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.

Theory and Practice, Episode One


I need to make a point about something, but as it turns out, it’s impossible to make this point in a single blog post. So I’ll have to do this on an installment plan.

Adventures In Comparative Legal Systems

When I lived in Canada, I used to hang out with a lot of law students. During that time, the conversation would inevitably turn to Canadian law. By this, I mean that they were often doing their homework right in front of me, and I was helping them with it. So it was a bit more than just casual conversation.

And in case you’re wondering, the answer is: Yes, my experience tells me that most law school homework is done in a pub over multiple pitchers of beer.

Anyway, one of the things that struck me about the Canadian legal system is the way human rights are organized, legally speaking. Canada has what’s called the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is analogous to the American Bill of Rights. It spells out what rights are guaranteed to the people by the government. The Canadian government, according to Canadian law, is permitted to violate the Charter in certain cases, as long as the details of those cases conform to certain legal guidelines, which are spelled out in writing and in jurisprudence.

As a fiery young, philosophical man, this used to incense me. After all, the Bill of Rights is a document that outlines things that the U.S. federal government is not permitted to do. In other words, the presumption here in the United States is that human beings hold certain inalienable rights that supersede any additional legal power. In Canada, subject to legal conventions, it is the government that grants all rights to the people, so government powers supersede the rights of the people.

I say it used to make me incensed. It doesn’t anymore. Why not? Because while studying the law alongside my friends, I eventually learned that in practice the Canadian legal system reaches the same important conclusions regarding human rights as the American legal system.

The only material difference in these matters is the language used to justify the conclusion. In America, our courts tend to use language that refers to what the government cannot do, and what the intended meaning of legislation is. In Canada, their courts tend to use language that refers to what the government is permitted to do and whether the intended meaning of the legislation provides sufficient justification for doing it.

But, as I said, when it comes to everything that matters on human rights issues, the two countries’ legal systems tend to reach the same conclusions, even though their justifications are phrased differently.

What’s the Point, Ryan?

I bring this up because one of the least attractive things about philosophy is that it tends to raise objections that need not be raised.

We see a homeless man shivering outside a coffee shop with an outstretched arm holding a cup. Most people I know who have spare change will drop a few coins in the man’s cup. Of those who do, some of them do so for reasons of faith, some of them do so for reasons of utility maximization, some of them do it for reasons of virtue. And, yes, some of them do it for reasons of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or to help clear their conscience.

I know a few people who would choose not to help the man. They all refuse to do it for various reasons, but no matter what their moral philosophy happens to be, they all justify their decision on moral terms. Maybe they want to give the man incentive to get a job. Maybe they think someone else is more deserving. Maybe they think the man will spend the money contrary to his own best interests, i.e. on drugs or alcohol.

Philosophy tends to raise objections that need not be raised. If you and I both give the man our spare change, there is no point arguing over which one of us had the better moral reasoning: the outcome was the same, ergo our reasoning was equal. You can say this however you like: what matter are results; actions speak louder than words; practice is more relevant than theory.

What matters outside of that coffee shop is not the spotless philosophical reasoning used to justify a particular course of action, but rather what we choose to do. If I give the old man my spare change for totally incomprehensible and inconsistent reasons “which, if taken to their natural conclusion…” would destroy the world I don’t care. Neither does the old man. Because the outcome of my moral reasoning was the same as if I had used a superior moral framework (or an even more inferior one): the man got his money and the world is still intact.

Now, if a particular philosophy fails to produce the right results, or fails to produce them consistently, then we have a good reason to evaluate the coherence of that philosophy and address its shortcomings. (More on that in a forthcoming post.) But if I’m giving my change to deserving old men, my friends and family are happy with me, and I am generally impacting the world in a positive way, whatever crazy and internally inconsistent moral framework I’m working with is working for me/paying rent.

If we raise objections to “wrong” thinking that consistently yields “right” results, then maybe it’s time we checked our premises.

The Flowers of Romance

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

If when you say romance you mean the devil’s lie, the blinkered delusion, the soul-devouring succubus, that abrogates sense, dethrones reason, destroys the kindly nooks of the soul, creates miserable, unrequited yearning, yea, literally soaks delirious eyes in rose-tinted hyssop-water; if you mean the evil infatuation that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, prudent affections into the bottomless pit of degeneracy, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say romance you mean the gladdening of the heart, the joy of humanity, the buoyancy of a young spirit yearning for affection, that puts a song in the heart and a smile on the lips, and the warm glow of contentment in the eyes; if you mean springtime fancy; if you mean the stimulating sentiment that gladdens the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the hope which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that tiding, the indulgence of which gives rise to trust and honor in the boudoir as well as the marketplace, then certainly I am for it.

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


We Westerners are romantics. Our struggle is to keep from being delusional romantics. Saints preserve us, one and all.

Bottom-up contextual libertarianism

Libertarians love to contrast bottom-up market solutions with top-down government mandates. A demand – or the potential for demand that may develop with creative persuasion – is discerned and the savvy entrepreneur employs unique localized knowledge to meet the need. An individual is situated in a particular set of circumstances, with a particular history and set of skills, contacts, prejudices, desires, etc. How the individual interacts with the market is contextual in a way no central planner can appreciate. Given the freedom to exchange and a trustworthy currency, the decentralized actions of individuals in their particular contexts spontaneously generate a market order whereby the aims of far-flung strangers are furthered.

But libertarians often approach their own political philosophy in an ironically top-down way. Libertarian theories are often based on one or a few abstract principles (the non-aggression principle, and hardcore property rights that the NAP is parasitic upon), and then let the chips fall their where they may for the applications of the theory. This may seem “bottom-up” in a facile way, starting from a foundation and building on top of it. But this is really the blueprint of a central architect. There’s none of the characteristic duct tape and kludge of a complex adaptive system, none of the quirky diversity of individual purposes.

In a “Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders“, Will Wilkinson contrasts the project of developing a theory of liberty from abstract principles with the alternative approach of jotting down already deeply held values and trying to build a workable theory of liberty from there. Forgive the long quotation, but Wilkinson writes better than I can summarize:

Thomas Reid, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, pointed out that there are two ways to construct an account of what it means to really know something, rather than just believing it to be true. The first way is to develop an abstract theory of knowledge—a general criterion that separates the wheat of knowledge from the chaff of mere opinion—and then see which of our opinions qualify as true knowledge. Reid noted that this method tends to lead to skepticism, because it’s hard, if not impossible, to definitively show that any of our opinions check off all the boxes these sort of general criteria tend to set out.

That’s why Descartes ends up in a pickle and Hume leaves us in a haze of uncertainty. It’s all a big mistake, Reid said, because the belief that I have hands, for example, is on much firmer ground than any abstract notions about the nature of true knowledge that I might dream up. If my theory implies that I don’t really know that I have hands, that’s a reason to reject the theory, not a reason to be skeptical about the existence of my appendages.

According to Reid, a better way to come up with a theory of knowledge is to make a list of the things we’re very sure that we really know. Then, we see if we can devise a coherent theory that explains how we know them.

The 20th century philosopher Roderick Chisholm called these two ways of theorizing about knowledge “methodism”—start with a general theory, apply it, and see what, if anything, counts as knowledge according to the theory—and “particularism”—start with an inventory of things that we’re sure we know and then build a theory of knowledge on top of it.

The point of all this is that an analogous distinction applies to our thinking about politics.

Suppose you’re especially interested in liberty, as I am. If you’re a theory-first methodist, what you’re going to do is concoct a general theory of liberty and then use it to tell you what a maximally free regime looks like. I think the analogy to theories of knowledge is very good here, since strong theory-first libertarians often come to the conclusion that no state-based regime can ever qualify as fully free. This amounts to deep theory-driven skepticism about government that’s a lot like deep theory-driven skepticism about knowledge. But then, well… what? I can’t tell you for sure that I’m not stuck in a computer simulation, so I don’t know that I have hands. And I can’t tell you for sure how to square my intuitions about coercion and consent with the legitimacy of government (or property, for that matter). Okay. Sure. So what now? We’ve got to get on with life. What gloves should I buy for my maybe-computer-simulated hands? What kind of maybe-illegitimate government should we want to live under?

Wilkinson notes that this does involve a proto-theory of liberty – or more generally, a proto-theory of politics or of the good. But this proto-theory can be revised after life and dialogue with others persuades us we’ve maybe got something a little out of whack here or there.

Bottom-up capabilities

Wilkinson specifically mentions the evidently flourishing nations earning places of prominence in the Fraser Institute’s 2015 Human Freedom Index (pdf), which tracks various kinds of freedom, from rule of law and stable government to ease of starting a business and freedom of movement. Wilkinson suggests that these nations, even though they include anti-libertarian things like socialized health care and high levels of wealth redistribution, nevertheless also perform better than other nations at ensuring negative liberty for their citizens, the kind of liberty qua freedom-from-coercive-constraint that libertarians cheer. Questions of legitimacy and coercion are important, but as Loren Lomasky and Fernando Tesón point out in Justice at a Distance, even if no government is fully legitimate, there are surely degrees of legitimacy, and the Fraser Institute’s favored nations must rank highly in relative legitimacy.

Wilkinson’s “data-first particularism” reminds me of the capabilities approach, and my own writing on how it and libertarianism might be joined. The capabilities approach does not begin with simple premises and derive from there. In thinking about capabilities you first consider all the things a flourishing life comprises and then you try to kludge together a halfway coherent theory to underpin them. Or you begin with obvious injustices or social diseases and work out your theory to avoid these pitfalls. Consider a world

where enforcement of property rights is perfect and government violence is minimal, but where all the property is owned by a rich, cohesive majority group, large enough to function economically on its own. Further, members of the majority loathe the minority group, and uniformly refuse to sell or lease them property; neither will they employ them except perhaps for dangerous or degrading jobs for exploitative wages; neither will they educate them in their first class schools.

To echo Wilkinson (and Thomas Reid), if your theory says that a rigid caste society is okay as long as property rights are protected, then that is a reason to reject your theory, and not just a tasty bullet to chomp down on. Wilkinson’s question, “What kind of maybe-illegitimate government should we want to live under?” can be answered: one that is empirically most consistent with the advancement of human capabilities.

Contextual politics

My fellow Sweet Talker Sam Hammond has discussed something very similar to what Wilkinson is driving at, a means to build politics from the bottom up. With characteristic brilliance, Sam has described a secular analog to that old chestnut, the Euthyphro dilemma.

[T]he original dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro was not really about the nature of god, but about the nature of normative authority more generally. By being constant through time and space and separate from human particularity, God simply reflects the idealized universality and generality which we seek in our principals of justice.

In lieu of god, secular moral philosophy from Kant on has been trying to somehow leverage sureness back into our moral sense through convoluted transcendental arguments. Such efforts usually involve the metaphysical construction of an “ideal self” in some ideal scenario behaving in ideal ways to which we must all rationally assent. Our secular Euthyphro dilemma thus becomes: Are our abstract moral theories based on what is right, or is what is right based on our abstract moral theories? Against any Kantian construction, the dilemma is no less powerful as when levied against divine command.

In a subsequent post, Sam defends Ordoliberalism as a practical approach to building politics from the bottom up.

In this view, law is a public good that must be calibrated to encourage co-ordination. On the other hand, ignoring the societal outcomes of a legal system based on the dogma of natural rights leads to disaster. For example, in the early 1900s the cartelization of the German economy was upheld by “laissez-faire” courts emphasizing the inalienable right of freedom to contract. Ordoliberals recognized the dramatic expansion of cartels as a key factor behind the rise of national socialism, and thus made competition law a central plank in their post-war project.

To Ordoliberals, the property system, including contract and liability law, was itself as much a type of competition policy as anti-trust measures like explicit acts prohibiting monopoly. This point of view is sometimes referred to Ordnungspolitik, an organic conception of regulatory policy as integral to and a part of economic order. The Ordo Yearbook of Economic and Social Order was thus one of the earliest academic journals to publish what today is called law and economics, public choice theory and constitutional economics, with a special emphasis on limiting the influence of rent seeking through a strong, independent state apparatus. Note that these are all fields which blur the line between market and state, consistent with the interdependence thesis.


This focus on path dependency and public choice helps the Ordoliberal dissolve the dogmatic debates between “capitalists” and “socialists”. For example, in a dynamic world it may very well be the case that public pension plans are pro-market. From a public choice perspective, corporate welfare policies like auto-industry bailouts are a clear consequence of special interest lobbying through trade unions. Looking closer, the bailouts are less about the company as they are about shoring up massive pension liabilities. Thus an Ordo could argue that to oppose an actuarially transparent public pension scheme is to tacitly support the maleficent alternative.

Emphases mine. Just as Wilkinson observes that we find ourselves in a state and must get on with it, Sam suggests that the lines between the state and the market are and must be blurred. The market is contingent upon the legal order even while legal rules must be made in accordance with economic principles and human nature if they are to be socially useful, or in my language, capabilities-enhancing. Culture and institutions interact with the market, government, and politics in complex ways. The same laws will not necessarily have the same social effects where norms of strong family bonds prevail, for instance. And feminist consciousness, a communications revolution, or an extended economic upswing can influence both the public policies that are demanded as well as the effects of those policies when in place. The dynamic interplay of economics, the law, politics, and culture amid pervasive political disagreement and our own uncertainty is far too complex and open-ended for any central planner to successfully manage, whether that central planner is the Politburo or the ab initio political theorist, libertarian or otherwise.

Libertarians who so often understand the importance of particular context in the market rarely understand that politics also is contextual. What Will Wilkinson, Ordoliberals, and capabilitarians can all teach us is that politics pervades our social lives, and our disagreements cannot be idealized away. While inconvenient for some, this is not a tragic truth.

The End of Millennials

As the so-called Greatest Generation takes its place in oblivion, Generation X finds itself as the lone middle child of the generations, sandwiched as the smaller sibling between the Baby Boomers, the worst generation ever, and the Millennials, that great monolithic unseasoned mind.

GenX has assumed a peculiar role, I think, of being divided, divvied up by our parents, being the incarnational byproduct of the Baby Boomers’ willful overthrow of western institutions. On one side of the divide there is a sense of pessimism and doom that the whole western project is failing, and that the Baby Boomers are the primary malefactors in their sucking all the pleasures of civilization unto themselves before they crumple it up and throw it into the dustbin of history, at just about the same time they pass on to sleep with their fathers, leaving us no heritage except for some really great record albums.

On the other side of the divide is this: I was driving my 12-year old son to hockey practice the other day, and I was trying to penetrate his world, which was shielded by his iPod earbuds, and I heard myself saying, almost unconsciously, “So, Tom, what does your generation think?” Thankfully, he didn’t hear me or he would have rolled his eyes, and I would have become infuriated, and both our worlds would have become unpleasant. Nevertheless, I was pleased with the question, for even though this young man hasn’t a thought beyond the latest Minecraft update, or (to be more generous to my own dear progeny) his latest electronics project, he will soon have thoughts beyond those trivial things, and they will be generational.

It is an anxious game GenXers are playing, a Machiavellian one (by the common understanding): with one mouth, we are encouraging the Baby Boomers to remove themselves before their grip on our civilization becomes too morbid to procure its release, saying, “Why, yes, Peter Singer has some wonderful ideas about assisted-suicide. Say, the skin around your eyes does look a touch pallid, doesn’t it? I’ll go fetch the doings, and we’ll be done with you in a jiffy. You’ve lived a good life, now on to better pastures, right?” With the other mouth we are trying to set up a renewed western canon of ideals for our children via the Millennials, saying, “Have you thought to consider that human dignity doesn’t necessarily end when you become so weak that you need the constant care of your family?” Alas, to be the generational Pushmi-Pullyu is exhausting, and it is the essence of futility.

My son, however, is pushing the Millennials, and his generation are of a number, and they will be of a myriad of ideas that they shall press against the Millennials, and the Millennials shall press back, applying unwittingly the idealistic torsion forces which will shatter that infuriating optimism, as ours shattered, and as did the Boomers’ before us, and as it was for every generation whose parents sinned and set the children’s teeth on edge.

And then it shall come to pass that the Millennials will be frustrated in their efforts to progress, more or less, and their contributions to civilization, or to its collapse, will be put into the great crucible, and it will be fired, and the generations will sift through the ashes to find what value there might be.

And so there is hope.