Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

Feynman on the historic debate between Einstein & Bohr

The golden age of quantum theory put many of the greatest minds of the 20th century in contact with some of the most significant scientific and philosophical questions of their era. But it also put these minds in contact with one another in ways that have themselves been a source of curiosity and ongoing scientific debate.

Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein, two towering geniuses of their time, were both as revered for their scientific contributions as they were beloved for their bursts of wisdom on a wide range of subjects. It’s hard not to wonder just what these men thought of one another. Princeton University Press, which published The Ultimate Quotable Einstein in 2010 publishes The Quotable Feynman this fall. The book includes reflections by Feynman on Einstein, from his memorable mannerisms to his contributions to some of the most heated debates in 20th century science.Feynman quote

Perhaps because of the gap between their career high points, (Einstein died in 1955; Feynman didn’t receive his Nobel Prize until 1965), there are no verified quotes where Einstein alludes to Feynman or his expansive body of work. But Feynman had made observations on the older physicist, several of which revolve around Einstein’s famous 1927 public debate with Niels Bohr on the correctness of  quantum mechanics. Central to the debate was this question: Were electrons, light, and similar entities waves or particles? In some experiments they behaved like the former, and in others, the latter.

In an attempt to resolve the contradictory observations, Einstein proposed a series of “thought experiments”, which Bohr responded to. Bohr essentially took the stance that the very act of measuring alters reality, whereas Einstein insisted that reality exists, independent of the act of measurement. Key to the philosophy of science, the dispute between the two giants is detailed by Bohr in “Discussions with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics”. Richard Feynman is quoted as commenting on the debate:Feynman quote 2

An Einstein Encyclopedia contains a section on the Einstein-Bohr debates, as well as a wealth of other information on Einstein’s career, family, friends. There is an entire section dedicated to righting the various misconceptions that swirl around the man, and another on his romantic interests (actual, probable, and possible).

In spite of their differences, Bohr and Einstein were friends and shared great respect for each others’ work. Until Einstein’s death 3 decades later, they continued their debates, which became, in essence, a debate about the nature of reality itself.  feynman quote 3

Check out other new Einstein publications this fall, including:

An Einstein Encyclopedia
The Road to Relativity

Happy 101st Birthday, Martin Gardner

Today, Oct. 21, 2015, celebrates what would have been the 101st birthday of world renowned popular mathematics and science writer, Martin Gardner.

Martin GardnerGardner was a man who wore many hats — he was a skeptic, mathematician, philosopher, writer, magician and influence to millions of people worldwide. He garnered a huge following, whether he was writing literary reviews of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or examining the intricacies of stage magic. Publishing over a hundred works and writing columns for decades in several magazines, Gardner altered the common perceptions of mathematics and became an inspiration to multiple generations in the twentieth century.

Gardner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, going on to earn a degree in Philosophy from University of Chicago. He then served four year in the U.S. Navy and moved to New York City, where he met his wife, Charlotte Greenwald. He has two sons, Jim and Tom.

While in New York, Gardner worked as a writer for Humpty Dumpty, one of America’s longest-running children’s magazines, producing stories and designing paper folding activities. This led him to Scientific American, where he would remain for decades. Through his Mathematical Games column from 1956-1981, he’s credited with introducing and sustaining the interest in recreational math. Through the words and designs of Gardner, math evolved into an enjoyable and entertaining exercise. Those who were once intimidated by math’s complicated algorithms discovered a newfound appreciation and pleasure in solving puzzles and riddles.

Gardner served as such an inspiration and instructor to aspiring magicians that the Academy of Magical Arts offered him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Gardner wrote the Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic and his column “Martin Gardner’s Corner” was published occasionally in MAGIC from 1994-2004.

An avid skeptic, Gardner was one of the founders of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, devoted to debunking pseudoscience (the practice of incorrectly claiming a belief or viewpoint as scientific). From 1983-2002, Gardner wrote a monthly column for Skeptical Inquirer , detailing his criticism of fringe science, a science that is speculative, unorthodox and often refuted the by the mainstream scientific community.

Gardner influenced a wide audience on numerous subjects by covering topics that ranged from philosophy to magic; from logic to religion. Yet, being notably shy, Gardner often times declined awards and recognition given to him by academies and fans. That is why in 1993, the first Gathering for Gardner was established. At these events, mathematicians, scientists, magicians, philosophers and more from around the globe discuss and celebrate the topics Gardner’s touched upon in his lifetime’s work. Starting in 1996, Gathering for Gardner became a biannual event. Following his death in 2011, Gardner’s legacy has also been praised through Celebration of Mind events that take place every year on his birthday. Celebration of Mind encourages anyone with a curious mind and spirit to take part in Gardner’s birthday celebration and learn about just how magical Martin Gardner really was.

Undiluted Hocus Pocus jacket

Read more about the fascinating life of Martin Gardner in his autobiography, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner. Or, discover the secrets of magic, with a foreword written by Gardner, in Magical Mathematics:The Mathematical Ideas That Animate Great Magic Tricks co-authored by Persi Diaconis, Stanford professor of mathematics and former professional magician, and Ron Graham, University of California, San Diego professor of mathematics and former professional juggler.

Magical Mathematics cover

Jason Stanley discusses democracy and demagogues in The New York Times

stanley jacketJason Stanley, author of How Propaganda Works, had a popular op ed in the New York Times this weekend on democracy and demagogues, containing references to both Plato and Trump.

On Trump’s well known comments on Mexican immigrants and Ben Carson’s recent claim that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation”, Stanley writes in the NYT:

Liberal democratic rhetoric is supposed to unify citizens with diverse perspectives and backgrounds, and make visible previously discounted perspectives (for example, the perspective of women during the struggle for women’s right to vote). Trump’s and Carson’s comments are explicitly antidemocratic. The fact that they seem to have been rewarded — at least in immediate improvements in poll standings — confronts defenders of the American political system with two questions. There once was a facade of equal respect that required political strategists to use code words to avoid accusations of violating it. What has caused it to crack? And what are the risks for our democracy?

According to Stanley, two of the causes are the need to court donors, and the fact that politicians feel compelled to appeal to voters who don’t share democratic values. Read the rest of the piece here and the introduction to How Propaganda Works, his acclaimed examination of how propaganda undermines democracy and particularly the ideal of equality, here.

Jason Stanley is professor of philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of Knowledge and Practical Interests, Language in Context, and Know How.

Vote, or else? Jason Brennan on why moral obligations shouldn’t be enforced

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan is writing a series of posts for the PUP blog offering unique perspectives on ethics, voting, not voting, democracy, public policy and strategy. He is currently Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and is writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press. You can read his first post on “why smart politicians say dumb things” here–PUP Blog Editor

Turnout in American elections is low compared to some other advanced democracies. Should we force people to vote?

Brookings Institute analyst William Galston thinks so. In a recently published Op-Ed at Newsweek, Galston offers a host of arguments on behalf of compulsory voting.[1] None of the arguments are very good.

Galston’s right about one thing: Compulsory voting works. It’s clear that compulsory voting does in fact get more people to vote. But everyone agrees that alone isn’t enough to justify compulsory voting. A basic tenet of liberal democracy, or, really, fundamental human decency, is that it’s wrong to force people to do anything without a strong justification for doing so. Thus, proponents of compulsory voting bear a strong burden of proof. They must produce some reason why it’s permissible to force people to vote.

Does Compulsory Voting Lead to Moderation?

Galston argues that moderates are underrepresented. People belonging to ideological extremes are much more likely to vote than people with middle-of-the-road views. He claims that compulsory voting would thus lead to more moderate political outcomes.

He’s right that moderates vote less. Ample empirical work (e.g., see Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance for a review) shows that political moderates participate less than people with more extreme views. But, that same work also shows that this is because political moderates care less about politics, hold their beliefs more weakly, and also are less informed about politics.

But does compulsory voting actually lead to more moderate political outcomes? The available research (e.g., see Sarah Birch’s Full Participation for a review of the empirical literature) does not support this result. Perhaps it’s because the extremes already tend to balance each other out, and what we actually get from Congress or the president are moderate outcomes and compromise positions.

Indeed, it’s not clear compulsory voting does much of anything. It has no significant effect on individual political knowledge, individual political conservation and persuasion, individual propensity to contact politicians, the propensity to work with others to address concerns, participation in campaign activities, the likelihood of being contacted by a party or politician, the quality of representation, electoral integrity, the proportion of female members of parliament, support for small or third parties, support for the left, or support for the far right.[2]

Is Voting an Enforceable Duty?

Galston believes you have a duty to vote. I disagree,[3] but suppose he’s right and you do have a duty to vote. It doesn’t follow from the mere fact that something is a moral obligation that it’s permissible to force people to do it.

On the contrary, many moral duties—aside from duties to avoid violating others’ rights—are unenforceable. You might have moral duties to keep promises, to be nice to strangers, to buy your mom a birthday present, to be faithful to your boyfriend or girlfriend, to give to charity, to improve your moral character, to apologize for your past wrong-doing, to avoid becoming a member of the KKK, and to avoid using racist language. Nevertheless, these moral obligations are unenforceable—it would be wrong for the government to force you to fulfill these duties, even though they are (Galston and I both agree) moral duties.

So what makes voting special? Why is it an enforceable duty, rather than an unenforceable duty?

Galston says that voting is an expression of gratitude, which makes his defense of compulsory voting all the more perplexing. We often owe it to each other to express gratitude. If you buy me a present, I should say thanks. But in general, the duty is express gratitude is unenforceable. If I don’t send you a thank you note, you shouldn’t call the police and ask them to throw me in jail.

The Public Goods Argument: Are Non-Voters Free Riders?

In an earlier New York Times Op-Ed, Galston describes non-voters as free-riders: “Requiring people to vote in national elections once every two years would reinforce the principle of reciprocity at the heart of citizenship.[4] The idea here is that people who don’t vote are like people who don’t pay their taxes. Non-voters benefit from the good government provided for them by voters, but they don’t do their part in helping to provide that good government. That’s unfair. So, just as it’s permissible to force everyone to pay her fair share of taxes, maybe it’s permissible to force everyone to pay for good government by voting.

On the contrary, I think Galston has an overly narrow view of how citizens fulfill their civic obligations.

Imagine Superman were real. Now imagine Superman never votes or participates in politics. Imagine Galston said to Superman, “You’re a jerk. You free ride off of voters’ efforts. You benefit from good government but don’t do your part.” Superman could respond, “Remember all the times I saved the world? That’s how I did my part.”

Let’s take a less extreme case. Suppose there is a medical genius, Phyllis the Physician. Phyllis is such a genius that she produces new medical breakthroughs hourly. If Phyllis cares about serving the common good, helping her fellow citizens, or paying off some “debt to society”, she has little reason to vote. An hour at the voting booth is worth less than an hour at the lab. Now, imagine Galston said to Phyllis, “You’re a jerk. You free ride off of voters’ efforts.” Phyllis could respond, “No, I’ve paid voters’ back by producing my research. I don’t owe them anything more.”

Superman and Phyllis are extreme cases that illustrate a general point. Each of us in our daily lives as workers, artists, managers, parents, truckers, musicians, priests, teachers, or whatnot, does things that make distant others better off. We’re not just taking; we’re giving. We’re already doing things that make it so that the world and our fellow citizens are better off with us than without us.

There’s no obvious reason to assume that non-voters specifically owe a debt to voters, that the only way we citizens can “pay” for good government is to vote, or that the only way to avoid free-riding on voters’ efforts is to vote ourselves.  If we have a debt to society, or a duty to compensate voters for their efforts, we could instead hold that this debt can be paid, and that voters can be compensated, any number of ways. For any given citizen, given what other citizens are doing and are good at doing, there will be an optimal mix of political and non-political ways for her to pay her debt. For some citizens, this will mean heavy political engagement at the expense of other pursuits. For other citizens, it will mean complete disengagement so as to free the citizen to pursue non-political activities. For most citizens, the optimal mix will be some combination of political and non-political engagement.  Though each citizen might contribute in different ways, they can all pay their debts.

The Best Argument for Compulsory Voting

In the end, the best argument for compulsory voting begins by noting that under a voluntary voting regime, the people who choose to vote are unrepresentative of the population at large.

Voters and abstainers are systematically different. The old are more likely to vote than the young. Men are more likely to vote than women. In many countries, ethnic minorities are less likely to vote than ethnic majorities.[5] More highly educated people are more likely to vote than less highly educated people. Married people are more likely to vote than non-married people.[6] Political partisans are more likely to vote than true independents. In short, under voluntary voting, the voting public—the citizens who actually vote—are not fully representative of the voting eligible public. In general, the privileged are proportionately more likely to vote than the underprivileged. The worry, then, is that because the privileged are more likely to vote, government is likely to be unfairly responsive to their interests. Because the underprivileged are less likely to vote, governments are likely to ignore or underrepresent their interests.

As Galston summarizes the argument:

The second argument for mandatory voting is democratic. Ideally, a democracy will take into account the interests and views of all citizens. But if some regularly vote while others don’t, officials are likely to give greater weight to participants. This might not matter much if nonparticipants were evenly distributed through the population. But political scientists have long known that they aren’t. People with lower levels of income and education are less likely to vote, as are young adults and recent first-generation immigrants.[7]

Let’s put the argument in a more rigorous form. Let’s call this the Demographic Argument for Compulsory Voting:

1.     Voters tend to vote for their self-interest.

2.     Politicians tend to give large voting blocs what they ask for.

3.     When voting is voluntary, the poor, minorities, the uneducated, and young people vote less than the rich, whites, the educated, or older people.

4.     If so, then under voluntary voting, government will tend to promote the interest of the rich, of whites, and of the old, over the interests of the poor, of minorities, or of the young.

5.     Under compulsory voting, almost every demographic and socio-economic group votes at equally high rates.

6.     Thus, under compulsory voting, government will promote everyone’s interests.

7.     Therefore, compulsory voting produces more representative government.

8.     If compulsory voting produces more representative government than voluntary voting, then compulsory voting is justified.

9.     Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

This argument appears powerful and persuasive at first glance. Nevertheless, as I’ll explain in my next post, it’s unsound. It rests on a number of false empirical assumptions.

Note, however, that Galston cannot consistently advance both the Public Goods and the Demographic Argument for Compulsory Voting. The Public Goods Argument treats voters as cooperators. One person’s vote tends to benefit others, while abstention comes at their expense. The Public Goods argument says that non-voters take advantage of voters. But the Demographic Argument treats voters as competitors. One person’s vote tends to harm other voters (by reducing the power of their vote), while abstention helps them (by strengthening the power of their vote).  The Demographic Argument assumes that non-voters advantage voters, while voters take advantage of non-voters.

At most, one of these arguments is sound. If the Public Goods Argument is sound, then when I (a privileged, upper-middle class, married, white, heterosexual, cisgendered male) abstain, most voters should be mad at me. But if the Demographic Argument is sound, then when I abstain, I do women, blacks, Latinos, the poor, the unemployed, and so on, a favor, by making it more likely the government will represent their interests rather than mine. Galston can’t have it both ways.


[2] Sarah Birch, Full Participation: 140; Benjamin Highton and Raymond Wolfinger, “The Political Implications of Higher Turnout,” British Journal of Political Science 31 (1) (2001): 179-223, 179.

[3] See Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), chapters 1 and 2.

[4] William Galston, “Telling Americans to Vote, or Else,” New York Times, 6 November 2011, SR9.

[5] In the United States, African Americans typically have a lower overall turnout than whites. However, there is some evidence that, once we control for socioeconomic status and other factors that influence voting turnout, African Americans actually vote in higher rates than whites. For instance, African Americans vote less than whites, because they are more likely to be poor, not because they are African American. However, this probably does not matter for the purposes of the Demographic Argument. See Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, “Individual and Systematic Influences on Voter Turnout: 1984,” Journal of Politics 54 (1992): 718-40.

[6] For a review of the empirical literature establishing the claims of this paragraph, see Jocelyn Evans, Voters and Voting: An Introduction (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2004): 152-6.

[7] Galston, “Telling Americans to Vote”: SR9.

Kierkegaard in Space

Earth from Space-NASA image

NASA image: Earth as viewed from outer Space

Andreas Mogensen is the first Danish astronaut. Mogensen was sent to the International Space Station for a ten-day mission on September 2, 2015. As the first Dane in space, Mogensen brought a number of items typical of Danish culture to share with his fellow astronauts. These items included: some Legos, some Danish ryebread-based porridge, and readings from Hans Christian Andersen and the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The Kierkegaard reading was from his popular and very accessible work, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, published in 1849.

As explained in the British newspaper, The Guardian:

“Prof Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, from Copenhagen University, recommended Kierkegaard’s classic The Lily of the Field and the Bird of Air, telling the Guardian: “It’s all about silence, obedience and joy – something I thought would be an inspiration in space – and an important theme in these texts is passion, which you need to be an astronaut.”

Mogensen, who was to read a ten-minute selection from the work to his fellow astronauts on board the spacecraft, brought along a first edition of Kierkegaard’s work, but because the work was written in Danish, Mogensen also brought along University Connecticut Kierkegaard scholar and translator Bruce H. Kirmmse’s recent English translation of the work to read aloud to his audience. Kirmmse’s translation of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air is slated to be published by Princeton University Press in February 2016.

Floating in the black void of space hundreds of miles from Earth, one might have thought Mogensen would have chosen Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling or The Concept of Anxiety. But his fellow astronauts may just be glad he didn’t bring The Seducer’s Diary.
Rob Tempio is Executive Editor for Philosophy and Humanities Group Publisher. He oversees the Press’s many Kierkegaard publications.

Ethicist Jason Brennan on why smart politicians say dumb things

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan, whose posts on the ethics of voting for our 2012 Election 101 series were enormously popular, will be writing a series of posts for the PUP blog offering unique perspectives on ethics, voting, not voting, democracy, public policy and strategy. He is currently Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and is writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press. We’re excited to have him back, and to kick it off with his first post. –PUP Blog Editor

Saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

The Onion jokes: Donald Trump is “an eccentric, megalomaniac billionaire still more relatable to average Americans than anyone willing to dedicate life to politics”. Every other day, he says something outrageous or blatantly false, and yet he continues to grow in the polls. He seems to be getting by on empty slogans, with no well thought out policy ideas.
 When you see a politician saying something outrageous or blatantly false, you might be tempted to decry the quality of our politicians. If only someone better came along.

But there’s a reason we have the kind of politicians we do, and it’s not because no one better is willing to step up to the plate. Nor is it because great and evil villains (insert the Koch Brothers or George Soros, depending on your political predilection) are keeping our saviors down. Donald Trump may or may not be an eccentric megalomaniac, and he has indeed said many substantively stupid things. But he’s not a stupid man, and saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

Politicians are trying to win elections. To win elections, they need to get the most votes. To do that, they need to appeal to as many voters as possible. In an election, what every smart politician is trying to do is behave in ways that he or she hopes will appeal to the typical voter. Politicians are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates.

 If voters were well-informed, dispassionate policy-wonks, then political campaigns would resemble peer-reviewed economics journals. But few voters or potential voters are like that. As I’ll document at greater length in future blog posts here, most voters are poorly informed, passionate, biased, overconfident, and tribalistic. Most non-voters are not dispassionate truth-seekers; rather, they just don’t care much at all.

Voters are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates. The problem is that our individual votes count for very little. Economists and political scientists debate just how to calculate the probability that your vote will make a difference. Still, even on the most optimistic estimate in the literature, your vote (in a presidential election) has a 1 in 10 million chance of making a difference, but only if you live one of handful of swing states and vote Democrat or Republican. Otherwise, your vote has no real chance of mattering. Polls show that citizens more or less realize this.

Voters do not consume much information, nor do they discipline themselves to think rationally about the information they consume, because their votes make little difference. As economists like to say, voters are rationally ignorant. Consider, as an analogy. Suppose a billionaire offers you a million dollars if you can ace the Advance Placement Economics and Political Science exams. You’d probably be willing to learn basic economics and political science for that price. But now suppose the billionaire instead offers you a 1 in 20 million chance of earning that million dollars if you ace the exams. Now it’s not worth your time—it doesn’t pay to learn economics or political science.

Indeed, it’s not clear that voters are even trying to change the outcome of the election when they vote.  One popular theory of voter behavior is that voters vote in order to express themselves. Though the act of voting is private, voters regard voting as a uniquely apt way to demonstrate their commitment to their political team. Voting is like wearing a Metallica T-shirt at a concert or doing the wave at a sports game. Sports fans who paint their faces the team colors do not generally believe they will change the outcome of the game, but instead wish to demonstrate their commitment to their team. Even when watching games alone, sports fans cheer and clap for their teams. Perhaps voting is like this.

When you see politicians saying dumb things, remember that these politicians are not fools. They are responding rationally to the incentives before them. They say dumb things because they expect voters want to hear dumb things. When you see that voters want to hear dumb things, remember that the voters are only foolish because they are responding rationally to the incentives before them. How we vote matters, but for each individual person, how she votes does not. Thus, most individuals vote as if very little is at stake.Trump’s popularity is an indictment of democracy, not a conviction (yet). Democracy may make us dumb, but that doesn’t mean that in the end, democracies always make dumb decisions.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief Hisotry of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.

On moral philosophy and moral comedy – Harry Frankfurt on The Daily Show

As Jon Stewart wraps up his 16 year stint on The Daily Show this week, I can’t help recalling fondly the time I escorted one of his unlikelier guests—the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt—to an appearance. It was 2005, and Harry, an emeritus professor at Princeton, and I, a brand new publicist, had been caught off guard by early interest in his philosophical treatise, On Bullshit. The book, apparently unencumbered by its unprintable title, would go on to become an international phenomenon, spending 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, where it would peak at number one. The Daily Show was one of the first major venues to take interest in the book, which started its meteoric rise as a quirky, unassuming title from our mid-list. We’d expected it might raise a few academic eyebrows, but were unprepared for the journalistic outpourings from all corners. “This book will change your life”, wrote Leopold Froehlich in Playboy, seeming to mean it. Bullshit’s time had come.

On BSComedy Central’s invitation was met with equal parts excitement and trepidation. It was one thing to watch, baffled, as the book reviews piled up, quite another to send Harry into the glare of the mainstream media. Jon was, after all, formidable in his way, and Harry, for all his facility with the ironic and profound, was not particularly well-versed in comedic pop culture. His inquiry was as serious as it was sincere, and he was reluctant to “bullshit” about the topic he had so carefully treated. Our visit to The Daily Show marked my first time in a green room of any sort, and I spent most of it holding my breath. Harry was wonderfully refreshing to work with—thoughtful, modest, and genuinely surprised, at 76, that his work had generated interest outside of philosophy journals. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting him into.

If we were at all intimidated about the encounter to come, we needn’t have been. Jon paid us a backstage visit before the show, and conducted a class act interview that was charming, incisive, and thoughtful. Above all, I remember that Jon was respectful, parsing, between laughs, the distinguishing characteristics of bullshit, and the way it corrodes the truth. Harry was graceful and wry, the book became an overnight sensation, and the rest is history.

Harry, now the author of the new book On Inequality, has in the years since his own interview, commented on Stewart’s remarkable effectiveness and impact on people, including his famously successful on-air critique of Crossfire:

Stewart and Frankfurt parted ways as two very different figures nonetheless dedicated to raising the level of discourse: Frankfurt the renowned scholar who dared to qualify bullshit, and Stewart the journalist who made it his life’s mission to illuminate, lampoon it, and ultimately demand more of its propagators. I count myself fortunate to have crossed paths with them both.

–Debra Liese

Happy Birthday to Nikola Tesla

j9941Nikola Tesla was born on this day in 1856. Here are 10 facts from Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson:

1. Tesla has two meanings in Serbian: it can refer to a small ax called an adze or to a person with protruding teeth, a common characteristic of people in Nikola Tesla’s family.

2. The night Tesla was born there was a severe thunderstorm. The fearful midwife said, “He’ll be a child of the storm.” His mother responded, “No, of light.”

3. Initially Tesla wanted to be a teacher, but he switched to engineering in his second year at Joanneum Polytechnic School in order to work on building a spark-free motor.

4. One of his favorite hobbies was card-playing and gambling. “To sit down to a game of cards, was for me the quintessence of pleasure.”

5. When Tesla came to New York for the first time after living in Prague, Budapest, and Paris, he was shocked by the crudeness and vulgarity of Americans.

6. In 1886, Tesla was abandoned by his business partners and could not find work—he took a job digging ditches to get by. A patent he filed that year for thermomagnetic motor helped him get back on his feet.

7. In April of 1887, he formed the Tesla Electric Company with his two business partners, Alfred S. Brown and Charles F. Peck. His first lab was located in New York’s financial district.

8. Mark Twain was a good friend of Tesla’s.

9. Tesla suffered from periodic bouts of depression. He treated it by administering electroshock therapy to himself.

10. Tesla told a reporter that he did not want to marry because he thought it would compromise his work. He did not have any known relationships with women.

If you would like to learn more, you can preview the introduction of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.

On This Day – Galileo forced to cede to Church

k10498On June 22, 1633, the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei to renounce his view that the Earth rotates around the Sun. By doing so, he avoided death and was instead placed on house arrest. The Church opposed the heliocentric model, proposed by Copernicus a century before, because it directly contradicted biblical passages that assumed a geocentric system.

In Ideas of Liberty in Early Modern Europe: From Machiavelli to Milton, Hilary Gatti argues that the early modern period laid the foundations of our modern ideas of liberty, justice, and democracy. The “Galileo affair” is one example of this process that she highlights. Gatti argues that this moment in history has become “the historical pivot around which one of the most heated discussions of our time is developing—that is, how far religious doctrine can, if at all, determine the inquiries of the scientists and the ways in which they are accepted by society and taught in its academies and schools” (104). We see this debate continuing in our own time surrounding the study of the Theory of Evolution in schools.

To learn more about how events surrounding Galileo, Machiavelli, Milton, and others contributed to our modern ideas of liberty, check out Gatti’s book. You can read the introduction online.

Q&A with Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot, authors of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, both of the University of Washington, recently sat down for a Q&A on their new book, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World. Read on to learn what these four Enlightenment ideas are, and why they remain so important to the understanding of the ideological and political conflicts of our own time.

The Shape of the New jacketWhy are ideas so important to the history of the modern world and also to understanding so much of the contemporary world?

Many of our social, cultural, and political perceptions have been shaped by big ideas first argued by long dead intellectuals.  For example, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton’s argument on the shape of democracy more than 200 years ago continues to play out today in American debates over the size and scope and purpose of government.

Why use the term ‘ideas’ rather than ideology?

Ideology refers largely to already fixed, hardened positions about certain policy choices. The ideas we cover were much broader.  The leading intellectuals who developed them understood many of the conflicting arguments and knew they had to argue their positions in order to have any lasting influence.

What are the “Four Big Ideas” of the title, and why do you focus on them?

Our focus is not on single concepts but entire systems of thought that have affected every level of social experience. Adam Smith wrote about the freedom that individuals must have to decide their material and moral lives and that, if attained, would create the most efficient, prosperous, and free society. Marx spoke of universal equality for humanity, a just and egalitarian world that would arrive due to scientific laws governing history. Darwin took evolution and turned it into a scientific theory of enormous force:  with natural selection as its main mechanism, it gave all life a secular history and human beings a new context liberated from ancient traditions of religious purpose and final principles. Finally, modern democracy gained its first major success through the founders of the United States, most notably Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two brilliant but flawed men whose fierce debates set down essential patterns for how to imagine and institutionalize this new political system that has spread throughout large portions of the world.

You seem to suggest that the most powerful ideas have come from the Enlightenment and mainly from areas like political philosophy, economics, and theories of society or history? Is this correct?

Yes, partly but not political, economic, and social thought alone. Ideas of vital, even extraordinary influence also emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries from the sciences and from religious thought, as shown in our discussion of Darwin and religious fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Other domains of thought, such as art and literature, played major roles in the shaping and movement of key ideas.

What are some examples of what you call the “Counter Enlightenment”?

Some hostility came from organized religions that resisted the Enlightenment’s defense of freedom of thought and skepticism about fixed dogma. Much also came from elites opposed to democratization and increased freedom for everyone.  This Counter-Enlightenment has never gone away. Fascism and communism were based on powerful ideas that rejected much of the Enlightenment. Religious opposition remains in some fervent Christian denominations and  in radical Islam there remains bitter hostility to much of modern science and to any questioning of holy texts and authority. Rather than witnessing the continuing expansion of democracy and greater individual freedom that seemed to characterize the late 20th century, some governments, not least China and Russia, reject that side of the Enlightenment and propose instead illiberal forms of autocracy as better alternatives.

What does this have to do with the humanities and social sciences?

We strongly feel that college and university education no longer insists enough on the importance of teaching the ideas on which free, dynamic societies are based. To resist the paranoia about threats coming from all sorts of poorly understood sources we have to reaffirm the importance of the great ideas that shaped so much that we value, and make it known how those ideas were used to combat ignorance and opposition to freedom. Ultimately it is imperative that we understand the ideas that oppose what we value so that we are better equipped to fight against them.

Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research. Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Why Not Kill Them All?: The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder (Princeton). They both live in Seattle.

History & Philosophy of Science 2015 Catalog

Our History & Philosophy of Science 2015 catalog is now available.

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Be sure to check out The Quotable Feynman, a collection of about 500 quotations from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918-88), compiled by his daughter, Michelle Feynman. Read it cover-to-cover or flip to a specific section, from childhood to religion, from family to politics.

Looking for a comprehensive and authoritative guide to everything Albert Einstein? An Einstein Encyclopedia is your indispensible resource. The book contains entries on a range of topics, including his romantic relationships, hobbies, educational affiliations, and friends. Written by three leading Einstein scholars, researchers and those with a casual curiosity alike will find much to interest them. And don’t forget to scroll to page 3 of the catalog for a wealth of additional Einstein-related titles, including Relativity: 100th Anniversary Edition and Einstein and the Quantum.

Finally, the richly illustrated Mathematics and Art is written by Lynn Gamwell, a cultural historian of both topics. Gamwell shows how mathematics and art have informed and influenced one another from antiquity to the present.

We invite you to look through our catalog and learn about many more new titles in History & Philosophy of Science.

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