defining equity and equality

You can find authoritative explanations of the differences between “equity” and “equality,” but I think the definitions of these words vary, and there is no objectively correct distinction.

However, we can generalize a bit. To say that something is “equal” does not imply a positive value-judgment. Some people are taller than me. That means that our heights are unequal, but it is not an injustice. Nor does making things more equal always improve justice. Procrustes stretched his prisoners who were too short and lopped the feet off those who were too tall to make all their bodies an equal length. That was not an example of justice. “Equal” has a meaning in mathematics (already attested in Chaucer), and when it’s transported to social and ethical contexts, it retains its mathematical flavor of value-neutrality.

It’s true that the word has long been used as a synonym for fairness. Milton:

… till one shall rise
Of proud ambitious heart; who, not content
With fair equality, fraternal state,
Will arrogate dominion undeserved
Over his brethren, and quite dispossess
Concord and law of nature from the earth …

But Milton has to say “fair equality.” Out of context, without such a modifier, inequality may not imply injustice.

In contrast, the word “equity” has a positive valence, whether in the law (a “court of equity”), in ethics, or in social analysis. If something is equitable, to that extent it is fair. The question becomes: What constitutes fairness? Answers vary depending on people’s philosophical beliefs, social roles, and cultures.

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.

In this well-known picture, several things are equal (the heights of the boards that make up the fence, the altitude of the ground at all points, the sizes of the three boxes, the height of all the heads in the second picture). Some things are unequal, especially each person’s body height.

Despite its label, the first situation is not equal in every respect. But it is inequitable according to three reasonable standards of fairness: everyone should get what he or she needs, everyone should have equal opportunities, and everyone should be a full participant in the activity. These standards can diverge–or they may not even apply in some circumstances–but here they converge to rule the first situation unfair.

The second situation, meanwhile, illustrates equality in some respects. All the heads are the same distance above the fence; the fence is level. But that picture also illustrates equity because it meets several reasonable standards of fairness.

In this case, giving everyone an equal upward boost is inequitable, because their needs are different. But that is only one way in which equality can diverge from equity. If one person really deserves or merits more than another, then giving both people the same amount would be equal yet would violate equity. If Procrustes came along and violently made these three people the same height, that would be equal but not at all equitable. And if we hacked a portion of the fence away to let the short kid see, that would be equitable among the viewers but perhaps unfair to the owner of the fence. In fact, we only celebrate the solution in the second picture if we think it is fair to be able to watch a game for free from over a fence.

The main point is that “equity” always requires an account of fairness: what fairness demands in the circumstances. Equality, on the other hand, always requires measurement. Sometimes when a given measure is equal, that demonstrates equity, but sometimes it doesn’t.

See also: we are for social justice, but what is it?trends in egalitarianism and sorting out human welfare, equity and mobility.

V.S. Naipaul’s view of culture

I read a lot of Naipaul in my youth and see value in his work. But Ian Buruma’s obituary profile reminds me of the main way in which I disagreed with him.

Naipaul believed there were “whole cultures”: comprehensive, harmonious, indigenous, and hermetic. Examples included classical India, England, and pre-colonial West Africa. A whole culture was “wounded” when it was mixed up with foreign elements, usually as a result of conquest or deferential imitation.

Naipaul was politically incorrect in three respects. He admired the “whole cultures” of Europe, such as England, and emphasized their indigenous roots. He saw many interventions as imperialistic–not just European conquests but, for example, the Islamic influence in India or the Arab influence on non-Arab Muslims. And he mocked people in the global South who made unsophisticated efforts to imitate the imperial centers: West Indians pretending to be British, or Malays pretending to be Arabs.

On the other hand, Naipaul was in sync with certain strains of post-colonial thought: he liked indigeneity and opposed cultural appropriation.

It’s true that “cosmopolitan” was a positive word in Naipaul’s lexicon, and he claimed to be cosmopolitan himself. But he insisted that a cosmopolitan was at home in more than one culture, truly understanding and living it. Lightly borrowing some elements of other cultures didn’t count:

[Satyajit] Ray was a Bengali intellectual and artist who was as much at home in European as in Indian culture. He loved Indian art and music as much as European classical music or literature, and had a deep knowledge of all these things. The fact that most of us eat American junk food, or watch Hollywood movies, doesn’t make us necessarily more cosmopolitan. To be cosmopolitan you need to feel at home in various different cultures, as Ray did, and few people do even now. As far as the shrinking world is concerned, this is easy to exaggerate.

For what it’s worth, I believe:

  1. There is no indigeneity. We have all migrated. Not only people but also ideas move constantly. Every group has been deeply influenced by other groups for as far back as we can see.
  2. There are no whole cultures. A culture is an assemblage of ideas about the world (defining both “ideas” and “world” broadly). Since everyone holds at least slightly different ideas, labeling people as members of a culture just means that most of them share some important ideas. It’s a statistical generalization about the beliefs of a population. Furthermore, the ideas that we happen to hold are always badly insufficient, and we are always looking for more. Because of our profound human limitations–cognitive and imaginative–every culture is drastically incomplete.
  3. Mixing is good. India, for example, is not a “wounded civilization” because the original Hindu whole has been rent by Muslims and Europeans. It is a fabulous quilt of diversity, and has been for three millennia. Even the Hindu aspect is massively diverse.
  4. Imitation is good, although you have to do it with creativity, respect, and taste. Some of Naipaul’s most effective criticism was aimed at poor efforts at imitation.
  5. Imperialism is bad. But that’s not because it disrupts indigeneity and cultural harmony or because it introduces ideas that should stay somewhere else. It’s bad because it involves forcibly seizing land and goods while usually also killing, exploiting, and (literally) raping people. The bad part is the violence and exploitation, not the mixing.

See also: what is cultural appropriation?notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding; and everyone unique, all connected.

postmodernism and Trump

In the Washington Post, Colby College English professor Aaron Hanlon argues that postmodernist theorists didn’t inspire or prepare the way for Donald Trump and other politicians who openly disparage truth. Rather, postmodernists lamented a world in which propaganda and media manipulation badly distorted our understanding and judgment. The death of truth “was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that [Lyotard] and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.” Thus, as the Post’s headline puts it, “Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.”

I think I agree with every sentence in Hanlon’s article, which is a valuable contribution. But he seems to omit an important dimension: our changing views of journalism, science, and scholarship.

Most thoughtful people have long been concerned about political propaganda (in the narrow sense). Lippmann, Dewey, Orwell, Arendt, Hayek, and many others worried that politicians who obtained influence over the state could distort public opinion and obfuscate the truth. That concern has been a central theme in liberalism since long before postmodernism.

Hanlon makes the French postmodernists sound like liberals, in this sense:

But if we bother to understand Baudrillard’s thesis — that our impressions of the [First Gulf War] conflict have been warped by media framing and agitprop — it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes. Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis.

But postmodernism also treats natural science, other forms of scholarship, professional disciplines like law, and independent journalism as purveyors of propaganda rather than pursuers of truth. The validity of science, for example, was the issue in the “Science Wars.” Postmodernism is concerned about “the active distortion of truth for political purposes,” but it extends “politics” to laboratories, classrooms, and newsrooms as well as elections and governments.

In the 1980s and 1990s, people who defined themselves as postmodernists were quick to reject the pretentious of institutions like scholarly disciplines and The New York Times. Nowadays, similar people are more likely to defend the elite consensus on matters like climate change, to use findings from social science in their arguments, and to decry the failure of politicians like Donald Trump to respect the truth as presented in venues like The New York Times. On the question of whether The Times or the NSF is a source of truth, Trump sounds like the postmodernist.

Pure objectivity is a myth, almost universally acknowledged as such. However, if you don’t like what influential people are claiming to be true, you have options. First, you can decide where you stand on a spectrum from relativism (“Any claim depends entirely on who makes it”) to critical objectivity (“There are obvious truths that are being overlooked or concealed because the people in charge of knowledge are bad”). Another spectrum goes from reformist (“New people and new research agendas should be incorporated into the institutions that produce knowledge”) to separatist (“We need new institutions to produce knowledge.”) Since these questions are independent, four options result:

When French postmodernism arrived in the US, much of the academic left was reformist and somewhat relativist, or so I recall. A common view was that science and scholarship were valuable pursuits, but they needed to be substantially diversified. Humanists tended to doubt the claims of objectivity made by their colleagues in the sciences. Works like Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (1988) extended the critique to the humanities. Thus many academics found themselves in Cell A, although some self-described leftists argued that it was a fundamental mistake to undermine objectivity; they defended Cell C.

In that context, French postmodernism was strongly relativist and at least implicitly separatist. Its critique of established institutions (universities, clinics, newspapers, etc.) was radical enough to suggest the need for alternatives–whole new institutions, or perhaps anti-institutions. It made a case for Cell B that many accepted with caveats or else resisted.

At that time, most of the academic right claimed to be strongly anti-relativist and also reformist (Cell D). They viewed relativism as an insidious attack on core values. Conservatives were reformist because they thought that conservative voices were marginalized in the academy and the media and deserved more prominence. Conservatives believed in truth and wanted to change who spoke most powerfully about the truth.

However, some conservatives were separatist: Cell D. They might gravitate to the Federalist Society, the Liberty Fund, evangelical colleges, conservative think tanks–or even “Creation Science”–as alternatives because they had given up on the academy and government-funded science. They believed in objectivity but had lost faith in professors and reporters to produce or disseminate it.

I think a lot of the academic left today falls in Cell C. They believe that real knowledge is possible but that we must enhance diversity in newsrooms, laboratories, universities, and funding agencies in order to get closer to the truth. “Diversity” refers not only to the demographics of the researchers and reporters–although that is important–but also to their topics and methods. Many academics on the left are vigorous defenders of tenure, federal science funding, public radio, and other bulwarks of fairly traditional knowledge-production. Women Also Know Stuff is a perfect example of Cell C.

This means that the academic left shares some of the values that animated conservatives during the 1970s-1990s. Meanwhile, there are strands of the right that now prefer Cell B. They debunk truth, doubt the value of independent scholarship, and want to create alternatives to Fake News, lying scientists, etc.

It’s in that respect that French postmodernism presaged the era of Donald Trump.

See also: Bernard Williams on truth as a virtue of the humanitiesconservative relativismteaching evolution, creationism, Intelligent Design; and media literacy and the social discovery of reality.

issues in the philosophy of social science

Here is the outline of a course I’d like to take–or possibly design and teach some day:

  1. What is the social world? Is it, for example, a bunch of human individuals who interact? Perhaps not, since individuals’ identities and values emerge from social processes, while institutions also have intentions and agency. Do sex and/or gender (for instance) actually exist? Do cultures exist, or are they simplified labels that we impose on heterogeneous phenomena?
  2. Does it matter who studies the social world? On one hand, we might think that what we believe about society is just a function of who studies it. On the other hand, we might assume that social phenomena can be objectively known using procedures that are independent of who uses them. The truth probably lies in between. So how does the identity of the researcher influence the results of social science, and, more generally, how does power relate to truth?
  3. Facts and values: Are they distinct? How do they relate? Should we think of values as biases that may interfere with objectivity, or can they be valid as opposed to invalid? Should social science have values?
  4. What do various methods of social science assume about epistemology? For example, what must we believe about our ability to know in order to run a randomized controlled experiment, develop a game-theoretical model, survey a population and calculate distributions, or interpret a Balinese cockfight?
  5. What is and ought to be the role of social science in society? Should it be influential? When and how? Is everyone a social scientist, or does that phrase name a distinct group of experts or specialists? Should the goal of changing the world affect the research agendas and methods of social science? Who should govern (i.e., fund, regulate, organize) social science and how?

my self, your self, ourselves

Thesis: I have a vocabulary for describing my own behavior that’s full of words about motives, goals, and principles. “Why did I raise my hand? Because I wanted to answer your question. Why did I give that answer? Because I knew it was the truth and I was obliged to say it.” This is a valid way of thinking, because each claim is subject to being tested and can be refuted. (Maybe I raised my hand to show off, or because I misheard you, or to reach for a light switch.) It’s morally important that I think this way about myself, because it reminds me that I am responsible for my actions and must strive to apply the best principles. It’s also morally important that I envision you in the same terms. That is necessary for recognizing your dignity and equality, and it reminds me that I should help you to make your own choices wisely. I should strive to remove obstacles and enhance your freedom.

Antithesis: We have a vocabulary for describing any action in nature that’s all about causes and effects. “Why did he raise his hand? Because an electrical signal traveled along a nerve to a muscle. Why did that signal happen? Because a synapse fired in his brain.” This is the only scientific way to think about life, because science is defined as a third-person account of nature that sets aside the subjective perspective. It’s morally valuable to think this way about other people because then we realize that they are caught in a web of causality and cannot escape suffering; it makes us compassionate. And it’s important that I apply this way of thinking to my own case, viewing my own first-person talk of goals and principles as kind of myth. Then I can escape an overweening attachment to myself that makes me selfish, self-important, and fearful.

Synthesis: There are two ways of thinking about sentient action, the first-person and the third-person mode, and each has its own norms of validity and tests of truth. We are nowhere near being able to make these two perspectives cohere, if we ever will. But we must treat one another right. We’re in this together, and we’re all we’ve got. That requires holding several ideas in our minds at once. 1) I am responsible for what I do and should strive to do right by you. But 2) The condition of my self is of no great consequence to the world and is fundamentally a matter of luck. 3) You face choices and can strive to do right, and I ought to help you. But 4) The condition of your self is a matter of luck; often you will be a in a state of unease or even suffering; and I have compassion for you.

See also: Hegel and the Buddhathree truths and a question about happiness; and on philosophy as a way of life.

how philosophy is supposed to work

(Posted during the Social Ontology 2018 Conference, hosted at Tufts) We live in a positivist culture in which many smart people hold fairly simple views of science and believe that all rigorous thought is scientific. Their objection to highly abstract conceptual questions and to questions of value (moral, political, or aesthetic) is that these matters cannot be scientific; hence progress is impossible. Endless debate must result from the brute fact that we hold different opinions.

But we must figure out what to value and what to believe about conceptual issues. Given our cognitive and moral limitations as individuals, our best way to think about such matters is with other people–learning from their perspectives and testing our beliefs with them. Words are not our only tools for thinking together–mathematical notations, diagrams, images, music, and bodily movements also work–but words are awfully helpful and usually play a role even when we make heavy use of the alternatives.

Therefore, human beings talk about conceptual and normative matters. We always do, everywhere and in every era. But a literal conversation has drawbacks. Since an actual, oral dialogue must involve a small number of people, the cognitive resources are limited. It lasts for a finite amount of time–too brief to address all the relevant questions and issues. And it proceeds in a linear fashion, with one comment or question occupying attention at any given moment, followed by the next one. Although people may make discursive moves like saying, “Let’s go back to your earlier point P, because I disagree with it,” the participants can barely explore the whole network of potentially connected ideas. A conversation is one walk through one part of the network.

A discipline like philosophy is an effort to improve the conversation by institutionalizing it. Many people can participate in a discussion that is organized in the form of journals, books, symposia, and reviews. Participants publish their claims and reasons, leaving them on the record to be picked up by others. They take time to make each point carefully, offering reasons and considering objections. If someone claims P, other people are supposed to read and cite that claim before they say P or not-P. If you criticize P, then other people who begin by believing P are supposed to read and consider your objection to P before they use it as a premise in their arguments. The debate still continues permanently, but it is supposed to become increasingly organized and refined in a process that is just as cumulative as a “normal science” is. Moreover, the strictly philosophical debate is not insulated from other intellectual work but is constantly informed by developments in the sciences, humanistic thought, and actual events in the world.

This is all idealized. I am perfectly aware that not everyone can participate in a professional discipline’s discussion; in fact, the vast majority of human beings are excluded, for a whole range of reasons. Nor would everyone want to join even if that were easy for them. Those who participate act imperfectly, showing too much deference to certain authorities, demonstrating group-think, etc. And ethics (in particular) still suffers from myopia about cultural diversity and empirical data that Owen Flanagan well describes in his new book, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility.

Still the ideal has significance as a heuristic. It draws our attention to Robert Merton’s four CUDOS norms, which he developed for science (per Wikipedia):

  • Communalism all scientists should have equal access to scientific goods (intellectual property) and there should be a sense of common ownership in order to promote collective collaboration, secrecy is the opposite of this norm.
  • Universalism all scientists can contribute to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender.
  • Disinterestedness according to which scientists are supposed to act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for personal gain.
  • Organized Skepticism Skepticism means that scientific claims must be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted.

These norms also apply to philosophy, and we can add more values, such as 1) the norm of citing and addressing previous contributions to the same discussion; 2) the principle that academic discussions should ultimately (but not always directly) benefit public life; 3) the value of being permeable and connected to other discussions in other fields; and 4) an affirmative effort to incorporate people and perspectives that have hitherto been marginalized.

See also: is all truth scientific truth?does naturalism make room for the humanities?why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics, and adding democracy to Robert Merton’s CUDOS norms for science.

empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice

I’d posit the following definitions:

  • Empathy: Feeling a similar emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state. Your friend is mad at her boss because he treated her unfairly. That makes you mad at her boss. Your anger is probably different in texture and intensity from hers, but it’s the same in kind, an imperfect reproduction of her mental state.
  • Sympathy: Feeling a supportive emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state that is not the same as that person’s original emotion. She is mad at her boss, so you become sorry for her, or committed to fairness, or sad about the state of the world, or nostalgic for better times–but not angry at her boss. Then you are sympathetic. (NB You can be both sympathetic and empathetic if you feel several emotions.)
  • Compassion: A species of the genus sympathy. Another person’s negative emotion causes you to have a specific supportive feeling that is not the same as her emotion: you sincerely wish that her distress would end without blaming her for it.
  • Justice: A situation or decision characterized by fairness, goodness, rightness, etc. (These are contestable ideas and may be in tension with each other.) The English word “just”–like dikaios in classical Greek–can be applied either to a situation or to a person who cares and aims for justice.

There is an old and rich debate about which character traits and subjective states are best suited to pursuing justice. One answer is that you should be a just person, one who tries to decide what is fair or best for all (all things considered), who desires that outcome, and who works to pursue it. A different response is that we are not well suited to defining and pursuing justice itself. It’s better to cultivate other emotions, such as empathy, sympathy, compassion–or loyalty, aversion to harm, or commitment to specific rules–in order to deliver more just outcomes, all things considered.

I haven’t yet read Paul Bloom’s new book, Against Empathy, but based on this interview and other secondary material, I take it to be an empirically-based contribution to this debate. Bloom marshals evidence that empathy is a highly unreliable guide to justice, probably more likely to mislead than to inform. We should cultivate justice itself, not settle for a substitute, and certainly not the poor substitute of empathy.

For instance, Donald Trump can make people feel empathy for a small number of individuals whose families were allegedly victimized by undocumented aliens, and then use that emotion to build support for deporting millions of people who have harmed no one. A famous example is Edmund Burke’s outrage at the mistreatment of Marie Antoinette, which obscured any concern for the countless people tortured, executed, or “disappeared” by the ancien regime that she represented. (By the way, I happen to respect Burke a lot–and I don’t think it was fair or smart to execute the Queen–but this passage is still a good example of misplaced empathy.)

Empathy can also substitute for justice, as I argued on a visit to Israel in 2013. You congratulate yourself for feeling some version of a suffering person’s emotion and excuse yourself from fixing the problem.

Compassion may be better than empathy. Instead of feeling the same emotion as the other person, you feel a combination of beneficence and equanimity that may be a more reliable guide to acting well. But it’s possible that compassion only clears the deck for reasoning about what you should actually do.

For its part, justice can be emotional. You can feel a powerful urge to make the world more just. That is helpful insofar as the feeling motivates you and insofar as people obtain genuine insights from our emotions; but it is dangerous because the emotion of desiring justice can be misplaced. You can feel great about improving the world when you are actually harming it.

Justice is also necessarily discursive. You must put into words–at least inside your own head–what is good or fair, and why, and make yourself accountable for that position. Therefore, much hinges on whether we human beings can reason explicitly about justice in ways that improve upon our strictly affective reactions to particular situations.

See also: empathy: good or bad?the limits of putting yourself in their shoes and looking with their eyes; an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); and how to save the Enlightenment Ideal.

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?

system, organism, person, organization, institution: some definitions

If you want real expertise on this kind of question, you should attend “Social Ontology 2018, the 11th Biennial Collective Intentionality Conference” from August 22-25, 2018 at Tufts. But in case you want some light musing on the subject …

A system is an assemblage of interacting parts that persists over time. It can change, but a parsimonious description applies over its whole history. (“My Mac could run SPSS once I installed the new software, but it’s still the same system.”)

An organism is a system that no one designed. Instead, it results from the reproduction of similar organisms.

A biological organism is an organism that exhibits the properties of life. This definition implies that there may or could be non-biological organisms.

A sentient organism is one to which we can accurately attribute mental states, such as pain, pleasure, aversion, desire.

A person is a system whose mental states include memory, planning, and decision. Thus the person’s development over time is partly her responsibility, not solely the result of accident and force. Not all persons are organisms. Entities that meet the definition of persons include human beings but also God, angels, devils, space aliens, perhaps other advanced mammals, perhaps some future AI, and organizations–see below.

A human person is a person that is also an organism of the species homo sapiens. A human person is capable of certain specific mental states that are not necessary conditions of personhood in general, e.g., love and suffering.

An institution is a system composed of at least two persons, plus any number of other components (e.g., buildings, legal rights). A market, for example, is an institution that combines many buyers and sellers, their goods, their rights, rules, and so on. Note that a market is not a person because it doesn’t have mental states.

An organization is an institution to which we can attribute memory, planning, and decision. Such attributions are not metaphorical but use exactly the same logic that we apply to human persons. (“I can tell that Tufts intends to educate students from the fact that it expresses this intention on its website and then actually educates.” Tufts doesn’t love, but Tufts does intend and plan. As such, it is a person.)

By these definitions, a social organization is a person; it is simply not a human person. It lacks the rights of a human being. Human beings gain rights not from the mere fact that we are complex systems capable of remembering, planning, and deciding–so are organizations–but from something else. I would attribute our rights to the fact that in addition to being able to remember, plan, and decide, we can also love and suffer.

(I was led to these thoughts by the discussion of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and their eclectic readings of Daniel Dennett, John Dewey, Douglas North, and others, as summarized in Vlad Tarko, Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography, pp. 137-43. See also: against methodological individualismwhy social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; and the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School.)

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.