Jordan Peterson’s Ignorance of Postmodern Philosophy

Up until this point, I’ve avoided talking about Jordan Peterson in any serious manner. In part because I thought (and continue to hope) that he’s the intellectual version of a fad diet who will shortly become irrelevant. My general impression of him is that when he’s right, he’s saying rather banal, cliché truisms with an undeserved bombastic air of profundity, such as his assertions that there are biological differences between men and women, that many religious myths share some similar features, or that taking personal responsibility is good. When he’s wrong, he’s talking way out of the depth of his understanding in his field (like the infamous lobster comment or this bizarre nonsense). Either way, it doesn’t make for a rather good use of time or opportunity for interesting, productive discussion—especially when his galaxy-brained cult-like fanboys are ready to pounce on anyone who criticizes their dear leader.

However, since everyone seems to be as obsessed with Jordan Peterson as he is with himself, I guess it’s finally time to talk about one example of him ignorantly bloviating that particularly annoys me as a philosophy student: his comments on postmodernism. There’s a lot one can talk about with Jordan Peterson because he says almost anything that comes to his mind about any topic, but for the present purposes you can pretend that I think everything he’s ever said that isn’t about postmodern is the deepest, most insightful thing ever said by any thinker in the history of western thought. I’m not interested in defending any overarching claims about him as a thinker. At the very least, his work on personality psychology does seem rather well respected and he surely got to his prestigious academic position with some merit, though I am not qualified to really appraise it. I am, however, more prepared to talk about his rather confused comments on philosophy which might shed light on why people are generally frustrated with his overly self-confident presence as a public intellectual.

Postmodernism, According to Peterson

Peterson often makes comments about “postmodern neo-Marxism,” which he calls a “rejection of the western tradition.” Now the very phrase “postmodern neo-Marxism” strikes anyone remotely familiar with the academic literature on postmodernism and Marxism as bizarre and confused. Postmodernism is usually characterized as skepticism towards grand general theories. Marxism is a grand general theory about how class struggle and economic conditions shape the trajectory of history. Clearly, those two views are not at all compatible. As such, much of the history of twentieth century academia is a history of Marxists and postmodernists fighting and butting heads.

Many commentators have pointed out this error, but Jordan Peterson now has a response. In it he tries to offer a more refined definition of postmodernism as two primary claims and a secondary claim:

Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.

That’s the fundamental claim. An immediate secondary claim (and this is where the Marxism emerges) is something like “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.”

He then goes on to concede to the criticism that Marxism and postmodernism can’t be described as theoretically aligned, but moves the goal posts to say that they are practically aligned in politics. Further, he contends postmodernisms’ commitment to analyze power structures is just “a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare.”

It is worth noting that this attempt at nuance is surely an improvement at Peterson’s previous comments that postmodern a Marxism are a coherent “doctrine” that just hated logic and western values. But his attempt at a “definition” is unsatisfactorily way too restrictive for every thinker who gets called “postmodern,” and the attempt to link the politics of postmodernism up with the politics of Marxism is a complete mischaracterization. Further, his attempt to “critique” this position, whatever one wants to call it, is either (at best) vague and imprecise or (at worst) utterly fails. Finally, there really is no alliance between postmodernists and Marxists. Whether or not a thinker is called a “postmodernist” or not is not a very good predictor of their political views.

Why Peterson’s Definition isn’t what Postmodernists Believe and his Critique Fails

First of all, I am really not interested in dying on the hill of offering a better “definition” of postmodernism. Like any good Wittgensteinian, I tend to think you can’t really give a good list of necessary and sufficient conditions that perfectly captures all the subtle ways we use a word. The meaning of the word is the way it is used. Even within academia postmodernism has such broad, varied usage that I’m not sure it has a coherent meaning. Indeed, Foucault once remarked in a 1983 interview when asked about postmodernism, “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date.” The best I can give is Lyotard’s classic “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is rather vague and oversimplified. Because this is the best I think one can do given how wildly unpredictable the usage of postmodernism is, we’re probably better off just not putting too much stock in it either as one’s own philosophical position or as the biggest existential threat to western civilization and we should talk about more substantive philosophical disagreements.

That said, Jordan Peterson’s definition is unsatisfactory and shows a poor understanding of postmodernism. While the first half of the fundamental claim is a pretty good stab at generalizing a view most philosophers who get labeled as postmodern agree with, the second half is rather unclear since it’s uncertain what Peterson means by “canonical.” If he takes this to mean that we have no determinate way of determining which interpretations are valid, then that would be a good summary of most postmodernists and an implication of Peterson’s own professed Jamesian pragmatism. If what he thinks it means is that all perspectives are as valid as any other and we have no way of deciphering which ones are better than the other, then nobody relevant believes that.

Peterson objects to is the implication “that there are an unspecifiable number of VALID interpretations.” He tries to refute this by citing Charles Pierce (who actually did not at all hold this view) and William James on the pragmatic criterion of truth to give meaning to “valid interpretations.” He says valid means “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world, the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.” However, it doesn’t follow from this view that you can specify the number of valid interpretations. It just begs the question of how we should understand what “the desired outcome” means, which just puts the perspectivism back a level. Even if we did agree on a determinate “desired outcome,” there are still multiple beliefs one could have to achieve a desired outcome. To put it in a pragmatically-minded cliché, there is more than one way to skin a cat. This is why, in fact, William James was a pluralist.

Perhaps by “specifiable,” he doesn’t mean we can readily quantify the number of valid interpretations, just that the number is not infinite. However, nobody believes there are an infinite number of valid perspectives we should consider. The assertion that a priori we cannot quantify the number of valid perspectives does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid or that there are an infinite number of valid perspectives. Peterson’s argument that we have limited cognitive capacities to consider all possible perspectives is true, it’s just not a refutation of anything postmodernists believe. On this point, it is worth quoting Richard Rorty—one who was both a Jamesian pragmatist and usually gets called postmodern—from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

When it is said, for example, that coherentist or pragmatic “theories of truth” allow for the possibility that many incompatible theories would satisfy the conditions set for “the truth,” the coherentist or pragmatist usually replies this merely shows that we have no grounds for choice among thse candidates for “the truth.” The moral to draw is not to say they have offered inadequate analyses of “true,” but that there are some terms—for example, “the true theory,” “the right thing to do”—which are, intuitively and grammatically singular, but for which no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given which will pick out a unique referent. This fact, they say, should not be surprising. Nobody thinks that there are necessary and sufficient conditions which will pick out, for example, the unique referent of “the best thing for her to have done on finding herself in that rather embarrassing situation,” though plausible conditions can be given as to which will shorten a list of competing incompatible candidates. Why should it be any different for the referents of “what she should have done in that ghastly moral dilemma” or “the Good Life for man” or “what the world is really made of?” [Emphasis mine]

The fact that we cannot readily quantify a limited number of candidates for interpretations or decide between them algorithmically does not that we have absolutely no ways to tell which interpretation is valid, that all interpretations are equally valid, nor does it mean there are an infinite number of potentially valid interpretations. Really, the view that many (though not all) postmodernists actually hold under this “primary claim” is not all that substantially different from Peterson’s own Jamesian pragmatism.

As for the secondary claim, which he thinks is Marxist, that “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.” This view is basically just one just Foucault might have held depending on how you read him. Some would argue this isn’t even a good reading of Foucault because such sweeping generalizations about “all interpretations” is rather uncharacteristic of a philosopher who’s skeptical of sweeping generalizations. However, you read Foucault (and I’m not really prepared to take a strong stand either way), it certainly isn’t the view of all postmodernists.  Rorty criticized this habit of Foucault (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 63), and thought that even if power does shape modern subjectivity it’s worth the tradeoff in the gains to freedom that modern liberalism has brought and thus is not the best way to view. It’s also telling that Peterson doesn’t even try to critique this claim and just dogmatically dismisses it.

Postmodernism’s Alleged Alliance with Marxism

So much for his vague, weak argument against a straw man. Now let’s see if there’s any merit to Peterson’s thought that Marxism and postmodernism have some important resemblance or philosophical alliance. Peterson says that the secondary claim of postmodernism is where the similarity to Marxism comes. However, Marx simply did not think that all theories are just attempts to grab power in the Foucauldian sense: he didn’t think that dialectical materialism the labor theory of value were just power grabs, and predicted a day when there was no competition for power in the first place at the end of history since a communist society would be classless. If anything, it’s the influence of Nietzsche’s Will to Power on Foucault, and oddly enough Peterson thinks rather highly of Nietzsche (even though Nietzsche anticipated postmodernism in rather important ways).

The only feature that they share is a narrative of one group trying to dominate another group. But if any attempt to describe oppression in society is somehow “Marxist,” that means right libertarians who talk about how the state and crony capitalist are oppressing and coercing the general public are “Marxist,” evangelicals who say Christians are oppressed by powerful liberal elites are “Marxist,” even Jordan Peterson himself is a “Marxist” when he whines about these postmodern Marxist boogeymen are trying to silence his free speech. He both defines “postmodernism” too narrowly, and then uses “Marxism” in such a loose manner that it basically means nothing.

Further, there’s Peterson’s claim that due to identity politics, postmodernists and Marxists now just have a practical political alliance even if it’s theoretically illogical. The only evidence he really gives of this alleged “alliance” is that Derrida and Foucault were Marxists when they were younger who “barely repented” from Marxism and that courses like critical theory and gender studies read Marxists and postmodernists. That they barely repented is simply a lie, Foucault left all his associations with Marxist parties and expunged his earlier works of Marxist themes. But the mere fact that someone once was a Marxist and then criticized Marxism later in their life doesn’t mean there was a continuing alliance between believers in their thought and Marxism. Alasdair MacIntyre was influenced by Marx when he was young and became a Catholic neo-Aristotelian, nobody thinks that he “barely repented” and there’s some overarching alliance between traditionalist Aristotelians and Marxists.

As for the claim that postmodernists and Marxists are read in gender studies, it’s just absurd to think that’s evidence of some menacing “practical alliance.” The reason they’re read in those is mostly courses is to provide contrast for the students of opposing perspectives. This is like saying that because Rawlsian libertarians are taken seriously by academic political philosophers there’s some massive political alliance between libertarians and progressive liberals.

Really, trying to connect postmodernism to any political ideology shows a laughably weak understanding of both postmodernism and political theory. You have postmodernists identifying as everything from far leftists (Foucault), to progressive liberals (Richard Rorty), to classical liberals (Deirdre McClosky), to anarchists (Saul Newman), to religious conservatives (like Peter Blum and James K.A. Smith). They don’t all buy identity politics uniformly, Richard Rorty criticized the left for focusing on identity issues over economic politics and was skeptical of the usefulness of a lot of critical theory. There really is no necessary connection between one’s highly theoretical views on epistemic justification, truth, and the usefulness of metaphysics or other metanarratives and one’s more concrete views on culture or politics.

Now Peterson can claim all the people I’ve listed aren’t “really” postmodern and double down on his much narrower, idiosyncratic definition of postmodernism which has very little relation to the way anyone who knows philosophy uses it. Fine, that’s a trivial semantic debate I’m not really interested in having. But it does create a problem for him: he wants to claim that postmodernism is this pernicious, all-encompassing threat that has consumed all of the humanities and social sciences which hates western civilization. He then wants to define postmodernism so narrowly that it merely describes the views of basically just Foucault. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: define postmodernism narrowly to evade criticism that he’s using it loosely, and use it as a scare term for the entire modern left.

Peterson’s Other Miscellaneous Dismissals of Postmodernism

The rest of what he has to say about postmodernism is all absurd straw men with absolutely no basis in anything anyone has ever argued. He thinks postmodernists “don’t believe in logic” when, for example, Richard Rorty was an analytic philosopher who spent the early parts of his career obsessed with the logic of language. He thinks they “don’t believe in dialogue” when Rorty’s whole aspiration was to turn all of society into one continuous dialogue and reimagine philosophy as the “conversation of culture). Or that they believe “you don’t have an individual identity” when K. Anthony Appiah, who encourages “banal ‘postmodernism’” about race, believes that the individual dimensions of identity are problematically superseded by the collective dimensions. This whole “definition and critique” of postmodernism is clearly just a post-hoc rationalization for him to continue to dishonestly straw man all leftists with an absurd monolithic conspiracy theory. The only people who are playing “crooked games” or are “neck-deep in deceit” are ignorant hucksters like Peterson bloviating about topics they clearly know nothing about with absurd levels of unmerited confidence.

Really, it’s ironic that Peterson has such irrational antipathy towards postmodernism. A ton of the views he champions (a pragmatic theory of truth, a respect for Nietzsche’s use of genealogy, a naturalist emphasis on the continuity between animals and humans, etc.) are all views that are often called “postmodern” depending on how broadly one understands “incredulity towards metanarratives,” and at the very least were extremely influential over most postmodern philosophers and echoed in their work. Maybe if Peterson showed a fraction of the openness to dialogue and debate he dishonestly pretends to have and actually read postmodernists outside of a secondary source, he’d discover a lot to agree with.

[Editors note: The last line has been changed from an earlier version with an incorrect statement about Peterson’s source Explaining Postmodernism.]

The Impossible Trinity of Liberal Democracy

In the first part of my series on democracy published a few years ago, I made a distinction between four senses in which the term “democracy” is used. To briefly recap, I made they were: a) a term of empty political praise for policies which partisans like b) an institutional decision-making process emphasizing the primacy of majoritarian opinion c) a generic term for the type of procedures which have been prevalent in the west, and d) an overarching term for the ethical commitments of liberals. In that series, I focused on the tension b) and d), mostly ignoring a) and c). (For Present purposes, my highly speculative musings on anarchism are irrelevant.

In a recent podcast of the Ezra Klein show  (which I highly recommend) discussing his book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How To Save It, Harvard political theorist Yascha Mounk and Ezra Klein were debating how pessimistic we should be about the prospects for the future of American Democracy. I don’t really wish to comment on whether we should be pessimistic or not, but I want to make a further distinction that clarifies some of the disagreements and points towards a deeper issue in the workings of democratic institutions. I will argue that democracy consists of a liberal, majoritarian, and procedural dimension and these dimensions are not reconcilable for very long.

Mounk makes a similar distinction to the one I made between democratic majoritarianism and liberalism as a reason to be pessimistic. Klein tended to push back, focusing on the ways in which modern American political culture is far more ethically liberal than it has ever been, as seen through the decline in racism since the middle of the twentieth century and decline in homophobia since the 1990s. Mounk, however, emphasized how respect for procedure in the American political process has declined during the Trump Era, as evidenced by Trump’s disrespect for the political independence of courts and agencies like the Department of Justice.

However, throughout Klein’s and Mounk’s debate, it became clear that there was another distinction which needed to be made explicitly, and one which I have tended to heavily under-emphasize in my own thinking on the feasibility of democracy. It seems to me there are at least three dimensions by which to judge the functioning of democracies which are important to distinguish:

  1. Majoritarianism—the extent to which a democracy is sensitive to majority public opinion. Democracy, in this dimension, is simply the tendency to translate majority opinion to public policy, as Mounk puts it.
  2. Liberalism—this refers to the ethical content towards which democracies in the west try to strive. This is the extent to which citizens are justly treated as moral equals in society; whether minority religious freedoms are respected, racial and ethnic minorities are allowed equal participation in society (economically and politically), and the extent to which general principles of liberal justice (however they may be interpreted) are enacted.
  3. Legal proceduralism—the extent to which political leaders and citizens respect the political independence of certain procedures. This dimension heavily emphasizes the liberal belief in the rule of law and the primacy of process. This can include law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Justice or the FBI, courts, and respect for the outcomes of elections even when partisan opponents are victorious.

It seems that there are reasons why one would want a democracy to retain all three features. Majoritarianism could be desirable to ensure stability, avoiding populist revolutions and uprising, and perhaps because one thinks it is just for government to be accountable to citizens. Liberalism, clearly, is desirable to ensure the society is just. Proceduralism is desirable to maintain the stability of the society given that people have deep political and philosophical disagreements.

Klein and Mounk’s debate, considering this explicit triadic distinction, can be (crudely) seen as Mounk initially emphasizing the tension between majoritarianism and liberalism in modern democracies. Klein pushes back saying that we are more liberal today than we’ve ever been, and perhaps the current majoritarian populist turn towards Trump should be put in context of other far more illiberal majoritarian populist impulses in the past. Mounk’s response seems to be that there’s also been a decline in respect for legal procedure in modern American politics, opening a danger for the instability of American democracy and a possible rise of authoritarianism.

First, it seems to me that both Mounk and Klein overemphasize respect for procedure in the past. As Robert Hasnas has argued, it has never been the case that anyone treats the law as independent simply because “the law is not a body of determinate rules that can be objectively and impersonally applied by judges” and therefore “what the law prescribes is necessarily determined by the normative predispositions of the one who is interpreting it.” There is always an ethical, and even a partisan political dimension, to how one applies procedure. In American history, this can be seen in ways that courts have very clearly interpreted law in motivated ways to justify a partisan, often illiberal, political view, such as Bowers v. Hardwick. There has always been a tendency for procedures to be applied in partisan ways, from the McCarthyite House Unamerican Committee, to the FBI’s persecution of civil rights leaders. Indeed, has Hasnas argues, the idea that procedures and laws can be entirely normatively and politically independent is a myth.

It is true, however, that Mounk does present reason to believe that populism makes disrespect for these procedures explicit. Perhaps one can say that while procedural independence is, in a pure sense, a myth, it is a constructive myth to maintain stability. People believing that elections are not independent, Trump’s disrespect for the independence of courts and justice, allows for a disintegration of those institutions into nothing but a Carl Schmitt-style, zero-sum war for power that can undermine stability of political institutions.

On the other hand, it seems worth emphasizing that there is often a tension between respect for procedure and the ethics of liberalism. Klein points out how there was large respect for legal procedure throughout American history that heavily undermined ethical liberalism, such as southerners who filibustered anti-lynching laws. Indeed, the justification for things such as the fugitive slave law was respect for the political independence of the legal right to property in slaves. All the examples of procedure being applied in politically biased and illiberal ways given moments ago support this point There is nothing in the notion that legal and electoral procedures are respected that guarantees those procedures in place will respect liberal principles of justice.

I remain agnostic as to whether we should be more pessimistic about the prospects for democracy in America today than at any other point in American history. However, at the very least, this debate reveals an impossible trinity, akin to the impossible trinity in monetary policy, between these three dimensions of democracy. If you hold majority opinion as primary, that includes populist urges to undermine the rule of law. Further, enough ink has been spilled on the tensions between majoritarianism and liberalism or effective policy. If you hold respect for procedure as primary, that includes the continuation procedures which are discriminatory and unjust, as well as procedures which restrict and undermine majority opinion. If you hold the justice of liberalism as primary, that will generate a tendency for morally virtuous liberals to want to undermine inequitable, unjust procedures and electoral outcomes and to want to restrict the ability of majorities to undermine minority rights.

The best a conventional democrat can do, it seems to me, is to pick two. A heavily majoritarian democracy where procedures are respected, which seems to be the dominant practice in American political history, is unlikely to be very ethically liberal. An ethically liberal and highly procedural government, something like a theoretically possible but practically unfeasible liberal dictator or perhaps a technocratic epistocracy (for which Jason Brennan argues), is a possible option but might be unstable if majorities see it as illegitimate or ethically unpalatable to procedural democrats. An ethically liberal but majoritarian democracy seems unworkable, given the dangers of populism to undermine minority rights and the rational ignorance and irrationality of voters. This option also seems to be what most western democracies are currently trending towards, which rightly worries Mounk since it is also likely to be extremely unstable. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the injustice of American history and the rise of populism in the west it’s that choosing all three is not likely to be feasible over the long term.

Midweek Reader: The Folly of Trump’s Tariffs

With stocks plummeting this week upon an announcement of retaliatory tariffs by China in response to a recent spate of steel and aluminum tariffs from the Trump administration, it seems a midweek reader on the situation is appropriate.

  • At the Washington Post, Rick Noack explains how Trump is going into unprecedented territory since the WTO was founded, and why existing trade norms probably can’t stem a trade war. A slice:

    But while China has used the WTO to accuse the United States of unfairly imposing trade restrictions over the last months, Trump does not appear interested in being dragged into the dispute settlement process. In fact, Trump appears to be deliberately undermining the legitimacy of that process by saying that his tariffs plan was based on “national security” concerns. WTO rules mandate that a member state can claim exceptions from its trade obligations if the member’s national security is at stake.

    That reasoning has long been a no-go among WTO member states, because they understand  that triggering trade disputes under a “national security” framework could eventually render the WTO meaningless.

  • Last month at the Chicago TribuneSteve Chapman had a good op-ed showing why Trump’s justification of steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds is bogus:

    But putting tariffs on all imports to prevent dependence on China or Russia is like throwing away your library card to avoid bad books. It would make more sense to focus on the guilty countries rather than deploy a sprayer that also soaks the innocent.

    The national security risk is minuscule, though. Imports make up only one-third of the steel we use, and the Pentagon requires less than 3 percent of our domestic output. No enemy has us over a barrel, because we buy steel from 110 different countries.

    Most of what we import comes from allies and friends, including Canada, South Korea and Mexico, which would have no reason to cut us off in a crisis. If China stopped shipping to us, friendlier countries would leap to grab the business.

  • Also at the Washington Post last month, historian Marc-William Palen gives numerous historical examples of how nobody wins in trade wars and how they can threaten our national security by arousing populist resentment of the US abroad. A slice:

    The trade wars that followed the Republican passage of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which raised duties on hundreds of imports, similarly contain illustrative lessons for today. Canada responded with tariff increases of its own, for example, as did Europe.

    In a widely cited study from 1934, political economist Joseph M. Jones Jr. explored Europe’s retaliation. His study provided a warning about the trade wars that can arise when a single nation’s tariff policy “threatens with ruin” specialized industries in other countries, arousing “bitterness” throughout their populations.

  • At Cato’s At LibertyDaniel Ikeson explains how Trump’s tariffs establish a dangerous international precedent that will threaten US interests elsewhere:

    By signing these tariffs into law, President Trump has substantially lowered the bar for discretionary protectionism, inviting governments around the world to erect trade barriers on behalf of favored industries.  Ongoing efforts to dissuade China from continuing to force U.S. technology companies to share source code and trade secrets as the cost of entering the Chinese market will likely end in failure, as Beijing will be unabashed about defending its Cybersecurity Law and National Security Law as measures necessary to protect national security.  That would be especially incendiary, given that the Trump administration is pursuing resolution of these issues through another statute—Section 301 of the Trade act of 1974—which could also lead the president to impose tariffs on China unilaterally.

  • The Independent Institute’s Robert Higgs reminds us that citing trade deficits is misleading:

    In reality, individuals, firms and other organizations, and governments trade with other such entities, some of which are located in the same country and others of which are located in other countries. The location of the trading partners has no economic significance whatsoever. Trading entities enter into exchanges voluntarily, each one in each transaction anticipating a gain from the trade. Hence, in expectational terms, every such trade entails a gain from trade, or in other words an addition to the trader’s wealth.

  • At American Greatness, Henry Olsen tries to give a communitarian justification of protectionism:

    So-called populist movements around the world are gaining strength because their voters no longer feel like valued members of their nations. They do not believe their worth should decline because the owners of capital say so, nor do they think their life dreams or values should be denigrated simply because the most educated have different visions.

    Populists like Trump address this spiritual yearning and fulfill the deepest need every human has, to be valued and to belong to a group that values you. In this, and perhaps in this need alone, all men are truly created equal. Tariffs are simply an economic means to fulfill this spiritual need. Tariff opponents can only win if they first recognize this need and promise a more effective way to fulfill it.

  • At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan explains why communitarianism cannot justify protectionist policies:

    Second, if tariffs don’t actually succeed in helping these workers, then the symbolic argument falls flat. Imagine an artist said, “I’m so concerned about the plight of people living in tenements, I’m going to do a performance art project where I burn down all their homes and leave them on the street. Sure, that will make them even worse off, but my heart is in the right place, and I thereby express my concern for them.” This artist would be…a contemptible asshole.

  • Finally, given its relevance at the moment, it’s worth revisiting Paul Krugman’s classic essay “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea” which remains the best account of why non-economist intellectuals have a hard understanding free trade:

    (i) At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.

    (ii) At a deeper level, comparative advantage is a harder concept than it seems, because like any scientific concept it is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas. A trained economist looks at the simple Ricardian model and sees a story that can be told in a few minutes; but in fact to tell that story so quickly one must presume that one’s audience understands a number of other stories involving how competitive markets work, what determines wages, how the balance of payments adds up, and so on.

Midweek Reader: The Drug War, the Opioid Crisis, and the Moral Hazard of Overdose Treatment

Today, I’m reviving an old series I attempted to start last year that never came to fruition: The midweek reader. A micro-blogging series in which I try to link to stories that are related to each other to provide deeper insight into an issue. This week, we’re looking at the relationship between the Opioid Crisis and the drug war, and the academic debate around a controversial paper finding moral hazard in policies that try to increase access to Naloxone.

  • At Harpers Magazine, Brian Gladstone has a fantastic long-form piece looking into how attempts to crack down on opioid addiction by targeting the prescription pain meds have left many patients behind and questioning the mainstream narrative that the rise of opioids was driven primarily by pain prescriptions. A slice:

    Yet even the most basic elements of this disaster remain unclear. For while it’s true that the past three decades saw a staggering upsurge in the prescribing of opioid medication, this trend peaked in 2010 and has been declining since: high-dose prescriptions fell by 41 percent between 2010 and 2015. The question, then, is why overdose deaths continue to skyrocket, rising 37 percent over the same period — and whether restricting access to regulated drugs is actually pushing people toward more lethal, unregulated ones, such as fentanyl, heroin, and carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 10,000 times stronger than morphine.

  • Similarly, at the Cato Institute, Jeffery A. Singer has a good piece exploring the relationship between America’s War on Drugs and the rise of opioid addictions. He concludes:

    Meanwhile, President Trump and most state and local policymakers remain stuck on the misguided notion that the way to stem the overdose rate is to clamp down on the number and dose of opioids that doctors can prescribe to their patients in pain, and to curtail opioid production by the nation’s pharmaceutical manufacturers. And while patients are made to suffer needlessly as doctors, fearing a visit from a DEA agent, are cutting them off from relief, the overdose rate continues to climb.

  • At Voxphilosopher Brendan de Kenessey of Harvard has a piece exploring the philosophy of the self and of rational choice to argue that it’s wrong to treat drug addiction as a moral failure. A slice:

    We tend to view addiction as a moral failure because we are in the grip of a simple but misleading answer to one of the oldest questions of philosophy: Do people always do what they think is best? In other words, do our actions always reflect our beliefs and values? When someone with addiction chooses to take drugs, does this show us what she truly cares about — or might something more complicated be going on?

  • An econometrics working paper by Jennifer L. Doleac of University of Virginia and Anita Mukherjee of the University of Wisconsin released earlier this month, which sparked spirited discussion, investigated the link between opioids and laws increasing access to Naloxone. They found the laws increased measurements of opioid use but did reduce mortality, which they theorize is because Naloxone increases moral hazard for addicts by reducing potential costs of an overdose. However, they conclude:

    Our findings do not necessarily imply that we should stop making Naloxone available to individuals suffering from opioid addiction, or those who are at risk of overdose. They do imply that the public health community should acknowledge and prepare for the behavioral effects we find here. Our results show that broad Naloxone access may be limited in its ability to reduce the epidemic’s death toll because not only does it not address the root causes of addiction, but it may exacerbate them. Looking forward, our results suggest that Naloxone’s effects may depend on the availability of local drug treatment: when treatment is available to people who need help overcoming their addiction, broad Naloxone access results in more beneficial effects. Increasing access to drug treatment, then, might be a necessary complement to Naloxone access in curbing the opioid overdose epidemic.

  •  Alex Gertner, a PhD candidate at UNC-Chaple Hill, published a criticism of Doleac Murkhejee at Vox pointing out that their data linking Naloxone and opioid-related hospital visits are not necessarily due to a casual story involving moral hazard:

    The authors find that naloxone access laws lead to more opioid-related emergency department visits, the premise being that naloxone access laws increase opioid overdoses. But there’s a far more likely explanation: People are generally instructed to seek medical care for overdose after receiving naloxone.

    Overdose is a general term to describe experiencing the toxic effects of drugs. People can overdose, and often do, without either dying or seeking medical attention. If people who would otherwise overdose without medical attention are instead using naloxone and going to emergency rooms, that’s a good thing.

  • The widest-ranging and most thorough critique of Doleac-Murkhejee comes from Frank, Pollack, and Humphries at the Journal of Health Affairs. They argue that the original authors (1) assume too much immediacy in effect of changes in Naloxone laws than is probably warranted (2) ignore a variety of exogenous variables like Medicare expansion. They conclude:

    We believe the best interpretation of Doleac and Mukherjee’s findings is that their main treatment variable—naloxone laws—thus far have had little impact on naloxone use or nonmedical opioid use during the period studied. This disappointing pattern commands attention and follow-up from both public health practitioners and public health researchers.

Libertarianism, Classical Liberalism, Right Wing Populism, and Democracy

An interesting exchange has occurred between Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and Ilya Somin writing for the Washington Post on the issue of the influence of libertarianism over the modern Republican Party’s erosion of liberal democratic norms. In his initial piece, Wilkinson seemed to argue that the Libertarian view of absolutism in regards to property rights which was a way to offer an emotionally gratifying alternative to socialist redistribution was responsible for the Right’s adoption of a populist outlook which eroded democratic norms, for example, policies like Voter ID and Gerrymandering. Ilya Somin responded by pointing out that the libertarian “absolutist” conception of property rights had next to nothing to do with why many libertarians Wilkinson cites are skeptical of democracy. Wilkinson responded by saying his initial argument was confusingly stated, not that absolutist property rights is driving democratic erosion on the part of the right, by trying to clarify his distinction between “libertarian” and “classical liberal.” Somin pointed out that this response undermines the force of Wilkinson’s initial argument and took issue with some of his other points.

I wish to contribute to this debate because, even though Somin is largely right that Wilkinson’s argument is weakened by his clarification, I think both have missed that Wilkinson has fundamentally misunderstood what right-wing populism is and why it is a threat to democracy. Modern right-wing populism does not try to erode majoritarian democracy, even if it erodes some of the institutional norms which make it possible for modern liberal democracy to function. Rather, populism, in its many forms, weaponizes democratic rhetoric which is premised on the very notions which libertarians and classical liberals critical of democracy seek to challenge. Attempts to tie such criticisms to the modern right is absurd and distracts us from confronting those aspects which are actually threatening about the right’s pathologies. Afterwards, I will comment on some of the other minor confusions into which I believe Wilkinson falls.

Populism and Folk Democratic Intuitions

In Wilkinson’s genealogy, the root of modern libertarianism is an attempt to weaponize classical liberalism’s defense of property against the desire for socialist redistribution. As he tells it, classical liberals like Hayek and Buchanan sought to put trigger locks on democracy in the form of constitutional constraints on majority rule whereas radical libertarians like Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard sought to disarm democracy altogether from violating property rights. This conception leaves no room for any analysis of or support for democratic decision-making. Since the end of the Cold War, the right has continued to believe this absolutist property rights argument was extremely important even after the Red Menace had been slain and so is willing to do anything, including throwing democracy under the bus, to defend property rights. As Wilkinson puts it:

And that’s why ideological free-market conservatives tend to be so accommodating to, if not exactly comfortable with, populist white identity politics. In their minds, mundane left-right differences about tax rates and the generosity of the welfare state are recast as a Manichean clash between the light of free enterprise and the darkness of socialist expropriation. This, in turn, has made it seem morally okay, maybe even urgently necessary, to do whatever it takes—bunking down with racists, aggressively redistricting, inventing paper-thin pretexts for voting rules that disproportionately hurt Democrats, whatever—to prevent majorities from voting themselves a bigger slice of the pie.

In his follow up, after Somin pointed out that irrational factors like partisanship are more likely to influence a voter’s decision than complicated moral theories such as property rights, Wilkinson attempted to make this argument more plausible by giving the hypothetical example of a white working-class republican voter who, while not fully libertarian, uses his thin knowledge of libertarian property rights absolutism as a form of motivated reasoning justifying his erosion of democratic norms:

Burt is a moderately politically engaged mechanical engineer with ordinary civics-class ideas about democracy, as well as a strong distaste for paying his taxes. (He wants to buy a boat.) One day Burt picks up Atlas Shrugged on the recommendation of a friend, likes it a lot, and spends a few weeks poking around libertarian precincts of the Internet, where he encounters a number of libertarian arguments, like Rand’s, that say that taxation violates a basic, morally inviolable right. Burt happens to find these arguments extremely convincing, especially if he’s been idly shopping for boats online. Moreover, these arguments strongly suggest to Burt that democracy is a dangerous institution by which parasitic slackers steal things from hyper-competent hard workers, like Burt.

Now, none of this leads Burt to think of himself as a “libertarian.” He thinks of himself as a Lutheran, a moderate Republican, and a very serious Whovian. He’s suspicious of “free trade.” He’s “tough on crime.” Burt would never disrespect “our troops” by opposing a war, and he thinks legalizing drugs is bananas. Make no mistake: Burt is not a libertarian. But selective, motivated exposure to a small handful of libertarian arguments has left Burt even more indignant about taxes, and a bit sour on democracy—an altogether new attitude that makes him feel naughtily iconoclastic and a wee bit brave. Over time, the details of these arguments have faded for Burt, but the sentiments around taxation, redistribution, and democracy have stuck.

Ayn Rand and the other libertarian thinkers Burt encountered in his brief flush of post-Atlas Shrugged enthusiasm wanted him to be indignant about redistribution and wanted him to be sour on democracy. He drew the inferences their arguments were designed to elicit. The fact that he’s positively hostile to other elements of the libertarian package can’t mean he hasn’t been influenced by libertarian ideas.

Let’s suppose that, a few years later, a voter-ID ballot initiative comes up in Burt’s state. The local news tells Burt that this will likely make it harder for Democrats to win by keeping poorer people without IDs away from the polls. Burt rightly surmises that these folks are likely to vote, if they can, to take even more of his money in taxes. A policy that would make it less likely for those people to cast a ballot sounds great to Burt. Then it occurs to him, with a mild pang of Christian guilt, that this is a pretty selfish attitude. But then Burt remembers those very convincing arguments about the wickedness of democratic redistribution, and it makes him feel better about supporting the voter-ID requirement. Besides, he gives at church. So he votes for the initiative come election day.

That’s influence. And it’s not trifling, if there are a lot of Burts. I think there are a lot of Burts. Even if the partisan desire to stick it to Democrats is doing most of the work in driving Burt’s policy preference, the bit of lightly-held libertarian property rights absolutism that got into Burt’s system can still be decisive. If it gives him moral permission to act on partisan or racial or pecuniary motives that he might otherwise suppress, the influence might not be so small.

The problem here is not just, as Somin says, that this dances around the issue that people like Burt have become less libertarian over time and so it seems silly to blame libertarianism for his actions. It sounds as if Wilkinson has never actually talked to a populist-leaning voter like Burt. If you do, you will not find that Burt is skeptical of democracy or sees himself as defending some important ideal of laissez-faire capitalism against irrational socialist voters who are using democracy to destroy it. It is more likely that you will find that Burt sees himself as defending the “silent majority” who democracy should rightly represent from evil liberal, socialist and “cultural Marxist” elites who are undermining democracy, and how Trump will stop all the elitist liberals in the courts and media from alienating the common man with common sense by “draining the swamp.”

Read, for example, Rothbard’s original call for libertarians to ally with nationalist right-wing populists. In it, you’ll find no mention of how small “d” democracy attacks property rights because voters are rationally ignorant, and you won’t find, to quote Wilkinson, skepticism towards “a perspective that bestows dignity upon democracy and the common citizen’s democratic role.” Instead, you’ll find that the “grassroots” of the right-wing common man like the secessionists and neo-confederates who are defending property rights against the “socialist tyranny” of the “beltway elites,” Clintons, and the Federal Reserve. Modern adherents to this Rothbardian populist strategy define populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” It sounds more like a radically majoritarian, Jacksonian screed about how the voice of the people needs to be truly represented.

Importantly, what the libertarian populists are trying to do is take the folk democratic intuitions which populist right-wingers have, intuitions upon which most peoples’ beliefs in the legitimacy of democracy rely, and channel those intuitions in a more thinly “libertarian” direction. Unfortunately, this is why many modern right-libertarians in the style of Ron Paul are impotent against white supremacists and often try to cozy up to them: because an important part of their strategy is to regurgitate the vulgar democratic rhetoric in which populists believe.

By contrast, modern skeptics of democracy in libertarian circles (or “classical liberal” or “cultural libertarian,” whichever semantic game Wilkinson wants to play to make his argument coherent), such as Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, and Jason Brennan, fundamentally undermine those folk democratic intuitions. While right-wing populists believe that the “common man” with his “common sense” knows better how the world works than the evil conniving academic elite does, the libertarian skeptic of democracy points out that the majority of voters know next to nothing and fail to be competent voters due to their rational ignorance. While populist voters believe that the voice of the majority should rule our governing structure, public choice tells us that “majority will” is mostly an illusionary concept. While populist voters believe that the “trigger locks” like courts are evil impediments to the people’s will and regularly attack them, libertarian skeptics of democracy view such institutions as the last line of defense against the irrational and ignorant mob of hooligan voters.

In fact, if people listened to folks like Somin and Brennan, populism of the sort that we’ve seen on the right would be an impossible position to maintain. This is partially why Rothbard largely rejected the public-choice analysis on which scholarship like Somin’s depends.

To try to link modern public choice-inspired skepticism of democracy with populism of any form, even in its most pseudo-libertarian form of the late Rothbard, is to grossly misunderstand populism, classical liberalism, and libertarianism. It seems rather odd to blame Somin and company for the rise of a political ideology which their arguments render incoherent. A Nancy MacLean-like conspiracy to undermine majority rule doesn’t have much of anything to do with the modern right when they think they are the majority who’s being oppressed by elites.

Neither is this some trivial matter of simply assigning blame incorrectly. The problem with populism on the right which has eroded American democracy is not that it thinks democracy is wrong, most populists naively have a lot of folk intuitions which imply some sort of vague proceduralist justification of strongly majority rule. Rather, they’ve taken the majoritarian, quasi-Jacksonian rhetoric (rhetoric to which libertarians other than Rothbard and classical liberals alike have mostly been opposed) which democrats often use and weaponized it in a manner that undermines the non-majoritarian norms on which liberal democracy is dependent for functioning. For someone like Wilkinson, who defends liberal democracy vigorously, misunderstanding the very nature of the threat seems like a particularly grave error as it renders his arguments impotent against it.

Democratic Majoritarianism versus Democratic Norms

In part, I think Wilkinson falls for this trap because he makes a conceptual confusion between the non-majoritarian liberal ideals on which democracy depends—towards which most libertarians are sympathetic—and democracy’s institutional form as majority rule. I’ve described this as a distinction between “institutional democracy” and “philosophical democracy” in the past, and have argued that one can uphold philosophical democratic norms while being skeptical of the current institutions in which they are embedded. Wilkinson argues, citing an article by Samuel Freeman, that libertarian absolutist conception of property is inherently illiberal as it implies a sort of propertarian, feudalist order. Of course, Wilkinson neglects to mention a response to Freeman by Peter Boettke and Rosolino Candela claiming that Freeman misunderstands the role property rights play in libertarian theory.

I am not an absolutist natural property rights-oriented libertarian at all, however in their defense, it is wrong for Wilkinson to think that belief in absolutist property rights—even to the point that one becomes an anarchist like Rothbard—means one is necessarily willing to do anything to undermine democracy to defend property rights. As Somin mentions, not all libertarian absolutists in property completely disbelieved in government like Nozick, but more importantly one can be an anarchist who is strongly skeptical of democracy for largely propertarian reasons but still believes, given that we have democracy, certain norms need to be upheld.

Norms such as equality before the law, equal footing in public elections (which Gerrymandering violates), and equal access to political power (which Voter ID laws violate). Just because one believes neo-Lockean arguments about property rights are valid does not mean one cannot coherently also endorse broadly Hayekian accounts of non-majoritarian liberal norms which make it possible for democracies to function (what Wilkinson calls “trigger locks”), even if in particular instances it might result in some property rights violations.

In other words, one can be skeptical that institutional democracy is moral for libertarian reasons while still embracing a broadly philosophically democratic outlook, or simply believe it is preferable to keep some democratic norms intact given that we have a democracy as an nth best possible solution.

What Wilkinson takes issue with is how the modern right attacks the sort of norms which make democracy work, norms with which no libertarian ought to take issue with given that we have a democracy as they are precisely the “trigger locks” which Hayek called for (even if libertarians want much stronger trigger locks to the point of effectively disarming governments). To think these norms are identical with how many libertarians think the specific voting mechanisms which democracy features are flawed is a conceptual confusion.

An Alternative Account of the Relationship between Libertarianism and the Right’s Pathologies

To me, it seems that Wilkinson’s attempt to shoehorn the somewhat nuanced (by the standards of electoral politics, if not by the standards of academic philosophical argumentation) philosophical arguments of Nozick and Rothbard into an account of the rise of Trumpian politics seems fundamentally inconsistent with the way we know voters act. Even if voters sometimes use indirect intellectual influences as a way to reason about their voting preferences in a motivated manner likes Wilkinson imagines, it’s not really explaining why they need to use such motivated reasoning in the first place. Here’s an alternative account:

During the Cold War, as Wilkinson notes, libertarians and conservatives had a common enemy in communism and socialism. As a result, fusionism happened and libertarians and conservatives started cheering for the same political team. After the end of the cold war, fusionism continued and libertarians found it hard to stop cheering for the “red” team for the same tribalist reasons we know non-libertarian irrational voters remain fiercely loyal to their political parties. Today, even though the GOP is becoming extremely less libertarian, some libertarians find it hard to stop cheering for the GOP for the same reasons New England Patriots fans still cheer for Tom Brady after the deflation scandal: old tribalist affiliations are hard to break.

The only real link between libertarians and modern right-wing pathologies are that some voters who have vaguely libertarian ideas still cheer for populist right-wingers in the GOP because they’re irrational hooligans who hate the left for tribalist reasons. This accords better with the fact voters aren’t all that ideological, that they (unlike Burt who’s interested in just lowering his own taxes selfishly) vote based off of perceived national interest more than self-interest, and how we know generally voters behave in partisan tribalist patterns. But this doesn’t make libertarianism any more culpable for the rise of the modern right’s erosion of democratic norms any more than (and probably less than given its limited influence) any other ideological current which has swayed the right to any degree.

How does this make sense of Wilkinson’s only real, non-hypothetical evidence of libertarian influence on the modern GOP, that some right wing politicians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul sometimes cite Ayn Rand and Rothbard? Politicians sometimes use intellectual influences haphazardly to engage in certain sorts of motivated-reasoning to cater to subsets of voters, even though they overwhelmingly disagree with those thinkers. This why Paul Ryan first praised Ayn Rand, to get some voters who like Rand, and then later emphasized how much he rejected Rand. This is why Rand Paul cites libertarians simply to virtue-signal to some subset of libertarianish voters while constantly supporting extremely un-libertarian policies. Ted Cruz has said that conservatives “should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens,” but nobody thinks that Rawls has been particularly influential over Cruz’s policy decisions. All politicians do when they cite an intellectual influence is try to play to cater to the tribalist, pseudo-intellectual inklings of some nerdy voters (“I read the same guys as you do, therefore I’m on your team”), it usually doesn’t mean they really were deeply influenced by or even understand the thinker they cite.

Libertarians and Classical Liberals

Let me conclude this article by addressing a side-issue of how to parse out the distinction between classical liberals and libertarians. One of Wilkinson’s ways of clarifying his disagreement with Somin was by claiming that there is something fundamentally different between “libertarianism” and “classical liberalism.” As Wilkinson puts it:

Absolutist rights-based libertarianism isn’t really part of this conversation at all. It’s effectively an argument against liberalism and the legitimacy of liberal political institutions, which is why it’s so confusing that the folk taxonomy lumps libertarianism and classical liberalism together, and sets them against standard left-liberalism. The dispute between liberalism and hardcore libertarianism concerns whether it’s possible to justify democratic political authority at all. The dispute within liberalism, about the status of economic rights and the legitimate scope of democratic decision-making, is much smaller than that.

Thus, Wilkinson seems to think that libertarians think political authority can’t be justified given that property rights are absolute and that classical liberals just think economic liberties should be included as liberal liberties. However, in my view this taxonomy of ideologies is still confused. Many who typically count as “libertarians” do not fit neatly into such a schema and need to be ignored.

You need to ignore significant portions of libertarians who still endorse property rights but think they are insufficient to a full conception of liberty and endorse other liberal freedoms, like the aforementioned Peter Boettke paper. You need to ignore intuitionist libertarians who do not endorse an absolutist conception of property rights but still dispute that political authority is justified at all, like Mike Huemer. You need to ignore consequentialists who do not embrace absolutist property rights as a philosophical position but think some sort of absolutist property-based anarchist society is desirable against liberal democracy, like David Friedman and Don Lavoie’s students. You need to ignore “thick” left libertarians like Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier who endorse libertarian views of rights yet think they imply far more egalitarian leftist positions. Further, you’d need to claim that most people the public readily identifies as some of the most influential libertarians of all time, like Hayek and Milton Friedman, are not actually libertarian which obscures rather than clarifies communication. Basically, the distinction is only useful if you’re trying to narrowly clarify disagreements between someone like JS Mill and someone like Rothbard.

I agree that there are distinctions between “libertarians” and “classical liberals” that can be drawn and the folk taxonomy that treats them creates a lot of confusion. However, it seems obvious if one talks to most libertarians, there is more going on in their ideology than just “property rights are absolute” and that there is a strong intermingled influence between even the most radical of anarchist libertarians and classical liberals. It is also true that there are a small minority of libertarians who are thoroughly illiberal (like Hoppe), but it seems better to just call such odd illiberal aberrations “propertarian” and still treat most libertarians as a particularly radical subset of classical liberals.

Ultimately, however, I think this taxonomical dispute, while interesting, isn’t particularly closely related to the problem at hand: the relationship between right-wing populism and libertarianism.

When Should Intellectuals be held Accountable for Popular Misrepresentations of their Theories?

Often an academic will articulate some very nuanced theory or ideological belief which arises out of a specialized discourse, and specialized background knowledge, of their discipline. It is not too surprising that when her theory gets reprinted in a newspaper by a non-specialist journalist, taken up by a politican to support a political agenda, or talked about on the street by the layman who doesn’t possess specialized knowledge, the intellectual’s theory will be poorly understood, misrepresented, and possibly used for purposes that are not only not justified but the exact opposite of her intentions.

This happens all the time in any discipline. Any physicist who reads a You Tube thread about the theory of relativity, an economist who opens a newspaper, biologist who reads the comments section of a Facebook post on GMOs, psychologist who hears jokes about Freud, or philosopher who sees almost any Twitter post about any complex world-historical thinker knows what I’m talking about. Typically, it is assumed that a popularizer or layperson who misunderstands such complex nuanced academic theories always must be answerable to their most intellectually responsible, academic articulation. It is usually assumed that an intellectual theorist should never be concerned with the fact that her theories are being misunderstood by popular culture, and certainly, she shouldn’t change a theory just because it is being misunderstood.

For many disciplines in many contexts, this seems to be true. The theory of relativity shouldn’t be changed just because most people do not possess the technical knowledge to understand it and popularizers often oversimplify it. Just because people do not understand that climate change means more than rising temperatures doesn’t mean it is not true. The fact that some young earth creationist thinks that the existence of monkeys disproves revolution doesn’t mean an evolutionary biologist should care.

Further, it’s not just natural sciences to which these apply. Just because methodological individualism is often misunderstood as atomistic, reductive ethical individualism doesn’t mean economists should abandon it any more than people’s various misunderstandings of statistical methods mean scientists should abandon those methods. Likewise, the fact that rational choice theory is misunderstood as meaning people only care about money, or that Hayek’s business cycle theory is misunderstood as meaning only central banks can cause recessions, or that a Keynesian multiplier is misunderstood as meaning that all destructive stimulus is desirable because it equally increases GDP does not mean that economists who use them should abandon those theories based on non-substantive criticisms based on straw-manned versions of their theories.

On the other hand, there are other times where it seems that popular misunderstandings of some academic writings do matter. Not just in the sense that a layperson not understanding science leads them to do unhealthy things, and therefore the layperson should be educated on what scientific theories actually say, but in the sense that popular misunderstandings point out some deficiencies in the theory itself that the theorist should correct.

To take an example (which I’m admittedly somewhat simplifying) from intellectual history, early in his career John Dewey advocated quasi-Hegelian comparisons of society to a “social organism.” For example, in an 1888 essay he defended democracy because it “approaches most nearly the ideal of all social organization; that in which the individual and society are organic to each other.” Though Dewey never meant such metaphors to undermine individuality and imply some form of authoritarian collectivism, he did want to emphasize the extent to which individuality was constituted by collective identifications and social conditions and use that as a normative ideological justification for democratic forms of government.

By 1939, after the rise of Bolshevism, fascism, and various other forms of Hegelian-influenced illiberal, collectivist, authoritarian governments, he walked back such metaphors saying this:

My contribution to the first series of essays in Living Philosophies put forward the idea of faith in the possibilities of experience at the heart of my own philosophy. In the course of that contribution, I said, “Individuals will always be the center and the consummation of experience, but what the individual actually is in his life-experience depends upon the nature and movement of associated life.” I have not changed my faith in experience nor my belief that individuality is its center and consummation. But there has been a change in emphasis. I should now wish to emphasize more than I formerly did that individuals are the final decisive factors of the nature and movement of associated life.

[…] The fundamental challenge compels all who believe in liberty and democracy to rethink the whole question of the relation of individual choice, belief, and action to institutions, and to reflect on the kind of social changes that will make individuals actually the centers and the possessors of worthwhile experience. In rethinking this issue in light of the rise of totalitarian states, I am led to emphasize the idea that only the voluntary initiative and voluntary cooperation of individuals can produce social institutions that will protect the liberties necessary for achieving development of genuine individuality.

In other words, Dewey recognized that such a political theory could be easily misunderstood and misapplied for bad uses. His response was to change his emphasis, and his use of social metaphors, to be more individualistic since he realized that his previous thoughts could be so easily misused.

To put a term to it, there are certain philosophical beliefs and social theories which are popularly maladaptive, that is regardless of how nuanced and justifiable it is in the specialized discourse of some intellectual theorist they will very often be manipulated and misused in popular discourse for other nefarious purposes.

To take another example, some “white nationalist” and “race realist” quasi-intellectuals make huge efforts to disassociate themselves with explicitly, violently racist white supremacists. They claim that they don’t really hate non-whites and want to hurt them or deprive them of rights, just that they take pride in their “white” culture and believe in (pseudo-)scientific theories which purport to show that non-whites are intellectually inferior. It is not very surprising, to most people, that in practice the distinction between a “peaceful” race realist and a violently racist white supremacist is extremely thin, and most would rightly conclude that means there is something wrong with race realism and race-based nationalist ideologies no matter how much superficially respectable academic spin is put on them because they are so easily popularly maladaptive.

The question I want to ask is how can we more explicitly tell when theorists should be held accountable for their popularly maladaptive theories? When does it matter that public misinterpretation of a somewhat specialized theory points to something wrong with that theory? In other words, when is the likelihood of a belief’s popularly mal-adaptivity truth-relevant?  Here are a few examples where it’s a pretty gray area:

  1. It is commonly claimed by communitarian critics of liberalism that liberalism reduces to atomistic individualism that robs humanity of all its desire for community and family and reduces people to selfish market actors (one of the original uses of the term “neoliberal”). Liberals, such as Hayek and Judith Shklar, typically respond by saying that liberal individualism, properly understood, fully allows individuals to make choices relevant to such communal considerations. Communitarians sometimes respond by pointing out that liberalism is so often misunderstood publicly as such and say that this shows there is something wrong with liberal individualism.
  2. It is claimed by critics of postmodernism and forms of neo-pragmatism that they imply some problematic form of relativism which makes it impossible to rationally adjudicate knowledge-claims. Neo-pragmatists and postmodernists respond by pointing out this is misunderstanding their beliefs, the idea that our understanding of truth and knowledge isn’t algorithmically answerable to correspondence doesn’t mean it’s irrational, postmodernism is about skepticism towards meta-narratives not skepticism towards all rational knowledge itself, and (as Richard Bernstein argued) these perspectives often make hardcore relativism as incoherent as hardcore objectivism. The critic sometimes responds by citing examples of lay people and low-level academics using this to defend absurd scientific paradigms and relativistic-sounding theories and this should make us skeptical of postmodernism or neo-pragmatism.
  3. Critics of Marxism and socialism often point out that Marxism and socialism often transform into a form of authoritarianism, such as in the Soviet Union or North Korea. Marxist and socialists respond by saying that all these communist leaders misused Marxist doctrine, Marx doesn’t really imply anything that would lead of necessity to authoritarianism, and socialism can work in a democratic, more free context. The critic (such as Don Lavoie) will point out that the incentives of socialism lead of necessity to a sort of militarism due to the economic incentives faced by socialist governments regardless of the good intentions of the pure intentions of the socialist theorist, in other words they claim that socialism is inherently popularly maladaptive due to the incentives it creates. The socialist still thinks this isn’t the case and, regardless, the fact that socialism has turned authoritarian in the past was because it was in the hands of the wrong popularizers and that isn’t relevant to socialism’s truth.
  4. Defenders of traditional social teachings of Christianity with respect to homosexuality claim there is nothing inherently homophobic about the idea that homosexual acts are a sin. In the spirit of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” they claim that being gay isn’t a sin but homosexual acts are the sin, and Christians should show love and compassion for gay people while still condemning their sexual behavior. Secular and progressive Christian critics respond by pointing out how, in practice, Christians do often act very awfully towards gay people. They point out it is very difficult for most Christians who believe homosexual acts are sinful to separate the “sin” from the “sinner” in practice regardless of the intellectually pure intentions of their preacher, and that such a theological belief is often used to justify homophobic cruelty. Since you will judge a faith by its fruits (a pretty Christian way of saying that popular mal-adaptivity is truth-relevant), we should be skeptical of traditional teachings on homosexuality. The traditionalist remains unconvinced that it matters.

It is important to distinguish between two questions: whether these beliefs are popularly maladaptive empirically (or, perhaps, just very likely to be) and whether the possibility of them being popularly maladaptive is relevant to their truth. For example, a liberal could respond to her communitarian critic by pointing out empirical evidence that individuals engaging in market exchange in liberal societies aren’t selfish and uncaring about their communities to undermine the claim that their individualism is popularly maladaptive in the first place. But that response is different from a liberal saying that just because their individualism has been misunderstood means that they shouldn’t care about it.

We should also distinguish the question of whether beliefs are likely to be maladaptive from whether their mal-adaptivity is relevant. For example, it is conceivable that a popularized atheism would be extremely nihilistic even if careful atheists want to save us from nihilism. An atheist could say that appears unlikely since most non-intellectual atheists aren’t really nihilists (which would answer the former question), or by saying that people’s misunderstanding of the ethical implications of God’s non-existence is not relevant to the question of whether God exists (which would answer the latter question). For now, I am only concerned with when mal-adaptivity is truth-relevant.

There are a couple of responses which seem initially plausible but are unconvincing. One potential response is that positive scientific theories (such as evolution and monetary economics) do not need to worry about whether they are likely to be popularly maladaptive, but normative moral or philosophical theories (such as liberal individualism or theological moral teachings) do not.

However, this confuses the fact that scientists do often make normative claims based on their theories which seem irrelevant to their popular interpretation. For an instance, it’s not clear that a monetary economist, who makes normative policy conclusions based on their theories, should care if the layman does not understand how, for example, the Taylor Rule, Nominal Income Target, or Free Banking should work. Further, there are philosophical theories where popular maladaptively doesn’t seem to matter; for example, Kantians shouldn’t really fret if an introductory student doesn’t really grasp Kant’s argument for the synthetic a priori, and analytic philosophers shouldn’t care if most people don’t understand Quine’s objections to the analytic/synthetic distinction.

I’m unsure exactly how to answer this question, but it seems like answering it would clear up a lot of confusion in many disagreements.

Why I’m No Longer a Christian: An Autobiographical/ Philosophical/ Therapeutic Explanation to Myself

Note: This was written about 18 months ago and posted on my now-defunct blog. I figure it might be worth reposting, mostly for posterity.

Throughout most of my youth, like the majority of middle-class Americans, I was raised as a Christian. As an argumentative and nerdy teenager, much of the intellectual energy throughout my adolescence was dedicated to the fervent apologetics of the Christian faith. In my eyes, I was trying to defend some deep, correspondent truth about the Lord; today I realize that was mostly youthful self-deception, I was trying to make beliefs I had made an epistemic and personal commitment to do to my social situation work with the experiences of the modern world I was thrust into. There is nothing wrong with my attempts to find Jamesean cash value to my contingent religious beliefs, and there is nothing wrong with people who succeed in that endeavor; but it was wrong for me to think I was doing something more than that—something like defending eternal truths I knew certainly through faith, which I did so dogmatically.

As the title of this post suggests, my quest to make my religious beliefs work was ultimately unsuccessful, or at least have been up until this point (I’m not arrogant enough to assume I’ve reached the end of my spiritual/religious journey). For a variety of personal and intellectual reasons, I have since become a sort of agnostic/atheist in the mold of Nietzsche, or more accurately James. Most of the point of this post is to spell out for my own therapeutic reasons the philosophical (I would venture to say, with James and Rorty, that philosophy at its best when it is therapeutic) and personal reasons why I have the religious beliefs I have now at the young age of twenty. To the readers, this is ultimately a selfish post in that as the target audience is myself, both present and future. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy this autobiographical/religious/philosophical mind vomit. Please, read it as like you would a novel—albeit a poorly written one—and not a philosophical or religious treatise.Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning of my childhood. But to understand that I guess it’s better to start with my mother and father’s upbringing. My mother came from an intensely religious Baptist household with a mother who, to be blunt, used religion as a manipulative tool to the point of abuse. If her children disobeyed her, it was obviously the influence of Satan. Of course, any popular culture throughout my mother’s childhood was regarded as the work of Satan. I’ll spare you the details, but the upshot is this caused my mother some religious struggles that I inherited. My father came from a sincere though not feverish Catholic family. For much of my father’s young adulthood and late adolescence, religion took a backseat and when my parents met my father was an agnostic. He converted to Christianity by the time they married, but his religious beliefs were always more intimately personal and connected with his individual, private pursuit of happiness than anything else—a fact that has profoundly influenced the way I think about religion as a whole.

Perhaps the best place to start is at the beginning of my childhood. But to understand that I guess it’s better to start with my mother and father’s upbringing. My mother came from an intensely religious Baptist household with a mother who, to be blunt, used religion as a manipulative tool to the point of abuse. If her children disobeyed her, it was obviously the influence of Satan. Of course, any popular culture throughout my mother’s childhood was regarded as the work of Satan. I’ll spare you the details, but the upshot is this caused my mother some religious struggles that I inherited. My father came from a sincere though not feverish Catholic family. For much of my father’s young adulthood and late adolescence, religion took a backseat and when my parents met my father was an agnostic. He converted to Christianity by the time they married, but his religious beliefs were always more intimately personal and connected with his individual, private pursuit of happiness than anything else—a fact that has profoundly influenced the way I think about religion as a whole.

Though neither of my parents were at all interested in shoving religion down my throat, I kind of shoved it down my own throat as a child. I was surrounded by evangelical—for want of better word—propaganda throughout my childhood as we mostly attended non-denominational, moderately evangelical churches throughout my childhood. My mother mostly sheltered me from my grandmother’s abuses of religion, and she reacted to her grandmother’s excesses appropriately by trying to make my religious upbringing centered on examples of God’s love. However, her struggles with religion still had an impact on me as she wavered between her adult commitments to an image of an all-loving deity with the remnants of her mother’s conception of good as the angry, vengeful, jealous God of the Old Testament. She never really manifestly expressed the ladder conception, but it was implicit, just subtlety enough for my young mind to notice, in the way some of the churches we chose in my youth expressed the Gospel.

At the age of seven, we moved from Michigan to the heart of the Bible belt in Lynchburg, VA, home to one of the largest evangelical colleges in the world: Liberty University. Many of the churches we attended in Virginia had Liberty professors as youth leaders, ministers, and the like, so Jerry Falwell’s Southern Baptist conception of God which aligned closely with my grandmothers was an influence on me through my early teenage years. Naturally, religion was closely linked with political issues of the day; God blessed Bush’s war in Iraq, homosexuality was an abhorrent sin, abortion was murder, and the like were fed to me. Of course, evolution was an atheist lie and I remember watching creationist woo lectures with my mother while she was taking an online biology course from Liberty (she isn’t a creationist, for the record, and her major was psychology, which Liberty taught well).

Though it certainly wasn’t as extreme, some of the scenes in the documentary Jesus Camp are vaguely like experiences I had around this time. I was an odd kid who got interested in these serious “adult” issues at the age of nine while most of my friends were watching cartoons, so I swallowed the evangelical stance hook, line, and sinker. But there was something contradictory between my mother’s reservations about an angry God and refusal to push my religious beliefs in any direction thanks to the influence of her mother, my father’s general silence about religious issues unless the conversation got personal or political, and the strong evangelical rhetoric that the culture around me was spewing.

Around seventh grade, we moved from Virginia to another section of the Bible-Belt, Tennessee. For my early high school years, my interest in evangelical apologetics mostly continued. However, religion mostly took a backseat to my political views. With the beginning of the recession, I became far more interested in economics: I wanted an explanation for why there were tents with homeless people living in them on that hill next to Lowe’s. My intellectual journey on economics is a topic for another day, but generally, the political component of my religious views was slowly becoming less and less salient. I became more apathetic about social issues and more focused on economic issues.

It was around this time I also became skeptical of the theologically-justified nationalistic war-mongering fed to me by the Liberty crowd in Virginia. We lived near Ft. Campbell and I had the displeasure of watching family after family of my friends ruined because their dad went to Afghanistan and didn’t come back the same, or didn’t come back at all. The whole idea of war just seemed cruel and almost unjustifiable to me, even though I still would spout the conservative line on it externally I was internally torn (perhaps I was writing esoterically?). I would say I was beginning to subconsciously reject Christianity’s ontology of violence (apologies to Millbank).

It was also around this time, ninth grade, that I began more systemically reading the Old Testament. War is a common theme throughout the whole thing, and all I could think of as I read about the conquer of Israel, the slaying of Amalekites, the book of Job, and the like were my personal experiences with my friends who were deeply affected by the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this point, there was skepticism and doubt about how God could justly war and cruel mass-killings in Biblical times.

Around tenth grade, I became immaturely interested in philosophy. I’m ashamed to admit it today, but Ayn Rand was my gateway drug to what would become an obsession of mine up until now. I loved elements of Rand’s ethics, her individualism, her intense humanism (which I still appreciate on some level), and of course her economics (which I also still appreciate). But her polemics against religion and her simplistic epistemological opposition between faith and reason put me in an odd position. What was I, a committed evangelical Christian, to do with my affinities with Rand? Naturally, I should’ve turned to Aquinas, whose arguments for the existence of God and his unification of faith and reason I now can appreciate; however, at the time, I instead had the misfortune of turning to Descartes, whose rationalism seemed to me seemed to jive with what I saw in Rand’s epistemology (today, I definitely would not say that about Rand and Descartes at all as Rand is far more Aristotelian, ah the sophomoric follies of youth). Almost all of my subsequent intellectual journey with religion and philosophy could be considered a fairly radical reaction to the dogmas that I had bought at this time.

I had fully bought perhaps the worst of Rand and Descartes. Descartes’ philosophical method and “proofs” of God, with all the messy metaphysical presumptions of mind-body dualism (though I might’ve implicitly made a greater separation between “mind” and “spirit” than Descartes would’ve), the correspondence theory of truth, quest for certainty, and spectator theory of knowledge, the ego theory of the self, and libertarian free will. From Rand I got the worst modernist presumptions she took from Descartes, what Bernstein calls the “Cartesian Anxiety” in her dogmatic demand for objectivism, as well as her idiosyncratic views on altruism (though I never really accepted ethical egoism, or believed she was really an ethical egoist). The flat, horribly written protagonists of Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead I took to be somehow emblematic of the Christian conception of God (don’t ask me what in the hell I was thinking). Somehow, I couldn’t explain it then coherently and cringe at it now, I had found a philosophical foundation of sorts for a capital-C Certain belief in protestant Christianity in God and a watered down Randian ethics. Around this time, I also took an AP European History class, and my studies (and complete misreadings of) traditional Lutheranism and Catholicism reinforced my metaphysical libertarianism and Cartesian epistemological tendencies.

Around this time, my parents became dissatisfied with the aesthetic and teachings of evangelical non-denominational churches, and we started attending a run-of-the-mill, mainline PCUSA church my mom had discovered through charity programs she encountered as a social worker. I certainly didn’t buy Presbyterianism’s lingering affinities for Calvinism inherited from Knox (such as their attempt to retain the language of predestination while affirming Free Will), but the far more politically moderate to apolitical sermons, as well as focus on the God of the New Testament as opposed to my Grandmother’s God, was a refreshing change of pace from the evangelical dogmatism I had become accustomed to in Virginia. It fit my emerging Rand-influenced transition to political libertarianism well, and the old-church aesthetic and teaching methods fit well with the more philosophical outlook I had taken on religion.

In eleventh grade, we moved back to Michigan in the absolute middle of nowhere. Virtually every single protestant church within a twenty-mile radius was some either some sort of dogmatically evangelical nondenominational super-church where the populist, charismatic sermons were brought to you buy Jesus, Inc.; or an equally evangelical tiny rural church with a median age of 75 where the sermons were the somewhat incoherent and rabidly evangelical ramblings of an elderly white man. Our young, upper-middle class family didn’t fit into the former theologically or demographically, and certainly didn’t fit into the ladder theologically or aesthetically. After about a year of church-shopping, our family stopped going to church altogether.

Abstaining from church did not dull my religion at all. Sure, the ethical doubts I was having at the time and the epistemological doubts caused by my philosophical readings were working in the background, but in a sense, this was my most deeply religious time. I had taken up fishing almost constantly all summer since we lived on a river, and much of my thoughts while sitting with the line in the water revolved around religion or politics. When my thoughts turned religious, there was always a sense of romantic/transcendentalist (I was reading Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman in school at the time) sublimity in nature that I could attribute to God. Fishing, romping around in the woods, hunting, and experiencing nature became the new church for me and was a source of private enjoyment and self-creation (you can already see where my affinities for Rorty come from) in my late teens. Still, most of my intellectual energy was spent on political and economic interests and by now I was a fully committed libertarian.

Subconsciously earlier in my teens, but very consciously by the time I moved to Michigan, I had begun to realize I was at the very least on the homosexual spectrum, quietly identifying as bisexual at the time. The homophobic religious rhetoric of other Christians got on my nerves, but in rural northern Michigan I was mostly insulated from it and it never affected me too deeply. I had reasoned by that point, since I assumed I was bi, it wasn’t that huge a deal in terms of my identity even if homosexuality was a sin, which I doubted it was though I couldn’t explain why, so I never really thought too deeply about it. However, it did contribute to my ethical doubts about Christianity further; if God says homosexuality is a sin, and Christians are somehow justified in oppressing homosexuality, how does that bode for God’s cruelty? It became, very quietly, an anxiety akin to the anxieties I was having about war when I moved to Tennessee.

Though abstaining from church didn’t cheapen my experience of religion, my exposure to my grandmother’s angry God did.  Up until that point, I had mostly been ignorant of her religious views because we lived so far away; but moving back to Michigan, as well as some health issues she had, thrust her religious fervor back into my—and my mother’s—consciousness. The way she talked about it and acted towards non-Christians reeked of the worst of I Samuel, Johnathan Edwards, John Calvin, and Jerry Falwell rolled into one. My skepticism towards the potential cruelty of the Christian God caused by my experiences with war and homophobia were really intensified by observing my maternal grandmother.

The year was 2013, I had just graduated from High School, I had just turned eighteen, and I had chosen my college. I had applied to some local state school as a backup which I only considered because it was a full-ride scholarship, my father’s alma-mater, the University of Michigan, and Hillsdale College. After the finances were taken care of, I’m fortunate enough to be a member of the upper-middle class, the real choices were between Michigan and Hillsdale. For better or for worse, I chose the latter.

My reasons for choosing Hillsdale were mostly based on misinformation about the college’s mission. Sure, I knew it was overwhelmingly conservative and religious. But I thought there was far more of a libertarian bent to campus culture. The religious element was sold to me as completely consensual, not enforced by the college at all other than a couple vague comments about “Judeo-Christian values” in the mission statement. I wanted a small college full of intellectually impassioned students who were dedicated to, as the college mission statement said, “Pursuing Truth, Defending Liberty.” The “defending liberty” part made me think the college was more libertarian, and the “pursuing truth” part made me assume it was very open minded as a liberal arts education was supposed to be. I figured there’d probably be some issues about my budding homosexuality/bisexuality, but since it wasn’t a huge deal at the time for me personally, and some students I’d talked to said it wasn’t a big deal there, I thought I could handle it. Further, I suspected my major was going to be economics, and Hillsdale’s economics department—housing Ludwig von Mises’ library—is a dream come true (my opinion on this hasn’t changed).

If I ever had problems misunderstanding the concept of asymmetric information, the lies I was told as an incoming student to Hillsdale cleared them up. The Hillsdale I got was far more conservative than I could ever imagine and in a ridiculously dogmatic fashion. It was quickly revealed to be not the shining example of classical liberal arts education I had hoped for, but instead little more than a propaganda mill for a particularly nasty brand of Straussian conservatism. The majority of the students were religious in the same sense of my grandmother; though they would intellectually profess to a different concept of God than my grandmother’s simplistic, lay-man Baptist understanding of God as an angry, jealous judge, the fruits of their faith showed little difference. My homosexual identity—by this point I’d abandoned the term “bisexual”—quickly became a focal point of my religious anxiety. Starting a few weeks in my freshman year, I began to fall into a deep depression, largely thinks to my treatment by these so-called “Christians”—that would cripple me for the next two years and that I am still dealing with the after-shocks of as I write this.

Despite the personal issues I had with my peers at Hillsdale, the two years I spent there were hands-down the two most intellectually exciting years of my life. My first semester, I took an Introduction to Philosophy class. My professor, James Stephens, turned out to be a former Princeton student and had Richard Rorty and Walter Kauffman as his PhD advisors. His introductory class revolved first around ancient Greek philosophy, in particular, Plato’s Phaedo, then classical epistemology, particularly Descartes, Kant, and Hume, and a lot of experimental philosophy readings from the likes of Stephen Stitch and Joshua Knobe. The class primarily focused on issues in contemporary metaphysics which I had struggled with since I discovered Rand—like libertarian free will and theories of the self—epistemological issues, and metaphilosophical issues of method. Though only an intro class outside of my major, no class has changed my worldview quite as much as this.

In addition to the in-class readings, I read philosophy prolifically and obsessively outside of class as a matter of personal interest. That semester I had finished Stitch’s book The Fragmentation of Reason (which I wouldn’t have understood without extensive talks with Dr. Stephens in office hours), worked through most of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, basically re-learned Cartesianism, and read Hume’s Treatise. By the end of the class, I had completely changed almost every element of my philosophical world view; I went from a hardcore objectivist Cartesian to a fallibilist, postmodern pragmatist (I had also read James due to Stitch’s work with him), from a fire-breathing metaphysical libertarian to a squishy compatibilist, from someone who had bought the Cartesian referential view of language to a card-carrying Wittgensteinianist (of the Investigations, that is).

Other classes I took that first semester also would have a large impact on me. In my “Western Heritage” class—Hillsdale’s pretentious and propagandized term for what would usually be called something like “History of Western Thought: Ancient Times to 1600”—I essentially relearned all the theology I had poorly understood in my high school AP Euro class by reading church fathers and Catholic saints like Augustine, Tertullian, and, of course, Aquinas as well as rereading the likes of Luther and Calvin. Additionally, and this would have the most profound intellectual influence on me of anything I have ever read, I read Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty in my first political economy class cemented my epistemological fallibilism (although, I also read Fatal Conceit for pleasure which influenced me even more).

Early on that year, after reading Plato and Augustine, I began to become committed to some sort of Platonism, and for a second considered some sort of Eastern Orthodoxy. By this point, I was a political anarchist and saw the hierarchical and top-down control of Catholicism as too analogous to coercive statist bureaucracy, while the more communal structure of Orthodoxy, though still Hierarchical, seemed more appealing. To paraphrase Richard Rorty on his own intellectual adolescence, I had desperately wanted to become one with God, a desperation I would later react to violently, and I saw Plato’s ideas of the Forms and Augustine’s incorporation of them into Christianity as a means to do that. But as I kept reading, particularly James, Hume, Kant, and Wittgenstein, the epistemological foundations of my Platonist metaphysical and theological stances crumbled. I became absolutely obsessed with the either-or propositions of the “Cartesian anxiety” and made a hobby of talking to my classmates in a Socratic fashion to show that they couldn’t be epistemically Certain in the Cartesian sense, much to the chagrin of most of my classmates. You could’ve played a drinking game of sorts during those conversations in which you took a shot every time I said some variation “How do you know that?” and probably give your child fetal alcohol syndrome, even if you weren’t pregnant or were a male.

In the second semester of my freshman year, I had turned more explicitly to theological readings and topics in my interests. (Keep in mind, I was mostly focusing on economics and math in class, almost all of this was just stuff I did on the side. I didn’t get out much in those days largely due to the social anxiety caused by the homophobia of my classmates.) My fallibilist/pragmatist epistemic orientation, as well as long with conversations with a fellow heterodox Hillsdale student from an Evangelical background, wound up with me getting very interested in “radical theology.” That semester, John Caputo had come to Hillsdale to discuss his book The Insistence of God. I attempted to read it at the time but was not well-versed enough in continental philosophy to really get what was going on in it. Nonetheless, my Jamesean orientation had me deeply fascinated in much of what Caputo was getting across.

My theological interests were twofold: first, more of an epistemic question, how can we know God exists? My conclusion was that we can’t, but whether God exists or not is irrelevant—what matters is the impact the belief of God has on our lives existentially and practically. This was the most I could glean out of Caputo’s premise “God doesn’t exist, he insists” without understanding Derrida, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Foucault. I began calling myself terms like “agnostic Christian,” “ignostic Christian,” or “pragmatist Christian” to try and describe my religious views. This also led me to a thorough rejection of Biblical literalism and infallibility, I claimed it was more a historical document on man’s interaction with God from man’s flawed perspective.

But, now in the forefront, were questions of Christianity’s ethical orientation that had lingered at the back of my mind since the early teens: why did the Christian God seem so cruel to me? I had resolved most of it with my rejection of Biblical infallibility. Chances are, God didn’t order the slaughter of Amalekites, or Satan’s torture of Job, or any of the other cruel acts in the Old Testament—the fallen humans who wrote the Bible misunderstood it. Chances are, most of the Old Testament laws on things like homosexuality were meant specifically for that historically contingent community and were not eternal moral laws and God of the New Testament, as revealed by Jesus, was the most accurate depiction of God in the Bible. Paul’s prima facie screeds against homosexuality in the New Testament, when taken in context and hermeneutically analyzed, probably had nothing to do with homosexuality as we know it today (I found this sermon convincing on that note). God sent Jesus not as a substitute for punishment but to act as an exemplar for how to love and not be cruel to others. I could still defend the rationality of my religious faith on Jamesean grounds, I was quoting Verities of Religious Experience and Pragmatism more than the Bible at that point.  I also flirted with some metaphysical theologies drawing such as Death of God theology, which seemed appealing based off of the little I knew about Nietzsche, and process theology, which to me bore a beautiful resemblance to Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order. Even saying it now, much of that sounds convincing and if I were to go back to Christianity, most of those beliefs would probably remain in-tact.

But still, there was this nagging doubt that the homophobic, anti-empathetic behavior of the Hillsdale “Christians” somehow revealed something rotten about Christianity as a whole; and the fact that the church had committed so many atrocities in the past from Constantine using it to justify war, to the Crusades, to the Spanish conquistadors, to the Salem witch trials, to the persecution of homosexuals and non-believers throughout all of history still rubbed me the wrong way. Jesus’ line about judging faith by its fruits became an incredibly important scripture for me with my interest in William James. That scripture made me extremely skeptical of the argument that the actions of fallen humans do not reflect poorly on the TruthTM about the Christian God. What was the cash value of Christian belief if it seemed so obviously to lead to so much human cruelty throughout history and towards me personally?

That summer and the next semester, two books, both written by my philosophy professor’s PhD advisor coincidentally enough as I had independently come across them, once again revolutionized the way I looked at religion. The first was Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the second was William Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Psychologist, Philosopher, Antichrist which I had read in tandem with most of Nietzsche’s best-known work (ie., Beyond Good and Evil, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Genealogy of Morals, and, most relevant to this discussion, The Antichrist).

Rorty had destroyed any last vestiges of Cartesianism or Platonism I had clung to. His meta-philosophical critique of big-P Philosophy that tries to stand as the ultimate judge of knowledge claims of the various professions around me completely floored me. His incorporation of Kuhnian philosophy of science and Gadamer’s hermeneutics was highly relevant to my research interests in the methodology of economics. Most importantly for religion was his insistence, though more explicit in his later works I had noticed it fairly heavily in PNM, that we are only answerable to other humans. There is no world of the forms to which we can appeal to, there is no God to whom we are answerable to, there is no metaphysical concepts we can rely on to call a statement true or false; the measurement of truth is the extent to which it helps us cope with the world around us, the extent to which it helps us interact with our fellow human beings.

Nietzsche’s concept of the Death of God haunted me, and now that I was beginning to read more continental philosophy some of the concepts in Caputo that flew over my head began to make sense. The Enlightenment Project to ground knowledge had made God, at least for much of the intellectual class who were paying attention to the great philosophical debates, a forced option. No longer could we rely on the Big Other to ground all our values, we had to reevaluate all our values and build a meaningful life for ourselves. Additionally Nietzsche’s two great criticisms of Christianity in the Antichrist stuck in my mind: that it led to the inculcation of a slave morality, a sort of resentment for the “lower people;” and that the idea that we should “store our treasures in heaven” took all the focus off of this world, it ignored all those pragmatic and practical results of our philosophical beliefs that had become so important to me thanks to Matthew 7:16 and William James, and instead focused on our own selfish spiritual destiny. The latter critique didn’t quite ring with me because Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarian, and to be honest quite cruel, attitude seemed as bad as what I saw the Christians doing to me; but his criticism of Christianity’s focus on the afterlife rather than the fruits of their faith in this life posed a serious threat to my beliefs, and helped explain why the empathetic, homophobic hatred I was experiencing from my classmates was causing so much religious anxiety and cognitive dissonance.

(Note: Clearly, I’m violently oversimplifying and possibly misreading both Nietzsche and Rorty in the previous two paragraphs, but that’s beside the point as I’m more interested in what they made me think of in my intellectual development, not what they actually thought themselves.)

Still, through most of my sophomore year, I tried to resist atheism as best I could and cling to what I saw as salvageable in Christianity: the idea of universal Christian brotherhood and its potential to lead people to be kind to each other was still promising. Essentially, I still wanted to salvage Jesus as a didactic exemplar of moral values of empathy and kindness, if not in some metaphysical ideal of God, at least in the narrative of Jesus’s life and his teaching. Ben Franklin’s proto-pragmatic, yet still virtue ethical, view on religion in his Autobiography lingered in my mind very strongly during this phase. I still used the term “agnostic Christian” through most of that time and self-identified as a Christian, but retrospectively the term “Jesusist” probably better described the way I was thinking at that time.

I came to loathe (and still do) what Paul had done to Christianity: turning Jesus’ lessons into absolutist moral laws rather than parables on how to act kinder to others (see, for example, Paul’s treatment of sexual ethics in 1 Corinthians), taking the worst slave-morality tendencies Nietzsche ridiculed to the extreme, and acting as if there was only one way—which happened to be his what I saw as very cruel way—to experience Jesus’ truth in religious community in all his letters. Additionally, I loathed Constantine for turning Christianity into a tool to justify governmental power and coercion, which it remained throughout the reign of the Holy Roman Empire, Enlightenment-era absolutism, and into modern social conservative theocratic tendencies in America.

But the idea of an all-loving creator, if not a metaphysical guarantee of meaning and morality, sending his son/himself as an exemplar for what humanity can and should be still was extremely—and in many ways still is—attractive to me. I flirted with the Episcopalian and Unitarian Universalist churches, but something about their very limited concept of community rubbed me the wrong way (I probably couldn’t justify it or put my finger on it).

Clearly, my religious and philosophical orientation (not to mention my anarchist political convictions) put me at odds with Hillsdale orthodoxy. I started writing papers that were pretty critical of my professor’s lectures at times (though I still managed to mostly get A’s on them), particularly in my Constitution (essentially a Jaffaite propaganda class) and American Heritage (essentially a history of American political thought class, which was taught very well by a brilliant orthodox Catholic Hillsdale grad) classes. I was writing editorials in the student paper subtlety ridiculing Hillsdale’s homophobia and xenophobia, and engaging in far too many Facebook debates on philosophy, politics, and religion that far too often got far too personal.

In addition, in the beginning of my sophomore year, I came out as gay publicly. With the Supreme Court decision coming up the following summer, never had Hillsdale’s religiously-inspired homophobia reached such a fever-pitch. I could hardly go a day without hearing some homophobic slur or comment and the newspaper was running papers—often written by professors—claiming flat out false things about gay people (like comparing it to incest, saying that no society has ever had gay marriage and the like). The fruit/cash value of Jesus’ teachings was quite apparently not turning out to be the empathetic ethos I had hoped for, the rotten elements of the Old Testament God which my grandmother emphasized, the Pauline perversions, and Constantine’s statism were instead dominating the Christian ethos.

At the end of that academic year (culminating with this) I suffered a severe mental breakdown largely due to Hillsdale’s extreme homophobia. By the beginning of the next school year, I was completely dysfunctional academically, intellectually, and socially; I was apathetic about all the intellectual topics I had spent my entire thinking life occupied with, completely jaded about the future, and overall extraordinarily depressed. I’ll spare the dirty details, but by the end of the first month of my Junior year, it became clear I could no longer go on at Hillsdale. I withdrew from Hillsdale, and transferred to the University of Michigan.

That pretty much takes me up to present day. But coming out of that depression, I began to seriously pick back up the question of why Christianity—even the good I saw in Jesusism—no longer seemed true in the pragmatic sense. Why was this religion I had spent my whole life so committed to all of a sudden utterly lacking in cash value?

I found my answer in Rorty and Nietzsche one cold January day while I took a weekend trip to Ann Arbor with my boyfriend. I sat down at a wonderful artisan coffee shop set in a quaint little arcade tucked away in downtown Ann Arbor, and was re-reading Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Rorty’s continued insistence that “cruelty is the worst thing you can do,” even if he couldn’t metaphysically or epistemically justify it, seemed to be a view I had from the very beginning when my doubts about the Christian faith started thanks to my experiences with the victims of war.

Now, I can say that the reason I’m not a Christian—and the reason I think it would be a good idea if Christianity as religion faded out as a public metanarrative (though certainly not as a private source for joy and self-creation that my dad exemplified)—is because Christianity rejects the idea that cruelty is the worst thing you can do. According to Christian orthodoxy (or, at least, the protestant sola fide I grew up with), you can be as outrageously, sadistically, egomaniacally cruel to another person as you want, and God will be perfectly fine with it if you believe in him. If Stalin would “accept God into his heart”—whatever that means—his place in paradise for eternity is assured, even if he had the blood of fifty million strong on his hands.

I have no problem with that per se, I agree with Nietzsche that retributive justice is little more than a thinly veiled excuse for revenge. Further, I agree with Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender in saying “Revenge is like a two-headed rat viper: while you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.” As an economist, the whole idea of revenge kind of seems to embrace the sunk cost fallacy.I still regard radical forgiveness and grace as among the best lessons Christianity has to offer, even forgiveness for someone like Stalin.

What seems absurd is that while Stalin could conceivably get a pass, even the kindest, most genuinely empathetic, and outstanding human being will be eternally damned and punished by God simply for not believing. For the Christian, the worst thing you can do is not be cruel, the worst thing you can do is reject their final vocabulary. When coupled with Nietzsche’s insights that Christianity is so focused on the afterlife that it ignores the pragmatic consequences of actions in this life, it is no wonder that Christianity has bred so much cruelty throughout history. Further, the idea that we are ultimately answerable to a metaphysical Big Other rather than to our fellow human beings (as Rorty would have it) seems to cheapen the importance of our other human beings. The most important thing to Christians is God, not your fellow man.

Of course, the Christian apologist will remark that “TrueTM” Christianity properly understood does not necessarily entail that conclusion. No true Scotsman aside, the point is well taken. Sure, the concept of Christian brotherhood teaches that since your fellow man is created in God’s image harming him is the same as harming God. Sure, Jesus does teach the most important commandment is essentially in line with my anti-cruelty. Sure, different sects of Christianity have a different view of divinity that are more nuanced than the one I gave.

But, again, if we judge this faith by its fruits, if we empirically look at the cash value of this belief, if we look at the revealed preference of many if not most Christians, it aligns more with my characterization than I would like. Between the emphasis on the afterlife, the fundamentally anti-humanist (in a deep sense) ontological orientation, and the belief that cruelty is not the worst thing you can do, I see little cash value to Christianity and a whole bunch of danger that it is highly apt—and clearly has been empirically—to be misused for sadistic purposes.

This is not to say Christianity is completely (pragmatically) false. I also agree with Rorty when he says the best way to reduce cruelty and advance human rights is through “sentimental education.” The tale of Jesus, if understood the way we understand a wonderful work of literature—like Rorty himself characterizes writers like Orwell—should live on. It may sound corny and blasphemous, but if “Christian” were simply the name of the Jesus “fandom,” I’d definitely be a Christian. I also certainly don’t think Christianity is something nobody should believe; the cash value of a belief is based on the myriad of particular contingencies of an individual or social group, and those contingencies are not uniform to my experience. However, from my contingent position, I cannot in good faith have faith.

Perhaps it is a sad loss, perhaps it is a glorious intellectual and personal liberation, and perhaps it is something else. Only time will tell. Anyways, 6,325 words later I hope I have adequately explained to myself why I am not a Christian.