Life is What You Make It: A Reply to Adam Gurri

“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice/
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice/
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill/
I will choose a path that’s clear/
I will choose freewill/”

Freewill, RUSH, Permanent Waves

Adam Gurri, otherwise known as our noble founder/editor-in-chief here at Sweet Talk, recently published a critique he had offered to me in conversation on the nature of virtue over dignity as a helpful device for evaluating human flourishing and the good life. Here, I’ll try and attempt to reply to the ideas that Adam offers us. Hopefully he’ll find what I have to say convincing, or at least thought provoking.

Adam says,

“Let’s visit a common scenario; an adult who lives with his parents, and further, lives off his parents—he has no income of his own. Let’s say that he’s 35 years old. Crucially, let’s say his local economy is in a state equivalent to the height of the dot com boom; unemployment is so low, the job offers are practically knocking at his door. It would take very minimal effort for him to get a job that paid enough for him to live on his own, or with roommates. Or at least to pay his parents rent and cover his own costs.

Instead, he stays at home, and watches TV; primarily reality TV and cable news. He has minimal contact with his friends, and hasn’t dated since he was in school. His parents live to a very old age and he lives this way until they die. He needn’t have been perceived as a burden; perhaps they could easily afford to support him and were happy to do so.

Forgive me, but I cannot help but see that as a lower way of life than someone who puts in effort to provide for himself, is married and has children, has numerous friends, and continues to better himself in multiple ways. It seems to me that our hypothetical sloth has cut himself off from everything that imbues life with meaning, that is admirable or good.”

In his landmark work of political philosophy Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick stresses a concept known as the doctrine of separate persons.  In simple terms, every person is a completely different, unique individual. When we look at the world, we are confronted by a diverse panoply of individuals, each with their own set of values and interests. Nozick asks,

“Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Hefner, Socrates, Henry Ford, Lenny Bruce, Baba Ram Dass, Gandhi, Sir Edmund Hillary, Raymond Lubitz, Buddha, Frank Sinatra, Columbus, Freud, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Baron Rothschild, Ted Williams, Thomas Edison, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Ellison, Bobby Fischer, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, you, and your parents. Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people?”

The obvious point here is that humans are different from one another, with diverse understandings of how to live.  For Nozick in particular, the separateness of persons is a core ontological and moral fact, without which we ignore basic elements of our world and what it is to be dignified human being. To impose one form of life or association is to ignore this key observation, to disrespect fundamental notions of personal choice, autonomy, and the understanding that there are multiplicity of paths to “the good life”.

It is this presumption that I had relayed to Adam. He replies:

“To attempt to discard our ability to speak of whether other people are making good choices or not seems to me to simply embrace nihilism—a rather severe consequence if preserving ethical egalitarianism is your goal.”

Here, I think we are perhaps talking around a straw separateness. It is of course a useful enterprise to try and identify and encourage common activities among humans that might be beneficial for each of us. The very notion of living together in society is built on such common ground. However, as Nozick and the liberal political tradition remind us, there is a distinct moral danger in seeing such an enterprise as based on an abstract notion of virtue that applies to us all.

Thus this is not, keeping in mind Pamela Hobart’s helpful discussion, to disregard that there are some basic facts about humanity that might provide a path for what my co-blogger Paul Crider has eloquently and thoughtfully outlined as consisting of human flourishing. However, I think the facts about flourishing that are absolutely universal are fairly minimal. Ultimately, flourishing completes itself by allowing for those capacities at the top of the pyramid directed towards pursuing our own ends, specifically our highly personal conceptions of existential self-worth. Notably, to engage in those “experiments in living” which may not be favoured by others around us. When we see the world through this lens, we treat people as invaluable ends in themselves, a principle which often is used to best describe the kind of ideal for what we tend to see as the pinnacle of the worth and self-transcendent meaning Adam himself praises as his motivation for criticizing his hypothetical layabout.

The important thing to note, as my fellow contributor Ryan Long points out in his comment, is that these higher and lower ways of being have a highly subjective component.  Abstract analogs about the life of a man as being healthy like the health of a tree or a heart ignore that observation that the health and happiness of humans are in many ways distinctly unlike those of other living things.

Higher and lower lives are emergent from the preferences, values and interests of a person seeking to interact with the world, given the facts about them. If the man as Adam describes him is happy in the basement, I see no reason to judge him as inherently living a worse life, just because we have social expectations that presume otherwise. If it should turn out that this lifestyle is bad for him on his own terms, then we have not sacrificed his dignity through our criticism, but rather deeply honoured it. Of course, the determination of this is both problematic and fraught with practical difficulty, but still a far cry from the off-the cuff pronouncements Adam would have us make.

Adam also says,

“Akiva’s argument is that everyone deserves to have their dignity respected, and to categorize the layabout as living a lower way of life is to impose ourselves on them. In short, disrespecting their self-conception is the same as encroaching on their dignity.  I cannot agree. I am not going to crash into this person’s house and start imposing my authority upon him and his parents. I can respect their dignity as human beings able to make their own choices without thinking that all of their choices are good.’’

While Adam may claim his adherence to the basic principles of toleration (“Hey man, virtues are about becoming a rad dude, none of that fascist break down your door stuff!”), I want to remind Adam of an insight he has long stressed- that of the importance of rhetoric, ideas, and norms as key social elements. As John Stuart Mill famously argued, public opinion, and the prejudices that we as a mass public may hold of the lives of others can deny them their respect and dignity as much as any law we might pass. If the rhetoric we use has impact, and Adam surely seems to think that it does, our criticisms of those with diverse lifestyle preferences do little more than to restrain them from having the full psychological liberty or even the basic ability to act so as to be truly free.

Indeed, ethical egalitarianism has largely been accomplished by disregarding these strong notions of the good life, and viewing humans as valuable distinctly for the dignity they have as unique experiencers of the world around them. As I have mentioned to Adam previously, talk of removed social judgement and a strongly teleological ontology makes me think first and foremost of the fate of racial, sexual, and gender minorities and other disadvantaged groups who have spent countless years oppressed under someone else’s conception of what it means to be a fully complete human being. As Martha Nussbaum has shown, certain emotions in particular that are associated with such judgements have a pernicious history that it is important not to ignore.

So let me ask this of Adam, and those who would share his view. To borrow a question from my economist colleagues, “Compared to what?” In other words, virtue for what life, and by what person leading it? What is the moral opportunity cost of a world where we imagine people as largely akin to a row of identical plants seeking to approach a Platonic ideal, and treating them as such? Incoming with the potentially cleansing clouds of good judgement are too often the quickly wrathful storms of arbitrary intolerance.

 

jan_wijnants_-_parable_of_the_good_samaritan

Tracing the Origins of Flourishing

Featured image is The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants.
This argument (though, I grant a VERY weak form of the trope), that Western Civilization rests necessarily on Christiandom, seems logically and empirically false:
 
First, if this is true, then the rise of whatever is good about Western Civilization must have had an incredibly long incubation period. Long enough that dialectical materialism might even be true. The Great Enrichment postdates the emergence of Christianity by 1800 years, give or take; and Christiandom (as established by Constantine) by 1500 years.
 
Second, there are enough contradictory data points, both Christian nations that lagged in making progress, and nations not explicitly Christian that did not lag so, that any interpretation of the existing data that arrives at this conclusion is a spurious reading at best.
 
Finally, I find the elements of Western society that are most imbued with Christiandom the most troublesome. That is, whatever the influence of Christiandom on Western society, I hardly consider it a positive.
 
Western society has progressed, since the Great Enrichment, wherever the radically egalitarian treatment of processes of coordination and cooperation among disparate individuals has been adopted. Liberalism.
 
This is from my point of view a particularly Christ-like way to treat people, but Christiandom has not always acted so Christ-like. A Christ-like treatment of people requires sacrifice, which goes beyond egalitarianism-in-process and practices personal voluntary sacrificial charity, even toward one’s enemies. Such an attitude cannot be enforced or underwritten institutionally. It must be an organic byproduct of gratitude for Jesus’ completed work in an individual.
 
Where more people are living in a Christ-like manner, we can hope to see a more egalitarian attitude prevailing.
 
Thus, importantly, there is nothing special about the institutions of Christiandom that helped to bring about flourishing. Rather, where those institutions enjoyed a special relationship with privilege and power, Christiandom was a rot.
 
I do think that Christ-like behavior may have been important for the rise of flourishing, though such behavior would have happened on such a micro-scale that it would not have been easily reported. Particularly since the practitioners of said behavior would try to remain anonymous where possible.
 
And let me clarify that Christ-like behavior may not be peculiar to nominal Christians. Tonight I listened to a Muslim man talk about how he forgave the Fishtown racist who tried to shoot him in the head with a shotgun, and even worked to prevent the murder-by-State of his would-be murderer.
Where individuals organically generate trust among neighbors and equal treatment towards others (sympathy), as compared to circumstances where individuals generate distrust and tribal attitudes (faction), social coordination and cooperation are free to emerge.
 
Institutions that encourage sympathy and discourage faction provide fertile soil for the emergence and acceptance of markets, and dignity toward marketeers. Impersonal exchange rests upon the virtues of impartiality.
 
Though expressed in somewhat different terms, Cathy, following Auntie D, gets it right.

The Subtext to Crider’s Liberal Patriotism

On these pages, Paul Crider explores what might be best described as Liberal Patriotism. While you should read the entire post, Crider distills it down to a concise rendering when he notes,

Patriotism can instead be carefully cultivated to channel liberal values and this liberal patriotism has to be vigorously peddled in the marketplace of ideas and proudly defended the arena of political discourse. Luckily we don’t have to reinvent wheel: we already have narratives of America (I’m sticking with my own country for this post) as an ongoing project of tolerance, inclusion, and opportunity.

I am in agreement with Crider, but there is an important subtext to the parenthetical phrase, limiting the comments to just the United States. The United States is a unique country because its identity is ideological. The American Project is just that, a continual project, an unfinished draft. If nothing else, the United States is exceptional for this reason. No other country is so closely tied to an ideological construction. No other country is really as invested in its rhetorical construction. Continue reading “The Subtext to Crider’s Liberal Patriotism”

visions-of-genius

Are Journalists Responsible For Their Rhetoric?

Argument: Scientists have a dual responsibility to seek the truth and, once found, to render it palatable to the public through the use of controlled rhetoric.

Observation: The role of the media is to adjust relative status rankings. They accomplish this through the use of controlled rhetoric. Continue reading “Are Journalists Responsible For Their Rhetoric?”

The anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp
*oil on canvas
*169 x 216,5 cm
*signed t.c.: Rembrant. ft: 1632

Scientists Are Responsible For Their Rhetoric

Featured Image is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt

What is the duty of the scientist, the researcher, the pursuer of facts, data, and insights? The consensus in our culture is that the duty of the scientist is to the truth. That is, he or she ought to follow their research, regardless of how it challenges established norms or makes people uncomfortable. We cannot persist in ignoring reality anyway, and so we owe it to ourselves to gaze at every new discovery unblemished by spin or political appropriation.

This, it seems to me, is a deeply naive doctrine. Every discovery can only be understood as a truth in the context of some larger projection of the whole truth. In a social world rife with contradiction, the partial contributions of the researcher will feed into the political struggles of various factions. This occurs at as low a level as the politics of academic careers as well as at the highest level of national politics.

In what follows, I will attempt to demonstrate that academics’ duty is not simply to the content of their conclusions, understood as something neutral and true on its face. On top of what they conclude, they also have a duty to attend to the rhetoric of their work—how they pursue their research, and most of all how they present it. How, they could anticipate, it will be received into existing frameworks. How they can tailor their work to preclude appropriation by some of those frameworks.

Continue reading “Scientists Are Responsible For Their Rhetoric”

Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1566-1651). 'Parable of the Wheat and the Tares,' 1624. oil on canvas. Walters Art Museum (37.2505): Gift of the Dr. Francis D. Murnaghan Fund, 1973.

A Very Brief Look at Lower Ways of Life

Featured Image is Parable of the Wheat and Tares, by Abraham Bloemaert

Fellow Sweet Talker Akiva is uneasy with virtue ethics and related families of theories. His chief concern is that the underlying assumptions about human nature will be used to shout down people’s voices about their own self-conceptions. In short, taking seriously what Charles Taylor calls strong, qualitative evaluation, will push us away from respecting individual dignity. And this is especially so when we are speaking of higher or lower ways of life, as Taylor says we must.

We could go back and forth hashing out the details of a virtue ethics position that might be palatable to him, but I’d rather find an example where I can dig in my heels and we can discuss the matter.

Let’s visit a common scenario; an adult who lives with his parents, and further, lives off his parents—he has no income of his own. Let’s say that he’s 35 years old. Crucially, let’s say his local economy is in a state equivalent to the height of the dot com boom; unemployment is so low, the job offers are practically knocking at his door. It would take very minimal effort for him to get a job that paid enough for him to live on his own, or with roommates. Or at least to pay his parents rent and cover his own costs.

Instead, he stays at home, and watches TV; primarily reality TV and cable news. He has minimal contact with his friends, and hasn’t dated since he was in school. His parents live to a very old age and he lives this way until they die. He needn’t have been perceived as a burden; perhaps they could easily afford to support him and were happy to do so.

Forgive me, but I cannot help but see that as a lower way of life than someone who puts in effort to provide for himself, is married and has children, has numerous friends, and continues to better himself in multiple ways. It seems to me that our hypothetical sloth has cut himself off from everything that imbues life with meaning, that is admirable or good.

And it seems to me that virtue ethics provides a useful framework for talking about this. Just as we can tell when someone is born with an unhealthy heart because we have a normative sense of what a good heart is, so too do we have valuable notions of what a good person and a good life are. These are much more fluid and manifold than something as concrete as a heart, but a lot of the basic things that characterize such lives are the same in broad outline: love, initiative, integrity, responsibility, and so forth.

Akiva’s argument is that everyone deserves to have their dignity respected, and to categorize the layabout as living a lower way of life is to impose ourselves on them. In short, disrespecting their self-conception is the same as encroaching on their dignity.

I cannot agree. I am not going to crash into this person’s house and start imposing my authority upon him and his parents. I can respect their dignity as human beings able to make their own choices without thinking that all of their choices are good. To attempt to discard our ability to speak of whether other people are making good choices or not seems to me to simply embrace nihilism—a rather severe consequence if preserving ethical egalitarianism is your goal.

But I invite Akiva, or anyone else, to persuade me otherwise.