Committed to an Institution

Taenia solium, commonly known as the pork tapeworm lives its adult life coiled comfortably in the warm folds of intestines. But before it can reach its 2-3 meter final form, it begins post-morula life as an itty-bitty little larva. And as anyone who has ever witnessed a toddler knock over a tray of crafting supplies that had an open container of glitter on it can tell you, itty-bitty little things end up in places you wouldn’t ordinarily want.

Like a human brain. Continue reading “Committed to an Institution”

Four Paragraphs on Vegetarianism

There is a wonderful conceit in one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker novels, where a spaceship is rendered invisible by a “not my problem” field. Much of our moral life operates under similar principles. We allow certain obvious horrors to continue through an active practice of forgetting.

For 15 years, I have been a (sometimes wavering, sometimes faltering) vegetarian. I am mostly reluctant to talk about it, and have grown more so over time. There have been too many unwelcome browbeatings after unwelcome questions over unwelcome dinners. At some point, though, we all bear an obligation to say something.

We are all farmers by proxy. The food we choose to eat is raised in our name. Right now, those animals we eat are raised in pain, live through torture, and are brutally slaughtered. These are facts, and they are unavoidable. You already know them on some level, even if you may participate in the constant and communal process of forgetting.

I can’t just ask you to adopt the same conclusions as me. I’m not that immodest. I think we all must choose for ourselves. But I can ask you to actively decide how you cast your proxy. I can ask you to remember. The lives of the animals you eat are your problem. Factory farming is your problem. You, just like all of us, need to make a choice.

Won’t You Come Out To Play?

Even with the most sophisticated medical interventions devised, five-year pancreatic cancer survival rates don’t exceed 5%. It’s aggressive, tends to metastasize rapidly, and it has a nasty reputation for being brutally painful. Pancreatic cancer, its symptoms, and the misery induced by its treatments tops the “yea” column of moral arguments in favor of allowing elective euthanasia. If I’m to die anyway, it is a small mercy to be relieved of months of torture prior. Yet for all that, pancreatic is not the cancer that frightens me. True horror lies at the end of a small cell lung cancer biopsy needle. Breast, prostate, bowel, and lung cancers are the most common. Most of these are operable. The ten-year breast cancer survival rate is over 75%. Small cell lung cancer kills nearly as reliably as pancreatic cancer, but it comes with a few additional horrors. One possibility is that the small cell carcinomas could be hiding out inside a batch of squamous cells, and if the physician happens to miss them, that might lead to the most terrifying result. Attempts to surgically remove a small cell carcinoma cause the cells to multiply and spread extremely rapidly. By “extremely rapidly,” imagine the speed at which cockroaches can scuttle when you turn on the lights in a tenement apartment. The cancer can overtake the entire lung before the surgeon has adequate time to react. Not only are you fucked, but your thoracic cavity could end up as a prop out of a Cronenberg movie. Continue reading “Won’t You Come Out To Play?”

She Blinded Me With Hermeneutics


All the Philosopher-Kings Couldn’t Put Rationality Together again

More than virtue ethics, which he is most associated with, Alasdair MacIntyre’s corpus is concerned with the question of rational adjudication.

You see it in his most famous work After Virtue, and you see it in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? But it reaches its zenith in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition.

The latter begins with the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the worldview it embodied. This worldview held to a “unitary conception of reason,”

as affording a single view of the developing world within which each part of the enquiry contributes to an overall progress and whose supreme achievement is an account of the progress of mankind

The Ninth Edition embodied this view because of the very idea of the encyclopaedia at the time. It was seriously believed that you could just get all the experts to summarize the present state of knowledge across all domains. That the encyclopaedia could serve as a window into a unified world of the known, where truth, as Popper put it, was manifest. A non-expert could read the Encyclopedia Britannica and as a result be elevated to the status of an educated person.

This worldview was unable to sustain itself for very long. It’s unlikely that it would have continued even without Nietzsche, but MacIntyre believes that it certainly could not survive his critiques.  In the Nietzschean genealogy there is a radical disunity, and especially in its successors the only possibility of unity is in the cynical power relations lurking behind every moralistic mask.

Nietzsche gave the Enlightenment a kick over the side of the wall, and all the king’s philosophers and all the king’s technocrats have been trying to put it back together again ever since. Without success.

For MacIntyre it boils down to the “resources” a framework has for making progress with its internally identified problems. Once the problem of disunity became apparent to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it quickly became clear that their framework lacked the resources to move beyond it. The genealogists contributed a real insight by shedding light on this problem. However, MacIntyre points out that their framework does not include a place for the genealogist himself. If all intellectual positions are simply cynical power moves waiting to be unmasked, then who is doing the unmasking? There is no place for the truth of this claim within the genealogy framework, for there is no place for truth at all beyond what is waiting to be unmasked as something else.

MacIntyre’s approach for adjudicating among rival and incommensurable frameworks goes something like this:

  1. Delve into the literature and debates within each framework until you can explain and defend them as well as any of their proponents.
  2. Identify the problems internal to one approach—that is, the problems that the proponents of that approach recognize as problems, on the terms defined by that framework.
  3. Identify another framework that has greater resources for resolving those problems than the framework which identifies them as problems.
  4. ???
  5. Rational adjudication!

I jest a bit here, because MacIntyre admitted that you could identify the superior approach through this method, but still fail to persuade anyone that that is what had happened. And indeed, the case of this process which he identifies in the book failed to take Christendom by storm. Thomas Aquinas successfully synthesized Platonic Augistinianism and Aristotelianism into a superior framework, but it still remained but one framework among incommensurable rivals.

Moreover, MacIntyre views persuasion as nothing but manipulation, something in opposition to the rational adjudication he strives for. Without an ethical, undevious theory of persuasion, it’s not clear to me how he can fill in step 4.

Consequentialist Duct Tape

I turn now to a tale of two posts: Akiva’s and Jordan’s.

Both center around the same problem as MacIntyre: we’ve got all these rival, sometimes categorically opposing points of view, and no way to adjudicate them.

Jordan focuses mostly on the logic of opposing divine commands:

With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them?

Akiva leans more heavily on social science:

Our feelings group-select us into tribes that share similar moral foundations, building identity (”I’m a conservative, and I stand for x”) but leaving us close minded to people who don’t speak our moral language. The resulting process from working from ideals makes us conceive of what is always a messy exercise in figuring out how to live with one another and coordinate social life, into a contest for dominance over institutions and encourages divisiveness. Politics breeds both abstract moralism and tribal thinking, encouraging groupish vindictiveness.

Both turn to a sort of meta-consequentialism in order to put moral adjudication back together again.

Akiva wants to reframe the debate in terms of ranked preferences and trade-offs.

Notice that this isn’t just a classification of the banners under which we ride our noble steeds for Justice, our hair streaming in the wind whilst we thrust the lances of Truth. What the right is saying is that they opt for a distinct set of moral tradeoffs. They would prefer that private actors have higher degrees of control over their domain, with the imperfections that come from ensuring compensation only from competitive pressures, in order to allow actors to make more individual choices about their dealings with one another, and prevent what they view as an unfair form of paternalistic management that raises costs and restricts contracts. The left would prefer that we attempt to guarantee an absolute level of market wages for a certain aggregate of workers, because they would rather ensure an absolute footing of bargaining power for at least a certain percentage of people, and be guaranteed that specific benefits are assured for those workers.

Jordan wants us to adopt a “trader morality” in which we are more open about the price we put on a particular value:

Trader morality doesn’t have to be amoral, but it means knowing the price of one’s values. There’s a facetious dilemma that went around evangelical Christian circles when I was a kid, wrongly attributed to a popular figure at the time, in which the man asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes, so then he asks if she would sleep with him for 50. The negative response is then shown as proof that she “lacks values”, but I don’t see that at all. The woman, as opposed to her interlocutor, understood her values and knew where she was willing to trade on them. In this case, she valued financial security more than abstinence; the man, on the other hand, by ascribing infinite value to obedience to God (in the form of sexual purity), was shown incapable of negotiation.

These are both attempts to provide a theoretical framework which both embraces pluralism and allows for rational adjudication between the plural value systems within it. The problem with this is that all pluralisms share with monisms an excluding quality—for one thing, a monistic order is excluded. So a trader morality must exclude a morality which says that it is always wrong to sell your body, no matter the price, full stop. But it must also exclude other forms of pluralism.

Your version of pluralism becomes just another rival, incommensurable framework floating around in the marketplace of ideas. And consequentialism is just as much a tribe as the political ones Akiva describes.

Prejudicial in the Best Sense

I don’t want to be too hard on my fellow Sweet Talkers, I liked a lot of what they had to say. And I found it interesting that Akiva said that we ought to be more postmodern. It’s just a shame that his ultimate argument was couched in terms of how to “reconfigure ideology” into a framework in which “a significantly consequentialist attitude is king.” To me this phrasing, and especially consequentialism itself, seem to bring with them all the trappings of High Modernity.

Lately I have been reading Hans-Georg Gadamer, who no one would accuse of being modernist. David likes to call him “non-modern” to avoid the baggage of “postmodern” but also to emphasize that it was modernism that was an aberration.

Part of the problem with even someone like MacIntyre is the tendency to see traditions of thought as way too self-contained, given things. He makes it seem like there are these rival threads that are intellectually cohesive, and you have to approach them as the structures that they are, and choose among alternatives or fashion something new from the materials they provide.

In reality, things are much more fluid. I think Deirdre McCloskey’s perspective on persuasion is better at capturing that, and is a good supplement to MacIntyre. But Gadamer’s take on understanding is best of all, in the sense of being the most fleshed out and the most true to human beings.

Akiva talks at length about our biases and irrationality. Gadamer instead speaks of prejudices, and says that the chief prejudice of the Enlightenment was a prejudice against prejudice.

“Prejudicial” is simply “pre” as in “before” and “judicial” as in “judgment.” Historically, it once meant the provisional verdicts that a judge would mentally arrive at before the time came to render the final judgment. Prejudice is not only necessary here, but good. Making a provisional judgment before the final one allows you to focus on specific questions, to guide your attention to particular matters you might have otherwise overlooked. It’s not only impossible for a judge to sit back without prejudice until the time of rendering a judgment, as the romantics and others have emphasized, they would also be a bad judge for doing so.

Gadamer thought that the romantics, and even Burke, just made themselves into mirror images of the Enlightenment. Where the Enlightment thinkers asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, and therefore bad, the romantics asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, but was greater than reason. In both cases it was treated as a black box to be labeled either bad or good.

For Gadamer, tradition is something that only exists if it is participated in, and it is continually created and transformed in that participation.

The central case for him, is, of course, the interpreting of a text—hence hermeneutics. The act of interpretation is neither objective nor purely subjective; though he didn’t have the word, it is conjective. It takes place in the space between reader and text. We cannot read a text any way we like; there is something about it that asserts itself. This is in the nature of language, and how we are inculcated into it. But the truths in a text go beyond simply communicating information; we must interpret, and we always interpret by integrating what we read into what Gadamer calls our horizon.

The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the thinking mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion of horizon, of the opening up of new horizons, and so forth. Since Nietzsche and Husserl, the word has been used in philosophy to characterize the way in which thought is tied to its finite determinacy, and the way one’s range of vision is gradually expanded. A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have a horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it.

What occurs in reading a text—say for the purpose of learning history—is not some objectivistic “fusing of horizons” between yours and someone else’s. You are always within your own perspective, never outside of it.

Understanding tradition undoubtedly requires a historical horizon, then. But it is not the case that we acquire this horizon by transposing ourselves into a historical situation. Rather, we must always already have a horizon in order to be able to transpose ourselves into a situation. For what do we mean by “transposing ourselves”? Certainly not just disregarding ourselves. This is necessary, of course, insofar as we must imagine the other situation. But into this other situation we must bring, precisely, ourselves. Only this is the full meaning of “transposing ourselves.” If we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, for example, then we will understand him— i.e., become aware of the otherness, the indissoluble individuality of the other person— by putting ourselves in his position.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes means that you yourself, with all your prejudices, are able to broaden your horizon in order to see more than you could before. But you are still seeing it from your perspective, though this perspective will be transformed by becoming “aware of the otherness”. It will be transformed precisely in bringing out prejudices that may have been hidden from you, to scrutinize more closely but, more importantly, to view in light of your expanded horizon.

The Spiral

If that sounded more than a little opaque, I apologize. The continentals are a difficult bunch, and I’m still wrestling with Gadamer’s ideas. Let’s turn for now to the concept of the hermeneutic circle, or as David prefers to call it, the spiral.

This is the old idea that you can only understand the part in terms of the whole, and you can only understand the whole through the parts. It sounds circular (hence the name) but it is absolutely true of everything from learning a language to becoming a specialist within a particular field.

You can think of our prejudices as forming a provisional notion of what the whole looks like and what its relationship to the parts are. When we encounter a new part, we both interpret it in terms of our provisional concept of the whole, and we revise that concept in terms of this new part.

Similarly, when we read a text, we have some provisional guess as to what the book as a whole will be about when we go into it. We revise this with each part of the text that we confront, and once we have read the whole book, the meaning of each part will seem different than it did as we were still making our way to the end.

But where to draw the line at what is considered “the whole” is in some sense arbitrary. Is a book the whole? Or is the author’s entire life work the whole? Should we also include all his letters? Will we never know the whole unless we also know every conversation he ever had? What about the entire tradition he was operating in? What about all of history before and after him? When is enough enough, in terms of context? What is the whole?

And what counts as a part? Is a sentence the basic part of a text, or the paragraph? Or the word? The letter?

Prejudice is how we make these choices. We think of individuals as the basic social unit, rather than cells or molecules or atoms, because we provisionally decide so. If we did not have this prejudice, we wouldn’t be able to operate at all, socially.

If hermeneutics is Gadamer’s discipline of arriving at understanding, rhetoric is the art of bringing other people to an understanding.

Rhetoric is what I would elevate above any attempt to create a method of rational adjudication. You start with prejudices which color your understanding of the part and the whole. Through hermeneutics, you constantly revise each. Through rhetoric, you seek to bring others to your understanding, by offering a part or a picture of the whole which provokes your audience to reconsider.

In spite of my biases, my ideological tribalism, and—dare I say it—my prejudices, I believe that I have understood Akiva and Jordan. In fact, I can only understand them at all because of these things.

I promised Akiva a response to his piece. What should the nature of this response be? Should I tell him what values I rank very highly that I think his system would imperil?

Or should I give him a post attempting to provoke him to revise his provisional judgment of how the marketplace of ideas works on the whole?

I can tell that my rhetoric needs work, where Gadamer is concerned. Perhaps this post will do a poor job of conveying his ideas in particular, or even my understanding of them (or worse—why they are relevant to the discussion at hand).

But I think that Akiva and Jordan will find something that they understand in this post.

This does not mean that they will agree with me. I suspect they probably won’t. But I hope they’ll be able to understand me, to a greater or lesser degree. And I’m not worried about our rival, incommensurable standpoints serving as completely opaque and impenetrable walls between us.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

The Branch Davidians, Revisited

Waco, Texas, 1993.

David Koresh, a self-proclaimed fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the Jewish Messiah, and who also had great hair, gathered up some people and some guns and beckoned the Apocalypse. The Federal Government, led by a lady named Janet Reno, mounted her steed, sending forth her armies as a plague against the compound.

Ah! Here’s a helpful note: the feds also instructed the press media, constitutionally protected in the Bill of Rights, not to conduct any more interviews with David Koresh, a U.S. Citizen. The well-meaning Attorney General heard that there were children possibly maybe could be sexually abused, so she burned the joint down. Plus, the FBI was tired. The Branch Davidians, of course, set the fires and accelerated them with Coleman kerosene fuel. The guns were turned inward. It was a bloodbath. Seventy-six people died. Broadcast live on TV.

The Federal Government was frustrated, and understandably so, that its will was not being done, that there were threats against innocents, and that people were beginning to see the government as a failing institution. Potency is a premium attribute, nay, a premium morality. Potency means you can get things done; moreover, potency means that people can see that you can get things done. If people see that you can get things done, they will trust you. No, not trust, the other word. If people see your potency, they will…

Blast this mental block!

The president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod issued a statement on June 19, 2015, which includes the following paragraph:

As the world devolves around us from insanity to insanity, I’m reminded of the statement of John Adams that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the Second Amendment. As both religion and morality are on steep decline among us, we can only expect more of this insanity by individuals unhinged from the safety of families and a society normed by natural law and influenced by the genuine teaching of the Bible. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

This marks the first attack on the second amendment I have ever considered with any seriousness, a view that I might want to adopt. Then again, morality tends to descend softly from the top down.

Elian GonzalezMonkey see, monkey do.

Think Tank Theology

luther think tank

The modern Policy Analyst (homō-vāticinius) is a weird, hybrid creature. He or she must be an effective writer, researcher, organizer, and charismatic speaker all at once. Living within the scholarly lacuna between a university professor and a religious evangelist, he or she is perpetually torn by the tensions of academic integrity and ideological purity.

The natural habitat of the policy analyst is known as the Think Tank. While they exists to produce novel research, their deeper raison d’être is advocacy. Unlike the lobbyist, however, they do not speak for any particular firm or special interest. Rather, they keep their grip on non-profit status by appealing to causes or principles of broader appeal. Like a lion stalking its prey, the outcome of a research project is more often than not a foregone conclusion of economic correctness. Yet by pooling relevant facts and talking points under one heading, research generates the much vaunted “citation need” for any on-going debate.

Think Tanks tend to be lean operations, appearing more grandiose to outsiders thanks to the equally enigmatic species known and anointed as the “Senior Fellow”. Following Coase’s theory of the firm, Think Tanks do not spend their precious donations on elaborate office buildings full of retired professors typing out op-eds. Instead, more typically the full time staff is exactly contained by the needs of daily operations, with a network of Senior Fellows who carry on their own day jobs, essentially outsourced. Some of these Fellows produce nothing — they merely lend their name — while others are prolific, fed either by a salary or commission.

Such organizations provide a useful illustration of the limits of Coasean / transaction cost theories. While clearly shaped by a cost function, Think Tanks are also machines of persuasion to a theological degree. In a world of pervasive moral skepticism, Think Tanks stand as entities of secular normative force, continuously prescribing social and economic reforms couched in prophetic rhetoric.

While each organization has its own positive mission, they are nonetheless drawn in particular to the dissident act of debunking. The centrality of apostolic reform to a Think Tank’s mission thus makes them deeply Lutheran institutions. Like Martin Luther, himself an Augustinian friar, the archetypal policy analyst contemplates — but then must share the fruits of his contemplation, to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the legislature’s door, now in optional infographical form.

Finally, the youngest friars of all — the next generation of public entrepreneurs — undergo a period of cloistered asceticism, more commonly known as the unpaid internship. Though he is free and belongs to no one, he has made himself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. And once endowed with the coveted Letter Of Reference, the young policy analyst proceeds alongs, fully prepared to preach the gospel.

Related: The Problem of Evil and its Coasian Solution

Boots on the ground, castles in the sky

Raging Against Each Other’s Machines

There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.” — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

deer terrorism jobs

The longer I listen to people talk about political issues, the more obvious it appears to me that politics has an ideology problem. In the inimitable words of our Benevolent Robot Overlord, “politics is the mind killer. Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that our rationality is impaired, with logical deliberation often taking the back seat to emotion. We use emotive reasoning and simple heuristics as our primary modus operandi in punching through the complexity of the real world. Jonathan Haidt finds that intuitions frame our fundamental moral evaluations and understanding of the way the world ought to be, and are therefore the cognitive source for our basic political alignments. The combination of bounded rationality and intuitive reasoning creates a cocktail of moralistic, emotive thinking that limits our intellectual scope and creates social division.

Our feelings group-select us into tribes that share similar moral foundations, building identity (“I’m a conservative, and I stand for x”) but leaving us close minded to people who don’t speak our moral language. The resulting process from working from ideals makes us conceive of what is always a messy exercise in figuring out how to live with one another and coordinate social life, into a contest for dominance over institutions and encourages divisiveness. Politics breeds both abstract moralism and tribal thinking, encouraging groupish vindictiveness.

righteous haidt

Thus, we get the common stories found in abundance all over social media. Our comrades on the political left imagine “The Right” as composed of corporate shills, religious bigots, and warmongers who hate racial and sexual minorities, the poor, and the environment, and want the world dominated by greedy businessmen, religious fanatics and militaristic imperialism. Conversely many right-wing (com)patriots will castigate “The Left” as a bunch of communist hippies who are soft on criminals, terrorists and dictators, want to instigate economic policy a la the Soviet Union, and support damaging deviant social behavior alongside multicultural relativism that undermines fundamental traditional conventions and  sanctity in a radical effort to end civilization. That contrarian army of individualists, the libertarians, attack both left and right as little more than fascistic, totalitarian apologists for the coercive boot heels of the near-criminal state-industrial complex: everyone is culpable, from drug wars to drone strikes. By contrast, left & right frame libertarians as selfish greed-preachers who don’t care about the good of society. Lefties think that they are heartless corporate apologists that happen to like the gays, while right wingers portray them as pot smoking, prostitute frequenting anarcho-crazies that have good ideas about tax reform.

double facepalm

It’s a basic part of the system. Public goods are by definition an all encompassing form of service provision, with a one-size-fits-all result. Winning a seat in political life is zero-sum: if your guy wins, mine loses. The production of policy is produced and influenced by the messy aggregation of votes that function more strongly as reaffirmations of personal identity than they do the sober analysis of social science. Voters are incentivized towards increasing their irrationality as a systemic feature.  If we compare the kind of low information, motivated reasoning engaged in by most voters, with the sort of meta-cognitive capacity that would be required for choosing good policy outcomes, we are inclined to the conclusion that democracy is a farce to the extent that the goal of the system is to achieve beneficial outcomes via popular consensus.

As a social equilibrium, we are encouraged to engage in the kind of signalling that prizes maintaining group affiliation and values affirmation over deliberative thought. In other words, politics isn’t about policy. A significant amount of social activism isn’t about caring, but about showing that you care. Representationalism rules. “We” stand for all the good things. Rather than acting in ways that really affect systemic incentives and create positive change, people tend to engage in “folk activism”, transmitting values to reaffirm our group identity, and playing games of status to put themselves higher in the hierarchy of value. These activities feed the furnace of ideology, and frequently result in damaging initiatives. If we think about activism as a market, the demand for beneficial activism is far lower than activism that is bought by people interested in tribalism and mood affiliation, which leads to an automatic growth in supply for tribalist activism, and so on.

Dr. Nonideal Theory: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tradeoffs

”A lady said, “What’s your solution?” I said, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.” She said, “The people demand solutions!” –Thomas Sowell

How might we confront this problem? There appear to be two potential avenues. The first is institutional. By breaking down politics into smaller, more diverse, less coercive units, we can make fewer things items of social conflict. Public policy becomes a little less zero sum. Institutional choice and localizing alternatives realigns some of the system away from the problems that plague centralized institutions. Option two is intellectual. Since I tend to identify as a libertarianish type, there is a great temptation to simply say that getting politics out of things will solve all of the problems. Intellectual honesty commands me to recognize that this is a consistent issue in thinking about all social organization, not easily solvable even if the whole world became followers of Robert Nozick. So the question becomes individualized: how can we weigh off our different mental investments? In contrast with the absolutism I’ve been describing, this is about ‘trying on concepts for size’, not about declaring x to be superior to y. However, given the systemic nature of the problem, radical change appears to be required.

A plausible solution is to reconfigure ideology towards framing the world through the lenses of our utopia, rather than forcing it to conform to the stuff in our heads. Given how complicated the world is, forcing absolute conformity to our ideals is usually a terrible idea. Don’t immanentize that freaking eschaton, and avoid at all costs the thickets of the nirvana jungle. Should we wander in, be ever wary of the Beast of Perfection. If we want to achieve some measure of success, compromise is key, and a significantly consequentialist attitude is king.

Consider the debate over the minimum wage. An ideologically pure version of this discussion would be, on the socialist left, that pro-market right wingers are stooges for business who don’t care about the exploited wages of the poor, and that We Lefties Stand For Rights of Labour Against Capital. From the free market right, that the left is ignoring the economics of price controls, and furthermore Hates Freedom, because they are ignoring the right to free contracting between sovereign adults.

Suppose that instead, we built the conversation in terms of moral tradeoffs. The discussion could look something like this: Social democrats and many liberal egalitarians would say that it is morally concerning and unfair to workers to be compensated at low levels, and so the state should artificially raise the wage of the bottom quartile of the income distribution to compensate for potential employer exploitation (markets could be monopsonistic, such that a significant percentage of workers are being paid below their true marginal product). They would also claim that it is a positive expansion of freedom for those who can earn the new wage, since people with more money have greater purchasing power. They would concede that this will lessen open contracting capacity (since it restricts the mix of benefits vs. wages), as well as create unemployment (because of the law of demand) but would prefer the tradeoff of a slightly higher wage for a certain aggregate of workers in situations with potentially disproportionate levels of bargaining power between labour & capital.

Libertarians and many conservatives would say that contracts ought to be freely negotiated, and that it is a form of unfair treatment and a restriction of liberty to declare the terms and tradeoffs of negotiable agreement (mix of benefits, wages, and/or taking employment) especially for the least well of members of society. They would emphasize that the minimum wage creates unemployment for people with a marginal product below the level at which the wage is set, restricting their freedom to contract and treating that section of the workforce unfairly, cutting down on their positive freedom and purchasing power. They would concede that lowering or getting rid of the minimum wage makes wages and hiring entirely dependent on competitive pressures ensuring that people are valued according to marginal product, but prefer that more workers have a fair chance at employment, as well as the freedom to bargain for a wider mix of wages and benefits.

Note that both sides are using similar but slightly different kinds of moral reasoning. They both think that moral respect for individuals requires that institutions be arranged in such a way as to make sure that people are treated correctly. Right wingers are appealing to ideas about freedom of choice to bargain for and contract employment, and fairness in being able to do so on an equal basis. Left wingers are appealing to ideas about fairness to be guaranteed certain wages, and freedom of choice in expanding the purchasing power of certain workers. None of these are entirely mutually exclusive, but they do involve an emphasis of one over the other.

Free market types want people to be free and equal, but would prefer we do so by building the structure of social organization so that workers themselves are the primary agents of their own well being and choices, and would rather arrange the interaction of private institutions to ensure that that autonomy and fair treatment will be maintained. A simple version of their value ranking would be: 1] Freedom; 2] Equality. Socialist types have a similar mix, but are more concerned about the possibilities of exploitation, and distrust absolute respect for free choice and fair treatment absent interference from above by state mechanisms. A simple version of their ranking would be: 1] Equality; 2] Freedom.

Notice that this isn’t just a classification of the banners under which we ride our noble steeds for Justice, our hair streaming in the wind whilst we thrust the lances of Truth. What the right is saying is that they opt for a distinct set of moral tradeoffs. They would prefer that private actors have higher degrees of control over their domain, with the imperfections that come from ensuring compensation only from competitive pressures, in order to allow actors to make more individual choices about their dealings with one another, and prevent what they view as an unfair form of paternalistic management that raises costs and restricts contracts. The left would prefer that we attempt to guarantee an absolute level of market wages for a certain aggregate of workers, because they would rather ensure an absolute footing of bargaining power for at least a certain percentage of people, and be guaranteed that specific benefits are assured for those workers.

As David Schmidtz points out, although justice is about giving people what they are due, what that involves is both contextually bounded and in correspondence with a number of different moral conceptions, such as desert, equality, or need. These intuitions track unevenly onto real world institutions, and may combine together in complicated ways. This means that moral theories are more like maps of a neighbourhood, and less like airtight syllogisms of logic. Respect for people (or nonhuman animals) as being morally important means that the systems people work within are required to deal with a number of different moral issues that carry different amounts of weight in the calculus about what sort of policy we ought to favour. Serious political theory is required to taking certain rankings of values, build specific ones as primary, and mold them into a (relatively) optimum institutional set. If anything is problematic about the common kinds of political debates we seem to have, I think it is that they deny the inherent trade offs taking place, and the difficulty of imposing simple heuristics and intuitions onto a world which is far more complex than those processes will allow for.

Whither ideology?

Ideology is a virus.” ― Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

”There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”                                                               –David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

A shift in attitudes is required. Rather than having arguments on the basis of one overarching intuition, the social equilibrium would change towards building and signalling a multi-intuitional mix, and making the ranking of intuitions a high status activity.

On micro level, we need a little more postmodernism in the mix. By this, I’m not suggesting walking around with a black beret (kick-ass as that sounds) and a worn copy of one of the most incomprehensible books ever, declaring social constructs all over the place. I mean that relativizing positions and being more skeptical about simple, one-directional narratives is ultimately the only way to start edging, like primeval amoeba, towards the evolutionary apex that is the multicelled organism of critical thinking and epistemic humility. Discovery processes and emergent systems can allow us to more easily figure out what is valuable through evolutionary processes of competitive experimentation in ideas. This might lead us to better understanding of the different  items of value found in different political perspectives. Intuitions are useful, but limited. Evolution distributes a randomized and complex mix of emotional leanings and neural-cognitive filters across the population, with different feelings as pieces of the ongoing puzzle we call the achievement of justice.

Stylistically, this requires realigning social identity towards a state of fluidity. It entails a shift in the use of ideology from dogma to conceptual framework. Ultimately, more of what we want can be accomplished by adopting some form of consequentialist ethics, in which the goal of the system is built around maximizing specific goods, directed and bound by rules. The tradeoff game mandates compromising on the terrain of the world, and applying things appropriately.

In the words of the Great Literary Bandana God himself, this is water. Ideology is a byproduct of our attempt to interpret and analyze reality using the evolved cognitive tools with which we are equipped. We can’t think completely without it, but we can recognize that this is the baseline that we work from. Given this recognition, a positive role for ideology might be understood as a set of framing mechanisms– the water requires a submersible for navigation through the murkiness of the deep. Any kind of thinking about social organization requires making some kind of model of ranked moral priorities, about which parties can reasonably differ. The obvious inherent difficulty is that maintaining this version of belief, as opposed to a set of axiomatic propositions approaching near-religious dogma, goes against the grain of our instincts towards over moralizing.

We want to say that our top ranking explains the whole picture, when in reality, it’s just a weighted first variable in our moral calculator. We need to do a better job at not only listening to the other side of an argument and grokking that point of view, but also at understanding the complex relationships between conceiving of ‘’The Good’’ and thinking through seriously the way things pan out in the world, regardless of where you end up on the political spectrum. The axiom here is: prize ideas, before ideology. As an informal social equilibrium (excluding the possibility of a grand mass revelation of The True Nature of Reality) we should be shifting towards making values ranking a high status activity in a world where complexity reigns and we continue to fumble around, trying to figure out what it all means.

War By Any Other Name

Winston Churchill, reflecting in 1945 on the period between the two World Wars, recollects a move by the Conservative government to fortify England against the prospect of war. In anticipation of an imminent general election, their platform was decidedly pacifist. He writes:

In the early months of 1935 there was organised a Peace Ballot for collective security and for upholding the Covenant of the League of Nations. This scheme received the blessing of the League of Nations Union, but was sponsored by a separate organisation largely supported by the Labour and Liberal Parties. The following were the questions put:


  1.  Should Great Britain remain a member of the League of Nations?
  2. Are you in favour of an all-round reduction of armaments by international agreement?
  3. Are you in favour of the all-round abolition of national military and naval aircraft by international agreement.
  4. Should the manufacture and sale of armaments for private profit be prohibited by international agreement?
  5. Do you consider that if a nation insists on attacking another the other nations should combine to compel it to stop by: (a) economic and non-military measures, (b) if necessary military measures?

The Night of the Long Knives had already occurred, and Germany was obviously rearming, and with prejudice. Britain had lost air superiority (parity, as Churchill puts it). The Royal Navy still had the numerical advantage, but her ships were decaying while Germany was busily displacing the ocean with mighty battleships. It would be unfair to judge the government as completely blind: they were converting factories to produce armaments, albeit in small number and light caliber; moreover, any military paraphernalia was deemed strictly for “defence.” Just call it “defence,” and you’re still a pacifist.

War by any other name…

The Conservatives won by so large a margin that the Prime Minister felt no need to include critics of the government on his staff, so Churchill, once again elected an MP, mocking the internal inconsistencies within the ballot itself, much more within the opinion of the public, decided to pack up his paint box and go somewhere to enjoy “better climes.”

At once, Italy invaded Abyssinia, which threw the British public into a war fervor. What League of Nations? The clamoring for war by the British public caused Mussolini to rush into the arms of Hitler, forming the Axis alliance which brought a conflagration to inevitability.

There is practically no alarm or urgency in the tone of Churchill’s prose. It is counter-intuitive, of course, when you remind yourself that Churchill is writing after watching bombs drop ceaselessly upon London for several years. Rarely does he feel the need to vindicate himself: London was still impassable while he was writing. Years of horror changes mental calculations. Nevertheless, this reader feels his heartbeat quicken its pace, and a little outrage is poured forth. You fools! “The Peace Ballot!”

It is tempting (a temptation to which I yield with great pleasure) to see in the fog of war approaching enemies of the kind Churchill long foresaw. In 1932 he was already sounding alarums in the government.

Have you seen this psychological experiment? A foggy landscape is presented on screen, through which the mind struggles to perceive an object, any object. Hist! Approacheth something now. Be it friend or foe? At first, you see a knight mounted upon a stallion, but then you hear a noise, whereupon you see a tank. To arms!

Alas, she emerges from the fog, dressed in her best white dress, holding a lollipop in her hands. It is a little girl.

Fog skews perception, but the mind projects objects into the consciousness with certainty. It is a vestigial something something from prehistoric man to preserve the berry bushes from the enemy.

The difficulty with calling it vestigial, of course, is there are still such things analogous to The Peace Ballot to address those movements and noises in the fog which are most certainly not lollipop-bearing cutie pies.


I was fourteen years old when I finally figured out what that smell was. On and off as far back as memory permitted, I’d encounter a stray waft while playing outside in the California heath or among the crooked hedgerows of Rhode Island. You know the aroma I mean. The one that raises the gorge at the back of your throat. The one that stings your eyes just a little. The one that’s made so much worse because of its syrupy sweetness. It’s a horrid aroma, and until the day I saw the moldering deer carcass producing it, it was also a mysterious aroma. Since that day, I’ve been in the habit of keeping an eye out for carrion birds. An occasional glace for a wheeling wake of buzzards is all it takes to spare me the discomfort of the perfume of decay.  Continue reading “Razormouth”

On the Purposes of Schooling

I accidentally insulted a teacher friend of mine (she teaches Grade 9 somewhere in the Niagara Peninsula), so she accidentally insulted me back. I mentioned to her, in connection with the transmission of the fine arts to the next generation, that it’s a little easier for us, since we school our children at home. Immediately, she responded, “I have a friend who’s Catholic who has a large family, and when their kids went to high school, they were unable to function socially.”

It’s the kind of response that makes my left eye twitch. I disciplined myself, reaching for a glass of scotch instead of my revolver, and I said, “We make extra sure our kids are integrated socially amongst their peers.” She would have none of it. She was on offense: “When they got to high school age, the administration had to split them into different schools because the only social interaction they had was family.” It was too late to change the premise because I had gone on defense. It seems that everyone who has an opinion against home schooling knows personally a family whose children do not integrate well socially. I think there is one such family in every region that everyone knows.

She didn’t mention their math scores, nor their language arts scores, neither how they performed in the sciences, or even what the socializing issues were in specific, just that the school administration deemed they were poor performers in social interaction.

The truth is my wife and I don’t work hard in the very least to socially integrate our kids. We throw them out of the house for hours at a time.

The contention is that it is not the purpose of school to learn social skills. In my biased mind, the problem which that school’s administration had was that this Catholic family was filled with children who were introverted learners, and they were overwhelmed by the meat grinder of life as bells, desks, timed tests, and things due. Whereas their previous learning environment was one of nurture and care under mother and father, an environment designed to foster growth and encourage the person, the public school system is an environment of ganglia, clocks, and improving standardized test scores. Besides which, I can’t conceive of a high school social network that is actually healthy.

high school

Isn’t there a body of literature, both scholarly and juvenile fiction, which treats the social difficulties many children encounter when they switch public schools?

There is no doubt that the parents of this Catholic family acceded to the wishes of the administration because they decided, in their parental wisdom, that the advantages of institutionalized schooling outweighed the disadvantages, probably on the understanding that college preparatory work is difficult to administer at home. There are advantages to pooling resources for certain kinds of education.

Nevertheless, in my mind, the problem is the other way around: why couldn’t the high school kids integrate these outsiders?