on hedgehogs and foxes

“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing” — Archilochus

This proverb is in the news lately because Philip Tetlock has shown that foxes (flexible and curious generalists) are much better at predicting events than hedgehogs (specialists who hold deep expertise). See David Epstein’s Atlantic article on Tetlock, and see Axios for a current competition funded by the US intelligence agencies to test his theories.

Tetlock draws from Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, which is light but offers some insights, I think, about specific authors. Berlin argues that Tolstoy was psychologically a fox but believed–for theological/ideological reasons–that we should all be hedgehogs. Our one big idea should be the Imitation of Christ. This tension was at the heart of Tolstoy’s books and life. I also endorse Peter Hacker’s view that Wittgenstein was temperamentally a hedgehog who forced himself self-consciously to become foxlike in his late work.

If you take the proverb literally, it seems more impressive to be a fox. The fox uses its brain to hunt and escape, whereas the hedgehog just instinctively rolls up to take advantage of its best physical asset, its spines. But the metaphor is loose. Human hedgehogs are among our deepest, most original thinkers. They are the ones with the discipline to construct whole, coherent worldviews. They don’t merely employ a strategy but create it.

In contrast–and I write this as very much a fox–foxes can be ad hoc and derivative, eclectic in a bad way. A fox can employ the available ideas that seem to fit the situation without generating any new frameworks for others to use. A fox can be a jack of all trades, master of none. We foxes need hedgehogs to develop new ways of thinking, from which we borrow superficially and pragmatically.

But it is interesting that the hedgehogs are so consistently wrong about what will happen next. They are more likely to suffer from confirmation bias. They can make any data fit their theory. And they are worse than foxes at recognizing exceptions, tradeoffs, and zones of uncertainty. They lack phronesis, practical wisdom.

I therefore think it’s a problem that hedgehogs have an advantage in the competition for attention. If you are associated with one big idea and you keep hammering away at it, you have a “brand.” People turn to you to say that one thing, even if they don’t agree with it, and so your fame rises. You must compete with the other people who say the same thing, but if you’re first or more effective at communicating it, you can own the space.

So as not to offend anyone alive, I’ll use the case of my late colleague Ben Barber, who was early to revive the idea of “strong democracy.” (More democratic engagement is always better; the good life is lived in public; liberalism is too individualistic; etc.) He wrote several best-sellers, and I attribute his success in part to his capturing a particular brand. For courses, debates, conferences, etc., you may need someone to say, “More democracy!” Barber cornered that market.

Temperamentally, I am with the foxes. As soon as I write an argument for anything, I immediately become fascinated by the arguments against it. I have a limited attention span and jack-of-all-trades tendencies. I frequently disappoint practitioners and advocates, who know that I have written in favor of campaign finance reform, public deliberation, service, or civic education and want me to say it again to a new audience with more conviction. In fact, I am almost always on the verge of apostasy and retraction.

I really do admire the hedgehogs. But I’ll say a few things in favor of foxes.

First, the moral world is immensely complex, because it emerges from myriad human interactions and takes the form of communities, cultures, and institutions that overlap, interrelate, and become loaded with historical resonances. Thus an adequate moral theory is almost certainly partial, inconsistent, and ad hoc.

Second, acting like a fox keeps you mentally alive. It may be a self-indulgent concern, but I fear ceasing to think. Even the greatest hedgehogs, it seems to me, have stopped their quest for knowledge. They already know, and know that they know, and are done.

I’ll also say one thing against foxes. At least in folkore, a fox is a solitary hunter. What if you also like people and feel loyalty to groups of peers who share goals and missions? Then you cannot simply act like a fox.

To switch metaphors, Keats admired the “quality” that forms a “Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I also admire Negative Capability, but it is a virtue of the poet, not the ally. Negative Capability is good for writing fiction that explores many different perspectives; it is not so helpful for co-writing a mission statement for an organization and then following through.

So I would like to be a fox who is helpful in a pack. The question is to what degree that’s possible.

See also: the politics of negative capability; loyalty in intellectual work; in defense of Isaiah Berlin; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); and Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Orwell

an expressivist critique of our criminal justice system

(Disclaimer: this post is the result of reading some work by Tommie Shelby and Erin Kelly but not yet wrestling with either author’s views sufficiently or examining the larger literature on expressivism in law. If you were a peer-reviewer, you should reject this post.)

A society has a right and an obligation to express what is just through the criminal law. One reason is that public statements about what is permitted and forbidden can influence behavior for the better. But sometimes laws are not effective means of shaping behavior. Even then, it is important for a community to express justice as accurately and completely as it can, and the criminal law is a valuable vehicle of expression.

Public expressions of justice must often be accompanied by penalties. Otherwise, laws can reasonably be interpreted as mere lip-service. If, for example, the law says that everyone must pay taxes, but oligarchs routinely get away with tax evasion, then the law is saying that oligarchs don’t have to pay taxes. The failure to punish them conveys a view of justice that is unfair.

Many things are wrong but should still be legal. Awful but constitutionally protected speech is an example. The scope of the law should be limited both because of the fallibility of any government and because individual liberty is a great value. (We’re not free if we’re only allowed to do good things.) Nevertheless, there remains a large domain of actions that are bad enough that the state should express their wrongness by prohibiting them and enforcing the prohibition with penalties.

Even a partially unjust regime can and must express justice through the criminal law. Its failures do not invalidate laws that it enacts and enforces, if those laws are just. An exception may be a pervasively evil regime. For instance, a Nazi law court could render the correct decision in a case of rape or murder, but the very existence of that court is so offensive as to render all of its verdict moot. The victims of even real crimes cannot get justice from Nazi judges. But that reasoning does not apply to courts in societies, like ours, that harbor a great deal of injustice.

Public statements about justice must be deliberated. This is not because deliberation equals justice (a proceduralist view). Justice is justice. Rather, we must deliberate because hearing and responding to alternative views is our best method of discovering what justice demands. Also, the legitimacy of a public (as opposed to an individual’s) statement of justice depends on whether each of us had a chance to influence it with our voice.

Our legal system violates the expressivist principles summarized so far. The features that violate this theory are: racialized mass incarceration, rampant plea-bargaining, degrading punishments (prison uniforms, refusal to provide education, tolerance for sexual violence, stripping prisoners of civil rights), frequent imprisonment of people with mental illness, and a tendency to hide the whole system away from public view.

Mass incarceration of people who are racial minorities and/or poor and/or mentally ill clearly expresses a view that is incompatible with justice–that those people are not equal. We wouldn’t have the same system if most of the prisoners were middle-class and white.

Racialized mass incarceration also blocks a satisfactory national discussion of justice. In some communities, incarceration is common, and in others, it is virtually absent; but since they are separated by race and class and have unequal amounts of political power, they are very unlikely to deliberate together.

Replacing jury trials with plea-bargains removes any public deliberation about particular cases and prevents each verdict from saying anything at all. The outcome of a case is a function of the perceived likelihood of conviction, the defendant’s tolerance of risk, the prosecutor’s interest in conviction, and the cost of a trial, not anyone’s view of what is deserved.

Hiding the whole system away excuses the public from deliberating about particular cases and about policy. You can easily turn a blind eye to the criminal justice system even though our prisons house a population as big as a state.

I would not go so far as to claim that an expressivist theory of criminal law is completely adequate. We can imagine a system that does a good job of expressing justice but fails other tests, such as the utilitarian criterion of doing the most good for the greatest number. For instance, maybe it would be better to cancel trials that don’t affect behavior and use the money saved for prevention. I’m sufficiently pluralist (or wishy-washy) to suspect that utilitarianism, contractarianism, classical liberalism, Foucault, and other views all offer valid insights.

But I would submit that an expressivist theory explains some of what is so badly wrong with our system.

See also: mass incarceration, the jury, and civic studies; why we are choosing to abolish the jury system; civic engagement and the incarceration crisis; if we are going to put millions in prison, WE should make millions of decisions

youth, midlife & old-age as states of mind

This post is inspired and informed by Kieran Setiya’s Midlife (Princeton, 2017), but I didn’t review it recently because I wanted space to develop my own views.

Here are three definitions that are not tied to chronological age. They could–in principle–describe a person who has lived for any number of years:

  • Youth: You believe that you have important choices to make, or that you will face such choices in the future. You see your current situation mostly as the result of others’ decisions. You’ve been formed by your parents, your community, or the whole society, but you expect to make a mark through your own agency and choice.
  • Old age: You think that all the important choices involving you have already been made. You made choices in the past, or perhaps you never had much choice, but now the die is cast. If you expect to confront any decisions in the future, you assume that they will be mere Hobson’s choices: what to give up, which medical risks to take.
  • Midlife: You think that your current situation is partly the result of your own past choices, which you may either regret or recall proudly. You expect to make additional decisions in the future. You’re not starting from scratch–and not, perhaps, from where you would want to start–but you still have more moves to make.

Teenagers and young adults who enter YouthBuild USA estimate that they will live to an average age of 40 (Hanh et al 2004). They think that their lives are about half over. If Cathy J. Cohen’s analysis of African American youth applies to these teenagers (Cohen 2010), they will explain their own situations as a result of their own agency (they made mistakes, such as dropping out of high school) and structural injustices (their high schools were bad). Their mentalities are middle-aged or even old. YouthBuild, however, causes them to raise their own life-expectancies by almost 30 years. It makes them appropriately youthful by teaching them that structural factors explain their current situations but that they will have good decisions to make in the future, including decisions that can prolong their lives.

Something similar happens when a certain kind of hyper-serious 7-year old feels that she has made momentous decisions. Her “life is ruined” because of what she did. Adults should persuade her that her situation is adults’ responsibility and that her life is just beginning.

Now consider a person in his 40s who decides to start over and live his own life, because so far everything has been determined by others: parents, authority figures, then a disappointing spouse and demanding kids. For him, the past is others’ responsibility; the future will shaped by his agency. This is either a commendable move to reclaim his youth or a sign of immaturity, a failure to accept that he actually shaped who he is. In either case, it is tinged with sadness because he should have been youthful when he was chronologically young instead of now.

Or consider a person who is chronologically old and whose doctor tells her she is close to death. Yet she gains satisfaction in the way that the Stoics recommended, by planning how to spend her last weeks and how to die with dignity. She has put herself in midlife even though she is old.

For those of us who are actually in our middle years, this framework affords some satisfaction. Young people should be youthful. But midlife is maturity. It combines a recognition of limits–we have made choices that we cannot undo–with a sense of agency. We are what we have made ourselves, but we aren’t done.

Sources: Cathy J. Cohen, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics (Oxford 2010); Hahn, A., Leavitt, T. D., Horvat, E. M., & Davis, J. E. (2004). Life after YouthBuild: 900 YouthBuild graduates react on their lives, dreams, and experiences. Somerville, MA: YouthBuild USA. See also Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; and to what extent do you already know the story of your life?

what constitutes coordination?

[W]e addressed the factual question whether members of the Trump Campaign “coordinat[ed]”-a term that appears in the appointment order-with Russian election interference activities. Like collusion, “coordination” does not have a settled definition in federal criminal law. We understood coordination to require an agreement–tacit or express–between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference. That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests. We applied the term coordination in that sense when stating in the report that the investigation did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

— from the Mueller Report

That faint sound you hear is hundreds of philosophers paging through their thumb-worn copies of seminal books and articles about shared agency and collective intentionality and revving up their word processors to write lecture notes and articles.* I have not investigated this literature sufficiently to have useful views, but it is a rich topic of current investigation that bridges ethics, metaphysics, and philosophy of language and mind.

What does it mean to say, “We are doing something?” Is the “we” a real thing or just a shorthand for several “I’s”? If a bunch of people all run for shelter at the sound of thunder, are they coordinating? What if they take exactly the same actions as part of a dance? Does the “we” mean something different in the sentences “We all ran for shelter” and “We all performed a dance”? (This is from Searle.)

What if I say to you, “Let’s go for a walk”? Do I then have an ethical obligation to coordinate my itinerary and pace with you? (From Gilbert). Is the obligation just the usual one to honor a promise, or does it stem from my new relationship to you?

Let’s say that all the members of the Supreme Court believe that something is unconstitutional and issue a unanimous ruling to that effect. Later, the same nine people all think that dinner was awful. In one case, did the Supreme Court make a judgment, whereas in the other case, nine people made separate judgments? What if the nine issued a ruling and then found out that it was invalid because they weren’t properly in session at the time? Did they incorrectly believe that they were acting as a group? (Inspired by Epstein).

Robert Mueller says that whether the Trump campaign and Russia coordinated is a “factual question.” But it requires a definition of coordination. Apparently, the legal definition of that word (from statutes and/or precedents) is unsettled. But in any case, the deeper issues are philosophical–and not simple to resolve.

*e.g., Brian Epstein, The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences (Oxford Studies in Philosophy, 2015); Margaret Gilbert, “Walking Together: A Paradigmatic Social Phenomenon” in her 1996 book Living Together: Rationality, Sociality, and Obligation, pp. 177–94; Larry May, Sharing Responsibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Philip Pettit and David P. Schweikard, “Joint Actions and Group Agents,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 36, no 1, 2006, 18–39; John Searle, “Collective Intentions and Actions,” in P. Cohen, J. Morgan, and M.E. Pollack (eds.), Intentions in Communication (Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1990); Raimo Tuomela, “We Will Do It: An Analysis of Group Intentions;” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 51, no. 2 (1991), pp. 249–77; David J. Velleman, “How to Share an Intention,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol 57 (1997), pp. 29–51; and other such papers.

how much of a theory of justice do activists need? (a dialogue)

Some students are on their way to occupy their university’s central administration building to demand a minimum wage of $17 for all employees. They are surprised to encounter the ghost of John Rawls (JR):

JR: I see your signs and determined faces and presume that you are engaged in an act of civil disobedience. What is your demand?

Students: Social justice!

JR: Hmm, what does that require?

Students: A living wage!

JR: Which is?

Students: $17/hour.

JR: Is that your ideal outcome? Does social justice entail that every employee be paid no less than $17? Every employee of this university? Every American? Everyone in the world? Is there a maximum just salary? For instance, does your college president make more than justice permits?

Students: Look, we don’t get to write the rules. We’re just trying to boost the take-home pay of some people in our community. We’d go higher if we thought it was realistic.

JR: Would you go higher if that required cuts in financial aid?

Students: We are just applying pressure for one aspect of social justice. Figuring out the right balance is not our job.

JR: OK, but you also have other jobs. For instance, voting. If you think $17/hour constitutes justice, you should vote for a moderate Democrat or perhaps a liberal Republican. If you want much more equity, you should join Democratic Socialists of America.

The ghost of Mohandas K. Gandhi [MHK] emerges, to the surprise of everyone except John Rawls, who is Gandhi’s roommate in Purgatory. (Everyone goes to Purgatory.)

MHK: Don’t let him to deter you with these questions about ultimate ends. None of us has sufficient knowledge, wisdom, or moral rectitude to know what social justice entails. Our job is to make ourselves the best agents of change that we can be.

You plan to put yourselves at some risk. That is good; as I’ve written, “a life of sacrifice is the pinnacle of art, and is full of true joy.” However, you will also impose some costs and inconvenience on the university, and your demand might not be right. Are you sure that you have purified your own motives?

Students: Well, we’ve acknowledged our positionality and checked our privilege.

MHK: Awkward terminology, but it sounds like what I’d advocate. Have you created a group that represents all, and do you live together truthfully?

Students: Could you clarify?

MHK: For me, the main issue was making sure that the movement for Indian swaraj (independence, in the spiritual as well as the political sense) incorporated Muslims, Harijans, women, and others, and that we related to each other appropriately. If we organized ourselves right, we were already making the world better. The political consequences were beyond our control. As Krishna teaches in the Baghavad Gita, “Motive should never be in the fruits of action.”

JR: I’m Kantian enough to agree that a good action is one that has the right motives, not one that turns out to make the world better. But surely you need a North Star, a sense of what the goal should be?

MHK: Only in the vaguest sense, because–again to quote myself–“man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth.”

JR: Well, I agree with that and would leave much to be decided in a just society by deliberating citizens and their elected representatives. But surely we can propose provisional theories of justice?

Students: Um, this is interesting and all, but we have got like a building to occupy?


See also: Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends; a real alternative to ideal theory in political philosophy; why study social justice?; Abe Lincoln the surveyor, or the essential role of strategy; and how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy.

Empathy and Justice

My remarks at a conference entitled “Empathy …. or Ways of Caring,” Harvard Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, March 15, 2019. (Apologies for some cutting and pasting from previous posts.)

Doris Sommer mentioned that Barack Obama popularized the notion of an “empathy deficit.” In a 2004 interview with Oprah Winfrey, while he was still a State Senator, Obama said:

I often say we’ve got a budget deficit that’s important, we’ve got a trade deficit that’s critical, but what I worry about most is our empathy deficit. When I speak to students, I tell them that one of the most important things we can do is to look through somebody else’s eyes. People like bin Laden are missing that sense of empathy. That’s why they can think of the people in the World Trade Center as abstractions. They can just crash a plane into them and not even consider, “How would I feel if my child were in there?”

Here Obama links empathy to moral judgment. In a 2006 commencement address, he also implies that the level of empathy in a society as a whole is a precondition of social justice. Our “empathy deficit” explains why we accept that “Americans … sleep in the streets and beg for food,” that “inner-city children …. are trapped in dilapidated schools,” and that “innocent people [are] being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away .”[2]

To suggest that this argument is problematic, I would quote then-President Obama in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013:

I — I’m going off script here for a second, but before I — before I came here, I — I met with a — a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.

I honestly believe that if — if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed. (Applause.) I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. (Applause.) I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. (Cheers, applause.) I believe that. (Cheers, applause.)

It is not so much the speech as the applause that I find problematic, because I believe that the Israeli electorate supports policies that are unjust, and their political behavior is compatible with a fair amount of actual empathy.

The word “empathy” is a modern coinage. It is not attested before 1895, and it gained its current meaning only in 1946. Many wise people have thought about moral psychology and justice without using this word at all, so we should consider whether it does us any good.*

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. We lack the cognitive and motivational qualities that would allow us to grasp justice and reliably act on it.

Justice is an abstract idea that takes the form of words: it is discursive. According to a mainstream view in contemporary moral psychology, we first form emotional opinions about concrete situations and then we select the ideas that will justify those opinions, post-hoc. Justice doesn’t guide us; it justifies and excuses us.**

In that case, it might be better to cultivate 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.

In her remarks, Marina Amelina noted that developed countries built social welfare systems between ca. 1880 and 1970. That could because their publics became more empathetic. But it also be because less-wealthy people gained power and used it to protect themselves. Equal power plus self-interest might generate justice more reliably than empathy. John Rawls famously modeled justice as the decisions that self-interested parties would make if they were rendered perfectly equal by a Veil of Ignorance that blocked them from knowing their own situations. In the real world, we can approximate the Veil of Ignorance by assuring that everyone has equal rights and powers. This is a clear alternative to the view that justice should be built on empathy.

Paul Bloom and others argue that empathy is particularly unreliable guide to justice, more likely to mislead than to inform. 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 respect Burke–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 the transcript from Jerusalem that I quoted earlier suggests. 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.

Other candidates for emotional states that might be more reliable than empathy include solidarity, responsiveness, openness, and intellectual humility.

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.

In the end, I think we must wrestle with these questions:

  1. Can we human beings reason explicitly about justice in ways that improve upon our strictly affective reactions to particular situations? Can we put into words what is good or fair, and why, and make ourselves accountable for that position? Or is this always special-pleading, mere rhetorical justification for what we have already decided based on our emotions?
  2. Does an improvement in social justice indicate an improvement in empathy?
  3. If we should cultivate an emotional stance toward others as a buttress of—or an alternative to—justice, should that stance be empathy, or rather compassion, responsiveness, solidarity, humility, or something else?

*Buddhism is perhaps most widely associated with the virtue that Obama calls “empathy”—in his terms, “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us” (Northwestern Commencement speech). But Emily McRae notes that “empathy” has no direct translation in Sanskrit or other languages that have been used to express the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Key words from that tradition are better translated as “compassion” and “sympathetic joy.” McRae derives a theory of empathy from Buddhist texts, but she focuses on phrases like “exchanging self and other” rather than any single word that corresponds to “empathy.” McRae, “Empathy, Compassion, and ‘Exchanging Self and Other’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Ethics” in Heidi Maibom , ed., The Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy (Routledge, 2017).

**Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion(New York: Vintage, 2012), pp. 27-51; Ann Swidler, Talk of Love: How Culture Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2001); pp. 147-8; Leslie Paul Thiele, The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Jesse Graham, Brian A. Nosek, Brian A., Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, & Peter H. Ditto, “Mapping the Moral Domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 101, no. 2  (2011)., p. 368)

See also: empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy

how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy

Last week, my colleague Erin Kelly and I taught excerpts from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice along with Emily McRae’s chapter, “Empathy, Compassion, and ‘Exchanging Self and Other’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism,” from the Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy. I then attended a conference on empathy. As a result, I’ve been thinking about Rawls’ famous thought-experiment, Buddhist exercises for moral improvement–and how empathy relates to both.

Rawls argues that to know what justice demands, you should collect all the relevant available information about how the society in general works, but you should then imagine that you don’t know your own position in the society and ask what rules and institutions you would favor–in your own interest–under this “veil of ignorance.”

To make that method seem intuitive, imagine that I am considering (in the light of last week’s scandalous news about college admissions) whether it is desirable for such institutions as Yale University to exist. I should try to understand how Yale functions, today and in the past, in the broader society. But I should try not to be influenced by the fact that I was admitted to Yale and graduated from there. I should ask whether the existence of Yale would be a good thing if I did not know whether I would ever get anywhere near it. Thus general knowledge plus self-interest plus ignorance about my own circumstance equals justice.

We could think of this thought-experiment as a way of modeling justice. Just as we test a model of a new airplane in a wind tunnel, so we test a theory of justice by using Rawls’ veil of ignorance, because that will yield the same results as justice itself would yield if we could know directly what justice says.

Now compare Rawls’ method to those developed in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. McRae begins her chapter: “Imagine yourself as an old yak … your back weighed down with a load far too heavy, a rope pulling you by the nostrils, your flanks whipped, your ribs bruised by the stirrups.” She is quoting the nineteenth-century Tibetan master Parrul Rinpoche, who offers it as an exercise in empathy.

McRae defines bodhicitta as a “radically altruistic moral orientation that centrally involves cultivating oneself in order to be the kind of person who can reliably, effectively, and wisely benefit others… . The cultivation involved in becoming a person with bodhicitta–a bodhisattva — … includes developing virtues such as patience, generosity, and wisdom, and moral skills such as mindfulness, moral reasoning, responsiveness, and, arguably, empathy. … .Empathy practices [such as imagining that you are a yak] are traditionally presented in the context of cultivating bodhicitta, since empathy triggers both virtuous emotionality (through the Four Immeasurable Qualities practices) and the realization of no-self (through exchanging self and other practices), both of which are necessary for bodhicitta.”

Here are some differences:

  • Rawls tries to make moral reasoning as impersonal as possible, whereas the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition strives for maximum concrete identification with other sentient beings.
  • In the Buddhist tradition, you cultivate empathy. Rawls provides a way of determining justice that does not require empathy–in part because empathy can be biased, manipulated, and otherwise untrustworthy.
  • Rawls treats every person as equal, whereas a stance of “radical altruism” implies that the thinker should count everyone else as more important than herself.
  • Rawls’ theory is limited to “persons” (probably human beings), whereas Buddhism extends to all sentient life.
  • Rawls offers a technique for deciding what justice is, whereas for the Buddhist theorists, the problem is not deciding what is right–they presume that we should be as altruistic as possible–but rather motivating people to act right. “Exchanging self and other is not simply a heuristic for determining the limiting condition on action (“how would you like it if someone did that to you?”) or a mental exercise in perspective taking. It is a transformative practice that uses empathic imaginative projection to chip away at self-clinging by softening the boundaries of self and other.”

And here are some similarities:

  • Both methods are conducted by the thinker alone. Neither is dialogic, involving an actual exchange of opinions. You imagine you’re a yak, but you don’t ask the yak if you got that right.
  • Like the Buddhist teachers, Rawls also softens “the boundaries of self and other,” but he does so by asking you what you’d want if you did not know who you were.

If you happen to find both arguments persuasive, you’re left with an odd proof:

1. Self-interest plus [a specific form of ] ignorance = justice (Rawls)

2. Compassion plus radical altruism = justice [Buddhism]


3. Self-interest plus ignorance = Compassion plus radical altruism


See also: empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; avoiding the labels of East and West; Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot)

conservatism as gratitude or humility?

(DCA) Yuval Levin offers this definition (h/t Robert Pondiscio):

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

You need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be changed. 

This is a thoughtful effort to describe left and right evenhandedly, but I don’t think it is the best way to define or defend conservatism.

The problem is that people differ greatly in the degree to which they can reasonably be grateful to any particular polity. Consider, as one of several extreme examples, Native Americans. They can adopt any view of the USA that they want, but they have much less objective reason to be grateful to this republic than I have. They may well feel deep gratitude to their own communities. That gratitude is particularistic. Conservatism would then imply a particularistic ideal: a commitment to the specific communities that deserve each person’s gratitude. Some versions of conservatism have in fact been particularistic–but not Levin’s. He wants Americans (all Americans, I presume) to feel grateful to the nation-state:

But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom—of ordered liberty—built up over centuries of hard work.

In the same essay, Levin suggests a more secure and persuasive core principle for conservatism—humility:

Conservatives often begin from gratitude because we start from modest expectations of human affairs—we know that people are imperfect, and fallen, and weak; that human knowledge and power are not all they’re cracked up to be; and we’re enormously impressed by the institutions that have managed to make something great of this imperfect raw material. So we want to build on them because we don’t imagine we could do better starting from scratch.

This reminder of “modest expectations” is what conservatism valuably contributes to public debates. Because people are “imperfect, and fallen, and weak”–or, we could say, cognitively and motivationally limited and biased–we should always be somewhat skeptical of ambitious reform proposals, of original designs for complex things (cities, welfare programs, markets), and of the likelihood that any person can dramatically improve things for any other person.

Humility, in this sense, is the common thread that unites libertarians (skeptical of central planning), religious conservatives (skeptical of human reason and motivation), and communitarians (skeptical of formal institutions). It also encourages all three types of conservatives to admire complex phenomena that have emerged and that seem to function well enough–“that have managed to make something great of this imperfect raw material.”

Levin argues that humility implies gratitude, but that connection is contingent. It depends on whether what has emerged so far is good enough for you and the people you care most about. Answers to that question will reasonably differ. Humility is the premise; gratitude is a consequent that depends on the circumstances. Humility is something that everyone has a reason to endorse, although everyone should also be open to the possibility of change.

See also: what defines conservatism?; a plea to conservatives; and from classical liberalism to a civic perspective

“Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?

According to the OED, “empathy” entered the English language in 1895 to mean “a physiological brain-function”–specifically, “a form of psychophysical energy” in the nervous system–that correlated with a feeling.

This meaning is now obsolete, because the underlying theory is. A somewhat more familiar meaning appeared in 1909: “Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride … but I feel or act them in the mind’s muscles. This is, I suppose, a simple case of empathy, if we may coin that term as a rendering of Einfühlung.” E. B. Titchener Lect. Exper. Psychol. Thought-processes i. 21  (1909).

But this meaning is now also “rare,” says the OED. The word “empathy” gained its mainstream current meaning only in 1946 (in a professional psychology journal):

[Meaning 2b] orig. Psychology. The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.

1946 Jrnl. Clin. Psychol.2 61/1   A ‘man-to-man’ regard for the client, characterized (ideally) by the understanding of empathy without the erratic quality of identification or the supportiveness of sympathy.

You might think it’s a Greek word, and it parses in Greek: en- (“of the state or condition of”) plus pathos (“an incident, accident; suffering”) = “the state of someone’s [else’s] suffering.” But no such word is listed in my Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon. It is a modern English word built of ancient Greek components. If anything, the origin is the German word Einfühlung (coined in 1873), which needed an English equivalent.

While noting the recent origins of the English word, Emily McRae also argues that it has no direct translation in Sanskrit or other languages that have been used to express the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Key words from that tradition are better translated as “compassion” and “sympathetic joy.” McRae derives a theory of empathy from Buddhist texts, but she interprets phrases like “exchanging self and other” rather than any single word that corresponds to “empathy.”*

Since the word “empathy” is recent, and many wise thinkers have done without it, we might ask whether adding it to our vocabulary has done us good. It would be possible to carve up the conceptual space so that “empathy” vanished and we used only “compassion,” “beneficence,” “good will,” “forgiveness,” “responsiveness,” “mirroring,” and other related words.

I am a little worried that “empathy” confuses matters by combining an empirical concept–empathy exists when person A feels an emotion, which causes person B to feel some of that same emotion–with a positive moral valence (it is good to be empathetic). Yet it is not always good to feel the same emotion as someone else in response to that person.

*“Empathy, Compassion, and ‘Exchanging Self and Other’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Ethics” for Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy (Routledge), edited by Heidi Maibom, 2017. See also: empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; and my self, your self, ourselves

Talks in Spring 2019

I’m pleased to report on two exciting invitations I’ve had to speak in the spring of 2019. For one of them, the Ron Messerich Distinguished Lecture that I delivered in February, I spoke on “Correcting Political Correctness,” a piece from my book in progress titled A Culture of Justice. On Tuesday, February 26th, I gave the talk at Eastern Kentucky University. While there, I had the pleasure of meeting with students in the journalism program, who interviewed me for Eastern Progress, their television program. I’m quite grateful to Mike Austin for inviting me to deliver this lecture. The attendance was great and the questions and comments offered after my talk were really rich and engaging. Here is the video interview:

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The next trip I’m taking will be next week, when I’ll be heading to give three talks at Texas State University San Marcos. I’ll be talking at the local library about “Democracy and Public Philosophy,” from 4:30-6pm on Wednesday, March 13th. Then, on Thursday, March 14th, I’ll be talking about “Culture and Self Respect” from 2-3:00pm in the Alkek 250 Theater on campus. Friday morning, March 15th from 9-10am I’ll be talking about “Democracy and Leadership”  in PS3301. More on that as it develops, but it is coming soon.