Why philosophy?

Written without any prior knowledge of Adam’s post, I swear.

“Is all philosophy bullshit?”

The question wasn’t glib, and it was coming from a fellow student in a European graduate philosophy program. My answer, mirroring the question, had the same false appearance of being glib:

99% of philosophy is wrong. But a significant minority of that is productively wrong. Why still read Plato? Not for his answers, for his questions.

Continue reading “Why philosophy?”


Giordano Bruno

It is taken as axiomatic that truth and human well-being coincide; from the theistic side, that “all truth is God’s truth”, or the rationalist side (“Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true”). This is a useful and valuable heuristic that’s accurate until it isn’t.

It seems that philosophy has been particularly prone to accepting this insight: the rational powers of humanity were assumed as present albeit latent, either requiring some coaxing via anamnesis, as with Socrates helping the slave ‘remember’ a geometric proof, or metastastisized as with the theory of homo œconomicus (Daniel Kahneman, recalling a passage from Bruno Frey: “The agent of economic theory is rational, selfish, and his tastes do not change.”).

There are two closely related ideas here. The first is empirical: evolution does not intrinsically favor truth-discovery: our senses are only capable of taking in a subset of data being generated by the world around us, and of that the majority is throw out and the remainder radically reconfigured to form “knowledge.” The fact that we have developed our sciences as far as we have is a testament to rigor, replication, theoretic consilience and the tests that time imposes.

Continue reading “Truth-Perverted”

Topological Politics

“Were the people who believed in eugenics just fools? I think we have to try to stop them!”

“You can’t stop other people from pursuing their projects, their dreams. Even if they are crazy dreams, even if they won’t work. If people want to do it, they will. Then later their children will suffer, sure. We can point that out, and we will. But it’s everyone who has to stop these people, all of us together. It has to be an idea that fails, that no one will act on because no one believes it anymore. That may take a while. And meanwhile, listen to me: kick the world, break your foot.”

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

If Adam Gurri’s a recovering libertarian, then I’m a recovering anarchist; but while his exit vector has been through virtue ethics and hermeneutics, mine was through evolutionary biology and the mathematics of complex systems.

It is in giving up one’s cherished beliefs that one’s thinking is given teeth, and the starting point for me was with two works of “systems history”, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel and Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. The former attempts to outline a naturalized account of European colonization, a topic traditionally enjoined to a rhetoric of self-congratulatory supremacy or scornful retrodiction. The latter abandons teleology in favor of witnessing history as a series of movements of systems in and out of equilibrium. Equilibrium need not mean stasis, as complexity theory demonstrates. Predator/prey systems are an example of binary equilibria, where adaptations by the one are met by adaptations by the other (the so-called red queen effect).

More generally, however, the tools of the sciences can be turned on systems of ideology and political philosophy, and used to examine some of the unspoken assumptions behind them. For instance, idealists keep returning to the notion of a clean break, a revolutionary transformation of society that will result in a situation of high collective satisfaction. They’re even right! History demonstrates that human collectivities can experience significantly higher satisfaction, at least in bursts: the Paris Commune, or Burning Man, or even the vibe in Tahrir Square when Mubarak was ousted, all represent kinds of temporary autonomous zones of liberated living. Nevertheless, they were all physically and temporarily constrained, and the status quo that subsequently obtained left much to be desired.

In a physical system, a gradient describes a situation that is far from equilibrium. The second law of thermodynamics, therefore, implies a statistically-certain movement towards a higher-entropy state; in an open system, it would entail harnessing the energy from another gradient to arrest the entropic decay of the first.

The problem of revolutionary politics, in sum, is one of thermodynamics. There is no second gradient sufficient to provide sustained energy in quantities large and consistent enough to see the revolution secured. The terrible, bloody end of many revolutions is a fruitless gesture of a King Canute attempting to command the tide to stop.

This, therefore, is the rationale behind institutions; they are the ponds carved out of the mountain face to ensure that not all the water runs out to sea, particularly when generations may go by without rainfall.

To shift metaphors, diverse political systems may be thought of as fitness landscapes as used in evolutionary biology. The peaks represent optimal fitness, and assuming a stable environment and random mutation, a population will gradually ‘climb’ the nearest hill available to them. This hill may represent small, fast-moving wings and a long, thin beak for drinking nectar, or an elongated neck and a predilection for particular leaves. In theory, the abstract (‘virtual’) topology of the fitness landscape could represent other peaks that are improvements over the one being climbed, but there may be no available path from point A to point B. Repeated insistence on how much higher another peak would be does nothing to move the population across the valley—unless, of course, this counter-productive direction is fueled by some other force that negates the drift towards short-term fitness—this is the nature of selective breeding, for example.

Via Wikipedia

Using this topology, then, you can imagine revolutionary movements as sharp spikes in the fitness landscapes: maximally fit, but tragically destructive if one moves only a little in any direction. Given the natural random jostling around any population experiences, conservatives are correct to judge such a pinnacle as existentially precarious. Their preference for gentle inclines and plateaus means that sudden moves in any direction do not yield dramatically different results, but having reached the plateau, there is a tendency to justify one’s altitude with a rhetoric of post hoc lesser-evilism.

Of course, all this assumes a static environment and an absence of feedback loops between the population and the ecology, when in fact both are highly dynamic. As a result, the conservative impulse to preserve gains held, reasonable when moving up a small hill surrounded by deep valleys, is paralyzing when land bridges appears, or when the hill one was ascending suddenly plummets.

Everyone wants to be the butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo, causing a hurricane in California. But the implicit premise is that the system itself is far from equilibrium, and that there is more than one attractor. But not everyone can be Mohamed Bouazizi, and if Bouazizi hadn’t been, another Tunisian would’ve, because the situation itself was unlikely to stay on the knife’s edge. A pure power politics is a single-attractor system that sees the cynic acquiesce and the activist crushed by the Sisyphean burden of fate.

Politics understands that change comes easiest not by forcing large stones up steep hills, nor waiting for the perfect butterfly moment to strike, but by terraforming the social landscape. This implies a knowledge of what the structural elements of the social consist of, and in this it seems we are still woefully ignorant. We allow ourselves to be distracted by national politics when the most substantive actions happen at lower (state and city) or higher (trade agreements, treaties) resolutions. We are more captured by the names of things then their realities (treating, for example, Iraq, as ‘a’ nation-state). Our political vision is weak, inveterately biased towards the status quo and our vocabulary actively misleads us. We frame issues of coordination as wicked problems, giving up before we’ve begun.

So let’s change that.

As a first step, let’s at least amend our language to acknowledge the capabilities and publics when we look at the large problems in front of us. In a recent essay Venkatesh Rao recently chided the choice of framing challenges like climate change as problems, and instead recommended:

It is far more useful to approach challenges from the perspective of the scale of existing capabilities, and asking how much capability growth can be creatively accelerated without triggering collapse in the mechanisms themselves.

This is a dynamical understanding, where even the parts of the system ostensibly at odds with it are taken into account. This should be paired with the concept of publics, in the sense outlined by Walter Lippmann, who was deeply skeptical about the idea of a mass of rational individuals, coextensive with the set of citizens. Instead, he calls on publics to

…judge. Where the facts are most obscure, where precedents are lacking, where novelty and confusion pervade everything, the public in all its unfitness is compelled to make its most important decisions. The hardest problems are those which institutions cannot handle. They are the public’s problems.

Publics are short-lived assemblages that live, grow and die in a blink relative to the lifespans of their host civilizations; from school board meetings to Black Lives Matter. We’ve become so acclimated to only understanding activities that have been culturally-coded “politics” as political that we forget that the entirety of our culture is a sedimentary rock laid down by the processes of politics, from public hygiene to the existence of trade.

This then, should be our manifesto as we engage with a dynamic world of shifting equilibria:

Here is a Copernican revolution of radical proportions: to finally make politics turn around topics that generate a public around them instead of trying to define politics _in the absence_ of any issue, as a question of procedure, authority, sovereignty, right and representativity.

— Bruno Latour, Turning Around Politics

Methodological Moral Anti-Realism

As a curative to the worst aspects of arguing on the internet, I’ve developed a simple heuristic when I start getting my ire up—asking the question:

What would have to be true for this person to do/say what they are and not be stupid and/or evil?

The implicit premises here are deeply inspired by Spinoza’s Ethics. In Part III, Of the Affects, Spinoza lays out his typology for a new ethical language. It’s a palette, with three primary colors: desire, defined as an appetite + awareness of one’s appetite, joy, which is the increase one one’s power of acting, and sadness, which is the diminishment of the same.

Joy and sadness are both passions, by which Spinoza means phenomena we encounter which we only understand partially, and therefore understand inadequately. Adequate knowledge would be knowledge that proceeds from cause to effect with no remainder, so to the extent that the effects are not fully understood from their causes they are understood inadequately.

There are some subtle implications to this typology. For one, there is no such thing as a ‘negative’ amount of a power of acting; death is the failure to preserve one’s essence and organization, but anything shy of that involves some measure of power. Secondly, joy and sadness are both movements; Spinoza quite explicitly argues that if one were perfect and remained perfect, they would experience no joy (using his definition above), since their power of acting remains constant and neither increases nor diminishes.

Conspicuously absent from these are notions of good or evil, and this is intentional. Good and evil are not meaningful conceptions independent of an agent or agents for whom they increase or decrease their ability to see their desires fulfilled and their organization preserved.

Here, then, we gain the tools for a kind of radical empathy, and the heuristic I gave at the beginning makes more sense: we can ask of anyone what they believe will see their organization (their physical body, their family, their nation, etc.) preserved and their desires fulfilled. Because their beliefs are inadequate, there are often confusions between correlations and causation, or simply about facts of the world. When people engage in abhorrent actions or express abhorrent beliefs, we can uncover the hidden logic behind these actions and statements, and occasionally even find ways to engage.

The small child who insists “I’m not tired” after missing their nap isn’t stupid, although they do hold an incorrect belief that less sleep, rather than more, will improve their state of affairs. The terrorist isn’t evil, but does have desires that they believe will be best fulfilled by the deployment of violence. The parent withholding medical treatment from their child isn’t evil, although their understanding of what will contribute to their child’s welfare is deeply confused. And so on.

This is where an improvement of understanding contributes to improving our lot. First, by better understanding our own desires, we can more effectively realize them, and not chase after arbitrary correlations. By improving our beliefs, we can more accurately model the world and take actions with a stronger likelihood of achieving our desired ends. By taking the time to understand others, even when their desires conflict with our own and their beliefs are incorrect, we can amend our own behavior to circumvent or confront them in a precise and targeted way, or find otherwise improbable opportunities for collaboration.

A good example of this is presented in Maggie Koerth-Baker’s book, Before The Lights Go Out, about green energy and the U.S. energy grid.  She cites examples of political conservatives getting on board with green energy when the issue is framed in alignment with their espoused values (fiscal responsibility, defense, autonomy, stewardship) instead of in a deliberately provocative way where some can be made to feel joy by shaming conservatives and blaming them for recalcitrance. Even when true, this is not an effective strategy for collaboration, and unless one somehow holds enough power to act unilaterally, this sort of bridge-building will always be necessary.

Finally, as this process iterates over itself, we start to see the emergence of many of the traditional liberal values: we begin to see that our own desires and the preservation of ourselves can be better achieved when we put in place institutions and folkways that enable others to do the same. The meta-good, here, is a bias for increasing one’s own power of action by building structures and patterns that increase other’s powers of action. This is an ecological argument, and  while it won’t be true for every situation or agent (as there may be competing ‘basins of attraction’ that have a stronger draw), probabilistically and in aggregate Spinoza’s argument for freedom and mutual benefit, derived from the simple tools of self-preservation, desire, and joy still attracts.

Secret Handshakes and [Reputational] Suicide Pacts

ritual america 615Ritual America

Earlier this week, our taste for the novel and strange was sated by “Florida Man”: Libertarian candidate Augustus Sol Invictus, self-described Old World Pagan in the Thelema tradition and white Southerner. Attention was drawn to him by the protest resignation of fellow Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, who protested the association of the party with Invictus, who has admitted to performing animal sacrifice and drinking goat blood (but not dismemberment), and who is backed by white supremacist groups such as Stormfront and Vinelanders, although he insists that he himself is not racist, citing the fact that his own children are Hispanic.

To extent this is news of little importance outside of Floridian Libertarians; however, full-throated paganism is still culturally controversial in ways that conversion to Buddhism or the varieties of New Age are not. This, in fact, was what Wyllie was depending on by ‘exposing’ Invictus to the attention of the Libertarian Party.

Continue reading “Secret Handshakes and [Reputational] Suicide Pacts”

The White-Collar Permian Event

A couple months ago, Venkatesh Rao (of ribbonfarm) unveiled season 1 of Breaking Smart, a series of closely-linked essays about the relation of software and society.


Embedded below was my first tweetstorm response to the series, focusing on the theme of work.

Mark Ames on the Techtopus. Chris Hedges on sacrifice zones. Scorched Mind: A mind forced into life scripts so far outside its ken that it halts in honorable refusal. (paraphrase of Venkatesh Rao)

In related news, Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work comes out next month.

O Father, O Satan, O Sun


A nine-foot bronze Baphomet was dedicated in Detroit this summer by the local chapter of The Satanic Temple. In the absence of prominently displayed trigger warnings, the event produced its requisite amount of religious outrage but, as with the freewheeling collectivity Anonymous, the outrage generation is a feature, not a bug.

And it’s much more in keeping with the spirit of the Morningstar who, from Milton and Goethe through to Mike Carey’s comic series Lucifer, is more than willing to allow the foolish and arrogant fall into their own pits.

Lucifer_Vol_1_65I recently re-read that latter for the umpteenth time, and it gets better with each re-read. But for all of the Nietzschean overtones of an entity of pure will, leaving hell and (small spoiler alert) creation is as much as reaction of spite as an act free-chosen. In fact, it’s this reactionary foundation that can never quite be abjured that prevents Lucifer from realizing his uncompromised desire.

It’s another character, rather—Elaine Belloc—who reaches outside creation, only to reach back inside. Where Lucifer refuses to bind his fate to a world, Elaine sees the power she wields, even with the constraints imposed by second-order consequences of intervention, and sees that she must yield her freedom to a creation unwilling or incapable of truly grasping her efficacy or sacrifice.

Nietzsche had begun to grasp this tension; in The Dionysian Vision of the World, he writes:

Apollonian seeming is governed by the principles of non-contradiction and individuation, whereas Dionysian ecstasy is, as we will see, precisely the falling away of these principles.

If Nietzsche ultimately grasped the contradiction of freedom and commitment (as I believe he did), it was occult, as nearly all who read his writings took from it rather an philosophy of the noble sacrifice and rebirth of elites.

Venkatesh Rao, in the closing chapter of his series about the power dynamics of The Office (featuring the triad Sociopaths [not the clinical term], the Clueless, and Losers defined in Part I of The Gervais Principle), recognized the split that divorced Lucifer and Elaine in Carey’s series.

Of those who weather reality shock, most simply accept their life and their permanent estrangement from non-Sociopaths. They have ascended to freedoms they cannot explain to those who do not possess them. They are somewhere between contemptuous and mildly indulgent towards those who inhabit the realities they create. Indifference is the default middle-ground attitude.


But freedom can also be a scary condition. It offers no canned reasons to do one thing instead of another, or even do anything at all. It offers no fixed motivations. There is nobody to blame for failures, no meaningful external validation for success. If physics allows it, you can do it. The consequences mean whatever you decide they mean.

So for some, freedom becomes a burden rather than a source of power. […] The dissolution of social realities leaves behind only the cryptic material universe that must be painstakingly decoded through that supremely nihilistic behavior, scientific inquiry. But without a social order within which to value and make sense of decoded realities, such inquiry comes to seem like a worthless endeavor.


What is known cannot now be un-known. There is no way to reverse the effects of the red pill of Sociopathy.

So instead, such Sociopaths turn into compassionate Messiahs, protecting the innocence of the Clueless, restoring the faith of Losers, using their Sociopath powers to guard the exits of paradise lest some unwittingly walk out. Unlike Sociopaths at peace with their freedom, who generally welcome enlightened new company, Messiahs send them home to paradise when they can.

However, he treats it as an a choice of either/or, and not both/and. The split is truly a split along the fault line between the individual and the social. Since the Enlightenment we’ve developed various scripts collectively to become more resilient against these highly entropic individuals who, sensing the safer conditions, have responded by becoming more prominent and self-assured.

But giving oneself to the task of Prometheus; this requires squaring the circle of presenting the acidic fire of the gods to an alkaline social order. Be a virtue ethicist if you like, but don’t show your work! The lazy pluralism that uncritically accepts all worldviews as equally valuable is a coping mechanism for disavowing a responsibility presented of owning one’s own worldview and values; and this without ground or guarantor!

In fact, it is this lack of a guarantor that is the structural difference between an atheism and what Rao calls an encounter with the ‘absent god’, or what Levi Bryant calls atheology:

The real issue is not whether one should side with believers that assert the reality of the divine and supernatural, and the secular who assert only the reality of the material world or the naturalistic; rather, the debate is between logics of transcendence/sovereignty/patriarchy/state versus logics of immanence/anarchy.

Some atheists groups have made much hay about the Pew research showing a strong increase of the ‘nones‘, but category covers a lot of ground, and the ‘atheological’ cuts sideways, with many nominal atheists resolutely gripping to their preferred replacement guarantor of meaning (science, politics, etc.), and the occasional mystic tentatively continuing along an absurd journey. This “sideways” cut is what drives a lot of the work from Peter Rollins, who was involved in the Ikon community in Belfast, and sees what needs to be done more as the staging of an intervention than presenting a coherent, packaged worldview for people to return or convert to.  He’s dubbed his more psychoanalytic approach ‘pyrotheology’, writing:

It is all too common for people to think that the problem with unbelief is that it stands in opposition to belief, that it is that which prevents us from believing. However the problem with unbelief lies precisely in the dialectically opposing position: namely, it supports and sustains belief. In short it enables us to continue in our belief.


Unbelief allows the communities to get the psychological pleasure from the beliefs that they hold (treating them as a security blanket) without having to confront the horror of them.

This is why the people who leave fundamentalist communities are often not the ones who don’t take it seriously enough, but those who do (and who are thus confronted with the true horror of the communities beliefs).

Can a social order be constructed that can retain hold of these hard-won, meta-social/meta-cognitive insights? To all appearances this is a contradiction in terms, and any aspiring ‘sociopath messiahs’ should look at their chances of success with as piercing a gaze as they once had.

Sarah Perry identifies the tension in her book Every Cradle is a Grave:

Experience Machines vary along the dimensions of being effective (producing desirable, meaningful experiences and preventing or at least domesticating negative experiences), honest (not hiding the fact that they are cultural artifacts designed to produce experiences), and voluntary (rather than forced upon adherents). These traits are not necessarily independent; I suspect the most effective Experience Machines that have evolved in human societies are probably some of the least honest and least voluntary, and I’d expect honesty and voluntariness to generally correlate negatively with effectiveness.

All of this doesn’t mean it hasn’t been attempted. The Satanic Temple is a fairly straightforward political project, and LaVey’s Satanism is closer to Ayn Rand’s objectivism than the sort of rewoven social we describe. More promising, however, have been parodic religions. Alan Moore is far from shy describing his worship of the snake god Glycon as sincere, while being fully aware that this Roman mystery cult was centered around what was, effectively, a sock puppet.

Scott Alexander has been taking the naming of gods seriously, and his post on Moloch is an excellent starting point toward what could be a sort of folk taxonomy for complex physical and social systems.


And of course, there are the classics: chaos magicians praying to Batman or utilizing the Expecto Patronum; Discordian koans and popes; pirate-talking Pastafarians. The jokes may be a necessity, allowing us to cynically disbelief our belief, but retain our functional belief (hrm, sounds like ideology). The practitioner of chaos magick will argue that prayer works the same as the devout Presbyterian, but will give a functional explanation that’s closer to mind-hacking, just as Adam Gurri has argued that the social connectedness of regular involvement with a church, synagogue or mosque ‘counts’ toward one’s well-being whether or not one commits to the dogma.

However, history takes a sharp view of this sort of self-aware approach, and communities have defense mechanisms against freeloaders who would poach from their communities (whether literal costs such as selling one’s home and donating the proceeds, or simply the social cost of professing beliefs deemed abhorrent or irrational by society). The costliness of commitment serves as a kind of un-fakeable evidence of commitment, and allowed cults like the early Christians survive when numerous mystery cults didn’t. Sarah Perry, again:

Those who are susceptible to sacredness are valuable as sincere cooperation partners since they are unlikely to defect. Signaling that one is susceptible to sacredness is therefore valuable, and actually being susceptible to sacredness might be the best way to do this. Experiencing sacredness together—mutually acknowledging invisible but tacitly understood objects—enables human coordination at a high level of complexity.

All of which seems far afield from the typical Sweet Talk territory, except it isn’t; the early Greek philosophers, these lovers of wisdom, were unabashedly cult leaders, teaching their peculiar brand of wisdom to their acolytes. The process of training required a kind of submission to the ‘rule of the order’, an initiation into a particular community of rhetoric. The best of these equipped their disciples with the faculties with which to turn around and criticize their teachers, but many fell into the easy trap of accepting the provisional metaphysics as actual.

An infernal choice, if there was one: freedom and struggle; slavery and ease?


Trading representation for equality

I would be unsurprised within my lifetime to see Facebook, Google, and other such organizations formalize their positions as pseudo-states, replete with diplomats and domestic and foreign policies. As I was meditating on this, the question of representation arose, or rather, it’s complete absence except to the extent that the organizations deign to give it lip service.

This is a structural feature (bug?) of social media that results from optimizing for equality of experience: Mark Zuckerberg does not see a radically different Facebook than I. Cloud services are technologies that are least amenable to having alternatives for the very rich that are both bespoke and best-of-class. The economies of scale are too large, and so even the billionaires submit to a user experience near-identical, in principle, to the hoi polloi.

Two questions come out of this. First, to what extent is the absence of real representation necessary? Is the uniformity of experience due to the centralization of control in the service of scalability inherently incompatible with the desires of groups and individuals to craft social mediations in line with own desires and values? And if this is a zero-sum game, what would a social media project that emphasized representation at the expense of equality produce?

I won’t attempt to answer either question yet. I will, however say, that the movement towards protocols over products is an improvement, in that, while the lingua franca protocols will prove to be more commonly utilized, they do not negate alternatives that supplement or supplant them. The world of semi-overlapping social currencies explored in Eclipse Phase gives expression to one vision of this dynamic.

Equilibria of Violence

Some have been expressing shock at how little coverage the recent Boko Haram massacre has received in the global media. Many are surprised that a national government which responded so decisively to ebola would present such a relatively tepid response to a violent insurrection situated within its own borders. I suspect  those people are underestimating the distances—geographical, political, and psychological—involved.

[Note that this will not be an analysis of the conflict itself, nor of possible solutions, but is rather a hypothesis that partially explains domestic and international inaction and the implications of that inaction. For something more conflict-specific, I recommend starting with this, this, or this.]

First, geographic. I grew up in Kuwait, and while not present for the first Gulf War, my family was there during the invasion of Iraq. Basra is a two-hour drive from Kuwait City, give or take. 30 minutes from the northern border. In traffic I couldn’t drive across Minneapolis, or Calgary, or Sydney in that time. Nevertheless, the running joke was that “first years and Americans got out”, and after the initial exodus, the remaining expats and locals settled back into their routines of school, work, and everyday life. Occasionally these routines would be interrupted by an unimpeded missile, but even then the pseudo-normality remained. Anthony Loyd describes a similar phenomena in My War Gone By, I Miss It So, about the daily living in Sarajevo during the Yugoslav conflict, and the need to dart across alleys and dodge snipers when going about everyday errands.

These are extreme examples, but when you look at a map of the affected areas in Nigeria, Google Maps has it pegged as a 20-hour drive. That’s equivalent to a north-south trip from Minnesota to Louisiana. For Americans living several states away from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, just how much did that shake up your everyday life? Whereas a potential ebola epidemic in the heart of Lagos? That’s a clear and present danger.

Political distance is about access to power, a group’s capacity to affect power relations. If you’re part of a small Republican minority in a “Democratic” state (or vice versa), it’s unlikely any national politicians, or even many state-level politicians, are soliciting your input; whereas a key demographic in a swing state? They hang on your every word. Why can Saudi Arabia and Bahrain effectively ignore their Shi’ia populations, or China, except in the breach, its Uyghur population? The exceptions prove the rule: until the groups can pose a meaningful threat to political stability, it is costly without benefit to respond to those populations. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith systematized this perspective in their recent book, The Dictator’s Handbook, which I highly recommend.

The combination often get mixed with a potent third, which is psychological distance. This is a completely independent variable, and the maps get redrawn often as the relative weights of kin, shared faith, politics, ethnicity or other dimensions shift in relation to one another. The term, the “Other” is a marker of this distance, an admission of the empathic chasm that lies between two people, or two populations.

Cumulatively, the effects of these three dimensions of removal means that, in the absence of the conflict in question burning itself out, the lack of priority and political will condemns the situation to that of an endemic infection. Wars don’t demand an end by themselves. Americans have talked in stunned terms about the longevity of the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, but consider the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka that maintained itself for decades before finally ending a few years ago; the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, which is no longer as prevalent in the north of Uganda as it had been, but has endured by ignoring the borders of its neighbours. The Naxalite resistance in India and Nepal has roots going back to the 70s, and is anything but resolved.

Bruno Latour, in his paper Turning Around Politics, touched on the heart of the issue when he wrote: “Here is a Copernican Revolution of radical proportions: to finally make publics turn around topics that generate a public around them instead of trying to define politics in the absence of any issue.” The dimensions of distance impede the formation of an effectual public, and what that means at least in the short term is that the system settles into an equilibria of violence. For comparison, you may consider how a state like Wisconsin fails to see any immediate cause for concern in the tens of thousands who have died as a result of clashes between cartels and government forces in Mexico in the last decade. That distance is geographical, political, and psychological, and unless some group arises that is capable of closing the gaps, and barring any significant systems disruption, there is no reason for the violence to disappear. Wole Soyinka, reflecting on the genocide in Rwanda, vows “never again”, but in the absence of a public those  words are mere aspiration, sentimentalist and ineffectual.

Divine Command Policy

I’ve never been partial to the Hegelian nation of nation-specific geist, or spirit, but two recent encounters have made me reconsider. The first was the completion of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, a remarkable book not only for its scope (starting with the Thirty Years War and moving towards the present at the time of writing, the early 90s), but particularly for it’s observation of the dialectic between Realpolitick presidents, as represented most clearly by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and presidents whose foreign policy was value-driven, exemplified by Woodrow Wilson and, at least rhetorically, by Ronald Reagan. The dominance of the latter approach was attributed to Wilson’s and Reagan’s recognition of a kind of moral Puritanism latent in the American population itself, and though the expressions differ (the ethic of isolationism and moral autonomy of foreign nations vs. the ethic of bringing democracy and human rights to the world), the orientation is the same.

This observation was seconded last night, at a panel discussion between retired Foreign Service officers Tom Hanson and Bill Davnie, where they bemoaned the lack of a “concept” around U.S. foreign relations, and the insistence of the U.S. to react rather act to events, and usually in principled terms. The compulsive bilaterism (Davnie’s term) of American engagement with other nations exacerbates the problem, and the overall regression to the mean of U.S. capacities, due more to the “rise of the rest” than any U.S. failings, leads to a world quite unlike that of Kennedy, who offered to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

The resulting policies, foreign and domestic, suffer from the dual failure patterns of selecting one value under which all other values are subsumed, in combination with the inconstancy of which value that happens to be from time to time or between separate policies. It’s the result of a pluralism of “divine command” policymakers.

Divine command morality is the response to Euthyphro’s dilemma (“are the gods good because they’re gods, or because they value the good?”) in affirmation of the first proposition: the gods (or God, in a Judeo-Christian context) are necessarily good; to speak of a separation of God and good, or to say that God represents or values the good, is incoherent and meaningless. It’s strongest expression is given in the story of Abraham, who is willing to obey God up to and including sacrificing his son; the value of human life is subservient to the value of obedience to God, faithfulness to God, as the good, being the only true good. Under American exceptionalism, divine command policy is an approach to policy making that refuses to distinguish “the good” from the political. This can be in actuality, with Bush’s reiteration of America as a “city on a hill” and its opposition to the “axis of evil”, or simply aspirational, as single-issue voters punish politicians who are insufficiently ideologically pure and support those who affirm the pro-life, environmental, free market, human rights or other value that is held as the highest.

The results are disturbing. With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them? America has been exceptional, historically, in that it has had both the geographical removal and the overwhelming geopolitical and economic superiority to allow it to consider collective security and human rights over its immediate political interests. This is the prerogative of a monopoly. European, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern nations, abutting their competitors and lacking overwhelming military superiority, did not have the same benefit, and their diplomatic traditions and political histories have reflected that. This is a general principle, not simply limited to nation-states. In Zero to One, Peter Thiel makes the same distinction amongst businesses:

Google’s motto—”Don’t be evil”—is in part a branding ploy, but it’s also characteristic of a kind of business that’s successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

However, as we begin to speculate as to the makeup of the world come the twenty-second century (#22C), the kind of guardian syndrome that America has made a core part of its national identity will need to cede somewhat to the trader morality that’s able to understand national interest and a mix of values. The ongoing air strikes against Islamic State means that the U.S. is effectively partnering with Assad and Hezbollah in the west and Iran in the east against a mutual enemy. American political discourse lacks a vocabulary to even talk about this, and as a result, they aren’t. Trader morality doesn’t have to be amoral, but it means knowing the price of one’s values. There’s a facetious dilemma that went around evangelical Christian circles when I was a kid, wrongly attributed to a popular figure at the time, in which the man asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes, so then he asks if she would sleep with him for 50. The negative response is then shown as proof that she “lacks values”, but I don’t see that at all. The woman, as opposed to her interlocutor, understood her values and knew where she was willing to trade on them. In this case, she valued financial security more than abstinence; the man, on the other hand, by ascribing infinite value to obedience to God (in the form of sexual purity), was shown incapable of negotiation. America similarly shoots itself in the foot when, for instance, it values cooperation fighting terrorism in the Sahel over anything else; the resultant perceived complicity of America with perverse domestic policies can instead motivate terrorism.

The issue is not about simply changing the actions of leaders, but it’s really about changing national sentiment towards one that can recognize diverse values and the need to negotiate between them. This is also the entry fee for empathy, and a counter to dehumanization, for when you can recognize that values are plural, and have different weights, and that these weights can change, then your models of how they may behave in response to your own actions improve. Whether this can happen intentionally or whether it will take a new Thirty Years War remains to be seen.