Slaying Sacred Cows with Concrete

More Abstractions to Deal With

"Education is the key to eradicating poverty."

"A rising tide lifts all boats."

"Free markets are the best system out there."

"Diversity is good."

"Trust the Science."

The various ideological slogans of left- and right-Liberals should be understood as pseudo-religious mantras, spoken to reinforce one's priors/assumptions, rather than to make any kind of logical argument. We all reason from First Principles: the First Principles of a Liberal left-, right-, classical, and anything in between) are fundamentally broken.

In order to explode the boundaries of possibility space and open up that new world of options, we need to look deep into the dogmas we hold, and why we hold them. I believe that we have conceptualized society in ways that prevent us from truly grasping the wide array of options that exist. Ideology has led us astray.

In all of these cases, we have abstraction.

Yesterday, I spoke of how measurements/instruments are wielded as tools within reductionist theories:

"Lies, damn lies, and statistics." Measurements/Instruments are wielded as tools in service of political goals by "smoothing out" anything the measurer does not wish to deal with. Reductionist theories brought to fruition by simply ignoring the aspects of the world that challenge the theory, and using math to demonstrate how these aspects don't actually matter.

Of course, reductionist theories have a nasty tendency to fail spectacularly, normally because the aspects of the world the theorist did not want to deal with (for fear of having to reconsider their values/principles/priors) end up having significant impacts. Theorists tend to reach the level of abstraction necessary to prove their point without having to deal with troublesome complications. All of this, in service of political goals.

But here, abstraction occurs at the level of ideology. We have this abstract Idea ("education" or "diversity" or "free markets" or "science") which smooths out all of the difficult and messy nuances involved in any of these processes. Whether or not any of these things are good (assuming they can even exist in a way recognizable to the speaker of the mantra), is simply assumed. And why can these things simply be assumed to be good? Because they have no connection to any concrete educational process, or meeting of peoples, or economic exchange, or scientific discovery. They are abstract-aesthetic claims without any substantive moral grounding. And of course, that means debates over these "principles" end up going in circles forever, because there's no substantive content to them beyond aesthetics.

A return from the Abstract to the Concrete demands that we stop supporting institutions based on abstractions.

For example, we need to be asking what education is for and then determining, a) whether or not our current education system does a good job of achieving that, and b) whether or not some other system would be superior/ Instead, we we have taken an institution as a primary Good because it aligns with our abstract idea of education. We support an institution or a policy because we associate it with our unexamined abstract-aesthetic ideal.

Let me present an argument: The American University system is an engine of immiseration far more than it is an engine of prosperity. It isn't necessary for most jobs, and it is already not economically worth it for most students who attend. Beyond even these instrumental goals, American Universities continuously pump out oversocialized cogs-in-the-machine: it is difficult to see merit to the argument that much actual education occurs at these institutions. (And whatever education does occur is promptly forgotten by students after the final exam that they crammed studying for in order to pass). The University system needs to be melted down and radically reformed if Education is indeed something we care about.

Put simply: University shouldn't be free. University shouldn't exist.

A huge part of the argument here is that if we actually, genuinely take Education seriously, it demands we melt down the corrupt and absurd "educational" institutions we have today and begin anew.

Similar arguments can be had with all of these other principles:

Does a rising tide actually lift all boats? Or do inequalities in power and wealth generate conditions that sink anyone in something smaller than a yacht? (Hint: the latter appears more likely)

Assuming free markets are even possible, do they actually lead to the best outcome? (Hint: no)

What counts as "diversity" and can your version of diversity actually be counted as good? Is it possible there are limits to both homogeneity and diversity outside of which, pro-social impacts become anti-social, and the flourishing of everyone within the society is constrained? (Hint: again, history suggests the latter is more likely)

When you invoke Science to defend some particular study, can we be sure that this study actually followed the proper scientific processes? And even if it did, how do we reconcile the abstract-aesthetic ideal of Science with the fact that even if the Scientific Method is a properly neutral thing, every practicioner of Science is a human, embedded in the Political with their own values as much as you and I? And just as our Values sketch out the boundaries of the unthinkable for us, they do the same for every single scientist? (Hint: you reconcile them by abandoning Science as an abstract Good)

Concrete does a pretty good job of slaying sacred cows. It's time we used it more often.

If you enjoyed, please join the email list and consider a paid subscription to support my work!

Leave a comment if you would like!


Leave a comment

(Thumbnail image source: