#2a: positive causes are vain and unaccountable
Kant doesn't need you to support the regime.
In this fragment of chapter 2, we’ll explain why positive causes that become popular tend to be unaccountable (not selected for plausibility), vain (selected for creating a sense of power and importance), and sycophantic (reinforcing the regime).
If all this is true, supporting an arbitrary popular cause is not a Kantian imperative—as a universal rule, it does not produce universal benefit.
Positive causes are selected for vanity
Positive causes do not need to express power. Evolution selects for power expression: for the sense of importance and relevance that a cause’s supporters feel. This usually means that popular causes must express power—but evolution permits exceptions.
Power is rarely the conscious and explicit goal of the volunteer. In the mind of the early 20th-century Communist, "all power to the Soviets" is not an end but a means—the end is to uplift the workers and peasants.
Of course, real insiders quickly become power addicts—junkies. These sick and sad human beings grow supernaturally attuned to Orwell’s “subtle intoxication of power”—they can smell that shit three stories up across the street. And every other junkie is a dealer too.
But the drug economy cannot exist except in the shade of the much larger army of casual, mostly-functional users; and so for the regime and its casual, quite sincere supporters. These customers actually count. They are not thinking explicitly of power; but they feel, are excited by, and learn to crave the energy that power creates. This is their very human, very natural, very forgivable vanity at work.
To be a universal rule ideal for all, it is by no means necessary for a Kantian collective cause to express power. Power is either a means or a side effect. So, when we observe that causes which express power are much more successful than causes which do not, we observe that the forces which make popular causes popular are not purely Kantian.
To join the most popular powerful cause cannot be a universal rule. Its popularity may be more a function of power than righteousness. But all causes must become popular to succeed.
So if no cause that does not express power can become popular, no such cause will succeed; any effort invested in it cannot succeed; and a rule that cannot become universal cannot be a universal rule, so no one should be even the first to follow it. Once again, the Kantian action is inaction.
Comparable causes with different power profiles
This is turning into some gnarly philosophy. Let’s make it clearer and more concrete, by constructing a slightly contrived A-B test: two very real causes with the same objective goal, but different power profiles.
The goal is mitigation of global warming. Cause A is global carbon emissions control. Cause B is geoengineering—like stratospheric aerosol injection or iron fertilization.
We see three general differences between A and B. (1): A is rather more elegant than any form of B. (2): A is perhaps three orders of magnitude more expensive than any form of B. (3): A is perhaps three orders of magnitude more popular than any form of B.
If the popularity of causes was determined by the rational, Kantian collective interests of the public, the relationship between (2) and (3) would seem peculiar. It seems not unlikely for every rational voter who wants to spend $50 trillion solving a problem elegantly to be outnumbered 1000 to 1 by voters who would rather spend $50 billion on an inelegant solution.
But it’s the other way around. Our rational model of public opinion is off by six orders of magnitude. Let’s allow one order of magnitude for the elegance of fixing the heat problem at its cause, not with a bandaid. We are still wrong by five. These estimates are not even democratic; the ratios are probably stronger among elites and experts.
Now, if you are operating some kind of particle accelerator, even one of the cheap Chinese models with brands like “Frork” or “Zingle” you can get for $300 on Amazon, and your numbers and your theory differ by five orders of magnitude, congratulations! You have detected what scientists refer to as an anomaly. Please shut off your Zingle and call 911, before you rend the fabric of the universe further asunder.
What is the cause of this anomaly? Either some factory in Xinfu got a shipment of cracked induction coils—or public opinion is not purely Kantian. Either way, the alpha particles are definitely bouncing off the tinfoil here. Can you explain the disparity?
One explanation might be economic: that spending $50 trillion (directly or implicitly) can hardly avoid creating a large amount of labor demand, ie, “green jobs.” Carbon control becomes a New Deal-style employment-creation policy—like digging holes and filling them in again, while also stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere.
There are arguments against artificial difficulty and employment creation. They are not super strong. You will hear more of them later. Our question, though, is not whether carbon control is a good cause—only what is objectively driving its popularity. Is it just the price tag? Is expensive just cool—is it a luxury policy, like a Coach bag?
But what if the Sun had cancer
Let’s turn our real experiment into a thought-experiment, with two unreal changes. First: we’ll change the cause of global warming. Instead of increasing carbon dioxide, some kind of huge tumor on the Sun will drive the same increases in Earth’s heat flux. Or so the best astronomers predict—and who are we to doubt them? Not many voters, not many journalists, moonlight as solar oncologists.
Second: instead of global carbon controls, we’ll compare $50B in stratospheric aerosol injection (basically an artificial Pinatubo) to a different $50T solution: a giant space umbrella between us and the sun. So rather than “green jobs,” which always sounds too much like landscaping, we get space jobs—not to mention a giant space umbrella. No one can claim it’s not cool to have a space job building the space umbrella.
So public opinion has three choices: (a) sweat more and/or learn to swim; (b) spend $50B on planetary AC; (c) spend $50T on a space umbrella. Given these choices, public opinion is much more likely to be rational; it will probably choose (a) or (b). Most cynical observers would put their money on (a).
Mitigating solar fluctuations with a space umbrella is designed to economically mirror global carbon control—while expressing as little (political) power as possible. Some NASA prime contractor gets a giant contract—that’s about it. Try to imagine the Greta Thunberg of space umbrellas.
Mere cost is not what makes carbon control sexy. Power—dominance or coercion—is what makes carbon control sexy. Inflicting $50T of economic pain is a little sexy. Causing pain is always sexy. But carbon control only gets really hot when it becomes penance for a sin—and gives everyone the right to judge that sin, then order the entire world to correct it.
At this point we are well into roleplay. How could it not be exciting to issue planetary commands? At climate time, we tell first-graders they’re emperor of the world. We might as well feed them crack for morning snack.
All power expression supports the regime
It is easy to see who gets to harvest this power. Carbon control is not designed and implemented by first-graders. Everyone may feel that right to judge. Everyone who believes in the policy feels important. Only the actual regime executes the policy; so only the actual regime is important.
Obviously, when you say we should emit less carbon, what you objectively mean is that you support power in forcing everyone to emit less carbon. When you ponder your action and find it good, you focus on the “emit less carbon” part.
While emitting less carbon might or might not be good, for various meanings of the word “good,” the other part of the sentence is “you support power.”
Power doesn’t really care why you support it. It’s always happy to find a compelling new reason. All the better if the reason is not just compelling, but also actually good. But that’s a rare combination and it’s not in infinite supply.
Submission is always beautiful. In this lovely act of dominion and homage, we see a power exchange: serving power makes you feel powerful. In serving, you rule. As the regime acts, you feel yourself act through it. Your vanity is stroked. You matter. For a moment you feel like anything but what you are: which is a suka.
But beautiful or not, not much here looks Kantian. By the comparable unpopularity of comparable solutions which express negligible power, we can guess that if carbon control expressed less power, this cause too would be less popular.
Perhaps most people would never know that our atmosphere has carbon buildup. Perhaps they would have heard of it only as a scientific curiosity. Perhaps it might have been marketed as a good thing—higher agricultural yields; better weather up north; insurance against the next ice age…
No one likes to hear that their extended reality is contingent—that even if they know the sky is blue, and it is in fact blue, they could have as easily been raised and taught to believe the sky is green, gray or mauve. Of course, the sky sometimes looks blue; that’s a well-known optical illusion; or it’s caused by ozone pollution in the stratosphere; or it’s just a debunked conspiracy theory… this example is exaggerated… slightly…
But just as the swimmers who drown are often the strongest, the most intelligent and skeptical audience is often the easiest to own. We often see the mentality of the Mensa victim, who goes to a magic show knowing his eyes are too smart for some low-IQ yokel to fool—then spends the rest of his life believing in psychic powers.
And please remember: this was a thought-experiment. The point of the experiment is to illustrate the selective forces that determine the popularity of a cause. Don’t get distracted by space umbrellas and solar flux. We have learned nothing about climate. We have learned something about why ideas succeed and fail in the modern world.
Positive causes are not selected for competence
Accountability is the sum of all forces which constrain the objective effects of collective action to match its subjective intent.
When you support a collective cause which is not accountable, you are not acting in a Kantian way—since you have no clue what you are actually doing. It is usually a bad idea, individually or collectively, to take actions with unpredictable results.
Subjective intent always comes with a subjective prediction. Without looking at the actual structure of the organizations making the prediction (in the next chapter), or their past track record (which would be history, not philosophy), how can we tell that a prediction is unreliable or unaccountable?
A symptom of systematic unaccountability is the presence of inherently unaccountable theories of collective action. No Kantian agent should bet on an unaccountable plan: one that has not been tested for competence in achieving its ultimate objective. If a strategy logically cannot be tested, we know it has not been tested.
Suppose our proximate action is X; our intended outcome is Y. If the theory that X causes Y is unfalsifiable, this theory of action is inherently unaccountable. We should stop thinking that we are doing a Y, just because we keep doing more and more X.
One way to construct an unfalsifiable theory of causality is to make the causal chain between X and Y unfalsifiably long. If you claim to be playing seven-dimensional chess, and the whole game goes awry, you can blame some accident in the fifth dimension. Your theory of action is so intricate that no outcome can disprove it—so it cannot be held accountable.
An imaginary unfalsifiable cause
This is a little abstract. Let's construct a thought-experiment—a slightly more realistic chimp with an AK-47. Meet the Sweet Milk Party. The mission of the SMP is to bring back the sweet, grassy taste of spring milk. Unfortunately, for the last three years, the milk in our pleasant valley has been coming out of the cow sour.
While we are peaceful, simple, and patient country folks—our patience has its limits. Especially our patience with the lying press! They will never give you the truth about the sour-milk crisis. Only the Sweet Milk Party is brave enough to tell it like it is.
The problem: witchcraft. The solution: the river. The Sweet Milk Party has one simple platform. “Until those witches stop hexing our cows, we'll drown a witch a week. They’ll get the message after a few. And if that’s not enough—we’ll figure something out.”
If you support this utterly psychopathic movement, the SMP, your ultimate intent (Y) is to make our milk sweet again. Your proximate action (X) is to drown old women.
Think about how hard reality has to work to disprove this sick delusion, and beat these peasant psychos by reasoning them to death with science. TLDR: too hard—because science (meaning the inductive scientific method) has no way to disprove a negative.
Because: until the SMP really crushes it in an election, actually wins power, brushes aside the judiciary and starts to actually drown "witches”—there is no scientific evidence at all that its interpretation of the sour-milk crisis is inaccurate.
And when drowning a few witches doesn’t fix the milk—this is just evidence of how stubborn and dangerous the rest still are. The SMP will indeed figure something out. Indeed its hypothesis can be tested scientifically only by giving it absolute power until it has drowned everyone who could plausibly be identified as a witch.
And at this point, it may even evolve an ideology in which everyone, in some rarefied spiritual sense, is actually a witch. Perhaps we must all overcome our own inner witch. At this point, the river is working 24/7. And the milk is still sour—which actually makes a pretty sound logical case against the SMP. But does that even matter now?
This tale is a bit unrealistic. But these long chains of cause and consequence are not—even in the present marketplace of ideas. As I write, exuberant volunteers are trashing historical monuments (X) to help protect the underclass (Y).
And we should be unsurprised, when we see these complex chains between X and Y, to find that X also has some more immediate effect Z—which expresses power. Z often involves punishing, humiliating, or otherwise chastising the enemies of the regime. And its chain of consequence is seldom so long or tenuous.
For example, ritually desecrating the temples, monuments, idols, or other sad fetishes of a weak, beaten people is a time-honored way to flex on them and keep them weak. Nine hundred years before Jesus, the Assyrians had already made themselves masters of this art. If you think you are something different from an Assyrian, you are wrong.
Here the subjective intent Y—protecting the lower class—actually comes out inverted. Statistically, the revolution seems to have more endangered the lower class. Many such cases! Oops! I hate it when that happens! And once again, we see the same side effect Z: reinforcing power (by punishing and/or humiliating its enemies).
However you set out to change the world—you seem to end up reinforcing the regime. That doesn’t prove that the regime is bad. But it can’t not be, like, a little creepy. And it’s certainly nowhere near Kantian.
[Go back to chapter 2, or forward to 2b. Or just take a moment to…]