The Ethos of a Caring Organization

In her seminal work, “Moral Boundaries”, Joan Tronto identifies four elements of an ethics of care:

  • Attentiveness: Care is about responding to need, so it makes sense that it would begin by being able to spot need.
  • Responsibility: Before one can address a need, one must take responsibility for addressing it.
  • Competence: To care ethically one must do so effectively.
  • Reciprocity: Ethical care giving is not just one way, the care giver must hear from the recipient to know they have really been effective.

How can this ethic be manifested at the organizational level?

An attentive organization is an organization in a constant state of needs assessment. Needs assessment studies shouldn’t just be one off studies that an organization does occasionally, or even frequently. Rather the very structure and work flow of the organization must put it in the constant position of assessing the needs of the communities it serves. This should inform everything from how an organization takes in and stores information (e.g. what information does it ask for on its contact us page? Does it have a client relation management system built with this in mind?) to the regular synthesis and use of that information to constantly improve its services.

A responsible organization has a fluid scope of service and a networked approach. One of the classic ways in which bureaucracies fail to take responsibility for the needs of others, even when it is confronted directly by them, is by saying “that’s not our department.” or “that’s outside the scope of our work.” Of course, there are many good reasons why organizations have limited scopes and mandates, from ensuring the organization remains focused to ensuring services are indeed within the competence of the organization. A scope of work that is too flexible is a recipe for overwhelming the caregiver. How can an organization take responsibility for a need while avoiding these pitfalls? Firstly, if it is engaged in a constant needs assessment and using that information, it should be regularly questioning the boundaries and focus of its services. But secondly, and probably more realistically and immediately practically, it should be fully equipped to refer people to others and have a meaningful relationship with those others to ensure the individuals get the care they need.

A competent organization is a learning organization. Taking responsibility for a growing array of needs whether through direct service or referral means committing to constant learning, both the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and context required to deliver the services, but also building the names, relationships, and trust to discern who else can deliver competent care. Fundamentally, therefore a caring organization must be constantly learning. The idea of a learning organization is by now well developed. What situating it in an ethics of care framework does is give a direction for the learning as well as priorities for who to learn from and how to learn from them.

A reciprocal organization is governed or at least accountable to the people it serves. Joan Tronto’s more recent work has built on this fourth point to talk about how ethical care is democratic. Indeed, this resonates more directly with caring organizations than with individuals I think. Not only do organizations needs to constantly “evaluate” how they’re doing (part of being engaged in a permanent needs assessment), but they need to actually be accountable to the people they serve. The most robust way to manifest this accountability is indeed democratically, i.e. the people served should actually have governance rights either directly as members or in some other capacity. In this way the governance-operations divide should be broken down.

Ultimately, this is just a theoretical framework. Practice is the hard part.

The Queen’s Gambit, Batman, and the Fantasy of the Human Instrument

The Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit, at least in the first couple of episodes, seems to me to be a bit like Batman. An orphan is lost and alone and finds meaning in the wholehearted dedication to a single purpose. Whether it’s fighting crime or playing chess, both seem to be a dramatic illustration of Viktor Frankl’s principle “one who has a why to life can endure any how”.

Frankl’s proposition seems particularly compelling in environments where a person is deprived of “everything else” (a bit of a stretch for Bruce Wayne, I know). It is their total deprivation that allows them to become an instrument, in the sense of having a single purpose.

I don’t know where the show is going. For example, I don’t know whether the single purpose will be a jumping board from which the protagonist will grow into a well-rounded person. It could be. But it seems to me now that other interests, namely boys, are portrayed mainly as a threat.

In any case, it seems to me that these heroes are essentially embodiment of modernity’s ideal of specialization and the rationalization of labour. We all occupy a spectrum from generalist (having many moral commitments and needs requiring a more or less wide variety of knowledge, skills, judgment, and sensitivities to meet) to specialists (excelling in some particular thing that contributes to the larger whole of society in a way which relieves others of requiring any knowledge in the matter).

The people we look to as heroes are generally people who sacrificed a great deal in most of their moral commitments in order to do something exceptional in some one area. I don’t know if there are any films or television shows made about the “great generalists”. Indeed, the people who spend their lives rejecting the specialized nature of modern society (e.g. homesteaders) have themselves really just become just another kind of specialist. This is evidenced by the fact that to accomplish the ideal of self-sufficiency one necessarily has to extricate oneself from the tangled morally compromised web of moral commitments one is born into in society.

What would a film or show about a truly great generalist look like? How can a society produce what is it not even capable of portraying fictionally?

Dewey’s idea of liberal education gets us some way there. (I wish somebody would make a film about his life!) But that remains a masculine generalism of privileged irresponsibillity. Perhaps a film like Mamele might be the answer, except it’s entirely personal in its politics.

Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again–OR–On Perpetual Crisis and Productive Nostalgia

Before there was the CW series Riverdale, there was the 1990 made-for-TV film “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again“. The film is a hilariously awful and vacuous depiction of the gang in their mid 30s returning to their hometown. Notwithstanding how bad it is, I think it can’t help but teach us something about crisis and the productive potential of nostalgia.

The film begins with Archie and his non-descript yuppie fiancee, Pam. They are getting ready to move to “the city” where Archie will practice law at a big firm. Before he goes, however, he must attend a Riverdale High reunion weekend. Jughead, a divorced, single dad psychiatrist, will also be there, as will, you guessed it, Betty and Veronica. Betty has her own non-descript scumbag boyfriend (aptly named “Bob Miller” thank you very much) and Veronica has been through countless fiancees and 3-4 marriages. They’re all unhappy in this post Riverdale future.

High jinks ensues. They save Pop’s diner from being bull-dozed. Betty and Veronica throw themselves at Archie, who sort of resists them. Jughead tells Archie his inability to choose is due to a retrogressive fixation on the past. When Archie suggests he’s moving on, Jughead tells him he’ll miss the old Archie. When Archie points out Jughead is contradicting himself, Jughead assures him that’s what psychiatrists do. Ultimately, Pam leaves Archies and Betty leaves Bob, and everyone decides to stay in Riverdale. When Betty and Veronica tell Archie he has to choose, Jughead’s kid conveniently interrupts and the movie happily ends.

At first glance, it seems like “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again” is a film about not choosing. It’s about not giving up on the past while acknowledging it has inevitably changed. It’s about preferring, over a definite “city-life”, a teenage fantasy of perpetual indecision because it “knows us better”. They choose to live in a history that may have never been.

However, this so-called “indecision”, it seems to me, remains profoundly alluring political choice for many and is in this way a choice of its own.

If crisis is about social contradictions manifesting in ways that make business as usual or any kind of moving forward impossible, this is a movie about choosing to dwell on history and live in perpetual crisis over the bland uncaring promise of progress. The “city” is about the only thing decisively rejected in the film. Why do the characters make this choice?

One telling scene is when Pam comes to visit Archie in Riverdale. After getting in his car, she throws an old bottle out. Archie picked up the bottle in an earlier scene from the Riverdale dump while he and Jughead sifted through deeply nostalgic trash (including inexplicably an old sock). Pam doesn’t understand any of it. He tries to explain to her why he cares so much about saving Pop’s, basically saying “Because it was ours.”

That seems to encapsulate the film’s answer. The city is profoundly dislocating and dispossessing, but even garbage is special if it is yours.

Ultimately, the writers were not so lazy as to leave things simply in a state of crisis. Betty is able to confront her lack of romantic fulfillment which spurs her to succeed in her dream of being a writer, as a romance writer. Veronica is finally pushed to speak to her father about something other than money. Jughead connects with his son.

The CW series aside, Archie has long represented a nostalgia for a bygone era that probably never existed anywhere and is therefore dangerous especially in our current absurdly nostalgic times. Yet “Archie: to Riverdale and Back Again” in having the characters confront their own nostalgia for their younger selves may unwittingly teach us a lesson about productive nostalgia. That is, in not simply accepting the “inevitability” of a certain kind of progress, and thereby being willing to live in crisis, we create the possibility for actively questioning why that revered past that was “ours” was taken from us in the first place. In so doing, we may not get back the world we think we had but instead find a much better one.

For more on the politics of inevitability, see this blog post on the caring labour of political action.

New Forms of Power: Reflecting on Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online is a popular anime part of a sub-genre in which a protagonist, disempowered in the real world, enters another world (e.g. video game, time traveling, fantasy world, etc.) and often becomes a powerful and central figure in that world.

On one level, this sub-genre is simply about escapism. On another level, people’s tendency to create worlds in which their particular talents and skills are valued actively reshapes this “real” world. So, for example, while a few generations ago the particular mix of skills and personality traits that make up a successful film maker, rap artist, YouTuber, or gamer didn’t necessarily translate to any real-world clout, it is now a means by which thousands of others may listen to particular person.

Furthermore, once established, these worlds tend to be self-perpetuating as others seek to attain the success modeled by those who have shown what the world. Though, they may also pass out of fashion, as for example military leadership which once (and still in some societies does) played a central role in a political power has been overtaken by skills once upon a time unheard of (e.g. social medial campaigning).

It may be observed that escapist tendency to create bubbles, to the extent that it preserves the overarching structure of power, is really just shuffling around chairs. But there are material consequences to creating worlds in which some skills and not others are valued. There are also material consequences to creating worlds in which some vices are tolerated or encouraged. This is not only true because people get sucked into these bubbles, but because inevitably they are not air tight and those who rise to the top of them may gain the means to have a much wider impact.

The irony therefore is that the escapist may get exactly what they want. We must therefore be careful in our fantasizing.

Polarization, Aggregation, and the False Anti-Democratic Promise of Microtargeting

“…it has always been no less dangerous to discover new ways and methods than to set off in search of new seas and unknown lands…”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

Politics is not only unpleasant but difficult. It requires bridging the infinite gulfs between people’s metaphysically irreconcilable worldviews and conflicting desires. Out of the rock of these apparent islands, the politician is tasked with building the bridges on which most people must travel.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people could just order in? If the goods we all want could just show up on our island one day like an Amazon package (perhaps by drone)?

That is the false promise of microtargeting, which is the practice of communicating distinct messages to increasingly narrowly defined segments of the population (e.g. through Facebook ads).

Why go to the trouble of writing a speech, law, or policy that weaves together all the disparate views into a coalition capable of propelling the politician forward, when you can merely aggregate the support you need one micro-constituency at a time by giving each some discrete good or promise? While they’re busy at home, you can remold or neglect the landscape as you please.

But make no mistake, it’s a false promise. People may be able to draw their blinds and eat their piece of the pie at home alone or with family and friends for a while, but eventually they will look outside. It may be that every time they looks the weather is a bit worse encouraging them to stay in a bit longer, but sooner or later the banks of the river will overflow and the flood will force them out.

When they do, they will notice the crumbling bridges, the broken sinews of the body politic.  Something will happen and they will recall why it was people first drew together in common life (or at least so the story goes). But they will be cut off and what could only be accomplished together will simply not be possible.

But necessity is the mother of all invention. And when the political technology of aggregation is revealed for what it really is, something new, or perhaps something old, will have to come.

Even if all the people would be scribes: An epistemic foundation for universal democracy and its limits

“And Rava bar Meḥasseya said that Rav Ḥama bar Gurya said that Rav said: Even if all the seas would be ink, and the reeds that grow near swamps would be quills, and the heavens would be parchment upon which the words would be written, and all the people would be scribes; all of these are insufficient to write the unquantifiable space of governmental authority.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 11a)

The passage above is classically interpreted as impressing upon a lay audience, to whom the decisions of government must often seem inscrutable, if not simply irrational, how much the decision-maker must consider with every decision that the external audience doesn’t see.

This may seem at first glance to be apologia for any given regime who can always use this line to justify itself against its critics. And yet, in it lies precisely the democratic rebuttal against any such elitist excuses. That is, it imagines a world in which “all the people would be scribes”. It setting out the expansiveness of what government considers, it also, seems to me, to empower each individual to set forth the legitimate criticism that “you did not consider me.” Of course, it is open to government to say that they did and that this does not necessarily mean that particularly interest or perspective will be satisfied, but it must be given its due weight.

Furthermore, in imagining each individual as a scribe, it seems to me to express a certain theory about the “data” which governments must deal with. That is, the natural world offers the source of people’s experiences which they take in, and in response, people express themselves on the parchment of the heavens (i.e. pure potentiality, the reach beyond our grasp to mix metaphors, which is what politics consists in). People must not be considered as mere passive facts, but as authors. Note that, understood this way, this passage perfectly reflects and deepens the division of epistemic labour between people and politicians that discussed here and here.

Universal democracy is achieved “when all the people are scribes”. The franchise is merely one narrow aspect of people in their capacity as scribes. However, this passage cleverly articulates how even if universal democracy were achieved it would not exhaust the scope of what governments ought to consider in their decision-making. There are concerns beyond people’s views which necessarily may bear on any given decision.

Nonprofit Disruptive Economics

“Necessity is the mother of all invention.” so goes the proverb. In a way, this is the opposite of what Austrian economist, Friedrich Von Hayek teaches. Hayek, building on an economic tradition that long left behind the concept of “need” argues that inequality in the economy benefits everyone, because the rich will demand things no one else can afford. As the market meets these demands, they’ll naturally seek greater efficiencies and make those products ever more cheaply until most people can benefit from things we never imagined we needed. It’s a pretty compelling argument and can be seen in everything from computers to billion dollar drugs.

Disruptive economics, on the other hand, works in the exact opposite way. By catering to a segment of the market that has been left behind, it is forced to develop creative solutions that are as cheap as possible and builds on them later to attract consumers with greater income. At first, disruptive economics seems much more egalitarian. Yet these platforms, once they scale with the help of investments by existing finances become sources of inequality themselves.

Is there any way we can get the best of both models of innovation without the inequality?

At the beginning of his masterpiece, Discourses on Livy, Niccolo Machiavelli asks whether it is better to found a city in a place that is rich with resources or has scarce resources. The advantages of a resource rich city are obvious but he contends this leads to social ills. The disadvantage of a city with scarce resources is obvious but he argues it creates sturdier citizens. He concludes the way to get the best of both worlds is through the artificial necessity of law and taxation. How does this apply to modern economic development?

Every day, public benefit nonprofits meet the needs of those who the market have left behind. In so doing, they develop solutions that have the possibility to not only improve the lives of their constituencies but others too. For instance, creative urban farming, artistic and civic education models, co-operative housing, and much more. Where government support allows these projects to scale, it enables these solutions to spread without creating the inequality that for-profit provision does. This is because of the artificial necessity imposed by laws that prevent the distribution of profits.

The Problem With the Problem of Evil

The difference between a theologian and the faithful, is that for the average faithful the problem with the problem of evil is evil, but for the theologian the problem is the problem of evil. That is, if evil were to disappear from the world most people would be pleased with that outcome and not ever feel the need to give the matter another thought. However, for the theologian, even if all the evil in the world disappeared, the fact that there was evil (and therefore its logical possibility going forward) would remain just as troubling. The difference is even starker when we consider that if some theoretical solution were offered that could explain evil as compatible with G-d’s kindness, power, and knowledge, the theologian qua theologian would be satisfied even if evil persisted.

What is merely a latent theoretical dimension of the experience of other individuals is the immediate experience for the expert.

Reflections on Ethics of Care and Law

The Law Is Inherently Incomplete–The Shared Sovereignty of Law and Virtue
It is of course observed that an ethic of care may apply wherever there is discretion in the law, and that one of the recommendations for a more caring legal system is to build more discretion in. However, the way discretion is usually talked about is defective in two ways:
1) It is sometimes talked about as if it were only a contingent aspect of the law (i.e. we may choose to write a law with more or less discretion for the judge, e.g. in sentencing).
2) Even when it is talked about as an inherent aspect of the law this is looked at as a defect. For example, realist legal theory tells us there are always going to be gaps, and that this is kind of a dirty little secret for believers in the normative force of the law, because these indeterminate gaps are either filed with arbitrary whim or the structures of power.
In response to the first point, we can agree with the realist that there will necessarily be room for discretion (e.g. in the interpretation and application of the law, in the interpretation and weighing of evidence, etc.), but we can disagree that this is inherently normatively problematic. Rather, we can say that the law by its nature is incomplete, and because it would be unjust (following the realist) to apply this unavoidable discretion arbitrarily or according to mere dictates of power, it must be applied according to some principles. However, because such principles will fall into the same trap as the law itself ad infinitum, the principles that apply must be in some sense “beyond the law”. And so the law comes to depend for the sake of justice (and not as some additional concern) on the virtues of those who practice it, including care. Far from being a defect, this makes the law intrinsically more nimble and morally responsive.
Law as Inhabiting a Life-World
In the Crito, Socrates appealed to a metaphorical/real personal relationship with the Laws of Athens, who “raised” him, to justify not destroying them by breaking them in escaping jail. We can broaden this point about the law’s vulnerability to think about the ways in which the law is dependent on a prior ethic of care for raising the kind of citizens who will, like Socrates, take care of the law when it needs them. I realize this argument is fraught in two ways:
1) It has always been obvious that the law depends on care-giving generally in the way that society does and therefore subordinates care-givers.
2) Where an ethic of care means to care well, to say that the law depends on an ethic of care is to risk identifying an ethic of care with a fairly conservative disposition towards the law. This seems incongruous with the liberatory role that a feminist ethic strives to play.
I think we can resolve both difficulties in one stroke. At least one path for care-giving to subvert its subordinate role to the law is precisely to think more carefully about how to raise children in relation to the law, i.e. inculcating an ethic in them which would lead them not to passivity, but to the kind of active engagement that would see them save the law from its vulnerability to subversion by the structures of power. Obviously, it is expected that free from such abuse such laws would recognize the proper place of care giving. Therefore, it is through the strategic deployment of care, thinking carefully about the law that the relationship between the law and care-giving come to be reconciled in practice instead of just theoretically.
[Note: This idea of the abused law doesn’t have to assume natural law theory (although in my case I am inclined to assume it), because I think the law that is abused is not universal, but particular to that political community, think e.g. Montesquieu. I believe people could accept this while holding different views on whether there is a further underlying law which governs what constitutes abuse.]

Two Paradoxes of Representative Democracy

There are two paradoxes at the heart of representative democracy. The first is that the government is elected by a part of the population but is supposed to rule for the whole population. Of course, politicians always say they do represent everybody, but do we believe them? The second paradox is that once elected, politicians are advised by experts who know a lot more than they do about the things they have to decide on, nevertheless, they make the ultimate decisions. What’s worse is that some studies into what politicians know show they know little more than even the general population.  

I’d like to suggest that these two paradoxes are not problems to be solved but arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to represent the people, and what it means to have political knowledge. By misunderstanding these basic aspects of democratic decision-making, we have left our institutions of representative democracy open to the twin troubles that have plagued Western democracies since the 70s, increasing polarization and decreasing trust. By understanding these paradoxes and where they come from, we can strive towards more self-aware democratic practices that resist needless polarization and build trust. 

Paradox #1 Who do you work for? 

Unless a government works by consensus, the government elected by some will be required to rule for all. Advocates for electoral reform might suggest proportional representation and coalitions to improve the situation. But even if governments rule with a coalition of parties representing 80% of the popular vote, the basic tension never goes away. Constitutional minority rights and guaranteed seats such as in New Zealand and Lebanon have also tried ensure minorities are represented or at least respected, but these institutional features are too rigid to capture all the ways one can be a minority. Indeed, every policy issue has its minority opinion 

At its worst, this tension produces cynicism about the whole democratic enterprise (think #NotMyPresident). People do not see a single government for all. Politics is seen as a mere contest in which warring factions and classes attempt to capture institutions. Once the institutions are captured, the concerns of the barbarians at the gates (whoever the so-called “barbarians” may be) can be safely ignored, at least for a time. Although these battles may not be fought with arms they work to reinforce existing solitudes and prevent creating the kind of common life which is a precondition of seeking lasting solutions to shared problems.  

This polarization has been dismissively referred to as political tribalism. These diagnoses of the problem miss that these are not simply groups for groups sake, but represent real differences in interests, power, and visions of what a better world looks like. Conflict is also a part of politics not a disease to be gotten rid of. The question is whether democratic institutions are merely another battlefield on which these conflicts can play out or is there a way to think of these institutions that is capable of bringing people together across radical disagreements while respecting those disagreements?  

Paradox #2 Who’s the boss here? 

The second paradox has plagued the public service since it began to professionalize. How are unelected experts supposed to cope with the fact that they must advise democratically elected laymen? This issue has been particularly acute in eras of populist rhetoric. Politicians who “know what the people want” are suspicious and sometimes openly hostile towards “elite” technocrats  (setting aside the professional-elite politician for a moment).

Although these two paradoxes may seem unrelated at first, it is by addressing this second question that we will come to appreciate the first.  

Harold Laswell, the father of “policy sciences for democracy”. Imagined that policy advisors would be like other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. There is something insightful but incomplete about this analogy though. It is true that, like doctors and lawyers, policy advisors must provide expert advice to a non-expert client in a way that respects their autonomy and empowers them to make the best decision possible. Also like doctors and lawyers, there is a risk of paternalism and control. Recognizing what the layman brings to the table, their knowledge, and the fact that they will ultimately have to live with the consequences is necessary for not only the legitimacy but the quality of the decision. The difference, however, is that for a doctor or lawyer, the client is clear most of the time. It is an individual looking after their own interests. For the policy advisor, their client is a representative. 

The question is who are they a representative of? And we come full circle. By paying close attention to the difference between the type of knowledge experts and laymen have, we can begin to answer this question. As I’ve argued before, the politician is not a representative in the sense that they take direction in some direct way from those they represent. They are a representative in the sense that by being placed in a decision making role, they become subject to all the political pressures impinging on a particular decision and thereby experience in a direct way the political dimension of the shared reality which their constituents only feel in a latent and diffuse way. Although a system in which all citizens are active will likely tend to create a more accurate and less skewed picture of that reality, it is not in principle necessary that everyone should participate all the time, only that everyone MUST be considered in any given decision should they have a view or be affected. [In order to both get at this information and guard against distortions, it is therefore necessary that individuals should have the fullest participation rights.]


Ultimately, I believe it is only by appreciating these paradoxes that we can achieve the full democratic potential of the existing systems and grapple with unavoidable logistical limitations of any future systems.