In Dialectic Over Telescopic Morality

I’m currently working on another piece about telescopic morality.

Before writing it, I thought it’d be a good idea to review what I’ve written previously and all the responses to them that I’m aware of. It’s been a very lively discussion, with many humbling critiques.

Many of the conceptual problems that people pointed out nearly immediately came, I think, from the fact that I started with a polemic but then stubbornly clung to treating it as though it had been an analytical piece. I also ultimately contradicted myself in a few places over time—most clearly, by saying originally that the near is all that matters, and later conceding that “of course” far concerns matter.

In any case, I thought I’d do a roundup here for my own convenience, but also for anyone interested in the discussion. There’s some good stuff in here, especially from my critics.

Continue reading “In Dialectic Over Telescopic Morality”

Methodological Terribleness


People with training in economics will tell you that the system works because we’re able to channel selfishness into public gains. That is unarguably part of the system, and a very important part. But it is far from the whole story.

The economists’ simple model of a person is the selfish maximizer. He pursues gains right up to the point where the costs equal the benefits. If he tries to get what he wants by trading, and certain other conditions apply—in terms of how much information is available, how competitive the market is, and so forth—he will help enrich us all while working to enrich himself.

Problems arise very quickly when this model encounters the world. Rather than directly compensating people for what they produce, workers and employees are compensated either hourly or on an annualized salary, to an overwhelming degree. Rather than being directed by the residual claimants, an extraordinary amount of resources are commanded by corporations with a wide pool of shareholders, run by managers appointed by a board elected by these shareholders.

Areas of vulnerability to opportunism seem rampant.

Agency theory was developed in direct response to the shareholder-manager relationship, which they refer to as a principal-agent problem. Agency theorists focus primarily on the information asymmetry between managers and shareholders, arguing the former can milk their position for personal gain at the expense of the company’s bottom line in ways that are hard for shareholders—a more distributed group—to monitor.

The response to agency theory within economics has typically progressed in two directions. One involves a call for regulation, making penalties for defrauding investors steeper and requiring greater public disclosure. The other points to the way in which market discipline can be brought to bear against managers; mergers and hostile takeovers are among the mechanisms that can be used. Henry Manne was the pioneer of this line of argument, with his “Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control”.

Among the Virginia Public Choice School, it is also argued that regulators and politicians are selfish maximizers, too, and this must be taken into consideration when calling to expand their powers. As Eli Dourado has half-jokingly put it, governments, as well as markets, need to be robust against “methodological cynicism;” that is, the assumption that everyone involved is a cynical opportunist.

I think he doesn’t go far enough. Let’s examine the world under conditions of what I’d like to call “methodological terribleness.”

Assume that everyone is terrible.

By that I don’t just mean opportunitists, though that might be one way their terribleness manifests itself. But they could also be arbitrary and spiteful and abusive in a way that works against their own interests. “Terrible” is a very versatile word, and I don’t think I need to pin it down—I’m fairly sure you get the idea, or you will, if you pay attention.

In a world under methodological terribleness, all governments seem horrifying—all of those weapons and prisons, and people just let them have their way for the most part? Who came up with that idea? If any of these terrible people manage to overcome their mutual loathing and get organized, it’s a recipe for death camps, massacres, and pointless wars! On a good day they’ll probably wreck whole ways of life through absurdly high taxation and burdensome regulation, just for the power trip.

What, you think the voters wouldn’t let them get away with it? Voters are terrible! They completely look the other way when bad things happen to someone else, and half the time don’t even notice it being done to themselves. Completely asleep on the job, when not being actively malicious.

Businesses are right out. Too much leverage—what if they sexually assault an employee who really needs the job? What if they emotionally abuse employees just to see how much they’ll put up with?

Heck, throw all of commerce out the window. Customers are terrible. In retail and the restaurant business, they can enjoy their status as petty despots over any employee or manager eager to provide good service and build a reputation. And sellers are just as bad, selling defective products for the hell of it.

And the family—forget it. “Family” just means “trapped together under a roof,” and we’re all aware of the terrible ways that arrangement can go wrong.

What is the point of this little exercise?

If humans were thoroughly and uniformly terrible, human society would be impossible. In fact, even if they were just thoroughly selfish maximizers, it would be impossible.

Joseph Heath’s paper on agency theory has the best discussion of this. Drawing on criminology, he argues that in general the evidence is that people are not terrible or maximally opportunistic. Instead, they are conventional; they believe in doing the right thing for a fairly lukewarm, widely held version of what that means. They tend to rationalize their actions when they deviate from that standard, but in general it’s more or less what they strive for.

However, he argues that agency theory is a useful tool, even if not literally true. It helps to identify “fault lines,” where people are most likely to misbehave. But it’s only because most people do not misbehave to any great degree that we can have any hope of policing such behavior. When it is a relatively rare deviation from the norm, it is not only easier to spot and more manageable to punish, but the relative goodness of most people makes it acceptable to punish the right people for the right reasons. In a world of selfish maximizers, punishment is only ever a pretext for someone else’s advancement; a cynical front. In a world of pure terribleness, punishment is only ever the work of a temporary collusion of sadists, or someone with a chip on their shoulder, or some perceived slight.

The fact is that all of these scenarios can and do play out. We do live in a world where people are often immorally opportunistic or petty or cruel. But our great accomplishments and our ability to live together in commerce, society, and state, are possible only because of the goodness in us all. If we often fall short, we also often strive to do better. If we give in to temptations, we also support the people in our lives during their moments of weakness. If we are sometimes cruel, we often are fair and loving—and forgiving.

Laws, and agreements of all kinds, are pointless without ethos—without a population that is more or less the right kind of people for living and working and governing together.

Methodological Moral Anti-Realism

As a curative to the worst aspects of arguing on the internet, I’ve developed a simple heuristic when I start getting my ire up—asking the question:

What would have to be true for this person to do/say what they are and not be stupid and/or evil?

The implicit premises here are deeply inspired by Spinoza’s Ethics. In Part III, Of the Affects, Spinoza lays out his typology for a new ethical language. It’s a palette, with three primary colors: desire, defined as an appetite + awareness of one’s appetite, joy, which is the increase one one’s power of acting, and sadness, which is the diminishment of the same.

Joy and sadness are both passions, by which Spinoza means phenomena we encounter which we only understand partially, and therefore understand inadequately. Adequate knowledge would be knowledge that proceeds from cause to effect with no remainder, so to the extent that the effects are not fully understood from their causes they are understood inadequately.

There are some subtle implications to this typology. For one, there is no such thing as a ‘negative’ amount of a power of acting; death is the failure to preserve one’s essence and organization, but anything shy of that involves some measure of power. Secondly, joy and sadness are both movements; Spinoza quite explicitly argues that if one were perfect and remained perfect, they would experience no joy (using his definition above), since their power of acting remains constant and neither increases nor diminishes.

Conspicuously absent from these are notions of good or evil, and this is intentional. Good and evil are not meaningful conceptions independent of an agent or agents for whom they increase or decrease their ability to see their desires fulfilled and their organization preserved.

Here, then, we gain the tools for a kind of radical empathy, and the heuristic I gave at the beginning makes more sense: we can ask of anyone what they believe will see their organization (their physical body, their family, their nation, etc.) preserved and their desires fulfilled. Because their beliefs are inadequate, there are often confusions between correlations and causation, or simply about facts of the world. When people engage in abhorrent actions or express abhorrent beliefs, we can uncover the hidden logic behind these actions and statements, and occasionally even find ways to engage.

The small child who insists “I’m not tired” after missing their nap isn’t stupid, although they do hold an incorrect belief that less sleep, rather than more, will improve their state of affairs. The terrorist isn’t evil, but does have desires that they believe will be best fulfilled by the deployment of violence. The parent withholding medical treatment from their child isn’t evil, although their understanding of what will contribute to their child’s welfare is deeply confused. And so on.

This is where an improvement of understanding contributes to improving our lot. First, by better understanding our own desires, we can more effectively realize them, and not chase after arbitrary correlations. By improving our beliefs, we can more accurately model the world and take actions with a stronger likelihood of achieving our desired ends. By taking the time to understand others, even when their desires conflict with our own and their beliefs are incorrect, we can amend our own behavior to circumvent or confront them in a precise and targeted way, or find otherwise improbable opportunities for collaboration.

A good example of this is presented in Maggie Koerth-Baker’s book, Before The Lights Go Out, about green energy and the U.S. energy grid.  She cites examples of political conservatives getting on board with green energy when the issue is framed in alignment with their espoused values (fiscal responsibility, defense, autonomy, stewardship) instead of in a deliberately provocative way where some can be made to feel joy by shaming conservatives and blaming them for recalcitrance. Even when true, this is not an effective strategy for collaboration, and unless one somehow holds enough power to act unilaterally, this sort of bridge-building will always be necessary.

Finally, as this process iterates over itself, we start to see the emergence of many of the traditional liberal values: we begin to see that our own desires and the preservation of ourselves can be better achieved when we put in place institutions and folkways that enable others to do the same. The meta-good, here, is a bias for increasing one’s own power of action by building structures and patterns that increase other’s powers of action. This is an ecological argument, and  while it won’t be true for every situation or agent (as there may be competing ‘basins of attraction’ that have a stronger draw), probabilistically and in aggregate Spinoza’s argument for freedom and mutual benefit, derived from the simple tools of self-preservation, desire, and joy still attracts.

Experience and the Unity of Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric

La Discussion politique, by Emile Friant
La Discussion politique, by Emile Friant

From our first awareness of ourselves, when we emerge into childhood from infancy, life seems like a game where the rules and the purpose aren’t quite clear. We take our cues from our peers, and from the adults, especially parents and teachers. But we also take our cues from stories. It is through stories—and for modern children this more often than not means cartoons—that we’re exposed to characters being brave, doing the right thing, making mistakes and coming to terms with it, and so on.

It is given to us as entertainment but it forms a large basis of our early sense of what life is about. Just as play, which is unserious activity aimed at delight, is often what children take most seriously of all.

The most trivial schoolyard drama has all the elements of most situations we will encounter in our adult lives. Because the stakes are so different, and children lack the perspective to see how low the stakes are, we adults often forget the similarities. But not always. Confronted by the politics in our work place, many complain that it seems we never left high school. The lack of a connection, in high school, between peer politics and grades, or the college you get into, makes the politics seem trivial in retrospect, though it mattered to us much at the time (even, or especially, if we hated it and rejected it). It was “just” a game, or “just” politics and gossip.

But once we leave school, our relationship to superiors becomes much more like peers than like students and teachers. After all, we are in theory able to take their job some day, or even, in some circumstances, to become their boss. As such, the trivial game in a school setting becomes a game with career implications at stake out in “the real world.” To attempt to be above politics as a child is to delay gaining experience in politics until adulthood—that is all.

What is experience? How can some learn a right lesson from it and others a wrong one? How harmful is drawing a wrong conclusion? How helpful is drawing a right one?

I recently drew a distinction between being audience and author of your life, and it is a useful one, but it is not absolute. Gadamer argued that all understanding, even theoretical understanding, involves application. We can only be an audience at all in as much as we have been authors. This does not mean that we have to be writers in order to be readers. It does mean that we must be able to apply what we read to the life we are living and are still in the process of making. “Apply” need not mean take some action, but simply see it within our standpoint, a horizon developed by living our life. Through experience. Experience is a prerequisite for being an audience, which is part of why there is such a dramatic learning curve in the first few years of our life, as we go from no experience at all, to focusing on a few very specific sorts of experience, to slowly broadening out.

Our experience is polyvalent. This is why it is valuable even if we draw the wrong lessons from it. It is possible for the whole of our experience to disclose entirely new lessons to us or to reject previous lessons we had drawn. In social psychology, they speak of construal. The situation we are in is to no small degree the situation we construe ourselves to be in. This construal is tied up in our worldview, and in our experience.

But we are rarely alone in a situation, as social animals. Others participate in the meaning of our life in their roles as audience. In our daily lives, they also participate in the meaning of our life in their role as co-author of the situations we are in together. At stake in the authorship of the situation is its implications for the meaning of the lives of all involved. And so we engage in rhetoric, to try to persuade people to share our reading of the situation. And we engage in politics, to try to work together in co-authorship rather than against one another.

Conflicts of authorial intent in such moments begin dialectically. We attempt to persuade each other. Ideally, we try also to understand one another, for skillful rhetoric and politics both require understanding. If we have gone astray, it is at these moments when we might be set right. The meaning of the situation is inextricably linked to the meaning of our life as a whole. If someone can convince us that we have misconstrued the situation, if we find ourselves reevaluating our reading of it, the reevaluation is unlikely to stop there. The mistake was not likely made in the moment, but at some earlier point. Depending on how deep this goes, we could end up reevaluating a great deal.

Moments of crisis, such as profound doubt confronting a deep faith, or hitting rock bottom after a long period of addiction, begin with reconstruing a situation and end in reconstruing our lives and our sense of ourselves in large an important ways. Even if we reaffirm our faith after such a moment, it will have been transformed in receiving the questions that our doubt posed to us.

Every situation brings the possibility of reconstrual and every reconstrual brings the possibility of a moment of crisis. The fact that our understanding can change is of course not enough. Should we expect it to change for the better?

There are no guarantees. Most people agree that we should be brave, disciplined, just, generous, faithful, hopeful, and prudent, but are hazy on the particulars. And when it comes time to take action in a specific situation, disagreements arise, sometimes very fundamental ones.

There are no guarantees. I’m not going to offer any. I have a pretty high opinion of humanity. We can accomplish incredible things together, in the realms of both doing and knowing. But there’s no denying that we are also capable of doing terrible things together, and even reaching terrible understandings—understandings which become the vessel for immoral social orders.

I have faith that we strive towards goodness by inclination, and hope that we mostly succeed most of the time. But I also think that the wise will accept the tragic nature of the world; its radical imperfectability. Progress and decline are often the same movement, as new understandings give rise to new misunderstandings, as movement towards the good in one respect is mirrored by movement towards evil in another—that this latter movement is a consequence of the former, not merely some sort of cosmic symmetry.

The wise accept this, and yet still have faith in humankind, and hope for its future.

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In a secular age, we are often uncomfortable talking about faith outside of church or possibly among family. Many of us do not even go to a church, or have not ever. Especially among decisive, hard-headed people of business, faith can be an embarrassing subject. But it is an important subject, for Atheists and Christians, businessmen and teachers alike. And this isn’t a high-minded statement pronounced while looking down from above—faith is as crucial to the practicalities of daily life as the very ground under our feet.

For thousands of years there have been philosophers who made a name for themselves by attacking what was accepted on faith. The ancient skeptics believed all knowing and reasoning was impossible. The ancient cynics thought human society was inferior to nature. More recently, David Hume argued that the fact that something has happened repeatedly does not logically demonstrate that it will happen again—so there is no proof that the sun will come up tomorrow. Even more recently, Derrida emphasized that context determines the meaning of what we say and do, but we have an endless amount of context that we could focus on for any one action. So how can we ever be sure we understood it or have been understood?

In some sense, all of these skeptics were right. There are deep limitations to our knowledge and what we can work out with nothing but reasoning.

Faith fills in these gaps and makes it possible to live a full life without constantly being paralyzed by uncertainty. This is not a blind faith—treating faith and reason as opposites is a big mistake. It’s not just that you need faith and prudence together to be fully virtuous, the way you need to be courageous on behalf of justice rather than cruelty. It’s more than that. You need faith before prudence is even possible. Remember our discussion of the novel—how all other books and stories we had read or heard or watched helped form the perspective we bring as readers of a specific book. This is faith—the belief that everything we have experienced up until now in our lives is not for nothing, that it is salient as readers of the situation we are now confronted with and as authors of the rest of our lives.

Again, this is no blind faith! When we are confronted by circumstances that challenge our perspective as it stands, the prudent person will reexamine those aspects of their perspective that have been challenged. The just person knows that they owe it to the people in their lives to be open to the questions such circumstances pose to us, rather than stubbornly ignoring them and missing an opportunity to refine our judgment.

But stubbornly ignoring the questions posed by situations that do not fit your expectations is not what it means to be faithful. That is an unvirtuous faith, an imprudent faith, just as much a vice as an imprudent courage is mere recklessness. Moreover, unexpected circumstances only appear at all if we have expectations in the first place. It is the faith that we bring into the situation that identifies it as special to begin with. It is only because of the perspective we already have that we are capable of viewing our subverted expectations productively in the form of questions that such subversion raises.

Without faith, you are just a “bundle of experiences,” as Hume put it. With faith, you are a person, a character in an ongoing story of which you are both a reader and a co-author. Confidence, self-assurance, and trust—these qualities, which are so vital to our lives, are aspects of the virtue of faith.

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Secret Handshakes and [Reputational] Suicide Pacts

ritual america 615Ritual America

Earlier this week, our taste for the novel and strange was sated by “Florida Man”: Libertarian candidate Augustus Sol Invictus, self-described Old World Pagan in the Thelema tradition and white Southerner. Attention was drawn to him by the protest resignation of fellow Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, who protested the association of the party with Invictus, who has admitted to performing animal sacrifice and drinking goat blood (but not dismemberment), and who is backed by white supremacist groups such as Stormfront and Vinelanders, although he insists that he himself is not racist, citing the fact that his own children are Hispanic.

To extent this is news of little importance outside of Floridian Libertarians; however, full-throated paganism is still culturally controversial in ways that conversion to Buddhism or the varieties of New Age are not. This, in fact, was what Wyllie was depending on by ‘exposing’ Invictus to the attention of the Libertarian Party.

Continue reading “Secret Handshakes and [Reputational] Suicide Pacts”

The White-Collar Permian Event

A couple months ago, Venkatesh Rao (of ribbonfarm) unveiled season 1 of Breaking Smart, a series of closely-linked essays about the relation of software and society.


Embedded below was my first tweetstorm response to the series, focusing on the theme of work.

Mark Ames on the Techtopus. Chris Hedges on sacrifice zones. Scorched Mind: A mind forced into life scripts so far outside its ken that it halts in honorable refusal. (paraphrase of Venkatesh Rao)

In related news, Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work comes out next month.