Happy Birthday, Rosa Luxemburg!

Rosa Luxemburg, By unknown photographer around 1895-1900 [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsRosa Luxemburg, Mar 5 1871 – Jan 15 1919, is the great Marxist theorist, writer, economist, revolutionist, anti-war and anti-capital-punishment activist, and philosopher who was murdered during the German Revolution of 1918–1919.

Though she’s an anti-war activist, Luxemburg is also critical of the idea that a just society can be brought about by incremental reforms through established political systems. If she were to be involved in the 2016 Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, she would very likely back Bernie, with his more revolutionary style and rhetoric: she’s sharply critical of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to which she belongs (in its left wing) for favoring a Hillary-style reformist approach. However, her internationalism takes Marxist thinking beyond the point where leading Marxists of her day had progressed, with their focus on unique formulations of Marxist political theory tailored to their own particular national identities and histories. She would likely find fault, then, with Bernie’s protectionism.

Luxemburg’s other great contribution to Marxist thought is her theory about the accumulation of capital. Since capitalism’s primary fuel is constant and ever-increasing consumption, she thinks it’s a mechanism for the ultimate destruction of our material capabilities to sustain ourselves, starting with the ecosystems on which indigenous people, the poor, and the working class depend. Here as well, her progressive thinking takes her far beyond Marx himself, and her concerns in this timely issue makes her as relevant now as ever.

Read more about the brilliant and fearless Luxemburg:

‘Who’s Who – Rosa Luxemburg’ at First World War.com

‘The Dialectic of the Spatial Determination of Capital: Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital Reconsidered’ by Peter Hudis

The Crisis of German Social Democracy (The Junius Pamphlet) by Rosa Luxemburg, 1915

‘Rosa Luxemburg’, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Book Review / Reflections On: Assholes, a Theory

The title might make you think it’s not a serious work, that it’s tongue-in-cheek, even a parody of a philosophy book.

But it’s really a very good, intelligently written, well-thought-out exploration of a sadly widespread phenomenon. And yes, it’s so satisfying to finally see that age-old question ‘Why are you being such an asshole?’ addressed and explained so thoroughly.

Author Aaron James is not being merely provocative in using the term ‘asshole’ to designate the particular kind of person he’s talking about. He uses this colloquialism because we really have no other word that’s so specific and so widely understood, to refer to a person who displays a certain attitude and systematically engages in certain types of bad behavior. Here’s James’ three-part definition: the asshole 1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically: 2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and 3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people (p 5).

When we say of someone: ‘what an asshole!’, or observe ‘that was such an asshole thing to do!’ pretty much everyone recognizes this just the sort of person or behavior we’re talking about. If we were to use a more formal or non-slang term instead, as in ‘what a bad person!’ or ‘that was a depraved thing to do!’, the full richness and specificity of meaning that the colloquial, richly nuanced term asshole possesses wouldn’t be fully expressed. Look at how many words it took James to define what we mean by ‘asshole’ (and I would say, not quite fully: none of the definition’s three parts describe the little shudder of outraged disgust we feel when we see assholes doing what they do.)

That’s why, like James and fellow philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whose 2005 paper ‘On Bullshit’ caused quite a stir, I disagree with linguistic purists and prudes who wholly reject the use of colloquialisms in serious or academic work (though I speak only for myself as to how far this should go ). Out of self-righteously willful obtuseness, I insist, these purists just don’t ‘get it’. Everyday spoken language is much more fluid and adaptable than formal language, because there’s no arbiter of proper usage ‘breathing down your neck’ other than your partner in conversation. In the virtual experimentation lab that is daily conversation, we search for words that express exactly what we mean as efficiently if possible, and if there’s no ready word available, we adapt one that already exists, or make one up on the spot. As long as the person you’re talking to right then understands you, ‘it’s all good’. Formal language, on the other hand, evolves much more slowly, and must adhere more rigidly to existing standards of usage. Only over long periods of time do newer terms, having entered into common usage, filter up through the levels of linguistic formalization, and become accepted by editors of dictionaries, publishing houses, and news media. Yet the formalization of language doesn’t always result in a more expressive, precise one. As you can see, I used several idioms and colloquialisms in this paragraph, in quotes, to express my thoughts, and if you haven’t ‘been living under a rock’ you probably understood exactly what I meant. You can also see that colloquialisms can not only be a more colorful or amusing way, but more efficient way, of expressing yourself. You can test this by trying to define the full meaning of these colloquialisms, with all their nuance, using a lesser number of terms in formal language. I’d ‘bet your ass’ you can’t!

(In one of my student papers written a few years ago, I explore the linguistic origins and evolution of colloquialisms in the light of Grice’s Cooperative Principle, Dumas and Lighter’s paper on slang, and Steven Anderson’s hilarious and thoughtful documentary F**k. )

But I digress. To return to James’ book: it has a lot going on. So much so that it lead me to think, for example, more about the nature of language itself, just from the parts where he discusses what ‘asshole’ means, the various subtypes of assholes, and compares and contrasts asshole to related terms bitch, schmuck, assclown, douchebag, dickhead, dick move, and so on. (He forgot one of my favorites, asshat, which refers to having one’s head up one’s own ass, thereby wearing it like a hat.) It’s a testament to the richness of ideas in this book that thinking it over, every time, engendered so many other interesting lines of thought. Exploring the concepts contained in the term ‘asshole’ raises important questions about respect for one’s self and others, of human dignity, of exploitation, of how you should act and not act in a cooperative society, what we can rightfully expect of others and why their failure to live up to this is so objectionable, and much more; in short, this term is thick with moral and political implications.

There’s one point on which I disagree: his suggestion that, while assholes are far more likely to be men (which I agree is the case), they are almost entirely a product of culture (chapter 4). While I agree there may be cultural factors that help instill asshole qualities in men, and that some cultures are more likely to instill these qualities than others, it seems that nature plays a larger role than James allows. I think it likely that testosterone, the hormone which we know increases the tendency to aggression, contributes a lot to the phenomenon of assholery. After all, the traits James ascribes to the asshole are aggressive in nature: systematically granting oneself special privileges over others, of feeling entitled to things whatever the circumstances, and rejecting or ignoring others’ just complaints. It’s not that all men are assholes, far from it. It’s just that the biological factor of hormonal makeup increases the likelihood that males will be more susceptible to asshole influences, or more likely to possess aggressive traits that readily fall into asshole patterns of thought and behavior, than women. To my mind, assholery is a product of combined nature and nurture: asshole seeds take root in ground made more fertile by testosterone.

One of my favorite sections of the book was on asshole capitalism. James is not claiming here that capitalism is necessarily an asshole system. What he’s claiming is that capitalism is essentially a cooperative system ripe for exploitation by assholes, which, in turn, puts it in ever-present danger of collapse, of being destroyed from within. That’s because capitalism is a system of exchange and of reward: people exchange goods and services cooperatively and fairly, which generates trust and more trade, and people reward those who devise and provide the best goods and services with admiration and customer loyalty. And assholery, systematically behaving as if one is entitled to things regardless of the actual value of their contributions to the world, threatens the stability of the cooperative environment necessary for capitalism.

Since assholes systematically regard themselves as the rightful recipients of the best of everything, out of a sense that they are entitled to it per se, assholes exploit other people’s willingness to be fair and to reward others. Asshole drivers feel that owning bimmers entitle them to run red lights and rev their motors inches from people in crosswalks; asshole CEOs and managers think nothing of the fact that their wealth is built on the backs of sweatshop laborers or from industries that generate mass pollution; asshole bankers think they should earn millions or billions a year because they ‘have the balls’ to gamble other people’s money in financial markets, even at the risk of bringing down entire economies (to be fair, they are often so obsessed with their own rewards they may have a hard time even conceiving of larger, potentially dire consequences, because that would mean seriously considering interests other than their own).

Capitalism can and does thrive when people act somewhat selfishly within a larger context of cooperativeness. But never to the extent that the system would hold up under too much lying, cheating, stealing, abuse and neglect of employees, etc. That’s because money, and markets, can’t operate without trust. If most people can be trusted and it’s just a relatively few bad apples gaming the system, well, human nature being what it is, that’s to be expected. But if entitled, self-obsessed, rapacious assholes proliferate beyond a certain proportion, all bets are off. James explains why the modern Russian oligarchic system is rightly considered a full asshole capitalist system and the Japanese system is very much not. Worryingly, and not the least bit to my surprise, James presents evidence for what I’ve already been convinced of: the United States brand of capitalism is edging far too close to Russia’s end of the spectrum, and much farther away from Japan’s. That’s because our modern American capitalist culture has become one of entitlement (as much as certain pundits like to use this word exclusively to refer to aid to the poor, not handouts and special privileges to the rich), in which far too many of use we feel justified in grabbing whatever we want because we somehow, innately, ‘deserve’ it, everyone else be damned.

In sum: this book is a very useful book, on how to understand the origins and nature of assholes; on how to recognize and deal with assholes in the media and in daily life (James’ theory helps explain why certain assholes in the media remain entrenched in their self-serving dishonesty); and as a cautionary tale of when societies allow and encourage assholery to run amok.

– This book review is dedicated to my father-in-law, a man given to succinctness. His fatherly wisdom, which so resonated with my husband he has retold it many times over the years: ‘Son, don’t be an asshole. The world has enough of them already’.

James, Aaron. Assholes, a Theory. First published Doubleday, NY 2012.
First Anchor Books Edition, Apr 2014.  www.onassholes.com

Nicholson, Christie. ‘Testosterone Promotes Aggression Automatically’, Scientific American, June 9, 2012. http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/testosterone-promotes-agression-aut

Thanks also to www.urbandictionary.com, which helped me make sure I had all my colloquialisms right, and avoided spelling bimmer ‘beamer’ like a moron

Welcome to the Podcast Edition of Ordinary Philosophy!

Hello dear readers, and welcome to the
podcast version of Ordinary Philosophy!

You can listen to the podcast here, on Google Play, or subscribe in iTunes.

Like many of you, I’m a big fan of podcasts, mostly because my life is very busy. One day in the future, I hope to have a lot more time to do each task one at a time, to really be present, as they say, as I wash the dishes, straighten the house, do the laundry, and perform all those other tasks that take up time, but not much thought.

But at this time in my life, between my day jobs, my creative projects, and spending time with friends and family (which I don’t do enough of these days, sadly), I don’t have enough time to keep up the world of ideas as nearly much as I’d like to by sitting down and reading. Instead, I keep myself informed and increase my education by listening to lots of podcasts: discussions with my favorite authors and thinkers, audio renditions of books and essays, debates, recordings of classes on my favorite subjects, and so on. I listen to these podcasts while doing those aforementioned chores, and let me tell you: as one who is not fond at all of household chores like doing the dishes and washing the floor, the podcast is a marvelous invention: they transform boring chore time into great opportunities for learning and exploration. I’m also an avid hiker, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to immerse myself in some fascinating ideas or discussion as I immerse myself in the beauties of nature.

To begin with, this podcast will simply consist of audio recordings of my Ordinary Philosophy pieces. Over time, I may add commentary and who knows, perhaps interviews and discussions with guests. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, here’s Ordinary Philosophy in audio form: I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable!

… And here’s episode 2: Is the Market Really the Most Democratic Way to Determine Wages?
Originally published as an essay Feb 6th, 2014

The Debate Over Government and Freedom

As I read, do research, and reflect during my philosophy-themed travel to Edinburgh, I come across more or less the same issues as I do in contemporary discussions in the United States. David Hume argued in favor of a greater degree of freedom of commerce than was afforded people in his time, because as he observed, trade and its accompanying flow of information was a sure road to greater prosperity and liberty for the people as a whole.

Yet Hume hadn’t had the opportunity to observe how in a free market, the gradual accumulation of capital and the forming of monopolies could also be used to oppress and even enslave people, and rob individuals of fair opportunity and their share of the fruits of their labor. (His friend Adam Smith, however, predicted some of this.) Both correctly described what, in fact, did happen in the free market: it brought people out of serfdom, and led to greater prosperity for a larger number of people than ever before.

Market considerations also created the slave trade and made slavery last as long as it did; it’s causing the despoilation and ruination of the homes and lives of people around the world who live where they have rich natural resources but no political power; it’s causing the US to head towards a state of oligarchy, where misguided conservatives and libertarians are pushing through legislation that allows the rich to effectively buy the government that was intended to represent others as well; it’s destroying the environment through the reckless overproduction and overconsumption by manufacturers and consumers who usually make shortsighted, imprudent decisions, as behavioral economists observe and predict.

The fact that certain individuals and moneyed interests have and do oppress people as much as governments do, is what’s missing from much of the political discourse today. I have an essay in the works regarding government, the people, and liberty, but this fact seems obvious to me: the whole point of the US system of government (as well of those of other free countries in the world today) was that it’s supposed to be us, in a representative sense.

In that case, it shouldn’t be a matter of ‘making government small enough to drown in a bathtub’, or however that Grover Norquist quote goes. If that were the case, slavery never would have ended, for example: it was we the people, through our government, that forced slaveowners and the entrenched moneyed interests that depended on slavery for their profits, to give up some of their power, and freed millions of people to pursue their own happiness. We, via the government, championed human rights against encroachments on the part of both other individuals and government: suffrage for women and minorities, religious freedom, reproductive rights, you name it. Why on earth would we want to drown ‘we the people’ in that metaphorical bathtub? That would destroy individual liberty as surely as crushing the free market would.

Re-read, then take to heart, the intro to the Constitution, Grover.

My solution: take back the government from the few moneyed interests and individuals that are buying it up bit by bit, and make it ‘we the people’ again. Individual freedom, as well as the public interest and most businesses, would thus be best served. Remember, if plurality of interests disappears, swallowed up in mega business and monopolies that end up controlling the majority of resources, we would end up, effectively, just as much in a state of serfdom as anyone was before the free market was invented.

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



Communitarianism, Writ Large

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well. 

The problems associated with the organization and implementation of an ordered society is the central topic of political philosophy; the problems associated with making societies just is the concern of ethical philosophy. Two philosophers whose work I especially admire in these fields are John Rawls and Michael Sandel. They are both concerned with justice, how to recognize a just society, and how we select the criteria for ethical decision-making. (I’m also a fan of Sandel’s because he’s engaged in a cause that’s dear to my heart: the great project of philosophy is not, and should not be, confined to academia. With his freely accessible lectures and discussions, and his popular philosophy books, he is among those reintroducing philosophy to the public square. Philosophy originated in the public square, after all, and as it addresses the concerns of the whole of humanity, then it should be a concern of, and the conversation should be accessible to, the whole of humanity as well.)

Yet Rawls and Sandel are at odds in some key ways. Among other things, Rawls’ theory of justice is classically liberal, in the tradition of John Locke, and focused on universalizability: a just system is one that must be applicable to all human societies, in all times and places. Sandel focuses more on the importance of community and tradition in matters of justice, and the answers are found more in solutions to ethical dilemmas based on particular society’s evolved norms. Rawl’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’ is his method for discerning whether or not a society is just: if each and every person were to be randomly assigned a role in society and had no way to know ahead of time who they would be (woman, man, CEO, employee, black, white, rich, poor, etc), and knowing this, they had to design a social arrangement, what would they all agree on? Then, we can look at how that veil-of-ignorance social design compares with an actual society to help us assess how just it is, and in turn, help us create s social system that will benefit everyone as much as possible. Seems a method that should obtain pretty fair, democratic results, right? But for Sandel, the veil of ignorance seems incoherent even as a mere thought experiment, since morals originate in, or emerge from, particular societies. Therefore, what is just is derived from how actual societies work, how they’ve grown and evolved to solve their own sets of problems, and cannot be derived from hypotheticals. So Rawls’ and Sandel’s ideas seem, on the face of it, irreconcilable. Who’s right?

Sandel’s views are generally described as communitarian, though he’s not entirely comfortable that characterization in that it can go too far in allowing community to trump the individual in all things moral. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘…communitarians argued that the standards of justice must be found in forms of life and traditions of particular societies and hence can vary from context to context’. In other words, communitarianism is the philosophy that ethics have more to do with particular societal morals and traditions, so the claim that there can be a universal definition of justice, such as Rawls’, is dubious at best.

When it comes to explaining how cultural traditions evolve to make a society more just, communitarianism has something to offer. For example, it’s among America’s most self-identifiable traditional ideals that individual liberty is of highest value and should be promoted as long as the freely chosen actions of one person don’t infringe on the freedom of another. The ideal of individual liberty has long roots in American society, and evolved and expanded over time through political upheavals, case law, and interpersonal disputes. But when we consider the traditional American ideal of individual liberty (by no means unique to America, of course) and compare it to our social history, it’s clear that it’s not no simple: it’s also been a tradition in the US to enslave other people. When that particular tradition was slowly, painfully overturned, there were many other ways that people, legally or illegally but commonly practiced, infringed on the freedoms of others: by denying women the vote, imposing Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, segregating the military, preventing workers from forming unions, and so on.

So a communitarian could argue that while the moral ideal of freedom is traditional in the US, it’s the broader implementation of it that took a long time as traditional practices caught up.

But how about societies that don’t have traditions of individual freedom, who believe there are some classes of people that should have all the power and wealth, and that it’s proper and right that others live in impoverishment and misery, lacking rights of citizenship, for their entire lives? Such is the caste system of India, for example, or the traditionally influential political philosophy of Aristotle which holds that there ‘natural’ slaves. Are we, then, not to be concerned that people of those cultures are suffering from injustice, if they belong to a community with different traditional views of justice? After all, according to the caste system, and to Aristotle and those communities that hold like views, it is just that certain people are slaves and certain people are not, that some people have power and some do not, that some live in wealth and comfort and others in misery, because all of this is justified by their society’s traditional concept of human nature.

Many people, myself included, have the same problem with communitarianism as I am sure Michelle Alexander does, given her quote which opens this essay: why should our sense of empathy, of moral obligation, be limited to the concerns and traditions of our own communities? That may have been prudent, even necessary, for our ancient ancestors, when human groups became large enough to need to compete for resources, but didn’t have the sophistication or technology to facilitate cooperation on such a large scale.

But now, our situation is very different: people’s ideas and actions, thanks to advanced technologies in communication, production, and travel, can have worldwide consequences, for ill and for good. We have access to centuries of the best products of human thought from disparate traditions all over the world, which are gradually coming to a consensus on some key issues in ethics and politics: the value of individual liberty, the benefits of equality, the necessity of having and fulfilling civic duties, and how to recognize a just society, for example.We have access to centuries of historical evidence which demonstrate the benefits of ever-more widespread cooperation, and the ineffectiveness of violent conflict, so that the immense suffering caused by war ends up wasted and unnecessary. And finally, now that people spend a lot of time ‘face-to-face’ with others from all over the world via computer, we feel a sense of real global community. Familiarity with people of different habits, different appearances, and different interests removes our sense of discomfort, and breeds not contempt, but empathy, compassion, and friendliness.

So perhaps the conflict between communitarian and modern liberal accounts of what constitutes a just society will lessen over time. After all, communitarianism must contain within it the idea that traditions change, grow, and evolve, since there have always been so many different traditions with mutually exclusive ethical codes. (I, too, think that morality is not fixed and eternal; rather, it’s a product of evolving, social, cooperative creatures.) And if the world’s communities are merging into one moral community, than the basic ideas of communitarianism will harmonize ever more with the universalizable ethical goals of liberal thought. While communitarians and liberals might still argue over the origins(s) of morals (tradition? reason? emotions?), our conception of justice, our ethical systems and the political institutions with which we realize them (governments, laws, and so on) will look more and more alike all over the world.

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~ Also published at Darrow, forum for ideas and creative commons webzine

~ Re-edited slightly in Feb/Mar 2016

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Sources and inspiration:

Alexander, Michelle. ‘Incarceration Nation’. Interview with Bill Moyers, December 20, 2013. http://billmoyers.com/episode/incarceration-nation/

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2012. New York: New Press Books.

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy‘, University of Chicago Law School Dewey Lecture 2012

Bell, Daniel. ‘Communitarianism‘, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sandel, Michael. Various works and lectures, including his books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Schneider, Greig and Egon Zehnder, Boston, and Ulrike Krause. ‘Interview with political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’, The Focus magazine. http://www.egonzehnder.com/the-focus-magazine/topics/the-focus-on-family/parallel-worlds/interview-with-political-philosopher-michael-j-sandel.html

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