Coping With Contradiction

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself

Featured image is Luncheon on the Grass, by Edouard Manet.

Practices are organized around constitutive goods that we strive to articulate, however imperfectly. But how adept are we at this, by nature? Is there a natural harmony between theory and practice?

Not only do I suspect this is far too optimistic a framing of the relationship between theory and practice, I suspect it is too optimistic about the internal divisions of theory and practice themselves, considered separately. And I think it is precisely this sort of optimism that leads people to trample over the politics of truth without noticing what they’ve done.

Continue reading “Coping With Contradiction”

We Participate in Multitudes We Cannot Completely Articulate

Featured image is Work, by Fox Madox Brown.

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

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

Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization

Featured image is Novgorod Marketplace, by Appolinary Vasnetsov.

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

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

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

The Hermeneutic Situation

Featured image is Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater, by Hishikawa Moronobu.

Imagine the first American to see kabuki theater.

Did it seem completely unintelligible to him?

Or did that American mistake it for something like the performing arts he already knew? A play, or an opera, or even a dance. Did he miss what made it idiosyncratic?

What the American already knows, what he’s capable of understanding as, constitutes what Martin Heidegger calls his hermeneutic situation. It is not knowledge in the sense that we know arithmetic, but something we have that is prior to understanding and provides the necessary conditions for intelligibility.

Imagine in time this American began to see what sets kabuki apart from other performing arts; what is particular to it. He did not just add one more type of performing art to a mental list; his understanding of the performing arts he already knew about is changed by his having understood kabuki. In seeing how they are different from kabuki, he can see their particularity more clearly, and seeing what they have in common is similarly transformative.

This process is what Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to as a fusion of horizons, which in reality constitutes a transformation of both. It is akin to when an English speaker is learning Spanish, and reaches the moment in which they stop trying to mentally translate English sentences word by word.

Once you can formulate what you’re trying to say in Spanish from the start, you’ve broadened your horizons in a meaningful way. Your hermeneutic situation has been transformed; you have not merely added Spanish to English because your understanding of the latter is changed. Things you took for granted about language construction you are now capable of seeing as one possibility among others.

Continue reading “The Hermeneutic Situation”

Demonstration, Theory, and Practice


It would be easy to take my personal intellectual journey from Deirdre McCloskey’s post-modernism to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics to be a slide into relativism, given the reputation of such things. In fact, from the beginning it was a journey out of skepticism and into epistemological optimism, qualified though it may be.

If I have come to believe that knowledge is very political, in the sense of being unable to exist in an an individual vacuum without the context provided by groups, I have nevertheless come to believe that there is genuine knowledge.

In his first post here, Ryan made it clear that he wasn’t satisfied with that picture. He is even more optimistic—he believes that genuinely apolitical knowledge exists.

I am no master of epistemology or philosophy of mind. I’m not going to write a lengthy essay on why he’s wrong and I’m right. Instead, I want to pose a few questions. I have some preliminary answers to some of them, but the questions are more valuable than the answers.


A big part of my transition to relative optimism has been the abandonment of Cartesian foundationalism as the criteria for what knowledge is, and an embrace of classical notions of demonstration.

The most straightforward example is the defense of the principle of non-contradiction. We cannot prove that it is true in a foundationalist way, and it is the basis of the very method of proving things that we are attempting to defend. But we can demonstrate how it is impossible to make any argument without it. As I put it recently:

[I]t’s rather hard to make any assertion at all with teeth if you don’t care about consistency. My argument about inconsistency undermined my argument about the logical connection between God and morality—if consistency doesn’t matter, then there could both be no logical connection between God and morality, and be a completely crucial logical relationship between God and morality—simultaneously. Productive analysis would prove impossible.

Alasdair MacIntyre employed a similar sort of demonstration in critiquing Nietzsche and Foucault. If there is no truth, only positions that people take publicly in order to mask the cynical power relations going on in the background, then what is the status of this very claim? Is it true, or merely a mask for cynical power relations? And if the latter, does that not mean that the claim is false, and therefore some positions can be true and not just cynical power relations? Elliot Michael Milco makes a related set of arguments in his thesis.

One demonstration I came upon recently that I liked concerned the infinite regress argument for skepticism. This is the notion that we gives reasons for believing anything—we believe X because Y. But we have to justify our reasons with yet more reasons—and this chain goes on forever. We believe X because Y, which we believe because Z, and so forth. Because there is no foundational reason that we believe for no other reason, nothing is ever actually justified rationally.

In Joseph Heath’s Following the Rules he points out that this argument would imply we’re incapable of solving crossword puzzles. After all, our justifications for giving a particular answer for a particular part should follow the same logic that skeptics claim leads to an infinite regress. But it’s clear that we do solve crossword puzzles, when we have sufficient familiarity with the subject matter. So unless skeptics are prepared to insist that we somehow solve them irrationally, it would appear that their argument proves too much.

This sort of reasoning was the basis for my piece Science is Persuasion; Cartesian foundationalism has failed, yet still we have modern physics, medicine, and chemistry. Clearly we have knowledge. These sorts of demonstrations are more squishy than many philosophers after Descartes are comfortable with, but I’m convinced they are all we have, and that they are enough.

But What Is It To Know?

To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk. To say that a criminologist understands crime is not to say that we can send him out with a grant or a law and expect him to return with a lower crime rate.

Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

The part of Ryan’s post that seemed most similar to the demonstrations above was his discussion of consciousness, which he gives as an example of innate knowledge.

For example, we are all aware of the fact that consciousness exists because consciousness is defined to be every aspect of our sense of awareness. We cannot even deny the existence of consciousness without experiencing it. This knowledge was not acquired through any sort of data collection, analysis, or persuasion. We possessed it as soon as we possessed consciousness itself. Knowledge of our own consciousness is, therefore, innate. At this risk of sounding like Hoppe, to deny this kind of knowledge is to demonstrate it; therefore, it can’t sensibly be denied.

This seems to me to get at the tension between theory and practice, a topic at least as old as philosophy itself.

Ryan’s argument boils down to the idea that it is self-defeating to deny the existence of consciousness. Yet there are people who do deny it—they are called eliminative materialists. The defense of the principle of non-contradiction is similar, as Milco’s thesis shows very capably—we can point out that it’s self-defeating to believe in its falseness, but that doesn’t stop someone from believing it is false.

The obvious argument is that in practice, we live as if we believe in consciousness and reality and causation (to name a few items on the skeptics’ list), and we argue as if we believe in the principle of non-contradiction, even if in theory we have explicitly declared that we do not believe in those things.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

These were the questions that came to my mind when I read Ryan’s post.

The Difference Between Persuasion and Rational Evaluation

These days, I usually prefer to resist reducing several distinctions down to one “really true” one that covers them all.

But this is one case where it is warranted.

Over the last two years, and especially the last year, I have gravitated more and more away from a nominalist position towards a realist one. However, there is a tendency among realists to draw a line between reasoning and rational evaluation on the one hand, and persuasion on the other.

Alasdair MacIntyre was someone who made this argument throughout his corpus. More recently, I have read Edward Feser espousing a similar point of view; nominalists have to hope their “side” “wins out” whereas moral realists can actually stake out positions equivalent to how scientists stake out positions.

There seems to be a fair amount of wishful thinking about the nature of rational evaluation going on (though far be it from me to critique Feser, an authority on philosophy of mind, on this subject).

But it seems to me that reasoning just is persuasion, judgement just is rhetoric.

If reasoning is taking evidence and arguments from sources we trust and attempting to arrive at a judgment, then it is first an foremost attempting to discover what conclusion we find persuasive. Even if we decided that the evidence is inconclusive, this is a judgment we have been persuaded of.

To believe some version of metaphysical and moral realism is not the same thing as believing, as Karl Popper framed the epistemology of the Enlightenment, that truth is manifest. Yet it seems to me that reducing persuasion to mere manipulation, as MacIntyre for example does, leaves one with either the belief that truth is manifest, or a fairly strong version of epistemological skepticism.

You can be unethical in your attempts to win people to your point of view, of course. You can be deliberately misleading, for example. But that doesn’t make persuasion unethical per se, any more than the existence of false advertising indicts advertising as a practice, or the existence of murderers indicts humanity in general.

In a healthy unity of politics, ethics, and rhetoric, we seek to persuade while being open to being persuaded; we hold a high standard of evidence for persuading ourselves before going out to attempt to persuade others.

But there is no reasoning, no rational evaluation, no dialectic, that is distinct from persuasion.

Tradition, Authority, and Reason

When I started reading up on the virtues and following the trails through philosophy that I found along the way two years ago, I was pretty sure that I was a Burkean traditionalist of some sort. It was Alasdair MacIntyre who began to throw a wrench in this when he pointed out that Burke treated tradition as a sort of black box—something that actual adherents to traditions do not do. Moreover, Burke somehow did this while remaining an economic liberal for his day, something very much not traditional to his nation.

We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

MacIntyre presents a different sort of traditionalism from Burke, one more like Michael Oakeshott’s. There is reason and reasoning but these are only made coherent by the traditions they are situated within.

Continue reading “Tradition, Authority, and Reason”

She Blinded Me With Hermeneutics


All the Philosopher-Kings Couldn’t Put Rationality Together again

More than virtue ethics, which he is most associated with, Alasdair MacIntyre’s corpus is concerned with the question of rational adjudication.

You see it in his most famous work After Virtue, and you see it in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? But it reaches its zenith in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition.

The latter begins with the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the worldview it embodied. This worldview held to a “unitary conception of reason,”

as affording a single view of the developing world within which each part of the enquiry contributes to an overall progress and whose supreme achievement is an account of the progress of mankind

The Ninth Edition embodied this view because of the very idea of the encyclopaedia at the time. It was seriously believed that you could just get all the experts to summarize the present state of knowledge across all domains. That the encyclopaedia could serve as a window into a unified world of the known, where truth, as Popper put it, was manifest. A non-expert could read the Encyclopedia Britannica and as a result be elevated to the status of an educated person.

This worldview was unable to sustain itself for very long. It’s unlikely that it would have continued even without Nietzsche, but MacIntyre believes that it certainly could not survive his critiques.  In the Nietzschean genealogy there is a radical disunity, and especially in its successors the only possibility of unity is in the cynical power relations lurking behind every moralistic mask.

Nietzsche gave the Enlightenment a kick over the side of the wall, and all the king’s philosophers and all the king’s technocrats have been trying to put it back together again ever since. Without success.

For MacIntyre it boils down to the “resources” a framework has for making progress with its internally identified problems. Once the problem of disunity became apparent to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it quickly became clear that their framework lacked the resources to move beyond it. The genealogists contributed a real insight by shedding light on this problem. However, MacIntyre points out that their framework does not include a place for the genealogist himself. If all intellectual positions are simply cynical power moves waiting to be unmasked, then who is doing the unmasking? There is no place for the truth of this claim within the genealogy framework, for there is no place for truth at all beyond what is waiting to be unmasked as something else.

MacIntyre’s approach for adjudicating among rival and incommensurable frameworks goes something like this:

  1. Delve into the literature and debates within each framework until you can explain and defend them as well as any of their proponents.
  2. Identify the problems internal to one approach—that is, the problems that the proponents of that approach recognize as problems, on the terms defined by that framework.
  3. Identify another framework that has greater resources for resolving those problems than the framework which identifies them as problems.
  4. ???
  5. Rational adjudication!

I jest a bit here, because MacIntyre admitted that you could identify the superior approach through this method, but still fail to persuade anyone that that is what had happened. And indeed, the case of this process which he identifies in the book failed to take Christendom by storm. Thomas Aquinas successfully synthesized Platonic Augistinianism and Aristotelianism into a superior framework, but it still remained but one framework among incommensurable rivals.

Moreover, MacIntyre views persuasion as nothing but manipulation, something in opposition to the rational adjudication he strives for. Without an ethical, undevious theory of persuasion, it’s not clear to me how he can fill in step 4.

Consequentialist Duct Tape

I turn now to a tale of two posts: Akiva’s and Jordan’s.

Both center around the same problem as MacIntyre: we’ve got all these rival, sometimes categorically opposing points of view, and no way to adjudicate them.

Jordan focuses mostly on the logic of opposing divine commands:

With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them?

Akiva leans more heavily on social science:

Our feelings group-select us into tribes that share similar moral foundations, building identity (”I’m a conservative, and I stand for x”) but leaving us close minded to people who don’t speak our moral language. The resulting process from working from ideals makes us conceive of what is always a messy exercise in figuring out how to live with one another and coordinate social life, into a contest for dominance over institutions and encourages divisiveness. Politics breeds both abstract moralism and tribal thinking, encouraging groupish vindictiveness.

Both turn to a sort of meta-consequentialism in order to put moral adjudication back together again.

Akiva wants to reframe the debate in terms of ranked preferences and trade-offs.

Notice that this isn’t just a classification of the banners under which we ride our noble steeds for Justice, our hair streaming in the wind whilst we thrust the lances of Truth. What the right is saying is that they opt for a distinct set of moral tradeoffs. They would prefer that private actors have higher degrees of control over their domain, with the imperfections that come from ensuring compensation only from competitive pressures, in order to allow actors to make more individual choices about their dealings with one another, and prevent what they view as an unfair form of paternalistic management that raises costs and restricts contracts. The left would prefer that we attempt to guarantee an absolute level of market wages for a certain aggregate of workers, because they would rather ensure an absolute footing of bargaining power for at least a certain percentage of people, and be guaranteed that specific benefits are assured for those workers.

Jordan wants us to adopt a “trader morality” in which we are more open about the price we put on a particular value:

Trader morality doesn’t have to be amoral, but it means knowing the price of one’s values. There’s a facetious dilemma that went around evangelical Christian circles when I was a kid, wrongly attributed to a popular figure at the time, in which the man asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes, so then he asks if she would sleep with him for 50. The negative response is then shown as proof that she “lacks values”, but I don’t see that at all. The woman, as opposed to her interlocutor, understood her values and knew where she was willing to trade on them. In this case, she valued financial security more than abstinence; the man, on the other hand, by ascribing infinite value to obedience to God (in the form of sexual purity), was shown incapable of negotiation.

These are both attempts to provide a theoretical framework which both embraces pluralism and allows for rational adjudication between the plural value systems within it. The problem with this is that all pluralisms share with monisms an excluding quality—for one thing, a monistic order is excluded. So a trader morality must exclude a morality which says that it is always wrong to sell your body, no matter the price, full stop. But it must also exclude other forms of pluralism.

Your version of pluralism becomes just another rival, incommensurable framework floating around in the marketplace of ideas. And consequentialism is just as much a tribe as the political ones Akiva describes.

Prejudicial in the Best Sense

I don’t want to be too hard on my fellow Sweet Talkers, I liked a lot of what they had to say. And I found it interesting that Akiva said that we ought to be more postmodern. It’s just a shame that his ultimate argument was couched in terms of how to “reconfigure ideology” into a framework in which “a significantly consequentialist attitude is king.” To me this phrasing, and especially consequentialism itself, seem to bring with them all the trappings of High Modernity.

Lately I have been reading Hans-Georg Gadamer, who no one would accuse of being modernist. David likes to call him “non-modern” to avoid the baggage of “postmodern” but also to emphasize that it was modernism that was an aberration.

Part of the problem with even someone like MacIntyre is the tendency to see traditions of thought as way too self-contained, given things. He makes it seem like there are these rival threads that are intellectually cohesive, and you have to approach them as the structures that they are, and choose among alternatives or fashion something new from the materials they provide.

In reality, things are much more fluid. I think Deirdre McCloskey’s perspective on persuasion is better at capturing that, and is a good supplement to MacIntyre. But Gadamer’s take on understanding is best of all, in the sense of being the most fleshed out and the most true to human beings.

Akiva talks at length about our biases and irrationality. Gadamer instead speaks of prejudices, and says that the chief prejudice of the Enlightenment was a prejudice against prejudice.

“Prejudicial” is simply “pre” as in “before” and “judicial” as in “judgment.” Historically, it once meant the provisional verdicts that a judge would mentally arrive at before the time came to render the final judgment. Prejudice is not only necessary here, but good. Making a provisional judgment before the final one allows you to focus on specific questions, to guide your attention to particular matters you might have otherwise overlooked. It’s not only impossible for a judge to sit back without prejudice until the time of rendering a judgment, as the romantics and others have emphasized, they would also be a bad judge for doing so.

Gadamer thought that the romantics, and even Burke, just made themselves into mirror images of the Enlightenment. Where the Enlightment thinkers asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, and therefore bad, the romantics asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, but was greater than reason. In both cases it was treated as a black box to be labeled either bad or good.

For Gadamer, tradition is something that only exists if it is participated in, and it is continually created and transformed in that participation.

The central case for him, is, of course, the interpreting of a text—hence hermeneutics. The act of interpretation is neither objective nor purely subjective; though he didn’t have the word, it is conjective. It takes place in the space between reader and text. We cannot read a text any way we like; there is something about it that asserts itself. This is in the nature of language, and how we are inculcated into it. But the truths in a text go beyond simply communicating information; we must interpret, and we always interpret by integrating what we read into what Gadamer calls our horizon.

The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the thinking mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion of horizon, of the opening up of new horizons, and so forth. Since Nietzsche and Husserl, the word has been used in philosophy to characterize the way in which thought is tied to its finite determinacy, and the way one’s range of vision is gradually expanded. A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have a horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it.

What occurs in reading a text—say for the purpose of learning history—is not some objectivistic “fusing of horizons” between yours and someone else’s. You are always within your own perspective, never outside of it.

Understanding tradition undoubtedly requires a historical horizon, then. But it is not the case that we acquire this horizon by transposing ourselves into a historical situation. Rather, we must always already have a horizon in order to be able to transpose ourselves into a situation. For what do we mean by “transposing ourselves”? Certainly not just disregarding ourselves. This is necessary, of course, insofar as we must imagine the other situation. But into this other situation we must bring, precisely, ourselves. Only this is the full meaning of “transposing ourselves.” If we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, for example, then we will understand him— i.e., become aware of the otherness, the indissoluble individuality of the other person— by putting ourselves in his position.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes means that you yourself, with all your prejudices, are able to broaden your horizon in order to see more than you could before. But you are still seeing it from your perspective, though this perspective will be transformed by becoming “aware of the otherness”. It will be transformed precisely in bringing out prejudices that may have been hidden from you, to scrutinize more closely but, more importantly, to view in light of your expanded horizon.

The Spiral

If that sounded more than a little opaque, I apologize. The continentals are a difficult bunch, and I’m still wrestling with Gadamer’s ideas. Let’s turn for now to the concept of the hermeneutic circle, or as David prefers to call it, the spiral.

This is the old idea that you can only understand the part in terms of the whole, and you can only understand the whole through the parts. It sounds circular (hence the name) but it is absolutely true of everything from learning a language to becoming a specialist within a particular field.

You can think of our prejudices as forming a provisional notion of what the whole looks like and what its relationship to the parts are. When we encounter a new part, we both interpret it in terms of our provisional concept of the whole, and we revise that concept in terms of this new part.

Similarly, when we read a text, we have some provisional guess as to what the book as a whole will be about when we go into it. We revise this with each part of the text that we confront, and once we have read the whole book, the meaning of each part will seem different than it did as we were still making our way to the end.

But where to draw the line at what is considered “the whole” is in some sense arbitrary. Is a book the whole? Or is the author’s entire life work the whole? Should we also include all his letters? Will we never know the whole unless we also know every conversation he ever had? What about the entire tradition he was operating in? What about all of history before and after him? When is enough enough, in terms of context? What is the whole?

And what counts as a part? Is a sentence the basic part of a text, or the paragraph? Or the word? The letter?

Prejudice is how we make these choices. We think of individuals as the basic social unit, rather than cells or molecules or atoms, because we provisionally decide so. If we did not have this prejudice, we wouldn’t be able to operate at all, socially.

If hermeneutics is Gadamer’s discipline of arriving at understanding, rhetoric is the art of bringing other people to an understanding.

Rhetoric is what I would elevate above any attempt to create a method of rational adjudication. You start with prejudices which color your understanding of the part and the whole. Through hermeneutics, you constantly revise each. Through rhetoric, you seek to bring others to your understanding, by offering a part or a picture of the whole which provokes your audience to reconsider.

In spite of my biases, my ideological tribalism, and—dare I say it—my prejudices, I believe that I have understood Akiva and Jordan. In fact, I can only understand them at all because of these things.

I promised Akiva a response to his piece. What should the nature of this response be? Should I tell him what values I rank very highly that I think his system would imperil?

Or should I give him a post attempting to provoke him to revise his provisional judgment of how the marketplace of ideas works on the whole?

I can tell that my rhetoric needs work, where Gadamer is concerned. Perhaps this post will do a poor job of conveying his ideas in particular, or even my understanding of them (or worse—why they are relevant to the discussion at hand).

But I think that Akiva and Jordan will find something that they understand in this post.

This does not mean that they will agree with me. I suspect they probably won’t. But I hope they’ll be able to understand me, to a greater or lesser degree. And I’m not worried about our rival, incommensurable standpoints serving as completely opaque and impenetrable walls between us.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

Own Your Standards

What does it mean to be a master of a craft?

Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of the goods internal to a practice self-consciously separates the standards of practitioners from mere material gain, which constitute “external goods”. As a follower of McCloskey, it seems clear to me that the sacred and the profane are not so cleanly separable. Previously, when I have written about this, I argued that external goods must be internalized in some way. That is, part of the way you become a good carpenter, or good lawyer, or good salesman, is by making money in a good way. That is to say, part of the ethics of a practice is precisely how you deal with your customers or clients or patrons or donors.

If you buy the argument that internal goods exist, what you think about the nature of them probably relates to your beliefs about the nature of morality in general. I have my own thoughts on the matter.

Regardless, it seems to me that our understanding of these goods is conjective. That means that it is contestable, negotiable, political—in short, a matter of persuasion.

Continue reading “Own Your Standards”

The Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Meh

Progress and decline are just stories, but so is volatility. We like linearity, but we also like for things to have a shape, even if an awkward bendy one.

If you enter into the moral history of Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era trilogy, or the people at, it seems obvious that we have made progress.  Even with the fluctuations of the last 15 years, food prices have plummeted over the past 100 years! We’ve cured so many diseases! For crying out loud, I am writing the post in an interface of a program running on a computer in a location I don’t even know, to be put out in public where a significant fraction of the global population can access it from any part of the world!

Yet for a certain set of people, it’s equally as obvious that we’re in decline. Some agree that we’ve made progress, but think it is a false progress—it rests on the back of exploitation of third world countries. Or maybe the Green Revolution helped us feed more people with fewer crop failures, but it uses practices that are not as time-tested, and probably aren’t sustainable. So we’re feeding more people now while setting ourselves up for a massive failure, and therefore mass starvation, at some stage in the uncertain future.

I think that McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity does a good job demolishing the notion that our prosperity rests on the continued poverty of others, and it is not alone in that. But if there’s one solid thing I took away from The Great Stagnation, and especially the debates that it sparked, it is that it is incredibly hard to think about progress, decline, and well-being, period.

Cultural conservatives often claim we’re in decline from the point of view of deteriorating values. Roy Baumeister’s book covering his work on willpower makes the claim that the Victorians took self-control much more seriously than we do, and we are the worse for it. More extreme claims of moral decline, are, of course, quite common. MacIntyre’s After Virtue tells you where he stands on the matter in his title. Mencius Moldbug, the pseudonymous prophet of the Internet neoreactionaries, resurrects Carlyle among others to make the claim that we have fallen into complete lawlessness and immorality. He thinks the Victorians eradicated violent crime, but liberal ideology led us to abandon the very values that made such eradication possible.

Consider Baltimore. For those looking through the lens of decline, the writing is on the wall—the barbarians have stormed the gates, they are on the inside, they’re just waiting for the right moment to deliver the final blow to our crumbling civilization. For those looking through the lens of progress, the riots in Baltimore are unfortunate but the peaceful protests, and increased media scrutiny of cop violence there, in New York, and in Ferguson, Missouri all hint at a possibility of important reform. A chance to take a next step in the journey that began with the abolition of slavery, continued through the civil rights movement, and continues to this day, if we who inherited it make ourselves good caretakers.

Can this be resolved by grandma’s conciliatory comment that “everyone is right,” is some sense? Well, I’m in a pessimistic mood, so I’m going to say that everyone is wrong, in the big view.

Progress and decline can be useful lenses, but that’s what they are. They can shed light on certain aspects of the world we live in, but they can never encompass it. The optimist feeling the march of progress will point out how precipitously crime has dropped in this country since the early 90s. The liberal is quick to point out that this is mirrored by an explosion in incarceration. The conservative chuckles, and replies “don’t you see how the one caused the other?” Progress in policing, through Broken Window theories and such like—we are told.

As someone who has defended the wisdom of the ages in the form of our traditions, I have repeatedly been asked how traditionalism could have fostered abolitionism when legal slavery existed in this country. Lately, I ask myself the same question: how would I, personally, have lived with the reality of being in a country with the living institution of slavery? How would I have lived with coming from a middle class family, getting a good education, and generally prospering in such a country?

The best way to answer that question is, of course, to read what people said back then. About the subject, and in general. I have not done this, not really. And shame on me for that. In school, I read some of the debates on the matter that happened in the decade or two prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. The Civil War is, of course, another one of those great divergent points for various narratives. For most, the Civil War is the war against slavery. For some, it is the patriotic war against the rebel army. For others, it is the War Between the States; one victory among what would be many for centralized power over local communities.

But I digress—the reason I pose the question about being a person on the right side of the slavery question while living in that era is that, for some, that is our present. Oh, it isn’t slavery specifically, of course. But there’s a narrative in which there’s a moral equivalency. To return to incarceration, a frequently repeated statistic in certain corners is that there are more black men in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850. The liberal and libertarian point out to their chuckling conservative friend that nearly all of this has to do with the so-called war on drugs, the very thing (some would argue) which created circumstances for the late twentieth century spike in crime. Unlike his liberal friend, the libertarian emphasizes the role that public housing has played in creating completely toxic cultural environments. Conservatives like Theodore Dalrymple, in fact, fixate on such cultures and make a career out of writing about them. For Dalrymple, they serve as banner examples of moral decline.

Moreover, the liberal and libertarian will point out that having a controlled, structured engagement with law enforcement, with the credible threat of lawsuits or in any case some consequences for mistreatment, requires resources. The poorer you are, the fewer resources you have to bring to bear. There’s also a cultural element—educated people who have grown up well off tend to have a sense of entitlement, in a bad sense of course but also in the good sense of feeling entitled to having their dignity as a human being respected. They are more likely to be outraged if this expectation is violated, and to have the resources, and the friends and family with resources, to act on that outrage. As such, groups that do not have resources, and who mostly take it for granted that they are going to be mistreated and the abusers will get away with it, are much more vulnerable. Who knows how many of those black men in prison were just an easy target for a cop looking to improve his arrest statistics?

And let’s talk about statistics for a moment. I’m optimistic by disposition, and I am in awe of the dramatic decline in crime rates in my lifetime. But as I mentioned, I’m in a pessimistic mood. Statistics are judgments given the air of objectivity by the fact that they are numbers. “Data”, with its root meaning being “things given,” is highly misleading. To channel Deirdre McCloskey channeling R. D. Laing for a minute, I’d much rather we call it “capta”, or “things seized.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics did not see the givens about rape and sexual assault on college campuses hanging around in the air, much less in their spreadsheets. They used their judgments, informed by best practices among people who study such things, and came at the question as outsiders looking in. They judged that 80% of campus rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, an estimate arrived at through the use of surveys.

Such surveys are not truly random. They can’t be. Randomness is not a thing available to us in this world, when we are dealing with fellow free human beings. If nonresponse is systematic, and not itself random, then the results will be biased. All polling companies deal with this. In the case of elections, they can test their methods against the outcomes to an extent. It must be remembered that only polls very close to the election can be said to be directly tested; the long period before the election where polls purport to show the ups and down of public opinion cannot truly be tested in a similar way.

The conclusions drawn by polling agencies, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and anyone, are not really conclusions, but arguments. The BJS is arguing that rape and sexual assault happen at a lower rate on campuses than among the general population, but have a higher nonreport rate than what is already a very high general nonreport rate. The question is—should we believe them?

The reported rate is one thing. Certainly clerical errors happen in recording such things, but I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that our records for reported sexual assaults are a decent approximation.

As for total sexual assaults; well, that’s a harder judgment to make. I recall in the debates after The Great Stagnation came out that libertarians came out in droves to point out all the flaws and biases in median income and other statistics that Tyler Cowen trotted out as part of his argument. Cowen astutely observed that all of those biases and flaws were still present back when the median income data looked good, too.

So too for sexual assaults. 80% is a big number, but it has the virtue of being a number. For the general population they estimate 67%. To be frank, I don’t put much stock in either number. Maybe they are an exaggeration—certainly there are plenty of narratives saying that the question is overblown these days. Maybe they’re a vast underestimate—a lot of studies outside of BJS make that argument, as do activists in this area. Activists who are caretakers of another liberation, another march of progress.

What if the numbers are completely wrong? What if the bounds of all the surveys and judgment brought to bear on the matter are just bunk? Maybe sexual assaults were at an all time low when reported ones were at an all time high, and we are now seeing an all time high when reported ones are much lower. Maybe it peaked somewhere in the middle. Maybe the highest point was some random year in the 1930s.

I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m inviting you to consider how confident you are in the narrative that you are most attached to.

Because when I’m in a pessimistic mood, the only thing that gives me joy is raining on other people’s parades. Or their rallies.

I do believe the arguments that the Great Enrichment happened, but it gave us progress from a material point of view. I don’t think that the life of a peasant was necessarily morally inferior to ours. Nor do I think that the life of a stockbroker is necessarily morally inferior to a pious medieval peasant.

I’m not sure that I believe there is progress, or decline. But there is life, and living.

Of course, if I was a city dweller during the fall of Rome, I might feel differently. And if I were a poor immigrant who moved to this country and made a living, and saw my children make a better one, I would probably feel differently, too.

They are useful lenses. When applied carefully.