O.P. Recommends: Richard Wilkinson on How Inequality is Bad

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dear readers,

I’m still hard at work on my master’s dissertation and therefore still have little time to write or read much of anything outside of its scope. One way I can readily catch up on what’s going on in the world, though, is by listening to podcasts while I take my daily breaks, usually consisting of a good brisk hill walk up Arthur’s Seat and around the hills and crags of Holyrood Park. So let me share another one with you that especially struck me.

In this podcast episode, social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson discusses the evidence he and his partner Kate Pickett gleaned from thirty years of research, with host David Edmonds. Their research reveals a wide range of ill effects from very high levels of income inequality: higher rates of imprisonment, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness, and homicide to name a few, as well as lack of social cohesion and trust in other people, lower life expectancy, and so on. The poor and wealthy alike suffer these effects, but the poorer are hit hardest. Since we humans have a strong instinct to compare our status with others’, we tend to resent those who do much better. We’re therefore driven to signal that we, too, have worth. For example, we buy expensive things whether or not we can afford them, especially in a place where wealth and its trappings are considered markers of proper work ethic, intelligence, ability, and good character while having less is considered evidence of laziness and general lack of intelligence, ability, and good character. These stereotypes hold true whether the wealthy or the less wealthy work or not.

Recognize this situation anywhere?

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Citizenship, Belonging, and the Experiences of Amero-Africans in West Africa: An Analysis of William Innes’ Early History of Liberia

Rev. Dr. William Innes of Edinburgh

In 1831 and again in 1833, Waugh and Innes of Edinburgh published a history of Liberia by ‘Minister of the Gospel’ William Innes.[1]

In his Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa, Innes describes the founding, structure, and struggles of this West African colony, founded in the early 1820’s as a haven for free and previously enslaved people of African descent and for ‘recaptives’[2] rescued from the newly illegal transatlantic slave trade.[3] Innes was an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, an ‘independent’-minded Presbyterian and then Baptist minister, one-time chaplain of Stirling Castle, missionary, bookseller, and author of over two dozen books and other publications, mostly on religious topics. The titles of his publications, such as Reasons for Separating from the Church of Scotland (Dundee, 1804), Christianity, the Only Effectual Support Under the Afflictions of Life (Edinburgh, 1810), Domestic Religion, or an Exposition of the Precepts of Christianity Regarding the Duties of Domestic Life (Edinburgh, 1822), and Instructions for Young Enquirers (Edinburgh, translated into Gaelic 1827) indicate why this otherwise mostly theological writer decided to write a history of a colony.[4] As we shall see, this reform-minded man viewed Liberia as a worthy project within the larger goal of uplifting lives as well as souls.

Although Innes’ account includes some discussion of the hardships faced by the colonists trying to build a community in and wrest a living from this unfamiliar and somewhat hostile territory, he presents a generally positive view of the experience and prospects of the Liberian colonization project. Indeed, Innes seems anxious to convince his readers that the colony could not only exist and thrive, but that it should. As we shall see, Liberia is, to Innes, a project of community-building in line with ordered nature and with American beliefs in democracy, self-sufficiency, and the sense of social harmony necessary for a united and healthy political community. In interrogating this text, then, we are led to ask: how are ideas about citizenship and belonging implied and described in Innes’ history of Liberia, how do they relate to the lived experiences of Amero-Africans in the United States and Liberia, and how are these ideas challenged?

Innes commences his history with a discussion of the historical conditions in which this colonization movement arose. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in November of 1816 as a benevolent institution dedicated to the long-conceived but as yet unsystematic scheme of colonizing black inhabitants of the United States to Africa, the continent of their ancestral origin.[5] As Innes and many others saw it, including many abolitionists and proslavery advocates alike,[6] black people could never live peacefully side by side with white Americans. Innes writes that all black persons are ‘branded by their colour as an inferior caste.’[7] He argues that so long as they live as an ‘inferior’ class within the general community of free persons, both black and white will suffer the ill effects of living in a mixed-race society, made up as it is of people with necessarily disparate natures and irreconcilable interests.[8] So long as people of African descent live within the mainstream white American community, the majority of the former will remain ‘idle, ignorant, vicious’ as a result of their disfavor, and cites as an example of this that ‘in many cases the free negroes are a great annoyance to the community, often living by pilfering the property of their neighbors.’[9] Therefore, Innes explains, the only way that people of African descent can create communities to which they naturally belong is to form them separately from white communities, and the best place to do so is by establishing their own communities in the continent of their ancestor’s origin. In doing so, they can enjoy the rights and privileges of citizens with others who share their place in the racial hierarchy. [10] In his majority opinion for the United States Supreme Court 1856 decision in the Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford case, which exacerbated the divisive political issues of slavery and race that helped spark the United States’ Civil War,[11] Chief Justice Roger Taney agrees with Innes’ theory of natural racial separation. He likewise believes that human beings are manifestly and naturally separated into inferior and superior races that cannot form a united political community.[12] Ideas such as Innes’ and Taney’s permeated political debate and policy in the United States for decades to come, widely disenfranchising black Americans and relegating them to second-class citizenship throughout the nation.

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Yet the colonization scheme as described above is a manifestation of paradoxical ideas about belonging and citizenship rather than a straightforward, across the board rejection of the rights or abilities of black persons to enjoy political power, despite Taney’s assertions to the contrary. According to Innes, Taney, many in the ACS, the U.S. government, and so many Americans, people of African origin who were brought to American shores to labor, to raise crops and buildings and in every other way contribute to the economy and to the material well-being of United States citizens nevertheless do not belong within the political community nor could ever be citizens themselves. Yet advocates of colonization such as Innes believed that people of African descent were or could become citizens in Africa even if they were not born there. This was and continued to be believed by many of African descent as well. W.E.B. DuBois, African-American historian, racial theorist, and proponent of the pan-Africanist ‘vision’[13] of Africa as the natural homeland for all people of African descent, describes Africa as ‘fatherland,’ and ‘motherland.’ DuBois concedes that he has only a ‘tenuous’ connection to Africa ‘in culture and race’, like most people colonized to Africa in Innes’ time. African scholar M.B. Akpan points out that Amero-Africans (acculturated Americans of African descent who settled in Africa) who went to Liberia were vastly different from native Africans in about as many ways as they could be, in dress, language, religion, taste in food, clothing, housing, art, and so on.[14] Yet some, like DuBois, perceived themselves as bound to Africa by an essential ‘kinship.’[15] For Innes and others, this kinship is entirely racially based; for DuBois and many pan-Africanists, ‘the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and the insult; and this heritage binds [us] together…’[16]

Innes and proponents of Amero-African colonization, Taney and other racial hierarchists, and pan-Africanists like Dubois share a belief that there is something about a common African descent and shared experiences, however combined with ethnic descent and acculturation from elsewhere, which creates a natural community. Such natural communities, in turn, create opportunities for citizenship that cannot be enjoyed at all, or at least not fully, in any other context. These ideas are in tension throughout Innes’ account of how West African colonies came to be and the way they persisted despite significant challenges and hardships. These challenges arose within the colonies themselves and from conflicts between colonists and the ecology, and between colonists and their native African neighbors. Innes’ account of the difficulties faced by the Liberian colonists differs significantly in many respects from later scholarship and from other contemporary accounts. In Innes’ account, these difficulties are relatively minor compared to the benefits the colonists enjoyed as citizens of a new community to which they rightly belonged.[17] The contrast between Innes’ account and other contemporary accounts backed up by later scholarship[18] imply that Innes’ driving concern to use Liberia as a positive example of how racially-based communities are formed biased his very favorable presentation of the colony.

Regarding their prospects for acceptance and inclusion within the mainstream American social and political community, Innes describes his perception of the state in which non-enslaved people of African descent find themselves:

…[T]roughout the non-slaveholding states, the negroes form a distinct race, branded by their color as an inferior caste; regarded with a species of loathing when thought of as companions, and for ever shut out from the privileges of the white men by whom they are surrounded. Be it prejudice, or founded on reason, the feeling of dislike mutually exists… .No matter what may be their industry and sobriety; no matter what their attainments in science, or their character for morality, they can never hope to pass the broad line of demarcation, or assume a station of equality with the other members of the community.[19]

Frederick Douglass ca. 1847-52, Samuel Miller, American 1822-1882, Art Institute of Chicago, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Racial hierarchists like Taney share the ‘species of loathing’ which Innes describes. Today, Innes’ and Taney’s descriptions of race relations are difficult to read, especially Taney’s. For one, they conflict with contemporary thoughts and sensibilities about race which are, in the main, orders of magnitude more optimistic about the likelihood that people of various races and ethnicities can meaningfully share and participate in communities as social and political equals. For another, they don’t ring true, especially in Taney’s harsh Dred Scott account of the social and political issues of race in America. After all, there were many mixed-race communities in which black Americans lived relatively safely and peacefully alongside their white neighbors even given the national tensions over issues of race. Leading black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass settled in one such community, New Bedford, Massachusetts, following his escape from slavery in Maryland in 1838.[20] Taney’s opinion reads very much like a partisan political document and presents a wholly dismal picture of both the capabilities and prospects of people of African descent.[21] Innes’ commentary, on the other hand, presents a more mixed though still racially hierarchical view. On the one hand, he implies in the selection above and makes clearer elsewhere that he believes people of African descent are fully capable of ‘industry and sobriety,’ of morality, of worthy and admirable attainments, of being ‘provident’ and ‘respectable,’ of conducting ‘affairs of empire,’ and so on.[22] Yet Innes does not believe they are capable of this, on the whole, so long as they live in communities among their white racial ‘superiors.’[23] Removal from white society and colonization with others of their own racial heritage, then, is the answer.

Yet all the qualities that Innes enumerates as making people belong within communities and which he characterizes as those of good citizens, he already ascribes to Americans of African descent. We can see this most clearly in the passages in Innes’ history where he describes the contrast between Amero-African colonizers and the beneficial and ‘civilizing’ influence that they exert on their native Africans neighbors. In matters of language, religion, dress, morality, ability, education, and so on, they are in turn, deems Innes, superior to their native African neighbors and the latter, recognizing this, wish to emulate them.[24] We can also recognize Innes’ conflicting views in the terms he chooses to refer to the Amero-African colonists and the native African peoples in their territorial conflicts. When describing the participants and victims of battles, Innes refers to Amero-Africans and their native African allies in such terms as ‘woman’, ‘men,’ ‘persons,’ ‘mother’, ‘the people’, and so on. By contrast, Innes refers to native Africans primarily by terms such as ‘barbarian,’ ‘savage’, ‘enemy’, and ‘wretches’, characterized by ‘moral deformity.’[25] This implies that for Innes, civilization can depend on culture, virtues, religious beliefs, and modes of comportment rather than race. The very qualities that make people belong to a community and become good citizens can and are often held by Amero-Africans whatever side of the Atlantic. As we can see in the selection above, Innes concedes this even as he explains why black people cannot belong within American white communities. He allows that black individuals can and do ‘rise above their degraded brethren’ and exhibit such good-citizenship qualities as ‘character for morality’ and ‘industry and sobriety,’ capable of ‘mak[ing] attainments in science’ and so forth.[26] Innes, then, presents two very distinct conceptions of belonging, citizenship, and race which are, if not in direct conflict, at least in tension with one another.

Clipping from The African Repository and Colonial Journal, V. XIII 1837, describing the efforts of William Johnson to settle his former slaves in Liberia, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Innes resolves these conflicting ideas about race and belonging to his own satisfaction through his appeal to divine approval. Innes, as a ‘Minister of the Gospel,’[27] looks for and finds signs of God’s will that the Liberian colony survive. He argues that God must approve of removing black people to Liberia because the preservation of Liberian colonies is unlikely otherwise given the obstacles they faced, which in turn shows divine approbation of this racial separation.[28] The idea of divine arrangement of peoples into natural types and nations which pervades Innes’ history resembles such racially hierarchical theories as Taney’s. However, Innes’ view of racial ordering displays more divine benevolence for the black race even as it is extremely patriarchal. Innes perceives a divine will that all people of African descent be redeemed through their separate political and religious institutions. This will best be brought about first by separating the races into naturally sympathetic racially divided communities, and then locating those communities in places where they can spread the gospel of Christ to others of the same race who have not yet received it through the establishment of colonies. The colonizers were then placed in a position to help bring about the divine will in the world such as providing a Christian example to their African neighbors[29] and helping to end the ‘evil’ and ‘dreadful malady’ of the slave trade.[30]

Yet Innes’ overall sunny take on the lived experience of the Liberian colonists contrasts with contemporary and later accounts of the Liberian experiment. Douglass, for example, is skeptical of the glowing accounts of the colony’s success as well as of its prospects of helping to end the slave trade; he questions the motives and therefore the accuracy of those offering glowing accounts of the colonization effort’s success.[31] Innes’ account is one which invites such skepticism. He considers the ‘signal preservation’ of the colony a sign of God’s approval but does not consider the severe hardships that he chooses to cite such as supply shortages, attacks from neighboring tribes, difficulties raising crops, the fact that they had to wrest the colony’s land concession from Dei ‘King Peter’ at gunpoint, and the high rates of disease and death as signs of God’s disapproval.[32] Innes seems to minimize the hardships in Liberia as he follows every mention of them with an immediate qualification or comparison, such as citing the early American colonies’ struggles or remarking that the Liberian colonies could have suffered worse.[33] He goes so far as to dismiss symptoms of illness as mere climatic adjustment reactions of healthy bodies, though he does admit that many died.[34] According to historian Claude Andrew Clegg, however, the colonists often suffered extremely high rates of hunger, disease, privation, and mortality.[35] Clegg also cites many examples of the colonists’ difficulties, including the telling example of Emily Hooper, a young colonist who, after an extraordinarily difficult and expensive effort on her father’s part to obtain her freedom and fund her journey to Liberia, decided to return to slavery rather than further suffer the hardships of the colony. This episode was a great embarrassment to the ACS.[36]

In addition to the evidence of hardship and mortality in many reports, accounts like Innes’ are roundly challenged by argument and even ridicule. One particularly scornful and influential critic of the colonization scheme was Douglass. Indeed, except for the fact that he actually refers to [news]paper accounts in his ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color’ address delivered in Rochester, New York in 1851, it would be reasonable to assume that Douglass was referring to Innes’ history when he observed: ‘Papers that never speak of colored men in this country but to abuse and slander them, speak in the most flattering terms of …Liberia.’[37] To Douglass, arguments such as those offered by Innes and American statesman Henry Clay, who recommend the removal of black people from American society due to idleness, lawlessness, and other perceived flaws invite a counter-question: ‘Suppose we should admit… that we are degraded and dissolute, as a class; are there no other degraded and dissolute people?… Who talks of their expatriation?’ to which he answers: ‘No one.’[38] Douglass also mocks the idea that colonization movement will weaken slavery as an institution. It’s the presence of free black people in slave states that help weaken slavery by demonstrating to the enslaved that there is another way they can live in America. Removing free black people to Africa, argues Douglass, removes this constant and substantial threat to slaveholders’ desire to rule unchallenged over a docile, resigned slave population.[39]

Liberian Senate drawn by Robert K. Griffin, Monrovia, 1856, public domain via the Library of Congress

Throughout his early history of Liberia, Innes wavers but does not stray far from his theme of Liberia as a natural home for Americans of African descent. His explanations for how and why Amero-Africans, acculturated to the United States in language, morals, religion, dress, and overall ways of life nevertheless belong in a land which most have never seen are not, as we have seen, entirely consistent. Why Amero-Africans can only successfully gain a sense of belonging and engage as citizens in a place where they are outsiders in every way except skin color is also not satisfactorily explained; indeed, Innis presents Liberia as if it were the only alternative to black Americans continuing to live in a state of political and social exclusion and oppression in mainstream white American society. Innes offers the ‘signal preservation’ of the Liberian colony as proof of its value to God and humankind as well as of its eventual success, but glosses over any consideration that the terrible hardships and dangers that the colonists had to face were evidence to the contrary. Others such as Douglass, however, perceive the flaws in the explanations and evidence that Innes offers, and presents both counterevidence and counterarguments that helped undermine support for the colonization project over the decades of its existence.[40]

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!


Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973): 217-36.

Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition. Accessed 20 March 2018 at http://frederickdouglass.infoset.io/

Douglass, Frederick, and John W. Blassingame. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series 1, Speeches, Debates and Interviews; John W. Blassingame, Editor. Vol.1, 1841-46. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975.

Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923.

Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974.

Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833. Accessed 20 March 2018 at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044051050987

Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H Van Evrie, and Samuel A Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, Accessed 21 March 21, 2018 at https://www.loc.gov/item/17001543/

West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

[1] Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833, frontispiece

[2] Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004 p. 37

[3] Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961 p. 51

[4] ‘William Innes’ in Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923 pp. 325-326

[5] West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971 p. 93

[6] Clegg p. 3-4, Staudenraus pp. 2-7

[7] Ibid. p 102

[8] Innes pp. iv-v, 101-103

[9] Ibid. p. iv

[10] Ibid. pp. 102, 106-107

[11] Clegg pp. 174, 195-196

[12] United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H. Van Evrie, and Samuel A. Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860 pp. 18-19

[13] Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974 p. 5

[14] Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973) p. 219

[15] Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975 pp. 116

[16] Ibid. p. 117

[17] Innes pp. 87-89

[18] Clegg pp. 226-229

[19] Ibid. p. 102

[20] Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996 pp. 353ff

[21] Taney pp. 17-18

[22] Innes pp. 77, 86-87, 91

[23] Ibid. pp. 101-102, 176

[24] Innes p. 83, 86-89

[25] Ibid. pp. 57-65

[26] Ibid. p 102

[27] Ibid., frontispiece

[28] Ibid. pp. vi-vii, 37-38, 62, 64, 72, 91

[29] Ibid., pp. 112-115

[30] Ibid., pp. 9-10, 108-112

[31] ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 26 January 1851,’ North Star, 30 January 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, pp. 300-302

[32] Innes, pp. v-vi, 16-21, 38-39, 93-95, 101, 108-111; Clegg, p. 37; West pp. 114-115

[33] Innes., pp. 91-92

[34] Ibid., p. 93

[35] Clegg, see descriptions and figures in chapter 7 of The Price of Liberty, ‘To Live and Die in Liberia,’ pp. 201-248

[36] Ibid., pp. 187-188

[37] Douglass, ‘Persecution,’ p. 302

[38] ‘Henry Clay and Colonization Cant, Sophistry, and Falsehood: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 2 February 1851, North Star, 6 February 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, p. 323

[39] Ibid., p. 322

[40] Staudenraus, pp. 249-250

Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli!

Niccolò Machiavelli statue at the Uffizi

Cary Nederman introduces us to his piece on Niccolò Machiavelli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy thusly:

Why an entry on Machiavelli? That question might naturally and legitimately occur to anyone encountering an entry about him in an encyclopedia of philosophy. Certainly, Machiavelli [May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527] contributed to a large number of important discourses in Western thought—political theory most notably, but also history and historiography, Italian literature, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. But Machiavelli never seems to have considered himself a philosopher—indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point—nor do his credentials suggest that he fits comfortably into standard models of academic philosophy. His writings are maddeningly and notoriously unsystematic, inconsistent and sometimes self-contradictory. He tends to appeal to experience and example in the place of rigorous logical analysis. Yet succeeding thinkers who more easily qualify as philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas, either to dispute them or to incorporate his insights into their own teachings. Machiavelli may have grazed at the fringes of philosophy, but the impact of his musings has been widespread and lasting. The terms “Machiavellian” or “Machiavellism” find regular purchase among philosophers concerned with a range of ethical, political, and psychological phenomena, even if Machiavelli did not invent “Machiavellism” and may not even have been a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him. Moreover, in Machiavelli’s critique of “grand” philosophical schemes, we find a challenge to the enterprise of philosophy that commands attention and demands consideration and response. Thus, Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy…’

Learn more about the often contradictory, ever controversial, always fascinating and relevant Niccolò Machiavelli:

The Inverted Advice of Niccolò Machiavelli – by William J. Connell for the Times Literary Supplement

Machiavelli and the Italian City States – Melvin Bragg in conversation with his guests Quentin Skinner, Evelyn Welch, and Lisa Jardine

Niccolò Machiavelli – by Cary Nederman for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Niccolò Machiavelli: Italian Statesman and Writer – by Harvey Mansfield for Encyclopædia Britannica

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full essay here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Right to be Poor, Part 2: O.P. Recommends ‘Freedom and Hostile Design’ by Barry Lam

People in a Public Square (cropped), Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via Pixabay

Last year, O.P. shared an excellent article by Peter Adamson called ‘The Right to Be Poor’, which is about an aspect of the property rights debate that we rarely address: the right to own nothing.

Recently, Barry Lam, associate professor of philosophy at Vassar College and creator of the excellent podcast Hi-Phi Nation, considered another aspect of the human rights and ownership problem: do people who own little or nothing have a right to access public places in the course of taking care of their most basic needs? In the episode ‘Freedom and Hostile Design,’ Lam and his guests ‘look at some of the suckiest things that ever sucked in urban design, and the street artists and compassionate vandals who are trying to fight them. We use these stories to investigate how public spaces are becoming less free and more coercive.’

If you enjoy what you hear, don’t stop there! Hi-Phi Nation is one of the best philosophy and indeed, any podcasts out there.

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!

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

Working Woman, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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