The Truth Shall Set You Free

A moment of blessed peace at long last. This location seems secure, and I have enough food and water to last a couple of weeks. This old computer looks like it’ll last long enough to get this down, and there’s actually a working dot-matrix printer in here, so I’ll be able to make a hard copy for after the generator kicks the bucket. Small favors, I suppose.

My name is Sam Wilson, and I survived the financial crash of 2008.

As you might expect, “survived” is a generous way of putting it. I was just lucky enough to on the ground out of the blast zone and just agile enough to get to a stocked 50s-era fallout shelter to wait out the burning snow that fell for what seemed like months after. Since then, I’ve spent most of my time off-horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, fishing where I can and raiding abandoned coastal towns under the cover of darkness. It ain’t exactly glamourous living, but it’s living. At least it was till I cracked my keel last October and had to bumble to shore in a leaky emergency zodiac. Since then, I’ve been busy dodging bandit gangs and the local “governments.” I have to admit that if it weren’t for the blue serge and matching caps, I’d have a hard time telling the difference. So at least there’s a little consistency in the world, eh?

Don’t get me wrong. There are still good people out there. Fine people. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them, or one of their descendants. You probably work the little good soil that remains, or haul in the small fish not made poison by the radioactive sea. Maybe you got nabbed by a press gang and you’re biding your time till you can make a break for it. Whatever the case may be, you deserve the right to know why you live in the world as she is and not in some alternate universe where the fields are still green and the cows don’t bleed orange.

I recall that it was early October. The United States still existed, and George W. Bush was her final President. A minor blip in long-term interest rates exposed some pretty serious problems with the way big-time bankers had been trading debt. An otherwise-minor rash of home foreclosures exposed a staggering amount of junk debt held by some pretty immense institutions. AIG alone was worth more at its peak than the whole of the Republic of Arkansas at the time I write this.

You know what the funny thing was? The funny thing was that they could have done something at the time. I remember the news reports that the Senate had drafted up an emergency bill that would have lent the few hundred billion dollars the big banks needed to stay afloat just long enough for them to clean house and get back on their feet. Damn thing never even got out of committee. Hell of a time for American governance to have a crisis of conscience if you ask me.

Do you know how a bullet works? At the business end, there’s a little projectile made of lead and usually jacketed in copper. Behind that is a charge of gunpowder. Behind the gunpowder is a wee little primer charge that explodes when you hit it with percussive force. Holding it all in place is a brass casing. The financial crisis was the gunpowder detonating, the trigger-pull was the mild drop in 30-year yields, but the primer charge was… well, for lack of a better term, it was broken kayfabe.

Kayfabe, for those of you too young to remember pro wrestling, is the carny’s art of peddling pleasant lies to the punters. It’s a shared fantasy. “Heels” pretend to be villains they’re not, and “Faces” pretend to be heroes as they cynically bilk the audience with staged fights and campy antics. And the audiences ate it up! Of course, when it was a bunch of entertainers doing it, you can take it or leave it. No one ever forced you to watch Hulk Hogan grip The Iron Sheik in his sweaty thighs. If it wasn’t your thing, you could just as easily go watch General Hospital or bake a cake, or take a flying leap off a short catwalk if that’s your thing. But politics? That’s a different kettle of herring. If you don’t buy into the kayfabe of politics, if you turn your back on the show, the show won’t turn its back on you. The costs of not maintaining the shared illusion are, well, look around you. Those shattered cities you can’t walk into? That’s what happens when you break political kayfabe, when you reject the lies that make the system work.

And that’s what folks started to do. It wasn’t the same old, same old, “he broke his campaign promises” kind of deal. We get that every election cycle. It was more a matter of, “they cannot possibly keep their campaign promises.” And you know the damndest thing? It happened in-camp. Partisan footsoldiers on both sides dropped their guidons. No one went to the caucuses or the primaries. The Democratic and Republican National Conventions were held in a guest room at the Philadelphia Best Western and the Fresno Arby’s, respectively. The viewership for the debates was statistically indistinguishable from zero. The American public would brook no more lies.

And it was the big lies just as surely as the little lies. Everyone already kind of knew that the President had next to nothing to do with the price of gas or the unemployment rate. Everyone already had a hunch that all the “getting America back to work” jargon was just rhetoric for protecting moneyed interests. Everyone already suspected that appeals to patriotism were cynical power grabs. But never before in US history had the public just thrown in the towel wholesale and refused to, say, accept that the local police had any legitimate authority, or that school boards could rightfully enforce truancy statutes. At the time, people still acknowledged a duty to the standing ordinances of civilization (don’t kill without cause, don’t steal, &c), but they withdrew their faith from all those government institutions. Employers kept their premises safe because they wanted healthy, happy employees, not because OSHA threatened to fine them. IRS agents were chased away at gunpoint… everywhere.

So when the financial crisis hit, it sort of followed that folks withdrew their faith from the Federal Reserve Note. “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private” rang hollow once all those private debts began to hollow out the already-thin reserves dusting the vault shelves. When the 2009 bank run happened, it wasn’t a pell-mell tilt to withdraw deposits, it was a run on metal. Those who could, rewrote contracts against gold or silver. Those who couldn’t (those with international shipping contracts, for example) were stuck with piles of irredeemable green paper. A lot of people were out a lot of fruitful exchange opportunities, but foreign trading partners were out the worst. And wasn’t it just our rotten luck that one of our stiffed partner’s finger just happened to be near that big, red, shiny, candy-like button?

We perished in atomic fire. All because we forgot that the lies are the system.

We forgot that we needed to pretend that prices have some solid, objective meaning. We forgot to pretend that obedience to law, capricious and idiotic though it may be, is what makes enforcement agents’ jobs tractable. We forgot to kid ourselves into thinking that trust and trustworthiness are somehow linked. We forgot to believe that the rules of society, despite being arbitrary historical artifacts, kept alive though custom and selective, intentional ignorance, are completely indispensable for institutional and social continuity.

We forgot to lie. We forgot to lie to each other, and we forgot to lie to ourselves. And the world burned because of it. The truth set us free. It set us free to loot, to pillage, to grab whatever we could carry. We dropped the thin civilizing lie that we have a sacrosanct duty to each other, that there was a “we” at all. We torched our saints, made hamburger of our sacred cows, chucked everything into the shitter apart from a ruthless, monomaniacal dedication to ourselves and ourselves alone.

And now our cities lie in radioactive dust.

My advice to anyone who finds this? Rediscover myth. Rediscover glamour. Rediscover the joy of the shared lie. Trust even when you have nothing but the fleeting flicker of hope. Love the hardest when you are unloved. Tell stories. Believe against the evidence of your senses. The alternatives? Well, on the bright side, you have nowhere to go but up.

Good luck, and may whatever God rises from the ashes of our fallen civilization bless you.


Community and Diffusion: Two Ways of Thinking About Influence

James Buchanan won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on specifying models of good government. He was a relentless champion of the power of constitutions to constrain the ambitions of the sovereign. I would desperately like to agree with him, but I have a difficult time accepting the proposition that the US Constitution acts as a hard behavioral constraint at all. What would I substitute in its place? What tools do we have to ensure good governance? Well, when I come up with a slam-dunk plan, I’ll post it here first so that we can get all that sweet Web traffic in advance of my own Nobel Committee recognition. In lieu of that, I’ll continue to ask my readers to take seriously the import of petitioning the sovereign for redress of grievances. Each statute is, in the limit, a death sentence for truculent offenders. It can be worth killing to preserve good law and order, as it can be worth risking scouring the earth of every trace of human life to avoid, what, Communism I guess? Unfortunately, my experience parsing survey data suggests that typical respondents routinely fail to acknowledge the explicit consequences of legislation: that it must ultimately be backed by lethal force to have any meaning at all.

Sam Wilson

Consider, if you will, the Amish. The Amish are a source of endless fascination for me (as many Sweet Talkers and friends know—I heard you all groaning the second I mentioned them just now). On the one hand, they reject many of the amenities of modern living. On the other hand, they selectively adopt in highly strategic ways, with a mind to maintaining their particular set of values. It varies from community to community, but Kevin Kelly estimates that they’ve remained consistently around 50 years behind us on average.

The particular aspect I would like to draw your attention to is their political resilience. See, this is a very close-knit community. The willingness to stick to some pretty harsh ostracism for those who break the rules keeps them quite cohesive. A fascinating episode in the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch (as they are known) was their tense fight with the state over how their children were to be educated, which I read about in a book by Donald Kraybill. Pennsylvania was reforming its public schools to be less like the traditional small, close to home sort and more like your modern centrally determined school district variety. The Amish did not like that, and many were willing to go to prison to fight it. To make a long story short, they ended up negotiating a compromise with the state, one that has lived to this day.

The particulars are less interesting to me than the very fact that the state of Pennsylvania felt they had to back down in the face of a community of non-voters who contributed (especially at the time) very little in the way of tax revenue. But the Amish were cohesive group, firm on their values, and, crucially, their willingness to go to jail drew a great deal of media scrutiny to the matter. What I take away from this episode is that communities can wield strong influence on behalf of their own values, if they are fairly united and willing to take a stand in public. This is especially true in a modern democracy, but the influence apparently goes beyond the number of votes from the community itself—because in the case of the Amish that number was zero.

The Amish are way, way down the long tail of communities. That is part of what keeps them so cohesive and part of why most of us (who are by definition in the majority) are not, in this great big society we live in, typically in groups that are nearly as tightly bound as an Amish community. For many of us, small changes in circumstances—like a job opportunity or a scholarship offered at a particular university—can end with us moving great distances away from our present communities. The costs and the benefits of our more cosmopolitan world are entangled in this fact.

Nevertheless, we do experience community, in a variety of contexts.

Consider the power law distribution, that universal form taken by networks. Almost everyone has seen blockbuster movies, by definition; I might as well be saying “most people have seen what most people have seen.” But this point is crucial. There are a small number of movies that can claim a vast supermajority of all time humans have ever dedicated to viewing movies.

However, as Chris Anderson reminded us all, most of us have seen movies that a fairly small fraction of everyone else has seen.

In other words, everyone has a foot in both worlds—nearly everyone experiences the same things in the head of the tail, and nearly everyone has their own more obscure stuff they’ve explored in the long tail. The head of the tail creates homogeneity, that lubricant for the process known as the diffusion of innovations; once someone adopts an innovation the odds that people who are a lot like them will also adopt it drastically increases.

The long tail creates heterogeneity on a large scale, but it also creates small-scale homogeneity. Power law distributions are fractal; scale down to the level of indie films and you just find a smaller power law distribution. People who are into such things are relatively homogeneous among themselves, meaning that when one of them adopts something, it increases the odds that it will diffuse among the others. And this isn’t domain specific—it could be that a certain style clothes and accessories, or even a certain brand of smartphone, suddenly diffuses disproportionately among indie flick aficionados.

Now, let’s turn to the real matter at hand: politics.

Sam’s quote at the top embodies a spirit of throwing up your arms in the air when it comes to politics that I connect with pretty strongly. But I would nevertheless like to share some thoughts on the nature of social influence, which includes politics in its umbrella.

I think one of the most important lifelong projects we can engage in is to work on building what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “networks of uncalculated giving”, something that Adam Grant has examined empirically in the context of work. Contra MacIntyre, I think that these networks can be relatively dispersed geographically and can include relatively weak ties among them; the giving may be uncalculated but it also may be highly context-specific or constrained. Grant’s work increases my confidence that such networks can act in a manner similar to the Amish; while lacking the advantages of being quite so tightly bound, they are capable of acting in concert in such a way as to make influence possible, when focused. This is my (still imperfectly formed) notion of what influence-by-community means in the modern world.

Anyone who has read my many pieces opposing telescopic morality knows that I think people should focus more on the things in front of them. In the context of politics, this means prioritizing the most local level of politics available to you. Consider that the Amish fight was not with the federal government. They have, over generations at this point, built a certain amount of clout with the governments that have jurisdiction over them; preserving this clout primarily by using it very selectively and very rarely. Community, in short, can become a vehicle for moving politics, on some margins and in certain contexts.

In human social systems, the head of the tail seems populated by big, dominant structures, but things bubble up from the long tail all the time. In the marketplace, this is obvious. Google went from a pair of nobodies to one of the biggest, most influential companies in the global market because usage of their core product diffused to a big majority of Internet users.

The same thing can happen in ethics and rhetoric. Deirdre McCloskey believes that the Great Enrichment happened because of a shift in rhetoric; in diffusion of innovation terms, we might say that pro-commerce rhetoric had remained in the long tail but three hundred years ago began to diffuse in Holland and then in Great Britain.

I think such things are very, very unlikely to happen to your little corner of your long tail of choice. But the magnitude of such an event makes the expected value actually quite large.

And for that reason, I think it is important to get your rhetoric, your ethics, and your political ideals right—in some senseIf you are going to pontificate on matters of political institutions, that is; which most of us here are guilty of.

There’s an interesting debate in the analysis of influence between those who think that you can identify highly influential hubs (Malcolm Gladwell’s “influencers”) who drive diffusion, and those who think that influence is far more broad-based and unconcentrated.

I tend to think there’s something to both sides. The American Constitution and the Napoleonic Code, and to a more limited extent the Japanese Constitution, are cases where it appears there are big disproportionate and lasting influencers. Nevertheless it seems to me that these things weren’t possible without some prior diffusions having occurred; some broadly shared set of values and practices which allowed these institutional changes to take root. Moreover, the particulars of each once implemented were highly influenced by the on the ground knowledge of the implementers.

But for most big diffusions where we think of a dramatic incident or high profile person who is associated with it, I think that Paul Adams’ broad-based explanation is probably more viable. Here’s one model: via the interlocking chains of different long tail communities, a new framework of ethics and rhetoric slowly diffuses across the population. At some point it hits the 10-20 percent that Everett Rogers says is the magic threshold. Then something or someone acts as a catalyst for change—a big media event happens, or a protest movement is organized, say. And this kicks off the diffusion process. In this story, the old ethical-rhetorical framework was slowly rotting, and the dramatic event is simply the hammer that comes down and shatters it. The hammer has influence, to be sure, but it’s far from the whole or most of the story.

This is all sort of moot for answering Sam’s question, of course. Whether you’re the hammer or simply a potential carrier of a new ethical-rhetorical framework, your contribution matters. It may not matter in the sense of being decisive, any more than your one vote will sway a given election. But we are a part of this process, not above it. And I firmly believe that participation brings with it certain responsibilities.

Of course, the amusing thing about my giving this answer to Sam is that he is one of the most responsible people I know, in this specific area. His enormous and excellent output at Euvoluntary Exchange provides plenty of evidence of that. My original concern was simply that his rhetoric might be too cynical, perhaps even corrosively so. Though it’s now fairly clear to me where he stands on the question of specifying good government, how he feels about this rhetoric angle is less obvious to me. Hopefully time and further conversation will bring more clarity.

Gentle Death

Those few of you who follow me elsewhere, or have known me long enough in person may be familiar with the part of my professional history spent in the deep dark, beneath the unforgiving winedark Pacific, of those sunless weeks lazily circling the crushing depths as we listened attentively for Command: Submarine Group 9 to order us to warm up the gyroscopes tucked neatly away inside the 20+ multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles that may or may not have been loaded inside the densely-packed silo that acted as de facto bulkheads separating crew quarters. You may have read the occasional post or two or heard me yammer on about the wide gulf between the boring, routine everyday reality of life underway and the civilization-destroying potential locked away in the fissile material at the heart of each warhead. You may have even listened as I rambled on about how every 18 hours or so, I would bravely attempt slumber in a bunk (aboard ship, they’re called “racks”, and I’m still not sure if the allusion to medieval torture devices is intentional or not) with the soles of my feet pressed up against a device, that if used for its intended purposes, is the most gentle, most kind, most humane method of killing millions of people ever devised.

Nuclear combat isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair, as depicted in late Cold War-era cinema (Dr. Strangelove, War Games, eg). Most folks know about low-yield warheads, and about the difference between a fusion device (H-bomb) and the garden-variety thermonuclear fission bomb, like the ones Truman directed dropped on two Japanese cities in 1945. Some folks will even already know what a high-altitude detonation will do (disrupt electronics, particularly communications, rather than kill enemy civilians). Most folks, especially those old enough to recall the 50s-era classroom filmstrips featuring the ever-so-helpful duck-and-cover advice, will know the difference between being in the blast radius and being in the fallout zone. What folks may not know is that for practical purposes, unless you actually live in the wilds of South Dakota, the probability of being in the blast zone of a detonation in a total nuclear war situation, the kind where my old boat would be instructed to launch its inarguable payload, is pretty dang high. If every capable nation on earth would empty the clip, so to speak, and you lived in, say, Gramercy Park, the chances that you’d turn to ash faster than the speed with which the pain signal can travel from the surface of your skin to the pain centers of your brain are better than, oh, I dunno, getting your hat blown off in a hurricane.

Adam misapprehends my sentiments.

If by Sam’s statement, he means that we cannot speak meaningfully of “good government” or that “good government” intrinsically involves fraud and injustice, then we disagree.

Violence is not injustice. Lies are not fraud. Not necessarily anyway. When I say that the lies and the violence ARE the system, I mean simply that as long as there are rewards to being cunning or wicked, there will be cunning, wicked men on earth. Peaceful, cooperative people require defense against the cunning and the wicked. Such defense is necessarily violent, and by the logic of coalition politics, it is often necessarily deceitful. Without measured, controlled, well-directed violence, there is chaos and social disorder. Sometimes this means stuffing a couple dozen or so ICBMs inside a big steel tube and sending it out on the most dread of all possible missions. Most of the time, it means issuing select members of the community a badge and instructing them to enforce the law as she is written.

The lies and the violence ARE the system. When the system is working as advertised, this is greatly to the advantage of the peaceful and the cooperative. In very broad terms, two things can end you up on the wrong end of the truncheon: (1) the system stops working as advertised, or (2) you turn to wickedness and cunning. The counter-protests that have arisen since I wrote the post that Adam excoriated seem to suggest that the civilian protesters believe in (1) and the police counter-protesters believe in (2). I’ve written elsewhere on what I believe to be the source of the discontent, and I stand by my remarks. If legislation makes criminals of us all, we must expect that the police, who are indeed the enforcement arm of the legislature, shall with some probability and when sufficiently provoked, exercise physical force against us. This is the very essence of their jobs. We specifically hire police to be violent on our behalf. Similarly, we commission ballistic missile submarines to mutually assure the annihilation of civilization, if not all human life everywhere. It’s right there, black ink on white paper, front and center in the description.

I’m asking my GMU comrade Sam Wilson, and anyone else who might happen to read this lengthy bit of Internet rambling, to take the task of specifying a model of good government seriously. Or at minimum, take seriously the idea that such a specifically is possible, and abandon the tempting but corrosive rhetoric of negation.

This is the challenge, isn’t it? James Buchanan won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on specifying models of good government. He was a relentless champion of the power of constitutions to constrain the ambitions of the sovereign. I would desperately like to agree with him, but I have a difficult time accepting the proposition that the US Constitution acts as a hard behavioral constraint at all. What would I substitute in its place? What tools do we have to ensure good governance? Well, when I come up with a slam-dunk plan, I’ll post it here first so that we can get all that sweet Web traffic in advance of my own Nobel Committee recognition. In lieu of that, I’ll continue to ask my readers to take seriously the import of petitioning the sovereign for redress of grievances. Each statute is, in the limit, a death sentence for truculent offenders. It can be worth killing to preserve good law and order, as it can be worth risking scouring the earth of every trace of human life to avoid, what, Communism I guess? Unfortunately, my experience parsing survey data suggests that typical respondents routinely fail to acknowledge the explicit consequences of legislation: that it must ultimately be backed by lethal force to have any meaning at all.

The lies and the violence ARE the system. The trick is for citizens of good conscience, of peaceful mien, of gentle disposition to use lies and violence to quell the cruel disorder that would be wrought by the intemperate, the deranged, the wicked. Part of this trick is to kindly ask of my fellow citizens to think deeply, think carefully on the nature of violence in society, much as I once did snuggled comfortably between the orange tubes that contained the most gentle death the imagination of mankind has ever brought forth upon this earth.

Aspirational Politics

I’m going to step out of character for a moment here—at least out of my anti-telescopic morality character. To an extent.

Recently our very own Sam Wilson wrote the following:

The violence and the lies are not part of the system. The violence and the lies ARE the system.

The context does not matter. Sam could have uttered these words on nearly any subject where the actor is some agent of the state. And, in fact, he has, numerous times recently and in the time that I have come to know him.

I agree with Sam on a lot. We share the background intellectual framework imparted by the economics department at GMU—though to compare the extent of my education in this matter with his would be rather like comparing the literacy of a grade-schooler with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nevertheless, we approach economics from a similar angle, and we both love Deirdre McCloskey’s work, among other thinkers beyond the walls of Carow Hall.

But I’m not sure I entirely agree with his statement, and I certainly don’t share his cynical attitude.

To be sure, I will not deny that violence, deception, and other evils can and do become institutionalized. I will not even deny that that goes on in America at the federal, state, and local levels.

“What then,” you might ask, “do you actually disagree with him on? You tedious ass.”

Answering that question will require me to step back for a moment, and sketch out the frame I’m approaching this from.

Continue reading “Aspirational Politics”

Moral Ideals: When “Good Enough” Just Is “Good”

Daniel Russell’s Practical Intelligence and the Virtues is one of the most philosophically sophisticated books I have ever read. The most impressive section lays out a framework for how to think about moral ideals, how they provide the top end of a scale and give us a sense when “virtuous enough” is what he calls “virtuous tout court“; that is, what positions on the scale that fall short of perfect virtue nevertheless are virtuous, without qualification.

Satis Concepts vs Binary Concepts

Russell is directly responding to Christine Swanton’s argument that virtues should be thought of as “threshold” concepts. Swanton argues that this is an alternative to the version of virtue ethics that relies on “what the virtuous individual would do” in a given situation, a formulation made especially widespread by Rosalind Hursthouse. Russell likes the idea of “thresholds”, but thinks it is not sufficiently precise. Moreover, he does not think it is at odds with Hursthouse’s formulation, but rather that the two are necessary for one another.

In the place of “thresholds” Russell suggests “satis concepts”—“satis” being Latin for “enough”.

In this respect, satis concepts like painful and bald are unlike, say, whole or perfect, or prime, positive, and even in the case of numbers, which we might say are ‘binary’ concepts: in the case of the latter, since there are no degrees of F-ness among F things, things are either ‘absolutely’ F or not F at all, and so it makes no sense to talk here of something’s being ‘F enough’. By contrast, satis concepts are such that there are degrees of F-ness among F things, and so since something need not be ‘absolutely’ F to be F, something can be F by being ‘F enough’.

The fact that most or all actually existing Fs in the world will be cases of “enough” is the key here. And the implication of this is that there must be some scale in which you can be more or less F. In the case of binary concepts, there is no scale and no “enough”; a prime number is either prime or it isn’t, there is no “more or less prime”, and “prime enough” is simply incoherent.

Boundary vs Vague Concepts

A further distinction that Russell introduces is between those things that have a sharp boundary between being F or not-F, and those things where no such sharp boundary exists but we can still speak meaningfully of some things being F or not-F.

‘Boundary’ satis concepts are such that while something can be F by being F enough, there is also a boundary dividing F things from not-F things. Notice that since boundaries establish ‘set-theoretically describable divisions’, boundaries by definition are sharp. For instance, we might say that painful is a boundary concept, since anything above a certain boundary of pressure on the skin, say, will count as painful.

However, though there are boundary satis concepts, most boundary concepts are binary, like the prime numbers example above.

Boundary concepts, then, are such that there is a sharp set-theoretical boundary between F and not-F things, whether or not there are degrees of F-ness among F things (i.e. whether or not F is binary). Only where there are degrees of F-ness among F things is a boundary concept also a satis concept.

Russell here points out that the problem with Swanton’s use of the word “threshold” is that it makes it sound like virtue is a boundary satis concept, though he’s quite sure that isn’t what she means. So he introduces the next term in his taxonomy:

Since virtue is a satis concept, but lacks a sharp boundary, it would seem to be a vague satis concept. A classic description of vague concepts holds that a vague concept F is such that there will be ‘borderline cases’ of F, that is, cases in which no method of making F more precise could settle in a privileged way whether the thing is F or not. Vagueness thus arises because of the concept itself, not because we happen to lack a method that would settle these cases. This account of vagueness does not go quite far enough, though, since a concept with sharp boundaries between F things, not-F things, and borderline cases is not a vague concept, despite having borderline cases; so we should say instead that a concept is vague if it lacks such boundaries

Russell offers “bald” and “tall” as examples; there are borderline cases where the vagueness arises from the concepts of baldness or tallness themselves, which cannot be completely settled except arbitrarily (and Russell argues that this does not truly settle it).

Model Concepts vs Central Cases

What makes either boundary or vague concepts also satis concepts is the fact that they exist on a continuous scale in which you can be more or less F, and because you can be F tout court without being “as F as possible.” In some cases, Russell points out, it isn’t even coherent to speak of being “as F as possible.” So while it is coherent to speak of someone being “as bald as possible” but consider cases where one is “bald” simply by being “bald enough”, for tallness, for instance, it is not coherent to contrast against being “as tall as possible.”

When considering whether someone counts as tall, and even if someone who falls short of complete baldness is nevertheless bald, we usually consult central, representative cases of tallness and baldness. In some cases, however, central cases may not be enough. For instance, a multi-dimensional vague concept like personhood is hard to pin down with merely central cases. Russell references fetuses as well as patients in “severe” comas as instances where figuring out what constitutes personhood would matter to us. In order to make use of the central concepts of personhood, we need to understand “in what ways must a person resemble the ‘central cases’?” According to Russell, what we require is a model.

When we try to say what personhood really is, we construct a theoretical model of what we take to be the essential features of personhood, in some kind of reflective equilibrium, and realized to the fullest degree, since the model must illuminate the central cases, not just join their ranks. This model, we should note, is an ideal, and therefore not merely a central case: you or I could stand as a central case of personhood, but not as a model of personhood, since particular persons always have shortcomings in some dimension or other of personhood, a shortcoming that the model is to reveal as a shortcoming.

Vague satis concepts that require such models in order to be made coherent are what Russell calls model concepts (are you following the nesting venn diagrams so far?)

One aspect of model concepts is that they are not purely interest-relative.

Some cases of ‘F enough’ require no such model because ‘F enough’ is purely interest-relative, and sometimes those interests permit—and even require—that we eliminate vagueness by simply stipulating a boundary. For instance, consider the children’s game of racing to fill a cup by carrying water across the room in a spoon. Since the object of the game is to be the first to fill one’s cup, players need to know with a fair bit of precision when a cup counts as ‘full’, and an easy way to solve this problem is to draw a line on the cup and stipulate, ‘Full is at that line’. Notice that a cup that is ‘full enough’ in this stipulated sense is not necessarily full tout court; all we can say is that it is ‘full*’, full for this rather special purpose.

He continues:

What makes ‘F enough’ purely interest-relative? When we ask whether a fetus or a comatose patient is a ‘person enough’, we take a keen interest in the answer, but what we want to know is whether the fetus or patient is a person tout court, not a ‘person*’, or a ‘person’ relative to just any old interest or purpose we may have. Here our interest is in finding out whether the patient is really a person, and so here ‘person enough’ is not purely interest-relative. Depending on how the answer comes out, we may even have to revise the interests that initially prompted the question.

Russell further stipulates that model concepts must deal with a substantive concept, not just our use of language. That is, it must refer to F in the de re rather than purely de dicto sense. He contrasts the concept of personhood with that of baldness. In the latter case when it comes to borderline cases we really are just talking about the de dicto use of the word “baldness”, whereas in the case of personhood we care about what a person really is, regardless of what words you want to use.

Therefore, a concept F is a model concept just in case being F enough entails being F tout court, where ‘F tout court’ is understood neither in a purely interest-relative sense nor in a de dicto sense, but in terms of what it is to be F, de re. In the case of model concepts, the possibility of error about ‘F enough’ is more than the possibility of being out of step with how competent speakers talk about what is F enough. It is instead the possibility that one may even be in step with everyone else about the central cases, but nonetheless be mistaken in thinking that those cases really are or are not F.

Russell’s discussion of how models calibrate our understanding of the subset of vague satis concepts they are necessary for reminds me of Deirdre McCloskey’s decades-long quest to get empirical economists to answer the question of “how big is big?” Here is Russell:

Cups are full, power plants are safe, and men are bald by degrees that can be ordinally ranked, and in some cases we can even say by just how much one degree differs from another. How such scales are calibrated, then, depends on our interests, or perhaps on common usage of the  related terms. By contrast, model concepts like rational and person also yield a calibrated scale, but here the scale requires a ‘standardized’ calibration: what it is to count as rational at all, and to what extent a given agent is rational, is to be determined (where it can be determined) by a scale that is calibrated by a model of ideal rationality that both sets the top end of the scale and gives meaning to the idea that a particular agent occupies a certain level on that scale. (Likewise for personhood.) Understanding what it is to be F tout court in a de re sense, then, calls for a theoretical model of ‘really F’.

It should be clear by now that Russell believes that any theory of virtue ethics must be build around model concepts. And moreover, that it is the nature of such concepts that they are both “thresholds” in Swanton’s sense and require ideals in Hursthouse’s sense.

Therefore, it is a mistake to suppose that the idea that one need only be ‘virtuous enough’ to be virtuous is an alternative to thinking of the virtues in terms of ideal models. On the contrary, thinking of virtue in terms of ideals is required on account of the very sort of satis concept that virtue is.

Ideals vs Aspirations

As if this account wasn’t intricate enough, Russell goes on to address the question of just how hard we must strive to approach our ideals, once we specify them. Many of the critiques of Hursthouse’s “virtuous person” standard boil down to the idea that it is unreasonably high; that is precisely Swanton’s motivation in attempting to provide a “threshold” alternative.

Russell meets this critique by turning to Donald Davidson’s model of rationality, which includes, among other things, the notion of “all-things-considered” judgments.

What does committing to meeting that requirement come to? Obviously, the ideal of ‘the rational person’—the person with ‘overall rational unity’—is ‘an ideal of which we are bound to fall short’, but it is my view that committing to this ideal is not the same as committing to becoming as like it as possible. Rather, to commit to the ideal of overall rational unity is to accept the principles of such rationality as principles one recognizes as one’s own principles, principles to which one can be held, by which one can be criticized, and in relation to which one must frame one’s response to such criticism—indeed, the very giving of such criticism presupposes the agent’s ability to respond in just this way.

He continues:

By accepting the ideal, one has made the ‘rule’ or principle a principle to which one sees oneself as bound. But committing to making all-things-considered judgments is not the same as committing to the (rather queer) life-project of becoming the best maker of all-things-considered judgments there can be. That project, like every other, consumes resources and opportunities, and can no more be assumed to be a rational one than any other project can. That is a fact about practical rationality: when it comes to making all-things-considered judgments, at some point it is reasonable to stop considering, choose, and hope that the choice is one we can live with, or perhaps grow into. Indeed, trying to become persons who do consider all things before acting is something that we have all-things-considered reasons not to do.

In short, the question of how hard we must aspire to approximate the ideal is a separate question from merely specifying the top-of-the-value-scale model, and one that ought to be addressed in that specification itself as the model of “all-things-considered” rationality does.

Uses For This Framework

It should be obvious that I am highly impressed by this framework. I can see it already implicitly at work in places where it and its implications haven’t been fully fleshed out. Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues can be seen as providing a “model concept” to both hold up as an ideal and to describe the actual virtuousness of modern middle class life. The task of reviving “a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and the agora” involves in no small part specifying and defending such a model. This is nowhere more clear than in the section of the book commenting on Jane Austin:

Jane talks of virtues up and down, back and forth, on all sides. But not from a theory. Her English suspicion of theory allows for ethical complexity. Complexity, but not coherence: grace, understanding, manners, amiability, good habits; each gives its set speech, and then withdraws from the scene.

It is clear that McCloskey believes it possible to have a model that allows for both complexity and coherence—and so, indeed, does Russell.

I myself also implicitly utilized model concepts when deciding what sort of book I wanted to write.

There are two books I have in my head, with two very different implied authors.

One book is a long treatise on virtue ethics in the market, written by an implied author who is capable of addressing the main critiques that would come out of the philosophical community. This implied author is very well read in the conversations of philosophy in and out of ethics, and is well equipped to engage in that conversation. The problem is that Deirdre McCloskey has basically written this book already, and even though my version of virtue ethics may differ slightly from hers, I don’t think that this is the best contribution I could make right now, nor am I well equipped to make it. It would take me several more years of research before I could comfortably write as this implied author.

The second book has an implied audience of the people who buy books in the business section of a book store (or Amazon). Unpretentious, practical minded people who nevertheless view consulting books as both enjoyable and useful. The implied author is well read and confident in the subject he is writing about, but not an expert or a specialist in philosophy or economics. He works for a living and thus experiences the world of business forty hours a week or more, and has so for his whole career—but not as an executive or entrepreneur or anything more exciting than a salaried employee. His value proposition for his implied audience is that his life is similar to theirs, and he can offer a framework for looking at that life that is very clarifying, but also satisfying. Useful, but also enjoyable to engage with critically or from the inside.

I believe that that is an implied author I am capable of becoming within a reasonable timeframe, and that is more or less the book that I want to write.

In this case, the “implied author” is a model concept, one that I have spent most of this year working to approximate, and will no doubt continue to do so through 2015. However, this model is only useful to me insofar as it can guide me in deciding when enough is enough; when I am qualified enough to write the book and therefore qualified tout court.

Which brings me to my pseudonymous fellow Sweet Talker boatfloating, who eloquently wrote:

You do not need to shoot and kill a 7-year old girl sleeping on her grandmother’s couch yourself to support the tough-on-crime approach. You do not need to kill an innocent Iraq War veteran yourself to support the War on Drugs. You do not need toextort sex yourself to support the continued criminalization of a consensual act. You do not need to torture innocent people and informants yourself to be for the use of torture.

You do need to(or, at least, should) recognize your public policy preferences will have unintended consequences. You do need to(or, at least, should) recognize that these unintended consequences will incur costs. You do need to(or, at least, should) recognize that most of these costs will not be borne by you. You do need to(or, at least, should) be made to understand, fully, these costs. To do otherwise is moral and intellectual cowardice.

This is highly provocative, especially to a crusader against telescopic morality (another model concept) such as myself. So I ask him: what is the ideal here, and when is enough enough? This directly parallels “all-things-considered” rationality; when is a citizen’s policy position “all-things-considered” enough to make one a good citizen tout court?

It’s unfortunate that I cannot boil Russell’s framework down to less than a 3,000 word post, because I think it is very important. And I encourage everyone to read the book and in particular the fourth chapter, which covers this specific subject.

But I don’t think you have to navigate his nesting venn diagram of concepts in order to get the gist of the questions—what is the ideal? When is enough enough? How hard are we obligated to work on approaching the ideal?