Reconcile When You Can

One of the reasons I focus on the ideal of reconciliation in my work and my thinking more generally is that I think broken relationships are among the greatest harms that humans endure. Almost nothing hurts well-being more than the loss of a loved one, or becoming estranged from one’s partner, children, parents, or friends. Indeed, many people spend most of their lives in dysfunctional, even abusive, relationships because those relationships provide them with meaning and value, and many other goods besides. Reconciliation has supreme value because it is the resumption of these lost relationships.

Reconciliation is also valuable as a process because it requires us to engage in morally admirable acts, such as admitting wrongdoing and forgiving others. In reconciliation, we express regard and love for another person, and are often prepared to humble ourselves in order to restore the relationship to working order. That’s why I find the process of reconciliation one of the greatest beauties the world has to offer.

One main barrier to reconciliation is pride. People who have broken the relationship often cannot admit to others, or even themselves, that their actions have done so much harm. As a result, the unreconciled retreat into their own emotional worlds, often guarded by the false belief that the other person is at fault, or that the relationship was broken by forces outside of their control. Reconciliation has value because in reconciling, people can break through self-deception, unfairly blaming others, and social isolation. The other main barrier is simply overwhelming hurt; reconciliation means reopening old wounds, which might not get healed, and so many refuse the opportunity based on their assessment of the risk of how it will go. When people pursue reconciliation anyway, they exhibit a kind of trust or faith, and indeed courage, because they care enough about healing to take a chance.

These are all very good reasons to try to reconcile with others. But there are two good reasons not to pursue reconciliation. The first is if you have very good reason to believe that the other person does not want to reconcile. That’s because reconciliation is a two-way street, and trying to force or cajole others into reconciling can often backfire, and even further damage the relationship by creating an additional source of resentment and division. The second is if you think the resumed relationship is likely to be harmful to you, the other person, and/or some third party. For instance, resuming a relationship with a drug-addicted friend might lead you back into addiction as much as it might lead the other person away from addiction.

But before refusing to reconcile, we need to be fairly sure that the other person does not want to reconcile and/or that reconciliation would be harmful in some respect.

A final point. Most people stay in bad relationships too long, but others err in cutting people out of their lives too quickly. In my experience, the most painful harms people are endure are being cutting out of others’ lives, and their former lovers, friends, or colleagues refusing to communicate with them, so that they have no chance to heal or even ask for forgiveness. In many cases, people end relationships based on past grievances that could be healed even by a simple conversation. Many people will endure enormous pain and loss, and give into anger and fear, rather than spend five minutes with the person who hurt them. While such conversations are often painful, the benefits of the attempt usually outweigh the costs, if for no other reason than that we do not always know how the other person thinks about the loss. In my own attempts at reconciliation, I’ve often found that the other person is hurt for reasons I could not have anticipated, or that they think I have attitudes towards them that I simply lack.

So reconcile when you can. And if you’re refusing to reconcile with another person who wants it, reconsider, at least for a moment. Reconciliation is one of the great joys in life, and breaks us free from the chains that hurt and loss place on our hearts.

Is *Anything* Rotten in the State of Denmark? It Has Become Far More Trusting. We Don’t Know Why.

Denmark is the only major developed country where social trust has substantially increased since measurement began: from 47% in 1979 to 76% in 2008, converging with the high levels of trust in Norway and Sweden. Here’s something else: Germany borders Denmark and shares many cultural and institutional features with it, but German social trust in 2008 was 39%. So what could account for a difference over over 35 points? This 2012 paper suggests that the difference is due to greatly differing degrees of political stability. Denmark simply saw far less political instability during this time period.

My theory is that social trust is grounded in the observation of compliance with social norms.* If political instability generates more observable norm violations, or undermines stable norms, then the capacity to learn to trust other is greatly limited.

So here’s a thought: perhaps Denmark would ordinary have social trust levels at Scandinavian levels but trust was suppressed through somewhat less political stability and because of its proximity to Germany, whose recent institutional history is quite chaotic. Once Germany stabilized, Danish trust could converge with other countries.

This may suggest that German social trust should gradually approach Scandinavian social trust, and it might be at similar levels if not for Nazism, division under communism, and a difficult reintegration period. We don’t see that in the data yet, but that might be because social trust in East Germany remains low.

*The authors seem to agree. They say that the “stable ‘underlying rock’ of social trust in any society, including a political stability secured by formal institutions that are firmly embedded in shared norm” (355)).



Why Did Bloomberg Bomb?

So, as everyone agrees, Mike Bloomberg bombed in his first debate appearance last night, wholly eviscerated by Elizabeth Warren. The worst moment for him of the night was when Warren asked him to release the women he had non-disclosure agreements with. Bloomberg had no answer at all.

This is a bit odd. Bloomberg seems to genuinely, deeply want Trump out of the White House, and he presumably thinks he’s the best person for the job. He has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars to win enough delegates to become the nominee. So why not drop a few million on debate prep? He could hire the best TV prep people in the world, and he could hire all kinds of people to try and anticipate the most obvious attacks from his opponents.

Maybe Bloomberg did a bunch of debate prep, but it doesn’t seem so. So, then, what happened? Here are a few guesses, none of which are mutually exclusive.

(1) Sheer Arrogance: Bloomberg believes he’s just so much better than the other candidates in lots of ways that he didn’t think he needed debate prep. He’d just think on his feet, muddle through, and then keep focusing on Super Tuesday. He underestimated the ferocity of his opponents’ attacks and overestimated his ability to respond perhaps because he simply couldn’t imagine anyone cutting him down to size.

(2) Indifference to Debates: Bloomberg knows he has to debate, but doesn’t think debates matter all that much at this point in the primary process because not that many people are tuning in. Perhaps he has research suggesting that the debates don’t matter, and so he didn’t prepare enough as a result.

(3) Personality Barriers: Bloomberg’s personality is such that debate prep wouldn’t do him much good. He’s not charismatic, he’s brash and arrogant, and he’s mostly set in his ways (he is 78, after all). So he anticipated that debate prep would be a lot of irritating and painstaking work for little benefit.

(4) Not Fully Committed: deep down, Bloomberg really just wants Trump gone and isn’t sure he wants to be president for reasons we don’t know. He’s happy to spend millions attacking Trump, but some part of him would rather just help the Democrats in general. At 78, and with $60 billion in the bank, maybe he doesn’t relish the thought of being the most politically powerful man in the world.

Even given these explanations, I’m still stunned he didn’t try at least a little harder.

Low Trust Exacerbates Polarization

In my next book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, I develop what I call the distrust and divergence hypothesis, where political polarization and falling social and political trust are in a causal feedback loop. I suggest a number of causal connections between the two phenomena, but I thought I’d discuss a new paper someone sent me two weeks ago. Hans Pitlik and Martin Rode have found that “trusting people have a lower propensity to express support for extreme policies, leading to a general moderation of preferences in trusting societies” which allows for more consensus on critical reforms.

Here’s my basic guess as to what’s going on. When people distrust others, they’re much less likely to listen to them, and much more likely to be suspicious of consensus narratives in explaining certain kinds of events. That’s the connection between trust and conspiracy theorizing. If most people can’t be trusted, we probably shouldn’t believe what most people believe (of course, that’s fallacious reasoning, but it’s emotionally intuitive). But if we trust others, we don’t think they’re lying to us and we think their beliefs are probably well-grounded, and so when we trust others, we tend to modify our own points of view towards the conventional wisdom.

That’s not to say this pattern is especially good, but if we think people tend to be less reliable with respect to the political truth when they’ve epistemically isolated themselves from most other people, then we should worry about how low trust people form their beliefs vis-a-vis high trust people. And if we want to reduce polarization, we may want to pursue trust-increasing public policy.

My Recent Podcasts on Trust, Polarization, Liberalism, and Must Politics Be War?

In case you’re driving around and have a chance to listen to some podcasts, I recorded two in the last few weeks on The Philosophy Guy and The Curious Task. We talk about the book, but also a whole range of related issues, like the nature and sources of political polarization, the relationship between liberalism and ideology, the contribution to mistrust by the GOP, the relationship between classical liberalism and the cause of avoiding ideology, along with the challenges creating social trust. They’re fun. I cut a bit more loose than usual on both.



Build Big Philosophical Theories and Study Those Who Did

Jason Brennan wrote a nice reply to my defense of the great historical philosophers against Mike Huemer’s critique of them. I think the best way to respond is to outline two different ways of thinking about how to make progress in philosophy that I think roughly parallel how Brennan and I approach our own work. With those approaches laid out, I think we can explain why it strikes me as obvious that studying the great historical philosophers has value, and why Brennan is more skeptical.

I. Particularist and Coherentist Methods

As I see it, there are at least two ways to approach having true philosophical beliefs. One is a kind of go-it-alone strategy, where you simply try to determine what is true by looking at arguments, sorting through them, and believing accordingly. Big theories have worth, but they tend to distract us. Better to build small theories on different topics. On this picture, reading the history of philosophy has at most modest instrumental value, qualified by the danger of bias from being mentally trapped by these theories. Philosophers who pursue this more particularist strategy are thinking more like natural scientists do about the history of their own discipline. Why should physicists read Newton? Or Aristotle, for that matter? They shouldn’t, because their time is better spent working with contemporary methods, which are much better than old methods, at getting at the truth.

Another strategy is to build big philosophical theories that attempt to capture a much broader stretch of philosophical territory and work to see if certain puzzles can be resolved from within the view. Here the philosopher plays a part in building systems of thought in conjunction with others – past, present, and future. From this perspective, philosophical theorizing is a social endeavor; and it’s long-term, extending perhaps over centuries. The payoff is a coherent worldview that can provide powerful answers to the big questions. Many great systems of thought work this way, especially with followers of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant. Philosophers who approach progress in this way have a kind of coherentist strategy. From this perspective, studying the great philosophers and their systems of thought is conducive to philosophical truth in part to help you decide which social endeavor to join, and if not, at least to get a sense for how to build one’s own philosophical project.

It may well be that inhabiting a philosophical system and working out the results leads to some false beliefs. But for the coherentist, working within established frameworks is a better bet for discovering truth than doing one’s own thing.

II. Schmidtz and Gaus on System-Building

Both particularist and coherentist strategies have merit, and Brennan and I have chosen those two paths, perhaps in light of the examples set by our dissertation advisors (Dave Schmidtz for Brennan, Jerry Gaus for me). Schmidtz argues that philosophical theories are like maps, and many have readily detectable flaws. Accordingly, we should be hesitant to hold to any one theory too tightly, and should instead opt for pluralist approaches and addressing different problems in a more particularist manner. Here there is a central role for engaging work outside of the philosophy profession, since those professions make more progress and know more stuff.

Gaus is especially worried that any large philosophical system runs the risk of bias and ideology. But unlike Schmidtz, he thinks that the process of building big theories and working within larger frameworks has a greater payoff than the more particularist, pluralist approach. So long as philosophers are in conversation with scientists, building philosophical theories as a social enterprise is likely to be productive. Philosophical systems by themselves can become ideology, but large-scale interdisciplinary theory-building is worthwhile.

Brennan’s approach to philosophy is much more particularist, mine more coherentist. This has led Brennan to write a number of great books on quite different topics, despite having some underlying common themes. I have tended to work within the social contract tradition, and various dimensions of it: historical and contemporary, Rawlsian and Gausian, as well as putting the social contract tradition into conversation with the social sciences. These days I’ve been working at the intersection of social contract and social trust, which is a central endeavor in Must Politics Be War?

III. Particularist and Coherentist Approaches to Great Historical Philosophers

Particularists and coherentists will tend to disagree about the importance of the great historical philosophers for philosophical progress. History is more essential to the coherentist approach because the great philosophers created systems of thought that shed light on important questions. We cannot ourselves make much progress in a field without a deep familiarity with those systems of thought. If you think building big theories makes progress, then knowing the big theories, or at least some of them, will help you make progress. That’s at least so because they are good templates for building our own systems. But if you think building big theories is a bad way to make progress, then you’re view historical philosophers more like Brennan and Huemer.

I think it is almost impossible to know which strategy is better for making philosophical progress overall, and that it is up to each philosopher to choose a more particularist or coherentist approach. I prefer to work within big systems of thought, and I think I can contribute more to the field in that way. I don’t trust myself striking out on my own. That’s one reason I find studying the history of philosophy essential to my work as a philosopher, and I can see why Brennan has a different view.

But zooming out a bit, my sense is that philosophy needs both nimble particularists and patient coherentists, and so studying the history of philosophy is going to be essential for at least some strategies for making philosophical progress.

Great Philosophers as Architects: A Reply to Huemer

Philosopher Mike Huemer has recently blogged that most of the great philosophers make terrible arguments, and are great primarily because they turned out to be influential (this follows a previous post on history of philosophy, which I responded to as well). Mike received  pushback, including a comment from Roderick Long, which I wanted to explore a bit. Here’s Long:

When I think of the great philosophers, I imagine them as architects of ideas. They survey a series of intuitions and observations, show how they lead to certain puzzles, and then figure out ingenious new ways to organize these institutions and observations into coherent wholes that can solve the puzzles they identify. The great philosophers design great buildings and inspire new architectural styles that organize much of intellectual and social life.

Viewing philosophers as architects helps to see why they often offer bad arguments. They’re first and foremost focused on creating a coherent system of thought, in contrast to building clear argumentative connections between every different part of their conceptual structure, and many of those connections are a stretch. But even if the beams of their buildings crack and bend, it is worth repairing them. For if we can repair them, then something beautiful, elegant, and maybe even true will come into view; and those systems will help us share a vision of how the world can be organized and understood.


What Are the Romulans Afraid Of? [Picard Spoilers]

One of the interesting new mysteries in Star Trek: Picard is why Romulan culture is hostile to artificial intelligence, so hostile that the secret society within the Tal Shiar, the Zhat Vash, have had a vendetta against artificial life for thousands of years.

Why would this be? I’m not sure, but here are four possibilities:

(a) Romulans descend, at least in part, from artificial intelligence.

(b) Romulans once shared their civilization or home planet with artificial life which they destroyed in some horrible way, like genocide.

(c) Romulans were created by a powerful artificial intelligence (but do not directly descend from them).

(d) Romulans once used artificial intelligence freely, but did horrific things with it.

There are problems with all of (a)-(d). I get why you’d like to hide (a) because it may raise questions in the minds of Romulans and non-Romulans whether the Romulans have real personhood/souls/meaning in life, etc. Perhaps Romulans couldn’t handle knowing they’re part machine. However, this seems like a secret that would be very hard to keep for a long time because it could potentially be detected in any Romulan body.

On the other hand, last night’s episode suggests Romulans are hard to assimilate, which might be because they are part AI, much as Data couldn’t be assimilated.

As for (b), the Romulans hideously oppressed the Remans for a very long time and seemed to feel no remorse, so it’s not clear why they’d need to hide that they’d defeated an AI race they shared the planet with. It might even be a point of pride.

(c) is probably not true because of the TNG episode “The Chase” where it is revealed that many of the major Alpha Quadrant species were created by an ancient precursor race that seems carbon-based. But perhaps an AI interfered with their history at some point. That might be taken to suggest that the Romulans were weak or fake in some way. But again, this seems unlikely.

On (d), the Romulans don’t seem like they’d be embarrassed they used AI super-weapons.

So, I’m not quite sure why the Romulans are afraid of AI for a reason that would need to be kept secret for so long. But my best guess is (a).

Mitt Romney Mixed Faith and Politics. Good for Him.

In a remarkable interview, Mitt Romney explains his reasons for voting to convict Trump, probably to his grave political detriment. I can’t see any advantage to his vote, so I believe what he says about his reasoning.

What I find especially fascinating about Romney’s decision is how he came to it. First, Romney tried to make sure he was weighing the evidence properly through constant prayer. He used an expressly religious practice in order to ensure he was more rational. Through prayer, Romney was able to debias, depolarize, and detribalize. And he had the humility to claim that he did not believe he knew God’s mind.

Interestingly, Romney did not vote for especially religious reasons. He voted based on what he regarded as the evidence. But he had religious reasons to take his vow to God seriously. And he had religious reasons to believe in providence: that in the end, if you do what is right, God will ensure that it works to the good. He trusted God that things would work out in the end. So Romney used religious reasons to drive him to make a more virtuous decision.

The typical secular progressive attitude towards religious motives in politics is one of reservation. That is partly because religious reasoning is often oversimplified to the case of voting for a policy because that’s what the Bible (supposedly) says. But note the complexity of Romney’s deliberations, how religious and secular considerations are interwoven and how they strengthen one another. This suggests that religious reasoning in political matters can be quite cognitively and emotionally subtle, and attempts to drive this kind of reasoning out of politics may come with real costs.

The big cost is that religious commitment can serve as a cross-cutting commitment that can be used to reduce political polarization. If people have sincere faith, then that may make them less likely to follow what is politically fashionable and pay more attention to the moral truth.

So sometimes allowing religion in politics is a good thing. And this is one case.

UPDATE: Amazingly, Trump said, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” That’s a progressive refrain.

The Best Version of Liberal Neutrality

Here I outline a version of liberal neutrality I find philosophically attractive. My approach begins by focusing on the moral considerations that lead us to care about neutrality, rather than analyzing the concept of neutrality as an ideal in itself. I then generate a principle of political justification that has those good-making features we want from a principle of neutrality. I think we will see that the principle is morally attractive.

I. Why Care About Neutrality?

Most contemporary liberals care about preventing government from promoting a particular conception of the good (and in some cases, a conception of the right) because they affirm four general claims: (i) persons have a dignity that merits respect, (ii) persons are naturally free and equal, (iii) persons have reasons for action determined by their deep commitments and values, and (iv) these reasons can systematically and reasonably diverge.

I’ve explored a number of these ideas elsewhere. I’ve explored (iv), namely the idea of reasonable pluralism, here and here. I’ve explored the meanings of (ii) and (iii) here. Claim (i) is a pretty obvious platitude.

Summing up, here’s the basic moral idea behind neutrality. The foremost moral imperative is to treat persons with respect, as ends in themselves. If persons are naturally free and equal, in the sense that no person is naturally the servant of another, such that they have equal moral authority, then to respect them is to recognize their moral authority by not compelling them to act against their own best reasoning.

What are persons’ reasons? The liberal tradition has generally allowed that persons have very different reasons for action due to their differing valuing and beliefs. We don’t determine persons’ reasons for action apart from their most deeply held commitments. Thus, the reasons relevant to the justification of coercion are in some sense internal or psychologically accessible. They have their ground in persons’ actual motivations and commitments.

Finally, and due in part to reasonable pluralism, their affirmed reasons will systematically and broadly diverge. Therefore, if we are to respect persons, we can only coerce them when they have sufficient reason, from their own perspective, to comply with the law or policy on which the coercion is based.

So we care about neutrality because we care about respecting naturally free and equal persons who invariably have diverse reasons for action, which in turn requires that we only coerce them if they have sufficient reason of their own to comply. Otherwise we fail to treat persons as free and equal.

Yes, I’ve just equated the idea of public justification with liberal neutrality (find a well-known attempt here) but that’s because I think the idea of public justification provides the most attractive explanation of why we care about neutrality and a clear method of applying neutrality to institutions.

II. Setting Limits on Neutrality

So, given the foregoing, we can say that a nation-state is neutral in the public reason liberal sense when it employs only publicly justified coercion. Policies are neutral when they are justified to a wide range of evaluative perspectives. Laws need not be neutral in having equal effects or outcomes or taking no position on the substantive good. Instead, this ideal of liberal neutrality permits the state to promote goods that all persons reasonably agree are goods. That means we can promote the common good in ways that respect all as persons if the pursuit of the common good is constrained by what is publicly justified.

We do not have to be “neutral” between, say, publicly justified and publicly unjustified laws. Nor need the content of these laws necessarily treat all persons in the same way.

Determining what is justified to persons is not always an easy matter, however. There are well known problems with determining what most peoples believes, since the data that varies based on how questions are framed. Similarly, it is hard to determine from present social practices whether minorities have sufficient reason to endorse those practices, since they may be afraid to voice dissent.

In my view, evaluation via public reason should follow the complaint. When conflicts arise, and people start to complain, we should turn our gaze to their objections and scrutinize them. If we perceive that they have a strong, epistemically justified objection to a law or policy, we can conclude that they have a defeater for the law. Accordingly, we are obligated to reform or revoke the law if we care about treating others as free and equal (as we should).

III. Substitute Neutrality with Public Justification

Political neutrality is a vexed idea, so in my work, as noted, I just use a related idea of public justification, which I think has the attractions of neutrality with far fewer weaknesses. It also gives us a more precise method of determining which regimes are neutral in this more refined sense; I argue that liberal democratic welfare-state capitalism is uniquely neutral in large, diverse societies in Must Politics Be War?, but I have a detailed defense of the basis and content of public justification requirements that I like to think advances the literature, as well as Rawls and Gaus’s contributions to it.