Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Economy of Values: Community

Once upon a time, before the internet was how we bought everything, the terror of the small business world was the big box stores. Now, it is Amazon. The small businesses have difficulty competing with both for the same reason: economies of scale. In other words, because the logistical costs grow slower the sales do--it costs less to ship 50 boxes at once than 1 box 50 times--the massive scale of Amazon allows it to spread out the logistical costs, across more products, thus leading to a smaller price for the customer per unit. A book at Barnes and Noble has to pay for its own shipping, the warehouse staff, the lights in the building, rent for both the sales building and the warehouse, and so on. The same book at Amazon doesn't need to pay for a building it can be displayed and sold in (generally--excepting Amazon's bookstores). Big Box stores cannot compete with Amazon, because they are both playing the same game, by the same rules, and Amazon has a massive advantage in virtue of its scale.

None of that is news, of course. Neither is it news that small businesses have to play a different game if they want to win. Small businesses have to rely on people who value community. This is the key value for advertising in recent years, as evidenced by how much is sold by appealing to connection, community, family, neighborhood, and other similar notions (The most obvious cases of this that I have noticed are Weber and Coca-Cola, but I live under a rock as far as advertisements go). Small businesses rely on these values by inherently embodying them: they are communal entities. They invest in their communities, know customers by name, and have to care about customer retention.

Let me say a little bit more about how huge community is as an advertising value. What I mean by an advertising value is a value which a product is associated with in advertising to make people want the product because it is associated with the value. When I was growing up and learning to read advertisements so as to be resistant to them, the main advertising values were sex, money, and excitement, the last mostly when watching shows for younger people, the former when watching, say, the news. Now, however, community is bigger than both, although money still shows up now and then. Community does most of what sex used to, but draws a wider audience. Perhaps this observation is subject to a selection effect, but notice that social media draws on this same value, and that our lack of connection is perhaps the lament expressed most loudly and adamantly by the media.

So, you are being sold to via your need for connection. You are not necessarily being sold anything which will satisfy that need, however. Buying a Weber won't make nice big friendly lawn parties happen, and buying a Coke won't help you connect with strangers. Facebook is not actually there to help you connect with friends. Even small businesses only enable connection because that is how they survive. What should we do? Should we avoid all of these things because they will not satisfy our need for connection? In some cases, that may be appropriate. Certainly, don't buy a Coke because you are lonely (granted, no one is actually thinking this, but they may be buying because of it).

There is another option, however. Some of these products actually can serve connection. Social media is a tool that, when used carefully, can enable communication. Small local businesses, when done well, provide the feeling of community by providing genuine community, welcoming and connecting people. It is not hard to imagine that, if I frequented a bookstore long enough, and there was anyone else buying similar books, the salesperson might notice and connect us. Spend enough time around people, and permit it, and all sorts of discussions can take place.

Of course, the business is still a business. The clerk is not being paid to be a friend, but to be friendly. It is still not genuine connection because I meet them as a customer, and they meet me as a salesperson. Neither of us meets the other as a person. The possibility of such a business serving to enable connection between the customers is, then, an important possibility. This shifts the small business into territory competing, albeit indirectly, with social media, in that their product becomes, in part, people. Then the question becomes how to make money by connecting people, but that might be as simple to solve as relying on connection to bring people in, and then expecting that most people, once in, will buy something.

The other challenge is how to ensure that the, presumably diverse, customer base genuinely connects. We are not merely trying to sate the need, but satisfy it. We want create genuine connection, not merely a marketable semblance of it. The challenge is to bridge gaps between people with very different views, who tend to speak in very different idioms, and who the media portrays as implacable enemies. Of course, they are not implacable enemies, and most at least think that they are exceptions to the rule that says the two sides do not understand each other. Part of the challenge, then, is to get people to recognize that they do not understand each other, that they nevertheless would benefit from the hard work of doing so, and that they cannot connect without doing so. The challenge here is to ensure that views are heard whether they are thought of as legitimate or not, and in their peculiar deviations from their popular portrayals. Part of this is managing to keep people from sticking each other in boxes, assuming that, because they "know what liberals/conservatives think" they also know what this liberal/conservative thinks.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Equality and Difference

It is a common critique that equality as an end tends to self destruct. Alexis de Tocqueville offers an argument for this idea in Democracy in America, and Hegel makes the same claim in his work. In both cases the argument goes relatively simply.

When held out as an end, equality requires all differences, all hierarchy, and all dissent to be flattened. Equality as an end by itself thus requires the imposition of equality and the destruction of any who would raise up differences. Equality cannot tolerate authority or institutions. It thus raises an in-group over an out-group, removing both equality and liberty. From "all humans are equal" we move quite quickly to "but those who recognize that are more equal than others."

We may seem to be safe from an equality which would level out all difference. We, after all, value differences. We honor each individual's right to express him or herself in a unique manner. Nevertheless, we refuse to let these differences exist as differences. We refuse the idea that differences might make a difference. Differences are permitted so long as they do not matter. This is not merely the opposition to differences in value, but an opposition to practical differences. We are uncomfortable, not only with the idea that it may be better to be smarter and not everyone is equally smart, but also with the idea that those with particular talents might be better off doing some things than others. We want to say that anyone can do anything just as well, but to say this we must turn a blind eye to practical differences.

Neither de Tocqueville nor Hegel are opposed to equality per se, but only to equality as an end in itself. Instead, both see equality as a means to liberty, albeit a means which may seek the role of end, and must be kept in its place. This was one of de Tocqueville's cautions for us in America: he saw that equality could be a tempting end, and thus lead to our downfall.

To preserve liberty, we must aim for enough equality that all have a degree of power, yet permit enough difference that not all have the same power. To preserve equality, we must recognize equal honor of those in different roles which require different actions. Different individuals have different powers, and thus find themselves in different practical situations which thus call for different responses. We can acknowledge this without claiming that some sets of powers or situations make an individual worth more or worth hearing more.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Culture, Environment, and Institutions

As promised, in this post I will discuss the way that cultural and environmental factors should affect the justification of institutions. Hegel will provide our starting point, rather than our end point today:
With regard to the historical element in positive right (first referred to in §3 above), Montesquieu stated the true historical view, the genuinely philosophical viewpoint, that legislation in general and its particular determinations should not be considered in isolation and in the abstract, but rather as a dependent moment within one totality, in the context of all the other determinations which constitute the character of a nation and age; within this context they gain their genuine significance, and hence also their justification.
 ... This distinction, which is very important and should be firmly borne in mind, is at the same time a very obvious one; a determination of right may be shown to be entirely grounded in and consistent with the prevailing circumstances and existing legal institutions, yet it may be contrary to right [unrechtlich] and irrational in and for itself, like numerous determinations of Roman civil law [Privatrecht] which followed quite consistently from such institutions as Roman paternal authority and Roman matrimony. (Elements of The Philosophy of Right, same copy as last time, p.29, all italics and brackets in original--henceforth in the near future I shall abbreviate the unchanging part of this citation as "PR")
The distinction is between development historically and from the concept. There are two things in the above quoted which may seem in tension: Hegel's endorsement of Montesquieu's view and Hegel's apparent aversion to the historical view.

The aversion is to seeing the historical genesis as justification, and to seeing the totality in which a law exists as that law's (vindicating) justification. He may be using "justification" in the first paragraph in the sense of our proposed justification, in which case the point is simply that the law has a sense only in the context of an environment and culture, and thus can only be evaluated as a legal determination as applied in its particular context.

Right, as Hegel is trying to explicate it, is not a contingent concept, subject to the vicissitudes of history, but it does appear in history as developing. It develops in history without being developed by history. We can thus see the development of the concept in history, but must distinguish between what was subject to vicissitudes of history, and hence is not part of the concept of Right, and what was an internal development of the concept, required by the nature of Right.

Having sorted this out, we can say that Right appears in history and, insofar as the historical appearance of Right is full, the laws of a nation are justified. The point from Montesquieu is that the same Right will appear differently in different cultures, and the current stage in the development of Right can only be understood by examining the totality in which it appears. We can generalize this to say that the legal situation in a nation can only be understood along with the cultural and environmental situation in the nation.

This becomes clear when we recognize the way that cultural values, economic factors, and political life impinge upon one another. Alexis de Tocqueville spends a great deal of Democracy in America examining how these three elements interact, mutually supporting, and occasionally threatening, each other. If today we have a culture less well-suited to democracy, we can legislate ourselves out of the problem by finding a form of government which does suit us. On the other hand, we might prefer to alter our culture or modes of production to better support a democracy. Along with this more contentious example, there are examples which are easier to swallow. Legislation regarding carbon emissions presumes a relation to the environment. Legislation regarding what to do on hills presumes the existence of hills. Legislation regarding how individuals may claim unclaimed land are otiose when there is no land to be claimed, but necessary when the west is wide open to be claimed.

Present puzzles regarding work and automation or the role of the household and community are of this form. Our mode of economic life has changed, and has brought our culture with it. We are now faced with the puzzle of how to adjust institutions and laws, as well as economic activity and cultural products, to maintain cultural homeostasis. This is the puzzle which came to the fore, in part, a couple years ago when we noticed the massive effect of social media helping create echo chambers. The manner in which social media makes money is corrosive to current political and cultural practices, and thus something--although we do not know what--must change. The left gives its recommendations, and the right gives its recommendations, but the very problem they seek to solve hinders them from reaching a viable solution which can be agreed upon.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Genesis, Justification, and Conservatism

Yesterday, I discussed interpretive charity as it relates to arguments. Today, I want to discuss an expansion of that thought which underlies--at least elements of--conservatism.

We interpret social structures, institutions, and human biology as well as arguments. Each of these have some degree of justification in their genesis. However one thinks human beings came to be, every theory presumes some degree of adaption to our environment, in terms of which we may speak of our biological constitution as justified. Likewise, social structures and institutions are justified by their role in a society, and are instituted because they serve a purpose.

When interpreting any of these things, then, interpretive charity calls on us to recognize that there was some degree of justification for how things are at some time. The justification which was accepted might not be a good one, but it was there. Conservatism is thus the instinct to understand the justification well enough to see how someone might once have thought it a good justification, before dismantling it. This is called Chesterton's Fence (HT: Mere Orthodoxy). If you do not know why it was justified, or at least considered justified, then you do not know that it is no longer justified--although it may be, and it may never have truly been justified.

Perhaps it is best to distinguish between justification in the sense that we give justifications, and justification in the sense that things are justified. Call the first "proposed justification" and the second "vindicating justification." The kind of justification which social structures, institutions, and biology must have is proposed justification, which need not mean that anyone has ever articulated the proposed justification, simply that there is a justification in virtue of which the phenomenon has been brought forth and preserved. The kind of justification which may or may not ever have existed is vindicating justification.

We may recognize bad proposed justifications in our past, but we must in these cases as much as with our contemporaries seek to find what the good and true thing is which led them down the wrong road. If we can find no good or truth, then we cannot be confident that we have understood the institution well enough to change it.

I hope it is clear that I do not think we should do things simply because we have always done them that way. I am, after all, articulating conditions under which one may be justified in altering social structures and institutions. We have made mistakes in our constitution of society, and we have made improvements. Just as the liberal does not see all change as good, the conservative does not see all change as bad. Change is bad when it removes a good, but good when it sustains a good. The principle of interpretive charity with respect to the past, Chesterton's Fence, simply urges us to change things with care and understanding, recognizing why the past was, and giving reason for it to be in the past. We should adapt to new situations when the justification proposed no longer vindicates and is not replaced by a new vindicating justification.

Hegel, in Elements of The Philosophy of Right §3 may be taken to be minimizing the need to understand the justification of a social structure or institution in its origin when he says:
If it can be shown that the origin of an institution was entirely expedient and necessary under the specific circumstances of the time, the requirements of the historical viewpoint are fulfilled. But if this is supposed to amount to a general justification of the thing itself, the result is precisely the opposite; for since the original circumstances are no longer present, the institution has thereby lost its meaning and its right [to exist]. (Wood, ed Nisbet, trans. Cambridge University Press p.30, brackets in original)
But he is rather making a point which I agree with: that institutions play a role and are justified in the context of a whole society, so that as the society changes the institutions must, as well. This does not mean that we can be blind to the historical justifications of our institutions when altering them, and that is not Hegel's point. Hegel wants to make clear that the particular contingent institutions are contingent and not an essential part of what Right is, so that, while the institutions should fit the culture and environment, they need not be the same in all cultures and environments. There is a great deal more in Hegel's Elements of The Philosophy of Right about the relation of genesis and justification, which I suspect I will discuss later, but currently I have only read so far in the book, and it is not all on topic. Tomorrow, however, I will discuss the need for social structures and institutions to fit with the culture and environment.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Interpretive Charity

One of the striking things about reading both liberal philosophers and conservative Christian thinkers, is that one finds them arguing past each other. Each presents arguments against the other's positions, rebuttals of the other's arguments, which are not actually engaging the views and arguments which the other would present. Perhaps this is due to reading people who are more academic--perhaps each is responding to what the masses on the other side would argue. Nevertheless, it seems to lack interpretive charity.

Interpretive charity is evidenced where one seeks to understand a position, particularly a position one disagrees with, well enough to see how someone might find it compelling. If one cannot see why someone might believe P, then it is hard to see how one could have any confidence arguing against P.

In an era with greater evidence than ever before of how human beings reason fallaciously, we can be tempted to simply locate one of these fallacies which fits the case. This removes the hard work of understanding a position from the inside. The individuals who hold such views do not, themselves, think they are reasoning fallaciously, and at least some of them have examined their views carefully. They are as sure that you are reasoning fallaciously as you are that they are reasoning fallaciously.

Besides, if we seek to convince someone--if we seek to actually discuss things and increase consensus regarding what true and good--we cannot simply claim that they are reasoning fallaciously. Pointing out a fallacy may be part of the story, but it must be done in such a way that they can recognize the reasoning as fallacious. Instead of focusing on fallacies and psychological biases, we must focus on unearthing the logic of each others' views, understanding the paradigms within which the views we find so wrong may seem so right. We must find what is right in the opposing view such that it is attractive to others. We will then be in a position to articulate our own views in a way that makes sense to these others, and we will be in a position to show how our views draw on some of the same values and truths as theirs. The goal will be, on the one hand, to learn from those with whom we disagree what kinds of passions must be provided for in our own position. We must, that is, include in our own account an understanding of where the false turns are and what makes them at once attractive and wrong. This may require us to change our views, since we must account for a rational attraction to the wrong turn. Having learned from the other view, we must then articulate our own view so as to show how it encompasses and moves beyond the truths and values of the false views, and how it makes clear both the basis of that view and how it goes wrong.

This model of interpretive charity does not permit us to oppose arguments with psychoanalysis of our opponents. Such a tack may have a role elsewhere, but not when trying to argue for a position against another position. If we are arguing, we are not pathologizing our opponents. If we do pathologize our opponents, we can no longer make sense of arguing with them.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Reflexive Awareness and Other Awareness

Reflexive awareness enables us to be aware of ourselves. We are also aware of others as subjects of consciousness, that is, beings who are aware. The question of this post is how the two capacities are related.

Object-awareness suffices for being aware of others as beings. It may, however, present others as mere objects. Something further, or a special kind of object-awareness, is needed to be aware of the fact that someone has a mental life of some sort.

There are five ways in which these two capacities might be related. Reflexive awareness might depend on other awareness, other awareness might depend on reflexive awareness, both might depend on a third thing, the two capacities might be interdependent, or they might be independent. In addition, in the first three cases, the dependence may also be such that what is depended on is also sufficient for what is dependent on it, and, since it seems quite implausible that one might find one of these two capacities without the other, these are the varieties of the first three hypotheses which I will be interested in. For the same reason, I reject the final possibility.

Let us take these possibilities in order, then. If reflexive awareness only depends on other awareness, then reflexive awareness should be able to be explained in terms of other awareness. There are at least two varieties of this idea. One is the idea that we are aware of our own awareness by the same means as we are aware of others' awareness. The idea is that we turn our capacity to understand others on ourselves. Another is the idea that we first recognize awareness as distinct from the contents of awareness in virtue of recognizing that others also possess awareness. The idea here is that, in order to recognize our own awareness, we must recognize it as one instance among others.

If the dependency is switched, so that other awareness depends on reflexive awareness, then the idea is that we generalize from our own case of awareness to others' cases of awareness. This need not be the claim that we actually go through an argument for other minds by analogy. It may be that we directly recognize others as like us, and presume that they are like us in their experiences as well as their behaviors.

Next, there may be third capacity, or other feature, on which both capacities depend and which is sufficient for both. Clearly, both capacities need a perceiving subject if there is to be awareness at all, but the idea here is that something more in the subject would produce both reflexive awareness and other awareness. This, it seems to me, is roughly Merleau-Ponty's view, since he holds that the distinction between self and other arises out of an original undifferentiated subjectivity from which we abstract ourselves and others. On his account, as I understand it, we understand our own and others' bodies, originally, simply as bodies, and gradually learn to distinguish ourselves from others. This is, incidentally, compatible with the next option, and Merleau-Ponty's articulation of it involves the next option.

Finally, the two capacities may be interdependent. The question here is whether we wind up with the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds. We can easily see that the distinction between self and other requires both terms if it is to make sense. I am a self only as distinct from some other, and others are other only to me. This is an idea taken from the idea that reflexive awareness might be dependent on other awareness. We can also take the idea that we use roughly the same capacity to recognize our own and others' awareness. We can also recognize the fact that my own experience of the world through my body affects how I interpret others. We tend to project ourselves onto others, and this makes some sense if we use ourselves as models of subjectivity (this idea comes from Alvin Goldman, Simulating Minds). This may be understood as a neutral process, however: it is not as though I am solid and project my solid self on others, rather, I and others are fluid, and pass into and understand one another via projecting ourselves onto others and accepting others into ourselves. I hope that metaphor makes some kind of sense. It is roughly how I understand Merleau-Ponty's view. The idea is that we learn to be selves by using ourselves to model others' selfhood, and at the same time learn about others through how we have learned to be selves. The same body both models others and mimics others via the same mechanism. It becomes less porous over time, as one learns to be a self more, but it retains some degree of porosity.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Are You Aware of Your Awareness?

When one is aware of something, say, your mug on a table, are you automatically aware that you are aware of it? That is the question I will ponder in this post.

There are multiple levels of awareness, and this plurality of levels complicates the question. When I am aware of my mug on the table, surely I am aware that I am aware of the mug on the table, but I might not be aware of the color of the mug, or the angle of the mug. I might be aware of the angle of the mug in a practical way, but not in such a way that I am also aware that I am aware of the angle of the mug. Let me unpack some of these distinctions here.

First, conscious awareness is the kind of awareness required for discourse. When I see the mug and can talk about whether it has coffee or tea in it, I am utilizing this form of awareness. In this case, the ordinary case of awareness, we might say, when I am aware of something, I am aware of the contents of that awareness in such a manner that the contents are accessible for reflective thought and speech.

Second, there is a form of unconscious action-awareness. At least with sight, we process perceptual information along two streams, so that one stream is not conscious but guides action, while the other is conscious, yet does not hook up to actions (at least in the smooth way that the first does). When this second kind of consciousness is in play, we are not aware of what we are aware of. One might pick out obstacles visually in this manner without noticing what one is doing or even being able to direct one's attention to it. Here, one is aware of the contents of awareness only practically, that is, in such a way that the contents are accessible for action-guidance, in particular, for fine-tuning actions directed toward the object in some way (adjusting angle of approach of one's hand to the coffee mug, for instance).

Conscious awareness can also be more finely distinguished into different levels. At the object-level, I am aware of objects, such as my mug and the table it sits on. At a more fine-grained level, call it the property-level, I may pick out the properties of these objects: I may notice the color of the mug or the texture of the table. At a less fine-grained level, the event-level, I do not notice individual things, but arrangements, such as something passing through my visual field, some odd noise, or a mass of objects. One may be consciously aware at any of these levels or none of them, and this awareness may or may not co-exist with the unconscious action-awareness. Each level is conscious, and hence transparent, but the transparency of one level does not entail any awareness of other levels. One cannot decompose higher levels in finer ones, nor assemble finer ones into higher ones, except by directing one's attention in particular ways. When one attempts to decompose an image from memory, one often finds that some of the lower-level facts are not available.

Ordinarily, one's conscious awareness is a certain combination of levels of conscious awareness, with action-awareness seeming to come along free. I am now aware of my computer, the way the text forms paragraph blocks, and the background's whiteness. Nevertheless, I am not particularly aware of what all the words say, until I direct my attention to them. Most of what I am aware of is a background, which is only fleshed out when I direct my attention to it.

Thus far, I have not endorsed transparency about conscious perception. There is a third level of awareness, however, which I will call reflexive awareness. This is the kind of awareness which allows me to be aware of my awareness as an instance of awareness. With conscious awareness, I can be aware of the contents of my awareness. With reflexive awareness, I can be aware of the fact that those contents are contents of awareness. This form of awareness enables us to think about thinking, talk about how we see, and recognize that we are aware of something fallibly.

It is in virtue of our capacity for reflexive awareness, I would claim, that we feel as though it suffices for being aware of being aware of something that we be aware of that thing. That is, it feels as though it suffices for my being aware of being aware of a mug that I be aware of the mug, but in fact that is an illusion produced by the fact that it takes no effort for us to make ourselves aware of that awareness because we are capable of reflexive awareness.