The Man Who Laughs

Humor is a funny thing. What we find funny–what we spontaneously laugh at–tells others more about us than might be revealed by an extended interview. Consider this passage from a blog post dedicated to the defense of what its author regards as “Enlightenment values.” The author quotes a passage from Zeev Sternhell’s The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, and comments as follows:

Sternhell takes Rousseau and Kant to be Enlightenment figures, though he is very aware of their being “complex and ambiguous figures in the history of Western political thought.”

(By contrast, I take Rousseau and Kant to be Counter-Enlightenment figures, though I agree very much with Sternhell that those are difficult judgment calls. And I laughed out loud at his quoting from Judith Shklar’s Men and Citizens on Rousseau as “the Homer of the losers.” Perfect.)

So “the Homer of the losers” is supposed to be funny. Maybe because losers are?

At any rate, here’s Shklar herself on that “Homer of the losers,” from her paper “Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Equality,” (Daedalus 107:3, Summer 1978):

Rousseau is not to blame for the inadequacy of pity, which he both stimulated and dissected. On the contrary, by identifying with the dispossessed, he could shudder at the harshness of the rich and yet know perfectly well that this was not the great question of politics. The real issues clustered around the historically inevitable experience of inequality. What makes his account of the majestic progress of inequality and oppression so complete and compelling is his refusal to abandon the source of his energy, his unquenchable sense of personal injury. He was with matchless success to reveal the experiences of the endemically unsuccessful. Other philosophers write about those less fortunate than themselves in measured sentences, and they often persuade us of their case. But they do not shake us, as Rousseau does, with his epic prose. He alone is the Homer of the losers (p. 24).

Not particularly funny. To laugh, in fact, is to miss the point–or in another sense, to be the point. It’s to enact the very blindness about winners and losers that Rousseau brought to light.

Speaking of sight, light, and blindness, contemporary debates about wokeness, I would suggest, are nicely clarified by each side’s implicit reactions to Rousseau. The woke think that Rousseau has captured something deep about the human condition; the anti-woke find Rousseau–and his supposed insights–laughable. The woke see the anti-woke as morally and emotionally stunted, willfully blind to the injustice and misfortune of the world, and callously unmoved by it. The anti-woke see the woke as self-indulgent and self-pitying, fetishists of the desire to wallow in the mire and stay there, whatever the cost. Two starkly different conceptions of the human condition, two starkly different reactions to Modernity, two starkly different conceptions of the self, and two starkly different conceptions of humor.

It might be clarifying, in fact, to stop talking about “wokeness” per se, and start talking about its Ur source, Rousseau. Both the Right and the Left have a stake in that conversation. I wonder how far the Right can get, for instance, by dismissing Rousseau out of hand. Does anyone on the Right have a good explanation for why the supposedly “classical liberal” Right of the 80s and 90s has descended into a miasma of proto-fascist nationalism driven by a yearning for belonging? How is it that the billions of dollars spent on “classical liberal”/libertarian propaganda have done so little to respond to that longing, and in general had such pitiful effects? If anything, the story of the libertarian movement of the past few decades is, politically speaking, the story of a bunch of losers. So who exactly are they laughing at?

As for the Left, even a sympathizer like me has to admit that sometimes, contemporary wokeness veers from the righteous and empowering to the merely vapid and dumb. Rousseau is a useful corrective to those lapses; he’s the guy who keeps wokeness awake.

As you’ve probably figured out, I’m a fellow traveler of the woke on all this, and a fellow traveler of both Shklar and Rousseau. I don’t literally regard myself as “anti-” or “Counter-Enlightenment”; I just think that Rousseau has a point. And I find most contemporary uses of Enlightenment rhetoric fatuous–more propaganda than philosophy, more wishful thinking than historiography. “The Enlightenment” wasn’t all good or all bad. It wasn’t even one thing. But whatever it is, or was, it’s not a viable slogan or blueprint for the present: there’s no plausible way to use “the Enlightenment” as an ideological template for modern life and expect to do much more than reproduce clichés and generate confabulations.

And that’s pretty much what its self-styled champions have done, as far as I’m concerned: they’ve composed major-key anthems for the winners of the world, all with the same beat, all with the same words. It gets old. Enlightenment rhetoric asserts itself, the first time as anthem, the second as farce.

The best way to understand Rousseau is to spend some time with the “losers” of the world, and see, up close, how “the Enlightenment” has been used as the bludgeon with which to beat, demoralize, and destroy them. Progress is wonderful, but comes at a cost, and the “endemically unsuccessful” are the ones who pay it, to the incomprehension and contempt of those who don’t. Once you see this, maybe take a dip in it yourself, you come to realize why Rousseau speaks to “losers.” You also come to have a better sense of what it means to be one. Rousseau gets right about inequality and loss what so many don’t even manage to get wrong: he sees the sick, sad world that so much cheerful talk tends to obscure. That world is there if you look for it. It’s not hard to find, just hard to look at.

Easy to miss that Shklar was praising Rousseau when she likened him to Homer–easy to miss, I mean, until you read her. Once you do, you see her point. Better to be the Homer of the losers, perhaps, than the Kipling of the winners.

Thanks to Suzanne Schneider and Monica Vilhauer for inducing me to re-read and re-think Rousseau. 

20 thoughts on “The Man Who Laughs

  1. I don’t know much about Rousseau other than that he was the noble savage guy. I think the winners and losers thing is more American than, say, Australian. The US tends to put the attainment of wealth and success on a pedestal; Australians are suspicious of it. You’re right about how progress leaves a certain group of people behind, to be despised by those who are able to thrive from the changed conditions. Someone remarked yesterday that the new ai capabilities will put the educated middle class out of jobs rather than, as usual, factory workers and such; he was quite pleased by that.


    • Rousseau is a complicated, mixed bag, but very much worth reading and engaging with. Ever since leaving academia, I’ve been taking online courses to fill the gaps in my education. I’d read Rousseau in college, but hadn’t really focused on him during my professional career. So I went back and re-read him recently for two seminars I did (one on nationalism, on on alienation). I’m glad I did. The Shklar passage in my post does capture an important part of his thought.

      The only other post on Rousseau that we’ve run here has been very critical of him.

      David’s post gives a good sense of what Rousseau was about.

      The winners and losers thing really is more American than anything else. That’s how Donald Trump became president, and why he’s still the front-runner on the Republican side. But it goes far beyond that.

      That said, we Americans also have Thoreau. Thoreau is Americanized Rousseau–much the same message but modernized, somewhat toned down, somewhat less extravagant, and more enjoyable to read. If you want to read something close to Rousseau, but want something more user-friendly, Thoreau may do the trick.

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  2. If Rousseau is, in part, implicitly pointing out that the dominant norms and institutions of society (and hence you and me and especially the people that most benefit from them) can subtly victimize people (in ways not captured by rules governing specific types of unjust actions, usually individual), leading to justified resentment, then he is spot-on (whether or not this happens all the time, whether or not any given dispossessed person or group in a society is likely to be oppressed by society in the dispossession rather than just a victim of bad luck, etc.). This is a point about political justice that is foreign to the more-individualist Enlightenment thinkers and an important addition to moral and political knowledge. If so, dismissing Rousseau as an anti-Enlightenment collectivist is at least partly a mistake. Even if his implicit view of social/structural injustice is overblown or misplaced (or partly confused with obligations of charity) — lending some credence to charges of undue collectivism — the more basic point stands.


    • That’s all part of Rousseau’s point, but his deeper point is both simpler and more fundamental. Ask yourself why the term “loser” is a term of derision and laughter: it’s because “losers” are automatically the objects of contempt. But why should loss be contemptible? It’s contemptible when it’s recurrent. A certain kind of winner regards recurrent loss—and recurrent losers—as laughably contemptible. Rousseau questions whether that’s really true. Is laughter at the losers of the world really justified, or is it a disguise for a form of schadenfreude?

      Considering how widely “losers” are stigmatized and laughed at in our culture, Rousseau’s question raises the possibility whether schadenfreude is baked into the culture or project of “the Enlightenment.”

      I think he has a point. The Enlightenment is not as benign a project as its propagandists have made it out to be.

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      • Sure, yes.

        It makes sense that literal losers (those who have repeatedly lost in some competitive endeavor) be objects of something like contempt (and literal winners appropriate objects of adulation). This seems like a module of moral psychology that functions to harness competition for pro-social ends by creating dominant social conditions of reward for competence and punishment for incompetence. Though the contempt and adulation can be taken too far, there is nothing really wrong here yet. (“Don’t trade for that quarterback. He’s a loser.” That whips up social sentiment in the direction of treating poor track records appropriately.)

        The question, and what is questionable, is engaging these moralizing personal and social elements by describing those who, for whatever reason, are not doing well in life or in society (maybe objectively, maybe by questionable conventional measures) as losers.

        This kind of thought and expression, though there is less of it than there used to be, has something of a home in right-wing perspectives, including Objectivism and right-libertarianism. Less sure that it has much of a home in Enlightenment ideas, though perhaps it does in the modern right-wing invocations of such.


        • Agree with you until the last paragraph. For one thing, I don’t think there’s any less of it than there used to be on the Right, but I would argue that the idea you’re describing as problematic has its source in Enlightenment thought. The Enlightenment is responsible for having codified and given scientific respectability to racism, and turned it, in effect, into “Loser Theory.” This summary by Jamelle Bouie is very much on target, and summarizes the consensus of mainstream historians of racism:

          To say that “race” and “racism” are products of the Enlightenment is not to say that humans never held slaves or otherwise classified each other prior to the 18th century. Recent scholarship shows how proto- and early forms of modern race thinking (you could call them racialism) existed in medieval Europe, with near-modern forms taking shape in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Spain, for example, we see the turn from anti-Judaism to anti-Semitism, where Jewish ancestry itself was grounds for suspicion, versus Jewish practice. And as historian George Fredrickson notes in Racism: A Short History, “the prejudice and discrimination directed at the Irish on one side of Europe and certain Slavic peoples on the other foreshadowed the dichotomy between civilization and savagery that would characterize imperial expansion beyond the European continent.” One can find nascent forms of all of these ideas in antiquity—indeed, early modern thinkers drew from all of these sources to build our notion of race.

          But it took the scientific thought of the Enlightenment to create an enduring racial taxonomy and the “color-coded, white-over-black” ideology with which we are familiar. This project, undertaken by the leading thinkers of the time, involved “the setting aside of the metaphysical and theological scheme of things for a more logical description and classification that ordered humankind in terms of physiological and mental criteria based on observable ‘facts’ and tested evidence,” as historian Ivan Hannaford wrote in Race: The History of an Idea in the West.

          I disagree with some of the details, but regard Bouie’s account as basically on target.

          I don’t happen to agree with historians like Frederickson et al because they’re mainstream, by the way; I just happen to agree with them, full stop. I mention their mainstream status only to underscore the fact that anyone who writes about the Enlightenment while bypassing their work is essentially bypassing the mainstream, consensus view of contemporary historians on this topic. Polemicists who treat the Enlightenment as nothing but a source of enlightenment, while treating its dark side as merely incidental to it, are engaged in propaganda, not historiography.


          • That’s super-interesting. I’ll have to give Fredrickson a read. Bouie’s description is consistent with core Enlightenment ideas simply being put to bad use in the service of making racism into a rigorous theory (and practice). And I’m not sure how important employing anything much like a loser/winner framing was. Offhand, racial hatred (to focus on one important element) is not much like, say, laughing at or having contempt for someone who has been labelled a “loser” (in some inappropriate, weaponized way). I’m more saying that I’m not sure than I’m saying that I disagree with you, on this point.


            • I think Bouie’s point is that racism just is one of the core ideas of the Enlightenment. It’s not a misapplication of some other Enlightenment idea; it’s a distinctive feature of Enlightenment thought on its own. Prior to the Enlightenment, there was of course racialized thinking, often allied with religious bigotry. That primitive sort of racism or racialism probably goes back to the beginnings of human pre-history. What the Enlightenment gives us is modern, quasi-scientific racism based on quasi-genetic taxonomies. One basic aim of these taxonomies was to carve the world into superior and inferior, and to use that distinction to explain civilizational success and failure, Africa being the paradigm example of civilizational failure.

              The issue isn’t “racial hatred” but racism as an explanatory theory (or variable). Racism (on the view I’m describing) is what explains the persistence of the fact that the world’s losers are and remain losers: they’re losers because they belong to inferior “loser” races on demonstrably scientific grounds. That idea has its origins in Enlightenment thought. It gets intensified and radicalized through nineteenth century nationalism and romanticism, and then gets institutionalized in imperialism and eventually fascism. And racial hatred is an outgrowth of that, along with racialized contempt, derision, etc. But the fundamental idea is the division of the world into natural, race-based inferiors and superiors, which has an Enlightenment provenance.

              Obviously, racial derision is not the only sort of derision-for-losers that exists; my point is simply that it’s the form intrinsically connected to the Enlightenment.

              I should clarify that I wasn’t suggesting that the post I was criticizing was racist. My point was that the laughter-for-losers in it was revealing, and that Rousseau is insightful on that topic. The point about racism and the Enlightenment is just a separate thought altogether. (Here, I’m just echoing the parenthetical in your second comment, the 7:59 pm one.)

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              • If the focus is on the broad Enlightenment program for human improvement, then all of the main ideas that inform the Enlightenment blueprints and strategies for human improvement are what is important. This would include both (i) the ideology of white/European general superiority as an explanation of real and imagined particular European civilizational superiorities of knowledge and power and (ii) the rationalizations squaring the power of reason with religious or faith-based epistemology. If the focus is on the value of the fundamental philosophical ideas, then only these are included. This suggests that it is proper to use ‘Enlightment ideas’ in both the narrower and the broader senses, depending on context. It also indicates that it is misleading to frame the issue in terms of the identity or metaphysics of systems of ideas. However — repeating myself — because of the enormously bad impact of ideas of white/European racial superiority, one is remiss to yammer on about the value of the core philosophical ideas without mentioning, with appropriate gravity, how those ideas were used to rationalize slavery (and often not or not entirely innocently because the rational construct so conveniently accommodated the evils of racialized prejudice and commerce in African slaves).

                (Though maybe this does not speak entirely well of me, when I read the standard pro-Enlightenment cheerleading, I get annoyed mainly because of the incompleteness and error in the core philosophical ideas. (1) Social injustice is real. People can be mistreated by the dominant expectations, norms and institutions of their society. This kind of thing is not well-conceptualized in terms of rights-violations (Nozickian or otherwise). (2) Living together in society on morally decent, fair terms is only partly a matter of recognizing (and enforcing) plain moral truths about our rights. It is also about coming to consensus about what to hold each other responsible for in this or that specific circumstance of potential social conflict. At this level of specificity, the practical level, standards of morality or justice are something we create, not something we discover. Our task, then, often is not simply to notice moral reality (or something like this) and act accordingly. Rather it is to: (a) come to as good a moral consensus as we can with each other and (b) respect each other in the process (given that there will be disagreement, sometimes sharp disagreement, how to settle the issues at stake not being obvious). Thinkers like Locke and Kant were not very much alive to important standards of morality and justice working like this.)

                (Gotta post and run. Apologies for any typos.)

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          • More to the specific disagreement with my final paragraph: by ‘the ideas of the Enlightenment’ one might mean the core universalist, liberal ideas of Enlightment thinkers. Pinker is well-aware that Locke and Kant forwarded explicitly racist ideas. But regardless of what one means ‘Enlightenment ideas’ to refer to, prominent Enlightenment thinkers rigorized and rationalized racism — and this was put into practice, to world-historicallly horrible effect. One needs to mention this if one is using the term ‘Enlightenment ideas’ as a shorthand to refer to all the good, universalist, rights-of-man, anti-authority stuff. (I’m not worried that cheerleading for Enlightenment ideas comes to implicitly promoting racism or anything like this. It is just that, if you are only cheerleading in this way, you are not encouraging people to notice the associated world-historical horribleness.)

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            • I mentioned that I disagreed with Bouie on details. The detail is his treatment of Locke. Locke’s views are, I think, highly problematic–much more problematic than many instinctive Lockeans have taken them to be. But there are three problems with Bouie’s account of Locke.

              One is that Locke isn’t really an Enlightenment thinker at all. He’s pre-Enlightenment or proto-Enlightenent.

              A second is that while Locke’s views have very troubling racial implications–for slavery, for imperialism–he doesn’t offer explicitly race-based justifications for them. I actually take that to prove the point I’m making about the Enlightenment. On my view, Locke is a little too early to be a full-fledged racist in the way that, say, Kant is.

              A third issue is that I think one has to be more careful than Bouie is (and many others are) when attributing authorship of “Lockean” works to Locke. I would flatly deny that “The Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas” is a Lockean text, i.e., a text of which Locke was sole or first author. Locke was the secretary of the committee responsible for drafting the document. That may make him morally complicit or responsible for its contents, but it still doesn’t make him the author. A secretary is not an author.

              I was the web editor for the website of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the early 2000’s. My initials appeared at the bottom of every page. But I was not the author of any part of the assessment, or any page of the website. Likewise, I wrote one section of my University’s Middle States Self-Study, but I am not credited with authorship (thank God), and I contributed to the report under duress. I actually regard its contents as basically fraudulent–almost complete bullshit. So I don’t regard myself as in any sense the author.

              These examples aren’t meant to map onto Locke; my point is that a writer’s contribution to an official document in an official capacity is not comparable to his authorship of a treatise under his own name. We need to distinguish between moral responsibility for the contents of a document, and authorship of the document. You need not be the author to be responsible for its contents, and being responsible need not entail that you are the author. Locke was morally responsible for signing into “The Fundamental Constitutions,” but he wasn’t the author. So while we can blame him for signing, we can’t use the text as a clear basis for inferring his views on racial matters. (It complicates things slightly that Locke’s main works were published anonymously, but he avowed authorship at the end of his life.)

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              • Here are some final thoughts on this topic (some retread, hopefully clarifying, some new stuff)…

                Why suppose that racism (as a form of “loserism” or otherwise) is an essential Enlightenment idea as opposed to a bad, pernicious application of essential Enlightenment ideas? It seems pretty clear that it is a misapplication of more fundamental Enlightenment ideas (whether or it is “merely” so). That does not make it inessential, especially if the relevant criterion for essentiality is more sociological or historical than logical. So suppose that, from a sociological or historical perspective, the construction of modern racism is an essential or core Enlightenment idea. But now, if one’s perspective is that of the value of the logically essential ideas, why not use ‘Enlightenment ideas’ in this more logical sense, in arguing for ideas that one thinks are valuable for society today? I’m not sure there is much danger of confusion here, especially if one acknowledges that most Enlightenment thinkers transformed and amplified earlier racist or racialist ideas, giving an ancient prejudice a quasi-scientific imprimatur (and rationalizing the slave trade – and imperialism).

                There would be a danger of confusion (and hence of overlooking or promoting racism) if racism (and perhaps just “loserism”) were baked into Enlightenment ideas in some quite subtle way. This is at least suggested by the idea that the Enlightenment employed “loserism” with regard to race and perhaps other things. This element would not be a misapplication of fundamental, explicit ideas, but rather an implicit framing that Enlightenment thinkers brought to both theory and practice. I find this idea intriguing because (undue) certainty combined with (inappropriate) contempt for those who disagree (a la “loserism”) is a potent form of “intellectual warfare” (but one that moralizes disagreement and debate to one’s advantage, perhaps at the expense of honest curiosity, discussion, good reasoning; although a framing or tactic much like this is a legitimate way to get people to acknowledge obvious moral considerations that they are overlooking or downplaying). This tactic, this approach to arguing, should be sadly familiar to both of us.

                However, even if something like this is true, it might still be advisable to cleave off the bad implicit framing and use ‘Enlightenment ideas’ in a way that excludes “loserist” argumentative framings or whatnot. This would just require a bit more sophistication and subtlety than identifying misapplications of general ideas in the construction/rationalization of racism (to start, it would be the moralized use of terms like ‘superior’ that would carry with them this kind of framing, licensing illegitimate contempt, etc. – but it can be hard to disentangle moralized from non-moralized uses). For this reason, I’m still inclined to think that, as long as one acknowledges the pernicious misapplications and implicit framings (“loserist” and otherwise), there need be no harm nor foul. I think Pinker passes this test. I suspect that he and Bouie, like you and me, would agree on most of the substance while differing in emphasis (and hence, to some extent, in terminology).


                • I guess we need a criterion for what counts as “fundamentality” when judging ideas in a historical context.

                  If you met a person who was kind but also a racist, would you say that fundamentally, they were a kind person, and that the racism was simply a misapplication of their kindness? I’d be more inclined to say that a person can be both kind and racist, full stop. Unless one trait was much less central to the person’s identity than the other, there’s no reason to treat the one as “fundamental” and the other as accidental.

                  When it comes to something like “The Enlightenment,” I would say that we see two separate but closely related things: the development of a universalist ethos, and the development of racism. If anything, it’s the universalist ethos that is the misapplication of racism, not the other way around. The Enlightenment project is one of defining an ethos that is completely autonomous of (rejecting of) religion and supernaturalism. So it’s a secularizing project.

                  It’s also a fundamentally Eurocentric project. When Enlightenment thinkers gazed beyond Europe, they saw little to admire. Some, but little: Asia had something to commend it, but Africa didn’t. They then defined a “universalist” ethic that took the norms of European civilization as paradigmatic, detached those norms from any strong connection to religion, and then judged the non-European world on this basis, and issued a verdict: it failed. How to account for this failure?

                  Well, religion couldn’t be the answer. One clear-cut answer was a purely secular conception of race closely connected to a developmental conception of civilized moral norms: civilization came more easily to civilization-conducive races, less easily to less civilization-conducive ones. And Western European Man was the most civilization-conducive on Earth, followed by Mediterranean Man. Within a century of articulating this account, the Enlightenment project had become a full-fledged ideological rationalization for European imperialism, which it also justified ex post facto. So it’s not at all wrong to say that the Enlightenment liberalism is the source of modern racism.

                  Put this way, I don’t see how racism is “not fundamental” to the Enlightenment project. I guess it’s a “misapplication” of secularism and universalism, but I don’t find that particularly informative. Racism certainly doesn’t contradict secularism. Modern racism is a fully secular idea. It doesn’t really contradict universalism; racism is an attempt to explain explain the facts of human development within a secular-universalist scientific framework. It’s a misapplication of that framework, I suppose. But it’s the specifically Enlightenment misapplication. That doesn’t contradict anything Bouie or I would want to say. It certainly does contradict the idea that we should wave The Enlightenment around as a banner, and march under it.

                  All three concepts–secularism, universalism, racism–are central to the same enterprise. They can, of course, be detached from each other and deployed some other way. But that’s not historiography; it’s a re-imagining of the past. As a historical matter, the concepts weren’t detached. They were a package. The problem with the use of The Enlightenment as a propaganda slogan is that it conflates historiography with a counterfactual re-imagining of history. It only makes things worse that the use of these slogans comes from people who make such a big deal of their commitment to The Reality Orientation, and who spend so much time denigrating post-Modernist fantasy talk. They’re engaged in their own fantasy talk. They just get annoyed when one puts it that way. But I don’t see their argument for why one shouldn’t.

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  3. “But now, if one’s perspective is that of the value of the logically essential ideas, why not use ‘Enlightenment ideas’ in this more logical sense, in arguing for ideas that one thinks are valuable for society today?”

    You can do that, but that’s not historiography. If you do that, you’re doing a conceptual analysis of the concepts used in a certain epoch. There’s nothing wrong with that task as such, but the job of a historian is to tell us what people actually believed, not to come up with a conceptual analysis that exonerates them of the “inessential” implications of what they believed. Even worse is to come up with such an analysis, and then infer that since X is logically fundamental and Y is not, Y was not believed and had no significant causal influence on subsequent historical events! That’s not historiography; it’s ideology carried on by a misapplication of the methods of analytic philosophy.

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    • I agree with most or maybe all of that. It is not hard to believe that even the more-responsible pro-Enlightenment cheerleaders might be implicitly misrepresenting history in stressing secularism and universalism and their effects. A perfunctory mention of the misapplication of secularism (of scientific explanationism) to race does not do justice to the Enlightenment thinkers founding scientific racism and how this was used to promote slavery and imperialism. But it is possible as well that folks like Pinker are using ‘Enlightenment ideas’ in more of a logical sense (to refer to secularism and universalism). I suppose the problem is that, as soon as you say “and see what good things came from secular universalism” you are making a historical claim, not a logical one — and if you are doing that then why not talk about the scientific racism that flew under the same banner (and that was instrumental in the production of race-based slavery and imperialism)?


  4. I encountered a passage in our Gaus reading tonight that’s highly relevant here. Gaus is talking about the trade-off between pursuing local optima and ideal justice. Take a case in which you forego pursuit of a local optimum for the sake or pursuing ideal justice. Either Sen is right, and we can dispense with ideals and “climb the Mt Everest of justice,” or else ideals are necessary, in which case…

    we must press: why should we forgo opportunities to create a more just social world so that we can pursue an uncertain ideal? Those who bear the cost of this pursuit will live in a less just world–their pleas must be discounted. The ideal theorist is convinced that we can give meaning to our political lives by pursuing an inherently uncertain ideal, turning our backs on the pursuit of mundane justice in our neighborhood (Tyranny of the Ideal, p. 143, emphasis mine).

    “Those who bear the cost of this pursuit” are precisely the losers Stephen is laughing at. He’s laughing at them because he either doesn’t think they exist, or thinks that their situation is their fault, or thinks that their situation is laughably trivial by comparison with the Ideal. The laughter strikes me as being in extremely poor taste. It expresses a total obliviousness to what Gaus is talking about.

    I think Gaus is absolutely right to stress the trade-off between the pursuit of the ideal and the pursuit of local optima. If this trade-off is real, and ideal theorists systematically choose the demands of the ideal over the pursuit of local optima, then local optima will consistently, systematically get short shrift in ideal politics. And if the classes that constitute the “losers” are generically the same over time (e.g., the poor, the disabled, etc.), ideal politics will end up being a kind of class or caste politics that systematically disadvantages the “losers” who lose out through the pursuit of the ideal.

    The preceding point is not directly about the Enlightenment, but is importantly related to it. As Gaus points out (Tyranny, pp. 147-49), whatever its merits, Enlightenment politics is a paradigm of ideal politics in just the preceding sense. It (often, not always) aspired to pursue the ideal at the expense of local optima, and by implication at the expense of those who might be the beneficiaries of local optima. It then invented race and racism to explain away the fact that “those who bear the cost of this pursuit will live in a less just world.” Racism says, in effect, that they live in a less just world because they inherently deserve to.

    Suppose someone argues that race and racism are only contingently related to Enlightenment ideals (rather than conceptually so), so that the ideals themselves can be decoupled from them. The response might still be that while you can take race and racism out of the equation, insofar as Enlightenment thought is ideal thought, and ideal thought exists in tension with local optima, you’re still left with a non-racialized version of the same problem: if local optima are sacrificed to the ideal, the losers will remain.

    That’s the view taken by MacIntyre, whom Gaus quotes on p. 148 of Tyranny.

    An Aristotelian critique of contemporary society has to recognise that the costs of economic development are generally paid by those least able to afford them; the benefits are appropriated in a way that has no regard to anyone’s merits (Alasdair MacIntyre, “An Interview with Giovanna Borradori,” in The MacIntyre Reader, p. 265).

    MacIntyre is making Gaus’s point in a slightly different form.

    Objectivism is a particularly unhealthy–and totally unself-conscious–form of ideal theory. It not only chases fictional ideals, but is willing to sacrifice local optima to them. So Gaus’s critique is one that Objectivists in particular should be taking to heart. Former Objectivists, too.

    Ironically, I think Rand herself recognized this in her earliest writings, at least as regards communism. The theme of We the Living is precisely the tyranny of the (communist) ideal over the local optima that might have been achieved by taking the humanity of “the living” more seriously. What makes Kira a sympathetic character is her commitment to this belief, and what makes Andrei somewhat sympathetic is his gradual amenability to it. But I think Rand herself succumbed to a capitalist version of the same view, as have her heirs.

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    • Most of this sounds right to me. I’d call this a hazard of placing too much priority on the pursuit of ideals that are too distant and uncertain. The bird in your hand gets away as you pursue the two in the bush. Particular groups of people (or perhaps everyone) are likely to pay the price (e.g., there is most likely general access only to sub-standard education — the local educational optimum of more adequate educational access definitely foregone — because libertarian forces-that-be attempt to privatize education without enough evidence that the resulting system will be significantly better than the local optimum). Unless we get lucky, we end up with a less good system (and the poor will pay the price disproportionately). Hmmm… does this mean that failing to exhibit a kind of conservatism that is a bit ideal-aversive promotes social injustice (in the narrow, popular sense)?

      Enlightenment idealism is tricky. Part of the problem is that, regardless of the epistemic position at the time, it worked out in the long run (assume that we are talking about only secularism and universalism). I think this kind of ideal-focused behavior is often glamorized. It makes sense when present, easy/clear options are so shitty that you need to shake things up and shoot for something that promises to be much better. But maybe mostly it does not make sense (I guess this is Gaus’s point or at least quite friendly to his point)! Part of the glamorization here is focusing on the cases that happened, perhaps against the odds, to work out. I think the American Revolution fits this pattern. Risky, perhaps unjustified and unduly putting innocent people at risk, but we got fucking lucky.

      Slavery and imperialism were risks (of the Enlightenment institutional project) that, however likely or unlikely, happened to be realized. But this seems to be downside risk or cost specific to how the institutional ideal might turn out when we attempt to implement — not the risk or cost of a definitely, foolishly foregone local optima. However, it is an interesting question what local optima were foregone in, say the American Revolution or French Revolution (or the pursuit of Enlightenment institutional ideals globally). Maybe the easy/clear options were so crappy that shooting for the moon was (given the evidential context) justified? It would be nice for Gaus to discuss cases like this in detail, with good historical perspective and information.


      • “However, it is an interesting question what local optima were foregone in, say the American Revolution or French Revolution (or the pursuit of Enlightenment institutional ideals globally).”

        The local optimum foregone in the American Revolution was peace with the Native Americans. The Revolutionary War was a nation-building war, and in its (often forgotten) western theater, was focused on the subjugation of the Native Americans in the name of grafting a single, civilizationally homogeneous nation on this continent (or well, in the northern part of it). The Natives were fought as savages precisely in the name of race-based, Enlightenment-inspired ideals. Reason (after all) tells us that tribal, semi-nomadic life is irrational, that settled agriculture is to be preferred to it, and that private property is preferable to collective property. The Native Americans of the Plains lived a life at odds with all of those things.

        Rousseau’s relevance should be obvious here. Rousseau is often caricatured as suggesting that we should go back to a “noble savage” lifestyle. He doesn’t really say that, but his defense of “noble savagery” does raise the question: is it so obvious that we should (literally) railroad the people who choose to live that way? Is there no room for them in a society based on Enlightenment ideals, no accommodation to be reached that lets them be?

        The Lockean answer is, “no.” Locke’s political theory gave as much support to the war against the British crown (in the name of representative government) as it did the (same) war against the natives (in the name of rational production and private property), with the latter seen as congenitally irrational, non-productive savages. I don’t think it’s an accident that this neo-Lockean view coincides exactly with Rand’s view of both Native Americans and Palestinians. On this view, traditional societies are inferior to Enlightenment-inspired societies. But they constitute an unfortunate impediment to the realization of Enlightenment ideals. Since they don’t have a conception of rights–they don’t live in a rights-respecting manner, any more than animals do–they don’t have rights. So they have to be destroyed, just like animals. It’s a very common pattern of argument.

        Unpalatable as it is (and implausible as it sounds to some), that Enlightenment ideal is the inspiration for our Indian policy, and also for the Nazi conception of the Final Solution. The Jews were regarded by the Nazis to be an inferior nation-within-a-nation in just the way that the Native Americans had been conceived by the American colonists and revolutionaries. So the same logic was applied to them as was applied to Native Americans–just more intensively. Our Indian wars took a century; their war against the Jews took a decade. I guess the Nazis were more single-minded than us. (We had the genocide equivalent of ADHD.) But the fact remains, their war against the Jews was (explicitly) inspired by our war against our Native population.

        So the charge of racism–or at least loserism–is very hard to shake. If you narrow your conception of the Enlightenment to a small set of logically connected ideas on paper, the racism disappears. But the minute you trace the development of those ideas in the real world, you run into racism, imperialism, and mass death. It takes some work to decouple the good stuff from the bad. But it can’t be done by offering “Yay Enlightenment!” slogans and mantras, and hoping for the best.

        This, by the way, was the thought that got me into trouble at TAS 2013. It’s been awhile since I’ve led a summer seminar for them. You think they’ll call?

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        • The relevant Enlightenment ideal here is institutional, not abstract. And that ideal is explicitly racist even if the abstract ideal is not (due to scientific racism being an ancillary hypothesis or something like that). So we are, or should be, talking about that ideal. By its corrupt lights, the American Revolution was, in important part, shooting for the racist and civilizational chauvanist stars (whether or not, relative to this corrupt ideal, it should have been doing that rather than pursuing some local not-quite-as-awful local optimum).


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