The Problems of a Just Society: The Importance of Goods Beyond Justice

The question I want to examine is whether there are societal problems that need to be overcome that nonetheless could not be referred to as injustices? For the sake of simplicity I will say that a just society is one in which all persons are treated with equal respect. While this is a very abstract definition of justice it should suffice for the purposes of this entry. My answer to this question is that there are societal problems that cannot be made sense of as injustices, and that while justice is an exceedingly important societal value, we need to be attentive to societal goods that cannot be construed as an elements of a just society.

Given the definition of justice that I established above it would seem that there are certainly problems that can arise in a just society that nonetheless cannot be construed as injustices. For example, the absence of a rich culture of the arts, the absence of a rich culture of athletic competition, and the presence of a broadly, ill-informed, and apathetic citizenry are all societal problems in that they are problems that relate to the common life of a society. But nonetheless none of these problems can be adequately construed as an injustice. No person is treated with disrespect by not having access to a rich culture of the arts, even if this is an opportunity that would be beneficial to human flourishing.

Someone might say that even if the absence of access to a rich culture of the arts is not an injustice, a society still needs to provide each individual with enough opportunities so they can truly be an autonomous author of their own life. This is true, but having enough opportunities need not necessarily mean having the particular opportunity to access a rich, artistic culture, so all that this point suggests is that justice requires individuals to have a certain set of life opportunities available to them, but on the face of it, it does not specify which ones are to be available. Furthermore, any one particular opportunity does not seem to be required for justice. For example, if a society does not engage in the arts and one is born into that society, does the absence of access to the arts constitute an injustice? I would say no, as one still has many other opportunities and can still live autonomously. So, it seems that there are societal problems that can arise in a just society, that cannot be construed as injustices.

I also specified that these societal problems are something that must be overcome. My argument for this is that while justice is extremely important, many of the goods that are not secured by justice, are not simply an optional extra, but are rather a part of society that we have some sort of obligation to establish. For example, let us imagine a just society that experiences the three societal problems that I pointed out above. The failure of a society to overcome these problems would leave the society impoverished in a civilizational sense, and while our obligation to realize these goods beyond justice is likely less pressing than our duty to overcome injustice, it still seems that we do have an obligation of some kind to establish these goods within society. We have such an obligation as the life of a society that experienced all three of these societal problems while just, would also be mundane, and banal, and the goods of a rich, artistic culture, athletics, and an informed and engaged citizenry enrich the lives of all.

Now the question might come up of why the aforementioned is important. One reason why this set of issues is important is that there is a tendency among politically informed, and engaged people within postindustrial societies to focus their attention on eradicating injustice and ending oppression, and while these are exceedingly important goals, sometimes the politically informed and engaged become quite silent about the decay of the culture of the arts, athletics and the tendency of apathy among the citizenry. The problem with this silence is that certain imperative of postindustrial societies are working against these goods beyond justice, while justice itself is much more unaffected by these imperatives. I am largely thinking of the imperatives of technological progress, capitalist accumulation and commodification. These imperatives tends to distract people from public life through the development of entertaining technologies, and the way in which these entertaining technologies encourage a flight to the private sphere. Furthermore, these imperatives tend to commodify the arts and athletics, and thus discourage a rich culture of the arts and athletics, as people worry less about the inherent excellences of the arts and athletics and more about their marketability. The result of this is that the culture of the arts and athletics that is produced is one of marketability, rather than one that is committed to the particular excellences that the arts and athletics realize. Consequently, politically informed and engaged people in postindustrial societies need to begin thinking and speaking about these issues to a greater degree, not at the expense of issues of justice, but in addition to, as some of the most dominant imperatives of postindustrial societies threaten these goods that are left unsecured by the presence of justice.

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Is solitude compatible with the best kind of life?

The question of what is the best kind of life for man has been answered in a large variety of ways, but one particularly dominant issue that this question raises, is whether the best life requires substantial relationships with other beings, or whether the best life can be lived in solitude. I want to illuminate two different ways of thinking about whether the best life requires relationships with others or whether the best life is a solitary one, and suggest a solution to this problem that seems to me to fit with our intuitions.

One of the clearest statements of why the best life requires particular kinds of relationships with others can be gleaned from the comments of Plato’s Aristophanes in The Symposium. I specify that these are the comments of Plato’s Aristophanes as The Symposium is a dialogue written by Plato, and consequently we cannot be sure whether it represents the authentic voice of Aristophanes himself. For the sake of this entry I will refer to Plato’s Aristophanes as Plaristophanes. In The Symposium, each guest of a drinking party is to give a speech in praise of Love (Eros).  When it comes to Plaristophanes turn to give a speech he says that Love “is the helper and the doctor of those sicknesses whose cure constitutes the greatest happiness for the human race.” Furthermore, to explain why Love is so important to human happiness Plaristophanes provides an origin story about the nature of humanity, which states that originally humans had four legs, four arms, two sets of genitals, and two heads. Similarly, there were three genders: one that had two sets of male genitals, one with two sets of female genitals, and one with one set of female and one set of male genitals. These beings were much more powerful than humans are today, and made an attack on the gods, and as punishment Zeus, with the assistance of Apollo, cut the beings in two so that they take on the shape that they have today. Plaristophanes then notes that Love is the longing of each for his or her other half. Specifically, he says “each of us is a matching half of a human being because we’ve been cut in half like flatfish, making two out of one, and each of us is looking for his own matching half.” Consequently, for Plaristophanes, Love is the name of the desire we have to pursue wholeness by finding the half from which we have been cut off.

Plaristophanes’s speech, while humorous and absurd, expresses a reading of the human spiritual predicament in which humans as we exist now are incapable of living the best life in solitude, as we are incomplete halves of a wider whole. If we are only part of a whole, how could we live a fully developed life without our other half? So, if we tend to agree with Plaristophanes that we are not whole, but rather parts of a whole, it seems that the best life would necessarily require a relationship with our other half. On this view humans cannot be complete in solitude; the solitary sage or philosopher lives a radically impoverished life because he is not able to try to approach his completion through a relationship with another. Furthermore, this viewpoint is very appealing to members of modern postindustrial societies as we tend to see the pursuit of romantic love and the finding of a “soulmate” as essential to the best kind of life. Likewise, we typically feel that something has gone wrong in someone’s life if they have not been able to find their soulmate, or at the very least develop substantial friendships.

On the other hand we have the viewpoint that is expressed in Plato, but is also present in other philosophers, that the best kind of life is one spent in contemplation of the forms (the fundamental constituents of reality.) On this reading of our existential predicament while human beings do require a particular form of activity to live the best life, this form of activity does not necessarily require others.  On this view humans are being who fundamentally reach out to know, and thus the best life for us is one that fully allows us to reach that end, and it is only a life of contemplation that fully devotes us to understanding the whole and our place in it. While initially we may find this attitude hard to understand. It seems to me this viewpoint is very powerful for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the good of contemplation is not vulnerable to circumstance; no matter what happens in my life as long as I am alive, I can still try to comprehend the fundamental constituents of reality. Presumably, even if I become a slave I can still contemplate, whereas the forming of relationships is much more vulnerable to circumstance. If the best life requires grounded, developed relationships, than the best kind of life requires me to be fortunate and meet people who I can form these kinds of relationships with and there is no guarantee that this will happen, thus if the best life involves relationships necessarily many will be barred from living the best life by virtue of misfortune. Similarly, one other reason why I find this Platonic viewpoint powerful is that one fundamental constituent of humanity is the desire to understand our place within the universe, and the Platonic view about the best kind of life takes the aforementioned desire very seriously, rather than viewing it as something that is good, but perhaps not necessary to the best kind of life.

I want to suggest a solution to the question of whether the best kind of life can be lived in solitude that argues that the best life will involve relationships, but also that these relationships are not the only source of value in that life. The view that the best life requires significant relationships with others seems correct in one sense, for I cannot think of someone living a complete life without friendship. Part of what makes Socrates’ life such a model is that he did have friendships, and did not simply live a quiet life devoid of friendship to pursue contemplation. However, the reason why the best life requires friendships of some kind is not because friendships or relationships are more important than activities like contemplation that can be pursued in solitude, but rather because relationships with others can enhance many goods that we can pursue in solitude. For example, if I am interested in pursuing the good of understanding the universe, my efforts are enhanced by conversations with others, as they may assist me in trying to come up with solutions to problems with my current understanding. Likewise,  if I am drawn to the value of the appreciation of music or art, this is enhanced again by conversing with friends about what we enjoy and why enjoy it, as we may have our eyes opened to other artists, or return to a work of art that we have dismissed, but which might be quite valuable if appropriately appreciated.

In this sense sharing in a good with others seems to enhance that good. I don’t mean to completely reduce the value of relationships to an instrumental one in which their value simply lies in enhancing other goods. Relationships do have an intrinsic value, but the reason why they are so vital to our lives is because they not only provide a unique value to our lives, they also enhance other activities that we engage in. On the other hand, a life that was filled with relationships, but relationships that failed to enhance particular goods would hardly be eligible to be considered to be the best kind of life. Furthermore, a solitary life might be preferable to one that involved the aforementioned kinds of relationships with others.  In this sense, I would affirm that relationships are essential to the best kind of life, but these relationships must enhance important goods, rather than detract from them.

One other element of the best kind of life is that relationships themselves cannot be the only source of value in that life. While relationships are deeply important and can be valued on their own account, if the only value in one’s life is relationships with others, than one is leading a deeply impoverished life, as there are a whole host of goods that are separable from relationships, that one is missing out upon. This is not to say that one has some obligation to pursue all goods, but rather to say that focus on one good at the expense of others tends to lead to an impoverishment, as differing good realize different fundamental human capacities that ought to be valued on their own account. This is also simply the other side of my previous comment that relationships are a necessary part of the best life because they enhance other goods, but if the only good in one’s life is relationships with others, than one’s relationships, are by definition, failing to meet the standard of the best kind of life, because they are not enhancing other goods.

It will be noted that I did not directly respond to the questions of whether contemplation is a necessary part of the best life? And whether we are irreducibly incomplete parts of a whole? I lean towards an affirmative answer to the former question although I will leave answering that question to another entry. With regard to the latter question while I find the views of Plaristophanes fascinating, I tend to disagree with them, although it would take an entry far longer than this one to explain all of the reasons why. I will just say that I tend to see things in more Platonic terms, rather than Plaristophanic terms, and because of that I tend to see our most full realization as in principle separable from a specific relation with another.

Works Cited

 Plato. The Symposium. Trans. Christopher Gill. Toronto: Penguin, 1999. Print.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Despotism, Totalitarianism and Freedom of Choice

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale reveals one particular evil of totalitarianism that is too often overlooked within liberal democratic societies. Members of post-industrial liberal democracies too often associate the evil of totalitarianism with the state inhibiting people’s choices, and while the aforementioned inhibition of choice is problematic, the particular evil of totalitarianism that The Handmaid’s Tale reveals is the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ability of subjects to trust others and consequently prevents subjects from forming and sustaining deep relationships with others. This evil is deeply related to the inherent structure of despotism and its modern relative, totalitarianism. Similarly, for the same reasons that totalitarianism prevents people from forming deep relationships, totalitarianism gives rise to another evil as it destroys the capacity of agents to engage in cooperative action as equals. Furthermore, once we understand these evils of totalitarianism, we will begin to see the ways in which this second evil can assert itself in a liberal democratic society that does not seem to inhibit people’s choices and seems to champion freedom of the individual.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in Gilead, a fictional totalitarian regime within the North East United States. This regime arose violently as birth rates decreased due to environmental pollution. Offred, the protagonist, of this work is a handmaid; prior to the rise of Gilead she was an educated married woman. She is coerced into becoming a handmaid after Gilead is formed through a violent coup. The role of the handmaid in Gileadean society is to copulate with married commanders (the social elite) so that children can be produced. Each handmaid is assigned to a household of a given commander, and there is a scheduled ceremony in which sexual intercourse takes place with the wife of the commander sitting behind the handmaid.

One thing that seems most prominent in Offred’s reflections on her situation is her desire for intimacy and deep human relationships. She has no friendships in her life and while there may be others in her household who are friendlier to her than most, they are not friends and there is no significant bond between them. She is completely isolated and strongly desires any semblance of normal human relationships. The difficulty that the totalitarianism of Gilead poses is that in order to form a deep relationship with another one must feel comfortable revealing intimate details about oneself to another, but revealing these intimate details can often poses a danger for Offred, because the secret police everywhere within Gileadean society and the details that Offred might reveal could include disapproval of the regime. So Offred cannot really feel safe is she reveals details about herself to anyone because anyone could be a member of the secret police and if she reveals certain details about herself to a member of the secret police,or an informant for the secret police, her own life would be in danger, as those who disapprove of the regime, or fail to conform to the rules of the regime are dealt with harshly. It is true we always face dangers if we reveal details about ourselves as others may disapprove, but the dangers are not ones that endanger our survival, whereas within Gilead the dangers that Offred faces threaten her continued existence. Therefore, while the evil of the Gileadean regime partially lies in its limitation of freedom of choice, a large element of its evil is distinct from this and lies in the way that it makes people incapable of bonding with one another and forming deep relationships.

Before going on to an analysis of the evil I have been discussing in relation to totalitarianism I would like to give a basic explanation of totalitarianism and its relationship to despotism. According to Montesquieu each form of government has a principle. The principle of a government is not its particular structure, but what “sets it in motion.” For Montesquieu the principle of despotism is fear. What Montesquieu means by this is that despotism is sustained through using fear to combat people’s ambitions, goals, and attachments. The ideal subject for a despot, is not a reflective human being or an ambitious glory seeking warrior for that matter, but someone who will simply do what they are told because they fear punishment at the hands of despot himself, or someone he has entrusted with power. While despotism is distinct from totalitarianism, as totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon while despotism is not, the two are both exemplified by a situation in which the social fabric and the medium of rule are dominated by fear. Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union were dominated by the fact that everyone was afraid of the regime, and doing something that might lead to punishment by the regime, and likewise afraid that their neighbour, friends or family members might be spies for the regime. The difference between despotism and totalitarianism is at least partially constituted by the fact that technological advances have allowed fear to become an even more dominant part of the social fabric. Consequently, it seems that the principle, in the Montesquieuian sense of the word, of totalitarianism is fear.

The consequence of living under a totalitarianism regime in which fear is the dominant mode of social control is a situation like Offred’s in which one is incapable of forming deep human relationships. This results because trust is essential to forming deep relationships with others, and fear destroys trust. If people are fearful that others may be connected to the secret police they will begin to distrust all others and become isolated from all others, and consequently not pursue the development of deep relationships. Consequently, it seems that The Handmaid’s Tale perceptively reveals one often overlooked evil of totalitarian regimes, and that is the way in which totalitarianism prevents people from forming deep relationships. Also, once we understand the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ability of people to form and sustain deep relationships we will be able to better understand what is so horrifying about this form of government. Certainly, any member of a liberal democracy abhors authoritarianism for its inhibition on individual freedom, but totalitarianism is even more disturbing in that it not only destroys our autonomy, it also destroys our even more basic capacity for friendship and long-lasting romantic love.

Similarly, one other evil which is peripheral to The Handmaid’s Tale yet is essential to totalitarianism is the inability for people to engage in collective action as equals. The regime’s use of fear isolates people such that they are paralyzed and feel disconnected from all others, and this means that people will no longer come together to pursue common purposes as equals. The human ability to come together as equals to pursue common purposes, whether through creating an organization, creating a book club or protesting the state are valuable forms of activity that are destroyed when fear is used as a dominant mode of social control, and people become isolated from one another, and distrustful of one another.

These two aforementioned evils may seem very distant from post-industrial liberal democratic regimes, but nonetheless the second evil can assert itself within regimes that avowedly stand for freedom of the individual. Tocqueville notes that American democracy in the 19th century had a tendency towards individualism, and what he meant by individualism was very different from the way we use the term. What Tocqueville meant was that people would become isolated from the broader society and withdraw to a small circle of friends and family. The reason why people would feel so disconnected and isolated and withdraw from the broader society, is that the equality of democracy makes us feel powerless, as no one individual seems to be able to do great things on his own. When we feel powerless in this way, we tend to stop worrying about doing great things, and focus on merely leading quietly pleasant lives. Clearly, individualism in this sense can lead to an assertion of the second evil I spoke of as people withdraw from the public sphere and become so disconnected from the broader society as to see themselves as unable to act in concert with others to do great things. There is a difference in this case as certain kinds of common action among equals are still possible where individualism dominates, but common action among equals regarding broad societal issues, rather than private issues is disabled by Tocquevillian individualism. Furthermore, Tocquevillian individualism is not a particular problem of American democracy; it is a problem for all liberal democracies, as the focus on commerce that is essential to liberal democracy tends to focus people on their own jobs, their own families and friends, as against the broader society, which would only exacerbate the problem of Tocquevillian individualism. So despite the fact that liberal democracies do not inhibit the freedom of the individual they seem to be prey to one of the same evils that defines totalitarianism.

How can we understand music? What role should it play in our lives?

For many in postindustrial societies the enjoyment of music is a central element of a well-lived life. We speak of music in different ways. In one moment we see it as a release. In another, we see it as a pleasure. In another we see it as something to be understood. It is to the issue of understanding music that I wish to turn. Furthermore, I would like to examine music without lyrical content and ask if there is any meaningful sense in which such pieces of music can be grasped or understood. It may seem obvious that music can be understood, but on further thought understanding music gives rise to difficulties that do not arise in other forms of art such as painting or poetry. Music, on its own, is divorced from the medium of language, and because thought requires language it becomes difficult to think of how a sequence of melodies or harmonies can have any inherent linguistic meaning. Furthermore, unlike painting, music is divorced from visual representation, and while visual representation itself may not have any inherent relation to language, the visual representation of object seems to more easily align itself to linguistic meaning than sound. For example, if I see a picture of a person sitting in a chair with their dog, I automatically think that at least at a superficial level, the painting is about the pleasant relation of people to their pets, and perhaps this meaning relates to the human desire for domestic comfort. However, when I listen to “Claire de Lune” by Debussy I can only sense sadness, beauty, and fragility, but these terms themselves seem to conflict so what is the overall meaning of the piece? Is there an overall meaning of the piece? If the piece has no meaning, what does it mean to have an understanding of the piece? In this entry, I will try to reveal what it means to understand a piece of music.

When I listen to a piece of music in order to get an understanding of it, of any kind, I have to clear my mind of other thoughts. If I am occupied with thoughts, even thoughts about the music, I will hear the sound, but I will not be aware of it and how it fits into the whole. This means that to understand a piece of music I cannot analyse it as I am listening to it; I must fully engage myself with the music.

While I must fully engage myself with the music to get any understanding of its meaning, there is a danger in engaging in a way in which the self is utterly lost in the experience. This occurs when we listen to a piece of music and after the piece is over we have a very incomplete sense of all of the parts of the piece, but nonetheless we have found the piece enthralling or beautiful. This may be an extraordinarily pleasant experience, but it does not allow us to understand the music, as the subject is not fully consciously aware of the musical piece as a whole.

After listening to a piece of music and avoiding the dangers that were mentioned above we may get a vague sense of the meaning of the music. We might say that the piece is melancholic, dark and there is a sense of grief in the music, but it is difficult to see how we might be able to penetrate to a more articulate core of the meaning of the music. Consequently, it seems that the meaning of a piece of non-lyrical music at most can be disclosed to the listener in general terms that do not pertain to a particular problem or issue like the angst we experience regarding the inevitability of death. Further, while a musical piece may become associated with this particular meaning in a listener, there is nothing in the musical experience that renders this particular meaning as the only legitimate meaning of the piece. For another the piece may disclose the meaning of the grieving process.

As a result of the preceding the meaning of piece of music can only be articulated in general adjectives, rather than as something that discloses a particular issue, or a particular problem. We can understand the specific meaning the piece of music has to a particular subject, whether the subject is the composer or a listener, but if divorced from its relation to any particular subject, the meaning of the piece of music is only describable in terms of basic adjectives. In this sense, music does not disclose any particular thought, although it may bring to consciousness the particular concerns of the listener.

At this point, someone may be asking why this is an important topic at all? The reason this is an important topic is that many people see music as essential to their lives, and because of this we need to understand what these people are devoting their time to.

It seems to me there are three ways of listening to music. We can listen to understand the music. We can listen and lose ourselves in the music. Or we can listen to music while analysing it. The first option allows us to understand the meaning of a piece of music, and may encourage reflection upon our own lives as we relate the feelings that a piece of music evokes in us with particular experiences or issues. The second option provides us with a pleasant experience. The third option fails to disclose the meaning of music, but exercises our capacity for analysis.

When I reflect upon how I ordinarily listen to music I realize I tend to listen through the second method, or the first. I think most others will have similar tendencies, and if this is the case we have to question how much time we spend listening to music through the second method, because while pleasure has value, the pleasurable experience of losing oneself in a piece of music, does not create lasting fulfillment or enable us to live worthwhile lives. The visceral experience of the second method is like eating chocolate; it is an immediately pleasurable experience, but not one that would realize any substantial good in one’s life. So, we need to be sure not to build our lives upon listening to music through the second method.