Where I practice writing (because I sorely need to).

More About Governance

I have previously written that we find law, politics, and governance more generally at one of the intersections between the objective and subjective disciplines. With a cynicism forged by the hammer blows disappointment and on the anvil of unpleasant experience and honed against the stone of melancholy history books, I suggested that it was perhaps for the best that most attempts at fully rationalizing governance have been ignored (because most of the implemented rationalizations were horrifying spectacles).

Better,  I held, to “muddle through.” I should amplify here: the objective disciplines have much to offer us by way of advice in dealing with the problems of governance. However, the governed are not rational. We cannot derive “laws of motion” for their actions, motivations, or grievances. Predicting with mathematical certainty the trajectory of a life is not possible. We may (and should) seek to create general models to inform changes in policy, but must always in the end remain in contact with observed behavior. This is a fundamentally conservative position: implicit in our admission that the specifics of behavior are unpredictable is an admission that we are imperfect and that perfection is unattainable.

That we can never reach some imagined perfect state ought not to bother us much–there’s simply too much to do that we can do. This is a fundamentally liberal position: our contention that we can “do” something, and that there is something that needs “doing” and that there is a “we” that ought to concern ourselves with the doing and the thing is loaded down with assumptions at least somewhat in tension with the admission that pure mathematical certainty of the effects of government action is possible. Moreover, it invites consideration of an additional complication: oughts.

In what way can we properly delineate the appropriate set of government concerns? The appropriate set of government actions? These are questions with both practical and ethical content–and despite their great utility, models don’t “do” ethics. We see that governance lives in the intersection between the objective and the subjective in multiple ways.

What, then, is left to us aside from “muddling through?” A protocol where problems are identified and solutions attempted based on considered advice, all within some legitimate framework is necessary. Appropriate deference to reality is the linchpin: without it, the cart comes unhitched from the horse and disaster ensues. In our present circumstances we can see the precursors of disaster: the United States has (more-or-less) historically functioned by deriving its powers from the consent of the governed.  Generally the governed had some ability to adequately agree on the facts of a situation. Both those pillars are currently being undermined, intentionally, by the ostensibly “conservative” citizens of the country, while the putatively “liberal” citizenry have adopted the functional worldview of the previous conservatives!

Where does the danger come in? Well, the “liberal” coalition may soon adopt the de-legitimizing tactics (this has happened before, and with good reason, but never to the extent currently on display). If that happens, look for fracture to occur: the pillars will not stand.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Persuasive to Me

Below I wrote something along the lines that philosophy tends to answer some useful questions quite near the door and then meander in circles, failing to either slay the lurking minotaurs or break through the labrynth. Religion isn’t generally much more satisfying to me, though I do envy those who draw deep and meaningful inspiration or fellowship from it. My lack of use for either doesn’t extend quite to lack of awareness, however.

Many introductory philosophy courses include explorations of theodicy. The problem of squaring evil in the world with a benevolent, omnipotent, god is tricky. It seems that everyone works on it eventually. The first plank of the argument is that evil exists in the world. The second is that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent diety. A diety which bade no evil (all-benevolent) would have the power to create a world without evil (all-powerful), and would know if there was evil in its creation (all-knowing). Thus the proposition that there is some deity with those properties (conventionally though not necessarily the Christian God) would be in tension with the observation that there is evil in the world.

Personally, I have no problem concluding that there is evil in the world and that therefore there is no deity which has all those characteristics–based on my limited understanding of the world. This is also, however, where I become persuaded that the seeming contradiction is not so final after all. Some wag wrote that if there is a deity and there is evil in the world, it must be “incompetent, ignorant, or wicked, take your pick.” At heart, all the contradictions rest on the presumption that there is evil in the world.

It is, after all, apparent that there is evil in the world, is it not? In the absence of additional theology… no. We are (if we indeed exist) finite: human perceptions, potency, and intellect are bounded. Absent additional instructions–which we might not all sign on for–how could we pretend to conceive the plan of an infinite deity? We cannot conceive of evil as good, but is there reason to doubt that an infinite being could?

Perhaps if the assumption of all-benevolence is meant to be more restrictive? If the terms of the argument are that there is a deity which is omnipotent, omniscient and permits no evil whatsoever, then there either is no evil in the world or there is no such deity–by definition of our terms. Thus we could wiggle out of the argument or into a more interesting one: How must we characterize a deity which is omnipotent and omnicient given what we are capable of perceiving and knowing? May we judge that infinite being from within our finitude?

Filed under: Uncategorized

Grand Unified Theory Check

In some academic disciplines consistency and usefulness are key: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and their derivatives depend upon those concepts for their primacy in the modern pantheon. One of the surest paths to scientific renown is to identify heretofore hidden inconsistencies, that the state of knowledge may be advanced. Reduction to practice is the other great path to scientific acclaim. Fame and fortune here rests on the benefits derived from technique, procedure, or invention founded in the scientific disciplines.    

Philosophy, the study of knowledge, mind, and ethics, intends to deliver both consistency (when possible; some of philosophy’s greatest contributions may consist in outlining the limits of consistency) and usefulness. Provided the basic necessities of survival are assured, guidance on a life well-lived would be of great use. Illuminating the limits of our cognition and understanding has some practical purpose, and admirable consistency. However, immediately beyond the barest fundamentals, most academic philosophy descends into a morass of arguments about terms. Precious little of worth is ever gleaned from the worked-over fields tended by philosophers, but one can usually count on the logic to be consistent (except where that is impossible).

Little in the way of consistency or material use comes from the fields which study the lived human experience. Examinations of prose, verse, or visual art may shed light on the ways in which people feel or interpret their worlds, but seldom give rise to new aesthetic objects–and rarely if ever are subjected to considerations of consistency. These academic fields are of a wholly different type: rooted in the subjective, descriptive in nature, their value is real but evanescent.

Various other normative and descriptive fields might also be identified: e.g., history, law, economics, and political theory. Here, accuracy of description and robustness of method are strongly emphasized. These fields, however, may also intersect with different subjective ethics of philosophy and the consistently irrational behavior of individuals and their groups. In some cases these hybrid fields might strive for consistency and fail. This is particularly the case of political theory.

The Western tradition of political theory has lived at the intersection between descriptive history and economics, and normative law. With strong influences from the Enlightenment, it has sought to apply scientific levels of reasoning and evidence gathering to the problems of governance. Some illuminating concepts have been developed… and largely ignored. It may be best that this is so: most episodes where rigorous application of deductively constructed ideology were attempted resulted in enormous grief and loss of life.

Perhaps the most successful strategy is the slow but responsive “muddling through” of the Anglosphere. Some attempts at bringing scientific rigor and well-developed theory to bear on the issues of government have been made. Some persisted and some have failed (e.g., separation of powers, rules of disintrest on the one hand, raw utilitarianism and extensive central economic planning on the other), but usually based on a piecemeal approach.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Practice Makes Less Bad

I need to practice writing. The stuff I do at work lives in the intersection between two of the worst kinds of written material. I hope to write a post every day I’m at this computer. That will likely be an unattainable goal, but there it is. Hopefully this post will serve as a goad, urging me on to ever greater heights.

Filed under: Uncategorized