Review: The Great Agnostic, by Susan Jacoby

Just read Susan Jacoby’s biography of Robert Ingersoll: America’s eloquent and passionate mid-19th century orator who was a popularizer of science, an early champion of full equal rights for women, an abolitionist, a booster of Thomas Paine, a critic of anti-immigrant policies and religion… a man who was obsessed with justice, a believer in the intrinsic goodness of human nature, and promoter of universal human rights. It’s relatively brief, but if you’d like a quality introduction to one of America’s greatest, I highly recommend this book!

What’s especially impressive about Ingersoll was that his views on immigration, women’s and immigrant’s rights, and religious liberty (both from and of) were nearly wholly untarnished by the prejudices of his time, unlike many of his contemporaries. For example, even the great Elizabeth Cady Stanton used racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric in her advocacy for women’s rights, and Herbert Spencer used his interpretation of Darwinism to promote eugenicist policies. In contrast, Ingersoll’s commitment to justice ran so deep that he rejected such bigoted ideas, instead promoting Darwin’s own view that human beings, in a state of civilization, thrive precisely because we are cooperative, altruistic, and empathetic, and that the theory of evolution reveals that the human race is one big family.

Jacoby, Susan. The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. New Naven: Yale University Press, 2013.

What Does ‘Lapsed’ Mean Anyway When Referring to an Ex-Religionist?

I’ve long thought it strange to be referred to as a ‘lapsed Catholic’. I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic religion, which I rejected in my early adulthood. 

‘Lapsed’, in pretty much every other common usage of the term, refers to a kind of just letting something go or expire, such as letting an insurance policy or subscription ‘lapse’ by forgetting to pay on time, or it could refer to simply losing interest. Many who still subscribe to the religion of their parents, either because they still actually believe in it or because they just let their membership continue (as it never occurred to them to examine their beliefs, its own brand of carelessness), are simply unaware that many who no longer believe made an active decision to reject religion, for the best of reasons. 

For myself as for so many others, rejecting the religion of my youth was a long, thoughtful, difficult, yet ultimately emancipatory and joyful process. Those who refer to me and others like me as ‘lapsed’ because they intend to imply carelessness, laziness, or lacking the strength of character necessary for satisfying religious demands, are doing us an injustice. Such dismissiveness may be simple thoughtlessness, but more often, it’s indicative of a desire to cast aspersions on deconversion (unless, of course, we’re talking about deconversion from a rival religion!). Yet, remaining within the comforting cocoon of the belief system of one’s youth, with its automatic community membership and societal approval, actually seems to me to be the easy way to go. Critiquing and then rejecting one’s beliefs out of principle is much harder, and especially so for those leaving a religion that’s enforced by threats, such as hellfire or isolation from the community. For so many of us, rejecting religion is not at all a passive thing: it’s matter of acting on logical and moral convictions and of commitment to personal integrity.

A core assumption behind religious commitment is that faith is necessary for becoming a truly good human being. Many believe that life is a test and faith is necessary for passing it, for proving one’s worthiness of redemption. Knowledge, or fact-based belief, is not enough, because faith, believing without proof, is much more difficult. The faithful, therefore, prove themselves most worthy of eternal reward. 

I know I’m not alone in thinking that this is a strange assumption. As I mentioned earlier, it seems to me that holding onto unquestioned beliefs is the easy way to go. It’s what we do when we just want to to go with the flow, to avoid conflict with friends and family, to feel that easy assurance that we’re doing all that’s really required of us. On the other hand, requiring ourselves to carefully consider and weigh the evidence before accepting a truth claim, and to examine a theory’s tendency to generate accurate predictions before we consider it worthy of belief, requires an intellectual rigor that’s difficult and often very inconvenient. Of course, I’m not claiming that the process of questioning one’s beliefs is exclusive to the non-religious; many religious people subject their beliefs to the process of rigorous examination and find they remain convinced of the truth of their beliefs. What I am saying is that the assumptions behind referring to the no-longer-religious as ‘lapsed’ are fallacious and unjust.

Another common assumption behind the supposed superiority of faith is that it’s a mark of humility, traditionally a high religious virtue. Putting aside for the moment the assumption that it’s always a good thing, I’m not at all convinced that humility has any direct link to faith. In fact, saying ‘I don’t know’ when the evidence is unavailable, ‘proportion[ing] belief according to the evidence’ as Hume says of the wise man, is much more humble, much more honest, it seems to me, than the cannot-be-questioned assertions of faith. Epistemic humility, holding oneself accountable to the evidence, is much more appropriate. given how tenuous knowledge claims really are. In a world where our beliefs are constantly challenged and what we think we know is disproved by better arguments and new scientific discoveries, the assertions of faith appear more like a form of arrogance than anything else.

So, while I know that many religious people do honestly examine their beliefs and remain confident they believe what’s true, none have the right to assume that those who no longer hold religious beliefs have carelessly ‘lapsed’. Most of us, you can be assured, have not.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Revised Aug 8th 2015, original version was posted 24th April 2013

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.
Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.

What Does ‘Lapsed’ Mean Anyway When Referring to an Ex-Religionist? (Original)

I’ve long thought it strange to be referred to as a ‘lapsed Catholic’. I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic religion, which I rejected in my early adulthood. ‘Lapsed’, in pretty much every other common usage of the term, refers to a kind of just letting something go or expire, such as letting an insurance policy or subscription ‘lapse’ by forgetting to pay on time, or, simply losing interest. I think that many Catholics and others who subscribe to the religion of their parents (either because they actually believe, or, interestingly, because they just let their membership continue because they forgot or never had much interest in examining the belief system in the first place: its own brand of carelessness) are unaware that so many who no longer believe in the doctrines they were taught in their youth made an active decision to reject them for the best of reasons. For myself as it is for so many others, rejecting the religion of my youth was a long, thoughtful, difficult, yet ultimately emancipatory and joyful process. If those who refer to me and others like me as ‘lapsed’ in the sense of implying carelessness or laziness, or that we just didn’t want to put the effort into satisfying religious demands, they are doing us an injustice. Such dismissiveness may sometimes simply be thoughtless, but it more often smacks of the desire to cast aspersion on deconversion (unless, of course, we’re talking about deconversion from a rival religion!). Yet, remaining within the comforting cocoon of the belief system of one’s youth, with its automatic community membership and societal approval, seems to me to be the easy way to go; critiquing and rejecting one’s beliefs is much harder. This is especially so for religious beliefs that are accompanied by threats, such as hellfire or isolation from a community. For so many of us (and I think most of us ex-religionists), rejecting religion is not passive at all; it’s matter of acting on convictions founded on morals, logic, and a commitment to personal integrity.

I think that a core assumption behind the tendency to dismiss the validity of rejecting dogma is that ‘faith’ is necessary for a human being to be or to become a truly good human being. But why? I’ve heard it said that faith is what’s needed to pass the test for living a worthy life, that knowledge is not enough. Faith, believing without proof, is what’s really difficult, so the assumption goes; therefore, it’s an achievement that’s worthy of reward. I know I’m not alone in thinking that this assumption seems strange. As aforementioned, believing unquestioningly seems to me the easy way to go, and is what we do when we just want to go along with what feels good at the moment, or with what our buddies want us to agree with, or what self-appointed leaders want us to thoughtlessly assent to, or what our communities and families pressure us into. Assenting to the truth of a proposition fully only after careful consideration and weighing of the evidence, or judging whether we’re justified in believing it to be true based on its tendency to generate accurate predictions, is more indicative of intellectual rigor.  Humbly saying ‘I don’t know’ when the evidence is unavailable, ‘proportion[ing] belief according to the evidence’ (as Hume says of the wise man), requiring intellectual rigor of ourselves when important decisions require this: all of these are much more honest, it seems to me, and much harder work, than relying on faith or unexamined dogmas. While I know that many religionists do examine their beliefs and are confident they believe what’s true, none have the right to assume that ex-religionists have carelessly ‘lapsed’. Most of us, you can be assured, have not.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Originally posted 24th April 2013 by Amy Cools. See revised essay here

Why I Am No Longer Convinced by Libertarian Economic Arguments

140f6-the2bliberal2bdeviseth2bliberal2bthingsTo live a full, happy, and purposeful life, a person must be free to express their personality and to further their own interests; to love, speak, sing, fight, have relationships, make art, argue, have sex, see the world, make children, to live and die where, how, and when they please. The richness, complexity, and variety of the human experience is something to be treasured, admired, marveled at, and loved, to anyone who is humanistic, who values their own integrity as an individual and that of others as well. So, to suppress or make laws against any of these expressions of human nature could be viewed as an intolerable oppression, only justified if necessary to protect the freedom of one person from the excesses or oppression of another. People’s freedom should be limited, then, minimally and with great care.

Because I believe in these things, I was attracted for awhile by free market arguments regarding the justice of regulating how people can spend and use their money and property. The main argument goes like this: just as a person should be free to live their lives as they see fit, so they should be able to do whatever they like with their own body and their own property which, by extension, includes their money. This seemed, on the face of it, a fair and reasonable assumption. However, upon inquiry, I discovered so many questionable, harmful, and downright awful consequences of an unfettered free market, that I wondered if I had made a mistake. I found that I had.

Actions that are expressions of personality are not the same sort of thing as spending money. Money does not talk: it buys. Things that one does with wealth, from consuming to spending to hoarding it, impact others in a way that most other personal decisions do not. The personal use of money can be likened to the use of a tool, something like driving a car or shooting a gun. While money can be very useful and very conducive to more fully enjoying one’s liberty, its misuse can, and often does, collide with and limit the freedoms of others once the collective effects of spending decisions affect the wider community. Our short-term decisions on how money is spent, based on our own narrow interests, have an effect on others’ lives in ways that even the most experienced economists still poorly understand and have great difficulty predicting.

So, while immediate economic decisions are in our control, such deciding whether to buy a particular television or brand of food, the flow of money in the economy at large is not. The economy, on this scale, is more comparable to the weather: if we were somehow able to tinker with it like we can the economy, by making a few clouds appear here, redirecting all the wind and rain to one spot over there, or artificially creating some entirely new weather phenomena, we could, in theory, help more crops grow or prevent floods. We could also step back and let the weather freely wreak help or havoc as it will: we could tear down all dams and dykes, stop building storm drains and tornado shelters, stop irrigating fields. Mistakes of over-manipulation and under-regulation can lead to catastrophic effects in the economy as well. Consider the spike in food prices that led to a steep rise in prices, the weakening of economies throughout the world, and mass starvation in the poorest countries in the late twenty-oughts. This was caused by market speculation at a time when the food supply was stable and sufficient to feed everyone, but weakened regulation of the financial market led many to gamble on exotic new financial products. Consider also the high poverty levels and extreme disparity and hoarding of wealth by a few in less regulated economies and in countries with weak or corrupt governments.

So, my mistake was conflating freedom and the vibrant expression of personality with the use of money. The use of money can further these, but it is not necessary to liberty. As light behaves as both a particle and a wave, so we see how money in the marketplace functions both as a tool and a force of nature. In an individual life, it can do so much: obtain food, drink, shelter, those necessary and beautiful things for a full and satisfying life. On a large scale, it can drive innovation, obtain ever higher standards of living for communities, foster the arts, and so much more. But, its large and small scale misuse and misregulation can also have a devastating impact, as we have seen time and time again throughout history. It seems clear, then, that there are times that the free market should be allowed free reign to do its work to improve our lives. It is also clear that careful regulation and public control of money through representative government is necessary to curb our excesses, correct imbalances, and use it to further the interests of society as a whole rather than particular individuals or groups when it’s necessary to achieve a great public good. Throughout history until today, individual greed and short-sighted self-interest ruin so many lives that a market, run well, might have improved. Therefore, we need to place reasonable limits our use of money if we do, in fact, value our own and each others’ liberty.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!