Harry Potter and the Magic of Commerce

*This piece owes a debt to Josef Moscovici, who served as my team partner at the Hogwarts Open, a British Parliamentary style debating tournament set in the HP universe. Some of the arguments presented here first emerged from our collaboration during rounds in that tournament.

Image result for harry potter markets

The Wizarding Propensity to Exchange

There are questions which traverse the bounds of time and space, and even our imaginations. In addition to tragedy and hope, love and fear, we should consider the problems of economics. Wherever intelligent beings of a choosing, acting nature may roam, the constraints of scarcity, competing incentives, and valuation on the margin follow them too. Indeed, as Sarah Skwire has noted, the presence of scarcity or the lack of it changes the rules of the game in realms as diverse as Star Trek, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica. Such questions are also equally applicable in looking at the incentives faced by people in worlds of vampires and zombies.

Despite a few significant exceptions, the world of Harry Potter has been far less discussed than the more traditional science fiction or fantasy. This is perhaps understandable, since as Megan McArdle notes, the magic of the Potter universe seems to radically change or even remove entirely the kinds of issues economics explores. Since wizards are aided by spells that can conjure up food, put together housing, and multitude of other wonders, scarcity has been eliminated (so the story goes) and society has transcended the old problems.

This interpretation quickly becomes problematic, as economic features are present in the narrative, creating confusion for those who know a little economics. How might we explain the existence of wizard currency, since most necessities can be transfigured from other existing matter, or seemingly conjured out of thin air? After all, wizards don’t need to participate in an economy to get normal necessities like food or healthcare. And yet the Potter world is also filled with people who are rich, and those who are poor, such as the Malfoys and the Weasleys. In a world where goods can be conjured up at will, what need is there for markets, trade, and money, and why is anyone poor? Furthermore, Gringotts Bank provides essential financial services (magical trading in a literal futures market?) and both Diagon and Knockturn Alleys are thriving commercial areas.

However, this paradox can be resolved if we only glance below this seemingly invisibility cloaked social order. First, the apparent contradictions within the Potterverse can be reconciled with the observation that many magical items or services require specialization and expertise and can’t simply be created by anyone with the wave of a wand. There is an enchanted division of labour around items like wands, cauldrons, broomsticks, and other equipment. On more extended, higher level margins, wizards need to specialize and trade with one another.

Yet it is also notable that this trade occurs at a higher level of human capital development than we find in most real world economies. Unlike our universe, in which both service sector and manufacturing jobs range from the relatively simple to the highly complex, most wizarding employment exists at higher orders of production. These involve particular magical specialities like potion making, that then service a wide range of tasks that an individual witch or wizard can do by themselves, without other employment attached. Furthermore, most of these professions have an artisanal quality that is not mass-producible and must be uniquely crafted, often for a single client. For example, despite the universal demand across the WW for wands, the number of known wand makers globally barely reaches the low teens.

The limited market carries with it significant consequences. As we shall see, this state of affairs is highly particular to the cultural context and governing institutions in which wizarding society functions, bounded by a badly functioning state, deep inter-species tensions and prejudices, and other social problems. Furthermore, similarly to recent cases of real world public policy, these elements cut deeply into the potential for certain sorts of markets and broader networks of cooperation to be easily transplanted to new environments. Wizards are systematically disincentivized from beneficial engagement with both the domains of non-Wizard magical creatures and the far more mundane world of Muggles.  These features of the HP universe mean that while more markets might have benefits, they will be less than would otherwise be the case.

Why Life As A Centaur Sucks

In general, the Wizarding World (WW) seems to exist at a stable social equilibrium most of the time. Conflict is usually low, and there don’t seem to be grave problems of poverty, deprivation, crime, and other social ills. On the other hand, rights are inconsistently allocated, and there is a high degree of racial and species inequality.

As aghast as the mainstream WW apparently was at the return and attempted takeover by Voldemort, I think that the existing society was nonetheless ripe for those events. One highly notable part of the wizarding social structure is the strong divide between different levels of magic users, and between wizards and the rest of the magical world. Under the mandates of the Ministry of Magic, only wizards can carry wands. Wands in this universe are arguably not only tools, but markers of social status. As in the case of women’s right to vote or own property in recent Western history, wands are passports to being a full-fledged, publicly recognized member of society.

Thus, wands are used as differentiators of social status. That status distinction is repeated in the norms and legislation surrounding treatment of various races. Those with wands and high levels of magic have the most value, while those who have less are lower on the totem pole. Furthermore, the wizarding hierarchy functions such that other species are effectively “separate but equal”, existing within the magical world, but restricted in what areas they can occupy, both physically and socially. This ranges from the limited spaces and autonomy allocated to races like the Centaurs (classified as Beasts despite their intelligence, and restricted to rural areas and forests) to the prejudices surrounding and violent repression of the Goblins. In perhaps the most grievous instance, chattel slavery fueled by Stockholm syndrome is perpetrated on the House Elves. For the latter, not only are they absolute servants in seeming perpetuity, but they are apt to become emotional wrecks upon being freed, as happened in the case of Dobby’s friend Winky.

The Enchanted Rules of the Game

All of these events take place within a highly dysfunctional government  that has contradictory mechanisms and ill-defined rules, which are enforced inconsistently.  (For example, consider the deep mess in the governance of underage magic). This government is furthermore evaluated via a court system with little institutional accountability. We can see this dysfunction through the outsized influence that Lucius Malfoy was able to procure via his donations to the Ministry, such that Cornelius Fudge became beholden to him. Additionally, we have a number of cases in which people are able to escape judgment due to political influence, undermining the rule of law. Most notably, Harry is let off twice for violating the prohibition against underage magic, firstly in relation to the incident with Aunt Marge (and seemingly excused for being “Harry Potter”), and again when he is accused of purposefully doing a Patronus in front of Dudley (saved only via Dumbledore’s influence). On the flipside, the final accusation against Harry was arguably politically driven, as Cornelius Fudge was interested in disgracing Harry so as to avoid admitting that Voldemort had returned.

Thus, it should not be at all surprising that Voldemort had such success in creating a “Vichy of Magic” in the final books, or that recruitment for the Death Eaters continued to regenerate. Wizarding society was, to a large degree, set up as a breeding ground for the kind of ‘alt-wizards’ that his movement encouraged. Recall for example, the normalized “country club” bigotries of Dolores Umbridge, which ultimately came to a head in her confrontation with the centaurs from the Forbidden Forest. Later, we see her easily transition into a servant of the puppet regime lead by Pius Thicknesse.

This state of affairs isn’t just an unfortunate accident, but a partial by-product of wizarding economics. Although it is true that wizards require some degree of specialization, what is striking about wizarding society is not how much trade happens, but how little. Although certain special items are required for magic to take place, magic otherwise leaves the WW fairly autarkic. This has significant social consequences. We can understand this better by looking at the work of Gary Becker in the economics of discrimination, as well as literature in political science supporting the idea of “doux commerce’, or capitalist peace theory.

For Becker, market pressures naturally push against prejudices by adding significant material costs to holding them. If you don’t want to hire an employee despite good qualifications because they are African American, your bottom line will suffer in a competitive environment. Since minority communities can offer low wages in a hostile environment, it becomes economically advantageous to hire them, on the margin. Furthermore, even as minority applicants become more socially accepted and earn higher wages for their work, they continue to present an economic incentive when they reflect the best applicant available, and thus present value to firms that use their talents, and costs to those who indulge their prejudices.

Research on the capitalist peace outlines how free trade creates both interdependence and common norms. Initially by establishing interaction on the basis of material gain from one another, the fates of different groups become economically intertwined, lowering the likelihood of conflict out of rational self-interest. Furthermore, this process also establishes norms of cooperation, understanding, and social/cultural exchange that enable us to expand our social circle and ethical capacity to lower our focus on honour (magical or otherwise) and engage in recognition, seeing the dignity in people unlike ourselves. In turn, this too contributes to less violence and more peace between groups.

Unfortunately, both of these mechanisms are woefully lacking in the WW. Magic reduces the costs of prejudice towards those who are magically diverse, while simultaneously removing opportunities to establish trade networks fostering cooperation and social interdependence. As I mentioned earlier, trade networks are highly specialized and limited towards aiding wizarding magic. Other kinds of magical creatures are cut out of this process, and the potential gains from exchanging with them are limited within the wizarding market system.

This easily encourages a process of otherization and xenophobia towards species that operate differently from the wizarding community. Wizards don’t get opportunities to bridge social divides through economic gains, because those profit opportunities are far fewer in number.

Why We Shouldn’t Tell the Muggles

In light of all this, contrary to what some have suggested, removing the Statute of Secrecy and opening up to the Muggle world is not necessarily the best idea.  The power imbalance between Muggles and Wizards is enormous. Since the WW is structurally limited in how much they can gain from trade within their status quo equilibrium, the Muggles, who have no magic whatsoever, would be automatically pushed to the bottom of heap.

Furthermore, the technology Muggles have developed can be learnt by wizards, particularly Muggle-borns, while Muggles (by definition) will never be able to adopt and use magic themselves, placing them at an inherent disadvantage. Especially since wizards don’t necessarily need technology, (having Skype beats sticking your head in a fireplace, but isn’t a crucial addition) this severely limits the development of comparative advantage, in which Muggle specialization would be potentially valuable. They would be wholly dependent on the Wizards to provide a wide variety of things, from medicine to food, amongst a variety of items which continue to be costly and resource-constrained in our world today, particularly in developing countries. The incumbent racial inequality and prejudice that exists in the WW would likely be applied to the Muggles, turning them into the lowest class of citizen, forced to be servile, and at the beck and call of the wizards whose services they seek.

Ultimately, the Potterverse teaches us something about comparative institutional analysis– how and why we might expect certain social institutions and sets of incentives to work successfully, and why that might not be always the case. In some cases, we can expect markets to work their own particular brand of magic. In others, actual enchantments may very well get in the way.

The Zen of Chaos

He screamed in our faces, and the crowd exploded. Greg Puciatio stalked across the stage, his low grunts and shrieking howls resounding. He threw his body at the edge again and again, while Ben Weinman, thrashing the air and shredding notes, hurled himself backwards off the amplifiers. Meanwhile, the bass and drums beat down and slammed in off-kilter jolts. Bodies crushed around me and people leapt from the stage, over and over. The speakers roared and the sound ripped at my ears. This was my introduction to the live show of The Dillinger Escape Plan, who stopped in Israel on their farewell tour. I’d long been a big fan of their music, but even as a hardened devotee of all things weird and heavy, this was a new, mind-blasting experience. Dillinger, infamously known as “the most dangerous band on the planet”, is defined by always taking their live experience to the maximum. They make music that doesn’t just sound difficult and abrasive, but through their performances, they take pride in making discomfort manifest for themselves and the audience. I had a great time.

It was walking out, my ears still ringing from the feedback, that I started to more deeply grasp the bewilderment and occasional physical steps backward that have become common reactions of people hearing about some of my favourite music.

Extreme or experimental music defies conventions, through breaking taboos or departing from more accessible forms. From death metal’s embrace of chromatic scales and highly technical instrumentation, to the odd time signatures, squealing lines and abrupt breaks in free jazz, the complex (dis)chords of underground music don’t make things easy for you. As Keith Kahn-Harris notes in his book on the topic, extreme metal reaches areas that begin to depart from what we would traditionally call music at all. The lyrics emphasize the dissolution and reconstruction of both body and mind in intense but varied ways, ranging from horror movie violence to heavily existentialist themes of bleak yearning and searching.

In general, heavy and experimental music often aims towards sonic violence, or at minimum, real discomfort. It hits you with harsh, twisted sounds, and incorporates a lot of background noise and feedback. This has more value than you might first think. The power of heavy dissonance music is to tear things up. To pull apart the sense of who we are, and what we might be as human beings. In the end, it’s the both the technical precision and the sheer forceful power which allows listeners like me to transcend the prison of our expectations and judgements, to float upward and be lifted high, out and beyond our heads. When we get back to earth, we are filled with only ourselves.

Although leaning heavily on specific guitar riffs (or in the case of jazz, saxophones and trumpets) and drum beats for orientation, the sheer attack of the music aims to displace you and rip up your feeling of groundedness.

Consider this Dillinger classic, “43% Burnt”:

The riffs in ‘43%’ are jagged and cut off sharply. The guitars use a janky, scraping tone and repeat in very fast, variegated patterns. The drums hit heavily and move in very swift repetitions, almost resembling machine guns. The vocals are piercing and fierce. The time signature shifts constantly. Overall, the attack and disorientation is almost overwhelming, and rarely lets up for more than a few seconds.

Or listen to “Bonehead” by the experimental jazz group Naked City, led by the legendary composer John Zorn:

Here, the saxophone screams constantly at a very high pitch, sounding almost like an actual person. The drums come in speedy blasts, repeating in staccato bursts. The bass and guitars thunder underneath.

As I mentioned, earlier it is precisely the deconstructing and bewildering elements of heavy and experimental music that give it power. In life, we search constantly for a sense of place, of self-definition. It follows us around in public and often even when we are alone. Every time we step outside our doors we are confronted with the question of what it means to be us. Significantly, the person we appear to be is never truly ourselves, unadulterated. Rather, we invent or create, a person for other people to interact with. The famed sociologist Erving Goffman put it this way:

“The self... is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented.”

For Goffman, the self is a performance, a thing we put on to interact and communicate with others. It is an artificial creation for the purposes of signalling and communication. However, not only is it a character we invent for others, it’s someone that we make up for ourselves, as well. We give ourselves an image of who we are, a person that exists in our minds for us to refer to and say, “This is me”.

Or, as Goffman writes:

“Our sense of being a person can come from being drawn into a wide social unit; our sense of selfhood can arise through the little ways in which we resist the pull. Our status is backed by the solid buildings of the world, while our sense of personal identity often resides in the cracks.”

To a large degree, the uniqueness of these musical forms is in the conscious rejection of comfort and stability, boundaries and definitions. It says that to some degree, the quest for identity, while important and necessary, is one that will never be fully realized, and will always in so doing, limit how we experience the world. Dissonant and difficult music is a sound that is seeking (if never quite reaching) a regained sense of the untamed and the unbroken, away from formulaic and standard imagery.

To fully grasp this, we need to go beyond the mere content of the songs on records. For complete absorption, we must get off the sidelines and into the pit.

Barbaric Yawps, Unselfing, and Finding Who We Are

“These floods of you are unforgiving/
Pushing passed me spilling through the banks/
And I fall/
Faster than light and faster than time/
That’s how memory works/
At least in the dark where I’m searching for meaning/
When I’m just searching for something/
I want out.”

Jane Doe, Converge, Jane Doe

Moshing, crowd surfing, stage diving, and the infamous “wall of death” are key parts of most ‘heavy music’ shows. Moshing, often stereotyped as just violent collision, is better understood as a complex, extremely kinetic dance. It forces participants out from themselves. People push into each other, together and apart, in visceral and often abrupt ways within an enclosed area. It creates a sensation of freedom from being wholly immersed in our own space. Like the noodly meanderings of the artiest jazzers, moshing keeps ripping things up and starting again.

However, unlike in electronic dance parties or techno raves, moshing isn’t quite about the total loss of agency. While in the same area as EDM in the search for transcendence, moshing is a step sideways from the totality of the ‘losing your mind’ ethos. In moshing, there is a unique concentration on building and harnessing mental and physical energy, and a focus on deep emotional engagement. Alissa White-Gluz, vocalist for the band Arch Enemy, has compared it to yoga, with the flow and intensity of movement almost reaching a deep meditative state. Thus, moshing is far more like an extreme sport or a complex and engaging exercise, like Tai Chi, rather than the travel companion of an drug trip, dissolving all our mental furniture.

A key moment in any mosh is the transition to the ‘circle pit’ as people run together in a messy oval. We flail our arms and legs out, arms slapping against the air, and here and there, smacking a chest or neck. Heads windmill and hair flies. The ground shakes and people bounce into and off each other, in ways that take little notice of sexuality, race, gender identity, or anything else. It feels like an updated tribal ritual, pressing and pulling against one another in sacred patterns. We are the pit, and the pit is us.

This feeling has a strange dualistic quality. As things intensify, I remain me, but am also somehow at one with other things and people at the exact same time. This produces an additional and valuable element- the feeling of engaged anonymity, of involvement with others without having to create a complete persona. In becoming each other, we lose our carefully shaped self-images.

This kind of hyper focused extremity has the net effect of creating a kind of liberation. The overwhelming sensations of often highly complex sound, combined with the directness of the pit, break up the everyday feeling of inhabiting ourselves that we usually experience.

One of my favourite ways of talking about this can be found in Iris Murdoch’s discussion of what she called “techniques of unselfing”, in her work The Sovereignty of the Good:

“We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world. Our states of consciousness differ in quality, our fantasies and reveries are not trivial and unimportant, they are profoundly connected with our energies and our ability to choose and act. And if quality of consciousness matters, then anything which alters our consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.

The most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ is what is popularly called beauty…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel.

In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course, this is something which we may do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.”

The pit is a physical mirror for the music, in which the extreme and the overwhelming blast and tear you apart. In that moment, there is a sense of no more me, no fully constituted self, but merely fragments that perhaps, you could call a person. And yet, as I become unmoored, I am swept along with the rush of the music and the push of bodies back into myself. I am rebuilt, remade and reconceived. I discover a sense of solidity and permanence, made with coarse cement and mortar, jagged metal and stone. As I am remade, the artifice of the self and the project of being A Person is pushed aside. For a brief time, I am in some sense Truly Me.

It shouldn’t be surprising then, that different studies find that heavy music is, contrary to stereotypes of angry and misled teens, a genre that plays an important role in mental health. Metal and heavy music are excellent at contributing to instilling calm, feelings of catharsis, and positive emotions.

For me, the painter Dan Witz expresses this experience in the most direct form, through his Rembrandt-esque representations of New York Hardcore, capturing in depth and detail, the rough glamour of the moment. As Witz describes, the hardcore show is (borrowing from Walt Whitman) a kind of ‘barbaric yawp’, a shouting protest, petitioning the empty sky above us. It yells out at the blackness of the void, and through it, becomes full. So, what is dissonance for? It is simply a reminder that sometimes, through embracing the confusion, the chaos and the madness, we might finally find peace.

Witz mosh


Imagine All the Virtues

Fantasizing the Mundane

In his classic book Why Not Socialism? the Marxist philosopher G.A Cohen famously argued for a system of collective ownership on ideal grounds on the basis of the virtues of solidarity and generosity. In a utopian framework, we would dispense with private property, which merely reflects a selfish desire to accumulate resources and benefit ourselves without regard for others. In his contemporary response Why Not Capitalism?, libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan has replied that Cohen’s conception of private property in utopia devalues the positive aspects of individual initiative, which reflect differing visions of the good life, as well as ways in which people are able to create as diverse forms of personal authenticity and self-worth. Utopia is capitalist, because even if we were generous and beneficent, we would want to live in a multiplicity of ways and pursue different projects that hold meaning for each of us.

Cohen and Brennan are engaging in ideal theory. That is, they discuss the systems which would be just in an ultimate sense, achievable if we were perfect moral agents. For them, the demands of justice rise higher than the limitations that real-world systems impose, since non-ideal theories are merely accommodations to a less than fully moral universe. In an ideal ethical world, justice would demand a system that takes advantage of our ability to fulfill its real obligations, not simply the ones we seem to be up to meeting.

It might seem like an idealized conception of morality is unhelpful, since an imaginary world would be based on a mix of characteristics dissimilar to our own. The notion of utopia is emergent from our general experience of the world as imperfect. It is ”no place”. Utopia is not a true destination, and thus not a helpful guide. We need to solve problems with realistic models. Another way of making this point is by saying, moral thought operates as an extrapolation from the meaningful intuitions that help ensure real harmony and cooperation. Morality’s main function is as a social glue for building societies, emergent from our encounters with historical experience. Alexander Schaefer has argued something like this to me in conversation:*

Me: ”Does purely ideal theory have any value? Do we learn anything about ourselves or how we ought to act as moral agents?”

Alex: ”Depends what moral theory is supposed to do. It also depends on the kinds of idealizations. Moral theory solves cooperation problems. If the idealizations eliminate the conditions that make cooperation necessary or difficult (e.g. scarcity) then they change the problem moral/political philosophy needs to solve and the questions it needs to answer, making it useless.”

Or as David Schmidtz writes in ‘’After Solipsism’’:

 “We do not need to know whether moral institutions work necessarily, work perfectly, or are legally guaranteed to work. We don’t need to know what would work under imaginary conditions if only we had no need to confront the strategic reality of life among agents who decide for themselves.”

Jacob Levy puts it even more clearly, exhibiting characteristic sharpness and depth.

 “In the realm of political philosophy, or of theorizing about justice, there is no such thing as ideal theory. The idea of a categorical distinction—the kind that could allow for a sequencing of stages of theorizing—is misconceived. The idea of normative political theory that is ideal in some absolute sense is a conceptual mistake, the equivalent of taking the simplifying models of introductory physics (“frictionless movement in a vacuum”) and trying to develop an ideal theory of aerodynamics. Like aerodynamics, political life is about friction; no friction, no politics or justice. Or, to take an analogy closer to our disciplinary home: ideal normative political theory is not like introductory microeconomics with its assumptions of perfect competition and perfect information, radically simplifying assumptions that can be useful in important ways. It is rather like introductory microeconomics with an added assumption of superabundance and the impossibility of scarcity in material goods. Plausible ideal theories necessarily smuggle in non-ideal premises in order to justify the need for politics and justice altogether. Those that fail to do so also fail to be plausible, collapsing into an ungrounded moral theory that lies across an unbridged gap from an articulation of political ideals of justice.”

What is Morality For?

I think there is much to be said for this view. Morality is in large part a framework for navigating our social interactions so as to create beneficial norms for cooperation. Political and ethical theories that fail to take this into account are highly problematic, to say the least. However, I also see significant problems. Morality is more than simply a set of informal ”rules of the game”. It also functions as an avenue to personal transcendence, a way to instill meaning into the world around us. One part of morality is social, built around sustaining interpersonal relationships. Another is highly personal, focused on evaluating what would add to a shared experience of life, built on individual discoveries of what is important or valuable. In other words, morality also functions as a kind of existential discovery process, where morality is interlocked with ‘’the good, the true, and the beautiful”. The trouble with seeing morality entirely in terms of a coordination problem is that it either presupposes or ignores broader implicit notions of meaning and value built into the fabric of cooperation.

This is a problem found frequently in the work of pure rational choice contractarians, among others. Among other issues, contractarian instrumentalists divorce the question of morality from an existential one, and replace it with simply a question of aligning incentives to allow for mutually beneficial private gain.

In The Order of Public Reason, Gerald Gaus argues that we should distinguish between “social morality”, and morality writ large.

 “It is important to stress that social morality is but one aspect of morality, or the realm of the ethical. P. F. Strawson certainly understood the plurality of our moral practices. In his important (though underappreciated) paper, “Social Morality and Individual Ideal,” he distinguished the broad “region of the ethical” – which includes visions of what makes life worth living and what constitutes a noble or virtuous life – from a system of moral rules that structures social interaction. As Strawson saw it, individuals are devoted to a vast array of individual ideals: “self obliterating devotion to duty or to service to others; of personal honour and magnanimity; of asceticism, contemplation, retreat; of action, dominance and power; of the cultivation of ‘an exquisite sense of the luxurious’; of simple human solidarity and cooperative endeavour; of a refined complexity of social existence.” Pursuit and achievement of these ideals, Strawson argued, presupposes an organized social life, and for such a life there must be a system of shared expectations about what must and must not be done in our interactions with each other.”

From Norms to Reasons

It’s important to stress the value of the view that puts a premium on social morality, or morality as a means to solve the enduring issue of cooperation and collective action. Not merely because of the robust evidence demonstrating this function, but also because our reasons for being moral might be said to be derivative of it.

Sam Hammond says:

“…ethics lies not in formally consistent logical arguments, but the public recognition of norms. Where norms vary so does public reason. To the extent that some norms are more universal than others, it’s because discourse and other cultural evolutionary biases create normative convergence. Those convergent forces trace an outline of a more general logic behind certain norms that you can call transcendental, in the sense of being abstracted from human particularity.”

When we reason about why we should following rules and social conventions, a large part of it comes out of thinking about ourselves within a program of figuring out a means to achieve our individual goals. However, as Gaus notes, social morality is but a component of the far broader project of creating meaning within the universe we inhabit. A conception of morality that restrains it to coordination of interests gets at only some of morality’s more implicit functions. The project of defining institutions that correspond to particular ideal behaviours asks if our conception of morality as a set of cooperative signals acknowledges why we think such cooperation is truly important. In this way we arrive at the realm of reasons for action.  However, there are different ways to think about the giving of reasons. At a summer seminar I attended a little while back with the Institute for Humane Studies, Andrew I. Cohen argued that reasons can be more properly understood as things of normative weight to consider in the evaluation of a course of action, not just logical steps in an argument. The justice of a situation, on this view, is but one consideration within a broader scheme of reason-giving.  Following Cohen, we can see concerns about cooperation, or social morality, as but a reason within the array of concerns we have about the way our lives might be.

Sam’s argument that morality is emergent from interactive public norms, while plausible, nonetheless belies the point that to be moral is not merely a coordination game. It’s not just about the golden rule, or playing a tit for tat variant of an iterated prisoner’s dilemma. When we say we want to ‘’be better’’, that y is a ‘’good person,’’ or that people generally have dignity and are owed respect, they aren’t merely talking about obeying custom, giving people space, or cooperating. They rather allude to the sacred idea at the heart of economics- that of value creation, for oneself and others. We don’t give charity, create great works of art or do hundreds of other things merely to get ourselves or the tribe clothed and fed. We do it because it makes life worth living, far more than in a world without it. Any account of morality that fails to take into account the broader role that meaning plays in our lives is thus missing the boat. A theory of utopian virtues that imagines such a world tells us where we have left to climb, but not how to get there. Our reasons for acting come not only from the world we inhabit, but from our personal attempts to live within it.

This is because when I act morally, I transcend myself in favour of a something larger. An ideal picture of virtue asks what sort of person I would like to be. Theorizing from this picture gives us a model of what values are embedded. Brennan provides an example modified from one by the philosopher David Estlund (my emphases):

’Suppose we go out for a picnic. On a hill in the distance, we see the perfect spot. We can tell from here that this picnic spot is better than any other. It’s much better than our current spot. However, suppose it is difficult, impossible, or just too costly to get there. Suppose for instance, that to get to that spot, we would have to cross a deep ravine, a briar patch, and a swamp filled with alligators. Suppose there’s also a magical fog surrounding the hill. This fog transforms morally imperfect people like you & me into murderous zombies, though it has no effect on perfectly virtuous people. Faced with such obstacles, we should not try to reach the perfect picnic spot. Yet, none of these obstacles make the picnic spot on the hill any less perfect or desirable in itself.  The picnic spot, in itself, is still better than any spot we will reach. If we could get to that better spot, without having to suffer the costs of doing so, we would.’

sandman heaven(The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes– Neil Gaiman)

Morality as Myth

One way to think about this is to understand morality is not purely as sets of theses, but as stories we tell about ourselves. As Adam Gurri (channeling Deirdre McCloskey) has argued, it’s all about persuasion. Behaving ethically is intimately tied in with how we conceive of our lives, and our experiences within them. Our models are thus reflective of a narrative. Imagined ideals are “mythologies” of how we could be and what our lives reflect. Thus, any elimination or addition of a characteristic must to take into account the necessary depth to the tale we are trying to get across. An overly altruistic moral theory removes the important positive elements from personal initiative that add value to the world. An overly individualistic one ignores the necessity of solidarity and support of others as a reflection of duty stemming from the recognition of value. Brennan imagines the maintenance of selfish values alongside the expansion of virtuous behaviour. Ultimately, both of them implicitly ask: what kind of story should we tell?

Stories matter, because stories are how we tell each other, and ourselves, about who we are, and the broader “morality game” we are playing. Consider a classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Darmok”. Here, the crew of The Enterprise is at a loss when they encounter a new species who communicate entirely through metaphors and narrative allusions. Eventually, Captain Picard discovers that cultural bridging can only occur through parallel narrative storytelling, as seen here:

In the end, what ‘”Darmok” shows us is that language is sewn from the fabric of reasons for being. Moral language isn’t just about asking, how should I treat others, but also- who do I want to be? What is life all about?

The methodology of story allows us to begin to integrate these dual elements, by pairing them within a context, or overarching world, rather than as competing aspirations or sets of duties. Story telling isn’t a form of falsehood. Stories, or myths, come in two forms. The first, with a lower-case ‘m’, implies a fantasy with no bearing on reality. The second, with a capital ‘M’, implies a broader landscape of self-understanding. It is in fact, a way to think about reasons. Ideal theory can’t tell us how to live our lives, any more than a myth can. What is can do is help explain to us how to discover what our lives might be for.

From the Existential to the Just: “From The Right Way To Be to The Right Thing To Do’’

David Schmidtz, Jacob Levy, and my friend (and soon to be awesome philosopher) Alexander Schaefer all say ethics has to be practical. I say- true, but it also needs to be meaningful. Analysis of norms commonly function externally, without taking into account the reasons for which they emerge. This brings us back to our two protagonists- Cohen and Brennan. Cohen’s challenge, Brennan reminds us, is to point out that practical criticisms of feasibility do little to answer the question of which economic system and society is actually more desirable from an ethical point of view. This desirability criteria itself requires an account of desirability. Such an account can only happen in relation to a meaningful self-conception. To do this, we need a way to bridge the two worlds, to have Darmok and Jalad meet at Tanagra. This might allow us to think more clearly about what political project we truly want, and unify the real with the ideal. In the end, to counter-paraphrase Kierkegaard, “I dip my finger into existence….it smells…. of something.’’

*This post is indebted to my dialogues with Alex as pointers toward important material and in helping to flesh out or challenge ideas. Any mistakes are mine.



Life is What You Make It: A Reply to Adam Gurri

“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice/
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice/
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill/
I will choose a path that’s clear/
I will choose freewill/”

Freewill, RUSH, Permanent Waves

Adam Gurri, otherwise known as our noble founder/editor-in-chief here at Sweet Talk, recently published a critique he had offered to me in conversation on the nature of virtue over dignity as a helpful device for evaluating human flourishing and the good life. Here, I’ll try and attempt to reply to the ideas that Adam offers us. Hopefully he’ll find what I have to say convincing, or at least thought provoking.

Adam says,

“Let’s visit a common scenario; an adult who lives with his parents, and further, lives off his parents—he has no income of his own. Let’s say that he’s 35 years old. Crucially, let’s say his local economy is in a state equivalent to the height of the dot com boom; unemployment is so low, the job offers are practically knocking at his door. It would take very minimal effort for him to get a job that paid enough for him to live on his own, or with roommates. Or at least to pay his parents rent and cover his own costs.

Instead, he stays at home, and watches TV; primarily reality TV and cable news. He has minimal contact with his friends, and hasn’t dated since he was in school. His parents live to a very old age and he lives this way until they die. He needn’t have been perceived as a burden; perhaps they could easily afford to support him and were happy to do so.

Forgive me, but I cannot help but see that as a lower way of life than someone who puts in effort to provide for himself, is married and has children, has numerous friends, and continues to better himself in multiple ways. It seems to me that our hypothetical sloth has cut himself off from everything that imbues life with meaning, that is admirable or good.”

In his landmark work of political philosophy Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick stresses a concept known as the doctrine of separate persons.  In simple terms, every person is a completely different, unique individual. When we look at the world, we are confronted by a diverse panoply of individuals, each with their own set of values and interests. Nozick asks,

“Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Hefner, Socrates, Henry Ford, Lenny Bruce, Baba Ram Dass, Gandhi, Sir Edmund Hillary, Raymond Lubitz, Buddha, Frank Sinatra, Columbus, Freud, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Baron Rothschild, Ted Williams, Thomas Edison, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Ellison, Bobby Fischer, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, you, and your parents. Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people?”

The obvious point here is that humans are different from one another, with diverse understandings of how to live.  For Nozick in particular, the separateness of persons is a core ontological and moral fact, without which we ignore basic elements of our world and what it is to be dignified human being. To impose one form of life or association is to ignore this key observation, to disrespect fundamental notions of personal choice, autonomy, and the understanding that there are multiplicity of paths to “the good life”.

It is this presumption that I had relayed to Adam. He replies:

“To attempt to discard our ability to speak of whether other people are making good choices or not seems to me to simply embrace nihilism—a rather severe consequence if preserving ethical egalitarianism is your goal.”

Here, I think we are perhaps talking around a straw separateness. It is of course a useful enterprise to try and identify and encourage common activities among humans that might be beneficial for each of us. The very notion of living together in society is built on such common ground. However, as Nozick and the liberal political tradition remind us, there is a distinct moral danger in seeing such an enterprise as based on an abstract notion of virtue that applies to us all.

Thus this is not, keeping in mind Pamela Hobart’s helpful discussion, to disregard that there are some basic facts about humanity that might provide a path for what my co-blogger Paul Crider has eloquently and thoughtfully outlined as consisting of human flourishing. However, I think the facts about flourishing that are absolutely universal are fairly minimal. Ultimately, flourishing completes itself by allowing for those capacities at the top of the pyramid directed towards pursuing our own ends, specifically our highly personal conceptions of existential self-worth. Notably, to engage in those “experiments in living” which may not be favoured by others around us. When we see the world through this lens, we treat people as invaluable ends in themselves, a principle which often is used to best describe the kind of ideal for what we tend to see as the pinnacle of the worth and self-transcendent meaning Adam himself praises as his motivation for criticizing his hypothetical layabout.

The important thing to note, as my fellow contributor Ryan Long points out in his comment, is that these higher and lower ways of being have a highly subjective component.  Abstract analogs about the life of a man as being healthy like the health of a tree or a heart ignore that observation that the health and happiness of humans are in many ways distinctly unlike those of other living things.

Higher and lower lives are emergent from the preferences, values and interests of a person seeking to interact with the world, given the facts about them. If the man as Adam describes him is happy in the basement, I see no reason to judge him as inherently living a worse life, just because we have social expectations that presume otherwise. If it should turn out that this lifestyle is bad for him on his own terms, then we have not sacrificed his dignity through our criticism, but rather deeply honoured it. Of course, the determination of this is both problematic and fraught with practical difficulty, but still a far cry from the off-the cuff pronouncements Adam would have us make.

Adam also says,

“Akiva’s argument is that everyone deserves to have their dignity respected, and to categorize the layabout as living a lower way of life is to impose ourselves on them. In short, disrespecting their self-conception is the same as encroaching on their dignity.  I cannot agree. I am not going to crash into this person’s house and start imposing my authority upon him and his parents. I can respect their dignity as human beings able to make their own choices without thinking that all of their choices are good.’’

While Adam may claim his adherence to the basic principles of toleration (“Hey man, virtues are about becoming a rad dude, none of that fascist break down your door stuff!”), I want to remind Adam of an insight he has long stressed- that of the importance of rhetoric, ideas, and norms as key social elements. As John Stuart Mill famously argued, public opinion, and the prejudices that we as a mass public may hold of the lives of others can deny them their respect and dignity as much as any law we might pass. If the rhetoric we use has impact, and Adam surely seems to think that it does, our criticisms of those with diverse lifestyle preferences do little more than to restrain them from having the full psychological liberty or even the basic ability to act so as to be truly free.

Indeed, ethical egalitarianism has largely been accomplished by disregarding these strong notions of the good life, and viewing humans as valuable distinctly for the dignity they have as unique experiencers of the world around them. As I have mentioned to Adam previously, talk of removed social judgement and a strongly teleological ontology makes me think first and foremost of the fate of racial, sexual, and gender minorities and other disadvantaged groups who have spent countless years oppressed under someone else’s conception of what it means to be a fully complete human being. As Martha Nussbaum has shown, certain emotions in particular that are associated with such judgements have a pernicious history that it is important not to ignore.

So let me ask this of Adam, and those who would share his view. To borrow a question from my economist colleagues, “Compared to what?” In other words, virtue for what life, and by what person leading it? What is the moral opportunity cost of a world where we imagine people as largely akin to a row of identical plants seeking to approach a Platonic ideal, and treating them as such? Incoming with the potentially cleansing clouds of good judgement are too often the quickly wrathful storms of arbitrary intolerance.


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.















Boots on the ground, castles in the sky

Raging Against Each Other’s Machines

There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.” — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

deer terrorism jobs

The longer I listen to people talk about political issues, the more obvious it appears to me that politics has an ideology problem. In the inimitable words of our Benevolent Robot Overlord, “politics is the mind killer. Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that our rationality is impaired, with logical deliberation often taking the back seat to emotion. We use emotive reasoning and simple heuristics as our primary modus operandi in punching through the complexity of the real world. Jonathan Haidt finds that intuitions frame our fundamental moral evaluations and understanding of the way the world ought to be, and are therefore the cognitive source for our basic political alignments. The combination of bounded rationality and intuitive reasoning creates a cocktail of moralistic, emotive thinking that limits our intellectual scope and creates social division.

Our feelings group-select us into tribes that share similar moral foundations, building identity (“I’m a conservative, and I stand for x”) but leaving us close minded to people who don’t speak our moral language. The resulting process from working from ideals makes us conceive of what is always a messy exercise in figuring out how to live with one another and coordinate social life, into a contest for dominance over institutions and encourages divisiveness. Politics breeds both abstract moralism and tribal thinking, encouraging groupish vindictiveness.

righteous haidt

Thus, we get the common stories found in abundance all over social media. Our comrades on the political left imagine “The Right” as composed of corporate shills, religious bigots, and warmongers who hate racial and sexual minorities, the poor, and the environment, and want the world dominated by greedy businessmen, religious fanatics and militaristic imperialism. Conversely many right-wing (com)patriots will castigate “The Left” as a bunch of communist hippies who are soft on criminals, terrorists and dictators, want to instigate economic policy a la the Soviet Union, and support damaging deviant social behavior alongside multicultural relativism that undermines fundamental traditional conventions and  sanctity in a radical effort to end civilization. That contrarian army of individualists, the libertarians, attack both left and right as little more than fascistic, totalitarian apologists for the coercive boot heels of the near-criminal state-industrial complex: everyone is culpable, from drug wars to drone strikes. By contrast, left & right frame libertarians as selfish greed-preachers who don’t care about the good of society. Lefties think that they are heartless corporate apologists that happen to like the gays, while right wingers portray them as pot smoking, prostitute frequenting anarcho-crazies that have good ideas about tax reform.

double facepalm

It’s a basic part of the system. Public goods are by definition an all encompassing form of service provision, with a one-size-fits-all result. Winning a seat in political life is zero-sum: if your guy wins, mine loses. The production of policy is produced and influenced by the messy aggregation of votes that function more strongly as reaffirmations of personal identity than they do the sober analysis of social science. Voters are incentivized towards increasing their irrationality as a systemic feature.  If we compare the kind of low information, motivated reasoning engaged in by most voters, with the sort of meta-cognitive capacity that would be required for choosing good policy outcomes, we are inclined to the conclusion that democracy is a farce to the extent that the goal of the system is to achieve beneficial outcomes via popular consensus.

As a social equilibrium, we are encouraged to engage in the kind of signalling that prizes maintaining group affiliation and values affirmation over deliberative thought. In other words, politics isn’t about policy. A significant amount of social activism isn’t about caring, but about showing that you care. Representationalism rules. “We” stand for all the good things. Rather than acting in ways that really affect systemic incentives and create positive change, people tend to engage in “folk activism”, transmitting values to reaffirm our group identity, and playing games of status to put themselves higher in the hierarchy of value. These activities feed the furnace of ideology, and frequently result in damaging initiatives. If we think about activism as a market, the demand for beneficial activism is far lower than activism that is bought by people interested in tribalism and mood affiliation, which leads to an automatic growth in supply for tribalist activism, and so on.

Dr. Nonideal Theory: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tradeoffs

”A lady said, “What’s your solution?” I said, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.” She said, “The people demand solutions!” –Thomas Sowell

How might we confront this problem? There appear to be two potential avenues. The first is institutional. By breaking down politics into smaller, more diverse, less coercive units, we can make fewer things items of social conflict. Public policy becomes a little less zero sum. Institutional choice and localizing alternatives realigns some of the system away from the problems that plague centralized institutions. Option two is intellectual. Since I tend to identify as a libertarianish type, there is a great temptation to simply say that getting politics out of things will solve all of the problems. Intellectual honesty commands me to recognize that this is a consistent issue in thinking about all social organization, not easily solvable even if the whole world became followers of Robert Nozick. So the question becomes individualized: how can we weigh off our different mental investments? In contrast with the absolutism I’ve been describing, this is about ‘trying on concepts for size’, not about declaring x to be superior to y. However, given the systemic nature of the problem, radical change appears to be required.

A plausible solution is to reconfigure ideology towards framing the world through the lenses of our utopia, rather than forcing it to conform to the stuff in our heads. Given how complicated the world is, forcing absolute conformity to our ideals is usually a terrible idea. Don’t immanentize that freaking eschaton, and avoid at all costs the thickets of the nirvana jungle. Should we wander in, be ever wary of the Beast of Perfection. If we want to achieve some measure of success, compromise is key, and a significantly consequentialist attitude is king.

Consider the debate over the minimum wage. An ideologically pure version of this discussion would be, on the socialist left, that pro-market right wingers are stooges for business who don’t care about the exploited wages of the poor, and that We Lefties Stand For Rights of Labour Against Capital. From the free market right, that the left is ignoring the economics of price controls, and furthermore Hates Freedom, because they are ignoring the right to free contracting between sovereign adults.

Suppose that instead, we built the conversation in terms of moral tradeoffs. The discussion could look something like this: Social democrats and many liberal egalitarians would say that it is morally concerning and unfair to workers to be compensated at low levels, and so the state should artificially raise the wage of the bottom quartile of the income distribution to compensate for potential employer exploitation (markets could be monopsonistic, such that a significant percentage of workers are being paid below their true marginal product). They would also claim that it is a positive expansion of freedom for those who can earn the new wage, since people with more money have greater purchasing power. They would concede that this will lessen open contracting capacity (since it restricts the mix of benefits vs. wages), as well as create unemployment (because of the law of demand) but would prefer the tradeoff of a slightly higher wage for a certain aggregate of workers in situations with potentially disproportionate levels of bargaining power between labour & capital.

Libertarians and many conservatives would say that contracts ought to be freely negotiated, and that it is a form of unfair treatment and a restriction of liberty to declare the terms and tradeoffs of negotiable agreement (mix of benefits, wages, and/or taking employment) especially for the least well of members of society. They would emphasize that the minimum wage creates unemployment for people with a marginal product below the level at which the wage is set, restricting their freedom to contract and treating that section of the workforce unfairly, cutting down on their positive freedom and purchasing power. They would concede that lowering or getting rid of the minimum wage makes wages and hiring entirely dependent on competitive pressures ensuring that people are valued according to marginal product, but prefer that more workers have a fair chance at employment, as well as the freedom to bargain for a wider mix of wages and benefits.

Note that both sides are using similar but slightly different kinds of moral reasoning. They both think that moral respect for individuals requires that institutions be arranged in such a way as to make sure that people are treated correctly. Right wingers are appealing to ideas about freedom of choice to bargain for and contract employment, and fairness in being able to do so on an equal basis. Left wingers are appealing to ideas about fairness to be guaranteed certain wages, and freedom of choice in expanding the purchasing power of certain workers. None of these are entirely mutually exclusive, but they do involve an emphasis of one over the other.

Free market types want people to be free and equal, but would prefer we do so by building the structure of social organization so that workers themselves are the primary agents of their own well being and choices, and would rather arrange the interaction of private institutions to ensure that that autonomy and fair treatment will be maintained. A simple version of their value ranking would be: 1] Freedom; 2] Equality. Socialist types have a similar mix, but are more concerned about the possibilities of exploitation, and distrust absolute respect for free choice and fair treatment absent interference from above by state mechanisms. A simple version of their ranking would be: 1] Equality; 2] Freedom.

Notice that this isn’t just a classification of the banners under which we ride our noble steeds for Justice, our hair streaming in the wind whilst we thrust the lances of Truth. What the right is saying is that they opt for a distinct set of moral tradeoffs. They would prefer that private actors have higher degrees of control over their domain, with the imperfections that come from ensuring compensation only from competitive pressures, in order to allow actors to make more individual choices about their dealings with one another, and prevent what they view as an unfair form of paternalistic management that raises costs and restricts contracts. The left would prefer that we attempt to guarantee an absolute level of market wages for a certain aggregate of workers, because they would rather ensure an absolute footing of bargaining power for at least a certain percentage of people, and be guaranteed that specific benefits are assured for those workers.

As David Schmidtz points out, although justice is about giving people what they are due, what that involves is both contextually bounded and in correspondence with a number of different moral conceptions, such as desert, equality, or need. These intuitions track unevenly onto real world institutions, and may combine together in complicated ways. This means that moral theories are more like maps of a neighbourhood, and less like airtight syllogisms of logic. Respect for people (or nonhuman animals) as being morally important means that the systems people work within are required to deal with a number of different moral issues that carry different amounts of weight in the calculus about what sort of policy we ought to favour. Serious political theory is required to taking certain rankings of values, build specific ones as primary, and mold them into a (relatively) optimum institutional set. If anything is problematic about the common kinds of political debates we seem to have, I think it is that they deny the inherent trade offs taking place, and the difficulty of imposing simple heuristics and intuitions onto a world which is far more complex than those processes will allow for.

Whither ideology?

Ideology is a virus.” ― Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

”There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”                                                               –David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

A shift in attitudes is required. Rather than having arguments on the basis of one overarching intuition, the social equilibrium would change towards building and signalling a multi-intuitional mix, and making the ranking of intuitions a high status activity.

On micro level, we need a little more postmodernism in the mix. By this, I’m not suggesting walking around with a black beret (kick-ass as that sounds) and a worn copy of one of the most incomprehensible books ever, declaring social constructs all over the place. I mean that relativizing positions and being more skeptical about simple, one-directional narratives is ultimately the only way to start edging, like primeval amoeba, towards the evolutionary apex that is the multicelled organism of critical thinking and epistemic humility. Discovery processes and emergent systems can allow us to more easily figure out what is valuable through evolutionary processes of competitive experimentation in ideas. This might lead us to better understanding of the different  items of value found in different political perspectives. Intuitions are useful, but limited. Evolution distributes a randomized and complex mix of emotional leanings and neural-cognitive filters across the population, with different feelings as pieces of the ongoing puzzle we call the achievement of justice.

Stylistically, this requires realigning social identity towards a state of fluidity. It entails a shift in the use of ideology from dogma to conceptual framework. Ultimately, more of what we want can be accomplished by adopting some form of consequentialist ethics, in which the goal of the system is built around maximizing specific goods, directed and bound by rules. The tradeoff game mandates compromising on the terrain of the world, and applying things appropriately.

In the words of the Great Literary Bandana God himself, this is water. Ideology is a byproduct of our attempt to interpret and analyze reality using the evolved cognitive tools with which we are equipped. We can’t think completely without it, but we can recognize that this is the baseline that we work from. Given this recognition, a positive role for ideology might be understood as a set of framing mechanisms– the water requires a submersible for navigation through the murkiness of the deep. Any kind of thinking about social organization requires making some kind of model of ranked moral priorities, about which parties can reasonably differ. The obvious inherent difficulty is that maintaining this version of belief, as opposed to a set of axiomatic propositions approaching near-religious dogma, goes against the grain of our instincts towards over moralizing.

We want to say that our top ranking explains the whole picture, when in reality, it’s just a weighted first variable in our moral calculator. We need to do a better job at not only listening to the other side of an argument and grokking that point of view, but also at understanding the complex relationships between conceiving of ‘’The Good’’ and thinking through seriously the way things pan out in the world, regardless of where you end up on the political spectrum. The axiom here is: prize ideas, before ideology. As an informal social equilibrium (excluding the possibility of a grand mass revelation of The True Nature of Reality) we should be shifting towards making values ranking a high status activity in a world where complexity reigns and we continue to fumble around, trying to figure out what it all means.