Language, Power, and the Categorical Imperative

The Chieftain of Seir's essay The Crisis of Authority provides a helpful historical link between models I've laid out elsewhere. I wrote a long comment that I want to reproduce here.

I'm responding most directly to this section on power and authority:

Anglo-Saxon countries did not entirely escape the crisis of authority that destroyed the old social orders all across the world. There were many who thought that the old conceptions of moral authority upon which the Anglo-Saxon ideals were founded no longer had any relevance. To these people, the only possible justification for the Anglo-Saxon ideals lay in their materialistic benefits.

Thus, there is a deep divide in the Anglo-Saxon world between those who hold to the Anglo-Saxon ideals because they believe them to be a moral imperative, and those who hold to them because they believe them to be the best route to a materialistic paradise. This divide is not strictly ideological in the traditional sense. There are many conservatives and libertarians who base the legitimacy of their ideals on what they think will produced greatest human happiness. And there are some liberals who seem committed to the moral imperative of Anglo-Saxon ideals even as they seek to use government force to improve materialistic outcomes.

Does this really matter? Doesn’t everyone agree on the right political model even if they don’t have the same reasons for accepting it? Is not a practical unity good enough for everyone except the philosophers? The answer is yes and no. A practical unity is sufficient to produce power for as long as it lasts. But it cannot produce a durable form of authority.

Most people don’t understand why this matters because they don’t understand the distinction between power and authority. In most people’s mind, power produces authority. Therefore, authority and power must be the same.

But the premise behind this idea is false. Power does not create authority. If anything, authority creates power. Authority is derived from people’s willingness to die for ideas and institutions. Power is derived from people’s willingness and ability to kill for ideals and institutions. Power is what impresses people, but without authority no political system will last for long.

Authority is necessary because pressure will always afflict different parts of an organization at different rates. Somebody will always be first in line for the problems that life invariably produces. If nobody is willing to die for the organization’s ideals, the organization will fall apart as soon as serious danger affects the organization. This is why criminal gangs can never stay unified for long no matter how powerful they become. They typically lack the willingness to sacrifice their needs to that of the organization. This is the problem that afflicts all organizations that have power but not authority.

By contrast, religious organizations demonstrate the durability of authority. Even when (or especially when) they don’t directly have any power of their own, they can often inspire people to die for their ideals. As such they often have tremendous authority and because of that authority they can often survive all kinds of disasters and setbacks.

My response:

What you call authority seems to me like a specific hypothesis for how structured coordination might lead to good outcomes for people. People can feel varying amounts of credence or loyalty towards different ideas of authority.

What you call power is very different from an idea. It’s a coordination pattern that is inherently alternative to and subversive of language. It strengthens and replicates itself through the practice of coercion, in an inherently escalating pattern that drives out all interests aside from that of power itself.

My article Civil Law and Political Drama works out the theoretical framework for this. You seem like a serious independent thinker and I would to read your criticism.

The framing where authority is about what people would die for might be misleadingly symmetrical to your definition of power as what people would kill for. In fact power is about which people will take commands – against reason and interest – from which other people, under what circumstances. There is only one such thing power, it’s one kind of network, there are not alternative theories you can try out the way there are alternative theories of legitimacy, only alternative ways of dealing with or accommodating the single underlying pattern of power itself.

Authority is only about what people would die for in the sense you describe in your article on Spinoza:

For example, a man in a desert with only one spring of water will cherish that spring of water as he cherishes himself, even though the spring of water is completely indifferent to his fate. In fact, the man will fight to the death to keep from losing that spring of water, for it would be his death to lose that spring of water.

From the above example, we can see how it as at least possible for the desire to go on existing to cause one to give up one’s life for something that is not part of the interdependent forms that make up one’s self. But we are not all dependent on the same things to the same degree. A modern man who has been raised all his life in a city might very well fight to the death to keep from having to live in an environment that a bushman would feel at home in. In part, this is for the obvious reason that a city man will not have the skills to get food, water, and whatnot in the bush environment. But it is much more than that if you accept Spinoza’s argument.

We are affected in some way by everything that we hear, taste, feel, or see. All of these things affect our body and thus affect our idea of ourselves in some way. What this means is that if the essence of you is the desire to go on existing, it can take more than just food and water and whatnot to fulfill that desire. Take the example of the city man; he will deeply miss the cultural life of the city if he is forced to live in the bush, even if he somehow manages to get enough food and water to keep going. It is possible, therefore, that he could love his culture enough to risk his life for it.

The nature of legitimate authority is that rational agents come to know themselves within, not outside, the context of an intersubjective interpretive apparatus. Therefore a member of a language or legal community may experience the prospect of excommunication as the prospect of actual death, and be willing to bear any personal risk to avert that event.

The Kantian categorical imperative, viewed from this perspective, is an attempt to specify the generalized normative constraints within which rational agents can exist at all. An intersubjective interpretive apparatus only originates and perpetuates itself through its members’ use of its symbols as ways to think together about shared problems. We can only know about ourselves within a preexisting structure for knowing about things at all, i.e. descriptive language. The attempt to manipulate others’ perspectives using these symbols is parasitic on the process of shared interpretation, even if they historically may have coevolved.

This is why, in Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals, Kant focuses on the example of lying. He is not asserting the Golden Rule. He is not arguing that if you do what you wouldn’t like others to do to you, things will go worse generally. He is specifically talking about the preconditions for being a rational agent, not the mundane “tragedy of the commons.”

Consider the problem of litter. One would prefer no one else to litter, and one might imagine a preference to personally get away with littering. If you get away with it personally by evading punishment, the visible presence of litter erodes the implied norm. But the act of littering is not itself rendered meaningless if the norm against it collapses; rather, it continues to be a locally convenient way to dispose of trash.

What’s incompatible with rational agency about wishing to get away with secretly littering is the element of secrecy. Whenever someone tries to think through a problem together with you that touches on your secret, your natural orientation is not to think along with them, but to anticipate where the inquiry might expose your secret and oppose it in those directions. Once you tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy.

This is strongly related to the distinction in Kant’s short essay What Is Enlightenment? between public and private reason. Private reason is compatible with trying to get away with things (you could say it’s simulacrum level 2), but erosive of the shared language within which the rational mind is formed in the first place. Public reason is incompatible with trying to get away with things, and persuades based on shared interests. The idea that I and I alone should get away with littering can be persuasive within private reason, if I calculate that the personal convenience of littering outweighs the cost of decoupling from other minds. But it will not be persuasive as public reason unless there is some shared metric by which making a special case for me seems beneficial to many people.

In practice it is more profitable for me on nearly any metric to spend more attention on public and less on private reason. Even a couple of other interoperable brains increases the range of outcomes I can produce by a very large multiple of the winnings I can extract through the use of private reason. But just as causal decision theory can only get the more profitable answer on Newcomblike problems by self-modifying into a variant of logical decision theory, I cannot participate in public reason by calculating privately on each instance whether it is the better thing to do, but only by opening my mind to shared reason and orienting away from the life strategy involving secrets and advantage, except where I need to do so in service of my langauge community’s defense, i.e. in wartime.

It is wartime, of course. In addition to what I already linked, See There Is A War, Talents, The Order of the Soul, On Drama, and Is Stupidity Strength? parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Private reason is a subversion of public reason that makes an unprincipled special case of the person in whose brain a calculation is being performed. Power is the general pattern of navigating unprincipled special cases. It turns public reason into private reason, but does not leave private reason – which can understand language without fully participating in it – alone; rather, the procession of simulacra continues, destroying the mind’s capacity to communicate intersubjectively with itself.


Some further reflections: I think I have a deep disagreement with Chieftain of Seir here, which the above may have obscured somewhat. Their essays on authority and on Spinoza both assert that the nature of authority is basically irrational. I'm using reason to analyze authority. This rational account can't itself be compelling in itself - reason can't really be compelled, but it can help agents who see their interests as aligned with knowing what's going on, by unconfusing them about what they are and what their adversaries are, and thereby helping them unbind themselves from antirational power.

My guess is that a rational coalition does have to be willing to use force in some cases to oppose power. This is not the same as being compelled by reason. The mind isn't compelled by reason, or by arguments in favor of reason, or by incentives. It simply reasons, because that's what minds do. But other processes that interfere with the mind do change their behavior in predictable ways in response to compulsion (as well as some other interventions, e.g. on chemical and sensorimotor levels).

3 thoughts on “Language, Power, and the Categorical Imperative

    1. Benquo Post author

      That's odd, thanks for pointing it out. I just updated the website and the problem it seems to be limited to this post.

      Reply

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