A reply to Ryan Long on feminism

Ryan Long, who has recently begun contributing to these pages, took issue a while back to my oblique defense of feminism. As a welcoming gesture, I thought I would take the opportunity to offer a reply. By my count, Ryan raised about five concerns. I’ll number these just to help myself keep track. One. I suggest that feminism is an ideological lens, but

Unfortunately, Crider never mentions why this particular lens is a better or more valuable lens than any other. So while it may be true that seeing the world through feminist eyes brings certain issues into sharper focus, the reader is left alone to wonder whether the view we end up with is more reflective of reality or less.

To this first charge, I simply plead guilty. My defense of feminism was “oblique” because the post was actually about the structure and sociology of ideology generally, and feminism was just my primary example. In my original post, I mentioned one day I would write a proper Why I Am a Liberal Feminist essay. Alas dear readers, today is still not that day, but some hints of that future endeavor will be given below. Two.

[Feminism] which has come to mean not merely gender equality, but also a whole host of additional values. For example, the Feminist Women’s Health Center lists among its core values a commitment “to reproductive freedom and justice,” i.e. the belief that aborting a human fetus is a human right. If that were the only feminist organization that grouped pro-life abortion values in with broader feminism, then we might disregard it as an outlier – but it’s not. The message is clear: Women who oppose abortion, but support gender equality simply aren’t feminists.

This is really a particular instance of point #3 below, but it’s important enough to warrant its own treatment. First, Ryan acknowledges that there are at least some self-describing feminists who also oppose abortion. But he dismisses these as outliers. This dismissal is inappropriate, but more on that below.

More importantly, reproductive freedom generally and the freedom to terminate unwanted pregnancies specifically is enormously important to my own feminism. First, I am a naturalist, a physicalist, or whatever your preferred term is for someone who steadfastly refuses to avail himself to supernatural explanations. The vast majority of abortions occur before the third trimester, before any reasonable non-magical conception of a human soul can possibly take root. I readily grant that the ethics of third trimester abortion gets considerably more complicated, as the morally salient physiological line between a third trimester fetus and a “fourth trimester” infant out of the womb is quite blurry.

But even here, the notion that a woman may be forced to carry a pregnancy to term even for the sake of a fully viable fetus strikes against strong intuitions we have about bodily autonomy. Few people would condone forcing Jordan to undergo invasive surgery to provide an organ replacement for Taylor, even if Jordan had the organ to spare, and even if Taylor were a close family member whose life was in danger. This intuition also seems pretty robust: we require consent for virtually risk-free procedures like blood siphoning (“donation” in the consensual case) and even for literally risk-free procedures like posthumous organ harvesting. Restricting a woman’s freedom to abort an unwanted pregnancy is a rather conspicuous exception to the otherwise widely accepted value of bodily autonomy, and it’s an exception that specifically impacts women to their disadvantage. To suggest, as Ryan appears to, that abortion rights are beside the point of gender equality is to entirely misunderstand the issue. This holds even if one’s countervailing ethical concerns still commit one to oppose abortion. One must at the very least see opposition to abortion as in tension with gender equality and bodily autonomy.

The issue extends beyond bodily autonomy with respect to the surgical procedure itself. But I will outsource this to Laurie Rice (one of those libertarian feminists Ryan dismisses as an outlier):

[In addition to controlled substances, we] already know the dangers of smoking and alcohol. What if Loertscher had ingested shellfish, raw eggs, raw milk, soft cheeses, hot dogs, lots of caffeine, or Vitamin A? What about prescription drugs like sleeping pills or blood thinners?

What about activities that are dangerous to a pregnancy such as sitting in a sauna, running, bicycling, horseback riding, or scuba diving? Should we imprison women who threaten their pregnancies in these ways?

A sexually active woman can unknowingly become pregnant at any time. The logic of personhood laws should forbid all women from taking these substances or participating in these activities, so as to prevent her from unknowingly harming her new child.

Personhood laws treat women’s bodies not as their own, but as objects: incubators and environments for a separate being. They redirect the purpose of a woman’s life away from her volition and submit her to her reproductive function. She becomes defined by her biology; by her sex. It is the very definition of sexism.

Again, it is completely intuitive that feminists would seek to procure and defend reproductive freedom – including abortion – precisely because of its importance for sex and gender equality. Men simply do not face any issue where their bodily integrity is comparably questioned and compromised. Reproductive freedom is not an extraneous element of feminism, even if particular feminists may have their own particular beliefs or concerns about these freedoms.

Three. Ryan never says this outright, but he seems to take issue with the fact that feminists are not libertarians.

Feminists are expected to favor Title 9 legislation. Feminists are expected to favor mandatory and ever-increasing amounts of maternity leave at an employer’s or government’s expense. Feminists are expected to favor government-provided day care. We need not conduct a deep dive into each of these issues to simply note that feminism is often articulated as a package-deal. If you’re not all-in, you’re not a feminist. (Unless, of course, the over-arching goal of ideological feminism is not gender equality at all.)

Ryan is a libertarian, if I’m not mistaken. Most people – including most feminists – are not. Those wayward souls who do not identify as libertarians do not share the distinctive libertarian allergy to government. Non-libertarian (i.e., most) feminists use government because to them government is just another tool to effect change.

Now look at Ryan’s specific policies again. If you take away the government allergy for a moment, you see these issues as reasonable things for feminists qua sex- and gender-egalitarians to pursue. Title 9 is explicitly about providing equal opportunities for women. Maternity leave enables women to keep their jobs and have children too, just the way men can. And importantly, most feminists also demand paternity leave or more generally parental bonding leave. Subsidized day-care makes it possible for women, who have historically been tasked with raising children while depending on a man’s paid labor, to join the market economy themselves.

Libertarians have good reasons to raise the hue and cry about the inherent coercion of using the government to change society. Libertarians (who may or may not be feminists) can and should have this debate with “statists” (who may or may not be feminists). But this is simply a different debate than that of feminism itself.

Finally, note also that not all antifeminists are so scrupulously disinclined to using the apparatus of the state as are libertarian antifeminists. Nonlibertarian feminists can hardly be blamed for appealing to the state when conservative antifeminists campaign tirelessly for bans on or excessive regulation of birth control and abortion (including mandatory ultrasounds and being forced to suffer demeaning anti-abortion “counseling”), for personhood laws, against allowing women into military combat roles, and against legalizing sex work, among other issues.

Four. Ryan believes real sexual equality is a simple empirical matter, no philosophy needed.

The sexes ought to be equal for reasons of basic human dignity, not for metaphysical reasons. Any justification of feminism that can only be justified metaphysically is bound to be rejected by anyone whose views are rooted mainly in physics.

What I mean is, I think it’s simply unfair to assign a lower legal value to a woman than to a man. I think this creates a systemic prejudice against a population that ultimately cannot be overcome through “just living your life.” This isn’t a metaphysical belief about fairness, it’s a physical observation of legal outcomes. It’s an empirical matter. We don’t need a conversation about “what is justice?” in order to make our legal treatment of the sexes blind and equal. It’s incumbent upon advocates of gender-superiority to make the case that systemic inequality is more just than equality.

Would it were so! Unfortunately, for most of human history since at least the advent of agriculture it has been commonly (obviously!) understood that women and men simply had different roles to play, and that these roles were dictated by nature. Women were often understood in terms of their “natural” function of giving birth over and over again (if a good number of children were expected to survive into adulthood), tending children, and maintaining the household. This was not an optional lifestyle. Women were either not educated at all or were given whatever education (quite different from men’s) was deemed appropriate for their function. The man had all political rights and was assumed to represent the interests of his family. These common understandings were buttressed and sanctified by legal, religious and philosophical authorities from antiquity until very recently. Susan Moller Okin discusses the centrality of the patriarchal family in Women in Western Political Thought,

It is clear that Plato in the Laws, Aristotle, and Rousseau, regarded the male head of each family as its sole political representative. This is also true, and more paradoxically so, in the liberal theories of Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, and James Mill – paradoxically, because of the fact that liberalism is supposedly based on individualism. As Brian Barry has recently captured it, the “essence of liberalism” is “the vision of society as made up of independent, autonomous units who cooperate only when the terms of cooperation are such as to make it further the ends of each of the parties.” In fact, however, behind the individualist rhetoric, it is clear that the family, and not the adult human individual, is the basic political unit of liberal as of non-liberal philosophers. In spite of the supposedly individualist premises of the liberal tradition, John Stuart Mill was the first of its members to assert that the interests of women  were by no means automatically upheld by the male heads of the families to which they belonged, and that therefore women, as individuals, should have independent political and legal rights. That these proposals should have appeared so dangerously radical in the climate of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century opinion is ample testimony to the limitations of previous liberal individualism.

Emphasis mine. JS Mill wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century, and even he still believed that domestic duties were women’s duties, and that his radical notions of sexual equality could only really apply to single women and rich heiresses. In the same work, Okin details a number of important court cases as late as the 1970s that included legal language assuming that the central function of women is to maintain the domestic sphere. The rudiments of sex and gender equality – I call this “feminism” – only seem like “basic human dignity” and just an “empirical … physical observation of legal outcomes” precisely because feminist activists and philosophers critiqued “metaphysical” questions like “what is justice?” from a fresh perspective and persuaded their hostile audiences that what seemed intuitive and natural for millennia was actually thoroughgoing tyranny over and subjugation of fully half of the human race.

I’ll let the above remarks suffice to address Ryan’s contention that “there appears to be no inherent value in the [Feminist] label itself.”

Five. Ryan believes feminism doesn’t deserve the time of day until feminists get their own house in order.

[Crider] rightly implores feminists to root-out its worst arguments and dispense with them, but then suggests that non-feminists are not in a position to understand the extent to which it is already happening. Maybe not, but any ideology that has not yet rid itself of terrible arguments (or the aforementioned inclinations against free speech and non-leftist politics) is not ready for endorsement by any person who considers himself or herself a careful thinker. If feminism still has work to do on the inside, let it do its work before its insiders ask the rest of us to accept it as a worthy endeavor.

I could spend a couple thousand words writing about the worst arguments libertarians have conjured up that many of them still earnestly believe, but I’ve already done this. Let’s name names instead. Yes, Jacob Levy and Deirdre McCloskey are libertarians, but so are Wayne Allyn Root and John Stossel. Yes, Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat are conservatives, but so are Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Yes, Amanda Marcotte and Sady Doyle are feminists, but so are Martha Nussbaum and Elizabeth Anderson. (I’ve taken the liberty to supply some libertarian-palatable links for these last two).

But I don’t need to explain to Ryan that any ideology with more than a dozen adherents includes a rich diversity of perspectives and a panoply of knaves, sages, and everything in between. Ryan understands this extremely well, as he capably demonstrated with his recent post, Who are the Muslims?, which I encourage everyone to read.

 

 

Can I Possess Knowledge That I Disbelieve?

In a way, my previous post was about the existence of existence. This post might be about the existence of truth. Or, perhaps it is about the illusion of its absence.

Atonal Music

Unlike most music fans, I love serial compositions. They’re not for everyone, but the reason I like them is because they use our implicit knowledge of traditional Western harmony against us. Even if you don’t think you know anything about music, you do. Your mere cultural exposure to music has ingrained you with the understanding of certain rudimentary concepts, certain expectations of harmonic and melodic sequences, even if you aren’t expressly aware of them.

What makes atonal music like Schoenberg’s so much fun for me is that, because they lack the same kind of musical structure traditional music has, my mind races in to fill the void. I’ll hear two notes played at random, and my mind subconsciously creates a harmonic link between them. Then a third “random” note appears, and my mind stretches to create a harmonic link that reconciles all three notes. On and on it goes until my mind can no longer link all the notes together, and I have to start again.

This very process is what makes other people hate serial compositions. Rather than compelling, they find the process stressful. Well, different strokes for different folks – but what’s interesting here is that even if you hate serial music, you can’t stop your brain from attempting to form patterns in the music. Love it or hate it, the music switches on a particular attribute of human thinking: pattern recognition.

If I play all the notes corresponding to, “Twinkle, twinkle, little…” and suddenly stop, then your brain will automatically think, “…star.” To people who spend a lot of time listening to music, like me, all you’d have to do is play, “Twinkle, twink…” – just three notes – and our musical brains would automatically think, “..kle little star.”

If you really want to confuse someone, then try whistling the notes that correspond to: “Twinkle, twinkle little star / Fa la la la la, La la la la!” But if you really want to make them made, make sure the first part is in a different key signature than the second part.

Many great composers have utilized similar tricks to play the listener’s ear against itself, but the serial composers took this fact of human psychology to a whole new level, in the pursuit of new “outside sounds.” The genius of atonal music is that it makes us see patterns even where none exist, i.e. even when the notes arranged, essentially, nonsensically.

Atonal Logic

A few years back, in a post entitled “The Paradox Paradox,” I wrote:

The interesting thing about paradoxes is that they are both a problem of definition and of perception. The definition can never be true, and their existence is in fact only a matter of perception.

A paradox is defined to be a statement that is “seemingly” or “apparently” self-contradictory. But their main problem is that they don’t really exist. No statement can be both true and false at exactly the same time in exactly the same way.

Paradoxes capitalize on the fact that language is more flexible than logic. The “trick” is that self-contradictory sentences can be constructed whose logical or physical properties are impossible, in the same sense that imaginary creatures can be described in books even though their physical existence is otherwise impossible. I can construct the sentence “This statement is false,” but I cannot make it mean anything. While such statements dazzled the ancient Greeks for a time, in the end they are simply nonsense.

Like atonal music, paradoxes adhere to a consistent internal logic, namely, valid linguistic syntax. Also like atonal music, the value of paradoxes is that they are simply entertaining. And, like atonal music, paradoxes contain no outward meaning beyond their internal structure; the composition is the statement, but there is no meaning to be extracted beyond its structure.

Paradoxes aren’t the only statements that work this way. I can also construct a sentence like, “My fertile eyeglasses eat nimble compassion,” which has all its parts of speech in the correct locations, but which conveys no real information. Eyeglasses aren’t fertile and they cannot eat anything; compassion isn’t nimble and it cannot be eaten.

Here, though, our sense of pattern-recognition might kick in and wonder whether there might be a sense in which that statement might be true. Can eyeglasses be fertile in a manner of speaking? Can compassion be allegorically nimble?

It sounds interesting for a moment, but we soon realize that the sentence really is nonsense, and then we move on.

Atonal Knowledge

I thought about my old post on the nonsense of paradoxes when Adam posed his questions the other day.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

If my statement is true, then in what sense does Germany border China?

I think it’s possible to listen to that Schoenberg piece I embedded above and to genuinely believe that it has a tonal center, even though it was deliberately written not to have one. I also think it’s possible to genuinely believe that compassion can be nimble. The problem with beliefs is that they can be – and quite often are – simply wrong.

This fact is unpleasant. We don’t like to judge others, and in particular we don’t feel good about judging others’ beliefs. But atonal music is genuinely atonal, and skepticism of consciousness is genuinely impossible. We don’t have to be jerks about it, but when someone claims to reject the existence of consciousness, we can safely discard their statement as a wrong thing, a logical and physical impossibility, that they only think they believe.

This shouldn’t stop us from analyzing the matter. For one thing, just because a particular truth exists doesn’t mean we already possess that knowledge. For another thing, we might only realize our mistaken beliefs after close consideration of the matter.

And, thirdly, thinking about such things is entertaining, just like paradoxes and atonal music.

Response to Wilkinson

Will Wilkinson’s criticism of Karl Hess’s dictum, as often attributed to Barry Goldwater, is clever and for the most part correct. But I’ll point out a few flaws, and a better way forward.

Wilkinson thinks that the first half of the statement “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” in plainly a violation of the Aristotilian understanding of virtues. Quite right, if one takes Aristotle as an authority, as Wilkinson confesses. Hess made the mistake of framing the statement in terms of virtues and vices, so working within that system is defensible. But I will claim that virtue ethics are insufficient for and unnecessary to do-ing justice.

The porridge of virtue may always be just right, but that must be in reference to something, viz. the status quo. Moderation cannot get us out of a system of injustice or a transitional gains trap.

But Wilkinson is right that extremism leads typically to violence. He then identifies Malcom X as embodying the ethic of extremism. X was known to reject the aid of white sympathizers. Under extremism they only get in the way. X saw the Civil Rights movement as blacks stepping up to claim equality as “within their rights” and when rights talk gets started, “any means necessary” quickly follows.

That white supremacy required some sort of exogenous shock to be broken is granted. We shall see what sort of shock actually worked.

“Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue”

It is important to Wilkinson that “We’re talking about how to go about defending liberty and pursuing justice as a practical matter.” Me too. Do-ing justice is what we should be about, but whether it can be done by a “we” is doubtful. Wilkinson prefers persuasion, as do I, but he limits his mechanism of persuasion to rhetoric. He claims a “sound persuasive argument” is “obviously virtuous.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is Wilkinson’s second example, after Milton Friedman, both masters of rhetoric, or sound persuasive argument. Wilkinson then claims that “the virtue of the tactics” employed by King determined the success of the bus boycott and the civil rights movement. But that is not enough. King openly accepted, and I will claim relied upon, the help of whites, in contrast to X.

The vehicle for success was less the distinction between extremes and moderation than the composition of individuals that were involved. King succeeded because he captured the sympathy of a sufficient number of whites. Those whites got involved and supported his movement. White people marched with King, supported his movement, and openly advocated for it.

Sympathy works (roughly) like this: The class that I consider “other” is at a social distance far enough from me that I don’t sympathize with their suffering. I sympathize with people who are like myself. When someone whom I consider alike to myself, someone with whom I sympathize, demonstrates sympathy with those I consider “other” I am forced into making a decision. Either I also extend my sympathy toward the others, or I must push the one whom I considered alike into the other category. Extension of sympathy is very costly. It requires a kind of abdication from the privileges I enjoy under the status quo. The loss of sympathy with a member of my community is also potentially costly. I may lose a friendship, or choose not to do business with such a traitor, and thus lose some surplus from exchange.

The sympathizing of the traitor has forced me into a corner. I will lose something either way, especially in the short run. The question is whether I can see the potential long run gains from the extension of sympathy. Many cannot.

Again, Wilkinson frames his discussion in terms of compromise and rhetoric, “moderation in principle means hammering out workable compromises with people who hold to different principles. If that’s a vice, we’re all in big trouble.” Indeed. But compromises only work when there are mutual gains.

With patterns of injustice, there are not always Pareto opportunities such that all will benefit, especially given heterogeneity of discount rates. Many people were harmed materially and psychically by the outcome of the Civil Rights movement. If we include Johnson’s welfare programs as among the outcomes of the Civil Rights movement there are many who will claim that even blacks were harmed.

Wilkinson identifies two large parties, those that started thinking seriously about politics by reading Ayn Rand, and those that started by reading Karl Marx or Noam Chomsky. I belong to a minority that got started with Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. The Hauerwasian mafia, as they are sometimes identified, similarly start from a position of non-violence.

An economist who gets started here will read Murray Rothbard at some point and find some purchase in the Non-Aggression Principle. So I did. Rand and Chomsky came later for me, and then Aristotle and finally Adam Smith. I am certain that I misunderstand all of these.

The one option that economists and political theorists tend not to consider is simple charity. The way out of a transitional gains trap must be compensated for, but by whom? I maintain that it must be paid for by those who sympathize.

Dr. King’s movement was not successful because of moderation, extremism, or complacency. That movement worked because sympathizers gave. White people abdicated privileges, and made willing sacrifices for the sake of blacks.

Oppressed minorities are incapable of rising up to positions of equality in any other way. There is nothing about a bus boycott or a sit in or a march on Washington DC that can succeed unless some whites sympathize.

The advent of television made much of this possible. Sympathy is aroused by spectatorship. Until northern whites saw for themselves blacks and whites being sprayed by fire hoses on TV they were free from ever thinking about the problems of Jim Crow. Wilkinson rightly says that “if you want to get anything done in politics, on any issue, you need allies. In order to win reliable allies, you need other groups, other factions, to trust your faction and feel that, at least, you don’t disrespect them.”

Libertarians are cavalier about transitional gains traps. They say Kaldor-Hicks improvements are the best we can hope for in the real world. Systemically this is true. Bryan Caplan will say it is true even about wristwatches. But abdication and charity, sacrificial altruism as I have called it, is the only approach that has effected praiseworthy reforms. My only complaint is that we typically don’t have the patience or the fortitude to follow an ethic of sacrificial altruism all the way through a reform.

I can’t expect the oppressed to wait. Birmingham jail proved that to us. But that only means that I need to get moving faster.

Ancient Wisdom and Modern Toolkits: A Review of Economics and the Virtues

Economic theory today exists entirely within the narrow confines of utilitarianism, and positivism still reigns as the accepted philosophy of science. In philosophy itself, the former has been almost entirely abandoned as unworkable, and the latter has been completely demolished.

In a way, that makes the accomplishments of economists all the more amazing, given the materials they were working with. But these philosophies were discredited for a reason—they have serious problems which they lack the resources to resolve. You can see this in the critiques that economists themselves largely agree are merited, such as the results of behavioral economics. With the notable exception of prospect theory, it has proven unfeasible to integrate the insights of behavioral economics into economic theory.

When your theories lack the resources to overcome persistent problems, it doesn’t hurt to start looking at how other frameworks might address those problems. In this regard, the forthcoming Economics and the Virtues, edited by Jennifer Baker and Mark White, proves an invaluable resource.

The collection brings together thirteen different authors, some economists and some philosophers, who each make their attempt to bring the narrow framework of economics into dialogue with broader philosophical questions. As the name of the volume implies, this focuses primarily on virtue ethics, but not exclusively. Mark White’s essay, for instance, attempts to bring Kantian considerations into economic analysis, though he does do so through emphasis on the kind of person necessary to follow Kantian imperatives, bringing it closer to virtue. And Jason Brennan’s essay simply approaches the question of whether markets corrupt our character, a topic he has focused on a great deal lately.

But the rest of the essays focus particularly on how virtue ethics can be used to bring valuable insights and much needed sophistication to economic theory. One essay I would call out as likely to be of special interest to economists is Andrew Yuengert’s “The Space Between Choice and Our Models of It,” a powerful treatment of the limitations of economic models and how Aristotle’s conception of practical reason can fill the gap. Yuengert is the author of Approximating Prudence, where this and related topics are treated in greater depth.

The collection includes a great deal of history of thought in addition to attempts to synthesize different frameworks with economic theory; Eric Schliesser’s essay, for instance, details the way in which the subject matter of economics and moral philosophy went from being treated as one and the same, to distinct.

One criticism I would make of the collection would be that there were several essays that were stronger in their presentation of the history of thought they were interested in than in laying the grounds for a synthesis. The first essay, by Christian Becker, provides an excellent overview of economic rationality in Aristotle and in modern economics, but ends with talk about a “virtue of sustainability” and other such things. This seemed an awkward marriage of the modern notion of sustainability with the ancient notion of virtue—one that improved neither.

This does not, however, detract from the fact that the collection is a valuable source of insight, especially for economists used to operating within only one framework. For anyone looking to enrich their economic analysis with insights from frameworks that have been discussed for thousands of years, the essays in this book are an excellent place to start.

Economics and the Virtues will be out in March.

Demonstration, Theory, and Practice

Disputation

It would be easy to take my personal intellectual journey from Deirdre McCloskey’s post-modernism to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics to be a slide into relativism, given the reputation of such things. In fact, from the beginning it was a journey out of skepticism and into epistemological optimism, qualified though it may be.

If I have come to believe that knowledge is very political, in the sense of being unable to exist in an an individual vacuum without the context provided by groups, I have nevertheless come to believe that there is genuine knowledge.

In his first post here, Ryan made it clear that he wasn’t satisfied with that picture. He is even more optimistic—he believes that genuinely apolitical knowledge exists.

I am no master of epistemology or philosophy of mind. I’m not going to write a lengthy essay on why he’s wrong and I’m right. Instead, I want to pose a few questions. I have some preliminary answers to some of them, but the questions are more valuable than the answers.

Demonstration

A big part of my transition to relative optimism has been the abandonment of Cartesian foundationalism as the criteria for what knowledge is, and an embrace of classical notions of demonstration.

The most straightforward example is the defense of the principle of non-contradiction. We cannot prove that it is true in a foundationalist way, and it is the basis of the very method of proving things that we are attempting to defend. But we can demonstrate how it is impossible to make any argument without it. As I put it recently:

[I]t’s rather hard to make any assertion at all with teeth if you don’t care about consistency. My argument about inconsistency undermined my argument about the logical connection between God and morality—if consistency doesn’t matter, then there could both be no logical connection between God and morality, and be a completely crucial logical relationship between God and morality—simultaneously. Productive analysis would prove impossible.

Alasdair MacIntyre employed a similar sort of demonstration in critiquing Nietzsche and Foucault. If there is no truth, only positions that people take publicly in order to mask the cynical power relations going on in the background, then what is the status of this very claim? Is it true, or merely a mask for cynical power relations? And if the latter, does that not mean that the claim is false, and therefore some positions can be true and not just cynical power relations? Elliot Michael Milco makes a related set of arguments in his thesis.

One demonstration I came upon recently that I liked concerned the infinite regress argument for skepticism. This is the notion that we gives reasons for believing anything—we believe X because Y. But we have to justify our reasons with yet more reasons—and this chain goes on forever. We believe X because Y, which we believe because Z, and so forth. Because there is no foundational reason that we believe for no other reason, nothing is ever actually justified rationally.

In Joseph Heath’s Following the Rules he points out that this argument would imply we’re incapable of solving crossword puzzles. After all, our justifications for giving a particular answer for a particular part should follow the same logic that skeptics claim leads to an infinite regress. But it’s clear that we do solve crossword puzzles, when we have sufficient familiarity with the subject matter. So unless skeptics are prepared to insist that we somehow solve them irrationally, it would appear that their argument proves too much.

This sort of reasoning was the basis for my piece Science is Persuasion; Cartesian foundationalism has failed, yet still we have modern physics, medicine, and chemistry. Clearly we have knowledge. These sorts of demonstrations are more squishy than many philosophers after Descartes are comfortable with, but I’m convinced they are all we have, and that they are enough.

But What Is It To Know?

To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk. To say that a criminologist understands crime is not to say that we can send him out with a grant or a law and expect him to return with a lower crime rate.

Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

The part of Ryan’s post that seemed most similar to the demonstrations above was his discussion of consciousness, which he gives as an example of innate knowledge.

For example, we are all aware of the fact that consciousness exists because consciousness is defined to be every aspect of our sense of awareness. We cannot even deny the existence of consciousness without experiencing it. This knowledge was not acquired through any sort of data collection, analysis, or persuasion. We possessed it as soon as we possessed consciousness itself. Knowledge of our own consciousness is, therefore, innate. At this risk of sounding like Hoppe, to deny this kind of knowledge is to demonstrate it; therefore, it can’t sensibly be denied.

This seems to me to get at the tension between theory and practice, a topic at least as old as philosophy itself.

Ryan’s argument boils down to the idea that it is self-defeating to deny the existence of consciousness. Yet there are people who do deny it—they are called eliminative materialists. The defense of the principle of non-contradiction is similar, as Milco’s thesis shows very capably—we can point out that it’s self-defeating to believe in its falseness, but that doesn’t stop someone from believing it is false.

The obvious argument is that in practice, we live as if we believe in consciousness and reality and causation (to name a few items on the skeptics’ list), and we argue as if we believe in the principle of non-contradiction, even if in theory we have explicitly declared that we do not believe in those things.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

These were the questions that came to my mind when I read Ryan’s post.

A Little Manifest Truth Goes A Long Way

In his recent post, Adam Gurri asserts that there is no ultimate difference between persuasion and rational evaluation. Although Gurri defends his position well, reading that post elicited an almost visceral reaction against what he was saying. In what sense could, for example, the collection of field data verifying that the radioactive half-life of strontium-90 is 28.8 years be essentially no different than powerful rhetoric arguing that it is so?

The point of Gurri’s post, of course, is to point out that persuasion, done right, is not unethical. He uses his observation that rational analysis “is first and foremost attempting to discover what conclusion we find persuasive” in order to buttress that case.

I agree with Gurri in the main. I agree that persuasion is not unethical, and that a substantial amount of rational analysis is an attempt to find the most persuasive theory. Still, I think a substantial portion of human knowledge is manifest. This offers us a potential remedy for the politicization of knowledge in general.

Three Kinds Of Knowledge

Before I really get going, I’d like to make a potentially controversial claim: With regard to the present topic at least, there are essentially three kinds of knowledge, which I will (loosely) call “innate knowledge,” “direct observation,” and “retention.” (Bear with me.)

Innate Knowledge

What I call “innate knowledge” is the set of existential facts that are so self-evident that denying them constitutes literal nonsense.

For example, we are all aware of the fact that consciousness exists because consciousness is defined to be every aspect of our sense of awareness. We cannot even deny the existence of consciousness without experiencing it. This knowledge was not acquired through any sort of data collection, analysis, or persuasion. We possessed it as soon as we possessed consciousness itself. Knowledge of our own consciousness is, therefore, innate. At this risk of sounding like Hoppe, to deny this kind of knowledge is to demonstrate it; therefore, it can’t sensibly be denied.

Innate knowledge might also include: knowledge of the existence of knowledge; the conception of concepts themselves; crude logical building blocks such as “difference” and “duality;” logical operands; and so on.

Direct Observation

What I call direct observation is any fact that a person directly observes. If a child burns her finger on a match, that experience is a direct observation. She might extrapolate from her experience that any lit match could potentially burn her finger, but this would not be a direct observation. The knowledge of the initial experience, however, would be.

Our memories and experiences make up our complete set of direct observations. To question this knowledge is to question one’s own sanity – certainly appropriate in some circumstances, but generally dubious. Direct observations constitute knowledge as sure as the existence of consciousness, provided that the observer is genuinely sane. Even so, when questioning our sanity, we question it, not the veracity of our observations. Only after determining the state of our sanity can we go back to questioning our direct observations.

While the observer may never be able to definitively persuade others that the observed was actually observed, the surety of that knowledge is no less unquestionable to the observer than the existence of her own consciousness.

Retention

Finally, there is what I’ll call “retention,” or all facts that are neither innate nor directly observed, but that would be virtually insane to question. For example, I have reason to believe that I possess a human heart. I have not directly observed my heart (although I can hear and feel evidence of my heart beat). I cannot prove the existence of my heart to other people. And yet, based on every verifiable fact of human anatomy and personal experience, it would be more or less insane to claim that I do not possess a heart.

I call this knowledge rather than theory because skepticism of things such as the existence of one’s own unobserved heart, or the fact that one’s spouse is a tangible person and not a complex delusion, or etc., constitutes a direct contradiction of every other piece of innate knowledge and direct observation a person has. It is not merelyas Paul Crider writes – “the willingness to put skepticism aside for the sake of rational thought” (although it is that, too). It is also the functional ability to keep all other knowledge in one’s head, and use it. One cannot constantly and perpetually observe that matches burn one’s finger. The ability to recall that a match burned one’s finger without having to verify the same observation all the time is the ability to retain knowledge. This, in a nutshell, is what I’m calling “retention.”

Conviction and Persuasion

Note that none of the knowledge I have discussed above requires that we be persuaded of its existence. We need only our sanity.

The existence of this knowledge is important because it establishes that there is at least some knowledge that is not subject to persuasion. That is, contra Gurri, some knowledge is apolitical. In fact, we can draw a straight line from sentience, to observation, to extrapolation. We only arrive at a politics of knowledge when confronted with the fact that no one person can directly observe or logically prove every piece of knowledge that he needs in life. He must be willing to accept that his fellows have made useful observations of their own.

Regarding knowledge shared with others, we face a new dynamic: the choice of what claims to accept rather than directly observe, the choice of whose claims to accept compared to others, the choice of which claims to deem credible and why, etc. Here we must confront the biases that color our thinking; here we must confront our human tendency toward motivated reasoning. In this realm, we find that Gurri is absolutely correct.

Then why would I be so pedantic as to differentiate between political and apolitical knowledge when, as must be clear enough by now, Gurri’s posts have been specifically about the trust we place on the knowledge we gain from others?

One reason is that doing so provides us with a potential remedy for the problems he has identified. Knowing that an honest truth-seeker can, in highly politicized moments, step back, out of the realm of political knowledge, and into the more reliable world of direct observation provides us with an important check on the undue influence of politics and motivated reasoning.

Taking too much for granted, placing too much trust in the work of those who came before us places us in an unacceptably vulnerable position. This is particularly true now that politicized knowledge is so ubiquitous in this day and age. There is a reason, after all, that math teachers force us to replicate proofs of mathematical phenomena. There is a reason why statisticians must first learn the foundations of their craft before applying themselves to real-world data science problems. And, yes, there is a reason students of economics are forced to begin with principles courses and construct logical proofs of economic phenomena. We need to be able to de-politicize knowledge and verify things for ourselves. We need to be able to fact-check.

Because of this, I stop short of calling all knowledge political. However impractical it is to personally verify every fact one comes across, it is ultimately most practical, most reliable, most sensible, and most apolitical to remember that some knowledge is, in fact, manifest. At least as manifest as our consciousness, anyway.

A (Qualified) Defense of Powerball

I’ve heard variants of this argument for most of my adult life.  Many statisticians and economists love to point out that the expected value of a lottery ticket is easily calculated and almost always negative.  Hence anyone who actually purchases a lottery ticket is an innumerate rube, behaving irrationally.  My undergrad statistics professor went so far as to tell us that if he ever saw one of his students buying a lottery ticket, he would flunk them instantly.

 

I never fully bought that argument, and I still don’t buy it.  I’ve always found their smug disdain for the lottery rather off-putting.  Granted, I don’t think it would be wise to blow the rent money on Powerball, and any genuine expectation of riches is surely misplaced, but I also think my erstwhile professor carried things a bit too far, and that rationality isn’t always as easily calculable as some would have us believe.

 

As a physicist by training, I’m a quantitative sort myself, but I also understand that mathematical models can break down when pushed too far.  If these green eyeshade types genuinely lived their lives bound by such rigid calculus, none of them would ever purchase an insurance policy.  Every actuarially sound policy on the market has a negative expected value; otherwise the insurer would go out of business in short order.

 

But of course economists and statisticians do buy insurance, even if such a purchase can’t be strictly justified by statistics.  And they do so based on the perfectly rational consideration that a catastrophic accident or illness could easily ruin them financially, while the insurance premiums are comparatively modest, and can be absorbed with little real financial impact.

 

But isn’t the lottery the same thing in reverse?  Sure, buying a lottery ticket is a sucker’s bet, but the (extremely) unlikely outcome of hitting a jackpot would have life-changing consequences, whereas the buck or two you spend on the price of admission has negligible financial impact.  And none of this takes into account the less quantifiable entertainment/fantasy value of playing.
I don’t play often, but I will buy the occasional ticket, and I don’t think that warrants flunking ECON 101.  And of course the academics are right, as far as it goes, that buying lottery tickets isn’t a bankable proposition.  But when you find yourself arguing, as Alex Tabarrok does in the link above, that buying a chance on an $800 million jackpot is not rational, but paying the same price at the same odds for a chance at (say) $1.3 billion may well be?  I’d say that’s a pretty good sign that you’ve pushed your model too far.

The Difference Between Persuasion and Rational Evaluation

These days, I usually prefer to resist reducing several distinctions down to one “really true” one that covers them all.

But this is one case where it is warranted.

Over the last two years, and especially the last year, I have gravitated more and more away from a nominalist position towards a realist one. However, there is a tendency among realists to draw a line between reasoning and rational evaluation on the one hand, and persuasion on the other.

Alasdair MacIntyre was someone who made this argument throughout his corpus. More recently, I have read Edward Feser espousing a similar point of view; nominalists have to hope their “side” “wins out” whereas moral realists can actually stake out positions equivalent to how scientists stake out positions.

There seems to be a fair amount of wishful thinking about the nature of rational evaluation going on (though far be it from me to critique Feser, an authority on philosophy of mind, on this subject).

But it seems to me that reasoning just is persuasion, judgement just is rhetoric.

If reasoning is taking evidence and arguments from sources we trust and attempting to arrive at a judgment, then it is first an foremost attempting to discover what conclusion we find persuasive. Even if we decided that the evidence is inconclusive, this is a judgment we have been persuaded of.

To believe some version of metaphysical and moral realism is not the same thing as believing, as Karl Popper framed the epistemology of the Enlightenment, that truth is manifest. Yet it seems to me that reducing persuasion to mere manipulation, as MacIntyre for example does, leaves one with either the belief that truth is manifest, or a fairly strong version of epistemological skepticism.

You can be unethical in your attempts to win people to your point of view, of course. You can be deliberately misleading, for example. But that doesn’t make persuasion unethical per se, any more than the existence of false advertising indicts advertising as a practice, or the existence of murderers indicts humanity in general.

In a healthy unity of politics, ethics, and rhetoric, we seek to persuade while being open to being persuaded; we hold a high standard of evidence for persuading ourselves before going out to attempt to persuade others.

But there is no reasoning, no rational evaluation, no dialectic, that is distinct from persuasion.

My Framework

Cameron Harwick has a great write up of his macroscopic framework for thinking about the world. Not only is it insightful and well written, I agree with 90% of it.

Still, that 10% contains some major caveats. I’ll elaborate on our points of disagreement below. But please read his post first.

10. Social norms are generally not rationally justifiable

I disagree.

I think of norms as valid types of reasons that we give to or ask from interlocutors to justify behavior. That makes them inherently rational. When this point is missed, the tendency is to demand for there to be a “why” behind the norm, when the role of norms is to be the “why” behind the action.

Maybe this is what Cameron means when he writes that norms “must be accepted either tout court or on the basis of a mythology.” But you can see why, if norms are rational at their core, this phrasing is misleading.

I have written on this point in a post called Sacred and Profane Reasons. In short, I think the notion that desires, preferences, values, and norms are non-rational or even irrational is not only mistaken, but has perverse consequences. Namely, it makes us instrumentalize imperatives, leading to pareto-inferior social orders.

Nonetheless, I was disposed to this view for most of my thinking life, but after reading the exception book Following the Rules by Joseph Heath I now see that view as untenable. I’ve blogged many excerpts from that book, but a key one on this topic is available here.

I believe coming around to the rationality of norms has made my framework more coherent. To illustrate, consider Cameron’s three opening points:

  1. The universe is intelligible.
  2. The language faculty is the decisive difference between human and animal consciousness.
  3. The fact-value distinction is irreducible.

I fully agree with all of this. But moreover, I think these points, taken together, imply the rationality of norms—especially once norms are conceptualized as [cognitive] moves in a language game. As Cameron writes below point 3:

Perception is filtered and structured by pre-conscious judgements about the significance of various aspects. This judgement (“theory”) is not essentially different from value judgements which operate on the conscious level.

Thus if Cameron really views value judgments as non-rational, then he’s committed to all judgments being non-rational, which contradicts the intelligibility of the universe.

I have also written that calling an imperative or norm a “myth” (as Cameron does for liberal norms and natural rights) amounts to a category error. Assertions and imperatives stake very different types of validity claims. For example, I can assert the non-existence of God while still holding on to the imperative of ritual. Imperatives don’t carry an intrinsic epistemic burden.

The confusion arises because ethical vocabularies using words like “ought to” and “rights” transform imperatives into assertions. But this doesn’t change the fact that the concept of “rights” is at core about expressing certain imperatives. It simply lets us express imperatives in a more flexible, natural way,

In Theory and Practice Reconciled I went so far as to define progress as any process whereby our theoretical assertions come into alignment with our practical imperatives. In other words, progress equals cooperation without the assistance of pious fictions.

This brings us to point 4:

Variation and selection are necessary and sufficient to explain complex order.

Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. This one goes to the importance of language, and its role in normative / cultural reproduction. As communicative animals our societies are subject to much more directionality than can be explained by purely Darwinian types of selection. I came to this view from reading Joseph Heath, as well: The second and final chapters in Following the Rules; and his synopsis / defense of Habermas’ theory of discourse ethics.

Combining Cameron’s points 1 through 3, and amending points 10 and 4, we have basically arrived at the precepts of Hegel’s German Idealism. Or, as Robert Brandom prefers to call it, American Pragmatism.

Which brings me full circle to Cameron’s first point: The universe is intelligible. And yes, “on its face, this is a statement about the mind, not about the universe.”

An atheist’s defense of faith

I recently had a brief exchange with a Stoic, where I asked what he thought of the three “theological” virtues (benevolence, faith, and hope) as possible supplements to the four cardinal virtues the Stoics adhered to (justice, wisdom, temperance, and courage). He essentially blew off faith and hope, pointing out that Stoicism is a rationalist philosophy. I don’t want to put too much weight on this interaction, as I just let the point rest there. But it did make me think about why I take these virtues seriously. I am, after all, an atheist, and not given to religious or supernatural beliefs of any kind. What kind of faith can I possibly support?

I think of faith as coming in three different flavors: epistemic faith, faith as trust, and transcendent faith. These categories aren’t crisply delineated, and indeed I think they are founded on a unifying idea to such an extent that I am not tempted to think of three separate virtues, but one cardinal virtue with three aspects.

A brief interlude: the structure of a virtue

I think of virtues as kinds of reasons that the virtuous person employs in everyday moral life. Take courage, the willingness to do the right thing even when it is inconvenient or scary. We can all think of acts of courage. Running into a burning building to save a person trapped inside. Telling your spouse you have cancer earlier rather than later. Confronting your business partner with their profligate use of the enterprise’s funds. Coming out to your friends and family as gay (or maybe Republican).

When you construe an act as courageous, that is prima facie a good reason to do that act. We treat others with justice, giving them their due. If we understand something to be just, that’s a good reason, all else equal, to do it. Temperance is self-control (roughly); not letting inappropriate emotions or reactions get the better of you is laudable in itself. Prudence is being savvy, exercising good judgment, not being taken advantage of, etc. Virtues are kinds of reasons we take seriously in conducting our lives, and they are reasons we find intrinsically worthwhile.

But there is the pesky matter of “all else equal”. All else has to be equal in light of the other virtues. So running into a burning building to save a human being, even at great personal risk, is clearly courageous and thus virtuous. Running into a burning building to save your CD collection is just stupid, and thus not really courageous. Confronting your business partner about their use of company resources is unjust rather than courageous if they’re actually acting in the business’s best interests. Careful judgment, or phronesis, is the master virtue that must be cultivated to make the virtues work together in harmony. This is one way of describing the “unity of virtue” thesis.

If an act or feeling is virtuous, that’s reason enough for the virtuous agent to do that act or have that feeling. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop there. Why is courage a virtue? is a legitimate question. Given what we understand about the human life as one characterized by innumerable hard choices and countless opportunities to take the easy way out of sticky situations, a disposition to do the right thing even when it’s hard, and to find intrinsic value in doing so, is conducive to the life well lived. Without courage, morality would evaporate. And without morality, life would be nasty, brutish, etc.

Let’s get back to faith. For faith to be a virtue then, it must not inherently conflict with the other virtues, and it must contribute to the flourishing moral life.

Epistemic faith

Epistemic faith is the willingness to put skepticism aside for the sake of rational thought. To be a little Cartesian for a moment, there is no purely logical reason to believe anything. Global skepticism (How do we know we’re not just brains in vats? How do we really know logic is even valid?) has no rational retort. There is the stock answer, that global skepticism also undermines itself. But that doesn’t undo the damage. We still have no compelling reasons to form any positive beliefs. Only a leap of faith – acknowledging that we need to form some kind of beliefs, at least provisionally, to make any kind of progress in the rational life – provides any way out of the Sarlacc pit of skepticism.

Sarlacc-Pit
Skepticism devours everything.

Another kind of skepticism is solipsism, or the belief that other entities do not have internal mental states or narratives like my readers do (I’m just speculating). As far as I know, there’s no way to be really sure that other people are really experiencing life rather than just responding to stimuli as really convincing zombies. All the relevant sensory data could support either conclusion. One could argue that this is exactly where Occam’s Razor comes in handy, that the existence of other self-narrating, ensouled (for lack of a better word) beings is obviously the simpler explanation. I agree. But an interesting counterpoint is the persistent resistance to the idea that complex animals have something similar to our moral self-awareness, despite the accumulating evidence of morally salient features and behaviors. Or one could point to the targeted solipsism achieved when a hated minority has been successfully dehumanized in the minds of the general populace.

If global skepticism and solipsism were the only things faith was good for, then I would be content to just wait for the solipsistic infants and dorm room philosophers to grow up and I’d call it a day. But epistemic faith is needed on a smaller scale all the time, as Adam keeps reminding us. I was trained as a physical chemist, so I have more reason to believe in the validity of science than most, having actually performed experiments and seen the data match the theoretical expectations with my own eyes. But I haven’t performed all the experiments, or proven to myself all the theorems, and no one else has either. And that’s just one small field of physical science, itself just a small part of the whole of human knowledge.

Faith as trust

Faith also means trust in other human beings. And you can already see the blurred boundary between these different kinds of faith: we trust scientists, mathematicians, and other scholars as authorities and as human beings for our epistemic purposes. But we also constantly place ourselves in vulnerable positions and trust countless other people – friends, acquaintances, and strangers – to not hurt us or exploit us. The market vendor leaves their wares on display, unguarded, and trusts customers to buy them rather than steal them. We trust cooks not to poison us and teachers not to lie to us. I could go on and on.

But it’s not just about vulnerability. We trust others to do the right thing whether it directly impacts us or not. Having a child is a giant leap of faith. We bring a new, par-baked child into the world who is not only physically vulnerable, but also not yet an autonomous moral agent. And yet we have faith they will turn out well – physically, mentally, and ethically. We teach them what we can, but eventually we let them loose into the world, trusting them not to hurt themselves or those around them too much.

In the supererogatory extreme, we believe in the goodness even of total strangers even when we literally know better. In one of my favorite scenes in Les Misérables a saintly Bishop redeems Jean Valjean. Valjean, an escaped convict, is taken in and cared for by the Bishop. Valjean returns the favor by absconding with some silver artefacts. Apprehended by some constables, Valjean falsely claims the Bishop actually gave him the silver. The constables haul him back before the Bishop, obviously expecting a denial. Instead, the Bishop confirms Valjean’s tale (our Bishop is no Kantian) and then gives him a couple expensive candlesticks to go with the other loot.

But my friend you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind
You forgot I gave these also
Would you leave the best behind?
So Messieurs you may release him
For this man has spoken true
I commend you for your duty
May God’s blessing go with you.
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

A dark night of the soul follows for Valjean, after which he indeed does go on to become an honest man.

Yet why did I allow this man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate this world
This world that always hated me

saved-by-candlesticks
Saved by candlesticks.

The Bishop has every reason to believe that Valjean is not trustworthy. He places his faith in Valjean anyway. And it’s not just another virtue coming into play (perhaps compassion). He volitionally – not passively – believes in Valjean’s capacity to heal his soul and become honest.

Transcendent Faith

We have faith in those things “bigger than ourselves”: our families, our political movements, our nations, churches, and traditions. This is faith, rather than mere prudential preference, because we conceive of the value of these as going beyond us. This is the faith that enables people to die for their countries or their gods, but more importantly to live for them. This faith allows us to make sense of respecting the natural environment. Again, having a child is an act of faith: it is a commitment to the continuance of the human project itself. We act in order to improve and protect our various institutions and other transcendent objects and we hope that our efforts will be effective long into the future, beyond the lives of our children and grandchildren, beyond even memories of us.

Morality itself is a commitment of transcendent faith. Morality certainly involves constraints on our behavior, even if the virtuous person learns to make moral purposes truly their own purposes. Many virtue ethicists believe that living according to the virtues is rational as it constitutes probably the surest path to the flourishing life. But many  also admit that some kind of flourishing is also possible for the especially lucky immoralist or bad actor. Just think of Donald Trump or your favorite Roman emperors. Philippa Foot observed, “We are not conscripts in the army of virtue, but volunteers.” Finding value in morality is a choice, an act of transcendent faith.

The unity of faith

The three kinds of faith I’ve identified have one thing in common. They all involve a commitment to something, some value, outside of yourself. Epistemic faith is the leap outside of Cartesian certainty-of-your-own-mind-only. Faith-as-trust is the belief in external beings equal in dignity to yourself. And transcendent faith is a belief in the existence of value outside of your own narrowly construed interests. It’s what would prevent us from defacing the last tree on earth if we were earth’s last, soon departing inhabitants. Faith altogether then, is a looking outward from the self to the broader world.

A cardinal virtue

But is faith a virtue? The atheist or rationalist may still be skeptical. Isn’t faith literally “belief without evidence”, and is that not contrary to the virtue of honesty? I hope nothing I have said above suggests that believing in something in contradiction to credible evidence is either virtuous or permissible. It is not. But there is a difference between evidence against something and lack of sufficient evidence for it. In moving beyond extreme skepticism and solipsism, we merely find ourselves in a domain of insufficient evidence where we nonetheless are forced to act.

Trust in people is also subject to prudential and other considerations. If someone steals from you or lies habitually, trusting them isn’t virtuous faith but vicious naïveté. Having a child is an act of faith, but it comes with tremendous obligations, and bringing a child into the world when you cannot nourish and protect them is an act of cruelty. Transcendent faith in institutions is required for us to have institutions of any quality at all. But we still must choose those institutions and those transcendent values wisely. In short, faith does not inherently conflict with the other virtues, but like all virtues must be harmonized by wise judgment (phronesis).

But perhaps a Stoic might argue that the virtuous aspects of faith as I have described them are more appropriately understood as acts of the original cardinal virtues. To be fair, one could argue that faith-as-trust could be an aspect of justice. Trusting someone in the absence of strong reasons to do otherwise is an aspect of acknowledging their dignity as a rational, moral human being – giving them their due. But consider again Valjean and the Bishop. This kind of faith goes as far beyond justice – usually thought of as what is strictly owed – as does benevolence. And epistemic faith and transcendent faith don’t seem to fit with justice or any of the other virtues at all.

The final question then is does faith contribute to the life well lived, and is it necessary for such a life? I think the answer is clearly yes, if faith is as I have described. Epistemic faith and trust are necessary to make decisions and to interact with other humans, so really they are necessary for any kind of recognizably human life. Trust and transcendent faith underpin morality itself. If phronesis is the master virtue, then faith might be thought of as the first virtue, making the initial step into virtue possible. Finally, the flourishing life must be the life with purpose, and transcendent faith provides the very values and projects that we ultimately choose to adopt as our purposes.