Category: moral philosophy

Secular Ethics

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

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

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

A fundamental value: to be alive.

First Objection:

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

Here’s Ecclesiastes, beginning of Chapter 4:

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

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

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

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

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

Second Objection:

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

Response to Objections:

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

Third Objection:

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

Path #1:

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

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

Path #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry Frankfurt on Inequality

I read Harry Frankfurt’s essay on inequality (published as a small book by Princeton University Press, 2015) over the weekend.  Frankfurt’s position is simple: “Economic equality is not, as such, of any particular moral importance; and by the same token, economic inequality is not in itself morally objectionable.  From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same.  What is morally important is that each should have enough.  If everyone had enough money, it would be of no special or deliberate concern whether some people had more money than others.  I shall call this alternative to egalitarianism the ‘doctrine of sufficiency’—that is, the doctrine that what is morally important with regard to money is that everyone should have enough” (7).

Economic inequality is morally objectionable only when the fact of its existence leads to the production of other moral harms.  But it is not intrinsically (a key word for Frankfurt) morally objectionable in itself.  “That economic equality is not a good in itself leaves open the possibility, obviously, that it may be instrumentally valuable as a necessary condition for the attainment of goods that do generally possess intrinsic value. . . . [T]he widespread error of believing that there are powerful moral reasons for caring about economic equality for its own sake is far from innocuous.  As a matter of fact, this belief tends to do significant harm” (8-9).

Frankfurt’s efforts to specify the harm done are not very convincing, involving tortured arguments about marginal utility and implausible suppositions about scarcity.  By failing to deal in any concrete cases, he offers broad arguments that fall apart (it seems to me) when applied to things like access to clean air and clean water (think of the Flint water crisis) or to health care and education (where provision of equal access and quality to all is a commitment to the equal worth of every life, a principle that seems to me intrinsic.)  It gets even worse at the end of the book, in the second essay, “Equality and Respect.”  Frankfurt writes: “I categorically reject the presumption that egalitarianism, of whatever variety, is an ideal of any intrinsic moral importance” (65).  His argument rests on a bit of a shell game, since he substitutes “respect” for “equality”, and then acknowledges that there are certain rights we deem morally due to all because of our “respect” for their “common humanity.”  But he is against “equality” because he thinks we also accord respect (and even certain rights) differentially.  We need to take the differences between people into account when those differences are (in his words) “relevant.”  What he fails to see is that “equality” names the moral principle that, in (again) particular cases, no differences can or should be relevant (in spite of the fact that various agents will try to assert and act on the relevance of differences).  The most obvious case is “equality before the law.”  It is very hard to see how “equality before the law” is not an intrinsic moral principle.  It functions as a principle irrespective of outcomes—and its functioning as a principle is demonstrated precisely by the fact that it is meant to trump any other possible way of organizing how the law functions.  It is good in and of itself; we could even say that “equality before the law” constitutes the good, the legitimacy, of law—and it preforms this constitutive function because it is the intrinsic principle law is meant to instantiate.

But let’s go back to economic inequality.  There Frankfurt is on much stronger ground.  I don’t think he makes a good case that concern over economic inequality causes harm.  But as what I have been calling a “welfare minimalist” (what he calls “the doctrine of sufficiency”), he echoes the comment of my colleague that questions of inequality are irrelevant if everyone has enough.  As Frankfurt puts it: “The doctrines of egalitarianism and of sufficiency are logically independent: considerations that support the one cannot be presumed to provide support for the other” (43).  “The fact that some people have much less than others is not at all morally disturbing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty” (43).

There are practical questions here of a Marxist variety: namely, is it possible for there to be substantial inequality without the concomitant impoverishment of some proportion of the population?  Oddly enough, Frankfurt briefly talks about the inflationary effects of making the poor better off, but never considers the inflationary effects of their being vast concentrations of wealth (in housing costs, for example).  Mostly, however, Frankfurt shies far away from practical issues.

On his chosen level of abstraction, he makes one very good and one very provocative point.  The good point is that concerns about inequality help us not at all with the tough question of establishing standards of sufficiency.  If the first task before us is triage, then what is needed is to provide everyone with enough.  It seems true to me that triage is the current priority—and that we have barely begun to address the question of what would suffice.  Talk of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) is hopelessly abstract without a consideration of what that income would enable its recipient to buy—and of what we, as a society, deem essential for every individual to be able to procure.  There is work to be done on the “minimalist” side, although I do think Martha Nussbaum’s list of minimal requirements (in her book on the capabilities approach from Harvard UP) is a good start.

The provocative point comes from Frankfurt’s stringent requirement that a moral principle, au fond, should be “intrinsic.”  The trouble with inequality as a standard is that it is “relative,” not “absolute” (41-42).  It is not tied to my needs per se, but to a comparison between what I have and what someone else has.  The result, Frankfurt believes, is that the self is alienated from its own life.  “[A] preoccupation with the alleged inherent value of economic equality tends to divert a person’s attention away from trying to discover—within his experience of himself and of his life conditions—what he himself really cares about, what he truly desires or needs, and what will actually satisfy him. . . . It leads a person away from understanding what he himself truly requires in order effectively to pursue his own most authentic needs, interest, and ambitions. . . . It separates a person from his own individual reality, and leads him to focus his attention upon desires and needs that are not most authentically his own” (11-12).

Comparisons are odious.  Making them leads us into the hell of heteronomy—and away from the Kantian heights of autonomy and the existential heaven of authenticity.  But snark is not really the appropriate response here.  There seem to me interesting abstract and practical questions involved.  The abstract question is about the very possibility (and desirability) of autonomy/authenticity.  Can I really form desires and projects that are independent of my society?  In first century Rome, I could not have dreamed of becoming a baseball player or a computer scientist.  Does that mean that my desire to become one or the other in 2019 is inauthentic?  More directly, it is highly likely that my career aspirations are shaped by various positive reinforcements, various signals that I got from others that my talents lay in a particular direction.  Does that make my choice inauthentic?  More abstractly, what is the good of authenticity?  What is at stake in making decisions for myself, based on a notion of my own needs and ambitions? Usually, the claim is that freedom rests on autonomy.  Certainly both Kant and the existentialists believed that.  But what if freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, if it indicates a state of alienation from others so extreme that it is worthless—a thought that both Kierkegaard and Sartre explored.

I am, as anyone who has read anything by me likely knows, a proponent of autonomy, but not a fanatic about it.  That people should have the freedom to make various decisions for themselves is a bottom-line moral and political good in my book.  But I am not wedded to any kind of absolutist view of autonomy, which may explain why appeals to “authenticity” leave me cold.  On the authenticity front, I am inclined to think, we are all compromised from the get go.  We are intersubjectively formed and constituted; our interactions with others (hell, think about how we acquire language) embed “the other” within us from the start.  It’s a hopeless task to try and sort out which desires are authentically ours and which come from our society, from the others we have interacted with, etc. etc.  To have the freedom to act on one’s desires is a desirable autonomy in my view; to try to parse the “authenticity” of those desires in terms of some standard of their being “intrinsic” to my self and not “externally” generated seems to me one path to madness.

Even more concretely, Frankfurt’s link of the “intrinsic” to the “authentic” raises the question of whether any judgments (about anything at all) are possible without comparison.  His notion seems to be that an “absolute” and “intrinsic” standard allows me to judge something without having to engage in any comparison between that something and some other thing.  I guess Kant’s categorical imperative is meant to function that way.  You have the standard—and then you can judge if this action meets that standard.  But does judgment really ever unfold that way?  By the time Kant gets to the Critique of Judgment, he thinks we need to proceed by way of examples—which he sees as various instantiations of “the beautiful” (since “the beautiful” in and of itself is too vague, too ethereal, a standard to function as a “determinative” for judgment).  And, in more practical matters, it would seem judgment very, very often involves weighing a range of possibilities—and comparing them to see which is the most desirable (according to a variety of considerations such as feasibility, costs, outcomes etc.) A “pure” judgment–innocent of all comparison–seems a rare beast indeed.

Because he operates at his insistently high level of abstraction, Frankfurt approaches his “authenticity” issue as a question of satisfaction with one’s life.  Basically, he is interested in this phenomenon: I am satisfied with my life even though I fully realize that others have much more money than me.  One measure of my satisfaction is that I would not go very far out of my way to acquire more money.  Hence the fact of economic inequality barely impinges on my sense that I have “enough” for my needs and desires.  This is a slightly different case from saying that my concept of my needs and desires has been formed apart from any comparison between my lot and the lot of others.  Here, instead, the point is that, even when comparing my lot to that of those better off than me, I do not conclude that my lot is bad.  I am satisfied.

For Frankfurt, my satisfaction shows that I have no fundamental moral objection to economic inequality.  Provided I have “enough” I am not particularly morally outraged that others have even more.  I am not moved to act to change that inequality.

It seems to me that two possibilities arise here.  The first is that I do find the existence of large fortunes morally outrageous. I don’t act because I don’t see a clear avenue of effective action to change that situation, although I do consistently vote for the political parties who are trying to combat economic inequality.  But Frankfurt’s point is that my satisfaction shows I don’t find economic inequality “intrinsically” wrong.  I am most likely moved to object to it by seeing what harms have been done to others in order to accumulate such a large fortune—or I point to the wasted resources that are hoarded by the rich and could be used to help the poor.  Frankfurt, in other words, may be right that economic inequality is not “intrinsically” wrong, but only wrong in terms of the harms that it produces.  I think I would take the position that economic inequality is a “leading indicator” of various ills (like poverty, exploitation, increasing precarity, the undermining of democratic governance, etc.)—and that the burden of proof lies in showing that such inequality is harmless.  If this focus on produced harms means economic inequality is not an “intrinsic” value, so be it.

The other interesting consideration Frankfurt’s discussion brings to the fore is the absence of envy.  Conservatives, of course, are fond of reducing all concerns about economic inequality to envy.  And the mystery to be considered here (and to which Frankfurt points) is how, if I am aware that others have more than me, I am not consumed with envy, resentment, or a sense of abiding injustice (i.e. it’s not fair that he has more than me).  Certainly some people’s lives are blighted by exactly those feelings.  But others are content, are satisfied, in the way Frankfurt describes.  The comparison has no bite for them.  The difference is noted but not particularly resented—or, if resented, still doesn’t reside at the center of the judgment of their own life.  Maybe some kind of primitive narcissism is at work here, some sense that I really like being me and don’t really want to trade in “me” in order to be some other chap.  The deep repudiation of self required by envy may just be beyond the reach of 80% of us.  Just how prevalent is self-hatred?  How many would really desire to change their lot with another?

Pure speculation of course.  But the point is not some fantasy about authenticity, about living in a world where I don’t shape my desires or self-judgments at least partially by comparing myself to others.  Rather, the fact of our constantly doing such comparing is here acknowledged—and the question is how we live contentedly even as we also recognize that we fall short of others in all kinds of ways.  He has better health, a more successful career, a sunnier disposition, more money, more friends, more acclaim.  How can I be content when I see all that he possesses that I do not?  That’s the mystery.  And I don’t think Frankfurt solves it–and I cannot explain it either.  His little book makes the mystery’s existence vivid for me.

Silent Sam: The Current State of Play

What follows is my understanding of where things currently stand in the ongoing controversy over the disposition of the Confederate monument (known as Silent Sam) on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  This is a reconstruction based on the conversations I have had with various people and on the public news reports.  I could be very wrong about all of this.  But I do not think that I am.  The one crucial institutional fact you need to know to thread your way through this labyrinth: the Board of Trustees (BOT) is the local governing Board for the Chapel Hill campus.  The Board of Governors (BOG) is the governing body for the whole University of North Carolina system.  Both boards are dominated by Republicans appointed by the aggressively partisan North Carolina state legislature which has enjoyed (since 2012) a veto-proof majority in both houses.  (That veto-proof majority will end in January 2019, when the State House will still be majority Republican, but will not be a 2/3rds majority.  Hence the Democratic governor Roy Cooper will now be able to veto bills and not see his vetoes overridden.)

In the case of Silent Sam, the BOG was the body designated to make a final recommendation as to the statue’s disposal.  But even their recommendation was only that, since the law (passed in the wake of the Dylan Roof shootings in Charleston SC that led to the removal of several Confederate monuments around the country) by our Republican legislators said that monuments on public property could not be removed, except at the behest of the state historical commission, and even in such cases could not be placed in a museum or re-located to another jurisdiction.  The law was pretty obviously aimed squarely at Silent Sam, which has been a sore point on campus for well over forty years, with the intensity of the protests against his presence waxing and waning over that period.

After the statue was toppled by protesters in late August 2018, the Chapel Hill campus was given by the BOG until November 15th to suggest a plan for its disposal.  Even that was a small victory since it headed off those on the right wing who insisted the statue must immediately be restored to its now empty pedestal.  Failing to put it right back up, the right insisted, was caving in to “mob rule.”  Campus fears that the statue would be restored led to faculty and student clamor vociferous enough to lead Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt to make a public statement (on the Friday before Labor Day weekend) that she did not believe the statue belonged in its former place, prominently displayed at the entrance to campus.  She was immediately reprimanded by the chair of the BOG for disrespecting the process that had been put in place, since she was taking one option for the November 15th recommendation unilaterally off the table.  Folt’s Labor Day statement was made, I believe, with her understanding that her public comment could get her fired. She weathered that storm. Subsequently, on University Day, the annual celebration of the university’s birthday (this year was its 225th anniversary), Chancellor Folt make a public apology for UNC’s racist past.

The November 15th date appeared to have been chosen to push the final decision past election day, in a year when the Democrats were making a concerted push to break the Republican “super majority” in the state legislature.  Except for Folt’s University Day apology, which in fact generated surprisingly little response from either left or right, the Silent Sam issue went underground.  Campus seemed preoccupied by the usual business of a semester, while the issue played no part at all in the legislative races around the state.  Since there were polls suggesting that 70% of the state’s residents believed the statue should be restored to its empty pedestal, the failure of Republican candidates to demagogue the issue baffled me.  The reason, I was told, was that Apple was about six inches away from announcing that it was opening a major new facility in North Carolina (in fact, about ten miles from the UNC campus) and that the only thing holding Apple up was the Silent Sam mess.  They wanted nothing to do with aggressive Southern white boy culture.  So, apparently, the fix was in from the state Republican Party about staying silent about Silent Sam.

The silence was broken post-election when, after a small delay (the November 15th deadline was not met) Chancellor Folt and the UNC BOT announced in early December their recommendation: to build a brand new five million dollar “history and education center” (that was, somehow, not a museum) on the Chapel Hill campus to house the statue.  The proposal, it seemed pretty clear, was meant to stay within the parameters of the state law regarding confederate monuments while also respecting the fact that every single possible spot on the current campus was impossible because the current occupants of those places had made it very clear they didn’t want the thing.

The BOT recommendation was met on campus with incredulity and outrage.  Campus again went into overdrive, with the Faculty Senate condemning the proposal and reiterating its conviction that the statue had no place on the Chapel Hill campus, while graduate students and a small group of faculty sympathizers announced—and worked to muster support for—a grade strike.  They would not submit grades for the fall semester work, just about to be completed.  (They could not stop teaching, since classes for the semester had ended by this point.)

There is some plausibility to the claim that the BOT proposal was really just a way of kicking the can down the road since its implementation would take years—and in that time the state’s politics might have changed enough to make repeal of the monument law a possibility.  But the Chancellor and the BOT could hardly state that hope in public as a way of justifying their plan.  Rather, in taking the plan to the campus and the world, the Chancellor said she preferred an off-campus disposition of the stature, but that she was constrained by the law and, thus, was offering the only feasible and palatable option that the law made available.  The campus was not impressed, since the campus community did not care a fig about the law and saw no compelling reason to abide by it.

I think it is pretty obvious that the proposal from the BOT represented the best plan the Chancellor could get that body to agree to.  Remember that it is stacked with Republicans.  As for the Chancellor herself, I think it fair to say that she has behaved exactly as Barack Obama did on the issue of gay marriage.  Her position has been “evolving” over the past two years—and that evolution has been driven by the persistent pressure from campus activists to her left.  She has always been a tight-rope walker, trying to placate all sides in a state where campus sentiment, public sentiment, and the beliefs/actions of the state legislature do not align but are deeply at odds with one another.  She has always been in a terrible position.  I don’t think she has played her hand particularly well, but she has definitely had a very bad and fairly weak hand to play.  There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the line she has tried to walk has been pulled steadily leftward over the past two years (hence her statement that the statue should not be restored to its pedestal and her public apology) because of the campus activists.

So—and here we really get to what is speculation on my part, but speculation that I am 80% certain is correct—we come to the events of the past five days.  Speculation number one: leading up to the BOG’s scheduled meeting for December 14th, during which it would respond to the BOT proposal, Chancellor Folt and the UNC administration lobbied the BOG to table the BOT proposal.  In other words, the campus response to the BOT proposal had led to yet another “evolution.”  Now the Chancellor wanted the BOG to reject her own proposal.

In the meantime, the campus administration was desperate, in particular, to head off a grade strike, convinced that such a strike would only strengthen the hand of the right wing in the state by generating public outrage over campus teachers not doing their jobs.  That desperation led to campus officials threatening those who withheld grades with expulsion and with financial penalties.  I think the administration over-reacted, both because actual participation in such a strike was always going to be much, much less prevalent than they imagined, and because the threats only cemented the determination of the most dedicated to not back down.  In any negotiation, you need to give the other side a face-saving way to back down.  But the administration didn’t negotiate; it simply made its threats.  (Let me add here, that the administration’s failure, over the past two years, to engage in any serious negotiations with black faculty is, to my mind, is its greatest—and most egregious—failure during this whole saga.)

The BOG not only tabled the BOT proposal at is December 14th meeting—but rejected it altogether.  The can got kicked down the road again.  The time honored formula was followed: appoint a committee to look into the issue and come up with a recommendation.  This new recommendation is to be ready by March 15, 2019.  This non-resolution was announced after a three hour closed session of the BOG.

So here comes speculation number two, since obviously I cannot know what went on behind closed doors.  My claim: the most conservative members of the BOG lost.  The three hours gave those conservatives time to vent.  But if the far righters had the votes to force the return of the statue to the pedestal, they would have held that vote and won.  The formation of a committee means that the return of Silent Sam to the now empty pedestal is never going to happen.  The far right’s moment to force reinstallation has now come and gone.  They were outvoted.  Folt and the UNC administration had successfully lobbied the BOG to not recommend the restoration of the statue to its former place.

That also means that the campus protesters have won a partial victory—only partial but none the less extremely significant.  One problem, of course, is that their victory cannot be publicly acknowledged by the administration or by the BOG because they do not wish to rile up the state legislature.  But the failure to acknowledge the victory also means that many on the left do not believe—or understand—that restoration of the statue will never occur.  Some on the left are fighting the wrong battle at this point, fighting against restoration, not against its relocation on campus.  And the left is also missing its chance to declare victory—when victories, especially when partial, are a means to attracting more people to a cause.  “See what we have accomplished so far.  But there is still more to be done.  Join us.”

That the BOG failed to recommend restoration signals a split among its members.  Without a doubt, some hardliners on the Board favored restoration.  That certain Board members have taken to the press to express their hardliner positions is a sign of weakness, not strength.  They knew they did not have a majority on the board, so were going public in an effort to stir up enough public outrage to move their fellow board members in their direction.  For that reason, the left wing should ignore the public comments of these BOG outliers.  For better and for worse, in the non-democracy that is North Carolina (hat tip to my colleague Andy Reynolds) what happens in public is mere froth.  The real action is in the back rooms.

So what is happening in the back rooms?  That depends on how severe the schism is between “moderate” business Republicans and the social conservatives.  How pissed off are the business folks at the loss of Apple and at the general loss of reputation for the whole state, which now exists in the same nether world as South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi after decades of priding itself on being more sensible than that.  Because the action moves now to the state legislature. (In that busy last week leading up to the December 14th meeting of the BOG, Apple announced it is expanding in Austin, Cupertino, and San Diego.  North Carolina’s failure to resolve the Silent Sam mess meant it lost Apple.  You will object: but Texas is hardly a beacon of progressivism.  Yes, but they removed confederate monuments on the University of Texas campus and there was barely a stir.)

The March 15th deadline is to provide time to lobby the legislators to accept an off-campus disposition of the statue, to put the Silent Sam mess behind us once and for all.  I have no idea as to what the outcome will be because I have no idea about the balance of power between the business Republicans and the social conservatives.  Part of me wants to say that money always wins—and, thus, if the business Republicans really want to solve this problem once and for all, they will get their way.  But I don’t know just how pressing they think solving the problem is.  And the pessimist in me says that we have tons of evidence that, in fact, it is culture that always wins.  Racism and lots of other deep-seated cultural values/beliefs are demonstrably economically harmful—but seem ineradicable just the same. (Of course, I really, really wish that the “right” thing–morally–would be what wins, but somehow it seems to lose out to money or culture just about every time.)

This is non-democracy 2018 style.  The decision will be made in the backrooms—and the politicians involved will be swayed by their ambitions within the Republican party pecking order and by their need to have money to run their campaigns.  Public opinion on the issue might play a 10% role in which way they finally choose to jump.  Their own personal convictions about what is the right thing to do will play a 15% role for some of them, and no role at all for others of them.  What they will do is what they deem it is safe to do.  They are about avoiding pain, avoiding losing office, and not about doing anything positive.  It is all about avoiding the negative.

Despite our well-grounded fears about the decline of faculty governance, the university is much more democratic than the general polity.  All the campus protests have accomplished a lot.  We have pushed the evolution of the Chancellor and have insured that the statue is not restored.  I don’t know how campus activism can influence this next stage.  The administration clearly fears that aggressive tactics like a strike will back-fire, handing the right wing a hammer to use against us.  That is certainly a plausible fear.  Escalating a fight in a way that leaves no face-saving exit, in a way that backs your opponent into a corner, often leads to non-optimal results.  But backing down in a fight can also be taken as a sign of weakness—a weakness that your opponent will then move to exploit.  There simply is no infallible rule here about which tactics will work best.  The elites—the legislators and the Republican power brokers—who now have to decide the statue’s fate are, for the most part, beyond the reach of us on campus.  We can only reach them indirectly, by keeping up the pressure on the Chancellor.

But even there, I think it fair to say that the Chancellor deserves a grade of B+ for fall semester 2018 (her grade for prior semesters would be much lower in my opinion.)  She has swung the BOG over to her side, a substantial feat.  They have now come to accept that the statue cannot be restored to its former place.  At this point, it pretty much is out of Folt’s hands.  She has to leave it to the BOG to do the lobbying of the legislature—and hope that they can pull off the impressive feat of getting the law relaxed in such a way as to allow for a off-campus installation of the damn thing.  Stay tuned.

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.