The Love of Possession is a Disease With Them

Lakota giveaway ceremony, photo origin unknown

In my recent readings in the history of the Lakota and other native peoples of America’s Great Plains, I’ve been struck by descriptions of their giveaway ceremonies. They remind me of another practice I had learned of before, and which I believe is more generally familiar: the potlatch, a related custom practiced by Native Americans of the Northwest. Potlatches generally came with strict expectations of giving the gifts away again promptly, and then some. These exchanges cemented power relations and were often aggressively competitive; they’re better understood as tactical, sociopolitical transactions rather than simple acts of generosity.

Lakota giveaway ceremonies, however, are much more altruistic in the sense that we commonly understand the term. The gifts are given freely with no expectation of payback; in fact, the resulting impoverishment itself is a badge of honor. That’s why I chose a quote by Sitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief, to introduce this essay. He once illustrated the contrast between Lakota and white attitudes towards property by telling how his poverty aroused the admiration of his people, rather than the disdain most white people feel toward such a state. To those who share Sitting Bull’s impression of the invaders of his homeland, the driving need to amass and own material goods can be a sign of spiritual poverty.

Today’s United States, like those nations most similar to her in culture and economy, is very much not characterized by that less-is-more spirit. This is nothing new. The United States and Canadian governments’ historical prohibitions on giveaway ceremonies in vanquished tribes indicate that Sitting Bull’s characterization of white culture describes something that’s been around for quite a while. These governments viewed giveaway ceremonies as a challenge to the enthusiasm for a market-driven type of productive cooperation they wished to instill in the nations they conquered. These and other Western societies (derived from Europe) had been centered around the production, acquisition, accumulation, and display of goods particularly since the industrial age. This is reflected in our values, our mores, our politics, our language, our cultural attitudes, the ways we celebrate holidays and major life events, and even, increasingly, our religious and spiritual practices.

The free market system, a new style of trade characterized by Adam Smith as that best for improving lives of all human beings most efficiently, has indeed instilled many good practices and attitudes. For example, we’re less likely to see other nations and cultures as enemies when we cultivate relationships as trading partners; we see the effects of this change in international relations and in the relative peacefulness of the modern world to those which practiced the old feudal and mercantilist systems. We also see that more people throughout the world now live longer, more comfortable lives than ever before, as the market incentivizes and drives innovation to respond more efficiently to demand. But there have always been downsides to free markets too. Think of the slave trade; trade wars; colonialism; invasion and confiscation of indigenous lands; the immiseration of working people in squalid industrial towns and dismal factories; price- and wage-fixing by trusts and monopolies; and vast inequalities in wealth and in chances of success are but a few examples. Such practices and inefficiencies are not merely excesses or abuses perpetrated by a few bad actors: they are regular and expected outcomes of a system whose purpose is to maximize profit and come out ahead of everyone else.

And now, we see that market values have pervaded all levels of our consciousness, our self-conception of who we are and how we should best inhabit our world. As philosopher Michael Sandel describes it, we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society. The way we live, think, and feel is pervaded by consumerism. We’ve become buyers and sellers to the extent that we have become products ourselves, marketed and commodified, valued in work and in life insofar as we present ourselves the right way, are seen in the right places, wear the right brands and styles, drive the right cars, and use the right products.

And this has led us to a new problem, one unimaginable to John Locke, Adam Smith, and others who developed the theories about property rights and the benefits of open markets that we take for granted today. Human societies were relatively small then, and the uninhabited regions and untapped resources of the world seemed vast, even endless by comparison. It’s very different today. The population of the world has grown so large, our technological ability to produce goods from raw materials so varied, efficient, and prolific, and our ingrained habits of making, amassing, and consuming voraciously is leading us to a crisis of mass waste, pollution, and climate change.

The pollution problem can be seen as the modern corollary of Thomas Malthus’ 1798 theory that human reproduction would inevitably outstrip food production, leading to mass impoverishment. Though Malthus’ ideas had long gone out of fashion with advancements in agricultural technology and the widespread use of birth control, he’s enjoying a bit of a comeback. However long technology can stave off many of the ill effects of exponential population growth, the earth’s habitable surface and ability to produce what we need to survive (let alone to live well) is finite nonetheless. This is also true of our atmosphere’s ability to absorb the off-gassing of our industries without changing our biosphere’s ability to sustain the life it gave rise to. Over the centuries and decades, concerns about human impact on the natural world and its life-sustaining resources swing from optimism that we can and will create new technology and social practices that will solve everything, to worry that we won’t be sufficiently motivated or innovative in time to stave off the destruction of our own habitat.

In my years past working at a recycling and salvage operation, I observed a part of the massive flow of waste we generate, much of it perfectly good stuff we just throw away. The sheer volume of it all haunts me still. Photo of Amy Cools by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

Beginning with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Springenvironmental consciousness is becoming ever more pervasive across the political spectrum. But it seems that ecological responsibility is still an ideal that has not yet changed our behavior except in a few token ways. Even progressive, self-consciously ‘green’ micro-cultures, such as that of the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, generally consume and discard on a very large scale. There’s a strong market here for innovations in green products such as compostable and reusable utensils and packaging, recycled fiber and bamboo clothing, energy-efficient technology, and more. Some of this technology replaces other arrays of products such as CDs, books, ledgers, pens and pencils, camera film, landline telephones, and so on, and could in time reduce the amount of stuff made. Yet new generations and styles of products replace the old ones almost as often and quickly as they are introduced, and the things which the new products replace in turn become trash. And in the case of technology, particularly toxic trash. There are recycling programs, to be sure, but they don’t keep up with the volume of discards, and the recycling process itself can be toxic. And the compostable packaging which cocoons every fashionable new product and every new gadget adds to the deluge. Take-out meal services and ready-to-make meals in a box are ever-increasing in popularity, every breakfast, lunch, and dinner wrapped in a soon-to-be-wad-of-trash. Newly ubiquitous reusable shopping bags and thinly-walled plastic bottles do little in the face of this accelerating volume of throwaway goods and conveniently, disposably-packaged everything.

What does all this mean on a planet now so dominated by humans, materialistic, energetic, intelligent, creative, productive, and exponentially-reproductive?

It does seem that our love of possession is a disease with us, not just in the moral and spiritual sense that Sitting Bull refers to. It’s become something palpable, something we see before our eyes, that we breathe in, that we swim among. It shares characteristics of cancer, growing, proliferating, invading at an accelerating rate, which we still likewise seem powerless to stop. And the gases from the production and decay of all this stuff is changing the climate from the one that gave rise to the evolution of, and now sustains and nurtures, the plants and animals that give us life.

So what do we do? How do we divert or change this deeply ingrained cultural habit, this seemingly unstoppable force that we’ve unleashed?

I think about that other thing Sitting Bull said, about his people respecting him not because he owned many things in the way valued by white people, but because he kept little for himself. How, then, if we shift our values? How if we began to regard the need to compulsively and conspicuously consume stuff as crass, as burdensome, as uncool, as unenlightened, even as pitiable?

This isn’t necessarily as unlikely or even as unimaginable as it might seem. We often take for granted that our love and pursuit of stuff is an immutable trait of the human psyche. Yet, that’s not the case, as evidenced by cultural and spiritual mores that differ widely; we can look to the surprise and disgust of Sitting Bull and his people when encountering the white invaders’ greed for gold, land, and buffalo hides. There is an idea from Japanese culture, mottainai, which has deep roots and is growing again in popularity. This complex and hard-to-translate idea includes a reverence for objects and the value of frugality, both of which preclude the wasteful, polluting consumerist practices of modern market societies. And there are many more cultural and spiritual traditions of long standing in which the possession of more goods than needed is considered a negative.

Asceticism is an extreme variety of this less-is more value, an ancient tradition in which one seeks to reach the highest levels of spiritual perfection by divesting themselves of all or most material goods and comforts. There is also the culture of the traveler and world citizen, those who own little since having too many things to haul around gets in the way of opportunities for adventure. There is also a modern fad, admittedly a rather niche conceit of those with higher incomes, of living in tiny, design-heavy, super-efficient homes, reducing one’s personal possessions to the most utilitarian minimum.

However, these ways of life, admired and admirable as they can be, are not workable for most people. Except for asceticism, they are also unaffordable for most people, and none of these work for those who have families to care for, or those who are elderly or disabled, and so on. What of the least wealthy among us, those who must opt for the cheaper products regardless of whether they’ll wear out and become trash sooner? And what about the joy of shopping for stuff, new and novel things that relieve the monotony and stress of an ordinary working life? Even in this realm of life, however, we do have an awareness that the short-term fun of buying stuff can lead to long-term unhappiness. For example, the extremes of material consumption, hoarding and compulsive shopping, are widely considered destructive and unhealthy, if not forms of mental illness. Expanding this sense of the unhealthiness of having too much stuff can be gradually extended to include things that we might sorta like at first but realize we won’t use much or care about for long. Over time, we can acculturate ourselves to less but higher quality things, and better yet, to value publicly owned goods more highly: parks, museums, public beaches, public buildings, and hopefully in the future, more community- and government- owned public amusement centers such as skating rinks, gyms, arcades, and so on.

Sitting Bull and his family, 1881

And while it might seem too difficult to inculcate the value of less-is-more, we can remember that many deeply-ingrained cultural values and habits have been purposely and quickly shifted. The right of gay people to marry and enjoy other equal benefits of society are now generally taken for granted when only two decades ago legal gay marriage was unimaginable to most. Smoking is widely considered unhealthy and a public nuisance, through just a few decades of education, public awareness campaigns, and taxation. Bullying, racist and sexist slurs, discriminatory practices, and many, many other bad habits, once so culturally pervasive, are no longer respectable.

While shopping and owning a lot of stuff might not seem to be habits as bad as any of the above, I believe that we’ll soon recognize that it might be. Now that there are so many of us in the world, we can no longer consider ourselves as morally responsible beings only as individuals when it comes to the health of our environment. With well over seven billion people on the earth increasing exponentially, we are now responsible to each other in the ways our actions contribute to the aggregate effects. Let’s make the effects of our presence on the earth not resemble those of a disease. Let’s instead make it more aligned with mottainai by treating the earth as the most precious object there is; more akin to the role of earth-steward as the God of Genesis called on his human creation to be; more akin to Sitting Bull and his generous less-is-more spirit. Our physical and spiritual health and our very lives depend upon it.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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Sources and Inspiration

Auxier, Randall. ‘Indian Givers‘, Nov 15th, 2013. Radically Empirical blog

Blaisdell. Robert (ed.) Great Speeches by Native Americans. NY: Dover, 2000.

Bruchac, Joseph. ‘Sacred Giving, Sacred Receiving‘, June 20, 2016, Parabola

Her Many Horses, Emil. ‘A Song for the Horse Nation: Remembering Lakota Ways‘. From A Song for the Horse Nation, edited by George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin) and Emil Her Many Horses

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.

Mottainai: a Philosophy of Waste‘. August, 2015. Interview and discussion with Kevin Taylor by Joe Gelonesi for The Philosopher’s Zone, a podcast of Radio National, Australia.

Pettipas, Katherine. Severing the Ties that Bind: Government Repression of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies on the Prairies. Winnepeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994.

Rachel Carson, American Experience by PBS, April 18th, 2010

Roth, Christopher E. ‘Goods, Names, and Selves: Rethinking the Tsimshian Potlatch‘, American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 123-150

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Sitting Bull‘. Encyclopædia Britannica, April 21, 2017

Thomas Malthus‘. Encyclopædia Britannica.

Happy Birthday, Grace Lee Boggs! Bio and Book Review by Ashley Farmer

Grace Lee Boggs, By Kyle McDonaldm creativecommons.orglicensesby2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped“The Power And Importance Of Ideas:” Grace Lee Boggs’s Revolutionary Vision”

In the opening lines of her autobiography, Living for Change, Grace Lee Boggs remarked: “Had I not been born female and Chinese American, I would not have realized from early on that fundamental changes were necessary in our society.”[1] A daughter of Chinese immigrants born in 1915, who, by her account, became a philosopher in her 20s and an activist in her 30s, Boggs remains one of the greatest radical theorists of the twentieth century.

Born in Rhode Island, Boggs spent her childhood in New York City, working in the two restaurants her father owned in Times Square. At the age of 16, she left home to attend Barnard College, and afterward, Bryn Mawr, where she earned a PhD in Philosophy in 1940. Philosophers like Hegel helped her “see [her] own struggle for meaning as part of the continuing struggle of the individual to become part of the universal struggle for Freedom.”[2] Boggs moved to Chicago in 1940. She began working with the South Side Tenants Organization set up by the Workers Party, a Trotskyist group that had split off from the Socialist Workers Party. Her time in the Windy City proved transformative. For the first time she was talking and working with the black community, getting a first-hand sense of what it meant to live within the confines of segregation and discrimination, and learning how to participate in grassroots organizing.[3]

It was also during her tenure with the Workers Party that she met Caribbean radical C.L.R. James, and began a “theoretical and practical collaboration that would last twenty years.”[4] As part of a small wing of the workers Party led by James and Raya Dunayevskaya, Boggs became a leading theoretician, co-authoring texts like State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950). Through James, she came into contact with a number of black writers and activists who expanded her perspective. She relocated to Detroit in 1953, where she would organize with, and marry, James (Jimmy) Boggs.

During the 1950s, Boggs, “mainly listened and learned” to the black activists around her in an effort to better understand the black condition. It would take several years before she decided that she had been “living in the black community long enough to play an active role in the Black Power Movement that was emerging organically in a Detroit where blacks were becoming the majority.”[5] Living and working in what was considered to be an epicenter of black radicalism, Boggs engaged in a combination of theorizing and protesting, authoring texts with James Boggs, meeting and organizing with Malcolm X, and mentoring young radicals like Muhammad Ahmad (Max Stanford), leader of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM).

Her liberation theory was grounded in her study of philosophy and honed through her experiences organizing with and for black communities. It was also constantly evolving. Boggs emphasized dialectical thinking, arguing that reality is ever changing and that we must “constantly be aware of the new and more challenging contradictions that drive change.”[6] This reciprocal process drove her expansive vision of revolution. In her final book, The Next American Revolution, she explained her latest concept of revolution:

The next American Revolution, at this stage in our history, is not principally about jobs or health insurance or making it possible for more people to realize the American Dream of upward mobility. It is about acknowledging that we as Americans have enjoyed middle-class comforts at the expense of other peoples all over the world. It is about living the kind of lives that will not only slow down global warming but also end the galloping inequality both inside this country and between the Global North and Global South. It is about creating a new American Dream whose goal is a higher Humanity instead of the higher standard of living dependent on Empire.[7]

Boggs consistently offered a holistic vision of revolution and concrete steps through which to build it. She argued that achieving this goal meant more than organizing or mobilizing to petition the state or “changing the color of political power,” but rather growing food, reinventing education, developing Peace Zones in local neighborhoods, and creating restorative justice programs. She saw the seeds of revolution everywhere and showed us how, by practicing dialectical thinking, breaking down divides and categories, and building on rather than replicating older political models, we might “grow our souls.” She mirrored this in her own life, constantly “combining activity and reflection.”[8] Her willingness to do the work, her ability to listen and learn from black activists, her commitment to living in the communities in which she organized, and her openness to revising her politics, and values, made her an effective life-long ally of the black community and theoretician of liberation and revolution.

As she noted, often, “in the excitement of an emerging movement, we tend to want to be part of the action, and we underestimate the power and importance of the ideas in our heads and hearts.”[9] Upon her death, it’s important to revisit the ideas in her head. She left us a roadmap for revolution through ideas and action, one that anyone could be a part of if they were clear about the stakes of the transformation and that fundamental change is necessary.

Originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog, republished under Creative Commons

~ Ashley Farmer is an historian of African-American women’s history. Her research interests include women’s history, gender history, radical politics, intellectual history, and black feminism. She earned a BA in French from Spelman College, an MA in History from Harvard University, and a PhD in African American Studies from Harvard University. She is currently a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Duke University. In August 2016, she will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the African American Studies Program at Boston University. This bio and more about Ms. Farmer are to be found at her personal website

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!

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[1] Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), xi.

[2] Ibid., 30-31.

[3] Ibid., 36.

[4] Ibid., 43. James and Boggs “went their separate ways in 1962.”

[5] Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 66.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] Ibid., 72.

[8] Ibid., 164.

[9] Ibid., 80.

Happy Birthday, Aimé Césaire!

Aimé Fernand David Césaire, photo credit manomerci.comAimé-Fernand-David Césaire was a poet, playwright, philosopher, and politician from Martinique. In his long life (1913-2008), Césaire accomplished much in each of these roles, a rare feat as they rarely coincide in one person!

In turn mayor of Fort-de-France, deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique, and President of the Regional Council of Martinique, this prolific writer and intellectual was also co-founder of Négritude, a ‘literary movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.’ (Encyclopædia Britannica). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Négritude as ‘the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of civilization of something defined as “the black world” as an answer to the question “what are we in this white world?”’. The term was chosen so as to be provocative, a way of re-claiming the word nègre, which had become a racial slur, while simultaneously shocking those who heard or read it into paying attention. Through his philosophy, political writing, and especially his poetry and plays, the world pays attention still.

Learn more about the great Aimé Césaire through the resources below; an excellent place to start is with Meredith Goldsmith’s article from The Poetry Foundation.

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!

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Sources and inspiration:

Aime Cesaire‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Chidi, Sylvia Lovina. The Greatest Black Achievers in History, chapter 1

Diagne, Souleymane Bachir, ‘Négritude‘. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Goldsmith, Meredith. ‘Aimé Fernand Césaire‘, 1913–2008. In The Poetry Foundation

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine, there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 – by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science – by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician – Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine – In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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!

Is it Moral to Respect the Wishes of the Dead, Above the Living? By Barry Lam

Imagine what a country would be like if every person could secure a vote in elections that happened after their death. If you stated your preferences in your will, you could execute a vote for the conservative, liberal, Asian, or White Separatist candidate, in every election, in perpetuity, and your vote would compete with the votes of the living. Imagine that a legal structure were erected to execute the wishes of the dead, and that the law would side with the dead even when their wishes conflicted with the needs of the living, or with the wellbeing of future generations.

We have overwhelmingly good moral reasons to reject such a society. We believe that with death comes the loss of the right to influence the political institutions of the living. Yet this kind of moral clarity disappears as soon as we move from politics to wealth. There is a huge industry dedicated to executing the wishes of human beings after their death. Through endowments, charitable trusts, dynasty trusts, and inheritance law, trillions of dollars in the US economy and many legal institutions at all levels are tied up in executing the wishes of wealthy people who died long ago. The UK does not fall far behind. As wealth inequality increases, the wealthy today are earmarking large amounts of money from the future economy to carry out their current wishes. The practice is so deeply ingrained in the culture of elite institutions, and such a ubiquitous feature of life, that only in obscure journals in law and philanthropy does anyone express concern about the justice of the practice.

In the US, the wealthy continue to own and grow wealth after their death, and the state can enforce the spending wishes of the dead in many ways. For instance, you may require, as a condition of inheritance, that your grandchildren marry within a religious faith, or that a school be named after you, forbidding a change in name even if the school would otherwise go bankrupt. Alternatively, an individual may secure current and future wealth in a tax-sheltered trust only for descendants, where the money can both grow and be shielded from creditors in perpetuity. A third legal instrument is the charitable trust, where the dead can earmark current and future wealth to some particular purpose considered ‘charitable’ where such purposes are now broad enough to include anything from the care of abandoned guinea pigs to the preservation of Huey military aircraft. Non-profit institutions such as hospitals, museums and universities can have large amounts of their spending constrained by the wishes of dead donors, such as that there be an endowed professorship for the study of parapsychology, or that a certain wing must be set aside for housing individuals of Confederate ancestry.

These practices are, on reflection, quite puzzling. Ideas about what is good to do in the world ought to change with the changing conditions of the world. Funding cancer research is good only in a world in which there is cancer. Giving distant descendants enormous amounts of wealth is good only if they are not sociopaths. And yet, we allow such power to those who are no longer around to know about the world, and who cannot be harmed or benefited any longer from such spending.

In fact, the idea that the dead could lose their rights to control the future is familiar in our moral lives, and this idea gets reflected elsewhere in the law. The state does not enforce your desire that your spouse not remarry. Even if your spouse promises this to you on your deathbed, it would not be illegal for her to break this promise. Businesses do not feel obligated to carry out the wishes of their now-dead founders, even if those founders had strong preferences about the future of the business. These kinds of posthumous desires carry little weight in our deliberations about what we should do now, and we certainly do not erect legal institutions to enforce these kinds of preferences.

However, when it comes to the wishes of the dead with respect to their personal wealth, we grant them many rights. And when you start adding up the wealth tied to the dead, the amount is staggering, likely in the trillions. The current state of wealth inequality together with the ongoing practice of honouring the wishes of the dead, could result in a future economy that will reflect the preferences of a past aristocracy, rather than the majority of those living. Respecting the wishes of the dead can lead to serious intergenerational economic injustice.

William Shakespeare’s last will and testament

The irony of our current practices is that we the living are to blame for sabotaging our own wellbeing. The dead are not around to complain if we were to change these practices; these are our institutions, and any pain we inflict on ourselves from being worse off but for the preferences of the dead cannot honestly be held against the dead. We do not need perpetual trusts to incentivise spending for charitable purposes. Many philanthropists today such as Bill Gates understand that there is greater charitable impact from spending done within one’s lifetime, which is the foundation of the Giving Pledge.

So why do we continue to give the dead such eternal rights? I believe we honour the wishes of the dead out of a misplaced sense of moral duty, as we would feel if we made a deathbed promise to a loved one. But deathbed promises are not unconditional, eternal, nor must they be satisfied at serious self-interested, financial, or moral, cost to the living. They are, instead, a lot like living promises. If I promise my child some candy but, through no fault of my own, the only available candy must be acquired at serious moral cost to some current candy-owner, it is not morally obligatory to fulfil this promise. A promise itself holds some moral weight, but not overriding moral weight.

Another reason we do this is that we have a self-interested desire that our own interests and values be preserved by future people after our own death, on pain that we disappear from the world without any legacy of influence. This existential fear we overcome by permitting institutions to honour the wishes of the dead in order to guarantee a place for our wishes in the future. But it is time to recognise the vanity and narcissism of the practice, and do what is actually best for the living, which is to have the living determine it for themselves.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Barry Lam is associate professor of philosophy at Vassar College, New York state, and is Humanities-Writ Large fellow at Duke University in North Carolina. He hosts and produces the philosophy podcast Hi-Phi Nation, and lives in Poughkeepsie, NY. (Bio credit: Aeon)

* Note: Barry’s podcast episode on this same topic is excellent, I highly recommend you give it a listen!

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!

Road Trip Through Indian Country to Chicago, En Route to Edinburgh

Amy on a road trip to Death Valley, 2009

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

I’m planning a cross-country road trip before I leave the US for Scotland and grad school. I’ll be traveling across the northern half of the United States, through Indian country and then Peoria, Springfield, & Chicago. I’ll spread this itinerary over a few more days if I can, & would love to hear your suggestions for more interesting historical and cultural sites to visit along this general route. I’ll be writing for Ordinary Philosophy all the while about what I see and learn.

I’m doing this all on the cheap AND I love to meet new people. If you have friends or family along this route that would be willing to host an itinerant writer and indie scholar, I would be grateful for your introduction! In thanks, I’ll write a dedicated piece on any subject of my kind hosts’ choice for O.P.

Here’s my itinerary thus far:

Days 1-4: Spokane, WA (family)
Day 5, 6, & 7: Yellowstone
Day 8: Little Bighorn National Monument
Day 9: Standing Rock
Day 10: Fort Yates – Sitting Bull sites
Day 11: Black Hills National Forest: Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Black Elk Peak
Day 12: Wounded Knee Memorial, Fort Robinson – Crazy Horse sites
Day 13 – 14: Peoria, IL
Day 15: Springfield, IL
Days 16 – 18: Chicago
Day 19: fly to Edinburgh!

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Happy Birthday, Blaise Pascal!

Blaise Pascal, crayon drawing by Jean Domat, c. 1649, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Blaise Pascal, born on June 19th, 1623 in Auvergne, France, was a mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist, theologian, inventor, and writer.

This polymath was so talented in so many areas that any one of them could have kept his memory and influence alive to this day. Steven West writes in Philosophize This that we could ‘feel completely inadequate when we learn that he invented the calculator (yes, the calculator) at age 18.’ David Simpson writes in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘In mathematics, he was an early pioneer in the fields of game theory and probability theory. In philosophy, he was an early pioneer in existentialism. As a writer on theology and religion, he was a defender of Christianity.’ Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon write for Encyclopædia Britannica, ‘He laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities, formulated what came to be known as Pascal’s principle of pressure, and propagated a religious doctrine that taught the experience of God through the heart rather than through reason.’

Pascal’s Wager is probably his best-known idea, keeping his name alive in popular culture as well as among scholars. The argument can be summarized thusly: You can believe in God, or not believe in God. When it comes to the effect of the state of your belief on your possible eternal afterlife, if you don’t believe in God, you may very well be damned for all eternity. But if you do believe in God, you may achieve salvation. When it comes to the effect of your state of belief on your life here on Earth, whether or not you believe in God, your life will not be affected hugely. We’re all constrained as a matter of course by cultural expectations and codes of behavior, after all. The religious constraints we might find inconvenient and even tedious sometimes don’t, generally, significantly burden your life more than any others, while the practice of religion can add a great deal of meaning and satisfaction to life. Since we stand to gain much more than we might lose, all in all, it’s the most logical and therefore best bet to believe in God.

Now Pascal is an extremely intelligent man, and he knows belief is something you can’t just flip on like a light switch. That’s why he advises that the prudent person will choose to believe in God for the reasons described above and then behave as if they believed it. With enough acts of piety, religious study, and time among other virtuous and true believers, they are bound to end up believers themselves. This is very insightful psychologically: it accords well with what we now know about how the brain works, and his ‘fake it till you make it’ belief formation process is very like modern cognitive behavior therapy. Enact the change you wish to see in your mind, and your mind will follow, or to use modern terminology in common use, your brain will be ‘rewired’.

I’ve heard many people object to Pascal’s Wager on the grounds that they think religion does have too many negative effects to accept that the wager in favor of God-belief is a good bet. To ignore what your reason tells you about how unlikely it is that anything exists outside of the natural world, and that contradictions within and among the scriptures of the world indicate that none of them are divinely inspired, and so on, makes you a traitor to reason and critical thinking and science. It undermines your ability to perceive and understand the real world on its own terms. And betraying your own powers of reason, so that you can feel safe about an afterlife that no-one can demonstrate happens anyway, infantilizes you by subjugating your critical thinking to your superstitious fears.

I don’t buy the first objection anymore, though I once found it convincing. After all, few are better at reasoning and critical thinking than Pascal. His formidable powers of reason don’t appear undermined in any serious way overall considering his incredible lifetime achievements in mathematics, physics, logic, practical invention, and science. Choosing to believe in God clearly doesn’t seem to hamper his intellect one bit.

I still object to the Wager, but on these grounds: I think Pascal, unjustifiably, assumes too much when constructing his argument in the first place. Why, for example, bet on the idea that God would even be pleased by and liable to reward belief in him, even if eventually sincere, when it originates in this sort of self-serving calculation? Why not assume instead that God, if he exists, would reward honesty itself, whether in believers or nonbelievers, so long as their state of belief results from good faith efforts to seek truth? This seems, to me, more in line with the inclinations of the creator of a rational, ordered universe, the ultimate expression of reason, which in turn requires fearless, honest inquiry if it’s to be known, understood, and appreciated in the fullest way possible.

But this wager is just one relatively minor result of Pascal’s exploration of this fascinating world, and given his pioneering inquiries in the areas that would later be known as probability theory and game theory, it’s not surprising that, in brainstorming, he came up with this possible solution to the problems of belief vs. reason. And whether or not he got it right, it’s long captured the public imagination and really does make us think, as he’s done exquisitely during, and throughout the centuries after, his all-too-short life.

Learn more about the great Blaise Pascal:

Blaise Pascal – by Desmond Clarke for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) – by David Simpson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Blaise Pascal: French Philosopher and Scientist – by Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon for Encyclopædia Britannica

Pascal’s Wager and – +EV your way to success!! – by Steven West, Philosophize This!

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!