TfE: Zero-Sum Politics and Moral Logic

Here’s another Facebook interaction that grew into something interesting, initiated in response to an observation by the incomparable Mark Lance:

Screenshot 2019-09-09 00.21.07

I think that this is an interesting observation that I’m sure will feel familiar to anyone who pays attention to politics on FB, either because they use the medium for political communication, because they take a more anthropological approach to the ways this medium is changing the public sphere, or some combination of the two. It’s also something that will be of no surprise to anyone who has encountered the concept of intersectionality, no matter what they think about the evolution of the concept and the debates surrounding it and the cursed concept of ‘identity politics’. I was also not aware of Liam‘s post on the fallacy he calls ‘political omega-inconsistency‘, and I was absolutely delighted to learn about it. However, I was interested in articulating a slightly different sort of fallacious reasoning, and how it is involved in this phenomena of ‘one dimensionalism’ that Mark was putting his finger on:

I actually think that there are deep and persistent logical fallacies that encourage this tendency, amongst others, centred on the relationship between obligation and optimisation.

So, to take a parallel example: if we were to talk about people who emphasise and support different dimensions in popular music, we (and they) would be much more inclined to talk (and act) as if it’s perfectly fine for one person to spend all their time listening to, making, and popularising blues music, and another person to do the same for jazz, or hip-hop, or prog rock, without treating these two things as if they were incompatible, as if they were something like opposed speech acts.

Let’s modify the example: if we were to talk about people who emphasise and support different charities, we might be more inclined toward the incompatibility framing than we would in the case of pop music, precisely because of cases like the opposition between the Koch brother’s ‘charitable‘ donations and George Soros’s ‘charitable donations‘. Here we see that there is something like a conflict of political principles playing out in the sphere of charity, rather than the sphere of party politics. However, we’d still probably recognise that other cases, such as: one person’s decision to donate to AIDS research, and another person’s decision to donate to cancer research; or one person’s decision to spend their time volunteering at a music program for underprivileged youths, and another person’s decision to spend their time volunteering at homeless shelters; are not fundamentally opposed, even if they reflect different priorities.

Let’s modify the example again: if we were to talk about people who emphasise and support different ways of spending the government’s budget, we would more squarely enter the frame of opposition, insofar as one cannot distribute the same money in two ways, even when a given distribution is designed to preserve the independence of the divergent priorities of distinct societal groups. Here it looks like there is a decision to be made about how we integrate differing priorities into a single preference ranking, and a practical problem that is amenable to optimisation in accordance with such a ranking. This means that even when we recognise that we’re engaged in something like a democratic process whose goal is some sort of compromise between our various priorities, we’re tempted to reason under the expectation of an optimum way of doing so, and worse, to collapse the difference between the optimum way of compromising on priorities (which is indifferent to what these are) and the optimum set of priorities (which is not).

I should point out here that I’m not arguing for some extreme sort of proceduralism, where we should always aim to pursue political compromise over pursuing political principle; but rather, that we should at least understand the difference between these things, so that we can modulate our reasoning as we shift between political contexts.

So, what’s the logical moral (or maybe the moral logic) that I’m trying to convey here? It is that we often base the obligations we expect from others on the presence of some sort of decisional optimum in the practical domain we’re reasoning (or failing to reason) about. Voltaire’s maxim that ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ is often taken as a caution against practical perfectionism, but I think there’s a much deeper form of theoretical anti-perfectionism to be found here. The tacit assumption that there is always an optimum to be found in any practical reasoning context is harmless in some contexts, but catastrophic in others. The truth is that, rather than being a global property of practical reasoning contexts, it is a vanishingly rare one, and the contemporary visibility of and focus upon these rare contexts is the source of much mundane stupidity, and much mundane violence (in the sense that Graeber conjoins these in his Utopia of Rules).

To rephrase this in terms applicable to the original example: politically engaged people have an alarming tendency to treat political awareness and political action as a zero-sum game, in which your focus on what you take to be important automatically detracts from their focus on what they take to be important. This is the real flaw of one-dimensionalism: not the inability to see that different people have different political priorities, but rather, an all too easy defence against the implicit moral challenge posed by the very fact that they have different priorities, namely, that in-the-last-instance the moral calculus will prove your priorities more just than theirs by some small margin, thereby justifying not only your personal focus upon them, but also your counter-demand that their personal focus should align with yours.

This is admittedly pretty dense, and Mark prompted me to clarify what I was saying:

Screenshot 2019-09-09 11.24.55

I think this is the correct attitude to have, and didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. What I was trying to do was provide something like an explanation of why some people cannot be satisfied by this attitude. 

What I somewhat awkwardly called the ‘all too easy defence against the implicit moral challenge posed by the very fact that [someone has different priorities than you]’ amounts to this: when X, who prioritises dimension x, encounters Y, who prioritises dimension y, they anticipate a possible challenge to justify their priorities in opposition to Y‘s priorities, and then react to it by concocting some simple story about the relation between x and y that obliges anyone to prioritise x over y, and on that basis justifies overlooking y completely.

I think this falls squarely in the territory of the epistemology of ignorance. What one has here is a rationalisation for not having to learn about things outside of one’s own narrow focus. In aiming for a moral optimum, they aim for something which is logically too strong, insofar as it obliterates any defeasible epistemic responsibilities to learn about political dimensions other than one’s own focus, let alone to understand how the relations between them might be a source of as yet unappreciated moral responsibilities.

To try and provide a more concrete example: I think this is what’s going on when a Marxist dismisses ‘identity politics’ by claiming that every sort of oppression in the latter is either a result of or essentially less important than economic exploitation. Instead of justifying their own focus by describing it in terms of epistemic and political heuristics (which can include Marxist theory, but needn’t), they use Marxist theory to create a response that is too strong insofar as it makes the position of anyone who has different priorities morally incompatible with their own. This makes everyone grouped under ‘identity politics’ into part of the problem (a ‘reformist‘, perhaps), rather than people working on a different but compatible aspect of the solution. It also thereby justifies pathological epistemic priorities, such as only ever reading work in the Marxist tradition, and not paying attention to sources of information that might falsify one’s theoretical and practical views.

This discussion of fallacies of practical reasoning and the notion of ‘moral logic’ that this implies also gave me an excuse to elaborate a position that I’ve held for quite a while now, but have not really formulated in depth:

To translate this into meta-ethics (in lieu of political philosophy), the deep problem with utilitarianism is that it wants to collapse the entire complex space of practical reason into a single preference space, and define not just the good, but every good in terms of some speculative and essentially impossible optimisation procedure operating on its basis. I actually think this is doubly bad, because it’s almost certainly the case that there isn’t an instrumental optimum, let alone a normative optimum.

Consider, the question of how we should fund mathematics research. Can there be any answer to this that is not simply a more or less complex heuristic? Can you really tell two different mathematicians, one pursuing insights in number theory, and one pursuing insights in synthetic geometry, that they are somehow morally incompatible? We don’t even know if they’re instrumentally incompatible! We don’t even have a way of constructing a total space of possible mathematical theorems, let alone a way of designing an algorithm that can search said space in a provably optimal way. We have heuristics, and notions of good/bad and better/worse practice, and we must be content with them. I suspect that we must be similarly content in the political and ethical domains, and that this is why virtue ethics is appealing. It allows space for our moral reasoning to breathe. It does not collapse the difference between the obligatory and the supererogatory, or between moral certainty and moral fidelity.

Of course, much virtue ethics has different epistemic vices, tempting some to collapse obligation into supererogation, thereby eliminating the possibility of hard moral disagreement. Worse, it often collapses into a more general irrationalism that is inexorably conservative in the Humean (and indeed Burkean) sense of the term. ‘Leave me to my own moral heuristics,’ the conservative and the ascetic say, in unison. It is here that deontology rears its head, stubbornly insisting on a distinction between the obligatory and the supererogatory, before (heroically) failing to derive the former from the structure of reason alone, tripping over the distinction between ethics and politics in the process. The real question of meta-ethics is thus not so much how to decide between the three canonical strategies (utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics) as it is to articulate the connections between the different regions of the space of practical reason they privilege. This is what I have, for years, called ‘deontic expressivism‘ in homage to Brandom’s ‘logical expressivism‘, and it is something like a dialectical response to (meta-)ethical pluralism in the same way that Brandom’s position is a (sometimes inadequate) response to logical pluralism. It is an attempt to capture the complexity and variety of the space of practical reason without abandoning the commitment to its unity.

Anyway, I should stop here.

But that’s how tread a path from political one-dimensionalism into the heart of the ethical dialectic.


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