Scattered Thoughts on the American Experiment

America is a strange country. Whatever else you have the urge to say about it, you must concede that it is unusual. And our stories about it grasp at little pieces of what it is but never seem to add up.

I have become increasingly convinced that traditionalism for traditionalism’s sake is simply an absurd proposition, as the notion of a tradition cannot be separated from its content. One can be a royalist, or republican, or even a believer that the American republic works for contingent historic and cultural reasons—but these are arguments in their own right, not some black-box “traditionalism”.

But traditionalism in America is an even more absurd proposition than usual. America is young. If you stretch out to the most distant reaches of the colonial period—a question begging approach given the state of the early colonies—it still gets you to only about 400 years. The war of independence (which for reasons of rhetoric we call a revolution) began only 250 some years ago and ended about twenty years later. We had about 12 years under the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution was ratified less than 230 years ago. We had a protracted and bloody civil war less than a century after the ratification of the Constitution. A few decades later, reformers were building out the modern administrative state, which arguably characterizes our system of government far more than the three-branch structure we force our students to memorize in their civics classes. That character itself is hardly a century old, and many changes have been made in the meantime.

Whither traditionalism? Not two years ago I was arguing on behalf of an American traditionalism, and my opponents asked: how long must something be around before it is a tradition? Good question. Most of the time, it seems both left and right consider American traditionalism to be what we had in the immediate period following the second World War, a period I would consider highly unusual even for our unusual country.

The relationship between our form of government and philosophy is also an open question to me. I’ve taken a stab at answering it before. But it comes back to the relationship between theory and practice, something that simply eludes me. Superficially, the founders were certainly sophisticated in their philosophy and their reading of history. They wrote highly philosophical essays. But they were not philosophers; they were political practitioners in the colonial, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary governments. This is something I feel we often overlook—they were not theorists, but practitioners who were highly educated in the theory of their day.

When I see people invoking the founders, the Constitution, and our political traditions, I find that few seem to provide a picture that adds any of this up in a satisfactory way. The critics and the apologists suffer from this problem to an equal degree, at least that I have seen.

The more I examine the pieces of where we have been, the more I wonder at people who can be so confident in where we are headed. I find arguments that we are in a transition moment persuasive, but the nature of that transition appears, from my limited vantage point, entirely opaque.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

The Charming Bullshit of Romance

Like many of you, when I read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, I take it as a merciless farce attacking courtly pomp and the institutions of Medieval romance. All that unrequited longing and hopeless, doomed, one-sided love simply reeks of a well-penned “would you look at this shit, already?” He’s right, too. It’s ludicrous, isn’t it? Pining on like a twonk like that. Some manky git fritters his life away for a bird he knows damn well he’ll never so much as catch a whiff of her dirty knickers. Preposterous. And it took this blobby Teutcher to point it out.

Sir Blobby Teutcher

Amusingly, most English language readers appear to have gotten the exact opposite message from it. I’m not sure if it’s still taught in middle schools anymore, but I have a dim memory of reading it sans irony when I was maybe 12 or 13 and thinking it a proper swashbuckler. I was, forgive my trespasses, still enamored of romance. Only upon re-reading it in my 20s with a more cynical eye did I appreciate Scott’s scathing, scornful wit. These days, with the ire of youth dulled, I find a bit more melancholy in there. And not just in this one particular instance, but true of romance in general. Continue reading “The Charming Bullshit of Romance”

Trite Observations on the Dangers of Scientism

I used to be a bit of an economic imperialist, believing many or even most questions could be answered adequately enough with an economist’s toolkit. I still am, to a certain respect, still believing that good sociology(and a large portion of good work done by other social sciences) is just economics in disguise. There’s usually a rigorousness to the thinking that I appreciate. If you want some mushy-headed social science work, check out some of the older work done on sex work, especially those produced by radical feminists*.

There’s a danger though on how the limits of human knowledge, understanding, and impartiality can color the sort of work that most would deem well within the realm of proper scientific inquiry. This can be considered feature, not a bug, in fact. Science is about testing and retesting, reaffirming or disconfirming, sometimes, long-held positions. This also means that there will be dead ends. Dead ends in science are inevitable, and that’s okay.

There’s, however, an even greater danger when tools of science start sniffing along the border of that Third Category, unbounded by the chains of normal human conscience and ethics. All it takes is faulty assumptions and one can allow, advocate, and demand all manner of disgustingly subhuman behavior.


Trite Observations Spurred on by the Following:

How to Be Reasonable

Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

Does the Is-Ought Divide Make Atrocities More Palatable?



*I do not use this term lightly or mistakenly.

Mea Culpa: Free Speech Legalism Edition

Apologies to Ken White for this, he was correct.

More from him:

Patrick: We have an ongoing dispute about whether or not vivid rhetoric implies (totalitarianism! nazis! book-burning!) an assertion of rights. My position is that it does, or at least deliberately blurs the nature of the assertion, and attempts to capture the moral weight of rights and import it into criticism of private speech and action.

In that spirit, I’d rather compare Twitter to Tyrell Corporation or Weyland-Yutani than to Orwell’s imagined society.

It’s not just the blurring the nature of an assertion on the part of the asserter, but the blurring of the nature of the assertion by those on the receiving end of the assertions. I avoided “totalitarianism! nazis! book-burning!”-style arguments, and tried to focus on what sort of self-imposed, self-assumed ethical constraints a private actor is or should be bound when marketing one’s self as a free speech proponent(or, really, proponents of any sort of ideals, virtues, value system), but, having had multiple discussions with unequivocal supporters of Twitter’s actions, failing each and every time come to a mutual understanding of even basic points of contention, I’ve realized it’s all for naught.

As Ken notes in the actual post,

The right to free speech is America’s most important right because it’s how we identify and defend all rights. But you can’t defend a right you don’t understand or can’t define. Distorting or blurring the definition of a right undermines it. In short: free speech legalism matters.

While I don’t “think that Twitter has a civic or moral obligation to uphold “values of free speech””, I do think they have an ethical obligation to not shit that particular bed. However, the power of free speech rhetoric, even with the most careful of wordings, and covered in numerous qualifiers about the non-rights-asserting nature of a particular argument, is in a fragile enough state, that it might be best to abstain completely from its use in private actor concerns. To do otherwise might actually jeopardize real free speech-threatening situations if enough people make distorting or blurring arguments, or enough people distort or blur arguments being made by others that everyone reflexively stops believing the Boy Who Cried Book-Burning, Nazi Totalitarianism.

Poorly-Conceived, Poorly-Written, and Poorly-Edited Thoughts on Twitter Pulled From An Email Thread Written During My Lunch Break


Where do you come down on this whole Twitter vis-à-vis free speech thing?


Pen Pal:

I haven’t really dived into it to be honest. I’m not clear on what precisely they are and aren’t doing.

Mostly I think stuff like this shows that the open protocol people were right from the beginning; it always would’ve been better for us to have had something like email for what we do on Twitter rather than one company that has to make calls about policies like this.

In the particulars, I think both sides are broadly right. It’s scary when a company whose platform is an important nexus of influence starts cracking down for politically motivated reasons, but the stream of vile shit really does make it unusable for a lot of people already. So ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What about you? Have you paid any closer attention to this? Do you have thoughts?



Tangentially, even after I tried to slough off overtly political follows, it still kept creeping up in my TL(which isn’t helped by whatever the fuck Twitter decided to do to my TL the last few days, before I finally(?) jumped ship). Seriously, I just opened up the mobile app, and the top 13 tweets in my TL are by people I don’t follow. Fuck Twitter.

Like any good libertarian, I say a pox on both houses. I’m even having to cast a pox on some libertarians, too.

You know me, I’m a pretty big fan of Ken White, but I can’t help but disagree strongly with a portion of his post here

I think it is logically coherent to believe or think that Twitter or any other private actor should uphold XYZ values, in this case “free speech values”. This is something that becomes more obvious to me if you believe Twitter’s rhetoric, that they supposedly embrace free speech. I think that might be the crux of why I don’t completely dismiss the concerns of RightWing twitter. If you(Twitter) supposedly care about free speech, like you say you do, you gotta attempt to live up to it. This would be analagous to how FIRE (and Ken White) would critique censorious behavior by private universities as failing to uphold XYZ values(in that case, open inquiry, skepticism, etc etc etc)

Now, his distinction between free speech legalism and the, granted, more amorphous “upholding XYZ values” is important, and way too many socialcon tweeps do conflate 1st Amendment with (lower-case) free speech, and the point is well taken that the mushier language of values makes the discourse more difficult to parse, maybe even impossible, but my response is, “so what?”

Twitter absolutely has every right to disassociate themselves from whomever and they have every right to not provide a platform for whomever, but seemingly arbitrary suspensions/expulsions/etc makes a lie of Twitters supposed commitment to free speech.

I don’t want to go toooooo far though, because then you have scumbag partisans making the illogical leap from “Twitter is sorta, kinda hypocritical when they say they’re big proponents of free speech but suspend/delete accounts seemingly because of political allegiances, since equally vile rhetoric by people who are of a different political bent are not treated the same way” to “I demand Twitter give me a platform because to do otherwise is to trample my free speech rights”






Right Wing Twitter are as big of whiny crybabies as they say SJW Twitter is.

Theory and Practice, Episode Three

Maybe it was a bad idea to cite an acerbic guy like Lubos Motl. When a guy says that a lot of questions are just stupid, that’s not exactly “sweet talk.” Motl has an important point, but I won’t defend his tone.

He did take the time to outline exactly what he means when he says “stupid questions,” and not only does that definition not apply to Adam, it is also fully consistent with the Gadamer quote Adam gave us. In fact, I am as surprised that Adam would quote an argument in favor of authentic dialogue as a response to a criticism of inauthentic questions as I was when Samuel quoted a Situationist to critique my endorsement of Situationism.

Clearly there is a gap between what I think I’m saying and the message I actually manage to convey. And clearly this gap is caused by me because it keeps happening, and I am the common denominator. Motl might be wrong for his aggressive tone, but at least he gets his point across. No such luck for me. Even when my fellow Sweet Talkers agree with me, they think they disagree. Continue reading “Theory and Practice, Episode Three”

Does Ethical Theory Still Exist?

Featured image : philosophy is like a radiant sun that,
from time to time, throws off portions of itself -Isaiah Berlin, Does Political Philosophy Still Exist

There are two types of questions that we know have clear, real answers. The first type of question is empirical, which is to say it can be answered by systematic observation. How much money is in my bank account, how much weight can a particular bridge support and how much money will this tax raise bring to the treasury are all examples. The second type of question is formal. Given certain axioms, and rules for manipulating them, we can get an answer through pure calculation. This kind of question cannot answer questions about the world, except in so far as the axioms and the rules for manipulating them resemble the world as it exists. Taxonomy, logic, and math are all good examples of the second type of question.

For a well formed question of these sorts, even if we do not know the answer, we do know roughly what form an answer would take, that is we can determine whether a particular answer is a possible answer even if we can’t tell if it is a correct answer. We should be able to determine what sort of reasoning, what sort of demonstration, what sort of arguments would be relevant, and which would not.

Where the concepts are clear and their shape is generally accepted, and where the appropriate shape of reasoning is agreed on, only there is it possible to construct something resembling universal knowledge, of whatever kind. Where the questions are not clear, where a concept is not well defined, and no one can agree on what an answer would look like, and the methods and qualifications to answer the questions are entirely in dispute, then we can construct only a pseudoscience, or if we are lucky, a protoscience.

There is however a third category of questions, those which cannot be formulated in either of the two categories which have well defined answers. Does free will exist? What is justice? How can I know whether an action is just? Why should I obey another? We discover that we are not sure, from the very outset, what a clear answer to these questions would look like, whether inductive or deductive. These are the philosophical questions.

Now the history of human knowledge has been the gradual shifting of the philosophical questions into one or the other of these two compartments. The nature and composition of the stars was once a philosophical question, and it could not be clear ahead of time what part should be played by observation and what by a priori teleological notions, and the questions asked could not be neatly divided into formal and inductive categories. As methods competed and technologies of observation and technique advanced, the questions became well formed, and the science of astronomy was born. You can begin to see the outlines of the death of philosophy of mind and the birth of a science of mind already, or hedonic philosophy being transformed into a science of happiness. For studies at this boundary, not quite science and not quite philosophy, meaningful dialogue can take place. A philosopher who attempts to answer an empirical question, without using an empirical method, is sure to be spouting nonsense, and a scientist who attempts to answer a non-empirical question using an empirical method will be answering a different question than she thinks.

There is however also a category of philosophical questions which stubbornly resist resolution into well behaved categories. The efforts at least from Plato onwards to found a systematic scientific account of ethics or aesthetics has repeatedly failed. Relativism, emotivism, skepticism always break back in. Ryan condemns all of philosophy, however his particular concerns seem to be with what is broadly politics, that is how we should treat others and what the ultimate aim of our actions should be. But this is not an empirical question, like how we *do* treat people or more specifically who treats whom in what way, when and where and under what circumstances. It is not a clearly deductive question either, like whether a particular action violated custom or law.

What makes such questions as justice and ethics properly philosophical is precisely that there is such widespread disagreement about what kind of reasons are valid, and what the shape of a valid argument looks like. The methods of answering look very different for theists and atheists, reductive materialists and Christians, Romantics, Marxists, Feminists and Nihilists. The differences between them are not empirical disagreements, nor are there a set of axioms to which we can garner universal consent, nor even a process for generating axioms. The reason why philosophy is necessary, the reason why it arose in the first place, is precisely because of this disagreement.

If everyone agreed on ultimate ends, the questions that are supposed to arise out of political and ethical philosophy would reduce to a inductive problem of what sort of actions increased utility, or a statistical analysis of what actions in what situations increased happiness. If everyone agreed on axioms, or agreed on the process for generating axioms, then politics and ethics would reduce to calculation based on the ten commandments or the categorical imperative. It is precisely that persistent disagreements, systematic disagreements, continue to exist, that the chain of arguments do not follow the same family of paths, that the form of solutions is fundamentally unresolved, that requires the answer remain philosophical.

It is entirely legitimate, and possibly correct, to argue that philosophical methods cannot produce truthful knowledge about the world or ourselves, and is at best rationalizations of deeper processes. Prior to the 18th century or so slavery was an accepted part of the social order, and ethics was concerned mainly with the appropriate manner in which slaves should be treated. People with as contradictory ethical systems as the Epicureans and the Stoics neverless agreed that slavery was acceptable, as did the medieval Christians and Muslims and Hindus. By the end of the twentieth century, neo-stoics, neo-Epicureans, Utilitarians and Deontologists, no matter their other substantial disagreements all agree that slave holding is impermissible. It was not new knowledge, but new social convention that changed the ethical theory. By contrast stoic logic, though incomplete, is as valid now as when it was formulated, and the Greek proofs that the world is round are as acceptable today as when they were first observed. Answers to philosophical questions are genuinely different than answers to well formulated questions.

Nevertheless, to argue that everyone knows what actions will increase happiness, and further that everyone wants to increase their own happiness and that of others is a well formulated empirical question, and one need only look at the contrast between the actions of the average person compared the findings, such as they are, from happiness research to indicate that either people do not know what makes them and others happy, or else that they do not think that happiness is the meaning of life and basis of ethics. However humans are social, and so the game of giving and asking for reasons must continue. The problem of competing ethical systems is not that different people might disagree about the best way to achieve identical ends, but that different people will do different things for reasons that others will find unacceptable, or towards ends that they find incomprehensible. To argue that it does not matter why a person gives money to the homeless so long as he does so, is only a gracious concession that it does not matter why someone agrees with you, so long as they do.

Ignorant, Humble, and Curious

Featured image is a scholar with his books and globe.

Meredith L. Patterson has a wonderful post on the Platonic dialogues, and the different roles particular characters fill in them.

At a high level, there are just two roles: smart guy and dumb guy. Socrates is the only smart guy, so if you are his interlocutor, you’re the dumb guy.

But on the dumb guy side, Meredith makes a further distinction:

Broadly, they fall into two classes: hubristic dumb guys and epistemically humble dumb guys. Hubristic dumb guys think they know all the answers, and by definition don’t, because nobody does. Epistemically humble dumb guys know they don’t know most of the answers, and don’t mind, apart from the whole not-knowing part, and would like to know more.

You’d think that for your self-image it would be better to be Socrates, but I honestly kinda like being the second kind of dumb guy.

I think this is on the mark. To see why, consider two extreme interpretations of Socrates.

Continue reading “Ignorant, Humble, and Curious”

A Few Stupid Questions

Pictured above: a philosopher leads potential scientists astray

It is no secret that I found reading Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method to be an exceptional learning experience.

There is one quote I find myself going back to, again and again:

Among the greatest insights that Plato’s account of Socrates affords us is that, contrary to the general opinion, it is more difficult to ask questions than to answer them. When the partners in the Socratic dialogue are unable to answer Socrates’ awkward questions and try to turn the tables by assuming what they suppose is the preferable role of the questioner, they come to grief. Behind this comic motif in the Platonic dialogues there is the critical distinction between authentic and inauthentic dialogue. To someone who engages in dialogue only to prove himself right and not to gain insight, asking questions will indeed seem easier than answering them. There is no risk that he will be unable to answer a question. In fact, however, the continual failure of the interlocutor shows that people who think they know better cannot even ask the right questions. In order to be able to ask, one must want to know, and that means knowing that one does not know.

I fear that fellow Sweet Talker Ryan and Lubos Motl, whom Ryan thinks of so highly, are right about people like me. Socrates, Plato, and Gadamer would no doubt concur—I am only capable of asking stupid questions.

Ryan’s two part argument, and the pieces he links to, are hefty and add up to quite the system of thought. I feel I am inadequate to the task of offering a proper answer, especially since I would not use the scientific method to do so, so what answer I would provide would have no value in any case.

Perhaps there can be some value in even stupid questions, if only to reveal how wrong this path I have taken has been from the very start. So, in the spirit of conversation rather than the spirit of a rigorous scientific examination, I offer a few questions to my friend Ryan, and hope he may help me find better ones.

Continue reading “A Few Stupid Questions”

Theory and Practice, Episode Two


“No Epistemic Value”

The social value of philosophy was hiding in its role of a subject that used to attract – and, to a lesser extent, still attracts – high-IQ people and makes them think about important questions. Historically, philosophy was therefore the ultimate “protoscience” and became the seed of science as we know it today, too. And that was good for the mankind.

However, its modus operandi is a flawed approach to learning the truth. The old philosophy was studied before the scientific method was understood; and the modern philosophers – by the very definition of philosophers – are still failing to use the scientific method. They don’t understand that Nature is smarter than us which is why they still hope to “guess the important truths” without any accurate empirical input; and, more importantly, they fail to formulate their musings sharply enough and eliminate the falsified ones.

Therefore, we may say that philosophy as a human enterprise has a “social value” but philosophy as a body of knowledge, methods, and results has no “epistemic value”.

That is from a 2013 blog post written by a physicist named Lubos Motl. Even now, years later, this post continues to leave a lasting impact on me. Always outspoken, Motl doesn’t mince words in this post, either:

In general, there aren’t any big questions posed by philosophers that were solved within science simply because philosophy’s modus operandi is not only a flawed method to find the right answer; it is a flawed method to choose the right questions, too. For this reason, virtually all important enough questions first posed by philosophers were scientifically shown to be meaningless or building on invalid assumptions (and all “specific enough” theories invented by philosophers – whether they have called them “questions” or, which was more typical, “teaching” – were shown scientifically false). The philosophy’s unscientific method not only fails to eliminate the blunders and misconceptions from the answers; it fails to eliminate them from the questions, too.

It’s tempting to summarily dismiss anyone who themselves writes so dismissively about important ideas, but I ask the reader to resist that temptation. Motl doesn’t hate philosophy, he just doesn’t see the point of investing time and intellect into poorly specified questions. (He even wrote a separate post about stupid questions.)

No, his real point isn’t that philosophy is useless, but rather that it has failed to get results:

The main problem with the philosophical method is not that it produces no results for other fields; the main problem is that it doesn’t produce the true answers in its own field.

Ask yourself what philosophy has done for you, personally. What are its benefits? And by “benefits” I mean “positive impacts on your life over and above the mere ability to use philosophy’s internal jargon to describe things that can just as easily and accurately be described without that jargon?”

I won’t say that philosophy can’t produce those benefits. What I will say is that one’s lack of clear benefits indicates that one has the wrong philosophy. If you don’t have them or can’t list them out- or, even worse, if your life is observably worse as a result of philosophy – then you need to change course. And this is true according to your standards, not just mine.

Spinning Wheels

It’s a bad idea to promote the ideas of Ayn Rand, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Dr. Phil on this blog… much less in the same blog post… much less in the same sentence… but consider this the exception that proves the rule. The one idea they all seem to have in common is that they all seem to be dedicated to the notion that philosophy, done right, ought to be of practical use to ordinary people. Yudkowsky calls it “making beliefs pay rent,” but I prefer Dr. Phil’s folksy way of saying it: “How’s that workin’ for ya?

Philosophy is only as good as its ability to make us happy and help us solve problems. At its worst, philosophy is infuriating nonsense that misses the point, causing endless debates about whether an X is a “true” X. Fun though it may be in the moment, it’s practically useless. We don’t need a correct definition of “happiness” in order to be happy – we already know what happiness feels like, because we’ve all felt it. The rest is navel-gazing. I like to brood with a snifter of cognac as much as the next guy (okay, more than the next guy), but on my best days I remember that cognac is nice to drink even when I’m not brooding. That’s when the real fun begins. Or should I say the true fun?

I’m arming myself with a bandwagon of sundry other thinkers out there to lend a little extra credence to my claim that moral foundations ought to be psychological, i.e. not philosophical. As I put it in a separate conversation recently, “What good is a philosophy that puts you in therapy?” We debate the philosophy or the moral framework, but nobody debates the results; we all want to be sane, happy, healthy people. Touting this as the central goal of any moral or philosophical system puts the focus where it belongs: the proof of the pudding.

This is why, when we raise philosophical objections to someone’s stated belief, we don’t very often convince them to change her mind. What difference does it make if “capitalism, carried to its natural conclusion” produces anarchy? No debate about economic systems should rest on taking the real, physical world in which we live, and moving it to a hypothetical “natural [philosophical] conclusion.” I’m for economic growth and widespread prosperity. You too? Okay, what policy can be shown to produce those results? If my idea makes us all rich but philosophically inconsistent, I promise to buy you a hamburger. (NB: a hamburger is more satiating than philosophical consistency.)

The problem, as I see it, is that the deeper one gets into philosophy, the further one gets from the solution to one’s problem. I firmly believe that Plato’s Republic could be convincingly re-translated as comedy. One simple question about the definition of the word justice produces an entire treatise on government. You couldn’t make up better satire if you tried. If someone who knew nothing about philosophy (…or a thousand monkeys sitting at a thousand typewriters…) were asked to write a pilot for a sit-com the express purpose of which was to make fun of philosophers, it would look a lot like the Republic.

Suppose that in real life you actually had to solve a trolley problem, and that you could choose to either go with your gut instinct or pause time long enough to perform an exhaustive philosophical analysis of the problem. My thesis, restated: (1) If your analysis produced exactly the same conclusion as your gut instinct, then it was a wasted effort; (2) If your analysis made you less certain of what to do, it made your life worse and it was a wasted effort; (3) If your analysis produced a perverse conclusion, it made your life worse; (4) But, if your analysis produced a better outcome than your gut instinct would have, it was worthwhile.

Getting Results

I suppose at this point I should establish that I’m not straw-manning anything. Does philosophy actually produce bad outcomes for people? Yes. Here are two examples.

The first one is the curious case of Mitchell Heisman, who no one remembers anymore. By most accounts, Heisman was a highly intelligent and motivated man who showed no warning signs, and who ultimately harmed no one but himself. Despite his admirable intellect, he shot himself on a Harvard University landmark… as an act of philosophy. He left a “suicide note” in the form of a 1,900 page treatise on nihilism posted to a now-defunct website. The few who profess to have read it said it was “creepy,” but no one says that its claims are untrue. (Not to damn with faint praise, but Lubos Motl read it and enjoyed it.) Heisman was an intelligent man whose core philosophical beliefs were nihilistic. Unlike most nihilists, Heisman actually put his beliefs into practice: if there is no point, then why live? It’s important to note that Heisman didn’t misunderstand nihilism or get it wrong. He understood it perfectly, and ended his life accordingly.

In learning about Heisman, we all sense that something is wrong, but academic philosophy is powerless to tell us what. At best we can disagree with his conclusions, but when it comes to getting results, i.e. suicide prevention, what good is that? We know that suicide is a tragedy; we don’t need to prove it. The suggestion is almost silly. But philosophy can’t do the work needed to save Heisman’s life or anyone else’s. Instead, it can spur a debate about whether Heisman’s suicide is “truly” a tragedy or whether he is “truly” worse-off now compared to when he was alive.

The result of philosophy for Mitchell Heisman, then, is death. That’s a bad outcome.

The second example is that of Katherine Ripley, a young journalist who found herself traumatically victimized, left in a sad situation in which the academic philosophies she had learned in school gave her exactly the wrong advice. What those philosophies did give her, on the other hand, was a powerful set of rationalizations for self-destructive behavior that she only learned to overcome after what she describes as “intensive therapy sessions.”

Ms. Ripley isn’t a crazy person or an idiot. In fact, her career would suggest very much the opposite. She is an intelligent and articulate defender of her ideas. The philosophies that did her wrong for her own life (the real world, live and in the flesh) are defended on the highest terms and in the halls of the most prestigious philosophy departments in the country. The question isn’t “who could believe such a thing?” because the answer to that is “pretty much anyone smart enough to follow a valid chain of logic.” No, the question is what results did she get out of those ideas? The proof of the pudding.

I have no good arguments against either nihilism or feminism. They are both valid, consistent moral belief systems. They’re both well-reasoned and provide cogent explanations for a person’s actions. But how’s that workin’ for ya?

There is a fair criticism to be made at this point: Some great argument, Ryan. You take two tragedies that happen to have a connection to a couple of mainstream philosophies, and from that you indict the philosophies themselves, rather than the people. What about all the millions of other practitioners of these philosophies who don’t suffer an ill fate?

My response: Those philosophies appear to be working for all the happy people, don’t they? See? Multiple coherent, consistent, valid philosophies are available to us and anyone else. You might choose one and I might choose another. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the pudding tastes.

Practice, Not Theory

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one reason to give an old man some spare changeCeteris paribus, the philosophy that consistently results in a skinned cat (uh, assuming you’re into that…) or a donation to the needy is a good philosophy. It shouldn’t matter if that philosophy happens to be nihilism or feminism or utilitarianism or the Word of God. (Ceteris paribus.)

By contrast, the philosophy that only seems to work in special cases is not a good philosophy. Nor the philosophy that works 95% of the time, and 5% of the time you blow your brains out in front of the library; nor the philosophy that makes millions of women feel empowered at the expense of thousands of women who end up really hurting on the inside; nor the philosophy that teaches peace and harmony on Sundays and insular biases and discrimination the rest of the week; nor the philosophy that justifies a particular economic policy at the expense of all human altruism. And so on, and so forth.

The results matter. The theories are only as valuable as their ability to deliver those results. Did you like your pudding? Good, then you got the recipe right. Or not? Then change your recipe. It’s just words on paper. You can’t eat words on paper unless you’re desperate, and even then you’re getting mostly fiber. In one end and out the other.

And just in case I haven’t fully tapped-out the recipe analogy, here are some old-timey instructions for ammonia cookies, which are exactly what they sound like.


Why would someone want to put ammonia in their cookies? Because it tastes like mint. No, really, I’ve eaten them before. They are delicious. You can scratch your head about putting ammonia in food, but the fact is, it’s been done – successfully. That philosophy has been tested to tasty effect, so at this point there is no use questioning the thinking behind eating ammonia. It got results. (It’s not as if the drinking of cow milk is any more rational – or, for you vegans out there, the consumption of the barely-edible plant stalks attached to fatally poisonous leaves.) It doesn’t have to make sense if the cookies are both tasty and edible, and they are.

The underlying philosophy – the why – doesn’t matter anymore.

But you want “why”, you’re drawn to “why” like you’re drawn to a pretty girl in the rain.  Let me guess: she has black hair, big eyes, and is dressed like an ingenue.   “Why?” is the most seductive of questions because it is innocent, childlike, infinite in possibilities, and utterly devoted to you.

“Why am I this way?  Why do I do what I do?”  But what will you do with that information?  What good is it?  If you were an android, would it change you to know why you were programmed the way you were?   “Why” is masturbation, “why” is the enemy, the only question that matters is, now what?

And anyway, the answer to “why” isn’t very interesting. (Spoiler alert: “It is inevitable.”)

We don’t really want a perfect philosophical theory, anyway. That’s just an intermediary step to more interesting goals, like “happiness” and “sanity,” just like you don’t write C# code in order for it to be syntactically correct, but rather as a step toward a more interesting goal, like buying food at the grocery store and subsequently eating it. A job that pays well and keeps you dipping your ammonia cookies in milk instead of anti-freeze is a good job; a philosophy that keeps you happy, well-adjusted, and sane is a good philosophy.

It’s the proof of the pudding, see, that’s what we want. Results.