If I never again heard about the trolley problem applied to autonomous vehicles, I would be excessively happy

If I never heard the trolley problem referenced in a discussion of autonomous vehicles again, I would be excessively happy. But I’m from the Midwest, so I’m ok with being miserable. I also understand the irony in writing this piece.

I’m not going to explain the basics of the Trolley Problem. No one needs another horrid rehash of it. It has been done to death.

But that says something. Continue reading “If I never again heard about the trolley problem applied to autonomous vehicles, I would be excessively happy”

Free Market Capabilities: a Restatement

Featured image is SHield World Construction, by artist Adam Burn.

This claim about the moral importance of personal economic autonomy likely would ring true for many of the women in developing countries to whom leading capabilities theorists such as Martha Nussbaum devote much attention. Could such an interest be built up in such a way that gained it a central place on the list of the basic human capabilities? How might the inclusion of such a capabilities interest affect the wider distributive aspects of the capabilities approach? [Tomasi 44%]

In Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi introduces a hybrid political theory he calls “market democracy.” He specifically defends a Rawlsian regime, “free market fairness” (FMF), but he presents market democracy itself as a broad research program that can be explored and hopefully colonized by liberals of all kinds, from luck egalitarians to classical liberals and perhaps even libertarians. It is open to all “high liberals” who are willing to commit to “thick” economic liberty and to all classical liberals interested in transplanting their economics into a high liberal framework. Tomasi lays out market democracy as a broad approach to meeting the requirements of liberalism:

Market democracy sees society as a public thing, the basic institutions of which must be justifiable to the people living under them. Persons are conceived not as disconnected happiness seekers but as democratic citizens. They are moral beings with lives of their own to lead who are simultaneously committed to living with others on terms that even the weakest among them can accept. At base, society is a fair system of cooperation among citizens committed to respecting one another as responsible self-authors. [Tomasi 25%]

I have previously advocated greater dialogue between libertarians and followers of the capabilities approach (CA). Here I adapt this idea in the spirit of Tomasi’s market democracy research program.

Continue reading “Free Market Capabilities: a Restatement”

Compulsory Suffrage

It’s voting season in America and it’s voting season at Sweet Talk. Paul Crider has inveighed against libertarians who dismiss the value of the vote, and Samuel Hammond has declaimed the way libertarians deal with collective action problems like voting. By way of counterpoint, Nathaneal Snow chooses to let others speak, having lost faith in reform.

All speak from a libertarian tradition of one kind or another, which I suspect makes my own proposal anathema to them. I think we should force Americans to the polls.

First the proposal: the form of compulsory voting that I advocate is neither truly compulsory nor truly voting. Under the Australian model, the compulsion is in the form of a nominal fine (AUD 20 or about US$15.50) or the requirement to present a “valid and sufficient” reason for not voting. Likewise, the requirement to “vote”, while presented as such, only really extends to making it to the ballot box; from there you may spoil your ballot to your heart’s content. There are other models (some 26 around the world) but the Australian model is nearest and dearest to my heart.

Why might anyone advocate this approach? There’s a range of reasons, but my preferred ones are largely pragmatic. Voluntary voting is a sort of two-factor voting: (i) can you convince someone to show up and (ii) can you convince them to vote for you? The first roughly maps to intensity of political feeling, the second to your political inclinations. Speed and direction, if you will, which together create velocity at the polls.

The first of these–the willingness to show up–tends to be corrosive. Intensity of political feeling goes hand in hand with more radical political beliefs, and therefore voluntary voting has a structural bias towards polarization. The accompanying rhetoric, ginned up to “motivate the base”, tends to have the same effect.

For the same reasons, single issue voters in a voluntary voting system will have outsize influence in an election. Where policies result in concentrated benefits and diffuse harms (or vice versa), voluntary voting will tend to over-represent the concentrated interests, who will make the extra effort to vote. One might think of the National Rifle Association as exemplary of this tendency, given the relative concentration of gun ownership in the United States, but there are examples on the other side of politics. These effects are especially magnified in off-cycle or smaller-scale US elections (mid terms, municipal elections, school boards, etc.).

The move to compulsory voting would also inoculate the American political system against one particularly anti-democratic tendency: voter suppression. Of course, it’s still possible to argue about voter ID and ballot box fraud in a compulsory voting system, but the stakes are lower (fraud is mathematically less significant) and it cannot be a proxy for voter suppression. Sadly, it doesn’t fix gerrymandering.

It’s also more representative. In one sense that’s completely obvious, given the total expected turnout, but it’s worth remembering that the groups least likely to vote tend to be clustered, for example, among the young or poor. For this reason the move to a compulsory voting appears to result in a broader distribution of government spending (though this is, of course, legitimately contested). An incidental benefit of greater participation also appears to be a more politically informed population, in net terms. We should be cautious about such incidental conclusions–there’s no such thing as a randomized controlled trial for voting systems–but not lose sight of the core benefit: more people cast their votes.

For those who dwell on the (ir)rationality of voting, it also breaks one troubling calculus over the value of a vote. Given any meaningful practical hurdle to voting, the most disadvantaged are least likely to make it to the ballots. Since that depresses turnout among that group, it reduces the likelihood that a bloc of similarly situated voters will be decisive. In turn, the likelihood that any individual will be decisive drops further. The incentive to “defect” rises, and rises again. While in general, I am doubtful that the expected return on voting is what motivates most voters, there seems little reason to diminish it further for particular groups.

Not to mention all the practical hurdles to voting tend to fade when the entire populace is expected–and required–to vote. In Australia voting occurs on a Saturday, voting places are nearby and plentiful, and voters usually enjoy a sausage sandwich straight off the barbie (it’s called a “sausage sizzle”).

Sausages or not, many Americans are unwilling to countenance this kind of governmental compulsion. In some senses, this isn’t altogether surprising – being required to attend a certain place at a certain time (or risk a fine) in service of political goals has a whiff of autocracy about it for those who have never lived the experience. I have, and perhaps it’s correspondingly normal to me. Either way, I can’t see how it can be conceptually distinguished from even run-of-the-mill government interventions in the United States: jury duty, taxes (which, as certain libertarians are keen to remind us, is functionally the same as compelled labor), or even a visit to the DMV. Especially not when conscientious objectors would be taxed less than a parking ticket for their refusal. Australians don’t hate it (in fact, some 70% or so are in favor of continuing compulsory voting) and I see little reason to believe that Americans would ultimately feel any differently.

Would it materially favor a particular party? I am not certain. The conventional wisdom is that higher turnout favors left wing parties, and if you believe voter ID laws are stealth voter suppression by the GOP, that would seem to be vindicated by practice. However, those that have studied the application of compulsory voting to the US seem to believe that only the outcome of very close elections (2000, 2004) would be changed in one direction or the other. It’s certainly possible to change some of the compositional elements of politics (polarization, concentrated interests, etc.) without necessarily changing party-based outcomes. I’m hard-pressed to think it matters either way. In even the most basic democracy, the preferences of the populace at large should be logically prior to the benefits or costs to a given party.

Last and least, there’s the symbolism and the theory. On the governmental side, greater participation is suggestive of a more comprehensive mandate. I offer this argument a little tepidly because I am no absolutist about democracy (I favor, for example, the Westminster system), nor do I think a “mandate”–already a wispy concept–is the missing link for political authority. I do, however, think there is some expressive value to voting, even when compelled, and believe that civic engagement is a muscle that needs to be exercised to grow stronger. The most that really needs to be said in this respect is that compulsory voting is certainly no worse than voluntary voting from the standpoint of political theory.

I am skeptical that a change of this sort will happen in the United States in my lifetime, no matter how many offhand presidential comments it attracts. That said, before something become possible, you first have to believe in it, so in the spirit of reciprocity, perhaps compulsory voting should be Australia’s little light on the hill.

Selective Contraction of the Voter Supply

Steven Landsburg offers some advice to the altruist:

Every now and then, some eccentric altruist gathers up his assets and donates them to the United States Treasury. As a result, our current or future tax bills must fall. The beneficiaries are the many millions of U.S. taxpayers, each of whom experiences a tiny reduction in his tax burden. But we do not all benefit equally. Those of us in the highest tax brackets—by and large, the richest Americans—collect disproportionate shares of the gift.

An alternative strategy for the altruist would be to convert his assets to cash and, instead of giving them to the Treasury, hold a bonfire. The result is essentially the same… your share of the benefits is proportional not to your tax bill but to the quantity of cash you happen to be holding at the moment of the bonfire.

There has been some discussion about whether or not to vote. The argument in stages can be read in the pages above.

I am of the I-don’t-vote camp. That has afforded me certain ethical peace over the last year, especially when I found myself offering policy advice to hopeful politicians. I felt I could be more objective and more bold in my presentation of advice than I likely would have been had I had a dog in the fight.

I continue to dwell in my I-don’t-vote position for a few reasons. First, my vote is probabilistically indecisive. Second, the space between available platforms is not really all that big. Third, who is elected does not matter all that much, and should not matter at all.

I will add a new justification momentarily.

I am on record decrying that “all reform is a fail.”

I am utterly pessimistic about the capacity for an organization founded upon the monopoly of force to be capable of positive action, or reform that justly compensates those harmed by a change in policy. In Landsburg’s model above, I would expect the Treasury to leverage any bequeathment through some sort of multiplier into further indebting the remaining taxpayers. I agree, the bonfire is a much better idea.

And here is where I part from the bleeding heart libertarians who believe in reform. They have not as of yet been sufficiently disappointed by past reforms. It has been too easy to allow one’s perspective to be biased by only observing the survivors of past reforms. The uncompensated and other losers fall out of the data.

Similarly, I part with many religious economists. There are those who attempt to justify markets as moral from a particular theological point of view. They are really interested in defending the status quo. Those positions tend to privilege their own theological priors because the advocate is an ultimate beneficiary. I cannot remember ever having read a free-market-Anabaptist point of view other than my own. I should suspect that I am wrong.

Both parties can point to peaceful and beneficial resolution of collective action problems through private agencies and local levels of governance. They think those processes can be transferred to higher levels of governance. Often a wise or benevolent executive is presumed. Among the doctrinaire, dominionism (the idea that God’s Chosen should seek to fill every public office, and the eschaton will obtain once they do) is not uncommon.

My contention is that collective action problems resolved outside institutions founded on violence are different in kind from collective action problems resolved through voting.

My new justification for not voting is that in stark comparison to some who advocate the exclusion of particular voices from the ballot box, my abdication from that platform amplifies the voices of others. As a married white male protestant with education, it may behoove me more than anyone else not to vote.

It should be clear that when some urge libertarians to vote, they really mean libertarians like themselves, libertarians like me (though with a different attitude). They really want to amplify their own voices, and are demonstrably unwilling and uninterested in learning from other voices. They want to be libertarian dominionists.

They miss the idea that democracy is about deliberation and skip straight to decision, in the same way that mainstream economists skip straight over choice and jump to optimization, in the same way that I am prone to mansplaining, and in the same way that white churches like to be in control of racial reconciliation efforts with black churches.

Voting as a collective action problem

A common criticism of libertarian philosophy is that it can’t handle collective action problems: That a totally voluntary society lacks the tools to build lighthouses, prevent over-fishing, or ensure we all get our vaccines.

In response, libertarians developed a branch economics dedicated to showing how collective action problems can be solved with voluntary cooperative arrangements. Elinor Ostrom’s work was particularly important for arguing that, under the right conditions, norms and civil society can evolve to govern the commons from the bottom up.

There are obviously limits to informal norms, however. For one, they are easy to undermine through appeals to rationalistic arguments. After all, norms exist to enforce cooperative arrangements that would otherwise be unstable. That suggests it is always possible for a sophist to jeopardize collective action by appealing to their peer’s individually rational, myopic reasons for action (“Just catch one more fish, no one will notice.”), and with each person who defects it becomes more tempting for everyone else to defect.

Voting represents an interesting test case for the robustness of voluntary solutions to collective action problems. After all, any single individual’s vote is mathematically insignificant, and yet they add up to be significant.

Yet many of the same libertarians who insist that norms and civil society can solve large scale collective action problems also insist that voting is individually irrational, and therefore abstain. This merely affirms the worries of many that the libertarian emphasis on individual rationalism contains the seeds of its own unravelling with respect to collective action.

Of course, that we vote in large numbers at all is in some sense a vindication of Ostrom and her school of economics. We cement the norm of voting with the help of overlapping institutions like political parties, religious congregations, unions, non-profits, membership clubs, and not to mention friends and family. We communicate voting intention to other individuals within these groups, which are small enough to reinforce a mutual expectation of follow through. Groups in turn coordinate with other groups, like when a local union coordinates with its other chapters. Pretty quickly a meagre individual vote becomes amplified into the hugely consequential endorsement of a union federation or influential political action committee.

I therefore don’t believe libertarians are totally sincere when they make the “voting is irrational” argument. Or, more to the point, I suspect it is a case of motivated reasoning. For one, it is cognitively dissonant with their optimism about voluntary collective action in other spheres (“collective action for me but not for thee”). And second, it seems to spring from their mood-aversion to electoral politics more generally, which suggests it is a kind of “technique of neutralization“—that is, a proactive way of rationalizing defection from societal norms that one finds inconvenient.

Other libertarians double down on their mood-aversion and argue that voting is inherently immoral or distasteful, possibly because it involves participating in a coercive enterprise. This view confuses me the most, especially when paired with the “voting is ineffectual” view. Which is it? An inherent vice or an astronomically insignificant form of self-expression? There is no pressing need for a new norm against voting anyway, just like there is no need for a norm for littering, overfishing or free-riding off of herd immunity. Those behaviors all fall out of individually rational human action. They are what is left in the absence of coordination.

Motivated reasoning is just the generous interpretation. The less generous one is that the average libertarian is tragically bereft of the social capital needed to leverage idiosyncratic beliefs and motivations into collective action. There may be some truth to that. If you thought it was hard to herd cats, try herding philosophical anarchists.

The even less generous view is that libertarianism represents a self-defeating memeplex, a mind virus that handicaps its host so badly that it ceases to spread. Indeed, if you wanted to actively hobble the labor movement, say, wouldn’t you want to plant agent provocateurs within their ranks to charismatically defend the game theoretic logic of being a scab? Or better yet, that being a scab is just and noble?

As a matter of fact, that is more or less what happened in the 1960s. It was called the New Left, and their congenital aversion to norm-conformity hobbled the progressive movement’s ability to influence institution change for a generation. Now the right is having it’s own countercultural moment with the alt-right, which, with some libertarian fellow travelers, is trying in vain to affect social change through various forms of culture jamming and norm subversion.


With activists like this, maybe muh roads won’t be built after all.


Voting at the Edge of the Abyss

Anyone who has engaged with even a handful of libertarians in their time is familiar with their disapproval of voting. There are three kinds of reasons for this disapproval: rationalistic, moral, and the hybrid of democratic pollution. I want to admit at the outset that once upon a time I subscribed to each of these arguments. I now believe I was wrong on all counts.

Voting reductionism

The likelihood that your vote will sway any given election of more than several dozen people is vanishing. Unless the decision hinged on a single vote, then no single individual’s vote made a difference. You could have stayed home and the outcome would have been the same. So far so good. But it does not follow that you shouldn’t vote.

Libertarians make a lot of noise about how, given these quantitative probabilistic aspects of voting, your time would be spent far better doing literally anything (praying for rain, injecting heroin into your eyeball, whatever) than painstakingly adjusting your schedule to fit in the time to laboriously trudge uphill in the snow both ways to the polling station. Voting in a modern democracy isn’t some Herculean task, and voting by mail makes it quite easy for the kinds of people who read these arguments. Further, the libertarians who make this argument rarely apply the same exacting standards of efficiency for other aspects of life. Arguing with people on the Internet about how inefficient voting is on rationalistic utilitarian grounds isn’t a promising way to rack up your own utils.

This argument also implicitly assumes that the only value of voting lies in its impact on the probability of swaying the election. But this misses the point. When we talk about how we plan to vote, we are engaging in political dialogue with one another. When we explain our reasons for how we plan to vote, we’re educating ourselves about the salient arguments. Admittedly this can be done well or poorly, and our tribal instincts make it all too easy to seek out confirmation of our biases. In any case we’re potentially influencing outcomes with our reasons, not just our votes. And of course voting is a symbolic act as well. It signals to others your commitment to the civic order.

Neither ballots nor bullets

Some libertarians view voting as an act of aggression. On this view, by casting your vote for some candidate, you shoulder at least some portion of moral responsibility for that candidate’s actions in office. You consent to that candidate’s political power, and to that extent lend them legitimacy. Without such consent, whatever evils the candidate visits upon the people would be those of a common brigand or non-democratic tyrant. With your consent, you too are culpable.

This argument has some force. Voters must indeed pay attention to the consequences of their voting. If you participate in the election of a monster, and there was ample evidence for a reasonable person to predict the consequent harms, then, all else equal, you are at least partially culpable for the carnage.

But of course, how often is all else really equal? Voters are never given angels among their options, but two or more flawed candidates, one of whom will surely prevail. Moreover, candidates are not measured along a single dimension, but along numerous dimensions including character traits in addition to policy proposals. Voters must gauge those traits and policies not just on their own merits in a vacuum, but how they will likely play out in their social and political context (Will their plans be stymied by other political actors? Does the candidate’s party affiliation and the structure of the electoral system preclude the candidate’s chance at success?). And especially for high offices, a candidate should be assessed by their rhetoric and soft power. What passions might they evoke in their supporters? Will lynchings be given tacit approval, even if there isn’t an official lynching policy?

Fiat justitia ruat caelum?

This complexity doesn’t remove moral accountability from voting, but it does mean that assessing the morality of a vote is not at all straightforward. It requires assessing the reasons why you vote the way you do. The same vote may be praiseworthy or blameworthy depending on the supporting justifications. I’ll use the current pressing example. Libertarians are rightly critical of Clinton for a number of reasons, most notably her history of military hawkishness and its deadly consequences for innocent people abroad. Libertarians generally also find Trump loathsome for his clear strongman style authoritarianism and narcissism, in addition to his blatant sexism and his evocation and legitimization of rank bigotry.

Some neoconservatives will vote for Clinton at least in part because they wish to preserve American military hegemony in the world. To the extent this is their justification, I think they’re culpably wrong. So, does voting for Clinton necessarily imply bestowing your stamp of approval on ongoing campaigns of aerial drone terror? Clearly not. One might reasonably believe that, while Clinton has her problems, they’re the status quo problems we’re used to. Whereas Trump represents a “high variance” threat to our very institutions, the kind of threat that could lead to chaos and devastation impacting far more people than our current flawed system, while simultaneously crippling our best tools for improving the system.

Consider a more concrete example: a Muslim American chooses to vote for Clinton, not because she is unaware of Clinton’s hawkishness, but because she is terrified that a Trump presidency will result in pogroms and prison camps for her friends and loved ones, all while in all likelihood doing nothing to abate the bloodshed abroad. Condemning this person’s vote because “voting is an act of aggression” or because Clinton will predictably authorize actions that hurt and kill other people is implausible. Our voter has done her due diligence, and after carefully weighing the alternatives, she has reasonably concluded voting for Clinton is her best moral option.

Importantly, our voter acknowledges that her vote is not without a “moral remainder,” a degree of inevitable moral tragedy. Voting as she does is the best option available among a set of imperfect options, but that doesn’t mean she won’t feel bad for the specific Clintonian damage that proceeds. Our responsible voter is obligated to criticize the Clinton administration’s failures.

But the moral remainder is not unique to voting. The electorally abstinent anarchist suffers his own moral remainders. If Trump wins and all the predictable race- and religion-based violence, institutional corrosion, and setbacks to US-world relations ensue, then our anarchist nonvoter bears some of blame. This doesn’t change if Trump loses; in this case the anarchist will merely have enjoyed the good fortune that their abstinence (and their political dialogue running up to the election) failed to contribute to a much worse outcome. Abstaining from voting isn’t like accepting Christ’s blood. It does nothing to wash away the moral consequences of our political actions, which include acts of commission and omission.

On Gary Johnson

What I’ve said above applies to voting libertarians as well as nonvoting anarchists. There are really good reasons to vote for Gary Johnson, especially in a vacuum. On foreign policy and immigration especially, I think a Johnson administration would be far and away superior (especially if minimizing dead bodies is your thing). But we’re not in a vacuum. We’re in a two-party system where the chance of Johnson winning is infinitesimal and depends on fanciful scenarios like winning a single state (already improbable) that prevents either Trump or Clinton from getting to 270 electoral college votes (still more improbable) and then further depends on the House of Representatives (where there are no libertarians I can think of) to conclude Johnson is the best option.

Even in this case, voting for Johnson could be laudable as a protest vote—thus signaling both your dissatisfaction with the two parties and your desire to see more libertarian political options—but only if you genuinely see no substantive differences between the two major party candidates. But at the risk of imputing bad motives, if you see no substantive differences between Clinton and Trump, then you might have fallen victim to the reflexive, feel-good rational irrationality you so often decry in Republicans and Democrats.

It didn’t have to be this way. There was a window of time where it was conceivable that the anti-Trump voices within the Republican party might have loudly coalesced around Johnson/Weld as the best option for Republicans, and it might have been a very interesting three-way race where Republicans could have lost to Clinton while maintaining their dignity and libertarians could have set the stage for future campaigns as a serious political party. But this window has closed, and it’s pure fantasy to pretend otherwise. Johnson voters too will bear the moral remainder of protest-voting on the edge of the abyss.

Polluting the polls

Some libertarians aren’t hostile to democracy outright, but caution against demanding that people vote, or making voting morally mandatory. Voting is beset by problems of rational ignorance and rational irrationality. Why encourage voting when we can expect most voters to bring nothing but their biases into the booth with them? I accept this argument, and in general I don’t encourage people who aren’t otherwise inclined to go out of their way to vote. It’s far better to encourage other kinds of civic behavior. If you aren’t going to vote well, don’t vote.

That said, the libertarians I have in mind throughout this piece are politically inclined, and they are politically informed, and they’re already engaged in political dialogue. These are people who could vote well, but they choose not to. By conscientiously (sanctimoniously?) not voting, or voting for a third party candidate who can realistically only nudge the electoral outcome to one major party candidate or the other, these libertarians are themselves at risk of polluting the political process.

The Greatest Country on Earth

At some point in, I think, 2003 or 2004, I was sitting on the rooftop of a quite pleasant and dirt cheap hotel in Marrakesh, as a morning of medina chaos unfurled around us. I was meeting some new American friends–North Eastern educated types (you know, the “good” kind of American)–and the hospitable Moroccans were cooking us breakfast.

“Over easy” was the request. It was met with polite, faltering confusion from our local server. “Over easy?” asked the American again, with a confused, rising inflection. While I winced, my new friend tried again. I can’t recall if they compromised on scrambled or fried, but there was ultimately a mild, but clearly palpable American irritation at the state of the eggs.

My fellow Sweet Talker, John David Duke Jr, musters a poetic defense of Americans (or, perhaps, indictment of anti-Americanism) in these pages. While I’m less poetic, I do like America. I am actually rather happy to defend it, and will on occasion do so. In fact, I like it and its denizens so much that I have spent the past seven years in the fine metropolis of New York City and, for so long as the capricious immigration bureaucracy continues to smile upon me, I will stay. It is partly for this reason I feel obliged to share with my American friends the reasons why you are disliked. Spoiler: it is not because of your freedoms.

It is because of your unshakeable belief in your exceptionalism. It is because you cannot believe you have anything to learn from other nations. On healthcare: “Single payer health care may work in those other countries, but it won’t work in America.” “Well, yes, we pay too much for healthcare, but we do have the best in the world!” On gun control: “Well, it may have worked in Australia but America is different.” Don’t even get me started on the controversy over the mere citation (citation!) of foreign legal opinions in the Supreme Court. Much like teenagers convinced that they are the first to feel heartbreak, you think you are the first to encounter issues of civic policy.

It is because of your foreign policy. The “milquetoast” George W. Bush [see correction] presided over an unjust war, built on a lie, and yet the manner in which impolitic foreigners mentioned his “evil” nature chafes on you. Sure – those foreigners are guilty of rudeness, and unfairly demand of of you penance for the actions of your government. Sure – it’s shitty synecdoche, with you standing in for your nation. But you are surprised that they have a problem they want to talk to you about? That they burn to tell an American–any American–that it’s evil?

It is because of your obliviousness. It is because, to be petty for a moment, I cannot say “fortnight” and expect to be understood. It is because Ivy-league educated lawyers have never seen the word “whilst”. It is because you cannot name foreign capitals or find other nations on a map. It is because you cannot understand people with even mildly distinct accents in English

It is because, on the rooftop of a Marrakesh hotel, you are unaware that “over easy” is a uniquely American request.

But, honestly, you are not really to blame for these things. You enjoy one of the great blessings of hegemony–blissful ignorance–while the rest of the world cannot afford to be so foolish. And, yes, that hegemony is a burden you carry too

My suspicion is that any nation, rendered into an island by the sheer gulf of power from the next nearest, wrested further into factions by its own historical struggles, and drowning in the sheer volume of its own cultural output, would bear these same features. We’re all just trying to get by, and though the European left may imagine themselves more virtuous, history does not bear out the thesis that they are uncorrupted by power.

And so, by the power vested in me by no one at all, I absolve you of any sins, and forgive your confusion. But you should no longer be surprised.

Correction: The “milquetoast” Bush to which JDD Jr referred was Bush the elder, not W (and quite clearly so, on review), which does indeed make his story all the weirder. I really do regret the error.

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

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

Freewill, RUSH, Permanent Waves

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

Adam says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam also says,

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

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

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

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


Tracing the Origins of Flourishing

Featured image is The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants.
This argument (though, I grant a VERY weak form of the trope), that Western Civilization rests necessarily on Christiandom, seems logically and empirically false:
First, if this is true, then the rise of whatever is good about Western Civilization must have had an incredibly long incubation period. Long enough that dialectical materialism might even be true. The Great Enrichment postdates the emergence of Christianity by 1800 years, give or take; and Christiandom (as established by Constantine) by 1500 years.
Second, there are enough contradictory data points, both Christian nations that lagged in making progress, and nations not explicitly Christian that did not lag so, that any interpretation of the existing data that arrives at this conclusion is a spurious reading at best.
Finally, I find the elements of Western society that are most imbued with Christiandom the most troublesome. That is, whatever the influence of Christiandom on Western society, I hardly consider it a positive.
Western society has progressed, since the Great Enrichment, wherever the radically egalitarian treatment of processes of coordination and cooperation among disparate individuals has been adopted. Liberalism.
This is from my point of view a particularly Christ-like way to treat people, but Christiandom has not always acted so Christ-like. A Christ-like treatment of people requires sacrifice, which goes beyond egalitarianism-in-process and practices personal voluntary sacrificial charity, even toward one’s enemies. Such an attitude cannot be enforced or underwritten institutionally. It must be an organic byproduct of gratitude for Jesus’ completed work in an individual.
Where more people are living in a Christ-like manner, we can hope to see a more egalitarian attitude prevailing.
Thus, importantly, there is nothing special about the institutions of Christiandom that helped to bring about flourishing. Rather, where those institutions enjoyed a special relationship with privilege and power, Christiandom was a rot.
I do think that Christ-like behavior may have been important for the rise of flourishing, though such behavior would have happened on such a micro-scale that it would not have been easily reported. Particularly since the practitioners of said behavior would try to remain anonymous where possible.
And let me clarify that Christ-like behavior may not be peculiar to nominal Christians. Tonight I listened to a Muslim man talk about how he forgave the Fishtown racist who tried to shoot him in the head with a shotgun, and even worked to prevent the murder-by-State of his would-be murderer.
Where individuals organically generate trust among neighbors and equal treatment towards others (sympathy), as compared to circumstances where individuals generate distrust and tribal attitudes (faction), social coordination and cooperation are free to emerge.
Institutions that encourage sympathy and discourage faction provide fertile soil for the emergence and acceptance of markets, and dignity toward marketeers. Impersonal exchange rests upon the virtues of impartiality.
Though expressed in somewhat different terms, Cathy, following Auntie D, gets it right.

The Subtext to Crider’s Liberal Patriotism

On these pages, Paul Crider explores what might be best described as Liberal Patriotism. While you should read the entire post, Crider distills it down to a concise rendering when he notes,

Patriotism can instead be carefully cultivated to channel liberal values and this liberal patriotism has to be vigorously peddled in the marketplace of ideas and proudly defended the arena of political discourse. Luckily we don’t have to reinvent wheel: we already have narratives of America (I’m sticking with my own country for this post) as an ongoing project of tolerance, inclusion, and opportunity.

I am in agreement with Crider, but there is an important subtext to the parenthetical phrase, limiting the comments to just the United States. The United States is a unique country because its identity is ideological. The American Project is just that, a continual project, an unfinished draft. If nothing else, the United States is exceptional for this reason. No other country is so closely tied to an ideological construction. No other country is really as invested in its rhetorical construction. Continue reading “The Subtext to Crider’s Liberal Patriotism”