site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of December 5, 2022

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

9
Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Topic: The disappearance of procedural rules of fairness as a public value

A gripe that continues to be articulated around these parts is that almost no-one seems to regard procedural rules of fairness as values per se. Most political actors seem to care only about their instrumental value and only insofar and as long their adherence helps their cause or tribe. Based loosely on Rawls' notion of justice as fairness, I define these rules of fairness as outcome-independent rules of play that bind all players equally. Examples include:

  • The free market place of ideas

  • Accepting the outcome of participatory events such as elections, polls, etc. as valid even if one does not agree with the outcome

  • Valuing facticity even when inconvenient

  • etc.

A commonly articulated hunch - one that I share - is that the political liberal left at least paid lip service to these ideals as values in themselves up until roughly 2010. After the woke capture of many cultural and political institutions, these values were discarded. I expressed this elsewhere:

Liberalism is everybody's second-best solution to everything. The best solution is of course to make everybody else live according to my preferences. The worst is that I have to live according to the preferences of my enemies. Under liberalism, we agree to an eternal truce where neither of us gets to dictate how the other person has to live (to a degree).

But now one side has the power to do exactly that and actualise their best solution with impunity. Most people aren't principled liberals. A ceasefire doesn't make sense when you can easily crush your enemies.

This keeps raising the following questions:

  • Has the appreciation of procedural rules of fairness in fact waned?

  • If so, when?

  • What made the political "left" shift from a celebration of these values to a purely opportunistic application? Was this always purely instrumental, as outlined above?

I would be very interested in how the above questions could be approached empirically. I know this is a sentiment shared among a lot of people here, but in the absence of serious research on the matter (or is there?), how can we actually test it other than through links to silly google search trends?

As you note I think one's beliefs about procedurally fair rules are tied up with their conception of justice. Specifically, people support procedurally fair rules when they believe those rules will lead to just outcomes and oppose them when they think they won't. Unless one is committed to the proposition that procedurally fair rules always entail just outcomes (which I think describes very few people) it's not hard to find examples of cases where the application of procedurally fair rules lead to unjust outcomes. Some common examples in US history include poll taxes and literacy tests. While these rules were generally applied to all voters, they had the effect of disproportionately excluding certain demographics in a way many considered unjust due to those demographics relative poverty and illiteracy. This can also lead to a general skepticism of procedurally fair rules in general, in a way I think we still see today. The belief that the people who want to impose certain procedurally fair rules don't actually think the rule itself is good, but want the rule in effect due to the disproportionate impact it will have on certain groups (ex, debates about voter ID).

Has the appreciation of procedural rules of fairness in fact waned?

My own appreciation for procedurally fair rules as tools to achieve just outcomes has certainly waned. Whether that's my own changing sense of what is just or just an expansion of my knowledge of situations where procedurally fair rules have led to unjust outcomes is hard to say, probably a bit of both.

If so, when?

In my particular case I would say starting five or six years ago. I share the perspective articulated by @drmanhattan16 that there was something different about the 90's compared to today but I am not sure I could identify a sharp breaking point for the culture more generally.

What made the political "left" shift from a celebration of these values to a purely opportunistic application? Was this always purely instrumental, as outlined above?

I suspect a mix of the two. For some people it was always purely instrumental while others followed a similar path I did, becoming disillusioned with procedurally fair rules as a mechanism for producing just outcomes due to a perceived lack of results. I think a big part of the reason the "left" is broadly more skeptical of procedurally fair rules its because the left's political coalition is composed substantially of those groups that have been left in disproportionately worse positions by the application of such rules, and have disproportionately benefited from less procedurally fair rules.

ETA:

This is getting a bit more philosophical but since I have Moore v. Harper on my mind I'll mention I think there is also a population out there that is skeptical about the extent to which we can coherently categorize rules into "procedural" vs "substantive" such that all rules are "substantive" in the relevant sense.

Specifically, people support procedurally fair rules when they believe those rules will lead to just outcomes and oppose them when they think they won't.

It sounds to me here like you are saying that people have just shrugged and said "well, since the rules don't produce just outcomes then fuck the rules". It seems plausible that this is what people think, certainly. But it is distressing to me, because that attitude seems like nothing more than "I do what I want" with extra steps. I will certainly concede that following the established rules (which let's say for the sake of argument are fair) will not lead to a just outcome every time. And by all means, I think we should endeavor to change the rules to ensure maximum justice in the outcomes (while keeping them procedurally fair). But even though the rules are imperfect, I believe that on balance following them will lead to more just outcomes than ignoring them.

More pragmatically, I think that the ideas of liberalism (and federalism, what scraps we have left in the US) are very much correct, even to this day. I may not like it that my fellow citizens can do (insert immoral act here). But I like that a whole lot more than if they could force me to follow their ideology. Which, as sure as the sun rises and sets, they will do as soon as they get power, unless we agree to a truce. So I support a truce, even when I'm in a position of power (especially then, in fact), because I want my teeth to not get kicked in as soon as the other guys have institutional power.

Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of people have lost sight of this. I remember arguing with people (otherwise smart people, even) about Mozilla firing Brendan Eich back in the day. They simply considered it unimportant that if we set the precedent that you can fire someone for being against gay marriage, you also are going to be able to fire people for being gay if the Overton window ever shifts that way. They were purely concerned with short-term "get the enemy" even at the cost of long-term harm to their own causes.

Do you believe that it's practical to build and enforce a set of rules that ensure acceptable outcomes so long as they're followed, regardless of the behavior of those operating under the rules? Put another way, do you think loopholes are a generally-manageable problem in rule design?

...I think the above questions are pointing to a concept that seems extremely relevant to your question, but I'm not sure the questions themselves communicate the issue clearly enough.

Long ago, I was interested in tabletop game design, and came across the concept of "rules fragility". As I understood it, the idea was to seperate out the general concept of "good rules" into "good when people are actively trying to work with them" and "good when people are actively trying to subvert them". If you're familiar with the PnP roleplaying concept of a "munchkin", or the proliferation of explicit GM fiat as a conflict resolution mechanism, both are necessary because of rules fragility. Generally speaking, the simpler your ruleset, the easier it is to eliminate fragility. Games like chess or M:TG are sufficiently constrained that their rules can be made very resilient, regardless of player cooperation. The sprawling D&D ruleset, on the other hand, is legendary for its exploits, paradoxes, and hilarious implications. Munchkins and GM fiat exist because roleplaying games are, of necessity, too complex to make rules that self-enforce a good experience on uncooperative players.

Life is a whole lot more complicated than D&D, and while societies as far back as we can observe have always tried to form some sort of rule set, until relatively recently human societies frequently resorted to some level of GM-Fiat-analog. This changed with the Enlightenment, which introduced the idea that we could bind society to rules not through a superpowerful enforcer, but through the law itself. The idea was that it was possible, even practical to write a set of universally-applicable, objective rules that could account for all the exigencies of circumstance and behavior, resolve all disputes and settle all conflicts. One way to put it would be that the Enlightenment idea our society was founded on was that loopholes were a manageable problem, on the object level and all meta-levels.

As I've argued many times previously, it seems to me that this idea worked as well as it did for as long as it did because a relatively homogenous population more often than not treated our social "game" as fundamentally cooperative, not competitive. Periods where this cooperation broke down stand out in our history as moments where the system worked very poorly or failed completely. The problem now is that we are no longer homogenous, and our social game is becoming increasingly competitive. The simple fact is that the basic ruleset our society operates off is in fact fragile. Being fragile, it can't hope to handle high-stakes competition between cultural factions of the sort we now enjoy.

...

As I understand it, your complaint is that people are increasingly reluctant to accept the outcomes mandated by the rules. I doubt that you consider rule-following to be a terminal goal, so the argument would be that rule-following should produce superior outcomes, right?

Let's say we disagree strongly on how things should be, but we've agreed to follow a set of rules. A conflict arises. You follow the rules to the letter. I apply a novel strategy the rules didn't account for. I win. You have no grounds within the rules to contest my win, because I didn't break any of the rules as written. Changing the rules to account for this novel strategy is itself a conflict, and you're already behind on winning conflicts. Suppose this pattern repeats a number of times, and you now expect that you lose by attempting to play by the rules, and I win by playing outside them.

Let's say you believe this outcome is a problem. What are your options to resolve it? Attempting to improve the rules is not, I think, a workable strategy. The simple fact is that, contrary to Enlightenment ideology, there is no flawless ruleset available. You are never going to close all the loopholes. Rules are simplifications, abstractions, map and not territory. they have to be interpreted, adjudicated, enforced, and each of those steps involves human judgement and an irreducible loss of objectivity. Motivated agents will always find ways around a fixed ruleset, and the longer they stand, the more porous they become.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that respect for a ruleset requires either trust that the rules lack fragility, or trust in the other party not to abuse that fragility for their own advantage. Leaving aside questions of cause and responsibility, it seems obvious to me that neither side of the Culture War actually maintains confidence in either of these propositions. Under such conditions, why would one expect the rules to continue to operate in anything approaching a reliable fashion?

...

[EDIT] - Nope, can't leave it there.

You appeal to the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Any given ruleset can claim that it's an improvement or even optimal from a Rawlsian point of view. How should people assess such claims? Why should people accept claims that a given Rawlsian assessment is rigorous and reliable? If people disagree over an assessment, how can we resolve that conflict?

I argue that appeals to Rawls are just another dead-end, for the same reason appeals to law or the Constitution are dead-ends. Rawls doesn't actually provide a way to ensure good-faith cooperation, and without confidence in good-faith cooperation, none of the rest of these arguments matter.

So, a few off-the-cuff remarks while I digest your larger point.

Do you believe that it's practical to build and enforce a set of rules that ensure acceptable outcomes so long as they're followed, regardless of the behavior of those operating under the rules? Put another way, do you think loopholes are a generally-manageable problem in rule design?

I used to think so, but given the obvious failure of the liberal ruleset in preventing enemy take-over, I obviously have to reassess my position. This admittedly half-baked post is part of that process. Many here pointed out that this ruleset can only work in somewhat homogeneous societies, which I am not quite sure about. Another thought is that the ruleset only works as long as it's enforced by a crypto-oligarchy of benevolent liberal true believers (this would explain the late 90s).

You appeal to the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Any given ruleset can claim that it's an improvement or even optimal from a Rawlsian point of view. How should people assess such claims? Why should people accept claims that a given Rawlsian assessment is rigorous and reliable? If people disagree over an assessment, how can we resolve that conflict?

I argue that appeals to Rawls are just another dead-end, for the same reason appeals to law or the Constitution are dead-ends. Rawls doesn't actually provide a way to ensure good-faith cooperation, and without confidence in good-faith cooperation, none of the rest of these arguments matter.

Yeah, Rawls himself was struggling with this quite a bit IIRC. His solution, the "reflective equilibrium" is a pretty big cop out, because it translates to "we, uhm, take all the facts into account, think about it real hard, and try to have them match lol idk".

But that was not my point. My point is that Rawlsian fairness is a regulative ideal. Whether a certain situation or proposed solution comes closer to it than a given alternative is up for debate. But my point is that the perceived validity of that regulative ideal as an aspiration is in decline and has been replaced by a tribalistic spoils system.

As I understand it, your complaint is that people are increasingly reluctant to accept the outcomes mandated by the rules. I doubt that you consider rule-following to be a terminal goal, so the argument would be that rule-following should produce superior outcomes, right?

Let's say we disagree strongly on how things should be, but we've agreed to follow a set of rules. A conflict arises. You follow the rules to the letter. I apply a novel strategy the rules didn't account for. I win. You have no grounds within the rules to contest my win, because I didn't break any of the rules as written. Changing the rules to account for this novel strategy is itself a conflict, and you're already behind on winning conflicts. Suppose this pattern repeats a number of times, and you now expect that you lose by attempting to play by the rules, and I win by playing outside them.

Let's say you believe this outcome is a problem. What are your options to resolve it? Attempting to improve the rules is not, I think, a workable strategy. The simple fact is that, contrary to Enlightenment ideology, there is no flawless ruleset available. You are never going to close all the loopholes. Rules are simplifications, abstractions, map and not territory. they have to be interpreted, adjudicated, enforced, and each of those steps involves human judgement and an irreducible loss of objectivity. Motivated agents will always find ways around a fixed ruleset, and the longer they stand, the more porous they become.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that respect for a ruleset requires either trust that the rules lack fragility, or trust in the other party not to abuse that fragility for their own advantage. Leaving aside questions of cause and responsibility, it seems obvious to me that neither side of the Culture War actually maintains confidence in either of these propositions. Under such conditions, why would one expect the rules to continue to operate in anything approaching a reliable fashion?

This really describes the crux of the issue perfectly. I am afraid I am unable to disagree.

That's a very insightful comment, thank you! I will need to mull it over for a bit.