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Understanding Community Through Moral Science
Ben Klutsey and David Schmidtz discuss the best way to do moral science, why politics shouldn’t be a zero-sum game and much more
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with David Schmidtz, professor of moral science at West Virginia University, about why moral science is not geometry, the dangers of overspecialization, game players and referees, why peace must come before justice and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today we’re talking to Professor Dave Schmidtz. Dave is a Presidential Chair of Moral Science at West Virginia University’s Chambers College of Business and Economics. He’s the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Social Philosophy and Policy.
He was previously the Kendrick Professor of Philosophy and Eller Chair of Service-Dominant Logic at the University of Arizona. He’s the author of numerous articles, book chapters, and books such as “The Elements of Justice,” “Rational Choice and Moral Agency,” “Social Welfare and Individual Responsibility” and many more, including his latest book, “Living Together: Inventing Moral Science,” which is the subject of our conversation today. Thank you for joining us, Dave.
DAVID SCHMIDTZ: Thanks for having me on your show, Ben. It’s great to see you.
Observed Patterns, Not Necessary Truths
KLUTSEY: I’d like to kick things off with a question about moral science. What is moral science?
SCHMIDTZ: It’s not what you might think today, as opposed to thinking about what the term meant as it came of age in the time of David Hume and Adam Smith. What they were doing, which is what I’m aspiring to pick up the threads of, is the idea that the paradigm of moral science is not geometry.
The paradigm of successful philosophical argumentation is not deducing necessary truths from indubitable axioms. It’s more like starting with observation and then saying, “I seem to see a pattern. I will come up with a hypothesis about what could explain the pattern that I think I’m seeing. And that’ll be my theory that this is the way the world is, and what’s the conclusion?” For sure, to begin with, the conclusion is, “I could be wrong. I’m not deducing anything, but I am noticing a pattern, and so I am trying to be scientific.”
Now today, the idea of science has evolved since the time of Francis Bacon inventing the scientific method, basically, and then David Hume realizing what that was and trying to run with it and bring it to fruition. Today, we work with concepts like replicability and falsifiability. We try to come up with counterfactual questions that we could test, say in a laboratory or in the field, and say, “if I’m right about the pattern, then this is what we should observe tomorrow.”
You observe that tomorrow and you say, “See, what did I say? I predicted the last 17 stock market crashes. I must know when the 18th is going to be.” Then at some point, you say, “Oh, wrong about that one,” and so you say, “I wasn’t in the realm of necessary truth. I was in the realm of something that had a very satisfying fit with the observed information, the observed data.” At some point, it’s the hallmark of reasonableness to induce, to go with the pattern, to say, “I see a pattern, and I’m not going to second-guess it until I start seeing things that don’t fit the pattern.”
When you’re a child, you see that red-hot glowing spiral on top of the stove, and you say, “That’s very pretty. I think I’m going to touch that thing.” Then I touch that and say, “Not going to do that again. Enough of that.” It’s not like anything necessary happened. It’s not like anything exactly logical happened. Or if it was logic that was at work there, it’s logic of a not strictly deductive kind. It’s me saying, “Here was a correlation. There’s one event, and there was another event,” and I’m just going to go ahead and say, “I think that was causal. That connection was causal. It wasn’t just random chance.”
It wasn’t me reading in the newspaper that a whole bunch of people died from this accident, and I noticed all of them drank milk, so I’m not going to drink milk. You say, “No, that may be a correlation, maybe a very robust correlation, but it’s got nothing to do with causation.” We could do an experiment—maybe we haven’t, but we could do an experiment to say, giving up milk isn’t what’s going to save you here from this kind of misfortune. Moral science is—I don’t mean anything really strict by it. I don’t mean it to be a strict prescription for how to deal with datasets and so on.
I think the central idea is, if you want to theorize about morality or politics or economics, for that matter, start with observation, and then ask yourself what is compatible with that observation. What pattern am I observing? What conclusions can I jump to about the direction of causation here? How would I make progress from here in terms of thinking, “Oh, that simple correlation I noticed once when I was a kid—it’s actually more complicated than that”? It’s not meant to be a prescription for infallibility; it’s more like a prescription for maturity.
KLUTSEY: Then is it fair to say that in your ideal world, we would have the social sciences and philosophy still combined together and that they didn’t split up as they did a few centuries ago?
SCHMIDTZ: Great question. That is an uncontrolled experiment you’re talking about. We don’t have the counterfactual to refer to, but I would say, as you know, in a way, Hume and Smith were victims of their own success. They had this program for this scientific—this more Newtonian, in their mind—approach to the moral subjects and a more experimental approach to moral subjects. And their success was so popular, so striking that it resulted in a proliferation (in the 1800s, in the aftermath of their work) of brand-new departments of psychology and political economy and also sociology, anthropology.
Then by around 1900, political economy was over, and that split into departments of political science and economics. That was the neoclassical and Austrian revolutions at the end of the 1800s that seemed to drive economics in a direction of becoming more scientific, more rigorous, more precise, actually drove it more—what actually happened, drove it more in the direction of geometry. Very satisfying to be able to crank out theorems about efficiency from spare assumptions about individual rationality and knowledge, and so on.
Actually, although it seemed more precise and satisfying and rigorous and masculine, it was actually less scientific in the end because it got away from observation until we get to the time of just, say, Vernon Smith when he is reinventing the marriage of observation-based reasoning with economic reasoning. I don’t know what should have happened. Adam Smith, if he is known for anything, it’s for seeing the tremendous efficiencies and payoffs of specialization. So is specialization a bad thing? I can’t say specialization is a bad thing, certainly not if I’m being recorded. I’m not going to say that because that’s going to be a view that gets obviously falsified.
I would say, here’s the thing: You can’t seriously believe in specialization without having a view that there’s a category such as overspecialization. You see, in the book, my example was thinking that there should be one department for the study of the morning star and another department for the study of the evening star. In manufacturing, you could say, “I’ve specialized in maybe men’s shoes, and I’m specializing in athletic footwear. Now, I’m going to be even more specialized because it’s paid off so well. I am just going to specialize in making shoes for the left foot.” You say, “That’s not going to work.”
Why would that count as overspecialization? We’d have to think about it, but probably because there is no market for it. There’s no one who ought to be looking specifically for left-footed shoes.
KLUTSEY: There are amputees.
SCHMIDTZ: Could English have been like that, could psychology or philosophy, could these disciplines have become overspecialized? You say, “I’m not sure what that means either.” I’ll tell you what, if you’ve got a journal and the journal publishes papers and it’s rigorous—so that means it has a review process, and you’ve got referees—and if you submit your article on mathematical logic, say, or it could be economics, but if you write an article that only half a dozen people in the world can read, what’s going to filter that out? What’s going to tell you there’s no market for it? There’s no point putting that out there for sale. The market might tell you that there are no readers for that.
What if we have a rigorous review process where the people who referee your submission are two of the other four people in the world who can actually read it and understand what you’re trying to say, and they say, “This is great. This is advanced. This person cites me seven times, so that’s really good. Go ahead and publish it”? Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been part of that process, but I have. I would say, that doesn’t prove to me that it’s overspecialized.
If you’re in part of a world in a certain time and place, where you are turning a certain binary logical system into what’s going to be computer science someday, and there’s only half a dozen people in the world who can follow your explanation of what you’re trying to do here. But you say, “It’s still going to change the world even if only half a dozen people can follow what I’m trying to do right now”—that could be true. We’re in a realm of things that aren’t proofs, that aren’t deductions. They’re alternative historical paths.
I guess I could say, it does seem to me that there are at least micro-overspecializations all over the academy. All over the academy, there are people who are writing just for the referees, basically. The referees aren’t the referees because they’re the ones who can see this arc of future possibility and the lid being blown off of that ceiling. It’s not that. It’s more like people who don’t want the world to move on from the little insight, I should say, they had 50 years ago.
The journals are overspecialized. I’m a journal editor. Even journal editors wouldn’t deny that. If you say, “Just publish a different kind of stuff,” then they’ll say, “You should see what I reject. If what I accept seems not that useful, you should see what I reject.” It’s a tough question. I think it’s a great question, Ben, but those are my reasons for thinking—there isn’t really an answer to that, but my suspicion is the academy is shot through with overspecialization.
Progress in Moral Science
KLUTSEY: Now, when it comes to understanding how we live together, which is the title of your book, how does moral science provide the best framework for analyzing this question?
SCHMIDTZ: How does it provide the best framework? It’s hard to say too. I’m not sure if the alternative framework is to treat geometry as the paradigm of science and to say, “I do philosophy basically as the constant maneuvering to try to get somebody else to state necessary and sufficient conditions for the complete analysis of a concept.” Basically, the first person who moves in that game loses because the second person who comes in gets to say, “I can imagine a possible world in which, just for example, hydrogen has two electrons.” Then you say, “Where are we going?” Every interesting statement has counterexamples.
I would say, as compared to that, I think there’s progress to be made by starting with observation in the first place—to say, “Here’s what I’m seeing,” and then to take it from there to say, “Here’s how that could be generalized. Here’s how your generalization would never amount to an answer to all possible questions.” That’s never going to be the sort of thing that doesn’t have counterexamples, so there would be a humility in there. That, I think, would be a way of making progress maybe from where we are, or if we’ve already made progress in my lifetime, from where we were when I was a graduate student.
Because at that time, the name of the game was to think of conversations as zero-sum and to make somebody else lose. A visiting speaker comes in and you say, “Either you just said A or you said not A. Both of those lead to a contradiction, which means you’re stupid, so just tell me which way are you stupid.” The way I remember, that’s predictably what visiting speaker sessions were about. That’s what we did, and that’s what we tried to do.
I remember walking out of a talk once, and my department head came after me and said, “Dave, what was that all about?” I said, “What?” They said, “You had him, and you let him go. He was nailed, and you just let him go.” I said, “He wrote a paper, and I thought he had an interesting idea. I was trying to tell him how to improve it. I wasn’t trying to make him commit suicide. I just thought the paper needed improvement, and I could see some ways to improve it.” The department head just looked at me. The next time I saw him, he said, “I thought all night about that, and you’re just right.” He said that’s just more fun. It’s a more interesting way to do philosophy.
It’s a more civilized and satisfying way to do philosophy, is you walk out, you say, “Could be wrong, but there’s an interesting idea in there someplace.” There, we’ve made progress, and I would now describe that as progress in the direction of being more observation-based and more willing to be satisfied with a conclusion that is not infallible, that has counterexamples. And you can say, “I can tell you three ways right now—because my imagination is pretty good too—I can tell you three things that might happen next that might lead me to say I was wrong.” Those things actually might happen. I don’t think they will, but they might.
Polarization and Perception
KLUTSEY: Now, based on your observations, do you think we’re having a hard time living together? There’s been a lot of interest in polarization and the deepening divides. What’s your sense of where we are as a society? Are we deeply polarized, or is it a perception issue?
SCHMIDTZ: I think I will definitely say yes to the second, but I think yes to the first too. We perceive ourselves to be polarized. I think, in fact, we are, but I think the perception is driven partly by, I would say, a fracturing of the sources of information that we have. The phrase now is echo chambers.
You see the other mainstream news sources talk about Fox, for example, and obviously anything I say about that is going to be controversial. But I think Fox has moved in a direction of actually deserving its reputation for extreme right-wing bias. Then I think the other traditional outlets pretty much exhibit a left-wing bias. You turn on your comfort zone. You turn on the thing that’s going to—maybe you’ll agree with 80% of it, and then every now and then the person will find something to say, “Wait a minute, that’s new. I didn’t know half this stuff. Actually, I thought I knew about 80% of it, but I think I’m really learning something tonight from this trusted news source.”
Whereas the other channel, if I’ve got that on, I just turn that off because those guys are stupid. They’re always wrong. Just our information environment, our information base, is fracturing into a universe of shards of echo chambers that I think makes us feel like we’re living in different worlds—and not without reason. The way the world presents itself to different people is very different. There is that.
That’s not the first time it’s happened in human history. It’s not the internet. It’s happened before. It happened in the late 1700s, but before newspapers as we know them today, but there were magazines that pandered to their subscriber bases. Then with the change of technology, it became possible—and The New York Times, that was the company that ran with it, one of the first—was to say, “We’re going to appeal to 50,000 readers, and we’re going to have something that little kids sell on the street corners, and it’s going to be all the news. There will be an editorial section where we’ll get our biases in, but the front page will just be the who, what, when, why. And then we’ll let people take it from there.”
The whole ethos of journalism changed then, from one that had been pandering to niche subscriber bases, and now we’ve moved into that again. There’s that, and I think that is a real source of polarization for us now. I don’t think that explains everything that we’re seeing going on around us. I don’t think that can explain the religious fervor of the different echo chambers. I worry about it like everybody else.
I don’t know exactly what’s going on or where we’re going from here. I certainly think the will toward bipartisanship—that’s never going to go away. There will always be a will to do something that would be classified as a compromise, for people to say, going back to Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, “You want what? I can’t believe that, but anyway, can you give me half of what I want here? Can you give me half of what I need? And then tell me what you really need. Don’t lard it on, but I can give you that.”
Those guys got together, had a beer on Friday and worked out how to govern a country and not win, but be a winner in the eyes of people who don’t see it the same way. When half the country doesn’t go a way—doesn’t believe in what you believe in, they’re still going to get something that their side is going to say, “We got something. Could have been worse.”
Avoiding Zero-Sum Relationships
KLUTSEY: In the book you say that “one aspect of liberalism is an insight that community life is not zero-sum and that one person’s gain does not imply another’s loss.” One line that I find really insightful is that “the adult political ideal is not to avoid losing, but to avoid needing other people to lose.” Can you elaborate on that?
SCHMIDTZ: Thank you for picking up on that. I don’t know, maybe I should just leave that the way it is. But I do think that’s related, of course, to your polarization question. There is a massive tendency to exaggerate those aspects of our relationships that are zero-sum. Those things are just more salient to our psychologies. Those are the things that grab our attention because it’s this game that’s going to decide whether I’m a winner or a loser. Being a cooperator, what’s that? It isn’t as good as being a winner. We exaggerate the extent to which the situations that we’re in are zero-sum.
There’s always a bigger picture that you can look at. There’s a narrower picture that you can look at and you can say, “There was a zero-sum aspect to that competition. I wanted a specific thing, and I didn’t get that. But on the other hand, I lived in a country which didn’t impose the death penalty for losing.” I’ll say, the real upshot of me not getting what I wanted in 1988 was that I got to do this instead. I have to say, if I had to go back and do it all over again, I’m not sure I’d even want to win that one, given the benefits of the path I took.
There’s a bigger, maybe a more adult picture where you see that maybe the genius of a community, the success criterion for a society is to put people in a position where losing works out pretty well. If it’s win or die, then we’re in an emergency situation. Then we’re doing everything we can to hurt the people around us. If your psychology is shaping up like that, if it’s twisting you in that direction, then you become a person that other people don’t want as neighbors, they don’t want as friends, they don’t want as family members. If you can say, “I can walk away from that meeting with my president and not get what I wanted,” and still say, “It’s going to be okay, though. I didn’t get what I said I wanted, but I didn’t lose what I needed either.”
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. Now, I guess you would say that a commercial society is necessarily a more just society because, as you say, in Smith’s mind, the strong have subjugated the weak throughout history, but commercial society changed the frontier of possibility in such a way that the strong now care less about social class and more about potential trading partners. The opportunity for mutually beneficial exchanges generates this sense of cooperation and, in some sense, justice within society. You would agree that the commercial society is necessarily more just?
SCHMIDTZ: Thank you, I appreciate the thought. Let me step back from that a bit because I want to say, I want to answer that as a test case for moral science. I want to be a poster child for moral science. Let’s say, no, commercial society isn’t necessarily just, it isn’t even necessarily more just, but that’s the thing to bet on. That’s where your best shot is at having a life and a community, relationships and just a world at large that you view as decent.
Now, why would that be? It’s complicated. But one thing is that a commercial society is basically something that—I’ve never heard anybody put it this way before; actually, I’ve never put it this way before myself—but a commercial society decentralizes the decision about what people are for. I did say in the book that one of the hallmarks of civilization and decency is realizing all you need is traffic management. You don’t need to pick other people’s destinations.
You don’t need to say, “Excuse me, I see you veering off in Anglican territory. You need to stay on the Catholic road. By the way, the penalty for being an Anglican is death.” Or maybe five years from now it’ll be reversed, and the penalty for being Catholic is death. One side has to win, and winning is an absolute question. You don’t really win until that other tribe has been wiped off the face of the earth.
You see, needing to decide what other people are for—that inclines you in the direction of genocide, not that you’d necessarily get there. Homogeneity might be fine, but the heterogeneity of a market society is the thing to bet on. It’s to say, if you just let people drift in and out of their own goals and make their own decisions and change their mind and say, whoa, that was hot, I got burned, I’m never going to do that again.
I’m going to learn, and I’ll make a better investment decision next time, or a better occupational—whatever. I’ll make a better life choice next time because I got to make decisions that weren’t guaranteed to be correct, and in fact, they weren’t all correct. They weren’t fatal. I’m still here. I get to dust myself off, lick my wounds and take another shot.
Letting the Players Play
SCHMIDTZ: That’s a wonderful thing about commercial society—which by the way, is not the same thing as laissez-faire. I might say, in a generic way, laissez-faire is the thing to bet on as well. Although, as all of the patron saints of laissez-faire have pretty much said—I shouldn’t say “all”; we could think of a couple of exceptions—but people like Adam Smith would have said: The wonderful thing about a commercial society is, it enshrines this norm of letting the players play. When you let the players play, you’re going to see excellence. You’re going to see failure, but you’re going to see excellence. You’re going to see people who take the standards of that game to the next level.
You need referees who can think of themselves as not players. They’re not trying to win the game. What they’re trying to do is let the players play, and they’re trying to come up with rules. They’re not anarchists; they are coming up with rules. They’re saying, should players wear helmets? Maybe. Should the helmets be things that only make people think that their brains are safe, or should it have the result that their brains actually are safer? Should we have rules about hitting below the knee or hitting above the head? The answer is, it’s hard to say, but it might be worth a try. It might be worth experimenting to see if the prevalence of concussions decreases once we make this rule change.
There is an idea of—aside from letting the players play, there’s an idea of letting them play a good game. If letting the players play like we mean, “You guys have to box, and the boxing match isn’t over until one of the players is dead.” And you say, “Wouldn’t just hitting the mat three times, wouldn’t that be enough? Or having the referee count to 10 and the boxer’s eyes are still glazing, isn’t that enough to end the fight? Or just having a guy quit, isn’t that enough?” Some games are better than others, and Adam Smith was very aware that some games are better than others.
Part of a guiding ideal is, if we just let the players play, will they kill each other? No, they’ll shake hands after this game, and they’ll admire each other, and they’ll say, “I’d like to play with you someday.” If that’s the way the games end, then you’d say, “That’s pretty cool. You know I’m going to get you next time, by the way.” That could be pretty cool. That could be a better game if it’s more productive.
If it’s really something like a commercial society in which, actually, there isn’t any clear loser—it’s to say, it isn’t just that you threw the ball and scored five touchdowns over my head. It’s more like, “You decided to manufacture airplanes, and that worked out pretty well for you. I went with the thing on the ground, machines that move people on the ground. I went with railroads. And in retrospect, I wish I might have gone with airplanes, but it worked out pretty well for me too.” That’s what commercial society competition is like; you find your niche, you work hard. If you become excellent—the idea isn’t to be dominant, exactly, and it isn’t to be the winner take all, and it isn’t even to be the best. There’s something that isn’t mature about the aim of being the best. But the aim of being excellent, that’s grown-up competitiveness.
That’s what you want to see a commercial society fostering and encouraging because that’s how you build civilization. That’s how you build excellence in a community, is that way. Commercial society is the place where that gets done. Now, Adam Smith said, so you have these men of system who just want to run things. They just want to decide what other people are for, and they think that they’re the benefactors. They’re not, but they think they are. Then there’s these other people who are the poor man’s son. Now, some of those, the poor man’s son, like, “cursed with ambition,” Adam Smith says, but they can end up becoming the men of system.
The other thing that they can end up being is businesspeople who collude with the men of system. They say, “Hey, you want this. This is really important. You need to get reelected in order to get this done, by the way, and I can help you with that. But what I need is for you to restore some sanity to the chaotic competition in my field. We need to do something that’s more consumer-friendly.” But when they say consumer-friendly, what they mean is friendly to incumbent producers, incumbent sellers. “You need to protect us from the young kids coming up who’ve got a better idea than we do.”
Adam Smith said, “You can’t get people going out for a beer on Friday now without somebody raising the question of how great it would be if prices were fixed at this level, and if entrants into the market were fixed like this.” Adam Smith was no giddy—he was no giddy, overoptimistic fan about the necessity of the goodness of commercial society. He was a realist about it.
It’s a straight shot from Smith to Marx, but whereas Marx downed the market, Smith just lamented that it wasn’t everything that it could be. And that it had all these inherent frailties because you need reins of power in order to manage the rules of the game, but then the reins of power become the most valuable commodity in the commercial society. That’s the inherent downfall of commercial society, is that the more powerful the tools of power become, the more people spend on capturing them, and the more they invest in capturing them in order to actually use that power, like to restrain competition, for example.
Being a Referee
KLUTSEY: Yes. Since you talked about playing and refereeing, I should ask you, what did serving as a referee teach you about justice and corruption? You coached football after high school, right?
SCHMIDTZ: Yes, that was one of the best things I ever did. Then refereeing was an eye-opener as well. Yes, if we were drinking beer, I would tell you stories till the cows come home. Pretty interesting stuff.
I guess what it taught me is that—and which I then relearned from reading Adam Smith. Adam Smith wrote “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” I think he wrote that for public servants. He wrote that for the referees, in effect. The idea was that, yes, people will like you or they won’t, they will esteem you or they won’t, they’ll say good job or they won’t. The holy grail is the respect, is to be respected for having done a good job, to be respected for having achieved excellence.
I think the advice for referees is you’ve got to understand—and this has so many different dimensions to it, like being a teacher has an aspect of this. When I was a referee, I certainly thought of myself as to some extent being a teacher. I would say, “You’re out of here, pal. You go sit down.” I wouldn’t be teaching in that moment, but I would be teaching the other people. I would be saying, “There are lines that you can’t cross. Like when you become a menace to the people even on your own team, the people on the other team, you need to go sit down. You need to go cool off. If you have to be right, if players have to drag you off the field so that you don’t punch me in the face, well, so be it. That’s what’s going to have to happen, then.”
You approach radical disagreement and even violence—but there were other times when I thought, no, I have to take people aside, and I have to say, “What you just did, don’t ever do that again. You ever do that again, if I see it, and I probably will, I will suspend you, or I will make sure you never play in this league again.” I think every case where I said that, I was saying it to somebody who in that moment could really listen and would come up later and say, “I did hear you. I just want to say again, I hear you, and thank you for not throwing me out. Now that I think of it, I deserve to be thrown out, but I will never make that mistake again.”
Yes, there’s these learning experiences. It’s a part of it. But just to say, part of what we are competing for as players is we want to put a product out there that makes our community a better place, or maybe we ourselves, we want to be that product. We want to achieve some excellence that earns the esteem. But when you’re the referee, you’re just another specialist. In a way, you’re just another specialist.
You’ve got to say, “My job is not to score touchdowns, obviously, but even more importantly, my job is to not determine who does score touchdowns. Certainly my job is not to determine that everybody scores the same number of touchdowns.” Do I think everyone should have an equal opportunity to score touchdowns? In some sense, obviously, no. Or to say, “Yes, I put the hoop at 10 feet, and that means if you’re five foot six, you don’t have the same opportunity as somebody who’s six foot six has.” That’s just the way it is, and that’s not something to ever be sorry for.
There is something about equal opportunity that’s real. It’s not about equality, it’s about opportunity. It’s about saying, “Every kid that you ever look in the eye should be able to look at you and know you’re not taking an opportunity away from them.” You say, “Hey, I can’t give you a rich kid’s Harvard education. I can do something so that you’re not held back by this dumb thing about your background that is preventing you from succeeding now. I can do something about that.”
Why would I? It’s because I say, “90% of the ingredients of excellence, you’ve got them there, and you’ve got this one thing that’s always going to be a reason for rejecting you. I need to tell you, you need to get past this. If I was your coach, I would be saying if you want to be on the field, if you want to be a player, if you want to be a winner, this has to stop, and this other thing has to take its place.”
Or I might say something else. As a coach, one thing I realized is that stuffing square pegs into round holes is not a way of having a winning team. The way to have a winning team is to say, “Okay, you can do a bull rush up the middle. You can’t do a contained rush around the end, so I’m going to put you in the middle,” or, “You can cover the sweep. You don’t have whatever the cognitive tools you need to stay home and cover the reverse. You don’t have that. I’m going to take that responsibility away from you. I’ll give it to some other kid who’s really apt for that.”
I will build a team around the excellences that I have, or the potentials for excellence that I have. I think it’s not just sports, it’s anything. It’s running a company. If you want your organization to be excellent, it’s going to stand or fall on your ability to put your people in a position where they do—it’s not just do what they’re excellent at, but do it where something in their soul screams that they need to be excellent at this. This is what it’s in their veins to do. It’s what they were born to do. If you put people in a position where they feel like they’re doing what they’re born to do, you’re going to win championships, or whatever it is that your organization is geared toward doing.
Peace Before Justice?
KLUTSEY: Dave, one insight in your book that, when I first saw, was not the most intuitive thing but took a while to get there, is the idea that you need peace before justice. And you say that we have reason to treat conflict resolution, not justice, as the first virtue of institutions. As I was reading that, I kept hearing echoes of protests that say “no justice, no peace,” and I think there’s something about justice that we naturally think is important, that it needs to come first. But I think you are getting readers to rethink that proposition a little bit. Can you unpack that for us?
SCHMIDTZ: Yes, thank you. That’s an important question. I should have an answer at my fingertips, and it’s not like I can’t see it from different perspectives. But this idea about peace first—it’s a fairly new idea, in a way. I think it’s just become popular again. This is more like, this is a wave that I’m surfing on, more than it being especially my idea. This has come out of Bernard Williams in 2005. It’s come out of Bill Galston in 2010, and there’s some other major players as well.
The fundamental idea, it seems to me, is if you look at the way courts are run, the way the rule of law is supposed to go, when you have litigants show up before a judge in a court—if you said to the judge, “Well, this is a court of justice. That’s what it’s called, anyway, so I’m asking for justice.” I think what actually happens is the judge says, “Okay, first of all, calm down, everybody, stop fighting. Stop swinging at each other for a second. The reason you came to me is because the recourse is violence. The recourse is to have a duel, shoot each other or something, or just have a never-ending feud. But I’m going to stop this feud. The first step to stopping it is stopping it. Just stop fighting for a second, and articulate your arguments, articulate your position.”
There’s a court case that I could talk about—mentioned it in the book, I believe—but a chimney sweep is just doing his job, and he is up in a chimney, and he discovers something. Maybe it was hidden, I don’t know, but he’s got this ring. Looks valuable, takes it to a jeweler, and asks the jeweler for an appraisal. And the jeweler gives back the gold band, but the jewel that was in it is missing. He says, “No, I want the whole thing back.” The jeweler says, “Well, I don’t think that’s yours, kid. I don’t know where you got this, but I don’t think it’s rightfully yours, so I’m just going to keep it.”
Now the chimney sweep sues, and the chimney sweep says to the judge, “He took my ring; I want it back.” The jeweler says, “It’s not his ring. He has no standing to ask for it to be returned.” This is one of the cases where—there were a few, but this is Armory v. Delamirie. It’s one of the cases where now we have this colloquial principle of law and justice called “possession is 90% of the law.” It’s out of a few cases like that. That’s where this came from.
But there was something even more profound that came out of this, is the judge said, “I am not here to settle who’s the rightful owner. I’m here to settle whether there was an unjust transfer. If I judge that there was an unjust transfer, then my job is to undo that wrongful transfer. That’s what I’m doing. Jeweler, you have to give the ring back.”
The jeweler says, “But you’re giving it to a person who’s not the rightful owner.” The judge says, “Well, that’s a case for another day. If somebody else sues the chimney sweep and says, ‘Yes, you found that on my property; you have to return it to me,’ then the case probably won’t go the chimney sweep’s way. But what I say to the jeweler is, ‘The point was for you not to be a source of violence and lack of peace in our community. You weren’t supposed to be the person who made the profession of jeweler untrustworthy and made it the case that people couldn’t afford to deal with appraisers. That wasn’t your rightful place, and I undid your misconception about your place.’”
Really, it’s not about going back to the beginning. There are reparations cases, but the bread-and-butter legal case is not about undoing wrongful transfers back into the mist of time and achieving justice. You might wish it could be that way, but it wouldn’t be peaceful. It would be never-ending. But what the courts do is they say, “You two people, you stop fighting. I’m going to send you away with a basis for a peaceful relationship. I’m not going to be undoing all of society’s injustices, but I will be getting you two people in a position where maybe you can afford to trust each other again, or people like you can afford to trust each other again.”
The idea is to manage conflict, but to manage potential conflict—this is the way that Mike Humor just put it in a review of my book. He said the purpose of a court is to manage potential conflict and resolve actual conflict. You need to have an eye on justice in order to do those things. You need to say, “People just aren’t going to swallow that. They’re not going to regard this as fair. This is a verdict that’s going to have to be overturned someday. It’s just bad in that way.”
But that’s the idea, is a court of justice is first of all a court of peace. It’s above all about putting people in a position where they can afford to show up and trust each other. There’s going to be an awful lot of justice involved in that, but it’s only going to go down so far. It’s going to be about conflict. It’s going to be about everybody having a deal they can live with.
Contribution and Compromise
KLUTSEY: Yes. Thanks for that, David. As we bring the conversation to a close, I was wondering if you would identify a call of action in your book. If there was something that you wanted your readers to take away from your work, “Living Together,” what would that be?
SCHMIDTZ: Oh, well, thank you for asking. I really appreciate that. One thing is to say, moral philosophy is theorizing about what to do, and I didn’t do that. That isn’t what Hume was doing. It isn’t what Smith was doing. They theorized about what works. If you look at Peter Singer in 1972, he was theorizing about what to do. He wasn’t theorizing about how to end famine; he was theorizing about how to have a clean conscience. How much should you give away? The answer is more. “Well, haven’t I already given a lot?” That’s not relevant. The answer is more.
For the last getting to be 10 years or so, he’s been moving in a direction about not utilitarianism as a reason to guilt-trip, but a focus on a call to action as a call to figure out what works and do what works. All of that is favorable, I think. Oddly enough, you would think that Peter Singer and I were archenemies, but I think he’s a person who’s really getting it right these days and doing moral theory the right way, oddly enough.
What to do then? You could still say, “Adam Smith didn’t write a book about what to do, but it was still—there was a lot of advice in there, anyway, about esteem, about being worthy of it.” I would say two things: to understand that the self-interest of a social animal is about finding a way to build a good place in a community as a contributor. Like to say, I want to live in such a way—like for me to be a winner, it’s for other people to look at me and say, “Good job.” It’s got to be social.
It’s not self-interest versus being social; it’s social as a way of giving content to self-interest. The self-interest in a social animal is an interest in making a good contribution, making an esteemed contribution. It’s not contrary to community; it’s essentially embedded in the idea of a community.
That’s the one thing, is in your own personal aspiration, the call to action would be a call to figure out for yourself, look in the mirror, look at your own successes, look deeply personally at what you can do that could turn into a way of contributing to the community that you just love. You love being that good at what you do. You love people liking your product that much. You love people having no questions about whether you’re worth the price that you’re asking them to pay you. There’s that personal thing.
Then the political thing—because we’re also political animals. The other side of the coin of the call to action would be to say that politics is not a realm of winning and losing, not nearly as much as it appears anyway. It’s a realm of compromise, of splitting the difference, of saying, “Everybody who dealt with me, every constituency that I had to form a coalition with, or the constituencies I didn’t have to form a coalition with, not today anyway—tomorrow’s another day, but for now I could just outvote them.”
But to say, “I want everybody to go away thinking that they can trust me. I want people to go away thinking, I’m not the enemy here. I don’t want them to be the enemy either.” Someone like Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat out of Arizona, what’s that all about? She can say, “Here’s why I’m not voting against the filibuster, is because the Senate is supposed to be the nation’s conscience. It’s not supposed to be another bare-knuckle brawl. It’s supposed to be where people deliberate and where people don’t just form a majority that can steamroll a minority that considers themselves to be in an existential crisis.”
I really admire Kyrsten Sinema for that too. And I could say that’s a way of basically encapsulating my political philosophy, I suppose, is that half the people who go home maybe are going to say, “Well, I didn’t win today, but it wasn’t because the game was rigged. It’s just because people didn’t see it my way, but that doesn’t mean they won’t see it my way tomorrow.”
You have an incredible hero like William Wilberforce. He says, “I would like to make a motion among my esteemed colleagues that we ban traffic in slaves.” They laugh at him, and he says, “Okay, well, I’ll see you next year.” This guy, he kept doing it for like 25 years or longer. Finally, when he was on his deathbed, they just said, “Okay, this is a no-brainer. He’s obviously right.” When was it that we didn’t know that he was obviously right? When did we not get that?
Anyway, so to say, if you’re respectful, if you understand the humanity of the people who just seem to be that wrong about an issue that’s that obvious, to say, “I’m going to give you another chance.” Someday you are going to wake up, and someday you are going to say, “I’m not going to look over my shoulder to see who’s smirking. I’m just going to do the right thing.” That’s the political ideal, is—it’s not exactly compromise. It’s not compromise in the moral sense.
It’s to say, “I am going to get my community in a place where we can see how to move forward. It’s not going to be by steamrolling. It’s going to be the opposite of that, really. It’s going to be everybody seeing this is not a threat that’s coming at you. This is not you being a loser in a zero-sum game.” This is what we need to do now so that everybody is better off going forward.
KLUTSEY: Well, thank you, Dave. That was really insightful. I appreciate you coming on and talking about this book, “Living Together.” I certainly encourage everyone to pick up a copy and read it, and they’ll certainly be better off. Thank you, Dave.
SCHMIDTZ: I appreciate it, Ben. Thanks for having me on your show. Thanks for all the fantastic questions and for the close reading of the book.
KLUTSEY: Thank you.