A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Social Foundationalism in Epistemology

There is an ancient problem in philosophy known as Agrippa's Trilemma, which many parents will have encountered with inquisitive children. Ordinarily if one is asked how we can know something, we will appeal to underlying beliefs which support it. But this raises the question of why we should believe these underlying beliefs - and if there are even deeper underlying beliefs, why we should believe those. There are three responses which can be taken to this:

  • Infinitism: the idea that is possible for human knowledge to be founded upon an infinite regress of reasons, in much the same way that the earth is stacked upon an infinite column of tortoises.
  • Foundationalism: the idea that there are some beliefs which you just have to accept, and these form the foundation for other beliefs.
  • Coherentism: the idea that we operate on a "web of belief", and it doesn't matter if there is no ultimate ground to it if the beliefs are mutually supporting.
I am myself a determined coherentist: it's not that there are no beliefs which don't require further support, it's that once you've gone "I think, therefore I am" it's rather difficult to spin that up into much more. But the debate between foundationalists and coherentists continues, with the occasional "foundherentist" peacemaker like Susan Haack and the occasional infinist troll.

What strikes me, however, is how completely dominant coherentism is in the field of ethics. Under the name of "the method of reflective equilibrium" it is basically the method for trying to establish truth. We combine judgements from a range of levels - from practical judgements like "if a child is drowning in water next to them, you are morally obliged to rescue the child" to highly abstract judgements like "if states of the world A, B, and C are such that A is morally better than B, and B morally better than C, A is necessarily better than C" - to create general theories which aim to explain as much of the moral universe as possible. A couple of possibilities as to why this difference exists between fields:

  • Taking a foundationalist approach feels more respectable, and probably more likely to be successful, when the foundational judgements are highly general and widely applicable. Foundationalist epistemology, for example, would take mathematics to be foundational; whereas the most widely agreed judgements which we aim to expand from in ethics tend to be very practical and narrow in nature, e.g. "it is wrong to torture innocent children for one's own pleasure."
  • Ethics is generally accepted to be a social enterprise - it's about how we should behave, less about how I as an individual should behave. In particular, the existence of other moral agents is not generally taken to be in doubt. By comparison, epistemology is much more easily framed not as "what are the reasons for believing/doing X?" but "why should I believe X?"

I don't know that I particularly believe either of these. Maybe my initial observation is off, for that matter. If the second explanation is true, however, then given the rise in popularity of social epistemology in the last couple of decades, there's probably some mileage for a new defence of foundationalism - not that individuals should take certain beliefs as basic and unquestionable, but that societies should.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Carthage

Carthage. Carthage! It was a major trading post in the ancient world, founded in the location now known as Tunis by Phoenician(1) merchants, which rose to eclipse Tyre as a major port of the Mediterranean and indeed the primary Phoenician city. At its zenith it controlled Sicily, Spain, much of North Africa, large parts of the south of the Italian peninsula, and the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca roamed northern Italy with his army - famously with a contingent of elephants - and utterly destroyed two major Roman armies at Trasimene and Cannae. But he was unable to bring Rome itself under siege, and was forced to return to Africa to defend Carthage from invasion by the Roman general Scipio - who defeated him at Zama, forever breaking the back of Carthage as a power. In the Third Punic War, some fifty years later, Carthage was razed to the ground, and famously the Romans salted the earth there, that nothing might grow back.
The Decline of the Carthagian Empire, JMW Turner; Tate Britain

...Except that it did grow back. Not immediately of course, and only because the Romans allowed it to. The New Carthage was founded by Julius Caesar in the years before his demise. But Utica, the Roman ally which was appointed the new capital of Roman North Africa, was soon overshadowed, and the new Carthage soon became once again the greatest city in North Africa - indeed one of the greatest cities of the Western Roman Empire. What was it about this location which made it such a natural site for great cities?

The answer, I believe, comes from two things: first, a look at a map of the Mediterranean, and second, some facts about ships of the ancient world.

Carthage, as mentioned, was in what is now Tunisia - notably, near the narrowest crossing of the Mediterranean (though still a solid 100 miles across the sea from Sicily). This was in an era when sailing ships might achieve 50-60 miles on a good day of sailing. Crucially, ships of the day had to take to land every evening in order to dry out the wood. This had a number of consequences: for example, ships would not carry more than a day or two's supply of food with them, but would instead land in ports and acquire food (2).

Consider what this means for journey times and possibilities. Journeys from the north of the Med to the south are obviously greatly shortened in many cases. But this also gives opportunities to sacrifice directness for security. Someone sailing from Algeria to Egypt has the option to avoid the less-populated, less secure Libyan coast, and instead to coast around the north of the Med through well-known trading waters.

(1) This could be an interesting debate in itself. In the recent Princeton University Press sale I eventually did end up buying Josephine Quinn's In Search of the Phoenicians, which argues - as best I can tell - that the Phoenicians did not exist as such, but rather that there were various seafaring people who were all given the same label. This would be a very plausible hypothesis, and deeply appealing to me as someone who wishes to emphasise the vast diversity of past societies which has been flattened out by modernity in general and capitalism, mass media, and nationalism in particular, were it not for a book I did get: Taco Terpstra's Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean, whose second chapter argues that long-distance trade in the Ancient Med was facilitated largely by the existence of Phoenician minority communities in cities around the Med. Trade relies upon trust, which would have been very difficult to achieve in the absence of enforcement mechanisms - except that local ethic Phoenicians were able to send messages back to Tyre and to other Phoenician colonies and obtain justice - and were obviously subject to the justice and tolerance of the local majorities.

(2) Thus, towards the end of the Peloponesian War, the Athenian fleet happened to be caught on the defensive near the home-in-exile of their former general, Alcibiades, perhaps the chadliest man in all of Classical Greece. Alcibiades advised the Athenians to move their pitch closer to the town, on the grounds that their sailors would then spend less time away from the ships buying food and other supplies; this advice was ignored, and the fleet was soon lost, definitely knocking Athens out of the war.

Some Thoughts on Politicisation of the Civil Service

Trying to get back into the habit of blogging, mostly so that I'm writing more frequently. I'm not starting to write with well-formed views, or even nascent thoughts which I hope to clarify through the act of writing, so don't expect too much from this post.

One recent piece of news: the resignation of Sir Mark Sedwill, who until recently held the posts of the UK Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor. Significantly, his replacement as NSA will be David Frost, presently the UK Lead Negotiator in the negotiations with the EU.

For people not from the UK: the higher posts in our civil service are considered non-political: while there is ministerial involvement in the recruitment of Permanent Secretaries (the civil servants who run government departments) and Director-Generals (the next rung down, and incidentally the highest rung I've had personal contact with in my own work as a fairly junior civil servant), but this is usually more limited than the extent of involvement which is suspected here.

I'm not going to comment too much upon the circumstances of Sedwill's departure. I know very little about him - when he started as Cabinet Secretary I began but did not complete a rather tongue-in-cheek post pretending that his "Fusion Doctrine" was the latest and most damning sign yet of the authoritarian nature of the government, but besides the minimal research involved in that I know nothing of him. The suggestion I've seen was that the UK's appalling response to Coronavirus was a proximate cause, since one would expect the NSA to be on top of the UK's pandemic response. Perhaps this is true, it seems plausible, but really very few people know enough to say with great confidence and I am certainly not one of them.

I'm not going to to comment much, either, on the appointment of David Frost as the new NSA - or at least, not on him personally. He previously served as the UK Ambassador to Denmark, and has held two Director-level posts previously, so I don't think objections to his appointment should focus upon questions of competence.

The move to making the position openly political is itself interesting, however. To comment effectively on this, one requires a conception of under what circumstances a decision should be considered "political" as opposed to "operational". The standard self-conception of the civil service would be that our political ministers tell us what to do - or we distil an understanding of what they want from their public statements. We then do what they want, providing updates on what we're doing, giving options and recommendations but giving them the decision where it's not clear what they want, alerting them to risks of the proposed approach - but there are a lot of details which one simply does not need to check with ministers. Political decisions, then, are those which involve (a) a weighting of interests: as a country would we rather seek to achieve X or Y, noting that X is better for some people but worse for others, or that it carries a certain risk, or will take longer to put into place; or (b), a decision about what it is, at the more fundamental levels, that the UK government is aiming to achieve.

What are the kinds of decisions of that sort which will arise in the post of NSA? One can think of a few - e.g. what are the criteria we prioritise when deciding how significant a risk is (loss of life? loss of effective national sovereignty? do we value lives differently based on the ages of the people dying?). Where risks are brought into being or exacerbated by the actions of other governments, particularly our allies, how do we respond to that? Certainly it feels as though, given the politically neutral basis of the UK civil service, there should be some political oversight - when the NSA reports to Cabinet on risks to the UK, they are not simply "reporting the facts" - they are passing on a mixture of fact and opinion, filtered by opinions regarding what is significant enough to be worth reporting on.

Is security different to other areas, in a way that justifies a political role which we do not apply across the board? I don't know. The argument which comes to mind is that a major advantage of political appointments - and in particular of ministers appointing their friends - is that it promotes greater trust between political and operational officials, and may give operational officials more leeway to tell unpleasant or unpalatable truths. There are of course risks to this approach, so I can see an argument that it's not an approach you'd want to take generally (and in any case, there's probably only so many people who have the requisite level of trust with any given Prime Minister, so it's not something you could do across the government) but in the field of security, where such truths are more likely to abound, it's worthwhile.

I have doubts about the merits of that with regard to this particular government; going into detail on that would possibly go beyond the civil service neutrality which I would prefer to uphold whenever writing publicly. In any case, these doubts are similar to those which Stian Westlake has written about with regard to the government's strategy around procurement and the need for freedom from state aid rules.