Category: moral philosophy

Arendt Contra “Life”

Hannah Arendt famously insisted that any politics that attended to the demands of “life” was doomed to descend into factional strife.  How to understand her argument on these matters has troubled her readers ever since she first articulated this view in 1957’s The Human Condition and, more forcefully, in 1962’s On Revolution. It doesn’t help matters that the critique of a life-based politics in the former book is replaced (augmented) by a differently inflected argument in On Revolution: namely, that politics must avoid addressing “the social question.”  Just how Arendt’s disdain for “the social” connects to her insistence that “life” should never be the principal motive for “action” is hard to parse.

Let me start with life.  Arendt’s argument (derived from Aristotle in ways that resonate with Agamben’s adoption of the distinction between “bios”—bare life—and “zoe”—a cultivated life) is that life belongs to the realm of “necessity.”  What is needed to sustain life (food, shelter, etc.) must be produced and consumed.  The daily round of that production and consumption is inescapable—but the very opposite of freedom. 

Politics exists in order to provide freedom, to provide a space for action that is not tied to necessity.  As countless readers have pointed out, Aristotle’s polity relies on slaves to do the life-sustaining work tied to necessity—and Arendt seems nowhere more mandarin than in her contempt for that work.  While it is going too far to say that she endorses slavery, there is more than a little of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in Arendt.  She seems at times to accept that the price of freedom, the price of escaping slavery, is an heroic, aristocratic disdain for life that allows the master to achieve his (it’s almost always a “he”) position of mastery in the life/death struggle that creates slavery in the Hegelian story.  Those tied to “life” are slavish in disposition; they have bargained away their freedom because they have valued life too highly—have, in fact, taken life (not freedom or mastery) as the highest (perhaps even the sole) value.  This contempt gets carried over into Arendt’s deeply negative views of “the masses.” 

Arendt’s disdain for “life” has often been seen as a critique of bourgeois sensibility.  The bourgeoisie is focused on “getting and spending” which it deems “private”—and is, consequently, uninterested in politics.  That’s one way of interpreting Arendt’s lament that politics is in danger of disappearing altogether in the modern world.  In a liberal society, all the focus is on “private” pursuits—the religion of personal salvation, economic pursuits, family and friends.  It is reductive, but not altogether inaccurate, to link Arendt to figures like Tocqueville who lament the loss of an aristocratic focus on “honor” even as they both admit that aristocratic virtues are lost forever.  If the triumph of “life” is to be overcome, it won’t be through a revival of either Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s worlds. 

Arendt’s prescription (especially in The Human Condition) appears to be the attempt to substitute amor mundi (a love of the world) for the love of life.  My student Martin Caver wrote a superb dissertation on the concept of amor mundi in Arendt—and had to contend mightily with how slippery and vague that notion is in her work.  Pushed into thinking about this all again by Matt Taylor’s essay—and by a subsequent email he wrote to me in response to my post on his essay—here is how I would pose the contrast world/life today.

The problem with “life” from Arendt’s point-of-view is that life is monolithic.  Its demands appear to be everywhere the same: sustenance.  To maintain a life is a repetitive grind that Arendt depicts as a relentless “process” that never allows for individuation.  There are no distinctions within life.  Every living thing is the same in terms of possessing what we can call “bare life.”  Paradoxically, life renders everyone the same even as it also renders everyone selfish. Unlike politics, which for Arendt offers the possibility of individuation, selfishness just makes everyone alike. The bourgeois self is focused on “getting his”—which is why “life” is antithetical to amor mundi.  We humans are in a sorry condition unless we can generate some care (think of Heidegger on Sorge at this point) for the world that we share.  When everyone is pursuing only his own interest, the world falls apart. (Certainly sounds like a pretty good description/diagnosis of American society in 2020.)

What is this “world” that Arendt calls us to love?  She insists that it is the fact of “plurality” (the fact that we are with others on this planet) and that it is what lies “between” the various actors who inhabit it.  The modern retreat into the private is making the world recede.  We no longer (at least as intensely) live and act together in a shared world, in a public space.  That public space is the scene of politics for Arendt.  And politics is where one distinguishes oneself (i.e. where one can achieve a distinctive identity).  Politics is also where the world is produced through “acting in concert.”  The notion here (although Arendt never articulates it in this way and is way too vague about the particulars of “acting in concert”) is that a public space is created and maintained by the interactions of people within that space—just as a language is created and maintained by people using it to communicate.  The ongoing health and existence of the language is a beneficial, but not directly intended, by-product of its daily use by a community of speakers.  Our common world is similarly produced.

Love of that world thus seems to mean two things: caring for its upkeep, it preservation, and a taste, even a love, for plurality.  I must cherish the fact that it is “men,” not just me, who constitute this world.  In Iris Murdoch’s formulation: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

To understand Arendt’s critique of “life” in these terms leads almost too smoothly into her work of Eichmann and, then, to The Life of the Mind.  To be thoughtless (as Arendt accuses Eichmann of being) is precisely to be incapable of comprehending otherness, that fact that “something other than oneself is real.”  Selfishness is thoughtless, a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the fact of plurality in its full significance.  Soul-blindness. And she reads Eichmann’s blindness in terms of his being entirely focused on climbing the ladder in the bureaucracy within which he works.  That’s why his evil is “banal.”  It’s the product of his daily round of making his way, not a product of any deeply-held convictions or ideology.  He was, in her view, quite literally just doing his job with an eye toward promotion, without any conception of how his actions were effecting other people.  (Whether this is a plausible reading of Eichmann is neither here nor there for the more general argument that the modern mind-set, along with the  bureaucracies—among which we must count large corporations—in which so many moderns are embedded, generates soul-blindness, the thoughtless inability to see the consequences of one’s actions apart from how those actions contribute to one’s “getting ahead.”)

No wonder, then, that Arendt’s grasps onto the passage in the Critique of Judgment where Kant calls for “enlarged thinking”—and ties judgment to the capacity to see something from the other’s point of view.  I must go “visiting,” Arendt says, in order to make a judgment.  The person who is focused solely on gaining a “good life” for himself will never encounter “the world,” never grasp plurality.

The problem comes when the critique of “life” in The Human Condition is paired with a critique of “the social”—and that problem becomes a crisis when the full implications of banning the social from politics are articulated in On Revolution.  Even Arendt’s most adept readers—Seyla Benhabib, Bonnie Honig, Hanna Pitkin—barely try to defend her position at this juncture.  Bluntly put, Arendt says that the polity should never attempt to address or alleviate poverty or material inequities.  The necessities of life—and how to secure them—should never be seen as a matter appropriate to politics.  To make that mistake is simply to make politics itself impossible while leading to endless strife. 

The puzzle has always been how a thinker of Arendt’s power could have been so blind, so stupid, so thoughtless (she is never so close to her caricature of Eichmann as at this point) on this score.  How could she think 1) that banishing the endless strife over material resources to “the social” somehow solves the problem of that strife, and 2) that “politics” could somehow (by fiat?) be separated from allocation of resources (where those resources include power and status as well as material goods)?  I can only suspect that she harbors the old aristocratic disdain of “trade” and imagines she can erect of field of contention where only distinction, honor, and virtuosity are at stake—and nothing so vulgar as monetary reward.  Arendt’s ideal politics are, after all, agonistic.  She is not against strife.  But she wants a “pure” strife focused exclusively on excellence, unsullied by irrelevant considerations of money or status.  She hates “society” because she deplores the standards by which it confers distinction.  No surprise that her politics seem so aesthetic—and that she goes to Kant’s Critique of Judgment to discover his politics.  What matters in the idealized aesthetic space is the quality of the performance—and nothing else. 

So the question Arendt poses for us is: Is it harmful to have this ideal of a practice (or practices) that are divorced (by whatever means are effective) from questions of material necessity and reward?  At a time when utilitarian considerations seem everywhere triumphant, the desire to carve out a protected space has a deep appeal.  Reduction of everything to what avails life (Ruskin’s formula) very quickly becomes translated into what can produce an income.  Various defenses of the university are predicated on fighting back against the utilitarian calculus.

But the danger of taking the anti-utilitarian line (the aestheticist position, if you will) is that it reinforces the bourgeois/classical liberal assertion that “the economic” is its own separate sphere—one that should be understood as “private.”  Arendt may be a sharp critic of bourgeois selfishness and how that selfishness diminishes what a life can be even as its blithely denies the necessities of life to others, but she seems to be reinforcing the liberal idea of “private enterprise.” 

It is not clear how (or where) economic activities exist at all in the “world” she wants us to love.  And we have ample evidence by now that leaving economics to themselves is not a formula for keeping the economic in its place, in preventing its colonizing other spheres of human activity.  Just the opposite.  Laissez-faire is a sure-fire formula for insuring that the economic swallows up everything else.  It accumulates power as relentlessly as it accumulates capital—and thus distorts every thing in the world.

In the realms of theory, then, Matt’s instinct that a monolithic, overarching concept like “life” would be better replaced by a pluralistic reckoning of the needs and desires of “living” seems promising.  The thought is that “life” requires (in order for it to be defined) a contrast with “not life” (the world fills that role in Arendt)—and thus to a designation of the enemies of life (or, in Arendt’s mirror image, to a denigration of “life” in favor of another value, amor mundi).  In either case, the logic leads to a desire to eliminate something because it threatens what is desired. 

The alternative path of pluralism disarms such categorical condemnations.  That path returns us to the “rough ground” (Wittgenstein) of tough judgments about what to do in particular cases where we have to attend to the particulars—and not think that generalized formulas are going to be of much (if any) use.  There are always going to be multiple goods and moral intuitions in play, with painful trade-offs, and messy compromises.  No overarching commitment or slogan—like “reverence for life”—is going to do the work. Similarly, we cannot successfully separate things into separate spheres—the aesthetic in that bin, the economic in another one, and politics in a third. It is just going to be messier than that even as we also struggle to prevent any one type of motive swamp the others.  Pluralism is about (among other things) giving multiple motives some room to operate.  Which is why I remain so attracted to some version of a universal basic income, some version of supplying the minimal resources required to “flourish” to all.  Only when the material necessities can be taken for granted because secured (not disdained because they are bestial or vulgar) can other motives take wing.

One can also expect that others will disagree with, castigate her for, the course of action she does pursue, the positions for which she advocates.  Plurality comes with a price—which is why it is hard to love.  And why thinkers keep imagining formulas that will enable our escape from it. 

Ontological Egalitarianism, Or, Can We Derive an Ethics from “Life”

My colleague and friend Matthew Taylor has a terrific essay in the current issue of PMLA (Vol. 135, No. 3: 474-491 [May 2020]).  His topic is the “new materialism,” aka “the ontological turn,” although it also crops up under various other aliases.

Most simply put, the “new materialism” declares that all matter is animate; humans lived surrounded by other entities that should be recognized as having agency, as possessing “life.” Specifically, all things act to sustain themselves, perhaps even to better themselves (William James’ meliorism).  One version is Latour’s “trajectories of subsistence” contrasted to a more static notion of “substance.”   The idea is a) to reduce any qualitative distinction between humans and other entities; and b) to introduce a dynamic interactive web of relationships in which both humans and non-humans are entangled to replace the more traditional subject/object split where activity resides in the human subject who works upon passive material objects.  In that traditional view, all the entities have their stable identities, their essences, their abiding substance.

Matt’s essay ties current thinking along these lines back to the “philosophies of life” current in the post-Darwinian intellectual world of (roughly) 1870 to 1920.  I am more familiar with the characterization of Bergson, Nietzsche, James, Pater, and Whitehead as champions of “life.”  Matt shows how “hylozoism” or “panpsychism” (basically, the assertion that all matter is “alive”) was the prevailing view of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century biology as well.  From this point of view, Nietzsche does not look like an outlier, a lonely rebel (as he loved to portray himself), but very much in tune with the dominant intellectual orthodoxies of his time.

Current day versions of hylozoism often think there is an ethical pay-off.  There are two ways to go in an ethical direction from the assertion that all matter is alive.  First, you can preach a deontological respect for “life,” basically extending the Kantian “kingdom of ends” to include everything—thus erasing the privilege of “the human” to arrive at “posthumanism.”  Second, you can use life (as Ruskin wants to do in “Unto the Last”) as your ethical standard.  Whatever promotes life is good; whatever harms life is bad. 

In both cases, it is easy to see that the ethicists among the new materialists are driven by a concern about climate change.  The “respect” position addresses the massive extinctions of our era and bemoans an exclusionary focus on what is good for humans. 

The “promotion of life” position is basically utilitarian.  We judge actions in terms of whether they serve the interests of life—or not.  Since climate change will be a disaster (is already a disaster) for many varieties of life (human and non-human), it is ethically wrong to perform actions that fail to work against that change.

Matt is having none of it.  He does not think you can derive an ethics from an allegiance to life.  I want to consider his reasons for this conclusion—some of which I agree with and others that I want to resist.

He presents four major arguments (as I understand the essay).

1.  There is a central—and fatal—imprecision lurking in the term “life.”  No one is ever able to nail down just what “life” means or entails.  It is hard to deploy something so vague as a standard.  I don’t quite know what to do with this argument, so will leave it be.

A different, but related, argument along these lines seems to me to have real bite.  If you say mountains are alive as are protozoa as are human beings, you obviously need to have a very capacious (and perhaps vacuous) notion of life.  However, at the same time, you can’t simply ignore the differences between mountains, protozoa, and humans.  Inevitably (in other words), forms of life are going to be differentiated within the overarching category of life.  And Matt argues that this differentiation will lead to a hierarchy; some things will be deemed “more alive” than others; there will be “degrees” of life. 

This is the familiar post-structuralist insistence that wherever there is difference, there will be the privileging of one term over the others.  Humans just aren’t equipped (mentally? in terms of the deep structures of thought?) to be egalitarians.  I have always been suspicious of this transcendental move—transcendental because it posits a fundamental form that is endemic to all human mental processes.  I always suspect “false necessity” at such junctures.  Why can’t we equally value things that we recognize to be different?  I don’t see any logical or ontological or psychological impediment to that possibility.

2.  But Matt has a much better argument for the inevitability of hierarchy.  Ethics, he says, requires judgments about better and worse.  You don’t have an ethics is you have a pure egalitarianism.  If you value life, then you must declare some actions harmful to life, even as you applaud others as life-sustaining or promoting.  What is our stance going to be toward the mosquitos that carry malaria, the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and the virus that causes COVID-19, not to mention white supremacists?  How are we going to avoid valuing some forms of life over others when some agents pose a threat to other agents?  In other words, the new ontology repeats the classic liberal mistake of imagining a conflict-free world.  But ethics is precisely about conflict—about choosing between competing visions of the good.  The mosquito who infects me is pursuing life; from its point of view, its actions are not harmful. 

This insistence that ethics must take sides, cannot be universally affirmative, is deeply troubling.  For one thing, this insistence is at the root of many tragic and conservative worldviews.  The tragic version is highlighted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.  Freud expresses outrage in that text at the Christian injunction to love one’s enemies.  Such an injunction takes away the very meaning of love, Freud says.  As Yeats puts it, “hearts are to be earned, not had.”  But Freud adds that our only bestowing our love in some cases goes hand-in-hand with our aggressive feelings (and actions) toward those we cannot (or will not) love.  And numbered among those we cannot love is our own self.  The superego’s aggression is directed at myself—as well as at my “enemies.” 

Ethics—the self-righteous attempt to justify our aggressions—hoists us on own petard even as it stands as the crippling condition of an unending and inescapable tragedy: the tragedy of our uncontrolled and uncontrollable aggression.

Conservative thought holds onto the self-righteousness that the tragic vision (which deems all humans trapped in the same play) eschews.  Conservatives hold onto a strong version of the righteous few and the reprobate many; they scorn the idea of “social justice” precisely because it would bestow benefits on the unworthy.  Justice is about getting what you deserve—and thus the equal distribution of any good (whether it be health care, a decent education, or a basic income) is an outrage against morality. 

The liberal/left tries to use the notion of “social justice” to place some things out of the conflict zone.  The liberal must avoid the mistake of wishing away conflict, even as she tries to develop strategies for its mitigation.  More on that later in this post.  For now, Matt’s point against the new ontologists is well-taken.  A univeralist ethos of respect for all forms of life sounds wonderful, but it is so general, so vague, that it can’t stand up for very long when actually encountering facts on the ground.  “Life” pits some forms of life against others, so “life” itself can’t be the standard for adjudicating those conflicts.

3.  This last point—that “life” can’t be the standard—leads Matt to adopt a strict fact/value dichotomy.  You can’t read values out of “life” (or “nature”) is his fairly explicit position.  “Justice” or “equality” or even “reverence for life” are human notions; there is no evidence at all (in Matt’s view) that the world or nature or some basic “life force” cares for any of those human values.  Life carelessly and prodigally deals out death. 

Life, we might say, is deaf and mute.  It has nothing to say to us—and cannot hear anything we say to it.  Humans, like the other life forms identified/celebrated by the new ontology, are the random, utterly contingent, result of long evolutionary processes that were not aiming to produce what ended up being produced.  If ethical ideals are going to get any purchase in this evolutionary production, then it will because humans act to make their ethical values effective. 

      I want to be careful about adopting fact/value canyons.  I am going to skip that can of worms here, only gesturing toward my intuition that the dichotomy functions differently in different contexts, and should be resisted in some of those contexts.  But in this ontological context, I am inclined to accept a fairly drastic nature/human split.  I am uncomfortable doing so, but don’t see a good alternative.

     Two observations underline my willingness to accept that nature and life are amoral, while the human is the realm of value and moral judgments.  The first is that we humans are not inclined to morally condemn hurricanes or animals for their destruction of life.  We will bemoan the fact that the grizzly bear killed a person, but will not be morally indignant.  In other words, we do not hold nature accountable for life-harming actions the way that we do human beings. 

     The second is the point made so forcefully in Plato’s Euthyphro—and in the scene in Genesis where Abraham bargains with Yahweh about saving Sodom from destruction if a certain number of just inhabitants can be identified there.  In both cases, the point is that humans have self-generated standards that they wish/hope/try to get the non-human to adhere to.  “Innocence” is a human concept—and the gods and nature are to be condemned when they inflict suffering on the innocent.  The ethical standard is being imposed on the non-human—rather than the standard being derived from the non-human.  Oedipus at Colonus thus becomes an attempt to save the gods from human condemnation.

The upshot would be a kind of humanism that is hard to evade as long as you want to maintain ethics.  Nietzsche, of course, saw this clearly.  To escape humanism, you had to go “beyond good and evil” and simply embrace the ruthless indifference of the non-human to human values and to life itself.  Wanton destructive indifference, nature red in tooth and claw, is the fact of the matter—and you might as well join ‘em rather than trying to convert them over to (pathetically weak and sentimental) human values.  (Of course, there is also plenty of cooperation among living creatures as well, a fact Nietzsche neglects.  Sometimes, cooperation proves better than competition in advancing one’s life chances.)

4.  Matt also argues that hylozoism almost always leads to a form of Platonism.  He doesn’t put it that way.  But I think it a fair account of the argument.  Basically, the idea is that the general standard (or “form” if we use Platonic vocabulary) of “life” renders every actual instantiation of life an inadequate copy of that ideal.  The logic here is endemic to versions of evolution that see each novelty an improvement on what went before.  (For that reason, hylozoism in the 1870-1920 period was very, very often tied to eugenics, as Matt demonstrates.)  Nietzsche’s “uber-mensch” displays this kind of thinking.  The “true” or “ideal” embodiment of life is always out in front of us, which renders current forms unsatisfactory—perhaps even suitable for sacrifice in order to usher in the better future, just as Stalin and Mao murdered millions in the name of a world to come.  (But, then again, Christianity committed similar murders long before the justification of a warped Darwinism.)

“Life” thus becomes the bringer of, the justification for, death—an argument found in Foucault and Agamben, but perhaps lurking as well in Arendt’s emphatic contempt for “life.”  Certainly, Nietzsche (in another of his guises) points the way here.  Platonism and Christianity preach a disregard for, a nihilistic rejection of, the here and now.  With Christianity, we get the added hope that a non-human force will “redeem” the human—and the whole world.  Against that nihilism, Nietzsche wants to find his way to “affirmation.”  How can we affirm what is here before us, instead of whoring after strange gods and wish-fulfilling futures? 

I am not convinced that an affirmation of “life” necessarily leads to a denigration of the life currently available.  I don’t, in other words, buy the paradox that a stated commitment to life in fact generates a murderous aggression against actually existing life.  I am, however, convinced by Matt’s other argument, i.e. that a bland egalitarianism cannot do the ethical work that needs doing.

So how would I propose going forward?  At this point, I actually think pushing hard at the fact/value dichotomy might prove productive.  We (everything that exists) are not going to be redeemed from the natural (and evolutionary) conditions that set the stage for singular life spans.  But there is a social/cultural world that humans construct in their efforts to respond/adapt to that natural setting.  That social world develops notions of what a “good” or “flourishing” life looks like (where the notion of flourishing in no way needs to be confined to only human life forms).  Life (“bare life”) is a good, but a very minimal one if the means for “flourishing” are not available. 

Egalitarianism is tied to ideals of “social justice” when we define what resources are required to afford the possibility of flourishing—and the political/ethical imperative is to work toward social arrangements where those resources are afforded to all. 

This is a minimalist position.  What goods are needed—clean water and air, enough food, a decent education, health care, security from violence, etc.—to have a life that escapes the sufferings that social arrangements can alleviate?  What tribulations are remediable—not in terms of a redemption from the terms of existence, but in terms of having what is needed to cope with those terms?  These are questions that can only be answered through political processes of deliberation and negotiation. 

The liberal gambit is that providing those necessities to all would mitigate conflict.  Yes, there is conflict now over doing such providing.  But for many countries the idea of providing health care is no longer a live issue.  Constitutionalism is a strategy for removing certain questions from the realm of conflict, of deciding them once and for all.  Not a fool-proof strategy, but it works some time for certain issues.  And some seemingly dead issues can rise again, zombie fashion. 

But the liberal social democrat has this basic agenda: to increasingly make the provision of “basic goods” to all a matter of settled social practice.  That is a way to serve “life” without promoting the death of those currently alive.  But it is serving “life” in relation to human standards of what a “good” or “flourishing” life requires.  So, in that sense, Matt is right to say you can’t derive those standards from life itself.

What about non-human forms of life?  What about climate change?  I do think that comes back to where I started.  We can take the position that respect for all life forms is an ethical imperative—although that will run us into the kinds of problems Matt identifies (namely, that such universal respect is not possible where some life forms actively harm others).  The utilitarian position seems more plausible.  The new ontology can help cement the lesson that human flourishing is dependent in various ways on the larger ecological network of relations in which humans are embedded.  Destroying the planet for short term gain is suicidal.  Still, utilitarianism also has its limits.  It is not utterly convincing to say humans could not flourish if the snow leopard went extinct.  That’s why the deontological argument of respect gets trotted out so often. 

Such puzzles remind us that ethical positions—despite the hopes of philosophers like Kant, Bentham, and Rawls—are never logically air-tight.  Much more important, in my view, is ethical sensibility.  What things outrage us?  What things do we admire?  Unless unnecessary deaths and lives lived in abject poverty strike us as unacceptable, as demeaning to our human capacities to make life well worth the living, we humans cannot expect either rational arguments nor non-human entities (like “life” or “god”) to generate the ethically affirmable life we claim to desire.  Similarly, unless the extinction of the snow leopard strikes us emotionally as a diminishment of the world, we are unlikely to be argued into caring.


Like many liberals, I find it hard to believe in evil simpliciter.   There has to be an explanation, some set of enabling conditions.  It is not only insufficient, but also wrong, to point to something rotten in human nature–and to leave it at that.  Appeals to human nature are like appeals to the “dormative power” lurking within a sleeping pill.  Such appeals simply rename the cause and locate it at a different level than the behavior that cause is meant to explain.

In London, I taught a class on the Blitz.  I don’t think I ever quite managed to convey to the students–or even to take in myself–its full horror.  The romance of the Blitz, along with its mythic resignification as proof of British pluckiness and resolve, has obscured the simple fact of terror rained from the skies.  Please don’t give me the pieties of “indiscriminate” terror and “civilian” populations.  The evil of the mass slaughter of citizen armies is no less; its victims are as fully “innocent,” as fully entitled to exemption from such violence, as the denizens of a city.  But it is the sheer fact of violence that I and my students never fully (it seems to me) grasped.  The mind always slides away from the bald fact of killing to adjoining images, stories, facts, and consoling myths.

In my various readings to teach this course, I read J. B. Pristley’s BBC broadcasts, which ran from 5 June 1940 to 20 October 1940.  Priestley was forced off the air because his forthright–and repeated–calls for a post-war socialist Britain to proved some recompense for the war-time suffering of its population offended the powers-that-be.

The broadcasts also show Priestley struggling to understand Nazi evil–which rhymes with my current perplexity in trying to understand conservatives (who often claim to be Christians) who put children in cages, deny food stamps to the hungry, are outraged by the extension of medical insurance to the less well-off, suppress voter participation, and wink at sexual and financial malfeasance.  Why would anyone ever sign on to that agenda?  Except for the tax cuts, there is not direct benefit to them of treating others so terribly.  Only some kind of pleasure derived from cruelty fits the bill.

Priestley has no better explanations for such evil (and how can we call it be any other, more euphemistic, name?) than most leftists.  But his characterization of the Nazi mindset and the dangers it poses to simple decency resonate with me.

From the broadcast of 23 June 1940:

“Every nation has two faces–a bright face and a dark face.  I had always been ready to love the bright face of Germany which speaks to us of beautiful music, profound philosophy, Gothic romance, young men and maidens wandering through the enchanted forests.  I had been to Germany before the last war, walking from one little inn to another in the Rhineland.  After the war I went back and wrote in praise of the noble Rhine, the wet lilac and the rust-coloured Castle of Heidelberg, the carpets of flowers and the ice-green torrents of the Bavarian Alps.  But after the Nazis came, I went no more.  The bright face had gone, and in its place was the vast dark face with its broken promises and endless deceit, its swaggering Storm Troopers and dreaded Gestapo, its bloodstained basements where youths were hardened by the torture of decent elderly folk–the terror and the shame, not just their shame, but our shame, the shame of the whole watching world, of the concentration camps.

I knew that wherever these over-ambitious, ruthless, neurotic men took their power, security and peace and happiness would vanish.  Unhappy themselves–for what they are can be read in their faces, and plainly heard in their barking or screaming voices–they wish to spread their unhappiness everywhere.  And I believed then–and am convinced now–that if the world had not been half-rotten, over-cynical, despairing, it would have risen at once in its wrath before the great terror machine was completed, and sent these evil men and their young bullies back to their obscure corners, the back rooms of beer houses, and cellars, out of which they crept to try and bring the whole world down to their own dreary back-room gangster level.

Many people are mystified by the existence of so many ‘fifth columnists’ who are ready to work for Nazi-ism outside Germany; but, you see, Nazi-ism is not really a political philosophy, but an attitude of mind–the expression in political life of a certain very unpleasant temperament–of the man who hates Democracy, reasonable argument, tolerance, patience and humorous equality–the man who loves bluster and swagger, uniforms and bodyguards and fast cars, plotting in back rooms, shouting and bullying, taking it out of all the people who have made him feel inferior.  It’s not really a balanced, grown-up attitude of mind at all: it belongs to people who can’t find their way out of adolescence, who remain overgrown, tormenting, cruel schoolboys–middle-aged ‘dead-end kids.’  That’s why the gang spirit is so marked among these Nazis; and it explains, too, why there has always seemed something unhealthy, abnormal, perverted, crawlingly corrupt, about them and all their activities.

And any country that allows itself to be dominated by the Nazis will not only have the German Gestapo crawling everywhere, but will also find itself in the power of all its most unpleasant types–the very people who, for years, have been rotten with unsatisfied vanity, gnawing envy, and haunted by dreams of cruel power.”

To the academic sophisticate (i.e. me), there is much that grates in this passage. (Those cavorting maidens; the simplistic Manichean notion of a bright and a dark face–although that does suggest that “good” is just as mysterious, just as difficult to explain, as “evil.”)

But I do want to hold onto two things (even as I also admire Priestley’s ability to speak passionately and vividly to his wide audience): first, that there is much to love–and that I love–in the United States; it would be foolish indeed to let despair over the current triumph of what is worst in American culture to wipe out a recognition of the resources for a better way.  The hopefulness of MLK (balanced as it was with his deep discouragement at times) is exemplary here.

Second, Priestley reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that the Trumps, McConnells, and Kavanaughs of the world are bullying frauds driven by envy of their moral betters; they cannot acknowledge their own depravity, but reveal their self-hatred again and again.  Not that we should pity them, but that we should fully understand their lust for power is the mask of deficiency.  That lust should never be accorded a minute of respect.

Secular Ethics

I am about one-third of the way through Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon Books, 2019), of which more anon.

But I have been carrying around in my head for over seven months now my own build-it-from-scratch notion of ethics without God.  The impetus was a student pushing me in class last fall to sketch out the position—and then the book on Nietzsche’s “religion of life” that I discussed in my last post (way too long ago; here’s the link).

So here goes.  The starting point is: it is better to be alive than dead.  Ask one hundred people if they would rather live than die and 99 will choose life.

A fundamental value: to be alive.

First Objection:

Various writers have expressed the opinion that is best not to have been born since this life is just a constant tale of suffering and woe.  Life’s a bitch and then you die.

Here’s Ecclesiastes, beginning of Chapter 4:

“Next, I turned to look at all the acts of oppression that make people suffer under the sun. Look at the tears of those who suffer! No one can comfort them. Their oppressors have all the power. No one can comfort those who suffer. I congratulate the dead, who have already died, rather than the living, who still have to carry on. But the person who hasn’t been born yet is better off than both of them. He hasn’t seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Here’s Sophocles’ version of that thought, from Oedipus at Colonus:

“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came. For when he has seen youth go by, with its easy merry-making, [1230] what hard affliction is foreign to him, what suffering does he not know? Envy, factions, strife, battles, [1235] and murders. Last of all falls to his lot old age, blamed, weak, unsociable, friendless, wherein dwells every misery among miseries.”

And here is Nietzsche’s version, which he calls the “wisdom of Silenus” in The Birth of Tragedy:

“The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is to die soon.”

Second Objection:

As Hägglund argues, many religions are committed to the notion that being alive on earth is not the most fundamental good.  There is a better life elsewhere—a different thought than the claim that non-existence (not to have been born) would be preferable to life.

Response to Objections:

The rejoinder to the first two objections is that few people actually live in such a way that their conduct demonstrates an actual belief in non-existence or an alternative existence being preferable to life on this earth.  Never say never.  I would not argue that no one has ever preferred an alternative to this life.  But the wide-spread commitment to life and its continuance on the part of the vast majority seems to me enough to go on.  I certainly don’t see how that commitment can appear a weaker starting plank than belief in a divine prescriptor of moral rules.  I would venture to guess that the number of people who do not believe in such a god is greater than the number who would happily give up this life for some other state.

Third Objection:

There are obvious—and manifold—reasons to choose death over life under a variety of circumstances.  I think there are two different paths to follow in thinking about this objection.

Path #1:

People (all the time) have things that they value more than life.  They are willing (literally—it is crucial that it is literally) to die for those things.  Hence the problem of establishing “life” as the supreme value.  Rather, what seems to be the case is that life is an understood and fundamental value—and that we demonstrate the truly serious value of other things precisely by being willing to sacrifice life for those other things.  To put one’s life on the line is the ultimate way of showing where one’s basic commitments reside.  This is my basic take-away from Peter Woodford’s The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics (U of Chicago P, 2018; the book discussed in my last post.)  To use Agamben’s terms “bare life” is not enough; it will always be judged in relation to other values.  A standard will be applied to any life; its worth will be judged.  And in some cases, some value will be deemed of more worth than life—and life will be sacrificed in the name of that higher value.  In other words, “life” can not be the sole value.

I am resolutely pluralist about what those higher values might be that people are willing to sacrifice life for.  My only point is that an assumed value of life provides the mechanism (if you will) for demonstrating the value placed on that “other” and “higher” thing.  In other words, the fact (gift?) of life—and the fact of its vulnerability and inevitable demise (a big point for Hägglund, to be discussed in next post)—establishes a fundamental value against which other values can be measured and displayed.  Without life, no value. (A solecism in one sense.  Of course, if no one was alive, there would be no values.  But the point is also that there would be no values if life itself was not valued, at least to some extent.) Placing life in the balance enables the assertion of a hierarchy of values, a reckoning of what matters most.

Path #2:

It is possible not only to imagine, but also to put into effect, conditions that make life preferable to death.  As Hannah Arendt put it, chillingly, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the Nazis, in the concentration camps and elsewhere, were experts in making life worse than death. Better to be dead than to suffer various forms of torture and deprivation.

I want to give this fact a positive spin.  If the first plank of a secular ethics is “it is better to be alive than dead,” then the second to twentieth planks attend to the actual conditions on the ground required to make the first plank true.  We can begin to flesh out what “makes a life worth living,” starting with material needs like sufficient food, water, and shelter, and moving on from there to things like security, love, education, health care etc.  We have various versions of the full list from the UN Declaration of Rights to Martha Nussbaum’s list of “capabilities.”

“Bare life” is not sufficient; attending to life leads quickly to a consideration of “quality” of life.  A secular ethics is committed, it seems to me, to bringing about a world in which the conditions for a life worth living are available to all.  The work of ethics is the articulation of those conditions.  That articulation becomes fairly complex once some kind of base-line autonomy—i.e. the freedom of individuals to decide for themselves what a life worth living looks like—is made a basic condition of a life worth living.  [Autonomy is where the plurality of “higher values” for which people are willing to sacrifice life comes in.  My argument would be 1) no one should be able to compel you to sacrifice life for their “higher value” and 2) you are not allowed to compel anyone to sacrifice life for your “higher value.”  But what about sacrificing your goods—through taxes, for example?  That’s much trickier and raises thorny issues of legitimate coercion.]

It seems to me that a secular ethics requires one further plank.  Call it the equality principle.  Simply stated: no one is more entitled to the basic conditions of a life worth living than anyone else.  This is the minimalist position I have discussed at other times on this blog.  Setting a floor to which all are entitled is required for this secular ethics to proceed.

What can be the justification for the equality principle?  Some kind of Kantian universalism seems required at this juncture.  To state it negatively: nothing in nature justifies the differentiation of access to the basic enabling conditions of a life worth living.  To state it positively: to be alive is to possess an equal claim to the means for a life worth living.

Two complications immediately arise: 1. Is there any way to justify inequalities above the floor?  After every one has the minimal conditions met, must there be full equality from there?  2.  Can there be any justification for depriving some people, in certain cases, of the minimum? (The obvious example would be imprisonment or other deprivations meted out as punishments.)

Both of these complications raise the issue of responsibility and accountability.  To what extent is the life that people have, including the quality of that life, a product of their prior choices and actions?  Once we grant that people have the freedom to make consequential choices, how do we respond to those consequences?  And when is society justified in imposing consequences that agents themselves would strive to evade?

No one said ethics was going to be easy.  Laws and punishments are not going to disappear.  Democracy is meant to provide a deliberative process for the creation of laws and sanctions—and to provide the results of those deliberations with legitimacy.

All I have tried to do in this post is to show where a secular ethics might begin its deliberations—without appealing to a divine source for our ethical intuitions or for our ethical reasonings.