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 I believe are 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 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 the values, mores, politics, language, cultural attitudes, holiday and major life event celebrations, even, increasingly, religious and spiritual practices dominant in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other parts of the world which adopted Western ways today.

The free market system, characterized by Adam Smith as the best kind of trade for improving lives most efficiently, has 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 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 serious, endemic defects in free markets systems contrary to the general welfare as well: real and de facto slavery; 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 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 the 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 viewed as the modern corollary of Thomas Malthus’ 1798 theory that human reproduction would inevitably outstrip food production and lead 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 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 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 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. 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 walk on, that we breathe in, that we swim among. It shares many characteristics of that most varied and ubiquitous type of human disease: 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 unlikely or even 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 in their attitudes; 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 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 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, the latter three less-is-more practices as described above, admired and admirable as they can be, are not appropriate for most people. They are impractical and unaffordable for most people, and none of them work for those who have families to care for, or are elderly or disabled, and so on. What of the least wealthy among us, those who must opt for the cheaper products, whether or not they’ll wear out and become trash sooner? And what about just 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 that 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 are no longer respectable.

While shopping and owning a lot of stuff might not seem as a bad habit like 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 way our actions contribute to the aggregate effects. Let’s make the effects of our presence on the earth not resemble those of disease. Let’s instead make it more akin to mottainai by treating the earth as the most precious thing 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.

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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.

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!

Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford, and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy. And, I think there are enough people promoting his Wealth of Nations as, like, the best thing ever; you can find plenty to read about that on the internet.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who is by no means an expert. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are (including himelf, he’s an excellent and compelling writer), and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen, Jun 9, 2016 for The Atlantic

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

~ 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!

How ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ Inspired Victorian Hedonists, by Roman Krznaric

The Angel of the Drink of Darkness, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by Edmund Dulac

How did a 400-line poem based on the writings of a Persian sage and advocating seize-the-day hedonism achieve widespread popularity in Victorian England? The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was written by the eccentric English scholar Edward FitzGerald, drawing on his loose translation of quatrains by the 12th-century poet and mathematician Omar Khayyám. Obscure beginnings perhaps, but the poem’s remarkable publishing history is the stuff of legend. Its initial publication in 1859 – the same year as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and J S Mill’s On Liberty – went completely unnoticed: it didn’t sell a single copy in its first two years. That all changed when a remaindered copy of FitzGerald’s 20-page booklet was picked up for a penny by the Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, who passed it on to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who subsequently fell in love with it and sang its praises to his Pre-Raphaelite circle.

When, in 1863, it fell into the hands of John Ruskin, he declared: ‘I never did – till this day – read anything so glorious.’ From that moment, there began a cult of Khayyám that lasted at least until the First World War, by which time there were 447 editions of FitzGerald’s translation in circulation. Omar dining clubs sprang up, and you could even buy Omar tooth powder and illustrated playing cards. During the war, dead soldiers were found in the trenches with battered copies tucked away in their pockets.

What then was the extraordinary attraction of the Rubáiyát? The answer sings out from some of its most famous verses:

XXIV
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!

XXXV
Then to the lip of this poor earthen Urn
I lean’d, the Secret of my Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur’d – ‘While you live
Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.’

LXIII
Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

The Rubáiyát was an unapologetic expression of hedonism, bringing to mind sensuous embraces in jasmine-filled gardens on balmy Arabian nights, accompanied by cups of cool, intoxicating wine. It was a passionate outcry against the unofficial Victorian ideologies of moderation, primness and self-control.

Yet the poem’s message was even more radical than this, for the Rubáiyát was a rejection not just of Christian morality, but of religion itself. There is no afterlife, Khayyám implied, and since human existence is transient – and death will come much faster than we imagine – it’s best to savour life’s exquisite moments while we can. This didn’t mean throwing oneself into wild hedonistic excess, but rather cultivating a sense of presence, and appreciating and enjoying the here and now in the limited time we have on Earth.

This heady union of bodily pleasures, religious doubt and impending mortality captured the imagination of its Victorian audience, who had been raised singing pious hymns at church on a Sunday morning. No wonder the writer G K Chesterton admonishingly declared that the Rubáiyát was the bible of the ‘carpe diem religion’.

The influence of the poem on Victorian culture was especially visible in the works of Oscar Wilde, who described it as a ‘masterpiece of art’ and one of his greatest literary loves. He took up its themes in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The character of Lord Henry Wotton is a champion of hedonism who explicitly refers to the sensual allures of ‘wise Omar’, and tempts the beautiful young man Dorian to sell his soul for the decadent pleasures of eternal youth. ‘Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses,’ says Lord Henry. ‘A new Hedonism – that is what our century wants.’

Wilde’s novel was a thinly veiled celebration of homosexuality – a crime for which he was gaoled in 1895 (passages of the book were read out at his trial as part of the incriminating evidence). He saw in the Rubáiyát an argument for individual freedom and sexual liberation from the constraints of Victorian social convention, not least because FitzGerald too was well-known for his homosexuality. For Wilde, as for FitzGerald, carpe diem hedonism was far more than the pursuit of sensory pleasures: it was a subversive political act with the power to reshape the cultural landscape.

Hedonism has a bad reputation today, being associated with ‘YOLO’ binge-drinking, drug overdoses, and a bucket-list approach to life that values fleeting novelty and thrill-seeking above all else. Yet the history of the Rubáiyát is a reminder that we might try to rediscover the hidden virtues of hedonism.

On the one hand, it could serve as an antidote to a growing puritanical streak in modern happiness thinking, which threatens to turn us into self-controlled moderation addicts who rarely express a passionate lust for life. Pick up a book from the self-help shelves and it is unlikely to advise dealing with your problems by smoking a joint under the stars or downing a few tequila slammers in an all-night club. Yet such hedonistic pursuits – enjoyed sensibly – have been central to human culture and wellbeing for centuries: when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, they discovered the Aztecs tripping on magic mushrooms.

On the other hand, the kind of hedonism popularised by the Rubáiyát can help to put us back in touch with the virtues of direct experience in our age of mediation, where so much of daily life is filtered through the two-dimensional electronic flickers on a smartphone or tablet. We are becoming observers of life rather than participants, immersed in a society of the digital spectacle. We could learn a thing or two from the Victorians: let us keep a copy of the Rubáiyát in our pockets, alongside the iPhone, and remember the words of wise Khayyám: ‘While you live Drink! – for, once dead, you never shall return.’Aeon counter – do not remove

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

~ Roman Krznaric is a social philosopher. He is the founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum and of the digital Empathy Library. He is also a founding faculty member of The School of Life and on the faculty of Year Here. His latest book is Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day (2017). 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!

A Politic of Forgiveness and Responsibility, by Dylan Flint

“Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities” Lamentations 5:7

Whether or not we buy the metaphysical presuppositions of this passage from the Bible, and others like it, we cannot deny that we do not choose the household we are born into nor can we choose our country of birth.

To put it bluntly, I did not choose to be American.

I moved to China in the midst of an ugly election and considered, like many others, going (in my case staying) abroad if a certain candidate was elected. Well, he was elected, and I probably won’t stay abroad. But, then again, I do not know what the future holds.

Living in China during this election cycle has caused me a great deal of reflection surrounding three things: the sociopolitical climate of my new home, the shortcomings of democracy, and what it means to be an American.

In many ways, China is ahead of us. For starters, they’ve already had their experiment with communism and thrown it out as no good. In America, however (pardon the metaphor) we seem rather stuck, unable to do our business or get off the pot. Yet, in many other ways, China seems centuries behind. The current government at times easily reminds us of something out of the Dark Ages: complete centralized authoritative rule, shadow policy making, the imprisoning and beating of dissenting artists, and a hell-bent policy of eliminating any hint of revolution. And while the beheadings aren’t held in the square, China currently executes more of its citizens than any other nation in the world.(1)

While we are quick to lament, and rightly so, I can not deny that it works. In fact, I have never seen so many happy people in my life.

Cyber-threats, terrorism, misinformation, hacked elections, these are all non-issues. At least, not ones felt by ordinary citizens. With closed borders, the great firewall, and a state-run media, this is the reality.

And what about crime? Likewise, it is a non-issue.

But why is this so?

One can cite the fact that the government wastes trillions of renminbi (RMB) on new construction projects, many of which will never see the light of day, simply so people can stay employed. While I do not deny this contributes to the low crime rate, I feel I have struck something deeper — something ingrained in the social fabric of the people. In China, there are no second chances. I have found the concept of forgiveness to be a strangely western, strangely Christian idea.

When I asked a group of Chinese students, aged 20–35, about the private prison system in America, many agreed that it was unjust and that rehabilitation has fallen behind cheap labor and profit in priority. But when I asked those same students if they would invite a convict back into their lives after they had served their time, I was shocked by the fiercely absolute “No” I received. Not one of them said they would hire the person if they owned a company, and many suggested they wouldn’t even associate with the person. Even if the person was a child when they committed the offense, the answer was still the same. The verdict was in: if you did something that landed you in jail, you are forever an outsider. It is no wonder people don’t commit crimes.

While I found this to be a bit cruel, I had to remember that outside Christendom this is the way things work. And I am starting to realize that forgiveness comes at quite the cost.

Higher principles are not cheap. They demand a lot from us.

Last year, when Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to more than a million refugees, she was doing so because it was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, the tangible consequences appear to have been devastating. Whether the rate of terror has actually increased due to the influx of refugees, or politicians are merely fanning flames of xenophobia, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Regardless of who is responsible, the country is in turmoil.

Now, I would like to believe that, given enough time, Merkel’s good graces will be rewarded. However, it is hard to see such a thing outside the classroom. All I can see is sensible people living in fear, opportunistic politicians cashing in, and daily injustices committed against those who seek refuge.(2) This is a spotty resume for “doing the right thing”, to say the least. But beyond this, I think there is a real lesson here. I think we must realize what it is our higher principles ask us to overcome.

We have to understand that this growing alt-right protectionist polemic that passed Brexit, put Donald Trump in office, and may put out Angela Merkel is not all based on false news, rhetoric, and politics of fear. Despite what I am about to say going against everything I was taught by Hollywood, the reality is that foreigners wreak havoc on familiar social norms, dissent is painful to bear, tolerance is exhausting, criminals hardly ever learn from their mistakes, and our enemies know to hit us where it hurts: they take advantage of our good graces, making a mockery of our higher principles. Free trade, open borders, second chances, all of it attracts exploitation.

When taking one honest, good-long-look at China, it is not hard to see the draw of a massive one party system with closed borders that censures the media and silences civil unrest at all costs.(3) It is so peaceful here. And while the harmony may be faux, there is real solidarity. Despite all the problems China faces (and they are immense), the sentiment of the people is that we are all in this together — we are all Chinese.

It pains me to admit that this sense of identity is gone in America, if there ever was such a thing. Despite the few radical god-fearing patriots, the sentiment of American solidarity — the home to pioneers of freedom, people who believed they could build the future they wanted for themselves, the shining beacon of hope for the tired, hungry, and poor of the world — is completely gone.

Maybe I envision America’s past as does a child who reads a storybook, and maybe I see China through the eyes of a foreigner, but I still believe free people can come together of their own volition, and that this is somehow better than the alternatives. However, I would be lying if I said this belief isn’t constantly being challenged by everything around me, or that I have never considered its outright abandonment. In fact, it may be worth asking ourselves why it is we even have this belief. What is this something extra that makes it better if we make decisions for ourselves, and come together on our own, instead of someone one else forcing this upon us?

This very same question is to be found, incidentally enough, in the history of Christianity. There the question takes on the form: why is conversion in the heart better than conversion through coercion?

Many Christian philosophers, Pierre Bayle comes to mind, have argued that this is just clearly so — that only a true conversion takes place if it happens in the heart of man, not merely in his outward demonstrations. But this argument, though I agree with its conclusions, often ends with an appeal to the “natural light” of reason. In other words, a conversion in the heart is just obviously better. But, absent this vague intuition, it is hard to see why.

I’ve always believed the ends to never justify the means… but, if God is the end, it could hardly matter how you got there. After all, you arrived at God.

*     *     *

Benjamin Franklin once said, “those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

As a juvenile, I believed this quote to be expounding the sagacity of the libertarian. Now, as an adult, I see it more as a proclamation, or rather a warning, of the insecurity of a democracy. On the one hand, if essential liberties are lost, then the entire system collapses. On the other, if an individual wishes to relinquish his liberty in exchange for some relief from the anxiety that that liberty expounds upon him, then he loses his place in that system. In other words, everyone must believe in it for the system to work. What a frail thing indeed. That is, unless we take ‘belief’ to mean something other than it does in its pejorative sense. In any event, if I were not a talented, energetic, young Aristotelian who stood to gain from toppling monarchs, it would be hard to see why anyone would want to buy into such a thing.

It could be rebutted that a democracy ensures against corruption, and I would reply that profit-seeking corporations are running America. It could be replied that a democracy represents the people, and I would say then that the last honest politician was shot in the head. It could be said that a democracy ensures against the homogeneity of opinion and the stagnation of ideas, and I would say we are overrun with opinion and everyone’s “good” ideas. It could be said that democracy encourages progress, and I would say America is behind a lot of the world. It could be said that democracy and religious freedom go hand-in-hand, and I would say purchasing good vibes at a megachurch hardly constitutes unabated spiritual development. It could be said that only in a democracy do we get to choose our leader, and I would say that over half the voting populous didn’t select America’s current president.

Now to be sure, charges against democracy are nothing new. Plato famously argued in his masterpiece Republic that the next logical step after the beautiful, multifarious democracy was tyranny. And it isn’t because some tyrant comes and takes our kingdom: it is because we give rise to the tyrant. This is simply the natural consequence of our desires playing the part of the ruler in the political organism that is the state. So the story goes: our customs and values diminish from generation to generation because, in a democracy, the father is on equal ground with the son; when things go wrong, as they are bound to, we desperately elect a leader who promises to continue to give us everything we wish for. But the thing is, because we have destroyed our values in the relativism that cohabits with democracy, the leader lacks that which it takes to be a good leader. The beautiful tragedy runs its course, and we become slaves to the tyrant — the embodiment of our passions — in his wild pursuit to save us.

But let be also known that Plato likewise believed in something called the Form of the Good: a metaphysical force which has the power to transform the natural world, including its natural consequences.

While I do not doubt that this is a hard notion for people to understand, let alone believe in, I find it compelling. And the reason why is I have been transformed, if not by it, then by something similar. See, the thing I can not deny, no matter how bad things get in America and how good things get for me in China, is that I have been given a second chance — a second chance I did not deserve.

*     *     *

As a heroin addict in my early 20’s, I tore through the lives of others. In my wild pursuit for pleasure and comfort, I abused my freedom just as much as America is being abused today. My family, my community, my society, my culture, have now all forgiven me, and my debt for this is insurmountable. But it isn’t a debt I don begrudgingly.

I moved to China to repay a debt to my father — to become my own man: a self-sufficient man who under his own propensities can nurture and provide for himself and others — and it is becoming one of the defining experiences of my life. The process of going back over our lives — our histories — and making right our wrongs, is one of great beauty, tremendous insight, and strengthening of soul. It is not a journey of dread. It is the path we want to be on, and, for me, it all began with a choice, a free choice.

Now, I am compelled by this path. It is not by force that I am compelled, but by a sense of moral duty. I am beginning to see what a life of service means, and it is something I really want. I want to repay my family, my community, my country, my western ethos, which gave me another chance at life.

I was once asked as an undergraduate what the Form of the Good meant to me, and for the first time I have a genuine answer: being able to implement your own ideas and to have the consequences be of benefit — to see the lives of other people improve by your hand. It is hard to imagine such a thing flowering and reaching its fullest fruition in a country that stifles free expression and assembly.

The spirit of the west — freedom of conscience, forgiveness, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom to influence, self-governance — is sick and dying, but it is not dead. Being able to believe what you want, to say what you want, to think what you want, to go after what you want, and to fall flat on your face, but then to be given a second chance, the means of redemption, the opportunity to really learn, and then to see it all work — to see yourself become a positive force in the lives of others — that, that is worth saving.

But I am fully aware that unless one has shared this experience, it is hard to see how they could reach the same conclusion. In other words, it is hard to see why ordinary people should buy into these higher principles if they don’t immediately benefit from them.

I recently read that chaos, insecurity, anxiety, complaining, deceit, and rhetoric are not signs that a democracy is failing. Rather, these are signs a democracy is working —that this is a democracy in action.

Maybe it is the case that we don’t need everyone to be convinced. Maybe the system need only produce a few good men — maybe even only one. I take some solace in the idea.

*     *     *

So why then is it better if conversion takes place in the heart? If answers must be given, this is because once the Father dies, it can live on in the Son, and the Son can one day pass on the torch. Absent this internalization, it is hard to imagine a thing surviving once our father leaves us.

And, after all has been said, what does it mean to be an American? For me, it means having the freedom to become influential in the lives of others, for better or for worse. It means taking part in a socio-political environment where goodness at least has the potential to reach its highest expression.

But what will happen to us? Will a democracy give rise to a tyrant, a few good men, or to a philosopher king? This I obviously do not know, but since I have recovered from my passions, and things are beginning to fall into their proper place, I am hopeful, nay faithful, that the same thing can happen to her.

Despite the fact my generation is being handed a broken country, I assume the responsibility it entails. I forgive my father’s transgressions. I forgive my country’s mistakes. And I, of my own volition, compelled by moral duty, seek a life in politics.

It is true I never chose to be American. But today, I do.

1)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_China

2) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39096833

3) I have in mind Tiananmen Square June, 4th 1989.

*A version of this essay was originally published by Chosenmag.com in April 2017

~ Dylan Flint is a Seattle native with deep ties to the Pacific Northwest. He has been writing continuously ever since getting sober in 2013. He has written on a wide range of topics, from spirituality and addiction to politics and poetry, but everything has always had a philosophical bent. Philosophy is not only dear to Dylan, he considers it a part of himself–an “expression of his soul” to use his own words. Dylan received his BA in philosophy from the University of Washington in 2015. Since graduating he has spent time in Germany at the University of Tubingen, and for this past year, he has been teaching English in China’s Jiangsu province. When he isn’t reading and writing, Dylan enjoys skiing, hiking, traveling and generally being outdoors. This fall he plans to return to the Pacific Northwest. He has been accepted to the philosophy masters program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. After he completes this program, he plans to pursue a PhD in philosophy and dreams of one day being a philosophy professor so he can share his love with the next generation of thinkers. To follow Dylan’s thoughts and experiences along the way, you can check out his blog at www.medium.com/@aphilosophersquarrel or on Instagram @aphilosophersquarrel

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!

Raconteur Street Blues, by East Street Prophet

Painting on a wall, photo by East Street Prophet at 518 Song of My People

I grew up around some of the great narcissists of our time. History won’t remember them, so I have to. They were great storytellers, who forged a knack for survival into an unequivocal hunger to live like kings. They spoke of riches and wealth that they couldn’t have possibly known, yet painted a picture so alluring we had no choice but to believe. They were raconteurs, wizards possessed of a singular illusion that painted the world in their image and presented it to us, as if it were ours.

A Raconteur is a person who excels in telling anecdotes. Also, an anecdote (Please note: I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence. I mean to provide clarity.) is a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident. A raconteur is a great storyteller. I’ve always considered the word to be closer to ‘being a good bullshitter’, which is worth its weight in gold. Anyone can tell a story, but getting people to care is a miracle akin to walking on water.

Storytellers are plentiful. You can see them in coffee shops behind laptops, biding their time until they have a chance to share, connect and separate. It’s in that singular moment, where we connect, that things change. They can become dangerous in a moment’s notice, as they infect your mind with complex riddles that the storytellers have been working on since the dawn of time. You might wonder, ‘why would a person share such a riddle?’ you can’t think like that. It’s how any good storyteller wants you to think. They want you to assume they have no reason to hurt you. There’s no harm in believing what they believe. There’s no harm in believing them without question.

The thing that all decent ‘raconteurs’ must ask themselves periodically is ‘do I care more about myself than I do the story?’ I’ve lived among some of the great bullshitters of modern history. We heard plenty of stories growing up, yet so few of them added up in a way that it could make me care. The raconteurs possessed this trait that added depth to their stories, not just with what images they infused, but with how they made us feel. We felt involved. They tugged on our heartstrings and moved us toward an end that we couldn’t see. They possessed our future, as we waited for these mindless heathens to comb through the vast wasteland of their psyches in search of an end to whatever narrative they were painting.

Any good story comes from a single point. It’s not the beginning. It’s just a point. They wanted to make a point. They’d lie about having sex, so they’d present a narrative that made the possibility of them having sex seem possible. They’d plant a few mental images here and there, forming past and future around this premise. Ultimately, their goal was to forge a real, however unlikely, narrative, in order to make us believe.

The raconteurs believed what they said. The proof was in their words. They told us to take it from there, because taking a man at his word is as good as taking it in blood… at least when you’re a child. When we were kids we lied and it helped. We had impossible things to accomplish in a collapsing world full of poverty and the imminent threat of some incomprehensible bullshit. We had to hide sensitive information from our parents, while taking advantage of our God-like inertia, limitless energy and simple-mindedness. We had to prove to other kids that we were cool, while, at the same time, making our parents think we’d never do the cool things that get you into trouble. It added to our personal mystique, having accomplished nothing, we needed something to set us apart. We’d lie about drinking and drugs, losing our virginity, feats of the utmost stupidity… you know… harmless bullshit.

Truth is the trickiest thing. Everyone says they want it, but when it’s not something they agree with they have a reaction that makes you wonder. Truth. It’s a funny thing, because I could write out the truth as I see it and (hopefully) half of you would love me and the other would hate me. The trick for any good raconteur is understanding the right formula, while having as full an understanding as you can of the truth. I believe that you can’t write a decent story, even if it sounds like nonsense, without a sense of truth. It has to be written, spoken and lived with conviction. Truth has to appear in every word, exactly as you’ve seen it, while managing not to conflict with the truth, as it is. You should, as a good storyteller, align yourself with the truth in order to make your narrative more honest and compelling.

I never thought about truth when I was young enough to fall for these stories. The morality of lying, as one presents it to himself, so that he might further his ends, has become all the more staggering as I’ve reached adulthood. I’ve been trying to think of the right way to word this question. I doubt it’s perfect, but it needs to be asked. I’m curious as to what everyone believes:

Can you have a moral premise without any evidence?

Some raconteurs have no regard for the truth. In all honesty, as a kid I didn’t care. I was surrounded by some of the greatest storytellers of my time. I couldn’t be bothered to figure out how some of these impossible stories could be real. I believed with all my heart, because I was a stupid kid who still believed in Santa. (FYI I believed in ghosts for longer than I believed in Santa, but I also assumed the ghosts would grant a wish or needed my help or whatever.) These are men who have learned to lie in a way that ‘everyone believes that you believe what you say’. You believe them, no matter the evidence to the contrary, because they, not their narrative, hold up well against the barrage of truth that assaults them on all sides.

They’re not not-sympathetic characters. Their truth is a depressing harangue of emotion and pain that most couldn’t understand. What’s worse, they keep it to themselves. They keep it! They hide all that pain and suffering, but even more, they hide the truth! They move with such intent when they tell their stories, as if revealing a deeper, more significant wisdom, while simultaneously hiding it from the world. It’s in their emphatic gestures, their movements, as if their bodies shift depending on the tone of their narratives, not to mention their eyes… it’s in all these things that those of us who were forced to listen HAD to believe.

We believed it all the more, because we lived it. They borrowed from our lives and, in this way, we added to the false narrative. Storytelling is a necessary skill. It made us feel good in a time where people were laughing at us, because our river was full of poison and visitors had no reason to… visit. The pain of being alive could’ve shown itself in crime and self abuse. For us, it showed itself in acceptance of nonsensical bullshit and downright lies.

Near-possible realities were a simple narrative that captured our attention, which begs the question: why do they need our attention? Evil raconteurs are like evil yogis. You can assume they don’t exist, as if there is no darkness when there is also light, but this is another simple narrative that’s easy to digest. The simple narrative is used to ensnare. You don’t need to talk about angels to be a good raconteur. You have to make people believe. This is that much more significant. You MAKE people believe. You take them on a journey, where they start out as a skeptic and then, through a few twists and turns… holy shit… you just made someone believe in angels.

(Also, if you don’t make them believe, you at least allow them to suspend reality for a time, which is kinda the same, although I admit there are differences.)

Making people believe and sharing with them a deeply personal truth is about as different as water and oil.

For what it’s worth, they thought they were kings, but that never stopped them from fighting to become that oh-so-desirable, and unquestioned ruler of the universe. They lied and stole and fought, but the stories to me became all the more touching. These people, the Raconteurs, were at war with themselves, as well as the truth and as well as a circumstance of poverty and extreme depravity, which was plentiful, in our ever-collapsing society. They fought for freedom: the freedom to be as insane and harmful to oneself as you can get. They fought to make the world a weird place.

Originally published at 518 – Song of My People

~ East Street Prophet 518 writes beautifully about hometown Rensselaer, just across the Hudson River from Albany, NY, and their experiences within the 518 area code: Albany, Rensselaer, and Troy, and various outlying places as well. They’ve been having a lot of fun with it and creating a bit of ‘folklore’ from local stories at 518 – Song of My People

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

Abortion: Conflict and Compromise, by Kate Greasley

View of a Foetus in the Womb, c. 1510 – 1512, drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

A few years ago, when I told a colleague that I was working primarily on abortion rights, he looked at me quizzically and replied, “But I thought they had sorted all of that out in the seventies”. Needless to say, he was a scientist. Still, while the idea that the ethical questions implicated in abortion were somehow put to bed in the last century is humorous, I knew what he meant. The end of the ‘sixties and beginning of the ‘seventies marked watershed developments for reproductive freedom in both Britain and the U.S. – developments which have (with some non-negligible push and pull at the boundaries) continued to set the basic terms of abortion regulation ever since.

In Britain, the 1967 Abortion Act widely legalised termination of pregnancy for the first time and codified the grounds upon which abortions could be legally carried out. Shortly after, the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade famously declared that there was a constitutionally protected right to abortion in the United States, albeit with some qualifications. Since those events, there have been no revolutionary changes to the system of abortion regulation on either side of the Atlantic, although there have been many meaningful ones.

Of course, legal resolution by no means signalled the end of moral disagreement about abortion. A significant minority voice has continued to vehemently oppose abortion practice. What was settled back then secured far more of a grudging détente than a happy compromise. (Like so much legislation, the Abortion Act was a product of political expediencies; I once heard one of its drafters describe the pandemonium of last-minute back-room deals in the Houses of Parliament, and the hotchpotch of provisions that emerged from all of the bargaining necessary to get it through.) As such, the political resolutions, whilst enduring, have always been intensely fragile, especially in the US where Christian conservatism and the anti-abortion lobby overlap so much. Of late, that fragility has become increasingly apparent. Recent developments in the United States and elsewhere have revealed just how misplaced any complacency about reproductive rights truly is.

It is, in truth, hardly surprising that abortion compromise is so precarious when one considers the nature of dissent to abortion practice. If one side of that debate really believes—as many claim to—that abortion is murder, akin to infanticide, then it is hard to see how they can ever truly accept legal abortion merely on the strength of its democratic pedigree. Against such a belief, rehearsing the familiar pro-choice mantras about women’s rights and bodily autonomy is a bit like shooting arrows at a Chinook helicopter. For what strength does control over one’s body and reproductive destiny really have when measured against the intentional inflicting of death on another?

Of course, if ideological opponents of abortion rights really believe that abortion amounts to murder, it may be hard to make sense of some of the traditional exceptions they themselves have defended, in circumstances, for example, of rape or incest, or where the pregnancy endangers the very life of the pregnant woman. If killing the fetus is no less than homicide, then how can it be justified even in these dire conditions? We certainly do not permit the out and out killing of born human beings for comparable reasons. This may be an indication that opponents of abortion who make such concessions do not truly, deeply, believe the claim that killing an embryo or fetus is like killing a child. Alternatively, it may just suggest that such concessions are rarely ever authentic, but adopted merely as a matter of political strategizing, to avoid losing moderate support in the wider conflict. If that were true, it would be unsurprising to see those traditional concessions gradually withdrawn as opponents of abortion become emboldened by increasing success.

Either way, defenders of abortion rights have a constant decision to make about how to respond to attacks on reproductive freedom and the denunciation of abortion as a moral horror. The approach most traditionally favoured, at least in public spheres, is to simply ignore all talk about abortion being murder and try to refocus attention on women’s stakes in abortion freedoms. As the Mad Men character Don Draper always quipped, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”. This strategy can have its uses, but also its drawbacks. Most importantly, whilst reminding everyone of what women stand to lose through abortion prohibition is likely to strengthen the resolve of those sympathetic to abortion rights, it does nothing to address the consternation of those that are genuinely conflicted about the issue – who are not sure that abortion isn’t murder. As an effort to persuade avowed opponents of abortion rights to think again, it is even more pointless. For those who decry abortion as unjustified homicide do not usually need to be convinced that women can be hugely benefited by it, and harmed by its outlawing. That is not where their main ground of opposition ever lay.

It is for this reason that I think any effective defense of abortion rights must meet that opposition on its own terms, and confront the claims that abortion is homicide and the fetus the moral equivalent of a child. The task can seem daunting; how does one even begin to argue about whether or not unborn human lives have exactly the same right to life as mature human beings? But there are many reflections one can bring to bear on that question, and especially on the question whether, when examining our own or others’ beliefs, we are really committed to the claim that embryos are equal in moral value to human children. For one thing, as some philosophers have pointed out, if we really believed that claim, we may have to ask why infinitely more resources are not devoted to the prevention of natural miscarriage, which, it would follow, is the single biggest cause of child mortality – far greater than famine, disease, or war. At any rate, if defenders of reproductive freedoms do not concern themselves with the fundamental questions of abortion ethics, they are in danger of being left with little effective argument if and when the fragile settlements that have held for some decades threaten true collapse.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World