Saturday, September 12, 2020

Kim Man-jung, The Nine Cloud Dream


Opening Passage:

There are five great mountains beneath Heaven. To the east is T'ai-shan, Grand Mountain; to west is Hua-shan, Mountain of Flowers; to the south lies Heng-shan, the Mountain of Scales; to the north another Heng-shan, Eternal Mountain; and in the center stands Sun-shan, the Exalted Mountain. These are known as the Five Peaks, and the highest of them is Heng-shan, south of Tung-t'ing Lake, encircled by the river Hsiang on three sides. Upon Heng-shan itself there are seventy-two peaks that rise up and pierce the sky, some jagged and precipitous--blocking the paths of clouds--their fantastic shapes evoking wonder and awe, their auspicious shadows full of good fortune. (p. 3)

Summary: Hsing-chen is a young Buddhist monk of exceptional promise studying under the Great Master Liu-kuan, who teaches The Diamond Sutra on the Lotus Peak of Heng-shan. Everybody knows that he is so exceptional, he will certainly succeed Liu-kuan. One day Liu-kuan, whose health is failing, sends Hsing-chen as a messenger to the Underwater Palace of the Dragon King. At the Dragon King's palace, he is convinced to break his monastic vows and drink a cup of wine; he heads home, but decides to bathe in a stream to shake himself out of the intoxication before he gets back to the monastery. Then he sees eight fairy maidens, attendants of Lady Wei of the Southern Peak, a Taoist Immortal; it is spring and they are disporting in the streams and blocking his path over the bridge. (Symbolic, that.) They refuse to let him pass unless he shows them some supernatural powers such as great Buddhist monks are said to have, and he responds by flirtatiously taking a branch of eight peach blossoms and turning its blossoms into exquisite jewels. When he gets back to the monastery, he tries to deceive his teacher as to why he returned late. Liu-kan dresses him down over it, and sends him away from the monastery (because his actions show that this is what he wants); in particular, he calls up the constables of hell and hands him over to King Yama who rules over the dead. Yama is astounded to find Hsing-chen coming before him, since Yama had expected that he would achieve enlightenment; but karma is inexorable law, and so Hsing-chen must be reincarnated again to work out his failures in a new life.

He is born again as Shao-yu, his mother a poor peasant and his father a wandering hermit who soon leaves. But karma is inexorable law, and all of the excellence of Hsing-chen's former life shines through his fortune. He is brilliant, growing more so over time, and when he takes the civil service examination, he will outshine all his peers; this will set him on the path to become the prime minister of the empire, and its foremost general, and its foremost diplomat. He is handsome, and as he goes through life, he will meet eight women -- Ch'in Ts'ai-feng, Kuei Ch'an-yüeh, Ti Ching-hung, Cheng Ch'iung-pei (who will become adapted as Princess Ying-yang), Chia Ch'un-yün, Li Hsiao-ho (also known as Princess Lan-yang, the sister of the Emperor), Shen Niao-yen (an assassin of superhuman ability), and Po Ling-po (the youngest daughter of the Dragon King), each of them extraordinarily beautiful and brilliant, all of whom will become either his wives or his concubines. This doesn't quite capture it, though. This harem does not really arise from his own efforts (although his success and talent as well as his good looks are the reason for it); from Shao-yu's perspective it almost just seems to spring up, although we also get something of how things look from the perspective of the women and there is an impressive amount of scheming and maneuvering going on of which Shao-yu is largely not aware, and the arrangement is not pursued by Shao-yu but more or less invented by the women themselves, and mostly when Shao-yu is away on business. What is more, all the women become close friends, and, despite their extraordinary differences in status, treat each other with respect, always, which is the unimaginable icing on the already extraordinary cake.

It is, of course, not an accident that there are eight. Fairy maidens, too, are bound by karmic law.

This is a book of illusions. Nothing is ever exactly as it appears. Shao-yu at one point dresses as a woman to see a potential bride; he pays for this in more ways than one, as one of the women, playing a practical joke, manages to fool him into thinking first that she was a fairy and then that she was a 'hungry ghost'. One woman gets close to him by pretending to be a page-boy. Niao-yen, who is basically the Chinese equivalent of ninja, literally materializes in his tent out of the darkness. The Emperor, Empress Dowager, and several of the wives and concubines play an extremely elaborate practical joke in which they convince Shao-yu that one of them has died. Dreams are scattered throughout. And, of course, the tale itself is, as it says in the title, is itself a cloud-dream tale. It is all a dream. But as with Zhuangzi's butterfly, is it Hsing-chen dreaming that he is Shao-yu, or Shao-yu dreaming that he is Hsing-chen? As Liu-kuan notes, the question has no meaning.

Which ties in with the theme from The Diamond Sutra:

All things conditioned
are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows--
like dewdrops, like a flash of lightning,
and thus shall we perceive them. (p. 214)

It is pointless to argue over which of the lives is 'real' and which is 'dream', because there is nothing but the unconditioned, found in enlightenment, and the dreams within dreams within dreams the cover it over. The Buddhist monk takes a vacation in the perfect Confucian life as the superior man, and comes to perceive what he should have perceived from the beginning, that it has no more substance than a dream; but this is not a criticism of Confucianism itself. The book does show a preference for Buddhism as the highest path; as Shao-yu puts it toward the end of his long and happy and beyond-prosperous life:

"There are three ways in the world--the way of Confucius, the way of the Buddha, and the way of the Taoists. Buddhism is the highest. Confucianism exalts achievements and concerns itself with the passing down of names to posterity. Taoism is mystical, but it is unreliable, and though it has benefited many, its truths cannot be wholly known...." (pp. 210-211)

But notice that this is just an ordering. That the Confucian life (and the Taoist life) is mired in illusion is true, but Buddhism is not an exception to this. As Hsing-chen learned the hard way, he was still mired in illusion as a Buddhist, and it took the punishment of being given everything he found attractive about the world for him to see that he was still bound by attraction to the world. Buddhism gets the higher place because it recognizes that the dream is a dream; but Hsing-chen still has to learn as his last lesson that Hsing-chen could as much be said to be a dream of Shao-yu as vice versa. And this perception is the beginning of what is finally required for the only happily-ever-after possible for this fairy tale: that Hsing-chen and the eight fairy maidens "became bodhisattvas and the nine entered, together, into Paradise."

Favorite Passage:

Ling-po drew a small lute from her sleeve and began to play. The sound was clear and plaintive, like water flowing deep in a valley or wild geese crying far off in the sky. The guests shed tears without knowing why. Reedy grasses trembled and leaves fell from the trees.

The prince was mystified. "I did not believe earthly music could change the way of Heaven," he said. "But you have changed spring into autumn and made the leaves fall. Could an ordinary human being possibly learn to play like this?"

"It is only the remnants of old melodies," said Ling-po. "There is nothing marvelous about it that anyone could not also learn." (p. 190)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Kim Man-jung, The Nine Cloud Dream, Heniz Insu Fenkl, tr., Penguin (New York: 2019).

Friday, September 11, 2020

Dashed Off XX

This completes the notebook that was finished August 1, 2019.

pankalia as a guide for law and its application

Thomson, "The Right to Privacy": the right to privacy is a derivative right in the sense that it everywhere overlaps other rights
-- we might put this in a different way form Thomson by saying it is an extra template put on top of things that are rights already

"A spectral version of moral reasoning can survive in the world of the trolley problems; but it exists there detached from its roots in the person-to-person encounter, lending itself to mathematical treatment partly because the deskbound philosopher has thought the normal sources of moral sentiment away." Scruton

anticipatory gratitude
-- one can see friendliness as having this sort of act; friendliness acts in an anticipatory way along the lines of gratitude, justice, mercy, etc.
-- anticipatory gratitude as a major source of courtesy

the paperwork-submitting aspect of citizenship (note that while this is often compelled, sometimes it is voluntary, and in a sense is a participation in the administrative capabilities of the state)

massifying count nouns and countifying mass nouns
"I'll have water" -- "I'll have a water but not that water"
"I'll have a cake" -- "I'll have cake"

"Red wine" is not an overlap of "red" and "wine" but a division of wine.

The target domain of a metaphor is usually not arbitrary but just whatever you are intending to talk about.

Exodus: Baptism :: Leviticus : Orders
(could we say Numbers : Confirmation ?)

Nature is temple as well as workshop.

The family is the foundation of communal unity; so essential is it that if the natural family is disrupted, people will seek artificial families.

Better a patriot-king than a republic with nothing but an outward formality of being a republic.

"People who shout so loud, my lords, do nothing, / The only men I fear are silent men." Wilde, The Duchess of Parma

"The backbone of Philosophy is Logic." May Sinclair

for the greatest number, their greatest happiness vs. for the greatest happiness, the greatest number to experience it

The Achilles' heel of liberation theology is often its failure to have an adequate theology of Israel.

Gn 18:19 -- yada, to know, is the word for the divine choice in the election of Israel (cp. Amos 3:2)
Dt. 7:6 -- bara, to choose

election → covenant → mission

The mission of the people of Israel is not to preach to the world but to be a light (Isaiah 42:6).

Election or choice is the natural expression of love; what one loves, one chooses in particular.

To be holy is to be for-another.

Envy seeks to portray people in villainous guises, in order that it may play the heroic character.

(1) God said, Let there be X
-- the creature in the divine Word
(2) And it was so
-- as divine works are ministered by angels, this indicates the impress of the idea of the creature, as occasion for ministry, in the angels
(3) And God made X
-- the creature in its own existence
Then, as Augustine notes, the tale of time indicates the complete cycle of knowledge,
(4) the evening knowledge of the creature in its manifestation
(5) the morning knowledge of the creature in its end

Declarations of rights are abstract depictions of human nature, citizenship, etc.

interpreting sentences as existential claims about propositions

General strike is not an opening move.

The being of the Church is being 'of Christ'; each of the Notes of the Church is an aspect of being 'of Christ'.

the importance of unlived experience for lived experience

maternal dignity

Rights discourse inevitably tends to collapse whenever it becomes used as a technical means for coercing people.

Science is only self-correcting if scientists are.

The soul is a vale of world-making.

Only those with pietas can appropriately judge traditions.

The human person not only is handed down; he or she hands himself or herself down. We are the inheritance and the testament of ourselves.

Hegel often attributes to the state what is only attributable to the common good the state protects.

the zoo of physical analogies for solving problems (Terence Tao)

proof-building as means-end reasoning

Analogies are powerful for both wisdom and folly.

"We think in eternity, but we move slowly through time...." Wilde
"Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol."
"All bad art is the result of good intentions."

usury a perversion of subcreation

Hegel's error with regard to the state is not recognizing that the constitution of the state is an instrumental or organic structure of civil society.

Energy conservation presupposes that the system maintains translational symmetry over time; this is often forgotten in philosophical arguments appealing to it.

All knowledge-that is knowledge-how if you can use it as a template for doing something.

Steyl's taxonomy of approaches to the claim that care is a virtue
(1) analogical: care is analogous to some virtue
(2) supplementalist: care is a novel virtue
(3) caridinalist: care is a cardinal virtue

the temptation of trying to be just by association

Charity toward others often begins with looking honestly at yourself.

friendship as the bene esse of free will

The Church is in the world in several ways:
(1) it is drawn out from the world
(2) it is the sacramental extension of the Incarnation, and thus is Christ in the world
(3) it is in a state of wayfaring through the world
(4) it is sent throughout the world to spread the gospel to the world
(5) it is against the world, but in such a way as to be breaking free from the world

The Church's being in the world is structured by layers of community and noncommunity.

world as presence, world as totality, world as context, worldhood

"The unity of a thing is not behind each of its qualities, it is reaffirmed by each of them, each of them is the whole thing." Merleau-Ponty

nature as glory (manifestation of divine), nature as context, nature as reserve

the importance of distinguishing your politics-of-your-circle and your universal politics

the altar-consecrated states: orders, vows, marriage

One thing the early modern natural rights tradition (of the sort in the Declaration of Independence) gets right is that human persons are already jural beings.

conjugal ancillaries
(1) self-respect
(2) affection for the spouse
(3) sense of fairness
(4) respect for marriage as such
-- these are not constitutive of marriage but contribute to its health
-- sometimes marriage itself constructs these things

the common good of the human race as the foundation of philosophical history

Ceremonial life is the sphere in which a nation defines what it posits as true.

The End in Itself and the Kingdom of Ends formulations are both explicitly attempts to show how the categorical law is implicit in the concept of a rational being in general. (The Law of Nature formulation instead unfolds the categorical imperative out of the nature of duty. It is also notable that the establishment of LoN is (1) conditional, because it does not establish existence but only existence if our ordinary concept of duty has authority of law, and (2) not a priori.)

Kantian ethics as the attempt to unfold ethics out of the 'I think'

Rules-lawyering is sometimes the point of having rules.

citizenship as inherited tradition, as resource for human living, as commitment to community

By 'right' Hobbes simply means nonrestriction.

In a capitalist society, the state works as supercapitalist.

Weblike distributions of power create competitions.

No form of ethics is so conducive to allegory, both verbal and visual, as virtue ethics.

beautiful : moral good :: moral good : divine good

monks as knights of temperance

self-desecration as a moral concept (the natural sacredness of the body, the body as a moral object of respect/reverence)

sharing in the selfsame (Ps 122;3, Augustine DT 3.1.8); cp Ps 102:26

worldbuilding & the machina for the stage

(1) vestment proper: that which we wear (e.g., hat)
(2) secondary vestment: that with which we dress other things (e.g., drapery)
(3) quasi-vestment: that which is itself as if it were proper or secondary vestment (e.g., hermit crab's shell)
(4) figurative vestment (e.g., heavens as the robe of God)

Everything wrong with Hegel's philosophy is summed up in his criticisms of the Eucharist, of Confession, and of Ordination in The Philosophy of History. And it can be summed up further in a phrase: denigration of the external. What was later called the heresy of Modernism could indeed be called the Hegelian heresy. Note that Hegel attributes the idea to Luther.

A republic requires checks and balances among all sources of sanction; conscience, public opinion, and legal agency must all have both a power of self-protection and a power of opposition.

imperfect duties as duties to be virtuous / cultivate virtue

allegory as an essential part of moral reasoning

Experiments involve several kinds of bookkeeping (time, resources, problems, solutions, physical actions), some formally and some informally kept, any of which may be relevant to interpreting the experiment.

Moral theory of consequence, theory of obligations, and theory of character all converge on divine providence.

'ought implies can' is the structure of excuses and exculpations

Kant needs the postulates to close down fully all possible excuse for not following the moral law.

In secular discussions of the basis of human dignity, the tendency is to confuse sign and basis, and also to ignore the importance of our already being co-human with others.

The Law of Large Numbers only explains coincidences in union with an already known causal context affording opportunity for that kind of coincidence.

"The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small." Nietzsche

"Whoever repudiates causes, repudiates reason." Averroes

self, cause, and whole as the lenses for viewing the world

In argument we are all foolish sometimes.

(1) under the mask fo achieving the right
-- (a) theoretical
-- (b) practical
-- -- (1) of inquiry
-- -- (2) of life
(2) under the mask of avoiding the wrong
-- (a) theoretical
-- (b) practical
-- -- -- (1) of inquiry
-- -- -- (2) of life

All vice is a collapsing into oneself.

Extensive bureaucracy seems to cultivate intensive atomism of individuals.

There is a straightforward sense in which lies do not communicate anything, are only appearances of communication, being the veling of the mind and not, as 'communication' properly means, the formation of a *common* understanding.

present tense as main-show tense
relative to this we have backgrounds to and anticipations of the main show
-- Thus punctilinear, iterative, historical/dramatic, and conative presents are all really doing the same thing, setting the main show, and the taxonomy is really of functions or implications. Likewise various imperfects etc. are background settings. Futures identify ways in which the main show prepares or looks forward to something.

infinitive : noun :: participle : adjective

causal, evidential, and equivalential implication

The body is not an infinitely malleable thing; it is not an arbitrary act of will; it is something received and has a logic of its own.

hierarchy of internal goods: of cosmos, of earth, of human race, of complete societies, of person, of body, of functional origin

'From each according to his ability' sounds well and good, but doing all that you are able is working yourself to death.

the Book of Acts as reflection on the doctrine of the Ascension

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Argument from Agreement

The most common argument against moral realism is the argument from disagreement -- moral realism can't be true because there is too much disagreement about morals. Hanno Sauer's "The argument from agreement: How universal values undermine moral realism", in Ratio (27 Feb 2019), attempts to flip this and arguing against moral realism from agreement -- moral realism can't be true because there is too much agreement about morals.

(A1) If moral realism is true, then we would expect a lot of moral disagreement.

(A2) We do not see a lot of moral disagreement.


(A3) Moral realism is false.

The argument from disagreement has a number of problems, not least of which is that moral realism, as such, does not predict anything about moral agreement or disagreement; moral realism is by definition a position on which moral objects/entities/values/facts exist independently of our agreement or disagreement about them. Agreement-convergence or widespread agreement is sometimes used as an evidence for moral realism, but this is due to assumptions about agreement, not about moral realism. The argument from agreement suffers exactly the same problem for exactly the same reason. Sauer just flips the script here, as well, arguing for opposite assumptions about agreement. Sauer also tries to drive a wedge between convergence over time and widespread convergence, but this is somewhat useless for the argument, since both are used as evidence for moral realism, and the purported lack of both are often used as evidence against it. While there is no doubt some difference in the structure of the assumptions used, Sauer really needs to deny both; if convergence over time establishes moral realism, moral realism becomes the best explanation for widespread agreement precisely because it is independently established. It's an interesting attempt to turn common views upside down, but it's more of a clever exercise than anything else. It's nice to have, I suppose, if only to bring up when the argument from disagreement is put forward.

I was interested, though, in this:

Most scientific truths are deeply counterintuitive, and fairly recalcitrantly so. Counterintuitive claims are, by their very nature, unlikely to be believed by many people who haven’t received some sort of training (or indeed indoctrination, as with the counterintuitive teachings of many cults and religions). Consider physics: there is nothing intuitive about the idea of inertia, the relativity of simultaneity, or the mysteries of quantum mechanics. Folk physics, on the other hand, is intuitively compelling but gets it all wrong (McCloskey, Washburn, & Felch, 1983). Consider biology: even today, the idea that natural selection (and other evolutionary pressures) instead of the vastly more viscerally appealing ideas of intelligent design or Lamarckianism remains deeply counterintuitive (Medin & Atran, 2004). Finally, consider economics: economists routinely complain about the fact that the public as well as elected officials fail to grasp the basic workings of the price mechanism, comparative advantage or the nature of public goods. That is because prices and global trade are strange, and difficult to comprehend (Kahneman, Knetsch, & Thaler, 1986).

This is the sort of thing that people often say, but it is not in any obvious sense true. This is an important point that is often not grasped in the case of folk physics: folk physics is ineliminable, not merely because it's 'built-in' in some way, although it may be, but because doing scientific physics presupposes it. When a physicist looks at a dial, he could break it down into a problem in optics, but he rarely does so -- he just looks, and by folk physics assumes things like 'The light is not crossing so as to reverse the reading' (and by folk biology assumes that his eyes show the world, etc.). When people use an apparatus for an experiment, they can and sometimes do analyze it into the underlying physics -- the abstract model of the apparatus as a calculating device -- but a lot of times, they just assume folk physics things about it -- that it will not defy gravity, that it will continue to have object permanence, that volume and mass, conceived in our folkish everyday way, will be conserved. Some folk physics assumptions require correction to get the right answer for particular problems; others are essentially qualitative versions of very general assumptions for which scientific physics has quantitative versions, at least for particular kinds of situations; others are approximately, but only approximately, in the neighborhood of more scientific principles; others are simply wrong because they involve confusion across different domains, or some such. Nor is folk physics the whole story about intuitiveness in matters of physics -- many things that are categorized as folk physics are largely crude and hasty extrapolations from experience and don't rule out their opposites as counterintuitive, and there are things that are counterintuitive to experts but not to non-experts. But most scientific truths are not "deeply counterintuitive", in any case. It's not "deeply counterintuitive" that my mug won't fall through the desk; it's not "deeply counterintuitive" that green light is being reflected from grass blades; etc. And they no more become counterintuitive by translating them into more precise mathematical equations than they would if you translated them into Classical Chinese. There are endlessly many of these truths. To be sure, sometimes the further explanations may introduce something counterintuitive; but that's a long way from getting us to "most scientific truths are counterintuitive".

It's more boring to say, but a vast ocean of scientific truths are intuitive and pretty much what everyone would expect. Sometimes the scientific truths are just more precise, sometimes they are just a little different but in the vicinity of what people would have assumed. Likewise, while scientists often have intense disagreements on the many points on which they disagree, they tend toward agreement on a vast array of things -- they'd have to, because otherwise they would never be able to agree even on the correct description of an experiment or observation.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Boudry on Conspiracy-Theory Thinking

As I've noted, conspiracy-theory thinking has become quite common. I happened to come across an interesting example just yesterday:

So here we have a philosophy professor at an Ivy League school noticing that during Presidential election years, which naturally involve intense political debate, there has been a massive surge in worries and complaints about how things are described and presented in politically relevant contexts, and his first impulse is to construct a literal conspiracy theory to explain it. That seems to sum up the point to which we have degenerated: philosophy professors inventing conspiracies to explain things that weren't even surprising or in need of special explanation to begin with.

Maarten Boudry has an interesting post on conspiracy-theory thinking at "Blog of the APA". I often disagree with Boudry's work, but I liked his recent paper on the subject, Like Black Holes in the Sky: The Warped Epistemology of Conspiracy Theories (DOC), of part of which the post is a more popular presentation. I think, however, he makes a mistaken assumption that, while it seems common among people who study conspiracy theories, nonetheless does not always fit very well with the features of actual conspiracy theories that you find in the real world:

Lack of evidence for your conspiracy theory. As pointed out already, absence of evidence need never discourage you. If there really is a conspiracy going on, absence of evidence is precisely what you would expect. Didn’t I tell you the conspirators are very devious?

Very few conspiracy theories seem actually to take this attitude toward evidence. Conspiracy theories are evidence-driven failures of reasonableness. 9/11 Truthers are not claiming that there is an absence of evidence that the US was behind the 9/11 attacks; they regularly claim that there is an abundance of evidence that this is so -- a vast array of things that fail to add up if you believe the official story, a vast array of particular things that are better explained by that hypothesis. The same is true of people think the moon landing was a hoax. Conspiracy theorists don't generally think there is an absence of evidence that the conspiracy is true, although some hold that the evidence is non-obvious. There is even an entire branch of conspiracy theories in which it is a fundamental idea that the conspiracy (whatever it might be) leaves obvious evidence both of what really happened and the cover-up just to enjoy the power of getting people to believe whatever they want regardless of what the evidence actually says. And, of course, there are conspiracy theories like the Stanley theory that the reason why "hysteria about political correctness" increases during years with intensely contested political elections is "covert funding" by nefarious people behind the scene. There's no acceptance of the idea that the evidence is lacking; the evidence is a phenomenon that is treated as very obvious. There is the appeal to 'covertness', but it's a mistake to think of this element of conspiracy theories as implying absence of evidence; rather, it implies obscurity or non-obviousness of causal mechanism to which the explanation of the evidence appeals.

One of the things that is nice about Boudry's account overall is the non-condescending nature of it. Too many accounts of conspiracy-theory thinking run aground on a tendency not to recognize an important feature of it: that, while a failure of reasonableness, conspiracy theories are highly reasoned. They are driven in part by evidence, analysis, research, and argument; their immunity to evidence is not stubbornness but flexibility and adaptation in the face of new evidence and argument as it comes in; their rejection of the official story involves all the tropes we usually associate with critical thinking. Conspiracy theorists are often quite intelligent, they are often far more informed about details than most of their opponents (indeed, a common problem with conspiracy theories is treating trivial details as if they were immensely important), and far more willing to ask questions. This is all part of what makes them a fascinating field of study. A serious account of conspiracy-theory thinking requires recognizing that they can often involve "considerable ingenuity and creativity", as Boudry puts it, and his willingness to recognize this is a major plus for Boudry's account. But I think the absence of evidence trope is in fact carried over from approaches to conspiracy theories that fail to make this fundamental recognition.

Music on My Mind

Kate Miller-Heidke, "A Quiet Voice".

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Rating Party Platforms on Things Other than Politics

It's a Presidential election year, so it's about time for a tradition that goes back almost to the beginning of this weblog: Welcome to the fifth quadrennial rating of party platforms on grounds other than those of partisan politics! In the first year of competition, the Libertarians won handily for spartan and spare; in the second competition, the Republicans seized the prize for flashy and glossy; in the third competition, the Democrats won partly out of pity and partly out of recognition of their improvements; in the fourth competition, the Greens won on informativeness and accessibility. Who will win this time? Will the GOP give us a Grand Old Platform? Will the Greens continue to show that they don't know what a preamble is? Will the Libertarians finally add a little spice? Will the Democrats figure out how a cover sheet works? Who makes it easy to figure out what their party stands for? Will the Democrats and Republicans finally manage to shake off Major Party Disease? Let's dive in and see.

Democratic Party Platform

Republican Party Platform (PDF)

Libertarian Party Platform

Green Party Platform

Cover Sheet

The Greens are disqualified from the cover sheet competition because they don't provide an easily accessible PDF with a cover sheet. No play, no win. The other three parties do, but since the Republicans voted to keep their Party Platform the same, and did nothing to make it more presentable, it's just the same one they had last time. Disqualified, Lazy Elephants! So the real competition is between the Democrats and the Libertarians, and I have to say that it's a pleasure to judge this category this year, because both put in a decent attempt. The cover sheet for the PDF version of the Libertarian platform has a sweeping yellow eagle on it. The PDF of the Democratic platform has a visually interesting logo in blues, with a star in a D and a forward arrow. The Libertarians have marginally more interesting typography, but the Democratic logo is interesting, distinctive, and draws the eye. In addition, this is a huge improvement for the Donkeys; I used to mock them mercilessly for their incompetence in cover sheets. So congratulations, Democrats; you finally won this category, and in a year in which the Libertarians were putting up a good fight.


Organization is usually the Libertarians' power category, and they continue to shine. Their platform begins with a Preamble and Statement of Principles, then gives a numbered outline of essential points. As always, they get points for the numbered outline and clearly highlighted main headings. They have no table of contents, Libertarian concision eliminates the need for one. Lovely as always.

The Greens have been highly competitive in this category recently, and this year they continue that. Nicely organized table of contents, and beautiful outline. Whereas the Libertarians use decimal outlining, the Greens use alphanumeric, probably a good approach for their much less concise platform. Alphanumeric is a bit messier, but it allows for a nice consistency -- parts of their platform marked by small letters all give practical proposals, for instance.

The Republicans do badly with table of contents this year, because it's the same bad one as last time. The Democrats managed to do OK, but only in PDF. The HTML TOC is quite bad. You should be able to understand something of what the party is about by looking at the table of contents for its platform; both Major Parties tend to fail by providing TOC listings that are vague and uninformative. Save your vague and useless titles for bumper stickers. Nonetheless, the Democrats massively outperform the Republicans in that their vague titles at least identify vaguely practical things to do, and, again, the PDF gives us something much more like what we should be getting. So the Democratic entry is mixed. More people are going to access the HTML version than the PDF version, though, so the Democrats get dinged for only having a good table of contents in the PDF version.

So it's between the Libertarians and the Greens, and I think I hand this category to the Greens by a hair.

General Informativeness

General informativeness is the workhouse category of the competition and is, with accessibility, the one of the most practical importance. So who does best on informativeness?

As usual, the clean Libertarian structure and organization works for them, but their conciseness works against them. The Greens, I think, manage a much better balance on this point, and you can larn a lot about Green Party politics from their platform; it covers general values and principles, explanations, and particular practical proposals.

The Republicans have the same problems they had last Presidential election, because it's the same platform. Absolutely nothing has happened in the past four years, it seems, that would require the party to add or change anything. I don't know if it's the Grand Old Party; it's certainly Got Old Platform. Maybe that's the point, but even the Libertarians, whose platform is mostly the same from election to election, redo their party platform each Presidential election just in case. And the 2016 platform was not a shining example of informativeness to begin with; it was an egregious example of Major Party Disease, blah-blah-blah-keyphrase-blah-blah-blah-proposal-blah-blah-blah. It also had some seriously problematic examples of the Solution Problem, i.e., proposing to solve things by solving them, like their tax plan, which was not to penalize thrift or discourage investment. The Democratic platform would have to be next door to gibberish before it could fail to beat the Republicans this year. I will, however, give the Republicans credit for at least explaining their decision.

The Democratic platform seriously suffers from Major Party Disease -- the PDF version is over 90 pages. They are not just verbose, they are often also vague. But all things considered, I've seen worse. Even when they are being vague, they often tie their statements to specific events. As usual, their worst section on informativeness is their foreign policy section ("Renewing American Leadership"), in which they continue to put forward no clear policy of their own, beyond the repeated insistence that Trump's policy is bad. And we get plenty of examples of Solution Problem -- apparently, the Democrats will multiply the impact of foreign assistance by devoting the resources and implementing the reforms necessary to do so, which I suppose is a more practical plan than trying to multiply something by not devoting what is necessary to multiply it. But the most striking thing about it -- it is worst in the foreign policy section but found throughout the platform -- is the grandiloquence of it. I think they accidentally put a bad poet on the drafting committee. Here, for instance, is how they talk about diplomacy:

The United States should be at the head of the table whenever the safety and well-being of Americans is at stake, working in common cause with our allies and partners. Time and again, the Trump Administration has stormed out, leaving America’s seat at the table vacant and American interests on the menu. Americans deserve better.

The thing that really makes that passage is the menu. Apparently America is a customer in the World Restaurant, and we've stormed out, leaving our seat at the head of the table empty and ... somehow we've left our interests on the menu, like splashes of spaghetti sauce, maybe. Or maybe the idea is that we've left and are still hungry, because we didn't order anything. Or are we the cooks putting items on the menu, but we were sitting at the table and we've stormed out so other people somehow can't order for themselves? And it's not just that we've stormed out, we've stormed out of the restaurant time and again. Apparently we keep coming back to this same restaurant, despite the fact that we keep storming out, leaving our friends at the table, patiently waiting for us to come back in again. I don't know. I'm on record as a vehement defender of the value of figurative speech; I am on record defending the merits of purple prose; I just don't know if this use of figures of speech is in any way informative about anything. The whole platform is filled with this loose use of mixed and sometimes inexplicable metaphors.

So the general informativeness category goes to the Greens, followed by the Libertarians; the Donkeys limp far behind, and the Elephants are dead last.


So now we come to the glamor category of our non-political contest among party platforms, the Preamble. Nothing adds adornment to a party platform like a good preamble. Who comes out ahead?

The Greens, as usual, show that they don't quite grasp the concept of a 'preamble' by giving us four different kinds of introductory material, not including the introductory material under the section headings. You need to get through a lot of introductory material to be a Green. Stop putting non-preambular preamble material in your party platforms! Maybe you can make a case for splitting new preambular material from a stable statement of principles or values, but there's no other reason why your preambular material should be hanging out of your preamble. The Preamble opens with, "Never has our country faced as many challenges and crises as we do now." This is the same boilerplate they put in every preamble. Every single election the country is apparently facing more challenges and crises than ever before. Admittedly, it's more plausible this year than the last several elections, but I think we can still make a good case that the country was facing more challenges and crises during the Civil War. When you are saying that our current problems are worse than slavery and hundreds of thousands of people dead in a bloody and violent war that is tearing the nation in two, it becomes a little hard to take you seriously, especially when you go on to explain that the problem is that revenue is down and budgets are being cut. The preamble is the part of the party platform where you have most room to play the poet, but this is just bad melodrama.

The Libertarian preamble as usual takes the trouble to assure us that they understand what a party platform is: "In the following pages we set forth our basic principles and enumerate various policy stands derived from those principles." But while they say this every year, I will give them some credit because this is in fact how their platform is organized -- they aren't just describing what a platform does, they've deliberately structured their platform to do it in an obvious way, which is always one of their strengths. And their preamble is nice, concise, appropriate to the rest of their platform, and avoids melodrama: "As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty: a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and are not forced to sacrifice their values for the benefit of others."

The Republicans, who didn't even give us a new preamble (a problem, because the preamble is partly about the Obama Administration), are all about beliefs -- We believe, We believe, We believe. And of course, some of these beliefs while nice, are not particularly useful to know -- apparently Republicans agree with the Declaration of Independence and trust the Constitution, like you would expect them to say that they do.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are about "We must" -- and frankly, they make "We musts" sound more interesting than the "We believes" that littered their last platform's preamble. They are even more melodramatic than the Greens, although they do manage to stop short of saying that things are worse now than ever. They are really enthusiastic about sentence fragments this time. I always look out for quotations in preambles, because they show an attempt to tap into already existent political traditions, and this time the Democrats give us a very nice quote from Frederick Douglass, who was a Republican. It's very nice in this time of division to find the Democrats firmly committing themselves to Republican values. They also have another quote from Langston Hughes, nicely used. So they get a considerable amount of credit for good use of quotations. And while the preamble is very flowery, flowers are much more valuable in the preamble than in the rest of the platform, so it works very well here.

A tough year for judging the preamble category. Republicans are last, of course, because nobody is going to be interested by a preamble about how we need to fix the problems of the Obama Administration. Greens are next for an all-around lack of imagination. Both the Party of Principle and the Donkeys make a decent, if not stellar, showing this year; the Libertarian preamble works better as a preamble, but the Democrats are definitely more adventuresome. I think I award the category to the Democrats.

Page Formatting

The Greens have no easily accessible PDF on their website this year, so they are not eligible. The Republicans are always good with page formatting, although, of course, their pages are formatted exactly the same as they were last election because the Lazy Elephants didn't change anything. So the real contest is again between the Libertarians and the Democrats, and, as usual, the Donkeys are stupid when it comes to page formatting; I could literally come up with better formatting in an hour on Microsoft Word. The Libertarians, however, give us excellent page formatting, so they come in for an easy win.

Principles and Values

As usual, the Party of Principle has their Statement of Principles and the Greens have their Ten Key Values. Democrats and Republicans have no section in their platform on either principles or values, so I suppose we have to assume that they have neither.

Internet Accessibility

The Green Platform has a link right at the top of the Green Party website. They have no PDF version, but the HTML version is nice and has a search function. They also have clear and easily visible social media buttons. Social media integration has always been a strength of the Green presentation of its platform; this year they don't do anything adventurous or exciting, but they continue to do well on the point.

The Libertarian Party hides its link to its platform down at the bottom of the party's website, but they provide both an HTML and a PDF version. They don't have any social media connection.

The Democrats have a platform link at the bottom of their website, but they have a Where We Stand link that takes you to a page in which a link to the party platform is prominent and highlighted. I usually would take off imaginary points for requiring an additional click, but I think I can accept this -- they have a direct link (at the bottom of the page), but the Where We Stand link is easy to see, and a natural place to go to learn about the party, and there's no possible way to miss the platform link on the Where We Stand page. It works. They provide both HTML and PDF. The HTML version is decent to navigate. They have social media buttons, and they are better located than those of the Greens, but they aren't very visible.

The Republicans give us a link hidden at the bottom of the page to a PDF version of their platform, which, if I haven't mentioned this before, is from 2016. This is the bare minimum of accessibility, and not impressive.

I give this category to the Democrats.


* The Democrats have a Land Acknowledgment this year. Whatever you think of the practice itself, it makes the party platform more interesting and ties it to particular features of American life, so I'm giving them points for it. It isn't a year for dedications (the Republicans have one, of course, because they had one in 2016), but they are a nice feature connecting your party concerns to broader social issues, and a Land Acknowledgement at least does something broadly similar.
* I never, ever fail to crack up at the Green Call to Action. "If not us, who? If not now, when? We are the ones we have been waiting for. Join us!" Everybody would obviously answer those questions with "Either the Republicans or the Democrats" and "Whenever the Greens stop being a Third Party, if ever." And while the Greens may have been waiting for the Greens, I'm not sure anybody else has. But you have to credit their enthusiasm.
* It never fails to amaze me that the Libertarians are the only party who know how to make their platform typographically interesting, and they definitely blow everyone else away this year.
* Did I mention that the Republicans not only didn't change their platform this year, they didn't change its presentation or anything, beyond adding the resolution not to change it to the front?

This was not a great year for party platform presentation, but it's always nice when parties at least provide a link to their platform on their website, and organization is mostly good. It's great that we had a real contest over cover sheets this year, since a cover sheet is where you first begin to show that you care about what you are presenting, and I kept cracking up over the half-slangy, half-flowery prose of the Democratic platform. Republicans, of course, are last this year, because Elephants should never be lazy. But all other parties made at least a decent showing. The most intense competition was between the Libertarians and the Democrats. I think I give the laurels to the Democrats this year; it's their first year without any complete disasters in any major category, although they would still do well to learn how to format pages in a way that doesn't look like a blog post, and to remember that HTML needs even better table of contents than PDF. So the Donkeys win. I will therefore reward them by creating policies to reward them, as soon as Gordon Ramsay comes by and fixes this badly run restaurant with the customers who keep storming out.

Monday, September 07, 2020

'Intrinsically Bad'

I found this passage in Tim Sommers's recent post on economic equality interesting, in part because it seems like very serious abuse of the phrase 'intrinsically bad':

Unfortunately, many other philosophers writing about economic inequality also deny that it is bad in and of itself. Instead, they insist that substantial economic inequalities are bad because, and where, they have bad effects.

I believe this view is a mistake.

I believe that substantial economic inequality is intrinsically bad. I believe that the impulse to deny this comes from mischaracterizing, or misunderstanding, the meaning of money, income, and wealth. In a society mediated via money, money is social power. Too large a gap between those who have the most money and those who have the least makes liberal democracy impossible – not because an unequal distribution of money leads to inequalities social power, but because inequalities in money are inequalities in social power.

The obvious problem here is the word 'substantial', which only makes sense if it is contrasted with 'nonsubstantial economic inequality'. That makes a certain amount of sense in itself -- if you all have the same amount of money and then you become a penny richer than everyone else, that's inequality, but not substantial, and it seems pretty hard to have a convincing argument that one person having, by sheer chance, a penny more than everyone else is "intrinsically bad". But if we are distinguishing substantial and nonsubstantial economic equality, only the former of which is bad, then it quite clearly cannot be intrinsically bad: it can only be bad by virtue of those things whereby it is substantial, and economic inequality can only be substantial or nonsubstantial relative to things other than itself. I might, for instance, have 10 million more units than you; but, for all we know from that, the 10 million units might each be one ten-millionths of a haypenny. What makes 10 million units substantial or not is other things entirely -- supply, demand, things that can bought with 10 million units and not with a haypenny, etc. "Too large a gap" necessarily depends on something other than the gap itself; there are no gaps in anything that are "intrinsically too large". It always has to be too large relative to something else. Therefore if any economic inequality is not bad, or is only extrinsically bad, then substantial economic inequality is extrinsically bad, not intrinsically bad.

This seems a common error. The idea is that 'substantial economic inequality' is necessarily bad. But if this is so, it is necessarily bad only because the label includes a reference to bad-making causes that are extrinsic. "Thing that is bad because of extrinsic causes" is necessarily bad; it's obviously not intrinsically bad but bad for extrinsic reasons, as it says on its face. This kind of error ends up being quite common in ethics, and it is potentially dangerous: most of the bad things we do are probably extrinsically bad -- bad due to some particular circumstance (like whether you are the right sort of person to be doing it) or because it is inappropriate for the context. But this doesn't mean that any of this is not really bad; it is bad, just for reasons extrinsic to itself. Most social-power kinds of badness pretty obviously get their badness extrinsically, even if you think that they are necessarily bad in a given society. And this is important, because maintaining something intrinsically bad is usually intrinsically bad; which, if this is the case with "substantial economic inequality" means that Tim Sommers is an unjust person for holding a job that is far, far nicer than most people in the world can have within their reach. I would hate for him to have to quit his job unless we are first really sure that his hard work in contributing to substantial economic inequality really and truly is intrinsically bad.

Sommers may be making the mistake because he clearly takes the opposite of 'intrinsically bad' to be 'bad due to its consequences'; but, while this is a way that something can be extrinsically bad, it is not the only way. Something can be extrinsically bad because it is inappropriate for its context, like some kinds of bad joke, or because it happens in this case to be done by someone who is overstepping appropriate bounds, or because it is not used to get certain consequences.

In any case, the further argument cannot establish intrinsic badness, either; it depends not on the nature of money as such but on "a society mediated via money". Something that gets its badness from how you have set up your society is not intrinsically bad, even if it is necessarily bad in that society. It's entirely the wrong kind of argument for the proposed conclusion.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

The Sheathed Sword

You will perhaps remember from Malory how King Arthur, the Sword from the Stone having been broken, received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. It is less often remembered that he also received the scabbard for the sword. Merlin asked Arthur whether he liked the sword or the scabbard better, and when Arthur said (no doubt as if it were the obvious thing) that he liked the sword better, Merlin replied,

Ye are more unwise,...for the scabbard is worth ten of the swords, for whiles ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall never lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded; therefore keep well the scabbard always with you.

Of course, Arthur fails completely at this, being too trusting of his sister, Morgan le Fay, who switches both the sword and the scabbard with fakes and gives the real ones to Sir Accolon, who will later therefore nearly kill Arthur because the two together -- the sword that can cut even steel and the scabbard that can protect from any wound -- make him just short of invincible, and is only saved because the Lady of the Lake is impressed by Arthur's knightly prowess even in a battle he obviously cannot win. Arthur manages to retrieve both, but Morgan le Fay steals the scabbard again and throws it in a lake, never to be found again.

There are many ways one could read this, but one way is as a symbol of Arthur's reign, a reign of justice but of justice maintained by the naked sword, by the knights errant, and by that very fact a justice precarious and in need of constant maintenance. Perhaps the loss of the scabbard should be linked to the loss of Merlin, which happens in the midst of all this, but it is surely the case that the kingdom was not such that it would "never lose no blood" regardless of its being wounded; civil war would come, bleeding the best and finest in the kingdom, and leaving it weak and vulnerable for when Arthur himself in the last battle receives a wound from which he cannot recover.

Read it so. Then it serves as a fitting symbol for what is, I think, perhaps the most important feature of political power. This feature, which might be called the Paradox of Temporal Power, is that the state works by coercive power, but this power is working at its best when not used. Or, to put it more figuratively: The perfection of temporal power is the sheathed, and not the naked, sword. Sometimes, of course, one must unsheathe the sword, but this is always because something has broken down; and if you cannot soon return it to the scabbard, this is a sign of something having gone wrong.

We see this in practical terms in many ways:

-- The healthiest form of tax regime is when people, while recognizing the state's power to coerce taxes, primarily pay taxes without being coerced.
-- The healthiest form of police system is when, despite the capability to come down heavily, the police largely get voluntary cooperation from the citizens.
-- The healthiest regulatory system is when, despite the fact that every regulation is a potential ground of coercion, the regulations largely get followed without becoming actual grounds of coercion.
-- The defense of the nation is at its healthiest when its military power is ready but not constantly having to be used.

In all these cases, and in any other case where coercive powers of the state may be involved, the form that is least likely to break down is the form where things have been set up so that the coercive power is usually sheathed, and only becomes a naked blade briefly to correct the inevitable flaws and failings that might arise. Such a system, even wounded, does not bleed out its life, but endures.

This is something that perhaps needs to be considered more often. When people talk about the coercive powers of the state, they regularly talk about them as things to be used, and actively used, and often used; but, while a state needs them to be there, they need to be usually in a 'resting state'. A state whose coercive powers are often and actively being used is a state in distress. This resting state is not something that can be had by mere will; you have to set up your system so that the coercive power only rarely has to flash out. And woe indeed to the state that loses entirely the scabbard for its sword.