Character Has Spillover Benefits Which Are Rivalrous

The title kind of spoils the punchline, doesn’t it?

Sam W asks if good character is a public good. He says, on the one hand, that the benefits of one’s character are clearly fairly geographically limited in scope. On the other hand, the spillovers from bad character are so excessively negative that perhaps there’s something of a public good from simply getting people above that threshold.

On the other hand, in thinking over the honor vs honoring, he noted:

Thumbnail economic reasoning suggests that the spillover benefits of private type A honor are not captured in its price, suggesting that it should be under-supplied. Whether or not it actually is under-supplied is not a question I believe cannot easily be answered.

Still, the theory strikes me as reasonable. And I believe it strikes ordinary people as reasonable, too. That’s why we have type B honor. We bestow ribbons and medals to Soldiers and Sailors, we erect monuments and statues, we sing songs, tell tales, and speak in awed, hushed tones about those among us who have acted with greatness. This compunction to reward honor, whether intentional or not, compensates the honorable for their private excellence.

Thus there have always existed private mechanisms for provisioning the external benefits of character.

What I want to suggest is that good character has spillover benefits, but that these benefits are rivalrous, and therefore good character is not a public good in the classical Samuelsonian sense.

Consider the reliable man, living in a community suddenly beset by some natural disaster. He can be expected not to get in the way or panic, but also to pitch in in any way he can. As Sam put it, “The eusocial urge to tidy up after a blustery day cannot be anything but part of eudaimonia.” A community of reliable people can pick up more quickly, move beyond a disaster sooner, than a community where reliable people are in the minority.

But the per person contribution is relatively small, and is capable of being misdirected or misspent. Even the reliable man only has a 24 hour day. Even the community of reliable people does not have an expert on every subject, may need to hire civil engineers from outside of their group in order to repair the damage done by a hurricane or earthquake. The expertise, time, and simple muscle that are volunteered in such a situation are scarce goods that need to be allocated carefully.

This is why I prefer an ethic that prioritizes concrete problems with direct feedback over telescopic concerns. The good character of the few is good for the many, but its spillovers ought to be prudently directed.

Social Cooperation and the Trauma of Conversion

I am very sympathetic to Sam H’s vision of social cooperation and the teleology of ethics. Until perhaps a year ago, I would have agreed wholeheartedly that that is all there is to it, at bottom. Now, I’m not so sure. I’m not ready to say that this worldview is wrong so much as I am, at present, exploring alternate terrain, trying to give it its due to an extent I had not bothered to before.

The ouroboros I keep finding myself within is the notion of seeking to be honored as opposed to seeking to be honorable.

Consider my father, discussing the difference between joining a church to participate in local social life as opposed to being a true convert:

Far more than nationalism, religion aims at communion in the depths, and exacts an entry toll proportionate to that ambition. I can exercise my freedom and “convert” to a faith, join a congregation. But what am I saying when I use those words? Conversion, properly understood, means revelation: it’s less a question of switching teams than of being shown a new cosmic order that demands a new mode of life. The experience is always traumatic. Personality cracks like fractured bone and must be painfully reorganized, so that the convert emerges a stranger to his original self, confused and disoriented, a newborn.

On the one hand, I can see a functionalist story explaining the value of going all-in psychologically with membership of a group. On the other hand, such a story seems to be an insult to those who do believe, genuinely, in the rightness of their way of life. The atheist who explains religion as social coordination must seem more condescending and insulting to the legitimately religious than the Richard Dawkins type who just calls them brainwashed idiots. At least the latter does not hide the message that he thinks he is smarter, or less ignorant, than those of whom he speaks.

And yet I do not believe in the divine, and I find it very hard not to think in terms of functions which emerged from the ongoing processes which have shaped and are shaping all things, for which even religions which span thousands of years are merely eddies in the river. And yet in saying this I can see my own traumatic conversion, which occurred nearly ten years ago, in which I saw that I was an insignificant speck of a much larger whole, and somehow—irrationally, emotionally—found meaning and purpose in this.

So while I cannot agree with the truly religious, I can respect them, seeing in common between us the prior painful reorganization of the bones of our personalities. Circumstances lead me to a metaphysical perspective largely identical to Sam’s, instead of theirs. But circumstances have also, I would like to think, given me enough perspective to see the legitimate honor and virtue in what they do; I do not think they or we are robbed of it by Heraclitus’ river. The process of shaping honor by institutional honoring does not profane the act of becoming honorable. This I believe, though I wonder if I am capable of defending this belief as Sam is of explaining our shared metaphysics. Given the high bar that that sets, it seems unlikely.


Is character a public good?

Character is certainly a private good. A lady, gentleman, or other of good character is a blessing to the home; a stalwart friend in times of need; a charitable neighbor upon whom to lean when the waves crash and the wind slashes. Persons of good character are felicitous, virtuous, splendid folk, a boon to the community.

But unless extremely unlikely events collude to test the very fabric of the nation, it is challenging to admit of circumstances in which distant people can reap the benefits of character from afar. My eudaimonia is greater for the character of my neighbors, but hardly budges at all for the character of the citizens of Cincinnati.

To a point anyway. Truly bad character that spills into wide-reaching vice, into broadly-distributed criminal enterprises saps and impurifies my precious peaceful existence, corrodes the tranquility of my domicile. At a minimum level, to an obvious (if not entirely easy to define) point, there is a public interest in sowing and tending the public garden from which character blossoms.

There is a public element to primary education. But it is likely that this element is grossly oversold. Good manners, good citizenship can be learned on the playground, and the case for the public funding (to say nothing of the public provision) of education weakens the closer the student gets to the conditions needed to achieve the self-sufficient pursuit of eudaimonia.

If you are a parent, consider carefully how you help your children achieve greatness of character.

Virtue All the Way Down

The unity of the virtues is one of those concepts that puts people off from virtue ethics. To start with, it’s a bit hard to get your head around. And then it sounds like virtue is an all or nothing matter, utterly binary, with no progress possible in between utter vice and full virtue.

For all that, I don’t think the unity of the virtues—at least the conception of it I have become familiar with primarily through the works of Julia Annas but also to an extent through Deirdre McCloskey and others—should be cast aside.

Let’s start with intuition. What exactly do we mean when we say that courage is a virtue? There are clearly instances of courage, as the adjective is commonly used, that are not very virtuous. We don’t really think that the berserker, who is courageous in battle so that he may rape the women in a village and then burn the village to the ground, is an admirable fellow. Even for people who aren’t so clearly morally monstrous, a monomaniacal lack of fear that puts you and everyone around you at risk is definitely not virtuous.

In order for you to be truly courageous, in the sense of having a virtue, you must also be prudent, charitable, temperate, and so on. But in order for prudence to be a virtue it must not be a cowardly prudence, or a miserly prudence, or a prudence to the exclusion of all else. The virtues are a specific sort of character trait; and in order for a character trait to be a virtue the others must be present to some degree.

“Degree” presents a good bridge from intuition to a thought experiment. Imagine that courage is a substance. A scientist puts it under a microscope and upon examination finds that this substance is made up of a specific mixture of prudence, temperance, charity, justice, hope, and faith. The scientists increases magnification to get a closer look at the prudence that’s in the mix. To his surprise, he finds that prudence is itself a mixture of temperance, charity, justice, hope, faith—and courage! And what’s more, the courage inside of the prudence has the same proportion of the other virtues as the courage that the prudence is inside of! It’s virtue all the way down, a fractally nested full set of virtue.

Practical wisdom, Aristotle’s phronesis, is just the skill of discerning what the right mixture is for the specific situation you are in. Courage in battle looks different from the courage required to defend your thesis. Likewise, the prudence of Odysseus requires a different mix of virtues than the prudence of the corporate accountant.

The role of practical wisdom is also the answer to the perceived binary nature of the unity of the virtues. Julia Annas’ Intelligent Virtue argues that practical wisdom is a skill that must be learned and mastered like any other. But Annas’ formulation tracks closely with other well understood skills; there are levels of apprenticeship and there are levels of mastery. Virtue is not binary at all; we can make progress and we can continue to hone our abilities long after we’ve begun to excel at using them.

Binary versions of the unity of virtues do exist—the Stoics definitely believed that virtue was all or nothing, you were either a sage or you were not. But that’s not a conception of virtue that I find either realistic, practical, or appealing.

The Way Things Are

Ah! The objectivists’ wet dream: to know what is. If we know what is, then we also know the way things ought to be. Bringing society into compliance is a mere task of rhetoric and control. Elaborate scaffolding is erected to construct the ideal society, at least on paper, and either on paper, on the blackboard, on twitter, or in real life, the scaffold and the idol come tumbling down. This is true.

In a recent fit of fundamentalism, I posited the way things ought to be:

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

Adam Gurri correctly pointed out the way things are:

It also seems to me that a problem with David’s critique might be that modern poverty of a more persistent sort often arises precisely because the institutions of a particular community have become hollowed out, and there’s very little community left to speak of. One may shake their fists at modernity for bringing this about, but I suspect it is not unique to modernity; we’ve simply reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal, though not exactly pleasant either. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether those of us who have found ourselves in more fortunate circumstances have any responsibility to those who do not.

[emphasis added]

Well, now. Shaking my fist at modernity, am I? Like a crotchety old man, indeed, I concede that I do, and it is insufficient. Adam will not allow for insufficiency, so he offers a succinct point for debate, which I propose as: “We have reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal.” There, I think, is the no man’s land of the way things are (to stretch the metaphor), where the boundaries are in constant flux, to the extent that anyone who desires to dwell there will become inimical to all who do not; nevertheless, it is contested land for some who desire to dwell in peace and safety, secured by cheerful submission of taxes to the current overlords who themselves expended perfectly good blood to acquire no man’s land.

Now that I’ve stretched that metaphor too far, another metaphor will suffice to develop my argument. A priceless marble statue of a human figure is adorned with a waxen nose. It is, thus, malleable to the whim of each succeeding generation, especially those elements of the generation which possesses the marble statue. Therefore, the nose can be made into any shape whatsoever. Even so, consumers of the marble statue will object if the waxen nose is no longer nose-shaped. In other words, we may not know the way things ought to be to the extent that we can ever build the perfect society, i.e., no objective reality is sucking us to the light of final and pure societal enlightenment, but we can object when structures have become so misshapen as to not resemble practicability.

This is called Wisdom. Not phronesis, which is good judgment driven by arete and virtue and euvoluntary exchange, et. al., but Wisdom, the extrapolation from observation of the universe of certain sculptured marble tenets which have, so far, transcended cultural boundaries and technological advances through the ages. Wisdom does not guarantee anything, especially the “shape of the nose,” but it does make a claim to intuitive and time-tested deductive practicability. A defense of Wisdom as such can be summarized like this: there are some universals which, when ignored, emerge. It is the negative to societal evolution. Thus, “A wise man does this and lives; a fool does this other thing and dies.”

Societal evolution, on the other hand, is susceptible to something called philosophy, which says, “the love of wisdom,” but isn’t; it is the love of reasoning. Much of philosophy is produced in that crucible of bad-faith one-upmanship which might yield refined theory for practical application within cultural boundaries and technological advances in a given epoch. Usually it yields insufferable personalities and unreadable tomes, a handful of which survive long enough to be studied in graduate school, as Heraclitus says, “They would not know the name of justice if it were not for these things” (Fragment LX), and also, “Every animal is driven by blows” (Fragment LV).

Wisdom observes the condition under which we become animals. Taking Adam Gurri’s point for debate, for example, the changeable condition which becomes intolerable in the ebb and flow of life, regardless of culture or technology, is affluence. Affluence is the given which is currently true, and as it stands now, it is most certainly the way things are. Affluence, unfortunately, is not immutable, which evokes some universals being ignored, to wit: affluence cannot replace certain kinds of relationships, blood and contractual (marriage). Moreover, affluence is the lynchpin which sustains the naked triangle, to wit: the state forcibly, inefficiently and haphazardly, removes affluence from those who have acquired it and gives it to someone who has not acquired it. Morals and ethics? Whatever.

The result is a stasis which is unwise, not founded on the way things ought to be. The Wise are captured by a conundrum requiring a great deal of Wisdom to navigate. The thing about Wisdom and those who seek to employ it is that it is personal, not, as philosophy must be, dispassionate. Somewhere along the line, the Wise enter no man’s land to be killed because entering no man’s land is the compassionate thing to do. In other words, Wisdom acknowledges that the thing is out of balance: affluence will wither away, dissolving this triangle, sounding the trumpet call to restore blood and contractual interpersonal relationships as the building blocks of a society which produces the most individual arete. In the meantime, the Wise accept the way things are, be they ever so impermanent. Furthering the example of the naked triangle: affluence has created a penalty-free interpersonal and soul-sucking void where there should be layer upon layer of relationships. Perhaps the Wise acquiesce to the reality of the thing; perhaps not, preferring instead to clothe the naked triangle, as it were, with policies which might encourage the reestablishing of the blood and contractual interpersonal relationships.

In the former case, the Wise shrug their shoulders, turn their pockets inside out, and bid a hearty Godspeed to the money in the hope that it will, indeed, mitigate suffering. In the latter case, the Wise run for public office or commence the re-creation of those lost institutions using privately and additionally acquired money in some hope that this artificial edifice will endure at least for a little while to the benefit of the needy. Both will probably hasten the painful end of the naked triangle. People will experience agony and injustice while the universe corrects the imbalance brought about by the way things are.

The Wise, however, constantly warn that the way things are is quite unstable, that the scaffolding and the structures are always about to come tumbling down, whence reconstruction begins, the great re-testing of the universals which emerge when they are ignored. And so, being Wise, they die as fools to rebirth Wisdom.

Valuing Reading for Its Own Sake

There is a certain tension that I feel when doing research for the book I’m working on. On the one hand, I want to take all of the books on my reading list (and any I might conceivably add to it along the way) and mine them as quickly as possible for materials that can serve me in my goal. On the other hand, I am reading some truly fantastic books, by brilliant minds who are deeply immersed in traditions of thought that I am only beginning to scratch the surface of. These are books demanding to be respected, to be read at a tempo that they can be properly appreciated. They are not mere tools for me to pick up and use to build my cathedral. If anything, they are master-craftsmen working on a project which I can only hope to one day be skilled enough to be a part of.

This tension seems to me to be the core of what virtue ethicists are getting at when they criticize utilitarian and similar conceptions of happiness, morality, and social organization. It is the tension in acknowledging that people both seek to be honored and want to be honorable, want to build up a network of trust and want to be trustworthy. “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely,” said the man with a far more sophisticated theory of human nature than the utilitarians who took up his project in political economy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to do.

Conspiracies, Cabals, and Other Legitimate Associations

I am not going to weigh in on the big uproar going on right now in the public conversation concerning gaming. It’s one of those subjects that seems so hopelessly telescopic on all sides that I do my best to ignore it.

However, a friend brought this aspect of it to my attention. Leaving out the particulars of what everyone is fighting about, here’s how it was presented to me:

  • There’s an email list that a lot of prominent gaming journalists are on.
  • They’ve been talking about the latest controversy on that list.
  • What’s more, they’ve been coordinating a response and narrative to present to the public.
  • This is evil.

OK, maybe “evil” isn’t the adjective that was used, but it certainly seemed to be the implication. There’s something unsavory and wrong going on here, where journalists get together to figure out the party line like accomplices to a crime preparing for separate police interrogations.

The question I asked my friend was: what is the difference between this and journalists in a particular city getting together at a particular bar on a regular basis? Wouldn’t you expect people within such a community to want to seek out fellow practitioners? And once together, wouldn’t you expect them to talk about whatever the big story is, and to discuss their values?

It’s a short step from such conversations to becoming an association. Such associations push people towards holding similar values; total homogenizing isn’t necessarily destiny but some degree of convergence becomes highly likely. Such convergence and shared values then makes it more likely that the people involved will want to act in concert when they feel something morally important is on the line.

When I hear people call such associations “cabals” or conspiracies, I want to ask—what does legitimate persuasion look like to you, if not this? Does it always have to be conducted completely out in public, never in private conversation? Does it always have to be lone individuals, never groups? Does the funding for any marketing effort always have to come out of the pocket of such lone individuals, never from others who share their values but may not be as persuasive?

If offer no answers for these questions. I myself am increasingly uncertain of where the line is between rent-seeking and healthy political participation, between legitimate moral community and dangerous moral monoculture.

Matt Bruenig is Anti-Social

Everyone has a hobby. For Matt Bruenig its writing “take downs” of libertarianism as lacking any singularly coherent normative theory. In his latest, he deconstructs the “just desert” basis of capitalism, specifically the claim that capitalism rewards risk. In this post my goal isn’t to defend just desert theories, per se. Rather I’d like to shed some light on Matt’s subversive modus operandi and the fallacies and dangers within it.

For context, I have gone back through Matt’s archive and not found a single positive defense of his own normative framework. In this sense he prefers to define his ideology negatively as “not x therefore y”. And while he makes regular gestures towards egalitarianism, he has yet to show how his own abstract normative theory is any less arbitrary or sensitive to the deconstructionist tactics he is fond of employing.

From Kant to Hegel to Hayek

To understand why Matt is so successful at taking apart normative theories and so cautious about defending his own, it’s worth tracing the background assumptions of modern moral philosophy back to Kant. Kant famously claimed our conceptual commitments are inescapably normative (e.g. if I say x is a cat I am “responsible” for a particular judgement about x) and that, in making those commitments, we are required to maintain justificatory, inferential and critical consistency (e.g. we can’t simultaneously say x is not a cat). Kant and followers like Rawls thought you could use this insight to construct a transcendental argument that bridged is and ought. Read philosopher Robert Brandom’s work for more on this, or enjoy this short video.

The key error Kant made was in taking as sacrosanct the “mentalistic” paradigm inherited from Descartes, which gave “subject” and “object” ontological primacy, and “representation” primacy in theories of epistemology and intentionality. If you don’t believe me, read about Fichte’s notion of “pure I“. It took Hegel to enter the scene and point out how weird the implication of a “noumenal” or objective realm of “things in themselves” was if it meant having knowledge of the inaccessible. So he “naturalized” Kant’s theory of normativity by arguing that it had to be situated socially and recognitively in cultural practices. This in effect rejected the subject-object paradigm by shifting to an intersubjective theory of meaning. See Jurgen Habermas on “de-transcendalizating mentalism” for more on this.

Normativity is, to paraphrase Kant, a property that leads a concept to self-bind, e.g. a duty as distinct from compulsion. Hegel accepted this but argued that it in no way necessitated Kant’s transcendental approach in which de-contextualized or “pure” normative principals were derived prior to interaction with concrete problems. Rather, Hegel argued normativity was immanent to the social process of intersubjective norm construction, the most “objective” of which are our stable institutions. We are bound to the normative commitments implicit to our objective institutions because in a very real sense they mirror us. This is a deep concept, but can be easily understood as a precursor to the idea of the “extended will” that follows from embodied cognition in cognitive psychology.  As philosopher of mind Andy Clark explains the idea,

advanced cognition depends crucially on our ability to dissipate reasoning: to diffuse achieved knowledge and practical wisdom through complex social structures, and to reduce the loads on individual brains by locating those brains in complex webs of linguistic, social, political and institutional constraints.

The rationality of our social structures is therefore often hidden as a feature, not a bug. Yet as self-conscious beings we ought to be able to extract and make explicit the implicit principals that pre-structure our social practices. For example, perhaps “justice as fairness” isn’t a context-free normative standard which looms over all other practices. Instead, what if discrete norms like “I cut, you choose” or “lets flip a coin” or “first one to improve and enclose unclaimed land gets it” develop spontaneously through cultural evolution as low cost ways of securing agreeable cooperative social relationships? For more on this idea, read Joseph Heath’s “A Puzzle for Constractualism“.

Rawls would actually be sympathetic to this view, since he characterized the egalitarian norm as based on conflict reduction. But that does not imply that particular norms can be isolated and then imposed from the top down. This makes the basic category error that FA Hayek explains as being behind all forms of “rational constructivism”. The fairness norm only gained its normative authority or self-binding character from the legitimating history of mutual recognition that preceded and maintained it in specific cases. This would seem to better match observed reality, where there is not, for example, one universal standard of “fair ownership”, but a multiplicity of standards rooted in historical practice. Thus instituting Rawls’ difference principal, for example, would not be just in the US context without substantial cultural buy-in — for the same reason imposing American capitalistic property norms in developing countries regularly leads to violent push back.

Bottom Up Normativity

If that is how actual normativity arises in practice, talking about “just desert” in abstract is totally wrong headed. Instead you would need to instantiate a desert norm in a concrete social reality. Then you would have to carefully investigate the genealogy of the norm to discover it implicit rationale. Jurgen Habermas calls this approach “rational reconstruction.” Note that reconstructing the rationality implicit in normative behavior is an interpretive (not descriptive) exercise.

People who follow this otherwise post-Kantian tradition have actually done this for the American context of capital and desert. The Hansmann argument for shareholder primacy, for example, rests on the demonstration that ownership in a firm will tend to flow to the constituency with the lowest governance cost, which for complex companies tends to be shareholders (specifically, it can be demonstrated that shareholder primacy is hicks-kaldor efficient). Risk is a non-trivial part of this issue. As residual claimants, capital holders are the most expendable insofar as they are what remains after other contractual obligations have been honored.

So does that mean at some point in history someone went out and designed corporate law based on a grand utilitarian moral theory? No, on the contrary. These norms of ownership were discovered in the same bottom up way as norms like “I cut, you choose”. Scholars like Hansmann had to explicitly reconstruct this rationale through interrogation of the alternatives, like stakeholder theory. (By the way, reconstruction of the welfare state also points to a transaction cost basis, not egalitarian principals.)

Still, it must be said that capital owners have a holistic normative relationship with the present state of affairs — that is, the bundle of concepts that tend to accompany norms of ownership, like “entitlement” and “deservedness,” apply perforce. From their own standpoint and from the point of view of the community at large, the reductive claim that “shareholders retain profits ONLY because that’s the best for the social welfare function” is illegitimate because the rational reconstruction only ever identifies one feature of an ethical totality.

To see this, consider that the dividend cheques get delivered not due to an awareness of Ronald Coase’s most cited work, but because of the self-binding intersubjective concept of ownership itself. It isn’t just the legal realist’s vision of command and compulsion. The USPS guy delivers the cheque largely because he has internalized and affirms the prevailing norms of ownership by which he himself implicitly benefits. As H.L.A. Hart put it, his recognition gives the law an “internal point of view.”

In this light, Matt’s struggle for abstract consistency is at root subversive. He has innumerable posts arguing against private ownership that would make no normative distinction between a company merger and civil asset forfeiture, other than perhaps that the latter is typically more regressive in its effects. The main upshot of Matt gaining any following of import would therefore be to further undermine the distinguishing legitimacy of various social norms through raw philosophical sophistry.

Whose Filibuster?

Seriously? If Matt were a luck egalitarian he’d be Anton Chigurh. Of course, Matt can go ahead and keep shoplifting without really causing much harm. This is because he is in essence free riding on the ethical behavior of everyone around him. If everyone behaved like Matt, on the other hand, it would be a catastrophe. This conclusion, too, can be rationally reconstructed by showing how norms play an important role in self-binding us to mutually beneficial cooperative equilibria.

Consider the US congress, which has reached new heights of dysfunction in recent years largely because congressional norms have collapsed. Writing for the National Journal, Norm Ornstein gives the profligate use of the senate filibuster as an example:

Rules matter, but in the Senate, norms and the larger fabric of interactions matter as much or more. The fact is that Rule XXII, which governs debate, remained the same from 1975 until this Congress; and for most of the era, it worked fine. Majorities were at times frustrated by the minority’s use of filibusters, but they were relatively rare, and most issues were worked out before legislation or nominations reached the floor. There was a larger understanding that filibusters were not to be used routinely.

The beginning the anti-social zeitgeist in congress probably began with some Republican strategist throwing his or her hands in the air and yelling “the norms are arbitrary. All that matters is that our normative framework is the right one!” The irony is that the collapse of the anti-filibuster norm has ended up hurting both the Democrat’s and Republican’s political agendas. Think of it in terms of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The norm against its use acted as a self-binding mechanism against strategic gamesmanship, and helped make legislative cooperation stable.

To make this explicit, consider the model V(x) = U(x) + kN(x) where the value of doing x is given by its private utility plus its norm appropriateness weighted by k. k is the weight you assign normative considerations (i.e. how self-bound you are to a norm) and is a reaction function based on other agent’s k (that is, it’s intersubjective). Let’s say x represents the decision to filibuster. If k ever declines, say for the historical factors identified in Ornstein’s article, it risks collapsing as a self-fulling prophecy. Normativity goes out the window. Both parties become mired in strategic legislative undercutting. Multiple ethical equilibria and all that.

This is the sense in which I think a world full of Matt Bruenigs would be worse in virtually everyone’s eyes. He seems to think that by pulling the normative rug out from under capitalism he is improving the chances that America will fall into his half baked ideal of market socialism, whereas it is only liable to cause a cultural concussion. Identifying anti-social behavior and rhetoric is a real enough problem that I think it’s worth coining a new term to help with calling it out when it happens:

Our Modern Euthyphro Dilemma

Does god make his commandments base on what is right, or is what is right based on his commandments? This is the Euthyphro dilemma, and it has boggled theologians and moral philosophers alike for literally millenia

The dilemma is supposed to challenge believers in divine command theory, but it has relevance for modern secular moral theory as well. This is because the original dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro was not really about the nature of god, but about the nature of normative authority more generally. By being constant through time and space and separate from human particularity, God simply reflects the idealized universality and generality which we seek in our principals of justice.

In lieu of god, secular moral philosophy from Kant on has been trying to somehow leverage sureness back into our moral sense through convoluted transcendental arguments. Such efforts usually involve the metaphysical construction of an “ideal self” in some ideal scenario behaving in ideal ways to which we must all rationally assent. Our secular Euthyphro dilemma thus becomes: Are our abstract moral theories based on what is right, or is what is right based on our abstract moral theories? Against any Kantian construction, the dilemma is no less powerful as when levied against divine command.


Take 20th century Kantian philosopher John Rawls, for example. His concept of the “original position” asks us to imagine ourselves standing outside of society bereft of any knowledge of our personal identity, including our conception of a good life. Behind this veil of ignorance, he argued, we’d all rationally agree to an egalitarian society in which there was the greatest benefit for the least advantaged.

With this idealized social contract, Rawls’ goal is to establish a formal derivation of political authority in order to justify a particular macro-distributive end. But what appears to be an innocuous thought experiment is on closer inspection a series of arbitrary and inconceivable stipulations. After all, what is left of a self after its identity has been stripped away? How can a purely instrumental rationality even motivate a choice, much less reveal risk preferences? Why does the nation state set the boundary of social justice? Even taking the exercise at face value, the construct fails to establish a meta-ethical bridge to true normativity because it merely pushes the prescriptive element onto an unfounded imperative to act according to one definition of rationality.

To do Rawls justice, I should add that he was aware of all this and so in addendum wrote hundreds of pages of tedious conceptual scaffolding. This guarantees the incompleteness of my rough sketch, however the flaw with constructing a Kantian normative architecture lies not in the design specifics or even the level of detail, but in the very idea that normative authority can be grounded via ethical autoCAD. With sufficient prodding all Kantian constructions invariably implode under their unnatural abstract formalism. Indeed, examples span the political spectrum to include Kant inspired libertarians, whose invocations of the non-aggression principal are similarly void of content, and become contradictory fast once any substance is added.

Thus when contemporary Kantians debate it winds up being a symmetric game of mutually assured deconstruction. Distributive justice types are able to accurately reveal the inconsistencies of their opponents, while procedural justice types make a science of egalitarian absurdities. In the end, beneath the twin rubble piles that result, there remains only the meek voices of special pleading.

If what is right is not based on abstract moral theory, then normative authority must be antecedent to our modern moral philosophy. In later posts I will try to explain how normativity arises from the bottom up, from the particular to the general, rather than the other way around. As Nietzsche famously argued, relinquishing god as the locus of normative authority was essential to opening new possibilities of human development. Today, the same should be said of all secular moral frameworks which give normative authority the same god-like unity of voice, contra the polycentrism we actually observe. So say it with me:

Kant is dead. Kant remains dead. And we have killed him.

Old Man River

Really, dear reader, not a single one of you pointed this out or reminded me of it? I’ve been doing my riff on Heraclitus (you know, the river guy?) for months, now. You should be ashamed. One of the greatest songs in the American repertoire, the perfect theme for Heraclitus…

Seriously, even after my “Heraclitus hates Athens because he’s under the influence of Zoroastrian teachings which strongly eschew slavery, and Athens is a corrupt, slavery-based economic, self-indulgent city-state” post?

Philistines, every one of you.

I can’t look any one of you in the eye, ever again.