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.

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Heraclitus on the Economics of Just War

“We have a hero in our military tradition by the name of Patton,” I said. It was the evening of our detoxifying day in his garden, after a light supper, and neither of us felt much like wine, so we were drinking some medicinal tea for the last of the aches and pains. I asked for more honey. “Patton said that compared to war, all human endeavors shrink into insignificance.”

“Sounds like my kind of fellow,” said the old man. In the light of the fire I could see his visage glowering over his tea.

“Yeah, Patton was a genius for war.”

He grunted, sipping.

“We were lucky that he was on our side.”

“Lucky?” he said excitedly. “I suppose next you’ll be telling me that you sacrifice to those Athenian gods of the myth instead of hearkening to the Logos, and that you’ve discovered a rationale for enslaving your fellowman.” Gosh, he was an irascible sort.

“I’m just saying that if he hadn’t been on our side, injustice would have prevailed the world over,” I replied.

“I did not know there was such a thing as a ‘side’ in warfare.”

“Well, sure there is,” I said. “The good guys are on one side, and the bad guys are on the other. Now, I know what you’re gonna say–it depends on whose side you’re on–but history has a way of sifting through the data to teach us who was bad and who was good.”

“I have no doubt you are correct,” he said. “I had never considered that minor detail of the thing.” I was hooked, and he tugged on the line. “You have obviously not considered that there is no such thing as a ‘side’ in warfare. Is that the normal terminology for combatants? ‘You’re on that side; I’m on this side’?”

“Well, no. We call it a front.”

“That’s right: the front lines. And the lines move. When the lines move, the sides change. Whoever was on ‘that side’ is now on ‘this side.’ Once upon the side of justice, now upon the side of injustice. Such foolishness, war, if there is such a thing as ‘sides.'”

“I thought you were for war,” I inquired.

“Who is for war? Why do you keep saying that? Do I appear to you as some sort of warmonger, a broker of power among the nations? Drawing lines upon which to do battle? I am not for war, but war is for me.”

“Oh.”

“If you listen very carefully,” he continued, “you may actually catch wind of the Persian machine for war even now. These rapscallion youths protesting my brother’s wise conscription policies will set all of Ionia aflame, and the Persian King will feel the need to put it out. I desire to understand the nature of the flame, as it is an element which dries out the soul, and war rides the flame as a locust horde rides the wind. Taxes, you know.”

“Yeah,” I said, but I felt a protest forming in my gullet. “Is there no case for a defensive war?”

“Ah, defensive war,” he chuckled. “Otherwise known as the slaughter of your own innocents. War is not like, upon seeing the storm upon the horizon, battening down the hatches and waiting it out, looking for luck to bail the water from your holds; war must be participated in, or you will certainly be consumed. You must slash and burn, drive, thrust, parry, or the child cannot be born.”

Dammit all, a child?

“Grow up,” he said, and he said it like it was a curse. “The infantryman tells himself he is following orders to defend his king, his farm, his wife, his children, but he is not: he is thrusting another man through. He knows it is so, and his children know it is so, and his wife even more so, as he writhes in his bed beside her, trying to kill them all all over again, night by night, from the time he is young until he is very old. He knows he has killed, and he knows the lust for blood that rose into his mind, that it came from him. Perhaps he finds someone to forgive him.”

“But–” I started to say, but he was warming to the task.

“Perhaps he prefers to throw missiles from afar–a bowman or a catapult man. Who is on the other side of those walls? Women and children? No? They should have been evacuated; the blood is on the head of the city fathers. And when fire comes from the city toward the attacking catapult, does the same blood lust not rise? But it rises in defense of justice, no?”

I sat silently, feeling my tea cool. It was for the better; the tea was awful.

“You participate in war, you participate in injustice. Justice is the thing that springs up after the front lines have moved and scattered, like seedlings of the springtime after the rains.”

“But,” I protested, “we do not all participate in war.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Tonawanda,” I said.

“Is Tonawanda such a gracious and magical land that you do not pay taxes?” he asked. “And those taxes are not apportioned for the training of the machines of war?”

“No,” I said. “But perhaps I should move to the land adjacent, the land of Canada, where they do not have a military, and all their taxes are apportioned for the welfare of their subjects.”

Even in the dim firelight I could see the twinkle spark from within his eyes. He said, “Indeed. And how does this paradise Canada-land compare to your fair Tonawanda-land?”

“Well, it’s about a tenth of the size.”

“Mhm,” he said, mockingly.

“What’s more…” I said.

“What’s more?” he mocked further.

“Yes,” I said. “What’s more, their beer is taxed such that they sneak into Tonawanda on a regular basis to buy all of ours to spirit it back into their paradise.”

“They are a virtuous people, indeed,” he said, leaning back in his chair, retiring for the night.

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The Three Perspectives of Justice

The view from nowhere does not exist; it is accessible to no one.

I think that justice—the character trait—is arrived at through a lifelong dialogue among three points of view.

The first is your own, honed through proper notions of prudence, courage, temperance, charity, inheritance and hope.

The second is the person or people you are trying to figure out what you owe, or what they owe you. Hume’s faculty of sympathy, or what we call sympathy today plus what we call empathy, is your primary tool here, as well as a lifetime of experience attempting to understand yourself and others.

The final one is Smith’s impartial spectator; impartial not in the sense of objective but in the sense of not being partial, not having a stake in the outcome.

All three are in a way mental constructs, as we must have mental models of ourselves, the people we are dealing with, and an imagined impartial judge observing the matter. And all three require nourishment through use and persistent critical evaluation over time.

You arrive at just decisions through the effective weighing of the claims made by these inner agents; you become truly wise when these inner constructs closely approximate real people who exist outside of your mental world.