I recently read The Singularity is Near as part of a book club and figured a few other people might benefit from hearing what I got out of it.
First – it was a useful book. I shed a lot of my skepticism of the singularity as I read it. My mindset has shifted from “a lot of this seems impossible” to “some of this seems impossible, but a lot of it is just incredibly hard engineering”. But that’s because I stuck with it – something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the structure of a book club.
I’m not sure Kurzweil is actually the right author for this message. Accelerando (by Charles Stross) covered much of the same material as Singularity, while being incredibly engaging. Kurzweil’s writing is technically fine – he can string a sentence together and he’s clear – but incredibly repetitious. If you read the introduction, the introduction of each chapter, all of Chapter 4 (in my opinion, the only consistently good part of the book proper), and his included responses to critics (the only other interesting part of the whole tome) you’ll get all the worthwhile content, while saving yourself a good ten hours of hearing the same thing over and over and over again. Control-C/Control-V may have been a cheap way for Kurzweil to pad his word count, but it’s expensive to the reader.
I have three other worries about Kurzweil as a futurist. One deals with his understanding of some of the more technical aspects of what he’s talking about, especially physics. Here’s a verbatim quote from Singularity about nuclear weapons:
Alfred Nobel discovered dynamite by probing chemical interactions of molecules. The atomic bomb, which is tens of thousands of times more powerful than dynamite, is based on nuclear interactions involving large atoms, which are much smaller scales of matter than large molecules. The hydrogen bomb, which is thousands of times more powerful than an atomic bomb, is based on interactions involving an even smaller scale: small atoms. Although this insight does not necessarily imply the existence of yet more powerful destructive chain reactions by manipulating subatomic particles, it does make the conjecture [that we can make more powerful weapons using sub-atomics physics] plausible.
This is false on several levels. First, uranium and plutonium (the fissile isotopes used in atomic bombs) are both more massive (in the sense that they contain more matter) than the nitroglycerine in dynamite. Even if fissile isotopes are smaller in one dimension, they are on the same scale as the molecules that make up high explosives. Second, the larger energy output from hydrogen bombs has nothing to do with the relative size of hydrogen vs. uranium. Long time readers will know that the majority of the destructive output of a hydrogen bomb actually comes from fission of the uranium outer shell. Hydrogen bombs (more accurately thermonuclear weapons) derive their immense power from a complicated multi-step process that liberates a lot of energy from the nuclei of atoms.
Kurzweil falling for this plausible (but entirely incorrect) explanation doesn’t speak well of his ability to correctly pick apart the plausible and true from the plausible and false in fields he is unfamiliar with. But it’s this very picking apart that is so critical for someone who wants to undertake such a general survey of science.
My second qualm emerges when Kurzweil talks about AI safety. Or rather, it arises from the lack of any substantive discussion of AI safety in a book about the singularity. As near as I can tell, Kurzweil believes that AI will emerge naturally from attempts to functionally reverse engineer the human brain. Kurzweil believes that because this AI will be essentially human, there will be no problems with value alignment.
This seems very different from the Bostromian paradigm of dangerously misaligned AI: AI with ostensibly benign goals that turn out to be inimical to human life when taken to their logical conclusion. The most common example I’ve heard for this paradigm is an industrial AI tasked with maximizing paper clip production that tiles the entire solar system with paper clips.
Kurzweil is so convinced that the first AI will be based on reverse engineering the brain that he doesn’t adequately grapple with the orthogonality thesis: the observation that intelligence and comprehensible (to humans) goals don’t need to be correlated. I see no reason to believe Kurzweil that the first super-intelligence will be based off a human. I think to believe that it would be based on a human, you’d have to assume that various university research projects will beat Google and Facebook (who aren’t trying to recreate functional human brains in silica) in the race to develop a general AI. I think that is somewhat unrealistic, especially if there are paths to general intelligence that look quite different from our brains.
Finally, I’m unhappy with how Kurzweil’s predictions are sprinkled throughout the book, vague, and don’t include confidence intervals. The only clear prediction I was able to find was Kurzweil’s infamously false assertion that by ~2010, our computers would be split up and worn with our clothing.
It would be much easier to assess Kurzweil’s accuracy as a predictor if he listed all of his predictions together in a single section, applied to them clear target dates (e.g. less vague than: “in the late 2020s”), and gave his credence (as it stands, it is hard to distinguish between things Kurzweil believes are very likely and things he views as only somewhat likely). Currently any attempts to assess Kurzweil’s accuracy are very sensitive to what you choose to view as “a prediction” and how you interpret his timing. More clarity would make this unambiguous.
Furthermore, we’ve already began to bump up against the limit on clock speed in silicon; we can’t really run silicon chips at higher clock rates without melting them. This is unfortunate, because speed ups in clock time are much nicer than increased parallelism. Almost all programs benefit from quicker processing, while only certain programs benefit from increased parallelism. This isn’t an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to things like artificial intelligence (the human brain has a very slow clock speed and massive parallelism and it’s obviously good enough to get lots done), but it does mean that some things that Kurzweil were counting on to get quicker and quicker have stalled out (the book was written just as the Dennard Scaling began to break down).
All this means that the exponential growth that is supposed to drive the singularity is about to fizzle out… maybe. Kurzweil is convinced that the slowdown in silicon will necessarily lead to a paradigm shift to something else. But I’m not sure what it will be. He talks a bit about graphene, but when I was doing my degree in nanotechnology engineering, the joke among the professors was that graphene could do anything… except make it out of the lab.
Kurzweil has an almost religious faith that there will be another paradigm shift, keeping his exponential trend going strong. And I want to be really clear that I’m not saying there won’t be. I’m just saying there might not be. There is no law of the universe that says that we have to have convenient paradigm shifts. We could get stuck with linear (or even logarithmic) incremental improvements for years, decades, or even centuries before we resume exponential growth in computing power.
It does seem like ardent belief in the singularity might attract more religiously minded atheists. Kurzweil himself believes that it is our natural destiny to turn the whole universe into computational substrate. Identifying god with the most holy and perfect (in fine medieval tradition; there’s something reminiscent of Anselm in Kurzweil’s arguments), Kurzweil believes that once every atom in the universe sings with computation, we will have created god.
I don’t believe that humanity has any grand destiny, or that the arc of history bends towards anything at all in particular. And I by no means believe that the singularity is assured, technologically or socially. But it is a beautiful vision. Human flourishing, out to the very edges of the cosmos…
Yeah, I want that too. I’m a religiously minded atheist, after all.
In both disposition and beliefs, I’m far closer to Kurzweil than his many detractors. I think “degrowth” is an insane policy that if followed, would create scores of populist demagogues. I think that the Chinese room argument is good only for identifying people who don’t think systemically. I’m also more or less in agreement that government regulations won’t be able to stop a singularity (if one is going to occur because of continuing smooth acceleration in the price performance of information technology; regulation could catch up if a slowdown between paradigm shifts gives it enough time).
I think the singularity very well might happen. And at the end of the day, the only real difference between me and Kurzweil is that “might”.
Foreword: November 8th was one of the worst nights of my life, in a way that might have bled through – just a bit, mind you – into this review. My position will probably mellow as the memories of my fear and disappointment fade.
My latest non-fiction read was Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. In addition to making me consider a career in political consultancy, it gave me a welcome insight into some of the fascinating choices the Clinton campaign made during the election.
I really do believe this book was going to rip on the campaign no matter the outcome. Had Clinton won, the thesis would have been “the race was closer than it needed to be”, not “Clinton’s campaign was brilliant”.
Despite that, I should give the classic disclaimer: I could be wrong about the authors; it’s entirely possible that they’d have extolled the brilliance of Clinton had she won. It’s also true that Clinton almost won and if she had, she would have captured the presidency in an extremely cost-effective way.
But almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades and an election is neither. Clinton lost. The 11th hour letter from Comey to congress and Russian hacking may have tipped her over, but ultimately it was the decisions of her campaign that allowed Donald Trump to be within spitting distance of her at all.
Shattered lays a lot of blame for those bad decisions in the lap of Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. Throughout the book, he’s portrayed as dogmatically obsessed with data, refusing to do anything that doesn’t come up as optimal in his models. It was Mook who refused to do polling (because he thought his analytics provided almost the same information at a fraction of the cost), Mook who refused to condone any attempts at persuading undecided or weak Trump voters to back Clinton, Mook who consistently denied resources to swing state team leads, and Mook who responded to Bill Clinton’s worries about anti-establishment sentiment and white anger with “the data run counter to your anecdotes”.
We now have a bit more context in which to view Mook’s “data” and Bill’s “anecdotes”.
I’m a committed empiricist, but Mook’s “data driven” approach made me repeatedly wince. Anything that couldn’t be measured was discounted as unimportant. Anything that wasn’t optimal was forbidden. And any external validation of models – say via polls – was vetoed because Mook didn’t want to “waste” money validating models he was so confident in.
Mook treated the election as a simple optimization problem – he thought he knew how many votes or how much turnout was associated with every decision he could make, and he assumed that if he fed all this into computers, he’d get the definitive solution to the election.
The problem here is that elections remain unsolved. There doesn’t exist an equation that lets you win an election. There’s too many factors and too many unknowns and you aren’t acting in a vacuum. You have an opponent who is actively countering you. And it should go almost without saying that an optimal solution to an election is only possible if the solution can be kept secret. If your opponent knows your solution, they will find a way to counter it.
Given that elections are intractable as simple optimization problems, a smart campaign will rely on experienced humans to make major decisions. Certainly, these humans should be armed with the best algorithms, projections, data, and cost-benefit analyses that a campaign can supply. But to my (outsider) eyes, it seems absolutely unconscionable to cut out the human element and ignore all of the accumulated experience a campaign brain trust can bring to bear on an election. Clinton didn’t lack for a brain trust, but her brain trust certainly lacked for opportunities to make decisions.
Not all the blame can rest on Mook though. The campaign ultimately comes down to a candidate and quite frankly, there were myriad ways in which Clinton wasn’t that great of a candidate.
First: vision. She didn’t have one. Clinton felt at home in policy, so her campaign had a lot of it. She treated the election like a contest to create policy that would apply to the rational self-interest of a winning coalition of voters. Trump tried to create a story that would appeal to the self-conception of a winning coalition of voters.
I don’t think one is necessarily superior to the other, but I’ve noticed that charismatic and generally liked leaders (Trudeau, Macron, Obama if we count his relatively high approval ratings at the end of his presidency) manage to combine both. Clinton was the “establishment” candidate, the candidate that was supposed to be good at elections. She had every opportunity to learn to use both tools. But she only ever used one, depriving her of a critical weapon against her opponent. In this way, she was a lot like Romney.
(Can you imagine Clinton vs. Romney? That would have been high comedy right there.)
After vision comes baggage. Clinton had a whole mule train of it. Her emails, her speeches, her work for the Clinton foundation – there were plenty of time bombs there. I know the standard progressive talking point is that Clinton had baggage because a woman had to be in politics as long as she did before she would be allowed to run for the presidency. And if her baggage was back room deals with foreign despots or senate subcommittees (the two generally differ only in the lavishness of the receptions they throw, not their moral character) that explanation would be all well and good.
But Clinton used a private email server because she didn’t want the laws on communication disclosures apply to her. She gave paid speeches and hid the transcripts because she felt entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars and (apparently) thought she could take the money and then remain impartial.
Both of these unforced errors showed poor judgement and entitlement. They weren’t banal expressions of the compromises people need to make to govern. They showed real contempt for the electorate, in that they sought to deny voters a chance to hold Clinton accountable for what she said, both as the nation’s top diplomat and as (perhaps only briefly) its most exorbitantly compensated public speaker.
As she was hiding things, I doubt Clinton explicitly thought “fuck the voters, I don’t care what they think”, it was instead probably “damned if I’m giving everyone more ammunition to get really angry about”. Unfortunately, the second isn’t benign in a democracy, where responsible government first and foremost requires politicians to be responsible to voters for all of their beliefs and actions, even the ones they’d rather keep out of the public eye. To allow any excuse at all to be used to escape from responsible government undermines the very idea of it.
As a personal note, I think it was stupid of Clinton to be so contemptuous because it made her long-term goals more difficult, but I also think her contempt was understandable in light of the fact that she’s waded through more bullshit in the service of her country than any five other politicians combined. Politicians are humans and make mistakes and it’s possible to understand and sympathize with the ways those mistakes come from human frailty while also condemning the near-term effects (lost elections) and long-term effects (decreased trust in democratic institutions) of bad decisions.
The final factor that Clinton deserves blame for is her terrible management style. When talking about management, Peter Thiel opined that only a sociopath would give two people the same job. If this is true – I’m inclined to trust him under the principle that it takes one to know one – Clinton is a sociopath. There was no clear chain of command for the campaign. At every turn, people could see their work undone by well-connected “Clinton World” insiders. The biggest miracle is that the members of the campaign managed to largely keep this on the down-low.
Clinton made much of Obama’s 2008 “drama free” campaign. She wanted her 2016 campaign to run the same way. But instead of adopting the management habits that Obama used to engender loyalty, she decided that the differences lay everywhere but in the candidates; if only she had better, more loyal people working for her, she’d have the drama free campaign she desired. And so, she cleaned house, started fresh, and demanded that there would be no drama. As far as the media was concerned, there wasn’t. But under the surface, things were brutal.
Mook hid information from pretty much everyone because his position felt precarious. No one told Abedin anything because they knew she’d tell it right to Clinton, especially if it wasn’t complementary. Everyone was scared that their colleagues would stab them in the back to prove their loyalty to Clinton. Employees who failed were stripped of almost all responsibilities, but never fired. In 2008, fired employees ‘took the axes they had to grind, sharpened them, and jammed them in Clinton’s back during media interviews’. Clinton learned lessons from that, but I’m not sure if they were the right ones.
I’m not sure how much of this was text and how much was subtext, but I emerged from Shattered feeling that the blame for losing the election can’t stop with the Clinton camp. There’s also Bernie Sanders. I don’t think anyone can blame him for talking about emails and speeches, but I’ve come to believe that the chip on his shoulder about the unfairness of the primary was way out of line; if anyone in the Democratic Party beat Clinton on a sense of entitlement, it was Sanders.
Politics is a team sport. You can’t accomplish anything alone, so you have to rely on other people. Clinton (whatever her flaws) was reliable. She fought and she bled and she suffered for the Democratic Party. Insofar as anyone has ever been owed a nomination, Clinton was owed this one.
Sanders hadn’t even fundraised for the party. And he expected them not to do whatever they could for Clinton? Why? He was an outsider trying to hijack their institution. His complaints would have been fair from a Democrat, but from an independent socialist?
On the Republican side, Trump had the same thing going on (and presumably would have been equally damaging to another nominee had he lost). In both cases, the party owed them nothing. It was childish of Bernie to go on like the party was supposed to be impartial.
(Also, in what meaningful ways vis a vis ability to hire staff and coordinate policy would you expect a Sanders White House to be different from the Trump White House? If you didn’t answer “none”, then you have some serious thinking to do.)
You’d think the effect of all of this would be for me to feel contempt for the Democratic Party in general and Clinton in particular. But aside from Sanders, I came out of it feeling really sorry for everyone involved.
I felt sorry for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Sanders’ inflammatory rhetoric necessitated throwing her under the bus right before the convention. She didn’t take it gracefully, but then, how could she? She’d flown her whole family from Florida to Philadelphia to see her moment of triumph as Chairwoman of the DNC speaking at the Democratic National Convention and had it all taken away from her so that Sanders’ supporters wouldn’t riot (and apparently it was still a near thing). She spent the better part of the day negotiating her exit with the Clinton campaign’s COO, instead of appearing on the stage like she’d hoped to. The DNC ended up footing the bill for flying her family home.
I felt sorry for Mook. He had a hard job and less power and budget than were necessary to do it well. He trusted his models too much, but this is partially because he was really good with them. Mook’s math made it almost impossible for Sanders to win. Clinton had been terrible at delegate math in 2008. Mook redeemed that. To give just one example of his brilliance, he prioritized media spending in districts with an odd number of delegates, which meant that Clinton won an outside number of delegates from her wins and losses .
I felt sorry for the whole Clinton campaign. Things went so wrong, so often that they had a saying: “we don’t get to have nice things”. Media ignores four Clinton victories to focus on one of Sanders’? “We don’t get to have nice things”. Trump goes off the rails, but it gets overshadowed by the ancient story about emails? “We don’t get to have nice things.”
Several members of the campaign had their emails hacked (probably by the Russians). Instead of reporting on the Russian interference and Russian ties to the Trump campaign, the media talked about those emails over and over again in the last month of the election . That must have been maddening for the candidate and her team.
Even despite that, I felt sorry for the press, who by and large didn’t want Trump to win, but were forced by a string of terrible incentives to consistently cover Clinton in an exceedingly damning way. If you want to see Moloch‘s hand at work, look no further than reporting on the 2016 election.
But most of all, I felt sorry for Clinton. Here was a woman who had spent her whole adult life in politics, largely motivated by a desire to help women and children (causes she’d been largely successful at). As Secretary of State, she flew 956,733 miles (equivalent to two round trips to the moon) and visited 112 countries. She lost two races for the presidency. And it must have been so crushing to have bled and fought and given so much, to think she’d finally succeeded, then to have it all taken away from her by Donald Trump.
Yet, she conceded anyway. She was crushed, but she ensured that America’s legacy of peaceful transfers of power would continue.
November 8th may have been one of the worst nights of my life. But I’m not self-absorbed enough to think my night was even remotely as bad as Clinton’s. Clinton survived the worst the world could do to her and is still breathing and still trying to figure out what to do next. If her campaign gave me little to admire, that makes up a good bit of the gap.
I really recommend Shattered for anyone who wants to see just how off the rails a political campaign can go when it’s buffeted by a combination of candidate ineptitude, unclear chains of command, and persistent attacks from a foreign adversary. It’s a bit repetitious at times, which was sometimes annoying and sometimes helpful (especially when I’d forgotten who was who), but otherwise grippingly and accessibly written. The fascinating subject matter more than makes up for any small burrs in the delivery.
 In a district that has an odd number of delegates, winning by a single vote meant an extra delegate. In a district with 6 delegates, you’d get 3 delegates if you won between 50% and 67% of the votes. In a district with 7, you’d get 4 if you won by even a single vote, and five once you surpassed 71%. If a state has ten counties, four with seven delegates and six with six delegates, you can win the state by four delegates if you squeak to a win in the four districts with seven delegates and win at least 34% of the vote in each of the others. In practice, statewide delegates prevent such wonky scenarios except when the vote is really close, but this sort of math remains vital to winning a close race. ^
 WikiLeaks released the hacked emails a few hundred a day for the last month of the election, starting right after the release of Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” video. This steady drip-drip-drip of bad press was very damaging for the Clinton campaign, especially because many people didn’t differentiate this from the other Clinton-email story.
The author is one Sir Bernard Williams. According to his Wikipedia, he was a particularly humanistic philosopher in the old Greek mode. He was skeptical of attempts to build an analytical foundation for moral philosophy and of his own prowess in arguments. It seems that he had something pithy or cutting to say about everything, which made him notably cautious of pithy or clever answers. He’s also described as a proto-feminist, although you wouldn’t know it from his writing.
Williams didn’t write his essay out of a rationalist desire to disprove utilitarianism with pure reason (a concept he seemed every bit as sceptical of as Smart was). Instead, Williams wrote this essay because he agrees with Smart that utilitarianism is a “distinctive way of looking at human action and morality”. It’s just that unlike Smart, Williams finds the specific distinctive perspective of utilitarianism often horrible.
Smart anticipated this sort of reaction to his essay. He himself despaired of finding a single ethical system that could please anyone, or even please a single person in all their varied moods.
One of the very first things I noticed in Williams’ essay was the challenge of attacking utilitarianism on its own terms. To convince a principled utilitarian that utilitarianism is a poor choice of ethical system, it is almost always necessary to appeal to the consequences of utilitarianism. This forces any critic to frame their arguments a certain way, a way which might feel unnatural. Or repugnant.
Williams begins his essay proper with (appropriately) a discussion of consequences. He points out that it is difficult to hold actions as valuable purely by their consequences because this forces us to draw arbitrary lines in time and declare the state of the world at that time the “consequences”. After all, consequences continue to unfold forever (or at least, until the heat death of the universe). To have anything to talk about at all Williams decides that it is not quite consequences that consequentialism cares about, but states of affairs.
Utilitarianism is the form of consequentialism that has happiness as its sole important value and seeks to bring about the state of affairs with the most happiness. I like how Williams undid the begging the question that utilitarianism commonly does. He essentially asks ‘why should happiness be the only thing we treat as intrinsically valuable?’ Williams mercifully didn’t drive this home, but I was still left with uncomfortable questions for myself.
Instead he moves on to his first deep observation. You see, if consequentialism was just about valuing certain states of affairs more than others, you could call deontology a form of consequentialism that held that duty was the only intrinsically valuable thing. But that can’t be right, because deontology is clearly different from consequentialism. The distinction, that Williams suggests is that consequentialists discount the possibility of actions holding any inherent moral weight. For a consequentialist, an action is right because it brings about a better state of affairs. For non-consequentialists, a state of affairs can be better – even if it contains less total happiness or integrity or whatever they care about than a counterfactual state of affairs given a different action – because the right action was taken.
A deontologist would say that it is right for someone to do their duty in a way that ends up publically and spectacularly tragic, such that it turns a thousand people off of doing their own duty. A consequentialist who viewed duty as important for the general moral health of society – who, in Smart’s terminology, viewed acting from duty as good – would disagree.
Williams points out that this very emphasis on comparing states of affairs (so natural to me) is particularly consequentialist and utilitarian. That is to say, it is not particularly meaningful for a deontologist or a virtue ethicist to compare states of affairs. Deontologists have no duty to maximize the doing of duty; if you ask a deontologist to choose between a state of affairs that has one hundred people doing their duty and another that has a thousand, it’s not clear that either state is preferable from their point of view. Sure, deontologists think people should do their duty. But duty embodied in actions is the point, not some cosmic tally of duty.
Put as a moral statement, non-consequentialists lack any obligation to bring about more of what they see as morally desirable. A consequentialist may feel both fondness for and a moral imperative to bring about a universe where more people are happy. Non- consequentialists only have the fondness.
One deontologist of my acquaintance said that trying to maximize utility felt pointless – they viewed it as morally important as having a high score on a Tetris game. We ended up starting at each other in blank incomprehension.
In Williams’ view, rejection of consequentialism doesn’t necessarily lead to deontology, though. He sums it up simply as: “all that is involved… in the denial of consequentialism, is that with respect to some type of action, there are some situations in which that would be the right thing to do, even though the state of affairs produced by one’s doing that would be worse than some other state of affairs accessible to one.”
A deontologist will claim right actions must be taken no matter the consequences, but to be non-consequentalist, an ethical system merely has to claim that some actions are right despite a variety of more or less bad consequences that might arise from them.
Or, as I wrote angrily in the margins: “ok, so not necessarily deontology, justaccepting sub-maximal global utility“. It is hard to explain to a non-utilitarian just how much this bugs me, but I’m not going to go all rationalist and claim that I have a good reason for this belief.
Williams then turns his attention to the ways in which he thinks utilitarianism’s insistency on quantifying and comparing everything is terrible. Williams believes that by refusing to categorically rule any action out (or worse, specifically trying to come up with situations in which we might do horrific things), utilitarianism encourages people – even non-utilitarians who bump into utilitarian thought experiments – to think of things in utilitarian (that is to say, explicitly comparative) terms. It seems like Williams would prefer there to be actions that are clearly ruled out, not just less likely to be justified.
I get the impression of a man almost tearing out his hair because for him, there exist actions that are wrong under all circumstances and here we are, talking about circumstances in which we’d do them. There’s a kernel of truth here too. I think there can be a sort of bravado in accepting utilitarian conclusions. Yeah, I’m tough enough that I’d kill one to save one thousand? You wouldn’t? I guess you’re just soft and old-fashioned. For someone who cares as much about virtue as I think Williams does, this must be abhorrent.
I loved how Williams summed this up.
The demand… to think the unthinkable is not an unquestionable demand of rationality, set against a cowardly or inert refusal to follow out one’s moral thoughts. Rationality he sees as a demand not merely on him, but on the situations in and about which he has to think; unless the environment reveals minimum sanity, it is insanity to carry the decorum of sanity into it.
For all that I enjoyed the phrasing, I don’t see how this changes anything; there is nothing at all sane about the current world. A life is worth something like $7 million to $9 million and yet can be saved for less than $5000. This planet contains some of the most wrenching poverty and lavish luxury imaginable, often in the very same cities. Where is the sanity? If Williams thinks sane situations are a reasonable precondition to sane action, then he should see no one on earth with a duty to act sanely.
The next topic Williams covers is responsibility. He starts by with a discussion of agent interchangeability in utilitarianism. Williams believes that utilitarianism merely requires someone do the right thing. This implies that to the utilitarian, there is no meaningful difference between me doing the utilitarian right action and you doing it, unless something about me doing it instead of you leads to a different outcome.
This utter lack of concern for who does what, as long as the right thing gets done doesn’t actually seem to absolve utilitarians of responsibility. Instead, it tends to increase it. Williams says that unlike adherents of many ethical systems, utilitarians have negative responsibilities; they are just as much responsible for the things they don’t do as they are for the things they do. If someone has to and no one else will, then you have to.
This doesn’t strike me as that unique to utilitarianism. I was raised Catholic and can attest that Catholics (who are supposed to follow a form of virtue ethics) have a notion of negative responsibility too. Every mass, as Catholics ask forgiveness before receiving the Eucharist they ask God for forgiveness for their sins, in thoughts and words, in what they have done and in what they have failed to do.
Leaving aside whether the concept of negative responsibility is uniquely utilitarian or not, Williams does see problems with it. Negative responsibility makes so much of what we do dependent on the people around us. You may wish to spend your time quietly growing vegetables, but be unable to do so because you have a particular skill – perhaps even one that you don’t really enjoy doing – that the world desperately needs. Or you may wish never to take a life, yet be confronted with a run-away trolley that can only be diverted from hitting five people by pulling the lever that makes it hit one.
This didn’t really make sense to me as a criticism until I learned that Williams deeply cares about people living authentic lives. In both the cases above, authenticity played no role in the utilitarian calculus. You must do things, perhaps things you find abhorrent, because other people have set up the world such that terrible outcomes would happen if you didn’t.
It seems that Williams might consider it a tragedy for someone feel compelled by their ethical system to do something that is inauthentic. I imagine he views this as about as much of a crying waste of human potential as I view the yearly deaths of 429,000 people due to malaria. For all my personal sympathy for him I am less than sympathetic to a view that gives these the same weight (or treats inauthenticity as the greater tragedy).
Radical authenticity requires us to ignore society. Yes, utilitarianism plops us in the middle of a web of dependencies and a buffeting sea of choices that were not ours, while demanding we make the best out of it all. But our moral philosophies surely are among the things that push us towards an authentic life. Would Williams view it as any worse that someone was pulled from her authentic way of living because she would starve otherwise?
To me, there is a certain authenticity in following your ethical system wherever it leads. I find this authenticity beautiful, but not worthy of moral consideration, except insofar as it affects happiness. Williams finds this authenticity deeply important. But by rejecting consequentialism, he has no real way to argue for more of the qualities he desires, except perhaps as a matter of aesthetics.
It seems incredibly counter-productive to me to say to people – people in the midst of a society that relentlessly pulls them away from authenticity with impersonal market forces – that they should turn away from the one ethical system that seems to have as the desired outcome a happier system. A Kantian has her duty to duty, but as long as she does that, she cares not for the system. A virtue ethicist wishes to be virtuous and authentic, but outside of her little bubble of virtue, the terrors go on unabated. It’s only the utilitarian who can holds a better society as an end into itself.
Maybe this is just me failing to grasp non-utilitarian epistemologies. It baffles me to hear “this thing is good and morally important, but it’s not like we think it’s morally important for there to be more of it; that goes too far!”. Is this a strawman? If someone could explain what Williams is getting at here in terms I can understand, I’d be most grateful.
I do think Williams misses one key thing when discussing the utilitarian response to negative responsibility. Actions should be assessed on the margin, not in isolation. That is to say, the marginal effect of someone becoming a doctor, or undertaking some other career generally considered benevolent is quite low if there are others also willing to do the job. A doctor might personally save hundreds, or even thousands of lives over her career, but her marginal impact will be saving something like 25 lives.
The reasons for this are manifold. First, when there are few doctors, they tend to concentrate on the most immediately life-threatening problems. As you add more and more doctors, they can help, but after a certain point, the supply of doctors will outstrip the demand for urgent life-saving attention. They can certainly help with other tasks, but they will each save fewer lives than the first few doctors.
Second, there is a somewhat fixed supply of doctors. Despite many, many people wishing they could be doctors, only so many can get spots in medical school. Even assuming that medical school admissions departments are perfectly competent at assessing future skill at being a doctor (and no one really believes they are), your decision to attend medical school (and your successful admission) doesn’t result in one extra doctor. It simply means that you were slightly better than the next best person (who would have been admitted if you weren’t).
Finally, when you become a doctor you don’t replace one of the worst already practising doctors. Instead, you replace a retiring doctor who is (for statistical purposes) about average for her cohort.
All of this is to say that utilitarians should judge actions on the margin, not in absolute terms. It isn’t that bad (from a utilitarian perspective) not devote all your attentions to the most effective direct work, because unless a certain project is very constrained by the number of people working on it, you shouldn’t expect to make much marginal difference. On the other hand, earning a lot of money and giving it to highly effective charities (or even a more modest commitment, like donating 10% of your income) is likely to do a huge amount of good, because most people don’t do this, so you’re replacing a person at a high paying job who was doing (from a utilitarian perspective) very little good.
Williams either isn’t familiar with this concept, or omitted it in the interest of time or space.
Williams next topic is remoter effects. A remoter effect is any effect that your actions have on the decision making of other people. For example, if you’re a politician and you lie horribly, are caught, and get re-elected by a large margin, a possible remoter effect is other politicians lying more often. With the concept of remoter effects, Williams is pointing at what I call second order utilitarianism.
Williams makes a valid point that many of the justifications from remoter effects that utilitarians make are very weak. For example, despite what some utilitarians claim, telling a white lie (or even telling any lie that is unpublicized) doesn’t meaningfully reduce the propensity of everyone in the world to tell the truth.
Williams thinks that many utilitarians get away with claiming remoter effects as justification because they tend to be used as way to make utilitarianism give the common, respectable answers to ethical dilemmas. He thinks people would be much more skeptical of remoter effects if they were ever used to argue for positions that are uncommonly held.
This point about remoter effects was, I think, a necessary precursor to Williams’ next thought experiment. He asks us to imagine a society with two groups, A and B. There are many more members of A than B. Furthermore, members of A are disgusted by the presence (or even the thought of the presence) of members of group B. In this scenario, there has to exist some level of disgust and some ratio between A and B that makes the clear utilitarian best option relocating all members of group B to a different country.
With Williams’ recent reminder that most remoter effects are weaker than we like to think still ringing in my ears, I felt fairly trapped by this dilemma. There are clear remoter effects here: you may lose the ability to advocate against this sort of ethnic cleansing in other countries. Successful, minimally condemned ethnic cleansing could even encourage copy-cats. In the real world, these are might both be valid rejoinders, but for the purposes of this thought experiment, it’s clear these could be nullified (e.g. if we assume few other societies like this one and a large direct utility gain).
The only way out that Williams sees fit to offer us is an obvious trap. What if we claimed that the feelings of group A were entirely irrational and that they should just learn to live with them? Then we wouldn’t be stuck advocating for what is essentially ethnic cleansing. But humans are not rational actors. If we were to ignore all such irrational feelings, then utilitarianism would no longer be a pragmatic ethical system that interacts with the world as it is. Instead, it would involve us interacting with the world as we wish it to be.
Furthermore, it is always a dangerous game to discount other people’s feelings as irrational. The problem with the word irrational (in the vernacular, not utilitarian sense) is that no one really agrees on what is irrational. I have an intuitive sense of what is obviously irrational. But so, alas, do you. These senses may align in some regions (e.g. we both may view it as irrational to be angry because of a belief that the government is controlled by alien lizard-people), but not necessarily in others. For example, you may view my atheism as deeply irrational. I obviously do not.
Williams continues this critique to point out that much of the discomfort that comes from considering – or actually doing – things the utilitarian way comes from our moral intuitions. While Smart and I are content to discount these feelings, Williams is horrified at the thought. To view discomfort from moral intuitions as something outside yourself, as an unpleasant and irrational emotion to be avoided, is – to Williams – akin to losing all sense of moral identity.
This strikes me as more of a problem for rationalist philosophers. If you believe that morality can be rationally determined via the correct application of pure reason, then moral intuitions must be key to that task. From a materialist point of view though, moral intuitions are evolutionary baggage, not signifiers of something deeper.
Still, Williams made me realize that this left me vulnerable to the question “what is the purpose of having morality at all if you discount the feelings that engender morality in most people?”, a question to which I’m at a loss to answer well. All I can say (tautologically) is “it would be bad if there was no morality”; I like morality and want it to keep existing, but I can’t ground it in pure reason or empiricism; no stone tablets have come from the world. Religions are replete with stone tablets and justifications for morality, but they come with metaphysical baggage that I don’t particularly want to carry. Besides, if there was a hell, utilitarians would have to destroy it.
I honestly feel like a lot of my disagreement with Williams comes from our differing positions on the intuitive/systematizing axis. Williams has an intuitive, fluid, and difficult to articulate sense of ethics that isn’t necessarily transferable or even explainable. I have a system that seems workable and like it will lead to better outcomes. But it’s a system and it does have weird, unintuitive corner cases.
Williams talks about how integrity is a key moral stance (I think motivated by his insistence on authenticity). I agree with him as to the instrumental utility of integrity (people won’t want to work with you or help you if you’re an ass or unreliable). But I can’t ascribe integrity some sort of quasi-metaphysical importance or treat it as a terminal value in itself.
In the section on integrity, Williams comes back to negative responsibility. I do really respect Williams’ ability to pepper his work with interesting philosophical observations. When talking about negative responsibility, he mentions that most moral systems acknowledge some difference between allowing an action to happen and causing it yourself.
Williams believes the moral difference between action and inaction is conceptually important, “but it is unclear, both in itself and in its moral applications, and the unclarities are of a kind which precisely cause it to give way when, in very difficult cases, weight has to be put on it”. I am jealous three times over at this line, first at the crystal-clear metaphor, second at the broadly applicable thought underlying the metaphor, and third at the precision of language with which Williams pulls it off.
(I found Williams a less consistent writer than Smart. Smart wrote his entire essay in a tone of affable explanation and managed to inject a shocking amount of simplicity into a complicated subject. Williams frequently confused me – which I feel comfortable blaming at least in part on our vastly different axioms – but he was capable of shockingly resonant turns of phrase.)
I doubt Williams would be comfortable to come down either way on inaction’s equivalence to action. To the great humanist, it must ultimately (I assume) come down to the individual humans and what they authentically believed. Williams here is scoffing at the very idea of trying to systematize this most slippery of distinctions.
For utilitarians, the absence or presence of a distinction is key to figuring out what they must do. Utilitarianism can imply “a boundless obligation… to improve the world”. How a utilitarian undertakes this general project (of utility maximization) will be a function of how she can affect the world, but it cannot, to Williams, ever be the only project anyone undertakes. If it were the only project, underlain by no other projects, then it will, in Williams words, be “vacuous”.
The utilitarian can argue that her general project will not be the only project, because most people aren’t utilitarian and therefore have their own projects going on. Of course, this only gets us so far. Does this imply that the utilitarian should not seek to convince too many others of her philosophy?
What does it even mean for the general utilitarian project to be vacuous? As best I can tell, what Williams means is that if everyone were utilitarian, we’d all care about maximally increasing the utility of the world, but either be clueless where to start or else constantly tripping over each other (imagine, if you can, millions of people going to sub-Saharan Africa to distribute bed nets, all at the same time). The first order projects that Williams believes must underlay a more general project are things like spending times with friends, or making your family happy. Williams also believes that it might be very difficult for anyone to be happy without some of these more personal projects
I would suggest that what each utilitarian should do is what they are best suited for. But I’m not sure if this is coherent without some coordinating body (i.e. a god) ensuring that people are well distributed for all of the projects that need doing. I can also suppose that most people can’t go that far on willpower. That is to say, there are few people who are actually psychologically capable of working to improve the world in a way they don’t enjoy. I’m not sure I have the best answer here, but my current internal justification leans much more on the second answer than the first.
Which is another way of saying that I agree with Williams; I think utilitarianism would be self-defeating if it suggested that the only project anyone should undertake is improving the world generally. I think a salient difference between us is that he seems to think utilitarianism might imply that people should only work on improving the world generally, whereas I do not.
This discussion of projects leads to Williams talking about the hedonic paradox (the observation that you cannot become happy by seeking out pleasures), although Williams doesn’t reference it by name. Here Williams comes dangerously close to a very toxic interpretation of the hedonic paradox.
Williams believes that happiness comes from a variety of projects, not all of which are undertaken for the good of others or even because they’re particularly fun. He points out that few of these projects, if any, are the direct pursuit of happiness and that happiness seems to involve something beyond seeking it. This is all conceptually well and good, but I think it makes happiness seem too mysterious.
I wasted years of my life believing that the hedonic paradox meant that I couldn’t find happiness directly. I thought if I did the things I was supposed to do, even if they made me miserable, I’d find happiness eventually. Whenever I thought of rearranging my life to put my happiness first, I was reminded of the hedonic paradox and desisted. That was all bullshit. You can figure out what activities make you happy and do more of those and be happier.
There is a wide gulf between the hedonic paradox as originally framed (which is purely an observation about pleasures of the flesh) and the hedonic paradox as sometimes used by philosophers (which treats happiness as inherently fleeting and mysterious). I’ve seen plenty of evidence for the first, but absolutely none for the second. With his critique here, I think Williams is arguably shading into the second definition.
This has important implications for the utilitarian. We can agree that for many people, the way to most increase their happiness isn’t to get them blissed out on food, sex, and drugs, without this implying that we will have no opportunities to improve the general happiness. First, we can increase happiness by attacking the sources of misery. Second, we can set up robust institutions that are conducive to happiness. A utilitarian urban planner would perhaps give just as much thought to ensuring there are places where communities can meet and form as she would to ensuring that no one would be forced to live in squalor.
Here’s where Williams gets twisty though. He wanted us to come to the conclusion that a variety of personal projects are necessary for happiness so that he could remind us that utilitarianism’s concept of negative responsibility puts great pressure on an agent not to have her own personal projects beyond the maximization of global happiness. The argument here seems to be (not for the first time) that utilitarianism is self-defeating because it will make everyone miserable if everyone is a utilitarian.
Smart tried to short-circuit arguments like this by pointing out that he wasn’t attempting to “prove” anything about the superiority of utilitarianism, simply presenting it as an ethical system that might be more attractive if it was better understood. Faced with Williams point here, I believe that Smart would say that he doesn’t expect everyone to become utilitarian and that those who do become utilitarian (and stay utilitarian) are those most likely to have important personal projects that are generally beneficent.
I have the pleasure of reading the blogs and Facebook posts of many prominent (for certain unusual values of prominent) utilitarians. They all seem to be enjoying what they do. These are people who enjoy research, or organizing, or presenting, or thought experiments and have found ways to put these vocations to use in the general utilitarian project. Or people who find that they get along well with utilitarians and therefore steer their career to be surrounded by them. This is basically finding ikigai within the context of utilitarian responsibilities.
Saying that utilitarianism will never be popular outside of those suited for it means accepting we don’t have a universal ethical solution. This is, I think, very pragmatic. It also doesn’t rule out utilitarians looking for ways we can encourage people to be more utilitarian. To slightly modify a phrase that utilitarian animal rights activists use: the best utilitarianism is the type you can stick with; it’s better to be utilitarian 95% of the time then it is to be utilitarian 100% of the time – until you get burnt out and give it up forever.
I would also like to add a criticism of Williams’ complaint that utilitarian actions are overly determined by the actions of others. Namely, the status quo certainly isn’t perfect. If we are to reject action because it is not on the projects we would most like to be doing, then we are tacitly endorsing the status quo. Moral decisions cannot be made in a vacuum and the terrain in which we must make moral decisions today is one marked by horrendous suffering, inequality, and unfairness.
The next two sections of Williams’ essay were the most difficult to parse, but also the most rewarding. They deal with the interplay between calculating utilities and utilitarianism and question the extent to which utilitarianism is practical outside of appealing to the idea of total utility. That is to say, they ask if the unique utilitarian ethical frame can, under practical conditions have practical effects.
To get to the meat of Williams points, I had to wade through what at times felt like word games. All of the things he builds up to throughout these lengthy sections begin with a premise made up of two points that Williams thinks are implied by Smart’s essay.
All utilities should be assessed in terms of acts. If we’re talking about rules, governments, or dispositions, their utility stems from the acts they either engender or prevent.
To say that a rule (as an example) has any effect at all, we must say that it results in some change in acts. In Williams’ words: “the total utility effect of a rule’s obtaining must be cashable in terms of the effects of acts.
Together, (1) and (2) make up what Williams calls the “act-adequacy” premise. If the premise is true, there must be no surplus source of utility outside of acts and, as Smart said, rule utilitarianism should (if it is truly concerned with optimific outcomes) collapse to act utilitarianism. This is all well and good when comparing systems as tools of total assessment (e.g. when we take the universe wide view that I criticized Smart for hiding in), but Williams is first interested in how this causes rule and act utilitarianism to relate with actions
If you asked an act-utilitarian and a rule utilitarian “what makes that action right”, they would give different answers. The act utilitarian would say that it is right if it maximizes utility, but the rule utilitarian would say it is right if it is in accordance with rules that tend to maximize utility. Interestingly, if the act-adequacy premise is true, then both act and rule utilitarians would agree as to why certain rules or dispositions are desirable, namely, that actions that results from those rules or dispositions tends to maximize utility.
(Williams also points out that rules, especially formal rules, may derive utility from sources other than just actions following the rule. Other sources of utility include: explaining the rule, thinking about the rule, avoiding the rule, or even breaking the rule.)
But what to do we do when actually faced with the actions that follow from a rule or disposition? Smart has already pointed out that we should praise or blame based on the utility of the praise/blame, not on the rightness or wrongness of the action we might be praising.
In Williams’ view, there are two problems with this. First, it is not a very open system. If you knew someone was praising or blaming you out of a desire to manipulate your future actions and not in direct relation to their actual opinion of your past actions, you might be less likely to accept that praise or blame. Therefore, it could very well be necessary for the utilitarian to hide why acts are being called good or bad (and therefore the reasons why they praise or blame).
The second problem is how this suggests utilitarians should stand with themselves. Williams acknowledges that utilitarians in general try not to cry over spilt milk (“[this] carries the characteristically utilitarian thought that anything you might want to cry over is, like milk, replaceable”), but argues that utilitarianism replaces the question of “did I do the right thing?” with “what is the right thing to do?” in a way that may not be conducive to virtuous thought.
(Would a utilitarian Judas have lived to old age contentedly, happy that he had played a role in humankind’s eternal salvation?)
The answer to “what is the right thing to do?” is of course (to the utilitarian) “that which has the best consequences”. Except “what is the right thing to do?” isn’t actually the right question to ask if you’re truly concerned with the best consequences. In that case, the question is “if asking this question is the right thing to do, what actions have the best consequences?”
Remember, Smart tried to claim that utilitarianism was to only be used for deliberative actions. But it is unclear which actions are the right ones to take as deliberative, especially a priori. Sometimes you will waste time deliberating, time that in the optimal case you would have spent on good works. Other times, you will jump into acting and do the wrong thing.
The difference between act (direct) and rule (indirect) utilitarianism therefore comes to a question of motivation vs. justification. Can a direct utilitarian use “the greatest total good” as a motivation if they do not know if even asking the question “what will lead to the greatest total good?” will lead to it? Can it only ever be a justification? The indirect utilitarian can be motivated by following a rule and justify her actions by claiming that generally followed, the rule leads to the greatest good, but it is unclear what recourse (to any direct motivation for a specific action) the direct utilitarian has.
Essentially, adopting act utilitarianism requires you to accept that because you have accepted act utilitarianism you will sometimes do the wrong thing. It might be that you think that you have a fairly good rule of thumb for deliberating, such that this is still the best of your options to take (and that would be my defense), but there is something deeply unsettling and somewhat paradoxical about this consequence.
Williams makes it clear that the bad outcomes here aren’t just loss of an agent’s time. This is similar in principle to how we calculate the total utility of promulgating a rule. We accept that the total effects of the promulgation must include the utility or disutility that stems from avoiding it or breaking it, in addition to the utility or disutility of following. When looking at the costs of deliberation, we should also include the disutility that will sometimes come when we act deliberately in a way that is less optimific than we would have acted had we spontaneously acted in accordance with our disposition or moral intuitions.
This is all in the case where the act-adequacy premise is true. If it isn’t, the situation is more complex. What if some important utility of actions comes from the mood they’re done in, or in them being done spontaneously? Moods may be engineered, but it is exceedingly hard to engineer spontaneity. If the act-adequacy premise is false, then it may not hold that the (utilitarian) best world is one in which right acts are maximized. In the absence of the act-adequacy premise it is possible (although not necessarily likely) that the maximally happy world is one in which few people are motivated by utilitarian concerns.
Even if the act-adequacy premise holds, we may be unable to know if our actions are at all right or wrong (again complicating the question of motivation).
Williams presents a thought experiment to demonstrate this point. Imagine a utilitarian society that noticed its younger members were liable to stray from the path of utilitarianism. This society might set up a Truman Show-esque “reservation” of non-utilitarians, with the worst consequences of their non-utilitarian morality broadcasted for all to see. The youth wouldn’t stray and the utility of the society would be increased (for now, let’s beg the question of utilitarianism as a lived philosophy being optimific).
Here, the actions of the non-utilitarian holdouts would be right; on this both utilitarians (looking from a far enough remove) and the subjects themselves would agree. But this whole thing only works if the viewers think (incorrectly) that the actions they are seeing are wrong.
From the global utilitarian perspective, it might even be wrong for any of the holdouts to become utilitarian (even if utilitarianism was generally the best ethical system). If the number of viewers is large enough and the effect of one fewer irrational holdout is strong enough (this is a thought experiment, so we can fiddle around with the numbers such that this is indeed true), the conversion of a hold-out to utilitarianism would be really bad.
Basically, it seems possible for there to be a large difference between the correct action as chosen by the individual utilitarian with all the knowledge she has and the correct action as chosen from the perspective of an omniscient observer. From the “total assessment” perspective, it is even possible that it would be best that there be no utilitarians.
Williams points out that many of the qualities we value and derive happiness from (stubborn grit, loyalty, bravery, honour) are not well aligned with utilitarianism. When we talked about ethnic cleansing earlier, we acknowledged that utilitarianism cannot distinguish between preferences people have and the preferences people should have; both are equally valid. With all that said, there’s a risk of resolving the tension between non-utilitarian preferences and the joy these preferences can bring people by trying to shape the world not towards maximum happiness, but towards the happiness easiest to measure and most comfortable to utilitarians.
Utilitarianism could also lead to disutility because of the game theoretic consequences. On international projects or projects between large groups of people, sanctioning other actors must always be an option. Without sanctioning, the risk of defection is simply too high in many practical cases. But utilitarians are uniquely compelled to sanction (or else surrender).
If there is another group acting in an uncooperative or anti-utilitarian matter, the utilitarians must apply the least terrible sanction that will still be effective (as the utility of those they’re sanctioning still matters). The other group will of course know this and have every incentive to commit to making any conflict arising from the sanction so terrible as to make any sanctioning wrong from a utilitarian point of view. Utilitarians now must call the bluff (and risk horrible escalating conflict), or else abandon the endeavour.
This is in essence a prisoner’s dilemma. If the non-utilitarians carry on without being sanctioned, or if they change their behaviour in response to sanctions without escalation, everyone will be better off (then in the alternative). But if utilitarians call the bluff and find it was not a bluff, then the results could be catastrophic.
Williams seems to believe that utilitarians will never include an adequate fudge factor for the dangers of mutual defecting. He doesn’t suggest pacifism as an alternative, but he does believe that violent sanctioning should always be used at a threshold far beyond where he assesses the simple utilitarian one to lie.
This position might be more of a historical one, in reaction to the efficiency, order, and domination obsessed Soviet Communism (and its Western fellow travelers), who tended towards utilitarian justifications. All of the utilitarians I know are committed classical liberals (indeed, it sometimes seems to me that only utilitarians are classic liberals these days). It’s unclear if Williams’ criticism can be meaningfully applied to utilitarians who have internalized the severe detriments of escalating violence.
While it seems possible to produce a thought experiment where even such committed second order utilitarians would use the wrong amount of violence or sanction too early, this seems unlikely to come up in a practical context – especially considering that many of the groups most keen on using violence early and often these days aren’t in fact utilitarian. Instead it’s members of both the extreme left and right, who have independently – in an amusing case of horseshoe theory – adopted a morality based around defending their tribe at all costs. This sort of highly local morality is anathema to utilitarians.
Williams didn’t anticipate this shift. I can’t see why he shouldn’t have. Utilitarians are ever pragmatic and (should) understand that utilitarianism isn’t served by starting horrendous wars willy-nilly.
Then again, perhaps this is another harbinger of what Williams calls “utilitarianism ushering itself from the scene”. He believes that the practical problems of utilitarian ethics (from the perspective of an agent) will move utilitarianism more and more towards a system of total assessment. Here utilitarianism may demand certain things in the way of dispositions or virtues and certainly it will ask that the utility of the world be ever increased, but it will lose its distinctive character as a system that suggests actions be chosen in such a way as to maximize utility.
Williams calls this the transcendental viewpoint and pithily asks “if… utilitarianism has to vanish from making any distinctive mark in the world, being left only with the total assessment from the transcendental standpoint – then I leave if for discussion whether that shows that utilitarianism is unacceptable or merely that no one ought to accept it.”
This, I think, ignores the possibility that it might become easier in the future to calculate the utility of certain actions. The results of actions are inherently chaotic and difficult to judge, but then, so is the weather. Weather prediction has been made tractable by the application of vast computational power. Why not morality? Certainly, this can’t be impossible to envision. Iain M. Banks wrote a whole series of books about it!
Of course, if we wish to be utilitarian on a societal level, we must currently do so without the support of godlike AI. Which is what utilitarianism was invented for in the first place. Here it was attractive because it is minimally committed – it has no elaborate theological or philosophical commitments buttressing it, unlike contemporaneous systems (like Lockean natural law). There is something intuitive about the suggestion that a government should only be concerned for the welfare of the governed.
Sure, utilitarianism makes no demands on secondary principles, Williams writes, but it is extraordinarily demanding when it comes to empirical information. Utilitarianism requires clear, comprehensible, and non-cyclic preferences. For any glib rejoinders about mere implementation details, Williams has this to say:
[These problems are] seen in the light of a technical or practical difficulty and utilitarianism appeals to a frame of mind in which technical difficulty, even insuperable technical difficulty, is preferable to moral unclarity, no doubt because it is less alarming.
Williams suggests that the simplicity of utilitarianism isn’t a virtue, only indicative of “how little of the world’s luggage it is prepared to pick up”. By being immune to concerns of justice or fairness (except insofar as they are instrumentally useful to utilitarian ends), Williams believes that utilitarianism fails at many of the tasks that people desire from a government.
Personally, I’m not so sure a government commitment to fairness or justice is at all illuminating. There are currently at least two competing (and mutually exclusive) definitions of both fairness and justice in political discourse.
Should fairness be about giving everyone the same things? Or should it be about giving everyone the tools they need to have the same shot at meaningful (of course noting that meaningful is a societal construct) outcomes? Should justice mean taking into account mitigating factors and aiming for reconciliation? Or should it mean doing whatever is necessary to make recompense to the victim?
It is too easy to use fairness or justice as a sword without stopping to assess who it aimed at and what the consequences of the aim is (says the committed consequentialist). Fairness and justice are meaty topics that deserve better than to be thrown around as a platitudinous counterargument to utilitarianism.
A much better critique of utilitarian government can be made by imagining how such a government would respond to non-utilitarian concerns. Would it ignore them? Or would it seek to direct its citizens to have only non-utilitarian concerns? The latter idea seems practically impossible. The first raises important questions.
Imagine a government that is minimally responsive to non-utilitarian concerns. It primarily concerns itself with maximizing utility, but accepts the occasional non-utilitarian decision as the cost it must pay to remain in power (presume that the opposition is not utilitarian and would be very responsive to non-utilitarian concerns in a way that would reduce the global utility). This government must necessarily look very different to the utilitarian elite who understand what is going on and the masses who might be quite upset that the government feels obligated to ignore many of their dearly held concerns.
Could such an arrangement exist with a free media? With free elections? Democracies are notably less corrupt than autocracies, so there are significant advantages to having free elections and free media. But how, if those exist, does the utilitarian government propose to keep its secrets hidden from the population? And if the government was successful, how could it respect its citizens, so duped?
In addition to all that, there is the problem of calculating how to satisfy people’s preferences. Williams identifies three problems here:
How do you measure individual welfare?
To what extent is welfare comparative?
How do you develop the aggregate social preference given the answer to the proceeding two questions?
Williams seems to suggest that a naïve utilitarian approach involves what I’ve think is best summed up in a sick parody of Marx: from each according to how little they’ll miss it, to each according to how much they desire it. Surely there cannot be a worse incentive structure imaginable than the one naïve utilitarianism suggests?
When dealing with preferences, it is also the case that utilitarianism makes no distinction between fixing inequitable distributions that cause discontent or – as observed in America – convincing those affected by inequitable distributions not to feel discontent.
More problems arise around substitution or compensation. It may be more optimific for a roadway to be built one way than another and it may be more optimific for compensation to be offered to those who are affected, but it is unclear that the compensation will be at all worth it for those affected (to claim it would be, Williams declares, is “simply an extension of the dogma that every man has his price”). This is certainly hard for me to think about, even (or perhaps especially) because the common utilitarian response is a shrug – global utility must be maximized, after all.
Utilitarianism is about trade-offs. And some people have views which they hold to be beyond all trade-off. It is even possible for happiness to be buttressed or rest entirely upon principles – principles that when dearly and truly held cannot be traded-off against. Certainly, utilitarians can attempt to work around this – if such people are a minority, they will be happily trammelled by a utilitarian majority. But it is unclear what a utilitarian government could do in a such a case where the majority of their population is “afflicted” with deeply held non-utilitarian principles.
Williams sums this up as:
Perhaps humanity is not yet domesticated enough to confine itself to preferences which utilitarianism can handle without contradiction. If so, perhaps utilitarianism should lope off from an unprepared mankind to deal with problems it finds more tractable – such as that present by Smart… of a world which consists only of a solitary deluded sadist.
Finally, there’s the problem of people being terrible judges of what they want, or simply not understanding the effects of their preferences (as the Americas who rely on the ACA but want Obamacare to be repealed may find out). It is certainly hard to walk the line between respecting preferences people would have if they were better informed or truly understood the consequences of their desires and the common (leftist?) fallacy of assuming that everyone who held all of the information you have must necessarily have the same beliefs as you.
All of this combines to make Williams view utilitarianism as dangerously irresponsible as a system of public decision making. It assumes that preferences exist, that the method of collecting them doesn’t fail to capture meaningful preferences, that these preferences would be vindicated if implemented, and that there’s a way to trade-off among all preferences.
To the potential utilitarian rejoinder that half a loaf is better than none, he points out a partial version of utilitarianism is very vulnerable to the streetlight effect. It might be used where it can and therefore act to legitimize – as “real”– concerns in the areas where it can be used and delegitimize those where it is unsuitable. This can easily lead to the McNamara fallacy; deliberate ignorance of everything that cannot be quantified:
The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.
— Daniel Yankelovich “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business.” (1972)
This isn’t even to mention something that every serious student of economics knows: that when dealing with complicated, idealized systems, it is not necessarily the non-ideal system that is closest to the ideal (out of all possible non-ideal systems) that has the most benefits of the ideal. Economists call this the “theory of the second best”. Perhaps ethicists might call it “common sense” when applied to their domain?
Williams ultimately doubts that systematic though is at all capable of dealing with the myriad complexities of political (and moral) life. He describes utilitarianism as “having too few thoughts and feelings to match the world as it really is”.
I disagree. Utilitarianism is hard, certainly. We do not agree on what happiness is, or how to determine which actions will most likely bring it, fine. Much of this comes from our messy inbuilt intuitions, intuitions that are not suited for the world as it now is. If utilitarianism is simple minded, surely every other moral system (or lack of system) must be as well.
In many ways, Williams did shake my faith in utilitarianism – making this an effective and worthwhile essay. He taught me to be fearful of eliminating from consideration all joys but those that the utilitarian can track. He drove me to question how one can advocate for any ethical system at all, denied the twin crutches of rationalism and theology. And he further shook my faith in individuals being able to do most aspects of the utilitarian moral calculus. I think I’ll have more to say on that last point in the future.
But by their actions you shall know the righteous. Utilitarians are currently at the forefront of global poverty reduction, disease eradication, animal suffering alleviation, and existential risk mitigation. What complexities of the world has every other ethical system missed to leave these critical tasks largely to utilitarians?
Williams gave me no answer to this. For all his beliefs that utilitarianism will have dire consequences when implemented, he has no proof to hand. And ultimately, consequences are what you need to convince a consequentialist.
Utilitarianism for and against is an interesting little book. It’s comprised of back-to-back ~70 page essays, one in favour of utilitarianism and one opposed. As an overview, it’s hard to beat something like this. You don’t have to rely on one scholar to give you her (ostensibly fair and balanced) opinion; you get two articulate philosophers arguing their side as best they can. Fair and balanced is by necessity left as an exercise to the reader (honestly, it always is; here at least it’s explicit).
I’m going to cover the “for” side first. The “against” side will be in later blog post. Both reviews are going to assume that you have some understanding of utilitarianism. If you don’t, go read my primer. Or be prepared to Google. I should also mention that I have no aspirations of being balanced myself. I’m a utilitarian; I had much more to disagree with on the “against” side than on the “for” side.
Professor J.J.C Smart makes the arguments in favour of utilitarianism. According to his Wikipedia entry, he was known for “outsmarting” his opponents, that is to say, accepting the conclusions of their reductio ad absurdum arguments with nary a shrug. He was, I’ve gathered, not one for moral intuitions. His criticism of rule utilitarianism played a role in its decline and he was influential in raising the next crop of Australian utilitarians, among whom Peter Singer is counted. As near as I can tell, he was one of the more notable defenders of utilitarianism when this volume was published in 1971 (although much of his essay dates back a decade earlier).
Smart is emphatically not a rationalist (in the philosophical sense); he writes no “proof of utilitarianism” and denies that such a proof is even possible. Instead, Smart restricts himself to explaining how utilitarianism is an attractive ethical system for anyone possessed of general benevolence. Well, I’ll say “everyone”. The authors of this volume seem to be labouring under the delusion that only men have ethical dilemmas or the need for ethical systems. Neither one of them manages the ethicist’s coup of realizing that women might be viewed as full people at the remove of half a century from their time of writing (such a coup would perhaps have been strong evidence of the superiority of one philosophy over another).
A lot of Smart’s essay consists of showing how various different types of utilitarianism are all the same under the hood. I’ve termed these “collapses”, although “isomorphisms” might be a better term. There are six collapses in all.
The very first collapse put me to mind of the famous adage about ducks. If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. By the same token, if someone acts exactly how a utilitarian in their position and with their information would act, then it doesn’t matter if they are a utilitarian or not. From the point of view of an ethical system that cares only about consequences they may as well be.
The next collapse deals with rule utilitarianism and may have a lot to do with its philosophical collapse. Smart points out that if you are avoiding “rule worship”, then you will face a quandary when you could break a rule in such a way as to gain more utility. Rule utilitarians sometimes claim that you just need rules with lots of exceptions and special cases. Smart points out that if you carry this through to its logical conclusion, you really are only left with one rule, the meta-rule of “maximize expected utility”. In this way, rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism.
Next into the compactor is the difference between ideal and hedonic utilitarians. Briefly, ideal utilitarians hold that some states of mind are inherently valuable (in a utilitarian sense), even if they aren’t particularly pleasant from the inside. “Better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” is the rallying cry of ideal utilitarians. Hedonic utilitarians have no terminal values beyond happiness; they would gladly let almost the entirety of the human race wirehead.
Smart claims that while these differences are philosophically large, they are practically much less meaningful. Here Smart introduces the idea of the fecundity of a pleasure. A doctor taking joy (or grim satisfaction) in saving a life is a much more fecund pleasure than a gambler’s excitement at a good throw, because it brings about greater joy once you take into account everyone around the actor. Many of the other pleasures (like writing or other intellectual pursuits) that ideal utilitarians value are similarly fecund. They either lead to abatement of suffering (the intellectual pursuits of scientists) or to many people’s pleasure (the labour of the poet). Taking into account fecundity, it was better for Smart to write this essay than to wirehead himself, because many other people – like me – get to enjoy his writing and have fun thinking over the thorny issues he raises.
Smart could have stood to examine at greater length just why ideal utilitarians value the things they do. I think there’s a decent case to be made that societies figure out ways to value certain (likely fecund) pleasures all on their own, no philosophers required. It is not, I think, that ideal utilitarians have stumbled onto certain higher pleasures that they should coax their societies into valuing. Instead, their societies have inculcated them with a set of valued activities, which, due to cultural evolution, happen to line up well with fecund pleasures. This is why it feels difficult to argue with the list of pleasures ideal utilitarians proffer; it’s not that they’ve stumbled onto deep philosophical truths via reason alone, it’s that we have the same inculcations they do.
Beyond simple fecundity though, there is the fact that the choice between Socrates dissatisfied and a fool satisfied rarely comes up. Smart has a great line about this:
But even the most avid television addict probably enjoys solving practical problems connected with his car, his furniture, or his garden. However unintellectual he might be, he would certainly resist the suggestion the he should, if it were possible, change places with a contented sheep, or even a happy and lively dog.
This boils down to: ‘ideal utilitarians assume they’re a lot better than everyone else, what with their “philosophical pursuits”, but most people don’t want purely mindless pleasures’. Combined, these ideas of fecundity and hidden depths, point to a vanishingly small gap between ideal and hedonistic utilitarians, especially compared to the gap between utilitarians and practitioners of other ethical systems.
After dealing with questions of how highly we should weigh some pleasures, Smart turns to address the idea of some pleasures not counting at all. Take, for example, the pleasure that a sadist takes in torturing a victim. Should we count this pleasure in our utilitarian moral calculus? Smart says yes, for reasons that again boil down to “certain pleasures being viewed as bad are an artifact of culture; no pleasure is intrinsically bad.”
(Note however that this isn’t the same thing as Smart condoning the torture. He would say that the torture is wrong because the pleasure the sadist gains from it cannot make up for the distress of the victim. Given that no one has ever found a real live utility monster, this seems a safe position to take.)
In service of this, Smart presents a thought experiment. Imagine a barren universe inhabited by a single sentient being. This sentient being wrongly believes that there are many other inhabitants of the universe being gruesomely tortured and takes great pleasure in this thought. Would the universe be better if the being didn’t derive pleasure from her misapprehension?
The answer here for both Smart and me is no (although I suspect many might disagree with us). Smart reasons (almost tautologically) that since there is no one for this being to hurt, her predilection for torture can’t hurt anyone. We are rightfully wary of people who unselfconsciously enjoy the thought of innocents being tortured because of what it says about what their hobbies might be. But if they cannot hurt anyone, their obsession is literally harmless. This bleak world would not be better served by its single sentient inhabitant quailing at the thought of the imaginary torture.
Of course, there’s a wide gap between the inhabitant curled up in a ball mourning the torture she wrongly believes to be ongoing and her simple ambivalence to it. It seems plausible that many people could consider her ambivalence preferable, even if they did not wish her to be sad. But imagine then the difference being between her lonely and bored and her satisfied and happy (leaving aside for a moment the torture). It is clear here which is the better universe. Given a way to move from the universe with a single bored being to the one with a single fulfilled being, shouldn’t we take it, given that the shift most literally harms no one?
This brings us to the distinction between intrinsically bad pleasures and extrinsically bad pleasures – the flip side of the intrinsically more valuable states of mind of the ideal utilitarian. Intrinsically bad pleasures are pleasures that for some rationalist or metaphysical reason are just wrong. Their rightness or wrongness must of course be vulnerable to attacks on the underlying logic or theology, but I can hardly embark on a survey of common objections to all the common underpinnings; I haven’t the time. But many people have undertaken those critiques and many will in the future, making a belief in intrinsically bad pleasures a most unstable place to stand.
Extrinsically bad pleasures seem like a much safer proposition (and much more convenient to the utilitarian who wishes to keep their ethical system free of meta-physical or meta-ethical baggage). To say that a pleasure is extrinsically bad is simply to say that to enjoy it causes so much misery that it will practically never be moral to experience it. Similar to how I described ideal utilitarian values as heavily culturally influenced, I can’t help but feel that seeing some pleasures as intrinsically bad has to be the result of some cultural conditioning.
If we can accept that certain pleasures are not intrinsically good or ill, but that many pleasures that are thought of as intrinsically good or ill are thought so because of long cultural experience – positive or negative – with the consequences of seeking them out, then we should see the position of utilitarians who believe that some pleasures cannot be counted in the plus column collapse to approximately the same as those who hold that they can, even if neither accepts the position of the other. The utilitarian who refuses to believe in intrinsically bad pleasures should still condemn most of the same actions as one who does, because she knows that these pleasures will be outweighed by the pains they inflict on others (like the pain of the torture victim overwhelming the joy of the torturer).
There is a further advantage to holding that pleasures cannot be intrinsically wrong. If we accept the post-modernists adage that knowledge is created culturally, we will remember to be skeptical of the universality of our knowledge. That is to say, if you hold a list of intrinsically bad pleasures, it will probably not be an exhaustive list and there may be pleasures whose ill-effects you overlook because you are culturally conditioned to overlook them. A more thoughtful utilitarian who doesn’t take the short-cut of deeming some pleasures intrinsically bad can catch these consequences and correctly advocate against these ultimately wrong actions.
The penultimate collapse is perhaps the least well supported by arguments. In a scant page, Smart addresses the differences between total and average happiness in a most unsatisfactory fashion. He asks which of two universes you might prefer: one with one million happy, healthy people, or one with twice as many people, equally happy and healthy. Both Smart and I feel drawn to the larger universe, but he has no arguments for people who prefer the smaller. Smart skips over the difficulties here with an airy statement of “often the best way to increase the average happiness is to increase the total happiness and vice versa”.
I’m not entirely sure this statement is true. How would one go about proving it?
Certainly, average happiness seems to miss out on the (to me) obvious good that you’d get if you could have twice as many happy people (which is clearly one case where they give different answers), but like Smart, I have trouble coming up with a persuasive argument why that is obviously good.
I do have one important thing myself to say about the difference between average and total happiness. When I imagine a world with more people who are on average less happy than the people that currently exist (but collectively experience a greater total happiness) I feel an internal flinch.
Unfortunately for my moral intuitions, I feel the exact same flinch when I image a world with many fewer people, who are on average transcendentally happy. We can fiddle with the math to make this scenario come out to have greater average and total happiness than the current world. Doesn’t matter. Exact same flinch.
This leads me to believe that my moral intuitions have a strong status quo bias. The presence of a status quo bias in itself isn’t an argument for either total or average utilitarianism, but it is a reminder to be intensely skeptical of our response to thought experiments that involve changing the status quo and even to be wary of the order that options are presented in.
The final collapse Smart introduces is that between regular utilitarians and negative utilitarians. Negative utilitarians believe that only suffering is morally relevant and that the most important moral actions are those that have the consequence of reducing suffering. Smart points out that you can raise both the total and average happiness of a population by reducing suffering and furthermore that there is widespread agreement on what reduces suffering. So Smart expects utilitarians of all kinds (including negative) to primarily focus on reducing suffering anyway. Basically, despite the profound philosophical differences between regular and negative utilitarians, we should expect them to behave equivalently. Which, by the very first collapse (if it walks like a duck…), shows that we can treat them as philosophical equivalents, at least in the present world.
In my experience, this is more or less true. Many of the negative utilitarians I am aware of mainly exercise their ethics by donating 10% of their income to GiveWell’s most effective charities. The regular utilitarians… do the exact same. Quack.
As far as I can tell, Smart goes to all this work to show how many forms of utilitarianism collapse together so that he can present a system that isn’t at war with itself. Being able to portray utilitarianism as a simple, unified system (despite the many ways of doing it) heads off many simple criticisms.
While I doubt many people avoided utilitarianism because there are lingering questions about total versus average happiness, per se, these little things add up. Saying “yes, there are a bunch of little implementation details that aren’t agreed upon” is a bad start to an ethical system, unless you can immediately follow it up with “but here’s fifty pages of why that doesn’t matter and you can just do what comes naturally to you (under the aegis of utilitarianism)”.
Let’s talk a bit about what comes naturally to people outside the context of different forms of utilitarianism. No one, not even Smart, sits down and does utilitarian calculus before making every little decision. For most tasks, we can ignore the ethical considerations (e.g. there is broad, although probably not universal agreement that there aren’t hidden moral dimensions to opening a door). For some others, our instincts are good enough. Should you thank the woman at the grocery store checkout? You probably will automatically, without pausing to consider if it will increase the total (or average) happiness of the world.
Like in the case of thanking random service industry workers, there are a variety of cases where we actually have pretty good rules of thumb. These rules of thumbs serve two purposes. First, they allow us to avoid spending all of our time contemplating if our actions are right or wrong, freeing us to actually act. Second, they protect us from doing bad things out of pettiness or venality. If you have a strong rule of thumb that violence is an inappropriate response to speech you disagree with, you’re less likely to talk yourself into punching an odious speaker in the face when confronted with them.
It’s obviously important to pick the right heuristics. You want to pick the ones that most often lead towards the right outcomes.
I say “heuristics” and “rules of thumbs” because the thing about utilitarians and rules is that they always have to be prepared to break them. Rules exist for the common cases. Utilitarians have to be on guard for the uncommon cases, the ones where breaking a rule leads to greater good overall. Having a “don’t cause people to die” rule is all well and good. But you need to be prepared to break it if you can only stop mass death from a runaway trolley by pushing an appropriately sized person in front of it.
Smart seems to think that utilitarianism only comes up for deliberative actions, where you take the time to think about them and that it shouldn’t necessarily cover your habits. This seems like an abrogation to me. Shouldn’t a clever utilitarian, realizing that she only uses utilitarianism for big decisions spend some time training her reflexes to more often give the correct utilitarian solution, while also training herself to be more careful of her rules of thumb and think ethically more often? Smart gave no indication that he thinks this is the case.
The discussion of rules gives Smart the opportunity to introduce a utilitarian vocabulary. An action is right if it is the one that maximizes expected happiness (crucially, this is a summation across many probabilities and isn’t necessarily the action that will maximize the chance of the happiest outcome) and wrong otherwise. An action is rational if a logical being in possession of all the information you possess would think you to be right if you did it. All other actions are irrational. A rule of thumb, disposition, or action is good if it tends to lead to the right outcomes and bad if it tends to lead to the wrong ones.
This vocabulary becomes important when Smart talks about praise, which he believes is an important utilitarian concern in its own right. Praise increases people’s propensity towards certain actions or dispositions, so Smart believes a utilitarian aught to consider if the world would be better served by more of the same before she praises anything. This leads to Smart suggesting that utilitarians should praise actions that are good or rational even if they aren’t right.
It also implies that utilitarians doing the right thing must be open to criticism if it requires bad actions. One example Smart gives is a utilitarian Frenchman cheating on wartime rationing in 1940s England. The Frenchman knows that the Brits are too patriotic to cheat, so his action (and the actions of the few others that cheat) will probably fall below the threshold for causing any real harm, while making him (and the other cheaters) happier. The calculus comes out positive and the Frenchman believes it to be the right action. Smart acknowledges that this logic is correct, but he points out that by the similar logic, the Frenchman should agree that he must be severely punished if caught, so as to discourage others from doing the same thing.
This actually reminds me of something Hannah Arendt brushed up against in Eichmann in Jerusalem while talking about how the moral constraints on people are different than the ones on states. She gives the example of Soghomon Tehlirian, the Armenian exile who assassinated one of the triumvirate of Turkish generals responsible for the Armenian genocide. Arendt believes that it would have been wrong for the Armenian government to assassinate the general (had one even existed at the time), but that it was right for a private citizen to do the deed, especially given that Tehlirian did not seek to hide his crimes or resist arrest.
From a utilitarian point of view, the argument would go something like this: political assassinations are bad, in that they tend to cause upheaval, chaos, and ultimately suffering. On the other hand, there are some leaders who the world would clearly be better off without, if not to stop their ill deeds in their tracks, then to strike fear and moderation into the hearts of similar leaders.
Were the government of any country to carry out these assassinations, it would undermine the government’s ability to police murder. But when a private individual does the deed and then immediately gives herself up into the waiting arms of justice, the utility of the world is increased. If she has erred in picking her target and no one finds the assassination justified, then she will be promptly punished, disincentivizing copy-cats. If instead, like Tehlirian, she is found not guilty, it will only be because the crimes committed by the leader she assassinated were so brutal and clear that no reasonable person could countenance them. This too sends a signal.
That said, I think Smart takes his distinctions between right and good a bit too far. He cautions against trying to change the non-utilitarian morality of anyone who already tends towards good actions, because this might fail half-way, weakening their morality without instilling a new one. Likewise, he is skeptical of any attempt to change the traditions of a society.
This feels too much like trying to have your cake and eat it too. Utilitarianism can be criticized because it is an evangelical ethical system that gives results far from moral intuitions in some cases. From a utilitarian point of view, it is fairly clearly good to have more utilitarians willing to hoover up these counter-intuitive sources of utility. If all you care about are the ends, you want more people to care about the best ends!
If the best way to achieve utilitarian ends wasn’t through utilitarianism, then we’re left with a self-defeating moral system. In trying to defend utilitarianism from the weak critique that it is pushy and evangelical, both in ways that are repugnant to all who engage in cultural or individual ethical relativism and in ways that are repugnant to some moral intuitions, Smart opens it up to the much stronger critique that it is incoherent!
Smart by turns seems to seek to rescue some commonly held moral truths when they conflict with utilitarianism while rejecting others that seem no less contradictory. I can hardly say that he seems keen to show utilitarianism is in fact in harmony with how people normally act – he clearly isn’t. But he also doesn’t always go all (or even part of) the way in choosing utilitarianism over moral intuitions
Near the end of the book, when talking about a thought experiment introduced by one McCloskey, Smart admits that the only utilitarian action is to frame and execute an innocent man, thereby preventing a riot. McCloskey anticipated him, saying: “But as far as I know, only J.J.C. Smart among the contemporary utilitarians is happy to adopt this ‘solution'”.
Here I must lodge a mild protest. McCloskey’s use of the work ‘happy’ surely makes me look a most reprehensible person. Even in my most utilitarian moods, I am not happy about this consequence of utilitarianism… since any injustice causes misery and so can be justified only as the lesser of two evils, the fewer the situation in which the utilitarian is forced to choose the lesser of two evils, the better he will be pleased.
This is also the man who said (much as I have) that “admittedly utilitarianism does have consequences which are incompatible with the common moral consciousness, but I tended to take the view ‘so much the worse for the common moral consciousness’.”
All this leaves me baffled. Why the strange mixture? Sometimes Smart goes far further than it seems any of his contemporaries would have. Other times, he stops short of what seems to me the truly utilitarian solution.
On the criticism that utilitarianism compels us always in moral action, leaving us no time to relax, he offers two responses. The first is that perhaps people are too unwilling to act and would be better served by being more spurred on. The second is that it may be that relaxing today allows us to do ten times the good tomorrow.
But take this and his support for rules of thumb on one side and his support for executing the innocent man, or long spiel on how a bunch of people wireheading wouldn’t be that bad (a spiel that convinced me, I might add) and I’m left with an unclear overall picture. As an all-is-fine defence of utilitarianism, it doesn’t go far enough. As a bracing lecture about our degenerate non-utilitarian ways, it also doesn’t go far enough.
Leaving, I suppose, the sincere views of a man who pondered utilitarianism for much longer than I have. Chance is the only reason that makes sense. This would imply that sometimes Smart gives a nod to traditional morality because he’s decided it aligns with his utilitarian ethics. Other times, he disagrees. At length. Maybe Smart is a man seeking to rescue what precious moral truths he can from the house fire that is utilitarianism.
Perhaps some of my confusion comes from another confusion, one that seems to have subtly infected many utilitarians. Smart is careful to point out that the atomic belief underlying utilitarianism is general benevolence. Benevolence, note, is not altruism. The individual utilitarian matters just as much – or as little – as everyone else. Utilitarians in Smart’s framework have no obligation to run themselves ragged for another. Trading your happiness for another’s will only ever be an ethically neutral act to the utilitarian.
Or, I suspect, the wrong one. You are best placed to know yourself and best placed to create happiness for yourself. It makes sense to include some sort of bias towards your own happiness to take this into account. Or, if this feels icky to you, you could handle it at the level of probabilities. You are more likely to make yourself happy than someone else (assuming you’ve put some effort towards understanding what makes you happy). If you are 80% likely to make yourself happy for an evening and 60% likely to make someone else happy, your clear utilitarian duty is to yourself.
This is not a suggestion to go become a hermit. Social interactions are very rarely as zero sum as all that. It might be that the best way to make yourself happy is to go help a friend. Or to go to a party with several people you know. But I have seen people risk burnout (and have risked it myself) by assuming it is wrong to take any time for themselves when they have friends in need.
This is all my own thoughts, not Smart’s. For all of his talk of utilitarianism, he offers little advice on how to make it a practically useful system. All too often, Smart retreats to the idea of measuring the total utility of a society or world. This presents a host of problems and begs two important questions.
First, can utility be accurately quantified? Smart tries to show that different ways of measuring utility should be roughly equivalent in qualitative terms, but it is unclear if this follows at a quantitative level. Stability analysis (where you see how sensitive your result is to different starting assumptions) is an important tool for checking the veracity of conclusions in engineering projects. I have a hunch that quantitatively, utilitarian results to many problems will be highly unstable when a variety of forms of utilitarianism are tried.
Second, how should we deal with utility in the future? Smart claims that beyond a certain point we can ignore side effects (as unintended good side effects should cancel out unintended ill side effects; this is especially important when it comes to things like saving lives) but that doesn’t give us any advice on how we can estimate effects.
We are perhaps saved here by the same collapse that aligned normal utilitarians with negative utilitarians. If we cannot quantify joy, we can sure quantify misery. Doctors can tell you just how much quality of life a disease can sap (there are tables for this), not to mention the chances that a disease might end a life outright. We know the rates of absolute poverty, maternal deaths, and malaria prevalence. There is more than enough misery in the world to go around and certainly utilitarians who focus on ending misery do not seem to be at risk of being out an ethical duty any time in the near future.
(If ending misery is important to you, might I suggest donating a fraction of your monthly income to one of GiveWell’s top recommended charities? These are the charities that most effectively use money to reduce suffering. If you care about maximizing your impact, GiveWell is a good way to do it.)
Although speaking of the future, I find it striking how little utilitarianism has changed in the fifty-six years since Smart first wrote his essay. He pauses to comment on the risk of a recursively self-improving AI and talk about the potential future moral battles over factory farming. I’m part of a utilitarian meme group and these are the same topics people joke about every day. It is unclear if these are topics that utilitarianism predisposes people to care about, or if there was some indirect cultural transmission of these concerns over the intervening years.
There are many more gems – and frustrations in Smart’s essay. I can’t cover them all without writing a pale imitation of his words, so I shan’t try any more. As an introduction to the different types of utilitarianism, this essay was better than any other introduction I’ve read, especially because it shows all of the ways that various utilitarian systems fit together.
As a defense of utilitarianism, it is comprehensive and pragmatic. It doesn’t seek to please everyone and doesn’t seek to prove utilitarianism. It lays out the advantages of utilitarianism clearly, in plain language, and shows how the disadvantages are not as great as might be imagined. I can see it being persuasive to anyone considering utilitarianism, although in this it is hampered by its position as the first essay in the collection. Anyone convinced by it must then read through another seventy pages of arguments against utilitarianism, which will perhaps leave them rather less convinced.
As a work of academic philosophy, it’s interesting. There’s almost no meta-ethics or meta-physics here. This is a defense written entirely on its own, without recourse to underlying frameworks that might be separately undermined. Smart’s insistence on laying out his arguments plainly leaves him little room to retreat (except around average vs. total happiness). I’ve always found this a useful type of writing; even when I don’t agree, the ways that I disagree with clearly articulated theses can be illuminating.
It’s a pleasant read. I’ve had mostly good luck reading academic philosophy. This book wasn’t a struggle to wade through and it contained the occasional amusing turn of phrase. Smart is neither dry lecturer nor frothing polemicizer. One is put almost in the mind of a kindly uncle, patiently explaining his way through a complex, but not needlessly complicated subject. I highly recommend reading it and its companion.
I identify so strongly as a person who writes daily that I sometimes find myself bowled over by the fact that I haven’t always done it.
Since my first attempt to write a novel (at age 13), I’ve known that I really enjoy writing. The problem was that I could never really get myself to write. I managed the occasional short story for a contest and I pulled off NaNoWriMo when I was 20, but even after that, writing remained something that happened almost at random. Even when I had something I really wanted to write it was a toss-up as to whether I would be able to sit down and get it on a page.
This continued for a while. Up until January 1st, 2015, I had written maybe 100,000 words. Since then, I’ve written something like 650,000. If your first million words suck – as is commonly claimed – then I’m ¾ of the way to writing non-sucking words.
What changed in 2015? I made a New Year’s Resolution to write more. And then, when that began to fall apart a few months later (as almost all New Year’s Resolutions do), I sought out better commitment devices.
Did you read my first paragraph and feel like it describes you? Do you want to stop trying to write and start actually writing? If your brain works like mine, you can use what I’ve learned to skip over (some of) the failing part and go right to the writing every single day part .
Step 1: Cultivate Love
I like having completed writing projects to show off as much as the next person, but I also enjoy the act of writing. If you don’t actually enjoy writing, you may have a problem. My techniques are designed to help people (like me) who genuinely enjoy writing once they get going but have trouble forcing themselves to even start.
If you find writing to be a grim chore, but want to enjoy writing so that you can have the social or financial benefits (heh) of writing, then it will be much harder for you to write regularly. If you aren’t sure if this describes you or not, pause and ask yourself: would writing every day still be worth it if no one ever read what I wrote and I never made a single cent off of it? There’s nothing wrong with preferring that people read what you write and preferring to make money off of writing if possible, but it is very helpful if you’re willing to write even without external validation.
Writing (at least partially) for the sake of writing means that you won’t become discouraged if your writing never “takes off”. Almost no one sees success (measured in book deals, blog traffic, or Amazon downloads) right away. So being able to keep going in the face of the world’s utter indifference is a key determinant of how robust your writing habit will be.
If you don’t like writing for its own sake, don’t despair completely. It’s possible you might come to love it if you spend more time on it. As you start to write regularly, try out lots of things and figure out what you like and dislike. It can be hard to tell the difference between not liking writing and not liking the types of writing you’ve done.
For example, I’m a really exploratory writer. I’ve found that I don’t enjoy writing if there’s a strict outline I’m trying to follow or if I’m constrained by something someone else has written. Fanfiction is one of the common ways that new writers develop their skills, but I really dislike writing fanfiction. Realizing this has allowed me to avoid a bunch of writing that I’d find tedious. Tedious writing is a big risk to your ability to write daily, so if you can reasonably avoid it, you should.
Step 2: Start Small
When learning a new skill or acquiring a new habit, it’s really tempting to try and dive right in and do everything at once. I’d like to strongly discourage this sort of thing. If you get overwhelmed right at the start you’re unlikely to keep with it. Sometimes jumping right into the deep end teaches you to swim, sure. But sometimes you drown. Or develop a fear of water.
It isn’t enough to set things up so that you’ll be fine if everything goes as planned. A good starting level is something that won’t be hard even if life gets in the way. Is your starting goal achievable even if you had to work overtime for the next two weeks? If not, consider toning it down a bit.
You should set a measurable, achievable, and atomic goal. In practice, measurable means numeric, so I’d recommend committing to a specific number of words each day or a specific amount of daily time writing. Here Beeminder will be your best friend .
Beeminder is a service that helps you bind your future self to your current goals. You set up a goal (like writing 100,000 words) and a desired daily progress (say, 200 words each day) towards that goal. Each day, Beeminder will make sure you’ve made enough progress towards your desired end-state. If you haven’t, Beeminder charges your credit card (you can choose to pay anywhere from $5 to $2430). Fail again and it charges you more (up to a point; you can set your own maximum). In this way, Beeminder can “sting” you into completing your goals.
For the first few months of my writing habit, I tracked my daily words in a notebook. This fell apart during my final exams. I brought in Beeminder at the start of the next month to salvage the habit and it worked like a charm. Beeminder provided me a daily kick in the pants to get writing; it made me unlikely to skip writing out of laziness, tiredness, or lack of a good idea.
Beeminder only works for numeric goals, so there’s the first of the triad I mentioned covered.
Next, your goal should be achievable; something you have no doubt you can do. Not something some idealized, better, or perfect version of you could do. Something you, with all your constraints and flaws are sure you can achieve. Don’t worry about making this too small. Fifty or one hundred words per day is a perfectly adequate starter goal.
Lastly, atomic. Atomic goals can’t be broken down any further. Don’t start by Beeminding blog posts or gods forfend, novels! Pick the smallest unit of writing you can, probably either time or word count, and make your goal about this. When you’re Beeminding words or time, you can’t fail and get discouraged for lack of ideas or “writer’s block” . It’s much better to spend a week writing detailed journals of every day (or even a detailed description of your bedroom) than it is to spend a week not writing because you can’t think of what to write.
My recommended starter goals are either: write 150 words each day or write 15 minutes each day. Both of these are easy to Beeminder and should be easy for most people to achieve.
Step 3: Acquire Confidence
Even with goals that easy, your first few days or weeks may very well be spent just barely meeting them, perhaps as Beeminder breaths down your neck. Writing is like exercise. It’s surprising how hard it can be to do it every day if you’re starting from nothing.
Here’s the start of my very first Beeminder writing goal. You’ll notice that I started slowly, panicked and wrote a lot, then ran into trouble and realized that I needed to tone things down a bit. It wasn’t until almost four months in that I finally hit my stride and started to regularly exceed my goal.
You can see a similar pattern when I started Beeminding fiction:
And when I started Beeminding time spent writing:
Those little spurs three data points into the time graph and seven into the fiction one? That’s where I failed to keep up and ended up giving Beeminder money. They call this “derailing”.
It may take a few derailments, but you should eventually find yourself routinely exceeding your starting goal (if you don’t, either this advice doesn’t work well for you, or you set your original goal too high). Be careful of allowing success to ruin your habit; try and write at least X words each day, not X words each day on average over the course of a week.
The number of days before you derail on a goal in Beeminder is called “safety buffer”. For outputs you intend to Beemind daily, I recommend setting yourself up so that you can have no more than two days of safety buffer. This lets you save up some writing for a busy day or two, but doesn’t let you skip a whole week. If you have a premium plan, Beeminder allows you to automatically cap your safety buffer, but you can also do it manually if you’re disciplined (I did this for many months until I could afford a premium plan).
When you get to the point of regularly trimming your safety buffer you’re almost ready to move on up. Once you’re really, really sure you can handle more (i.e. exceeded your minimum every day for two weeks), slowly increase your commitment. You don’t want to get too cocky here. If you’re currently aiming for 150 words/day and 9 days out of 10 you write 250, set your new goal to 200, not 250. You want to feel like you’re successfully and competently meeting your goal, not like you’re scrapping by by the skin of your teeth.
Step 4: Make Molecules
Once you become comfortable with your atomic goals and find stable long term resting spots for them, you can start to Beemind more complex outputs. This is using Beeminder to directly push you towards your goals. Want to work on your blog? Beemind blog posts. Want to work on a book? Beemind pages or chapters or scenes. Want to keep a record of your life? Beemind weekly journals.
These are all complicated outputs made up of many words or minutes of writing. You won’t finish them as regularly. It’s easy to sit down and crank out enough words in an hour to hit most word count goals. But these larger outputs might not be achievable in a single day, especially if you have work or family commitments. That’s why you want your writing habit well established and predictable by the time you take them on.
Remember, you don’t want to set yourself up for failure if it’s at all avoidable. Don’t take on a more complex output as a Beeminder goal until you have a sense of how long it will take you to produce each unit of it and always start at a rate where you’re sure you can deliver. Had a few weeks of finishing one chapter a week? Start your Beeminder goal at one chapter every ten days.
It’s easy to up your Beeminder goal when you find it’s too lenient. It’s really hard to get back into writing after a string of discouragements caused by setting your goals too aggressive.
Even when you manage to meet overambitious goals, you might suffer for it in other ways. I’m not even talking about your social life or general happiness taking a hit (even though those are both very possible). Stretching yourself too thin can make your writing worse!
I had a period where I was Beeminding regularly publishing writing at a rate faster than I was really capable of. I managed to make my goal anyway, but I did it by writing simple, low-risk posts. I shoved aside some of the more complex and rewarding things I was looking forward to writing because I was too stubborn to ease back on my goal. It took me months to realize that I’d messed up and get rid of the over-ambitious goal.
It was only after I dialed everything back and gave myself more space to work that I started producing things I was really proud of again. That period with the overambitious goal stands out as one of the few times since I started writing again where I produced nothing I’m particularly proud of.
Tuning down the publishing goal didn’t even cause me to write less. I didn’t dial back my atomic goals, just my more complicated one, so I was still writing the same amount. When I was ready to begin publishing things I’d written again, I started the goal at a much lower rate. After a few months of consistently exceeding it, I raised the rate.
Here’s what my original goal looked like:
Here’s my new blogging goal:
As you can see, I learned my lesson about over-ambition.
Step 5: Vanquish Guilt
At the same time as you work on Beeminding more complex outputs, you will want to be examining and replacing the guilt based motivation structure you may have built to get there.
Guilt can be a useful motivator to do the bare minimum on a project; guilt (and terror) is largely what got me through university. But guilt is a terrible way to build a long-term habit. If writing is something you do to avoid a creeping guilt, you may start to associate negative feelings with writing; if you started a writing habit because you love writing, then you’re risking that very love if you motivate yourself solely with guilt.
I recommend looking at Beeminder not as a tool to effectively guilt yourself into writing, but as a reminder of what writing is worth to you. You value consistently writing at $X. You know that every time you skip writing for a day or a week, there is a Y% chance that you might lose the habit. Multiply those two together and you get your ideal maximum Beeminder pledge.
It’s entirely rational to choose to derail on Beeminder if you value something else more than you value writing just then Here Beeminder is helping you make this trade-off explicit. You may know that not writing tonight costs you $Z of estimated future utility (this doesn’t necessarily mean future earnings; it could also represent the how much writing is worth to you as an entertainment), but without Beeminder you wouldn’t be facing it head on. When you can directly compare the utility of two ways to spend your time, you can make better decisions and trade-offs.
That said, it rarely comes to mutual exclusion. Often Beeminder prompts me to find a way to write, even if there’s something else I really want to do that partially conflicts. Things that I might lazily view as mutually exclusive often turn out not to be, once there’s money on the line.
It may seem hard to make this leap, especially when you start out with Beeminder. But after two years of regularly Beeminder use, I can honestly say that it doesn’t guilt me into anything. Even when it forces me to write, the emotional tone isn’t quite guilt. Beeminder is an effective goad because it helps me see the causal chain between writing tonight and having a robust writing habit. I write because I’m proud of the amount I write and I want to keep being proud of it. I’m not spurring myself with guilt and using that negativity to move forward. I’m latching onto the pride I want to be able to feel and navigating towards that.
Mere reminders to write are the least of what I get out Beeminder though. Beeminder became so much more effective for me once I started to regularly surpass my goals. Slowly, I began to be motivated mostly by exceeding them and that motivation led me to exceed them by ever greater margins and enjoy every minute of it.
This is the part where everything starts to come together. When you get here, guilt based motivation is but a dim memory. You write because you want to. Beeminder helps keep you on track, but you’re more likely to spend a bit of extra time writing to see the spike in your graphs than you are because you’ll derail otherwise.
When you get to this point (or earlier, depending on how you like to work), something like Complice can really help you make the most of all your motivation. Complice helps you tie your daily actions into the set long- and medium-term goals you’ve set. It has a kickass Beeminder integration that makes Beeminding as easy checking off a box. It has integrated Pomodoro timers for tracking how much time you work (and can send the results to Beeminder). It allows you and a friend to sign up as accountability buddies and see what each other get done . And it shows you how much work you’ve done in the past, allowing you to use the “don’t break the chain” productivity hack if it works for you (it works for me).
As I finish off this piece, I find myself tired and lethargic. It’s not that I particularly want to be writing (although some of the tiredness fell away as soon as I started to type). It’s that writing every night feels like the default option of my life. As weird as it sounds, it feels like it would take me more effort to skip writing than to do it.
This is really good, because any grumpiness about writing I might start with is often gone in under five minutes. The end result of me writing – even on a day when starting was hard – is improved mood for the whole day. I love the sense of accomplishment that creating something brings.
The road here wasn’t exactly easy. It’s taken more than two and a half years, hundreds of thousands of words, incipient carpal tunnel, and many false starts. It’s the false starts that inspired me to write this. I doubt, dear reader, that you are exactly like me. Likely some of this advice won’t work for you. It is, however, my hope that it can point you in the right direction. Perhaps my false starts can save you some of your own.
I would feel deeply uncomfortable giving anyone advice on how to be a better writer; I don’t feel confident enough in my craft for that . But I do feel like I know how to develop a kickass writing habit, the sort of habit that gives you the practice you need to get better. If you too want to write regularly, how about you give this a try?
I think the steps outlined here could be used to help build a variety of durable habits across disciplines. Want to program, cook, draw, or learn a new language? Think that in any of those cases a daily habit would be helpful? This advice is probably transferable to some degree. That said, I haven’t tried to repeat this process for any of those things, so I don’t know what the caveats are or where it will break down. If you adapt this post for anything else, let me know and I’ll link to it here.
Thanks to the kind folks at Beeminder for helping me create some of the graphs used in this post. In addition, thanks are due for fielding my semi-panicked support requests when the graph generation caused some problems with my account.
Thanks to Malcolm Ocean of Complice for pointing me towards Beeminder in the first place and for the year in review post that spurred me to make writing my New Year’s Resolution in 2015.
I genuinely like the people whose products I recommend in this blog post. I genuinely like their creations. They aren’t giving me anything to recommend their stuff.
True story: Beeminder sent out a survey about referral links and I told them they could set up a referral system, but I’d never use it. I think Beeminder and Complice are incredibly valuable tools that are tragically under-used and I don’t want to risk even the appearance of a conflict of interest that might make people less likely to follow my recommendations to use them. For me, they’ve been literally life-changing.
I’ve linked to my specific Beeminder writing goals (there are four of them) at various points throughout this post, but if you want the proof that I’m not talking out of my ass all nicely collected in one place, you can check out my progress towards all of my Beeminder goals at: https://www.beeminder.com/zacharyjacobi.
 If this advice doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it. I’m just a dude on the internet. This isn’t the bible. What works for me may not work for you and there’s nothing wrong with you if it doesn’t. You’ll just have to find your own way, is all. ^
 If Beeminder doesn’t work for you, I recommend a human accountability buddy (who will check up on your writing progress each day and maybe take your money if you aren’t hitting your goals). ^
 The best advice about writer’s block I’ve ever seen came from Cory Doctorow. He said that some days he feels like he’s inspired and a heavenly chorus is writing for him and other days he feels like he can’t write worth shit and has no clue what’s he’s supposed to be doing. He goes on to say that no matter how strong these feelings are, a month later he can’t tell the which words were written in which state. ^
 I cannot recommend this feature highly enough for people in long-distance relationships. ^
I just finished Professor Arlie Hochschild’s latest book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, a book some people are trumpeting as the one that explains Trump.
That wasn’t exactly how I read the book. I think Trump’s win is well explained by some combination of the “fundamentals” and the Comey Letter just before the election. I’m also wary of falling into the trap of drawing conclusions about America because Trump won. The result of the election could have been changed by dozens of random events. I’m following Scott Alexander’s advice and not basing my narratives off of which potential events happened to actually happen.
Besides, Trump is barely even in this book. He only appears in any substantive way in the last chapter and Prof. Hochschild doesn’t devote much ink to him. If you’re using this book to explain Trump, you’re going to have to do a lot of the work yourself.
At its core, Strangers in Their Own Land is an ethnography about a specific group of people with all of the advantages and perils that entails. We get to learn a lot about its subjects, but we have to be careful whenever applying any of its conclusions beyond the small group of people actually profiled.
Like any ethnography, Strangers in Their Own Land lives or dies by the interest the author can evoke in her subjects. Here, the subjects are a small group of Louisiana Tea Party members. Prof. Hochschild certainly managed to make me interested in them by using them as a lens through which to peer at the “Great Paradox” of American Politics: why do many of those who could most benefit from the government hate it so much?
I’ve forayed into discussions of the Great Paradox before. Like Prof. Hochschild, I’m skeptical of the purported “two rungs up” explanation of the paradox. It goes like this: yes, lower income counties tend to vote against government programs, but it is not actually the people on those programs (or their loved ones) voting against them. People relying on government programs rarely actually vote. Actual voters in Republican-leaning counties are better off and are voting solely for lower taxes.
By focusing Strangers in Their Own Land on pollution, Prof. Hochschild was able to sidestep this explanation. Pollution doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor – one of the more heartbreaking stories in the book is about a nine-year-old who died from a rare neuroblastoma, which everyone suspects was caused by pollution. Despite this, his well-off parents and well-off family friends continued to oppose the EPA.
A focus on pollution made Louisiana the obvious setting for this book. It’s one of the most polluted states in America and has some of the weakest and most ineffectually enforced environmental laws. Louisiana also has a very high rate of welfare use, which let Prof. Hochschild compare the two rungs up theory with alternatives (as she could count on finding people who were or knew someone on welfare).
In Louisiana, Prof. Hochschild found no one who was happy about pollution. The Tea Party voters she interviewed loved the outdoors. Many of them grew up hunting and fishing and almost all of them continued to cherish those outdoor pastimes in adulthood. It hurt them deeply to have no game to hunt or to be unable to eat the fish they caught. Yet still they opposed more regulations on pollution.
Reasons for this varied. Some believed that regulating pollution would hurt the oil and gas industry and lead to unemployment. They were saddened by the effects of pollutions on the environment, but they refused to put the environment ahead of other people.
Others believed that the government was (indirectly) responsible for pollution. They saw the government as protecting the worst polluters while coming down hard on any “little guy” who leaked even a tiny amount of gas from his boat. They believed that any additional regulations would be applied to them and their friends, not to the big companies responsible for the real pollution. They figured that the free market would disincentivize pollution well enough if the government could just leave everything alone and let it work.
Yet others were religious and figured that the world would not be around for much longer. They saw God’s commandment in Genesis 1:28 (“fill the earth, and subdue it”) as justification for any pollution in the interim. Even justifying pollution wasn’t very important for the faithful though; they cared far more about a rapture they saw as close to hand than they did about any worldly concerns.
No one that Prof. Hochschild talked to said: “yes, the government could fix this, but we don’t want them to”. Instead, she got responses like “the EPA would just use whatever power we gave it to take away our freedoms”, or “the government can’t help, it’s in the pockets of the polluters and hates the little guys like us”; none of the Tea Party voters trusted the government.
Prof. Hochschild was used to people distrusting certain government figures or departments, while still believing that good government was possible, necessary, and worth fight for. Here Prof. Hochschild saw people so used to incompetent, hostile, or distant government that they had given up hope that good government could ever exist for them. Prof. Hochschild immediately wanted to know how this could happen.
She found that religious people tended to see the government as usurping the traditional role of the church. They thought that ensuring the welfare of members of a community should be the responsibility of that community. With welfare, the government was destroying the bonds that held communities together. They viewed the liberal tendency to leave the care of the poor to a central bureaucracy as evidence of a terrible culture of neglect and moral bankruptcy.
Some adherents of capitalism saw the government as the enemy. To them, job creation and economic dynamism came from private enterprise, which the government stifled through bureaucracy, regulation, and taxes.
Other interview subjects saw the government as taking their money and giving it to people who were unlike them, people outside of their communities. They thought they’d done everything right, played by the book, suffered, yet still found prosperity elusive. They worked long hours for scant compensation, while not far away, the government was just giving away money to single mothers – who they viewed as hedonistic sinners who had far more children than was reasonable. Factually incorrect beliefs about the number of children people on welfare had or the percentage of the population that was on welfare were rampant in this group.
This isn’t to say that everyone fell into one of these categories. Many people combined beliefs. It actually reminded me of a point Joseph Heath made in light of the sex education controversy in Ontario – when social conservatives realize they can’t get the regressive solution they want (everyone forced to live by their values), they tend to swing to the other extreme and ask for ultra-liberal solutions. They may most prefer the government forcing everyone to have their values, but absent that, they’d rather the government force no one to do anything, so that it can’t force them to give up their values.
I should also mention that not all Tea Partiers ignored the consequences of pollution. Strangers in Their Own Land also profiles Tea Partiers who cared about pollution, viewed it as a pressing issue, and advocated for the Tea Party to make pollution one of its core principles. They echoed something I heard in some of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debates: “conservation is a conservative principle.”
Still, it was hard to take the anti-pollution Tea Party activists too seriously. They want to solve a collective action problem with the free market. Solving collective action problems with the free market is a bit like doing surgery with a pizza cutter. It’s not that it’s impossible, strictly speaking. It’s just that there are ways of doing it (in this case, via government) that are far less messy and far more likely to give the desired outcome.
It’s hard not to feel like the conservatives in this book are being betrayed by the industries they stand up for. One of the Tea Partiers who actually cared about pollution cared because his house was ruined in the Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Even as he stood up against pollution, he continued to advocate for a freer market, fear the EPA, and vote Republican. All of this has counted for nothing with Texas Brine, the company responsible for the disaster. It continues to drag its feet on the class action lawsuit launched by residents.
Further to this point, Prof. Hochschild dug up a damning report, prepared at the behest of the California Waste Management Board by some very fancy (and expensive!) consultants. The report identifies communities that won’t complain about “locally undesirable land use” (LULU), with the goal of identifying these communities so polluting (and property value lowering) activities can be more easily sited. Protests are very inconvenient for construction, after all.
Communities identified as ill-suited to resist LULU are:
Composed of long-time residents (who are unlikely to want to move away)
High school educated
Without a culture or history of activism
Involved in “nature exploitative occupations” (e.g. farming, ranching, and mining)
Primarily peopled by advocates of the free market
The communities where Prof. Hochschild did her research hit basically every single one of these criteria. This prompted some introspection on her part, as realized that one of the ways that her home of Berkeley is able to avoid substantial pollution is by foisting the negative externalities of modern life (like pollution) off onto communities like those in poor, rural Louisiana.
The back of the book purports to contain an analysis that shows that communities where people are more conservative (and more likely to believe that pollution isn’t a problem) are more polluted. I’m cautious of adopting the conclusions from it though, because conclusions are all it contains. From those, it’s clear that multiple hypothesis could have been easily tested  but unclear whether or not this was specifically controlled for. Without being able to look at the raw data or see the analysis methodology, I can’t tell if the correlation is likely real or a statistical artifact.
I will beg the question for a bit though, because Prof. Hochschild treats the correlation as real and spends some time explaining it. I think her explanations are interesting enough to talk about, even if they may be based on a flawed analysis.
Prof. Hochschild doesn’t put willingness to endure pollution down to the poor ignorant workers being deceived by the big dastardly corporations, a change from leftist discourse that I found refreshing. Instead she focuses on stories and teams.
Prof. Hochschild believes that the people of the south are (in general) conditioned to look forward, towards what were historically the planter elite and are now the resource extraction executives. They want to be like the most fortunate people in their communities and so support the same things they do. When liberals tell them they should be looking backwards and trying to help people less fortunate than them, this feels like an attempt to enforce foreign feeling rules. They feel like they are being told that to be respectable or good, they must perform concern or other emotions that don’t feel genuine .
I’m using forward and back deliberately here. This is the book that coined the “standing in line” metaphor for the anger of white working class Americans. In this metaphor (called by Prof. Hochschild a “deep story”; a story that feels emotionally true), there is a long line stretching to the top of a hill. Just beyond the brow of it lies the American dream. The line is moving slowly (or perhaps not moving at all) and the people in it are weary from their waiting.
Despite this, they stand there, patiently waiting their turn. But something terrible happens. There are people cutting in line! From the interviews she used to construct this metaphor, Prof. Hochschild identified the line cutters as African-Americans using affirmative action, women taking traditionally male jobs, immigrants working more cheaply than American whites are willing to, and (somewhat amusingly) pelicans, protected by environmental laws that were killing jobs. While the people standing in line expected the government (personified by Barack Obama) to do something about the line cutters, they were horrified to instead see President Obama helping and supporting them.
I want to make it clear that this isn’t something that either Professor Hochschild or I believe is literally happening. When it comes to the actual suffering of the people interviewed in this book, Professor Hochschild is inclined to blame big business interests, while I think the blame belongs more to a changing economy and automation (there is of course significant overlap between these two causes). When it comes to pollution, we’re in agreement that Louisiana would really benefit from tougher environmental laws coupled with more rigorous enforcement of its existing regulations.
Even though I believe there is no real displacement, no cutting in line, this metaphor seemed to resonate with many of the Tea Partiers interviewed in this book. To those people, the government is betraying them, working against them for another team. This makes them utterly incapable of trusting the government (with the exception of the military) and makes them incredibly defensive of people they do feel are on their team, like Louisiana’s petrochemical industry, one of the few sources of jobs that feel ennobling for them in the state.
Like I mentioned earlier, the communities where Prof. Hochschild conducted her research also relied heavily on the government. Nearly everyone Prof. Hochschild interviewed was on some form of welfare, had been on some form of welfare, or had a family member who was currently or had in the past been on some form of welfare. No one was particularly happy about this though. People did what they had to survive, but there was much more honour in going it alone. They viewed work as inherently ennobling and accepting anonymous charity as shameful, the sort of Calvinist curse that seems to be common on the American psyche.
This actually reminded me of a topic that frequently popped up on Freddie de Boer’s now deleted blog . Freddie was constantly worried that conspicuous consumerism was ruining the left. Freddie was apt to point out that there is a class of modern leftist that acts as if the important political projects of the left can be accomplished if they only signal their “woke” views hard enough, signalling primarily accomplished by consuming the correct media. Imagine, as an example, someone who is enthusiastic about Hamilton as if it were a meaningful political or institutional blow for leftist interests.
For both “woke” consumerist leftist cliques and Tea Party libertarians, the best off are able to buy virtue (or at least status), while the less fortunate have the misery of want compounded with the misery of failing to live up to an ideal that is predicated on a certain amount of disposable income (Hamilton tickets aren’t cheap, after all).
As much as the standing in line narrative has gotten air time, I want to caution against believing it as a universal motivating factor in Trump’s voters or working class whites more generally. Because this book is more an ethnography than anything else, it would be improper to take its conclusions, conclusions made about very small group of Tea Party activists and apply those conclusions across a country as varied and vast as the United States.
Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t include polling data; it’s unclear how many of the people who supported Trump share the “deep story” presented by Prof. Hochschild. Remember, many of Trump’s voters decided at the last-minute and many of those last-minute voters voted more against Clinton than for Trump (due to Comey’s letter).
One hint that the views expressed by Prof. Hochschild’s subjects are niche comes from their near complete abhorrence of government programs. Polls of the American public mark this view as an anomaly, even in a country that voted ~46% Republican. In 2015, 83% of Americans said Social Security was very important. 77% said the same thing about Medicare, and 75% said it about federal aid to public schools. A “mere” 73% said the military was very important. It would probably be incorrect to take the views of the Tea Partiers who want to cut these programs and represent them as common.
It’s also important to remember just how much of Trump’s victory came from evangelicals voting solely (or mostly) out of the belief that Republicans stand against abortion. 81% of evangelicals (who comprise a full quarter of the US electorate) voted for Trump. We don’t need some new narrative to explain why groups like this voted for the Republican nominee; they’ve voted reliably for Republicans in every election that Pew has stats for.
Despite my quibbles, Strangers in Their Own Land was a fascinating portrait of the deep divisions in America and Prof. Hochschild was an excellent narrator. She consistently fought to react with empathy, even to people she disagreed with on virtually everything. When a woman named Madonna told her that she loved Rush Limbaugh because he stood up to Femi-Nazis, Prof. Hochschild (the feminist writer who coined the terms “emotional labour” and “the second shift”) invited her out to lunch because “it seemed like it would be interesting”. Nowhere in this book did Prof. Hochschild exhibit scorn or a sense of superiority.
I think it’s important to note that Professor Hochschild hasn’t sold this book as a complete explanation for Trump. That’s on a media that desperately wants a single easy story to hold on to. Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t contain that singular story, but it does hold one fascinating piece of it.
One thing that may have helped Prof. Hochschild connect with the Tea Party members she interviewed was her own rootedness. The clash between cosmopolitan (multicultural, migratory, and individualist) and local (homogenous, traditional, and community-oriented) values was every bit as on display as the clash between right and left. Reading the acknowledgments section, I was struck by just how rooted in Berkeley Prof. Hochschild is. She has a small legion of friends and acquaintances and (one assumes) a deep web of interdependency with them.
Prof. Hochschild seems to be neither migratory, nor caught up in the atomization of society. Several of the people she interviewed directly critique this atomization and its corresponding effect on the breakdown of systems of mutual aid and support. Prof. Hochschild, by virtue of her position in a vibrant community (as well as her previous work that has touched on atomization) was well positioned to understand these critiques of the contemporary cosmopolitan.
I know that myself (and many other cosmopolitan-leaning liberals) have begun to feel the pain that can come with our migratory impulses. I abandoned a graduate degree, in part because it took me away from a community I had grown to love. For all that I often found myself completely disagreeing with the Tea Party members profiled in this book, I was glad to find that I might be able to talk with them about the benefits of community. I’m not sure if that would be enough of a starting point to convince them of anything substantial – rootedness and community are just one axis of (dis)agreement, just one part of the story – but it’s where I would start if I ever had to build a bridge to these strangers in their own land.
 Specifically, Prof. Hochschild looked for correlations between agreement with the statements “people worry too much about progress harming the environment”, “industrial air pollution is dangerous to the environment”, “the U.S. does enough to protect the environment”, and “Some people think that the government in Washington is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private businesses”, political affiliation (Democrat/Republican), and pollution rates. Her analysis found that agreement with the statement “people worry too much about progress harming the environment” (as well as membership in the Republican party) was correlated with relative risk of being exposed to toxic chemical release. Because I don’t even have the P values these were significant at, let alone knowledge of how they corrected for multiple comparisons and how many comparisons were attempted, I have to treat the correlation as liable to be caused by chance. ^
 I think Prof. Hochschild could have done a bit more analysis around feelings rules, because in my experience, they cut both ways. As far as I can tell, there seem to be one set of local feelings rules and another set of cosmopolitan feeling rules. Cosmopolitan feelings rules emphasize charity and welcoming the stranger, while local feelings rules emphasize responsibility to family and community. In both cases, it is grating to feel compelled to pretend to emotions that aren’t genuine. ^
 I can’t find any remnants of Freddie’s blog that make the point I’m ascribing to him, but if you want to get an idea of the tone of it, I’ve found an excerpt from the post “Our Nightmare”, which talks about a different way he feels the left is under threat. Freddie is an excellent writer, and I do recommend checking out his current blog, The ANOVA. ^
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan is the second book I’ve read about World War II and culpability. I apparently just can’t resist the urge to write essays after books like this, so here we go again. Since so much of what I got out of this book was spurred by the history it presented, I’m going to try and intersperse my thoughts with a condensed summary of it.
Aside from the prologue, which takes place just after Hirohito’s (arguably) extra-constitutional surrender, the book follows Hirohito’s life chronologically. Hirohito’s childhood was hardly idyllic. He spent most of it being educated. Meiji Era Japan drew heavily from Prussia and in Hirohito’s education, I saw an attempt to mold him into a Japanese Frederick the Great.
I think Dr. Bix is right to spend as much time on Hirohito’s childhood as he does. Lois McMaster Bujold once criticized authors who write characters that pop out of a box at 22, fully formed. It’s even more lamentable when historians do this.
Had Dr. Bix skipped this part, we’d have no explanation for why Hirohito failed so completely at demonstrating any moral fibre throughout the war. In order to understand Hirohito’s moral failings, we had to see the failings in Hirohito’s moral education. Dr. Bix does an excellent job here, showing how fatuous and sophistic the moral truths Hirohito was raised with were. His instructors lectured him on the moral and temporal superiority of the Imperial House over the people of Japan and the superiority of the people of Japan over the people of the world. Japan, Hirohito was taught, had to steward the rest of Asia towards prosperity – violently if need be.
For all that Hirohito might have been a pacifist personally, his education left him little room to be a pacifist as a monarch.
This certainly isn’t without precedent. The aforementioned Frederick the Great was known to complain about his “dog’s life” as a general. Frederick would have much preferred a life of music and poetry to one of war, but he felt that it was his duty to his country and his people to lead (and win wars).
Hirohito would have felt even more pressure than Frederick the Great, because he probably sincerely believed that it was up to him to save Asia. The explicitly racist immigration policies of western nations, their rampant colonialism, and their refusal to make racial non-discrimination a key plank of the League of Nations made it easy for Hirohito’s teachers to convince him that he (and through him, all of Japan) was responsible for protecting “the yellow race”.
It is unfortunate that Hirohito was raised to be an activist emperor, because as Dr. Bix points out, the world was pretty done with monarchs by the time Hirohito was born. Revolutions and First World War had led to the toppling of many of the major monarchies (like Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany). Those countries that still had monarchies heavily circumscribed the power of their monarchs. There were few countries left where monarchs both ruled and reigned. Yet this is what Hirohito’s teachers prepared him to do.
After an extensive education, Hirohito entered politics as the prince-regent for his ailing father, the Taisho Emperor. As regent, he attended military parades, performed some of the emperor’s religious duties, appointed prime ministers, and began to learn how Japanese politics worked.
There was a brief flourishing of (almost) true democracy based on party politics during the reign of the Taisho Emperor. Prime Ministers were picked by the emperor on the advice of the genrō, an extraconstitutional group of senior statesmen who directed politics after the Meiji Restoration (in 1868). The incapacity of Hirohito’s father meant that the genrō were free to choose whomever they wanted. Practically, this meant that cabinets were formed by the leader of the largest party in the Diet (the Japanese parliament). Unfortunately, this delicate democracy couldn’t survive the twin threats of an activist monarch and independent military.
The prime minister wasn’t the only power centre in the cabinet. The army and navy ministers had to be active duty officers, which gave the military an effective veto over cabinets – cabinets required these ministers to function, but the ministers couldn’t join the cabinet without orders from their service branch.
With an incompetent and sick emperor, the military had to negotiate with the civilian politicians – it could bring down a government, but couldn’t count on the genrō to appoint anyone better, limiting its bargaining power. When Hirohito ascended to the regency, the army began to go to him. By convincing Hirohito or his retinue to back this candidate for prime minister or that one, the military gained the ability to remove cabinets and replace them with those more to their liking.
This was possible because under Hirohito, consulting the genrō became a mere formality. In a parody of what was supposed to happen, Hirohito and his advisers would pick their candidate for prime minister and send him to Saionji, the only remaining genrō. Saionji always approved their candidates, even when he had reservations. This was good for the court group, because it allowed them to maintain the fiction that Hirohito only acted on advice and never made decisions of his own.
As regent, Hirohito made few decisions of his own, but the court group (comprised of Hirohito and his advisors) began laying the groundwork to hold real power when he ascended to the throne. For Hirohito, his education left him little other choice. He had been born and raised to be an active emperor, not a mere figurehead. For his entourage, increasing Hirohito’s influence increased their own.
I’m not sure which was more powerful: Hirohito or his advisors? Both had reasons for trusting the military. Hirohito’s education led him to view the military as a stabilizing and protective force, while his advisors tended to be nationalists who saw a large and powerful military as a pre-requisite for expansion. Regardless of who exactly controlled it, the court group frequently sided with the military, which made the military into a formidable political force.
Requiring active duty military officers in the cabinet probably seemed like a good idea when the Meiji Constitution was promulgated, but in retrospect, it was terrible. I’m in favour of Frank Herbert’s definition of control: “The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.” In this sense, the military could often control the government. The instability this wrought on Japan’s cabinet system serves as a reminder of the power of vetoes in government.
In 1926, the Taisho emperor died. Hirohito ascended to throne. His era name was Shōwa – enlightened peace.
As might be expected, the court group didn’t wait long after Hirohito’s ascension to the throne to begin actively meddling with the government. Shortly after becoming emperor, Hirohito leaned on the prime minister to commute the death sentence of a married couple who allegedly planned to assassinate him. For all that this was a benevolent action, it wreaked political havoc, with the prime minister attacked in the Diet for falling to show proper concern for the safety of the emperor.
Because the prime minister was honour bound to protect the image of Hirohito as a constitutional, non-interventionist monarch, he was left defenseless before his political foes. He could not claim to be acting according to Hirohito’s will while Hirohito was embracing the fiction that he had no will except that of his prime minister and cabinet. This closed off the one effective avenue of defense he might have had. The Diet’s extreme response to clemency was but a portent of what was to come.
Over the first decade of Hirohito’s reign, Japanese politics became increasingly reactionary and dominated by the army. At the same time, Hirohito’s court group leveraged the instability and high turnover elsewhere in the government to become increasingly powerful. For ordinary Japanese, being a liberal or a communist became increasingly unpleasant. “Peace Preservation Laws” criminalized republicanism, anarchism, communism, or any other attempt to change the national fabric or structure, the kokutai – a word that quickly became heavily loaded.
In the early 1930s, political criticism increasingly revolved around the kokutai, as the Diet members realized they could score points with Hirohito and his entourage by claiming to defend it better than their opponents could. The early 1930s also saw the Manchurian Incident, a false flag attack perpetrated by Japanese soldiers to give a casus belli for invading Manchuria.
Despite opposition from both Hirohito and the Prime Minister, factions in the army managed to leverage the incident into a full-scale invasion, causing a war in all but name with China. Once the plotters demonstrated that they could expand Hirohito’s empire, he withdrew his opposition. Punishments, when there were any, were light and conspirators were much more likely to receive medals that any real reprimand. Dr. Bix believes this sent a clear message – the emperor would tolerate insubordination, as long as it produced results.
After the Manchurian Incident (which was never acknowledged as a war by Japan) and the occupation of Manchuria, Japan set up a client kingdom and ruled Manchuria through a puppet government. For several years, the situation on the border with China was stable, in spite of occasional border clashes.
This stability wasn’t to last. In 1937, there was another incident, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.
When an unplanned exchange of fire between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out in Beijing (then Peking), some in the Japanese high command decided the time was ripe for an invasion of China proper. Dr. Bix says that Hirohito was reluctant to sanction this invasion (over fears of the Soviet Union), but eventually gave his blessing.
Japan was constantly at war for the next eight years. Over the course of the war, Dr. Bix identified several periods where Hirohito actively pushed his generals and admirals towards certain outcomes, and many more where Hirohito disagreed with them, but ultimately did nothing.
I often felt like Dr. Bix was trying to have things both ways. He wanted me to believe that Hirohito was morally deficient and unable to put his foot down when he could have stood up for his principles and he wanted me to believe that Hirohito was an activist emperor, able to get what he wanted. This of course ignores a simpler explanation. What if Hirohito was mostly powerless, a mere figurehead?
Here’s an example of Dr. Bix accusing Hirohito of doing nothing (without adequate proof that he could have done anything):
When Yonai failed to act on the long-pending issue of a German alliance, the army brought down his cabinet and Hirohito did nothing to prevent it. (Page 357)
On the other hand, we have (in Hirohito’s own words) an admission that Hirohito had some say in military policy:
Contrary to the views of the Army and Navy General Staffs, I agreed to the showdown battle of Leyte, thinking that if we attacked at Leyte and America flinched, then we would probably be able to find room to negotiate. (Page 481)
I really wish that Dr. Bix had grappled with this conflict more and given me much more proof that Hirohito actually had the all the power that Dr. Bix believes he did. It certainly seems that by Hirohito’s own admission, he was not merely a figurehead. Unfortunately for the thesis of the book, it’s a far leap from “not merely a figurehead” to “regularly guided the whole course of the war” and Dr. Bix never quite furnishes evidence for the latter view.
I was convinced that Hirohito (along with several other factions) acted to delay the wartime surrender of Japan. His reasoning for this was the same as his reasoning for the Battle of Leyte. He believed that if Japan could win one big victory, they could negotiate an end to the war and avoid occupation – and the risk to the emperor system that occupation would entail. When this became impossible, Hirohito pinned all his hopes on the Soviet Union, erroneously believing that they would intercede on Japan’s behalf and help Japan negotiate peace. For all that the atomic bombings loomed large in the public statement of surrender, it is likely that behind the scenes, the Soviet invasion played a large role.
Leaving aside for a minute the question of which interpretation is true, if Hirohito or a clique including him wielded much of the power of the state, he (or they) also suffered from one of the common downfalls of rule by one man. By Dr. Bix’s account, they were frequently controlled by controlling the information they received. We see this in response to the Hull note, an pre-war American diplomatic communique that outlined what Japan would have to do before America would resume oil exports.
At the Imperial Conference on December 1, 1941, Foreign Minister Tōgō misled the assembled senior statesmen, generals and admirals. He told them that America demanded Japan give up Manchuria, which was a red line for the assembled leaders. Based on this information, the group (including Hirohito) assented to war. Here’s a quote from the journal of Privy Council President Yoshimichi Hara:
If we were to give in [to the United States], then we would not only give up the fruits of the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, but also abandon the results of the Manchurian Incident. There is no way we could endure this… [I]t is clear that the existence of our empire is threatened, that the great achievement of the emperor Meiji would all come to naught, and that there is nothing else we can do. (Page 432)
The problem with all this is that Hull cared nothing for Manchuria, probably didn’t even consider it part of China, and would likely have been quite happy to let Japan keep it. By this point, the Japanese conquest of Manchuria had been a done deal for a decade and the world had basically given up on it being returned to China. Hull did want Japan to withdrawn from French Indochina (present day Vietnam) and China. Both of these demands were unacceptable to many of the more hawkish Japanese leaders, but not necessarily to the “moderates”.
Foreign Minister Tōgō’s lie about Manchuria was required to convince the “moderates” to give their blessing to war.
A word on Japanese “moderates”. Dr. Bix is repeatedly scornful of the term and I can’t help feeling sympathetic to his point of view. He believes that many of the moderates were only moderate by the standards of the far-right extremists and terrorists who surrounded them. It was quite possible to have an international reputation as a moderate in one of the pre-war cabinets and believe that Japan had a right to occupy Chinese territory seized without even a declaration of war.
I don’t think western scholarship has necessarily caught up here. On Wikipedia, Privy Council President Hara is described as “always reluctant to use military force… he protested against the outbreak of the Pacific war at [the Imperial Conference of December 1]”. I would like to gather a random sample of people and see if they believe that the journal entry above represents protesting against war. If they do, I will print off this blog post and eat it.
Manipulation of information played a role in Japan’s wartime surrender as well. Dr. Bix recounts how Vice Foreign Minister Matsumoto Shinichi presented Hirohito with a translation of the American demands that replaced one key phrase. The English text of the demands read: “the authority of the Emperor… to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers”. In the translation, Shinichi replaced “shall be subject to” with “shall be circumscribed by”.
Hirohito, who (in Dr. Bix’s estimation) acted always to preserve his place as emperor accepted this (modified) demand.
Many accounts of World War II assume the civilian members of the Japanese cabinet were largely powerless. Here we see the cabinet shaping two momentous decisions (war and peace). They were able to do this because they controlled the flow of information to the military and the emperor. Hirohito and the military didn’t have their own diplomats and couldn’t look over diplomatic cables. For information from the rest of the world, they were entirely at the mercy of the foreign services.
One man rule can give the impression of a unified elite. Look behind the curtain though and you’ll always find factions. Deprived of legitimate means of conflict (e.g. contesting elections), factions will find ways to try and check each other’s influence. Here, as is often the case, that checking came via controlling the flow of information. This sort of conflict-via-information has real implications in current politics, especially if Donald Trump tries to consolidate more power in himself.
But how was it that such a small change in the demand could be so important? Dr. Bix theorized that Hirohito’s primary goal was always preserving the power of the monarchy. He chose foreign war because he felt it was the only thing capable of preventing domestic dissent. The far-right terrorism of the 1930s was therefore successful; it compelled the government to fight foreign wars to assuage it.
In this regard, the atomic bombs were actually a godsend to the Japanese leadership. They made it clear that Japan was powerless to resist the American advance and gave the leadership a face-saving reason to end the war. I would say this is conjecture, but several members of the court clique and military leadership actually wrote in their diaries that the bombs were “good luck” or the like. Here’s former Prime Minister Yonai:
I think the term is perhaps inappropriate, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods [tenyu, also “heaven-sent blessings”]. This way we don’t have to say that we quit the war because of domestic circumstances. I’ve long been advocating control of our crisis, but neither from fear of an enemy attack nor because of the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war. The main reason is my anxiety over the domestic situation. So, it is rather fortunate that we can now control matters without revealing the domestic situation. (Page 509)
Regardless of why exactly it came about, the end of the war brought with it the problem of trying war criminals. Dr. Bix alleges that there was a large-scale conspiracy amongst Japan’s civilian and military leadership to hide all evidence of Hirohito’s war responsibility, a conspiracy aided and abetted by General Douglas McArthur.
The general was supreme commander of the allied occupation forces and had broad powers to govern Japan as he saw fit. Dr. Bix believes that in Hirohito, McArthur saw a symbol he could use to govern more effectively. I’m not sure if I was entirely convinced of a conspiracy – a very good conspiracy leaves the same evidence as no conspiracy at all – but it is undeniable that the defenses of the “Class A” war criminals (the civilian and military leadership charged with crimes against peace) were different from the defenses offered at Nuremburg, in a way that was both curious and most convenient for Hirohito.
Both sets of war criminals (in Tokyo and Nuremburg) tried to deny the legitimacy of “crimes against the peace” and claim their trials were just victor’s justice. But notably absent from all of the trials of Japanese leaders was the defense of “just following orders” that was so emblematic of the Nazis tried at Nuremburg. Unlike the Nazis, the Japanese criminals were quite happy to take responsibility. It was always them, never the emperor. I don’t think this is just a case of their leader having survived; I doubt the Nuremburg defendants would have been so loyal if Hitler had lived.
Of course, there is a potential parsimonious explanation for everyone having their stories straight. Hirohito could have been entirely innocent. Except, if Hirohito was so innocent, how can we explain the testimony Konoe made to one of his aides?
Fumimaro Konoe was the last prime minister before the Pearl Harbour attack and an opponent of war with the United States. He refused to take part in the (alleged) cover up. He was then investigated for war crimes and chose to kill himself. Of Hirohito, he said:
“Of course His Imperial Majesty is a pacifist and he wished to avoid war. When I told him that to initiate war was a mistake, he agreed. But the next day, he would tell me: ‘You were worried about it yesterday but you do not have to worry so much.’ Thus, gradually he began to lead to war. And the next time I met him, he leaned even more to war. I felt the Emperor was telling me: ‘My prime minister does not understand military matters. I know much more.’ In short, the Emperor had absorbed the view of the army and the navy high commands.” (Page 419)
Alas, this sort of damning testimony was mostly avoided at the war crimes trials. With Konoe dead and the rest of Japan’s civilian and military leadership prepared to do whatever it took to exonerate Hirohito, the emperor was safe. Hirohito was never indicted for war crimes, despite his role in authorizing the war and delaying surrender as he searched for a great victory.
Some of the judges were rather annoyed by the lack of indictment. The chief judge wrote: “no ruler can commit the crime of launching aggressive war and then validly claim to be excused for doing so because his life would otherwise have been in danger… It will remain that the men who advised the commission of a crime, if it be one, are in no worse position than the man who directs the crime be committed”.
This didn’t stop most of the judges from passing judgement on the criminals they did have access to. Some of the conspirators paid for their loyalty with their lives. The remainder were jailed. None of them spent much more than a decade in prison. By 1956, all of the “Class A” war criminals except the six who were executed and three who died in jail were pardoned.
The business and financial elite, two groups which profited immensely from the war got off free and clear. None of them were even charged. Dr. Bix suggests that General McArthur vetoed it. He had a country to run and couldn’t afford the disruption that would be caused if all of the business and financial elite were removed.
This leaves the Class B and Class C war criminals, the officers who were charged with more normal war crimes. Those officers who were tried in other countries were much more likely to face execution. Of the nearly 6,000 Class B and Class C war criminals charged outside of Japan, close to 1,000 were executed. A similar number were acquitted. Most of the remainder served limited criminal sentences.
Perhaps the greatest injustice of all was the fate of Unit 731. None of them were ever charged, despite carrying out bacteriological research on innocent civilians. They bought their freedom with research data the Americans coveted.
For all that their defenses differed from the Nuremburg criminals, the Japanese war criminals tried in Tokyo faced a similar fate. A few of them were executed, but most of them served sentences that belied the enormity of their crimes. Life imprisonments didn’t stick and pardons were forthcoming once the occupation ended. And as in Germany, some of the war criminals even ended up holding positions in government. Overall, the sentences gave the impression that in 1945, wars of aggression were much less morally troubling than bank robberies.
I had thought the difficulties Germany faced in denazification – and holding former Nazi’s accountable – were unique. This appears to be false. It seems to be very difficult to maintain the political will to keep war criminals behind bars after an occupation ends, as long as their crimes were not committed against their own people.
In light of this, I think it can be moral to execute war criminals. While I generally oppose the death penalty, this opposition is predicated on there being a viable alternative to execution for people who have flagrantly violated the social contract. Life imprisonment normally provides this, but I no longer believe that it can in the case of war criminals.
The Allies bear some of the blame for the clemency war criminals received. Japan’s constitution required them to seek approval from a majority of the nations that participated in the Tokyo trial. Ultimately, a majority of the eleven nations that were involved in the tribunal put improved ties with Japan over moral principles and allowed clemency to be granted. This suggests that even jailing war criminals outside their country of origin or requiring foreign consent for their pardon can be ineffective.
With both of these options removed, basic justice (and good incentive structures) seem to require all major war criminals to be executed. A rule of thumb is probably to execute any war criminal who would have otherwise be sentenced to twenty years or more of prison. It’s only these prisoners who stand to see their sentence substantially reduced in the inevitable round of pardons.
I also believe that convicted war criminals (as a general class) probably shouldn’t be trusted with the running of a country. To be convicted of war crimes proves that you are likely to flagrantly violate international norms. While people can change, past behaviour remains the best predictor of future behaviour. Therefore, it makes sense to try and remove any right war criminals might otherwise have to hold public office in a way that is extremely difficult to reverse. This could take the form of constitutional amendments that requires all victimized countries to consent to each individual war criminal that wishes to later hold public office, or other similarly difficult to circumvent mechanisms.
This is one area where the International Criminal Court (ICC) could prove its worth. If the ICC is able to deliver justice and avoid bowing to political pressure in any of its cases, then the obvious way of dealing with war criminals would be to send them to the ICC.
The section of the book that covers the war crimes trials and post-war Japan is called “The Unexamined Life”. I think the title is apt. There’s no evidence that Hirohito ever truly grappled with his role in the war, whatever it was. At one point, in response to a question about his war responsibility, Hirohito even said: “I can’t answer that question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field”. This answer would be risible even if Hirohito were completely blameless. If there was anyone who knew how much responsibility Hirohito bore for the war, it was the man himself.
In the constitution promulgated by the occupying Americans, Hirohito became a constitutional monarch in truth. Dr. Bix reports that Hirohito was miffed to find that he could no longer appoint prime ministers and cabinets. He adjusted poorly to his lack of role and spent most of the fifties and sixties hoping that he could be made politically useful again. This never happened, although some conservative prime ministers did go to him for advice from time to time. His one consolation was the extra-constitutional military and intelligence briefings he received, but this was a far nod from the amount of information he received during the war.
Ultimately, the only punishment that Hirohito faced was his irrelevance. That is, I think, too small a price to pay for launching (or at the very least, approving) wars of aggression that killed millions of people.
The last section of the book also includes the only flaw I noticed: Dr. Bix cites a poll where 57% of the population (of Japan) thought Hirohito bore war responsibility or were unsure whether he did. Dr. Bix goes on to claim that this implies that Hirohito’s evasive answers were out of step with the opinion of the majority of the Japanese population. I think (although I can’t prove; the original source is Japanese) that this is probably obscuring the truth.
This shades into the larger issue of trust. How much should I trust Dr. Bix? He obviously knows a lot more about Hirohito than I do and he can speak and read Japanese (I cannot). This makes this book more authoritative than previous books by Americans that relied entirely on translations of Japanese scholarship, but it also makes verifying his sources more difficult.
On a whole, this has left me somewhat unsatisfied. I’m convinced that Hirohito was more than a harmless puppet leader. I’m also convinced he didn’t wield absolute power. By Dr. Bix’s own admission, he acted contrary to his own wants very often. For me, this doesn’t jibe with autocratic power. My best interpretation of Dr. Bix’s research is that Hirohito was an influential member of one organ of the Japanese state. He wielded significant but not total influence over national policy. I do not believe that Hirohito was as free to act as Dr. Bix claims he was.
I do believe Dr. Bix when he says that Hirohito’s role expanded as the war went on. If nothing else, he became the most experienced of all of Japan’s leaders at the same time as the myth of his divinity and benevolence became most entrenched. Furthermore, Hirohito and his retinue were most free to act when the army and navy were at loggerheads. This became more and more common after 1937.
Dr. Bix actually posits that these disagreements were the ultimate reason that Hirohito could grasp real power. The cabinet (which included civilian, army, and navy decision makers) was supposed to work by consensus. Where there were deep divisions, they would paper over them with vague statements and false consensus, without engaging in the give and take of negotiation that real consensus requires. Since everything was done in Hirohito’s name, he and the court group could twist the vague statements towards their preferred outcomes – all the while pretending Hirohito was a mere constitutional monarch promulgating decisions based on the advice of the cabinet.
This system was horribly inefficient and at least one person tried to reform it. Unfortunately, their “reform” would have led to a military dictatorship. Here’s a quote about the troubles facing one of the pre-war prime ministers:
“Right-wing extremists and terrorists repeatedly assailed him verbally, while the leading reformer in his own party, Mori, sought to break up the party system itself and ally with the military to create a new, more authoritarian political order.” (Page 247)
I’m used to seeing “reformers” only applied positively, but if you’re willing to look at reform as “the process of making the government run more effectively”, I suppose that military dictatorships are one type of reform. I think it’s good to be reminded that efficiency is not the only axis on which we should judge a government. It may be quite reasonable to oppose reforms that will streamline the government when those reforms come at the cost of other values, like fairness, transparency, and freedom of speech.
It’s my habit to try and draw lessons from the history I read. Because Dr. Bix’s book covers so troubled a time, I did not find it lacking in lessons. But I had hoped for something more than lessons from the past. I had hoped to know definitively how much of the fault for Japan’s role in World War II should lie at the feet of Hirohito.
Despite this being the whole purpose of the book, I was left disappointed. It is almost as if Dr. Bix let his indignation with Hirohito’s escape from any and all justice get the better of him. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan tried to pin almost every misdeed during Hirohito’s reign on the emperor personally. In overreaching, it left me unsure of how much of itself to believe. I cannot discount it entirely, but I also cannot accept wholesale.
It doesn’t help that Dr. Bix paints a portrait of the emperor so intimate as to humanize him. While Dr. Bix seems to want us to view Hirohito as evil, I could not help but see him as a flawed man following a flawed morality. As far as I can tell, Hirohito would have been happiest as a moderately successful marine biologist. But marine biology is not what was asked of him and unfortunately, he did what he saw as his duty.
Here I again wish to make a comparison with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Had Hirohito not been singularly poor at introspection, or had he not had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (while Hannah Arendt said this about Adolf Eichmann, I think it applies equally well to Hirohito), Hirohito could have risen above the failings in his moral education and acted as a brake on Japanese militarism.
Hirohito did not do this. And because of his actions (and perhaps more importantly, his inaction), terrible things came to pass.
The possibility for individuals to do terrible things despite having no malice in their hearts is what caused Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”. Fifty years later, we still expect the worst deeds humans can commit to only come from the hands of monsters. There is certainly security in that assumption. When we believe terrible things can only be done deliberately and with malice, we allow ourselves to ignore the possibility that we may be involved in unjust systems or complicit in terrible deeds.
It’s only when we remember that terrible things require no malice, that one may do them even while being a normal person or while acting in accordance with the values they were raised with, that we can properly introspect about our own actions. It is vital that we all take the time to ask “are we the baddies?” and ensure that our ethical systems fail gracefully.
Obviously, Hirohito did none of this. That’s all on him. No matter how you cut the blame pie, Hirohito did nothing to stop the Rape of Nanjing, the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Bataan Death March, and the forced massed suicides of Okinawans. Hirohito demonstrated that he had the power to order a surrender. Yet he did not do this when the war was all but lost and Japanese cities were bombed daily. He delayed surrender time and again, hoping for some other option that would allow him to cling to whatever scraps of power he had.
For all that Dr. Bix failed to convince me that Hirohito was one of the primary architects of the war, he did convince me that Hirohito bore a large measure of responsibility. I agree that Hirohito should have been a Class A war criminal. I agree that Hirohito escaped all but the faintest touch of justice for his role in the war. And I agree that Hirohito’s escape from justice has made it more difficult for Japan to accept the guilt it should bear for its wars of aggression.
These are two very different sorts of speculation. The first requires extreme attention to detail in order to make the setting plausible, but once you clear that bar, you can get away with anything. Ted Chiang is clearly a master at this. I couldn’t find any inconsistencies to pick at in any of his stories.
When you try to predict the future – especially the near future – you don’t need to make up a world out of whole cloth. Here it’s best to start with plausible near future events and let those give your timeline a momentum, carrying you to where you want to go on a chain of reason. No link has to be perfect, but each link has to be plausible. If any of them leave your readers scratching their heads, then you’ve lost them.
Predicting the future is also vulnerable to the future happening. Predictions are rooted in their age and tend to tell us more about the context in which they were made than about the future.
I think Pump Six is a book where we can clearly see and examine both of these problems.
First, let’s talk about chains of events. The stories The Fluted Girl, The Calorie Man, The Tamarisk Hunter, and Yellow Card Man all hinge on events that probably seem plausible to Bacigalupi, but that feel deeply implausible to me.
The Fluted Girl imagines the revival of feudalism in America. Fiefs govern the inland mountains, while there is a democracy (presumably capitalist) on the coasts. This arrangement felt unstable and unrealistic to me.
Feudal societies tend to have much less economic growth than democracies (see part 2 of Scott’s anti-reactionary FAQ). Democracies also aren’t exactly great at staying calm about atrocities right on their doorsteps. These two facts combined make me wonder why the (Coloradan?) feudal society in The Fluted Girl hasn’t been smashed by its economically (and therefore, inevitably militarily) more powerful neighbours.
In The Tamarisk Hunter, the Colorado River is slowly being covered by a giant concrete straw, a project that has been going on for a while and requires massive amounts of resources. The goal is to protect the now diminished Colorado River from evaporation as it winds its way into a deeply drought-stricken California.
In the face of a bad enough drought, every bit counts. But there are much more cost effective ways to get your drinking water. The Colorado river today has an average discharge of 640m3/s. In a bad drought, this would be lower. Let’s say it’s at something like 200m3/s.
You could get that amount of water from building about 100 desalination plants, which would cost something like $100 billion today (using a recently built plant in California as a baseline). Bridges cost something like $3,000 per m2 (using this admittedly flawed report for guidance), so using bridges to estimate the cost, the “straw” would cost about $300 million per kilometer (using the average width of the Colorado river). Given the relative costs of the two options, it is cheaper to replace the whole river (assuming reduced flow from the drought) with desalination plants than it is to build even 330km (<200 miles) of straw.
A realistic response to a decades long California drought would involve paying farmers not to use water, initiating water conservation measures, and building desalination plants. It wouldn’t look like violent conflict over water rights up and down the whole Colorado River.
In The Calorie Man and Yellow Card Man, bioengineered plagues have ravaged the world and oil production has declined to the point where the main source of energy is once again the sun (via agriculture). Even assuming peak oil will happen (more on that in a minute), there will always be nuclear power. Nuclear power plants currently provide for only ten percent of the world’s energy needs, but there’s absolutely no good reason they couldn’t meet basically all of them (especially if combined with solar, hydro, wind, and if necessary, coal).
With improved uranium enrichment techniques and better energy storage technology, it’s plausible that sustainable energy sources could, if necessary, entirely displace oil, even in the transportation industry.
The only way to get from “we’re out of oil” to “I guess it’s back to agriculture as our main source of energy” is if you forget about (or don’t even consider) nuclear power.
This is why I think the stories in Pump Six tell me a lot more about Bacigalupi than about the future. I can tell that he cares deeply about the planet, is skeptical of modern capitalism, and fearful of the damage industrialization, fossil fuels, and global warming may yet bring.
But the story that drove home his message for me wasn’t any of the “ecotastrophes”, where humans are brought to the brink of destruction by our mistreatment of the planet. It was The People of Sand and Slag that made me stop and wonder. It asks us to consider what we’d lose if we poison the planet while adapting to the damage. Is it okay if beaches are left littered with oil and barbed wire if these no longer pose us any threat?
I wish more of the stories had been like that, instead of infected with the myopia that causes environmentalists to forget about the existence of nuclear power (when they aren’t attacking it) and critics of capitalism to assume that corporations will always do the evil thing, with no regard to the economics of the situation.
Disregard for economics and a changing world intersect when Bacigalupi talks about peak oil. Peak oil was in vogue among environmentalists in the 2000s as oil prices rose and rose, but it was never taken seriously by the oil industry. As per Wikipedia, peak oil (as talked about by environmentalists in the ’00s, not as originally formulated) ignored the effects of price on supply and demand, especially in regard to unconventional oil, like the bitumen in the Albertan Oil Sands.
Price is really important when it comes to supply. Allow me to quote from one of my favourite economics stories. It’s about a pair of Texan brothers who (maybe) tried to corner the global market for silver and in the process made silver so unaffordable that Tiffany’s ran an advertisement denouncing them in the third page of the New York Times. The problems the Texans ran into as silver prices rose are relevant here:
But as the high prices persisted, new silver began to come out of the woodwork.
“In the U.S., people rifled their dresser drawers and sofa cushions to find dimes and quarters with silver content and had them melted down,” says Pirrong, from the University of Houston. “Silver is a classic part of a bride’s trousseau in India, and when prices got high, women sold silver out of their trousseaus.”
Unfortunately for the Hunts, all this new supply had a predictable effect. Rather than close out their contracts, short sellers suddenly found it was easier to get their hands on new supplies of silver and deliver.
“The main factor that has caused corners to fail [throughout history] is that the manipulator has underestimated how much will be delivered to him if he succeeds [at] raising the price to artificial levels”
By the same token, many people underestimated the amount of oil that would come out of the woodwork if oil prices remained high – arguably artificially high, no thanks to OPEC – for a prolonged period. As an aside, it’s also likely that we underestimate the amount of unconventional water that could be found if prices ever seriously spiked, another argument against the world in The Tamarisk Hunter.
This isn’t to say that there won’t be a peak in oil production. The very real danger posed by global warming and the fruits of investments in alternative energy when oil prices were high will slowly wean us off of oil. This formulation of peak oil is much different than the other one. A steady decrease in demand for oil will be hard on oil producing regions, but it won’t come as a sharp shock to the whole world economic order.
I don’t know how much of this could have been known in 2005, especially to anyone deeply embedded in the environmentalist movement. As an exoneration, that’s wonderful. But this is exactly my point from above. You can try and predict the future, but you can only predict from your flawed vantage point. In retrospect, it is often easier to triangulate the vantage point than to see the imagined future as plausible.
Another example: almost all science fiction before the late 00s drastically underestimated the current prevalence in mobile devices. In series that straddle the divide, you often see mobile devices mentioned much more in the latter books, as authors adjust their visions of the future to take into account what they now know in the present.
Writing is hard and the critic will always have an easier time than the author. I don’t mean to be so hard on Bacigalupi, I really did enjoy Pump Six and it’s caused me to do no end of thinking and discussing since I finished reading it. In this regard, it was an immensely successful book.
I just finished reading SPQR, by Professor Mary Beard. As a history of Rome, it’s the opposite of what I expected. It spends little time on individual deeds; there is no great man history here. More shocking, there is very little military history. As part of an audience taught to expect the history of Rome to be synonymous with the history of its military, I was shocked.
This book is perhaps best understood as a conversation with Romans masquerading as a political and social history of Rome. Prof. Beard sums this up in her epilogue: “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans… but I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans.”
Prof. Beard starts her history with the foundational myths of Rome: Romulus and Remus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, and the Seven Kings. She looks at themes of these myths and turns the speculations of ancient historians on its head. Rome was not beset by conflicts between powerful men because of a lingering proclivity for fratricide inherent to the successors of Romulus. The story of Romulus resonated and was passed down because Rome was beset by conflicts with powerful men. She shows us how this story was shaped by current events in every retelling, highlighting the differences in the versions told in the first century BCE and the first century CE.
This isn’t the only relationship Prof. Beard calls us to rethink. Ancient writers praised Romulus’s vision for Rome: somehow he picked the perfect spot for the city. We now know that Rome was not “founded” in the mythological sense, that it did not begin as barren hills colonized by a single pair of brothers. But Rome’s location shaped Rome’s development such that the location was indeed an ideal spot for the city Rome became. The spot seemed perfect in retrospect because it had created a people who would view it as perfect.
Prof. Beard later reminds us that Rome’s expansion wasn’t really planned either. While Hollywood may encourage us to think of Romans as motivated by a manifest destiny that caused them to attempt to rule the whole world, the historical reality was rather different. There was no cabal of senators in 300 BCE with a master plan for Roman expansion. Rome’s early expansion was done piecemeal and by accident. It was always in response to some crisis, to protect the commercial interests of some wealthy Roman, or because some consul wanted to be sure of a triumph when he returned to Rome. Manifest destiny came later, after Rome was already a far-flung empire.
And this far-flung empire was as responsible for shaping the politics of Rome as the politics of Rome were for shaping the empire. Republican institutions could not cope with the challenges of empire. There was a century of chaos as the empire grew beyond its ability to be governed and then a realignment of the government with the emperor at its head that ensured 200 years of stability and (internal) peace.
Of the traditions the emperor usurped, the most interesting was the right to be a voice for the people. Prof. Beard talks about the challenges of representation the Romans faced, challenges familiar to us even today, namely: what is the purpose of legislators? Should they be a conduit for the voices of their constituents? Or should the try and do what is best for their constituents? A source of instability in the first century BCE was populist politicians who cleaved to the first view.
By ending elections, the emperors didn’t disenfranchise the people as much as they broke the bonds between the populist politicians and the people. The emperor (in theory and often in practice) stood up for the common male citizen of the empire. The elites, on the other hand, were left to derive favour and legitimacy solely from the emperor. They lost their connection to the people and therefore lost any ability to challenge the emperor for popular support.
We see a similar thing today in one party rule (where dictators often style themselves “Protector of the People”) or in “democratic dictatorships”. These dictators try and set up a myth that only they will look out for the majority of people. They’ll claim that others can’t be trusted because they are in the sway of special interest groups and economic, racial, sexual, or religious minorities (the Jews are a perennial favourite here).
Speaking of racial and religious minorities, Prof. Beard covers them in some detail. She reminds her readers that Rome was a cosmopolitan and diverse city. Imagining classical people as monolithically white is just as much a mistake as imagining their buildings that way. But Prof. Beard cautions us to avoid swinging our perceptions too far in the other direction. Rome was unusually welcoming of foreigners for a classical culture, but it still had discrimination based on provincial origin. Provincials would never be truly Roman in the eyes of all of the senate. This didn’t stop some of them becoming emperor, including Septimus Sevurus from North Africa, but it did mean they would have faced snide remarks.
I wish I could describe how provincials below senatorial rank were treated, but Prof. Beard has little to say about this. I don’t think it’s her fault. She is explicit that the history we have is largely the history of the elites. It’s their letters and proclamations, monuments and mausoleums from which we gather the majority of our understanding of life in ancient Rome. From the common people, we must make do with far less evidence.
Evidence is a common thread throughout this book. It is in some places as much a work of historiography as history. Prof. Beard cautions us against too good to be true stories (they probably are) and against being too eager to make even simple conclusions, like believing that a certain bust is actually of a certain historical figure. She also drove home in a way that I had never experienced before the sheer paucity of evidence we have for Roman life and deeds before the mid-200s BCE.
Nowhere does evidence and its paucity become as important as understanding the emperors. She describes autocracy as “in a sense, an end of history… there was no fundamental change in the structure of Roman politics, empire or society between the end of the first century BCE and the end of the second century CE”. And given this, she devotes at most a few pages to the combined individual achievements of the first 14 emperors (the book only covers up to 212 CE).
Instead of giving the normal account of the lives of the emperors, their battles and their victories, Prof. Beard focuses on the structure of the empire. She takes advantage of its relatively fixed nature during the rule of the first 14 emperors to go into detail on various facets of life in the empire. What was it like in the provinces? For the urban poor? The provincial elites? The slaves? The women? Many of these people left little historical mark, but Prof. Beard tries her best to give them some voice.
Prof. Beard views the emperors as largely interchangeable. Instead of fixating on “good” and “bad” emperors and turning their lives into moral lessons, she looks at what caused emperors to be described as good or bad in the first place. She believes it is all about legitimacy. When the succession was orderly, the successor could draw legitimacy from his predecessor, so it was in his interest to trumpet his predecessor’s virtues (and imply that as the rightful successor, he too possessed them). When the succession was disorderly (say, as the result of assassination), then this route to legitimacy was closed and the new emperor had to instead frame his reign as a break with a worse past. His predecessor would be smeared to turn the irregularity of his succession to the throne into an advantage.
As evidence, Prof. Beard points out that most of the vices found in “bad” emperors (from infidelity to wanton murder of senators) can also be found in the “good” as long as you read their biographies closely. She contends that this shows a difference in what is focused on, not a difference in behaviour. She points out how imposters to Nero would periodically show up in the provinces long after his death. Hucksters wouldn’t impersonate a universally reviled man.
Even if this isn’t true, Prof. Beard has one final beef with the theory of good and bad emperors: only the senate really cared. We don’t see any historical evidence of incompetence gross enough to touch the empire, it did just as well under Nero as it did under Hadrian. So even if the emperor was as liable to kill senators as talk with them, this was largely a problem for a few of the very wealthiest Romans in Rome.
To the common people in Rome it wouldn’t matter if the emperor was a saint or a psychopath, because they would never interact with him. This was doubly true for the people in the provinces. The plight of the poor was just as bad under Marcus Aurelius as it was under Nero.
Had you told me at the start that the author believed we had nothing to learn directly from the Romans, I probably wouldn’t have started this book. That would have been a grave mistake. I’m left with a deeper understanding of Roman history, the challenges posed in constructing it, and the challenges Roman history poses to us in the present day. I am left prepared to more readily question the beatification of leaders and foundational myths. I am left more alert to the nuances of people power in populism. And I’m left with a colossal respect for Professor Beard’s skill both as a historian and as a popularizer of history.
Annoyed with me describing If on a winter’s night a traveller as “very literary” one too many times, my partner Tessa challenged me to explain what I meant by “literary”.
This presented a problem, because I’ve been using literary as a shorthand for “that type of book that people who review books for a living get really excited about but I never seem to like” – basically as a category label, not as a descriptive phrase. Even worse, If on a winter’s night a traveller didn’t really fit into the category anyway; it’s a book that I’m heartily enjoying.
To answer Tessa’s question, I had to abandon using “literary” as a category label and instead treat it as a handle for a concept. But first, I needed a concept.
Levels of Reading
Imagine you ask me to tell you a story and I start with these famous six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
How do you interpret this story?
You could just look at the plot, such as it is. Clearly someone is selling some baby clothes; not very interesting.
Or you could look at it from the perspective of someone who has an idea of the flow of stories. What are the implications of selling baby’s clothes that are never worn? Clearly this is telling us that someone has undergone a tragedy.
Or you could look at it as someone who knows they’re being told a story. What themes seem to be present? Have you read other similar stories? Is this an allusion to them? A deconstruction? Is the author doing something interesting with language?
As a reader, you can expect to fluidly move between these stances. Sometimes, when the action is intense, you will read the book mainly on the first level. But then when you catch a sign that the characters have missed, you might be tossed up to the second level and spend some time contemplating what is being foreshadowed. Or perhaps a chance word will force you to consider the story from a broader social context.
Okay, enough examples. Let’s formalize these reading levels!
I’m positing a model where there are three levels of reading. Any story can be read at any level and most stories are intended to be read at every level at least some of the time. What distinguishes genres like literary fiction from pulp novels is the expected default level and the level at which the reader is supposed to derive the majority of their enjoyment.
Aside: In a perfect world, people could pick whichever books draw them to the reading level they enjoy the most. Unfortunately, I think it is common to attach character judgements to people who have an aesthetic preference for books on a certain level. It’s all too easy to claim that someone who prefers to read at a different level than you do is somehow deficient in some virtue or is aesthetically stunted. Therefore, I’ve attached my estimation of the common judgements made of works that are meant to be read at each level, in the hopes that it will help both me and my readers notice these judgements and avoid perpetuating them.
At level 1, the reader is focused solely on the immediate plot. What is going on? What are characters feeling? How does this make you feel? Here you are using your ability to read to connect words into coherent sentences that immerse you in the story.
Stories read mostly at this level: “Pulpy” fiction, “young readers” books, any science fiction or fantasy that sells a lot of copies but is never nominated for the Hugo Awards.
What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “shallow” or “lacking in substance”, not appropriate for adults or appropriate only for reading while travelling or on vacation, indicative of unrefined tastes.
At this level, the reader is focused on the form of the story. What is being foreshadowed? What character growth is being highlighted? Was that just a callback to the first book in the series? Here you are using your memory and intuitions to connect parts of the text to other parts of the text, even those you have not seen yet.
Stories read mostly at this level: “character-driven” fiction, classical tragedies, thrillers that rely on suspense and foreshadowing, most books that win Hugo Awards
What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “watered-down”, overly conventional, clichéd/predictable, or pandering.
At this level, the reader is focused on how the story interacts with the wider world. What sort of tone does the author set? What other works are alluded to, deconstructed, or reconstructed. What techniques are used and which techniques are ignored? What flourishes does the author use? Here you are using your knowledge of culture and conventions to understand the place of the work in the context of a larger corpus of related works.
Stories read mostly at this level: “experimental” novels, deconstructions, “literary” fiction, most books that win the John W Campbell Award.
What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: incomprehensible, dense, elitist, snobbish, lacking in plot, or read more for signalling than genuine enjoyment
“Literary” as a handle
With this model, I can now use “literary” in a descriptive sense. If I describe a book as literary, I’m really saying that I view the book as one meant to be primarily read and enjoyed on the third level.
Reflecting on this model has helped me systematize some of the things I get out of books. In general, I prefer works that are meant to be enjoyed and read mainly on the first two levels. I tend to feel that novels that expect me to engage with them primarily on the third level have abrogated their duty to entertain me. That said, I can like works that focus on level 3 when they cause me to ponder areas I’m already interested in.
This helps resolve the question that started this whole mess, namely: “if I generally dislike literary books, why am I enjoying If on a winter’s night a traveller”. It’s now clear that I like it because it engages with the experience of being a reader, an experience dear to my heart. If it spent the majority of its time demanding that I read it on the third level while failing to engage with topics I cared about, I think I’d be much less likely to enjoy it.
Understanding this gives me a better heuristic for making book buying decisions when the only information I have is reviews. In general, I should avoid books that are described with terms that suggest that the book should primarily be enjoyed on the third level, unless the book seems to require engagement with a topic I already care about.
On the other hand, I should look for indications that the book encourages readers to occasionally read on level 3. While I tend to rip through books written to be read mostly on level 1, the books that I come back to again and again spend most of their time on level 2, but use level 3 strategically to highlight themes and really drive their points home.
A final note: this model can be applied to any work of fiction, not just books. For example, Psycho Pass is an anime that exists primarily on level 2, but uses level 3 to great effect. Madoka Magica, on the other hand, is primarily on level 3; it would not be nearly as strong of work without the context of other magical girl anime within which it exists. It may even be possible to extend this model to music or art, but here I must plead ignorance and leave that labour to another.