The Process and Politics of Systemic Change

The Deluge
The Deluge

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 taken a few stabs 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 becoming that 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:

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:

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 quite a 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.”

-Neal Stephenson, Seveneves

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.

Further down:

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.

Alice: Actually…

Bob: ಠ_ಠ

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.

In another post on politics, I discussed what I referred to as the American democratic religion.

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.

Unlike most of my libertarian and economist friends, I believe that groups can have a distinct ontological status from individuals. To put it more pragmatically, groups are often the best level of abstraction for explaining certain causal relationships.

(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.

 

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Responsiveness to Reasons

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.

 

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Of Subjects and Object

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.

Continue reading “Of Subjects and Object”

Temperance Against Slobs

Temperance is the virtue that most prominently displays the controversial aspects of Aristotle’s ethical system.

On the one hand, it is the virtue of restraint and self-command—fairly familiar concepts to us, if saddled to baggage of their own.

On the other hand, it is not the virtue of willpower, not really. The person who is able to resist the urge to do something wrong is merely encratic, or continent. This is also true of the person who is able to muster the strength to do the right thing even when it is unpleasant to do so. Lack of self-control is akrasia; but lack of self-control is not the opposite of temperance.

Becoming encratic is the first step to becoming temperate. The temperate person actually wants to do the right thing, in the right amount, under the right circumstances. In Aristotle’s system, the emotions and desires of the virtuous person align with right reason, rather than needing to be overcome.

I believe it was Julia Annas who said that this seems less weird if we simply ask the question “what would we rather our children be: someone who has a strong desire to do the wrong thing but can overcome it, or someone who genuinely wants to do the right thing?”

If you accept that we can discipline our desires to some extent through habit building (among other means), and that moral ideals are a matter of ascertaining what is good enough in context rather than achieving perfection, I think this begins to looks more reasonable.

It has recently occurred to me that the opposite of temperance is not lack of self-control—akrasia is the opposite of enkrateia, not of temperance. No, the opposite of temperance is indulging in every myopic, sinful, selfish desire without restraint. Across the chasm from the virtuous person who seems restrained and polished without effort is the utter slob and brute.

The most striking thing about the titular character of The Sopranos is not that he is a cold-blooded mobster—at this point we are all well exposed to mob movies. What’s striking about Tony, aside from the novelty of his anxiety and depression, is his complete intemperance. He lashes out in anger and gives in to lust and offends the people around him even when it is against his interests. It’s not out of a lack of prudence, either—he reflects often on how this problem often interferes with his business. He’s well aware after the fact that he’s behaved poorly even by the narrowest of selfish standards, but he can’t be bothered to do anything about it.

Maybe Aristotle’s ideal of temperance is too high for most people. I know that I haven’t even crossed the “good enough” threshold. Maybe self-control is a better standard, along the lines spelled out by people like Baumeister or Heath and Anderson.

But the slob definitely serves as a useful negative standard. So please: don’t be a self-indulgent, short-sighted, reactive, thoughtless brute. You owe it to the people around you and yourself to do better.

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The Fragility of Magnificence

Unlike the Stoics or Aquinas, Aristotle was quite haphazard with his list of virtues. The one that has caused possibly the most consternation among philologists and philosophers in general is megalopsuchia. “Greatness of Soul” is probably the best translation we have of it, but it is usually translated as “magnificence”. Aristotle’s account raises a lot of questions, questions which Julia Annas at least does not believe he provided the resources to answer.

Instead of sticking with Aristotle’s account, then, let’s simply speak of magnificence as greatness under the most extreme of circumstances. Sticking with my fellow Sweet Talker’s example, it need not even be moral greatness, necessarily.

As I have said, willpower is a scarce internal resource that must be managed. And as Heath and Anderson have said, most of the tools for managing our willpower are “external”; in our environment rather than in our bodies. Heath and Anderson worry that the transition from agrarian societies to modern societies has not resulted in a parallel transition in the institutional and social mechanisms for managing our willpower. It seems to me that this must be all the more so for those who strive for magnificence.

“It takes a community” not just to raise a child but to maintain our character and manage our willpower. In his critique of virtue ethics, Heath emphasizes how important our current peer environment—much more than our parents or the peer environment we grew up in—is for getting us to construe our circumstances in a way that promotes pro-social behavior. Putting it all together, virtue requires an embedded, institutional context.

Let’s return to the example of the NFL player. As boatfloating put it:

Within the current framework and rules of American professional football, certain traits are selected for. Just having the desire to hit, the tolerance to be hit, and the willingness to drop your factory job for a couple of weeks a year was no longer enough. You had to win the genetic lottery and be a physical and mental specimen of such rarity that one might scarcely believe you share the same genus as some your lesser fellow humans.

This also means that other, non-essential-to-football traits are disregarded. Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is also a supertaster? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent enjoys foreign films? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is a conscientious father or husband? Fuck no. But, of course, they are still of such rare quality, their relative weaknesses in other non-essential-to-football traits are hardly detriments to their career prospects.

Tantalizingly, the title of the post is “Even MLK Cheated On His Wife”, but the content is solely about the selection of professional athletes. Where David Duke hides his arguments inside of stories, boatfloating is our resident argument-by-hint specialist.

Football is an industry. The process of finding, “developing”, and moving talent up the ranks is all very streamlined. There are big institutions involved—including universities, among others. The resources for providing that external moral environment are there. That end simply has not been prioritized. We know that non-essential-to-football traits can be prioritized because some teams, like the Patriots, will punish players for what might be described as being un-classy in the media. Of course, this could be interpreted as being for the franchise—maintaining a certain image and all that. But surely the same logic could apply to not having domestic abusers and dog fight hosts on their roster?

On the other hand, the domestic abuse and dogfighting example are not, perhaps, the best ones for the angle I’m going for here. Those crimes take place at home; we wouldn’t expect any employer to be held responsible for what their employees do at home. A better example would be how players behave when the team is on the road, something that takes up a significant part of a player’s year. For all I know, NFL teams are actually good at providing an environment that encourages their players to behave during this time; I admit to total ignorance on this mark.

Some areas where the moral environment really is quite bad (from what I have heard) are the music and film industries. At least back when Johnny Cash was alive and doing drugs (a late in life interview of him serves as a point of reference for me here), the drug pushers were in the industry itself, you had a working relationship with them. Moreover, you were probably a young nobody who all of a sudden had rocketed to be a rich megastar, and the institutional environment certainly wasn’t set up to manage that transition well. And to top it all off, what peers you do have at this point are largely on drugs, too. Not all famous actors and musicians face this situation of course, but for those who do it becomes a black hole of self-destruction. And it seems to happen for at least some part of their careers to quite a large proportion of actors and musicians who make it big.

This is all very different from the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. in some very crucial ways. MLK truly was magnificent, in the sense of doing great things, taking hard stands, doing more than it seems possible for a long individual to do to bring justice where it was most needed. If justice was his cause, charity was his guiding star, and he pursued it with more courage than most. As an icon he has perhaps more glamour than any other figure in 20th century American history, perhaps more than any figure in all of our history.

Though his infidelity stains that glamour, it seems, in context, to be a highly forgivable sin. Some ideals, by their nature, cannot be attained in full, and so part of those ideals must involve an understanding of when “good enough” crosses the threshold into “good”. Would the content of MLK’s character have been improved if he had remained faithful to his wife? Certainly. And I hope that others do not take his infidelity to be an excuse to commit it themselves (“if even MLK cheated, how can I expect to be good enough to control myself?”).

But overall, the content of MLK’s character was extraordinary. He was magnificent, and it did not really come to the exclusion of other virtues, for the most part. His flaws were by and large the flaws of ordinary people, and his great qualities stand out as examples for us all.

I do think that aiming for magnificence makes us more vulnerable, as it necessarily involves goals that require nearly all of your focus and all of your time to have a chance of accomplishing. In a way, the Stoics were on to something when they spoke of virtue as being a necessary skill for even being able to properly enjoy external goods (which they referred to, oxymoronically, as “preferred indifferents” because of the fact that they were not necessary for happiness but we still prefer to have them rather than not). The people who are in a best position to stand firm against the temptations of sudden fame and fortune are those who are already virtuous and good at surrounding themselves with people who will help them stay that way.

But the risks of fame and fortune are very well known these days. And as I said, MLK did not, on the whole, lose his virtue after his rise. And so I remain skeptical of the claim that began this conversation.

 

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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.