Kayfabe is Sacred, Truth is Profane

“Kayfabe” is an old carny term, expropriated famously by the pro wrestling circuit. It’s a specific kind of play-acting, in which rivalries, feuds, rancor, and animosity are contrived by players and presented to the audience as if real. In turn, the audience gladly suspends disbelief, ignoring or shunning loud apostates

My good friend and professor Robin Hanson argues convincingly that much of the human brain is optimized in favor of hypocrisy. We, particularly those of us endowed with high social intelligence, are finely tuned kayfabe machines. We lie, cheat, grandilocute, backstab, obsequiate, and connive with zeal and panache. But throughout, we pay diligent tribute to a suite of social norms that include fairness, honor, decency, honesty, and charity. We humblebrag to raise our relative status under a thin fig leaf of modesty. And should you break kayfabe, prepare for trouble (make it double).

The punishment of heretics and apostates should be your biggest hint that kayfabe is sacred. You’re meant to display faith in the obviously absurd to signal conformity to common purpose or shared identity. If you can playact as if meaningless, junk affiliation has merit, surely you can be trusted to participate in more important institutions. It’s the sneaky outsider, the non-believer that can’t be trusted.

Would you let your daughter marry someone who broke kayfabe?

Capital-T Truth, contrarily, does not depend on allegiance to theater, to ceremony. Political sentiments are elevated by theme music—not so academic findings.Truth’s profanity is unsentimental when splatched bare. Storytelling, rhetoric, metaphor, allegory: these are the nougat and caramel that hide the hard nut of truth inside. The chore of the alert citizen is to check those political candy bars for razor blades before eating. The task of the social scientist is to lighten the burden of this chore. 

Kayfabe can be great fun, so long as everyone’s in on the act. Excessive dominion arises when the farce gets elevated enough that constituents forget it’s all a big joke. When that happens, it is Truth that punctures the ambitions of the sovereign. The pleasures of sacred kayfabe are surely to be savored, but prudence demands precautions against excessive leavening. 

To Tell or Not To Tell

Reasonable people might say that Shakespeare wrote his Richard II with reference (perhaps allusion) to Elizabeth’s childlessness in her old age. In fact, reasonable historians believe that the play itself was an added inspiration for the revolt of the Earl of Essex, which ended in a rather ugly fashion. The trick, of course, is that reasonable people can disagree most vehemently, and, thereby, keep their heads attached to their necks.

AB is on to something with his corrective post, namely that wisdom bears in telling stories. All stories can be told. All stories are told in context. Contexts change. Contexts can be manipulated. Stories can be manipulated. People can be manipulated.

When you get into the  business of people-manipulating, it helps to have the power to do so with impunity. A wise storyteller uses ambiguity as a defensive weapon, that is, winks and nods encoded in the text, the decoding of which, naturally, becomes the playground for mischievous persons. Shakespeare, as history bears out, endures much foolishness, but as all wise men do, he speaks not, and in not speaking, he asserts power, much power, over the reader, over history, over society, informing our hearts with virtue.

Likewise Homer, and a few others.

The Storyteller’s Obligation

In my previous post I linked to a study on how children were inspired to virtuous action by the role model of George Washington, who told his own father he cut down the cherry tree and was rewarded for honesty.

This is a useful thing to know, both as a parent and also more generally as someone who would like to inspire virtue in a broad range of people. However, it makes me think about a particular consequence of storytelling, and how aspirational stories can lead to tragedies.

Garret Jones recently stated that “There are few horrors of the last century that can’t be blamed on an excessive concern for justice.”, and I believe that’s entirely right. The 20th century’s communist revolutions that led the greatest string of tragedies the human race has yet seen were based on a story about justice and fair distribution of wealth. They told a story about how human society could pass through a socialist phase and into a communist phase where material wealth and prosperity was available to everyone and no one would enjoy power and status over another. It would be Utopia.

Of course it turned out these stories were wrong. Marx was wrong. Communism doesn’t work. The entire exercise was doomed to failure from before it started. 

This is the danger of stories. They can inspire people, but they can also lead them to folly. If we only tell people the good half of stories, or (worse) tell people stories about the way we wish the world were, we lead them astray. 

And this isn’t limited to grand tragedies like the Great Leap Forward, but also in small ways and individual lives. A young person may spend money on a degree whose prospects are not what they were told, or engage in relationships with unrealistic expectations of how love and friendship actually works. This causes heartache, lost money and effort, and also comes back to bite the storyteller as a teller of lies (however well meaning they were at the time).

Don’t do this. Only tell stories that are true. Inspire, but also be wise. Be like Shakespeare, and Homer. 

The Ecstasy of Garett Jones

From the always-excellent Garett Jones:


To which I cheekily reply


Geej pretends to believe that Justice is a destination, possibly to goad me.


I call him on it.


And then…


Professor Jones and I have had brief hallway/lunch conversations about why he left the Mormon faith before. But this is the first time I’ve read this piece from a young (25!) Garett. It’s a tiny bit of private apostasy that highlights a curious sort of tension that Adam alluded to in his puzzlement about how many philosophers should be dancing in the streets. Our first viral post wrestles with this, noting that moral intuition reigns o’er all. Adam (mostly) agrees with other-Sam and Chris.

Me? I’m with Jones. The art of enjoying professional wrestling is reveling in the kayfabe. You know it’s scripted and fake in a gaudy sense, but you also know that there’s a legitimate kernel of genuine drama, and that the real masters of the medium blend the art and the artifice seamlessly. You also know that the audience is in on it and they give themselves wholly to the wink-wink, nudge-nudge self-aware pageant with Dionysian abandon. It’s all part of the act, the performers as much as the audience. And it’s brilliant, so long as the audience remains in on it. If the audience breaks kayfabe, or worse if they fail to recognize that it is kayfabe, you’re left in the uncomfortable position of being the only kid at the parade willing to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes.

We tell stories about how that kid is courageous, but let’s face facts here folks: whistleblowers are treated like garbage. It’s no fun to be the lone apostate, to be the guy who says, “hey, he didn’t really hit him with that chair.” The most savage bit of political kayfabe we’ve got is that America loves the little guy who stands up to the entrenched interest. The incentives suggest otherwise.

Do we need philosophers? Well, we need men and women of virtue, that’s for sure. The world of political, of religious, of business kayfabe would be a lot more entertaining if we’d all stop treating it so earnestly. We don’t have to break kayfabe, but we should all, as reasonable, responsible, respectable adults recognize it for what it all is: show.

In the immortal words of Ric Flair: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

It worked

My co-bloggers ask if philosophy is necessary for a society to have virtue, and I say no. For one, the number of virtuous people in the world far exceeds the number of people who have studied philosophy, so obviously it must come from other sources as well. Further, I would like to quote the following from Deirdre McCloskey:

My dad was also a professor, and one time he said to a good but narrow grad student. “This summer read 30 first-rate novels.” It worked.

I cannot now find the longer essay that Deirdre initially told this story in, but the point she was getting at was that Plato was right and poets and novelists (like Shakespeare and Homer) were serious rivals to philosophers in the teaching of virtue. And I think that’s right. A decent Catechism, well taught with solid examples, also works. 

That’s all I really have to add. There’s more than one way to skin this cat.

Love of Wisdom

I asked: do we need philosophy to live a good life or flourish as a social whole?

Chris and Sam H provided excellent answers. In addition to their direct responses, I think Sam H’s post on aesthetics and art also helps us approach something like an answer.

As far as I’m concerned Protagoras (as portrayed by Plato) had this all figured out about two and a half millenia ago:

Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood, and last to the very end of life. Mother and nurse and father and tutor are vying with one another about the improvement of the child as soon as ever he is able to understand what is being said to him: he cannot say or do anything without their setting forth to him that this is just and that is unjust; this is honourable, that is dishonourable; this is holy, that is unholy; do this and abstain from that.

Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a pupil of ethics, from the time we can understand words to our passing from this world. This the world seen by Burke and by Oakeshott; a world thick with ethical prescriptions and corrections and contested intuitions. Chris puts it like this:

I am agnostic on whether, all things being equal, a more capital-P Philosophically-literate populace would necessarily grease the wheels of American democracy. I don’t think that well-defined Philosophies are necessary for an individual to live a good and virtuous life (for my definitions of those words, anyway), as we already have socialized ‘default scripts’ for how people ought to act, even without a cleanly articulated framework. I do think that social engagement and personal effort can make one a more conscientious, empathetic, aware person- whether that necessarily has intrinsic or instrumental value, I’m unequipped to even guess.

Emphasis added by me.

This all closely parallels the earlier conversation about art. I made the case that art appreciation is a situated, institutional thing, possible only as part of a community. My brother David thought that there must be more to it than this, just as Socrates rejected the soft socialness of Protagoras’ ethics. Sam H played the peacekeeper by bringing underlying, to some extent pre-social emotions into the picture in addition to the Protagorean framework.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

A Humean or Smithian moral sentimentalist perspective added to a Protagorean and Oakeshottian thick traditionalist perspective is, in short, a very good first approximation of the reality on the ground.

But to come back around to the original question again, does philosophy have a role to play within that reality?

I think so, and so did Protagoras. He taught ethics and charged for the privilege. Thinking it through, this shouldn’t seem so odd—after all, language’s reality on the ground is basically identical, and yet we still have English teachers. Certainly people can speak English without English teachers, but yet we expect English teachers to instill certain conventions, certain norms.

Ethics are contingent and traditional but philosophy can play a role in making these contingent traditions give an account of themselves.

I think Deirdre McCloskey’s account of the clerisy, her word for the writerly intellectual class, is something like what I have in mind. By her reckoning, they are supposed to help out by clarifying and providing coherent (but not Platonically self-sufficient) frameworks that help people both in making evaluations and simply in making sense of their lives. By her reckoning, the class of people has been asleep at the wheel (or worse, drunk and hostile) since at least 1848.

Her call to action goes as follows:

We need to revive a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora.

I knew as soon as I read these words that I did not merely agree with them, but wanted to take action. I wanted to do philosophy, to contribute to the revival of that “serious ethical conversation”.

Sweet talk is one part of that effort, and I am grateful, here in week three, for the contributions everyone here has made so far.

Blood Disease: A Metaphor

AG writes that he agrees with Deirdre McCloskey when she argues that the sacred and profane are inseparable. Spivonomist starts it when he observes that honor is hard to define, distinguishing two of its meanings as sacred (honor) and profane (prudence).  SH really gets things cooking with his wonderful example from Schopenhauer, exposing those Greeks for the troublemakers they are. It’s not their fault, really, driving into the realm of ethics the notions of virtue, that is, putting into the realm of pure intellect those matters unseen, that which is cooked in the human liver. And heart. A physician, for example, must distinguish blood from bone in order to make a diagnosis of indications. But where does blood come from?

If the blood is diseased, it stands to reason that the bone is diseased, and the flesh. Even if the disease is not actually observable in the one, but only in the other, no one says, “Gosh, only my blood is diseased; I can live without that.” A painful disease to the bone is a painful disease to the entire body, and a deadly disease to the bone is a deadly disease.

When we say that the sacred and the profane are inseparable, we are really making an observation that the sacred intertwines the profane in the same way that blood vessels intertwine flesh and bone. Where does one end and the other begin? Nevertheless, we must distinguish, knowing that the distinction, like this metaphor, will cease to serve our intellectual pursuit of what is virtue versus what is prudence, and which has what effect on the other.

What we’re trying to do, of course, is diagnose indications, usually in an effort to treat our ills, beginning with the self, extending to the community, then, finally, to the society. A society filled with Schopenhauer’s Tituses would be ideal because his liver is healthy. Nevertheless, a society filled with Caiuses would be a good society, though short-lived because his liver is not healthy.

Thus, it is easy to change minds, and you can do it by force, as we have seen in the realm of American morality over the last several years. The goal to have many Caiuses is achievable. The goal to have many Tituses is hopeless because it is impossible to change hearts.

Impossible? Near-impossible. To borrow from a possibly-deceased pastiche twitter account, whom I looked to as a father figure: when was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and asked, “What was the last thing about which you changed your mind? And what was the last thing about which you changed your heart?” And the dagger, I think: “How do you know you changed your heart?”


Qualms beget alms

Does the average person need “engagement with complex ethical theories” to be a good person? This is the type of question that keeps weirdos like me and Adam up at night. In order to reply to Adam’s query I need to call upon an expert witness, Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Question of Motive. The key excerpt is in audio form here:

Schopenhauer asks us to imagine two young men, Caius and Titus, each passionately in love, each with a different girl, each thwarted by more favored rivals. Both resolve to kill the rival that stands in their way, “but when they come to actually prepare for the murder, each of them, after an inward struggle, draws back. They are now to give us a truthful and clear account of the reasons why they abandoned their project.”

For Caius, we are given a menu of explanations from which to choose, each representing a famous “complex ethical theory” from the history of moral philosophy. Perhaps Caius says,

I reflected that the principle I was going to apply in this case would not be adapted to provide a rule universally valid for all possible rational beings; because I should have treated my rival only as a means, and not at the same time as an end.” Or, following Fichte, he may deliver himself as follows: “Every human life is a means towards realising the moral law; consequently, I cannot, without being indifferent to this realisation, destroy a being ordained to do his part in effecting it. …

For Titus, the situation is different. Indeed, it’s not even possible to tell if he’s ever been acquainted with a “complex ethical theory” of any stripe. Thus spoke Titus:

When I came to make arrangements for the work, and so, for the moment, had to occupy myself not with my own passion, but with my rival; then for the first time I saw clearly what was going to happen to him. But simultaneously I was seized with compassion and pity; sorrow for him laid hold upon me, and overmastered me: I could not strike the blow.

Now Schopenhauer:

I ask every honest and unprejudiced reader: Which of these two is the better man? To which would he prefer to entrust his own destiny? Which is restrained by the purer motive? Consequently, where does the basis of morality lie?

I know how I answer. Titus embodies an indelible moral character, motivated purely by compassion, while Caius comes off as an amoral keener who could be persuaded back to murder by a particularly convincing footnote refutation. The basis of behaving morally, then, lies not in any philosophical treatise or divine command, but by cultivating our moral sense. Qualms beget alms.

This doesn’t eliminate the value of philosophy per se, but should definitely feed into how one sets their priorities. At the very least, any person who concentrates on living a life of compassion will run ethical laps around the man of manuscript, who is just as liable to become tricked by the latest sophist as he is to discover the first and only Grand Unified Theory of not being a dick.

In addition to the comments we receive below, there is some lively conversation taking place on Reddit connected to this post that can be found here.

“Comparative Ideological Studies”

I heard this wonderful episode of the podcast “99% Invisible” recently. It was about the problem of communicating across ten thousand years, to tell our distant descendants that “This Area Is Insanely Radioactive, Go Away”. In truth, even a ten-thousand year scope is irresponsible, since we all now understand that the material will be pretty unsafe for the next 250,000 years.

The speakers make the salient point that Shakespearean English is roughly 400 years old, or 4% of the time we’re trying to span. The “English” of Beowulf is 10% the distance they’re trying to shout over. Languages and common symbols drift away in the 10k year time-span. Nothing human is anchored down at that scale. Any foreboding landmark we can construct can become an attraction (or an undecipherable mess). Any repulsive obstacle can become an attractive challenge or an irrelevant nothing.

One especially curious solution was to genetically engineer some cats to become “living Geiger counters”, changing color in the presence of high-radiation, and then singing songs and telling stories whose moral was simply, “If the cats change color, run away.” The men who came up with this theory argued that culture itself was the only technology that could span that kind of time. If the simple heuristic that “cats should not change color” could be preserved over time, the people of the future do not need to understand the “why”. Let me be clear- it’s a silly solution. Still, thought provoking I think.

This long-temporal-distance communication problem has been itching me lately. I’ve been reading Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication, which nominally is about the problems of cultural exchange with extraterrestrials. [Full PDF courtesy of NASA.gov, here]. The big analogy, though, is with another kind of one-way limited-context communication: between human cultures separated by millennia. (I put up some early notes on my home-blog here, on trying to eke meaning out of Egyptian, Mayan, and North American artifacts).

One of the obvious benefits of “comparative studies” is that it can help to suggest what properties might be more generalizable and which are more contingent or local to the entities in question. From our distance and our own distinct cultural differences, we can make generalizations of other cultures that they themselves might not have seen as contingent or even worth comment. We might call these hidden premises “Unknown Knowns”, to fill out the missing quadrant of that infamous Rumsfeld quote.

We all float in a soup of communally-understood symbols and stories and ideologies that we might occasionally mistake for self-evident. Those who have never attempted their own “ideological comparative studies”- those who haven’t engaged with titled and demarcated Philosophies- may have a harder time distinguishing what is unique or contentious or inconsistent or “recent” in their own worldview, but they aren’t necessarily without a worldview. Those who choose not to engage with the minds of others are missing out on powerful tools of a kind of metacognition.

I apologize if this is a trite point. I am agnostic on whether, all things being equal, a more capital-P Philosophically-literate populace would necessarily grease the wheels of American democracy. I don’t think that well-defined Philosophies are necessary for an individual to live a good and virtuous life (for my definitions of those words, anyway), as we already have socialized ‘default scripts’ for how people ought to act, even without a cleanly articulated framework. I do think that social engagement and personal effort can make one a more conscientious, empathetic, aware person- whether that necessarily has intrinsic or instrumental value, I’m unequipped to even guess.


Hi all, I’m Chris, and I’m looking forward to more great conversation here. I have a low-activity Twitter as careid0, and I scribble madness at www.fogbanking.com. My perennial interests are decision-making, human-computer interaction, organizations, and games studies. I’m a consultant on weekdays and a game developer on weekends.

Is Philosophy Necessary for the Good Life?

Like many of my fellow Sweet Talkers, I’ve got an interest in philosophy, and especially ethics. But as interested as I’ve found it to be, the more I read, the more I have this nagging question:

Is philosophy necessary for a good and virtuous life? If so, then must we write off all of humanity as incapable of achieving the good life, save for the tiny sliver of those that engage in philosophy (never mind getting particular about which philosophy). If not, then what is the purpose of a philosophy of morality in the first place?

In the preface to Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum writes:

Like Socrates, I think that modern democracies need philosophy, if they are to realize their potential. And they not only need Socratic inquiry and self-examination, they also need engagement with complex ethical theories, prominently including theories of social justice.

If democracy’s potential requires the median voter to have “engagement with complex ethical theories”, then democracy is doomed to never fulfill its potential. Forgive me if that is excessively cynical.

But if philosophy and complex ethical theories are not to play the role that Nussbaum envisions, what role are they to play, if any?