DRMacIver's Notebook

The Virtue Ethics of Potato Growing

The Virtue Ethics of Potato Growing

From Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, page 303:

An explicit set of rules will take you further when the situation is cut-and-dried. The more static and one-dimensional the stereotype, the less the need for creative interpretation and adaptation.


If the environment can be simplified down to the point where the rules do explain a great deal, those who formulate the rules and techniques have also greatly expanded their power.

This is all part of a rather interesting discussion of potato growing in the Andes, and about how the local growers are engaged in an extensive process of adapting cultivars to the particular soil and growing conditions of their farm ("landraces" - breeds that are highly adapted to a local environment). Rather than having a small number of legible potato breeds, they have hyperlocal varieties which are only found mostly on the farm they're grown on.

There is a great deal of swapping of these varieties and trying them out in different locations, so the line of any given type of potato is not restricted to the farm, but each farm will the interate on the potatoes it receives, crossing them, selecting them for new conditions, etc.

This is contrasted with the "scientific" mode of potato production, where a cultivar is selected for particular properties in ideal conditions, and then you find out where it grows well, and to some large degree try to make it so that the land matches the conditions (e.g. through irrigation, fertiliser) rather than trying to match the potato to the land.

Brief aside: I'd like to use this to point out a way that I, and others, have I think done James C. Scott in general and "Seeing Like a State" in particular a bit of a disservice. I've been on record in the past as saying that Seeing Like a State is much longer than it needs to be and that you can get most of the important information out of one of the relevant blog posts. Venkatesh Rao's, mine or Scott Alexander's for example. This is in some sense true, but it's also in some sense false.

Seeing Like a State is not so much "too long" as "detail rich". If you're just interested in having the idea of legibility in your conceptual toolkit, it's too long and you should just read one of the blog posts. If you're interested in learning a lot of details about how the world works, both historically and geographically, it's about the right length, because it's packed with lots of these details, using legibility as a unifying theme and lens to look at them through.

Do you need to know about potato farming in the Andes to understand legibility? No, of course not. But potato farming in the Andes is, it turns out, interesting.

In an act of mild irony, casting "Seeing Like a State" as "the legibility book" is an attempt to make it more legible than the detail rich view on the ground would show it as.

Anyway, that being said, I'm going to return to the high level conceptual toolkit now.

I've been reading Rosalind Hursthouse's On Virtue Ethics. It's excellent and I highly recommend it. I'm currently doing a high level first pass read so I can't necessarily fairly summarise it, but one of the things I like about Virtue Ethics in general is its emphasis on becoming the sort of person who takes good actions over and above teasing out the right thing to do in any individual action, trying to come up with some sort of schema or set of rules.

In particular, it feels like a lot of attempts to understand ethical reasoning try to pin down things into exactly these cut and dried scenarios so that you can say "Look, here's a rule that works!".

Teasing out these scenarios itself isn't necessarily bad in that it can be useful for understanding what traits lead to good decisions, and what those good decisions look like, but they inevitably come with some fairly massive simplifying assumptions. For example, trolley problems work precisely by narrowing the field down until you have to pick one of two unpalatable options.

That being said, even these situations fail to make the world as simple as they'd like. I've previously proposed that the solution to trolley problems is relatively easy if you allow the possibility of incurring guilt for doing the "right" thing. If you kill the individual to save the many, you still have to deal with (at least some of) the consequences of killing the individual.

In general, I think, one of the high points of virtue ethics is that it is good at acknowledging that although you can reason about ethics, a lot of actual ethical behaviour has to come down to the person dealing with the messy situation on the ground, and that this problem is contiguous with practical reasoning (virtue ethicists use the word "Phronesis", meaning a sort of practical wisdom oriented around getting morally good result). Virtue ethical reasoning very much resembles the sort of messy practical reasoning that people engage in in practice with problem solving.

One of the interesting things in the section about potatoes is how even the idealised scientific tools get folded in to the messy practical realities of making the world work for the farmer:

[...] the vast majority of Andean cultivators are neither purely traditional cultivators nor mindless followers of the scientific specialists. They are, instead, crafting unique alamagams of strategies that reflect their ams, their resources, and their local conditions. Where the new potatoes seem to fit their purposes, they may plant some, but they may interplant them with other cultivars and may substitute dung, or plow in green manure (alfalfa, clover) rather than apply the standard fertilizer package.

The practice of scientific development of potatoes is very good for optimising for things that you would not necessarily find in the wild. Essentially it's the output of a bunch of potato nerds and we can always learn interesting things from nerds we wouldn't otherwise have encountered. But when we take the nice, idealised, potato and bring it into the real world, we find out all sorts of ways it doesn't fit, or where it's a bit precious, and we learn to adapt it as such.

I wrote before in How to be a better person that we need a practice of ethics more than a theory of ethics, but the theory of ethics stuff is good too, we just may need to heavily adapt it as we bring it into the real world of practical decision making. Possibly by substituting dung instead of its standard fertilizer package.