Issue 45 (2011)

Communitarian Observations

I have recently written about rather different matters, but in my mind they all deal with one core question: the guidance our shared values, especially the common good, provide to our public policies.

From My Diary

I am accused of having formed my own ten commandments—because I made ten suggestions for those aspire to become public intellectuals may wish to consider. Well, I guess there are worse accusations.

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The Weekly Standard is much sharper, better written, and quicker to the punch than the liberal weeklies. And although it has a clear viewpoint (neo-con), it is much less predictable than its liberal “competition.” However, once in a while, it publishes stuff that makes you wonder. An August 1st article talks about “fixing the dollar before it’s too late.” How? Gold standard or bust.” Come on.

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During the Cold War days there were doves and hawks. These days, I learned, regarding the future threat of China, there are panda huggers (which I guess include me) and dragon slayers. Few dragon slayers are more articulate and all over the place than Aaron Friedberg. He has a book, articles, and op-eds all warning us about China. However, a careful reading of his relevant texts (it takes a week at least) suggests that even he does not see China as a major global power but merely one that wants to protect itself from American interventions in its part of the world and to secure the vital flow of energy and raw material from other nations. (For more see Is China a Responsible Stakeholder? and Who’s Afraid of the Chinese?) Best—see the next issue of Foreign Affairs!

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“If the EU is unable to engage in much stronger and more affirmative community building, if there is no significantly greater transfer of commitments and loyalties from the citizens of the member nations to the new evolving political community, the EU will be unable to sustain the kind of encompassing, significant, and salient collective public policies and endeavors it seeks to advance. The EU needs either to move up to a higher level of community or retreat to being a free trade zone enriched by numerous legal and administrative shared arrangements, but not much more.” I wrote these lines in 2008. (Click here to read the rest.)

I documented the same in previous publications, especiallyPolitical Unification Revisited (Lexington Books, 2001). However, I learned long ago that few things irritate people more than “I told you so.” So let me just say that one criterion those who make policy recommendations should be judged by is how their previous ones stood the test of history.

Marshmallows and Your Will Power

Roy Baumeister and John Tierney recently published a how-to book for building up your (and your kids’) will power called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The book draws on a bunch of psychology experiments that make for good reading and make a sociologist like me wonder. A leading example is the marshmallow study.

Walter Mischel’s (then of Stanford, now of Columbia) “marshmallow experiment” was conducted in the late 1960’s and early 70’s at a Stanford nursery school. Over 600 preschoolers were given the option of eating one marshmallow right away or having two after the researchers came back. The original purpose of the study was to determine at what age children were able to delay their gratification. However, Mischel realized, first through anecdotal accounts and later through a follow-up study, that those who were able to delay their gratification as young children grew up to be more successful adults (they had higher SAT scores, were less likely to be troublemakers, weighed less, and had less trouble with drugs).

My first reaction was that I detested marshmallows and there must be other kids who would trade all the marshmallows in the world for a Hersey’s Kiss. However, I then learned that in the original experiment, the children were given their choice of treat (Oreo cookie, marshmallow, or a pretzel stick).

Mischel’s original experiment has been replicated many times, although rarely are the participants’ progress tracked over the long term.

A sociologist cannot but note that all the participants were students at Bing Nursery School, on Stanford’s campus. Mischel’s children attended the same school. I would guess that since all the participants were students at the same school, most had similar socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds

New Yorker article about the experiment discusses the results of giving the test to lower-income children:

“The early appearance of the ability to delay suggests that it has a genetic origin, an example of personality at its most predetermined. Mischel resists such an easy conclusion. ‘In general, trying to separate nature and nurture makes about as much sense as trying to separate personality and situation,’ he says. ‘The two influences are completely interrelated.’ For instance, when Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto. ‘When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,’ he says. ‘And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.’ In other words, people learn how to use their mind just as they learn how to use a computer: through trial and error.”

The article mentions that when those children were taught coping strategies to help them delay their gratification, they were more successful at resisting temptation. However, there seems to have been no long-term follow-ups on these children.

Mischel—and Baumeister and Tierney—attribute the success gratification-delaying students had in later life to the skill of delaying gratification, a skill any child can acquire as readily as the next one. One wonders. The same holds for all the delightful other psychological experiments on which the book and the will-power counseling is based.

Recent Publications

“Behavioral Economics: Toward a New Paradigm.” American Behavioral Scientist. 55:8 (August 2011) p. 1099-1119.

This article discusses the challenges behavioral economics poses for neoclassical economics and the ways in which the young field may move forward. After reviewing some of behavioral economics’ accomplishments and the responses to these accomplishments, the article asks whether its findings can be incorporated into the neoclassical paradigm and suggests additional steps behavioral economics may consider undertaking in order to expand its reach.

“On a Communitarian Approach to Bioethics.” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. 32:5 (October 2011) p. 363-374.

A communitarian approach to bioethics adds a core value to a field that is often more concerned with considerations of individual autonomy. Some interpretations of liberalism put the needs of the patient over those of the community; authoritarian communitarianism privileges the needs of society over those of the patient. Responsive communitarianism’s main starting point is that we face two conflicting core values, autonomy and the common good, and that neither should be a priori privileged, and that we have principles and procedures that can be used to work out this conflict but not to eliminate it. This discussion uses the debate in the US over funding for entitlements as a case study to apply the values of communitarian bioethics.

Julia Milton of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies co-edited the special issue and provided the introduction. Authors include James L. Nelson, Ruiping Fan, Henk ten Have, Mark Kuczewski, Michael Gross, and Daniel Callahan.

“Moral Dimensions of Educational Decisions.” Reprinted in New Superintendents Journal. 2011-2012, p. 28-31. (First published in The School Administrator, May 2008.)

There is a widely held notion that public schools (which, of course, most students attend) should not teach values. In effect, schools do. Moreover, there are next to no significant decisions a school administrator or classroom teacher can make that do not have a normative dimension.

Cut Costs, Not Reimbursement

There is a consensus building in Washington, D.C. — which has been joined by many leading Democrats (including the President) — that Medicare outlays must be cut if our national deficit is to be reined in. At the same time, we hear relatively little about cutting the costs of health care. One may ask, “What is the difference? You cut one; you curb the other.” Not so fast. Most obviously, if you cut health care costs, you benefit almost everyone; if you cut Medicare, such a cut concerns only seniors and those who serve them.

Read the rest at The Huffington Post.

Biden’s Libyan Victory

The reasons that the European Union has such great difficulty in dealing with the debt amassed by several of its members (and many of its banks!) run much deeper than it seems. The EU has been trying to act increasingly as if it were one nation—the United States of Europe—without developing the kind of loyalties and commitments only nations can elicit from their citizens. Nations are particularly strong communities. The clearest sociological test for the national level of the communal bonds is that people are willing to die for their nation; no one is even thinking about dying for the EU.

Read the rest at The National Interest.

No Unreasonable Search and Seizure

Much of the discussion about the post-9/11 balance between national security and individual rights is as polarized as much of our public discourse is. On one hand are those who argue that the threat of terrorism is vastly exaggerated, that fear-mongering is used to deprive Americans of their basic rights, and terrorists could be dealt with as yet another kind of criminal—by the police and tried in civilian courts. On the other hand are those who argue that the greatest danger the nation ever faced is the combination of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, that those who oppose reasonable security measures are aiding and abetting the enemy, and that torture and extraordinary renditions have been vital in aborting major additional attacks on our homeland…

Read the rest at the Harvard Crimson.


It seem that President Obama has made a decision that it’s far simpler to kill suspected terrorists with drones or special ops (Bin Laden) than to capture, interrogate and detain them. He should return the Nobel Peace Prize to the committee. What were they thinking?


National security? Just what sort of gestapo playground would we be “defending”? Torturing people makes us LESS SECURE, not more secure. The “revelations” of a tortured person detained extra-judicially are, in a word, “worthless”. Surrenderists like you don’t really believe in human rights or democracy. You’d surrender your liberties, your money, your good name, your self-respect — all in the deluded belief that you have made yourself “safer”. The idea that you are a university professor is something I find quite shocking.

–Jonathan Pulliam

The United States of Europe

The reasons that the European Union has such great difficulty in dealing with the debt amassed by several of its members (and many of its banks!) run much deeper than it seems. The EU has been trying to act increasingly as if it were one nation—the United States of Europe—without developing the kind of loyalties and commitments only nations can elicit from their citizens. Nations are particularly strong communities. The clearest sociological test for the national level of the communal bonds is that people are willing to die for their nation; no one is even thinking about dying for the EU…

Read the rest at The National Interest.

I Read

Mark Wicks, “Markets, Governments—and Communities! Challenge54:4 (July-August 2011), p. 65-96

Economic theory allows for a place for markets, and, often grudgingly, for government, but it allows no place for communities. Yet the author argues that any thorough understanding of markets—and thus of economics—requires at least a basic understanding of communities (and of governments) as well. Communities, after all, supply social benefits—they improve welfare. How can they be ignored, especially if markets (and economic thinking) undermine them? Ignoring communities has led to inadequate economic and social policies with lasting damage. The author thoroughly reviews the sometimes complex literature on the subject.

For our position see The Moral Dimension (Free Press, 1990).

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Christain Smith and his colleagues, recently published a book on young people called Lost in Transition. They found that many young people lack the vocabulary to make moral decisions, instead resorting to a relativistic whatever-makes-you-happy approach. These findings led David Brooks to consider the erosion of shared moral institutions.

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book review in The Economist looks at the history of sex-selective abortions (intentionally aborting fetuses with undesirable genders, usually girls). This practice is especially concentrated in China and India. The book’s author Mara Hvistendahl, looks at the role America and the West played in the formation of this practice by promoting the availability of abortions through concerns over overpopulation and funding research into the tests that eventually allowed parents to determine the sex of the fetus.

For more discussion, see “Sex Control, Science, and Society.”


Philip Blond: Red Tory Lecture

Tuesday, October 11, 4pm-6pm

Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center

The Catholic University of America

Washington, DC

The Red Tory Lecture will feature a discussion by Phillip Blond,the theoretical architect for the English Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” conservatism, and responses by Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and political theorist William Galston. It will be moderated by Stephen Schneck.

For more information on the lecture and for information on how to register, click here.


The Responsive Communitarian Platform can be found here. We invite all those who agree to endorse it by sending an email to [email protected] with the subject “endorse RCP.” For a list of those who have already endorsed it, click here.

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To read over several decades of Communitarian thinking and to keep up with the latest communitarian news, articles, and events, please visit our website,

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From Our Mailbox

Comments from last newsletter

Re: Sarah’s Key, the best of the film dramatizes the round up and treatment of Jews by French collaborators. The film fails in the forced attempt to tie the present into the past, the unconvincing marital-pregnancy trauma fights with the real story. Good diary.

Re: PakistanPakistan is almost a failed state. Democracy there is only in name, It is run by ISI and terrorist organizations which have turned it into a factory to produce terrorists. China is equipping it with nuclear weapons.If Obama administration overlooks Chinese expansionism and provides further military and economic aid to Pakistan, it will result into more terrorism and threat to US itself.

Prof Lallan Prasad, Executive President Kautilya Foundation, Delhi
Former Head & Dean Department of Business Economics, University of Delhi

Re: Callahan ExchangeAt 79 years old (actual), I am less than enthusiastic with Callahan’s proposal! My doctor says my physiological age is 62! How does Callahan plan to reconcile the two “:ages”?

Lile Murphree, Professor of EMSE

Read with interest your comment re the New Republic article co-authored by Dan Callahan. My husband, Erich, and I have been teaching and writing in healthcare ethics since the early ’70s. Also of interest is the fact that when Dan first started espousing such a theory–before he even began writing about it (in the ’90s, I believe)–the cut-off period was much younger! If my addled memory serves, it was more like age 65. But, of course, we’ve all grown a bit older since then!

Roberta Springer Loewy, PhD
Clinical Professor, Bioethics, University of California, Davis

Re: Israel-Palestine Train WreckYour quip about the next train in the Middle East was well-appreciated by this cynical and, dare I say, if ever-so-slightly worn veteran of watching the news from the Middle East, as well as, ever so often, having visited there too.  I just wondered if, to be blunt, you really thought the potential for any sort of peace talks exists or, at least, existed.  I have come to despair of the Obama Administration’s ability to create the conditions for peace   I like the man and indeed voted for him – but his administration’s ability to be feared as well as loved is something I find to observe.  I’d be curious to at some point get your thoughts on that.  Would it be okay if I used a portion of the post for a new blog post my writing team would be creating in the future?

Danielle Kim

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Edited by Julia Milton.