Thursday, March 2, 2017

In Defense of Safety Nets

With the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and much of the rest of America's already-inadequate safety net on the chopping block, it seemed to me fitting to write a short defense of safety nets, one that emphasizes the moral and philosophical position underlying my view here rather than getting lost in the weeds, as so many discussions of safety net programs seem to.

My view here is grounded in the one of the oldest and most widely accepted moral views, the so-called Golden Rule: we ought to do to others as we would prefer that they do to us were our circumstances relevantly similar to theirs. It is also grounded in the view that one of the government's most basic functions is to protect its citizens from danger, one form of which is the vicissitudes of fortune (
illness, unexpected expenses, damage to or loss of property, etc.). Both these thoughts are captured nicely by the following thought experiment, developed by the American political philosopher John Rawls in the early '70s

Try to imagine that you are in a situation where you don't know anything about what kind of person you are and are trying to imagine what a country should be like. So: you don't know if you're a man or a woman; what color your skin is; if you're able-bodied; if you're Christian, Muslim, non-religious, Jewish, or something else; if you're gay, bisexual,or straight; if you're cis- or transgender; if you're poor or rich or somewhere in between; if you have a family and friends you can rely or in hard times or if you don't; and so on. In short, all you know is that you live in some country. Now consider: if that were your situation, and if you could decide what the country you lived in would be like, how would you want it to be?

In particular, what kinds of resources would you like to have available to you if you fell on hard times? For example, would you want it to be the case that, if you needed help, the only place to turn would be the church and charities? Remember: because these are private organizations run by private citizens, there is no guarantee there will be any of them at all and, if there are, no guarantee that there will be enough of them or that they will be able to provide the help you need. Moreover, even if there are enough and they can help, they might not. Maybe you're gay and they don't like gay people. Maybe you're black and they don't like black folks. Maybe you're Jewish and they don't like Jews. And so on.

I don't think that's right or fair; in my view a society cannot call itself decent if it is willing to take the chance that people it might have helped die on the street. I accordingly think the government should be willing to extend a hand to anyone who needs it--to give them food to eat, a roof over their heads, and clothes to wear, whatever their color, creed, sexual orientation, etc. That way, even if I don't know anything about myself other than that I'm a citizen or perhaps even just a resident, I know that, if I'm in trouble, I can count on someone offering it to me, whatever else might turn out to be true about me. I don't just have to hope that someone might have decided to start a charity or a church that will be willing to help me: I can count on it.

A lot people have concerns about the kinds of government programs I'm advocating, and it would be impossible to address all of them without making this far too long. So I just want touch at least briefly on those I hear most often.

Perhaps the concern about safety net programs I hear expressed most frequently is that they enable free riders or moochers by giving them something for nothing. I think the fundamental thought behind this objection is that our society should be such that, the harder a person works and the higher the quality of their work, the better they do. Safety nets irritate people who press this objection because, they think, they stand in the way of the realization of this ideal by rewarding laziness. This strikes them as unfair to people who are willing to do their part.

In principle, I don't see anything wrong with this meritocratic ideal. In general, it seems to me a good thing to reward people for working hard at helpful tasks. Nevertheless I think this is a very bad objection to safety nets for a couple of reasons.

First, I just do not think our society is anywhere close to being meritocratic in this sense. On the one hand, people born into rich or powerful families often do quite well for themselves despite not being especially capable. Sometimes this is because their families have connections and influence that enable them to do things they wouldn't otherwise be able to; for example, this appear to be what explains the admission to Harvard of Jared Kushner, Donald Trump's son-in-law and according to his high-school teachers a "less than stellar" student (details here). Other times it is just because such people come into the world with a kind of support system or fail-safe people born into less fortunate circumstances do not: if they ever end up in a tight spot, they can rely on their family's wealth and connections to get them out of it. On the other, our society often throws up arbitrary barriers to advancement that make it much harder for some people to do well for themselves in the first place. These obstacles often take the form of class-, race-, gender-, sexual orientation-, or gender identity-based prejudice and structural barriers. I support safety nets in part because I think they go some way toward rectifying that defect by removing these arbitrary obstacles to advancement by making available to everyone the kind of support system only the rich would otherwise have.

But--second--even if our society were perfectly meritocratic--even if everybody's level of well-being were perfectly correlated with how talented or capable they are and how hard they are willing to work--we would still need a robust safety net. For the mere fact that someone is not particularly capable or useful should not mean that they lose their house, that they die because they can't afford healthcare, or that they go hungry. We should not punish those with mental illness or with physical or mental disabilities for being the way they are; instead, recognizing our common humanity and the vulnerability that is a basic fact of all our lives, we should take care of them. The opposite view is just callous indifference.

Someone might grant me all this but still worry that people who don't really need them will take advantage of these programs. Again I agree that it is a bad thing for people to be lazy and take advantage of programs intended to help people get back on their feet: the public coffers are not bottomless, so we would do well not to waste money on people who don't really need it. But this belief leads me to different conclusions than it does those who press this objection because I care more about ensuring that people do not go hungry, end up homeless, lose limbs from untreated diabetes, etc. than I do about the possibility that someone might take advantage of safety net programs. For this reason, my response to learning that people are taking advantage of safety net programs is to think that, if anything, we need to alter the programs they’re taking advantage of to make it harder and less appealing for them to do that, not abolish the programs. But even this, it bears saying, is a dangerous path. For once we start down it, there is a tendency to increase the number of hoops people have to jump through in order to benefit from the program in question. Not only does this increase the likelihood that people who need those benefits won't get them--a possibility that, to my mind, is far worse than some getting them even though they don't need them--it also often increases the cost of the program. That in turn may decrease public support for it and lead, in time, to its elimination. So there are sometimes significant costs to implementing measures designed to restrict access to safety net programs, dangers anyone attempting to eliminate free riders would do well to keep in mind. Though not ideal, it is far better for someone to get a benefit they don't need than for them to need a benefit they can't get.

Another common objection to safety net programs is that, although it is certainly a good thing to feed the hungry, house the homeless, tend the sick, and so on, the associated costs to our liberty far outweigh the benefits of governmental programs designed to do this. This is the objection to the ACA I've heard more often than any other: people hate being coerced into buying healthcare. Against this, however, two points. First, liberty is without a doubt a valuable thing, but this objection suggests a perverse fetishization of liberty, a blind zeal for non-interference that fails to distinguish those freedoms that are worth caring about from those that are not. For supposing that we are talking about offering these programs in a relatively wealthy society and financing them primarily by taxing its wealthiest citizens--as we undeniably are in the United States--the freedom in question is that of people who have more than they need to hoard their wealth and deny to those who lack it the minimum necessary for a decent life. I cannot see a society that values that particularly liberty over meeting people's basic needs as anything but cruel and selfish. Moreover, it must be said that that safety net programs that ensure that all people have access to housing, enough food and clothing, and healthcare are themselves in an important sense liberating: by putting in place a kind of ground floor below which people are not allowed to fall, they insulate people from the whims of fate and, in that way, go some way toward liberating them from oppressive forces to which all of us are subject to at least some extent.

The fundamental point underlying all this is a simple moral one. The vicissitudes of fortune are a kind of danger that haunts even those of us who manage to escape its cruelest blows. And sometimes, when disaster does strike, people end up in situations with which they can't or don't know how to cope--often through no fault of their own. In those moments people need a helping hand. Being a decent society means recognizing this and doing what we can to help those who fall on hard times, not turning our backs on the needy to punish the takers, all the while singing paeans to liberty and caught up in absurd, Randian fever dreams about self-made men. The hard truth is that none of us knows when we might need a hand; decency demands that we be willing to offer ours.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Tale of Two Countries

In 1932, America, hurting from the crash of ‘29, decided to give the left a chance in FDR, a candidate who wanted to institute a massive jobs program, improve conditions for workers, regulate banks, break up trusts, and put in place safety net programs that have proved very successful and highly popular. That all went very well. It was the beginning of a period in American history that, while marked by far too much misogyny and racism and other pernicious and loathsome prejudices, was nevertheless in many ways very good and on which even many conservatives look back fondly to this day.

In the same year, Germany, hurting from the same crash as well as from the demands placed on the country by the Treaty of Versailles, went a different direction. They elected a man who explicitly attributed the country’s problems to a vulnerable minority group, the Jews, and thereby empowered the darkest, most destructive and most reactionary forces in their society. That led to a world war, the political persecution and even death of critics of all kinds, and the deaths of six million Jews--an unspeakable horror of which Germans and other Europeans today remain so ashamed that Holocaust denial remains against the law in Germany and several other European countries.

During the past year an America characterized by similar economic anxieties and riven by comparable prejudices also faced a choice about its future. On the one hand we had Bernie Sanders, whose own policies were in many ways similar to FDR’s. Unfortunately in my view, he didn’t win the nomination. Instead, the nomination went to Hillary Clinton, who--to be fair--is no FDR but who nevertheless generally advocated weaker and less ambitious versions of the same policies as did Sanders. On the other, we had Donald Trump, who like Hitler attributed many of America’s problems to vulnerable minority groups--this time not Jews but Muslims and Mexicans above all, though he has many times dog whistled to and has yet to go out of his way to dissociate himself in a meaningful way from groups and individuals that harass and intimidate and threaten and in some cases even harm black people, LGBTQ folks, Jews, and other groups.* He has also vowed to tighten restrictions on free speech and has threatened publicly to punish those who criticize him, and there is at least one vigilante group acting in his name that is currently being formed for the purpose of torturing "university leaders" who encourage tolerance of diversity (see picture below). (See too this thinly veiled threat recently issued by former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.) And, of course, he has threatened to jail his chief political opponent, Hillary Clinton.

We picked Trump.

A poster put up on 11/9/2016 in bathrooms at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX, where I lived for a year after college.

To be sure, there are reasons to resist making this comparison, however tempting.

For one thing, it is true that there are some differences between Trump and Hitler. One in particular actually makes me feel a bit better about all this: whereas Hitler seems to have had a remarkably clear vision of what he wanted to do and to have been highly disciplined in his pursuit of his goals, Trump seems to have little more than some extremely vague ideas about his goals and little or no idea how to accomplish them; moreover, so far as I can tell, there is not really any reason to think he has the ability to get much clearer about any of this. Nevertheless, I think it is undeniable that there are plenty of parallels between Hitler's rise and Trump's, and the stakes are high enough that I think it would be irresponsible to disregard them.

It has also been suggested to me that this comparison exaggerates the risks and the danger of a Trump presidency, is an instance of "crying wolf." Perhaps. That our institutions managed to survive intact the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who defied the Supreme Court, gives me hope that I am, although it must be said that the prospect of another Jackson is in itself terrifying. In any case, so long as there is a possibility that--as my friend David Lindeman put it--by crying out I might decrease the likelihood of the wolf's appearance--and I think there is--the risk of exaggeration is one I am happy to take.

No one knows what comes next. I just pray that our future looks nothing like Germany's past.

*Just last night, Trump in fact did denounce the recent spate of violence and harassment clearly inspired by and in some cases even perpetrated in his name. But in addition to the fact that his was a relatively weak condemnation of these acts, it took a full five days of these hateful and loathsome acts for him to say anything, and his remarks came on the same day that he announced that Steve Bannon, an alt-right superstar and known anti-Semite, would be his chief strategist. So I don't see this as Trump distancing himself from any of these groups in a meaningful way.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Abortion and the Establishment Clause

Recently I had occasion to read through Ronald Dworkin's striking legal argument against state-imposed restrictions on access to and regulations of abortion in Life's Dominion (pp. 160-166). Rather than the 14th, as does that in the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade and as, it seems, do most or at least the most visible pro-life folks, Dworkin's argument takes as its focal point the first amendment, in particular the so-called Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Dworkin argues that disagreements abortion the morality of abortion are, fundamentally, disagreements about what makes life valuable.  Some--mainly religious people--see the value of human life as stemming from the divine or natural contribution to its existence:  life as such is sacred because it is a gift from God or a remarkable product of a long process of evolution. Others--mainly non-religious people--see the value of human life as stemming mainly from the human investment in it, such as, for instance, the investment parents, teachers, and communities make in rearing children and that an individual makes in creating herself. Those in the former camp are likely to see abortion as always impermissible, since it is--in their view--necessarily incompatible with proper respect for the sanctity of life. Those in the latter group are liable to place considerably more emphasis on the ways a birth would impact the life of the mother and less on any putative insult to the sanctity of life. They will accordingly think that proper respect for the value of life is not only compatible with but indeed may demand ending a pregnancy such that carrying the child to term and raising it would entail frustrating the investment the mother, her community, her parents, etc. have made in her life. Dworkin argues that both views about what makes life valuable are, essentially, religious and that most* abortion laws that have been proposed--including the so-called Hyde Amendment that prohibits federal money from being used to fund abortions (see pp. 175-176)--accordingly amount to congressional establishment of a religion and so violate the first amendment.

I think this argument is ingenious, in part because it makes no assumptions about whether or not abortion is ever immoral and so completely sidesteps an incredibly divisive issue. Instead, it in effect says, whatever you think about that, you should still oppose at least most laws that attempt to restrict access to abortion because they are unconstitutional.  But I do have a concern about one aspect of this argument.

To determine whether or not a particular law would amount to congressional establishment of a religion, we need to have a view about what makes a given view a religious one.  But what, exactly, constitutes a religious view? This is a notoriously difficult question. Buddhism has no deities, so theological views can't be the crucial thing. And ethical views are not only not the exclusive property of religious people; if the point of the Establishment Clause were to preclude laws that codify evaluative judgments, it would be self-defeating, since the clause itself does exactly that. So ethical or evaluative views can't be the defining feature of a religious view either. Dworkin's own suggestion is that we use a content-based criterion: a belief is religious if and only if "it speaks to concerns that the community identifies as distinctly religious" (Life's Dominion, p. 163). I think this response goes in the right direction, and practically speaking, Dworkin may well be right that this is our best option. But philosophically it is not at all satisfying, since it is very vague leaves wholly obscure why this clause is worth keeping around in the first place. Why in the world should our constitution preclude laws that codify beliefs that speak "to concerns that the community identifies as distinctly religious"? In particular, why think that beliefs that are not religious in this sense are not worth worrying about?

Here is a conjecture as to what those who wrote the clause might have been thinking. In the world of the framers, nearly everyone was religious. Certainly there were plenty of folks who dissented from the widespread Christian consensus, but they were still religious in the very straightforward sense that their worldview included belief in a god of some sort.  (Here I'm thinking of, for example, Jews and Deists.) And of course the framers were familiar with different cultures that held views very different from their own, but even many of these people--Muslims, in particular--were religious in this same sense.  Even the non-religious people in their world were generally people who denied the Christian picture in particular. So, I suspect, they found it natural to equate worldviews with religions. Moreover, persecution of heretics (i.e., non-Catholics, or unorthodox Protestants) was a familiar occurrence. It even drove some of them to America in the first place (e.g. the Pilgrims). And so, I'm thinking, perhaps the point of the clause is to prevent groups from imposing their worldview on others. If that's right, then the fact that the Establishment Clause mentions religion at all is a historical accident rather than an essential part of the idea the clause was meant to enshrine. The core idea is just that the state has no business taking a position in debates about the deepest and most profound issues (i.e. issues of the sort positions on which have historically been part of religious doctrines), at least where all of the positions on offer are as controversial as are views about the morality of abortion.

I think there is something deeply right in this idea, so it seems to me the the question is not so much whether we should have a clause in the Bill of Rights that attempts to articulate this idea but, rather, how to formulate it in a way that better suits our considerably more secular** and multicultural age. And here, I freely admit, I'm not sure what to say. In particular, I'm not sure how we might be more specific about the issues in question than by characterizing them as I have, viz. as "the deepest and most profound issues" or as "issues of the sort positions on which have historically been part of religious doctrines." Without such a specification, the clause is regrettably vague--regrettably, not just because this characterization does not make much clearer than does Dworkin's why a clause like this is worth having in the first place, but also because a clause this vague could easily be abused by a court intent on silencing or otherwise oppressing some group.

Where does all this leave us vis-à-vis abortion? Legally, I think Dworkin's argument is plausible even if the best gloss we can come up with on what a "religious" belief is is relatively vague, since it seems like views about what makes human life valuable are going to need to count as religious on any plausible precisification of the Establishment Clause. But, as I've said, there are other reasons to be concerned about vagueness here. The position Roe takes regarding the Due Process Clause and the right privacy is at least as plausible legally speaking and manages to sidestep the problems that plague the first amendment defense: that some decisions are so deeply personal that it would be tyrannical for the government to intervene seems to me a plausible and straightforward point. Of course it is highly controversial that the decision to abort is such a decision, and so, on balance, I'm not sure that this defense of a pro-life view is any more likely to be effective than the more problematic but also--I'm assuming--less controversial first amendment defense.

I'll admit I'm inclined to say the way out of this philosophical, legal, and strategic quagmire is a less vague and so less problematic revision of the Establishment Clause itself. But, needless to say, that is a hard row to hoe.

*: The hedge is necessary here because Dworkin thinks some laws regulating abortion are okay insofar as they serve the state's (in Dworkin's view) legitimate interest in encouraging and developing citizens' sense of moral responsibility. As an example he mentions giving women certain information--probably about abortion and other options available to them, though the text is unclear on this point--via telephone the day before their appointment (p. 174). Here I'm not interested in this aspect of Dworkin's view; I take no position on it, and nothing I say here hangs on its truth or falsity.
**: "Secular" in the sense Charles Taylor is interested in in A Secular Age: whereas ours used to be "a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic," now it is "one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace" (p. 3).

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Banning Muslims and Regulating Guns

Many people oppose stricter gun regulations because, they say, regulation will not stop malicious actors from getting guns (as prohibition did not stop people from obtaining alcohol). Many of the same people, I assume, support Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the country. Question: why not think Trump’s plan is problematic in the same way? If the thought is that government regulations are too blunt an instrument to solve the problems in the one case, why not in the other? Is it so hard to imagine that jihadis could find ways around a ban on Muslims entering the country?

The answer cannot be that while such a ban would surely not stop everyone we don’t want here from getting into the country, it would stop some, since proponents of gun regulation can take the same line: while regulations will not completely stop malicious actors from obtaining weapons, they will stop some, and so they’ll make us safer overall. For consistency’s sake, we should take the same line in both cases.

Admittedly, the argument cuts both ways: supporters of Trump’s plan might criticize those proponents of gun regulation who oppose it on the grounds that they are opposing a plan that would make us safer overall (even if it wouldn’t eliminate terrorist attacks entirely). (Whether or not such a ban would in fact make us safer is less clear in this case--not least because it would not be surprising if implementing a ban like this were to fan the flames of radicalism--but I won’t worry about this.) The answer for proponents of gun regulation seems straightforward here: even if it would make us safer, such a ban would be incompatible with some of our deepest values, tolerance of religious and other forms of diversity and opposition to arbitrary discrimination.

Opponents of regulation might of course reply that, again, the argument cuts both ways, since regulation violates their right to bear arms. But it is hardly clear that citizens have a right to relatively unrestricted access to lethal weapons; at the very least, that claim seems much harder to defend than does tolerance of harmless forms of diversity and opposition to arbitrary discrimination.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Trump, China, and the Paris Climate Agreement

In a May 17th interview with Reuters, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee known simply as "the Donald" had quite a bit to say about the landmark climate agreement reached this past December in Paris, and he was so wrong about so much that I felt I had to say something.

Consider first Trump’s claim that he intends to renegotiate the Paris agreement: “I will be looking at that very, very seriously, and at a minimum I will be renegotiating those agreements, at a minimum. And at a maximum I may do something else.” “Something else,” we can only assume, means withdrawing from the agreement entirely.

The problem is that Trump is unlikely to be able to do any of this. Given that the process involved getting representatives of nearly 200 nations together in one place and took two weeks (not to mention months of planning), he certainly would not be able to convince the parties to the agreement to renegotiate it, and as Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin brought out in a recent article for the Washington Post, there is also a good chance that he would not be able to pull out of the agreement. This is so for two reasons: first, many countries--including the US and China--are currently making a concerted effort to ensure that the agreement goes into effect before President Obama leaves office next January, and second, no nation can pull out until at least three years after it goes into effect, and any withdrawals made then will take a year to go into effect. 

Unfortunately, Mooney and Eilperin also make clear, the agreement is weak enough that by itself the fact that the next president may well be unable to withdraw hardly guarantees that the US under a President Trump would take meaningful climate action. Even if bound by the Paris agreement as it stands, a President Trump could (among other things) still nix President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a crucial part of the US’s emissions reduction strategy.  He could also abandon attempts to secure funding for the Green Climate Fund, an international mechanism meant to help poor countries reduce their emissions and take steps to protect themselves from the myriad adverse effects of climate change. Mooney and Eilperin suggest that, aside from international censure, this sort of thing would not result in any penalties for a Trump administration.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Also noteworthy are Trump’s claims that the agreement is “one-sided” and that he does not believe China will adhere to the emissions reduction pledge it made ahead of Paris (its so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contribution or INDC). The implication here is clearly that China is not pulling its weight. 

There are several problems with these claims.

First, it is not clear what if any reason there is supposed to be to doubt that China will fulfill its pledge to the international community. According to this analysis, China is on track to meet the goals set out in its INDC. And as Joe Romm over at Climate Progress was quick to point out, China in fact appears to be ahead of the game, with its emissions now apparently having plateaued a full fifteen years ahead of schedule!

All of this is possible because, Trump’s indication to the contrary notwithstanding, China is actually doing a ton to fight climate change. To mention just a few things the country is up to, China
  • Plans to launch a nationwide cap and trade program in 2017 (source); 
  • Is rapidly expanding nuclear power generation capacity (source); 
  • Is expected to derive 50% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 (source); 
  • Aims to decrease coal consumption by 160 million tonnes in the next five years (source); and 
  • Is currently constructing a nationwide network of high-voltage, direct current power lines (source), a move that, the authors of this study found, would allow the US to reduce its emissions to 80% below 1990 levels if implemented here.

And as for whether or not China is pulling its weight, a couple of points are worth making.

First, the Climate Action Tracker, “an independent scientific analysis produced by four research organisations tracking climate action and global efforts towards the globally agreed aim of holding warming below 2°C,” ranks China ahead of the US on climate action! (See the chart on the left on this page.)  I argued as much myself here.

Moreover, if any country is not pulling its weight, it is the US. For one thing, the US’s INDC is much less ambitious than it ought to be, as I argued here. And to make matters worse, one recent analysis found that currently the US is not even on track to achieve the relatively modest emissions reduction goals laid out in its INDC!

Together with his long history of climate change denial, the utter obliviousness to all this Trump displayed in this interview with Reuters suggests suggest that a Trump presidency would be very bad news for the climate. But hey--at least he’s not as bad as hemorrhoids!

UPDATE (5/27/16):  Yesterday Trump made a speech about energy and the environment, and it was even worse than I had expected.  He made clear his intentions not just to back out of the Paris agreement--which, as I've indicated, he may well be unable to do--abut also to do two terrible things that--I also said--he actually could do and that I expressed concern about:  nix the Clean Power Plan and end adaptation funding for vulnerable communities across the globe.  And as if this weren't enough, he also espoused a whole bunch of other really bad ideas I won't bother to get into.  If you're interested, you can read more about it and watch the whole thing here.

I might also mention that, while doing research for this related blog post, I came across this UN page showing progress toward ratification of the Paris agreement.  If you're as worried about what might happen with US climate policy if Trump becomes president as I am, you'll find this helpful.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why does Wittgenstein Emphasize that Following a Rule is a Practice?

The piece below is a very slightly modified version of the essay I submitted as part of my application for last year's edition of the summer school put on every year by the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society.  (While my application was accepted, I was unfortunately unable to attend.)  This post is a bit different from my usual posts insofar as it does not attempt to be accessible to those unacquainted with Wittgenstein.  But it seemed to me like something that, while not groundbreaking enough to merit publication in a peer-reviewed journal, deserved to see the light of day.

* * *

In some of the best-known and most written-about parts of Investigations §§185-242, Wittgenstein appears to be concerned to emphasize that following a rule is a usage, a custom, an institution, or a practice (he seems to use these terms interchangeably):
198.  “So is whatever I do compatible with the rule?” -- Let me ask this:  what has the expression of a rule -- say a signpost -- got to do with my actions?  What sort of connection obtains here? -- Well, this one, for example:  I have been trained to react in a particular way to this sign, and now I do so react to it. But with this you have pointed out only a causal connection; only explained how it has come about that we now go by the signpost; not explained what this following-the-sign really consists in.  Not so; I have further indicated that a person goes by a signpost only in so far as there is an established usage, a custom. [1]
199.  Is what we call “following a rule” something that it would be possible for only one person, only once in a lifetime, to do? -- And this is, of course, a gloss on the grammar of the expression “to follow a rule”. 
It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which only one person followed a rule.  It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, an order given or understood, and so on. -- To follow a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (usages, institutions).  
202.  … ‘following a rule’ is a practice.
I have long wondered why it is that Wittgenstein is concerned to emphasize this point. Since I think I have finally gotten a bit of clarity here, I'd like to explain my idea.

Hilary Putnam has suggested, helpfully, that in §199, Wittgenstein’s point is fairly simple.  According to Putnam, he means only to note that it does not even make sense to speak of someone’s following a rule, making a report, giving or understanding an order, or doing all sorts of other things in certain circumstances, namely those in which they cannot be said to be taking part in some established practice. [2] That is why Wittgenstein says in §199 that following a rule is not “something that it would be possible for only one person, only once in a lifetime, to do.”  If, for example, mankind had never done any mathematics, and if someone were to write out the series 1, 2, 4, 8, 16..., it would make no sense to say he or she was applying the rule we write as xn = 2x(n-1) (cf. §204).  As things are, where people have done mathematics for thousands of years and it is as ubiquitous as anything could be, that would be a fine way to describe someone who had been taught basic mathematics and did the same thing, but it would be a mistake to describe the actions of the person in my example this way.

Though Putnam does not say so, the same thought also seems to explain why in §200 he indicates that it would be inappropriate to say of the people he describes there that they are playing a game:  since there is in the relevant tribe supposed to be no practice or custom in which they might thereby be said to be taking part--that is, no game they might be playing--it makes no sense to say that they are playing one.  And he makes a similar point with his rhetorical question at §204:  “would the following be possible…:  mankind has never played any games; once though, someone invented a game--which, however, was never played?”  Wittgenstein makes clear that this is supposed to be a grammatical or conceptual point about the concepts of following a rule, giving an order, playing a game, etc., precisely the sort of mundane and uncontroversial reminder in the provision of which Wittgenstein tells us in §127 the philosopher’s work consists.

Putnam’s reading certainly helps to make clearer the sense of these remarks, but it does not solve all of the relevant interpretive problems.  For, we may still ask, why does Wittgenstein consider this grammatical point an important one to make?  In particular, how is this point related to the one he seems to be making in §198, where he first indicates that rule-following is a practice?

Before we can answer those questions, we need to understand §198.  That passage opens with a re-articulation of the question at the heart of this whole discussion:  “But how,” he has an interlocutor ask, “can a rule teach me what I have to do at this point?  After all, whatever I do can, on some interpretation, be made compatible with the rule.”  Unsatisfied with this way of putting the problem, Wittgenstein suggests an alternative formulation:  “No, that’s not what one should say.  Rather, this:  every interpretation hangs in the air together with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support.  Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.”  Wittgenstein’s point would seem to be that--at least given the way that his interlocutor understands the problem--it will not do for the interlocutor to answer his own question--“how can a rule teach me what I have to do at this point?”--by saying simply that the rule will do so as soon as it is interpreted.  For interpretations themselves admit of various interpretations, as do the interpretations of those interpretations, and so on.  The interlocutor of course realizes this, and that is why he is distressed:  interpretation seemed like the best candidate for solving his problem, and now that he sees it cannot help him, the problem seems to him insoluble.  He recognizes that rules give clear instructions in ordinary life, but he cannot understand how this is possible.  

It is here, in remarks clearly intended to help Wittgenstein’s interlocutor see his way out of these difficulties, that Wittgenstein first emphasizes that following a rule is a “usage, a custom.”  (In fact in §198 he is speaking about following a signpost, but the idea is that a signpost is the expression of a rule of some sort.)  Perhaps, then, we can make some headway by asking how the claim that following a rule is a practice might be thought to constitute or point the way to a solution of the “paradox” Wittgenstein articulates at §198.

It will help us to do that if we consider Wittgenstein’s more explicit statement of his favored solution (or dissolution, if you like) in §201:

That there is a misunderstanding here [i.e., in the interlocutor’s thought that a regress of interpretations is unavoidable] is shown by the mere fact that in this chain of reasoning we place one interpretation behind another, as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another lying behind it.  For what we thereby show is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which, from case to case of application, is exhibited in what we call “following the rule” and “going against it”.

As many commentators have said, the point here would seem to be that the interlocutor’s mistake was to think that, as Wittgenstein puts it, “every interpretation hangs in the air together with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support,” or in other words, that every rule not only admits of but requires interpretation in order for it to have any clear meaning. [3] This assumption, Wittgenstein means to indicate, is confused:  in a large portion of real life cases, rules neither need nor even so much as admit of interpretation.  They simply leave no question as to how they are to be followed, and when they do, it is just false that their interpretations always leave room for further interpretation.  Now let us ask:  how might Wittgenstein’s remark in §198 that “a person goes by a signpost only in so far as there is an established usage, a custom” be meant to help us see this?

I want to suggest that these remarks are supposed to help us to appreciate that the interlocutor’s assumption is mistaken by prompting us to reflect on what it is really like to participate in the relevant practices, customs, etc.  In §194, Wittgenstein writes that “when we do philosophy, we are like savages, primitive people, who hear the way in which civilized people talk, put a false interpretation on it, and then draw the oddest conclusions from this.”  By emphasizing that following a rule is a practice, he means to get us to see how we have done this in the present case.  Once we remember what it is really like to take part in the relevant practice, we will recognize the mistaken assumption he points out in §201 and see how it makes us think we need to solve the rule-following “paradox.”  We will see how it can be the case, as Wittgenstein says it is, that “there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation.” [4]

What, then, of §§199-200?  Why is the grammatical point Wittgenstein makes there worth making?

Here is an idea.  Wittgenstein’s interlocutor is distressed because he has found himself unable to identify some method an individual might use to determine what a rule requires in a given case.  He had hoped that interpretation might do the job, but now he sees it cannot.  At other places in Wittgenstein’s text, we see the interlocutor get his hopes up at the prospect that intuition might do the same thing (e.g., §213).  I want to suggest that the point of §§199-200 is to show Wittgenstein’s interlocutors that this whole approach is mistaken.  The interlocutors think that questions about what a rule requires are to be decided by considering psychological facts about individuals, facts about their intuitions or the way they interpret the rule.  But--Wittgenstein explains in §199--this just cannot work.  For if it could, it would be possible for there to be “only one occasion on which only one person followed a rule.”  They would only need to interpret it rightly or intuit its sense.  But, he here reminds us, that is not possible!  Rule-following and all the other activities he mentions are practices, and so they cannot occur in the absence of the whole “whirl of organism” that sustains them as practices. [5]

These passages are thus intended to help to disabuse Wittgenstein’s interlocutors of the thought that they must answer the question at issue in these hopeless ways.  Wittgenstein’s hope would then have been that, having seen that their approach to these questions cannot but fail, these interlocutors would be more open to and so more able to understand the solution to which Wittgenstein points the way in §198 and articulates more explicitly at §201.


[1] Throughout I use the translations in the 4th edition of the Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, (Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

[2] See Putnam’s “Was Wittgenstein Really an Anti-realist about Mathematics?” in Wittgenstein in America, ed. McCarthy and Stidd (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2001), pp. 143-149.

[3] See, for instance, David H. Finkelstein, “Wittgenstein on Rules and Platonism” in The New Wittgenstein, ed. Alice Crary and Rupert Read, (London:  Routledge, 2000), pp. 53-73.

[4] John McDowell makes basically this point at “Wittgenstein on Following a Rule,” in Mind, Value, and Reality (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 238.

[5] I take this by-now famous phrase from Stanley Cavell.  See Must We Mean What We Say?, (Charles Scribner’s Sons:  New York, 1969), p. 52.

Another Piece on Climate Justice

My new piece on climate justice, "Righting Climate Wrongs by Empowering Vulnerable Communities," just went live at  Here's an abstract:
It is widely recognized that the poorest countries in the world are both the least responsible for and likely to be hardest hit by climate change. Also widely recognized is one obvious ethical implication of this fact: the rich countries that have contributed most to climate change have a duty to do what they can to help the global poor to adapt its effects. Evidently unnoticed hitherto, however, is that this fact has a further ethical implication, one about the kinds of adaptation and development projects in which rich countries ought to be engaged. In particular, I suggest, it entails that the so-called capabilities approach to development is especially appropriate in the context of climate adaptation projects.