Duplicity and the Ordinary Work of the Politician

Consider the butcher. He spends a lot of time killing animals. Do those who find this morally questionable tend to call butchers personally to account? I’ve not heard of that—though it may happen—but I do know that many direct their energy to education of those who demand meat.

Consider, say, a fireman on an old train. His job involved setting fire to a bunch of coal, thus soiling the skies. Did people blame him for this air pollution? Or did they think: “Hey, that’s just his job. It’s the result of the choices of many people that we have trains.”

In these examples and others I can think of, we tend to hold individuals less accountable for actions that are inextricably bound up with the successful completion of job-related tasks. A classic example is that of the soldier following orders; yes, we often tend to think a soldier should listen to his conscience, but we also often leave way for the explanation that the soldier accepts the moral authority of his superiors.

Sometimes, commentators inveigh against politicians—against practically all of them, as a class—on moral grounds, as in this example from several years back:

I challenge anyone to argue that the behavior of any of the major candidates…is admirable. Everyone knows that each serious candidate trims, waffles, is duplicitous, has his or her finger in the winds blown by polls, and wants to be President not because of any burning itch to help fellow human beings but because the job comes with all the trappings, and much of the power, of royalty.

I see two distinct complaints there: that politicians play games with words, and that politicians act from self-interest. Economists and wise liberals in general should dismiss the latter complaint out of hand; there’s often nothing wrong with acting largely out of self-interest. That would leave us with the first complaint, that politicians are tricksters.

What if it’s the case that we live in a world where there are some serious interpersonal conflicts that cannot be resolved via honest back-and-forth discussion to mutual agreement? For the means to bring about the necessary resolutions, then, we would have second-best choices such as violence and duplicity. I venture to guess that many of us would choose duplicity over violence as a means of resolving a dispute.

If those sorts of conflicts sometimes crop up, and if “politician” is the occupation of one who resolves such conflicts under a division of labor, then, well, it’s just a job, not a mark of moral inferiority. Can a commentator rightly challenge politicians to avoid duplicity when it seems needless or counterproductive? Sure, without a doubt. But one should also recognize that it’s intrinsic to much of their work.

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”

In Praise of Partiality in Science

We all grow up with an image of science as a pillar of truth and nothing but truth. This ideal is so deeply embedded in us, that the very idea that scientists should take responsibility for the normative aspects of their work is anathema. Of all the things I have written here on Sweet Talk, my series on this subject provoked the most ferocious responses by far.

But science itself is far more than just truth. Elizabeth Anderson thoroughly dismantles the notion that it is. Our very ability to discern the whole truth, according to her, depends heavily on what we would call normative values, rather than value-neutral considerations. The whole truth is not a representation of “every fact about the phenomenon being studied.” If it were, it would “end up burying the significant truths in a mass of irrelevant and trivial detail.”

Theoretical inquiry does not just seek any random truth. It seeks answers to questions. What counts as a significant truth is any truth that bears on the answer to the question being posed. The whole truth consists of all the truths that bear on the answer, or, more feasibly, it consists of a representative enough sample of such truths that the addition of the rest would not make the answer turn out differently.

Anderson’s whole truth can only be determined by honing in on what is significant, an inherently value-laden concept. And that significance is determined by the questions we ask, which are based on our interests. Continue reading “In Praise of Partiality in Science”

Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy

Featured image is A Club of Gentlemen, by Joseph Highmore

Against a liberalism of pre-political foundations and historical destiny,  Jacob Levy has been working hard to recover a vision of liberalism that appreciates the complex patchwork of social life, is historically contingent, and accepts the existence of irresolvable tensions. Though he has been influenced by Judith Shklar’s “Liberalism of Fear,” the character of his work could better be described as a Liberalism of Tragedy. After a year in which liberalism has taken a beating globally, Levy’s work provides an excellent starting point for a revitalization.

Continue reading “Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy”

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?”

Reductionist Poetics

Featured image is a Hebrew manuscript

We explain the world we see with concepts that remain unseen. We explain the act of choosing with models unavailable to the choosers. We bridge these gulfs without knowing how it is possible. Our first guess is always epistemology, but the better bet is poetry.

Poetry and prose are not separated by any such gulf. Terseness and parallelism characterize poetry, but both can be found in prose. They form the heart of the poetic function, which beats a steady rhythm in language of all sorts. The particularly poetic enters into prose and the characteristics of prose enters into poetry. It should not then surprise us to find a vibrant poetic heart beating in the breast of scientific language.

Terseness is simple enough, and not so important for our purposes. Parallelism is deceptively simple, and the key to bridging the gulf between life and model.

When language at any level is brought close together, equivalences can create meaning. Similar looking but dissimilar sounding words can be highly significant. Related genre tropes invoked soon after one another can produce a greater effect. Each potential type of equivalence can be combined or operate independently from any other type.

Equivalence highlights difference; to equivocate is not to tautologize. Rhyming couplets produce a similar sound, but different meanings. A connection is drawn by that similarity, but meaning is made in partnership with contrast.

A man has “cried wolf,” and a parallel is drawn with a story. A man is not a story. Or this man is not that story. An equivalence has been drawn, and its value is only possible because of the differences. The man’s life does not have a clear lesson, but the story does. Parallelism can form a bridge to that lesson from the man by drawing equivalences.

The economic man is more equation than story, and men are neither equations nor stories. But even equations and stories are not completely transparent to us, any more than we as equation and story makers are to ourselves.

Economic man is largely unlike us, so putting his decisions in parallel with ours suggests something new. This “something” itself remains more concealed than unconcealed, but its arrival adds to our visible horizon. Unconcealing by drawing together several untransparent elements together: this is the mysterious effect of parallelism. Like the liar who cried wolf, the tension between clear difference and equivocation generates fresh insights. For this reason truth can flower even among false models.

Our horizons may yet be narrowed by an idolatry of the newly unconcealed. Reductionism is the name given to this class of idols. It is the project of not A because B. A table is not a table, but atoms and the void. Love is not lovely, but a brute Darwinian impulse. The world we see is an illusion, the concepts unseen are the true reality. Human experience counts for nothing, the products of human intellect are sovereign.

To eliminate A with B is to cut the threads of parallelism. These threads stitch together human intellect itself. Sovereign intellect without parallelism is little more than a chimpanzee with a crown. Without the table we see, we would not seek the atoms. The “true” reality can only come into view in parallel with the “nominal” one of appearances. The great unconcealments of the era put formal models in parallel with appearances, as the liar is put in parallel with “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” With the unconcealing power of parallelism, even higher primates such as we have achieved kingly deeds.

Science must proceed poetically to proceed at all, and poetry makes meaning by drawing parallels.