Charles Darwin never wrote of a theory of evolution; rather he wrote of a “theory of descent with modification; by variation and Natural Selection”. Although certainly cumbersome, I do like Darwin’s formulation better, since it emphasizes the process by which species have evolved by piecemeal variations on forms that existed before. ‘Descent with modification’ immediately brings to mind the historically contingent process that has lead to each species being what it is. Evolution is fundamentally a process of tinkering.
BBC Earth highlights that process of modification today with “15 Tweaks That Made Us Human”. The article discusses 15 variations that have led to the unfolding of man’s natural history. One of the variations that the article highlights is our dextrous hands:
Our hands are unusually dextrous, allowing us to make beautiful stone tools and write words. That might be partly down to a bit of DNA calledHACNS1, which has evolved rapidly since our ancestors split from the ancestors of chimps. We don't know what HACNS1 does, but it is active in our arms and hands as they develop.
Immanuel Kant makes a similar point about the importance of human beings' hands, in his Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view:
The characterization of the human being as a rational animal is already present in the form and organization of his hand, his fingers, and fingertips; partly through their sensitive feeling. By this means nature has made the human being not suited for one way of manipulating things but undetermined for each way, consequently suited for the use of reason; and thereby has indicated the technical predisposition, or the predisposition of skill, of his species as a rational animal. (Kant 7:323)
Historically, it is curious that Kant would place such weight on the structure and dexterity of the human hand. By the time Kant wrote the Lectures, the anatomy of the orangutan and chimpanzee had been published. In 1699, Edward Tyson first published a book on the anatomy of a chimpanzee, complete with a grasping hand. During the 1770s, the Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper demonstrated that the orangutan was incapable of both speech and an upright gait.
Although a dextrous hand does point to humanity’s rational nature, it doesn’t constitute such a discrete advancement as Kant suggests. As the anatomy of Tyson and Camper suggests, the dexterous hand is a part of nature, it is not beyond it.
The dexterous hand shows the clinal variation that has led to the evolution of the human being. However impressive human beings’ capabilities may be above that of other animals, the journey to those capabilities has been one of small variations. “15 Tweaks That Made Us Human” helps make that biological odyssey manifest to us all.
Arnold Kling argues that there are three dominant ways to talk about politics today that align with conservatism, libertarianism, and progressivism. Conservatives tend to talk in terms of barbarism versus civilization, libertarians coercion versus free choice, and progressives oppressors versus the oppressed. He calls this the "three axes model".
The news from Iraq last week that the Islamic State has demolished, at least partially, the ancient ruins at Nimrud and Hatra are evidence that the struggle in the Middle East today is between civilization and barbarism. By and large, the conservative axis gets the story right. The New York Times reports on the story:
Saeed Mamuzini, a Kurdish official from Mosul, told the AP that the militants had begun carrying away artifacts from Hatra as early as Thursday and on Saturday, began to destroy the 2,000-year-old city.
Hatra, located 110 kilometers (68 miles) southwest of the city of Mosul, was a large fortified city during the Parthian Empire and capital of the first Arab kingdom. A UNESCO world heritage site, Hatra is said to have withstood invasions by the Romans in A.D. 116 and 198 thanks to its high, thick walls reinforced by towers. The ancient trading center spanned 6 kilometers (4 miles) in circumference and was supported by more than 160 towers. At its heart are a series of temples with a grand temple at the center — a structure supported by columns that once rose to 100 feet.
"The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq," said Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, and Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, director general of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) in a joint statement.
"With this latest act of barbarism against Hatra, (the IS group) shows the contempt in which it holds the history and heritage of Arab people."
The Islamic State group currently controls about a third of Iraq and Syria. The Sunni extremist group has been campaigning to purge ancient relics they say promote idolatry that violates their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. A video they released last week shows them smashing artifacts in the Mosul museum and in January, the group burned hundreds of books from the Mosul library and Mosul University, including many rare manuscripts.
The majority of the artifacts destroyed in the Mosul Museum attack were from Hatra.
On Friday, the group looted artifacts from Nimrud, a 3,000-year-old city in Iraq, and bulldozed it in a move United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared "a war crime."
Iraqi Tourism and Antiquities Minister Adel Shirshab told the AP Saturday that many feared Hatra would suffer the same fate as Nimrud. "This is not unusual (behavior) for Daesh," Shirshab said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
A statement on the ministry's Facebook page Saturday said the government is investigating reports of the attack on Hatra, noting that the global community should hasten its response to the crisis in Iraq in order to prevent these types of atrocities.
The United States shouldn't be in the monster-hunting business, but Americans should still recognize who are the monsters in the world and where civilization is genuinely threatened.
In "What Really Scares the New Atheists", John Gray argues that Friedrich Nietzsche represents the type of morality that New Atheists haven't really dealt with. Unlike the New Atheists today, who absurdly argue that science can support a liberal morality, as a classical scholar, Nietzsche recognized the imprints of Christianity on liberal morality and, from that recognition, created a scathing critique of both Christianity and liberalism. Mr Gray writes:
The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him. This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality. It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. The question is which morality an atheist should serve.
It’s a familiar question in continental Europe, where a number of thinkers have explored the prospects of a “difficult atheism” that doesn’t take liberal values for granted. It can’t be said that anything much has come from this effort. Georges Bataille’s postmodern project of “atheology” didn’t produce the godless religion he originally intended, or any coherent type of moral thinking. But at least Bataille, and other thinkers like him, understood that when monotheism has been left behind morality can’t go on as before. Among other things, the universal claims of liberal morality become highly questionable.
It’s impossible to read much contemporary polemic against religion without the impression that for the “new atheists” the world would be a better place if Jewish and Christian monotheism had never existed. If only the world wasn’t plagued by these troublesome God-botherers, they are always lamenting, liberal values would be so much more secure. Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. As a classical scholar, he recognised that a mystical Greek faith in reason had shaped the cultural matrix from which modern liberalism emerged. Some ancient Stoics defended the ideal of a cosmopolitan society; but this was based in the belief that humans share in the Logos, an immortal principle of rationality that was later absorbed into the conception of God with which we are familiar. Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.
Bill Vallicella has a worthwhile commentary on this specific point, "Nietzsche and the New Atheists", at Maverick Philosopher. The challenge that Nietizsche presents to atheists, New and otherwise, is that they have to be careful about how they talk about morality. In the West, people take a Christian framework for granted and don't realize that terms like 'rights' or 'equality' are nonsense sans God. The challenge isn't an argument for God's existence; rather, a call for atheists to take the nihilism that their worldview implies seriously.
Laws, like houses, lean on one another.
-Edmund Burke, Vindication of a Natural Society
Is there any good news coming from Russia these days? Whether it’s Russia’s involvement, to say the least, in Ukraine or the social slip towards ever greater kleptocracy, every word of news seems to be tinged by suffering as Russia becomes ever more totalitarian. In an interview with Anthony Bourdain, Boris Nemtsov quipped that “Unfortunately, existing power represents Russia of 19th century, not 21st century.” Last Friday, February 27th, Mr. Nemtsov became a victim himself of that existing power when he was gunned down in Moscow, within sight of the Kremlin. In its coverage of Mr. Nemtsov’s death, The Economist christens the man a liberal martyr.
Like all good liberals should be, Mr. Nemtsov was a outspoken critic of corruption and cronyism in his home country. He was Vladimir Putin's gadfly. From his criticism of the Sochi Olympics to his work for fair elections, Mr. Nemtsov had always been one could look to in Russian politics to have some hope for a free Russia. His assassination on Friday is a blow to that hope. Even worse, in a world that sees Russia increasingly taking a belligerent stance towards the outside world, it’s supposed to be.
Those who assassinated Mr. Nemtsov were no amateurs. If they were, they couldn’t be to get away with the deed in sight of the Kremlin. The assassins know that we all know the conclusions that will be extrapolated from the event. To speak of Mr. Nemtsov’s death as a murder would, therefore, be a shameful unwillingness to address the political dimensions that the assassins knew Russians and, perhaps especially the outside world, would take from the event. As Mr. Nemtsov himself remarked in his interview with Anthony Bourdain: “Everybody understands everything in this country.”
Just as Vladimir Putin, and even Boris Yeltsin, inherited the organs of their government from the Soviets, so too did the Soviets from the Tsars. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. However small the machine of terror surrounding Vladimir Putin today may be when compared to either the KGB or Okrana, it’s still there. Assassinated journalists are an all too common event in Russia today. The assassination of Mr. Nemtsov is not much different from the use of terror in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Contrary to what Mr. Nemtsov suggested, the Russia of the 21st century is still frighteningly like the Russia of the 19th century.
The Russian people, just like any other nation, cannot escape their history. As much as Boris Nemtsov is, indeed, a martyr for liberalism, he is on the wrong side of history. Mr. Nemtsov’s liberal optimism that the Russia of the 21st century can be more like the United States of the 21st century than the Russia of the 19th century ignores the importance of the evolution of social order in cultivating, and constraining the cultivation of good policies.
In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton offers the question of “whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forced destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” Hamilton has the ratification of the American Constitution in mind as deciding that question.
Hamilton thought that the establishment of a new United States, one and federal, could prove that human beings weren’t tied to the governments they lived in, that they could come together for a better, brighter alternative. The words are full of the Enlightenment optimism about democracy that, should’ve at least, died a bloody death by Robespierre’s guillotine.The American Revolution itself wasn’t progressive, nor was it even a revolution proper; rather, it was a conservative war of independence.
Russia is another illustration of why Hamilton’s words misrepresent how to get good government. Whatever hope and promise there may have been in the new Russian Federation of liberal reform, by now, are snuffed out. The exact causes of much too complex to explore in a short book, let alone here. Nevertheless, the conclusion that good government can be established “from reflection and choice” has been dashed. Intentions, themselves, aren’t enough. Nor is technical knowledge. To find success, all reforms have to work through history, that is through the complex process of all of human society coevolving with itself across time. Russia shows just how hard it is to establish a liberal society when all one has to go back on is a very, very illiberal history. I cannot escape the conclusion, then, that Mr. Nemtsov's campaign for a liberal Russia is, at the end of the day, tilting at windmills. Russians liberals can respond that they need to be apart of the change if it is to ever occur, but I then wonder where the realistic avenues for liberal change are.
The nations in the former Soviet Union in Eastern Europe often do have a real choice: Look westward of eastward. The mutually exclusive visions for society ultimately represented by Washington DC and Moscow are very real. The Cold War happened for a reason, so did former Soviet Republics asking to join NATO ever since the scarlet banner was brought down from the Kremlin.
Mr. Nemtsov’s death demonstrates that even amidst the institutions of tyranny, people’s desire for liberty still burns ardent. Alas, it also demonstrates that an ardent love of liberty isn’t enough to create liberal governments. Institutions aren’t create by people all pulling at once and choosing at a single moment to create them; rather, institutions grow across history. In formulating reforms, policy-makers have to keep that history in mind. All too often that history excludes the possibility of the desired reforms.
As for Mr. Nemtsov being a liberal martyr. At least in my eyes, the struggle for liberalism in Russia, however Quixotic I may take it to be, seems to be much purer than the struggles for liberalism elsewhere. The reason for that is that Russian liberals actually face Søren Kierkegaard wrote that the truest Christians are those who had to suffer for their beliefs. Without that element of suffering, a Christian, Kierkegaard argued, couldn’t claim to be a true Christian. There is wisdom in that notion. It’s impossible to give a belief lip-service when one might become a target for it. Only those who have had to suffer a worldly cost for their beliefs can really be sure of how valuable those beliefs are.
Liberals in Russia can be sure that liberalism is valuable and that their faith is pure. Liberals elsewhere cannot be so sure, which is troubling since, at its best, liberalism is a fight against the privileges that would lead one to give a political belief lip-service for personal gain.
Yes, you read the title right, from Rock, Paper, Shotgun's "Why People Are Making The AI Fight Itself in Civilisation":
A strange thing happened in the Civilization community r/civ on January 10, 2015. Inspired by similar, smaller-scale offerings by a Twitch.tv livestream and fellow redditor DarkLava (from whom he explicitly sought permission), user Jasper K., aka thenyanmaster, shared the first part of an experiment he was conducting wherein he put 42 computer-controlled civilisations in their real-life locations on a giant model of the Earth and left them to duke it out in a battle to the death, Highlander style (except instead of heads they need capital cities).
AI-only Civilization games are the purest form of the Civilization concept: take the beginnings of recorded human history, tweak some variables, hit start, and marvel at how a series of interesting decisions leads to a radically-different present day.
TPangolin first explored the concept in 2014, a year after he began looking through the Official SDK for Civ V (a set of tools to help modders do their thing). He found that with a feature called FireTuner he could playtest the AI, sans human player, and began to setup games to run overnight – with the end goal of making a large, detailed political map of the world.
CivFanatics forum goer Kjetil “Kjotleik” Hvattum has a similar approach, though his motivations are different and his playground is not Civilization V but rather its predecessor, Civ IV (with the Beyond the Sword expansion). Towards the middle of 2014 he found Kossin’s AI Tournament: Season Three post, which was the third rendition of an American-style league format devised by DMOC back in 2010. (Gandhi won the first two seasons; the third was never completed.) Inspired by this and Sulla’s Civ4 AI Survivor series, and driven by the desire to learn more about AI strategies in order to move beyond the Noble difficulty level, Hvattum began plotting his own AI-only tournament.
His AI Auto Play threads take a very different tone to those on Reddit. Campaigns are completed in advance, and the community is challenged with picking who will win from just the starting positions of each civilisation. “The participation has been good,” Hvattum tells me, “and the fact that at least one person has picked the correct AI in seven out of eight games thus far is a testimony to the knowledge the CivFanatics [community] has about [Civ IV].”
-Cicero, In Catilinam
In the past three days both Barack Obama and John Kerry have published op/eds about their foreign policy in the Middle East under the guise of writing about violent extremism, as if it’s the violent extremism of, say, Green parties that’s the problem . As can be expected from op/eds from people in their positions, they said little and meant even less.
If I were an optimist, I would praise the international division of labor as being a civilizing force that unites all of mankind into peaceful cooperation, but I’m not and so I won’t. Doing so, anyways would be, as Arnold Kling points out at AskBlog, giving into wishful libertarian thinking.
When I think of peace in the middle east Edmund Burke’s line from Letters on a Regicide Peace that "men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites" quickly comes to mind. Like Mr. Kling, I tend to favor the conservative civilization versus barbarism lens when it comes to the institutions of the Middle East. I don’t know how valid institutional analysis will be to regions like Syria in prescribing good institutions because I don’t know if those institutions would even have legitimacy.
Herein lie the problem about Mssrs. Kerry and Obama singing the praise of communities organizing around peace in their op/eds: Communities in Syria and Iraq aren’t necessarily going to be pulling together towards peace. Many will be pulling together to help support the Islamic State assert its territorial claims in the region. It really all comes down to culture and whether local cultures can even support civilly liberal societies. Those who put faith in Arab Spring underestimated how much good institutions are contingent on culture if they are to emerge.
A passage from Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is well worth quoting on this point: "Manners are of more importance than laws. The law can touch us here and there, now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation like that of the air we breathe in."
If I were to give advice to a Middle Easterner wanting prosperity, I would recommend that he, but especially she, look elsewhere. Maybe Europe, but most likely the United States. In a sense, I write off the entire region as a failed state. ISIL has grown to the point where peace-loving Middle Easterners have to take up arms against it. Patriotic duty summons Kurds and the Shia population in Iraq to arms.
That’s not to say that Middle Easterners are evil and vicious people. I think that they may be just as virtuous as Westerners. Plus, I think that a century of horrendous foreign policy from Paris, London, Washington DC and Moscow have all ensured that at least this generation of Middle Eastern states will be eventually sorted into the ‘having failed category.’ That Iraq, for instance, would eventually collapse to sectarian violence was a matter of time. Nevertheless, I think that their culture lacks the regard for liberalism and bourgeois dignity necessary to really give
The country I’d be most optimistic about (not counting Israel, since it really isn’t culturally apart of the Middle East) would probably be Iran. Persia has had a thriving secular culture for centuries before the 1979 revolution, evidenced by the fact that wine continued to have been produced until the Ayatollahs put a stop to it. Wine continues to be sold in volume on the black market there today. Even women's hairstyles of the last one hundred years reflected a growth of Western culture in Iran that was suddenly put to a halt with the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, though the same could be said of the same thing throughout the Muslim world at the period. Unfortunately, the foreign policy of Western countries are doing their best to isolate the nation. In doing so, however much Western nations may be talking the fight against Islamic terrorism, they push opinion there ever more behind the Ayatollahs and their Islamic Republic.
The good man is an Athlete who delights in fighting naked: He despises all those vile ornaments which would hinder his use of his strength, and most of which were invited only to conceal some deformity.
-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences
Despite his influence on the generations that followed him, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had little interest in battling his contemporaries who disagreed with his ideas. Whether it was the Frenchman Voltaire or the Scotsman David Hume, few contemporary readers sympathized with Rousseau’s ideas. Immanuel Kant, whose sole painting in his spartan home was one of Rousseau, was almost unique in that regard. Rousseau, though, didn’t much care for that lack of appreciation.
“The majority of my Readers,” he wrote in The Preface of a Second Letter to Bordes “must often have found my discourses poorly structured and almost entirely disjointed, for want of perceiving the trunk of which I showed them only the branches” (OC III: 106). Unlike the vast majority of writers who decry commentators not getting the main thrust of their words, Rousseau has a point. A brilliant rhetorician, Rousseau is, all too often able to rouse the sentiments towards whatever end he wants—it was the singular compliment paid to him by Adam Smith in the pages of the Edinburgh Review—yet the end result of such elocution is all too often the precise line of the argument getting away from Rousseau. But the arguments are certainly there and, for those who care about Rousseau’s influence, worth piecing together.
One of the main trunks of Rousseau’s thought that is manifest from the very beginning, in The Discourse on the Sciences, is the notion that society does genuine damage to our human nature by fettering our free will. That man is free is close to a tautology for Rousseau. Insofar, as someone is not free to choose, Rousseau would argue, he is less of a human being.
The natural state of man was suited to “that original freedom for which he seems to be born” (OC III: 7), but such a state cannot last long with the cultivation of society and the demands of social existence:
Need raised up Thrones; the Sciences and Arts have made them strong. Earthly powers, love talents and protect those who cultivate them! Civilized peoples, cultivate them: Happy slaves, you owe them the delicate and refined taste on which you pride yourselves; the sweet character and urbane morals which make for such engaging and easy relations among you; in a word, the appearances of all the virtues without having a single one. (Ibid)
Once civilized, Rousseau argued, man cannot be entirely who he really is; rather, he shall always be a puppet to forces beyond his will, be they market forces or monarchical edicts. In a natural state, “men found their security in how easily they saw through one another” (OC III: 8), but that is not so in a refined society. Virtue is therefore foreign to civilized man because he never lives his life by his own free will. Civilized man will always have to appear to be different things to different people. It wouldn’t be until The Social Contract that Rousseau would proclaim that man was born free, but everywhere in chains; nevertheless, the idea that civilized society puts man in such a state of serviitude is clearly present to his thought as early as The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.
In that discourse, Rousseau tackles the question: “Has the restoration of the Sciences and Arts contributed to the purification of Morals, or to their corruption?” (OC III: 5). For Rousseau, that there has been a decay in the virtue of the human race is obvious and he sees the cause as being in the advancement of the arts and sciences: “Where there is no effect, no cause need be sought: but here the effect is certain, the depravation real, and our souls have become corrupted in proportion as our Sciences and our Arts have advanced toward perfection” (OC III: 9). Amour-propre, that part of our esteem which depends on the approval of others, is principally to blame for the corruption of human souls. “Every Artist wants to be applauded. His contemporaries’ praise is the most precious portion of his reward” (OC III: 21).
With the refinement of society, people are ever more vulnerable to the arousal of their amour-propre. Life becomes ever less about our own self-love—our amour de soi as Rousseau calls it—as it becomes about people appeasing their vain appetite for praise. No longer do people look to themselves and their own virtue and for their meaning. Now they look to the approval of their fellow herd:
Before Art had fashioned our manners and taught our passions to speak in ready-made terms, our morals were rustic but natural; and differences in conduct conveyed differences of character at first glance. Human nature was, at bottom, no better; but men found their security in how easily they saw through one another, and this advantage, to the value of which we are no longer sensible spared them a good many vices. (OC III: 8)
When we consider that this theme will motivate Rousseau’s writing through The Discourse on Inequality to The Social Contract, just how well-developed the theme that civilization dehumanizes its constituents by supplying them with ready-made roles, whether those roles be as senators, fathers, farmers, merchants, men, priests, women et cetera, is so early in the The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences is shocking.
Once society, along with the arts and sciences, has advanced, that civilized man has to deal with the demands put on him by social existence. “One no longer dares to appear what one is; and under this perpetual constraint, the men who make up the hard that is called society will, when placed in similar circumstances, all act in similar ways unless more powerful motives incline them differently” (OC III: 8). In a very real way, then, amour-proper binds us to society and to becoming one with the herd. If it weren’t for the society around us, then we would free to pursue virtue and would be free to fully be ourselves.
Rousseau therefore argues that, outside of man’s natural state, people are not free to choose. Amour-propre enslaves us. Rousseau makes a none too subtle reference to the arts and sciences as the fetters of men in the first part of The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences: “While the Government and the Laws see to the safety and the well-being of men assembled, the Sciences, Letters, and Arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which they are laden…” (OC III: 6-7; italics added). Here we see the corruption of the notion of corruption that has affected modern academia, but I get ahead of myself here.
Society corrupts the human soul because it reduces its scope of free will. In the context of society, people are free to be themselves; rather, they have to be what they need to be to get by. They become cogs in a greater machine; rather than seeing Jacques the free agent, we see Jacques the accountant. To the eyes of someone else in a refined society Jacques is less an end in and of himself as he is a means towards their own ends. The demands of social cooperation can therefore be seen in the light of The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences as dehumanizing. As Rousseau laments: “The ancient politicians forever spoke of morals and of virtue; ours speak only of commerce and of money” (OC III: 19)
Rousseau’s celebration of natural man makes sense in the context of his views on amour-propre. Natural man knows little of amour-propre. He knows not the applause of the a greater society; instead, only knows of himself as the sole spectator to his behavior. He is mainly motivated by self-love, by amour de soi, which inclines him towards both to self-preservation and, when augmented by reason, to virtue. For natural man, since each man follows the beat of his own drum, “differences in conduct conveyed differences of character at first glance” (OC III: 8).
The theme that amour de soi is identified with natural man and with the development of virtue will be made more apparent in Rousseau’s later, more political, works, yet it’s still manifest in The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. Natural man in his natural society, people get their just deserts. But in a refined society, “Rewards are lavished upon wits, and virtue remains without honors” (OC III: 25), which leads to Rousseau becoming one of the leading critics of the refined society. Back to nature! Exorcise amour-propre and return to rustic virtue, which doesn’t rely on the approbation of those around us.
In the end, amour-propre is one of the main trunks of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thought that unites his entire corpus into an intelligible whole. Once human beings started to congregate in society, amour-propre fettered people to predetermined roles and thereby alienated people from their humanity, “that original freedom for which they seemed born” (OC III: 7). Insofar as the sciences provided opportunities for amour-proper to be our primary motivation, the sciences corrupt our humanity for that man is a free agent is pretty much a tautology for Rousseau. Amour-propre chains us to the opinions of others. It puts us in positions where we are not free to choose.
Turning to contemporary politics, a lot of radical left’s curious positions, especially among college radicals, about society can be understood as them taking the view that amour-propre is coercive. Insofar as we don’t give somebody the respect they think they deserve, whether they’re a member of the LGBT community or a Muslim, then we are coercing them to follow another path in life. It doesn’t take much of an intellectual lead to go from here to the talk of micro-aggressions polluting campuses today. The pursuit of virtue in Rousseau’s thought can be identified as the pursuit of self-expression mindlessly praised in college campuses across the nation.
The idea that amour-propre drives us to abandon our own self-expression and to adopt a false courtesy to others is a trunk of Rousseau’s thought that deserves attention, if only for the damage it has done to a proper understanding of coercion. In The Fatal Conceit, Friedrich Hayek targeted Rousseau in particular for corrupting the notion of coercion:
It was Rousseau who—declaring in the opening statement of The Social Contract that `man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains', and wanting to free men from all `artificial' restraints—made what had been called the savage the virtual hero of progressive intellectuals, urged people to shake off the very restraints to which they owed their productivity and numbers, and produced a conception of liberty that became the greatest obstacle to its attainment.
When a lefty shrill decries the patriarchy’s coercion, she is apart of an illiberal tradition with roots in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences in identifying the demands of living socially with coercion. Rousseau isn’t an advocate of a free and open society where one can do as one pleases within the rule of law; rather, he is an advocate of a society where one can never be exactly free to make one’s own identity.
The life of a monk ought at all times to be Lenten in its observances but because few have the strength of this, we urge that in LEnt they should maintain a life of complete purity to make up, during these holy days, for all the careless practices throughout the rest of the year.- St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict
Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season for Western Christians. For those who are unaware of the nature of the liturgical season, the discipline of Lent is characterized by penance, abstinence and alms-giving. In general, Lent is reorientation one’s life towards God in preparation for Easter.
In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume rails against the monkish virtues behind the fasting tradition of the Lenten today. He characterizes them as worse than useless, but genuine vices that don’t encourage what is good and proper in human life:
Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man's fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? (EPN: IX.9)
On the issue of the monkish virtues, Hume swings and misses. His treatment completely whiffs the issue. He entirely misses the point and, in missing the point, helps to set up two hundred years of similarly missing the point, especially by philosophers of the analytic tradition. Without the monkish virtues, which focus on what we center our attention around, ethics becomes merely about the rules of social interaction. That grand tradition of missing the significance of the monkish virtues culminates in Peter Singer’s imbecile claim that “sex raises no unique moral issues at all.”
The monkish virtues have nothing to do with being a valuable member or society or in enjoying a glass of wine. The monkish virtues are about orientating our lives in their proper directions. When a Catholic abstains from a hamburger on Ash Wednesday, he isn’t doing so out of some sorry sense of self-loathing or out of a notion that hamburgers are bad on certain days of the year. If he were to reach for one in a buffet line and then remembers, “It’s Ash Wednesday!”, he is doing neither. What he is remembering is that, though hamburgers (when properly prepared at least) are certainly something that are good, that they are not the good that he should orientate his life around.
Human life is characterized by fragility. Memento homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris. Time will break everything around us, be it our laptops or pets, and eventually it will break our mortal coil. To orientate our lives around fragile things is to tie ourselves to ashes and dust. Although, as part of this impermanent world, we need to live our lives within it, we ought not base our lives around something as impermanent as food and drink, other people or our pets. We can bring out the full Platonic beast and question the reality of this fragile world, but that’s not a direction I’m all that interested in traveling down.
Hume might retort that death and fragility doesn’t matter. That it’s an event that should have no impact on our lives and that we should be therefore not care abut it. C.S. Lewis responded wonderfully to such a mindset in “A Grief Observed”:
It is hard to have patience with people who say 'There is no death' or 'Death doesn't matter.' There is death.And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn't matter.
Death does matters. We need to therefore be mindful to what we cleave to. The monkish virtues help us to remember that our habits bind us to fragile. As Pope Clement exhorts the Corinthians in his letter to them: “Let us keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Father and Creator of the whole universe, and hold fast to his splendid and transcendent gifts of peace and all his blessing.” The monkish virtues help us to break away from that which is fragile in the world and to look towards that which is ever-lasting.
None, because "markets" are about recognizing that information is dispersed in all social systems, and that the problem of society is to find, devise and discover institutions that incentivize and enable people to make the right decisions without anyone having to tell them what to do. The idea that market forces should be limited stems from a fundamental error in beliefs about markets. This is the wrong question.
The market process is needed to generate the data of the market. The market process is generative. Guided by price signals, entrepreneurs are actively trying to figure out the nature of the demand on the market. When we speak of the ‘market data’ we aren’t speaking of facts that exist independently of the market. Instead, we are speaking of facts that only become known once the market has created them. The market data are therefore a raison d’être for the market process and the competition between entrepreneurs that constitutes it. If we could secure that data sans the markets, then the human mind would be able to supersede the market process.
Nevertheless, economists have often erred in treating of the market data as existing apart from the competition that exist between entrepreneurs and have therefore criticized competition as inefficient because it leads to outcomes the economist deems undesirable. Yet, in making such a judgment, the economist is assuming that he knows the market data before the markets generate them.
Dennis H. Robertson fell into that error in his classic Banking Policy and the Price Level when he argued that inappropriate fluctuations in industrial output were caused by competition:
The main reason for which the actual expansions of industrial output which occur are greater than the relatively most appropriate expansions, seems to be the stress of competition, aggravated by the length of time which is required to adjust production to a changed demand. If conditions are such that our hypothetical producing-group would be furnished with a rational inducement to a 10 per cent. Increase of output, but if, in fact, the trade is organized into fifty independent and competing firms, it is quite likely that each firm, regarding itself as the special protégé of Providence, and ignorant of the preparations that are being made by its neighbours, will prepare to provide, say, one-twentieth instead of the appropriate one-fiftieth of the appropriate total increase in output, so that total production is increased by 25 per cent. instead of by 10 per cent. (Robertson 1949: 37-38).
Here, Robertson assumes that producers are simply reacting to a well known shock, and that all that remains is for producers to adapt to that shock. He distills entrepreneurship to solving a technical economic problem, and in doing so ignores that it isn’t clear to anyone that production should increase by ten percent.
Maybe God knows, but He isn’t giving out consulting advice. Instead, the process of competition, the very same process which Robertson blames for creating irrational adjustments in production, is the manner by which producers discover the demands of the market and how much output is desired by consumers.
The minute that one draws a neat supply and demand diagram, as one would have to figure out that the ‘appropriate’ shift in supply is by ten percent, one assumes away, at least in its allocative sense, the economic problem that the market solves: What people want and how best to supply that.
Producers aren’t simply passive mechanisms that turn market data into market output; instead, they are forward-looking entrepreneurs who have to speculate about the future constellation of supply and demand. The market then selects those entrepreneurs who supplied the consumers with their most urgent wants. So, rather than simply reacting to the data of the markets, producers are generating its data by making conjectures about what are the consumers’ most urgent wants and then the survival of the producers who successfully speculate about those needs. Market selection and entrepreneurship thus interact to generate the data of the market.
The market process is ergo generative. We cannot speak about the outcome of the market process without having studied its history. And here we reach our ultimate conclusion: As an evolutionary science, economics is by definition a historical one. If order is to be defined in the process of its emergence, then we have to have knowledge of the unique process behind the generation of each unique order. That requires knowledge that goes beyond the merely formal into the material.