Category Archives: Ethics

Moral meta-judgments

I have (in agonistic dialogue with Nick Gall) found a way to distinguish a relative value from a universal moral principle in pragmatic terms. What, precisely, is the difference that makes a difference if we believe in universal moral principles?

My short answer is that if we believe a universal moral principle applies to a judgment, we assign moral value to agreeing with the judgment.

If we believe our judgment is a relative value judgment, we do not assign moral value to agreeing with it.

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I initially framed this as a thought experiment. Imagine Witness A who witnesses an act committed by Actor B, and later reflects on the act with Co-witness C.

Witness A judges Actor B’s act as abhorrent. Co-witness C judges it as okay.

If Witness A understands her judgment as one of relative value, she will still see actor B’s behavior as bad, but will view Co-witness C’s judgment as merely different from her own.

However, if Witness A understands her judgment as one of universal morality, she will judge actor B’s behavior as bad, and meta-judge Co-witness C’s judgment as also bad.

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The universality of a universal moral principle applies less to the object of judgment than to the judging subject. What is universal is the meta-judgment, the belief that here all competent judges should agree.

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Now, of course, what I am saying sets up an infinite regression. But now I’ll get all tricky and say that willingness to keep regressing is also a sign of holding universal moral principles, and refusal to even begin, makes one a value relativist.

We can also do the Rortian move and break apart our naive moral realist reaction from our account of why we are having the reaction. (“I, for one, will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice, even though I know they are just socially-contingent feelings.”) This move seems aimed primarily at weakening our meta-judgments. (“Because my emotions are socially contingent, it is acceptable for you to not share them.”)

The move could be made to work not only on our judgments, but also our meta-judgments (and our meta-meta-judgments). (“I will act on my feelings of indignation toward injustice and also tolerance of injustice, even though they just my socially-contingent feelings.”) But now what does this line of thought do?

So far, I cannot see any pragmatic consequence for this move unless it nullifies our meta-judgments. All I can come up with we might adopt this strategy for the sake of conceptual coherence — keeping our understanding of how things hang together hanging together better.

For me, this move is an unacceptable tradeoff — of sincerity for theoretical coherence. I am unable to avoid having negative judgments of nonjudgmental attitudes toward certain clear cut cases of viciousness. However much I call them epiphenomenal, I believe these judgments and meta-judgments are valid, and act on their validity.

I can’t say way — not yet, anyway —but this prioritization of sincerity over coherence strikes me as being a matter of relative values, of philosophical taste. I do not expect everyone to prioritize sincerity over coherence, and I do not meta-judge those with different priorities.

Ingredients of political evil

  1. The incapacity to reason from any perspective but my own is ideological narrowness.
  2. The need to explain the complexity of life by reducing them to simple concepts is intellectual stuntedness.
  3. To undermine beliefs, judgments, feelings or actions of others using theories which I do not accept when used to cast doubt on my own beliefs, judgments, feelings or actions is intellectual hypocrisy.
  4. To judge others by different standards than those by which I judge myself is moral hypocrisy.
  5. Indifference to pain except that which I and my kind feel is empathy failure.
  6. The desire to make myself feel better by making another person feel worse is sadism.
  7. To listen only to those who agree with me, and to revile anyone who disagrees with me is tribalism.
  8. To attribute concealed malevolent motives to others despite their claims to believe and intend the opposite is paranoia.
  9. To see myself as exceptional, endowed with exceptional abilities, and entitled to exceptional treatment is hubris.
  10. To believe my own faith is ultimate and that there is nothing I can learn from my enemies is spiritual blindness.

These are all the ingredients of political evil I can think of.

Nouveau puissant

If you are truly marginalized, you are used to being misunderstood, disregarded and misrepresented by people around you. You feel vulnerable and anxious about what might be done to you. You seek allies wherever you can find them to help and protect you. You learn to understand alien perspectives, so you can make effective appeals and influence the actions of other — or at least anticipate what they might do next so you can defend yourself.

Marginalized people are forced by necessity to develop insight and empathy. This is the consolation prize of marginalized existence, and its one real advantage. This is the source of the belief that powerless people know things powerful people cannot imagine.

When I meet a person who calls themselves marginalized, but who is overcome with imperious fury if someone seems to understand them with insufficient nuance — who is willing and able (or at least feels able) to punish anyone who dares treat them with less than perfect conformity to their expectations, without any apparent fear of reprisal — whose theories about their enemies are used only only to condemn and insult them, not to illuminate their logic or make sense of their behaviors — these people do not seem marginalized to me. They show no evidence of real insight or empathy — only a presumption of omniscience. Maybe they were taught things or read books by marginal people, but they themselves seem to have missed the real point of the lessons and absorbed nothing but the vices of marginalization: resentment and intellectual arrogance.

They are like nouveau riche, who play out the grotesque image of what poor people think rich people are like.

The nouveau puissant play out the evil, tyrannical image of what powerless people think powerful people are like.

They think it is now their turn to be what, in fact, only existed in their own imaginations.

Fact and opinion

Where do you draw the line between news and editorial?

The exact placement and sharpness of the line is debatable. This, however, does not make the distinction meaningless. Editorial argues a conclusion, and data is selected to support that conclusion. News attempts (with varying success) to present all relevant data regardless of what conclusion it might support or undermine.

Most of us learned long ago to scoff at claims of actual achieved neutral objectivity. We should not scoff at the intention to attempt it, though. After all, what is an ideal but an attempt to approach something unachieved and perhaps finally unachievable, but which points us toward something we believe is better? Facts are the product of such an effort, and their quality is a matter of how successfully they avoid being deployed to support any single argument. Opinions are the beliefs we argue, and their quality is a matter of how well they deploy facts to persuade others to reach a desired conclusion.

So basically, I am proposing that the difference between fact and opinion is one of intent, not of the truth of the content or how well supported it is.

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I would argue that the line dividing fact and opinion should also govern what is and is not taught in public schools. This is the line that separates education and indoctrination.

If I were a parent with young children I would be livid if I discovered that their school had officially adopted a political position and were intentionally indoctrinating my children to share their political opinions.

If the leaders of that school were to argue that their political opinions were not simply their own views, but were objectively true and good, I would be doubly alarmed because this indicates a degree of naivety and political immaturity that should disqualify a person from leadership of any organization.

If the leaders of the school argue that all education is intrinsically political, and all they are doing is foregrounding the political content, I would argue that whatever political content they are foregrounding should be a matter of public deliberation.

A belief that one is permitted to use whatever authority one has (or rather, has been temporarily granted) to advance one’s own political opinions indicates contempt for liberal democratic process.

If we were to subject the political content our children are being taught to public scrutiny, I am confident the outcome would be what it always is when things are done out in the open with full transparency: we will agree to teach pluralism and honor the right of individuals to reach their own conclusions. We would return to teaching what the vast majority of us accept, our best attempts at fact.

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I want to return to something I hinted at earlier. A lot of today’s political extremism is being driven by two naive notions.

1) Any ideal goal that has not yet been fully actualized (such as MLK’S dream) has been discredited and ought to be discarded.

2) If a line between one extreme and another (such as fact and opinion) cannot be clearly and sharply drawn, there is no real difference between these extremes and that no attempt should be made to observe any difference at all.

Most people I know who run around using these two notions have never really questioned them. Someone taught it to them as fact, it made sense to them, and it allowed them to go by their feelings instead of having to think things through or to consider the validity of other people’s beliefs. Education should teach people to question, challenge and resist such naivities, not train children to believe them unquestioningly.

“The personal is political”

1) “The personal is political”is a political belief, not a fact.

2) If I believe you hold this belief, you will not be welcome in my personal life.

Martin Buber’s distinction between the social and the interhuman remains centrally important to me. Personal friendship is a function of transcending the social and entering interhuman relationship  A person who politicizes everything does the opposite. They force the rules of social interaction into situations where, if they were transcended, if it were safe to transcend them, encounters with unique personhood could reveal novel, creative and transcendent possibilities.

Politicizing the personal destroys the possibility of this ever happening. This is why ideologues are so aggressive about such encroachment of the political into all things.

Ideologies are closed conceptual systems, hostile to whatever stands outside their horizons. They interpret the anxiety of what is outside their thought as evidence of malicious intent and impending harm, which they are permitted to meet with actual malice and aggression. This can happen anywhere, but is especially likely wherever social rules are not enforced, and so ideologues will find arguments for why more and more of the interpersonal should be subject to political regulation.

So people who politicize the personal are generally very constrained and timid but also aggressive people who are just not very interesting or rewarding to talk with. Nothing will come of it but sterile arguments. But also, ideologues are not trustworthy. Their first priority is defending their ideological convictions, and such people are often willing to destroy other people’s lives to do so.

I don’t like feeling bored or paranoid, so I keep ideologues as far away from me as possible.

Ritual design and privacy

The New York Times published an article last week “The Office Is Adrift. Divinity Consultants Are Here to Save It.”

There have been times in my life when I might have been friendlier toward the ideas in this article, but I’ve grown not only wary, but hostile to this kind of blurring of lines separating the personal and the private. The following is a slightly edited email I wrote to a friend this morning, who also reacted negatively to the article, for her own reasons.

Here is what is bothering me most about this article: The last thing any of us needs right now is compulsory religious practice handed down from on high by any ruling authority — private, public or (increasingly) both.

Another thing that bothers me for more personal reasons is encapsulated in this line: ‘Some of the rituals I grew up with in Protestantism really have emotional utility.” To which I commented in my notes: “Unitarianism in a fucking nutshell.” I grew up in a compulsory, artificial religion made up by folks who saw religion as serving utilitarian social and emotional purposes, and who saw traditional religious practices as crude, but salvageable social tools that could be put to better use by more evolved, rational, modern intellectuals.

Another line also leaped out at me: “‘We’ve seen brands enter the political space,’ said Casper ter Kuile, a co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. Citing a Vice report, he added: ‘The next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality.’”

This entry of brands into politics translates directly into the entry of political ideology into the workplace, which I view as a direct threat to the private realm of individuality. Suddenly your employer has a legit business case for meddling with your personal worldview, your private judgments, your utopian hopes, your faith. Suddenly, outward behaviors — etiquette and professionalism — are not enough. You must adopt certain sociological theories, attitudes toward spirituality, feelings about other people, because these innermost secrets do subtly affect other people, not only in what you do (motivated reasoning, biased judgments, microaggressions), but even worse, in what you do not do (silence is violence!) and these little actions and nonactions add up to grand-scale oppression. Therefore, we are entitled to rummage around in your personal convictions looking for evidence of thought crimes, because we take seriously our obligation to take part in creating a more just society. Besides (according to our own political view) everything is unavoidably political — we are just making our politics more explicit and intentional, which means abandoning pretensions of “neutrality.”

What can be said of politics can also be said of religious faith: everything is unavoidably a matter of religious faith. What we hold sacred and make central to who we are shapes what we think, how we feel, how we interact, what we are motivated to do. Our collective values have everything to do with the quality of our work lives, and so they are a valid concern of any enlightened employer. And therefore rituals that affirm these values are a reasonable thing to require from employees.

But even if those rituals are not compulsory, they create performative belonging and not-belonging. Back when I was a youth, the UUs created a little ritual where the children would leave the adult service to go to R.E. (Religious Education) and they would playfully skip out to this jaunty and saccharine children’s ditty on the piano. I resented being pushed into this ritual performance of what these assholes thought childlikeness was. The kids would produce childlikeness, and the adults would laugh, and rejoice and contemplate how they would like to recover their own childlikeness. I’d wait for it to end, then angrily sneak out, with renewed alienation. Years later, among Orthodox Christians, I was the one who never crossed himself, who never asked priests for blessings, who at Easter never said “indeed he is risen!’ In response to “Christ is risen!”, though, on occasion my agnosticism moved me to answer “perhaps he has risen.”

These actions put me outside of these groups, to them and to myself. And that is one of the functions of rituals, to exteriorize faith in visible behaviors. It is a physical way of confirming shared conviction, which is why *religious* communities do them.

And this points to why only religious communities should do them. We enter a religious community and gather with them precisely because we share a common faith and are happy to see others who share that faith with us. Synagogues, churches, temples are spaces set aside for gathering to affirm, share and cultivate faith in various ways. And those present who do not share the faith will feel with utmost tangibility the issue of belonging or not belonging.

Rituals remove that shelter of reticence which softens and downplays inner difference in situations where people of diverse faith must collaborate and accomplish things together. Instead of rituals of inner faith we do rituals of etiquette, where we demonstrate outer respect, willingness to set aside, suppress or even conceal inner differences in order to take up common goals and to collaborate effectively and harmoniously as possible. It is true, this does mean we must disguise ourselves in certain situations, that we will sometimes feel phony or compromised, or that many of the most important aspects of ourselves must remain un-expressed in work settings.

But if we are alert and reflective and work actively and intentionally to develop more mature understandings of personhood and social existence, something weird happens to us. We grow to develop an intense loyalty to these “soulless”, “formal” institutions that observe boundaries between public, social and private realms and preserve each with thoughtful tradeoffs. The etiquette rituals become almost matters of inner faith — the acknowledgement that not baring our souls to each other all the time permits us to develop as unique persons.

This ties into some thinking I’ve been doing on Richard Rorty’s idea of the public and private realm. I think there’s a third realm between the two, that we should call the social realm, where we come together as members of groups and interact in rule-governed ways but outside the scope of law.

The controversy of our time is where the boundaries should be drawn between these three domains. Which changes ought to be political, and are matters of legislation and legal penalty? Which are social, and are matters of etiquette and interpersonal penalty? And which matters are private, and should be protected from politics and society?

The Mercury Mikvah

Sometimes if I drink too much scotch I will announce the “I am never drinking ever again for a week.”

An ironic worldview permits statements like this. Why not admit that eternally-binding resolves, while being experienced in the moment as permanent, are, simultaneously, recognized in history/biography as temporary?

I will argue that this kind of ironizing is not only permissible but necessary and good, and supportive of a liberal, pluralistic society.

A pluralist experiences the self-evident truth and goodness of their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions against a deeper ground of myriad others who also experience their own worldview, beliefs, tastes, priorities and moral convictions as self-evidently true and good.

Pluralism includes pluralism of scale. A historically conscious pluralist is aware that the plurality of worldviews exists not only individually, but collectively. It pertains not only to individuals, but to cultures, and to the deep interrelationships between individuals and cultures. Much of what was obviously and indubitably true and good in the past is now, to us, absurd, abhorrent and naive — and most of all to what seemed most certain and foundational. The same thing is certain to happen to our present shared convictions and foundational beliefs.

Pluralism includes pluralism of self in time. A self-aware, apperceptive pluralist will count among the myriad others their own past selves, and recall the fact, even if they cannot fully recall the experiences themselves (including the convictions and their attendant blindnesses, which, once unblinded cannot be re-blinded).

Pushing pluralism of self in time further, the most radical pluralist will count as crucially important their possible future selves. They will recall themselves prior to a past change, taking care to remember what that past self understood “everything” to include, along with the field of possibilities that followed from it. And they will recall the shock of epiphany, of change in worldview, of change in what seemed evident, relevant, possible and permanent. The experiential resources needed to anticipate future transformation are drawn indirectly (and negatively) from experiences of past transformations.

Pluralism is empathic. An empathic pluralist will strain to do full justice to their memories of the in-between of worldviews and stretch it out into its own story, in a progression of anxiety, to aversion, to panic, and finally to perplexity, where orientation, definition, method, logic and words fail. They will never forget why so few willingly immerse in this mercury mikvah — this expanse of the worldless-blinds, the liminal void, the rings of ego-solvent Hadean waters, the churning chrome of “seen” blindness — and why those facing it deserve understanding, if not compassion.

And finally, pluralism is reflexive, symmetric and demanding. A committed pluralist will know, with the intensest irony, that they, most of all, fear reentering liminal perplexity. Even with their experiences of before, during and blissful after, even with their firsthand evidence and insights — they will balk like everyone else when the time comes for them to follow their own advice. Those others — they are the ones who need to go in. But, the pluralist will also know, with all the irony they can intentionally summon, that they must keep going back in, and that their only claim to their own kind of truth and goodness is going back in, despite their already-knowing of everything worth knowing.

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My moral alchemy has its own weird metallurgy which transmutes silver, gold, mercury and iron(y).

Feeling, interpretation and reality

I showed this clip of Henry Thomas’s audition for E.T. to Susan yesterday. She says she hadn’t stopped thinking about it since, because it has raised important questions for her: Isn’t it strange and even disturbing that someone can have that much emotion about something that is purely imaginary? This raises further questions: How much of what we feel is directly caused by reality? How much comes from how we interpret reality? How much of it is a response to our own imaginations?

For Susan, this clip is a dramatic case study for exploring some basic questions important to both educators and religious people connected with cultivating ways of thinking, perceiving and acting in the world.

When she shared her reflections with me, my mind took it in a social-political direction: What does it mean to understand another person’s experiences? What elements in accounts of experiences can be reasonably debated? What norms ought to govern conversations about other people’s experiences and what they imply about truth and morality?

Some actual real-life examples:

  • Someone has a religious experience and undergoes a conversion. They see, hear and feel things that they know are real which suggest new truths to them that they consider indubitable and universal. How ought they relate their new truths to someone like myself, who has not experienced what they have? How should I respond to their truth claims, and the assertion that the claims are relevant to and in fact binding to me?
  • Someone is situated differently in society than I am, and has been from birth. They have been treated differently, learned (and absorbed) different beliefs about themselves, must behave differently to get along, and consequently have developed a very different worldview than mine — one that (according to this worldview) makes me unable to understand how they think and feel, implicates me as responsible for the state of society that has produced and continues to produce their situation. And further, the convergence of the essential unknowability of this alien worldview, my complicity in their suffering and my obligation to sacrifice to remedy this state of affairs produces a defensive reaction from people with my worldview. How should I address these claims? How do I respond to the claim that (according to this worldview) there is really only one acceptable response?
  • After a lengthy, arduous and painful struggle with a set of questions, I have a philosophical epiphany and undergo a conversion experience. Only personal struggle with the line of thought I followed will induce the conversion, and until the conversion is undergone, the conversion is impossible to understand at all. I feel isolated in this new worldview (it is like spiritual solitary confinement), and desperately need others in my life to understand it, but to do so requires inordinate amounts of time, energy and suffering. In this situation, what is reasonable to ask from loved ones, especially when they are unable to understand my distress?

 

My friend who shared this video with me got barraged  out of the blue with thoughts yesterday, as these questions coalesced in my head. We had debated the understandability of marginal perspectives, and the morality of listening versus arguing, and trusting versus challenging, and for me this video became a great reference point for the conversation. Here’s the spew, slightly cleaned up:

I can’t believe they were taking E.T. away from Henry Thomas!

Those emotions he was having were real.

And that means the thing he was having emotions about is also real, otherwise we are telling him that his emotions are not real and valid, right?

The only way I can know the truth about the reality he is having emotions about is to talk with him and let him explain it to me. Because i am not the one having those emotions, I have to listen to him about it and believe what he tells me. It is not my place to argue against experiences I don’t know.

Right?

That’s the logic of Progressivism.

There is a confusion between:

  1. the subjective experience (including the emotions),
  2. the interpretation that produces the subjective experience of the emotions, and
  3. the reality that is interpreted and becomes object of the subjective experience.

Progressivism blends these three things into a single unknowability that requires us to listen to the one and to believe what they tell us about a reality they are experiencing, about which they and have special and exclusive knowledge.

Not that there is not special and exclusive knowledge involved in the account. I cannot really know or dispute #1. There I must take someone’s word for it.

But I can, through active listening, come to understand #2. With effort and feedback, I can pick up their way of interpreting their experiences and apply it to make sense of phenomena (this is known as intellectual empathy), even if I cannot have exactly the same subjective experience they have. Further, I can compare this way of interpreting phenomena with alternative interpretations of the same phenomenon, and note the different implications and see where different emotions might occur. While interpretations are not really debatable, they are open to a gentle  form of challenge that far too few people know about: dialogue. I call it gentle because it requires voluntary mutual effort to achieve. (There’s another grisly alternative to interpretive change, which I will only mention but not discuss. Brainwashing can replace one interpretation with another.)

And #3 is entirely public and open to dispute, apart from all emotions. Claims about reality are about things we have in common. The fact that they are perceived, interpreted, experienced and produce knowledge through subjective experience (#1) does not make the reality itself subjective. The reality remains transcendent and open to a plurality of interpretations and subjective responses. It is here where debate is appropriate.

Only if we take it for granted that feelings and objects of feelings are inseparable can we conclude with progressivists that it is impossible to understand the experiences of other people. Only the feelings they have about those experiences are unknowable in principle.

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Many Progressivist who are parents harm their children irreparably though this same confusion. When their children throw tantrums, they fail to pick apart the validity of their emotions from their mode of interpretation and its fidelity to fact. Because the emotions must be honored, so does the childish worldview and the current understanding or misunderstanding of the state of affairs. This prevents children from growing up and learning to separate these three ontological layers, which is a condition of civilized adulthood. Or to put it in old-fashioned language, they spoil their children and make them into confused narcissistic permanent adolescents.

Man, I really hate Fundamentalism

Religion (when it is real religion) helps form an active, mutual relationship between a person and the infinite reality in whom each person participates as a unique, divine spark.

Fundamentalism (which is misunderstood as extreme religion, but which is failure of religion) severs relationship with infinite reality and replaces in with beliefs. The entirety of Fundamentalism’s metaphysics — “god”, types of people, categories, moral judgment — takes place inside the skull of the “believer”. Its heaven is imagined and the god who riles over this imagined kingdom is the believer. I call this misapotheosis: stupid confusion of oneself with God and confusion of Creation with the paltry product of one’s own creative imagination.

Fundamentalism places all emphasis of the factual content of its belief, so it sees no connection between itself and other denominations of Fundamentalism. What could be more opposite, Christianism and Progressivism? But each approaches belief the same way and approaches non-believers the same way. The faith is identical, and the differing content is a superficial difference.

Recovering “Christian” Fundamentalists are especially vulnerable to Progressivism. Fundamentalists rarely are able to recover real religious life. They wander through life god-gutted and empty, able only to stop the Fundamentalist habits, but unable to re-conceive religious life in order to live it. Then something like Progressivist Fundamentalism comes along and the sheer familiarity of it is seductive. Fundamentalism kicks back into motion with new omniscient fervor.

New drug, old habit.

I will say it again: the distance between Fundamentalisms is paper-thin. The distance between Fundamentalism (and its always-oppressive political agendas) and authentic religion (and its liberal agenda — yes liberal religion is the purest form!) is vast.

Letter to an angry friend

One reason I have chosen to be Jewish is because the Jewish people has been on both sides of power so many times. This back-and-forth experience is instructive. The change from being dominated to being the dominator is a shock — the totality of being transfigures, apparently permanently. But then dominator becomes dominated, and, shockingly, the totality transfigures again.

If this keeps happening, and a people is miraculously able to survive it, it has a chance to start making connections between these two pseudo-omniscient states and working these insights into its tradition. From where I stand at this point in my life this is the kind of wisdom I care about most.

People often think the goal of spiritual pursuits is apotheosis. I see overcoming apotheosis as more difficult and valuable. Being of God, within God, toward God, without accidentally becoming God, or falling into Godless nihilism, or (as so often happens) doing both simultaneously, is devilishly difficult. 

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other : ‘The world was created for me.'”

Enworldments

I move around in a world of enworldments.

When I meet a person, their enworldment is what I am trying to intuit. When an artifact — object, environment, artwork, anything — attracts my attention, it is because it implies an enworldment with a person at its center.

At times I’ve wanted to call a particular enworldment an instance of “everything”. Applying the pragmatic maxim, roughly “the meaning of a belief is everything that follows from believing it”, an enworldment is the particular totality implied when a particular person says “everything”. Some people might prefer some related words: worldview, lifeworld, totality, philosophy, or, simply, world. I like enworldment because, for me, it implies an attempted embracing and gathering toward a creating/discovering instaurating center.

Some enworldments include within it an awareness and concern for the existence of fellow enworldments. An enworldment of this kind can be called pluralist.

Some pluralist enworldments hold pluralism itself as a supreme value, and wish to respect, cultivate and protect a plurality of pluralistic enworldments, as the very locus of value in the world. This kind of pluralism can be called liberalism.

Some liberal enworldments believe that even the most liberal, most pluralist enworldments contain partial incompatibilities and conflicts, and that entering these conflicts with fellow liberals is not only unavoidable, but valuable. This kind of liberalism can be called agonistic.

However, liberalism of even the most agonistic kind cannot be indiscriminately open to every enworldment. It cannot enter into and grasp from within every enworldment that presents itself, because some enworldments are explicitly opposed on principle to liberalism. Some others claim to be liberal, but function illiberally. While it is not necessary or even good  to reject an illiberal enworldment wholesale, it is necessary to isolate and reject illiberal elements within it. Unfortunately, challenging its illiberal elements threatens the enworldment as a whole, and will provoke its defense systems, which are themselves aggressively illiberal. Countermeasures progress from avoidance, to emotional, to social, to material and finally bodily tactics for protecting the illiberal ideology from what it correctly views as an existential threat.

But it is important to remember that the line between liberal and illiberal is not sharply or clearly drawn, and each liberal must use his own judgment to determine which enworldments to respect or even accept as collaborative partners, which to ignore, which to actively oppose as adversaries, and which to go to war with as true mortal enemies of liberalism. These boundaries are some of the most contentious controversies among agonistic adversaries. The cost of drawing them too hastily and too intolerantly is succumbing to illiberalism.  It is tempting to refuse to draw any lines at all, or automatically draw them as broadly as possible, and, in effect, to default to a tolerant acceptance of all views as valid, but this is a mistake. The risk cannot be avoided.

Liberal enworldments can flourish together; illiberal ones will dominate and suppress all others, liberal and illiberal, alike, often in the name of peace — a peace of utter dominance.

Hannah Arendt on who and what

Two quotes on who and what from Hannah Arendt:

No society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types. This necessary classification is the basis for all social discrimination, and discrimination, present opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, is no less a constituent element of the social realm than equality is a constituent element of the political. The point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is — as distinct from the question of who he is — which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless.

and

The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a “character” in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us. This frustration has the closest affinity with the well-known philosophic impossibility to arrive at a definition of man, all definitions being determinations or interpretations of what man is, of qualities, therefore, which he could possibly share with other living beings, whereas his specific difference would be found in a determination of what kind of a “who” he is.

 

 

My best voice

I believe I’m finding my best voice for this time. I have to say something, and I have to say it the right way.

A sample of this new voice, which I sent a friend of mine, explains why I need to speak up.

Who-respect vs what-respect

Respect is a universal need.

Everyone wants and needs respect.

We need self-respect, and we need respect from others. Many of us are too proudly individualistic to admit it that we need respect from others, but we absolutely need to be respected. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. It’s bad for everyone.

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Some people have learned to view everything and everyone in terms of power, and this is unfortunate.

Seeing the world through the lens of power invites comparisons, confrontations, competitiveness, defensiveness. A powerful person threatens the power of another.

Respect is different. A respected, respectful person is no threat to anyone. A respectful person gives respect, wins respect and makes respect increase everywhere respect is exchanged.

People with healthy self-respect who are deeply respected by people around them are rarely ruthless power-seekers. But power-seekers often do disrespectful things to gain an advantage or defend a vulnerability, and are more often resented or feared rather than respected.

We are better off understanding each other as respect-seeking beings.

Seeing the world through the lens of respect-seeking makes us more respectful and more respectable.

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The best kind of respect is who-respect: the respect for who we are as a person.

If we feel that we cannot be respected for who we are, we will seek what-respect: a respect for what category of person we think we are.

*

What-respect, however, cannot substitute for who-respect.

What-respect can alleviate social starvation, but not much more than that.

When our self-respect is mostly what-respect, and whatever respect we get from others is mostly what-respect, we cannot be satisfied with ourselves, with anyone we know or with the world. A diet of too much what-respect and too little who-respect leaves a soul irritable, anxious and resentful.

What-respect is empty calories for the soul.

*

The only thing worse than what-respect is what-disrespect, a withholding of all respect on the basis of what someone is said to be.

Sadly, what-disrespect functions like an appetite suppressant. If you are starving for respect and lose all hope that you will ever get it — or worse, if you have never experienced who-respect and are blind even to its possibility — disrespecting others can dull the pain and replace it with a hot rush of ecstasy. There is no nourishment in it, but at least you aren’t the only one starving, and it doesn’t feel nearly as bad.

*

Respect means caring what another person is seeing when they look back at you. Etymologically, it means back-look. When I look at you, I don’t only care what I see, I also care what you see looking back.

Respect is an empathic disposition to try to understand not only how you feel, or what you think, but also for why you think and feel what you do. It does not mean I have to uncritically accept everything you say. Respect is exchanged, and that means we must expect to have our thoughts and feelings respected. For some people an argument is one of the best opportunities to show respect.

*

When we meet someone for the first time, we start a delicate respect process.

No matter how much we regret the fact, a new person arrives packaged in whats. Some people try desperately to shut out these whats and whatever implications they carry for us. Many of us think this is the point where we battle our racism. We try to force ourselves to think all the right things and produce all the right gestures and we get all tight and tangled and calculated like an over-scripted politician. This is forced what-respect, and it interferes with the real goal: letting this new person be who they are. That won’t happen when you are too terrified to let them know who you are, because what you are trying to be is a good what. Just give up on the what, and ask questions until you can calm down enough to be who you are.

Even the kindest what-respect obstructs who-respect.

*

For heaven’s sake, don’t attempt to mirror the contempt you imagine this what you are attempting to think and do all the right things for. Seeking affirmation by producing what-disrespect is no way to exchange who-respect with another person.

And if this other person you are trying to know does seem to require you to what-disrespect yourself as a condition for approval, you are in a difficult situation. It is likely they are addicted to what-respect and what-disrespect and might know nothing else.

A moral genius might know how to summon up enough self-respecting humanity to overcome the dynamic. More of us will fuck it all up by giving them the self-denigration or self-abasement we think they want, or attempt to defend our own honor by confronting and insulting them, or if we are wise we get out of that situation and avoid further contact with them.

Nobody should ever demand anyone to compromise their self-respect.

*

There is lots more to say, but this hits the main points.

I’ve been looking for a better way to represent why I care so much about liberalism, and why I believe it must not continue to be confused with selfish individualism.

When I cast liberalism as about producing optimal conditions for who-respect I feel that I am getting very close to why it matters to me.

We can argue over what those conditions are. But before I will even have that argument with anyone, I first have to know they share my commitment to liberalism.

*

I don’t think I have said this even close to perfectly.

I am asking my best-spoken and most socially smart friends to rewrite whatever parts they think they can improve. If this turns out well, I might have to make a book.

Ghost-hearted

Some people in our lives won’t exist toward us from the other side.

They suppress response. They withhold respect. They plate themselves with loveless indifference. They cut things short, deflect, postpone, neglect. Vulnerable words are left unanswered, hanging, abandoned in a vacuum.

When they become angry and attack to wound, the humanity of the violence is relief from the nothingness they maintain the rest of the time.

As Susan says, their ghostliness haunts us.

When we are wounded by a ghost heart and try to reconcile with them — when we ask for collaboration to coauthor the ending of the story — this is when the ghost heart exists least of all. It turns out that you were written out from the start. This is (and was always) your problem, your story — and their story, and your part in it, is (and was always) theirs alone. And no human forgiveness will be exchanged. None will be given; none will be accepted. It doesn’t matter, because you are not real.

There is no choice, now. You must amputate this being — this real person whoever they were — from your biography. They will remain there for a long time as nothing, though — a question with too many answers, an aching phantom limb.

Design Collaborator’s Bill of Rights

Recently I’ve been asking my teammates to exercise certain rights I believe all design collaborators on projects should have. So far, the rights have been listed as occasions arise, but I’m starting to want to keep a list, because I don’t want to forget them, but also because they feel sacred and I would like to see them worded precisely and laid out systematically as a Design Collaborator’s Bill of Rights. I will be updating this list, and once it stabilizes I might letterpress it as a physical piece.

  • The right to a brief: every team member has the right to request a clearly framed problem to solve autonomously (as opposed a specification to execute).
  • The right to clarity: every team member can request a detailed explanation for any aspect of the project, until it is completely understood.
  • The right to justification: every team member can raise explicit concerns with decisions, and to have the concerns addressed.
  • The right to propose alternatives: every team member is free to conceive and communicate different approaches to solving problems.
  • The right to have pre-articulate intuitions: every team member can expect to have pure (pre-articulate) intuitions respected as valid, and to be assisted in giving the intuition explicit, articulate form.
  • The right to speak: every team member’s voice will be actively welcomed in discussions, meaning that opportunities to enter the conversation will be offered and space to communicate without interruption will be protected. 
  • The right to be fully understood: every team member can expect active listening from teammates, which means they will be heard out and interpreted until full comprehension is accomplished.

Whitehead and Peirce

Currently I’m reading David Ray Griffin’s Whitehead’s Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy after more or less giving up on Stengers’s more playful and imaginative, but tragically francofuzzled, Whitehead introduction. Griffin’s is far more straightforward and clarifying, and that is what I am after.

One of the central ideas in this book is prohibition of philosophical performative contradictions., or as Griffin summarizes it: “…it is antirational to deny in theory ideas that one necessarily presupposes in practice is that one thereby violates the first rule of reason, the law of noncontradiction. It is irrational simultaneously to affirm and deny one and the same proposition. And this is what happens when one denies a hard-core commonsense idea. That is, one is denying the idea explicitly while affirming it implicitly. This point has been made by Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas in their critique of “performative contradiction,” in which the very act of performing a speech act contradicts its semantic content, its meaning.”

This reminds me of a passage from Charles Sanders Peirce’s seminal Pragmatist essay “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities Claimed For Man”: “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”

But there are interesting differences between Whitehead’s and Peirce’s objections to skepticism to commonsense beliefs. Whitehead saw self-contradictions, where Peirce saw counterfeit beliefs in the form of theoretical assertions. Both saw a peeling apart of the theoretical snd practical.

My view on this emphasizes the morality of denial: In most of these denials of commonsense I see an attempt at solipsism. Some claim of reality transcending mind is dismantled and reduced to a mental phenomenon that can be accepted or rejected at the discretion of the thinker. This desire to solipsize what is mind-transcendently real is the active ingredient of evil. Life requires small doses of such solipsism to shelter us from the overwhelming dread of infinity, but when philosophies move from emphasis and deemphasis to ontological negation, this should be taken as a possible symptom of autoapotheosis, the desire to mistake ourselves for God, the ultimate failure of philosophy, theology, which manifests itself as ideology.

Generosity of spirit

When a person tells you something that is new to them — something they experience as new, whether because it is new to the world or just new to themselves — the generous thing is to find as much newness in it as possible, and to share that newness with them.

The temptation, of course, is to view the other person’s new idea or new insight or new knowledge as something we already had, as if this poor fool just caught up with us.

When people do this to me, it feels like a kind of stinginess. Somehow, this other person lacks the generosity to accept something new from someone like me. Maybe they can’t share excitement over another person’s achievement. Or maybe they cannot be bothered to exert effort to see subtle differences beyond the simple matching of resemblances. Or maybe they don’t like the feeling of anxiety that always attends even the smallest transcendence of one’s own conceptual system. Or maybe they see a loss in prestige being taught by someone else, and their envy demands minimizing other people’s achievements.

Whatever the motive, it feels terrible — deflated, alienated, humiliated — to be on the other end of this treatment.

My own moral method requires me now to turn it around and find where I have done and habitually do this myself. As always, I am finding numerous examples, and in the most painful places — in places where I’ve wounded people and damaged relationships.

Here is a new discipline of generosity I am going to experiment with. I will not pretend an entire idea is new if much of it is familiar and well-known. (I have tried that, and it is disingenuous and self-abasing.) What I will do instead is treat the familiar and known aspects of the idea as a launching point for an exploration of what is truly novel and valuable in the idea. I will look for exciting, consequential content and look for ways to collaboratively incorporate it into my own understandings. This is another way of saying that I will allow this other person to influence me and play a part in creating me.

Extending the autism spectrum

I see the autism spectrum as one half of a much longer spectrum, one that runs from the extreme pole of full autism (mind-blindness to others) to full borderline (mind-blindness to oneself).

A person (or group) unbalanced toward the autism end of this enlarged spectrum will proudly refuse to care what anyone else thinks. A person (or group) unbalanced toward the borderline end will feel existentially threatened by the thoughts of others, because the thoughts of others is the sole source of selfhood for the borderline personality.

The ideal, of course is the middle region, where we are aware of what others are thinking, feeling and intending, but we remain rooted in what we ourselves think, feel and intend. Even when we consider changing our views, we do so as ourselves, making an evaluation and decision.

This ideal is represented in my Geometric Meditations book in the symbol of the spiral.