Looking back at books & such in 2017

Evidently, I ‘read’ a lot in 2017. To be perfectly honest, I listened to a lot of long-form audiobooks in 2017. Here is a summary of my favourites. The ♠ symbol indicates that I read rather than listened to the audiobook version.

  • Recommended Favourites
    1. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
      This is a strong follow-on to his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He assesses the present and extrapolates from the past to formulate a vision of the future.
    2. Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows
      ♠ Whilst not philosophical, per se, this is a reminder of how much of what we analyse is based on systems and how poorly humans process complexity.
    3. What Is Property? by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
      ♠ I could have captured this under Classics, but Favourites rates higher. Proudhon does a bang-up job of critiquing private property, especially as rentier. Some have espoused stronger views, but he was a trailblazer and a trendsetter.
    4. Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
      Another non-philosophy book, this was more supportive of my rent-paying day job. He does a good job of defining strategy and explaining how poor most executives are at it—despite how many have done MBA-level coursework in Strategy at top-tier schools.
    5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
      One of the few fiction pieces I read this year, I am not sure if I’ve read a better book. Whilst it’s difficult to judge over an expanse of years and decades—given falible memory and circumstances—, it’s got to be one of the top two or three.
    6.  Neo-Nihilism: The Philosophy of Power by Peter Sjöstedt-H
      Although this work is entirely derivative, it is presented as a compact summary, and I enjoyed it on a plane trip from someplace to somewhere.
    7. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter
      Full disclosure: I’ve been a McWhorter fanboy for years, but again I enjoyed his perspective on language and linguistics.
    8. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
      I like Pinker’s presentation style, though I am not quite on board with his defence of Humanism and neo-Enlightenment position. These aside, his analysis resonates once I compensate for the bias they introduce. I read this after having read Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, which trod some of the same ground. I recommend it, too; I just found Pinker’s presentment to be superior.
    9. Philosophy and Real Politics by Raymond Geuss
      ♠ This came as a recommendation as result of an online conversation in a Libertarian forum. I listened to it as an audiobook and the read it to fully grasp the material. It was well worth it.
  • Classics
    1. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean Jacques Rousseau
      I enjoyed this quite a bit, and though it’s viewed through quite the quaint Romantic lens, it is nonetheless enjoyable. I was strongly considering this as a favourite, but I opted to place it at the top of the Classics list.
    2. The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau
      Although I appreciate Rousseau as a thinker and writer, I didn’t really like this. It was a decent thought experiment in its day, but in the end, it’s just a Romantic and fanciful sort of origin story.
    3. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
      I also considered placing this in Favourites. Nietzsche or his translator provide coherent exposition, but in the end, I found it to be spotty. Though many find it to be a hard pill to swallow, his extension of Hegel’s master and slave (herd) morality still resonates today.
    4. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic by Friedrich Nietzsche
      A strong follow-on to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, though not quite a favourite. Nietzsche is a master rhetorician, and this polemic is quite enticing. What struck me most is how he presaged Freud by at least a decade.
    5. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume
      ♠ I actually read rather than listened to this classic. Hume, the Empiricist, was so far ahead of his time.
    6. Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick
      More of a modern classic—whatever that means—, Nozick tries, but the entire idea is based on a faulty premise and wishful thinking. I understand he walked back some of his position in his later years (of which there weren’t many), but he never quite jumped off the Libertarian bandwagon.
    7. On Liberty and Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill were refreshing, as I mention here. Whilst I don’t agree with his consequentialism, I appreciate what he has to say. Ultimately, he demonstrates what is wrong with empiricism. Still, definitely worth the read.
    8. The Republic by Plato
      I found this book to be sophomoric and lame logic. I truly don’t understand how this tripe is revered. It’s like listening to some random dude tripping balls at a party. It’s saving grace is his Allegory of the Cave, but I could have read that on the back of a cereal box. I didn’t need it to be buried in a book.
    9. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
      Not a favourite in the least. Probably the least interesting book I read in 2017. If I read a worse book, I mercifully put it aside and didn’t slog through it. Let’s just say I read this. Check that box. This was the epitome of boring. I almost quit, but as it was relatively short, I persevered. Weber’s main point of how Calvinism created the environment to allow Capitalism to flourish, could have been presented as a pamphlet. I was not interested in the deep historical perspective. YMMV
  • Great Courses
    In addition to reading and listening to the books above, I enjoyed several courses, which I recommend highly and I’d be remiss not to mention. Follow the links to read about them. 

    1. The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida (publisher)
    2. No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life  (publisher)

 

Geuss Who?

A mate in an online forum turned me onto Raymond Geuss, who’s got just the perspective I’ve been looking for. I’ve felt that the concepts of rights and justice are weak on etymological grounds, but Geuss’ critique is even more fundamental. In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss undercuts the positions of both Nozick and Rawls. I’ve never been a fan of Nozick, but I do consider (have considered) myself to be a bit of a Rawlsian.

Nozick is a key figure underneath Libertarianism, as this movement is very centred on rights. Opting for rights as his starting place as his preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” — Robert Nozick

As Geuss points out, Nozick ‘allows that bald statement to lie flapping and gasping for breath like a large, moribund fish on the deck of a trawler, with no further analysis or discussion, and proceeds to draw consequences from it’. In other words, Nozick leads with an unsubstantiated claim that ‘individuals have rights’, and then ‘advances’ his position tautologically.

As for Rawls, justice is his centrepiece. In his A Theory of Justice, the opening line is “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought”. He merely starts from this emotional place and advances his theory based on this basis of justice, yet nowhere does he explain of defend why this should be the foundation. As with Nozick, Rawls simply conjures this out of thin air.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” — John Rawls

On top of this, Geuss comments on the shaky etymologic foundation of both justice and rights. Harkening back to the Latin origin of justice,

As Geuss writes, ‘To begin with the question of the concept of “justice,” it is striking how unclear this concept is in ordinary language and to what extent conceptions of justice differ from one context to another and in different human societies at different times. Thus at the beginning of one of the standard treatises of Roman law, the codification made for the emperor Justinian — one of the most influential texts in European history — we find that the very first sentence gives us a definition of “justice”: “iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.” That is, justice is “the constant and unflagging will to give each person what is due to him.”

What have the Romans ever done for us?” – Monty Python

Then he goes on to clarify that “what is due to him” is radically different dependant on being a citizen, an alien, a slave, a woman, a minor, and so on. To simplify this, we are stuck in a tautological loop: one is due what one is due, as determined somewhat exogenously.

Rights don’t fare any better, being even more ambiguous, so I don’t feel so bad about pursuing the irrelevance of these virtue concepts on etymological grounds.

Utilitarianism

As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.

£1 ≠ £1

The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.

I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.

Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):

  1. Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.

  2. Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.

Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a.,  gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.

This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.

Post-Post-Modern Subjectivism

I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.

Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.

All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.

Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawlsveil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.

In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.

As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris

The Poison of Subjectivism [video]

This essay contains the essence of CS Lewis’ arguments in his fascinating short book The Abolition of Man/Humanity.

In the video, Lewis knocks down a weak strawman argument about subjectivism. He starts with a backstory about biological evolution. In his setup, he conflates empirical tautological truth with moral truth and paints them as equivalent.

Lewis introduces right and wrong and good and evil in order to provoke an emotional to realists and cognitivists, and attempts to underscore it with an appeal to tradition wrapped in an appeal to authority and positive ad hominem  that ‘until modern times, no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgments of value were rational judgments‘ [in situ].

Lewis notes that if one believes that morals are socially conditioned, then we could as soon have been conditioned differently, but he’s just trying to set up his next strawman, which is to say that some subjectivist, say, an educator or reformer, may ask us to improve our morality, and leads into his punchline, that subjectivism will surely ‘be the disease that will certainly end our species‘ [in situ]. I’ll ignore his eternal damnation quip as quaint.

He points out that some indignation toward the Third Reich (Godwin’s Law) is groundless, but what he continues to ignore is that this claim cannot be made on moral grounds. In fact, from the vantage of a Nazi at the time, they were doing the moral thing. Furthermore, had the Nazis won the war, this would be the prevailing morality.

Here Lewis tries to conjure an is from an ought by claiming that without ‘objective standards of good‘, then any ideology is as good as the next, and so he is simply tilting at windmills and arguing with this gossamer strawman. From this condition, he complains that one cannot measure better without an objective measure, so, therefore, there needs to be an objective measure. This, of course, is wishful thinking, like my complaining that I cannot win the lottery without winning the lottery, therefore, I must have won the lottery. (I accept payment by cash, cheque, or Bitcoin.)

In essence, the argument attempts to make a claim that a subjectivist wanting to make a moral claim of ‘better’ or ‘progress’ cannot because there is no ‘better’ or ‘progress’, these terms being subjective. The strawman here is that a subjectivist would make this claim on the basis of moral argumentation. As even Lewis notes, subjectivists claim value judgments as sentiments or complexes, so preferences. This is true; so the claim would be based on a preference rather than on a moral one.

He proclaims that the question ‘why should we preserve the [human] species?’ is somehow profound. It’s a valid question, but, again, it can be answered outside of the realm of morality—constructed or otherwise. Then he goes down some instincts rabbit hole based on this faulty premise but tries to circle back to his standby old universal moral law.

From the rabbit hole down a slippery slope down a rat hole, he rambles anecdotally. Tailing the vid with some supposed objective prescriptions, it mercifully ends.