The Views from Down Here

Philosopher Ryan Muldoon discusses how a diversity of perspectives can lead to more just societies.
September 1, 2009

Recent doctoral graduate Ryan Muldoon chose his dissertation topic partly in response to what he saw as a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States and Europe. “My worry,” he explains, “was that the way we think of our social contract—our agreement for how to live together in society—assumes a great deal of shared values and perspectives. As societies are becoming much less homogeneous, I wanted to try to develop a framework for how diverse societies could thrive.”

In Diversity and the Social Contract, Muldoon proposes a new moral stance in which diversity is a central concern. He then uses this stance to develop a bargaining model in which agents can cooperate with only minimal conditions on their agreement. Viewing his project as an attempt to connect John Stuart Mill’s notion of “experiments in living” with contract theory, Muldoon finds that—up to certain limits—a more diverse society is better able to provide public goods.

The recipient of a 2009 Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, Muldoon enjoyed challenging College students to grapple with these and other issues while teaching “The Moral Foundations of Globalization” last fall. Now serving as a postdoctoral fellow at the Joseph L. Rotman Institute of Science and Values at the University of Western Ontario, he is concentrating on developing his dissertation project further, while also devoting time to his other major project, which concerns the division of cognitive labor in the scientific community.

"No single individual is going to be neutral or objective, but my framework tries to show how a collection of diverse perspectives can be."  - Ryan Muldoon

Q: In your dissertation you propose a moral stance called the View From Everywhere that “aggregates everyone’s actual views and determines which beliefs are robust against new information.” Could you elaborate on this and explain what robustness means here?

The View From Everywhere is an effort to rethink how we make moral and political judgments. In particular, I want these judgments to be seen as fundamentally social activities. Any given individual has many biases in how she thinks about moral and political issues. What’s worse, she may not recognize that she has such biases and so assume that her reasoning is, or ought to be, universal. By thinking through these issues with other people who have different perspectives, these biases become apparent and can be accounted for.

On my view, a moral or political judgment is robust when people of many different perspectives can agree on it. So a claim like “murder is morally wrong” can be considered robust, as it is endorsed by the vast majority of perspectives in our society. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Communists, Democrats, Republicans, Feminists, Red Sox fans—all of these different ways of looking at the world are willing to endorse this claim. This is not true for other kinds of claims. Some claims—for example, “intellectual property ought to be treated like real property”—are not as robust. While some endorse this view, many others have a different perspective.

What the View From Everywhere suggests is that in cases where there is widespread disagreement, we should try to ascertain whether it comes from a disagreement about the facts or an interpretation of those facts. This may lead us to believe that we don't yet know enough to be able to make a claim either way, or that as a society we are at a fundamental moral impasse. In the first case, we can try to learn more about the moral issues and see if we can come to some agreement. In the latter case, we are left with negotiating over what sets of rules to adopt, given everyone's different interests.

Q: Did working with philosopher and PPE program director Cristina Bicchieri play a significant role in framing your dissertation project?

While my project in social contract theory differs from her work in social norms in several ways, her interdisciplinary approach to philosophy—as well as her careful thinking about human sociality and morality—has deeply influenced me. I was very fortunate to be able to find an advisor who let me develop my own project that was independent from hers, while helping me think through the challenging portions of my work and bringing to bear a vast wealth of knowledge.

Q: Could you talk a little about the “Fairness and Diversity” paper that you and Bicchieri are currently working on together?

This paper is at the intersection of our two projects. I am very interested in how diversity can have positive effects in society, and Cristina’s long-term interest is in understanding the nature and dynamics of social norms. Most of the existing literature on social norms focuses on societies where a single norm exists for some particular behavior or activity, but what we are investigating is an instance where multiple norms coexist in a single population. Specifically, we’re looking at norms of distributional fairness—that is, what people think is fair when money or goods are distributed.

Using game theory and agent-based simulations, we modeled a society like ours with multiple conceptions of fairness—including norms of simple equality, merit-based equity and need-based equity. Standard theories of social norms tend to argue that only one norm should exist, that everyone should agree about what “fair” means since this avoids conflict. However, because equity-based norms require individuals to provide information about themselves—like how much money they have, for example—people can lie and thus gain benefits that they don't deserve. In a society where everyone has the same conception of equity, everyone who is undeserving has an incentive to lie, and if everyone cheats then the goal of the norm is undermined. So a single equity norm in a population is problematic. To look at another extreme, we can imagine a population where everyone has their own idea of what “fair” means, and where subsequently no one could agree on how to divide anything. This is obviously a bad outcome.

What Cristina and I have found is that if we have a small number of conflicting norms in a society, then these disagreements about what fairness means help to suppress cheating—that is, the conflicting norms actually benefit from having each other around. Each norm inadvertently helps the other by reducing the incentives to cheat. The interesting thing about this result is that it indicates that pluralistic societies that have disagreements about values can actually be better off than homogeneous societies where everyone agrees on what is important.

Q: Do you see your dissertation project as having something to say about the diversity conversation that’s been happening in the U.S. mainstream media—perhaps specifically this notion of “post-raciality” that’s been put forth by some, and disputed or criticized by others, since President Obama’s election?

I would like to think my project does have something to say about the public conversation. I don't think “diversity” will always mean racial or religious diversity, but I do think that people will always find something salient to organize groups around. Over time social distinctions can split or merge, so I don’t want to lay out a framework that assumes that current distinctions will be there forever.

That said, I think that we are clearly not “post-racial,” and it is potentially harmful to claim that we are. I think this was seen with the recent Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings. Much of the criticism levied against her was of the sort that claimed that she was not neutral or objective because she had said that she had the perspective of a “wise Latina woman.” But it is just true that being raised in a low-income household in the Bronx, coming from a Puerto Rican background, and being a woman is going to provide a different way of looking at evidence and arguments compared to someone who is a man and who comes from the majority culture. That is not to say that her perspective is better—just different.

There is empirical evidence that shows that when women sit on three-judge panels, not only do they tend to rule in favor of the oppressed or harassed more often than men, their presence also makes it more likely that male judges will rule that way as well. This suggests to me that having a different perspective encourages others to better see where they might have biases. The Supreme Court is a nine-member body. As such, we should want to have justices from as many backgrounds and perspectives as possible, in order to prevent their rulings from being biased in one direction or another, whether or not the bias is intentional.

No single individual is going to be neutral or objective, but my framework tries to show how a collection of diverse perspectives can be. What I hope my work can contribute to our ongoing political discussion is that we should not try to cover up our differences and claim that they do not exist, or that they should not matter. These differences do matter, and they should be celebrated and embraced.