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?

from I to we: an outline of a theory

These are the main ideas that I’ve defended (or plan to develop) in my theoretical scholarship. They are organized from micro to macro and from ethics to politics. As always, I put this draft online to welcome critical feedback.

  1. Each individual holds a changing set of opinions about moral and political matters. These ideas are connected by various kinds of logical relationships (e.g., inference, causation, or resemblance). Thus each person’s moral opinions at a given moment can be modeled as a network composed of ideas, plus links. In a conference paper, Nick Beauchamp, Sarah Shugars and I have derived network diagrams for 100 individuals and provide evidence that these are valid models of their reasoning about healthcare, abortion, and child-rearing. This approach challenges theories that depict moral reasoning as implicit, unconscious, and unreflective.
  2. A culture, religion, or ideology is best modeled as a cluster of roughly similar idea-networks held by many individuals. Human beings are not divided into groups that are defined by foundational beliefs that imply all their other beliefs. Rather each person holds a unique and often flat and loose network of ideas that overlaps in part with others’ networks. This model avoids radical cultural relativism, as I already argued in my Nietzsche book (1995).
  3. This model of culture also challenges John Rawls’ argument for liberalism as tolerance and neutrality. Rawls presumes that most citizens hold incompatible but highly organized and consistent “comprehensive doctrines.” As a result, they must largely leave one another alone to live according to their various conceptions of the good. If, instead, we understand worldviews as loose and dynamic idea-networks, we find support for a liberalism of mutual interaction instead of distant toleration.
  4. We are not morally responsible for the ideas that we happen to learn as we grow up. That is a matter of luck. But we are responsible for interacting with other people who hold different opinions from ours. Such dialogues can be modeled as the interactions of people who hold different idea-networks. As they disclose and revise ideas and make connections, the discussants produce a shared network. In a paper now being revised and resubmitted, David Williamson Shaffer, Brendan Eagan, and I model Tufts students’ discussions of controversial issues as dynamic idea-networks.
  5. A person can organize her beliefs in ways that either enable or block dialogue. For instance, an individual whose network is centralized around one nonnegotiable idea cannot deliberate; neither can a person whose ideas are disconnected. Thus discursive virtues can be defined in network terms, deliberations can be evaluated using network metrics, and we can strive to organize our own ideas in ways that facilitate discussion.
  6. If people talk, it implies that they were willing to sacrifice time and attention to a conversation. If they have something significant to talk about, they must hold a good in common that they can control or influence. Thus we cannot have the kinds of discussions that improve our own values unless we are organized into functional groups. But creating and sustaining groups requires more than talk. Groups also need rules and practices that coordinate individuals’ action, as well as relationships marked by trust, loyalty, and other interpersonal virtues. In short, civic life depends on a combination of deliberation, collaboration (solving collective action problems), and relationships.
  7. To enable deliberation, collaboration, and relationships requires favorable institutions, such as appropriate legal rights, widespread education in these virtues, and a robust civil society composed of associations that offer opportunities for self-governance. Since these institutions are inadequate in the USA, we need reform.
  8. To change constitutional rights, school systems, and other large institutions, political actors must employ leverage. They must move strangers and impersonal organizations at a distance. Making effective use of leverage is an ethical obligation but also a threat to the relational values implied by points 1-7 (above), which are prized by certain political theorists, such as John Dewey and Hannah Arendt. We must understand how to use impersonal leverage at large scales without undermining or displacing relational politics.

how information relates to power, according to C.V. Wedgewood

C.V. (Veronica) Wedgewood’s The Thirty Years War is almost a century old, but it remains an inexhaustible source of insights. TaNahisi Coates loves it, too: “Take this for whatever it’s worth but she writes better than any historian I’ve ever read. Like all of my favorite writers she paints in all colors. … This is just a thrilling book. Sometimes it’s too pretty, and the details are too on point, but the insights are so thorough and the narrative so gripping that it’s hard to turn away.”

Here’s an example. Wedgewood asks how dynastic politics–births and marriages–could have been so influential. The Hapsburg Empire, for example, was the greatest power in Europe and it formed because of royal weddings. “The dynasty was, with few exceptions, more important in European diplomacy than the nation. Royal marriages were the rivets of international policy and the personal will of the sovereign or the interests of the family its motive forces. For all practical purposes France and Spain are misleading terms for the dynasties of Bourbon and Hapsburg.”

(Wedgewood doesn’t mention the Ottomans, but they were also a family, not a people. The Ottoman Empire was proudly multinational, not Turkish, and it was defined by the fact that the Sultan was the lineal descendant of Osman I [1258-1326]. In Topkapi, marriages weren’t relevant, but it mattered which heir obtained the throne.)

How could the fates of millions be determined by who married whom in a few families?Wedgewood thinks the reason is information:

This is an interesting explanatory thesis. Perhaps it could be restated thus: Everyone has political interests. But in order to act on their interests, people need information and the ability to coordinate. Without information, the peasants and most of the middle class were rendered powerless ca. 1600. That left the great aristocrats to govern, and they could best understand and use their own relationships to shape the world. (They presumably had poor information about things like economics and demographics.) Their relationships were transparent to the masses–for example, everyone knew when the king got married–so the most likely point for popular involvement was in supporting or blocking a dynastic union.

This thesis also raises questions about our own time. Today, we have information by the gibibyte. What we lack is the ability to focus attention on the important stuff. It’s easier to grasp Donald Trump’s marital and extramarital relations than to follow how HHS is undermining Obamacare. One dominant man holds extraordinary power–and celebrity–in China, Russia, India, Turkey, and many other countries. It’s conceivable that the 21st century will look more like the 16th than the 20th in this respect.

Nicole Doerr, Political Translation: How Social Movement Democracies Survive

A century ago, Robert Michels observed what he called the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” at work in the socialist and revolutionary labor parties and movements of Europe. He argued that these groups provided “the best field of observation” for the problem of oligarchy, because they were committed in principle to equality and democracy (p. 11). If even they turned into oligarchies, it was “probable that this cruel game will continue without end” (p. 408).

This was the pattern he observed:

Democracy is inconceivable without organization. [But] Organization implies the tendency to oligarchy. In every organization, whether it be a political party, a professional union, or any other association of the kind, the aristocratic tendency manifests itself very clearly. … As a result of organization, every party or professional union becomes divided into a minority of directors and a majority of directed. … All power thus proceeds in a natural cycle: issuing from the people, it ends by raising itself above the people (pp. 21, 32, 38).

Since about 2003, the University of Copenhagen Sociologist Nicole Doerr has been observing the successors of Michels’ socialist and revolutionary movements–the heterogeneous leftist organizations that have come together in contexts like the European Social Forum, the US Social Forum, and a low-income city in California. She observes many of the same specific dynamics that struck Michels, and she adds new ones.

For example, experienced, professional organizers tend to know one another and give each other much more attention than they give to newcomers (pp. 33-34). Representatives of “New Left” organizations that demand loose, horizontal interactions appear to union organizers to be “arrogant and upper-class” (p. 32). Questions that matter to marginalized people–such as whether the location of the next meeting will be accessible to them–get tabled as irrelevant (p. 56). Despite strong leftist convictions, leaders reveal unconscious bias against people unlike them, such as women from Turkey and Eastern Europe (pp. 54-5). Decisions laboriously reached in earlier meetings become sacrosanct, even though newcomers have reasons to object to them. The need to translate for–or to speak more slowly to–linguistic minorities is perceived as a mere nuisance (p. 39). Gatherings tend to grow more “ideologically homogeneous” over time (p. 54), as those who don’t agree drop out.

But Doerr also contributes a fascinating positive finding. She first noticed that a multilingual meeting was more equitable and deliberative than meetings in which translation was unnecessary (p. 25). That seemed paradoxical. One would assume that if some participants require simultaneous translation, a layer of inequality will be added.

But then she started noticing the translators. Although they were easily dismissed as providing a mere technical support service–and one that inconvenienced the speakers of the dominant languages–they also became involved in advocating for inclusion. They were professionally resistant to entering the discussion of substance, since their job was to translate for others. But they were also professionally committed to making sure that the people they served could be heard. Thus they often intervened on matters of process.

The translators suddenly took center stage when they went on strike during a Paris gathering, with the terse announcement, “we translators now collectively interrupt our linguistic service” (p. 42). Their demand was to change the list of official speakers so that more immigrants were included. They quickly prevailed, thanks to their leverage over the entire meeting.

At the US Social Forum in Atlanta, there were again linguistic translators. But by now, Doerr had begun using the term more broadly. Translators are people who enter a discussion without having substantive views of their own but with the goal of making sure that certain specific people, vulnerable to being ignored, are heard and understood. One of the activists in Atlanta “often intervened when established NGO staffers working on immigration reform had trouble not only understanding the language but also the content and importance of demands by undocumented immigrants.” She told Doerr, “What we did for the US Social Forum was translation … But it’s not just about linguistic translation. It’s also about emotion. It’s a translation of space, of class, of gender” (p. 59).

These translators–linguistic or otherwise–emerge for Doerr as a “third voice within deliberation” (p. 10), neither participants nor facilitators.

She recognizes that they have the power to advance their own interests (pp. 47-9). In the words of the old Italian pun, “traduttore, traditore” (translator = traitor). Their value is dependent on their motivations.  Doerr devotes a chapter to a California example in which bilingual elected officials favored their self-interests: “translation had turned into representation and domination” (p. 97). In meetings at city hall, these officials “repeatedly interrupted, disciplined, marginalized, and implicitly stigmatized residents,” especially those who spoke in Spanish.

But then a grassroots organizing group created community forums and invited the same city leaders to participate on its turf. Volunteer translators played essential roles in designing these forums, in preparing the city officials to be respectful at the meetings (pp. 102-3), and then intervening to demand that specific questions be answered (p. 110). While literally translating between Spanish and English, the organizers also explained technical matters in understandable terms. Although the votes at these community forums had no legal force, the city council made some concessions in response.

I’d like to emphasize four larger themes:

First, we are used to a dichotomy between direct and representative democracy. But translators (linguistic or otherwise) complicate that. They represent individuals in order to permit direct participation.

Second, the beneficial cases in Doer’s book depend on organized power. The translators in Paris struck, withholding their services all at once. The community organizers in the US case engaged sufficient numbers of voters that they could compel city officials to attend their meetings. It’s not just the act of translating that matters; it’s the translators’ connection to organizations. (At this point, Michels would ask how organized translators can avoid becoming a new oligarchy.)

Third, translators sometimes escape notice; their influence is unseen because all they seem to be doing is translating someone else’s words (p. 126). I imagine that listeners literally look at the original speakers, not the translators. This invisibility can be problematic if translators misuse their power. But it’s also a strategic asset, because they can get away with influencing the powerful when others would fail.

Finally, these acts of translation are classic examples of “public work,” in my friend Harry Boyte’s sense: “self-organized efforts by a mix of people who create goods, material or symbolic, whose civic value is determined through an ongoing process of deliberation” (Boyte and Scarnatti, p. 78.). Thinking of political translation as a form of work is helpful because it brings out the translators’ professional commitments and values and the craft-like skills that they contribute to make democracy work better.

References

  • Boyte, Harry C. & Scarnati, Blase. 2014. “Transforming Higher Education in a Larger Context: The Civic Politics of Public Work,” in Peter Levine and Karol Edward Soltan, eds., Civic Studies: Approaches to the Emerging Field. American Association of Colleges & Universities, 2014
  • Doerr, Nicole. 2018. Political Translation: How Social Movement Democracies Survive Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Michels, Robert. 1915. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: Heart’s International Library

media literacy and the social discovery of reality

If you’re concerned about media education in the current fraught moment, you should read danah boyd’s “You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?” and Renee Hobbs’ response in Medium.

In my crude summary: danah boyd surveys some media literacy programs and sees a simplistic set of assumptions about the way media does–and should–work in our world. Hobbs replies that the actual field of media literacy education, which she has labored skillfully to build, welcomes complexity and diversity of views and nurtures sophisticated programs that boyd has overlooked. Hobbs also wonders why boyd selects media literacy education as her target instead of big media companies that are making money by degrading the public sphere.

I’m no danah boyd, and I’m no Renee Hobbs, but I recognize the appeal of both perspectives from my own work in different fields, such as service-learning, civic education, and deliberative democracy. There’s a role for the relatively detached critic who raises basic questions, but also for the field-builder who tries to create networks that enable experimentation and debate.

In the case of media literacy, I can offer my own view of the philosophical issues at stake, for what that’s worth. I don’t know to what extent people working in the field agree or disagree with the following ten theses. As I present them, I’ll use climate change as an example. Climate scientists make strong claims about truth, professional reporters must decide how to cover their claims, educators must decide whether climate change is a fact or rather a topic for debate, and the public is deeply polarized about all of the above.

  1. Truth claims are social. At least, that is true of claims like “human beings are causing the globe to warm by burning carbon.” No individual can have a justified true belief about the global climate, all by herself. No one can read all the secondary literature, let alone check all the analyses in that literature, let alone reanalyze all the data, let alone collect all the data, let alone create the methods and instruments needed to collect the data, let alone train all the scientists, let alone pay for all of that. We can each check some other people’s work, abstracting it from the rest of science. But we must leave most of the edifice unchecked. When people tell you they have “looked into” climate science and found it either true or false, they are exaggerating their personal expertise.
  2. Institutions require trust. An individual must trust the scientific enterprise as a whole in order to believe its specific results or even to take them seriously. Trust is directed at people, institutions, or social processes, not at facts. Many institutions do not merit trust.
  3. Social institutions represent power. For example, scientific labs, universities, and newspapers are funded, staffed, and managed. The human beings who manage them are exercising power. Most other people do not have the same power or equivalent degrees, titles, educational pedigrees, access to information, etc. Thus we are asked to trust people who have power over us. That is easier for someone like me–a colleague of climate scientists who works in a Boston-area research university–than for someone far away and in a different cultural setting.
  4. Truth is deeply intertwined with values. We really are warming the globe by burning carbon. But if that implies that we must regulate economic activity–even at the expense of liberty–it becomes a value-claim. Also, we know that we are warming the climate because we have invested in certain kinds of research. Motivating those investments are concerns about the globe as a whole and about the long-term aggregate welfare of people plus other species. If your concerns were different, you wouldn’t spend the money to collect the data that has produced these facts.
  5. Politics is about values and power. When we disagree about values or about who has power (or both) we are engaged in politics. Thus politics is necessarily involved in topics like climate change.
  6. Ideology is an unavoidable tool for managing complexity and uncertainty. The word “ideology” has different meanings in different circles, but if we mean fairly general heuristics that allow individuals to make sense of the world, then we all depend on it. Ideology is unavoidable. And it tends to merge causal theories, value-claims, and identities.
  7. Some values are better than others. I’ve said (see #4) that climate science depends on values. But the underlying values of climate science are good ones. We should be concerned about all human beings, about other species, about natural systems as intrinsic goods, and about the long-term. If we were only interested in the short-term wealth of US citizens, we wouldn’t care about climate change, but that would be a worse moral stance. Values are contestable, but our responsibility is to choose the best values.
  8. Truth can be socially discovered, not just socially constructed. Knowledge emerges from human institutions, like laboratories and newspapers. Change the people and the way they work together, and you will probably get different results. That is a causal claim. For some, it implies skepticism. But people do obtain justified true beliefs–for example, that we are heating the globe by burning carbon. This is not socially constructed knowledge; it is socially discovered. The discovery requires cooperation, just as it takes a bunch of sailors to reach a destination by sea. But their ship can actually find a new place, not merely “construct” one.
  9. Institutions for discovering truth are scarce and fragile. Behavioral science has uncovered an immense number of human cognitive and motivational limitations, many rooted in our biological origins as hunter-gatherers. We are ill-equipped to make sense of large-scale phenomena and are unlikely to care about issues that affect other people far away. Yet we have built institutions like universities and newspapers. These are highly problematic and fallible entities, with long records of errors and abuse. They are also miraculous achievements that defy the prediction that homo sapiens will never want to discover truths or succeed in that effort.
  10. Media literacy thus means exhibiting the right mixture of trust, support, skepticism, and critique. It’s possible for people to trust a given institution, such as a newspaper, too much. And it’s possible for them to trust it too little. Trust is an emotion that is related to personal identity, but it ought to be informed by good values and rigorous knowledge as well.

See also: the Pew climate change survey and the state of sciencemini-conference on Facts, Values, and Strategies (which led to a special issue of The Good Society, now in production); why we miseducate children to think of values as opinions; a media literacy education articlethe history of civics and news literacy educationis all truth scientific truth?don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalisticCivic Science; pseudoscience and the No True Scotsman fallacythe press loses its leverage; and generational change and the state of the press.

notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King

Gandhi offers a fully developed metaphysics and epistemology–original even though it is grounded in classical Indian thought. For Martin Luther King, Protestant theology provides a core theory of human nature, but King navigates his way through debates in modern Protestantism and offers his own synthesis and draws political implications. Even for non-Hindus and non-Protestants, some premises that both of these authors share may be persuasive.

For Gandhi, there are truths–for example, about the good life and the just society–but they exceed any individual’s comprehension. Almost everyone (perhaps literally everyone[1]) contributes valuable insights by observing the world from her own limited and fallible perspective.

The golden rule of conduct, therefore, is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we  shall see Truth in fragment and from different angles of vision. Conscience is not the same thing for all. Whilst, therefore, it is a good guide for individual conduct, imposition of that conduct upon all will be an insufferable interference with everybody’s freedom of conscience.
Q. With regard to your Satyagraha doctrine, so far as I understand it, it involves the pursuit of Truth and in  that pursuit you invite suffering on yourself and do not cause violence to anybody else.
A. Yes, sir.
Q. However honestly a man may strive in his search for Truth, his notions of Truth may be different from the notions of others. Who then is to determine the Truth?
A. The individual himself would determine that.
Q. Different individuals would have different views as to Truth. Would that not lead to confusion? …
A. That is why the non-violence part was a necessary corollary. Without that there would be confusion and  worse.[2]

According to Bhikhu Parek, Gandhi believes that “rational discussion and persuasion” are the “best way to resolve conflict.”[3] However, these methods depend on well-motivated reasoners who are able to overcome our species’ deep cognitive and ethical limitations. Under ordinary circumstances, reasoning is likely to fail, because we are mired in our own interests and not rational enough to be persuaded by arguments. Violence is therefore tempting but intrinsically problematic. The violent actor assumes that she is right, even though we are all inevitably wrong. Violence also threatens to erase the insights of the target by silencing or even eliminating her, or it may force her to do something without being sincere. On the other hand, voluntary sacrifice can touch the other person’s heart without negating her freedom.

Gandhi also believes that we ought to perform actions that are intrinsically meritorious without being concerned about their outcomes, which lie beyond our control. As Krishna teaches in the Baghavad Gita, “Motive should never be in the fruits of action.” Actions must be sincere in order to have value, and sincerity requires commitment by the heart and mind together. Unlike a typical action that is taken to achieve an end beyond the direct control of the actor, sacrifice remains connected to the person who sacrifices. For example, if I choose not to eat, that remains my will until the end of my fast. If my refusal to eat causes you to change your behavior, that may be good (assuming that my cause was right), but I am responsible only for forgoing the food, not for your behavior. I thus escape the pitfall of attaching my happiness and meaning to an end beyond my control.

Like Gandhi, King holds that violence “is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. … It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.” Nonviolence is “the ultimate form of persuasion,” where the word “ultimate” means both the most powerful form and the one to try last, after arguments have failed.[4] King also shares with Gandhi a theory of the human soul as both rational and affective, a recognition of the limitations of human understanding, and the ideal of a transcendent truth that we can only approach together. He says that he found in Hegel the idea that “truth is the whole,” which is roughly analogous to Gandhi’s remarks about Brahman, the universal soul.[5]

However, King’s framework is Protestant rather than classically Indian, so his metaphysics is somewhat different. Human beings are made in God’s image and are granted freedom, but we are also fallen. God is personal, an actual character who loves us and can work with us. King says that personalism “is my basic philosophy,” the foundation of his faith in an active personal God and “the metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.” People have dignity and worth not because they are good but because of divine grace. King says that he agrees with Reinhold Niebuhr about “the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence,” contrary to a “great segment of Protestant liberalism” that is too optimistic about human nature. “While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well.” King ultimately came to believe that Niebuhr had “overemphasized the corruption of human nature” because he had “overlooked” the power of divine grace to work with communities of people; yet King retained a sharp awareness of sin and evil.[6]

Agape–disinterested love–is the answer for King. It serves to explain the nature and will of God, our relationship to God, and our obligation to other people. It is not “sentimental” and it does not ignore sin. Instead, King defines nonviolent resistance as “a very stern love that would organize itself into collective action to right a wrong by taking on suffering.”[7] The combination of organization and collective action, love, and nonviolent sacrifice is essential.

These philosophical and theological positions cannot both be completely right, because they conflict at points. For instance, King’s God is personal whereas Gandhi’s divine is abstract. Gandhi acknowledges that God is love but attributes that view to Christianity and endorses it in the context of saying that “the human mind is a limited thing and you have to labour under limitations when you think of a being or entity who is beyond the power of man to grasp.”[8] Christians contribute the partial insight that God is love; for Gandhi himself, God is Truth.

Nevertheless, the overlapping premises of these two philosophies seem plausible even in secular contexts and are compatible with behavioral science.[9] People really are cognitively and ethically limited when we think and act alone, but we are capable of reasoning better when we come together in groups that are organized to bring out the best in us. We really do make better decisions when we preserve alternative views instead of violently suppressing them. Yet we cannot expect the best conclusions to emerge from deliberation alone; change aso requires organized sacrifice.

[1] That is Parek’s reading.  Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 54.
[2] These quotations come from several articles in the newspaper Young India, but they were combined by Nirmal Kumar Bose in his Selections from Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1948), pp, 66-67, which carries a very strong endorsement from Gandhi. Thus I treat them as a coherent argument that Gandhi approved.
[3] Parek, p. 51
[4] King, Stride Toward Freedom, Kindle locations 2850 and 2892.
[5] King, location 1355; cf. Nicholas F. Gier, The Virtue of Nonviolence: From Gautama to Gandhi (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004), pp. 40-1
[6] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1355, 1327
[7] King, “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” originally published in Ebony magazine,1959, in Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream: Writing and Speeches that Changed the World, edited by James M. Washington, (Glenview, IL, Harper Collins, 1992), p. 44.
[8] Bose, 4.
[9] Christopher Beem relates Niebuhr’s theological commitment to human limitations to the findings of modern psychology and draws political implications in Democratic Humility: Reinhold Niebuhr, Neuroscience, and America’s Political Crisis (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).

See also the relationship between justice and peace; the central role of sacrifice in social movements; how the Montgomery Bus Boycott used and created social capital; prophesy as a form of political rhetoric; and the need to consider evil in politics.

new Civic Studies major at Tufts

Yesterday, the Tufts Faculty of Arts & Sciences approved our proposal for a new major in Civic Studies, the first in the world. It will begin next fall, and I’ll co-teach the new introductory course with my colleagues Erin Kelly (Philosophy) and Yannis Evrigenis (Political Science). Here are the relevant portions of the proposal that passed yesterday:

Curriculum Proposal: Civic Studies

“We see before us an emerging civic politics, along with an emerging intellectual community, a field, and a discipline. Its work is to understand and strengthen civic politics, civic initiatives, civic capacity, civic society and civic culture.…and to contribute to an emerging global movement of civic renewal.” — Harry Boyte, Stephen Elkin, Peter Levine, Jane Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, Karol So?tan, and Rogers Smith, “Framing Statement for Civic Studies,” 2007

Civic Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that focuses on critical reflection, ethical thinking, and action for social change, within and between societies. People who think and act together to improve society must address problems of collective action (how to get members to work together) and deliberation (how to reason together about contested values). They must understand how power is organized and how it operates within and between societies. They must grapple with social conflict, violence, and other obstacles to peaceful cooperation. They will consider questions of justice and fairness when social tensions arise, and they must confront questions about appropriate relationships to outsiders of all types. This includes examining alternative ethical, political, and theological frameworks to encourage comparative reflection about different ways in which people live together in society.

The focus on civil society contrasts with state-centric approaches. It includes the study of collective action in social spheres that, while organized, may not be institutionalized or otherwise sanctioned by the state, and it highlights the perspective of individual and group agents.  Thus civic studies considers phenomena that are central to other disciplines—governments, law, markets, societies, cultures, and networks—but from the distinctive perspective of civic agents, that is, individuals and groups who think together and act cooperatively. It includes principles and vantage points civic agents may use to evaluate existing social norms, institutions, governments, and ideologies. In these and other ways, Civic Studies brings critical scrutiny to status quo norms of social order.

Civic Studies is more than citizenship studies. Civic agents include citizens, disenfranchised or colonized groups, temporary residents, undocumented migrants, refugees, and members of other societies acting across borders. Civic Studies engages with the importance of a society’s criteria of membership, as well as the logic and dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, hierarchy and subordination, across social groups. It subjects social dynamics to empirical study and normative evaluation, with the aim of understanding how to challenge unjust inequalities and to enhance just forms of social inclusion.

Normative reflection, ethical analysis, empirical understanding, historical perspective, and the development of practical skills are all important to the study of social and political conflict, and for developing cooperative strategies to enable positive social change. Civic Studies brings those modes of learning together to deepen our understanding of social criticism and action for social change as well as the circumstances that give rise to a need for it. The major’s classroom and experiential learning requirements would enable students to explore the theory and practice of critical reflection and just social change.

A Peace and Justice Studies track within the Civic Studies major provides a special focus within Civic Studies for learning about the causes and effects of violence, and for developing nonviolent strategies for conflict resolution and just social transformation. A minor in Peace and Justice Studies is also available to students who are particularly interested in studying violence and alternatives to it.

In sum, a major in Civic Studies [will] continue from the Tufts Peace and Justice Studies major the following core commitments: a combination of classroom-based and experiential learning; normative analysis and critical scrutiny of claims about justice; an explicit focus on conflict and possibilities for resolving it, and the development of skills useful in nonprofits, governments, community groups, and social movements. We believe the intellectual content of Civic Studies is exciting and the curriculum distinctive, highlighting strengths of Tufts University.

The proposed requirements for the Civic Studies major are 11 courses distributed as follows:

  1. CVS 0010—Introduction to Civic Studies
  2. Thinking about Justice: two courses in political theory, philosophy, or social theory devoted to normative questions about the nature and content of justice. Courses must be selected from an approved list. [Examples are listed in the proposal. E.g., PS 41: Western Political Thought I and II; REL 43: Asian Religions; HIST 129: Black Political Thought in the 20th century]
  3. Social Conflict and Violence: Two courses to enhance an empirical understanding of the historical, political, and social origins of conflict and violence. Courses must be selected from an approved list. [Among others: SOC 94: Sociology of Violence; PS 138-01: Political Violence in State and Society; PSY 136: Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination]
  4. Civic Action and Social Movements: Two courses dealing with the historical, ethical, and social origins of organized movements for social change. Courses must be selected from an approved list. [Among others: CH 109: Community Action and Social Movements in Public Health; ANTH 0146: Global Feminisms]
  5. Civic Skills: two courses that focus on civic skills or civic practices, e.g., dialogue and deliberation, ethical reasoning, emotional intelligence, conflict-mediation and peacemaking, community-based research, communication and media-making, public art, community organizing, evaluating nonprofits, or financing social enterprises. [Among others: UEP 194: Technology, Media, and the City; ELS 193: Social Entrepreneurship, Policy, and Systems Change; VISC 145/AMER 94, which is a course taught in state prison]
  6. CVS 099: A required internship. This includes a weekly 2.5 hour class with graded assignments and a final project. (3 SHUs)
  7. CVS 190: A capstone seminar taught by a CVS affiliated faculty member.(3 SHUs)

Total: 11 courses

what does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?

According to Freedom House, “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world.”

This statement deserves unpacking if we want to understand in what ways democracy (or “freedom”) is declining worldwide. The statement combines several ideals that may not fit neatly together in practice. It’s not obvious why Freedom House mentions some rights instead of others. For example, if the key concept is “democracy,” we might look for equality of voice, power, and status. Finally, the statement never defines the alternative to democracy: what is gaining at the expense of the basket of values that Freedom House endorses.

I think what’s gaining is authoritarianism, meaning a system that relies on the arbitrary will of leaders. It is a government by rulers without (many) rules. An authoritarian leader can say “Do this” and can evade any explanation other than, “Because I said so.” Authoritarian leaders typically undermine precisely the values that Freedom House lists: fair elections, minority rights, a free press, and rule of law.

The opposite of authoritarianism is “non-domination,” in Philip Pettit’s influential sense. A system without domination is one in which, although citizens must follow rules and face restrictions, nobody can simply tell anyone else what to do. Pettit argues that non-domination was the core value in the long tradition of civic republicanism that began in antiquity and flourished in the Italian city states, the English Revolution, and the American founding. His framework suggests a spectrum that runs from an absence of domination (republicanism) to pervasive domination (authoritarianism).

Evidence like the material I collected recently shows that republican institutions are in decline in many countries. Republicanism is in retreat.

Within the republican tradition, there is room for debate about democratic processes. Do democratic institutions (such as popular voting) prevent domination or create opportunities for majorities to dominate? There is also room for debate about liberal rights. For example, do property rights prevent or enable domination?

I’ll leave liberal rights aside for this post, although they are important. If we focus on democratic participation (lively debate, mobilized citizens, and a strong scope for elections), then we can view it as theoretically distinct from republicanism. Below, republicanism is on the horizontal axis; democracy on the vertical. Quadrant A stands for a system in which the people rule, yet majorities or popularly elected leaders dictate results without having to justify themselves. B is a society with equal voice and power, where everything is open to debate and no one can dominate anyone else. C is classic authoritarianism: no rules, no voice. And D is a system in which the government is limited and rule-guided and obligated to explain itself, but the people don’t have much of a voice. (Austria-Hungary in 1890?)

It is then an empirical question whether democratic processes tend to accompany republican safeguards. Is B common? Is it even possible?

In the V-Dem database, in 2016, for nations that held elections at all, there was a correlation of 0.4 between the degree to which the executive branch honors constitutional constraints and the degree to which free elections were held without intimidation.

There was a stronger correlation between respect for the constitution and robust public discussion (.53). (This means that that “large numbers of non-elite groups as well as ordinary people … discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets”).

I show here the correlation between respect for the constitution and whether the government consults with a broad range of stakeholders before making decisions (0.6).

These results are consistent with the hypothesis that elections and a strong public sphere help to check arbitrary power. Perhaps limited governments are forced to permit elections, to consult with stakeholders, and to accept robust deliberation.

There are no examples in the world today of strongly rule-guided governments that don’t deliberate at all, nor are there any governments that consult and deliberate widely but pay no attention to constitutional safeguards.

However, the correlations are far from lockstep. Countries do fall in all of the four quadrants, albeit not deeply into A or D. If your values are strongly republican, democratic methods seem to be helpful–but they won’t get you all the way to non-domination. And if your values are strictly democratic, republicanism may get somewhat in your way.