Assertions

People rarely make assertions anymore. I remember reading somewhere that Harvey Mansfield, author of Manliness, was particularly fond of the verb ‘to assert’. Well, today manliness is unfashionable and so are assertions, partially I think because they often go together. It is obvious that most of what people say is not particularly worth listening to. If there is a class of people who can regularly assert something that is of value, then this must be an extraordinary class of people. Insofar as they are men they will be manly; which is to say that they will be virtuous. 

Part of the problem is that democracies are often suspicious of the claim that such an extraordinary class of people exists. For if they do, might one not ask whether these extraordinary people should rule? This question makes democrats uncomfortable, even though antiquity shows that rule by the wise, from the revolt against Pythagoras to Plato’s failed philosopher king to the conveniently forgotten city of Thurii, is a pretty mixed bag. But that’s not the answer that is politically expedient in democracies. Better, easier, to encourage the fiction that everyone is equally good, and that in consequence everyone’s opinions are equally valuable, which is to say, valueless. 

The democratic reluctance to recognize human excellence is exacerbated by political polarization. An example: In the New York Times, once a paper of record, someone called Courtney Sender describes in horrible detail several of her sexual encounters. The man in question asked for consent for every little thing, but ignored her after two trysts. Sender was delighted by the consent-asking, which sounds to me like sex as envisioned by Kafka. But she complains of being wronged by the fact that the chap abruptly stopped calling - she did not consent to that! In a democracy, complaints like this have policy implications, and behold, young adults are already being prepared for corporate life by learning that sex is governed by contracts of consent. There may be sensible people who think all this is to the good, but their assumptions differ so greatly from mine that I could not give their assertions much weight. 

The effect of polarization on assertions is nothing new. Before the Protestant Reformation, a morally inexperienced person could have followed Aristotle’s advice and, when in moral doubt, sought out a good man. But suddenly good men could be found on either side of the Protestant/Catholic divide, each advising the importance of killing the other. What remained intact during the Reformation? Perhaps the law. It is not a coincidence, some have thought, that natural law ethics as defended by Hugo Grotius emerged in this period.

Now this world, in which the rain falls on the just and on the unjust alike, does not at first appear to have a natural law. But if there is one, then clearly, like the law of the state, it needs to be worked out by some analogue of lawyers and judges. These lawyers and judges, of course, play the same role as good men did in Aristotle’s original explanation of ethics - they look at the way the world is, and make assertions about it. What changed is that the good men shoehorn the status quo into a moral rule, instead of just judging things as they are. 

Our polarized democracies follow the same pattern, not with law but with mathematized science. Since physics feigns no hypothesis about social issues, what does the job is the soft statistical math of the social sciences. And that is why one so often sees sentences beginning with “studies have shown”. Quite often these sentences state something that any person of middling intelligence would find obvious, for example that children do better when they play outside, or that one should take a little wine for one’s stomach's sake. In a book or article of even seventy years ago, these things would have been asserted. The catastrophe of the last century is evident in the fact that they must now be couched in mathematical terms.

Of course, in historical fact, Protestants and Catholics soon produced their own versions of the moral law. In the same way, natural science is not above our assumptions. I’ll leave aside my scepticism about whether the world has the mathematical structure in which Platonists believe. The trouble is that the wisdom we are trying to compensate for by using these scientific studies is in fact required to formulate them. As psychology is roiled by the replicability crisis, psychologists struggle to replicate, among many other things, Fritz Strack and Leonard Martin’s experiment which suggested that smiling makes you happier. Strack and Martin showed subjects Far Side cartoons while asking them to hold a pen in their lips (which causes a frown) or in their teeth (which causes a smile). Pen-in-teeth subjects found the cartoons funnier. Ergo, if you smile more, you are happier. But recently, when psychologists tried to replicate it, they couldn’t. That’s bad news for the scientistic among us. But ignore for a moment the travails of the pseudo-science of psychology, and consider the number of dubious assumptions that entered even into the original experiment. Is grimacing with a pen inside one’s mouth really the same thing as smiling? Is a Gary Larson cartoon a universal marker for funniness? Do people ordinarily find cartoons funny at in a consistent way? Is it possible that different pen positionings were not proxies for smiling and not smiling, but for something else, perhaps for the control offered by holding a pen in one’s teeth vs. the passivity of having it resting between one’s lips? Etc, etc, etc - just as deferring to the natural law requires a lawyer to make a decision for you, so deferring to ‘studies’ passes the decision off to a social scientist. And that is why the the way issues are framed has become so contentious. Jonathan Kay and Debra Soh’s podcast, Wrongspeak, is a nice guide to this controversy in the realm of sexuality. 

Somebody has to do the job of looking at the world and deciding how it is. The basic lesson of Empiricism is that sensing and understanding is our common inheritance. We should not be in such a hurry to give it up.