Small-R Republicanism and the NeoL-word
July 20, 2011

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Many, many blog-years ago Dylan Matthews and I had a back-and-forth over abstract philosophy’s role in concrete political debates. I argued that philosophy could play a bigger, more active role in public discourse, whereas Dylan insisted that first principles are “largely irrelevant” in real-world politics and only “emphasizes differences that, in the trenches, are hardly relevant.”

But if there’s one thing we should learn from the progressive blogosphere’s ongoing debate over neoliberalism, it’s that these intramural differences over fundamental values can have significant implications. I was reminded of this when I grabbed a drink with Dylan just the other night, and we got to talking about his “neoliberalism”* versus my more traditionalist leftism. The more we explored the subject, the more we came to realize that our political differences reflected a deeper philosophical disagreement: I’m a small-r republican who equates justice with the maximization of non-domination, and Dylan is a utilitarian who treats non-domination as an ancillary concern to general well-being or flourishing.

My problem with utilitarianism in a public policy context is this: when it comes to accurately measuring and maximizing a phenomenon as fuzzy and nebulous as “well-being,” we’ve got a serious knowledge problem on our hands. On the other hand, Philip Pettit’s book on Republicanism includes a lengthy and fairly rigorous account of freedom as non-domination. And while the book — being, first and foremost, a work of analytic philosophy — does little to unravel the full policy implications, you can draw a direct line from my republican leanings and to emphasis on redistribution of power through workplace democracy, just as you can draw a line from Dylan’s utilitarianism to his preference for centrally-directed technocracy.

*I’m using scare quotes here because Dylan has a reasonable case that the term “neoliberal” is not really all that useful when explaining left/center-left divisions in American politics.

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Pragmatism and Scientific Realism: Two Great Tastes!
April 26, 2011

“This right here is some @resnikoff linkbait,” tweets young Dylan Matthews, and he is not wrong. The linkbait he refers to is a post over at his own (all too infrequently updated) blog arguing that Sam Harris is trying to have it both ways with his insistence that science can answer basic moral questions.

Dylan writes:

While there are a number of different philosophies of science and epistemologies that can accommodate the scientific method, Harris is certainly correct that you have to accept one of them for the whole thing to work. Harris’ choice appears to be scientific realism, which, in short, is the view that science describes a world that is really “out there”, and that a scientific observation is true when it corresponds to this real world.

Which is funny to me, because Harris is a utilitarian. At least that’s what I and Orr make of his conclusion that the good is the “well-being of conscious creatures”. A quick scan of the book shows that Harris explicitly identifies identifies as a consequentialist (see page 62; sadly there’s no Google Books preview I can link to). Consequentialism + a hedonic conception of the good = good old fashioned utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism, unlike some other ethical theories, has philosophical implications outside of ethics. In particular, I think it commits you to some form of pragmatism. If the answer to “what should I do?” is “whatever action maximizes the general happiness” then the answer to “what should I believe?” is “whatever belief is conducive to maximizing the general happiness”. That starts to look a lot like pragmatists’ argument that what is true is what is most useful to believe.


So Harris has a problem. He can be a scientific realist, which rules out both pragmatism (which rejects the idea that there needs to be a real world “out there” which true statements reflect) and utilitarianism (because it implies pragmatism). Or he can be a utilitarian, and a pragmatist, and acknowledge that religion is often a source for good in the world and a source of joy for many privately. But you can’t be a utilitarian and a scientific realist, and you certainly can’t try to get to utilitarianism through scientific realism, which is what he’s trying to do now.

I’m not sure that’s exactly right. I get the sense that philosopher Neil Sinhababu’s pleasure-based hedonic utilitarianism is consistent with scientific realism, at least if you think Sinhababu’s claims about the objective goodness of hedonic pleasure hold up. (Incidentally, Neil, if you’re reading this I’d love to get your take.)

But while I don’t believe Dylan has scored a hit, I think y’all already know I find Harris’ theory to be deeply ill-conceived. I encourage you to read the excellent essay that inspired Dylan’s post to find out why.

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Nietzsche Blogging: Twilight of the Idols
September 25, 2010

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With the beginning of Twilight of the Idols, we move into late-era Nietzsche. Soon he’ll be swallowed up by insanity, and I think here is where the first warning signs appear. He’s still the Friedrich we know and love (or hate, or feel deeply ambivalent about), but something’s different. The wit and mockery on display here is a little more acidic. And Nietzsche is ripping into his fellow philosophers like we have never seen before.

I’m not that deep into Twilight of the Idols, but so far almost all of it seems given over to harsh criticism of different philosophical traditions. Platonic forms and Kantian idealism each get savaged as different incarnations of the same error, and Utilitarianism gets dismissed in a single snide comment. Not even Socrates escapes unscathed.

Here’s a passage from the essay, “The Problem of Socrates,” which I think gets at Nietzsche’s larger project in this work:

It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they merely wage war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change its expression, but they do not get rid of decadence itself.

He is referring here to the Socratic method, and reasoning itself. It’s a jarring argument coming from the man who once held up reason as the only true path to the truth.

But I don’t think this is a contradiction so much as it is a summary of his whole project. Nietzsche is deeply passionate about reason as he sees it, not the idealism of prior philosophers. But perhaps more importantly, he’s an enemy of intellectual complacency and the self-assuredness he identifies as a symptom. Attacking the assumptions of even his own heroes is a way of fighting that good fight.

Nietzsche Blogging: Homer’s Contest
August 23, 2010

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I’m about 30 pages into The Portable Nietzsche now, and a few prominent themes are already becoming pretty obvious. The most obvious one: Nietzsche loves himself some Greeks. Homer, of course, gets a major shout out in “Homer’s Contest,” but the German philosopher’s greatest affinity seems to be for the Athenian philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and so on.

It turns out that Nietzsche likes the ancients for a lot of the same reasons I do: he takes issue with the utilitarian, enlightenment-era notion of aggregate pleasure or utility as an ultimate moral end. Nietzsche sees truth as a worthwhile end in and of itself, not to mention excellence.

I’m completely onboard with truth as an end, but on the fence regarding virtue and excellence. Or, to put it more accurately, I think virtue and excellence are fine things, but that it’s nonsensical to think of them as something that could put you above other persons in any morally relevant sense. I’m not sure how I feel about the second formulation from Kant’s categorical imperative (the part that says: never treat others as means, always treat them as ends in and of themselves) as a set in stone law ad absurdum, but I think there’s considerable merit to it as a general rule of thumb.

Nietzsche clearly disagrees. To him, the lives of the vast majority of humankind are valuable only to the extent to which they serve as means for the truly virtuous, excellent people. Or as he puts it, when discussing why we have civilization: “The hope is that with the preservation of so many blanks one may also protect a few in whom humanity culminates.”

To my delicate liberal sensibilities, the idea of calling any person a simple “blank” with no moral weight of their own is morally repugnant. But what little I know of Nietzsche’s work suggests this will grow into a major preoccupation of his, and I’m interested to see how he develops it.

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John Stuart Mill on Partisanship
August 15, 2010

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I recently discovered the website FiveBooks, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. The site consists of a collection of interviews with experts in various fields; these experts come to the interviews with a list of five books on a specific topic, and then answer questions about why they think the books illuminate that subject so well. Today, the featured expert was the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey, who came prepared with a list of books on “Traditional and Liberal Conservatism.” First on the list: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, perhaps the great treatise on utilitarianism.

I’m not terribly familiar with the parts of Mill’s political philosophy that aren’t directly related to rule utilitarianism, so it was fascinating to read Lindsey describe why Mill thinks that liberalism and conservatism complement each other:

He strays from the contemporary libertarian line in a number of respects. But the reason I selected him is that there is a brief passage in On Liberty (in the second chapter on defending liberty of thought and discussion) where he lays forth what I think is the best concise explanation for why there is a left and a right – and why there always will be. Why, even though he wasn’t a conservative and didn’t think much of conservatives, he thought conservatism was a necessary and wholesome part of political life. Let me quote a sentence or two: ‘In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.’

I think the typical view of politics from inside a partisan mindset is to see politics as a battle of the good guys versus the bad guys. Maybe the good guys are on the left, maybe the good guys are on the right, but it’s this Manichean struggle and the way to get progress is for the good side to win and impose their will. Mill sees through that and sees that, in fact, politics is a dialectical process. At any given time truth is partly on one side and partly on the other. It’s more a battle of half-truths and incomplete truths than of good versus bad. The excesses of each side ultimately create opportunities for the other to come in and correct those excesses. Liberalism, in Mill’s view and in mine, provides the basic motive force of political change and progress. It will go astray, it will have excesses, it will make terrible mistakes – and a conservatism that is focused on preserving good things that exist now will be a necessary counterweight to that liberalism.

I think this is exactly right, but it’s important to recognize that the current political dynamic in America doesn’t function like this at all. The current major political figure in the US with the most cautious, incrementalist disposition is President Obama, while those to the right of him are lobbying for radical, deeply rash changes in government policy (the call to repeal the fourteenth amendment comes to mind). Sure, they justify their platform with appeals to nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia for policies that either A.) never existed except in their minds, or, worse, B.) represent extreme atavism far more than cautious incrementalism.

In other words: Instead of impassioned reformers on the left and cautious inertia on the right, we have cautious reformers on the left and extreme radicals on the right who distinguish themselves largely by running in the opposite direction. The fearful crouch of the Democratic Party and the dangerous lunacy of the Republican Party have thrown Mill’s dialectic model completely out of whack.

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The Trouble With Utilitarianism
July 18, 2010

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Many of you who have studied philosophy in some capacity have likely heard these objections before, but let’s run through a couple of them quickly:

  • How do you measure utility? I haven’t heard a convincing account of what utility is, much less how it can be properly measured. And I think it’s psychologically unrealistic to think you can graph the same sort of linear metric of pleasure/happiness/fulfillment/whatever else onto everyone.
  • Disturbing human rights implications. Say you govern a small town in which all of the townspeople are united in favor of lynching one of their neighbors. You know the total amount of utility the townspeople will get from murdering their neighbor exceeds any amount of utility the potential victim might be able to obtain over the duration of the rest of his life. What do you do?
  • The utility monster. In a similar vein as the last objection, what would a utilitarian do with an individual who was simply capable of generating more utility out of the consumption of resources than anyone else in the whole village? Give him everything he desires, even if that leaves everyone else with nothing?

In response to those second two objections, a lot of modern utilitarians subscribe to something called “rule utilitarianism,” which puts certain constraints on what can be done to maximize utility. So, for example, the governor of the small town in that second example might be a rule utilitarian who favors maximizing utility at all costs, except when it violates his “no lynching” rule.

The problem is, once you start setting up rules outside of the utilitarian framework, you have to produce some metaethical account of where those rules come from—and suddenly, you’re in the same position as non-utilitarians, trying to locate some outside justification for your ethical code. The closest I’ve seen to a compelling justification for those rules is an appeal to intuition, which I find kind of laughable. “Intuition” as a final justification is the worst kind of hand waving in philosophy; it’s exactly equivalent to saying, I am pulling this entirely out of my ass, but shut up.

Anyway, setting up arbitrary codes to protect utilitarianism from its own logical conclusions doesn’t do very much to solve the underlying problem from which my latter two objections stem: this is a philosophy that does little to acknowledge the natural separations between persons. There’s no math in the world that can take all of our wants, hopes, desires and fleeting pleasures and add them up into some sort of aggregate value.

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