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Doing, allowing, and intrusion

Fiona Woollard takes a stab at justifying the greater moral significance of doing something than allowing the same thing. The doing-allowing distinction is an extremely deeply grounded intuition (at least for people in Western cultures), but one that has proven quite difficult to give a clear justification for (or even a clear way to distinguish which things are truly do's and which are allows). Unfortunately, I think Woollard's argument ends up begging the question*.

Woollard's argument begins from the Lockean/libertarian idea that society consists of individuals each walking around with a "private sphere" that belongs to them (consisting, at minimum, of their own body and its abilities)**. From the claim that it's wrong, all else being equal, to intrude on someone's private sphere, she derives a justification for the do-allow distinction. To do something -- say, pushing a boulder down a hill onto someone -- intrudes on their private sphere, which is bad. But holding someone responsible for allowing an equivalent harm that they could have prevented -- say, they could have pushed a junky old car in front of a naturally-falling boulder to save the would-be victim's life -- intrudes on the allower's private sphere. It makes the allower's property subject to being commandeered by society to help others.

The first problem I see here is that the injunction against doing harm intrudes on the do-er's private sphere too. It limits what you can do with your property, and opens you to claims on your property to either forestall harmful things you have set in motion or make recompense afterward. So why should the imposition involved in condemning doing be less worrisome than the imposition involved in condeming allowing? It can't be because there's a greater total amount of imposition involved -- the balance is simply shifted to imposition via moral responsibility rather than imposition via effects of bad things that are done or allowed. I.e., relatively more loss of property to boulder-blocking and less from getting squashed by boulders in a do-allow-neutral system than in Woollard's proposal. As far as I can tell, the only justification can be that doing is morally worse than allowing, thus sanctioning more interference to put it right -- but that's exactly what Woollard hoped to prove.

Another angle that presents a problem is the perspective of the third-party observer who can't interfere in the bad events, but can assign responsibility and blame (and possibly punishment) to the participants. It is this third party who is potentially imposing on the allower by demanding that they stop allowing. But that observer is also allowing the victim to be imposed on by the bad event if they accept Woollard's advice. That is, the idea that it's better for the victim to get squished than for the bystander to have to put forth the effort to stop the boulder rests on the idea that the third-party judge is bound by the do-allow distinction (allow the squishing versus do the demand to intervene) -- but again, that distinction is precisely what the argument is meant to justify.

*In the original sense of "assuming what it sets out to prove," rather than the modern sense of "raising a question."

**I'll accept this conception for the sake of argument, though I think it has significant flaws.


Academic publication quality

S. Matthew Liao asks whether reviewers of academic articles ought to make recommendations about whether an article is of sufficient quality to merit publication in a journal of the given one's prestige, or just focus on pointing out its merits and faults and leave the quality evaluation to the editor. I tend to favor the latter approach. But this is only partly for the sorts of reasons Liao lists. Instead, I view making quality judgments with skepticism because I'm dubious about the ability to distinguish among journals in terms of quality level.

It's possible that other fields, such as philosophy (where the question originated), it's easier to see that A-grade papers get published in top-tier journals, B-grade ones in lower-tier journals, etc. But in my own field (human-environment studies), this kind of stratification is far, far more fuzzy, at least with respect to what I consider to be paper quality (though there may be some correlation with the authors' perceptions of their work's quality, and articles in big-name journals certainly tend to become influential due to their wide readership). I've read stupid papers in the Annals of the AAG, and brilliant ones in Human Ecology Review. The main advantage to top-tier journals, to me, is their generality -- reading the Annals or PNAS lets me see a selection of work from across the range of things people are doing, whereas a journal like Society and Natural Resources keeps me focused on the kind of work that's closely linked to my core interests and research.

I was motivated to make mention of this by a recent PNAS article by Beddoe et al. (behind paywall) about the environmental crisis (though this article is hardly alone in shaping my view of PNAS's article quality). This article would be fine as a student term paper, but it's not clear to me how it ended up in what is supposedly one of the most prestigious English-language science journals. There is practically nothing new in it, aside perhaps for some new terms for ideas that have been discussed extensively already (e.g. "empty world" and "full world" for scenarios of low versus high human population and use of the natural environment).

The article begins with a theory of culture imported from biological evolution, presented with no acknowledgement that over a century of empirical and theoretical work on the dynamics of cultural functioning and change are being swept under the rug. I've been meaning to get around to a post on why evolutionary theories of culture are either laughably wrong (in their strong form, when they present a vision of internally-homogeneous social groups randomly manifesting cultural traits that are sifted by selection pressure that throws out the maladaptive ones), or vapid and uninformative (if the definitions of traits, selective pressure, etc are massaged so that they can encompass the actual processes of power, worldview construction, etc. that operate in societies). But I don't need to get into that here, because the article doesn't actually use this evolutionary theory for anything, aside from vague invocations of "change."

The remainder of the article is a sort of laundry list of social-democratic and Limits-to-Growth-inspired complaints about the state of the world -- too many things are privatized, society cares more about GDP growth than sustainability even though the former can't go on forever, political ads on TV turn voters into sheeple (but the internet will release the power of information), etc. Some of these points are basically right (e.g. over-focus on economic growth), and some I would argue are wrong (e.g. liberal faith in the power of freedom of information), but they all deserve detailed analysis rather than repetition as a pep-talk of platitudes to an audience that already probably mostly agrees with them.

The article ends with one of my least favorite rhetorical gambits -- but one that's far too common in human-environment research. Beddoe et al. assert the need for major, global, systemic change in our society's relationship in order to avert environmental crisis. This is true -- but what is required is some sort of analysis of how it will be possible to achieve that in the face of a variety of cultural, political, and economic barriers. But Beddoe et al., like too many other writers, seem to implicitly assume that people of good will will read their exhortations (or at least people of good will with access to PNAS) and change their attitudes to support the project. The immense scope of the ecological problems we face ends up functioning as a sort of argument in favor of the likelihood of change (since, I presume, it will motivate people more).

I should stress again that my intent is not to pick on Beddoe et al. specifically -- their article was simply the one that was in front of me, and which manifested a number of things that I frequently find irritating.


Immigration links and short comments

Lots happening in the world of immigration recently:

* The AP has a nice long piece exposing the absurdity of immigration detention. A good read if you're unsure about the wisdom of putting tens of thousands of people -- most of whom have no criminal background, and many of whom have a legitimate right to stay in the U.S. even under our current deeply flawed laws -- in prisons, under conditions the same as or worse than those for convicted murderers, thieves, etc.

The article points out that the detention system is essentially a cruel subsidy to prison corporations like CCA and GEO Group, as well as local law enforcement agencies:

The use of detention to ensure immigrants show up for immigration court comes at a high cost compared to alternatives like electronic ankle monitoring, which can track people for considerably less money per day.

Based on the amount budgeted for this fiscal year, U.S. taxpayers will pay about $141 a night - the equivalent of a decent hotel room - for each immigrant detained, even though paroling them on ankle monitors - at a budgeted average daily cost of $13 - has an almost perfect compliance rate, according to ICE's own stats.

So why is ICE wasting its money? A lot of it, I imagine, is that people from ICE simply don't appreciate what life in detention is like -- the immigrants are just numbers on case files to them. And insofar as they conceive of their job as "deport as many people as possible," the suffering of life in detention helps them out -- I've heard countless stories of people who have legitimate cases who give up and accept deportation to avoid spending additional months or years in detention while they fight (or try to fight, anyway -- access to legal resources and even their own documents is hardly guaranteed in jail).

I think the cruelty and inefficiency of ICE might be a good test for distinguishing reasonable conservatives from nativist bigots. I would hope the former could agree that a fast, fair, and efficient immigration court system would be an improvement -- even if they still want to close the borders and force everyone here to speak English.

* Relatedly, a California police chief says housing detainees is "a business" keeping his department solvent through ICE dollars. Perhaps the federal government could just provide stimulus-type aid directly to local police, without laundering it through the suffering of immigrants.

* Health care (if you can call it that) in immigration detention is based on the principle of "keep them alive long enough for us to get around to deporting them." But don't take my (admittedly cynical) word for it -- here's the government's own policy (italics added):

The DIHS Medical Dental Detainee Covered Services Package, which governs access to off-site specialists, says that requests for non-emergency care will be considered if going without treatment in custody would "cause deterioration of the detainee's health or uncontrolled suffering affecting his/her deportation status."

* Nancy Pelosi comes out against the worst ICE raids. I'm not sure whether the rhetoric of "un-American" she uses is, in the context of taking a progressive position on immigration, a problematic residual nationalism (we should do what's right, not what's "American" -- whatever that even means), or subversively telling the nativists to shove it. In either case, hopefully she understands that it's not just that ICE's narrowminded tactics in enforcing the existing law are evil, but that the law itself needs to change (and that she's in the best position of anyone to make sure that change happens).


Politics in the Classroom

There's some interesting article in Inside Higher Ed about the issue of professors bringing politics into the classroom. It's based on a study that interviewed 57 professors from a broad swath of disciplines about their politics and pedagogy. I doubt that it will do much to sway the David Horowitzes of the world, considering that it's based on what professors say about how they run their classrooms. But it does touch on what I think is an important point.

Debate about the alleged politicization of the academy tends to set up two ideal-type pedagogical strategies: neutral objectivity and indoctrination. But as I see it, these are just two sides of the same coin. Both make a sharp distinction between objective facts (which are true in the same way for all people in all times) and pure opinion (which, no matter how deeply held, is a matter of taste that can't be supported with reasons that could convince others, and which is not connected to any of the claims in the fact domain). The only difference is that indoctrination sees a wider swath of things as objective facts, things which neutral objectivist critics would consider opinions. Both focus on presenting (what they hold to be) facts to students, and getting students to adopt those facts.

Those two forms of objectivism ought to be contrasted with the strategy of criticism. A criticism-based pedagogy holds that any claim worth talking about ought to be defensible by some sort of reasons or evidence, while not presuming those reasons and evidence will always be conclusive in any real-world forum*. This goes equally for the simplest "facts" and the most contentious political ideologies. A criticsm-based approach has the virtues of not dismissing politics as mere opinion, of revealing how knowledge -- even well-settled knowledge -- comes about and what types of knowledge-production are more reliable, and of being resilient to strategic or disingenuous attempts to shift the fact-opinion border (e.g. by claiming that "everyone knows" certain claims about inherent gender differences, or turning the well-established tenets of evolution into mere opinion by stridently denying them). A fuzzy-bounded difference can sometimes be drawn between claims whose supporting evidence is so conclusive that holding a particular claim (e.g. "water boils at 50 degrees Fahrenheit") is necessarily evidence of flawed reasoning, versus those where students' reasoning quality must be assessed more directly.

An important aspect of criticism-based teaching is that if done right, it is able to correct the teacher's own flaws. Objectivist teaching depends on the teacher to correctly draw the fact-opinion border, and to select the correct facts to teach. A criticism-based approach, done correctly, enables students (particularly those coming from a different perspective than the teacher) to challenge the teacher's unexamined assumptions -- and, crucially, to give both sides the tools to work through the dispute to see to what extent evidence and reason support one side or the other**. The alternatives are passive indoctrination, sullen refusal to accept the teacher's word, or a shouting match usually resolved by declaring the whole thing mere opinion. Finally, I think a criticism-based approach is equally compatible with teachers who hide their own conclusions on political claims that are legitimately contentious and teachers who are up-front about believing that a certain ideology is the correct one -- but it is not compatible with teachers who want to present their political views as indisputable facts or introduce them through the back door.

*Granted, the value of openness to criticism is itself a political stance -- there is, for example, a strain of conservative Christianity that holds that questioning the truths of the religion is itself a bad thing even apart from any risk of changing one's mind (to an erroneous non-Christian viewpoint) as a result. But critical thinking fora can and should be open to wrestling with arguments for unthinking acceptance -- and I would even suggest that there are (limited) contexts in the world outside the classroom in which explicit critical consideration of ideas is not appropriate.

**This is not to say that all political disputes necessarily ought to be settled in this way (that is, I side with I.M. Young and Seyla Benhabib against Juergen Habermas and (one reading of) John Dewey here), but only that this suits the purpose of the particular setting of the classroom.