"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Book Review: Madness And Civilization

[Content warning: Severe mistreatment of the mentally ill. Through this post, I’ll be following Foucault in using the politically incorrect term “madness” rather than the more modern “mental illness”, because a big part of his point is worrying about the assumptions contained in the latter term.]

I.

I started reading Foucault’s Madness And Civilization with the expectation that it would be tedious and incomprehensible. You know, the stereotype that postmodernism / post-structuralism / Continentalism / etc. involves a lot of negation of the negation of the inversion of the Other within the Absolute within [and so on for 200 pages]. There was a little of that. But there was also a fascinating look at the history of mental illness, an entertainingly bombastic writing style, and a few ideas that I might have actually half-understood.

The book asked: how have we historically drawn the category boundaries around madness? If there is some great continent containing nations like Irrationality, Immorality, Illness, and Inspiration, from which of these countries have cartographers carved out a homeland for Madness? What wars have been fought over which provinces? What propaganda supports the current international order. And how accurate is it?

II.

Foucault starts with the Late Middle Ages / early Renaissance, when there was suddenly an explosion of interest in madness. The most famous works from this tradition are Ship of Fools and In Praise Of Folly (“fool” originally meant “insane person”) – not to mention pretty much everything by Hieronymus Bosch – and of course Foucault has intensely studied two hundred other examples I’ve never heard of. His theory is that this shares a source with the late medieval fascination with death (think all of those pictures of dancing skeletons). In both cases, the stable tidy medieval order is teetering towards collapse, and so the popular imagination is seized by images of the Outside invading the familiar world.

I feel bad juxtaposing so eminent a figure as Foucault with Lovecraft, but I found his description of Renaissance madness easiest to understand as basically Lovecraftian. We’ve somehow lucked into a bubble of comfortable stability within a vast and horrifying universe. We’ve become so complacent that we’ve forgotten about the bubble and are starting to poke around the edges. When bits of the Outside leak in, madness is the inevitable result. Lovecraft came of age during the First World War, as a European order that considered itself too enlightened to die went down in flames. The end of the Middle Ages must have been a similar period. The insane are those who have seen too much of the horrors that lurk beyond the veil – Yog-Sothoth, Protestantism, whatever.

And like Cthulhu, madness has an affinity for water:

One thing at least is certain: water and madness have long been linked in the dreams of European man. Already, disguised as a madman, Tristan had ordered boatmen to land him on the coast of Cornwall…And more than once in the course of time, the same theme reappears: among the mystics of the fifteenth century, it has become the motif of the soul as a skiff, abandoned on the infinite sea of desires, in the sterile field of cares and ignorance, among the mirages of knowledge, amid the unreason of the world — a craft at the mercy of the sea’s great madness, unless it throws out a solid anchor, faith, or raises its spiritual sails so that the breath of God may bring it to port. At the end of the sixteenth century, De Lancre sees in the sea the origin of the demoniacal leanings of an entire people: the hazardous labor of ships, dependence on the stars, hereditary secrets, estrangement from women—the very image of the great, turbulent plain itself makes man lose faith in God and all his attachment to his home; he is then in the hands of the Devil, in the sea of Satan’s ruses.

And so, Foucault tells us, in the fifteenth century there is a sudden emergence of a complex of artistic and philosophical themes linking madmen, the sea, and the terrible mysteries of the world. These culminate in the Ship Of Fools:

Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then knew, had an affinity for each other. Thus, “Ships of Fools” crisscrossed the seas and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.

This was such a great piece of historical trivia that I was shocked I’d never heard it before. Some quick research revealed the reason: it is completely, 100% false. Apparently Foucault looked at an allegorical painting by Hieronymus Bosch, decided it definitely existed in real life, and concocted the rest from his imagination.

Foucault apologists try to rescue this, say that he was just being poetic in some way. He wasn’t. Page 8 in my copy: “Of all these romantic or satiric vessels, the Narrenschiff [Ship Of Fools] is the only one that had a real existence — for they did exist, these boats that conveyed their insane cargo from town to town.” He really, really doubled down on this point. As far as I can tell, this is just as bad a failing of scholarship as it sounds – and surprising, since everything else about the book gives the impression of Foucault as an incredibly knowledgeable and wide-ranging scholar.

I couldn’t find any mention of equally bad flaws in the rest of the book, and Foucault really does seem to know his stuff, so I’m tempted to treat this as a one-off error, albeit a completely inexplicable one. I’m including it anyway as a warning before getting into some other pretty weird stuff.

III.

Eventually the Renaissance became less of an impending threat and more of a fait accompli, and people’s worries died down a bit. Madness began to be treated more as ordinary immorality. This didn’t necessarily mean people freely chose to be mad – the classical age didn’t think in exactly the same “it’s your fault” vs. “it’s biological” terms we do – but it was considered due to a weakness of character in the same way as other failures.

In some cases, it was the result of an excess of passions, flightiness, or imagination: the most famous example is Don Quixote, who went crazy after reading too many fiction books. This was actually considered a very serious risk by practically all classical authorities, especially for women. Foucault quotes Edme-Pierre Beauchesne:

In the earliest epochs of French gallantry and manners, the less perfected minds of women were content with facts and events as marvelous as they were unbelievable; now they demand believable facts yet sentiments so marvelous that their own minds are disturbed and confounded by them; they then seek, in all that surrounds them, to realize the marvels by which they are enchanted; but everything seems to them without sentiment and without life, because they are trying to find what does not exist in nature.

And a newspaper of the time:

The existence of so many authors has produced a host of readers, and continued reading generates every nervous complaint; perhaps of all the causes that have harmed women’s health, the principal one has been the infinite multiplication of novels in the last hundred years … a girl who at ten reads instead of running will, at twenty, be a woman with the vapors and not a good nurse.

Novels weren’t the only danger, of course. There were other hazards to watch for, like waking up too late:

The moment at which our women rise in Paris is far removed from that which nature has indicated; the best hours of the day have slipped away; the purest air has disappeared; no one has benefited from it. The vapors, the harmful exhalations, attracted by the sun’s heat, are already rising in the atmosphere.

Also, freedom:

For a long time, certain forms of melancholia were considered specifically English; this was a fact in medicine and a constant in literature…Spurzheim made a synthesis of all these analyses in one of the last texts devoted to them. Madness, “more frequent in England than anywhere else,” is merely the penalty of the liberty that reigns there, and of the wealth universally enjoyed. Freedom of conscience entails more dangers than authority and despotism. “Religious sentiments exist without restriction; every individual is entitled to preach to anyone who will listen to him”, and by listening to such different opinions, “minds are disturbed in the search for truth.”

These are a very selective sampling of quotes from just one of Foucault’s many chapters, and some of them are separated by centuries from others, but the overall impression I got was that conformity/wholesomeness/clean living was salubrious, and deviations from these likely to cause madness. Essentially, if you deviate from your humanity a little bit of the way – by failing to be a godly, sober-living, and industrious person – then that can compound on itself and make you lose practically all of your humanity. You will end up a feral madman, little different from a beast.

This naturally lumped madness in together with the other failures of industry and godliness: crime and poverty. During the seventeenth century, madmen, beggars, and criminals were all crammed together in workhouses. These were always sort of ambiguous between “maybe the structure and routine of work will help these poor souls find the right path” and “let’s keep these losers away from the rest of us”. The opening of the workhouses was sudden and dramatic: in Paris, it began Monday May 14, 1657, when “the archers began to hunt down beggars and herd them into the different buildings of the Hospital.” In England, it started around 1630, when the King recommended prosecuting:

…all those who live in idleness and will not work for reasonable wages, or who spend what they have in taverns…for these people live like savages without being married, nor buried, nor baptized; and it is this licentious liberty which causes so many to rejoice in vagabondage.

Foucault stresses that this wasn’t some plot on the part of authorities to enslave beggars and profit off their labor. The people in charge of the workhouses generally failed at assigning work that was profitable or productive, even in the weak sense of productive at lining their own pockets. They seemed genuinely driven by a belief in the curative power of Honest Work:

Measured by their functional value alone, the creation of the houses of confinement can be regarded as a failure. Their disappearance throughout Europe, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as receiving centers for the indigent and prisons of poverty, was to sanction their ultimate failure: a transitory and ineffectual remedy, a social precaution clumsily formulated by a nascent industrialization. And yet, in this very failure, the classical period conducted an irreducible experiment. What appears to us today as a clumsy dialectic of production and prices then possessed its real meaning as a certain ethical consciousness of labor, in which the difficulties of the economic mechanisms lost their urgency in favor of an affirmation of value.

In this first phase of the industrial world, labor did not seem linked to the problems it was to provoke; it was regarded, on the contrary, as a general solution, an infallible panacea, a remedy to all forms of poverty. Labor and poverty were located in a simple opposition, in inverse proportion to each other. As for that power, its special characteristic, of abolishing poverty, labor – according to the classical interpretation — possessed it not so much by its productive capacity as by a certain force of moral enchantment. Labor’s effectiveness was acknowledged because it was based on an ethical transcendence. Since the Fall, man had accepted labor as a penance and for its power to work redemption. It was not a law of nature which forced man to work, but the effect of a curse. The earth was innocent of that sterility in which it would slumber if men remained idle: “The land had not sinned, and if it is accursed, it is by the labor of the fallen man who cultivates it; from it no fruit is won, particularly the most necessary fruit, save by force and continual labor.”

According to Johan Huizinga, there was a time, at the dawn of the Renaissance, when the supreme sin assumed the aspect of Avarice, Dante’s cièca cupidigia. The seventeenth-century texts, on the contrary, announced the infernal triumph of Sloth: it was sloth which led the round of the vices and swept them on. Let us not forget that according to the edict of its creation, the Hôpital Général must prevent “mendicancy and idleness as sources of all disorder.” Louis Bourdaloue echoes these condemnations of sloth, the wretched pride of fallen man; “What, then, is the disorder of an idle life? It is, replies Saint Ambrose, in its true meaning a second rebellion of the creature against God.” Labor in the houses of confinement thus assumed its ethical meaning: since sloth had become the absolute form of rebellion, the idle would be forced to work, in the endless leisure of a labor without utility or profit.

Foucault presents confinement alternately as workhouses mixing together madmen and poor people, and as ultra-secure special hospitals for the insane. I’m not sure what to make of this contradiction; maybe the less ill people were in one, and the more ill people in the other? Maybe he’s just interested in the general phenomenon of confinement? In any case, the places for the insane were pretty bad too:

In his Report on the Care of the Insane Desportes describes the cells of Bicetre as they were at the end of the eighteenth century: “The unfortunate whose entire furniture consisted of this straw pallet, lying with his head, feet, and body pressed against the wall, could not enjoy sleep without being soaked by the water that trickled from that mass of stone.” As for the cells of La Salpêtrière, what made “the place more miserable and often more fatal, was that in winter, when the waters of the Seine rose, those cells situated at the level of the sewers became not only more unhealthy, but worse still, a refuge for a swarm of huge rats, which during the night attacked the unfortunates confined there and bit them wherever they could reach them; madwomen have been found with feet, hands, and faces torn by bites which are often dangerous and from which several have died.”

It would be nice to think these kinds of things only survived because the public didn’t know about them, but that, uh, doesn’t seem to be quite what was happening:

As late as 1815, if a report presented in the House of Commons is to be believed, the hospital of Bethlehem exhibited lunatics for a penny, every Sunday. Now the annual revenue from these exhibitions amounted to almost four hundred pounds, which suggests the astonishingly high number of 96,000 visits a year.

All of these locks and chains and cages and exhibitions draw an obvious analogy of madmen and animals. Foucault doesn’t think this is a coincidence:

When practices reach this degree of violent intensity, it becomes clear that they are no longer inspired by the desire to punish nor by the duty to correct. The notion of a “résipiscence” is entirely foreign to this regime. But there was a certain image of animality that haunted the hospitals of the period. Madness borrowed its face from the mask of the beast. Those chained to the cell walls were no longer men whose minds had wandered, but beasts preyed upon by a natural frenzy: as if madness, at its extreme point, freed from that moral unreason in which its most attenuated forms are enclosed, managed to rejoin, by a paroxysm of strength, the immediate violence of animality. This model of animality prevailed in the asylums and gave them their cagelike aspect, their look of the menagerie…

What is most important is that it is conceived in terms of an animal freedom. The negative fact that “the madman is not treated like a human being” has a very positive content: this inhuman indifférence actually has an obsessional value: it is rooted in the old fears which since antiquity, and especially since the Middle Ages, have given the animal world its familiar strangeness, its menacing marvels, its entire weight of dumb anxiety. Yet this animal fear which accompanies, with all its imaginary landscape, the perception of madness, no longer has the same meaning it had two or three centuries earlier: animal metamorphosis is no longer the visible sign of infernal powers, nor the result of a diabolic alchemy of unreason. The animal in man no longer has any value as the sign of a Beyond; it has become his madness, without relation to anything but itself: his madness in the state of nature. The animality that rages in madness dispossesses man of what is specifically human in him; not in order to deliver him over to other powers, but simply to establish him at the zero degree of his own nature.

There is a lot I didn’t understand about this section, but the overall gist seems to be trying to lump the insane in together with other forms of badness and deviation from the moral norm – whether animals or criminals – and shutting them away where they could not be seen.

IV.

The late eighteenth century on was the period of reform, when the mentally ill were taken out of the prisons and workhouses and brought to nice benevolent asylums in the countryside where they could convalesce in peace under the supervision of expert doctors.

…or at least this is the prevailing narrative. Foucault is having none of it.

The houses of confinement weren’t just for criminals and madmen. They were also for the “undeserving poor” – homeless, beggars, unemployed. But the Industrial Revolution was changing the conception of poverty. Foucault places this in the context of modern economics, which introduced abstract ideas like “jobs” and “workers”. In this model, the poor were potential workers who just lacked jobs, not the weird exotic subspecies of humanity called “paupers”. The past paradigm had focused on healing their souls through the redemptive power of make-work; the new paradigm said that if they could be enlisted to work productive industrial jobs it would improve the Economy and everyone would be better off.

Out they went, and now instead of just being an undifferentiated mass of undesirables, the hospitals were more obviously just the two disparate populations of criminals and madmen. But surely now is the point where people see how inhumane it is to stick the mentally ill together with criminals, right?

Sort of.

When the Prior of Senlis asked that madmen be separated from certain convicts, what were his arguments? “He is deserving of mercy, as well as two or three others who would be better off in some citadel, because of the company of six others who are mad, and who torment them night and day.” And the meaning of this sentence would be so clearly understood by the police that the internees in question would be set free. And the demands of the Brunswick overseer have the same meaning: the workshop is disturbed by the cries and the confusion of the insane; their frenzy is a perpetual danger, and it would be better to send them back to the cells, or to keep them in chains. And already, we can anticipate that from one century to the next, the same protests did not have, at bottom, the same value. Early in the nineteenth century, there was indignation that the mad were not treated any better than those condemned by common law or than State prisoners; throughout the eighteenth century, emphasis was placed on the fact that the prisoners deserved a better fate than one that lumped them with the insane […]

La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt bears witness to this in his report to the Committee on Mendicity: “One of the punishments inflicted upon the epileptics and upon the other patients of the wards, even upon the deserving poor, is to place them among the mad.” The scandal lies only in the fact that the madmen are the brutal truth of confinement, the passive instrument of all that is worst about it.

There was apparently general agreement that it was unfair to criminals to keep them confined together with madmen, so out went the criminals – with the madmen staying around in institutions that were starting to sort of resemble the idea of a modern psychiatric hospital.

The beginning of the nineteenth century did start to see fewer chains and rats, and more attempt to treat madmen as human beings. But Foucault is perversely annoyed by this, convinced that this was secretly a way of respecting the mentally ill even less. He notes that their newfound rights were conditional on good behavior and on acting sane, and so in a sense these new more compassionate hospitals gave them less freedom than the old ball-and-chain deal. In the older hospitals, you could do whatever you wanted. You’d be doing it on the wrong side of iron bars, mocked by people who hated you, but you could do it. In the new hospitals, you were forced to constantly perform and please your guards and nurses in order to maintain your privileges. Madmen went from being treated like criminals – who at least are still adult citizens – to being treated like children:

We must therefore re-evaluate the meanings assigned to Tuke’s work: liberation of the insane, abolition of constraint, constitution of a human milieu – these are only justifications. The real operations were different. In fact Tuke created an asylum where he substituted for the free terror of madness the stifling anguish of responsibility; fear no longer reigned on the other side of the prison gates, it now raged under the seals of conscience. Tuke now transferred the age-old terrors in which the insane had been trapped to the very heart of madness. The asylum no longer punished the madman’s guilt, it is true; but it did more, it organized that guilt; it organized it for the madman as a consciousness of himself, and as a non-reciprocal relation to the keeper; it organized it for the man of reason as an awareness of the Other, a therapeutic [and so on for two hundred pages].

A lynchpin of this system was doctors. Foucault says that at this time, doctors really didn’t make much pretense to being able to cure mental illness. Their main role was as a representative of polite society and healthy living. The doctor would go in, talk to some mad people about how really being virtuous and healthful was better than being degenerate and crazy, and this would help the process of drawing them back into the social order (and so out of the excessive wild liberty that was madness). The more high-status and authoritative the doctor, the better – and he has lots of examples of doctors supposedly curing madmen with a couple of stern words delivered in a suitably censorious tone.

He theorizes that after the restore-to-social-order idea of mental health became obsolete, doctors were stuck without a purpose. That is, it was known that it was important to have doctors treating the mentally ill, but unclear exactly what they were supposed to do. One response was to flounder around for a while on various scams and miracle cures. Another response was Freud’s: to accept that the doctor-patient relationship itself somehow had magical properties, and that the doctor being a silent authority figure sitting in judgment of you was actually an effective way to cure psychiatric disease.

V.

Everything above is a really superficial reading of Madness And Civilization and probably misses the whole point of the book.

This point is something that alternately seems postmodern or kabbalistic or – for lack of a better term – insane. It’s not just saying that This Historical Period treated the mad This Way, but That Historical Period treated them That Way. It’s trying to peek beneath the hood (or the veil?) to find the zeitgeist, the animating spirit of the European continent that led them to do things as they did and which transformed one schema into another. This is rarely anything sensible, like “the economy improved” or “there was a revolution”. More often it’s some kind of deep subconscious beliefs about the meaning of humanity or freedom or symbolism or something. If Europe was one guy, this book would be Foucault performing Freudian dream analysis on that guy.

For example, the Europeans didn’t put their madmen on Ships Of Fools just because it was a convenient way to get rid of them, but also because:

Water adds to this the dark mass of its own values; it carries off, but it does more: it purifies. Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us is in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last. It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools’ boat; it is from the other world that he comes when he disembarks. The madman’s voyage is at once a rigorous division and an absolute Passage. In one sense, it simply develops, across a half-real, half-imaginary geography, the madman’s liminal position on the horizon of medieval concern—a position symbolized and made real at the same time by the madman’s privilege of being confined within the city gates: his exclusion must enclose him; if he cannot and must not have another prison than the threshold itself, he is kept at the point of passage. He is put in the interior of the exterior, and inversely. A highly symbolic position, which will doubtless remain his until our own day, if we are willing to admit that what was formerly a visible fortress of order has now become the castle of our conscience.

Confined on the ship, from which there is no escape, the madman is delivered to the river with its thousand arms, the sea with its thousand roads, to that great uncertainty external to everything. He is a prisoner in the midst of what is the freest, the openest of routes: bound fast at the infinite crossroads. He is the Passenger par excellence; that is, the prisoner of the passage. And the land he will come to is unknown—as is, once he disembarks, the land from which he comes. He has his truth and his homeland only in that fruitless expanse between two countries that cannot belong to him. Is it this ritual and these values which are at the origin of the long imaginary relationship that can be traced through the whole of Western culture? Or is it, conversely, this relationship that, from time immemorial, has called into being and established the rite of embarkation?

Let’s appreciate a few things about this passage. First, it’s phenomenal writing. I apologize for thinking all Continental philosophy had to be badly-written; in retrospect Nietzsche should have cured me of this delusion.

But second, it’s totally bonkers. Like, forget the fact that there weren’t any real Ships Of Fools and Foucault is analyzing a literary motif. Forget that the literary motif actually comes from a metaphor by Plato which is about something else. Even if the rivers of Europe were choked with such Ships, this is just a phenomenally unproductive way to think about anything. This is the kind of thought process where we drill for oil because we are symbolically sexually penetrating Mother Earth (insert kabbalistic analysis of the word “fracking” here).

There is a lot along these lines, none of which I am really able to follow, especially because the book never gives a clear definition of its crucial term “unreason”. The closest I can come is a theory that the Renaissance (and to some degree the later classical period) thought of madness as potentially interesting and valuable. They didn’t like madmen, but they occasionally tried to have a “dialogue between madness and reason”, where they would try to understand where the mad were coming from and what they had to offer civilization. In later periods, this was lost, and the mad were just confined away from human sight – but there was still at least some dignity in it, because madness was allowed to exist on its own terms. Later, when bleak prison workhouses transitioned to humane medical asylums, even that dignity was lost, as sane people’s imperative changed to forcing the mad to conform to the sane world’s standards and deny their madness’ existence.

This is the thrust of the last chapter, and Foucault ties all of this together into a case that all of the reformers were just jerks, and they sought more humane treatment for the mentally ill out of a desire to judge and dominate them. This is fantastically contrarian. Foucault does not give an inch to the position that maybe there was something good and wholesome about the desire to rescue people from being crammed by the dozen in rat-infested cells with all of their limbs chained together. He doesn’t specifically say the rat-infested cells were better, but he sure hints at it pretty hard.

I always like contrarian takes. But I can’t make sense of what Foucault is trying to do here. And also, some of the same sites that debunk the Ship Of Fools thing say that actually the Renaissance was super-cruel to mad people, and Foucault’s picture of them as tolerant and understanding is composed entirely of cherry-picking and imagination.

The best I can do here is say that Foucault is too much of an Idealist where I am a Materialist. I measure humanitarian victories in prisoners freed and rat bites averted. He seems to measures them how the dream sequences of Personified Europe are treating the dialogue between Madness and Reason. Probably there’s a perspective in which this makes sense, but this book didn’t manage to teach me to appreciate it.

VI.

Granted that I couldn’t appreciate the philosophy and remain doubtful of the scholarship, I still enjoyed this book. It was a weird tour of parts of history I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. And it did accomplish the post-modernist goal of broadening my perspective enough to be more doubtful of my own society’s institutions.

The idea of novel-reading causing insanity seems ridiculous to us. But is it any more ridiculous than the idea of video games causing violence? Or stereotype threat causing poor test performance? The dustbin of scientific history is filled with weird claims that various social and cultural phenomena have powerful effects on the mind, from refrigerator-mother schizophrenia to low self-esteem causing crime. Surely this is one more warning to before voodoo psychology.

But that’s too easy. I also worry about the idea – constant in its essence in every time period, though changing in its particulars – that mental illness is the result of living your life in an unwholesome way and indulging in illicit pleasures. In the classical period, this included everything from waking up too late, to not working long enough hours, to getting too romantically infatuated, to, well…

Heat clears the way for liquids. It is precisely for this reason that all the hot drinks the seventeenth century used and abused risk becoming harmful: relaxation, general humidity, softness of the entire organism. And since these are the distinctive traits of the female body, as opposed to virile dryness and solidity, the abuse of hot drinks risks leading to a general feminization of the human race. [Thomas Sydenham warns:] “Most men are censured, not without reason, for having degenerated in contracting the softness, the habits, and the inclinations of women. Excessive use of humectants immediately accelerates the metamorphosis and makes the two sexes almost as alike in the physical as in the moral realm. Woe to the human race, if this prejudice extends its reign to the common people.”

And I can’t help noticing a resemblance between this and the modern insistence on diet and exercise. They’ve got the same kind of element of “if you don’t exert a lot of willpower to live your life in a diligent way, then you shouldn’t be surprised when you end up mentally ill.” Although the role of poor diet/exercise in physical illness is beyond questioning, its role in mental illness is more anecdotal and harder to pin down. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of studies showing it works. But there’s also lots of anomalous data, like how exercise performed as part of your job doesn’t help. This has led some people to suggest that the physical effects of exercise are less important than the social role – the feeling of doing something to fight your depression and conform to a virtuous mode of life. Exercise works for that – but so might avoiding novels and staying away from hot drinks, if that was what your society wanted. I’m not saying this is definitely true. I’m just saying I give it higher credence now that the pattern of “people always want to use willpower-induced conformity to social order as a bulwark against mental illness” is more apparent.

On the other hand, it’s also important not to dismiss something we believe today just because people in the past believed the same thing. I was tempted to say something like I’m skeptical of modern-day behavioral activation because it sounds exactly like past-days “work will cure you because idleness is the mother of all sins” doctrine. But on closer examination, I’m using evidence wrong here. If people in the past believed something, that should be at least some positive evidence it was true – or at least not negative evidence. Of course, they’re going to phrase it in really awkward politically-incorrect ridiculous-seeming terms, because they’re the past. And they’ll probably figure out some way to make it imply a moral atrocity, because, again, past. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Very possibly it’s a timeless truth that routine and purposeful activity help depression. The past phrased this as “idleness is the mother of sin so we should force everyone into workhouses”, and now we’re not as much about forced labor and tracing out sin’s family tree. But behavioral activation therapy still seems pretty powerful.

I think I am going to be suspicious when the implied message stays the same but the specifics keep changing – “stay away from exciting novels” vs. “stay away from violent video games”, or “avoid hot drinks” vs. “avoid sugary foods”. It seems potentially safer when the specifics stay the same, with only the wording and the proposed responses changing.

There was one more thing that worried me about the past, much broader than any of these specific issues: doctors were very sure their cures worked. I knew in principle that there were a lot of placebo cures and cherry-picking, but it’s another thing to have to read story after story of doctors trying ridiculous treatments – one of them had his patient eat soap to cleanse their circulation – and reporting that it definitely worked, every time, and patients who had been violently insane for years were restored to perfect health. I have worked in a lot of excellent psychiatric hospitals, and not one of them has worked anywhere near as well as people in the seventeenth century record their completely ridiculous mental health system of telling people not to reading novels to have worked.

Either everyone in the past is a total liar (given this effect, probably true), Foucault himself is a total liar (given the Ship of Fools thing, probably true), or we need even more constant vigilance than we’ve been applying thus far (alas, probably also true).

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312 Responses to Book Review: Madness And Civilization

  1. Jack Lecter says:

    “I feel bad juxtaposing so eminent a figure as Foucault with Lovecraft,“

    Pushing back on this a little. Yeah, Lovecraft gets no respect in the snobbier academic circles, but his cultural impact alone, echoing down the decades, should be enough to make us give this a second look.

    Yeah, the masses entertain lots of fads that everyone loves on Tuesday and forgets by Wednesday, but the Lovecraft one has been going on for almost a century now. I think it’s time to start entertaining the possibility that we ought to take him seriously.

    (I sort of suspect there’s a prejudice in academic circles against art designed to appeal to feelings of dread, that maybe has more to do with a dislike of the feelings than the quality of the art in question.)

    • Null42 says:

      I think a lot of ‘geek’ writers are going to be taken more seriously once the present generation of nerds that grew up on Cthulhu and D&D percolates through academia. There was an actual article in the NYT about writers of literary fiction who said D&D helped train them for writing! (Logical, as it involves telling stories, though it depends on your campaign, of course.) English majors are a lot more open to the geeky pastimes than they used to be.

      Lovecraft has the huge disadvantage of being an actual racist, of course.

      • Alraune says:

        As you would expect from someone who feels the threat of The Other strongly enough to distill it into still-resonant dread a century later, yes.

        I have no fears for his legacy as long as his name remains the only adjective people know for describing horror, myself.

        • Jack Lecter says:

          As you would expect from someone who feels the threat of The Other strongly enough to distill it into still-resonant dread a century later, yes.

          Very much this.

          Also, I dislike the school of thought that holds some ideas to be so infused with the essence of evil such as to make any other accomplishments by those who hold them null and void. I deplore the idea of ‘thoughtcrime’.

          And I think this is actually something of a popular sentiment, so long as one is careful to keep things abstract and avoid triggering anyone’s insula.

          A big part of the function of art has always been the exploration of our shared humanity. If you think racists genuinely, literally don’t have any, that they’re missing all the pieces that make up a complete human being, then it would make sense to disregard any contributions they might attempt to make to mankind’s cultural legacy.

          It’s a slightly different school of thought that says, ‘Read on its own, this would be a good story, but the author held some unfortunate opinions that mean he can’t possibly have been a good person, and since only good people can write good stories, well…’

          To my knowledge, I’ve never met anyone who genuinely, consciously held the first view. The second does seem to come up a bit, though.

      • Deiseach says:

        Lovecraft has the huge disadvantage of being an actual racist, of course.

        All too unhappily true, and not in the modern “I don’t like these old-fashioned views” way of calling past literature racist (e.g. “No we can’t read Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, he uses the n-word! That’s a slur and he’s racist!“) but real, actual, genuine racism.

        However, Lovecraft did try to defend writing horror as not just pulp schlock, and claim that horror was a legitimate literary form, not simply genre fiction (it’s been a long struggle over this) in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, where he traces the lineage of the 18th century novel of the supernatural (not a bad resource to consider when examining the “novel reading causes or disposes to madness” claim, as this was the period of the rise of the original Gothic novel and they were devoured by the cartload, some of them being true classic novels but a lot of them being ephemeral cashing in on the craze), lauds Poe, and brings the tradition up to the early 20th century, including championing then-forgotten or obscure writers like Dunsany, so it’s a handy guide to the main points of the development of the weird novel:

        The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.

        …For those who relish speculation regarding the future, the tale of supernatural horror provides an interesting field. Combated by a mounting wave of plodding realism, cynical flippancy, and sophisticated disillusionment, it is yet encouraged by a parallel tide of growing mysticism, as developed both through the fatigued reaction of “occultists” and religious fundamentalists against materialistic discovery and through the stimulation of wonder and fancy by such enlarged vistas and broken barriers as modern science has given us with its intra-atomic chemistry, advancing astrophysics, doctrines of relativity, and probings into biology and human thought. At the present moment the favouring forces would appear to have somewhat of an advantage; since there is unquestionably more cordiality shewn toward weird writings than when, thirty years ago, the best of Arthur Machen’s work fell on the stony ground of the smart and cocksure ’nineties. Ambrose Bierce, almost unknown in his own time, has now reached something like general recognition.

        Startling mutations, however, are not to be looked for in either direction. In any case an approximate balance of tendencies will continue to exist; and while we may justly expect a further subtilisation of technique, we have no reason to think that the general position of the spectral in literature will be altered. It is a narrow though essential branch of human expression, and will chiefly appeal as always to a limited audience with keen special sensibilities. Whatever universal masterpiece of tomorrow may be wrought from phantasm or terror will owe its acceptance rather to a supreme workmanship than to a sympathetic theme. Yet who shall declare the dark theme a positive handicap? Radiant with beauty, the Cup of the Ptolemies was carven of onyx.

      • danohu says:

        If you were keeping up with academic eco-feminism, you’d know that we are now living in the Chthulucene. Our epoch is “one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices”.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I assume this was dry humor.

      • Jack Lecter says:

        Only the last line, I think. The rest sounds word-for-word like something I might have said, in all seriousness. Probably as part of a larger rant.

      • Null42 says:

        To some degree. My point was, a lot of nerd culture is going to be more accepted on artistic merits as time goes on, but Lovecraft’s quite real prejudices are going to slow down his acceptance.

        Personally, I don’t care. I listen to Wagner, I read Celine (and Shakespeare!) and don’t subject my favorite author list to ideological inquisitions. People lived in the past and had different views back then, and people with some disagreeable views can still do amazing things. I mean, whatever Lovecraft’s prejudices, Cthulhu certainly doesn’t care if you’re black or white. And, honestly, I couldn’t care less about Lovecraft’s opinions on the real world. He didn’t handle it all that well.

        But the humanities people are PC out the wazoo, and we have to put up with all sorts of essays discussing how ‘problematic’ Cthulhu is because of HPL’s prejudices. Heck, somebody is going to dig up something racist Gary Gygax said 40 years ago and use it to prove D&D is racist.

        • Tarpitz says:

          Honestly, I don’t think the biggest barrier to Lovecraft’s acceptance by the academic literary establishment is his racism or his choice of genre. It’s the fact that he’s a bloody awful prose stylist. To be clear, I like Lovecraft, and I think his status as the progenitor of cosmic horror makes him important, but that is just not the kind of thing English lit types care about, or have done for decades.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Honestly, I don’t think the biggest barrier to Lovecraft’s acceptance by the academic literary establishment is his racism or his choice of genre. It’s the fact that he’s a bloody awful prose stylist.

            That was no barrier to Melville.

          • adrian.ratnapala says:

            1: Sorry Nybbler for “reporting” you, when I only meant to reply. There is not “reply” button for you. What a world.

            2: I think both Melville and Lovecraft could have taken lessons from Rushdie. Their problem is that they wrote in in English. And therefore people who understand English can criticize their style. Rushdie writes in something that not only isn’t English, but which seemingly can’t be translated into English, or any other language. So it must be good.

          • but that is just not the kind of thing English lit types care about, or have done for decades.

            What is your view of the attitude of the English lit types to Kipling? He was a brilliant stylist in both prose and verse and massively popular, but it’s my (not very well informed) impression that English lit types look down on him for what they believe his political views to have been.

        • shrikesnest says:

          Heck, somebody is going to dig up something racist Gary Gygax said 40 years ago and use it to prove D&D is racist.

          Well, our last moral panic took a swing at D&D, and it’s pretty popular again. I could see the modern social justice equivalent of the Christian Ladies Reading Circle from the 1980s wanting to score some easy points off it, too.

    • Jack V says:

      That’s an interesting one, because I agree that popular authors often get little respect. But in this case I really do think, Lovecraft was an good author with some great ideas and some horrible opinions, but that a lot of what’s good about Lovecraftian genre now is not exactly due to him.

      Tolkien is kind of the opposite. In many ways he kickstarted the “a fantasy world with its own history” trend which has dominated ever since. But people still love his original books today whilst I feel like, if there were not orcs and elves, people would have got my remixing other tropes. Whereas lovecraft, the idea of extradimensional horrors might not have caught on without him. But most people don’t obsessively read and reread his actual books, even if you enjoy them once, people tend to read the spin-offs more.

      • Tarpitz says:

        That is probably at least in part because Tolkien could write and Lovecraft couldn’t…

        • adrian.ratnapala says:

          Now I am a fan of Tolkein, but not of Lovecraft. And yet I say Lovecraft had the better prose overall. At least in little bits I have seen. He is writing is just much more energetic, because it has fewer other concerns to deal with. Perhaps it helps that I have little hate for Purple Prose.

    • ohwhatisthis? says:

      What does get respect in the snobbiest academic circles? Walking PoMo generators?

      Lovecraft is great.

    • Deiseach says:

      I sort of suspect there’s a prejudice in academic circles against art designed to appeal to feelings of dread, that maybe has more to do with a dislike of the feelings than the quality of the art in question

      Well, there is a respectable body of academic work on the Gothic, but perhaps that’s also part of the problem: if the weird and supernatural in literature can be safely locked down as a historic achievement, and modern development of such in cinema and other media can be parsed into pop-culture – and hence to be dismissed – and ‘proper’ art – which can then be dissected by the academy – then the stigma about genre fiction remains.

      And a lot of the examination of the Gothic tradition likes to strike out on ignoring the overt themes (ghosts, hauntings, curses, the supernatural and of course the spectre and threat of madness) for exhuming attitudes to sexuality, female emancipation, queer themes, and navel-gazing academic tomfoolery invoking Derrida et al (this is my go-to example of such, it really disappointed me when I read it back in 2003. Too much whining about how tough it is being a professor of English at an English university and not as clever as he thinks he is*). Vampire novels as being really about transgressive sexuality and the fears of a conventionally moral society around those (that interpretation really took off at the 80s height of the AIDS crisis where modern horror writers were tripping over themselves to write AIDS parables and critics and academics were talking about blood-borne disease and the threat of queer sexuality).

      I mean, that’s not wrong, but it’s also not the whole of it either. Bram Stoker (and his predecessors) weren’t (consciously) writing about “eek! liberated women engaging in free love will topple our sexist patriarchal society!”, they were writing about themes of terror that evoked a universal response.

      *The blurb promised me “Following a major introductory historical and critical overview, there are chapters on the death drive, déjà-vu, “silence, solitude and darkness,” the fear of being buried alive, doubles, ghosts, cannibalism, telepathy, and madness, as well as more “applied” readings concerned, for example, with teaching, politics, film, and religion”, instead I got pages of how great Nicholas Royle thinks Nicholas Royle is!

    • OptimalSolver says:

      Lovecraft gets no play because his writing is schlocky, over-the-top, claptrap. His purple prose is more amusing than dread-inducing, and his ideas have been expressed with far more subtlety and far fewer hyper-emotional hysterics by better writers.

      The bits of Tolkien’s works where he very subtly and poetically hints at some terrible thing or situation induce far more dread in me than Lovecraft hysterically hitting me over the head with a lurid description of some laughable beast.

      Also, the indifference of the Universe (anthropomorphism alert!) to human well-being merits a shrug of the shoulders from me, not curling up in a fetal position and sucking my thumb. I’m guessing the latter reaction is only from people (including Lovecraft?) who expected it to be otherwise.

      Some samples from Mr. Lovecraft for the uninitiated:

      … even now I can hear the footsteps of that shambling monstrosity, and hear its eerie piping upon the wind. Poor Blakely, he never dreamed — but now the door is being smashed to flinders, and at last I behold what my meddling has awakened! And now it is dragging me across the floor toward its hideous suckered mouths! Ia! Ia! The Goat With a Thousand Young! No!”

      I would not look at the marching things. That I desperately resolved as I heard their creaking joints and nitrous wheezing above the dead music and the dead tramping. It was merciful that they did not speak . . . but God! their crazy torches began to cast shadows on the surface of those stupendous columns. Heaven take it away! Hippopotami should not have human hands and carry torches . . . men should not have the heads of crocodiles…

      🙂

      • honhonhonhon says:

        My biggest exposure to Lovecraft was when I tried reading Mountains of Madness. I was only in my teens, yet indeed the book almost made me go mad from all the repetition. I had never seen a man spend a hundred pages hammering away at how scary and horrifying and vaguely unsettlingly fish-faced weird spooky a thing is (gave up around p.150 IIRC).

      • ohwhatisthis? says:

        In many ways, the work of a critic is easy…

      • TheEternallyPerplexed says:

        Lovecraft [ … ] his ideas have been expressed with far more subtlety and far fewer hyper-emotional hysterics by better writers.

        Can you recommend some authors or works?

        • OptimalSolver says:

          Well, for humans confronting an indifferent, incomprehensible, and very unsettling cosmos, I’d start with Stanislaw Lem, specifically Solaris (NOT the film), His Master’s Voice, and The Invincible.

          I would also check out Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers.

        • powerfuller says:

          For weird fiction hinting vague at dreadful things, try reading Robert Aickman’s Cold Hand in Mine. Not sure if it’s what you’re looking for, but this short story possibly has frightened me more than any other.

          I’m also of the opinion that Lovecraft’s prose style is wretched, but what do you expect from an admirer of Poe? I think Lovecraft’s short stories, like “The Picture in the House” are more successful than his longer works.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        I don’t get what’s dreadful about either of those passages. They sound atmospheric and portentous. They evoke a certain kind of mood and convey that the narrator has a certain kind of mindset and attitude. They’re way more effective than some kind of terse, Hemingway-esque prose.

        I think modern readers and writers have movie envy and think that prose should be like movies. If prose does anything that a movie camera can’t, it’s “lurid” and “overwrought.”

        I stayed away from Lovecraft for way too long because I’d been warned about the quality of his prose. I was shocked when I began reading him and discovered that not only was his prose fine, it was far cooler-sounding and evocative than prose in a more modern style. I have since read everything he’s written because his style is so good.

      • adrian.ratnapala says:

        Also, the indifference of the Universe (anthropomorphism alert!) to human well-being merits a shrug of the shoulders from me,

        Another way of putting this (at least for Lovecraft analysis) is that there is much more unknown than known to the world, and we have to actively work to stay close enough to the known to be functional. So obviously if you find yourself naked in the atmosphere of Jupiter, you are too far into the unknown and you’ll die.

        More realistically, the known incudes not just much earth, but our social order and mostly safe place most of us have in it. So even if we can’t teleport to Jupiter, we can fairly easily teleport to the life of a criminal or madman by behaving outside of our social role. And there are many more ways of being outside our social role than of being within it.

        That later sort of thing sound pretty humdrum compared to Lovecraftian monsters. But psychologically it is the same thing — the safe comfortable world is just a tiny bubble within an ocean of madness.

    • theredsheep says:

      Erm, what I’ve read of Lovecraft would support the theory that he’s underappreciated because he’s really not a very good writer. At all. I picked up a collection at the library of his “greatest hits”; it had a foreword by Barbra Hambly where she said (this is near verbatim) “Lovecraft is our most influential bad writer.” I went ahead and read “At the Mountains of Madness” anyway. I found it rather silly and one-trick; he was quite obviously trying to build suspense by constantly dropping hints of the HORRIBLE THING he was about to discover, without naming it, all the while describing fairly pedestrian action in precise, long-winded detail. This was so incredibly suspenseful (read: annoying) that I took to skimming big chunks of the text until I got to the part where they were attacked by the … shoggoth? Whatever it was. Up through the end, anyway. I tried another short story after that, found I couldn’t sustain interest, took the book back to the library so somebody else could have fun reading about the eldritch horrors of madness lurking beyond the dark infinities of unknown regions of time and all the hells too dark for mankind to ever dream of, etc., etc.

      If you want horrible, just look at a Bosch painting, it’s more technically competent.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I think you are right, but only partially. By our modern standards, Lovecraft is indeed not a very good writer (neither is Tolkien, TBH). However, one of the reasons for this is that our modern standards have come about due to incremental refinement of Lovecraft’s (and Tolkien’s) work. Lovecraft was a pioneer to such an extent that “Lovecraftian” has become a meaningful adjective. The idea of humans being insignificant specks in a cold, unfeeling Universe is commonplace today, and it wasn’t new in Lovecraft’s time; however, Lovecraft was the one who could really drive it home. The same thing goes for amorphous, alien horrors; non-Euclidean spaces; and the general feeling of oppressive dread of the unknowable that suffuses his books.

        That said, I personally did enjoy The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Shadow over Innsmouth, and The Thing on the Doorstep, just to name a few of his stories. But perhaps that’s just me.

  2. Jack Lecter says:

    “This was such a great piece of historical trivia that I was shocked I’d never heard it before. Some quick research revealed the reason: it is completely, 100% false.“

    Points for noticing confusion! Congrats.

    IMO One of the best things Yudkowsky does in the sequences is to remove the stigma from admitting you’re confused. In light of Zvi Moshowitz’s recent comments on gratitude, I’ve been making an effort to express kudos more often when I feel it’s deserved. In the case of someone like you, Scott, that can be a bit of a daunting prospect- there’s so much of value here.

    Anyway…

  3. baconbits9 says:

    This is the thrust of the last chapter, and Foucault ties all of this together into a case that all of the reformers were just jerks, and they sought more humane treatment for the mentally ill out of a desire to judge and dominate them. This is fantastically contrarian. Foucault does not give an inch to the position that maybe there was something good and wholesome about the desire to rescue people from being crammed by the dozen in rat-infested cells with all of their limbs chained together. He doesn’t specifically say the rat-infested cells were better, but he sure hints at it pretty hard.

    Foucault appears to be, at the least, a near revolutionary. An actual member of the Communist party for some time, and mostly a socialist thereafter, he was stuck not being able to allow for improvements. Communism demands the overthrow of the current system, the stripping of wealth and the inversion of the power structure. Acceding that the status quo was steadily leading to improvements for the oppressed is a direct refutation of communist doctrine. The very nature of capitalism is exploitation, and examples of benevolence and earnest attempts to improve the lot of the oppressed calls that into question on its own.

    Post modernists have a heavy tendency to portray power structures as exploitative only and to propose either the direct tearing down, or the transfer of power to enlightened intellectuals as the only viable solutions. Gradual improvements are a mockery of their position.

    • mupetblast says:

      Well said. I’ll excerpt from a portion of a great “post-libertarian” article by my ‘ol mentor Jeffrey Friedman a passage on Foucault. The French thinker’s commitment to communism made for a botched methodological approach:

      “Foucault, who is widely thought to be another great iconoclast, simply updated Marx to account for the failure of a genuine proletarian revolution to occur. The resulting theory might be called ‘dysfunctionalism.’ Whatever institutions exist — ‘carceral’ bureaucracies, for example — must, Foucault assumed, serve the oppressive interests of the ruling class. Is it fair for me to claim that Foucault’s theory is assumed rather than proved? Yes: Foucault narrates the transition from one hegemonic ‘discourse’ to another without providing evidence of conscious intervention, each successive discourse somehow managing to prop up a new politicoeconomic order without any actual human beings conceptualizing the nefarious needs of the successive ruling classes. In the absence of evidence that oppression was instituted to serve class interests, Foucault’s casual references to the functionality of carceral society for ‘the bourgeoisie’ must be credited solely to his unexamined assumptions. Although he was a profound observer of the subtleties of interpersonal coercion, Foucault was not at his best when it came to explaining human action in particular times and places — which is to say, all human action — even though, as an historian, human action in particular times and places was Foucault’s field of ‘expertise.’

      Like his functionalist predecessors, Foucault failed to take seriously the ideas — the theories about reality — that may move human beings to act. When Foucault does occasionally eschew the passive voice and discuss the reasoning of real people who act in the political realm, such as Jeremy Bentham and other prison reformers, he quotes them selectively enough that he downplays their humanitarian and indeed radical aims, since those contradict his premise that self-interest-serving discourses, not theorizing human beings (such as Foucault himself), move the world.”

      READ MORE AT: http://www.the-dissident.com/theory.shtml

    • Yakimi says:

      An actual member of the Communist party for some time, and mostly a socialist thereafter

      On the contrary: Foucault believed that capitalism was conducive to the realization of his emancipatory desires, and anticipated the Left’s increasing disinterest in the primacy of economic explanations for oppression.

      Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a “much less bureaucratic” and “much less disciplinarian” form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state.

      […]

      To say it plainly: in his eyes, and in the eyes of many writers of that period, the working class today is “embourgeoisée,” it is perfectly integrated into the system. The “privileges” that it obtained after the war make it no longer an agent of social change, but, on the contrary, a brake on the Revolution. This idea was very widespread at the time, it can be found in authors as varied as Herbert Marcuse or André Gorz. Gorz would go so far as to speak of a “privileged minority,” with respect to the working class.

      The end of this centrality — which was also a synonym for the end of the centrality of work — would find its outlet in the “struggles against marginalization” of ethnic or social minorities. The lumpenproletariat (or the “new plebeians,” to use Foucault’s term) acquired a new popularity and was now seen as a genuinely revolutionary subject.

      This all may sound unusual, but Foucault’s only real difference with the left-wing thinkers of his generation was his honesty: when the Left realized that the first-world working classes were entirely devoid of revolutionary potential, they instead weaponized the cause of the marginalized, but they aimed this spear not at the heart of capital holders but at the privileges with which the proletariat were supposedly bribed into complacency. Despite the ostensibly radical tenor of these politics, they enjoy the endorsement and patronage of many status quo stakeholders, as epitomized by woke Clintonism. Foucault just didn’t bother pretending that there was any antagonism between fighting for, say, immigrants and fighting capital. One factor I suspect to be relevant was that Foucault was an extremely promiscuous homosexual who must have understood that the cities of the capitalist world, and San Francisco in particular (where he contracted AIDS), presented a far more liberating climate for the exploration of his polymorphously perverse fantasies than any socialist country.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        The leftist student uprising in May 1968 in Paris scared President De Gaulle into surreptitiously fleeing to West Germany, but PM Pompidou retrieved him. The Gaullists then bribed the Communist working class with pay raises into abandoning the bourgeois radical students.

        This turn of events was eye-opening for leftist intellectuals like Foucault.

      • Michael Handy says:

        Wait…so you’re saying the move to a social and minority based focus for the left post 1970 was actually an accelerationist doctrine aimed against the Labour Aristocracy?

      • baconbits9 says:

        On the contrary: Foucault believed that capitalism was conducive to the realization of his emancipatory desires, and anticipated the Left’s increasing disinterest in the primacy of economic explanations for oppression.

        You mean during the last years of his life and ~20 years after the publishing of the book under review? I should have been more clear though, at the time of this writing Foucault was very far left, and it is thus unsurprising that he was unable to give deserved credit to gains made under the capitalist structure.

        • @baconbits9

          gains made under the capitalist structure.

          But isn’t Foucault arguing that things have got worse since the feudal era in this case? That would contradict Marxism, which saw capitalism as an improvement. Marxism is also materialistic, whereas Focault is making esoteric arguments about how we’ve been impoverished (in some non-physical way) by taking away the dignity of the insane. Although he’s clearly a lefist, he’s an idealist esoteric one, and concerns for dignity have much more in common with traditionalism than Marxism, which is focused on physical needs. I guess this is the legacy of the Freudo-Marxist synthesis, which is something I cannot begin to understand, as the two seem nearly oxymoronic to me.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      Doctrinaire Communism holds that capitalism was an enormous improvement over feudalism and that history has been a grand sweep upwards. It is certainly not a communist view that things were better in the middle ages than they were in the industrial revolution.

      • baconbits9 says:

        According to Marx capitalism played a role in the eventual evolution of political systems toward Communism, but that it was inherently based on the exploitation of the proletariat. Interaction between classes (except of course the intellectual and proletariat classes) must be based on exploitation, and any improvements must be frames this way. If you admit the possibility that improvements for the proletariat occurred without some level of exploitation you must admit the possibility that the capitalistic system can tend towards a ‘just’ system without the requisite revolution. The logical outcome or recognizing that the industrial age was better than the middle ages and that capitalism held within it the possibility of non exploitative relationships across class is that capitalism itself can become the end ‘just’ system.

        • baconbits9 says:

          For example from the opening of the Manifesto of the Communist party

          The history of all hitherto existing society†
          is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master‡ and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
          In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.
          The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

          If all things must be framed as a class struggle, then a classless society is the just outcome. If all cross class interactions cannot be classified as such then it is at least logically possible that a just, class based society can emerge. Whenever you then note a good it has to be tempered with some bad, but not just a bad but one that is irredeemable without the elimination of class.

          and further

          The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked selfinterest,
          than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked,
          shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

          Emphasis (and a little reformatting) mine.

          • fuguenocht says:

            It seems like you think that the de-aestheticization of oppression that the second quote describes implies a value judgment. I highly doubt Marx & co would defend the “religious and political illusions” of feudalism as preferable.

          • baconbits9 says:

            It seems like you think that the de-aestheticization of oppression that the second quote describes implies a value judgment. I highly doubt Marx & co would defend the “religious and political illusions” of feudalism as preferable.

            It is/was standard practice for Marx & co to frame advances against the ideal of Communism. Industrialization was good because it broke the dependence of the serf upon the land and emancipated them, taking one more step toward communism. However

            Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.

            and

            The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.

            The machines thus delivered industry entirely into the hands of the big capitalists and rendered the workers’ scanty property which consisted mainly of their tools, looms, etc., quite worthless, so that the capitalist was left with everything, the worker with nothing

            As soon as any branch of labour went over to factory production it ended up, just as in the case of spinning and weaving. in the hands of the big capitalists, and the workers were deprived of the last remnants of their independence

            The class of big capitalists, who, in all civilized countries, are already in almost exclusive possession of all the means of subsistence and of the instruments (machines, factories) and materials necessary for the production of the means of subsistence

            In reading communists I only see two frames of reference used. The steps which lead closer to communism which are good, and everything else which must be framed as bad in some way. Either with warnings about a future capitalist monopoly forcing the proles back to the level of the serfs, or claiming degradation of the souls of the prols.

            I will reconsider if you have a quote by Marx (I would accept another high stature communist if he isn’t directly contradicting something Marx wrote) that implies otherwise.

            I highly doubt Marx & co would defend the “religious and political illusions” of feudalism as preferable.

            I doubt they would defend it as preferable, only that capitalism is only framed as a necessary evil on the march toward communism (with some questions about it being necessary).

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          Communism does and can think that the proletariat are exploited, inherently, by the fundamental logic of capitalism, and thus that they can never truly be not exploited except by moving to communism, but still think they are less exploited than they were by feudalism.

    • antilles says:

      Foucault was also an activist for and helped design prison reform proposals based on his critiques of the penal system in “Discipline and Punish.” So labeling him as someone who makes the perfect the enemy of the good seems misguided.

    • Andrew Cady says:

      baconbits9, have you actually read Foucault’s works? I read “The Essential Works: Volume 3: Power” and “History of Sexuality” among misc. others and I believe they contradict your portrayal very much.

      Foucault is always explicitly emphasizing the double-sided nature of power; he gave (in some interview) as an example of this how even before feminist reforms, wives had powers to wield against their husbands such as withholding sex or pilfering money. Nevertheless the wives were dominated, and the society had a need to reform larger-scale power structures to remedy this.

      Foucault says that all power relations are like this: the dominated side is always exercising powers against the dominating side. So of course there can be progress, the dominating side can always win some battles, improve their position. He likes to write about how people resist in this kind of way.

      (By the way I wouldn’t impute onto Foucault a naive view that dominated=good and dominating=evil and that always necessarily domination must be resisted by social movements. He is concerned with power in the specific cases where he is opposed to the status quo, not stating that power itself is evil.)

      Foucault also does not seem to believe that you can just “tear down” power structures. You have to build alternative power structures. There is no such thing as the absence of power. He had a name for this concept which I don’t recall precisely — something like “constructing the practices of freedom” or maybe “defining the practices of freedom.” The point is that freedom is a positive construction, it cannot simply be the negation of a power. The simple negation of power is not ultimately a coherent concept.

  4. Anon. says:

    I couldn’t find any mention of equally bad flaws in the rest of the book, and Foucault really does seem to know his stuff, so I’m tempted to treat this as a one-off error, albeit a completely inexplicable one.

    Some related points:

    What we have discovered in looking at Madness and Civilization is that many of its arguments fly in the face of empirical evidence, and many of its broadest generalizations are oversimplifications. Indeed, in his quest for the essence of an age, its espiteme, Foucault seems simply to indulge a whim for arbitrary and witty assertion

    – H. C. Erik Midelfort in Madness and Civilization in Early Modern Europe: A Reappraisal of Michel Foucault

    a provocative and dazzlingly written prose poem, but one resting on the shakiest of scholarly foundations and riddled with errors of fact and interpretation.

    – Andrew Scull in The Insanity of Place / The Place of Insanity

    Foucault’s methods, those of an historical autodidact, are at best superficial, impresionistic, and beholden to the quasi-political doctrines he wishes to preach. […] By the traditional standards of the historian’s craft, this kind of thing hardly gets beyond rank speculation and gossip-mongering.

    – Norman Levitt in Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, I saw a lot of people arguing it was normal levels of shoddy historical scholarship, but that seemed different from the case of Foucault completely making something up.

      • pansnarrans says:

        Maybe he didn’t realise he was making it up? Like he’d seen the picture a while ago, it had fired his imagination, and by the time he came to write about it he remembered it as factual? (Apologies if that point is in the article and I missed it.)

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        Have you read J.G. Merquior’s short book on Foucault? It’s one of the standard critiques.

  5. TK-421 says:

    There’s a couple typos in the quoted text where an uppercase “U” has been substituted for a lowercase “ll” or “li”, I’m assuming due to OCR errors.

  6. reasoned argumentation says:

    In some cases, it was the result of an excess of passions, flightiness, or imagination: the most famous example is Don Quixote, who went crazy after reading too many fiction books. This was actually considered a very serious risk by practically all classical authorities, especially for women.

    The idea of novel-reading causing insanity seems ridiculous to us.

    Who’s “us”? It seems totally reasonable to me – lots of women make catastrophically bad decisions that leave them miserable in life on the basis of fiction. Dalrock’s blog catalogs women who blow up marriages based on “divorce porn” which predict that if she leaves her husband she’ll suddenly be beset by offers from more manly, wealthier, more attractive men – in reality she winds up pretty miserable. Same for the mass of women’s fiction / porn that all have the lesson that she just needs to put out for the guys she really wants to that that will lead to everything working out great. The perfect embodiment of how this goes wrong is Jessica Valenti – as described in a review of her autobiography Sex Object here:

    https://medium.com/the-patriarch-tree/lessons-of-a-sex-object-4b57f666dec5

    Postmoderism has a huge value in making you realize that other perspectives existed and that they might have been sane and right.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Even if we take those claims seriously, novels encouraging bad decision-making seems different from novels literally driving you insane.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        Madness began to be treated more as ordinary immorality. This didn’t necessarily mean people freely chose to be mad – the classical age didn’t think in exactly the same “it’s your fault” vs. “it’s biological” terms we do – but it was considered due to a weakness of character in the same way as other failures.

      • Null42 says:

        Only if you’re thinking in terms of ‘novel-reading causes schizophrenia or bipolar disorder’.

        But if you consider, say, leaving your husband or ignoring your domestic duties to be a form of madness… Remember those illnesses like ‘hysteria’ or even, heck, ‘drapetomania’? They don’t have our modern view of what madness is. Madness is what causes disorder in socially unacceptable ways, more or less; ADD is an illness because the modern demand for focus exceeds supply for many people.

      • Viliam says:

        Just thinking: If a novel can literally drive you insane, it should also be possible to write a novel that can literally drive you sane.

        Were there any attempts at this, besides HPMoR?

        • Mary says:

          If a novel can literally drive you insane, it should also be possible to write a novel that can literally drive you sane.

          Why?

          Breaking things is always easier than fixing them.

          • zorbathut says:

            Yeah, analogy: “if it’s possible to build a bomb that destroys cities, it should also be possible to build a bomb that creates cities”.

            I mean okay theoretically maybe, with some impressive nanotechnology, but it’s not going to be quite as easy as packing the thing with anti-explosives and setting it off in a junkyard.

          • Nornagest says:

            There were some attempts at building a bomb that creates harbors or canals, but the United States never carried them beyond the testing phase, partly because groundburst nuclear explosions tend to create unacceptable levels of fallout. The Soviets, who never met a crazy nuclear science idea they didn’t like, took the concept somewhat further.

        • Deiseach says:

          it should also be possible to write a novel that can literally drive you sane

          The didactic and improving novels of the Victorian era, especially those aimed at children, had that aim. And prior to that, tracts contrasting the respectable hard-working apprentice against the boy who fell into bad company and contracted bad habits and ended up dying poor, naked and (probably) insane.

          There is a definite strain of “read this, imitate the virtuous hero/heroine, and you will be happy, virtuous and successful too” writing out there, and I don’t think it’s gone away; modern self-help books, with their anecdotes of “Bob used to have your exact problems but then he followed this regime and now he’s a successful businessman with a thriving company, a great home life, a loving wife and two smart and beautiful kids!” – what are they doing but trying to write you sane?

    • Deiseach says:

      The idea of novel-reading causing insanity seems ridiculous to us.

      Have you ever tried reading some eighteenth-century novels? 🙂

      But I think the critique worked on the same level as the one made about modern women reading romance novels: it’s escapist trash, it gives you unrealistic expectations about relationships, real life men look bad by comparison with the heroes, etc. 17th and 18th century novels went in for a lot of excess and highly coloured Romanticism, and one of the “turning silly young girls’ heads” dangers was the danger of “marrying for love” instead of good solid practical reasons and your parents arranging the match. Imaginative and impressionable girls unsettling their minds with wild romantic fantasies of Bryonic heroes (a bit too early for Byron but you know the type: dark, brooding, handsome and cursed in a fascinating way which involves wrecking the lives of all round them) – again, we have the modern-day equivalent of “Women don’t want Nice Guys, they prefer Bad Boys”.

      Same with the hot drinks – the hot drinks in question would be coffee and tea, seen as Oriental poisons by the more excitable, coming in to replace good old traditional booze as the main drinks. People on this very site discuss dosing themselves up with caffeine for various purposes, imagine the effects this new drug had on people who had little to no exposure to it. Tea-drinking was particularly associated with women in the domestic sphere (as coffee-houses had been male preserves), so tea-drinking men would have been seen as slightly effeminate, preferring to sit around and gossip over a dish of tea with the girls. Or indeed drugging themselves into a fit of madness – see Le Fanu’s Green Tea where by abusing stimulants as a study aid – the green tea of the title – the misfortunate character in the tale ends up wrecking his nerves and maybe opening his doors of perception a little too wide so malign spirits of the outside can get in.

      Reading this post, I think Foucault is definitely approaching the subject from a literary angle, and sounds as if he’s in agreement with the 60s and 70s anti-psychiatrists: there is no such thing as insanity or mental illness, just the reaction to the chaotic world we live in, and those too sensitive/creative/honest to play by the dull rules of conventional society get tarred with the brush of “madness” and punished, controlled, and attempted to be cured.

      To be fair, some of the proposed treatments and cures were horrific; lobotomy was used because it worked and was the best available, even though it was awful. A lot of the ‘chained up screaming violent lunatics’ model of mental asylums went out not because of better theories or more humane treatment but because of the development of the chemical cosh to quieten patients and make them tractable and manageable (and indeed, modern nursing homes for elderly patients often misuse such drugs for the same reasons).

      I think Foucault found the image of the Ship of Fools very meaningful and symbolically rich, so he wanted it to be true – and what is ‘true’, anyway, if we’re discussing madness and civilisation? Dreary insistence on dusty actual facts is the exact kind of activity forcing the mad to be guilty and anxious and play at sanity that he’s complaining about!

      I think he may also be hearkening back to things like immrama and indeed the Odyssey, where the sea voyage encounters all kinds of obstacles and fairy worlds outside the ordinary run of life, and the mad are privileged passengers who move in that landscape that was once the preserve of mythic heroes and saints.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I knew a woman who was put off real men for a while by Francis Crawford, the hero of the Dorothy Dunnett novels. I don’t think it did her a lot of harm.

        • Lillian says:

          Hah, i had the something like that happen to me, but because my taste in men is terrible, the culprit was Tony Montana from Scarface. Fortunately it only lasted for a night; unfortunately it was a night i was spending at my Boyfriend’s. He was very bewildered at my sudden hours-long sobbing session, as well as my unexplained hostility towards all his efforts to comfort me. It’s the only time i’ve felt compelled to go sleep in a different room.

          • Null42 says:

            In this country, you gotta get the money first. Then after you get the money, then you get the power. Then after you get the power…

            All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don’t break em–

            Yeah, I get where you’re coming from. Chi Chi, get the yeyo.

      • engleberg says:

        @I think Foucault found the image of the Ship of Fools very meaningful and symbolically rich-

        There was a famous novel in the 1490s, Narrenschift, popular for a century or so- Coke loved it, and when a King James courtier used it to insult him, it was about as important as a bad second wife in turning Coke into a workaholic anti-James judge. Given the Chesterton thing about stories turning into things people actually do, someone probably tried putting the town lunatics on a ship and pushing it out to sea. After all, the canvas-climbers were liable to be conscripted gutter-sweepings anyway. I think Foucault was trailing his coat- ‘I dare to you prove nobody tried this, you inferior historians’.

      • Sfoil says:

        I “get” the idea that excessive fiction reading might lead to undesirable behavior way more than I understand how anyone could get the idea that drinking tea is more dangerous/harmful than obviously-intoxicating alcohol. My only hypothesis is that it had something to do with social rituals — European society had some cultural mechanisms for dealing with alcohol but not with coffee (?). Regardless the tea/coffee panic seems to have been pretty short-lived.

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      I read the entire article patiently waiting for the part where things go wrong. However, it appears I was correct that Jessica Valenti is a wealthy, famous, influential woman who has written multiple bestselling books. The closest thing that article comes to a genuine argument that something is wrong in Valenti’s life is that she has, at some point, had some marital troubles with her equally wealthy, famous, and influential husband of seven years which (judging by the fact that they were written about in her memoir and the couple is still together well after the book was released) were presumably resolved. I am not sure where one could find a couple married for seven years who has never had a marital problem, but perhaps they should be put into a museum.

      Otherwise, all of the article’s arguments that Jessica Valenti’s life is bad are like “Jessica Valenti lives in New York City without ever once considering that I, personally, would not want to live in New York City. Clearly the only reason anyone would have a preference different from my own is that they were brainwashed by Seinfeld. Lo, the havoc that feminism has wrought!” Like, jeez, maybe she just likes Broadway.

      Certainly there are possible criticisms of Valenti’s behavior. While it seems to have worked out well for her, cocaine use is generally a poor decision. But to the extent that her decisions are bad, they are in spite of her obvious success, not because of it.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        Yeah, everything sounds great.

        Madness is the final scene of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, as Tom Rakewell ends up in Bedlam after having squandered his fortune, and Jessica Valenti’s mental health isn’t optimal, to put it mildly. She describes (p. 165) her physician being surprised at what a large dose of Ativan — brand name of lorazepam, “a benzodiazepine . . . used to treat anxiety disorders” — she’s taking. So she decides to wean herself from her medication and comments: “Smoking pot helps” (p. 169). Great. Now she’s doing bong hits to relieve her psychiatric symptoms, but then we get to page 176:

        Andrew and I have been going to couple’s therapy, both for my anxiety and because Andrew is so mad at the space the anxiety takes up in our relationship. Our default mood is low-level annoyance toward each other with a propensity to turn into full-blown rage at the smallest thing. . . .
        I feel like I might hate him and I suspect he feels the same.

        Her husband is basically the first guy who didn’t ditch her. She – of course – hates him for this because he doesn’t measure up to her other lovers – but if he measured up to them he’d be another guy who’d ditch her.

        EDIT – Note the connection with mental health

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          Yes. She has a marital problem. She is writing an essay in which she is honest about her experience of a marital problem. However, notice that the book came out a year and a half ago and thus was probably written two to three years ago. She continues to be married to him. Presumably this is not because Jessica Valenti is staying in a miserable and unhappy marriage because of her deep respect for the sanctity of marriage, nor because she is incapable of locating a divorce lawyer. (He also probably signed off on the essay, which says something about their relationship.)

          Sometimes people in relationships, even overall good relationships, go through a bad patch. One of the good points of social conservativism is when it points out that commitment matters, that “in sickness and in health” means exactly what it says and you don’t get to dump your partner just because caregiving stresses you out, that a couple of bad months don’t make a relationship as a whole bad, and that if you stay together sometimes you will find that you grow and your relationship is overall stronger for the experience. One of the bad points of social liberalism is its tendency to go “we are unhappy with each other right now, therefore we were never TRULY in love in the first place, because obviously love completely eliminates all conflict in life about any experiences no matter how stressful.” I suggest that, as a social conservative, perhaps you should stick to your ideology’s strengths.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Our default mood is low-level annoyance toward each other with a propensity to turn into full-blown rage at the smallest thing. . . .
            I feel like I might hate him and I suspect he feels the same.

          • RandomName says:

            Might that just be the way she feels while in a rough spot?

            My mood goes up and down a bit, and I certainly have had the thought “I’m basically always unhappy” during the low points, even if I don’t believe that the other 90% of the time.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Our default mood is

          • sandoratthezoo says:

            When I am upset with my wife, the friction in our daily life looms larger than when I am not upset with my wife. I think this is a common feeling. You recast your past to the mood of your present.

          • Aapje says:

            @Ozy Frantz

            I don’t think that the ability to get a divorce causes people to never stay in bad relationships; nor that staying together after marital problems automatically means that those problems were resolved.

            I don’t think we can really judge their current relationship one way or the other without more recent information.

      • Baeraad says:

        Well, the fact that she wrote a whole book about how much she’s suffering even though she is to all appearances quite successful in every area of her life could be used as an argument for her doing something wrong, though it’s a little hard to imagine what it might be. :p

        But seriously, I agree. As much as Valenti is stretching to claim that she’s being oppressed, this reviewer is stretching even further to claim that she’s suffering the consequences of all the parts of her behaviour that he disapproves of. In fact, a cynic might note that that might be the reason why he’s so clearly foaming at the mouth – not only is she clearly the sort of person that pisses him off the most, but she’s gotten clean away with being that sort of person!

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          While reading about the book I learned that Valenti has a condition that means that pregnancy may be life-threatening for her and any future children she has; her daughter had to spend months in the NICU. That is suffering by any reasonable measure. But it’s also not Valenti’s fault at all; she just got unlucky. Sadly, HELPP syndrome doesn’t care about whether you’re a cool rich New Yorker or about whether you’re a slut who does cocaine.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Sadly, HELPP syndrome doesn’t care about whether you’re a cool rich New Yorker or about whether you’re a slut who does cocaine.

            It’s just a coincidence that things go wrong exactly in the way that traditional morality predicts!

            Of the known risk factors being 25+ is #1 for HELLP. Valenti’s self destructive life choices guaranteed she wasn’t going to be a mother by 25.

            Secondly is this:

            Infant morbidity and mortality rates range from 10 to 60 percent, depending on the severity of maternal disease. Infants affected by HELLP syndrome are more likely to experience intrauterine growth retardation and respiratory distress syndrome.

            Basic grasp of the numbers around natural selection would mean that this got selected out long ago. On the other hand if it was caused by a pathogen…

          • cassandrus says:

            Hold it, so now the “catastrophically bad decisions that leave them miserable in life” you were whining about above includes “waiting until after 25 to have kids”? Talk about moving the goalposts…..

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            cassandrus –

            No – learn to read.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            TIL that traditional morality requires that one only have children between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. One wonders if traditional morality also forbids being a Caucasian multipara, which is also a risk factor for HELLP.

            That’s not how evolution works. HELLP only happens in about 1 or 2 of every thousand pregnancies; many women with a genetic predisposition never develop HELLP. It is perfectly possible the selective pressure simply isn’t high enough to eradicate those genes (particularly if they are also doing something else useful in women without HELLP).

            Interestingly, regarding pathogens– one of the leading causes of preventable congenital disabilities in the US is cytomegalovirus infection. The best way to prevent cytomegalovirus infection is to avoid interacting with children under the age of five or six while pregnant. This is, of course, extremely trad.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Since traditional morality eschews birth control, women would be having children til menopause even if there exists a moral duty to have our first child or two by 25.
            So yeah, this doesn’t seem a productive line.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            TIL that traditional morality requires that one only have children between the ages of twenty and twenty-five.

            I guess my advice for cassandrus goes for you as well.

            She made self-destructive choices. Those choices precluded her becoming a mother by 25 – not that one of the self-destructive choices was to not be a mother by 25.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            reasoned argumentation: If you start having babies before 25, and you continue to have babies, at some point you will have babies over the age of 25, and therefore be at elevated risk of HELPP syndrome.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            Ozy has been shading the truth about Valenti’s self-inflicted problems. But Ozy is right that there is nothing blameworthy from a trad perspective about starting to have babies in your late 20s. Sheesh.

          • Hannes Malmberg says:

            In Western Europe, traditional morality did not prescribe all children between 20 and 25. Wiki-article on demographic concept of western european marriage pattern: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_European_marriage_pattern

      • seladore says:

        I read the entire article patiently waiting for the part where things go wrong.

        Same here. I’m not much of a fan of Valenti by any means, but there didn’t seem to be anything of substance in that review. The entire article seemed predicated on the idea that promiscuity and drug use are degenerate moral horrors that render anyone unfit to have opinions. Like, all you need to do is count someone’s sexual partners and incidences of drug use, and you can come to the conclusion that they are not worth listening to.

        Basically, the review did a really bad job of talking to people outside the author’s tribe. Did the author not consider that there might be people who see promiscuity and drug use and morally neutral?

        • Baeraad says:

          Right? I agreed with him whenever he attacked her double standards and self-pity, but the parts where he did that were always brief and sandwiched in between long bouts of him obsessively counting her lovers.

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        A lot of people here seem to be missing the point of that critique of Valenti:

        1. Valenti made many poor choices with regard to men.
        1a. Promiscuity typically involves getting involved with lower quality people. Almost by definition you’re not being as picky, not spending as long a time with someone before becoming involved with them. So, there are going to be some shitty ones in the mix. As well, people who are promiscuous tend to be lower in traits like Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, which are the traits associated with treating your mates (as well as people in general) well. So, you’re picking out of a pool that tends to be lower quality to begin with.*
        2. Not surprisingly many of those men did not treat her well.
        3. The resulting suffering seems to be exacerbated by her underlying mental health issues.
        4. She blames the patriarchy, or “men” in general, for her problems.

        The larger point is that you shouldn’t blame other people or “society” for the results of your choices, especially when your are especially vulnerable to negative emotion. Don’t blame “men” for the fact that you’re picking the shitty ones. Don’t blame society for the fact that you have underlying mental health issues.

        Not to mention throwing a bunch of drug use (not just cocaine) into the mix. Plus, a whole other bunch of non-sexually related bad decisions. So, some of her problems seem linked to her choices. Some seem linked to her own underlying vulnerabilities. Very little of them have anything to do with patriarchy.

        —–

        *People who are promiscuous mainly because they are highly Open and like to experiment, and who are more emotionally stable, may well be able to do so without too many consequences.

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          Promiscuity typically involves getting involved with lower quality people.

          That’s emphatically not what happened with Valenti.

          She got involved with men who are (by the standards of what she finds attractive) higher quality than she could attract for a relationship. She wasn’t picking “shitty” men – she was picking men who were out of her league – that’s why she’s the one getting dumped in all those stories.

          She got treated badly mainly because her view of the relationships was different than the men’s. She views it as serious and potentially life-long – he views her as disposable and assumes she views him the same way. The “bad treatment” is the mismatch of perception – her getting treated as disposable when she doesn’t think he views her that way.

          This is exactly as predicted by the “fiction pitched at women causes madness” view – fiction pitched at women is almost universally about a woman meeting some guy who is unreasonably attractive and unattainable (to her) and who doesn’t want to be in a relationship with her – until they give in to passion and he falls for her. Does that pattern sound familiar from Valenti’s life? All except the last part, right? From 14 to 30 she kept doing the same thing thinking the next time would be different. There’s a saying about madness being doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, isn’t there?

          • John Schilling says:

            Also, Valenti is professionally successful in her chosen field, living in her preferred environment, in what now appears to be a stable marriage and raising an AFIK healthy child. All before she turned forty (which is the new thirty), and with what appears to be a tolerable and entertaining level of drama that she was able to mine for fun and profit in her latest book.

            No matter how certain McCain may be that, e.g., “New York City is a terrible place to raise children”, Jessica Valenti’s choices seem to have been quite good at serving Jessica Valenti’s goals.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            That’s emphatically not what happened with Valenti.

            You’re quibbling about the term “lower quality,” which in the context of my comment clearly means “of lower character.”

            Also, if you reread the article, you’re clearly wrong: the men Valenti got involved with were often clearly of “lower quality” in my sense: drug dealers, cheaters etc.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            Valenti is professionally successful in her chosen field . . .

            Blah blah blah. People here keep saying this, but it totally misses the point: Valenti is clearly still pretty miserable.

            So, look, she’s obviously very driven and has a certain kind of cunning. But . . . so what?

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            You’re quibbling about the term “lower quality,” which in the context of my comment clearly means “of lower character.”

            Not really.

            My view is that the character of those guys is irrelevant to how Valenti was “treated” – her “treatment” was the result of expectations. She was hurt from being treated as disposable by men who could only view her as disposable because they are highly sought after by women. These men weren’t scoundrels that tricked her.

            No matter how certain McCain may be that, e.g., “New York City is a terrible place to raise children”, Jessica Valenti’s choices seem to have been quite good at serving Jessica Valenti’s goals.

            McCain isn’t the one who tells stories about having strangers jerk off in front of him as an 11 year old girl – she did.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            These men weren’t scoundrels . . .

            For fuck’s sake, read the damn article.

            . . . that tricked her.

            Whoever said they did.

          • John Schilling says:

            Valenti is clearly still pretty miserable.

            Citation needed. And a popular book saying “Men are evil, look how they done me wrong, hear my righteous indignation!” is not evidence of Valenti being miserable. It is evidence of Valenti being rich, and consistent with her being happy.

          • Aapje says:

            @manwhoisthursday

            Don’t do that, please.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            Aapje:

            Oh whatever.

          • adrian.ratnapala says:

            This is exactly as predicted by the “fiction pitched at women causes madness” …

            Thank you r_a for returning us to the actual topic of this thread!

            The pushback about the Valenti artcile being obsessive and overblown is right. But it does correctly describe how Valenti got suckered by a mismatch of expectations (whether or not it was caused by fiction).

            The corresponding error for a young man is to hope women will just throw themselves at him for casual hookups for. But that theory can fail fast, before it hurts. The corresponding lesson for women is harder and longer.

            That’s a way in which the universe is unfair to women more than men. And it bears more than a passing resemblence to the ubiquitious mysoginy that feminist t alk about.

          • vV_Vv says:

            She got involved with men who are (by the standards of what she finds attractive) higher quality than she could attract for a relationship. She wasn’t picking “shitty” men – she was picking men who were out of her league – that’s why she’s the one getting dumped in all those stories.

            This is just the natural female hypergamy, probably combined with pathological grandiosity caused by a cluster B personality disorder.

            Women naturally desire to lock down a high SMV alpha man to a committed relationship. Most women however quickly learn that while their own SMV is high enough to sleep with a high SMV man, it is not high enough to make him commit, therefore they settle down for a lower SMV man, possibly attempting to execute the “Alpha Fucks/Beta Bucks” strategy (get impregnated by a high SMV alpha and make the beta husband rise the kid).

            But Jessica Valenti has all the textbook traits of a cluster B personality disorder: extreme mood swings with rage outbursts, relationship instability, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, lack of empathy, and so on. And a typical trait of these disorders is narcisism: overestimation of one own’s value, feelings of entitlement and bitterness when these grandiose expectations crash against reality.

            Did Valenti catch these things from reading too many romance novels? Probably not. These stories appeal to the female fantasy because of hypergamy, like stories of great warriors appeal to the male fantasy because of testosterone, but sane people recognize that they are not characters in a book and can draw the line between fantasy and reality. People with poor mental health, instead, may behave according to exaggerated stereotypes of masculity or femininity even when not exposed to such fictional material.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Did Valenti catch these things from reading too many romance novels? Probably not. These stories appeal to the female fantasy because of hypergamy, like stories of great warriors appeal to the male fantasy because of testosterone, but sane people recognize that they are not characters in a book and can draw the line between fantasy and reality. People with poor mental health, instead, may behave according to exaggerated stereotypes of masculity or femininity even when not exposed to such fictional material.

            That’s just it though, isn’t it? Cluster B girls should avoid the type of fiction that naturally appeals to women the same way members of alcoholism prone groups should avoid alcohol.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            As the friendly neighborhood cluster B, you really can’t diagnose strangers with personality disorders based on their Internet personas, especially if your evidence is “a New York bohemian does drugs and has lots of casual sex” and “a feminist made a misandric joke.”

          • carvenvisage says:

            @aapje

            Don’t do that, please.

            Your line in the sand is totally arbitrary. It mistakes substance for form.

            ‘Citation given, dumbass’ is no major escalation from ‘citation needed’ in response to a subjective judgement. If anything its a, (-don’t get me wrong, mild and inconsequential,) de-escalation.

            -‘Dumbass’ is a dumbass word. It’s efficacy at hurting feelings is almost certainly in the negatives. -Who uses that word when they’re trying to start a fight? Nobody. Not even children.

            _

            Actually, your line is even worse than arbitrary. At least an arbitrary rule can be hard to exploit, if you don’t know it, but yours is perfectly transparent. You’ve just taken the first *explicit* piece of hostility, -no matter how mild, unthreatening, or good humoured-, and reacted to that.

            Do you envisions yourself as a lazy substitute teacher in a kindergarten here? Now now boys, we mustn’t fight… No one was fighting! Will you *shrieks* wrap these children in cotton wool?!!! …

            Anyway, TL:DR, don’t do that please

          • Andrew Cady says:

            @carvenvisage

            I’m more than a little surprised to find a defense of calling people “dumbass” here. I believe you are very wrong, and I think it’s because you’re using the wrong metric.

            -‘Dumbass’ is a dumbass word. It’s efficacy at hurting feelings is almost certainly in the negatives. -Who uses that word when they’re trying to start a fight? Nobody. Not even children.

            This is incorrect because nobody feels better for being called “dumbass.” But, regardless, the reason not to call someone that is not because of how it might make someone feel.

            Rather, the reason is because of what it causes someone to know: that you are willing to speak badly of them in front of others. This is a demonstration of hostility, a demonstration of enemy status. (Unless it’s some kind of humorous counter-signal; obviously not here though.) This knowledge then becomes a factual premise of their actions toward you in the future. If this results in “de-escalation” (which it may) it’s only out of fear or shame, and will create resentment.

          • carvenvisage says:

            @vv_vv @reasoned_argumentation

            Once you subtract out the ideology, that whole sermon basically amounts to- ‘she’s fucked in the head’. And then the team-rocket-tag-team-reply doesn’t so much amount to as *just is, “I –*cough*, cluster b-, agree”.

            So it looks pretty suspiciously like your inane droning might have been aimed less at making converts and more at winding up local (notoriously) bipolar eceleb ozy. (or whatever the b stands for)

            I don’t want to accuse anyone of anything, but it does kinda seems like you were definitely clearly trolling.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            I assumed we were all trolling. I have the flu, I would really not be arguing about Jessica Valenti’s sex life if I had anything more productive I was capable of doing.

            I just checked and googling “cluster b” gets you helpful results from credible sources. It’s a useful habit to get into when you don’t know what a piece of jargon means.

          • Nornagest says:

            or whatever the b stands for

            Cluster B is one of the three main buckets for personality disorders in recent psychological thinking. It includes antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders, but not bipolar, which is a mood disorder and not a personality disorder.

            Also, this thread is a mess.

          • Aapje says:

            @carvenvisage

            I believe that pejoratives pretty much never contribute to a conversation, so I favor drawing a hard line there.

            I also saw nothing good natured in this specific instance. It just seemed to reflect actual, unproductive emotions, shared in a way that is likely to inflame the other debater.

            People on this forum should be sufficiently verbally & intellectually capable to phrase the same in a nice way or at least in a passive aggressive way that the other debater can pretend is not present.

          • vV_Vv says:

            @reasoned argumentation

            Cluster B girls should avoid the type of fiction that naturally appeals to women the same way members of alcoholism prone groups should avoid alcohol.

            Are Cluster B people exceptionally vulnerable to getting dysfunctional ideas from fiction? If they are, then I would agree, but I’d like to see some evidence before suggesting censorship, even for specific groups, under the premise that their mind is too frail to handle certain material.

            @Ozy Frantz

            you really can’t diagnose strangers with personality disorders based on their Internet personas,

            Why not? It’s not like I’m prescribing anyone drugs or anything.

            especially if your evidence is “a New York bohemian does drugs and has lots of casual sex” and “a feminist made a misandric joke.”

            AFAIK, “bohemian does drugs and has lots of casual sex” is a good summary of the some of the diagnostic criteria, although the DSM does not use this exact verbiage.

            Of course Valenti could be lying about what she does, but this is a problem that even professional shrinks have, and ultimately the point of this discussion is not to specifically assess Valenti, who as you and other have noted is an objectively successful woman, but to understand the relation between certain personality traits, the environment, and outcomes.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Are Cluster B people exceptionally vulnerable to getting dysfunctional ideas from fiction?

            Women. Not “people” – women.

            Not talking about censorship or any policy idea – just discussing the ridiculous assertion that “we’re far too wise now to believe this silly thing” that Scott stated – which actually happens to be something that’s got a lot more backing than our current view that the previous “silly idea” was silly. We believe that idea was silly on the basis of zero new evidence against it and in the face of a bunch of evidence in its favor.

            EDIT – Originally too harsh – you’re not an equalist.

          • Viliam says:

            I’m more than a little surprised to find a defense of calling people “dumbass” here.

            For the record, me too. This is obvious rules-lawyering. “I used a word that is technically okay to use, because {insert clever argument}.” Well, what was your motivation for even looking in the neighborhood of the offensive words?

            (Not that I mind using an offensive word once in a while; I am not that prude. It’s just: when you do it, own it; don’t act like a kindergarten kid caught by the teacher.)

          • carvenvisage says:

            or at least in a passive aggressive way that the other debater can pretend is not present.

            It sounds like a joke but that’s actually exactly what will happen.

            @ozy well that’s good then.

            @Villiam

            It’s just: when you do it, own it; don’t act like a kindergarten kid caught by the teacher

            Either you completely missed that those were two different people (-hopefully?), or you’re deliberately mixing them up for the mild pleasure of provoking me.

            This is obvious rules-lawyering.

            The sad thing is that I’m fairly sure this, -dismissing a post you either got wrong or deliberately misrepresented in a single breath (terseness calculated for maximum respectfulness, even and rational disc its sole lofty aim) -is not a deliberate provocation.

            More likely it’s just the natural self expression for someone who has an opinion they’re smug about, and want to misapply it to a(n incompatible) situation.

            Probably calling you something so vicious as a ‘dumbass’ here would seem an inexplicable provocation.

            Well, what was your motivation for even looking in the neighborhood of the offensive words

            Dumbass is about as offensive as buddy, mr non-native-speaker with strong convictions.

            Well, what was your motivation for even looking in the neighborhood?

            Being mad, obviously.

            I said in my post, which you’d know if you bothered to read it, wise guardian of tranquility and respect, that the initial ‘dumbass’ appeared to be in response to a provocation.

            Of course, ‘dumbass’ is mild in any case, no worse and much better than all kinds of ‘below the radar’ stuff that happens on most any forum, but in this case the idea I directly put forward was that it was an ‘if anything deescalatory’ response to the trollish nature of [demanding a a cite to a subjective judgement].

            (If someone jostles you, isn’t it it’s generally friendlier to jostle back than to ignore it?)

            (Also, it’s not the same category of words at all, but that’s another paragraph or two which I’ll skip)

            Anyway, this is just the sort of mild disrespect that aapje wants to aim for and Villiam quite benevolently believes is the core of wisdom, -that it’s good to respond to with things like ‘if you read the post..’, or ‘..dumbass’.

            _

            TL:DR

            Like, ‘citation given, dumbass’ is the corrective feedback mechanism, that the ‘please don’t do this’, and the *mournful santa clause voice* ‘why would anyone ever play with such fire?’ (get some sleep, villiam) are pretending to be.

            Anyway, probably both of you are literally autistic, which makes me figuratively ‘autistic’, ..but that’s fine, I learned something, if no one else.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            your evidence is “a New York bohemian does drugs and has lots of casual sex” and “a feminist made a misandric joke.”

            Point taken about diagnosing people you don’t know, but once again Ozy is shading the truth. Ms. Valenti’s grandiosity is pretty out there for all to see, and is not attributed to her based on drug use, casual sex and anti-male jokes.

        • manwhoisthursday says:

          Favourite line in the piece:

          One of the amazing things about the patriarchal oppression of women is how guys with too much money so easily locate women with an appetite for free cocaine.

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        wealthy, famous, influential

        So is Charlie Sheen.

        presumably resolved

        Unwarranted assumption. Some people have famously long but unhappy marriages, and we’re only into year 7 with Valenti/Golis.

    • Baeraad says:

      While I do enjoy seeing Jessica Valenti – or as I like to call her, “the human embodiment of all that is wrong with contemporary feminism” – lambasted, this reviewer is basically a raging nut, isn’t he? I mean, you can just imagine the spittle hitting the screen as he pounds down yet another reiteration of “DON’T YOU GET IT?! SHE’S A WHOOOOORE!!!!!”

      I tell you, guys like him are the reason why women like Valenti keep getting away with being awful – because every time they do something that should rightly turn all decent people against them, someone like him turns up and makes them look good by comparison.

      ETA: See also, sending death threats to her daughter. Yes, Jessica Valenti is a thoroughly awful human being. Do you know how a sane, civilised person reacts to that fact? By saying, “man, that Jessica Valenti sure is an awful human being, isn’t she?” It is NOT by sending death threats to a 5-year-old. (it isn’t by sending death threats to Valenti herself, either, I should point out. Death threats are just generally not sane or civilised) The greatest asset of awful human beings is the great willingness of others to sink below their level at the drop of a hat.

    • Inside a semicircle of displays says:

      The author complains about Valenti’s apparent hypocrisy due to her choosing her mates based on attractiveness while complaining about choosing mates based on attractiveness and then he goes on to complain about her choosing mates based on attractiveness. That’s so many layers of hypocrisy I think I’m going to need some cocaine and a few nights with someone attractive to figure it out.

      • manwhoisthursday says:

        The point though is that she’s picking men based on superficial criteria, she gets mistreated, and then (this is the crucial part) she blames the patriarchy and “men” in general for her problems. The point is that her feminism seems based on blaming others for some pretty foreseeable consequences of her own behaviour.

        • vV_Vv says:

          The point though is that she’s picking men based on superficial criteria

          The criteria she used aren’t that bad, she targeted high SMV men, the problem is that she had an unrealistic perception of her own SMV, therefore her relationships didn’t go the way she expected.

          The fact that she is (was?) also a drug addict and probably has some cluster-b personality disorder didn’t help either.

          • manwhoisthursday says:

            Did you read the article? Her criteria are terrible and she predictably ended up with a bunch of psychos.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Worth noting that the social justice movement agrees with this on the meta-level about the power of fiction to shape behavior, while being more or less diametrically opposed on the object level as to which specific narratives and resulting behaviors are problematic.

  7. promotoriustitiae says:

    The issue with Foucault isn’t so much his own writings, it’s that they are so influential. You get the same kind of paradigm as with, say, Hegel, where the fundamentals of his philosophy are pretty much assumed to be true or defined in opposition for a century or so (at least within the Continental tradition for Hegel and Postmodernism for Foucault). Then you look at what Foucault actually writes and it’s… well, you say bonkers and you didn’t cover his definitions of Truth. Worth looking at.

    Philosophy as a movement can and does go beyond these but because this became enmeshed in a cultural and social movement then you get things like this as founding myths, where delving into the spaghetti and looking at the underlying assumptions is an act of treason.

    On a related note, can anyone point me to where in the Sequences or rationality in general people all decided that utilitarianism was a good idea? Or even teleological thought as an ethics.

    • baconbits9 says:

      It is defined as good. It’s “the most good for the most people” or some variation therein.

      • promotoriustitiae says:

        I was hoping that things had moved past ‘don’t worry, we defined it as being good’ in ethics.

        But seriously, someone had actually made an argument for it right? It seems from the outside that it was chosen based on the ability to do maths to it.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Perhaps someone has tried to, but I suspect your maths interpretation is close to correct as the major issue most people take with ethics is the inability to cope with uncertain outcomes. Utilitarianism gives them an out against that.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Seriously? If you think definition is an argument you need to reread “37 ways words can be wrong”.

        Or maybe you’re saying the Sequences define it as good. That, I’m pretty sure… is not accurate. That said, I don’t think they actually argue for it anywhere; it’s kind of just implicitly assumed. I mean there’s a general kind of argument for consequentialism running throughout, but I don’t think it’s really turned into a concrete argument at any one point; and even then that’s just consequentialism, not really utilitarianism in particular (although things like “shut up and multiply” could perhaps be read as an argument for that).

        • baconbits9 says:

          That said, I don’t think they actually argue for it anywhere; it’s kind of just implicitly assumed

          Right, this is what I mean. It is assumed that good outcomes come from good ethics, and that by pursuing the outcomes then you justify the behavior that got you there.

          • promotoriustitiae says:

            Well, it’s been ages since I actually did ethics but if five people counting myself don’t have a source for it, I should probably do a post Contra Utilitarianism in an open thread.

            And you’re not really inspecting the definition of good as hard as you need to. To give a couple of different ones to think about:
            – Human flourishing.
            – Pleasure.
            – Virtuous behaviour.
            – Existence.
            – Harmonious existence.
            – Society’s standards.
            – Progress (social rather than technological).
            – Optimum for a purpose (paperclips).

            These are not the same and there’s a lot of equivocation about the term.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            And you’re not really inspecting the definition of good as hard as you need to.

            Sorry, who’s “you” here, and what “definition of good” are you talking about? I don’t see anyone here talking about any definition of good, aside from baconbits9’s mistaken assertion above.

            Anyway, go ahead and write what you want, but I feel like I should warn you that — well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m getting this impression from your comments that you’re treating this as “Oh! Nobody on LW or in the LW diaspora has seriously thought about these questions before! I need to introduce them to this!” So uh… if that is indeed what you are thinking, let me just tell you right now, that’s quite mistaken. There’s been plenty of argument over this stuff on LW and related sites; it’s not something people are unfamiliar with and need to be introduced to. It just wasn’t argued for so explicitly in the Sequences, is all (at least not that I recall).

            That said, if you want to make your own statement on the matter, the open thread’s a good place. 😛

            These are not the same and there’s a lot of equivocation about the term.

            Um, by who? Again, I can’t help but get this feeling that you’re trying to argue with some spirit of LW that you perceive, rather than any particular person; and to the extent that such a thing exists I think you’ve gotten it quite wrong. Like, if you really think people on LW have not considered questions such as hedonic utilitarianism vs preference utilitarianism (vs other forms of utilitarianism vs non-utilitarian consequentialism vs things that aren’t consequentialist at all) you are quite mistaken.

            There definitely are particular mistakes I’ve seen people making over and over here on SSC or LW. (Not to mention some positions Eliezer Yudkowsky has maintained that are really just, well, boneheaded, IMO.) So, I expect there’s plenty you can say on the topic of ideas or distinctions that people here need to be introduced to, I’m just not so sure that what you’re talking about are those things.

          • here’s been plenty of argument over this stuff on LW and related sites; it’s not something people are unfamiliar with and need to be introduced to. It just wasn’t argued for so explicitly in the Sequences, is all (at least not that I recall).

            The arguments haven’t gone nearly as far as showing U-ism to being the one true ethics, or refuting all known objections. Yet almost everyone in the rationalsphere sees it as something they should believe.

            (Here are some unrefuted objections: I posted this exact text to this group before.

            One problem with utilitarianism is that it tries to aggregate individual values, making it unable to handle the kinds of values that are only definable at group level, such as equality, liberty and fraternity.

            Since it focuses on outcomes, it is also blind to the intention or level of deliberateness behind an act. Nothing could be more out of line with everyday practice, where “I didn’t mean to” is a perfectly good excuse, for all that it doesn’t change any outcomes.

            Furthermore, it has problems with obligation and motivation.
            The claim that the greatest good is the happiness of the greatest number has intuitive force to some, but regarded as an obligation it implies one must sacrifice oneself until one is no longer happier or better off than anyone else .. it is highly demanding. On the other hand, it is not clear where the obligation comes from, since the is-ought gap has not been closed. In the negative case, utilitarianism merely suggests morally worthy actions, without making them obligatory on anyone. It has only two non arbitrary points to set a level of obligation at, zero and the maximum.

            Even if the bullet is bitten, and it is accepted that “maximum possible altruism is obligatory”, the usual link between obligations and punishments is broken. It would mean that almost everyone is failling their obligations but few are getting any punishment (even social disapproval).

            That’s without even getting on to the problem arising from mathematically aggregating preferences, such as utility monstering, repugnant conclusions, etc).

        • baconbits9 says:

          Seriously? If you think definition is an argument you need to reread “37 ways words can be wrong”.

          Definition isn’t an argument, but that doesn’t mean you get to leave something undefined to avoid it. If you think there is a better definition for any of the forms of U Ethics (besides obviously Negative U), please share it. In my view they all basically boil down to this level.

          • David Shaffer says:

            This is to Ancient Geek, but the reply button on his post wasn’t visible, so hopefully this at least puts this comment close to the post in question.

            Very interesting response to utilitarianism!

            One problem with utilitarianism is that it tries to aggregate individual values, making it unable to handle the kinds of values that are only definable at group level, such as equality, liberty and fraternity.

            Except that group values are only valuable insofar as they benefit an actual individual. Liberty is useful because a specific person has a more fulfilling life due to being free; it wouldn’t make sense to value “liberty in the abstract” if no one was actually freed by it! And insofar as group values help individuals, utilitarianism will have no trouble capturing this. Also, equality tends to be harmful, but that’s an entirely separate debate.

            Since it focuses on outcomes, it is also blind to the intention or level of deliberateness behind an act. Nothing could be more out of line with everyday practice, where “I didn’t mean to” is a perfectly good excuse, for all that it doesn’t change any outcomes.

            This is an excellent point, but what specifically is your objection to utilitarianism here? Any reasonable attempt to interact with people needs to take motivations into account; one gets better outcomes by recognizing this! Seeking good consequences is not the same as refusing to consider any factor that is not itself a consequence, so long as those factors are used to get better consequences. If you’re worried that a philosophy that ignored people’s feelings about others’ motivations would leave many angry or frustrated, this is almost certainly true. But anger or frustration due to someone’s bad motives (or for that matter happiness due to someone’s good motives) are emotions that affect utility. Again, this could be captured. If you’re worried that ignoring the motivations behind someone’s actions could lead to injustice, such that we were maximizing utility, but the distribution of that utility was morally wrong, that seems like a good argument against utilitarianism, but not against consequentialism. It would merely mean that we ought to maximize not only utility but also the justice of its distribution. Would you agree with this? I get the feeling that you are also arguing against consequentialism here, though it isn’t stated explicitly.

            Furthermore, it has problems with obligation and motivation.
            The claim that the greatest good is the happiness of the greatest number has intuitive force to some, but regarded as an obligation it implies one must sacrifice oneself until one is no longer happier or better off than anyone else .. it is highly demanding. On the other hand, it is not clear where the obligation comes from, since the is-ought gap has not been closed. In the negative case, utilitarianism merely suggests morally worthy actions, without making them obligatory on anyone. It has only two non arbitrary points to set a level of obligation at, zero and the maximum.

            If I’m understanding this, you’re saying that there are three problems with utilitarianism here. 1. It doesn’t explain why one should care about utility (is-ought problem). 2. It is unrealistically demanding. 3. It offers no way to fulfill part of the duty; it’s all or nothing. 1 is a problem with all moral philosophies; one can always ask “why should I care?” Utilitarianism at least grounds morality in the idea that you care about other people, which is arguably more compelling than deontology “this action is just right”, virtue ethics “this trait is just right” or Divine command theory “God said so. No I don’t know why that matters, don’t ask questions!” This seems like a decent argument against moral philosophy in general, but it has if anything less force against utilitarianism than nearly any of its rivals. 2 is a concern, especially in light of 3; you’re correct that this makes our moral duties somewhat arbitrary. No one wants to fulfill the full altruistic burden; most people want to fulfill some of it. But while picking one’s level of charity arbitrarily is somewhat unsatisfying, what is the alternative? Do any other ethical systems specify a level of altruism that isn’t equally arbitrary? Christianity talks about tithing, but never offers an argument for why 10% specifically; you can pick that level too if you wish, or any other that you desire.

            Even if the bullet is bitten, and it is accepted that “maximum possible altruism is obligatory”, the usual link between obligations and punishments is broken. It would mean that almost everyone is failling their obligations but few are getting any punishment (even social disapproval).

            What kind of obligations are we talking about here? Scott has a post that puts this very well. The question of what is good (axiology) is different from what we should demand of people (morality), which is in turn different from what we should enforce with punishments (legality). Certainly helping the poor is good. But we don’t want to command everyone to give until they’re miserable (exactly as you said above), so we set lower standards for what we ask people to actually do. How would you recommend changing this? Demanding that everyone give nearly everything? Almost no one will. Finding a non-arbitrary standard? This might be good, but so far as I know, no one has ever done so. Various philosophies occasionally make the claim, but they do not back it up with valid reasoning. Trying to create more of a pro-charity social norm? This also might be good, but it’s worth noting that perhaps the most active people trying to do this are effective altruists, who are usually utilitarian and practically always consequentialist. It’s a utilitarian strategy, not something from outside utility.

            That’s without even getting on to the problem arising from mathematically aggregating preferences, such as utility monstering, repugnant conclusions, etc

            Humans are utility monsters, compared to other known forms of life. This is a feature, not a bug, and without it, it would be hard to justify practices such as eating meat (and even vegans who claim “meat is murder” are far less horrified at a carnivore than a serial killer), or perhaps even trying to get over a cold (your immune system kills millions or billions of pathogens so that you can live). As for the repugnant conclusion, we need to decide what we value about utility. If we value only the utility of people already alive, for instance, the problem goes away. That’s not necessarily a particularly satisfying answer (for one thing, most people think that someone being born to live a happy life is a good thing), but potential life opens huge cans of worms that no one is quite sure how to deal with.

          • christhenottopher says:

            David I just want to reply to this part of your comment:

            Except that group values are only valuable insofar as they benefit an actual individual. Liberty is useful because a specific person has a more fulfilling life due to being free; it wouldn’t make sense to value “liberty in the abstract” if no one was actually freed by it! And insofar as group values help individuals, utilitarianism will have no trouble capturing this.

            This only works with the assumption of methodological individualism, which is not a necessary assumption for moral calculus. Why is the individual the level of concern? Now if one says “it’s because individuals are the only ones with souls” that could be an answer but only one that leads to a host of other questions. What is a soul? How do we know what does and doesn’t have a soul? If the answer is divine revelation we’ve now left an area that the largely secular community here (or religious communities with different revelations regarding souls).

            Maybe one might say “because individuals are conscious,” but I find that leads to much the same problems as the soul question. We can’t logically prove consciousness among fellow human individuals, much less rule out the possibility with higher or lower levels of complexity. Consider, if we take a materialist approach we are left with consciousness being some form of emergent property of at least human brains. But let’s imagine that the neurons of brains are conscious. What does the brain they are a part of look like? It would look like a bunch of conscious cells acting together in a coordinated fashion in response to stimulus they receive from other conscious beings. There’s not an abstract higher intelligence you need to explain how the coordination happens, just chain reactions of responses to outside stimulus. Which sounds a lot like how human groups and organization act. Heck neurons can even give wrong signals sort of like a human acting out or screwing up in an organization.

            Indeed most research I’ve seen shows that consciousness is more just an explainer of the actions of the mind than the controller (one of my favorite compilations of this being the classic Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite). This would work potentially well with any complex system having consciousness, cause and effect of lower level systems on down to the quantum particle level is what causes actions to happen, consciousness is just a property that emerges to experience those actions. Why does our universe produce this? I don’t have a clue, but it seems to do so with at least me. I just happen to have cells that give me the ability to speak and type out the experience (much like a company has people to speak and type out it’s desires…you may say those desires are just from other individuals, but to that I’d note I doubt my muscle cells get much say in what the cluster of neurons coming up with this want written).

            So individualism is an arbitrary stopping point in considering units of moral concern. I could out reduction you by pointing to the values of specific cells, molecules, etc. Or I could out complex you by pointing to group values. Methodological individualism is a coherent value system as far as I can tell, but so are group level or less-than-individual systems as well.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Thanks for the response christhenottopher!

            I would say it’s because individuals are conscious. If it were demonstrated that higher or lower levels of organization were conscious, I’d consider them to have moral value too. However, there is no evidence that nations, corporations, etc. are conscious, nor specific cells or molecules. Occam’s Razor rules that out until we get some indication otherwise. And if Uncle Sam or the avatar of Microsoft made their presence known as a conscious being, utilitarianism would promptly add them to the moral calculus, and continue on its way.

          • christhenottopher says:

            That’s fair David, but now it really becomes important we find a way of determining or ruling out whether an object or a system is conscious. Indeed finding that may become the overriding issue of utilitarianism to exclusion of all others, given that the vast majority of the universe is non-human and even non-living. This seems to lead to questions like Brian Tomasik’s “Is There Suffering in Fundamental Physics?” essay. Basing one’s moral foundations on an extremely uncertain category seems like a dangerous enterprise that could lead to the unintentional undermining of the very values one professes to hold.

          • humeanbeingblog says:

            To David Shaffer:

            I’m not sure what your point is about liberty. The utilitarian doesn’t just say that individual outcomes are evaluated on the individual level, it says that the only thing that is valuable at the individual level is happiness/please/desire satisfaction/something like that. It’s not incoherent to say that individual liberty is valuable in a way that doesn’t reduce to happiness. And your contention that “equality tends to be harmful” is straightforwardly question-begging against egalitarians, who hold that equality is not useful as a means to something else valuable, but who hold instead that equality is itself the determinant of value.

            If “any reasonable attempt to interact with people needs to take motivations into account,” it follows that adherence to the rule of utility is not a reasonable way to interact with people. The defining commitment of utilitarianism and other consequentialist systems is that ONLY CONSEQUENCES should be taken into account.

            Every moral principle has its bedrock assumptions. “This kind of thing is just good” is the bedrock assumption for utilitarianism, and that has just as many counter-intuitive implications as “This kind of action is just wrong” or “This kind of person is just virtuous.”

            The idea that we need to give until we reach the point where our giving causes just as much pain to ourselves as the gift brings pleasure to others is a consequence of the utilitarian principle that you ought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. If you think that standard is too demanding, you are conceding that utilitarianism is false.

            Humans are not “utility monsters;” you don’t understand that objection. A “utility monster” is a thought experiment – a creature that is absurdly efficient at turning resources into its own happiness. Utilitarianism dictates that, were such a creature to exist, we would be obligated to feed it all of our resources, even to the point of death since our own immisseration would be swamped by the amount of utility that the monster gains. Of course it’s unrealistic to say that such a creature could exist, but the objection serves to highlight the fact that utilitarianism – because it is concerned only with AGGREGATE happiness – ignores individual rights.

          • Nornagest says:

            Humans are not “utility monsters;” you don’t understand that objection. A “utility monster” is a thought experiment…

            He knows what a utility monster is. He’s saying that the human capacity for utility (under whatever set of assumptions he’s using) is so much greater than that of lesser creatures that even fairly small human gains would justify pretty much anything we might feel like doing to them, i.e. that humans occupy a similar status in the utilitarian calculus relative to cows or rhinoviruses or whatever as the hypothetical utility monster would to us in the thought experiment.

            I’m not sure he’s right about this, and I’ve never heard it phrased in exactly this way before, but something like this is a fairly common response to utilitarian arguments for e.g. vegetarianism. In the context of the broader discussion it amounts to a necessity defense to the issues that the thought experiment raises.

          • humeanbeingblog says:

            Maybe that’s fine as a response to utilitarian vegetarianism, but it read to me as a non sequitur in the response to AncientGeek. The idea that human beings are utility monsters relative to all other forms of life (which seems questionable to me, but whatever) doesn’t address the larger point. Utilitarianism’s exclusive focus on the sum aggregate leaves it unable to deal with concerns related to distribution or individual outcomes. That’s the point of the “utility monster” objection. To respond that humans are utility monsters relative to other kinds of creatures misses that essential point.

            Still, perhaps it was uncharitable for me to say that he doesn’t understand utility monsters. To the extent that I lapsed into ad hominem there, I apologize.

          • pelebro says:

            @humeanbeingblog
            You say
            “It’s not incoherent to say that individual liberty is valuable in a way that doesn’t reduce to happiness.”
            The way I understand this point is that in practice an utilitarianist will value liberty in a way that does not reduce to the apparent happiness it causes. This works by following the past observation that liberty produces happiness in ways that are a priori difficult to even foresee.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            baconbits 9:

            Definition isn’t an argument, but that doesn’t mean you get to leave something undefined to avoid it.

            I think you’re making a basic mistake here — ethical systems don’t define good, they attempt to characterize it. That is to say, good is already out there; the goal of an ethical system is to create a theory of it that matches how we expect it to behave.

            I mean, you could consider any ethical system as defining its own proposed notion of good, but then the content of the theory becomes that this proposed notion matches what is in fact good.

            If you think there is a better definition for any of the forms of U Ethics (besides obviously Negative U), please share it. In my view they all basically boil down to this level.

            I mean that seems like basically a correct rough description of utilitarianism to me, yes. I wasn’t objecting to your description of utilitarianism (I don’t endorse utilitarianism myself anyway 😛 ). I was objecting to your claim that Eliezer Yudkowsky essentially wrote, somewhere in the sequences, “We’ll define goodness according to utilitarianism…”. No. He may have implicitly assumed utilitarianism without really arguing for it, but he certainly did not make the mistake of trying to argue for it by definition!

          • Sniffnoy says:

            David Shaffer:

            This is to Ancient Geek, but the reply button on his post wasn’t visible, so hopefully this at least puts this comment close to the post in question.

            Yes, the nesting only goes so deep unfortunately. The thing to do in that case is to reply to the parent comment.

          • humeanbeingblog says:

            @pelebro
            Yes, this is what utilitarians will say: other things are valuable only insofar as they promote utility. The rival position is that liberty is valuable in itself. Extreme libertarians might say that liberty is the ONLY thing that is important, but that’s, you know, extreme. The more typical attitude is a modest pluralism, according to which liberty and utility are both distinct values, neither of which reduce to the other, and which must be balanced. For most people, utilitarianism is just as crazy as extreme libertarianism. Neither liberty nor happiness are the ONLY thing that matter. Many things matter.

            Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory captures this. Haidt’s view is a descriptive view about human psychology (it tells us what people DO value) rather than a moral view (that tells us what we SHOULD value). But given this fact about human psychology (assuming it is a fact – Moral Foundations is popular but not uncontroversial), it’s no surprise that most people view utilitarianism as offering an impoverished conception of value.

          • David Shaffer says:

            To Humeanbeingblog

            I’m not sure what your point is about liberty. The utilitarian doesn’t just say that individual outcomes are evaluated on the individual level, it says that the only thing that is valuable at the individual level is happiness/please/desire satisfaction/something like that. It’s not incoherent to say that individual liberty is valuable in a way that doesn’t reduce to happiness.

            One might try to argue that, but it sounded like Ancient Geek was objecting that such values weren’t captured because they could only be defined in a group context, rather than that reducing them to happiness lost something. The idea that there might be another value beyond utility and the the distribution thereof isn’t one I’ve heard put convincingly, but if you have a good case for it, I’d love to hear it.

            And your contention that “equality tends to be harmful” is straightforwardly question-begging against egalitarians, who hold that equality is not useful as a means to something else valuable, but who hold instead that equality is itself the determinant of value.

            I didn’t back that up because it’s a separate debate. The problem with equality, though, is that the only way equality can distinguish itself from simply trying to help people is if it refuses to help sometimes on the grounds that someone is already sufficiently well-off, or even seeks to harm the most fortunate. In other words, equality is either a misnomer for benevolence, or a force that will at times attack the good purely because it is good, and it views that as unfair. If someone truly holds that as a terminal value, well, one can’t really argue terminal values without applying something like CEV, but it should be fairly clear why I view that as abhorrent.

            If “any reasonable attempt to interact with people needs to take motivations into account,” it follows that adherence to the rule of utility is not a reasonable way to interact with people. The defining commitment of utilitarianism and other consequentialist systems is that ONLY CONSEQUENCES should be taken into account.

            There’s a difference between taking something into account as an instrumental value and a terminal one. Consequentialism says that the only worthwhile terminal values are consequences, but you’re allowed to do whatever you need to get good outcomes. If paying attention to motivations gets better outcomes (as it almost always will!), then consequentialism says that you ought to do that, for the sake of the better outcomes.

            Every moral principle has its bedrock assumptions. “This kind of thing is just good” is the bedrock assumption for utilitarianism, and that has just as many counter-intuitive implications as “This kind of action is just wrong” or “This kind of person is just virtuous.”

            Very true, but since no one can prove a moral proposition (is-ought problem), that would suggest that the best moral system is the one that best matches what we actually value. Saying that people value utility for themselves is essentially a tautology, valuing it for others is love or charity, and while these aren’t necessarily universal desires, they’re at least pretty damn common. While it’s common to have deontologist or virtue ethicist values as well, they usually seem to be either instrumental or out of reflective equilibrium with the rest of human values.

            The idea that we need to give until we reach the point where our giving causes just as much pain to ourselves as the gift brings pleasure to others is a consequence of the utilitarian principle that you ought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. If you think that standard is too demanding, you are conceding that utilitarianism is false.

            I do think it’s too demanding, though one could conclude that that means that I’m not such a good person, rather than that utilitarianism is false. However, utilitarianism has another flaw as well-it doesn’t care about the justice of the utility distribution. If one person is more deserving of utility than another, this gets ignored. One could imagine, for instance, a thief who got such pleasure from his actions that utility increased every time he stole. However, nearly everyone would argue that his theft was still wrong. That’s why I’m not a utilitarian; I’m a consequentialist who believes that we should be seeking a Pareto optimum of utility (a state of the world where everyone has as much utility as possible without costing someone else utility), and then choosing between Pareto optima using criteria such as “happiness from defection (such as theft) is less valuable” and “I don’t want to be shot for my organs”. However, this still suggests that utility is valuable and most competing moral claims aren’t, and it sounded like Ancient Geek was arguing against consequentialism as well.

            (The point that humans are utility monsters)
            read to me as a non sequitur in the response to AncientGeek.

            It sounded like Ancient Geek was arguing that utility monsters don’t make moral sense, that utilitarianism suggests that they should, and that therefore utilitarianism must be incorrect. The idea was that we implicitly believe in utility monsters in our daily lives, and that therefore utilitarianism endorsing the concept doesn’t invalidate it.

            Still, perhaps it was uncharitable for me to say that he doesn’t understand utility monsters. To the extent that I lapsed into ad hominem there, I apologize.

            No worries, philosophical debate always runs the risk of misunderstandings and flaring tempers. No worries at all!

          • baconbits9 says:

            I think you’re making a basic mistake here — ethical systems don’t define good, they attempt to characterize it.

            This isn’t about defining good, it is about defining Utilitarianism.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            That wasn’t the original context though. You responded to

            On a related note, can anyone point me to where in the Sequences or rationality in general people all decided that utilitarianism was a good idea?

            with

            It is defined as good. It’s “the most good for the most people” or some variation therein.

            Like, as I said above, I’m not disputing that as a rough characterization of utilitarianism, but the question of “What is utilitarianism?” was not what you were originally responding to.

          • Except that group values are only valuable insofar as they benefit an actual individual.

            That’s not enough to justify U-ism over and above Consequentialism. U-ism requires that we calculate the sum total of equality by adding up Alice’s equality, Bob’s equality , and so on. But the equality of an isolated individual makes no sense.

            Liberty is useful because a specific person has a more fulfilling life due to being free; it wouldn’t make sense to value “liberty in the abstract” if no one was actually freed by it!

            How equal or free you are depends on relations and interactions with other people. As a concrete reality, it is not atomised, but that does not mean it is abstract.

            And insofar as group values help individuals, utilitarianism will have no trouble capturing this.

            As far as I can see, U-ism can only capture the benefit to individuals, not the thing itself. But looking at things one individual at a time is exactly what leads to co-ordination problems. And equality is a social good because it motivates co-ordination.

            Also, equality tends to be harmful, but that’s an entirely separate debate.

            That’s a rather one sided way of putting it. Equality is rather inimical to other desiderata…which in turn are rather inimical to it.

            This is an excellent point, but what specifically is your objection to utilitarianism here?

            It doesn’t support basic intuitions about culpability. An ethical system needs to justify crime and punishment.

            Any reasonable attempt to interact with people needs to take motivations into account; one gets better outcomes by recognizing this! Seeking good consequences is not the same as refusing to consider any factor that is not itself a consequence,

            You are here talking about some generic consequentialism, not U-ism. I do not completely reject consequentialism.

            so long as those factors are used to get better consequences. If you’re worried that a philosophy that ignored people’s feelings about others’ motivations would leave many angry or frustrated, this is almost certainly true. But anger or frustration due to someone’s bad motives (or for that matter happiness due to someone’s good motives) are emotions that affect utility.

            Hmm. You might be able to get a theory of desert out of that, but it looks like its going to be an emotivist one, not a rule based one.

            Furthermore, it has problems with obligation and motivation.

            If I’m understanding this, you’re saying that there are three problems with utilitarianism here. 1. It doesn’t explain why one should care about utility (is-ought problem)

            .

            That’s not a problem, although there is a problem why one should only care about sums of individual utilities, and why one should

            2. It is unrealistically demanding.
            3. It offers no way to fulfill part of the duty; it’s all or nothing.

            1 is a problem with all moral philosophies; one can always ask “why should I care?” Utilitarianism at least grounds morality in the idea that you care about other people, which is arguably more compelling than deontology “this action is just right”, virtue ethics “this trait is just right” or Divine command theory “God said so. No I don’t know why that matters, don’t ask questions!”

            U-ism doesn’t do that uniquely, consequentialism does that. Constructivism can be considered a form of constructivism where ethical rules are constructed to achieve certain consequences. That retains the advantage(s) of U-ism, and avoids problems of demandingness, desert, utiltiy monstering, etc.

            this makes our moral duties somewhat arbitrary.

            Under constructivism, duties are more arbitrary than something built into the nature of the universe, but less arbitrary than a coin flip: they’re a kind of group decision.

            No one wants to fulfill the full altruistic burden; most people want to fulfill some of it. But while picking one’s level of charity arbitrarily is somewhat unsatisfying, what is the alternative?

            Having rules which everyone knows, and which everyone has agreed on as a compromise between achieving results and demandingness. Rules allow co-ordination. People can rationally agree to a system of rules that applies to and benefits anybody. Punishing people for failing a managable, known level of obligation is more rational than never punishing them, or holding them to be in a constant state of sin.

            charity

            ..by the way, is not the one and only thing an ethical system has to explain, it is rather the only thing U-ism can explain.

            Even if the bullet is bitten, and it is accepted that “maximum possible altruism is obligatory”, the usual link between obligations and punishments is broken. It would mean that almost everyone is failling their obligations but few are getting any punishment (even social disapproval).

            What kind of obligations are we talking about here? Scott has a post that puts this very well. The question of what is good (axiology) is different from what we should demand of people (morality), which is in turn different from what we should enforce with punishments (legality). Certainly helping the poor is good. But we don’t want to command everyone to give until they’re miserable (exactly as you said above), so we set lower standards for what we ask people to actually do. How would you recommend changing this? Demanding that everyone give nearly everything? Almost no one will. Finding a non-arbitrary standard? This might be good, but so far as I know, no one has ever done so.

            Every society that is not in a state of chaos has done. Most say that you are obliged to murder, steal, etc.

            Various philosophies occasionally make the claim, but they do not back it up with valid reasoning.

            Social obligations are almost ubiquitous. Apriori justifications are nonexistent. Therefore, constructivism.

            Humans are utility monsters, compared to other known forms of life.

            As a matter of objective fact? Of course, humans value human value. That is not an embarassment for constructivism, because the basic premise of constructivism is that ethical systems are constructed by groups of humans certain aims. However, if you are going to say that utility is ojective, then the human-centricness of most U-isms is a problem.

            This is a feature, not a bug, and without it, it would be hard to justify practices such as eating meat (and even vegans who claim “meat is murder” are far less horrified at a carnivore than a serial killer), or perhaps even trying to get over a cold (your immune system kills millions or billions of pathogens so that you can live). As for the repugnant conclusion, we need to decide what we value about utility.

            “Need to decide” = construct.

            The more you fix your system, the more it looks like mine.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Thanks for the detailed response!

            That’s not enough to justify U-ism over and above Consequentialism. U-ism requires that we calculate the sum total of equality by adding up Alice’s equality, Bob’s equality , and so on. But the equality of an isolated individual makes no sense.

            The equality of an isolated individual makes no sense, but the benefit they get from it makes perfect sense. Utilitarianism here says to look at the benefits of a group value rather than the value itself, which is entirely sensible if you agree that such things are instrumental values rather than terminal. If not, I’m curious why you’d value equality or liberty independently of anyone having a better life because of them.

            How equal or free you are depends on relations and interactions with other people. As a concrete reality, it is not atomised, but that does not mean it is abstract.

            Fair enough. My point is that the value of group interactions is dependent on people actually benefiting from them. Again, instrumental vs terminal values.

            As far as I can see, U-ism can only capture the benefit to individuals, not the thing itself. But looking at things one individual at a time is exactly what leads to co-ordination problems. And equality is a social good because it motivates co-ordination.

            Only capturing the benefit to individuals is exactly the point. That’s the part we care about-equality that doesn’t help anyone is a distraction at best. Why would looking at individual welfare lead to co-ordination problems? As for equality motivating co-ordination, that’s an interesting point, but to the extent that it does so, and that people benefit, utility still measures this.

            That’s a rather one sided way of putting it. Equality is rather inimical to other desiderata…which in turn are rather inimical to it.

            It was a very incomplete way of putting it, since I wanted to focus on the main question of utility rather than going on a tangent. If you want more detail though, I oppose equality because it is willing to refuse to help, or even actively harm, someone who is more fortunate. That means that it is hostile to the good purely because it is good.

            It doesn’t support basic intuitions about culpability. An ethical system needs to justify crime and punishment.

            Except that if one is trying to deter crime and/or rehabilitate criminals, the question of culpable intent is crucial. Since being able to combat crime drastically raises utility, and doing so effectively involves motivation, utilitarianism requires considering motivations. The rule is get the best consequences, not ignore everything that isn’t a consequence but helps you get better ones. Consequentialism says only consequences can be terminal values, but you can have any instrumental values that help you get better results.

            You are here talking about some generic consequentialism, not U-ism. I do not completely reject consequentialism.

            Then we are likely to agree on many points. I’m not a utilitarian, but rather a consequentialist who thinks we should optimize for both utility and its just distribution. (It looked as though you were arguing against consequentialist utility optimization as well as pure utilitarianism, which was why I responded.) That said, the argument does apply to utilitarianism specifically; we can’t maximize utility well if we don’t consider motivations.

            Hmm. You might be able to get a theory of desert out of that, but it looks like its going to be an emotivist one, not a rule based one.

            Furthermore, it has problems with obligation and motivation.

            You might be able to get a theory of dessert that way, but I wouldn’t try it for exactly those reasons. Noting that emotional reactions to motivations exist simply gives us another reason to take motivations into account in terms of utility. As far as dessert goes, I’d rather ground it in ideas like cooperation and use it to select between utility Parato optima (which is part of why I’m not utilitarian; pure U-ism says to select the optimum with the most total utility, rather than looking at things like dessert).

            U-ism doesn’t do that uniquely, consequentialism does that. Constructivism can be considered a form of constructivism where ethical rules are constructed to achieve certain consequences. That retains the advantage(s) of U-ism, and avoids problems of demandingness, desert, utiltiy monstering, etc.

            This sounds mostly correct, but I’m not very familiar with constructivism.

            The more you fix your system, the more it looks like mine.

            It sounds like we agree on consequentialism for the most part, and that utilitarianism doesn’t quite work due to problems like dessert and demandingness. That said, what is the goal of your consequentialism? It still sounds like you’re not on board with utility Parato optimization (which doesn’t have those problems).

          • The equality of an isolated individual makes no sense, but the benefit they get from it makes perfect sense.

            But substituting the benefit of justice/desert/equality for the thing itself makes a difference. It means that where there is no benefit from equality, you should not have it, that it has no value in itself. But the intuition that it does have value in itself is just the intuition that the Omelas and Utiltity Monster scenarios are trying to pump.

            (And non-U-ism doesn’t say ignore individual benefit, it says: consider other things as well. And U-ism doens’t say look at individual benefit, it says *only* look at mathematical aggregate of individual benefit.).

            Utilitarianism here says to look at the benefits of a group value rather than the value itself, which is entirely sensible if you agree that such things are instrumental values rather than terminal.

            They’re instrumental and terminal.

            If not, I’m curious why you’d value equality or liberty independently of anyone having a better life because of them.

            if you apply justice and equality , then individual outcomes do change. The Omelan child has a better life, and the UM has a worse one. Aggregate outcomes change as well.

            Only capturing the benefit to individuals is exactly the point. That’s the part we care about-equality that doesn’t help anyone is a distraction at best.

            We meaning U-arians, or people in general? Lots of people do care about equality. Anyone who votes left wing, anyone who objects to Omelas and UMs.

            Why would looking at individual welfare lead to co-ordination problems?

            Not bothering with equality would. Morality as opposed to law is about the voluntary shaping of behaviour. But why would anyone voluntarily follow a system that is unfairly stacked against them? Hence the instrumental value of equality.

            As for equality motivating co-ordination, that’s an interesting point, but to the extent that it does so, and that people benefit, utility still measures this.

            Direct utility calculations don’t enable coordination nearly as well as shared rules.

          • I oppose equality because it is willing to refuse to help, or even actively harm, someone who is more fortunate. That means that it is hostile to the good purely because it is good.

            So long as you don’t regard equality itself as a good, which would be pretty question-begging.

            Except that if one is trying to deter crime and/or rehabilitate criminals, the question of culpable intent is crucial.

            The point is whether is can be constructed out of utility.

            As far as dessert goes, I’d rather ground it in ideas like cooperation and use it to select between utility Parato optima (which is part of why I’m not utilitarian; pure U-ism says to select the optimum with the most total utility, rather than looking at things like dessert).

            A principle that says “never do harm” seems pretty impractical to me in much the same way as No Initiation of Force. If you can’t harm, you can’t punish or repair injustices.

          • David Shaffer says:

            But substituting the benefit of justice/desert/equality for the thing itself makes a difference. It means that where there is no benefit from equality, you should not have it, that it has no value in itself. But the intuition that it does have value in itself is just the intuition that the Omelas and Utiltity Monster scenarios are trying to pump.

            (And non-U-ism doesn’t say ignore individual benefit, it says: consider other things as well. And U-ism doens’t say look at individual benefit, it says *only* look at mathematical aggregate of individual benefit.).

            And now we are getting to the root of the disagreement. Would you harm someone purely because they were more fortunate? If so, at least you’re consistent, but harm purely for harm’s sake strikes me as unmitigated evil, especially since it isn’t even committed as retaliation for wrongdoing, but simply for being “too lucky”. This is Harrison Bergeron territory.

            Omelas isn’t about equality per se, it’s about our response to a situation that unfairly harms an innocent. Certainly Omelas is unequal, but if our problem with it is inequality, that could be solved as easily by reducing everyone to the child’s state of misery as it could by freeing the child. Yet surely freeing the child is better than bringing everyone else down to their level? There are plenty of situations where people seek to do good in the name of equality, but if they are only trying to help, this is benevolence instead, and if they are willing to harm, shouldn’t that be a very strong case against equality?

            We need to draw a distinction between objection to harm, especially harm where others are doing well enough that we suspect that we could bring the disadvantaged ones up to everyone else’s level, and equality as such. The first will often produce greater equality, but it will never bring someone down for the sake of doing so. The second is as much about envy and hatred as it is about anything beneficial. It’s the difference between the Civil Rights Movement pushing for equal rights between Blacks and Whites (since they knew that even most bigots would rather let Blacks’ lives improve rather than sabotage everyone together, and so using the White rights as a standard allowed them to help), and Stalin deciding that since the somewhat richer farmers had an “unfair” advantage over the poorer ones, that he was going to “make it up” by starving them. And before you say that Stalin was almost certainly more interested in slaughtering potential political opponents or indulging his sadism than in equality, that’s actually another point against it. Not only does true equality tend towards harm for harm’s sake, but it also tends to get hijacked by even darker passions, e.g. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.

            It is better that we live, even though that’s unfair to stillborns.

            As for considering other things rather than just individual benefit, what would you say about trying to pick the most just Pareto optimum of utility? That allows us to seek out fairness without having to worry about causing harm for it’s own sake. To clarify, Pareto optima are situations where everyone has as much of whatever you’re trying to optimize (in this case utility) as possible without harming someone else. Picking between utility Pareto optima means that we are avoiding wasting utility, while still able to help the Omelan child. It’s not U-ism, but it retains the benefits while avoiding the problems. But to be clear, it’s still saying that we only care about actual people. You can bring down Omelas to help that child (since they get more utility, so it’s not a Pareto loss; someone benefits), but you can’t play Harrison Bergeron in the name of fairness when no one actually benefits.

            They’re instrumental and terminal.

            I think this shows a misunderstanding. A terminal value is one that we value in its own right, something we want as such. An instrumental value is one we only care about as a way to get a terminal value. If equality is instrumental to you, that means that you don’t care about it as such; you just view it as useful for other ends. To the extent that you’re right about that, consequentialism seeking those other ends will produce as much equality as you desire. If you value it as such, we’re back to the discussion above.

            if you apply justice and equality , then individual outcomes do change. The Omelan child has a better life, and the UM has a worse one. Aggregate outcomes change as well.

            Correct. The important question here is are we applying them in ways that avoid throwing away utility where no one benefits; are we making sure that someone gains from every change? Make sure to actually help the child if you would destroy Omelas, and make sure to help the rest of mankind if you would stand against the Utility Monster.

            We meaning U-arians, or people in general? Lots of people do care about equality. Anyone who votes left wing, anyone who objects to Omelas and UMs.

            We meaning people in general, since most people don’t like the idea of harm for harm’s sake if they actually think about it. There are Pol Pots in the world, but thankfully they’re a minority. There are plenty of reasons to vote left wing, or oppose Omelas/UMs that are based on actual human benefit (hoping someone will be helped by the leftists’ programs, trying to save the child, trying to protect the human race’s resources), rather than valuing equality as such. Since plenty of attempts to help the disadvantaged increase equality, many people conflate the two, but I doubt that many want to bring people down as such. And if so, why listen to them?

            Not bothering with equality would. Morality as opposed to law is about the voluntary shaping of behaviour. But why would anyone voluntarily follow a system that is unfairly stacked against them? Hence the instrumental value of equality.

            Insofar as equality serves as an instrumental value i.e. it helps something we value as such, like improving people’s lives, well and good. My objection to equality isn’t to using it as a tool where it is useful, it’s against optimizing for it as such, as that’s when it tends to start causing harm.

            A principle that says “never do harm” seems pretty impractical to me in much the same way as No Initiation of Force. If you can’t harm, you can’t punish or repair injustices.

            “Never do harm” wouldn’t work, both because you couldn’t punish, as you say, and because you couldn’t do any number of actions that cause harm for a greater good. War would be out, as would most forms of industry, indeed, depending on how strictly you defined harm, all government might be on the chopping block. I’m not saying never do harm, I’m saying that cooperation in Prisoner’s Dilemmas carries moral weight. In simpler terms, we prefer to avoid theft, rape, murder and the like. This is something that everyone agrees on, but which is hard to ground without either talking about Prisoner’s Dilemmas (and thus gaining a concrete game theoretic explanation of why we oppose such things), or invoking deontology (which then leaves us in a position of following rules even if no one benefits; we would be enslaved to our own eregores).

          • And now we are getting to the root of the disagreement. Would you harm someone purely because they were more fortunate? If so, at least you’re consistent, but harm purely for harm’s sake strikes me as unmitigated evil, especially since it isn’t even committed as retaliation for wrongdoing, but simply for being “too lucky”. This is Harrison Bergeron territory.

            No, not purely. I’d harm someone who’s fortune was stolen from someone else, and I’d harm someone with unearned privilege by removing their privilege. I’m not an absolutist about equality. You appear to be an absolutist about no-harm,so you apparently can’t do those useful things.

            Omelas isn’t about equality per se, it’s about our response to a situation that unfairly harms an innocent. Certainly Omelas is unequal, but if our problem with it is inequality, that could be solved as easily by reducing everyone to the child’s state of misery as it could by freeing the child.

            That would be another argument against an absolutist or one-club notion of equality, that hardly anyone believes in.

            they are willing to harm, shouldn’t that be a very strong case against equality?

            Harm whom, how much? Egalitarians generally think they are achieving a nett positive. The justification for taxation+redistribution is that it increases overall utility.

            The second is as much about envy and hatred as it is about anything beneficial.

            Says who? You seem to be strawmanning equality, gain.

            Not only does true equality tend towards harm for harm’s sake, but it also tends to get hijacked by even darker passions, e.g. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.

            This is getting pretty hysterical. What’s the justification for that particular slippery slope? Why can

            without having to worry about causing harm for it’s own sake’t I say that moderate inequality inevitably leads to a god Emperor owning everything?

            As for considering other things rather than just individual benefit, what would you say about trying to pick the most just Pareto optimum of utility?

            If you cannot harm, you cannot realistically repair injustices. If someone steals a $1000 from someone else, it is not just to let them keep the money — even if you also compensate the vicitm somehow.

            That allows us to seek out fairness without having to worry about causing harm for it’s own sake

            I don’t worry about it, because I am made of flesh.

            think this shows a misunderstanding. A terminal value is one that we value in its own right, something we want as such. An instrumental value is one we only care about as a way to get a terminal value. If equality is instrumental to you, that means that you don’t care about it as such; you just view it as useful for other ends.

            X is instrumentally useful if it supports an end. which may also be X.

            We meaning people in general, since most people don’t like the idea of harm for harm’s sake if they actually think about it.

            That’s your definition of equality, not theirs. Lots of people support equality, few support harm for harms sake, therefore harm for harms sake is not the equality they support. QED.

            “Never do harm” wouldn’t work, both because you couldn’t punish, as you say, and because you couldn’t do any number of actions that cause harm for a greater good. War would be out, as would most forms of industry, indeed, depending on how strictly you defined harm, all government might be on the chopping block. I’m not saying never do harm, I’m saying that cooperation in Prisoner’s Dilemmas carries moral weight. In simpler terms, we prefer to avoid theft, rape, murder and the like. This is something that everyone agrees on, but which is hard to ground without either talking about Prisoner’s Dilemmas (and thus gaining a concrete game theoretic explanation of why we oppose such things), or invoking deontology (which then leaves us in a position of following rules even if no one benefits; we would be enslaved to our own eregores).

            Now I no longer know what your theory is.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        “The right government for a particular nation is whichever one produces the most happiness possible, for the most people possible, for the longest time possible.” — Catholic royalist Joseph de Maistre, “Study on Sovereignty” 🙂
        Count Maistre was a Francophone official of Savoy who lived through the French Revolution, who was IMO brilliant at turning the intellectual guns of the philosophes back against their politics.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Or even teleological thought as an ethics.

      By that do you mean consequentialism, or do you mean something else?

      • promotoriustitiae says:

        I do indeed mean consequentialism, as opposed to other strands such as virtue, deontological, etc.

        There’s the notorious criticism of consequentialism that it renders intention a moot point when normally people see that as being core to the ethical experience, for instance. That, and it messes with the concepts of what you can be responsible for. I should probably write something longer in an open thread.

        • RandomName says:

          If you’re looking for a defense (or just explanation) of consequentialism, our esteemed author of this very site created one, albeit it’s a bit old.

          https://web.archive.org/web/20161115073538/http://raikoth.net/consequentialism.html

          Sorry it’s an archive link, I can’t seem to find a live one.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Warning: this essay doesn’t really distinguish between consequentialism and utilitarianism. It’s annoying.

          • RandomName says:

            It sort of does. It’s in Part 5, where he admits that consequentialism isn’t really a moral system (it’s a metaethical system) and he goes on to discuss a moral system based on consequentialism (Utilitarianism).

            He basically admits in Part 3 if you don’t want to assign value to other people, he can’t make you, but most people have that intuition so we should also look for it in our moral system. Other than that, most of the essay before part 5 is applicable to consequentialism in general.

        • mdet says:

          Is making intention a moot point really a bug, and not a feature?

          The way I see it, intention is only relevant to the extent that it predicts future actions. A person who deliberately shoots someone in the face is probably more likely to kill again than someone who accidentally has a gun go off in their hands. If our goal is to prevent future homicides, then the latter person only needs to be told “Don’t play around with guns” while the former needs a serious intervention.

          Maybe I’m not understanding something about ethics but I consider it a *feature* of consequentialism that it sets aside the question of who is a “good person” vs a “bad person” and goes straight to the “What do we have to do to prevent undesirable outcomes and incentivize desirable ones?”

          Edit: David Shaffer’s comment above seems to get at my point when he says “Any reasonable attempt to interact with people needs to take motivations into account”

          • humeanbeingblog says:

            But that is precisely the problem with consequentialism. The defining commitment of consequentialism is that ONLY consequences count. The view that says “lots of things count, including consequences, but also including motivations, intentions, and general policies” is a RIVAL VIEW to consequentialism.

            You’re not defending utilitarianism here, you’re conceding the point that it has an impoverished view of morality.

          • mdet says:

            I didn’t mean to dispute anything. All I was saying is that I don’t see where saying “intentions don’t matter” is a problem. I prefer consequentialism precisely *because* it is only concerned with outcomes.

            What am I missing out on by disregarding motivations & intentions (except insofar as they are predictive of future actions), and why should I want my ethics to have that feature?

            Edit: Or maybe I’m misinterpreting you and you’re saying that by considering intentions to assess future outcomes I’m no longer consequentialist? In which case what would you call an ethics concerned primarily with preventing undesirable outcomes & incentivizing desirable ones? (As opposed to, say, natural law, which is concerned with keeping your actions consistent with your telos/purpose)

          • pelebro says:

            @humeanbeingblog
            It is not necessarily a problem. As I see it saying that only consequences matter subsumes saying intentions matter, in the same way that Newton’s universal gravitation subsumes Kepler laws of planetary orbits. This is because intentions affect consequences. The claim that intentions matter beyond what effects it has on consequences is potentially true but not obvious.

          • humeanbeingblog says:

            I’m a moral skeptic first and foremost – I don’t think we have any rational basis on which we can judge whether claims like “consequences matter” or “intentions matter.” But as a psychological/sociological fact, typical humans do care about intentions in addition to outcomes, and there are, accordingly, plenty of counter-examples to utilitarianism that sound highly intuitive. (The Involuntary Organ Donor and the Magistrate and the Mob are the two that I usually present to my students when I teach this stuff.) My point isn’t that intentions OBVIOUSLY MATTER, it’s that I have a strong intuition that intentions matter, and so do most other people.

            So I’m mostly pushing back against the “Intentions matter only insofar as they effect consequences” line that a lot of utilitarians advance. Consequentialism is a coherent moral system, but it does have (radically) counter-intuitive implications.

            In case you’re unfamiliar:
            Involuntary Organ Donor – A healthy person is kidnapped and killed in order to harvest his organs and thereby save the lives of five dying patients. Utility is maximized – but that’s murder, so you shouldn’t do it.
            Magistrate and the Mob – A judge agrees to execute an innocent black man in order to forestall a riot by a racist mob that would almost certainly result in loss of life and other injury. Utility is maximized – but that’s unjust, so you shouldn’t do it.

          • pelebro says:

            @humeanbeingblog
            You say
            “But as a psychological/sociological fact, typical humans do care about intentions in addition to outcomes”
            As I see it such sociological facts are explainable as “system 1” outcomes, mental shortcuts for preserving resources; and also as a tool for group cohesion. I don’t knowing what you’re referring to more precisely, so it could be off base.
            I also have an intuitive impulse to care for intentions, but I have no intuition either way as to whether they have importance beyond the effects it has on consequences.
            As for the mental experiments, my reactions were as follows:
            in case 1) it is moral, assuming the hypotheses. The reason it is very unintuitive is because the hypothesis is very unlikely. Usually murder and surgery destroys utility, the body has such complexity that it’s difficult to tinker with it in a useful way. So there is rejection and reduced quality and expectance of life. So this intuition is useful because it tells us that the one proposing such scheme is more likely to have made a mistake (maybe not an obvious mistake) than to have the hypothesis be true.
            Case 2 is not a closed system, there are long term undesirable consequences of having an essential institution being perceived as unjust, consequences which are unfortunately hard to quantify, but are rather dramatic once they reach a boiling point.

          • mdet says:

            @humeanbeingblog

            I get how those two examples are inconvenient* for consequentialism by suggesting actions that most people don’t find intuitively right. But I stand by my point about intentions & motives. I think a relevant example here:

            Is someone a bad person if they are sexually attracted to children but go their entire life without ever expressing or acting on it, so that they are indistinguishable from someone who is not attracted to children? I would say “No, I don’t care what your private thoughts are if they aren’t affecting your behavior”, and I think it is a *feature* and not a bug of consequentialism that it also arrives at this conclusion.

            *I say “inconvenient” instead of a stronger word because I think that this is why utilitarianism exists —
            to clarify consequentialist conflicts by assigning weights to different Goods / Bads. I also agree with pelebro’s point that considering these kinds of conflicts as open systems that can have consequences for others down the line can change my evaluation of them.

          • John Schilling says:

            Is someone a bad person if they are sexually attracted to children but go their entire life without ever expressing or acting on it, so that they are indistinguishable from someone who is not attracted to children? I would say “No, I don’t care what your private thoughts are if they aren’t affecting your behavior”, and I think it is a *feature* and not a bug of consequentialism that it also arrives at this conclusion.

            Consequentialism doesn’t arrive at that conclusion, at least not reliably in the real world.

            Deontology arrives at that conclusion right at the outset, by making rules like “don’t actually molest children” and meta-rules about privacy.

            Virtuous ethical systems, generally make a great virtue of resisting temptations such as base urges to molest children.

            The folks who insist on shaming, punishing, incarcerating or institutionalizing pedophiles, are doing so because they sincerely believe that the likely outcome of someone wanting to molest children is the same someone attempting to actually molest children, that the likely outcome of tolerating someone else’s private desire to molest children is that they will be more likely to get away with actually molesting children when they get around to trying. They are trying to prevent a decidedly negative outcome in a reality where “go their entire life without ever expressing or acting on it” is not knowable until it is too late.

            These people are practicing consequentialism as it exists in the real world, as implemented by people who aren’t nerds and don’t have perfect information about future outcomes. And the only thing that can stop them from locking up every pedophile and throwing away the key, is a strict rule against prior restraint or maybe making a cardinal virtue of freedom of thought.

          • Aapje says:

            These people are practicing consequentialism as it exists in the real world, as implemented by people who aren’t nerds and don’t have perfect information about future outcomes.

            And they are also ignoring the information we do have, which suggests that isolating people with pedophilia or putting people that we know have these feelings in prison, increases victimization.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’m pretty certain that if you isolate pedophiles in 8′ x 10′ steel cells with no children, until they are dead, they will molest no children.

          • Aapje says:

            The issue is that the people who haven’t done anything or who haven’t been caught having done anything, will be unknown unless they tell someone. They are generally not going to when that results in going to prison or another serious penalty.

            So then you can’t help the people who struggle with it.

            Your solution only work if you have precogs.

          • John Schilling says:

            You only need precogs if you have some pesky rule against putting innocent people in prison, and that’s not a consequentialist thing. Otherwise you can e.g. have the FBI run not-terribly-well-hidden kiddie porn websites, and whoever downloads the stuff gets arrested and locked up forever.

          • mdet says:

            @John Schiling I’ll give you that judging consequentialism needs to consider that we don’t have perfect information about the present, let alone the future. I agree that “hard for non-omniscient beings to implement” is a flaw of consequentialism. But I think you’re actually agreeing with my initial point.

            I was initially replying to “A flaw with consequentialism is that it makes intentions moot” by saying “Consequentialism DOES consider intentions insofar as intentions affect/predict future behavior. Intentions would only be moot in some scenario where someone held secret thoughts with zero impact on what they say and do.”

            My first example of this was that deliberate murder is worse than accidental homicide to a consequentialist because the person who expresses a desire and willingness to kill is much more of a future risk than the person who is simply careless. In your response you say that consequentialists will consider someone who expresses a desire to molest children — even if they have yet to act on it — as more of a future risk than someone who doesn’t express that desire. So we agree on the point that consequentialists DO weigh intent. (Although you never explicitly disagreed, so maybe I’m clarifying a moot point…)

            But to respond to what you said, I don’t think it’s the case at all that the *only* thing that would stop a consequentialist from locking up every pedophile is a strict rule against it. You could also try saying “There are ways to prevent someone with these urges from molesting any children that are more respectful of that person’s life & dignity than locking them in a cage. Indeed, MOST people with these urges never go on to molest any children” (I don’t know if that’s true, but a consequentialist should consider it)

          • Mary says:

            Is someone a bad person if they are sexually attracted to children but go their entire life without ever expressing or acting on it, so that they are indistinguishable from someone who is not attracted to children?

            Depends on whether they intend to do so if they could get away with it, and just never find the chance, or they intend to not do so even if they could.

    • Deiseach says:

      you get things like this as founding myths

      I think that’s a very important element to keep in mind. This isn’t intended to be empirical science, it does involve explorations into all kinds of territory even if the philosophy then runs on particular rules.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      I assume the rationalist community just filters for people who already think utilitarianism is a good idea? In any case, seconding Scott’s consequentialism FAQ as a defense of it.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Scott’s FAQ attempts an end run around the ‘good definition’, or tries to sneak ‘god’ in through the back door. The king and the child kicker example is instructive

        Suppose an evil king decides to do a twisted moral experiment on you. He tells you to kick a small child really hard, right in the face. If you do, he will end the experiment with no further damage. If you refuse, he will kick the child himself, and then execute that child plus a hundred innocent people.

        The best solution is to somehow overthrow the king or escape the experiment. Assuming you can’t, what do you do?

        There are certain moral philosophers who would tell you to refuse. Sure, the child would get hurt and lots of innocent people would die, but it wouldn’t, technically, be your fault. But if you kicked the child, well, that would be your fault, and then you’d have to feel bad about it.

        But this excessive concern about whether something is your fault or not is a form of selfishness. If you sided with those philosophers, it wouldn’t be out of a concern for the child’s welfare – the child’s getting kicked anyway, not to mention executed – it would be out of concern with whether you might feel bad about it later. The desire involved is the desire to avoid guilt, not the desire to help others.

        We tend to identify guilt as a sign that we’ve done something morally wrong, and often it is. But guilt is a faulty signal; the course of action which minimizes our guilt is not always the course of action that is morally right. A desire to minimize guilt is no more noble than any other desire to make one’s self feel good at the expense of others, and so a morality that follows the principle of according value to other people must worry about more than just feeling guilty.

        All of the conclusions that are drawn from (or highlighted in) this example are due to the false presentation of knowing ends. The King tells you that he will kill 100 people if you don’t kick the child, and you believe him? Lets put it in the real world here, would you trust a man who was setting up child kicking and people killing as a matter of course to be honest? Maybe he is earnest this time. Maybe he is testing you and will kill 1,000 people if you do kick him. Maybe he has a bet with some other despot that he can get you to kick the kid and if he wins the other despot has to kill 10,000 of his own subjects.

        Maybe an infinite number of things, the important point is that you presuppose knowledge of the outcomes which allows you to declare the appropriate moral action*. You have substituted moral knowledge for god’s omniscience. Lets try another example of justifying instinctively immoral behavior. Should I cheat on my wife? Well if I assume that she will never find out, and that I will benefit and the person I sleep with will benefit. Further after I have cheated should I practice deception to ensure that she never finds out? Of course! Finding out would cause here pain, break up the marriage and harm our kids and extended families. Not only can I cheat, I am morally bound to lie once I do.

        *resorting to Bayesian analysis only kicks the can from “I know what will happen” to “I know the probable outcomes and can weight them properly”, which has more humility but holds the same problems.

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          All of the conclusions that are drawn from (or highlighted in) this example are due to the false presentation of knowing ends. The King tells you that he will kill 100 people if you don’t kick the child, and you believe him? Lets put it in the real world here, would you trust a man who was setting up child kicking and people killing as a matter of course to be honest? Maybe he is earnest this time. Maybe he is testing you and will kill 1,000 people if you do kick him. Maybe he has a bet with some other despot that he can get you to kick the kid and if he wins the other despot has to kill 10,000 of his own subjects.

          Maybe utilitarians are looking for excuses to kick children in the head – it certainly seems that way from their history.

        • MugaSofer says:

          You’re not wrong about the danger of self-justifying behaviour, but this

          The King tells you that he will kill 100 people if you don’t kick the child, and you believe him? Lets put it in the real world here, would you trust a man who was setting up child kicking and people killing as a matter of course to be honest?

          is silly.

          First of all, this applies to any moral system.

          Oh, you think kicking the child is bad, but maybe the child is secretly Hitler! Maybe they have a rare disease that can only be cured by a kick to the face! Maybe this is all a dream and there is no child! Woo, you don’t know anything with 100% certainty, what even is truth?

          Second of all, this is fighting the hypothetical. There are tons of cases where deontology and consequentialism part ways that don’t involve evil monarchs, and it’s easily possible that an evil monarch is known to be extremely trustworthy on this matter (maybe you’ve seen him play this game with hundreds of people before, and he’s always followed through.)

          Another example, which could have been used just as easily, is the classic do-you-lie-to-the-Nazis-about-your-Jewish-friend-hiding-upstairs dilemma.

          If you tell the Nazis about your friend hiding upstairs, are you motivated by concern for her welfare? Are you humbly uncertain about whether the Nazis will drag your friend off to a concentration camp or give her free cookies? Of course not.

          • John Schilling says:

            First of all, this applies to any moral system.

            The moral system that says “Thou Shalt Not Kick Children in the Head, Ever, No Excuses”, does not suffer from the problem of deciding whether to believe the King who says he will do dire things if you don’t kick children in the head. Neither does the one that makes absolute virtues of nonviolence and of resistance to corrupt authority.

          • baconbits9 says:

            First of all, this applies to any moral system.

            No it doesn’t. Many, maybe even most, moral system emphasize actions, not outcomes. You don’t have to presume knowledge to figure out what to do.

            Oh, you think kicking the child is bad, but maybe the child is secretly Hitler! Maybe they have a rare disease that can only be cured by a kick to the face! Maybe this is all a dream and there is no child! Woo, you don’t know anything with 100% certainty, what even is truth?

            Yea, so don’t presume things you couldn’t possibly know and base your actions off them, right? Seems like a really good principle, right? So pick one of the ethical systems that doesn’t do so.

            Second of all, this is fighting the hypothetical.

            So? I am under no obligation to grant the underlying assumptions of a moral system when arguing against it. If I was arguing against the consistency within the framework then I shouldn’t fight the hypothetical, but it is a gross misunderstanding of that piece to imply that I ought to be arguing against consequentialism within its own assumptions as if they must be true.

            There are tons of cases where deontology and consequentialism part ways that don’t involve evil monarchs,

            If someone links a FAQ and says “start here”, is the reader supposed to aggressively steel man every argument, and fix all the hypothetical for the author? If someone is going to argue a position with hypothetical then I damn well ought to be allowed to argue against them, or you are just asking for an isolated demand for rigor.

            Another example, which could have been used just as easily, is the classic do-you-lie-to-the-Nazis-about-your-Jewish-friend-hiding-upstairs dilemma.

            You can’t because people don’t equate helping the Nazis with kicking children in the face, and for good reason! What does Scott actually use the hypothetical for? His final paragraph in that section

            We tend to identify guilt as a sign that we’ve done something morally wrong, and often it is. But guilt is a faulty signal; the course of action which minimizes our guilt is not always the course of action that is morally right. A desire to minimize guilt is no more noble than any other desire to make one’s self feel good at the expense of others, and so a morality that follows the principle of according value to other people must worry about more than just feeling guilty.

            Most people would feel guilty about turning over the Jews in their attic to Nazis, so that example doesn’t work as a caution against guilt.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Well put MugaSofer.

          • David Shaffer says:

            The trouble with fighting the hypothetical is seizing on irrelevant reasons to avoid addressing the issue. For example, if we’re discussing the trolley problem, and I say “it’s unlikely that anyone is fat enough to make the Fat Man Case work,” that’s ignoring the question of whether it is right or wrong to push them if it would save 5 other lives. The real question here isn’t how trustworthy a made up monarch is, it’s whether or not it’s permissible to commit harm in the service of a greater good.

            As for most people feeling guilty over turning over Jews to Nazis, I would hope most people would also feel guilty over getting 100 people killed because they didn’t want to kick someone.

          • Mary says:

            “Helping Nazis” is only a consequence. The actual act is “telling the truth.”

          • David Shaffer says:

            Someone who abandons innocents to the Nazis while pretending to be moral because it’s not their fault they don’t want to lie is worse than the Nazis they’re helping. At that point it’s both murder and a sanctimony akin to the worse hypocrisy.

          • baconbits9 says:

            The trouble with fighting the hypothetical is seizing on irrelevant reasons to avoid addressing the issue.

            Since that isn’t what was happening, I have nothing to worry about.

            Assume X, therefore Y. Fine, given X, then Y, but demonstrating that X does not exist is not fighting the hypothetical, it demonstrates that the hypothetical has no bearing outside of the hypothetical world. Any real world conclusions drawn from the hypothetical are bunk.

          • baconbits9 says:

            The real question here isn’t how trustworthy a made up monarch is, it’s whether or not it’s permissible to commit harm in the service of a greater good.

            No it isn’t, because you have started with the presumption of knowing the good outcome. So it only applies to situations where you have perfect knowledge, therefore it applies to EXACTLY ZERO SITUATIONS where you are not “god”. The question isn’t “is it permissible”, the question is “how should you act if you are god”, since you aren’t (citation needed) there is no application of the hypothetical to the real world.

          • David Shaffer says:

            It’s true that no one has perfect knowledge. Even if we tried to show a tautology was true, we couldn’t be certain of it-what if we made a mistake in our reasoning? Sometimes people will commit harm hoping for a greater good, only for it to turn out the harm was completely unnecessary, and this is tragic.

            Concluding that we should never base our actions off of (necessarily uncertain) knowledge, however, replaces imperfect good with perfect evil. Compare kicking the child with vaccinating them. When you vaccinate someone, you’re causing pain, indeed, for many people an injection is worse pain than a hard kick to the face. With some vaccines you risk making them sick, and some vaccines (notably the smallpox vaccine back in the day) can kill. Vaccinate a child and you hurt them, and maybe even kill them, all for the hope of protecting them from disease, yet you can’t presume to know whether or not they’d have gotten the disease without the shot.

            Would you ban vaccines, since our knowledge isn’t perfect? Or would you admit that if we actually care about people, rather than just looking good, we need to act on imperfect knowledge?

          • Mary says:

            Someone who abandons innocents to the Nazis while pretending to be moral because it’s not their fault they don’t want to lie is worse than the Nazis they’re helping. At that point it’s both murder and a sanctimony akin to the worse hypocrisy.

            You beg the question.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Let’s put it this way, would you do that do your child? Your friend? Anyone you gave the slightest damn about?

          • baconbits9 says:

            I would hope most people would also feel guilty over getting 100 people killed because they didn’t want to kick someone.

            This type of quote is always priceless from a utilitarian, who view value as to be summed up. If I don’t kick a boy in the face then I got 100 people killed. But some guy with a sword actually killed those 100 people, so he got 100 people killed, which you would think means that there are 200 bodies somewhere.

            Even more perversely when a Bayesian Utilitarian is in the room you would expect him to go over and comfort the executioner! After all it isn’t his fault that I didn’t kick the boy in the face, so since there was some chance that I wouldn’t he is at most only partially responsible for the 100 heads he chopped off with a sword. Actually for a consequentialist U he isn’t guilty in the slightest! After all I could have save all 100 with a simple action and I didn’t.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Concluding that we should never base our actions off of (necessarily uncertain) knowledge, however, replaces imperfect good with perfect evil. Compare kicking the child with vaccinating them. When you vaccinate someone, you’re causing pain, indeed, for many people an injection is worse pain than a hard kick to the face. With some vaccines you risk making them sick, and some vaccines (notably the smallpox vaccine back in the day) can kill. Vaccinate a child and you hurt them, and maybe even kill them, all for the hope of protecting them from disease, yet you can’t presume to know whether or not they’d have gotten the disease without the shot.

            This is a frame shift at best and probably more accurately a stawman. Who here has posted a moral system that forbids any physical pain at all? You have jumped from violent physical assault to the administration of vaccines as if they are identical.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            You do, in fact, occasionally have to hold down a screaming crying child and force them to take a vaccine against their will, which definitely walks like physical assault and quacks like physical assault.

            I suppose we can change the original thought experiment so that the king wants you to hold down a screaming crying child and give them a saline injection, but I suspect that will not change most people’s intuitions very much.

          • baconbits9 says:

            You do, in fact, occasionally have to hold down a screaming crying child and force them to take a vaccine against their will, which definitely walks like physical assault and quacks like physical assault.

            This neither walks nor quacks like physical assault, how many people would consider dropping drugs in a girls drink to enable them to have sex with her not physical assault? It doesn’t carry obvious pain, or fighting, and yet every one agrees that it is assault. Parents are generally presumed to have good intentions for their children, and children are presumed to not be capable of making all of their own decisions, so we have behavior whereby the parent acts in the child’s interest.

            No one would have an issue with grabbing a boy a yanking them hard to the ground if it was to prevent them getting hit by a car. On the other hand the majority would have a problem with the government secretly testing vaccines on people.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Are you trolling? You excuse pain, sickness and death with the idea that parents have good intentions, then condemn a hundred people to death on the grounds that you can’t know for sure what the king will do.

            You can’t have it both ways.

            There’s a significant chance the smallpox vaccine will kill the child. Shouldn’t that matter, especially when you’re making such a big deal that we can’t know outcomes? Would you agree that killing someone is worse than kicking them? And if the parents’ good intentions suddenly make everything okay, why does that stop working when you’re asked to kick them with the good intention of saving them and a hundred others from death?

            No one would have an issue with grabbing a boy a yanking them hard to the ground if it was to prevent them getting hit by a car.

            But that’s the very consequentialism you’ve been arguing against! You can’t know that the car will hit them, you’re not God (citation needed). You cannot have it both ways.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Are you trolling? You excuse pain, sickness and death with the idea that parents have good intentions, then condemn a hundred people to death on the grounds that you can’t know for sure what the king will do.

            Its easy to score cheap points when you assume that your preferred system is the correct way to frame things. Note how you use the word ‘condemn’ in a way that doesn’t make sense for multiple ethical systems, rather than defend your position with neutral language you are trying to sneak in your assumptions and take a shortcut to victory.

            the grounds that you can’t know for sure what the king will do.

            This isn’t the grounds. The grounds is that you have to have god like knowledge of the situation to weigh outcomes. The number of ways in which participating in a system of face kicking to save lives can lead to horrific outcomes is staggering and you cannot pretend to know them all, or even pretend to know their likelihoods or the distribution of their outcomes. Threatening King + 100 people dead + boy kicked in the face strips out all the possible information that would actually allow you to make the decision and have any relevance to the real world.

            But that’s the very consequentialism you’ve been arguing against! You can’t know that the car will hit them, you’re not Go

            No it isn’t. The consequentialism I am arguing against is the one based on the illusion of knowledge. You can’t know if the child will grow up to be the next Hitler, but you can pretty well guess that person credibly threatening to kill 100 people if you don’t boot a boy in the face is a piece of shit. To make the latter hypothetical ‘work’ you have to make all kinds of assumptions that don’t fit with the human experience.

            Or to put it bluntly it isn’t the uncertainty of the situation at hand, it is the false certainty that is the issue. Without it the hypothetical is worthless and only serves to distract.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          Baconbits: You are in violent agreement with consequentialism here. Basically all consequentialists agree that in realistic situations with reasonable knowledge, you usually should not do intuitively upsetting things like push a fat man in front of a train or kill someone to harvest their organs. e.g. Eliezer:

          I am completely unimpressed with the knowledge, the reasoning, and the overall level, of those folk who have eagerly come to me, and said in grave tones, “It’s rational to do unethical thing X because it will have benefit Y.”

          • baconbits9 says:

            I am not in agreement with consequentialism, EY comes to this conclusion because he is concerned with his own biases, not for the more important reasons. From a different blog post

            I endorse “the end doesn’t justify the means” as a principle to guide humans running on corrupted hardware, but I wouldn’t endorse it as a principle for a society of AIs that make well-calibrated estimates.

          • hlynkacg says:

            @ ADifferentAnonymous

            Coming from the author of Shut Up and Multiply and Torture vs. Dust Specs that quote rings pretty hollow. If anything it comes across a bit like sour grapes.

            If the observation is not impressive, it’s only because consequentialism’s flaws are that obvious.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        (Warning to people that this essay doesn’t really distinguish between consequentialism and utilitarianism…)

    • MugaSofer says:

      Standard arguments you’d see in Singer or similar, basically, plus fear of Dutch-booking and scope insensitivity.

      (At the end of the day, I get the impression that to a lot of Rats, systems of morality other than utilitarian-ish consequentialism just intuitively seem daft. There’s not much drive to come up with novel arguments for consequentialism, because the standard ones feel so strong, and people who disagree with them feel like they’re almost willfully missing the point. Or maybe that’s just my personal failing, IDK.)

      With that said, the Sequences have a very uneasy relationship with utilitarianism – you get a lot of talk about how Ends Don’t Justify Means (Among Humans) and happiness isn’t everything and human values are complex. Any utilitarianism we actually use will be an approximation at best, is the message, not to be taken too seriously compared to your gut.

      • Nornagest says:

        If you’re a materialistic monist, which most rats seem to be, it gets a lot harder to argue for anything other than some flavor of consequentialism. I’ve been coming around to something more virtue-ethics-flavored out of pure pragmatism — virtue ethics seems to be how people naturally think even as they justify things in terms of consequentialism or deontology — but that still has the great disadvantage of being much harder to ground.

        But on the other hand, full-blown utilitarianism has such deeply weird ramifications that coming up with horrible utilitarian dilemmas is kind of a cottage industry in philosophy. I am quite confident that no one’s come up with a utilitarianism variant yet that does a good job of quantifying human values — preference utilitarianism is about as close as it comes, but even it has big problems.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Since virtue ethics is traditionally about nature and flourishing, can’t you ground it in Darwinism?
          Unfortunately, your next step would be grappling with Nietzsche and his truth claim that Man is not a telos, that when the Overmen evolve they’ll have as much right to kill us as we do to kill apes.
          That was the point where I gave up atheism.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Only if the right to kill is a function of the moral worth of the killer, and not just of the target. If it’s just a function of the target’s worth and the necessity of the act, then no, you don’t have to worry about Ubermenschen (morally at least). Man is definitely not a telos, that would be wrong on so many levels, but not being a telos doesn’t stop our lives from being valuable.

          • humeanbeingblog says:

            Arisotelian virtue ethics are all about natural teleology, but the framework of virtue ethics is not essentially Aristotelian. The way I explain the difference to my students (I’m a philosophy professor) is that the two views have different views of the fundamental unit of moral evaluation. For a virtue ethicist, the fundamental moral concept is the GOOD PERSON. Good things are just the things that good people value, and good actions, are just the things that good people tend to do. For a consequentialist, GOOD THINGS is the primary unit of evaluation. For a consequentialist, good actions are just the ones that lead to the most good things, and good people are just the people who tend to do good things.

            Hume is a virtue ethicist, but he is also a materialist and rejects Aristotelian teleology. He defines a good person as (roughly) someone who is sensitive to the feelings of others. His view was a big influence on Bentham and Mill. It’s not clear to me that Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism is an improvement on Hume’s sentimentalist virtue ethics.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @David Shaffer: “moral worth” is a hard concept for a materialistic monist to ground. They’ve denied themself the simple solution that rational beings have moral worth second only to the Good mind that caused them to be.

            @humean: You’re correct. The thing about Hume’s conception of the good person is that it can be maddeningly arbitrary.
            I recall our host describing Locecraft’ s ethics as “I’ve arbitrarily decided that gentle Toryism is the best system for men. If you don’t like it fight me.”
            I kind of think Hume is like that on the more rarified level of real philosophers.

            What Nietzsche is saying in Zarathustra is “might makes right”, with intelligence mightier than physical might.
            Elsewhere he develops the argument that he tried being a vegetarian out of a sentiment that animals have moral worth but later realized that intelligence couldn’t have evolved for making moral decisions that impose disutility on the individual.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Why should I care? That’s the flaw in any moral system, that it’s vulnerable to an endless regress of “so what?” The only way around that is to ground morality in what we actually value, so that you can answer “I don’t know why you should care, but in fact you do.” Trying to bring in a Good Mind that caused us to be has no effect on this problem-if God’s decrees are arbitrary, that’s not morality; if they are based on good reasons, then the good reasons are morality, not the Good Mind.

        • Tracy W says:

          Alternative view to consequentialism: our sense of morality is evolved and is evolving (in both the biological and cultural senses of evolution) in a way that makes for human flourishing in the context of our society.

          Therefore, it would be pure coincidence for our sense of morality to match with any simple set of reasons. And while there’s a role for reasoning about improvements in morality it should be in the form of steps of reform rather than attempts at a total revolution because there’s a good chance we missed an important reason for a rule.

          • David Shaffer says:

            It would, in fact, be a pretty large coincidence for all of our moral instincts to match any simple set of reasons. In reality, this generally doesn’t happen, which is the main reason (other than curiosity) to care about moral systems to begin with. Our instinctive values aren’t coherent-we have instincts to value care, fairness, authority, sanctity and the like (Haidtian moral foundations), yet these drives often push in different directions. The practical value of a moral system is to help us figure out what we really want in such cases.

            As for incremental reform over revolution, that’s the Chesterton’s Fence argument, which is often a very good idea. That said, empirically there are enough needlessly destructive traditions that we don’t want to move too slowly, lest we leave people suffering senselessly.

      • promotoriustitiae says:

        Thanks! That’s a good set of links which, to be honest, I really should have been able to find (though some I have in fact already seen and read including Singer’s book). I’ll probably try and slam out a first version of something that’s been rattling around in my head in a formal way. In particular, I’ll probably do a ‘Contra Consequentialism FAQ’ post considering where I’m posting it and the presence of a good structure as opposed to the LW posts.

        To give a very, very brief summary – I’ll be aiming at the message that utilitarianism is an ethical tool but not an ethical system in the same way as other ethical systems are and that the consequences (aha) of this are a problem. Obviously it’ll be in the same format as the FAQ but it’ll add sections.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I would upvote this post if I could.

        That said, “happiness isn’t everything” and “human values are complex” are just arguments against hedonic utilitarianism, not utilitarianism in general, no?

        Also, I don’t think you can argue with for utilitarianism (as opposed to consequentialism more generally) with Dutch-book arguments? They’re an important reason to use a utility function in the decision-theory sense of the term, but not to be a utilitarian (a much stronger condition). Like Eliezer’s post that you linked to is basically about why ultimately you have to have to be willing to be a consequentialist and do the numbers, but the fact that those numbers work in a utilitarian fashion is basically just assumed. If you’re a different sort of consequentialist they could work quite differently, and indeed one could write the article from an unusual-consequentialism point of view but with the same essential point.

  8. Atlas says:

    And so, Foucault tells us, in the fifteenth century there is a sudden emergence of a complex of artistic and philosophical themes linking madmen, the sea, and the terrible mysteries of the world.

    Minor corroborating contemporary example: this is pretty much exactly what Sunless Sea is about.

    I always like contrarian takes. But I can’t make sense of what Foucault is trying to do here….Probably there’s a perspective in which this makes sense, but this book didn’t manage to teach me to appreciate it.

    It seems like it would be kind of nice if Continental philosophers who seem to have interesting ideas worth engaging with would sometimes try to communicate those ideas such that reasonably intelligent readers could comfortably feel that they understand what said philosophers are trying to communicate. I mean, isn’t influencing people by convincing them of the merits of your ideas what makes philosophy hopefully relevant as a field of study?

    • Nornagest says:

      this is pretty much exactly what Sunless Sea is about.

      You could make a case for Moby-Dick, too. And the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Romantics seemed to like this one.

  9. humeanbeingblog says:

    Flip through a bit of “Discipline and Punish” and Foucault’s larger project becomes more clear. Foucault is obsessed with the forces within society that push us toward conformity. He views these as always transparently malicious affronts to human dignity. His recurring theme is “In the past, we subjected people’s bodies to inhuman cruelty. Now we do the same thing, but we do it TO YOUR SOUL, which is both sneakier and worse.”

    This kind of analysis is applied to literally everything within society. It serves to resurrect the sophist’s position that there is nothing really true or good, but just other people trying to bend you to their will. It’s an intellectual universal acid.

    Re-read Shackel’s original paper on the Motte and Bailey Doctrine, and focus not on the fallacy being exposed, but on Foucault’s discussion of knowledge and power, which is the author’s main illustrative example. It’s highly instructive.

    • Mary says:

      And, of course, one hangs about, looking at the spectacle, and considering whether he wants to coerce everyone to conform to his notion of how to treat nonconformity.

    • Yakimi says:

      The weird thing is that Foucault observed the Islamist phase of the Iranian Revolution with unfettered admiration, and it’s hard to imagine a more coercive form of conformity than that.

      • Mary says:

        Well, the Islamists were no longer being coerced.

        Hence the logical problem.

      • Nornagest says:

        I haven’t read enough Foucault to know if colonialism was one of his interests, but for many people of that period, anti-colonial sentiment in a revolutionary movement was enough to excuse almost anything else about it. The Khmer Rouge once had a long list of Western admirers, and the bloom only started to wear off that particular rose when they massacred their way into a losing war with neighboring Vietnam — a communist country itself and no stranger to atrocity.

        The ayatollahs are pretty tame by comparison.

    • spork says:

      “Foucault is obsessed with the forces within society that push us toward conformity. He views these as always transparently malicious affronts to human dignity.”

      This seems right and matches my impressions based on earlier attempts to read Foucault. But then the mandatory conformism of Foucault’s self-appointed 21st century foot soldiers – the SJWs – would be so heavy with irony that it might just collapse spacetime.

  10. pansnarrans says:

    On this thing about authorities rescuing criminals from the company of the mad, leaving only the mad in places that would evolve into mental institutions: what would the world be like today if they’d left the criminals there? I mean, probably horrible, but what are the chances that by now we would have found treatments for all sorts of criminal behaviour that we currently blame on immorality?

    • MawBTS says:

      Medieval/Renaissance doctors were worse than useless. The less they were allowed to treat patients, the better the outcomes for patients were.

      They prospered because of regression to the mean. People call on a doctor when they feel sicker than usual. Assuming you don’t die, you will probably return to baseline, and it will seem like the treatment did something.

      I think they would have discovered no treatments, and 18th century medicine would have been burdened by an even greater number of wrong ideas to overcome.

  11. Ilana Walder-Biesanz says:

    I imagine Foucault discussed this and it just isn’t the focus of your review, but I think the treatment of madness in literature is telling of attitudes about it, if we’re trying to get at a sense of the zeitgeist/philosophy (rather than just “these were the objectively terrible conditions of madhouses”). For instance, in Middleton’s The Changeling (1622), characters voluntarily enter a madhouse (as inmates) to woo the proprietor’s wife. (The proprietor also teaches the madmen to dance and brings them to a party as the entertainment.) That seems to imply that (1) madhouses weren’t thought of as pits of horror, and (2) madmen were at least sometimes viewed as harmlessly amusing. No sea motifs that I recall, though.

    • MawBTS says:

      That seems like the basis for the stereotypical medieval court jester: a crazy person who uses his craziness to entertain (weren’t they also called “fools”?)

    • Schmendrick says:

      There’s also some value in religious examples; there’s a long and rich tradition in Russia and other eastern-european countries of the “holy fool” which, while usually applied to sane people ostentatiously and obviously aping the mannerisms of the insane as a way of signalling their disregard for the temporal world and willingness to shun society in order to devote themselves to God, surely has some relevance or spill-over effect for the treatment of *actually* crazy people.

  12. The Nybbler says:

    I’m not sure Don Quixote being driven mad by reading books like Don Quixote is a legitimate example. Cervantes may not have been entirely serious there.

    • RandomName says:

      You’re right it’s not a serious example, but I think Scott’s point is Cervantes wasn’t making that up whole cloth. He was playing on an actual belief people had, it just so happened that his parody because more popular than any other example.

  13. kenziegirl says:

    Regarding the reading thing, how do you think this ties into the idea that reading on a mass scale was new? Thanks to the printing press, people could have more access to books than ever before, and far more ability to read for pleasure and leisure. In a way it does sound quite similar to modern panics about TV or Internet – “You can’t just sit around doing that all day, you’ll rot your brain!” Certainly it was possible to disseminate ideas like never before – subversive, counter-cultural ideas – which you certainly can get from novels as well as non-fiction. So I wonder if there was some effort by authorities trying to keep it under control.

    • Deiseach says:

      In a way it does sound quite similar to modern panics about TV or Internet – “You can’t just sit around doing that all day, you’ll rot your brain!”

      There was a good Tumblr post showing an image contrasting the modern woman of 1915 with the virtuous woman of 1615 and wondering if this was always the way, in 1615 had they been complaining of the bad tendencies of the youth of the day?

      Then someone else linked an image of a published sermon from 1622 which did indeed show “in our fathers’ times good manly virtuous behaviour, today it’s all fancy shoes, cards and dicing, and smoking and drinking!”

      So yes, there have always been moral and social panics about the new fashions of the day 🙂

      • The Nybbler says:

        I seem to recall lines complaining about the youth of today in the Iliad. If those weren’t just translator’s liberties, the idea is pretty old. But I’m pretty sure they weren’t complaining about books.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Scrolls?!?!??! In my day we memorized 4,000 line epic poems, in 6 ft of snow, uphill both ways while beating back hoards of barbarians, wearing nothing but a loin cloth. Today’s youth with their ink and quills going off to war with Bronze armor, moral degradation I tells ya!

        • manwhoisthursday says:

          It’s in the Odyssey:

          The son is rare who measures with his father,
          and one in a thousand is a better man

      • Nick says:

        So yes, there have always been moral and social panics about the new fashions of the day 🙂

        I’ve wondered for a while whether this is the right point to make, because it seems society has changed faster and faster the closer you get to the present, so that moral panics may come more often and each new fashion may be harder to reconcile (how often were innovations bringing on moral panics in Ancient Egypt? How about Classical Rome? How about the early modern period?). I think one of the reasons Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is interesting, actually, is that it portrays that period as undergoing a great deal of change and upheaval, which certainly challenges my thinking here.

    • TheEternallyPerplexed says:

      Could be linked to the idea that reading cultivated sensitivity and understanding (Pinker relates the decline in violence to the spread of public libraries in England). In a society with crude and brutal norms, whining about things everybody finds perfectly normal surely can easily be seen as mad. Also, learning to express things the ones around can’t and won’t understand creates another gap.

    • Mary says:

      Not only the printing press. Cheap paper gets underplayed in importance. Consider that a monastery, wanting a new book, would start by calculating how many ewes to breed, to get so many lambs and in due course, so many sheepskins, and you realize it was kinda important.

  14. Mark Atwood says:

    Maybe reading novels (and other “sufficently rich” exploration of fantasy) does increase the risk for insanity, or is one of the elements of a combination of factors, but we don’t notice because
    1) since everyone is exposed we can no longer tell it’s a factor, or
    2) something else in the social and economic environment is compensating for it, or
    3) another component of the risk is genetic and the spread of novels killed everyone with the genetic susceptibility, or
    4) we have all been driven insane, and spend all our time wildly talking about things that don’t exist while doing “work” that is about things that don’t exist.

    Um, uh oh….

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      4, check.
      And speaking of working on things that aren’t real, I feel like writing a Lovecraft pastiche that addresses how the authorities who are locking dangerous books away avoid being punished for First Amendment violation.

    • Reasoner says:

      I did read someone accuse certain internet moral crusaders of having a simplistic view of good & evil that came from being a part of fiction fandoms.

      Part of what’s going on, I think, is that teachers tell you reading novels is good when you’re a kid because they just want you to spend more time reading in general. By the time you’re an adult, you’ve probably hit the point of diminishing returns in this department. But the feeling that novels are good for you lingers.

      • TheEternallyPerplexed says:

        No, it’s good in itself.

        I’m astonished that nobody so far mentioned the therapeutic effects of reading.

        “In the 1980s and early 1990s, bibliotherapy was a widely used but poorly researched therapeutic model. However, numerous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have documented the positive effects of bibliotherapy for clinical conditions such as deliberate self-harm, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) and bulimia nervosa and insomnia. Research also supports bibliotherapy as an intervention for a wide array of psychological issues including emotional disorders, alcohol addiction, and sexual dysfunction. In a recent review of psychotherapeutic treatments for older depressed people, bibliotherapy emerged as an effective intervention.” (Wikipedia)

        Somewhat related: watching movies.

  15. Alraune says:

    The idea of novel-reading causing insanity seems ridiculous to us. But is it any more ridiculous than the idea of video games causing violence? Or stereotype threat causing poor test performance?

    Better than that, the actual line of logic quoted for novel-reading causing “insanity” appears to be straight out of “avoid using fictional evidence”: Mssr. Beauchesne is claiming that reading quasi-realistic novels creates unrealistic relationship standards in a way that epic poetry did not. And of course, refusing to marry in the 18-19th century was something only a madman would do. This should only be an absurd claim to hardcore bio- & economic determinists.

    • Alraune says:

      …And while we’re on the subject, to the extent that the stereotype which is threatening you is a 6’3″ 9th grader who beats you up in the locker room for failing to act less than maximally tough, I’m quite convinced of its efficacy at reducing test grades in high schools.

      • MawBTS says:

        Your theory predicts that nerds of any sort will have lower test grades.

        • Thomas Jørgensen says:

          No I believe what Alraune is saying is that the average sports team member in any given highschool is under-performing their academic potential badly because if they put actual effort in, they would suffer social consequences. Also, likely the “popular girls”. Because from a biological perspective, exemplars of strapping health averaging lower grades makes no sense whatsoever. Nerds beat them not by having higher native intelligence, but by virtue of having already paid the social toll. You are a geek, you will get beat up regardless, might as well study.

          • adrian.ratnapala says:

            Now I assuming many of the people on this site were nerds. I sure was.

            Were many of you actually beaten up in school? I sure wasn’t.

          • hbregalad says:

            I wasn’t beaten up for being a nerd, I was teased mercilessly until I realized that being anti-social in return punished and repelled my tormentors, leaving me nothing to do with my time but to study. Resulting in acquired nerd-ism.

          • John Schilling says:

            I was too large to be safely beaten up, but things like being tripped in the hallways and having my wallet openly stolen in the locker room (by people who knew I wouldn’t beat them up in return) was close enough to fill the same social role. And reinforced by the dynamic hbregalad described above.

            Fortunately, this was before the age of zero tolerance for “bullying”, so the few times I lost my temper and did beat them up in return, didn’t result in my being expelled.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Not being big, I was beat up, in addition to tripped in the halls, smacked in the back of the head, had my chair pulled out from under me, etc. If I fought back, I got suspended for fighting. If I didn’t fight back, I still got suspended for fighting. If I fell out of my chair because someone yanked it out from under me, I got suspended for disrupting class — the school even once asked my parents for permission to use corporal punishment over that one (it was not forthcoming).

          • Were many of you actually beaten up in school?

            I once had someone put chewing gum in my hair, which was a nuisance to get out. That’s the closest I can remember to being beaten up.

            But I was at a private school run by the University of Chicago, so an environment more approving of intellectual interests than most.

          • Mary says:

            Beaten up? No.

            Physically attacked? yes. And then the school officials punished me and refused to stop when my parents objected; they blamed me for not trying hard enough to get along with the other kids.

          • johan_larson says:

            I was never beaten up. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I had a few. In fact, I don’t think any of the “smart kids” I knew had ever been beaten up (or even teased very harshly) for being smart or nerdy.

            That said, this was in the great white north. Perhaps things were different in the jungle down south.

    • Deiseach says:

      And God bless the French, when looking up lists of 17th century novels, I found that in 2009 when President Sarkozy was in the midst of his unpopularity, they protested by reading a novel he disliked – the famous 17th century “first psychological novel” The Princess of Cleves.

  16. Steve Sailer says:

    Ship of Fools?

    How can they afford that?

  17. Steve Sailer says:

    How much of a role did Foucault’s sadomasochistic urges play a role in his theorizing?

  18. TomA says:

    This post reads like a journey of discovery as guided by Foucault; who provides commentary on the passing scene. Ideally, a journey of this kind ends in some form of education or received wisdom, which then can be applied in one’s own life path. So my question is, was this journey worthwhile? Did Foucault teach anything uniquely useful, or at least sufficiently useful to justify the effort?

  19. Zeno says:

    You have a typo at this part:

    The closest I can come is a theory that the Renaissance (and to some degree the later classical period) though of madness as potentially interesting and valuable.

    I assume you meant “thought.”

  20. P. George Stewart says:

    You do generally find that the “originals” are quite enjoyable to read, even if they are still wrong or demented. People like Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Badiou, etc., are at the very least extremely clever, and articulate writers – they even make interesting or informative points occasionally.

    The problem is that the murky, mystical atmosphere and the obfuscatory “house style” that they’ve created is just dreadful when it gets copied and copied and copied and ends up being spouted by some third-rate academic in Bumfluff University, Podunk (or Harvard, for that matter, since the standard is so low these days).

    It ends up being nothing more than vaguely poetic intellectual doodling with pretensions to political importance. The intellect on holiday – not as meaningless as the word salads you get sometimes in the liminal state just before falling asleep, but closer to that than to actual philosophy or investigative thought.

    • Deiseach says:

      The problem is that the murky, mystical atmosphere and the obfuscatory “house style” that they’ve created is just dreadful when it gets copied and copied and copied and ends up being spouted by some third-rate academic in Bumfluff University, Podunk (or Harvard, for that matter, since the standard is so low these days).

      Oh yes; that Royle book I complained of drove me mad with his fanboying over Derrida and as you say rehashing his theories as “spouted by some third-rate academic”; when he slipped and quoted some actual real the man himself Derrida my opinion was changed, since it was obvious that there was actual thought going on there and that Derrida was intelligent and had a point he wanted to make and ideas he was developing and pursuing.

  21. Jack V says:

    That’s fascinating. And indeed, I don’t think I “get it” nearly enough to be able to offer an opinion.

    A couple of things did occur to me though. Understanding how people thought about a particular situation can possibly inform a lot about how they treated it in practice, if the specifics of how it was treated aren’t recorded enough or are hard to generalise.

    Reading novels. I guess, if you class things like “depression” as mental illness, and even “behaviour that makes people not fit into their necessary social role, like violently attacking the man we’ve decided is going to be their husband”, then it’s quite possible that for some proportion of people, forcing them to emulate everyone else makes them at least functional (whether that’s a net win or a net loss for the people themselves), and reading novels makes them much much less “like everyone else”.

  22. Big Jay says:

    Maybe we should look at it from a different angle. Maybe doing things that you know your culture doesn’t approve of causes shame, and shame isn’t great for one’s sanity. Maybe this is true even if what you’re doing is as harmless as drinking coffee or being ten pounds heavier than an underwear model.

    We might even suspect that the negative effects of shame would be linked with neuroticism, which is significantly higher in women than in men.

  23. nameless1 says:

    But mental illness isn’t simply a more tactful way to call someone mad, but is generally a broader category. Depression is the most widespread mental illness, but nobody would call you mad in 1900 for having, they would call it “spleen”. Having the blues. Being lethargic. Being melancholic.

    The difference is the following: for example, being depressed means that parts of my brain have an incorrectly low opinion of my value as a person. But the reason I am not mad is that my conscious mind does not believe it. This is the difference! The madman really believes he is Napoleon, the depressed one does not consciously believe he is a piece of shit, he just feels so i.e. the parts of the brain that regulate emotion behave as if they believed it, but the conscious, rational mind does not believe it.

    For example if a depressed person would refuse treatment, because he consciously believes he is worthless and thinks these feelings are entirely accurate, that would be madness. If he would argue and justify them with bad logic “Look, I am really shit, look at what I achieved in my life, all I have is a wife and a kid who love me, a job where I am respected and a condo halfway paid, that is obviously a total failure at life!” that would be madness.

    • The Nybbler says:

      IME, depressed people say stuff like that _all the time_. It’s still not what would be called “madness” in the Victorian sense, I don’t think.

  24. nameless1 says:

    >The end of the Middle Ages must have been a similar period.

    Absolutely, this is why Huizinga’s The Twilight Of the Middle ages is one of the 10 most important books about history. I think you should read and review it. They didn’t see progress, they saw decline.

  25. jchrieture says:

    Some SSC readers may be pleased — others may be appalled — at the accelerating degree to which Foucault-class postmodernist ideas regarding psychiatry are being embraced, distilled, refined, and extended, sufficiently as to be readily appreciated by the electorate.

    A recent example of postmodern populist pushdown, in the December 31, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, is an essay provocatively titled What If Parents Loved Strangers’ Children As Much As Their Own?, whose subtitle asks “What would a radically compassionate world look like — and would we want to live there?” The essay concludes:

    It’s entirely possible that future generations will have higher ethical standards than we do, and that they will recognize obligations that we are ignoring now.

    But I don’t think such moral progress will come about purely as a result of better arguments about abstract ideals. It will also require that people have the kind of empathy that results from emotional well-being.

    And that well-being comes, in part, from having their needs met when they were children.

    The author of this accessibly postmodernist essay — which argues hard against the recent works of rationalist icons Sam Harris and Paul Bloom — is the redoubtable Ted Chiang … an author whose works are cherished by many SSC readers.

    Chiang’s major literary awards include the Hugo award x 9, Nebula x 5, BFSA x 2, WFA, Locus, and the James Tiptree Jr. award. Chiang is author too of the the novella Story of Your Life (2003( that recently was released as the pro-pomo, pro-empathy film Arrival (2017). The point is that, by the available objective standards of merit, Ted Chiang is the single greatest living SF writer (by far).

    Further Chiang-compatible postmodern readings:  Susan James’ lecture “Freedom and Nature: A Spinozist Invitation” (108th Presidential Address, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 2016, text here, audio here), and Martha Nussbaum’s recent books Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2007) and Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013).

    In summary, these works by Chiang, James, and Nussabaum, present a radically Enlightened flowering of the postmodern seeds that Foucault’s generation planted.

    Postmodern (anti-Chiang) pushback:  the Mission Statement of the Occidental Journal: White Identity, Interests, and Culture expresses concerns regarding societal consensus in respect to modes of cognition that are and are not pathological:

    The Occidental Observer will present original content touching on the themes of white identity, white interests, and the culture of the West. Such a mission statement is sure to be dismissed as extremism of the worst sort in today’s intellectual climate — perhaps even as a sign of psychiatric disorder.

    So, are empathic deficiencies best regarded as psychiatric disorders? Don’t ask me!

    Recent magnificently poetic/scientific works like David George Haskell’s (much-praised) The Forest Unseen (2015) lead readers (me anyway) to wonder whether biophilic deficiencies qualify as psychiatric disorders. Because relative to David George Haskell’s super-hypertrophied biophilic cognitive capacities, pretty much everyone’s a nutjob. Maybe humility and charity are indicated, in regard to specifying what are, and what are not, pathological levels of cognitive incapacity?

    To say more palatably pretty much the same thing, in the language of James and Nussbaum, and with due respect for the postmodern psychiatric context that Foucault’s work establishes, many people would enjoy possessing the biophilic cognitive capacities that Haskell’s book celebrates. Alas, to the degree that such cognitive capacities are unachievable by citizens who desire them, we live in a Dark Age of psychiatry … with an Enlightened promise (but how reliable is this promise?) of a better psychiatric age to come.

    These tough issues won’t be resolved soon — meanwhile they’re catalyzing some remarkably diverse, notably unsettling, wonderfully thought-provoking discourse … discourse that is grounded in scientific evidence, and examined through the lens of rationality, yet appreciated with due regard for empathic modes of cognition … which is evidence that our postmodern era is evolving (via punctuated cognitive equilibria maybe?) on a course tending generally toward radical enlightenment … whatever that may turn out to be. 🙂

    • baconbits9 says:

      What if parents loved strangers’ children as much as their own?

      They would either go mad with grief, or would not like their own kids very much.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Go away John.

    • Mark says:

      5 words. That’s a new record for me.

    • Deiseach says:

      The author of this accessibly postmodernist essay — which argues hard against the recent works of rationalist icons Sam Harris and Paul Bloom — is the redoubtable Ted Chiang … an author whose works are cherished by many SSC readers.

      Somebody else got there first, John, so no good you trying to stir the pot 🙂

      35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,

      36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

      37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

      38 This is the first and great commandment.

      39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

      40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      I’ve read one thing by Chiang that wasn’t a sci-fi story. It leaves me unlikely to read another.

      • jchrieture says:

        Thank you for the link to Ted Chiang’s essay “Silicon Valley Is Turning Into Its Own Worst Fear” (BuzzFeed, December 18, 2017)

        In light of this recent work, the themes of Chiang’s older nonfiction essay “Science, Language, and Magic” (Locus, August, 1992) seem prescient:

        I wasn’t conscious of a recurring theme in my stories when I was writing them, but if I look for one, I suppose what comes to mind is the notion of an ideal language, the language in which thoughts can be articulated perfectly and things can be described perfectly. … I’m still fascinated by the idea of some system of representation in which the relationship is not merely arbitrary but intrinsic. This would, in a sense, map onto both the physical universe and the universe of thought.

        Fans of Unsong will find a parallel universe in Chiang’s writings, as will SSC readers who track ongoing advances in the neuroscientific understanding of affective cognition and mentalization.

  26. Sfoil says:

    91 Comments and no one has mentioned syphilis yet? Come on…

    Syphilis is sexually transmitted, and appeared in Europe from the New World (i.e., from boats, i.e. FROM THE SEA). Therefore, it would have both first appeared, and subsequently been most visible, around ports, sailors, ships, etc. It absolutely causes insanity, and threatened anyone who didn’t rigorously adhere to pre-modern sexual norms. And when did it show up? In the late 15th century, of course.

    • jchrieture says:

      Cue Camp Concentration (1968), which is polymath Thomas M. Disch’s unsettlingly syphilis-centric, uplift-themed, post-techosingularity (spoiler!), pomophilic, psychiatry-intensive “evil twin of Flowers for Algernon.”

      Fifty years later, Camp Concentration remains in print; here is its Amazon summary:

      Thomas M. Disch imagines an alternate 1970s in which America has declared war on the rest of the world and much of its own citizenry and is willing to use any weapon to assure victory. Louis Sacchetti, a poet imprisoned for draft resistance, is delivered to a secret facility called Camp Archimedes, where he is the unwilling witness to the army’s conscienceless experiments in “intelligence maximization.”

      In the experiment, prisoners are given pallidine, a drug derived from the syphilis spirochete, and their mental abilities quickly rise to the level of genius. Unfortunately, a side effect of pallidine is death.

      Not many books read better, fifty years after they were written.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Plato was not talking about syphilis. Brant (1494) would be awfully early. Bosch seems to have started painting before Columbus.

      Also, syphilis does not cause madness, as demonstrated by the single most famous medical experiment in the history of the world.

      • Deiseach says:

        syphilis does not cause madness

        AHEM. General paralysis of the insane, the villain of many a Victorian and Edwardian medico-thriller (as we’d class them nowadays). Repeated, long-standing infection that develops over the long-term does indeed lead to neurological disintegration:

        GPI was originally considered to be a type of madness due to a dissolute character, when first identified in the 18th century. Then the cause-effect connection with syphilis was discovered in the late 1880s. Subsequently, the discovery of penicillin and its use in the treatment of syphilis rendered paresis curable and avoidable. Prior to that, paresis was inevitably fatal unless another terminating illness intervened, and accounted for as much as 25% of the primary diagnosis for residents in public psychiatric hospitals.

        If you’re a 19th century doctor and you have a patient presenting with the following symptoms which are recognised by the profession as following on from STIs, then is it any wonder society holds madness to be (in some cases) the inevitable consequence of and punishment for immorality?

        Symptoms of the disease first appear from 10 to 30 years after infection. Incipient GPI is usually manifested by neurasthenic difficulties, such as fatigue, headaches, insomnia, dizziness, etc. As the disease progresses, mental deterioration and personality changes occur. Typical symptoms include loss of social inhibitions, asocial behavior, gradual impairment of judgment, concentration and short-term memory, euphoria, mania, depression, or apathy. Subtle shivering, minor defects in speech and Argyll Robertson pupil may become noticeable.

        Delusions, common as the illness progresses, tend to be poorly systematized and absurd. They can be grandiose, melancholic, or paranoid. These delusions include ideas of great wealth, immortality, thousands of lovers, unfathomable power, apocalypsis, nihilism, self-blame, or bizarre hypochondriacal complaints. Later, the patient suffers from dysarthria, intention tremors, hyperreflexia, myoclonic jerks, confusion, seizures and severe muscular deterioration. Eventually, the paretic dies bedridden, cachectic and completely disoriented, frequently in a state of status epilepticus.

        Fun fact: married men picking up STIs from prostitutes then passing them onto their wives is why the widespread adoption of immediately using a silver nitrate eyewash on newborns happened! Nowadays it’s only done in cases of actual conjunctivitis, but that’s its historical roots!

        I’ll refer you to the story The Third Generation by Arthur Conan Doyle (from Round the Red Lamp, a collection of short stories based on his experiences as a medical student and doctor, including what he heard from others in the profession) in which the grandson of a dissolute aristocrat has, in his turn, developed the symptoms passed down from his grandfather to his father to him:

        “Perhaps I spoke a little abruptly,” said the doctor, “but you must have known the nature of your complaint. Why, otherwise, should you have come to me?”

        “God help me, I suspected it; but only today when my leg grew bad. My father had a leg like this.”

        “It was from him, then — ?”

        “No, from my grandfather. You have heard of Sir Rupert Norton, the great Corinthian?”

        The doctor was a man of wide reading with a retentive memory. The name brought back instantly to him the remembrance of the sinister reputation of its owner — a notorious buck of the thirties — who had gambled and duelled and steeped himself in drink and debauchery, until even the vile set with whom he consorted had shrunk away from him in horror, and left him to a sinister old age with the barmaid wife whom he had married in some drunken frolic. As he looked at the young man still leaning back in the leather chair, there seemed for the instant to flicker up behind him some vague presentiment of that foul old dandy with his dangling seals, many-wreathed scarf, and dark satyric face. What was he now? An armful of bones in a mouldy box. But his deeds — they were living and rotting the blood in the veins of an innocent man.

        To spoiler the story: the young man in question is engaged, his doctor tells him he can on no account get married (or he’ll pass it on to her and any children they may have), but it’s a terrible insult to just break off an engagement so suddenly for no reason like that, and the infected man chooses this solution to his problems (no cure, he knows it will kill him, he’s engaged and can’t get out of the marriage, it’s impossible for him to tell his fiancée and her family about his condition):

        Dr. Horace Selby heard again of his patient next morning, and rather earlier than he had expected. A paragraph in the Daily News caused him to push away his breakfast untasted, and turned him sick and faint while he read it. “A Deplorable Accident,” it was headed, and it ran in this way:

        “A fatal accident of a peculiarly painful character is reported from King William Street. About eleven o’clock last night a young man was observed while endeavouring to get out of the way of a hansom to slip and fall under the wheels of a heavy, two-horse dray. On being picked up his injuries were found to be of the most shocking character, and he expired while being conveyed to the hospital. An examination of his pocketbook and cardcase shows beyond any question that the deceased is none other than Sir Francis Norton, of Deane Park, who has only within the last year come into the baronetcy. The accident is made the more deplorable as the deceased, who was only just of age, was on the eve of being married to a young lady belonging to one of the oldest families in the South. With his wealth and his talents the ball of fortune was at his feet, and his many friends will be deeply grieved to know that his promising career has been cut short in so sudden and tragic a fashion.”

  27. BlindKungFuMaster says:

    “First, it’s phenomenal writing.”

    To me basically all these snippets were inane, almost unreadable, blathering. I really doubt Foucault knew better what he wanted to say with this stuff than you do now.

  28. summer says:

    typo nitpick: “though of madness as potentially interesting and valuable” I assume you mean “thought of”

  29. nameless1 says:

    >But second, it’s totally bonkers. (…) This is the kind of thought process where we drill for oil because we are symbolically sexually penetrating Mother Earth

    I agree with your dislike of this kind of thing and as a Continental European I am ashamed that this thing is called “our” philosophy. However, instead of calling it bullshit, I would probably call it poetry. (Later “Continentals”, like Deleuze, are firmly in the bullshit category. But Foucault was a too good writer to not write bullshit when he could also write poetry.)

    The problem is, why would anyone use poetry in the rational analysis of a thing? And my best answer is this. Remember how rationality is goal-oriented optimization. You want to understand something because, possibly, you want to change it, or change something else it is affected by. But intellectualism can also be used just to impress, basically to get social status, prestige by showing off your brilliance. This is sadly so typical of Francophone writers that even rubbed off to Nassim Taleb – I mean, he write very well about important truths, but he often comes across as just showing off “look how many different stuff I know about”.

    One thing – and that is an amusingly Foucaultian thought – that I think determines which path you go is a sense of power. If you feel like it is in your power to change things, you are inclined to be rational. If you have no power to do it anyway, if you feel powerless, you may as well just show off your brilliance.

    I mean, don’t think it is interesting how countries produce good philosophers at the historic periods when they are also militarily powerful and play a great power rule? I see a correlation there. If you feel like you have a say in how the world is ruled, you try to make sense. If you think not, why bother?

    I may be wrong, but look. I find that the weak, small states in Eastern Europe and the Balkans are very, very prone to this poetic, symbolic thinking. Isn’t it because they feel like helpless victims of history?

    If you own a business, you have an incentive to be rational about it. If you are a journalist commeting on how someone else is running a business, all your incentives line up to looking brilliant instead of being right.

  30. Sigivald says:

    I started reading Foucault’s Madness And Civilization with the expectation that it would be tedious and incomprehensible. You know, the stereotype that postmodernism / post-structuralism / Continentalism / etc. involves a lot of negation of the negation of the inversion of the Other within the Absolute within [and so on for 200 pages].

    Philosopher here (in the “got a BA in it” sense).

    Foucault is the most comprehensible and plainest and most rational of the “postmodernists”, definitely. (The Continentals aren’t uniformly even bad; the phenomenologists and many of the existentialists can be easy to follow – see Merleau-Ponty, for instance.)

    If you want incomprehensible babble that decodes to pure assertion and possibly nonsense, start with Derrida [who is mostly pretentious and tries too hard, there’s a little meat in there] and work to Baudrillard, who I found utterly “throw the book across the room” obscurantist.

    For the old school, Husserl was big on word-stew, and, well, nobody should be force to slog through Heidegger.

    • Sigivald says:

      And re. the conclusion, definitely Foucault does fall into what I’ve seen as the common postmodernist trap – that of confusing “his weird dream-analysis-level-arbitrary” ideas of What Something Is About with … What Something Is About, per se.

      This is why I’ve only ever read the mass of them a little; when I start seeing that, which happens very quickly in most of them, once you translate wordy-obscurantism to core content, I … stop.

      I don’t mind fiction that works like that, but I find it intolerable in things claiming to be philosophy.

      (Baudrillard, no. Bataille, yes.)

    • Protagoras says:

      I hate Heidegger as much as the next person, but he was trying to do something that was, as he himself admitted, impossible. If you don’t obfuscate when doing that, it’s going to be a little too obvious that you’re failing. I feel compelled to give him points for clearly being unusually aware of what he was doing, and to all appearances being able to understand his critics (since he knew what he was doing wrong, he could understand why somebody would object); a pity he could never bring himself to do the sensible thing when faced with impossible challenges and give up.

  31. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    I greatly enjoyed the review but this:

    I couldn’t find any mention of equally bad flaws in the rest of the book, and Foucault really does seem to know his stuff, so I’m tempted to treat this as a one-off error, albeit a completely inexplicable one.

    is horribly confused thinking.

    If you walked into a restaurant and saw a cockroach scurrying around on the floor, would you say “thank God, there’s only one cockroach in this place!” Or would you recognize that since cockroaches hate the light, there must be dozens or even hundreds more unseen cockroaches for every one that you notice?

    This is the same. If you’re reading a purportedly scholarly work and catch an obvious blatant lie then that shouldn’t be inexplicable to you. It means that, in all likelihood, there are dozens or even hundreds more lies which you weren’t able to catch.

    Why would you eat at a place that you knew was infested with roaches or read from a book that you knew was infested with lies? This called for a health inspector and not a food critic.

    • John Schilling says:

      If you walked into a restaurant and saw a cockroach scurrying around on the floor, would you say “thank God, there’s only one cockroach in this place!”

      One might reasonably say, “I went through the entire restaurant and didn’t see any other cockroaches, and the staff does seem to be diligent about sanitation, so I’m tempted to treat the one cockroach as an inexplicable anomaly”. In fact, that’s pretty much what Scott did say.

      • On the other hand, there is no way that Scott could have enough of the literature from the periods Foucault wrote about to know if the small number of examples he offered were a fair sample or a very atypical one–even Scott only has thirty-six hours in a day.

        Having discovered one striking falsehood treated as important, he ought to conclude that Foucault cannot be trusted and hence that the evidence he offers is not worth much.

  32. Bugmaster says:

    Exercise works for that – but so might avoiding novels and staying away from hot drinks, if that was what your society wanted.

    Call me crazy, but has anyone tested this hot drink thing ? Diet and exercise are a good thing because they reduce the risk of obesity, which causes a whole host of health problems. In addition, exercise releases endorphins, which can make you feel better temporarily. It’s easy to slam “diet and exercise” as a cliche, but it’s a cliche because it works.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I know that this isn’t actually answering your question, but there are still a fair number of people who think that beverage temperature is important for health. A lot of whom are in China.

      For whatever reason, humorism is a big part of Chinese traditional medicine. Which is especially weird because it’s based on the Indo-European four element system rather than the Chinese five element system. But managing the amount of “hot” and “wet” is considered a really big deal especially at different points in the menstrual cycle.

      The explanations are nonsense but it wouldn’t hurt for someone to test empirically it if they haven’t already.

      • Mary says:

        Beverage temperature was important for health for a long time. As in, if the water were boiled at some point in the process, it was much less likely to kill you.

        I note that iced tea took a while to make it to China but was a big hit when it reached there.

      • Nornagest says:

        Ayurvedic medicine uses a humoristic system, too, and leans heavily on “hot” and “cold” substances. The general idea seems to be highly cross-cultural.

  33. Ryan says:

    Unreason used to be a common word in the English language. Anyway

    Unreason: Simultaneously stimulating your body chakras will release your kundalini and heal your ailments.

    Reason: The accupucturist places needles inside your largest nerve clusters. This has real and verifiable positive effects on people’s health, though the specific mechanism is not understood.

    I’ve not read The Birth of the Asylum in quite some time (couple decades), but my recollection is that Foucault’s point was the way western people thought about the world changed in a very fundamental way. Before the transition there was reason and unreason. A physicist might offer a reasoned explanation for how a trebuchet launches a rock so far. The old lady out in the woods would offer an unreasoned explanation for why the herbs she gave you will deal with your chronic cough. Both were thought to be what we would call rational.

    After the transition there was rational and irrational, with madness being irrationality taken to the extreme. Only reasoned explanations are rational, and unreasoned explanations based in things like chakras and kundalini are “crazy.”

  34. alwhite says:

    Now I’m curious. Have you always been interested in the kabbalistic implications of things or did writing Unsong create that interest?

  35. adrian.ratnapala says:

    *the classical age didn’t think in exactly the same “it’s your fault” vs. “it’s biological” terms we do – but it was considered due to a weakness of character in the same way as other failures.*

    Which, oddly enough, makes it *easier* for them to deal with a scientific, naturalist (or materialist, if you prefer) world view in which everything you do is by definition and act of your biological body. And anyway, about half of the actual psychiatry posts on this site are just pointing out that some mental is just an extereme case of a corresponding personality trait.

    • jchrieture says:

      That “everything you do is by definition an act of your biological body” first inspired the radical neurophilosophical principle that “the mind is the idea of the body” … 350 years ago.
      ———-
      @article{cite-key, Author = {J. Thomas
      Cook}, Journal = {Acta Spinozana}, Pages =
      {111-134}, Title = {Spinoza and the
      Plasticity of Mind}, Volume = {14 (Spinoza
      on Mind and Body)}, Year = {1998}}

  36. hbregalad says:

    >>>I think I am going to be suspicious when the implied message stays the same but the specifics keep changing – “stay away from exciting novels” vs. “stay away from violent video games”, or “avoid hot drinks” vs. “avoid sugary foods”. It seems potentially safer when the specifics stay the same, with only the wording and the proposed responses changing.<<<

    Ah but the specifics *have* stayed the same. Foucault's representation of the argument against exciting novels isn't "novels are a risk factor because they are false / fiction" but "novels are a risk because they are composed (so as to sell) to be more exciting than what is found in nature," and it changes the expectations of the (ab)users to the point that they can no longer function (in some privileged observer's perspective) in the Real World(tm).

    We call that a super-sensory experience and that particular list is about products that sell a super-sensory experience (somehow it missed: action movies causing violence / testosterone poisoning, TV causing passivity & laziness, and sitcoms bringing paranoid existential angst into even the most healthy of relationships, and dancing being the gateway drug to all the horrors of … ?romance?), not that 'occasionally indulging in them is wrong,' (though that has been said too) but that habituating to the use of them is *at least* partly debilitating in a world / society where they are not sufficiently available, or where an addiction to "exciting novels or smart phones" turns out to be an dangerously good method of birth control, or where the procurement of hot drinks wastes work time or where sugary foods replace good nutrients (to say nothing of all the hyperactivity and circulatory issues that can stem from that.) Or where standing around the water cooler discussing Game of Thrones or Vox Machina or sports-ball or the adventures of our-favorite-vocaloid 'As If It Actually Matters'(tm), is so obviously madness, but since we're all mad, we don't recognize it anymore.

    Once society adjusts, with amazon.com and Gamestop and Starbucks and the major leagues, once the cliques and meetups and redit groups form to absorb and supply our appetite for social interaction with people who populate the same fandom as ourselves. the exposure to the confusion and ridicule of the out-group is minimized, and we can live productive lives in RL and in the fantasy world(s) of our choice.

  37. futilemoons says:

    What you were saying about exercise in that last part made me think of this. It’s another wilfully contrarian/postmodern take (though I think much more defensible/coherent than Foucault’s), this time on exercise as a mode of repressive self-discipline. I think it’s insightful if you take it with a grain of salt.

    In general I agree with you on Foucault. Not convincing in his analysis of actual reality, but undeniably powerful writing and, I think, full of useful ideas and concepts if you just tone down the crazy.

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