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.

pickupartist

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Virtue After Abundance

Our sense of virtue evolved in the context of groups living under immense scarcity. Consider the virtue that one shouldn’t be overly self-indulgent (because resources must be rationed). Or the suggestions against taking on debts (r > g for foragers, so borrow wisely). Even honor, that most sacred virtue, seems to work particularly well in environments where “a man’s resources can be thieved in full.”

How should, say, “hedonistic self-gratification” look to a sensibility sculpted by absence? More than a vice, for our ancestors it was solipsistic to the point of immorality. Today still, commentators from religious conservatives to anti-consumerist liberals continue to treat hedonism as an anti-virtue despite economic abundance. Even among the strongest followers of self-gratification, there is a self-awareness that something about hedonism is at least figuratively satanic.

Of course, our virtues and vices needn’t be connected to the facts on the ground of the contemporary environment to be things we still hold valuable. In this sense, modern civilization made all values vestigial and many of them, like the scarcity mindset, potentially maladaptive. At the very least, many of our past vices have lost their edge. Character flaws once thought immoral are now deserving of respect.scarcityCleanliness is next to Godliness” is my favorite example of a virtue as opposed to moral act, in particular for how ubiquitous it is in theology. “Be clean” and “Don’t kill” are both statements of value however hygiene is self-directed while murder is directed at inter-relations between selves. For religious fundamentalists there’s no distinction between virtues and morals, so they happily label homosexuality, masturbation, drug use, blasphemy and so on as equally sinful and dirty.

There are some immediate political implications of this realization (beyond re-branding the “moral majority” the “virtuous majority”). For instance, in this light the Straussian critique of liberalism as leading towards nihilism had it backwards: abundance enabled classical liberalism to enshrine individualism and laws that strive only to abridge human freedom in order to correct interpersonal harms, not individual character flaws or poor showering technique.

Of course, “no man is an island” is still true. There are many personal vices that are apt to spill over into the public domain, which ponces may want to regulate to varying degrees. I could only support this if personal values were not directly imposed on others (piety may be virtuous, but forcing others to be pious is theocratic).

Liberals since Mill and Bentham generally opposed regulating virtue. They said: ingest, do, believe and feel what you will as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to do the same. Yet they never said “murder, slander, vandalize” because these are decidedly inter-personally moral in nature.

Our psychology may be social, but the largest unit of psychological consideration is still an individual’s mind – the subject in subjective. Communitarian political systems and puritanical societies aren’t immoral a priori. It all depends on the sincerity of the citizens, how institutionalized the values are, and the nature of transaction cost. If you live in a Buddhist commune but your favorite book is The Virtue of Selfishness, it only becomes illiberal when you’re not permitted to leave.

Meanwhile, the five best scarcity-mindset coping mechanisms according to this psychologist read like they were written by an ancient stoic. Go figure.

A great conversation about this post is happening on Reddit here. This post, and Sweet Talk itself, is about creating conversations, so I’m highly grateful for all the constructive engagement. 

 

Qualms beget alms

Does the average person need “engagement with complex ethical theories” to be a good person? This is the type of question that keeps weirdos like me and Adam up at night. In order to reply to Adam’s query I need to call upon an expert witness, Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Question of Motive. The key excerpt is in audio form here:

Schopenhauer asks us to imagine two young men, Caius and Titus, each passionately in love, each with a different girl, each thwarted by more favored rivals. Both resolve to kill the rival that stands in their way, “but when they come to actually prepare for the murder, each of them, after an inward struggle, draws back. They are now to give us a truthful and clear account of the reasons why they abandoned their project.”

For Caius, we are given a menu of explanations from which to choose, each representing a famous “complex ethical theory” from the history of moral philosophy. Perhaps Caius says,

I reflected that the principle I was going to apply in this case would not be adapted to provide a rule universally valid for all possible rational beings; because I should have treated my rival only as a means, and not at the same time as an end.” Or, following Fichte, he may deliver himself as follows: “Every human life is a means towards realising the moral law; consequently, I cannot, without being indifferent to this realisation, destroy a being ordained to do his part in effecting it. …

For Titus, the situation is different. Indeed, it’s not even possible to tell if he’s ever been acquainted with a “complex ethical theory” of any stripe. Thus spoke Titus:

When I came to make arrangements for the work, and so, for the moment, had to occupy myself not with my own passion, but with my rival; then for the first time I saw clearly what was going to happen to him. But simultaneously I was seized with compassion and pity; sorrow for him laid hold upon me, and overmastered me: I could not strike the blow.

Now Schopenhauer:

I ask every honest and unprejudiced reader: Which of these two is the better man? To which would he prefer to entrust his own destiny? Which is restrained by the purer motive? Consequently, where does the basis of morality lie?

I know how I answer. Titus embodies an indelible moral character, motivated purely by compassion, while Caius comes off as an amoral keener who could be persuaded back to murder by a particularly convincing footnote refutation. The basis of behaving morally, then, lies not in any philosophical treatise or divine command, but by cultivating our moral sense. Qualms beget alms.

This doesn’t eliminate the value of philosophy per se, but should definitely feed into how one sets their priorities. At the very least, any person who concentrates on living a life of compassion will run ethical laps around the man of manuscript, who is just as liable to become tricked by the latest sophist as he is to discover the first and only Grand Unified Theory of not being a dick.

In addition to the comments we receive below, there is some lively conversation taking place on Reddit connected to this post that can be found here.

Beauty grows on trees

I just recently returned from France to my home in Atlantic Canada. It was my first time in the country, and I was glad to have spent it within the lush, rolling pastures of Normandy, made famous through the artwork of impressionist par excellence, Claude Monet, during his years in Giverny, long before the Allied liberation I was there to commemorate.

Impressionism happens to be one of my favourite genres of art due its resonance with my philosophical appreciation for David Hume. Hume believed that our aesthetic standards, much like our moral ones, derive from inner sentiments that project approbations on our “sensory impressions”.  The snap-shot framing common in impressionism even mirrors Hume’s empiricism, with each short, thick brush stroke as a ray of light, a sense datum within our kaleidoscopic perception.

Tree-in-Flower-near-Vetheuil

Beauty, Hume maintained, does not realize itself by ideas, but by a conformity between the object and our inner sense. As he wrote in the Standards of Taste, “beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.” That “nature” we know to be biological evolution, which cross cultural surveys suggest has predisposed us to relish, among other things, the sight of an evergreen landscape, presumably for its signal of hydration and plenty.

Beauty, then, really does grow on trees. But how do we reconcile this with Adam’s point in his discussion with David that all art is a conversation which necessarily requires a group with shared concepts and ideas?

The difference lies in the distinction between aesthetics on the one hand and art on the other, a distinction that leads to an abyss of confusion if not addressed head on. The late David Best gives an excellent example of this in his 1985 book, Feeling and Reason in the Arts. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language, Best sees art, unlike aesthetics, as a type of language game, whereby “individual creativity depends upon the existence and grasp of a social practice.” A philosopher of rhythm and movement, he gives the following excellent example, which I’ve pulled from this review:

Some years ago I was privileged to attend a performance by Ram Gopal, the great Indian classical dancer, and I was quite captivated by the exhilarating and exquisite quality of his movements. Yet I was unable to appreciate his dance artistically since I could not understand it. For instance, there is a great and varied range of subtle hand gestures in Indian classical dance, each with a quite precise meaning, of which I knew none. It is clear that my appreciation was aesthetic, not artistic.

This formulation isn’t only applicable to humans. If you’re ambitious, try to imagine the wonderful aesthetic sensations honey bees must experience upon receiving the ultraviolet sense impressions of a pollen laden Golden crocus, before returning to the hive, and transmitting said beauty through the artistic medium of the waggle dance.  While the sentiment produced by the flower may be immediate and personal, the dance only works to communicate because each specie of bee has a genetic understanding of their particular waggle dance rules.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

So in some sense David and Adam are both right. Adam is right that art can never be a private affair — it, by its very nature, is a social practice. Yet David wasn’t deluded when he reported experiencing aesthetic delight upon his introduction to anime, because the latter feeds up into the former. For without that shared evolutionary heritage, the conversation could never begin.


I’m Samuel by the way, and am pleased to be joining the Sweet Talk team. You can follow me on twitter @hamandcheese and I run an independent blog called Abstract Minutiae, where I try to bridge the conceptually near and far from using the ideas of Quine and Hayek. I’m also an economics student, commencing my MA in the fall. Cheers.

 

Man is born free and poor

… and Matt Bruenig wants us to stay that way.

Adam Gurri asks:

Is a “no” from a private property owner truly different in kind than a “no” from a government official? Why?

But before we get an answer, first we have a digression …

I think of man’s nature as a fixed constant, and our cultural institutions a multiplier. The multiplier can be positive or fractional, but not negative.

The fixed constant of man’s nature is the amount of wealth and prosperity that a man could produce living entirely on his own, free from trade but also free from banditry. He has complete control over his own consumption and savings rate, and is totally free to decide for himself whether to accumulate capital or eat all the corn. 

Make no mistake – this is not a romantic view. The above life would consist of hunting and gathering, with maybe a bit of subsistence farming (at best), and guarantee grinding, inescapable poverty by any modern standard. But at least you don’t have to worry about Matt Bruenig grabbing all your fresh-picked strawberries while you’re not looking.

Of course we live in a much wealthier society than the one described above. Our current institutions are a very large multiplier. And key among those institutions is private property. I won’t spend any time defending that thesis, others have done so ably and I’d be preaching to the choir on this blog anyway.

So to answer Adam’s question: I don’t care to distinguish private and public “No”s. For one thing, private property isn’t just enforced by the shopkeeper; the fuzz have his back. “Private” property is a publicly enforced “No”. Even the ability to say “No” to having your person touched against your consent is also publicly protected by laws against assault, and the affirmative defense of self-defense against criminal charges. Almost every “No” we have is some mix of private action and public support, with the exceptions proving the rule. Our institutions are greater than the sum of their parts, and we make case by case decisions as to whether to entrust a certain kind of decision to the public or the G-men based on whether it moves the multiplier up or down.

So to conclude, I agree with Matt Bruenig that the private “No” is harsh, but I strongly disagree that this leads us away from our current arrangements. A “Grab what you can society” would be far worse than the one we have. All his ideas do is reinforce in me why charity is a virtue. It is our duty to give what we can afford when others are in need, but is our right to decide what we can afford – a right enforced by law. This is the arrangement that maximizes our humanity, as it also creates great prosperity that can be shared.