Individual Volition and Conjective Reality

A couple of weeks ago, Nathan continued what as been a very fruitful conversation on the subject of individual responsibility and group decisionmaking. The first couple of paragraphs give you the gist:

I don’t agree with Adam that individual responsibility emerged within a tradition, or only ever existed within a space framed by groups. Individual responsibility may be a relic of the state of nature, if one ever existed.

The Durkheim and Foucault schools seem to rightly identify that the individual is shaped by structures and institutions, wherever the individual does not practice volition. But the individual retains volition over the shaping of self in every respect. The individual can only exercise that volition selectively. And the individual should be careful about rejecting the formative structures without extensive deliberation, per Hayek.

For Nathan, individual responsibility truly is individual; in origin and in operation. He acknowledges that institutions influence individuals, but treats those institutions as external things, acting upon otherwise autonomous individuals who hold “volition over the shaping of self in every respect.”

Against this, I want to argue that most of what makes us particularly human is what Deirdre McCloskey calls conjective; that is, existing neither in the subject nor in the object but in the group. She draws heavily on John Searle’s institutional ontology; her “conjective” fact maps to his “institutional” as opposed to “brute” fact.

But Searle’s analysis needs another word, which one might coin as “conjective,” what we know together as against what we know inside an individual head or what we imagine to be God’s objectivity. The conjective is a result of human agreement or acceptance. The Latin is cum + iactus, that is, “thrown together,” as after all we humans are in our mammalian cuddling and especially in our conversations.

One of Nathan’s fears is that if we accept the centrality of groups, people will never take individual responsibility or initiative. Essentially, they will use the centrality of groups as an excuse never to do anything themselves, but if no one does anything then by definition the group won’t be doing anything, either. On the subject of virtue, he says:

[V]irtue is best exemplified and then caught, rather than taught. But who will take the initiative to demonstrate? Particularly when the students might be few, and might not absorb the lesson apart from repeated demonstrations? Those who subjectively value the increase in virtue should expect to have to shoulder that burden personally. The only true route to reform, whether of society or the individual, is through personal expense.

Nathan hasn’t fleshed out his model too much, which makes it difficult to respond in too much detail. Suffice to say I also believe that individual responsibility and initiative matter, but I think the very idea of such things is primarily understood conjectively, rather than subjectively.

The idea that the acknowledgement of the group, of “man with man” (as Martin Buber describes the “fact of human existence” and McCloskey quotes approvingly), as a hindrance to responsibility remind me of a similar criticism of Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott argued that politics should be about seeking “intimations” for action from inside of a political tradition. Critics argued that this amounted to no recommendation at all. He responded:

The critic who found ‘some mystical qualities’ In this passage leaves me puzzled: It seems to me an exceedingly matter-of-fact description of the characteristics of any tradition-the Common Law of England, for example. the so-called British Constitution. the Christian religion, modern physics, the game of cricket, shipbuilding.

Clarifying with a sports example:

Again, is Mr N. A. Swanson all at sea when he argues in this fashion about the revolutionary proposal that the bowler in cricket should be allowed to ‘throw’ the ball: ‘the present bowling action has evolved as a sequence, from underarm by way of round-arm to over-arm, by successive legislation of unorthodox actions. Now, I maintain that the “throw” has no place in this sequence .. .’? Or, is Mr G. H. Fender arguing without a standard or criterion, or is he merely expressing a ‘hunch’, when he contends that the ‘throw’ has a place in this sequence and should be permitted? And is it so far fetched to describe what is being done here and elsewhere as ‘exploring the intimations’ of the total situation?

Individual responsibility looks very much like the argument over throwing in cricket, or the manner in which evidence is presented in a common law court. There is a gigantic conjective background that frames any act of individual volition. One cannot conceive of virtue without language, the consensus that bravery, restraint, wisdom, charity, fairness, and similar qualities, are in fact worthy of praise. Moreover, virtue ethics as a specific intellectual tradition is itself a vast conjective enterprise.

Where Nathan may be wary is with the idea that people treat the conjective as given, but McCloskey strongly emphasizes that quite unlike the objective or even the subjective, the conjective is contestable and constantly being renegotiated.

Searle argues persuasively that a society is glued together by conjective facts of the sort “X counts as Y in context C.” Thus, a clergyman saying “I thee wed” counts as marrying two people in the context of a properly constituted marriage ceremony. A $20 bill counts as legal tender in the context of the territories of the United States. A ball going over the goal line counts as a goal in the context of a soccer game. As Stanley Fish so often notes, of course, such conjective facts are always contestable. Objective facts (“water is two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen”) or subjective facts (“Beckham intends to score a goal”) are not. The physical facts of the world and the psychological states of human minds are “brute,” to extend Searle’s word, in the sense of being incontestable in their very nature, their “ontology” as the philosophers say. Physical constraints such as the law of gravity and utility such as a great love for vanilla ice cream are not the sort of facts we can quarrel about once we have grasped in a humanistic inquiry their nature, their “qualia,” as the philosophers put is. All we can do then is measure, if we can.

The conjective by contrast is always contestable and always in that sense ethical, that is, about “deontic status,” in Searle’s vocabulary, “deontic” being about what we ought to do (the Greek means “being needful”). The clergyman might be argued to be not properly authorized to perform the marriage (look at the long controversy about gay marriage), the definition of “U.S. territory” might be ambiguous (embassies abroad?), the goal might be disputed. If any part of the ball breaks the plane of the goal line is it a goal? Was the linesman in a position to judge?

What I have been groping for with my pieces on group responsibility, and what McCloskey’s “conjective” supplies theoretical resources for, is the idea that we are individually responsible for the extent to which we either contest or support a given conjective fact.

Thus, democracy is imperfect, and does not really aggregate preferences, but is that grounds for abandoning the enterprise? I say not. I say the American project is still worthy of our commitment. Making such a commitment just is to take responsibility for your role as citizen, member of your community, neighbor. It is to take ownership of your own influence, however small, on our conjective reality. And in practice it involves the exact sort of shouldering of burdens and public mindedness that Nathan calls for. But it also involves participation in politics—as voters as well as in other roles, which require individuals to fill them.

If I’m lucky enough to get Nathan to reply to this, here are some questions I would like him to answer:

  • What is the relationship of the individual to things like language and social contexts with “deontic” meaning?
  • Are the latter merely external things that an individual takes as given, or is their relationship deeper than that?
  • Do you forsake politics entirely?
  • What is your ideal outcome; what does a polity look like when all of the individuals adopt your radical individualist ethic?

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