Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Fact, Value, and Power

This—is now MY way,—where is yours?' Thus did I answer those who asked me 'the way'. For THE way—it doth not exist!                                  -Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, CH. 55

David Hume's fact/value problem has been kicking my ass lately.

I don't mean I've been having serious problems, just that it's popped up to surprise me a couple of times and reminds me of how disruptive it is in Western debates, despite its apparent clarity. This is ironic, because one of the few articles I've removed from this blog revolved around the fact/value problem and the myth of cultural neutrality. Once again, we're back to it.


First of all, my shop has a low level conflict that occasionally livens things up when there's not much going on. I have two employees with radically different taste in music, one a hip hop guy and the other an old school punk rocker. They fight over who's controlling the shop music constantly, and sometimes the discussions get a little... heated.

Neither of these guys are stupid or poorly versed in other kinds of music. The punk guy has played in a band and the rap guy has recorded albums with a group. They're dedicated.

It's not a serious problem. In fact, it's kind of fun. They like each other well enough and both are good employees, so this doesn't disrupt business very much. It's the kind of shop where one of us asked a regular the other day if he liked making women squirt, and he said yes, because "it's just like seeing Niagara Falls for the first time". We frequently have a beer or three while we clean up at the end of the day. We mess with noobs and talk to regulars as friends, because they are friends. The shop was once the subject of negotiations during a divorce, and the two parties had to figure up how to split days they could come in. It's that kind of place. The musical strife is just one of those things that never goes away, like a weird rash.

The fact/value problem steps in when the arguments go from being a simple clash of personal taste to an attempt to quantify what makes music good. Both parties have, at some point, said something to the effect of "that music sucks", phrased to indicate that the other kind of music is objectively bad. It's one thing to say you have different taste. It's another to say that this other person has bad taste, indefensible taste.

Ask the punk guy if he sees it as his music being better, and he'll admit that it's just different, but he's also the more aggressive about wanting his music playing while he's at the shop. The rap guy is more likely to see his musical taste as impossible to argue with. He thinks the same thing about his taste in food and the sophistication of his palate, and those tastes are often just not as broadly appealing as he thinks they are.

Because of the genres we're talking about, it's particularly difficult, because both are extremely simple styles meant to be the focal point of a subculture. People who like neither could conceivably have the same gripes: excessive aggression, a lack of technical talent, a reliance on 4/4 time signature, and lyrics meant to offend outsiders.

But none of that means that either style is bad. They are descriptive terms. Simple isn't bad, 4/4 time isn't bad, offensive lyrics aren't bad assuming you aren't the pussy being offended. Maybe you can come up with scientific data showing that either style stimulates less cognitive activity than classical music, or that prolonged exposure resulted in a more aggression. So what? Some people like aggression, even believe in a need for aggression. Beer lovers frequently like hoppy beers despite the fact that we are programmed by genetics to dislike bitter tastes and prefer sweet flavors. Tastes are adaptable, and beer lovers love beer.


Second, I've been in a long argument with libertarians on a discussion thread... over arguments themselves. These guys are praxeology people, who should be theoretically near to my own heart given the title of this blog, but who are turning out to be full of shit.

The topic was Hoppe's a priori of argumentation, which I think is absurd but which these certain types of libertarians believe has surmounted the fact/value problem. The point is that, essentially, if you argue, you must believe private property is objectively valid. Check out this three-stage "proof":

A: arguments are all propositional justifications, meaning that you're making a case for being able to believe what you believe.
B: to make an argument requires use of your body, which you control due to "homesteading" or first use, which is the grounding principle of possession.
C: you can't deviate from homesteading and remain logically coherent, so private property is thus included.

So, since your control over your own body is an example of first-use prerogatives and you exemplify this every time you open your mouth to argue, you must also extend that first-use principle to control over that which is outside your body and accept the legitimacy of such property. All these ideas are supposedly so obvious that they require no further justification to be considered true, AKA they're a priori true. That is, true on the same level that math is true.

Similar arguments are made in the establishment of equal application of these rights and the non-aggression principle. They rely mostly on a defined separation between aggression and "coercion", which praxeological libertarians will allow when person and property aren't directly assaulted without provocation.

It's an attractive idea, particularly if you're a libertarian. I'm tempted to cut some slack, because they have the problematic task of trying to de-legitimize aggression as they know it while legitimizing self-interest and competition. Of course they want to draw bright lines in the sand at this point.

That said, you've got to be fucking kidding me. Disregard that arguments are historically a run-up to violence instead of a denial of it, disregard the fact that an organism's control of their body has always required defense within an environment of violence, and you still have to make the leap from believing that biochemical control is directly comparable to control of property via sociopolitical norms. No, guys, it isn't. You can smell post-hoc rationalization seeping through the words.

What does this crap have to do with the fact/value problem? Everything. Critically, this type of libertarian thinks such reasoning is not moral reasoning. Hoppe called them "performative contradictions": to them, morality is just a taste, like music, but a performative contradiction means that your actions insinuate two different and opposing logical beliefs. In Western parlance, this is the difference between morals and rights.

These guys really want this difference to be taken seriously. And there is definitely a difference between formal recognition of authority over something and the demand to use that authority benevolently. This is somewhat intuitive in America, where we put stock in the idea of freedom and where both liberals and libertarians accuse each other of "legislating morality". One is a structural idea, the other a strategy on how to use that structural authority; you can see how they try to slide in the notion that the structural idea is descriptive instead of normative.

But really, is there a difference? You can only define ideas like property and structure by what people are expected to do in response to them. It's still an idea, an abstraction, no existence outside your head, no relevance except what it convinces you to do. They are a form of behavioral control and inseparable from subjective legitimacy.

There is no such thing as an "inalienable right" and I mentally roll my eyes when this outlook is actually spoken with conviction. How hard is this? When you assert that private property and non-aggression are rights, then you're asserting that those who attempt to violate those things in their self-interest are wrong and you're taking a moral, or at least a values-based, side in a conflict. There's either a fundamental misunderstanding of the fact/value problem here, or a fundamental misunderstanding of morality.

I've already made my case for why I like and prefer libertarianism. Even though the rights behind it would be better understood as allocation of responsibilities, it's a much more organic system than anything else we've come up with. But there's also a reason most people aren't libertarian. Most people have a completely different understanding of what constitutes aggression than the rigid, ham-fisted definition that the libertarians lean on every time they make an argument; the more popular moral definition takes intentions or expectations into account. And while people might give lip service to freedom, they usually don't see a difference between one form of aggression and another when the competition of the system kicks their ass and they want precious justice.


And finally, third: This article from the Washington Post might tell you something about the bigger problem. You want to be neutral to all parties when you run something like Facebook, which is a communications infrastructure built on open consumerism across lots of different cultures and thus demanding universality. But neutrality doesn't exist, and pretending it does ultimately makes the conflicts worse.

This matters. Facebook is a massively influential attention infrastructure, and claiming the prerogative to remove stuff they define as offensive means a greatly reduced visibility for the perspective that defends such stuff, and thus greatly reduced acceptance of it as valid. Hate on Facebook all you want, but lots of people actually get their news through their feed, and they are perfectly willing to see neutrality as the format which reinforces their worldview.

And that's what Facebook - a totally Western institution - is doing. Western people have a way of seeing their values - open expression, benevolence, individual choice, inclusion without obligation - as correct and stripped down to the essentials of social order, where other cultures are seen as lots of fluff and tradition, mostly useful for reinforcing a common identity, and which might live or die as preferences change. You could even say that Western people see their norms as objective, while they see other cultures' norms as subjective.

Facebook already says that neutrality doesn't exist in so many words. Their response to the controversy says that they "cut the balance" between maintaining free communication and maintaining a safe and pleasant experience. This directly insinuates compromise, which would be unnecessary if neutrality were a real option.

The principles of Silicon Valley that are questioned in the article wouldn't sound like subjective opinions to a lot of Americans, and the bullfighting example is one reason why. Every American, even if they hunt or love a good steak, at least know why someone would find the sport offensive. Every American knows why some people find the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia to be unjust, and would want it to be stopped. Every American knows why Facebook would object to free speech concerns in China. Americans don't quite believe in American rights; they believe in human rights, even animal rights. They might admit that the establishment of individual rights was a cultural product of the West and thus Facebook's actions are cultural imperialism in theory. But there are precious few who are willing to accept the meaning of their own diagnosis.

There are lots of other cultures that know there are winners and losers in every established norm. They might not state it in reference to the fact/value problem, because that establishment has its own Western roots with its own underlying baggage and motivations. But those other cultures get it, especially when the legitimacy of their own culture is challenged.


When you say that something is subjective, you insinuate - correctly - that it's an opinion and that refusing to believe it is real does not necessarily mean that you will have the same problems that you would have if you refused to believe that a bullet fired at you is real. This statement fundamentally devalues abstractions, and psychologically, it should be no surprise that people don't value abstractions which aren't helping them.

But all societies, at the core, are predicated on these subjective abstractions.

There is a desire to find a link, a bridge from the subjective to the objective. Most have tried to find it in a universal value. For libertarians, order and personhood are the bridge, and the sloppiness of their application from a moral standpoint is just the breaks of life. For liberals and socialists, universal welfare and love are the bridge, however sloppy their application for concepts like sovereignty and merit. But none of these work well. None are objective and thus none are beyond questioning and rebellion. For simple categorical purposes, we're missing a term that describes the ability to bring the subjective into the objective, from mind into matter.

Shift away from heavily ingrained Western principle, and that term becomes obvious: power. Power is by definition the bridge between the subjective and the objective.

This statement makes people recoil. We want to believe that power games are vulgar and what we're really after - enlightenment - brings us to something more than the stereotypical understanding of more power, a universal legitimacy with a sense of spiritual peace. But this is not a true understanding of power, and if you lose the stereotypes, a broadened understanding makes sense of a lot of things.

Namely, everything you want is power. Everything you do that can, in any way, affect life outside of yourself is a form of power. Your words can have power. You appearance can have power. Your purchasing decisions can have power. Power has a radically wide spectrum: we can be almost completely irrelevant our entire lives, or we can influence millions, even billions.

Power and formal authority have a close, but not exclusive, relationship.

At my place of business, the conflict over the music has a resolving element, and that resolving element is authority. I own the business, so ultimately, I decide what's allowed there. Is my ownership an abstraction? Yes, of course it is. But ownership is an abstraction so fundamental to Western society that those who live within its protection are obligated to respect it by law. The West is built on individualism; ironically, that individualism is a social, cultural construct built into heritage, language, thought, at a level that - for some people - makes it indistinguishable from rationality itself.

There's a deep paradox of Western society in there, one that looks at the existing norms and demands we decide between them being easily dismissed preferences that others have no right to impose, or scientific facts we must consider inseparable from sanity, leading to control over whatever a culture can affirm. This is not healthy.

Hell, it's almost silly. We are a culture that doesn't believe in culture. And the reason is because, after the fact/value problem has been fully understood, taking culture seriously requires taking some form of authority seriously. Either a father's teaching, a university instructor's teaching, a religious leader's teaching, we get our ideas from somewhere. Allowing people to choose which ones they take seriously will either assure that they take none seriously, or assure that they subscribe to the ones that are most likely to lead to their empowerment.

But we still want what we believe to be true, and we'll say what we need to say in order to make it true to us. We want our way to be the way, even if it's a hand-me-down, an inheritance, a matter of faith. This is where some people get depressed. But it's not a tragedy; it's what makes life as we know it possible. We're not fighting to establish what's true. We're fighting to establish ourselves and how we connect to other people. And that's what makes it interesting.

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