Tag: social forms

Moral individualism and race (Barabas, Gilman, Deenan)

One of my favorite articles presented at the recent FAT* 2018 conference was Barabas et al. on “Interventions over Predictions: Reframing the Ethical Debate for Actuarial Risk Assessment” (link). To me, this was the correct response to recent academic debate about the use of actuarial risk-assessment in determining criminal bail and parole rates. I had a position on this before the conference which I drafted up here; my main frustration with the debate had been that it had gone unquestioned why bail and parole rates are based on actuarial prediction of recidivism in the first place, given that rearrest rates are so contingent on social structural factors such as whether or not police are racist.

Barabas et al. point out that there’s an implicit theory of crime behind the use of actuarial risk assessments. In that theory of crime, there are individual “bad people” and “good people”. “Bad people” are more likely to commit crimes because of their individual nature, and the goal of the criminal policing system is to keep bad people from committing crimes by putting them in prison. This is the sort of theory that, even if it is a little bit true, is also deeply wrong, and so we should probably reassess the whole criminal justice system as a result. Even leaving aside the important issue of whether “recidivism” is interpreted as reoffense or rearrest rate, it is socially quite dangerous to see probability of offense as due to the specific individual moral character of a person. One reason why this is dangerous is that if the conditions for offense are correlated with the conditions for some sort of unjust desperation, then we risk falsely justifying an injustice with the idea that the bad things are only happening to bad people.

I’d like to juxtapose this position with a couple others that may on the surface appear to be in tension with it.

Nils Gilman’s new piece on “The Collapse of Racial Liberalism” is a helpful account of how we got where we are as an American polity. True to the title, Gilman’s point is that there was a centrist consensus on ‘racial liberalism’ that it reached its apotheosis in the election of Obama and then collapsed under its one contradictions, getting us where we are today.

By racial liberalism, I mean the basic consensus that existed across the mainstream of both political parties since the 1970s, to the effect that, first, bigotry of any overt sort would not be tolerated, but second, that what was intolerable was only overt bigotry—in other words, white people’s definition of racism. Institutional or “structural” racism—that is, race-based exclusions that result from deep social habits such as where people live, who they know socially, what private organizations they belong to, and so on—were not to be addressed. The core ethic of the racial liberal consensus was colorblind individualism.

Bill Clinton was good at toeing the line of racial liberalism, and Obama, as a black meritocratic elected president, was its culmination. But:

“Obama’s election marked at once the high point and the end of a particular historical cycle: a moment when the realization of a particular ideal reveals the limits of that ideal.”

The limit of the ideal is, of course, that all the things not addressed–“race-based exclusions that result from deep social habits such as where people live, who they know socially, what private organizations they belong to, and so on”–matter, and result in, for example, innocent black guys getting shot disproportionately by police even when there is a black meritocratic sitting as president.

And interesting juxtaposition here is that in both cases discussed so far, we have a case of a system that is reaching its obsolescence due to the contradictions of individualism. In the case of actuarial policing (as it is done today; I think a properly sociological version of actuarial policing could be great), there’s the problem of considering criminals as individuals whose crimes are symptoms of their individual moral character. The solution to crime is to ostracize and contain the criminals by, e.g., putting them in prison. In the case of racial liberalism, there’s the problem of considering bigotry a symptom of individual moral character. The solution to the bigotry is to ostracize and contain the bigots by teaching them that it is socially unacceptable to express bigotry and keeping the worst bigots out of respectable organizations.

Could it be that our broken theories of both crime and bigotry both have the same problem, which is the commitment to moral individualism, by which I mean the theory that it’s individual moral character that is the cause of and solution to these problems? If a case of individual crime and individual bigotry is the result of, instead of an individual moral failing, a collective action problem, what then?

I still haven’t looked carefully into Deenan’s argument (see notes here), but I’m intrigued that his point may be that the crisis of liberalism may be, at its root, a crisis of individualism. Indeed, Kantian views of individual autonomy are really nice but they have not stood the test of time; I’d say the combined works of Haberams, Foucault, and Bourdieu have each from very different directions developed Kantian ideas into a more sociological frame. And that’s just on the continental grand theory side of the equation. I have not followed up on what Anglophone liberal theory has been doing, but I suspect that it has been going the same way.

I am wary, as I always am, of giving too much credit to theory. I know, as somebody who has read altogether too much of it, what little use it actually is. However, the notion of political and social consensus is one that tangibly effects my life these days. For this reason, it’s a topic of great personal interest.

One last point, that’s intended as constructive. It’s been argued that the appeal of individualism is due in part to the methodological individualism of rational choice theory and neoclassical economic theory. Because we can’t model economic interactions on anything but an individualistic level, we can’t design mechanisms or institutions that treat individual activity as a function of social form. This is another good reason to take seriously computational modeling of social forms.


Barabas, Chelsea, et al. “Interventions over Predictions: Reframing the Ethical Debate for Actuarial Risk Assessment.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1712.08238 (2017).

Deneen, Patrick J. Why Liberalism Failed. Yale University Press, 2018.

Gilman, Nils. “The Collapse of Racial Liberalism.” The American Interest (2018).