the recurrent turn inward

Francis Bacon had a wonderfully pungent way of making points that have become commonplace in the era of scientific modernity. In the following passage, he denounces the previously dominant academic movement, Scholasticism, for speculating fruitlessly about empty questions instead of studying nature with empirical rigor and practical objectives:

Surely, like as many substances in nature which are solid do putrefy and corrupt into worms;—so it is the property of good and sound knowledge to putrefy and dissolve into a number of subtle, idle, unwholesome, and (as I may term them) vermiculate [like intestinal worms] questions, which have indeed a kind of quickness and life of spirit, but no soundness of matter or goodness of quality. This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the schoolmen [Scholastics], who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books.  For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit. (Advancement of Learning (1605) I (iv) 5)

Many since Bacon have shared his impatience with philosophy as an idle and bootless pursuit. A common insult is “navel-gazing,” but Bacon heightens that critique by imagining philosophers looking beneath their navels at the disgusting worms within. As an alternative, he advocates “the contemplation of nature” and “the observations of experience” (I.V(1)6), which will yield secure and profitable knowledge.

One rejoinder is that natural science cannot address such crucial questions as “What is justice?” and “What is a good life?” A second response is that natural science makes fundamental but often unexamined assumptions about metaphysics and epistemology. Bacon and his successors would consider such issues fruitless, but Kant argues in the original preface to his Critique of Pure Reason that “it is in reality vain to profess indifference in regard to such inquiries, the object of which cannot be indifferent to humanity. Besides, these pretended indifferentists, however much they may try to disguise themselves by the assumption of a popular style and by changes on the language of the schools, unavoidably fall into metaphysical declarations and propositions, which they profess to regard with so much contempt” (Meiklejohn trans.)

Picking up a similar theme, Edmund Husserl wrote in 1929, “Daily practical living is naive. It is immersion in the already-given world, whether it be experiencing, or thinking, or valuing, or acting. … Nor is it otherwise in the positive sciences. They are naivetes of a higher level. They are the products of an ingenious theoretical technique; but the intentional performances from which everything ultimately originates remain unexplicated” (Cartesian Meditations, English trans. by Dorian Cairns).

Assuming we do want to ask philosophical questions, how can we avoid mere opinions and speculations? A recurrent suggestion is to turn back to the ones who form such opinions–ourselves–and to critically assess how we think and what we have a right to claim. Kant is the most famous proponent of this turn. He calls for a “critical inquiry into the faculty of reason,” which is “not so much occupied with objects as with the mode of our cognition of these objects.” However, my point in this post is that the same move has been made many times, and it is interesting to list and compare the approaches that have been attempted.

Instead of making direct claims about metaphysics, epistemology, or value, one could:

  1. Critically assess the experts who make or imply such claims and see whether they know what they are talking about. This is Socrates’ main business, as he describes it. He tests the poets, orators, politicians and others to see if they possess knowledge. For the most part, he is interested in the thoughts and methods of individuals who belong to social categories, such as poets, but a roughly similar approach is to critically investigate institutions that purport to generate knowledge, such as labs and clinics. This approach is common in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the sociology of knowledge today.
  2. Investigate and clarify the rules of logic, on the premise that useful thoughts should be logical and that only some claims about the world will pass that test. Aristotle inaugurated this approach in Europe, although it had precedents, and it has also been influential in Asia.
  3. Critically investigate “reason,” understood as a faculty. This is Kant’s explicit approach, but Descartes and many others have begun in a similar way.
  4. Critically investigate language, on the theory that all complex, declarative thoughts take linguistic form. The “linguistic turn” was one of the main developments of the 20th century.
  5. Very closely attend to how we experience things, including the self that does the experiencing. This is the phenomenological approach, which Husserl called a “radical new beginning of philosophy” (op cit.) but which had obvious antecedents, including–as Husserl acknowledged–the Pali Cannon Canon in Buddhism.
  6. Study thinking as a natural activity of the brain and nervous system of homo sapiens–although it is tricky to do that without making the kinds of epistemological assumptions that people like Kant and Husserl attribute to empirical science.

(Nothing in this post is original, but I found it interesting to make the above list.) See also: is all truth scientific truth?; the progress of science; why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; etc.

noise inside airport terminals

Just back from a trip to Spain, I am reminded that airports in the countries I have visited other than the United States are often rather quiet places. There is no ambient music or TVs with sound. Announcements are rare. During a six-hour layover in Barcelona, I noticed just two or three announcements on the PA. Often the ceilings are high, and one gets a general sense of hush, even though the airplanes themselves presumably contribute to some background noise.

In contrast, the PA system of a US airport is in almost constant use, with boarding and gate-change announcements, frequently repeated TSA warnings and rules, and “welcomes” from the local mayor. These announcements often overlay music. I think it has become somewhat less common to blast CNN’s audio broadcast on top of everything else, but that still happens in some airports.

A National Academies study found that the average daytime ambient noise inside a US airport terminal is 66 decibels (p. 36), which approaches a washing machine, and that is without any sound from the PA system. Notably, the purpose of this NAS study was not to reduce overall noise but to ensure that TSA safety announcements are intelligible, which requires a minimum of 72-78 decibels inside an airport (p. 92). According to the CDC, that level is almost equivalent to “gas-powered lawnmowers and leaf blowers” and can cause hearing damage “after 2 hours of exposure.”

I admit that I am sensitive to noise. I often foolishly try to do something in an airport that requires concentration, like reading a difficult text or writing. But these decibel levels have documented effects on physical health and cause stress.

To interrupt passengers so constantly also seems disrespectful, as if the thousands of people at Boston’s Logan Airport have so little else to think about that they would enjoy hearing Gov. Baker tell them about Massachusetts’ friendly people, and the TSA remind them to locate exits in case of emergencies–in between constant announcements of gates and departures and five or six recurrent songs.

I first posted about this pet peeve in 2007, so it’s not just that I am agoraphobic in the wake of COVID-19. However, I can find nothing else online about excessive noise inside airports. All the complaints are about the noise caused by low-flying aircraft. I find Americans’ apparent tolerance or resignation in the face of this audio assault a little bit depressing in itself.

See also: what it looks like to live.

Odin on the tree

Until lately, I had not read the Poetic Edda, but it feels familiar. It was a major source for Tolkien, Wagner, and other inventors of our northern-European medieval fantasy world. Subtract the gods from the Edda, and you have most of Tolkien’s domain of elves, dwarves, goblins, magicians, thieves, and warriors.

It includes weird and compelling poetry. For instance, the document labeled “Sayings of the High One” presents miscellaneous-seeming advice, some of it rather amoral, like the suggestion to rise early if you want to “take another’s life or property.” (Sleeping late can hurt your chances.) It is not clear who is speaking on these pages.

Suddenly, we read:

I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,  
myself to myself,  
on that tree of which no man knows  
from where its roots run.  

With no bread did they refresh me nor a drink from a horn,  
downwards I peered;  
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,  
then I fell back from there. 

Carolyne Larrington, The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics) (p. 32, stanzas 138-9). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

I love that Odin does not introduce himself until we learn that the spear that has pierced the poem’s narrator is dedicated to Odin: “myself to myself.” And then there’s the mystifying magic by which runes flow up into him while he screams. Is he in extreme pain? Where does he land when he’s done?

The notes suggest that Odin is hanging on Yggdrasill, the vast ash tree that upholds our world. Self-sacrificially hanging from a tree sounds like Calvary, but Odin’s purposes are different. After this passage, most of the poem is devoted to listing the runes that he now knows, which have handy properties like removing fetters or putting out fires.

I certainly can’t read Old Norse, but one gets a rough sense of the alliterative language and wordplay by trying to pronounce the original text. (The letter that looks a little like a “d” is eth, and it sounds like “th.”) “Veit ek, at ek hekk” (“I know that I hung”) is a good example of wordplay.

Carolyne Larrington explains some of the poetic forms used in the Edda, but I am not sure which form is employed in these two stanzas. In general, Old Norse prosody involves regular pauses (caesuras) and stresses. The stressed syllables often alliterate. Here, I think that lines divided by a caesura alternate with shorter lines that do not.

I am reading English free verse on a glowing iPad screen. It is Larrington’s recent translation of Old Norse verses that were handwritten on vellum in 13th century Iceland–not by the original authors, but by people, presumably Christians, who recorded oral verse saved from their ancestors’ culture. It doesn’t feel as if any poet is intentionally communicating with me or us; it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on transcripts of some alien conversation. However, I am moved by the way that arresting and mystifying images suddenly emerge amid seemingly random sequences of verses.

See also: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf; Laxdaela Saga: political freedom and psychological insight; and race, sex, and God in The Lord of the Rings

judicial activism when the legislative branch is broken

The recent Supreme Court decisions would matter much less if Congress regularly passed legislation that reflected popular opinion. Instead, for half a century, Congress has hardly ever enacted ambitious legislation, even when the majority party has endorsed it. In that context, an activist court poses a particular threat to democracy.

In West Virginia v EPA, the court focused on the problem of vague delegation. The Constitution vests all legislative authority in Congress, yet the EPA asserted a right to regulate power plants based on vague statutory language. In my 2000 book, The Future of Democracy, I argued that it was undemocratic to give administrative agencies broad discretion. I was actually aligned with the central argument in West Virginia v EPA: Congress should make consequential decisions. However, I had not yet realized how badly the legislative branch was broken. In the succeeding two decades, Congress has only passed a few meaningful laws: the catastrophic domestic and international reactions to 9/11, the amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that were hyped as “No Child Left Behind” (and then substantially abandoned), and the tweaks on private insurance markets called “Obamacare.”

It is Congress’s job to regulate power plants. The public would support somewhat stronger environmental regulations, as would the party that currently controls the White House and both the House and Senate. Nevertheless, no one expects a new environmental bill to pass. At best, Congress could focus on that task but neglect its other goals. We face a Hobson’s choice: executive branch overreach or paralysis in the face of climate crisis.

The abortion decision is different: the court took away a constitutional right, applying an extremely problematic method for interpreting the Constitution. The court assigned power to the states, many of which will adopt policies that reflect their respective publics’ opinion. The problem with the abortion decision is not so much that democratic processes will fail at the state level (that varies by state), but that a human right has been rescinded.

Yet even here, it is worth noting that very few other countries protect a right to abortion in their constitutions or through decisions of their constitutional courts. Many more countries have enacted regular laws that permit abortions in various circumstances–broadly reflecting popular opinion. If we had a functioning Congress, then our national policy would depend on the congressional majority, and it might vary. Since I believe in a constitutional right to abortion, I would not accept such variation. Still, over time, there would usually be a national statutory right to abortion. (The current court might strike down a federal law on 10th Amendment grounds, but for now, that is speculation.)

Just 24 percent of experienced Hill staff agree that “Congress currently functions as a democratic legislature should.” Why not?

An obvious explanation for the current stalemate is the distribution of votes. The Democrats have just 48 members in the Senate, including two wildcards, plus two friendly Independents. However, neither party has accomplished very much–even with considerably larger majorities–at any time since the 1970s.

A proximate cause is the filibuster. That is certainly the immediate reason why a bill to protect abortion rights will fail in the Senate. However, it’s worth looking more deeply. After all, the Senate choses its own formal rules and creates its own culture. Why do senators vote for the filibuster even when it is so widely abused?

I used to believe the reason was money. An excellent example would be Joe Manchin’s financial ties to fossil fuels. However, it’s important not to overgeneralize from prominent anecdotes. The evidence that campaign finance affects legislative outcomes is not very compelling. To the extent that money talks, its impact would be weakest on high-salience issues, yet most of those issues are stuck. I’d add other explanations.

First, Newt Gingrich intentionally reduced legislative capacity, i.e., the expert staff support that enables legislators to develop bills. He did that less to reduce the size of the government than to centralize power in the Speaker’s office. Only five percent of Hill staffers surveyed by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Partnership for Public Service believe that Congress has adequate capacity today–a problem that is being discussed by the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Second, national cable news and social media encourage members of Congress to act like celebrities and pundits but do not reward legislative work. Professional reporters employed by city newspapers used to cover lawmaking regularly, focusing on their own delegations and issues of interest to their communities. Most of those reporting jobs are gone, and rank-and-file members of Congress receive much less overall scrutiny. At the same time, national cable networks fill hours with elected talking heads who opine on hot-button issues.

What about polarization? All Democrats fall to the left of all Republicans on standard, unidimensional measures of ideology. The disappearance of Dixiecrats and liberal northern Republicans has made it harder for a president to assemble a governing majority from components of the two parties. However, polarization should only create paralysis during times when the parties split control. When one party holds both houses plus the presidency, one would expect polarization to facilitate the passage of legislation.

I think partisan polarization is a somewhat misleading diagnosis. Even as candidates and voters identify with parties as labels, the parties have become extraordinarily weak institutions, with very little capacity to develop and implement coherent plans. Politicians are independent entrepreneurs with unique constellations of donors and local interest groups. Due to gerrymandering, they are much more concerned about fending off primary challengers than beating the other party in the general election. Working on a bill requires compromise and complexity that can backfire in a primary campaign.

Besides, both of the parties are cross-pressured. In this week’s New York Times/Siena poll, Democrats perform better among highly-educated whites than among people of color. No wonder the Democratic congressional caucus is “agonizing” over tax increases, which would hit a core Democratic constituency. The state with the second-lowest household income, West Virginia, seems out of reach for any kind of progressive Democrat. (Yes, West Virginia is 92.5% White, but that should not be the end of the discussion about why West Virginians vote conservatively in the 21st century.) Meanwhile, Republicans encompass low-education whites and many Latinos who wouldn’t benefit from tax cuts, plus business owners, who would.

A major ideology, such as Great Society liberalism or Reaganite neoliberalism, can orient elites toward a common end even when their grassroots constituencies are heterogeneous, but all ideologies are in rough condition today.

For me, it always comes down to civil society: how individuals join or form groups that can influence the state (or solve problems directly). Today, there are many dynamic and creative groups, and social movement participation may be at an all-time high. Thus, civil society is not in decline in a straightforward way. However, it is possible that groups are poorly configured to push legislation all the way through Congress. Ryan Grimm’s controversial piece in The Intercept about “meltdowns” in progressive organizing groups may or may not be fair and complete–I cannot tell. For me, the main takeaway is that major liberal membership organizations failed legislatively during the first year of the Biden Administration. Whether this is due to “meltdowns” or other factors, it is a problem. It is hard to think of examples in the past several decades in which membership groups have been more successful in the legislative arena.

One might still imagine that the current Congress will pass some significant legislation. But it is worth remembering how low our expectations have become. There is hardly any chance that Congress will address more than one urgent national problem by 2024. When the Supreme Court assigns responsibility to Congress, it is asking a dysfunctional entity to act.

See also: legislative capacity is not zero-sum; are Americans ‘innocent of ideology’?; a different explanation of dispiriting political news coverage and debate; and the social class inversion as a threat to democracy

how we use Kant today

Michael Rosen’s wonderful book The Shadow of God: Kant, Hegel, and the Passage from Heaven to History explores the seriously theological aspects of German idealist philosophy. Rosen’s core insight is that philosophers from Kant to Hegel (as well as Marx) tried to solve the problem of arbitrariness by identifying free individuals with something abstract and rational–morality, the state, or history–which could take the place of a traditional Abrahamic God; but these were impersonal constructs that were unable to forgive or love us. “Two powerful drives–the desire to see the world as personal and human and the desire for human beings to be subject only to relationships that are rational and transparent–are in fundamental conflict” (p. 216). The German idealists chose the latter. They thus traded the “alienation of arbitrariness” for the “alienation of impersonality” and bequeathed to us a lonely world in which we became vulnerable to totalitarianism.

Although Rosen covers much more ground, here I want to mention his interpretation of Kant and explore what it suggests about moral philosophy today.

Kant is mainstay of undergraduate ethics courses, and we usually present him as offering a plausible–but also controversial–procedure for addressing moral questions, such as whether it is ever permissible to lie. We ask students to compare and contrast Kantian ethics to other theories, notably utilitarianism.

According to Rosen, Kant presumed that people already knew what was right to do. Kant was a “moral unanimist.” He agreed with–and was deeply influenced by–Rousseau’s claim that “the heart of man is always right about everything that does not relate personally to him” (p. 126). When we act and think wrong, it is because we are biased (Kant says, “seduced”) by self-interest. We don’t need a procedure to help us choose among options when we are sincerely confused or ambivalent. We need a reminder to be moral, in which case the right answer will be obvious. And we want to understand how human morality relates to freedom in a deterministic universe and how people can be free when the deity is omnipotent and omniscient. These are meta-ethical questions rather than ethical ones. Rosen cites previous commentators–H.R. Paton, plus others who are unfamiliar to me–who anticipate his approach to interpreting Kant.

Very few people are “moral unanimists” today. To varying degrees, we are aware of four kinds of plurality:

  1. Personalities vary, and it’s hard to adjudicate when individuals are drawn to different values, at least among basically decent ones.
  2. Cultures and eras have characteristic values or perspectives on ethics.
  3. A given person may feel compelled by real obligations that are in mutual tension (cf. p. 312).
  4. Human beings as a species may be hard-wired by evolution to value things that other species would not.

Even people who are convinced that there should be one right way for all creatures to answer all moral questions will generally concede that unanimity does not prevail. Few share Rousseau’s faith that all uncorrupted human beings agree about moral matters. Even if a single moral position is correct, it is pretty obvious that well-motivated people do not all see things that way.

At a time when people are deeply aware of–and often anxious about–moral disagreements of various types, it’s tempting to turn back to Kant for actual answers to our moral quandaries. Some find his theory persuasive and prefer it over utilitarianism or other available views. Others would relativize it in various ways, seeing Kantianism as: 1) a personality type, perhaps reflecting a tilt toward Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” of fairness and freedom, 2) a cultural inheritance, probably Protestant, bourgeois, and European, 3) a view that favors certain goods–especially freedom–and ignores others, or 4) a fancy way of describing instincts that evolved in human beings as social animals.

Despite these and other disagreements about how to read Kant, most are convinced that he proposes views about contested moral issues. Rosen suggests, instead, that a deep historical gap separates Kant from all of us. Kant is not interested in deciding what is right, because he assumes that is an obvious matter. For our part, we are so unsure what is right that we search Kant’s abstract principles and his rather unconvincing examples for actual moral guidance. This may say more about our circumstances than it does about Kant’s thought.

I find Rosen’s interpretation of Kant’s texts persuasive. At the same time, I continue to be interested in the contrast between Kantian and utilitarian applied ethics. For instance, the influential Effective Altruism movement is worth paying attention to. If nothing else, it challenges some prevalent hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Yet I can’t accept it because it seems to view the donor as the sole moral agent and the recipients as essentially passive. I find modern Kantian ethics–and some passages by Kant himself–useful for articulating the intuition that all people should be accorded the dignity of self-determination and that human beings should relate to each other as moral equals with rights, not as means to any end. Rosen acknowledges a “connection” between Kant’s philosophy and modern theories of rights (p. 257), notwithstanding the historical gap discussed earlier.

It could be that Kant would be a bit mystified by the debates about effective altruism and other issues in applied ethics and surprised to see his arguments deployed on one side of these controversies. Yet these are worthy debates, and Kant is more than just a famous name that we can cite as a token of respectability when we want to emphasize abstract duties and rights. In this case, intellectual history and practical ethics come somewhat apart. Kant may have been thinking about theodicy (how can God be good if there is evil in the world?), but we can find ethical advice in his principles and examples.

See also: qualms about Effective Altruism; why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; etc,.