If by open borders

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about open borders. All right, here is how I feel about open borders:

If when you say open borders you mean jobs stolen, welfare for scroungers, forced integration, that violates freedom of association, dethrones self-determination, destroys institutions, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of our own children; if you mean the utopian seduction that topples the goose that lays the golden eggs from its precious perch, plunged down into the bottomless pit of socialism, and violence, and backward cultures and values, and tyranny, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say open borders you mean the lubricant of globalization, the lifting of unjust barriers, the prosperity that obtains when good people can move to good jobs, that enables the sending of needed remittances, and the warm glow of remitted liberalism and democracy; if you mean expatriate adventure; if you mean the stimulating diversity that brings variety to our restaurants and corporate boardrooms; if you mean the capability which enables a refugee to magnify their opportunities, and their happiness, and to forget, at last, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that essential liberty, the exercise of which calls forth trillion dollar bills out of the void, and is used to revitalize our economy, to begin anew hopeful lives, to taste freedom, to escape persecution, to add the power of exit to muted voice; to build a world where one’s place of birth is not one’s destiny, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

The Tension Between Pluralism and Standardized Education


Tamara’s excellent inaugural post as a Sweet Talker brings into sharp focus many of the frames we so often unthinkingly approach the question of higher education with.

I particularly liked the way that she linked the goal of pluralism in ideas with diversity in demographic backgrounds. The quotes she provides seem to indicate that having a wide variety of ideas around is good in itself, rather than as a means for arriving at the correct one or offsetting the problems with the largely better but still flawed ones. Taken in that light, it seems obvious that demographic diversity would be a necessary condition for the greatest possible variety of ideas—more backgrounds, more cultural variety, therefore more variation in accepted wisdoms or even in counter-cultures against the former.

I am reminded of a group that is usually treated as an ideological enemy of the diversity in demography crowd, but a friend to the pluralism in ideas crowd—the modern defenders of federalism. That is, those who believe that the ideal world would have the greatest variation in political systems at the smallest possible territorial level with unlimited freedom of movement between the systems. This ideal is justified either on the basis of maximizing freedom—you have the most options in political systems and thus governments are much more euvoluntary—or on the basis of discovery—you are much more likely to find the best possible system if you allow the largest possible trial and error process to play out.

When justified on the basis of discovery, there’s a natural link with the notion of pluralism in ideas as a tool for finding the best ideas. When justified on the basis of freedom, however, we get closer to the goal of greatest diversity in ideas and people as an end in itself. Pluralism in ideas, people, and governments for pluralism’s sake.

In another piece I created three provisional labels; federalist, propertarian, and liberationist. Federalist should be straightforward from what I described above, and propertarians are simply those who believe that freedom just is the existence of well defined and enforced property rights. The liberationist, on the other hand:

Under the liberation framework, individuals are liberated from something—superstition, prejudice, poverty, even from family ties or marriage. They are free not only to sell their property or form a community according to their own values, but to hold themselves to no one’s standards but their own. In practice, there are always specific standards either in the background or explicitly. Science is the great liberator of minds over religion and superstition. Policy provides just men an avenue for liberating the poor from their poverty. In law, liberation is embodied in anti-discrimination, affirmative action, and welfare of all stripes.

The tension that Tamara identifies in her piece is, I think, between federalists in the domain of ideas on the one hand, and liberationists in the domain of diversity on the other. For the latter, diversity in demography is a tool for liberating minorities from the chains of a white patriarchal normative system—but also for liberating whites of each sex from that very system, by exposing them to groups who have been marginalized by it.

Liberationists often also espouse pluralism in ideas as part of their core beliefs. But the role of standardized education—higher as well as K-12—in the modern liberationist framework creates a serious tension. If the purpose of a standard education is to crack up the dominance of white patriarchal norms by exposing everyone to pluralism in action, then it is already excluding many ideas from the outset, just like a monism would do. By imposing a single form of education on all, it also precludes pluralism in education, forcing any tensions over competing visions into the scale of the nation, rather than the locality.

However, I do not think that the liberationists are in some way solely guilty of this. Their only fault, in terms of conceptual problems, is their dedication to eradicating conformity (and hence norms) by using the very tools which create conformity. Norms both create power relations and are an ineradicable part of how human beings work and think together. It makes sense, then, that liberationists would use it as a tool for change—but self-defeating when the goal of the change is to get rid of the very things that make it possible.

Hillary Clinton highlighted the tensions in a 2006 remark on vouchers:

Suppose that you were meeting today to decide who got the vouchers. First parent comes and says ‘I want to send my daughter to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic School’ and you say ‘Great, wonderful school, here’s your voucher. Next parent who comes says, ‘I want to send, you know, my child to the Jewish Day School. Great here’s your voucher! Next parent who comes says, “I want to send my child to the private school that I’ve already dreamed of sending my child to.’ Fine. Here’s your voucher.

Next parent who comes says, ‘I want to send my child to the school of the Church of the White Supremacist.’ You say, ‘Wait a minute. You can’t send…we’re not giving a voucher for that.’ And the parent says, ‘Well, the way that I read Genesis, Cain was marked, therefore I believe in white supremacy. And therefore, you gave it to a Catholic parent, you gave it to a Jewish parent, gave it to a secular private parent. Under the Constitution, you can’t discriminate against me.’

Suppose the next parent comes and says ‘I want to send my child to the School of…the Jihad.’ Wait a minute! We’re not going to send a child with taxpayers dollars to the School of Jihad. ‘Well, you gave it to the Catholics, gave it to the Jews, gave it to the private secular people. You’re gonna tell me I can’t? I’m a taxpayer. Under the Constitution.’

Now, tell me how we’re going to make those choices.

This is a cogent critique of the federalist side of the education debate. But it implies that a universal, standard public education resolves it, which simply isn’t true. The same choices are made, they are just made centrally, and for everyone all at once, rather than on a case-by-case basis. Or in a decentralized way.

For my part, I don’t think any of the conceptual problems with either liberationism or federalism can be resolved without a theory of legitimate authority. Authority in terms of ideas and knowledge, but also in terms of the exercise of power. Education is an area in which both of these types of authority are crucial. We cannot have pluralism all the way down where theories of legitimate authority are concerned; without a basic consensus on these twin questions, there cannot be an education.

How can students be taught without being asked to acknowledge the authority of teachers? How can schools be ordered without recognizing the authority of administrators? How can syllabuses be set and standardized without recognizing the authority of some sources of knowledge over others?

Pluralism of all stripes is often anti-authority, or at least an attempt to minimize the problem of authority. But the problem of authority is inescapable; even more so for those who take seriously the value of diversity. A serious understanding of such value must be connected to a serious understanding of its limits.

Good Fences Make Good Pluralism

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the poet writes. A post I wrote was spiked. I didn’t spike it. Adam Gurri  didn’t spike it. Not even my wife’s fears spiked it. It was wisdom who spiked it, clear and simple. It was wisdom.

The post was only apple trees when you are most likely pines, only as harmful as words on a page can be. It’s not as though the words can do you any harm. “Good fences make good neighbors,” wisdom says, again and again.

But why do they make good neighbors? The wall was here before I was here, and before you were, but now the wall is being taken down, actively taken down, to make great gaps within it so that two can walk abreast. Who did that? Who made the gaps in the walls?

Was it the hunter?


It was and it was not. I’ll tell you: I had a good idea, but the latest time series graphs showed that it was a bad idea, and not a mistaken idea (it was surely not mistaken) to make it bad, but frowned upon to make it bad. The time series graphs say, without shadow, that walls themselves are bad. I said no. No, the wall is good, I said.

Wisdom said, thou shalt not post what thou hast written. Thou shalt surely not.

Only wisdom says no nowadays, and who listens to wisdom?

So I wrote a code. The code is for everyone whose wall has gaps. First, the code is a signal that I am here, and you are there. You should stay there, and I should stay here. Do you read me? Second, the code is the first try to undo what the hunter has done, what the frost has done, and what the elves have done.

It is mean work, cruel work, to make a wall, but we are ashamed of being neighbors now. We must all be in communion, and that is never never never good. Never. That is why we are ashamed that there is no more shame. There is no more shame! Even Roger Waters knows that if he were a better man, he’d understand the spaces between friends. A better man: ha! Imagine that!

Remember: the wall is not made for thee; the wall is made for me.

Asking For Whom The Bell Tolls

Who doesn’t know you’re not supposed to ask for whom the bell tolls? Long ago, OG Existentialist John Donne answered the question for you: it tolls for thee.

I wonder about that.

He’s absolutely correct, in a sense, that we are all connected to each other, and that the ebbs and flows of humanity affect us all, the logical conclusion being that, inasmuch as when a single individual advances, we advance together (the tide lifting all boats); so also when a single individual is removed to Davy Jones’ Locker, we all shall surely find similar breaches in the hulls of our seaships. Experience teaches us that John Donne is essentially correct: the bell tolls for thee. In this way, blood is thicker than water.

“No man is an island unto himself,” he furthermore teaches. I beg to differ. Those of us who have the water have been cordoned off by water so that we are, indeed, islands unto ourselves, each separated out unto lonely spits of sand and coconut trees, being sustained by meager provisions, shouting with disunited voices to all the ships passing by that we can see the breaches in their hulls, but without unity, we are subject to futility. Alas, the bell is tolling for humanity: it is a gigantic ship struck by Kraken the great sea monster so that it is sinking even as it is rising, the shouts of the exulting in the aft decks drowning out the screams of the drowning in the fore decks.

Perhaps the laughter of those who have slipped away from the surface of the cruel sea is a mocking laughter, that the work done by Kraken is beneficial to those who by great strength of reason chose the aft decks (being incidentally born there to choose them), so that those who are now perishing were stupid, foolish, superstitious. But such is the connection of blood: it is indeed thicker than water, and denser. The sea will exult over the wise and the foolish together.

Not so those who have the water. The water separates us from the blood. As the bell tolls across the water, our faint voices, separated by a different connection that cannot be fathomed by any instrument which plumbs the seven seas, are largely ineffective. Lonely isolation makes a man crazy after a while, each in his own way, so that none of us can join our voices together in a single warning klaxon. A scattered few hear, however, and they jump ship, realizing in the joy of escape that the bell is indeed tolling a death knell for them, for to escape the connection of blood is indeed the death of blood, a death in the briny water apart from evil Kraken. After that, it is sweet fresh water, but drunk on an island unto himself, without the tolling of the bell for thee or for me.

Let the reader understand that I am raising my hand in an oath that cannot fail: I promise you I will never die.


What is a university?

What is a university? What does it add to society and what can we, as students, expect from it?

For centuries, the university was the intellectual center of civic life. Not everyone was expected to go to school or even allowed to, but it was recognized as the developer of scholarship in much the same way churches were recognized as developers of righteousness, and cultivators of community. The liberal arts and classics existed to help students develop an appreciation for culture and deliberation, the sciences for inquiry and discovery. And for hundreds of years, this was the standard.

Somewhere in the past century though, the purpose of university became expanded. Along with being centers of intellectual exploration (a more cynical person might say instead of) universities now had the added task of being an idealized model of what society might look like, provided things were more fair. With the introduction of affirmative action, Minority and Women’s Studies departments, and a host of other programs, college administrations around the country said their role as developers of scholarship wasn’t enough. Universities, they argued, shouldn’t just exist as intellectual spaces but should also be representative of the greater population.

Today these dual views of what a university is and ought to be still exist. Is a university supposed to serve primarily as an academic center? Is it supposed to do more, to be a center of not just academic progress, but to reflect the larger society around it? This is where I believe the deeper tension exists amidst debate about trigger warnings, safe spaces and the like.


The first universities weren’t formal schools, but gatherings of individuals with a desire for knowledge. Thousands of years ago Socrates posited the way to truth, if such a thing existed, was to ask questions. Still today questions form the basis of our research, and research is at the core of what makes a university different from any other type of school. Colleges are often at the forefront of groundbreaking discoveries and scientific advancements, making their role in society much more significant than merely that of four-year job training factories. Central to discovery though, is the principle of free expression. In their book, “End of Academic Freedom: The Coming Obliteration of the Core Purpose of the University,” Cleveland State Professors William Bowen and Michael Swartz argue,

“the university is, or should be, the institution in society responsible for conserving the variation of ideas; and that the success with which society produces the knowledge needed to adapt to major social and environmental problems depends vitally upon conserving this variation. The “enemies” are idea-vetting systems that restrict or constrain the variation of ideas that can be used in inquiry, deliberation and action.”

For Bowen, Swartz, and many others, a student’s ability to appreciate the variation of ideas that exist in the world is much more important to their students’ level of comfort, which professors have no effective way of measuring because every student is different. There exist an infinite number of social and politics topics which when discussed honestly could potentially offend someone, but that is the nature of discussion, they argue. Students shouldn’t be able to censor ideas in the classroom just because they feel uncomfortable. We should enter college expecting to be made uncomfortable at some point or another, to be challenged, and to re-evaluate our own biases and orthodoxies because otherwise, college is little more than in-depth rehash of our prior education. A university’s purpose is to serve as an institution of scholarship, undergirded by the principles of free expression, inquiry, and academic freedom. For some, this is a university’s primary and perhaps, only duty.

For others still there is more to the story, a different view of what a university is. If asking questions is the first step to good producing great research, then universities should strive to attract students willing to challenge orthodoxy, to ask difficult questions, and do the work required to answer them. With this reasoning as a premise, it’s often argued that a student body willing to do just that–to produce scholarship worthy of outside consideration–can’t all come from the same background.

From the University of Minnesota’s statement of diversity:

         “In proposing a transformational framework, we are defining diversity as not only a driving force but also a necessary condition for excellence. We are saying that excellence is truly achievable only in an environment that fully supports engagement with diverse cultures and perspectives. An academy of the highest stature, as measured against ideals of both academic excellence and social justice, is one in which excellence and diversity are inextricably intertwined—not either-or, but both-and.”

 Good scholarship requires diversity in race, political views, religion, sex, and so on, because different people have different perspectives, and there is more room for debate between people who disagree. Visible diversity provides intellectual diversity, if only because it’s unlikely that any two people–but especially not two people of different races, religions, or creeds–would view the world quite the same way. This is the academic argument often used to justify affirmative action and the creation of various ethnic and women’s studies departments. Diversity within a student body doesn’t just benefit certain students but the entire university, making these programs a net benefit even when they privilege certain students over others.

Implicit in this argument however, is another statement about what a university ought to be. It is also frequently argued such programs are necessary to right societal wrongs: racism, discrimination, and sexism, among others. Universities aren’t just places of research but symbols of how society should look. Thus, greater representation of minorities on college campuses is not only preferable, but also necessary. Those who argue for greater diversity in college, whether via race-conscious admissions, Latino/Black/Women’s Studies majors and departments, and programs and housing specifically for minority students, do so with an eye towards equality.

Diversity isn’t just important to the scholarship of a university, but inherently good. Striving for a diverse student body and faculty is therefore an important goal independent of the academic benefits of doing so.

Because there is disagreement about what exactly constitutes the purpose of a university, it’s natural that there is also passionate disagreement about what students can and should expect from their colleges. If a university’s purpose is to be the intellectual center of civic life, free expression must be its center. Difficult questions should be met with debate, and diversity should be valued more highly in the context of intellectual differences than in those of race or gender, even though they overlap. Using this framework, it’s difficult to justify intervention by university administrators in the classroom or lab except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Academic freedom is an established, accepted norm and any violation of it is a violation of the entire purpose of a university. For others, intervention by a school administration in the classroom and in other aspects of student life–housing, private organizations, even social media–is not a mere possibility but a necessity.

However, if part of a university’s responsibility is to reflect society as it should be, to not just boast diversity, but actively work to promote inclusivity, then it’s reasonable that students would expect their university to take measures to ensure all students feel welcome. This sentiment seems to be at the core of calls for trigger warnings, explicit racial quotas in admissions and employment, and other efforts to fulfill the university’s role as reflection of societal progress. Following this line of reasoning, college administrations have a duty to create a safe space for students, which either equals or exceeds its duty to cultivate an intellectual space. Looking at it this way, it’s less difficult see why some college campuses seem to be coming apart at the seams right now.

But there is still a third group of students we tend to ignore, and those are the students who are neither involved in the protests nor leading the backlash against them. They’re the students for whom defining the purpose of a university is secondary to well, acquiring a degree. Most undergraduate students don’t really have the luxury of going to school to conduct groundbreaking research, or to protest during classes and work. Most students, whether or not we like to admit it, just want to get their degrees and move on with their lives. I find it almost comical that at a time when more students than ever aren’t graduating, doing so only after 5 or 6 years, or when they do graduate, are doing so with upwards of $20,000 in debt on average, this somehow isn’t the main issue being discussed. Even at my own school–which has itself been the target of outrage because of an offensive frat party theme–the majority of students aren’t engaging one way or another in the debate (which is perhaps also a problem). Of course this really doesn’t make for headlines that are quite as polarizing, or validate the endless thinkpieces about why millennials are all terrible, but it’s just the truth. In spite of this, I still think these debates—when they’re actually debates—are worthwhile.

How people define what a university is has everything to do with what they believe universities should do for their students, what students can expect from their faculty and administration. Though debating the merits of safe spaces and campus protests isn’t bad, it tends to distract from larger issues, particularly that while there used to be a general consensus about the purpose of colleges, that consensus doesn’t exist anymore. Until this is addressed, every other conversation is just ideological performance theater.

Good Faith


A lot of philosophy and social science boils down to the quest for the right standards.

  • What standard of measurement shall we use for overall or even individual well being?
  • What standards of behavior should we hold ourselves and one another to?
  • What standards of justification should we use to undergird our use of the other standards, and how could these standards of justification themselves be justified?

The standard, as an ideal, is supposed to be something set apart from our particular interests, biases, and social status—in short, they’re supposed to be fair, and perhaps even neutral.

I was recently reminded of a metaphor my dad had for standards internal to most bureaucracies: the treadmill.

The ideal is for the treadmill to be used to determine whether or not you qualify for something. A baseline standard of health is set, and everyone gets to be tested against it. It sounds impartial, even egalitarian. It doesn’t matter who you are—so long as you can pass the treadmill test, you qualify.

Unfortunately, the people who run the test are part of the political machinery of the bureaucracy, and it turns out to be quite easy to put their thumb on the scale.

When the powers that be want someone to qualify, they are given a much less taxing experience on the treadmill. Meanwhile, if those powers are determined that you will not qualify, they crank up the speed and leave you on until you die of a heart attack.

Standards can never be neutral, but they can be fair. But only when we’re able to trust one another to act in good faith.


I am fascinated by the questions that philosophers have asked for thousands of years, but amused by how completely worthless all our answers are without a foundation of faith.

Increasingly I’ve come to believe that trust is the most important aspect of faith in this respect. How is coordination and cooperation among millions of strangers possible? A widespread trust. How are we able to learn anything? By trusting in certain authorities and in the authority of certain sources. How has science advanced? By creating specialized communities of inquiry who trust each other enough to learn from each other, and develop standards of evidence that they believe will be employed in good faith.

What you believe is, I think, much less a factor of your theoretical pre-commitments, or your religion, or your politics, than of who you trust. Indeed, your pre-commitments, religion, and politics are largely determined by a combination of who you trusted in the first place and your own judgment.

The so-called culture war is nothing more than the professionalization of political mistrust, the monetization, glamorization, and weaponization of bad faith. We are more likely to trust people we don’t know who espouse beliefs similar to the ones we do, than people we don’t know who disagree with us. If people in the first group are pouring a lot of energy into portraying people with different beliefs as untrustworthy and cynical opportunists, then the already existing divisions in trust will only grow wider.

I like to use the example of anti-vaccine people, something I trust most of my audience will agree is an instance of a group being simply wrong about something. This piece depicts how often this group makes other choices outside the mainstream, opting, for instance, for alternative forms of education for their children. When it comes right down to it, trusting the authority of doctors and medical researchers is conventional. It therefore makes sense that communities who reject big, central conventions in one area (like the standard American education) would also be more likely to mistrust those who are conventionally trusted.

Note that even a fairly nuanced piece on this group is entitled “Vaccine deniers: inside the dumb, dangerous new fad”. The intended audience is clearly not the “deniers”. And any denier who saw this piece would no doubt dismiss it out of hand, without reading it, since it leads off by insulting their intelligence.

Imagine you wanted to persuade a member of this group that they are mistaken about vaccines. Would you lead off by demanding that they prove they even care about their children’s health, or the health of the larger community? Of course not. No amount of “proof” could suffice; trusting that they do care about such things is always a leap of faith, one that can only be given and never earned.

The problem is precisely that they trust sources that spread skeptical narratives about vaccines and the authority of mainstream medicine, while mistrusting the conventional authorities on the subject. Any hostility directed at them from people whose trust is more conventional only reinforces their belief in the bad motives of those people, and their defensive responses surely only reinforce the reciprocal assumption of bad faith on the other side.

I have no solution to such deficits of trust, other than to do the best you can to be worthy of trust yourself—by striving to act in good faith—and to start from an assumption of good faith on the part of others. If you can’t grant this assumption, if you can’t extend your trust, then there is no point to having a conversation at all.

If my father is correct, then we are living through a time when trust in conventional authorities is bleeding away at an alarming rate, with no clear successors in sight. I hope he is wrong, or at least that the trajectory can be reversed or a better one found. Such a path cannot lead anywhere good.

The Whole Truth


There is no way to establish fully secured, neat protocol statements as starting points of the sciences. There is no tabula rasa. We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry-dock and reconstruct it from its best components.

Otto Neurath

If Martin Heidegger brought epistemological holism to Continental Philosophy through the central metaphor of the hermeneutic circle, W. V. Quine did the same for Analytic Philosophy. Part of how he did that was by popularizing the idea of Neurath’s Boat.

The idea is this: we can only appraise the truth-value of some specific assertion in light of a background web of beliefs that provide the necessary context. Thus, it is like we are sailing on a boat which we can scrutinize—and even repair—one plank at a time, but not all at once.

A more straightforward way of saying all of this is that you can only really understand the partial truths available to you in the context of the whole truth. But the whole truth is not available to anyone, and so instead we have beliefs, theories, frameworks.

Neurath’s Boat is a neat metaphor, but I prefer one I encountered from Susan Haack (via Joseph Heath). The idea is that knowledge is like a crossword puzzle. What you fill out has implications for what the likely answers are for nearby slots. But when you figure out what goes into those nearby slots, if you have greater confidence about them, you may need to revise what you put in the initial slot. Thus, the crossword puzzle has this property of a web of answers that are interconnected in important ways.

If we stuck with the idea of a puzzle we could see all of and were merely filling entries out for, it would imply an incrementalism just like the one explicit in Neurath’s Boat. But that would be silly—we do not know what the whole truth looks like. If we did, we would have a great deal more certainty about an enormous number of areas that remain hotly contested.

No, instead it seems to me that the crossword puzzle metaphor works, but we only get pieces of it and attempt to guess at the shape of the rest. Our experience of partial truths is fundamentally projective—based on the parts we encounter we attempt to project a provisional outline of the whole truth, though this outline may itself be quite incomplete.

When Hans-Georg Gadamer argues that the hermeneutic experience, as well as dialectic, are fundamentally about the subject rather than authorial intent, I think he means something like this: guessing at authorial intent is like trying to guess what their projection of the whole truth is. Focusing on the subject, on the other hand, is simply attempting to work out what we think the correct projection of the whole truth is, using what we learn from what we read or the conversation we participate in.

One last observation: the whole truth is not value-neutral; not for humans. Elizabeth Anderson argues this very convincingly—responding, coincidentally, to Susan Haack. She uses the example of The Secret Relationship, a book which apparently uses some very selectively chosen facts in a misleading way. “Although many characters in mysteries lie, the most interesting characters deceive by telling the truth—but only part of it.”

She continues:

How are we to assess the significance of the facts cited in The Secret Relationship? Taken in isolation, they suggest that Jews played a special or disproportionate role in the Atlantic slave system or that their participation was more intense than that of other ethnic and religious groups. But in the context of additional facts, such as those just cited, they show that Jewish participation in the slave system was minor in absolute terms and was no different in intensity from similarly situated ethnic and religious groups. The larger context exposes a serious bias or distortion in the way The Secret Relationship characterizes the significance of Jewish participation in the Atlantic slave system. The characterization is “partial” in the literal sense that it tells only part of the truth needed to assess the significance of the matters at hand. What matters for assessing significance, then, is not just that an account be true but that it in some sense represent the whole truth, that it be unbiased. Furthermore, the fact that an account is biased or distorted is a good reason to reject it, even if it contains only true statements. Haack’s premise (2) is therefore false: to justify acceptance of a theory one must defend its significance, not just its truth.

Our projection of the whole truth has political implications, and so too do the partial truths accessible to us, because of the whole truth that they imply. There is therefore an importantly ethical dimension in how we assemble those partials truths.

Dignity in Whoredom

Even in the modern world of fast, easy access to a limitless cornucopia of pornography, there is still the flash of excitement at nudity or sex in non-pornographic movies or television. Once in high school in the middle of a discussion about an actress appearing nude in some film or another (I recall essentially no specifics of this story), my employer — a man I otherwise respect and am still close to these many years later — offhandedly mentioned he always loses respect for an actress after she appears naked on screen. My unvoiced thought then was “But … why?” I’m still baffled. She’s an actress. She took her clothes off. Where exactly does respect enter into this, or exit?

This isn’t even sex work. The failure to respect porn performers is far more acute. Consider the treatment of the now famous Duke University student when she was outed to be the porn actress, Belle Knox. Damon Linker at The Week referred to her work multiple times as “low, base, and degraded.” But why low, base, or degraded? Kevin Williamson thundered at the National Review that Knox’s

shallowness is unsurprising in that she became a public figure through participation in what may very well be the shallowest form of self-expression short of Rachel Maddow’s Twitter feed: pornography, a sad and hollow species of entertainment the point of which is to provide stimulus during masturbation.

But why sad or hollow? Pamela Hobart (then Stubbart) described how she couldn’t bear the indignity of sharing a digital letterhead with Knox. Hobart wants sex work to be legal (to be sure!) but she

can’t even implicitly condone rampant, publicized promiscuity (which even on camera and for money constitutes rampant promiscuity nonetheless). Keeping your experiments in sexual growth small and private helps to limit their potential to damage both yourself and our normative socio-sexual frameworks.

Liberty yes, but there shall be no dignity. At least she gestures toward something worthwhile actually being threatened. But it is the normativity of our socio-sexual frameworks that I want to contest.

Matters worsen dramatically when we move from the legal but shamed forms of sex work (porn, stripping) to banned and shamed forms (full service sex work). Reason writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown has helpfully catalogued the cases of police officers raping and assaulting sex workers in the US in just the last year. The prohibition of full service sex work creates conditions of exploitation, abuse, and rape apology. The sex worker can be evicted from her home, lose custody of her children, be denied “mainstream” employment opportunities, lose the benefit of the doubt before the law and public opinion, and be shunned by friends and family members, which in addition to its intrinsic emotional costs also robs her of a natural social support network. (I’ll use mostly feminine pronouns throughout, though I by no means wish to deny the validity of male, trans, or other sex workers).

For the rest of this essay I take it as given that full service sex work should be fully decriminalized. There’s some inconsistency in what “decriminalization” means, but I mean this: the voluntary exchange of sex for money by adults should be neither prohibited by law nor onerously regulated or taxed by law. Call this liberalization. The reasons follow classical black market logic and they are overwhelming. What I want to explore instead is the social esteem of sex workers. Prohibition itself could never be sustained without widespread stigmatization of sex workers. And any decriminalizing reforms will fail to eradicate the exploitation associated with sex work if they go unaccompanied by a widespread cultural shift toward esteem for the sex worker. Of course the legal and the cultural feed back into one another, so that no reevaluation of the dignity of the sex worker may be completed without liberalization, yet some cultural reevaluation must take place before any liberalization can occur.

A Sexual Dignity

In the Future of Feminist Liberalism, philosopher Martha Nussbaum discusses how human beings have dignity though we are mortal and profoundly needy.

For Kant, human dignity and our moral capacity, dignity’s source, are radically separate from the natural world. Morality certainly has the task of providing for human neediness, but the idea that we are at bottom split beings, both rational persons and animal dwellers in the world of nature, never ceases to influence Kant’s way of thinking about how these deliberations about our needs will go.

What’s wrong with the split? Quite a lot. First, it ignores the fact that our dignity just is the dignity of a certain sort of animal. It is the animal sort of dignity, and that very sort of dignity could not be possessed by a being who was not mortal and vulnerable, just as the beauty of a cherry tree in bloom could not be possessed by a diamond. If it makes sense to think of God as having dignity (I’m not sure — magnificence and awe-inspiringness seem more appropriate attributes), it is emphatically not dignity of that type. Second, the split wrongly denies that animality can itself have a dignity; thus it leads us to slight aspects of our own lives that have worth, and to distort our relation to the other animals.

We are not timeless gods trapped within corporeal bodies; we are biological through and through. Part of that biology is sexual desire. There is nothing low, base, degraded, sad, or hollow about this. Our sexual nature has as much worth as our other characteristic needs for food, shelter, fellowship, play, work, transcendence, and so on, and it is consistent with human dignity properly understood. But sexual desire is not merely (or even mostly) physical. The particular kind of animal we are is social and rational, and sexuality has important social and intellectual aspects in addition to the physical.

Sexuality is not just a procreative and biological impulse. We talk about sex, read about it (fiction and nonfiction), and yes, we like to watch it. Location, atmosphere, and our moods affect how we perceive and enjoy sex. Sex often involves a partner (at least one) and it’s a central component of those relationships. We learn about sex, explore and develop our sexualities and our erotic imaginations, and we play. Our dignity is the dignity of a sexual animal, and the intrinsic worth of our sexuality should not be slighted.

Sexual Diversity

Skeptics will no doubt acknowledge that the right kind of sexual behavior is indeed dignified but sex work lies outside this circumscribed realm. But this narrow view relies on a singular set of values with a singular prescription for sexuality. But our values, conceptions of the good life, and ideas about sex are inevitably plural. Individuality, diversity, and experiments in living should be respected in sexual matters absent strong justification to do otherwise. A good guide is John Stuart Mill’s principle that coercion on an individual is only justified when it prevents harm to others, keeping in mind — as Mill did — that public shame is a species of coercion. A comparison with religious differences is apt: when we interact with people of alternative faiths in the public square, we treat them as equals deserving our respect, despite the fact that many would hold the spiritual stakes to be far higher in the case of religious differences than sexual differences.

What has been commonly thought of as deviant is actually widespread (see the figure). And while I haven’t seen any data on how common it is to fantasize about being paid for sex, it seems likely to be well north of zero. Probably one reason why sex workers face such stigma is the inability for many people to see themselves walking a mile in a sex worker’s shoes. Sex workers are seen as just immoral (as some on the religious right might contend) or as having necessarily been coerced (as many radical feminists contend). It is thought that no morally upright woman in possession of her full, informed agency could possibly choose to do sex work. But this ignores the possibility that some women do not place special emotional attachment to sex. It certainly ignores the possibility that some women enjoy sex work or find it fulfilling. Indeed, “indoor” sex work (comprising most sex work, to be contrasted with work directly from the street) does not seem to be associated with adverse psychological consequences, as summarized by sociologist Ronald Weitzer (emphases in original, citations omitted).

Research on streetwalkers and call girls in California and legal brothel workers in Nevada found that 97% of the call girls reported an increase in self-esteem after they began working in prostitution, compared with 50% of the brothel workers but only 8% of the streetwalkers. Call girls expressed positive views of their work; brothel workers were general satisfied with their work; but street prostitutes evaluated their work more negatively. Similarly, a study of indoor prostitutes (most of whom work in bars) in a Midwestern city in the United States found that three-quarters of them felt that their life had improved after entering prostitution (the remainder reported no change; none said it was worse than before); more than half said that they generally enjoy their work. In The Netherlands, three-quarters of indoor workers report that they enjoy their work. Research on 95 call girls in Sydney, Australia found that they were generally emotionally healthy. All of the escorts studied by Foltz took “pride in their profession” and viewed themselves as “morally superior” to others: “they consider women who are not ‘in the life’ to be throwing away woman’s major source of power and control [sexual capital], while they as prostitutes are using it to their own advantage as well as for the benefit of society.” And an Australian study found that half of call girls and brothel workers felt that their work as a “major source of satisfaction” in their lives, while 7 out of 10 said they would “definitely choose” this work if they had it to do over again. Other studies of indoor work report that the workers felt the job had at least some positive effect on their lives or believed that they were providing a valuable service.

The differences between street work and indoor work arise for familiar reasons. Street sex workers typically come from worse socio-economic conditions, and are more likely to have psychological and drug-related problems. They are more likely to come to sex work out of desperation than from genuinely euvoluntary choice. But “more likely” does not mean “necessarily in every case”. Individual circumstances are unique. Laura Agustin demonstrates this vividly with interviews of hard-scrabble migrant sex workers in Europe, many of whom express such “privileged class” motivations as wanderlust and adventure. Even with sex workers who have come from adverse conditions, disdain and interference are counterproductive. Sex work is a choice, even when background conditions are dire, and refusing to recognize that choice for what it is robs street sex workers of their agency.

The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson contrasts pity with compassion.

One might argue that the concern expressed by equality of fortune is simple humanitarian compassion, not contemptuous pity. We must be clear about the difference. Compassion is based on an awareness of suffering, an intrinsic condition of a person. Pity, by contrast, is aroused by a comparison of the observer’s condition with the condition of the object of pity. Its characteristic judgment is not “she is badly off” but “she is worse off than me.” When the conditions being compared are internal states in which people take pride, pity’s thought is “she is sadly inferior to me.” Compassion and pity can both move a person to act benevolently, but only pity is condescending.

Those who come to sex work out of desperation, like those who choose any job out of severe need, deserve compassion. The best way to provide this is to respect them and their choices, resist making facile assumptions, and work toward a society where those hardest on their luck can achieve the capabilities sufficient to live full lives worthy of human dignity.

Does the sex worker lifestyle — by the example it sets — hinder the advancement of sex and gender equality? Sex work may serve the patriarchy by inundating society with images of degraded women enjoying their own degradation (in pornography), and perpetuating the idea of women as mere sexual objects. Feminist Susan Brison makes this argument (in this volume) by making an analogy to race.

Suppose there were “slave auction” clubs where some blacks allowed themselves to be brutalized and degraded for the pleasure of their white customers. Suppose the black “performers” determined that, given the options, it was in their best interest to make money in this way. Their financial gain – imagine that they are highly paid – more than compensates for the social harm to them as individuals of being subjected to a slightly increased risk (resulting from the prevalence of such clubs) of being degraded and brutalized outside their workplace. Some of them even enjoy the work, having a level of ironic detachment that enables them to view their customers as pathetic or contemptible. Some, who don’t actually enjoy their work, don’t suffer distress, since they manage to dissociate during it. Others are distressed by it, but they have determined that the financial benefit outweighs the psychic and physical pain. For those blacks who did not work in the clubs, however, there would be nothing that compensated for their slightly increased risk of being degraded and brutalized as a result of it. They would be better off if the clubs did not exist. The work done by the blacks in the clubs would make it harder for other blacks to live their lives free of fear.

I take this analogy seriously. I believe that macro-scale patterns of sex- and gender-injustice obtain from individual beliefs, attitudes, and acts. That said, the analogy could only really work for “degrading” sexual acts, and run-of-the-mill sex work includes nothing of the kind. This argument has no sting for self-confident sex workers and non-sexist clients who can have sex with a person and still consider her a fully dignified equal.

But even for “degrading” sexual acts, there is a strong disanalogy between sexuality and race relations. Sexuality is playful, and not infrequently involves consciously brushing up against taboos, and subverting or parodying socially expected roles and power structures. Consider again the sexual fantasies (of men and women, it should be noted) listed in the figure. If Brison’s fears were warranted, the increasing ubiquity of porn of all varieties and the undiminished presence of full service sex workers in the modern world would exert some downward pressure on women’s social standing. Brison’s hypothesis at best exists in tension with a world of greater gender-egalitarianism.

Perhaps sex workers enable the vice of others, especially romantically committed persons. This would admittedly be a pathetic argument to include in a debate about legalization. But to take seriously the idea of normalization — what I advocate here — we should have some sense that sex work deserves an inconspicuous place in the prospering polis of virtuous citizens. Heterogeneity of experience is again illuminating. People desire the services of sex workers for a wide variety of reasons at different parts of their lives. The stereotypical married couple has no need for full service sex work, but not all married couples fit the stereotype. Single folks may give custom to sex workers for all kinds of reasons, from the whimsical to the profound. As examples of the latter, consider a young person ready to ship off for war (or some other dangerous mission) who has never had sex; or a person with a disability that sharply reduces their chances of finding a romantic partner (despite our egalitarian sentiments); or a person who, for whatever idiosyncratic reason, can only find sexual satisfaction in rare fetishes. These individuals do not need pity. But sexual fulfillment is a legitimate desire, and compassion dictates we allow these individuals to find consenting sexual partners whether money changes hands or not. No additional social burdens should be imposed on them. But the point of normalization is that reproach is inappropriate even for the bored, the curious, and the adventurous.

Sex workers are as capable as members of any profession to lead lives of virtue and self-respect. They can view their clients as ends in themselves instead of so many paychecks. But they can also discern when their clients deserve to be treated as mere means. There is no reason to believe sex workers cannot be responsible members of their communities as well as any other professionals or businesspersons. Sex workers are entrepreneurs, and the successful ones must embody all the bourgeois virtues of the commercial world. Like the rest of us, sex workers can and do extend their awareness beyond their own narrow concerns. Their very stigmatization has forced them to hone the virtue of solidarity. The existence of organizations like the Sex Worker Outreach Project, platforms like Tits & Sass, and the thriving community of sex workers on Twitter illustrate the political virtues of actively working for a better world.

The strongest evidence that sex workers and their enterprises are worthy of our respect comes from their own passionate, articulate, and intelligent voices. Indeed I hesitated to write this essay because sex workers themselves have no problem defending their own dignity. If only we would pay attention.


The Hermeneutic of the Dangerous Question


In a  world where theory and practice are in ever-greater harmony, can there be such a thing as a dangerous question?

Outside of a Lovecraft story, the very idea seems bewildering. How can questions be dangerous? Dangerous how? Dangerous to whom?

I believe there is such a thing. In what follows I will discuss two types of dangerous question, and the vague boundary that separates them. I will flesh out the characteristics of knowledge that make such dangers not only possible, but unavoidable.

Two Types of Dangerous Question

The last time I discussed this matter, I gave an example I felt was uncontroversially evil—“What should be done about the Jewish problem?”

I could have had an even more forward question, such as “how are we going to eradicate the Jews?” This is the first type of dangerous question—the sort resting on morally monstrous foundations and seeking to pursue their implications without restraint. In this scenario, using the is-ought distinction as a cover would be especially heinous, but oddly enough it seems that people are rarely fooled when the proposed “is” is so extreme.

Nagging that “it is merely a factual question, we don’t have to suggest we ought to eradicate the Jews” does not really convince anyone, except perhaps for those who already agree with the morally monstrous premises and aren’t yet willing to openly say so.

It may seem that we needn’t concern ourselves with such questions at all. But to do so would be to exhibit a remarkable degree of short-term memory. On the scale of history, it was not so long ago that America had Jim Crow laws, internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, and, of course, slavery. Nor was it long ago that a country considered to be at the heart of advanced western civilization created factories of death for the precise purpose of exterminating the Jews and other groups considered undesirable. We should never, ever forget that questions that seem unaskable now can always be brought back into play if political circumstances change, and indeed were asked in very recent history.

Which brings us to the second type of dangerous question—those that share many premises with more innocent or harmless questions but point towards potentially dangerous answers. The larger part of the danger comes from their connection to the first type of question—perhaps a line of inquiry carries with it the potential to make certain premises acceptable that were not beforehand. And perhaps those newly acceptable premises will bring us a few steps closer to a situation where the first type of dangerous question can be openly asked.

The first type of question—which let’s simply refer to as the immoral question—should naturally be resisted with all the resources we can bring to bear against it. We should apply social sanctions against those who insist on pursuing them, deny them positions within organizations which can assist them in their line of inquiry. Socially isolate them to the greatest extent possible.

The second type of question, however—which we can call the volatile question—cannot be avoided entirely. Depending on the particular question, it may well be that we shouldn’t avoid it. Consider the American federal system. Some have argued that it is inherently unstable, compared to parliaments. Certainly, this is an important and central concern. So what makes it volatile?

For one thing, the degree of precision available to us for answering the question is, unfortunately, inadequate to the task. In a complex system, very small errors can have enormous consequences. Even if the best evidence we have points to the greater stability of parliamentary systems in general, we cannot with sufficient precision demonstrate that it would definitely be stable or take roots at all in America. To begin building a coalition around this goal, therefore, is a very risky proposition.

Nevertheless, the stability of our system of government is obviously an important question, and one that needs to be carefully investigated. To claim that no one should ask after it because some might be overhasty in applying the answers is a logic that would bind us from asking far, far too many important questions.

One way to think of these questions is in terms of risk and expected value. The combination of the probability and magnitude of the outcomes an immoral question opens the door to give it a sharply negative expected value. Volatile questions have many more positive outcomes and a much lower risk of the negative ones—but part of that risk is constituted by the potential they create for asking immoral questions. For instance, one can imagine that certain inquiries about the biology of human beings create the possibility of drawing conclusions which ultimately make ethnic cleansing a more acceptable thought to entertain.

If we can distinguish among the types of questions by recourse to risk, it is uncertainty that creates boundary cases. And uncertainty looms very large, in as much as we are dealing with complex systems and the outcomes of specific choices are basically impossible to see beyond a few meager steps. And so there are many questions that might be either immoral or volatile, but also ones that might be harmless or volatile—even ones that might be immoral or harmless. Such boundary cases are what make these categories vague in the formal sense; and no amount of increased precision can resolve these boundary cases, as they are intrinsic to the concepts themselves.

To summarize, we can say that all questions exist on some spectrum of risk, and that irreducible uncertainty makes it hard to place many questions on that spectrum in any sort of precise way. In terms of ideal types, we can speak of high risk immoral questions, medium risk volatile questions, and low risk harmless questions.

The trouble with this way of thinking of course is that we tend to equate high risk with high rewards. But that is not the case here. Immoral questions can be thought of as being high risk with zero payoffs at best, genocide-as-loss at worse.

The Hermeneutic Question

At the end of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II asked what is certainly a volatile question within the Catholic Church: what is the relationship between the wrongs committed by the Church in the past and the present Church? To what extent is a wrong ever perpetrated by the Church as opposed to simply individuals who form a part of “the community of the baptized”? How should one even approach such a question, fraught with historical as well as theological and ethical presumptions?

Their answer was provided in the document Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past. The sins of the past that they take responsible for in this document include the treatment of the Jewish people throughout the history of Christianity, even going as far as to ask whether the attitude of Christians towards Jews paved the way for the Nazi atrocity.

For their hermeneutics they drew entirely on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. In it he asserts, among other things, the primacy of the question over the answer in our pursuit of understanding. He also puts prejudice (that is, prejudgement) at the center of our ability to interpret and understand. He asked:

Thus we can formulate the fundamental epistemological question for a truly historical hermeneutics as follows: what is the ground of the legitimacy of prejudices? What distinguishes legitimate prejudices from the countless others which it is the undeniable task of critical reason to overcome?

The answer, in Memory and Reconciliation, is as follows:

a certain common belonging of interpreter and interpreted must be recognized without which no bond and no communication could exist between past and present. This communicative bond is based on the fact that every human being, whether of yesterday or of today, is situated in a complex of historical relationships, and in order to live these relationships, the mediation of language is necessary, a mediation which itself is always historically determined. Everybody belongs to history! Bringing to light this communality between interpreter and the object of interpretation – which is reached through the multiple forms by which the past leaves evidence of itself (texts, monuments, traditions, etc.) – means judging both the accuracy of possible correspondences and possible difficulties of communication between past and present, as indicated by one’s own understanding of the past words and events. This requires taking into account the questions which motivate the research and their effect on the answers which are found, the living context in which the work is undertaken, and the interpreting community whose language is spoken and to whom one intends to speak. For this purpose, it is necessary that the pre-understanding – which is part of every act of interpretation – be as reflective and conscious as possible, in order to measure and moderate its real effect on the interpretative process.

Emphasis added by me.

Our interpretation of something depends a great deal on what we bring to it—including why we are attempting to interpret it at all. Unlike the German idealists and historicists, Gadamer did not believe that we are merely trapped within our own path-dependency here. Instead, he believes that there are legitimate prejudices which are necessary for understanding, and illegitimate ones which distort our understanding.

The Catholic Church’s approach, drawing on Gadamer, was to attempt to bring out the prejudices that are in play in order to enter them into dialectic directly. As fellow Sweet Talker David put it:

Well, that was the entire point of my paper, which had failed to convince the Harvard University types: we don’t really know history. I did not go so far as to radicalize my view inasmuch as to say that we construct history wholesale, but it is certainly true that we arrange data within a certain framework until we are pleased with the outcome.

A healthy skepticism of the self is thereby necessary. What am I up to? Can I identify my biases? What are my external influences? Why is this emotionally significant to me? Moreover, when it comes to historical realities (for a lack of a better term), an academic humility is very helpful, namely that we don’t know very much at all, and we know that we don’t know very much at all because we don’t have much physical evidence, and we are, most assuredly, arranging evidence as taught, not as is obvious. We make a convincing case, that is all.

This is important, because it is very rarely the question as such that is immoral or volatile. Rather, it is the context the question is asked in, the background that the question brings with it, the tight inner logic between the situation and the question which pull towards particular answers and political responses to those answers.

Even the most seemingly immoral of questions can be virtuous in the right context. If we are asking “how would you exterminate the Jews?” but the broader context is not government policy but rather the war with the Third Reich, and attempting to figure out what they are up to in order to sabotage it, the question takes on a rather different character.

All of this gets at why we must not be dogmatic about distinguishing questions of fact with questions of morality. All questions of fact are asked because we believe there is some reason we ought to be asking them. All answers offered to such questions are essentially answers we believe people ought to believe. And all of this is always tied up in larger political and moral questions in a way that can never be separated in practice, even if they can be treated separately in theory.

The Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric of Dangerous Questions

The hermeneutic question is always answered by recourse to politics, ethics, and rhetoric. Politics, because we are only capable of knowing together and because what we think we know always has joint implications beyond the individual. Ethics, because to know together means being able to trust one another, and also because becoming authoritative in a field carries with it institutional force that can be abused, as well as many others reasons. Rhetoric, because ultimately knowledge and understanding boil down to conversation and persuasion. As David put this latter point, “we make a convincing case, that is all.”

David also described what is political in this process:

He asked, “What do you do with history?”

Without thinking, I blurted out, “I just ignore it,” which is true, in one sense because of my deep respect for the science of linguistics, but not quite right, again, out of a deep respect for post-modern philosophical currents. What I was getting after was the primary importance of community in interpretation, but I didn’t say as much, so the entire room burst into laughter. I tried salvaging my point, but, you know how these things go.

Emphasis added by me.

When post-modernists say that all knowledge occurs within a community of rhetoric, most modernists simply smell relativism or anti-realism and run screaming (sometimes to return with a mob and torches). But there’s nothing anti-realist about it at all; it’s simply a characteristic of our knowledge stemming by necessity from specialization and the sheer scope of how much is known collectively compared to what can be known individually.

This is why the ethics of it is tied inseparably to the politics of it. Specialization of knowledge requires trust; in this way faith undergirds modern science as much as pre-modern theology. Trust can be betrayed, as in the vice of infidelity. But trust can also be misplaced, as in the vice of imprudence—a vice in the one doing the trusting.

I have seen several people today pursuing volatile questions and believing it to be an act of courage. This is true, but I think they only see part of the picture. So far as I can tell, in their eyes the courage is required because of the risk of social sanctions. From my point of view, the courage is required not only for this narrowly prudent concern, but also because, as I said, there is a larger social risk involved in those questions.

If you believe they are none the less important questions, it takes courage to proceed. It is like attempting to cross an unreliable bridge over a deep valley, but with a group of people you care about following behind you, rather than alone. If the destination is important enough and the alternate paths too few or too far, it may still be worth the risk.

My criticism of impolitic arguments, therefore, is not an argument that volatile questions should never be asked. Instead, it is an argument that prudence matters here, and not just in the sense of narrow self-concern against social sanctions. But a broader prudence, one in which your connection to other people is acknowledged and the risks of your undertakings managed responsibly.

Which brings us to rhetoric.

Garett Jones, so often my explicit or implied interlocutor on these matters, indicates I’m supporting some kind of Noble Lie story:

I will say right now that I do not believe in Noble Lies. Garett offers a possible alternative:

There may be something to this.

Consider the example of the post in question: libertarians who simply insist that a single vote can’t sway a big election. What was I getting at by calling out this particular phenomena?

It seems to me troubling that so many Americans make the idea that a vote “makes a difference” so central to their faith in democracy. I actually happen to think democracy, and the one we’ve got, is among the best forms of governance we can hope for in this fallen world of ours. As such I would like to substitute this belief for a different story of the legitimacy of these institutions, something that would obviously take a great deal more space than I could devote to it here. One doesn’t have to agree with my prejudices in this regard to agree that we should seek to improve our politics rather than worsen them—whatever you might take that to mean.

Well, it seems to me that libertarians who hammer on this point about the margin of victory in elections have no interest in improving our politics. Many are quite proud of this fact. It’s not so much that I think this simple, mathematical fact of voting should not be made at all. It’s the context, the way they make it, that turns it into something intentionally volatile. They have found a vulnerability in people’s faith and gone for it for no other purpose than dispelling that faith, or perhaps feeling satisfied with being right. But if people in America lose faith in democracy entirely, the results are highly unlikely to be good for much of anyone. Libertarians included.

The rhetoric of negation is a poison of our times, levied by imprudent, spoiled children who do not realize how good they have it, and haven’t the courage or the patience to work towards actually addressing the very real problems that exist. The latter cannot be done if we reject authority entirely, because without trust in authoritative sources we cannot build the knowledge required to face any sufficiently challenging task.

To Salvage or to Sever

I don’t think Schelling points (Garett’s “Focal Points”) is exactly the right metaphor here, though they undoubtedly play a role. But communication and rhetoric are far too central to this. I have in mind something more like an attractor, similar but not the same as an equilibrium in comparative statics. A great deal of variation in politics, ethics, and rhetoric may be possible that still keeps us circling that specific attractor.

However, for some variations in politics, ethics, or rhetoric, we may get knocked off course from that attractor entirely, with no way back. If there’s another fairly similar one “nearby” this may be only a moderate change. But of course that’s not always the case. And the transition could be quite violent in any case.

Now, this sounds like a very conservative way of looking at things, I’m sure. But I’m not saying that revolution is categorically impermissible. I’m saying that we need to take responsibility for the implications of what we do and what we ask. It’s clear to me that the libertarians I criticize really believe that America’s political order is illegitimate and needs to be torn down and replaced. But if that is so, their life choices seem, to me, to be quite irresponsible—they continue to pay taxes and enjoy the benefits of that political order. If ethics demands revolutionary politics, perhaps they ought to behave a little less like every other conventionally middle class American and a little more like revolutionaries?

I think their revolutionary politics is misplaced, but I am more troubled by their willingness to erode the faith in what we have without doing much of anything to pave the way for anything better.

Garett’s example—the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon—was interesting to me, especially when compared to David’s post on Leviticus:

In secular universities, and those religious universities whose worldview is formed by Nineteenth Century Continental philosophy, the minimalist Documentary Hypothesis is still taught as de rigueur, a hypothesis which posits that the books of Moses, especially the Levitical material, were fabricated by a power-mongering priestly caste during the Judahite exile in Babylon during the Fifth Century BCE. I am under the impression that this hypothesis is presented as ironclad secular scholarship, i.e., the truth, when it is essentially the telos of the Sacramentarian movement which came to dominate Enlightenment Era religiosity.

Religious fundamentalism, deeply offended by this radical minimalism, developed a response which became reflexively maximalist, in defiance of all evidence (even internal evidence) to the contrary, namely that Moses wrote every jot and tiddle of his five scrolls somewhere between 1550 BCE and 1440 BCE, and never shall a true Christian vary from that view lest he deny the efficacy of the Word of God.

David speaks of fundamentalists, but in fact there are two. There are those for whom, as Garett said of the Mormons, to simply ask some volatile questions is a sign of apostasy. Perhaps even proof of it!

But then there are those whose dogmatic embrace of a cynical hermeneutics, a hermeneutic of suspicion, allows no other answer than that Leviticus was a cold, calculated Noble Lie.

David, a believer himself, nevertheless argues that we ought to proceed with an evidence-based approach. He defends, among other things, the use of the science of linguistics in order to attempt to “make a convincing case.”

To return to Memory and Reconciliation, it’s clear that the official of the Church believed that all the tools of the historian should be brought to bear in determining what wrongs were committed by the Church in the past:

What are the conditions for a correct interpretation of the past from the point of view of historical knowledge? To determine these, we must take account of the complexity of the relationship between the subject who interprets and the object from the past which is interpreted. First, their mutual extraneousness must be emphasized. Events or words of the past are, above all, “past.” As such they are not completely reducible to the framework of the present, but possess an objective density and complexity that prevent them from being ordered in a solely functional way for present interests. It is necessary, therefore, to approach them by means of an historical-critical investigation that aims at using all of the information available, with a view to a reconstruction of the environment, of the ways of thinking, of the conditions and the living dynamic in which those events and those words are placed, in order, in such a way, to ascertain the contents and the challenges that – precisely in their diversity – they propose to our present time.

It seems to me that the most hardy equilibriums of politics-ethics-rhetoric are capable of dealing with an enormous number of volatile questions without blowing themselves up. Secular people too often underestimate religion this way. Garett’s comments on Mormonism (which may very well suffer from the sort of fundamentalism that David encountered on the subject of Leviticus) put me in mind of a counter-example: the career of Lorenzo Valla.

Valla is most famous for proving that the Donation of Constantine was a fraud, something very politically inconvenient for the Vatican’s wordly aspirations. He was able to do so because of political cover from a king, it is true. And the regime of Pope Eugenius IV certainly made trouble for him, especially when he went on to question the provenance of the Apostles’ Creed.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church did not dissolve in the face of his inquiries, and in fact Eugenius IV’s successor actually appointed Valla as papal secretary. Moreover, the techniques employed by Valla were spread most widely, in the end, by Jesuit schools.

In those days the volatility of questions was able to be kept under control to some extent because of how easy it was to restrict who entered the conversation. Valla entered at a moment when Renaissance humanism suddenly expanded the number of participants, but ultimately the Church and other institutions adapted to this new reality.

The printing press resulted in a major break, and not on purpose, either. If Martin Luther’s 95 Theses hadn’t done the early printing press equivalent of going viral, it’s highly likely he would have simply lived his days as a fairly successful member of the Catholic Church. Restricted to a small circle of fellow scholars, his arguments were much less volatile than when they were made available to the public at large.

Restriction is obviously no longer a viable strategy, and both modern science and modern standards of living are possible because of the drastic reduction in such restrictions. So not only is restriction unavailable, it’s not something we should pursue even if it was available.

For that reason, the burden on our ethics is heavier than ever. Not only to be trustworthy and to have trust in others, but to have prudence in how we approach our questions and in the rhetoric of our answers, and to have the courage to pursue the inquiries and actions worth pursuing once we have appraised the dangers.

Great openness in our conversations requires greater responsibility from ever more people. I was once very optimistic about how this would play out; I am less so lately. But I will continue to argue for greater responsibility in this area, and I will do my best to show people that they can trust me to argue in good faith.

I would encourage you to do the same.

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The Private Life is Dead In New York State

It seems like only yesterday I went to the marketplace to pick a health insurance plan that was right for me and my family. Already, it was tricky because New York State had some cockamamie law in place that prevented insurance companies from underselling a certain level-benefit, in order to not compete against the state subsidized “Healthy NY” program, which was designed, in effect, for pregnant teenagers in New York City and Albany.

Despite that, I remember the good ole days, when I had, I think, nine different plans to choose from. Even though I am a sole proprietor, I was able to join a group through the chamber of commerce, which spread morbidity risk, you see, lowering costs.

The giant gavel of Spring 2010 struck. Almost immediately, cost increases accelerated until, after a few short years, the plans were double in price. Last year, the law forced me out of my group because I am a sole proprietor. I joined the New York State co-op because it had the most affordable plan. The premiums were somewhat less than before, but the deductible was sky-high, and the care was less amenable to my needs.

In other words, instead of a suite of plans to choose from, I was forced into one. I mean, I could conceivably have chosen a different plan, but the price was, shall we say, prohibitive.

I just received a letter from the co-op announcing that the New York State Insurance Commission is forcing them to close at the end of November 2015, and that I should look for a new plan for December of 2015 before I go through the dreaded Exchange to pick a plan for 2016. Something about a $250 million debt and sick people in Upstate New York. I don’t live in Upstate New York. I live in Western New York.

What a disaster.

How did this happen? Why can’t I just go get health care and pay for it myself? Why can’t I negotiate with an insurance company for a plan that suits my family’s needs? I was doing just fine in the cold, cruel, unprotected marketplace before. What’s going on?

Why bother? Just tell me where to sign. Here, take my stuff. What do you want me to do? Just tell me, OK? I’m exhausted. I give up. Which line do I shuffle toward? Should I look you in the eyes, in make-believe fashion, or should I keep my eyes to the ground like a good little citizen?

Just to spell it out so there’s no misunderstanding: I’m mourning the state’s subsuming a large chunk of my manhood unto itself.

Exemptions, ladies and gentlemen, did not apply to the individual market, for obvious political reasons. How much longer are those exemptions from which you currently benefit going to hold back the tides of the marketplace?

No worries, though, my friends. Pretty soon, the metric for health care will be reduced to one thing: not customer satisfaction, not affordability, not availability, not quality, but efficiency.

And it will be efficient.

serf and lord