J. L. Austin made a tremendous breakthrough in linguistics and the philosophy of language when he demonstrated the performative character of language—that is, by saying something we are always doing something. Extreme cases include “I now pronounce you man and wife,” which, when uttered in the right circumstances, changes the status of two people from being single to being married.
The problem with operationalizing this comes in with the notion of “in the right circumstances.” Can these be specified in advance? At what level of detail? How small do deviations need to be before the speech act is nullified (or “infelicitous” as Austin put it)? Are some infelicities more important or decisive than others, and does this vary for each sort of speech act?
Austin ultimately gave up on a completed system, though many speech act theorists since him have taken up the torch. Among these, his former student John Searle is the most notable.
But I stand with critics like Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish in thinking that a high degree of uncertainty is required by the subject matter. Derrida has pointed out that if the successful performance of a speech act is determined by context, and context is boundless, then we can never know with the certainty of mathematical or logical necessity that we have avoided infelicity. There may be aspects of the speech situation that we did not notice at the time which invalidate it retroactively, and the uncertainty around this is ineradicable.
It is akin to digital security—we may use top of the line cryptography, we may use stricter than best practice implementations, but we cannot know about security holes that haven’t been discovered yet. If we could, then we would have discovered them already. There is no reducing, much less eradicating, uncertainty of this sort—in security or in speech acts.
The point is not that no speech act ever succeeds, but that it isn’t something we can really measure externally from the situation and the people involved. Moreover, even to participants it is not known with the certainty of the solution to mathematical problems.
Without pretending to such certainty, I’d like to build off of our previous discussion of Aristotle’s notions of actuality and potentiality, as well as efficient and finals causes, in order to continue the discussion of when speech acts go right or wrong. Continue reading “Word Games”→
Featured image is Sunset, by Caspar David Friedrich.
This post is dedicated to Drew Summitt, who has relentlessly pushed Aristotelian metaphysics upon me. It is also a technical followup to this piece.
To have beliefs, one must have a lot of other beliefs. This is John Searle’s summary of the point that, in analytic philosophy anyway, goes back at least as far as W. V. Quine. No lone belief is coherent in isolation, but only as part of a web of beliefs that provide it with context.
Rather than a web, Searle spoke of a Network. At first he believed the Network was a set of unconscious beliefs that provide context for conscious beliefs. But in time he came to see that the notion of an “unconscious belief” is dubious. Instead, we ought to speak of having the capacity to generate some specific belief.
We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.
Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”
The Network is the specific set of capacities for generating the relevant beliefs. It is a subset of the Background, which are all of the non-mental capabilities that generate mental states.
I find this taxonomy compelling. I would summarize the basic insight as follows: consciousness, knowledge, beliefs, and all mental states are performed, not stored. As Richard Moodey put it, “I imagine ‘knowledge’ as inseparable from acts of knowing, as something performed, rather than possessed.”
This post is intended to be a companion piece to this one
This is going to be a nuts and bolts piece, fleshing out a few technical concepts with examples from a sample of texts. It is meant to be a companion to a shorter, more readable piece. I would suggest starting there, and then returning here if you feel the urge to dig deeper.
Contrary to Sam’s point that rhetoric is an extra skill that scientists would have to learn, I want to demonstrate here that scientists live and breathe rhetoric. A scientific paper is a work of rhetoric; the authors seek to persuade their peers in a number of ways beyond simply accepting their conclusion. This is what Deirdre McCloskey has been saying about economics for decades.
My corpus for this exercise will be the following:
My fellow Sweet Talker Paul offered some thoughts on moral objectivity this week. It was not so long ago that I was looking for this very sort of answer to this very question. As few as two, perhaps even one and a half years ago, I might have quibbled with the details but agreed with the spirit of the piece. Eight years ago I took a stab at something like it, though much less sophisticated.
Lately it is not the substance of the answer that I struggle the most with. It is the question itself: is morality objective or subjective? Even intersubjectivity seems dissatisfactory, when most simply treat it as either one or the other–either pseudo-objectivity, or just as arbitrary as plain old subjectivity.
In what follows I will offer, if not an answer, then a picture, an attempt to portray how matters appear. I am not yet at a stage where I could tell you the question to which this picture is a provisional answer.
As any Intro Ethics final will note, Aristotle’s describes the virtues as “the middle state” between extremes of excess and deficiency. The paradigm case is courage, the virtue that sits between rashness and cowardice, respectively. This conception of virtue is labeled “The doctrine of the mean”, or simply “the golden mean”, and has its precursors in the Delphic Oracle’s imperative “Nothing in excess” and the Analects of Confucius.
The Doctrine of the Mean seems to oppose radicalism on its face. The very term “radicalism” connotes an extremism of views; if the virtue lies in the middle, then no radical view can be virtuous. As Paul and Adam suggested in a recent discussion, a virtue ethics seems to preclude compatibility with radical feminism by its very formal structure. Liberal feminism, as the more moderate view, seems prima facie the more virtuous position.
But this prima facie argument fails to appreciate the subtleties of the Golden Mean. For both Aristotle and his predecessors, the virtuous mean must be understood in relation to the extremes it avoids. A central motivation of these views is that the virtues can’t be known by any absolute criterion, but must be reckoned through reflection on the relationships we observe around us. To find the courageous mean, we must have models of not just courageous persons, but also of cowardly and rash persons. Not that we should be like the extremists, but we should watch them carefully because they set the boundaries, and it is in terms of these boundaries that I can hope to chart the virtues.
This argument has not yet established radicalism as a virtue. So far, I have only argued that the extremes have instrumental value to the virtuous. At most, this implies that the extremists cannot be eliminated from the discourse without moving where the middle lies. Indeed, the Overton window is moved not by negotiating the virtues, but by policing the extremes.
To go farther and see radicalism as a virtue, one must show that pursuing a radical or extremist beliefs is the most reasonable way to arrive at a virtuous or “middle” position. This may sound incoherent, but hopefully can be made intuitive with a few examples. First, consider orbital mechanics (more fun than archery). To get a probe to Pluto, it’s not enough to launch the probe at Pluto (and cross one’s fingers). Since Pluto is also a moving target, one must also anticipate where Pluto will be when you arrive (ten years later!), and adjust your launch path accordingly. This means that at the start, you’ll be launching a probe in a direction quite radically (!!) other than where you intend to go. But if you calculate carefully, in order to hit your target it’s precisely this radical direction you ought to aim. In this case, the radical solution just is the virtuous solution.
The point is that *aiming* at extremist views can be the most effective way to *arrive* at the correct (‘middle’) views. And, by extension, aiming at moderate views might land you on a view that isn’t virtuous at all. For a normative example that doesn’t involve space ships, consider Paul’s recent defense of liberal feminism against radical feminism.
Paul’s criticism of radical feminism (that it fails to respect the particular stories of individuals) seems lame in the face of the radical response he cites in the article (“that it doesn’t much matter how women construe their sexual choices as these choices are formed within and inextricable from male supremacy”). Indeed, at several points Paul remarks on how much of the radical feminist position is reasonably taken up by the liberal feminist view, and how hard it is to find solid ground to critique the radical.
Well, then, why think there must be a critique at all? Why can’t the radical feminist simply be correct? Paul responds by appeal to the golden mean: the extremist simply can’t be correct!
But look again at the case: Liberal (ie, moderate, “virtuous”) feminists hold views that are clearly grounded in and consistent with (if less radically articulated than) the radical feminists. This seems to exactly be a case where aiming at the radical position CAN leave one on the correct trajectory to a virtuous view. The radical is there to set the bounds of the discussion, and thereby shift the middle towards their preferred views. By articulating strongly radical views, it brings many of those positions into the mainstream where they can be sensibly adopted by the moderates, reinforcing these new norms *as* the norm. The moderates legitimize the work of the radicals at the edges (or discard what cannot be tolerated from the middle) until all the minis have been maxed. And behold, a virtue is born.
The point here is not that the radical is “correct”, or that the liberal is “correct”. The point is that both positions play a dynamical role in the discourse, both simultaneously serving to locate and reinforce the middle where they see fit, and both work together to accomplish this task even where they disagree. That the liberal and radical feminist overlap so strongly in the present is evidence that the destinations they’re tracking are so far away as to converge at the horizon. If anything, the overlap of these views is evidence of the distance we have yet to cover; given where we are, their disagreements are effectively irrelevant.
But while this doesn’t let us decide between the radical and moderate views, it does suggest that any simple-minded aim at a moderate position will likely fail to appreciate the dynamics involved. One ought to advocate for radical views in situations where radicalism helps move the discourse towards the virtuous center; often, advocating for the center is not such a view. One ought to advocate for the center in a way that helps to locate and reinforce it, but when moderate views appeal to the center-as-default, it can be counterproductive to any actual moderation precisely because it obscures the effort to find it.
Thus, and absent any deep paradox with virtue theory, the radical can indeed behave with more virtue than the moderate. The radical might not only help others better find virtue, but might herself stand as a model of virtue.
The gap between 25 and 30 is not very big in absolute terms, but it can certainly seem that way.
That is how I felt as I reread a post on morality that I wrote five years ago. Back then, I was pretty devoted to David Hume’s philosophy, and had been for some time. Part of it was due to many conversation with my father, for whom Hume loomed large as well. Part of it was that I’d actually read Hume, and not much else where philosophy was concerned. And in spite of that lack of familiarity with the alternatives (a shortcoming not shared by my father) I had an utter certainty in it.
This in spite of the fact that the very philosophy I was certain of had, as a cornerstone, the idea that reasoning was powerless to discover or demonstrate much of anything. This cornerstone eventually led me to conclude that there was no such thing as reason at all. Looking back, I want to ask that 25-year-old—how can you be so certain, when you are so unfamiliar with the arguments to the contrary and don’t even believe that certainty is ever warranted?
Martin Cothran made basically this argument, when he and his son Thomas engaged my father and I in discussion back at that time.
One aspect of my framework of the time was the notion that utter inconsistency didn’t matter. In talking about the relationship between God and morality, I argued that there was no logical connection between the two, and also that logical connections don’t matter.
Responding to my piece, Martin Cothran made a move that has lately become familiar to me:
I’m not sure I understand exactly what he is saying here in regard to the role of reason in moral discourse. If logic is “irrelevant to whether or not I believe in either God or morality,” then why should anyone find his point that there is “no logical inconsistency in the fact that I don’t believe in a divinity but do believe in morality” persuasive? If logic is not operative in the discussion of the relation between God and morality, then why is the absence of logical inconsistency in a position on this relation commendable?
As Martin pointed out, it’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.
In discussing this point with my father, he argued that it doesn’t apply to human relations. His example was that it’s possible to both love and hate someone. But this isn’t a true inconsistency—no one would argue that love and hate are mutually exclusive. And if you do argue that, then you are committed to defending the idea that you can’t both love and hate someone at the same time, by definition.
Moreover, I very strongly believed that I had made a case for my Humean framework. I made what Joseph Heath identified as a typical non-cognitivist mistake; I used general-skeptic arguments and thought I only undermined my opponents’ position.
Aporia, the beginning of so many philosophical investigations, is precisely the discovery of seeming inconsistencies. Not everyone needs to be bothered with such things, to be sure. But the advance of our knowledge requires us to attempt to uncover whether inconsistencies are merely superficial, or whether some deeper revision in our framework is necessary.
Man Cannot Flourish On Moral Sentiments Alone
The most particularly Humean aspect of my framework at the time was what I later learned was called non-cognitivism. It’s the idea that we don’t think something is wrong because of judgment or beliefs, but because of feelings. As my father put it in his contribution to the discussion five years ago:
We don’t reason our way to condemnation of child abuse: we grow angry at the sight of it. Later, we may devise rational arguments to persuade others – sometimes ourselves – of the rightness of our opinions and actions. But I feel the wrongness of child abuse with a delicacy that, say, an ancient Spartan would have lacked.
As the Sparta example was intended to indicate, there is a strong cultural element involved in the shaping of our moral sentiments. In this way, morality is reduced to unthinking feeling combined with unreflective cultural practice (rather than theory). They combine to form a non-cognitive cocktail.
Among the evidence that he brings to the fore is Jonathan Haidt’s “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail,” in which Haidt points out that people jump to moral conclusions first and rationalize after the fact.
This opposition is founded upon a category mistake. The question of why people believe in certain moral principles belongs do the discipline of moral psychology; the question whether those moral principles are true belongs to moral philosophy. Obviously people can believe in true things for false reasons: just because one’s belief that Caesar existed is predicated upon the belief that the television show “Rome” is a documentary does not make the historical arguments any less valid. Further, people often believe in true things on the basis of beliefs that don’t have much to do with the truth or falsity of the subject: people might believe in relativity theory because Stephan Hawking believes in it, but the fact that Hawking has an opinion on the subject doesn’t bear on the truth or falsity of relativity theory. The process of evaluating the truths of beliefs is distinct from the process of evaluating how different people come to their beliefs.
From our very different projections of the whole truth of morality, Jonathan Haidt’s study has commensurately different implications. For my father and I, it seemed to confirm the Humean processes at work. For Thomas, it seemed like an ad hominem attack on moral realism, because it attempted to discredit it by means of the psychology of particular people.
I have come around to Thomas’s point of view. The idea that Haidt’s study on moral reasoning discredits moral realism now seems to me akin to making the argument that Kahneman’s studies showing people are bad at statistical reasoning is evidence against the validity of statistics.
Moreover, I have come believe that all of non-cognitivism’s core premises are simply false. First, desires are not non-cognitive. As our own Sam Hammond put it:
It’s tempting to think of desires as following a linear chain down to some base foundational affect, implanted somewhat arbitrarily by evolution. But this is an elementary error.
While true that evolution has equipped us with certain somatic states (like hunger pangs), desire (like “I desire to eat”) contains propositional content. Like beliefs, desires are part of a holistic web that we draw from in the discursive game of giving or asking for reasons. In turn, desires like beliefs are capable of being updated based on rational argumentation and the demand for coherence.
Let’s take the child abuse example my father provided. We don’t just see a thing and unthinkingly get angry about it. In order to get angry, we have to have grasped what the situation is. The anger comes from the belief that child abuse is wrong and that it is occurring. This is crucial—in many cases of child abuse (or other wrongs), the thing is allowed to keep going on precisely because we don’t want to acknowledge that a loved one or an important person in the community is capable of doing such a thing. People go out of their way not to notice or acknowledge something going on right in front of them, because to notice would be to acknowledge a duty to act. How we construe a situation is not simply reflexive; we have a dual responsibility as audience of the situation as well as part-authors of our own.
The Spartan example points to how pliable even the belief that child abuse is bad can be. But culture, convention, and tradition are not simply unthinking practice. Like desire, they have a cognitive content, they have intentionality. As Adam Adatto Sandel puts:
Despite all appearance and without explicit “innovation and planning,” tradition is constantly in motion. What might seem to be blind perpetuation of the old, or mechanical habit, always has a “projective” dimension. Handing down tradition really means adapting it to the current circumstances, maintaining it in the face of other possibilities. And through such preservation, tradition is constantly being redefined: “affirmed, embraced, cultivated.” Although this process operates, for the most part, unconsciously, it is nevertheless critical. The distinction between tradition and reason is ultimately unfounded.
For an in depth treatment of this very subject, see this post. Suffice it to say that in as much as Martin and Thomas Cothran buy into Alasdair MacIntyre’s vision of tradition, I think they, too, fall into error.
But in an email, Thomas provided a picture of Aristotle’s method that strikes me as the correct one:
First, Aristotle doesn’t have a rigid system, his inquiry is responsive to the conditions of the everyday world. Second, Aristotle’s method does make room for cultural difference, but not in a way that precludes finding some ultimate truth. A culture may have good or bad practices and beliefs, but in any case they can neither be accepted uncritically or ignored in favor of some abstract rule. And finally, Aristotle’s method requires that we evaluate his arguments for ourselves — he never encourages his readers to accept things on his own say so, and his thinking is designed to be taken up critically.
In terms of “finding some ultimate truth,” I interpret him as saying that we can find moral truths that are not culturally relative. However, we do not have some logical foundation that puts such truths beyond doubt, and what knowledge we obtain—ultimate or otherwise—is fallible knowledge, just like human knowledge in any domain.
The Tragic Nature of the World
My father asserted:
Every morality is erected on ideals. Every ideal is an unattainable model of behavior. Every good person is inching toward an ideal vision of himself: that person-as-he-could-be.
To which Thomas responded:
[T]he assertion that “[e]very ideal is an unattainable model of behavior” is manifestly false: many ideals (such as the ideal that people ought not murder each other) are more attained than not.
I think this is a nit-pick, and that Thomas misses the tragic vision of the world behind my father’s statement. Human arrangements and ideals always have gaps in them that cannot be filled; an ideal that is “more attained than not” is often either undemanding, or—in the case of murder—is often attained at the expense of some other ideal. The police and prison apparatus that we built up in this country over the past couple of decades is rife with abuses of its own, some quite horrible. But I don’t want to quibble over particular points—the larger image of human beings as inherently imperfect and imperfectible, but also as striving and struggling towards betterment, is the right one.
It is because of this tragic nature, however, that authority is an ineradicable aspect of human life. Martin Cothran asked me how, in my framework at the time, “any moral statement can be considered authoritative over human behavior.” My father answered with a call to embrace contingency:
By embracing contingency, nothing is lost. No moral proposition can ever be “authoritative over human behavior” – Cothran’s phrase – in the absolute way that gravity has authority over bodies in space. An ideal must always be chosen, and always there will be those who refuse to do so: bad persons, weak persons, good persons in a weak moment.
I have come to think that authority—of ideals and of persons—is an ineradicable aspect of human life. But I wouldn’t call it authority “in the absolute way that gravity has authority of bodies in space.” At minimum, it is contingent on the existence of the human race. And a good Aristotelian would say that a great deal is indeed contingent on the circumstances—without ruling out the possibility of ultimate (but human) truths.
Some ten years ago, a Catholic virtue ethicist group blog linked to something on my father’s blog, Vulgar Morality. So long ago was this in Internet years that I cannot even find the virtue ethicist blog in question, and my father had not moved to WordPress yet, but was using Radio UserLand—a for-pay frankenstein hybrid between desktop publishing and blogging.
It was my first encounter with the very concept of virtue ethics, but I didn’t really look into it at the time. I remember my dad remarking “there seems like there’s something to it, but I don’t really understand where the virtues are supposed to come from.”
It was years before I took any interest in the virtues again. I won’t bore you again with the details, but suffice to say that if you’ve spent any time at Sweet Talk at all, you’re probably aware I have a bit of an interest in the subject these days.
A year ago I attempted to think about this question of where the virtues come from.
David, sensing epistemological arrogance, was quite critical of my post:
How, just how do you think that you would ever in a million years have any confidence in knowing the telos of the sum of your short number of breaths in this mortal coil? That really is the nub of the thing: one simply does not have enough time to contemplate the day ahead before its sun sets, and you expire, going to rest in the dust.
My response amounted to “something something historically contingent something something Heraclitus’ river.”
Now, like a year ago, I think the answer must be something like the version of naturalism elaborated by Philippa Foot. She speaks of “goodness” in the sense of “a good specimen of X.” A sickly, or uniquely asocial chimpanzee would not make for a good example of chimpanzees. It might be useful, for human purposes, if we wanted to understand the sicknesses that sometimes befall chimps or the range of social deviance from the norm, and what happens to such deviants in the wild. But we could not even do this without a sense of what a good specimen is like, in contrast to the deviant.
As Adam Sandel puts it, the way of life of chimpanzees points towards their good. A good specimen is healthy, pro-social, skilled at hunting and defending against rival groups, and so forth. In this sense the good chimp is “above average;” you cannot get a sense of it by merely averaging the qualities of the group.
These days I think what everyone wants is to be able to situate their moral philosophy in an evolutionary story. But David put it best; the question of what something is is distinct from how it came to be.
When Father Carves the Duck is an easily recognizable Thanksgiving ritual, lampooned. “How Ritual Came To Be” informs us readily with descriptors of primal provenance, e.g., the sacrificial duck, but it hardly addresses what is going on presently in this ritual, and why the poem resonates among cultural participants. If the description of what is going on travels too far from “familial interaction,” it fails to be an effective describing process for the purpose of application. In other words, there is no sacrificial duck here. What, then, is this?More distinctions are needed to be made. More work.
The fact that we can discuss how father came to have the role of the one who carves the duck at Thanksgiving in terms of primal environments or sacrificial rites does not tell us what the nature of that role is now.
Consider a more straightforward example: the heart. Asking “what is the heart?” is much more straightforward than “how did humans evolve to have hearts?” We can observe the heart in action. We have a robust medical tradition of studying hearts in various states of health. We have a very good idea of what hearts do and what a “good heart” consists of. We do not have to answer the evolutionary question before we can answer the question of what a good heart consists of. If anything, our investigation takes the opposite direction; we use our stronger evidence and better information about what the heart is to try and figure out its evolutionary origins (may a thousand “just so” stories bloom).
So when we ask “what is virtue?” or “what is a good person?” we can put to the side, for the moment, the question of “how did virtue or ‘the good’ come to be?”
Aristotle understands our comprehensive “situation,” or “life perspective,” in terms of the good life. The good (to agathon), he writes, is not some abstract form to which we look for guidance but a concrete end (telos) expressed in our action (praxis). Whenever we make things, put them to use, and live out certain roles, our actions aim at the good (whether or not we consciously reflect upon the good as our aim). For “the good,” Aristotle maintains, is the end of all ends— that “for the sake of which everything else is done.” As such, the good is both the aim of our action and its condition. It is the ultimate end (telos) toward which we strive, and, at the same time, the source, or beginning (arche), of all striving.
Virtue and the good life exist in a holistic relationship. We try to become the person we need to be in order to get the kind of life that we believe we should have. We have to understand the life in order to understand what kind of person we should be, but we need to understand what kind of person we should be in order to understand what sort of life we should lead. Virtue and the good life are a hermeneutic circle.
But our understanding of this relationship isn’t stuck in an infinite regress. It is incomplete, projective, and revisable. This is why Aristotle insisted that a philosophy of ethics would be lost on the young, who as of yet know very little about life. As we grow up and live our lives alongside other people living their lives, and receive an education, we are exposed to countless stories in books, films, and even video games—and of course, stories told to us by people in our lives. We begin to adjust ourselves towards some understanding of a good life, however haphazard or tacit.
These experiences expand our horizon, giving us a fuller, richer picture of what the good life is and what kind of person it takes to live it.
We can get a sense of what the good is and what the virtuous person is from how people live their lives. But again, this is not an averaging. As with the examples of the heart and the chimpanzee, it’s a proper notion of a good based on an understanding of what people are.
Scott Alexander is worried about the siren song of systemic change. His concerns combine the limits of knowledge with the nature of politics. This is something I’ve takena fewstabs at myself, and Alexander’s post seems like as good an opportunity as any to revisit the subject.
The Being and Becoming of Groups
Political philosophy, political science, and economics very often deal in models and comparative statics. Change is therefore thought of as getting from point A—the current social system—to point B—some proposed alternative. Sam provided a good take on the ontology of this:
In the case of economics, the core ontological preoccupation is with the nature and existence of market equilibria and their constituent parts: supply and demand, institutions, representative agents, social planners, and so on. Some focus on ontologies of being, like a static equilibrium, while Hayek and Buchanan famously had ontologies of becomingthat emphasized the importance of analyzing economic processes.
This is a novel way to think about economic analysis, but implies a symmetry about the practice of economics that I’m fairly certain does not exist. The ontologies of becoming and the analysis of processes are largely considered a marginal concern among most economists, if they are considered at all. Most economists focus all of their energy on the analysis of being.
Systemic change looks very differently when approached from a comparative statics as opposed to a process perspective.
Consider the following example: the American federal system. You have a judiciary, the presidency, and a bicameral legislature. If we’re thinking about systematic change, in a framework of comparative beings, we may talk about wanting to switch to a parliamentary system of some sort. You can debate the details about what sort of parliamentary system you would want—there are plenty to choose from and you can of course come up with one that is somewhat unique—but whatever the specific alternative, most of us would agree that switching to a parliamentary system would be a pretty radical change.
Democracy is democracy, right? If the parliamentary system does it better than ours, we should start pushing to switch to that—right? Isn’t it just that simple?
Scott Alexander does not think so. Implicitly invoking Nassim Taleb, one of the characters in his dialogue worries about very rare but highly consequential risks:
There are many more ways to break systems than to improve them. One Engels more than erases all of the good karma created by hundreds of people modestly plodding along and making incremental improvements to things. Given an awareness of long-tail risks and the difficulty of navigating these waters, I’m not sure our expected value for systemic change activism should even be positive, let alone the most good we can do.
The reference to Engels being a case where one person’s altruism—in continuing to work for a living in order to altruistically fund the scholarship of Marx—can actually have huge and horrible systemic implications. To the extent that Marx’s ideas are responsible for the communist bloodbaths of the 20th century, Engels’ altruism helped to create a catastrophe of historic proportions.
The example has problems—but let’s put that to the side for now. Instead, let’s consider the person who is probably responsible for Alexander framing this problem in terms of “long-tail risks;” Nassim Taleb.
Taleb’s entire worldview boils down to a few very simple ideas:
There are events that are highly consequential but happen so rarely that no one may even be aware of their existence—pick your magnitude of “consequential” and your frequency of “rarely”, as well as whether you think people aren’t aware of them or merely think they won’t happen again.
We should strive to bound our downside risk as much as possible and leave as much upside potential as possible.
On a long enough timescale, all downside risks will play out.
The longer something has been around, the more likely it is to have encountered at least some of these rare, high magnitude events and thus to have proved itself resilient against (or better, antifragile; able to improve as a result of) those events that it has survived.
Taleb talks the talk when it comes to being against consequentialism and for virtue, stoicism, and duty, for instance, but at his core he’s just a consequentialist in a Stoic’s toga. I would argue that both his notion of the sacred, and his ontology, have not been very well thought out.
In terms of the sacred:
Taleb's basic argument is that if it's been around for a long time, it's probably been exposed to more rare events, so we should hesitate
This is not just how he talks about duty; it’s also how he talks about religion, something that an actual believer, would, I think, find very strange. Take for instance our own Drew Summit, a devoted Catholic. When an online neoreactionary posited a consequentialist framework in which the only way to preserve our prosperity and order into the future was to mass-sterilize the poor (no, I’m not making this up) his answer was—even if all of that was true, we should not do it. In his words:
@DocCLAR Nations come and go, the fires of hell are forever.
Duty, faith, and the sacred are not about consequences. Indeed, their very importance is to emphasize the things that matter beyond mere consequences. But more on that further down.
For now I want to look at the ontology underlying Taleb’s argument about how traditions and other time-tested things serve to hedge our bets against rare catastrophes.
From the perspective of being this makes a certain logical sense. The American federal system has has been in place for almost two and a half centuries. By Taleb’s logic, it has shown itself to be resilient against once-a-decade catastrophes, or ones that come every twenty, thirty, or fifty years. Maybe we can say that it’s resilient against once-a-century events, or even once every two century events, but that happened so few times at this point that it could have just been lucky.
Nevertheless, a brand new system wouldn’t have been tested against such centennial events ever, and in Taleb’s ontology I’m fairly certain that imposing a parliamentary system would count as a new system. This is because, even though parliaments have been around elsewhere for longer than the American federal system has been here, it’s not clear how that system would graft to the norms, practices, and other existing institutions here. So the change could make us more vulnerable to rare catastrophes.
Here is the problem: in what sense is there a continuity between the system as it existed during the presidency of George Washington, and the system as it exists under the presidency of Barack Obama? We can analyze the being of the system that existed under George Washington and the being of the system that exists now. We can remark upon the differences. But the main story here is one of becoming—the colonies becoming independent and loosely uniting under the Articles of Confederation, then throwing that out in favor of the Constitution and becoming the United States under the federal system. And then becoming the system we have today after having been the system that George Washington was a part of.
But there is more—the system under George Washington was not a static being. It was in the process of becoming from the very first day, and it did not suddenly hit a static equilibrium at some point along the path through his two terms in office. Unexpected structures appeared in this process right away, such as the creation of the cabinet.
Now, we also have the federal agency system. My question to Talebians, and Alexander specifically, is: wasn’t the birth of the agency system a systemic change? Was it so big a break from the past that any “resilience” or “antifragility” the system had throughout the 19th century has been lost? How much continuity is enough? What exactly counts as continuity when tradition is constantly in motion?
Alexander begins his piece with a look at a few people on the left who clearly think effective altruism is just another way to preserve global capitalism, which they wish to abolish.
In this context, let me list a few other systemic changes that come to mind:
The “globalization” of trade and commerce in the 19th century.
The European conquest of most of the world in the 19th century that they hadn’t already colonized in the 18th.
The 1930s: the end of 19th century globalization, the turn to fascism and communism in many countries, the birth of the modern social-democratic welfare state in the rest.
The spread of communism after World War II.
Decolonization during the same period.
Modern globalization: quite young still, long-term effects quite uncertain!
Would turning back the state of globalization to where it was in the 1970s count as systemic change, or would allowing the process of globalization to continue as it is currently proceeding be one? Was the end of the 19th century globalization a systemic change or was its onset? If its onset, was the end of it merely a return to something older, and therefore more resilient?
I’m inclined to think that systemic change is an unavoidable fact of life—indeed, of existence. We are constantly in the process of becoming, and one way or another we hit discontinuities big and small along the way.
As for the limits of our knowledge—well, I’ve written quitea lot about that as well, lately. Suffice it to say that I think we can know a great deal, but I stand with Aristotle in thinking that each subject matter has a level of precision appropriate to it. When it comes to complex systems, I’m with Taleb and Alexander—the level of precision is quite low. Though Taleb seems to go between saying that and claiming that his arguments are backed by unquestionable mathematical certainty….so there’s that. Alexander strikes me as being rather more intellectually humble on this score.
But Alexander’s point is not really about systemic change as such. It’s about politics.
The Unity of Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric
Luisa chuckled. “I hear you, sugar. I’m not gonna say you’re wrong. But I have to warn you that this is the word—‘ politics’— that nerds use whenever they feel impatient about the human realities of an organization.”
I actually think that Alexander’s post focuses much more on the nature of politics than on the specific risks around systemic change.
One thing I like about the post is that it seems clear that he is sympathetic to the “if we got politics out of the way and just let smart people roll up their sleeves and get it done, everything would be fixed” perspective, but also is highly aware of its flaws.
Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!
Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.
Alice: I…think you’re being deliberately annoying? It seems like exactly the same kind of sophisticated devil’s-advocate style argument we could use for anything. Sure, nothing is real and everything is permissible, now stop playing the Steel Man Philosophy Game and tell me what you really think! It really should be beyond debate that some policies – and some voters- are just stupid. Global warming denialism? Mass incarceration? Banning GMOs? Opposing nuclear power? Not everything is a hard problem!
Bob: I really do sympathize with you here, of course. It’s hard not to. But I also look back at history and am deeply troubled by what I see. In the 1920s, nearly all the educated, intelligent, evidence-based, pro-science, future-oriented people agreed: the USSR was amazing. Shaw, Wells, Webb. They all thought Stalin was great and we needed a global communist revolution so we could be more like him. If you and I had been alive back then, we’d be having this same conversation, but it would end with both of us agreeing to donate everything we had to the Bolsheviks.
Alice: Okay, so the smart people were wrong once. That doesn’t mean…
Bob: And eugenics.
It’s ironic to me that the Alice character accuses Bob of taking an outsider’s view of politics, but the approach she proposes seems entirely like the sort of rationalism that acts as though politics is an object of study rather than something we live with every day. They seek explanation rather than understanding.
What does politics actually looks like, from the inside?
I think understanding the whole picture where politics is concerned requires us to speak of the unity of politics, ethics, and rhetoric.
From a very young age, I was taught stories about the founders, and the proper moral framework in which the Revolutionary War ought to be understood. The history that I learned in school was steeped in democratic values; it was all too easy to see American history in particular as a straight line of progress of increasing enfranchisement, abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. was elevated into the same pantheon as Jefferson and Lincoln.
(as an aside—the paper in the previous link is highly recommended for anyone interested in the methodological individualism vs holism debate).
However, there are many sorts of groups. The macro-economy and the nation are obviously related and influence one another, but may be usefully considered separately. In order to exist as a group, a macro-economy simply requires trade and financial markets on a certain scale. Where we draw the lines on one macro-economy vs the other is, in some ways, as arbitrary as committed methodological individualists believe all borders to be. In other ways, not so—particular regulatory and cultural environments certainly have an impact on the overall character of a given macro-economy.
But with nations, or at least with the sense of being “a people,” things are a little different. The existence of a people requires a narrative—or more precisely, a body of narratives—which define who they are, do the difficult work of bridging is and ought, provide us with our sacred reasons for action. A people also always has important rituals, in which “the boundaries between individual and community become less-defined.”
A healthy club has subsumed your self to it without actually reducing your value as an individual; you are not necessarily subverted to the club, but you cannot assert individuality without pressing against the boundaries created by the ritual. If you do not partake of a haggis, you really aren’t a member; you’re an observer, and you cannot receive the benefits of the club, which are mostly transcendental.
My belief is that the American democratic religion has done a remarkably effective job at taking some 320 million people spread across a large land mass and turning them into a people, rather than just a smattering of different tribes. If it seems to get harder and harder to get some consensus on a growing list of issues, as the popular narrative of political polarization implies, it could be that our national narratives are feeling the strain of just how big our population has become. Or it could be that such polarization is overstated, relative to how it has always been.
In any case, this body of stories and rituals also form the environment in which our understanding of ethics is nurtured. Reports of the is-ought divide have been greatly exaggerated—we construe each situation as part of a whole which has the character of a narrative; the ought flows naturally from the is, when we are looking at the is from the inside.
That said, in a cosmopolitan nation with a rich literary, philosophical, and scientific tradition, we are able to learn a great deal about ethics outside the narrow scope of the narratives that currently sustain the people of which we are a part. As we learn, we may come to feel that there are some things that are unethical about our group—something that we believe needs to be changed. How fundamental (or systemic) these changes are will vary, of course. In America and in the west in general, we are, for better or worse, educated to consider big systemic change to be a good idea, a necessary part of progress. I think Alexander is right to try and counterbalance that.
The ethical problems that we see may be, per MacIntyre, problems that can be identified purely within the perspective of the reigning traditions of thought of your people. Or, per Gadamer, it may be that they are problems that are obvious only when you have expanded your horizons by looking elsewhere, something anyone is capable of doing by reading the many texts from different points in history as well as from different cultures.
Ethics here is taken in an Aristotelian sense—it’s not limited to what we moderns would consider the moral domain. “Good” in this sense is inclusive of the moral but goes beyond it; think of a good teacher or a good carpenter. Phronesis, practical wisdom, unites what we consider the narrowly practical with what we consider the narrowly moral.
I like that Alexander flirts with “an efficient market hypothesis for politics,” and it’s unfortunate to me that in an update to the post he notes that he takes this comment very seriously. That comment boils down to “consequentialism is true, few people realize it, so there are trillions of dollars lying on the proverbial table in politics.” (EDIT: seems I’ve misread it)
Except that the status of consequentialism, against the alternatives which are currently in play as well as those which are not, is just as contestable as the positions this commenter is seeking to subvert to it. Giving the commenter the benefit of the doubt, I assume they are aware that consequentialism has problems, just as all frameworks do, but that they simply believe it the best framework we have.
But the impulse which drove Alexander to grasp for something like an efficient markets hypothesis for politics should also extend to philosophy; all obvious assertions drawn from consequentialism have been made, all obvious responses have also been made, and the conversation has moved on from there. The primacy of consequentialism is not at all obvious, even to extremely smart and heavily researched people who have spent years thinking and debating about the matter. In short (too late), there is definitely not any money on the table here.
The central concern of Alexander’s post is what would happen to the effective altruism movement if it made systemic change a central part of its platitude.
And I also think effective altruism has an important moral message. I think that moral message cuts through a lot of issues with signaling and tribal affiliation, that all of these human foibles rise up and ask “But can’t I just spend my money on – ” and effective altruism shouts “NO! BED NETS!” and thus a lot of terrible failure modes get avoided. I think this moral lesson is really important – if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance. If everyone became very interested in systemic change, we would probably have a civil war. Systemic change is sexy and risks taking over effective altruism, but this would eliminate a unique and precious movement in favor of the same thing that everybody else is doing.
Here is where we see the way in which rhetoric enters into the unity with politics and ethics.
Effective altruism is a young movement attempting to assert itself as worthy of our attention and loyalty. Its proponents are attempting to tell us stories (rhetoric) about the world and the duty of its most privileged inhabitants (ethics) in order to create a group of people who consider membership in the movement to be an important part of who they are (politics).
Consider, once again, the American democratic religion. How did it come to be? The answer: through persuasion, accomplished through both word and deed. The art of rhetoric begins by understanding, as best as we can, the perspective in which our audience is situated. It aims to translate ideas which are perfectly comprehensible within our own horizon of understanding into a form that can be understood within the audience’s horizons. It also aims to make it clear why those ideas ought to be evaluated a certain way; the way in which we understand them. As Gadamer emphasized, such translation necessarily entails transformation, both of the ideas and of the audience. In cases like the creation of the American democratic religion, not only was a new group born out of what had arguably been several smaller ones, but an entire nation with institutions of governance was created. A dramatic transformation indeed.
Effective altruists attempt to speak to our charity, but also to our prudence (in the narrow, modern sense of the word). They speak to our fellow feeling, our sympathy for the plight of the less fortunate, but also to our hard-nosed calculating side, which favors efficiency. “Just give up 10%—you get to keep 90% to do whatever you like!—and you can be part of a movement that ends extreme poverty around the world, forever.”
It’s a powerful message. It certainly seems to be on the path to establishing itself as a proper group with a distinct ontological status apart from simply “American” or “rationalist” or what have you. Alexander is worried that, at this stage, trying to be all things to all people—especially where big, divisive questions about systemic change are concerned—will stop this process before it has really begun.
It is a sharp, politic concern, for which I applaud him. These days, all or nothing rhetoric has become a corrosive tool, resulting in nothing but negation without creation. It’s good to see someone out there pushing for a healthy, prudent politics.
The ends do not justify the means. Getting the right results does not automatically make you a good person. Depending on what you did, and why, it might even make you a pretty bad one. A good person doesn’t just have good goals. He also acts the right way, given the circumstances, and for the right reasons.
What does it mean to act for the right reasons?
Consider a parent who breaks their back every day, working long hours at a job they hate so they can save up enough to send their daughter to college. This seems admirable, right?
But consider different sorts of reasons for doing this. Imagine if they want their daughter to be able to make more money because they feel entitled to whatever she earns—that is, they’re treating this like an investment for their own long-term earning potential. Or imagine the parent who desires the status among their peers that a college educated kid brings, or to avoid the embarrassment of a grown child without a diploma. That’s a better reason than personal gain, but it isn’t great.
Now imagine a parent who simply wants a better future for their daughter, as well as for her to develop as an independent person capable of making her own choices. These are admirable reasons, and the parent who is truly responsive to them is worthy of their role as parent.
Responsiveness to the right reasons is an important part of virtue as such. This is about much more than an intellectual exercise. Prudence (or phronesis, practical wisdom) as an intellectual virtue does involving being able to grasp what the right reasons are. But courage, temperance, charity, faith and hope all involve at least an element of wanting to do the right thing for the right reasons. It comes more naturally to some than to others. But often those who struggle at first end up the most virtuous further down their journey, for they had to grapple with the difficult task of making the path of righteousness their own. Those who have it given to them sometimes wander off and are less certain how to find their way back again. This is precisely Aristotle’s distinction between natural and true virtue, this element of making it your own as opposed to being born with it.
Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.
It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.
How do we know what the right reasons are? Our whole lives are a joint investigation and negotiation of the answer to that question.
From childhood, parents and other adults, peers, and all of the stories we are exposed to, attempt to impress upon us an understanding of what the right reasons for acting are in a variety of situations. We are increasingly expected, throughout the course of our lives, to take more and more responsibility for grasping it in a given situation and acting accordingly.
Adulthood just is the moment when we take full responsibility for our part of any situation, for acting for the right reasons and doing the right thing. To rely on others to determine this for you is in some sense to remain a child.
That does not mean that there are no authorities that you defer to on rightness or any subject. It does mean that you hold no one responsible for this deference, and the trust that it implies, other than yourself. If your trust is misplaced, it was you who misplaced it.
Trust, and therefore faith, is the foundation upon which our grasp of “right reasons” rests. We have to trust not only the people we consider authorities, but all the people who are and have been in our lives and influenced our notion of goodness. Most of all, we must have faith in ourselves. The most central and unwavering faith of the Enlightenment was faith in one’s own ability to read the evidence and make a rational judgment. If our faith on this score is and should be more tempered than that, we still ought to believe in our own ability to become knowledgeable, to learn from mistakes and advice alike, and to become a good person.
If faith is our footing, hope pushes us forward. Hope that we will obtain an appropriate understanding of the right reasons to act in a given situation, and that we can act on them the way a good person would. Hope that if our trust is ever misplaced or abused, we will learn of it and learn from it, without losing our ability to trust entirely.
Gaining experience so that we can develop our grasp of the right reasons for acting over the course of our lives, working to be the sort of person who wants to respond to the right reasons, trusting and believing in our potential for goodness—these are the beginnings of virtue.
If you’ll forgive me for subjecting you to another lengthy post, I’ve got a subject I’d like to explore a bit: the subject-object distinction. Before you object, let me say that my primary objection is how few people even see it as a distinction, rather than revealed truth. In an argument a few weeks ago, I was accused of magical thinking simply for asserting the existence of what Deirdre McCloskey calls “conjective,” Searle’s “institutional facts,” or Habermas’ “intersubjective.”
The idea of something not purely subject or object seems impossible in our post-Enlightenment world. Even the religious largely argue for the existence of an objective world that is affirmed by God.
So I’d like to subject the subject-object distinction to some much merited scrutiny.