Social Cooperation and the Trauma of Conversion

I am very sympathetic to Sam H’s vision of social cooperation and the teleology of ethics. Until perhaps a year ago, I would have agreed wholeheartedly that that is all there is to it, at bottom. Now, I’m not so sure. I’m not ready to say that this worldview is wrong so much as I am, at present, exploring alternate terrain, trying to give it its due to an extent I had not bothered to before.

The ouroboros I keep finding myself within is the notion of seeking to be honored as opposed to seeking to be honorable.

Consider my father, discussing the difference between joining a church to participate in local social life as opposed to being a true convert:

Far more than nationalism, religion aims at communion in the depths, and exacts an entry toll proportionate to that ambition. I can exercise my freedom and “convert” to a faith, join a congregation. But what am I saying when I use those words? Conversion, properly understood, means revelation: it’s less a question of switching teams than of being shown a new cosmic order that demands a new mode of life. The experience is always traumatic. Personality cracks like fractured bone and must be painfully reorganized, so that the convert emerges a stranger to his original self, confused and disoriented, a newborn.

On the one hand, I can see a functionalist story explaining the value of going all-in psychologically with membership of a group. On the other hand, such a story seems to be an insult to those who do believe, genuinely, in the rightness of their way of life. The atheist who explains religion as social coordination must seem more condescending and insulting to the legitimately religious than the Richard Dawkins type who just calls them brainwashed idiots. At least the latter does not hide the message that he thinks he is smarter, or less ignorant, than those of whom he speaks.

And yet I do not believe in the divine, and I find it very hard not to think in terms of functions which emerged from the ongoing processes which have shaped and are shaping all things, for which even religions which span thousands of years are merely eddies in the river. And yet in saying this I can see my own traumatic conversion, which occurred nearly ten years ago, in which I saw that I was an insignificant speck of a much larger whole, and somehow—irrationally, emotionally—found meaning and purpose in this.

So while I cannot agree with the truly religious, I can respect them, seeing in common between us the prior painful reorganization of the bones of our personalities. Circumstances lead me to a metaphysical perspective largely identical to Sam’s, instead of theirs. But circumstances have also, I would like to think, given me enough perspective to see the legitimate honor and virtue in what they do; I do not think they or we are robbed of it by Heraclitus’ river. The process of shaping honor by institutional honoring does not profane the act of becoming honorable. This I believe, though I wonder if I am capable of defending this belief as Sam is of explaining our shared metaphysics. Given the high bar that that sets, it seems unlikely.

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Matt Bruenig is Anti-Social

Everyone has a hobby. For Matt Bruenig its writing “take downs” of libertarianism as lacking any singularly coherent normative theory. In his latest, he deconstructs the “just desert” basis of capitalism, specifically the claim that capitalism rewards risk. In this post my goal isn’t to defend just desert theories, per se. Rather I’d like to shed some light on Matt’s subversive modus operandi and the fallacies and dangers within it.

For context, I have gone back through Matt’s archive and not found a single positive defense of his own normative framework. In this sense he prefers to define his ideology negatively as “not x therefore y”. And while he makes regular gestures towards egalitarianism, he has yet to show how his own abstract normative theory is any less arbitrary or sensitive to the deconstructionist tactics he is fond of employing.

From Kant to Hegel to Hayek

To understand why Matt is so successful at taking apart normative theories and so cautious about defending his own, it’s worth tracing the background assumptions of modern moral philosophy back to Kant. Kant famously claimed our conceptual commitments are inescapably normative (e.g. if I say x is a cat I am “responsible” for a particular judgement about x) and that, in making those commitments, we are required to maintain justificatory, inferential and critical consistency (e.g. we can’t simultaneously say x is not a cat). Kant and followers like Rawls thought you could use this insight to construct a transcendental argument that bridged is and ought. Read philosopher Robert Brandom’s work for more on this, or enjoy this short video.

The key error Kant made was in taking as sacrosanct the “mentalistic” paradigm inherited from Descartes, which gave “subject” and “object” ontological primacy, and “representation” primacy in theories of epistemology and intentionality. If you don’t believe me, read about Fichte’s notion of “pure I“. It took Hegel to enter the scene and point out how weird the implication of a “noumenal” or objective realm of “things in themselves” was if it meant having knowledge of the inaccessible. So he “naturalized” Kant’s theory of normativity by arguing that it had to be situated socially and recognitively in cultural practices. This in effect rejected the subject-object paradigm by shifting to an intersubjective theory of meaning. See Jurgen Habermas on “de-transcendalizating mentalism” for more on this.

Normativity is, to paraphrase Kant, a property that leads a concept to self-bind, e.g. a duty as distinct from compulsion. Hegel accepted this but argued that it in no way necessitated Kant’s transcendental approach in which de-contextualized or “pure” normative principals were derived prior to interaction with concrete problems. Rather, Hegel argued normativity was immanent to the social process of intersubjective norm construction, the most “objective” of which are our stable institutions. We are bound to the normative commitments implicit to our objective institutions because in a very real sense they mirror us. This is a deep concept, but can be easily understood as a precursor to the idea of the “extended will” that follows from embodied cognition in cognitive psychology.  As philosopher of mind Andy Clark explains the idea,

advanced cognition depends crucially on our ability to dissipate reasoning: to diffuse achieved knowledge and practical wisdom through complex social structures, and to reduce the loads on individual brains by locating those brains in complex webs of linguistic, social, political and institutional constraints.

The rationality of our social structures is therefore often hidden as a feature, not a bug. Yet as self-conscious beings we ought to be able to extract and make explicit the implicit principals that pre-structure our social practices. For example, perhaps “justice as fairness” isn’t a context-free normative standard which looms over all other practices. Instead, what if discrete norms like “I cut, you choose” or “lets flip a coin” or “first one to improve and enclose unclaimed land gets it” develop spontaneously through cultural evolution as low cost ways of securing agreeable cooperative social relationships? For more on this idea, read Joseph Heath’s “A Puzzle for Constractualism“.

Rawls would actually be sympathetic to this view, since he characterized the egalitarian norm as based on conflict reduction. But that does not imply that particular norms can be isolated and then imposed from the top down. This makes the basic category error that FA Hayek explains as being behind all forms of “rational constructivism”. The fairness norm only gained its normative authority or self-binding character from the legitimating history of mutual recognition that preceded and maintained it in specific cases. This would seem to better match observed reality, where there is not, for example, one universal standard of “fair ownership”, but a multiplicity of standards rooted in historical practice. Thus instituting Rawls’ difference principal, for example, would not be just in the US context without substantial cultural buy-in — for the same reason imposing American capitalistic property norms in developing countries regularly leads to violent push back.

Bottom Up Normativity

If that is how actual normativity arises in practice, talking about “just desert” in abstract is totally wrong headed. Instead you would need to instantiate a desert norm in a concrete social reality. Then you would have to carefully investigate the genealogy of the norm to discover it implicit rationale. Jurgen Habermas calls this approach “rational reconstruction.” Note that reconstructing the rationality implicit in normative behavior is an interpretive (not descriptive) exercise.

People who follow this otherwise post-Kantian tradition have actually done this for the American context of capital and desert. The Hansmann argument for shareholder primacy, for example, rests on the demonstration that ownership in a firm will tend to flow to the constituency with the lowest governance cost, which for complex companies tends to be shareholders (specifically, it can be demonstrated that shareholder primacy is hicks-kaldor efficient). Risk is a non-trivial part of this issue. As residual claimants, capital holders are the most expendable insofar as they are what remains after other contractual obligations have been honored.

So does that mean at some point in history someone went out and designed corporate law based on a grand utilitarian moral theory? No, on the contrary. These norms of ownership were discovered in the same bottom up way as norms like “I cut, you choose”. Scholars like Hansmann had to explicitly reconstruct this rationale through interrogation of the alternatives, like stakeholder theory. (By the way, reconstruction of the welfare state also points to a transaction cost basis, not egalitarian principals.)

Still, it must be said that capital owners have a holistic normative relationship with the present state of affairs — that is, the bundle of concepts that tend to accompany norms of ownership, like “entitlement” and “deservedness,” apply perforce. From their own standpoint and from the point of view of the community at large, the reductive claim that “shareholders retain profits ONLY because that’s the best for the social welfare function” is illegitimate because the rational reconstruction only ever identifies one feature of an ethical totality.

To see this, consider that the dividend cheques get delivered not due to an awareness of Ronald Coase’s most cited work, but because of the self-binding intersubjective concept of ownership itself. It isn’t just the legal realist’s vision of command and compulsion. The USPS guy delivers the cheque largely because he has internalized and affirms the prevailing norms of ownership by which he himself implicitly benefits. As H.L.A. Hart put it, his recognition gives the law an “internal point of view.”

In this light, Matt’s struggle for abstract consistency is at root subversive. He has innumerable posts arguing against private ownership that would make no normative distinction between a company merger and civil asset forfeiture, other than perhaps that the latter is typically more regressive in its effects. The main upshot of Matt gaining any following of import would therefore be to further undermine the distinguishing legitimacy of various social norms through raw philosophical sophistry.

Whose Filibuster?

Seriously? If Matt were a luck egalitarian he’d be Anton Chigurh. Of course, Matt can go ahead and keep shoplifting without really causing much harm. This is because he is in essence free riding on the ethical behavior of everyone around him. If everyone behaved like Matt, on the other hand, it would be a catastrophe. This conclusion, too, can be rationally reconstructed by showing how norms play an important role in self-binding us to mutually beneficial cooperative equilibria.

Consider the US congress, which has reached new heights of dysfunction in recent years largely because congressional norms have collapsed. Writing for the National Journal, Norm Ornstein gives the profligate use of the senate filibuster as an example:

Rules matter, but in the Senate, norms and the larger fabric of interactions matter as much or more. The fact is that Rule XXII, which governs debate, remained the same from 1975 until this Congress; and for most of the era, it worked fine. Majorities were at times frustrated by the minority’s use of filibusters, but they were relatively rare, and most issues were worked out before legislation or nominations reached the floor. There was a larger understanding that filibusters were not to be used routinely.

The beginning the anti-social zeitgeist in congress probably began with some Republican strategist throwing his or her hands in the air and yelling “the norms are arbitrary. All that matters is that our normative framework is the right one!” The irony is that the collapse of the anti-filibuster norm has ended up hurting both the Democrat’s and Republican’s political agendas. Think of it in terms of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The norm against its use acted as a self-binding mechanism against strategic gamesmanship, and helped make legislative cooperation stable.

To make this explicit, consider the model V(x) = U(x) + kN(x) where the value of doing x is given by its private utility plus its norm appropriateness weighted by k. k is the weight you assign normative considerations (i.e. how self-bound you are to a norm) and is a reaction function based on other agent’s k (that is, it’s intersubjective). Let’s say x represents the decision to filibuster. If k ever declines, say for the historical factors identified in Ornstein’s article, it risks collapsing as a self-fulling prophecy. Normativity goes out the window. Both parties become mired in strategic legislative undercutting. Multiple ethical equilibria and all that.

This is the sense in which I think a world full of Matt Bruenigs would be worse in virtually everyone’s eyes. He seems to think that by pulling the normative rug out from under capitalism he is improving the chances that America will fall into his half baked ideal of market socialism, whereas it is only liable to cause a cultural concussion. Identifying anti-social behavior and rhetoric is a real enough problem that I think it’s worth coining a new term to help with calling it out when it happens:

Our Modern Euthyphro Dilemma

Does god make his commandments base on what is right, or is what is right based on his commandments? This is the Euthyphro dilemma, and it has boggled theologians and moral philosophers alike for literally millenia

The dilemma is supposed to challenge believers in divine command theory, but it has relevance for modern secular moral theory as well. This is because the original dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro was not really about the nature of god, but about the nature of normative authority more generally. By being constant through time and space and separate from human particularity, God simply reflects the idealized universality and generality which we seek in our principals of justice.

In lieu of god, secular moral philosophy from Kant on has been trying to somehow leverage sureness back into our moral sense through convoluted transcendental arguments. Such efforts usually involve the metaphysical construction of an “ideal self” in some ideal scenario behaving in ideal ways to which we must all rationally assent. Our secular Euthyphro dilemma thus becomes: Are our abstract moral theories based on what is right, or is what is right based on our abstract moral theories? Against any Kantian construction, the dilemma is no less powerful as when levied against divine command.

rawls

Take 20th century Kantian philosopher John Rawls, for example. His concept of the “original position” asks us to imagine ourselves standing outside of society bereft of any knowledge of our personal identity, including our conception of a good life. Behind this veil of ignorance, he argued, we’d all rationally agree to an egalitarian society in which there was the greatest benefit for the least advantaged.

With this idealized social contract, Rawls’ goal is to establish a formal derivation of political authority in order to justify a particular macro-distributive end. But what appears to be an innocuous thought experiment is on closer inspection a series of arbitrary and inconceivable stipulations. After all, what is left of a self after its identity has been stripped away? How can a purely instrumental rationality even motivate a choice, much less reveal risk preferences? Why does the nation state set the boundary of social justice? Even taking the exercise at face value, the construct fails to establish a meta-ethical bridge to true normativity because it merely pushes the prescriptive element onto an unfounded imperative to act according to one definition of rationality.

To do Rawls justice, I should add that he was aware of all this and so in addendum wrote hundreds of pages of tedious conceptual scaffolding. This guarantees the incompleteness of my rough sketch, however the flaw with constructing a Kantian normative architecture lies not in the design specifics or even the level of detail, but in the very idea that normative authority can be grounded via ethical autoCAD. With sufficient prodding all Kantian constructions invariably implode under their unnatural abstract formalism. Indeed, examples span the political spectrum to include Kant inspired libertarians, whose invocations of the non-aggression principal are similarly void of content, and become contradictory fast once any substance is added.

Thus when contemporary Kantians debate it winds up being a symmetric game of mutually assured deconstruction. Distributive justice types are able to accurately reveal the inconsistencies of their opponents, while procedural justice types make a science of egalitarian absurdities. In the end, beneath the twin rubble piles that result, there remains only the meek voices of special pleading.

If what is right is not based on abstract moral theory, then normative authority must be antecedent to our modern moral philosophy. In later posts I will try to explain how normativity arises from the bottom up, from the particular to the general, rather than the other way around. As Nietzsche famously argued, relinquishing god as the locus of normative authority was essential to opening new possibilities of human development. Today, the same should be said of all secular moral frameworks which give normative authority the same god-like unity of voice, contra the polycentrism we actually observe. So say it with me:

Kant is dead. Kant remains dead. And we have killed him.