Going Negative: Angry Ads and Negative Partisanship

It’s been twenty years since Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar published Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink & Polarize the ElectorateAs Luke Skywalker likes to say, it’s impressive how every word in the title ended up being wrong. Or sort of: we’re more polarized than ever, but it probably wasn’t negative political ads that made us this way. And the electorate grew as a result.

Here’s what happened: some political scientists and pundits worried that negative campaigning was damaging the amicable concord of American politics. This is just one of those evergreen cycles of hot takes: once upon a time (the halcyon 1950s), the American Political Science Association worried the parties were too similar and cordial. Then all that changed in the hyper-partisan 60s and 70s. But by the 1990s, many voters reported that they wanted more civility in campaigns and positive messages from candidates again. So we saw lots of hand-wringing, and then  Ansolabehere and Iyengar provided the data to back those anxieties up: data from US Senate elections in 1992 seemed to show an inverse relationship between exposure to negative campaign ads and turnout, as well as a decrease in confidence in the electoral process. Similar results were shown experimentally in the 1990 California’s governor’s race and the 1992 presidential race.

Proponents of positive campaign ads seem to want a world where turnout is high and the tone of the campaign is hopeful and civil, and policy disagreements are discussed in high-minded and data-driven ways. People will turn out to vote from a sense of duty to study the issues and express their preferences between two (or more!) excellent candidates. That’s what I want, too. But that’s not how people work.

People are busy, and a lot of places have near-guaranteed outcomes because of state-level polarization, district gerrymandering, and urban “party machine” politics. So a lot of them don’t show up to vote if the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion. Over time, this can become habitual. One thing that can get disaffected voters back to the polls is anger at the other party. Perhaps this is why 55% of eligible voters cast a ballot in 1992, while in 2016 60% of voters showed up. In 2016, turnout was especially high in battleground or battleground-adjacent states with shared media markets and lots of negative campaigning–like Minnesota & Wisconsin, Maine & New Hampshire, and Colorado. Turnout was especially low in solidly partisan states like Hawaii and Texas, and with good reason: voters knew their ballots wouldn’t change the outcome.

We know the Alabama Senate campaign was so negative that the losing candidate still hasn’t conceded. Yet in a deeply red state in mid-December in an odd-year special election, expected turnout was 25%; actual turnout hit 40%. People–especially African-Americans–got angry. And anger got them active.

Why would anyone doubt that getting folks pissed off encourages them to participate? My suspicion is that this is a loyalty problem. A lot of civic engagement folks want to see more democratic deliberation with our fellow citizens, and all of the evidence suggests that cross-cutting political discussions increase bipartisan knowledge but require lots of civility constraints. If you think politics in primarily what happens in your community and with your neighbors, then federal and state politics will look like a distraction. Insofar as the loud, expensive advertisements for infrequent federal elections distract from the fundamental work of organizing communities, I am sympathetic.

Most people who care about federal politics are professionals, or do so the way other people pay attention to sports: they take a side and keep score. And negative campaigning pushes this framing, making not just campaigns but political life generally seem zero sum. Of course, campaigns are zero sum. (1) But politics and policymaking can be win-win. So it’s worth noticing that campaigns in the US have grown to encompass a vast selection of partisan politics. It seems that every professional politician implicitly understands Frances Lee’s claims in Beyond Ideology (based on this Journal of Politics article) that opposition parties in Congress act to block legislation supported by the president which could be interpreted as a “win” upon which he can campaign. Merely by adding an issue to their agenda, incumbent presidents create party-line opposition for (previously) non-ideologically-charged policies.

Obviously, we live in a time of negative campaigning. And that will likely continue to have all the negative effects the research predicts: increasing polarization and reducing cross-cutting political interactions. But as Diana Mutz worried in her Hearing the Other Sidethe opposite of civility is mobilization. And we’re seeing good evidence of that in the Women’s Marches and underlying organizing by women:

The Tea Party rallies were an impressive mobilisation but they pale in comparison to the recent women’s marches. Erica Chenoweth at the University of Denver and her colleague Jeremy Pressman estimate that the 653 women’s marches across the country in January 2017 involved between 3.3m and 5.2m million people. The best guess is that 1.3% of Americans marched. The researchers also estimate that another 6,400 anti-Trump protests in America between the marches and the end of 2017 drew between 2.6m and 3.8m participants. While the women’s marches were officially non-partisan, survey evidence suggests otherwise. Michael Heaney of the University of Michigan estimates as many as 90% of the women attending the march in Washington, DC in 2017 had voted for Hillary Clinton.

The marchers did not show up for civility positive messages: they showed up because they’re angry. Marching is not organizing; it’s not a substitute for winning elections, or passing laws, or making budgets. But I think it’s time to admit that negative campaigns work to increase engagement.

Some questions remain: does negative campaigning polarize the electorate, or is it a response to that polarization? Is polarization a good thing for helping to sharpen policy disagreements or a bad thing for undermining our ability to collaborate across difference? How should we interpret these questions in the light of possible partisan realignments? Can we at least agree that the other side is wrong?


1: Except in rare cases like the Alabama Senate race when even most Republicans were privately rooting against their party’s embarrassing candidate. They still campaigned for him though, just in case he won.

Man AND Rabbit: Naturalizing the Ethics of Belief

Philosophers sometimes pretend that truth-seeking is a foundational epistemic norm, and that everything else–especially ethics, politics, and culture–must be subordinated to it. CS Lewis put it this way in an essay on whether Christianity will make us happy and good:

“‘Can you lead a good life without believing in Christianity?’ This is the question on which I have been asked to write, and straight away, before I begin trying to answer it, I have a comment to make. The question sounds as if it were asked by a person who said to himself, ‘I don’t care whether Christianity is in fact true or not. I’m not interested in finding out whether the real universe is more like what the Christians say than what the Materialists say. All I’m interested in is leading a good life. I’m going to choose beliefs not because I think them true but because I find them helpful.’

Now frankly, I find it hard to sympathise with this state of mind. One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe any of you have really lost that desire. More probably, foolish preachers, by always telling you how much Christianity will help you and how good it is for society, have actually led you to forget that Christianity is not a patent medicine. Christianity claims to give an account of facts — to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be: if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all.”

To believe for instrumental reasons is to be a rabbit, not a man. Most atheists quite like this line by CS Lewis: he makes the stakes of theology and metaphysics clear. You either want to know what’s true or not–and the idea of instrumentalizing our beliefs for community or health or the cultivation of virtue or comfort is a deep transgression of our natures. Only a scared little bunny-rabbit would make such a mistake, and deserve our disdain for it.

It’s Lewis who is deeply wrong, though. Wanting the truth no matter what the consequences is almost impossible for most humans to achieve. Wanting the truth when it comes to matters of identity and community is bad for survival, and a lot of our the things we espouse are designed to signal to others that loyalty matters more than accuracy. We’ve discovered that a large portion of our cognitive capacity is devoted to monitoring our friends and neighbors and setting our beliefs in line with their expectations: motivated reasoning and skepticism help us engage in identity-protective cognition in all sorts of cases.

What then does an ethics of belief look like? I think it’s tempting to say that we should pursue the old ideals with this new knowledge: aim to cut ourselves off from the epistemic judgments of friends and neighbors, aim to hold every identity lightly enough that we can jettison it rather than protect it when the evidence turns against us. But for a variety of reasons I doubt that anyone–least of all professional skeptics and philosophers–can do that all the time or on a regular basis, let alone about the matters that will end up being most important.

For one thing, the only thing worse than epistemic in-groups is to be an epistemic exile: one important reason we need to participate in cultural cognition is because the patterns of epistemic deference and trust they engender helps us manage the firehose of possible sources of information. We need trust to know–even if we’ll also be misled into error by that trust.

Put another way, heuristics are not biases, because we can’t see the truth at all without some semi-reliable method. But this keeps the question of an ethics of belief alive, it doesn’t settle anything. There are still key moments when we ought to betray our identities in the search for the truth–but when? And just as importantly–how? And how will we know?

(related: Warning Signs: Beliefs that Signal Loyalty or AbilitySnark Polemics and Contrite FallibilismReason & Rallying)

Moana, Complacency, and the Enduring Appeal of Steady-State Economics

Even a cursory reading of Disney’s Moana suggests that it is built around a not-so-Straussian story of complacency and risk-taking. (Now try listening to it on repeat for a year because your four year-old loves it, and it starts to take on, like, layers, man.) Moana’s island is both a rich source of happy subsistence and under threat from a mythological enemy that seems like a clear metaphor for overfishing. Thus she constantly struggles with a desire for exploration that she feels duty-bound to discipline, and yet her failure to be dutiful is ultimately the salvation of her people as she learns to navigate the dangerous oceans beyond the safe harbor of the island.

You can find happiness right where you are

Like many Disney films, the ordinary storyline tells the fantasy story in reverse: in the ordinary A-story we see a culture suffering from stagnation and accepting the need for new discoveries and risks. In the supernatural B-story we see that the trickster god’s risk-taking is to blame for misfortune, and human piety is required to achieve a mythical overcoming of divine vengeance and the rejection of creativity and innovation in the name of divine–but soporific!–fecundity.

In the A-story, a group of Pacific Islanders end their nomadic wayfaring to settle in a reef-protected idyll that promises them a flourishing steady state. They develop traditions and rituals that ensure stability with minimal growth, which includes communal ownership of the means of subsistence, as well as rites of cultural passage that refuse innovation:

“Who needs a new song? This old one’s all we need.”

Yet this steady state is itself the result of great innovations: for instance, the villagers of Motunui have discovered uses for every part of the coconut tree and the taro root. And one of those innovations–fishing nets from the coir fibers of the coconut–threatens to deplete their local fishing stock. Over a long enough period the island has become unsustainable, slowly growing beyond its own carrying capacity. Yet the current chief, Moana’s father Tui, can’t see the need to return to their wayfaring traditions because he was traumatized as a child by going beyond the reef with a friend, who died in the unprotected waters. Moana’s rebelliousness thus finally meets with her  obligations as the future chief, and so she ventures out beyond the reef on her own to learn Pacific Ocean navigation techniques.

The B-story stars the trickster god Maui, who once stole the heart of a maternal creator god, Te Fititi, in order to grant her life-giving powers to humanity in the form of divine creativity and innovation. The care-giving Te Fititi is thus transformed into the vengeful volcano god Te Ka, who–thousands of years later–is blamed for the shortages on the island of Motunui. The B-story resolves when the heart of Te Fititi–the power of creativity–is returned to Te Ka by Moana, and Te Ka’s desire for vengeance is sated: restored as Te Fititi she becomes so complacent she literally returns to sleep. Here it is the desire for risk-taking and innovation that causes trouble, and the supernatural resolution comes from eschewing novelty for tradition.

Moana’s first encounter with Maui depicts him as coasting on the laurels of his earliest accomplishments (creating the sky, sun, and wind; inventing or discovering coconuts; stealing humanity fire like Prometheus) while trapped in a cave. Moana doesn’t appreciate these ancient achievements and demands that Maui return the heart of Te Fititi, launching a few picaresque adventures. Maui eventually teaches Moana wayfinding for the A-story, but along the way, Moana and Maui go to the realm of monsters to steal Maui’s magic shapeshifting hook from a giant crab named Tamatoa, another figure of complacency, who has mastered the art of fish attraction so completely he doesn’t need to do any work to feed, they just pour right into his mouth.

The stories thus resolve with the sacrifice of cosmological creativity in the name of mundane risk-taking: the volcano/nature goddess goes back to sleep, making it safe for the islanders to take moderate risks to navigate to new islands. The Motunuians political economy is shown its way to a new equilibrium steady state, nomadically moving from island to island in order to avoid depleting the resources of a single place.

Complacency, Stagnation, and the Duty to Grow

In a recent triptych of books, Tyler Cowen has been exploring a kind of generic theory of political economy that appeals to me. In The Great Stagnation (recall), Cowen argued that many of our recent economic woes were due to discovering that much recent growth had been illusory. In Average is Over, he argued that current long-run trends are all pushing towards increasing inequality. And in his most recent book, The Complacent Class, he spins the story of decreasing innovation and increasing concentrations of wealth as related: too few comfortable people are taking the risks that would lead to the next big economic (or political) revolution which would be disruptive enough to lead to major increases of overall wellbeing. (In a sense this is really a tetraptych because his free ebook of meta-ethics, Stubborn Attachmentsargues along the same lines that we have serious obligations to future generations to continue innovating.)

So: Cowen thinks most of our biggest economic problems are due to a lack of growth and invention. That’s not to say that the pace of novelties is decreasing, but just that few of these novelties are truly innovative in ways that would substantially change the quality of our lives. Computers seem like a big deal, but they haven’t been that big. They haven’t fundamentally changed the way our lives work as much as, say, the washing machine did. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for saving a billion people from starvation. Mark Zuckerberg just gave billions of people a distracting website where we can fight about politics and look at cute animal pictures. If someone masters self-driving cars and trucks, maybe that will be the kind of disruptive, physical economy shift Cowen says we are morally obligated to pursue.

But we’re complacent, see? We don’t take those kinds of risks anymore. We make off-color Twitter jokes, or rap musicals about the founding fathers, when we should be moving mountains. Elon Musk is a genius, and a weirdo, and a comic book villain, because that’s what it takes to start a new car company, send rocketships to space, and redesign the electrical grid around solar power. The rest of us don’t do that kind of thing because we don’t like risks. We don’t even move out of town for new jobs as much as we used to do.

If you buy Cowen’s argument in Stubborn Attachments then we actually have a kind of limited obligation to try to innovate, because compounding innovations are what will make the future better off than the present. (In philosophy we talk about this as the “intergenerational justice” question, or under the heading of John Rawls’ discussion of the “just savings principle.”) We are ourselves massive beneficiaries of past generations’ efforts to store up for their posterity the technological and artistic achievements of their own and previous epochs. We owe the future the same.

Cowen even bites the bullet in arguing that we should be wary of making prioritarian investments in the poorest or most needy members of the current generation if they come at the expense of slowed discovery and invention. (Often these goals are not at odds, but when they are….) But he’s clear that the bourgeoisie are the real problem, insofar as we bask in our current quite high standards of living without taking the risks that could lead to greater growth. For the most part, then, Cowen’s target is not the poor but the well-off.

The Steady-State Economy

Whenever I teach environmental policy or ethics courses, we spend some time with arguments like that of William Ophuls or Herman Daly or Wendell Berry. I’ve probably taught Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” essay once or twice a year for more than a decade. There’s even a utopian novel, Ecotopia, depicting a California that has seceded and voluntarily created a non-growth economy (with a dash of hippy free love that eventually sways the uptight unreliable narrator.) The gist of the arguments all boil down to this: perpetual physical growth is impossible on a finite planet. Too many humans, living too good a life, will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth. Or perhaps even worse: we’re already there! Life as the American middle class is unsustainable and will lead to our destruction.

So we need to either find our way to new planets or learn to live within the planet’s means. And given the near-impossibility of terraforming within our solar system, we might as well get used to the idea that economic growth cannot continue forever *now* and work to arrest it. The parts of our political economy that are addicted to growth need to be reined in, and that’s most of them. Apparently we need more farmers and fewer philosophers; more plumbers and fewer petroleum engineers.

Depictions of the steady state economy usually emphasize more egalitarian and communal cultural mechanisms. But my sense is that steady states usually depend on strict deference for authority and a lack of disruptive mobility. Abilities vary, but roles are assigned (as Moana’s is) by birth. What marks out stable societies is a clearer connection between cultural prestige, political power, and economic privilege. I think that’s part of the appeal that steady state political economy holds for cultural elites in particular; a community where our mastery of the seminar room will be rewarded with attendant power and wealth, and we won’t have to defer to stockbrokers who got rich by taking big risks with other people’s money. (I always associate this critique with Lynn Sanders’ “Against Deliberation” but there are other sources for this insight, including Karl Marx himself.)

The problem is that infinite growth does look impossible on a finite planet. Certainly we can sustain a little more growth, at least for a while. But the obligation to future generations may be to waste less electricity on Bitcoin mining and spend more time fighting for adequate policy responses to climate change! While Cowen might not disagree with those priorities, he certainly doesn’t seem to think that growth (understood as innovations and discoveries and cultural production) is limited. We’re not getting closer to any recognizable ceilings, for the simple reason that there are still diseases to be cured, technologies to be invented, and novels to be written. Even the rap musical about America’s first Treasury Secretary is still unfinished!

This is how I think about the error of the steady-staters: that they assume the old model of growth, where production and consumption occur primarily in terms of linear increases in resource use. This is what we measure, kind of, with GDP. But some kinds of innovation and invention are different: they create lots of value for lots of people without really costing a lot. A pill saves a life, and it only costs fifty cents to make; the pharmaceutical company will register some of those gains as profits contributing to GDP, but then the patent will expire, and it’ll SEEM like stagnation. But in fact, it’s a permanent increase in our shared wealth. More people live, but they live for cheap. (There are ways that this is supposed to be captured by the surviving worker’s productivity and the fall in drug prices is supposed to impact inflation measures, but it’s imprecise.) Growth is a misnomer: creating new things and ideas and experiences is the good bit. And there’s no reason to stop.

Aue aue
We are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain

Aue aue
Te fenua, te mālie
Nā heko hakilia
We know the way

Loyalty, Research, and Prison Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider what this can mean:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matter, Motion, Atheism

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

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

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

Hylozoism

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

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

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

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

System-Building and the Metaphysical Inertness Thesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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