Honest Dialogue Needed on Social Media

In my last post, I issued a plea for civil discourse. This post is something of a possible explanation for its rarity on social media couple with a further plea. Most people in the US seem to have chosen sides, picked a team. More than that, they seem to have made their chosen team a large part of their identity—who they take themselves to be. If they see someone post negative things about their candidate, they react against that person. If they repeatedly see that person posting negative things about their candidate (and perhaps positive things about the other candidate), they see the other person as attacking who they are. Or as completely fooled. This is, of course, polarization.

Here’s the thing: in reality, someone who posts only positive things about a candidate and nothing negative, is—at least in the US over the last several decades—not doing what is necessary to be rightly seen as posting truth. If what you believe to be true about the current candidates for president (and thus post on social media) is all one-sided, you’re almost certainly wrong. The duopoly candidates are all bad and have been for years. The truth is complex. Trump has had some good policies and done some good, but he’s also done some things badly and caused problems. The same would be true of a Biden presidency (judging from his history).

I agree that one of the candidates is better than the other. And I voted for that candidate. Honestly, I’ve voted in all or most national elections I’ve been eligible to vote in. I’ve always gotten a kick out of it. I did again this time, but I felt dirty in a way I never have before when voting. (Which is at least partly explained by having voted for third party candidates, skipped votes for some positions, writing in candidates, and never before voting for a whole party line.)

So what can be done? Here’s the plea: post honestly and recognize that if all your posts are pro-Candidate A and against Candidate B, you are not likely posting honestly. Civil discourse requires that interlocutors trust each other to speak honestly. If people see your posts as all one sided, they will rightly conclude that you are not being an honest interlocutor. There are at least 2 possible bad outcomes from that: your social media will become more of a bubble as people for the other candidate unfriend you or you’ll get into unnecessarily heated debates with people seeking to prove you wrong, no matter how futile that might be.

By contrast, if you are willing to see—and show that you see—the faults of the candidate you prefer (even if you think they are great!), you can invite and sustain honest dialogue with others. In all likelihood, you will discover that you have things in common with them even if you disagree about the candidates. The fact is we are all multi-faceted and not well represented by any single label. When we hide behind superficial identities or labels—or force others behind them—we fail to learn who our interlocutors really are. When we do that, we miss out on all there is to discover and make it more likely that we stagnate instead of growing. (For more on this, see Irshad Manji’s Don’t Label Me-CE*.)

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An Appeal for Civil Discourse

Humans were genetically inclined to be intolerant of difference.  They could overcome the inclination, but it was a reality of the Human conflict that they often did not.”  —Octavia Butler

I’ve been binge reading Octavia Butler’s fantastic fiction.  I can’t recommend it highly enough—its been a long time since I’ve so enjoyed an author’s work.  The above is from her Xenogenisis Trilogy-CE* (Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Amago) in which she presents a post-apocalyptic earth, where we find humans, alien Oankali, and human-Oankali hybrids.  The Oankali saved the humans that remain—absent Oankali intervention, there would be no humans at all.  That Oankali did not do this solely out of altruistic concern, but also so that they would have humans as genetic “trading partners.”  The Oankali are a repeatedly and intentionally evolving species—they evolve by mixing their DNA with that of other species.  Humans aren’t the first and won’t be the last.  Some in the tale appear unable to grasp the incredible benefit the Oankali offer and become “resisters” seeking to maintain their biological humanity at all costs.  They fear their species being lost completely.  Indeed, the Oankali have (reversibly) altered humans to prevent non-hybrid procreation because they see a fatal destructive flaw in human biology—so destructive that they believe that absent intervention, the human race will self-destruct, just as it almost did before they arrived.  The Oankali, though, offer what amounts to significantly improved and lengthened individual life for the remaining humans and their descendants, though not, admittedly, as biological humans.  

Fear of the new and different is natural.  Such fear can, of course, be life-preserving.  It can’t though, be one’s only guide.  Fortunately, fear never dominates everyone.  Perhaps not even most.  There are humans in Butler’s tale that live in peace with the Oankali with little fear.  Most Christians don’t fear Muslims, most Americans don’t fear people in China or Russia, and most rural folks don’t fear city dwellers—or vice versa (for each pairing).  Importantly, most democrats don’t fear republicans and most republicans don’t fear democrats.  But we can all be better off if we increase understanding across the partitions that divide us.

If we do not at least try to better understand those we disagree with, the social and political landscape will only get worse.  The last century and a half has been humanity’s most prosperous.  The vast improvements to human life owe much to greater freedom to trade with those foreign to us, geographically and culturally.  That trade was partly preceded by, included, and followed by, discourse.  Absent discourse, we separate from others, living in isolated pockets (or “bubbles”) with others like us.  That is a recipe for stagnation—a New Dark Age where there is little dialogue between individuals across party lines, political borders, religions, and cultures.  And with that, less trade and progress.  We need more discourse that crosses all of those lines—and that will only happen with civility.  Civil discourse may not be the engine of change, but it’s certainly a prerequisite thereof.  Let’s have at it.  Tell me why I’m wrong.  Don’t tell me “because the so-and-so’s are beyond the pale;” tell me what we can do that would improve things other than engage in civil discourse that improves understanding.  Don’t tell me I’m a so-and-so; tell me why I’m wrong about civil discourse, or what is needed for progress, or why we don’t need progress, or why we’re somehow better off without cross-border trade (geographically, culturally, religiously, politically). 

In addition to leaving the comments open here—my first time doing so on RCL—I note a great new national attempt to improve understanding through civil discourse by the Braver Angels organization.  For the last few years, Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) has been putting “blues” and “reds” in dialogue with each other to great affect.  They continue to do so, but have a new project meant to address the particular situation we now face.  When the 2020 election is over, many of your friends, neighbors, coworkers, and relatives are going to be upset.  Braver Angels hopes we can get reconciliation across the partisan divisions that have become so much less civil.  They seek to increase civil discourse by encouraging both sides to reach out to each other to discuss how we should all treat one other.  This can help us better understand each other—even those we vehemently disagree with.  I’d encourage you to take seriously the Braver Angel’s “With Malice Toward None” Pledge and, their letter rejecting election related violence. Sign both now.

*Thanks to Christy Horpedahl for helping me make this a better post than it otherwise would have been.

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Why Do Horrid People Have Rights? (Part II)

In Part I, I showed that justifying liberty rights on the grounds that we need them to pursue eudaimonia fails to show why people who are incapable of pursuing eudaimonia have liberty rights. Here I will ask if a less ambitious justification can include the excluded people.

According to Loren Lomasky, most of us are project-pursuers (CE*), setting long-term goals for ourselves and creating personal value. Personal projects give our lives structure and meaning. Indeed, they are part of our very identity (CE*). Lomasky argues that it is this that endows each project-pursuer with a separate, irreplaceable value, and grounds rights.

However, according to Lomasky, it is not only project-pursuers who have rights. Some non-project-pursuers have rights by virtue of their membership in the moral community of project-pursuers who have “the rational motivation … to recognize and respond to” non-project-pursuers (199). This is why those born so mentally incapacitated that they will never pursue projects, as well as those who can no longer pursue projects on account of dementia, have rights. They are proper objects for “the respect of others” (199). All these individuals ‘piggyback’ on the status of project-pursuers as rights holders. If the vast majority of human beings were not project-pursuers, no one would have rights.

So there are two bases for ascribing rights to people: project-pursuit and membership in a community of project-pursuers. This argument, if sound, justifies the ascription of rights to far more people than the eudaimonistic argument. In addition to those who will never pursue projects and those who can no longer do so because of dementia, it also allows hopeless addicts to count as rights-bearers. But it leaves the fate of the psychopath and the vicious man in limbo. Full-fledged psychopaths are not and never were project-pursuers because they don’t have long-term goals. One of the most enduring traits of a full-fledged psychopath is his impulsivity – giving in to the desire of the moment. Hervey Cleckley observes that the “[full] psychopath shows a striking inability to follow any sort of life plan consistently, whether it be … good or evil. He does not maintain an effort toward any far goal at all. … On the contrary, he seems to go out of his way to make a failure of life…. At the behest of trivial impulses he repeatedly addresses himself directly to folly” (CE*) (364). 

Is the psychopath a member of the moral community of project-pursuers? If being a member simply means ‘living in society’, then of course he’s a member of the moral community. But if it means that he is recognizable as “a proper object for the respect of others” (199, my italics), then he is not, since he inflicts harm and psychological pain on family members and strangers without guilt.[1] It seems that neither of Lomasky’s arguments can justify ascribing rights to a psychopath. Yet we do think that he has a right to liberty unless or until he violates someone’s rights.

The vicious man described in Part I, whose supreme joy lies in seeing others suffer, but who is smart enough not to violate others’ rights, poses a different problem. He does have a project: the project of making others suffer. This project might give meaning and structure to the vicious man’s life, but its meaning for others is completely negative. Hence he, too, is not a proper object of our respect. The same applies to other varieties of anti-social personalities. Yet we do think that they ought to live free so long as they don’t violate anyone’s rights.

We are either wrong to believe that full-fledged psychopaths (who, by their nature, cannot become project-pursuers), vicious people (whose projects are intentionally inimical to other people’s projects), and anti-social personalities have liberty rights, or we have to look for a different justification.

Let’s start by asking why we might not want such people to have liberty rights. The main reason is that they inflict misery on others without rhyme or reason. But we don’t have a right against misery, because such a right would conflict with many of our liberty rights. It is morally wrong to be a treacherous lover, an unjust boss, a hateful neighbor, a domineering parent, or a nasty teen, but we all have a right to be thus. A right against misery would also conflict with our liberty to behave in perfectly decent ways, because even decent behavior can be a source of misery for some. For example, a young woman who marries someone with the ‘wrong’ politics, religion, or skin color can make her parents miserable. So if the parents had a right to be protected from misery, it would follow that their daughter did not have a right to marry the person she wants. Again, a son’s decision to become a businessman, instead of a musician like his father, might make his father miserable. But the father’s right against misery would mean that the son does not have a right to become a businessman. As these examples show, a right against misery can be self-defeating, since A’s lack of liberty to inflict misery on B is often B’s liberty to inflict misery on A. The idea that we have a right to be protected from misery opens wide the door to government overreach and a violation of many of our rights. It invites the government to become a predator instead of a protector. If we are made miserable by others’ behavior, we need to rely on friends, relatives, or psychologists for support. So psychopaths and other trouble-makers can’t be denied their liberties on the grounds that they make us miserable.

But what is it about them that grounds their rights? The only answer is that, for all their badness, many psychopaths, vicious people, and anti-social personalities have the ability to not violate our rights, even if only for purely instrumental reasons. It is this ability that gives them a right to liberty. This answer of course applies to everyone with this ability – the virtuous as well as the vicious, and everyone in between. But in the case of everyone other than the vicious, the anti-social, and the psychopathic, we also have other reasons to regard them as rights-bearers, reasons that show the importance of rights in human life.


[1] It’s possible that what Lomasky means by ‘respect’ is simply ‘respect for us as rights holders. But that makes his argument circular: we have rights because we are proper objects of respect, and we are proper objects of respect because we have rights.

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Why Do Horrid People Have Rights? (Part I)

Neera K. Badhwar

Individual rights to life, liberty, and property protect our freedom from others’ interference. Rights are claims on others to refrain from initiating physical force on us or defrauding us. Having and respecting rights implies, for instance, that we have a right to buy a house for ourselves, but no right to throw out the owners of a house in order to make room for ourselves. To do so is to invade (in this case, both literally and metaphorically) the occupants’ protected space of freedom to own that house. Rights are boundaries marking the extent of our freedom to act as we please, and both government and individuals are morally bound to respect them. Force is justified only in self-defense or, in the case of government, in defending our rights. On the libertarian conception of rights and the limits of state power, governments may not force us to do or refrain from doing things in order to make us more happy, healthy, or moral. Rights prohibit governments from passing and enforcing paternalistic or moralistic laws and policies.

What is it about us that grounds rights, in particular, our rights to life and liberty?  Most philosophers appeal to our nature as rational, self-directed beings, beings with the capacity to act on goals we set for ourselves. We own our minds and bodies the way we own our property, and no one may use our bodies or property without our consent. Another way of capturing this thought is to say that we are ends in ourselves (see, for example, Nozick (CE*) and Mack), with ends of our own, not mere means to other people’s ends. No matter how noble the goal to which the government or society want to sacrifice us, if we don’t consent to being sacrificed, it is wrong of them to do so. Rights prohibit them from treating us as mere means through physical force or fraud – they protect our ends-in-ourselves-ship. This is why they are morally important and worthy of respect.  

The mere fact that we have ends of our own, however, doesn’t seem enough to justify the importance of rights in libertarian theory. After all, our ends can be banal, such as mindlessly watching sitcoms and eating popcorn all day long. Some philosophers (e.g., Rasmussen and Den Uyl-CE*) argue that rights are important because they create the conditions we need to pursue our ultimate goal as human beings and individuals: eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is happiness in a virtuous life,and we need to be left free to direct our choices as we see fit in order to achieve it. Without freedom of speech and action, we have little chance of achieving a mature understanding of right and wrong, much less of aiming at virtue and eudaimonia.

This argument, however, can’t explain why everyone who is commonly regarded as a rights-bearer ought to be so regarded. Most people are mixed in their character and actions. Although they don’t assault others, or steal their property, or defraud them (in a big way), many do engage in small dishonesties when they can get away with them (see Ariely). We are familiar with politicians lying to us in order to win votes or save face, and with businesses unjustly seeking favors from politicians in order to outdo the competition. There’s little reason to think that the rest of us would be much better if we were in their situation. The chief aim of many people is to avoid trouble with the law and get along with others. They are likely to be virtuous with those they love, and many earn their living in a worthwhile enterprise. But they are far from having the moral ambition to become better people overall, as they must to have rights according to the eudaimonistic argument.

The eudaimonist could say that if our rights are respected, at least some of us might improve morally, since we all have the capacity to do so. There is no way to tell in advance who will and who won’t. But this answer leaves out many categories of people.

Addicts who are incapacitated by their addiction do not and cannot aim for virtue. Indeed, they cannot even will to aim for virtue. Their natural capacity for doing so has been swamped by their ‘second nature’ – their addiction. Yet on the libertarian view, which the eudaimonistic philosophers share, they too have the right to act as they choose, so long as they don’t violate other people’s rights. Libertarians don’t think that it’s permissible for the government, or for the addicts’ relatives, to haul them off to an institution for treatment so that they can recover their capacity for trying to become virtuous. Again, children born with severe mental defects will never strive for virtue, and adults who develop dementia will never again do so.

Psychopaths, thought to constitute roughly 2% of the American population, are also a problem for the eudaimonist thesis. Full-fledged psychopaths are incapable of love or empathy, psychopaths inflict harm and psychological pain on family members, friends, and strangers, without guilt. They are rational in the sense that they can fit means to goals, and understand arguments for acting in certain ways and not others. But they are not rational in the sense that they can understand the significance of these arguments. Hence, they are not moved by their understanding. In other words, they have theoretical rationality, but not practical rationality. This is why the psychiatrist, Hervey Cleckley (CE*), who has seen hundreds of psychopaths in his practice, describes their appearance of sanity as a mask. Yet if they don’t violate others’ basic rights by assaulting, killing, robbing, or defrauding them – and many don’t – they are considered as having rights, and we are under an obligation to respect their rights. The same applies to other brands of trouble-makers, such as people with anti-social personalities. Extremely vicious, but non-psychopathic, individuals, whose aim in life is to create trouble for others, and who take joy in seeing others suffer, but without violating their rights, also pose a problem for the eudaemonist thesis. There is little reason to think that they can change for the better, and no reason to think that they can if they are close to death. Yet we don’t strip them of their rights as they approach the end.

Trying to justify rights on the grounds of people’s capacity to pursue eudaimonia implies that many people we think have rights, don’t. It seems that the more exalted our view of human nature and human action as a basis for respecting rights, the smaller the number of people we can justifiably regard as rights-bearers.  

In Part II I’ll consider a less exalted view of human nature as a basis for rights to see if it can justify ascribing rights to people who are excluded by the eudaimonistic justification. It will also become evident in Part II that the same justification does not work for everyone.

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What Art Scolds, Whether Conservative or Woke, Have in Common

I had a revelation this weekend, finally understanding something about what the woke left has in common with conservatives.  The revelation had to do with Plato and Aristotle, which won’t surprise people who know me well, but will require some explanation.

The insight was sparked by a long Facebook discussion about the controversy surrounding the French film Mignonnes, released on Netflix as Cuties.  The film’s promotional material featured 11-year-old girls dressed in skimpy dance outfits, and a clip circulating on the internet showing their dance routine was decidedly age-inappropriate, filled with twerking and assorted other sexually-suggestive moves.  Conservatives on social media were apoplectic about the exploitative oversexualization of young girls, calling for Netflix and the filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré to be cancelled, and in some cases brought up on charges of child pornography.  They seemed to be imagining defenses of the film involving the idea that girls were “empowered” by owning their sexuality, though I actually didn’t see anyone advancing that argument in defense of the film.  The defenses I did see were mostly along the lines of  “that’s a three-minute clip, maybe the film isn’t as smutty as it seems.”  But the response to that was “anyone defending this trash is defending sexual exploitation of children.  You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

That’s a familiar script: woke critics of films like 16 Candles or 48 Hours criticize those films for sexist and racist tropes, and respond to any defense of the films with “you’re defending a racist film, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”  You see the parallels: conservatives accuse the defenders of Cuties of being soft on pedophilic exploitation of children, and the left accuses defenders of 16 Candles and 48 Hours of being soft on sexism and racism.   But are the defenders of those films defending the sexism or the racism?  Mostly no; they’re pointing towards some kind of contextualiztion, or differentiating between depicting an attitude and endorsing an attitude.  Nick Nolte’s character Cates calls Eddie Murphy’s character Hammond the N-word, for example, yet one of the key payoffs of the film is when Cates apologizes to Hammond for doing that, and upbraids his lieutenant for doing it, defending Hammond as smarter and braver than anyone else in the precinct.  So: 1, calling someone the N-word is bad.  2, a clip from a movie where someone does that looks bad.  But 3, the full context of the film may reveal that the story shows that doing it is wrong.   Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters talking like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

Similarly, conservative critics of Cuties point out that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  But is the filmmaker saying “no, it’s fine if 11-year-old girls dance in a sexually suggestive way”?   No. Turns out the filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré, an émigré to France from Senegal, agrees with the conservatives that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  She says (I haven’t seen it, but several reviewers confirm this) that the film shows the young protagonist uncomfortably pressured into embracing this oversexualization, and rejecting it.  Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters dancing like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

What finally hit me this weekend was the realization that what the woke left and the conservatives have in common is that their view of art is Platonic, and they both oppose an Aristotelian approach.  On Plato’s view, certain artistic representations should not be allowed, as their very existence can have a baleful influence on impressionable minds.  To be sure, Plato gets a bad rap from people who overstate and caricature his view to imply that all artistic representation is bad – he can’t literally mean that no representative art can be allowed, since he himself expresses his theories in artistic representations.  But he does seem worried that art, because of its ability to communicate in a way that bypasses the intellect, can give people bad ideas.  By even depicting bad things, he thought, people might get the wrong idea – what they call today “normalizing.”

Aristotle’s theory was a little more nuanced.  He’s aware of art’s ability to influence, but he argues that it’s not depiction that is of chief importance, but portrayal.  I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but basically the artist can depict good people or things or bad people or things, and can portray them as good or bad, or leading to good or bad outcomes.  If a good thing is made to look good, or a bad thing is made to look bad, that’s morally correct.  There’s nothing wrong with depicting vice provided that the vicious do not flourish as a result of vice. The essence of tragedy, conversely, is when a basically good person meets a bad end due to some weakness or character flaw.   What would be morally bad, on this theory, would be when the artist makes the noble appear base or the subject of mockery, or makes the vicious flourish.  So a story about a racist character isn’t per se bad – if the character learns why racism is bad and rejects it, the story is morally edifying. 

American History X is a good illustration.  The film shows us vile, racist invective (and violence) from a neo-Nazi character.  But the point of the film isn’t to glorify these attitudes, it’s to condemn them.  The protagonist comes to renounce hate and try to redeem himself, but is (tragically) too late to save his brother.   Similarly, Cuties shows us lewd and age-inappropriate dancing from 11-year-olds, but the point of the film isn’t to glorify pre-pubsescent twerking, it’s to condemn a culture that makes young girls think they should sexualize themselves to get ahead.  A Platonist would respond to both by saying “these portrayals are made with good craftsmanship, therefore they’re dangerous, because people might get the wrong idea and emulate what they’ve seen portrayed.”  But an Aristotelian would say “these bad things are in fact being portrayed as bad, so no sensible person would draw the wrong lesson here.”  Although the racist speeches in American History X really are the sorts of things neo-Nazis say, and are delivered credibly and passionately by a talented actor, it’s plain that the filmmaker sees these as bad ideas, as indeed does the protagonist by the end of the film.  The film doesn’t “normalize” neo-Nazis.  No sensible viewer would see this film and think “yes, I should become a Nazi.”   John Hinkley seemed to be have been “inspired” to attempt to assassinate President Reagan by the 1976 film Taxi Driver, though most sane people would have no trouble recognizing character Travis Bickle as someone who is very disturbed and not the object of emulation.  In Cuties, the dance routine is indeed disturbing (a clip of that has been circulating on the internet), but it’s portrayed as disturbing in the film.  The in-film audience watching the dance is not cheering.  They look shocked and saddened and disapproving –  the same response as critics of the film.  And the protagonist realizes she shouldn’t act that way. 

So the woke critics of popular culture on the left, and the conservative critics who have been calling to jail the CEO of Netflix, share in common a Platonism about art that fails to adequately differentiate depiction and endorsement.   But Aristotle was right.  A film can depict bad people and bad things and still be a morally edifying film, if the filmmaker portrays them that way.  To be sure, some artists portray bad things in such a way as to glorify them or endorse them.  Criticizing those is one thing, but criticizing a film merely for depicting them is to have a mistaken conception of how art works.   

I should add that some of my interlocutors argued that unlike fictional portrayals of racism or violence, Cuties actually does have young girls engaged in age-inappropriate dancing, namely the child actors portraying the dance team.  That’s true of course: Joe Pesci was just pretending to shoot Michael Imperioli in the foot, whereas these young actors really are twerking.  But that argument proves too much: this would imply that child actors couldn’t do anything that would inappropriate to do in real life.  Child actors have portrayed victims of traumatizing crimes, as murderers themselves, as prostitutes, thieves, drug users, con artists.  Presumably, as actors, they’re clear about the distinction between real life and acting, and their parents support their budding careers.  The actors in Cuties, having read the entire script, would surely have seen that the filmmaker’s point is not that it’s awesome to have young girls oversexualized, but that it’s sad and dangerous.  Meanwhile, of course, there really are dance competitions for tweens that feature these age-inappropriate oversexualizations.  The difference between those young girls and the actors in Cuties is that the latter know it’s a portrayal of something bad.

The Platonic view has it that art has this tremendous power to influence, but simultaneously that it doesn’t matter how the story or movie portrays things. I think that’s self-contradictory.  The Aristotelian view on the other hand, accounts for art’s power precisely in its ability to make something look good or bad. If it makes good things look good and bad things look bad, there is no cause for moral concern. The problem arises when a movie makes good things look bad or bad things look good. Trainspotting is not morally problematic, because it makes a bad thing look bad. 1776 is not morally problematic, because it makes a good thing look good. If there were a movie that made the oversexualization of tween girls look like a desirable thing, that would be a morally bad film.  But it seems as though Cuties is not that film.  I say “seems” because I haven’t seen it – just like the conservative Twitter mob calling it pedophilia.  Reviews seem to indicate the mob is wrong, but the bottom line is, these conservatives are united with their counterparts on the woke left in sticking to a Platonic view: it’s enough to know something bad is depicted to know the art is bad.  Aristotle would disagree, and, on-brand for me, I’m going with Aristotle on this one.  It matters how people and ideas are portrayed, not just that they’re there.

Some more thoughts on education


Andrew Jason Cohen’s most recent post on education stimulated me to think a little bit more about some of the challenges associated with how we educate children.

We are a reluctant public-schooling family. Ideally we’d homeschool, but for a variety of complicated and personal reasons we are, for the moment at least, sending our two oldest children to school. This is despite significant misgivings about how traditional education in this country functions, including the concerns Andrew brought up in his post, namely a total disregard for the biological and developmental needs of children.

In addition to the reasons Andrew discussed in his post, there are a few other things that I think contribute to parental deference to educational authority in this arena. The most obvious is a lack of options. For many people, both parents need to work (or believe they do, which is perhaps the subject of another post) to keep the home fires burning, which makes homeschooling at least difficult and in some areas perhaps impossible. This is compounded by the expectation that has been created that schools provide a kind of “free” childcare (via taxation). Parents are then faced with the difficult decision to take a more active role in their child’s education while also paying taxes and presumably working fewer hours. This of course means that people who opt out of public schooling are often getting hit financially from both ends: fewer wage-earning hours while paying taxes for a service they are not using. This alone is a good reason to allow people to opt-out of coercive educational funding.

Second, the stakes of education now seem higher than ever, as the economy has become more competitive and parenting itself seems extremely high-stakes. In my own wealthy suburb, judging from parent demands at PTSA meetings and in local parenting groups, parents expect and want what actually constitutes terrible education: they want rigorous math and reading for elementary school students, which reduces recess and free play. They want competitive AP classes for every subject. They want less free play and more Zoom classes during a global pandemic. Many of the parents seem to care less about actual education itself (intellectual curiosity, exploration of the world) and more about a particular set of status markers (or means to achieve those status markers). In that sense education is very much bound up with bad parenting, but it is also bound up in our cultural expectations about what education is supposed to do. Is it supposed to develop creative, curious minds? Or is it supposed to provide a set of tangible status markers that assist students in achieving economic stability? In some areas of course it fails miserably at both of these things. But I think a lot of parents want the latter and are less concerned about the former, perhaps because they mistakenly see the two — intellectual curiosity and economic stability — as in conflict.

Finally, I think there’s something linking both of these things in that parents are generally very risk-averse these days and sending kids to a school with a vetted curriculum and trained teachers (even if the vetting and training are bad or even perverse) seems safer than homeschooling or screwing things up oneself. Steve Horwitz’s book Hayek’s Modern Family (also at Amazon-CE*) has a great discussion of what he terms “corner solution parenting”, which essentially describes the way this kind of parental risk-aversion leads to worse outcomes overall.

In general, I think there’s a demand problem, which is linked to a broader cultural deficit. Too few parents understand what children need to learn, too few feel capable of offering it (even though they probably are), and too many are scared to experiment with their children’s education in the high-stakes game modern parenting appears to be.

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Adele and the local nature of social norms

The singer Adele stoked controversy this week by appearing in a Carnival outfit, complete with Bantu knots — a style traditionally worn by people of African descent — and a bikini top with the Jamaican flag. Predictably, the Twitter mobs jumped immediately, with many in the media calling the singer out for cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Interestingly, the response from people of African descent was not uniform. Patterns emerged in the identities of her critics and defenders, with criticisms overwhelmingly coming from black Americans, while black Britons defended her outfit as an appreciation of Jamaican culture as well as a way of celebrating her birth neighborhood of Tottenham, which is home to one of the largest diasporas of African-Caribbean people in the world.

While normally I would just ignore this kind of controversy or put it down to the idiocy of the cancel culture that both the left and right engage in, I’m working through Cristina Bichierri’s The Grammar of Society (CE*) this week with my undergrads and it struck me that something more interesting was going on than first appeared.

Classical liberals can sometimes (myself included) fall into the trap of emphasizing Hayekian local knowledge in terms of economic knowledge, such as scarcity on the ground or crop conditions. But as most of us also know, there are lots of other forms of local knowledge that matter a lot too, which is why I find Bichierri’s discussion helpful. Particularly relevant here is her argument that all norms are local in nature. People use norms as heuristics to help them navigate complex social situations with some predictability, relying on the expectations they have about what others around them are doing and adapting based on reciprocal expectations about what people are or should be doing. But these norms themselves require extremely local knowledge about what people in this particular situation or this particular context are doing or expect others to do.

What’s fascinating about the internet and the cancel culture it seems to engender is that at the same time it brings people together from all over the world, it decontextualizes those people, removing them from their local situations and all the relevant facts, norms, and guideposts they used in the moment to determine what to do. Given the nature of the Internet there’s almost no way to avoid this decontextualization, the loss of local knowledge and local norms. This decontextualization makes it very likely that we will make errors about why someone behaved in a particular way.

But decontextualization is dangerous for an even more foundational reason Bichierri discusses. It doesn’t just lead us to make factually incorrect judgments about what other people are doing. It also makes it more likely that we will make a fundamental attribution error when we judge other people. People are not only calling Adele out for something that appeared to be completely appropriate in the social context in which she lives (and in fact is a sign of solidarity with the people of color in her community), but they are also jumping to conclusions about her essential nature, with anonymous users in more than one location discussing her as a “typical white woman” as though wearing bikinis of the Jamaican flag is just what we expect white women to do. One black American journalist concluded on Twitter, “this marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic”, again signaling that Adele’s behavior was not in fact a nuanced reaction to local norms during a celebration of culture but in fact a function of her essence as a white woman. Bichierri’s discussion asks us to take more seriously the way in which decontextualizing people’s behavior makes us even more likely to make these kinds of fundamental attribution errors, leading to even greater levels of polarization and cultural anger.

None of this means celebrities don’t sometimes (perhaps often!) make very stupid decisions. It also doesn’t mean we can’t praise or blame people, which would seem to be an important function in a free society where we want to avoid state coercion as much as possible. But praise and blame are most likely to be accurate and most likely to be effective when we know the people involved, have existing relationships with them, and understand the norms and general context of the situation they are reacting to. Both Bichierri’s and Hayek’s emphasis on local knowledge ask us to use caution when engaging in shaming of those we do not know, whose motivations and goals remain opaque to us. It is in effect, a call for both humility and humanity, which we could all use more of these days.

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Fact-Checking and the Conditions of Responsible Citizenship

The history of classical liberal thought is replete with (empirical) arguments that run basically this way: If the government increases its involvement in X, then ordinary people will stop seeing X as their responsibility. Instead of being concerned about X and working to advance X, they will leave care of X to the state, which will do a worse job at it.

Perhaps the most frequent context in which this argument is invoked involves care for the less fortunate. To wit, if we take it that the government bears responsibility for caring for the poor and downtrodden, this will predictably (and unfortunately) undercut support for mutual aid organizations that can often leverage local knowledge to be more effective at alleviating problems than large, centralized bureaucracies like states. Here’s Wilhelm von Humboldt in a characteristic passage (from The Limits of State Action).

As each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens. This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive; or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits will be most likely to flourish at its liveliest, where the feeling is most acute that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that oppressed classes of the community which are, as it were, overlooked by the government, are always bound together by the closest ties.

https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/humboldt-the-sphere-and-duties-of-government-1792-1854

My fellow blogger Andrew (J.) Cohen recently advanced a similar argument in the case of state-provided education: the more we see the education of children as the state’s responsibility, the less we (particularly parents) see it as something that we ought to look after.

There are many worries one might have about such arguments. First, is the empirical claim that state solutions crowd out non-state solutions even true? Second, even if the empirical claim is true and private individuals and mutual aid organizations are more effective in some ways, still their help can be bad news for freedom insofar as it can be withheld unless recipients meet oppressive conditions. Third, decentralized efforts to address public problems lack mechanisms for ensuring competence and fairness. Even if fully supported, perfectly fair, and much more effective where they operate, such organizations may under-provide needed services elsewhere. And so on.

One thing my own work has forced me to think about lately are the increased calls for fact-checking and labeling of misinformation by social media giants.

My previous posts (here and here) have briefly touched upon reasons for worrying that social media censors and fact-checkers are bound to be fallible. (Indeed, fact-checkers have long shown troubling signs of fallibility, see here, here, here, here, here and here—though also here and here for some reasons for optimism that these shortcomings might be overcome by more thoughtful fact-checking strategies.)

But set aside these issues with the quality of the fact-checking and the political power it might or might not involve. Suppose that the fact-checkers do a decent enough job. Still, the old classical liberal argument above provides reason to worry that widespread fact-checking of this kind might undermine conditions of epistemic responsibility. In short, if we come to expect others to do the hard work of fact-checking for us, we will lose the skills and sense of responsibility for doing it ourselves.

Of course, fact-checking and labeling misinformation is often proposed as an alternative to outright censorship, and it’s likely that it is indeed better than outright censorship. After all, it allows individuals to access and assess the mistaken content for themselves, rather than blocking it from view altogether. Moreover, labeling false or misleading content in this way might well improve our epistemic situation by stopping the spread of misinformation that might otherwise “go viral”. But even if we accept that these benefits of the practice reliably obtain, they need to be weighed against its costs. And one set of costs I’ve heard little about involves those associated with the kinds of people an over-reliance on fact-checking might produce. I’m wary (I think reasonably, but maybe not) of anything that will encourage average people to be more lazy regarding their epistemic duties than they already are.

Now, social media giants are not states. Accordingly, it might be that their efforts to take greater responsibility for fact-checking the content they host is best-interpreted as an instance of voluntary organizations doing what the state is not now doing (better than the state could do), rather than a threat to voluntary solutions for misinformation. And it is clear to me that it is preferable to have non-state entities in charge of fact-checking than to empower the state to do it. In general, it’s healthy to have lots of different institutions with lots of different norms surrounding what kinds of content they tolerate in their jurisdictions.

Still, lots of people get their information on social media platforms. Many have argued this means that they have certain state-like powers. Though I’m skeptical of the strongest of these claims, it’s reasonable to be concerned that, under conditions of wide-spread fact-checking across platforms, users might come to be disposed to accept what they read in these spaces somewhat uncritically. After all, people might develop the reasonable expectation that someone is looking out to ensure that nothing misleading is to be found there. And even if we ignore the fact that, in practice, fact-checking will be “gappy” (with much factually inaccurate information making it through the filters) is difficult to overstate the dangers associated with allowing other people to do our reading and thinking for us.

It’s fair to object that, because the impetus for further fact checking is itself the fact that people are bad at processing information, likely to believe lots of foolish nonsense for bad reasons, and so on, there’s nowhere to go from our present situation but up. Still, this seems to admit that the root of the problem lies with how individuals are trained to evaluate information and its sources. Widespread, public fact-checking can at best ensure that the worst of the problem’s consequences are averted. But it does nothing to address the problem itself–and indeed, it may even make it worse.

In a provocative passage in The Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant reminds us that many calls to “take human beings as they are” rather than “good-natured visionaries fancy they ought to be” ignore the role that political institutions play in making people the way they are. The lesson is that, if we find that we are bad at discharging our epistemic duties, it is worth asking whether this because of the incentives we face or whether it is it a fixed feature human nature. If the former, then, other things equal, we should avoid strengthening those bad incentives and should rather work to improve them.

For various reasons, I suspect that the trend of increased reliance on independent fact-checkers is here to stay. If I’m right, we must take care to avoid a situation in which we become complacent, off-loading the difficult work of responsible citizenship to strangers with their own sets of interests (which might not track our own). It is true that this is demanding work. But if we can’t figure out how to do what it takes (or if indeed failure is inevitable given deep features of human nature), then it is harder to gainsay the increasingly popular (but in fact ancient) claim that there might be more attractive alternatives for governance than democracy (CE*).

(Thanks to Andrew Cohen for his thoughts on a previous version of this piece.)

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Schools, Teachers, Parents, and a Bad Assumption

In my last post, I discussed the problems surrounding opening schools and, importantly, how we discuss them. In this post, I want to raise an issue about schooling more generally that is rarely discussed at all. I want to show how our current system encourages a false belief about parents and teachers that has pernicious results.

I begin by noting that my wife is a public school teacher and, given how Georgia is handling the pandemic, I have a clear preference for her to not teach in her school building. I also have a school age child who was, until a month ago, in a private school. The administration of that school is, I think, approaching the situation far better than most, but we still worry about both health and pedagogical risks. Thinking about both returning (or not) to school has me once again wondering about fundamental social problems—especially regarding schooling and parenting.

I think most of us are pretty bad at parenting. (Philip Larkin understood this well, but I should be clear that I think there are a huge variety of ways that we are bad at it—some are overbearing and some are entirely too loose, for opposing examples.) Worries about increased child abuse with school closures are therefore not at all surprising. On the other hand, I also think most K-12 schools are pretty bad at educating. Having served on committees for two charter schools and volunteered and watched at my son’s schools, I’ve been amazed at how unwilling school administrators can be to make use of evidence about best educational practices. (This is sometimes true even when they clearly know the evidence—in such cases, they tend to point out that they are constrained by budgets, politics, etc.) Schools don’t, in my view, offer enough music or art or time to relax, run, and breath outside. They also tend to start too early in the morning, foolishly insist children sit still and at desks, force students to maintain logs of reading, and even penalize students that read unassigned books at the wrong time. Worries about children being stifled and losing their innate curiosity because of school rules are therefore also not surprising.

Many parents are aware of problems with their children’s’ schools. Some even work to correct them. Most, though, seem to “mind their own business”—as if the education of their children were not their business. Indeed, many parents seem to think that because schools are provided and mandatory, they are themselves absolved of the responsibility for educating their children. (As schools feed and medically nurse children, parents may feel absolved of even more responsibility.) Even the best of parents tend to assume their children are being well taken care of at school. Unfortunately, too many parents assume their children are the school’s responsibility during the day. Interestingly, the pandemic helped some see that their school was not working for them. (See this interesting NY Times piece.)

I do not think any of this is surprising or unexplainable. We live in a society wherein government has encouraged parental abdication of educational responsibilities. Parents often rightly feel that they cannot opt out of government run schools. Where they can, they usually are constrained to choose either the local government school or a nearby private school. Only in some locales is there a simple and straightforward process through which you can legally educate your own child. (The option is, I think, available everywhere in the US, but with more or less red tape involved.) Encouraged is a belief that I suspect drives the problems that beset schools: that parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct and must be kept separate.

Our system of K-12 education relies on the idea that parents are not teachers. Indeed, some homeschooling parents have been condemned for thinking they could teach their own children. Parents, on this view, are supposed to feed, clothe, love, and maybe socialize children. Schools, on the other hand, provide teachers to educate children, too often including moral education (and might also provide food and healthcare for the children). And schools—or the administrators thereof (or, worse, politicians)—decide where a child will learn and how. A parent that tries to send her child to a better public school than the one closest may face jail time—because the school system decides, not the parent. (See this and this.) Parents, after all, don’t know about education.

Two problems emerge when people believe parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct. The first, I’ve discussed above: schools operate with a variety of problems and parents don’t work to change them or do so but face insurmountable difficulties in the attempt. When they don’t try, it is likely at least partly because thinking that parents aren’t teachers makes parents think teachers have an authority they do not. And, of course, they assume teachers run schools. The second problem is a corollary: because parents are led to believe schools and teachers have an authority they do not themselves possess, parents don’t think they need be active participants in their children’s education. In short, parents take less responsibility for raising their children, leaving more and more to schools. What society gets, too often, is school graduates who learn to do as they are told, conforming to societal requirements. If parents were more active, we’d get more diversity in how children are educated, resulting in many benefits (though admittedly also costs in terms of equity). I think we are seeing some of this already and hope to see more. We’d get more people contributing in more and more varied ways to society, creating more and more varied benefits for all.

In short, the all too common belief that parents and teachers are necessarily distinct lets parents off the hook for too much and grants schools too much leeway. Challenging that belief would encourage parents to challenge their children’s schools, thereby either improving the schools or having the schools lose students to other alternatives.

The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate many things. Hopefully, one positive outcome will be a healthier view of the relationship between parenting and education–one that emphasizes parental responsibility and acknowledges the limits of career educators (especially those in what might be called “educational factories”). One might even hope that this would help make parents better at parenting.

(Conversations with my wife and with Lauren Hall, JP Messina, and Kevin Currie-Knight inspired, and helped me with, this post.)

On School Openings

Back in April, I “predicted” we’d see 150 to 200 thousand deaths from COVID-19 in the US.  As we are now in that range, I’m hoping I was right and we don’t go past the 200,000, but of course this is so far outside my expertise that my guess means little.  But here we are and school openings approach.  Some seem deadly afraid of school openings and some seem deadly afraid of schools not opening. (I’m primarily thinking here about K-12, but much of what I say applies to colleges as well—and of course, high school juniors and seniors are more like college freshman than kindergarteners in terms of COVID-19 transmission and symptoms.)

Those conflicting views often accompany two others: that people favoring school openings foolishly think young children are immune to the effects of COVID-19 (or otherwise don’t understand the risks of reopening) and that people opposing school openings don’t care about education (or otherwise overestimate the risks of reopening).  

Meanwhile, I don’t believe any thinking person really thinks any children are immune to COVID-19, despite claims coming from the White House.  Of course, young children do seem to get badly sick from the virus much less than anyone expected back in March.  And there is no reason to believe that those worried about sending kids into closed buildings with hundreds of others don’t care about education.

My biggest issue with discussions about this—and many things—is that people seem unable or unwilling to keep the pros and cons in mind at the same time.  But schools are, by and large, run by groups of people that have to be able to do just that in order to make rational decisions about whether to open, close, reopen, re-close schools—sometimes despite political pressures by governing bodies, unions, parental organizations, and more.

This has to be a hugely difficult question and cannot be made without considering both the costs and the benefits.  At a minimum that includes the following assumptions (yes, I think both of these are true):

-if schools are open, kids and teachers are going to get sick (plexiglass around the kids, masks all day, etc, is not going to stop it). They will also bring the disease to their families, friends, and neighbors.  We’re likely to pass 200k deaths more quickly (and with more children) than we would if schools stay closed.

-if schools are closed, children of working class parents will suffer long term consequences.  Their parents can’t stay home with them and help them with their schoolwork.  Middle class and wealthier parents will hire tutors or join “educational pods” where parents pool resources to monitor children doing school work, but not those from poorer backgrounds.  (And as others have noted, there will be more cases of suicide and spousal and child abuse.)

There are further economic issues that would follow either decision as well, but I’ll not delve into those here.  What I want to urge now is simply (a) not demonizing those you disagree with about this and (b) bearing in mind both the pros and cons if you have decision making capacity here.  

I keep myself limited to those two points as I really don’t know what the best route is for any school (and, of course, different schools in different locales with different population densities and with different student bodies, will be different).  I suspect a lot of thought will be going into it, and not just from current school administrators and school boards.  (And parents—the topic of a future post.)

Hopefully, new ideas will emerge that actually bring new approaches and new institutions that do better for children than schools now do.  Smaller schools with more parental decision making, more variety of teaching techniques, and yes, better use of technology to not merely monitor children and allow for physically distanced communication, but also to spark curiosity.  I can’t predict the innovations; I remain optimistic that they will come and that innovators will consider the many concerns as they seek to appeal to a wide customer base.

This pandemic is going to have long term effects.  We are likely to see more work at home across the board and less use of commercial office space and that may bring new opportunities for housing, lower rents in some areas, and reductions of city populations.  Better systems of education responding to these changes and the above challenges would be a wonderful outcome of a bad situation.

(Thanks to Ronit Elk for the impetus to write this and to  JP Messina for helpful suggestions and comments.)