An Ethical Argument for Philosophy Co-Authorship; on Friendship and Disagreement

This piece was co-written and co-published with Eric Schliesser.

The most dazzling example of co-authorship is Paul Erdős, who co-wrote more than 1400 papers in mathematics with 485 collaborators. (What is your Erdős number?) To do this, he became functionally homeless: “His modus operandi was to show up on the doorstep of a fellow mathematician, declare, “My brain is open,” work with his host for a day or two, until he was bored or his host was run down, and then move on to another home.”

In the sciences, co-authorship is normal. In the humanities, it is uncommon. In philosophy, it is almost non-existent. (See chart.)[1] Yet philosophy is not without famous co-authors (e.g., Marx and Engels). What’s more, some monographs ought properly be considered co-authored, like John Stuart Mill’s collaborations with Harriet Taylor Mill: “when two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common it is of little consequence, in respect of the question of originality, which of them holds the pen.”

There is little scholarship on co-authorship in philosophy, but a steady trickle of blog posts suggests that there is interest and anxiety on this point. (Helen de Cruz, Mark Zelcer, Robert Paul Wolff)

1.      What is co-authorship generally?

Co-authorship in the sciences is ideally ruled by two rules rooted in a particular sociology of labs and research groups. First, co-authors contribute to the scholarly endeavor for a piece of publishable scholarship by planning, executing, or analyzing the results of some sort of research. Second, co-authors compose the written portion of the research, either collectively or through some division of labor.

Both of these ideals are violated, of course—there are plenty of massive multi-authored articles where scholars receive token authorship (gift authorship) or someone who made substantial contributions is not credited as an author (ghost authorship.) In that way, these are “endorsed” norms, not the “enforced” ones: violations abound and are even legitimated as common practice in some “big science” research areas. But this remains the practical ideal.

2.      Why is co-authorship deprecated in philosophy?

Professional philosophers collaborate, usually through disputatious conversation, but usually not in a way that counts multiple thinkers as the author of a single paper. We are also much less likely to cite our peers than the agenda-setting papers in our sub-fields, especially as a part of a generic literature review. (See Kieran Healey’s data.) It is more common for close collaborators to co-edit than to co-author: for instance, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum famously created the “capabilities approach” together without co-authoring any of their foundational papers. They did, however, co-edit the seminal volume, The Quality of Life in 1993.

So while we do not imagine ourselves to be lone geniuses communing with the ancient canon, it is the case that many philosophical papers are projected as manifestos of a single principled thinker. Indeed, philosophers are particularly prone to a kind of “subauthorial collaboration” that is formalized in lavish acknowledgements in the text or an early footnote. (Cronin, Shaw, La Barre, 2003)

David Lewis, who understood philosophical politics as well as anybody (recall),  comments on this kind of “ghost” authorship in his paper, “Causation as Influence:”:

“This paper mostly presents the latest lessons I’ve learned from my students. Under the customs of the natural sciences, it should have been a joint paper, the coauthors being (in alphabetical order) John Collins, Ned Hall, myself [David Lewis], L.A. Paul, and Jonathan Schaffer. But under the customs of philosophy, a paper is expected to be not only a report of discoveries but a manifesto; and, happily, the five of us have by no means agreed upon a common party line.”[2]

Yet analytic philosophers often imagine themselves by analogy to the natural and social sciences, and American and continental philosophers increasingly emphasize the collaborative nature of our enterprise. Why, then, do we not use co-authorship more?

One obvious reason is the relative paucity of grants and research support compared to the natural and social sciences. Without an incentive to adopt the lab or research group model, most working philosophers are not members of a funded research unit with reporting requirements. Rigorous research is understood to support ‘research-led teaching,’ and so the single-author model is based primarily on the single-teacher model. We should thus expect the introduction of larger private grant-making institutions, like the Templeton Foundation and the Berggruen Institute, and public European grant agencies, to usher in an era of increasing research group size in philosophy, and the more frequent co-authorship.

We expect that  new collaborative technologies will decrease the costs and difficulties of collaboration to the extent that philosophers will more often overcome them, even without any increased funding or benefits. Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, and simple Microsoft Office sharing, versioning, and commenting will all tend to ease the speed with which scholars of all varieties—including philosophers—create collaborative documents. Social media, chat programs, and email ease collaboration over distance to replicate the proximity by which labs and research groups co-compose.

Lastly, we might think of philosophical research as long-shot bets (Langhe and Schliesser, 2017) that explore concepts, methods, or techniques that may be generally applicable. As such, it will be difficult to trace any particular result in the world back to a paper or monograph, and it is preferable to have many such long-shot bets rather than focus the efforts and attention of a highly skilled research team on sequential elaboration of just one of these gambles. It will generally be better to encourage idiosyncratic work done by individuals and small teams in hopes that one of those bets pays off. In the age of increasingly easy collaboration some enduring, virtual small research teams will emerge without, hopefully, fully displacing lone wolfs and disputatious research groups.

3.     What norms of co-authorship might philosophers embrace?

If philosophers do adopt co-authorship norms, which ones should we adopt?

We should start with the ideal of recognition of actual contribution to the research and knowing participation in the composition. Co-authorship should never be merely “honorary” inclusion for a member of a team or department who contributed to neither the research work nor the writing endeavor. However, the division of labor in some disciplines has the result of producing co-authored pieces where some credited contributors don’t even understand the paper they have helped to produce. Should we extend co-authorship to a student assistant who writes the literature review for a piece of research without understanding the rest of the paper? Should we accept co-authorship for a paper whose conclusions we do not endorse, if we supplied the formal modeling or computer code that underwrites it?

Our current professional ideal is consensus. On this ideal all authors must give credence to every jot and tittle of the work, even if their confidence varies slightly. Co-authorship in philosophy is stricter because philosophers can and should endorse all the claims, arguments, and conclusions of the paper. Papers can be thus be co-authored in philosophy when two or more researchers find a common interest, discuss it at great length, and truly co-compose the entire paper, contesting each argumentative move and turn of phrase until agreement is reached. As such, it should be very unlikely to see large groups of co-authors writing together, given the difficulty of producing such an exacting meeting of the minds, and we even look askance at philosophy papers co-authored by three or four scholars.

Another possibility is that philosophers working on closely-related research might try to divvy up the tasks in a field of research around some question such that only one or a few of the authors of a work understand the whole thing, while others are credited for their contributions without being “first” or “lead” author status. This requires trust in each other to handle sections of the paper that address relevant issues from their sub-fields; perhaps a paper that is 12,000 words long is written in two halves, with only the introduction and conclusion truly a joint project. On this ideal, co-authors retain to right to veto truly abhorrent claims made outside of their assigned sections, but only by threatening to dissolve the partnership. Otherwise, they can only register objections and hope to be heard.

A third possibility would be to follow the norm in law courts, where empaneled and en banc judges issue both dissenting opinions or in some cases join the majority in parts of their decision but not others, perhaps affirming the result but not all of the methods used to arrive at it. In such cases, a minority might dissent vehemently, while the court is understood to have rendered the opposite verdict: that minority dissent is clearly a separate research project in philosophical terms. They are not understood as co-authors of the majority opinion but as co-authors of a distinct opinion which did not win a majority of support. The more instructive question is what to do when judges affirm parts of the main decision but not all of it, and by analogy, situations where co-authors affirm parts of a research project but not all of it. Can it be possible for one of the co-authors to “sign on” to parts 1, 2, and 4 of a paper, while dissenting from arguments found in part 3 and in the conclusion? For example, in the past one of us has used a footnote to signal an alternative position from the one arrived at in the body of the paper.

A fourth possibility is majority voting. Bright, Dang, and Heesen (2017) argue that scientific work should aggregate researchers’ judgments. Claims and propositions should be made in a paper that receive the assent of the majority of the authors. One might well find oneself outvoted in some cases, and this would be fine so long as there was agreement that voting had not produced a contradictory or logically incoherent set of claims.

A fifth possibility would be a kind of deliberative dictatorship: a lead author could write a paper, assign sections for others to compose, and bounce ideas off of possible co-authors. At the conclusion, all participants who agreed with the final product could sign on as co-authors, while dissenters could produce their own dissenting papers to be published alongside. This is related to proposals that might allow peer reviewers to receive more recognition for their work as initial gatekeepers.

Could all of these modes of co-authorship flourish in philosophy? Are some of them inimical to the discipline?

4.      Philosophers should co-author more of our work

Given the fact that some forms of collaborative recognition do exist, why suggest co-authorship as an alternative model for philosophy? Let’s start by dividing the reasons for co-authorship into roughly epistemic and roughly ethical categories, even if this is a division that is easily collapsed. Co-authored papers may simply be better for having multiple composers, readers, and researchers attached to them. The division of epistemic labor will often lead to better-written, more carefully crafted, or simply more copious publications: many minds make light work.

At the same time, co-authorship is partly about recognizing the contributions of our peers. In that sense, it is ethical. This is a weaker defense of co-authorship, since there are alternative methods for providing recognition. If a paper issues from a conversation with a colleague or a good objection raised at a conference or blog post, we philosophers would normally expect to mention that in a footnote, not to grant the colleague or objector co-authorship status. Philosophy papers are sometimes imagined to be the record of the thoughts or analysis of a single agent, and group agency seems much more difficult in these cases because we are so rarely in anything resembling agreement. We are rarely of a single mind, ourselves, so this is no big impediment, but this also ignores the fact that one can commit to a written product while having varying confidence in its disparate elements.

But there’s a significant ethical claim that might recommend co-authorship: the ideal of scholarly friendship. Co-authorship can be a way to channel professional philosophical relationships in productive ways, a norm for guiding conversations and arguments towards shared, potentially overlapping projects. There is independent reason to believe that shared projects are an intrinsic good tied closely to well-being. (Korsgaard, 1992) Thus we should, if possible, prefer to share the tasks associated with philosophical research with others, not just after publication but throughout the scholarly endeavor. Philosophical co-authorship is desirable just because philosophical friendship is desirable.

Shared projects are possible both between equals and between mentors and students. As such, co-authorship is a way to encourage productive collaboration within departments and with undergraduate and graduate students. In the pedagogy-first model of much philosophical research, departmental colleagues at most small schools should not co-author their research because this leads to overlapping areas of interest and knowledge. A department with only a handful of philosophers should instead hope that its faculty have as little in common as possible, even if they must share governance of their department and spend their careers working side-by-side. But if co-authorship underwrites philosophical friendship, then even a maximally pluralistic department should seek opportunities to co-create research, actively seeking agreement and shared methods, research areas, and conceptual terrain.

Like friends, co-authors need not agree on everything.[3] Finding some method for adjudicating those disagreements is important, but philosophical writing can encompass these minor dissents or majoritarian procedures, just as our departments do. The key is that the commitment to co-author—like the commitments of friendship—is a commitment to resolve disagreements using whatever methods are available. Friends do not obsess over decision-procedures, though we adopt them to ease tensions for the sake of shared projects. The same should go for co-authors.

Like friends, co-authors need not be equals. We see in the sciences that co-authorship allows a kind of scholarly mentorship, and in philosophy graduate students experience intense collaboration for the first time while writing their dissertation with a senior scholar. We even acknowledge that this is akin to co-authorship by treating dissertation advising as something close to co-authorship for some professional purposes.

More of this sort of mentorship should be encouraged. The practice of learning from another scholar does not end when a philosopher receives a PhD, and probably we shouldn’t pretend that it does. Perhaps newly-minted PhDs aren’t yet ready for the full burdens of a research program, or perhaps they would benefit from mentorship when they move on to a new research program. Or perhaps not: perhaps this would end with more domination by senior scholars, as the division of labor creates permanent hierarchies. But it’s not as if our current, academic political economy is hierarchy-free.

A final reason is merely accuracy: our authorial norms give a false idea of our practices to the rest of the academy. We should consider revising them to align ourselves with our fellow academics. Let’s not pretend that scholarly productivity metrics are irrelevant or that Deans do not look askance at our publication records compared to other disciplines.

[1] Despite the best efforts of some of the authors of this post!

[2] The quote and suggestion comes from Christopher Hitchcock, who offered it as a comment to an older post on philosophy coauthorship at New APPS.

[3] We are indebted to Andrew Corsa’s and Eric Schliesser’s unpublished research on Margaret Fuller’s ideas on friendship and magnanimity.

Friendly Fire and Fiery Friendship: Noma Arpaly, Joseph Trullinger, and the Tenor of Philosophy Conversation

I often refer back to this post about a disagreement with Leigh Johnson over the role of critical engagement in philosophy. Using Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and Hannah Arendt’s account of it in her Lessing Prize address, I described what I took to be the pleasure of disagreement in our profession:

Even when we retreat to our armchairs for solitary thought, we are not alone: we are drawn to each other because we share a commitment to these inquiries no matter where they may lead, and because we need the support of a community of fellow inquirers. The corollary is that, among philosophers, it is considered honorable to take on the position of devil’s advocate in order to introduce needed pluralism and distinction into a discussion. Among us, holding unfashionable views is needed and strangely satisfying. When we find ourselves at odds, when we begin to take what Dr. J calls ‘friendly fire,’ it is a reason to rejoice: our friends have arrived!

Johnson’s phrase has stuck with me over the years. I’ve often used it when welcoming correction, or when explaining why my own critical engagement with a friend is meant to be a sign of respect.

Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?

I was reminded again of that exchange by Noma Arpaly’s excellent discussion of politeness (and rudeness) in philosophical debate. As Arpaly tells it, philosophers tend to violate two interrelated conversational norms, without distinguishing them: we are frequently rude, and we frequently engage in disagreement and correction. Among civilians, there is a strong non-correction norm that tends to go along with other norms like not hypothetically threatening or actually sneering at our colleagues.

Yet Arpaly wants to endorse violations of the non-correction norm, while preserving other norms of civil behavior. She creates an analogy to soldiers: the military requires soldiers to violate a widely held norm of pacifism–not-killing. But they must discipline soldiers not to thereby justify other norm violations–killing civilians and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against killing people, some soldiers find themselves shedding other moral inhibitions—and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against correcting people, some philosophers find themselves shedding other social inhibitions—and being terribly, terribly rude.

That’s just the nature of inhibition loss.

It’s a real problem. Arpaly counsels us to make the relevant distinctions and discipline ourselves all the harder on civility given that we’re already engaged in an unavoidable violation of the norm of non-correction. This seems exactly right.

Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong

On the Daily Nous thread on Arpaly’s piece, “Sam” writes:

Excellent post. I think there’s another, corresponding virtue worth cultivating here which could (cumbersomely) be called: “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong,” the disposition to feel exhilaration when corrected by a polite (even if “frightening”) objector. The reason we should try to feel pleasure in being (politely and civilly) corrected, rather than embarrassment or humiliation, is simply that, as the author points out, this kind of correction improves our positions in ways that are nearly impossible to achieve by other means. In a sense then, objectors (provided they are not hostile or rude) are really just assisting the presenter towards a goal they both share (doing good philosophy). Of course, it’s essential that the objectors appreciate this shared goal as well, and present their objections accordingly. If all parties view successful objections as pleasurable, mutually beneficial exchanges rather than humiliating losses or merciless victories, there will be fewer frightened presenters and fewer rude objectors.

What I liked about Sam’s comment was that it seemed to endorse and extend the Arpaly analysis by saying, “Here is a way that we can endorse a norm of correction without endorsing rudeness.” That this is actually my view (I like to be corrected so I can be correct) made me doubly happy to see it percolate up in a comment from another person.

This is not to put the victims of philosophers’ rudeness on the hook for responding gladly to their behavior. The “glad to be (shown) wrong” norm applies equally to objectors and presenters; more to the point, it applies even more to rude objectors than to anyone else, who must prove they really do mean to correct and not just to humble the presenter. Arpaly endorses violations of the norm of non-correction: she is no pacifist, as she says.

But describing an attack (of the “What if I slap you?” variety) is rude in part because it puts vulnerable others in an uncertain position: they’re required to pretend that disembodied philosophers never would do what they say. But this goes well beyond violating basic civility: discomfiting one’s interlocutor does nothing productive at the level of correction and even interferes with shared inquiry. It’s not that we must sometimes violate basic civility in order to violate the norm of non-correction: it fails on both counts.

Many philosophical practices must be rethought in this light: interruption, for instance, is pretty obviously a violation on her view and on the “glad to be wrong” view. You don’t interrupt someone if you’re engaged in mutual beneficial exchange, because that assumes that you already know the outcome of that exchange. Nor do you ask questions that are really just coded assertions of error: you actually engage with the interlocutor about whether there are corrections to the (shared) position within the evolving inquiry.

We must, we must be friends!

For Arendt, the philosopher needs disagreeable friends in order not to be lost to the crowd’s violent enforcement of the non-correction norm. Philosophers need to disagree with each other so that we are not isolated by our disagreement. Thus, the norms of disagreement arise from the intrinsic good of intellectual friendships. As Arendt put it:

“[Lessing] was glad that… [truth] if it ever existed, had been lost; he was glad for the sake of the infinite number of opinions that arise when men discuss the affairs of the world.”

We wrestle with hard questions–take detours into difficulty–because it is our excuse to spend time together. For Arendt, the philosophical project may have some or another goal–to think what we are doing, for instance, or prevent nuclear war–but its true function is to give we disagreeable ones an excuse to reach out to friends like ourselves (alike in the virtues of agreeable disagreement.) It’s thus primarily a practice of friendship in homonoia, like-mindededness. This is what makes “friendly fire” palatable: that we have deeper bonds that salve the blows when we do not pull our punches.

My friend and former colleague Joseph Trullinger comments further:

Arpaly undermines the point with the war analogy, because it doesn’t go deep enough into the psychology informing the mood of the rude dude. Really, I think Arpaly is proposing something more like a “gentlemanly” duel in contrast to “unsportsmanlike” war, when it’s the martial virtues themselves that are the problem here. I think patriarchy instills in us (where by “us” I mean especially men, such as myself) this idea that the defense of one’s honor legitimates the use of aggression, but it is really putting lipstick on a pig. The fighting done to regain or steal away social standing is like sweeping leaves on a windy day, and it may in the first place be wrong to do. Philosophy has for too long patterned itself after polemos, war, and been polemics; I think there’s a reason Nietzsche’s depiction of the philosopher as warrior of ideas appealed to me more when I was a reedy hormonal teenager, as these sorts of self-descriptions appeal to men undergoing a crisis of masculinity. The issue is not that we have been “too soft” with ourselves and need someone from the outside to be “hard” on us. The issue is that we worship hardness itself at the expense of what we tell ourselves we’re defending with it. Here I draw a lot of insight from Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” (h/t Joan Braune). Yeah, Achilles looks cool, and he takes offense over something trivial, but don’t get carried away with that pretext for allowing or gloating over more violence. Briseis is not the issue here, dude. Nor is it actually Achilles’ honor, or Agamemnon’s honor. It’s the idea that life is all about enforcing one’s life in the push and pull of force and counterforce. The intellectual “battlefield” is not the Iliad, nor should it be. Instead, we should foster the hospitality we see so many good examples of in the Odyssey.

TL;DR: less andreia, more xenia

Trullinger goes on to recommend that we replace my ideal of Arendtian “friendly fire” with a related one: “fiery friendship.”

It seems like an important point: too often in praise for “agonism” we tend to treat the conflicts as if they are self-justifying. We somehow need the agon to achieve the intrinsic goods of flourishing; we wrestle to develop strength and skill, which is the real function. We argue not because we are engaged in a collective project but because honing the arguments themselves is supposedly tied to the good life.

Trullinger reminds me that the “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong” attitude requires more than just contention for the fun of it. Correction requires correctness; we cannot bracket truth for the sake of the infinite conversation and hope that that conversation will have the same character. Indeed, bracketing a shared commitment to truth-seeking leads to just the kinds of hurtful “games” that Arpaly rightly refuses to play.

Fiery Friendship and Philosophical Hospitality

In the backdrop here is the status of women in the profession. Arpaly suggests that the rudeness may be particularly off-putting to vulnerable participants, and that a move civil tenor will make the profession more welcoming. At least some of the masculinist norms of epistemic arrogance (interruption and “Well actually” and so on) have non-pathological roles to play in parts of our social lives. The really unprofessional thing is when we treat conference presenters the same way we treat our buddies or teammates.

Women, Arpaly suggests, are just as “glad to be wrong” as men. They too can violate the norm of non-correction in service of a shared inquiry. But the profession still doesn’t welcome them, and it demonstrates this inhospitable demeanor by treating philosophy as a game whose rules are constantly changed, or perhaps like hazing: where jocular rudeness and dishing out and receiving contempt are a part of how the game is played. This has the effect of protecting the space as a region of rough play–and certainly many women and other diverse practitioners can survive in such spaces, and many men cannot–but what would it mean to make it welcoming and inclusive?

Trullinger’s view seems to be that we ought to endorse the spirit of “glad to be wrong” by being particularly welcoming to those who are unlike us: those who are most likely to find the space of rough play unwelcoming, with whom we lack homonoia. True strangers are those who can offer us grounds for disagreement much stranger than mere contradiction.

I sometimes joke that we only ever hear calls for ideological diversity in political matters, and never Thomistic approaches to quantum mechanics or a nurse’s eye-view on bioethics. But Trullinger means what he says: he actually does want to see an expansive ideological diversity in non-political matters, to study Mexica metaphysics, queer philosophy of time, Byzantine logic, and Confucian epistemology.

Some desiderata: fiery friendship should allow joyful disagreement and also charitable agreement; it should offer opportunities for world-traveling and loving perception. It should be an avid fan of the unfamiliar. It should be glad to be proven wrong and it should be receptive–not just to correction but–to a complete redirection of our projects. It should welcome the vulnerable and make them strong. It shouldn’t punch down, or slap down, or suggest hypothetical down-slapping. It might even entertain actual pacifism, which need not be weak.

When we finally start talking about gun control, what should we say?

I love policy discussions, but the demands for policy discussion on gun control after the shootings in Newtown today are terribly wrong-headed.

The problem is that demanding a policy discussion is not the same thing as having a policy discussion. At this point, we’re just talking about talking about gun control. It’s all “mention” and no “use.” It’d be nice if folks would actually start proposing laws. Like: limits on magazine size. Ammo taxes. Closing the gun show loophole. Or even…


I’d love to talk about gun prohibition. (Notice, this isn’t even the same policy debate as “gun control.”) Unfortunately, if we start talking about gun prohibition, then we will be forced to confront how badly prohibition is working in other markets. There are three hundred and ten million guns in the US. (Yes! 310,000,000!) What does prohibition look like under those circumstances?

Reflecting on that question, ask yourself this: how many people will be killed in no-knock police raids trying to root out the black market in guns? Will they be mostly white or mostly black? (Notice that gun control laws have tended to be stricter in majority black areas rather than majority white areas. Both DC and Chicago, the battleground states for the 2nd Amendment claims, are disproportionately black.) How many of those killed by police will be kids? How many kids’ deaths will be prevented?

On reflection, I suspect that many gun control regimes and all possible paths to gun prohibtion are more likely to increase the number of people hurt and killed by guns.  So when we do finally start talking about gun control and gun prohibition, let’s be very, very careful.

Something must be done.

Prohibition is something. 

∴ ????

Also, let’s remember that the violent crime rate, including gun crimes, is the lowest it’s been in 20 years. That doesn’t make what happened today any easier to handle, but perhaps it will allow us to focus on what happened, and the people it happened to, instead of replaying Jon Stewart’s Monday night monologue. Something terrible has happened. It didn’t happen to you or I, so we have the ability to ask whether it could have been prevented. We should ask whether it could have been prevented. But we should also ask: at what cost? Then we should follow that calculation of lives lost and lives saved wherever it leads.

Craig Whitney’s July New York Times Op-Ed on the Aurora shooting is still apropos here:

Liberals should accept that the only realistic way to control gun violence is not by keeping guns out of the hands of as many Americans as possible, but by keeping guns out of the hands of people we all agree should not have them.

Read the whole thing. Whitney is a liberal gun apologist–which means he has a good sense of what kinds of regulation would actually be constitutional under DC v. Heller, and what sorts might be effective.

What should we say when we talk about guns?

When we start talking about guns, some people will say that they’re unnecessary and dangerous. Others will say that they’re a tool for self-defense and self-sufficiency. That’s usually where the debate rests, except that the 2nd Amendment privileges the second group. If we want to make progress, we can offer better reasons, reasons that will be superior precisely because they are responsive to the reasons of our interlocutors. That means honestly trying to find the overlap in what appears to be an incommensurable set of assumptions.

Here’s Dan Braman and Dan Kahan, in an article on how to have a better gun debate:

For one segment of American society, guns symbolize honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency. By opposing gun control, individuals affirm the value of these meanings and the vision of the good society that they construct. For another segment of American society, however, guns connote something else: the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers. These individuals instinctively support gun control as a means of repudiating these significations and of promoting an alternative vision of the good society that features equality, social solidarity, and civilized nonaggression.

As a result, Braman and Kahan propose a “big trade”: those who oppose guns should offer to recognize and respect the rights of gun ownership, effectively normalizing it, in exchange for universal registration. By emphasizing the responsibility and civic spiritedness of most gun owners, Braman and Kahan believe that we can better reach an agreement what that responsibility entails.

For Braman and Kahan, this is an extension of their cultural cognition work, but I’d put it a little differently, in terms of the interaction between esteem and social norms: rather than depicting gun owners as dangerous hicks, we give them esteem in exchange for esteem-worthy performances of self-abnegation and sacrifice, like giving up assault weapons and semi-automatics. Since less than 0.004% of all guns are used on other human beings in any given year, we should acknowledge that most people’s guns are not the problem.

by Flickr user deepwarren

It’s tempting to stage a cultural showdown around guns, to line up a set of  statistics and international comparisons and arguments: i.e. that carrying a gun probably increases the likelihood that you will be shot and killed. Lots of resources already go into advertising this fact, along with others. From a public health perspective it makes perfect sense to discourage gun ownership, but so long as many Americans treat guns as a central part of their identities, such discouragement will only have limited impact. Research suggests that our prior beliefs on guns will have an significant impact on the way that we process new data on gun deaths. That’s more evident in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, where tragedy and group polarization rule, but very little cross-cutting bipartisan dialogue takes place.

In “More Statistics, Less Persuasion: A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions,” Braman and Kahan offer evidence that risk perceptions are derivative of social norms and cultural-loaded meanings:

The risks that we face in our daily lives are far too vast in number and diverse in nature to be comprehended in their totality. Of all the potential hazards that compete for our attention, the ones most likely to penetrate our consciousness are the ones that comport with our norm-pervaded moral evaluations: it is easy to believe that ignoble activities are also physically dangerous, and worthy ones benign. Thus, “moral concern guides not just response to the risk but the basic faculty of [risk] perception” as well.

What this means is that how we process school shootings or firearm-related suicides will be largely dictated by our prior views on the social importance of guns. That’s why our responses differ so drastically: it’s not that some of us are dumb and some smart, some indifferent to suffering and some caring, but that we can only understand tragedy within a cultural framework, and that framework partially dictates which elements of the tragedy pop out as salient.

In particular, those concerned primarily with hierarchical forms of status and authority will relate to gun crimes differently from those egalitarians who abhor social statification, while those who favor individual autonomy will take up a different yet a third approach to evaluating and prioritizing risks than those who favor collective action. What Braman and Kahan show is that the facts and statistics that seem salient to us depend largely on where we fall on both the hierarchy-egalitarian axis and the individualism-solidarism axis.

Here, then, is the problem: most of the prohibition-type solutions are only going to receive support from those of us who are both egalitarian and in favor of collective action. This creates the potential for a coalition of interests between those who favor guns as a traditional prerogative of American citizenship, and those who see them as a symbol self-sufficiency and of man’s mastery of nature. You can’t simply eliminate those value profiles and risk-assessments from the electorate, and it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do. Instead, we should seek solutions that are more widely satisfying to traditionalists. Politicians understood this long ago and captured it in the canard that gun safety regulations should respect the rights of “hunters and sportsmen.”

But what kinds of policies does this respect entail?

I’ve already linked to two kinds of suggestions for gun control that seem like reasonable accommodations with the many civic-minded gun owners in the country: the federal legislation recommendations from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the Op-Ed by Craig Whitney, “A Way Out of the Gun Stalemate.”

To this, let me add the state and local initiatives suggested by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which are in many ways more important, such as better mental health reporting and ammunition controls and licensing. Many of these are things that need not be resolved nationally to be effective: for instance, California single-handedly improved ballistics recognition by requiring guns sold in the state to “micro-stamp” their serial numbers onto shell casings. That program should be expanded to other states.

A lot of the pushback I received last week was tied to the fact that places like Japan and Great Britain have had reasonable success with prohibitions. Certainly this is true, but it seems to ignore both that those places started off with a very different gun culture, and that they are geographic anomalies, islands of dense populations with a lot of ethnic homogeneity. We have 310,000,000 of the damned things, and we’ve had many failures over the years trying to curb that numbers’ growth. We should try something different.

(Always a good reminder: Timur Kuran’s and Cass Sunstein’s “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation.”)

Anarchy, the Black Bloc, and Gandhian “Non-Violence”

Let me start with a correction. Anarchy isn’t really as interesting as you think it is. In fact, Anarchy is Boring:

Figuring out how to run a sustainable anarchist household (that values time spent washing the dishes and time spent making money as a computer programmer equally) isn’t as headline-grabbing as a downtown smashup. But Seattle has dozens of functional anarchist organizations—or anarchish organizations. Some of them operate in an anarchist way (consensus decision making, a focus on mutual aid instead of competition) but don’t call themselves anarchistic. And even the ones that do are constantly debating how to strive for anarchist ideals within the current economic and political system. (Give me two anarchists, and I will give you a debate on what “real” anarchism means.)

The beauty of that post (read the whole thing!) is that it emphasizes the banal public work that anarchists are constantly engaged in, building civic capacities and consensual organizations and common-pool resources. Shorn of all the rhetoric and utopianism, anarchists are just ordinary people who think that authority requires certain kinds of participation in order to be legitimate. But that’s an old idea.

The problem with the utopian anarchism in the article is Graeber’s speculative optimism: “gradually figuring out new ways of organizing everyday life which will, eventually, make currently existing forms of power seem stupid and beside the point.”

New forms of organizing our lives are not a priori impossible, and in fact that’s the goal we should all be working towards, but it hasn’t happened yet, right? And experiments often (usually, even) fail; that’s why they’re experiments. So in the meantime what do we do about the institutions that are illegitimate but for which there is not yet an alternative? Comply pragmatically? Attack? Disobey in order to demonstrate the violence in the system? Anarchists face a tremendous challenge in the existence and general acceptance of the forms of power they oppose. Not all of them opt to deal with that primarily through novel forms of household budgeting.

Robert Paul Wolff captures the “pragmatic compliance” attitude best in his classic In Defense of Anarchism:

In a sense, we might characterize the anarchist as a man without a country, for despite the ties which bind him to the land of his childhood, he stands in precisely the same moral relationship to “his” government as he does to the government of any other country in which he might happen to be staying for a time. When I take a vacation in Great Britain, I obey its laws, both because of prudential self-interest and because of the obvious moral considerations concerning the value of order, the general good consequences of preserving a system of property, and so forth. On my return to the United States, I have a sense of reentering my country, and if I think about the matter at all, I imagine myself to stand in a different and more intimate relation to American laws. They have been promulgated by my government, and I therefore have a special obligation to obey them. But the anarchist tells me that my feeling is purely sentimental and has no objective moral basis. All authority is equally illegitimate, although of course not therefore equally worthy or unworthy of support, and my obedience to American laws, if I am to be morally autonomous, must proceed from the same considerations which determine me abroad.

But there are other versions. Occupy is one. I’m personally a big fan of Elinor Ostrom’s work on common-pool resource management. But it’s not clear that any of the extant forms of anarchist organization scale beyond relatively small communities of mutual recognition, and it’s not clear that the kinds of social norms that actually work to enforce anarchist forms of organization are any more compatible with autonomy than the ones that ground state and market coercions. I look to Arendt’s account of wards and soviets for one such scaling model, but I’m not particularly enthusiastic about it given the history.

If Wolff is right, then the basic anarchist insight that legitimate authority requires participatory self-governance to be akin to the basic democratic insight and the basic liberal insight, which is why he is ultimately a democratic socialist in his politics and only a philosophical anarchist. (I do think there are adequate responses to Wolff’s specific issues with legitimate political obligations, though.)

I’m quite fond of the anarchists I know in person: we agree on a lot and we work on projects together as needed. I just call myself something different and have less interest in the kind of anti-capitalist end-state speculations that motivate some anarchist folks. Even liberals see value in non-state-centric engagement and institutional experimentation, or they ought to.

But it is striking how many folks (including me) are turned off by what we perceive as Black Bloc-style “propaganda of the deed” but keep coming back to anarchist practices and theorists under other names: civic engagement, small-r republicanism, temporary autonomous zones, etc.

Chris Hedges gave voice to that frustration here:

The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. This hypermasculinity, I expect, is its primary appeal. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship. It permits an inchoate rage to be unleashed on any target. Pity, compassion and tenderness are banished for the intoxication of power. It is the same sickness that fuels the swarms of police who pepper-spray and beat peaceful demonstrators. It is the sickness of soldiers in war. It turns human beings into beasts.

And David Graeber responded here. He is characteristically loquacious, but makes three major points.

First, that the Black Bloc is not ideologically unitary:

Black Bloc is a tactic, not a group. It is a tactic where activists don masks and black clothing (originally leather jackets in Germany, later, hoodies in America), as a gesture of anonymity, solidarity, and to indicate to others that they are prepared, if the situation calls for it, for militant action. The very nature of the tactic belies the accusation that they are trying to hijack a movement and endanger others. One of the ideas of having a Black Bloc is that everyone who comes to a protest should know where the people likely to engage in militant action are, and thus easily be able to avoid it if that’s what they wish to do.

Second, that the rhetoric of cancer that Hedges uses promotes police-on-activist and activist-on-activist violence:

this is precisely the sort of language and argument that, historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another—in fact, the sort of language and argument that is almost never invoked in any other circumstance. After all, if a group is made up exclusively of violent fanatics who cannot be reasoned with, intent on our destruction, what else can we really do? This is the language of violence in its purest form. Far more than “fuck the police.” To see this kind of language employed by someone who claims to be speaking in the name of non-violence is genuinely extraordinary. I recognize that you’ve managed to find certain peculiar fringe elements in anarchism saying some pretty extreme things, it’s not hard to do, especially since such people are much easier to find on the internet than in real life, but it would be difficult to come up with any “Black Bloc anarchist” making a statement as extreme as this.

Even if you did not intend this statement as a call to violence, which I suspect you did not, how can you honestly believe that many will not read it as such?

And third, that Gandhian non-violence is frequently used ahistorically as a purity test, but that Gandhi’s actual rhetoric and tactics were much less perfectly non-violent than people now pretend:

Over the course of the next 40 years, Gandhi and his movement were regularly denounced in the media, just as non-violent anarchists are also always denounced in the media, as a mere front for more violent, terroristic elements, with whom he was said to be secretly collaborating. He was regularly challenged to prove his non-violent credentials by assisting the authorities in suppressing such elements. Here Gandhi remained resolute. It is always morally superior, he insisted, to oppose injustice through non-violent means than through violent means. However, to oppose injustice through violent means is still morally superior to not doing anything to oppose injustice at all.

And Gandhi was talking about people who were blowing up trains, or assassinating government officials. Not damaging windows or spray-painting rude things about the police.

Certainly he’s right about this: in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. So long as the Black Bloc seeks anonymity, we cannot know how long they pursued pacifism nor what justifications they might have for changing their minds.

On the one hand, if Occupy is to achieve its goals, it must work today to create the myth that now plagues Gandhi’s and King’s hagiographies. On the other hand, Hedges’ piece could mean that it has already failed or that it will take much more than a single “Spring” to achieve its goals, at least in the US. (On the other other hand, Montreal’s student movements look to have achieved success using similar tactics alongside more traditional solidarities between students and labor organizations.)

Must we destroy the profession in order to save it?

Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting, 2011, page 5:

“The right to vote and the rightness of voting are different things. I do not argue that we should disenfranchise anyone. Though I think many voters are wrong to vote, I will not argue that anyone should prevent them from voting.” (Emphasis mine)

Eric Schliesser, New APPS, 1/3/12:

“The following tentative remarks were caused by reflection on the recent publication of books that (with qualification, of course) condone… disenfranchisement of ignorant voters.”

Jason Brennan, interviewed for a web article posted to The Daily Need, 4/15/2011:

“Since writing ‘The Ethics of Voting,’ I’ve actually become more sympathetic to the idea that maybe people should be formally excluded from voting,” Brennan said.

Of course, there are obvious dangers implicit in this view, as Brennan admits. Special interests, for example, might co-opt the voting process to exclude those who won’t support their agenda. Incumbents might bar voters who are likely to oust them from office. And literacy and comprehension tests have an ugly history dating back to the Jim Crow era, when they were used to disenfranchise African-Americans. That led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Emphasis mine; the second paragraph is from The Daily Need article, but it is partly a gloss of Brennan’s book, page 108)

Eric Schliesser, New APPS, 1/4/12:

“When I wrote my original post, I had no idea that Brennan had already slipped down the slope of my not so ‘idle concern.’ As a community, we are politely witnessing (refereeing, reviewing, etc) the philosophic ground-clearing being done for –and the accompanying public marketing of — ideas that will justify a certain kind of elite rule. […] (In the book he argues for a sub-set [of disenfranchisement], self-disenfranchisement.)” (Emphasis mine)

In his post, Schliesser argues that we ought to consider a professional code of conduct that bars sympathetic consideration of topics like not-voting or torture when that research threatens to supply “a rhetorical fig-leaf to let politicians and generals morally off-the-hook for atrocious deeds,” or research that assists the state in “annihilat[ing] enormous number[s] of innocent people deemed enemy by the government.”

Unfortunately, as stated, the proposition is self-refuting. Here’s why: Schliesser suggests we ought to consider restrictions on easily misunderstood work on moral taboos. His own post could easily be interpreted as a call for a ban on politically unpopular research. In fact, my friend Leigh Johnson interprets his question in this way: as an encouragement to ban “Forbidden Knowledge.” In the comments, Schliesser claims that this is a misreading, but Johnson is both a charitable and smart reader: if it’s possible for her to derive this interpretation of his words, it’s quite easy for them to be misused in this way by “politicians and generals” in search of a “rhetorical fig-leaf.” If Brennan’s book with its clear warning against disenfranchisement can be read as a call for disenfranchisement, then certainly Schliesser’s post can be read as a call for a ban!

In this sense, Schliesser’s post is precisely the sort of thing that would violate a code of professional ethics like the one he’s describing! The counterfactual is not: “What would the world look like if Brennan had not written his book and articles?” The relevant counterfactual is: “What would the world look like if there was a code of ethics that restricted research on moral taboos?” Such a world is more likely to involve illiberal restrictions than the ones that Schliesser seems to favor.

But I want to focus on the justifications he gives between two different kinds of restrictions: informal norms and codes of conduct. As he points out, there already are norms of collegiality, politeness, and prudence that govern our professional interactions, norms that Schliesser violates by reviewing and now attacking a book he has not read and using a likely-sensationalized web interview to justify his position after the fact.

What is added when these informal norms are codified? The clarity and transparency of codified norms at first seems promising, but wherever there is a code of conduct, there must also be a process for amending it. Since Schliesser advocates against elite rule, I assume he would want this process to be open to all members of the profession, as would I. The alternative is elite rule by the professional ethicists!

But what makes Schliesser think that our profession would adopt rules that outlawed research on torture or epistemic problems with democracy, given the fact that such research is popular and widely believed to be central to the profession’s mission? Here it’s important to note that while many professions have codes of conduct, there is little evidence that they actually bind members of the profession meaningfully because they are a isonomic: the professionals themselves make the rules. Finance professionals, lawyers, engineers, and research scientists are all bound by rules of conduct that are so laughably generic that these same groups are regularly caricatured as unprincipled and even evil, both by the public and by disillusioned members of the same professions.

Another reason to codify norms is because codification supplies an opportunity for an intervention: though informal norms will govern what sorts of rules are considered legitimate, it’s also possible that new rules will eventually be internalized as informal norms. This is obviously what Schliesser hopes: that by sneaking a politically radical provision into the rules banning research on moral taboos, we will finally internalize the informal norms that actually prevent such work. But this is certainly not a democratic hope: it is governance through trickery by a different set of elites.

Now, Schliesser is certainly right that the philosophy profession is driven by the demand to scrutinize all assumptions and follow arguments where they lead, and that some professional philosophers are so enamored of this ethos that they will adopt contrary positions and embrace iconoclasm over prudence.

However, these drives seem less dangerous than Schliesser supposes, especially because these drives are already limited by the existence of informal norms governing the profession, which dictate who is considered fit for jobs, tenure, and grants. I think it is likely that efforts to codify and enact punishments to fit these informal norms are more likely to harm than help, more likely to transform into a broad and toothless set of guidelines or into Johnson’s feared ban on “forbidden knowledge” than to successfully institute new moral taboos.

Perhaps, in part, research like that of Brennan and Alhoff is not justificatory but rather inspired by the fact that we already inhabit a world governed by “a certain kind of elite rule” and one where torture is condoned by the highest political authorities. Jason Brennan’s voting ethics is looking pretty good the day after the 2012 Iowa caucuses with democracy reduced to an adolescent joke: “Obama, Romney win Iowa caucuses; Santorum slips into #2 spot.” Someone has to formulate that argument, if only so that we can discover a winning refutation or design institutions that do not so easily suggest the argument’s conclusion to onlookers.

If we want to do research that combats the status quo of elite rule and torture, we must understand the arguments that currently justify it, or else fall victim to overuse of “Weak Man” argumentation and research that is irrelevant to contemporary needs. To ban discussion of the facts of our common existence is an absurd self-destruction of the profession, especially its most emancipatory traditions, in an attempt to save it.