Moral appeals in times of scarcity

The New York Times recently reports there is a developing cooking oil shortage. The subhead to the article reads: “Several British supermarkets have joined other chains around the world in asking shoppers to limit their cooking oil purchases, as supplies dwindle and prices rise.” Before reading the article I wondered if this sort of request of consumers risked being naive and counterproductive. After reading it, I am still unsure.

Basic economics typically says that the most efficient way to allocate resources is through the price mechanism. Prices send important signals to producers and consumers about the availability of and need for goods and services. As prices rise and fall, producers and consumers can often adjust their behavior. Consumers can change how much and what they consume. Producers can see opportunities for profit and bring more or different goods to the market.

Sometimes people refer to prices as one way to “ration” goods. This isn’t quite right. Rationing supposes some deliberate allocation mechanism. Prices, on the other hand, typically respond to market signals, not the dictates of some bureaucrat.

Critics will insist that prices assign opportunities to access goods to people in just the way that any government rationing does. I’d dispute this, but instead of quibbling over meanings of terms, consider more neutrally the merits of certain ways of allocating goods.

Wartime era rationing is one way to allocate scarce goods. Another example is first-come, first-served, such as in queuing. Alternatively or in addition, there might be per-purchase or per-person limits.

Queuing is a way to allocate goods because only people with the resource of time will get access. America’s national parks now experience historic levels of demand. There are often caps on the number of daily visitors. People gain entry only by investing the time to show up early and wait in line.

Another way to allocate goods is by per-person limits. Consider how Ticketmaster restricts concert ticket purchases. During the pandemic, in the USA many stores allowed consumers to purchase only so many packages of toilet paper. This supposedly prevents resellers from buying all available products and cornering the market.

Should there be non-price-based restrictions on cooking oil purchases? For some people, cooking oil is a type of good they use to satisfy their basic food needs. Their demand for cooking oil might not be especially “elastic.” Their needs for it don’t always respond to price signals as readily as their needs for other goods. The significance of oil for many consumers might partly explain why some providers use moral exhortation. The New York Times article includes a photo showing a sign a British grocer had posted, which read, “So that everyone can get what they need – we’re limiting these products to 3 per customer.” This notice explains the store’s policy and might help inspire people to conserve.

If there are no per-purchase caps, it might seem only the rich would get to eat. So, perhaps we should applaud some British merchants who restrict sales in order that people have “fair” access. Moral appeals might seem to help here since people are reluctant to have prices do all the signals for allocating goods. Such moral appeals, one might say, encourage people to conserve.

I doubt scarce goods in such circumstances become more accessible by wishing and pleading. Of course, my hunch is vulnerable to being overturned by data: perhaps those moral appeals have effects at the margins. After all, such appeals seem to encourage many people to bear the costs and inconvenience of recycling. Perhaps too, with cooking oil, sellers can make moral appeals to a sense of civic solidarity to ensure adequate access to scarce sunflower oil.

Still, I worry such limits, combined with moral appeals, mask naive understandings of economics. These measures risk backfiring. Telling people a store is rationing goods is often a surefire way to inspire panicked buying.

Consider again what happened with toilet paper. As soon as stores imposed limits during the pandemic, there were runs on toilet paper. Many families joined others in the US in hoarding it. They did this not because they needed to have over one hundred fifty rolls available, but to fend off shortages in light of people who threatened supplies with panicked buying. In other words, many people overbought out of fear that other people were overbuying. The same routinely happens in the US south when snow storms are in the forecast. People hit the grocery stores to stock up on bread, milk, eggs, and beer (and… not necessarily in that order). If the store caps how much people may buy of such staples, people will often buy up to the limit and encourage family members to do the same. A week or two later, many people are pouring spoiled milk down the drain. So my first worry about these limits is that they inspire panicked buying and exacerbate any shortages there might otherwise be. If a store adds a moral appeal, we must ask whether that’s the most effective way of getting people to allocate resources “fairly.”

Many families would not overbuy if prices had risen to reflect increased demand. If each toilet paper roll were $50, they would curtail consumption and purchasing. It then seems that price signals might be a more effective signal than any per-purchase caps. It might also be more effective than moral appeals.

People might say that increasing prices is inappropriate because high prices clash with “fair” access. Alternatively, they might say, per-purchase caps secure such “fair” access. They might say: surely everyone should have fair access to wiping their fannies in times of scarcity. After all, they might add, demand for toilet paper is inelastic. You’ve got to wipe!

This is false. Demand for many goods people regard as essential is often somewhat elastic. This is true even with toilet paper. Consider how you’d change usage patterns if each roll were $100 or $500. You’d use less. You’d consider substitutes. You can (and many people did) buy a bidet, such as from this seller, which I promote for free only because I like the name.

I don’t dispute the effectiveness of moral appeals in some cases. Whole blood donation in the US provides some evidence. Blood donation drives exhort people to help the sick and needy. Compensation for donors is merely free juice and cookies afterwards. For the most part, in the USA there is an adequate and safe blood available. (But see a related recent book by fellow blogger James Stacey Taylor, giving a compelling defense of paid plasma donations.)

I remain worried that certain moral appeals risk cheapening moral discourse. (See related discussions by Tosi/Warmke.) They risk making morality an empty exhortation, especially when is a better alternative: the merchant could raise the price.

Some merchants won’t do that. It’d be bad PR. Consider a local hardware store in a small town when a rare snowstorm is on the horizon. One might think that’d be a great opportunity to raise prices on shovels and ice-melting salt. Many won’t raise their prices, though. They know that if they do so, it’ll sour their reputation within the community. In that case, one can imagine the owner refusing to sell anyone more than one shovel. The owner might think it’s more important that more people in the community have access to shovels.

Offering moral appeals in certain cases of scarcity seems to undermine the signaling function prices provide. Indeed, offering moral appeals seems to undermine the point of the moral appeals. When prices do not reflect supply and demand, producers lack the information they need to know how to shift production and distribution. But it’s also a problem for consumers. Consider the standpoint of a consumer who wants to allocate their family’s scarce resources carefully and plan responsibly for the future. Suppose that consumer wants not to deprive others of fair opportunities to access important goods. Without appropriate price signals, that consumer might not know what to do. They want their family to have toilet paper (or cooking oil, or milk, or gasoline, or eggs, or whatever), and they might want others to have appropriate opportunities to gain similar access. But the sign on the British grocer’s shelf doesn’t tell them how important it is to, or the extent to which they should, constrain their choices. Prices give even better information in most circumstances.

Ultimately, it might best be left to merchants to decide how to price their goods and what message to send. Some messages risk inspiring greater panicked buying. They also risk undermining the appropriate force of moral reasons.

Prices convey plenty of information. Substituting or adding moral appeals risks making scarcities worse and risks cheapening the value of moral appeals.

What happened?

It’s a bad week. Polarization has lead to a federal truth commission (thank you Dems) and the likely removal of federal protection for reproductive freedom (thank you Reps). Neither of these, so far as we know, is popular. A working democracy of Americans would be unlikely to bring about either. But we don’t seem to have that—or at least not to the extent that we might have thought. In part, this is because of the way discourse in our society has deteriorated. Discourse in our society is, to say the least, strained.

Given how strained our discourse has become, some would prefer to have less of it, walking away from those they disagree with and encouraging others to do the same. In Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, finds it encouraging that roughly 56 percent of Americans seem to believe it “better for people to have good manners” than to “express what they really think” (76) and claims that civility suggests meals are “not the best venue for political debate” (79). On my view, by contrast, people too frequently censor themselves rather than engage in conversation with someone they think wrong about an issue. I think this horribly unfortunate, even if understandable. I think it is understandable because of the way many of us are raised. I think it unfortunate because it leads predictably to a loss of discourse that would promote a more civil society. When people don’t engage in civil discourse with each other, it’s too easy for people to live in ideological bubbles, too likely that people will be unable to even engage with those they disagree with, and too easy for those with power to ignore the wishes of the rest. I want to suggest one cause and possible corrective of this situation.

As children, when we visit extended family or friends, many of us are told not to mention religion or politics, Uncle Bill’s drinking, Aunt Suzie’s time in prison, or any number of other family “secrets” or disagreements. Those subject to these parental restrictions learn not to discuss anything controversial, including serious social issues and our own values. The lesson many seem to take from this is that it is impolite and disrespectful to disagree with others. It is hard for me to think this has not contributed to the polarization and rancor in our society. Because we are trained, from an early age, to censor ourselves and repress conversation about a wide array of topics, it’s not surprising that many are shocked when someone disagrees with them—we are taught not to disagree or even suggest a topic of conversation about which there is likely to be disagreement, so people are naturally surprised when others do precisely that. They think it rude. Given the surprise, moreover, many make no attempt to provide a reasoned response to someone who says something they disagree with or find distasteful. This is a mistake.

The problem may be worse than simple parental limits. As a culture, we seem committed to social separation. Not only do we actively and explicitly discourage children from having honest conversations (which join us with others), but we also seek to set up our lives so that we have more distance from each other—even our immediate family members. People complain about the rising cost of homes, but in real dollars, the cost per square foot of a home has not increased that much (see this). Home costs have increased largely because we insist on larger homes—homes where we have our own bathrooms, our own bedrooms, our own offices. With all of that space, we are away from our loved ones, leaving us able to avoid difficult conversations with even our closest intimates. We don’t have to negotiate for time in the shower, for use of the television, or much of anything else. We don’t have to discuss things we disagree about. (And, of course, Americans tend to think that once a child graduates from high school they ought to move out—again, allowing that those almost-adult children can avoid dealing with their parents, learning how to deal with them when they disagree. And when they “talk,” they now do so by texting—furthering the distance from what would be allowed by face to face, or at least, phone, conversations.) In all, we insist on and get more—more space, more privacy, more isolation. We also sort ourselves—moving to neighborhoods and jobs where others that agree with us live and work. We spend less and less time with people we disagree with And then we are surprised that we don’t know how to deal with such people.

So much for the social criticism. That is, I submit, one of the causes of our current lack of civil discourse (and thus increased polarization). If that is right, the solution should be straightforward: stop taking steps that discourage children from engaging in honest discussion. Make children share a bathroom so that they at least have to negotiate its use with a sibling. Maybe have them share a bedroom too! Really importantly, stop telling children not to discuss certain topics with others. Let them learn from others, let others learn from them. (And obviously, those of us teaching in college should seek to promote discussion of ideologically diverse views, even views that some find offensive.) We need to be offended when young so that we don’t refuse to engage with others we find offensive when we are adults. We would then be prepared for honest civil discourse.

Why ‘ProSocial Libertarians’?

I am wary of isms and labels. They are used too often by too many as excuses to stop thinking. Worse, no doubt aware of the human tendency to avoid ideas that challenge our preconceptions, unscrupulous advocates on all sides use labels such as ‘socialism’ or ‘far right’ to pillory views with which they disagree, in effect saying ‘These ideas are beyond the pale. You can ignore them.’ This, in turn, further discourages people from venturing outside the safety of their thought bubbles and trying to understand why others might hold different views. 

Although I am quite sensitive to this thought-stultifying use of labels — having taught critical thinking for years — I am sure I am not the only person for whom effectively labeling something as beyond the pale piques one’s curiosity instead of squelching it. (This, by the way, is the main reason — along with my name — that I first read Ayn Rand.) So, fortunately, there are also people who want to be challenged and seek out ideas that put their preconceptions under strain. If you fall into this group, you should enjoy this blog.

Despite the risks that labels bring, we cannot manage without them. To minimize the risks, we should acknowledge that labels are only a starting point for discussion and that the meaning of any politically interesting terms will need to be clarified on an ongoing basis. 

In light of all this, if I had to choose a label that best captures my political orientation, that label would be ‘libertarian’. I found it dismaying, then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to see the term ‘libertarian’ — as well as related terms like ‘freedom’ — arrogated by a rogue’s gallery of activists and politicians who have been called — with some justification —antisocial. 

What was dismaying was that these so-called ‘libertarians’ were acting out an old, muddleheaded conception of libertarianism that many people could (wrongly) take as reason to dismiss libertarian ideas as unworthy of serious consideration. For, according to this old, muddleheaded conception, libertarians just _are_ antisocial. Like Randy Weaver, libertarians on this conception want nothing more than to be left alone and they will happily head to the woods with their guns and family to achieve this end. Properly understood, however, libertarians need not be Randy Weavers. Or, at least, so I believe. (Please note: In no way do I intend for my use of Randy Weaver as an example of an antisocial libertarian to diminish the tragedy and injustice that befell him and his family at the hands of the United States government.)

Given what the honest use of labels requires, I want to be as clear as I can about what I mean by ‘libertarian’ and why being a libertarian involves being prosocial, not antisocial. But there is no such thing as a conceptual dictator, so any work towards understanding libertarianism will, of necessity, be a joint enterprise. Hence, the idea of this blog: a civil forum for exploring what it means to be a libertarian and the ways being a libertarian involves being prosocial. Hence also, our name: ProSocial Libertarians.

RCL to become PSL!

RCL is not quite 2 years old, but in the short time we’ve been live, we’ve had several small scale changes (particularly with the blog roll).  Now it is time for a bigger change.  RCL will soon become PSL: Pro-Social Libertarians.  

The name comes partly as a response to pieces like this one by Paul Krugman , but really its straightforward: libertarians are too often seen as being anti-social and much of what RCL, BHL before it, and now PSL, seek to do is correct that mistake.

The blogroll at PSL will be smaller than that of RCL, but we hope the content will not be reduced. Of course, we’ll also have guest posts along the way. The main bloggers will be:

Andrew I. Cohen

Andrew Jason Cohen

Lauren Hall

Connor Kianpour

Aeon Skoble

James Taggart

James Stacey Taylor

PSL is born from experience with BHL and RCL, but with new thinking from Jim Taggart (JD, Phd-Phil).  As blogs have partially given way to podcasts, we anticipate having both.  We also anticipate having a more open policy with comments, though reserving the right to remove unproductive (especially mean-spirited) comments.  

What remains the same is perhaps more important than what is changing.  You’ll still see great posts from our main bloggers as well as guests.  Many posts are likely to be libertarian takes on issues of social justice; many are also likely to be about civil discourse.  Indeed the tag line for PSL is “Owning Civil Discourse and Social Justice.”

To our way of thinking, libertarians-—at least libertarians of the BHL/RCL/PSL sort—do own both. That’s because we and so-called “Rawlsekians” or “liberaltarians” are concerned with the plight of the less fortunate and because we see points of agreement and disagreement with people in both of the dominant parties—and elsewhere (including the dominant ideologies)—and are willing to honestly debate the issues on the merits. That last is sorely missing in contemporary discourse and we want to help improve that. To do so, we will be maintaining some of the rules from RCL; namely:

1. While we may criticize the views of others and/or their work, when we do, we will remain civil.

2. Trolls and obnoxious commenters can be banned, but only by a majority vote of the group.

3. We won’t have posts that are mere links to something posted elsewhere.  We might post a link to something someone else wrote, along with commentary about it. We may also have posts that serve to “round-up” links to several things others have written that we think you would be interested in.

4. We’ll try to space out posts, time wise.

Our policy regarding comments will be different:  

5. Each of us will have our own default regarding comments, but if we allow comments, we reserve the right to delete unproductive comments.  Generally speaking, the point to deleting a comment will be to prevent incivility from escalating.  

Look for an intro post to PSL soon!  I hope you’ll join us in this new chapter!

Misleading Mill Meme Makes Muddled Minds

Going around the internet recently is a photo of a sign quoting John Stuart Mill “Landlords Get Rich In Their Sleep.”  The sign is apparently in a bank, suggesting that the bank thinks it would be a good idea for you to get a loan enabling you to own property, but the meme seems intended to criticize the idea that being a landlord is a good thing, by supplying the passage from Principles of Political Economy from which the quote is ostensibly drawn.   The meme creator has posted the following: “Landlords grow rich in their sleep without working, risking or economizing.  The increase in the value of the land, arising as it does from the efforts of an entire community, should belong to the community and not to the individual who might hold title.”  But that’s not quite what Mill says.  The meme cites Book V, chapter 2, section 5 as the source.  The first sentence in the meme is mostly accurate, but the second sentence is not in the text at all.

Mill is arguing in this section that it is not improper to tax landlords, because the value of land to which they have title accrues in value without them having to do anything.  “Suppose that there is a kind of income which constantly tends to increase, without any exertion or sacrifice on the part of the owners….  In such a case it would be no violation of the principles on which private property is grounded, if the state should appropriate this increase of wealth, or part of it, as it arises….  Now this is actually the case with rent.”  Mill is certainly not saying, as the meme implies, that landlords aren’t entitled to rents, only that it’s not unjust to tax them on rents.

But there’s a different level on which the meme is wrong-headed, and wrong to conscript Mill into its purpose.  The word “landlord” had a slightly different meaning in the 1840s than it does today.  Landlords used to be literal lords, who had title to lands on the basis of royal privilege.  While it might be fair to characterize them as not working or taking risks, it’s certainly false in today’s context.  While we continue to use the same word, landlords of today aren’t literal lords, just regular people who own properties from which they can derive rental income.  This very obviously does involve work and risk.  Mid-19th-century objections to aristocratic landlordism do not tell us anything about today’s rental market, nor do they undermine the reality of the work and risk a property owner of today must incur, and without which there’d be an even greater housing shortage.  Apartment buildings don’t grow on trees.

No, Maus Wasn’t Banned by a Tennessee School Board.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the decision of the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee to remove Maus from its 8th Grade ELA curriculum. Much of this discussion has focused on the claim that Board has “banned” Maus from the school; this had led some to claim that the Board did so in to move away from teaching about the Holocaust.

Fortunately, we can assess these claims easily as the transcript of the Board meeting is available online.

One of the Board members did state that the Board was considering banning Maus. (This same Board member was also skeptical that removing the text was appropriate, noting both that he was concerned about the removal based on “a few words”, and that he had read the background on this author and the series, talked to some educators, and it is a highly critically acclaimed and a well reviewed series and book context”.) But what was actually under discussion was not the removal of Maus from the school, but its removal as an anchor text in a module on the Holocaust.

The reasons for this had nothing to do with objections to teaching the Holocaust. Indeed, several Board members stated how important it was for students to learn about it, noting that the module on the Holocaust involved students reading “news articles from BBC, Los Angeles Times, Guardian, survivor stories, and excerpts from other books….. [and] There is even a section where we go to the Jewish Virtual Library and look at some selections from that.” The concern was primarily about the “objectionable” language used in the book–words that “if a student went down the hallway and said this, our disciplinary policy says they can be disciplined, and rightfully so”. Secondary concerns included the presence of a nude picture–of a female mouse!–the fact that some of the objectionable language involved a boy “cussing out” his father, which wasn’t respectful, and that the author Art Spiegelman had drawn illustrations for Playboy (!).

Possible solutions short of removing the book were suggested–such as whiting out the offensive words completely (deemed a violation of copyright, and so unacceptable), whiting them out partially (but then the kinds could guess them!) and writing to Spiegelman to ask if their removal would be permissible (that would take too long). After canvassing the possibilities the Board decided that despite the merits of Maus (one Board member said she would still teach it to her children) since the language it contained violated the speech code of the school it should be removed from the curriculum.

Note that all that was decided was that Maus should be removed from the curriculum. The Board members didn’t vote to remove the text from the school. Maus wasn’t banned.

Was this a good decision? In my view, no. Against the horrors of the Holocaust a few “damns” don’t mean a damn. But from the perspective of the Board members the “cussing” was clearly extremely offensive–and ancillary to the main message of Maus. And they couldn’t find a way to keep Maus without the wording that violated the speech code to which they required students to adhere. This wasn’t a good decision, but it wass an understandable one.

More understandable, in fact, than claiming falsely that Maus was banned because of the putative far-right sympathies of the McMinn County Board of Education.

Employment, Coercion, and Voting

Sally works for a big corporation.  She works 9 to 5, with a half hour lunch, Monday through Friday.  She often brings work home with her and on Saturdays, she takes a class, hoping it will help her receive a promotion and raise.  On Sundays, she cleans her home and preps for the following week.  This is her schedule every week unless she manages to get a vacation day or two (or if she gets sick)—in which case, work backs up and her return is hard.

Sally does not like her job but there are no other jobs available that she would like.  She wishes she didn’t have to work. Some will say she only takes the job because of coercion. This would be “circumstance-based,” “background,” or “situational” coercion (for discussions, see chapter 7 of Scanlon or chapter 4 of Cohen-Almagor). In this sort of coercion, there is no individual person or clear corporate entity that does anything coercive. There is no one to blame for Sally’s situation and no one to interfere with to help Sally.

Some will insist that what is described is not coercive at all—that without a coercer, there cannot be coercion.  They might also insist that Sally consents to the the employment.  They might even say Sally consents to the social system within which she is employed.  Some of this is true—Sally does, I think, consent to her employment. What about the claim that there is no coercion?

Generally speaking, we think of coercion as one agent, P, acting to get a second agent, Q, to do some action, A, typically by threatening to do something Q does not want to happen (firing Q, harming Q’s relative, etc).  When P does this, it is reasonable to think P is responsible—or at least partly responsible—for Q’s (coerced) actions and that P is subject to justifiable interference.  In Sally’s case, there simply is no P acting to get Sally to keep working.  There are only the facts of the social, political, and economic world which jointly make it such that if Sally does not work, she will not be able to afford to live. The circumstances are what matters and circumstances aren’t agents that do things.

Does this mean it makes no sense to say Sally is coerced?  I’m skeptical.  Sally is not doing as she wants to do.  She acts counter-preferentially because of the way the social, political, and economic world she (and we) inhabit is set up.  While there is no particular agent to blame or interfere with, we can still think there is something unfortunate going on.  If you don’t want to call it coercion, call it shcoercion.  The important point is not one of conceptual analysis but of the morality of the situation.

Some think that the situation is not merely unfortunate but that it is so unjust we ought to change things in the political and economic order so that Sally (and the rest of us) would not be coerced (or shcoerced) by circumstances to work a particular job.  Marxists and others on the left might even say the situation is so unjust that we ought to have the government act to make it such that Sally would not have to work at all.  (See, for example, Van Parijs.)

While I would deny that the world should be set up in such a way that anyone can choose not to work at all if they prefer that, it seems clear that a situation where many people have to work at jobs they don’t like at all is at least unfortunate. (I’m also OK with saying it is coercive or shcoercive, but would note that not all coercion or shcoercion is bad).

A world in which most people work is good for all of us.  A world in which many have to work at jobs they don’t like is, obviously, less good than one in which all of us could work at jobs we like.  This is not a Marxist or socialist claim.  Indeed, I believe the most reasonable way to actualize such a situation—where all or most can work at jobs they like—is to move far more toward a free market (or freed market—see, for example, Carson) than we have.  I’ll keep further thoughts about that for a possible future post. 

In the meantime, here’s what really strikes me as odd: the same people that think they are unjustly coerced into working will often also say that voting in a democratic system—including a democratic system like ours—is indication of consent to the system.  This strikes me as completely incongruous with the view that they are coerced into working.  I didn’t have any part in making our democratic system and I deny that when I vote within that system, I am thereby consenting to it.  I vote, when I do, thinking “I wish we had a better system, but I want to vote now even though I am participating in what seems to me a clearly illegitimate system.”  No one asked for my consent to a two party system.  Or a system within which the majority can ruin the lives of a minority.  Perhaps this system is less coercive than the employment system—but if so, its because I can choose simply not to vote at all.  I’m not, that is, coerced into voting.  I am, though, coerced into voting in a bad system if I wish to vote at all.  Its not like I can go out and vote in a good system—that option is not possible for me.

If it’s true that others made impossible the option of Sally not working at all—or not working at all given the system we live in (I doubt it)—then the coercion there would be on par with the coercion that leaves me only able to vote in what seems to me an illegitimate system. It strikes me as more likely that it is circumstance-based coercion (or shcoercion) in both cases. In both cases, I think, there is no specific agent to blame or interfere with. In neither case does this mean we should rest comfortable with the social-political-economic order. If we ought to think of changing things for people like Sally, we ought to think of changing things for people like me. But many people seem to think Sally is treated unjustly and I am not. Why? That is, why do people believe that voting in a system they had no part in making constitutes consent to that system but working for an employer in a system they had no part in making does not?

Discourse and Attendance in College Classes

Many of my posts on RCL have been about discourse. None has been directly about discourse in classrooms, but I do try to make my classes sites of civil discourse. This is both because student dialogue is what makes the classroom fun and exciting for me and because I believe it is an essential part of college. (See this.). The discourse that occurs in classrooms and elsewhere on college campuses is an invaluable part of the college experience.

As I’ve discussed previously, I think there are 2 basic reasons to engage in discourse: to maintain or nourish a relationship or to convey information. (See here.) In college classrooms, I will simply assume, the latter reason is paramount. That is also hugely important elsewhere on college campuses—students learn a lot from each other—but the first reason is also hugely important as students make connections with others, some of whom will be life long friends and some of whom will be business associates.

This post is primarily about classrooms, so it’s the conveying of information that is relevant here. In particular, its what is relevant when asking whether attendance should be required in college classes. My own view about this has changed over the years. In the past, I’ve marked people down for poor attendance or multiple tardies or made class participation—for which attendance is a necessary prerequisite—a separate and substantial part of students’ grades. At a certain point, though, colleagues convinced me that making participation a part of a student’s grade was unfair to those students who have significant psychological issues with speaking in class. At first, I responded to that by allowing the “participation” to be outside of class—either in office visits or email. Eventually, I dropped it as a requirement and instead made it only a way to improve one’s grade. I’ve never stopped believing, though, in the importance of attending and participating in class.

Over the years, I’ve had students approach me about taking a class without attending. Some had very good reason they could not attend courses during the day when the course was offered—needing to work full time to support their family, for example. My standard reply was always something like “no, attendance is required” or “you can’t pass this class without attending, so no.” More recently, I have been questioning the wisdom of that. The issue has to involve consideration of the sort of information that is conveyed in classes.

As a philosopher, I am not at all concerned that students learn biographical facts about philosophers and only somewhat concerned that students learn even basic facts about different theories. My main concern is in getting students to see how to do philosophy. What that means is that I want students to learn how to think clearly, check assumptions, make valid inferences, and engage in both verbal and written discourse about arguments and their premises, inferential moves, and conclusions. I want to convey to them how to do this well.

Given what I want the students to get out of my classes, my question becomes “is attendance necessary for students to think clearly, check assumptions, make valid inferences, and engage in both verbal and written discourse about arguments and their premises, inferential moves, and conclusions?” Another way to ask the question is to ask: “do individual learners need professors to learn how to do those things?” I think most do.

Classically, education has three stages: grammar, logic, rhetoric. I prefer to think of these in terms of mimesis, analysis, synthesis. The idea is that young children must memorize information, imitating language and such, and until they have some minimum amount of knowledge, they can’t be expected to do anything else. Once they have that, though, they can move on to the second stage wherein they can use logic to analyze things, figuring out what goes where and why. They can even question—analyze—the bits of information they previously learned. Only with mastery of analysis can they move on to the third stage wherein they can make something new, synthesizing something from the parts of what they have analyzed.

Teachers are clearly needed for mimesis—someone has to provide the student what it is that should be learned (memorized, imitated). Perhaps teachers are also needed for the beginnings of the second stage, pointing students in the right direction as they begin to do logical analysis. One needs to understand basic rules of deductive logic to do analysis well and I suspect most of us need someone to teach us that. But does everyone? Frankly, I doubt it though I suppose how much teachers are needed here will depend on how much of logic is innate to our reasoning abilities. It seems even less likely that teachers are necessary for the third stage, though clearly someone to give us direction can be useful and I think it likely that most of us learn best in dialogue with others. If that is right, attendance in class would clearly be useful. So perhaps that is the answer to my question: most people need direction, they can only get that in class, so attendance should be required.

What, though, if some want to learn without professors? Some certainly can do so. Whether they should be allowed to do so when in college is another question. After all, if they are able to do so, why should they enroll in college at all? If they do enroll, the college can simply say “you are enrolling here and that means accepting that we know best how you will learn (or at least recognizing that we get to decide), and we deem it necessary for you to attend courses.”

Some will no doubt think that the sort of view just attributed to a college is overly paternalistic. On the other hand, some people will be unfortunately wrong when they think they can teach themselves collegiate level material. Some people, after all, read great books and completely misunderstand them. I have met people who thought themselves erudite for reading Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and others, but whose comprehension of those authors was abysmal. Such people would be well served by a policy requiring course attendance. Without it, they would lack comprehension and thus do poorly on any assessments.

Still, presumably some can read those materials and do well. (In other systems, after all, attending classes is—was?—not expected; one studies a set of materials and then is examined.) Others might not do well, but do well enough for their purposes. They may, that is, only want some knowledge (or some level of skill)—happy to have read the texts even if their comprehension is limited—and be happy to get a C or C- in a course. They may have reason to want a college degree independent of learning well. (In our society, after all, many seem only to go to college to get a degree to signal to employers that they are worth hiring. It’s hard to blame them for this given how our society works.)

So a student may have good reason to enroll in a college, register for a course, and not attend. But what should we think about this and what should professors do? Some professors, of course, may be annoyed or insulted if students are apparently unconcerned to attend regularly or show up on time. I was in the past, but no longer am. I still, though, have a hard time tolerating feigned surprise at grades from students who obviously did not prioritize the class. I would prefer a student who says “its not worth my coming to class; I’ll just try to pass without doing so” to one who lies about how hard they are trying to do the work. Frankly, I am coming to think that if they pass, the former simply deserve congratulations. (If they don’t pass, they can’t expect me to be upset. I can root for their passing, without being surprised if they don’t.) But, honestly, I’d be hugely surprised if they did at all well without attending. That is the main concern—the best pedagogy.

Why would I be surprised if a non-attending student passed? Frankly, I think that the vast majority of people learn better in a class with a professor than they can without. If nothing else, in philosophy and other humanities classes, they learn something very important—how to engage in good civil, honest, and productive discourse. That does affect how they perform on exams and papers. What I expect in all of the writing my students do—whether on a short essay exam, longer essay exams, or papers—is well-written and well thought out, honest and civil responses to whatever prompt is provided. I want them to do philosophy after all, not sophistry or fluff. Attending class means being in an environment designed to help them learn. If they participate as I hope they do, they can also help improve that environment. That makes for better outcomes for all in the class. Even if they don’t participate—and, again, I realize doing so is honestly hard for some students—they are likely to do better simply because they hear the sort of discourse I seek to promote. If they hear others practicing good discourse, they are likely to pick up on what it is. Attendance helps.

The whole point of classes is that for most students, they promote learning—for those attending. Why, then, would someone want to register for a class if they don’t plan to attend? One answer is that the current system mainly doesn’t allow them to get the credentials of college without doing so. Mainly. We do have fully asynchronous online classes for which one does the work on one’s own time so long as one completes it by the required deadlines, including finishing it all by the end of a semester. (But why insist on a time limit?)

While we don’t have a system conducive to students not registering for classes and yet getting credentialed, that isn’t reason to require attendance in the classes we offer. Perhaps we ought to make it possible for students to take a syllabus, learn the material on their own, and sit for an exam when they feel themselves ready, without imposing a schedule on them. If they pass, great. If not, perhaps they try actually taking the class (i.e., including attending). That may be what we should do. Until then, some of us will require attendance and some will not.

Open for comments and discussion. What do others think?

Structural Racism and Individual Choice

A story this week in the New York Times about the Minneapolis school district raised some interesting questions about racism, liberalism, and individualism.  The story explains how Minneapolis school officials “assigned families to new school zones, redrawing boundaries to take socioeconomic diversity — and as a consequence, racial diversity — into account.”  This is in response to legitimate concerns that Minneapolis, described in the story as “among the most segregated school districts in the country,” has tangible gaps in academic performance by race.  “Research shows that de facto school segregation is one major reason that America’s education system is so unequal, and that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools can benefit all students.” 

The article elaborates on the problem: “Research has shown that integration can deliver benefits for all children.  For example, Black children exposed to desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education experienced higher educational achievement, higher annual earnings as adults, a lower likelihood of incarceration and better health outcomes, according to longitudinal work by the economist Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley. The gains came at no cost to the educational achievement of white students.  Other research has documented how racially and economically diverse schools can benefit all students, including white children, by reducing biases and promoting skills like critical thinking.  Racially segregated schools, on the other hand, are associated with larger gaps in student performance, because they tend to concentrate students of color in high poverty environments, according to a recent paper analyzing all public school districts.”

So the plan is to increase integration, not necessarily by bussing black students to predominantly white schools, but by bussing white students to predominantly black schools.  Predictably, not every family is enthusiastic about this.  But what I found interesting about the story is that it highlights the ways in which a structure can have outcomes that are racist even if individual actors within that structure aren’t racists.   Many people bristle at the terms “structural racism” or “institutional racism” because they take them to imply that individual actors are racists.  People who use these terms typically don’t mean to imply this (though some do), but this distinction can get lost in the shuffle.  One specific anecdote in the article is helpful here.

Heather Wulfsberg, of Minnetonka, had her daughter reassigned to North High School.  She appealed this decision, but let’s see why.  Wulfsberg, “who is white, had intended to send her daughter, Isabella, 14, to Southwest High, a racially diverse but majority white public school that is a 10-minute bus ride from their home.  The school offers an international baccalaureate program, as well as Japanese, which Isabella studied in middle school. Isabella’s older brother, 18, is a senior there, and Ms. Wulfsberg envisioned her children attending together, her son helping Isabella navigate freshman year. So Ms. Wulfsberg appealed the reassignment to North, citing her son’s attendance at Southwest, and her daughter’s interest in Japanese. (North offers one language, Spanish.)  She was also concerned about transportation. There was no direct bus, and Isabella’s commute could take up to 55 minutes. She would also have to walk from the bus stop to school through an area where frequent gun shots are a problem.”

If Wulfsberg had said something like “I can’t bear the thought of my daughter going to a majority-black school,” it would be clear these are unsupportable reasons.  But the preceding paragraph gives all perfectly legitimate reasons.  Isabella can’t continue learning her language.  She would spend 2 hours a day on the bus.  Is it reasonable to force Heather to do that to Isabella?  I don’t see that it is.  And Heather didn’t either, so Isabella is going to private school.  On the community Facebook page, Heather was called a racist.  ““They were like, ‘Your cover is, you want academics for your kids, and underneath this all, you really are racist,’” she recalled. “It’s a very scary feeling to do a self-examination of yourself and think, ‘Am I?’”  She paused, reflecting. “But I don’t believe I am. I really don’t.””

I have no idea whether she is or not, but she certainly can’t be called a racist for the reasons given here.  So in this case, the parents in the community Facebook group were in fact using something about structural racism as a personal accusation, precisely what the coining of the term was meant to avoid.

It’s possible of course that both (a) the evolution of American public schooling has been heavily influenced by racism and yields outcomes that are demonstrably unequal and (b) parents like Heather aren’t motivated by racism at all.  But then we’re stuck with a conundrum: what’s the fix for (a)?  If the answer is “Isabella’s good must be sacrificed for the greater good of helping ameliorate racial inequality in schools,” you’re certainly in for rough time getting Heather to agree.  Another approach might be systemic: since the outcome problems are systemic, it wouldn’t be crazy to think the solution would be systemic as well.  The anarchist response “don’t have public schools at all” is probably correct, but politically unfeasible.  But even if we have public schools, there’s no reason they have to be structured the way they are.  One reason for the disparity in schools is that in most districts, local property taxes pay for the schools, so wealthier suburbs have better schools than poorer areas (this affects poor white areas too of course).  So maybe don’t tie school funding to local property taxes.  Or maybe don’t have school districts be drawn like Checkpoint Charlie.   Any rigidly drawn district would have some families living at its fringes – why prohibit those kids from attending school in the next district?  The classic pro-choice argument is: figure out what the state government spends per pupil, and then give that money to the families to spend on whichever school they think is best, public or private.  This would eliminate geography-based funding discrepancies.   We address the problem of people not being able to afford food not by having state-run farms and grocery stores, but by giving people money for food.  Why not give them money for school?

The World is Not a Therapy Session

Braver Angels does fantastic work helping people improve conversations with those they have significant and stress-inducing disagreements with so that they can gain greater mutual understanding of each other, thereby reducing polarization. It seems to work. As I noted earlier, though, the desire to maintain or improve one’s relationships with others is only one of the two main reasons we engage in discourse. The other is to exchange information, both “teaching” and “learning.” As I noted in that previous post, I worry about the “truth deficit” likely to emerge if we stress mutual understanding (of each other rather than of each other’s views). Here, I’ll discuss this a bit further.

What is encouraged in Braver Angels’ workshops is active listening, where one attends to what the other says, providing non-verbal clues of interest, along with reflecting back to the other what they said. In a therapeutic setting, reflecting back to another what they said can be incredibly useful. “People like having their thoughts and feelings reflected back to them” (Tania Israel, page 51) and so increases their comfort level when in therapy, thereby allowing them to open up. For therapeutic purposes, it seems really quite useful. Nonetheless, I have long been uncomfortable with it in other settings.

I had a date once with a woman who, throughout dinner, reflected back to me what I had said. It so threw me off that I didn’t really know what to make of it. I don’t recall how long it took for me to realize that she might have resorted to the tactic because she found what I was saying antithetical to her own views (I don’t recall what we were discussing). I’ll never know for sure as I found it so distasteful that I never saw her again. If the same thing would’ve happened today, I’d probably ask why she was doing it, but I suspect there are others who would do as I did and walk away. (I don’t deny, of course, that others appreciate it.)

Again, the technique has value—there is good evidence that it helps people feel comfortable which can be useful both in developing relationships and in therapy situations (see Israel footnotes 5 and 6 on page 74). Importantly, though, the world is not a therapy session and sometimes what matters is exchanging information, not (or not merely) developing a relationship. Put another way, while it’s true that we sometimes want to develop a relationship and learn about the person, other times we want to figure out the truth about a topic and are less willing to except the truth deficit. If we are trying to persuade someone to change their views about abortion, capitalism, gun control, immigration, schools, welfare rights, or any number of other contentious topics, we might want to know more about our interlocutor, but we also just want to persuade—or be persuaded. (Part of why we want to know who they are is to determine how we might persuade them!)

To be clear, when we are engaging in a serious discussion with someone about an issue we disagree about, we should be open to the possibility that the view we start the conversation with is mistaken and that we can thus learn from our interlocutor. Of course, when we start, we will believe we are right and hope to teach (persuade) the other, but we have to know we can be wrong. We should also be open to the possibility that neither of us is right and there is some third position (perhaps somewhere between our view and theirs, perhaps not) that is better still. What is important in these cases, though, is figuring out the truth about the issue (or getting closer to it). We shouldn’t give that up lightly.

Getting to the truth may, in some instances, be aided by reflecting to each other what we’ve said. Obviously, if we do not understand what our interlocutor has said we should ask them to explain. Sometimes we simply need some clarification. We need to know, after all, that we are actually talking about the same thing and we need to understand where our views overlap and where they do not. Sometimes, also, we might ask someone to repeat what they say in different words to make sure we understand; we might also do it for them (common in teaching). But if reflecting back to each other is used for other reasons (making the other feel comfortable, for example), I wonder how far it goes. It seems to me that we need to challenge each other. Sometimes, we may even need to be abrasive—or to have others be abrasive toward us. This can help us improve our own views. (For more on that see Emily Chamlee-Wright’s article on the topic here, as well as my response. See also Hrishikesh Joshi’s Why Its OK to Speak Your Mind.)

In short, it seems to me that in normal discourse with someone with whom we disagree, we ought to be at least as concerned with determining the best view as we are with making each other comfortable. Making each other comfortable is important, but perhaps primarily as a precursor to honest conversation. If I say, for example, that “I believe we should have completely open economic borders, perhaps just keeping out known criminals” and you reply “let me be sure I understand; you think we should not stop anyone from coming into the country (perhaps unless they are criminals in their own country) even if it means they take our jobs, push for an end to Judeo-Christianity, and bring in drugs,” I am likely to skip over the first part—which strikes me as unnecessary and vaguely insulting—and move on to the latter claims, which I think are all mistakes. I might think “OK, so they wanted to be clear” or “OK, they wanted time to gather their thoughts,” but if it becomes a regular part of the conversation, I am less likely to continue engaging (and, frankly, less likely to trust the other). I may even wonder why why people approach all of life as if it’s a therapy session.

Owning Civil Discourse and Social Justice