I love finding Trolley Problem takes. If I had spare time, I’d set up trolleyproblem.com to archive the content. This graphic contextualises the problem. In university, I recall discussing different nuances, including the medical doctor problem of saving a Nobel Prize laureate at the expense of 5 indigent people, whether health compromised or not, so this perspective of privilege is not new. The twist here is that this flips the neutral decision with you in control of the path of the trolley but without knowing anything about the people on the track to the capitalist deciding between another capitalist versus workaday proletariats. It’s almost always frame in from a consequentialist perspective.
Foucault wrote about épistémès, where knowledge and perspective are contextualised in time and place. The bottom picture sums up how the mortgage crisis was resolved in 2008. Too Big to Fail (TBTF) financial institutions were salvaged at the expense of ordinary citizens. Main Street was sacrificed for Wall Street. Considering Derrida, Wall Street had the privileged position over Main Street or High Street.
In the midst of COVID, you can see the argument playing out in the UK and US, as the top route is to close businesses to reduce social contact and the bottom route is to open business because it inconveniences a few shop owners. Note that even people on the bottom path are shouting for the switchman to send the trolley careening down their path.
‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: Leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.’
—Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge & the Discourse on Language
I am going to take liberal liberty with Foucault’s quote. This is another take on Heraclites’ ‘never the same man, never the same river’ quote. It can be taken as a commentary on identity and impermanence. Effectively, he is taking the position that the concept of identity is a silly question, so don’t bother asking about it. Then he defers to people who insist on it anyway.
To be fair, creating a sort of contiguous identity does simplify things and creates categorical conveniences.
Vendor: ‘Wasn’t it you who purchased that from me and promised to pay with future payments?‘
Zen: ‘There is no future. There is only now. And I am not the same person who purchased your car.‘
Perhaps this is where the saying, ‘Possession is 9/10 of the law‘, a nod to temporal presentism.
In any case, some systems are predicated on their being identity, so a person benefiting from that system will insist on the notion of identity.
Clearly, I’m rambling in a stream of consciousness, and it occurs to me that Blockchain offers a solution to identity, at least conceptually. In the case of Blockchain, one can always audit the contents of the past in the moment. And so it carries the past into the now.
If one were able to capture into an archive every possible historical interaction down to the smallest unit of space-time—neutral incident recording, indexing and retrieval challenges notwithstanding—, one could necessarily attribute the record with the person, so long as they are otherwise inseparable. (We’re all well-aware of the science fiction narrative where a person’s history or memory is disassociated, so there is that.)
Anyway, I’ve got other matters to tend to, but now this is a matter of historical record…
Whether in English or in French, I don’t believe Foucault ever uttered the words, ‘It is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – Reason, Truth, or Knowledge‘*, but I don’t think he’d disagree with the sentiment.
Foucault was a postmodernist, and on balance, political Conservatives (Rightists?) dislike the notion of postmodernism. Evidently, a lot of Postmodernists are also Leftists (Progressives or Liberals in the US), so somehow critics such as Jordan Peterson conflate the two clearly distinct concepts.
A basis for Conservatism is the notion of an objective truth, and despite recent sociopolitical trends, they at least say they are guardians or truth and purveyors of knowledge. Conservatives (OK, so I am broad-brushing here) are staunch individualists who believe strongly in possession and property, of material, of an objective reality. Fundamentally, the are aligned to a monotheistic god or at least some discernible (and objective) moral compass.
On the Left, especially post-Enlightenment, they’ve substituted God with some anthropomorphic Nature. In fact, they find comfort in natural laws and human nature. Science is often their respite because science is objective. Isn’t it? Leftists are friends or Reason, and one can’t acquire enough knowledge. Moderation need not apply here; the more the merrier.
This being said, evidently, many on the Left seem to have abandoned this comfort zone. Of course, this may be because the Left-Right dichotomy doesn’t capture the inherent nuance, and so they were miscategorised—perhaps, much in the same manner as persons are miscategorised in a binary gender system. No. It must be something else.
In any case, both side claim to the parties of knowledge, reason, and truth because the opposing parties are clearly abject morons. There is no hint of irony in the situation where each side claims some objective notion of truth—whether divinely granted or self-evidently reasoned—, yet they can’t resolve what the true truth is. If only the other side were more rational.
By now, we are well aware of the demise of homo economicus, the hyper-rational actor foundational to modern economic theory. In reality, humans are only rational given the loosest definitions, say, to (in most cases) know enough to get in the shade on a 37.2°C day. However, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely noted by the title of his book, people are Predictably Irrational. Ariely is just standing on the shoulders of Kahneman and Tversky and Richard Thaler. My point is that humans are only marginally rational.
As I’ve written elsewhere, truth is nothing more than a rhetorical endpoint. It is hardly objective. It’s a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, systems of government and jurisprudence require this objective truth. In truth—see what I did there?—, social fabric requires a shared notion of truth.
A shared notion doesn’t imply that this notion is objective, but if it’s not objective, how does one resolve differences of opinion as to which is the better truth. Without establishing a frame and a lens, this is impossible. The problem is that frames and lenses are also relative. Whether the members accept a given frame or lens is also a matter of rhetoric. It’s turtles all the way down.
Even if all members agree on all parameters of truth at day 0, there is nothing to prevent opinion changes or from new members not to share these parameters. Such is always the problem with social contract theory. [How does one commit to a contract s/he is born into with little recourse to rescind the contract, renegotiate terms, or choose a different contract option. The world is already carved up, and the best one can do is to jump from the frying pan into the fire.]
In the end, the notion of truth is necessary, but it doesn’t exist. Playing Devil’s advocate, let’s say that there is a single purveyor of Truth; let’s just say that it’s the monotheistic Abrahamic God of Judeo-Christian beliefs. There is no (known) way to ascertain that a human would have the privilege to know such a truth nor, if s/he were to encounter, say, a burning bush of some sort, that this entity would be conveying truth; so, we aren’t really in a better place. Of course, we could exercise faith and just believe, but this is a subjective action. We could also take Descarte’s line of logic and declare that a good God would not deceive us—sidestepping that this ethereal being was good, as advertised. I’m afraid it’s all dead ends here, too.
And so, we are back to where we started: no objective truth, limited ability to reason, and some fleeting notion of knowledge. We are still left with nothing.
Enter the likes of Jordan Peterson, he with his fanciful notion of metaphysics and morality—a channeller of Carl Jung. His tactic is to loud dog the listener and outshout them indignantly. His followers, already primed with a shared worldview, are adept (or inept) cheerleaders ready to uncritically echo his refrain. To them, his virtue-ethical base, steeped in consequentialism awash in deontology, Peterson speaks the truth.
He also potentiates the selfish anti-collective germ and rage of the declining white man. He’s sort of a less entertaining Howard Stern for the cleverer by half crowd. He gives a voice to the voiceless—or perhaps the thoughtless. He uses ‘reason’ to back his emotional pleas. He finds a voice in the wilderness where white Western males are the oppressed. If only they hadn’t been born centuries earlier—albeit with iPhones and microwaves.
Those would be the days.
* I believe this phrase attributed to Foucault was a paraphrase by philosopher Todd May.
OK, so this isn’t at all about Foucault’s rhetoric. My main riff this year is the assertion that there is no Truth, only rhetoric—or should I rather say Rhetoric. I created a Reddit post asking for references to other philosophers (or whomever) who had made a similar claim, to which I was offered Vico and Rorty. Unfortunately, there were only two responders, and their assistance was superficial.
What I did encounter by one of the responders was a criticism similar to that levelled at Foucault, hence the inspired title of this post. This critique at its essence is that having proposed no positive solutions to the issues I point to, I cannot defend my position. In fact, as with Habermas‘ fault with Foucault, evidently, I have disarmed myself.
I find this line of argumentation weak tea at best. To argue that one has no claim to declare something incorrect if they don’t have a correct replacement for it is absurd. For example, I don’t know what 13,297 ÷ 1,492 equals arithmetically; but I can assert with confidence that it does not equal 2. Moreover, to criticise, one doesn’t need the ‘ability to generate positive alternatives’.
“There is no truth but rhetoric.”
So when I say there is no Truth but rhetoric (for non-ontic concepts), I am making a Truth statement. As such, this assertion—by my own admission—is only as strong as the rhetoric I can muster to its defence. Alas, my defences are weak, and so the argument fails. Were I to make a stronger argument—a more convincing argument—, it might be accepted as Truth.
Evidently, my first mistake was to separate ontic and non-ontic, which is to say things existing apart from their given names and those whose existence is entirely fabricated. An ontic thing might be a stone, a tree, a planet, a star, or the sensation of pain. These things exist even without language, a label, or an observer. As Saussure and other structuralists have noted, in semiotics, there is the signified (or referent) and the signifier—the object and the identifier. In the context of language, these are tautological.
Non-ontic things are conceptual, freedom, truth, justice, rights, gods, and so on. I may opt to replace non-ontic with language-contextual or some such to sidestep the taxonomical quagmire. Or perhaps I’ll adopt the dichotomy of concrete versus abstract. These concepts do not exist outside of language. They are wholly constructed in a complex system created by humans—and humans whilst humans have done OK with complicated systems, they have an abysmal track record when it comes to complex systems. By analogue to the physics of solids, there is more space than atoms, and the atoms and their constituent particles are in constant motion—zero-degrees Kelvin, be damned. Our senses perceive something to be there, but as in that scene in The Matrix, ‘there is no spoon‘.
In my mind, leveraging Saussure’s ideas are useful to depict the differences in the concrete versus the abstract.
The famous painting depicted above illustrates explains the difference between a signifier and a referent. In this image, there is only the signifier. Magritte makes clear the distinction with the text, Ceci, n’est pas une pipe: This is not a pipe. It is merely a depiction of one. To be even more arcane, the image is a signifier to another signifier that in turn refers to the referent.
A sign is the device that encapsulates the concept. It may be visual—an icon (an illustration of photograph) or a written word or even Braille—or it can be spoken or signed, as with American Sign Language. These are all signs.
Notice when one considers a sign that a concrete cat (or in French, chat), it is pretty clear to what one is referring. Above the line, we see the signified, the idea conveyed by the sign. This doesn’t mean that everyone sees the silhouette depicted above, but it is a catlike thing, a feline animal, a mammal, normally with four legs and a tail. Perhaps you are thinking of a particular cat. But to someone with a grasp of the language in which you are communicating, when you say cat, there is little room for ambiguity. In fact, if you are trying to teach someone a different language, say, French, you could show them the cat with the chat signifier, and they would grasp your meaning almost instantaneously.
All language is arbitrary and socially constructed, so there is no connection between the words—say, the spelling or shape of a word—and its referent. The words cat and chat do not look like cats.
There are concrete things that cannot be so readily translated into an icon; for example, the wind. However, one could fairly quickly be able to articulate or gesticulate, as the case might be, the notion of wind. The same cannot be said for the abstract concept of justice.
As I’ve mentioned before, justice, especially one of the restorative or retributive varieties, is a euphemism for vengeance. The distinction is supposed to be found in the intent, but intent cannot be known; it can only be inferred. And, speaking of Foucault, justice can only be delivered from a power position.
But the notion of justice relies heavily on social construct; it has geo-spacial dependencies. What is considered to be just in ancient times may not be considered just now. What is considered just in one country might not be considered to be just in another. And this is more than a difference in instantiation. It is due to the arbitrary if not capricious articulation of a nebulous concept.
Returning to Foucault, (Christian apologist) Nancy Pearcey declares his stance paradoxical: “[when someone] states that it is impossible to attain objectivity, is that an objective statement? The theory undercuts its own claims.”
First, Pearcey merely asks a question about objectivity, but it doesn’t matter. The answer is: this may as well be an objective statement, but it’s just another language game. Wittgenstein (and Russell and Heidegger and Rorty…) was on the right path when he pointed out that the ambiguity inherent in language provide cover for all sorts of mischief. I’m only pretty sure that Derrida might yield paydirt as well. Besides, let’s pretend for a moment that there exists some objective truth, there is no reason (language game; except in accepting the broadest definition, reason is a capability elusive to many if not most humans) to expect that this truth is either accessible or verifiable anyway. The best one can do is to pose a more convincing rhetorical argument.
Reason /ˈrēzən/ (noun) the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic
A similar critique has been advanced by (another Christian apologist) Diana Taylor, and by Nancy Fraser who argues that “Foucault’s critique encompasses traditional moral systems, he denies himself recourse to concepts such as ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, and therefore lacks the ability to generate positive alternatives.”
So whilst I’ve just managed to stream-of-consciousness my contention, I am not in a position to resolve anything. For now, I’ll settle for documenting my position as I continue to search for other supporters and formulate a more cogent response, a more robust rhetorical presentment.
If anyone can direct me to resources relevant to my position, let me know in the comments. I’ll appreciate it. If you don’t agree—which would be expected, as this is the accepted orthodoxy—feel free to comment as well.
Morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Rhetorical devices are employed, and a person will either accept or reject the claim contingent to an emotional response based on prior experiences. This is Ayer’s Emotivist position—or even that of George Berkeley. There is no moral truth, and any moral truths are nothing more than an individual’s or group of individuals’ acceptance of a given claim. Rhetoric is used to sway the claim.
Logic is employed but only after having been filtered through the experience through the emotion and through the rhetoric. Accepting some particular truth claim does not make it true; neither does rejecting a truth claim make it false.
I’d like to expound upon this, but for now, I’ll create this placeholder.
Fast-forward, and I’ve returned. Still, I feel that morality is nothing more than rhetoric. Perhaps I’m even more convinced—and this extends into jurisprudence and politics. I’ve rather latched onto Foucault’s or Geuss’ sense of power or Adorno’s socially necessary illusion that is ideology by way of Marx.
Talking about power, Geuss says, “you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position”.
« One cannot treat “power” as if it referred to a single, uniform substance or relation wherever it was found. It makes sense to distinguish a variety of qualitatively distinct kinds of powers. There are strictly coercive powers you may have by virtue of being physically stronger than me, and persuasive powers by virtue of being convinced of the moral rightness of your case; or you may be more powerful than I am by virtue of being a charismatic figure who is able to attract enthusiastic, voluntary support from others, or by virtue of being able to see and exploit a strategic, rhetorical, or diplomatic weakness in my position. »
I tend to think of myself as a proponent of the Hegelian dialectic, but even this is in a rather small-t teleology manner instead of a capital-T flavour, so I feel that although history moves in somewhat of human-guided direction, there is no reason to believe it’s objectively better than any number of other possible directions, though one might be able to gain consensus regarding improvement along several dimensions. Even this will not be unanimous.