O.P. Recommends: Patrick Deneen and Ezra Klein Discuss the Failures (and Successes?) of Liberalism

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I have not yet read the book and it may be some time before I get the opportunity, but as is the case so often these days as I work towards my doctorate degree, I rely on discussions with authors to keep up with what’s happening out there in the world of ideas. This little review is, therefore, of the ideas expressed in the context of this discussion only, not of those discussed in the context of the book.

Yesterday morning, as I walked to a class, I listened to this particularly fascinating discussion on Ezra Klein’s podcast: Patrick Deneen says liberalism has failed. Is he right?

Klein and Deneen base their discussion, in part, around the origins of classical liberal thinking, which include John Locke’s thought experiment regarding humankind ‘in the state of nature.’ This is the state of being prior to or outside civil government, and is a way to puzzle out which rights, if any, human beings have according to nature rather than according to civil law. Deneen points out, rightly I think, that this thought experiment is so artificial, so divorced from the actual reality of human nature, that it might lead to misleading results. Human nature, in fact, is bound up in ties to family, friends, society, the political sphere, and so on. To derive rights from the nature of the rootless individual is to derive them from a nature that is, well, not fully human. Liberalism, as Deneen defines it, is the prioritization of the rights and interests of the individual above all else, and points out that this is the central project of both the liberal and conservative parties of the United States. For the former, the personal and expressive life of the individual should suffer little interference from the state, and for the latter, the economic choices of the individual should suffer little such interference. Of course, this is a very rough characterization of the left-and-right political divide, and I suspect that Deneen would agree with my own observation that many on both sides of the political divide no longer seem to adhere very closely to these general principles.

As Klein points out, though there’s much to critique in Deneen’s views, his discussion of why so many people in liberal societies suffer loneliness, depression, alienation, addiction, suicide, and other ills, is often insightful and timely throughout. Deneen sees these as inevitable results of societal values that promote the rights and interests of the individual without sufficient, healthy checks on the single-minded pursuit of individual satisfaction and fulfillment. Human beings intimate ties to others to be happy and healthy, and it appears that without the corrective of social and spiritual concerns, the thoroughly liberal person (again, as Deneen defines it) may very well end up enslaved to the whims and vagaries of appetites, often unhealthy ones, unmoored from personal values or love and loyalty to others.

I consider myself more of a political liberal in many respects, and I felt myself recognizing that some of my reasons echo Deneen’s sentiments. For one, I believe that inherent to the ethos of personal responsibility, often cited as a core value of western conservatism, is taking individual responsibility for behaviors that contribute to larger problems. Further, if individuals continue to behave in a way that significantly erodes the healthy functioning of individuals, families, and societies, then people might have the right to demand that others change their behavior. For example, the degradation of ecosystems that sustain life, health, and happiness through thoughtless over-consumption is, then, it seems to me as it does to Deneen, at least as important a social issue as it is a moral and spiritual one. This is only one of the many matters on which Deneen, in this discussion, offers a timely and well-considered critique of many of the mores and practices the western world takes for granted.

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O.P. Recommends: Malcolm Gladwell on Brian Williams, the Fungibility of Memory, and Journalistic Integrity

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast about a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time: how memory actually works and how that understanding relates to our relationship with the truth.

A few years ago, I wrote a short opinion piece that was, in part, about news anchorman Brian Williams’ disproven claims to be on a helicopter that was shot down over Iraq in 2003. In that piece, I favorably compared how Williams behaved in the wake of that scandal to the behavior of other media personalities who made similarly false or distorted claims. Unlike the other figures I criticized in that piece, I believe that Williams’ ready admission of his mistakes and his willingness to heap recriminations on himself reveal that he is, in fact, a person of integrity with a real respect for the truth.

While listening to the podcast yesterday, I found that Gladwell agrees with my assessment and for many good reasons. In ‘Free Brian Williams’, Gladwell summarizes what we now know about the fungibility and therefore unreliability of memory, and applies this to a very good discussion of how we all should be careful about the claims we make, especially when we’re in a position to inform and influence the public. A very interesting listen…

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Say What? George Combe on Human Nature

George Combe, 1836, by Sir Daniel Macnee, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

‘Man obviously stands pre-eminent among sublunary objects, and is distinguished by remarkable endowments above all other terrestrial beings. Nevertheless no creature presents such anomalous appearances as man. Viewed in one aspect he almost resembles a demon; in another he still bears the impress of the image of God.’

~ George Combe, The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, 1835

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O.P. Recommends: M.M. Owen on Martin Buber’s I and Thou

‘A Father and Child’ by Andrei Osipovich Karelin, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In this excellent essay, M. M. Owen explores Martin Buber‘s idea that ‘when we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.’:

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook – typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

Read the full essay here

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What I Learned About Disability and Infanticide from Peter Singer, by Katie Booth

Illustration from A System of Midwifery, Including the Diseases of Pregnancy and the Puerperal State, 1875 by Leishman & Parry, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps best-known for his book Animal Liberation (1975), began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option (in consultation with doctors) to euthanise infants with disabilities. He mostly, but not exclusively, discussed severe forms of disabilities such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer explains that the value of a life should be based on traits such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. ‘Defective infants lack these characteristics,’ he wrote. ‘Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’

The thought of killing disabled babies is especially dangerous because the concept of disability often functions as a mere cloak, thrown over much uglier hatreds. In ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ (2001), the historian Douglas Baynton points out that African-American enslavement was justified through disability models: there was a supposition that African Americans suffered from a number of medical conditions that were understood to make them unable to care for themselves. Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder justified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the current edition, the DSM-5, still considers transgender people disabled.

Singer generally frames severe physical disabilities through a medical lens. His ideas chafe against models of the disabled as a minority group. To Singer, severe disability is more a problem to be solved than a difference to be embraced and accommodated.

For years, I thought Singer was morally bankrupt. I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness, and though deafness is far from the type of disability that Singer was focusing on (with some arguing that it’s not a disability at all), I still recognised an idea that the disability community has faced for centuries: that people with disabilities are fundamentally less entitled to their rights – even their lives. Singer’s ideas stood in opposition to my core belief that the disabled body is created largely through a lack of accommodation, and that people with disabilities are different perhaps, but not less.

While most of Singer’s other writings seemed so thoughtful, so compassionate, his writings on disabled children seemed to be approaching the slippery slope toward ethnocide – the intentional and systematic destruction of cultures, like the Deaf culture that my own family embraced. I had never been able to shake what he was saying about the disabled – and I wanted to know more: what he thought today; if his ideas had ever shifted; and, mostly, how he could believe so strongly in something that seemed so out of sync with his reverence for life.

This past winter, I reached out to Singer to learn more.

I was nervous to talk with him, even over the blurry, jumpy distance of Skype, but I had no reason to be. Though his ideas felt abrasive, even violent, to me, he took opposition with thoughtful consideration. And as we talked, I began to wonder if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities.

Singer resists the idea that disability is mere difference; there is suffering involved, he says, and not only of the social variety. ‘I don’t think the idea that it’s better to be able rather than disabled is in itself a prejudice,’ he told me. ‘To see that as akin to racism or sexism is a mistake.’ He argues that if it weren’t preferable to be able-bodied, we wouldn’t have a problem with pregnant women taking drugs or drinking heavily, that avoiding disability would have to also be seen as prejudicial. It isn’t, and Singer maintains that it shouldn’t be.

Instead, Singer maintains that disability, unlike race or gender, comes with intrinsic suffering – sometimes great enough that it is more compassionate to end the lives of infants than to force them to live in pain. Over the years since he first began discussing this proposal, Singer has had to contend with studies showing that quality-of-life assessments of people with disabilities are not that different from those of able-bodied people – a fact that could grossly undermine his argument of alleviating suffering. While he has found those studies compelling, he maintains that it’s not fair to allow them to speak for those too severely disabled to respond to such a survey. (In general, he doesn’t buy the idea that people with vastly different disabilities ought to be speaking to each other’s experiences.)

Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.

Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.

Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

~ Katie Booth is a freelance writer and a 2017-18 John W Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress. She has written for the Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, The Fourth River and Vela. Her first book, The Performance of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to Cure Deafness, will be published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Washington, DC. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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!

Some of the Mysteries of Good Character, by Christian B. Miller

The topic of character is one of the oldest in both Western and Eastern thought, and has enjoyed a renaissance in philosophy since at least the 1970s with the revival of virtue ethics. Yet, even today, character remains largely a mystery. We know very little about what most peoples’ character looks like. Important virtues are surprisingly neglected. There are almost no strategies advanced by philosophers today for improving character. We have a long way to go.

We do know, though, that matters of character are vitally important. Consider the news these days, dominated by people like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Or consider the behavior of our heroes, like Lincoln and King, or our villains, like Hitler and Stalin. Or consider the latest scandals in the entertainment world, professional sports, or politics. So much of what has happened can be traced back to the character of the people involved. And to take it one step further, thanks to the latest psychological research, character traits have been linked to all kinds of things that we care about in life: optimism, academic achievement, mood, health, meaning, life satisfaction…the list goes on and on.

To say that philosophers—who have been studying character extensively for thousands of years—are mostly in the dark about the topic, surely sounds like I am exaggerating, right? Maybe that’s true, but let me offer two concrete illustrations.

1. Neglected Virtues. The moral virtues are good character traits like justice, temperance, and fortitude. Here are two questions (among many others) you can ask about these virtues. First, conceptually, what do they involve? How, for instance, would you characterize a temperate person? Or a heroic one? Secondly, on empirical grounds, do people actually have the virtues (and if so, how many people and which virtues)? For instance, are there actually any temperate people today?

To help with the empirical question, there has been a recent flurry of interest among philosophers in consulting studies in psychology, and thinking about whether the behavior displayed in those studies is virtuous or not. For a virtue like compassion, real progress has been made in reading the relevant studies carefully, with the conclusion being that most people are not in fact compassionate. Unfortunately, philosophers don’t have much of an idea about what is going on empirically with most of the other virtues (and I’m not sure anyone else does either, for that matter). Part of the reason why is that for some moral virtues there just isn’t the wealth of existing studies to analyze, in the way that there is for compassion. Stealing is a good example—as you might imagine, it is hard to do helpful experimental studies of theft.

But part of the reason is also that some virtues have simply not been on our philosophical radar screens. The attention of philosophers has been elsewhere.

Take the virtue of honesty, for instance. If any virtue is on most people’s top five list, it is that one. Yet it has had no traction at all in the philosophy literature. In fact, there has not been a single paper in a mainstream philosophy journal on the moral virtue of honesty in over fifty years.

Or take the virtue of generosity—just three papers in the past forty years (by way of comparison, there are over two dozen papers on the virtue of modesty—who would have expected that to happen!).

So the upshot is that compassion is likely to be a rare virtue. But at this point it is not at all clear how we are doing with the rest of them. Indeed, in some cases we are not even clear what the virtues look like in the first place.

2. Virtue Development. The natural suspicion, of course, is that across the board we are not doing very well when it comes to being people of good moral character. History, current events, the local news, and social media all seem to confirm this. Hence it seems apparent that there is a sizable character gap:

There are moral exemplars, people like Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth, whose character is morally virtuous in many respects.

Examining their lives ends up reflecting badly on most of us, myself included, since it illustrates in vivid terms just how much of a character gap there really is.

To try to at least reduce this gap, it would be helpful to have some strategies which can, if followed properly, help us to make slow and gradual progress in the right direction. Naturally philosophers needn’t be the only ones who can come up with these strategies, but it would be nice if we had something to say that is practically relevant, empirically informed, and actually efficacious if carried out properly.

By and large, we haven’t had much to say. But there are signs that this is beginning to change, thanks to the work of Nancy Snow, Julia Annas, Jonathan Webber, and a few others. In fact, the development of character improvement strategies strikes me as one of the most promising areas of philosophy in the coming decade. Many good and innovative dissertations are there for interested graduate students to tackle.

My hope is that this groundswell of interest in how to cultivate the virtues will continue to expand in the coming years. These are indeed early days in the philosophical study of character. And exciting days too, full of so many worthwhile possibilities to explore.

This article was originally published at OUPBlog.

~ Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and author or editor of eight books including The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (Bio credit: OUPBlog)

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If Work Dominated Your Every Moment Would Life be Worth Living? by Andrew Taggart

Working Woman, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work. Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, anything else – the games once played, the songs hitherto sung, the loves fulfilled, the festivals celebrated – would come to resemble, and ultimately become, work. And then there would come a time, itself largely unobserved, when the many worlds that had once existed before work took over the world would vanish completely from the cultural record, having fallen into oblivion.

And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act? Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep. Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content-providers, knowledge-brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.

In this world, eating, excreting, resting, having sex, exercising, meditating and commuting – closely monitored and ever-optimised – would all be conducive to good health, which would, in turn, be put in the service of being more and more productive. No one would drink too much, some would microdose on psychedelics to enhance their work performance, and everyone would live indefinitely long. Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice. In all corners of the world, therefore, people would act in order to complete total work’s deepest longing: to see itself fully manifest.

This world, it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.

‘Total work’, a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper just after the Second World War in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers and nothing else. By this means, work will ultimately become total, I argue, when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

We are on the verge of total work’s realisation. Each day I speak with people for whom work has come to control their lives, making their world into a task, their thoughts an unspoken burden.

For unlike someone devoted to the life of contemplation, a total worker takes herself to be primordially an agent standing before the world, which is construed as an endless set of tasks extending into the indeterminate future. Following this taskification of the world, she sees time as a scarce resource to be used prudently, is always concerned with what is to be done, and is often anxious both about whether this is the right thing to do now and about there always being more to do. Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity: a figure, whose main affliction is a deep existential restlessness fixated on producing the useful.

What is so disturbing about total work is not just that it causes needless human suffering but also that it eradicates the forms of playful contemplation concerned with our asking, pondering and answering the most basic questions of existence. To see how it causes needless human suffering, consider the illuminating phenomenology of total work as it shows up in the daily awareness of two imaginary conversation partners. There is, to begin with, constant tension, an overarching sense of pressure associated with the thought that there’s something that needs to be done, always something I’m supposed to be doing right now. As the second conversation partner puts it, there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time? Time, an enemy, a scarcity, reveals the agent’s limited powers of action, the pain of harrying, unanswerable opportunity costs.

Together, thoughts of the not yet but supposed to be done, the should have been done already, the could be something more productive I should be doing, and the ever-awaiting next thing to do conspire as enemies to harass the agent who is, by default, always behind in the incomplete now. Secondly, one feels guilt whenever he is not as productive as possible. Guilt, in this case, is an expression of a failure to keep up or keep on top of things, with tasks overflowing because of presumed neglect or relative idleness. Finally, the constant, haranguing impulse to get things done implies that it’s empirically impossible, from within this mode of being, to experience things completely. ‘My being,’ the first man concludes, ‘is an onus,’ which is to say an endless cycle of unsatisfactoriness.

The burden character of total work, then, is defined by ceaseless, restless, agitated activity, anxiety about the future, a sense of life being overwhelming, nagging thoughts about missed opportunities, and guilt connected to the possibility of laziness. Hence, the taskification of the world is correlated with the burden character of total work. In short, total work necessarily causes dukkha, a Buddhist term referring to the unsatisfactory nature of a life filled with suffering.

In addition to causing dukkha, total work bars access to higher levels of reality. For what is lost in the world of total work is art’s revelation of the beautiful, religion’s glimpse of eternity, love’s unalloyed joy, and philosophy’s sense of wonderment. All of these require silence, stillness, a wholehearted willingness to simply apprehend. If meaning, understood as the ludic interaction of finitude and infinity, is precisely what transcends, here and now, the ken of our preoccupations and mundane tasks, enabling us to have a direct experience with what is greater than ourselves, then what is lost in a world of total work is the very possibility of our experiencing meaning. What is lost is seeking why we’re here.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

~ Andrew Taggart is a practical philosopher and entrepreneur. He is a faculty member at the Banff Centre in Canada, where he trains creative leaders, and at Kaospilot in Denmark, where he trains social entrepreneurs. His latest book is The Good Life and Sustaining Life (2014). He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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!