Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Guest post by Dave Elder-Vass


[Dave Elder-Vass accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of moral realism (link). Elder-Vass is Reader in sociology at Loughborough University and author of Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy, The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency and The Reality of Social Construction, discussed herehere and here. Dave has emerged as a leading voice in the philosophy of social science, especially in the context of continuing developments in the theory of critical realism. Thanks, Dave!]


Moral realism and explanatory critique
By Dave Elder-Vass

Daniel Little's latest blog post "Moral progress and critical realism" raises some important issues for critical realists and indeed social scientists more generally. I'm sympathetic to the general orientation of his piece, and have made similar arguments elsewhere (summarised in this blog post). I thought it would be useful, though, to add some further discussion of how Daniel's argument relates to critical realism itself.

While critical realists agree that there is a real world that exists independently of what we think about it, they need not - and do not - agree on exactly which classes of things exist within that world. Moral realism is a case in point. Roy Bhaskar explicitly identified himself as a moral realist, and offered several different justifications for this in the course of his work. Some critical realists accept all of those justifications, some are ambivalent or selective about which they accept, and others like Andrew Sayer and myself, for example, reject moral realism outright.

I'd like to focus here on one of Bhaskar's arguments: the theory of explanatory critique. Technically this is an argument for ethical naturalism rather than moral realism (I'll come back to that), although it is sometimes regarded as supporting both. The classic statement of the theory can be found in his book Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation:
Let a belief P, which has some object O, have a source (causal explanation) S. I am going to contend that if we possess: (i) adequate grounds for supposing P is false; and (ii) adequate grounds for supposing that S co-explains P, then we may, and must, pass immediately to (iii) a negative evaluation of S (CP); and (iv) a positive evaluation of action rationally directed at the removal of S (CP). (SRHE, p. 177)
This argument can be read and/or employed in a number of different ways. Let me discuss three. First, it is a variation on the classic Marxist critique of ideology - it suggests that there are social institutions (S) which generate false beliefs (P) about other (or the same) social institutions (O) and that we ought to get rid of them. For example: if capitalist-controlled media sources mislead us about the nature of capitalism then we should replace those media sources (note that Bhaskar is careful to qualify the argument with a ceteris paribus clause (CP), and thus acknowledges that other factors must also be taken into consideration). As a critical ethical claim this seems reasonable and attractive, and it gains some of its appeal by being rather more direct than most versions of ideology critique.

But this is not the point of the theory of explanatory critique, which brings us to the second reading. On this reading, the purpose of Bhaskar's statement is to support his advocacy of ethical naturalism: the claim that we can derive ethical conclusions from purely factual premises. Bhaskar maintains that the premises (i) and (ii) are purely factual, and lead logically ("we may, and must, pass immediately to...") to the ethical conclusions (iii) and (iv). But as a number of people have pointed out, there is a flaw in this argument. The premises are indeed purely factual, and the conclusions are indeed ethical, but the premises are not sufficient to entail the conclusions. To arrive at these conclusions, we need a further premise: we must also believe that it is wrong to generate, advocate, or support false beliefs. Of course, most of us DO believe that, and if so we may well be happy to accept the conclusion in reading one. But that doesn't mean that Bhaskar has shown us how to derive an ethical conclusion from purely factual premises: his argument for ethical naturalism is false.

One also finds critical realists who think that the theory of explanatory critique provides a justification for moral realism: the claim that there are moral facts that are objectively right, good, or true regardless of what people may think about them. As far as I am aware Bhaskar himself does not claim that the theory of explanatory critique entails moral realism, and when he does advocate moral realism explicitly in his later work he offers other arguments to support it. But most critical realists are uncomfortable with those later arguments, and so it is important to establish whether or not the theory of explanatory critique does support moral realism. Let me call this a third reading of the argument, although it also depends on the second. On this reading, the argument for ethical naturalism establishes that we can indeed derive ethical claims from non-ethical facts, and this further implies that those ethical claims must therefore be objectively true. The logic is pretty straightforward: if it is objectively true that there are social institutions (S) which generate false beliefs (P) about other (or the same) social institutions (O), and if we can logically derive an ethical claim from these objective facts, then it would seem to be objectively true that we ought to get rid of those social institutions, irrespective of what any person or social group might believe about the issues. But it is quite clear that this is not a tenable conclusion, because reading two is itself false: the ethical conclusions of Bhaskar's explanatory critique depend on ethical as well as factual premises, so even if the factual premises are objectively true there is no basis to conclude that the ethical conclusions are also objectively true.

While this argument may have been a little technical for a blog post, I think it is important to clarify these distinctions. I regularly encounter (and read) fellow critical realists who cite Bhaskar's theory of explanatory critique as support for ethical naturalism and moral realism. I suspect that some of them have been seduced by the attractiveness of the argument in the first reading discussed above into believing that this justifies the second and third readings as well. It does not!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Moral progress and critical realism


Critical realists share a rejection of the fact-value distinction as a fundamental criterion of scientific rationality -- and rightly so (link). They believe that social research and theorizing involve value commitments all the way down. Further, they commonly believe that good social science should lead to improvement in the world and in our system of moral judgments.

So far, so good. But some critical realists think that this points to "moral realism" as well as scientific realism. Moral realism maintains that there are objective and timeless answers to the questions, what is justice? what should we do? what rights do people have? Moral realists hold that the moral facts are out there and waiting for discovery; there is a domain of "moral facts" that ultimately goes beyond the limits of rational disagreement.

This impulse towards moral realism is a problem. Moral realism and scientific realism are not analogous. There is no philosophical or theological method that will resolve moral questions into an unquestionable foundation or set of universal moral truths. Neither Kantianism, nor Aristotelianism, nor utilitarianism, nor traditional religious systems have the capacity to establish universal and unquestionable moral conclusions. The impulse towards moral realism has the perilous possibility of morphing into a dogmatic view of morality that substitutes one's own convictions for eternal moral truths. In my view, this is farfetched and ultimately implies an unreflective dogmatism about values. Fortunately there is a better and more modest position available that derives from the same pragmatist origins that are inspiring other advances in critical realism.

The better approach is based on a coherence epistemology. This approach is explicitly anti-realist when it comes to moral values. Ethical reasoning always has to do with conversation, disagreement, and sometimes progress. Moral practices have social reality, to be sure; but there are no "moral facts" consisting of moral principles and values that are beyond the possibility of further rational debate. This approach to moral theory emphasizes corrigibility and pragmatic debate about ends, means, and values. It converges with coherence epistemology along the lines of Quine and Rawls; it deliberately replaces a foundationalist approach to moral thinking with a corrigible ongoing series of discussions by moral equals. This allows for an epistemology based on dialogue, and it comes out of the pragmatist tradition.

This is the approach that John Rawls adopted in his theory of reflective equilibrium. Rawls explicitly links his approach to the anti-foundationalist thinking of philosophers like Quine. (Here is a 1985 paper in which I tried to summarize Rawls's moral methodology of reflective equilibrium; link.) Moral reasoning involves a back-and-forth between a set of considered judgments (current moral judgments about concrete issues) and more abstract moral principles. Both considered judgments and abstract principles are adjusted until the system of beliefs is reasonably consistent and coherent. Here is how Rawls describes this process of moral navigation with respect to the idea of the original position in A Theory of Justice 2nd edition:
In searching for the most favored description of this situation [the hypothetical original position] we work from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally shared and preferably weak conditions. We then see if these conditions are strong enough to yield a significant set of principles. If not, we look for further premises equally reasonable. But if so, and these principles match our considered convictions of justice, then so far well and good. But presumably there will be discrepancies. In this case we have a choice. We can either modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as reflective equilibrium. It is an equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments. Yet for the time being we have done what we can to render coherent and to justify our convictions of social justice. We have reached a conception of the original position. (TJ 18)
This approach leads to two important features. (i) There are no fixed and final moral facts; moral facts are not part of the furniture of the world. But (ii) our moral frameworks have the potential of improving over time, as we grope reflectively with our moral responses, sympathies, and principles. There is a bootstrapping kind of progress here.

What Rawls adds is the idea that our efforts to move toward reflective equilibrium permit us to increase the overall adequacy of our system of beliefs and considered judgments. And this ties directly to his treatment of Political Liberalism 
-- an ongoing discourse allowing us to refine and reform our convictions on the basis of communication with fellow members of our communities and groups. (Habermas and the public communicative process converges here as well.)

It is clear enough that no group is likely ever to reach full unanimity in a discussion like this. This is implied by Rawls's own conception of a liberal society including people with conflicting conceptions of the good. And ultimately a society can be very stable even as it embraces multiple conceptions of the good and other important questions of value.

These considerations suggest that we should abandon the idea of absolute moral truth (moral realism) and embrace instead the goal of securing a respectful, thoughtful dialogue that creates a possibility of moral progress. We may have the optimistic hope that a community or society improves its ability to make moral perceptions and distinctions over time, through the practice of debating and testing the normative ideas that are shared and those that divide the population.

The ongoing work by various theorists on deliberative democracy sheds some light on the concrete ways in which this kind of moral clarification can work within a group of citizens and otherwise unrelated people. (Here is a programatic statement from the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance; link.) Everyone brings a moral and value sensibility to their interactions and reactions to the world, and sometimes those sensibilities can change through interaction with other individuals. Consideration of facts, complications, and alternative ways of stating various value commitment permit the individuals to honestly reflect on their commitments and social reactions and perhaps adjust them. (Here is a discussion of deliberative democracy; link. And here is a recent paper by Archon Fung on deliberative democracy and progressive social change; link.)

(Richmond Campbell's entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on "Moral Epistemology" is excellent as background on this topic; link.)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Time for a critical-realist epistemology


The critical realism network in North America is currently convened in Montreal in a three-day intensive workshop (link). In attendance are many of the sociologists and philosophers who have an active interest in critical realism, and the talks are of genuine interest. A session this morning on pragmatist threads of potential interest to critical realists, including Mead, Abbott, and Elias, was highly stimulating. And there are 29 sessions altogether -- roughly 85 papers. This is an amazing wealth of sociological research.

Perhaps a third of the papers are presentations of original sociological research from a CR point of view. This is very encouraging because it demonstrates that CR is moving beyond the philosophy of social science to the concrete practice of social science. Researchers are working hard to develop research methods in the context of CR that permit concrete investigation of particular social and historical phenomena. And this implies as well that there is a growing body of thinking about methodology within the field of CR.

CR theorists began with ontology, and a great deal of the existing literature takes the form of theoretical expositions of various ontological theses. And this was deliberate; following Bhaskar, theorists have argued that we need better ontology before science can progress. (This seems particularly true in the social realm; link.) So ontology needs to come first, then epistemology.

I believe the time has come when CR needs to give more explicit and extended attention to epistemology.

What is epistemology? It is an organized effort to answer the question, what is (scientific) knowledge? It attempts to provide a justified theory of empirical justification. Epistemology is an attempt to articulate the desired relationship between evidence and assertion; more specifically, it is an attempt to uncover the nuances of the domain of "evidence" across the realm of social research. Most fundamentally, it is an attempt to articulate how the practices of science are "truth-enhancing": a given set of epistemic practices (methodologies) are hoped to result in a higher level of veridicality over time.

Like a left handed quarterback, CR has a disadvantage in formulating an epistemology because of its blind side. In the case of CR, the blind side is the movement's visceral rejection of positivism. CR theorists are so strongly motivated to reject all elements of positivism that they are disposed to avoid positions they actually need to take. For example, The two following statements sound very similar:

A "Sociological claims must be evaluated on the basis of objective empirical evidence"

B "Sociological claims need to be confirmed or falsified"

And so the CR theorist is inclined to reject A as well as B. But this is a philosophical misstep caused by fear of the blind side. A is actually a perfectly valid requirement of epistemological rationality.

So what do we need from a developed epistemology for CR? Essentially we need three things.

First, we need an explicit commitment to empirical evaluation.

Second, we need a nuanced discussion of the complications involved in identifying "empirical evidence" in social research; for example, the impossibility of theory-independent or perspective-independent social data, the constructive nature of most historical and social observation, and the problem of selectivity in the collection of evidence.

Third, we need a discussion of the modes of inference -- deductive, inductive, statistical, causal, and Bayesian -- on the basis of which social scientists can arrive at an estimate of likelihood for a statement given a set of evidence statements.

Finally, our CR epistemology needs to give an appropriate discussion of the fallibility of all scientific research.

The epistemological frame that I currently favor is the coherence methodology described by philosophers like Quine and Goodman. The social sciences constitute a web of belief, and provisional conclusions in one area may serve to establish a method or valuation for findings in another area of the web. both ontological positions and epistemological maxims may require adjustment in light of future empirical and theoretical findings. Rawls's conception of reflective equilibrium illustrates this epistemology in the moral field. This approach has an unexpected affinity for CR, because there is an emerging interest in the pragmatist philosophy from which this approach derives.

Epistemology allows us to place various specific methodological approaches into context. So we can locate the method of process tracing into the context of justification, and therefore into epistemology. It also validates the idea of methodological pluralism: there are multiple avenues through which researchers can create evidence through which to prove and evaluate a variety of sociological claims.

Critical realism seeks to significantly influence the practice and content of social science theory and research. In order to do this it will need to be able to state with confidence the commitments made by CR researchers to empirical standards and evidence-based findings. This will help CR to fulfill the promise of discovering some of the real structures and processes of the social world based on publicly accessible standards of theory discovery and acceptance.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Guardian drops the ball ...


The Guardian posted a short documentary video on the city where I live, Dearborn, Michigan (link). The video is, frankly, a careless, sensationalized, and false approach to the social realities of Muslims in southeast Michigan. It gives the impression that Dearborn is riven with conflict between insular Muslim people and anti-Muslim militia types and xenophobes who fear Islam. And without evidence it suggests the presence of extremist cells in the city. There is a persistent underlying theme of menace in the film, as if violence is about to break out at any time across communities. These themes of division, conflict, and menace are underlined in the blurb about the video published by the Guardian as context for the film. These are canards, and they do great injustice to the people and organizations of Dearborn and the rest of southeast Michigan. The message of the video lines up more exactly with the hate-mongers on the far right who persist in talking about Sharia law and "Dearbornistan".

The video also inflames the sense of conflict by showing white militia members and a young Muslim woman using firearms. There are far too many guns in our society. But there is no suggestion whatsoever that Muslim people are arming themselves in significant numbers; this is just not part of the discourse, and it is a reckless act of editorial discretion to give this impression. One person choosing to own a firearm does not constitute evidence for a broader tendency. (There is of course no doubt at all about the number of firearms in the hands of white supremacist organizations.)

The video also gives a prominence to the Michigan Militia that is almost entirely undeserved. MMCW has almost no presence in Wayne County, according to its website (link). Inflammatory talk radio with its xenophobic and anti-Muslim themes is of course a key tool in the politics of division and hate that we have experienced in the past several decades; but this has no special relevance to Dearborn. It is entirely unclear why these snippets from shock radio should have been included in this documentary about a particular place.

These impressions of severe conflict, fear, and hatred are entirely false to the city in which I have lived for over seventeen years. Relations between majority residents and Muslim and Arab-American residents are in general very good. Incidents of hate-based harassment or violence are very rare. And as a person who shops, dines, and socializes in the city and enjoys the city's parks and cultural attractions, I know first-hand that virtually everywhere are to be found individuals and groups representing all the diversity of our city. There are friendly and mutually respectful relations on display in all these public places. This is a source of pride for most people who live in Dearborn. One sign of this engagement in diversity is the response last spring to a call to action in the Ford Performing Arts Center in Dearborn to discuss and protest President Trump's executive orders against Muslim travelers. At least half of the people present, out of a crowd of over a thousand, were non-Muslim residents who attended to demonstrate their solidarity with their Muslim neighbors.

One of the great strengths of our city and our region is the existence of mature, longstanding community-based organizations that have worked for decades at building bridges across the multiple communities of our city -- organizations like ACCESS, the American Chaldean Council, New Detroit, the JCRC, La Sed, the Arab American Civil Rights League, and dozens of other community-based organizations. It is regrettable that the filmmakers did not take it upon themselves to interview and profile leaders and members of organizations like these, whose optimism and dedication to inclusion and social harmony are profound and effective. Community leaders such as the Mayor of Dearborn, the leadership of ACCESS, and leaders of the JCRC have shown themselves to be committed to the values of mutual respect and civility which are the foundation of a viable democracy. And Dearborn is thriving in the context of those values.

By the way -- there is no such place as the "University of Dearborn." The University in question is the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and is very proud of its diverse student body and its deep culture of inclusion -- including a sizable proportion of Muslim and Arab American students. And members of the university community have learned the importance of nuance. Not all Arab Americans are Muslim; not all Muslims derive from the Middle East; and there is great diversity of political and cultural opinion across Muslim America. This is a small matter, perhaps, but it gives a sharp indication of the carelessness with which the filmmakers approached their work.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

First generation anti-positivism: Wellmer


In Critical Theory Of Society (1969) Albrecht Wellmer announced a critique of positivist assumptions in the study of society. Proceeding from the perspective of critical theory and especially Horkheimer and Adorno, Wellmer denounced the embrace of positivism by "bourgeois" social science. But perhaps more surprisingly, he addresses this critique to Marx's system as well.
Probably Horkheimer himself offered the most impressive statement of the Frankfurt school's estimate of its own function and importance when, in his article on traditional and "critical" theory, he joined issue with bourgeois science and its objectivist misconception of its own nature. The essay shows clearly that the confrontation between critical, Marxist and traditional "bourgeois" science had hardly moved by then into the vague realm of methodological abstractions; to the extent that the debate was concerned with methodology, critical theory was more inclined to view it as the mere reflection of actual social conflicts. (10)
The main thrusts against positivism consist of the claim that positivists look at social arrangements as purely objective and factual; whereas they require interpretation.
Apart from strict behaviorists, social scientists would in general no longer dispute the fact that access to the measured or observed data of their field of study is obtained through the medium of communication. but, they opine, the role of interpretations finishes with its provision of a means of access to the data, and perhaps also of a heuristic value for the discovery of explanations; in addition, they would claim for their science the methodological status of a natural science, and therefor of a science entitled, with the aid of universal laws, to explain and predict unusual phenomena. (35)
And positivism assumes that value perspectives can be filtered out in the perception of facts; whereas critical theorists maintain that perspective is inseparable from perception. (Proletarians see the social world differently from the bourgeois.)

So what is "critical social science"? To start, it is hermeneutic, according to Wellmer: it has to do with the interpretation of meanings in social action.
It has already been shown that explanatory sociology is always interpretative sociology as well; and that an interpretative sociology cannot be merely a subjective sociology of the interpretation of meaning. It is also clear now that the empirical content of social scientific theories is peculiarly proportional to the historical concretion to which they attain. (38)
Further, critical social science is fundamentally responsive to historical context. So hermeneutic interpretation cannot be extracted from its historical context.
So much of the specific content of a certain historical period enters into the basic theoretical assumptions and the framework of reference used for categorization, that its hypotheses cannot be transferred without violence to more distant socio-historical situations. (36)
This point parallels the post-positivist view that observation is theory-laden; but it goes beyond that by postulating that social observations are framed by conceptual systems that are themselves historically specific.

Third, critical social science rests on a recognition (even more explicit in Habermas) that knowledge and interest are interwoven:
Already apparent is the changed relation of theory and practice that exists for a critical social theory derived form a practical interest in cognition. Critical theory is derivable from a notion of the "good life" already available to it as part of the socio-historical situation it subjects to analysis; which, as the notion of an acknowledgement of each individual as a person by each other individual, and as the idea of a non-coercive communal human life of dialogue, is a draft meaning of history already fragmentarily embodied in a society's traditions and institutions. (41)
The tension between the Frankfurt School and orthodox Marxist theory is evident here, because Wellmer's critique of "bourgeois social science" is extended to Marx himself.
The critique of the objectivism of Marx's philosophy of history was directed at a latently positivistic misconception, which, according to Habermas's thesis, arises from the part played by the concept of labor. (67)
"Objectivism" here means the stance of the social researcher to regard the social as "given", not subject to interpretation. And Wellmer argues that there is a strand of Marx's thought that does precisely that. Marx's materialist theory of history -- "history consists of a dialectic of change driven by conflict between the forces and relations of production" -- leaves no room for the radical interpretivism that Wellmer favors. Crudely, Marx in the German Ideology and Capital is not at all interested in the ideas that men and women have, but rather the objective system of social relations that underlies their actions and interactions. Even arguments that Marx makes about ideology, false consciousness, and fetishism of commodities takes the form of demystification -- dissolution of the system of false consciousness rather than interpretation of how these representations relate to the workings of the social order. Consciousness plays no role in the dynamics of history. And in fact Wellmer believes that this stance plays a self-defeating role in Marx's system:
The union of historical materialism and the criticism of political economy in Marx's social theory is inherently contradictory. (74)
What Wellmer favors for social theory is expressed here:
This means that critical theory does not wish to replace an ideological consciousness with a scientific consciousness, but -- of course by means of empirical and historical analyses -- to assist the practical reason existing in the for of ideological consciousness to "call to mind" its distorted form, and at the same time to get control of its practical-utopian contents. Ultimately, therefore, critical theory can prove itself only by initiating a reflective dissolution of false consciousness resulting in liberating praxis: the successful dissolution of false consciousness as an integrative aspect of emancipatory practice is the proper touchstone for its truth. (72)
So Wellmer's "critical theory of society" is criticism all the way down: critique of the assumptions about knowledge, action, and social relations that underlie both bourgeois social science and large swathes of Marx's own theoretical framework. In place of orthodox "empiricist" ideas about empirical confirmation and "hypothetico-deductive method", he advocates the "hypothetico-practical model of validation. Those theories which unfold into a basis for human liberation are for that reason rationally preferable to those that do not. Rather than theory and observation, Wellmer's philosophy of science rests on a view of theory and praxis, or theory and liberation.

However, it is difficult today to interpret this series of observations as a serious and credible approach to social science epistemology. It offers suggestive ideas about what is involved in making sense of a given historical-social reality. But it gives little guidance about how to evaluate various theories and interpretations.

(The choice of Millet's painting "Peasants planting potatoes" is apt for a discussion of Wellmer's philosophy of social science. The painting represents a set of "facts"; but we cannot say what facts these are without substantial interpretation, and various interpretations are possible. The painting might be regarded as a small piece of critical social theory all by itself, with a gesture towards social reality, a depiction that can be understood as a system of domination, and a call for liberation.)