Saturday, December 31, 2016

Refining Welfarism & Moral Fallibilism

Refining Welfarism & Moral Fallibilism

A Renewed Look At Interests & Judgments

Semi poetic opener:

"Ask not what we can do for goodness, ask what goodness can do for us"

But more contentiously:

"Ask not what victimizers can do for rightness, ask what rightness can do for victims"

Now soak in the reversal:

"Ask not what goodness can do for us, ask what we can do for goodness"

And the corollary:

     "Ask not what rightness can do for victims, ask what victimizers can do for rightness"

The first set of quotes is foundationally suitable. That is to say; when reason-giving and explication bottoms out, as all things do, the first set of quotes may be declared superior by fiat. The only competition in town, after all, is the second set of quotes. The reversals. And they seem rather backwards, for goodness and rightness aren't persons or affect-laden relational entities that can be harmed/benefitted in the first place. They are nothing but communicational tools, and should not be aggrandised as something more. If you are nodding along so far, we likely enjoy adequate overlap on core suppositions and noteworthy things. If 'backwards' seems harsh, and you would rather see the second set of quotes declared reasonable by fiat, you will encounter harshness in what's to come.

The four quotes are fictional, for the record. A playful spinoff, attributable to this seemingly unforgettable one. This disclaimer is probably unnecessary, but including it can't hurt.

Priorities In Motion

At the risk of philosophical tackiness, I propose that everyone rank their primary areas of inquiry based on how interesting and underdiscussed each area is considered to be by the ranker. This should probably be done annually.

We're nearing the end of 2016, so here's my rank-ordering for the year:

I. Axiology

II. Morality

III. Political Philosophy

IV. Metaphysics

V. Epistemology

Axiology > Morality > Political Philosophy > Metaphysics > Epistemology

I. Axiologists are at their best, so I contend, when they concern themselves not so much with investigations of moral or aesthetic value, but rather with enclosing or reducing gaps between duelling criterions of goodness. This settled, hyper-detailed systematizations of the good may take over with no apologies. The systems I take most seriously in this offering are inseparable from creaturely interests. This may be too heterodox a picture of 'goodness' for some, and that's more or less the point. I look at some of the alternatives towards the end, but devote less time to them.

II. Morality = Resolving or dissolving rivalling criterions of rightness and/or betterness.

III. Political Philosophy = Actively securing civility upkeep by managing competing theories of fairness, justice, equality, desert... ideally in line with the criterions of axiology and morality.

IV. Metaphysics... too many items to mention here, but notably Determinism vs. Indeterminism.

V. Epistemology = Resolving or dissolving competing theories of knowledge-acquisition and belief-justification.

If your interpretations or priorities vary drastically from what I've put together here, let me know. I'm eager to revise and accommodate possible missing pieces.

This is a regular blog post, so some type of commitment to briefness seems appropriate. Thus, everything below contains "I. Axiology" only. I plan to add "II. Morality", "III. Political Philosophy", "IV. Metaphysics" and "V. Epistemology" in the near future, as separate posts. As you may have guessed, I am in the midst of writing a book. The five sections I'm outlining here will comprise the book's five chapters. Axiology will be chapter one, such that the posts' chronology isn't merely tokenistic. I'm looking to have each chapter (in the works) undergo constructive criticism so that all five are in topnotch condition when the time comes to have them formalized.

Goodness Rightness

Axiology is not a highfalutin term for morality, nor is morality a redundant term for axiology. To speak of ethics without axiology, as public intellectuals are prompted to do, is to confine your commentary and worldly ire to behavioural and agential boundaries. Being preoccupied with the agent as well as the patient, to the equal degree that I have been, is an altogether different affair. Imagine having peculiar taste buds that dispose you to relish apples and oranges evenly. So evenly, in fact, that the two are not distinctive to the tongue in any way. Their respective tastes are blended together from the outset. When apples and oranges taste identically from day one, perceiving them as separate items on the shelf is increasingly difficult. After a certain point, their separateness is chalked up to a color-adjusted abstraction. The papered acknowledgement of the difference is ultimately relegated to background noise.

The taster, call him Bob, still phones in accurate remarks about disjunction, but he does this mostly out of reputational concerns. The fact remains, though, that apples and oranges are technically different fruits, while axiology and morality are technically different disciplines (if I may call them that). This flag planted, some of my previous posts on ethics effortlessly jumbled the two. I will atone for that jumbling here.

When we are in an evaluative mood, we may look squarely to the middle (axiology) for guidance and classification. If we are in a strikingly different mood, one that sees the brain yearning to cast judgments on agential affairs, perhaps even deontic affairs (hi traditionalists), we must look to the top (morality) for guidance and classification. Accordingly, axiological questions/answers will be amoral with respect to their expository grounding. What the enterprise of morality chooses to do with them from there on out is for professional and armchair ethicists to sort out.

Internalizing discontinuities between the good and the right is easier said than done. This is certainly the case for those of us who promote suffering-focused ethics. For all I know, my coming to grips with this discontinuity was more of a slow-burn process than my blotchy memory presently has me thinking. There are several ways to speed up the process, assuming you even care to. One way is to recurrently posit a world where bliss-for-all is at its apex while pure viciousness makes its way into the hearts of everyone who draws breath. Serendipity of the highest magnitude, this state of affairs. The discontinuity can be inversed so that nonstop hellishness is reserved for all despite agential virtuousness being everlastingly universalizable. No matter how you slice it, a kind of disjointedness between the good and the right starts to seem palpable. This of course doesn't mean that we are barred from arguing that the good is prior to the right, it just means that the good does not necessarily engulf the right.

Nothing in our conceptual repertoires makes these theoretical "≠" cases impossible. This is one technique you can use to internalize good/right discontinuities; picturing them at their most trenchant. Another technique might be to recall the following on a daily basis:


Fortunateness ≠ Praiseworthiness

Unfortunateness ≠ Blameworthiness


Goodness ≠ Rightness

Badness ≠ Wrongness

A brisk nod to these "≠" pointers will prove hollowly insufficient. To make the most of what's being put forth, cognitive internalization of the discontinuities is a must. I want the "≠" symbol incised onto the mind, much like the crucifix has been in the minds of the devout. Momentary lip-service, or type-service, simply won't do. If I thought otherwise, I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of setting up niftily illustrative diagrams:

Take the fairly uncontroversial statement "Reality doesn't prescribe". Supplement it with "All prescriptions are notional". Pile on any other zinger you feel astutely conveys the factuality of descriptive/prescriptive segmentations. Attempts at pushback will consist of word-games and similar stock sophisms, typically rehashed from the confused past. Rarely do such moves pleasantly surprise. Indeed, there is no ought-making feature to any fabric of reality as we know it. However, none of this erases the reality and recognisability of interests qua interests.

Condemnatory thoughts and utterances aim to capture rightness by shedding light on perceived wrongness. Interests, when realized, imperceptibly map onto goodness. If this much is allowed, it follows that the infamous is/ought gap is not the gap anyone should wage analytical wars over. A duly gapped take on interests and judgments persists in the wake of it. Reframing the matter in this way alleviates the speaker of moral dogmatism without obliterating realist understandings of intermediately 'good' and 'bad' states of affairs, shaped by earthly interests. The unbridgeable gap, in this respect, is the good/right gap.

Judgments, whether prescriptive or proscriptive, are always uniquely ought-inducing. Interests observably carved into the world. We do not judge the existence of an interest, we detachedly spot it. Its presence is as spottable as the existence of the external world is. One can proceed in this fashion and still rebuff naïve realism, as I happily do. The indirect realist doesn't hold back on the external world's existence, for Indirect Realism parts ways with Direct Realism only in its affirmation of the perceptual intermediaries that arise between perceivers and objects. The lacuna at play is almost trivial and poses no real problem for our interest-spotting capacities, and certainly not for interest-manifesting realities. Such problems are posed by the lacunas of Idealism, Phenomenalism and Solipsism, but that's a separate post.

If you follow me in analogizing consciousness and perceptiveness to a blank paper for writing on, you will require a pen for certain assignments and a pencil for others. We might say of all STEM assignments that they mandate Penned Work, and of all philosophical assignments that they mandate Penciled Work. One is entitled to more boldness than the other. When our fallible ideas are penciled in, all we need to modify them –– or rid ourselves of them altogether –– is the eraser. With pens, only whiteout will do. Whiting out previous works is a chore. Positivists and Verificationists know.

The axiological-pencil doesn't come with an eraser on the back, which cannot be said of all pencils. Any moral-pencil is deflated by the monstrous size of its eraser. The starkest contrast between interests and judgments is observable here. Moral judgments being ontologically erasable at all times. Interests being... recognizably interests; etched in phenomena. Inerasable, as long as someone is drawing breath.

Moral judgments are chained to conative and affective mentation, meaning the judger's pencil is always at odds with an eraser that's attached to some other judger's pencil. Judgments being notoriously fast-paced compared to nonjudgmental/empirical modes of mentation. While mind-dependency cannot on its own devastate the possibility of moral wisdom, it should at least cast doubt on every thick version of metaethical realism; the belief that morality is truth-apt and falsity-apt (distinct from morality-as-thinly-wise + immorality-as-thinly-unwise).

Side Note: Oddly, a handful of semantic forms of realism snuck into metaethics during the latter stages of the Twentieth Century. These might be ignorable realisms, but they are said to have gained appreciable notoriety. I'm not so sure. On anecdotal counts, semantic-only realisms are staunchly underrepresented, especially once you venture outside (the academic bubble of) metaethics. At any rate, these recalibrations of 'moral truth' bear minimal resemblance to their classical predecessors, and are more akin to philosophical programs, i.e. Blackburn's quasi-realism. Programs that disavow metaphysical moral reality every bit as much as generic antirealisms do. In that sense, I see no reason to boycott what they're selling. The Deflationary Theory Of Truth seems to be doing some of the legwork here, programming 'moral realism' semantically much in the way representationalists and dispositionalists are free to program 'color realism' into validly projected terminological use. The deflationist appreciates thinness-over-robustness in other talks touching on (indirect) realism. I'd be shocked if supporters of deflationist-adjusted realism in metaethics came anywhere near a relative majority of meta-theorists, much less an absolute majority. The lion's share of metaethical realists are (on my readings) no truth-deflationists. They fixate on moral metaphysics and moral ontology, unapologetically forgoing thin conceptualizations in favour of thick ones. [End Note]

Is axiological realism doomed to draw from the same metaphysical dubiousness? Not in the slightest. The moment interests qua interests are accepted as provably descriptive, axiology is free to count itself among truth-apt domains. At least, in the foreseeable future. Axiologists may, then, dispense with antirealist leashes just as the trendoid does with any piece of outmoded attire. Keep just one set of interests neatly non-rivalrous across two or more parties (easily achievable) and axiological antirealism becomes axiological obscurantism. Shoo.

When a set of interests turn rivalrous, realist talk loses some or most or all of its justificatory force. But it is not axiological realism that must be surrendered at this juncture. It is instead metaethical realism that shall go, seeing as the axiologist has unjustly been recruited to play ethicist. The ethicist is the idealized resolver; the tiebreaker. If axiologists are cornered with assignments urging them to resolve tradeoffs, they are no longer just axiologists.


The moral dilemmas that continue to haunt my brain tend to be ones that bear similarities to distributive dilemmas, and resolving them concretely should not be the axiologist's trade. When you wrap your head around just how difficult lifeboat-style decisions can be in principle, the assignment is analogous to solving a postulatory unempirical puzzle. Chapter 2 supplies exhaustively detailed arguments as to why this is so.

Tradeoffs mandate contemplating, calculating and ultimately justifying a winning set interests under crudely imbalanced tug-of-war schemes (i.e. in accordance to betterness and worseness, for scalar theorists). Here the axiologist is past the point of merely establishing the good. Any post-established stage of interest-weighing shoves the spectator into the role of the moral decider, oceans away from goodness tout court. The original plausibility, and indeed provability, of interests qua interests remains unblemished, despite ensuing (moral) complications borne of tradeoff irresolvability.

Permit me now just one more painless analogy in two easily digestible parts. (1) axiology straightforwardly representing a written exam that procures the measure of a pupil's attained knowledge. (2) morality representing a percentage point that arbitrarily demarcates between a "passing grade" and a "failing grade". i.e. 49.9% makes for a "failing grade" whereas 50.0% makes for a "passing grade". The pupil's exam score and knowledge level is on the whole gatherable, despite the unempirical arbitrariness of our Pass/Fail frontiers.

As long as the exam is not forged along 'Multiple Choice' lines, crafty guesswork will not do the pupil any good. The specificity of traditional 'Essay' testing methods does wonders here. The epistemic purpose of the exam is served, in the realest sense of real. Nothing turns on its head due to the undeniable arbitrariness in settling on a minimally adequate "score threshold" that makes a passing grade passable and a failing grade failable. A certain performance level is picked, for no reason other than one has to be picked. As with axiology, recalling the initial amoral features of the task is always a thought away. Nothing turns on its head.

If the reader wishes to pass on my splintered approach to axiology and morality, fair enough. I can still, rather stubbornly, provide a backup framework that integrates the two and retains the gist of my point (on paper). Embed axiology into the first half of the North American alphabet, and morality into the second half.

Axiological Realism  =  A B C D E F G H I J K L M

Metaethical Antirealism  =  N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Nothing turns on its head during evaluations of letters A through M.

Everything is descriptively moot when it comes to letters N through Z.


I'll wrap up this (introductory?) section with an example that popularized the topic, if somewhat sloppily: A trip down memory lane to 2010 sees The Moral Landscape screaming out for some kind of mention. What did Sam Harris accomplish with TML? Did he shed light on some of the hardest, most complex moral stalemates and reset them for public consumption? Did he set out to debunk oppositional theories so as to show moral utterances producing true/false verdicts for layfolk to chew on? Did TML give off any indication that its author even considered such a task obligatory? I'm afraid not.

What Harris did in 2010 was articulate perfectly that every sentient brain has interests of some sort. Harris' big mistake was titling the book "The Moral Landscape" as opposed to "The Axiological Landscape" and applying moral rhetoric to non-agential circumstances, i.e. cosmic misfortune generating the "Worst Possible Misery For Everyone" versus cosmic fortune generating Something Way Better.

We The Creatures will always opt for something way better, seeing as we tend to not be myopically masochistic. But this fate is a cosmic procedure, not a decisional one. When it comes to grand impacts like these, we are not in the driver's seat. The "Something Way Better" world is clearly a more fortuitous world, axiologically speaking. Morally speaking, we know nothing of it. Harris could delve into more detail in his next big offering, but I'm not holding my breath. Based on recent podcasts and interviews, Harris' metaethical faith persists to this day. This is most unfortunate, because his intent was and remains pure; dispelling tired assumptions about irreligion and nihilism marching in lockstep. And I do mean tired assumptions.

Materialists needn't rely on the super-specialness of Metaethical Realism to quell unfounded fears about their unseemly ability to slide into moral apathy or worse, for it is chiefly through axiological disregard –– the unreasonableness of which I just covered –– that moral disinterest sets in. And so the abovesaid fears exemplify philosophic rashness, usually bolstered by theological supernaturalism. This preternatural affectation –– much like mysticism, transcendentalism or irrationalism –– does diddly squat in undermining welfare-guided axiologies.

Axiological Welfarism = Criterion Of Goodness (over Badness)

A systematized handling of welfare must, on my reenergized view, be construed as a twofold program for establishing human and nonhuman interests according to naturalistic and materialistic understandings of the world. Show welfare-minded axiologists the classificatory menu above and they will land on a single flavour of welfarism. I believe anything less than two flavours is bound to sell humans or animals short, while anything beyond two postures or overcomplicates matters.

As such, two welfarisms will prove better than one:

Readers familiar with my earlier works will have predicted this balance act between hedonism and preferentism. This duality arises out of a partitioning of what I like to call Broad Welfarism (foundational preferentism) and Narrow Welfarism (foundational hedonism). The broadness of preferentism fits well with the nuts and bolts of civilizational life (the reflective pockets of it, anyway) while the narrowness of hedonism is appurtenant to the nuts and bolts of Darwinian life (instinctual life).

Note that Anti-frustrationism wasn't sent packing, nor was it given the green light, because it comes across as too much of an offshoot –– arguably a synthesisation –– of hedonism and preferentism, both of which have already been selected. The paragraph above summarizes why hedonism and preferentism are best when they're kept apart rather than conjoined. That's strike one for any theory offering up a merger of the two. Antifrustrationism is more than a hybrid theory though; it attributes an axiological asymmetry to fulfilled/unfulfilled + created/uncreated preferences (and, one would think, to positive/negative hedonic states) such that badness (disvalue) of lives reigns and goodness (value) is nowhere to be found. Deprivationalism evidently checkmarks many of the same boxes. The validity/invalidity of these asymmetries is not germane to the purposes of this chapter. Even if Antifrustrationism or Deprivationalism are shown to be valid in some crucial sense, their input can only be constitutively fitting when our attentional zest is turned to pre-natal evaluations. Contrarily, this chapter aims to evaluate goodness/badness for extant persons only. The interests of "the unborn" will be considered in Chapter 2. For now, I'll stick with hedonism and preferentism as advertised, keeping in mind that we need not accept Antifrustrationism or Deprivationalism in order to understand with clarity that the so-called "unborn" cannot be harmed by remaining unborn, regardless of how full or empty the world happens to be at any moment.

Worse yet, treating Antifrustrationism as being more valid than plain Hedonism or plain Preferentism are (not just for pre-natal hypothetical patients, but for post-natal fleshspace patients as well) opens the door to the stringency of global promortalism. The longer you exist, the more frustrated your preferences become, day in and day out, with nothing good to show for it. No matter how minimally frustrated one's preferences are, the one-sidedness holds. It is possible to bypass this stringency without embracing global anti-mortalism or life-affirmation; simply downgrade conventional pro-mortalism so that its reach is local/particular rather than global/universal. If you decline and it remains steadfastly global, the luckiest person who ever lived would have been benefitted by an earlier death, since even he was unable to escape the frustration of some preferences or a subset of preferences. No matter who you are or how well your life goes, premature death must be welcomed on this view.

It can be argued that pro-death inferences of this stripe stem from inordinately wooden interpretations of Antifrustrationism. I will not engage objections from interpretive leeway at this time, and will simply take it as a given that global promortalism is the ideological cousin of Antifrustrationism commonly understood. Considering that I have criticized non-local promortalism –– aka promortalism-for-all –– numerous times over the years, I will proceed from here without the (ostensible) baggage of Antifrustrationism.

On that note, the renewed classificatory overview:


Hedonism vs. Preferentism vs. Asceticism vs. Perfectionism vs. Objective List Theories

[The remainder of this chapter scrutinizes the bottom three theories. Unfortunately, it will have to be published as a separate post. I made one too many adjustments and the chapter ran incredibly long as a result. Here's hoping that this is the only chapter I will have to split into multiple posts in the interest of brevity.

Part Two will be posted in a few days. I will provide a "Follow Up" link to it right here. If you have positive or negative feedback on any of the above, feel free to comment anytime. The rest of the chapter doesn't enhance any of the arguments I've put forth so far, so reading the rest is not necessary if you wish to remark on anything from here.]

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Flimsiness Of Unrelenting Political Catastrophism

Internet induced political faddishness seems to have reached an all-time high, especially if measured by factionalist self-unawareness. I will ashamedly confess to having consumed far more of this sugary topicality compared to what my ideal disciplined self would have tolerated in a fraction of the timespan. And certainly far more than my silence on the boring and predictable American Presidential Election cycle might've led regular readers to believe.

I keep tuning in on a weekly basis, from the same familiarly detached distance the average reader of this blog probably does. The insipidness? Everything from "Terrorism is a serious threat to our way of life" (roughly 2001-2006) morphing into "Counterterrorism is a front for gov't expansion & liberty encroachment, read Orwell" (roughly 2006-2014) then imperceptibly back to "Terrorism is a serious threat to our way of life, but doubly-seriously this time!" (2014-2016).

For nearly a decade, it was next-to-impossible to come across a respectable poll or to spot a positively received YouTube video mounting an irrepressible case for counterterrorism, with terrorism treated as The Biggest Issue Of Our Time. Perhaps this speaks more to my preoccupation with cyberspace opinions and inevitable failure to pay adequate attention to meatspace opinions. So be it. It's doubtful I'm missing all that much, seeing as prodigious geopolitical discussions mostly occur online anyway.

The online-specific clamouring for non-interventionism –– even isolationism, at fever pitch moments –– was influenced partly by a growing fiscal distaste for the project of Middle Eastern nation-building. Still, I believe the piteous failure of this task played a comparatively minor role in molding public distrust of militaristic adventurism during the mid-to-late 2000s and early 2010s. The major component was the perceived governmental lies regarding civilizational threats posed by terrorism itself, distinct from the arguable necessity of nation-formation. Just think back to all those chuckles the online world enjoyed when exposed to any "They'll follow us home!" mode of fearmongering at the hands of neocons. But seemingly overnight, and for the second time already this century, this mindset pulled an about face.

Well of course it did. What else could it do? Oh and look here, the attitudinal shift tracks the highly-publicized emergence of ISIS. Shocker. But consider how Global Jihad is only a slightly higher harm-generator today compared to its effects throughout the 2000s, if we go by global metrics. That is to say; if one understands that a faultless and civil non-westerner being akbar'd in the name of Islamism is as bad as a faultless and civil westerner being akbar'd for identical reasons.

Mainstream America is growing fonder of "All Lives Matter" sloganeering. Contrary to progressivist mind-reading, this is a good thing. It's good regardless of what it happens to be a reaction to. If you think it's a reactionary slogan, the downside is mutually-cancelling considering the reactionary underpinnings of the original BLM slogan. If I am to nitpick it, I'll point out that it actually aims for "All Human Lives Matter" and excludes non-human animals. If any lives are viewed as justifiably ripe for exploitation, it's non-human animal lives. But let's just set that aside for now. Thanks to ALM, or A(H)LM, hardly anyone is going to come right out and say "Westerners Are More Important Than Non-Westerners" and this ties back to the 2000s vs. 2010s Global Jihad civilian casualties and the absence of drastic inclines in said casualties.

So why the arbitrarily recent panic? Why is it fine and dandy to make Orwell spin in his grave now in the name of safety-before-privacy overreach, counterterrorism and collateral damage... compared to back in 2009 or something? The per capita victim count in stable and relatively stable regions hasn't surged anywhere near the quantity required to match the present levels of panic. Despite omnipresent scandalous-news outlets and Europe's pseudo-apocalyptic "burning" status, we are still living in one of if not the most safest period(s) in human history. Cognitive scientists like Pinker, who have been made reputable by stressing such statistical slam-dunks, aren't telling catastrophists to "go back to sleep". They're recommending the occasional nap, since sleep-deprivation is known to elicit clumsy thinking.

Sure, my picking on Mainstream America for its 180 shifts on real vs. faux epidemics makes me the sort of person who goes after below-the-ground-hanging fruit. Frankly, I don't care. For once, effortlessness is mine to indulge.

To be clear, I hold nothing against the highly opinionated who change their minds, so long as they fess up to having done just that, instead of downplaying previous convictions. Hell, I probably fall somewhere within that highly-opinionated camp more than I'd like to admit, but then I was the first to admit publicly that my last major geopolitical prescription turned out to be a colossal mistake. Any other response would qualify for Sunk Cost Fallacy apologetics to save face. In that sense, I commend the few who go the next step and review past errors with a fine tooth comb. The intent being to broadcast self-reviews and pinpoint abandoned former positions, as doing so in public makes for a sound cautionary tale.

Just how often does this happen though? It should be frequent, seeing as shifts in general attitudes are anything but infrequent. But if you're masochistic like me and waste time doing longitudinal analyses of internet sensations like Stefan Molyneux and his YouTube channel or Freedomain Radio archives, you'll find a consummate example of a massively popular content creator who marches to the beat of vogue while most of his commenters intentionally overlook (or daftly fail to pick up on) glaring contradictions. An anti-statist, NAP moral absolutist who is yet to recant any of that strictness, but who casually engages in mainstream political cheerleading so non-stop partisan hack-like it would make Rep/Dem strategists blush. Again, this is admittedly below-crust-hanging fruit I'm going after, but the point needs to be made. Sometimes the easiest target is also the most consequentially suitable one.

More broadly, one can't help but notice large swaths of minarchist Paultards, most vocal around 2007-2013, having seamlessly shunned long-held Limited Government ideological fetishes in favor of neoreaction traditional left-wing Keynesian stances consisting of Fair Trade Tariffs, Labor Market Protectionism, with robustly tightened and unavoidably pricier border protections. All this, without a peep in the way of "Whoops, maybe the role of government is bigger than we've been willing to entertain for all those decades. Maybe this means proceeding with a bit more humility in future engagements with misguided devotees of Big Gov't". Of course, there is no catchall appropriate size for the role of gov't. As with anything else, its size is subject to fluctuation. If you find that off-putting, take it up with Contextualism.  

Throw in cultural anti-permissivism which is historically less Left/Right and more centrist in nature, and you're left with quite the interesting ideological synthesis. Traditionally centrist though it may be, anti-permissivism catering to pro-familialism runs afoul any hope to shoehorn laissez faire principles into the social sphere. So much for those sanctimonious "Libtards want to oppress you economically. Conservatards want to oppress you socially. It is only my political tribe that offers you economic and social freedom" platitudes.

Which brought me to the realization that more and more left-wingers are hopping on the backlash against "The Cultural Left" (whatever that's supposed to mean) and its agenda to "Destroy The Family Unit".

This is the strangest 180 of all. As I said, tradcons never really gave up on this grievance, but I couldn't have imagined it catching a second wind among influential sectors of the American Left. I'll be examining this in depth in an upcoming post. This writeup was actually supposed to contain that examination, but I got caught up in the above introductory rants and figured they serve a decent prelude to the main course.

Rather than posting yet another longwinded post, I'll leave it here for now and follow-up in a day month or two.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Political Pragmatism: Taking Policy Results Seriously

The American Constitution was ratified in 1789. Nearly 11,000 constitutional amendments have been proposed in the interim. Of those, a paltry 27 saw actual amendment ratifications successfully pass. Round up combined attempts to an even 11K and you get a success rate of 0.00245454545%. Perhaps you think that's a figure to be proud of, but then there's peskiness like this to contend with. But even if you defiantly ignore the populist will, just getting to the "Amendment Proposed" stage requires a two-thirds majority vote from the House and Senate. Contrastingly, Germany has 50 Constitutional amendments under its belt, and this is if we only start counting from 2003 onwards. That's 50 successful amendments in less than 13 years for Germany, while the last successful amendment ratification in the U.S. took place 24 years ago as of my writing this. At one point Scalia calculated that it can feasibly take 2% of the entire U.S. population to block an amendment that's spiritedly backed by a supermajority. America; Home Of The Same.

The point? There are people who subscribe to forward-looking ethical theories but oddly insist on having political sacred cows. I can only infer that they've not adequately politicised their consequentialism. The reasons for this will differ. In the worst case, they will have failed to do so quite deliberately. Political identity wins out because the sacredness-conserver is not a consequentialist to begin with. Then again, many members of this group are oblivious to the fact that they have implicitly snubbed a systematized theory of ethics in favour of political identity. More on them later.

In the near worst case, we have a more informed group concluding that a nifty ethics/politics merger finds itself outside the bounds of good taste. For this not-quite-worst group, the merger is not poor taste, it's just nowhere near good taste. Flagrant politicization of consequentialism is not out-and-out Political Heresy, but it is suggestive of Political Indecency. The group keenly reminds us that good (or just comparatively better) outcomes can be brought about inadvertently, and policies shouldn't be crafted to control for things like blind luck. Politicising happenstance is just not civically kosher, in their eyes. Besides, humans have inalienable rights (haven't I heard) and the merger would overlook the inexorability of such rights, in some cases. Can't have it.

The near-worst group's enduring presence reaffirms how beginners only abstractly champion the consequentialist cause, up until the literalness of outcomes-over-praise hits them where it stings. Someone like me gets written off due to my unglued insistence that Politics is really nothing more than Applied Ethics, and that there is wisdom in brashly merging the ethical with the political. Axiological clarity demands it.

The challenge: Point me to a Political Principle that's worth preserving indivisibly, even when it fails to improve on, or when it directly or indirectly worsens, any of these (three) formulations of human and non-human welfare.

In my thirteen+ year stint on the internet, I've seen many who regard ethical/political mergers as being in full-blown poor taste. That's the absolute worst group; a mindset perceiving the amalgam as not just "not good" but acutely "bad" so "let's not go there". Enter non-overlapping magisteria takes on the moral and the political.

Of course, the anti-merger view is itself an ethical injunction, unwittingly slithered into value-neutral political discourse. Proponents of backward-looking ethics have far more wiggle room here, but I'm not even trying to dissuade them in this post anyway. Their particular mental acrobatics are an aside for now. I'm after fellow consequentialists' acrobatics in this post.

The rejecter offers reasons that prop-up anti-merger convictions. These inevitably narrow down to condemnatory attitudes. Still, the attitude is presented as an amoral condemnation of the merger, and while this is hilariously paradoxical in its own right, it's doubly hilarious when you see the rejecter trying to pass himself off as an advocate of outcome-minded ethics.

Hilarity and duplicity aside, the non-overlapping magisteria group's inability (unwillingness?) to pick up on the contradiction is what leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The doublethink is bipartisan and rears its head across the political spectrum. Cringeworthy oft-sayings include:

"You can't legislate morality!" (unstated premise: it's immoral to do so!)

"You don't bring your religious /irreligious/anti-theistic views into the voting booth" (it's immoral to do so!)

"You can't impose your sense of right and wrong on society at large" (it's immoral to do so!)

"Just live and let live" (it's immoral not to!)

"Politics is corruption, that's no place for morality" (it's immoral to mix morality and corruption)

"You worship your way, I'll worship my way" (it's immoral to nudge me into worshipping your way)

"You raise your children how you see fit, I'll raise mine how I see fit" (it's immoral to... form the CPS?)

You get the picture. They're like, non-prescriptive prescriptions y'all!

Except they're not. They can't be. Our utterances are either descriptive or prescriptive, be they political or apolitical. Every descriptive statement is non-prescriptive, and every prescription is non-descriptive. Pushback against this gets you the civic equivalent of being told that social nonjudgmentalism is a virtue, that falling short of social nonjudgmentalism is a vice, and that this can be identified and relayed to offenders without a third party's judgment doing the relaying. It's being told that someone is successfully squaring the circle and dammit pipe down if you disagree about it being sufficiently square-ish & circle-ish.

While the personal may not be political (most of the time), the moral certainly is.

Denying this is also a dead-end when you consider how consequentialists cannot have implacable views when it comes to specific acts, specific laws, specific constitutionalist rituals or specific proceduralist norms... when analysed independently of (seamlessly varying) context. The roadblock is amplified to the extent that adherence to axioms is bound to be outcome-undermining at best and outcome-dismissive at worst.

Face it, there's no such thing as an "amoral condemnation" of anything in the political world. Even when you're engaged in an otherwise purely factual dispute and are about to accuse your discussant of intellectual dishonesty, you are ascribing value to intellectual honesty itself. You can't do this in an amoral way. Treasuring correctness, awareness, knowledge, veracity... all under the guise of doing something amoral, or non-axiological, has folks falling short of (you guessed it!) intellectual honesty.

And if you believe that intellectual honesty is irreversibly self-justifying, you will understand how your dishonest interlocutor must have been (1) factually/amorally confused about his reasons for dodging or misunderstanding the facts you unleashed upon him, (2) was not intellectually dishonest after all, just ignorant or mentally disabled or too emotionally retarded to grasp what you said and how it undermines his stated belief.

When you step into the voting booth, you are not engaging in intrapersonal glass-house wish-fulfillment. You are, in no uncertain terms, imposing your values on society. Assuming you're not just there for a pisstake, or an ironic throwaway vote, you are there to be an imposer. A roundabout imposer, sure, but directness/indirectness is as irrelevant to final impact under democratism as it is in apolitical philanthropy. So impose those values you hold dear. No apology needed, as prescriptions are non-divorceable from follow-through on values like truth-appreciation. With this, our moralities are inextricably tied to our particular political ventures.

Not to lose sight of the crucial point; that political principles are indistinguishable from political ideologies. This holds regardless of the particular set of principles under review. Appealing to "the principles" and the need for internal consistency comes across as high-mindedness because the folk continue to fall for sanctimonious applause lights. How I wish they'd stop.

It should be uncontroversial to hear that a set of political principles is just codeword for an unimpressive and probably clannish political ideology. Trying to undo this by thinking of those principles as something else or something more is nakedly disingenuous. I remain confident that all of us would rigorously investigate the causal-chain behind our beliefs, and think more level-headedly about the policies we have heretofore supported, if we accustomed ourselves to a phlegmatic abandonment of any principle the moment it produces results even minimally inferior to those practiced elsewhere. For this heuristic to come naturally to the broader public, sobering anti-rhetoricians must make their presence known. If Joe Public gets trained to spot the differences between the rhetorician and the conversationalist, or the differences between the pseudointellectual provocateur and the intellectual lightweight/middleweight/heavyweight, our most strenuous hurdle will have been overcome. Sadly, I'm not aware of any influential figures who haven't been taken in by rhetoricians and who then went on to equip Joe Public with the same falsity-detection tools. This will have to change if there is to be any hope of reaching a stage where framing debates along incendiary Political Identity lines is seen as intellectually passé. As it stands, identity-driven conceptual frameworks continue to animate online participants unlike any alternative. Keyword searches on Political Identity labels numerically outperform keyword searches on moral category labels, by orders of magnitude. Something to abscond.

Only by aggressively politicizing your forward-looking ethical system can you legitimately balk at "the divisiveness of politics" and similar factionalist woefulness failing to get at the crux of disagreement. It's analytically restraining. Some have even called it the mind-killer (at worst) or hard-mode (at best).


In the midway case, ideology weakly lingers. The merger is given some consideration and lingerers budge here and there, albeit reluctantly, when pressed by the telic ethicist who doesn't shy away from being heatedly political. Overall, the group clutches to original political dispositions. Perhaps social (tribal?) gesturing plays a role too. Subsequent efforts to have them budge more are met with rhetorical manoeuvrings (i.e. "It's not sacredness, it's consistency!") or handwavey dismissals of outcomes' significance. The concept of inalienable rights is understood as farcical, but the group's acceptance of this relaxes nothing come crunch-time. Policy debates turn laborious, with unintuitive counterevidence being groaned at, especially when fresh out of the political lab. If your pet policy worked for centuries (due to, say, the era of industrialism being the right place and time for said policy) and waned gradually (see: postindustrialist and futurist shifts, organizationally speaking), your policy needs to go. UBI, unthinkable less than 50 years ago, is now on the table. Even when it possesses the most methodically sound procreation disincentives, UBI still violates cherished "Pay your way through life" purities. Choosing it will feel wrong, for rural mindsets more so than for urban ones. No matter how wrong it feels to you, evidence abounds that UBI is better suited for anticipatory ethics than any alternative proposal. Handling mass unemployment under techno-futurism in societies via UBI can only seem unfair if you reject the politicization of a future-minded ethical system. Austerity need not apply as your feelings, values and attitudes morph into Sunk-Cost Fallacies around policymaking.


In the best case, there are no ideologues in sight. Any hesitation to merge is born of epistemic concerns and is nonideological. i.e. "We currently don't know for certain whether Yield signs are all the rave compared to Stop signs, so let's not meddle with a functional traffic system by swapping all Stop signs for Yield signs". This is a respectable position, if somewhat crippling. Yes, uncalculated risk-aversion can be crippling, as can imperfectly calculated risk-aversion.

When leftover wavering around mergers is not grounded in genuine uncertainties over data and moral know-how, it will be misguidedly impulsive; down to people not thinking in adequate detail about the relationship between ethics and politics. Think about it appositely and the merger is fair game. Politics = Applied ethics. Northing else.

This relationship is intended to be symbiotic. The moment it's not, one of two things will have gone awry; (1) the political side isn't pulling its weight, usually because established players prioritized non-moral agendas over moral ones, (2) the moral side isn't pulling its weight, because the outcome-minded members of the citizenry are too morally shy (or just too disinterested) to force the moral hand and combine the two disciplines, as is commonly the case.

Acknowledge that a persuasive pitch in favour of the merger can be made and nothing within policymaking is seen as nonnegotiable. People begin to understand that a Constitution is valuable in terms of what it has done for its citizens lately, and all is right with the (analytic) world.

Few political commentators/analysts/junkies consciously unleash themselves from legalistic restrictiveness around moral assessments, regardless of their spot on the political spectrum. Despite the dismally low ratification rate mentioned at the top, populist disregard of constitutional nuts and bolts in the case of, say, National/Public Healthcare, is clear as day. Much like with the supposed moral rightness of voting itself, vested interests appeal to Constitutional Might when it's convenient, only to overlook it, downplay it, or point out how "times have changed" the moment the same Constitution's supposed inerrancy turns inconvenient. So why only 27 amendments? Because rotted-corpse Founders willed it? Well, some of them did anyway. Talk about backward-looking. All I hear is Because God Willed It. Likeminded consequentialists shouldn't hear anything else.

I'm here to unapologetically call every last Constitution in the world a pig, and to urge readers to wipe some of that superfluous lipstick off of it. This can be mistaken as me saying "Constitutions are useless because they're totally modifiable". A misunderstanding that seems wilful, so I won't bother with it. Constitutions are useful in spite of being adjustable. The less adjustments over time, the less usefulness in mileage. To prove how wrongheaded I'm being with all this, opponents point to brutalist despotism wherein fewer checks and balances result in havoc and gulags. To prove how wrongheaded they are, I point to counterfactuals of my own. If you're going to deify the Founders, note that Jefferson wanted laws to expire every 19 years, because "The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead". Deify that.

Finally, I propose a fresh and captivating terminological differentiation between The Leftist and the left-winger. This delineation is idiosyncratic and has nothing to do with clashes between the center left and the radical left. That's immaterial for now. Rather, it's about consequentialist versus non-consequentialist influence on difficult political questions. A longstanding tug-of-war taken beyond the micro, thrust into the macro. Gov't officials shoot down a hijacked plane and kill hundreds of faultless passengers/civilians in the process. It's the morally appropriate thing to do, because governments are in the (scalar) business of preventing more harm whenever shit hits the fan.  Governments are not in the business of protecting imaginary natural rights of innocents when doing so comes at too high a cost to welfarist concerns. Move the target from static non-consequentialist rights-theory to the demonstrable benefits of ethnic profiling, and the committed Leftist is made squirmy by the exact same calculative pronouncement. The left-winger, meanwhile, nods along to it with ease, understanding that profiling is a cost/benefit question like any other, not an isolated "right vs. wrong" question aiming for sanctimony. The Leftist is unconditional in his support for Leftism. The left-winger supports left-wing policies conditionally.

Same goes for differences between The Rightist and the right-winger. The Rightist has non-welfarist sacred cows to maintain, come hell or high water. The right-winger, though not entirely friendly to the demandingness of impartial consequentialism embraced by the left-winger, still finds himself closer to it than to some non-consequentialist, egoist or Social Darwinist baseline.

For those who identify somewhere amidst (what I'll call here) the Worldwide Conventional Left, examples of That Which Is Nonnegotiable include Equality, Democracy, Integration, Universal Human Rights, Anti-War, Anti-Globalism, Anti-Imperialism, Minority Rights, Reproductive Rights, Privacy Rights, Labour Rights, Positive Liberty, Torture Prohibitionism, Capital Punishment Prohibitionism, and perhaps a special nod to recent transgender noise making the rounds.

For those who identify somewhere amidst (what I'll call here) the Worldwide Conventional Right, there's the unwillingness to surrender some or most of the following; Property Rights, Firearms Rights, Religious Rights, Just Desserts, Retributivism, National Sovereignty, in-group loyalty, Exceptionalism, nuclear familialism, Negative Liberty, Pro-Life/Forced Birth, obligations to fellow citizens over distant foreigners, and perhaps the resurgence of nativism and identitarianism.

Common nonnegotiable mainstays shared by the conventional left and right: Freedom of Speech/Expression, Industrialism, Trade, Innovation, Conservationism, Preservationism, consanguineous dictates on interpersonal obligations.

The takeaway: Each of these is 100% negotiable when reliable indicators point to better things coming everyone's or most everyone's way, if one or more of them is momentarily or permanently displaced.

Every. Last. One.

There is no consequentialism in action without the looseness of Political Pragmatism.


Note: This doesn't mean that dwelling on politics is the best way to make a difference. Political discourse and political activism is often a time-sink. It just means that, whatever time you do devote to the political should be understood as you doing ethics in the macro.