Shut your eyes for a minute and imagine living in a world without valid facts. If you are not sure what a fact is, you can stop right now because what follows will not make any sense. Well, maybe not. Read the next few paragraphs very carefully as I try to define “facts.”
There are only two kinds of facts and they are very different from each other. The first are what the philosopher, John Searle, calls brute facts. They are verbal descriptions that correspond to some part of the real material world. I am a male is an example. So is that the Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun. Brute facts are very important in life as they are part of the context of existence. Our intentions are formed, in part, by the circumstances comprised by the brute facts that pertain to the immediate situation. If I believe, that is, embody some fact as a truth about the world, for example, that I am standing on the ground level of a building, when I am actually at the edge of the roof hundreds of feet higher, I will be in very serious trouble if I decide to take another step forward.
The second class of facts is what Searle calls, institutional facts. These are facts that have been created by some human utterance and do not necessarily have any relation to the materiality of the real world. The facts obtain “materiality” only according to the legitimate power of the utterer or by the acceptance of the listeners. Institutions are the distinctive arenas of action in which human existence is played out. They are arenas like family, business, government, marriage, bowling leagues, chess, and virtually everywhere else we act that has a name associated with it. Institutions have been described as games with a set of rules that create them (constitutive) and govern action within them (regulative).
The President of the United States exists only by virtue of the US Constitution, which says so. The same Constitution and associated body of laws regulate the process by which we endow some ordinary human being with the title, President. Private property is an institutional fact that imposes sets of rules on what would otherwise simply be some ordinary material object. Money is another very important institutional fact. Money first came to life as material objects of some intrinsic value, then as a piece of paper with an associated set of rules, and now mostly as immaterial bits in some computer. In any case, try to imagine living in a world without money, but, also, remember that humans did exist for quite a long time without it.
If we ignore institutional facts when we act, we are just as much in danger of being disappointed by the results as in the case of brute facts, except that the punishment will come at the hands of other humans, rather than via Mother Nature. If we speed and are caught, we will be fined by some body authorized to do so. If we pass a company secret to others, we risk being fired. If we cheat at poker, we may be asked to leave the game. Some breaches of the regulative rules are deemed insignificant, so we take chances, but the consequences of others may be very severe.
One class of institutional facts, scientific facts, is especially important because they have become indistinguishable from brute facts, and have the same consequences if ignored. Scientific facts are the result of a very special methodology that produces theories explaining some observations about the way the material world appears to behave. They are not exactly the same as brute facts because they are always subject to be superseded by facts that do a better job at explaining based on the fidelity of the results of the actions we take based on them. When planning and acting out individual or collective actions, it is always as risky to ignore or deny scientific facts as it is for brute facts. It is also very important to make sure all scientific facts have been produced by following the method rigorously.
Facts are, very importantly, distinct from beliefs. Facts are existential statements about the world out there. Beliefs are the collection of “truths” anyone carries around in the brain, and, subsequently, bases intentional actions upon. Beliefs may be based on either of the two classes of facts, above, or may arise based on opinions: fact-like statements that purport to describe or explain the world. Scientific facts are really opinions by this definition except we honor them as brute facts because they have been generated by a very special methodology that has become accepted as sufficient grounds for the facts. Opinions lack such grounding. If we act on the basis of opinion, there is no grounded expectation that we will get what we intend.
Wisdom or trustworthy are assessments we make of someone whose opinions have, in the past, turned out pretty well in terms of the intentions. Untrustworthy is an assessment we make on someone whose facts or opinions cannot be verified or produce untoward consequences. Faith refers to often very strongly held beliefs, based on opinions that are largely ungrounded because they would be extremely difficult to ground.
Institutional facts comprise an extremely important part of the structure that holds societies together. Searle called these facts, “the glue that holds civilization together.” A myriad of regulative rules guides our actions in ways that allow us to interact and coordinate in effective ways with others acting under the same institutional umbrella. Faith allows us to follow regulative rules even if we do not hold the constitutive basis as grounded; for example, one does not have to believe in God in order to live according to the Golden Rule, for example.
As long as the actors are playing by the established rules, life can go on pretty smoothly. Most intentions will be satisfied. Some will not because the opinions regarding the specific situation will not conform closely enough to the real world. Now let’s get back to my thought experiment I posed at the beginning. What would the existential world be like if we could not count on the facts to represent our institutional worlds truthfully?
Thomas Hobbes, whose philosophy played a major role in creating our country, portrayed the “natural condition of mankind” as existing in a state of nature, absent any institutions and their associated rules. Life for mankind was correspondingly, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To alleviate this condition of constant “warre,” humans would enter into “mutual contracts” or as I have been calling them rules of the game or institutional rules. Modern life is composed of many different institutions each with their own set of regulative rules.
Playing by the rules over time has two important outcomes. First, the intended outcomes shared by all the players tend to be satisfied most of the time. Second, the players/actors develop trust in the other actors. They begin to trust the others to play by the rules, which also means to proffer facts grounded to some reasonable degree. Misstating brute facts, that is, telling lies about topics important to maintaining the institutional integrity, destroys trust and can easily bring action to a stop. To the extent that the facile-fact actor has roles in other institutional activities, the loss of trust may and does spillover, impeding cooperative or consensual action in other arenas. Action may continue, but now will require some degree of coercion because, without trust, actors will stop acting consensually.
Having facts that can be accepted and agreed to as the basis for action are essential to maintaining some sort of consensual ordering in all institutions, large and small. President Trump’s practice of uttering completely ungrounded opinions affect everyone, both those who believe in their truth and those who do not. Sooner or later they will bring action to a halt, possibly endangering a move that is critical to the situation-at-hand. I expect that his claims of being wiretapped eventually will have some negative consequences in areas where he is still held as trustworthy. But think of your response if you are asked by the President sometime in the future to make some sacrifice based on his claim of the truthfulness of some fact. Power without trust is a very dangerous combination.
Taking the Presidential oath of office, Trump committed himself “to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Telling the truth is clearly necessary to honor this oath. The Preamble, below, adds more specificity to the purposes of creating an institution to create order in the land.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The truth is so important to “insure domestic tranquility” and to “secure the blessings of liberty” that I would be very tempted to deem any deliberate lie by the President, other that one made reasonably to protect the Constitution, as a “Misdemeanor,” which is a ground for impeachment. I want to be very careful to limit my opinion to brute facts. These facts are very different from opinions about outcomes of some future action. Predictions of the future are always merely opinions, other than in situations entirely governed by accepted scientific facts. We accept such opinions as grounds for action based on the trustworthiness of the speaker and the quality of the grounds offered. Unlike brute facts, we have no certain ways to judge their verity until after the fact.
By the way, the ultimate responsibility for truthfulness or not rests with the speaker of some purported fact, as others have, famously, observed. I will finish with a couple of relevant quotes. The first is from Nietzsche, the second from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Given that Rand is a darling of the far right, it bears careful reading.
I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you. (Nietzsche)
People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all. (Rand, Atlas Shrugged)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 20, 2017 12:34 PM ::
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 20, 2017 8:56 AM ::
One of the headlines today pointed to a bill bubbling up in the US Congress that would require employees to provide genetic testing data on themselves and their families to their employers. It is tied in with wellness programs, which I do not quite understand.
House Republicans are proposing legislation aimed at making it easier for companies to gather genetic data from workers and their families, including their children, when they collect it as part of a voluntary wellness program. From the NYTimes today (3/11/2017).
What I do understand is that this fits into a long slide that is taking the human beings that comprise most of the United States from citizen to consumer to commodity. I have taken these last words from an interview of Jill Lepore, Ugo Mattei, and Roberto Unger by Christopher Lydon on December 15, 2016. Mattei offered this pattern.
The article suggests that companies want to see the employees as a genetic profile to determine if they are a health risk, rather than as a living, unique human being. I see this practice wrong on two accounts. One is moral going back to Kant’s imperative: never treat a human being as a means, only as an ends. The other is factual: genes, by themselves, do not accurately predict the appearance and course of many common diseases. Ironically the working environment is an important factor.
Each step represents a major shift in the distribution of economic or political power. The role of citizen springs from the Enlightenment that took this progression in reverse order by establishing the idea of human rights. Prior to that, most individuals lived as feudal serfs or subjects of monarchs and owed their existence to them. They were largely born into their place in life and never moved from it. The idea of nation states was developing at the same time in which individual rights were associated with the place one was born or settled in. The idea of citizen carried with it a set of rights that varied from nation to nation, but always carried the basic idea that humans possessed some set of natural rights.
The United States was clearly founded upon this belief whether these rights were actually to be found in all people within its borders or not. At the beginning, they were not, but eventually by war and amendment they were, in theory, accepted as universal. The word, citizen, has appeared widely in public conversations during the early development of the US, but has been dropping for about 100 years. The following charts, obtained by using Google’s nGram program that plots the frequency of a word’s usage, based on a vast collection of published material, show a very interesting trend. This first chart searched on source anywhere in the entire English language.
The next searched only on American English sources.
The decline over the past 100 years is much more evident. Not being a social scientist, I will not try to analyze the causes of this behavior; it stands for itself. In the past 100 years, we have referred less and less to ourselves as citizens, but more and more as consumers as the next chart, based on American English shows. The one for all English shows virtually the same pattern.
Just to add more grist without any particular outcome, the next graph plots the word “customer” over the same period. I don’t have an easy explanation why it continues upwards where “consumer frequency” starts to fall around 1980.
I also searched for and found some data (not shown) on the growth of GDP per capita from 1900 to 1940. The growth during this period was almost linear, so the growth of the use of the term, consumer, far exceeded any direct correlation with the size of underlying economy. I attribute this to some sort of cultural factor. There is one fact that might be interesting.
Completely serendipitously, a few weeks ago I watched a documentary on Julius Rosenwald, the man who made Sears Roebuck into the giant it was once. He bought into the company in 1895 and was in complete control after about 1908. He made Sears into the largest merchandiser of his times, the Amazon of the early 20th century over approximately the same time as the in the big jump. All of a sudden, people in the US heartland could become consumers in the modern sense of the word. The upward trend continued right through the Depression, again showing a disconnect between the word and the economy.
The early part of the 20th century followed a period of consolidation of economic power. Although Theodore Roosevelt broke up the largest of the massive corporations, 44 by some counts, their overall power still continued. Unger did not distinguish workers in his use of these three terms, but, given his overall philosophy, would have, I think, seen them in an equally diminished role in the same sense that Marx did. He agreed with some of Marx’s ideas that humans’ view of themselves was subject to historical constraints. Workers became commodities in Marx’s view of capitalism, alienated from the meaningful fruits of their labor. Before addressing why Unger might argue that we have all become commodities, I need to explore a little of his ideas.
Unger believes that humans have infinite possibilities but become limited by the roles given to us by our social context. We are, in his terms, both “context-bound and context-transcending” The human being has no intrinsic nature. I would compare this to the existentialist Sartre’s famous saying, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. There are philosophical differences here, but not any that would lessen my point. Unger claims that social institutions do constrain and shape us, but we can always change and transcend them. This “both and” conjunction may be true but is a bit paradoxical at the same time.
My own work is based on the same general idea. Humans have no fixed nature in the sense of Homo economicus or original sin, but tend to lead inauthentic, meaningless lives guided by the immediate norms and power structures of the society. As far as a biological nature is concerned, we are merely the same as animals, except for our immense cognitive powers. What makes us different is that we have meaning available to us through language. We can gaze on the same bit of reality—the world outside our bodies—and tell an infinite number of stories about it. Other animals except for a few, can only react to it in the same way every time.
Language is not neutral. It does more than merely describe the world. Some stories have rules attached. All the stories about the institutions that form the frameworks for our social lives have such rules. They are the context that Unger refers to. They are powerful and do constrain our actions and our beliefs about ourselves. What Unger refers to as our ability to transcend context is that we can change the stories and the rules that go with them. Some humans, very few, are sufficiently wise and powerful that they can escape the social constraints and become more than the rest of us. Occasionally, some tell a new story that is so powerful in terms of what it envisions that institutions and their constraints themselves change and free us to aspire to a new level of human existence.
I believe that language, which evolved over millennia within social structures based on caring—direct interaction with others and the world-at-large—has lost the context of that period due to the workings of powerful human and technological forces, particularly in our modern era. The unlimited possibilities for human existence has become diminished by a kind of resignation resulting from the stories about modern institutions, particularly economic and scientific and, as Mattei and Unger now argue, political.
That’s where his move from consumer to commodity may arise. At least that how I hear it. We have become nothing but inert items in the political market place there to be manipulated by those with political power. Of course, there is a connection, in liberal theory to be avoided, between economic and political power.
The very idea of “citizen” carries a sense of sovereignty. I have a right in shaping the institutions that govern my life. If not, how could I ever really become whatever I want to be. Now, I am not arguing that we should or could become whatever we want. That is an impossibility in a finite world, but the call to become more than I seem to be able to be under the present circumstances does seem possible and relevant.
I am sure all of you have been reading about threats to freedom as one result of this last election. I see this language as saying the same thing. Freedom is a description of the ability to express one’s own unique existential intentions. Commodity is a word meaning just the opposite. Commodities are materials or goods that are valuable just as lifeless stuff; one pound is just as valuable as the next. Where Unger may be importantly different from most of what I have been reading is that he sees this election as a opportunity to change the story. That has usually been his tune about significant societal shifts.
It would be pure hubris to argue that the changes I have been proposing in my own work are the right ones, but I do think that we are at a moment when we must look elsewhere than our own histories for possibilities. I have had a chance to examine that history in a course I am taking about the US Presidency in its historical political context. I do not find anything that holds much promise to prevent a further slide in the direction we have been going. Unger’s phrasing has given me another argument for the relevance of flourishing, care, and complexity in today’s world. It could reverse the order of his three descriptors and jump directly from commodity to become flourishing human beings.
(Image: 1902 Sear-Roebuck catalog page)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 11, 2017 2:29 PM ::
I am back to reading the news and opinion, seeking inspiration for these blog posts. Today it comes as it often does from an op-ed by David Brooks, entitled, “This Century Is Broken.”
Most of us came of age in the last half of the 20th century and had our perceptions of “normal” formed in that era. It was, all things considered, an unusually happy period. No world wars, no Great Depressions, fewer civil wars, fewer plagues.
It’s looking like we’re not going to get to enjoy one of those times again. The 21st century is looking much nastier and bumpier: rising ethnic nationalism, falling faith in democracy, a dissolving world order. At the bottom of all this, perhaps, is declining economic growth. (Emphasis added)
Brooks continues with some statistics on the number of people without jobs, including a large number who have stopped looking. Pretty shocking. Then some data on the number of the poor that are using some form of drugs. Pretty grim outlook.
About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record. In different ways Eberstadt and Cowen are describing a country that is decelerating, detaching, losing hope, getting sadder. Economic slowdown, social disaffection and risk aversion reinforce one another.
Of course nothing is foreordained. But where is the social movement that is thinking about the fundamentals of this century’s bad start and envisions an alternate path? Who has a compelling plan to boost economic growth? If Trump is not the answer, what is?
Wrong question. Economic growth is the problem, not the solution. Economic growth has put many of the disaffected in the straits they are now in. Brooks should be, instead, following the money as “Deep Throat” is supposed to have said back in the Watergate days. I have to admit I lack proper statistics for what follows, but I think I am correct overall. I believe that a better analysis should be based on the distribution of income. GDP per capita has been rising steadily for the last 50 years with a few bumps along the way. This means on average, every one in the US would have had more dollars to spend every year. The graph plots GDP per capita (constant 2005 US$) vs. year. (Source: Index Mundi)
I also looked at similar data corrected for purchasing power. The same upward trend indicated that even if prices increased, the average person would have had more to spend. Without going to the work of Thomas Piketty and other economists, it seems very clear that more is not better. The problem lies in where the money goes, and for that, you need another economic statistic, the Gini coefficient, that indicates the way the money is distributed. Higher numbers indicate that more of the money is going to the wealthier. This graph plots Gini vs. year (Source: Index Mundi)
US Gini coefficients have been increasing for a while. So while the US keeps getting richer overall, the lower economic classes are getting less of the wealth. That’s the basic problem, not growth. But that’s not all. We are significantly more distorted than the countries we tend to compare ourselves to. The bottom cluster includes the UK, Sweden, France, India, and Greece. The middle cluster is China, Russia, and the US. The upper two are Guatemala and Haiti. I did not have any particular set of counties in mind when I constructed this chart, but I find the closeness of the US to both Russia and China, particularly intriguing. Perhaps we should stop pointing fingers at them.
Then for fun, I went to the Freedom House website where I could gather data on the most authoritarian and undemocratic countries of the world and plotted the Gini coefficient just as in the above graph. I won’t include the figure, but the US is again clustered in with many of these baddies. It seems to me that the time has come to, as Shakespeare wrote for lawyers, start killing the economists.
To add fuel to the fire, the number of billionaires is rising far faster than global GDP. A story in the NY Times noted, “[t]here were 2,473 billionaires in the world, as of Wealth-X’s last count through 2015. That was a 6.4 percent increase in billionaires from the year before. Global GDP currently is rising from about 2 to 3 percent per year. Further, “The top 10 — nine from the United States, one from Spain — have a combined net worth of $582 billion.” I can’t do the math, but wonder what the Gini coefficient would be if this money were to be spread around the bottom end of the economic spectrum? More critically, what kind of lives would all those disaffected be able to live?
This raises many, many questions for me, and I hope for you. Are we looking in the wrong place for answers to the social decay we are falling into? I think so. Economics has no solution. Neither does technology or innovation. The current shift toward authoritarianism and populism is, if we are like so many other nations where wealth is controlled by oligarchs, only to make things worse or, at best, maintain the current conditions. All the promises President Trump has made fly in the face of these data and other economic models that are equally as unpromising for the poor. How terribly cruel this is. We have started to use that word to describe the current immigrant actions, but really should begin to see the inherent cruelty across the board.
Most arguments related to this situation are couched in terms of fairness. We need policies that are fair because we believe in justice. That language is going nowhere in dealing with this issue. It’s too easy to subvert fairness, but maybe it is time to expose the inherent cruelty behind what appear to be the principle drivers of this new President and his men (sic).
(Image: Gustave Doré, Wentworth Street, Whitechapel: 1872)
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 22, 2017 5:07 PM ::
I imagine that very few of those who read this blog will remember the old radio show by this title. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
On the show, contestants received roughly two seconds to answer a trivia question correctly (usually an off-the-wall question that no one would be able to answer correctly, or a bad joke) before “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded (in the rare occasion that the contestant answered the question correctly before Beulah was heard, the question inevitably had two or even three parts). If the contestant could not complete the “Truth” portion, there would be “Consequences,” usually a zany and embarrassing stunt. From the start, most contestants preferred to answer the question wrong in order to perform the stunt. Said Edwards, “Most of the American people are darned good sports.”
I only wish that the game of truth were such a light-hearted sport today. The Guardian, now an increasingly important source of news for me, ran a story today about Roger Stone, one of Trump’s early supporters, entitled “Trump ally Roger Stone: Americans can now choose ‘alternative’ truths.” Referring to the Kennedy assassination, Stone argues that there is now much disbelief about the “official” explanation and, consequently “ there can be a choice over the truth?”
Here’s where we start to get into deep trouble. There are only two forms of truth, brute facts that are exact replicas of reality, and self-consistent truths, like 2 + 2 always equals 4. Everything else is opinion in one form or another. Opinions are assertions about reality that are not or cannot be grounded with indisputable evidence. Scientific facts are an exception. They are very carefully constructed opinions, based on a rigorous methodology, that we have come to accept as valid statements about how the material world works. They are the opinions of the scientists that applied the method and interpreted the results, and can be superseded by better opinions in the future. Social scientific facts lack the same rigor.
Truths are statements that should or must be taken into account in our actions if actors of all sorts want their intentions to become truly satisfied. Truths become embodied in the brain as beliefs, the grounds on with an actor plots whatever actions are to be taken in any particular case. If I fail to believe that 2 + 2 = 4, I will be unable to balance my checkbook and may overdraw my account. If a UPS driver believes I live at 19 Main Street in Lexington, MA (I do not), I will not get my long-awaited package.
Opinions are not important until they become embodied as beliefs and determine how we act, using them as grounds. Until they become embedded beliefs, opinions are nothing but words. Because opinions are what they are because they lack acceptable grounds for establishing their factual reality, we are always forced to rely on assessments of the source as a proxy for the truth of the assertion. From the start, people were suspicious of the Warren Commission’s report of the Kennedy Assassination. So, it is not surprising that alternate stories (opinions) continue to capture the beliefs of many people.
In the Guardian article, Stone, who has just written a book about the Trump election, paints politics as a “contact sport”
“Politics is not beanbag. This is a contact sport, always has been, always will be. It was alleged that Martin Van Buren dressed up in women’s clothes, that Abraham Lincoln fathered mulatto children - this is part and parcel of American politics.”
Perhaps so, but those who win in this game become our governmental leaders and legislators. Quite abruptly they are thrown into a different game. Some realize that and start playing by the new rules, but others do not. This seems to be the place we are right now in the US. Our leaders cannot distinguish between the rules of getting elected and being elected. If they continue to act based on lies and biased opinions—a sort of lie, we cannot count on the outcomes of actions as likely to be the case.
Brute facts are few and far between in most of the issues that matter in governance at all levels. The problems to be faced arise in complex systems, one of my favorite topics. Complexity confounds the discovery of brute facts. It is unlikely and, in some cases, impossible to determine the basic facts that explain a situation and can, thus, be counted on in drafting and implementing a response. There is only opinion to be had. Science, which is the only institution that offers “truthful” opinions about the material world, may be useful, but cannot deliver a full story in these cases. It is critical that the opinions used to plan and initiate action are the most reliable possible. Reliability of opinions depends on the open-mindedness and mental capabilities of those (high levels of complexity always require multiple inquirers) involved in generating the actions.
Partisan opinions are intrinsically biased; that’s what makes them partisan in the first place. I do, unhappily, agree with Stone’s claim that such partisan sources now dominate the way many, if not most, people get the information on which they formulate their beliefs. I do not see any way to avoid this. All the more reason that those who win on the basis on poorly grounds opinions, shift as they move into their official roles. And all the more reason that the people have access to unbiased sources of information and public opinion. Painting such sources as passing off untruths and alternate facts is a strategy to deprive the citizenry of such sources.
Lastly, in this discussion of truths and opinions I have to add lies. Lies are statements the speaker knows are not true. They do not ever correspond to reality. Saying I live in Washington DC is a lie. Claiming I have a PhD in philosophy would be a lie, although I have come to acquire lots of philosophical ways of thinking. Accepting lies as truths has two serious consequences. Acts based on them will generally fail because they have little or no reality as grounds for the choice of action. In addition, they will erode the legitimacy of the speaker’s reputation as a truth teller, making it more and more problematic to engage with her or him in the future. That may not matter for those who are uncritical and do not care about the bad outcomes, but would seriously damage future interactions with anyone who does. Lies have no legitimate place in either the political process or the governance that follows. They may thwart the popular choice in elections, but they will cause harm, perhaps very large, to all, both the winners and losers, during the governance actions that follow.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 20, 2017 12:57 PM ::
The idea underlying freedom in the United States is government by the consent of the people. Most of us have been exposed to this somewhere along our educational path. I suspect, however, that very few have really thought about what it means. To truly understand what it means, you have to start with the previous post. Consent rests on a foundation of trust. And trust lies on a deeper ground of truth or facts.
Consent always applies in practice to some form of commissive: a promise to do something. In a high level of generality in the context of government, it means to obey the law, pay your taxes, and, even, understand why you are doing what you are doing. This goes back to Jefferson’s admonition about the need for an educated citizenry.
I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power. (Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820.)
Commissives, in turn, respond to some form of request or obligation, except in cases where the intention to act is entirely self-generated, but this latter instance does not apply to the context of government. Nor in this case does it usually respond to some individual directive from somebody; actions as a citizen almost always come as the result of some declaration that established a duty or duties.
Consensual action in this case requires that the actor hold the declaration as valid. This means that the utterer of the declaration has the authority or legitimacy to stand behind it and, further, that the reasons for it are valid (true). We obey the Constitution of the United States because we have accepted the reasons behind it and the authority of the myriad of people that have used it as a basis for other laws and rules. Occasionally as times change and the actions no longer do produce the originally intended outcomes, we change the Constitution itself. Behind this generally unquestioned authority lays a context of trust in the intentions of the Framers, those who have followed in implementing it, and those who have interpreted it when necessary.
Trust, itself, rests on assessments of the validity of the authority of anyone who asks you to do anything meaningful to you. Trust is built by examining the truthfulness of such a person or institutional power. Truthfulness is measured by several indicators, 1) how well the assertions being made fit reality, and 2) how well have previous promises been satisfied. In many cases, individuals cannot independently validate a specific assertion or fact because they lack access to proper grounds, and must resort to another source. For facts about the workings of the material world, science is the proper alternative because it has proved to be the most reliable in this context.
For facts about the social world or the lived world, no single such source exists. Journalists and their media have historically served this purpose. They were a trusted source of facts that could be used for the necessary personal assessments of the validity of the requests being made by people whose authority was established ex officio, that is, by the powers inherent in their office, but not necessarily in the person him- or herself. The discredited or disempowering of the journalistic media is often one of the first acts of an elected or unelected leader aiming to usurp more power than the office was intended to hold.
A second way is to examine the actual history of the person holding the office. Do his previous actions, taken as a whole, provide evidence of his or her trustworthiness? Our present president falls far short of this test. It is clear that President Trump holds ‘truth” in contempt. Comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 are fully warranted. The claim of alternate facts is equivalent to Orwell’s idea of “Newspeak.” It’s worth a short diversion to read Orwell’s own words from his Appendix to 1984.
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. (Emphasis added)
One important difference, Donald Trump is not subtle. Not are those close to him. Lies abound. Lies about brute facts. Those who accept these lies do so at their own peril. Again, looking at Orwell’s work, these falsities are traps designed to capture the minds of the citizenry, first, then their souls, and finally, their bodies. If and when the hoi polloi begin to catch on, it is too late for them; freedom will have disappeared. Some people in America have already begun to find a solution through drugs to the inner distress that comes from an utter sense of disappointment and despair. There is a big difference, however, between these drugs and, soma, the drug of Huxley’s Brave New World that was given to keep people from rising up. Soma does not kill. Sales of 1984 have jumped since the election. It is now #7 on Amazon’s best seller list.
If evidence of not telling the truth is insufficient, there is further evidence that President Trump has a long record of failing to keep his promises. The details of these failures were made public during the campaign. Such failures are essentially just another form of lie, in this case, about the validity of one’s intentions. We have come, in America, to have a healthy skepticism toward promises made during political campaigns, but, in Trump’s case, the promises to do it single-handedly defy the accompanying cry, “believe me.”
I do not expect the President to change his strategy, which put him into the White House. This puts a lot of weight on the two other countervailing parts of our tripartite system of governance. There is little we, as citizens, can do to influence the courts. They are explicitly designed to be independent. We can work on our legislators at all levels. It is probably fruitless to influence the ideologies that place them in one of the other major political parties, but perhaps they will respond to an argument based on this and many other similar essays and opinions elsewhere. Trust is essential. Without trust, the Constitution, to which many have taken an oath to protect and abide by, is but a lifeless piece of paper. Ironically, it protects the same people that would allow it to lose its legitimate power. Even if a plea to support one side or the other of a specific issue is unlikely to prevail, perhaps a plea to speak truth to power and build and maintain trust might filter through.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 19, 2017 2:39 PM ::
I have been struggling for the last few months to assess the possibilities for flourishing. Since I believe its possibility started dropping centuries ago when the key ideas about the way the world works burst forth, a few years wouldn’t seem to make much difference. I think it does, however. I have to focus on the United States for my lack of context about the rest of the world.
The biggest event to examine is the election of Donald Trump. I will start my analysis by looking at what he represents as a potential window into the current cultural beliefs and values. He moves us quite a long way from thinking in terms of complexity. We are to get our facts, a form of belief, about the state of the world largely from tweets, 140 characters in total. We are told that The President has a monopoly on truth. The facts we hold to describe or explain what is happening before out eyes are simply alternate facts.
I have to remind you that there are two distinctive kinds of facts: brute facts and institutional facts. Brute facts are descriptions of the perceptible world, for example, I live in Lexington, Massachusetts. If someone offers up an alternate fact about where I live, they must be living in some alternate universe. Institutional facts are not quite so simple. They are facts that have been created entirely through language. Both kinds are critical to the creation and maintenance of an orderly society and the ability to assess the possibilities for moving in the direction of our visions of how life should be.
Institutional facts are created through a particular kind of speech act, a Declaration to use, the philosopher, John Searle’s term. It is one of five commonly used speech acts. Even if you are not familiar with this nomenclature, you have been using speech acts all of your life. Searle has written extensively on this topic. As introduction, here is a quote from his book, Expression and Meaning:
We tell people how things are (Assertives), we try to get them to do things (Directives), we commit ourselves to doing things (Commissives), we express our feelings and attitudes (Expressives), and we bring about changes in the world through our utterances (Declarations).
One very common form of speech act is the class of assertives. They are statements claiming that something is so. “I live in Lexington,” or “I am the smartest person in the room,” or “My car is black,” and so on. I am choosing the words I speak to fit a real worldly situation. An assertive is valid if the words actually do fit the world. Just saying them does not make them true. They must ultimately be backed up with satisfactory grounds, if challenged.
The next familiar class is directives. These are statements like “Please shut the door”; “Do not drive over 60 mph”; or “The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.” The speaker wants something to happen. If the action is then performed, the world will now fit the words. The act is satisfied in such cases where the world has changed to fit the directive. The next speech act, commissives, is the obverse of the last. It is an utterance that commits the speaker to some future action. Statements like, “I promise to send the check,” or “I will attend the party,” or “I will build a wall” are forms of commissives. Commissives, like assertives, have the same fit of the words to the world. They lead to actions such that the new state of the world matches the words. The changed world appears sometime after the request or promise to satisfy the utterance, but sometimes it never does.
The last class I will mention in the body of this post is declaratives. These are very important because the words in the utterance create a new world instantly. “I name you Tom,” or “You are guilty,” or “A chess game is over when one player (the loser) is unable to move the King without losing it by capture,” or “I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States” are all forms of declarations.
They are immediately satisfied, unless the authority of the declaration is challenged, because 1) the declarer has been authorized to speak in this way, or 2) everyone involved has agreed to the declaration. The first pertains to a president, judge or referee; the second to a game, like chess or baseball. Declarations create or invent new facts. They convey new obligatory powers to common objects and situations. A home run is simply a baseball (object) that has left the ballpark between two poles that have been declared to delineate what is fair game. A Judge is a person who has been given certain powers. So is the President of the United States. Declarations are a kind of magic. I speak and, presto, the world has something new about it. Our country is based on two such speech acts, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration contains a Preamble asserting the facts that ground the argument for the accompanying declarations. The Constitution is a pure declaration.
Declarations create all sorts of subsequent rules and obligations. If one wants to play chess, there is an obligation to follow the rules; otherwise what is going on is not chess. If one wants to take part in any institution from small ones like families to larger ones like companies to even larger ones like a nation, then he or she has an obligation to play by the rules that accompany the fact that such an institution exists. Institutions are as real as brute facts in terms of guiding human action, but lack materiality. They can be changed by new declarations, but brute facts can be changed only if the material situation has changed, say, if I move to Cambridge.
Why all this philosophical stuff? These definitions and concepts have been created by philosophers. They are important because these speech acts keep societies and institutions together and allow them to function without the exercise of force. John Searle has written that institutional facts are “the glue that holds civilization together.” Importantly, scientific facts are not brute facts; they are a special kind of institutional fact. They are statements coming from the institution of science that pertain to a “truth’ about the way the material world works. Their validity is established by the agreement of other scientists (peer review) and is always contingent upon new evidence that replaces the old declaration with a new one. Since the Enlightenment, the scientific laity has had a tacit agreement with the scientific institution to accept these scientific facts as truths. For much of the world, they have come to be conflated with brute facts.
Similarly, in civil society and all other institutions, smooth functioning depends on the legitimacy of the speech acts that create the rules (declarations); and the validity of those that provide 1) the context or grounds for reasonable actions (assertions), 2) assumptions about the purpose or end condition of the stated motivations of requests (directives), and 3) assessments about the trustworthiness behind promises (commissives). For those that want to dig deeper, I recommend the work of Jurgen Habermas on Communicative Action. He places the speech act theory of John Searle and others in a social context. I find Habermas provides answers to the question about why people act in social situations without being coerced to. Basically, he argues that rational people will act consensually if the validity of the all the speech acts involved in the context of any particular action can be established; if so, actors will go ahead without being forced.
It should be obvious that such consensual action is the engine that makes the world work satisfactorily. If we were forced to act all the time against our interests and values, no institution would last long. Our nation is predicated on the idea of government by the consent of the governed. I will continue this discussion in the next post, but this is a lot to digest. I do think a little reflection of these speech acts can help sort out all the dysfunction in the news these days.
ps. Searle adds a fifth class of speech acts, expressives. They lack any connection to establishing new institutions and associated institutional facts or to a future world. Expressives express a psychological state referring to some past or existing situation. A few examples include, “Thank you for your gift,” or “I apologize for lying to you,” or “I deplore your being so selfish.” Expressives are important acts to maintain civility when the intentions of other speech acts have been bent or breached, as in “You broke the rules, lied to me about cutting the grass, or never did send me roses.” One of the most powerful forms of expressives is “I forgive you for ” It permits a renewed willingness to freely assess the validity of clams involved in future speech acts and may re-establishes a lost context for acting consensually. Apologies often act as precursors to acts of forgiveness. Also relevant?
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 14, 2017 12:15 PM ::
It’s is a terrible deal to toss out two regulations for every new one as the President recently ordered. Regulations were invented to correct the raw mechanics of capitalism and minimize its harmful unintended consequences. I have lived through and worked with environmental regulations since they first showed up in the 1970’s. A company I started helped write the very first regulations put out under the Clean Air Act of 19790. I remember why they came to be. Smog events in Los Angeles with dreadful health consequences. The Cuyahoga River catching fire in Cleveland. Love Canal. Some 3000 excess deaths after an extended fog in London, England. Today Beijing is choking in the absence of adequate regulation.
Regulations are a standard mechanism to control the bads that accompany the goods that commerce produces. They are necessary to make the cost of the goods include both direct and indirect inputs. Direct inputs are items like labor, materials and the cost of capital; indirect costs include harms incurred in manufacture, use, and disposal. Dirtying the air or water with wastes creates a cost that you and I, the consumers, pay. Minimizing the wastes by imposing a tax, technical controls, or other measures limits the direct harmful effects on humans and other life and the costs to remedy any such outcomes. Financial regulations such as those issued under the Dodd-Frank Act similarly limit economic losses to private citizens.
Regulations are always costly to those on whom they are imposed. That’s the very idea: to make the price reflect the true cost, a necessary condition for the market to function properly. In some cases, the potential harms are so severe or unethical that regulations ban certain practices outright. The rules by which regulations are put into place require that the benefits exceed the costs. The process by which this happens is onerous and is constrained by the requirement that the result cannot be either arbitrary or capricious.
The benefits generally accrue to the general public, but the costs are borne by the firms doing the damage. So they yell and scream, “Foul.” These outcries are not justified according to a report of the Office of Management and Budget in 2013. Examining 536 major rules issued between FY 2003 and FY2012, they found that the annual benefits were in the range of $193 to $800 billion, while the costs ranged from $57 to $84 billion. The broad range reflects the difficulty of valuing indirect costs. Nonetheless the net positive effect is unassailable.
Those of us who would be negatively affected by rolling back regulations have short memories. Few are old enough to remember the filthy linens in the houses of those living near coal-burning power plants. The harms to millions caused by the 2008 financial crises are already fading from view. The perpetrators of these harms are not necessary evil or venal; they simply don’t learn. The bottom line and personal greed show up every day at work; the indirect costs are far away and the Boss is pushing to outdo the competitor next door.
The business sector now includes a small number of companies that do have a social responsibility to produce goods and service with a net positive value that includes all costs, direct and indirect. They are yet but a tiny fraction of the firms that continue to stick with the famous utterance by economist Milton Friedman, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”
Any government that purports to represent all the people has no choice but to use regulations to insure that the costs and benefits of the economy are fairly distributed. An administration that politically claims to side with the poorer and disenfranchised elements of the public has an even greater stake in making sure that the lack of regulation does not exacerbate the very situation that has led to the imbalance. Before applauding efforts to roll back or fail to implement regulations, make sure that the job created by that move doesn’t harm your family or cause your insurance to skyrocket. Somebody always pays for the costs of poorly- or un-regulated commerce.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 12, 2017 4:02 PM ::
Instead of my usual opening image, I will start today with an aphorism. I chose it because of the obvious irony. I am into irony these days. It helps me through the days.
It is better to be be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie. (Russian proverb)
It is very difficult, even I would say impossible, to get where you are going by using only the rear view mirror. That’s true unless you are heading to a distant past. This may be the right destination following some sort of collapse or serious setback, but hardly the right one to head for when everything seems to be working reasonably well. Especially in contrast to times in the past. Today I am going to comment on a development where the present plans would seem to take us back to times when we struggled to move forward.
Conservatism, like liberalism, means many things to many people, but I cannot find any arguments that it refers to going backwards. The classic case is to stick with what you have instead of trying out new, unproven ideas. In the real, complex world, this never made sense and it doesn’t today. We live in a world with many flaws in the fabric of our ideals. They are there because the explanatory models and structures built on them fail to match the reality of the world. Unlike scientific facts that do a good job of matching the parts of that world, our beliefs and institutional facts, which may have come close to reality sometime in the past, have become obsolete and mismatched to the present world.
Complexity demands a certain level of humility, a willingness to accept the virtual certainty that anything we say about the world can only approximate, at best, what is going on out there. Even science struggles when it comes to explaining the real, complex world. The best, perhaps the only, way to deal with complexity is via pragmatism. Pragmatism is a way toward understanding complexity. The better we understand how any complex system, like the real world, writ large or small, works, the more likely our attempts to guide it towards our desires will be effective. In changing times, the very reason to try new and different approaches is that the old ways no longer fit the world, and in fact created many of the problems to be addressed.
With this short preface, let me connect it to what has been going on. The last time human societies attempted to operate without facts was the Dark Ages. We owe almost everything we would argue is “good” for us from the marvelous realization in the Enlightenment that facts matter. Life until that time had been ruled by articles of faith coming from two sources. One, obviously, is religion whose dogma was largely responsible for the darkness of the Dark Ages.
The second is what emerged in the early times of the Enlightenment as scientific facts. I write “as scientific facts” because they are not what we would call such facts today. They were pronouncements of philosophers, like Descartes, Hobbes, or Smith, about eternal truths that were picked up and used to build the early modern world we still live within. But they are not scientific facts at all. Today, we accept as scientific facts only those that have emerged from the rigorous application of the scientific method, which ironically was an idea of Descartes. The facts produced by the early Enlightenment thinkers are what have been called institutional facts, social constructs, legal fictions, even imagined realities. They take on the power of true facts about the world simply because they become heard as such, usually because the first person to utter them has some sort of authoritarian legitimacy.
John Searle, the philosopher, offers another category of facts he call “brute facts.” They are simply truths about the world that speak for themselves. I am a male is an example. I am composing this blog on an iMac is another. So is the size of the Inauguration crowd a brute fact. Occasionally there may be good reasons to argue over brute facts, but not usually in a society of shared meaning about the physical nature of the world. The concept of “alternate [brute] facts” is nonsense. It is simply a denial of reality that comes with a great loss.
Denying brute facts destroys trust in the speaker very quickly. Without trust, new institutional facts, the critical kind necessary for any form of social existence from families to nations, even to the whole planet, will not be accepted as true or valid. If and when this happens, the fundamental underlying principle of American democracy, governing with the consent of the governed, is broken. I understand our American society is built on a network of principles and rules, but if this one goes, nothing else matters.
A substantial number of Americans have already made this judgment that the government cannot be trusted. Supposedly that fact was a major factor in Trump’s victory. Now, that number is being rapidly magnified by those who have already losing or have lost trust in the new government. Not by any past act, but by the blatant, deliberate lying since the election. This distortion of the truth in not the same as the argument George Lakoff makes about the framing of issues. He points to the power of context to guide the way we think and act, but always within the bounds of fact.
If this were not enough to wonder about the path ahead, the new Administration is showing an utter disregard for science. I guess that is because science has been legitimized as the best source of facts about the world we can trust, not because they are true in the sense of brute facts, but because they enable us to construct material and institutional structures that generally work the way we want. They also point out changes in the world that threaten those structures and the norms/ideals they stand for. The consequences of this disregard for both scientific and brute facts include one obvious, but chilling, outcome: a return to the Dark Ages. Not the Dark Ages of pre-Enlightenment times, but one of our own making.
We are not the first to face the possibility that our acceptance of a pack of lies or alternate facts has led to the very loss of freedoms we feared or never even knew they were available. I have lived through times when many souls lived and died under the heels of authoritarian leaders who survived largely by suppressing truth. I will finish this blog with a few quotes of one of my heroes who clearly saw the need for truth and the consequences of losing access to it, Vaclav Havel. Havel led the Czechs out of darkness by forcing the truth of their world on them and by that process, empowering the powerless. Here are just a few of my favorites.
There can be no doubt that distrust of words is less harmful than unwarranted trust in them. When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.
A human action becomes genuinely important when it springs from the soil of a clearsighted awareness of the temporality and the ephemerality of everything human. It is only this awareness that can breathe any greatness into an action.
What is needed in politics is not the ability to lie but rather the sensibility to know when, where, how and to whom to say things.
Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.
Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment. The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 25, 2017 3:16 PM ::
Well, I did it! I have sent my new book manuscript to a publisher in hopes they will accept and publish it. A long time coming, but finally off my computer screen. Now what? Some patient waiting before I hear from the publisher, and a lot more time available for other activities. Some goes to the reading and preparation for my last ME’AH semester, which covers the modern period of Jewish history. I should hear any day if I got my courses at HILR, my retiree learning center. Maybe a foot high pile of New Yorkers and other reading that sits waiting to be opened. Long overdue mundane household chores that I could justify postponing because of the importance of getting the book finished.
With Inauguration Day just a few days past, I expect to be spending some time following the new Administration. I wonder if we will see any changes in Trump’s behavior once he has been sworn in and, perhaps tones down his insecurity index. I can’t go quite as far as Ronald Reagan did in his stance on dealing with the Russians, ironically invoking an old Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” The original is in the form of a short rhyme, Доверяй, но проверяй (doveryai, no proveryai). Suspicious source, but I doubt that Reagan had any ties to Moscow. Update after 3 days: the answer is no.
The verify half of this is very important, but I expect will be difficult because of the shortage of reliable information, a condition that will probably get worse before, if ever, it gets better. The trust half doesn’t apply for me. The election process left me devoid of whatever leeway I normally have in observing what goes for politics lately. The transition process has moved my bullshit detector even closer to the redline. Update: We can expect to be fed a stream of ‘alternate facts.” I will be on the lookout for all sorts of apples rising from the trees.
Meanwhile, flourishing got a push from the United Nations recently. I got a note from a friend telling me of a meeting at the UN to work on a project that had been started a few years ago. To provide some context I quote from the document that was the focus of this meeting.
In reflecting in depth on the 2030 Development Agenda, in October 2015, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) convened a dialogue around the question: “ What deep human and organizational transformation is required to support the goals of sustainable development, and how might such transformation arise in human beings who have experienced suffering and trauma?” Around the table were respected policy experts, psychologists, neuroscientists, academics, ethicists, journalists, spiritual leaders and those who work in the field delivering UN programs. Their collective interest was to consider the question of human flourishing and sustainability with attention to an increasingly global, inter-spiritual and multicultural convergence on the “interconnectedness” of the world’s seven billion people. The main conclusion was that sustainable development requires a “spiritual transformation” of ourselves and the organizations we are linked with that actively extends to the societal, global, and ecological levels. (My emphasis)
I do not have any details of the meeting, but believe it was devoted to this idea of ‘spiritual transformation.” The document clearly, in my reading, argues that sustainable development taken in the economic sense alone is insufficient to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
I am not sure I would have chosen the word spiritual to contain the program being developed, but, in any case, the arguments are very close to those I make. The document stresses interconnectedness and what I call caring actions. I cannot say much more now because I was not at this recent meeting.
I am surprised and a bit embarrassed that I had not heard of this initiative at the UN. I am very impressed with the way they speak about “sustainable development as a transformative spiritual phenomenon,” clearly making the goal distinct. The most intriguing part of this document is the reference to authenticity. It is hard to find this idea mentioned anywhere, but in a bureaucratic document from the UN. It is clear to me that the framers of this do understand that the kind of acts they argue are necessary can come only from a very special kind of care, care I call authentic. Such care shows up only when the actor sees acknowledges the legitimate needs of the target of action. I call this an act of love; so does the UN document.
An elevation in the experience of oneness, conscience, and unconditional love that is necessary for human progress is imperative if we are to respond fully to the suffering caused by inequalities, violence, natural disasters, wars, and displacements and post-conflicts that have become chronic for individuals and entire communities around the world. Many people everywhere now are searching for ways to pull hearts together based on the consciousness of oneness. They are turning toward many perennial forms of spiritual practice where the authentic self can shine through into a life of inner peace and love
Wow! I am looking to see how to get involved. This effort is a ray of light for me in a sea of gloom.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 23, 2017 2:27 PM ::