Praise for the Judgmental

Featured image is a self-portrait of Joseph Ducreaux

Let’s talk about courage for a spell. Here are a few scenarios that require courage:

  • Going into a battle
  • Standing up to a bully, especially a physically larger one
  • Highballing a salary requirement for a job you are emotionally invested in getting
  • Lowballing your offer on the house you’ve fallen absolutely in love with

There are degrees, and there are qualitative differences, but it is still appropriate to speak of courage in each case.

Here are two ways you might take this:

  1. The word “courage” can mean many things—indeed, it can be used to mean just about anything, because words only mean what we use them to mean. Therefore it isn’t inappropriate, but the use in each case means something entirely different.
  2. Using “courage” across all of them points to some sense in which there is a true unity. Within this perspective, we can agree or disagree on whether a given scenario ought to be included, while still agreeing that a big plurality of types of scenarios can be unified in just this way.

Whether or not he means to, it seems to me that Akiva is committed to a version of the first one, whereas I am committed to the second. Most of the problems we see in one another’s perspectives flows from this fundamental disagreement.

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Dispassionate Fact-mining

Absolute zero is difficult to imagine. As far as we know, it is only a theoretical possibility, measured as 0° kelvin, at which temperature all molecular movement stops, the absolute absence of heat. Its existence would theoretically be found at the very reaches of the universe, where the energy of the Big Bang has somehow completely dissipated; in other words, absolute zero cannot be achieved, but you can come close.

As far as wrongness is concerned, Adam Gurri has come as close to absolute as is possible. In his post Rhetoric and Due Diligence, Adam posits that scientists have a responsibility to gauge the rhetorical effect of their work. This request, brought forward in the cloak of the humanities, will have the unintended effect of returning us to the childhood of man, wherein we looked to a priestly religious caste to protect us from The Truth. The world has now grown up and is populated by adults, particularly the white, European variety, which has for centuries eschewed superstition and has dispassionately pursued The Truth.

Adam is particularly mistaken in his view of Scientists, egregiously assigning to them fallibility, not only in result, but also (and here, I think, is the reason we should start piling faggots around a large stake) in their motives. It is incontrovertible that Scientists, especially Social Scientists, are dispassionate, guided only by the Scientific Method, which is the cornerstone of The Truth, revealed to us by the Universe itself. Truth, then, is like a coal seam, and Scientists are only coal miners, trudging to their labor, lords of the underworld, to tirelessly mine Facts.

In the same way that a single coal seam can appear in many different parts of the world, e.g., Spain to Wales to Pennsylvania, and many methods can be applied in those various parts of the world for its extraction, so also Scientists, especially Social Scientists, are merely extracting Facts and Data in many and various ways, which they then haul to the surface for dispassionate examination and then application to The Truth, to which all Facts and Data eventually snap, be the Scientist at hand clever enough. If he is not clever enough, then another Scientist, undoubtedly, again, guided gently along the paths created by the Scientific Method, will eventually dispassionately discover how the Fact snaps to The Truth.

It may sound like a chicken-crosses-the-road joke, but the profoundly serious directive of Science is at stake: why do Scientists mine data? For the same reason miners mine coal: they are impelled to do so. It doesn’t matter who’s hurt or offended in the process; any such consequences are only the growing pains of a human civilization going through the inexorable process of cohering as one around The Truth. Some sloughing off is to be expected. Therefore, Adam’s homily on rhetoric clanks to the floor like so many iron manacles employed by the unfortunate and thoroughly representative Christian Spanish Inquisition: the humanities are not only not necessary, they are a hindrance to establishing The Truth.

Should it ever be discovered that a Scientist, especially a Social Scientist, has lost his dispassion, or has even willfully departed from the Scientific Method, anywhere along the process, beginning with descending into the Data mine, extracting Facts, examining the Facts, and then snapping the Facts to The Truth, then let the dispassionate peers of that Scientist immediately banish him from Science and force him to become ordained into the nearest amenable religious order at hand. So when Adam Gurri cries out in the wilderness, “We must acknowledge the rhetoric of scientific inquiry,” I say to him, “Save your preaching for Sundays, Friar Tuck.”

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Rhetoric is for children.

A Very Brief Look at Lower Ways of Life

Featured Image is Parable of the Wheat and Tares, by Abraham Bloemaert

Fellow Sweet Talker Akiva is uneasy with virtue ethics and related families of theories. His chief concern is that the underlying assumptions about human nature will be used to shout down people’s voices about their own self-conceptions. In short, taking seriously what Charles Taylor calls strong, qualitative evaluation, will push us away from respecting individual dignity. And this is especially so when we are speaking of higher or lower ways of life, as Taylor says we must.

We could go back and forth hashing out the details of a virtue ethics position that might be palatable to him, but I’d rather find an example where I can dig in my heels and we can discuss the matter.

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.

And it seems to me that virtue ethics provides a useful framework for talking about this. Just as we can tell when someone is born with an unhealthy heart because we have a normative sense of what a good heart is, so too do we have valuable notions of what a good person and a good life are. These are much more fluid and manifold than something as concrete as a heart, but a lot of the basic things that characterize such lives are the same in broad outline: love, initiative, integrity, responsibility, and so forth.

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. 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.

But I invite Akiva, or anyone else, to persuade me otherwise.

Moral Enchantment

Featured image is Starry Night Over the Rhone, by Vincent van Gogh

My fellow Sweet Talker Paul offered some thoughts on moral objectivity this week. It was not so long ago that I was looking for this very sort of answer to this very question. As few as two, perhaps even one and a half years ago, I might have quibbled with the details but agreed with the spirit of the piece. Eight years ago I took a stab at something like it, though much less sophisticated.

My situation was very different then.

Lately it is not the substance of the answer that I struggle the most with. It is the question itself: is morality objective or subjective? Even intersubjectivity seems dissatisfactory, when most simply treat it as either one or the other–either pseudo-objectivity, or just as arbitrary as plain old subjectivity.

In what follows I will offer, if not an answer, then a picture, an attempt to portray how matters appear. I am not yet at a stage where I could tell you the question to which this picture is a provisional answer.

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Coping With Contradiction

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself

Featured image is Luncheon on the Grass, by Edouard Manet.

Practices are organized around constitutive goods that we strive to articulate, however imperfectly. But how adept are we at this, by nature? Is there a natural harmony between theory and practice?

Not only do I suspect this is far too optimistic a framing of the relationship between theory and practice, I suspect it is too optimistic about the internal divisions of theory and practice themselves, considered separately. And I think it is precisely this sort of optimism that leads people to trample over the politics of truth without noticing what they’ve done.

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Simple Greed

As I’m certainly the least-popular and least-educated Sweet Talker, my ideas aren’t formed from a deep dive into the academic literature, they’re based on experience and observation. I won’t deny having read my fair share academic tomes, and like any good nerd I do read journal articles for pleasure. But that’s just my evening gig; by day, I’m a regular old beer-chugging Joe Sixpack who finds himself caught up in a volatile world, and who has occasionally been known to articulate his thoughts well. For my money, one won’t find real explanatory pay-dirt shoveling through the literature. Instead, we’ll find it in a person’s ability to fuse a workable and ever-updating narrative out of the details of his or her life. The more consistently one’s narrative anticipates and produces good real-world results, the more accurate it is.

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New York, New York is a Conservative Town

When I rose from Penn Station into Manhattan late this July, I expected to be greeted by a horrible smell. With my two older boys in tow (Thomas, 13, and Jack, 10), I entered Manhattan for the first time in my life. Indeed, within seconds I did see one of the notorious mountains of garbage, a filthy homeless person, and the persistent grime all along the gutters and walks, but there was virtually no smell. Well, that’s not entirely true: the fragrance of halal food trucks wafted pleasantly, satisfying my desire for an exotic experience for myself and the boys. With the help of Airbnb and Adam Gurri, we had a blast. What a great city.

As for me, I was raised in the Southeast during the 70s and 80s, and I did my schooling in the Midwest during the 90s. All our previous family excursions, therefore, have been west of Buffalo (where I live now), and south. Moreover, I have been given an enormous prejudice against all things New York, which was, during my childhood, a toilet. And more than a toilet: New York City is the home of Woody Allen, that smarmy, condescending urbanite, the epitome of the intellectual counter-culture which expressed open disdain for American Exceptionalism. It turns out those of us who were offended by his ilk were exactly right.

New York City is also the home of National Review, still standing athwart history, gleefully yelling “Stop!”, to the disdain of liberals, leftists, and now, also Trumpists (whatever that is). My father, who, living in Springfield, Illinois at the time, danced a jig on Abraham Lincoln’s grave to celebrate my birth, had us read National Review throughout childhood, a habit I took with me to college and beyond. Therefore, I was daily formed by the founder of National Review, a snobbish Stamford denizen and Yale man who inherited enormous wealth from his father, an oil speculator and fomenter of revolution in Mexico, not quite the exemplar for Southern Gentility. Perhaps, then, my prejudices against Manhattan were due for a revisitation.

My wife and I were both raised in tourist towns, so we have learned how to enjoy tourist traps for what they are and also how to wander away from them. And wander we did. We boys hoofed it through huge chunks of Midtown and Lower Manhattan over the course of three days, exploring what we could, absorbing the sights, buying into the attractions. I was in particular attracted to the people. I wanted to lay eyes on exactly who it is that makes New York City the center of the universe, and thus proclaims it.

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw them: “These people are conservatives. This is a conservative town.” Capitalism lay naked throughout the city, one gigantic open market, freely flowing, constantly innovating. There was even a business which stored our luggage, for a fee, while we spent the day touring. I was especially dumbfounded by the women of the city. The women were wearing skirts and blouses, dresses, feminine frocks, with hairstyles evoking evolutionary responses commended by secondary sexual traits, not primary. Why, the women were almost as lovely to look at as the architecture and the high rises!

“Whence leftism?” I asked. Men and women alike are more conservatively attired than in any city I’ve ever visited or lived in, certainly more conservatively than Chicago, and I won’t do more than mention my little Buffalo. How is it that these conservatively-driven people are so bloody Marxist, a worldview which makes their lives (and mine) more difficult?

I did notice a weariness in the countenances of all these young people who were hustling for personal interest, pursuing happiness, so I asked Adam about it. He said, “We moved away from Manhattan to Brooklyn because even when we were inside, we felt like we had to be ‘on top of it.’ Even though we still work in Manhattan, we feel we have escaped for the evening when we come home.” I think Adam has expressed what is palpable: in Manhattan one must be diligently “on top of it;” otherwise, Manhattan lands on top of you. Indeed, of the millions who work in Manhattan every day, how many do not have a boss? And even those bosses, along with the many who are thoughtful enough to think it through, have shareholders as bosses, always demanding more profit, and, I can imagine from the Manhattanite perspective, those shareholders are fat, hayseed, ignorant do-nothings who weaseled their way into make-work union jobs somewhere in middle America, that vast wasteland between the Hudson River and LAX.

In other words, the pursuit of happiness is hard, and no other people experience the difficulties of achieving the American Dream within a well-regulated (such as it is) open market like those who labor and toil in Manhattan. To me, these people spearhead the American Dream with their tenacity and employ of personal talent. That much is readily apparent. The promise of Marxism (or Leftism, or Progressivism, or whatever you want to call redistributionist ideology) is seductive: this system can make your life a little easier; the unfairness of the open market–this system can equalize things; this system can ease the pain of the pursuit of happiness.

When a religious fundamentalist powers down the window of his gigantic house on wheels, idling with the air-conditioner running in some Wal-mart parking lot, to scream epithets about the clutching squeeze put on them by East Coast Liberalism (you communists!), I can imagine that roughly zero inhabitants of Manhattan are persuaded to see the error of their ways. I would never have thought that any other class of American could have been perceived as more arrogant or rude than a Manhattanite, but my mind has been dramatically changed: the experience was almost entirely civil, with the exception of rambunctious guided tour barkers and shouting Pentecostals. Nevertheless, there is some truth to the caricature: the constant need to be “on top of it” with respect to the very tiny island of Manhattan creates a framework for dealing with the rest of the country, and with the power Manhattan wields, it’s easy to see how resentment waxes against the Big Apple. Leave us alone with your socio-economic impositions, whydoncha? What you think makes life easier for you I know impoverishes me, and not just of money, but also of institutions which you may not have ever had, and of freedoms.

All in all, though, New York City is a thoroughly American city, and I am proud of New York City, an earnestly nationalistic pride of which I am not ashamed. “Yes, New York City is the greatest city in the world,” I’ll say, “an American city, the template of the American experience, warts and all, the most beautiful city in the world, inside and out.” I don’t want to live there, but I can see why eight million people do.

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