Happy Birthday, Morton White!

Morton White in 1981

Well, happy belated birthday, anyway. White was born on April 27, 1917, but I’m publishing this two days late because I had copied Wikipedia’s wrong date onto my list.

The world lost Morton White less than a year ago as I write this today, and I first learned of him through reading his obituary in The New York Times. As I read, I knew this is a man and an approach to philosophy I must learn more about. Being immersed in other projects, I learned little about him in the intervening eleven months. Happily, I was just reminded by going through my list of significant dates in the lives of the world’s great thinkers (by no means comprehensive!) I placed two of his books on hold at the San Francisco Public Library and will commence reading them on this 100th anniversary of his birth.

White was a philosopher and historian of ideas. According to the Institute for Advanced Studies, ‘he maintained that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough, thereby encouraging the examination of other aspects of civilized life—especially art, history, law, politics and religion—and their relations with science’. And as William Grimes put it for TNYT, his ‘innovative theory of “holistic pragmatism” showed the way toward a more socially engaged, interdisciplinary role for philosophy’.

I studied philosophy with great love and enthusiasm as an undergraduate, yet I found myself then as now just as curious about other disciplines, especially history and the arts, and have often felt that the lines dividing these areas of study are sometimes artificial and even impediments to understanding. Since then, I’ve been pursuing my studies in the broader history of ideas as well, informally for the past few years, formally at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. No doubt, White has influenced the direction my studies in intellectual history will take in ways I’ll learn as I go along, and in many more ways than I’ll ever know.

Learn more about White and his fascinating ideas with me:

Holistic Pragmatism and the Philosophy of Culture‘ – chapter 1 of A Philosophy of Culture: The Scope of Holistic Pragmatism, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2002, in which White summarizes what his holistic pragmatism is all about

Morton White, Philosopher of Holistic Pragmatism, Dies at 99‘ – Obituary for the New York Times by William Grimes, June 10, 2016

Morton White 1917–2016 – His memorial page at the Institute for Advanced Study website, June 08, 2016

And you can find his selected bibliography at Wikipedia

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Xerxes and Demaratus on Tyranny, Liberty, and the Law

Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC) in the doorway of his palace at Persepolis

Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC) in the doorway of his palace at Persepolis, public domain by O. Mustafin via Wikimedia Commons

I’m now reading Book Seven of Herodotus’ Histories which tells the story of Xerxes I of Persia and the second invasion of Greece, which he led to avenge the defeat of his father Darius, who led the first. Darius was defeated at the battle of Marathon when the Athenians and their allies the Plataeans, badly outnumbered, managed to drive away the Persians. In this story, I came across another interesting exchange I’d like to share with you.

After reviewing his massive forces, Xerxes calls for Demaratus, a former king of Lacedaemon (city-state of Sparta) who had defected to Persia after being deposed by a rival. He asks Demaratus if he believes that his fellow Greeks will dare oppose his invasion considering the size and wealth of the new Persian army. After all, Xerxes asks, ‘How could a thousand men, or ten thousand, or even fifty thousand come to that, possibly stand up to an army the size of mine, when all of them enjoy a similar degree of liberty, and have no one man in command?… Just perhaps, were they like us in having one man set in authority over them, they might indeed be prompted by their dread of him to conquer their own instincts, and under the compulsion of the whip to advance against a force much larger than themselves. Left to their own devices, though, there is no way they will do either of those things.’ (Histories 7.103)

Xerxes is speaking here of the land of Athens and Lacedaemon, cradle of democracy, a novel form of government at the time. Many of us moderns who are raised in societies which inherited that spirit of government would respond: ‘But of course! A free people who participate in their own government have a stake in the outcome of public enterprises. Therefore, in war or peace, free people have a reason to care about their outcomes and to be personally motivated to succeed, because the success belongs to each individual as well as the society. Those who are tyrannized and enslaved, however, have no personal stake in the outcome, and fear only motivates one to do the minimum needed for survival. Indeed, fear and resentment of tyranny can motivate the people to undermine the efforts of the tyrant, and to defect to another state at the first opportunity.’ I expected Damaratus to give some such answer.

But Damaratus takes a different tack. Though he begins by citing the courage and martial discipline of the Greeks, he tells Xerxes the main reason he believes the Greeks will stand up to him whatever the size of his army. They’ll resist, he says, because ‘Free as they are, you see, they are not altogether free. Set over them as their master is the law – and of that they are more terrified than ever your men are of you. Certainly, they do what it commands them to do – a command that never alters.’ (7.104)

I think it fascinating that Damaratus uses the expression ‘terrified’ when he describes the Greeks’ attitude to the law. I consulted two other translations and it used the word ‘fear’. I wonder: is this a fear or terror born of deep respect and awe, such as that due to the gods or nature itself? Of fear of their fellow citizens for breaking the social contract or upsetting the natural order of things? Why fear or terror? Then I realize: perhaps he uses this term because he wants Xerxes to understand what he’s saying, and the only thing Xerxes can imagine inspiring obedience is fear and terror. But it’s interesting that he holds on to that idea. After all, Xerxes knows that his father learned otherwise, and the hard way at that. A free

Or, do you think Damaratus means just what he says? That it’s possible that an otherwise free people can actually have a fear of the law itself? It’s not too far of a stretch, after all, that a religious, god-fearing society could fear something else that’s abstract which imposes order and its will on the world.

Or, it could be that Damaratus is talking about the fear of the Greeks betraying their own selves as living embodiments of the law. After all, if adherence to the law is instilled as a sort of sacred duty to the very thing that makes us both free and fully realized as human beings, then the thought of transgressing the law is as terrifying as the thought of destroying our very selves, of becoming something less than human. I suspect Damaratus is talking about something like this.

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!


Sources and inspiration:

Cartledge, Paul. ‘The Democratic Experiment‘. From History at BBC.com

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Tom Holland. New York: Viking, 2013

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by A. D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920, from Tufts.edu

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by G. C. Macaulay, 1890, from Project Gutenberg.

The Myth of the Divide Between Individualism and Collectivism

Mirrored from http://halftimemag.com/articles/web-exclusives/encore-magazine-extras/top-10-marching-moments-of-2008-Details-photos-and-videos.html

What!?‘ you may well ask.

These are diametrically opposed, are they not? Those in favor of one of these views of personal identity, the economy, and public life generally despise the other. Proponents on one side of the ideological divide often shudder at the very thought of being identified with the other. So what could I mean by this?

I’ll start, then, by defining my terms.

Individualism, I think, is easier to define in a way that’s generally acceptable. In this view, protecting the rights and liberties of the individual is the ultimate aim of morality and politics. It holds that each human person has their own integrity of mind and body (and by extension, property) and should not be subject to coercion, harm, or theft. Individualism is preeminent in American culture, and the values associated with this worldview are emphasized by most modern democratic, capitalistic societies. It’s also, at first glance, most consistent with the ideals of the Age of Rights, which places the highest value on the rights of individuals, which should not be infringed on by the state nor by others.

Collectivism is harder to define. The 20th century saw the rise of collectivist, or socialist, states, the largest and most influential of which (ostensibly) valued the society more than individuals. When many think of collectivist societies, they think of Chairman Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, or Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. To my mind, however, these societies were collectivist in name only: since it was the will and interests of one individual or few individuals that were imposed on those societies, usually to the detriment of everyone else. There was little or no willing collective effort for the collective’s sake, little to no public input regarding the collective’s rights and interests, and little to no collective benefit.

For the purposes of this piece, I define collectivism more broadly as the idea that a good society, in which people flourish and live as freely as possible, can only be achieved by some significant level of collective action. In this view, there is such a thing as the public good, and morality demands that everyone should do their part to sustain it. The full details of what the public good consists of and how it can be achieved should be debated by the public, but its characteristics include the idea that all human persons have as much moral worth as much as any other, that all have rights regardless of ‘merit’ (real or perceived) and wealth (or the lack thereof), that all are morally accountable when they fail in their responsibility to protect and nurture those rights, and that the fates of all are intertwined.

It may seem to you, as it does to me, that these conceptions of individualism and collectivism each have their attractions, and each contain some level of truth. Both are ultimately concerned with the well-being of all people, even if they might seem to start from a different end of the spectrum in deciding where the foundation of values should be (with the individual, or with the group). Both focus on human rights. So why are people so divided in their views on this matter, at least as presented in the mainstream media and by political parties?

Perhaps it’s because the arguments that we hear so often present a distorted view. Not only do public figures, pundits, commentators, and even educators offer caricatures of others’ views, they often present a misleading, even simplistic view of their own. Here are some ways I see the how we make [non]sense of the tension between individualism and collectivism, between the one and the many, as manifested in public discourse:

From libertarians and the far right:

– A tendency to systematically overemphasize the individualness of individuals. In other words, they represent individual achievement as attributable entirely, or almost entirely, to the innovation, creativity, and hard work of the individual. But in almost every case, each great ‘individual’ achievement is possible because they had the infrastructure of ideas, innovations, inventions, technologies, and discoveries of those who came before available to build on. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, for example, were able to accomplish what they did because their admirable hard work and creativity enabled them to take the discoveries of mathematicians, physicists, metallurgists, etc, to the next level of technological advancement. The widely-mocked (and admittedly clumsily worded) ‘you didn’t build that’ quote from a 2012 Barack Obama speech was a cynical reaction of the radicalized right against any sort of public recognition that while individual talent and effort are crucial, we also rely heavily on each other in achieving what we do.

– A tendency to underestimate the degree to which a robust morality of social responsibility makes individual freedom not only more expansive, but possible in the first place. Without morality, without a social framework of cooperation, self-restraint from plunder and violence, and the generosity that’s more the rule than the exception in any human group, individual human beings would be left in the narrowly circumscribed situation of the forager and lonely hunter. We would have little time and leisure left to such luxurious pursuits as the acquisition of knowledge, the sharing of ideas, artistic creation, and technological innovation that human beings are so uniquely good at, if we are constantly busy simply feeding ourselves, warming ourselves, and fighting each other off of what little stash of goods we’ve managed to obtain. It may be objected that since human beings naturally desire to better their situation, self-interest would lead to cooperation through the desire to trade. But that only begs the question of why we would engage in fair trade, and not simply plunder if we are the strongest. Why has this instinct for reciprocity has become part of the fabric of the human personality?

From 20th century-style communists and socialists

– A tendency to devalue the importance of the individual out of proportion, and even divorced from, the importance of society. The major autocratic socialist regimes ruthlessly quashed opposition, disposed of enemies, and systematically repressed all but the most insipid, and most propagandist, forms of the arts (and still do! Though not so many). Societies ended up in the odd state of being glorified by their leaders as the greatest in the world, while simultaneously made up of citizens that were each so worthless that any one of them could be legitimately disposed of like so much garbage, if it seemed in the best interests of the state.

From liberals:

– A tendency to declare that government should not be in the business of ‘legislating morality’, while at the same time demanding that government demand accountability for some forms of wrong-doing. Government is a moral enterprise by definition. For example, when a law is made that one person may not kill or injure another, it’s made because of a society’s moral position that life is better than death, and that it’s wrong to infringe on another person’s right to live and thrive. Morality, and law, have everything to do with a society’s deciding what people should or should not do; in other words, it’s normative. There are many who try to downplay the relationship between law and morality, including this blogger who described the law as simply a set of rules to ensure that society is ‘harmonious and safe’, while morality has to do with your ‘personal sense of right and wrong’. But this is not at all how law works now, and not at all how law emerged as a product of human psychology as a social. From the beginning, the law has always had to do with retributive, distributive, and restorative justice, though the balance of these three differ from society to society. Laws that attempt to harmonize society, for example, are based on the notion that harmony is better than discord, that people ‘ought’ to maintain harmony by refraining from violence and disturbing the peace. Laws that govern parking originate with the idea that public spaces ought to be used and maintained for the benefit of everyone. Laws that protect people from assault originate from the idea that people have a right to life and health.

– Closely related to the above, a tendency to incoherence as to whether they themselves view government as moral, or morally neutral. Many liberal people decry any governmental attempts to interfere with some behaviors, such as those pertaining to sexuality and drug use, on the basis that these are moral, and therefore strictly personal, issues. But at the same time, they will demand that government regulate or prohibit other behaviors, such as fraud committed by financial institutions, or in the use of torture and the targeting of minorities in stop-and-frisk policies, on the basis that the latter practices are wrong or unfair. Yet all of these issues have everything to do with morality: what we ought and ought not to do, and why. For example, a democratic government is based on the moral norms that every individual has rights and that every individual’s well-being matters. Therefore, a good government is based on the moral norm that every individual should have a say in what their government does. A society with such a government also, by the very fact they have a government at all, think that all members of society have responsibilities to one another. After all, if there is no moral accountability, there are no norms, no law, no society. We end back up where the radical individualists left us: lonely scavengers or predators, without the vast resources social cooperation offers.

So how do we reconcile these seemingly disparate views?

I think we need to realize that the very idea that there is a sharp dividing line between individualism and collectivism is an illusion. In fact, individualism is not only reliant on collectivism, but is a product of it. We get to pursue such energy-expensive, extravagant projects as music, literature, art, government, architecture, and the rest because at some point we started banding together in a network of support rarely seen in other creatures. We rallied to protect our big-brained, long-vulnerable young, share the fruits of the hunt and of foraging, and invented such social-cohesion-strengthening practices as making music, telling stories, taking part in rituals of marriage and burial, and creating art.

And how do we craft societal practices that promote the rights and interests of the free individual, without undermining the collectivism that makes individual freedom possible?

As we have seen, 20th-century-style ‘socialist’ governments revealed how a society is undermined when it 
under-emphasizes the individual and overemphasizes the collective. But given the utter disregard for individual human life, and individual human rights, it’s not so hard to recognize how badly they got it all wrong. When your ideology holds that a great society is made up of individuals that are so worthless that they can be eliminated at the whim of the government, or have no personal rights or value outside of their value as laborers or fulfillers of some pre-determined role, or have no say in what their government or their autocratic ruler does, than the whole society is undermined by being made up of powerless, dehumanized, devalued, uninspired, unmotivated people.

It’s also the case that those social instincts that make us such successful cooperators combine with other instincts sometimes in a way that leads to atrocious behavior. Anti-Jewish pogroms, racially motivated massacres such as those in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and rampages following sports games are such example of violent mass-hysteria. The tendency of people to ‘follow the leader’ in heartless behavior is as thoroughly documented in laboratory studies as it is in the history books. Democracy and reason are the two best tools human beings have come up with to correct the excesses of our strong social instincts. The secret ballot box allows us to participate in governance without coercion or in-the-moment peer pressure, and reason allows us to step back and reflect on whether or not we we’re doing, or what we’re about to do, is really in our own, and everyone else’s, interests. 

Independent-minded individuals, less prone to coercion, herd instinct, and social pressure, are also absolutely essential corrective not only to mass cruelty, but to to entrenched laws and norms that have outlived their usefulness, and whose immorality have been overlooked, explained away, or overridden due to other social interests. Slavery is a classic example of this: a popular desire for attaining personal wealth combined with entrenched racism (the ugly side of tribalism), led a majority in many societies to ignore their own moral sense of sympathy, justice, and beneficence in favor of policies that catered to their baser instincts. It was a few dissenters that reminded society of what morality is for, and how institutionalizing cruelty and indifference to the interests of other human beings harms everyone, that led societies to reform themselves and change their policies to better serve both individual and collective interests.

On the other hand, oligarchic, fascist, and other ultra-capitalist societies, which hold that government’s only job is to enforce contracts, prevent invasion, and prevent people from assaulting one another, also undermine themselves, because they have only a negative conception of freedom as their moral foundation. When a government is structured according to the idea that human beings have few responsibilities to each other than fulfilling contracts and respecting property rights, they become a society where fewer and fewer people are enjoying the fruits of everyone’s labor. For example, monopolies develop (as Adam Smith pointed out), which set prices and wield most of the power over legislators. You have fewer and fewer wealthy individuals and organizations that pay to influence the halls of power, that 
monopolize the dissemination of information trough mass media, while the voices of those that have little or no money to do so are drowned out. You get societies made up that look like the early industrial towns when capitalism first flourished without regulation, where many got rich, while a great bulk of others ended up doing crippling labor in squalid conditions, withe the empty ‘choice’ of accepting such work, or facing privation or starvation. You end up a society that drives down wages for most people while fewer and fewer funnel all or most of the gains made by an economic system to a few, more ruthless individuals that are left at ‘the top’

Because I see individualism and collectivism as intertwined, I’m in favor of a strong democracy and a mixed economy. In a healthy, democratic society, it’s the innovators, the creative geniuses, the ‘weirdos’, that ensure that a society is adaptable, rich in ideas, technologies, and creativity, and does not stagnate and wither away. Human beings succeed not only because we are social, we succeed because we are adaptive and innovative, and it’s the freedom of the individual to come up with new art forms, technologies, ideas, etc, that make a society dynamic. The incentive of improving one’s lot in life through one’s own hard work also fuels the drive to better ones’ self.

A ready analogy for this is the necessity of genetic mutations in evolving a successful, adaptive species. While not all mutations (innovations, new ideas) are beneficial, there are some that are, and without those pioneering one-offs, a population cannot adapt to meet new and challenging circumstances, and does not possess that wonderful variety of traits that make it both capable of much, and fascinating to behold. A society of individuals free to pursue their own goals and protect their own interests, so long as they contribute to the public good and don’t harm others, is that which is likely not only to survive, but thrive. For example, free trade, sometimes derided by modern liberals, is an excellent tool that is both highly individualistic and highly socialistic. It incentivizes and rewards individual innovation and hard work, though an elaborate framework of cooperativeness that includes, but is not limited to, a strong commitment to fairness and reciprocity, a conception of justice that demands recompense for hard work, and a distaste for theft and exploitation. But like all tools, it must be used wisely and well, and within certain parameters.

And this this is why I also believe in such collective projects and institutions as publicly-funded roads, public education, and health care. I believe in regulations such as gun control and strict regulations for drivers, since these don’t prioritize the rights of some individuals to put others in danger for insufficient cause. I don’t believe in society-aggrandizing, anti-individualist enterprises such as war (in most circumstances). After all, you have few rights when you are incapacitated by injury and disease, and none at all when you’re dead. A society that places few restrictions and responsibilities on gun owners and operators of motor vehicles make it all to easy for one individual, in a moment of temper, carelessness, or mental instability to permanently remove all or most rights from fellow human beings. As we can see from (most) heavily-armed, hyper-individualistic societies such as the United States, we kill and injure one another at enormous rates with our guns and our cars. A more morally robust concept of civic duty would lead to the creation of laws based on the premise that a right which bears greater risks engenders a greater burden of responsibility. And since government is a moral enterprise, its laws should not only hold people accountable for doing wrong to one another, but demand some responsibility to do right by each other. 

Why morality requires both accountability and responsibility is another Big Question. Sounds to me like a great topic for another essay…


Some sources and inspiration:

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy’, 2012 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy
Darwall, Stephen. ‘Moral Accountability’, 2014, Philosophy Bites podcast

Ellis, Joseph. Revolutionary Summer, 2013

Heath, Joseph. Economics Without Illusions, 2010

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011

Sandel, Michael. ‘A New Citizenship’, 2009 Reith Lectures

Hate Crime: First Amendment Issue?

mirrored from http://bplolinenews.blogspot.com/2012/11/bpl-archives-opens-robert-e-chambliss.html

Not too long ago, perhaps three or four years past, I was of the opinion that, as a whole, the idea of a ‘hate crime’ was a bad one, mainly as a result of the following argument:

According to the law, we determine the nature of a crime by what was actually done. If we re-classify it as a hate crime, we’re punishing the criminal for the very thoughts in his/her head, or the content of their speech. At the very least, this is a violation of First Amendment rights. At worst, we’re legitimizing the Orwellian idea of ‘thoughtcrime’.

Upon reflection, however, I realized that this argument misses the point of what I think is the most important reason that some crimes should be classified as hate crimes. When the law is applied to an act to determine its criminality, we already do consider the motivations and thoughts of the actor in the case. For example, if one person causes the death of another, we ask whether the act was purposeful, whether it arose from a moment of extreme provocation or planning, and so on. In other words, intent, which is what was going on in the actor’s mind at the time, is essential for determining the criminal nature of the act.

One of the main reasons for this, why, for example, we consider intentional, deliberate violent crimes worse than off-the-cuff or accidental violent crimes, is how much of a threat the criminal presents to the community. The law says that a person who kills someone out of anger upon catching them cheating with a romantic partner, for example, is considered far less dangerous to a community than a person who plans and then executes a shooting spree in a public place. A person who kills someone after planning the crime ahead of time also presents a larger danger to a community than the ‘heat of the moment’ killer, since they reveal themselves capable of killing at least one person even after sustained reflection. While the danger is still mainly confined to a single target, the killer’s still a potential threat to the wider community in this sort of case since they might become homicidally angry at someone else.

A person who commits a hate crime, however, presents a wider danger to the community because their intent or wish to harm is not aimed at a single target. The target of their hate or anger is an entire class of people, as the evidence of their own expressed intent and beliefs reveal. The harm that they do, or intend to do, or wish to do, is likely to be far more widespread.

In this way, the way the law determines whether or not a crime is a hate crime is very similar, or even nearly identical, to the way it determines whether a homicide is first degree murder, second degree murder, or manslaughter. I think this sort of deliberation is necessary and appropriate, and therefore, I think that the separate classification of hate crime is likewise appropriate. We just need to be careful, as a society, that we don’t become hasty or overzealous in over-applying the term to thoughts and speech alone, or to philosophically or morally repulsive but relatively harmless actions.

* Also published at The Dance of Reason, Sac State’s philosophy blog