She Blinded Me With Hermeneutics

gadamer

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.

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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 HumanProgress.org, 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.

How Are We to Live? A Critique of the Capabilities Approach

Paul has written a truly formidable series on the relationship between the capabilities approach and libertarianism, and what the two communities can learn from each other. Fellow Sweet Talker Sam Hammond has rightfully called it “a true tour de force,” elsewhere proclaiming that Paul may as well have written a whole new section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

There is a lot to like about Paul’s series, but you’re not here to read a post kissing his ass, nor would that be useful to him. But you ought to give these a read:

  1. What the capabilities approach is
  2. Why the absolutist bullet-biting libertarian arguments are wrong
  3. What libertarians can learn from the capabilities approach
  4. The genuine insights of libertarianism that the capabilities community can learn from

My critique will be two-fold: first, the capabilities approach cannot give us an answer to Socrates’ crucial question “how are we to live?” Second, in attempting to side-step this question, its proponents cripple their ability to take the political implications of their theory seriously—just like most explicitly libertarian theories.

A bit of cowardly hedging: I am no expert on the capabilities approach. I have not read either Sen or Nussbaum on it. I have listened to an interview with Nussbaum, which was the entirety of my prior exposure. Sweet Talk is a place of conversation—you must imagine that Paul and the rest of us have been sitting around and talking, and Paul has gotten fired up about capabilities and just finishing a long diatribe about it. Within the context of that conversation, this will be my response.

Continue reading “How Are We to Live? A Critique of the Capabilities Approach”

Michael Oakeshott, Critical Theorist

Michael Oakeshott is often cast as the representative conservative philosopher. I think this is a mistake, one I blame on Oakeshott himself. Taking Oakeshott and his admirers at their word, Jason took a look at Oakeshott’s version of conservatism and came away wondering what was going on there. The description of conservatism that Oakeshott offers is so broad and generic that, as Jason points out, you could fit just about anyone in there—including Karl Marx.

Most people who encounter Oakeshott do so through his most popular collection, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. People like Jason and myself who are more familiar with Hayek are likely to react well to the titular essay. It seems, at first reading, to boil down to something very Hayekian—modern politics is excessively rationalistic and reductionist, but reason is only a tool that works in a context defined by an enormous, non-rational background. By tradition. And Oakeshott even takes a swipe at Hayek; of The Road to Serfdom he remarks “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” More Hayekian than Hayek!

But if you actually read the whole collection (at 600 pages this is a rarity) it slowly becomes evident that something else is going on. The section on Hobbes seems like a contradiction to the sections on rationalism—who is more rationalist than Hobbes? The man gave us the myths of the social contract and the state of nature.

A couple of years ago I finally did read the whole collection, and I was so intrigued that I did some secondary reading. Turns out that Oakeshott came of intellectual age inside the British idealist school, an offshoot of the German idealists. I don’t want to get into all of that and I’m sure I couldn’t do it justice, but suffice to say that pegging Oakeshott as “the conservative with the criticism of rationalism” is not really doing him or his project justice.

 

Custom and Rhetoric

I think that Oakeshott is best understood as a critical theorist. Only not the sort who believe that they can stand outside of ideology and convention in order to deconstruct those things and make them anew. Oakeshott, like McCloskey (who has read him and references him frequently), understands that you can’t criticize anything unless you’re already inside a community of rhetoric of some sort.

If you want to begin to understand Oakeshott, my advice is to go past the beginning of Rationalism in Politics, which everyone has read, and instead go straight to the back. The last two essays, “The Tower of Babel” and “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” are much more representative of what Oakeshott is all about.

The former is not so drastic a deviation from what one would expect from the author of “Rationalism in Politics.” In “The Tower of Babel” he distinguishes between two idealized versions of moral orders, one which unreflectively follows established customs, and one which is self-conscious and critical. He describes the customs-based order as follows:

The current situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives; conduct is as nearly as possible without reflection. And consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgment, or as problems requiring solutions; there is no weighing up of alternatives or reflection on consequences, no uncertainty, no battle of scruples. There is, on the occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been brought up.

The second order is fundamentally self-conscious.

The second form of the moral life we are to consider may be regarded as in many respects the opposite of the first. In it activity is determined, not by a habit of behaviour, but by the reflective application of a moral criterion. It appears in two common varieties: as the selfconscious pursuit of moral ideals, and as the reflective observance of moral rules.

He continues:

Normally the rule or the ideal is determined first and in the abstract; that is, the first task in constructing an art of behaviour in this form is to express moral aspirations in words-in a rule of life or in a system of abstract ideals. This task of verbal expression need not begin with a moral de omnibus dubitandum; but its aim is not only to set out the desirable ends of conduct, but also to set them out clearly and unambiguously and to reveal their relations to one another.  Secondly, a man who would enjoy this form of the moral life must be certain of his ability to defend these formulated aspirations against criticism. For, having been brought into the open, they will henceforth be liable to attack. His third task will be to translate them into behaviour, to apply them to the current situations of life as they arise. In this form of the moral life, then, action will spring from a judgment concerning the rule or end to be applied and the determination to apply it. The situations of living should, ideally, appear as problems to be solved, for it is only in this form that they will receive the attention they call for. And there will be a resistance to the urgency of action; it will appear more important to have the right moral ideal, than to act.

The essay is not intended to pit each of these styles against the other; instead, Oakeshott believes that each has its strength and the best moral orders are a combination of both. Reason and rationality are not to be done away with entirely because of the inherent superiority of unarticulated knowledge and custom. Rather, reason and critical reflection have their value only when they are properly situated within the much broader context of tradition. The first type of moral order provides flexibility and responsiveness to a far broader range of scenarios; the second type allows for self-conscious reconstruction towards specific ideals that the first order may drift away from over time.

“Rationalism in Politics,” properly understood, is not a screed against reason or rationalism per se, but an argument that we have gone way too far in one direction. Oakeshott implores us to move towards a better balance, to recognize the value of the tacit and the contingent over the articulated and the universal. But notice what he’s doing: the very act of talking about the tacit involves self-consciously constructing an ideal form. Oakeshott could not ask us to get rid of self-consciousness entirely, because the very act of doing so requires that very self-consciousness.

And earlier in the collection, in “Political Education,” Oakeshott spoke of the “ideological style” of politics, which maps perfectly to the self-conscious moral order. Here’s how he describes John Locke, whom he places within the ideological style:

[C]onsider Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and in France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript, and its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. Here, set down in abstract terms, is a brief conspectus of the manner in which Englishmen were accustomed to go about the business of attending to their arrangements-a brilliant abridgment of the political habits of Englishmen.

Ideology—and political philosophy—merely abridge a living tradition, rendering it more accessible and possibly more transmittable. But something is lost in the abridging, and so too—therefore—in the transmission. Nothing beats the real thing, but the real thing takes a very long time to grow, and there’s no guarantee about what a given tradition is going to grow into. This context makes coherent Oakeshott’s partiality for Hobbes, which seems so confusing after just finishing “Rationalism in Politics.” Hobbes, like Locke, is abridging tradition. In his introduction to Leviathan, he says:

Leviathan is a myth. the transposition of an abstract argument into the world of the imagination. In it we are made aware at a glance of the fixed and simple centre of a universe of complex and changing relationships. The argument may not be the better for this transposition, and what it gains in vividness it may pay for in illusion. But it is an accomplishment of art that Hobbes, in the history of political philosophy, shares only with Plato.

Where you really see Oakeshott in his element—and where most of the readers who read the front of the book but not the back are likely to be out of their element, myself included—is in the last essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.” Of all his essays, it’s the one I feel I have to most to learn from and the hardest time understanding. But my reading, including the supplemental book I mentioned above, is that Oakeshott felt that pragmatists and logical positivists had excessively narrowed the scope of public conversation.

To simplify to an unjust extent, I would summarize Oakeshott’s “voices” as follows:

  • The practical voice is concerned with effectiveness based satisfying the self’s desires.
  • The voice of science is concerned with “the world understood in respect of its independence of our hopes and desires, preferences and ambitions”; with rational systems we construct in the quest to gain that understanding.
  • The voice of poetry, which is concerned with delight and contemplation for its own sake.

But what is the conversation?

What I have called the conversation of mankind is, then, the meeting-place of various modes of imagining; and in this conversation there is, therefore, no voice without an idiom of its own: the voices are not divergences from some ideal, non-idiomatic manner of speaking, they diverge only from one another. Consequently, to specify the idiom of one is to discern how it is distinguished from, and how it is related to the others.

His concern is that poetry has been marginalized despite being an important and enriching part of what makes us human. Moreover, he feels the conversation has become too narrow and too stagnant in general. Now, rereading this essay after having read some McCloskey and discussed Habermas a little with our Sam Hammond, this line jumps out at me:

To rescue the conversation from the bog into which it has fallen and to restore to it some of its lost freedom of movement would require a philosophy more profound than anything I have to offer.

This seems—with my admittedly very limited understanding of it—to be as clear a statement of purpose for critical theory as one could hope for.

 

Empty Conservatism from Burke on Down

Jason accused Oakeshott’s conservatism of being “empty“. I think this is true, and that Oakeshott’s attempt to appropriate the word was misguided. Oakeshott has a tendency to deconstruct things down to such generic pieces that it takes a lot of building back up to get anywhere meaningful again. For instance, look at how he starts to talk about the voice of poetry:

By ‘poetry’ I mean the activity of making images of a certain kind and moving about among them in a manner appropriate to their character.

OK…and that means what, exactly? In this case, he goes on to build it up into something quite meaningful. In the case of conservatism, Jason’s criticism rings true—you could put just about anyone in there. Not his best work.

In fact this is a problem with many of the thinkers who position themselves as traditionalism, but present tradition as a sort of black box. Edmund Burke is the poster boy for traditionalism, which drives Alasdair MacIntyre crazy because Burke’s substantive positions were in fact exceedingly liberal for his day. He believed in the American republic. He was an advocate of property, trade, and commerce just as much as his contemporary, Adam Smith. All of this was not exactly traditional, even in England. He was very much a man of his moment.

But he spoke of the “general bank and capital of nations and of ages,” meaning tradition, and so he is called a traditionalist. But neither he nor Oakeshott are traditionalists in any more meaningful sense than post-modernists who believe in hermeneutic circles and the like. Burke opposed the French Revolution, and Oakeshott (I assume) voted Tory, and so we don’t tend to lump them in with that lot, who historically have been either Marxist or some watered down post-Marxist. But there really isn’t anything inherently conservative about their “traditionalist” philosophies.

I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which they can be lumped with your garden variety post-modernist. Oakeshott is much more in the tradition of Protagoras of Abdera than the tradition of Heidegger.

In any case I concede to Jason’s point—which he intended as a barb—that Oakeshott’s take on conservatism doesn’t really leave much behind that anyone would recognize.

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Do You Even Telos, Bro?

So I’m reading After Virtue, surprisingly (shamefully?) late in my virtue ethics reading list. It’s living up to its reputation so far; I think it’s safe to say that there’s something in it for everyone here; history, philosophy, and social science.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the fall of virtue goes something like this:

  1. Aristotle and the ancients set up the virtue framework in which there is man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be, the latter defined by man’s telos, his purpose. The gap is bridged with practical reason.
  2. The scholastics came along, though this framework was pretty awesome, but added that man-as-he-ought-to-be is man acting in accordance with divine law. Despite later claims to the contrary, these guys are still all about reason.
  3. The Calvinists comes along and ruin everything (note: MacIntyre is Catholic). OK, not everything, but they set the stage for the decline: they reject the idea that reason can bridge the gap between man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be. But they still believe the gap can be bridged—it’s just that only divine grace can get us there.
  4. The Enlightenment philosophers inherited the Calvinist-influenced version of this framework and agree with the notion that reason can’t bridge the gap. Only they’re a bunch of secularists, so they don’t think divine grace has any place either. The gap can no longer be bridged.
  5. Eventually, man-as-he-ought-to-be is forgotten altogether, and the idea of telos is rejected in basically all and any contexts.
  6. Enlightenment philosophers begin the work of constructing a framework in which moral law (inherited from the notion of divine law) is grounded in “human nature” (which is basically just man-as-he-is) without reference to a telos.
  7. Despite investing the greatest minds of the era, perhaps of any era, they fail miserably.

As a result, we’re stuck with a bunch of fragments of the old framework that don’t work well on their own, and attempts to make them stand on their own that simply don’t pass muster.

That’s all very interesting, and you don’t have to have MacIntyre’s point of view to agree that there’s at least something to that characterization of how events unfolded.

But my question, as a concerned virtue ethicist, is: can we resurrect a human telos?

Telos gets a bum rap because a lot of people get the wrong idea when they hear about a human “purpose”. They think religion. But we needn’t have a religious notion of telos and Aristotle certainly didn’t.

The idea, explored at length by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness, is sort of functional. When we speak of “a good sailor”, we think of someone who performs a specific role well. When we speak of “a good wolf” or perhaps “a good example of a wolf”, we think of a wolf that is able to operate with its pack effectively, that isn’t self-destructive or likely to get the rest of its pack and its kin killed, and so on.

The crucial question for ethics is whether it is meaningful to speak of “a good human”. Foot and MacIntyre think so, as do most virtue ethicists in general. And it’s hard for me to disagree when I read, for instance, Daniel Russell’s Happiness for Humans:

So here’s a piece of advice: the person with the best chance for a happy life is the one who can cope with change, finds people to love, and then loves them as if his happiness, his very identity, depended on them. On my view, doing all of that wisely is just what happiness is.

Let’s taken as a given, for the sake of argument, that this quote describes the parameters of an ideal life. If this is the sort of life that “a good human” lives, it is also clearly not the life that all people are living. Let’s tentatively bring man-as-he-ought-to-be back into the picture then.

But where does this telos come from? A popular argument circulating on behalf of things like the paleo diet is that we evolved in one environment and since then have moved on to ways of life that are drastically different from that. I’m skeptical of the particular application (you can pry my processed sugar and carbs from my cold, dead fingers) but clearly the line of thought involves man-as-he-ought-to-be and an evolutionary story to justify it.

Certainly psychology, self-help, and happiness studies all have an implicit telos of the healthy, happy, fulfilled human in mind. There are plenty of problems with particular instances of each of these areas but all I’m attempting to demonstrate here is that telos need not seem so remote and ancient to us as it is often presented as being.

MacIntyre argues that the is-ought divide is an artifact of a specific history rather than an intrinsic gap. I’m inclined to agree. But that’s a much longer conversation, to be returned to at a later time.

Liberal Neutrality

Pluralism is the highest ideal of liberal democracy. The very idea of freedom is, for many on the left and among libertarians, protecting the rights of people to live wildly different lives, with wildly different values. In America, you can be Amish, or you can be a stock broker, or you can be a professor, or you can be a home maker. You can be part of a churchgoing family, or not, or a local official, or a High School coach.

Our own Karma Kaiser introduced me to this great little paper on Alasdair MacIntyre, Friedrich Hayek, and “Liberal Neutrality”. Liberal Neutrality is the idea, embraced by people like Hayek, that the ideal of pluralism, the system it engenders, is itself ethically neutral. Hayek had a model of social change, described in The Constitution of Liberty, in which small groups try out new things (where “things” is the set of all possible innovations include “practices, games, products, ideas”) and some subset of those new things diffuse to a larger group, and some subset of those diffuse to yet a larger group, etc. The result of the series of partial and complete diffusions is a plurality of practices and practical knowledge.

MacIntyre essentially called bullshit on this. Pluralism involves freedom to pursue a broad set of of lifestyles, to be sure. But that’s a far cry from ethical neutrality. Even your most extreme libertarian feeling at his most blasé about hookers and blow is clearly against murder, rape, and theft. In fact, most libertarians are against voluntary acts such as selling oneself into slavery.

The paper provides one non-neutral defense of markets and the liberal order. Deirdre McCloskey provides another. Ordinal utility economics provides another, though it pretends to a sort of neutrality that it does not earn.

I agree with MacIntyre and Keat (the author of the paper linked to above) that a defense of markets and the liberal order must be non-neutral in nature.

Thoughts?