Category: moral philosophy

Two Kinds of Reason?

The semester has obviously gotten the better of me.  Loads of things to catch up on in these notes.  So let me try to make at least a beginning.

I am reading Bertrand Russell’s 1953 book, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (Simon and Shuster, 1955), which is a summary of his ethics and political views.  Russell’s prose is extraordinary.  He is so clear, so direct, and so ready, in every instance, with an illustrative example.  He really seems to have mastered that Wordsworthian goal of being a man speaking to men (sic).  The tone is conversational, ever even-toned and reasonable, with a trick of his taking you (the reader) into his confidence when he reaches those knotty moments where he has no surefire solution to offer.

Russell is just about 100% a Humean utilitarian.  His position is that there is only one kind of reason: instrumental reason.  Reason is only at play when we are determining what means are most appropriate to the achievement of a particular end.  What Kant called the “hypothetical imperative”—willing the means that will lead to our announced goal.  For Russell, ends are determined by desire or passion (in the classic Humean formula).  Furthermore, Russell is pretty wedded to the notion that a pleasure/pain calculus can explain our desires—even if he rejects the idea (so loved by economists) that self-interest is “rational.”  The pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain is passional for Russell, not rational, based in feeling, not thought or logic.  Pleasure as an end is not a product of rational calculation, although figuring out how to achieve that end is a matter of rational calculation.

Russell even ends up asserting (as do Adam Smith and Hume) that there is a “natural” (and, hence, presumably universal) tendency in humans to sympathize with the pain/suffering in others in ways that make the observation of others’ sorrows painful to the observer.  But he has to admit that this “natural” emotion is not everywhere present.  “Sympathy with suffering, especially with physical suffering, is to some extent a natural impulse: children are apt to cry when they hear their brothers or sisters crying. [Not true in my experience.] This natural impulse has to be curbed by slaveowners, and when curbed it easily passes into its opposite, producing an impulse to cruelty for its own sake” (87).

A thin reed indeed, if it so “easily” turns into its opposite: a delight in the suffering of others.  Yet it is very hard to see how you can even get ethics founded on emotion rather than reason started if you don’t posit some kind of sympathy.  That is, if your ethics must be derived from a primitive pleasure/pain impulse, then you have to figure out a way to ground caring about others’ pain in the fact of feelings of pleasure and pain confined to the self. Here’s Russell again; “I do not think it can be questioned that sympathy is a genuine motive, and that some people at some times are made somewhat uncomfortable by the sufferings of other people.  It is sympathy that has produced the many humanitarian advances of the last hundred years. . . . Perhaps the best hope for the future of mankind is that ways will be found of increasing the scope and intensity of sympathy” (155-56).  The extremely cautious language here (some, somewhat) perhaps reflects Russell’s recalling how Hume, despite his thoughts on sympathy, speculated/worried that it is not irrational for me to care more about a cut to my little finger than about 10,000 deaths in China.  If you begin from egotistic premises about pain and pleasure, that Humean thought is hard to refute.  I experience my pain quite differently from the ways I experience the pain of someone else, no matter how deeply I might feel for them.

The Continental tradition, ever hostile to utilitarianism, has sought to solve this problem by appeal to another kind of reason—one that is quite distinct from instrumental reason.  In Kant, it’s the reason of logic.  Ethics is to be grounded in the pain (I use this word advisably) we feel at self-contradiction.  The categorical imperative basically says that I cannot, except on the pain of contradiction, assume goods to myself that I would deny to others.  A radical egalitarianism is the only path to an ethics that avoids contradiction—and, this goes mostly unsaid in Kant, our sense of self-worth, of dignity, and integrity would be lost if we contradicted ourselves.  Just what our stake is in self-worth, dignity etc. is never specified.  It is simply assumed that we desire to esteem ourselves.  Russell, along with other utilitarians, would say that Kant, at bottom, also relies on pain—just the pain of being inconsistent instead of the pain of witnessing the suffering of others.  Then the question becomes which of these two pains would we take more pains to avoid, which is the more powerful motive.

Habermas’ version of a second kind of reason is “discursive reason.”  It shares some features with Kantian reason, especially in its egalitarian strictures that all are provided with equal access to the discourse that Habermas identifies as central to human interactions.  But Habermas also adds the rationality of being convinced by arguments (or viewpoints or even conclusions) that are best supported by the evidence and by the “reasons” provided to believe them.  Our beliefs, in other words, are potentially rational for Habermas—and those beliefs are not just confined to the designation of efficacious means.  Our ends can also be determined (at least in part) through rational argument, through discursive processes of intersubjective consultation/contestation that yield conclusions about what ends to pursue.  Desire is important, but does not entirely rule the roost.  We don’t necessarily have to express it as desire being tempered or corrected or revised by reason.  We can imagine desire and reason as born in the same moment, that way avoiding giving desire some of temporal or psychological priority—a priority that may get translated into thinking desire a stronger force or one that must be tamed (as in Plato’s image of desire as the horse that must be controlled by the weaker, but smarter, rider).  I think Habermas (like Martha Nussbaum in a somewhat different way) would want to say that desire and reason are intertwined (perhaps completely inextricably) from the start—a position that makes human beliefs and behavior susceptible to argument/persuasion, thus giving “discursive reason” a space in which to operate.

Reason in Habermas and Nussbaum, then, is secular and immanent; it is produced in and through human sociality.  And I think they would say that it works to create “sensibilities,” that our “moral intuitions” are the products of cultural interactions.  Certainly, I read Dewey as taking that position, which is a way of reconciling what can seem his over-optimistic faith in “intelligence” (that key Deweyean term) with his equally firm insistence that “morality is social.”  There is no transcendent rational dictate (as there is in Kant) that grounds morals, that even pronounces its fundamental “law” (i. e. never do anything that you cannot will that everyone do).  Dewey’s social historicism tries to account for both the variety in moral beliefs/intuitions across time and space and to capture the “force” of those intuitions, the fact that they are motivating and that we feel shame/guilt when we do not act in accordance with them.  The “intelligence” on which Dewey relies does seem to be consequence-based.  He seems to be saying that things go better for human lives—whether focused on individual lives or on the collective life of societies—when we adopt modes of “democratic association” that stress cooperation over conflict/competition and proved the means for all to actively pursue their chosen ends.

Still, the rub is there: what cultivates the sensibility of, commitment to, enhancing the well-being of others.  What, in Kantian terms, keeps me from using the other as means to my self-fulfillment, just as I use various non-human things that the world affords as means.  The Kantian path basically says we must have some way to designate some things (primarily human lives) as sacred, as never to be used as means.  Otherwise, utilitarianism will run roughshod over the world—and the people in it—during its pursuit of pleasure.  What is unclear is whether “reason” can get us to that designation of “the sacred” (defined as the “untouchable,” or as that which is always an ends, not a means).

The alternative seems to be some kind of arbitrary fiat, the kind of decisionism that Derrida seems to adapt in the later stages of his career, or perhaps the kind of pre-rational “call” (or intuition) upon which Levinas bases his ethics.  The sacredness of the other is just asserted; it is not justifiable in any rational or argumentative way.  Just what the nature of its appeal is remains unclear.  What motivates one to heed the call?  To what within the self does the call touch? One answer leads to a kind of pantheism (I would read Hegel this way): the call resonates with that fragment of the spirit (or of the divine) that lurks within us, but which lies buried until activated by this voice from without.  That path, not surprisingly, is too mystical for me.  Yet it is clear that I am almost as equally suspicious of “reason” as some kind of power that can pull us up by our bootstraps, that can give us the terms of an ethics that we embrace as our own.

I am left, I think, with the idea that there are certain images of human possibility—both of individual exemplars (call them “saints” if you like) and of livable communities (call them “utopias” if you like)—that appeal to us as desirable visions of the forms life could take.  These visions are given to us by history (by religion, by literature, by philosophy, by the stories we tell)—and can become the focus of desire/aspirations, as well as the standards by which we criticize what does exist now.  In other words, articulations of the ideal (of ideas of justice) by philosophy and imaginations of the ideal in stories and literature, as well as certain concrete examples pulled from history form the basis of commitments that also are seen as ethical obligations, since it is shameful to act in ways that make realization of those ideals unlikely or impossible.  Is this “rational”?  Not fully or categorically.  But it can involve the deployment of reasons (in the plural), of arguments.  And in that sense Dewey’s appeal to “intelligence” might not seem quite so silly.  Intelligence is not a bad term to use for the assessment of our ideals and of the reasons they give us to act in certain ways as well as for assessing the possibility of the realization of those ideals.  At the same time, it seems to me that ideals do make an emotional appeal, so that the passional nature of our commitments can be acknowledged as well.

“Intelligence,” then, is a smudge term.  It’s meant the bridge the classical divide between passion and reason—in much the same way that Martha Nussbaum, in her work upon the emotions, has worked hard to demonstrate the contribution to “cognition” made by them.  Of course, the term “emotional intelligence” has entered the language in the past fifteen to twenty years.  It’s hard not to think that “intelligence” is doing a similar work to “judgment” in traditional faculty psychology.  In other words, as opposed to the Plato/Hegel line, which appeals to a transcendent Reason (with a capital R), or the Catholic theological line, which appeals to Revelation (with a capital R), we get the Aristotelean line, which aims to remain firmly grounded in the human and the here and now.  No divine interventions or even implanted divine sparks, just what our inborn mental capacities and emotional make-up renders possible. Russell is as addicted to appeals to intelligence as is Dewey.  “I would say, in conclusion, that if what I have said is right, the main thing needed to make the world happy is intelligence.  And this, after all, is an optimistic conclusion, because intelligence is a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education” (158).  I think it is almost inevitable that liberals will always end up appealing to education as the motor of improvement because they believe our ills are not permanently grounded in some kind of “nature” that cannot be re-formed.  Education is the means toward that re-formation.

But in that line (to which Hume and Kant, despite all their differences, both belong), the other sky hooks (besides education) that can get us out of being the mere pigs of J. S. Mill’s fears turn out to be either the needs generated out of human sociality or the mysterious processes of judgment (the topic of Kant’s third critique).  A utilitarianism shorn of both of these mechanisms can either throw up its hands at the issue of ends, just taking them for granted, in all their variety and perversity, as modern economic thought does.  Or it seems doomed to finding “altruism” and various other moral behaviors a deep puzzle, one only slightly assuaged by notions of “enlightened self-interest.”  In short, the problem for an utilitarianism—for any one who, like Russell, says there is only instrumental reason—is that it leaves us no way to talk about the formation of, the fixation on, ends. (This is the most customary complaint about pragmatism.) Those ends are just the product of passion, of the fundamental desire to gain pleasure and avoid pain.  Yet the actual variety of human ends, the number of things to which people are committed defies a simple calculation of pleasure or pain, indicates that utilitarianism’s psychology, its understanding of human motivations, is woefully inadequate to the actual complexities of human desires and calculations.

That said, accounting for the production of ends still remains a puzzler.  “Judgment” merely names the puzzle, gives it a site to reside. It hardly solves it.  Judgment stands as a way to explain that our moral views and our desired ends are not completely dictated to us by our culture.  That individuals in all worlds that we know of have the capacity to stand out against the prevailing practices and beliefs of their society.  They can, in short, submit those practices and beliefs to judgment.  But where do the standards by which the judgment is made come from?  That’s where some kind of notion of “intelligence” or “reason” or “cognition” (aided or not by the emotions) comes in.  Even in cases where the fact that judgment can be refined by education, where it can be developed in particular ways by particular exercises, there is still the sense that judgment also imparts an ability to stand apart from that education and those practices, to sit in judgment upon them.  I will be looking to see how Russell smuggles something like this capacity into his account of morals.  Judgment, I am saying, takes the place of that second kind of reason, that other “faculty,” that can do more than just indicate suitable means, instead offering us a way to make choices about ends.

Further Thoughts on Civil Disobedience

My colleague Eric Muller, who teaches at UNC’s Law School and has done important and wonderful work on Japanese internment during World War II, responded to my previous post about the toppling of Silent Sam as an act of civil disobedience in this way:

“A thoughtful and excellent piece about the nature of the act of toppling Silent Sam (our Confederate statue on campus) by my UNC colleague John McGowan. I am with him right up to the very last couple of lines. But I part with him there.

What is the moral justification for lying to the police – effectively committing the crime of filing a false police report – in order to impede the prosecution and possible conviction of those who engaged in civil disobedience? When a person thinks things through and decides to engage in an unlawful act in order to make a larger moral or ethical point, or to bring about some change, it seems to me that she has made the choice to risk prosecution and conviction. In fact, it’s precisely the acceptance of that risk that makes the act courageous and gives it broader meaning. So I am hard-pressed to see a case for others telling lies in order to prevent the outcome that the civilly disobedient person knowingly risked.

(And this is not even to mention the fact that if hundreds of people file false police reports, that will impede the prosecution not just of the people who toppled Silent Sam, but will slow the administration of justice in that jurisdiction more generally. What’s the moral case for that?)”

Eric’s response has pushed me to think through my notions of and intuitions about civil disobedience.  I will end up, to a fairly large extent although not entirely, disagreeing with his disapproval of having many people step forward as perpetrators of the toppling—but it is going to take me some time to get there.  So I am begging your indulgence and your patience as I try to work this through.

Civil disobedience is the act of disobeying a law, where the justification for that disobedience is an appeal to some other standard of judgment apart from sheer (or mere) legality.  In the name of justice, of the right, of the good, or even of a “higher” moral law, a civil disobeyer says: “I cannot act legally in this case because it violates my sense of what is the right thing to do.”

Such an act can be individual.  Some pacifists and some conscientious objectors will defy conscription laws because, as a matter of individual conscience, they cannot participate in a war.  How they define participation can also vary, with some COs willing to serve as medics or in other non-combat roles, while others think that any assistance offered to the war effort is wrong. Those who take this latter position have two choices: one, to go to prison or two, to attempt to evade the law’s punishments (by, for example, going into exile, as many did during the Vietnam War.)  Evasion could also, of course, just mean lying low, trying to avoid the law’s notice.

It seems to me that everything changes drastically when acts of civil disobedience turn rhetorical—that is, when such acts are not a question of an individual attending to her own conscience, but are publically enacted violations of the law that seek to demonstrate to fellow citizens that law’s deficiencies.  An act of civil disobedience, in such cases, is the staging of a dramatic argument.  It asks the non-participating spectators, those who are simply witnessing this forced (by the civil disobeyers) confrontation between the law and those who deem it unjust, to decide what side they are on.  Do these spectators favor the continuation of the law in question and favor the fullest prosecution of the civil disobeyers—or do those spectators recognize that the law is deficient in this case, and actually want to thank the disobeyers for making that fact dramatically clear?

First consequence of this rhetorical view: the act of civil disobedience must be public, must be visible.  The CO doesn’t necessarily turn his evasion of conscription into a public spectacle.  But those who practice civil disobedience in an attempt to sway public opinion, as a tactic within a larger plan to change the law, must act in public—and, in fact, desire the widest possible publicity in order to grab the attention of the widest possible public.  Thus, as distinct from the ordinary criminal, who tries to break the law invisibly, the civil disobeyer performs his law breaking in the light of day.  Otherwise, she cannot achieve her goal, which is extensive public deliberation about the justice of the law.

Breaking the law in full view means that evading punishment becomes difficult, if not impossible.  In fact, as Eric alludes to in his comment, many theorists of civil disobedience take the full assumption of responsibility for the act of disobedience as a crucial component of civil disobedience. The dignity and the impact of the act is heightened by the stalwart presentation of oneself in the public sphere: I committed this act of disobedience in the name of these principles, and am fully willing to be called to account by the law for my action.

Let’s call that the heroic model of civil disobedience—and I use that term “heroic” completely .  The gambit here is that the spectacle of the law prosecuting these individuals of conscience will aid the cause of revealing the law’s injustice (according to the “other” standard being appealed to against the law’s own standards). The nobility of the disobeyers (their integrity and willingness to undergo punishment from an unjust law in the name of their alternative notion of what is right) furthers the attempt to sway public opinion to their side.

And, certainly, we needn’t be utterly rhetorical about this.  Stoically accepting responsibility and punishment is not just a rhetorical ploy; it also accords with the disobeyer’s own sense of dignity, which includes differentiating her acts from those of a criminal.  That is why, for so many dissidents, the distinction between a political prisoner (a prisoner of conscience), and a criminal prisoner is such an important one.

The heroic stance can be summed up in this way:  I did this act, I did it in full public view because I am proud of this act since I fully believe it was the essentially right way to act even though it was illegal, and I will take full responsibility for the consequences of the act, including being punished by the law.

But there are alternatives to the heroic view.  And those alternatives are what I need to explore here.  I am deeply attracted to the heroic view—and fully respect Eric’s position that the heroic route is the way to go.  But I do think there are circumstances where it is not the optimal strategy—and I find (as I reflect upon these matters, as Eric has pushed me to do) that I am willing to jettison some of the heroic in the name of effectiveness.  I am committed to civil disobedience successfully leading to the reformation or repeal of bad laws—and unheroic approaches may be more effective in some cases.

Let me throw out a big question first, even though I will postpone full consideration of how to answer it.  Why should I, who think a law unjust, enable (through cooperation with the process of prosecuting me and others for violating it) the smooth functioning of that law?  Having stated the point so abstractly, let’s think about it applies in four different cases.

Case 1: One way to render a law a dead letter is massive non-compliance.  Prohibition in American history is the obvious example, but there are others.  Any law’s effectiveness depends on large-scale voluntary compliance.  If the strategy of dissenters is to inspire wide-spread non-compliance, there is no particularly compelling reason to adopt the heroic strategy of being prosecuted.  Instead, the strategy is to make the law look ridiculous, incredible.  They want to (think they can) stop us from doing that?  Let them try.

Case 2: Jim Crow laws.  The strategy here was not direct violation of those laws—with the consequent punishment of such violators.  Instead, the strategy was to stage massive public demonstrations to publicize the widespread dissent from those laws.  The aim was repeal (or the court nullification of the laws as unconstitutional) and the enactment of new legislation (Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Bill) that would make segregation illegal.  If laws were going to be violated in this movement, it would be the violation of laws that hampered public expressions of opinion.  More to the point: the civil rights demonstrators provoked their opponents into over-reaction, which played badly to a wider national audience.  Before he turned to economic issues and to racism in the North, MLK won the rhetorical battle.  His movement did so, in part, by having its members go to prison, but much more important was the public spectacle of the battering of non-violent demonstrators by infuriated police and other public authorities.  Arguably, the anti-Vietnam protestors were not as rhetorically successful because not as disciplined in their non-violence and because they never had—or created—the solidarity among whites that the civil right movement (at least until 1965-66) achieved among blacks.

Case 3: Immigration laws.  When Trump was elected, I figured that meant I would end up getting arrested some time in the coming four years.  It was just a matter of time—and of choosing the occasion where I felt it might make some positive difference, or be such an urgent matter of conscience that I would have to make a stand.  I assumed the real push-comes-to-shove moment would involve immigration.  If the Trump administration were to attempt to expel (for any reason) undocumented immigrants from my community or to harass/deport foreign students on our campus, I would feel compelled to do something to hinder such efforts.  Here is the case where I find myself most at odds with Eric.  I would consider every and any way of hindering the  law’s enforcement justified (and imperative upon me personally) in that case—and think the heroic stance would be utterly counter-productive.  The goal would be to throw as much sand into the gears as possible—using every single tactic that could frustrate the law’s ability to operate.  I wonder how Eric would think about this case in relation to the internment of the Japanese during World War II.  I think also of the Danish all wearing yellow stars as a way of frustrating the Nazi’s murderous anti-Semitism.  This would precisely be the case of presenting the law with more perpetrators, more deemed guilty under its understanding of guilty, than it could handle.

Case 4:  Silent Sam.  So what kind of case is Silent Sam?  A very odd case once I am forced to think hard about it.  Odd, first of all, because of the ambiguities I have noted (in my previous post) about whose property the statue is anyway. And then there is all the stuff about “destruction of property” as referenced in the statement from Margaret Spellings et.al.  Which is really a red herring, because the real nub here is a specific state law—not some general set of property rights. That specific state law says that a certain class of property—namely memorials on public property—are removed from all public deliberation about their desirability.  It is widely acknowledged that general property rights do not trump all other considerations.  There are grounds on which property rights can be overruled or suspended.  But the state law on the public memorials says that kind of debate cannot be held, that kind of case cannot be brought forward. In short, it takes out of a community’s hands, the ability to decide, after a due process of deliberation, whether it wants a memorial present or not in its community.

It is, as I also mentioned in my previous post, precisely in cases where legal methods of appeal and redress are blocked that civil disobedience is most likely to occur.  Again, the Jim Crow South offers the classic example.  When the law and public officials and the courts are completely stacked against you, civil disobedience is one of the few alternatives left (violent rebellion is another).  Legal avenues for the removal of Silent Sam appeared completely blocked.  (Of course, as Eric eloquently argued in public—and within university circles—that there was a legal pathway for removal available, but the university refused to pursue that path, not by rejecting it outright but by refusing to ever acknowledge that such a path existed.  A frustrating approach to the whole dilemma of Silent Sam to say the least.  But from start to finish, the university’s leadership has failed miserably in its response to the presence of Silent Sam on our campus.)

A further oddity: even though we have this state law that was blocking any legal way to remove or move Silent Sam, the protestors were not interested in the repeal of said law.  They just wanted to remove Sam, the law be damned.  So once they toppled Sam, their work was done.  (Unless if gets undone by an effort to re-install the statue.)  Unlike many cases of civil disobedience, there is no on-going need to demonstrate the law’s injustice, to win over a public to the law’s repeal.

Thus, their work being done, why not “try to get away with it”?  We did the right thing, the demonstrators might think, so why should we be punished for it?  Eric’s position, which I respect and 20% agree with, is that the toppling of the statue only becomes a criminal action, not an act of civil disobedience, if you try to evade punishment.

But here’s where I take my 80% stand: it was a collective act of civil disobedience.  Allowing the law to single out a handful of “ring-leaders” will only support their desired narrative of a “few” trouble-makers and outside agitators.  I think the rhetorical battle is ongoing in this case—and that one key rhetorical point to make is that there is wide-scale endorsement of Monday’s action, which includes wide-scale endorsement of the means used (an unauthorized toppling of the statue) and thereof a wide-scale acceptance of responsibility for that action.  If that gums up the works, so be it.

There is, after all, fairly wide discretion about which laws to enforce—and to what extent.  Making it both absurd and costly to enforce the protection of Silent Sam, making the state divert what are always limited resources, to this particular vendetta, helps to make the argument about their priorities and their values that we—those against the prominent presence of Silent Sam on our campus—have been trying to make all along.

In short, it seems to me an acceptable tactic of a campaign of civil disobedience in certain cases to make the functioning of the law in question difficult.  And in cases where there are wide divergences of opinion, I also think that standing in solidarity with those in your camp is incredibly important.  There will be various attempts to divide and conquer going forward, some dependent on making the costs of solidarity high, some dependent on painting the dissenters in certain kinds of way—and then tarring fellow travelers with the same brush.  Anticipating this ongoing rhetorical battle, I still think (despite Eric’s cogent arguments) that counter-acting the law’s attempt to identify a few perpetrators by a mass declaration of guilt is the right move.  My “moral case” (which is what Eric asks for) is based, then, on these claims of solidarity, in the name of the collective that both enacted and endorsed the toppling—and which wishes to resist the attempt to label it the action of just a few outliers, some easy to isolate and dismiss dissidents.

Religion, Sect, Party (Part Two)

Having given you Taylor’s definition of religion last time, I now want to move over to Slezkine’s discussion of religion (which then bleeds over into politics) in The House of Government.

He offers a few attempts at defining religion, the first from Steve Bruce: religion “consists of beliefs, actions, and institutions which assume the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose.  Such a formulation seems to encompass what ordinary people mean when they talk of religion” (73; all the words in quotes are Bruce’s, not Slezkine’s).  If we go to Durkheim, Slezkine says we get “another approach. ‘Religion, according to his [Durkheim’s] definition, is ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.’  Sacred things are things that ‘the profane must not and cannot touch with impunity.’  The function of the sacred is to unite humans into moral communities” (74).

Durkheim’s position is functionalist; religion serves human need, especially the needs of human sociality.  Slezkine continues: “Subsequent elaborations of functionalism describe religion as a process by which humans create a sense of the self and an ‘objective and moral universe of meaning’ [Thomas Luckmann]; a ‘set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence’ [Robert Bellah]; and, in Clifford Geertz’s much cited version, ‘ a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these with such an aura of facticity that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (74).

In Bruce’s terms, I don’t think I can be considered religious, since I think morality is uniquely human; I don’t think there are impersonal or divine processes/beings that have a moral purpose and are capable of acting to further that moral purpose.

But the Durkheim/functionalist positions seem closer to home. What I have been worrying for months on this blog concerns the “sacredness” of “life.”  Does taking life as sacred, as the ultimate value, as the thing that profane hands (the state, other agents of violence, the lords of capitalism) should not destroy or even render less full, fall within the realm of religion?  It does seem to aim at some of the same ends—certainly at establishing a “moral community” united by its reverence for life; certainly in establishing a “moral universe of meaning” underwritten by the ultimate value of life; and certainly in paying attention to “the ultimate conditions of existence,” i.e. the drama of life and death, of being given a precious thing—life—that can only be possessed for a limited time.

I am never sure what all this (that is, the “formal” consonance of religion with humanism) amounts to.  If it is something as general as saying that the question of meaning inevitable arises for humans, and that the ways they answer that question has inevitable consequences for human sociality/communities, then the resemblance doesn’t seem to me to have much bite.  It is so general, so abstract, a similarity that it doesn’t tell us anything of much import.  It is like saying that all animals eat.  Yes, but the devil is in the details.  Some are vegetarians, some kill other animals for food, some are omnivores.

All human communities must be organized, in part, around securing enough food to live.  But hunter/gatherers are pretty radically different from agrarians—and all the important stuff seems to lie in the differences, not in the general similarity of needing to secure food.  I suspect it is the same for religion/atheism.  Yes, they must both address questions of meaning and of creating/sustaining livable communities, but the differences in how they go about those tasks are the significant thing.

More interesting to me is how both Taylor and Slekzine use Karl Jasper’s notion of the “Axial Revolution.”  Taylor leans heavily on Max Weber’s notion of a “disenchanted” world; Slekzine is interested in how the Axial revolution displaces the transcendent from the here and now into some entirely separate realm.  Or, I guess, we could say that the Axial revolution creates the transcendent realm.  In animist versions of the world, the sacred is in the here and now, the spirits that reside in the tree or the stream or the wind.  The sacred doesn’t have its own special place.  But now it is removed from the ordinary world—which is fallen, in need of salvation, and material/mechanical.  Spirit and matter are alienated from one another.  The real and the ideal do not coincide.

For Slekzine, then, every politics (like every post-Axial religion) has to provide a path for moving from here (the fallen real of the world we inhabit day by day) to there (the ideal world of moral and spiritual perfection).  He is particularly interested in millennial versions of that pathway since he thinks revolutionaries are quintessential millennialists.  And he clearly believes that all millennialists promise much more than they can deliver—and then must deal with the disappointment that inevitably follows from the failure of their predictions to come true.

That’s where I retain a liberal optimism—which is also a moral condemnation of the pessimist. My position, quite simply, is that some social orders (namely, social democracy as it has been established and lived in various countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Canada etc.) are demonstrably better than some other social orders if our standard is affording the means for a flourishing life to the largest number of the society’s members.  Measurements such as poverty and education levels, life expectancy etc. can help us make the case for the superiority of these societies to some others.

The point is that the gap between the real and the ideal is actual—even in the best social democracies.  But the point is also that this gap is bridgeable; we have concrete ways to make our societies better, and to move them closer to the ideal of a flourishing life for all.  Pessimists take the easy way out, pronouncing (usually from a fairly comfortable position), that all effort is useless, that our fallen condition is incorrigible.  A humanist politics, then, aims to re-locate the ideal in this world (as opposed to exiling it to a transcendent other-worldly place), while also affirming that movement toward the ideal is possible—and should be the focus of our political efforts.

In these terms, the ideal is, I guess, transcendent in the sense that it is not present in the here and now.  The ordinary does not suffice even within a politics that wants to affirm the ordinary, the basic pleasures and needs of sustaining life.  But there is also the insistence that the ordinary supplies everything we need to improve it—and that such improvements have been achieved in various places at various times, even if we can agree that no society has achieved perfection. There is no need to appeal to outside forces, to something that transcends the human, in order to move toward the ideal.

How a society handles, responds to, the gap between now (the real) and the ideal seems to me an important way to think about its politics.  Looking at 2018 America, it seems (for starters) that we have a deep division over what the ideal should be.  The liberal ideal is universal flourishing.  It seems very difficult not to caricature the ideal of liberalism’s opponents.  I think it is fair (but they probably would not) to say their view is premised on the notion of scarcity.  There is not enough of the good, life-sustaining, stuff to go around—which generates endless competition for the scarce goods.  In that competition, there is nothing wrong (in fact, it makes emotional and moral sense), to fight to secure the goods for one’s own group (family, ethnicity, nation).  A good (ideal) world would be one in which the scarce goods would go to those who truly deserve them (because hard workers, or good people, or “one of us.”)  But the real world is unfair, all kinds of cheaters and other morally unworthy types, get the goods, so politics should be geared to pushing such moochers away from the trough.  That seems to me to be the rightist mindset in this country these days.

But both sides seem to be humanists of my sort, since both seem to think politics can move us to the ideal in this world.  There is not some hope in a transcendent realm—or an orientation toward that realm.

Materialism, Meaning, and the Humanities

Taylor’s theism is directed, in part, against a reductionist materialism, which would 1) in its utilitarian forms (which include Darwinian accounts) “reduce” human motivations to sustaining life (either that of the individual or of the species) and see all human behavior as driven by the efforts to seek pleasure or avoid pain; or 2) in its biochemical forms claim that all human behavior is a product of chemical reactions in the body.  He is adamant that there must be “something more” than this to explain human aspirations and behavior.

In particular, Taylor says there are three things a reductionist materialism cannot account for: 1. Any sense of there being non-human forces or powers to which we, as humans, can connect.  This, straightforwardly, is the place where “transcendence” makes its appearance.  There is something that transcends the exclusively human—and the experience of or faith in the existence of that transcendent something cannot be accounted for in reductionist materialist ontologies.

2.  There is the observable fact that moral motivations play a large (although hardly exclusive) role in what humans do.  There are issues of value—of what gives pleasure or what gives pain, what is seen as admirable, and standards apart from desire itself by which any particular desire is deemed endorsable or not.  We subject out own desires and behavior, as well as the desires and behaviors of others, to judgment—and the materialist view has a hard time accounting for the standards that are deployed in our making of judgments. This is a version of the fact/value dichotomy–and Taylor (I think) is sympathetic to the pragmatist view (most fully articulated by Hilary Putnam, but clearly already there in William James and wonderfully expressed by Kenneth Burke) that we are always already valuers, that our attention to things (to facts, to what is the case) is driven by what “concerns” us, what we think matters, is significant.

3. Finally, we have aesthetic responses, finding beauty in some things, and turning away in disgust from others, along with desires to produce such artistic objects and to spend time in their contemplation and consumption.  We might say that here we find admiration for work well done—for accomplishments that go beyond just getting the job done, just being “good enough.”  Standards of excellence are applied in all kinds of fields—from artistic endeavors to athletic ones to simply the “style” and competence with which the most ordinary tasks are done.

Taylor does not insist that only faith in a transcendent can underwrite objections to reductionist materialism.  But what he does show is that religion (at least in some cases) shares a cause with the humanities: the cause of showing there is something more than materialist satisfactions (the utility maximizing rational individual of classical economic theory) that “matter” to human beings.  The humanities are also committed to a sense that humans derive (find) meaning in a variety of activities and relationships that are not captured by a single-minded pursuit of utility.

Of course, ever since Matthew Arnold (at least), the humanities’ attempts to describe those sources of non-utilitarian meaning have come across as pretty desperate, a kind of hysterical special pleading.  In fact, the humanities seem caught between two antithetical strategies in such presentations of their value.  Either, they try to demonstrate that the humanities have a utility value, just one that is not reducible to pleasure/pain or straightforward economic gain.  Or they try to argue for the uselessness of the aesthetic and of knowledge for its own sake, finding in such non-utility a welcome respite from the obsessions and demands of a consumer culture, where getting and spending rules over all time and effort.

I am more inclined to go the “meaning route.”  That is, I don’t want to focus on what the humanities and the arts “do” for the person who either pursues them actively or consumes them somewhat more passively.  In other words, I am not very attracted to or convinced by the Martha Nussbaum type arguments about how reading the classics (from Lucretius to George Eliot and Henry James) makes us better moral subjects and better democratic citizens.  Perhaps she is right.  But I’d hate to be committed to saying that those who do not do the requisite reading are somehow doomed to be deficient moral subjects and citizens.

Rather, I think it more demonstrably (phenomenologically) true that subjects locate meaning through processes of valuation that prove much more multifarious than any utilitarian or Darwinian calculus can account for.  In particular, I would push the thought that what is found valuable (and hence worth striving to create and working to sustain) is much more the product of a self’s relation to, embeddedness in, others and the non-human world than the utilitarian/Darwinian account would suggest.  Which is to say that, along with Dewey, I believe “morality is social.”  Morality, in this case, covers both what contemporary philosophy (following Bernard Williams) calls morals (rules of conduct mostly directed toward establishing and maintaining optimal relations to others and to the world) and ethics (questions pertaining to what is the “good life,” of what ends I—and others—should pursue).  All the issues pertaining both to morals and ethics are worked out, thought through, acted upon, and subject to the judgment of others within the ensemble of social relations and practices in which the self is embedded.

Does that mean that “society” plays the role of the “transcendent” in my form of humanism?  I am willing to accept that characterization of my position.  The social is the “horizon” (to use that term from phenomenology) within which judgments of meaning and value are made.  The humanities, then, would become the study of how those judgments were/are made by various different people situated in various different societies.  But not just how those judgments were made, but also what those judgments were/are.  The humanities and the arts, as is often said—and Taylor argues that the same is true for religion—proceed by way of exemplars.  There are no hard and fast rules for making judgments—and there is no way to proclaim apodictic truth for any particular judgment.  Which is not to say that there are no reasons one can offer for one’s own judgments.  But we should fully expect that such reasons will prove more convincing to some than to others—and that the extent to which reasons are convincing will depend quite heavily on the social context from within which those reasons are heard and evaluated.

Does this all entail cultural relativism?  Yes, to some extent.  I will in a subsequent post return to the William James’s notion of a “live option.”  There are demonstrably judgments and choices that were “live options” in the past that are no longer so.  Unlike someone living in the 1845 South, I cannot actively entertain the question of whether I should purchase a slave.  This is not simply because no slaves are available to buy.  It is also because, situated where I am in history and culture, being a slave owner is unthinkable for me.

But it is only relativism to a certain extent because cultures are not monolithic; they are in dialogue with other cultures (and with the past), as well as internally riven with all kinds of debates about proper judgments concerning morals and ethics.  The person living in the 1845 South could not be unaware that some of his fellow American citizens found slave-owning abominable.  Being within a culture can isolate someone from others who hold contrary views, but it cannot completely shield him from knowing about those who would dispute his views.  The humanities, we might say, are committed to airing all such disputes—opening out toward the historical record, to other cultures, and to the debates within one’s own culture.  The humanities stake a lot on the idea that the pursuit of meaning and values should be undertaken in and through exposure to as wide a set of judgments as possible.

This open-mindedness of the liberal arts (of the humanities) is, of course, anathema to those who wish to insure the triumph of one particular set of values over another.  All tyrannies try to shut down the public sphere, the full and raucous airing of multiple views.  Established religions have often been guilty of just such attempts to stifle discussion and debate.  Taylor, of course, recognizes that fact.  Hence he has to be very tolerant of non-religious humanists.  His position seems to be that the humanist is missing out on something, on a good thing, by not opening up to a relation with the transcendent (as contrasted to accusing the humanist of heresy).  At issue, I presume, is whether the transcendent of one’s relation to others and to the world is “enough.”

Enough for what?  For fully realizing the potential of life?  It seems like it would have to be something like that.  But I am not sure—and will return to this issue in subsequent posts.

For now, I will finish by considering the relation to the non-human.  I am not inclined (as is obvious by now) to find in the non-human—be it God, Nature, or some kind of life force/energy—a source of meaning.  Yet that does not entail denying that non-human forces and energies exist.  There are natural processes—erosion, earthquakes, weather cycles etc.—that exist apart from the human;  they pre-existed the human and will, most likely, exist after humans are extinct. There are also non-human creatures, some of whom pre-existed us and others of whom (I assume) will outlive the human species.

Moral questions involve, among other things, considering how we value those non-human forces/creatures and what are the optimal relations in which to stand to them.  Am I committed to the notion that whatever meaning and value those non-human forces possess are meanings and values that we, as humans, have created?  Yes, I am committed to that view.  Does that mean that non-human forces can only have meaning/value insofar as they relate to (even serve) human concerns?  That’s a tougher one.  I’d like to think (but don’t fully know how to make this stick) that we humans can value something with which we share the world (whether that sharer is human or non-human) for its own sake.  That is, I can fully acknowledge the other’s right to exist, and to flourish, without seeing the other’s existence as benefiting me in some way.  Here is Kant’s “kingdom of ends.”  That it is humans who see/designate others as ends-in-themselves does not logically entail that such a view is impossible to achieve.

What would be the reason(s) advanced for such a view?  One could be the reciprocity argument.  I am no more responsible for my presence on earth than is my neighbor or a butterfly.  Since I fully expect others to grant my right to be here, it is consistent that I grant their right to be here as well.  Otherwise, I would have to have some argument that would explain why I have more right to be here than the other creatures and processes that I find in the world about me.  Of course, such arguments for the “special status” of humans are rampant in human history, and most religions offer some version of such arguments.  Hence only humans get to be immortal or made in God’s image in Christianity.  There is also the Darwinian/Nietzschean route of saying we live in a totally amoral universe, where it is eat or be eaten, so it is not a question of “special status” for the human, or even for me and/or my tribe, just a struggle for life and death.  But if we accept that moral considerations do have some force in human motives and actions, then the challenge of justifying the “special status” of all humans or of some sub-set of humans is likely to be taken seriously.

A second set of reasons would be more holistic, more ecological.  The idea here would be that the world is sustained (in part) by a set of natural processes that unfold without human direction, but that can be altered by human action/intervention.  We are slowly discovering that such human actions/interventions often have drastic by-products, ones that threaten the sustainability of the world.  Our presumptions of control over the non-human have had bad consequences.  We would be much better off walking with a much lighter tread, leaving others and the non-human to live in peace, exempt from any interference from us.

Are those natural processes transcendent?  In a strict sense, I guess the answer is Yes.  They are certainly non-human.  But they are not transcendent in the more religious sense because they are not, in my view, a source of meaning, or some kind of “personal” entity to which we can have a call-and-response (dialogic) relation.  Taylor persistently wants to reject the “impersonal universe” he associates with modern secularism, while I am fully guilty of finding the non-human “impersonal.”  We stand in relation to the non-human, and can have a drastic impact on its functionings, but I don’t think we can be in dialogue with it, and I don’t think we can establish a relation to it that generates meanings except insofar as we, as humans, find value in the non-human (something which occurs all the time).

Am I fully satisfied with these formulations?  Far from it.  I am using Taylor to sort through my own commitments/intuitions, even as his book challenges me to offer a coherent (and convincing) account of how I justify/understand the assumptions/claims that must underwrite those commitments.  And I am finding that I stand on very shaky ground.

Perfectionism and Liberalism

Adam Gopnik has become one of the most astute theorists/apologists for liberalism, even though his thoughts on that subject simply come as asides in the occasional pieces he writes for the New Yorker.  In the July 30, 2018 edition, in a review of a book about the utopian fictions of the 1890 to 1910 period, he has this to say: “Liberalism is a perpetual program of reform, intended to alleviate the cruelty we see around us.  The result will not be a utopia but merely another society, with its own unanticipated defects to correct, though with some of the worst injustices—tearing limbs from people or keeping them as perpetual chattel or depriving half the population of the right to speak to their own future—gone, we hope for good.  That is as close as liberalism gets to utopia: a future society that is flawed, like our own, but less cruel as time goes on.”

The complaint of non-liberals is that liberals aim too low, that they timidly rule out as impossible things they should be fighting to accomplish.  And surely there is much to be said for the view that liberals are particularly ineffective if they are not constantly pushed by a more radical “left.”  On the other hand, liberal timidity, what Judith Shklar memorably called “the liberalism of fear,” is a commitment to minimizing concentrations of power and maximizing the distribution of power in order to prevent tyranny.  Power deployed for economic gain or power deployed to bring about a utopian vision of solidarity/common effort are equally to be feared.  Pluralism is the by-word, also known as liberal “permissiveness.”  As much as possible, keep to an absolute minimum the power of any entity (be it state, business, church, or another person) to dictate to me the terms of my life.

Another common critique of liberalism comes from a different direction.  The issue here is not that liberals don’t fight hard enough for the justice they claim to cherish, but that the individualism that liberal permissiveness establishes is unsatisfying.  Left to their own devices, individuals will either (this is the elitist, right-wing critique of liberal individualism) choose “low,” materialist desires that are undignified and recognizably bestial or (the left-wing, “communitarian” critique) be left adrift, exiled from all the kinds of intersubjective associations/relationships that actually make life meaningful.

In short, a straight-forward “materialism,” which accepts that our primary motives are for bodily comforts and other basic pleasures—what I called “hedonism” a few posts back—is deemed insufficient for a “full” (now the term is Charles Taylor’s) human life.  There must be more, Taylor keeps saying.

Here’s my dilemma—and kudos to Taylor for bringing it home so forcefully.  A certain version of materialism, with its notion that personal interest in securing material goods plus the psychological satisfactions of familial love and social respect are primary and “enough”, reigns among the aggressive right-wing in the US today.  The old line conservative, elitist critics of the Alan Bloom and Harold Bloom sort are just about total dinosaurs now.  The current right wing scorns elites and their fancy views of human dignity and attachment to “higher” things.  “Freedom” for Samuel Alioto is complete liberal permissiveness in economic matters, tied to a lingering moralistic attempt to suppress non-economically motivated “vices.”

So I certainly want to combat what Taylor insists is the “reductionism” of a materialist utilitarianism—the notion that all value resides in the extent to which something contributes to well-being, with “well-being” defined in very restrictive, mostly economic, terms.  The humanities, as a whole, have understood this as the battleground: the effort to get the public and the body politic to accept (and act on that acceptance) the value of non-economically motivated or remunerated activities. (In a future post, I will return to this topic aand try to think through what the “more” is that a secularist humanities would offer.)

What path should one take in this effort to combat economistic utilitarianism?  Taylor writes that “the question [that] arises here [is] what ontology can underpin our moral commitments” (607).  Now, of course, Richard Rorty (of whom more in a moment) would argue that we needn’t have any ontology to underwrite our commitments, that the whole (traditional) philosophical game of thinking that “foundations” somehow explain and/or secure our commitments is a misunderstanding of how human psychology works.  (Basically, Rorty is accepting William James’s insistence that we have our commitments first and then invent fancy justifications for them after the fact.)  The critics reply (inevitably) that Rorty thus shows that he has an ontology—basically, the ontological description of “human nature” that is James’s psychology.  If, like Rorty, you are committed to the liberal ideal (as expressed by Gopnik, who is consciously or not, channeling Rorty on this point) of reducing cruelty, then you are going to undertake that work in relation to how you understand human psychology.  In Rorty’s case, that means working on “sensibility” and believing that affective tales of cruelty that will awaken our disgust at such behavior will be more effective than Kantian arguments about the way cruelty violates the categorical imperative.

The Humean (and Rorty, like Dewey, is a complete Humean when it comes to morality/ethics) gambit is that humans have everything they need in their normal, ordinary equipment to move toward less cruel societies.  We don’t need “grace” or some other kind of leg up to be better than we have been in the past.  Our politics, we might say in this Humean vein, consist of the rhetorical, legal, and extra-legal battles waged between those who would “liberate” the drives toward economic and other sorts of power and accumulation versus those who would engage the “sympathetic” emotions that highlight cooperation and affective ties to our fellow human beings.  The Humean liberal, therefore, will endorse political arrangements that do not stifle ordinary human desires (for sex, companionship, fellowship, material comforts, recognition, the pleasures of work and play) while working against all accumulations of power that would allow someone to interfere in the pursuit of those ordinary desires.

What Taylor argues is that this liberal approach is not enough.  And it is “not enough” in two quite different ways.  First, it is not enough because it still leaves us with a deep deficit of “meaning.”  It is a “shallow” conception of human life, one that does not answer to a felt—and everywhere demonstrated need—for a “fuller” sense of what life is for and about.  Humans want their lives to connect up to something greater than just their own self-generated desires. (I have already, in a prior post, expressed my skepticism that this hankering for a “deeper meaning” is as widespread, even universal, as Taylor presumes.  To put it bluntly, I believe many more people today–July 28, 2018–are suffering from physical hunger than from spiritual hunger.) People, in Taylor’s view, want to experience the connection of their desires to some “higher” or “larger” purpose in things.  So the ontology in question is not just a description of “human Nature” but also of the non-human—and a description of how the human “connects” to that non-human.  You can, of course, claim (like the existentialists) that there is no connection, that we are mistaken when we project one and would be better off getting rid of our longing for one, but that is still an ontological claim about the nature of the non-human and about its relation to the human.  In that existential case, you are then going to locate “meaning” (a la Camus) in the heroic, if futile, human effort to create meaning within a meaningless universe.

Taylor’s second objection to Humean naturalism is more interesting to me because I find it much more troubling, much more difficult to think through given my own predilections.  Put most bluntly, Taylor says (I paraphrase): “OK, your naturalistic account posits a basic ‘sympathy” for others within the human self.  But, by the same token, your naturalistic account is going to have to acknowledge the aggressive and violent impulses within the self.  Your liberal polity is going to have to have some strategy for handling or transforming or suppressing those violent tendencies.  In short, there are desires embedded in selves that are not conducive to ‘less cruel’ futures, so what are you going to do about them?”

Taylor’s own position is clear.  He doesn’t use the term “perfectionist” (that, instead, is a recurrent feature of Stanley Cavell’s objections to Deweyean pragmatism), but he is clearly (at least in my view) in perfectionist territory.  Taylor is certainly insistent that what non-religious views (those that adhere to a strictly “immanent frame”—his term) miss is a drive toward “transformation” that is often motivated or underwritten by the desire to connect to some “transcendent.”  Liberal “permissiveness” doesn’t recognize, or provide any space for, this urge to transformation—or for the fact that those who pursue this goal most fervently are often the humans we most admire.  Self-overcoming, we might say, is view more favorably than simply “care of the self.”  Taylor is very, very good on how the arguments about all this go—with the liberal proponents of care of the self seeing the self-overcomers as dangerous, with their heroic visions that tend toward utopian-seeking tyranny or a religious denigration of the ordinary, the here and now; and the proponents of transformative striving seeing the liberals as selfish, limited in vision, stuck in the most mundane and least noble/dignified of the possible human ways to live a life, to pursue and achieve meaning.

I am clearly of the non-heroic camp, but the challenge Taylor poses is most difficult to me when he says that even the liberal aims at a transformation of human nature, of built in human desires, insofar as the liberal seeks to minimize violence and even to banish it entirely.  The conundrum: how do you either transform or (where necessary) suppress desire without being tyrannical?  The easy way out is to say it is not tyrannical to suppress the rapist.  But that just gets us into the business of what desires are so beyond the pale that their suppression is justified as contrasted to the desires we should let express themselves.  The prevailing liberal answer to that problem remains Mill’s harm principle—which is, admittedly, imperfect but the best we’ve got on hand.

Meanwhile, it would seem that liberals would also be working on another front to transform those violent desires so that the need for suppression wouldn’t arise as often.  Liberals, it would seem, can’t completely sidestep a “perfectionist” ethics, one that seeks to re-form some basic attributes of human nature–as it has so far manifested itself in history. To put it in the starkest terms: every human society and every moment in human history has manifested some version of war.  Yet the liberal is committed to (in utopian fashion) the idea that war is not inevitable, that we can create a world in which wars would not occur.  But the path to that war-free world must involve a “perfectionist” transformation of what humanity has shown itself to be up to our current point in time.  The issue then becomes: “What is the perfectionist strategy to that end?”  How does the Humean liberal propose to get from here (war) to there (perpetual peace)?

Taylor is not denying that the liberal has possible strategies.  But he thinks those strategies are “excarnated”—divorced from the body and emotion, the opposite of “incarnated.” This is Taylor’s version of the familiar critique that liberalism is “bloodless,” that it disconnects the body from the mind in its celebration of the disengaged, objective spectator view of knowledge at the same time that it extracts individuals (in the name of autonomy) from their embedding in social practices and social communities.  The ideal liberal self stands apart, capable of putting to the question everything, including the most basic constituents of his life (his own desires and his own relations to others.)  This is Rorty’s liberal ironist, cultivating a certain distance from everything, even his own beliefs.  The liberal, then, only has “reasons”—the consequentialist argument that life would be more pleasant, less “nasty, brutish, and short”—if we managed to stop war, stop being violent and cruel to one another.  Or, if we go the Humean/Rorty route, the liberal can work to enhance the inbuilt “sympathy” that makes us find cruelty appalling—and mobilize that sentiment against the other sentiments that lead to finding violence thrilling, pleasurable, or ecstatic.

Taylor, instead, favors a non-liberal route that avoids “excarnation.”  Instead, it recognizes that “in archaic, pre-Axial forms, ritual in war or sacrifice consecrates violence; it relates violence to the sacred, and gives a numinous depth to killing and the excitement and inebriation of killing; just as it does through the rituals mentioned above for sexual desire and union” (611-612).  The Christian experience/virtue of agape, Taylor insists, is fully bodily and emotional—and affords a sense of connection to non-human, transcendent powers and purposes.  And there can be a similar sense of connection in expressions/experiences of violence.

Of course, Taylor relies here on the “containment” that ritual performs.  A safe space, we might say, is created for the expression of violence—a space that highlights the connection to the transcendent that violence can afford but which also keeps that violence from getting out of hand.  (I continue to be very interested in all the ways violence is “contained.”  Why don’t all wars become “total”?  Why do states, in dealing with criminals, or other authority figures, like parents, stop short of total violence, of killing?  Think of spanking; how it is ritualized, how it stops short of doing real physical harm—or how, in other instances, it pushes right through that boundary and does lead to real physical harm.  What keeps the limits intact in one case and not in the other?)

But the ritual is not only “containment” for Taylor; it is also a path toward “transformation.”  Think of how the ritual of marriage transforms the love relation between the two partners.  Do we really want to argue that marriage is meaningless, that it does not change anything between the couple?  The marriage ritual is not, as we all well know, magically efficacious—but that hardly seems to justify claiming it has no effect at all.  What Taylor is pointing toward is some kind of similar ritual(s) to deal with aggressive desires (a complement to marriage’s relation to potentially anarchistic and violent sexual desires).

So what Taylor thinks we lose if we are a-religious secularists is this way (habit?) of thinking about the connection between desires found in selves and some kind of larger forces out there in the universe.  And losing that sense of connection means losing any taste (or search) for rituals that take individual desire and place it in relation to those larger, non-human forces.  As a result, we lose an effective strategy for the transformation of those desires into something more “perfect,” more in accord with our (utopian?) visions of what human life could be—where that utopian vision in Taylor’s case includes both a more meaningful life on the personal level (since connected to powers and purposes beyond the isolated self) and a more just, less cruel society because rituals contain the destructive potential of sex and violence.

Rorty’s alternative is instructive if we consider the modesty, the anti-utopianism, of liberalism.  Rorty doesn’t rule out perfectionism (that would violate liberal permissiveness), but he relegates it to the “private” sphere.  Self-overcoming is all well and good—from training for marathons to trying to overcome one’s tendencies to anger—but is a “project” undertaken by a self—not a path mandated by any other power.  The “public” sphere is devoted (for Rorty) to overcoming cruelty and to something like a minimal social justice (making sure everyone has the means to sustain life).  But any public mandate to “transformation” is opening the path to tyranny.  What this Rorty formula leaves unanswered is whether the public (think of the French Revolutionaries and their festivals) should strive to create rituals for the expression/transformation of basic desires.  These rituals need not be mandatory, but could still be useful in the effort to curb cruelty and heighten (emotional and moral) commitment to social justice.  That is, even a minimalist public sphere (in terms of what it hopes to achieve and in terms of how much its leaves to the discretion of individuals when it comes to where they find meaning and how they spend their time) might still benefit from not being so minimalist in terms of the occasions for public gatherings and rituals that it provides.

Let me end here by saying that I am one of those anti-clerical, anti-religious people (so well described by Taylor) who worries that religion’s focus on the transcendent implies a neglect of, even a contempt for, the ordinary.  I am always troubled by a search for salvation—whether that search take a religious or a Utopian form.  I think we are better off if, as Gopnik puts it, we accept the imperfections of the human condition, and work on improving that condition, without thinking that some kind of “transformation” will change our lot very dramatically or, once and for all, insure that peace and justice will reign undisturbed from now on.

In my most extreme moments, I want to say not only can’t we be “saved” from the human condition as we now experience it, but that we don’t need to be “saved.”  What we need is to take up the work at hand, work that is fairly obvious to anyone who looks around and sees the rising temperatures and the homeless people on our streets and the people going bankrupt trying to pay medical bills.  There isn’t a “transformation” of a political or religious/ethical reality that is going to address such issues.  It’s doing the gritty down-to-earth work of attending to those issues that will lead to some desirable changes, although not to the end of all our cares and worries.  In short, I am secularist insofar as I don’t think help is coming from elsewhere.  I have no faith that there are non-human powers to which we can connect—and that those powers will enable some kind of “transformation” that will solve our (humanly created) problems.

“Perfectionism” is a fully permissible add-on, but please do that on your own time (i.e. I accept the Rortyean notion that it is “private”), while the “public” of legal politics will demand that you act decently toward your fellows.  Still—with all that—I acknowledge that Taylor poses a significant challenge when he says that even the liberal (whether a Humean or a Kantian liberal) will look to “transform” certain human desires in the name of a more just and less violent society.

Death and Hedonism

Here’s Charles Taylor on the failure of modern humanism to confront/adequately understand death:

“Modern humanism tends to develop a notion of human flourishing which has no place for death.  Death is simply the negation, the ultimate negation, of flourishing; it must be combated, and held off till the very last moment.  Against this, there have developed a whole range of views in the post-Enlightenment world, which while remaining atheist, or at least ambivalent and unclear about transcendence, have seen in death, at least the moment of death, or the standpoint of death, a privileged position, one at which the meaning, the point of life comes clear, or can be more closely attained than in the fullness of life.  Mallarmé, Heidegger, Camus, Célan, Beckett: the important thing is that these figures have not been marginal, forgotten figures, but their work has seized the imagination of their age” (The Secular Age, 320-21).

Where to begin?  Let me start by trying to state the “modern humanist” position—which is where I take my stand.  First, life is a precious good.  It is not necessarily the only good.  There are situations in which life may be sacrificed in the name of an other good.  Within the plurality of goods, there are always going to be trade-offs, compromises.  But within that plurality of goods, life stands as a very high good, one that is sacrificed only in very severe (what might be appropriately called “tragic”) circumstances.

Second, life is a good possessed by every living creature.  (I am going to put aside the issue of non-human living creatures for the moment, but acknowledge that a humanist like Martha Nussbaum accepts that placing such a high value on life entails extending that value to non-human creatures.)  For that reason, decisions and actions that deprive humans of life are to be viewed with great suspicion.  The burden of proof is always on the one who wants to sacrifice life in the name of a different good.  I think individuals have a right to suicide—to deciding that their individual life is not worth extending in relation to any number of different considerations.  But I just as firmly want to hold to the illegitimacy of any third party imposing or inflicting death on another individual.  Here’s where I buy into liberal notions of self-possession.  One’s life belongs to, is possessed by, the person in whom that life inheres.  How to live that life and how to end it are the individual’s prerogative.  It is a formula for tyranny to hand that prerogative over to another.

Third, I completely buy into the Sen/Nussbaum reincarnation of the Aristotelean notion of “flourishing.”  The quality of a life matters—and, to a certain extent, can be measured.  There are material necessities to the sustenance of life, and there are political/social necessities to the ability to act effectively to live the life one desires to live.  Full autonomous freedom is not possible given the facts of human sociality, starting with the extended dependence of children upon the nurture/care of parents and the ongoing dependence of all upon various forms of social cooperation to create the material and emotional goods humans require to flourish.  In other words, the notion of “flourishing” complicates enormously any notion of individual autonomy and “self-possession.”  But such complications do not render meaningless the idea that selves should get to choose their sexual partners, their friends, their occupations, their manner of living.  And certainly those complications do not mean that an individual’s life is at the disposal of others.  The reverse.  All the obligation runs the other way.  It is the responsibility of a well-ordered just society to do everything in its power to assure the flourishing of its members.

Fourth, as Taylor puts it, death is the antithesis of flourishing.  There are many other ills life is subject to, but death is an absolute negation.  As I have already said, there are circumstances in which death is not the worst option.  But I would say that such circumstances are understood in relation to the goal of “flourishing.”  Thus, many old people in our society are kept alive past the point where a flourishing life is possible.  In such cases, death can be preferable to the diminished—and often painful—life that is its alternative.

Fifth.  Even in such cases—where death is chosen over a diminished life—I can’t see how (except in a spiritualist or Romantic view that is utterly foreign to me and seems, in fact, dangerous in ways I am about to explain) one can imagine that death offers some kind of special insight (is a “privileged position” to quote Taylor).  For starters, most deaths are random.  Not just accidental deaths, but also cancers and heart attacks.  Who gets a brain tumor has no relation to the way the sick person led her life.  Moralistically, we may like to link some cancers and heart attacks to bad habits: smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise.  But even there the results are random.  Smoking increases your chances of lung cancer and stroke, but doesn’t guarantee either outcome.  Death is, no doubt, a momentous event.  But to “privilege” it is to (desperately it seems to me) attempt to assign meaning to something that is devoid of meaning.

Maybe here is where my “humanism” is most obvious.  Life has meaning, I would say, precisely to the extent that humans create or assign that meaning.  Life in and of itself is just a biological fact, generated out of the randomness and chance that is Darwinian biology.  Death is no different.  It, too, is a biological fact.  Any meaning it acquires comes from humans, the meaning-creating, meaning-obsessed species.  And given that I value life over death, I find a claim that death is “privileged” in some kind of way troublesome.  It seems wrong to take one moment in a long history (the whole trajectory of a life) as somehow definitive.  I don’t think lives possess that kind of unity; lives are much messier, pluralistic things, composed of many parts, not all of which fit together.  In other words, I don’t see a life as generating a narrative that somehow accounts for all of it.  And, even more, if I did think some special moments offer a particular insight into the nature of the life an individual lived, I would not be inclined to say that the way that person died was especially significant.  Yes, in some cases, the death tells us a huge amount.  Think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or even Primo Levi.  But I would say that in many more cases, other moments are more significant.  For most of the victims of the Holocaust, to say their deaths offered the moment (again to quote Taylor) when “the point of life comes clear” borders on obscenity.  In their case—as in many other cases—how would we think of death in any more meaningful terms than (again to quote Taylor) as “the negation, the ultimate negation, of flourishing?”  I don’t see any more acceptable way of describing what their deaths mean, or how we should think about those deaths.

Sixth.  All of this relates back to my central reason for reading the Taylor.  He is convinced that “life” is not enough.  That humans need something more than life, some connection to a divine, some relation to a world apart from the biological, material one, in order to . . . what?  Lead a full life? (But that would return us to ground of life.)  Be fully moral?  (He usually wants to eschew moralism.)  Realize their full potential?  (He does seem attracted to this notion, as I will consider in subsequent posts.)  Avoid selfish, mindless hedonism.  (Again, a hint of this idea in Taylor.  The issue is, even if I value my life and its flourishing, why should I value others’ lives, and what if my flourishing can only be purchased at others’ expense?  Taking a flourishing life as an extremely high value might lead to behavior roughly characterized as social Darwinism.)  Even if we grant all of these Taylor worries about valuing life, none of them would justify giving death some special privilege.  Altruism, sacrifice, a relation to a transcendent are all understandable alternatives to a cult of life—but it is much less clear what a focus on death has to offer.  That focus seems tied to two ideas that seem to me simply wrong. One, the idea that a life possesses a unifying narrative that locks into place at the moment of death, with that moment serving a particularly salient purpose in shaping that narrative.  Two, that the meaning of human life is only secured by a relation to something that transcends life—and that death offers some kind of privileged access to the transcendent realm.

The bottom line, I guess, is that I believe that the nothingness that preceded coming into conscious life is mirrored by the nothingness that comes after death.  If death has some privileged relation to meaning, it can only have that for the living, for the survivors, not for the dead person himself.  Meaning is tied to consciousness—and dead people are not conscious.  And I don’t believe that in the moment of death, for a fleeting instant, “the point of life comes clear” to the person who is dying.

All of this is not to say that the fact of death is irrelevant to the meaning of life.  But the fact of death is not more relevant or more crucial than the facts of love, of sex, of our need to eat food and drink water, of our dependence on a whole social order to survive.  All of those facts and many others add up to what we might call “the human condition.”  And we can certainly identify the ways that different cultures have understood and responded to death.  But I still don’t see where the “modern humanist” response to death is so obviously less adequate than other possibilities.  And let me go on record as saying, yes, death “must be combated” (to quote Taylor again.)  A society that thought illnesses should just be passively accepted or, more germane to actual cases, or thought that death on a mass scale was to be accepted as the price for social progress, or glory, or victory/revenge over one’s enemies, or economic prosperity for the few would not qualify as a “good” or desirable society for this modern humanist.  Placing life as a very, very high value—and combating all the ways humans have denigrated life and cultivated death—seems to me the right way to go.

What could ground this high valuation placed on life?  Mostly I would like to resist this call for grounding.  I want to say (after Wittgenstein) that the spade turns here, that the mistake is to ask for grounding, as if skepticism about the fact that most people value their lives, try in their every day practices to sustain, nurture, and enhance life is not enough.  That somehow they need some other reason to be devoted to their lives and the lives of the people they care for, they love. (The primary goal of a liberal ethics is to extend that circle of care out to include all with whom I share the world; Rorty is particularly good on this point.)

We can give a fancy name to this devotion to life.  Hedonism—a name that the philosophic tradition has usually used pejoratively. I would define hedonism as “the effort to live the best life possible, given the inevitable constraints under which any life is lived.”  How “the best life possible” is understood varies widely, which is what gives us human variety even as it is also a source of conflict.  But I am taking the position that hedonism ought to be a respectable position.  Here is life—a gift given to us out of nowhere or, at least, out of a void of which I, the holder of this life, have no knowledge and no experience—and one possible response is to live this life to the fullest, knowing that it will end as it began, with the passing away of my consciousness into that void. Life presents a myriad of possibilities—and I undertake to realize at least some of them, trying to activate the ones that make me feel most alive.

The specter haunting hedonism, of course, is selfishness.  Two responses have been to say that happiness and flourishing, feeling most alive, are best served in collective, cooperative enterprises with others (from raising a family to engagement in larger social endeavors) or, alternatively, to a feeling that my flourishing is not fully enjoyable, is somehow spoiled, by seeing others who cannot flourish in the world I and they inhabit together.  Taylor calls such views the “modern social order” and sees them, with their focus on altruism and on the equality of all individuals (their equal right to the means for flourishing) as legacies of Christianity.  I actually don’t care much one way or the other if he is right about that.  I do think that such views are more a matter of sensibility than of rational argument.  (My understanding of morality goes back to John Dewey and Richard Rorty.)  And it is certainly a matter of history and one’s upbringing in a particular social milieu that shapes sensibility–and I hardly want to deny that my personal history and my society’s history includes much Christianity, as one among other shaping influences.  How to weigh the various inputs and their respective contribution to my own–and to a “modern moral order’s”–sensibility is a trickier matter.

In any case, hedonism can incorporate altruism if the path to happiness includes attention to the needs of others as part and parcel of my well-being.

Now, quite obviously, others find well-being in competitive relations to others and seem unable to even experience their own good fortune unless bolstered by the sight of less fortunate others.  The moralism that an atheist links to religion finds plenty of secular analogues here, with the notions of the undeserving poor, and attachment to the idea that the market somehow rewards the virtuous and justly punishes the ne’er do wells.  The hedonist cannot discount the pleasure humans take in punishing other humans, even the pleasure humans have taken in inflicting death on other humans.

But the impossibility of a fail-safe hedonism (or humanism for that matter) adheres to every other –ism and every religion.  The mistake is to think that some system of thought or of beliefs will guarantee for once and for all virtuous human behavior.  No system is up to that demand.  That’s why I am saying that morality is not a matter of ideas or arguments or grounding principles or beliefs.  Nothing in human history suggests that such things will insure that the most fundamental of moral tenets—say, the injunction against murder—will be upheld.  Just the opposite.  The systems will be used to justify murder.  So hedonism—an attachment to life and its flourishing—fares no worse than the alternatives.

Can I argue it fares better?  I want to, if only because placing such a high value on life should give pause before spreading death about.  But I will leave off here—saving for another time the attempt to claim humanistic hedonism will have less blood on its hands than its rivals.

Honor

Arendt never appeals to honor—and, no doubt, she would find the concept antique.  But both her celebration of “public happiness” and her comments on the desire to excel in public, to live a life worthy of becoming the stuff of stories,  point to her desire to find some account of motives that transcend the desire to satisfy material, bodily needs.  On the one hand, denigration of the body has a long history in Western thought, with both Greek and Christian variants.  On the other hand, that suspicion of the “material” gains a new impetus in the 1950s from the twin perspective of Arendt’s anti-Marxist repudiation of materialist philosophy and her equally ant-consumerist suspicions of “materialist” consumer culture.

Love of the world, then, is meant to describe a commitment that extends beyond the selfish desire to accumulate material goods, just as her resolutely non-material “action” and its production of an ephemeral “space of appearances” introduces something utterly distinct from the necessities connected to “life.”

What I am pursuing here is her account of what motivates “action” (understood in her strict sense of the term).  The good action directly strives for is called, at various times in her work, “freedom,” or “renown.”  Actors want to win the admiration of others even as they also (in Nietzschean fashion) simply enjoy the expenditure of energy that is action.

I see a double problem here, a Scylla and Charybdis, if you will.  Scylla is the contempt for the body, for mere life.  We have already seen this with Ruskin declaring “life is the only wealth” and then going on to tell us the terms upon which different living creatures should accept death.  Arendt’s version of this line of thinking comes in her meditations on Socrates in her late work.  Living out of harmony with oneself, sacrificing one’s integrity and moral ideals simply in order to survive in a despicable regime like Hitler’s, is to win life on terms where it is not worth having.  So we get two things here: a standard by which some lives are ruled deficient, and a denigration of the bodily as (at best) an insufficient basis of value judgments or (at worst) a positive detriment to making value judgments.  In the second case, whatever pertains to the body and its needs should be ruled out of court when considering the worth of a human life.  Pushed even further, to the Hegel master/slave phenomenon,  the person who would prioritize “life” over other (more worthy) standards ends up a slave—and (perhaps) rightfully so.  This final bit is not Hegel because he has his dialectical reversal coming, but it is not clear that Arendt offers any such escape.  She seems simply contemptuous of the modern consumer who has no sense of or taste for the joys of public life.  Such people are living swinish (Mill), unfree (Arendt) lives.

The Charybdis here is trying to identify a non-pernicious standard of value that doesn’t simply reduce to supplying material needs.  We certainly seem to need a non-utilitarian, non-economic, set of motives—and those motives should, in some form or another, include moral considerations addressing our desired relations to others and to the planet.  Reductionism (Kenneth Burke’s “debunking”) can only lead to cynicism.  If everyone is always out for the main chance; if it’s the struggle for life that overwhelms all else, then we get the macho “eat or be eaten” with its concomitant scorn for all the sentimental claptrap about decency, rights, love, altruism etc.  Yesterday’s New York Review of Books offers a poignant example.  James Shapiro reviews a new interpretation of Hamlet that basically argues that the play shows Shakespeare revealing humanist claptrap to be the hot air that it really is.  Hamlet delays because he can’t face up to the realpolitik of courtly life, while spouting half-baked humanist truisms that he has neither mastered nor believed.  Hamlet is a fatuous young fop—and the play reveals his fatuousness.  And Shakespeare is a complete nihilist.  A perfect reading for our current political moment.  There are no barriers of any sort (religious, moral, humanist) against sheer brute power.

When Arendt comes to this point, in her meditations on morality under the supreme conditions of Nazi rule, she can only conclude that the kind of integrity, the felt need to live a life in accord with the moral principles one had understood as one’s own, is rare, but not impossible or utterly unknown.  She famously says that the Nazis showed that most people will change their moral code as easily as they will change their table manners.  (She probably should have said as easily as they will change the kinds of clothes they wear in response to changes in fashion.  We also have Shakespeare’s marvelously cynical statement in The Tempest –spoken by the villain Antonio—that “For all the rest,/They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk;/They’ll tell the clock to any business that/We say befits the hour” (Act 2, sc 1, 289-92).  Most people will say what the powerful tell them to say.)  In short, Arendt has only a very thin reed to offer us; there will be some who will die rather than live the life totalitarianism puts on offer, but only “some” and they will not be effective in face of the ruthless totalitarians.  A very short step from cynicism—or maybe the better term in despair.

Despair is certainly one quite understandable response to our dark times.  And maybe the long bloody track of human history makes a sensible response altogether to “the human condition.”  For we can consider one last twist of the knife: honor (or morality) might seem, if it exists, a bulwark against sheer power.  But then honor and morality themselves are so often used to justify violence.  Honor killings, as well as the fact that “honor” is so central to warrior cultures, reminds us that the “doux commerce” of the bourgeoisie was supposed to usher in a kinder and gentler era.  The bourgeois critique of honor is hardly entirely off-base; the same can be said of the atheists’ critique of sectarian violence.  The Nietzschean conclusion that humans can turn anything into the occasion for oppression and violence appears to hold.  Despair and misanthropy seem to follow in course, accompanied by a fierce sarcasm about all the high-falutin’ words with which humans dress up their shitty behavior to one another—and to non-humans.

I want a standard of decency that will hold, some kind of barrier against the flood of exploitation.  I don’t see one on the horizon at the moment.