Funny in Theory

Featured image is Democritus, by Johannes Moreelse.

Francis: I would like to apply some of what I have read recently, if you wouldn’t mind.

Paco: Unless you’ve recently been reading murder mysteries, I don’t see why not.

Francis: I’ve been reading theories of humor.

Paco: Oh, that is so much worse.

Francis: Come on, I want to try to make you laugh!

Paco: I would rather you killed me in a more direct way.

Francis: Don’t be such a spoilsport. Try this one on for size: what happens if you eat yeast and shoe polish?

Paco: Do you really need me to ask “what”?

Francis: The next morning, you’ll rise and shine!

Paco: …

Francis: You see, that was an example of “wordplay”. It makes use of the flexibility of meaning to subvert expectations.

Paco: Well, now that I know why it’s funny, I guess that’s my cue to laugh.

Francis: You’re right, you’re right. I shouldn’t need to give you the theory, if it’s really funny. Let me try an ethnic joke to help you overcome your sociocultural inhibitions—

Paco: You know what, I think I’m comfortable with my inhibitions. Thanks for the thought, though.

Francis: OK, but I’ve got this wonderful one that lets us indulge in our shared superiority to the outgroup—

Paco: Have any of these theorists ever successfully cracked a joke in their life?

Francis: I don’t see how that’s relevant.

Paco: …

Francis: Let’s not confuse theory and practice, here. I know you haven’t read as much as I have, but that’s pretty elementary.

Paco: So there’s some value in observing comedians as if they were chimpanzees, then?

Francis: How else could we really explain what it is that they do?

Paco: But if the theorists are completely incapable of cracking a good joke, what good are their theories? In what sense have they understood humor, at all?

Francis: Would you expect a particle physicist to be better at…being…a physical thing?

Paco: I see you bring a similar wit to your jokes and your rejoinders.

Francis: Well, is application all that there is to theory?

Paco: Surely you would agree that physics and comedy are very different.

Francis: Knowledge is knowledge.

Paco: The principles that govern a catapult or a nuclear power plant are the same everywhere and at any time in history. What makes something funny is almost entirely tied up in a particular situation. It’s tied to life! It’s not something you know in advance, it emerges as practice, it is understood in application, and nowhere else.

Francis: That’s an interesting theory.

Paco: Nice try, but you have got to work on your timing.

Francis: I mean it! You’ve just made the classic mis-step of theorizing about the impossibility of theoretical knowledge! The argument defeats itself.

Paco: But this is different.

Francis: How?

Paco: Because I’m right.

Francis: I know just the theory that explains why I find that response humorous…

Paco: Is murder still on the table?

Francis: Come on, admit when you’ve been bested.

Paco: It’s very possible that I have been. But I worry that we may fail to distinguish just because we’ve used the same word for something. Surely the knowledge it takes to understand a joke in a way that makes us laugh is different from the knowledge of Pythagoras’ Theorem or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. And surely the kind of theory that allows us to build a catapult is different from the kind of theory that helps us understand jokes in a general way.

Francis: And is this theory of theories yet another kind of theory?

Paco: All right, I admit I don’t know all the proper distinctions and can’t anticipate your traps. I’m sure you’ve read much more about this than I have.

Francis: No need to be cranky about it. Here, this will cheer you up: why did the picture go to jail?

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The Hermeneutic of the Dangerous Question

hermeneutic

In a  world where theory and practice are in ever-greater harmony, can there be such a thing as a dangerous question?

Outside of a Lovecraft story, the very idea seems bewildering. How can questions be dangerous? Dangerous how? Dangerous to whom?

I believe there is such a thing. In what follows I will discuss two types of dangerous question, and the vague boundary that separates them. I will flesh out the characteristics of knowledge that make such dangers not only possible, but unavoidable.

Two Types of Dangerous Question

The last time I discussed this matter, I gave an example I felt was uncontroversially evil—“What should be done about the Jewish problem?”

I could have had an even more forward question, such as “how are we going to eradicate the Jews?” This is the first type of dangerous question—the sort resting on morally monstrous foundations and seeking to pursue their implications without restraint. In this scenario, using the is-ought distinction as a cover would be especially heinous, but oddly enough it seems that people are rarely fooled when the proposed “is” is so extreme.

Nagging that “it is merely a factual question, we don’t have to suggest we ought to eradicate the Jews” does not really convince anyone, except perhaps for those who already agree with the morally monstrous premises and aren’t yet willing to openly say so.

It may seem that we needn’t concern ourselves with such questions at all. But to do so would be to exhibit a remarkable degree of short-term memory. On the scale of history, it was not so long ago that America had Jim Crow laws, internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, and, of course, slavery. Nor was it long ago that a country considered to be at the heart of advanced western civilization created factories of death for the precise purpose of exterminating the Jews and other groups considered undesirable. We should never, ever forget that questions that seem unaskable now can always be brought back into play if political circumstances change, and indeed were asked in very recent history.

Which brings us to the second type of dangerous question—those that share many premises with more innocent or harmless questions but point towards potentially dangerous answers. The larger part of the danger comes from their connection to the first type of question—perhaps a line of inquiry carries with it the potential to make certain premises acceptable that were not beforehand. And perhaps those newly acceptable premises will bring us a few steps closer to a situation where the first type of dangerous question can be openly asked.

The first type of question—which let’s simply refer to as the immoral question—should naturally be resisted with all the resources we can bring to bear against it. We should apply social sanctions against those who insist on pursuing them, deny them positions within organizations which can assist them in their line of inquiry. Socially isolate them to the greatest extent possible.

The second type of question, however—which we can call the volatile question—cannot be avoided entirely. Depending on the particular question, it may well be that we shouldn’t avoid it. Consider the American federal system. Some have argued that it is inherently unstable, compared to parliaments. Certainly, this is an important and central concern. So what makes it volatile?

For one thing, the degree of precision available to us for answering the question is, unfortunately, inadequate to the task. In a complex system, very small errors can have enormous consequences. Even if the best evidence we have points to the greater stability of parliamentary systems in general, we cannot with sufficient precision demonstrate that it would definitely be stable or take roots at all in America. To begin building a coalition around this goal, therefore, is a very risky proposition.

Nevertheless, the stability of our system of government is obviously an important question, and one that needs to be carefully investigated. To claim that no one should ask after it because some might be overhasty in applying the answers is a logic that would bind us from asking far, far too many important questions.

One way to think of these questions is in terms of risk and expected value. The combination of the probability and magnitude of the outcomes an immoral question opens the door to give it a sharply negative expected value. Volatile questions have many more positive outcomes and a much lower risk of the negative ones—but part of that risk is constituted by the potential they create for asking immoral questions. For instance, one can imagine that certain inquiries about the biology of human beings create the possibility of drawing conclusions which ultimately make ethnic cleansing a more acceptable thought to entertain.

If we can distinguish among the types of questions by recourse to risk, it is uncertainty that creates boundary cases. And uncertainty looms very large, in as much as we are dealing with complex systems and the outcomes of specific choices are basically impossible to see beyond a few meager steps. And so there are many questions that might be either immoral or volatile, but also ones that might be harmless or volatile—even ones that might be immoral or harmless. Such boundary cases are what make these categories vague in the formal sense; and no amount of increased precision can resolve these boundary cases, as they are intrinsic to the concepts themselves.

To summarize, we can say that all questions exist on some spectrum of risk, and that irreducible uncertainty makes it hard to place many questions on that spectrum in any sort of precise way. In terms of ideal types, we can speak of high risk immoral questions, medium risk volatile questions, and low risk harmless questions.

The trouble with this way of thinking of course is that we tend to equate high risk with high rewards. But that is not the case here. Immoral questions can be thought of as being high risk with zero payoffs at best, genocide-as-loss at worse.

The Hermeneutic Question

At the end of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II asked what is certainly a volatile question within the Catholic Church: what is the relationship between the wrongs committed by the Church in the past and the present Church? To what extent is a wrong ever perpetrated by the Church as opposed to simply individuals who form a part of “the community of the baptized”? How should one even approach such a question, fraught with historical as well as theological and ethical presumptions?

Their answer was provided in the document Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past. The sins of the past that they take responsible for in this document include the treatment of the Jewish people throughout the history of Christianity, even going as far as to ask whether the attitude of Christians towards Jews paved the way for the Nazi atrocity.

For their hermeneutics they drew entirely on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. In it he asserts, among other things, the primacy of the question over the answer in our pursuit of understanding. He also puts prejudice (that is, prejudgement) at the center of our ability to interpret and understand. He asked:

Thus we can formulate the fundamental epistemological question for a truly historical hermeneutics as follows: what is the ground of the legitimacy of prejudices? What distinguishes legitimate prejudices from the countless others which it is the undeniable task of critical reason to overcome?

The answer, in Memory and Reconciliation, is as follows:

a certain common belonging of interpreter and interpreted must be recognized without which no bond and no communication could exist between past and present. This communicative bond is based on the fact that every human being, whether of yesterday or of today, is situated in a complex of historical relationships, and in order to live these relationships, the mediation of language is necessary, a mediation which itself is always historically determined. Everybody belongs to history! Bringing to light this communality between interpreter and the object of interpretation – which is reached through the multiple forms by which the past leaves evidence of itself (texts, monuments, traditions, etc.) – means judging both the accuracy of possible correspondences and possible difficulties of communication between past and present, as indicated by one’s own understanding of the past words and events. This requires taking into account the questions which motivate the research and their effect on the answers which are found, the living context in which the work is undertaken, and the interpreting community whose language is spoken and to whom one intends to speak. For this purpose, it is necessary that the pre-understanding – which is part of every act of interpretation – be as reflective and conscious as possible, in order to measure and moderate its real effect on the interpretative process.

Emphasis added by me.

Our interpretation of something depends a great deal on what we bring to it—including why we are attempting to interpret it at all. Unlike the German idealists and historicists, Gadamer did not believe that we are merely trapped within our own path-dependency here. Instead, he believes that there are legitimate prejudices which are necessary for understanding, and illegitimate ones which distort our understanding.

The Catholic Church’s approach, drawing on Gadamer, was to attempt to bring out the prejudices that are in play in order to enter them into dialectic directly. As fellow Sweet Talker David put it:

Well, that was the entire point of my paper, which had failed to convince the Harvard University types: we don’t really know history. I did not go so far as to radicalize my view inasmuch as to say that we construct history wholesale, but it is certainly true that we arrange data within a certain framework until we are pleased with the outcome.

A healthy skepticism of the self is thereby necessary. What am I up to? Can I identify my biases? What are my external influences? Why is this emotionally significant to me? Moreover, when it comes to historical realities (for a lack of a better term), an academic humility is very helpful, namely that we don’t know very much at all, and we know that we don’t know very much at all because we don’t have much physical evidence, and we are, most assuredly, arranging evidence as taught, not as is obvious. We make a convincing case, that is all.

This is important, because it is very rarely the question as such that is immoral or volatile. Rather, it is the context the question is asked in, the background that the question brings with it, the tight inner logic between the situation and the question which pull towards particular answers and political responses to those answers.

Even the most seemingly immoral of questions can be virtuous in the right context. If we are asking “how would you exterminate the Jews?” but the broader context is not government policy but rather the war with the Third Reich, and attempting to figure out what they are up to in order to sabotage it, the question takes on a rather different character.

All of this gets at why we must not be dogmatic about distinguishing questions of fact with questions of morality. All questions of fact are asked because we believe there is some reason we ought to be asking them. All answers offered to such questions are essentially answers we believe people ought to believe. And all of this is always tied up in larger political and moral questions in a way that can never be separated in practice, even if they can be treated separately in theory.

The Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric of Dangerous Questions

The hermeneutic question is always answered by recourse to politics, ethics, and rhetoric. Politics, because we are only capable of knowing together and because what we think we know always has joint implications beyond the individual. Ethics, because to know together means being able to trust one another, and also because becoming authoritative in a field carries with it institutional force that can be abused, as well as many others reasons. Rhetoric, because ultimately knowledge and understanding boil down to conversation and persuasion. As David put this latter point, “we make a convincing case, that is all.”

David also described what is political in this process:

He asked, “What do you do with history?”

Without thinking, I blurted out, “I just ignore it,” which is true, in one sense because of my deep respect for the science of linguistics, but not quite right, again, out of a deep respect for post-modern philosophical currents. What I was getting after was the primary importance of community in interpretation, but I didn’t say as much, so the entire room burst into laughter. I tried salvaging my point, but, you know how these things go.

Emphasis added by me.

When post-modernists say that all knowledge occurs within a community of rhetoric, most modernists simply smell relativism or anti-realism and run screaming (sometimes to return with a mob and torches). But there’s nothing anti-realist about it at all; it’s simply a characteristic of our knowledge stemming by necessity from specialization and the sheer scope of how much is known collectively compared to what can be known individually.

This is why the ethics of it is tied inseparably to the politics of it. Specialization of knowledge requires trust; in this way faith undergirds modern science as much as pre-modern theology. Trust can be betrayed, as in the vice of infidelity. But trust can also be misplaced, as in the vice of imprudence—a vice in the one doing the trusting.

I have seen several people today pursuing volatile questions and believing it to be an act of courage. This is true, but I think they only see part of the picture. So far as I can tell, in their eyes the courage is required because of the risk of social sanctions. From my point of view, the courage is required not only for this narrowly prudent concern, but also because, as I said, there is a larger social risk involved in those questions.

If you believe they are none the less important questions, it takes courage to proceed. It is like attempting to cross an unreliable bridge over a deep valley, but with a group of people you care about following behind you, rather than alone. If the destination is important enough and the alternate paths too few or too far, it may still be worth the risk.

My criticism of impolitic arguments, therefore, is not an argument that volatile questions should never be asked. Instead, it is an argument that prudence matters here, and not just in the sense of narrow self-concern against social sanctions. But a broader prudence, one in which your connection to other people is acknowledged and the risks of your undertakings managed responsibly.

Which brings us to rhetoric.

Garett Jones, so often my explicit or implied interlocutor on these matters, indicates I’m supporting some kind of Noble Lie story:

I will say right now that I do not believe in Noble Lies. Garett offers a possible alternative:

There may be something to this.

Consider the example of the post in question: libertarians who simply insist that a single vote can’t sway a big election. What was I getting at by calling out this particular phenomena?

It seems to me troubling that so many Americans make the idea that a vote “makes a difference” so central to their faith in democracy. I actually happen to think democracy, and the one we’ve got, is among the best forms of governance we can hope for in this fallen world of ours. As such I would like to substitute this belief for a different story of the legitimacy of these institutions, something that would obviously take a great deal more space than I could devote to it here. One doesn’t have to agree with my prejudices in this regard to agree that we should seek to improve our politics rather than worsen them—whatever you might take that to mean.

Well, it seems to me that libertarians who hammer on this point about the margin of victory in elections have no interest in improving our politics. Many are quite proud of this fact. It’s not so much that I think this simple, mathematical fact of voting should not be made at all. It’s the context, the way they make it, that turns it into something intentionally volatile. They have found a vulnerability in people’s faith and gone for it for no other purpose than dispelling that faith, or perhaps feeling satisfied with being right. But if people in America lose faith in democracy entirely, the results are highly unlikely to be good for much of anyone. Libertarians included.

The rhetoric of negation is a poison of our times, levied by imprudent, spoiled children who do not realize how good they have it, and haven’t the courage or the patience to work towards actually addressing the very real problems that exist. The latter cannot be done if we reject authority entirely, because without trust in authoritative sources we cannot build the knowledge required to face any sufficiently challenging task.

To Salvage or to Sever

I don’t think Schelling points (Garett’s “Focal Points”) is exactly the right metaphor here, though they undoubtedly play a role. But communication and rhetoric are far too central to this. I have in mind something more like an attractor, similar but not the same as an equilibrium in comparative statics. A great deal of variation in politics, ethics, and rhetoric may be possible that still keeps us circling that specific attractor.

However, for some variations in politics, ethics, or rhetoric, we may get knocked off course from that attractor entirely, with no way back. If there’s another fairly similar one “nearby” this may be only a moderate change. But of course that’s not always the case. And the transition could be quite violent in any case.

Now, this sounds like a very conservative way of looking at things, I’m sure. But I’m not saying that revolution is categorically impermissible. I’m saying that we need to take responsibility for the implications of what we do and what we ask. It’s clear to me that the libertarians I criticize really believe that America’s political order is illegitimate and needs to be torn down and replaced. But if that is so, their life choices seem, to me, to be quite irresponsible—they continue to pay taxes and enjoy the benefits of that political order. If ethics demands revolutionary politics, perhaps they ought to behave a little less like every other conventionally middle class American and a little more like revolutionaries?

I think their revolutionary politics is misplaced, but I am more troubled by their willingness to erode the faith in what we have without doing much of anything to pave the way for anything better.

Garett’s example—the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon—was interesting to me, especially when compared to David’s post on Leviticus:

In secular universities, and those religious universities whose worldview is formed by Nineteenth Century Continental philosophy, the minimalist Documentary Hypothesis is still taught as de rigueur, a hypothesis which posits that the books of Moses, especially the Levitical material, were fabricated by a power-mongering priestly caste during the Judahite exile in Babylon during the Fifth Century BCE. I am under the impression that this hypothesis is presented as ironclad secular scholarship, i.e., the truth, when it is essentially the telos of the Sacramentarian movement which came to dominate Enlightenment Era religiosity.

Religious fundamentalism, deeply offended by this radical minimalism, developed a response which became reflexively maximalist, in defiance of all evidence (even internal evidence) to the contrary, namely that Moses wrote every jot and tiddle of his five scrolls somewhere between 1550 BCE and 1440 BCE, and never shall a true Christian vary from that view lest he deny the efficacy of the Word of God.

David speaks of fundamentalists, but in fact there are two. There are those for whom, as Garett said of the Mormons, to simply ask some volatile questions is a sign of apostasy. Perhaps even proof of it!

But then there are those whose dogmatic embrace of a cynical hermeneutics, a hermeneutic of suspicion, allows no other answer than that Leviticus was a cold, calculated Noble Lie.

David, a believer himself, nevertheless argues that we ought to proceed with an evidence-based approach. He defends, among other things, the use of the science of linguistics in order to attempt to “make a convincing case.”

To return to Memory and Reconciliation, it’s clear that the official of the Church believed that all the tools of the historian should be brought to bear in determining what wrongs were committed by the Church in the past:

What are the conditions for a correct interpretation of the past from the point of view of historical knowledge? To determine these, we must take account of the complexity of the relationship between the subject who interprets and the object from the past which is interpreted. First, their mutual extraneousness must be emphasized. Events or words of the past are, above all, “past.” As such they are not completely reducible to the framework of the present, but possess an objective density and complexity that prevent them from being ordered in a solely functional way for present interests. It is necessary, therefore, to approach them by means of an historical-critical investigation that aims at using all of the information available, with a view to a reconstruction of the environment, of the ways of thinking, of the conditions and the living dynamic in which those events and those words are placed, in order, in such a way, to ascertain the contents and the challenges that – precisely in their diversity – they propose to our present time.

It seems to me that the most hardy equilibriums of politics-ethics-rhetoric are capable of dealing with an enormous number of volatile questions without blowing themselves up. Secular people too often underestimate religion this way. Garett’s comments on Mormonism (which may very well suffer from the sort of fundamentalism that David encountered on the subject of Leviticus) put me in mind of a counter-example: the career of Lorenzo Valla.

Valla is most famous for proving that the Donation of Constantine was a fraud, something very politically inconvenient for the Vatican’s wordly aspirations. He was able to do so because of political cover from a king, it is true. And the regime of Pope Eugenius IV certainly made trouble for him, especially when he went on to question the provenance of the Apostles’ Creed.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church did not dissolve in the face of his inquiries, and in fact Eugenius IV’s successor actually appointed Valla as papal secretary. Moreover, the techniques employed by Valla were spread most widely, in the end, by Jesuit schools.

In those days the volatility of questions was able to be kept under control to some extent because of how easy it was to restrict who entered the conversation. Valla entered at a moment when Renaissance humanism suddenly expanded the number of participants, but ultimately the Church and other institutions adapted to this new reality.

The printing press resulted in a major break, and not on purpose, either. If Martin Luther’s 95 Theses hadn’t done the early printing press equivalent of going viral, it’s highly likely he would have simply lived his days as a fairly successful member of the Catholic Church. Restricted to a small circle of fellow scholars, his arguments were much less volatile than when they were made available to the public at large.

Restriction is obviously no longer a viable strategy, and both modern science and modern standards of living are possible because of the drastic reduction in such restrictions. So not only is restriction unavailable, it’s not something we should pursue even if it was available.

For that reason, the burden on our ethics is heavier than ever. Not only to be trustworthy and to have trust in others, but to have prudence in how we approach our questions and in the rhetoric of our answers, and to have the courage to pursue the inquiries and actions worth pursuing once we have appraised the dangers.

Great openness in our conversations requires greater responsibility from ever more people. I was once very optimistic about how this would play out; I am less so lately. But I will continue to argue for greater responsibility in this area, and I will do my best to show people that they can trust me to argue in good faith.

I would encourage you to do the same.

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Where Do the Virtues Come From?

stork_baby

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.”

Having let that discussion sit for some time, I’d like to return to it again, now that I have a more hermeneutic understanding of virtue.

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?”

From Sandel:

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.

And as with those examples, how we arrive at this understanding isn’t mysterious. Pay attention, live your life, read what other people have said on the subject, and use your judgment. Join the conversation; try to persuade but be open to being persuaded.

That is my understanding of what virtue is and how we come to understand it.

Edit: Found the original discussion mentioned in the first paragraph.

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.

 

Previous Posts in This Thread:

A World Without Trust

Imagine two worlds. In one, everyone keeps their promises, honors not only the letter but the spirit of agreements, and are broadly reliable and trustworthy. In the other, promises are just empty words, and people are as opportunistic and as spiteful as they impulsively desire to be in a given moment. Which people, from which world, do you think is more capable of accomplishing anything?

In the very first episode of the popular Netflix series House of Cards, the main character, Frank Underwood, has a promise to him broken. Underwood marvels at it because he didn’t think they were capable of it—he admires it in a way, as though breaking a promise was something hard, and keeping it was something easy. This kind of cheap imitation of Nietzschean cynicism is all about having a will to power which allows one to overcome conventional morality.

But the real accomplishment is not overcoming your own trustworthiness, but the fact that such a thing has enough weight that even cynics feel they must “overcome” it. There are many parts of the world where trust and trustworthiness are not the default outside of the close circle of family or clan. A society in which relative outsiders and strangers are able to make promises to each other and trust they will be kept is a tremendous accomplishment.

Whose accomplishment is it? Hard to say. But it certainly isn’t the accomplishment of any cynical would-be despot. If anyone deserves the credit, it is the countless millions of ordinary people, across many generations, who have strived to live decently and treat each other fairly.

The utter hell of a trustless world cannot really exist for long in this one. But we should thank those decent people who came before us, for putting as much distance between us and it as we’ve got.

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.

Previous Posts in Thread

Unifying Moral Philosophy With Virtue Ethics

One of the things that is apparent when you begin reading virtue ethicists is that they seem to find arguments that rely on pointing out consequences alone to be distasteful. You can see why someone like Deirdre McCloskey would take that tone, when she works in economics, that last stronghold of utilitarianism. But such arguments often provoke dismissal—“virtue would be nice in an ideal world, but down here on the ground we have to deal with practical concerns.”

The distaste for argument-by-consequences isn’t held by virtue ethicists alone of course; it is also characteristic of many schools of deontology. The intellectual descendants of Kant believe that you should do your duty just because it is your duty. Virtue ethicists, however, argue that mere rule-following is not all there is to ethics. Aristotle pointed out that the very particularity of circumstances made the possible combination of factors too great to boil down to general rules. Navigating such particularities requires lived experience, and the development of phronesis; practical wisdom, translated into latin as prudentia, which became the English word prudence.

Virtue ethics as I understand it takes the best of consequentialism and deontology and integrates them into a much more human framework. Prudence, in the older sense of broad practical wisdom, includes within it the more modern sense of prudence, which is concerned solely with consequences and interest. As Albert Hirschman argued, even our notion of “interest” used to be much broader than it is now. Broader even than so-called “enlightened” self-interest which takes the long term into account, as opposed to myopic self-interest which is merely opportunistic. Given the unity of the virtues, a virtue ethicist ought to hold that consequences do in fact matter, they are just not all that matters.

Among the original cardinal virtues, and Aquinas’ famous seven, is justice; the virtue of always giving what is due. This seems to me to be the virtue of recognizing and acting on principles that have deontic authority—that is, the virtue of performing our duties. McCloskey’s recent paper on institutions has a good treatment on such deontic principles, which she argues are conjective in nature. Being able to distinguish the deontic from the merely suggested is, I think, also an important part of (the older sense of) prudence.

But why should anyone care about either consequences or duty? At bottom our desires and our reasons, no matter how seemingly rational, are grounded by some sort of faith. Some basic things we take for granted or hold dear to us, some things that cannot be rationally justified because they are themselves the basis of your justifications.

Prudence, justice, faith, courage, temperance, charity, and hope—ingredients for a meaningful life, for being the sort of person you can look in the mirror without shame. While seeing the wisdom in the accomplishments of consequentialist and deontologist thinkers, I believe that virtue ethics provides the best framework for grounding and making the best use of those accomplishments.