The Ecstasy of Garett Jones

From the always-excellent Garett Jones:

 

To which I cheekily reply

 

Geej pretends to believe that Justice is a destination, possibly to goad me.

 

I call him on it.

 

And then…

 

Professor Jones and I have had brief hallway/lunch conversations about why he left the Mormon faith before. But this is the first time I’ve read this piece from a young (25!) Garett. It’s a tiny bit of private apostasy that highlights a curious sort of tension that Adam alluded to in his puzzlement about how many philosophers should be dancing in the streets. Our first viral post wrestles with this, noting that moral intuition reigns o’er all. Adam (mostly) agrees with other-Sam and Chris.

Me? I’m with Jones. The art of enjoying professional wrestling is reveling in the kayfabe. You know it’s scripted and fake in a gaudy sense, but you also know that there’s a legitimate kernel of genuine drama, and that the real masters of the medium blend the art and the artifice seamlessly. You also know that the audience is in on it and they give themselves wholly to the wink-wink, nudge-nudge self-aware pageant with Dionysian abandon. It’s all part of the act, the performers as much as the audience. And it’s brilliant, so long as the audience remains in on it. If the audience breaks kayfabe, or worse if they fail to recognize that it is kayfabe, you’re left in the uncomfortable position of being the only kid at the parade willing to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes.

We tell stories about how that kid is courageous, but let’s face facts here folks: whistleblowers are treated like garbage. It’s no fun to be the lone apostate, to be the guy who says, “hey, he didn’t really hit him with that chair.” The most savage bit of political kayfabe we’ve got is that America loves the little guy who stands up to the entrenched interest. The incentives suggest otherwise.

Do we need philosophers? Well, we need men and women of virtue, that’s for sure. The world of political, of religious, of business kayfabe would be a lot more entertaining if we’d all stop treating it so earnestly. We don’t have to break kayfabe, but we should all, as reasonable, responsible, respectable adults recognize it for what it all is: show.

In the immortal words of Ric Flair: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

It worked

My co-bloggers ask if philosophy is necessary for a society to have virtue, and I say no. For one, the number of virtuous people in the world far exceeds the number of people who have studied philosophy, so obviously it must come from other sources as well. Further, I would like to quote the following from Deirdre McCloskey:

My dad was also a professor, and one time he said to a good but narrow grad student. “This summer read 30 first-rate novels.” It worked.

I cannot now find the longer essay that Deirdre initially told this story in, but the point she was getting at was that Plato was right and poets and novelists (like Shakespeare and Homer) were serious rivals to philosophers in the teaching of virtue. And I think that’s right. A decent Catechism, well taught with solid examples, also works. 

That’s all I really have to add. There’s more than one way to skin this cat.

Love of Wisdom

I asked: do we need philosophy to live a good life or flourish as a social whole?

Chris and Sam H provided excellent answers. In addition to their direct responses, I think Sam H’s post on aesthetics and art also helps us approach something like an answer.

As far as I’m concerned Protagoras (as portrayed by Plato) had this all figured out about two and a half millenia ago:

Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood, and last to the very end of life. Mother and nurse and father and tutor are vying with one another about the improvement of the child as soon as ever he is able to understand what is being said to him: he cannot say or do anything without their setting forth to him that this is just and that is unjust; this is honourable, that is dishonourable; this is holy, that is unholy; do this and abstain from that.

Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a pupil of ethics, from the time we can understand words to our passing from this world. This the world seen by Burke and by Oakeshott; a world thick with ethical prescriptions and corrections and contested intuitions. Chris puts it like this:

I am agnostic on whether, all things being equal, a more capital-P Philosophically-literate populace would necessarily grease the wheels of American democracy. I don’t think that well-defined Philosophies are necessary for an individual to live a good and virtuous life (for my definitions of those words, anyway), as we already have socialized ‘default scripts’ for how people ought to act, even without a cleanly articulated framework. I do think that social engagement and personal effort can make one a more conscientious, empathetic, aware person- whether that necessarily has intrinsic or instrumental value, I’m unequipped to even guess.

Emphasis added by me.

This all closely parallels the earlier conversation about art. I made the case that art appreciation is a situated, institutional thing, possible only as part of a community. My brother David thought that there must be more to it than this, just as Socrates rejected the soft socialness of Protagoras’ ethics. Sam H played the peacekeeper by bringing underlying, to some extent pre-social emotions into the picture in addition to the Protagorean framework.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

A Humean or Smithian moral sentimentalist perspective added to a Protagorean and Oakeshottian thick traditionalist perspective is, in short, a very good first approximation of the reality on the ground.

But to come back around to the original question again, does philosophy have a role to play within that reality?

I think so, and so did Protagoras. He taught ethics and charged for the privilege. Thinking it through, this shouldn’t seem so odd—after all, language’s reality on the ground is basically identical, and yet we still have English teachers. Certainly people can speak English without English teachers, but yet we expect English teachers to instill certain conventions, certain norms.

Ethics are contingent and traditional but philosophy can play a role in making these contingent traditions give an account of themselves.

I think Deirdre McCloskey’s account of the clerisy, her word for the writerly intellectual class, is something like what I have in mind. By her reckoning, they are supposed to help out by clarifying and providing coherent (but not Platonically self-sufficient) frameworks that help people both in making evaluations and simply in making sense of their lives. By her reckoning, the class of people has been asleep at the wheel (or worse, drunk and hostile) since at least 1848.

Her call to action goes as follows:

We need to revive a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora.

I knew as soon as I read these words that I did not merely agree with them, but wanted to take action. I wanted to do philosophy, to contribute to the revival of that “serious ethical conversation”.

Sweet talk is one part of that effort, and I am grateful, here in week three, for the contributions everyone here has made so far.

What do you want?

 

Image

 

One day someone may offer to fulfill your wishes and dreams. The question is, are they an honest dealer, or are they concealing the cost of their help and the size of the benefits they can actually provide?

This Wish Seller may be a car salesmen, but the Wish Seller that’s most dangerous is the politician seeking power. Voting, for better or worse, does not work on a “cash on delivery” system. You vote now for the guy who promises to fulfill your wishes in the future, whether by passing a law you desire or raising a tax that will be spent for your benefit. 

In comments to my previous post, AG asks if people who are angry at institutions that fail to delivery “the goods” will moderate their expectations over time, or if people will continue to expect governments to deliver the impossible (leading to cycles of instability). 

Now we are getting into pure conjecture, but I think two things will happen.

Firstly, the violent revolutions will eventually stop. The institutions and forms of governance that are necessary to meet basic needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy are well known, globally. Only pockets of ideological resistance (such as Bolivarian Venezuela or among the crazier Islamnic cults like Boko Haram) remain (a.k.a., the “End of History” has arrived). The nations which have not caught up to the developed world (like Peru) have done so due to lazy cronies being in power, not out of ignorance of the benefits of property rights and rule of law (as Hernando de Soto proves). Eventually, enough revolutions will see all the bad actors out of power and replaced. This may take three, four or more revolutions in some of the harder case countries, but I’m fairly confident that the digital egalitarian society will keep working this problem until it’s solved.

Secondly, there’s a difference between the people who want things that can be delivered (e.g., low taxes and a tolerable administration of justice) verses people who want things that cannot be delivered (e.g., large scale socialism or government benefits that exceed the tax base). Category 1 people will eventually get what they want, and Category 2 people will eventually learn, however hard a case they are, and thus cycles of instability will eventually peter out in both cases.

Why am I confident about Category 2 eventually learning? The reason is that it’s just impossible for a Walter Duranty to exist in today’s world. Any bald-faced lie in the news is quickly debunked, and the reasons why are at least available for those willing to hear. Only systems of near-total media control (as practiced in modern China and North Korea) can produce false information faster than the digitally-egalitarian public can produce and process truth. And on a long enough time scale, I don’t see Chinese or Korean-style regimes of control lasting forever, if only because nothing lasts forever and once they collapse it’s really hard to put them back in place.

The above means that the record of success and failure will be plainly available for all to read. There will always be holdouts who, for emotional reasons, refuse to see the truth about one thing or another, but I expect that democratic majorities of people will prove open enough and morally flexible enough to judge the facts for themselves and vote accordingly. (And if you don’t believe me, you’re far too cynical. The view of the voting public obviously changes over time. Almost no one self-identifies as a Communist anymore, and just look how quickly the world has moved on acceptance of Gays. Change happens)

And hopefully, when that Wish Seller next comes along, the voting majority will know the correct response:

Image

 

Blood Disease: A Metaphor

AG writes that he agrees with Deirdre McCloskey when she argues that the sacred and profane are inseparable. Spivonomist starts it when he observes that honor is hard to define, distinguishing two of its meanings as sacred (honor) and profane (prudence).  SH really gets things cooking with his wonderful example from Schopenhauer, exposing those Greeks for the troublemakers they are. It’s not their fault, really, driving into the realm of ethics the notions of virtue, that is, putting into the realm of pure intellect those matters unseen, that which is cooked in the human liver. And heart. A physician, for example, must distinguish blood from bone in order to make a diagnosis of indications. But where does blood come from?

If the blood is diseased, it stands to reason that the bone is diseased, and the flesh. Even if the disease is not actually observable in the one, but only in the other, no one says, “Gosh, only my blood is diseased; I can live without that.” A painful disease to the bone is a painful disease to the entire body, and a deadly disease to the bone is a deadly disease.

When we say that the sacred and the profane are inseparable, we are really making an observation that the sacred intertwines the profane in the same way that blood vessels intertwine flesh and bone. Where does one end and the other begin? Nevertheless, we must distinguish, knowing that the distinction, like this metaphor, will cease to serve our intellectual pursuit of what is virtue versus what is prudence, and which has what effect on the other.

What we’re trying to do, of course, is diagnose indications, usually in an effort to treat our ills, beginning with the self, extending to the community, then, finally, to the society. A society filled with Schopenhauer’s Tituses would be ideal because his liver is healthy. Nevertheless, a society filled with Caiuses would be a good society, though short-lived because his liver is not healthy.

Thus, it is easy to change minds, and you can do it by force, as we have seen in the realm of American morality over the last several years. The goal to have many Caiuses is achievable. The goal to have many Tituses is hopeless because it is impossible to change hearts.

Impossible? Near-impossible. To borrow from a possibly-deceased pastiche twitter account, whom I looked to as a father figure: when was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and asked, “What was the last thing about which you changed your mind? And what was the last thing about which you changed your heart?” And the dagger, I think: “How do you know you changed your heart?”

 

Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger

My co-blogger Adam Gurri reviews his father’s new book over at the Umlaut. I haven’t read the book myself yet, so this is response is based on AG’s review (which I assume is honest and fair). I’m sure the book is great throughout and everyone should read it in its entirety, but today we are just sticking to the topic’s raised by AG.

[In this piece I’m going to refer to Adam’s dad as “Martin” in order to avoid confusion over usage of the name Gurri, and I’m going to refer to Adam as “AG” in order to avoid confusion with myself]

I want to posit that I agree with Martin that the Internet generally (and “social media” specifically, which is a term I use broadly to include wherever online identity has persistence – Twitter and Facebook of course, but also WhatsApp, message boards of all sorts, AIM, Second Life, etc.) has an erosive effect on all kinds of pre-Internet power structures. What we are seeing is a two-fold change in the rate of information flow, both of the changes feeding on each other to multiply the rate of social change. In respect, we are seeing more information flowing from “what institutions do” to “what the public knows” at a faster rate and from more directions compared to any historical free press (limited by the technology of a previous era). And second we are seeing an increase of information among the public, both on public forums like Twitter and in private peer-to-peer technologies like WhatsApp or the humble SMS message. Together these flows both increase the incentives and lower the costs to act collectively.

I further agree with Martin and AG’s belief that this is related to the soft power of “legitimacy”. It is my belief that all revolutions and wars for independence, at least since the invention of the modern firearm, are a crisis of legitimacy in the previous regime. Just look at what is going on this last week in Iraq, where a fairly small force (7,000) of ISIS fighters was able to route a force forty times its size and take over the second-largest city in Iraq. Neither the Iraqi army nor the Iraqi people in Mosul were able to organize an effective response. Does anyone believe that ISIS would have similar luck in Tel Aviv? Not in a million years, because even if the Israeli army was unable to intervene for some reason, the Israeli people themselves would resist ISIS violently and effectively. And I have no doubt the same would be true in Rome or Dallas-Forth Worth. There can be no stronger proof that the Iraqi people (both its army and its citizens) just don’t believe that their current collection of institutions is worth fighting for.

Note however that two paragraphs above I use the term erosive, rather than corrosive, and this is where I start to disagree with the tone of Martin’s book (as far as I can tell from AG’s review). Corrosive implies an acidic, damaging, eating away of useful things. Erosion is what happens when inflexible objects are caught between water and water’s desired destination. Water flows downhill, and not even the greatest mountain can stand in its way forever.

I think the effect that Martin is describing is real, but see it as very good for humanity in the long run. I also disagree that the unrest seen in places like Egypt or Tunisia (or even the United States) is united solely by a wish to negate the current regime. When that poor man in Tunisia lit himself on fire (a very impressive bit of rhetoric-by-action), the people rallied around a cause to make things better. They weren’t just against the institutions in place, they were for economic opportunity and a “better deal” than the one they had. Likewise, the protesters in Tahrir Square are not just for “anyone but Mubarak” – a fragmented majority of them were aware of the human rights available in Europe, and wanted them, while another plurality of protesters were aware of the orthodox Islamic governance available in other parts of the world, and wanted that (like ISIS does).

Are these goals vague? Some of them. But we will also see that as the process of revolution and reassessment continues to iterate, we should expect people to learn from their success or lack thereof. Another Occupy Wall St. (OWS) is incredibly unlikely precisely because the first one produced no lasting results. The lessons of OWS are also archived for anyone to read going forward, available globally, so that the lessons will spread further and remain with us longer.

Globally, egalitarian society is now moving, learning, and changing inside the OODA Loop of every pre-Internet institution, and this is the test that will reveal every reason for desertion. Only institutions with fundamentally sound practices, that genuinely meet the needs of the people within its writ, will not suffer a crisis of legitimacy in the near future. And this is a good thing indeed, as the bad passes through the meat grinder into history and only the institutions which genuinely meet our needs remain.

Just be thankful that if you’re reading this, you (probably) live in a country that will (probably) go through this process democratically.

Qualms beget alms

Does the average person need “engagement with complex ethical theories” to be a good person? This is the type of question that keeps weirdos like me and Adam up at night. In order to reply to Adam’s query I need to call upon an expert witness, Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Question of Motive. The key excerpt is in audio form here:

Schopenhauer asks us to imagine two young men, Caius and Titus, each passionately in love, each with a different girl, each thwarted by more favored rivals. Both resolve to kill the rival that stands in their way, “but when they come to actually prepare for the murder, each of them, after an inward struggle, draws back. They are now to give us a truthful and clear account of the reasons why they abandoned their project.”

For Caius, we are given a menu of explanations from which to choose, each representing a famous “complex ethical theory” from the history of moral philosophy. Perhaps Caius says,

I reflected that the principle I was going to apply in this case would not be adapted to provide a rule universally valid for all possible rational beings; because I should have treated my rival only as a means, and not at the same time as an end.” Or, following Fichte, he may deliver himself as follows: “Every human life is a means towards realising the moral law; consequently, I cannot, without being indifferent to this realisation, destroy a being ordained to do his part in effecting it. …

For Titus, the situation is different. Indeed, it’s not even possible to tell if he’s ever been acquainted with a “complex ethical theory” of any stripe. Thus spoke Titus:

When I came to make arrangements for the work, and so, for the moment, had to occupy myself not with my own passion, but with my rival; then for the first time I saw clearly what was going to happen to him. But simultaneously I was seized with compassion and pity; sorrow for him laid hold upon me, and overmastered me: I could not strike the blow.

Now Schopenhauer:

I ask every honest and unprejudiced reader: Which of these two is the better man? To which would he prefer to entrust his own destiny? Which is restrained by the purer motive? Consequently, where does the basis of morality lie?

I know how I answer. Titus embodies an indelible moral character, motivated purely by compassion, while Caius comes off as an amoral keener who could be persuaded back to murder by a particularly convincing footnote refutation. The basis of behaving morally, then, lies not in any philosophical treatise or divine command, but by cultivating our moral sense. Qualms beget alms.

This doesn’t eliminate the value of philosophy per se, but should definitely feed into how one sets their priorities. At the very least, any person who concentrates on living a life of compassion will run ethical laps around the man of manuscript, who is just as liable to become tricked by the latest sophist as he is to discover the first and only Grand Unified Theory of not being a dick.

In addition to the comments we receive below, there is some lively conversation taking place on Reddit connected to this post that can be found here.

“Comparative Ideological Studies”

I heard this wonderful episode of the podcast “99% Invisible” recently. It was about the problem of communicating across ten thousand years, to tell our distant descendants that “This Area Is Insanely Radioactive, Go Away”. In truth, even a ten-thousand year scope is irresponsible, since we all now understand that the material will be pretty unsafe for the next 250,000 years.

The speakers make the salient point that Shakespearean English is roughly 400 years old, or 4% of the time we’re trying to span. The “English” of Beowulf is 10% the distance they’re trying to shout over. Languages and common symbols drift away in the 10k year time-span. Nothing human is anchored down at that scale. Any foreboding landmark we can construct can become an attraction (or an undecipherable mess). Any repulsive obstacle can become an attractive challenge or an irrelevant nothing.

One especially curious solution was to genetically engineer some cats to become “living Geiger counters”, changing color in the presence of high-radiation, and then singing songs and telling stories whose moral was simply, “If the cats change color, run away.” The men who came up with this theory argued that culture itself was the only technology that could span that kind of time. If the simple heuristic that “cats should not change color” could be preserved over time, the people of the future do not need to understand the “why”. Let me be clear- it’s a silly solution. Still, thought provoking I think.

This long-temporal-distance communication problem has been itching me lately. I’ve been reading Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication, which nominally is about the problems of cultural exchange with extraterrestrials. [Full PDF courtesy of NASA.gov, here]. The big analogy, though, is with another kind of one-way limited-context communication: between human cultures separated by millennia. (I put up some early notes on my home-blog here, on trying to eke meaning out of Egyptian, Mayan, and North American artifacts).

One of the obvious benefits of “comparative studies” is that it can help to suggest what properties might be more generalizable and which are more contingent or local to the entities in question. From our distance and our own distinct cultural differences, we can make generalizations of other cultures that they themselves might not have seen as contingent or even worth comment. We might call these hidden premises “Unknown Knowns”, to fill out the missing quadrant of that infamous Rumsfeld quote.

We all float in a soup of communally-understood symbols and stories and ideologies that we might occasionally mistake for self-evident. Those who have never attempted their own “ideological comparative studies”- those who haven’t engaged with titled and demarcated Philosophies- may have a harder time distinguishing what is unique or contentious or inconsistent or “recent” in their own worldview, but they aren’t necessarily without a worldview. Those who choose not to engage with the minds of others are missing out on powerful tools of a kind of metacognition.

I apologize if this is a trite point. I am agnostic on whether, all things being equal, a more capital-P Philosophically-literate populace would necessarily grease the wheels of American democracy. I don’t think that well-defined Philosophies are necessary for an individual to live a good and virtuous life (for my definitions of those words, anyway), as we already have socialized ‘default scripts’ for how people ought to act, even without a cleanly articulated framework. I do think that social engagement and personal effort can make one a more conscientious, empathetic, aware person- whether that necessarily has intrinsic or instrumental value, I’m unequipped to even guess.

 


Hi all, I’m Chris, and I’m looking forward to more great conversation here. I have a low-activity Twitter as careid0, and I scribble madness at www.fogbanking.com. My perennial interests are decision-making, human-computer interaction, organizations, and games studies. I’m a consultant on weekdays and a game developer on weekends.

Prudence is Good, but Not By Itself

The discussion started by Sam boils down to this: honor is a sacred quality, and prudence is by necessity profane, worldly. People have always in the back of their minds, or explicitly, believed that we should be able to embrace with sacred without resorting to incentives which derive from profane motivations.

When all is said and done, however, I agree with Deirdre McCloskey when she argues that the sacred and the profane are deeply intertwined, inseparable even. To speak of a human good we have to consider human nature. If our ideal is utterly unmoved by honors then our ideal is unattainable, even by approximation.

Aristotle’s mean, or intermediate, never involves discarding motivations entirely, but rather experiencing them in the right way, in the right circumstance, in the right amount, and so on. An honorable person will do what is right even when no one will honor them, but the prudently honorable person also understands that much of the time this does work out to your advantage. That does not mean that prudence justifies honor—just that the concerns of the sacred and the profane must work together (not simply be balanced) in subtle ways that require experience and practical reason to judge, not to mention peers and community.

Just as the tension that the artist feels between their vision and the demands of making a living can yield work just as great (and arguably greater) than the independently wealthy artist, so too does the tension the actual person feels between honor and prudence yield more truly honorable behavior than the person utterly indifferent to what is honored by other people.

Little Weaknesses

I’m getting old. Older, I guess, as all the old folks might concede, with a twinkle in their eyes that says, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, buster.” But every now and again I find myself sitting on the floor of my closet, where my wife of eighteen years has “stored” my vinyl record collection, which is extensive. She cataloged it and organized it many years ago. I go to the very end of it to find a rare pressing of Led Zeppelin II. Get it? Z is for Mr. Zeppelin. She’s not a fan. Toward the middle are all my Pixies records, including the singles, the pride of my early adulthood. Those, along with my Pink Floyd pressings (1968 A Saucerful of Secrets, yes, indeed) were very important to me, and, in a way, they still are, but in the closet of the master bedroom, on the floor, behind the winter clothing. I think, somehow, more rooms have been added to my inner mansion, in one of which lives my eight-year old, who today declared that “punk band” is a funny word. When he said that, a particular Dead Kennedys concert I attended came to mind. “Punk band” is a funny word. Alas. I’m getting older.

I asked my doctor about some real pain in my back, very lower back, on top of my hips, really. After some diagnostics he said, “You’re getting older.”

“Really?” I said. “Forty, and I have excruciating back pain?”

“Welcome to the club,” he said, without a hint of irony in his voice. “Drop your shorts and bend over.” It wasn’t a dream. I’m older.

It’s my iliopsoas, a muscle system the thickness of your forearm, which, when you are woven together, trusses your spine, hips, and thigh bones. Mine is inflamed, a common enough malady for men of my age (did I mention I’m over forty?), of my build (average height, slight bone structure), and of my vocation (sitting and talking, standing and talking, slouching and reading), and I have discovered a stretch for it. It takes exactly two minutes to perform. That’s it: two minutes. I did the two-minute stretch several times a day for a few weeks, and my excruciating pain became slight discomfort. It was awesome. So I quit doing the stretch exercise.

Now look, I deal with people clinically all week long, and this particular behavior is pathological and frustrating. How many times have I said “Why did you stop doing it?” to hear the answer “Because I felt better.”

Sure enough, a few weeks later, my back began to hurt, this time worse than before. Moreover, I was surprised that it hurt. How? How could I be surprised? Finally, not two days ago, I thought to do the stretch again. I feel much better today.

Why? Why did I stop doing it? Because I felt better? That doesn’t make any sense! It’s pathological! Where is the cure? If only I were an automaton! Even a robot would know that, as it aged, certain sequences would alleviate, then prevent, malfunction, and it would execute those programs, but I, I do not. And the old folks smile, then wince because something hurts.

This is why AG despairs a little: a two-minute stretch–not even an exercise, a stretch–a two minute stretch which alleviates pain is too much for me to continue to do faithfully. What hope does he have that I discipline myself to do good in my community? Well, therein lies hope, a little. Those old folks are laughing at me, and I’m laughing at AG, and he laughs at someone near to him, and in so doing, we, the community, encourage one another. Sail on!