Category Archives: Ethics

George Soros

I’ve been hearing such dark and incredible tales about George Soros’s depravity and deviousness I felt I’d better look into who he is. And what better better place to start than to go directly to the source and read one of their books?

It turns out Soros is a philosopher — a Popperian. Not only does he have a well-developed liberal ethic, he has developed a profound and liberal metaphysic, which is not something I normally expect from an investor.

The profundity of his metaphysic is what makes him truly exceptional, and I suspect it is also what triggers such violent paranoia in far-right circles. This is what happens when souls who know everything because they need to know everything encounter a soul who knows a much bigger everything.

If only the far-right conspiracists weren’t deluded about Soros’s goals and the extent of his power! If Soros were in a position to actualize his political vision we all would be better off.

I intend to continue reading Soros, and to study Karl Popper’s political writings. This might be the re-fortified liberal philosophy I’ve been looking for.

Four sides to every conflict

In conflicts, there are four sides to every story: there is my side, there is your side, there is what I think your side is, and there is what you think my side is.

If you want to know a person’s soul, don’t be distracted by how that person represents himself in a conflict. You’ll learn far more about who he is listening to what he has to say about his enemy.

If you hear dark and incredible tales of depravity and deviousness, take extreme care. Being on the side of good, facing such enemies, the righteous man might be forced to do evil things to defend himself and his people. If he has foresight and strong resolve he might even take preemptive action in order to avert an inevitable catastrophe.

 

 

Naive moralism

A naive moralist cannot discern the difference between his own moral views and justice, which adjudicates precisely between conflicting moral views, assuming the ultimate validity of none. Justice does not “privilege” any moralism over any other, but this view requires a capacity to put one’s own morality in pluralistic perspective, which is much harder than it sounds.

Naive moralism is not incompatible with hyper-awareness of naive realism — in fact, they might even belong together. A person who scoffs at self-evident facts, who knows the canon of cognitive biases by heart, is entirely capable of wholehearted belief in self-evident moral principles, for instance, fairness.

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Most talk of “privileging” privileges its own knowledge of what privilege is, how it works, who is and is not privileged, and what ought to be done to whom to redistribute unfairness and to establish justice. And it does so with privilege’s oldest trick:unconsciously privileging the assumptions and arguments it uses to demonstrate the objective truth of its claims.

Coalition of opposites

One group of individuals is systematically oppressed by another group of individuals. Two witnesses to the oppression are offended and moved to stop the injustice, but for opposite reasons.

The first witness sees the rights of individuals being violated by other individuals.

The second witness sees one group violating the other group’s right to equality.

What is the injustice?

For the first witness, the injustice is focused on the attempt to strip individuals of their status as citizens and to impose a different status upon them. In a liberal democracy only one category matters: citizen.

For the second witness, the offense is focused on the power imbalance between the two groups. Justice demands equality among groups.

When the two witnesses discuss the oppression, they seem to agree.

The first witness sees that the power imbalance between groups is what makes the oppression of individuals possible, and agrees with the second witness that this inequality between groups must end, but (and this is left unsaid) for the sake of the individuals whose rights are violated.

The second witness sees that the rights of individuals are being violated, and that no individual should be subjected to such indignities, but (and this is left unsaid) because no group is inferior to any other group.

Both witnesses agree that the oppressed should unite and stand together to oppose their unjust treatment. Isolated individuals cannot overcome the oppression of another group. Only individuals functioning as a group can effectively resist another group.

In the urgency of stopping the immediate oppression the two witnesses fail to notice that their differences are greater than their commonalities.

When the political conditions shift, the coalition fractures.

The first witness is shocked to discover that the second believes that all members of the oppressing category are responsible for the current crime and the entire history of oppression perpetrated by its category. The justifications are a drawn from the social sciences, but the moral impulses driving those justifications (the “motivated reasoning” as they say) are now far too close to those of the oppressors: individuals are understood as manifestations of a group, and never mind that such justifications are persuasive only to those who share that impulse, the truth is self-evident and everyone whose opinion matters sees this to be true — and now our group has the power to impose these categories.

The second witness is shocked to discover that the first witness wants to defend the rights of individuals to think whatever they want, even to believe in an essential inequality among groups, even to publicly state these opinions, even to state them with the intention of inflicting emotional distress on other groups, or even to try to persuade them of their own essential inferiority! What is not permitted is any effort, whether by an individual or group to violate any other individual’s rights.

Political Platonism

When one person commits a crime against another, a liberal habitually sees an individual criminal and an individual victim. You can conceptually thematize the parties involved in the crime and the nature of the crime itself in myriad ways, but ultimately it is an individual responsible for the action. Liberalism views the world in terms of responsible agents with specific rights, not as examples of categories.

Whenever I hear illiberals describe crimes, I hear something very different. An example of a category has done something bad to another example of a category, and it seems that the crime is viscerally felt as a manifestation of an enduring crime of one category against another. It seems to be some sort of political Platonism where what happens on Earth is just a reflection of the real events in Heaven acted out by archetypes who are the real villains and victims who matter.

Even our differences in choice of Heavenly ideals is the action of archetypes.

When a Liberal (in the popular vulgar sense) sees a crime of White against Black or Man against Woman, a Conservative sees Liberalism once again committing its crime against America. When a Conservative sees a crime of Foreigner against American or Muslim against Christian, a Liberal sees Conservatism once again committing its crime against equality.

Very few people feel individuality anymore. What we feel far more intensely is categories and concepts.

A literary friend of mine tells me that even our novels are no longer centered on individuality. Readers want moving tales about instances of categories suffering as their categories at the hands of instances of other categories.

And increasingly we see ourselves as manifestations of categories and concepts, and we take aggressive exception to anyone who does not.

Most of us have lost our taste for individuality — and we’re too busy, scattered and degraded to notice.

 

America’s new religion is Antiracism

John McWhorter has observed that America’s new religion is Antiracism:

…they have developed a new religion. That religion is antiracism. Of course, most consider antiracism a position, or evidence of morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Antiracism—it seriously merits capitalization at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.

For the most part, I agree with him, but, being a disagreeable type of person, of course I am compelled to split some hairs: What McWhorter describes in his article is not a religion, but a fundamentalism. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I consider fundamentalisms to be pseudo-religions that work against the purpose of religion. It would be more accurate to call fundamentalism an anti-religion.

This morning, talking with Susan about a paper on diversity and multiculturalism she is writing for one of her ESOL certification courses, I had an insight. I could never understand why, despite my efforts to study, wrestle with and actually practice pluralism in my daily life, the adherents of Antiracism I’ve known have rarely been interested in what I’ve learned or what I have to say on the subject of alterity. They usually just avoid conversation, but when I do engage them, they condescendingly speak to me as someone who doesn’t yet understand what they just know, without any trace of recognition that their assumption of epistemological privilege is both odd and unsupportable. I have put many hundreds more hours of work into understanding these issues than they have. Wouldn’t it make sense to at least entertain the possibility that these hundred hours produced something worthwhile? And given the difference in motivation to learn, can they really claim to care more than I do?

But now McWhorter has helped me see what is going on: this is a religion vs. fundamentalism conflict. This is how it always goes: There are the religious people who live their religion with their whole being — feel it, love it, breathe it, and allow it to soak into their lives and to transform them. And there are those who adopt and enforce the conventional opinions, customs, language, symbols, rituals and behavioral norms of the religion and assume all deviations from these conventions must be symptoms of defective faith, or even heresy. My genuine religious faith in Pluralism looks like heresy to Antiracist Fundamentalists.

And really, I see no less irony in the puritanical, inflexibility and intolerance toward doctrinal otherness of today’s multicultural monolith than I do in the hostile insularity most Christians make of Jesus’s teachings of transcendent love.

The questions of suffering

Suffering, more than anything else, demands answers.

But what kind of question does suffering want us to ask? And what is the answer meant to do?

You’ll get very different kind of answers, practical responses and even dispositions toward life itself depending on your angle of approach to the question of suffering. It might even be useful to construct a personality typology on the basis of the person’s (or group’s) habitual question to suffering.

Let’s use a list of interrogative pronouns as a compass for taxonomizing angles of approach to our question.

  • What? The question of Object/Idea/Action
  • When? The question of Time
  • Where? The question of Place
  • How? The question of Manner
  • Why? The question of Reason
  • Whose? The question of Possession
  • Which? The question of Specific subject
  • Whither? The question of Goal
  • Whence? The question of Source

I definitely have some strong preferences on which angles of inquiry produce superior questions, answers, responses and life dispositions. For instance asking “who caused my suffering?” tends to lead into resentment and desire for retribution; where “why is there suffering?” or “how should I suffer?” or “how should I approach suffering” leads (or can lead) discover meaning in suffering; and “what causes suffering” leads toward discovering practical strategies for reducing suffering.

To choose, we must see the choices in the first place, and this means noticing which questions we habitually ask, which questions we to neglect, and most importantly of all, which questions we have never conceived, the questions and possibilities to which we are blind.

This freedom of inquiry might be our very best freedom. All too often we start the answer we want to believe and then ask  ourselves and others leading questions that induce that answer. This strategy produces tension between belief and truth, then fear of truth and finally hostility toward reality.

We do not get to choose what we believe. Nor do we get to choose what we disbelieve or doubt, as C. S. Peirce famously observed.

But we can ask whatever questions we are able to conceive. This is not to say that we can ask any question we want as a live question. The experience of asking is part of the answer we receive. If we ask a question and feel no urgency in the asking and no longing to hear the answer, that is itself a kind of answer.

To use an optical analogy (a disgraced but still useful class of analogies): We can choose to look wherever we wish, but we cannot choose what we see. But if we do not see anything we want to see where we look, we can choose to keep looking, and this is the freedom that goes by the name philosophy. This suggests a further question: when can we stop looking? That is a complex moral problem too tangled to go into right now.

Slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions of interpersonal being

Wow, this post really sprawled out. It hits a lot of my enduring interests. I’m not sure it is suitable for reading. It might just be a personal journal entry written to myself. Feel free to eavesdrop if you wish, but I cannot promise it will make sense or yield any value.

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I listened to a fascinating Radio Open Source podcast on Hannah Arendt’s conception of evil, which ended with a wonderful discussion on empathy.

Jerome Kohn: Empathy is a fancy word or fancy theory that she argued passionately against. First of all she thought it was an impossible notion in the sense that it really means feeling what someone else feels. Sympathy, fellow feeling, is another thing. But empathy is the claim that you can actually feel what someone else is feeling. And for that Arendt found no evidence whatsoever. One could say it’s even the opposite of her notion of thinking from another person’s point of view. What you have to be able to do is to see a given issue from different points of view, to make it real. And then through those different points of view, with your own eyes, you don’t feel what the other person is feeling, you see what he is seeing through your own eyes, and then you can make a judgement. The more people you can take into consideration in this enlarged mentality, that actually is the foundation of reality for Arendt, the more valid your judgement will be.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Jerry’s exactly right. Hannah Arendt was always opposed to these slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions about what binds people to each other. And she felt very keenly that what really binds one person to another is a commitment to try to see the world from that person’s point of view with your own eyes. Not to subscribe to their point of view or to merge with their point of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. But looking at it with your own eyes, so that you can then, as it were, discuss it with them. Not merge with them in some way, but discuss it with them. She was all about discussion. Not empathy in that sentimental way.

Christopher Lydon (host): And yet, well, there are distinctions without huge differences in some way. To put oneself in another’s mind is the beginning of something important.

EYB: To think that you can put yourself in another’s mind in the beginning of a terrible arrogance which has tremendous consequences. It’s a difference with great consequences. People who think they that they can know what another person thinks or feel what another person feels are narcissistic.

CL: Well, ok, I don’t want to make a philosophical or an endless argument about it. Isn’t it the incapacity and the lack of interest in that perspective precisely what she found at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil, really?

JK: Well, no, it was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

EYB: Exactly. And these are very important distinctions.

This exchange is especially interesting to me for three reasons.

First: as a Human Centered Design researcher/strategist/designer, I am constantly telling people that I am in the “empathy business.” However, I have long been uncomfortable with the characterization of what I do as “empathy”. To characterize understanding another person subjectively as primarily a matter of experiencing how they feel misses the mark in a very Modernist way. (em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’). While feelings are important to what I do, they are not the primary focus. I would prefer to characterize my work as concrete hermeneutics, but words like that do not fly in the flatlands of business where thinking lags a minimum of three philosophical generations behind. So, I’ve adopted “empathy” and accepted the inevitable misconceptions that attend it, because that’s what it takes to be understood at all by most people.

It is hardly surprising that I see things similarly to to Young-Bruehl and Kohn, because I belong to their tradition. Heidegger taught Arendt and Gadamer who both taught my favorite thinker Richard J. Bernstein. A Clifford Geertz quote from Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism has stayed with me as an anchor for my understanding of what a good human centered designer does.

Second, I think that when we see things this way, we tend to treat emotionally-oriented people who are very sensitive and sentimentally responsive to people around them as having some kind of monopoly on human understanding. In my experience, there are multiple stages of coming to understanding of another person, and a talent for sensing and responding does not always correspond with a talent for grokking the “logic” of other people’s worldviews, nor an ability to think, speak and create from another worldview. It takes a fairly vast range of talents to function pluralistically.

I think a lot of the political problems we are experiencing today result from shoddy and retrogressive philosophical conceptions of alterity (“otherness”), which still see understanding of other people as very literally empathic. To know what is going on with another person, we must ourselves have had the experiences and emotions that other person has had. In an effort to understand and to demonstrate our understanding we must induce emotions similar to theirs. Two consequences follow: 1) The one who understands must try to produce the right emotions, and this production of emotion is the demonstration of understanding, which leads to some fairly repulsive public displays of political sentimentality. 2) The one who is understood is put in a position of judging the authenticity of those emotional displays, which is more or less being given the role of arbitrary judge. And if the feelings of the understood is viewed as the central datum or a special kind of insight (being “woke”) into a political situation (typically gauging the degree of prejudicial unfairness, its impact on those victimized by that prejudice and what is required to rectify that unfairness) this amounts to extreme epistemological privilege. Only the victim of prejudice has access to the reality of the situation, and those who are not the victims are incapable of perceiving how they participate in the perpetration, so to use the charming the formulation of today’s hyper-just youngsters, it is their job to STFU and to accept the truth dictated to them. It never occurs to anyone within the power hierarchy of wokeness that there’s anything superior to all this illiberal mess to awaken to. There are philosophical worldviews that are more thorough, more comprehensive and more expansive than the dwarfish ideology of the popular left, but for all the reasons they are eager to point out to anyone who defies them, they are entirely incapable of seeing beyond the motivated reasoning of their own class interests. (This does not mean I think the popular right is any better. It is not. We are in a Weimaresque situation of resentful evil left idiocy vs paranoid evil right idiocy, with the reasonable voices shoved to the margins.)

Third, I’ve found myself misunderstood by many close friends on how I view relationships, and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did a great job of capturing how people think I see them: a “slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notion about what binds people to each other.” I think the misunderstanding is rooted in this same conception of human understanding being primarily an emotional phenomenon. When my own ideal of marriage or of friendship is strained through the filter of today’s left worldview, it looks like a mystical merging of souls that arouses (and should arouse!) suspicions of domination and anxieties around loss of self. But any attempt I make to try to explain the difference between what I have in mind looks like, well, an attempt at philosophical domination and a threat to the selfhood of whoever is foolish enough to take it seriously. Who am I to tell someone something they don’t already know? And anyway, it smells very cultish to listen to someone claiming to know better than the public what is true and right. So, by the circular logic of the popular worldview of the left, it is superior to form one’s own individual opinion (never mind that this opinion on opinions is a product of an unexamined and manifestly broken worldview.)

Obviously, this means extreme alienation for anyone who adopts a sharply differing worldview that affirms the importance of collaboratively developing shared understandings with those around them. In an environment of extreme ideological conformity (with brutal social consequences for infractions) that exalts above all the importance of intellectual independence — but strictly within its own confined philosophical horizon — a philosophy of interdependence, of collaborative development of the very concepts one uses to form one’s opinions, and exalting a togetherness in shared worldview is marked for expulsion.

Anyway, what I really have in mind when I imagine ideal personal connections is, once again, that ideal sketched out by Bernstein, captured so well by Geertz, which I will now go ahead and re-re-quote.

…Accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego effacement and fellow feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their lives at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here, and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.

And now I will quote myself:

“Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem…” or knowing how to design for them.

A design that makes sense, which is easy to interact with and which is a valuable and welcome addition to a person’s life is proof that this person is understood, that the designer cared enough to develop an understanding and to apply that understanding to that person’s benefit.

A good design shares the essential qualities of a good gift.

The kind of merging I have in mind is just sharing a worldview and using it together to live together, what Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher) called a “lifeworld“. I’ve called the process “enworldment”.

The merging aspect of this ideal enters the stage through my belief (shared, I believe by Process Theology) that souls are universe-sized. The pragmatic consequence of what one means when one says “everything” is the scope and density of one’s soul. To enworld* with another is to bring two “everythings” into harmonious relationship, and to begin to function more like a culture than two isolated individuals within this isolating milieu so many of us, without ever choosing, without even knowing we had a choice, inhabit as prisoners of our own destitute freedom.

(Note: that “enworld” link above is a pretty old post, and I’m not sure right now how much of it I still agree with. It makes me want to engage my old self in dialogue and try to discover how much common ground we have. How enworlded am I with my 9-years-ago self?)

Bernard Loomer

From Bernard Loomer’s “Two Conceptions of Power”:

The world of the individual who can be influenced by another without losing his or her identity or freedom is larger than the world of the individual who fears being influenced. The former can include ranges and depths of complexity and contrast to a degree that is not possible for the latter. The stature of the individual who can let another exist in his or her own creative freedom is larger than the size of the individual who insists that others must conform to his own purposes and understandings.

Under the relational conception of power what is truly for the good of any one or all of the relational partners is not a preconceived good. The true good is not a function of controlling or dominating influence. The true good is an emergent from deeply mutual relationships.

Perfect. I’m going to read as much Loomer as I can.

This concept of linear/unilateral power and relational power is going to be valuable.

The pain of non-response

When I attempt to communicate with people and get no response, I find it intensely painful.

Maybe I’ve just gotten sensitive about it and notice it more, but until a few years ago I do not recall speaking to people and being ignored, as if I hadn’t spoken. Now it happens frequently. By my understanding of manners this is appallingly rude, not only according to rules of etiquette but by universal human standards.

I have also noticed an increase in leaving electronic communications unacknowledged and unanswered. I don’t mean ignoring group emails or forwards or links. I mean ignoring personal messages.

I have been told many times by multiple people that this should not be taken personally and that in today’s world this is not an offensive behavior. Cultural norms change and hand-wringing only makes you bitter and keeps you stuck in the past. While I understand this argument, I find it unpersuasive and even depressing. Common behaviors that begin to feel familiar, then acceptable, then normal, then expected do not automatically become good. The belief that what has become common also becomes good encourages us to abdicate our moral judgment. And really, aren’t we selective in our passivity? There is judgment smuggled in when we accept former rudenesses as benign or as progress. We don’t accept all change this way.

I feel an urgent need to explain this pain, not only because pain by its nature seems to demand investigation into its causes, but, it appears to me that I find non-response more painful than most other people do, and I probably need to be able to explain why this is the case to others as well as myself. And maybe my explanation will inspire others to change their behaviors and their expectations of how others behave toward them.

This is my attempt at an explanation:

I think the pain of on-response is rooted in its deep moral ambiguity: it can mean many things, across a broad range of significance.

It can be purely accidental and insignificant. The attempt to communicate was not perceived. Or it can be a mostly innocent postponement or forgetting to respond, due to other more pressing things are going on. It can be an incapacity to respond, for reasons having nothing to do with the communication.

But crossing into the personal side of the spectrum of meanings, it can mean that the communication just isn’t seen as important enough to warrant a response. Or it can be an inability or unwillingness to respond for personal reasons, for instance feelings about the anticipated exchange. Or the silence might signal anger.

Or, worse, the non-response could be a sign of contempt. The contempt might be minor, for instance, a disregard for subjects or themes deemed unimportant. Or the contempt might be more serious: the speaker deserves no response. Or the contempt might be profoundly personal: the speaker is not worth the effort of a response.

The more the non-response is a pattern, the more likely the meaning of the silence falls somewhere on the contempt end of the spectrum. This is why non-response is offensive.

One of the key functions of manners is to keep alienating questions of these kinds from arising. Manners have us 1) signal our respect, and 2) offer explanations for behaviors that could be misinterpreted as disrespectful.

I do not believe the behavioral changes in response to the social media and rampant addiction to mobile devices are creating new norms of etiquette. I believe they are destroying manners and weakening human relationships. I believe general decay of manners (and in general of honoring social obligation) contributes to what some are calling a loneliness epidemic.

Respect is a fundamental human need, rooted in the affirmation that our existence is acknowledged and valued by the people around us. Social norms that allow us to disrespect others (even when that disrespect is not intended or felt as an emotion by the disrespectful) is creating a world that denies these fundamental human needs.

Rude tools

In my last post I promised that my next post would be “a theoretical tantrum on the ethics around that miserable love triangle between developer, tool and user.” and that I thought the issue of “‘ownership’ of software is an unrecognized moral crisis of our times.”

This is that post.

My belief in the importance of resolving the issue of tool ownership hinges on a theory which I experience as true: Extended Cognition. According to wikipedia “Extended cognition is the view that mental processes and mind extend beyond the body to include aspects of the environment in which an organism is embedded and the organism’s interaction with that environment. Cognition goes beyond the manipulation of symbols to include the emergence of order and structure evolving from active engagement with the world.” The example offered to me by my friend Zach, who introduced this concept to me, was of doing addition with your fingers. Viewed through the lens of Extended Cognition the movement of the hand is part of the thinking that produces the result.

Where I experience this as most true is when I use tools that I’ve learned to use skillfully. That is, I’ve mastered them so fully that they more or less disappear as I use them. If we know how to use a pen, we no more need to think about using that pen while we are using it than we need to think about our hand. It becomes part of us, and it allows us to focus our attention on the thing we are doing, and to become absorbed in our activity.

This is true also of software tools — or at least well-designed ones. I am able to just concentrate on the content of our activity rather than the actions we I am trying to perform to reach my goal. Often I can’t even tell anyone how I do what my hands just know how to do. I have to demonstrate it.

How many times have you told someone you can show them how to do something on their computer of phone, but if you can just get your hands on the device you can show them what to do? Sometimes it’s not enough to see the screen. There must be concrete interaction.

This kind of knowing that seems to exist just in the body is known as tacit knowledge. I like to call the part of UI design that harnesses this tacit knowledge “the tacit layer.” Back when designers still liked to talk about “intuitive design” this awareness was much more prevalent. But I think this way of thinking about design is in decline.

Tools used largely in a tacit mode to develop ideas become an extensions of the user’s own being. To change a tool so that it stops functioning this way changes a person’s being. It literally prevents a person from thinking — it robs them of a piece of their own mind.

When we look at software in that light, doesn’t it seem like a norm that a company owns software, and that users pay a licensing fee for the right to use it offers far too little protection to the user? Shouldn’t users have more control over what is done to them?

I’m not suggesting a change in IP law or anything like that. I do think the software industry needs some different licensing arrangements, though.

 

 

Bodies and categories

If an individual elects to be part of a political body, then that individual shares responsibility for those who act on behalf of that body. It is fair to hold people responsible for what their political bodies do.

But if you classify a person as belonging to some category of person, and on that basis hold that person responsible for the actions of others who (according to you) also belong to that category, you are committing a grave sin against liberalism.

The line between belonging to a political body and being assigned to a category is a blurry and crooked one. No simple formulas exist to sharpen it. The line is not traced along the boundaries explicit declarations of membership: people are often cagy or deluded about the political significance of their actions. But neither are the lines those gridded out by ideology: every theorist has his correct schema.

The lines must be surveyed case by case through dialogue between the disputants.

Jewish red thread

A part of my autobiography that I had to compress into two lines was my experience with Jewish thinkers. Judaism only became a serious interest for me following my very strange experience of intensive study of Nietzsche starting in 2002 and extending to around 2006. During this time under Nietzsche’s influence I excavated the assumptions at the foundation of my understanding of the world.

Nietzsche was absolutely insightful on many points, but rarely as right as his here: If you want to get at the assumptions that matter, the most important thing to dig up is the ground beneath the warning signs that say “Do not dig here.” Those signs mark the pay dirt of self-transformation — at least if you begin with morality. (I believe this qualification is another insight of equal value to the first. Questioning values you do not actually hold — values which you have not internalized, that you do not live and that are not the the stand-point and vanishing-point of your perspective — is lazy nihilism or cynicism and it will do nothing or worse.)

From the Preface of Daybreak.

At that time I undertook something not everyone may undertake: I descended into the depths, I tunneled into the foundations, I commenced an investigation and digging out of an ancient faith, one upon which we philosophers have for a couple of millennia been accustomed to build as if upon the firmest of all foundations — and have continued to do so even though every building hitherto erected on them has fallen down: I commenced to undermine our faith in morality.

Hitherto, the subject reflected on least adequately has been good and evil: it was too dangerous a subject. Conscience, reputation, Hell, sometimes even the police have permitted and continue to permit no impartiality; in the presence of morality, as in the face of any authority, one is not allowed to think, far less to express an opinion: here one has to — obey! As long as the world has existed no authority has yet been willing to let itself become the object of criticism; and to criticise morality itself, to regard morality as a problem, as problematic: what? has that not been — is that not — immoral? — But morality does not merely have at its command every kind of means of frightening off critical hands and torture-instruments: its security reposes far more in a certain art of enchantment it has at its disposal — it knows how to ‘inspire’.

But despite what so many people say about Nietzsche, his goal is not at all to live an amoral and unprincipled existence. It is to reform one’s own relationship with morality. I believe his purpose is to re-establish one’s own values on realities that are less speculative and vastly more immediate, motivating and durable.

Nietzsche did a bang-up job with the demolition and ground clearing of my worldview. But it was a chain of Jewish thinkers who help me piece my soul back together, and to reassemble it toward a reality not confined to my own mind. And that realism most of all included the belief in the sacred reality of other minds.

Somewhere I made a list of the names of the Jewish thinkers who helped me, and I plan to expound on each, but for now I will just list some of them.

I was especially interested in the fact that whether the thinkers were religious or secular there was a distinct commonality among them, and I felt that this commonality connected with me in a vitally important way. It might have been an inheritance from lost Jewish ancestors, or maybe it was transmitted to me via Christianity, but the total experience of reading these thinkers made me want to enter and participate in the Jewish tradition.

Overcoming ressentiment

I’ve been thinking a lot about ressentiment lately. It saturates the news, art, conversations, nearly everything. Or so my eyes tell me.

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What is ressentiment? It is not as some (including me) an exact synonym of resentment, but a distinct flavor of resentment. I had been blurring them into synonymity, but the differences are important enough that I intend to start using the terms more precisely. According to Wikipedia,

Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. This value system is then used as a means of justifying one’s own weaknesses by identifying the source of envy as objectively inferior, serving as a defense mechanism that prevents the resentful individual from addressing and overcoming their insecurities and flaws. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.

So my understanding is that ressentiment blames others not only for specific grievances but for one’s own existential state — how one is and how one habitually feels about life. I view it as both analogous and connected to Heidegger’s beautiful distinction between fear and angst. Fear has an object. Angst might seem to have an object, but in fact angst belongs to the subject. Remove the object of fear and the fear dissipates. Remove the object of angst and the angst must find another object. Resentments can be resolved by addressing the object of resentment. Ressentiment is insatiable.

The Dhammapada gets this right:

The hatred of those who harbor such ill feelings as, “He reviled me, assaulted me, vanquished me and robbed me,” is never appeased.

The hatred of those who do not harbor such ill feelings as, “He reviled me, assaulted me, vanquished me and robbed me,” is easily pacified.

Through hatred, hatreds are never appeased; through non-hatred are hatreds always appeased — and this is a law eternal.

Most people never realize that all of us here shall one day perish. But those who do realize that truth settle their quarrels peacefully. (I included this last stanza for the Heideggerians.)

Another problem: Ressentiment generates an aggressive ugliness that radiates and discolors everything and everyone around it. Sadly this ugliness is not confined to the eye of the beholder, but somehow reflects into the eyes of those beheld, which leads directly to the next point.

Ressentiment is counterproductive. The objects (the alleged causes) of ressentiment are only agitated and energized when approached with ressentiment. Resentment breeds resentment, and the infection spreads and intensifies. In combatting ressentiment it is necessary to cultivate lightness, cheer and buoyancy, and to resist succumbing to ressentiment’s natural darkness, dourness and deadweight. (Does this smell like Nietzsche to you? That is because it is Nietzsche. It is the cornerstone of his moral vision.)

All this should make it clear why I’ve recommitted to rooting out ressentiment in my own soul. Unfortunately, I have accumulated a great deal of it over the last decade. It will take some work to clean myself out. One key element of this effort has been to limit my exposure to other people’s ressentiment, especially those two antithetical ressentiment philosophies which have seemed into the mainstream from the fringes, and which have become the substance of popular politics. Staying away from social media has helped a lot.

Channeling La Rochefoucauld

Being offended offends less than giving offense. This can be seen as a kind desire to not cause others pain, or it can be seen as a narcissistic desire to be viewed as blameless.

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Long version:

A morally undeveloped boor who gives nothing but expects nothing from others can certainly be offensive, but be is not nearly as offensive as someone who gives but also expects things from others who cannot or will not give it. While former gives others no thought, the latter gives others unwanted thought, and that is worse.

 

Life is unfair

fairness

This scale is an attempt to diagram a framework I posted to Facebook.

Lately, I’ve been hearing more and more people declaring that “Life is unfair.” I actually grew up hearing that.

I’m starting to believe this statement is the essence of right-wing politics. Degree of renunciation of fairness is what defines the right-wing spectrum:

Centrism views fairness as one legitimate political goal, but acknowledges practical limits to the degree of achievable fairness. Centrism sees over-reaching attempts at fairness to be artifacts of naive partiality with distorted self-serving conceptions of fairness. To the degree a centrist leans right, he sees increasing levels of unfairness as inevitable and acceptable.

Middle right believes that fairness should not enter the discussion. Fairness is an inappropriate goal for politics, and an inadequate framework for thinking about it. Politics should be thought about in terms of other dynamics (such as economics). These dynamics naturally produce a healthy equilibrium which are in fact the best possible political outcomes. The distorting lens of “fairness” demands that we “fix” precisely that which is not broken (and conversely, that we preserve the hacks intended to produce fairness, but which destroy natural equilibrium).

Hard right believes that inequality is necessary — that establishing proper rank is required for the health of a society. The strongest, or wisest, or smartest or the most righteous should have more power than the weak, foolish, unintelligent, vicious masses.

I can see the self-consistent logic and validity of these positions. But as a left-leaning person, I believe the elimination of fairness from political discourse is a disaster. To say “life is unfair” is to misrepresent a moral intention as a natural fact. It pretends to say “perfect fairness is not an achievable goal” but really means: “I have no intention of treating you fairly.” I do not believe I can credibly ask a person to trust me if I do not intend to treat them fairly.

But, with all that being said, here is a troubling question: can right-wingers actually trust the left to treat them fairly? Because being fair means making the question “what is fair?” an open question for discussion, and I am not at all sure this is the case with many Clinton and Sanders supporters, who seem to have already decided unilaterally for themselves what is fair.

When asked for the left half of the scale, I added:

Hard left wants to maximize fairness by ensuring that everyone has exactly the same resources. Middle left believes politics is essentially about achieving maximum fairness. Centrism, as it leans leftward, sees fairness as one key condition of freedom for all. Fairness and freedom will never be perfect, but we are obligated to pursue it.

Going first

Being morally responsible means going first. Trying first. Opening first. Listening first. Repenting first. Giving first. Disarming first. Showing goodwill first. Seeking forgiveness first. Acting first.

We can speculate on how others will respond — whether they will or won’t reciprocate, cooperate, collaborate, exploit or humiliate us — but we cannot really know what is possible until someone actually makes that first move toward mutuality.

Being morally responsible means being that person.

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Being morally responsible means acting on faith that other people do not live inside our own minds. They can shock us with the reality of who they are and how much it differs from our ideas of them.

The varieties of othering experience

Othering occurs in a variety of forms which can look highly dissimilar or even opposite.

There’s a complacent incurious othering: Those others are not really part of my life. I don’t know them, they’re not my problem, I don’t know how to help, and I don’t even know if I can help.

There’s an objective othering: Those others have different characteristics from us, which can be studied and comprehended factually. 

Another objective othering: I have studied those others and concluded that their problems are self-inflicted. They must solve their own problems.

There’s a smug and superior othering: We, unlike those others, are moral or talented or informed or enlightened, etc.

There’s a hostile othering: Those others want to do us harm, and will do so if they get the chance.

There’s a resentful othering: The principle pain in my life would not have happened if I were one of those others.

Resentful othering can evolve into a vengeful othering: The principle pain in my life, which is the pain of my people, would not have occurred if it were not for those others.

There’s a post-liberal othering: Those others engage in othering me, and I have found that I cannot avoid doing the same — at least as long as they persist in their othering. Perhaps othering is unavoidable. Perhaps the conceit of overcoming othering is a tactic for preserving the status quo.

These are dissimilar in ways: they are the products of different power relations.

However, they are alike in that they all lead away from mutuality, further from dialogical understanding and toward reciprocal dehumanization, force and dehumanizing counter-force.