The Tyranny of the Ideal
Interview by Richard Marshall.
‘Morality is, in my view, the crowning achievement of humanity: in our evolutionary development we made it, as it made us into the cooperative, fair-minded, deeply social species that we are. As a species we are up to morality and justice because we made it up. Many, I suspect, think this demeans morality, just as some Christians think that evolution demeans human dignity. I draw a very different conclusion: what an incredible species we are to invent this way of living together! ‘
Jerry Gaus is the James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona. His main area of work is on public reason,economic approaches to philosophy and politics, the place of religious belief in public reason liberalism, the problem social complexity poses for public policy, liberal neutrality, and a theory of rights as devices to cope with evaluative incommensurability. Gaus has published in a wide array of scholarly journals. He is co-editor of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, and was co-editor of The Australasian Journal of Philosophy from 1997-2002.Here he discusses the use of models in political and moral philosophy, ideals of justice, Popper’s Open Society and why an open society is an achievement, why he thinks human morality is at odds with ideal models, the importance of a heterogeneous society, why the open society isn’t chaos, the character and role of public endorsement for moral truth, the good, the bad and the uppity, policy and philosophy and economics, Hayek, game theory, Hume and Ferguson and finally pluralism as the critical problem for modernity. Step right in folks…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Jerry Gaus: I don’t think I ever strove to “become a philosopher.“ Problems struck me, I followed them up and one day a long way down the line I woke up and realized I was a political philosopher. My adolescence was during a turbulent political period — The Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Cultural Revolution. Politics was everywhere, and everything seemed up for grabs. For a spell as a kid in Junior High I was enamored with Marx and Mao. Ah, but then came Orwell, and I began to see how a project to create a workers’ utopia could lead to a prison camp that spanned two continents. As an undergraduate at SUNY Buffalo I read Leviathan, which impressed upon me that cooperative social life should never be taken for granted, and is always an achievement. At Buffalo I also became reconciled to being out-of-step with my cohorts. While they were dreaming of perfect worlds and revolutions, I was wondering how any social world can be kept functioning without oppressive force. I came from a working class family — my mom had to quit school in eighth grade to be a maid, and my dad delivered pies — so I had no idea that universities would actually support you while you thought about these problems in graduate study. When I read it in catalogs before my senior year, I reckoned I had to be misunderstanding. What could be the point of that? I asked my girlfriend — who has always been smarter than me — what she thought, and she agreed that it sounded pretty unlikely, but we should give it a go. It did happen, and I went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, where John Chapman trained me to be a political theorist. After I received my doctorate I went to the Australian National University for six years to work with Stanley Benn, who taught me how to be a philosopher. A tale of path-dependency, like all our lives.
3:AM: One of your key concerns at the present has been to look at the use of models in theorising about political and moral issues. Philosophers, as you point out, tend to like informal, narrative models but you think there is a downside to this don’t you. Why then should philosophers start making their models more formal? Isn’t there a danger that formal models are too abstract to grasp the complexities of an actual situation, and simplify too much?
JG: My, I hope my approach is not too abstract for philosophy! The nature of theoretical inquiry is to analyze the world by focusing on some of its features while others are put aside. If inquiry doesn’t focus and simplify, all it can do is try to catalogue the world, and even that will be hopelessly incomplete. As you read this, pause and try to give an absolutely full description of the room you are sitting in. Did you include specks of dust or the spider under the desk — or the molecular structure of the I-pad display? Of course not. And in inquiry we focus on what is important to enlighten us and to help solve our problems. A good model focuses our attention on the important bits of the world to resolve our questions and puzzles, and helps us better see how they all fit together. Of course what can be done well can be done badly — we can include too much or too little, and we can make too much of things that aren’t important.
3:AM: Is math the best way to think through these models?
JG: Making a model more formal allows us to be more precise about what the interesting bits are, and how they are related. It does what philosophers have always excelled at: getting the ideas and their relations as clear as possible. Whether the model should be mathematical depends on the problem. As I constantly preach to my graduate students, we should never be committed to a tool or method and then look around for some problem to apply it to; we should look at the problem and try to see what tools will allow us to achieve insights. Sometimes it will be one that directly employs math, sometimes a simulation will be enlightening, sometimes it would be good to run an experiment, and other times game theory might be useful. They are all tools that might help. The problem is that all-too-many philosophers — certainly in my field, political philosophy — have convinced themselves that models and math cannot be relevant and so they never learned these tools and can’t even see where they might help.
3:AM: One type of model that you think we should look at very closely is one that orientates itself to producing an ideal of justice. Plato is an example of this kind of approach isn’t he? Can you say something more about what this approach is attempting to do?
JG: As soon as one starts reflecting on justice, an idea strikes one: imagine the most just state that we can, and think about how it would work. Who, after all, doesn’t want perfect justice? Notice that this is a modeling exercise. We focus on some aspects of this ideal condition that are most relevant to our perspective on justice and tell a tale about how it would all work. And, because in most political philosophy the tale is not formal and abstract, but has vivid details, we convince ourselves that things really would work this way. As cognitive psychologists have told us, the more vivid a prediction is, the higher confidence we have in it. So we devise our tale of utopia, and while we may admit that such a perfectly just condition is beyond our grasp, we use it as a beacon — a way to mark our destination. We seek improvements that move us closer to it. Knowing that we are working toward the goal of perfect or true justice, we are somewhat reconciled to our own, imperfect world. It is said that after the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, John Rawls agonized about whether humans were so corrupt they were not fit for justice. Charting a course to a realizable utopia of perfect justice, he thought, could give meaning to our hesitant and imperfect efforts at reform, and allow us to better cope with the often unjust and oppressive world that we inhabit.
3:AM: Popper is important to you in this area isn’t he, warning against the dangers of a Platonic approach and broadening his critique to include Marxism too. Do you think that Popper’s Open Society has been unjustly vilified and that it should be re-evaluated more positively?
JG: I’m not sure I’d say that today The Open Society and Its Enemies is “vilified”— perhaps more like “dismissed with a knowing smile.” Why? Who knows what makes one view stylish and another gauche in philosophy. No doubt a factor was that he was so harsh on Plato; whether of the left or the right, a great deal of moral and political philosophy continues to be incredibly deferential to Plato. Those at the London School of Economics, like Popper and Hayek, have traditionally been less so. The famous LSE economist Lionel Robbins quipped that like many young men Plato was a communist, and like many old men he ended up a fascist. Perhaps another source of resentment is that Popper attacks what philosophers do so well — tales about how perfect things could be if it weren’t for real people and the severe limits of our knowledge. Rawls was right that the horrors of the twentieth century shook our faith in justice, but he forgets what Keynes saw — how implicated were maniacal ideas, too often derived from the scribblings of philosophers. And of course Popper commits a great sin in contemporary philosophy: defending the liberal open society, with all its possibility of improvements, but acknowledging its own imperfection.
3:AM: You extent the danger of ideal modelling to the likes of David Estlund, G .E A. Cohen and (perhaps less so) Rawls as well. What do they do that makes you put them in the ideal camp – and why is trying to figure out what a well ordered society would be like a bad idea? On the face of it, it looks like the way to go. And why is Rawls so problematic?
JG: I certainly do not want to suggest that my friend Dave Estlund’s work is not of great value — one of the things I tried to do in The Tyranny of the Ideal is to explain the enduring attractiveness of thinking about perfect justice, and why it is a source of moral improvement. What I try to show is that theories of perfect justice are important in interrogating justice and seeing ways to improve our lives and institutions, but Lord help us when a visionary offers to march us toward these ideals and institutionalize them — for she is certain to be wrong about much, including what the ideal really is.
However, in a deeper respect my view of human morality is fundamentally at odds with Dave’s, and well as Cohen’s. In his wonderful book The Bonobo and the Atheist, the great primatologist Frans De Waal argues that the resolutely secular atheist moral philosopher and the religious moralist are not nearly so far apart as they think. Both, De Waal remarks, see morality as having an authority somehow external to humans, telling us how to act. As De Waal observes, both believe that unless someone or something tells people how to act, they’ll misbehave. And if people somehow fail to do as the true ideals of justice demand, well then Rawls, Estlund and Cohen all agree that we might have to conclude that our poor corrupt species is not up to justice, or at least not up to pure, non-concessive, justice. Justice itself shines above us, however corrupt and wayward we are. Like De Waal, I believe this is deeply misguided, being partly a remnant of our supernatural-infused past. Morality is, in my view, the crowning achievement of humanity: in our evolutionary development we made it, as it made us into the cooperative, fair-minded, deeply social species that we are. As a species we are up to morality and justice because we made it up. Many, I suspect, think this demeans morality, just as some Christians think that evolution demeans human dignity. I draw a very different conclusion: what an incredible species we are to invent this way of living together!
But human justice means that we must come to live with two fundamental facts: we are inevitably and always torn between our own goals/interests and the demands of morality, and no matter how impartial we try to be, there is no single truth to be uncovered about morality. It is our device allowing us to live freely, pursuing our ends in a system of widespread, fair, cooperation. There is no final truth about it to be discovered, so there is no possibility of a Rawlsian well-ordered society in which we all agree what justice is, much less always conform to it. Holding out such a society as the ideal not only invites what I think is the self-destructive Rawlsian query whether we are really up to justice, but closes off a critical engine of finding better ways to live together: disagreeing about how to live justly.
3:AM: So you argue that these ideal models are actually pernicious in that once we start to understand what their full implications are they become nearly incoherent. So what problems arise from these ideal models? Is the work of Sen an example of non-ideal modelling at work?
JG: Although I certainly think that it can have a valuable role to perform, a philosophy built around construction of schemes of perfect justice can, let us say, have unfortunate unintended consequences. Like the Platonic ideal, the other side of a beautiful vision is the implication that we live in the dark cave of ignorance and selfishness. Cohen often seems quite discouraged that people act on a variety of motives, including their own interests, even in the face of the dictates of perfect justice. That is, that they are human. The democratic open society, with its deep disputes and inability to perfect the world, seems like a pitiful third or fourth best.
As Popper suggests, moral and political philosophers do not fully appreciate some of the dangerous upshots of what they write and teach. For example, generations of students have gone through moral philosophy classes with two incoherent lessons: the great philosophers deeply disagree about what justice is and advance incisive criticisms of each other’s proposals, but your job as a student is to make up your mind which is right, and then appreciate how intolerable it is that our society does not live up to it. How in the world are students to make sense of that? Nihilism is one response: witnessing the gaggle of philosophers each claiming they have the unique truth, a very intelligent student might give up on the whole inquiry as bullshit. More common is a belligerent dogmatism. Introspecting on one’s “intuitions” that possess an aura of certainty, one opts for one of these highly controversial doctrines. Recently, an advanced student perfectly expressed the spirit of this belligerent dogmatism, insisting to me that it was incoherent to hold a moral opinion while accepting that one might be in error about it. Those whose intuitions lead them to adopt different moral judgments are thus at best confused, and at worst “immoral” or even “evil.” Morality thus divides us into mutually hostile self-righteous camps, certain of their own controversial views, who find barely tolerable the fact that they have to live with each other. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it? But the democratic open society isn’t a dispiriting imperfect compromise between justice and the immorality and stupidity of most others. It’s a moral achievement of the first order — perhaps one of the greatest moral achievements in human history. It allows an incredible array of diverse views to disagree, cooperate and learn from each other.
Once we appreciate that the open society is an achievement, we come to a deeper appreciation that moral improvement and change is not part of a philosophical campaign to secure utopia, but an endless, ongoing activity to alleviate the injustices that we now appreciate and which now confront us. And this is what Sen’s account so rigorously and wonderfully emphasizes. Many political philosophers do not fully appreciate the rigor of Sen’s thought because they rely only on his popular The Idea of Justice, but that book distilled decades of fantastic work seeking to understand justice, and the problems and requirements of consistently aggregating different views on the best state of affairs. Each perspective on justice has its own ideal that it finds thoroughly compelling, but which leaves others unmoved. We seldom agree about perfect justice, but we often concur about glaring injustices — they really do glare at us. And not only do we typically agree about these injustices, but it is much more likely that we have the social technology to ameliorate them. Again, we come back to Popper. Grand schemes of reconstruction are practically certain to fail and too often bring disaster, while piecemeal social reform has very often succeeded.
3:AM: Why do you think that only those in a morally heterogeneous society have a reasonable hope of actually understanding what an ideal society would be like, and why do you think that such a society could never be collectively devoted to a single idea?
JG: Let’s accept that describing a perfectly just society isn’t an easy task. After all, Plato began the project over two thousand years ago and it’s going strong, so I think we can assume it isn’t simple. Consider all that a political philosopher has to do. She assumes certain things about the world, for example she might take it for granted that only human individuals are moral agents, and so not groups of humans, non-humans such as other Great Apes, or non-sentient entities like eco-systems. She may hold that the world is only as natural science tells us it is, or she may think that it has metaphysical or sacred properties. And, of course, she supposes some evaluative standards — liberty, equality, sustainability, fairness, community, purity, well-being, enrichment, or whatever. On top of all that she must have some idea how her perfect world would function with these agents as measured against these standards — how would it all hang together? She thus has a perspective on the problem, and seeks better solutions by employing this perspective.
Without a perspective she couldn’t even begin to make headway, for the world would be, as James said, a blooming buzzing confusion. To have a perspective allows one to bring order to a problem but also limits the possible solutions to it. Think of the Gestalt psychologist’s “duck-rabbit” that we studied in Psych 101. To see it as a duck imposes an order on the lines and shading, but it precludes simultaneously perceiving it as a rabbit. In a similar way, no matter how sophisticated is one’s perspective on justice, it stops one from seeing things that one needs to see to better solve one’s own problems of justice. A well-ordered society, in which we all shared the same perspective, would never be able to best understand what its own ideal should be. Hence my claim that the aim of living according to ideal justice is ultimately incoherent. To better grasp our own optimal notion of justice we need to interact with those who see the world differently — who disagree with us about what is important, real, and just.
3:AM: Why doesn’t this open Society not become just chaos? Is this where your Hayek-inspired account of the evolution of social moralities as self-organising complex adaptive systems helps us understand why diversity is good?
JG: Cool question. Maybe the most important defense of moral homogeneity is the one you suggest: that without it, society could not function. Perhaps it would be a Hobbesian war of all against all, where each refuses to cooperate with others because they cannot share moral terms of engagement. To prevent such a war people either need to come to agree about morality, or else law and coercive punishment replaces morality as the basis of social relations.
Yet all these claims turn out to be false. In the last two-hundred years we have developed a world in which free moral choices, incredible human enrichment, and a decrease in violence have occurred simultaneously. And that is not because we all just happen to agree in all our moral convictions. Because so many moral and political philosophers are committed to the necessity of moral homogeneity for a morality-based order, yet acknowledge moral disagreement, they often insist that modern society is held together by formal institutions such as law, based on threats of punishment. However, the work on legal obedience and punishment in the last few decades puts paid to these claims. As students of social norms such as Gerry Mackie and Cristina Bicchieri have shown us, unless informal social rules support the legitimacy of laws and endorse legal obedience, legal regulation is ineffective. And unless threats of punishment are seen as legitimated by these social rules, people resist state coercion.
My newer work on systems of moral rules as self-organizing, which certainly is inspired by Hayek, seeks to show how people who morally disagree about what is the best rule can form themselves into systems devoted to a common moral rule that all see as an acceptable basis of moral accountability, yet few deem optimal. The key here is the extent to which people understand justice as not simply a personal conviction, but as the basis of a way for one to live together with one’s fellows. Having just social relations is more like dancing than contemplating one’s navel — it is something one needs to do with others, not alone in one’s study. If that is true, for you to achieve even approximate justice in a society characterized by deep disagreement, you must move away from your ideal of perfect justice, and seek rules that you and others can view as reasonably just. Many orthodox moral philosophers are so committed to hyper-individualistic navel-gazing inquiry that they cannot even understand this social investigation to be about morality. As one well-known political philosopher has recently written to me, “Sharing is a pragmatic, not a moral issue.” This says it all: on the orthodox view morality and justice are not ideas that humans evolved to live together, but to dictate to others terms that few others will accept. Social science has, I suppose, corrupted me. I no longer can appreciate why anyone would think that is an important enterprise.
3:AM: You argue that moral truth in the Order of Public Reason requires, necessarily, public endorsement. Why is this the case and how can public reason ever make controversial claims if it is?
JG: Ah, you keep on pressing good questions. Step back a bit, and think more generally about what I call “the public reason project,” extending from Hobbes, through Locke, Kant and Rousseau to Rawls and, of course to his students, followers and colleagues. Hobbes, I think, was the first to clearly perceive the moral problem of modernity: disagreement about fundamental moral and metaphysical issues pervades modern society and has the potential to undermine a cooperative social life. From Hobbes onwards the public reason project has sought to distinguish “public judgments” that are in some sense shared, from “private judgments” that are deeply at odds. Social life is to be premised on the former, bracketing or otherwise taming, the latter. If you are interested in a shared moral life under conditions of diversity that has to be an interesting project.
Alas, three hundred or so years on, it never identified this shared perspective. It retreated to identifying the shared perspective among a certain sort of primarily secular liberal-egalitarians, under the normalizing description, “the reasonable citizen.” Others were excluded, not because they were uninterested in living morally with others, but because they simply could not endorse the secular liberal-egalitarian perspective on justice. Some leading third-generation Rawlsians acknowledge this, understanding themselves to be articulating a theory by liberals, for liberals. Because in the end this “public reason” is not shared, it cannot derive its authority from the moral commitments of the great mass of participants, and so it must somehow claim to have an authority to declare a certain view publicly correct, binding free moral agents who do not share these liberal convictions.
As you indicate in your nice question, the traditional public reason project leads to the conclusion that what Rousseau called the celestial voice of public reason must declare itself on controversial issues and bind one whether or not one’s reason confirms it. Surely, though, the proper conclusion to be drawn is that this version of the public reason project fails. Public reason becomes one more voice telling people how to behave, whether they can see it or not. As one famous advocate of this view of public reason once confided to me, in the end morality always comes down to bossing other people around.
The aim of The Order of Public Reason was to provide an alternative conception of public reason, one that is not an authoritative voice from above, but the result of the networks formed by free individuals, each committed to different personal views about morality. Public reason is the upshot of free moral choices; it is public in the sense that the rules of social morality arise from the free reasoning of the public, not in the sense that it commences by valorizing one sort of quasi-shared reason as “public.” You’re entirely right that the rules are not at the deepest level controversial within any given moral network; all competent participants can understand these rules, and when they deliberate they can see that these are rules worth following. Unlike rules dictated by a celestial voice that one cannot confirm, they are rules one will feel guilty about violating because the rules express one’s own inner standards, and they are rules one will freely seek to follow — even if occasionally giving into temptations to advance one’s interests instead. But there is also plenty that is controversial about them. One might be convinced that they are far from the best rules, and try to convince others to adopt better ones. And one may hold a metaphysical theory, in which these common “truths of social morality” are not ultimate truths about morality, or ideal justice, but only mere approximations that we can share.
3:AM: Along come the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – a good person too concerned to be good to worry about social morality; a bad man violating the rights of others; and a hypocrite. Can your model deal with these?
JG: I was originally going to call these “the Good, the Bad, and the Uppity,” which was probably a better nod to Sergio Leone. The Good is our quintessential moral or political philosopher, who has devised or adopted a “theory of justice” — which, typically, hardly anyone but he and a handful of others hold. This theory, then, identifies ultimate, true, justice, whether hoi polloi see it or not. As a colleague of mine once told me in total seriousness, like any other discipline, in order to understand morality you need to be an expert — a moral philosopher. So, says the Good Philosopher, he cannot step back from his truth and endorse that approximation I call social morality. He must stay true to his truth. And that is true for all the distressingly large number of incompatible moral “truths” that philosophers have discovered.
If the Good Philosopher really thought this way he’d probably be a sly fellow, constantly seeking to manipulate the rest of us to act as he deems moral while talking to us in ways that will placate us — as Nietzsche says, speaking to cripples in a crippled sort of way. Or else our Good Philosopher might be radically unsocial, simply refusing to interact on any terms except those she sees as morally optimal. No morally-sanctioned trades, since the distribution of property is unjust; no true promises, since we do not have the optimal practice; no moral rights of other parents, since the family is an unjust institution. Happily, that is just philosophers talking. They teach their children the common rules of social morality (take turns, don’t take the last cookie, don’t cheat, respect the property of other children), and they themselves pay attention to them on their way to the lecture room. Then they go on to tell their students why there is only one moral system with moral authority — the true one.
I cannot stress enough that real social morality is a social achievement — a quality that informs our social relations, and induces us to acknowledge each other’s claims, and expect compliance. Now an objection that plays the ultimate trump card — human rights violation — is sometimes pressed against my view. Suppose an agent does not recognize the overriding importance of some human right and is about to violate it. He doesn’t care about sharing just social relations with others, or at least not enough to respect the right. Surely, it is said, “we” can stop him: he does wrong and should be held accountable. Philosophers love contrived cases, but consider instead a real and pressing one: the right of girls not to be subjected to forms of genital cutting. Suppose a father in a traditional village in Senegal plans to have his daughter cut. Those who press this objection see the father as either a bad person or a moral moron: he violates human rights even after he has been instructed. Whether or not he appreciates that he does wrong, it is the proper role of external agents to stop him and perhaps punish him. This is no fantastic case: many in western agencies press precisely this view.
It is certainly true that the account I offer has no such pat answer. I do not deny that the law could legitimately stop him: the law sometimes simply bosses people around to prevent what the state deems wrong. To be sure, this can be dangerous, risking counter-violence; it is typically an option of the powerful, not of the weak. In any event this is an entirely different question than whether the father is morally accountable for wrongdoing. In many cases these fathers are doing what they deem best for their children. They are not bad people unconcerned with just social relations, but like us seek good lives for their daughters as they understand them, and respect the normative expectations of others in their communities. In these contexts to effectively enforce human rights is not to use external force to control and punish.
As I read it the social scientific literature strongly indicates that to be real and effective, human rights must be grounded in a culture’s values, so that the agents themselves appreciate their moral force and guide their lives by them. They shape the moral relations of the community. Effective human rights are grounded in the public reason of a culture and its practices of accountability. It is not often a matter of using superior force to stop people from acting. The analysis I offer stresses the importance of programs such as the Tostan Community Empowerment Program in rural Senegal, which centers on human rights and democracy education, stressing the exploration of, and deliberation about, the values recognized by all members of the community. Throughout the curriculum, the aim is to examine human rights and democracy in light of the values of the community members; women and men discuss how human rights are rooted in the reflective values of the culture. Successful human rights regimes are part of the public reason of the culture, and not seen as an imposition of western imperialism, to be abandoned as soon as the agents of western agencies go home.
Lastly, an “uppity” moral agent is one who does not himself have reason to accept some moral rule but appreciates that I do, and so calls on me to act in accordance with it, even while announcing (or at least in his heart holding) that he does not have reason to do so. This hypocritical agent seeks to hold me responsible because I do have reasons to be moral while freeing himself of any accountability to me. “Do as I demand of you, but you can’t demand anything of me!” Certainly this is in some ways an ugly stance. When we mull it over, though, we have to admit that sometimes we are accountable for how we act toward agents even when they do not admit a reciprocal obligation. You may not believe that it is wrong to ridicule your opponent in a political debate, but I do; that you don’t doesn’t absolve me, and others can hold me responsible. It would show great chutzpah for you to remind me — “Gaus, you’re the one who thinks you shouldn’t ridicule others!” — but you’d be right, as annoyed as I’d be that you of all people pointed it out. However, it may well be that if I did ridicule you, you wouldn’t have a complaint against me. Some obligations are reciprocal, and sometimes when another fails to acknowledge a moral demand on her, that absolves me of moral obligation. In a competition when everyone is bending the rules, you may not be required to be the only fair player. Playing fair does not require being a sucker. These are all complicated issues for any account; if my analysis bring them out, that is all to the well and good.
3:AM: Does your view mean that governments should stop tinkering with expedient economic and social measures to bring about improved welfare and stick to moral principles? Does this make your approach deontological rather than consequentialist?
JG: So we are now talking about policy, and this brings up a bevy of complications. The highly abridged version is that I believe that Hayek was right that social and economic orders are complex systems. As systems become increasingly complex, the consequences of our interventions become increasingly difficult to accurately predict. The study of past interventions, I think, bares this out. We are typically surprised at both the good and bad things that resulted. And Hayek was also correct that this implies severe limits on the efficacy of interventions by a central controller to secure social goals. Most people resist this, possessing an illusion of control. If we are near the levers of control of an element in the system we think we can control what happens to it.
Think of how many people feel far safer driving their cars than taking an airplane. They have their hands on the control of their car but fail to appreciate that their car is part of a complex traffic system that is less predictable, so controlling the behavior of their car does not translate into anything like perfect control over the outcomes involving the car. Thinking you have, or could have, your hands on the levers of government gives rise to a similar illusion in a far less predicable system. When we realize that we are dealing with a complex system we should give far greater weight to following the rules of the system than the reformist is wont to do. If our concern is welfare or well-being, in situations where we have low confidence in the effects of an intervention to change the system, following the rules or principles that characterize it is typically a better bet. This is not in a moral sense non-consequentialist: it is about the limits of control in complex systems. Any reasonable consequentialist should embrace the general point.
The two critical variables are the degree of complexity of the system and the radicalness of our planned intervention. If the system is moderately complex and our intervention is a radical attempt to bring about a new order, then we are almost certain to get it wrong, with a good chance of bringing about disaster. I continue to be taken aback by the resistance this point generates. I would have thought the outcomes of the various plans for general social reconstruction of the twentieth century would have made this vivid, but intellectuals are enamored with grand plans for betterment, and possess a hubris about their own ability to implement them. Sometimes, though, there are relatively autonomous subsystems that are not quite so complex and so more predictable. On the other hand, even when the system is pretty complex, if our intervention seeks marginal improvements we are more likely to be successful, or at least not inflict too much damage. In this case we can better predict small changes; and even when we are erroneous in our specific predictions, the overall result will not be very far from our current condition. Thus the importance of Popper’s analysis of piecemeal social reform. As I see things now, the analysis doesn’t imply we should stop seeking improvement through tinkering — unless the system is very complex indeed. But beware of those who engage in facile talk of “revolution.” They can produce change, but they have little clue as to what it will be.
3:AM: How do things like game theory and experimental findings support your approach to social morality? And does your use of these mean your position would be in the camp viewing morality as ‘social facts with history’ championed by Hume, Ferguson, Hobbes and Nietzsche and opposed to those insisting that morality is about rational individual reflection, testing impartial maxims, such as Rousseau and Kant?
JG: Well, that’s a nice dissertation topic! Both aspects of moral thinking must have a place in any acceptable account of justice. The problem is to fit them together. Each person needs to test a proposed rule of morality to see whether it suits one’s rational, reflective, normative standards. Is it impartial, in the way one understands impartiality? Is it a rule that one thinks promotes the good of all? Does it meet one’s standards of decency and dignity? No morality in a free society could be acceptable that failed to give pride of place to these questions and, more importantly, that did not embrace the principle that a free person can only live according to rules of morality that passed her rational and reflective tests.
The question is not whether this is the beginning of moral reflection, but whether it is the end. Perhaps for some parts of morality such individual reasoning is the alpha and omega, but surely not concerning justice. Just social relations can only be achieved together. A belligerent dogmatist can shout at others that they are unjust, but that cannot secure just social relations. And to force a person to act according to your notion of justice does not secure just social relations; the other does not acknowledge your claims, does not feel guilty when she fails to meet them and, most importantly, does not freely guide herself to act in conformity to them. If justice is a social moral good, individuals must typically reciprocally recognize their claims on each other. At one point Rawls hoped that in an ideal society all good-willed and reasonable people might come to think pretty much the same about justice, but toward the end of his career he concluded that was illusory: everything we know about free societies is that the exercise of reason leads to disagreement, including disagreement about justice.
So our problem is that we deeply disagree about optimal justice, but to secure just social relations we must coordinate on rules of justice that are acceptable to all. Now we confront standard problems of game theory: how can people coordinate when they disagree on what is best, but think it is better to coordinate than go it alone? And this leads to Hume-Ferguson types of analyses, looking at the history of social moralities to see why, in a path-dependent process, some coordination points have been achieved whereas other, in some ways equally eligible coordination equilibria, were not. In my most recent work I have drawn on Hayekian insights about self-organizing orders to see how free individuals can solve this real problem of social justice without recourse to central directors or social contracts.
3:AM: A push back against this was made by Ernest Gellner some time ago. He noted that nation state building was about eradicating pluralism and that the (bloody) history of the last century was ethnic cleansing policies prosecuted across the world to insist on greater homogeneity within state borders. He argued that it was this homogeneity that characterised modernity, not pluralism. With the rise of the right and xenophobia this is beginning to seem kind of obvious again. So one issue is whether you think your pluralism flies in the face of historical facts about modernity?
JG: Pluralism is the critical problem of modernity; it forcefully arose in the aftermath of the wars of religion and was nurtured and blossomed in the great trading cities of Western and Northern Europe. However, that it poses the problem of modernity is by no means to say that the unique solution is the open society. Hobbes, I have said, was the first political philosopher to put it firmly on the agenda, but his response was an authoritarian state to control it and govern the “opinions of men.”
Diversity is not comfortable for most of us. There is evidence that, while diverse groups are better at solving problems people are less happy in them. A distinction between “them” and “us” is very probably intrinsic to the way most humans see the world; the open society seeks to weaken it, or channel it into trivial pursuits like sports, but this is often resisted. The recent vote in the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union is a case in point. It is hard not to conclude that on a huge number of dimensions membership in the EU was a great boon to England, but many in England experienced life with diverse others to be alienating, and a challenge to their own sense of identity, which often depends on group identification. And it is by no means only the right: Cohen displayed nostalgia for the solidarity of wartime England, when people all did their bit without grubby market incentives. Jonathan Haidt hypothesizes that we have a “hive switch” that can induce us to lose our sense of individuality in the commonality of the hive. Many opponents of the open society seek to flip that switch. Any politician who wishes us to embark on her favored collective project has incentive to trigger the hive switch and induce national unity and its attendant indifference or hostility to ”them,” and so escape the often unsettling, but ultimately enriching, diversity of the open society. Popper was not being simply polemical: there are many enemies of the open society.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?
JG: Of course, though in selecting five I fear I’ve done a disservice to some great works.
1. Fred D’Agostino, Naturalizing Epistemology: Thomas Kuhn and the “Essential Tension” (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010). This is a great book. I read a lot of moral philosophers who write that moral philosophy should model itself on science; like science it should search for “the Truth” (most definitely with a capital “T”), and not obsess itself with incoherent categories like reasonable disagreement or convergence on propositions from different perspectives. D’Agostino shows wonderfully how this simplistic view fails to understand the activity of science, where reasonable disagreement is a fundamental tool for exploring the problem space of a science. Using value theory, rugged landscape modeling of problem solving and a sophisticated understanding of the activity of science, D’Agostino demonstrates how different perspectives in science lead to different insights and then explores the most difficult question of all: when can these different insights be put together into a coherent view that all agree is superior?
2. Ryan Muldoon, Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance (New York: Routledge, 2016). Ryan Muldoon is one of today’s very best political philosophers. His book, which I have read in manuscript and will be published this autumn, delves deeper than any other work into the implications of fundamental diversity for political philosophy. As Muldoon stresses, we do not simply disagree about the “good” but about what the world is like. Does it contain souls, sin, insults to God, non-natural moral properties, natural rights, ecosystems, nations? Once we realize how deep our disagreements are, we can appreciate the fascinating puzzle that we are negotiating terms for our common life together while disagreeing about the nature of that life. Muldoon not only sketches a cool solution to this problem, he also shows what a great benefit a world of diverse perspectives can be to its participants. I’ve learned heaps from Muldoon’s work.
3. Cristina Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamic of Social Norms (Cambridge: Cambridge 2006). Bicchieri’s book now qualifies as a classic in contemporary social philosophy. It was a seminal work in the study of social norms, and was critical in alerting social philosophers to a fundamental level of normative organization to which they were almost blind (at least since Hegel!): informal social rules that guide the normative and empirical expectations of groups of individuals as to how they should live together. Between the individual moral consciousness and the legal system lies the critically important social. Bicchieri draws on sophisticated modeling and experimental results to formulate a rich and powerful account of this grammar of society.
4. Kurt Baier, The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality (Chicago: Open Court, 1999). Because Bicchieri speaks of “social norms” a number of moral philosophers classify her work as “social scientific” and so not about “morality,” which focuses on moral truth revealed by individual moral judgment. Although today this view is dominant, a great deal of moral thinking has stressed its social nature — how morality and indeed reason itself, are devices for social living. Kurt Baiter’s great, and unjustly forgotten work, explored how rational and moral thinking are rooted in both the individual and the social perspectives, and how they provide a framework for individuals to pursue their understanding of the good in a world in which their pursuits sometimes conflict, and sometimes converge.
5. F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. 1: Rules and Order (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1973). Traditionally, Hayek only enters into philosophy as an example of a “classical liberal,” and given the ideological orientation of philosophers, that means as a target. However, his analyses of the relation of rules and order, the evolution of social rules, and the futility of constructing the rules of a complex system to secure a desired outcome were all truly path-breaking. A number of state-of-the art accounts of rules, complexity and social evolution confirm many of Hayek’s insights. That, at least, is the thesis of the book I am now writing!
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 29th, 2016.