coming from here, but much more abstract. epistemic: mostly endorsed, but kind of vague and occasionally overgeneralizes
Values get used as axioms in debates, shorthand in conversation, symbols of judgment. x is bad because y because that leads to idleness, x is bad because y which is basically docetism, x is the worst because y was Hitler.
The problem with Godwin’ing is that it’s too blunt, but the underlying concept is genuinely desirable. It’s inefficient to restate every axiom; one wants to reduce the conversation to shared values and move on. Often we sense that something is bad, and then later justify that by a more socially known value. Hence, my description of them as organizational tools. We categorize and argue based by moving backwards towards a common term.
What these are is trickier. “People just want safety, food, comfort, a good place to raise our family.” True, but also true of badgers. None of those are high enough to resolve most of our problems.
Smart phones are bad because they distract you from x, but that x isn’t an easy nod at Maslow’s lower levels. People aren’t forgetting to eat over Instagram, if not simply because they need to take their foodie pics. “Distraction is bad” for reasons that don’t apply to mustelids. According to [newspapers] that’s political, as in “distracted right to the voting booth with a MAGA hat.” That’s not an accident.
Older norms are gone (religious, etc.), and our nice, “ethical” platitudes collapse on themselves here: “Do what you love!” But what if I love gorging on snapchat? “You only live once, enjoy it!” If I genuinely like spending all my time on facebook, then shouldn’t I be doing exactly that? Hence, Trump. Politics are the last high value high enough to answer the question. It’s the highest organizational tool we have (we have a vague metaphysic of “truth”; connecting these is for a longer piece) that’ll respond to this kind of concern.
See also: aesthetics. “They’re subjective.” They definitely aren’t, at least not how you mean that, but whatever. I can’t think of a single “important” (read: good) work of culture that wasn’t “important” (read: ingroup politics) in direct proportion to its political content. If it gets slammed, then it failed to live up to those. One googles: “We need to talk about [artist]” and 9/10 the top hit is a problematic list of problematics. Someone is going to start screaming about the academy awards and diversity ignoring the quality of the art, and fair. But the right does this too, e.g. “I loved American Sniper!” It’s probably unfair to judge a nation by the ineptitude of its propaganda, but…
I’m not trying to be obtuse, art has political content, duh, clear, mind blown. That doesn’t change that fact that political content is often the least interesting aspect of art, and English departments reading more theory than English is almost certainly the third seal pretending to be a “deep, compelling” look at the seventh. It’s neither deep nor compelling, it’s lazy and obvious. A fucking eighth grader could tell you that “there are some themes of gender in Hemingway”, why do you need a bungled continental to do the same?
See also: science.
Certain questions, perhaps most, demand higher value judgments. Lacking anything higher than politics, that’s what we use. Not always, of course, and subcultures have their own values, but in terms of the broader “conversation.” A lot of these are, I suspect, much deeper than the conscious value itself (biological or social in origin is a question for another time), but not all of them. It seems clear that certain stated judgments will impact society, if not simply because no one can argue against them. The language to debate has all been absorbed.
I know for a fact that both sides recognize this problem and that both of them hate it.
The right blames the left for politicizing the world, normally via identity politics or “cultural Marxism.” As a term to describe the Frankfurt school (originators of critical theory) that’s nonsense, but the complaint itself is not. “Things are good and bad in ways other than the media elite’s politics, please let me explain why I like the things I like.” Now I’m on an SPLC watchlist for the principle of charity, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
Ironically, that very Frankfurt School developed because of this, and most of the way that those critical theorists talk about “ideology” is exactly the same thing. Let me decompose ten thousand dense pages into one sentence: Capitalism makes everything function according to the laws of capitalism, and thus its political values are implicit in the rest of society. The worker didn’t politicize things, they were politicized; all facets of life reify the system’s politics.
If you want to get meta^2, then recognize that those statements – the same in themselves – carry political connotations to mark them as bad to either side. Which means, of course, that no one can speak about whatever values are underlying those, but everyone can agree that it’s political. Hence, you further entrench a collective sense that any communication of import can only take place politically.
Meta^3 sees this as a special legibility problem. We aren’t only political, but to get across senses of good and bad that’s what we collapse into. Just like Polanyi’s economics, translating into non-compatible value systems breeds lunacy. The Guardian knows that it’s probably bad to spend all your time on Facebook, but they cannot make those thoughts fit into words which they or the customer understand. It is impossible for them to, those judgments are passe, they’re hidden by episteme. As a result, what they do say is gibberish.
Not meta yet, I know. What makes it meta is that since all that language is political, it has directly political consequences. It doesn’t matter if the point was meant to be, “Snapchat blows, do something better with your life”. All of a sudden it starts breezing through policy and into legislature, further making all everything political, because now outgroup has to fight back via politics. And, of course, since this was all over something not political to begin with, then it’s doubtful the response looks any more coherent.
This is not good, and sadly it’s a forever problem, which is why Plato talks about it.
The Republic is a dialogue about the good. A bunch of Athenian hunks ask Socrates what a virtuous soul looks like, and since young Athenian hunk=politically active, Socrates uses political structures as his primary metaphor. The philosopher-king city, though now the most famous, is not what Socrates wants. His first metaphor is a small village where everyone lives frugally and shows kindness and reverence to the gods. Yes, I know. His interlocutors compare this to a city of pigs and point out that “people need olives” (true), which means luxuries which means war.
Socrates then spends six books describing an increasingly complex system of governance with no likeness on earth, because that original metaphor for the good has to translate into urban politics. The point isn’t whether or not Socrates is right, the point is that only one definition of “good” was allowed, the political one, to which all other metaphors must submit. As in: all values are subordinated to another.
Socrates accepts the values and assumptions, that organizational tools are all politics and the resultant city is insane. Since “good” has collapsed into political efficacy, and all judgments are (metaphorically, here) based accordingly, how could it not? The good soul is metaphorically viewed as a harmonious city. Within that framework anything “good” is necessarily understood as politically advantageous. Hence, the infamous totalitarian elements, of which the most widely discussed is the Platonic banning of the poets. They’re admittedly great at their jobs, but right now their job is damaging to the political structure, so being good isn’t good there. For a whole host of reasons scattered throughout other dialogues, it’s clear that Plato doesn’t buy this at all. Also: Socrates accuses the poets of (more or less) the same charges Athens killed him for, which seems like a pretty clear sign that Plato wants us to think it through carefully. Interpret the dialogue as you will, there’s five ways and all of them are right, but here’s the one important to us: reducing all value judgments to one single axiom produces monstrosities. You will fail to get the point across and empower the very worst people.
Nobody reads the Timaeus anymore, which is a shame because it takes place the next day. Socrates brings up the Republic’s city, other things happen, one of those things is Atlantis, and Socrates all but outright states that the Republic’s city will fall to pieces. “It’s the ideal state!” then why does Plato destroy it? In other words: what was bad for “the good” translated into political language is equally bad for politics forced to judge by moral terms. Again, legibility problems.
Meta^4 is our inability to analyze The Republic from any angle but the political, despite its repeated warnings not to do this. “It’s called the republic, duh.” You’re called a deep thinker.
I think it’s pretty inarguable that modern society has become increasingly atheistic, and that at least part of this means that older, religious values have been lost. Sometimes this leads to the argument that atheism, or nihilism, or [godless boogey-man] inevitably leads to: “immorality, moral relativism, [similar fear].” If all moral values spring from religion, then none of them will be acted upon after its loss.
I’m, personally, concerned about the exact opposite.
Classical political theory worried a lot about distribution of power. If any one side gets too much you risk tyranny, ochlocracy, repression. The goal was to balance those powers, to make sure that each was just antagonistic enough to the others that their fighting might save the overall system. Balance it wrong, and one group takes over.
I suspect there’s an analogy to be made to valuation. Different judgments have different interests and functions. Good at job is not the same as good at politics is not the same as politically helpful. Collapsing one into the other (good art->political art; political->morally upright) gives far too much power to any one side. If religious values and political values and aesthetic values and [others] are all opposed, then there are conceivable checks on their domain. When they aren’t, when they’re united under one specific ruling, then balance of powers has no balance. Whatever is condemned in one way cannot be redeemed in any other. In other words: moralism becomes inevitable.
People want to be good, and they’ll do anything to look good, and this is the worst thing about people. “All I have to do is condemn that witch? Consider her triple-condemned.” No societies, at least none that I’m aware of, have yet avoided witchburnings. What they have avoided is making witch synonymous with “bad”, because doing that is madness, because there are many more bad people than there are witches. When those come to mean the same thing, you have a society of witches just waiting for good people to burn them.
Note that politics was, more or less, the way we avoided burning witches in the past. We called that “liberalism” and/or “playing nice to avoid theological wars.” Not everyone loved it, and to many it was immoral, but it being immoral was a good thing. If it ever became the source of the moral, then we’d have lost that check and balance. The pragmatic good would get confused with the moral good, political and moral and religious and [other] witches become the same person. Since politic parties like to stabilize at 50-50 splits, that’s a lot of witches.
Since everything is politics, I immediately began describing political hazards. Kettle, pot, fine.
Values are organizational tools, so our question is why certain tools stopped being useful for organization. It may be masquerading as ethics and politics and witchburnings, but it’s a question of epistemology. Everything else is a mistranslation, meta^x double-movements in cognition. It’s not just that communicating judgments becomes more difficult, it’s that judgment itself is impoverished. The inventory isn’t large enough to handle fine distinction, which is bad, but worse are things can’t be judged by political standards. Either you’re forever second guessing your own instincts, i.e. “This seems bad, but I can’t explain why. Perhaps it really isn’t.” Or you’re left without a rigorously derived explanation: “I’ll just say this is bad, without bothering to understand it. Perhaps it has something to do with an outmoded concept.” Or, more commonly, you produce a bizarre and meaningless statement.
Jonathan Haidt, whose analysis is different from my own, but whose research is extremely interesting. He tells stories that are meant to elicit patterns of disgust or outrage, and people respond with wild attempts to justify their feelings based on conscious values that fail: Groups with stronger norms of politics and/or social explanations (perhaps we might say “abstract” reasons), in particular, tended towards very elaborate excuses:
The biggest surprise was that so many subjects tried to invent victims. I had written the stories carefully to remove all conceivable harm to other people, yet in 38 percent of the 1,620 times that people heard a harmless-offensive story, they claimed that somebody was harmed. In the dog story, for example, many people said that the family itself would be harmed because they would get sick from eating dog meat. Was this an example of the “informational assumptions” that Turiel had talked about? Were people really condemning the actions because they foresaw these harms, or was it the reverse process—were people inventing these harms because they had already condemned the actions?
I conducted many of the Philadelphia interviews myself, and it was obvious that most of these supposed harms were post hoc fabrications. People usually condemned the actions very quickly—they didn’t seem to need much time to decide what they thought. But it often took them a while to come up with a victim, and they usually offered those victims up halfheartedly and almost apologetically. As one subject said, “Well, I don’t know, maybe the woman will feel guilty afterward about throwing out her flag?” Many of these victim claims were downright preposterous, such as the child who justified his condemnation of the flag shredder by saying that the rags might clog up the toilet and cause it to overflow.
Note also that the justifications provided differ, and occasionally radically:
The second thing I found was that people responded to the harmless taboo stories just as Shweder had predicted: the upper-class Philadelphians judged them to be violations of social conventions, and the lower-class Recifeans judged them to be moral violations. There were separate significant effects of city (Porto Alegreans moralized more than Philadelphians, and Recifeans moralized more than Porto Alegreans), of social class (lower-class groups moralized more than upper-class groups), and of age (children moralized more than adults). Unexpectedly, the effect of social class was much larger than the effect of city. In other words, well-educated people in all three cities were more similar to each other than they were to their lower-class neighbors. I had flown five thousand miles south to search for moral variation when in fact there was more to be found a few blocks west of campus, in the poor neighborhood surrounding my university.
This also, of course, depends on religiosity and cultural commitments.
One last: It’s not merely that their justifications are different. Haidt’s samples judge differently. Of course, yeah, “morality is subjective”, but note that this isn’t quite morality. As Haidt points out, morality or politics or […] is a form of judgment that comes after instinctual response, which itself comes after perception. In other words: see a snake->fear->explanation of fear. In a sense, those deeper values are coming out as something much more akin to phenomenological differences. Interaction with the world, within reason, will change based on values.
Realistically, that should horrify you, but not because of what it implies about morality and self-justification. Who cares if morality is “subjective, man”? Bigger concern: what if lacking some value, some instinct, is impoverishing your experience of the world? That’s a genuine question, I don’t have an answer, the thought terrifies me, and I find it a really easy conclusion to draw from Haidt’s work.
In a since superseded introduction I mentioned that this blog was, more or less, about four questions. The last series was about the political side, but that isn’t really going to get to values. Values mean phenomenology, which is epistemology, which is geometry. A philosopher just screamed, and an angel got its wings.
I’m apparently incapable of writing outside of series, so it’s probably time to just get on with it.
top image from Pierrot le fou by Jean-Luc Godard
1. This was alluded to last time, and I won’t explain it until some way later piece: political amorality (so, Machiavelli) is probably the only way to save a republic, and the less moral the better. Justice might be the enemy.