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Durkheim Meltdown

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim believed that one defining feature of a profession is that the attitudes and behaviors that count as "professional" within it are of no interest to the general public. My recent experiences suggest that whatever Durkheim was referring to has changed a lot since the time of his writing. First, consider his description and explanation of professional morals in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals:

The distinctive feature of this kind of morals and what differentiates it from other branches of ethics, is the sort of unconcern with which the public consciousness regards it. There are no moral rules whose infringement, in general at least, is looked on with so much indulgence by public opinion. The transgressions which have only to do with the practice of the profession, come in merely for a rather vague censure outside the strictly professional field....

...a book-keeper who is complacent about the rules of scrupulous accounting, or an official who as a rule lacks energy in carrying out his duties, does not give the impression of a guilty person, although he is treated as such in the organization to which he belongs.

This feature of professional ethics can moreover easily be explained. They cannot be of deep concern to the common consciousness precisely because they are not common to all members of the society and because, to put it in another way, they are rather outside the common consciousness. It is exactly because they govern functions not performed
by everyone, that not everyone is able to have a sense of what these functions are, of what they ought to be, or of what special relations should exist between the individuals concerned with applying them. All this escapes public opinion in a greater or lesser degree...

It is this very fact which is a pointer to the fundamental condition without which no professional ethics can exist. A system of morals is always the affair of a group and can operate only if this group protects them by its authority...

Émile Durkheim in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals

Professionals today — if they are so cursed to have their professionalism called into question — may be surprised how many members of the general public have quite refined and passionate views on what should be counted as professional within a range of different professions! The reason why Durkheim's description of professional morals now rings false is because the professions are no longer "outside the common consciousness."

Through the collapse of distance that characterizes modernity, all of our increasingly concentrated social molecules heat up: professions that once enjoyed relative detachment and autonomy from the masses, increasingly find their edges melting down from the friction of everyone pressed up against the gates on the outside. In our epoch, pitchforks will never appear, the great estates will not be set aflame, the Winter Palace will not be stormed. The traditional negentropic structures will be melted down by the heat of cross-cutting social expectations, claims, and obligations from which they were relatively insulated during the period of their emergence. Capable and interested people have historically enforced different forms of order in different professions, for particular social purposes as well as for their own status and payment, before handing power on to the next generation of capable and interested agents, according to stringent professional criteria. As more and more people see, hear, judge, and gain leverage to make claims on the resources that circulate in and out of the professions, more and more people will "have their say" at the cost of these structures no longer providing their negentropic quotient. They will neither dissolve nor be revolutionized, they will simply be melted, like a standing steel building might be melted into a wide and shallow but equally impressive pool of boiling silver. The people will get what they ask for, but then it won't be what they wanted.

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.

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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