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The Weaponising of Free Speech On Campus, and Other Toxicities…

Interview by Richard Marshall.

What we see now that we have not seen before is, first of all, the involvement of outside groups, ideologically motivated and funded by individuals and organizations, which are promoting the more divisive aspects of the current tensions. It seems that they do so either out of a sense that conservative and right-leaning views are too sparse on college campuses, or as part of an effort to discredit higher education for political reasons. ‘

Another commonly held, and wrong, belief is that colleges and universities suppress speech as a matter of course. In fact, the higher education sector is where the open exchange of ideas is more protected and valued than most other sectors in society. Businesses regularly limit speech by their employees, as Elizabeth Anderson discusses in her recent book Private Government; schools are increasingly permitted to limit student and teacher speech, as Catherine Ross shows in Lesson in Censorship; social media platforms are run by private entities whose commitment to neutral protection of speech is questionable. Universities, while flawed, stand out as institutions where free speech is upheld.

Democratic institutions should continue paying attention to identity politics because identity is still a main cause of injustice, in that individuals’ opportunities are limited as a result of their identity attributes. Moreover, people commonly understand themselves and the world through an identity lens, and therefore to the extent that we are looking to develop knowledge about people we should at least consider identity as an important dimension of the psychological, social and political world.’

Civility is both too broad and too narrow to guide an open discussion. It covers too little in that it permits injurious, ad hominin speech that should not be valued as part of a philosophical or academic discussion (even as it should not be censored); and it covers too much in that it does not permit modes of expression that should be valued and recognized, and it can be used to chill speech that should be permissible.

To be treated with dignity as I understand it means to be seen as an equal member of the community in question, someone who can contribute to its mission or participate in its vision of itself in productive ways. I emphasize dignity as a core part of this vision because it allows me to highlight the role of power in the establishment of freedom, a role that is otherwise obscured by the abstract assumption that all people either are free or can be free, and enjoy the benefits of freedom, under current political and social conditions.

‘I view most of this focus on personal (dispositional) autonomy as futile, because in its various forms it ends up being oxymoronic (in that it aims to cultivate what would naturally evolve either way, or to attempt excellence that is hardly attainable), illegitimate (when we use coercion to accomplish autonomy, or else when we prioritze certain cultural values over others in ways that are oppressive), or unrealistic.’

Sigal Ben-Porath’s research focuses on citizenship education, normative aspects of educational and social policy, and the social and educational effects of war. Her areas of expertise include philosophy of education and political philosophy. Here she discusses free speech on campus and how it became toxic, some of the myths surrounding the issue, why free speech is important, why inclusion and freedom are not in tension, identity politics, inclusion, plurality – and whether these are just features of neoliberal ideology, civility,  intellectual safety and dignity safety, the fostering of dignity and  democratic atmospheres, inclusive freedom, structured paternalism, choosing between competing conditions for choice, and the need to discuss war much more than we do.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Sigal Ben-Porath: This question somehow threw me for a loop. Is one born, or rather becomes, a philosopher? While I have not heard much about philosophy before going to college, I think I was interested in its tools and possibilities earlier on. Then, I had an amazing philosophy of science class that I took as a sophomore, which was my first exposure to the discipline. In this class we read some history of science and we raised questions about the meaning of proof, what knowledge means, how we can understand causation – it was my first time reading anything in philosophy, and the first time thinking with others about ideas in this way. I also took a required course in ‘foundations’ as part of my education focus, which introduced me to classical philosophy as well as to some revolutionary ideas about education. It was a short road from there to political philosophy and to philosophy of education, as I had been interested in question of justice and democracy for a long time, I was just unsure where might be a good disciplinary context for me to study them.

I became a philosopher because I was driven to try and understand arguments, to consider what was justified; I wanted, and still want, to assess the ideas and structures that affect our shared lives, and to measure them against normative visions of society, as well as to critically assess the visions. I loved studying philosophy as an undergraduate, and also as a doctoral student. I loved working as a post-doc at the Center for Human Values at Princeton. While it had not always been easy being a woman in philosophy, and not always easy pursuing my interests especially as they relate to education, this is my intellectual home.

Free Speech on Campus

3:AM: You’ve written about free speech at University. Right now it seems a toxic issue. First of all then, can you say something about how and when it became such a divisive issue?

SB: While the boundaries of speech have been debated and contested on campus for decades, the focus on free speech as a wedge issue is newer and more pressing in the last few years. The history of campus activism is long and storied: Students’ concerns about invited speakers, for instance, have sparked protests and disinvitations in the 1970s; the Vietnam war gave rise to heated political activity on campus; the sweatshop issue prompted students to stage sit-in numerous times over decades. None of the current expressions of tensions – protests, ‘no platforming,’ controversial speakers, disinvitations – is new.

What we see now that we have not seen before is, first of all, the involvement of outside groups, ideologically motivated and funded by individuals and organizations, which are promoting the more divisive aspects of the current tensions. It seems that they do so either out of a sense that conservative and right-leaning views are too sparse on college campuses, or as part of an effort to discredit higher education for political reasons. Questions about viewpoint diversity, the boundaries of acceptable speech on campus, the need to encourage or discourage certain forms and types of expression on campus out of concern to maintaining an atmosphere of open minded inquiry, all these are the lifeblood of campus. It is what we do every day when we do our work well, and what we aim to teach our students to do. This does not mean that universities and colleges are perfect; we do fail when we create conditions that chill speech, when we discourage the expression of dissenting views, when we fall into patterns of dogmatic thinking. But to present higher education as a context where young people are being indoctrinated into certain political views, and where free speech is under attack, is to misunderstand research and teaching or to ignore the realities of campus life.

Moreover, since the issue of free speech itself has become politicized and is being used as an ideological marker in the culture wars, intense media attention exacerbates the tensions around otherwise mundane events. Whereas in the past a possible misstep by an instructor, or a divisive speaker, would gain some attention among interested students and blow over, today they can feed days of news cycles, blogs and responses, twitter outrage that lasts for days.

Philosophy can help us clarify some of these issues and therefore respond to them well. For example, what is the relations between free speech and viewpoint diversity? The two are presented by many commentators as one and the same. They suggest that more professors than students self-identify as liberal (and both are more liberal than the general public), which is presented as a free speech issue. But is it? It would be if other views are not presented or are silenced, or if professors preach their political ideology in class. Both sometimes happen, but how often and to what effect? (this is where data may be needed more urgently than philosophy). How does the possible lack of viewpoint diversity relate to the mission of the university to expand knowledge, and to educate students for their roles in the market and in democracy? Mill helps us think about the centrality of encountering opposing views to the advancement of truth and knowledge; free speech is for him not an end in itself but a tool in the progress toward truth. How does that translate to our age in which the concept of truth itself is politicized and sometimes maligned? These are divisive issues because politics gets entangled in these concepts and expressed in our work, and there is much that we can do as philosophers and as faculty to respond to this challenge.

3:AM: How are colleges approaching the challenges and tensions? Are there some common myths that actually don’t hold up when we look about what’s happening?

SB: There are over 4000 colleges and universities in the United States, some of which are actively dealing with speech tensions, and there are many institutions of higher education globally which are dealing with similar tensions. The issue is commonly portrayed in the public debate as a matter of tension between a commitment to open expression on the one hand, and a commitment to inclusion on the other. This is a false dichotomy and a misguided representation of the two values – inclusion and freedom (especially freedom of expression) – as mutually exclusive. In fact, college campuses have many ways to address both commitments at once, by ensuring a robust and open inquiry. In the vast majority of cases, an inclusive climate is one in which more people and more views are protected and expressed. Focusing on marginal (though important) cases in which speech, especially bigoted, biased, and controversial speech, is exclusionary and undermines the equal standing of diverse members of the campus community is sometimes important, but it also distracts from the fact that for the most part the two values go hand in hand especially in the higher education context.

Another commonly held, and wrong, belief is that colleges and universities suppress speech as a matter of course. In fact, the higher education sector is where the open exchange of ideas is more protected and valued than most other sectors in society. Businesses regularly limit speech by their employees, as Elizabeth Anderson discusses in her recent book Private Government; schools are increasingly permitted to limit student and teacher speech, as Catherine Ross shows in Lesson in Censorship; social media platforms are run by private entities whose commitment to neutral protection of speech is questionable. Universities, while flawed, stand out as institutions where free speech is upheld. That does not mean we have nothing to improve – sometimes concern about hurt feelings can become exaggerated and chill speech; in some places viewpoint diversity should be more of an active concern than it is; and in many contexts some students are effectively silenced because their identities or ideologies are not equally valued. Free speech is regularly negotiated as part of our mission to expand and disseminate knowledge, and that is a constructive aspect of our work.

3:AM: You see free speech as something we should treat as an imperative, but a push back against this would be to question this. Is it any more important or imperative than free action, for example? Wouldn’t downgrading speech help improve the situation by at least removing fanciful rationalisations about why free speech is so sacred?

SB: While free speech has been politicized and even weaponized in recent years, I do not think that the correct response would be to downgrade it as a central concern for democracies generally and specifically for institutions of higher learning. Speech is not distinct from action, rather it is a form of action, and one which offers a primary way of exercising freedom of thought and communicating our views, beliefs, hopes and plans of action to others. Protection for speech does not cover only spoken words, but also art, written expression, protests and other modes of expression. Without wide protection for speech we lose part of the bedrock of our democratic values, in that we fail to protect the ability of individuals not only to think for themselves but also their ability to communicate their thoughts to others.

If we fail to protect speech in colleges and universities, and abandon the distinct ways in which it deserves and requires protection in the context of the pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination, we lose our ability to push the boundaries of what we know both as individuals and as a collective (meaning, the knowledge held by a discipline, or by society). Institutions of higher education are built on the assumption that knowledge is evolving and progressing, and if we suppress speech we are sure to lose a key way in which our understanding of the world continues to grow. Downgrading speech as a key dimension of this work, and permitting its suppression, would mean halting the effort to expand and refine our shared knowledge, as well as limiting our ability to communicate and relate the knowledge we have to our students and peers. Hence I do not see freedom of expression as overly valued in the current debate; I do see it as sometimes improperly framed or wielded to advance ideological goals. To correct for that we – those who care about democracy and about research, teaching and learning – must not cede it to ideologues but rather hold on to its role as a cornerstone of both democracy and scholarly work.

3:AM: Inclusion and freedom seem to be in tension in these debates, but you reject this tension don’t you? Is this because of what you think the mission of a University is?

SB: I see freedom and inclusion as generally aligned and complimentary, and I suggest that tensions between them exist not at the core but only in the margins of their application. I reject this tension as inherent to the relations between these two important values, and I also reject it as it applies to the functioning of a university. If freedom as a general democratic value, understood negatively as lack of undue governmental restraints or positively as ensuring the substantive opportunity to act by one’s will, is respected and implemented, it ought to apply to all members of the democratic community. In applying freedom properly, we also recognize and implement a vision of inclusion, understood as creating access to all for participation as equal contributing members and to benefiting from all that the relevant community has to offer. I don’t think this is a particularly controversial vision of either freedom or inclusion.

The reason that the two are understood to be in tension has to do with one feature of free action that individuals might take, which is the act of discriminating against others or acting on bias and prejudices against certain groups. Thus freedom of association would allow me to admit only people of a certain type – for example, people who share my religious views, or people who I find to be funny – into my faith organization or my comedy troupe. This might be judged as unfairly exclusive by others who would like to join too and whom I bar from sharing my sermons or my jokes. While this tension is inherent to the relations of freedom and inclusion, and central to the understanding freedom of association, it is not a central feature of all other liberties, and it is a marginal aspect of freedom of speech. Expressions of bigoted, biased or otherwise exclusionary speech are protected by the First Amendment in the United States (and partially protected in Canada and most of Europe). But they are not central to the protection of free expression in the same way that exclusion is essential to many forms of associational freedom.

This is certainly even more so at the university. While freedom, especially freedom of speech, is key to our mission, we cannot fulfil our mission if we fail to ensure that all of our members can openly speak and be heard – in other words, without true inclusion our mission to protect free expression as a way to maintain an atmosphere of free inquiry and leaning cannot be realized. For example, if members of racial minorities are consistently devalued and questioned, if women are consistently intimidated or ridiculed when they participate etc., than we do not in fact uphold and maintain an atmosphere of free inquiry, because we effectively silence or fail to hear what many in our community are contributing to the discussion. This does not mean that bigoted or biased speech must be censored to protect an inclusive climate, but it does mean that such speech – which is marginal to the overall endeavor – should be considered in light of its disproportionate impact on some members of our community. The university community, or some of its members (for example, student clubs, department, or the administration) can decide to take steps in response to exclusionary speech, for example by elevating the voices of those who are silenced by exclusionary speech, by emphasizing and enacting the inclusive aims of the campus, or by ensuring that there are groups, practices, and conditions that allow for all to participate and be heard.

Citizenship under Fire

3:AM: How does identity politics, pluralism and inclusion fit into this mix?  On the left people like Adolph Reed Jr call these out as the upper class politics of neoliberalism (an argument might go – true human emancipation would come about not through the inclusion of disenfranchised minorities into the prevailing social and economic order but, rather, through its overthrow and the replacement of a mode of production driven by the interest of a plutocratic class by one governed by the general will)  and might say that your position takes too seriously the alleged dignitary harm to students who mobilise identity as to close down argument. Why should universities take identity politics seriously especially if it is just a feature of a neoliberalism that erodes the democratic values you identify as the mission of a university?

SB: Democratic institutions should continue paying attention to identity politics because identity is still a main cause of injustice, in that individuals’ opportunities are limited as a result of their identity attributes. Moreover, people commonly understand themselves and the world through an identity lens, and therefore to the extent that we are looking to develop knowledge about people we should at least consider identity as an important dimension of the psychological, social and political world. This does not mean that identity politics should take center stage at the university (or other democratic institutions), but it does mean that we cannot ignore it or replace it with a universalist view or other perspectives that avoid identity differences. I also think that at least in the United States, and probably in many other countries as well, economic disenfranchisement is tightly linked to social identity, and should be understood and addressed as such rather than through focusing on one and abandoning the other. This comment though is broadly about democracy rather than specifically about universities or speech.

My understanding of these latter matters builds not only on democratic principles but also on my experience trying to implement them in the context of the contemporary university. In my years chairing the University of Pennsylvania’s Committee on Open Expression I have attempted to develop and apply a vision of inclusive freedom that is aligned with my university’s view of itself, and with its mission. As I work with other institutions now to develop their own policies and practices of free expression, I do so from within each of their unique mission, their history, their context and people they serve. Ideals of free speech like other freedoms may remain constant but they apply differently in a History Black College, in a women’s college, at a small rural private institution, at a more selective college, or at a community college. This is not merely about identity politics but about recognizing the ways in which a college defines its mission for the people it aims to serve.

So while I agree with my colleague Adolph Reed and others who claim that the neoliberal university, like similar social structures, can participate in reproducing current power relations, and can accept that including previously disenfranchised groups like women or minority groups in higher education, for example, can serve to preserve these structures rather than challenge them, I hesitate to postpone this inclusion in favor of better social institutions that still do not exist (of course that is not Reed’s recommendation either). Because I work in education – both as a faculty member at a university, and as a scholar who studies schools – I am committed to establishing ideal visions of justice, democracy and freedom while also working through and within existing institutions, flawed as they may be, to promote greater equality and justice.

Identity politics is a part of this process to the extent that it can empower groups of marginalized members to participate in higher education and to ensure that they benefit from this participation, by giving voice to their concerns as well as amplifying their unique forms of knowledge. If inclusion is substantial rather than only formal, if we manage to hear the perspective, the knowledge and the beliefs of people who were not previously included in higher education institutions, the institutions will change rather than only expand to include additional groups within their current structures. When women were more broadly admitted as students and faculty into higher education, the institutions were not only expanded in size to make room for them, they were also transformed in various ways in response to women’s views, perspectives, knowledge and interests. These changes included a reevaluation of knowledge itself in various disciplines, as well as changes in common practices such as the introduction of sexual harassment regulations or further attention to work-life balance. Obviously there is still a lot to improve in many areas, but this is a service not only to women or other marginalized members within our communities, but to everyone who is honest in their attempt to learn and expand knowledge, and to sustain democratic and just institutions. I see inclusion as a process that benefits the scholarly community in that it diversifies the voices we hear, the knowledge to which we have access, and our ability to pursue questions wherever they lead us. In my view this is a liberal rather than neoliberal vision, in that it focuses on freedom and knowledge rather than on power and money.

3:AM: I presume Reed would agree with you that civility shouldn’t be an overriding guiding norm in intellectual exchange, and certainly when I was a philosophy undergrad many an exchange between professor and student, never mind professor and professor, took no prisoners – think of Jerry Fodor’s ‘ Is this paper a joke?’-type snarls  – but the fierce candor was always about the ideas not the people. What do you say we should do if we don’t have civility as the presiding norm?

SB: Civility is both too broad and too narrow to guide an open discussion. It covers too little in that it permits injurious, ad hominin speech that should not be valued as part of a philosophical or academic discussion (even as it should not be censored); and it covers too much in that it does not permit modes of expression that should be valued and recognized, and it can be used to chill speech that should be permissible. For instance, epistemic injuries of the type that Miranda Fricker uncovered and analyzed in her work, which stems from realizing that one is not seen as equal and is not valued as such, can easily be caused under the guise of acceptable civil discourse. The pain and anger they cause cannot always be expressed in civil ways. And thus it is the injured party who will be deemed uncivil, while the persons causing the injury can continue to be seen as respectable, acceptable participants in the conversation. And all of this can happen under the blissful guise of civility.

I sometimes think that the take-no-prisoners style of argument that prevails in the discipline is one of the reasons that there are not enough women who choose to stay in philosophy departments, and not because we cannot survive or excel in it, but mostly because many women do not enjoy it or don’t see it as a productive form of engagement. Moreover, women regularly need to justify their academic presence in a discipline where we still valorize, and for otherwise good reason, people who like Spinoza claimed that women do not naturally possess equal rights to men. Some of the harsh arguments which are based on accepted norms of civility in the profession create a greater burden on women, people of color, and others who do not traditionally belong in philosophy department, who are not represented in its cannon and on its syllabi and in its leadership. It is of course possible that some women do enjoy this type of exchange, and even that all this has nothing to do with gender. Either way, I find civility to be an inadequate norm for thinking about speech on campus. While some instructors can institute particular norms of civility for their classroom, which is fully acceptable, and in fact I recommend that norms of classroom exchange are established and maintained by instructors as a way to ensure a climate of open inquiry and learning, I do not see traditional visions of civility as useful guidelines for other scholarly exchanges or for university life overall.

3:AM: You have expanded on Callan’s distinction between intellectual safety and dignity safety. Can you first say something about what the distinction identifies?

SB: The distinction identified areas in which it makes sense to challenge students and areas in which it makes sense to protect them. Intellectual risks and challenges are at the heart of the academic process: students come to college to have their current knowledge, beliefs and perspectives challenged and expanded, and it is the responsibility of faculty and others to raise questions and encourage students to reconsider their well-established practices and positions, and to try on new knowledge and views. We do that every day in college: students (if they are well-prepared) come in well versed in the 5-paragraph essay, and we ask them to abandon it for more creative or more scholarly approaches to writing. They come knowing one version of history, mostly based on military conquests and political successes, and we upend their view of what history means and how it is studied. They come, if they were taught well, with some understanding of linear algebra and we have them consider non-linear possibilities, and so on. This is true as well when it comes to social and political views. Intellectual safety has no room at the university.

But for some, specially those who align themselves with the “Chicago Principles,” this is the end of the discussion. No room for safety, and that’s that. I, along with Callan, see the university – especially when it is a residential institution – as having additional responsibilities toward students when it comes to their dignitary safety. That means that if we invite students to live on or by campus, and to spend a few years with us as the main context of their lives, we should commit to providing them with a sense of affiliation that is secure enough for them to see themselves as equal members of the university community.

The specific implementation of this view is a matter of some debate, as is the line that differentiates dignitary attacks from intellectual exploration. This is again where identity comes into the picture, as students suffer dignitary harm most often when it comes to how they are treated as members of their identity groups. Dignitary safety means that I should not be expected to conceal aspects of my identity, and I should not be consistently shamed or ridiculed for these attributes without having any recourse. But does it mean that questions about my group can never be raised? For instance, when and how is it legitimate to ask about the reasons for women’s under-representation in philosophy (or in some of the natural sciences, etc.)? I think this matter is of interest and can be explored, but to protect women’s dignitary safety it should be done in a way that does not begin by assuming their (our) limited abilities as a main reason for this underrepresentation. It should include women in the conversation from the start. This makes sense not only as a way to protect women’s dignitary safety, but also as a way to learn something about possible reasons that may be obscured if men’s voices are the main or only ones heard in the debate.

I have encountered many instances in which campus members, particularly students, felt that assumptions about them were presented in ways that undermined their ability to participate effectively in classroom and other campus conversations. Assuming that a devoutly religious student opposes equal LGBT rights, or assuming that members of racial minorities are beneficiaries or affirmative action, are types of hurtful suggestions that undermine dignitary safety. If this is accepted as a sound distinction, what should campus members, or authorities, do about infringements on dignitary safety? I do not think speech codes or other restrictions on speech are either justified or effective. I also would want to avoid the chilling of speech that an intense focus on hurt feelings and potential claims about bias can bring about. Nonetheless we have to recognize that many students are quite young, and that their experiences before coming to campus, if they came straight from high school, did not necessarily help them develop the necessary tools for dealing well with diversity of views, open conflict among opinions even if simply for its intellectual value, or protections for open expression. The goal in universities and colleges should be to cultivate an awareness of these matters rather than to assume their importance and reprimand those who do not comply.

Tough Choices

3:AM: You see a role for ‘dignity safety’ and suggest this as a democratic alternative to nobility in fostering a democratic atmosphere. Can you explain what you are saying here and why you think this notion of dignity is important for your idea of inclusive freedom?

SB: I see dignity as an earned status of being an equal member of a political or social community. While I understand its trajectory differently than Jeremy Waldron, I have benefited from his account in The Harm in Hate Speech. To be treated with dignity as I understand it means to be seen as an equal member of the community in question, someone who can contribute to its mission or participate in its vision of itself in productive ways. I emphasize dignity as a core part of this vision because it allows me to highlight the role of power in the establishment of freedom, a role that is otherwise obscured by the abstract assumption that all people either are free or can be free, and enjoy the benefits of freedom, under current political and social conditions. Talking about dignity and about the ways in which dignitary harms can occur within our democratic institutions and through the application of current visions of justice is a way of pointing at the shortcomings of either the way we understand some of our values, or the way we apply them.

Aiming to create a climate where all members of the campus community can participate in this shared endeavor with dignity would mean that all are recognized as equal participants based on their merits and contributions.

3:AM: So an Inclusive freedom is the guiding idea for your approach to all this – can you summarise how we should understand it?

SB: Inclusive freedom starts with the rejection of the dichotomy between freedom as a neutral, universal and disembodied notion on the one hand, and inclusion as an identity-based retreat from this ideal, one which requires that we quell some people’s freedom of expression or association as a way to accommodate those who are oppressed or otherwise experience injustice as a result of their attributes and group identities. This is a common basic assumption in our discussions, even if it sometimes remains implicit. We commonly assume that under conditions of justice there is no use for inclusion, because that in just a bridge, or a patch on a pothole on the road to justice. Inclusion is seen as a corrective that those who already enjoy the conditions of justice and freedom bestow on those who have not yet arrived there. I rather see inclusion as a dimension of the freedom that all can benefit from under conditions of justice, and one which is necessary if freedom is to permit the kinds of difference that I see as inalienable. In other words, inclusive freedom assigns equal weight to the demand that individuals can enjoy liberty – that they can freely express themselves, associate with others, and enjoy other liberties; and to the demand that the community that enables these freedoms, which can be a smaller community or the broader national community, ensure that all of its members can benefit from these same freedoms in ways that allow them to remain true to the attributes that they see as defining them, including their opportunity to reassess and revise the expression of these attributes, or their affiliation with the different communities to which they belong.

3:AM: Of course your work on education and universities intersects with broader interests you engage with, in particular your challenge to the idea that politics should be about the protection and promotion of freedom of choice. You argue for something called ‘structured paternalism’ as an alternative: can you sketch for us what this looks like?

SB: I see the ideal of choice as an important aspect of democratic freedom, but I view some of the current formulations of choice as an ideal especially within American political thought as misguided. Choice cannot guide a normatively desirable expressions of politics if it is envisioned as an action taken by an individual and anchored in their preferences, with little recognition of the context in which it is taken, including the challenges that institutional structures and power differences generate for both preference formation and action. Like other freedoms, the freedom to choose is both a way to honor autonomy as a human trait or inclination, but in a democratic context it also stands in relation to the structures in which individuals develop and enact their preferences. Take for example one perennial type of choice which I spent some time thinking about: school choice. In a forthcoming book about school choice (Making up Our Minds, which I wrote with Michael Johanek and should be out in Spring 2019 with the University of Chicago Press), I analyze some of the conditions under which this type of choice can be realized as a democratic ideal. What do we need to know in order to choose well? How do we get to know that, and is someone else responsible to provide us with access to this knowledge? What does it mean to choose well, given that the choice made cannot be constant across individuals, due to different priorities and preferences?

Structured paternalism is in essence a positive account of the freedom to choose, namely, an account of the duty of various institutions to create the conditions in which individuals can equally develop and exercise their capacity to choose. At the same time, it is an account of the way in which personal choice is informed by the context in which it evolves and occurs, and of the inevitability of limitations and influences by society on individual choice. “Libertarian paternalism” of the type that Thaler and Sunstein advocate for is an attempt to justify ‘nudges’ that lead individuals toward ‘better choices,’ ones that are evidently good or can be identified by relevant experts. Structured paternalism is a liberal notion based on a similar realization, namely, that social structures are going to influence one’s choices, but which subsequently aims to create conditions of greater equality under which individuals choose. In other words, I do not assume that there is one good choice – about schooling, for instance, or in many other contexts in which individuals have to take their own path – and I recognize the diversity of preferences, visions of the good life and values that people can reasonably hold. The social structures I advocate for are not libertarian (I don’t think “libertarian paternalism” is quite libertarian either, but that’s another matter) but rather ones that aim to sustain the equal dignity of diverse individuals within a free democratic society. Going back to the context of school choice, which is often presented as a right-leaning or conservative rallying cry, I aim to recognize the long historical roots of choice in this domain in the United States, but to look for a way to prioritize individual well-being, and particularly that of children, in the landscape of educational choice that is provided to them. Affluent families and some religious families today can choose a school for their children, and some use this as an argument for developing new choices (such as vouchers or charter schools) for low income families as well.

However, merely creating opportunities for low-income families is not a proper way to create greater equality. The act of choice here is of limited significance until it is shown to provide better outcomes to children, and until it serves communities before it serves business interests (including big philanthropy), which is not always the case today. There are tensions in creating democratically justified school choice policies between the state and the family over who gets to interpret the best interests of the child, and whether those best interests supersede social goals, for example in cases in which families choose segregated schools and social goals include school integration; between parents’ autonomy and children’s autonomy at present, as well as their opportunities to develop autonomy through education, as is evident in some of the debates surrounding religious schooling; and there are possible tensions between different families’ views within the same community, as is evident by the complex debate about charter schools within the African American community. This is one example of the need to think in nuanced ways about individual autonomy and choice if we are to realize the democratic values that these concepts represent.

3:AM: How do choose between competing conditions for choice – autonomy, social and political conditions? Are you working to downgrade the autonomy condition by making the political and in particular the social conditions more visible?

SB: To use the formulation suggested by Michael Hand, I put more emphasis on circumstantial autonomy than I do on dispositional autonomy, especially because I see the latter as less accessible to legitimate political and social intervention than the former. Dispositional autonomy, understood as the cognitive and psychological tendency and capacity to act based on personal preferences rather than external influences, is seen by some as a characteristic of adults. For philosophers, autonomy is sometimes viewed as a form of human perfection, an aspirational status toward which one can strive, and which society ought to either facilitate or at least not inhibit. Philosophers tend to think about adults as at least potentially if not effectively autonomous, or regard autonomy as a form of excellence. But how do they become so? Philosophers of education grapple with this question, and offer child-rearing and educational practices that can legitimately support the development of autonomy in children. I view most of this focus on personal (dispositional) autonomy as futile, because in its various forms it ends up being oxymoronic (in that it aims to cultivate what would naturally evolve either way, or to attempt excellence that is hardly attainable), illegitimate (when we use coercion to accomplish autonomy, or else when we prioritze certain cultural values over others in ways that are oppressive), or unrealistic. I also find that circumstantial autonomy to be more urgently needed, and more readily justifiable from a democratic perspective, than these efforts to facilitate, inculcate or assume the existence of dispositional autonomy. In short, the answer to your question is yes. I do prioritize political and social conditions that provide individuals with high quality options and support them in making choices that are right for them within a democratic context, over an aspirational vision of personal autonomy which perfectionist or related approaches emphasize.

3:AM: An interesting feature of our times – and a disturbing one – is that societies in the prosperous west are engaged in war and that this seems to encourage a belligerent citizenship. Do you think educational theories taken enough account  of the seemingly permanent war status of many counties?

SB: I think much more attention to war is needed not only within educational theories but also within democratic theory more broadly. I have written about the effects of war on the democratic conception of citizenship in an earlier book, Citizenship under Fire, where I suggested that the conception of citizenship in democracies engaged in war, as well as in protracted conflicts, morphs to become more belligerent. The boundaries of debate and dissent narrow; gender politics trends toward the traditional; markers of ‘good citizenship’ become stricter. I think there is more work to be done on democratic citizenship and its relation to war, as well as on some of the ways in which democracies can defend themselves against the more authoritarian dimensions of these changes. One of the ways I tried to think about this was by developing an updated version of democratic education that would take into account these challenges which I call ‘expansive education.’

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can recommend to us that will take us further into your philosophical world?

SB: 

On Liberty

J.S. Mill, On Liberty

 

Private Government

Anything by Elizabeth Anderson, most recently Private Government

Emile

JJ Rousseau, Emile (because he is wrong in such interesting ways)

Justice and the Politics of Difference

Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference

Flunking Democracy

And I am just now reading and enjoying Michael Rebell’s Flunking Democracy

[Archive footage by Sir Lennicus Bibby of interviewer (right) after toxic free speech attack]

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 20th, 2018.