Sunday, May 31, 2020

What Is Blame?

- You're my teacher for lack of anyone better so I'd like to ask you a question.
- And for lack of anything better to do I'll answer, if I can.
- You always can. That's my problem with you.
- Why is that a problem?
- It's like you're playing a trick on me. Right now you've done it again because the question I want to ask you is about Giambattista Vico, the 18th century Italian philosopher who famously argued that 'the true and the made are convertible,' that 'the true is precisely what is made.'
- The same rules apply to both nature and culture: science makes/discovers abstract laws, creativity discovers/makes the truths of society and arts. When you ask me a question I am literally making up the answer and that making it up somehow makes it seem true.
- Yes.
- And like a magic trick it is not really true?
- Yes.
- We've talked about the epidemic we are living through and how a virus hijacks a living thing to reproduce it and is not really living itself. A living thing has a metabolism, a continual acting on and responding to the actions of its environment. When Vico says the truth is what is made, he means that if we want to know what a word means we need to see how it is used and try using it ourselves.
- The word being spoken is an action on the world and the world responds to that action, for example in another word being spoken to you by another person.
- There are laws regulating this constant action and response we make to the human world as we attempt to understand and live in it, just as there are laws to be discovered with science in the world of nature. Vico believed there was in operation a law of social progress where our violence, greed, and ambition would be replaced by the reasoned behavior of guardians, merchants, and leaders.
- But along the way in our progress individual nations would rise and fall. They'd relapse to a lower level, but progress would return to restart somewhere near where it left off. Which brings me to my question.
- Which is?
- Is it true that I shouldn't blame the actions of individuals who are destroying our society because it is the institutions that are at fault? In better institutions the same people wouldn't be criminals, and anyone else in the current institutions would be a criminal too? Vico seems to think this is wrong: the institutions are constantly improving, and individuals are constantly, or rather recurrently, failing to live up to them. The moral climate changes, and people who once made the best of institutions instead make the worst of them. We can't exonerate, for example, our whole empire of tens of thousands of financial criminals by the institutions, but they exonerate themselves by the moral climate. They say, and appear to actually believe, it is right that all of us serve our own interests as best we can in competition with each other,** even though that moral claim contradicts the cooperation embodied in the institutions we all participate in. What do you reply to them when they say they are not to blame for their crimes, that they and their crimes are merely an expression of the times?
- When you love a friend does that mean you know your friend?
- Yes.
- You come to know your friend in experience with your friend. The truth of your friendship and love is made in your life with your friend?
- Yes.
- And what of blame? Do we not blame people for being unlovable, for acting in a way that makes it impossible to make friends with them?
- What makes it impossible to make friends with them?
- That they do not make progress. That their truth is not in what they make but, virus-like, in the sense of power and security they derive from reproducing the act of money making.
- That a nature that begins violent, greedy, and selfishly ambitious has gone nowhere, has not been led into a careful, productive, reason directed life. But, they'll respond, they are no different from others in the tens of thousands strong class of financial criminals, the moral climate of the times....
- Is going the other direction. But we don't blame or exonerate someone for not going against the times, against the institutions of the times or the moral climate. We don't blame those who fall into any particular category.
- Who do we blame then?
- 'The truth is precisely what is made.' We blame others for making themselves unlovable.
- The truth here is in precisely what cannot be made with them.
- Yes. Blame ostracizes, or in the language of our time of epidemic, quarantines.

Further Reading:
Tricked Me Again
* Convergence
** The Calculus Of Consent