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.


One thought on “Life is What You Make It: A Reply to Adam Gurri

  1. Hear hear.

    Conjecture: Our prejudices for what constitutes higher and lower forms ways of living precedes our search for Aristotelian and teleological justifications.

    It’s never enough for someone to think Wagner is the greatest. One also tends to think that everyone ought to agree that Wagner is the greatest. Our perceptions of virtue and aesthetics feel so real that the suspicion they are actually objective or universal truths is simply unavoidable. For most people their intuition or “common sense moralism” suffices, so they rest easy in being judgmental. For the small subset of smart people who should know better, intuition does not suffice, so they are driven to construct involved chains of reasoning that obscure (to themselves and others) the inherent logical incompleteness of perfectionism.

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