Humanistis of the World, Unite!

The American Association of Arts and Sciences has released a new report that sounds the alarm perilous of the humanities and social sciences. It’s an important step toward a general revival of respect and admiration for the humanities in our current culture, but it bears the distinct mark of its origin in a Congressional mandate and the generally progressive tenor of its arguments.

The report, for example, emphasizes the importance of humanistic education to a successful workforce, national security, and “American greatness” generally. It begins:

“As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.” (p. 11)

The trend continues with rhetorical questions like “Who will lead America into a bright future?” (humanistically educated leaders, of course). The tone shouldn’t surprise anyone–that’s the kind of reasoning necessary to convince a broad public coalition. And what’s more, consider this sentence:

“We live in a world characterized by change—and therefore a world
dependent on the humanities and social sciences. How do we understand and manage change if we have no notion of the past? How do we understand ourselves if we have no notion of a society, culture, or world different from the one in which we live?” (p. 15)

That’s one view of the humanities certainly! One of the tricky things about defending the humanities is their intensely self-reflective character. The humanities put humanistic inquiry itself under a microscope. As a result, there is significant disagreement within the humanities about what the humanities are, and therefore disagreement about why they are worth defending.

As a consequence, the report may chagrin humanists who respectfully dissent from the historicism (i.e. that the process, speed, direction, etc. of historical change are the proper subject of humanistic inquiry) espoused in the report. In particular, there is a long tradition going back to Plato that sees the humanities as a form of self-perfection. Does that mean these dissenters should reject the report?

No. Public defenses of the humanities must of necessity be somewhat self-effacing precisely because the internal bickerings and disagreements that characterize any humanistic tradition undermine a unified public front against the common enemies of scientism, bastardized utilitarianism, and ignorance. And while critics of the report may correctly criticize its instrumentalism and distasteful elements, they shouldn’t put their sense of pride ahead of their love for the humanities. And in this respect, the AAAS report represents an vital step toward renewed appreciation of the humanities’ in public life. It puts a spotlight on a problem that all defenders of the humanities should appreciate even if they dissent on the particulars. Criticizing a necessary and useful public report wholesale is only self-defeating.


Charity and Business

What’s the difference between a charity and a business? In the purest sense, a business produces goods for trade, while a charity produces good with no expectation of reciprocation. We also commonly associate different intentions with the two activities–business is self-interested, while charity is altruistic or other-directed. And historically, charity has been an institution that evens out the “moral balance sheet” of a commercial society.

But this distinction of intentions between charity and business is mistaken and pernicious–particularly to charity, but also to business as well. Let’s look at a few ways this danger manifests:

Focusing on the intentions of charitable actors rather than the results charity produces reduces the impact charities could have. Dan Pallotta makes this point nicely in his widely-circulated TED talk, using the example of donors’ fixation on overhead costs as a measure of a charity’s impact. The fallacy of using overhead costs as a measure of impact is that it focuses only on the distribution of a charity’s expenditures rather than the size of those expenditures. A similar mistake occurs in debates over income distributions when participants ignore how the distribution of the economic “pie” can affect the size of the “pie” itself.

The consequence of this fallacy is that it prizes lean but small operations, which conform closely to a noble ideal but have a limited impact, over larger organizations which have a greater impact but higher fixed and overhead costs. The tragic, unintended result is that charities can help fewer people and do less good.

This unintended consequence of noble intentions brings out another, helpful description of the difference between business and charity. The value of business, at least under an open market, emerges as an unintended consequence of their participants’ actions. Capitalism succeeds precisely when it produces value and consequences that no one intended. But the value of charity, on the other hand, consists in the specifically philanthropic intentions of charitable actors as well as the good charity produces. So when we apply theories of spontaneous order to charitable activity, a tension arises between the intentional nature of charitable giving and the non-intentional character of a spontaneous order. 

Pallotta and other proponents of more business-oriented thinking in the non-profit sector argue that we should focus more on the value that charities produce, however they produce it. I certainly think they are on to something, namely that fixation on the moral purity of charitable activity in fact limits the good that charity can do.

The interesting question, though, is whether the techniques of business can really “pollute” purely philanthropic intentions. In other words, how necessary are philanthropic intentions with an institutional structure that does not presuppose the philanthropic expectations of its participants? I suppose the worry is that severing a requirement on intention from the practice of giving will, over time, gradually degrade charity into the most stereotypical kind of corporate activity.

Perhaps there is something to this worry. Large, corporatized non-profits can perhaps never embody the same spontaneous, unmediated benevolence that we associate with charity. But that does not exclude the capacity of agents even in these large corporate firms to act, intentionally, for a philanthropic purpose, even if it is also a true description of their activity that they are advancing their own good.

Self-interested and philanthropic intentions can be consistent with each other if we think that these different forms of intention are unified. “intention-in-action”–the specific intention with which one performs a particular action–from an “intention-for-the-future,” or the goal or end for which one’s action aims. To take a simple example, suppose I am sawing a piece of wood. Now if you ask me, “What are you doing?”, I could correctly say that I’m cutting a piece of wood. My intention-in-action is to cut the log into two pieces. But my intention-for-the-future might be different–say building a house. My action in sawing the log is part of a further future intention. So here is the important point: I could correctly respond to the question “What are you doing?” with reference to either intention. It seems to me (and here I agree with G.E.M. Anscombe) that both intentional forms can correctly describe a particular action. To return to our earlier case, suppose I am a CEO at a non-profit who demands a salary offer comparable to a for-profit institution. I could correctly say that my intention-in-action is self-interested, but my intention-for-the-future is nonetheless philanthropic. My future goal is to do good and exercise benevolence toward others, even if one component action in my larger “project” is self-interested.

This all-to-brief thought should, I hope, ease some concerns about self-interested intentions “crowding out” philanthropic ones. Charities can learn from for-profit enterprises to do more good and retain their distinctive character.

Some Reflections on Jury Service

I’ve served my jury summons at the SF Superior Court this week. Jury selection has all but wrapped up with only the selection of the alternates remaining, and while I’m fairly sure I won’t be chosen the voir dire has been an interesting experience in several ways:

1. As a demonstration of sloppy thinking. Many prospective jurors tried to voice their broader concerns with the criminal justice system but constrained themselves with language like “the system isn’t fair” or “I have concerns about the system.” Nebulous, opaque terms like “the system” obscure clear thinking by evading the hard work of naming specific institutional features, procedures, or roles and proposing alternatives. Instead, the speaker can content herself to have uttered a vague bromide that shows her good intentions but nothing more. 

2. Occasions for excellence. Jury service is one of the few “summons” we as citizens receive that calls us to moral excellence. How rarely do we hear an ordinary person today swear that “I will do my duty” as a fair and impartial judge of the facts? If one component of a free society is a defendant’s right to be judged by their peers, their peers must have the virtues necessary to fairly judge the accused. The two concepts can’t come apart from each other.

Economists frequently argue that free societies must “economize on virtue.” But jury selection left me more skeptical of this adage–it challenges ordinary people honestly to reflect on their capacities as practical reasoners, and perhaps the experience itself stimulates rather than depletes our “reserve stores” of justice. 


3. Do your job, and yours alone. The jury system relies on a “division of moral responsibility”–it judges the facts of the case, and the facts alone. The jury does not deliberate on questions of social justice, or moral status of the defendants, or the justice of the law (the experience has tempered my enthusiasm for jury nullification). I wonder if this says something interesting about the nature of practical reasoning itself. Not only don’t we deliberate about ends, as Aristotle observed, but even our deliberations about means only make sense relative to some specific, local question. So maybe a constitutive feature of the good practical reasoner is someone who understands the nature and limits of the occasion for his practical reasoning. However, writing that sentence makes it sound like the most obvious thing in the world!!! There’s no harm in repeating truth, I suppose. 

Democracy in America, Vol. 1., Part 2, Ch. 6

Continuing from the reading  group, here are some thoughts on Chapter 6entitled “What are the Real Advantages that American Society Derives from the Government of Democracy”:

Chapter 6 further develops the themes I identified in Ch. 4. The “real advantages” that Tocqueville identifies may seem on the surface like backhanded compliments, but that is precisely because the virtues of democracy aren’t superficially obvious. Democracy, Tocqueville argues, bumbles and rambles along, unsure of where it is going and without a direct and clear path forward. Again, this differs from the traditional Platonic critique—Plato argued that democracy would be uniquely effective in pandering to the desires of the people. But Tocqueville writes that in contrast to democracy, “aristocracy is infinitely more skillful in the science of the legislator than democracy can be. Master of itself, it is not subject to getting carried away in passing distraction; it has long designs that it knows how to ripen until a favorable occasion presents itself” (p. 222). Democracies suffer from perpetual ADD, as it were.

The real advantages of democracy are its hidden strengths. In one of his most stunning passages, Tocqueville writes that “there is, therefore, at the base of democratic institutions, a hidden tendency that often makes men cooperate for the general prosperity despite their vices and errors…. In democratic societies [men] produce good without having any thought of doing so” (p. 224). There is a striking parallel here between Tocqueville and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—just as the idea of the market is a system in which the public interest emerges from the decidedly mixed motives of individual actions, so does democracy serve the public interest despite the messy and rowdy character of quotidian democratic life.

Tocqueville defines the “public interest” in a negative way: a democracy prevents systematic oppression of the majority, its workings prevent an “exclusive and dangerous style” of government. Democracies bear the “transient operation” of bad laws in order to benefit from the “general tendency” of laws to converge on the public interest (p. 222). One strategy that American democracy has employed is the idea of political rights—or what Tocqueville calls “the idea of virtue introduced into the political world”—which by extending to each and every citizen, give each the opportunity to develop virtue as a participant in the political process. Again, note the irony—the extension of rights to all connects rights to self-interest in the minds of democratic citizens, which serves to mitigate the dangers of popular rule. When rights are co-extensive with interests, rights acquire solidity and sanctity that they would lose were political rights reserved to an aristocratic elite.

However, Tocqueville is again careful not to overstate his case: “There is nothing more prolific in marvels than the art of being free; but there is nothing harder than the apprenticeship of freedom” (p. 229). A democracy is only possible once people have reached a sufficient level of enlightenment and understand the risks of abuse and importance of trust to a society that protects individual rights.

The advantages of democracy, Tocqueville concludes, are modest and humble but far from insubstantial. It serves the necessities of material life, it produces peaceful habits, reduces crime at the cost of vice, and mitigates enormities—both great accomplishments and great evils. In a phrase, democratic life will be unremarkable, but enjoy firmer and steadier foundations than monarchy, tyranny, and aristocracy.

Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Part 2, Ch. 4

Some Yale friends and I are doing a reading group for Tocqueville’s Democracy in America this summer, and I’m posting a response I sent to our listserv on the chapter, “On Political Association in the United States”:

Let me first say that these chapters of Democracy in America are some of my favorites and really show Tocqueville at his most perceptive and subtle. I want to focus on two chapters—4 and 6—which I think are especially revealing of Tocqueville’s quite radical ideas about democracy. For citations, I will use the page number in the Mansfield/Winthrop translation. Someone really needs to create a standard format for Democracy in America like the Stephanus numbers, and I apologize to people using other translations.

Chapter 4, “On Political Association in the United States,” discusses the right of free assembly. We very often make no distinction in our contemporary political lexicon between freedom of speech and freedom of association, but as Tocqueville notes, the distinction is quite important. Association meant something much closer to “faction” in Tocqueville’s time, and he explores in this chapter similar themes found in Federalist 10 about the dangers of factions and various prophylactics against its risks. He writes, “One does indeed associate with the purposes of speaking, but the thought of acting next preoccupies all mind (italics mine). An association is an army (!!!) ; one speaks in it so as to be counted and to be inspired, and then one marches toward the enemy” (p. 184). Associations form not solely for the purpose of speaking and coordinating a political message, but also to influence and affect political affairs. Tocqueville thinks that this difference makes the freedom of association riskier than freedom of speech—an association he argues is a “government inside the government” (p. 181). While we think of political associations today primarily as lobbies or PACs, associations in Tocqueville’s time were comparatively more powerful and assertive. He was no doubt affected, as he notes, by his experience of the tariff debates of 1831-32 that culminated in the nullification crisis. Tocqueville thinks we should take seriously the factional and potentially subversive danger associations pose to political order. The risk comes from the intersection of political associations with political demagoguery, as he elaborates:

“Between proving that one law is better in itself than another, and proving that one ought to substitute it for the other, it is undoubtedly far. But where the minds of enlightened men still see a great distance, the imagination of the crowd no longer perceives it…. If, near to the directing power, a power comes to be established whose moral authority is almost as great, can one believe that it will long limit itself to speaking without acting?” (p. 182)

Tocqueville recognizes, rightly I think, the importance of the speech/act distinction, and also the fact that associations did not confine themselves merely to persuasion and legal means—they employed threats of violence as well. The primacy of persuasion, Tocqueville observes, “is born of experience” only after education tempers the inclination of a party man to use force (p. 185).

However, he countenances the risks of a right to association in the face of an even greater risk from majority rule: “The omnipotence of the majority appears to me such a great peril for the American republics that the dangerous means to limit it seem to me even a good” (p. 183). Freedom of association, particularly under the spoils system in which majorities enjoyed such a small voice in administration, provided an important avenue for dissent against the rule of the majority.

Furthermore, Tocqueville argues that the dangers posed by minority factions are really dangers of people with extreme views who feel they have nothing to lose. These partisans feel they can gain nothing by persuasion and thus resort to force. As he puts the point,
“the exercise of the right of association, therefore, becomes dangerous to the degree to which it is impossible for great parties to become the majority” (p. 185). Tocqueville discusses the difference between “great” and “small” parties in chapter 2, where the former are defined by ideas and the latter by self-interest.


This observation connects to one of Tocqueville’s most interesting claims—that universal suffrage has served to moderate political discourse. Suffrage for all (white men) means fewer disenfranchised men, which undermines the claims of extreme factions to represent the voiceless and the powerless. They lose their “sacred character that attaches to the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors” (p. 186). This claim is precisely an extension of Madison’s claim in Federalist 10 that the way to manage factions is to “extend the sphere” of governance—create an extended republic where the extreme factions will counterbalance each other. Democracy, Tocqueville writes, prevents the danger of democracy.

It is worth reflecting again on how novel Tocqueville’s claim was. For about 2,000 years, people had argued that, with Plato, that democracy’s weakness lay in its “hidden shallows”—democracies were superficially polished and put-together but ignorant and rotten underneath. In Chapter 4, and elsewhere, Tocqueville is turning that argument on its head—democracy is superficially noisy, shallow, and always on the brink of anarchy, but it has a hidden robustness. In the case of association, the idea of majority rule and the extended sphere serve to disarm the violent and anarchic tendencies of faction. Democracy prevents the danger of democracy. But this strength is hidden from view of the average person and the daily life of a democracy.