Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Incoherence of Meritocracy

Who should rule? Perhaps you think the answer is spelled out in the concept of a meritocracy, of a society run by those who excel on account of their ability and talent. The elites in a meritocracy are meant to be the opposite of plutocrats who buy power and of aristocrats who inherit power regardless of their aptitude.

“Meritocracy,” though, is a curious concept. Even in an aristocracy, the rulers do excel—at being selfish, spoiled, aloof, and indolent. An aristocrat would be incompetent at improving the lives of the peasants and slave labourers who support the empire, if that were the empire’s purpose, but a royal can inspire as a symbol of how arbitrary power corrupts character. Or take the kleptocracy, the society in which political power is stolen. The thieves in charge still excel—at conning the masses and wasting the natural resources. Or take an even more obvious case of a society supposedly run by impostors who don’t deserve their power, the kakistocracy which, by definition, is a society run by the worst persons. Again, these rulers would be abysmal, morally speaking, but that’s not to say they would be bereft of any talent. Con artists, for example, excel at selling, which is to say at deceiving and at restricting their perspective to their primitive, selfish urges as a result of their lack of empathy.

Only in a country in which power is handed out randomly would we expect the rulers to have no common skills. An aristocracy comes close to that scenario, because the randomness inherent to sexual reproduction is a factor in the bestowing of political power along a bloodline. That randomness, though, is balanced by the upper-class institutions that rear the royal child and by absolute power’s natural tendency to monstrify the powerful person, so that aristocratic personalities and talents do resemble each other. For example, aristocrats are all rich and they live in castles and have sycophantic servants; they also receive top-notch education, they’re famous from birth and know they won’t face immediate oblivion in the history books, unlike most people who ever lived, so aristocrats have to adapt to that common environment.

Amoral, Moral, and Mixed Meritocracies

These complications point to a more fundamental problem with meritocracy, which is that the concept might be incoherent. After all, ruling or governing implies some degree of coercion, of exercising power over others. If the kind of merit that’s relevant to a meritocracy were determined by moral criteria, the moral elites might be poor candidates for that job since they’d be inclined to avoid committing even the slightest infraction of the citizens’ rights. Depending on which skills are relevant to the task of ruling over the masses, or to speak euphemistically, of “governing the nation’s affairs,” some who’ve earned various merits might be the worst candidates for a political position. This would be the political realist’s perspective, which has recently entered popular culture via the success of “Game of Thrones.” The notion of a meritocracy, then, almost serves as a weasel word for obscuring these preliminary questions of the purpose of government and of which talents are suited to fulfilling that purpose.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Humble Cognition: Dread and Awe from Objectivity

Does scientific practice presuppose a philosophy or any nonscientific belief? As one philosopher, Nicholas Maxwell, points out, the rise of empiricism marked the breaking point between science and philosophy, when scientists began to assume that philosophy is irrelevant to science. Maxwell writes, “It was Newton who inadvertently killed off natural philosophy with his claim, in the third edition of his Principia, to have derived his law of gravitation from the phenomena by induction.”

In Newton’s words, “whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical…have no place in experimental philosophy [that is, in what today we would call “science”]. In this philosophy [i.e. science], particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. Thus it was that…the laws of motion and of gravitation were discovered.” Whereas the standard picture of the scientific method posits the hypothesis, that is, the informed guess, which the scientist tests with experiments, Newton evidently thought that the scientist should bring no presumption to her observations. The scientist is supposed to derive the best explanation from the phenomena themselves, leaving no opportunity for philosophical, religious, or otherwise unempirical interpretations.

Strictly speaking, this empiricism anthropomorphizes nature, which is to say there’s a category error in asserting, as Newton does, that “particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena.” Like the word “imply,” “infer” has to do with unstated communication. The communicator suggests or implies a hidden meaning, while the receiver infers that meaning from what’s been communicated. Thus, a natural phenomenon, such as a planet’s orbit or a property of light waves doesn’t imply anything, nor can you infer any meaning from what isn’t alive and capable of literal communication. Of course, if you were to believe that a deity is behind all of nature, so that God speaks through natural patterns, you could speak well of receiving the meaning of natural messages. Rather than philosophizing about that meaning, you could read nature’s messages, as Galileo said, using the universe’s language of mathematics. Newton’s pseudoscientific occult studies notwithstanding, however, the theistic or deistic basis for this strict empiricism, according to which the scientist only reads off her explanations and theories from the observations, with minimal philosophical, aesthetic, or any other human interpretative contribution isn’t remotely scientific. On the contrary, the self-serving faith that nature originates from an all-powerful intelligent mind (who will happily reward the best of us, being that this god is one of us—only perfected) is the most hackneyed dogma and a classic prejudice which scientific objectivity and skepticism rendered quaint.

If nature doesn’t literally communicate any message to the observer and if “sense data” aren’t given—ready-made—by the phenomena, but are processed, as Kant argued, by the mind and brain, empiricism is erroneous. The mind isn’t a blank slate and nature doesn’t hand explanations to the scientist. Instead, the entire scientific or rational enterprise, together with the articulation of theories and explanations, and even the fundamental concept of truth are human anomalies. Rather than belonging to nature in Daoist fashion, a statement about, say, the orbit of planets is epiphenomenal, a bizarre byproduct to which the natural fact in question must be so indifferent that the most enlightened response to the statement is to appreciate the statement’s absurd futility.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Buddhists, Pessimists, and the End of Suffering

Should our ultimate goal be to end all suffering? Is the highest form of spirituality a state of bliss? Is enlightenment the learning of secret knowledge and the attaining of a cosmic perspective that free the enlightened one from having to suffer due to ignorance? Is that what’s left when we extinguish our egoistic illusions, when we discover the truth of what life and the universe really are: inner peace and what one writer who contrasts Buddhism with pessimistic philosophy calls “morally blameless delight and a peace that brings wellbeing, fearlessness, and generosity”?

That author points out that while the Buddha did seek to prove that life in ignorance is suffering, the Buddhist departs from pessimists such as Thomas Ligotti, Eugene Thacker, and David Benatar in maintaining that “life and nature also contain real pleasures and beauty,” which inspire the Buddhist to champion “the moral purity and joy available to those who practice the way of self-restraint, lovingkindness, and meditative training.” By contrast, the pessimist’s “sober gaze on the shortcomings of the world leads neither to the transcendental freedom offered by many classical spiritual paths (both Buddhist and non-Buddhist) nor, it seems, to a commitment to the service of others.” Pessimism is only Buddhism’s First Noble Truth, according to that author; the others are about how to be happy in a world in which suffering predominates.  

Nihilism and Buddhist Values

I want to focus here on that notion of “morally blameless delight.” This delight or peace or enlightened happiness is supposed to be superior to pessimistic depression or cynicism. Both the Buddhist and the pessimist are clear on the horrific nature of reality, but the Buddhist transcends that knowledge by realizing that if nothing matters, because all events are morally neutral, dependently arising probabilities, there’s no point in wanting anything. The loss of ego and the surrender of personal preferences free the mind and body to stop caring and thus to stop wasting time suffering from disappointment. While the pessimist wallows in misery and guilt, the Buddhist can excel at selfless action, since the Buddhist views the world from a cosmic perspective in which there’s only amoral causality.

But why help others if nothing really matters, because there’s no God or supernatural self or metaphysical purpose? Perhaps nature appears beautiful from the Buddhist perspective, and when she appreciates that beauty she’s naturally inspired to seek to end other people’s suffering, in which case Buddhist morality would be aesthetic. Suffering would be uglier than happiness. Meanwhile, the pessimist would be like the decadent Frenchman in The Matrix Reloaded movie, who is only bored by his unsurpassed knowledge of causality. However the Buddhist leaps into morality, there’s that author’s contention that Buddhist delight would be “morally blameless.” Presumably, the Buddhist shouldn’t be condemned because she no longer has a self that seeks to dominate others due to willful blindness to the real causes and effects that make nonsense of conventional beliefs and interests. For the Buddhist, conventional pseudoreality is only a field of hallucinatory illusions that traps us and imposes a sad regime in which we suffer from cravings that can never be fulfilled, because real causality is indifferent to our myths and ideals. We want to be happy even at the cost of harming others to get ahead, because we don’t realize there’s no such thing as the self in the first place; instead, there are natural mechanisms that give rise to particular events that can be aesthetically appraised. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Is there a Conservative sense of Fairness?

According to Dan Meegan, author of America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation and an Atlantic article, Conservatives Have a Different Definition of ‘Fair,’ liberals miss the point when they presuppose that “fairness” should be defined in terms of need, so that those most in need—the poor, the disenfranchised, the physically or mentally challenged—are most deserving of government assistance. Liberals fail to appreciate that conservatives have an alternative view of fairness: conservatives care more about equity or proportionality, so that for them your benefits should depend on your contributions. Any helping hand, then, would be unfair unless we somehow earn that assistance. There’s no universal right to government assistance just because we’re in need of it if we’ve failed in life; on the contrary, in that case we’ve earned the barriers that result from those failures, given this conservative value of equity, of deserving to receive no more and no less than the fruits of our labour.

This appeal to conservative values—along the lines of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory— allows Meegan to explain why the Tea Party, for example, used to defend the Medicare health insurance program even though this program provides aid to those most in need, such as the elderly. Medicare is also equitable since it’s funded by a payroll tax, so that working people expect the program also to reward them for their contributions. Social Security in the US is likewise funded by a payroll tax so that while the poor receive more than they contribute and the rich receive less, the middleclass receives equitable benefits, more or less proportional to what they contributed from their personal earnings.

Meegan points out that, “This conservative version of fairness is wired deeply in the human brain, and liberals ignore it at their peril.” In experiments, primates will reject a reward if they see another monkey receiving a superior reward for the same effort. A monkey would rather throw away a meager reward than concede to the unfairness of arbitrary or free-loading extraction of benefits. For Meegan the genetic message is clear: “Don’t take advantage of me [in the future], and don’t help yourself to more than you deserve.”

The Absence of Conservative Values

But there’s a giant flaw in Meegan’s analysis, which is that so-called American “conservatives” save their objections to the free-loading poor, as though the rich earn every penny of their millions or billions of dollars. You hear a “conservative” rail against the welfare state when the issue is whether the government should redistribute tax dollars to help the needy poor (since the conservative rejects this liberal sense of fairness). But you don’t find the conservative repudiating unearned, inherited wealth or the lobbyist-concocted financial system that multiplies wealth through monopolies and rent-seeking behaviour, which conflict with the value of equity. If you have a monopoly, for example, you engage in price gouging not because your efforts or contributions increase to justify the higher price, but because you can take advantage of the lack of competitors. Nor do you find the conservative castigating the rich with anything like the vitriol he or she reserves for the poor, despite the obvious fact that all private concentrations of wealth are created in part by luck, which means no fortune is ever wholly earned.