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

 

The Economics of Netflix’s Bright, a Netflix Original Movie Starring Will Smith (available on Netflix dot com)

Spoilers for the Netflix-produced motion picture Bright, starring Will Smith, which can be found on the Netflix proprietary web site, netflix dot com follow the break.

Continue reading “The Economics of Netflix’s Bright, a Netflix Original Movie Starring Will Smith (available on Netflix dot com)”

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.

 

 

Tending the Liberal Garden

Featured image is The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh – repr from artbook, Public Domain 

Pluralism

Adam rightfully calls our attention to the “tragic liberalism” of Jacob Levy. This style of liberalism is tragic because the legitimate values of the polity are incommensurable, plural, and inconsistently applied due to the inevitable diversity of the political body. These features lead to “irresolvable tensions.” These tensions are tragic not only because they are a constant, Sisyphean feature of the human experience, but because all attempts to navigate the tensions invariably hurt the legitimate interests of real human beings. We live in a world of trade-offs.

To take a frequent example Adam and I have used, the individualist concerned with liberation will desire to impose a certain level of uniformity on the populace for the sake of the disadvantaged members of society. A closed society like that of the Amish will face interference from without aimed at liberating those individuals perceived either as oppressed or at least as insufficiently capable of making and acting on informed decisions about their membership in the community. But this imperils the very existence of those sorts of communities, which individuals have genuine reasons to value that have nothing to do with the desire to dominate others. And a universalist imposition will hamper the discovery potential of a more federalist approach that affords such communities wider latitude. Both partisans in a political dialogue about how much to interfere in such communities are reasonable.

Continue reading “Tending the Liberal Garden”

If by Identity Politics

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about identity politics. All right, here is how I feel about identity politics:

If when you say identity politics you mean the cultural relativism, polylogism, the automatic and unappealable guilt of the white man by the Original Sin of his oppressive tyranny, that engenders antagonism, essentializes individuals by race or gender, destroys discourse with accusations of tone-policing and mansplaining and foists upon us unwanted self-understandings, calls forth a new age of identity-based segregation, yea, literally constructs a new hierarchy of privilege-checked domination to put in chains the pale old masters; if you mean the evil spell that topples the freedoms of speech—yea and to offend—and of association into the bottomless pit of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and mattress marches, white fragility and the male gaze, problematizing and Twitter shaming, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say identity politics you mean solidarity, diversity, the realities of present bigotry and discrimination and the legacy effects of ancient oppressions, the idea that our experiences diverge according to the identity groups to which we belong—chosen and unchosen, plural and overlapping—and that to ignore these differences is to paper over injustices—designed or emergent—in rote thrall to a bland ideal of equality that can perpetuate injustice; if you mean activism led by those who know where the shoe chafes; if you mean more deeply plumbing our social well of knowledge by really listening to the testimonies of groups historically ignored; if you mean a rejuvenated liberalism which magnifies our differences not to erect walls between us, but to illuminate the path to a more genuine equality of dignity achieved in our contextual lives and not just in abstract blueprints; if you mean realizing the benefits of diversity, which are the necessary conditions for that Open Society welcoming to individuals of all sexes and genders, races, religions, nationalities, peaceful political ideologies, and body types; if by identity politics you mean loosening up the grand narrative of history’s victors to include alternative and conflicting interpretations, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

Why no Brave New World?

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t read Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic A Brave New World since you were awaiting a slightly overdue deployment in a piss-yellow barracks during the rainy spring of 1995. Twenty years and change hence, most of what I recall from the novel are impressions of its themes. One thing I remember clearly is a certain irritation at being betrayed. I was promised a dystopia, and received instead a glorious paean to a frankly enticing possible future.  Continue reading “Why no Brave New World?”