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How to kill the grump in your head (Deleuzean #NiceRx?)

I can sometimes sense inside of myself, already, the early stirrings of elderly grumpiness. Needless to say, I do not like this, and so at this relatively early stage in my life, I must do everything possible to avert this sad fate.

A few nights ago, I went to my friends’ house to watch Eurovision. I think I was overly negative that evening, criticizing all the acts with a bit too much loathing, to the point that I was perhaps slightly rude to my friends. I don’t mind being slightly rude if I am asserting something important that I believe, during moments that matter, but that’s not what I was doing. I was just counter-signaling, which is contemptible. In my contempt for postmodern pop culture, I fell into its clutches and played its game: vacuous speech and micro-performances motivated only to assert and sustain my own sense of ego and identity, in order to feel proud and be recognized, to feel differentiated and distinguished in the ever continuing mass meltdown of all values and tastes. No matter who you are or what you believe, this mode of being in the world, this defensive ego-maintenance mode, is always contemptible (although it is often forgivable and sometimes unavoidable).

Of course, the solution is perfectly clear, easy, and ancient: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all — unless it’s really important and coming from a place that is non-reactive and affirmative of life in general. But this rule, which well-behaved children can follow, is surprisingly hard to follow for many adults. Why?

One reason this rule is hard to follow is that when you hang-out with friends — in order to be the most fun for them but also for your own enjoyment, the whole point of hanging out – it is necessary to “let oneself go,” at least to some degree. The unique challenge enters when the hangout itself is premised on social signaling games as part of the fun (and this can be a fine source of great fun). The whole point of watching Eurovision with friends is to take turns making all kinds of comments, criticisms, affirmations, oppositions, displays of wit, and gifts of humor — all so many subtle and enjoyable ways to revel in one’s belonging, to the assembled group but also to the larger groups that the assembled group sees itself as belonging to.

The simple truth is that we do live in postmodernity, whether one likes or not. Therefore, if you dislike postmodernist relativism, but you would like to avoid becoming a grumpy person, you must take care not to "let oneself go” in contexts where the normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodern relativism.

There is an opposite pitfall, however, which is avoiding all contexts were normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodernism. In postmodernity, avoiding the presumption of postmodernism would mean nothing less than “dropping out” of all social intercourse, generally a direct path to resentful lonerism. This is not the case for everyone, perhaps, and the internet is rapidly increasing the feasibility of unhinging altogether from normal IRL social expectations, but typically “refusing to interact with most people” is a recipe for various forms of disaster.

Ultimately, I think the solution is as follows. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, but when you do choose to let yourself go — and you must, at times — only do it on a novel plane of your own construction, orthogonal to whatever is the presumed socio-moral playing field. You will be incomprehensible, but that’s fine. In short, if one is to avoid grumpiness, one cannot avoid being a philosopher. Oblique angles always; diverge but never resist.

So what if I’m afraid of death

I must admit to feeling afraid of death. I am drawn to religious belief, in part, because I think I do want help with my fear of death. I don’t see why it would be an intellectual violation to want such help, and to experiment with solutions coming from beyond rational justification. If understood properly, I don’t think such recourse to the religious is intellectually dishonest or irrational (although it may be extra-rational).

I recently got high before flying in a plane and I thought a lot about dying. If this plane goes down, I thought to myself, I would much prefer to have an already developed and practiced confidence facing this experience, to die with calm and grace. I suppose it is possible to enjoy such a cool composure, in the face of death, through a rationalist practice of life, but in my view thus far I don’t see how it’s possible. So long as one’s orientation to human experience is organized centrally around the search for ever greater rational coherence, the moment of death must always be, at best, an unfortunate and bewildering event. For it cuts off the rational search, and in that moment one can know nothing other than the futility of reason in the final analysis. How this could produce anything but a sad and childish frenzy of confused anxiety, I really cannot imagine. I would quite like for it to be an exhilirating and exalted moment in which I genuinely believe that all is exactly as it should be. Looking around and considering my options, as a living person who could die any day, it seems that some kind of genuine religious commitment is the only available method of securing such a graceful end.

Reactionary Leftism with Uriel Fiori

Uriel Fiori (@cyborg_nomade) is a theorist and translator based in São Paulo, Brazil. He's an expert on the work of Nick Land, having translated and archived many of the various fragments Land has scattered around the web.

We talked about Uriel's idea of "left-wing neoreaction (LRx)," how to combine a commitment to equality with realism about objective inequalities, Proudhon and early modern anarchism, mutualism, Nick Land, patchwork, blockchain, and we even snuck in some #cavetwitter at the end.

Uriel's website is antinomiaimediata.wordpress.com and he is active on Twitter as @cyborg_nomade.

Religion is an extra-rational condition for the possibility of rationality

G.K. Chesterton happily understood in advance what the Frankfurt School theorists only observed with great horror after the fact. Namely, that without an authority such as the Catholic Church, placed above the orbit of merely rational calculation and willing to enforce ethical standards over its head, human reason will not last very long. This is because the freedom of human beings to think is itself extra-rational; if you want to install and protect the capacity for humans to think freely and rationally, you cannot avoid taking recourse to extra-rational measures, or dark defences.

The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defence of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all — the authority of a man to think. (Orthodoxy)

At times, Chesterton sounds exacty like the Frankfurt School, e.g. “There is a thought that stops thought.” But unlike secular critiques of capitalist culture, Chesterton is willing to make the ethical inference that we are rationally compelled to endorse extra-rational measures in order to forestall the collapse of the world.

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. (Orthodoxy)

Of course, nearly all secular social justice activists believe in the necessity of dark defences, which explains why there is so much motivated reasoning and bad faith alongside so much public moralizing. The various forms of subtle dishonesty intrinsic to modern social justice discourses are merely the paltry, diluted, late-stage Protestant version of Catholic authority: the right to enforce extra-rational measures, in the service of some greater good. What postmodern political culture teaches us, today, is that true non-religious secular culture is essentially impossible. The choice is only between varieties of disingenuous Protestantism — implicitly dissimulated, various, and competing — or one true Church, true only in the tautological sense that it is invested with the authority to define what is True beneath and beyond all that is true.

Are the greatest beneficiaries of Effective Altruism its proponents?

[I’m not sure how much I believe this, this just barely passed my threshold of post-worthiness.]

It seems to me that the greatest beneficiaries of Effective Altruism might very well be its proponents, who help others in a linear fashion but help themselves in a non-linear fashion. This might be justified in a Rawlsian way, such that Effective Altruists should be allowed to enjoy their generosity greatly so long as it helps others sufficiently.

Effective Altruism is recursive self-satisfaction. The Effective Altruist is doing good, which feels good, which helps them do more good, which makes them feel even better, and so on. But the altruistic upshot of their exponentially positive experience is only additive, because recipients of altruism at best feel neutral about charity and at worst feel guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed. Malaria nets are wonderful things, and saving a life is no small feat, but one life is worth one life and if a malaria net saves one life then ten malaria nets save ten lives. For the practitioner of Effective Altruism, however, giving one malaria net is a potentially never-ending well of eudaemonia. None of this is to deny the value of Effective Altruism, it is only to observe where a large proportion of the psychological gains are really enjoyed.

The net-negative utility of Utilitarianism in the long term

Utilitarianism, taken as a world-historical arrival at the level of civilization itself, might very well have a net-negative utility. It is perfectly plausible that an overly refined awareness of, and sensitivity to, utility would have unintended consequences tending toward catastrophically negative outcomes. Deontological ethical systems have often issued from this intuition, I think. Below are the moving parts to this argument.

Our awareness of all the suffering that might be alleviated has recently exploded due to the information revolution. We still have no idea what this will do to human beings in the long run, but it sure seems plausible that it increases the prevalence of guilt feelings and anxiety about a nearly infinite number of global problems. Incentives exist to highlight and report these negative stimuli, and incentives exist to publicly feel bad about them; it strikes me as perfectly reasonable to imagine that globalized modern civilization is already headlong into an irrecovable spiral of collective depressive delusion. While a utilitarian spirit is obviously not the only or even main driver of this dynamic, it is a a necessary condition for it. The counterfactual — large numbers of individuals switching to a deontological worldview in which they’re only felt sense of obligation is to a small number of categorical local rules — would almost certainly increase global utility to an extraordinary degree. Unless you think the utilitarian reflections of the average person cause them to non-trivially improve the world. With respect to the overwhelming majority of people, this strikes me as unlikely.

Our intuitions and institutions get updated slowly. We suddenly understand many sources of suffering way better than ever, but nobody can change all of our institutions to solve these problems at anywhere near the rate our conscience would need to be be at peace. Therefore, the contemporary global village is plagued with a necessary temporal gap between the suffering that exists, and our ability to reduce it. If you consider the fact that our sense of ethically problematic suffering increases rather than decreases with progress, it is possible that this temporal gap increases even as we make technical progress closing it. Again, the more effectively utilitarian we are, the more felt suffering might increase, precisely as we objectively decrease suffering and increase net-utility with respect to most direct measures.

How great is the suffering caused by this gap? That’s anybody’s guess, but it does not seem implausible that it is greater than the entire history of utility gained by human activity heretofore.

If you doubt that the suffering caused by hyper-awareness of suffering could be so large, here are some reasons why you might not want to dismiss this idea. Human experience is recursive, so it seems to me that this makes it potentially exponential, non-linear. If you’re depressed, you feel guilty for being depressed, then you feel stupid for feeling guilty for feeling depressed, all of which makes you more depressed, and so on. Human experience can rapidly approach infinities of low, and high. I see no reason why human suffering could not potentially skyrocket toward infinity given media-driven negative information glut, instant interconnectivity at large scales, and economic incentives to spread and express sad affects, not to mention cognitive bugs such as negativity bias). None of this dismisses the wealth of data marshaled by people such as Steven Pinker, showing that in so many ways, markers of human suffering are decreasing. Felt perceptions might be wildly miscalibrated with objective data about world trends, and still veer off in an explosive detachment from reality.

Additionally, even if you don’t think that’s possible, a small number of highly suffering people can still wreak untold havoc on society at large. Trends such as anti-natalism and anti-civilizational thought more generally, often promoted by sad people who want to wind down life itself, are to some degree children of utilitarian progress. They look at the costs and benefits of humanity thus far and (however miscalibrated) they decide none of it is really worth it, and they speak and act accordingly. This is perhaps because, in the long run, there are no costs and benefits, and thus the validity of deontology gets revealed with particular clarity in end times. Regardless, if anti-life intellectual currents were to produce future policy changes, or some new, crazier version of these thought-patterns were to take hold in the form of the next big moral panic, which in turn leads to centralized policies with negative systemic effects, some portion of these consequences would have to be counted as causal effects of a short-circuiting utilitarianism. You can say that such ridiculous deductions from the utilitarian starting point are unfounded and you might be right; but you still have to chalk-up such consequences as effects of the utilitarian memeplex’s diffusion into the postmodern polity.

The utilitarian ethical defaults of modern western individuals are in meltdown from overheated inputs they do not have the capacity to process. Cooling innovation always follows hot invention, but we live in a unique historical period where the time lag between new inventions is less than the time lag between one invention and the secondary technologies that make it work over time. Fires are no longer put out, but displaced by new fires, which burn only long enough to sustain a feeling of continuity before the next fire arrives. Calculating net effects seems reasonable when it is possible to imagine a shared world; as human worlds divide, collapse, and revivify differentially, efforts to calculate overall effects on a shared world will be increasingly painful. Deontological ethics receives its final vindication on consequentialist grounds.

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