The essential heresy of freedom

It is thus tolerance that is the source of peace, and intolerance that is the source of disorder and squabbling.

Pierre Bayle

In the history of human civilization, no large society has ever come close to achieving consensus, be it on values, life styles, or standards of taste. Yet there have been many that have tried. Today, they are known as theocracies.

By theocracy I do not mean a strict religious society, at least not in the usual sense of religious. Rather, I define theocracy as any society with a strong commitment to moral and political perfectionism. Perfectionism is a term that refers to any attempt to prescribe a theory of what constitutes “the good life,” as it was known by Aristotle. Perfectionism comes in many shapes and sizes, from suppression of so-called sexual deviants, to the soft paternalism of Michael Bloomberg.

Classical liberalism is in essence the repudiation of perfectionism. That’s why advocates of “libertarian paternalism” are still properly understood as illiberal even though they abstain from direct coercion. When policy has the aim of shaping our lives based on a bystander’s substantive theory of how one ought to live, be it who to love or how much soda to drink, it runs the principle of liberal neutrality through the shredder.

Liberal neutrality is essential for ensuring legitimate laws don’t discriminate against adherents with irreconcilable conceptions of the good life. This does not mean liberal neutrality is itself value neutral, in the sense of amoral. Rather, liberal neutrality is better thought of as embodying a Paretian or win-win standard—a norm which transcends the depths of human particularity—and in turn makes classical liberal constitutions minimally controversial. As Joseph Heath puts it:

The normative intuition underlying the Pareto standard is essentially contractual. Pareto improvements are changes that no one has any reason to reject. Making these improvements therefore means making some people better off, under conditions that everyone can accept. Recalling that the purpose of these normative standards is to permit cooperation, efficiency as a value permits social integration while requiring very little in the way of consensus about basic questions of value.

The alternative is a world with perpetual unanimity around inscrutable disputes, and the imperative that any deviation in the form of dissent be crushed. In that sense, free expression in theocracies is despised not due to the particular content of the speech, but due to the subversiveness embodied in the volitional act itself—what G.L.S. Shackle referred to as the “cause uncaused.”

This is why striving for perfect consensus around the good life leads invariably to moral and cultural stagnation. Without a “cause uncaused” the pursuit of happiness comes to resemble seminary. Theocracies are like a static equilibrium, a Walrasian box from which there’s no escape. That includes Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also the Stalinist regimes of Cuba and North Korea which, without irony, enforce their impoverished status quo by banning unsolicited expression as “counter-revolutionary.”

New ideas are transmitted by equally novel acts of speech. When speech is unbounded and permissionless, new ideas can diffuse, ear by ear, through the rest of society, disrupting a closed system from within. Take the free thinking Athens of ancient Greece, and then contrast it with its monolithic and Spartan neighbor. One fostered innovations in philosophy, mathematics, science, arts and culture.  The other is synonymous with militarized asceticism, and a laconic rationing of thought.

Freedom of thought and life-pursuit are therefore engines of creative destruction as well as inescapably heretic. Today, however, we are forgetting how tightly the two roles are entwined. We desire the benefits of a flourishing society without exposure to words and concepts that challenge our eudaemonic preconceptions.

That’s why the Enlightenment concept of toleration did not require one man or woman to endorse the views of another. On the contrary, classical liberals defended free expression as a matter of mutual respect, not mutual acceptance. Toleration contains the seeds of disagreement and argumentation, and doesn’t sacrifice human flourishing for false consensus.

Modern proponents of universal acceptance have a natural affinity with traditional theocrats. Both prove themselves by their piety to an immutable creed, conveyed through zealous displays of righteousness. And both endeavor to inquisition any who depart from the flock.

The culture war demonstrates how much the ink on our Paretian contract has faded. But if traditional theocrats continue in their attempts to regulate virtue they cannot justly complain when proponents of universal acceptance force them to acquiesce in other settings, and vice versa. Defection from liberal neutrality opens a perfectionist Pandora’s Box that cuts in both directions.

There is no way around it. The essential heresy of freedom means we either live with imperfection or all burn at the stake.

burned at the stake

( PS: This is apparently Sweet Talk’s 500th post. Here’s to 500 more. )


A Calculus for Human Existence

I think we’ve got a basic mathematics for existence; probably also an algebra. I would imagine that the last few centuries have developed a healthy trigonometry for existence; wherefore I posit that most of the debate and paper writing today is working out the finer points of bodies in stasis. Bodies in state, if you will: how a society functions within a state, how individuals function within institutions, usw. Here’s angle x, here’s cosine a, solve for marriage.

Doesn’t it just want to make you give up, though? No one else is depressed by all the charts and misapplied time series, as though human and societal processes are linear on an x/y graph? Oh, I suppose there’s logarithms ‘n such: they curve infinitely.

A euvoluntary exchange, however, with the express goals of arete and eudaimonia, requires exchange. When it comes to growth and progress, euvoluntary puts the change in exchange (heh: nice one, Dave, but don’t quit any of your day jobs).

We are bodies in motion, with elements of life we consider stasis going out of its way to demonstrate the same. Even if there were such a thing as stasis, it would be The Void, which speaks loudly, in fact, that all the charting and graphing is doomed to revolutionary forces, if not the sun blinking out.

I wonder: is storytelling the calculus for human existence? I don’t think so, not unless storytelling can somehow be described as a mathematical application seeking to predict where bodies in motion might be, given certain infinitesimals, and where they are right now, seeing as how we are never right here right now, except in one or two certain cases, battle being the one.


Is character a public good?

Character is certainly a private good. A lady, gentleman, or other of good character is a blessing to the home; a stalwart friend in times of need; a charitable neighbor upon whom to lean when the waves crash and the wind slashes. Persons of good character are felicitous, virtuous, splendid folk, a boon to the community.

But unless extremely unlikely events collude to test the very fabric of the nation, it is challenging to admit of circumstances in which distant people can reap the benefits of character from afar. My eudaimonia is greater for the character of my neighbors, but hardly budges at all for the character of the citizens of Cincinnati.

To a point anyway. Truly bad character that spills into wide-reaching vice, into broadly-distributed criminal enterprises saps and impurifies my precious peaceful existence, corrodes the tranquility of my domicile. At a minimum level, to an obvious (if not entirely easy to define) point, there is a public interest in sowing and tending the public garden from which character blossoms.

There is a public element to primary education. But it is likely that this element is grossly oversold. Good manners, good citizenship can be learned on the playground, and the case for the public funding (to say nothing of the public provision) of education weakens the closer the student gets to the conditions needed to achieve the self-sufficient pursuit of eudaimonia.

If you are a parent, consider carefully how you help your children achieve greatness of character.

That’s Right, Senator: Buffers

Elizabeth Bruenig wrote some nice things about our very own Adam Gurri at The Week, revisiting some of the hoo-ha at BHL last week. The question she asks, however, begs the question. Policy-wise, “What [should Libertarians, were they in power] do about poor children?” Well, that’s an awfully big a priori, there, with some straight lines drawn straight through some rather opaque boundaries, not the least of which is family.

She cites Rand Paul’s dancing around the issue, like a good politician should, when tackling the issue of unwed motherhood under state support. The aspiring presidential candidate advocated for absolutely no change in the status quo while sounding some boilerplate Libertarian guff. “…[W]e have to get that message through…” he says. Who’s “we,” kemosabe? (apologies to Bill Cosby). The problem of unwed mothers perpetuating poverty by essentially making themselves open wombs for whatever reason is not going to have a solution which an undefined or (as the case has been) over-defined “we” can accomplish for her.

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

See, we daydream, I think, about finally resolving the problem of poverty, of seeing the poor lifted up and out of poverty, especially when we define poverty as the absence of the pursuit of eudaimonia or arete. In a just society (important qualifier), however, the power to influence the lives of poor people for their own good is not in power structures, but in family structures. Willi Cicci was trying to explain this to the senator, but he didn’t have the vocabulary to pull it off, as Michael Corleone, also, ultimately failed in doing with his own wife–because he was evil, as she correctly evaluates. The point is made, even though the movie is about a descent into evil: there’s nothing the state can do to break the power of a structure which is not about power. It was Kay who attenuated the evil of Michael Corleone, not the federal government. Babies, you see, are going to keep being born, regardless of state policies. Poverty and wealth are existential realities which may or may not persevere for any amount of time, but babies keep pushing us forward. In other words, as posterity unfolds, likewise poverty and wealth.

The state, on the other hand, can foster the flourishing of family structures, mostly by keeping its fat fingers out of the family pie, and by keeping injustice from spoiling the pie. That, I think, is difficult enough. To feed poor people?

Meta-Judging at the County Fair

Once the boys’ wristbands were secured in a euvoluntary exchange at the ticket booth, I sat myself down in a sunny corner of the midway to do what I love most about going to the fair: judging.

The rabbits are particularly handsome this year, probably because of cooler weather. Lambs, goats, roosters, the same, but not the hens: they leave something to be desired. The pigs have a disease; the only ones here are to be auctioned off, and they cannot return to the farm. In the 4-H expo hall, someone has a strawberry-rhubarb jam that is out-of-this world. The County Fair is beautiful this way: so many blue ribbons heralding the arrival of the judging.

Judging isn’t easy; with each variety there are myriad criteria to good judging: tattoos, their placement, number, and artistic value; piercings, placement, number, and value; weight and muscle tone; t-shirt, advice and advertisement; children, harnessed, free, sugar-crazed, polite, excited, crying, laughing, bewildered, carried; facial expression, pleasant, unpleasant; teeth (one lovely Seneca Nation young lady was missing an incisor); skin color (the most magnificent African American man sauntered by, skin as black as India ink, tall, fat, the spitting image of Charles Mingus wearing whiskers in the style of a 17th Century Dutch pirate); hair, dyed, braided, combed, cut, dreadlocks, shaven, mohawk; clothing, tight, too tight, way too tight, loose-fitting, comfortable, too loose, whoa that’s awesome; comportment.


Now, comportment is a kind of sum-of-the-parts judgment, how a specimen might carry himself or herself. Audacious tattoos on the belly? Well, does she have the panache to pull it off while she licks cotton candy off her fingers, one-by-one? Lobes stretched? Indeed, but does his baby boy like to play with them while he argues with the carney about the circumference of the basketball rim?

As you can see, judging at the County Fair is not for the inexperienced or kind-hearted. We judge from experience, knowing that the deviation from appearance to lifestyle is minimal, almost background noise. Nevertheless, a good judge simplifies: I wonder if that person is happy? And, would I be happy as that person? The County Fair brings all kinds out into a common biosphere, surrounded by a fence and the bubble of the heavens. Here we all are. Are we eudaimoniac? I found myself envious of about a quarter of the specimens presenting themselves, and probably less happy than another quarter. That makes me as happy or happier than about half of the other specimens. Not a blue ribbon, but a respectable showing.

I was tired from judging after a while, and it is good for a judge, in order to recreate, to find the biggest, bestest, best-cooked bratwurst to be found east of Chicago, with a little hot mustard and (for this judge) a smidgen of ketchup, atop a healthy bed of sauerkraut within a sizable bun, with a pop. I’m not sure the exchange could be called euvoluntary because the price, at $7.50, was a steal. I settled into a bench under a shade, tucked into my bratwurst, and lifted my eyes, and behold! a judge.

It was too late for her: I had her espied, a half a league hence, from behind the mist of an exterior siding company’s expo booth, through a sea of people. She was not checking me out. Indeed, not, I was cramming my fat gob with a gigantic sausage. No, she was judging me. She wonders if I am happy. Could she be happy as me?

The boys were exhausted, and my tummy was full, so we departed the County Fair by way of the equestrian competition. Glorious creatures, horses and riders, and so I judge.

The Virtue of Pickup Artists

In a recent discussion on whether moral philosophy can be useful, redditor Minutenewt had the following to say:

Do you wish to get rich? Do you wish to obtain the best looking women? Do you wish to lead a life of indolence punctuated by greed and rapacity? Then no, moral philosophy will only hold you back.

I think this gets it backwards. In my experience, my most successful friends are also some of the kindest and most conscientious people I know. Meanwhile, my loser friends take flagrant short cuts, and seem willing to expend all their social capital on short-term gains.

That’s not a successful strategy for the 21st century economy, where reputation sticks, and automation is driving up the premia on humanity’s remaining comparative advantage: sociability. Likewise, in the mating market, women seem to value confidence and extroversion, not being an anti-social jerk contrary to popular wisdom.

Take the writer Neil Strauss as a case study. To be perfectly clear, Strauss is a bald, nerdy looking guy who, when he laughs, makes weird chortle noises through his nose. Nonetheless, he is also an expert “pickup artist,” and author of The Game.

Now, while The Game was destined to become a kind of bible for rapacious creeps, I think of Neil Strauss as being in some sense maximally virtuous. That is, he uses an applied understanding of human nature and a high degree of meta-rationality to calibrate virtuous behaviours (self control, discipline, courage) toward — at least one definition of — flourishing.

You may not like his aims, but in the abstract Strauss is simply an expert in human persuasion. He picks up women by using euvoluntary techniques that make the women in question want to pick up him:

If there was anything I’d learned, it’s that the man never chooses the woman. All he can do is give her an opportunity to choose him.

Ethical argumentation works on the same principal. As Hume showed, prescriptive rhetoric lacks access to an ultimate “moral ought” to give itself foundation. And yet, it still has sway over human action. This can only be because effective arguments hit on the right moral aesthetics, encouraging a shift in perspective and motivation.

As further evidence that Strauss is a virtue ethicist in disguise, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast he was asked to name the one book he loves so much that he gives copies away. His response: On the Shortness of Life by the infamous stoic Seneca the Younger. What does stoicism have to do with picking up women? Evidently, quite a lot.


Continue reading “The Virtue of Pickup Artists”

8 Sweet Ways to Achieve Eudaimonia

In an effort to boost our page views with pleasure to the reader, and now that the fever has passed (thanks to Spivonomist’s cool, damp, washcloth), I thought I’d celebrate by transmogrifying Sweet Talk into Sweet Buzz. Lists are cool because, you know, reading. If I had some real wherewithal, I’d conjure up some animated GIFs to squeeze out some extra lulz. But without further ado, here’s how you can achieve eudaimonia. Continue reading “8 Sweet Ways to Achieve Eudaimonia”

The Diminishing Marginal Utility of Navel-Polishing

Double D forwards an Aristotelian lament: ‘I would like to be able to improve my ability to apply what I’m learning from the Sweet Talk folks.”

In other words, what good is theory without practice, what good is #phronesis without #eudaimonia, what good is armchair philosophy? How long shall I pick the fluff of justice out of my bellybutton before I cowboy up and act with honor, courage, temperance, wisdom, and professionalism in the world of hockey fights, subway frotteurism, and militarized police?

Boy oh boy, what I wouldn’t give for a nice little nostrum, an inspiring bit of practical advice for the ordinary citizen looking to scale the summit of Maslow’s pyramid. 

I have no such advice. Moreover, it would be presumptuous of me to offer any. Virtue is personal and subjective. This isn’t to say that anything goes, but rather that on the margin, it cannot be up to me to tell you whether you’re acting harmoniously, in accordance with the highest virtues, or if you will be remembered for your good deeds. The voyage towards #arete is mere tourism if you let someone else grip your tiller (lol).

You’re right, David. There are diminishing returns to introspection. But there is some heavy mind lifting to be done in translating the virtue ethics into the applications of economics and the topsy-turvy world of abundance that would have flabbered the gast of Plato and Aristotle. Thank you for helping with that, my friends.

Is Philosophy Necessary for the Good Life?

Like many of my fellow Sweet Talkers, I’ve got an interest in philosophy, and especially ethics. But as interested as I’ve found it to be, the more I read, the more I have this nagging question:

Is philosophy necessary for a good and virtuous life? If so, then must we write off all of humanity as incapable of achieving the good life, save for the tiny sliver of those that engage in philosophy (never mind getting particular about which philosophy). If not, then what is the purpose of a philosophy of morality in the first place?

In the preface to Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum writes:

Like Socrates, I think that modern democracies need philosophy, if they are to realize their potential. And they not only need Socratic inquiry and self-examination, they also need engagement with complex ethical theories, prominently including theories of social justice.

If democracy’s potential requires the median voter to have “engagement with complex ethical theories”, then democracy is doomed to never fulfill its potential. Forgive me if that is excessively cynical.

But if philosophy and complex ethical theories are not to play the role that Nussbaum envisions, what role are they to play, if any?

Whence Irrationality?

Spivonomist acknowledges our ship is overcome by a fogbank, declaring, “I irrationally want people to act well of their own accord, to work towards developing excellence in themselves and within their communities without having to be bribed.” We battle-weary sailors are grateful to find our feet upon terra firma, and as soon as our sea-legs can carry us to the saloon, we commence the battle to forget our misery.

One of our crew stumbles to his next stop, and she snares him, saying, “Hello, sailor, I will love you a long time.” She is appealing to his strength, namely that a man who has been, until moments ago, interminably upon the swells, and is now soused, should need a long time for love, that is, if he can, indeed, love. They agree upon a contract for the archetypical euvoluntary exchange, and he goes into her home, emerging after ten minutes of ecstasy, now short a few drachmas and the last few fragments of his soul.

Virtue Ethics is seductive because it appeals to our strength. We sailors heady for the fray damn the torpedoes and the raging seas for a time, but soon we find ourselves under the command of a mysterious captain who is searching, ever searching, ever pursuing eudaimonia, when, all along, she is found ashore, near the saloon. If, indeed, we can love, we cannot love for a long time because we have participated in evil against our best desires, which torments us to exhaustion. A sailor can then acquire eudaimonia for a price, but makarismos is bestowed upon the weak. Not upon the evil-doers, to be sure, but to those whose battle against the seas has overcome them to the extent that they cannot even mutiny against the evil they so much despise. A wise man waits quietly for the wheel of justice to do its grinding.

The logic works, doesn’t it? Even if it’s irrational: with the bestowal of makarismos we are strengthened to raise up our heads, renewed to pursue eudaimonia into the darkest seas and in the darkness of the seashore.