The Politics of Doubt

Two Concepts of Belief

Over time, I’ve come to see thinking about morality and politics as divided into two streams. Let’s call the first, “belief as an attitude”. The second, “belief as a philosophy”. In the former, politics is conceived as a situation under which our projects are seen as built within a pluralistic framework, such that multiple valid goals and intuitions compete for our attention. The only choice we have therefore, is to see our ideas within a framework of epistemic and moral ambiguity. This promotes a skepticism about our priorities having a particular end-goal, and instead contributes to building a family of perspectives within an overall world view. Rather than solely operating through reason, we cultivate impressions that help to guide us. In the latter, a series of interlinked steps lead toward conclusions, which, if not inexorable, are thought to be highly probable or vital. We may begin with a foundational precept which, via a merry chain of logic, gets us to home base, wherever that might be. We might alternatively work on building theories that appeal to specific intuitions, leading towards viewing agents and institutions as having a clearly defined status.*

Belief as Philosophy

One example of this in the political realm might be found in Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority. Huemer argues that our common intuitions about the state are fundamentally inconsistent, attributing as they do moral authority and the right to violent coercion and social control for agents that may not justly claim such authority. He furthermore shows that standard issue popular and academic defenses of state legitimacy fail for various reasons, including especially the various iterations of social contract theory. He ultimately argues for the adoption of market anarchism, or anarcho-capitalism. These contributions notwithstanding, I came away from the book feeling not entirely satisfied.

One problem is that Huemer’s discussion is too narrow, by constraining the available set of considerations. An important part of the justificatory framework and implicit reason for the mass adoption of belief in social institutions, the state included, isn’t simply (though probably to a significant degree) due to perpetual myths of authority, but also on the messy inherent normativity that actually existing institutions have within them. Will Wilkinson argues,

“Philosophers generally draw a sharp line between de facto and legitimate authority, but it can be a confusing distinction because it’s not really a distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive or positive and normative. De facto authority is already normative. Normativity is built in at the ground floor. Authority supplies binding reasons for action. THAT’S HOW IT WORKS. That’s how it coordinates. So when we’re asking about the legitimacy of authority, we can’t be asking about what gives authority its normative force. If it’s de facto authority, it already has it. So we must be asking for some sort of higher-order moral validation of authority’s reason-giving power. De facto authority does produce obligations, but do we really have reason to really do what authority supplies us with reasons to do.”

The issue isn’t just a rationalist-pluralist divide over whether we can redesign systems from the top, or what we ought to do about competing forms of social groups and collectivities. It’s a broader dispute about the role that existing beliefs play in the legitimation of a perspective or an institution. These existing beliefs both contribute to, and emerge from, the normative properties an institution might hold, including its claims to be just. When we ask people to abandon a political perspective, or follow a set of radical conclusions, we need to take into account the perception they have of those institutions as normatively justified, by looking at the presence of those systems as the background to their lives. That presence performs a kind of reason-giving function for taking state institutions as legitimate. Since the role that the state plays enables a de facto authority, our respect for the moral considerations of others should ask us to take it seriously within the exchange of reasons.

We can illustrate this by thinking about social norms. Norms, as a species of institution, contain elements of both “is” and “ought”. That is, the functioning of a norm is built both on the empirics of the way things operate in practice, and the relative state of affairs between people, but also on perceptions of the way we are morally obligated to behave. The power of statements like “Please” and “Thank You”, lie not only in the utility of such statements to promote peaceful relationships by signalling good terms, but also as moral presumptions about how people should to be treated. Thus, avoiding polite language is not just inefficient, but understood as a breakdown in our duties to one another, to social morality and “the way things should to be”. The reasons we give therefore, are idealized and universal, stretching far beyond the particular. However contextual norms might be, relying on the implicit understandings and guarantees within an environment in an endless game of cooperation against defection, their presence makes us see them as being more than simply a matter of context.

A worldview that builds itself on the deducing out from single line of intuitions, is more likely to see “belief as philosophy”, and devote itself to deriving conclusions with particular results. This is built on an external set of reasons that see themselves as easily transcending the matrix of experiences, norms, and moral perceptions within which they are embedded.

Furthermore, an even more central problem is the question of where we choose to place our moral focus. Perhaps the main issue with making determined paths about where institutions ought to go, is that the moral concepts embedded within them are “essentially contested”. This makes it difficult to figure out how and where we should move. Furthermore, as Wilkinson notes elsewhere, few if any moral notions can claim to be exempt from such a status. Wilkinson follows (as do I) David Schmidtz’s wise insight that justice (and morality more broadly) most closely resembles a map, crossed by many paths. This means that our road always intersects with others that hold pieces of truth within them. The problem of disagreement is about the splits between people who conscientiously reason within the territory, yet arrive at different ends of the region.

Huemer argues that we have particular intuitions about the place of coercion, which are then violated by the structure and functions of the modern state. This should lead us to be critical of the state as a legitimate institution, and thus call for its abolition. The difficulty here is that although Huemer’s line of reasoning might not be internally wrong given his presumptions, it makes the moral problem too small. By formalizing the question of legitimacy into avoiding particularly defined coercive acts, it potentially closes of other lines of moral reasoning by building legitimacy as most closely resembling a specific set of requirements, rather than as a set of complex and tacit moral values that are in dialogue with one another. If I think that consent is the most important overriding consideration, then I might see the seemingly indefensibleness of the social contract as a kind of slam dunk for the critics of political authority.

However, this seems to abandon the other kinds of values we see our institutions as embodying, such as equality or desert. This isn’t to claim that state action is somehow “content independent”, but simply that we might view institutions as defined through certain functions, centering around a pluralistic variety of justice considerations. The moral and structural function that the state provides through ensuring equality, liberty, or some other set of concerns, is what makes that institutional set what it is. From this angle, there is no overstepping of bounds- these things are just what the system is there to do. If Huemer wants to fully reach skeptics of anarchy, he needs to provide a more robust and detailed understanding of what both personhood and justice actually involve, within the broad sense that people have of their world.

Thus, this existential/epistemic divide is distinct from merely being pragmatic. It’s not only about “direction versus destination”, but about what the idea of “direction” itself involves. When we say that we want a certain thing, we are still eternally divided by the problems of differing individual reasons, both because of the divergence from the status quo, but also because any moral calculus inevitably leaves a lot out. We may think we’ve worked through the question, but once a conclusion is reached, we narrow the field of possibility, and risk ignoring the vital fact of disagreement as a basic component of existing in a world of many voices.

Belief as Attitude

Indeed, as Gerald Gaus points out, this problem is a perennial feature of political life, and can lead to dangerous results.

“…how do we “fight” for what we think is right under modern conditions, where the free use of reason leads to opposed convictions about the place of humans in the universe, the nature of a just society and the good life? The first step is to realize that we contest and fight in many ways. I can contest ideals and convince others that I really do have the sound basis for my claims about what is best. I also might contest and learn from others in ways that improve my understanding about what is the best. We all might contest and learn from each other, and come to better conclusions about what is best from all our perspectives. All these forms of “fighting” are the engines of a dynamic diverse society..[…]… We will then be faced with the sort of fights inherent in healthy democratic politics, voting to resolve our differences about which of a number of reasonable policies we all can live with, we shall adopt. But there is another sort of democratic fight — what might be called a political war — a fight over whose ideals are to shape the life of all. This is a struggle for the power to impose one’s ideals on others. Whoever wins that fight, many will be forced to live under laws and policies that they view as deeply wrong and, perhaps, in violation of their most fundamental commitments.”

I’ve argued previously that good moral thinking involves recognizing tradeoffs between and among different values, ranking the ones that matter, and seeing our political and ethical divergences from within competing equilibria of prioritization. Staying away from all-encompassing “big stories”, political tribalism, binary constructions, and exclusive discourses is just as equally important, since the former can’t be accomplished without jettisoning the latter. Here, I want to emphasize that it also involves embracing a lack of surety, what I like to call “the politics of doubt”. It’s about cultivating reason, not only through the classical mode of deduction, but from adopting conflicting stances of belief and experience, and especially by incorporating agnosticism about what to do by recognizing the both competing and tradeable nature of ethical considerations. Thus, I may embrace a number of steps in an argument, yet still be unsure about where to move next.

Those who endorse “belief as philosophy” might retort. ‘You are just advocating taking no position. A theory of justice without a clear cut conception of what to do simply abnegates responsibility, not to mention a practicable notion of external, clearly understood, consistent morality.’ **

In The Order of Public Reason, Gaus defends the role of “fox” oriented theorizing, as borrowed from Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between foxes and hedgehogs.

“A fox approach to moral, social, and political philosophy might appear necessarily antitheoretical. Bernard Williams was a foxy philosopher (well, in our sense, at least), and he was also generally against theorizing about morality. But to appreciate the diversity of a phenomenon, and the ways that different schools and methods have contributed to our understanding of it, is not to abandon the idea that we may develop a unified and coherent account of it. A foxy theory will be complex, and it will draw on a variety of approaches. It will be sensitive to the relevance of new data, and so it must allow that its conclusions are revisable (at the same time it will resist turning the study of empirical phenomena into the new hedgehog truth of philosophy). A foxy theory need not take everything on board, singing the bland refrain that “everything is wonderful in its own way.” But it will be sensitive to the fact that the complexity of the moral and social world cannot be captured by one value, one method, or one school. Its theory will not be a deduction from one core truth or insight, but a piecing together of many truths that leads to a bigger and, one hopes, true picture. It may even have a central concern or worry. A fox is not one who cannot be moved to answer a single question; it is one who sees the complexity of the answer.”

In a different but connected vein, Charles Taylor, one of my all-time favourite thinkers, discusses the role of the modern self. In the world in which we live, when what he sees as the traditional 3 moral axes- respect and obligations toward others, the notion of the “good life”, and the idea of dignity- have been rendered difficult to hold onto (though not unrecoverable), we are left with the recognition of frameworks. To confront this problem, Taylor discusses the necessity of the existential quest, and the recognition that we play as separate individual persons, unbound from the great chain of being.

“…a framework is that in virtue of which we make sense of our lives spiritually. Not to have a framework is to fall into a life which is spiritually senseless. The quest is thus always a quest for sense. But the invocation of meaning also comes from our awareness of how much the search involves articulation. We find the sense of life through articulating it. And moderns have become acutely aware of how much sense being there for us depends on our own powers of expression. Discovering here depends on, is interwoven with, inventing. Finding a sense to life depends on framing meaningful expressions which are adequate. There is thus something particularly appropriate to our condition in the polysemy of the word ‘meaning’: lives can have or lack it when they have or lack a point; while it also applies to language and other forms of expression. More and more, we moderns attain meaning in the first sense, when we do, through creating it in the second sense. The problem of the meaning of life is therefore on our agenda, however much we may jibe at this phrase, either in the form of a threatened loss of meaning or because making sense of our life is the object of a quest.”

Thus, in the recognition of our horizons, or in taking the approach of a fox, we might say that although we have a certain arena of understanding, much remains unclear. The reasons for this aren’t just because we might not know what the facts are, or because social science is difficult, but because morality itself is a messy business, emergent as it is from the process of our individual encounters with life itself. Part of what makes moral questions difficult, isn’t just that lots of considerations present themselves, but that knowing whether those considerations matter is always built within contexts, which themselves are bound, yet expansive by the necessity of needing to apply judgement. Context applies in many ways. It’s about cultural beliefs, current norms, and institutional components all at once, interacting with our intuitions and faculties of reason. The lives that we live are also not irrelevant to the understanding that we have of how we should view things morally, any more than are our capacities to think far beyond our experience.

This isn’t to say that I’m sure that belief as attitude is always useful. Getting somewhere matters. The problem is that “getting there” might be harder than we think.

*Thanks to Cooper Williams for helping inspire this discussion, and for serving as a cheerfully sharp sounding board for ideas in-utero.
**Notably, as Alexander Schaefer has remarked to me, political theorists frequently hold additional scholarly focuses on determining meta-ethics, in addition to pairing questions of justice with a defense of a broader normative view.















Fondled by the Firm Hand of Rutger Hauer

Violet midday skies.

Wrathful, lingering thunder.

Smoldering carcasses heaped inside shelters of opportunity.

Roche Harbor was no more. Tiny monstrosities from beneath the waves were in the midst of arriving to reclaim their lost domains.

Continue reading “Fondled by the Firm Hand of Rutger Hauer”

Take Note of the Value of Your Vote


The irrationally vocal proponents of the notion that ‘voting is instrumentally irrational’ have become perceptibly more vocal as it has become sure that there is a large difference between the two major-party nominees for President this year—which is unfortunate, since a large candidate differential weakens their claim.

What’s the basis for the notion that voting is an ‘instrumentally irrational’ activity? It’s that the expected benefit of a single vote to the voter herself is not substantial. That conclusion comes about from studying this equation:

Expected social benefit of a vote = (Probability of casting deciding vote)(Candidate differential)

There is no definitive method for estimating either of the values on the right-hand side, but the size of the probability value is less in doubt. Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin (2012) review the credible literature and persuasively peg the probability of deciding a contemporary U.S. Presidential election at one in 60 million for the typical voter.

How to estimate the candidate differential? Form your own. Do you think, say, that U.S. GDP would be one tenth of one percentage point higher, each year under a Clinton administration, than under a Trump administration? Well, U.S. GDP is $18 trillion a year, so over four years that difference amounts to over 70 billion dollars. GDP is far from everything that matters, but in a quantitative exercise, it gives one a starting point, from which one can make whatever adjustments one likes. Take your own estimate of candidate differential and divide it by 60 million to get the expected social benefit of a vote. Seventy billion divided by 60 million, for example, is over one thousand dollars.

The tension comes in with the recognition that the social benefit of a single vote is not paid directly to the individual voter. The voter bears the cost of making the decision and taking an hour to cast a ballot, but the benefits of each single vote are spread over the nation and world. One thousand dollars divided by 320 million persons is a quarter of an eighth of a hundredth of a cent, and so if the voter ‘acts alone,’ uncoordinated to others, she personally gains almost nothing. But all this is to say only that the voters face an ordinary free-rider problem—little different from any problem of providing public goods—and so voters can benefit personally from the overcoming of the problem.

Imagine that 20 million persons who had planned not to vote become otherwise coordinated, perhaps by a compelling meme that convinces them to vote for Clinton. The election swings from, say, roughly a tossup, to a sure Clinton victory, at the cost of, say, an hour for each of the 20 million voters. Counting that as a $50 cost for each voter, that’s a total social cost of $1 billion—but the increased certainty of Clinton’s election equates to an increase in expected GDP over four years of $35 billion, using the GDP-based hypothetical above. If the sixteenth part of that gain accrues evenly to the 20 million marginal voters, they will each eventually have about $100 in extra income—twice the $50 cost incurred in one’s casting a vote. In other words, 20 million fractions of a cent do add up.

I don’t much endorse this Downsian framework for purposes of understanding why 125 million Americans vote, but it is a worthy exercise in service of one’s own decisionmaking process. The kind of person who is enough engaged in political talk to be reading this blog post should be aware of the size of the expected social gain that one declines to confer, in return for an opportunity to ‘express’ one’s idealism through an also-ran candidate, or alternately for an hour of free time.

Gilbert Keith Goes Blind

Remnants of low-slung morning clouds uttered their dying gasps under the gaze of the triumphant sun. A miraculously well-preserved pressing of an antique Garbage album allowed Shirley Manson the luxury of hauling our weary minds across the decrepit-dead years to the summers of strong bones, before the great attrition had vexed our spirit and sapped the very breath in our lungs. A great expanse presented itself starboard. The wide Strait of San Juan de Fuca exposed the lurid vulgarity of the mother ocean. A wave of nausea curdled my gut.

“You’re looking a little green there, Sam.”

“I’ll be fine, Dave. We’re almost there. Besides, the channel is visible. Wind usually picks up around here after the clouds burn off.”

“That it does. Seems you’ve sailed these waters more than I’d have reckoned.”

“You know I used to be stationed near here, right?”

“I seem to recall you mentioned it, yes. Bremerton, right?”

I peered belowdecks to see if our precious cargo caught the same wave of sickness that had assailed me. My eyes refused to adjust to the darkness quickly enough. “Bangor, actually. The submarine base is on the Hood Canal.”

“Those are the nuclear submarines, right?”

“All the submarines in the US fleets were nuclear.” The two exceptions didn’t seem noteworthy enough to mention.

“All of them? I thought some of them just had torpedoes.” He pushed his wraparound sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t think torpedoes could have nuclear warheads.”

“Huh? No, the term applies to the propulsion system. The power plant is nuclear. The alternative is diesel-electric. But in this case, I was on one of the ones with the nuclear missiles.”

Without letting his smile slip for an instant, he remarked, “so you think your submarine did this?” He swept his arm in a great arc, subsuming as much horizon as he could fit in a single gesture.

“No, they retrofitted it to take the missiles off and replaced it with special ops gear a few years after I got out.” My vision took on a muted mulberry tone. “It could have launched a SEAL team, but not an ICBM.”

“You ever feel guilty?”

“Come again?”

“You ever feel guilty about having been a part of all that? Nuclear Armageddon kind of sucks.”

I have had ample opportunity to paw through my culpability in the intervening years. I signed on in a time before anyone had given much thought to catastrophic failures of powerful institutions, powerful behavioral norms. I joined in a time when the world seemed stable, predictable. I agreed to strategic deterrence under false pretenses, though in my paltry defense, I had no good way of knowing so at the time. “You might not realize it, but you’re asking more than one question.” I soaked a bandanna and pressed it to my brow. “After my second or third patrol, I got a special battlestations assignment. I took over the Contact Evaluation Plot in the control room. For conventional combat exercises, against surface ships or other submarines, it was a busy job. I had to keep track of everything that went on in the control room, as well as track the bearing of all sonar and visual contacts. It was actually kind of a pain in the ass. But that was for battlestations torpedo. Ballistic missile submarines aren’t intended to get into close range combat. Their mission is to run and hide from hostile contacts. If hostile contacts are detected, the appropriate response is to turn tail and flee. Therefore, if everything goes as intended, the only genuine battlestations the ship should have to call in wartime is battlestations missile. That’s when you spin up the gyroscopes in the missile battery and get ready to erase civilization.” I could feel my heart racing. “During battlestations missile, there are no sonar contacts. Or at least there shouldn’t be. There isn’t much for my plot to do other than note down the ship’s orders like when we turn on the hovering system.”

“The what? It turns into a hovercraft? What about the eels?”

I snickered as best as I was able. “The hovering system is what allows the boat to maintain a tight depth tolerance while stationary.” I didn’t want to bother explaining fluid flow mechanics and how the fairwater planes acted like the aquatic version of airplane wings to maintain depth while the vessel was moving. Neither did I want to explain why the ship had to be stationary and at a very precise depth in order to launch the missiles. All of this was perfectly self-explanatory, and had little to do with the moral questions at hand. “From my battlestations plot, the little console the skipper would insert his key into to end the world was roughly a roundhouse kick away. I probably could not have exactly stopped a launch, but I could have delayed one as long as it took to find a pair of pliers.” I smiled weakly. “I fancied that such a tiny rebellion should the worst come to pass might be my lone act of redemption. Multiply the tens of millions of lives by two minutes or so to figure out how many centuries of human life I could preserve with one sweep of the leg.”

“Wouldn’t they execute you for that? It sounds like treason.”

“Totally worth it.” I have to admit that I never did try to figure out what the criminal charges might be for something like that. “But at the time, I think I was a bit unreflective about the whole thing.”

“How so?”

“I was twenty years old when I got my first at-sea assignment. To me, the sweep of history, the role of the men and women who had shaped it, and the institutions that governed it were a collection of alien artifacts. I took it all for granted.”

“That makes sense. The world is as it is. Aren’t you obliged to grant that the world exists as-is?”

My legs had gone weak. I gripped the closest rail as tightly as I could. “It’s worse than that. I enlisted at seventeen. At that age, I still bought the Truman propaganda.”


“After the Enola Gay run, that smarmy goiter had the nerve to parrot a wholly fabricated estimate of Allied casualties for a beach assault. James Byrnes pulled that 500,000 number out of his butt. He was the one who bullied 20th century America’s second most callow president into incinerating all those civilians.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It wasn’t usually taught in schools.” I winced as another wave of dizziness overtook me. “My point is, I thought that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was pretty good, conditional heavily upon the existence of nuclear weapons and the demonstrated willingness of at least one national sovereign to deploy them in wartime.”

“So as long as they exist, make sure no one wants to use them?”

“I was eight years old when War Games hit the theaters. It was formative.” I paused a moment. “Dr. Strangelove, too.”

“So something changed?”

“Yeah. Something changed. I remember learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 incident at Serpukhov-15. But I never realized just how close those calls were.”

“I know about the Cuban Missile Crisis. What’s the other one?”

“A Soviet monitoring station gave a false positive. It said the US launched 5 nukes out of Montana. The station commander figured it was a problem with the equipment, and reported it as an error. He was right, and we all got to live another quarter century in relative peace.”

“That was lucky.”

“Cuba was too. Kennedy was a drug-addled megalomaniac. He was supremely unfit to be commander-in-chief. But hey, in America, any asshole can be elected to the highest office in the land. The parties helped filter out the worst of the rubbish, but you know the problem with filters, don’t you Dave?”

“They clog, Sam.”

“They clog. They clogged with that Massachusetts goon, they got bypassed with that Ford bumpkin, and they just sort of gave up a bit there towards the end. Unserious people with no real appreciation for the horror of war got too close to the sun. And we ended up paying for it.”

“Yeah, but we chose them. So isn’t it our fault?”

“We merely chose the form of our demise. We chose the color of its neckerchief. The button wanted to be pushed from the moment it was created. The button doesn’t care what finger does the pushing. It’s our own vanity, our own urge to pretend we’re in charge of ourselves that insists it matters who does the pushing.”

“That’s awfully fatalistic for someone who walked from Florida to Alaska to find his old lady.”

I again peeked belowdecks. I again heard nothing, saw only darkness. “The fate of men is not the fate of nations. Surely you agree.”

“I do, Sam. And Sam?”

“Yes, Dave?”

“Don’t call me Shirley.”

Morality Is And Ought To Be Circular

Featured image is Spirals, by M. C. Escher.

A lot of bad moral philosophy boils down to a simple assertion that X is bad because Y. X is something we all agree is bad ahead of time, and Y is the justification the philosopher is attempting to supply after the fact. The problem is not that this reasoning is motivated. The problem is the reasoning itself.

If X is bad because of standard Y, why is standard Y good? Well, because of meta-standard Z, of course. And on and on—we have entered the classic infinite regress. Foundationalism from Descartes to the present attempted to find the last step in chains like this—Z because Alpha, full stop. But foundationalism is a failed projected, doomed because it attempts to supply a firm answer to a bad question.

Lest you think I exaggerate the viciousness of these regresses or the folly of foundationalism, see the discussion in the comments of this post. This fellow earnestly believes that “because it impeded humanity’s progress” is the correct answer to the question “why was it wrong to mass murder six million innocents?” When pressed on the matter, he pointed out that we’ve had “thou shalt not kill” for thousands of years, but people keep on killing each other. Thus, we need something more persuasive to make it stop, and apparently “killing impedes progress” is it.

Except there seems to be a problem here, according to the very criteria introduced. The notion of progress is very old itself, yet many of schools thought reject the very idea of it. What is more, the very people who perpetrated the mass murder of 6 million innocents believed that they were doing it to advance the cause of progress. So it seems that not everyone has been persuaded either that progress is good, or that that its being good entails mass murder being bad.

Maybe yet another link in the chain of reasoning is needed. Progress is good because it hedges our bets against extinction, and does so by preserving and creating diversity. Thus, to mass murder in the name of progress is an error, because that reduces diversity. Conceptual problem solved!

But why should we care about extinction, or hedging against it? That might not be a problem in our lifetime. In the meantime, I could indulge in a myopic hedonism, which could include relishing the suffering and death of my enemies and their tribes.

But I belabor this example. The problem has its roots in foundationalist thinking in general. To move beyond it, we must look elsewhere.

Morality properly understood is circular, though not a closed circle. We might instead call it a spiral.

In a previous post on the subject I drew an analogy with how we understand what a good heart is. We do not say that a properly functioning heart should pump blood because blood is good because oxygen is good, and so on. We observe the function of the heart in the context of the circulatory system, which itself is understood in relation to the other systems which make up the body. The operations of the body help us see what the heart is, and seeing what the heart is helps us understand the operations of the body.

The moral spiral is just this sort of back and forth movement between the system—in this case frameworks of evaluation—and the particular good or bad. Human life as it is lived, in practice, points to such frameworks, which in turn provide the context for understanding particular episodes in specific lives.

For this reason, portrayal in art is a far richer resource for morality than philosophy or any other intellectual field. Narrative, painting, poetry, and even music disclose worlds to us that can only be accessed through portrayal of this sort. Worlds that always exceed what we articulate about them. Who can read Eli Wiesel’s Night and believe some external justification is required to demonstrate that the Holocaust was an atrocity? Only the coldest rationalist, committed to an inappropriately applied ethic of inhumanly detached reason. For the rest of us, it is plain enough to see.

The task of philosophy is to flesh out articulations of these implicit frameworks, however finite and flawed these articulations may be compared to the multitudes contained in artistic portrayal and lived practice. But these articulations do create more resources for evaluating our practices; in the factories of death we may see the moral deformity of industrial society as a way of life in general, and the art which implicitly defends it. Articulation is not a mere rationalization of what is implicit in the practice; it provides the means not only for defense but for criticism. From there the argument becomes hermeneutical—do we read Night in the way described, or does it better fit into a framework which reduces all actions coordinated by government to violence? There are no knock-down arguments here, but if we are open to our interlocutors, we can muddle our way through, doing the best we can to find the correct framework.

Finally, the fact that these articulations owe their origin to culturally specific practice should not be taken for evidence of some specific metaphysics. All of the above could be consistent with platonism, theism, or some version of materialism. Charles Taylor, from whom I have taken most of this, believes that the latter is precluded. His former student Joseph Heath does not. For myself, I think some version of aristotelianism is the most likely candidate.

But that is a larger discussion. The main takeaway I’d like to leave you with is that morality has this circular structure, and that many alternatives remain in play as possible explanations.

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