What is the role of character in action?

 

I’ve been seriously interested in the question of character since being invited to contribute to a volume on the subject a few years ago. That volume, Questions of Character, has now appeared in print, and it is an excellent and engaging contribution. Iskra Fileva was the director of the project and is the editor of the volume, and she did an excellent job in selecting topics and authors. She also wrote an introduction to the volume and introductions to all five parts of the collection. It would be possible to look at Fileva’s introductions collectively as a very short book on character by themselves.

So what is “character”? To start, it is a concept of the actor that draws our attention to enduring characteristics of moral and practical propensities, rather than focusing on the moment of choice and the criteria recommended by the ethicist on the basis of which to make choices. Second, it is an idea largely associated with the “virtue” ethics of Aristotle. The other large traditions in the history of ethics — utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, or consequentialist and deontological theories — have relatively little to say about character, focusing instead on action, rules, and moral reasoning. And third, it is distinguished from other moral ideas by its close affinity to psychology as well as philosophy. It has to do with the explanation of the behavior of ordinary people, not just philosophical ideas about how people ought to behave.

This is a fundamentally important question for anyone interested in formulating a theory of the actor. To hold that human beings sometimes have “character” is to say that they have enduring features of agency that sometimes drive their actions in ways that override the immediate calculation of costs and benefits, or the immediate satisfaction of preferences. For example, a person might have the virtues of honesty, courage, or fidelity — leading him or her to tell the truth, resist adversity, or keep commitments and promises, even when there is an advantage to be gained by doing the contrary. Or conceivably a person might have vices — dishonesty, cruelty, egotism — that lead him or her to act accordingly — sometimes against personal advantage.

Questions of Character is organized into five major sets of topics: ethical considerations, moral psychology, empirical psychology, social and historical considerations, and art and taste. Fileva has done an excellent job of soliciting provocative essays and situating them within a broader context. Part I includes innovative discussions of how the concept of character plays out in Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. Part II considers different aspects of the problem of self-control and autonomy. Part III examines the experimental literature on behavior in challenging situations (for example, the Milgram experiment), and whether these results demonstrate that human actors are not guided by enduring virtues. Part IV examines the intersection between character and large social settings, including history, the market, and the justice system. And Part V considers the role of character in literature and the arts, including the interesting notion that characters in novels become emblems of the character traits they display.

The most fundamental question raised in this volume is this: what is the role of character in human action? How, if at all, do embodied traits, virtues and vices, or personal commitments influence the actions that we take in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances? And the most intriguing challenge raised here is one that casts doubt on the very notion of character: “there are no enduring behavioral dispositions inside a person that warrant the label ‘character’.” Instead, all action is opportunistic and in the moment. Action is “situational” (John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior; Ross and Nisbett, The Person and the Situation). On this approach, what we call “character” and “virtue” is epiphenomenal; action is guided by factors more fundamental than these.

My own contribution focuses on the ways in which character may be shaped by historical circumstances. Fundamentally I argue that growing up during the Great Depression, the Jim Crow South, or the Chinese Revolution potentially cultivates fairly specific features of mentality in the people who had these formative experiences. The cohort itself has a common (though not universal) character that differs from that of people in other historical periods. As a consequence people in those cohorts commonly behave differently from people in other cohorts when confronted with roughly similar action situations. So character is both historically shaped and historically important. Much of my argument was worked out in a series of posts here in Understanding Society.

This project is successful in its own terms; the contributors have created a body of very interesting discussion and commentary on an important element of human conduct. The volume is distinctly different from other collections in moral psychology or the field of morality and action. But the project is successful in another way as well. Fileva and her colleagues succeeded in drawing together a novel intellectual configuration of scholars from numerous disciplines to engage in a genuinely trans-disciplinary research collaboration. Through several academic conferences (one of which I participated in), through excellent curatorial and editorial work by Fileva herself, and through the openness of all the collaborators to listen with understanding to the perspectives of researchers in other disciplines, the project succeeded in demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary collaboration in shedding light on an important topic. I believe we understand better the intriguing complexities of actors and action as a result of the work presented in Questions of Character.

(Here is a series of posts on the topic of character; link.)

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Amartya Sen’s commitments

A recent post examined the Akerlof and Kranton formalization of identity within a rational choice framework.  It is worth considering how this approach compares with Amartya Sen’s arguments about “commitments” in “Rational Fools” (link). 

Sen’s essay is a critique of the theory of narrow economic rationality to the extent that it is thought to realistically describe real human deliberative decision-making. He chooses Edgeworth as a clear expositor of the narrow theory: “the first principle of Economics is that every agent is actuated only by self interest” (Sen 317, quoting Mathematical Psychics). Sen notes that real choices don’t reflect the maximizing logic associated with rational choice theory: “Choice may reflect a compromise among a variety of considerations of which personal welfare may be just one” (324). Here he argues for the importance of “commitments” in our deliberations about reasons for action. Acting on the basis of commitment is choosing to do something that leads to an outcome that we don’t subjectively prefer; it is acting in a way that reflects the fact that our actions are not solely driven by egoistic choice.  “Commitments” are other-regarding considerations that come into the choices that individuals make.

Sen distinguishes between sympathy and commitment:

The former corresponds to the case in which the concern for others directly affects one’s own welfare. If the knowledge of torture of others makes you sick, it is a case of sympathy; if it does not make you feel personally worse off, but you think it is wrong and you are ready to do something to stop it, it is a case of commitment. (326)
The characteristic of commitment with which I am most concerned here is the fact that it drives a wedge between personal choice and personal welfare, and much of traditional economic theory relies on the identity of the two. (329)
Sen thinks that John Harsanyi made an advance on the narrow conception of rationality by introducing discussion of two separate preference orderings that are motivational for real decision-makers: ethical preferences and subjective preferences. (This is in “Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility”.)  But Sen rightly points out that this construction doesn’t give us a basis for choosing when the two orderings dictate incompatible choices.  Sen attempts to formalize the idea of a commitment as a second-order preference ordering: a ranking of rankings.  “We need to consider rankings of preference rankings to express our moral judgments” (337).

Can one preference ordering do all these things? A person thus described may be “rational” in the limited sense of revealing no inconsistencies in his choice behavior, but if he has no use for these distinctions between quite different concepts, he must be a bit of a fool. The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron. Economic theory has been much preoccupied with this rational fool decked in the glory of his one all-purpose preference ordering. To make room for the different concepts related to his behavior we need a more elaborate structure. (335-336)

Here is an example.  “I wish I liked vegetarian foods more” is an example of a second-order preference ranking: it indicates a rational preference for the first-order ranking in which the vegetarian option comes ahead of the lamb option over the ranking in which these options are reversed.  And Sen’s point is an important one: the second-order ranking can be behaviorally influential.  I may choose the vegetarian option, not because I prefer it, but because I prefer the world arrangement in which I go for the vegetarian option.  Or in other words, one’s principles or commitments may trump one’s first-order preferences. 

Significantly, Sen’s thinking on this subject was developed in part through a conference organized by Stephen Körner on practical reason in the 1970s (Practical Reason: Papers and Discussions).  This is significant because it focuses attention on a very basic fact: we don’t yet have good theories of how a variety of considerations — ethical principles, personal identities, feelings of solidarity, reasoning about fairness, and self-interest — get aggregated into decisions in particular choice circumstances.

Other economists might object to this formulation on the basis of the fact that second-order preference rankings are more difficult to model; so we don’t get clean, simple mathematical representations of behavior if we introduce this complication.  Sen acknowledges this point:

Admitting behavior based on commitment would, of course have far- reaching consequences on the nature of many economic models. I have tried to show why this change is necessary and why the consequences may well be serious. Many issues remain unresolved, including the empirical importance of commitment as a part of behavior, which would vary, as I have argued, from field to field. I have also indicated why the empirical evidence for this cannot be sought in the mere observation of actual choices, and must involve other sources of information, including introspection and discussion. (341-342)

But his reply is convincing.  There are substantial parts of ordinary human activity that don’t make sense if we think of rationality as egoistic maximization of utility.  Collective action, group mobilization, religious sacrifice, telling the truth, and working to the fullest extent of one’s capabilities are all examples of activity where narrow egoistic rationality would dictate different choices than those ordinary individuals are observed to make.  And yet ordinary individuals are not irrational when they behave this way. Rather, they are reflective and deliberative, and they have reasons for their actions.  So the theory of rationality needs to have a way of representing this non-egoistic reasonableness.  This isn’t the only way that moral and normative commitments can be incorporated into a theory of rational deliberation; but it is one substantive attempt to do so, and is more satisfactory (for me, anyway) than the construction offered by Akerlof and Kranton.

(I also like the neo-Kantian approach taken by Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism as an effort to demonstrate that non-egoistic reasoning is rational.)

Teaching philosophy

What is it that we expect students to learn when we teach philosophy? Is philosophy an arcane and charmingly useless vestige of a nineteenth-century university education?  Or does it have something crucial to add to the liberal education of the twenty-first century — whether in the arts and sciences or in pre-professional schools?

Philosophers would probably answer this question in a wide variety of ways.  In my own case, I have several high-level goals in mind when I approach a new group of undergraduate students in philosophy.  I hope to help them to develop in several ways:

  • to gain a set of intellectual skills: analysis, reasoning, clarity of thinking and exposition, open-mindedness and a readiness to try to see a problem from multiple points of view
  • to learn some of the developed approaches to “philosophical” problems: knowledge, ethical behavior, individual rights, social justice, the authority of the state, the nature of rationality, the meaning of human life
  • to gain an engaged involvement in some great thinkers and their theories and reasoning in detail
  • to gain some meaningful acquaintance with some important philosophical theories (utilitarianism, empiricism, mind-body materialism, ordinary language philosophy …)
  • to gain an ability to see the connections between philosophical reasoning and real human problems — scientific knowledge, addressing poverty or racism, resolving conflicts of value or conflicts of interest or desire, …

Most of these goals have to do with developing intellectual capacity — imagination, reasoning, analytical ability, critical capacity to probe behind ordinary assumptions — more than gaining specific bits of knowledge about the history of philosophy.  Students are exposed to pieces of philosophical traditions that result in exam questions such as these: What was Anselm’s ontological argument?  What was Russell’s paradox?  What were the higher pleasures according to J. S. Mill?  But the real learning goal isn’t that the student should have the ability to draft a short Wikipedia entry on one of these topics.  Rather, the goal is that he/she has enough of a set of analytical and critical skills so that she can pick up a philosophical problem; explore and develop the problem with insight and imagination; consider a variety of ways of addressing the problem; and put forward a philosophical argument that attempts to resolve the problem.  The student needs to learn how to think — philosophically, imaginatively, and critically.

It is true, of course, that being able to formulate and resolve a philosophical problem requires a degree of acquaintance with the systems and theories that previous generations of philosophers have brought to bear on the problems they raise.  So it is important to have grappled seriously with Anselm, Russell, or Mill.  And this means taking seriously the positions these philosophers and others advanced and the intellectual frameworks within which they reasoned.  So a degree of knowledge of some of the fields and traditions of philosophy is an important intellectual attainment for a philosophy student.  But the goal of pursuing this knowledge is not so that the student can become a mini-expert on Anselm or Russell; rather, the goal is to broaden the set of intellectual frameworks and reference points on the basis of which the student’s philosophical imagination can address new problems.

This approach addresses one of the large dichotomies that we have to face in designing a university curriculum: the split between “intellectual skills and capacities” and “mastery of content”.  My position puts primary emphasis on the former over the latter.  One might ask, in good philosophical fashion, why we might want to make this choice?  My own reason has to do with the highest goal I think universities ought to pursue: to help their students to gain a rich range of skills, tools, and intellectual resources on the basis of which they can address the widest range of problems they will face in their civic and professional lives.  When a philosophy student graduates, attends law school or business school, and enters the world of professional activity, he/she may not be able to reproduce specific arguments from the course she took in epistemology or the philosophy of science.  But what we hope is that the challenge of working with those arguments as an undergraduate, challenging and dissecting the assumptions the philosopher made, and considering alternative solutions to the problem, will have given him/her a broad intellectual range and acuity, and a flexible and imaginative ability to think through a set of issues.  And, we would hope, these skills are highly transportable, from the context of philosophy to the practical intellectual challenges of being a good doctor, lawyer, or engineer.  Ultimately the intellectual capacities of imagination, analytical ability, critical insight, and intellectual rigor are the best and most enduring attainments of a good liberal education.

This goal has to do with intellectual capacity and imagination.  But we have another and equally important goal as well in designing a university education or a philosophy course.  This is the goal of helping our students become engaged and morally motivated members of the organizations and communities to which they belong.  We would hope that our students have cultivated an ability to think independently and seriously about the issues of social justice and personal conduct that arise in the society that they are helping to constitute; and we would hope that they have acquired some of the components of personal seriousness that lead them to act with conviction on the basis of their moral ideas.  The transition from narcissism to engagement is not an automatic or inevitable one, and a suitable learning environment in the university can have a large impact on this process of personal development.  So my hope in my own philosophy classroom is that students will have an opportunity to explore and challenge their own moral ideas; to come to see how the contemporary world measures up with respect to those ideas; and to see that their own engagement in issues of community, justice, and social progress can make a meaningful difference in the state of their world.

Some of this process of critical self discovery can happen in the classroom.  But some of it is best stimulated by the other activities that can help students get engaged in the important social issues of their day — poverty alleviation, literacy, racial disparities, etc.  Involvement in organizations such as Habitat for Humanity or Amnesty International can give students a genuine understanding of the needs their world presents to them, and the difference that their engagement can make.  And the teamwork that unavoidably accompanies all these activities gives a concrete illustration to the student of the value of collaboration.

This line of thought converges with one of the common refrains of current thinking about pedagogy: the idea of the student as an “active learner.”  As Socrates and Habermas illustrate in the images above, a very large part of teaching philosophy is the challenge of getting the student to think for himself/herself.  The student needs to take on the intellectual challenge as a serious one; and he/she needs to expend the real mental effort required to understand and deal with the problem.  This can’t be distilled into an artful lecture by the professor; rather, it seems to require dialogue and intellectual exchange.  The student needs to be engaged in the debate; and he or she needs to be brought to see the stakes of the issue.  (In spite of the vast lecture hall that Michael Sandel confronts in the third image above, he too is capable of engaging and challenging the students in his classroom.  Here is a video of a lecture from his Harvard course on justice.)

http://www.youtube.com/v/kBdfcR-8hEY&hl=en_US&fs=1&

The moral sentiments

One of Adam Smith’s contributions to the study of philosophical ethics is his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is an interesting work, one part descriptive moral psychology, one part theory of the emotions.  Here is the opening paragraph (link):

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

So Smith asserts as a matter of empirical fact that there are common moral emotions and feelings — sympathy, pity, compassion — that underlie human social and moral behavior.  And the most basic kinds of morally motivated behavior — altruism in particular — are explained by the workings of these natural emotions of empathy with other human beings.  So Smith posed a fundamental question: is there an innate human moral psychology, beyond the reach of training and teaching, that accounts for our willingness to give to others and sometimes sacrifice important interests for the good of others?  Why do firemen rush into the highly dangerous environment of a large fire in order to rescue the people inside?

Now fast-forward to the post-Darwinian world; look at the human organism from the point of view of the study of primate behavior; and ask this key question: Is there an evolutionary basis for social behaviors? Are there emotions supporting cooperation that were selected for through our evolutionary history? Is a moral capacity hardwired?

Philosophers have treated this question in the past.  Allan Gibbard’s Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment is a particularly good example. Here is how Gibbard describes the situation.

Consider now human beings evolving in hunting-gathering societies.  We could expect them to face an abundance of human bargaining situations, involving mutual aid, personal property, mates, territory, use of housing, and the like.  Human bargaining situations tend to be evolutionary bargaining situations.  Human goals tend toward biological fitness, toward reproduction.  The point is not, of course, that a person’s sole goal is to maximize his reproduction; few if any people have that as a goal at all.  Rather, the point concerns propensities to develop goals.  Those propensities that conferred greatest fitness were selected; hence in a hunting-gathering society, people tended to want the various things it was fitness-enhancing for them to want.  Conditions of primitive human life must have required intricate coordination–both of the simple cooperative kinds involved, say, in meeting a person, and of the kind required for bargaining problems to yield mutually beneficial outcomes. Propensities well coordinated with the propensities of others would have been fitness-enhancing, and so we may view a vast array of human propensities as coordinating devices.  Our emotional propensities, I suggest, are largely the results of these selection pressures, and so are our normative capacities. (67)

One of Gibbard’s key points is an analytical one. He argues against the idea of there being specific moral content, ethical principles, or moral emotions that are embodied in the central nervous system (CNS) as a result of variation and selection. Instead, he argues for there being a hardwired set of more abstract capacities that have CNS reality and selection advantage: the ability to learn a norm and to act in accordance with it.  (Richard Joyce makes a similar point: “Evolutionary psychology does not claim that observable human behavior is adaptive, but rather that it is produced by psychological mechanisms that are adaptations.  The output of an adaptation need not be adaptive” (5).)

This is the part that seems counter-intuitive from a simple Darwinian point of view. Wouldn’t an organism possessing a genetically determined disposition to act contrary to its mortal interests almost necessarily have less reproductive success? So shouldn’t such a gene quickly lose out to a more opportunistic alternative? Gibbard considers the evolutionary arguments surrounding the topic of altruism (including Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene), and concludes — not necessarily.  It is possible to mount an evolutionary argument that establishes the fitness-enhancing characteristics of some specific kinds of altruistic behavior.

So what does the current research on this topic add to what we already knew?  And, can we draw any interesting connections back to the venerable Smith?

In fact, there seems to be a new surge of interest in the topic.  A number of philosophers and psychologists are now interested in treating moral psychology as an empirical question, and they are interested in working back to the evolutionary environment in which these human capacities emerged.   (For example, Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, ed., Moral Psychology, Volume 1: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness.)  Particularly interesting is research by Michael Tomasello and his collaborators.  Tomasello is the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.  He argues that human beings are hardwired for cooperation, empathy, and social intensionality in a very interesting recent book, Why We Cooperate.  A great deal of his research has to do with experiments and observations of human children (9-24 months) and of young non-human primates.  He finds, essentially, that infants and children display a range of behaviors that seem to reveal a natural readiness for altruism, sharing, coordination, and eventually following of norms.  “I only propose that the kinds of collaborative activities in which young children today engage are the natural cradle of social norms of the cooperative variety.  This is because they contain the seeds of the two key ingredients” (89-90).  He presents a range of experimental data supporting these ideas:

  • Human infants have a pre-cultural disposition to be helpful and empathetic (12-14 months) 
  • Human toddlers adjust their cooperative and normative behavior to be more attentive to the behavior of others: generous to the generous and not to the ungenerous. 
  • Human infants and toddlers have a precultural disposition to absorb and enforce norms. 
  • The emotions of guilt and shame to be hardwired to conformance to norms. 
  • Infants appear to take a “we” intentional stance without learning.  They are able to quickly figure out what another agent is trying to do.
  • Chimps differ from human infants in virtually each of these areas. 

Here is a particularly interesting piece of evidence that Tomasello offers in support of the idea that human evolution was shaped by selection pressures that favored social coordination: the whites of the eyes in the human being.  Almost all non-human species have eyes that are primarily dark; whereas human eyes feature a large and conspicuous circle of white (the sclera).  The whites of the eyes permit an observer to determine what another individual is looking at — allowing human individuals to achieve a substantially greater degree of shared attention and coordination.  “My team has argued that advertising my eye direction for all to see could only have evolved in a cooperative social environment in which others were not likely to exploit it to my detriment” (76).

So does this recent work on the evolutionary basis of moral emotions have anything to do with Smith and the moral sentiments?  What the two bodies of thought have in common is the idea that there is a psychological foundation to moral behavior, cooperation, altruism, and helping.  Pure maximizing rationality doesn’t get you to “helping”; rather, there needs to be some psychological impulse to improve things for the other person.  Where evolutionary psychology differs from Smith is precisely in the nature of the explanation that is offered for this moral psychology; we have the advantage of having a pretty good idea of how natural selection works on biological traits, and we are therefore in a better position than Smith was to explain why human beings possess moral sentiments.  What we cannot yet answer is the question of the nature of the mechanism at the level of the central nervous system or the cognitive system, of how these moral sentiments are embodied in the human organism.

(It is interesting to contrast this line of argument with that of Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism.  Nagel argues against the moral psychology of Hume — very similar to that of Smith — and argues that altruism is actually a feature of rationality.  We behave altruistically, fundamentally, because we have a rational representation of the reality of the external world and of other persons; and to recognize the reality of another person is immediately to have a reason to help the other person.  So no “motor” of moral emotion is needed in order to explain altruistic behavior.  On this approach, we don’t need to postulate moral sentiments to explain moral behavior; all we need is a rich conception of practical rationality.)

Democracy and agency in development ethics

Development ethics is an area of applied ethics that attempts to explore the moral issues involved in global social and economic transformation.  Key to the urgency of the field is the fact of massive global poverty, hunger, and inequality.  The current situation of the world’s poor — in Egypt, India, Mexico, Sudan, or Brazil, for example — is entirely unacceptable from a human point of view.  And governments, organizations, and individuals have positive moral obligations to work towards reducing these forms of massive suffering, and helping construct social and economic institutions that systematically reduce poverty.  So much is clear from the 60,000 foot level.  But how much more specificity can we provide about the bad of poverty, the principles of global justice, or the goals of development, so that moral theory can provide something of a guide to policy and action?  To what extent can we usefully connect moral theory to the practical challenges of designing workable development strategies?

Philosophers and social scientists have made a series of efforts at formulating a foundation for development ethics since the end of World War II.  Early contributors were Denis Goulet (Development Ethics: A Guide to Theory and Practice) and Robert Chambers (Rural Development: Putting the last first).  But the major progress in the field occurred through the writings of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, in the formulation of the “capabilities approach” to development.  Sen argued that the fundamental goal of development should be to create social and economic institutions within which every individual is enabled to fulfill his/her capabilities and to realize the functionings of a full human life (Development as Freedom).  And Nussbaum extended this idea with particular emphasis on the ways in which gender inequalities in development have deeply harmed women in the developing world (Women and Human Development).

There is now a third generation of thinking in the field of development ethics, well represented by David Crocker’s excellent recent book, Ethics of Global Development: Agency, Capability, and Deliberative Democracy.  (Other important examples include Sabina Alkire, Valuing Freedoms: Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction and Bina Agarwal, A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia.)  Crocker has been actively involved in the formulation of theories of development ethics for decades, and is the founder of the International Development Ethics Association (IDEA).  This is an important forum for philosophers and practitioners to come together to discuss the ethical issues of development.  Crocker has been an exponent of the capabilities approach throughout his career, and has succeeded in deepening the debate by insisting on the importance of bringing the moral theories into direct engagement with the realities and practices of development.

The current book takes an important step forward.  It is framed around the foundation of the capabilities approach; but it goes beyond existing capabilities theory by emphasizing the crucial role of agency and democracy within development.  The capabilities approach focuses on achieving a form of society in which individuals can realize their capabilities and enjoy high quality of life.  This is a focus on the outcome of development.  Crocker refocuses this picture to emphasize the intrinsic and instrumental importance of the agency of the people involved in development — the process of development.  And people best exercise their agency through a deliberative, participative process — through a democratic process.  So Crocker’s ethics of development might be described as a joining of the capabilities approach with current theorizing about deliberative democracy.  (Here is an earlier post on deliberative democracy.)

So what does this emphasis on agency and democracy involve?  Here is a concrete example: Indian economist V. K. Ramachandran’s description of how the development process works in West Bengal and Kerala.

http://www.youtube.com/v/1goTqlr17QE&hl=en_US&fs=1&

Here and elsewhere in the interview Ramachandran describes a process through which the West Bengal development agencies conduct their work.  They consult broadly with social groups, labor organizations, feminist organizations, and local communities and villages.  Proposals, goals, and strategies are developed through these consultations and deliberations; and the ultimate policy package is intended to represent a synthesis of the insights and claims of the various groups involved in the process.  So the process represents a practical illustration of the approach advocated by Crocker.

Why is a deliberative process along these lines appealing? First, it captures a set of social ideals associated with Rousseau and Marx about the value of individuals and groups self-constituting their goals and values through reflection and deliberation. Rather than the World Bank or the OECD Development Assistance Committee imposing a set of goals on a country or region (liberalization, more rapid urbanization, improvement of markets), the people of the region should have the opportunity and responsibility of setting their course and choosing the strategies they will pursue. Development should proceed through a process of local self-determination, and such a process is itself an intrinsic good.

Second, there is the idea is that the goals chosen through such a process will be in better alignment with the needs of the region, and will be better embraced by the people affected, because they have been refined and chosen through a deliberative, democratic process.  Policies developed through a democratic process have a greater level of legitimacy with those affected by the policies.

Third, there is the expectation that the people of the community will have a better factual understanding of their natural and social circumstances, and will therefore be better able to formulate strategies that will work in the given environment.  So Crocker and others expect that a process of deliberative democracy through which development goals and strategies are selected by a given community will have a higher probability of succeeding.   (Notice the convergence between this set of ideas and Scott’s critique of “high modernism”; link.)

This set of values suggests several institutional features: decentralization of decision-making, massive consultation, and a requirement of equality among citizens.  Can we be confident that such a process will work well to reform society and reduce poverty and inequality?  Ramachandran highlights one obstacle to this process in the interview posted above: the fact of extreme inequalities of wealth and poverty in rural India.  But if the social setting is one of great inequalities between landlords, tenants, and landless workers, then to what extent can the requirements of democratic deliberation take place?  Ramachandran argues for the necessity of agrarian reform (land reform and caste reform) as a necessary precondition for just economic development in India.

Decentralization of decision-making raises another potential problem — the myopia of the local.  A development plan that may be best for West Bengal as a whole may be undesirable to many communities; so how can we expect the process of deliberative democracy to arrive at a good outcome for the state as a whole? (The collapse of the Tata Motor Nano project in West Bengal perhaps illustrates this possibility.)  And the massive consultation involved in this ideal poses its own problems of practicality.  Can we be confident that such a process will come to a resolution, or will debate continue indefinitely?

Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright address practical responses to some of these issues in Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance.  Here is how they set the stage for their analysis:

As the tasks of the state have become more complex and the size of polities larger and more heterogeneous, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century — representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration — seem increasingly ill suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century.  “Democracy” as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices.  Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and implementing public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions fo the democratic idea, assuring that all citizens benefit from the nation’s wealth. (3)

David Crocker’s focus on the importance of the values and practices of deliberative democracy within the development process is an important step forward.  It helps to make more tangible the implications of the capabilities approach for specific development challenges; and it gives substance to the priority that Sen and Nussbaum accord to “freedom” as a central development value.

(Some readers may also be interested in my 2003 book, The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development. This book likewise places the capabilities approach at the center of the analysis.)

Rawls and decision theory

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was a strikingly original contribution to political philosophy upon its appearance in 1971.  Against the prevailing preference for “meta-ethics” in the field of philosophical ethics, Rawls made an effort to arrive at substantive, non-tautological principles that could be justified as a sort of “moral constitution” for a just society.  The theory involves two fundamental principles of justice: the liberty principle, guaranteeing maximal equal liberties for all citizens, and the difference principle, requiring that social and economic inequalities should be the least possible, subject to the constraint of maximizing the position of the least-well-off.  (The principle also requires equality of opportunity for all positions.)

Two elements of Rawls’s philosophical argument were particularly striking.  The first was his adoption of the anti-foundationalist coherence epistemology associated with Quine and Goodman (SEP article by Jonathan Kvanvig); so Rawls conceded that it is not possible to provide logically decisive arguments for moral positions.  Though his theory of justice has much in common with the ideas of Kant and Rousseau, Rawls rejected the Kantian idea that moral theories could be given secure philosophical foundation.  It is rather a question of the overall fit between a set of principles and our “considered judgments” about cases and mid-level moral judgments.  He refers to the situation of “reflective equilibrium” as the state of affairs that results when a moral reasoner has fully deliberated about his/her considered moral judgments and tentative moral principles, adjusting both until no further changes are required by the requirement of consistency.

Another and perhaps even more distinctive part of Rawls’s approach is his use of the apparatus of decision theory to support his arguments in favor of the two principles of justice against plausible alternatives (including especially utilitarianism).  Essentially the argument goes along these lines.  Suppose that representative individuals are brought together in a situation in which they are expected to make a unanimous and irreversible decision about the fundamental principles of justice that will regulate their society; and suppose they are profoundly ignorant about their own particular characteristics.  Participants do not know whether they are talented, strong, intelligent, or eloquent; and they do not know what their fundamental goals are (their theories of the good).  Rawls refers to this situation of choice as the original position; and he refers to the participants as deliberating behind the veil of ignorance.  Rawls argues that rational individuals in these circumstances would unanimously choose the two principles of justice over utilitarianism.  And this conclusion is taken to be a strong basis of support for the two principles as correct.  This is what qualifies Rawls’s theory as falling within the social contract tradition; the foundation of justice is the fact of unanimous rational consent (albeit hypothetical).

Once we connect the question, “what is the best theory of justice?”, with the question, “what principles of justice would rationally self-interested persons choose?”, there are various ways we might proceed.  Rawls’s description of the original position is just one possible starting point out of several.  But if we begin with Rawls’s assumptions, then it is natural to turn to formal decision theory as a basis for answering the question.  How should rational agents reason in these circumstances?  How should they decide which of several options will best serve their future interests?  And one point becomes clear immediately: the choice of a decision rule makes a critical difference for the ultimate choice.  If we were to imagine that decision-making under conditions of uncertainty mandates the “maximize expected utility” rule, then one choice follows (utilitarianism).  But Rawls argues that the expected utility rule is not rational in the circumstances of the original position.  The stakes are too high for each participant.  And therefore he argues that the “maximin” rule would be chosen by rational participants in the circumstances of the original position.  The maximin rule requires that we rank options by their worst possible outcome; and we choose that option that comes with the least bad outcome.  In other words, we “maximize the minimum.” (The maximin rule was described by von Neumann and Morgenstern in 1944 in their Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.)

Notice that this analysis involves a question of second-order rationality: not “what outcome would the rational agent choose?”, but rather “what decision rule would the rational agent follow?”.  So it is the rationality of the decision rule rather than the rationality of the choice that is at issue.

Another important qualification has to do with defining more carefully what part of the theory of rationality Rawls is using in this argument.  It is sometimes said that Rawls applies game theory to the situation of the original position; and there is a certain logic to this interpretation.  Game theory is the theory of strategic rationality; it pertains to that set of situations in which the payoff for one participant depends on the rational choices of other participants. And the original position seems to embody this condition.  However, the requirement of unanimity and the complete absence of a context of bargaining makes the situation non-strategic.  So Rawls’s use of rational choice theory does not involve game theory per se, and he is not interested in demonstrating a Nash equilibrium in the OP.  Instead, he believes that there is a single best strategy that will be chosen by each individual–the two principles of justice.  (Here is a good brief description of the main assumptions of game theory.)

One might ask whether the two features singled out here — anti-foundationalism and decision theory — are consistent.  If Rawls’s theory of justice depends on an argument within formal decision theory, then why is it not a foundationalist argument?  (And in fact, Rawls on occasion refers to his argument as reflecting a “kind of moral geometry”.)  What makes Rawls’s use of decision theory “anti-foundationalist” is the fact that this argument itself is philosophically contestable.  Reasonable decision theorists may differ about the rationality of the maximin rule (as John Harsanyi argued against Rawls).  So the appeal to decision theory does not obviate the need for a balance of reasons in favor of the approach and the particular way in which it is specified in this situation; and this in turn sounds a lot like the role of physical theory and methodology within Quine’s notion of “The Web of Belief.”

(A mountain of words have been written about Rawls’s moral epistemology.  Here is Samuel Freeman’s excellent article on the original position in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; here is a useful compendium of the history of rational choice theory; and here is an old article of mine on the epistemology of reflective equilibrium.)

Disaffected youth


Every city seems to have its floating population of disaffected youth — school dropouts, occasional workers, drug users, skateboarders, hooligans, street people. How much of a problem is this? What are its dimensions? What are the social causes that influence the size and nature of this population in Detroit, Manchester, Cologne, or Novosibirsk? And are there social programs that can significantly diminish the number of young people who wind up in this category?

As for the importance of the problem, there are at least two aspects. In some times and places this population becomes a source of violence — youth gangs, football hooliganism, shop window breakage, and skinhead attacks on racial minorities, gays, or other targets. But second, whether violent or passive, the precipitation of a sub-class of young people with no skills, no jobs, and no futures is a huge social cost for the societies that produce them.

Here I’m mostly interested in the processes of neglect and social-economic disadvantage that play into the mentality of some young people, leading to the formation of an individual social psychology that brings about the low-level anti-social behavior that is observed. Basically — why do some young people drop out of the process of gaining an education, building a career, forming a family, and looking forward to the future, and instead spend their time hanging out in the streets? The skinhead phenomenon adds another element that is also worth understanding but is not the primary interest here — a degree of organizational effort by political entrepreneurs who work towards mobilizing disaffected youth around racist and nationalist agendas. This falls under the category of social mobilization studied by people such as Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, or Charles Tilly. But here I’m more interested here in the process of socialization at the individual level that leads to the phenomenon of disaffection. (Several earlier posts have addressed the mobilization part of the story — for example, here.)

Here is a very interesting academic study by Robert MacDonald of the making of a “youth underclass” in the UK. Here is how MacDonald frames his problem of research:

Most young people in the UK make relatively ‘successful’, unproblematic transitions from school to work and adulthood. What do we call those that do not? Labels imply explanation, not just description. Terms with academic and policy currency tend to define such young people by something they are not or by their presumed social and economic distance and dislocation from ‘the rest’. How we might best describe, explain and label the experience and problem of so-called ‘socially excluded’, ‘disconnected youth’ is the focus of the paper.

To use the term “disaffected” is to bring a Durkheimian mindset to the table; it is to offer the beginnings of a diagnosis of the problem as well as a description. The phrase “disaffected” (or its cognate, “demoralized”) presents the problem as one of disconnection from prevailing social values and alienation from a set of moral ideas about how to behave. The “disaffected” no longer believe in the old chestnuts about working hard, listening to one’s parents, showing respect to others, obeying the law, and conforming to society’s expectations. So on this line of thought, the anti-social behavior of young people in this category derives from their “demoralization” — their failure, or society’s failure, to absorb a compelling set of normative standards about personal and social conduct.

But here is a slightly different tack we might take here. Perhaps disadvantaged youth disbelieve because they have lost all confidence in the underlying promise: conform to these norms and you will have a decent life. In other words, maybe the psychological cause of these forms of youth behavior is economic rather than moral; they are deeply discouraged about the possibility of a pathway to a better future than the world they seem around themselves at the moment. “Hopeless and angry” is a different state of mind than “disaffected.”

And what about the factor of motivation and personal ambition? To what extent is normal youth development propelled by internal factors of motivation and aspiration? And how much of a role does a social context that “demotivates” young people play in this picture?

Another line of thought has emerged out of research on youth gangs — the idea of the positive forms of solidarity and community that are provided by the gang as a welcoming social group. Young people who have lost the social support of their families and other traditional organizations may find that the street gang is the closest thing to “home” that they are able to locate. These are social groups with their own codes of behavior — even though their largest effects are profoundly anti-social.

A common recourse when it comes to trying to explain these kinds of outcomes is to refer to various “breakdowns” — breakdowns of the traditional family, of schools, of religion, of community organizations, or of public values. These are the institutions through which young people form their social psychologies, their identities, and their basic values. But if the young person lacks an emotionally meaningful connection to adults through some of these institutions, where will those positive social values come from?

Finally, it is worth noting that poverty and socio-economic disadvantage are not the only settings where youth disaffection occurs. Many observers in the United States have written about the use of drugs by affluent suburban high school students and other forms of involvement in anti-social activities. Wayne Wooden’s Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws: From Youth Culture to Delinquency documents some of this behavior.

Why is this an important problem for “understanding society”? Because the social processes through which the next generation of citizens — children, teenagers, and youth — is shaped are deeply influential on the nature of the society that will develop in twenty to forty years. If “disaffection,” “anger,” “demoralization,” and a propensity for anti-social behavior are inculcated in a large minority of the youth cohort, then society is likely to go through some very hard times in the coming decades.

It’s relatively easy to find some dimensions of these issues on the web. Here is an interesting report on “football hooliganism” prepared by Dr. Geoff Pearson of the Football Industry Group. Here is a blog posting from the UK on youth gangs and terrorist organizations. Here is a quick report on skinheads.

Rawls’s schematic sociology

John Rawls offers an interesting thought along the way in his development of the theory of justice, on the question of the stability of a well-ordered society.  Basically, the idea is that a set of principles of justice need to satisfy a condition of publicity and social stability: the principles need to be such that, when everyone knows that these are the principles that regulate their social interactions and know that all others have the same knowledge, the society remains stable.

Rawls puts the point this way:

Now a well-ordered society is also regulated by its public conception of justice.  This fact implies that its members have a strong and normally effective desire to act as the principles of justice require.  Since a well-ordered society endures over time, its conception of justice is presumably stable: that is, when institutions are just (as defined by this conception), those taking part in these arrangements acquire the corresponding sense of justice and desire to do their part in maintaining them.  One conception of justice is more stable than another if the sense of justice that it tends to generate is stronger and more likely to override disruptive inclinations and if the institutions it allows foster weaker impulses and temptations to act unjustly.  The stability of a conception depends upon a balance of motives: the sense of justice that it cultivates and the aims that it encourages must normally win out against propensities toward injustice.  (A Theory of Justice, pp. 454-455)

What is interesting here is that Rawls is engaging in a bit of sociological theorizing in this passage — not simply apriori moral philosophy.  He is offering an analysis of the social psychology and motivations of people living within various frameworks of justice — the principles governing the basic institutions and laws of a society — and he hypothesizes that the social psychology of citizens is influenced by the features of justice that are embodied in their society.  The resulting social psychology in turn produces behavior that is more or less compatible with the continued stability of the institutions and laws.  A given set of institutions, generated by a certain theory of justice, gives rise to motivations on the part of citizens in ordinary life; and these motivations can be either stabilizing or destabilizing to the postulated institutions and framework of justice.  There is a feedback loop from institutions to social psychology to behavior to basic institutions.

This raises an interesting question: how much of a role does a shared sense of justice play in sustaining a peaceful and stable society?

One piece of the answer is straightforward: injustice is a common cause of societal conflict and violence. Basic social relations that are perceived to involve unfair exploitation of one group by another are an obvious source of motivation towards resistance and group violence. Contrastively, institutions that are publicly recognized to treat all citizens fairly may promote a social psychology and a set of behaviors that are affirming of the institutions — leading to harmonious social life and stable institutions.

So Rawls’s argument here does suggest an interesting conjunction of sociological reality and normative reasoning about justice.  Rawls returns to this topic in Political Liberalism, where he questions the strong assumptions associated with the idea of a well-ordered society. He offers instead the somewhat less demanding idea of an “overlapping consensus” as sufficient for a stable democracy.
But a sense of being treated unfairly is only one out of numerous causes of social conflict. Conflict can arise over numerous other types of issues as well: ethnic or religious identities, racism, neighborhood boundaries, and state policy, to name several.  And these areas of potential conflict are not addressed by Rawls’s sketch of the sociology of a just society.

Philosophy and society

How does philosophy intersect with the social world? How does philosophical thinking contribute to better understanding of society? (At the right we see Jurgen Habermas teaching philosophy in 1960.)

It is possible that philosophy is not a well-defined discipline. But philosophers regard themselves as having something of a method, and something of a subject matter. The method, for analytically trained philosophers, anyway, is based on careful, critical analysis of ideas, concepts, and statements, and an effort to arrive at developed philosophical theories of important subjects: justice, rationality, equality, relativism, social construction, … The subject matter is a little harder to specify. But there is an open-ended set of subjects that have drawn philosophers’ attention for the past several hundred years: empirical knowledge, foundations of mathematics, the nature of the mind, moral truth, political justice, and the foundations of religious belief, for example.

So let’s take this cluster of methods and topics to serve as one possible definition of philosophical thought; the question here is, how can philosophical reasoning be focused on understanding the nature of society?

One clear area of intersection is the philosophy of “knowledge of society” — the philosophy of social science. Here the questions are epistemological — how secure is the knowledge offered by the social sciences; methodological — what methods of inquiry are well suited to the study of society; explanatory — what is required for a good social explanation; and ontological — what assumptions do we need to make about the nature of the social world in order to pursue social science research? It is fairly clear how philosophers can contribute to the development of theories and perspectives about these questions.

Another area where philosophy is relevant to society is normative social philosophy — the theory of justice, human well-being, or communitarianism/liberalism, for example. Here the philosopher brings some organized thinking about values, ethical theory, and the messy facts of human social arrangements into the discussion. Here again, it is fairly clear how rigorous philosophical thinking can illuminate these questions; philosophy can help our understanding of these issues to progress.

But in addition to these fairly clear examples of philosophy about society, there seems to be another domain of intersection between philosophy and society that isn’t as well charted. This is “empirically and historically informed study of social metaphysics”. Many of the postings on this blog fall roughly into this category. Here the philosopher begins with some bits of knowledge about an aspect of the social world — economic development, the world food system, or social contention; but then asks fairly foundational questions about how we ought to think about the components of these areas of phenomena.

A recurring subject in this blog, for example, is reflection on the question, “Social mechanisms or social regularities?”. And the contributions here aren’t purely conceptual, purely empirical, or purely inductive; instead, they are “theory informed by concrete examples of real social processes.” And this approach to a problem seems different from all of the following — pure methodology, pure epistemology, ethical theory, empirical investigation, or traditional social scientific theory formation. Instead, this level of philosophizing seems to deliberately call upon a synthesis of some empirical knowledge, some conceptual reflection, and some ontological reasoning. (Might we say that it looks something like a combination of Kant in his synthetic metaphysics, with Newton and Kepler in their theoretical and empirical research?)

(This approach, by the way, is exactly similar to what I want to advocate for the philosophy of history as well: philosophical reflection upon real examples of historical change and historical reasoning; and analysis of genuinely important and difficult problems that arise in both the course of history and the course of historical writing. So my view of the philosophy of history too is one that is neither purely a priori nor an exercise in direct historical scholarship.)

So the question today is — what is the rational or intellectual standing of the assertions that are made in this synthetic form of philosophy?

Agency, action, and norms

How do norms influence behavior? More fundamentally, what is a norm?

The question arises for two separate reasons. First, we are interested in knowing why people behave as they do (agency). And second, we are interested in knowing how large social factors (moral and cognitive frameworks, for example) exert influence over individuals (social causation).

The agency question is the more fundamental. Philosophers typically want to answer the question in terms of a model of practical rationality and deliberation. One philosophical answer derives from Aristotle and represents action as the result of rational deliberation. Individuals have a set of goals and values; they have a set of beliefs about the world; and they deliberate about the choices they confront with the aim of achieving their goals consistent with their values, given their beliefs about the world. But philosophers and thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Skinner, or Adorno would take issue with this reason-centered theory of action. Other sources of behavior might include unconscious habits or prejudices, instincts, impulses, emotions, and role-playing. A model that incorporates these diverse possible influences on action is unavoidably complex — but human behavior is likewise complex.

Now let’s try to locate the role of norms within a theory of agency. Norms have to do with the reasons and motives that people have for their actions. A norm is a particular kind of influence on action: it is a rule of behavior that leads someone to do something that is otherwise contrary to immediate impulse or interest. Norms get us to do things we don’t want to do.

We might say, then, that a norm is a rule of behavior — for example, “Don’t wear shorts to a business meeting,” “Don’t take coins from the blind man’s cup,” “Give up your seat on the bus to a disabled person.” And a rule can either be internally or externally represented; this means that the the rule may be internalized into the agent’s process of decision-making, or it may influence the agent’s behavior through punishments and rewards.

Even this simple discussion raises questions, however. Do norms have to be consciously accessible to the agent? Is a moral principle such as “Always keep your promises” a norm, or do ethical principles fall in a different category? Do norms have rational justification, or are they simply an accidental social product like tastes or styles?

As for the ways in which norms influence behavior —

It would seem that there are only a few mechanisms through which norms could possibly influence individual and collective behavior, largely distinguished by being external and internal.

First, it may be that there is an effective mechanism of social education through which each individual develops or activates an internally regulative system of norms or rules. This process can be described as “moral education.” The most superficial observation of social behavior indicates that this is so, and social psychologists and sociologists have some ideas about how these systems work. But the bottom line appears fairly clear: individuals who are reared in normal human settings eventually possess action-behavior systems that embody a set of personal norms that influence their conduct. We might draw the analogy to the example of language learning: a normal human child is exposed to the linguistic behavior of others, and arrives at a psychologically realized grammar that guides his/her own language production.

Second, a norm might be embodied in the attitudes, judgment, and behavior of others in such a way that their actions and reactions create incentives and disincentives for the actor. For example, others may possess a set of norms concerning civility in public discourse, and they may punish or reward others according to whether their words are consistent with these norms. In this case the agent conforms to the requirements of the norm out of a calculation of costs and benefits of performance. (It would appear that there is a possibility of circularity here: the externally imposed norm depends upon the internally embodied norm of enforcement of the content of the rule on the part of others.)

Third, it might be the case that there are some norms of inter-personal behavior that are hard-wired. Some norms might have a biological, evolutionary basis. This is the line of thought that sociobiologists have explored with varying levels of success. The emotional responses that adults have to infants and children probably fall in this category — though it is a conceptually interesting question to consider whether these emotional responses are “norms” or simply features of the affective system. This is relevant to the work that Allan Gibbard does in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Gibbard’s fundamental insight seems to be that there must be an evolutionary basis for the “norm-acquisition system” — the features of human psychology that permit them to acquire certain kinds of moral motives (altruism, friendship, fairness).

So — what can we say about norms? Human beings act on the basis of deliberation, norm, impulse, and emotion. So our theory of practical rationality and action must make a place for the workings of norms. Second, norms are transmitted to individuals through concrete social processes — family experiences, schooling, religious institutions, etc. Our theories of social life must incorporate an account of the processes of normative education through which individuals come to possess a particular normative structure. These experiences are the counterpart to the exposure to language on the part of the infant. And third, norms are socially enforced through the actions of others. So norms are socially embodied — in the institutions of enforcement, the institutions and practices of moral education, and in the practical cognition of the individuals who make up the society.

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