Meaningless

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.


“All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.”

Michel Foucault

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.

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.

All equalities are not equal

I have long been interested in notions of social justice and equality, but somehow it all felt a bit loosey-goosey and amorphic. To be honest, I feel this way about the entire composition of government, politics, and jurisprudence, and other power structures, but those are topics for some other days. Also, I won’t endeavour to speak to the artificial income-market construct, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll take this as given, as anachronistic and quaint as it might otherwise be. Nor will I discuss whether the system itself, apart from the equality question, is optimal or even makes any sense from a broader vantage, or whether competition has a role in an otherwise coöperative society.

Along with empty virtue notions as freedom, liberty, and justice, (topics for another day) equality is a post-Enlightenment Age catchphrase. As with its counterparts, it sounds nice; it has a nice ring to it, but it is just as specious. These are words invoked to raise emotions, but as with a pointillist’s painting, if you attempt to scrutinise them too closely, they become unintelligible.

hb_51.112.6[1]
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat

Aside from maths, equality is an issue for sociology as well as political philosophy. In maths, the concept is tautological.

“In sociology, the study of the causes and consequences of inequality in its various forms – class, race, gender, power, status, knowledge, wealth, income – is one of the most pervasive themes of the discipline. In philosophy, theories of justice and rights are centrally concerned with the problem of justifying and criticising different kinds of inequality.” [1]

Sociologist, Bryan Turner, identified four flavours of equality:

  1. Ontological Equality

  2. Equality of Condition

  3. Equality of Opportunity

  4. Equality of Outcome

Political Philosophy is more concerned with accepting the sociological definition as given and discussing it in the negative sense of inequality.

Tautological Equality

In maths, we have likely been made accustomed with equalities since grade school. In fact, that’s what makes the other notions so compelling. It all appears to be so tidy and scientific.

1 = 1

2 = 2

1 + 1 = 2

Amazing, right? Two values balanced on either side of an equals sign. The problem is that these equations—these equalities—are logical tautologies. They are equal because this is in fact how they are defined, defined in the same manner as we define a red lorry as red. Equal in this context is not useful for us, save as a familiar reference.

Ontological Equality

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America employs ontological equality, where ontological is defined as “relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being”.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Aside from an unsubstantiable claim that these so-called “truths” are somehow “self-evident”, this weakest form of equality is a claim “that all men (read: people) are created equal” at birth because “their Creator” (read: God, an obvious metaphysical nod) “endowed” them with this  aspect.

Translating this into common parlance, this states that we are all equal in the eyes of God [sic]. In essence, to commence a racing metaphor, this means that we all get to participate in the race, and that sounds good, right?

The problem with ontological equality is that it outright ignores existing inequalities, so whilst you may be equal in God’s eyes, that’s where it ends. Essentially, you get an empty promise. If you’ve got something to say about, say a prayer; God’s got operators standing by. At least you get to play the game.

Man U
Manchester United football club players

Equality of Condition

Where ontological equality leaves off, equality of condition steps up. Beyond the metaphysical promise, it claims that all people get to start at the same position, that we each get to start at the same starting line. That sounds fair, right?

The problem with equality of condition is that whilst you may get a place at the starting line, you still face any systematic or structural adversity in play, whether that be discrimination, wealth disparities, access to quality education or other public services, and so on, at least you get to play the start at the same place.

Starting Line
High school girls at a starting line

Equality of Opportunity

My Libertarian associates seem to love this one. In fact, in their world, the only conversation is about equality of opportunity (also known as formal equality of opportunity) versus opportunity of outcome. It’s a cage match to the death, and opportunity is their champion.

Cage Match
Cage Match Fight

This flavour of equality doesn’t claim that a person has the right to start in the same place—only that the rules will be the same.

The problem with equality of opportunity is that it makes a specious claim. Besides ignoring the condition and situation and any past infractions—letting bygones be bygones (especially when they have given you the advantage that you wish to retain).

A parallel would be to allow a steroid-pumping athlete to compete by rationalising that, well, the race has started, so let’s just keep playing. Afterall, we’re playing by the same rules, so that makes it fair. Forgive and forget, right?.

The privileged live in better neighbourhoods, have access to better schools, can afford tutors and summer programmes. Many live in more stable family environments growing up, and they have access to networking benefits. This is further reinforced in university, and, like compound interest, the earlier one starts, the greater the effects of compounding.

Future-value-of-a-present-value-or-principal-using-compound-interest-(given-nominal-annual-interest-rate)-234[1]

Again, equality of opportunity might sound good on the surface, but, yet again, it disintegrates on scrutiny. Its main purpose is a feel-good head fake to keep one’s eyes off the prize.

Substantive Equality of Opportunity

A subset of equality of opportunity is substantive equality or fair equality of opportunity. Under this model, additional remediation is asserted to the disadvantaged person. This might be a familiar concept to golfers, who have handicaps. The goal is to—whilst also enforcing a similar rule set—accomodate those with some head start advantage. In the everyday context, it could be providing additional funding or resources to underprivileged children.

The problem with substantive equality of opportunity is that the deficiencies are multifaceted, the system itself is too complex to account for all material dimensions and measures, and most assessments are normative in nature.

Equality of Outcome

Equality of outcome is particularly pernicious. It claims that in the end, everybody wins, and everyone gets the same prizes.

Image of Alice taking with a dodo bird
‘At last the Dodo said, everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

This is a potential result of Communism, that is if the definition is taken to the absurd. This is a common criticism by some when every participant receives a participation prize—a manifestation of the notion that everybody is special.

The problem with equality of outcome is that, among other things, not everybody wants the same thing, so this logic basically boils down to I want what I want if what you have is what I want as long as everyone else who also wants what I want has it, too. Of course, we could reduce this down from actual equality—apples for apples and oranges for oranges—into value equality, where everyone has access to some comparably equivalent value (whatever that might mean, especially insomuch as different people assign different values to the same goods and services).

Kurt Vonnegut depicted this in his short story, Harrison Bergeron (PDF), where, not being able to raise certain persons, people were instead reduced to the lowest common denominator, so rather than elevate the cognitive ability of low IQ people, the solution was to diminish the capacity of higher IQ people, so as to produce the same—albeit lower—results.

Dancers
Dancers represented in Harrison Bergeron

Closure

In the end, ontological equality is nothing more than vapour; equality of condition fails to account for material differences among people and their situations; equality of opportunity also fails to account for disparities of condition; and equality of outcome is an unrealistic pipe dream that would be too complicated and complex to implement.

In order to further communication, if that is indeed even the purpose (rather than obfuscation, which I feel may be the prime motive), we need to use different concepts, to find new terminology.

End Notes

[1] Equality: Sociological & Philosophical Perspectives, Brighouse & Wright, 2009 (https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Sociology%20915%20&%20Philosophy%20955%202009%20syllabus.pdf, retrieved 5-9-2017)

Also note, that I reserve the right to make inline edits to this post in an attempt to extend, clarify, and otherwise elucidate this topic on equality.