Spoilers for the Netflix-produced motion picture Bright, starring Will Smith, which can be found on the Netflix proprietary web site, netflix dot com follow the break.
Fantasizing the Mundane
In his classic book Why Not Socialism? the Marxist philosopher G.A Cohen famously argued for a system of collective ownership on ideal grounds on the basis of the virtues of solidarity and generosity. In a utopian framework, we would dispense with private property, which merely reflects a selfish desire to accumulate resources and benefit ourselves without regard for others. In his contemporary response Why Not Capitalism?, libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan has replied that Cohen’s conception of private property in utopia devalues the positive aspects of individual initiative, which reflect differing visions of the good life, as well as ways in which people are able to create as diverse forms of personal authenticity and self-worth. Utopia is capitalist, because even if we were generous and beneficent, we would want to live in a multiplicity of ways and pursue different projects that hold meaning for each of us.
Cohen and Brennan are engaging in ideal theory. That is, they discuss the systems which would be just in an ultimate sense, achievable if we were perfect moral agents. For them, the demands of justice rise higher than the limitations that real-world systems impose, since non-ideal theories are merely accommodations to a less than fully moral universe. In an ideal ethical world, justice would demand a system that takes advantage of our ability to fulfill its real obligations, not simply the ones we seem to be up to meeting.
It might seem like an idealized conception of morality is unhelpful, since an imaginary world would be based on a mix of characteristics dissimilar to our own. The notion of utopia is emergent from our general experience of the world as imperfect. It is ”no place”. Utopia is not a true destination, and thus not a helpful guide. We need to solve problems with realistic models. Another way of making this point is by saying, moral thought operates as an extrapolation from the meaningful intuitions that help ensure real harmony and cooperation. Morality’s main function is as a social glue for building societies, emergent from our encounters with historical experience. Alexander Schaefer has argued something like this to me in conversation:*
Me: ”Does purely ideal theory have any value? Do we learn anything about ourselves or how we ought to act as moral agents?”
Alex: ”Depends what moral theory is supposed to do. It also depends on the kinds of idealizations. Moral theory solves cooperation problems. If the idealizations eliminate the conditions that make cooperation necessary or difficult (e.g. scarcity) then they change the problem moral/political philosophy needs to solve and the questions it needs to answer, making it useless.”
Or as David Schmidtz writes in ‘’After Solipsism’’:
“We do not need to know whether moral institutions work necessarily, work perfectly, or are legally guaranteed to work. We don’t need to know what would work under imaginary conditions if only we had no need to confront the strategic reality of life among agents who decide for themselves.”
Jacob Levy puts it even more clearly, exhibiting characteristic sharpness and depth.
“In the realm of political philosophy, or of theorizing about justice, there is no such thing as ideal theory. The idea of a categorical distinction—the kind that could allow for a sequencing of stages of theorizing—is misconceived. The idea of normative political theory that is ideal in some absolute sense is a conceptual mistake, the equivalent of taking the simplifying models of introductory physics (“frictionless movement in a vacuum”) and trying to develop an ideal theory of aerodynamics. Like aerodynamics, political life is about friction; no friction, no politics or justice. Or, to take an analogy closer to our disciplinary home: ideal normative political theory is not like introductory microeconomics with its assumptions of perfect competition and perfect information, radically simplifying assumptions that can be useful in important ways. It is rather like introductory microeconomics with an added assumption of superabundance and the impossibility of scarcity in material goods. Plausible ideal theories necessarily smuggle in non-ideal premises in order to justify the need for politics and justice altogether. Those that fail to do so also fail to be plausible, collapsing into an ungrounded moral theory that lies across an unbridged gap from an articulation of political ideals of justice.”
What is Morality For?
I think there is much to be said for this view. Morality is in large part a framework for navigating our social interactions so as to create beneficial norms for cooperation. Political and ethical theories that fail to take this into account are highly problematic, to say the least. However, I also see significant problems. Morality is more than simply a set of informal ”rules of the game”. It also functions as an avenue to personal transcendence, a way to instill meaning into the world around us. One part of morality is social, built around sustaining interpersonal relationships. Another is highly personal, focused on evaluating what would add to a shared experience of life, built on individual discoveries of what is important or valuable. In other words, morality also functions as a kind of existential discovery process, where morality is interlocked with ‘’the good, the true, and the beautiful”. The trouble with seeing morality entirely in terms of a coordination problem is that it either presupposes or ignores broader implicit notions of meaning and value built into the fabric of cooperation.
This is a problem found frequently in the work of pure rational choice contractarians, among others. Among other issues, contractarian instrumentalists divorce the question of morality from an existential one, and replace it with simply a question of aligning incentives to allow for mutually beneficial private gain.
In The Order of Public Reason, Gerald Gaus argues that we should distinguish between “social morality”, and morality writ large.
“It is important to stress that social morality is but one aspect of morality, or the realm of the ethical. P. F. Strawson certainly understood the plurality of our moral practices. In his important (though underappreciated) paper, “Social Morality and Individual Ideal,” he distinguished the broad “region of the ethical” – which includes visions of what makes life worth living and what constitutes a noble or virtuous life – from a system of moral rules that structures social interaction. As Strawson saw it, individuals are devoted to a vast array of individual ideals: “self obliterating devotion to duty or to service to others; of personal honour and magnanimity; of asceticism, contemplation, retreat; of action, dominance and power; of the cultivation of ‘an exquisite sense of the luxurious’; of simple human solidarity and cooperative endeavour; of a refined complexity of social existence.” Pursuit and achievement of these ideals, Strawson argued, presupposes an organized social life, and for such a life there must be a system of shared expectations about what must and must not be done in our interactions with each other.”
From Norms to Reasons
It’s important to stress the value of the view that puts a premium on social morality, or morality as a means to solve the enduring issue of cooperation and collective action. Not merely because of the robust evidence demonstrating this function, but also because our reasons for being moral might be said to be derivative of it.
Sam Hammond says:
“…ethics lies not in formally consistent logical arguments, but the public recognition of norms. Where norms vary so does public reason. To the extent that some norms are more universal than others, it’s because discourse and other cultural evolutionary biases create normative convergence. Those convergent forces trace an outline of a more general logic behind certain norms that you can call transcendental, in the sense of being abstracted from human particularity.”
When we reason about why we should following rules and social conventions, a large part of it comes out of thinking about ourselves within a program of figuring out a means to achieve our individual goals. However, as Gaus notes, social morality is but a component of the far broader project of creating meaning within the universe we inhabit. A conception of morality that restrains it to coordination of interests gets at only some of morality’s more implicit functions. The project of defining institutions that correspond to particular ideal behaviours asks if our conception of morality as a set of cooperative signals acknowledges why we think such cooperation is truly important. In this way we arrive at the realm of reasons for action. However, there are different ways to think about the giving of reasons. At a summer seminar I attended a little while back with the Institute for Humane Studies, Andrew I. Cohen argued that reasons can be more properly understood as things of normative weight to consider in the evaluation of a course of action, not just logical steps in an argument. The justice of a situation, on this view, is but one consideration within a broader scheme of reason-giving. Following Cohen, we can see concerns about cooperation, or social morality, as but a reason within the array of concerns we have about the way our lives might be.
Sam’s argument that morality is emergent from interactive public norms, while plausible, nonetheless belies the point that to be moral is not merely a coordination game. It’s not just about the golden rule, or playing a tit for tat variant of an iterated prisoner’s dilemma. When we say we want to ‘’be better’’, that y is a ‘’good person,’’ or that people generally have dignity and are owed respect, they aren’t merely talking about obeying custom, giving people space, or cooperating. They rather allude to the sacred idea at the heart of economics- that of value creation, for oneself and others. We don’t give charity, create great works of art or do hundreds of other things merely to get ourselves or the tribe clothed and fed. We do it because it makes life worth living, far more than in a world without it. Any account of morality that fails to take into account the broader role that meaning plays in our lives is thus missing the boat. A theory of utopian virtues that imagines such a world tells us where we have left to climb, but not how to get there. Our reasons for acting come not only from the world we inhabit, but from our personal attempts to live within it.
This is because when I act morally, I transcend myself in favour of a something larger. An ideal picture of virtue asks what sort of person I would like to be. Theorizing from this picture gives us a model of what values are embedded. Brennan provides an example modified from one by the philosopher David Estlund (my emphases):
‘’Suppose we go out for a picnic. On a hill in the distance, we see the perfect spot. We can tell from here that this picnic spot is better than any other. It’s much better than our current spot. However, suppose it is difficult, impossible, or just too costly to get there. Suppose for instance, that to get to that spot, we would have to cross a deep ravine, a briar patch, and a swamp filled with alligators. Suppose there’s also a magical fog surrounding the hill. This fog transforms morally imperfect people like you & me into murderous zombies, though it has no effect on perfectly virtuous people. Faced with such obstacles, we should not try to reach the perfect picnic spot. Yet, none of these obstacles make the picnic spot on the hill any less perfect or desirable in itself. The picnic spot, in itself, is still better than any spot we will reach. If we could get to that better spot, without having to suffer the costs of doing so, we would.’’
(The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes– Neil Gaiman)
Morality as Myth
One way to think about this is to understand morality is not purely as sets of theses, but as stories we tell about ourselves. As Adam Gurri (channeling Deirdre McCloskey) has argued, it’s all about persuasion. Behaving ethically is intimately tied in with how we conceive of our lives, and our experiences within them. Our models are thus reflective of a narrative. Imagined ideals are “mythologies” of how we could be and what our lives reflect. Thus, any elimination or addition of a characteristic must to take into account the necessary depth to the tale we are trying to get across. An overly altruistic moral theory removes the important positive elements from personal initiative that add value to the world. An overly individualistic one ignores the necessity of solidarity and support of others as a reflection of duty stemming from the recognition of value. Brennan imagines the maintenance of selfish values alongside the expansion of virtuous behaviour. Ultimately, both of them implicitly ask: what kind of story should we tell?
Stories matter, because stories are how we tell each other, and ourselves, about who we are, and the broader “morality game” we are playing. Consider a classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Darmok”. Here, the crew of The Enterprise is at a loss when they encounter a new species who communicate entirely through metaphors and narrative allusions. Eventually, Captain Picard discovers that cultural bridging can only occur through parallel narrative storytelling, as seen here:
In the end, what ‘”Darmok” shows us is that language is sewn from the fabric of reasons for being. Moral language isn’t just about asking, how should I treat others, but also- who do I want to be? What is life all about?
The methodology of story allows us to begin to integrate these dual elements, by pairing them within a context, or overarching world, rather than as competing aspirations or sets of duties. Story telling isn’t a form of falsehood. Stories, or myths, come in two forms. The first, with a lower-case ‘m’, implies a fantasy with no bearing on reality. The second, with a capital ‘M’, implies a broader landscape of self-understanding. It is in fact, a way to think about reasons. Ideal theory can’t tell us how to live our lives, any more than a myth can. What is can do is help explain to us how to discover what our lives might be for.
From the Existential to the Just: “From The Right Way To Be to The Right Thing To Do’’
David Schmidtz, Jacob Levy, and my friend (and soon to be awesome philosopher) Alexander Schaefer all say ethics has to be practical. I say- true, but it also needs to be meaningful. Analysis of norms commonly function externally, without taking into account the reasons for which they emerge. This brings us back to our two protagonists- Cohen and Brennan. Cohen’s challenge, Brennan reminds us, is to point out that practical criticisms of feasibility do little to answer the question of which economic system and society is actually more desirable from an ethical point of view. This desirability criteria itself requires an account of desirability. Such an account can only happen in relation to a meaningful self-conception. To do this, we need a way to bridge the two worlds, to have Darmok and Jalad meet at Tanagra. This might allow us to think more clearly about what political project we truly want, and unify the real with the ideal. In the end, to counter-paraphrase Kierkegaard, “I dip my finger into existence….it smells…. of something.’’
*This post is indebted to my dialogues with Alex as pointers toward important material and in helping to flesh out or challenge ideas. Any mistakes are mine.
“Good morning, Wakgut! Mind if I join you?” Roondar’s tone was bright and cheerful, circumstances notwithstanding. “That is, do you mind if I share some of the fire’s warmth? You see, in a sense, we are already joined. By that I mean not merely by the circumstance of our travels together, but also by the kinship of shared adventures…” he trailed off, knowing that his Big friends weren’t quite as keen on gnomes’ propensity for chatter as he might like.
Wakgut nodded silently and gestured toward the vacant log across the fire.
“Thank you, Wakgut.” Roondar produced from his haversack a lump of smoked meat and a portion of bread that existed in the uncertain terminal zone between bun and loaf, though for his purposes, it served its role as breakfast more than adequately. “If Master Vasu were here and not ersatz-pseudo-entities-formed-from-organized-eddies-in-the-magical-weave-that-most-call-gods knows where in prison under suspicion of collaborating with the necromancers of Thay, I am more than confident that he would agree with my utterly canny and accurate observation that you, my dear Wakgut, are what we in the wizard community, and don’t get me wrong here, I’m not advocating that the term ‘community’ as commonly used applies accurately in this particular case of course, but rather a sort of loosely organized school of sorts, if you will, dedicated primarily to similar scholarly pursuits, and specializing in particular… well, specializations of the application of what you’d probably be inclined to think of as the Weave…” Roondar trailed off again right before he was about to tell his friend of his singular and remarkable character, caught by the unusual absence of irritation from his dining companion. “I say, Wakgut. Is something wrong?”
Wakgut shrugged, “Wakgut think.”
“Ah, I have caught you in a moment of introspection, have I? We gnomes are known from time to time to retreat to a place of calm so that we might have a short period alone to reflect on the day’s activities, on the many intellectual pursuits that we might be, er… pursuing…”
“Ulfe? The ogre that commanded your warband, yes?” Thanks to his gnomish physiology, Roondar was capable of eating and speaking at the same time. The gnome epiglottis is bifurcated and located lower in the throat, allowing air to pass through a pair of side channels while a bolus slides along a center groove towards the esophagus. This adaptation allows for greater information transmission, with the unintended side effect of the natural polyphony so characteristic of gnome speech. Some races find it irritating. Wakgut, like most orcs, could take it or leave it.
“Ulfe strong. Rule many orc. Many orog. Rule Burdug. All she-orc.”
“Burdug was your Eye of Gruumsh, the spellcaster, yes?”
“I’ve often found myself wondering about orc magic. How it is your kind tap into the weave. From what I gather, some sort of sacrifice is involved. Burdug was missing an eye. Is that part of the rituals?”
Wakgut nodded again. His familiarity with religious topics was limited by the natural extent of his intellect. Even among his warband, Wakgut was notorious for vapid remarks and naught but a dim grasp of the precepts of orc lore. “Burdug kill elf, give eye. Gruumsh take eye, give magicking. Burdug magic not help kill Kat-orog, Biff-orog. Not help kill Roon-Roon.” Wakgut moped a lugubrious glance at his little friend.
“If you will forgive my impertinence, I cannot help but notice that you sound almost morose. As I said, you are quite singular among orcs. At least, that’s what I intended to say before once again I found myself verily hogtied by my own thoughts. I never realized growing up in my little village of,” here Roondar switched into the staccato, yet still somewhat sing-song tongue of the gnomes as he rattled off a name too long and Rococo to attempt to transcribe. Wakgut learned a lesson that day: never ask a gnome whence he hails. “…that the Common tongue would be so very limiting for the purposes of expressing more than one thought at once. I honestly have no idea how the humans manage. How dreadfully…” he trailed off, realizing that his dimwitted friend probably went great stretches of time without wresting with even one thought beyond perhaps, “me hungry” or “what that smell?” Such innocence, thought Roondar. Such innocence coupled with such awful brutality. How fascinating this creature, this orc.
“Wakgut not sad. Wakgut anxious.” He stirred the coals in search of the ember bed. “Ulfe dead. Ulfe keep all orc under boot. Kat-orog kill Ulfe, keep Wakgut alive. Wakgut slave for Kat-orog. Kat-orog not step on Wakgut neck yet. Kat-orog must be biding her time, wait for best chance to stomp on Wakgut neck hard. Kill Wakgut. Better die by Biff-orog sword, Treedeath arrow, Rubbalo scare magics.”
Roondar found himself flummoxed. The very notion that the honorable Ekaterina von Eblerheim would spare a foe merely to have some vile sport later on vexed him. “I…” Roondar spluttered, “I have never in my life heard such stuff and nonsense.” He put his small, gnarled hand on Wakgut’s forearm. “Kat is kind. Why, before we met you, she gave me this beautiful ermine cloak of her own make to use as a bedroll when mine was pilfered by a scoundrel in the night. She wanted to spare a white wyrmling from death before it became clear that the beast would be far more trouble alive than dead. She is as close to an innocent as I can imagine a war priestess of Zorya Utrennyaya being in the savage lands of her upbringing. She won’t hurt you, Wakgut.” Roondar tightened his grip. “Not unless you give her reason to.” He glared at the orc. “And neither will the rest of us. You have my word, Wakgut. Do you understand me?”
Wakgut’s demeanor did not change. “Wakgut understand promise. Wakgut hear many promise before. Promise from Ulfe. Promise from Burdug. Other orc. Orog. Promise cheap. Before Ulfe was Hogtooth. Hogtooth strong orog. Almost chieftain. Make many promise about make Thousand Fist rule all land near Durdegin forge. Make promise smash Red Larch. Promise take all sheeps. Pigs. Moo-cow. Hogtooth do nothing. Small raid. Chase farmer. Burn hay. Hogtooth sleep all day. Play frog-throw. Head-bonk. Him bad chief. Lazy. Ulfe not lazy. Him mean. Hit orc. Sit on orc. Take she-orc. Promise hurt Wakgut if no bring sheeps.” Wakgut smacked his lips. “Him keep that promise.” He looked at little Roondar The Mighty, Wizard of Things Unknown and Unknowable. “Can Roon-roon keep promise? Do Roon-roon even want keep promise?”
Roondar sat up straight. His honor was being questioned. Now, while it may be the case that gnomes’ natural interests seldom have much overlap with matters of honor, he did consider himself to be trustworthy, decent, even outright chivalrous (at least in most cases, the unpleasantness with Master Vasu notwithstanding). This slight would most assuredly not stand. “Roon-roon absolutely intends to keep his promises. Why would you even think otherwise? Have we shown you anything apart from the utmost kindness and care? Not only have we spared your life, which I might add given the circumstances could have very easily gone the other way, but we have allowed you total liberty about the camp complete with your full arms and armaments, including that very impressive suit of splint mail armor you are wearing. Why, if I didn’t know better, I daresay that you have been granted a wealth of privileges far beyond any reasonable expectation. I forward to you the proposition that Kat-orog,” he sharpened his pitch to emphasize the next phrase, “and the rest of us have already kept the bulk of the promise I just made you.” His tone softened as he considered the orc’s feelings. “Are… are things worse now that your friends are dead?”
“Friend?” Wakgut snorted. “All orc make fun of Wakgut. Hit with log. Throw rock. Wakgut glad they dead.” He patted Roondar on the shoulder ever so gently. “Roon-roon best friend Wakgut ever have.” Roondar noticed that the orc’s voice seemed to be hitching ever so slightly. Was Wakgut fighting back tears? “Kat-orog very nice. Even scary Xhed’r pirate no try kill Wakgut.”
“You mean Khideo?”
“That what Wakgut say: Xhed’r.” He sighed. “Wakgut wait whole life for same indifference Rubbalo show Wakgut. Better than what Wakgut get from orc, orog, ogre.”
“I don’t think Mr. Geldethamp is indifferent,” the gnome corrected, “so much as he is adept at concealing his true emotions. He is a gambler, after all.”
“Wakgut no trust anyone with power, even if things okay. Things change. People change. Promise hard to keep when no food, no fire. Promise hard to keep when stink-dwarf come from far mountain with axe to kill all orc. Never trust anyone with power of life and death, power to hurt.” Wakgut’s shoulders slumped. “This Wakgut heuristic. Wakgut hope wrong for Kat-orog. Want to trust. But big tension between hope and prune dance.”
Prune dance? the gnome wondered. Oh, prudence. “Yes, well, hope does spring eternal so they say.”
“Not for orc.”
Roondar nodded at this. Life must be pretty rough for an orc. He decided to change the subject. He found that speaking with Wakgut imposed upon him a particular discipline of thought. He was obliged to slow down and consider things one at a time. Still, the gnome mind cannot be still for long, and he reopened a conversational thread from earlier. “I’m curious, Wakgut. Why did you never fight back or run away? Why didn’t you resist?”
“Yes. Resist. Maybe find some like-minded orcs and stand up to Ulfe and his barbarism.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Tell Ulfe stop hit orc. Then what?”
Roondar hemmed and hawed a bit. “Well then you’ll have justice, that’s what.”
“Get new ogre, then have justice?”
“Well sure. If Ulfe was so bad, surely the alternatives…” Roondar drifted off to imagine other actual ogres he had encountered.
“All ogre bad. Mean. Like hit orc. Like smash human, elf, stink-dwarf, gnome. Problem not with Ulfe. Problem with be orc. Problem with political economy of orc organization. System no good. Ogre symptom, not cause. How Wakgut resist system?”
“That is an excellent question. I believe the humans are fond of charters, of constitutions, of codified sets of grand rules restricting the authority of the sovereign…”
Wakgut interrupted. “No can work with orc. Orc ignore. Only rule that matter is Gruumsh rule.”
“Well, if you recall, there actually is no Gruumsh, neither are there any actual gods, but rather merely certain patterns that coalesce from what you perceive as the magical weave, and these patterns have certain traits associated with them that adherents anthropomorphize and name, which include species-specific so-called deities such as the Elf Lord Corellon Larethian or the Drow’s Lolth or your own Gruumsh, so saying they have some sort of will per se is misleading in the same sense that saying a river or the wind has a will of its own. Now I agree that from the perspective of the mortal observer, it would seem as if…” an abrupt knock on the back of the gnome’s head ended his reverie. “Hey, who did that?”
“Can it, gnome. We’re trying to sleep.”
“Right. Sorry Biff. Right.” He turned back to Wakgut. “We’ll talk more later.
Lloyd von Eblerhiem, last scion of House Eblerheim, rightful heir to the Stolen Fortune, vengeful servant of the One True God, and second stage initiate into the Holy Order of The Redeemer shoveled cold mud onto a a damp makeshift rampart together with his fellow captive Oswald Juventas, pirate of the Nine Coasts. The squalid primitives in custody of them insisted on erecting crude defenses at every filthy nomad camp they set. It had taken months of gestured pleading to convince the illiterate savages to take the sharpened battlement stakes with them from camp to camp to save on materials and labor. Whittling the damp deadfall in the fens along the river was wasteful by any measure.
“How long do you reckon they’ve been making these ridiculous defenses, Lloyd? How many years?”
“Not sure,” Lloyd grunted as he slung another gob of muck atop the mound. “From what I gather, the curse that blots out the sun and turns the wolves vicious has stood for the better part of five centuries.”
Oz whistled, low and long. “I’ve heard tell of whole civilizations rising and falling in less time.”
“Likewise. Kings and Emperors, great nations alike may coal or less and yet collapse all the while these stone-faced brutes blow their mud o’er the land.”
“You sure you got that quote right, Lloyd?” Oz asked.
“Never mind.” Oz looked out over the cold moor, trying to see if anything stirred among the dense fog. He couldn’t see so much as a foraging raccoon. “You know, if they really wanted to slow down attackers, they’d give us our weapons back.”
“They might be worried that we would slaughter them to make our escape.” Oz moved around to the front of the rampart to install the final row of spikes.
With a disdainful wiggle of his mustache, Lloyd scoffed at the suggestion. “These rough mud-folk might lack for honor, but I am a loyal Servant of God. I would never stoop so low.”
“Yeah, yeah, Lloyd. I know, man. You’ve got your honor. You don’t need to virtue signal to me: it’s them that don’t understand you and your vows.”
Lloyd stuck the wooden blade of his shovel into the peaty mud. “What is ‘virtue signaling’, Oz?”
“You’ve never heard of virtue signaling? It’s when someone says something to let others around you know that you’re one of the good guys. You know, posturing.”
“If you wish to accuse me of posturing, Oz, simply accuse me of posturing. There’s no need to bastardize a perfectly good concept from the discipline of game theory.”
Oz froze in place to gawp at Lloyd, cypress stake halfway into the mud. “You and I have been prisoners of these tribesmen for the better part of a year now. This is the first I’ve ever heard you talk of academic theory.”
“Sir Selten taught courses on game theory. He insisted that in our roles as advisers to court, we needed to have a proper appreciation for the theoretical under paintings of intrigue, of coalition politics, of practical theories of war. That sort of stuff.”
“Did you just say ‘under paintings’?”
“Yes, the paintings that go under the text in the books.” Lloyd cocked his head at the irrelevant question. “The thing about signaling is that it has to be deliberate, targeted, and most importantly, expensive.”
“Go on.” Oz had turned his back on the ghastly fog to pay closer attention to Lloyd.
“Tell me, Oz: do you know what a shibboleth is?”
“I’ve heard the word, but now that you ask, I have to admit that I don’t know exactly what it means.”
“Commerce requires trust, does it not, Oz?”
Being a pirate, Oz had a keen interest in matters of trade. After all, without flourishing shipping traffic, he would be obliged to take to the sea in search of fish. “Trust, aye. Reciprocity too I’d wager.”
“So how do you get trust? Where does it come from?”
Oz thought on this for a moment as he drove the rampart spikes into the mud. “Repeat business, I suppose. Reputation.”
“Reputation works well when you know the players in the marketplace. You’re a sailor. You know anyone when you set foot in a new port?”
“You mean apart from my crew?” Oz grinned. “No, I reckon not.”
“So you can maybe ask around about who to trust for your next contract, but how do you know you can trust those people? It’s a nested dilemma, agreed?”
“Agreed, but you eventually have to trust someone, right? A little diligence can go a long way.”
Lloyd nodded, “that’s certainly true. Diligence in this case is extremely valuable, not just for the individual merchant, but for the integrity of the traders as a group, yes?”
“Yes. So what?”
“So what is that it’s valuable enough for specialists to do your diligence for you.”
Oz raised a skeptical eyebrow. “How does that work?”
“The trouble is that it’s very tempting to renege on one-time contracts, but far less tempting for repeat business. So if there were some way to mimic the long-term incentive structure for spot markets, you wouldn’t have to spend all that time and effort finding out who’ll stab you in the back while you’re not looking.”
The idea was intriguing, Oz admitted to himself. “I’m listening.”
“The temple provided proxy reputation services.”
“The temple? What temple?”
“The Hebrew temple. Temple elders would blacklist unscrupulous traders…” Lloyd paused for a moment to recall the old lessons, “or maybe they whitelisted the good ones, I forget. Either way, there was an implicit threat that if you cheated other Hebrews, things would go poorly for you.”
“That’s it? Seems pretty easy to lie your way around.”
Lloyd shrugged. “You might be right, but add to that other pressures, like an appreciation for group identity, stories of escaping persecution together, proper high holidays, and a bunch of other little things that cemented group identity, and you’ve got a pretty good system for keeping most potential defectors in line. Besides,” Lloyd added, “the point is more to prevent outsiders from cheating than insiders.”
“Think about it: you’ve got a ready-made stable of potentially gullible rubes ready to trust anyone who they think is one of their own. Disguise yourself as one of them, and make off with their cargo at virtually no risk. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?”
“Sure, but it sounds just as good if you’re one of them than if you aren’t.”
“Don’t underestimate the power of a group identity, Oz.” He jerked a thumb towards their captors. “You think these savages want to eat turtle heads and drink frog water? They do it because the rest of them do it. They do it because that what their people do. Their system would collapse otherwise.” Lloyd smoothed the earth down in the space behind the rampart. “People are fond of their systems.”
“So that’s it? ‘People are fond of their systems’ sounds like what someone would say if they’ve never met a pirate.”
“Aw, come on. Pirates have their systems too. Just because you’ve never thought about it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, Oz.”
Oz shrugged again. “Maybe you’re right. But I thought you were going to tell me what a shibboleth is.”
“Right! Yes, thank you. The shibboleth was the word the Hebrew traders would speak to each other to check for impostors. Haircuts and clothes can be easily imitated, but the native Hebrew accent was nearly impossible to replicate for someone who hadn’t learned the tongue from the cradle. It was the keys tone holding the group identities distinct.”
Oz decided then and there that Lloyd’s penchant for Mondegreens provided more entertainment than confusion, so he promised himself that he’d stop mentioning them. “Okay, so they had a good way to check strangers for group membership, and this allowed the whole arrangement to work. What of it?”
“Well, the shibboleth was the signal: it was hard to reproduce, extremely valuable, and quite costly.”
“Costly? It’s just a word.”
“Yes, but to utter it properly, you have to be raised speaking Hebrew. You must forgo all other options. You have to actually be a member of the tribe. That’s what cost is, after all: the value of the next most attractive opportunity.”
“Sounds pretty subjective, Lloyd.”
“Cost and choice are always subjective, Oz.”
“So what you said about being a loyal servant of God…”
“Mere platitude. Any fool can utter platitudes. Platitudes do not a signal make. Visible commitment to the cause of HOLY RETRIBUTION is a signal. My Divine Sense would be a signal of His Favor, but only if you can see the way my eyes light up when I beg Providence.”
“Your eyes light up, Lloyd?”
“They can. You haven’t seen me do that before?” Lloyd activated his Divine Sense, opening himself up to witnessing unseen threats in the distance. “See? Silvery-pearlescent…” He scowled at something in the distance. “Alert the Indo. There’s something in the fog.” He gripped his shovel as if it were a longsword and looked around for a makeshift shield.
Oz sprinted towards the girl he had secretly taken a bit of a fancy to.
Moments later, the werewolves were upon them.
In 2004, I was 19, conservative, and a partisan for blogging in the then-raging bloggers vs journalists rivalry.
The incident that would eventually end Dan Rather’s career at CBS seemed to me the model of how bloggers would improve the news. A news organization is a relatively bounded thing with finite resources, even if it isn’t systematically biased. With the Internet, you only needed one person anywhere in the world with the skills or alertness (or both) to catch an error, and this could be communicated to everyone. It seemed obvious that this new, distributed feedback system would make news more accurate than ever before.
Moreover, it seemed obvious that there would be no place for the news organization in the new world. Who needed professional journalists when you had citizen journalists, with a wider range of qualifications? Foreign correspondents could be replaced by bridge bloggers, like Iraq the Model, who liveblogged the first free Iraqi elections.
I participated myself, rounding up blog posts and articles on the war, the economy, and the new media debate, and adding my own commentary. I imagined myself as a member of a new community which would eventually include varying contributions from most citizens in most countries of the world. Those contributions would add up to a well-oiled distributed feedback system that caught errors at a faster rate than they were made.
Time has not been kind to that vision.
Consider the butcher. He spends a lot of time killing animals. Do those who find this morally questionable tend to call butchers personally to account? I’ve not heard of that—though it may happen—but I do know that many direct their energy to education of those who demand meat.
Consider, say, a fireman on an old train. His job involved setting fire to a bunch of coal, thus soiling the skies. Did people blame him for this air pollution? Or did they think: “Hey, that’s just his job. It’s the result of the choices of many people that we have trains.”
In these examples and others I can think of, we tend to hold individuals less accountable for actions that are inextricably bound up with the successful completion of job-related tasks. A classic example is that of the soldier following orders; yes, we often tend to think a soldier should listen to his conscience, but we also often leave way for the explanation that the soldier accepts the moral authority of his superiors.
Sometimes, commentators inveigh against politicians—against practically all of them, as a class—on moral grounds, as in this example from several years back:
I challenge anyone to argue that the behavior of any of the major candidates…is admirable. Everyone knows that each serious candidate trims, waffles, is duplicitous, has his or her finger in the winds blown by polls, and wants to be President not because of any burning itch to help fellow human beings but because the job comes with all the trappings, and much of the power, of royalty.
I see two distinct complaints there: that politicians play games with words, and that politicians act from self-interest. Economists and wise liberals in general should dismiss the latter complaint out of hand; there’s often nothing wrong with acting largely out of self-interest. That would leave us with the first complaint, that politicians are tricksters.
What if it’s the case that we live in a world where there are some serious interpersonal conflicts that cannot be resolved via honest back-and-forth discussion to mutual agreement? For the means to bring about the necessary resolutions, then, we would have second-best choices such as violence and duplicity. I venture to guess that many of us would choose duplicity over violence as a means of resolving a dispute.
If those sorts of conflicts sometimes crop up, and if “politician” is the occupation of one who resolves such conflicts under a division of labor, then, well, it’s just a job, not a mark of moral inferiority. Can a commentator rightly challenge politicians to avoid duplicity when it seems needless or counterproductive? Sure, without a doubt. But one should also recognize that it’s intrinsic to much of their work.
Featured image is The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh – repr from artbook, Public Domain
Adam rightfully calls our attention to the “tragic liberalism” of Jacob Levy. This style of liberalism is tragic because the legitimate values of the polity are incommensurable, plural, and inconsistently applied due to the inevitable diversity of the political body. These features lead to “irresolvable tensions.” These tensions are tragic not only because they are a constant, Sisyphean feature of the human experience, but because all attempts to navigate the tensions invariably hurt the legitimate interests of real human beings. We live in a world of trade-offs.
To take a frequent example Adam and I have used, the individualist concerned with liberation will desire to impose a certain level of uniformity on the populace for the sake of the disadvantaged members of society. A closed society like that of the Amish will face interference from without aimed at liberating those individuals perceived either as oppressed or at least as insufficiently capable of making and acting on informed decisions about their membership in the community. But this imperils the very existence of those sorts of communities, which individuals have genuine reasons to value that have nothing to do with the desire to dominate others. And a universalist imposition will hamper the discovery potential of a more federalist approach that affords such communities wider latitude. Both partisans in a political dialogue about how much to interfere in such communities are reasonable.