Category Archives: Ethics

Infining metaphysics

I was just looking for a good name for my metaphysics, and I was entertaining the idea of an “infinite metaphysics” (infinity, of course, defined in its metaphysical qualitative sense of absolute undefinability, as opposed to the more common quantitative mathematical sense of interminability). I became curious if anyone has already used this term, which led me to Google, and then to Wikipedia, where I, once again encountered Levinas, whose metaphysics profoundly influenced my own.* (see note below.)

In this article on infinity, Levinas is quoted:

…infinity is produced in the relationship of the same with the other, and how the particular and the personal, which are unsurpassable, as it were magnetize the very field in which the production of infinity is enacted…

The idea of infinity is not an incidental notion forged by a subjectivity to reflect the case of an entity encountering on the outside nothing that limits it, overflowing every limit, and thereby infinite. The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity, for it is precisely in the disproportion between the idea of infinity and the infinity of which it is the idea that this exceeding of limits is produced. The idea of infinity is the mode of being, the infinition, of infinity… All knowing qua intentionality already presupposes the idea of infinity, which is preeminently non-adequation.

I realized I’d accidentally stolen Levinas’s term infinition, forgetting where I got it, and went on a search for where I’ve used it without attribution. That led me to this article from 2010, where I laid out my metaphysics — perhaps better than I have since.

I will likely lift this (sans the brand crap) for the book I am absolutely going to start writing — formally, as a book — by years end.

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Since 2010, much of my effort has been diverted away from uncompromising development of my own personal philosophy, and toward getting along with and making clearer sense to the people around me. I’ve dedicated my professional life to applying my philosophy in design research, with the goal of understanding other people’s implicit philosophies, both in their convergence (alignment), divergence (misalignment), and conflict (incommensurability) and learning to synthesize incommensurable conceptions into new philosophies, designed for groups to adopt so they become able to communicate and collaborate.

I’ve gotten better at explaining what I do, and why I do it (guided by the example of that master of philosophical accessibility, Marty Neumeier), but sometimes I worry that I blunted my best personal thinking in the effort to gain influence among my design peers. I must confess, I read my 2010 article with a substantial amount of envy of my past self, and with dread that I have passed my peak.


  • Note on Levinas’s ethics: Unfortunately, along with his metaphysics, I contracted an infection of Levinas’s ethics, which Levinas saw as the very essence of his philosophy — but which I see as a key component of the current resentment revolution that threatens the future of Western civilization. I hypothesize that Levinas’s is an unbalanced ethic that ignores the finite nature and responsibility of persons. It is perhaps best described in Kabbalistic terms, as Chesed (love) untempered by Gevurah (judgment, aggression, limits). Without such tempering, Chesed leads a person into moral hubris where mortals — not just I but all — are pridefully expected to exhaust themselves like gods with infinite responsibility for myriad beings. This responsibility is discharged in outbursts of unrestrained, impatient, irritable Netzah-infused revolutionary sentiment, with no awareness, much less respect for the good is craves to guillotine. I know this feeling from the inside, and I reject it, not as as an unrealistic, idealistic excess, but as a titanic impulse, an isolated drive taken out of its divine society and set loose — in other words, an evil. Our culture has a strong prejudice that views Gevurah as evil, and deserving of eradication, even in micro-doses, and Chesed as essentially good, so unrestrained, limitless Chesed is the ideal good. The more love we can heap up, and the more we remove limits and let it flood the world, the better that love is. Kabbalists are wiser, and know that good is in the balance among divine virtues, and that vice is virtue out of balance.

Euracism

What so many progressivists seem to miss is that categorical reductions — seeing individuals as examples of categories — is dehumanizing, whether that reduction is judged negatively or positively. It is not the value judgment that is the problem; it is the primacy of the general category over the particularity of the real person.

It is a refusal to transcend ones own mind and its contents, in order to experience the particular, unique, surprising qualities of the person: their personhood.

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I am doing to start talking about racism in terms of disracism and euracism. Similarly, sexism can be divided into dissexism and eusexism.

I need a general term for this entire tendency to stop at the category and to react to a person only as a type. Typism? Eutypism, distypism?

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An example of euracism: Yascha Mounk left Germany because Germans were forever falling over themselves to affirm him as a Jew, and this made him realize he would never be just a person, a German among Germans. He came to America to escape this.

Euracism is not “antiracism” at all. It is a racism that merely reverses judgment, while continuing to exempt itself from encountering the personhood of the person.

Genuine antiracism is just as opposed to euracism as disracism.

Genuine antiracism is pro-person.

Genuine antiracism is liberalism.

Normal and abnormal ethics

Where a community is homogeneous, everyone in the community shares a common worldview and “speaks the same language’. In such communities ideas tend to be readily understood by all members and proposals are commensurable enough that they can be compared and debated without preliminary understanding work.

Where a community is heterogeneous, however, multiple worldviews overlap and, at points, clash in incommensurability.

These regions of incommensurability have been studied and described, most famously by Thomas Kuhn. His accounts were objective and behavioral, viewed from an outside perspective: A crisis occurs in a community. The parties in the conflict understand the world according to different paradigms and not only think differently, but also perceive phenomena differently and talk differently. They talk past each other, and communication breaks down. What Kuhn called “normal science” can no longer be counted on to resolve the crisis. Much is at stake: reputation, resources, interests, so the conflict intensifies and as things get personal, people misbehave. But eventually, one of the paradigms prevails and there is a revolution. A paradigm shift has occurred.

Kuhn’s insights were themselves revolutionary. In his domain of interest, history of science, it caused many people to re-understand science in a less linear way. Progress is less straightforward (literally!) than we thought, and this, for many, weakened the mid-century’s popular faith in science as a guarantee of permanent, steady social progress. And it also loosened the grip of scientific positivism — that conceit that scientific knowledge is ultimate knowledge, and that other ways of knowing only approximate the knowledge of science. This make Kuhn’s insights highly abusable, and these abuses probably account for most of Kuhn’s popularity. (It certainly accounts for Kuhn’s popularity with me.) Vice always trumps virtue in the marketplace of ideas. Vice sells.

One of the finest abusers of Kuhn’s theories was another beloved hero of mine, Richard Rorty. Rorty expanded Kuhn’s framework to interactions outside the scientific community, to the broader academic community, especially those in the community who engage in philosophical discourse. Most notably, Rorty observed that philosophers, too, had crises, and in crises engaged in “abnormal discourse” a mode of discussion quite different from the “normal discourse” to which most of us are accustomed.

A place where I’d like to explore further, which I think needs to be more fully developed, is the experience of crisis — especially everyday crisis — where ordinary people find themselves encountering incommensurable worldviews and must learn to navigate them. What is is it like to participate in such a crisis? To experience the crisis firsthand from within it, which means to be a partisan on one side of the struggle?

Most importantly, what are the ethics of situations where the only possible discourse is abnormal discourse? We are quite used to normal ethics, where right and wrong is a mostly settled issue, and the core issue is resolve to do the right thing. But do any of us really know how to navigate abnormal ethics? Don’t most of us “double-down” on our principles in these situations? Don’t most of us feel that our morals resolve is being put to the test, and now is the time to stand on principle? Is that the right response in an abnormal ethical situation?

And what are the challenges to skillful navigation of abnormal ethical situations? As a design researcher and strategist my entire life is spent in abnormal discourse, do I have quite a stock of primary experience. These range from suspiciously intense disagreement, to apprehension of other people’s conceptions, to full disorientation and perplexity where problematic situations cannot even be framed as problems, questions cannot be asked, and participants in the situation are gripped in the existential anxiety.

Abnormal ethical situations induce existential crisis.

I believe very few of us are equipped to recognize such situations, nor to conceptualize them, nor speak about them, much less navigate them skillfully. So we suffer not only the perplexity itself, but perplexity about what is happening to us.

In my own experience, at least being able to diagnose the terrible feelings as perplexity reduces the pain considerably, and makes the suffering bearable. Being able to agree with others that the group is in perplexity reduces it enough that the suffering disappears and the remaining pain becomes an interesting discomfort, almost a stimulant.

Finally, knowing what can be gained by traversing perplexity — both radical innovation and deeper personal relationships — provides a genuine this-worldly reward for good-faith struggle through everyday crises.

This is all stuff I’ve been obsessed with and written about extensively over the last couple of decades.

What is new here is 1) adopting an “abnormal ethics” redescription, 2) understanding that one consequence of this strange social change where “we all live on campus now” is that abnormal discourse has escaped the lab of academia and is now rampant everywhere, which means paradoxically that abnormal discourse is now normal, and 3) recognizing that, consequently, abnormal ethics might be on the way of becoming the norm. To be ethical in these new conditions might require “leveling up” and becoming good at both normal and abnormal ethics, and know how to mode-switch appropriately. Similarly we might need to do an ethical meta-leap with the electrum rule (my combo golden and silver rule) and ask ourselves not only “is this fair?”, but also “is my standard of fairness imposed fairly?” “Is this just?” must also be meta-interrogated with the question “Is my justice just, and is it imposed justly?” And we must look for prejudices in where we see prejudice (or where we see good or permissible prejudices against some identities and where we see unacceptable, oppressive prejudices) and the logic by which we justify prejudices.

The biggest prejudice of all we will need to overcome is our conceptions of empathy — that understand people is primarily a matter of feeling, caring, valuing. These things are important, but they are part of something bigger and more influential, that basic set of conceptions we use to make sense of the world even before we emotionally respond to it. We need to activate not only our hearts, but also out minds and probably our hands and feet, and all our senses if we want to form better understandings of one another and the world we share.

The good news is that we may have been accidentally preparing the last couple of generations for this by teaching them design thinking. Design practice truly does equip people for abnormal ethics– if they have the wisdom to use their design thought for thinking politics, and to set aside the political indoctrinations they also received.

Seems like there’s something here to work with.

Three conceptions of justice

People say the word “justice” and unconsciously conflate multiple concepts that do not necessarily belong together. I’ll list a few.

The most common concept, in every sense of the word, is ensuring that whoever has been harmed by another is given the satisfaction of revenge. Sadistic pleasure is compensated with sadistic pleasure. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, dignity for dignity. Everyone gets the same chance to enjoy inflicting suffering on others, to humiliate others, to coerce others — and nobody gets an unfairly large portion in the delight of debasing, controlling and harming others.

A second concept of justice is upholding of law. When the law is inexorably enforced, it reinforces to everyone that the law is a reality, that all must follow it, and that all can count on the fact that it will be followed by others.

A third concept of justice is pluralistic. This justice understands that every subject acts by its own logic — even when it tries to live according to the law. The third justice tries to “do justice” to this logic and to understand why another person thinks, values and acts in the way they do — to get inside their judgment to understand how and why this judgment might deviate from the public judgment.

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When we say justice, it is helpful to know 1) which justice or justices we, ourselves, are pursuing, and 2) what justice means for the others involved in the adjudication.

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This thought is not mine. I am paraphrasing.

Fathers Day message to the world

I put this on facebook. I don’t even know why I do that. Here:

I remember back when words like “inappropriate” and “not ok” were meant to ramp down moral judgment in the playroom. “Kid, you aren’t a bad person; you just shouldn’t do that action in this situation.” But it turns out that just speaking non-judgmental language is not enough. If we are secretly terrified that our children might be immoral, our choice of euphemisms does not matter one bit. “Not appropriate” ends up meaning wicked. “Not ok” means shameful.

Now the generations raised with this language have grown up, or at least reached adult age, but never updated their disciplinary jargon. Non-judgy nursery school talk has become public moral absolutist talk.

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I’m celebrating father’s day by dispensing parenting advice, so indulge me: Your kids are not evil. They’re not particularly good, either. They’re somewhere slightly north or south of neutral, depending on how much sleep they got and what you fed them today. And please stop thinking about morality. Unless you are a serious religious person, good and evil probably doesn’t play nice with the other concepts sloshing around in your head. And frankly, being good isn’t as important as you think. This obsessive compulsive need to be good is producing very little real good, and it might be freaking your kids out. Just teach your damn children to be polite so it isn’t too awful for other people to be around them. Things will probably turn out ok.

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Happy fathers day.

Subject rights, object rights

I was just talking to a friend of mine about pronouns and why language is so important to many people.

There is no doubt that language is political and has real social and material consequences. Therefore, nobody should ever blame anyone for critiquing language and arguing for change. It is also entirely fair to suspect anyone who says “sticks and stones” and denies these truths of lacking the experience of social vulnerability and powerlessness.

Arguing for change can mean many different things. It can mean anything from publicizing a personal choice to adopt more inclusive language, to advocating new standards of etiquette in one’s own social sphere, to codifying new linguistic practices within institutions who decide to do so, to using economic means to pressure individuals or organizations to comply with reformed language standards, to passing laws regulating language and punishing noncompliance. In other words, one can act interpersonally, socially, institutionally, economically or legislatively to make what one considers good or necessary changes to language.

As we move across this scale from personal to collective we should bear in mind something that is perhaps overemphasized among conservatives and underemphasized among progressives: the rights of the speakers, thinkers, judgers to speak, think and judge according to their own ideas, beliefs and consciences.

The rights of those who are spoken about, thought about, perceived and judged — the objects of language, thought, judgment, etc. — must be weighed against the rights of the subjects doing the speaking, thinking, judging, etc.

To put the problem simply, Person A thinks about, speaks about or expresses a judgment about Person B, whose rights prevail?

You cannot prevent Person A from oppressing Person B with beliefs that condemn and invalidate her very existence — beliefs which, if shared by society as a whole would make Person B’s life unlivable, without condemning, invalidating Person’s A’s existence. An argument can be made that Person A is intolerant, hateful and dangerous, and should be suppressed or contained to — but can’t it also be argued that a readiness to impose one’s own beliefs and morals on the rest of society and to forcibly suppress and punish those who disagree is also intolerant, dangerous and requiring suppression to protect dissidents? The point is not that one side is obviously right or wrong, but that looking at the full problem from multiple angles makes the question messier, makes it less obvious what ought to be done, and makes it easier to respect opposing views.

Object rights (the rights of those about whom we think speak) and subject rights (the rights of each person to speak their own truth) are in tension must be considered together and weighed together if we wish to do full justice to the problem.

Further we should not make the mistake of neglecting the more modest social actions an activist can take — conversation, etiquette, shaping of local social settings. Enforced conformity under threat of punishments ought to be a last resort, done reluctantly, under the most dire circumstances. It is not a small thing to force another person to conform to your own will and conscience, against their own will and conscience. We might be able to succeed here and there, but when we do, we have disrespected and violated the other person’s judgment and personal autonomy. We have (whether justified or not) insulted and oppressed them and likely made an enemy.

Persuasion does the opposite: by appealing to another person’s reason and moral sense and making arguments to them we show the greatest respect and produce solidarity in difference.

Producing solidarity in difference through respectful attempts to persuade — to say Thou to our adversaries, who share with us a commitment to appeals to reason and mutual acknowledgment of one’s subject and object rights — is the heart of liberalism, perhaps the most miraculous invention of humankind, so far.

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If your reaction to this is “no, I do know what is true and right, and I intend to do whatever it takes to make my views prevail”, I would suggest that you do not really ultimately belong to a marginal or vulnerable group, even if that is how you identify. If you were, in fact, powerless and vulnerable you would have little hope of success using force. Your real political body believes itself capable of imposing its will on the unwilling. As you so often point out to others, it is true: we are often oblivious of our own power and privilege, and power often conceals itself in the truths and morals it imposes.

Soul

We are collections of potentials, known and unknown: spirits. We are spiritually composite, a society of spirits living on the land of a body.

One’s soul is a spiritual society.

One’s ethic is the soul’s government.

One’s style is the soul’s culture.

One’s inner life is the soul’s politics. Some of us are liberal democracies, e pluribus unum; some are dictatorships of self-discipline; some are theocratic police states; some are anarchies of decadence; and a great many of us are human civil wars.

Please do not decenter yourself

Decentering one’s self or one’s identity as a response to one’s former egocentrism or ethnocentrism is just this year’s model of altruism.

Altruism is benevolence modeled on a stunted vision of individualism, which it tries to overcome by simply inverting it: Selfish people care about themselves at the expense of others, so unselfish people care about others at the expense of self.

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We’ve experienced the consequences of the altruistic ideal in design.

In the late 1990s and 2000s user experience design (UX) set out to help organizations stop being org-centric, and instead to be user-centric or customer-centric. Organizations who listened to us invested in research to find out what their customers wanted them to be and tried to become that. And everyone got told approximately the same thing, so wherever UX did its thing organizations started looking expertly, unobjectionably, and blandly alike. There was nothing wrong with the solutions — UX had seen to it that all flaws were removed — but there was nothing spectacularly right, either.

The solutions were well-informed, but poorly-inspired.

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I want to argue that an impoverished understanding of personhood is at the root of the uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable but bland products of UX.

But I want to take it further and claim something more general and consequential:

The impoverished understanding of personhood that belongs to altruistic ethics is responsible for uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable relationships incapable of sustaining personhood.

The high divorce rate, the empty depravity of hookups, the shallowness and fragility of friendship, the feeling of victimization and oppression that motivates so many young activists to hunt down and punish whoever is responsible for one’s own bad experience of life (and, it appears, one’s own self-contempt) — all these are caused by a theory and practice of personhood that can only produce empty relationships and selfless, decentered alienation.

This nothingness at the center where somethingness ought to be — nihility — is not neutral or numb or Buddhistically empty or void. On the contrary, nihility torments, aches, rings, glares, and stinks in its absence.

Our last two generations were aggressively indoctrinated in this decentering, altruistic ethic of goodness. They, in turn, are replicating it everywhere they can, motivated by intense resentment toward a world that has put them in this state. Or, as they prefer to put it, out of a selfless love for the oppressed, with whom they identify.

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I would propose as a replacement for this altruistic vision of personhood — self as an inert subjective object, a discrete, body-sized soul which moves around in space expending its limited resources caring for its own self or caring for other selves — with something radically different. I propose that we see selves as radiant centers, comprising smaller radiant centers, and contributing to larger radiant centers. A person is one unit of such centers, possessing a sort of center of gravity, based on the dynamic arrangement of centers at any given moment. Each of these centers, being radiant, extend in their being outward. In other words, they exist. Ex- “out” + -ist “be”.

But these radiant centers, with their own personal “I” center of gravity, also constitute larger units of being, and these larger units are relationships. These “we” relationships change the dynamics within the person, and brings that person to exist within the larger being, as a member of the relationship as well as remaining a person.

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The meaning of love changes with this reconception of personhood. Love is not so much a love of the other as other, but as a fellow participant in a relationship that is the next scale upward of oneself, a larger self in whom one is a participant — a participant in something real and transcendent to self, within whom one subsists as oneself. In the altruist conception of love the other is the object of one’s love, “I”, the subject, love “you”, the direct object of the love. In this new understanding of love, love is an enclosing subject within which love happens between persons.

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The meaning of empathy — another favorite word among altruists — changes with this reconception of personhood.

Empathy becomes a participant’s direct perception of the state of the larger beings of which it is a part. It is felt via the shifting dynamics of radiant centers within oneself in response to the changes of surrounding transcendent centers. Empathy is felt, but we lack language for its experiences — we have no “red”, “yellow”, “green” or “blue” — and so the speaking part of our mind (the only part of our mind the speaking mind acknowledges) refuses to acknowledge the reality known to empathy. Empathy is a sixth sense — a mode of perception, experienced with immediacy — and it is undeniably real to those who accept its reality.

Empathy is the furthest thing from intensely imagined feelings of others, or the reaction one has to stories of other people’s suffering. What is called empathy today is more often just emotions generated by vivid imaginations, the virtue of avid readers of sentimental fiction.

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A lot of pretty-sounding Jewish and Christian platitudes make very new sense when heard with ears that hear this way. In marriage we become one in flesh. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Christian idea that the Church is the bride of Christ. I even recognize this vision in Alain de Lille’s formula: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Seen this way, each center is one of infinite sparks of God, who approaches God by participating in ever-expanding nested scales of radiant being.

So, forget altruism. We do not give ourselves up in order to have the other. We give up the limits of our discrete, body-sized soul in order to participate in larger and larger personhood, and it is this alone that makes life lovable, because this participation as persons, in new, larger persons is what love is.

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By this logic:

  • We should stop telling our children “You are not the center of the universe.” Instead tell them “You are not the only center of the universe.”
  • We should stop doing user-centered or customer-centered, or any-centered design. A better ideal is polycentric design.
  • We should not decenter ourselves. We need our centers! We should polycenter ourselves.
  • We should absolutely not tell other people to decenter themselves. We may invite them to polycenter — as I am doing here, now.
  • We should not express love as “Not for me, but for you, alone.” We should instead express it as “Not for me, but for us, together.”
  • We should not treat gifts as transfers of ownership from giver to receiver. We should instead see gifts as investments what did belong to me, alone, now belongs to you as a member of we.
  • An identity should not be viewed as a classification that makes one person the same as another. Identity is identifying oneself as a member of a group, within whom one subsists. Identity is something we do, and it is not something another person can do to another — at least not respectfully.
  • We are never more self-centered in our small body-sized self than when we refuse to hear another perspective offered to us in good faith, but instead cling to our own omniscient already-knowing. Clinging to altruism does not make us less selfish, it destroys our selves, the very being who can love and be loved.

John Dewey on class supremacy

From Human Nature and Conduct:

We are forced therefore to consider the nature and origin of that control of human nature with which morals has been occupied. And the fact which is forced upon us when we raise this question is the existence of classes. Control has been vested in an oligarchy. Indifference to regulation has grown in the gap which separates the ruled from the rulers. Parents, priests, chiefs, social censors have supplied aims, aims which were foreign to those upon whom they were imposed, to the young, laymen, ordinary folk; a few have given and administered rule, and the mass have in a passable fashion and with reluctance obeyed. Everybody knows that good children are those who make as little trouble as possible for their elders, and since most of them cause a good deal of annoyance they must be naughty by nature. Generally speaking, good people have been those who did what they were told to do, and lack of eager compliance is a sign of something wrong in their nature.

But no matter how much men in authority have turned moral rules into an agency of class supremacy, any theory which attributes the origin of rule to deliberate design is false. To take advantage of conditions after they have come into existence is one thing; to create them for the sake of an advantage to accrue is quite another thing. We must go back to the bare fact of social division into superior and inferior.

Existential nullity

Blindness is not darkness — it burns our eyes with a dazzling glare of churning nothingness.

Losing our sense of smell doesn’t make smell go away. The world is pervaded with a maddening stench of burning rubber.

If we lose a limb, a phantom limb remains, and it aches and aches.

Same with souls: those who neglect their unique personhood and instead adopt an identity will have a glaring, stinking, aching, resentful nullity where a soul should be.

Nietzsche

I have an understanding of Nietzsche that seems to fall outside the range of normal.

I hear completely different focus, emphasis and purpose in his words, and to be completely honest, that understanding completely changed my life nearly 20 years ago when I discovered Nietzsche.

I’ll try to sketch it out.

  1. A human soul is a society, under a political order. Some parts of a soul are dominant, other parts are dominated, others are suppressed, and still others are completely unknown.
  2. This political order is what we know as morality. What is good or evil is a function of what supports or undermines the political order of a particular organization of a soul.
  3. Morality comes largely from outside. The strongest, most talented parts of a soul can often be suppressed by the prevalent morality. When these suppressed members of a soul rebel within a soul it can produce a guilty conscience. If the suppressed faction of a soul revolt and take it over, the person becomes socially unacceptable, and is called “evil”.
  4. A large part of morality is making questioning the morality taboo. To even question morality is an act of rebellion by the very faction of the soul doing the questioning.
  5. If the questioning faction of a soul questions hard enough, the soul can be thrown into chaos and perplexity and a moral crisis ensues.
  6. If a new political order is produced in a soul, this “revaluation” changes everything. New aspects of one’s soul can emerge and live. The new self experiences itself and reality itself in a completely different way. It can be experienced as a death and rebirth of self, of the world, even of what God means.
  7. When Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” this was not a call for permanent atheism, but a renewal of life’s total meaning. Gods do not stay dead. (Which reminds me, Happy Easter to all my Christian friends.)
  8. This experience redeems all pain preceding the struggle. One would be willing to go through it again, and infinite number of times (an “eternal recurrance”) for the sake of this revaluative transfiguration, which is lucky because this is the permanent cycle of spiritual life.

This has been the backbone of my reading of Nietzsche. There’s a lot more to him than only this, but if you approach him from this basic trajectory he seems a lot less… Nietzschean?

Martin Guertner’s “Mathematik und Musik”

I just bought a cassette tape player that rips mp3.

I had to get it because back in 1994 (or was it later? 1997?) I sent fan mail to Martin Guertner for some really cool fractal music I found online.

He went through the trouble to send me a cassette tape all the way from Germany, and all he asked in return was that I play it for people and send him their comments. Of course, I didn’t do it, because I suck.

So, I’ve ripped the cassette and put it here. If you will, please listen to this and leave comments so I can redeem myself after a quarter century of shameful neglect.

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.

*

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.

*

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.