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.

the moral significance of instinct, with special reference to having a dog

When dogs and their human owners look into each others’ eyes, oxytocin, a hormone involved in the maternal bond, rises in both creatures. When dogs are given oxytocin via a nasal spray, they want to look in their humans’ eyes (source). I find this result interesting, but equally interesting is my reaction to it. Why is this scientific finding heart-warming? Is it evidence of something good?

As members of an evolved natural species, we human beings have instincts. Maternal bonding is an example. Domesticating dogs may be one as well.

Instincts are not universal, nor are they necessarily desirable. For example, we presumably developed an instinct for violence against people outside our own kin groups. Yet many individuals never exhibit that instinct, it is generally bad, and we can create contexts in which it becomes marginal. To say that humans have an instinct for violence is a little like saying that bees sting. It’s true even though most bees never actually sting. It’s not a statistical generalization but a claim about the way we were designed through the process of natural selection. It’s about what’s “built in” to us, for better or worse.

One pitfall is to replace moral evaluation with such talk of instincts. To say that anything we are hard-wired to do is right to do is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. It excuses, for example, violence, exploitation, and dominance.

Another error is to romanticize the human species by defining only the good drives as our authentic instincts. An example would be claiming that we are naturally peaceful and made violent only by civilization. This seems implausible if it’s a testable claim; and if it’s meant to be true by definition, it’s an instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

A third error is to ignore the natural characteristics of the species entirely when making moral judgments. Perhaps ethics is species-independent, and we can first define the good (in general) and then use it to assess the actual behavior of human beings. What is right for us would also be right for angels, elves, Klingons, God.

One problem with this approach is that it’s unrealistic. A deeper problem is that it fails to demonstrate love for the species. To love an oak tree is to appreciate it for what it naturally does. And to love humankind is to appreciate us as the evolved natural species that we happen to be. To wonder whether we would be better without sex would be like wondering whether oak trees would be better off without acorns. (But then we shouldn’t wish that we had no proclivity for violence, because violence, too, is part of being human.)

Again, this doesn’t mean that there is a list of characteristics that are innate because of natural selection, and everyone should (or does) demonstrate those characteristics. Sex, for example, is an instinct that admits of great variation: some people want it and some don’t; various people want different kinds of it; and it can be good or bad for the people affected. Still, sex is not just a desire that some people happen to have, and it is not merely good if the net benefit happens to be positive. Sex is intrinsic to the species and is something we should encompass when we value human beings.

Back to dogs and people: It appears that these two species co-evolved very early, each taking its modern form under the influence of the other. I’ve even wondered whether guard dogs allowed our distant ancestors to sleep deeply; and deep sleep permitted cognitive development. Dogs certainly allowed us to spread into vast regions that had been dominated by big mammals with teeth. It’s not clear that we could have become who we are without dogs–or vice versa.

To say “Because having a dog is natural, it must be good” would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy. We can live without dogs. Some people much prefer to. Some communities bar them. And maybe those are the right decisions. Whether or not to have a dog is an ethical question. The rights and welfare of all affected people–and the dog–should be considered.

But it would also be a mistake to interpret (some) people’s bond with dogs as just another preference, a choice that happens to have hedonic value for them and that should be weighed against other desires and interests. Loving a dog is an instinct that influences human perceptions (we are good at interpreting dogs’ behavior) and even our hormones. That means that if you happen to love a dog, I think you are justified in believing that you are acting naturally. And if you happen not to like dogs, you should still recognize the impulse in others as a human capability. Like other capabilities, it is something that people should be able to choose to exercise so long as that is compatible with other important goods.

See also: latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare; my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfareKorsgaard on animals and ethics; and introducing the Capabilities Approach.

sorting out human welfare, equity and mobility

Here are three distinct goals that you might pursue if you see education as a means to improve a society. All three are plausible, but they can conflict, and I think we should sort out where we stand on them.

  1. Improving lives. What constitutes a better life is contested, as is the question of how a population’s welfare should be aggregated to produce a score for a whole society. The Human Development Index includes such components as mean life expectancy at birth and “mean of years of schooling for adults.” You might think that what counts is not these averages but the minima: how much life, education, safety, health (etc.) does the worst-off stratum get? Their circumstances can improve with balanced and humane economic development. Arguably, the worst-off 20 percent of Americans are better off than Queen Elizabeth I was in 1600, because you’d rather have clean running water in your house than any number of smelly and disease-carrying servants. But our minimum is still not very good, since some Americans sleep on grates or are warehoused in pretrial detention facilities because they can’t afford bail.
  2. Equity. By this I just mean the difference between the top and the bottom, e.g., the GINI coefficient, although one might consider more factors besides income. Algeria and Sweden have almost identical levels of equity (GINI coefficients of 27.2 and 27.6, respectively), but Sweden is much wealthier, with 3.3 times as much GNP per capita as Algeria has.
  3. Mobility. This means the chance that someone born at a relatively low level in the socioeconomic distribution will rise to a relatively high level. By definition, that means that someone else must fall. (Or one person could fall halfway as far, and a second person could fall the other half way, to make room for the person who rises all the way up.) By definition, mobility is zero-sum, being measured as the odds of moving up or down percentile ranks. If everyone moves up, that’s #1 (an increase in aggregate welfare), not a sign of mobility.

These three goals can come apart. For example, equity coincides with very poor human development when everyone is starving together. Sweden has high human development and high equity but not much mobility: Swedish families who had noble surnames in the 17th century still predominate among the top income percentiles. It’s just that it doesn’t matter as much that you’re at the bottom in Sweden, because the least off do OK there.

To be sure, the best-off countries in the world tend to be more equitable and prosperous, and there’s a long list of very poor countries that are also highly unequal and (I guess) have little mobility. That pattern could suggest that the path to higher development requires equity. But that’s a contingent, empirical hypothesis, unlikely to be true across the board, and the goals are not the same.

For proponents and analysts of education, the difference matters. Presume that you are concerned with improving human lives. One way to do that is to expand the availability of education. More people reach higher levels of education today than did in 1930–and more people lead safer, longer, lives. This strategy won’t produce equity, however. As educational attainment has risen in the United States, the most educated people have increased the wage gap.

Another way to enhance human welfare is to yield outputs that benefit everyone: skillful doctors and engineers who have great new technologies, medicines, training, etc. To get the best results, it might be smart to concentrate resources at very high-status institutions. The universities that produce the most scientific advances tend to be highly competitive institutions in inequitable systems like the US.

Presume that you want to promote mobility. Then you must reduce the correlation between parents’ and children’s educational attainment. That means admitting and advancing more students whose parents were disadvantaged. It also means, by definition, admitting fewer students from advantaged homes. Increasing the number of total slots is an inefficient way to enhance mobility. Mobility requires competitiveness: when people can compete better, newcomers can more easily knock off incumbents. When individuals are protected against failure, mobility is hampered.

Mobility also operates at the level of communities. In a system of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” Detroit can fall while Phoenix rises. European countries intervene much more effectively than we do to protect their deindustrializing cities. That is better for human flourishing, but it may also hamper mobility.

Finally, presume that you really want to improve equity. One way to do that would be to improve the education of the least advantaged while holding the top constant. Another way would be to lower the quality and value of the education received by the top tier. Very few people would support doing that, even if it improved equity. That’s because most people think that welfare and mobility are at least as important as equity. (I leave aside liberty, although that is also a valid and important principle.)

Hybrid goals are possible. Perhaps what we want is to maximize the welfare of the least advantaged while not allowing inequality to get out of hand or mobility to vanish. That’s arguably the outcome in Denmark and Sweden. The US may under-perform regardless of how you weigh the three goals. We have vast inequality, limited mobility, and not much safety or health for a large swath of our people. But even if we can make progress on all three fronts at once, they are still different directions.

See also: to what extent can colleges promote upward mobility?when social advantage persists for millennia, and the Nordic model

a college class on equality

This is an outline of a class discussion that seemed to work pretty well this morning. The reading is T.M. Scanlon’s “When Does Equality Matter?” Scanlon offers five reasons that a given difference among people may be unjust, and I add a sixth:

  1. The difference reflects suffering by the less advantaged–suffering that could be remedied.
  2. It is humiliating, conveying disrespect.
  3. It allows, or reflects, “dominance”: one person’s being able to control the other without giving reasons or being accountable.
  4. It shows that people lack equal opportunity.
  5. An institution is violating an implicit or explicit promise to treat its members alike.
  6. The difference reflects a past injustice that must be remedied.

For each of the following differences among people, debate: 1) Is it an injustice? 2) If so, for which of the six reasons listed above, or for other reasons? 3) What is unequal? (For instance, a measured outcome, a good, a right?) Who or what is responsible for remedying the injustice?

  • Men in the US live 37 years longer than men in Malawi (from Scanlon).
  • White men in the healthiest US counties live 15 years longer longer than African American men in the least healthy counties (from Scanlon).
  • American CEOs are paid 341 times more than average workers (Scanlon example; updated stats).
  • Kids from households in the 99th income percentile have a 94% chance of completing college. Kids in the lowest percentile have a 22% chance (Raj Chetty).
  • Amish kids are much less likely to go to college (from Scanlon).
  • Tufts faculty are 2.7% African American; 12.1% of the US population are Black.
  • Ninety percent of Tufts students come from the USA. Four percent of the world population is American.
  • A (hypothetical) teacher treats one of his students better than others.
  • A (hypothetical) teacher treats all of his students better than people not in his class.
  • In a doctor’s office, everyone calls the physician “doctor”; the nurses are called by their first names.
  • Among young Americans, roughly 75% of those with BAs vote, versus 25% of those without high school diplomas (CIRCLE).
  • One in four Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss “important matters” (GSS). They are lonelier than the other 75% of Americans.
  • There aren’t enough good jobs for all the people. Today 62.7% of Americans are in the labor force (BLS); that could fall with automation and AI.

Loyalty, Research, and Prison Education

I’m in Dallas, Texas for the the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. Today I’ll be presenting a paper from a larger project on loyalty and social science research methods which draws on an argument I first encountered in Peter Levine’s work. Here’s a link to the PowerPoint of my talk.

It is fairly typical for those who work in college prison education to have arrived at this work through exposure to extraordinary classes of incarcerated students. That’s certainly the case for me: the students in my first class six years ago were so inspiring that I’ve kept doing it ever since. In that sense, we are motivated by loyalty. This may make us good teachers, organizers, and activists. But there’s some question whether it makes us good researchers.

When we publish we are sometimes asked to fill out a conflict of interest form. A typical conflict of interest disclosure for social science journals will ask for potentially biasing obligations we may have incurred through financial incentives, but also about potential bias from non-financial relationship, including personal relationships with students and programs we have helped to build:

The authors whose names are listed immediately below certify that they have NO affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest (such as honoraria; educational grants; participation in speakers’ bureaus; membership, employment, consultancies, stock ownership, or other equity interest; and expert testimony or patent-licensing arrangements), or non-financial interest (such as personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge or beliefs) in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

This Elsevier form is a typical one. It’s quite short compared to similar disclosure forms that people in​ government are asked to fill out. In addition to the obvious sorts of things–such as climate change skepticism funded by a coal mining company–the form asks us to share our “personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge, or beliefs.” There are, I think, two kinds of implications for such disclosures:

  1. Mere knowledge of my “conflicts” is sufficient to warn the reader that my research may be biased.
  2. The sources of conflict go well beyond my paycheck, to encompass my friendships, my preexisting beliefs, and ultimately my loyalties.

The evidence seems to clearly suggest that (1) is false: we are not very good at discounting the assertions of experts even when we know they may be biased. (For instance, we do not sufficiently doubt a mechanic when we know that he may prefer an expensive fix partly because he stands to profit from it.)

But we think the implications of (2) are important for social scientists to consider.  Our affiliations, friendships, and loyalties ultimately dictate the choices we make as researchers, our commitments and priors as we approach evidence, and provide something like a “stopping rule,” whereby we keep researching until we find evidence to fit these preferences. (See literature on motivated reasoning & skepticism, and perhaps also cultural cognition.) Thus we are potentially “conflicted” or “biased” by the very relationships that motivate our scholarship

Consider what this can mean:

  • Education researchers usually enter the field with various preferred policy outcomes (perhaps related to race, gender, poverty, and unionization, but sometimes also preferred teaching environment). They know their work will be used by activists on both sides of various policy questions, and insofar as they continue to work in these areas they tend to want that to happen, whether it’s to promote universal pre-K programs, charter schools and vouchers, or protect collective bargaining and teacher tenure.
  • Medical researchers typically have culturally-specific loyalties to fitness and health–which can cause them to overstate the risks of overweight and obese bodies, as well as overstating the prospects for weight-loss.
  • Political scientists are usually well aware of the prospects for partisan bias–while ignoring their deeper affiliations to their own nation-state’s constitutional norms, such as judicial independence or bicameral legislature. Meanwhile political theorists often have a fundamental political orientation that guides them, like liberalism, conservatism, or even participatory–rather than merely representative–democracy.

I don’t think this kind of loyalty is biasing, though I’m happy to report it when required. In fact, I think it’s a kind of methodological superpower. Peter Levine expanded on this theme in a recent blog post, “Loyalty in Intellectual Work:”

“I’ve noticed that sometimes people expect me to endorse the underlying “theory of change” of a given field very strongly and are disappointed when I won’t. I usually cannot say that a given strategy or premise is the best one available, because I don’t really believe that. Instead, I think that a field or movement turns into what people make of it. So I see myself as a member who wants to make the movement as good as it can be, not as an independent scholar who has judged the movement and found it superior to others.”

Levine is a member in good standing of at least nine different scholarly communities and social movements, and as far as I can tell he has produced and disseminated useful scholarship in each. Yet he claims to have little attachment to the specific accounts of the world to which those communities seem to cling. This is only possibly because he rejects the cognitivist view of the joint endeavor: his loyalty is to the people, not the ideas.

On this approach, any active scholarly endeavor that is attached to, or feeds into, a political project on behalf of a group of people needs to hold its middle range theories relatively lightly. Our loyalties are to communities of practice and inquiry rather than to the reigning theory of etiology and efficacy that the community holds.

To me, this feels familiar. Prison education has a reigning theory of efficacy: the decreased recidivism rates of our incarcerated students. But there’s good reason to hold this view a bit lightly: our loyalty to incarcerated students themselves. If a particular theory of the efficacy of prison education is disproven, I don’t suddenly lose interest in working with prisoners. Indeed, I hope this happens frequently and rapidly in any field I participate in, because theories imply methods, and using the wrong method means we’re being ineffective.

Therefore, even though the body of evidence for prison education looks quite strong, it is not unassailable. We should anticipate that some of the most famous causal claims will come under fire, and we shouldn’t worry: we should seek new theories and work to clarify the old ones. Our loyalty is to the national community of incarcerated student scholars, not to the particular vision of education spelled out in the Three-State Recidivism Study or the RAND Study. I’d even willingly rethink the claims that Daniel Levine and I made in our own contribution to this literature given the right kind of evidence. Nor is our loyalty to particular students: the project of improving prison education nationally and ending mass incarceration has to take precedence over our loyalty to the men and women who are currently benefiting from the Second Chance Pell experiment, since this small group can make or break the program for the country.

Yet this is still a bias of sorts: we’ll always going to be looking for research that humanizes prisoners (thankfully, they are in fact our fellow human beings, so we’re unlikely to be in error there) and reduces our reliance on incarceration. If a strategy doesn’t work, we’re more likely to ask whether it can be tweaked or fixed than to abandon it.

And there’s good evidence that this is an important feature of social science research. One can evince a generic loyalty to a community of people affected by an overarching problem, but who are presented with conflicting narratives for resolving that problem. The researcher can then help adjudicate these explanations and theories of change. For instance, Kristie Dotson’s paper, “How is this paper philosophy?” proposes that disciplinary norms in philosophy departments and journals be altered to make room for work like hers by and in service of diverse practitioners. And in explaining her work, she celebrates the communities to which she belongs for inspiring it:

“I use philosophy to help support, generate and defend research, advocacy and activism that might change the current plight of Black people in the US, particularly promoting better conditions for Black cis- and trans* women, girls and gender non-conforming people. In other words, I am a Black feminist professional philosopher working in the service of Black feminist agendas.” (Philosop-her interview)

Loyalty to a community is not loyalty to a specific theory of change or efficacy, and in fact loyalty can motivate dissent from reigning theories in favor of alternatives. In prison education in particular, I think we need to worry about the sheepskin effect and the signaling theory of education: most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than bit-by-bit along the way. That’s surprising: most skills are learned incrementally, and are beneficial in that incremental way. College, it seems, is all or nothing. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course makes a big difference.

Our anxiety should be that college seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. The difference between someone who has a bachelor’s degree and someone who has 117 credits is quite small, in terms of knowledge. But the person who is unable or unwilling to finish his degree must have some incapacity or impediment. The degree is a signal that those elements are missing. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

In this sense, then, we have to worry that prison education will, like education outside of prison, create a meritocratic hierarchy among prisoners. Rather than humanizing those behind the fence, it may sometimes have the effect of selecting a chosen few, “the exceptions.” So we should be willing to hold the various theories of education lightly.

  • Perhaps prison education is valuable because it enhances signals of employability, reducing the stigma of incarceration.
  • Perhaps prison education works to connect high status faculty with low status prisoners, and that association passes along cultural capital.
  • Perhaps prison education works by identifying and raising the profile of certain organic intellectuals among people who are incarcerated. Or perhaps it simply allows the Du Bois’s Talented Tenth to rise.
  • Perhaps education is a human right and we should ignore efficacy evidence for prison education.
  • Perhaps prison education in the humanities and liberal arts teaches students important self-regulation and conflict resolution skills.
  • Perhaps prison education provides important opportunities for deliberation over fundamental values which can lead to effective reprobation and rehabilitation of the moral injuries of a crime.
  • Perhaps prison education is a part of a larger process of reframing people who are incarcerated through the lens of deficits to seeing them as assets to their community.
  • Perhaps the soul knows no bars, and prison education is an important corrective to our overly punitive system of mass incarceration.

Loyalty requires to keep exploring these alternatives rather than rest easy with the RAND study. We’re better researchers because of it.

Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life

I read Kieran Setiya’s Midlife (Princeton, 2017) not only because I have that condition and am sometimes troubled by its complaints, but also because I appreciate the style of thought that Pierre Hadot named “philosophy as a way of life.” Practitioners of this style acknowledge that it is important to develop and test arguments. The philosophical life is one of critical reason. However, arguments should have a purpose: to improve a life. And we must remember that people are habitual and affective creatures. Therefore, arguments—no matter how valid and rigorous—will not change us. We also need practices or mental disciplines to accompany our arguments. But a mental habit or practice can lead us away from the findings of our critical reason. We may train ourselves to be foolish or selfish. So we need habits that are at least consistent with the best arguments, and, ideally, habits that actually include argumentation.

That is exactly the combination offered by the Hellenistic Schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism) and by the classical Indian traditions. It has been relatively weak in the modern West. Setiya shows that it can be practiced today.

He is a professional philosopher in the Anglophone, analytic tradition. A clue that he is trying something different in Midlife is the book’s grammar. Setiya often writes in the second-person singular: “You should …” (as in “You should not prefer to rewind time, erase your son, and try again.”) He also sometimes uses the first-person singular or plural: “I wish …”; “We think …” Midlife reads like a conversation that reports Setiya’s real efforts to combat his ennui in order to improve your life, too.

Midlife is almost free of jargon. But one person’s jargon is another’s helpful terminology, and Setiya makes occasional use of specialized words. His distinctive stylistic move is not his informal vocabulary but his shift to the second-person, which implies a stringent test that can be applied to each sentence and chapter: would an actual “you” find this text useful?

Another clue that Setiya is working in the tradition of philosophy as a way of life is that he recommends repeated practices, habits, or meditative exercises at the conclusion of each chapter. These are meant to turn the arguments of the chapter into therapies that might change our mental habits.

Many of Setiya’s recommendations are drawn from the history of ethics, not original to Midlife. Of course, that is fine; it is useful to review and revive others’ points. But some of his arguments are novel, and I will mention two.

Living in the Moment

First, Setiya offers a helpful way to think about “living in the moment.” His argument rests on a distinction between telic activities, which we conduct in order to accomplish them, and atelic activities, which we do for their own sake. “Cook[ing] dinner for your kids, help[ing] them finish their homework, and put[ting] them to bed” are “telic activities through and through”: aimed at their accomplishment. On the other hand, “parenting is complete at every instant; it is a process not a project.” You can be doing both at once.

Some people recommend spending more time on purely atelic activities. Retire as soon as you can and play golf. Until then, take time for meditation or a weekly walk in the woods. Such advice is not necessarily practical—or valuable, if it encourages you to lead a life that’s less valuable to the world.

Other texts recommend viewing every activity as purely atelic. Notably, that is what Krishna teaches in the Baghavad Gita: “Motive should never be in the fruits of action, / nor should you cling to inaction. … / Let go of clinging, and let fulfillment / and frustration be the same.” The problem with that advice is that we should aim for good outcomes. It matters what we do, not only our stance toward it.

Setiya’s advice is to combine the telic with the atelic. Strive to get the kids to bed (and do that as well as you can), but also think of yourself as parenting. Attend meetings, write emails, and perform calculations all day, but also see yourself as leading a worthy life. This is an example of a meditative practice that incorporates argument, because it requires redescribing what we are doing in new terms. It may, to quote Wordsworth, have “the power to make / Our noisy years seem moments in the being / Of the eternal Silence.”

Midlife as a Universal Human Circumstance

Second, Setiya disagrees that “midlife” is a stage that we encounter between the ages of (say) 40 and 60—probably most frequently in affluent societies, where some people have the luxury of dreaming of sports cars. Rather, “midlife” is any moment on the journey of our lives when we have already made consequential and irreversible choices, but when we also face a substantial stretch ahead. In that condition, we encounter specific temptations and troubles, such as regretting paths not taken or fearing that the future will basically be more of the same for a long time to come. These could be the thoughts of people who are 12 or 90, living anywhere in the world, at any level of wealth and freedom. They just tend to be more prominent for people in the middle decades of life who have ascended some way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Midlife is a universal circumstance, but its special discontents may not be the most salient for some people at some times.

Setiya argues that midlife’s challenges have been underplayed in the history of philosophy, because the main questions have been “What should I do?” (as in Kant) or “What constitutes a good whole human life?” (as in Aristotle). “Neither the prospective question of what to do nor the external, retrospective question of the good human life captures the predicament of midlife” when you must confront a “meaningful past and a meaningful future,” when “the question is not simply what to do, but what you have done and what you have not done, what to feel and how to think of yourself.”

The Problem of Midlife in Joyce’s “The Dead”

It would take a longer argument and more evidence to make this point, but I believe that James Joyce’s story “The Dead” is a reflection on midlife in just the form that Setiya describes. It is about a character in midlife and also about an art form—the written fictional narrative—that faces a midlife crisis of its own. It’s safe to say “The Dead” is a greater work than Setiya’s Midlife. But there are ways in which I prefer the latter.

Starting with Joyce’s own brother, Stanislaus, many readers have remarked that “The Dead” reads like a ghost story, conveying an uncanny sense that the characters are literally dead already. When the protagonist, Gabriel, first speaks, it’s to note that his wife “takes three mortal hours to dress herself,” and his aunts reply that “she must be perished alive.” He’s already lightly coated with the snow that will bury everything. Language of death or living death echoes throughout.

An exception might be the vivacious nationalist teacher Molly Ivors, who leaves the Christmas party without any explanation and seems to have an unpredictable life still ahead of her. She could be fleeing a party of the undead.

Instead of reading “The Dead” as a ghost story, I’d suggest that its characters have come to see their lives as complete. That is a frame of mind that any adult can adopt while entirely alive, but it is a deathly one. Right at the beginning of Midlife, Setiya quotes the article that coined that word, Elliott Jaques’ “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis” (1965): “Now suddenly I have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight—far enough away it’s true—but there is death observably present at the end.”

In “The Dead,” the monks of Mount Melleray sleep in their coffins, Aunt Mary Jane explains, “to remind them of their last end.” All the other characters, too, have lives that can be summarized and declared complete. Aunt Julia had a great voice three decades before but no great career, in part because of gender discrimination in the church. Gabriel reflects, “Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade. … He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. [She never took the path of marriage herself—surely a regret.] Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died.”

Gabriel is called a “young man,” but midlife can happen at any age. In fact, Joyce was also young when he wrote “The Dead.” James Ellman writes, “That Joyce at the age of twenty-five and -six should have written this story should not seem odd. Young writers reach their greatest eloquence in dwelling upon the horrors of middle age and what follows it” (James Joyce, p. 253).

Certainly, Gabriel is dissatisfied with who he is, regretful of certain paths not taken (particularly paths involving Molly), yet skeptical that he can become anything different. These are pitfalls of midlife.

Gabriel does look a little way forward: specifically, to a night in a hotel room with his wife after the party, free from their children. He explicitly and lustfully imagines that immediate future. But his foresight is flawed. Gretta is simultaneously lamenting the story that her life might have taken, had not her youthful suitor Michael Furey tragically died before she met and settled for Gabriel. In this combination of a man who thinks his life is all but done and a woman who mourns for a different existence—neither one understanding the other—we have a dark picture of midlife in just the form that Setiya analyzes it.

Joyce and the Midlife Crisis of Literature

“The Dead” is a fitting coda to the collection of Dubliners, whose stories are arranged in a rough sequence from childhood to the end of life. The story is also an apt conclusion to a whole tradition of English literature, which Joyce sees as complete and without a future–except that it is possible to reflect beautifully on what literature has been, which is a task of Ulysses. In short, “The Dead” is a story about lives seen from the perspective of their ends, and it’s also a story about the end of stories.

One might certainly disagree that literature ended around 1900—haven’t some good books been written since then?—but Modernists thought it was dying, and several Modernists (in addition to Joyce) tried to make art about its conclusion.

For instance, Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Storyteller” (1936, translated by Harry Zohn], “The art of storytelling is reaching its end.” Developments of the modern era, Benjamin thought, have “quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time [made] it possible to see new beauty in what is vanishing” [iv]. “The Dead” finds a new kind of beauty in the passing world that it describes and in the literary tradition that it culminates.

Benjamin distinguishes between a traditional “story” (oral, concise, meant to inform and motivate a live audience) and a “novel,” which is a fictional world created in polished writing by an individual author for a solitary reader. One difference is that a story invites the listeners to continue it, to invent a sequel or to reply with another episode, as we might by imagining what happens to Ms. Ivors. In that sense, she is a character in what Benjamin would call a “story” (and she must leave the novelistic space of “The Dead.”) A novel, in contrast, is closed because it depends entirely on the author’s imagination. The novelist is the master of the whole text.

Benjamin writes, “there is no story for which the question how it continued would not be legitimate. The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing ‘Finis'” (xiv). Joyce doesn’t literally write “The End” on the last page of Dubliners, but the last sentence couldn’t be much more conclusive: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Gabriel has left instructions to be awakened at eight, so his story will continue. Once the porter knocks, he will have to face a new day with Gretta and then many more days as a teacher, writer, and parent, probably extending well into the twentieth century. But Joyce’s story ends where it should; to resume after this crisis would be an aesthetic mistake. As a fictional character, Gabriel is done.

Gabriel envies Michael Furey, whose life ended neatly, if sadly, with his early death. “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Gabriel will have to wither, but we have no interest in following that process. In contrast, it might be interesting to learn how Ms. Ivors fares as Ireland becomes free and women gain opportunity.

Although Benjamin never mentions Joyce or ”The Dead” in this essay, he offers a way of reading the story. “Not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life—and this is the stuff that stories are made of–first assumes transmissible form at the moment of death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end—unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered himself without being aware of it—suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.” (x).

Gabriel doesn’t die—he doesn’t receive that mercy—but he does experience a “sequence of images” that fully summarize the whole story of his life and so concludes it as a meaningful narrative.

Benjamin sees consolation in such a story. “The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by some virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we will never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about” [xv].

That is a way of describing the cold consolation of “The Dead,” which gains its power from the author’s awareness of the impasse that confronts his characters, his genre, and himself. Kieran Setiya is a much more cheerful writer and he aims to give assistance. By his own admission, he doesn’t solve anything for us, but he is a helpful companion. Above all, his voice is conversational, while Joyce’s is magisterial. Setiya is trying to make the future go a bit better for you and me; Joyce offers pure elegy.

Philosophy with Other People

As Benjamin noted, novels are written by solitary authors for solitary readers. We do better when we also have peers to share our experience with. Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoeceus” includes a formal argument that we should not fear death. Death is a lack of sensation, so we will feel nothing bad once we’re dead. To have a distressing feeling of fear now, when we are not yet dead, is irrational. The famous conclusion (although Setiya finds it weak) seems to me to follow logically enough: “Death is nothing to us.”

But Epicurus knows that even the best arguments will not alone counteract the ingrained mental habit of fearing death. So he ends his letter by advising Menoeceus “to practice the thought of this and similar things day and night, both alone and with someone who is like you.” The main verb here could be translated as “exercise,” “practice,” or “meditate on.” It is a mental practice that anyone can employ, regardless of her other beliefs and assumptions. Importantly, it should be pursued both singly and as part of a community. Unlike most professional philosophers of the modern era, Setiya writes like a fellow member of “your” community. He is someone who is “like you,” reaching out with some suggestions based on his own experience and reflections, and inviting your response.

In Walden, Thoreau observes, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” He explains, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates. … It is to solve some of the problems of live, not only theoretically, but practically.” Setiya has taken a courageous step in that direction.

[See also: twenty-five years of itthe aspiration curve from youth to old ageto whom it may concern (a midlife poem), on philosophy as a way of life; and my notes on Philip Larkin’s AubadeDonald Justice’s Men at Forty; and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall.]

Matter, Motion, Atheism

(This post is part of a roundrobin reading group on Kojin Karatani’s Isonomia and the Origins of PhilosophyI focus here on chapter three; James Stanescu previously discussed the preface and appendix, I covered chapter one, and Joseph Trullinger discussed chapter two.)

It is common in potted histories of philosophy to try to create systems of equivalence between different metaphysical systems or assumptions and political and economic conditions. (Consider all the ink spilled about the liberalism of the Cartesian cogito.) Karatani tries to draw a through-line between Ionia’s materialistic and naturalistic metaphysics and its efforts to preserve egalitarian economic and political relations. In contrast, the Athenians had both the inequality of slavery and a philosophy of super-naturalism: theology and teleology. We are supposed to conclude that naturalism is thus more egalitarian and root out the theological and the teleological where we find it.

Even an avowed atheist like myself finds this kind of defense a bit too neat; much as I might like to pretend that naturalism leads to equality, I don’t see much evidence for that in Karatani or the history of philosophy. And I can readily see Trullinger’s frustration with the assumption.


In this chapter, Karatani finally breaks the news that the vaunted Ionian naturalist Thales “is purported to have said, ‘All things are full of gods.'” But Karatani does not allow this claim to undermine his reading of Thales as a naturalist: “Thales did not introduce a magical way of thinking. Quite the opposite: it was in order to move away from magical thinking that he conceived the self-moving original substance.” (Isonomia, 59) This is hylozoism; the belief that the forces animating objects are within them, rather than external.

On Karatani’s view, Aristotle’s fourfold theory of causality problematically injects the existence of a God with purposes into the neat efficient causal structure that Anaximander supplied when he claimed that all things are rooted in the four elements. Where Anaximander saw human development in something like evolutionary terms, the Athenian Aristotle found the cause outside of the objects, in a prime mover and a God understood in the image of a craftsman. Of course, though Karatani does not allow himself to delve into the more charitable readings of Aristotle, there is some reason to see Aristotle’s entelecheia (which combines telos and self-movement) as an embrace or complication of hylozoism.

Back to Karatani, an account of self-movement and efficient causation allows us to explain animal and human evolution as either the product of a breeder (natural selection) or the product of random chance (genetic mutation) without ever making reference to aims or projects by an overarching, anthropomorphized deity attempting to make humanity is His image. Aristotle, Karatani charges, could conceive of the breeder as a divine perfecter of living things; but it takes a true materialist to explain growth, development, improvement and variation without reference to a divine cultivator. In a strained effort to make this connection, Karatani puts great stock in Karl Marx’s gift of Das Kapital to Charles Darwin, and to the theme of Marx’s dissertation: a rejection of Aristotle’s biology for the adaptive naturalism of Democritus and especially Epicurus, whose “random atomic swerve” which enables variation without an eye to progress.

Ironically, this echoes a recent debate among analytic philosophers of biology. Check out Jerry Fodor’s “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings,” and his subsequent What Darwin Got Wrong with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. They argued there that the existence of spandrels–and indeed of curly tailed pigs–suggested that we cannot use natural selection to explain all traits: many such traits are the result of selection yet do not contribute directly to fitness, so they’re not selected for. Karatani simplifies this with an argument–which seems to me to be wrong–that selection can only work within a species, perfecting it for its environment, while random mutations are necessary to open up new ecological niches and thus potential capacities. This seems wrong because it ignores large-scale environmental changes, whereby the pressures of the ecosystem might create species variations without fully destroying older species.

System-Building and the Metaphysical Inertness Thesis

The frustrating thing for me in Karatani’s view is that he seems to believe that matter and motion need to be understood as somehow united from the micro-foundations of the sciences to the macro-systems of the social world, from metaphysics to physics and from biology to sociology. If philosophers point to the usefulness of teleology in ecology, in world systems theory, or in neurology, I am betraying his vision of a purified natural science. I suspect that this is a sophisticated form of the “Ant Trap” that continually forces us to try to articulate group behaviors and roles in terms of individualistic drives and goals.

What’s more, I am very much at the end of my patience with this sort of metaphysical overdetermination. I can’t deny that some metaphysical views seem more appealing to me than others, nor can I deny that certain forms of metaphysical pluralism strike me as particularly pernicious and wrong. But it just seems mistaken to claim that there’s one’s metaphysics dictates a politics; the relationships seem much more contingent.

One can imagine a sort of philosophical Mr. Potato Head with mix-and-match ethical, political, epistemological, and metaphysical views, and while there’s probably work to be done figuring out each unique constellation of ideas would fit together, I don’t doubt that there’s some way to get from B-series temporality to Bayesean reliabilism to monarchism to anti-natalism to moral particularism. (Free dissertation topic!) This is different from what I call metaphysical deflation, wherein metaphysical views are crystallized, overweighted experiences; it’s something more like “metaphysical inertness.” But my co-readers of Karatani are likely to push back against this view; Stanescu is a devoted ontological pluralist, while Trullinger has staked his philosophical project on the necessity of theological immortality for both ethics and political emancipation.

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Karatani posits that when economic inequality first reared its head in Ionia it led to crisis of foreign tyranny, which could only be resolved through a social contract among Ionians; a codification of pre-existing norms, with all the subsequent issues that any such codification will necessarily bring. This raises some interesting questions about the real value of the pluralistic republic of free exit that he posited initially: if it wasn’t sustainable, to what extent can it act as a model? For Karatani, apparently, this move to the social contract is a part of his larger story about how political, economic, and religious regimes can grow towards a more perfect and universal form through a simple synthesis.

That’s Karatani’s version of historical teleology: somehow the social contract is the result of this pressure and further pressures will eventually lead us to his “Mode D,” which somehow overcomes all the difficulties of previous arrangements: it “recuperates” earlier virtues while overcoming (magically!) prior restraints. While he doesn’t tell us how, it’s clear this is somehow not a true teleology, but rather an equilibrium of self-moving matter. (And yes, this is sarcasm: he seems to have a lot of this sort of ad hoc special pleading, and I’m frustrated by it. But perhaps in Transcritique there’s a better account?)

I think it’s notable that Karatani accuses the Ionians of having been ignorant of the way their social arrangements were rooted in their norms–when the social arrangements start to break down under pressure, they don’t know which components of their previous epoch of egalitarian exit to try to restore. It takes Thales to rally them–with his atheistic philosophy of gods in everything. Otherwise, Ionian isonomy threatened to fall into tribal or priestly domination under a shared myth or ethnic identity, and this, Karatani argues, inevitably ends in tyranny, as it did in Samos.

Karatani depicts Thales as using his natural philosophy as a cryptic “denunciation of tyranny and class.” Somehow, this cryptic message gets through and Ionia manages to fend off prospective tyrants and preserve itself as a social contract or a covenant federation with hylozoic gods. (Footnote 1) Does the subsequent social contract evolve from these prior conflicts, like the natural selection of the breeder? Or is it the result of random swerve–a social mutation?

Atheism Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

There’s lately been a spate of good articles on the failure of The New Atheists, the group of evangelical atheists that gained fame in the last two decades arguing vociferously that there is no God. I’m most interested in Sam Kriss’s take, “Village Atheists, Village Idiots.” Here comes a lengthy quote, but I promise it’s worth it:

Soren Kierkegaard, the great enemy of all pedants, offers a story that might shed considerable light. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he describes a psychiatric patient who escapes from the asylum, climbing out a window and running through the gardens to rejoin the world at large. But the madman worries: out in the world, if anyone discovers that he is insane, he will instantly be sent back. So he has to watch what he says, and make sure none of it betrays his inner imbalance—in short, as the not-altogether unmad Danish genius put it, to “convince everyone by the objective truth of what he says that all is in order as far as his sanity is concerned.” Finding a skittle-bowl on the ground and popping it in his pocket, he has an ingenious idea: who could possibly deny that the world is round? So he goes into town and starts endlessly repeating that fact, proffering it over and over again as he wanders about with his small furious paces, the skittle-bowl in his coat clanking, in strict conformity with Newton’s laws, against what Kierkegaard euphemistically refers to as his “a–.” Of course, the poor insistent soul is then sent right back to the asylum […]

Kierkegaard’s villagers saw someone maniacally repeating that the world is round and correctly sent him back to the asylum. We watched [Neil deGrasse] Tyson doing exactly the same thing, and instead of hiding him away from society where nobody would have to hear such pointless nonsense, thousands cheer him on for fighting for truth and objectivity against the forces of backwardness. We do the same when Richard Dawkins valiantly fights for the theory of evolution against the last hopeless stragglers of the creationist movement, with their dinky fiberglass dinosaurs munching leaves in a museum-piece Garden of Eden. We do it when Sam Harris prises deep into the human brain and announces that there’s no little vacuole there containing a soul. (h/t Scott Alexander for pulling the quote)

Scott Alexander’s take in Slate Star Codex runs with this reading, and I think it’s definitely the one to beat. It’s so tempting because it captures my own reaction: the problem with the New Atheists is that they won’t shut up about religion, and one of the pleasures of atheism is being able to be indifferent to religious anxieties. Of course, most of those anxieties get recapitulated as meta issues, anyway: metaphysics, meta-ethics, meta-politics, meta-logic, etc. so we don’t escape them. But the New Atheists won’t let us get down to the business of thinking hard about moral particularism and non-ideal political theory; they keep loudly assuring us there is no God, and it’s distracting not least because some of the people with smart things to say on these topics are theists.

And this is the other, perhaps better explanation: a lot of my colleagues and friends and students are theists and the New Atheists insist on starting fights with them. The New Atheists have found themselves exiled because they’re rude and boorish for insulting my friends, and all the other atheists’ friends, and in a deeper sense for violating the religious tolerance that Europe and the US embraced after the wars of religion. I’m happy to be an atheist, but I’m not happy with the reputation of atheism in their hands.

Of course, if religion really is a main cause of some of the great evils that bear its name, the New Atheists are a bit more explicable. If faith moves some people to extraordinary excellence and extraordinary evil, then my “metaphysical inertness” view looks pretty weak. You can’t fight wars of religion without religion, right? There’s no drive to convert, kill, or exile the pagans, infidels, or goyim without a corresponding conception of how faith or divine right functions to create those categories, is there?

My view is that most religious atrocities are better understood as the result of ordinary motivations, with faith as the excuse: there’s a lot of evidence for the thesis that reason is a slave to the passions, in the sense that we use reason to justify our pre-existing commitments. I think many people of faith see something like my inertness thesis at work when they consider the wrongdoing of their coreligionists. No Christian, Muslim, or Jew looks at the twisted depravities of historical members of their religion and thinks that the shared faith was truly responsible for those actions. No atheist feels responsible for the misdeeds of our fellow atheists, after all! Always, we interpret the misdeeds of those who share our commitments as mistaken theology, or a broken soul prone to misinterpretation or self-justification or demagoguery.

My view merely extends that error theory: just as God deserves no blame for the atrocities that are committed in His name, He deserves no credit for the great works of art and awesome altruism to which His followers are sometimes inspired. It’s meant as a compliment to those great souls who express their commitments religiously: when someone who belongs to a religious community has a commitment to do good in the world, to be honorable, serve the most vulnerable, or look beyond the in-group, then faith and religion will be the means by which you give shape to those commitments.

But this ignores the large scale sociological effects of religion. In recent conversations with colleagues, I’ve been revisiting my inertness thesis with an eye to the empirical literature. The difficulty with the “merely individual” account of religious expression is that there is an entire discipline, sociology, that is founded on the view that membership in religious communities has a kind of weak causal power. Durkheim, Weber, and Du Bois all grounded their sociological theories on the causal power of these religious cultures. If religion can change the suicide rate, the economic growth rate, or underwrite white supremacy, than it is not inert. But the fact that religion can do all of those things suggests that Karatani’s account (and the New Atheists’ vast antipathy) is woefully inadequate for replacing religious cultural institutions or even differentiating these diverse effects.

At the very least religions can act as a sort of attractor, molding attention, shaping behavior, and creating cooperative pressures in particular–usually fruitful–ways. The worst offenses of religious people are the same kinds of in-group loyalty and out-group enmity that we see in all societies: motivated reasoning activating of deep tribal impulses from our evolutionary past. Yet the most extraordinary acts of women and men of faith and conviction seem almost impossible to imagine in a flat world of metaphysical inertness, and allow new forms of life and new sources of solidarity, including cosmopolitan political regimes that are even now working to destroy the notion of tribal in-groups once and for all.

  1. Oddly, Karatani usually depicts social contracts as Hobbesean vertical covenants between the ruler and the ruled, but in Thales’ case the covenant appears to be horizontal, between the citizens. (It’s possible that this terminological confusion is a result of the translation from Japanese.)

Exit over Voice: Kojin Karatani on Athens’ Equality Problem

(This post is part of a roundrobin reading group on Kojin Karatani’s Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy. I focus here on chapter one; James Stanescu previously discussed the preface and appendix, and Joseph Trullinger will be discussing chapter two in the next few days.)

In a certain sense, much of Karatani’s book is a brief in favor of the claim that Western philosophy was born in Turkey, not Greece, and then promptly destroyed by the Athenians, though some of the true Turkish philosophy occasionally reappears. But it’s difficult to ascertain why this slight geographic shift across the Aegean Sea should matter so much. (Karatani is Japanese, and so might have some slight preference for locating philosophy’s origins on his continent rather than the European one, but….) But like Heidegger before him, this allows Karatani to argue that the most prominent philosophical voices—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—were actually suppressing the insights that they stole from elsewhere and rebranding the whole enterprise.

The Axial Age: State, Market, Temple

Speaking very, very roughly, Buddha and Lao-tzu are contemporaries of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. What happened in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE to launch these philosophical traditions? The main candidates are novel political organizations (states and empires), population growth, and agricultural innovations.

Of course, it’s important to understand that there isn’t actually much evidence that the axial age was unique in generating egalitarian ethics, moralizing religious ideals, and wisdom traditions;  there was a market for satirical stories like The Eloquent Peasant a millennium and a half earlier. But perhaps for the first time, following the Axial Age these innovations stuck.

Karatani’s claim, ironically, is that they didn’t stick. Instead, Ionia’s egalitarianism was replaced by Athens’ democratic inequality, where equality for a few was purchased at the expense of the domination of many more. Most political units, Karatani claims, went from tribal units to tribal agglomerations dominated by one tribe and structured by class contestations mapped onto those tribal lines. This, he argues, produces a despotic Asian state, characterized by bureaucratic price fixing. A market where buyers and sellers agree on prices through negotiation is thus a major innovation—one he credits to Ionia. And unlike in other city-states and empires, the free market did not amp up economic inequality in Ionia. Instead, it led to economic equality. Despite his disdain for neoliberalism, Karatani here sounds like a classical liberal: if only markets were truly free, there’d be no permanent winners and losers and free markets would produce both affluence and equality.

The Ionians were somehow able to dissolve their older tribal allegiances and create something he calls a covenant community” without either tribal boundaries or fixed class identities. And they did this by embracing the commodity fetish of coinage, market pricing, and somehow refusing to form a state, not in the sense that all tribal societies refuse to be joined into states (until they are conquered) but in some independent way. This last refusal then becomes the basis of “moralizing” religions in which even prayer and sacrifice are understood as primarily reciprocal relationships with the divine.

Later, of course, Ionia was conquered by the Delian league, and then by the many antecedents of modern Turkey. But something briefly flared in Ionia that was eventually perverted into Athenian democracy: Karatani calls it isonomy.

Defining Isonomy

The term isonomy” is usually defined in English as equality before the law” in the sense of equal civil rights. I usually follow Herodotus in defining it as a kind of maximally inclusive government, such as election to public office by lottery would produce. However, there are two other candidates: isonomy sometimes refers to home rule” or independence from foreign domination, and it was used by Hannah Arendt to refer to a kind of resistance to government which she calls no-rule.”

Karatani starts with Arendt. Here’s the relevant passage from On Revolution:

“Freedom as a political phenomenon was coeval with the rise of the Greek city-states. Since Herodotus, it was understood as a form of political organization in which the citizens lived together under conditions of no-rule, without a division between ruler and ruled. This notion of no-rule was expressed by the word isonomy, whose outstanding characteristic among the forms of government, as the ancients had enumerated them, was that the notion of rule (the archy’ from archein in monarchy and oligarchy, or the cracy’ from kratein in democracy) was entirely absent from it. The polis was supposed to be an isonomy, not a democracy. The word democracy,’ expressing even then majority rule, the rule of the many, was originally coined by those who were opposed to isonomy and who meant to say: What you say is no-rule’ is in fact only another kind of rulership; it is the worst form of government, rule by the demos. 
Hence, equality, which we, following Tocqueville’s insights, frequently see as a danger to freedom, was originally almost identical with it.”

Most readers of Arendt will know and love this passage. But it’s at odds with Herodotus and may well misread the historical political theory, if Karatani is correct. Karatani argues that the Ionians of the ancient Mediterranean world were able to achieve no-rule isonomy only through economic equality. From this economic equality they were able to dependably and sustainably preserve the possibility of equal self-government. And this economic equality was only possible because of a strong cosmopolitan right to immigrate and emigrate, along with a refusal of tribal or any other form of cultural or geographic loyalty to origins.” No-rule” then is only possible as no-source,” no arche.

The Forgetting of Isonomy in Athenian Democratic Theory

The Athenians, in contrast, prioritized positive liberties like voting and speaking in the Assembly over exit. This meant that their democracy was founded both homogeneity and several forms of domination: the domestic domination of slaves and immigrants, on the one hand, and the imperial domination of foreign cities on the other.

Solon’s term as archon might have had some hope of creating the conditions for true equality, as he eliminated debts and granted membership in the newly formed assemby to resident foreigners. But it took a tyrant to institute these reforms, and the tyrant who followed Solon, Peisistratus,  was able to seize power in large part because he executed land redistributions. This accustomed Athenian citizens to a novel form of equality, achievable only through the strong-man tactics of a tyrant who would enrich himself and his allies and thus preserve class relations.

Later Athenian tyrants would turn abroad to find resources to redistribute rather than risk their own wealth, like Percles who used profits from the Delian League to pay off Assembly members. Thereby, Athenians discovered something (seemingly) better than domestic equality: foreign conquests. Where the Ionians found true egalitarian isonomy through statelessness, the Athenians could only achieve a facsimile of  isonomy–democracy–through a strong state and an adventurous military. An active military requires a clear distinction between agricultural labor (slaves) and the standing army and navy (citizens), so this is the foundation of Athenian democracy, which is why all efforts to learn modern lessons from Greek demoratic forms are doomed to fail.

Exit and Voice

Political philosophers are more likely to argue about the contrast between positive and negative liberty, or between freedom and equality, than to focus on the pairing of exit and voice that derives from Albert Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Understanding negative liberties like freedom from censorship or freedom from the establishment of a state religion primarily in terms of individual liberty and restrictions on state power creates the wrong impression. It’s an impoverished ideal of free speech rights that conceives of them merely to allow unlimited self-expression. When we defend free speech to ensure the effective support for each citizen’s policy preferences—in terms of positive liberty and effective political participation—we similarly run into questions about how much to tolerate intolerable ideas beyond leaving them uncensored.

The Hirschman paradigm suggests that we are better off if we think of two kinds of engagement: effective voice and cheap exit. Consumers and workers can always express their distaste for a product or working condition through mere complaining, but effective voice requires that the companies we work for or purchase from actually listen and respond, even if they don’t always give us what we want. For our exercise of voice to be effective, we need to feel heard and we need to feel that the exchange of reasons that follows is not merely a distraction. In the same way, the right of exit cannot be merely notional but impractical. Where exit costs are high, as when competing products are much more expensive, or other job prospects are poor, there is no cheap exit and threats to leave or switch brands are implausible. The nation-state often combines weak voice and expensive or impossible exit: it’s almost impossible for most people to effectively emigrate legally, and most citizens do not have an effective means to exercise their voice. Instead we are exhorted to practice loyalty—patriotic displays—and for some reason many of us accept this hostage situation with the forced loyalty of Stockholm syndrome.

Karatani argues, however, for an alternate: equality is realized through freedom. “The ability to move is a fundamental precondition of isonomy.” But where could they go? Karatani argues that emigrants could easily form new colonies in Ionia, or join older ones without penalty or prejudice. The underlying commitment to cosmopolitanism is distinct from the kind of ease of travel we now associate with the nation-state. (And note that fewer Americans move for jobs than we used to do.)

A Positive Role for Colonization?

According to Karatani, the Ionian system of isonomy was based on the priority of cheap and easy exits.  It’s hard to think of colonialism as a positive political impulse, but in this case it’s closer to the ideology of the frontier: rather than wrangle with entrenched interests or demand to be heard, an Ionian could simply pull up stakes and leave. As Karatani tells it, this both empowered Ionians in their effort to gain effective voice in the endeavors of their current states, and it ensured that all market transactions occurred in a truly reciprocal and ultimately egalitarian manner, without rent-seeking activities which could create permanent class divisions. Trade with neighboring city-states was carried out privately, while Athenian trade leagues were state affairs with plenty of skimming by elites. Conquest of other states could create a revenue stream for division as well.

In part this is based on Karatani’s claim that the ease of emigration and new city-state formation meant that no large farms and landholders could emerge. In contrast, the capture of slaves enables larger farms and a division of labor that then grounded the class system. The “despotic Asian state” always lurks as a possibility so long as human beings are too closely attached to the land, whether as serfs, slaves, or ethno-state citizens.

What is Faith to Free Men?

The most provocative claim in chapter one of Karatani’s book is his speculative comparison of Ionia to Iceland, where he notes that both Iceland and Ionian literature are characterized by a rejection of the gods: the Icelandic sagas seem to reject or ignore the Norse gods, while the Ionian philosophers are uncharacteristically naturalistic for the time. In the same way, 18th century American towns were also the product of migrants fleeing the strict class structures of a homeland, where many of them had been deeply religious. And yet these Americans formed relatively egalitarian communities once they arrived, characterized by easy exits to new frontiers, and a curiously deistic and pluralistic society blessed by Nature’s God. (Karatani doesn’t comment on the murder of indigenous peoples that made that frontier possible, however.)

Karatani thus sees freedom of movement, naturalistic religion, and social and economic equality as the key to isonomy.  Returning to Arendt, he advocates for the ward system to help to broaden the sphere in which freedom can produce equality.

Tune in next week to Joseph’s blog Between Two Untruths to read about chapter two.

Social Ontology 2018: The 11th Biennial Collective Intentionality Conference

On August 22-25, 2018, Tufts University will host the biennial Collective Intentionality conference, with the Tisch College of Civic Life as a co-sponsor. This interdisciplinary and international conference will bring together people who study the nature of the social world and how to improve our models of it.

Topics include:

  • Approaches to the metaphysics of the social world
  • Collective intentionality and group cognition
  • The nature of institutions, firms, and organizations
  • The metaphysics of race and gender
  • The nature of law and legal applications of social ontology
  • Collective responsibility

Interdisciplinary contributions are encouraged.

Keynotes by:

  • Sally Haslanger, Ford Professor of Philosophy, MIT
  • Kit Fine, Silver Professor of Philosophy, NYU
  • Daron Acemoglu, Killian Professor of Economics, MIT
  • Scott Shapiro, Southmayd Professor of Law and Philosophy, Yale
  • Edwin Etieyibo, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Univ. of Witswatersrand
  • Amie Thomasson, Professor of Philosophy, Dartmouth (tentative)

More information about the organizers, how to submit abstracts, and even an essay prize are all here.

against state-centric political theory

What do all these statements have in common?

  1. “Republicanism is a consequentialist doctrine which assigns to government, in particular to governmental authorities, the task of promoting freedom as n0n-domination.” — Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government
  2. “Of course governments may delegate … to private entities, but in the end it is government, meaning the society’s basic political structure, that bears the ultimate responsibilities for securing capabilities …. . The Capabilities Approach … insists that all entitlements involve an affirmative task for government: it must actively support people’s capabilities, not just fail to set up obstacles. … Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action.” — Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach
  3. “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” — John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
  4. “The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather ‘What can I and my compatriots do through government’ to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom? And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?” — Milton Friedman, Capitalism as Freedom

These authors disagree about what the government should do and what powers it should have. Friedman wants as little government as necessary to protect a certain kind of freedom. Nussbaum and Rawls would assign the state the powers it needs to guarantee a range of social outcomes. Pettit starts with a particular conception of freedom and concludes with an argument for an assertive state.

But all agree that justice means getting the role of the government right.

One objection to this shared premise is that no government alone can determine whether people experience justice or injustice. Amartya Sen begins his book The Idea of Justice with a quote from Great Expectations (“In the little world in which children have their existence, nothing is so finely felt and perceived as injustice”) to support the point that non-state actors–in Pip’s case, an older sister–can be just or unjust in ways that no state would be able to determine.

I agree, but my objection is different and (I think) more radical. All the books quoted above are about justice, but their authors and readers are not governments. Instead, these books are written by people for people. People can adopt views of what governments should do, and sometimes people influence governments. But individual people–even dictators–cannot directly make governments either just or unjust. The question for these authors and their readers should be: What must we do?

From that perspective, governments do enter the picture, as do families, markets, customs, religions, ecosystems, laws of nature, and many other tools and constraints. The question for us is not how each of these things should ideally work (if so, I’d favor laws of nature that guarantee us all perfect happiness forever), but rather how we should deal with the constraints and opportunities that confront us.

In particular, the governments that we deal with differ greatly. Some of us live in Denmark; others in North Korea or Bukina Faso. All the authors cited above would agree that Denmark’s government is better than North Korea’s, but that conclusion has limited value for residents of either country. Further, citizens of Denmark can fine-tune the justice of their government’s policies by supporting the political parties that best reflect their views. In North Korea (because of tyranny) and in Burkina Faso (because of poverty), that approach to improving the world isn’t really available.

My objection is not that governments should play a more limited role than they play today or than some theorists recommend. As an individual voter, it happens that I would support more assertive government. My objection is to treating the question, “What is a good government?” as an answer to the existential question, “What should I do as a citizen?” Apart from voting for the party that recommends my favorite size and type of government, what am I to do?

I’d venture an analogy to a family of theological views. For many theists, God is the Unmoved Mover, ultimately responsible for everything but not subject to being changed. Our stance toward God should involve such virtues as hope and faith. We can pray for certain outcomes, and we can be confident that divine choices will be just. We can ask what God is likely to do, given that God is just. We cannot, however, choose how God will act.

Likewise, in all the political philosophies cited above, the state is the unmoved mover of a system of justice. Unlike God, a state can either be good or bad; it can merit admiration or criticism. And we can debate whether the state should be more or less powerful (in contrast to God, Who is all-powerful). But these theories all suppose that the question of justice is: What is the ideal state? This question resembles the theological question, What are the attributes of God? It is a matter for analysis and inquiry, but not a choice.

Of course, everyone realizes that people make and change governments. The modern Danish state didn’t arise spontaneously; Danes made it and sustain it. They have also made the Danish language and economy and the physical layout of Danish towns and the countryside. But the strategies and ethics of citizens’ action are sidelined in all these political philosophies–even in Friedman’s libertarianism. He wants the state to do little, and private actors to do what they want; but that’s still not a theory of how we can accomplish justice. Again, if we are Danes who agree with Friedman, we can vote for classical-liberal candidates; but if we are North Koreans, Friedman’s ideals are empty.

How did a strategy for influencing the world become available in Denmark that is absent in North Korea? Because of the past behavior of people, both inside these countries and beyond.

Perhaps political philosophers focus on the state because they believe that blueprints of just political orders influence history. Without Locke, no American Revolution; without Rousseau, no French Revolution; without Marx, no Russian Revolution. The social impact of abstract philosophy is a large question on which I claim no special expertise. However, my general premise is that the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk and doesn’t see all that well. Locke writes after the actual English Revolution of 1688 and tries to make theoretical sense of it. He has some influence on the American framers, but they have many other influences as well, including their hands-on experiences in colonial government. Likewise, Robespierre may have carried his copy of Rousseau around with him–and Lenin, his Marx–but the actual revolutions that they led didn’t resemble these blueprints all that well. Not to mention that most sustainable change doesn’t occur during revolutions at all. It reflects slow, cumulative, experimental adjustments that are theorized after the fact.

Another reason that most political philosophers focus on the state rather than people may be that the actions of citizens appear to be theoretically uninteresting. Action is a matter of praxis, and the only question is empirical: Given the actual circumstances, what will work to move the society toward justice? That’s a question for strategists and empirical students of activism, lobbying, elections, social movements, revolutions, and so on, but not for political philosophers.

This is where I dissent. When we set out to change the world, we must decide what is right for us to do under the circumstances. The main way to test our answers to that question is to discuss them with other people. We must also coordinate our actions to increase our odds of changing the world. Unless we have already coordinated with some other people, we probably lack a venue in which to deliberate, because a deliberation is itself a shared activity, and it almost always takes place within an organization of some kind that we must sustain.

Deliberating and coordinating action generate relatively consistent classes of problems. They are hard problems, yet some groups of people have solved them. These problems are just as conceptually and ethically complex as the problem of designing a good state. But they are more pressing for us, because we can deliberate and coordinate, but we cannot implement our ideas of a good state. The only way that states will get better is if people (including those who work in and for states) deliberate and coordinate better. And–while we are at it–we can also change cultures, markets, religions, and even ecosystems. Theorizing that work is the task of Civic Studies.

See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need; Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II)new book–Civic Studies: Approaches to the Emerging Field; and The Good Society symposium on Civic Studies