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The moloch of the future

June 29, 2015

I haven’t read the new encyclical Laudato si‘; I’ll probably post about it here once I have. I’ve read a lot of the coverage it’s been getting, which has been…. mixed, to put it mildly. To start with, a quick link roundup of the articles I’ve thought most worth reading:

Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, is skeptical:

Perhaps, therefore, the most accurate thing to say is that Francis offers a postmodern reading of Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II’s desire to be open to the modern world. He seems to propose to link the Catholic Church with a pessimistic post-humanist Western sentiment rather than the older, confident humanism. […] I prefer that approach of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. […] when it comes to pressing ethical problems, revolution is a dangerous game to play.

But First Things deputy editor Matthew Schmitz praises the encyclical at the Washington Post:

Francis’ encyclical synthesizes the great cultural critiques of his two most recent predecessors—Benedict XVI’s “dictatorship of relativism” and John Paul II’s “culture of death”—in terms of opposition to the locomotive of technological rationality. […] He is opposing modernism—that old antagonist of the Church—not just as a philosophical proposition but also as a material reality.

Of course, neither a one-world authority nor a thriftier use of electricity nor a ban on trains can solve the spiritual crisis Francis foresees. In one of the best moments of the fascinating, sprawling encyclical, he rejects solutionism—that false belief that life is a series of problems that we must solve rather than live—as yet another aspect of technological rationality.

And in a similar vein, Alan Jacobs at The New Atlantis writes a number of posts about the encyclical; they can’t quite be summarized, except perhaps by this quotation:

If I had my way, I’d spend the next couple of months preparing to teach a class in which this encyclical — a far richer work than I had expected it to be, and one that I hope will have lasting power — would be read alongside Guardini’s book, with both accompanied by repeated viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. The class would be called “Who Killed the World?”

(By the way, I second the Mad Max recommendation.)

Ross Douthat in the NYT casts this debate as one between “dynamists” and “catastrophists”; Pope Francis, of course, is the latter:

Dynamists are people who see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful civilization advancing toward a future that’s better than the past. […] Catastrophists, on the other hand, see a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled. What’s more, they believe that things cannot go on as they are: That the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis, disaster, dégringolade.

But Douthat also offers a third alternative:

Indeed, perhaps our immediate future fits neither the dynamist nor the catastrophist framework.

We might have entered a kind of stagnationist position, a sustainable decadence, in which the issues Pope Francis identifies percolate without reaching a world-altering boil.

Meanwhile Damon Linker at The Week defends “modernity” against the Pope’s attacks:

After more than a millennium bathed in an ethic of Christian humility, these writers [e.g. Bacon, Descartes, and Machiavelli] argued, European life was marked by oppression, poverty, and passive acceptance of a natural order that showed no sign of guidance by the hand of God. Such a situation leaves human beings subject to powers — fate and malign human will — that can and will destroy them. The proper response isn’t acceptance. It’s standing up for ourselves and taking matters into our own hands.

And, in perhaps the strangest response I’ve seen, Noah Millman at The American Conservative accuses the Pope of “hijacking” climate change for his own purposes:

It seems to me that what Pope Francis is doing is hijacking ecological catastrophism for a pre-determined spiritual agenda. And that agenda isn’t even the one that makes the most intuitive sense as a purely spiritual response to said catastrophism. If I asked myself what religious system is most in tune with the challenges of radically reshaping the world economy to better protect the natural environment, Roman Catholic Christianity would not be the first one to come to mind. Indeed, my first impulse would be to say Buddhism, which preaches moderation, counsels non-attachment to things as the route to inner peace, has a strong tradition of vegetarianism (which, if universally adopted, would probably do more to stretch the carrying capacity of the planet than any other lifestyle change), and is considerably less-invested in fecundity than most religious traditions, Christianity included. If I were looking for specifically spiritual answers, that would seem to be the first place to turn. But the encyclical does not read like the product of a search for answers, because the answers were known in advance. The search was for an explanation of how these already-established answers just happen to be a perfect fit for humanity’s novel situation on the planet.


Again, I haven’t read the encyclical. More thoughts here once I’ve done so.

For now, seven quick points.

1. No one seems to know what to do with the encyclical politically; for example, Reno calls it revolutionary, while Schmitz says it rejects all “solutions,” which would, one would think, include revolution. But why should we seek to do anything with it politically? If we think that “modernity” is the problem, then the problem isn’t the side labeled “modernity,” or even the opposition between “modernity” and “anti-modernity”; it’s the very act of thinking about things in these political terms. Jacobs, the literary critic, seems to understand this better than the others.

2. Can’t one respond to Douthat’s trichotomy of dynamism, catastrophism, and solutionism, by saying that one believes “the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis” but doubts that even “a true revolution can save us”? What if nothing can “save us”—at least, if by that phrase is meant anything other than the salvation Christianity promises?

3. Linker is right to say that the Pope is too quick to dismiss the “modern” understanding of human nature, which has in many ways “improved living standards” etc etc; and Millman is right to say that the Catholic anthropology isn’t the obvious choice for a “solution” to our environmental problems. But to think that these are arguments against the Pope is, I think, to miss the entire point of rejecting “solutionism” (which explains what Millman’s piece in particular reads rather strangely). Francis, from what I can tell, simply does not begin with the premise that living standards / our impact on nature must be maximized / minimized, and then ask what kind of relationship with nature would bring that about. Rather, he begins by asking what kind of relationship with nature would characterize a good life.

4. He does so because “improving living standards” and “reducing our impact on the environment” are, while perhaps things an ethical person would do, not intrinsically ethical. By this I mean that pursuing such goals does not itself count as an attempt to act virtuously, to do good;  both are attempts to bring something good about. When their pursuit is disconnected from a larger picture of what makes a life good, such goals cease to be good at all, and turn into what a previous Pope in a previous encyclical called “the moloch of the future”:

Seen in this way, charity is rejected and attacked as a means of preserving the status quo. What we have here, though, is really an inhuman philosophy. People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future—a future whose effective realization is at best doubtful. One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and wherever we have the opportunity, independently of partisan strategies and programmes.

–Benedict XVI, in Deus caritas est

5. In other words, we cannot look at the world as a problem to be solved—whether that turns out to be through the (“dynamist”) strategy of maximizing living standards, or through the (“catastrophist”) strategy of minimizing our impact on the environment—while imagining that our good lives will begin once we’ve fixed the world’s problems. We cannot be alienated in this way from the goodness of our lives. We need to live good lives now.

6. This line of thought  is not a distinctively Christian one. To put it in Aristotelian language: happiness is not a state of affairs or a quality, but “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”

7. This line of thought tells us very little about what sorts of things we should do in order to establish a happy relationship with nature. The important point is simply that that, not maximizing this or that, is our goal.

Mental reservations, tacit ventures

June 22, 2015

[A follow-up to Render unto Caesar. Happily coinciding with the feast of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More.]

Let’s consider another example of religio-political equivocation. In Tudor England, Bishop John Fisher preached publicly against Henry VIII’s “marriage” to Anne Boleyn. Chancellor Thomas More did not; he merely resigned, and refused to take an oath affirming the reality of the “marriage.” Both were convicted of treason, and beheaded.

More’s refusal walked a fine line between the taxpayer and the incense-burner (cf. previous post). He did not intend to affirm the substance of the oath, which would have been an act of apostasy. He did, however, foresee, or thought he foresaw, that his silence would be seen as an acceptance of that substance, namely, that Anne Boleyn’s children would be heir to the throne. He thought he could foresee this because of a legal principle he cites, qui tacet consentire videtur, “he who is silent is seen to consent.”

This strategy ought to have worked; it did not, only because the Crown produced Richard Rich as a witness, claiming (somewhat improbably) to have heard More deny the proposition. But the reason the strategy should have worked is not that legal principles are somehow “fictional,” such that he was giving fictional, legal assent to the proposition, but not “actual” assent. Language is conventional, and legal principles are among those conventions, and if the legal principle had been qui tacet assentit, “he who is silent, assents,” More’s defense would have been nonsense. Instead, the legal principle itself makes room for, indeed codifies, an equivocation, allowing More reliably to mislead his auditors, without lying to them.


More’s equivocation is both an examplary instance, and a limit case, of mental reservation. Now, in mental reservation, a person makes a statement that can be interpreted two ways, and intend to speak truly, while intending also that the auditor misinterprets him. Mental reservation is often said to be justified through the principle of double effect, but it’s far from clear how that argument is supposed to run.[1]

His mental reservation is illustrative because his ambiguity is not in the words he speaks (he speaks no words), but in the conventions surrounding his silence: he does not intend to signal assent, but can still be seen as consenting. This brings out equivocation’s apparently absurd quality of linguistic tyranny: More is like a mute Humpty Dumpty, his silence meaning just what he means for it to mean, “neither more nor less.”

Yet More’s is also a limit case, for mental reservation is usually intended to pass unnoticed by the auditor. If it’s noticed, after all, how can it be misinterpreted? More, however, not only fails to avoid discovery, but positively calls attention to his reservations. This difference means that, unlike other exemplary equivocations, like Athanasius’s “He is close to you,”[2] the moral argument in favor of More’s is quite straightforward and unobjectionable.


To wit:

The legal principle More cites is often expanded ubi loqui debuit ac potuit, meaning “when he ought to have spoken and was able to.” The purpose of this qualification is simple: someone keeping silent at the scene of a crime might be either an enthusiastic accomplice or a horrified onlooker. If he was able to object to the crime and did not, that is enough to indict him as an accomplice, even if there’s no record of him endorsing the crime—unless he could not speak without fearing for his safety, in which case it’s likely that he was an onlooker instead. If the Crown had taken this into account, it could have recognized that More had not, in fact, meant to give his assent; but it could not have made this recognition without also recognizing its own criminality.

The structure of More’s utterance, then, is less like an action undertaken despite having certain unfortunate accidental side effects, and more like a riddle which cannot be understood by men of ill will. I don’t mean that More outwitted his enemies, that the Crown was too thickheaded to understand what he really meant; More obviously expected them to know exactly what he was trying to do. Rather, given More’s silence, and given the principle qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit, the Crown could not conclude that he withheld assent without also concluding that his inability to speak stemmed from the Crown’s violent threats. The Crown might know this, but it could never admit it. More utterance was meant to render this forbidden knowledge perspicuous.

This makes More’s silence less like a mental reservation, and more like a risky venture: if he wins, he brings his auditor to repent. If he loses, either his auditor lashes out, and he becomes a martyr; or his auditor overlooks the venture, and he becomes a liar, or, at least, an equivocator of the usual kind. Without going into whether the usual kind can be justified, it seems clear to me that the Morean kind certainly can.


** *


[1]:  The mental reservationist intends to speak the truth, and foresees… what exactly? What he foresees without intending cannot quite be the misinterpretation, for the misinterpretation is, it would seem, precisely what he intends. If this were true, then, to justify mental reservation through double effect, we would have to accept that misleading others was not evil per se, but only tended to have evil consequences, which were foreseen yet unintended. Yet there must be, or at least tend to be, evil consequences, otherwise there would be no reason not to use mental reservation all the time. What might these accidental evil consequences be? This question is often left unasked, which I suspect accounts for much of the disgust non-Catholics often feel in response to the doctrine of mental reservation. Without a reason not to equivocate unless absolutely necessary, one suspects that anyone who endorses equivocation can never be trusted, since they might equivocate whenever convenient. I don’t mean to suggest that an answer cannot be given—only that it’s not particularly easy to give one that’s satisfying.


[2]: From John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua:

He [Athanasius] was in a boat on the Nile, flying persecution; and he found himself pursued. On this he ordered his men to turn his boat round, and ran right to meet the satellites of Julian. They asked him, “Have you seen Athanasius?” and he told his followers to answer, “Yes, he is close to you.” They went on their course as if they were sure to come up to him, while he ran back into Alexandria, and there lay hid till the end of the persecution.

“Yes, he is close to you,” contains no riddle as far as I can tell. Newman’s Apologia offers a tentative defense of equivocation, which I ought to reread, when I get the chance. From what I recall, however, his argument works better as a defense of analogizing (which is to speak approximately) rather than equivocating (which is to speak misleadingly).

Kind of thing

June 17, 2015

In the game of Twenty Questions, (usually played on road trips to relieve boredom), one person thinks of something and everyone else asks that person questions until they figure out what he’s thinking about.[1] The questions must all be yes/no, except, in a traditional variation, for the first one, which is always:

  • 1. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?

This question contains within itself a picture of the world. Wikipedia associates it with the Linnaean taxonomy, though it seems more generic than that, being just a folk version of the Great Chain of Being. Or, at least, of the lower half of that chain: it’s technically correct but still a bit strange to answer “animal” when you have a human being in mind, and I’m not sure how you ought to answer if you’re thinking of an angel. So let’s try this instead:

  • 1. Divinity, spirit, human, animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Better. Though, we’re probably talking about specific human beings, e.g. Napoleon; whereas we’re probably not talking about a specific vegetable, but rather about a type of vegetable, e.g. kohlrabi. Also, many of the most famous human beings, such as Achilles, do not in fact exist. There are also fictional animals and vegetables and minerals, like the Spice from Dune. We might propose, then, to begin instead with three questions:

  • 1. Type or individual?
  • 2. Actual or fictional?
  • 3. Divinity, spirit, human, animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Still, this picture of the world contains only things that Aristotle would call substances. There exist many things that would not be called substances, but which it is quite strange to refuse to call “things.” For example, the great chain has no place for artifacts, e.g. tables, this table, light sabers, Luke’s light saber (to give examples that match all four possibilities raised by questions 1 & 2). If the table is made of wood, one could to answer “vegetable,” or “mineral” if it’s of stone; but these are awkward, and in any case, what if you’re thinking, not of any particular table, but of “table” as a category? It also has no place at all for linguistic constructs, e.g. books, The Book of the New Sun, Ascian proverbs, the story told by Loyal to the Group of Seventeen[2]; these are neither animal, vegetal, nor mineral, though they can be written down on parchment or paper, or cut into stone. Nor for social constructs, e.g. governments, the U.S.A., utopias, Utopia; a government cannot even be physically instantiated the way a poem can. So perhaps:

  • 1. Category or individual?
  • 2. Actual or fictional?
  • 3. Rational, natural, or constructed?
  • 4.a. Divinity, spirit, or human?
  • 4.b. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?
  • 4.c. Artifact, verbifact, or sociofact?[3]

But we’re still missing so much! What about places, e.g. forests, America, inhabitable alien worlds, Endor? What about events, like revolutions, the American Revolution, entmoots, the battle of Isengard? What about qualities, like largeness, the size of a breadbox, eldritch colors, fuligin? What about states of mind, like ideas, my anger at Comcast customer service, [Teeming], [this-one-who-does-not-individuate]’s [Teeming][4]? What about states of affairs, like political equilibria, the U.S. government’s “balance of powers,” magical resonances, the resonance between Harry Potter and Voldemort? All of these things it makes sense to call, well, things. None of them would fit well into the above categories.

In the round of 20Q I played recently, we were faced with:

  • The American Revolution
  • Andrew Wiley’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem
  • The prisoner’s dilemma
  • Quantum entanglement

Twenty questions is, I have found, much more entertaining when such things are permitted. But, of course, permitting them does leave us with no obvious choice for a first question. We have so many types of things: divinities, spirits, humans; animals, vegetables, minerals; artifacts, verbifacts, sociofacts; places, events, qualities, states of mind, states of affairs. Nor does this list make any claim to be exhaustive. Anything, any noun, is a thing; and nominalization happens all the time.

But then, perhaps there’s no need for a default first question; coming up with such a question is part of the fun.

[1]: Or until they get to twenty questions, except that’s kind of a silly rule; why not just keep playing till you’ve solved it? If you do abide by the twenty-questions rule, you’ll be able to distinguish, at most, between 2^20 = 1,048,576 things. Since your questions probably won’t bisect the answer space perfectly, it’ll probably be less. Wikipedia has almost five million pages, so even if you do play perfectly, you can’t win without having some sense of what the other person finds interesting: for example, you have to know that almost everyone is more likely to choose Napoleon than John J. Anderson.

[2]: While finding examples of individual fictional linguistic constructs was easy, it took some work to come up with a fictional type of linguistic construct. For obvious reasons, searching for “fictional genre” wasn’t much help. The examples I decided on come from Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.

[3]: I did not invent the neologisms verbifact and sociofact, though both are uncommon, to say the least.

[4]: Examples of fictional mental states are even more difficult. Mine are from nostalgebraist’s Floornight.

Evidence of things not seen

June 7, 2015

The title of this post is, of course, part of St. Paul’s definition of faith (Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”). It’s also something of a paradox:”evidence” comes from “evident,” whose etymology the OED gives as “ē- out + vident-em, present participle of vidēre to see.” Faith is the seeing of what you don’t, you know, actually see. It’s like a form of perception sensitive not just to physics, but to metaphysics. Call it metaperception.

We speak in such metaperceptual terms all the time. Faith is “evidence of things not seen,” and we often say that something looks, not green or large or solid, but “real.” When a proposition seems to us correct, it sounds, not loud or jarring, but “right”; it has “the ring of truth.” When a person seems to us to possess a certain spiritual excellence, he has about him “an aura of holiness,” or, as the theologians say, “the odor of sanctity,” or, in a more modern phrase, “an air of authenticity.” And, of course, our word for aesthetic sensitivity just is “taste.”


Knowing is not really a form of looking or hearing or smelling or tasting. Nor is it an additional form of perception on top of those three. That such metaphors appeal to us tells us something, but not, perhaps, about how we know; rather, about how we wish we knew. We wish that, when Being, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty were present, they could be accompanied by some sign which, if our senses were sufficiently refined, we could infallibly detect. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, participation in the transcendentals is not accompanied by any particular look, ring, air, or other perception. There is no way of knowing beforehand which perceptions will help us judge the transcendentals’ presence or absence; we cannot proceed except through careful attention to the whole, including both the object and its context. (Nor can their presence be detected through attention to our response to that whole—it’s absurd to think we could tell if our knowledge of a proposition was certain by looking for signs that we possessed the appropriate serenity with regard to it.)

But perhaps we can still take the metaphors to tell us something, not about the genus of such metaperceptions, but about the differences between the various species. We imagine that we recognize Being through something like sight, Truth through something like hearing, Goodness through something like smell, Beauty through something like taste. I wonder, then: are these right?

That being is like something we can see: it persists, it can be regarded from different angles, it remains even if we close our eyes and minds?

That truth is like something we can hear: it lasts only for a moment, since a statement true one moment can be false the next, but for that moment, if we notice it, we are incapable of closing our ears to its force?

That goodness is like something we can smell: we might not even notice it, if we’re not looking, and will almost certainly have difficulty describing it, but it still greatly influences our approach to it?

That beauty is like something we can taste: we disagree about it constantly, and it bears no direct correspondence to what is actually good for us, but it still seems somehow important?


This is, of course, quite ad-hoc; my list of transcendentals is non-standard (“beauty” arguably doesn’t qualify, and honestly I’m not entirely clear on the distinction between “being” and “the one”), and as is my list of senses (it’s missing “touch,” not to mention more modern notions like “proprioception”). This bothers my schematizing tendencies, and makes the rest of me suspicious of the idea that these things fall into a schema at all.

But then, I’m not speaking here about philosophy, so much as about how these metaphors influence our thoughts. If I’m right to see a pattern in our talk of things looking real, ringing true, smelling right, and tasting beautiful, then the pattern doesn’t need to be all-encompassing or even entirely consistent in order to be worth attending to, so long it is heard in the key not of Plato but of Wittgenstein.

Straight forward ethics

May 31, 2015

Three and a half years ago I quoted Alan Jacobs responding to a common criticism of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. His comments still seem to me quite intelligent:

It has just become the tale that middle-to-highbrow critics tell — ever since Edmund Wilson was saying his own manifestly untrue things about Tolkien in the New Yorker fifty years ago — that Tolkien’s fictional world is morally simplistic and rigidly Manichaean. It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.

It struck me recently that, strange as it sounds to lump Tolkien and Immanuel Kant together, the same criticism can be made (and my students often say it) about Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. He has much to say about the importance of doing one’s duty, and about what one’s duties are; he has almost nothing to say about what to do when duties conflict with one another, as my students are convinced they often do. One’s evaluation of Kant, as of Tolkien, will usually vary in accordance with how much importance one attaches to this omission. Is ethics fundamentally straight-forward, its difficulty consisting not in confusion but temptation, such that, while sometimes in real life one doesn’t know how to proceed, it still makes sense to imagine ethics in terms of a quest? Or is it fundamentally ambiguous, the way forward always unclear, such that seeing ethics as following the straight and narrow will lead only to a lack of sensitivity to ethical complexity? If the former, Kant and Tolkien are stripping ethics down to its essentials; if the latter, they are leaving ethics behind entirely.

It’s too easy to say, as Matthew Arnold does in “Hebraism and Hellenism” (chapter 4 of Culture and Anarchy), that these two tendencies, wanting to do rightly and wanting to know rightly, are both good as far as they go, but must be “balanced.” “Balance” is the language of someone who knows two apparently contradictory things are both necessary, but does not know how they ought to fit together; what we need is not balance, but connection.

Auden attempts something along these lines in his review of The Return of the King, which I discuss here. For Auden, it comes down to the subjective versus the objective: subjectively, we experience life as a quest; objectively, we see the actions of others as having at best a muddled relation to ethical behavior. This isn’t much of an improvement, since Auden never addresses the obvious implication of the objective for the subjective, namely, that we might understand our own quest wrongly. But it does indicate a potential train of thought that would recognize an insufficiency in Kant and Tolkien’s approach without embracing a view of ethics as fundamentally ambiguous: one that focused on the implications of our capacity to make mistakes.

The best intentions

May 24, 2015

A few weeks ago Sam Harris published a series of emails between him and Noam Chomsky that offers an excellent case study in how arguments can go wrong. The topic is, supposedly, politics and ethics, and, specifically, whether intentions matter for our ethical evaluation of polities’ actions. Really, it’s about something else entirely. The crucial passages come near the end, as both parties begin losing their tempers:

[Harris said:] Your dismissal of an idealized thought experiment as “embarrassing and ludicrous,” and your insistence upon focusing on real-world cases about which our intelligence is murky is not helping to clarify things.

[Chomsky said, not in direct reply to the above:] I agree that I am litigating all points (all real, as far as we have so far determined) in a “plodding and accusatory way.” That is, of course, a necessity in responding to quite serious published accusations that are all demonstrably false, and as I have reviewed, false in a most interesting way: namely, you issue lectures condemning others for ignoring “basic questions” that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them.

Harris thinks the he needs to make sure Chomsky agrees with him on ethical first principles before they go on to discuss specific ethical judgments, while Chomsky sets out to teach Harris a lesson about how poor an ethical judge this obsession with first principles makes him. Both, unsurprisingly, fail.


But why didn’t they just come out and say this? Harris, for example, could have said:

[But Harris didn’t say:] Clearly we find different facts to be important with regard to these specific cases, and this is likely the cause of much of our disagreement. I’m unsure, however, whether, even if we did agree on how to describe these cases, we would agree in our ethical judgments of them. Therefore I’d like to discuss first principles for a while–for example, what role does intention play in our ethical judgments?–before we sit down to look at specific cases.

Or, conversely, Chomsky could have said:

[But Chomsky didn’t say:] You want our disagreement to be philosophical, so that our conversation can remain far enough removed from the facts of the matter to enable you to avoid confronting your own hypocrisy. But our “disagreement” is not philosophical; it consists in nothing more than your failure to pay the facts of the matter the attention due to them. You do not see the situation clearly, and if you did, you would see how your present desire to focus on philosophy is just a distraction from it. I cannot explain the situation to you in an email exchange. It’s complex, it involves close attention to facts, and I’ve written about these facts and what they mean for fifty years. Read all my writings, not just one short book; then, maybe, we can have a conversation.

The closest they come to this is in the passages I quoted earlier, neither of which are intended to shift attention to this disagreement; Harris merely invokes the importance of “clarity” against what is “murky,” assuming that clarity can be reliably achieved through a sincere amateur investigation, while Chomsky berates Harris for his ignorant arrogance, without making any effort to tell Harris why his lack of expertise matters. Harris speaks as a liberal, Chomsky speaks as a radical, and neither makes any effort to remedy the situation.


As Harris admits in his epilogue, Chomsky is right; Harris did misread him:

[Harris says:] I can see that my point was not that he literally hadn’t asked these questions but that the answers he arrived at are, in my opinion, scandalously wrong. Perhaps Chomsky didn’t literally “ignore the role of human intentions,” but he effectively ignored it, because he did not appear to give intentions any ethical weight.

Sadly, Harris continues to misread him. The first of these sentences is right, the second is wrong. Part of the problem is that Chomsky and Harris disagree about what the word “intention” means. Chomsky uses it to refer to what, when asked, an agent will say he means to do. According to Chomsky, this is meaningless, since agents are often (self-)deceiving in their avowals; even the Nazis claimed to be humanitarians. Harris uses the word to refer to what an agent really wants; though the Nazis might have claimed to be, and even have believed themselves to be, “humanitarians,” what matters isn’t their use of that word, but rather what their intentions amounted to, which, in the case of the Nazis, was the murder of twelve million people.

At any rate, Harris would say, and Chomsky would not, or at least need not, diagree, that, even though both the Nazis and a hypothetical group, call them Mazis, avowed humanitarian motives, and even though both performed actions that led to the deaths of twelve million people, we could still draw a distinction between them, if the Nazis intended these deaths (through, for example, thinking being humanitarian means purifying the race), while the Mazis didn’t, but brought them about accidentally (through, for example, thinking that a poisonous compound was actually medicinal).

Chomsky would only disagree that such distinction-mongering had any relevance. In his view, it’s worse than irrelevant: it helps people like Harris to excuse American atrocities, through conflating the mere ability to draw such distinctions with the actual possession of good intentions. “We can see that Nazis are worse than Mazis” is not the same as “We know ourselves to be more like Mazis than Nazis.”


If this was clear to me, why wasn’t it clear to Harris and Chomsky? Well, it might have been. They’re not idiots. But both are ideologically committed to proceeding in the way they did.

Harris, who has no expertise in the matter, cannot admit that expertise might be relevant without calling into question his own standing to participate in the conversation. So he adopts a tone of amateur inquiry, of having an “interesting” debate, of proceeding with “civility,” in an attempt to make it sound as if these are matters which any person of good will can understand if he just thinks them through for an hour. He is, in short, a liberal, in the traditional sense: one who believes that no problem is so great a gentleman amateur cannot solve it. Gentlemen amateurs being, of course, the opposite of fanatics.

Chomsky, who has devoted his life to studying such issues, and who has adopted positions starkly at odds with the norms of liberal discourse, is precisely the fanatic Harris detests. He is an “expert,” to be sure, but so are myriad other people, most of whom disagree with him. To differentiate himself from them, he must constantly accuse them of hypocrisy, and project his own moral authority. He must take for granted that Harris already knows, at some level, why his position is wrong, which makes it pointless to explain to him his mistake: you don’t tell a narcissist that he’s a narcissist, you treat him in a way that will get him to change.


Harris and Chomsky’s tones here are both understandable, but both constitute, it seems to me, a failure of charity. Not an absence of charity. We can, I think, take Harris at his word that he doesn’t want to fight with Chomsky, he actually wants to learn; the problem is that he either cannot or refuses to conceive of a learning which takes place other than through the discourse of gentlemen amateurs. Nor do I think Chomsky is just performing his prophet-act for an audience–he really does intend to call Harris to account for his sins; the problem is that Harris’s supposed sins, even if they are at some level ethical, are also intellectual, and cannot be repented of without their error being made plain to him.

The problem, in sum, is that neither side can allow itself to consider the possible legitimacy of a rival mode of discourse, or the possible inadequacy of its own. Both have good intentions, but due to inadequate imagination, their intentions lead to ruin. Harris has, however, this last consolation: Chomsky, thinking no good could come of it, wanted their conversation to fail; Harris did not, but merely proceeded in a way that made failure inevitable. Harris’s intentions were, in this limited sense, more pure. It remains unclear whether and how much Chomsky thinks this difference matters.

Principled principals and ethical agents

May 16, 2015

He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

–Captain Ahab, in Chapter 36, “The Quarterdeck”

Ahab doesn’t care which one the white whale is. Should we?


So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering—while I jerked him now and then from between the whale and ship, which would threaten to jam him—still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey-rope heedfully as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding overboard. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it.

–Ishmael, in Chapter 72, “The Monkey-Rope”

As Ishmael says, we are all principals, and we are all agents, for all of us; which, if true, makes the principal-agent problem the central problem of ethico-political existence.


The principal-agent problem, in a nutshell: One person, call him the principal, wants something to happen, but he is unable to do it himself, and so he hires someone else, the agent, to do it for him. But he will often find it difficult, even after the fact, to ascertain whether or not the agent has actually done what he was hired to do. This gives the agent a reduced incentive to actually do his task, since the principal might never find out whether he did it or not. The principal-agent problem is the cause of the distrust we feel for experts of every stripe: jewelers, lawyers, doctors, plumbers, contractors; we just can’t tell if they’re doing a good job. We have to take their word for it.

This problem was also, of course, the downfall of communism. Agents went rogue at every possible level: the workers, the managers, and the central planners all had no real incentive to accomplish the tasks for which the managers, the central planners, and History, respectively, had engaged them.

Capitalism solves the principal-agent problem through the joint-stock company. When economic enterprises are small, economies can work with everyone just looking out for their own interest, but when enterprises grow more complex, it becomes necessary to ensure that different people cooperating on an enterprise are actually, well, cooperating. Investors, who have capital but not expertise, don’t just want high profits this quarter, they want the company to do well in the long term. They hire managers, who have expertise but not capital, whose job it is to maximize the value of the stock, which is used as a proxy for the company doing well. Unless they control more resources than the company is worth, which almost by definition they do not, the managers will find it difficult to manipulate the stock price directly; while to manipulate it indirectly, they will have to systematically deceive the entire market, which it’s difficult to do over the long term. So the investors have an easy way to see if the company is doing well, and can always fire the managers if they think it isn’t, which gives the managers a strong incentive to make sure it does.


This solution, however, is of extremely limited scope. It promises that your every desire can be fulfilled by an external agent–so long as you agree that you desire long term financial success.

Money is, of course, more fungible than almost anything else, so the solution is still attractive. Maybe too attractive. It gives us the illusion that similar strategies can solve the principal-agent problem in other domains. Worried about whether teachers are really teaching students anything? Impose standardized tests. Worried about whether the money spent on health care is really healing anyone? Measure procedures in terms of QALYs (quality-adjusted life years).

These sound like reasonable solutions because, even if test scores and QALY counts aren’t exactly what we, the principal, want, they’re at least correlated with our desires. But mere correlation is exactly what causes principal-agent problems in the first place! In the days before joint-stock companies, the owner of a firm would see that his manager was bringing in profits; he would know that current profits were correlated with long-term financial success; but he would have no way of knowing if these profits were signs of long-term health, or if they were merely fabricated to look like such signs. The exact same thing happens with test scores and QALY counts. Teachers teach to the test, and students learn nothing but the test; insurance companies provide coverage based on what they’ve decided you want, and other important components of health get left by the wayside. The incentive structures we create to solve principal-agent problems create new ones.


This happens frequently when the goods we desire are difficult to verify, as with jewelry appraisals. It happens perhaps inevitably whenever the goods we desire are not quantitative, like money, but qualitative, like health and education. If we can’t explain to our own satisfaction exactly in what they consist, how can we possibly verify whether the agent whom we’ve contracted has sought them adequately? The traditional solution, in such cases, is ethical. Lawyers and doctors and teachers are all held to high ethical standards.

At the same time, they’re all routinely distrusted, accused variously of dishonesty, malice, and incompetence. For they cannot, of course, actually be held to such standards: there is no one with the knowledge necessary to do the holding. Rather, we expect them to hold themselves to such standards. We expect them to embody our ideals, of the rule of law, of the balanced life, of the quest for wisdom. This gives them an incentive to adopt the appearance of embodying such ideals; it gives them no incentive not to be hypocritical.

Hypocrisy, then, is a special case of the principal-agent problem. Is it better, or worse, than other principal-agent failures? I’d argue that it’s better. Ethical standards demand real obedience, not just lip-service. This means that, if we notice that someone is being hypocritical, we can call him out on his hypocrisy. When we attempt to replace ethics with a non-ethical solution to the problem we block off our recourse to this calling out. If we’re evaluating our teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores, it rings hollow to accuse them of teaching to the test: that’s what we asked them to do. The principal cannot in good conscience evaluate the agent’s actions other than by seeing whether the agent did what he was told. That our entire country does so, incessantly, is yet another instance of incessant hypocrisy in what academics love to call the “modern liberal state”; what an earlier thinker would have called Leviathan.


So be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal? If principal only, he has no agents, and we have no commerce with him. Ahab knows this to be false:

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play.

Here Ahab’s argument undoes itself. If we have commerce with the whale, whose agent is he if not ours, the outrageous strength and inscrutable malice revealed as the strength and malice of the body politic, inscrutable because it refuses to scrutinize itself?

Then Ahab strikes through the pasteboard mask at himself? Well, we did know all along that he was suicidal, which raging against the modern liberal state always is. The principal cannot in good conscience evaluate the agent’s actions other than by seeing whether the agent did what he was told. Which, like a demon granting wishes, it always does.


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