Radicalism as a virtue


As any Intro Ethics final will note, Aristotle’s describes the virtues as “the middle state” between extremes of excess and deficiency. The paradigm case is courage, the virtue that sits between rashness and cowardice, respectively. This conception of virtue is labeled “The doctrine of the mean”, or simply “the golden mean”, and has its precursors in the Delphic Oracle’s imperative “Nothing in excess” and the Analects of Confucius.

The Doctrine of the Mean seems to oppose radicalism on its face. The very term “radicalism” connotes an extremism of views; if the virtue lies in the middle, then no radical view can be virtuous. As Paul and Adam suggested in a recent discussion, a virtue ethics seems to preclude compatibility with radical feminism by its very formal structure. Liberal feminism, as the more moderate view, seems prima facie the more virtuous position.

But this prima facie argument fails to appreciate the subtleties of the Golden Mean. For both Aristotle and his predecessors, the virtuous mean must be understood in relation to the extremes it avoids. A central motivation of these views is that the virtues can’t be known by any absolute criterion, but must be reckoned through reflection on the relationships we observe around us. To find the courageous mean, we must have models of not just courageous persons, but also of cowardly and rash persons. Not that we should be like the extremists, but we should watch them carefully because they set the boundaries, and it is in terms of these boundaries that I can hope to chart the virtues.

This argument has not yet established radicalism as a virtue. So far, I have only argued that the extremes have instrumental value to the virtuous. At most, this implies that the extremists cannot be eliminated from the discourse without moving where the middle lies. Indeed, the Overton window is moved not by negotiating the virtues, but by policing the extremes.

To go farther and see radicalism as a virtue, one must show that pursuing a radical or extremist beliefs is the most reasonable way to arrive at a virtuous or “middle” position. This may sound incoherent, but hopefully can be made intuitive with a few examples. First, consider orbital mechanics (more fun than archery). To get a probe to Pluto, it’s not enough to launch the probe at Pluto (and cross one’s fingers). Since Pluto is also a moving target, one must also anticipate where Pluto will be when you arrive (ten years later!), and adjust your launch path accordingly. This means that at the start, you’ll be launching a probe in a direction quite radically (!!) other than where you intend to go. But if you calculate carefully, in order to hit your target it’s precisely this radical direction you ought to aim. In this case, the radical solution just is the virtuous solution.

The point is that *aiming* at extremist views can be the most effective way to *arrive* at the correct (‘middle’) views. And, by extension, aiming at moderate views might land you on a view that isn’t virtuous at all. For a normative example that doesn’t involve space ships, consider Paul’s recent defense of liberal feminism against radical feminism.

Paul’s criticism of radical feminism (that it fails to respect the particular stories of individuals) seems lame in the face of the radical response he cites in the article (“that it doesn’t much matter how women construe their sexual choices as these choices are formed within and inextricable from male supremacy”). Indeed, at several points Paul remarks on how much of the radical feminist position is reasonably taken up by the liberal feminist view, and how hard it is to find solid ground to critique the radical.

Well, then, why think there must be a critique at all? Why can’t the radical feminist simply be correct? Paul responds by appeal to the golden mean: the extremist simply can’t be correct!

But look again at the case: Liberal (ie, moderate, “virtuous”) feminists hold views that are clearly grounded in and consistent with (if less radically articulated than) the radical feminists. This seems to exactly be a case where aiming at the radical position CAN leave one on the correct trajectory to a virtuous view. The radical is there to set the bounds of the discussion, and thereby shift the middle towards their preferred views. By articulating strongly radical views, it brings many of those positions into the mainstream where they can be sensibly adopted by the moderates, reinforcing these new norms *as* the norm. The moderates legitimize the work of the radicals at the edges (or discard what cannot be tolerated from the middle) until all the minis have been maxed. And behold, a virtue is born.

The point here is not that the radical is “correct”, or that the liberal is “correct”. The point is that both positions play a dynamical role in the discourse, both simultaneously serving to locate and reinforce the middle where they see fit, and both work together to accomplish this task even where they disagree. That the liberal and radical feminist overlap so strongly in the present is evidence that the destinations they’re tracking are so far away as to converge at the horizon. If anything, the overlap of these views is evidence of the distance we have yet to cover; given where we are, their disagreements are effectively irrelevant.

But while this doesn’t let us decide between the radical and moderate views, it does suggest that any simple-minded aim at a moderate position will likely fail to appreciate the dynamics involved. One ought to advocate for radical views in situations where radicalism helps move the discourse towards the virtuous center; often, advocating for the center is not such a view. One ought to advocate for the center in a way that helps to locate and reinforce it, but when moderate views appeal to the center-as-default, it can be counterproductive to any actual moderation precisely because it obscures the effort to find it.

Thus, and absent any deep paradox with virtue theory, the radical can indeed behave with more virtue than the moderate. The radical might not only help others better find virtue, but might herself stand as a model of virtue.

Be radical, kids.


Featured image is Lord Byron On His Death-Bed, by Joseph-Denis Odevaere.

I’m not looking forward to the process of dying. Whatever one’s beliefs about the afterlife, my thoughts will inevitably turn to the course of my life – my accomplishments and failures, regrets and reprisals, triumphs and shortcomings. It’s the final act of accounting for oneself – for every good deed and praiseworthy act I can think of, it’s guaranteed that there was an equal and opposite instance  of personal or moral failure. We all want to make peace, and allow ourselves to rest, in hope that our final thoughts will be positive, happy. The harder we think about life, though, the less sure we are that we are good people. No one wants to die a failure.

This line of thinking inspires a great deal of humility. No matter how right you think you are, how much good you think you’ve done, if you were twenty minutes from dying you might worry that you weren’t right enough, or good enough, to die at peace with yourself.

This kind of humility is, in my opinion, important and positive. Taken to the extreme, though, it is paralyzing, and the one thing worse than dying in a state of philosophical uncertainty is living in one. Continue reading “Certainly”

Where Do the Virtues Come From?


Some ten years ago, a Catholic virtue ethicist group blog linked to something on my father’s blog, Vulgar Morality. So long ago was this in Internet years that I cannot even find the virtue ethicist blog in question, and my father had not moved to WordPress yet, but was using Radio UserLand—a for-pay frankenstein hybrid between desktop publishing and blogging.

It was my first encounter with the very concept of virtue ethics, but I didn’t really look into it at the time. I remember my dad remarking “there seems like there’s something to it, but I don’t really understand where the virtues are supposed to come from.”

It was years before I took any interest in the virtues again. I won’t bore you again with the details, but suffice to say that if you’ve spent any time at Sweet Talk at all, you’re probably aware I have a bit of an interest in the subject these days.

A year ago I attempted to think about this question of where the virtues come from.

David, sensing epistemological arrogance, was quite critical of my post:

How, just how do you think that you would ever in a million years have any confidence in knowing the telos of the sum of your short number of breaths in this mortal coil? That really is the nub of the thing: one simply does not have enough time to contemplate the day ahead before its sun sets, and you expire, going to rest in the dust.

My response amounted to “something something historically contingent something something Heraclitus’ river.”

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

Now, like a year ago, I think the answer must be something like the version of naturalism elaborated by Philippa Foot. She speaks of “goodness” in the sense of “a good specimen of X.” A sickly, or uniquely asocial chimpanzee would not make for a good example of chimpanzees. It might be useful, for human purposes, if we wanted to understand the sicknesses that sometimes befall chimps or the range of social deviance from the norm, and what happens to such deviants in the wild. But we could not even do this without a sense of what a good specimen is like, in contrast to the deviant.

As Adam Sandel puts it, the way of life of chimpanzees points towards their good. A good specimen is healthy, pro-social, skilled at hunting and defending against rival groups, and so forth. In this sense the good chimp is “above average;” you cannot get a sense of it by merely averaging the qualities of the group.

These days I think what everyone wants is to be able to situate their moral philosophy in an evolutionary story. But David put it best; the question of what something is is distinct from how it came to be.

When Father Carves the Duck is an easily recognizable Thanksgiving ritual, lampooned. “How Ritual Came To Be” informs us readily with descriptors of primal provenance, e.g., the sacrificial duck, but it hardly addresses what is going on presently in this ritual, and why the poem resonates among cultural participants. If the description of what is going on travels too far from “familial interaction,” it fails to be an effective describing process for the purpose of application. In other words, there is no sacrificial duck here. What, then, is this?More distinctions are needed to be made. More work.

The fact that we can discuss how father came to have the role of the one who carves the duck at Thanksgiving in terms of primal environments or sacrificial rites does not tell us what the nature of that role is now.

Consider a more straightforward example: the heart. Asking “what is the heart?” is much more straightforward than “how did humans evolve to have hearts?” We can observe the heart in action. We have a robust medical tradition of studying hearts in various states of health. We have a very good idea of what hearts do and what a “good heart” consists of. We do not have to answer the evolutionary question before we can answer the question of what a good heart consists of. If anything, our investigation takes the opposite direction; we use our stronger evidence and better information about what the heart is to try and figure out its evolutionary origins (may a thousand “just so” stories bloom).

So when we ask “what is virtue?” or “what is a good person?” we can put to the side, for the moment, the question of “how did virtue or ‘the good’ come to be?”

From Sandel:

Aristotle understands our comprehensive “situation,” or “life perspective,” in terms of the good life. The good (to agathon), he writes, is not some abstract form to which we look for guidance but a concrete end (telos) expressed in our action (praxis). Whenever we make things, put them to use, and live out certain roles, our actions aim at the good (whether or not we consciously reflect upon the good as our aim). For “the good,” Aristotle maintains, is the end of all ends— that “for the sake of which everything else is done.”  As such, the good is both the aim of our action and its condition. It is the ultimate end (telos) toward which we strive, and, at the same time, the source, or beginning (arche), of all striving.

Virtue and the good life exist in a holistic relationship. We try to become the person we need to be in order to get the kind of life that we believe we should have. We have to understand the life in order to understand what kind of person we should be, but we need to understand what kind of person we should be in order to understand what sort of life we should lead. Virtue and the good life are a hermeneutic circle.

But our understanding of this relationship isn’t stuck in an infinite regress. It is incomplete, projective, and revisable. This is why Aristotle insisted that a philosophy of ethics would be lost on the young, who as of yet know very little about life. As we grow up and live our lives alongside other people living their lives, and receive an education, we are exposed to countless stories in books, films, and even video games—and of course, stories told to us by people in our lives. We begin to adjust ourselves towards some understanding of a good life, however haphazard or tacit.

These experiences expand our horizon, giving us a fuller, richer picture of what the good life is and what kind of person it takes to live it.

We can get a sense of what the good is and what the virtuous person is from how people live their lives. But again, this is not an averaging. As with the examples of the heart and the chimpanzee, it’s a proper notion of a good based on an understanding of what people are.

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

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

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

Not Just For the Jock

in impassioned defense of sports talk radio

When Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Bills NFL football franchise, grown men called the local sports talk radio station, weeping. My first inclination, not being native to Buffalo, was to mock and deride, but the parade of phone calls yielded one emotion-choked, sob-filled laudation to the Pegula family after another. It was striking.

Terry Pegula was vetted by the NFL and found worthy to own a franchise. His billions were earned in the nefarious practice of fracking. I think his rags-to-riches story runs along the lines that he started twenty years ago with a used garden hose, a shovel, and a broken bicycle pump, and now he says, “I’m keeping ticket prices as low as allowable. If I need more money, I’ll drill another well.” Beautiful. Fracking, by the way, is illegal in New York. People protest it and everything. The casual observer of New York state politics agrees with the hardened cynic that, as soon as the pols can figure out an equitable way to distribute the fracking money amongst themselves, fracking will become safe, legal, and rare.

The Erie County Executive is an infrequent guest on the afternoon show, not as a fanboy politician trying to score easy votes with a very special guest appearance doing homage to the local sports team, but as a representative answering the beck and call of sports talk radio show hosts who are demanding answers in behalf of their listeners, his constituency, concerning the economic impact of necessary infrastructure changes to accommodate the inevitable downtown temple stadium. The name Robert Moses is occasionally mentioned. The entire region erupts into boos and hisses, which summons our only United States Senator, who is a Munchkin, to pad into the region to eat chicken wings and to talk about the state’s only professional football franchise and the blue-collar work ethic, not knowing, apparently, that the blue-collar work ethic caused Bethlehem Steel to sail over the western horizon of Lake Erie about forty years ago. Times have changed. Sports talk radio has changed.

No longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts named Bulldog. I say that ironically: our number one radio show is “Mike Schopp and The Bulldog;” Mike is the intellectually curious ex-sort-of-jock (I think he played tennis), while The Bulldog is the sensitive cultural observer whose twitter feed @bulldogwgr is far more likely to include a paean to a favorite alt-country rock band than it is to include a mention of a sporting event. His moniker was given to him, I think, because he is a gigantic, scary-looking biker dude. Mike is excruciatingly deliberate in his attention to detail, to the delight of listeners, and to the fury of wannabe jock callers; he is a disciplined arguer, a student of forensic debate, listening carefully to his interlocutor before agreeing or disagreeing based on evidence. I say, no longer is sports talk radio limited to endless griping about player performance by wannabe jock hosts and wannabe jock callers; instead, it has become all-inclusive, a kind-of crucible for many things theoretical, e.g., philosophical, economical, political, cultural, et. al., even familial–many things theoretical put into practice.

For example, the accusation that the football team from Boston cheated by deflating its footballs to give them some sort of advantage sparked much discussion on sports talk radio about authority and consequence: how it should be meted out and who should direct it. Also discussed were issues of human character, that is, how it comes to pass that honorable men cheat, which leads back to the question of authority (an important question in a free society), revealing a wisdom that honorable men cheat as much as they can, behaving virtuously only as much as they have to. What is, finally, the enforcing authority in this social microcosm known as athletics? It is, finally, money. The commissioner’s job is to submit a product to the market that makes his billionaire employers more billions. This is true for amateur athletics and professional athletics. How, then, shall fans affect for good the teams and players they love?

Have you ever wondered how a union contract with a multi-national corporation works? How the negotiations actually proceed, legally? How they play out, publicly? What is the purpose of this leaked information? And who leaked it? Cui bono, O Representative, cui bono? We pore over every detail for days, weeks, months, as long as it takes to get the contract made.

Thus sports talk radio.

It is a vibrant salon, taking all comers, so long as you can make a reasoned argument for the passion you feel for your position. Pluralism, including old-school fans, casual fans, metrics fans (oh, the nerds!), and even trolls, expands the market, which fulfills the sports talk radio show host’s vocation. Pluralism has made talking about sports better, more informative, and more interesting. Sports talk radio has learned that substantial argumentation which includes the many facets of life which sports fandom touches is a euvoluntary exchange, much more pleasurable than the old model, which was a close communion of frustrated fans screaming at each other about archaic statistics and about the greatest team/player/coach ever. A sports talk radio show host cannot experience market growth if he condescends in this way to his audience, except when empathy for his general audience demands that he do so to an audience in specific.

Really, empathy for the audience drives sports talk radio.


The Fragility of Magnificence

Unlike the Stoics or Aquinas, Aristotle was quite haphazard with his list of virtues. The one that has caused possibly the most consternation among philologists and philosophers in general is megalopsuchia. “Greatness of Soul” is probably the best translation we have of it, but it is usually translated as “magnificence”. Aristotle’s account raises a lot of questions, questions which Julia Annas at least does not believe he provided the resources to answer.

Instead of sticking with Aristotle’s account, then, let’s simply speak of magnificence as greatness under the most extreme of circumstances. Sticking with my fellow Sweet Talker’s example, it need not even be moral greatness, necessarily.

As I have said, willpower is a scarce internal resource that must be managed. And as Heath and Anderson have said, most of the tools for managing our willpower are “external”; in our environment rather than in our bodies. Heath and Anderson worry that the transition from agrarian societies to modern societies has not resulted in a parallel transition in the institutional and social mechanisms for managing our willpower. It seems to me that this must be all the more so for those who strive for magnificence.

“It takes a community” not just to raise a child but to maintain our character and manage our willpower. In his critique of virtue ethics, Heath emphasizes how important our current peer environment—much more than our parents or the peer environment we grew up in—is for getting us to construe our circumstances in a way that promotes pro-social behavior. Putting it all together, virtue requires an embedded, institutional context.

Let’s return to the example of the NFL player. As boatfloating put it:

Within the current framework and rules of American professional football, certain traits are selected for. Just having the desire to hit, the tolerance to be hit, and the willingness to drop your factory job for a couple of weeks a year was no longer enough. You had to win the genetic lottery and be a physical and mental specimen of such rarity that one might scarcely believe you share the same genus as some your lesser fellow humans.

This also means that other, non-essential-to-football traits are disregarded. Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is also a supertaster? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent enjoys foreign films? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is a conscientious father or husband? Fuck no. But, of course, they are still of such rare quality, their relative weaknesses in other non-essential-to-football traits are hardly detriments to their career prospects.

Tantalizingly, the title of the post is “Even MLK Cheated On His Wife”, but the content is solely about the selection of professional athletes. Where David Duke hides his arguments inside of stories, boatfloating is our resident argument-by-hint specialist.

Football is an industry. The process of finding, “developing”, and moving talent up the ranks is all very streamlined. There are big institutions involved—including universities, among others. The resources for providing that external moral environment are there. That end simply has not been prioritized. We know that non-essential-to-football traits can be prioritized because some teams, like the Patriots, will punish players for what might be described as being un-classy in the media. Of course, this could be interpreted as being for the franchise—maintaining a certain image and all that. But surely the same logic could apply to not having domestic abusers and dog fight hosts on their roster?

On the other hand, the domestic abuse and dogfighting example are not, perhaps, the best ones for the angle I’m going for here. Those crimes take place at home; we wouldn’t expect any employer to be held responsible for what their employees do at home. A better example would be how players behave when the team is on the road, something that takes up a significant part of a player’s year. For all I know, NFL teams are actually good at providing an environment that encourages their players to behave during this time; I admit to total ignorance on this mark.

Some areas where the moral environment really is quite bad (from what I have heard) are the music and film industries. At least back when Johnny Cash was alive and doing drugs (a late in life interview of him serves as a point of reference for me here), the drug pushers were in the industry itself, you had a working relationship with them. Moreover, you were probably a young nobody who all of a sudden had rocketed to be a rich megastar, and the institutional environment certainly wasn’t set up to manage that transition well. And to top it all off, what peers you do have at this point are largely on drugs, too. Not all famous actors and musicians face this situation of course, but for those who do it becomes a black hole of self-destruction. And it seems to happen for at least some part of their careers to quite a large proportion of actors and musicians who make it big.

This is all very different from the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. in some very crucial ways. MLK truly was magnificent, in the sense of doing great things, taking hard stands, doing more than it seems possible for a long individual to do to bring justice where it was most needed. If justice was his cause, charity was his guiding star, and he pursued it with more courage than most. As an icon he has perhaps more glamour than any other figure in 20th century American history, perhaps more than any figure in all of our history.

Though his infidelity stains that glamour, it seems, in context, to be a highly forgivable sin. Some ideals, by their nature, cannot be attained in full, and so part of those ideals must involve an understanding of when “good enough” crosses the threshold into “good”. Would the content of MLK’s character have been improved if he had remained faithful to his wife? Certainly. And I hope that others do not take his infidelity to be an excuse to commit it themselves (“if even MLK cheated, how can I expect to be good enough to control myself?”).

But overall, the content of MLK’s character was extraordinary. He was magnificent, and it did not really come to the exclusion of other virtues, for the most part. His flaws were by and large the flaws of ordinary people, and his great qualities stand out as examples for us all.

I do think that aiming for magnificence makes us more vulnerable, as it necessarily involves goals that require nearly all of your focus and all of your time to have a chance of accomplishing. In a way, the Stoics were on to something when they spoke of virtue as being a necessary skill for even being able to properly enjoy external goods (which they referred to, oxymoronically, as “preferred indifferents” because of the fact that they were not necessary for happiness but we still prefer to have them rather than not). The people who are in a best position to stand firm against the temptations of sudden fame and fortune are those who are already virtuous and good at surrounding themselves with people who will help them stay that way.

But the risks of fame and fortune are very well known these days. And as I said, MLK did not, on the whole, lose his virtue after his rise. And so I remain skeptical of the claim that began this conversation.


Previous Posts in This Thread:

Related Pieces:

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.”


“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.


Corruption At The Highest Levels

Well, where else is it going to go?

A certain blogger provoked, as he is wont to do, by positing that all community is inherently corrupt. Seeing as how we’re all born into community, a.k.a. family, the question was severely sophomoric, and thinly veiled as tired provocateurship, you know, like a football linebacker spitting on the offensive tackle. Nevertheless, Yours Truly was provoked, and a stew simmered.

The question itself is intriguing because of its shallowness. It is the yelp of the idealist when first he is pierced by that stinging recognition that things purported to be good ain’t necessarily so. The reaction is easily predicted: flank the enemy, who herald their own purity, and shout the epithet, “You are corrupt! You are not pure! You are now The Other!”

Naturally, getting back to the command post from the enemy’s flanks can be fraught, traveling under the dark veil that corruption is actually everywhere, creating the surreal environment of The Other bleeding into The Pure, a conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily ideals. Most people find themselves wandering in this twilight zone of the zealot for a long time, even mouthing the words to the battle hymn of the pluralism, but expending valuable soldierly energy stamping out the apostate.

Some grow weary of carrying out the Inquisition, recognizing, perhaps, that some dear friends were lost along the way, or potential friends were forever quarantined in the ghetto. The fanatics fire their machine guns without a mind to aiming, and the zealots, even though they aim, never come off the front lines. Cynicism sets up, a seepage where the first wound bit. Everything is corrupt. The sun is growing dim and will soon snuff out, abandoning all life to a cold, hard rock.

Life stirs, however. Is it possible that I, being born into community, am corrupt by nature? And that I not only participate in the corruption of my communities, but also contribute to that corruption, unknowingly, unwittingly, even against my will? There are those wicked individuals who incarnate corruption, a slurry of my innocent corruption, seasoned with a bit of yours, fortified with their own reprehensibility. There are those zealots and fanatics who wallow in it thinking that it is purity. And then there are such as I, recognizing my putrid state, and the state of the community around me, the inescapable camp, a desperate band trying to tease out some virtue from among it all, not because I am more virtuous than the wicked, the zealot, and the fanatic, but because I aim to be more virtuous than I am. I reckon to be more virtuous than I am, and it is one whale of a task, considering the cold fact that the MPs continuously point you into the thick of the fray, where we must all dwell, firing at will or willing to not fire. What will we do?

We’ll do the best we can, and then we will pass along what best we did, our many deeds of valor and cowardice, to have virtue teased out of them by our progeny and disciples. Virtue is a creative act of several individuals, calling into being happiness, joy, and idealism where there is not, like a song emerging from within the confusion of the armies: sometimes more join the tune, sometimes fewer. Thus the rivers flow to the ocean and then find their way back to the mountains.


Flattery will get you everywhere, my dear. Besides, I think I’ve spilled quite enough ink this week kvetching about the embarrassing politics of wayward children.

I still recall the moment it happened, my charming darlings. No, not the time when the America of my youth hucked aside its pretentious dalliance with painful sincerity, but the moment I finally grasped that it was never there to begin with. There has never in the history of civilization as I hazily understand it been a period characterized by anything even remotely approaching genuine sincerity. Quite the opposite, since even primates exhibit evidence of strategic deception.

For me, the eye-opening event was the 1989 release of Faith No More’s album The Real Thing. The music video for their still-occasionally-played radio hit Epic was making the rounds. Here, give it a listen:

See what I mean? Patton takes great pains to growl out lyrics of great portent, howling as only he can do, challenging your flippant notions of your own masculinity with a guttural sneer. But the contents of the lyrics? Perfectly vapid. He’s taking the piss out of pretentious hair metal bands a few years before Kurt Cobain achieved international acclaim by doing the exact same thing, only with a bit more Pacific Northwestern melancholy (and those unforgettable anarchy cheerleaders). For me, that was the day sincerity died. Not with a bang, but with a fish flopping around as Roddy Bottum played a wee tinkling dirge to its demise.

Is that any different from Kurosawa and Mifune’s Yojimbo taking the piss out of the preposterous bowdlerization of the WWII-era Samurai aesthetic? Or to Mozart’s impish antics deflating self-important Italian opera? Irony suffuses human history, and many of the best works that have survived the ages (seriously you guys, re-read the Iliad and tell me it’s not 99.9% tongue-in-cheek) tends very heavily to the side of pricking the vanity of the self-indulgent psychopomp.

But as in all else, temperance is a virtue. I think what Peej wants from me is a steely eye gazing an an unseemly excess of not just irony, but the Hieronymous Bosch-flavoured animatronic grotesquery of recursive meta-irony. She fancies herself a 140-character Helen and I her pied Paris to cross deadly waters.

Challenge accepted.

Using game theory, it’s pretty easy to model a sincerity dilemma. With probability p, your interlocutor is being sincere (therefore, with probability 1-p, she is being insincere). Since you know the payoffs to the actions you can take, you have all the parameters you need to guide your response. As you vary p, your behavior should change. Easy peasy chicken sneezy.

Or is it? Not so fast, because what if p isn’t a parameter, but a variable? What if your behavior in this round influences the probability that others will either be sincere or act as if there were sincere in the next round? Go ahead and get all recursive with that. Take a moment and see if you can’t land on an equilibrium where every player is privately insincere but publicly sincere. If you were a naive observer, would you be able to distinguish between that world and one where everyone was actually legit sincere?

Take your time thinking carefully about that question before pondering this one:

What if foreign cultures have this same equilibrium? What if part of the cognitive dissonance expats experience a few months living abroad is the uncomfortable realization that their cozy adopted culture is just another gaggle of brooding hypocrites not all that different from the ones left behind?

The Age of Irony may as well be named The Age of Always. Adjust or perish as you see fit.

And the best way to slay the beast of tiresome meta-irony is to starve the damnable thing. Irony appeals to many of our ugliest human instincts. The virtuous wanderer acknowledges that these nasty urges exist, accepts them, and strives for excellence regardless. #Arete, young lady. #Phronesis.


It’s hard, but satisfying.


The Opposite of Virtue: A Leveled Approach


This notion from Sam Wilson’s primer on transaction goosed my gray cells: “I encourage you, O dearest reader, to consider justice to be an additional salient dimension here. There is nothing that inheres to any of these three a particular notion of justice.”

“Well, yeah,” I said to myself. “Let’s talk about that.” So I tried, and my first attempt, subtitled, “A Volley,” left me dissatisfied. As they say in comedy: if the joke bombs the first time, repeat it until they laugh. But first, a graphic.

Here’s how I understand Sam’s taxonomy, of sorts: Action

Anything can do action: humans, mammals, snails, the wind. Humans, I believe, carry out their existence transacting. That’s the first half of my post. The second half of my piece is concerned with the difficulty of aligning oneself justly, or morally, or with virtue in order for transacting and exchanging to go on. While I do distinguish among the three, I do not see hard, fast lines separating them. Honest people, for example, do not steal. Moreover, honest people help those near to them prosper. And so, I asked, whence theft? Theft is not merely the absence of virtue, it is an action driven by a will to harm someone near at hand (virtually or presently). I mean, we watch each other like hawks to ensure that one does not make away with the other’s hawklings. Do we not presume to do so because we use virtue to temper our own nature to steal, also presuming that not all temper that nature?

Adam Gurri commenced to ask some questions which I did not understand, which told me that I probably laid an egg. Therefore, to illustrate…

A Story

“Once upon a time” is inappropriate here, even though it functions as a parable, because the following story is typological, meaning that, even though it is made-up here, this case recurs often enough to make it into clinical studies as textbook. Without further ado: Continue reading “The Opposite of Virtue: A Leveled Approach”

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”