Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Questions for Sullivan on Derrida on Forgiveness

These are questions I have about an episode of James and the Giant Podcast where James Sullivan (I call him James from now on, I hope he would call me Dave) discusses Derrida's (I call him Derrida, he's dead) essay On Forgiveness. No essay can cover all the bases completely, but I will discuss some of the gaps that prevent me from fully understanding or agreeing. If the podcast concludes something like, here is a long list of things we might think of as forgiveness, but they really aren't, I agree. But I disagree with nearly every explanation of this conclusion they give.

First, let me attempt a short summary of what I think the podcast was about. James has Derrida argue for the idea that no one can attain the ideal of pure forgiveness. An organization or a state cannot forgive, it only can happen in an actual person's heart. If forgiveness is conditional on repentance or restitution or anything else, it is not really forgiveness, it is a negotiated transaction, a deal. For the forgiven person even to ask for forgiveness spoils it to some degree. Justice and forgiveness are completely independent and distinct: justice can be fulfilled without any forgiveness, and forgiveness can exist without any justice.

According to James, Derrida carefully considers these cases of faux forgiveness. But according to me, neither of them takes it where it needs to go. Derrida and James think of forgiveness as an interaction between two persons, one that requires both of them to participate. But I can forgive someone who knows nothing about my forgiveness or someone who died without repenting or asking for forgiveness. Forgiveness requires a subject and an object, but the object does not need to participate actively. A person forgives or does not forgive, that's all. Resentment transforms to resignation, blame transforms to cause and effect. Forgiveness drains the situation of moralistic judgement.

After I am forgiven, forgiveness is over. Whatever I do with the knowledge that I am forgiven is something else: maybe redemption, maybe repentance, maybe reform, maybe indifference, even hostility or resentment, but not forgiveness.

Now a short digression: If I forgive you, this will affect our relationship, but these after-effects are not forgiveness itself (or even examples of it). Perhaps we both desire these after-effects, but I cannot accomplish forgiveness merely by wanting to forgive. It is not fully voluntary, it's more like wanting to learn calculus. I can try, but I may fail. If I try and I succeed, does that diminish the result compared to the same situation if I accomplished it without effort or intent? Do we care about the process as much as the result? I don't think I do.

Now back to the show. I will quote from James' podcast and comment as we go along. The action starts at about minute 6. 

“He [Derrida] deconstructs three main categories of forgiveness and we'll go into each one. First, forgiveness between two individuals; second, forgiveness between the state and an individual (by the state I mean any sovereign power, could be a king, government, school or church); third, forgiveness between states. This refers to the relationship between different nations.” Already this seems odd. I think I have never heard anyone speak of forgiveness between nations, and that if someone did that I would take it as highly metaphorical. Similarly, when an accused person gets a verdict of “not guilty” in court, I would not expect anyone to describe this as the state forgiving someone. If instead we use it to describe a guilty verdict, complete with a sentence to punishment, and the completion of the sentence, does that count as forgiveness on the part of the state? I don’t think so. In a way, this is Derrida's point, but if so it’s a trivial one, and made in a roundabout and confusing way. Justice is separate from forgiveness.

Perhaps this is metaphor? But then it is bad metaphor. Maybe that is Derrida's point, or part of it, and part of James' interpretation. Why spend so much time debunking a metaphor that is rarely (never?) used? 

What isn’t a sovereign power, if we include schools and churches in that category? Why shouldn’t corporations also count? Or families and individuals? What does such a weak distinction accomplish?

“When we talk about forgiveness in this text, in order to simplify even our base conception of what forgiveness is as an idea, we will take it to mean forgiveness in the Abrahamic religious sense.” What does this accomplish? What alternatives are we abandoning? My conception of what forgiveness is certainly has been influenced by religious ideas, but how would this article (and Derrida's original) have to change if we dropped this assumption?

Maybe Derrida and James want to contrast ordinary forgiveness with the sort of forgiveness that a Catholic receives during confession? (Or is that absolution, not forgiveness?) That does seem to require more than one participant and genuine repentance from the guilty party. But then no human is actually doing any forgiving. The difference between the sort of forgiveness that I can experience as the one doing the forgiving and the sort of forgiveness that Catholics experience as the objects of god's forgiveness seems like an interesting criticism of that religion, but Derrida and James do not go there. So  why specify that we refer to the Abrahamic flavor? What are the other flavors?

“‘In principle’, Derrida begins, ‘there is no limit to forgiveness, no measure, no moderation, no to what point.’ [...]  Forgiveness is often confounded, sometimes in a calculated fashion, with related themes: excuse, regret, amnesty. But Derrida states that these are separate things from forgiveness; they are heterogeneous. Do not confuse them.” We should avoid confusing forgiveness for these other things, but what is forgiveness and how does it differ? This is not unpacked. Is it a mental state? An emotion? A declaration? An activity? A transformation? A process with a product? A ritual to perform? A role to play? 

“The idea of forgiveness requires an idea or conception of the unforgivable, and these two are tied together ... forgiveness and the unforgivable. You can only forgive, Derrida deduces, the unforgivable. What else is there to forgive? If you forgive the forgivable then you have done nothing; certainly nothing extraordinary or virtuous. Forgiving the unforgivable is Derrida’s paradox.” This just seems wrong. How shall I argue against this? Maybe I could refute them if they gave reasons to think so. But they don’t bother. I guess it is obvious? 

Why should I think of forgiveness as something that ought to qualify as extraordinary? It may occur less often than the alternative of holding a grudge. Is that all? 

Is it virtuous to forgive? Do Catholics number it among the 7 virtues? Nope. Did the Stoics consider it a virtue? Nope. Maybe contemporary culture has come to associate forgiveness with Jesus and other saintly figures, and so it got promoted? The Lord's Prayer exhorts us to forgive our debtors or those who trespass against us, but does that mean forgiveness is a virtue or is that just good advice?

Maybe Derrida/James means that only the purest forgiveness is true forgiveness, so only the unforgivable is truly worthy of forgiveness? Why would I think that?

What else is there to forgive, besides the unforgivable? Certainly, anything that bothers me, I can forgive. Maybe anything that someone wants forgiveness for? The unforgiven.

“We cannot pinpoint forgiveness in itself because it is abstract. We can point to acts of forgiveness, examples of forgiveness, but they are all representations of the thing and not the thing itself.” This is hard for me to follow. Would examples of elephants be representations of elephants and not elephants themselves? They are elephants but not "elephant". Okay, forgiveness is not a concrete thing we can point at, like an elephant. But James and Derrida are dancing around the point. Solid examples to point at satisfy me, and I am perplexed by this denial that examples can help. Why not? Can we find something helpful then, please? Maybe Derrida attacks all abstractions and generalizations, and this is only an instance?

“What I ask, does forgiveness feel like? Does it have an associative emotion? How do we describe it?  Is it something an individual has, since it is something which must be given?” They ask, but do not tell.

“It is infinite, which is why it holds so much importance in religious language, because it mirrors or mimics the divine.” Huh? I mean... Huh? Just going to leave that lying there?

“We’ve already stated that pure forgiveness can only exist between two individuals: the guilty and the victim; and that there must not be a third that intervenes.” And actually, the guilty need not participate actively. Note that this also implies that I do not actively forgive, it is an event that happens to me, not a process that I engage in or a decision I make. This seems too restricted. I can decide I want to forgive. I can take actions or think thoughts intended to get me ultimately to forgive. And if I can do these things, others might also do them either intentionally or unintentionally. Why does this make the forgiveness impure? If it does, why do I care about purity?

“Language itself intervenes as a third. Can there be, Derrida asks, in one way or another, a scene of forgiveness without a shared language?” Can’t I forgive my cat? It feels a lot like forgiveness. But perhaps cats are not capable of responsibility or guilt. But again, forgiveness is something I do. It has an object, but the object does not participate actively. If I am capable of feeling resentment toward my cat for something it has done, or holding it "responsible", can't I also forgive it? Certainly I am capable of doing the opposite, of placing blame on it, holding a grudge and wallowing in resentment. But perhaps this is faux forgiveness also, since the cat can't take responsibility, having no obligations or rights that would depend on its nonexistent ability to understand and participate in a reciprocal social interaction. Our relationship is one-sided, paternalistic; we can't achieve reciprocity. Can I distinguish between forgiving the cat for sinning and recognition of the fact that the cat is incapable of sinning? The result seems very similar, though I arrive there by a different process.

"Derrida, in this entire essay, makes claims about the guilty party or person being transformed in asking for forgiveness. This is because the person who does something unforgivable is different from the person repenting or asking you for forgiveness, which means they are no longer guilty as such, or as guilty. Think about someone who while blackout drunk does something utterly unforgiveable. [...] The person the next day is not the same person." In what relevant way are they different persons, rather than the same person in a different context? How does this difference accomplish what Derrida claims, without making the entire exercise of forgiveness into a mistake? Derrida and his interpreter leave this unstated.

If I forgive you, you are the same person that violated me, at least for the purposes of dealing with the aftermath of that event. If you have shown yourself to be dangerous, I shall adjust to the danger. If you have shown yourself to be careless, I shall adjust to the uncertainty this creates. If you have shown yourself to disregard social customs, I need to find a different basis on which to interact with you, or avoid interacting. From these various vantage points, you are necessarily the same person. How is the context of forgiveness different? Is my forgiveness impure if after you damage my car I take back the car keys I lent you? Does forgiveness require me to act as if I still think you are a safe driver after you prove the opposite? Or can I forgive you, take appropriate measures, and move on?

Does forgiveness erase guilt? Guilt lives in the context of justice, which Derrida and James separate from the context of forgiveness. Guilt also lives with morality, but it is a different sort of guilt. Perhaps forgiveness has nothing to do with either.

Can I forgive as the result of a conscious strategy? Can forgiveness come as a by-product of reconciliation, redemption, or some other conscious process intended to produce it (among other things)? If forgiveness is a state of mind, how does the process that created it prevent it from being what it is? So James must mean that it is not a state of mind, or at least not a state of mind or mental event alone. Or perhaps the context that they use to disqualify forgiveness does so by spoiling the state of mind also? If I have already forgiven someone, will this be spoiled by them asking for forgiveness or claiming to repent? But then it is not really conditional. Must all sorts of preliminary preparations, if done with the conscious intent of producing forgiveness, undermine their own objective?

Why do I believe that forgiveness has nothing to do with the unforgivable? Can Derrida and James agree with me on this, but reach the same conclusion? Their claim is oddly psychological and a priori at the same time. Their analysis hints at a theory of language and meaning that seems unhelpful in this instance. Maybe if I understood that theory better and convinced myself that it applies in other contexts, I might abandon my objections.

What if I approached this as one who seeks to understand rather than as one who seeks to find fault? Derrida's purpose, seen through James' lens, seems primarily negative, to convince us that several ways of talking make no sense. I already think most of them are nonsense, though maybe not as nutty as the idea that forgiveness depends on the unforgivable. What can I gain from Derrida and James? What is at stake? They certainly inspired a lot of questions.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Argumentation Ethics steelman

Summary of argumentation ethics
When I argue I presuppose everything that argumentation requires me to presuppose. I might not articulate or consciously believe these propositions, and indeed I may deny them with my words, but I must act in a way that does not violate them. If I fail to act to make them true, I am no longer arguing; I am reciting, meditating, propagandizing, indoctrinating, coercing, fighting, or just engaging in some activity other than argumentation.

If during the course of an argumentation I arrive at a conclusion that contradicts one of my presuppositions, that contradiction invalidates my argument, by the same logic as would apply if I could derive a contradiction from assumptions I have made. 

According to Hans-Hermann Hoppe, argumentation presupposes some private property proposition (PPP). A criticism of self-ownership or private property involves the denial of PPP. By arguing that private property is inferior or wrong or should be eliminated and replaced with something else, I violate what I presupposed by engaging in argumentation and thereby create a performative contradiction. This contradiction refutes my criticism.

What is PPP?
Hoppe discusses the presuppositions of argumentation in this talk. Here is a long quote:

The praxeological presuppositions of argumentation, then, i.e., what makes argumentation as a specific form of truth-seeking activity possible, are twofold: a) each person must be entitled to exclusive control or ownership of his physical body […] so as to be able to act independently of one another and come to a conclusion on his own, i.e., autonomously, and b), for the same reason of mutually independent standing and autonomy, both proponent and opponent must be entitled to their respective prior possessions, i.e., the exclusive control of all other, external means of action appropriated indirectly by them prior to and independent of one another and prior to the on-set of their argumentation.
“Any argument to the contrary: that either the proponent or the opponent is not entitled to the exclusive ownership of his body and all prior possessions cannot be defended without falling into a pragmatic or performative contradiction. For by engaging in argumentation, both proponent and opponent demonstrate that they seek a peaceful, conflict-free resolution to whatever disagreement gave rise to their arguments. Yet to deny one person the right to self-ownership and prior possessions is to deny his autonomy and his autonomous standing in a trial of arguments. It affirms instead dependency and conflict, i.e., heteronomy, rather than conflict-free and autonomously reached agreement and is thus contrary to the very purpose of argumentation.”

We can construct a version of PPP by rearranging Hoppe's description quoted above.

PPP: “[I am] entitled to exclusive control or ownership of [my] physical body […] so as to be able to act independently of [others] and come to a conclusion on [my] own, i.e., for the same reason of mutually independent standing and autonomy, [I am] entitled to [my] prior possessions, i.e., the exclusive control of all other, external means of action appropriated indirectly by [me] prior to and independent of [others] and prior to the on-set of [this] argumentation. [I] seek a peaceful, conflict-free resolution to whatever disagreement gave rise to [our] arguments. 

Why is PPP presupposed by argumentation?
Argumentation presupposes that participants make up their own minds and participate fully in an effort to resolve a disagreement by arriving at an agreed conclusion by peaceful means. This requires them to act and think independently of others in a relevant sense, not subject to duress or other forms of influence from anyone. If participants in an argument lack this quality of independence, they cannot pursue the purpose of argumentation, they cannot truly resolve their dispute and come to agreement. In the extreme, if I hold a gun to your head and tell you what arguments to listen to or to make, we will never really come to agreement. Every influence aimed at a purpose other than finding genuine agreement may lead the process off the true path. If I can “win” an argument by threatening violence or offering bribes, this derails real argumentation. Argumentation presupposes that participants rise above such counterproductive distractions and motives. When they fail to do so, argumentation itself fails.

I am entitled to exclusive control of my body in the sense that it is common knowledge that no one else may control my body without my permission. If others could control me or were entitled to control me, this would count as duress.

Why must critics of liberty and private property deny PPP?
Critics of private property proclaim that no one is entitled to certain kinds of prior possessions. They seek to violently confiscate others' prior property, not to resolve their disagreement peacefully. So they contradict "I seek a peaceful, conflict-free resolution".

I still consider this blog entry a draft. Any helpful suggestions left in the comments will be used to improve future versions.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The state illusion

This article has an important insight about government, but I think it misses the mark by a bit. Governments use more centralization and hierarchy than markets, but they are forced to adapt to the limitation on scaling the article describes, they just do it in a different way. When we think of government as purely top-down we are oversimplifying quite a lot. Does Trump control the deep state? Formally, congress and the president are in charge. In reality, no one is in control.

And the same criticism described in the article applies to corporations and other organizations that use explicit hierarchy as part of their structure. Yet they seem able to work around this limitation somehow, at least well enough to make a profit and keep the stakeholders mostly satisfied.

I've been trying to articulate a related insight. We think of government as distinct from other organizations, as deserving to be treated as an exception, but what essential difference can we point to that distinguishes them? If they are just organizations not so different from others, why do we treat them differently?

Weber and Hoppe offer flawed definitions of the state. Weber speaks of a legitimate monopoly on force, but the reality is closer to a cartel than a monopoly. Other organizations use force in various ways without becoming "the state". How many people must stop accepting the legitimacy of the state's violence before it transforms into a criminal gang? Does it experience a phase change like ice melting into water?

Hoppe says that the state "must be able to insist that all conflicts among the inhabitants [...] be subject to his final review. In particular, this agent must be able to insist that all conflicts involving [the state] be adjudicated by him or his agent. And implied in the power to exclude all others from acting as ultimate judge, as the second defining characteristic of a state, is the agent’s power to tax: to unilaterally determine the price that justice seekers must pay for his services." I can insist on this (though no one will pay much attention to it), am I a state? More charitably, Hoppe must mean that the state can actually accomplish this. How many conflicts adjudicated by other means will it take to transform the state into something else? When a mugger takes my wallet, does he become a state? When a club raises its dues, people can resign, but when a government raises taxes people can emigrate. There is no such thing as an ultimate judge. Participants in a dispute continue until they themselves consider their dispute to have been resolved. If some third party seeks to force a resolution, this merely imposes new constraints on their means of either engaging in or resolving their conflict.

Maybe territory and jurisdiction give us a clue? Can we observe a state without a territory? But does that mean that ordinary property owners, renters, or any other category of possessor that can legitimately exclude others from a specific location qualify as states?

Whatever activity or attitude you point to, if I start imitating government no one thinks I have become a government. When a random organization engages in evil or stupid behavior, it will not change their character if we start calling them governments. If I exaggerate a bit, this reveals the state as an illusion (or perhaps just a flawed abstraction). On a more practical level, this encourages us to use terminology that hinders our insight and understanding.

If we had a powerful general theory of social organization, then theories about states, firms, clubs and other variants of human organizations would fall out of it as corollaries, subsets or applications. Government provides a special case of a general phenomenon, and if we did not emphasize the difference so strongly we might find ways to transfer insights from one context to the other. The problems that can corrupt governments can corrupt other organizations, and vice versa.

Monday, May 28, 2018

MKP mission statement

I’ve been feeling dissatisfied with my mission statement. It started out like this:
I create a world of diversity, tolerance and openness by inviting others to explore and connect.
The target is vague and the method is vaguer. I’m going to describe how I modified it below, but I will start by giving the new version:
I nurture cooperation and adaptation by learning, growing and having fun with others.
The old one, in addition to its vagueness, failed to give me guidance about integrating things I do every day to try to make improvements with the lofty goals vaguely mentioned in the statement. I felt it commanded me to make grandeose commitments to ideas that currently lie outside my sphere of influence. The new one lets me move step by step in the right direction, instead of just skipping to the end. Maybe I can have a big impact, but I need to be able to see how to get there, what is the first step.
MKP uses visualization to get people to find their mission, but that didn’t work for me. I fell asleep instead. So I’ve used a more philosophical approach instead of pure intuition. I doubt the idea that everyone must agree on everything, and I don’t see how to achieve unanimity without coercion. I envision a world where people can disagree with each other and yet still cooperate to a large degree, even if it is just to keep out of each other's business. Societies face the challenge of integrating individual autonomy, creativity and inspiration into coordinated cooperation on a large scale. Obviously, we can’t accomplish this easily, but I seek that ideal.
A good mission statement will frame all my work and make its meaning and purpose clear to me. Don’t let it become a mental prison, though.
What is a positive way to express the idea of not placing demands on others? When I respect someone's autonomy, I do not make demands upon them. Instead, I make polite requests and negotiate from a position of mutual respect.
I read a book about depression that listed 6 areas of concern that can play a role in depression. I want to categorize my activities accordingly. The factors are diet, exercise, sleep, light, associations and ruminations. I used a web app to create an acronym for this: Rumination, Exercise, Diet, Sleep, Association and LighT - REDSALT. Light affects mood depending on how much and when during the day you are exposed. Association stands for your relations with other people - do you have friends and associates that care about youand interact   with you frequently? Rumination is a broad category, including the stories I tell myself, my self-talk, the judgements I make, the ideas I identify with, and probably most of what would go in my mission statement when I complete it. These are the things I take for granted, things I keep reminding myself of.
A mission statement says what I think I am and what I want to be. What effect do I want to have on others? What changes in myself do I want to encourage? That was who I was. This is what I want to become. By writing it down, I can criticize it, improve it, compare myself to it. Can I use it in this way without judging myself when I fail to keep perfectly aligned to my mission? If I do judge myself, will that make me more or less likely to get where I want to go?
What is my shadow mission, the mission of the shadow self who undermines many of my actions? Stay safe, hidden and isolated from others. Don’t trust anyone. Be boring, don’t let them see the real me.
Super powers
If I could have fun while satisfying my needs for RED SALT, that would give me a sort of super power. I would strengthen myself in each of these areas, not by exerting willpower but by having fun.
Another related topic comes to mind, the Japanese concept of ikigai. Perfect ikigai combines four accomplishments into one activity (or into one life): I do it well, I get paid to do it, I like doing it, and the world needs it. I can influence myself to increase my level of skill and enjoyment. I can learn how to get paid or to connect my skills to people's needs. I want that superpower too.
People tend to look for trouble when they aren’t already overwhelmed. The ones with superpowers pick their battles.

This draft is still rough and a bit flow-of-consciousness. But I decided to release it rather than edit it forever.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Chinese character stroke order rules and algorithms


Explains how to draw Chinese characters. This is not only useful for correct calligraphy, but useful to know when looking up characters in a Chinese dictionary. If you see a character you don’t recognize, you can’t look it up by Pinyin/pronunciation. So a particular dictionary style goes by stroke order. There is a list of first strokes, from there you get to a list of possible second strokes (given the first stroke) until things are narrowed down enough that you can just pick the character you seek from a list. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Walter Williams on freedom of association and discrimination

Walter Williams raises an interesting point. Are laws that force us to associate with each other better than laws that force us not to?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Critical thinking

Here is an interesting article on a priori knowledge in science.
Here is a discussion of authoritarian and libertarian rationality.
And a discussion of dogmatism.
And one on rationality that I can't quite describe but I like it. Here's part of the abstract:
"If the task of theoretical reason is to discover truth, or reasons for belief, then theoretical reason is impossible. Attempts to circumvent that by appeal to probabilities are self-defeating. If the task of practical reason is to discover what we ought to do or what actions are desirable or valuable, then practical reason is impossible. Appeals to the subjective ought or to subjective probabilities are self-defeating. Adapting Karl Popper, I argue that the task of theoretical reason is to obtain theories that we can agree to instate given that they appear to have greater explanatory merit than their rivals. I then argue that the task of practical reason is to decide which ought-propositions to act on."