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Liberation Teleology

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A block away from my workplace in the small town of Jaltenango de la Paz, Chiapas, a new community center just opened. It's called, in Spanish, "The Effect of Soma." If that seems like a funny name, it is: the literary function of Soma in Brave New World is that it aids in pacifying and isolating people to facilitate totalitarian control. But it is also pure pleasure, hence the name of the community center.

On a recent trip home my brother mentioned that he's skeptical of the possibility of an objective ethics. Along with the community center thing, these two little stimuli prompted the biggest breakthrough in my own thinking on the philosophy of ethics in a long time.

I apologize in advance to those with little background in philosophy for being technical. I apologize in advance to those with much background in philosophy for being sophomoric.

I've subscribed for years to a sort of adapted utilitarianism. The idea is that we can construct an objective ethical system using a function that takes as input the happiness and suffering of everyone concerned, across all future time. The biggest problem with this (other than that it's useless as a tool for making ethical decisions, ironically enough) is the Soma problem: there's no way to tally happiness and suffering such that a Soma-fueled authoritarian dystopia is unethical.

So what I'm drawn to now is a Teleology of Liberation. The idea is that an action is moral insofar as it increases the capacity of people to pursue self-actualization.

A few notes:

  • To act out your own liberty is neither inherently moral nor immoral. The question is about the impact of your actions on the liberty of others.
  • We can apply a progressive metric to tally liberty, much as we can for utilitarianism. i.e., the liberty to eat weighs much more heavily than the liberty to fly around the world.
  • A moral social order is then an equitable one, one in which everyone has a similar capacity to pursue self-actualization.
  • Whereas Nietzsche and Rand's liberty includes the liberty to dominate, this precludes it. Domination is immoral. A Soma-prison is immoral. Oppression is immoral. Check check check.
  • I think it's healthy for ethical systems to be robust to a loss of the noumenon. That is, they should function similarly if we deny that an objective reality exists. I mostly like this stipulation because a lot of my friends are postmodern-ass anthropologists who think the idea of objective truth is colonialist. An intersubjective utilitarianism is easy to construct, since people have a sense of their happiness (and suffering) that they can communicate. I hear Sartre constructed an intersubjective deontology, but I can't tell you much about it. Anyway, an intersubjective liberation teleology also seems straightforward, since I have some sense of the constraints on my life. But it would be fair to point out that liberty is much squirrelier than happiness and suffering.

I have no doubt that this idea has been thoroughly expounded, probably a long time ago. I'd be interested if anyone can point me to where I can read more about it (brandonistenes@gmail.com).

Some Background on Ethics

Don't read this if you already sort of get what I said above. It is not good.

One way to divide up thinking on ethics is into deontological ("it's what you do") and teleological ("it's what results"). A point of notable contrast is The Trolley Problem. They both get in trouble in certain tricky (or not-so-tricky) situations. Kant, deontology's MVP, would have told Nazis where his Jewish neighbors are because lying is bad, so don't do lying. John Stuart Mill, the guy who invented utilitarianism (the Bacardi of teleology), would have pushed someone out of an airplane, provided doing so was necessary to ensure the arrival of medicine that would have saved two lives. Most people are uncomfortable with both of these.

This problem with deontology can be circumvented with what I call an "information hack." Kant's dictum was "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." So if your maxim is "don't lie," you're going to be a shithead snitch, and you deserve to get beat up. But if the maxim you apply to the above situation is "don't tell state-appointed murderers where the people they want to kill are," you'll be in much better shape. However, this might require an arbitrary amount of context to resolve—you might have to describe the present scenario in an arbitrary amount of detail to figure out what the moral thing to do is. What exactly is the moral decision might change depending on how much context is provided, as happens with Kant and the Nazis. And who's to say what's the right level of detail to provide in a maxim?

This is similar to a problem that much closer to the heart of teleology, which is that you might have to know an arbitrary amount of stuff to an arbitrary point in the future in order to fully measure the ethical import of an action. This makes it pretty useless for figuring out what the moral thing to do is. But at least it's obvious how ethics should ultimately be measured: taking the whole universe from that point forward forever into account. There's no such easy answer for deontology.

I don't really mind either of these problems, since I don't think this kind of ethical theory is actually useful for living ethically. I think normative ethics is a more relevant body of thought for that kind of stuff, but I'm not very familiar with it either. Mostly I just wing it.

But there's trouble! Some people don't think that there is a single, fixed, objective world that we can refer to. I complain about these people a lot; some of them are close friends of mine. For me it's a very productive tension. I'd rather not know exactly how they feel about it. In any case, I think it's productive to ask which of these theories stay standing when we pull out the rug of reality from under them.

The vanilla statement of utilitarianism presumes that there is an objective (or "noumenal") reality in which happiness exists in objective, if unmeasurable, amounts. What happens if we remove the objective, leaving the intersubjective? By the intersubjective I mean minds and the things they communicate with each other, allowing the possibility that they perceive genuinely different things and that neither perception is more "right" than the other. Utilitarianism survives in style – people have some sense of their own happiness and suffering that they can communicate with others.

How might we construct an intersubjective deontology? I'm sort of at a loss, but some folks say Sartre figured it out. I gotta read Sartre one of these days.

Libertarianism is Great, a priori

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It strikes me how much “classical liberals" and "market libertarians”argue a priori.

Locke’s social contract seems like a fine way to conceptualize the state in society, a priori. A bunch of abstract pre-civilizational humans come together and make some agreements about how to live together. The trouble comes in when you notice it’s not just ahistorical, but it doesn’t at all describe the relationships people have with the state and society, as we observe them empirically.

I ended up in a conversation with this guy who, in Lockean tradition, tries to understand different political worldviews as different ways of answering what the gang of abstract pre-civilizational humans above ought to do. I suggest that they hold resources in common and allocate what must be allocated according to need. And he's very concerned about people overstating their needs, and about impropriety on the part of those doing administration.

What I'm saying is that libertarians conceive of political theory as something that can be reasoned out a priori, like mathematics, and then applied to reality post hoc. We contrast this with Marxism, which sees political theory as a process of analyzing reality and finding the points of tension, the contradictions, which we expect to drive the process of politics.

This explains the inability to really grapple with inequality. The problem of inequality is always an afterthought, the encroachment of reality on a pure, abstract, a priori theory of economic ethics.

When confronted with the question, I think the most interesting response is “inequality is the state’s fault.” I don’t think it’s a strong argument historically, but at least it admits that there’s a problem.

Another interesting response is that  extreme poverty is declining. I think it gets at the split between social science and economics as disciplines broadly.

The economist says that the purchasing power of the poorest of the poor is going up.

The social scientist points out that the process by which this has happened has involved mass displacement into cities and into more precarious living situations, the transition from family business to factory labor (which creates social alienation, isolation, and juvenile delinquency), business-backed violence in Mexico and Colombia... in short, poverty is numerically lessened but empirically aggravated.

I think the split between social science departments and economics departments has something to do with the fact that the former actually listen to what the poor have to say about their situation. Social scientists are concerned with empirical reality. They are interested in doing political ethics a posteriori.

This also gets at a concept that Ivan Illich mentions in Deschooling Society, which is the modernization of poverty. His definition has to do with education, buy I take it to be the idea that “development” makes life more unpleasant given a constant purchasing power. I find this idea compelling and would like to read more about it.

The Present US Electoral Moment from 10,000 Feet

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This is not a very original analysis, and not very deep. But I figure I should state it somewhere.

I’m going to use “fascism” and “socialism” in very loose terms. I’m going to be excessively general. If this all seems obvious to you, read something else. If it's surprising to you, read this blog more.

Bad times yield disillusionment with the status quo. At present, the status quo is liberal capitalism. This, the aftermath of the Great Recession, is a bad time.

In the history of liberal capitalism, this disillusionment has yielded two strong movements in reaction, pulling opposite directions: fascism and socialism.

Trump won because he spoke to this disillusionment, with the spirit (if not the letter) of fascism. Hillary lost because she did not speak to this disillusionment at all. Fascism and socialism speak to disillusionment and dispossession. Neoliberalism and centrism are incapable of doing so.

Since the Red Scare, the US political establishment has being fighting to suppress socialism. There are now few countries in the world where communism is less understood and taken less seriously than in the US. So now that we arrive in a moment where people are looking for radical change, and public discourse is weighted toward fascism.

The worse everything gets, the more people will look for radical answers.

The Earth is warming. Mass environment-driven migration is on the horizon. The future is not looking rosy.

So there’s a race to see how the remains of our ravaged planet will be divvied up: so that everyone can survive with some kind of dignity, or so that the übermenschen can achieve all the power they will themselves to. A humanistic ethic against a Nietzschean one. Right now, as socialists, as humanists, we’re both losing and fighting an uphill battle.

If Democrats continue trying to pose as the bastions of normalcy, defenders of the respectable and moderate, they will either continue to lose or trend rightward. The only answer is the reintroduction of socialism as a real political possibility. Its discourse is already finding purchase. We have a choice: we can make the Democratic party the political vehicle of socialism, and in doing so normalize this discourse. Or we can watch it spiral in a miserable death-embrace with Republicans into Bolsonaro-esque neoliberal fascism.

Stop Denying Them Agency

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I have never heard "you're denying them agency" used in a way that deepened analysis.

Imagine, you're sitting around with friends attempting to describe a system of oppression. You're sussing out the forces that impact the lives of the oppressed. Suddenly, someone who's had very little to say busts into the conversation to let everyone know that they're "denying the agency" of the oppressed.

Are they suggesting that oppression is irrelevant to those oppressed by it? No, that would be silly. Are they saying that your analysis views the oppressed as fully determined by their oppression? They might be, and you should consider whether it does, but it probably doesn't, because you're not a shithead, and it's actually kind of hard to accidentally say that the free will of the oppressed is muted entirely by the oppressor (and because you've read Domination and the Art of Resistance by James Scott, and it was dank).

Are they engaging in some vacuous moral posturing? Probably.

No Love for Foodie Culture

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This is a personally challenging one. I was reading All About Love by bell hooks yesterday. During a passage on the dominance of the culture of greed over a culture of love, I started to feel uncomfortable about having just bought some fancy pu-erh tea.

My pu-erh habit is an artifact of foodie culture. Foodie culture prioritizes connection with food-as-commodity over connection with human beings. Foodie culture is in this way a specifically capitalist culture.

I got this feeling even though I bought the pu-erh explicitly toward a fantasy of sharing it with friends. This doesn't break with foodie culture, either— it's often said that what matters most about fine dining is who you go with.

But this seems troubled. How do we reconcile an ethic of love, which prioritizes human connection, with our knowledge that consuming nice things can be profoundly pleasurable? I suggest three routes.

One is to take Frankl over hooks, take meaning over love, and to also say that there can be some meaning in pleasure.

Another is to say that the pleasure of a friend's cooking or a partner's lovemaking participates in love. I think hooks would agree if we're careful about how we define "participates." Applying this to Marx yields that commodification, the abstraction of goods from the labor that produced them, tears pleasurable things away from a context of love. Commodities are things that have lost their ability to participate in love.

But perhaps commodities can be re-imbued with meaning and again participate in love, as gifts. Perhaps sharing an experience of the same commodity, the same amazing food, can participate in love. This is our third route. People-oriented foodies would be vindicated.

I suspect that each has some truth to it, in different measures. I still have the feeling that connecting with a friend over some pu-erh is less loving than making them lunch, and that tasting pu-erh with a friend comes at the expense of connecting with that friend, themselves. Maybe there's value in variety among these things, and each has its time.

Sorry for more rambling than usual. I can't promise that it'll stop.

Stop Using the Word "Terrorism"

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Why on Earth do we consider getting "terrorism" to be applied in a way that's less racially biased to be a legitimate progressive project?

As recently pointed out by CNN, 'The US Code of Federal Regulations defines it as

the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

"Terrorism" is therefore necessarily a reactionary label. It's a word that identifies any kind of political violence with "terror"-as-goal. It's a pejorative for anyone engaged in a violent struggle against a state or political system, whether Osama bin Laden, Che Guevara, Hezbollah, the Zapatistas, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, or the Black Panthers.

The burden of proof is on whoever invokes the word "terrorism" to demonstrate that its referent actually has "to terrify people" as its goal. It's a hard sell, and almost certainly politically deflationary.

The Real Grotesque

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The aesthetic of punk was anticapitalist in its celebration and glorification of the unmarketable. Unmarketability is at the heart of the artistic left’s fascination with the grotesque.

But as Mark Fischer points out, capital is incredibly adept at marketizing. “Punk is dead” announced the moment that capitalists learned how to market to punks. The last inroads of attack on capitalism must remain the Lacanian “Real”:

The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality. So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us. Environmental catastrophe is one such Real.
Capitalist Realism, p. 18

The aesthetization of the grotesque is not so much an uncovering of the Real. It’s a way of taunting capital by flaunting territory it can’t conquer. But the grotesque Real, the unmarketable grotesqueness which capital produces in the world, is not a kind that any humanist could celebrate.

Crust punks might hold some last little bit of territory. But I hear there are nice (somewhat expensive) skin probiotics you can get to manage the healthy ecosystem of your eternally unbathed skin.

And with that, Merry Christmas! 🎄