Hunting season commences on October 1 this year, for bowhunters, so Rafe and I went out one last time this weekend to check our stands for integrity. One in three hunters will experience a fall in their careers, so we are extra-diligent toward the end of remaining in the 66.6%. Thank God we’re in a Rational Age; otherwise, being in that number would surely dampen the celebration when we go marching in.
You have to understand: when I call Rafe “my friend,” I mean it only in the sense that he has a tremendous deer population on his property, and I’m kind to him in many ways so that he lets me hunt on his property. He has many small mannerisms and annoyances which prevent true friendship from developing.
For example: we were sitting together in our double buddy, which is set over the premier deer-path crossroads, as it were, where the deer are coming in from all points feeding, going toward easy water, then to all points bedding. We were pointing out to each other some of the new features another year has brought to the immediate surroundings, waiting to actually see some deer, when he suddenly asked, “Why do we drive on the right side of the road?”
“I dunno,” I said. “Convention? In Australia they drive on the left side of the road.”
“Do they?” he asked. “Is that why water spins the other way ’round when it goes down the toilet?”
“No,” I said. “It spins the other way ’round when it goes down the toilet because the moon goes around the earth the other way ’round in the Southern Hemisphere. Like a mirror image of the Northern Hemisphere.”
“No, seriously,” he said. “Isn’t there some sort of logic to the convention of driving on one side or t’other?”
“Ah!” he exclaimed, which ruined any hope of seeing deer before sunset, and possibly changed their patterns forever. “This is what I was talking about last time, how everything is relative.”
“But it has to be relative to something.” I caught myself. I saw where he was going, but it was too late.
“So by convention, by an organic, common agreement, we drive on the right side of the road just because it works for us,” he said.
“No!” he said, again very loudly, annoying me even further. I reminded myself that I was sitting above his property. “When convention was codified, no one argued for the left side of the road, to be in communion with England or Australia? No, someone argued. Some percentage of the population strongly desired to drive on the left side of the road. In fact, I hazard to guess that there will always be a percentage of people who want to drive on the left side of the road, and they are making the same argument as you: the convention for right-side driving is founded upon baseless, logic-free, utilitarian convention.”
I stared into a distant thicket, hoping against vain hope to catch sight of movement. Alas, he continued:
“What percentage of people do you think it is?”
“I dunno, three?”
“Okay, let’s say five percent, for round numbers,” he said. “Five percent of the population is completely opposed to right-side only driving, constantly lobbying the rest of the population to allow left-side driving in addition to right-side driving.”
“Normally, the ninety-five percent would ignore the five.”
“Moreover, when it came right down to it, only two percent of the population said they would actually drive on the left-side of the road, were it conventional,” he said.
“Okay, so the ninety-eight percent would ignore the two. Or, in realistic terms, a vast majority would ignore the two percent, going on with their business.”
“Ah,” said Rafe. “But what if the two appeal to justice?”
“It’s all relative,” he said.
“But it’s all relative to something,” I argued.
“If that’s true–and it’s not–who are you to say what that something is?” he riposted. I sighed.
“Why have convention on the roads at all?” I said.
“Indeed,” said Rafe. “Many countries do not. Aren’t you the one who brags about going down to Nicaragua all the time? How’s the driving down there?”
“Says you. One man’s terror is another man’s adventure. After all, big shot, you can step in the river only–”
“Don’t!” I shouted. “Don’t you dare.” He laughed.
“What was that?” he whispered, pointing into the thicket. I stared. He stared. Minutes passed. The sun drooped toward the horizon. Presently, I felt something crawling along my thigh toward my crotch.
I swiped at it. It was Rafe’s hand!
“Hey!” I cried out. “What the–?”
He laughed, and we stared into the distance again while the light waned. After a minute he did it again, this time with his hand nearing the danger zone.
“Listen, Raphael,” I said. “You do that again, and I swear, I will throw you off this double-buddy. I promise. To the ground. I’ll tell the DEC you fell.” He laughed.
After another minute, he did it again, right on my man-parts, so I jammed my elbow into his ribs.
“Hey, cut it out,” he said. “I was just funnin’.”
“Just funnin’? With my man-parts? Who funs with another guy’s man-parts?”
“Seriously, Dave,” he said. “Teasin’. Just joshin’, yankin’ yer chain.”
“TWSS,” I said. We laughed and climbed out of the double buddy. I can’t get back out there until Friday, October 2.
Scott Alexander is worried about the siren song of systemic change. His concerns combine the limits of knowledge with the nature of politics. This is something I’ve takena fewstabs at myself, and Alexander’s post seems like as good an opportunity as any to revisit the subject.
The Being and Becoming of Groups
Political philosophy, political science, and economics very often deal in models and comparative statics. Change is therefore thought of as getting from point A—the current social system—to point B—some proposed alternative. Sam provided a good take on the ontology of this:
In the case of economics, the core ontological preoccupation is with the nature and existence of market equilibria and their constituent parts: supply and demand, institutions, representative agents, social planners, and so on. Some focus on ontologies of being, like a static equilibrium, while Hayek and Buchanan famously had ontologies of becomingthat emphasized the importance of analyzing economic processes.
This is a novel way to think about economic analysis, but implies a symmetry about the practice of economics that I’m fairly certain does not exist. The ontologies of becoming and the analysis of processes are largely considered a marginal concern among most economists, if they are considered at all. Most economists focus all of their energy on the analysis of being.
Systemic change looks very differently when approached from a comparative statics as opposed to a process perspective.
Consider the following example: the American federal system. You have a judiciary, the presidency, and a bicameral legislature. If we’re thinking about systematic change, in a framework of comparative beings, we may talk about wanting to switch to a parliamentary system of some sort. You can debate the details about what sort of parliamentary system you would want—there are plenty to choose from and you can of course come up with one that is somewhat unique—but whatever the specific alternative, most of us would agree that switching to a parliamentary system would be a pretty radical change.
Democracy is democracy, right? If the parliamentary system does it better than ours, we should start pushing to switch to that—right? Isn’t it just that simple?
Scott Alexander does not think so. Implicitly invoking Nassim Taleb, one of the characters in his dialogue worries about very rare but highly consequential risks:
There are many more ways to break systems than to improve them. One Engels more than erases all of the good karma created by hundreds of people modestly plodding along and making incremental improvements to things. Given an awareness of long-tail risks and the difficulty of navigating these waters, I’m not sure our expected value for systemic change activism should even be positive, let alone the most good we can do.
The reference to Engels being a case where one person’s altruism—in continuing to work for a living in order to altruistically fund the scholarship of Marx—can actually have huge and horrible systemic implications. To the extent that Marx’s ideas are responsible for the communist bloodbaths of the 20th century, Engels’ altruism helped to create a catastrophe of historic proportions.
The example has problems—but let’s put that to the side for now. Instead, let’s consider the person who is probably responsible for Alexander framing this problem in terms of “long-tail risks;” Nassim Taleb.
Taleb’s entire worldview boils down to a few very simple ideas:
There are events that are highly consequential but happen so rarely that no one may even be aware of their existence—pick your magnitude of “consequential” and your frequency of “rarely”, as well as whether you think people aren’t aware of them or merely think they won’t happen again.
We should strive to bound our downside risk as much as possible and leave as much upside potential as possible.
On a long enough timescale, all downside risks will play out.
The longer something has been around, the more likely it is to have encountered at least some of these rare, high magnitude events and thus to have proved itself resilient against (or better, antifragile; able to improve as a result of) those events that it has survived.
Taleb talks the talk when it comes to being against consequentialism and for virtue, stoicism, and duty, for instance, but at his core he’s just a consequentialist in a Stoic’s toga. I would argue that both his notion of the sacred, and his ontology, have not been very well thought out.
In terms of the sacred:
Taleb's basic argument is that if it's been around for a long time, it's probably been exposed to more rare events, so we should hesitate
This is not just how he talks about duty; it’s also how he talks about religion, something that an actual believer, would, I think, find very strange. Take for instance our own Drew Summit, a devoted Catholic. When an online neoreactionary posited a consequentialist framework in which the only way to preserve our prosperity and order into the future was to mass-sterilize the poor (no, I’m not making this up) his answer was—even if all of that was true, we should not do it. In his words:
@DocCLAR Nations come and go, the fires of hell are forever.
Duty, faith, and the sacred are not about consequences. Indeed, their very importance is to emphasize the things that matter beyond mere consequences. But more on that further down.
For now I want to look at the ontology underlying Taleb’s argument about how traditions and other time-tested things serve to hedge our bets against rare catastrophes.
From the perspective of being this makes a certain logical sense. The American federal system has has been in place for almost two and a half centuries. By Taleb’s logic, it has shown itself to be resilient against once-a-decade catastrophes, or ones that come every twenty, thirty, or fifty years. Maybe we can say that it’s resilient against once-a-century events, or even once every two century events, but that happened so few times at this point that it could have just been lucky.
Nevertheless, a brand new system wouldn’t have been tested against such centennial events ever, and in Taleb’s ontology I’m fairly certain that imposing a parliamentary system would count as a new system. This is because, even though parliaments have been around elsewhere for longer than the American federal system has been here, it’s not clear how that system would graft to the norms, practices, and other existing institutions here. So the change could make us more vulnerable to rare catastrophes.
Here is the problem: in what sense is there a continuity between the system as it existed during the presidency of George Washington, and the system as it exists under the presidency of Barack Obama? We can analyze the being of the system that existed under George Washington and the being of the system that exists now. We can remark upon the differences. But the main story here is one of becoming—the colonies becoming independent and loosely uniting under the Articles of Confederation, then throwing that out in favor of the Constitution and becoming the United States under the federal system. And then becoming the system we have today after having been the system that George Washington was a part of.
But there is more—the system under George Washington was not a static being. It was in the process of becoming from the very first day, and it did not suddenly hit a static equilibrium at some point along the path through his two terms in office. Unexpected structures appeared in this process right away, such as the creation of the cabinet.
Now, we also have the federal agency system. My question to Talebians, and Alexander specifically, is: wasn’t the birth of the agency system a systemic change? Was it so big a break from the past that any “resilience” or “antifragility” the system had throughout the 19th century has been lost? How much continuity is enough? What exactly counts as continuity when tradition is constantly in motion?
Alexander begins his piece with a look at a few people on the left who clearly think effective altruism is just another way to preserve global capitalism, which they wish to abolish.
In this context, let me list a few other systemic changes that come to mind:
The “globalization” of trade and commerce in the 19th century.
The European conquest of most of the world in the 19th century that they hadn’t already colonized in the 18th.
The 1930s: the end of 19th century globalization, the turn to fascism and communism in many countries, the birth of the modern social-democratic welfare state in the rest.
The spread of communism after World War II.
Decolonization during the same period.
Modern globalization: quite young still, long-term effects quite uncertain!
Would turning back the state of globalization to where it was in the 1970s count as systemic change, or would allowing the process of globalization to continue as it is currently proceeding be one? Was the end of the 19th century globalization a systemic change or was its onset? If its onset, was the end of it merely a return to something older, and therefore more resilient?
I’m inclined to think that systemic change is an unavoidable fact of life—indeed, of existence. We are constantly in the process of becoming, and one way or another we hit discontinuities big and small along the way.
As for the limits of our knowledge—well, I’ve written quitea lot about that as well, lately. Suffice it to say that I think we can know a great deal, but I stand with Aristotle in thinking that each subject matter has a level of precision appropriate to it. When it comes to complex systems, I’m with Taleb and Alexander—the level of precision is quite low. Though Taleb seems to go between saying that and claiming that his arguments are backed by unquestionable mathematical certainty….so there’s that. Alexander strikes me as being rather more intellectually humble on this score.
But Alexander’s point is not really about systemic change as such. It’s about politics.
The Unity of Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric
Luisa chuckled. “I hear you, sugar. I’m not gonna say you’re wrong. But I have to warn you that this is the word—‘ politics’— that nerds use whenever they feel impatient about the human realities of an organization.”
I actually think that Alexander’s post focuses much more on the nature of politics than on the specific risks around systemic change.
One thing I like about the post is that it seems clear that he is sympathetic to the “if we got politics out of the way and just let smart people roll up their sleeves and get it done, everything would be fixed” perspective, but also is highly aware of its flaws.
Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!
Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.
Alice: I…think you’re being deliberately annoying? It seems like exactly the same kind of sophisticated devil’s-advocate style argument we could use for anything. Sure, nothing is real and everything is permissible, now stop playing the Steel Man Philosophy Game and tell me what you really think! It really should be beyond debate that some policies – and some voters- are just stupid. Global warming denialism? Mass incarceration? Banning GMOs? Opposing nuclear power? Not everything is a hard problem!
Bob: I really do sympathize with you here, of course. It’s hard not to. But I also look back at history and am deeply troubled by what I see. In the 1920s, nearly all the educated, intelligent, evidence-based, pro-science, future-oriented people agreed: the USSR was amazing. Shaw, Wells, Webb. They all thought Stalin was great and we needed a global communist revolution so we could be more like him. If you and I had been alive back then, we’d be having this same conversation, but it would end with both of us agreeing to donate everything we had to the Bolsheviks.
Alice: Okay, so the smart people were wrong once. That doesn’t mean…
Bob: And eugenics.
It’s ironic to me that the Alice character accuses Bob of taking an outsider’s view of politics, but the approach she proposes seems entirely like the sort of rationalism that acts as though politics is an object of study rather than something we live with every day. They seek explanation rather than understanding.
What does politics actually looks like, from the inside?
I think understanding the whole picture where politics is concerned requires us to speak of the unity of politics, ethics, and rhetoric.
From a very young age, I was taught stories about the founders, and the proper moral framework in which the Revolutionary War ought to be understood. The history that I learned in school was steeped in democratic values; it was all too easy to see American history in particular as a straight line of progress of increasing enfranchisement, abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. was elevated into the same pantheon as Jefferson and Lincoln.
(as an aside—the paper in the previous link is highly recommended for anyone interested in the methodological individualism vs holism debate).
However, there are many sorts of groups. The macro-economy and the nation are obviously related and influence one another, but may be usefully considered separately. In order to exist as a group, a macro-economy simply requires trade and financial markets on a certain scale. Where we draw the lines on one macro-economy vs the other is, in some ways, as arbitrary as committed methodological individualists believe all borders to be. In other ways, not so—particular regulatory and cultural environments certainly have an impact on the overall character of a given macro-economy.
But with nations, or at least with the sense of being “a people,” things are a little different. The existence of a people requires a narrative—or more precisely, a body of narratives—which define who they are, do the difficult work of bridging is and ought, provide us with our sacred reasons for action. A people also always has important rituals, in which “the boundaries between individual and community become less-defined.”
A healthy club has subsumed your self to it without actually reducing your value as an individual; you are not necessarily subverted to the club, but you cannot assert individuality without pressing against the boundaries created by the ritual. If you do not partake of a haggis, you really aren’t a member; you’re an observer, and you cannot receive the benefits of the club, which are mostly transcendental.
My belief is that the American democratic religion has done a remarkably effective job at taking some 320 million people spread across a large land mass and turning them into a people, rather than just a smattering of different tribes. If it seems to get harder and harder to get some consensus on a growing list of issues, as the popular narrative of political polarization implies, it could be that our national narratives are feeling the strain of just how big our population has become. Or it could be that such polarization is overstated, relative to how it has always been.
In any case, this body of stories and rituals also form the environment in which our understanding of ethics is nurtured. Reports of the is-ought divide have been greatly exaggerated—we construe each situation as part of a whole which has the character of a narrative; the ought flows naturally from the is, when we are looking at the is from the inside.
That said, in a cosmopolitan nation with a rich literary, philosophical, and scientific tradition, we are able to learn a great deal about ethics outside the narrow scope of the narratives that currently sustain the people of which we are a part. As we learn, we may come to feel that there are some things that are unethical about our group—something that we believe needs to be changed. How fundamental (or systemic) these changes are will vary, of course. In America and in the west in general, we are, for better or worse, educated to consider big systemic change to be a good idea, a necessary part of progress. I think Alexander is right to try and counterbalance that.
The ethical problems that we see may be, per MacIntyre, problems that can be identified purely within the perspective of the reigning traditions of thought of your people. Or, per Gadamer, it may be that they are problems that are obvious only when you have expanded your horizons by looking elsewhere, something anyone is capable of doing by reading the many texts from different points in history as well as from different cultures.
Ethics here is taken in an Aristotelian sense—it’s not limited to what we moderns would consider the moral domain. “Good” in this sense is inclusive of the moral but goes beyond it; think of a good teacher or a good carpenter. Phronesis, practical wisdom, unites what we consider the narrowly practical with what we consider the narrowly moral.
I like that Alexander flirts with “an efficient market hypothesis for politics,” and it’s unfortunate to me that in an update to the post he notes that he takes this comment very seriously. That comment boils down to “consequentialism is true, few people realize it, so there are trillions of dollars lying on the proverbial table in politics.” (EDIT: seems I’ve misread it)
Except that the status of consequentialism, against the alternatives which are currently in play as well as those which are not, is just as contestable as the positions this commenter is seeking to subvert to it. Giving the commenter the benefit of the doubt, I assume they are aware that consequentialism has problems, just as all frameworks do, but that they simply believe it the best framework we have.
But the impulse which drove Alexander to grasp for something like an efficient markets hypothesis for politics should also extend to philosophy; all obvious assertions drawn from consequentialism have been made, all obvious responses have also been made, and the conversation has moved on from there. The primacy of consequentialism is not at all obvious, even to extremely smart and heavily researched people who have spent years thinking and debating about the matter. In short (too late), there is definitely not any money on the table here.
The central concern of Alexander’s post is what would happen to the effective altruism movement if it made systemic change a central part of its platitude.
And I also think effective altruism has an important moral message. I think that moral message cuts through a lot of issues with signaling and tribal affiliation, that all of these human foibles rise up and ask “But can’t I just spend my money on – ” and effective altruism shouts “NO! BED NETS!” and thus a lot of terrible failure modes get avoided. I think this moral lesson is really important – if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance. If everyone became very interested in systemic change, we would probably have a civil war. Systemic change is sexy and risks taking over effective altruism, but this would eliminate a unique and precious movement in favor of the same thing that everybody else is doing.
Here is where we see the way in which rhetoric enters into the unity with politics and ethics.
Effective altruism is a young movement attempting to assert itself as worthy of our attention and loyalty. Its proponents are attempting to tell us stories (rhetoric) about the world and the duty of its most privileged inhabitants (ethics) in order to create a group of people who consider membership in the movement to be an important part of who they are (politics).
Consider, once again, the American democratic religion. How did it come to be? The answer: through persuasion, accomplished through both word and deed. The art of rhetoric begins by understanding, as best as we can, the perspective in which our audience is situated. It aims to translate ideas which are perfectly comprehensible within our own horizon of understanding into a form that can be understood within the audience’s horizons. It also aims to make it clear why those ideas ought to be evaluated a certain way; the way in which we understand them. As Gadamer emphasized, such translation necessarily entails transformation, both of the ideas and of the audience. In cases like the creation of the American democratic religion, not only was a new group born out of what had arguably been several smaller ones, but an entire nation with institutions of governance was created. A dramatic transformation indeed.
Effective altruists attempt to speak to our charity, but also to our prudence (in the narrow, modern sense of the word). They speak to our fellow feeling, our sympathy for the plight of the less fortunate, but also to our hard-nosed calculating side, which favors efficiency. “Just give up 10%—you get to keep 90% to do whatever you like!—and you can be part of a movement that ends extreme poverty around the world, forever.”
It’s a powerful message. It certainly seems to be on the path to establishing itself as a proper group with a distinct ontological status apart from simply “American” or “rationalist” or what have you. Alexander is worried that, at this stage, trying to be all things to all people—especially where big, divisive questions about systemic change are concerned—will stop this process before it has really begun.
It is a sharp, politic concern, for which I applaud him. These days, all or nothing rhetoric has become a corrosive tool, resulting in nothing but negation without creation. It’s good to see someone out there pushing for a healthy, prudent politics.
O Merciful Lord who art in heav’n, hallow’d be thy name, forgive me the following tandem insult to Linnaean taxonomy and Western philosophy: there are three phyla within the kingdom of Occidental Thought. As is always the case with antiquity, provenance is uncertain, but the materialist phylum is associated with the Epicurean tradition, the pantheist with Stoicism, and the monotheist with Scholasticism. Imagine a mad tea party where Adam Smith sits in Zeno’s seat, Hume in Virgil’s, and William of Ockham (the razor guy) in Aquinas’s. Amusingly, Dante Alighieri is counted among the ranks of the Scholastics, making his inclusion of Virgil among the ranks of the privileged damned a classic example of a backhanded compliment between incompatible schools of thought. And don’t kid yourself, attempts at reconciling the three are doomed. It might be possible to convincingly claim that there is simultaneously no god, many gods, and only one God, but you’d need abundant mescaline and probably some acute dehydration to do the trick.
Still, each school has its analytical uses. Epicurean materialism is pretty good for modeling epochal variations, where the vagaries of human motivations tend to cancel out. God-of-the-Agora Stoicism lends itself well enough to modeling anonymous, impersonal exchange and production. And if you find yourself interested in investigating richly-textured human institutions, spanning the range of virtue and vice, I think you’ll find your ethnography enriched with a generous helping of Scholastic epistemological traditions. But analysis is not prescription, not by a very long shot. The camp you subscribe to (usually tacitly, since bothering with first-principles assumptions detracts from more pressing matters) informs not only what you imagine might be possible, but what is permissible. To an Epicurean like Nietzsche or an unironic interpretation of Machiavelli, political authority squirms from the musty soil of the willful application of forceful intent to a society born of a series of accidents and adventures. For Stoics like John Locke or Thomas Hobbes, politics is a matter of rational cooperation among self-interested constituents. For Scholastics like Chesterton or Maimonides, the political authority is a steward, borrowing the keys to dad’s Camaro, there to make sure degeneracy, vice, and sin don’t corrupt civilization.
The tenor of the political prescriptions that emanate from each philosophical phylum resonate with the cosmology. A practical, no-nonsense materialist political adviser will counsel the sovereign to rule with an eye to his own self-interest: pro-growth policies will enhance the prestige of the throne. Stoic sages appeal to the wisdom of crowds, of the lure of emergent order: for best results, codify those laws that survive the crucible of public scrutiny and judicial review. A Scholastic chamberlain might whisper in the crown’s ear that ’tis the received wisdom of God Almighty through his only mortal Son that grants you the honor of serving your humble constituency. Though the message be different, the effects of well-heeded counsel are nearly indistinguishable: benevolent, beneficent policy well-suited to the task of governing a prosperous nation. At least, that is, when wise counsel is well-heeded. Continue reading “Ab Incunabulis Ad Astra Per Pedes”→
My buddy Rafe and I hunt on the same property. It’s almost that time of year, so we go scouting together, checking the usual places for bed-downs and trails, and keeping our eyes open for new trails, setting trail cameras. You know: the usual. I always bring a compass.
Rafe teases me, but he knows, like I do, that in the excitement of pursuing a mortally wounded animal, your mind will tell you it’s noting landmarks, but after the adrenaline dissipates, your mind will laugh hysterically at the cool practical joke it just played on you while the woods close in on you like so many strangers in Penn Station. Besides, it’s still summer here. During hunting season, after the leaves fall and the sun falls, the landscape becomes alien. It’s best to take the occasional compass reading. My Oma gave me a military-style compass when I was a little boy, and I still carry it with me (she was in the Hitlerjugend, but that’s a whole ‘nother glass of schnapps). I have it right here, in fact, not an arm’s length from me.
“North is totally arbitrary,” Rafe said to me while I was taking a reading.
“No, it’s not,” I said.
“Haven’t you ever seen those globes where the lettering is all upside down, like as if it was Australians who made it?”
“Who made what?” I asked.
“The globe,” he said.
“But they didn’t make that globe, because Australians know that they’re in the Southern Hemisphere. The world would look just as ridiculous upside down to them as it does to us.”
“Nuh uh,” he said.
“Yeah huh,” I retorted. “A bunch of academic types made that globe, as an exercise, not as an alternative to a real globe.”
“A ‘real’ globe?” he mocked.
“Lookit,” I said, pointing to my compass. “Put a Z there, and it still points thataway.”
“But a Z is just a sideways N.”
“Fine,” I said. “Put Gandalf’s rune there, and it still points thataway.”
“It’s still relative,” he said. “It’s totally arbitrary that we call it ‘north.'”
“No, it’s not,” I repeated. “This thing behaves relative to a real thing up near the north pole. More than that, the fact that magnetic north moves a little bit, and that you have to do the left-add-right-subtract rule proves the point: it might be relative, but it’s relative to something there.”
“It’s right-add-left-subtract, dummy,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. Then I said, “If I was a slave in the South in the 1800s, the one thing I’d steal from my master before I made for freedom is a compass.” I was conceding to him that the the North Star is not visible.
“That’s totally proving my point,” he said. “North is completely relative. What if the North had slavery, and the South was where freedom was?”
“You’d still take a compass and bear south relative to a fixed north pole.”
“See?” Rafe said, leaning against a tree in exultation. “It’s all relative.”
The ends do not justify the means. Getting the right results does not automatically make you a good person. Depending on what you did, and why, it might even make you a pretty bad one. A good person doesn’t just have good goals. He also acts the right way, given the circumstances, and for the right reasons.
What does it mean to act for the right reasons?
Consider a parent who breaks their back every day, working long hours at a job they hate so they can save up enough to send their daughter to college. This seems admirable, right?
But consider different sorts of reasons for doing this. Imagine if they want their daughter to be able to make more money because they feel entitled to whatever she earns—that is, they’re treating this like an investment for their own long-term earning potential. Or imagine the parent who desires the status among their peers that a college educated kid brings, or to avoid the embarrassment of a grown child without a diploma. That’s a better reason than personal gain, but it isn’t great.
Now imagine a parent who simply wants a better future for their daughter, as well as for her to develop as an independent person capable of making her own choices. These are admirable reasons, and the parent who is truly responsive to them is worthy of their role as parent.
Responsiveness to the right reasons is an important part of virtue as such. This is about much more than an intellectual exercise. Prudence (or phronesis, practical wisdom) as an intellectual virtue does involving being able to grasp what the right reasons are. But courage, temperance, charity, faith and hope all involve at least an element of wanting to do the right thing for the right reasons. It comes more naturally to some than to others. But often those who struggle at first end up the most virtuous further down their journey, for they had to grapple with the difficult task of making the path of righteousness their own. Those who have it given to them sometimes wander off and are less certain how to find their way back again. This is precisely Aristotle’s distinction between natural and true virtue, this element of making it your own as opposed to being born with it.
Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.
It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.
How do we know what the right reasons are? Our whole lives are a joint investigation and negotiation of the answer to that question.
From childhood, parents and other adults, peers, and all of the stories we are exposed to, attempt to impress upon us an understanding of what the right reasons for acting are in a variety of situations. We are increasingly expected, throughout the course of our lives, to take more and more responsibility for grasping it in a given situation and acting accordingly.
Adulthood just is the moment when we take full responsibility for our part of any situation, for acting for the right reasons and doing the right thing. To rely on others to determine this for you is in some sense to remain a child.
That does not mean that there are no authorities that you defer to on rightness or any subject. It does mean that you hold no one responsible for this deference, and the trust that it implies, other than yourself. If your trust is misplaced, it was you who misplaced it.
Trust, and therefore faith, is the foundation upon which our grasp of “right reasons” rests. We have to trust not only the people we consider authorities, but all the people who are and have been in our lives and influenced our notion of goodness. Most of all, we must have faith in ourselves. The most central and unwavering faith of the Enlightenment was faith in one’s own ability to read the evidence and make a rational judgment. If our faith on this score is and should be more tempered than that, we still ought to believe in our own ability to become knowledgeable, to learn from mistakes and advice alike, and to become a good person.
If faith is our footing, hope pushes us forward. Hope that we will obtain an appropriate understanding of the right reasons to act in a given situation, and that we can act on them the way a good person would. Hope that if our trust is ever misplaced or abused, we will learn of it and learn from it, without losing our ability to trust entirely.
Gaining experience so that we can develop our grasp of the right reasons for acting over the course of our lives, working to be the sort of person who wants to respond to the right reasons, trusting and believing in our potential for goodness—these are the beginnings of virtue.
When I started reading up on the virtues and following the trails through philosophy that I found along the way two years ago, I was pretty sure that I was a Burkean traditionalist of some sort. It was Alasdair MacIntyre who began to throw a wrench in this when he pointed out that Burke treated tradition as a sort of black box—something that actual adherents to traditions do not do. Moreover, Burke somehow did this while remaining an economic liberal for his day, something very much not traditional to his nation.
We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.
MacIntyre presents a different sort of traditionalism from Burke, one more like Michael Oakeshott’s. There is reason and reasoning but these are only made coherent by the traditions they are situated within.
Jonathan Haidt has alerted us to a new sociology paper by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning discussing the evolution of our moral culture from one of dignity to one of victimhood, with the culture of dignity itself having evolved from a culture of honor. Here is the gist of the three cultures (The quotations are from the paper, with Haidt’s emphases):
In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so” (Cooney 1998:110). Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998:115–119; Leung and Cohen 2011)… Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack (Cooney 1998:122; Leung and Cohen 2011:510).
In a culture of dignity,
[r]ather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others (Berger 1970; see also Leung and Cohen 2011). Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor (Leung and Cohen 2011:509). People are to avoid insulting others, too, whether intentionally or not, and in general an ethic of self-restraint prevails.
A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization. … Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.[p.715]
In a culture of victimhood, domination is the ultimate vice and victimhood under oppression is the chief virtue. This is clearly a Goldilocks story, but sure, I’ll bite: the culture of dignity seems pretty nice and we should keep it. But its evolution into a culture of victimhood follows a kind of logic. Indeed, the roots of victimhood culture lie within the culture of dignity, especially in its egalitarian emphasis on the inherent worth of all individuals. The dubious elevation of victimhood to a virtue is an bastardization of the real virtue of respect for persons. How exactly the culture of victimhood goes off the rails can be illuminated by the language of virtues and vices.
virtues of feminism
I believe it is essential that the culture of dignity incorporate feminism, with its critical analysis of oppression, privilege, and prejudice. A feminist worldview introduces new virtues that must be cultivated if we want to take seriously the dignity of persons, that is, if we want to complete the culture of dignity. One way to think of a virtue is as a kind of moral reason one finds compelling, subject always to considerations of other virtues. Another way is to think of a virtue as a skill necessary for living well, something to be learned and mastered; hence vice results when the skill is applied badly. I’ll discuss two candidates for feminist virtues, though there are potentially many more. These are microvirtues, subsidiary mostly to the cardinal virtues of justice and benevolence. I’ll discuss in turn the corresponding vices, those arising from denying these virtues, exaggerating their kernel truths, or simply trying to apply them and missing the mark.
sensitivity to emergent patterns of oppression
The first virtue is most directly related to the discussion of microaggressions. In many ways the low-hanging fruit of feminism has already been plucked. Women and members of other historically oppressed groups in liberal societies have the vote and other trappings of political equality; they can own, inherit, and will property; they can attend university, earn advanced degrees, and work outside the home with the choice of essentially any occupation. It is more difficult to understand and address the higher-hanging fruit: the subtler ways that social hierarchies persist.
This is especially true when the social disadvantages owe not to overtly vicious behavior (direct discrimination, hate crimes, sexual harassment, etc), but instead to an unintended pattern of injustice that only emerges from beliefs and behaviors that are not in themselves necessarily odious. If a man whistles at a woman on the street or propositions her in (what to him seems) a friendly way, little to no harm is done. In a cultural void, unsolicited compliments or romantic overtures might even be construed as flattering. But we don’t live in a cultural void, and a woman walking down the street alone is not typically looking for romance; she wishes to go on about her business with no more interference than a man might suffer. Catcalls are often derogatory, sometimes threatening, and their sheer persistence in attempting to provoke a reaction can become psychologically burdensome, leading women to alter their trajectories in order to avoid stress. The insignificant effect of a singular catcall is, when pluralized, magnified into a pattern of limited access for women to public spaces. The logic is subtle, easily missed by men who have learned their behavior from parents and peers without thinking through the consequences. It is also just one example.
The virtue of sensitivity to microaggressions entails being on the lookout for the indirect ways one’s behavior could negatively impact others or perpetuate macroscale patterns of injustice, and correcting such behavior as best as one can. This virtue is relevant for counteracting biases about gender: assuming an unknown nurse is a woman or surgeon is a man; or assuming that a young girl wants to wear pink dresses and play with dolls or that a young boy wants to play baseball, grow up to date women, or even grow up to be a man at all. A single case of any such bias doesn’t hurt anyone too much, but if the bias pervades it can powerfully inhibit the power of individuals to act according to their own reasons and ends. Attentiveness to emergent patterns of injustice pertains, a fortiori, to behaviors that are themselves vicious. The threat of sexual violence circumscribes women’s freedom. The feminist libertarian Charles W Johnson describes its effects:
“These constraints operate through felt danger and through explicit warnings: don’t walk alone; not after dark; not in that neighborhood; don’t go to that party; not dressed like that; watch what you drink; watch what kinds of ‘signals’ you give off. Paternalistic double-binds often narrow the range to a vanishing point: don’t leave a late-night event without a man to walk you back; don’t leave with a man, unless you intend to invite him in …”
And the pattern of injustice is reinforced by the tendencies for institutions to rally around their constituents who are accused of rape rather than those constituents who bring charges, for the media to focus on the effects of rape accusations on the accused instead of the effects of sexual violence on the victims themselves, and for the instinctive belief that “there must have been some misunderstanding”, that the men we know are good men and are therefore incapable of sexual violence.
But this sensitivity to patterns of social injustice has corresponding vices. The most obvious vice is simply denial. “Women can vote and work. What are they complaining about? They have all the rights men have, and maybe more, what with affirmative action and other social justice policies.” This attitude ignores the complexity of social relations, legalistically reducing life down to rights and the enforcement thereof, with no consideration of the effective freedom to live as one will in a world where most things that really matter involve the sentiments and cooperation of other human beings.
But one can be oversensitive. Sometimes a compliment is just a compliment, and having a door held open for you has nothing to do with gender, either by intention or by indirect effects. And responses to microaggressions should be proportional. “Manspreading” may or may not be a microaggression, but it’s best dealt with by direct, polite engagement. Ditto “mansplaining”. Sexist jokes or apparel might deserve censure but Internet shaming campaigns and forced resignations betray the vice of intemperance.
Awareness of social privilege
Privilege means living in a society where things tend to be arranged to one’s benefit, and one is treated by default with trust and respect. As an educated white cis-male, I can walk up to a police officer and expect to be regarded merely as a citizen with some question or concern rather than a criminal intent on harm. I can buy a house and expect a welcome from the neighbors. When I learn about my nation’s history in school, I learn about people who look rather like me. There have never been laws passed aimed at marginalizing people like me or limiting my freedoms (Ed. – except for your atheism). When I consult a physician, I am believed when I report my symptoms. Indeed, being believed and receiving the benefit of the doubt are important aspects of privilege. Likewise, having one’s own construals taken seriously is vital, as with a woman being able to report sexual harassment without it being automatically interpreted as just a little harmless flirting.
Members of those social groups who inherit social advantages are uniquely positioned to acknowledge their privilege with grace, to be cognizant of the disadvantages others face, and to work to eliminate or at least stop perpetuating unjust privilege. Awareness of one’s privilege is a frame of mind to adopt when thinking about social outcomes and when discussing social issues.
The vice of unawareness of privilege is feeling entitled to the blessings one enjoys through no actions of one’s own. This can be merely gauche, but the vice commonly takes a more extreme form: defensiveness or fragility. Some members of privileged classes are triggered by the mere mention of the word “privilege”, and immediately infer that any such discussion attacks the legitimacy of their genuine achievements. They fear that discussion of privilege is just an excuse to target them with special taxes, tilt admission and hiring competitions unfairly against them, and to create just the kind of social hierarchy that social justice advocates claim to oppose. Discussion of privilege feels to these individuals invalidating and accusatory. But privilege as such implies neither wickedness nor (taken on its own) sufficient justification for any particular social policy.
On the other hand, accusations of privilege can be used to bludgeon, shame, and muffle. Consider the Twitter shaming swarms directed against white, male, privilege-embodying scientists Matt Taylor (who wore a shirt featuring bikini-clad women) and Timothy Hunt (who ultimately resigned from his academic post on account a tasteless joke concerning women in science). Blogger Scott Alexander writes earnestly about the feminist shaming of nerds:
I live in a world where feminists throwing weaponized shame at nerds is an obvious and inescapable part of daily life. Whether we’re “mouth-breathers”, “pimpled”, “scrawny”, “blubbery”, “sperglord”, “neckbeard”, “virgins”, “living in our parents’ basements”, “man-children” or whatever the insult du jour is, it’s always, always, ALWAYS a self-identified feminist saying it. Sometimes they say it obliquely, referring to a subgroup like “bronies” or “atheists” or “fedoras” while making sure everyone else in nerddom knows it’s about them too.
In its extreme, this tactic of rhetorical convenience can become a strategy of elevating historical lack of privilege into a brand new kind of privilege, or in Campbell & Manning’s terms, elevating victimhood into a virtue. Those who use privilege accusations as a weapon to subdue others forget that the entire point of feminism is to remove the barriers to equality of dignity between persons. As feminist Susan Griffin says in the Way of All Ideology,
A deeply political knowledge of the world does not lead to a creation of an enemy. Indeed, to create monsters unexplained by circumstance is to forget the political vision which above all explains behavior as emanating from circumstance, a vision which believes in a capacity born to all human beings for creation, joys, and kindness, in a human nature which, under the right circumstances, can bloom.
When a movement for liberation inspires itself chiefly by a hatred for an enemy rather than from this vision of possibility, it begins to defeat itself. Its very notions cease to be healing. Despite the fact that it declares itself in favor of liberation, its language is no longer liberatory. It begins to require a censorship within itself. Its ideas of truth become more and more narrow. And the movement that began with a moving evocation of truth begins to appear fraudulent from the outside, begins to mirror all that it says it opposes, for now it, too, is an oppressor of certain truths, and speakers, and begins, like the old oppressors, to hide from itself.
and so caution
The culture of victimhood is real. It is a dangerous deviation from the culture of dignity. But there are kernels of virtue within the culture of victimhood that are genuine extensions of the culture of dignity. If Manning and Campbell are correct in their diagnosis, it is because these true virtues have been warped into vices. But we should take care not to over-correct and discard the good along with the bad. As with all virtues, there is no sure-fire guide to apply these feminist virtues in a way that avoids derailing into vice. We just have to wade in, make mistakes, talk about them, and try to learn from them.