Davos Culture
November 13, 2010

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN07 - Impression of the...
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In his excellent Foreign Affairs essay, Richard Betts describes “Davos culture” as

the transnational consensus of the jet set, who, Huntington wrote, “control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments, and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities.” Huntington, however, saw politics like a populist and pointed out how thin a veneer this elite was — “less than 50 million people or 1 percent of the world’s population.” The masses and middle classes of other civilizations have their own agendas. The progress of democratization celebrated at the end of history does not foster universal values but opens up those agendas and empowers nativist movements. “Politicians in non-Western societies do not win elections by showing how Western they are,” Huntington reminded readers. Although he did not say so, the mistaken identification of modernization with westernization comes naturally to so many U.S. analysts because they understand exotic countries through stays at Western-style hotels and meetings with cosmopolitan Davos people — the local frontmen — rather than through conversations in local languages with upwardly mobile citizens.

I’m a little fascinated by this idea because I think it says quite a lot about how cultures and ideological groupings form in the modern age. People from all over the world from a distinct income bracket and with a certain professional focus have formed a culture that encompasses and overlays the dramatically different cultures of their homelands. Populist leaders (loosely defined to mean “leaders who have any reason to care about what the majority of their citizenry thinks of them”) need to learn how to move between these two cultures with some degree of fluidity.

Of course, as Betts and Huntington suggest, people who spend most of their time in Davos culture are going to come to see it as the default. All of a sudden, it doesn’t look like a culture at all; it’s just the way sane, savvy people understand the world. This is the big category error that most people make about whatever culture they’re most immersed in, and anyone who’s complained about the Beltway elite or the church of the savvy knows what a big problem this is for politics.

But the fact that there is now some common set of norms among most of the major international heavies is both inevitable and desirable. The big questions I have right now are: What are those norms? And what should they be?

The Joys of Nudging
November 10, 2010

Cover of "Nudge: Improving Decisions Abou...
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Recently I had the opportunity to read about half of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s famous book Nudge. It was more or less what I expected: a broad overview of different observations about human behavior from the young field of behavior economics, followed by a series of arguments for various policies that utilize those behaviors in a constructive way. The biggest surprise of the book — given Cass Sunstein’s reputation as a “non-ideological pragmatist” and his current employer’s reputation as same — was how willing Thaler and Sunstein were to engage with the philosophical arguments for and against their doctrine of libertarian paternalism. Burke was cited, as was Rawls.

As for libertarian paternalism, and nudging itself, I’m basically onboard. I’ve argued before that public policy can’t help but influence social norms, and so policy makers need to think about how to influence them in a productive manner; this book provides a handy conceptual framework in which to do that. It goes without saying that the concept has limited utility (Sunstein’s proposals for how we can nudge conspiracy theorists are kind of disturbing), but it also adds some much-needed texture to notions about what constitutes good policy.

Matters of Utmost Seriousness
October 9, 2010

All the legitimate bloggers these days have end-of-the-day link roundups. And as it so happens, feigning legitimacy is one of my hobbies, which is why I’m starting a new semi-regular feature: MATTERS OF UTMOST SERIOUSNESS. I say “semi-regular” because I don’t have the time or inclination to post link roundups each day, much less assemble enough links on a daily basis to make for a decent roundup.

I do, however, have things I want to highlight but don’t feel I can construct a full post around. Here are some of the recent ones:

  • Julian Sanchez takes the question of whether or not a god could prove its omnipotence quite a bit further than I did. I stopped at what it would be like to experience omnipotence because it seemed inconceivable to me; but that’s sort of handwave-y, and Julian does a good job of puzzling through the concept of omnipotence. Also, the comments thread is glorious.
  • Philosopher Neil Sinhababu, who I interviewed for my column on personhood, thinks cognitive neuroscience has a solution to the philosophical zombie problem.
  • Massimo Piglucci on the limits of reasonable discourse.
  • Columbia University Press is going to publish David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate thesis, in which the future novelist tried to rebutt fatalism. The New York Times Magazine had an article about the thesis awhile back.
  • Via Leiter, a blog about what it’s like to be a woman in academic philosophy.
  • Also via Leiter: an excellent essay on the nature of political conservatism.

Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Thus Spoke Zarathustra
September 20, 2010

I’m not sure I have much to say about the fourth and final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as much of it seemed to be a restatement and summary of what came before. It was certainly the funniest of the four parts by far, and there’s a reason for that: as Zarathustra comes to accept the eternal recurrence and inches closer to ultimate enlightenment, he begins to truly live his philosophy of laughing at and making a mockery of the world. He is willing, finally, to laugh at himself.

Indeed, the latter half of Part Four unfolds as a drunken celebration in his cave along with the higher men who all represent steps towards the Overman. Notably, a priest is in the group, and Zarathustra goes so far as to explicitly endorse spiritual ritual and observance for therapeutic and social reasons.

Only about 250 pages left to go in The Portable Nietzsche.

Not Just Any Fat Man, Not Just Any Trolley
September 16, 2010

23/365: Trolley wheels
Image by Sarah and Mike …probably via Flickr

Via Twitter, here’s a fascinating article on how variations on the classic “fat man on the trolley tracks” thought experiment produce lead people with different political leanings to different conclusions. Namely: conservatives seem more willing to sacrifice one black man to save a train full of white people, while liberals are more willing to sacrifice a white man to save a train full of black people.

My guess is that both the liberals and the conservatives involved in this experiment would tell you that the race of those involved is morally irrelevant, and been appalled if you suggested that they’re unconsciously weighting the life of a member of one race over the life of someone of a different race, controlling for all other factors. But of course, that’s why thought experiments generally operate at a high level abstraction in the first place; why the fat man is usuallly known only as “the fat man,” not Tyron Payton or Chip Ellsworth III. The idea is to bypass corrupting personal prejudices and get to deeper moral intuitions.

If the liberals and conservatives had focused on the abstract question at the heart of the thought experiment instead of morally irrelevant details, they would not necessarily have making a more moral decision as we judge it, but they would have made one either consistent with their professed moral intuitions, or which caused them to reconsider those intuitions. They also would have learned something useful about their own innate biases.

So while this study didn’t have much in the way of surprises, it did confirm one of my own biases: it demonstrated yet again why I think everyone could benefit from making a serious study of ethical philosophy.

You've mentioned experimental philosophy in a few of your posts, and I was wondering if you had a take on it. A few friends and I got into a FB discussion on it when someone posted this http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/experimental-philosophy/?hp The upshot of our discussion was that we couldn't really determine how experimental philosophy was different than perhaps just a closer relationship between psychology and philosophy (not to say that would be a bad thing.) What do you think?
September 9, 2010

My good friend Peter—whose blog everyone should read—has already commented on this a little, but I guess I’ll throw my two cents in.

I don’t know much about experimental philosophy, but from what I have read it seems to me like a lot of scholarship in the field is based on the study of how we form certain beliefs. I was initially skeptical that these studies could be called philosophy, because it seemed more like straightforward psychology.

But psychology has always had some obvious utility for philosophers—and, in fact, Merleau-Ponty used a psychological case study to refute the orthodox Cartesian dualism of his French existentialist colleagues—so the more I think about it, the more it seems worthwhile for individuals trained in both fields to collaborate closely.

The Myth of the Magic Center
August 12, 2010

To expand on the point I made in today’s column, organizational principles based around individual actors (democracy in this case, but also, for example, capitalism) are going to trend away from equilibrium and towards entropy if there aren’t safeguards in place. The example of this most people like to point towards is how the laissez-faire capitalism of the Industrial Revolution morphed into something perhaps more accurately described as neo-feudalism. But I don’t think it’s hard to see how the same thing could happen in a democratic system where appeals to popular will are treated as a de facto justification for any sufficiently popular policy.

The problem is that popular opinion is extremely malleable, and often contradictory and strange. Which is why, rather than deferring to popular opinion, we invest decision-making authority in a smaller group of people whose wisdom, judgment and experience we put a special premium on. Too bad that quite  a few of them say crazy, irresponsible things, get their constituents to echo those things, and then act as if all they’re doing is deferring to the will of those same constituents.

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July 14, 2010

I’ve had a couple of conversations regarding the concept of shame over the past week, and it’s gotten me thinking.

Shame enforces social and cultural norms. In one sense it’s a tool used to discourage people from deviating from those norms, and in another sense it’s a self-imposed reason to adhere to them. There is a major sense in which this is deeply messed up, because many of the cultural norms shame enforces are either arbitrary or downright harmful. For example: shame over sexual orientation, gender identity, popular beauty standards, race, popular gender norms, etc.

So yes, shame is dangerous. It is, among other things, a tool for oppression. It can also be emotionally crippling and developmentally stunting. But I’m hesitant to condemn shame as either an inherently illegitimate emotion, or an inherently illegitimate societal function. When someone feels shame, or is publicly shamed, for having done something that is legitimately immoral, that’s a good thing. It’s an incentive to not do it again, as well as an indication of recognition that it was wrong in the first place.

Besides, I’m inclined to side with Heidegger when he says that guilt—which is distinguishable from shame, but very closely linked—is simply one of the underlying structures of self-conscious existence. It is not, in of itself, good or bad, but simply there. And the choices we make that are most true to ourselves are those which acknowledge and confront it.

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Stephen Walt on Political Science
July 2, 2010

I’ll pose the question to my friends who were/are actual political science majors: is the trend Walt identifies here, in which caution defeats ambition and compels scholars to focus on drab, esoteric questions over bold new models, for real?

It sounds plausible to me, and certainly tracks with my one deeply dissatisfying semester in NYU’s Politics department, but that’s not enough to base an argument on. And to be fare, I don’t think this is somehow unique to political science; the same sort of institutional pressures could affect many different departments, and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t.

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