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Travelogue L5

September 20, 2019

With the knowledge that my wandering would reach an end tomorrow, I redoubled my efforts that afternoon to walk as much as possible of the network of porticoes still to be explored. So I pressed on along the streets, my thoughts in time with my feet. As I aimed to maintain a good pace, the echoes of my own steps filled my ears.

Despite the din, I sought out my inward Benjamin and found him lost in thought on some sites that we had noticed earlier. For instance, one remarks under some arcades entrances to condemned buildings and residences. Though these entrances were occasionally bricked up or boarded off, they were more often closed off with a new wall and door, so that professional renovation services might better control access to the site. Inevitably, the metal wall and door jar with the surrounding brick, painted mortar or cut stone, making the condemned hard to miss.

Pausing before another such door, it struck me – as it had figment Benjamin – that these once-interiors had become self-enclosed and inaccessible, the fact of which calls into question their status as interiors. After all, the interior is that which we inhabit, and that which we cannot inhabit cannot be an interior. But does its being uninhabitable, inaccessible, necessarily mark that space as exterior rather than interior? Is there not some third term?

In any case, closer inspection brought me to the conclusion that there was no conclusion to be had. For the condemned space in question opened out onto the portico in the form of small windows inset above the doors. Insofar as they lacked glass-panes, the windows ensured some access, if not movement or passage of the kind that would shift these closed-off interiors from the column of exteriors back to that of interiors. For better or worse, they remained outside of anything that I might experience, and the outer bounds of my experience separate possible interiors from necessary exteriors. My imaginary companion nodded approvingly.




Fr. 934

September 19, 2019

Much of the epistemic and deliberative democracy community draws on the “Diversity trumps ability” claim to motivate its position. Such is understandable: if a variety of unskilled viewpoints consistently leads to better outcomes, under the right circumstances, than a uniformity of skilled viewpoints, why would one ever prefer a homogenous community to a heterogenous one? That said, I am often puzzled by the lack of attention to a question which this particular justification of democracy might imply. If diversity trumps ability and better outcomes are always preferred to suboptimal outcomes, then is it not incumbent upon us to diversify even further? That is, ought democracies not foster as many novel ways of life and viewpoints as possible in a highly differentiated society? If not, then what is it about current levels of diversity that warrant contenting ourselves therewith and how might we know when we reach the optimal level of diversity? Does not the ideal point onwards and upwards?

Fr. 933

September 18, 2019

A recent talk which I heard made the case that economic security is key to rational planning which is itself key to human flourishing. The speaker then went on to point out the near universal appeal of rational plans in different (and often opposed) theories of justice. One such theory was that of MacIntyre wherein rational plans took the form of narratives. Yet the thought occurred to me that narratives need not display the kind of foresight and continuity which seem to characterize other forms of planning (e.g. Rawls’s rational plans of life). Indeed, they could evince the dramatic highs and lows of transformation and conversion, dejection and failure, no less than one remarks in the epistemological crises which MacIntyre highlights in rational traditions. (It is a remark which holds similarly of MacIntyre’s own life.) This raises the question: if rational planning comprises everything from the humdrum administrative outlook to the creative retelling of a life’s ups and downs, what holds these poles together and how ought one to conceptualize continuity?

Fr. 932

September 17, 2019

Undoubtedly, the question of algorithmic political decision-making has seen an increased profile in recent years, and there is a prima facie case for thinking of it as a sui generis area of theoretical inquiry. Yet it remains an open matter whether political theory does not already have the conceptual tools to address such decision-making so long as it has not been made clear just why algorithmic political decision-making is distinct enough that it merits its own separate analysis from already existing accounts of power and legitimacy. Is it in fact different enough from other forms of prima facie objectionable political decision-making such as expert panels and technocratic agents?

It seems that there are two ways of establishing such a distinction. Epistemically, one might argue that algorithmic design is a black box of such epistemic opacity that it is different in kind from the aforementioned forms of decision-making. Unlike the inner working of expert panels and technocratic agents, it is beyond the capacities of a single human being to comprehend the inner working of an algorithm designed by a multitude of programmers (even when that proprietary coding is made available to outsiders). Yet this claim seems difficult to sustain in the absence of definitive evidence that no human being would ever be able to understand an algorithm’s design in its totality. In short, it seems more likely to be a difference of degree rather than of kind.

One might attempt a similar tack with regards to the notions of responsibility or accountability. In cases where machine learning is responsible for the shape of an algorithm, it may seem that there is no blameworthy agent to be held to account for the decision procedure’s outcomes. In contrast, even in those cases where a complex decision-making procedure prevents observers from attributing blame to one or more actors, it is possible to pursue a differential approach and distribute among actors blame and the need to hold to account. Still, there is the worry that this apparent difference in kind is only in degree just because there are still human actors upstream of the procedure and whose design and data choices may yet be subject to blame and account.

The second strategy might turn away from the search for a difference in kind to the search for a significant threshold value. Beyond that value, so the idea goes, the decision-making procedures would be relevantly dissimilar, either epistemically or morally. This would allow the procedures to exist on a continuum, all while allowing that the problem acquires an ordinarily unworkable complexity once that threshold value is surpassed. This might still allow for a quasi-sui generis approach to algorithmic political decision-making and the need for a fresh philosophical approach to the matter.

Fr. 931

September 16, 2019

It may be helpful to begin by asking “why reasonableness?”. This twofold disposition is a structuring idealization in Rawls’s well-ordered society of justice as fairness and plays a role in setting a normative target for political society. More specifically, it characterizes each member of the justificatory pool, i.e. those persons to whom justifications must be made good. Those reasons which are a.) available to and b.) acceptable to (or not rejectable by) the (idealized) citizens of a well-ordered society make up public reason or the set of public reasons. In short, the twofold disposition of reasonableness targets a standard for distinguishing admissible and inadmissible reasons.

While idealization may be used to generate normative standards in this way, there may still be reason for concern about this particular idealization. For the targeting function to succeed, persons must find the normative standard practicable both motivationally and cognitively. It is not enough to stipulate nor to hold that the resulting standards follow logically from the idealization’s premises. I want to suggest that there is an issue of internal consistency or cognitive dissonance with the standard which may render it impracticable. Namely, they may find that one part of their disposition undermines the other. In a word, I am suggesting that there is a problem of self-defeat in reasonableness.

Note that this is a narrower claim than “public justification is self-defeating”. It is also limited to Rawlsian political liberalism and others which take on board this specific conception of reasonableness. Moreover, because it concerns an instance of cognitive dissonance wherein the person questions her own standard or test, it does not trigger the reflexivity requirement (whereon the person must submit her standard or test to the standard or test of others).



Fr. 930

September 13, 2019

One issue in deliberative systems theory is bound up with how one conceptualizes the linkages or interactions between (more or less) deliberative sites. In a recent talk, John Parkinson advanced the view that deliberation is, in truth, more closely related to meaning-making than rational communication (à la Habermas) and, moreover, that the sites (or people in them) are themselves their own linkages or interactions. I am inclined to second Parkinson on both counts. Of the first, I will remark only that Parkinson’s idea of meaning-making shares much with what I have described as two versions of the view from anywhere, McMahon’s moral nominalism and Laden’s social picture of reasoning, insofar as these foresee an interaction wherein interlocutors must continually rework their concepts, judgments and personal histories in pursuing discussion. Of the second, it may be that as much of the deliberation takes places outside or between deliberative sites as inside. The work undertaken in deliberative sites begins much earlier and goes on long after the nominal deliberation, an idea which a view from anywhere may help make sense of.

Travelogue L4

September 12, 2019

Between the warm drink and the gloom, I could almost imagine myself in a rather macabre tea-house. Around ran the elegant red-stone arches and headstones set in the walls; above extended the ceiling of dark boughs and backlit leaves. It brought to me the wild, painted plant-life overrunning the walls of an old Franciscan church which I had once seen in Poland. Although the church interior had sought to imitate the exterior through human artifice, this courtyard had found a second life as an unexpected interior.

Keen though I was to find the Western end, I soon gave myself over to simply following my eye wherever it led. It brought me, at times, past writhing bronze sculptures, at others, below brick chapel towers. At last I bent my steps back towards the entrance, only to find myself, several turns later, walking through a gallery which would not have looked out of place in a fine arts museum, save for the marble grave-markers lining the floor. Picking my way between them, I advanced towards a large chamber branching off from the gallery, a chamber which, at a glance, housed the mortal remains of a merchant family, prosperous in this life if not in the next.

To one side rose a line of scaffolding, paints, brushes and tarps at the ready. The sight jarred a thought loose in my brain: no less than the living, the dead had need of renovations from time to time. For the interior through which I strode was both something more and something less. If the open air and stream of visitors made it a poor substitute for an interior, it had the merit of reminding visitors of the most exterior of exteriors through which humans inevitably pass: that which lies outside of human experience, death.