Category: 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.

Kim Evans Responds

Here’s is Kim’s correction of my mis-understanding of her project.

Dearest John,

Many thanks for the shout out! I’m intrigued by your account of my argument and your response to it—which has sent my head spinning (not in an unpleasant way). Here are a few initial reactions, and since you paint the scene with a useful mix of the personal and the intellectual I’ll respond in kind.

First, you have perfectly captured the gist of our not-wasting-any-time-with-chit-chat encounter: that by changing the original meaning of “noumena” from “that which is thought” to his own “things as they are, independent of observation,” Kant not only altered (detrimentally) the trajectory of thought in the modern era but also created the conditions for our enduring misreading of Plato. Ironically, Plato gets the rap for Kant’s dualism.

However, I did *not* say (as you report) that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” I’m sorry to be so fastidious on this point, but something I find preoccupying is how confused many people have become about concepts (or what it means to have the use of a concept) and concept formation. The confusion is largely due (thanks for nothing, Kant!) to the belief that concepts are formed in the individual theater of the mind. You are still reading Kant or operating out of a set of assumptions established for you by philosophers in the modern era (after the defining work of Descartes and Locke) when in the second half of your post you object to what you call my idealism or worry about the way that all this talk about concepts “confines humans within the boundaries of our languages.” This Kantian view of concepts (as an activity of mind) simply does not map onto the view we find in Plato’s writing. Plato calls attention to the world of forms in order to help us see how language actually works. And discovering how language actually works, according to good readers of Plato (like Wittgenstein) and good readers of Wittgenstein (like Bernard Harrison), helps us to see how a) the “meaning” of a word or linguistic expression—“whale,” for example—doesn’t come, as it were, from Nature and it doesn’t come from Mind; it comes from the role the world plays in language, and b) the meaning of a word can’t be divorced from the wide array of socially devised and maintained practices in which the speakers of language are engaged.  This should come as an enormous relief to anyone who wishes, as you do, to emphasize the central importance of practices in the formation of concepts. I could also say here that something you presumably like about Wittgenstein is that he both denies the existence of a referential relationship between words and things and at the same time dispels the view that language is self-referential, the meaning of its signs established by nothing more than the history of language. But for goodness’ sake let’s please finally concede that this is in fact the position of the classical realists and their best readers (like C. S. Peirce)—though this will presumably only happen when we get back to reading Plato’s dialogues instead of using him as a foil.

SO, to repeat, I did not say that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” After all, we’ve never had any problem grasping things! The matter that needs explaining is how we grasp thoughts (or the thoughts our words express, which all together make up what Plato called the noumenal realm) and also how the thought a word expresses is affected by or sedimented out of our undeniable placement in the phenomenal realm or world of empirical objects, forces, etc.

The formulation I prefer (and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, would like to be remembered by) is this one:

For Plato, the real world is the world of things signified by the signs in our language. 


The things signified by the signs in our language (“the living whale in his full majesty and significance” in Melville’s signature expression, when the sign is “whale”) are what Plato calls real.

What I like about this formulation is that it gets us away from all the garbled transcendentalism misleadingly associated with Plato but really pushed by philosophers in the modern era (for example all the talk about the “stability” of the forms) and back to the view, which is the view we get from reading Plato’s dialogues, that our concepts are in motion. (They are in motion because they are always being revised and added to, as you say, but this does not make them subjective. For Plato concepts are not private but public.)

Now, there is something else at work here that I think is worth remarking on. In your post you comment on your reading habits (that you only skim the news but prefer to read books, the longer the better) and you reference (with sympathy or shared feeling, I think) my remark that the sound of not reading is what we mostly hear. But then, after introducing my position (as found in my MLA talk, but given full development in my new book, One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed) you go on to spell out a difference you see between your position and mine on the grounds that what I say about concepts has not taken enough account of practices. But good god, man! As the author of a book about, precisely, the relationship between concepts and practices or the materiality of our conceptual lives (through the lens of Melville’s Moby-Dick, the most practice-aware study of concepts in all recorded thought!) I’m puzzled by your account. I can only imagine that you are not reading all of the book in which the view you characterize is laid out. This would be perfectly understandable, given the demands of life. Even the most intelligent and serious of readers learn to make use of reviews, rumors, and what they can glean from titles. (And speaking of reviews, I’ll paste below the first few paragraphs of one of the reviews of One Foot so that you don’t have to take my word for it on the question of my focus on practice.) But I am nevertheless interested in the likelihood of people not reading because not-reading seems to have become the means by which our profession keeps chugging along. Well, to speak more accurately, your profession, since as you point out I am no longer paid by anyone to be a reader of texts or to help other people undertake that work. Payment, as my latest labor of love suggests, is not necessary—though the want of it is profoundly uncomfortable & of course the kids suffer.

In any event I am brought back to something you said at the beginning of your post. I am extremely happy to be characterized by you as “a scholar of rare conviction and a thinker of even rarer originality,” and wouldn’t it be nice to think that this is the reason I am presently unemployed! My feeling is that the truth is more mundane and (to me) more unsettling. My last position, as you know, was Associate Professor of Literature and Philosophy at Yeshiva University, and when I am asked what happened there the best way I have of explaining is with a line cribbed from The Great Gatsby. I say I fell into the hands of careless people. ‘Careless’ is perhaps less damning a mode than many others (like ‘ill-willed’ or ‘frightened by originality’) but I think that when it is the mode taken up by professional readers and critics it can feel almost calculated—an engine of professional life rather than an obstacle to it. Isn’t that what Kant demonstrated, when in his Critique of Pure Reason his “unwarrantable” use of the word “noumena” (to quote Schopenhauer) both launched his own career and buried Plato’s own view under two centuries of misreading?

I’m sure I have made certain missteps, here—but oh, the pressure of a blog to respond quickly! I prefer the slowness of books. And shouldn’t books be read as deliberately as they were written? When did that way of reading end, and what will be the result?


Very much love, Kim

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2018.04.28 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

  1. L. Evans,One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed, Northwestern University Press, 2018, 210pp., $34.95 (pbk.), ISBN 9780810136120.

Reviewed by Gary Shapiro, University of Richmond

Recently there has been an explosion of Anglophone philosophical interest in Herman Melville. The author of Moby Dick, or the Whale (1851) was neglected until the Melville renaissance that began among literary critics and historians in the 1920s and that has grown steadily since. However, it is only recently that those working in the analytical philosophical vein have turned their attention to the writer. Others writing in English with a more continental orientation have produced several monographs and essay collections in just the last three years or so. These studies were preceded some decades ago by a number of European thinkers, such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Ranciére, and Giorgio Agamben. Evans’s book should be of great interest to those seeking a strong interpretation of Melville’s great novel and to those exploring the value of Wittgenstein’s thought for literary analysis.

Evans focuses specifically on Moby Dick. As her title suggests, she is interested in reclaiming Melville’s realism. In a larger sense, she joins in an effort to reclaim American literature for philosophy, a project identified most frequently, but not exclusively, with the work of Stanley Cavell. She advances a Wittgensteinian reading of the novel, claiming that Melville “in effect lays out a solution to the problem that has vexed philosophy since its inception — the problem of how we grasp thought” (118) or (just a bit more modestly) that he dissolves the Cartesian problem of bridging “the ontological chasm between nonspatiotemporal thoughts and spatiotemporally bound thinkers” (164). While Evans devotes about as much time to explaining her version of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, knowledge, and reality as to explicating and commenting on Melville’s text, she does offer a number of distinctive readings of the latter inspired by the former analysis. This book offers an original understanding of Melville’s realism and argues that, so understood, the novel is quite coherent, contrary to many critics who regard it as a poorly patched together combination of a realistic whaling narrative and a metaphysical tragedy.

Evans comments acutely on a signature philosophical passage in Moby Dick that compares a whaling vessel hauling along two dead whales, one on each side, and so precariously balancing itself, to a thinker attempting to juggle Locke and Kant (chapter 73). Nominalistic empiricism competes with the transcendental a priori: is our knowledge limited to the things of sense, or do we possess concepts and forms of intuition that invariably structure our experience while rendering the noumenal world inaccessible? The narrator comments on the plight of those who “for ever keep trimming boat” as they compensate for a tilt toward one by hoisting up the other side. Evans endorses the narrator’s exclamation: “Oh, ye foolish! Throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right.” Melville, as read through Evans’s take on Wittgenstein, recognizes that our concepts are embedded in common forms of life, elements of a rich and complex network of habits, customs, practices, and institutions. The “living whale in his full majesty and significance” — a phrase that Evans repeats with increasing resonance — is not to be reduced either to a set of sensible experiences nor to the idea that a single person might form of the cetacean. The whale is the object of those forms of life practiced by whalemen who pursue, catch, slaughter, process, and are sometimes the victim of the leviathan.

Throughout, Evans engages in a running discussion with a number of Wittgenstein’s leading interpreters and commentators. She is particularly partial to Bernard Harrison’s explication of meaning as use and the concept of language games. Evans suggests a continuity which has not always been apparent between the “logical space” of theTractatus and the Investigations‘s focus on use. In clarifying this project, she observes — rightly, I believe — that it is misleading to reduce Wittgenstein’s meaningful “facts” to mere “things,” as the Pears and McGuiness Tractatus translation tends to do. Literary scholars inspired by (say) Cavell’s readings of Emerson and Thoreau should find these analyses, which are bolstered by discussions in the extensive notes, especially helpful. Philosophers who are in the current Wittgenstein loop may find them a bit repetitious, while others less conversant with relatively recent relevant discussions may be grateful for them……


Platonic Realism

Just back from the annual MLA convention.  The most interesting conversation I had there was a ten minute off-the-cuff unplanned encounter with Kim Evans (author of two splendid books on Melville and whom I shall call K.).  The Kafkaesque name is appropriate since K, a scholar of rare conviction and a thinker of even rarer originality, has never secured a place in the academy, mostly because fierce devotion to stringent thought terrifies most people, even purported intellectuals.  As K put it this time, you don’t have to listen too hard to hear the sound of people not reading.

Made me think of my own reading habits, which have not changed much over the years.  Skimming is all I ever do with a newspaper or anything on the internet, although I do check in on them both.  I have given up on NPR entirely, with its studied air of profundity as it dishes out the most tired platitudes and always manages to somehow fail to get to the heart of the matter.  I read the New York and London Review of Books, and Kevin Drum (the Mother Jones blogger) very faithfully, and selectively read bits of the New Yorker.  I have never been one for academic journals, confining myself almost entirely to books, particularly books I can own and mark up. The longer the book the better since I like to climb deeply into a writer’s thoughts.  And I read novels, biographies, and histories that I take out of the public library as my nighttime avoidance of TV since I find the various programs that people recommend (Orange is the New Black, or The Good Place for example) too thin to hold my interest.

All of this is by the way, however.  Characteristically, K was not really interested in exchanging chit-chat with me, but with explaining the insight that Kant had got Plato utterly wrong—and thus initiated our prevalent misreading of Plato.  By designating “noumenon” as the “thing-in-itself” and deeming that thing inaccessible, Kant had created a chasm between the (not fully real) world of “phenomenon” and the unreachable world of the noumenon.  We (i.e. humans) couldn’t fully exist in either, since we are the mere playthings of material laws (of physics) in the phenomenal world, while our true vocation, our freedom as rational beings, depends on a relation to the noumenal world that we cannot fully inhabit.  To think that Plato shared this dualism, in his distinction between the world of appearances and the world of Forms, is, K insisted, a mistake.

Rather, we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.  The world only becomes real when apprehended, and the forms are both the means and the result of acts of apprehension.  A thing without its animating concept is just inert matter.  The concept opens up the thing to use, to participation in human projects.  And if that can seem too utilitarian, we need only have a very capacious notion of human projects, of human ways of being in the world, of being with things and with others.  Or to quote K: “knowing what something is means having the use of a concept.  And having the use of a concept doesn’t mean connecting a word with some extra-mental feature of the natural world or with knowing the meaning of something that exists independent of observation.  On the contrary, a person’s understanding of a concept is distributed throughout their way speaking, throughout their ability to talk sense.  Or as Melville would have us remember, knowing the meaning of the word ‘whale’ involves knowing the role the word plays in language” (K’s emphasis). [The quoted passage is from K’s MLA paper, which is itself a teaser for her full development of her case in One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed (Northwestern UP, 2017).]

The point is that despair over our epistemological limitations is characteristic of modern philosophy (from Descartes through the empiricists and Kantians right on to the logical positivists), not of Plato or the medieval realists.  Our concepts are not identical with the material things they grasp, but they are adequate graspings.  What is the proof of their adequacy?  Here K and I part company.  Her answer seems too idealistic (in the technical sense) to me.  To stress the ability to use the concept as “the ability to talk sense” confines humans (it seems to me) within the boundaries of their languages.  I want knowledge to be more that “knowing the role a word plays in language.”  I want, in other words, some push-back from the whale.  I want our concepts to grow and change in response to our interactions with the things those concepts would grasp.

In short, I am inclined to move from “language” to “practices.”  Just as we step into our culture’s language (individuals do not invent language, they are “thrown” [to use Heidegger’s term] into a language they must learn how to use), we also step into its practices, its institutions.  We do things as well as speak.  When we go whale-hunting, we are guided by a set of procedures that have been established by those who proceeded us.  Those predecessors have also created a whole set of tools they found useful for doing the job.  But the next generation can also alter the practices, create new tools, in response to their experiences in trying to get the job done.

Similarly, of course, our language’s concepts are always in motion, always being revised in an attempt to make them more adequate, more expressive of all the qualities (complexities) of the item they are trying to capture.  Whether it be a “whale” or “guilt,” experience keeps outrunning our received notions, our inherited concepts.  This is the “more” to which William James was always fond of calling our attention.  Our language is open to the world, just as our practices often experience the frustration of not working because things resist our manipulation, our grasping, of them.  Perhaps the way to characterize this difference between K and me is the stress she places on “knowing.”  K is interested in “knowing what something is.”  I, along with the pragmatists (and I read Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin as fellow-travelers here), am not interested (particularly) in knowing what something is; instead, I am interested in the terms of my relation to that other, to my interaction with it.  Concepts and practices establish (project) modes of relation, of interaction—and then the unfolding of the actual interaction shifts the relation (in good or in undesirable ways) and lead to the ongoing revision of the concepts and practices.  If this is a species of “knowing,” it is one that is tactile and dialectical, interactive.  The whale has something to say too.

I guess this means that I read Plato—and the medieval realists—as committed to the stability of the forms, or the concepts they deemed “real.”  I want the more dynamic inter-play between human concepts/practices and non-human things that I find in the pragmatists and in Wittgenstein.  Because the pragmatists (certainly) and Wittgenstein (in my reading of him, admittedly more controversial) emphasize our concept’s “usefulness” even while emphasizing their “fallibility,” James and Dewey shy away from any claims to “realism.”  We have practices and concepts that “work,” that do not run into deep resistance from things, but we are also very often meeting resistance where we didn’t expect to, and also often (to our delight or to our dismay according to the circumstances) discovering that there was “more” under heaven and earth than our prevailing notions and practices thought.  I will settle for “good enough” knowledge, being able in Wittgenstein’s phrase “to go on,” without insisting that (or even worrying my head over whether or not) I have some grasp of “the real.”  Especially if the real is to be understood as unchanging and as all there is to be said (or done) on the subject.

I know that this pragmatist quest for “what works,” what is adequate to the purposes at hand, as opposed to a search for the “real,” infuriates the philosophers.  The responses to James and Rorty make that abundantly clear.  At that point, I am inclined to accept James’s argument that it comes down to a matter of temperament.  Some people just have (apparently unquenchable) transcendental longings, the ability to be in touch with the “really real,” and others don’t feel the need or urge.

But it is worth ending where K and I join hands: the “modern” despair over an inability of humans to encounter the real is unjustified.  Empiricism, with its weird elevation of direct sensual experience as our only point of access to the real combined with its torturous wanderings into worries about mental images and the Lockean “way of ideas” (skewered so wonderfully in J. L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia), is a dead end, while Kant’s desperate effort to save freedom from materialistic determinism is a cure almost worse than the disease.