On the responsibilities of student-activists

A recent Brown Daily Herald article on students’ struggle to balance schoolwork and activism is making the rounds online. I have mixed feelings toward the student-activists described in this article. On the one hand, insofar as they have legitimate physical or mental illnesses, these students should receive the institutional support to which they’re entitled without question. I wonder how much of these academic difficulties are concerns of first-generation college students who have not absorbed the tacit and explicit knowledge necessary to succeed in a self-directed learning environment.

Moreover, I cannot help but wonder how much of this is content-sensitive. Does it depend on what the students in question are protesting? How much of a difference they are likely to make? After all, many of the comments and objections to the protestors seem primarily motivated by the substance and seriousness of the protestors. They seem to believe that this activist is doing the equivalent of surfing Facebook. But suppose the student identified in the article for losing participation points due to work on time-sensitive work leaked a troubling government memo during that same time? Would their objection be as strong then? I’m not so sure.

There is also a set of issues about fairness. Your initial reaction to this story–it was mine–might be to think how unfair these claims are to athletes, musicians, writers, debaters, and other Brown students who participate in serious extracurricular activities. On further reflection, however, student-athletes do receive institutional accommodations, formal and informal, to balance their commitments. Universities like Brown have made sports a priority in a way they have not with activists, musicians, or writers. Is this fair? Is there something objectively valuable about sport that demands this preferential treatment? s Perhaps these activists’ grievance is that their professors do not take their extracurricular work as seriously as other activities like sports or music.

On the other hand, I also feel that if these student activists had their way, we would miseducate students two ways. The first is about a distinction between personal and institutional responsibility. The second is about corruption and the mission of a liberal arts university.

Educational institutions have responsibilities to their students. We can describe these responsibilities in abstract ways–prepare them for economic success, draw out their wisdom, impart values upon them–but these responsibilities are invariably relative to the institution. Secondary associations, or what Michael Oakeshott calls “enterprise associations,” are guided by a set of values that are not necessarily universal. Their values reflect a particular mission or enterprise. They are often particular, and secondary associations are not necessarily evangelical (though they of course may be). These values shape the way enterprise associations properly treat their members through their primary rules. Of course, enterprise associations of any sophistication will have secondary rules as well–rules for changing the primary rules. But primary rules are the primary business of life in an enterprise association. The point of an enterprise association is not to debate what kinds of rules the enterprise association should have! An enterprise association whose primary purpose was to debate what kind of rules it should have would be a very strange group indeed.


Personal responsibility is partially internal to the primary rules of a secondary association. That is, the primary rules define for what members are responsible. A great example of this is plagiarism. Plagiarism is not a legal or moral crime, and people plagiarize in the professional world all the time (“good artists borrow…”). Universities spend so much time and energy on policing plagiarism because it is a primary rule of the university, reflecting a deeper value of the scholarly process. We can imagine other ways of organizing scholarship, of course, and not totally foreclose the possibility of changing the rules of plagiarism. But it requires a strong argument to change the rules, and the rules have an internal authority.

Personal responsibility in part depends on institutional responsibility, then. However, personal responsibility is not entirely an artifact of institutions, and we make a deep mistake when we treat it like one. We have a pre-institutional understanding of responsibility, and as Dave Schmidtz argues, the dependency of personal on institutional responsibility means we should design institutions that produce personally responsible people. Within limits, of course, we want institutions with primary rules that enable people to take care of their work without having to make demands at the level of secondary rules.

In a pragmatic sense, this is particularly important for a university that educate sstudents for work in a variety of environments. We want graduates who can succeed and thrive in different organizational environments. We also want graduates, of course, who will notice and speak up when the rules treat people unjustly. But we also want graduates who will lead successful lives in the world, not just criticize and try to go beyond it. Universities should not only aim to produce the next Socrates, who we sometimes forget was a royal pain in the ass.

The other problem I worry about is corruption. By corruption I mean the politicization of the university, and specifically a liberal arts university. The momentum today at universities like Brown is to produce scholarship that’s “relevant” and “practical.” Part of this is to the good. But it also involves serious risks of corruption. Now, there is plenty of corruption already in the university, and this point should not be read as a defense of the status quo. The privileged position of athletics, in particular, deserves skepticism, as does the erosion of faculty control over the university. Still, my complaint is against one more source of corruption. It is that the university should be wary of institutional entanglement with activism.

Part of my concern is for the quality of scholarship. It is hard to write for the ages when your research is close to the fight. Partisanship undermines the independence and integrity of research, which is basically the only thing that distinguishes universities from hack think tanks. And partisanship also narrows your informational base. Universities will not produce good research if they are so in hock to the latest activist cause. They will miss the insights that other groups and factions produce, even those who are deeply mistaken.

Part of my concern is for student education. A university education should allow students to see their commitments and values from a more abstract and objective point of view. Even if students will have ideologies (sets of beliefs and values), we want students to be “responsible ideologues.” We want them to understand alternative points of view and their strengths and weaknesses. We want them to have respect for the truth as a regulative ideal. We are not adding to their knowledge if we simply abet and enable their activist projects.

If you committed activist, you should realize there are tradeoffs with other valuable activities (Incidentally, this insight is probably going to make you a better activist…). The job of the university is not to make those tradeoffs disappear, in particular when those foregone academic activities are the constitutive activities of the university itself. It is unreasonable for student activists to demand, merely in virtue of their activism, to receive special treatment.





A puzzle about consent

Suppose you don’t want to do something, like drink a bitter-tasting but healthy beverage. A friend, C, is offering to give you the beverage. You know that it’s healthy for you, but you refuse it because it tastes bitter. Suppose C knows that you refuse it because it tastes bitter.

Now suppose the next time C offers you the beverage (he’s persistent), I offer to pay you a sum of money to say “Yes” when C asks to give it to you. You take my offer, and when C asks to give you the beverage you say “Yes.”

The puzzle is whether C can really give you the beverage. I paid you to say, “Yes” when C asks to give you the beverage. C knows you don’t want the beverage, but you just said “Yes.” “Yes” is normally a sign of consent. But did you really consent to drink the beverage? Or did you just say “Yes” when C offered the beverage to you?

One possibility is that when you consented to say “Yes” to C, you ipso facto consent to C’s offer. This possibility is implausible. It would make it impossible for you to revoke your consent, for example, which is highly counterintuitive.

Another possibility is that when you agreed to my offer, you did consent to C’s offer. Specifically, you consented to getting a sum of money and drinking the beverage. In economic terms, the sum I offered was sufficient to make you indifferent between the sum and drinking the beverage. When C offers you the beverage, and you say “Yes,” you consent to drink the beverage. The second possibility is a more plausible analysis of our exchange, but it still leaves open the question of whether C can give you the beverage. After all, C knows you wouldn’t consent to the bitter beverage even though you consented to the bundle of (drink beverage, money). However, the worry about whether C can gives you the beverage goes away if we assume that the person drinks the beverage in order to get the money. Your will is to drink the beverage (for the instrumental reason of getting the money), so C is acting in accordance with your will.

A third possibility is that you do consent to C’s offer, but you do not consent voluntarily. That is, C’s offer is in line with your will, but your will is not a free one. A free will is where you want something, and you want something because you want it. In this case, you want the beverage because I paid you.

A fourth possibility is that you did not consent to C’s offer. Instead, you consented to getting a sum of money and saying a word that normally signifies consent. You didn’t actually consent, however. So C offers you the beverage, and you say “Yes,” he gives you the beverage without even your consent. The third possibility is the most interesting here because it raises a puzzle about the relationship between consent and expressing consent. We normally think that you can’t express consent unless you’re also consenting. But in the fourth possibility, you express consent without consenting because I pay you to say “Yes” without actually consenting.

I am most interested in the fourth possibility here. The fact that something goes wrong when I pay you to express consent without actually consenting shows that consenting is about a subjective state, not just an external performance. It can be wrong to do something even if someone expresses consent to it because expressing consent does not entail consent.

However, because consenting is a subjective state, our only means of verifying or falsifying consent is through public signals. We rely on expressions like “I consent” to indicate whether you consent. This makes my deal to you particularly dangerous, more dangerous than the third possibility of involuntary consent, because it corrupts the meaning of the expression.

The difference between the third and the fourth case is that while in the third case you are not freely consenting, and your consent is imperfect, in the fourth case you are actually lying.

Consent is an internal, subjective state, but it is also a social practice of signaling to others how we want to distribute rights and obligations. Because we cannot observe the subjective state of consent, however, the social practice of consenting needs special protection. In the third possibility, it’s probably wrong for C to give you the bitter drink. But in the fourth possibility, while it’s still wrong for C to give you the bitter drink, it is more wrongful of me to make the offer in the first place. In offering you money in exchange for merely expressing consent, I erode the integrity of a social practice for accessing consent.

The deep concern about genetic engineering

Dworkin hits the nail on the head in Sovereign Virtue:

“My hypothesis is that genetic science has suddenly made us aware of the possibility of a similar though far greater pending moral dislocation. We dread the prospect of people designing other people because that possibility itself shifts… the chance/choice boundary that structures our values as a whole, and such a shift threatens, not to offend any of our present values… but, on the contrary, to make a great part of these suddenly obsolete.

….The terror many of us feel at the thought of genetic engineering is not a fear of what is wrong; it is rather a fear of losing our grip on what is wrong. We are not entitled–it would be a serious confusion–to think that even the most dramatic shifts in the chance/choice boundary [the distinction between what we are and are not responsible for] somehow challenge morality itself: that there will one day be no more wrong or right. But we are entitled to worry that our settled convictions will, in large numbers, be undermined, that we will be in a kind of moral free-fall, that we will have to think again against a new background with uncertain results.”



I had the opportunity to see “Disgraced” at the Berkeley Rep last weekend. The play’s emotional arc is extraordinary. The tension begins to simmer over the course of the first several scenes and explodes in the penultimate scene, a four-person dinner party in which each attendee degrades himself in words or actions.

The core of “Disgraced” is the self-understanding of the protagonist–Amir, a Pakistani-American muslim and high-powered lawyer. “Disgraced” represents his self-understanding through a portrait. The play begins with Amir’s wife painting him, and it concludes with Amir staring ambivalently at the completed portrait. The portrait depicts Amir in western business attire, looking down at the viewer in semi-profile. In one sense, it depicts Amir’s image of himself as a successful Westerner.

Amir behaves despicably in the course of events and comes to realize that he is still alienated from his life in America by virtue of unresolved anger toward his family, his wife, and Islam’s history with the west. However, while Amir disgraces himself during the play, the ending suggests that he is in a sense the play’s hero. In its final moments, Amir places his completed portrait over his fireplace. The portrait occupies the same place that a statuette of Shiva, a Hindu god, occupies in the opening scene–a gift from a colleague that represents how his colleagues misperceive him. This composition suggests Amir sees his portrait, and the identity it depicts, as form of self-misunderstanding, and it suggests he has begun a process of reflection in light of the play’s events.

The tone of his ending, moreover, contrasts with the abrupt and emotional departures of two other characters. These characters have not yet begun a process of reflection and adjustment. Even while Amir falls the furthest, there is hope for his character that’s lacking for the others. The great nemesis of “Disgraced” is shame over the past, which leads characters like Amir to act irrationally and wrongfully. Only Amir, however, shows awareness of shame’s danger and the danger of anger at events beyond his control.




Review of Harry Frankfurt’s “On Inequality”

Harry Frankfurt’s new book is an expanded version of his essay “Equality as a Moral Ideal,” with some new stuff about equality and respect. The original essay contains 75% of the ideas here for less than three-quarters of the price, so it’s a better value for what it’s worth.

Frankfurt’s book is a model of how public philosophy should work—by keeping the political discourse honest. He is interested in the reasons why distributive justice matters and to distinguish the good reasons from the bad ones.

Frankfurt’s argument in this book is unassumingly radical. He claims that “equality as such has no inherent or underived moral value at all.” This is a significant claim in light of the refrain made popular by Amartya Sen that every serious political theory is a theory of equality. In place of equality, Frankfurt defends a principle of sufficiency. What has inherent and underived value (to use a phrase) is that people have enough.

Frankfurt attacks two defenses of equality in this book: first, that an equal distribution of money maximizes utility, and second, that equal treatment is a form of respect.

The first argument for equality is appeals to the well-known principle of diminishing marginal utility: the utility of each additional unit of a commodity tends to decline. In the case of money, this means that an additional dollar to Donald Trump is worth less than an additional dollar to a homeless man outside Trump Tower. The implication, the argument continues, is that redistribution from Trump to the homeless man will increase overall utility until the point of equal marginal utility between them—an equal distribution.

Frankfurt’s criticisms of this argument are several. The most original, perhaps, is that the while the value of individual commodities may diminish at the margin, there is no reason to think that the value of consumption, that is, the value of money, need to diminish at the margin. There are also effects like thresholds or “warm-up” effects that make value increase at the margin. Finally, as economists have long observed, the argument assumes that we can make inter-personal utility comparisons. This is a fine assumption if people’s utility curves are in fact the same. But that assertion itself is unlikely to be true. People differ in their enjoyments of the same goods, their general capacity for enjoyment, and the rate at which their utility curves diminish. (An argument with equality as its conclusion assumes people are the same? Whodathunkit?)

Equal distribution is also defended on grounds of respect. It is disrespectful, many claim, to treat people unequally. However, Frankfurt notes that unequal treatment is only disrespectful if there are no grounds for treating people differently. If we face a situation where you and I must decide how to cut a cake, there is a sense in which it would be disrespectful for me to take the lion’s share of the cake. However, if there were grounds for giving me more of the cake—perhaps I am starving—then there are grounds for unequal distribution. Equality does no work in the cake argument. Rather, it is disrespectful to cut the cake unequally because an unequal distribution would be arbitrary, or without grounds. When we disrespect a person, Frankfurt claims, “the person is dealt with as though he is not what he actually is.” There is no conceptual relationship between respect and equality.

Frankfurt finally has a very interesting claim, anticipated by Tocqueville, about the effect of equality on our attitudes toward ourselves. The demand for equal treatment makes our needs and wants a function of what others have, rather than what is most important or vital to us as individuals. Equality tends to alienate us from ourselves and cause each person to see herself “from the outside” rather than as someone with a life to lead. This effect of equality tends to lead us away from the singular task of thinking for ourselves what we need and want. Frankfurt claims that this effect is in part the consequence of a false belief that equality is what really matters.

Just to be clear, Frankfurt is not arguing against some forms of redistribution, and he is not advocating for a limitless ceiling to wealth so long as the least-advantaged has enough. He claims that regulation and taxation is likely necessary, for example, to prevent manipulation of the political process by the most-advantaged. Similarly, he also claims that egalitarian policies may be the most effective strategy to meet the demands of his principle of sufficiency. Frankfurt is not taking any positions here about actual policies, only about the reasons for those policies.

Letter to the Editor in the BDH

The Brown Daily Herald was kind enough to publish my letter to the editor:

To the Editor:

I write to express my disappointment with The Herald’s unwillingness to support M. Dzhali Maier ’17, its embattled staff columnist, and publicly defend both its commitment to free speech and editorial independence. Responses to Maier’s columns by students and administrators correctly emphasize The Herald’s salience and influence on this campus, if only to rebuke it. However, The Herald’s influence makes its commitment to the freedom of expression that much more vital. The seat of public debate and argument at Brown resides in its pages. It has a responsibility to protect and defend that space against calls for “accountability” to activist student groups. 

The Herald has also betrayed its obligation publicly to support its columnists, no matter how incendiary their views. A newspaper protects its writers publicly, even if it disagrees with them. It is unfair for a newspaper not to share the risk of bad press with its columnist. Instead of defending Maier and its editorial judgment, this paper has discredited and embarrassed itself by equivocation and apology.

In March 2001, The Herald published a full-page advertisement by conservative activist David Horowitz opposing reparations for African-Americans. In response to the hue and cry of angered students, this newspaper asserted its right to print whatever it saw fit and even went so far as to reprint and redistribute the paper after protestors removed 4,000 copies of the Friday edition from campus newsstands. Now, it refuses even to speak in its own defense. 

Once college newspapers cherished their editorial independence. Now they have become their own censors. 

Nicholas Geiser GS

PhD candidate in political science

A colleague observed in an e-mail that Maier had also written in her column not three weeks before about her difficulties addressing the subjects of race and social justice as someone on the autistic spectrum. The Herald could have at least given her the benefit of the doubt before labelling her columns as racist and slapping a patronizing editor’s note on her columns.

Economic Democracy vs. Organizational Pluralism

Like social clubs, churches, and universities, businesses are voluntary associations organized around a particular goal, or what Oakeshott called “enterprise associations.” Businesses influence the work experience of most people in society, and the identities they cultivate form distinctive communities (these communities often raise outsiders’ eyebrows, as the recent New York Times piece on Amazon’s corporate culture illustrates). Like other civil society groups, businesses have an ambivalent relationship to the state that’s both rivalrous and complementary.

Analyzing the firm as an intermediate group brings useful insights from the study of civil society to the study of business. In particular, one question that can benefit is the relationship between employee’s economic freedom and membership in a business. Is joining a hierarchically-organized firm an exercise of a worker’s economic freedom, or a restriction of it? This question looks awfully similar to one in the study of intermediate groups–whether groups’ internal rules can ever restrict freedom.

Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom distinguishes two approaches liberals might take to the question of freedom in intermediate groups. On the “pure” theory, group membership is not an infringement on members’ freedom because individuals freely waive their rights against the group by associating with it. The pure theory relies on the principle of volenti non fit injuria–no failure of consent, no crime. Because individuals freely constitute the group by waiving their rights, and because they are free to exit the group at any time, the group cannot violate their freedom. The second theory, what Levy calls the “congruence” theory, the same norms that apply to states apply to groups. Groups can violate their members’ freedom, and members thus require the same protections against groups as against states.

The parallel to the case of business should be clear. The “pure” theory parallels the view (especially among libertarians) is that businesses cannot violate employees’ freedom so long as the employee freely consents to work. By contrast, the “congruence” theory parallels the view of leftists and left-liberals that businesses should be organized as “economic democracies,” with substantial constraints on management.

Levy persuasively argues that the pure theory is inadequate, for several reasons: groups can create local monopolies that trap members, groups’ secondary rules can violate the rule of law, and groups can possess forms of authority that raise political questions. But the congruence theory also fails, because it does not take freedom of association seriously. As Levy notes, a liberal society is committed to protecting the right of persons to form groups with thicker rules than a liberal state allows for itself. Individuals should be free to waive certain rights against groups by joining them, such as the right to evangelize heterodox beliefs.

The general implication of reconceptualizing the place of the firm within debates about civil society and intermediate groups is that a single theory of the justly organized firm is unsustainable. Just as liberals have come to understand the pluralist principle that a liberal society contains a variety of organizations, not all of which organize along liberal democratic norms, so liberals should understand that this pluralism protects firms as well.