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”?)

Observing character traits



The key idea of moral character is that the actions individuals choose are influenced by enduring features of their mentality. Unlike the situationist who looks at each situation of choice as a solution to achieving goals given current circumstances (Gilbert Harman, “Moral philosophy meets social psychology” link; John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior), a character theory maintains that choice derives in part by perduring features of the self. We might say that an individual’s choices over time reflect a “style” of action that corresponds to these underlying features of personality and character.

An example will be helpful. Let’s say that fidelity is the virtue of honoring one’s commitments. A person who has acquired the habit of fidelity will be more likely to keep promises even in circumstances where there are short-term advantages in breaking them. So fidelity is a motivational counterweight to impulse and opportunism. There are other counterweights that also work — for example, what Elster describes as foresight is also a bulwark against myopic opportunism. The foresightful person is able to take longterm interests into account and thereby avoid the error of myopia. But an embodied habit of fidelity does the work well.

This brief example suggests two kinds of questions. First, do individuals actually demonstrate the workings of such a virtue in their actual behavior, and are there observable differences in the strength of this factor across individuals and groups? And second, how does this character trait develop in the course of maturation in typical individuals? What circumstances or experiences either strengthen or weaken the trait?

Personality psychology and social psychology offer experimental means for exploring the first set of questions. Much of this research takes the form of behavioral experiments along the lines of the Milgram experiment, apparently demonstrating that human beings are more ready to behave badly than we would have expected. (This experiment is described in the Harman article mentioned above.)  These experiments involve selection of a set of volunteer subjects and a carefully designed task that will probe their behavioral dispositions. Here is a study that attempts to measure the distribution of trust across a population; link.

A different approach is offered by David Winter, a personality psychologist who studies personality traits at a distance — historical figures and political leaders. Winter offers an accessible summary of his research in “Things I’ve Learned About Personality From Studying Political Leaders at a Distance” (link). Here is how he describes the “distance” point:

Denied direct access, those who study political leaders, past and present, have had to develop a variety of indirect means for measuring personality ‘‘at a distance” (see, for example, the recent collections of articles in Feldman & Valenty, 2001, and Valenty & Feldman, 2002). Some researchers look for patterns in known bio-graphical facts (Post, 2003), perhaps using formal systems of clinical diagnostic categories (Immelman, 1993, 2002). Others ask experts to rate leaders by using standard personality rating scales (Rubenzer, Faschingbauer, & Ones, 1996, 2000) or Q-sorts (Kowert, 1996). There is, however, one kind of data from political leaders that is produced and preserved in abundance—namely, words. Thus, many at-a-distance researchers do content analyses of leaders’ verbal or written texts: speeches, interviews, and even government documents (see Winter, 1992). It is thereby possible to measure a wide variety of personality characteristics of otherwise inaccessible people: for example, integrative complexity (Suedfeld & Rank, 1976), explanatory style (Satterfield & Seligman, 1994), nationalism, and internal control of events (Hermann, 1980)

The second question has been treated in very different ways. One aspect of character formation, we sometimes believe, stems from the strong experiences we have had in our lives. Another view is that our character took shape through exposure to the actions of role models. An interesting current approach to this question is provided by an interesting recent book in naturalistic ethics by Mark Alfano, Character as Moral Fiction.  Alfano repeats a call for what I refer to as a theory of the actor:

The clarion call of the revival of virtue ethics was Elizabeth Anscombe’s feisty “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958). She claimed that it is not worthwhile to do ethics until we possess a proper philosophy of psychology — one that provides a theory of reasons, motives, and dispositions inter alia. (17)

He takes a provocative view on the status of virtues in real human actors. He argues that virtues are shaped in the individual by the commendations and criticisms that are offered by the individual’s proximate community during development and adulthood.

Traits like callousness, courage, greed, dishonesty, generosity, and tact are dispositions to act and react in characteristic ways. (2-3)

I shall argue that though most people do not think, feel, and act in ways that traditional normative theory would describe as virtuous …, we should still attribute the virtues … to one another because these attributions tend to function as self-fulfilling prophecies. Calling someone honest … will lead him to think, feel, and act more honestly in the future. (9) When this happens, I call it factitious virtue. (10)

What is clear is that there is a very large domain for empirical research that is created around the moral psychology associated with character and virtue, and that this research is important for the purpose of refining our theory of the actor. Philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists have an interest in arriving at the most illuminating research in this area possible.

What about Marx?

At various points since the death of Karl Marx in 1883 his work has been regarded as a dead issue — no longer relevant, too ideological, methodologically flawed, too rooted in the nineteenth century. And yet each of these periods of extinction has been followed by a resurgence of interest in Marx’s ideas, as new generations try to make sense of the tough and often cruel social conditions in which they find themselves. What are the important dimensions of theory that Marx presented through his writings? And how can any of these be considered valuable in trying to come to grips with the global, capitalist, turbulent, unequal, violent world that we now inhabit?

We might say that there are a small handful of key theoretical frameworks that Marx advocated.

Materialism as a methodology for social science. Social change is driven by material circumstances, the forces and relations of production. This encompasses the property system and the ensemble of technologies present in a given level of society. Materialism denies that ideas and thought drive social change; so religion, patriotism, nationalism, and ideologies of patriarchy are epiphenomena rather than originating causes.

Emphasis on the primacy of property and class. Sociologists and historians want to explain processes of social change. Marx puts it forward that the economic interests created by the property system in a given society create powerful foundations for collective social action.  Those who occupy positions of advantage within a given set of property relations want to do what they can to preserve those relations; and those who are disadvantaged by the property relations have a latent interest in mobilizing to change those relations. Persons who share a location in the property system constitute a class, and their interests are systematically different from those in other such positions.

A sketch of a theory of consciousness and culture. Institutions of consciousness and culture play a role in stabilizing and attacking the most important relations of domination in a society. Educational institutions, it is argued, prepare young people for their specific roles in society — workers, managers, elites, sub-proletarians. So struggles over the content and form of the institutions of enculturation can be expected to be polarized along class lines. Less directly, Marxists like Gramsci have postulated that worldviews reflect life experiences; so elites create cultural worlds that are quite distinct from those imagined by subordinate groups.

A diagnosis of social ills including exploitation, alienation, and dehumanization of social relations. Exploitation has to do with the flow of wealth and material goods through the property system from producers to property-owners. Alienation has to do with the loss of autonomy and self-control that individuals have within a capitalist structure. Marx’s distinctive addition to this idea is that this loss of autonomy has psychic consequences — disaffection, lack of self-respect, depression. The dehumanization of social relations follows from the structure of the capitalist workplace — workers and bosses, each related to the other through the workings of a command system. Wittgentstein got it right when he described the “slab” language game: the boss says “slab”, and the worker produces a slab. There is nothing “I-thou” about this relation (Buber, I and Thou).

A theory of several distinct modes of production. Marx believes that history takes the form of a succession of separable and structurally distinct modes of production: ancient slavery, feudalism, and capitalism differ by the structure of the production system, the property system, and the technologies that each embodied. Marx’s most extensive analysis of social formations is his treatment of the capitalist mode of production in Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy and the writings that were posthumously edited and published as volumes 2 and 3 of Capital.

A common thread through these framing ideas is the perspective of critique: a critical intelligence trying to understand why modern society produces such human misery. But even from the perspective of critique — the perspective that tries to diagnose and understand the systemic flaws of contemporary society — Marxism leaves quite a bit of terrain untouched: gender relations, racism, nationalism, and religious hatred, for example. Marxism doesn’t do a good job of explaining a regime of sexual violence (rape in India); it doesn’t have much to contribute to the rise of fascism; it doesn’t have resources for understanding Islamo-phobia and hatred.  So Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of modern social failings; and we might say that its emphasis on economic conflict eclipses other forms of domination in ways that are actually harmful to our ability to improve our social relations.

Geoff Boucher takes up the issue of the continuing relevance of Marx in the contemporary world in Understanding Marxism. Here is how he opens the book:

Today, radical thinking about social alternatives stands under prohibition. According to defenders of the neoliberal transformation of every facet of human existence into a market, Marxism has failed…. Marx is dead; Marxism is finished — and it must stay that way. (1)

But Boucher rejects this neoliberal consensus.

Marxism as an intellectual movement has been one of the most important and fertile contributions to twentieth-century thought. The influence of Marxism has been felt in every discipline, in the social sciences and interpretive humanities, from philosophy, through sociology and history, to literature. (2)

Here are the core reasons that Boucher offers for thinking that Marxism is still relevant in the twenty-first century:

  1. Marxism is the most serious normative social-theoretical challenge to liberal forms of freedom that does not at the same time reject the modern world.
  2. Marxism is the most sustained effort so far to think the present historically and to reflexively grasp thought itself within its socio-historical context. (2)

And later:

Marxism is a distinctively historical theory that normatively challenges liberalism in a way no other modern theory does. (3)

Much of Boucher’s book contributes to one of two intellectual aims: to give a clear exposition of the most important of Marx’s theoretical ideas; and to explicate the several “Marxisms” that followed in the twentieth century. The successive Marxisms take up the bulk of the book, with chapters on Classical Marxism, Hegelian Marxism, The Frankfurt School, Structural Marxism, Analytical Marxism, Critical Theory, and Post-Marxism. So the book provides very extensive explication of the theoretical ideas and developments that have grown out of the Marxist tradition.

What Boucher doesn’t really provide is a clear rationale, based on contemporary sociology and history, for the conclusions he wants us to share about the continuing utility of Marxism as a framework for understanding the present and future. We don’t get the reasoning that would support the affirmative ideas expressed above. The best rebuttal to the neoliberal triumphalism mentioned above is a compelling collection of sociological studies grounded in the perspectives mentioned above. Michael Burawoy’s sociology of factories is a good example (e.g. Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism). But this isn’t an approach that Boucher chooses to pursue.

So what about it? Is Marxism relevant today? Yes, if we can avoid the dogmatism and rigidity that were often associated with the tradition. Power, exploitation, class, structures of production and distribution, property relations, workplace hierarchy — these features certainly continue to be an important part of our social world. We need to think of Marx’s corpus as a multiple source of hypotheses and interpretations about how capitalism works. And we need to recognize fully that no theoretical framework captures the whole of history or society. Marxism is not a comprehensive theory of social organization and change. But it does provide a useful set of hypotheses about how some of the key social mechanisms work in a class-divided society. Seen from that perspective, Marxist thought serves as a sort of proto-paradigm or mental framework in terms of which to pursue more specific social and historical investigations.

Moral intuitions as evolutionary modules

People have moral reactions to the situations they observe around themselves — within the work environment, in the family, on the street, or in international affairs. This is a psychological fact that is prior to moral philosophy. How should we understand this feature of ordinary human consciousness and cognition?

Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist who has some fairly original ideas on this subject. His most recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, attempts to lay out a theory of moral psychology that puts moral intuition and judgment ahead of conscious moral reasoning, and independent from the content of what we refer to as moral philosophy.

Moral philosophers often take their cue from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, according to which moral judgment is a conscious process of reasoning. Haidt suggests a very different way of understanding our moral reactions — as intuitions more similar to sensations of taste than considered rational judgments based on principles and facts. In fact, he identifies six “moral taste receptors”: harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity (kl 103). Essentially, our moral intuitions about a complex situation stem from the degree to which these “receptors” are triggered by features of the situation. And the moral reaction comes first, whereas the moral reasoning and arguments come after the fact.

Haidt also works within the intellectual framework of evolutionary biology — the idea that the enduring traits of a species are the result of a long process of innovation, selection, and adaptation, governed by the selective reproductive success created by the trait. This puts him in roughly the same intellectual space as the sociobiologists; but his approach has much greater sensitivity to the nuances of moral intuitions and dispositions than scientists like E. O. Wilson have shown (On Human Nature: Revised Edition). (It should be noted that Haidt praises Wilson’s work on human nature and evolutionary psychology; kl 655.)

I’ve used the term “moral emotions” here, but Haidt actually prefers something else: moral intuitions. He describes his view as “social intuitionism.” Intuitions are the quick judgments we come to about situations before we have time to think them through in a cognitive fashion. Disgust is a paradigm intuition: the quick revulsion we have at the idea of drinking a glass of blended cockroaches and fruit juice is prior to any rational concerns we might eventually have about health effects. The basic premise is this:

Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. (kl 989)

Haidt offers six principles of moral intuition and thought based on experimental findings:

  1. Brains evaluate instantly and constantly.
  2. Social and political judgments are particularly intuitive.
  3. Our bodies guide our judgments.
  4. Psychopaths reason but don’t feel.
  5. Babies feel but don’t reason.
  6. Affective reactions are in the right place at the right time in the brain.

If moral reactions have an intuitive-cognitive basis, then it is natural to ask how these reactions are structured and classified. Haidt offers this interesting preliminary classification of the “moral modules” and their triggers in our moral intuition system:

This is a very interesting presentation of the dimensions of moral intuition: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. Each pair has a potential role to play in the early evolutionary history of hominids as social organisms: protecting and caring for children, securing cooperation with others, forming coalitions, forming hierarchies, and avoiding toxic contamination. And, finally, Haidt suggests how these characteristics relate to a set of virtues: kindness, fairness, loyalty, deference, and temperance, for example. (Only “liberty” is omitted from his original list of the moral receptors provided above.)

This topic is of interest here for several reasons. One is the straightforward interest that we all have in understanding better where moral reactions come from. But the other is a more theoretical interest: to have a broader set of ideas about how consciousness and action work in real human beings. Haidt offers a clear and in some ways testable theory of how moral emotions and intuitions interact with rational deliberation, and this is a valuable contribution to the theory of the actor that we so plainly need in the social sciences.

Moral emotions

Why do people act morally? Why do people act altruistically, keep their promises, or act fairly? It is sometimes held that a part of the answer is that people have “moral emotions”, and these emotions play a key role in the creation of moral actions.

What is a moral emotion? I’m sure that there are specialists who would offer different definitions of this concept; but I suggest that a moral emotion is a feeling or affect that is responsive to the situation of other living beings. Sympathy, compassion, humor, affection, and respect are all examples of moral emotions; but so are antipathy, rivalry, envy, and racial animosity. This inventory shows that what I’m calling “moral emotions” are not necessarily “moral” — taking pleasure in the suffering of others is morally unattractive, but falls in the category of a feeling that is responsive to the situation of the other.

There is a related category of emotion that philosophers sometimes refer to as “cognitive emotions.” These are feelings that are dependent on possessing certain kinds of beliefs. Feeling grateful is a cognitive emotion; it doesn’t make sense to attribute this mental state to someone without also attributing to the person some set of factual beliefs about what has occurred in light of which being grateful makes sense. (Andrew Ortony, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins provide some theoretical discussion of this topic in The Cognitive Structure of Emotions.)

These two categories do not fully overlap. There are moral emotions that have a cognitive basis. But there are also moral emotions that do not have a cognitive foundation — for example, the emotional response most people have to a smiling infant. And there are cognitive emotions that do not have a social component — for example, fear of illness.

It is clear that normal human beings experience these kinds of emotions and feelings. How should we factor them into our theory of action? How do emotions affect behavior? Some emotions seem to have an immediate causal power to create dispositions to specific kinds of action (dispositions that can nonetheless be overridden by higher functions of self-control). An angry person is disposed to lashing out at others. A person experiencing sympathy is disposed to providing aid to people in immediate need. A frightened person is disposed to retreat from the frightening situation. A person experiencing sadness may be inhibited from any kind of action. So emotions have a fairly direct relationship to action.

It is a short step from recognizing the fact of these kinds of emotions, to asking whether there is an evolutionary basis for them. Were social emotions like sympathy psychological capacities that conferred reproductive advantage on early primates? Did these emotions create the possibility of forms of cooperation that permitted primates and early humans to achieve greater success in their environments than would otherwise have been possible? This is a topic that Allan Gibbard explores in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment.

Some philosophers of action (e.g. David Hume) have wanted to understand the emotions as the primary or even sole motivating forces that drive actions, and reason serves only to permit the actor to tailor action to circumstance. Others (e.g. Aristotle) have looked at reason as the master of the emotions: the rational being decides what to do no matter what emotions he or she is experiencing. The “passions” are not trustworthy guides to action, on this philosophy. Kant represented the extreme version of the reason-centric theory of action: only actions motivated by the recognition of duty are morally worthy.

Some philosophers have held that the moral emotions are a necessary ingredient of morally generated behavior. These emotions take the individual out of his/her particular interests and provide a basis for other-regarding action. The moral emotions are thought to provide the motive power underlying altruism, benevolence, and sympathy. Lacking these emotions, it is thought that the actor would be unmoved by the needs and cares of others. The most noteworthy exception to this line of thought is that provided by Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism, where he argues that the cognitive act of recognizing the reality of other persons is sufficient to generate altruistic behavior.

These ideas highlight once again the point made in earlier posts: that a theory of action needs to be complex and needs to take into account the several ways in which consciousness drives behavior. It seems apparent that we do not yet have a theory of action that does justice to the nuance of thought and behavior. Habit, emotion, character, rules, and deliberation all play roles in the creation of actions, but we do not yet have good models for how they work together.

Here is a diagram offered by Ortony, Clore and Collins to help to classify emotions (19).

(Quite a few earlier posts are relevant to this topic. Searching for relevant keywords including altruism, sentiment, reciprocity, and cooperation will lead to some of these discussions.)


Is there anything still of interest in the political ideas of anarchism? Can anarchist thinking help contribute to solutions for the conundrums we face in light of some of the failures of electoral democracy we can see; some of the rampant abuses of corporate power that we experience; and the continuing exercise of authoritarian rule in various governments around the world?

First, what is anarchism? If there is a defining thought within the anarchist tradition, it is the idea of social change effected freely by self-organizing groups of people without either states or hierarchical parties defining the agenda. Anarchism is opposed to hierarchy and organized coercion; it is in favor of free self-determination at every level.

So again — can groups of free individuals self-organize on a genuinely voluntary basis? And can they accomplish anything significant?

One piece of the answer is easy. Anyone who observed some of the language, demands, and actions of the Occupy Movement was also provided a bit of support for Anarchism 101. A variety of groups often came together without formal political structure and worked to enable the energies of large numbers of ordinary activists to accomplish significant things. This experience provides a small bit of empirical support for the idea that it is indeed possible to organize and mobilize large numbers of people around a common end without a “vanguard party.” (David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography is worth reading in this context; link.)

James Scott picks up some of these issues in his most recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. The book is described as a series of fragments; and indeed, much of the argument of the book is carried forward in the form of small but telling examples of social behavior that emphasizes peer-to-peer social coordination rather than institutions and regulations. For example, he goes through the example of the “Red Light Removal” movement that started in Drachten, the Netherlands, to explore the consequences of placing the burden of coordination at intersections on the drivers rather than the stoplight (80). He argues that these experiments indicate that fewer stoplights can lead to more cautious driving and lower accident rates.

Picking up themes he began in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Scott spends a lot of time on the social systems of classification and measurement through which modern societies regiment the activities of their citizens.

The order, rationality, abstractness, and synoptic legibility of certain kinds of schemes of naming, landscape, architecture, and work processes lend themselves to hierarchical power. I think of them as “landscapes of control and appropriation.” (34)

Scott provides dissection of the SAT as a way of codifying prospective students (115), the Hamlet Evaluation program in Vietnam as a way of codifying success in war (117), and the erasure of particularity that results from social-scientific quantification of history (135). He essentially sees these and other state-created systems of classification as being ways of regimenting and controlling society. The connection to anarchism is this — regimentation is the opposite of freedom and particularity. (Scott also provides a detailed analysis of the reasons for the failure of “Fordlandia,” Henry Ford’s disastrous experiment in Brazil; 37.)

Scott’s central target throughout the book is the idea of individuals “subordinated” to larger social structures and hierarchies, with the idea that “insubordination” is a valuable thing once in a while. But the argument isn’t really all that persuasive. His most telling examples are instances of absurd, irrational regulation, and we are to draw the conclusion that decent, free people would decide to subvert these regulations. Yes, of course. But what about regulations of health and safety in the production of food and drugs? What about regulations on financial speculation by bankers with depositors’ savings? What about regulations on the possession of army surplus anti-tank weapons? Don’t we want these regulations to be observed, and don’t we want an enforcement system in place that protects all of us from the spontaneous and often self-serving actions of others, no matter how free and creative they are?

So Scott’s picture here doesn’t seem to add up to a coherent political philosophy. (Though perhaps that is as we should expect from an anarchist viewpoint. “Politics” has to do with the imposition of a coercive legal order; and the kinds of spontaneity and free expression that Scott seems to favor are antithetical to politics in this sense.)  Nonetheless, it is hard to see a viable version of a large, complex society lacking laws and systems of regulation, and deriving instead from the spontaneous and free activities of individuals and small groups. How will we be confident that horse meat isn’t being mixed into our burgers? How will we control unlimited dumping of toxic substances into lakes and streams? How will we remain confident that the surgeon who operates on us has actually completed medical training?

What Scott’s book really seems to support is something different from anarchism writ large. It is anarchism writ small — finding ways within a liberal and regulated society to expand the scope of free citizens coordinating their activities together for common purposes. Scott’s cheers seem to be more in favor of a playfulness on the part of citizens within the gentle confines of a liberal democratic state. I don’t find anything in the book that suggests, for example, that the Spanish Anarchists could have governed Spain (contradiction!) had they miraculously defeated Franco and the Communists. But we have many bits of evidence that suggest that self-organizing systems are feasible for solving some of the mid-level problems faced by local people — control of water and forest resources, for example. (These are the sorts of examples described in Elinor Ostrom’s work on common property resource regimes; Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.)

So the book really represents two cheers for something different from anarchism — more freedom, more initiative, and more self-organizing cooperation within the broader framework of a liberal democratic society. Individuality, particularity, and a bit of harmless rule-flouting should be possible within a decent liberal democratic society. And really, this is a message that we could equally find comfortably expressed in John Stuart Mill’s writings.

Epicurus’s philosophy

The philosophy of Epicurus wielded great influence, both in the ancient world and in the early modern world (as Steven Greenblatt shows in The Swervelink). That philosophy was atomist, materialist, atheist, and oriented towards happiness as the highest human good. (The atheist part is complicated; he didn’t deny the existence of the gods, but he denied any possible connection between them and humanity.) It is a life philosophy that emphasizes moderation of desire, friendship, and inner tranquility. And perhaps unexpectedly, it is not hedonistic in the usual understanding of that term. So what is not to like about this philosophy?

The basic premises of materialism and humanism are just as solid as they were in the 3rd century BCE. To be sure, physics and the understanding of the fine structure of the world has moved beyond the atomism of Epicurus. But the conviction that all that exists is natural and that there is no supernatural — this conviction holds true. 

And the philosophy of living seems compelling as well. Live to create happiness for yourself and those around you, for the fullness of a human life; be grateful for the pleasures afforded you; be attentive to your friends; do not fear death. These are powerful maxims for constructing and living a good human life. We might even say that it provides a powerful alternative to the dominant consumerist model of happiness that is presented to us every day — more things will make you happy. Epicurus urges us to find our way to taking pleasure in a piece of barley bread and a half pint of weak wine, and the occasional luxury of a pot of cheese. In a world of increasingly strained resources, we need more models of happiness that emphasize satisfaction rather than consumption. 

But philosophy is more than just putting forward plausible-sounding ideas; it is about offering analysis and argument for conclusions. So how compelling is the reasoning that Epicurus offers for particular conclusions? How convincing a philosopher is he? In one sense it is difficult to answer the question because so little of the corpus of Epicurus still exists. But texts exist in which his central ideas about nature, the heavens, and life are described in reasonable detail. How compelling are the arguments that he puts forward on these subjects?

As a philosophy of matter, Epicurus’s theory of the atom and the swerve is debatable. In fact, Cicero’s critique of the central idea of the “swerve” seems compelling and logical:

Then this clever fellow, when it occurred to him that if they all moved directly down and, as I said, in a straight line, it would never come about that one atom could make contact with another and so … he introduced a fictitious notion: he said that an atom swerves by a very little bit, indeed a minimal distance, and that in this way are produced the mutual entanglements, linkages, and cohesions of the atoms as a result of which the world and all the parts of the world and everything in it are produced. .. The swerve itself is made up to suit his pleasure … (The Epicurus Reader, 47)

You [Epicureans] do this all the time. You say something implausible and want to avoid criticism, so you adduce something which is absolutely impossible to support it! It would be better to give up the point under attack than to defend it in such a brazen manner. For example, when Epicurus saw that, if the atoms moved by their own weight straight down, nothing would be in our power, since the atoms’ movements would be certain and necessitated, he found a way to avoid necessity–a point which had escaped Democritus’ notice. He says that an atom, although it moves downward in a straight line because of its weight and heaviness, swerves a little bit. This claim is more shameful than the inability to defend the point he is trying to support. (54)

It would appear that Cicero makes hash of the central contribution of Epicurus to metaphysics, the idea of the swerve! (One aspect of the argument now makes sense to me–the idea that falling atoms cannot collide. We have to add the premise that they fall at the same speed; then the conclusion follows.)

This letter by Cicero is an impressive piece of philosophical reasoning throughout. Cicero teases out the implications of various concepts and premises — cause, truth, fate — and shows that the atomist theory of Epicurus fails to make coherent sense of these concepts.

This is on the side of the philosophy of nature; what about society?

What the philosophy seems to lack is any adequate analysis of society and politics beyond the circle of one’s friends and family. Unlike Socrates, there is no real discussion of justice; unlike Plato, there is no analysis of power and dominion. Here is a maxim on justice and conduct from The Principal Doctrines:

The justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness, [i.e.] neither to harm one another nor be harmed. (The Epicurus Reader, 35)

This is a weaker principle than the golden rule and the categorical imperative, in that it involves refraining from harm rather than doing good; and it has no implications for the justice of institutions. And this is one of the very few places in the surviving texts where the issue of justice arises at all.

Several things seem fair to judge from this quick sample. First, Epicurus made sustained efforts to contribute to the theory of the atom and the void. His contributions were sometimes original, and they were philosophically assailable. Second, he had very little by way of a developed theory of the justice of society. Unlike other figures in Greek philosophy, he seems to have devoted little attention to the larger workings of society beyond the personal. And third, his philosophy of living — what is really his most powerful and enduring contribution — remains insightful and inspiring. This is so, not because of the specific arguments he offers, but largely because of the way he makes sense of permanent human circumstances like pleasure, suffering, sickness, friendship, and death. That philosophy presupposes materialism and atheism; but it isn’t dependent on the specifics of Epicurus’s reasoning about the technical issues surrounding atoms, motion, and the swerve.

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