Diversity: Personal behaviors, thinking & culture affecting collective attitudes and actions
In this episode, Margarida welcomes Dr. Randall Harp. Dr. Randall Harp is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vermont. He is a 2020 Fulbright Canada-Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Fellow and Joint Chair in Contemporary Public Policy. Dr. Harp reflects on how the properties of a group cannot be seen as homogeneous, and how the unpredictability of a diverse group opens many possibilities for new ways of being and new ideas, and at the same time presents us with challenges. He contemplates the importance of recognizing that there are no easy solutions, and the changes we have to make to achieve greater diversity and inclusion will often involve costs for someone.
We are in need of new worldviews. Worldviews that will make us deal more humanly and more skillfully with social exclusion and racial injustice. We lack vocabularies and visionaries, and ways of being that generate belonging. Vocabularies, and visionaries being powerful enough to offer us a viable alternative to our practices of negative other.
What else could be possible, if you take seriously into consideration the fact that we can create newly our relationships and our institutions, or that we can transform social patterns of exclusion by acting in different ways and by collectively making different choices? My guest today has been considering these questions in a very deep way.
I'm happy to welcome Dr. Randall Harp. Randall Harp has a PhD from Stanford University. His main research areas are in the philosophy of action, particularly collective action, and decision theory. The philosophy of behavioral and social science in ethics and in social metaphysics.
He is interested in what it means to be an agent and in our agency changes in collective and social contract. He is also interested in how the behavioral and social sciences model actions and agents. He has particular research interests in the ethical implications of how information about us in our networks can be used to predict and influence our behavior, and in the moral permissibility of acquiring and processing information about us.
Randall believes strongly in the power of collaborative and interdisciplinary intellectual work. And in the value of public engagement and communication. Randall Harp is a 2020 Fulbright Canada-Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Fellow and is Joint Chair in Contemporary Public Policy. Randall, welcome to Brave Spaces!
Thank you very much, Margarida. It's very nice to be here.
Let's start by you telling me a little bit about your interest in the topics of diversity and inclusion from where you stand as a philosopher and a citizen, committed to lively debates around fundamental questions.
Yeah, that's an excellent question. I'll start by saying a little bit about what it is that I think about and work on, and then I'll talk about how diversity might impact those sorts of questions.
Because I am, as you mentioned in your very generous introduction, I am interested in these questions of how it is that we collectively have various properties, how we collectively act, how we collectively think, how we collectively behave. The differences in how we do things together versus do things individually. And then also, the ways in which information or properties of individuals might influence or modify, or affect properties of collectives, right? So, there are lots of ways in which things that are just true about me right now, for example, might inform things that we can learn about other people, people that I know, people that are similar to me in various ways.
And so, when we think about diversity, one of the things that often becomes relevant there is, how we understand the properties of a group really does depend in crucial ways on how that group is made up out of its constituent individual parts.
And it's much easier in some ways to kind of model, how a collective thinks or behaves if that collective is much more homogenous, right? So, if I imagine a group, which consists of nothing but clones of myself, right? Like, a group, which has just a whole bunch of Randalls running around, talking to each other. Well, I mean, that would probably be a terrible group to be in, it'd be a terrible group to exist in the world. But it would probably be easier to model some properties of that group, because in many ways that you can derive properties of that group from properties of me, right? Since it's just a bunch of Randalls running around, the things that I am like, the way that I think are probably going to be indicative of the way that that group of Randalls might think or behave.
But as soon as that group starts to be more complicated… It's a group of you and me, and maybe all of the citizens of Canada, and all the citizens of the United States, where I am right now, that becomes much more complicated, because it's a much more diverse group. And the ways that you build up that group out of the individuals becomes much more complicated as well.
So, on the one hand, understanding how groups work when they're diverse, becomes a bit more challenging in many ways. But of course, there's also a lot of advantages there, because it's actually, it might precisely be that unpredictability or that kind of, the ways in which that group becomes more complicated as it gets formed, that also actually lends a lot to its strength.
The fact that I can't predict how this diverse group might act or behave actually means it has a lot of possibilities. It opens a lot of spaces for that group to come up with new ideas and ways of thinking and behaving that other groups just wouldn't have. And so, that diversity, even though it becomes more difficult to model and to predict, it also becomes much more potent in terms of the strength of the ideas that it might generate or the ways in which individuals might interact with one another. So, the diversity is kind of a challenge, and it's also a kind of strength, and that's part of the interest, I think, at least for me, in some of these things. But I'll just say also, I mean, there's also a downside in that, right?
In that, oftentimes when we start thinking about group-level properties, we do think about them, maybe, as just being, kind of, made up of only certain parts of the group. They're very well-known effects. For example, if you think about facial recognition algorithms. Those don't do well on people with darker skin, because they were originally designed to track people with lighter skin. They don't do as well with women as they do with men, because they were originally designed to track men. And so, all of these technologies that we use, oftentimes, they are designed with a kind of a typical user in mind. And that typical user is often a kind of majority user, whether that's racially or gender or religious, or whatever. Like, it's often a majority user.
And so, the more diversity you have, including not just kind of racial or gender diversity, but across the diversity of thought, diversity of background… The more of that you have, the more likely it is that all of these technologies we have in the world are not actually well-designed to accommodate them, to accommodate their needs.
And so, like I said, diversity has a lot of potential and strengths. It also has a lot of challenges.
I really like the way you put it: a lot of potential for creativity and the challenges. And I want to hear you, because, thinking about all of those things and being myself, of course, like we all are, engaged in bringing diversity, inclusion, and equity to our institutions, to our way of dealing with anything in life. So, in your research and in your thinking, how do you think we can deal effectively with the challenges of diversity, when you really practice it in a deep way, and not just as a policy, or just labels, or just words?
I always feel as though, in any conversation with somebody like yourself, who is a very, kind of, practical-minded person and interacts with the real world in lots of meaningful ways... as a philosopher, I always feel the need to say, “Oh, I just think about stuff from the theoretical side, and please don't ask me to give any practical advice for anything. And so that's…”
So, let me tell you, this is an invitation to think philosophically about the pedagogy of diversity, because I think, you know… I was reading Francisco Varela, who wrote a very nice book called “The Ethical Know-How,” and it says, for a lot of challenges of our times, and he was saying, sometimes the best ethical solutions are unclear, so we don't have them. So, then they must emerge in discussion, right? Or around the table with that diversity of perspectives. So, philosophically, how can we think of ways that we can actually be it, after we have proclaimed it?
Yes. No, right, and I think that’s the way to think about it, right? And I guess, as a philosopher, as the sort of philosopher that I am… cause not all philosophers are the same… but as the sort of philosopher that I am, I do tend to think primarily about, what are the preconditions that are necessary in order to be able to kind of have that correct solution going forward?
And some of those preconditions, again, from my perspective, as somebody that thinks a lot about what it means to be an agent of a certain kind, a kind of a unified agent or a disunified agent, both individually, what does it mean for me as a person to be a disunified agent? And also, what does it mean for some collective that I'm a member of, to be a unified agent? In some ways, that kind of unity is an important precondition for agency, which is an important condition for the sort of moral or ethical agency that we want to inculcate.
And so, then the question was, what is required for that kind of unified group identity, unified group agency to exist? And I do think that one of the things that's required is that there be some kind of collective intention or ethos, or goal, or plan, which the members of that group and the members of the collective do feel one that they can endorse, as an individual member of their group, or they can endorse that collective ethos or goal, or plan, or intention. And they also feel as though the ways in which they contribute to the formation and the execution of those group attitudes that are necessary to promote that ethos or goal… that they have a clear understanding of how it is that they contribute to the formation of this attitude.
So, we can think about groups as kind of analogs of individuals in various ways, right? In the same way that I, as an individual, think certain things, I want certain things, I have certain plans or intentions, or goals. Likewise, we can think about groups as thinking certain things or wanting certain things, or intending certain things, having certain goals, certain plans.
And there's debate about just how poetic that language is, right? Like, is it really true to say that our group really does, strictly speaking, have a goal? Or is it more just that that's a kind of metaphorical talk for the ways, in which individuals within the group have various goals? And we don't need to talk about that particular debate right now.
I just think that no matter which side of that debate you come down on, it's still going to be the case that an important way of thinking about cohesive functioning of groups is that they have these group-level attitudes, beliefs, goals, and confessed desires, et cetera, which structure the way that group operates in the world.
And so, in order for a group to be an effective agent, it has to have that kind of shared understanding and unity of purpose among the participants. And so, now to tie it back to this question of diversity, you know, one of the things that is a challenge, when we talk about diversity within groups, is that oftentimes that diversity can pose a challenge to the ways in which all of the participants in a group think about kind of the cohesiveness and unity of those group attitudes and these goals, intentions, desires, et cetera. And about whether or not they view themselves as kind of full-fledged contributors or participants in the creation of those group attitudes. So, I might feel kind of excluded or unseen, or unrecognized by a group that I normally see myself participating in, right?
Maybe it's something like, people in the State of Vermont. And I'm going to say this as an example. I don't mean to slam the State of Vermont. But let's take the State of Vermont, which is another one in the United States, which is an overwhelmingly white state, right? Perhaps 96-97% of the population is white.
And I am not, I am black, or African-American. And so, I might worry when I'm moving around in spaces in Vermont, that my particular background and beliefs, and values, the things which structure the way that I make decisions as an individual, when I'm moving about the world, are not going to be fully understood within the group of Vermonters, right? And so, I might worry then that, when the quote-unquote group of Vermonters is making decisions, whether those are political decisions in the public sphere, whether those are, kind of, more informal decisions about just what we do in daily life, I might worry that I am not able to contribute as fully to the formation of those relevant group attitudes. Like, what it is that Vermonters are going to do. What is it that the Vermonters believe or think, what the Vermont values are? I might worry that I'm not, that my voice is not able to contribute to that discussion as well, precisely because I am a, you know, racially, a minority voice within the State.
And so, I think one of the things which becomes important then in order to mitigate that challenge is to try to ensure that everybody who's a member of a group does feel kind of full participation in the formation of those collective attitudes that matter. But the way in which group attitudes are generated, the ways in which groups make decisions, that should be understood and endorsed by all the participants, right? So, even if it's a matter where I understand that somebody is ultimately making the decisions, as it were, but I can make recommendations to that person's decisions. And I feel, so my voice is equally heard as everyone else's voice. Like, that's also fine, as far as a way of kind of making… the way that a group may make a decision. So, it’s not that every decision needs to be made in an egalitarian fashion, but it is important that everybody feels as though they have, within that group decision-making structure, that their perspective and their voice is equally represented and equally valued.
Thank you, this was great. And I guess, there's kind of two poles of intention in what you said… so, the group needs to be an agent, a group needs to have a shared understanding of something. And at the same time, of course, if the group is to value the diversity of perspectives, we do need to learn to work together with people that have a different perspective than ours, right? And to still make something together, knowing that maybe there’s not a common understanding about everything at stake.
That's also very, very important, right? You know, when we talk about... And this is, actually, one of the ways in which the dynamics of collective beliefs becomes super challenging, right?
Because, when you start needing to… so, I'll take another big step backwards, and again, approach this from a kind of 10,000-meter height first. Human beings, we have a very, very remarkable capacity to not just hold beliefs about the world – to know that there's a tree there, you know, if you smash this nut with this rock, it we'll open up – we have beliefs like that, but we also have representations of what's going on in other people's heads. So, I can ask, what do you think that Margarida is thinking about this thing right now? And I can have an answer to that, right? But what do you think that Margarida thinks about, you know, about someone else's view about such and such? You know, I can keep all of those various complicated social beliefs in my head at once. That's something which a lot of social animals have at least some capacity to do. But human beings seem to do that in a very-very sophisticated, very-very elaborate way. And so, all of these different layers and iterations of these beliefs about beliefs, and beliefs about desires… That makes things very-very complicated when you get a bunch of people in a room, and everyone's trying to model for themselves, what everyone else is thinking and believing.
And of course, for all of the beliefs that we have, there's a chance that we get those things wrong. Or there are chances that beliefs I have about the ordinary world are wrong, right? There are all sorts of ways in which ordinary beliefs about the world could be mistaken. But it's especially complicated with our beliefs about other people's beliefs and desires, because all we have access to, really, are the ways that people represent themselves on the outside. And, don't be wrong, there's a lot of information we have access to: facial expressions, where we're looking at any given moment, you know, how we're breathing, respiratory… you know, all of these things do matter for information about what people are thinking.
But we can be wrong about these things. And I do think that understanding what's going on in someone's head is one of those things, which is context dependent, culturally dependent, socially dependent. And so, that's part of the reason why I think it's just easier to understand people who come from a shared background as we do, because the cues that we use to understand what's going on in their heads, those things are themselves kind of shared beliefs within that community.
So, I know how to interpret… so I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is in kind of the Midwest United States. And it’s a famously reserved kind of culture, right? People are not very expressive. We're not a kind of… I don't mean to allude too much to stereotypes. We're not like a… we're not a fiery people, right? You know, us, Minnesotans.
That's not what I'm getting from your, Randall, at all. So, there you go for stereotypes.
That's exactly right. So, I always try to modify these things in groups, but, yeah, so it's easier to understand what someone else is thinking if they can share a background as I do, right? And that's, you know, when we talk about the phenomenon of what's called code switching, which is just a way of presenting yourself, your speech patterns, the way you talk, the way you communicate in general, and changing that from one environment to another. Oftentimes, code switching is mostly being done by people coming from a non-dominant culture into a dominant culture, right? So, you'll see black Americans or Canadians, who are accustomed to communicating one way in their groups, then needing to adopt different patterns of speech, different patterns of behavior, when they go into that majority dominant culture, because they're concerned that otherwise you won't be understood, you know?
That someone, for example, who is black, might be, if you say, oh, there's this trope, you know, especially with women – the angry black woman, right? It’s like, why are you being so angry right now? No-no-no, I’m not being angry. Nobody from my cultural background would interpret my behavior right now as me expressing anger. But it is interpreted that way in a dominant culture in some ways. So that just makes it all the more challenging to understand, like, what actually people are thinking and believing, and intending, when you don't have the kind of shared platform to interpret and make sense of their behavior, as can happen when you definitely share a cultural background.
So, I just mean, I mean, that's why cultural literacy, cultural competency is so important, because it is important that we understand what's going on in people's heads, in order to actually be cohesive, effective groups. And that just gets complicated by all these things that stand in the way, because we don't have that direct access to what's going on inside of someone's head at any given moment.
Yes, and it's something typical of human experiences, that first person subjective experience is really first person, right? And you cannot just have direct access. So, I would really be interested in hearing you, from, you know, the standpoint of the philosopher you are. How do you see these contemporary efforts to put equity, diversity, and inclusion at the center of our institutions? And, particularly, what do you think we're not addressing adequately in this public sphere, or are there any blind spots? So, how are we doing in that regard, in your opinion?
Hmm, again, a broad question. I will approach that question gingerly and carefully by saying, first, I think that institutions in general have two kinds of goals, right?
One goal is to, actually… this is a general human resources card. The first goal is to actually make use of all of the talents and assets, and abilities of all people that make up that group. To leverage all the strengths that can come along with, kind of, making the best use of a diverse population, diverse constituent population, that is a goal of institutions. Not every institution has that goal. I think some are not yet convinced that there are such benefits that can be leveraged from properly developing a diverse constituency, a diverse workforce, but that's the first goal.
The second goal is more of a social goal rather than a kind of HR goal. The second goal is to be seen by society as treating its diverse members well, etcetera, because it's a good thing right now. Society in general thinks that it is important that companies, that organizations and institutions value diversity.
You're not going to do very well as an institution if you put out a notice to your stakeholders that says, we don't care about diversity at all, right? If an institution does that, they will be correctly condemned by society. So, society has kind of adopted this collective goal that we all share of valuing diversity, but that means that institutions might only have as their goal to be seen as valuing diversity rather than as actually valuing diversity.
And so, that poses a challenge, right? The first challenge is just to ensure that institutions do have that first goal of actually valuing diversity, right? And recognizing, as an institution, that there are these benefits that might come along with it. Whether it's, you know, for kind of a self-interested reason – like, your institution will benefit from leveraging all these strengths, and here's why, and we'll make sure that you believe that. Or even just as a question of the respect that we owe to each individual in society, right? It might be not a question of human rights, per se, but a question of, how ought we ethically treat other people? And one is, to treat them in a way which is consistent with their worth as an individual, as a human being.
And that does mean, I think, the arguments are as we want, but that does mean, kind of, valuing all of these properties that are, you know, integral to who they are, which might not be properties widely represented within kind of a dominant majority culture.
So, whether it's because of just a basic commitment to ethical treatment of other human beings or because it actually benefits the organizations from a selfish standpoint, I do think it's important that organizations actually value diversity rather than merely, kind of, express the lip service of valuing diversity. And that requires, though, that again, because not every group is a completely egalitarian and democratic group… organizations and institutions have leaders. Oftentimes those leaders of those boards are the ones that are making more decisions than others.
I do think that it's important that organizations and institutions, that the leadership does actually value the benefits of diversity, rather than merely valuing that second goal, right? That second goal of also communicating to society that you value diversity.
I'm going to make a really quick, unnecessary diversion to Plato’s Republic, where the challenge that Plato posed in the Republic is: is it better to actually be a moral person, but to have all of the reputation of being an immoral person, right? You know, like, everyone thinks that you are a terrible human being, but you are actually a moral person.
Like, is that better? Or is it better to be an immoral person, but have all of the reputational benefits of being a moral person, right? Everyone thinks that you're moral, but you're also getting all of the benefits as if you were being immoral. You're able to lie, cheat, steal, get all the benefits of that, but everyone thinks that you're great, right?
And Plato's challenge in the Republic was to try to explain, why it is that the right answer is, you should actually care about being moral, even if you have all of the negative consequences of being perceived as immoral, rather than just caring about the benefits of being perceived as moral.
And I think that there's a kind of analogy for institutions as well, right? Like, is it better for institutions to actually value diversity, even though they might not be seen as doing so? Or is it better for institutions to be seen as driving diversity without actually doing so? Obviously, Plato was happy to say, and I'm happy to say, the best situation is to get both, right? Like, to actually value it and also to be perceived as valuing it. I like that. That was the right answer. And I think that's right too, that’s correct. But I do think that institutions should look in the mirror as it were and say, yeah, you know, if it comes down to just being perceived by society as valuing diversity, or if it comes down to actually valuing diversity, which one do I care about more? And, you know, Plato saw that as a challenge that he needed to write all the Republic to try to answer.
Was it successful? I don't know. But I think that that's a challenge for us as well. Like, do we actually care about the virtue of valuing diversity and what that means for our ethical treatment of other human beings? Or, do we just care about being perceived as doing so? And I think, like I said, I think that we, I think that Plato had the right instinct. I think that we should care about actually valuing diversity.
So, Randall, knowing that you are a lover of theory, I'm going to, again, throw you off to implementation and, following what you just said, other things we can implement, you know, meaningful practices of inclusion, what are the best things we are doing to really create a more just society that cares about inclusion of all people, namely those who don't belong to the majority. So, how do you see that?
Yeah. I mean, I worry again, that I'm going to be seen as evading the question to some extent. But I do think that, when we think about, you know, the specific challenges that institutions face… the first thing that I'm saying is that I don't think that any of this is easy. And certainly, if I had a quick three-minute answer to that question, you would be able to, you know, buy it from my website for $29.99 or whatever, and I would become very-very rich, I would be living the dream. So, I don't have a quick three-minute answer, but here's what I would say.
First thing. So, I'm going to speak to why I think that the problem is so challenging. And that's in part, because I do think that when we talk about the ways that we can transform institutions, it's important to realize that… you know, economists have this notion, this concept or notion of what they call Pareto efficiency. You know, like when there are choices that can benefit everyone, right? Where there's kind of something, some change that can be made to an institution, to society, in which everybody benefits. So, okay. So those are easy solutions. And I do think that our assumption, especially in societies, should be that all of those easy solutions have already been done, those are more or less off the table.
So, the suggestions that I have for, how do we actually transform institutions? It's going to start by saying that we should recognize that they're not easy solutions, which means that they're not ones, in which there'll be only winners and no losers. They will not be changes, in which there are only benefits and there are no costs. These changes will often involve some costs to someone.
And that's not surprising, right? If I live in a society that’s been designed to cater to my particular perspective, my particular needs, goals, and interests, and now we want to redesign society, so that it no longer caters exclusively to my needs, but also caters to other people's needs, that is going to be a cost to me, right? Like, even though society, I think, we might all agree, better off, if it's not just designed to make Randall happy… Okay, that's great for me, not great for everyone else. We can change the size that no longer makes just me happy, but that's going to be a cost to me.
And I think that it is important that we recognize that there are benefits right now that flow to certain members of society. And those benefits might be, as it were, unjust, because society ought not be organized so as to produce those benefits, but when we change society around, so that those benefits no longer flow so directly to those members of society, that is going to be viewed as a cost.
It's going to be viewed as a political cost, and as an economic cost, and viewed as a social cost, and people will resist having to pay those costs, especially if they don't understand, or they don't perceive the ways, in which society as a whole is made better by that change, right?
So, it's easy enough to say, okay, I recognize that society changes, it no longer just benefits me, Randall, as an individual. Okay. Like, that's a cost to me, but I see the benefit. I see how it's actually better for everyone else to share in these spoils. But I do think that there are a lot of members of society that do not see that there are benefits to society at whole that come from making these changes that, kind of, allow for more voices to be brought to the table.
And I'm not going to veer too much into contemporary political discussions, but I do think, again, I can say, coming from the United States, you can easily see a kind of… that there have been political backlashes against what has been perceived to be the lessening importance of a group of people that had been viewed as the most important people in society for a very long time.
And that kind of backlash leads to, you know, the election of political officials and the redesign of societies and institutions. So that the goal is more explicitly the prioritization of these members of society that felt as though they are no longer privileged in the same way. And I think that comes about, to some degree, just because we had not, as a society, collectively fused that new collective identity, those new collective intentions, beliefs, and goals that said, actually, we're going to value these sorts of voices being brought to the table, because it's important for society, because it's ethical, because it actually benefits us as an institution, as a nation.
We didn’t… not enough people were on board for that kind of change in how we view the institution. And so, I think that also needs to be done, I think, in other organizations, institutions of whatever size. People need to see, you know, we need to be upfront about the costs. You know, if people are going to pay a cost, we need to be up front about that. And we need to get people on board with what the attendant benefits are as well, and why those benefits are worth being brought about. And whether those benefits are kind of ethical in the abstract, whether these are benefits to the proper functioning of the organization… whatever it is, we need to be honest about that.
Thank you, Randall. And to conclude, I would love to invite you to an exercise in imagination and do not hesitate to go to Plato. But let's imagine a future, in which a culture of respect for diversity, and inclusion, and equity, it's a reality. It's there, and it's meaningful, and it's a reality already. What do you think that would look like?
Hmm, this is a dangerous concluding exercise, because I don't know that I’d want to leave this imaginary space and go back to reality. But, what does that look like? You know, I know, I keep saying with all my answers, well, I'm a philosopher, so blah, blah, blah, as a way of avoiding the question.
Hey, look, I do think these kinds of spaces, that way of drawing these pictures of what the site looks like... I think that is best left to the other kind of visionaries – the artists, the authors, you know, the people that are kind of really capable of imagining these spaces.
I don't like to pretend as though I have, you know, the best perspective on all the different questions that were asked. And so, you know, when you ask, well, what does that society look like? Let's ask people that are really out there trying to imagine and create those worlds. But I do think that it is a world in which, and again, I'm not trying to pretend like there's no conflict at all in these spaces, you know, conflict is actually oftentimes a productive, healthy, valuable thing.
But that is a space, in which people understand the rules of the road of contributing to the direction of the groups that they are a part of. And they, you know, have an equal share in forging those background collective intentions, goals, beliefs, right? So, their voice is included and they feel as though those background rules of the road are fair, in the sense that they are not privileging things that ought not be privileged or, you know, things that are more incidental or inessential, right? Just kind of random, or chance… If they're not privileging those things…
But also, like I said, that people have the capacity to have the space to advocate for their vision of how things should be. And I think that may be the most important thing – is just people, the societies that… my dream societies, the ones in which people feel as though they have the space to advocate for what it is that they want. And that advocacy is not going to be… it's not always going to be, kind of, agreed to, but it has to be valued and it has to be taken seriously. So yeah, that's… within these groups that we all take ourselves to be a part of, we feel as though we are important and valued, and our voices matter.
Well, I think that's a great conclusion, Randall. Thank you so much! If I hear you well, it's about relatedness. It's very related to our capacity to make a contribution and to be the contribution that we are. So, thank you so much for everything that you put on this table, and just a pleasure to be in conversation with you.
Thank you! It was a wonderful conversation, it was enjoyable. Thank you.