Should you be ashamed of flying? Moral shortcuts in the call-out culture

Do you still travel by plane? Have you recently suggested going to a steak house? Are you perhaps an old white man? – Then you’ve probably found yourself being called out one of these days. Doing these things or having certain traits means that your actions are addressed as moral failures. If you are involved in some sort of ecological or social activism, you might think that you’re off the hook, or compensate a bit at least. But then you can still be called out as a hypocrite. Shame on you! – If you think I’m trying to ridicule calling out moral failures, I’ll have to disappoint you. On the whole, I think the fact that we publicly deliberate about moral problems is a good thing. Naming problems and calling out people for committing problematic actions is part of that process. That this process is fallible in itself does not discredit it. However, there is an element in that process I begin to worry about: it is what I’d like to call moral shortcuts. Using a moral shortcut means to take an action, the expression of a view or even a trait as an indicator of a morally relevant intention or attitude. What makes my acts morally dubious is not the act itself but certain intentions or their lack. It’s not my suggestion of going to a steak house as such, but my not caring about the well-being of animals or the climate crisis that you want to call out. You might assume that one indicates the other, but this indication relation is tenuous. After all, I might have suggested going there merely because it was raining, not to consume meat. In the following, I’d like to suggest that, while calling out moral failures is an important practice, ascribing moral failures on tenuous grounds is morally dubious in itself.

Let’s begin by looking at moral shortcuts again. So does someone’s flying indicate a morally relevant intention? Of course, we are prone to suppose a close connection between action and intention. Arguably, a behaviour or process only is an action in virtue of an intention. What makes my taking a flight that kind of action is that if I have some pertinent intention, say of going to a place, getting on the plane etc. Conversely, if a refugee is forced onto a plane to be returned to their country of origin, you don’t want say that they “took a flight to Albania”. Accordingly, you won’t call out refugees for not caring about the climate crisis. Moreover, the intention of taking a flight is not necessarily an indication of a general attitude about the climate or even flying. So even if my action can be correctly called indicative of a pertinent intention, this might not be morally significant, be it because I lack alternatives or whatever. After all, the reason for calling out such acts is not to shame or sanction a singular intention. What we’re after is a general attitude, allowing, for instance, for the prediction of certain future acts. That someone gets onto a flight is as such not morally significant. It’s the general attitude of not caring that we might find blameworthy. But while it might be correct to assume that certain actions can be indicative of intentions that, in turn, can be indicative of general attitudes, such inferences are fallible. Now the fallibility as such is not a problem. But there are two problematic issues I want to highlight. The first is about the nature of inferential shortcuts; the second is about moral status of relying on such shortcuts:

  • As pointed out in my last post, we’re not only making tenuous judgments. Rather we often use actions, expressions of views as proxies of moral failures: Instead of calling out the attitude, we call out the acts or traits as such. Short of further evidence, the acts of flying or of suggesting eating meat themselves are treated as moral failures. As Justin E. H. Smith pointed out, this is now following associative patterns of prediction. Making moral judgments is like shopping with Amazon: “People who like to eat meat also fail to care about the climate crisis.” In addition to their fallibility, the focus on actions also deprives us of room for deliberation. Unlike intentions, actions are often exclusive, inviting strong friend-enemy distinctions and thus polarisation: If I do A, I can’t do B, can I? – But it is simply wrong to identify an action with a general attitude, for an action can be exprissive of several and even disparate attitudes. Yet, especially in online communication we are prone to make such shortcuts and thus have our exchanges spiral into heated black and white accusations.
  • However, despite their fallibility, we often have to rely on quick inferences. Moral wrongdoings can put us in severe danger. So it is understandable that certain actions raise suspicions. Especially when we are in immediate danger, inferential shortcuts might be close to seeming hardwired: Someone is aggressively running after you? You probably won’t wait for further cues to estimate their intentions. But it’s one thing to seek protection from harm; it’s quite another thing to call out and shame a person as a moral suspect or perpetrator while not averting immediate danger. If you have no more evidence than the moral shortcut, then the act of shaming someone is itself a moral transgression. Calling someone bad names based on individual acts, beliefs or traits such as their skin colour is rightly seen as morally blameworthy. This is, amongst other things, why we oppose racism, sexism and other transgressions based on shortcuts. My point is that such quick and purely associative inferences are also at work when we shame others without further evidence.

Given our globalised online culture, we often don’t have much more to go on than our shortcuts. While it is important to discuss actions as possible outcomes of structural problems, sources of harm and danger, or as indicative of morally significant attitudes, it is equally important not to glide from such deliberation into unwarranted shaming. In the face of public deliberation, we can monitor, question and adjust our behaviour if need be. In the face of being public shaming, however, we will be more inclined to run into arguments about hypocrisy.

On the other hand, there is the equally problematic tendency to mistake public deliberation about the moral status of certain actions for being blamed. But if someone expresses the idea that flying is morally blameworthy, they are not automatically blaming individuals for such actions. The assumption that you are personally blamed because someone calls out bad attitudes as indicated by acertain kind of behaviour, is unfounded and based on an inverse shortcut. Likewise, whatever is called out by the ‘old white men’ or boomer meme does not automatically translate into shaming individuals. Such memes are indicative of structural problems. Put in a nutshell, public deliberation is not public shaming. However, the tricky thing is that such deliberation can glide into shaming if people help themselves to moral shortcuts.

That said, we will continue to rely on shortcuts. My point is not to rid ourselves of them, but to restrict them in their scope. At the same time, this reliance on shortcuts increases the significance of what is called, often pejoratively so, symbol politics, tokenism and virtue signalling. We might think that such symbol politics is merely a form of appeasement or white washing, pretence or covering up. I doubt it. In times of increasing reliance on moral shortcuts, we often have nothing but symbols, tokens or signals to go on. We need them, but we equally need to be aware that they come with fallible tacit inferences.

Might hope counter political polarisation, boomers? A delayed response to Titus Stahl

“What do you love in others? – My hopes.” Friedrich Nietzsche

 

“One day you should be better off than we were.” – My parents offered this line of reasoning often when I opposed their ideas of care and upbringing. More often than not it was meant to convince me of something that I didn’t like. But even back then, as a child or adolescent in stark opposition to my parents’ ways, I recognised that they meant it. They were sincere in their hope. Seeing someone speaking or acting out of hope is special. Even if you disagree with what they do or say, you will be inclined to forgive them if they fail or do wrong. It’s difficult to say how exactly this works, but my hunch is that joint hope can connect you even with those whose actions or views you disapprove of. Why might that be the case? Perhaps because hope creates commitment to a goal when the precise course of action is still not determined. We hope to improve our state. How? That we must find out. But we have a mutual trust that we’ll try in good faith. This matters greatly if we have conflicting views about a course of action. If you think I fail or do wrong, you might be able to forgive me because you see where I’m coming from. – Now look at a common political discussion, as represented in the media. What you notice is not only that such discussions are often emotionally charged or outright hateful, but also that hope for improvement is completely absent. I’ve been wondering about this for a long time. What exactly is missing? What exactly is lacking in our political exchanges? Now I begin to think it’s the absence of hope that makes such discussions so unforgiving. Let me explain.

Should we all become vegan to counter the climate crisis? Ask that kind of question and you’ll soon have a discussion spiralling out of control. The views quickly harden and seem to become more extreme. Why? There are many answers on various levels: we have bad manners, we are badly informed, people have bad motives, everyone is after their own advantage, we don’t listen, we’re not ready for the internet etc. But what do we actually disagree about? We disagree about courses of action. And actions are often mutually exclusive: If you turn left, you can’t turn right. This simple fact turns disagreements about actions into rather strong arguments. It’s either this or that. But this alone is not problematic. What is problematic is that our political discussions are often exhausted by considering a fixed set of possible actions. This, I submit, is because (views about) actions are often taken as a proxy for values or goals. This results in a proxy model of morality. If you tell me that you eat meat, you will assume that I will judge you by that fact. But actions cannot be meaningful units in themselves. They become what they are in virtue of our intentions. But the relation between intention and action is often less direct than the proxy model suggests. More importantly, we can make two kinds of mistakes about the relation between action and intention: (1) we can be wrong in assuming that a particular action fulfils a certain intention; (2) we can be wrong in assuming that a particular action expresses a certain intention. The proxy model disregards both these possibilities.

Many political actions are very tenuous in their relations to intentions. Whether or not a certain course of action or policy has the desired effects is often unclear and indeed contingent. This is precisely where hope should enter the scene. We can hope that promoting affirmative action leads to social justice, but there are factors that might jeopardise the desired effects. If we share social justice as a goal, we will probably deliberate about whether such factors outweigh the benefits. But on the proxy model, the common goal seems quickly forgotten. What we find instead is that affirmative action is taken as a proxy for a desired or undesired value. Are you for or against diversity? Let’s decide that quickly! In such cases, your view or action is not judged in the light of a (shared) goal that is hoped to be achieved. Rather, the action is itself judged as an instance of a value. And then it’s either for or against. In this sense, the absence of hope or common goals makes us unforgiving. Any failure is a moral failure tout court, not just a single failure in a larger and common project. By contrast, hope for a better state will be emphasising our commonalities across divides over a course of action. It is in this sense that I think the absence of hope leads to polarisation. Without hope we lack the common space that makes our disagreements meaningful disagreements between us.

If this is correct, hope is crucial for politics in that it provides the glue between people who might disagree. But it is also important to see the power of hope in guiding us in the absence of clear ideas about what to do. As I see it, hope is crucial when so-called realism has no grip. You might not think so, but realism can be pernicious because the reality of our future is undetermined. This is why the attitude often celebrated as political realism can be counterproductive in holding a society together, at least when the course of action still needs to be decided on. This becomes palpable whenever I think of family and friends. Growing up during WWII and making do with next to nothing, my parents had not much reason to expect that things would get significantly better. Going by what the situation had to offer (for them), they probably could have resigned to what they thought likely at the time (which was not much beyond surviving). But they didn’t. Which is expressed in that statement “One day you should be better off than we were.” This attitude of hope is perhaps best understood when compared to more sceptical attitudes: In the face of possible failure or misery, it seems reasonable to expect what is likely, certainly no better. By contrast, hope is not so much grounded in what is to be expected but what is desired. Trying to understand what my parents’ attitude meant, I’d say they didn’t act on what they thought was likely to work out but on the sheer hope for the better. In that sense, hope transcends the realm of the reasonable without leaving it behind entirely. Clearly then, hope is an enormously powerful attitude, sometimes carrying us across the worst we might expect. It allows us to move on without seeing a path (yet). At the same time, it’s hard to overestimate the emotional glue that hope provides in such moments: Even though my parents and I (often) did not agree on the intermediate goals or ways, their hope instilled hope in me. Their attitude carried over, resulting in a shared hope. If this is correct or aptly put, then hope can bind us together across divides. We might disagree about means, but our hope for similar ends can bind us together. Despite our disagreements, we can thus join forces and attempt to find a compromise or a distribution of disparate strategies. It was in trying to grapple with these issues that I was reminded of Titus Stahl’s excellent piece on hope. He writes:

Fortunately, we need not limit ourselves to what we can expect. Even though we are not justified in expecting more than limited agreement on justice, we can still collectively hope that, in the future, consensus on more demanding ideals of justice will emerge. When citizens collectively entertain this hope, this expresses a shared understanding that each member of society deserves to be included in an ambitious project of justice, even if we disagree about what that project should be. This knowledge can contribute to self-respect and is thus a desirable social good in its own right. In the absence of consensus, political hope is a necessary part of social justice itself. So it is rational, perhaps even necessary, to recruit the notion of hope for the purposes of justice.

I can’t possibly unpack this understanding of hope in a blog post. One consequence of this idea is that the absence of a consensus does not entail that the situation is hopeless (no pun intended). As I see it, political realism, in focusing on what is likely, limits our view on future commonalities and compromises that we are not yet able to see. Helmut Schmidt’s dictum “Wer Visionen hat, sollte zum Arzt gehen”  sums up this brand of realism nicely. What I find particularly problematic in this kind of realism is that it expresses nothing more than a complacent attitude, defending the status quo in the face of challenges. Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can!” or Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das!” were slogans attempting to instil political hope. As we know all too well, their impact was not sustained. Today, we find ourselves surrounded by the entirely hopeless complacency of the Trumps and Johnsons of this world. But what is perhaps (big ‘perhaps’) more worrying is that this attitude of hopelessness is carrying over to common discourse. The proxy model of morality, “brexit or not”, “wall or not”, is all over the place.

That said, I’m hopeful that hope will return to the political arena with the new movements* founded in the face of the climate crisis, be it Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion. It’s telling to see that these movements are often met with the complacent charge of not offering concrete policies of action. This is of course the proxy model of morality in place again. But refraining from concrete paths of action is exactly the factor that allows us to retain hope, hope for consensual deliberation rather than the either-or conduct suggested by the proxy model. Deliberation that takes into account all sides, but gives pride of place to experts and scientists whose work should be seen as the institutionalised outcome of collective hope. In this sense, I read the recent attack against the “boomers” not as one against a particular generation, but rather as a humorous reminder that complacency does not instil any hope or idea for a better future.

Yet, the distinction between political hope and a simplistic proxy morality is neither one of left and right nor one of optimism and pessimism. The opposite of hope is not despair; it’s complacency.

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* I should add that I think of new movements not only in terms of decidedly political movements. In fact, I’m most hopeful when it comes to progress in the arts (and, for personal reasons, not least in music). In this respect, I think that the music of people like Jacob Collier is deeply political, but at present I have no clear idea as to how to conceptualise this. – One observation might be in order though: Read the comments on youtube, for example, under Collier’s music videos and compare them with comments on other content, musical or not. What I find intriguing is the positive and indeed hopeful attitude in these comments. What this is a sign of I don’t know, but it strikes me as a hopeful sign.

Performing theory: Imagination in Jacob Collier’s music

The unexamined music is not worth performing. (Cover version of a proverb)

There is this fairly common assumption according to which theory and practice are mutually exclusive. “That’s only a theory, but does it work in practice?” Often we encounter outright hostility against theorising. As if it were a waste of time as long as it is not applied. As a philosopher, I hold of course a professional suspicion against this attitude. So it won’t come as a surprise to you if I say that the whole thing is owing to a false dichotomy. As I see it, certain forms of doing and experiencing even require theory. You begin to see this once you notice that theories are not just lists of sentences written down in dusty books. Rather, theories are forms of thinking about possibilities or options. Theories are imaginative spaces. What that means might be shown in many ways. But since I’ve recently been struck by the music of Jacob Collier, I’ll try to make my point by musing about his work.

Can you walk into two directions at once? – You think you cannot. But you know this, paradoxically so, because you can. It is imagining trying it that tells you that your physical constraints would normally stop you from doing so. This way of imagining is a sort of theorising: It doesn’t only tell you what you can do; it also gives you an idea of your constraints, of what you can and cannot do in space and time. Arguably, it’s reflecting on such constraints that make our actions meaningful. It’s the imagined possibility of turning the other way that gives direction to your walking this way. Such theorising or imagining sometimes gives an existential ring to our experience. A phenomenon that bears this out is the narrow escape. If you’re nearly run over by a car, your imagination of that accident will give a different meaning to your still walking upright. Conversely, we might daydream about being elsewhere, abstracting away, yes: abstracting away, from certain constraints. Arguably, narrow escapes and daydreaming are forms of integrating theory or imagination into practice. They are forms of doing or experiencing that thrive on including possibilities. They make our actions ambiguous or reveal the ambiguities in our actions.

Various forms of art are conventionalised forms of integrating theory into practice. One way of doing this in art is by exploiting perceptual ambiguities. Have you ever seen a piece by Escher? Or a depiction of the duck-rabbit? Then you get the idea for visual perception. I haven’t thought this through but I am inclined to think that the richness of possibilities increases with abstracting away from constraints. In music, you can experience various ambiguities in relation to rhythm and harmony. But since music education is a rare thing, it’s harder to write about this experience without sounding like someone besotted by jargon. While we have a lot of vocabulary for visual structures (we talk shapes etc. all the time), this is less true for other sense modalities. But perhaps a good example for ambiguities in music are cover versions of songs. Do you know the nursery rhyme Frère Jacque? Ok, now imagine it as a punk song. And now as a waltz. Just try it! The point is that such a cover version would include at least two possibilities at once. You hear the nursery rhyme and you hear it presented in the punk idiom and you hear that it is a different take on something else. You can abstract away from certain features and include possibilities. In some sense, a cover version performs a theory of a song. It presents possibilities and constraints as they are performed. – Now you might say that this is a case of just one possibility realised: there is just the punk song. But I doubt this. The original matters, too; it’s not just a punk song based on old material. Otherwise you would not experience the pushing of boundaries and conventions. Both the original and the new song are present at once, just like the duck-rabbit presents us with features of both animals at once.

Pushing the boundaries of musical experience by hopping genres is easily recognised, but it happens at various levels. Sometimes such an extension of boundaries goes so far that the experiential space is itself extended. Think of it this way: At some point in history abstract painting, for instance, was not really a widely approved option. Today it’s common, but at some point it reshaped the very conventions of what it means to paint or create art. Arguably, Jacob Collier’s approach to music can be seen as such a sort of move. Among the many things that make his work fascinating is that he includes such a great number of possibilities at once. Not only did he create numerous covers in addition to very impressive compositions of his own. His songs and covers exploit ambiguities on all levels, and push them enormously far. This is perhaps most palpable in his cover of the classic All Night Long (listen and watch!).

What makes Jacob Collier’s music so special? Reshaping rhythmical distributions and substituting harmonic changes while helping himself to microtonal steps between conventional intervals, he makes parts of this well known song ambiguous and has it dip into various genres. (Here is a helpful introduction to some crucial concepts.) This is something we are all familiar with to some extent. But the overall effect is that he redefines or widens the musical space in which the music is received. What do I mean be this? Imagine a world without waltzes or minor chords (the ones that sound somewhat sad)! And now imagine that you listen to a familiar song (written in major, of course), but set in a minor key for the very first time. The experience that there are minor chords does not only alter the song in question. Arguably, it does something to all the other songs you already know. Allow me one more analogy, please: Imagine that you’ve lived in dark rooms for a long time and have seen all the things around you in dark shades, but now someone switches on the light. Even if the light is switched off again, knowing that the darkly shaded objects can appear colourful alters the perception of them. Returning to the introduction, our theory of objects affects our perception. This way, certain practices require the integration of theory. Likewise, being introduced to new concepts can alter one’s musical perception.

Let’s zoom in more closely. My point is not that Jacob Collier is the first one to use some extravagant concepts in his work. What is striking are, in addition to his obvious talent, two things: the pop-musical context in which he applies such devices and how assertively he embraces theory as an ingredient of musical performance. The first point is easily demonstrated by pointing out what he does in his cover versions of pop songs. Some of us might be familiar with this kind of practice at least from the Bebop era or from the way many classical composers approached folk songs. However, the second aspect, though perhaps more salient, might not be immediately obvious. Cover versions of songs, for instance, might just be intended as entertainment, but they can also be heard as a form of integrating theory or imagination. As noted above, playing Frère Jacque as a punk or reggae tune would integrate theory in that way.

Jacob Collier does this sort of thing way more assertively though. What stands out immediately is that he happily shares his “secrets” in all sorts of workshops and clinics (see e.g. here); so the involvement with some of the crucial concepts behind his music has almost become a regular part of the reception of his music. In his covers, he takes care to retain the original while doing all sorts of things to it. But this does not just produce an alienation effect. The reharmonizations, for instance, do not only make you think: “oh, that sounds different”. They also might make you think: “oh, how far can you stretch these reharmonizations without ending up with a different song?” This is taken to the extreme in his version of Moon River. Some people will surely think that this is going too far: too many reharmonizations! Doesn’t it destroy the unity of the song? Doesn’t it deprive it of it’s character? While I can see the point of such reactions, I also see something else: he doesn’t just perform a song with fancy modulations; he provides a theory of that song. The theory is the answer to a question: How many possible ways are there of singing Moon River in a certain mood? But the song is not merely a sequence of modulations; it is a proper song with a climax. But it is also a theoretical tale of harmonizations, bound together by a certain mood. While other versions of that song give you a sentiment, Collier’s version seems to give you a whole opera. In provoking such mixed responses, then, Collier encourages analytic listening without giving up on the fun. He presents so many reharmonizations of one song in the same song that you cannot but grasp the idea of reharmonization itself. (In fact, the reharmonization or harmonization of melodies is something that he devoted particular attention to, as can be seen from this series of clips in which he harmonizes melodies sent in by various singers.)

However, the basis of a song is not just formed by theoretical concepts. What holds all the theoretical or imaginative explorations together is an emotional core. But like all other aspects of life, feelings can be highly complex and ambiguous. Collier sometimes talks about (a certain) harmony as “the way a melody feels” or a way of “injecting melody with emotion”. Now his songs and covers give you an indeterminate variety of feelings for a melody. When listening to one of his songs, you will go away with the impression of having listened to a subset of all the (emotionally) pertinent versions of that song. (This receives further support by the variety he adds through performing different versions of the same song. I have listened to three versions of his Hideaway, all of which seem to explore different possibilities of instantiating the same song. Again, the phenomenon is not at all uncommon. But I found the differences between these versions quite striking: onetwothree.) At the same time, he presents visual clues for this approach. If you follow the video of All Night Long, you can see that he employs various visual devices to convey the alterations in the music. The visual and auditory devices jointly demonstrate that (and partly how) the piece is (re-)arranged. (Look for instance how the chord changes are depicted during minutes 3:31-3:35. Likewise, the ubiquitous co-present segments of pictures showing Collier or other musicians support an analytic focus in listening.) – I still find it difficult to provide a summarising statement of what I’m trying to get at here, but the upshot is this: Whether or not it’s intended that way, Collier’s approach encourages analytic listening, making palpable the contingent and ambiguous features of the piece, while retaining the musical and emotional flow. It’s not an Either-Or between theory and practice. It’s practice embracing theory.

If some of the above makes sense, you might agree that Jacob Collier’s work can be seen as a way of performing theory. But even if this were well applicable, why would it matter? Apart from wishing to counter the fairly widespread assumption that theory is opposed to practice, I also think that this view is particularly pernicious for the arts. And yet I find it often endorsed even among practitioners. It’s a common assumption that theory gets in the way of performance, musicality, emotion, expression and what have you. Of course, there is an almost trivial sense in which this can be true. If I keep wondering what the name of the currently played chord is, I might end up losing touch with the flow of the piece. But what is rarely appreciated is that theory can also be seen as the imaginative space in which art (and everything else) is received. This becomes most obvious when theories (and thus our imaginative resources) are altered and begin to affect conventions. In this sense, theory should be embraced, not shunned. Theory is part of what we do; not something extra on the side. Think of this next time you hear a funny cover version of a cherished classic: it’s theory performed.

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Thanks to Sabine Döring, Daniel M. Feige, Jens-Holger Hopp, and Eric Richards for hints and discussions.