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!

The Country is Frighteningly Polarized. This is Why, by Fareed Zakaria

An excellent piece by my favorite political commentator on the cultural and political polarization that’s driving America apart, and on ill-conceived attempts by both the left and right to quash free expression they don’t like.

Fareed Zakaria

Wednesday’s shooting at a congressional baseball practice was a ghastly example of the political polarization that is ripping this country apart. Political scientists have shown that Congress is more divided than at any time since the end of Reconstruction. I am struck not simply by the depth of partisanship these days, but increasingly also by its nature. People on the other side of the divide are not just wrong and to be argued with. They are immoral and must be muzzled or punished.

This is not about policy. The chasm between left and right during much of the Cold War was far wider than it is today on certain issues. Many on the left wanted to nationalize or substantially regulate whole industries; on the right, they openly advocated a total rollback of the New Deal. Compared with that, today’s economic divisions feel relatively small.

Partisanship today is more about identity…

View original post 591 more words

‘Free Speech’ is a Blunt Instrument. Let’s Break It Up, by Robert Simpson

April 15, 1967, Spring Mobilization to End the War, San Francisco

Free speech is important. It guards against governments’ dangerous tendency to repress certain kinds of communication, including protest, journalism, whistleblowing, academic research, and critical work in the arts. On the other hand, think of a doctor dispensing bogus medical advice, or someone making a contract that she plans to breach, or a defendant lying under oath in court. These all involve written or spoken statements, but they don’t seem to fall within the domain of free speech. They are what the legal theorist Frederick Schauer at the University of Virginia calls ‘patently uncovered speech’: communication that warrants no special protection against government regulation.

However, once we extrapolate beyond the clear-cut cases, the question of what counts as free speech gets rather tricky. A business whose website gets buried in pages of search results might argue that Google’s algorithm is anti-competitive – that it impedes fair competition between sellers in a marketplace. But Google has dodged liability by likening itself to a newspaper, and arguing that free speech protects it from having to modify its results. Is this a case of free speech doing its proper work, or an instance of free speech running amok, serving as cover for a libertarian agenda that unduly empowers major corporations?

To answer this question, we need a principled account of the types of communication covered by free speech. But attempts to provide such an account haven’t really succeeded. We can pick out cases on either side of the divide – ‘Protections for journalism and protest? Yes! For perjury and contracts? No’ – but there aren’t any obvious or natural criteria that separate bona fide speech from mere verbal conduct. On the contrary, as theorists have told us since the mid-20th century, all verbal communication should be understood as both speech and conduct.

Some authors see these definitional difficulties as a fatal problem for the very idea of free speech. In There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too (1994), the American literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish argued that ‘free speech’ is really just a rhetorically expedient label that people assign to their favoured forms of communication. There’s a grain of truth in this; but it doesn’t change the fact that governments still have a tendency to repress things such as protest and whistleblowing, and that we have good reasons to impose institutional safeguards against such repression if possible.

Instead of throwing out free speech entirely, a better response might be to keep the safeguards but make their sphere of application very broad. This is roughly what happens in Canadian law, where nearly any type of conduct can fall within the constitutional ideal of ‘free expression’, provided that it is trying to convey some kind of meaning. The downside is that if nearly anything can qualify as ‘expressive’ in the relevant sense, then we cannot categorically privilege expression itself as an inviolable norm. WhistlAll we can ask lawmakers to do is factor in the interests that such expression serves, and try to strike a balance with all the other, competing interests (such as ‘equality’, for example, or ‘national security’). While such trade-offs are standard in Commonwealth legal systems, they have the unwelcome effect of making it easier for governments to justify their repressive tendencies.

I’d propose a third way: put free ‘speech’ as such to one side, and replace it with a series of more narrowly targeted expressive liberties. Rather than locating actions such as protest and whistleblowing under the umbrella of ‘free speech’, we could formulate specially tailored norms, such as a principle of free public protest, or a principle of protected whistleblowing. The idea would be to explicitly nominate the particular species of communication that we want to defend, instead of just pointing to the overarching genus of ‘free speech’. This way the battle wouldn’t be fought out over the boundaries of what qualifies as speech, but instead, more directly, over the kinds of communicative activities we think need special protection.

Take the idea of public protest. Standard free-speech theory, concerned as it is with what counts as speech, tends to draw a line between interference based on the content of the speech, such as the speaker’s viewpoint (generally not allowed), and interference that merely affects the time, place and manner in which the speech takes place (generally allowed). But this distinction runs into trouble when it comes to protest. Clearly governments should be blocked from shutting down demonstrations whose messages they oppose. But equally they shouldn’t be able to multiply the rules about the time, place and manner in which demonstrations must take place, such that protests become prohibitively difficult to organise. One reason to have a dedicated principle of free public protest, then, is to help us properly capture and encode these concerns. Instead of seeing demonstrations as merely one application of a generic free-speech principle, we can use a narrower notion of expressive liberty to focus our attention on the distinctive hazards faced by different types of socially important communication.

If this all seems a bit optimistic, it’s worth noting that we already approach some types of communication in this way – such as academic freedom. Universities frequently come under pressure from political or commercial lobby groups – such as big oil, or the Israel lobby – to defund research that runs counter to their interests. This kind of threat has a distinctive underlying causal mechanism. In light of this problem, universities safeguard academic freedom via laws and regulations, including guidelines that specify the grounds for which academics can be fired or denied promotion. These moves are not just a specific implementation of a general free-speech principle. They’re grounded in notions of academic freedom that are narrower than and distinct from freedom of speech. My suggestion is that all our expressive liberties could be handled in this way.

The subdivision of expressive liberties isn’t going to magically fix all the genuinely controversial issues around free speech, such as what to do about search engines. However, we don’t need to resolve these debates in order to see, with clarity and confidence, that protest, journalism, whistleblowing, academic research and the arts need special protection. The parcelled-out view of expressive liberties captures the importance of these activities, while sidestepping the definitional problems that plague standard free-speech theory. These are not merely theoretical advantages. Any time a country is creating or revising a bill of rights, the question of how to protect communicative practices must be considered afresh. Multiple expressive liberties is an approach worth taking seriously.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

~ Robert Simpson is a lecturer in philosophy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He writes regularly about social and political philosophy. (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!

 

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

Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No, by Manuel Bermudez

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Essais are the perfect mate to accompany anybody, throughout all stages of life. It’s always interesting to explore Michel de Montaigne‘s life and his marvellous book: the Essais. Within his lifespan, Montaigne was able to find true friendship for himself and record its effects therein. Here we propose to navigate Montaigne’s approach to friendship.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote that friendship was “one soul in two bodies.” Montaigne, on the contrary, always thought that friendship was a free exchange between two people.

Montaigne thought that true friendship was rare. He himself acknowledges to have found only one proper friend in his life: Etienne de La Boétie. And he could enjoy this friendship only for a mere four years. They met as adults and death took Montaigne’s soulmate early. An irreplaceable loss. After La Boétie’s death (in 1563), Montaigne didn’t feel the desire to find a substitute for his dead friend. Perhaps the reason was that our French friend knew intuitively that such a profound bond could only happen once in a lifetime.

Is it possible to have many different friends at any given time? According to Montaigne, true friends are not only scarce, but they should be unique, if only for loyalty’s sake.

If two friends asked you to help them at the same time, which of them would you dash to? If they asked for conflicting favours, who would have the priority? If one entrusted to your silence something that was useful to the other, how would you manage?

— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”

Montaigne-Dumonstier

Portrait of Montaigne by an unknown artist. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The dilemma set here finds an easy solution for Montaigne, since the balance will always incline towards one of them. A succession of these choices would lead him to the real friend. Thus, it would be proved that true friendships tend to uniqueness.

When Montaigne talks about friendship, he does so from his own feelings towards a person of flesh and blood: Etienne de La Boétie. He transferred what he felt for his kindred spirit to the Essais. He loved his friend to the point where he felt despondently lost when La Boétie died. Montaigne attempted to find solace in his writing about La Boétie, even though he failed to portray the true nature of their relationship.

We can find a good deal of mystery in a friendship like these two men had. That strange and powerful empathy that Montaigne tried to describe is difficult to understand. Montaigne concludes that: “They are unimaginable facts for those who have not tried them.”

Montaigne distinguished true friendship from ordinary friendship. Ordinary friendships have, in a way or another, self-interest behind their development. It’s an investment made not with money, but with affection. On the other hand, true friendship is described by the author with the following words:

For the rest, which we commonly call friends, and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance, and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which, there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls: but in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoyn’d.

— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”

In an attempt to describe the nature of his friendship with La Boétie, Montaigne concludes with his famous expression: “If a man should importune me to give a reason why I lov’d him; I find it could no otherwise be exprest, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.”

We can only add here that in the example of Bordeaux of the Essais, Montaigne wrote first “because it was he.” Later he added “because it was I.”

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

Read Montaigne’s essay ‘On Friendship’ here

For more about Montaigne here at O.P., please also see my own essay, published here at Ordinary Philosophy

Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone, by Philip Reed

by-terimakasih0-public-domain-via-pixabay-croppedIt is mildly subversive and perhaps a little quaint when someone clings to their flip phone and refuses a smartphone. Refusing both kinds of phones is viewed as downright lunacy, especially if the person refusing was born after the mid-1970s. But I’ve never had a cellphone and I’m not going to get one. I have several reasons, and they are good ones.

The first is cost. No cellphone means no monthly bill, no possibility for an upgrade, no taxes, and no roaming charges (whatever those are). In an era of stagnant wages and growing income inequality, it is remarkable that people unthinkingly spend $75 or more per month on something that we hardly knew existed 15 years ago, much less counted as a necessity.

The second is concern for the environment. The manufacture of mobile phones (including raw material acquisition), the power they consume, and the energy used to transmit calls and access the internet all produce significant carbon dioxide emissions. The idea that cellphones are good only for a couple of years is widespread, increasing the number of phones that end up in landfills and leak toxic heavy metals such as copper and lead into the soil and groundwater.

The decisive reason, however, for me to refuse a cellphone is the opposite of everyone else’s reason for having one: I do not want the omnipresent ability to communicate with anyone who is absent. Cellphones put their users constantly on call, constantly available, and as much as that can be liberating or convenient, it can also be an overwhelming burden. The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere. Anyone who has checked their phone during a face-to-face conversation understands the temptation. And anyone who has been talking to someone who has checked their phone understands what is wrong with it.

Communicating with someone who is not physically present is alienating, forcing the mind to separate from the body. We see this, for example, in the well-known and ubiquitous dangers of texting while driving, but also in more mundane experiences: friends or lovers ignoring each other’s presence in favour of their Facebook feeds; people broadcasting their entertainment, their meals, and their passing thoughts to all who will bear witness; parents capturing their daughter’s ballet performance on their phones rather than watching it live; people walking down the street talking animatedly to themselves who turn out to be apparently healthy people using their Bluetooth.

The cellphone intrudes into the public and private realms, preventing holistic engagement with what is around us. Smartphones only perfect their predecessors’ ability to intrude.

The disembodying and intrusive effects of cellphones have significant implications for our relationships to the self and to others. Truly knowing and understanding others requires patience, risk, empathy, and affection, all of which are inhibited by cell phones. Cellphones also inhibit solitude, self-reflection, and rumination (formerly known as ‘waiting’ and ‘boredom’), which I think are essential for living a good life.

Long before cellphones, human beings were good at diverting themselves from disciplined attention. ‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,’ observed the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, ‘is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’ This propensity for diversion was notably confirmed in a recent study where subjects preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than occupy themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes.

Pascal believed that the height of human dignity is thought, and that the order of thought begins with oneself, one’s creator, and one’s end. He linked this kind of thought inextricably to genuine rest and happiness. Avoiding a cellphone allows, for me, space for thinking and so enables a richer, more fulfilling way of life. With fewer tasks to perform and preferences to satisfy, life slows to a pace compatible with contemplation and gratitude.

A cellphone-free life not only helps to liberate the mind, but also the body. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras presents a different view of human nature from Pascal: ‘It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.’ We can be pretty sure that Anaxagoras was not anticipating the advent of smartphones. On the contrary, refusing a cellphone enables one to use one’s hands to carry out meaningful activities (playing the piano, gardening, reading a book) in such a way that one is fully absorbed in those activities, so that they reach their height of meaning.

Without a mobile phone, it is easier to concentrate on what is in front of me: my spouse and children, my work, making dinner, going for a walk. I try to choose my activities thoughtfully, so when I do something, I don’t want to be somewhere else. What cellphone users call multitasking does not interest or impress me.

Of course, it’s true that cellphones can be used responsibly. We can shut them off or simply ignore the incoming text. But this takes extraordinary willpower. According to a recent Pew survey, 82 per cent of Americans believe that cellphone use in social situations more often hurts than helps conversation, yet 89 per cent of cell owners still use their phones in those situations. Refusing a cellphone guarantees that I won’t use it when I shouldn’t.

Some people will insist that if I’m going to refuse a cellphone, I should also refuse a regular telephone. It is true that using a landline introduces similar disembodying, mediated experiences as to mobile phones. But there have always been natural and physical limits placed on the use of a regular phone, which is clear from the name ‘landline’. The cellphone’s mobility introduces a radical form of communication by making its alienating effects pervasive. I want to protect what unmediated experiences I have left.

The original meaning of ‘connect’ indicated a physical relationship – a binding or fastening together. We apply this word to our cellphone communications now only as metaphor. The ‘connections’ are ethereal; our words and thoughts reach the upper regions of space next to the cell tower only to remain there, as our devices disconnect us from those with whom we share space. Even though we have two hands, I’m convinced that you can’t hold a cellphone and someone else’s hand at the same time.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

~ Philip Reed is an associate professor of philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York State. His scholarly interests are in ethics and moral psychology. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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