The Is-Ought Political Trap
MNY updates, new class! // new research project // is-ought political trap essay
Cohorts 6 and 7 of The Foundations of New York are done with class, and are currently in their exam period. Cohorts 8+ will begin at the end of the summer, and applications will likely open in September. You can get an email when that happens by signing up here, or just follow this newsletter.
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Open Community Board is a new research project I’ve set up to transform the community district layer of NYC’s government.
The Is-Ought Political Trap
This short essay is a cross between two that I’ve written previously. When anti-concreteness confronts the complex, technical reality of politics, one of the ways it manifests is the is-ought political trap1.
The anti-concreteness meme is the rhetorical tendency…to avoid knowing about anything exactly. It is avoiding actual facts in favor of speculation and impression, the privileging of patinas over profundity. It is the overuse of “yada yada” instead of necessary explanation or detail.
I go on to explain what drives the anti-concreteness meme. It’s not mere habit. Eliding vital detail, and punishing people who demand it, can become intrinsic to someone’s sense of status and epistemic worth. It can become fashionable!
In politics, as in other fields generally, anti-concreteness is a force of destruction. Quite simply: if you do not have a firm grasp on necessary detail, you cannot make things work.
But I’m not going to rewrite my anti-concreteness essay here, but rather highlight a common manifestation of the anti-concreteness meme when it comes to politics: the is-ought political trap.
The is/ought political trap is the tendency to disproportionately discuss what ought to be true of politics, rather than what is true of politics. It is one way, among many, of avoiding concreteness, and overuse of “ought” statements is a likely indicator that you’re just making things up.2
Many people, intentionally or not, hide their lack of detailed procedural or political knowledge by only discussing what ought to be true. They have no capacity to discuss what is the case, or how you might get to a better future state given the current reality—that which is—as a starting point.
People also get caught in the is-ought trap when they assume politics is so simple that they already know everything they need to know (the anti-politics meme can contribute to this); they assume they have a good grip on what is, and think they have a good enough foundation to build a decent ought. But politics is a sophisticated field:
The field you’re walking into (politics, government, law—imagine them together, even though I’ll just say “politics” from here on out) is as sophisticated as the human mind itself. Politics, in terms of difficulty, should be regarded like physics: there is a lot to learn, there is a sort-of-proper-sequence in which to learn it, there is much to practice, and it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you understand more than you do if you’re not careful. And most are not careful.
It’s important to know this right out of the gate. Many people who discuss or get into politics think something like, “I’m pretty smart, and I have domain expertise somewhere else, surely I can just figure it out. I can certainly straighten things up faster than the dummies currently running things.”
Which is to say: they vastly underestimate the field of politics, and they are oblivious to the very zero-ness of their own relevant knowledge. They do this because, unlike physics, where people outside the field roughly understand that you need something like “lots of math” and “lots of study,” people do not understand what is required for politics. The practical outcome is that they proceed with no preparation or serious thought.
This produces a large group of otherwise intelligent people who assume they have an advanced grasp of politics because they bullshit about it with their friends, or because they keep track of the “blue team versus red team” play-by-plays that fly around the news and social media. Perhaps they have read a lot of political philosophy in their spare time, or picked up knowledge about certain legal mechanisms—this isn’t nothing, but it’s not as helpful as you’d think. It usually just results in a crank who can’t translate the eighteenth century treatises they’ve read into operational knowledge for the modern day.
Thankfully, the cure for anti-concreteness is straightforward—one must merely learn what the government, law, and politics actually are.
This doesn’t mean forgoing ought statements. Properly, is and ought work together—an excellent marriage of pragmatism and idealism. But it does mean that one cannot survive on ideals alone.
These “ought” statements are often aided and abetted by false “is” statements. People will declare some false, oversimplified version of politics, and then say it ought to be otherwise. The space and cover for their false ought is often a preceding, false is.