see our glory!
But I will gladly join the fight!
And when our children tell our story…
They’ll tell the story of tonight.

I leave it to anyone who’s interested to choose among these four options or to come up with other ones. I would, however, make a couple of observations.

First, I am generally skeptical about the kind of move made in #3 above, the casuistic division of widely-used concepts into subcategories. The problem is that very often there’s something important left over when you try to make the split. For example, love is not necessarily good. Many cases of love are harmful. But the fact that love is often good (or even wonderful) necessarily colors even the bad cases, and vice-verse. Instead of trying to divide love into sharply distinct forms–romantic love, brotherly love, lust, self-love, etc. and judging each one as a category–it’s better to say that love can always be good or bad, or a bit of both. I delved deeply into this obscure issue in my book on Dante, because Dante envisions the afterworld as a system for categorizing types of love–all the way from Satan to God–yet he also sees the echoes of the good love in the bad.

Second, an anti-democratic prejudice may underlie some of the criticisms of ambition. The word comes from the Latin ambitio, which originally just meant “going around.” According to Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary (courtesy of Tufts’ Project Perseus), the word came to mean “the going about of candidates for office in Rome, and the soliciting of individual citizens for their vote, a canvassing, suing for office (by just and lawful means).” From there, it gained the sense of “a striving for one’s favor or good-will; an excessive desire to please, flattery, adulation.”

Ambitio translated the Greek word eritheia, which (per Thayer’s Greek Lexicon) was “used of those who electioneer for office, courting popular applause by trickery and low arts,” AristotlePolitics 5, 3. From there, it came into the Greek New Testament to mean, “courting distinction, a desire to put oneself forward, a partisan and factious spirit which does not disdain low arts; partisanship, factiousness”: James 3:14, 16. No wonder Thomas Nashe (1593) defined the English word ambition as “any puft vp greedy humour of honour or preferment.”

This etymology reflects cynicism about the act of “going around” if you’re looking for votes. But we want people to do that. In ancient times, the main critics of seeking popular support were elitists who preferred rule by aristocrats. Almost by definition, an aristocrat is one who does not have to strive for favor or good-will, because he is just “best.” Neither Aristotle nor the New Testament makes a positive case for democratic politics.

The question is whether this etymology is rooted in a problematic elitism. In that case, we should at least be open to Arendt’s positive view.

See also: Arendt, freedom, TrumpHannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Mirandataking satisfaction from politics in the face of injustice

Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends

I don’t think that Gandhi really said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but he did hold a challenging view of the relationship between means (or strategies) and ends. “Be the change” could serve as a shorthand for his view, if it’s properly understood. It’s not about individual lifestyle choices but about social and cultural transformation.

Since the 1960s in the English-speaking world, political philosophy has focused on defining justice, understood as an end-state, a goal. Political ethics then involves a set of questions about whether various means (e.g., civil disobedience, misinformation, compromise, or violence) are acceptable–or necessary–when pursuing justice under various circumstances.

A century ago, as Karuna Mantena notes, there was a more vibrant debate about political means.[1] The central question was not what constituted justice but whether and when to use party politics and elections, strikes, boycotts, assassinations, or revolutions, among other options. Mantena reads Gandhi as a participant in that debate who developed and defended nonviolence as a cluster of strategies. Moreover, Gandhi explicitly argued that the best way to think about politics was to determine the right means or strategies, not to pretend to define justice.

“Means are after all everything,” Gandhi wrote, in response to a group of Indian political leaders who had issued an “Appeal to the Nation” in 1924. These leaders had proposed a concrete ideal of justice: the immediate creation of a new, independent “Federated Republic of the United States of India.” They argued that this end justified a wide range of strategies. They wanted to “delete the words ‘by peaceful and legitimate means’ from the Congress creed, so that men holding every shade of opinion may have no difficulty in joining” the independence struggle.

Gandhi replied that these leaders had no right to define an abstract concept of justice, such as “independence,” by themselves. The “only universal definition to give it is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’” Furthermore, the means used to pursue swaraj (independence, in its deepest sense) had to be good. “As the means so the end. Violent means will give violent swaraj. That would be a menace to the world and to India herself.”[2]

Drawing on Mantena, I would suggest the following Gandhian reasons to focus on means rather than ends. Human beings are cognitively limited and cannot see justice far beyond our own present circumstances. Human beings are motivationally flawed and highly susceptible to various distorting and destructive impulses. Therefore, we must choose modes of politics that channel our impulses in beneficial rather than harmful directions. Forming too sharp a definition of justice (or any of its components, such as national independence) can simply excuse destructive behavior. Consequences are always difficult to predict and control, and trying to pursue elaborate ends is foolish. Finally, how we participate in politics helps to constitute the world. By acting, we don’t merely bring about a result (usually an unpredictable one); we immediately create a new reality just in virtue of our action.

For example, one of Gandhi’s strategies was the khadi campaign: a mass effort to boycott European cloth, wear only homespun Indian khadi cloth, and enlist everyone–of all classes–in personally spinning and weaving their own clothes. The khadi campaign is widely understood as a means to one of the following ends: political independence from Britain through economic pressure, rural economic development, or spiritual education for those who spun.

Gandhi thought of it differently.[3] It was impossible to know whether khadi would affect British policy, but an India full of people who wove their own clothes in the cause of independence would immediately be a different place. It would be more decentralized, equitable, ruminative, united, and free. “Through khadi we teach people the art of civil obedience to an institution which they have built up for themselves.”[4]  Khadi was educational, but equally important, it represented an institution that the people had built. Education wasn’t an outcome of spinning, as knowledge might be an outcome of schooling. In khadi, the learning was intrinsic to what Gandhi explicitly called the “public work” of building a new system for textile-production. Gandhi described the political work accomplished by a committee and the “constructive work” of weaving in the same passage, as part of the same struggle. Physical production was an essential component because “awareness is possible only through public work and not through talks.”[5]

For Gandhi, “What is justice?” was the wrong question. Our focus should be on forming groups of people who interact in ways that bring out the best in them. He saw a nation of home-weavers as such a group. We could certainly debate his specific vision of a khadi campaign, but the same general approach can take many forms. For example, Jürgen Habermas represents a dramatically different cultural context and political sensibility from Gandhi’s, but he also rejects instrumental, means/ends reasoning in favor of creating groups of people who endlessly make justice by interacting. It’s just that Habermas’ interactive groups are highly critical, explicit, and discursive, whereas Gandhi’s weavers may be literally silent.

See also: notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and KingHabermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II)against state-centric political theoryno justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts)the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theologythe right to strike; and the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence.


[1] Karuna Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics,” Institute for Advanced Study School of Social Science Paper 46 (June 2012).
[2] Gandhi, Notes,  May 22, 1924-August 15, 1924, in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes, vol. 28, pp. 307-310, I owe the reference to Karuna Mantena, “Another Realism, the Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence,” American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no. 2 (May 2012), p. 457
[3] See Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics,” pp. 9-12.
[4] Gandhi interviewed by Nirmal Kumar Bose, Nov. 9-10, 1934, in The Collected Works, vol. 65, p. 317. I owe the reference to Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics,” p. 9.
[5] Gandhi, personal note (1925), in The Collected Works, vol. 32, 262-3. I owe this reference to Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics,” p.11.

the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology

Let’s assume that individuals have ethical responsibilities: each of us must strive to do what is right. However, our knowledge, self-discipline, and capacity to influence the world are all severely limited. Therefore, we are obliged to participate in groups that aggregate information, motivate their members, hold them accountable, and obtain collective power. Within groups, our individual responsibility shifts into an obligation to exercise either voice or exit. “Loyalty” means a commitment to the group; but it shades into “complicity” when the group does wrong.

This is a purely secular thesis, but it can draw on religious debates about similar issues. I’ll focus here on Christian views, mainly because I know them better than I know other traditions.

There are startling differences among Christian communities–from storefront charismatic churches and Quaker meeting houses to Orthodox monasteries and the global Catholic Church. However, it is a virtually unanimous Christian view that the soul is individual; it stands before God for separate judgment. Christians reject theories of a shared or universal soul. Thus all Christian theologians believe that it matters what each human person thinks and does.

At the same time, it is essential to Christianity that human beings are cognitively and motivationally limited–“fallen.” Thus all Christians see the benefits of being religious in groups that guide their members and speak and act collectively. Although the papal curia looks very different from a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, both are groupings of morally responsible individuals.

Only a caricature of Catholicism portrays it as a papal dictatorship. The papacy has been stronger since Pius IX (1846–1878) than it ever was before, but even in this era of relative centralization, the teachings and actions of the Church result from the whole community; and all Catholics are obliged to exercise voice within the Church. But Catholics have a strong obligation of loyalty and not much of a moral right of exit. That is because mainstream Catholic thought emphasizes the special standing of the Church. It was instituted by Jesus when he called the apostles and gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter.

No one believes that the visible Church is pervasively infallible; it is a human institution. But Catholics hold that our mortal limitations make organization indispensable, and God has selected one organization to mediate for all individuals. (“Catholic” means universal.) Wrecked on a desert island, you should do your best, and God will understand. But if you can, you must participate in the global Church in order to be right with God. If, in your opinion, the Church errs, then your responsibility is to improve it by exercising voice.

Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church because of his premise that conscience is logically inalienable. It’s not only wrong to try to delegate or share one’s moral responsibility; that is a contradiction. Responsibility always remains fully yours, by definition. In 1520, Luther wrote, “In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2[:9] says, ‘You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom,’ and Revelation [5:10], ‘Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings.'”

Why then do Lutherans have churches at all? (They even employ people in special garb who, at least in countries like Sweden and Finland, are called “Lutheran priests.”) Lutherans share with Catholics the assumption that the individual human being is too frail to believe or do right, and a group is necessary. They also agree that receiving spiritual help from other people does not negate personal moral responsibility. Their disagreement with Catholics is that they maintain a right of exit in cases of conflict between individual conscience and any particular group. That means that they are pluralists about groups, while Catholics are unitary.

Two other issues that are relevant to secular or “civic” groups are also emphasized in some Christian denominations. One is deliberation: the expression of personal views as part of a group’s search for shared truth. Making deliberation a transcendent value distinguishes Quakers from other Protestants, but it is present in all denominations to various degrees. Erasmus, for example, tried to make the consensus of believers a definitive feature of Catholicism.

The other issue is tradition: loyalty to the values and beliefs that have emerged over time, rather than those that are authored by any nameable human beings. Orthodoxy is particularly deferential to tradition. Whenever possible, the Orthodox prefer to acknowledge practices that have emerged, rather than make discretionary decisions. That practice is consistent with a very strong belief in individual cognitive limitations, combined with some faith in the ability of people to learn from accumulated experience.

All of these ideals–tradition, deliberation, plurality, unity, exit, voice, loyalty, conscience–are also available to secular groups; and often the best arguments for each principle have been developed by theologians.

See also: a typology of denominationssystem, organism, person, organization, institution: some definitionsfrom I to we: an outline of a theoryThe truth in Hayek; and what defines an organization? the case of the global sanghaSt. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism

the right to strike

Yesterday, Alexander Gourevitch from Brown University spoke on “The Right to Strike.” I won’t try to summarize (or scoop) the argument of his forthcoming paper, except to say that Gourevitch uses an account of oppression to give a strong defense of the right to strike, and he squarely addresses the hard issue. Successful strikes often require a degree of coercion in the form of picket lines, sit-ins, work-stoppages that close the firm, strong moral pressure on potential scabs, etc. Many liberal political theorists, American jurists, and European social democrats defend unions and acknowledge the right to strike but are squeamish about the coercive aspect. They either deny that coercion occurs or argue that strikes are only acceptable when free of all coercion. Gourevitch defends the coercive aspect of strikes–although not as an absolute right.

I would reach the same destination from a different starting point. I would begin with the premise that human beings have the right to create, design, and govern groups. Among the many types of groups that we design are governments (at all levels and scales), companies (privately held or publicly traded), and unions. Any of these three can allow or prevent an individual from working in a particular job. The government can regulate or legislate against the job or a category of workers, the firm can refuse to hire or fire an employee (or close the whole shop), and the union can strike. I begin with no assumption that any of these acts is more–or less–legitimate than the others. Governments, companies, and unions can be good or bad. They can do the right or the wrong thing. It all depends on the details.

In particular, it depends on how they are organized internally and what effects they have on outsiders (including natural systems as well as people). Assessing their internal structures and their consequences is controversial because it raises all the basic questions of justice.

For example, it you are a participatory democrat, you will value institutions just to the degree that they are internal democracies. Companies seem the least promising candidates, although democratic firms do exist. Both unions and governments range from highly democratic to highly authoritarian. Before you acknowledge the justice of a coercive strike, you will ask whether the union is democratic (and whether it is more or less democratic than the state that seeks to police it). You may embed in the definition of “democratic” some openness to outsiders, such as workers who are not already members of the union.

If, on the other hand, you are libertarian, you will value institutions just to the degree that the reflect individual, voluntary choice. Governments are the least promising, because very few citizens literally and actively consent to be governed. Governments are only legitimate to the degree that they create space for private agreements. Companies and unions are both potentially legitimate, but unions may be less so, to the extent that they coerce. Hayek claimed that unions “are the one institution where government has signally failed in its first task, that of preventing coercion of men by other men–and by coercion I do not mean primarily the coercion of employers but the coercion of workers by their fellow workers.”

For my own part, I am deeply pluralist. I believe in the value of maintaining a diverse set of institutional arrangements as checks against each other and as manifestations of human plurality and creativity. I am happy to see non-democratic institutions (e.g., the Catholic Church), strongly democratic ones, and many other forms. But I am not a relativist. I think that some organizations are better than others, and some combinations are more desirable than others. It’s just that an account of what makes organizations good must be nuanced and pluralist. One size doesn’t fit all.

On these grounds, I would defend unions as human creations that contribute to a pluralist public sphere. And I would accept that they will act coercively–within appropriate limits–when they strike. I am not positively enthusiastic about coercion, but I’d stress that states and companies also coerce. If you want (or need) to work, and a union has closed your workplace, then you have a complaint; but you also have a complaint if the company fires you arbitrarily or the state throws you in jail. Stronger unions make the second two forms of pervasive injustice less likely. A world with states, companies, and unions is more just than a world with just the first two.

See also my “The Legitimacy of Labor Unions” (2001), which is too moderate, China teaches the value of political pluralism, and should all institutions be democratic?

what if something is not your problem?

I frame a most of my research and teaching around the question, “What should we do?” I’d even define a citizen as someone who asks that question. In academic contexts, I argue that this question is complex and under-theorized: it raises difficult issues of loyalty, complicity, the definition of groups, dynamics within groups, problems of collective action, etc. These issues deserve attention along with the more typical questions of political theory: “What is justice?” and “Why do things happen as they do?” The citizen’s question is also central to our new Civic Studies major at Tufts.

However, insisting on this question may imply that everyone bears primary responsibility for addressing every issue. What if you are the victim of a social injustice that someone else has created or has the best opportunity to remedy? Then it is most important for them to decide what they are obliged to do to improve your situation. Not every problem is your problem.

Nevertheless, “What should we do?” remains an important question for virtually all of us. Even if the main moral responsibility lies with someone else, the only thing we can control is what we do.

We may decide that we should demand justice from another person or group, but making a demand is also a form of action that we choose to take. In fact, making demands on “target authorities” is the characteristic activity of social movements; and social movements are composed of people who ask “What should we do?” It’s just that their goal is to to compel other people to take more responsibility.

Finally, acting is not merely a price we must pay in order to improve the world. It can also be a benefit that we reap, since exercising agency can be an aspect of a good life. Although we should encourage–and sometimes even compel–other people to ask what they should do, it is also worth asking that question on our own behalf, regardless of our circumstances.

See also: a sketch of a theory of social movementswhat should we do?