We Participate in Multitudes We Cannot Completely Articulate

Featured image is Work, by Fox Madox Brown.

Our practices can be understood as games which have an existence surpassing the subjectivity of the players. But how are these games played? I believe, with Hans-Georg Gadamer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Charles Taylor, that to understand the nature of our practices, we need to direct our attention to the nature of language. In the discussion that follows, I will be drawing heavily on Charles Taylor’s recent book, The Language Animal.

Continue reading “We Participate in Multitudes We Cannot Completely Articulate”


Morality Is And Ought To Be Circular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization

Featured image is Novgorod Marketplace, by Appolinary Vasnetsov.

Few phrases capture F. A. Hayek’s vision of emergent order more concisely than “The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization,” the second chapter of The Constitution of LibertyFree societies, in this vision, are perpetual discovery processes. One may wonder, however, how we evaluate what it is that these processes discover. Inspired by Hayek, James Buchanan appeared to believe that the evaluation itself emerges from the very same process. Hayek is harder to pin down on this question, but in The Constitution of Liberty appears to be a simple rule consequentialist.

Hayek and Buchanan’s view of social becoming as a discovery process is immensely valuable, but the frameworks by which they defend or evaluate this process leave much to be desired.

Continue reading “Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization”

The Schismatic’s Mirror

Featured Image is Works of Mercy

We live in a schismatic era; the spirit of our age is division, negation, standing against rather than for.

Schism is an act of violence; the schismatic tears their community asunder. Violence is not inherently bad. Surgery is violent, and so is setting a broken bone. Violence, in short, can serve a medical purpose.

But surgery must be conducted under the right conditions if we don’t want surgical incisions to turn septic. If the man with the hammer too often sees everything as a nail, our current situation too often inclines us to reflexively reach for the bone saw. Amputations can be lifesaving. But it isn’t the best way to treat a flu.

When we encounter a schismatic, we are too much like Narcissus encountering Echo:

In Echo he heard himself, but was not able to differentiate himself from her, so he hated her, revealing a self-hatred, making her (and himself) nothing.

Instead we ought to see them for what they are to us: a mirror to ourselves, to the ugliness and the beauty of our shared situation.

Echo’s mom was infuriated, luring him to a reflective pool of water, wherein he saw a reflection of himself. At this point, you’re supposed to “get it.” Ah, Narcissus finally sees himself and realizes that he is lovely.


Nemesis gets her revenge, of course, but what revenge? The higher gods have short-circuited Nemesis’ plan: Narcissus is transformed, becoming the loveliest of flowers, with neck bent in utter humility, which is a love for self. Narcissus loves himself, and we love Narcissus.

The schismatic rejects to protect themselves from ugliness, but the ugliness was a reflection of something already a part of themselves. Their rejection is propaganda by deed; it invites others to join them. And the spirit of our age, impoverished as it is, seems to offer few defenses but to reject them right back.

I believe that we need, instead, to accept them. Most of all, we must accept that we are a part of the world and the age that we share with the schismatics. We must accept responsibility for our part of that world. We must be able to love the schismatic, and what they reject, and ourselves; to be able to take responsibility but also to bend our stiff necks in humility.

Martin Gurri, my father, observes:

Given our nakedness, and the endless conflict, and the intensity of our mutual loathing, one would expect a frantic search on all sides for higher-level arguments to justify our opinions.  One would expect a new golden age of moral inquiry and creative philosophy.  Instead, every trace of curiosity and humility has been bludgeoned out of our public conversations.  A police shooting might inspire a debate about the proper use of force by the authorities:  instead, it becomes a shouting match between those enraged by attacks on law enforcement and those enraged by racist cops.

In reading this piece, I couldn’t help but feel that he was reaching for the bone saw, too. But some other tools in the medical bag are hinted at, though left untouched.

Why not probe deeper into the nature of authority? Why not search (frantically or calmly) for “higher-level arguments”. Seeking to justify opinions already held can be a great provisional starting point on a longer journey. If we can have the courage to face doubt, and a willingness to press on when the certain becomes uncertain.

The narrowness of the age is rivaled only by the breadth of resources available to us. Most of the great classics are available online, free of charge. Pictures of great art can be accessed that way as well. And an army of scholars and enthusiasts on every topic under the sun are a few keystrokes away, to talk to and to learn from.

Accept the schismatic character of the age. Love the nihilists as yourself. And then accept responsibility for the serious pursuit of answers to your questions. The road to wisdom was never an easy trek, but it’s no harder than it’s ever been.

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Roles of Authority

Why are people in authority allowed to do things that the average person is not? What exactly is authority, apart from the use of organized force to pursue some agenda?

We have trouble forming a clear picture of concepts like these because we are trapped by inwardness. The modern turn toward the inner life as the center of human experience has been, as Charles Taylor puts it, a real epistemic gain. But it exacted a price, often in the form of impoverished theory.

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Radicalism as a virtue


As any Intro Ethics final will note, Aristotle’s describes the virtues as “the middle state” between extremes of excess and deficiency. The paradigm case is courage, the virtue that sits between rashness and cowardice, respectively. This conception of virtue is labeled “The doctrine of the mean”, or simply “the golden mean”, and has its precursors in the Delphic Oracle’s imperative “Nothing in excess” and the Analects of Confucius.

The Doctrine of the Mean seems to oppose radicalism on its face. The very term “radicalism” connotes an extremism of views; if the virtue lies in the middle, then no radical view can be virtuous. As Paul and Adam suggested in a recent discussion, a virtue ethics seems to preclude compatibility with radical feminism by its very formal structure. Liberal feminism, as the more moderate view, seems prima facie the more virtuous position.

But this prima facie argument fails to appreciate the subtleties of the Golden Mean. For both Aristotle and his predecessors, the virtuous mean must be understood in relation to the extremes it avoids. A central motivation of these views is that the virtues can’t be known by any absolute criterion, but must be reckoned through reflection on the relationships we observe around us. To find the courageous mean, we must have models of not just courageous persons, but also of cowardly and rash persons. Not that we should be like the extremists, but we should watch them carefully because they set the boundaries, and it is in terms of these boundaries that I can hope to chart the virtues.

This argument has not yet established radicalism as a virtue. So far, I have only argued that the extremes have instrumental value to the virtuous. At most, this implies that the extremists cannot be eliminated from the discourse without moving where the middle lies. Indeed, the Overton window is moved not by negotiating the virtues, but by policing the extremes.

To go farther and see radicalism as a virtue, one must show that pursuing a radical or extremist beliefs is the most reasonable way to arrive at a virtuous or “middle” position. This may sound incoherent, but hopefully can be made intuitive with a few examples. First, consider orbital mechanics (more fun than archery). To get a probe to Pluto, it’s not enough to launch the probe at Pluto (and cross one’s fingers). Since Pluto is also a moving target, one must also anticipate where Pluto will be when you arrive (ten years later!), and adjust your launch path accordingly. This means that at the start, you’ll be launching a probe in a direction quite radically (!!) other than where you intend to go. But if you calculate carefully, in order to hit your target it’s precisely this radical direction you ought to aim. In this case, the radical solution just is the virtuous solution.

The point is that *aiming* at extremist views can be the most effective way to *arrive* at the correct (‘middle’) views. And, by extension, aiming at moderate views might land you on a view that isn’t virtuous at all. For a normative example that doesn’t involve space ships, consider Paul’s recent defense of liberal feminism against radical feminism.

Paul’s criticism of radical feminism (that it fails to respect the particular stories of individuals) seems lame in the face of the radical response he cites in the article (“that it doesn’t much matter how women construe their sexual choices as these choices are formed within and inextricable from male supremacy”). Indeed, at several points Paul remarks on how much of the radical feminist position is reasonably taken up by the liberal feminist view, and how hard it is to find solid ground to critique the radical.

Well, then, why think there must be a critique at all? Why can’t the radical feminist simply be correct? Paul responds by appeal to the golden mean: the extremist simply can’t be correct!

But look again at the case: Liberal (ie, moderate, “virtuous”) feminists hold views that are clearly grounded in and consistent with (if less radically articulated than) the radical feminists. This seems to exactly be a case where aiming at the radical position CAN leave one on the correct trajectory to a virtuous view. The radical is there to set the bounds of the discussion, and thereby shift the middle towards their preferred views. By articulating strongly radical views, it brings many of those positions into the mainstream where they can be sensibly adopted by the moderates, reinforcing these new norms *as* the norm. The moderates legitimize the work of the radicals at the edges (or discard what cannot be tolerated from the middle) until all the minis have been maxed. And behold, a virtue is born.

The point here is not that the radical is “correct”, or that the liberal is “correct”. The point is that both positions play a dynamical role in the discourse, both simultaneously serving to locate and reinforce the middle where they see fit, and both work together to accomplish this task even where they disagree. That the liberal and radical feminist overlap so strongly in the present is evidence that the destinations they’re tracking are so far away as to converge at the horizon. If anything, the overlap of these views is evidence of the distance we have yet to cover; given where we are, their disagreements are effectively irrelevant.

But while this doesn’t let us decide between the radical and moderate views, it does suggest that any simple-minded aim at a moderate position will likely fail to appreciate the dynamics involved. One ought to advocate for radical views in situations where radicalism helps move the discourse towards the virtuous center; often, advocating for the center is not such a view. One ought to advocate for the center in a way that helps to locate and reinforce it, but when moderate views appeal to the center-as-default, it can be counterproductive to any actual moderation precisely because it obscures the effort to find it.

Thus, and absent any deep paradox with virtue theory, the radical can indeed behave with more virtue than the moderate. The radical might not only help others better find virtue, but might herself stand as a model of virtue.

Be radical, kids.

The Rainbow Ruse

Featured image is “The Fortune Teller,” by Simon Vouet.

The “rainbow ruse” is a cold reading technique in which the reader first assigns the subject a personality trait, and then assigns its opposite. For example, one might say, “You can be a spontaneous person, but in your private life you tend to stick to a routine that works.” Or, “You see yourself as an open-minded person, but you tend to dispense with bad arguments quickly.”

Crude examples of the rainbow ruse are easy to spot as nonsense, but the more skilled a person is in cold reading, the better that person can craft tailor-made rainbow ruse statements to gain the subject’s confidence and leave him or her with the impression of having been deeply and profoundly understood. Continue reading “The Rainbow Ruse”