A fresh approach to life plans

There isn’t a clear philosophy of life-planning in the literature. So let’s start from scratch. What do we need in order to make a plan for any temporally extended project?

  • An assessment of the outcomes we want to bring about
  • An assessment of the likely workings of the natural and social environment in which action will occur
  • A theory about how to achieve those outcomes — strategy and tactics
  • An assessment of the likelihood of negative interactions among various aspects of the plan
  • An assessment of the riskiness of the environment
  • A backup plan if things go off the rails — plan B!

We would like to arrive at a plan that has a high probability of success, and one for which there are soft landings available when future expectations are not fulfilled. If my goal is to become a symphony conductor but I also know that the qualifications needed would equally qualify me to be a performer, and if performing itself is an agreeable outcome, then aiming at conductor is less risky.

We know what it is to be rational about limited choices like choosing a new car, picking a vacation destination, or investing retirement savings. Each of these decisions falls within a broad degree of certainty of assumptions for us: we know that we enjoy the beach more than the opera, that we want a fair degree of security in our retirement accounts, or that we need a car that is good in wet weather. That is to say, we know a lot about our tastes, our future needs, and our current circumstances. So small-gauge choices like these depend fairly simply on locating a solution that serves our tastes and preferences in our current and near-future circumstances. With these conditions fixed, we can then go about the information gathering that allows us to assess how well the available sets of alternatives serve our tastes, needs, and circumstances.

Sometimes we can even reduce our choice situations to a simple set of cost-benefit tradeoffs: I’ll get a 20% improvement in crash-worthiness by paying an additional $10,000 for the car I choose; I’ll have a chance on a 10% annual return on an investment if I accept a greater degree of risk; etc. And I might find that I like the tradeoff for one set of costs but not for another — more safety is worth $10,000 to me but not $50,000. Or I will accept the greater investment risk when it means moving from 1% chance of losing everything to a 3% chance, but not to a 10% chance.

A life plan isn’t like this, however. Consider the space of choices that confronts the 20-year old college student Miguel: what kind of work will satisfy me over the long term? How much importance will I attribute to higher income in twenty years? Do I want to have a spouse and children? How much time do I want to devote to family? Do I want to live in a city or the countryside? How important to me is integrity and consistency with my own values over time? These kinds of questions are difficult to answer in part because they don’t yet have answers. Miguel will become a person with a set of important values and commitments; but right now he is somewhat plastic. It is possible for him to change his preferences, tastes, values, and concerns over time. So perhaps his plan needs to take these kinds of interventions into account.

Another source of uncertainty has to do with the future of the world itself. Will the economy continue to provide decent opportunities for young people, or will income stratification continue to increase? Will climate change make some parts of the world much more difficult for survival? Will religious strife worsen so that safety is very difficult to achieve? Is Mary Poppins or William Gibson the better prognosticator of what the world will look like in thirty years? A plan that looks good in a Mary Poppins world may look much worse in the Sprawl (Gibson’s anti-utopian city of the future).

And then there is the difficult question of akrasia — weakness of the will. Can I successfully carry out my long term plans? Or will short term temptations make it impossible for me to sustain the discipline required to achieve my long term goals? (Somewhere Jon Elster looks at this problem as a collective action problem across stages of the self. Is this a reasonable approach?) For that matter, how much should future goods matter to me in the present?

It is worth asking whether life plans actually exist for anyone. Perhaps most people’s lives take shape in a more contingent and event-driven way. Perhaps guided opportunism is the best we are likely to do: look at available opportunities at a given moment, pursue the opportunity that seems best or most pleasing at that point, and enjoy the journey. Or perhaps there are some higher-level directional rules of thumb — “choose current options that will contribute in the long run to a higher level of X”. In this scenario there is no overriding plan, just a series of local choices. This alternative is pretty convincing as a way of thinking about the full duration of a person’s life, as any biographer is likely to attest.

Consider an analogy with the life of a city or state: decisions and policies are established at various points in time. These decisions contribute to the life course of the city; monuments established in 200 BCE continued to inform Roman life in 300 AD. But Rome was indeed not built in a day, and its eventual course was not envisaged or planned by any of its founders and leaders. A city’s “life” is the complex resultant of deliberation at many points in time, struggle, and contingency. And perhaps this describes a person’s life as well.

This point of view has a lot in common with Herbert Simon’s 1957 concept of bounded rationality and satisficing rather than maximizing as a rule of rational decision-making (Models of Man). Instead of heroically attempting to plan for all contingencies over the full of one’s life, a bounded approach would be to consider short periods and make choices over the opportunity sets available during those periods. And if we superimpose on these choices a higher-level set of goals to be achieved — having time with family, living in conformity to one’s moral or religious values, gaining a set of desired character traits — then we might argue that this decision-making process will be biased towards outcomes that favor one’s deeper values as well as one’s short-term needs and interests.

This approach will not optimize choices over the full lifetime; but it may be the only approach that is feasible given the costs of information gathering and scenario assessment.

So what about a rational life plan? At this point the phrase seems inapropos to the situation of a person’s relationship to his or her longterm “life”. A life is more of a concatenation of a series of experiences, projects, accidents, contingencies — not a planned artifact or painting or building. A life is not a novel, a television series, or a mural with an underlying storyboard in which each element has its place. And therefore it seems inapt to ask for a rational plan of life. Individuals make situated and bounded deliberative decisions about specific issues. But they don’t plot out their lives in detail. 

 

What seems more credible is to ask for a framework of navigation, a set of compass points, and a general set of values and purposes which get invested through projects and activities. The idea of the bildungsroman seems more illuminating — the idea of a young person taking shape through a series of challenging undertakings over time. Development, formation, values clarification, and the formation of character seem more true to what we might like to see in a good life than achieving a particular set of outcomes.

 

Where, then, do thinking and reasoning come into the picture? This is where Socrates and Montaigne seem to be relevant. They look at living as an opportunity for deepening self-knowledge and articulation of values and character. “To philosophize is to learn how to die” (Montaigne) and “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates). The upshot of these aphorisms seems to be this: reasoning and philosophizing allow us to probe, question, and extend our values and the things we strive for. And having examined and probed, we are also in a position to assess and judge the actions and goals that are presented to us at various stages of life. How does a college major, a first job, a marriage, or a parenting challenge frame the future into which the young person develops? And how can practical reflection about one’s current values help to give direction to the future choices he or she makes later in life?
Practical rationality perhaps amounts to little more than this when it comes to constructing a life: to consider one’s best understanding of the goods he or she cares most about, and acting in the present in ways that shape the journey towards a future that better embodies those goods for the person and his or her concerns.

Rational life plans

Aristotle, Kant, and Rawls agree: people ought to have rational plans of life to guide their everyday efforts and activities. But what is involved in being rational about one’s plan of life? And really, what is a plan of life? Is it a sketch of a lifetime goal, along with some indications of the efforts that are currently thought to lead to this goal? Is it a blueprint for organizing one’s thinking, actions, investments, time, resources, and character over time in order to bring about the intended goal? Or is it something more flexible that this? Did Walter White in Breaking Bad have a plan of life, either before and after his cancer diagnosis? Did Dostoevsky have a plan of life? How about Wagner or Whitman? Is it possible to be rational in making partial or full life plans? How have philosophers thought about this topic?

Planning means orchestrating one’s activities over time in such a way as to bring about good outcomes over the full period. When a person plans for a renovation of his/her home, he or she considers the reasons for considering the renovation; the results to be achieved; the enhancements that would contribute to those results; the resources that are necessary to fund those enhancements; the amount of time that will be required for each of the sub-tasks; and so forth. With a good plan and a good execution, it is likely that a good outcome will be achieved: an improved residence that was accomplished within the budgeted time and resources available.

A plan of life is something larger than a plan for a house renovation, though it has some aspects in common. John Rawls was the philosopher in recent times who brought this idea into serious attention. The concept plays a crucial role within his theory of justice in A Theory of Justice. (Perhaps Aristotle is the ancient philosopher who had the greatest interest in this idea.) Rawls introduces the idea in the context of his discussion of primary goods.

The main idea is that a person’s good is determined by what is for him the most rational long-term plan of life given reasonably favorable circumstances. A man is happy when he is more or less successfully [sic] in the way of carrying out this plan. To put it briefly, the good is the satisfaction of rational desire. We are to suppose, then, that each individual has a rational plan of life drawn up subject to the conditions that confront him. This plan is designed to permit the harmonious satisfaction of his interests. It schedules activities so that various desires can be fulfilled without interferences. It is arrived at by rejecting other plans that are either less likely to succeed or do not provide for such an inclusive attainment of aims. Given the alternatives available, a rational plan is one which cannot be improved upon; there is no other plan which, taking everything into account, would be preferable. (TJ 92-93)

Several things are noteworthy about this description. First, it involves scheduling activities so as to “harmoniously satisfy interests”, which is paraphrased as “fulfilling desires without interferences”. In other words, Rawls’s account of a plan of life is a fairly shallow one in terms of the assumptions it makes about the person. It takes desires as fixed and then “plans” around them to ensure their optimal satisfaction. But there are other things that we might want to include in a plan of life: choices about one’s enduring character, for example. And second, Rawls makes very heroic assumptions here by requiring that a rational plan of life is a uniquely best plan, an optimal plan, one which cannot be improved upon.

There is a very direct connection between planning and rationality. But, surprisingly, this connection has not been a strong topic of interest within philosophy. The most important exception is in the work of David Bratman, including his 1987 book, Intention, Plans and Practical Reason. Here are a few key ideas from Bratman’s book:

Our need for plans concerning the future is rooted in two very general needs. We are rational agents, to some extent. For us this means in part that deliberation and, more generally, rational reflection help shape what we do. If, however, our actions were influenced only by deliberation at the time of action, the influence of such deliberation would be rather minimal. This is so because deliberation requires time and other limited resources, and there is an obvious limit to the extent to which one may successfully deliberate at the time of action. 2 So we need ways to allow deliberation and rational reflection to influence action beyond the present.

 

 

 

Second, we have pressing needs for coordination. To achieve complex goals I must coordinate my present and future activities. And I need also to coordinate my activities with yours. Anyone who has managed to write a lecture, pick up a book at the library, attend a committee meeting, and then pick up a child at school will be familiar with the former type of intra personal coordination. And anyone who has managed to arrange and participate in a committee meeting with several colleagues will be familiar with the latter sort of inter personal coordination. Of course, as the examples make clear, we are typically in need of both sorts of coordination; for we are both temporally extended and social agents. And as we all learn to our chagrin, neither sort of coordination happens effortlessly.

 

We do not, of course, promote coordination and extend the influence of deliberation by means of plans that specify, once and for all, everything we are to do in the future. Such total plans are obviously beyond our limits. Rather, we typically settle on plans that are partial and then fill them in as need be and as time goes by. This characteristic incompleteness of our plans is of the first importance. It creates the need for a kind of reasoning characteristic of planning agents: reasoning that takes initial, partial plans as given and aims at filling them in with specifications of appropriate means, preliminary steps, or just relatively more specific courses of action. (section 1.1)

Here Bratman makes the connection between deliberation, intentions, and planning explicit: planning permits the coordination of one’s intentions over time. And in the final paragraph he correctly observes that there is no such thing as a complete plan for a topic; plans are created in order to be updated. (Notice, however, that this runs contrary to Rawls’s assumption quoted above.)

Jonathan Baron also gives some attention to the role of planning in deliberative reasoning in Rationality and Intelligence. Here is a statement from Baron:

A good definition of happiness … is the achievement of just these consequences, or, more precisely, the successful pursuit of a plan that is expected to lead to them …. If the world is at all predictable, rational plans and decisions will, on average, lead to better outcomes in this sense than will irrational ones. Luck, of course, may still intervene; a person might make the best decisions possible, but still be unhappy because things turned out badly. (RI 206)

There are several features of life that make it difficult to formulate a satisfactory theory of the formulation and assessment of rational life plans.

  • The extended timeframe of the planning problem: formulating a plan in one’s twenties that is intended to guide through the end of one’s life in his or her nineties. 
  • The fact of a person’s plasticity. Features of character, personality, habit, taste, and preference are all subject to a degree of purposive change. So it would seem that these should be the object of rational deliberative planning as well. But it is hard to see how to do this. 
  • The fact of the unpredictability of the external environment, both natural and social. 
  • The difficulty of designing a plan that is robust through dramatic change within the person.
  • The difficulty of incorporating possible future capabilities of changing the self and the body directly through genetic engineering.

These challenges make traditional rational-choice theory unpromising as a foundation for arriving at a theory of life planning. Traditional rational choice theory is designed around the assumption of exogenous and fixed preferences, the ability to assign utility to outcomes, and quantifiable knowledge of the likelihood of various outcomes. But the five factors mentioned here invalidate all these assumptions.

(Several earlier posts are relevant to this set of issues: link, link, link.)

Deliberative democracy and the age of social media

Several earlier posts have focused on the theory of deliberative democracy (link, link, link). The notion is that political decision-making can be improved by finding mechanisms for permitting citizens to have extended opportunities for discussion and debate over policies and goals. The idea appeals to liberal democratic theorists in the tradition of Rousseau — the idea that people’s political preferences and values can become richer and more adequate through reasoned discussion in a conversation of equals, and political decisions will be improved through such a process. This idea doesn’t quite equate to the wisdom of the crowd; rather, individuals become wiser through their interactions with other thoughtful and deliberative people, and the crowd’s opinions improve as a result.

Here is the definition of deliberative democracy offered by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson in Why Deliberative Democracy? (2004):

Most fundamentally, deliberative democracy affirms the need to justify decisions made by citizens and their representatives. Both are expected to justify the laws they would impose on one another. In a democracy, leaders should therefore give reasons for their decisions, and respond to the reasons that citizens give in return… The reasons that deliberative democracy asks citizens and their representatives to give should appeal to principles that individuals who are trying to find fair terms of cooperation cannot reasonably reject. (3)

All political reasoning inherently involves an intermingling of goals, principles, and facts. What do we want to achieve? What moral principles do we respect as constraints on political choices? How do we think about the causal properties of the natural and social world in which we live? Political disagreement can derive from disagreements in each of these dimensions; deliberation in principle is expected to help citizens to narrow the range of disagreements they have about goals, principles, and facts. And traditional theorists of deliberative democracy, from the pre-Socratics to Gutmann, Thompson, or Fishkin, believe that it is possible for people of good will to come to realize that the beliefs and assumptions they bring to the debate may need adjustment.

But something important has changed since the 1990s when a lot of discussions of deliberative democracy took place. This is the workings of social media — blogs, comments, Twitter discussions, Facebook communities. Here we have millions of people interacting with each other and debating issues — but we don’t seem to have a surge of better or more informed thinking about the hard issues. On the one hand, we might hope that the vast bandwidth of debate and discussion of issues, involving enormous numbers of the world’s citizens, would have the effect of deepening the public’s understanding of complex issues and policies. And on the other hand, we seem to have the evidence of continuing superficial thinking about issues, hardening of ideological positions, and reflexive habits of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. The Internet seems to lead as often to a hardening and narrowing of attitudes as it does to a broadening and deepening of people’s thinking about the serious issues we face.

So it is worth reflecting on what implications are presented to our ideas about democracy by the availability of the infrastructure of social media. It was observed during the months of the Arab Spring that Twitter and other social media platforms played a role in mobilization of groups of people sharing an interest in reform. And Guobin Yang describes the role that the Internet has played in some areas of popular activism in China (link). This is a little different from the theory of deliberative democracy, however, since mobilization is different from deliberative value-formation. The key question remains unanswered: can the quality of thinking and deliberation of the public be improved through the use of social media? Can the public come to a better understanding of issues like climate change, health care reform, and rising economic inequalities through the debates and discussions that occur on social media? Can our democracy be improved through the tools of Twitter, Facebook, or Google? So far the evidence is not encouraging; it is hard to find evidence suggesting a convergence of political or social attitudes deriving from massive use of social media. And the most dramatic recent example of change in public attitudes, the sudden rise in public acceptance of single-sex marriage, does not seem to have much of a connection from social media.

Here is a very interesting report by the Pew Foundation on the political segmentation of the world of Twitter (link). The heart of their findings is that Twitter discussions of politics commonly segment into largely distinct groups of individuals and websites (link).

Conversations on Twitter create networks with identifiable contours as people reply to and mention one another in their tweets. These conversational structures differ, depending on the subject and the people driving the conversation. Six structures are regularly observed: divided, unified, fragmented, clustered, and inward and outward hub and spoke structures. These are created as individuals choose whom to reply to or mention in their Twitter messages and the structures tell a story about the nature of the conversation.

If a topic is political, it is common to see two separate, polarized crowds take shape. They form two distinct discussion groups that mostly do not interact with each other. Frequently these are recognizably liberal or conservative groups. The participants within each separate group commonly mention very different collections of website URLs and use distinct hashtags and words. The split is clearly evident in many highly controversial discussions: people in clusters that we identified as liberal used URLs for mainstream news websites, while groups we identified as conservative used links to conservative news websites and commentary sources. At the center of each group are discussion leaders, the prominent people who are widely replied to or mentioned in the discussion. In polarized discussions, each group links to a different set of influential people or organizations that can be found at the center of each conversation cluster.

And here is the authors’ reason for thinking that the clustering of Twitter conversations is important:

Social media is increasingly home to civil society, the place where knowledge sharing, public discussions, debates, and disputes are carried out. As the new public square, social media conversations are as important to document as any other large public gathering. Network maps of public social media discussions in services like Twitter can provide insights into the role social media plays in our society. These maps are like aerial photographs of a crowd, showing the rough size and composition of a population. These maps can be augmented with on the ground interviews with crowd participants, collecting their words and interests. Insights from network analysis and visualization can complement survey or focus group research methods and can enhance sentiment analysis of the text of messages like tweets.

Here are examples of “polarized crowds” and “tight crowds”:

There is a great deal of research underway on the network graphs that can be identified within social media populations. But an early takeaway seems to be that segmentation rather than convergence appears to be the most common pattern. This seems to run contrary to the goals of deliberative democracy. Rather than exposing themselves to challenging ideas from people and sources in the other community, people tend to stay in their own circle.

So this is how social media seem to work if left to their own devices. Are there promising examples of more intentional uses of social media to engage the public in deeper conversations about the issues of the day? Certainly there are political organizations across the spectrum that are making large efforts to use social media as a platform for their messages and values. But this is not exactly “deliberative”. What is more intriguing is whether there are foundations and non-profit organizations that have specifically focused on creating a more deliberative social media community that can help build a broader consensus about difficult policy choices. And so far I haven’t been able to find good examples of this kind of effort.

(Josh Cohen’s discussion of Rousseau’s political philosophy is interesting in the context of fresh thinking about deliberation and democracy; link. And Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright’s collection of articles on democratic innovation, Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (The Real Utopias Project) (v. 4), is a very good contribution as well.)

Rationality over the long term

image: Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his students

Millions of words have been written on the topic of rationality in action. Life involves choices. How should we choose between available alternatives? Where should I go to college? Which job should I accept? Should I buy a house or rent an apartment? How much time should I give my job in preference to my family? We would like to have reasons for choosing A over B; we would like to approach these choices “rationally.”

These are all “one-off” choices, and rational choice theory has something like a formula to offer for the decider: gain the best knowledge available about the several courses of action; evaluate the costs, risks, and rewards of each alternative; and choose that alternative that produces the greatest expected level of satisfaction of your preferences. There are nuances to be decided, of course: should we go for “greatest expected utility” or should we protect against unlikely but terrible outcomes by using a maximin rule for deciding?

There are several deficiencies in this story. Most obviously, few of us actually go through the kinds of calculations specified here. We often act out of habit or semi-articulated rules of thumb. Moreover, we are often concerned about factors that don’t fit into the “preferences and beliefs” framework, like moral commitments, conceptions of ourselves, loyalties to others, and the like. Pragmatists would add that much mundane action flows from a combination of habit and creativity rather than formal calculation of costs and benefits.

But my concern here is larger. What is involved in being deliberative and purposive about extended stretches of time? How do we lay out the guideposts of a life plan? And what is involved in acting deliberatively and purposively in carrying out one’s life plan or other medium- and long-term goals?

Here I want to look more closely than usual at what is involved in reflecting on one’s purposes and values, formulating a plan for the medium or long term, and acting in the short term in ways that further the big plan. My topic is “rationality in action”, but I want to pay attention to the issues associated with large, extended purposes — not bounded decisions like buying a house, making a financial investment, or choosing a college. I’m thinking of larger subjects for deliberation — for example, conquering all of Europe (Napoleon), leading the United States through a war for the Union ( Lincoln), or becoming a committed and active anti-Nazi (Bonhoeffer).

The scale I’m focusing on here corresponds to questions like these:

  • How did Napoleon deliberate about his ambitions in 1789? How did he carry out his thoughts, goals, and plans?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln think about slavery and the Union in 1861? How did his conduct of politics and war take shape in relation to his long term goals?
  • How did Richard Rorty plan his career in the early years? How did his choices reflect those plans? (Neil Gross considers this question in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher; link.)
  • How did Dietrich Bonhoeffer deliberate about the choices in front of him in Germany in 1933? How did he decide to become an engaged anti-Nazi, at the eventual cost of his life?

What these examples have in common is large temporal scope; substantial uncertainties about the future; and extensive intertwining of moral and political values with more immediate concerns of self-interest, prudence, and desire. Moreover, the act of formulating plans on this scale and living them out is formative: we become different persons through these efforts.

The intriguing question for me at the moment is the issue of rational deliberation: to what extent and through what processes can individuals engage in a rational process in thinking through their decisions and plans at this level? Is it an expectation of rationality that an individual will have composed nested sets of plans and objectives, from the most global to the intermediate to the local?

Or instead, does a person’s journey through large events take its shape in a more stochastic way: opportunities, short term decisions, chance involvements, and some ongoing efforts to make sense of it all in the form of a developing narrative? Here we might say that life is not planned, but rather built like Neurath’s raft with materials at hand; and that rationality and deliberation come in only at a more local scale.

Here is a simple way of characterizing purposive action over a long and complex period. The actor has certain guiding goals he or she is trying to advance. It is possible to reflect upon these goals in depth and to consider their compatibility with other important considerations. This might be called “goal deliberation”. These goals and values serve as the guiding landmarks for the journey — “keep moving towards the tallest mountain on the horizon”. The actor surveys the medium-term environment for actions that are available to him or her, and the changes in the environment that may be looming in that period. And he or she composes a plan for these circumstances– “attempt to keep moderate Southern leaders from supporting cecession”. This is the stage of formulation of mid-range strategies and tactics, designed to move the overall purposes forward. Finally, like Odysseus, the actor seizes unforeseen opportunities of the moment in ways that appear to advance the cause even lacking a blueprint for how to proceed.

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc.

As biologists from Darwin to Dawkins have recognized, the process of species evolution through natural selection is inherently myopic. Long term intelligent action is not so, in that it is possible for intelligent actors to consider distant solutions that are potentially achievable through orchestrated series of actions — plans and strategies. But in order to achieve the benefits of intelligent longterm action, it is necessary to be intelligent at every stage — formulate good and appropriate distant goals, carefully assess the terrain of action to determine as well as possible what pathways exist to move toward those goals, and act in the moment in ways that are both intelligent solutions to immediate opportunities and obstacles, and have the discipline to forego short term gain in order to stay on the path to the long term goal. But, paradoxically, it may be possible to be locally rational at every step and yet globally irrational, in the sense that the series of rational choices lead to an outcome widely divergent from the overriding goals one has selected.

I’ve invoked a number of different ideas here, all contributing to the notion of rational action over an extended time: deliberation, purposiveness, reflection, calculation of consequences, intelligent problem solving, and rational choice among discrete alternatives. What is interesting to me is that each these activities is plainly relevant to the task of “rational action”; and yet none reduces to the other. In particular, rational choice theory cannot be construed as a general and complete answer to the question, “what is involved in acting rationally over the long term?”.

Michael Bratman is the philosopher who has thought about these issues the most deeply; Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Manuel Vargas and Gideon Yaffe’s recent festschrift on Bratman’s work, Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman, is also a useful contribution on the subject. Sarah Paul provides a nice review of Rational and Social Agency here.

Elitism?

There are a variety of ways of valorizing individuals and institutions in our society. We can value contribution and productivity; effectiveness; talent and merit; honesty and integrity; and “elite status”. Just watch the credits for Masterpiece Theater, including the promotions for a luxury cruise line and a luxury fashion house, and you will get a pretty good feel for the final category of value mentioned here, elite status. These promotions are clearly aimed at selling the product by selling the marks of elite standing with which they associate themselves. “If you too want to count yourselves among the elite, buy our clothes and travel on our cruise ships.”

Many individuals seem to be motivated by the desire to be perceived as being exceptional, high-status, and, well, elite. This has a connotation of wealth and power, but it also connotes other forms of access and privilege in society — able to gain the ear of elected officials, able to get a corner table at Elaine’s, able to gain membership in exclusive clubs and organizations. So what is “elite”?

To start, “elite” is a social characteristic of meaning attributed to individuals by other individuals. And pretty clearly, it is a socially engineered characteristic. It is the product of specific social actions and institutional arrangements. The fact of a group of families possessing concentrated wealth and power doesn’t automatically create an “elite” in society; rather, features of these individuals and families need to be marketed to the public in ways that lead others to recognize, admire, and respect them. Hierarchy needs to be cultivated.

But “elite” also applies to institutions and practices. Institutions can be perceived as being elite in and of themselves; and they can be perceived as the kinds of places where wannabes can gain the marks of the style and membership that will permit them too to be classified as “elite”. Private schools in New York and Philadelphia compete for both forms of elite status. The New York Yacht Club is elite; the Brooklyn Bowling League is non-elite. Princeton University is elite; LaGuardia Community College is non-elite. Medical school is elite; cosmetology school is non-elite. And, like the cruise line and the fashion house mentioned above, the elite status of the institutions is something that is deliberately cultivated and marketed. Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley are all very concerned about maintaining their elite status and reputation.

Status and privilege are social products; so it is an important task for sociology to decode their workings in contemporary society.

Pierre Bourdieu’s theorizing of various forms of social and cultural capital is directly relevant here. Bourdieu is particularly astute in tracing the markings and features of various kinds of privilege in French society, and the workings of the institutions that reproduce those features. Having elite status is a very tangible form of power and influence, independent from the personal qualities of talent, education, and experience that the individual may possess. Bourdieu traces how this mechanism works in France in The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. The markers of elite status — school, manners, dress, clubs, friendship circles — are forms of social capital that greatly contribute to the influence and power of the young people who are introduced into these practices. Here is a brief statement of Bourdieu’s approach:

One cannot get an accurate picture of the educational institution without completely transforming the image it manages to project of itself through the logic of its operation or, more precisely, through the symbolic violence it commits insofar as it is able to impose the misrecognition of its true logic upon all those who participate in it. Where we are used to seeing a rational educational enterprise, sanctioning the acquisition of multiple specialized competences through certificates of technical qualification, we must also read between the lines to see an authority of consecration that, through the reproduction of the technical competences required by the technical division of labor, plays an ever-increasing role in the reproduction of social competences, that is to say, legally recognized capacities for exercising power, which are absolutely essential if the social division of labor is to endure. (116)

Bourdieu uses the language of “consecration” — the quasi-religious anointment of young men and women into the ranks of the elite holders of power in twentieth-century France.

The processes of social separation that Bourdieu describes for France seem to have close counterparts in North America as well. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality and Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School offer sociological studies of how very different educational institutions work to create the distinction between elite and non-elite. Armstrong and Hamilton study a mid-rank Midwestern research university, and Khan studies the St. Paul’s School, an ultra-elite boarding school in New England. Armstrong and Hamilton’s central finding is that the institution they study embodies institutional arrangements and practices that “track” students into outcomes that are closely correlated with the socioeconomic status of their families. Students from affluent families have a high likelihood of attaining degrees and future opportunities that support their own affluent careers upon graduation, whereas students from mid- and low-socioeconomic status families are led into educational pathways that result in lower rates of completion, less marketable degrees, and less career success. Here is the diagram they provide describing the flow of their argument:

What they mean by “class projects” is a bundle of activities and educational goals that characterize different groups of students. They find three large class projects at work among the women students whom they study: reproduction via social closure; mobility; and reproduction via achievement (table I.1). And they find that the institutional arrangements of the university and the organizational imperatives that embody these arrangements work fairly well to convey different socioeconomic groups onto different outcomes. The pathways that correspond to these projects include the party pathway, the mobility pathway, and the professional pathway; and they find that the class resources and assumptions of the young women they study have a powerful impact on the choices they make across these various pathways.

Khan’s reading of St. Paul’s School emphasizes a different set of processes, at a more elevated level of the American upper crust. And he uncovers an important feature of the past fifty years: the elitist institutions have become simultaneously more diverse and more inegalitarian. It is what he calls a democratic conundrum:

All of this is to say that the ‘new’ inequality is the democratization of inequality. We might call it democratic inequality. The aristocratic marks of class, exclusion, and inheritance have been rejected; the democratic embrace of individuals having their own fair shake is nearly complete. (conclusion)

The fundamental impact of this institution, Khan believes, is to increase the concentration of wealth and power in America, even as a certain number of non-traditional candidates are incorporated.

And so my optimism is heavily tempered. If our economic trends continue, if the spoils produced by the many are increasingly claimed by the few, then the transformations among the elite may be durable. That is, we may have a diverse elite class. And this I imagine will no doubt be trotted out by the elite to suggest that ours is an open society where one can get a fair shake. But diversity does not mean mobility and it certainly does not mean equality. Ours is a more diverse elite within a more unequal world. The result of our democratic inequality is that the production of privilege will continue to reproduce inequality while implying that ours is a just world; the weapons of the weak are removed, and the blame for inequality is placed on the shoulders of those whom our democratic promise has failed. (Conclusion)

These are important features of the contemporary social world. But they raise an important parochial question as well: can public universities truly serve the democratizing role that is so deeply important in our highly unequal world today? Or is there a creeping elitism across many top public universities that undercuts the democratizing effects they ought to have for people on the bottom three or four quintiles of the population?

A more inclusive university

The challenge of creating a truly inclusive university is a difficult one. Inclusiveness is more than diversity. It is an institution and culture in which people from all social groups — race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity — are fully embraced and respected. It is an environment in which every individual is afforded the opportunity and space to do his or her best work, unimpeded by stereotype or discriminatory arrangements. But achieving this harmonious and democratic outcome is challenging, for a variety of reasons. Most important among these is the difficulty of overcoming limitations of perspective from the various groups, including especially the majority group. Practices that seem innocuous and neutral to majority group members are often experienced as demeaning and limiting by non-majority group members — what some students now refer to as “micro-aggressions”.

The inter-university consortium know as the Future of Minority Studies continues to do good work in attempting to make progress on improving the inclusiveness of universities, and the most recent contribution to its publication series is particularly salient. This is The Truly Diverse Faculty: New Dialogues in American Higher Education, a collection of essays by highly talented young faculty of color who write honestly about their experiences at a range of universities around the United States. Edited by Stephanie Fryberg and Ernesto Javier Martinez, the volume goes beyond the rhetoric of diversity that is present at most American universities to probe honestly the challenges that exist for faculty of color. The volume contains primary articles from talented younger scholars like Victoria Plaut, Denise Sekaquaptewa, and Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, as well as comments by more senior scholars such as Chandra Mohanty, Nancy Cantor, and Michael Hames-Garcia.

A central challenge for the goal of a truly inclusive and democratic university is the patterns of race and privilege that are built into our institutions through their history. Most universities in the United States are overwhelmingly “white” – their faculty and their cultures have been constructed through a history that made it difficult to impossible to genuinely incorporate racial diversity. And this appears to be more true the further one ascends into the ranks of the elite research universities. These observations are less true of several segments of American higher education: the historically black universities and colleges, the non-flagship public universities, and the community colleges in many parts of the country. But for the elite colleges and universities in the US, the demography, history, and culture all tip sharply towards what Phillip Goff calls “Whiteness” in his contribution to the volume. (One could say much the same about the gender composition and culture of many universities and departments.)

This fact presents a major challenge to people who want to see universities change fundamentally with regard to race and culture. We want the twenty-first century university to be genuinely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. We want these “multi’s” because our country itself is multicultural, and because we have a national history that has not done a good job of creating an environment of equality and democracy across racial and cultural lines. And we want the universities to change, because they are key locations where the values and skills of our future leaders will be formed. So if universities do not succeed in transforming themselves around the realities of race and difference, we cannot expect the larger society to succeed in this difficult challenge either.

This means that university faculty and administrators need a much better understanding of the scope of the problem. Why is it that the current American university is often such a negative environment for many faculty of color – especially junior faculty? What concrete and practical steps can we take to get from where we are to where we want to be – from an environment defined by majority values, culture, and power, to one that is genuinely and democratically framed by the multi-cultural reality of our society? How can we make the transition that is required that will lead us to the university of the future, in which our department meetings, our tenure processes, and our university-wide intellectual communities are genuinely respectful of racial, ethnic, and gender differences?

The essays in this volume are a valuable contribution to making the university better. One thing that we have learned through a body of multicultural research over the past several decades, is how important it is to get past “perspective blindness.” When majority faculty members or administrators think about race in the university, they generally have only a very limited understanding of the concrete situations that faculty and students of color face. So the concrete specificity of the articles in this volume provides a valuable learning opportunity for the majority members of any university. There is valuable pedagogical work going on in many universities that is designed to make more apparent the hidden biases and practices that are still too common. For example, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan has developed many tools for highlighting the situations of race and gender that can arise in the classroom that majority faculty members are simply unlikely to see without some help (link). This volume is enormously valuable in this respect as well. Reading the collection helps department chairs, deans, and presidents have a better idea, in concrete terms, of what it means to recognize that faculty of color face an environment that imposes greater burdens and greater stresses, and that these burdens and stresses make their research and teaching agendas all the more difficult to achieve. So the university needs to arrive at concrete strategies for counteracting these negative effects.

(FYI — some of this post is adapted from my own short contribution to the volume in my comments on Phillip Goff’s excellent piece.)

Underinvesting in the public good

There are quite a few investments in social programs that would have spectacular return on investment, but that in fact remain unfunded or underfunded. I am thinking here of things like broadened preschool programs, enhanced dropout prevention programs, regional economic development efforts, and prison re-entry programs. Why are these spectacular opportunities so dramatically under-exploited in the United States and other nations?

One line of answer derives from a public choice perspective: the gains that follow from the investment represent public goods, and public goods are typically under-provided. But that doesn’t really answer the question, because it is governments that are underinvesting, not uncoordinated groups of independent agents. And governments are supposed to make investments to promote the public good.

Another plausible answer is that the citizens who are primarily served by most of the examples provided above are poor and disenfranchised; so the fact that they would benefit from the program doesn’t motivate the politically powerful to adopt the policy.

There is also a powerful influence of political ideology at work here. Conservative ideas about what a good society looks like, how social change occurs, and the role of government all militate against substantial public investment in programs and activities like those mentioned above. These conservative political beliefs are undergirded by a white-hot activism against taxes that makes it all but impossible to gain support in legislative bodies for programs like these — no matter what the return on investment is.

Failure to achieve these kinds of social gains through public investment might seem like a very basic element of injustice within our society. But it also looks like strong evidence of system failure: the political and economic system fail to bring about as much public good as is possible in the circumstances. The polity is stuck somewhere on the low shoulders of the climb towards maximum public benefit for minimum overall investment. It is analogous to the situation in private economic space where there are substantial obstacles to the flow of investment, leaving substantial possible sources of gain untapped. It is s situation of massive collective inefficiency, quite the contrary of Adam Smith’s view of the happy outcomes of the hidden hand and the market mechanism.

This last point brings us back to the public goods aspect of the problem. A legislature that designs a policy or program aimed at capturing the gains mentioned here may succeed in its goal and yet find that the gains accrue to someone else — the public at large or another political party. The gains are separated from the investment, leaving the investment entity with no rational incentive to make the investment after all.

Some policy leaders have recognized this systemic problem and have turned to an innovative possible solution, social impact bonds (link). Here is how the Center for American Progress explains this idea.

A social impact bond, or SIB, is an innovative financial tool that enables government agencies to pay for programs that deliver results. In a SIB agreement, the government sets a specific, measurable outcome that it wants achieved in a population and promises to pay an external organization—sometimes called an intermediary—if and only if the organization accomplishes the outcome. SIBs are one example of what the Obama administration calls “Pay for Success” financing. (link)

Essentially the idea is to try to find a way of privatizing the public gains in question, so that private investors have an incentive to bring them about.

This is an interesting idea, but it doesn’t really solve the fundamental problem: society’s inability to make rational investment in its own wellbeing. It seems more like a way of shifting risks of program success or failure from the state agency to the private entity. Here is a McKinsey discussion of the concept (link), and here is a more skeptical piece in the Economist (link).

Public attitudes towards market fundamentalism

Several recent posts have raised the question, what would be needed to move US public policy towards a more equitable treatment of the bottom 75% of American society? Conditions for much of this super-majority of society have gradually declined in the past several decades, and public programs designed to ameliorate conditions of health, education, nutrition, and housing have come under severe attack from the right. Why have public policies turned away from active efforts towards improving the life conditions of the lower portion of society? And can we learn anything useful from international comparisons of attitudes on social welfare policies?

One key factor in understanding the politics of inequality in a country is the distribution of social attitudes across the population. How do Americans feel about government policies aimed at helping the less-well-off? How do we feel about the “social contract” that we have with each other over an economically, racially, and regionally diverse country?

The Pew Research Center has done a lot of research on this family of questions, and some recent results are summarized by Bruce Stokes in “Public Attitudes Toward the Next Social Contract” (link). Here are a few basic facts. The US spends a substantially lower share of its GDP on social expenditures than other OECD countries (19.4% versus 28.2% (Sweden) and 26.2% (Germany) (1)). And, as is now well familiar, wealth and income are highly unequal in the. US — the top 1% gained 38.3% of all wealth growth in the US in the period 1983-2010, and the bottom 60% lost ground in wealth ownership (2).

So how do Americans feel about a social safety net? Consider this basic statement: “It is the responsibility of the government to take care for those who can’t take care of themselves.” A Pew Global Attitudes survey in 2007 found that 56% of Swedes and 52% of Germans strongly agreed with this statement, whereas only 28% of Americans as a whole strongly agreed with the statement (6). Moreover, this is one area where American society is most polarized. The percentage of people who identify as Republicans who agreed with a somewhat broader statement in 1987 was 62%; in 2012 this percentage had dropped to 36%. By contrast, Democrats have remained fairly constant in their support for this statement (75%).

Stokes closes with this summary statement:

Americans do have a social contract with each other and with their government. But this bond is currently under great strain. Americans’ conflicting values and goals and deep partisan divisions over the specifics of the social safety net, along with worries about how to pay for it, suggest that the tensions surrounding the social contract will continue for some time. (13)

So how have American public attitudes about the key elements of the social safety net changed in the past fifteen years? Support has both polarized and declined. Here is a graph from the Pew study:

 

Now contrast this situation with that of Sweden. Stefan Svallfors provides an analysis of social attitudes in Sweden between 1981 and 2010, and he finds high and unwavering support for Sweden’s extensive welfare state (link). His work is based on analysis of the Swedish Welfare State Surveys, replicated five times since 1981. Here is the most dramatic summary table.

Support for additional public spending on health care increased from 45% to 66% in 2010. Increased support for the elderly went from 30% who favored additional public support to 70%. Support for more spending on schooling increased from 26% to 60%. And support for increasing social assistance went from 16% to 22%. What this documents is strong and rising support for using public moneys to provide public benefits to all members of Swedish society, poor and rich alike. And that in turn demonstrates a very strong commitment to the social contract. Here is Svallfors’ conclusion:

In conclusion, what may be said about the state of Swedish attitudes towards the welfare state? First, there are absolutely no signs of any decreasing public support for welfare policies. Overall, there is a large degree of stability in attitudes, and where change is registered, it tends to go in the direction of increasing support. More people state their willingness to pay higher taxes for welfare policy purposes; more people want collective financing of welfare policies; and fewer people perceive extensive welfare abuse in 2010 than was the case in previous surveys. Class patterns change so that the salaried and the self-employed become more similar to workers in their attitudes. (819)

Finally, here is a summary of recent research on Swedish attitudes towards immigrants (link).

Here too the bonds of social solidarity remain strong. The summary finding is that Swedes strongly support their country’s rising ethnic diversity. 74% of Swedes expressed a positive attitude towards rising ethnic diversity in 2013, up six points from the prior year. Unlike other European countries where rising nationalist parties are cultivating an ugly anti-immigrant politics, Swedish society is strongly supportive of the increases in diversity that it is witnessing.

These are striking data for both societies. People in the United States show significantly lower (and declining) support for the social safety net than in many other countries, while the Nordic populations have sustained and even increased their high level of support for these public programs. The difficult political question is this: what sorts of things need to happen in order to inflect American attitudes and values in a more positive direction when it comes to empathy and social solidarity?

Basic social institutions and democratic equality

We would like to think that it is possible for a society to embody basic institutions that work to preserve and enhance the wellbeing of all members of society in a fair way. We want social institutions to be beneficent (producing good outcomes for everyone), and we want them to be fair (treating all individuals and groups with equal consideration; creating comparable opportunities for everyone).  There is a particularly fundamental component of liberal optimism that holds that the institutions of a market-based democracy accomplish both goals.  Economic liberals maintain that the economic institutions of the market create efficient allocations of resources across activities, permitting the highest level of average wellbeing. Free public education permits all persons to develop their talents. And the political institutions of electoral democracy permit all groups to express and defend their interests in the arena of government and law.

But social critics cast doubt on all parts of this story, based on the role played by social inequalities within both sets of institutions. The market embodies and reproduces a set of economic inequalities that result in grave inequalities of wellbeing for different groups. Economic and social inequalities influence the quality of education available to young people. And electoral democracy permits the grossly disproportionate influence of wealth holders relative to other groups in society.  So instead of reducing inequalities among citizens, these basic institutions seem to amplify them.

If we look at the fundamentals of social life in the United States we are forced to recognize a number of unpalatable realities: extensive and increasing inequalities of income, wealth, education, health, and quality of life; persistent racial inequalities; a growing indifference among the affluent and powerful to the poverty and deprivation of others; and a political system that is rapidly approaching the asymptote of oligarchy. It is difficult to be optimistic about our political future if we are particularly concerned about equality and opportunity for all; the politics of our time seem to be taking us further and further from these ideals.

So how should progressives think about a better future for our country and our world? What institutional arrangements might do a better job of ensuring greater economic justice and political legitimacy in the next fifty years in this country and other democracies of western Europe and North America?

Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson’s recent collection, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond contains an excellent range of reflections on this set of problems, centered around the idea of a property-owning democracy that is articulated within John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. A range of talented contributors provide essays on different aspects and implications of the theory of property-owning democracy. The contributions by O’Neill and Williamson are especially good, and the volume is a major contribution to political theory for the 21st century.

Here is one of Rawls’s early statements of the idea of a property-owning democracy in A Theory of Justice:

In property-owning democracy, … the aim is to realize in the basic institutions the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal.  To do this, those institutions must, from the outset, put in the hands of citizens generally, and not only of a few, sufficient productive means for them to be fully cooperating members of society on a footing of equality. (140)

One thing that is striking about the discussions that recur throughout the essays in this volume is the important relationship they seem to have to Thomas Piketty’s arguments about rising inequalities in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty presents rising inequality as almost unavoidable; whereas the advocates for a property-owning democracy offer a vision of the future in which inequalities of assets are narrowed. The dissonance disappears, however, when we consider the possibility that the institutional arrangements of POD are in fact a powerful antidote to the economic imperatives identified by Piketty. And in fact the editors anticipate this possibility in their paraphrase of Rawls’s reasons for preferring POD over welfare state capitalism:

Because capital is concentrated in private hands under welfare state capitalism, it will be difficult if not impossible to provide to call “the fair value of the political liberties”; that is to say, capitalist interests and the rich will have vastly more influence over the political process than other citizens, a condition which violates the requirement of equal political liberties. Second, Rawls suggests at points that welfare state capitalism produces a politics that tends to undermine the possibility of tax transfers sufficiently large to correct for the inequalities generated by market processes.(3)

These comments suggest that Rawls had an astute understanding of the ways that wealth and power and influence are connected; so he believed that a more equal prior distribution of assets is crucial for a just society.

The primary aim of this public activity is not to maximize economic growth (or to maximize utility) but rather to ensure that capital is widely distributed and that no group is allowed to dominate economic life; but Rawls also assumes that the economy needs to be successful in terms of conventional measures (i.e., by providing full employment, and lifting the living standards of the least well off over time). (4)

The editors make a point that is very incisive with respect to rising economic inequalities.

The concentration of capital and the emergence of finance as a driving sector of capitalism has generated not only instability and crisis; it also has led to extraordinary political power for private financial interests, with banking interest taking control in shaping not only policies immediately affecting that sector but economic (and thereby social) policy in general. (6)

In other words, attention to the idea of a property-owning democracy is in fact a very substantive rebuttal to the processes identified in Piketty’s analysis of the tendencies of capital in the modern economy. As the editors put the point, the idea of a property-owning democracy provides a rich basis for the political programs of progressive movements in contemporary politics (5).

Two questions arise with respect to any political philosophy: is the end-state that it describes a genuinely desirable outcome; and is there a feasible path by which we can get from here to there? One might argue that POD is an appealing end-state; and yet it is an outcome that is virtually impossible to achieve within modern political and economic institutions. (Here is an earlier discussion of this idea; link.) These contributors give at least a moderate level of reason to believe that a progressive foundation for democratic action is available that may provide an effective counterweight to the conservative rhetoric that has dominated the scene for decades.

Lack of character?

image: Stanford prison experiment

John Doris argues in Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior that the basic theory of action associated with virtue ethics and the theory of moral character is most likely incorrect. The character theory maintains that individuals have stable traits that lead them to behave similarly in a range of relevant but differing circumstances. A person with the traits of honesty or compassion will behave truthfully or benevolently in a range of circumstances, when it is easy to do so and when it is more difficult.

Situationism is the competing view that maintains that people’s actions are more sensitive to features of the situation of action than to enduring underlying traits. Doris largely endorses situationism — for example, he cites experiments showing that subjects make different choices when confronted with a situation of a need for help by another person, depending on whether or not the subject recently found a small amount of money. Apparently situations that induce a “good mood” make a large difference in benevolent behavior. Rachana Kamtekar does a good job of explaining situationism as presented by moral philosophers such as Gilbert Harman; link. Kamtekar summarizes situationism in these terms:

Situationist social psychologists tell us that information about people’s distinctive character traits, opinions, attitudes, values, or past behavior is not as useful for determining what they will do as is information about the details of their situations. (458)

Doris’s argument is almost entirely grounded on the findings of experimental psychology drawn from a number of experiments designed to observe how people will behave when faced with a particular situation involving the wellbeing of others. Particularly well known are the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment performed by Philip Zimbardo and colleagues, which Doris discusses extensively; but there are many others with similar results that have been performed within social psychology as well.
It isn’t Doris’s view that there are no personality traits at all, but rather that they are small and context-specific in contrast to the general character traits cited in the literature of virtue ethics. “I allow for the possibility of temporally stable, situation-particular, ‘local’ traits that are associated with important individual differences in behavior” (25). In particular, he takes issue with the “globalism” of many theories of moral virtues and character. Those theories typically make three important assumptions about the virtues of character that Doris finds to be contradicted by the evidence of empirical research in psychology:
  1. Consistency. Character and personality traits are reliably manifested in trait-relevant behavior across a diversity of trait-relevant eliciting conditions…
  2. Stability. Character and personality traits are reliably manifested in trait-relevant behaviors over iterated trials of similar trait-relevant eliciting conditions.
  3. Evaluative integration. In a given character or personality the occurrence of a trait with a particular evaluative valence is probabilistically related to the occurrence of other traits with similar evaluative valences. (23)

He concludes that these three features are not supported by the evidence:

Systematic observation typically fails to reveal the behavioral patterns expected by globalism; globalist conceptions of personality are empirically inadequate. (23)

There are several things about Doris’s approach that I like. His insistence that moral philosophy needs to be attentive to the findings of empirical psychological research is compelling. His care in treating the philosophical theories he challenges in thoughtful detail is appealing.

 
What Doris doesn’t provide is any kind of theory of the actor of his own. He doesn’t favor the idea that actors possess character traits; but we are left in the dark about how he thinks our actions actually proceed. Is it a form of calculation? Is it the result of intuition and snap judgment (along the lines of Daniel Kahneman’s arguments in Thinking, Fast and Slow)? Doris doesn’t offer an alternative theory of how the actor processes a situation and arrives at an action. And in fact, it’s somewhat difficult to see how we would characterize any human behavior without recourse to something like character traits and dispositions. Is every moment a new occasion for spontaneous choice or rational calculation? Is action at a moment simply the result of unconscious prior stimulation and a little bit of cognition about the current situation?

Doris discusses a possible solution to this worry, the theory of “social cognitivism” (76 ff.).

[Social cognitivists] understand behavior as a function of each person’s “cognitive-affective personality system”: the organization of beliefs, feelings, goals, competencies, and strategies that is supposed to support “stable and distinctive patterns of intraindividual variability in behavior”. (77)

I don’t know whether the social cognitivists (e.g. Walter Mischel and Yuichi Shoda) succeed in offering a compelling empirical case for their view; but at least it provides a somewhat developed theory of the actor. In any case, it is not a framework that Doris endorses. And that seems to leave his account with a large hole in the middle: we would like to have an answer to the question, how do actors process the situations they encounter and arrive at actions to perform? What is the theory of the actor that is most plausible given a commitment to situationalism?

Here is Rachana Kamtekar’s most fundamental objection to the kinds of arguments offered by Doris and others:

It should by now be clear that the experiments which find character traits to correlate poorly with behavior rely on a very particular conception of a character trait: as an isolable and nonrational disposition to manifest a given stereotypical behavior that differs from the behavior of others and is fairly situation insensitive. (477)

In fact, Kamtekar suggests that situationism in the extreme is incompatible with almost every form of moral or practical reasoning:

Perhaps, if situationism is true, then the answer to the practical question “what can I do to take charge of my situation?”is“nothing”— the features of situations that determine behavior are so subtle and surprising that no ordinary rational strategies could enable us to be masters of our situations. But such pessimism is premature, and if it were ever to become warranted, then it is not only virtue ethics and the notion of character that we would have to jettison, but the power of practical reasoning. (491)

Pure situationism seems to run deeply contrary to our ordinary, commonsense understandings of how and why people behave as they do. Doris doesn’t have too much regard for commonsense when it comes to understanding behavior, though he does address the topic. But if we think about the people we’ve observed most closely in professional contexts, personal life, and politics, it seems hard to avoid the sober conclusion that these individuals do indeed have “character”, for better or worse, and that their characters differ. This one can be counted on to deflect responsibility for bad outcomes in his or her division; that one is solidly committed to his spouse; and that one is forever expedient in appealing for votes. People differ in these ways in our ordinary experience; so it is difficult to find the experiments of Milgram or Zimbardo sufficient to erase our reliance on the idea of persistent character traits in ordinary people. (Could we design experiments that seek to evaluate characteristics like “avoids responsibility,” “honors familial commitments,” “acts out of devotion to principle”?)
 
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