Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Measuring Values To Apply The Golden Rule

December 29, 2016

Paper presentation 45.20, American Educational Research Association

New Orleans, April 1994



Basing her comments on the writings of Michael Lerner in Tikkun magazine, “Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks appealingly of a political morality based on the Golden Rule,” says Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.  Lerner and Clinton are correct in asserting that we need to rediscover and re-invigorate our spiritual values, though there is nothing new in this assertion, and Page is correct in his opinion that conservative columnists who say religion is spirituality, and that there is therefore nothing in need of re-invigoration, are wrong.  Research on the spiritual dimension of disability, for instance, shows that the quality of spiritual experience has little, if anything, to do with religious church attendance, bible reading, prayer, or the taking of sacraments (Fisher & Pugliese, 1989).

The purpose of this paper is to propose a research program that would begin to prepare the ground in which a political morality based on the Golden Rule might be cultivated.

Theoretical Framework

Implementing a “political morality based on the Golden Rule” requires some way of knowing that what I do unto others is the same as what I would have done unto me. To know this, I need a measuring system that keeps things in proportion by showing what counts as the same thing for different people.  A political morality based on the Golden Rule has got to have some way of identifying when a service or action done unto others is the same as the one done unto me.  In short, application of the Golden Rule requires an empirical basis of comparison, a measuring system that sets up analogies between people’s values and what is valued.  We must be able to say that my values are to one aspect of a situation what yours are to that or another aspect, and that proportions of this kind hold constant no matter which particular persons are addressed and no matter which aspects of the situation are involved.


Is it possible to measure what people value—politically, socially, economically, spiritually, and culturally—in a way that embodies the Golden Rule? If so, could such a measure be used for realizing the political morality Hillary Rodham Clinton has advocated?  L. L. Thurstone presented methods for successfully revealing the necessary proportions in the 1920s; these were improved upon by the Danish mathematician Georg Rasch in the 1950s.  Thurstone’s and Rasch’s ideas are researched and applied today by Benjamin D. Wright and J. Michael Linacre.  These and other thinkers hold that measurement takes place only when application of the Golden Rule is possible.  That is, measurement is achieved only if someone’s measure does not depend on who is in the group she is measured with, on the particular questions answered or not answered, on who made the measure, on the brand name of the instrument, or on where the measure took place.

Measurement of this high quality is called scale-free because its quantities do not vary according to the particular questions asked (as long as they pertain to the construct of interest); neither do they vary according to the structure or combination of the particular rating scheme(s) employed (rating scale, partial credit, correct/incorrect, true/false, present/absent, involvement of judges, paired comparisons, etc.), or the brand name of the instrument measuring.  All of these requirements must hold if I am to treat a person as I would like to be treated, because if they do not hold, I do not know enough about her values or mine to say whether she’s receiving the treatment I’d prefer in the same circumstance.

In order to make the Golden Rule the basis of a political morality, we need to improve the quality of measurement in every sphere of our lives; after all, politics is more than just what politicians do, it is a basic part of community life.  Even though the technology and methods for high quality measurement in education, sociology, and psychology have existed for decades, researchers have been indifferent to their use.

That indifference may be near an end.  If people get serious about applying the Golden Rule, they are going to come up against a need for rigorous quantitative measurement.  We need to let them know that the tools for the job are available.

Data sources

Miller’s Scale Battery of International Patterns and Norms (SBIPN) (Miller, 1968, 1970, 1973), described in Miller (1983, pp. 462-468), is an instrument that presents possibilities for investigating quantitative relations among value systems.  The instrument is composed of 20 six-point rating scale items involving such cultural norms and patterns as social acceptance, family solidarity, trustfulness, moral code, honesty, reciprocity, class structure, etc.  Each pair of rating scale points (1-2, 3-4, 5-6) is associated with a 15-30 word description; raters judge national values by assigning ratings, where 1 indicates the most acceptance, solidarity, trust, morality, etc., and 6 the least.  Miller (1983, p. 462) reports test-retest correlations of .74 to .97 for the original 15 items on the survey as testing in the United States and Peru.  Validity claims are based on the scale’s ability to distinguish between values of citizens of the United States and Peru, with supporting research comparing values in Argentina, Spain, England, and the United States.

The SBIPN could probably be improved in several ways.  First, individual countries contain so many diverse ethnic groups and subcultures whose value systems are often in conflict that ratings should probably be made of them and not of the entire population.  The geographical location of the ethnic group or subculture rated should also be tracked in order to study regional variations.  Second, Miller contends that raters must have a college degree to be qualified as a SBIPN judge; the complexity of his rating procedure justifies this claim.  In order to simplify the survey and broaden the base of qualified judges, the three groups of short phrases structuring each six-point rating scale should be used as individual items rated on a frequency continuum.

For instance, the following phrases appear in association with ratings of 1 and 2 under social acceptance:

high social acceptance. Social contacts open and nonrestrictive. Introductions not needed for social contacts.  Short acquaintance provides entry into the home and social organizations.

Similar descriptions are associated with the 3-4 (medium social acceptance) and 5-6 (low social acceptance) rating pairs; only one rating from the series of six is assigned, so that a rating of 1 or 2 is assigned only if the judgment is of high social acceptance.  Instead of asking the rater to assign one of two ratings to all six of these statements (breaking apart the two conjunctive phrases), and ignoring the 10-20 phrases associated with the other four rating scale points, each phrase presented on the six-point continuum should be rated separately for the frequency of the indicated pattern or norm.  A four-point rating scale (Almost Always, Frequently, Sometimes, Rarely) should suffice.

Linacre’s (1993, p. 284) graphical presentation of Rasch-based Generalizability Theory indicates that reliability and separation statistics of .92 and 3.4, respectively, can be expected for a 20-item, six-point rating scale survey (Miller’s original format), assuming a measurement standard deviation of one logit.  360 items will be produced if each of the original 20 six-point items can be transformed into 18 four-point items (following the above example’s derivation of six items from one of the three blocks of one item’s descriptive phrases).  If only 250 of these items work to support the measurement effort, Linacre’s graph shows that a reliability of .99 and separation of 10 might be obtained, again assuming a measurement standard deviation of one logit.  Since not all of the survey’s items would probably be administered at once, these estimates are probably high.  The increased number of items, however, would be advantageous for use as an item bank in a computer adapted administration of the survey.

Expected results

Miller’s applications of the SBIPN provide specific indications of what might be expected from the revised form of the survey.  Family solidarity tends to be low, labor assimilated into the prevailing economic system, class consciousness devalued, and moral conduct secularly defined in the United States, in opposition to Colombia and Peru, where family solidarity is high, labor is antagonistic to the prevailing economic system, class structure is rigidly defined, and moral conduct is religiously defined.  At the other extreme, civic participation, work and achievement, societal consensus, children’s independence, and democracy are highly valued in the United States, but considerably less so in Colombia and Peru.

Miller’s presentation of the survey results will be improved on in several ways.  First, construct validity will be examined in terms of the data’s internal consistency (fit analysis) and the conceptual structure delineated by the items.  Second, the definition of interval measurement continua for each ethnic group or subculture measured will facilitate quantitative and qualitative comparisons of each group’s self-image with its public image.  Differences in group perception can be used for critical self-evaluation as well as information crucial for rectifying unjust projections of prejudice.

Scientific importance

One of the most important benefits of this survey could be the opportunity to show that, although different value systems vary in their standards of what counts as acceptable behaviors and attitudes, the procedures by which values are calibrated and people’s personal values are measured do not vary.  That this should turn out to be the case will make it more difficult to justify and maintain hostile prejudices against others whose value systems differ from one’s own.  If people who do not share my values cannot immediately be categorized as godless, heathens, infidels, pagans, unwashed, etc., ie, in the category of the non-classifiable, then I should be less prone to disregard, hate, or fear them, and more able to build a cohesive, healthy, and integrated community with them.

The cultural prejudice structuring this proposal is that increased understanding of others’ values is good; that this prejudice needs to be made explicit and evaluated for its effect on those who do not share it is of great importance.  The possibility of pursuing a quantitative study of value systems may strike some as an area of research that could only be used to dominate and oppress those who do not have the power to defend themselves.  This observation implies that one reason why more rigorous scientific measurement procedures have failed to take hold in the social studies may be because we have unspoken, but nonetheless justifiable, reservations concerning our capacity to employ high quality information responsibly.  Knowledge is inherently dangerous, but a political morality based on the Golden Rule will require nothing less than taking another bite of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.



Fisher, William P. & Karen Pugliese. 1989.  Measuring the importance of pastoral care in rehabilitation. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 70, A-22 [Abstract].

Linacre, J. Michael. 1993. Rasch-based generalizability theory. Rasch Measurement, 7: 283-284.

Miller, Delbert C. 1968. The measurement of international patterns and norms: A tool for comparative research. Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 48: 531-547.

Miller, Delbert C. 1970. International Community Power Structures: Comparative Studies of Four World Cities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Miller, Delbert C. 1972. Measuring cross national norms: Methodological problems in identifying patterns in Latin America and Anglo-Saxon Cultures.  International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 13(3-4): 201-216.

Miller, Delbert C. 1983. Handbook of Research Design and Social Measurement. 4th ed. New York: Longman.


Common Languages and Shared Vulnerability

March 27, 2014

A recent partner in conversation insisted that sometimes it just is not possible to arrive at a common language, and that it would never be possible for her to agree with those who hold out for that possibility. In the same conversation, we heard from another participant about the work of peace building in areas of the world that have suffered brutal crimes inflicted by neighbors on neighbors. The realization that there are people overcoming and learning to live with the most horrible pain considerably tempered our exchange.

I think we came to see that it is one thing to agree to disagree about something inconsequential, or even about something that leads to very different opportunities and challenges. But mutual understanding hinges on a shared language. To give up on it is to give up on the possibility of fully inclusive community. It is to give up hope for a future in which healing can happen, in which there are no permanent divisions.

Keeping the conversation going, keeping the dialogue open, changing the rules as we go along to keep the game in play: if there are any principles that should never be compromised, these are among my candidates. Our shared human vulnerability is incontrovertibly at issue most pointedly precisely at the moment when one says we will never agree on the possibility of a common language. This is exactly the time and the place when it starts to be OK to begin a process of delegitimizing and dehumanizing someone else. When there is no hope of a common language, the first step toward rationalizing ignorance, prejudice, misunderstanding, demonization, and scapegoating has been taken.

A shared language is not a prison or a smothering demand for conformity. For one thing, the refusal to hold out for the possibility of a common language is already stated in a common language. Saying “we will never agree” is an instance of what Ricoeur (1967/1974) calls the “violence of the premature conclusion.” The internal contradiction of using a common language to say that we cannot hope for one is the mirror image of the person who argues for violence. Arguing is already a step into a language others can understand, implying a choice in favor of meaning over violence. The fundamental ethical and philosophical human choice takes place right here, in the desire for meaning and, as Habermas (1995, p. 199) puts it, in considerateness for a shared vulnerability. Accordingly, Ricoeur (1967/1974, p. 88) asserts,

The importance of this subject derives from the fact that the confrontation of violence with language underlies all of the problems which we can pose concerning man. This is precisely what overwhelms us. Their encounter occupies such a vast field because violence and language each occupy the totality of the human field.

The process of working out shared meanings in a common language is not a prison sentence, however. Including opportunities and concepts for critical engagement and deconstructive rethinking provide a way to prevent common languages from being overly confining. The Socratic midwife comforting the afflicted is complemented by the Socratic gadfly afflicting the comfortable (Bernasconi, 1989; Risser, 1989).

Heidegger (1982, pp. 19-23, 320-330; Fisher, 2010; Fisher and Stenner, 2011) accordingly describes the ontological (or phenomenological) method in terms of three moments: reduction, application, and deconstruction. Putting things in words is inherently reductive. There are infinities of ways of representing any experience in words, but even the most poetic among us has to choose the words that work to serve the purpose. And we may come to see on repeated application that our purposes are compromised by ambiguities that threaten to enact the violence of premature conclusions. Attentive concern for implicit meanings may lead to ways of discerning new distinctions and new conceptualizations, leading to new reductions and new applications. Languages are living and changing all the time. New sensitivities emerge and come into words by general consensus.

Ironically, being caught up in the desire for meaning can lead to the closing off of opportunities for creating meaningful relationships. Parsing differences into ever more local distinctions and separate historical and cultural dependencies can lead to a feeling that the barriers between positions are insurmountable. This way of arriving at premature conclusions has been especially prevalent among critical theorists who focused so exclusively on the deconstructive moment in the ontological method that they forgot that their writing inherently put a new reduction into play.

For instance, Delandshire and Petrosky (1994, p. 16) proclaimed that one of the ways their “post-structuralist view of knowledge is incompatible with the necessities of measurement is that interpretations are not assumed to be consistent or similar across time, contexts, or individuals.” The extremes in this display of hubris were called out by a number of observers. Bloom (1987, p. 387), for instance, held that deconstruction “is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy.”

In contrast with these opposite extremes, others have kept their critical perspective in close contact with philosophical principles. Gasche (1987, p. 5) offers a “determination of deconstruction” within which “the latter’s indebtedness to the basic operations and exigencies of philosophy comes clearly into view.” Similarly, throughout his career, Derrida (2003, pp. 62-63; also see Derrida, 1981, pp. 27-28, 34-36; 1982, p. 229; Caputo, 1997, p. 80; Kearney 1984, pp. 123-124) repeatedly took pains to explain that:

…people who read me and think I’m playing with or transgressing norms—which I do, of course—usually don’t know what I know: that all of this has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric. …the fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching is essential. … When I take liberties, it’s always by measuring the distance from the standards I know or that I’ve been rigorously trained in.

Derrida (1989b, p. 218) recognized that

As soon as you give up philosophy, or the word philosophy, what happens is not something new or beyond philosophy, what happens is that some old hidden philosophy under another name—for instance the name of literary theory or psychology or anthropology and so on—go on dominating the research in a dogmatic or implicit way. And when you want to make this implicit philosophy as clear and explicit as possible, you have to go on philosophizing…. That’s why I am true to philosophy.

To give up on philosophy is to give up on the desire for meaning, for the working out of a common language, to accept an inevitably premature conclusion as definitive and to choose violence as an acceptable means of working out differences. Spivak (1990, 1993) then speaks to the strategic pauses that must interrupt the critical process to allow new determinations to inform revitalized concepts and applications in dialogue.

Finally, moving forward from here to better understand what it means to measure distances relative to standards requires close consideration of mathematical issues of modeling and signification. These issues reside deeply in the motivating ideas of philosophy, as has been widely recognized over the course of the history of Continental philosophy, through the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida, and others (Derrida, 1989a, pp. 27, 66; Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010; Kisiel, 2002). Much more remains to be said and done in this area.


Bernasconi, R. (1989). Seeing double: Destruktion and deconstruction. In D. P. Michelfelder & R. E. Palmer (Eds.), Dialogue & deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida encounter (pp. 233-250). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Caputo, J. D. (1997). A commentary. In J. D. Caputo (Ed.), Deconstruction in a nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida (pp. 31-202). New York: Fordham University Press.

Delandshere, G., & Petrosky, A. R. (1994). Capturing teachers’ knowledge. Educational Researcher, 23(5), 11-18.

Derrida, J. (1981). Positions (A. Bass, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Original work published 1972 (Paris: Minuit)).

Derrida, J. (1982). Margins of philosophy. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1989a). Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An introduction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Derrida, J. (1989b). On colleges and philosophy: An interview conducted by Geoffrey Bennington. In L. Appignanesi (Ed.), Postmodernism: ICA documents (pp. 209-28). London, England: Free Association Books.

Derrida, J. (2003). Interview on writing. In G. A. Olson & L. Worsham (Eds.), Critical intellectuals on writing (pp. 61-9). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a). The mathematical metaphysics of measurement and metrology: Towards meaningful quantification in the human sciences. In A. Morales (Ed.), Renascent pragmatism: Studies in law and social science (pp. 118-153). Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Parts I & II. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2011). Integrating qualitative and quantitative research approaches via the phenomenological method. International Journal of Multiple Research Approaches, 5(1), 89-103.

Gasché, R. (1987). Infrastructures and systemacity. In J. Sallis (Ed.), Deconstruction and philosophy: The texts of Jacques Derrida (pp. 3-20). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Heidegger, M. (1967). What is a thing? (W. B. Barton, Jr. & V. Deutsch, Trans.). South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway.

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Kearney, R. (1984). Dialogues with contemporary Continental thinkers: The phenomenological heritage. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.

Kisiel, T. (2002). The mathematical and the hermeneutical: On Heidegger’s notion of the apriori. In A. Denker & M. Heinz (Eds.), Heidegger’s way of thought: Critical and interpretative signposts (pp. 187-199). New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Violence et langage (J. Bien, Trans.). Recherches et Debats: La Violence, 59, 86-94. (Rpt. in D. Stewart & J. Bien, (Eds.). (1974). Violence and language, in Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.)

Risser, J. (1989). The two faces of Socrates: Gadamer/Derrida. In D. P. Michelfelder & R. E. Palmer (Eds.), Dialogue & deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida encounter (pp. 176-185). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Spivak, G. C. (1990). The post-colonial critic: Interviews, strategies, dialogue. New York: Routledge.

Spivak, G. C. (1993). Outside in the teaching machine. New York: Routledge.

The Path to a New Consensus: A Practical Procedure for Resolving the Opposition Between Absolute and Relative Standards

August 26, 2011

The possibility of a new nonpartisan consensus on social and economic issues has been raised from time to time lately. I’ve had some ideas fermenting in this area for a while, and it seems like they might be ready for recording here. What I want to take up concerns one of the more contentious aspects of the cultural and political disputes of recent decades. There are important differences between those who want to impose one or another kind of moral or religious standard on society as a whole and those who contend that, within certain limits, such standards are arbitrary and must be determined by each individual or group according to its own values and sense of what makes a community.The oppositions here might seem to be irreconcilable, but is that actually true?

Resolving deep-seated disagreements on this scale requires that all parties accept some baseline rules of engagement. And herein lies the rub, eh? For even something as seemingly obvious and simple as defining factual truth has proven beyond the abilities of some highly skilled and deeply motivated negotiators. So, of course, those who adhere rigidly to preconceived notions automatically remove themselves from dialogue, and I cannot presume to address them here. But for those willing to entertain possibilities following from ideas and methods with which they may be unfamiliar, I say, read on.

What I want to propose differs in several fundamental respects from what has come before, and it is very similar in one fundamental respect. The similarity stems from the realization that essentially the same thing can be authoritatively stated at different times and place by different people using different words and different languages in relation to different customs and traditions. For instance, the versions of the Golden Rule given in the Gospels of Matthew or Luke are conceptually identical with the sentiment expressed in the Hindu Mahabarata, the Confucian Analects, the Jewish Talmud, the Muslim 13th Hadith, and the Buddhist Unada-Varga (;

So, rather than defining consensus in terms of strict agreement (with no uncertainty) on the absolute value of various propositions, it should be defined in terms of probabilities of consistent agreement (within a range of uncertainty) on the relative value of various propositions. Instead of evaluating isolated and decontextualized value statements one at a time, I propose evaluating value statements hypothesized to cohere with one another within a larger context together, as a unit.Instead of demanding complete data on a single set of propositions, I propose requiring and demonstrating that the same results be obtained across different sets of propositions addressing the same thing. Instead of applying statistical models of group level inter-variable relations to these data, I propose applying measurement models of individual level within-variable relations. Instead of setting policy on the basis of centrally controlled analytic results that vary incommensurably across data sets I propose setting policy on the basis of decentralized, distributed results collectively produced by networks of individuals whose behaviors and decisions are coordinated and aligned by calibrated instruments measuring in common commensurable units. All of these proposals are described in detail in previous posts here, and in the references included in those posts.

What I’m proposing is rooted in and extends existing practical solutions to the definition and implementation of standards. And though research across a number of fields suggests that a new degree of consensus on some basic issues seems quite possible, that consensus will not be universal and it should not be used as a basis for compelling conformity. Rather, the efficiencies that stand to be gained by capitalizing (literally) on existing but unrecognized standards of behavior and performance are of a magnitude that would easily support generous latitude in allowing poets, nonconformists, and political dissenters to opt out of the system at little or no cost to themselves or anyone else.

That is, as has been described and explained at length in previous posts here, should we succeed in establishing an Intangible Assets Metric System and associated genuine progress indicator or happiness index, we would be in the position of harnessing the power of the profit motive as an economic driver of growth in human, social, and natural capital. Instead of taking mere monetary profits as a measure of improved quality of life, we would set up economic systems in which the measurement and the management of quality of life determines monetary profits. The basic idea is that individual ownership of and accountability for what is, more than anything else, our rightful property–our own abilities, motivations, health, trustworthiness, loyalty, etc.–ought to be a significant factor in promoting the conservation and growth of these forms of capital.

In this context, what then might serve as a practical approach to resolving disputes between those who advocate standards and those who reject them, or between those who trust in our capacity to function satisfactorily as a society without standards and those who do not? Such an approach begins by recognizing the multitude of ways in which all of us rely on standards every day. We do not need to concern ourselves with the technical issues of electronics or manufacturing, though standards are essential here. We do not need even to take up the role of standards as guides to grocery or clothing store purchasing decisions or to planning meetings or travel across time zones.

All we need to think about is something as basic as communication. The alphabet, spelling, pronunciation, and grammatical rules, dictionaries, and educational curricula are all forms of standards that must be accepted, recognized and adhered to before the most basic communication can be achieved. The shapes of various letters or symbols, and the sounds associated with them, are all completely arbitrary. They are conventions that arose over centuries of usage that passed long before the rules were noted, codified, and written down. And spoken languages remain alive, changing in ways that break the rules and cause them to be rewritten, as when new words emerge, or previously incorrect constructions become accepted.

But what is the practical value for a new consensus in recognizing our broad acceptance of linguistic standards? Contrary to the expectations of l’Academie Francaise, for instance, we cannot simply make up new rules and expect people to follow them. No, the point of taking language as a key example goes deeper than that. We noted that usage precedes the formulation of rules, and so it must also be in finding our way to a basis for a new consensus. The question is, what are the lawful patterns by which we already structure behavior and decisions, patterns that might be codified in the language of a social science?

These patterns are being documented in research employing probabilistic measurement models. The fascinating thing about these patterns is that they often retain their characteristic features across different samples of people being measured, across time and space, and across different sets of questions on tests, surveys, or assessments designed to measure the same ability, behavior, attitude, or performance. The stability and constancy of these patterns are such that it appears possible to link all of the instruments measuring the same things to common units of measurement, so that everyone everywhere could think and act together in a common language.

And it is here, in linking instruments together in an Intangible Assets Metric System, that we arrive at a practical way of resolving some disputes between absolutists and relativists. Though we should and will take issue with his demand for certainty, Latour (2005, p. 228) asks the right question, saying,

“Standards and metrology solve practically the question of relativity that seems to intimidate so many people:
Can we obtain some sort of universal agreement? Of course we can! Provided you find a way to hook up your local instrument to one of the many metrological chains whose material network can be fully described, and whose cost can be fully determined. Provided there is also no interruption, no break, no gap, and no uncertainty along any point of the transmission. Indeed, traceability is precisely what the whole of metrology is about!”

Nowhere does Latour show any awareness of what has been accomplished in social research employing probabilistic measurement models, but he nonetheless grasps exactly how the results of that research will not realize its potential unless it is expanded into networks of interconnected instrumentation. He understands that his theory of networked actors coordinated via virtual threads of standardized forms, metrics, vocabularies describes how scientific metrology and standards set the benchmark for universal consensus. Latour stresses that the focus here is on concrete material practices that can be objectively observed and replicated. As he says, when those practices are understood, then you know how to “do the same operation for other less traceable, less materialized circulations” (p. 229).

Latour’s primary concerns are with the constitution of sociology as a science of the social, and with the understanding of the social as networks of actors whose interests are embodied in technical devices that mediate relationships. Throughout his work, he therefore focuses on the description of existing sociotechnical phenomena. Presumably because of his lack of familiarity with social measurement theory and practice, Latour does not speak to ways in which the social sciences could go beyond documenting less traceable and less materialized circulations to creating more traceable and more materialized circulations, ones capable of more closely emulating those found in the natural sciences.

Latour’s results suggest criteria that may show some disputes regarded as unresolvable to have unexplored potentials for negotiation. That potential depends, as Latour says, on calibrating instruments that can be hooked up in a metrological chain in an actual material network with known properties (forms, Internet connections and nodes, a defined unit of measurement with tolerable uncertainty, etc.) and known costs. In the same way that the time cannot be told from a clock disconnected from the chain of connections to the standard time, each individual instrument for measuring abilities, health, quality of life, etc. will also have to be connected to its standard via an unbroken chain.

But however intimidating these problems might be, they are far less imposing than the ignorance that prevents any framing of the relevant issues in the first place. Addressing the need for rigorous measurement in general, Rasch (1980, pp. xx) agreed that “this is a huge challenge, but once the problem has been formulated it does seem possible to meet it.” Naturally enough, the needed work will have to be done by those of us calibrating the instruments of education, health care, sociology, etc. Hence my ongoing involvement in IMEKO, the International Measurement Confederation (


Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Rasch, G. (1960). Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests (Reprint, with Foreword and Afterword by B. D. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danmarks Paedogogiske Institut.

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Leadership, Social Capital, and an Ethics of Transparent Representation

April 1, 2010

Leadership and innovation are always asserted by individuals and small groups whose influence is conditional on a lot of different factors. Having the Internet hardware and wiring in place for the global nervous system sets the stage for the evolutionary emergence of the global cerebellum. This more fully evolved, complex adaptive system of distributed cognition will transform the flood of data into information, knowledge, understanding, and, hopefully, wisdom. As the technical viability, social desirability, and economic profitability of living capital standards and markets become increasingly apparent to innovators and entrepreneurs, the metric infrastructure for lower transaction costs will organically emerge as a natural process, first within firms and local communities, then within industries and regions, and then nationally and internationally.

Today’s political, regulatory, and business failings seem to me to be functions of social capital market inefficiencies. When any individual’s, firm’s, or government’s stock of social capital is routinely measured and traded in public markets, and public opinion gets solidly behind the economics of Genuine Progress Indicators and Happiness Indexes, we’ll be in a better position to detect and prevent the kinds of failings and abuses we’re currently suffering and trying to recover from.

Taking up the ethical question raised by Matt in his comment on the previous posting here, at root, all violence is the violence of the premature conclusion (Ricoeur, 1967/1974). When prejudices, hegemonic agendas, fear, impatience, greed, etc. dominate relationships, we leap to unjustified conclusions and unfairly reduce others to caricatures of what they really are. This kind of reductionism and imposition of power is a choice in favor of violence over discourse. But if we choose discourse and the possibility of keeping the conversation going, then we have to stay open to seeking better representations of others and their positions. Of course, though we can remain open in principle to new information, we often have to make a decision at some point. And so things are complicated by those who stop short of physical violence, but who then shut down the conversation in various ways, preventing others from representing their social, economic, and political interests under the uniform rule of law.

So, recognizing that our judgments are always provisional and that no sample of evidence is ever absolutely conclusive, we have to be able to tell when our evidence is sufficient to the task of representing where someone stands. And as I’ve said here before, unjustified reductionism is abhorent, but reduction is inevitable, since no discourse, no text, and no inquiry of limited length and duration can ever fully represent a potentially infinite universe of all possible aspects of another’s being. This seems to me to be part of what Levinas (1969) is getting at in his ethics of totality vs infinity (also see Cohen & Marsh, 2002).

I love the way Ricoeur (1974, pp. 96-97) says that

This is why all philosophies are particular even though everything is to be found in any great philosophy. And as I am myself one of the violent particularities, it is from my particular point of view that I perceive all these total particularities that are also particular totalities. The hard road of the ‘loving struggle’ is the only road possible.

In accepting the inevitability of reduction and the associated inevitability of some loss or excess of meaning, we need to learn how to escape the fundamentalist rigidity of final conclusions without falling into the relativist laxity of no standards whatsoever.

A systematic implementation of an ethical choice in favor of discourse over violence must, then, have some structural means of keeping the question open. Many of our systems, of course, are already structured in this way, though in as yet incomplete manners. For instance, in education, children are tested in each subject using representative samples of items that are in no way intended to actually be the entire universe of tasks or challenges the children could likely successfully address. We need to follow through on this intention by providing the structure of a common language capable of relating each child’s performance on any given set of items to the universe of all possible items. This is what the Lexile scale ( does for reading, for instance.

A structural means of keeping the question open would be a framework in which new evidence could be incorporated without compromising the integrity of what came before. The need is for a linguistic economy in which the market of ideas is defined so as to allow different particular forms of human, social, and natural capital to be treated as though they are equivalent, reducing them without being reductionistic, metaphorically calling them the same, and having good reasons for doing so, even as we understand they are not.

As Plato showed in the Phaedo, language is inherently already such an economy (Ballard, 1978, pp. 186-190). To refer to two different people as people, as women, as teachers, as Chicagoans, or even just as two is to overlook everything that makes them unique in favor of something they have in common. We compensate for this reduction by recognizing each individual’s unique combination of different particularities, but each particularity is in some way connected with an impersonal universal insofar as it is put into words.

Science and capitalism are inherently already extensions of this linguistic economy. Concepts are the original universal metrics. Laboratory and market measurement methods and instruments of objective and equitable comparison emerged of their own accord, organically, as the conversation that we are unfolded.

What we need to do is deliberately and scientifically extend the linguistic economy yet again. In one sense it will happen to us in its own time, whether we will it or not. But there is another sense in which this addition of a new paragraph in the ongoing footnote to Plato will be written in a far more conscious and overtly intended way than any of the previous ones were.

We can arrive at this place only by letting things be what they are, by entering into dialogues with each other and things in the world in ways that allow them the opportunity to assert their own independence as forms of life. This is ultimately what objective measurement is all about. A basis for measurement and a provisionally acceptable reduction of an infinite potentiality is established when a construct repeatedly shows itself as something that is repeatedly identifiable across questions asked and people answering, or across criteria and behaviors observed.

We leave ourselves open to the possible refutation of the independence of the form of life, or of any particular representation of it, by continuing to check the consistency of new observations. And new observations can be provided using new questions or criteria applied to new samples of respondents, examinees, or behaviors. Anomalies and consistent inconsistencies will demand explanation and will entail the assertion of new constructs or populations, the correction of errors, the forgiveness of careless mistakes, or the acceptance of special strengths. Individual interests in accuracy and precision, or the lack thereof, will be both augmented by and challenged by the scientific capacity to reproduce the results obtained. A transformation of research, regulation, markets, watchdogs, and more is in the offing.

And so, what I mean, of course, by a structural means of systematically keeping the question open is akin to an item bank in which new questions are calibrated so they take their positions on the scale without changing the positions and values of existing items. This has long been a routinely implemented technicality in computer adaptive testing and item banking (Choppin, 1968, 1976; Wright & Bell, 1984; Lunz, Bergstrom, & Gershon, 1994). But in the dominant conceptualizations of social measurement methods, adding items changes the meaning of the scores that are mistakenly treated as measures, and so the violence of the premature conclusion is enacted as a matter of course simply as a way of maintaining some semblance of a common metric and frame of reference.

The hermeneutic persistence in pursuing what is questionable demands a framework in which new evidence can be evaluated for its consistency with the integrity of what came before. Further, it must be possible to incorporate new data and new questions within the framework of an existing language’s words and concepts—except when that framework is no longer sufficient. Sufficiency has to be taken seriously as an explicitly evaluated and necessary part of reduction (Fisher, 2010). The ontological method’s process of reduction, application, deconstruction, and return to a new reduction is already the unrecognized, implicit norm of historically effective consciousness. is one in which items are calibrated in a bank. Recognizing this method and systematically incorporating it into theory and practice is the challenge of our day.

Reiterating yet again the French revolutionaries’ association of universal human rights and universal metrics, what we want are systematically institutionalized ways of recognizing ourselves in each other, in finding meaningful commonalities that do not force us into rigid sameness. We want measures of our abilities, health, performances, trustworthiness, and environmental quality that we all can understand and use, that we value for their fair and equitable representation of who we are, that make life better for all of us by giving credit where it is due and by illuminating proven paths to growth and advancement.

Alder (2002, p. 2) says it well: “the use a society makes of its measures expresses its sense of fair dealing. That is why the balance scale is a widespread symbol of justice. … Our methods of measurement define who we are and what we value.” And so, as I say, we are what we measure. It’s time we measured what we want to be.


Ballard, E. G. (1978). Man and technology: Toward the measurement of a culture. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press.

Choppin, B. (1968). An item bank using sample-free calibration. Nature, 219, 870-872.

Choppin, B. (1976). Recent developments in item banking. In D. N. M. DeGruitjer & L. J. van der Kamp (Eds.), Advances in Psychological and Educational Measurement (pp. 233-245). New York: Wiley.

Cohen, R. A., & Marsh, J. L. (Eds.). (2002). Ricoeur as another: The ethics of subjectivity (L. Langsdorf, Ed.). SUNY Series in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Lunz, M. E., Bergstrom, B. A., & Gershon, R. C. (1994). Computer adaptive testing. International Journal of Educational Research, 21(6), 623-634.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). Violence et langage (J. Bien, Trans.). Recherches et Debats: La Violence, 59, 86-94. (Rpt. in D. Stewart & J. Bien, (Eds.). (1974). Violence and language, in Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.)

Wright, B. D., & Bell, S. R. (1984, Winter). Item banks: What, why, how. Journal of Educational Measurement, 21(4), 331-345 [].