What Every 21st Century American Should “Know”

The journal Democracy is running an article revisiting E.D. Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy, and looking for readers to help generate an updated list like the one at the end of Hirsch’s 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

Here’s the list I came up with, completely off the top of my head (i.e., involving less than a minute of thought, since that’s all the time for thought I currently have).

  1. Wounded Knee 1890
  2. Wounded Knee 1973
  3. The Fort Laramie Treaty (1868)
  4. Russell Means and/or Dennis Banks
  5. AIM (American Indian Movement)
  6. Ayn Rand
  7. Atlas Shrugged
  8. The Fountainhead
  9. libertarianism
  10. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions)

The list is totally idiosyncratic, and focuses on things that I either happen to be thinking about lately (1-5, 10), or that I’ve thought a lot about at one time or another but that tend not to make it onto lists of this sort (6-9). Arguably, I’ve also cheated a bit because many of my items overlap (e.g., 4-5, 6-8), and one line of the list contains two items (4). Whatever. I still think the list consists of things that every 21st century American ought (in some sense) to “know.” I don’t have time to insert hot links into my list right now, but will do so when I get a chance (perhaps “IOU” should be on the list).

It’s an interesting question what “know” means in this context. I take “know” to mean “recognize as something important and to know something about” (to be contrasted with drawing a complete blank on encounter with the item).* It’s not entirely clear to me what epistemic value there is to knowing a lot of items in this sense; clearly, Hirsch thought that there was enough value there to serve the pedagogical goals of an ideal educational system. I read Hirsch’s book a long time ago and saw him defend its thesis in a lecture sometime in the 90s. I suppose I agree(d) in a general way that ceteris paribus, having broad cultural literacy, even in a weak sense of “knowing,” was better than not having any. But I don’t have strong views on the subject. I just think it’s fun (and easy) to generate a list, so I did.

At any rate, if there’s anything to Hirsch’s argument, I’d argue that my items belong on the list. But I’d be interested in seeing readers’ lists in the combox (obviously feel free to add to Democracy’s list as well).

*For related discussion, see Pierre LeMorvan’s “Knowledge, Ignorance, and True Belief” plus the paper by Goldman and Olsson he cites.

Jason Brennan on character-based voting: the cases of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump (with several updates)

Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India, recently on a speaking tour in the US and elsewhere, and promoting his nationalist agenda for India wherever he goes. He’s very much the talk of the town, which is a great irony, considering that less than a decade ago, he was in effect barred from entering town: he was denied a visa to enter the United States for his failure to stop the Gujarat riots/massacre of 2002, and boycotted in Europe for much the same reason. Back then, he was a relatively obscure figure, at least by international standards. Now, he’s the Prime Minister of a major world power. Evidently, the principle involved here is that if you play a presumptively culpable role in a massacre, you’re to be treated with contempt until you assume the trappings of power. Once you do, the passage of time and victory in a democratic election jointly wipe the slate clean, and you’re to be treated with respect and admiration, bygones being bygones–even if some of the bygones include a few thousand corpses for which you were plausibly thought to bear responsibility. Wait and win, and you’re out of the moral doghouse. It’s an interesting lesson–about India, about democratic politics, about historical memory, and about justice. Worth remembering for other contexts.

I bring the issue up not (merely) to moralize about Modi (whom I admittedly despise) but as a counter-example to the discussion of character-based voting in Jason Brennan’s much-praised and much-discussed book, The Ethics of Voting. I generally agree with the thesis of Brennan’s book, at least as I understand it, which is that epistemically incompetent voters ought not to vote.  But having edited a symposium on the book in Reason Papers last year, and having read some of the discussion of it there and elsewhere, I’ve been surprised at  how much of what is contestable about Brennan’s argument has gone entirely undiscussed and uncontested by his peers, peer-reviewed and otherwise. Brennan’s discussion of character-based voting is one such example (EV, pp. 84-85), and the case of Narendra Modi conveniently serves to focus the issues.

The discussion of character-based voting comes up in chapter 3 of the book, which is devoted to explication of the concept of “wrongful voting.” “Unexcused harmful voting occurs when a person votes, without epistemic justification, for harmful policies or for candidates likely to enact harmful policies” (EV, p. 68). Brennan’s point is that we ought to refrain from engaging in unexcused harmful voting. It follows that citizens should vote only if their beliefs about the prospective harm or welfare-conductivity of policies are epistemically justified–probably a small minority of actual voters. The two crucial concepts here are epistemic justification and harmful policies. Brennan doesn’t explicate either, but assumes that on some version of both, his thesis turns out to be correct.

One objection to Brennan’s view is that we might vote for or against someone on the basis of character, not knowledge about the welfare-conducivity of the policies they intend to enact. Take some political candidate, X. My beliefs about X’s policies may be unjustified, epistemically speaking; they may be vague, vacuous, or based on very little evidence. But my beliefs about his character may be perfectly on target. Suppose I correctly regard X as (very) immoral, correctly regard Y as morally decent, and vote for Y because I regard X as so immoral that a vote for Y is preferable to one for X even if I’m generally (though not completely) ignorant of the relative policy implications of voting for X versus Y. Assume that Y’s policies will predictably be worse than X’s (though not egregiously so), but X’s past is egregiously unjust whereas Y’s is perfectly decent.

According to Brennan, unless I treat my judgments of X’s past immorality as proxies for predictions about X’s future policies, my vote is a case of unexcused wrongful voting no matter what X might have done in the past. It’s not clear why, however, and he doesn’t make it clear. What if, as a voter, I weight character over policy as a criterion for voting, at least in cases as egregious as those like X’s? Why is that unexcused wrongful voting? Or is it excused wrongful voting?

Let X be Narendra Modi, and ex hypothesi assume the worst about Modi’s role in Gujarat. Further (also ex hypothesi), assume the worst about Gujarat. If I were an Indian citizen voting in the last election, I would have voted against Modi simply because his role in the Gujarat affair put him beyond the pale for holding the position of Prime Minister of India. The issue is not so much that I expect Modi to repeat his past behavior; in fact, it’s unlikely that he will. Given the scrutiny he’s gotten over the years–and the visa denials and boycotts, etc.–Modi is likely to be more careful about how he expresses his nationalist sentiments, and is likely to overcompensate for his past sins, at least in policy contexts.  Nor is it that I think that Modi’s policies are likely to be inferior to those of his political rivals. They may actually end up being a bit better, at least from a free market perspective. The relevant point is simply that Modi ought not to be rewarded for his past behavior, and voting him into office is a reward (a huge one), one that evades the moral significance of that past behavior. Justice demands that we not grant the unearned, and Modi’s past behavior disqualifies him from earning title to the office he now holds.

For purposes of this post, I don’t want to go into the factual details of Modi’s actual (past) behavior. Doing so is unnecessary, since my aim here is to contest Brennan’s discussion of character-based voting, and to that end, Modi simply draws attention to a relevant possibility–viz., the evil political candidate who is likely to enact better policies than the merely decent one. So if you’re not familiar with Modi’s past, or you disagree with my interpretation of it, we can simply imagine a Modi-like figure and use that as a point of departure for thinking about Brennan’s argument.

So here are my stipulations: Imagine a Modi-like candidate for office who has behaved disgracefully in an affair like the Gujarat massacres of 2002 (or worse). Imagine that he showed callous disregard for the lives of his fellow citizens when he had the responsibility to protect them. Imagine that thousands of innocents died as a result. Imagine that there is good evidence that his own nationalist political agenda explains the animus for those massacred, motivated those who killed them, and rationalized the killings (using “rationalized” in the colloquial, not Davidsonian sense).

Now fast forward about a decade. Imagine our Modi-like candidate going up for the highest office in the land. Imagine that he claims to have cleaned up his act, having done an about-face from his bad old days a decade ago. Imagine that there is no serious question that his forthcoming policies will revert to the ways of his bad old days.  Assume that his policies will actually be an improvement on what the country currently has, and what the other candidate has to offer. Now imagine a rival anti-Modi candidate who is morally decent (and in particular, critical of Modi’s behavior in Gujarat). Let his policies be relatively indeterminate–not great, but not of the sort that might lead to any policy disaster. (Take the party you dislike most and imagine them enacting a safe and pragmatic version of politics as usual.) Let them just end up being worse at the margins than those of the Modi-like immoral candidate. Brennan’s thesis implies that we ought to vote for the immoral candidate, not the decent one. But why?

Here’s what he says:

To a significant degree, voting for character is voting for wrong reasons. When we elect someone, we give him power. That power can be used for good or bad. The office of the presidency is not an honorific meant to show [that] we respect that person’s character. Giving someone the presidency is not bestowing a medal or a certification of commendation but giving him (some) control of the state, an institution that makes rules, and forces innocent people to comply with these rules using violence and threats of violence. We need to be sure he will do a good job controlling it.

The first sentence refers the reader in a footnote to Russell Hardin’s How Do You Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge and Bernard Manin’s The Principles of Representative Government. I haven’t read either book, so if my objection is answered there, I’d concede my case. But for present purposes my point is that my objection is not answered by Brennan in The Ethics of Voting: the passage above does nothing to answer what I regard as the most obvious objection, posed by Modi-like cases. It begs the question and offers an ignoratio elenchi.

Brennan starts by telling us that voting for character is “to a significant degree” voting for the wrong reasons. But I’d respond that it’s a principle of justice that we ought not to reward wrongdoing. Modi-like people have, to put mildly, engaged in serious wrongdoing. So justice entails that we ought not to reward them. The issue then turns on whether a vote for high office like Prime Minister of India is a reward. I think it obviously is: you reward someone when you give them what they want, and that in turn gives them power, prestige, income, a place in history, an opportunity to enact their values on a wide scale, and other perks they couldn’t otherwise have gotten.

Brennan’s discussion bypasses this last fact. The office of the presidency, he tells us, is not an honorific.  Why not? He gives no argument for its not being an honorific, and doesn’t consider the possibility that it might constitute a reward without being primarily an honorific. To the extent that he thinks he has an argument, he simply adduces a different fact about the presidency that supposedly rebuts the claim that the presidency is in part an honorific–that the presidency involves the exercise of power. But this fact, though true, doesn’t really help his case. Political offices could both confer rewards on office-holders and give people control of the state. The one function is perfectly compatible with the other, especially when control is a reward.

Yes, we need to make sure that those who hold power control their use of it. But we can do this as long as we have very vague ideas about a person’s policies. As long as I know that Modi’s rivals aren’t going to enact crazy policies that will take India to perdition, and I believe that they’re decent people lacking an outright lust for power, I know they will manage to control power somehow. (Brennan basically concedes this point in his paper “The Right to a Competent Electorate,” when he says: “We should not overestimate the damage bad voting can do…Even in the US or the UK disastrous candidates rarely have a chance of winning….” p. 707). The wrongs they do via bad policies may be bad, but I may find them more tolerable than the wrong done by rewarding someone responsible for mass murder with the perks of high office. I may be ignorant about the details of the relative merits of Modi’s versus his rival’s policies. But as long as I know that Modi is immoral or evil, and that his rival is tolerable, I may know all I need to know to vote against him.

In other words: If I am more committed to the backward-looking principle of not rewarding past evil than I am (within limits) to forward-looking considerations about good or bad policies, it seems to me I can justifiably vote for the policy-suboptimal candidate so as to avoid voting for the evil candidate even when the evil candidate is more likely to enact better policies.  When I do so, I’ll have some vague thoughts about policy considerations, but I’ll have epistemically justified thoughts about character, and the thoughts I have need not be proxies for future policies but might instead be motivated by considerations about not rewarding past immorality (assuming that that immorality crosses a certain threshold, e.g., culpable involvement in mass death rather than, say, adultery or smoking pot). I don’t see that Brennan even considers this possibility, much less rebuts it.

A digression: Brennan writes of “the presidency,” but I assume that he means any electoral office, including everything from municipal judge to American presidency to prime ministership, etc., including offices whose perks are enormously large. It’s an odd feature of Brennan’s book that while its topic is “the ethics of voting” as such, his focus is almost exclusively American, as though American voting were the paradigm of the phenomenon of voting as such, and as though empirical work on American voting generalized to voting everywhere. I raised this issue in an editorial context with one of the contributors to the Reason Papers symposium (not Brennan), who told me that as a social scientist it was his view that the default position is that empirical work on American politics ought to generalize to politics everywhere unless it can specifically be proven that it didn’t generalize to some particular context elsewhere. In other words, if Jones cites a study on American voting patterns, Jones can, absent contrary evidence, assume that the American voting patterns generalize to Pakistanis, Indians, Italians, or Palestinians. Generalization from the American case is the default rule. That strikes me as a pretty bizarre methodological assumption, but I’ll let the bona fide social scientists fight over it.

Brennan devotes one more paragraph to the topic, but as far as I can see, it merely elaborates on the conclusion Brennan thinks he’s established in the preceding passage.

So character-based voting is acceptable only insofar as it is a proxy to the quality of the governance a candidate is likely to produce. To what degree good character and good policies are correlated is largely an empirical question. If someone is morally corrupt, there is a pretty good chance he will use the power of the state for personal benefit rather than to promote the common good. Yet a virtuous politician with a powerful sense of justice might still be deeply misguided and committed to all sorts of counterproductive, harmful policies. Having the right values is not sufficient for making good policy, because it requires social-scientific knowledge to know whether any given set of policies is likely to achieve those values…If there is good evidence that a politician is likely to enact harmful policies, one should not vote for her (without sufficient reason) even if she is a good person. Voting on the moral virtue of a candidate counts as good voting only to the extent that the candidate’s moral virtue is evidence that she will enact good policies.

(1) My first and most basic comment on this passage is that it doesn’t address the objection I’ve raised, and doesn’t address what seems to me the most obvious objection that could be raised.

(2) My second comment is that it doesn’t cohere very well with the preceding passage. The first passage told us that voting for character was “to a significant degree” voting for the wrong reasons. The second passage tells us that voting for character can be voting for the right reasons under certain circumstances, and it’s an open empirical question to what degree good character and good policies correlate.

So which is it? If it’s an open question whether good character and good policies correlate, they might well correlate, and there are (as Brennan himself seems to admit) commonsense reasons for thinking that they do correlate. If so, why is voting for character “to a significant degree” wrong? Why is it wrong at all? And how can we know to what degree it’s wrong if it might turn out to be right?

Perhaps Brennan means to say that we don’t know whether it’s right, and if we don’t, it can’t typically be epistemically justified to use character as a basis for voting since no one has the social scientific evidence in hand to demonstrate the relevant correlations. But since he himself admits that there is plausibility in the idea that character and policy are correlated, it’s not clear that the claim about epistemic justification follows. Is p only epistemically justified in political contexts if we have a peer reviewed study (or set of them) showing us that p is the case? If I infer that a habitual liar and promise-breaker will be an unreliable implementer of good policies, is that inference epistemically unjustified? Why isn’t banking on a “pretty good chance” good enough?

I don’t mean that there’s an outright contradiction or inconsistency here; I mean that there’s a failure of exposition that leads to an obvious and unresolved puzzle in the reader’s mind about what Brennan is saying. The failure of exposition arises from the legalistic character of Brennan’s writing: we’re told that something is wrong “to a significant degree,” but not told what that phrase means; later we’re told that the issue is empirically undetermined, but we’re told one contestable claim is highly plausible. From one perspective this looks like very careful, rigorous writing, but from another it looks like a confusing way of covering all the bases so as to avoid being held to any particular claim; it also seems to put the author in the position of dialectical victory no matter what objection is made, simply because the claims in the text are so elliptical that they can be made to say anything that the author wants them to say–without saying anything a reader can pin down.

(3) Third comment: there is such a thing as epistemic virtue. Why not consider the possibility that we ought to vote not on the basis of predictable policies per se, nor on the basis of character minus epistemic virtue, but on candidates’ moral plus epistemic character? I’d be curious to know the state of the social science literature on this subject. What evidence is more easily and effectively available to voters–information about a candidate’s epistemic virtue, or information about the predicted outcomes of the policies he can be predicted to enact during x years of a term when the issues he faces are themselves partly unpredictable? Having the right values may be sufficient (or as close to sufficient as matters) for making good policy (or at least for predicting good policy) if the values in question are both moral and epistemic.

(4) If there is good evidence that a politician is likely to enact harmful policies, perhaps one should vote for her as long as she is a good person, the other candidate is an evil person, and the harmful policies are not that harmful. The preceding claim seems incompatible with Brennan’s thesis, which entails that we ought not to vote for politicians who will enact harmful policies simply because the other candidate has a bad character. Brennan adds the parenthentical “without sufficient reason” in the penultimate sentence of the passage as though to include the Modi-like case I have in mind–in which case my Modi-like case wouldn’t be a counterexample to his thesis, but something he’d already thought of, and carefully baked into the thesis ab initio.

But Brennan’s parenthetical seems inconsistent and ad hoc. Either Brennan’s point is that character is relevant to voting (only)** when it is a proxy for future policy, or not. If the first disjunct is the case, Modi-like cases are a counterexample to Brennan’s view. On the other hand, if we go by the second disjunct, i.e., if there can be sufficient reason to vote for character when character  is not a proxy for future policy, it is unclear what Brennan has been saying in this section of the book, or why he thinks what he has said is a response to the objection under discussion in the section. If “voting on the moral virtue of a candidate counts as good voting only to the extent that the candidate’s moral virtue is evidence that she will enact good policies,” the “only” implies that there cannot be a reason for voting on the moral virtue of a candidate when there is no evidence of a connection between character and expected policies.  [And if there cannot be a reason, there cannot be sufficient reason. Hence the reference to “sufficient reason” is incoherent.]*

On the whole, though I generally agree with Brennan’s thesis in The Ethics of Voting, and regard it as an important contribution to the literature, I’m not crazy about the way in which he deals with objections in the book. The issue of character-based voting is merely a case in point, but in my view a clear one. Though one blurb for Brennan’s book describes it as “beautifully clear and eminently readable,” this particular section is neither. I don’t think the failure is mine as a reader but his as its author.

*I added the bracketed sentences a few hours after I originally posted this.

**Added for clarification’s sake a day after the post went up.

Postscript, October 9, 2014: A belated afterthought: doesn’t Brennan’s view entail that voter disenfranchisement of convicted felons is only justified to the extent that being-convicted-of-a-felony is a proxy for high-likelihood-of-wrongful-voting by the felon? After all, Brennan’s view is that the relevant issue as regards the right to vote is always the voter’s epistemic justifiedness or competence (on a rather narrow understanding of competence that is operationalizable and excludes, e.g., “softer” moral considerations considerations of empathy, etc.) That is the motivation for Brennan’s rejection of character-based voting.  But there is nothing about being a murderer, rapist, or robber that a priori excludes competence or epistemic justifiedness in the relevant sense. So it seems to follow on his view that felons ought not to be disenfranchised qua felons. They ought to be enfranchised, regardless of their crimes, and we ought then to give them a chance to become competent voters. Since felons currently lack the right to vote, they haven’t had practice either at voting or at acquiring the necessary skills for it. But dispositionally, they might be fantastically competence under the right conditions. If they can achieve Brennan-competence (once we arrange the remedial conditions), they ought to be allowed to vote. Right? Practically speaking, that would be a bit of a headache, but such considerations don’t otherwise faze Brennan (consider the practical headaches of administering a nationalized poll test, though to be fair, we do have precedents to work from, e.g., the NAEP Civics Assessment) so why not?

Postscript, December 8, 2014: Here’s an excellent background essay, by William Dalrymple, on the Modi phenomenon, written for Britain’s New Statesman in May 2014, well before the elections that brought Modi to power. It’s journalism at its best, and has a richness that no thought-experiment could hope to have.

Postscript, December 9, 2014: This article in The New York Times, “Modi’s Campaign Stop in Kashmir Is Notable for Lack of Unrest,” provides some useful specification of the point I’m making in the post. For one thing, note that the real Modi’s behavior resembles that of the hypothetical Modi I describe: he’s not been alarmingly nationalistic or anti-Muslim, and he’s promised (perhaps credibly promised) policies that advance the economic prospects of Kashmiris, including the poor. And yet, the article ends, unsurprisingly, with this:

But as the crowd filed out afterward, a knot of well-dressed men stood nearby and watched with smoldering eyes.

“I didn’t go, because that man is a criminal,” Ahtisham Shah, a 40-year-old manager at the local office of a telecommunications company, said of Mr. Modi. “He still has to answer for the massacre in 2002.”

Asked if any of them would vote in the next round on Sunday, all five men shook their heads.

“To hell with India and to hell with Pakistan,” said Basharat Ahmad. “Kashmir is an independent country.”

The guys with the smoldering eyes aren’t voting because there’s no credible anti-Modi candidate to vote for, and, as they see it, any vote is a vote for India anyway. But ignore both things for the moment. Imagine that there was an anti-Modi candidate to vote for, and imagine that the smoldering-eye guys put aside their “to hell with India and Pakistan” attitude long enough to vote. (I’m not giving advice; I’m just imagining the possibility.) Should they, as per Brennan’s suggestion, not vote on character, even if the candidate in question “has to answer for the massacre in 2002”? Better yet: should we, as per Brennan’s suggestion, regard them as wrongful or incompetent voters if they do? Should they be required to pass a Brennanite competence test before being regarded as competent to vote for or against Modi? Isn’t there something nearly obscene about the suggestion that they should be disenfranchised for their failure to pass a Brennanite poll test?

My answers: they should vote on character; we should not regard them as wrongful or incompetent for doing so; they should not be required to pass a Brennanite competence test as a necessary condition of being considered competent; there is something obscene about Brennan’s suggestion (even if, as he likes to brag, he managed to make the suggestion in a well-known “peer reviewed” philosophy journal: I have to wonder how many of Brennan’s “peers” at Phil Quarterly were Indian or Kashmiri Muslims).

If Brennan didn’t intend any of the preceding conclusions in The Ethics of Voting, he might want to make that explicit, but nothing about the text of the book or any of the articles of his that I’ve read excludes my interpretation or even considers the possibilities I’ve raised.

Postscript, March 28, 2015: Reports are now coming out of India that suggest I may have been too charitable in my predictions about the situation of Muslims in Modi‘s India, not that that affects my argument at all.

Postscript, March 30, 2015: OK, so I guess I was being really over-charitable to Modi.

Postscript, April 27, 2015: I find it depressing that Barack Obama has chosen to write a laudatory essay on Modi for Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” issue (April 27, 2015). Frankly, I find George Wallace’s moral rehabilitation more impressive than Modi’s. The rehabilitation doesn’t stop Wikipedia for telling us (accurately) that Wallace is “remembered” for his segregationist stance (not his subsequent rehabilitation). Meanwhile, this is Obama on “Narendra”:

When he came to Washington, Narendra and I visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We reflected on the teachings of King and Gandhi and how the diversity of backgrounds and faiths in our countries is a strength we have to protect. Prime Minister Modi recognizes that more than 1 billion Indians living and succeeding together can be an inspiring model for the world.

Yes, they can.

Postscript, November 27, 2015: The controversy over Donald Trump and the post 9/11 celebration rumors induces me to revisit the topic of Jason Brennan’s critique of character-based voting (see here as well). Also relevant (though perhaps less clearly so) is some of the commentary on the recent elections in the Bihar province of India, where Narendra Modi’s BJP was unseated by its rivals. In thinking about both controversies, it belatedly occurs to me that Brennan is operating with either an overly narrow or an equivocal conception of “governance.” Go back to the last passage of Brennan’s that I excerpted. It begins like this:

So character-based voting is acceptable only insofar as it is a proxy to the quality of the governance a candidate is likely to produce. To what degree good character and good policies are correlated is largely an empirical question.

The second sentence seems to presuppose that good governance is reducible to the enactment of good policies, so that if a judgment about character is indeterminate with respect to the enactment of good policies, it’s irrelevant to judgments about whether to vote for the candidate in question. I’m not sure how Brennan understands the term “policy,” but on the ordinary understanding of the term, good governance isn’t reducible to the enactment of policies. It certainly can’t be the case that “good governance” can be understood by this formula:

S engages in good governance if and only if, for every policy P that S enacts (or proposes or broadly speaking facilitates), P is a good policy.

What about the good policies that S fails to enact? Is the failure to enact or propose (etc.) a policy a failure of policy on Brennan’s view? Charitably read, I think he’d say “yes.” At any rate, his view doesn’t prevent him from saying “yes,” so I’ll give him that.

But what about actions unrelated to policy? Here, it seems to me, he faces a real problem. His view seems to be that either a politician is in the business of enacting/refusing to enact policies, or he’s not on the job at all. But this strikes me as a reductive and oversimplified conception of politics.

Arguably, some of what political leaders do is essentially discursive. They talk to us, and often this talk has little or nothing to do with policy–or at least need not have much to do with policy. In their discursive capacities, politicians play (or as I see it, ought to play) the role of public intellectuals: they comment authoritatively on matters of public concern in a responsible way. Arguably, in doing so, political leaders also serve as models of civic virtue: they don’t just comment authoritatively on matters of public concern, but deal with those matters in ways that self-consciously exemplify a concern for truth and justice in public affairs. They give speeches, they answer questions at press conferences, they visit distressed places under their jurisdiction, they interact with people in a face to face way, and they’re recorded as interacting with people in that way. This isn’t just PR or show business. It’s a form of interaction that’s essential to leadership. In other words, a successful politician isn’t just a technician or policy wonk, but a leader–a public figure who functions as a moral exemplar, at least in certain limited respects. And good governance isn’t just policy wonkery; it’s leadership.

So character is bound to be relevant to governance whether or not it’s relevant to policy. The details of a person’s sex life may or may not be relevant to being, say, President of the United States or Prime Minister of India. But a person’s attitude toward (say) race relations certainly is relevant to both offices, whether or not those attitudes are proxies for any policy that the relevant individual proposes, enacts, or doesn’t propose or enact. The next president of the United States might well conclude that no new policies of any kind regarding race need to be enacted during his term. Suppose ex hypothesi that this is the correct decision as a matter of policy. Suppose ex hypothesi that the president successfully plays the political game so that he gets his way, and no policies are passed. That is ex hypothesi the optimal policy outcome, but it’s not the end of the story: it certainly matters how he pulls it off, e.g., how he defends his decisions, and how he deals with critics.

Once we cross a certain threshold, an asshole is not a good leader, and not a practitioner of good governance, even if he enacts the greatest policies in the world. (I’ll grant that we have to tolerate some degree of assholishness in almost any political leader, but even in politics, there’s such a thing as crossing the Asshole Rubicon, and once we do, all bets are off. Bright lines may be hard to draw here, but I think it’s obvious that Modi and Trump crossed the Rubicon a long time ago.) This is a subtly different point from the one I had originally made. My original point was backward-looking: having crossed a certain threshold, we shouldn’t reward wrongdoers with the perks of political office given their past misdeeds. My present point is present- and forward-oriented: we shouldn’t regard character merely as a proxy variable for predictions regarding policy-enactment, narrowly understood. We need to employ a broader conception of governance than that.

The topic of assholes brings me to Donald Trump (and Narendra Modi). Put it this way: imagine that Donald Trump becomes president, but that (miraculously) while in office, he changes his tune and enacts perfectly reasonable policies, even with respect to Arab and Muslim Americans. But imagine that he continues to comport himself as he currently is doing. Would he make a good president? No. His current comportment would undercut his claims to good governance even if he was enacting the right policies, and declining to enact the wrong ones. My point is not that ill comportment would undermine the policies per se, but that demeanor is an autonomous desideratum in a political leader, and that judgments of character are, in an obvious way, a proxy for it. You can’t be a good leader if you systematically disrespect and insult the people you govern, even if you enact the right policies in the process.

Incidentally, in saying that good character and good policy-enactment is an empirical matter, Brennan seems to be implying (as he often does) that identification of the correlation is a matter of consulting double- or triple-blind peer review social science studies. But if that’s what he means, he needs to deal with some obvious but unacknowledged questions.

First of all, there are many, many situations in life in which we have pre-scientific beliefs but no scientific studies to consult on the matter. Is his view that in every such case, we should simply ditch our pre-scientific beliefs on grounds of unreliability? Or is it sometimes permissible to use the pre-scientific beliefs as a guide to action? The first claim is really implausible, but the second claim sits uneasily with his rejection of character-based voting. He himself admits without consulting “the social scientific literature” that “[i]f someone is morally corrupt, there is a pretty good chance he will use the power of the state for personal benefit rather than to promote the common good.” Well, yes, that’s a matter of pre-scientific common sense. But what social scientific literature proves that it’s true? What social science literature has ever taken the population of “someones” as its sample?

Second, we know that a great deal of social science is unreliable. (Much of it is trivial as well.) To what degree, then, can we assume a priori that social scientific findings are, regardless of subject matter, more reliable than pre-scientific beliefs? I don’t see any reason to think that social scientists have the inside track on the nature of moral virtue. If they don’t, I don’t see any reason to think that their findings are always more reliable than pre-scientific beliefs on questions related to virtue.

Third, Brennan exaggerates the univocality of social scientific findings. Social scientists disagree with one another in both interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary fashion. Unless Brennan can show us that one branch or sub-branch of “social science” has a monopoly on the truth about politics, the appeal to social science strikes me as a bit of dogmatism and a bit of intimidatory hand-waving.

Since Brennan admits that character is something of a proxy for judgments about good governance, but also admits that it has variable weight, and can’t exclude the possibility that it sometimes might be highly weighted, and has no principled reason for preferring global reliance on social science over pre-scientific beliefs, and has an overly narrow conception of governance, I conclude that he lacks a coherent objection to judicious character-based voting. (Proviso: Brennan has a new book that’s either forthcoming or just recently out from Princeton University Press, called Against Politics. For obvious reasons, I haven’t read it, so I don’t know whether he discusses any of what I’ve said in this post there.)

Postscript, December 10, 2015: This critique of Trump is useful because it very clearly enumerates moral defects of Trump’s that aren’t necessarily proxy variables for predictions about policy.

In the article, Hillyer argues that Trump has a long record of undermining or abusing those weaker than him who get in his way. To the extent that Trump hasn’t broken any laws, that gives us a clear inference to the conclusion that Trump is immoral in his personal/business dealings, but yields no clear predictions about any particular policy conclusion. Hillyer goes on to argue that Trump mistreated his workers, but even if we grant that, we can’t infer that Trump’s economic policies would necessarily slight workers; after all, Trump is sufficiently opportunistic to change his tune and plump for pro-worker legislation.

Suppose you’re against eminent domain. Can we infer from Trump’s reliance on eminent domain that Trump would favor the expansion of eminent domain as a matter of policy? No, not really. Given his opportunism, Trump could just as easily restrict eminent domain if he found that desirable.

Maybe all of this proves that we shouldn’t vote for Trump because his impulsiveness and opportunism would make for bad policy. Maybe, but to be consistent, a defender of Brennan’s thesis would need to adduce social scientific evidence to suggest not only that impulsiveness and opportunism make for bad policy, but that they make for worse policy than intentionally aiming at bad policies (cf. Hillary Clinton, at least as viewed from a libertarian free market perspective). Note that this social science couldn’t just leave its findings at some set of generalities; it would have to be sufficiently tailored to the Trump vs. Clinton option to allow us to decide between them. I’m skeptical that any existing social scientific literature can yield such a conclusion.

The real reason why we shouldn’t vote for someone with a Trump-like track record is that electing someone to political office confers a reward on the person, and justice forbids rewarding someone’s past malfeasance whether or not the past malfeasance is a proxy variable for the person’s enacting bad policies in the future. In short, we shouldn’t vote for a Trump-like or Modi-like candidate simply because they don’t deserve our votes.

Postscript, December 12, 2015: More on the same theme. Consider Megyn Kelly’s now-famous misogyny question of Donald Trump back in August. The latter half of her question had an indirect sort of connection to policy (roughly, “how do you answer the charge that you are part of the war on women?”), but the first part did not. After quoting some of Trump’s remarks, she asked, “Does that sound [to] you like the temperament of the man we should elect president….”? (my emphasis).

As I see it, the first half of the question would have been entirely fair and appropriate on its own, even without the tie back to policy. Arguably, an avowed, explicit, egregious misogynist does lack the temperament of “the man we should elect president” even if he promises do great things for women (as Trump did, in answer to Kelly). Other things equal, misogyny of Trump’s variety ought to be a reason for voting against him (or not voting for him), whether or not the misogyny predicts any particular policy position he might take as president.

Suppose that other things aren’t equal, however. It’s an interesting question what a voter should do if faced with an out-and-out misogynist whose policy positions are, all things considered, appreciably better than the non-misogynist. To keep things relatively simple, imagine a pro-choice misogynist running against an anti-abortion non-misogynist (and suppose ex hypothesi that abortion ought to be legal). Unless you take avowal of an anti-abortion position to be prima facie evidence of misogyny on its own, I’d be inclined to say that the pro-choice policy position trumps the misogynistic defect of character, so to speak. Of course, if you regard an anti-abortion position as evidence of misogyny, then the choice here is between two misogynists, so that the dilemma is resolved from the outset. But though I’m pro-choice on abortion, that approach seems implausible to me.

Postscript, December 26, 2015: So Modi “surprises” us again, though this move comes as a less of a surprise to me than some of stuff I’ve described in the postscripts above. Given Modi’s character, however, it’s hard to interpret: is it a sincere step forward, or just play-acting? It seems obvious to me that one can’t easily disentangle the policy-related issue involved here (discussed near the end of the article) from an issue of moral character: is Modi honest or trustworthy? If he is, his trip to Lahore seems like a step forward in Indo-Pak relations. If he isn’t, there’s no way to know where he stands on policy, because we can’t trust anything he says or does.

Brennan might claim that the preceding observation is consistent with the letter of his claim in The Ethics of Voting (as it is), but I would say that it contradicts the spirit of his claim: if  judgments of intellectual character are relevant to virtually every prediction we make about a candidate’s prospective policies, it makes good sense to vote for intellectually virtuous (honest, intellectually responsible, non-demagogic, etc.) candidates, and makes good sense to figure out whether a given candidate is in fact intellectually virtuous (honest, responsible, non-demagogic, etc.).Other things being equal, we should vote for the intellectually virtuous candidate, the more the virtuous the better.

If so, it makes no sense to come out against character-based voting, pointlessly adding the proviso that character-based voting is OK as long as it’s relevant to policy. How could a candidate’s honesty, candor, probity, conscientiousness, accuracy, trustworthiness etc. be irrelevant to policy? We might (accurately but in this context a little tendentiously) call those policy-relevant traits of character, and think of them as the policy-makers’ analogue to the intellectual virtues required to do good science. If policy-relevant traits of character are always relevant to policy, then a ban on character-based voting that allows for them is either toothless or misleading or both.

Thanks to Faisal Jilani and Aftab Khawaja for the discussion on Modi that inspired this post, and to Fawad Zakariya for driving home to me the moral significance of what happened in Gujarat. The usual caveat applies.

Evidentialism: Who Needs It? L’affair Klinghoffer

I’ve been blogging, teaching, and thinking, about evidentialism lately, so this item caught my eye:

Several hundred protesters gathered outside the Met before the performance of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” for a noisy demonstration calling for the company to cancel its production of John Adams’s 1991 opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which is to have its Met premiere next month. That opera depicts a 1985 cruise ship hijacking by members of the Palestine Liberation Front, and the killing of a disabled Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. …

On Monday morning, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in the Bronx, led a small group in prayers for Mr. Klinghoffer on Monday morning in a small park across from Lincoln Center. He said that he “absolutely” hoped that the Met would cancel the production. Like many opponents, he said he had not heard “Klinghoffer”: “I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard enough about it and I don’t want to see it, frankly.”

P.S., October 22, 2014: Another classic contribution to the literature of obscurantism and fallacious argumentation by would-be opponents of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” This one is from a letter in today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

Re “Protests Greet Met’s Premiere of ‘Klinghoffer’ ” (front page, Oct. 21):

It has been widely reported that many of those who protest “The Death of Klinghoffer” have never seen the opera, as if that disqualifies them from passing judgment.

To me, whether John Adams’s opera is great art or not is irrelevant. To those who disagree, I ask: How would you feel about an opera about 9/11, sympathetically describing the motivations of the terrorists who brought down New York’s twin towers, as well as the almost 3,000 innocent victims whose lives they ended so brutally?

Certainly, the Metropolitan Opera has a right to stage the opera, but for what purpose?

And why now? Some events are too raw, too sensitive, too wrenching, too immoral to be depicted evenhandedly and without judgment.

And if this opera seeks to communicate some larger truth, some cosmic message for our times that justifies its being performed now, trumping the pain that it causes, what is it?

MARK R. ARNOLD
Gloucester, Mass., Oct. 21, 2014

So not having seen an opera doesn’t disqualify you from passing judgment on it, because whether you’ve seen it or not, nothing stops you from confabulating a tendentious and question-begging description of what it must a priori contain: a “sympathetic” description of the motivation of the terrorists. It seems pointless to point out that a depiction is not a description, that neither a depiction nor a description is an endorsement, and that there is no conceivable way of knowing whether the opera is sympathetic if you haven’t seen it, and don’t intend to.  We seem to have gotten to a point in the Klinghoffer debate in which willful, culpable ignorance has become a virtue, while the desire to know the facts first-hand has become a vice.

As for Mr Arnold’s rhetorical questions:

1. I would feel very badly about an opera about 9/11 that “described” the motivations of the terrorists: operas should be sung, not narrated.

2. The most obvious reason for staging an opera is that the opera company staging it thinks that it’s a good opera, which is what the leadership of the Met Opera happens to think (not that I can judge one way or another, not having seen it).

3. As for “why now?”: to paraphrase Hillel, if not now, when?

For decades, we’ve heard sanctimonious lectures from “the West” about the moral insignificance of the “pain” caused to Muslims by artwork like The Satanic Verses and the so-called Muhammad cartoons. Grow up, Muslims were repeatedly told (for decades), and learn a lesson or two about free speech and toleration from us enlightened Western folk. (Don’t forget, incidentally, that the main character of The Satanic Verses was  named “Mahound,” i.e., the name for the Prophet Muhammad given him in The Song of Roland, the epic poem of the Crusades. If the death of a single man decades after the fact “causes pain,” should a joking literary allusion to the carnage of the Crusades have elicited joy?) Now that a different ox is being gored (if it is), the double standards leap to the fore. Call it the pseudo-moral triumph of misology.

As for the claim that we ought never, ever to make excuses for force, or place responsibility for it on anyone but its perpetrators, hearken to the words of Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld:

Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, who was the rally’s master of ceremonies, said he did not expect protesters to react inappropriately. “But you can’t be responsible when the Metropolitan Opera advocates terrorism and incites violence — you can’t know what will happen,” he said. “And anything that happens, that has besmirched this Metropolitan Opera, and besmirched Lincoln Center, is to be laid at the foot of Peter Gelb.”

Evidently, you can know what an opera contains without seeing it, but you can’t  “know what will happen” when you place responsibility for the disruption of an opera on those suffering the disruption…even as you exculpate the crowds engaged in the disruption. Classic.

Postscript 2, October 23, 2014: More from Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, arch critic of the advocacy of terrorism and incitement to violence:

Several hundred protesters, led by City University of New York trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, picketed outside Lincoln Center before the Met’s opening night last month.

“You will be made to destroy that set,” Wiesenfeld said at the protest. “We will demand it. It doesn’t belong in this city. We are going to be back here — everyone here and many, many more — every night of the Klinghoffer opera until the set is burned to the ground.”

Most of those protesters say they’ve never seen Klinghoffer, and don’t want to. They argue the opera is anti-Semitic because it humanizes — and therefore glorifies — the terrorists. But the opera’s defenders say that’s a fundamental misreading of the work.

Considering Wiesenfeld’s disgraceful performance, in this case as well as in the 2011 case of his attack on Tony Kushner, isn’t it time to protest him rather than “The Death of Klinghoffer”?  Isn’t the real question how such a thug manages to become a trustee of the City University of New York, and achieve the unearned prominence he’s somehow managed to acquire?

Postscript 3, December 3, 2014: I just happened to notice Paul Berman’s “Klinghoffer at the Met” in The Tablet magazine, by far the most intelligent contribution to the Klinghoffer controversy I’ve so far read. I appreciate Berman’s criticism of the thuggish quality of the protesters, and assuming the accuracy of his descriptions of the opera, his commentary on it seems sensitive and apt. The criticisms made of him on the comment board at The Tablet strike me as contemptibly idiotic. But I have a criticism of my own to make.

Berman mentions, but doesn’t make very much of, the Met’s agreeing, under pressure from the ADL, not to simulcast “Klinghoffer” in the theaters, as it does for all of its other operas. Apparently, in this case, an exception to standard policy was deemed necessary. I would have thought that the implications of the Met’s acquiescence deserved a bit more comment. Americans do not generally accept the idea that Muslim (or Christian) religious sensibilities may permissibly set the terms of secular cultural activity. Why should Jewish or Zionist ones do so? A hundred years ago, readings and performances of The Merchant of Venice were regularly banned in the U.S. because the play was thought anti-Semitic. (And no, I don’t think The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. Some of its characters are anti-Semitic, but the play is not.)  In fact, contemporary critics–if one can call them that–still insist that The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, and insist that performances of it ought to be protested “without whining.” What we’re seeing is the recrudescence of the same attitude in a different context.

I wonder whether Berman has detected the double-standard here. For the last fifteen years, we’ve been conditioned–by intellectuals like Berman himself–to believe that Islam poses the most significant threat to our shared cultural space. To suggest that political Judaism does so is to risk being called an anti-Semite. But when was the last time that Muslims managed to pull off a coup, at least in the U.S., on par with the ADL’s blackmailing the Met over “Klinghoffer”? The truth is that they haven’t. In 2010, Berman published a controversial book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, complaining about American intellectuals’ abdication of their moral responsibility in criticizing Islam, as exemplified (he said) by the widespread adulation they lavished on the media darling of the moment, Tariq Ramadan. Well, Tariq Ramadan has, as far as the American cultural scene is concerned, vanished like breath off a blade (and good riddance)–but Abraham Foxman shows no signs of doing so. Is it perhaps time for a companion volume to Berman’s book, one about a different cultural and intellectual threat?

Actually, such a book appeared in 2007, as a kind of prequel to Flight of the Intellectuals– namely, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policya book of far greater precision and rigor than Berman’s own (than any of Berman’s own, and I’ve read them all). What did Berman have to say about The Israel Lobby? He certainly didn’t agree with it. He certainly didn’t regard it as an account of the other half of the story he was telling about “the flight of the intellectuals.” No, Berman, who had managed to find a conspiracy in American intellectuals’ failure to condemn Tariq Ramadan, ended up likening The Israel Lobby to the ur-text of psychopathic conspiracy theorizing, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion:

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is not a sophisticated document; but Walt and Mearsheimer’s book “The Israel Lobby” is (in some people’s view) a sophisticated document. And the sophisticated document makes the unsophisticated one seem like it is on to something. By reasoning in this fashion, people end up concluding that Hamas’ doctrines have a purchase on truth – something that quite a few people believe. But they choose not to say it because they don’t want to look unsophisticated or coarse.

Presumably, then, those who agreed with The Israel Lobby were apologists for Hamas and purveyors of blood libels and czarist conspiracy theories. Nothing psychopathic about that set of comparisons. But then, Berman was the guy who had written, in Flight of the Intellectuals, that verbal criticism of Ayaan Hirsi Ali was tantamount to Stalinism, anti-Semitism, and mob violence (pp. 263-64). It didn’t seem to occur to Berman, or bother him, that in writing in this drunken, gauzy, irresponsible way, he was cheapening the currency of the phrase “anti-Semitism,” and exploiting the irrationality of those who might want it cheapened.

Here is the problem: an author who indulges in indiscriminate, scattershot defamations of the preceding sort is really not in a position to criticize the know-nothing fools who show up in Lincoln Center and want to burn the Met down over “Klinghoffer.” Whether they’ve read him or not, they’re simply following his lead. And whether he admits it or not, that “lead” leads to a moral abyss via double standards of the sort that he himself has been exemplifying for awhile.

I wrote a long review essay for Reason Papers of Flight of the Intellectuals back in 2011, and invited Berman to respond to it. We had a brief, and on his end, non-committal email exchange over whether he’d do so. It’s been three years since the invitation, and at this point, I think it’s safe to say that he has no intention of responding. But let me renew the invitation: when the issues are timeless, after all, it’s never too late to address them. To paraphrase Victor Hugo, if we wrote only for the moment, we might as well consign our word processors to the flames.

While I’m at it–waiting for a response that will probably never materialize–let me offer some unsolicited advice. If you’re going to make accusations of something as serious as anti-Semitism, then for God’s sake stop making them in the form of coy, half-asserted and half-denied innuendo like the passage I’ve quoted above. Have the courage of your convictions and say what you really mean in sentences with identifiable subjects, identifiable predicates, and identifiable connections between the two. Stop taking refuge in circumlocutions like “the sophisticated document makes the unsophisticated one seem like it’s on to something,” when what you mean is “The Israel Lobby is a sophisticated version, in intention and effect, of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”  Don’t write things like this:

The campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented–at least since the days when lonely refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union used to find themselves slandered in the Western pro-communist press (where the dissidents were accused, by the way, of whipping up right-wing fervors, exactly as is Hirsi Ali…  (Flight, p. 264).

When what you really mean is: “Those who have criticized Hirsi Ali are Stalinists in a new guise.” Don’t compare mere criticism of Hirsi Ali to “the anti-Semitic mob assault during the Paris peace march of 2003.” Don’t think that having done so, you can extract the sting and the venom of the remark by reducing the supposed similarity of two wildly different phenomena to an indeterminately vacuous property they supposedly have “in common” (namely: “These are developments that, even ten years ago, would have seemed unimaginable” [Flight, p. 264]).

Writing of this kind is corruption of language–the virtual but visible “flight of an intellectual.” Indulge it long enough, and you shouldn’t be surprised when the populist version of your attitudes shows up in Lincoln Center, barring your entry into the Met, ticket in hand or no. It may sound like a cliche, but at that point, you’ve met the enemy–and believe it or not, it’s you.

Postscript 4, December 4, 2014: The New York Times reports this morning that Louis Head, the stepfather of Michael Brown, has–albeit under the pressure of a police investigation–apologized for inciting violence after a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for having shot Brown. Head had apparently shouted, “Burn this bitch down” at a protest near the Ferguson police station, referring to the police station itself. No comparable apology seems to be forthcoming from Jeffrey Wiesenfeld for comparable remarks about burning down the Met. Granted, Head’s remarks coincided with actual violence (rioting and arson took place shortly after his saying what he said), but then, in mitigation, his remarks were a response to the actual and relatively recent death of his stepson. Wiesenfeld’s remarks led to no actual violence, but were a response to confabulated outrage about the death of a stranger decades ago, and were directed at an institution that had no responsibility either for the death or for adjudicating events connected with it. File it under “Moral Luck and Double Standards.”

Thoughts on W.K. Clifford’s Evidentialism (Part 1)

I’ve been discussing the ethics of belief in my Phil 304 epistemology seminar at Felician. The strictly philosophical issues on that topic strike me as interesting in themselves, and also for the implications they have for current controversies (e.g., Ferguson, ISIS, etc.) so I thought it might be worth setting out some thoughts on it via commentary on W.K. Clifford’s classic defense of evidentialism, “The Ethics of Belief.”

Clifford famously opens “The Ethics of Belief” with this passage and example:

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

Like many readers, Clifford’s example strikes me as exactly the right sort to clarify what’s at stake in the ethics of belief. But like many readers, Clifford’s example also strikes me as problematically ambiguous—as apt to clarify as to muddy the waters. The problem arises not with the example per se, but with the details of Clifford’s description of it. The basic question is the structure of the inference involved: how does Clifford get from the facts of the example to the wrongness of the shipowner’s actions? In this post, I just want to analyze the example and inference. In a later post, I’ll make some broader observations about the ethics of belief (in Clifford, Rand, and others), and about the use of examples in philosophy generally.

It might help to begin by asking what actions are being evaluated for rightness or wrongness. I take it that the actions in question are inferences, and that Clifford is assuming that inferences can be evaluated from a perspective that is simultaneously epistemic and ethical (or possibly a perspective that is a hybrid of both). The claim, then, is that the shipowner makes inferences that involve voluntary epistemic defect and (therefore) moral culpability. In other words, the shipowner is guilty of a form of culpable ignorance and culpable lack of epistemic justification for his beliefs. The overtly physical action of sending the ship out to sea follows directly from the sum total of the shipowner’s beliefs, themselves dependent on the inferences he makes from the facts. But the culpability of the action of sending the ship out to sea is parasitic on the culpability of the inferences made about its seaworthiness, so it’s the inferences, not the sending per se, that are the basic candidates for evaluation. What’s wrong with the sending supervenes on what’s wrong with the inferences.

The problem is, Clifford treats the inferences as a single uncontroversially culpable inference, as though the shipowner were making an inference like

(1) The situation of the ship is S.

Therefore,

(2) I’ll send the ship out to sea,

–where ‘S’ denotes a state of affairs that indicates obvious lack of seaworthiness.

In that case, the ‘inference’ in question would be:

(1*) The situation of the ship is S.

(2*) S indicates obvious lack of seaworthiness.

(3*) A ship that isn’t sea-worthy should never be sent out to sea.

Therefore (nonetheless),

(4*) I’ll send this ship out to sea.

And Clifford’s point would have to be—more cautiously: might very well be—that the shipowner’s conjoint belief in (3*) and (4*) is culpable. You can’t believe (3* & 4*) without experiencing severe cognitive dissonance. But if you experience such cognitive dissonance (the implication is) you have the obligation to resolve it. If you don’t, you’re epistemically-morally culpable; the higher the stakes, the more culpable you are.

If that is Clifford’s point, I think what he’s saying is true. Not that it’s uncontroversial. Many people might dispute the idea that we’re obliged to resolve every cognitive dissonance we experience as well as every apparent inconsistency in our beliefs. But I agree with Clifford—and, I think, Ayn Rand—that we do. The problem is, to produce the preceding interpretation, we have to cherry-pick the passage, ignoring the complexities of what it actually says. And what it says seems more ambiguous to me than it evidently does to Clifford. The problem is that the shipowner isn’t making one obviously culpable inference, but a series of inferences, some obviously culpable, some possible culpable, and some not-at-all culpable. Perhaps Clifford thinks that any set of inferences is culpable if one inference in the set is culpable. But he doesn’t say that, and his meaning is not transparently obvious from what he does say.

Let’s take each step in the shipowner’s reasoning in piecemeal fashion (acknowledging that we’ll have to consider the reasoning later on as a single integrated set of inferences).

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs.

The shipowner believes that the ship is old, and not “overwell built at the first.” The latter phrase is a bit coy, and a bit unclear, and requires some hairsplitting interpretation. Does “not overwell built” mean badly built? Or satisfactorily built on the whole, with some significant flaws? Or satisfactorily but not optimally built? I don’t know, but the details would matter. We also need to know how old the ship was, and what counts as excessive age in ships. Further, if the ship was repaired, we need to know whether the repairs fixed the flaws or not, and in general, whether “often needing repairs” indicates an unsafe lemon or not. The answers are all technical matters that a shipowner ought to know, but they’re not the kind of thing the average philosophically-inclined reader would know. That seems to me to present an expository problem for Clifford: the nautically ignorant will have trouble interpreting the example, and yet he couldn’t have intended the paper primarily for nautical experts.

I suppose we could tweak the example. As it happens, my car seems to satisfy Clifford’s description of the ship in his example. It’s a 2001 model (an unlucky thirteen years old), and when I bought it (from a used car dealer), I knew it had some defects. It’s seen many New York/New Jersey Metro Area streets and highways, and has often needed repairs. The last bout of repairs, which cost me about $2,000, seems to have fixed whatever was broken. (Thus spoke the dealer.) Now the car runs great, and I drive it everywhere without worrying ” overmuch” that the brakes will suddenly fail and get me (or others) killed. Does that (according to Clifford) make me as guilty as the shipowner, or does it just make my car different from the case of Clifford’s ship? Of course, if the cases are the same, I might be as innocent as the shipowner.

To stick with Clifford’s example, I suppose we could stipulate that the shipowner knows that the ship is too old to be sent to sea, and that the repairs it’s needed indicate that it’s a lemon that ought not to be sent to sea, but I wonder if such stipulations start to trivialize both the example and the point Clifford wants to make with it. If we stipulate that the shipowner knows that the ship isn’t seaworthy, why not just come out and say that, and dispense with a drawn-out example? It’s an interesting question what the example is supposed to do for Clifford’s argument.

It’s also an interesting fact that Clifford writes as though evidence was required for entertaining a belief in the ship’s seaworthiness but not for doubts about the ship’s seaworthiness, or even beliefs about the ship’s lack of seaworthiness. Clifford doesn’t agonize at all, or have the shipowner agonize, about the evidence he has for the ship’s age, the conditions of its original construction, or its needing repairs over time. That knowledge is all taken for granted as knowledge; the shipowner obviously has sufficient evidence for it. That might seem like a pointless quibble on my part, but I think it bears on the epistemic status of the doubts that Clifford puts in the shipowner’s mind:

Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense.

Clifford writes here as though doubt is allowed to make its claims on us without having to earn a right to do so. Elsewhere in the same essay, Clifford is very severe about the impropriety of spreading ill-founded rumors, but the doubts he has in mind here sound very much like rumors. We’re told that the doubts “preyed upon his mind,” but not everything that preys upon one’s mind is worth taking seriously. There’s such a thing as paranoia, and it would be a mistake to assume that paranoia ought always to be acted on or appeased just because it’s there. We’re told that the shipowner thinks he “perhaps” ought to have the ship thoroughly overhauled and refitted, but we aren’t told why. You don’t just overhaul a ship because a fear has floated into your head that it might crash. Of course, Clifford has told us that the ship is old, wasn’t well-built at first, and has needed repairs, but that doesn’t obviously tell you—at least, it doesn’t tell me–that the ship needs to be overhauled, either.

Finally, Clifford says this in description of the shipowner’s inferences:

Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

This passage presents a rather confusing mélange of inferences, some entirely reasonable, and some obviously dishonest. Together, they make Clifford’s example hard to interpret.

Clifford says that the shipowner “succeeds” in overcoming his melancholy reflections, but there are two problems in this formulation. In describing the reflections as “melancholy,” Clifford himself is trivializing them–“melancholy” is meant ironically–but if they are trivial, why would it be wrong to overcome them? Further, in saying that the shipowner “succeeds” in overcoming them, Clifford implies that he feels no cognitive dissonance: “succeeds” means “succeeds in overcoming any residual worries that might arise by reflection on them.” That contradicts the “cognitive dissonance” interpretation I previously put in Clifford’s mouth (which seems to me to make his view more plausible than his own formulations do), and also raises the possibility that the shipowner’s inferences are good ones. After all, if he succeeds in overcoming his reflections, maybe he’s successfully rebutted his doubts (i.e., rebutted them with answers that were more plausible than the doubts themselves). In that case, where is the inferential culpability? The second sentence of the passage could well be part of a perfectly reasonable inference to the best explanation: surely a ship’s track record is part of the evidence of its seaworthiness; if its track record is good, why assume that it will crash this time, unless you have evidence to suggest that its surviving its last few voyages was a matter of dumb luck? And we aren’t given any.

The claim about Providence is of course a sufficient condition for inferential culpability—whether you believe in Providence or not. I’m inclined to think that a belief in Providence would fail evidentialist strictures from the start, but whether it does or not, the shipowner has no evidence that Providence is smiling on his ship now. The problem is, Clifford has inserted this belief in Providence into a series of inferences that aren’t nearly as problematic as the one about Providence. So there are two interpretive possibilities here. We could seize on the sentence about Providence to indict the shipowner’s inferences, or we could ignore it, and focus on the reasonability of the shipowner’s inferences bracketing the one about Providence. It’s not clear to me how to read the passage, unless we use it to generate sub-cases–ones in which Providence figures prominently in the shipowner’s reasoning, and others in which it doesn’t.

Here’s another one of Clifford’s ‘give-with-one-hand-but-take-with-the-other’ passages:

He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors.

Well, if the suspicions were really ungenerous, why is that dismissal wrong? I suspect that Clifford really intends ‘ungenerous’ ironically, but in that case, the irony gets in the way of what he’s trying to say.

And the last bit:

In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

This raises the point I made earlier about cognitive dissonance. If his belief was sincere, it’s hard (though not necessarily impossible) to pick out the culpability. ‘Comfortable’ is equivocal as between ‘complacent’ and ‘confidently self-assured’. The rest of the passage leaves  unclear whether he watches the ship with a sincerely light heart and benevolent wishes based on a scrupulous consideration of all reasonable considerations for their safety, or whether Clifford is writing ironically and means that the shipowner is callously and cynically indifferent to the passengers’ fates, deceives himself about the ship’s safety, fakes a light heart and benevolent wishes, and pockets the insurance money without tears. The problem ultimately is that “such ways” is equivocal between too many ways.

Given the ambiguities here, I don’t think Clifford’s moral verdict on the shipowner follows. Here it is, again:

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

But it isn’t clear from the example that the shipowner acquired his belief dishonestly. Unless Clifford thinks that it’s wrong to suppress any doubt regardless of its nature, it’s a bit tendentious to use this example as one of “stifling” a doubt, where “stifling” implies that the doubt is itself legitimate. And of course, it’s question-begging to assume that it is wrong to suppress any doubt. Fundamentally, what is unclear is the nature of the exact “frame of mind” that Clifford means to be condemning.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some general issues brought to light by Clifford’s example.

(Thanks to Kate Herrick for helpful discussion, as well as to students in my Phil 304 seminar–Caitlin Baard, Chelsea Barrett, Dan Postel, and Julianne Matassa.)

“Pairwise”

It belatedly occurs to me that my last post misuses the term “pairwise.” A pairwise comparison is a comparison of one pair of things as against another pair, not a comparison of two items that are paired against one another. I was using “pairwise” to mean the latter, but that’s a mistake.

Incidentally, I haven’t set out a formal list of “policies” for this blog, but one of them will surely have to be that I promise not to make substantive changes to a post after the post has been published. I will, however, correct copy-edit level mistakes, as long as they don’t substantively change the point I was originally making. I guess you might object that any change, even at the level of grammar or punctuation, affects some substantive point somehow, but I’d respond that the changes I regard as “copy-edit level” are too minute to count as substantive in the relevant sense. They improve the clarity of the original argument without changing its content. Anyway, when in doubt (when I’m in doubt), I’ll tell you that I’ve made a change after I hit “Publish.”

I take it that the preceding policy differs from what one finds at some other blogs, where bloggers routinely modify their claims in response to criticisms, don’t inform their readers that they’re doing so, and then proceed as though the criticisms in question were misplaced. That’s obviously dishonest, and I’m surprised that readers are less critical of the practice than one might expect them to be.

Pairwise civilizational verdicts and the Arab Israeli conflict: a sketch

I recently had a “debate” about Israel and Palestine at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian website. I wrote my post at the suggestion of Roderick Long (Auburn) in response to one by Fernando Teson (Florida State University College of Law); Long posted it as a guest blog at BHL as well as at his own website and at that of the Center for a Stateless Society. (I’m not an anarchist myself, but I occasionally consort with anarchists, e.g., when they post my decidedly non-anarchist writings on their blogs. By the way–thanks, Roderick!)

One topic that repeatedly came up in the debate, and that repeatedly comes up in debates like this, is what I call inferential license via pairwise civilizational verdict. The basic idea is this: you’re trying (in moral terms) to adjudicate a dispute between two parties, X and Y–where “X” and “Y” are typically distinct “cultures” or “societies,” and in this post-Huntingtonian-but-still-Huntingtonian age, therefore belong to different “civilizations.” In order to adjudicate the dispute, however, you assume that you’ve got to begin with premises that express a kind of global moral verdict on each society. That’s the pairwise civilizational verdict. Once you have that verdict in hand, you can then use it to regulate whatever inferences you want to make about the dispute. If, for instance, you find that X is morally superior to Y, you then systematically give greater weight to X’s claims in the dispute, and greater plausibility to evidence that seems to favor those claims. That’s the inferential license. Put the two things together, and you have a classic recipe for coherence-without-input-from-the-world. In other words, you have a recipe for generating a coherent (or apparently coherent) grievance-narrative that feeds all claims about the conflict through a filter that favors one side in the conflict. As I’ve argued elsewhere (but in somewhat different terms), that’s fundamentally what I think the Arab/Israeli conflict is.

There are at least two sets of questions lurking here. One concerns the legitimacy of making pairwise civilizational verdicts as such. Roughly: are they legitimate, and if so, how or why? Another concerns the legitimacy of using such verdicts to regulate disputes. Supposing that they are legitimate, should one use them to regulate particular disputes; if so, how and why?

Here’s a very quick thought on the first set of questions (the “are they legitimate” questions). It seems to me that the idea of a pairwise civilizational (or cultural or societal or national or ethno-national) verdict is a highly equivocal one. Suppose that I say that culture X is superior to culture Y. The claim should provoke some obvious preliminary queries. For one thing, we have to be clear about the values for “X” and “Y”: what exactly are they, what are the truth conditions for claims about “them,” and how do we justify those claims? They also have to be comparable entities; we can’t be engaged in the moral equivalent of comparing apples and frog’s legs. Finally, we have to know how defeasible they are. How many exceptions (or what kind of exception) would defeat a generalized verdict about the superiority of one culture to another?

Given that (which is a lot to give), the “X is superior to Y” claim is ambiguous as between any of the following six claims:

1. The norms we associate with X are superior to those we associate with Y (not that we have any empirical evidence of causal connection; we’re going by associations).
2. The norms expressed by X are superior to those expressed by Y (assuming we have a way of identifying when a norm is expressive of a culture).
3. The political regime of X is superior to the political regime of Y, and superiority of political regime reflects superiority of culture.
4. The average citizen/denizen of X is morally superior to the average citizen/denizen of Y.
5. More of the citizens/denizens of X are morally superior to more of the citizens/denizens of Y.
6. The worst aspects of X are not as bad as the worst aspects of Y.
This isn’t the place for a full “chisholming” of these claims, but I think they require chisholming before anyone can be very confident about the legitimacy of any particular pairwise verdict. I also think that the more chisholming they undergo, the more problematic the overall strategy will come to seem. I don’t mean to suggest that pairwise cultural or civilizational comparisons are always or necessarily wrong or unjustified. I just think they’re more complicated than some overly gung-ho moral realists (or ethno-national tribalists) have realized.
(Thanks to David Bernstein, Mark Friedman, Sergio Mendez, Alice Raizel, and Michael Young for inspiring this comment, in some cases by exemplifying the confusions I’m implicitly criticizing.)