Invoking the Universe
A while back, my wife and I attended a small family reunion, and observed the behavior of some little humans to which I am related.
Three of the children were involved in a drawn-out game of tag, and one of those being chased was clearly losing steam.
That’s when he had an ingenious idea.
“Okay, break time!” he cried out. And all three children stopped immediately.
After all, it was break time now.
Had he shouted, “I want to take a break!,” it probably wouldn’t have had the desired effect. The chaser might even have responded, “Tough luck!” and tagged him.
By wrapping his interests in objective language, it no longer felt a disputable and subjective matter; it’s almost as if the universe itself was invoked. Discussion isn’t needed or wanted. It’s just break time.
My wife teaches second grade, and has her students do a certain small group exercise in which each group member has a role, one of which is “writer.”
During one of these exercises, she recounts a certain little boy (we’ll pretend his name was Charlie) announcing, “I’m the writer, period, end of discussion.” His groupmates were subdued immediately.
My wife saw this happen, though, and asked, “Charlie, why do you get to be writer?”
“Because,” Charlie revealed, “I want it the most.”
At this point, a wave of realization swept over the children — it wasn’t “end of discussion” at all. They’d been tricked!
Everyone wants to be writer. You don’t get to be writer just because you want it.
But if my wife hadn’t intervened, they’d never have put that together. When he just is the writer, objectively, there’s nothing to discuss.
But when he just wants to be the writer, the matter’s in dispute.
Both “Break Time” and “Rightful Writer” proceeded from personal interests, and a desire to manipulate or subjugate group behavior. But both proclamations “invoked the universe” — cited objective states of the world — in order to obfuscate those interest contingencies, since personal interest contingencies weaken attempts at group manipulation and subjugation.
The “Rightful Writer” case was especially amusing to me, because I’m almost certain the child learned this technique from his parents.
Parents do universe-invocation all the time.
Silencing the Ice Scream
There are several good reasons to reject a child’s plea for pre-dinner ice cream. If the child pesters for a “good reason,” there are many to give.
One is that delayed ice cream is effective to compel dinner-finishing. It’s “bait,” in other words.
We can’t say that, though. “You can’t have any yet because I’m using it as bait” feels manipulative, and too arbitrary against such a “really-really-needs-ice-cream-now” emergency.
Another reason is that too much dessert is unhealthy, and inconsistent giving-in yields child-spoiling. But recognition of incentive gradients to ill consequences aren’t very convincing in the moment; “I know, I know,” the child says, “It’s just this once.”
Another is that you just plain don’t want to bother.
“I’ll get it myself!” the child offers.
Nothing is working.
But what if you invoke the universe?
“Dessert comes after dinner, not before.”
Now, this isn’t to say that a child won’t continue to protest. But this new reason doesn’t feel so dodgeable. You can “rest your case” here and repeat this invocation until the child is exhausted.
Indeed, every reason that made an interest appeal had the weakness of interest-circumvention. This new reason doesn’t have an interest appeal; as a result, there’s no circumventing it.
It’s just a “fact” about dessert and dinner. No subjective referents. No slipperiness.
Hot and Cold
There are all sorts of objective things about hot and cold.
- Water boils at 100° C. That’s hot. Water freezes at 0° C. That’s cold!
- When my wife and I get into our outside-parked car on a sunny day, we rush to turn on the air conditioning. It’s hot! We want it cooler.
- During summer, it’s on-average hotter than during winter. In winter, it’s on-average colder than during summer.
Pretty straightforward, right? Seems basically objective.
The other day, though, my wife and I had a dispute in the car. I thought the cabin temperature was hot, and flipped the dial to barely-blue. My wife thought the temperature was cold, and responded by cranking the dial slightly into the red zone.
This is our eternal struggle.
You see, we have different comfort zones. Whether it’s the temperature of water or the temperature of the car, there is a dispute within the blurriness between hot and cold.
That’s because “hot” and “cold” are experiential reactions to objective things. They’re ultimately interest-driven.
Did I arbitrate my comfort zone, and my wife hers? Of course not. If we could, we’d avoid all sorts of drama by syncing-up.
But they’re subjective things — proceeding from personal interests — nonetheless.
To what can my wife appeal to win the dial debate over what we “should” do? (It’s a zero-sum game in a car without dual-zone climate control.)
She could appeal to interest-consensus to invalidate my interests. “You always are too hot. Everyone else would think it’s cold right now.”
She could circumvent interest-appeals entirely by invoking the universe. “It is not cold right now. You’re just wrong.”
But those don’t work on me anymore. I can spot them a mile away.
And so, she does the only thing left: She engages me in a physical battle over the dial, a War of Mutually-Assured Destruction (given that I’m trying to drive) that I quickly concede.
As we’ve talked about many, many times on this blog (and will continue to talk about), right decisionmaking — the way in which we determine the answers to “shoulds” and “oughts” — works like this:
The square on the upper-right is purely objective.
But the circle on the upper-left proceeds subjectively. And this can cause problems when presented with zero-sum interest impasses.
So how do we solve those problems, in practice?
- (Plan A) We can assert personal interests for sympathy or (Plan B) appeal to (hopefully) shared higher interests, but those often don’t work in genuine impasse.
- (Plan C) We can then play at invalidating their interests by appealing to consensus interests. But why should a vegetarian bow to getting pepperoni pizza just because the rest of the group wants it?
- (Plan D) We can then invoke the universe; “The thing that aligns with my interests, and against yours, is simply right, purely objectively.”
Notice what’s happening. A failure to subjugate through sympathy, shared consensus, and invalidation by external consensus naturally leads to the “pure objectivization” backup plan.
It’s technically erroneous (clearly, it is not “pure”; there are clearly interests spurring this thing).
It is meta-ethically incoherent.
It’s a language bug.
But it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that pure objectivization is the natural plan D and often works.
And, of course, a refusal at this juncture leads to a bland power struggle.
So “plan D” is the last “civilized” border town before the wild frontier, even while it’s corrupt.
Non-Objective Meaning and Morality
Meaning and morality are non-objective, which is to say, they are not purely objective.
Similarly, they are non-subjective, which is to say, they are not purely subjective.
Both the circle and the square are essential for coherent moral facts.
Ecclesiastes goes out of its way to explore this puzzle, and comes to the very same conclusion.
It’s a bullet we must bite.
But that doesn’t mean it ain’t handy to ignore this conclusion. Many smart folks have been doing so — by mistake or on purpose — for centuries.
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