Thoughts on Dreher’s Benedict Option

Over the past few days I finished reading Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option. The rough argument of this book is that in order to live a life ordered by God, Christians cannot continue to unreflectively participate in the social, cultural, political and economic institutions of modern society as these are contrary to Christianity. As a result it is the task of Christians to create parallel institutions and forms of communal life that allow them to sustain the Christian way of life as society moves in a post-Christian direction dominated by nihilistic individual freedom, consumerism, avarice and hedonism. Dreher calls this approach “the Benedict Option” and rightly points out that this shift would require Christians to sacrifice worldly success in favour of preserving their faith in many cases. The title is reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s closing comment in After Virtue that like St. Benedict who created a form of monastic life in the late Roman Empire to preserve virtue and learning amidst its collapse, those who are concerned to live a life of virtue will have to create new forms of communal life to foster virtue amidst the new dark ages of bureaucratic state capitalism. Dreher is not suggesting that Christians cut themselves off from modern society, but that they have to intentionally create alternative forms of life that do not fit with the ethos of our age.

Now, given that I am not a Christian this book was not written for me. Much of it is an exhortation to Christians to see the way in which modern society corrodes the virtues of charity, hope and agape that the Gospel makes primary. So why did I read it?

I read it for two related reasons. For one I spent a significant part of my undergraduate and graduate study on the works of Aristotle, and consider myself to be something of an Aristotleian, although a relatively unorthodox one. Furthermore, for me, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a powerful critique of modernity that any Aristotleian who seeks to reform modernity needs to address. In light of that I was interested in reading Dreher’s book because of the fact that it was inspired by MacIntyre’s critique of modernity and could be arguably said to reflect MacIntyre’s exhortation that modernity cannot be reformed to be made consonant with the life of virtue.

Secondly, over the past couple of years I have begun reading articles on The American Conservative, an online journal that Rod Dreher edits. I was drawn to this journal because it presents a sophisticated conservative Christian perspective of the world that is critical of many aspects of modernity that are concerning to me such as consumerism, instrumentalism and historical/cultural illiteracy, but at the same time stands opposed to my left-liberal political positions in its endorsement of a conservative Christian approach to ethics and politics.

I will give Dreher credit as his book is clearly written, and avoids being overly academic while retaining a significant degree of sophistication. Furthermore, those who already agree with Dreher about the nature of modernity and its opposition to Christian life, will find useful suggestions for how they can preserve their way of life. However, my issue with this book is that it does very little to convince those who are not already convinced of Dreher’s diagnosis of modernity and understanding of the Christian faith. This may be by design but if so, this was a mistake within the design of the work, as Dreher is very clear that he wants to bring people to an authentic Christian way of life, which means one of his goals is not merely to show Benedictines how to proceed, but to convince those who see the Benedict Option as an error and misunderstanding of modernity. Dreher has no expectation that he will change the culture at large, but he wants to help people see the light even if they are not already convinced.

1) Freedom, Authenticity, Modernity and Christianity

In The Benedict Option, Dreher asserts as opposed to argues that the modern account of freedom and authenticity are inherently nihilistic and self-centered with their focus on the satisfaction of all desires and cannot be reconciled with the notion that the Christian God sets proper limits on man’s freedom. While this is a typical cultural conservative reading of modern individualism it is peculiar that while Dreher invokes Charles Taylor’s account of the change from premodern to modern attitudes in Latin Christendom he does not make much of an effort to engage with Taylor’s defense of freedom and authenticity. For Taylor, the conservative reading of the demand for individual authenticity as nihilistic and self centered is inaccurate and problematic because it covers over the sense in which individual authenticity is about growth towards a more fully developed self. The notion of individualism and authenticity may tend to be used as a justification for satisfaction of all base desires, but the thought undergirding this notion imply a notion of particularized teleology in which each agent has the responsibility to develop to the fullest according to their unique nature. This of course removes the idea that there could be a single standard for human excellence, but it is more complex than a simple sensuous hedonism, as your life can be a failure if you just pursue your basest desires and conform rather than developing your unique essence.

Now, given that I am not a Christian I do not want to get into the debate of whether Christian faith can be reconciled with the modern conception of authenticity as I am simply not learned enough about Christian theology to have an informed opinion. But given that Taylor, is a practicing Roman Catholic who identifies himself strongly with the Christian faith and with the post romantic expressivist concept of authenticity it is not simply obvious that Dreher is warranted in asserting the irreconcilability of authenticity and Christianity. Furthermore, many of the sources of post romantic expressivist tradition which gives birth to the idea of authenticity emerge from the tradition of Christianity. In particular, Herder and Hegel come to mind as thinkers who tried to reconcile both the demand for authenticity and Christian faith. There is a debate here and one that requires those who see these poles as irreconcilable to address them.

Relatedly, Dreher draws on Phillip Rieff to argue that the culture of modernity is an anti-culture, rather than a true culture as it places no prohibitions on desire and does not have a sense of what it is good to be, that informs and drives its practises and norms. For the reasons pointed out above this seems to be an intellectually uncharitable account of modern culture that focuses on the fact that liberation from previous forms of tradition is built into the notion of authenticity, without realizing that the demand for authenticity is a standard, and one that is broadly shared. The demand that we develop ourselves by looking inside at what we really want to be and truly admire is as much a standard as the requirement of following an orthodox reading of the Gospel.

Now, Dreher does gesture towards the fact that there are other standards as he notes that many Christians in the USA are not in fact Christians, but Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. Moralistic Therapeutic Deists believe that:

1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While there may be some resonance between point 3 and the demand for authenticity and individuality, the way that point 3 is formulated purposefully emphasizes the hedonistic aspect of the demand for being self-directed, rather than the fact that the pursuit of authenticity is not simply about feeling good about oneself but of achieving one’s particular excellence. The authentic life may involve feeling good about oneself, but feeling good about oneself is not enough for authenticity. We might say that in terms of authenticity original sin involves not listening to the voice of God in our hearts, but obeying the voice of worldly pleasure or acclaim. Authenticity in this regard has no necessary place for Grace in that the voice within does not necessary require God’s Grace to be heard, but still the demand for authenticity is related to Augustine spirituality and not necessarily opposed to it. It is perfectly plausible to argue that finding one’s authentic way of life requires God’s Grace even if it is possible to formulate authenticity without allusion to Grace. As a result, Dreher’s reading of modern notions of fulfillment are particularly uncharitable, and do not engage with the richness involved in these ideas as we can see by the way in which he tries to frame the demand for authenticity either as nihilistic self-seeking or the pursuit of feeling good about oneself.

2) Children and Exiting Benedictine Communities

Throughout his book Dreher discusses people who are pursuing the Benedict Option in their own lives and exhorts others to follow in their footsteps. This often involves raising children according to a specifically Classical-Christian education with the church and the faith as the centre of their lives. Now, it is certainly true that every culture inculcates their children with a specific sense of the good , and modernity is no more free of inculcating a specific set of cultural mores than Benedictine communities are. So, from this narrow perspective it is a merely a matter of which form of education and acculturation is superior. However, there are two other aspects of this issue which Dreher does not touch on in any significant depth that need to be discerned. The first pertains to the right to exit a community and the second pertains to the fact that people drawn to the Benedict Option in Dreher’s work, including Dreher himself, tend to be converts who have seen the light as opposed to people raised in Benedictine style communities. In both cases, while I would absolutely defend Dreher’s right to withdraw and live in a Benedictine community I am not sure if the good of children is being fully considered in the construction of Benedictine communities. This perspective reflects my unapologetic liberalism and I am sure Dreher would disagree, but again I think that Dreher needs to confront these objections head on, which he does not do within his book.

With regard to the right to exit, in Brian Barry’s Culture and Equality Barry makes the apt point that communities have the right to raise their children according to their own values and norms within the bounds of the law. Furthermore, while it is true that this means many children will stay in cultural communities that they disagree with and find stifling, because they do not want to sever ties with their families, the state should not try to use state coercion to ensure that these communities have more “inclusive” values. Here, Barry makes a distinction between internal costs of exiting a community, and external costs of exiting a community. Internal costs are those associated with losing contact with friends and family, excommunication; these internal costs are costs that those who leave must bare because while they are significant they are internally related to the goods and practises of the community in question.

Religious communities, as associations, have every right to excommunicate someone who fails to obey the rules of the community, and there is no requirement that they adopt the rules of behaviour to the wisdom of mainstream society. They cannot coerce the person, but they can ban them from the association. However, the challenge occurs when a community is structured in a way that leaving it does not merely mean leaving familial ties and affective ties, but in which leaving the community will deprive you of what you are entitled to as a citizen of the state. The example that Barry gives is of the Amish in Pennsylvania who have right to opt out of paying social security as employer and employees. As a result, if an Amish person decides to leave they are not entitled to social security commensurate with the time they have worked. This places an unfair burden and an external cost on exiting the community, and one that disadvantages those who have a desire to leave the community, including the young.

Now, it is not clear if Dreher would see it as legitimate to opt out of social security or other forms of government entitlements that bestow benefits on all individual citizens of a particular state. But the demand to develop parallel institutions creates the risk of depriving children of what they are entitled to as citizens. So, Dreher needs to address this concern as it could form a significant objection to his project.

Secondarily, the fact that many members of Benedictine Communities come to these communities later in life after seeing that the life of consumerism, career ambition and modernity are unsatisfying, raises the question of whether their commitment to their faith is so strong because they have made the choice to reject modern idols and live an orthodox Christian life. If children are raised within Benedictine Communities that focus on a particular interpretation of the gospels rather than the free wheeling notion of freedom and authenticity, will they be given an equivalent opportunity to explore and come to understand what they think makes life significant as those who have joined these communities after living in the mainstream of society and finding it wanting. Again, the answer to this question are not clearly answered in The Benedict Option, but some of the language of shaping children seems to me to echo the Platonic mistake of trying not merely to portray the beauty of their communities’ way of life, but of ensuring that the community continues indefinitely without change. If Benedictine Communities go down this path and deny children the opportunity to explore other modes of thought and life in a charitable manner, but simply try to ensure that their account of Christian life continues they will be denying children the ability to take full responsibility for their lives. This reduces children to means to continuance of a way of life, and disrespects their fundamental dignity. Furthermore, this dignity is reflected in the Gospel by the notion of freewill. All need to come to God willingly, not because their pastor, father, husband or wife wants them to.

Altogether, I encourage other non-Christians to read The Benedict Option because of the honesty of its perspective and the challenge that it poses. While this book is not for us, there are valuable insights in it about the corrosive effects of modernity that any person looking for significance in their life can appreciate. However, it does leave much to be desired in its failure to charitably engage with modernity and I hope that defenders of the book and Dreher rise to the occasion to charitably engage with modernity.

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Understanding Conservatism in 2017

In the current historical moment, in which far right movements are on the rise throughout the post-industrial world, from Trump to UKIP and the looming threat of a Marine Le Pen presidency in France, it behooves us to attempt to understand conservatism as an ideology and political philosophy. While these far right movements bear little resemblance to the typical orientation and comportment of mainstream conservative parties, they are related and are in competition with one another for ascendency on the “right” side of the political spectrum. In what follows I want to make the argument that there is no single unified conservative ideology, but rather that conservatism is best understood when it is broken up into two dominant strands. The first I refer to as dispositional conservatism and the other is ideological conservatism. Modern conservative parties are typically an amalgam of these two strands. Furthermore, I will argue that the relative disappearance of the dispositional strand from mainstream conservative politics is very dangerous for the health of post-industrial democracies.

Dispositional Conservatism

First, we should distinguish between the dispositional and ideological strands of conservatism. The dispositional strand of conservatism can be identified with the intellectual tradition of Burke, Oakeshott and Scruton, among others and the politics of Disraeli and Diefenbaker. This strand of conservatism is very suspicious of radically altering society based on abstract notions of freedom and justice, and wants to preserve what is valuable in existing social and economic institutions. It is an avowedly anti-revolutionary creed which sees the existing society as imperfect, but believes that significantly changing the society is likely to lead to more bad than good. This tradition was formed in reaction to the horrific things done in the name of equality, freedom and brotherhood during the French Revolution and is deeply sceptical of the power of reason to allow us to create a perfect or near perfect society. As a result it favours maintaining the status quo and minor gradual changes to deep restructuring.

This form of conservatism is peculiar because it has no inherent policy prescriptions. This is part of the reason why Anglo-American conservatism differs so fundamentally from conservatism in countries with a stronger Catholic heritage. In the former what needs to be preserved is a welfare statist liberal market society founded upon individual right and the rule of law as this constitutes the existing status quo. Whereas in countries where Catholicism is a stronger force, like France, Germany and Italy what is preserved includes support for individual rights and the rule of law, but also a corporatist order founded on the obligations of classes to one another and noblesse oblige.

As a result, from a dispositional conservative perspective, the demand for privatization and the assault on the welfare state is not conservative. Its aim is to radically alter society to bring it in line with free markets. Conservatives whose primary allegiance is to free markets as opposed to preserving the existing order are not part of the dispositional strand of conservatism. This partially explains the irony that the first modern welfare states did not come to fruition under the rule of liberals or socialists, but under the corporatist-conservative state of Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck saw welfare policy as a way of ensuring the loyalty of citizens to the German community in the face of the individualizing and deracinating forces of capitalism that erase the bonds of local community.

Consequently, at its core, dispositional conservatism is about preserving valuable aspects of a society and its related practises and governing institutions. I call it dispositional conservatism because it reflects an attitude towards change and the public good rather than a formal set of propositions.

Ideological Conservatism

Ideological conservatism on the other hand is support for policies that are typically associated with the right side of the political spectrum. These policies include support for free enterprise, a relatively non-intrusive state, non-governmental communal associations as the locus of social assistance (churches, families and other voluntary/philanthropic associations), encouragement of the dominance of the existing morality and religion within the society, as well as an overarching concern for maintaining security and order. These policies prescriptions are not held by all conservatives as ideological conservatism is a broad church. Neoconservatives, Paleoconservatives, Red Tories and Liberal Conservatives tend to disagree on policy specifics. But the policy prescriptions outlined above do suggest a variety of policy issues that are central to conservative politics in post-industrial societies.

In this light, ideological conservatism is defined more by support for a specific set of policy prescriptions than a fundamental attitude towards social change.

As a result ideological conservatives are not necessarily dispositional conservatives and vice versa. For example, some ideological conservatives wage war on government as a mere nuisance that should be made as small as possible in societies in which the modern bureaucratic state has been fundamental to the way of life of the society since the early 20th century. Their concern here is not preserving what is of value within existing societal practises and institutions but fidelity to the principal that government is a necessary evil and should be as minimal as possible. Where agencies are acting for conservative causes but doing so not preserve, but to remake, they are not reflecting a dispositional conservative, but an ideological conservative ethos.

Where are we now and why does this matter?

While, the policy prescriptions of recent far right movements that we have seen come to prominence are not identical with typical ideological conservatives, they certainly share a family resemblance with a couple of qualifications. For the sake of simplicity I refer to these emergent far right movements as right wing neopopulists. These qualifications are that right wing neopopulists are far more overtly xenophobic and relatedly are uncomfortable with a globalized economy.   They certainly support free enterprise and markets, but within the borders of the national state, not across the globe. In this sense, the recent emergence of right wing neopopulism has pushed the ideological right in a more xenophobic and nationalistic direction, but outside of this significant shift, there have not been huge qualitative shifts within other areas of policy. Donald Trump is very different from Ronald Reagan on immigration and the role of trade, but the two share general support for capitalism, the primacy of order and security, the dominance of existing form of Christianity and morality and the deregulation of the economy. Thus, there is a significant degree of continuity from an ideological perspective between of mainstream conservatism and right wing neopopulism.

However, right wing neopopulism in all of its guises is radically opposed to dispositional conservatism. A fundamental aspect of the right wing neopopulist point of view is not to preserve what we have, but to get back the jobs and greatness that we have lost. Right wing neopopulism necessarily sees the existing society as something of a wasteland that needs to be redeemed; it is not just that the existing social institutions in danger, but that they work against the people and must be radically restructured. In this regard, right wing neopopulists do not reflect the dispositional conservative attitude.

At this point someone might object that right wing neopopulists are concerned with preservation as they want to preserve their countries against the influx of the problematic customs of particular types of foreigners. There is a certain sense in which it is true that right wing neopopulists do oppose the change of the customs of their society, but it is important that they do not want to preserve the existing customs, but return to an imagined period of glory and excellence. For example, a period when America was great. In this regard they are not preservationists but restorationists. They want to restore the nation to the way of life that made it great rather than preserving valuable social institutions. This is why in a very basic sense right wing neopopulists are reactionaries as opposed conservatives. Their aim is constructed in reaction and opposition to the status quo, rather than in preservation of the valuable elements of the status quo.

In light of the preceding, the distinction between ideological and dispositional conservatism helps us to understand right wing neopopulism as a phenomena that shares certain features with typical conservatism, but radically departs from the dispositional aspect of conservatism. This understanding is helpful because it provides us with an understanding of what is lost when the political right moves towards right wing neopopulism beyond the obvious fact that we are seeing a more crass political discourse, which is more thoroughly invaded by misogyny, and racism.

What is lost is the attitude of the dispositionally conservative citizen; instead it is replaced with the attitude of the right wing zealot. The right wing zealot merely wants to remake society in their desired image; they do not operate with a thought of what is best for this specific political order given its history, mores and demography. Instead they want to create a pure society that matches their intuitions and desires.

We need dispositionally conservative citizens as an integral part of the political order as they provide the caution that tempers the hubris that suggests to us that is easy to correct social ills, and we just have to think and act rationally to do so. The pull to make our society more just, equal or free, needs to be tempered by the ability to preserve the social order as a whole. If it is not we are not caring for our society and the concrete beings that live in it, but showing adherence to abstract principles whether such adherence causes more harm than good.

Dispositional conservatives may overstate what is required to preserve social order, but by pointing us to the question of care for an existing set of social institutions they point us to a very important issue. The dispositional conservative attitude is an important safeguard against the sway of adherence to doctrinal purity and abstract ideology. As a result the fact that right wing neopopulism erodes the dispositional aspect of conservatism makes it extraordinarily dangerous for post-industrial democracies.

As most readers of this blog know I am far from a conservative, but I have genuine sympathies with dispositional conservatism, because I too see the social order as a fragile thing to be preserved even when it is imperfect. It is in this light that I am horrified by the rise of right wing neopopulism. Post-industrial societies are socially unjust and problematic in many respects, but their support for individual freedom, equality and material well being make them something that must be preserved against the vilification of right wing neopopulism.

Activist Leftist Discourses – Opacity and Moralism

I would both consider myself something of a leftist and a liberal. The two terms are not interchangeable as there are leftists who decry liberalism, and liberals who identify with the political right. An example of the former would be a left wing Catholic like Pope Francis who sees liberalism as something of a failed experiment in unfettered individualism. While an example of the latter is easily identified by the ubiquitous attitude of the person cares much for the equal freedom of people and the flourishing of the market but sees no role for the state in regulating culture and morality; this is the person who is “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” The Economist magazine may be the most obvious example of this kind of outlook.

I give this autobiographical note not because I think it is important to express my political identity, but to position myself as more of an internal critic of certain trends in left wing politics that I find troubling and problematic. From my perspective, left wing political discourse in the last ten years has at once been too moralistic and too opaque and removed from the concrete understandings of ordinary people. In what follows I will explain the rationale behind these judgments and the negative effects of the political left’s dominant modes of rhetoric.

It should be noted that none of this is too suggest that right wing discourse has been more enlightened than left wing discourse and is without flaw. Instead I am just focusing on what I see as the shortcomings of the rhetoric of the political left. Ironically, being of the left makes me somewhat more critical of left wing political discourses, because I expect more from it than I do from the right.

To begin I find the discourse of left wing politics too academic because of its failure to explain its ideas to those that are not already part of the activist community. This failure to explain its idea is made most evident by invocations of racism and sexism without context or explanation. Racism and sexism have very particular meanings when they are invoked in left wing political discourse, but this meaning is quite distinct from the everyday meaning of the term that most citizens of post-industrial liberal democracies hear when the terms are invoked.

Most ordinary people think of sexism as explicit discrimination against people based on sex or race, or a personal attitude that claims that people belonging to a certain group are inherently less than those of other groups. However, typically in left wing discourse these terms refer to forms of oppression that systemically disadvantage women and non-whites. These forms of oppression are not simply based on intentional acts or negative attitudes, but on unconscious prejudices, the cultural association of value with norms of masculinity and whiteness and the historical residue of previous attempts to intentionally disadvantage these groups. A clear example of this invocation of systemic sexism occurs when activists raise the point that that American society pays women approximately 70 cents for every dollar men make constitutes a form of sexism in itself. What has lead to this inequality is often unexplained by activists, instead the point is brought up as if it speaks for itself. This makes it very easy for people to rightly point that the stat itself is a bit misleading. While men working in the same job as women typically make more than women, this stat does not compare the pay of men and those who are women in the same professions, but rather men and women as a whole. In this case, what accounts for the stark difference are not just inequalities in pay in the same profession, but also that work that is associated with women, and where women constitute the majority tend to be paid significantly less than professions associated with men. Now, this stat gestures towards the insightful point that “masculine” professions are more highly valued than “feminine” professions, but this stat is rarely brought up with this additional context and explanation. Instead, the stat becomes a talking point whose meaning should be evident and transparent to all. In which case, it is hardly surprising that when people hear the stat and are told that it reveals the inherent sexism of our society that they automatically get defensive and think that they are being told they themselves have sexist attitudes. This does not logically follow from the use of this stat without explanation, but it is a common and deeply understandable psychological response based on the audience’s understanding of sexism.

To explain further, when the term sexism is thrown at someone without an explanation of the concept of sexism being invoked people are going to default to their own understanding of what it means to be sexist. Consequently, given that most people understand sexism as a personal attitude rather than a systemic concept of oppression, they are not going to be convinced when they are told that our society is inherently sexist, as they do not think less of people based on their sex or gender, and know few people who think less of people based on their sex or gender. Furthermore, they are likely to see the invocation of sexism as a hyperbolic personal attack. While this is only one example of a miscommunication occurring between activists on the left and others that are not part of that community, I think it is plausible to posit that this form of communication has become far more common due to the changing nature of media. This change will be adumbrated below.

I think it is fair to say that over the course of twentieth century forms of media have gradually begin to focus more on soundbites, talking points and slogans as opposed to lengthy arguments. Our political dialogue must be digestible in small chunks because we do not have the time to focus our attention on a complex issue amongst the business of contemporary. I refer to this change in media as the soundbitification of media. While it would take an entire book or more to document the nature of this change and its causes, the prima facie experiential evidence for this change is made quite clear when we consider two aspects of our political discourse: social media and televised political punditry.

In the case of social media, Twitter is particularly illuminating. Due to the inherent character limits on Twitter, political talk on Twitter tends to revolve around cheerleading for a cause, insults and sloganeering rather than the exchange of ideas. I cannot make a good argument about why I like the idea of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) in 140 characters, but I can create a tweet that others sympathetic to this policy will spread. Furthermore, while Facebook posts have no inherent character limit the norms of usage surrounding this platform mean that political talk on Facebook is more about garnering “likes” as opposed to the exchange of ideas. Once again political talk does not focus on exchanging ideas but on signaling one’s allegiance and rallying for the cause. In this soundbitified media context we are likely to hear a lot about rape culture and white supremacy in the public sphere, but little about what these concepts actually mean.

Televised political punditry more obviously encourages sloganeering, as pundits are given just 30 seconds, if they are lucky, to explain their perspective on a complex issue. The result is obviously that issues are dumbed down and that there are few genuine exchanges of ideas. Instead people are more worried about shutting down their opponents and identifying themselves as authentic fighters for their particular political cause.

It should be emphasized that activists don’t just engage in soundbites to get media attention, although that is certainly one reason for it. Instead, the forms of communication through which social activism occurs, and is organized, such as social media and street protest encourage a heavily sloganized and soundbite oriented politics. In this context politics becomes a very tribal activity where though my clever use of buzzwords and slogans I signal to others that I am one of the true believers fighting for good, against the evils of the world. Explaining my points to people who disagrees and persuading them is not the point. Winning the war is. And it is in this aspect of our modes of political communication that we also see why left wing discourse has not just become opaque to those outside of the group, but also excessively moralistic.

Moralism as a concept may seem to refer to someone concerned with morals, in which case those of us who care about ethics would rightly praise moralism. But on my understanding moralism is a mode of thought that condemns actions, individuals or agencies by expressing indignation towards anything that does not agree with them, as uncompromisingly evil. In this sense moralism is linked to fanaticism and zealotry. For moralists there is only the light and the darkness. Capitalist moralists cannot see anything in socialism that is redeeming, and likewise socialist moralists can only see capitalism as a Satanic presence. As a result socialist moralists are peculiarly theoretically opposed to Marxists who recognize capitalism’s failings, but also see the gains it has made over feudal and explicitly aristocratic modes of social and economic organization.

Now, in what sense is left wing discourse moralistic? It is moralistic precisely because its modes of communication are meant to signal virtue and that one is a righteous warrior, but it is also moralistic because of the way that it denigrates aspects of the culture without thinking about how this denigration will be seen by those outside of the activist community. For this latter aspect let us look at a contemporary example. This example is the characterization of corporations and banks in popular activist left wing discourse. This characterizations sees corporations as an insipid evil with leaders that only care about profit. It is important here that the critique is not that these groups have illegitimate power and therefore are at risk of increasing inequality and injustice. Instead, the critique is that bankers, CEOs and shareholders are greedy, mean and unfeeling and put profits before people. Our economy is critiqued not for being unjust or unfair, but rather for being without compassion. While there is some merit to this critique of the character of the powerful it will be seen by many as mere resentful moralism for good reason.

The public mores of our society put a very large weight on the importance of economic success to a fully successful life. Our culture admires those who are successful in private industry because we do not see pursuing self-interest ambitiously as a vice; rather we see it as in some sense admirable and integral to the freedom and prosperity of our society, but at the same time as something that can be taken too far and destroy other valuable elements of life such as friendship, family and romantic love. This belief in the value of career ambition may be mistaken, and I think the value of it is at the very least deeply overstated, but it is a significant aspect of our culture. Therefore, many ordinary people who are not deeply committed to an ideology will tend to see people criticizing successful business people as resentful individuals who just weren’t able to be successful in their own lives, and therefore need to knock the powerful down a few pegs. And even those who do not have this strong of a reaction may find the characterization unfair as they have likely worked in a private industry and known business owners who seemed to be kind, admirable people. Therefore, the characterization will strike them as simply untrue and overtly judgmental and narrow-minded. While their boss may have pursued profit they are not the moral monster that a particular kind of activist is depicting. As a result many of those outside the activist community will have missed the valid point that activists are gesturing towards. This point is that our economy should not be structured just to generate growth, but instead should be structured to ensure equitable outcomes and a decent life for all, and the current role of corporations prevents the creation of this kind of economy.

The key forward for left wing discourse is to get away from simply communicating to organize the faithful and moving to genuinely persuading others. This require us to actually think about why we believe what we do, rather than communicating in ways that assumes that we all already agree and have the same understanding of what is wrong with our society.

Socrates on Virtue and Knowledge

I have always been more drawn to Aristotle than Plato, but over the past several months I have been rereading some Platonic dialogues with a few friends and have come to a greater appreciation of his works. One perennial topic of discussion among our group that has brought this greater appreciation out is Socrates’ seemingly perplexing claim that virtue is knowledge, and that it is impossible for one to know the good, and willingly do something bad.

At first blush this position on virtue and knowing the good seems absurd. Most who have committed wrongs would acknowledge that their actions were wrong, and that they knew that they were wrong while they committed them. Socrates’ claim seems to deny the reality of the experience of most of us.

So this leads to the question of what Socrates is getting at? Is Socrates just providing a nonsensical explanation that flies in the face of the obvious existential situation of human beings? Or is he trying to say something that eludes us because what Socrates means by knowledge is something entirely different from what most think of knowledge as? I tend to think that it is the latter rather than the former, and will argue that Socrates and Plato capture an interesting element of knowledge that tends to be missed when we think of knowledge in terms of intellectually being able to recall particular set of facts.

If I know that theft is wrong, but steal something, what is causing me to steal? One explanation is that my desire for the thing overpowered my knowledge that theft is wrong. But this leads to the question of what it means for desire to overpower knowledge. When I stole something did this occur as an automatic reflex that I was not cognitively aware of because my desire had overpowered my knowledge? That seems unlikely, and does not fit with our actual experience of doing something that we know is wrong. Instead the desire speaks and convinces that what we are doing makes sense in some way. When the desire speaks it might say even though theft is wrong I really need this thing and I can’t afford it at the moment. Thus, the opposition that is posed between desire and knowledge is not between a mere noncognitive state of wanting something, and knowledge of particular moral facts. Instead, despite its seeming childishness, a more appropriate image is of the angel and devil on the shoulders. Each of these figures holds different things to be true and desires those different things, but the beliefs and desires of the inherently oppositional figures are not compatible. So, we see that when we are considering what leads us to do something that we “know” is wrong it is not as if we react like automatons to some foreign desire, but rather that aspects of ourselves that say certain things about what is valuable convince us, albeit temporarily, to take action because in some sense that aspect of ourselves sees this as the best course of action possible at the time.

Now, what does the preceding discussion tell us about knowledge? It seems to me that it rejects the idea of knowledge as merely being able to recall certain facts and being convinced abstractly of the truth of particular propositions. Instead it seems to suggest to me that ethical knowledge, at the very least, is always already linked to character and valuation. This seems plausible in that what we believe in the ethical realm cannot be disconnected from the values and goods we are drawn to realize in the world. If I think that the pious life of the mind is and this is real knowledge for me than this is not just something that I believe and has no impact on my life; instead my actions will be linked with these beliefs. It is implausible to say that someone has ethical knowledge of the value of the life of the mind, if they do not find themselves called or drawn to pursue this life. This distinction between naturalistic fact and evaluative claims was not part of the lexicon of Socrates or any other Ancient Greek thinker, but it has significant weight for us, and thus I think we can recognize the truth of Socrates’ thought in the ethical realm, while finding it more implausible in the naturalistc realm.

But if our ethical knowledge is based on our fundamental commitments why do we do things that we know our wrong? In essence, the answer is that our selves, or souls, as Socrates would say are disordered, rather than properly ordered. We have deep commitments to many things that often come into conflict in life. I may really care about being healthy, but I also am drawn to the sensuous enjoyment of pizza. It is not as though I realize eating pizza is unhealthy and thus bad from the perspective of health, but am overpowered by my a noncognitive desire for pizza. Instead, the part of myself that is deeply enamoured with the sensuous momentarily takes the reins, to use a Platonic image, even though another part of myself is speaking against this action. In this sense there is not a single homogeneous self that has commitments, but rather different elements of myself have different commitments, and at times one element of the self will be stronger than another. In the classic Platonic understanding of the soul we have the appetitive part that desires sensuous pleasure, the spirited which desires honour and recognition, and the rational part of the soul which seems to desire knowledge.

At first the Platonic of moral agency may seem to say little about knowledge, as you can easily combine a moral psychology that combines a view of knowledge as naturalistic facts with the idea that in the ethical realm our selves are disordered and our desires come into a conflict with one another. However, while this explanation seems intuitive it really does not hold up. If I think it is bad to steal and this is part of my ethical knowledge, the “I” that knows this cannot disappear when another element of the self, or another “I” within me puts forward the claim that it is okay to steal as long as it from affluent people. If this was the case I would not really have ethical knowledge, instead a part of myself as a whole might have ethical knowledge that stealing is wrong, but taken in my entirety “I” do not have this knowledge, because the constituents of myself do not possess a harmonious ethical vision. But rather each constituent of myself represents a dissonant and oppositional claim of knowledge. If I actually had ethical knowledge than the entirety of myself would be acting and thinking in line with the same, as opposed to divergent ethical notions. Knowledge, on this interpretation of Plato is always already fused with practical activity, for to have ethical knowledge is to be able to act consistently according to a proper understanding of the good while recognizing why one is taking these actions. In this case, it is not that I have knowledge and then choose to apply it because I commit to being ethical, but that right action constitutes right knowledge and right reason.

I am not sure if I completely agree with this Platonic image, but is a powerful image and one that confronts us with a moral psychology that is very different from our own, and consequently something that we can learn from.

The Role of the University in Post-Industrial Societies

During its origin in the Middle Ages the University was an institution for elite education, but in post-industrial North American and European societies over the past century the University has become a vehicle for mass education and practical research. As universities have began to occupy this role the justification of their funding, place in society and existence has had to change. No longer can universities justify their place by saying that they pursue knowledge for knowledge sake, or for providing students with a liberal education that uniquely enables elites to be effective leaders. Instead, the university is typically justified on four bases within post-industrial societies.

The first and most dominant justification suggests that universities are required educate citizens so they are able to get good jobs and achieve economic success. University education is then an investment in the young, that will allow them be economically successful.

The second dominant justification of the university is that it produces research and knowledge that will be able to help solve social problems, and ensure our society is innovative and thus is able to succeed in a competitive, economically driven world.

Thirdly, universities are sometimes justified on the basis that they allow people to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake and thus they don’t just help society solve problems, but also allow us to pursue the intrinsically worthy good of trying to better understand the universe.

Fourthly, universities are also often justified on the grounds that the education received, particularly in the liberal arts, will help students develop critical thinking skills, which will enhance democracy. On this view universities are seen to provide students with a well-rounded education that improves their character and capacities such that they are better citizens and individuals.

These justifications deeply differ and might even be supposed to conflict and thus the question I want to ask if it is plausible for the university in a post – industrial society to be able to fulfill all of the goals laid out by each of these four justifications. It seems to me that while it is conceivable that a university could do this in a particular kind of society, in post – industrial societies it seems that these justification are at cross-purposes, and thus the pursuit of one of the justifications will tend to negate some of the others. Hence the university, in its current form does not seem to be able to fulfill all of these goals effectively.

One quite glaring contemporary example of this conflict between the various justifications of universities is made evident by the failure of the bachelor’s degree to ensure economic success for those who pursue it. This problem arises because bachelor degrees, excluding nursing, education, engineering and possibly commerce, do not prepare students for any particular career or vocation. Thus while they may give graduates some skills it is not evident how these skills prepare them for economic success. For example, those who have a degree in the humanities typically learn how to construct an argument, read difficult texts, and write papers, but it is not obvious how these skills translate into any particular vocation, outside of the academy. But the reason why the bachelor’s degree in most forms fail to assure economic success for those who possess it is not because it is poorly designed, but because the degree is structured not simply as a prelude to a particular career, but as an introduction into a scholarly discipline, related disciplines, and to ensure people receive a well-rounded education that improves their capabilities. For example, the need for breadth requirements as part of a bachelor’s degree cannot be justified from the perspective education as a prerequisite for economic success. This is made evident because if I want to be a lawyer, why should I need to have an understanding of fields like the fine arts that have no clear relation to my field? But breadth requirements make sense if we think about the fact that different disciplines probably provide different critical thinking skills, and capabilities. Thus, to be a more well-rounded person, and citizen, you should have familiarity with a wider field of disciplines, rather than just with the discipline that you want to pursue a career in. Consequently, the very fact that the bachelor’s degree is structured, not as a simple preliminary to a vocation, but as a means to achieve a well-rounded education in some way harms its ability to justify itself as a means for citizens to ensure they have economic success. Pursuing an education that introduces you to a scholarly discipline and gives you a well-rounded appreciation of the world is a far less effective education for a career than a vocationally driven one. So, we have a case where one goal that a university is pursuing (well-rounded education) and another (education for a career) are in conflict.

We can also see this issue when we think of the research aspect of universities. The research that society is most interested in funding is often research with clear practical applications, rather than research that would best help us understand the world as a whole. So the university must try to reconcile two conflicting goals, as part of the mission of the university is towards serving as a haven for scholarship to help us better understand the world, and yet the state tends to see the university as a source of useful research that can solve its problems. While in some cases these goals may overlap, there is no reason for them to necessarily coincide.

The fact that universities are given the task of pursuing all of these unique, and conflicting goals puts them in an awkward place, and I cannot see universities being able to be successful at effectively pursuing all of these goals. Quite simply, when an institution tries to pursue multiple conflicting goals it tends to fail to deliver on any of them effectively. For example, the artist who tries to both be commercially successful and to produce something unique and interesting is not going to be able to deliver on either goal. He may try to produce something unique and interesting and end up creating something commercially successful, and vice versa. But as soon as he tries to simultaneously pursue both ends he will struggle as these goals do not always coincide and may conflict.

Does this mean the university should be abandoned? Certainly not, but it means that we need to stop being surprised that universities are unable to effectively pursue all of the goals they are tasked with. In addition we need to begin to think of how the university and mass education can be reformed so that the system of education, learning and research in our society can effectively provide vocational education, well-rounded scholarly education, produce practical research, and provide a haven for the pursuit of scholarship and science for its own sake. This may mean that the university needs to be supplemented with other institutions that can be tasked with some of the goals that the university is less adept to deal with. The existing vision of the university as a space for pure scholarship, practical research, education for economic success, and well-rounded education is well intentioned, but typically when one institution tries to pursue many disparate goals it will fail to deliver on any of them well.

Legality, Social Authority and Liberal Democracy

Interestingly, within the realm of social critique liberal democratic societies like Canada, the US and the nations of Western Europe are subject to two seemingly contradictory criticisms. On one hand some traditionalists find liberal democratic societies decadent and troublesome, as liberal democracies often do away with more traditional social goods and give rise to an aimless, meandering freedom. Consequently according to this type of critic liberal democratic societies are too permissive and fail to promote the traditions that are at the core of each nation’s history. On the other hand some on the progressive left decry the authoritarian nature of these very same liberal democratic societies as while these societies proclaim freedom, there is still a great amount of pressure to pursue career success, reproduce, get married and check all the other boxes that society deems to be part of a worthwhile life. Thus for all of the rhetoric of freedom liberal democratic societies are actually quite authoritarian as societies demean people who do not bow to social pressure and reject its values, and honour those who simply mimic what society values. These two critiques are in stark opposition to each other, but I want to say that both point out a significant aspect of social authority, if dimly.

Social authority is the sum of ideas, goods and values through which society expresses what it values and shames or honours its individual members; while the illegal is typically shamed and the legal honoured, social authority does not simply honour what is law, and dishonour what is illegal, as society will often shame legal activities such as adultery, alcohol abuse, or just generally being a jerk. Thus, while there are significant connections between what social authority shames and honours and law, the two are distinct as social authority will often dishonour and shame perfectly legal activities.

The traditionalist critique rightly points out that in liberal democratic societies there is tension between law and social authority, and that this tends to encourage a permissive culture to develop. For example, if we look at the case of abortion we can see how this operates. When abortion is made legal by a state this does not mean that people cannot still think, and a culture cannot still adopt the stance that abortion is bad. It merely means that the requirements of equality require that the state not prevent women from pursuing abortions. But the traditionalist argues that in rendering abortion legal, the state tends to unleash forces that in time will lead to abortion being viewed as something that is not shameful or a necessary evil. And this seems plausible because if we are willing to permit something to occur in our society and give its practise the support of law it clearly cannot be that bad, and it may not be bad at all. Thus, when something that is shameful from the perspective of social authority in a liberal democracy is made legal over time social attitudes towards this practise will begin to accept it validity, and thus a more permissive culture will be created.

So, what the traditionalist gets right is that because liberal democracies tend towards legalizing activities that do not violate the basic rights of others even when these activities are deemed to be shameful, these sort of societies tend to become more culturally, as opposed to legally, permissive over time. In essence, after an activity gains legal recognition as valid that activity will gain validity in cultural or social terms as social authority will tend not to shame the activity. Now unlike the traditionalist I do not decry this development in many cases, but I think the traditionalist is right to notice this tendency in liberal democratic societies.

Similarly, the progressive critique of social authority in liberal democratic societies quite astutely points out that even when there is no law against a particular activity this does not mean that social authority will not shame the activity or view it as less valuable than the norm. There may be a tendency for legally valid modes of activity be barred from the shaming tendencies of social authority, but this is a mere tendency, not an eventuality. Furthermore, it is something that admits of degrees. Certainly attitudes, and consequently the perspective of social authority, towards non-monogamous relationships has become much more sympathetic and accepting since the existence of laws against adultery have been reversed, but attitudes towards it still view non-monogamous relationships as less valuable than monogamous one. Consequently, the process legal change makes to social authority often occur very slowly, and furthermore, there is no guarantee that because non-monogamous relationships are legal that eventually social authority will eventually come to the conclusion that non-monogamous relationships are equally valid to monogamous relationships. Due to the slow pace of change of social authority even after legal recognition of the validity of an activity or way of life has been given, people who engage in these activities or way of life may be still be subject to cultural modes of oppression.

We can see this in the case of LGBT quite clearly. Since the mid 20th century throughout the US and Canada these groups have received progressive legal recognition of their status as equals. But even with this change there is still a great degree of shame that people in this group experience, because elements of social authority still tends to view being LGBT as worse than being heterosexual. This can have severe effects on the self-esteem, emotional well being and the sense of freedom that people in these groups experience. They may have feelings of inadequacy, and struggle to see themselves as possessing dignity as the image of their identity that is represented to them by society is one that tends to be demeaning, superficial or unduly negative. So clearly, in this case social authority has a negative effect on the development and well being of LGBT individuals despite the fact that in Canada and the US legal recognition of equality of status has made great strides. Therefore, the progressive critique rightly points out the way in which social authority can cause harm to human beings, and the way in which liberal democracies do not guarantee the fullest freedom for all through law, as many are still left feeling excluded, alienated, and unworthy.

From the preceding we can see that both the traditionalist and progressive critique get at something important about social authority in liberal democracies, but while they both get an aspect of the situation both fail for reasons that I will get into below.

In the case of the traditionalist critique the problem is that their argument fetishizes whatever social authority currently says, and somewhat blindly opposes allowing individuals to pursue what they deem to be best or most pleasant. The problem with this is that while the creation of a more permissive culture may be problematic if it destroys valuable social goods that are necessary for and constitute the well-being and solidarity of society, there is no reason to think that making a culture permissive will necessarily lead to the decay of valuable social goods in a liberal democracy. Our opposition should not therefore be to cultural permissiveness per se, but cultural permissiveness that can be shown to damage valuable social goods. But the argument then is not about reducing or increasing the permissiveness of culture or social authority, but what kind of social authority and culture best conduce to supporting social goods. And once we accept this argument we must forgo traditionalism, because if what matters is social goods and the way social authority supports them the question is not how to preserve existing social authority to support social goods, but what form of social authority best supports social goods in general.

On the other hand, the progressive critique is equally confused because the logical outcome of it is that we should be creating a form of social authority in which no one feels excluded, marginalized, alienated or unworthy. But given the way in which culture and social authority operate this is strictly speaking impossible unless there are no minorities in a society who have conceptions of the good that are distinct from the majority society. I say that this is impossible because as long as there is a majority culture that majority culture will esteem certain values, goods and ideas and demean others, as valuing something necessitates disvaluing something else. As soon as the majority culture esteems certain goods and values, these goods and values will become the perspective of social authority, because through digital media, literature, education and other modes of social reproduction the superiority of these goods and values over others will be expressed. Now given that we have social authority that esteems certain goods and values and demeans others in this society, people who value goods antagonistic to social authority will feel demeaned, as they will be viewed as the threatening other who is an enemy, threat, or useless to society. In which case we have the exact same type of cultural oppression that we mentioned earlier with LGBT individuals. For example, if a society values career success as its fundamental good, then individuals who balk at this value and instead support the superiority of a life of quiet contemplation and simplicity, these opposing individuals will be demeaned and viewed as a threat to society, and thus experience cultural oppression.

While the preceding shows the impossibility, in a society with diversity, of a form of social authority that does not lead to people feeling excluded, demeaned or alienated it does not show that diversity is required for a just or valuable society. Perhaps the just society is one in which all diversity has been overcome? However, I strongly doubt this, as a society without diversity would be one where no one could learn anything from others because if everyone has the same opinions about what is valuable, there would be no reason to speak to others as they could have nothing interesting, insightful or new to say that you had not thought of. But surely this society would be deeply impoverished as learning from others is a deeply significant value in any society. This imagined homogenous society would only be fit for a beast or a God, as only a beast or a God rather than a human being has no need to learn anything. A mere animal has no need to learn anything from others, because its instinct provides it with everything it needs, and God has no need to learn anything because he is perfect and self-sufficient. However, human beings are always in a quest to discover what is truly valuable, as our instinct does not equip us with what we need for a valuable life. Often times we abandon this quest and distract ourselves, but in the course of our lives we are trying to figure this out, and it is through encounters with others who disagree with us that we can question our existing sense of what is valuable, and move to one that is more satisfactory. This may have been why Aristotle said only a beast or God could live outside the city, because humans unlike beasts and God need to encounter diversity to have full lives. Beasts are fine as long as they procreate and survive and God, as an all-knowing being, has no need for others, but humans call out for more than procreation and survival, but also are not self-sufficient and thus require distinct others to engage with. Therefore, human beings requires society with diversity for their fulfillment, and thus it seems implausible that diversity would not be required for the existence of a valuable or just society.

So the question we must ask when thinking about social authority in liberal democracies is not how to avoid people feeling excluded or demeaned as this is bound to occur as long as there is a majority culture, or how to preserve existing social authority. Instead the question we should be asking is how do we create a form of social authority that at once complements law in supporting social goods and also does so in a way that allows us to engage with others so that we can learn through the conversations we have. This requires us however to both avoid fetishizing already existing social authority, and the attempt to structure social authority such that it does not demean the values of any group within society.

Now some may find it a bit harsh that I am saying that a valuable society should not try to structure social authority so that no one feels demeaned or excluded. However, it should be noted that the fact that social authority should not be structured does not mean that other actions should not be taken to avoid people feeling demeaned or excluded, it just means that we cannot abolish diversity in the name of ensuring feeling of marginalization, exclusion and alienation are avoided.

The Mechanical and Symbolic Aspects of Law

The laws of any political community seem to have two aspects. One aspect is mechanical while the other is symbolic. However too often when we think about law we either focus on the mechanical aspect of law at the expense of the symbolic or vice versa. Below I will describe how any adequate understanding of law requires a synthesis of both the mechanical and symbolic aspects of law.

On one hand law is mechanical in that part of the purpose of the existence of a law is to prevent certain kinds of acts from occurring and to create certain outcomes when a transgression of a law has occurred. The law against theft is thus both a technical means to retroactively punish people who have committed theft, and also a technical means by which the presence of theft can be prevented within the community. In this aspect law is just an instrument that is used to prevent certain kinds of acts from occurring, and ensuring that all instances of an act are punished.

But if we think of law only in its mechanical aspect we are left with a great deal of confusion. For example, the argument that the prohibition of drugs by law is a bad idea because people will still find a way to use, purchase and sell drugs and many people are not punished for use or trafficking of narcotics is based on seeing law only in its mechanical aspect. If the purpose of law is to prevent certain acts from occurring and ensuring punishment is doled out, but a law has been historically shown to be unable to perform these functions, than from a mechanical perspective the law seems ludicrous. But while many people may find this argument about the prohibition of drugs convincing it cannot stand on its own because this argument would equally apply to acts such as assault, murder and theft. The fact that we have laws prohibiting assault, murder and theft does not prevent these acts from occurring, as people who want to commit these acts strongly enough and think they can get away with it will still commit these acts. Furthermore, many people who commit these acts are able to get away with it and so law is not able to dole out punishments for all of the instances of the crime that are committed. So one could analogously say that laws against murder, theft, and assault should be repealed because the laws in this case do not effectively proactively prevent the occurrence of the crime or ensure that every instance of the crime is punished. However, such an argument would seem to be absurd as it leads to the conclusion that unless a law is completely, or near completely, efficacious in preventing certain acts from occurring and doling out punishments it should be repealed. And for the foreseeable future at least law in general does not seem to even have the potential to have this level of efficacy.

The preceding thus shows how the mechanical account of law is insufficient, as the mechanical account cannot explain why laws should be retained if they are not efficacious in preventing criminal acts from occurring. So, therefore law must be more than an instrument to proactively prevent people from performing certain acts and to dole out punishments to all who have committed certain acts.

The symbolic aspect of law however complements law’s mechanical aspect as law is not just a means to prevent people from committing acts but a way of a community setting down what it disapproves of, and what people may be legitimately punished for doing. If we take this symbolic aspect of law into account we can distinguish between the case of murder and prohibition of drugs because while both sets of laws may not be efficacious in preventing transgressions of the law from occurring and punishing instances of the crime, the case of laws against murder and drugs differ in their symbolic aspect as the ground for disapproval of murder and the grounds for disapproval of drug use differ significantly. The disapproval of murder typically stems from some notion that one citizen of a community does not have the right to take the life of another, because that other citizen merits respect and must be allowed to live their life. This is thus a case in which we have an interaction between citizens in which one citizen is quite clearly harmed by having their existence negated. Whereas in the case of drug use and drug trafficking it is hard to see how the decision to use drugs is any different from other choices that individuals make about their private lives. People may disapprove of drug use just as they disapprove of other’s religious or cultural practises, but it is hard to see how drug use damages any vital interests of an individual other than the drug user. Similarly, purchasing and selling of drugs seems to be hardly distinct from the purchasing and selling of other unhealthy food items, or legal drugs such as alcohol. So what is doing the work in the argument that prohibition of certain drugs is unwise is not just that the laws are not efficacious, but that also these laws police behaviour that is analogous to behaviour that in other contexts we see no reason to punish through the law. Consequently these laws are arbitrary and unjustifiable, as it seems inconsistent and hypocritical to allow individual to make the choice to consume unhealthy food, while also prohibiting the ingestion of unhealthy narcotics. Therefore, the symbolic aspect of law helps us to better understand law as a whole, and we cannot understand law merely in its mechanical aspect, as the symbolic helps us understand what grounds our disapproval of an act, and whether this is in line with our fundamental values.

Of course there would be those who would argue that the sale and purchase of drugs and their use should be outlawed because they damage the environment in which we raise citizens, as making something legal tends to mandate social approval of what has been made legal. This is a legitimate position for those who think that drug use represents a unique evil that merits state mandated punishment as it threatens to corrupt the youth and lead them down an unproductive path. But this kind of approach raises the further question of what kind of evils that merit punishment does it make sense to regulate through law?

Most people would say that when one person in a committed relationship cheats on another they have committed an evil that merits punishment as they have violated the trust of their partner, and they have revealed that they are not worthy of trust or respect. Yet, very few people would call for a law against adultery because law does not seem like the kind of thing that should regulate these types of acts. The coercive force of law is clumsy and is not the most effective way of helping people to overcome their tendency to commit infidelity. Thus, even though adultery is arguably a social evil, it is not the kind of social evil that it makes sense to regulate through the coercive apparatus of state law. And to bring this issue back to the original subject of drugs, perhaps drug use is analogous to adultery, in that while drug use may be worthy of disapproval and punishment it is not something that should be dealt with through coercive law as coercive law does not help people to deal with the challenge of drug addiction, but just punishes them unthinkingly for engaging in drug use. In this case we see that talking only about the symbolic aspect of law, whether we disapprove of it, and think it should be worthy of punishment, is not enough to determine what law is and ought to be, but instead we need to complement the symbolic aspect of law with the mechanical. If we take account of both the mechanical and symbolic we see that part of assessing the validity of a law involves assessing whether the outcomes that law creates are an effective way of dealing with the problem with the illegal act. It makes sense to address murder through the retroactive application of law as the murderer is a threat to others in the community and thus putting them in prison is a good way of ensuring security. On the other hand the user of illegal drugs is more of a threat to himself than of the community so it is hard to see how fining him or putting him in prison helps the problem that drug use poses as the drug addict poses more of a threat to themselves, than to others.

Thinking this way involves both the symbolic and mechanical as we are both examining what merits disapproval and what kind of society we ought to have, and the mechanical way that different social institutions operate. Unless we can synthesize these somewhat opposed aspects of law our understanding of it will be impoverished.

Cultural Practises: Beyond the Opposition between Local and Universal

Countries with an avowedly multicultural identity, like Canada, face an interesting question in terms of how they can reconcile respect for the equal dignity of individuals with respect for the diversity of cultures. Some cultural practises seem to violate the equal dignity of individuals and yet are an integral part of certain cultures. For example, clitoridectomy stands out as one such practise as it seems to be harmful to girls and women, and yet is certainly an integral part of certain cultures.

Within this multicultural context, members of particular cultures may say that they should be allowed to continue to engage in a practise that is illegal because this practise is part of their culture. Some, call them multiculturalists, are quite receptive to this sort of exemption for certain cultural practises as they think this is required to respect the diversity of cultures within a state. On the other hand, liberal universalists are critical of this claim and say that if a practise violates laws that are meant to defend the rights and well-being of equal citizens than it really does not matter if the practise is a part of your culture. According to this latter perspective it is not enough to justify the validity of a practise, and its eligibility for exemption from an existing law, to point to the fact that it is a part of your particular cultural tradition. In this debate I tend to be far more supportive of the latter position, than the former, but for the sake of this piece I do not want to focus on the specifics of whether policy should provide exemptions for cultural practises that violate existing law, but rather look at what these kinds of exchanges tell us about the nature of value and its relation to culture. It seems to me that cultural traditions are inexorably linked to universal values, rather than being opposed to them, and consequently we should not speak as if there was such a fundamental opposition. Universal value is an aspect of culture, rather than oppositional to culture.

When someone says that they should be able to engage in a practise because it is part of their culture, or their religion for that matter, what are they saying? On the most literal reading of their statement they are saying that as far as possible people should be able to engage in practises that are part of their heritage, and should not be impeded from doing so by existing law. Liberal universalists tend to take this interpretation of the defenders of multicultural policies of exemption, and as a result quite rightly point out that if this is what multiculturalists mean they are quite simply defending a quite repugnant form of cultural relativism. If a practise causes harm to children or significantly reduces their opportunities in life, but is a part of a culture’s practises it seems quite cruel to say that the practise should continue merely because it is part of a group’s culture. This would be like saying women should continue to be the predominant caregivers of children because they have been in our culture in the past. I gave the example of children as the way that a culture treats children is particularly important because children, unlike adults, do not have the ability to leave their culture if they decide they do not like it until they have reached adulthood, and so they are particular vulnerable to being unjustly harmed by cultural practises.

However, I don’t think all multiculturalists are arguing for this kind of vacuous relativism, and I think there is more sophisticated defense. For example, to defend a cultural practise by saying that it is part of one’s culture can plausible be viewed as suggesting that this practise should be exempted from existing law because it constitutes a unique and significant value, such that by preventing the practise the lives of those who practise the culture would be diminished. On this account culture is not just a mere set of practises that we inherit from the past that has no universal value, but rather culture gives an insightful account of our place in the world and its practises constitute a valuable mode of operation. The value of culture in this sense is not just that the members of the culture happen to like to practise it, but that in a real sense it enhances the lives of its members and allows them to understand what is most significant. Different cultures represent differing notions of what is valuable, but they all purport to answer the question of what is significant. Now, from a policy angle the mere fact that a cultural practise that is illegal can be shown to have significant value is not enough to justify an exemption for it as the law could be protecting a value that is more fundamental. But this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument is not insensitive to the interests and lives of the members of the culture. Consequently it is not open to the liberal universalist charge of uncaring cultural relativism.

Yet, this latter interpretation of the multiculturalist argument would completely change the way we talk about multiculturalism. If cultural practises that are currently illegal should be exempted for members of a particular culture because they provide significant value to the lives of the members of the culture, than why shouldn’t the law forbidding in general be repealed? Once we begin to justify cultural practises in terms of their value to the lives of their members, the practises are not merely valuable for a particular culture, but for citizens in general as there value is universal and not conditional upon cultural membership. In this case, all other things being equal, if a significantly valuable cultural practise is made illegal through existing law than why wouldn’t we just legalize this practise in general? By only allowing members of a certain culture to engage in this practise through an exemption we would be preventing others from accessing a valuable option, and thus denying the principle of equality. Consequently, upon this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument the argument is not about whether a culture should be free to engage in a particular practise that others within the society are not free to engage in, but whether a currently illegal practise should be made legal because it is valuable. Of course, there are some cases where exemption makes sense as a matter of prudence, but these are not the norm.

What the preceding faintly shows is that the defense of cultural practises need not be framed in terms of the opposition between the defense of local cultural practises on the basis that they are part of a tradition and the defense of universal human values. But liberal universalists and multiculturalists themselves are far too often willing to frame their arguments in terms of this opposition. Liberal universalists tend to suggest they are standing up for universal human values, against the particular parochial practises of traditional cultures. We can see this in the debate on the headscarf in France. Liberal universalists justified the banning of the headscarf in public schools based on the fact that they were defending the universal value of equality, as the headscarf symbolizes the subordination of women. On the other hand, the critics of the ban tended to see this as a case of the French majority trying to impose their values on an already oppressed cultural minority who merely want to retain their traditions.

Now, through framing these issues in terms of universal values and local traditions, something deeply important is missed about the relation of culture and value. Cultures are always related to the particular, but value is always mediated and made most present through the particular. Fairness is an example of this. In an abstract sense what fairness requires is very hard to understand. Surely, it is fair to make a decision by flipping a coin, as no party has a significantly better chance of guessing correctly, but it would be odd to say that a fair way of organizing society would be by flipping coins to decide who did what and who had power in that society. Thus, the value of fairness can only be understood in particular contexts. A fair way to decide who should get the last slice of cake after each has had one piece might be through a random selection, whereas in an artistic competition fairness in judging the winner is based on fidelity to criteria that are integral to the nature of artistic competition that is occuring. Likewise, for Christians, what piety requires is very different from civic nationalists, or Muslims, but both are concerned with the same core object of piety.

Cultures are thus not particular traditions that are opposed to universal values. Rather each culture’s practises are a mediation of a related set of values that can plausibly apply to anyone; thus cultures do not simply represent the particular, but rather the mediation of universal values in a particularistic form. Now, some cultures may have a better mediation of one value than another, culture or contain values that we deem are more or less important. Surely, the contemporary culture of Canada has done a better job to mediate the value of compassion than the culture of Ancient Sparta. But this does not change the fact that particular cultures are not opposed to universal values, but an attempt to bring together and mediate a set of universal values in a form of life.

Thus, when we are talking about a culture’s practise and debating its value we should not be framing the issue in terms of the defense of a particular culture retaining its tradition, absent of any claim of universal value, against a claim of the defense of universal human values. Instead, when we are talking about cultural practises, we are talking about mediations of universal values that have their value precisely in the fact that they are not just a local custom, but instead a way of thinking and living life that can reveal what is significant to anyone. Engaging with other cultures is not a matter of respecting their diversity, but of trying to grasp them and see if they reveal something valuable about how we should live.

Freedom of Contract, Poverty and Democratic Citizenship

It is typical in advanced capitalist nations for employers to make employment conditional on employees agreeing that they will not do anything to damage the reputation of the organization they work for, including publicly criticizing that organization. Of course, most companies have whistleblower policies that provide employees with a process and channel to report about breach of existing policy or regulation through internal mechanisms. However, while these mechanisms offer a means to raise grievances about coworkers or the company as a whole breaching their existing policy or the letter of the law, they are not designed to deal with more generalized criticism of the organization on ethical grounds.

In light of the fact that existing whistleblower protections do not provide a channel for more generalized ethical critique of an organization’s operations I want to turn to the question of whether it is legitimate for employment to be made conditional on an employee not engaging in public ethical criticism of the company they work for. To limit the scope of this question I will look at Canada, in particular, rather than advanced capitalist nations as a whole. In particular, I will argue that under the existing political economy Canada this kind of employment clause is not legitimate as it undermines democratic citizenship, but that under more egalitarian economic conditions these clauses could be legitimate.

The general defense for the legitimacy of making this kind of non-criticism clause a condition of employment is that according to the notion of freedom of contract citizens should be able to agree to contracts with other citizens or organizations as far as possible. The key to this view is that the freedom to make agreements and engage in contracts is integral to the freedom of a society. Consequently, citizens should not be prevented from engaging in contracts as this would be paternalistic and not respect the right of citizens to make their own decisions.

Futhermore, another point that supports the legitimacy of employment contracts that include a non-criticism clause is that even if this non-criticism clause imposes a significant burden on persons, someone always has the right to leave their job. Thus, while they may give up their right to critique an organization or set of organizations publicly, they do not give up this right indefinitely as they can always leave the company if they choose to engage in this criticism.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to this defense of freedom of contract based on considerations of fairness and equity that are codified in Canada’s laws. For example, citizens are not able to sell themselves into slavery even if they want to, as this would alienate one’s most basic freedoms. Furthermore, one cannot agree to a contract that pays below the minimum wage even if you are so desperate that agreeing to this wage seems desirable, as it is postulated that all people who work should not be paid below a certain level. However, while there are quite a few exceptions the case remains that the notion of freedom of contract dominates the social imaginary of Canada.

Under the current conditions in Canada while there are some social protections for the vulnerable the state typically does not ensure that all of its citizens are guaranteed an income that can support a decent life. While minimum wage laws and social assistance ensure that all are provided with some level of income, relying on these sources of income is not enough to avoid poverty or support a decent way of life. For example, about 1 in 7 Canadians lives in poverty which goes to show that there are still many Canadians who are not being provided with adequate resources and opportunities (material, educational or otherwise) to secure a decent life.

While poverty does not equally affect all groups in Canada, as aboriginals, the mentally and physically disabled are at greater risk, the statistic provided above shows that poverty is a significant risk for all Canadians. No matter what your race, sexual orientation, gender and physical and mental capabilities are in Canada you are at risk of being in poverty because if you do not have either a income sufficient to avoid poverty, or someone to support you financially, there is no guarantee that you will have enough to live a decent life, and it is most likely that you will not have enough to live reasonably well.

This is the context in which Canadians live and under which non-criticism clauses are made conditions of employment. Consequently, I think it is deeply problematic, in this context, to legitimize non-criticism clauses as this forces citizens to have to choose between economic security and their ability to publicly critique their organization for engaging in legal practises that they and others may find deeply problematic.

Now, it should be noted that some public criticisms of an organization by an employee may be reasonable grounds for dismissal. For example, going on Facebook and calling your boss a “fucking douchebag prick” because he would not let you take Monday off seems to me to be reasonable grounds for dismissal. However, if I work for a construction company and publicly write on my blog that the company that I work for needs to stop taking advantage of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) because this is having a pernicious effect on Canada, and our specific community, I hardly see this as reasonable grounds of dismissal. And yet under the current regime of non-criticism employment clauses this would be reasonable ground for dismissal because if my blog had gone viral and lead to a boycott by other companies, or by criticisms from NGOs, this would negatively affect the ability of the company to make profit. Consequently, as an employee I would have done something to damage the companies reputation and cause it to lose profits. In which case I have violated the terms of employment and am subject to firing by taking actions as a citizen to protect the public interest.

Consequently, what is wrong these non-criticism clauses in the current economic context of Canada is that they are too vague, and require citizens to not only engage professionally with their employer, but also to be a loyal ambassador for their company in public life, if they are to maintain employment. It may be legitimate to require that employees do not engage in personal criticism of other staff, or slander against the company, but it is not legitimate to require that employees do not engage in public ethical criticism of your company’s practises as this undermines democratic citizenship. It undermines democratic citizenship because in an economic context where being unemployed puts one in danger of poverty asking people to choose between economic security and freedom to critique will likely encourage people to choose economic security. While the freedom to speak out is deeply important, it is a far less pressing need than those immediate basic needs that economic security takes care of, and so far fewer people will be willing to risk unemployment and speak out against what they see as legal, yet unethical practises. Inevitably, most people will choose to remain silent on these kind of things if they feel that they risk not being able to provide a decent live for themselves and their families. By using these non-criticism clauses we thus insulate organizations from public criticism of questionable practises and thus weaken the ability of the citizenry to question and debate the validity of these practises as far fewer people will speak out. This undermines democratic citizenship as it weakens the ability of the body politic to effectively understand existing questionable practises in organizations and discuss how to deal with them.

This negative effect on democratic citizenship is further reinforced, as there are very few employment options that do not require an employee to agree to a non-criticism clause. Some very small businesses do not have these kinds of clauses due to their general informality, and being self-employed also would avoid this, but these options are not significant enough to create a significantly unburdened option apart from risking unemployment and not engaging in public criticism of one’s employer.

Therefore, while, in the current Canadian context banning the kind of non-criticism clauses that prevent employees from publicly speaking out about legal, but potentially unethical practises, that the organization they work for engages in, would go along way to strengthening democratic citizenship, it is still not an ideal solution. While democratic citizenship is important, so too is the prevention of poverty. And banning these aforementioned legal clauses will not necessarily help combat poverty. As a result I think it would be better to change the existing political economy so that the risk of poverty was so negligible that citizens were not forced to choose between economic security and the freedom to critique legal, yet ethically questionable practises. Under these conditions there would be less of a need to ban these clauses as they would not undermine democratic citizenship, as citizens would not have to risk poverty if they were to speak out against the organization they work for. But I suspect that this change in political economy will not occur anytime soon given that we currently inhabit a political moment dominated by an ideology of privatization and efficiency, so perhaps loosening the ability of employers to silence employees in this area is a good step in the right direction.


Works Cited

“Just the Facts.” Canada Without Poverty RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Sept. 2015.

What is wrong with cultural appropriation?

We typically hear that cultural appropriation is deeply problematic, and that we should refrain from it because it causes real damage to the oppressed and perpetuates the dominance of male, white, heterosexual culture. Typically the critics of cultural appropriation point out that when someone takes the object of a subaltern culture and use it against that culture or in a way that disrespects the meaning of the object inherent in that culture. One of the most common examples of cultural appropriation that is brought up is when whites in North America wear aboriginal feathered headdresses to music festivals or other festivities. This disrespects aboriginals because the headdress has a very specific meaning within the aboriginal cultures that make use of them, and this meaning is not honoured when it is worn at a music festival or while tailgating before a football game. Furthermore, wearing these headdresses in a relatively trivial context can be plausibly seen to harm the cause of aboriginal rights, by trivializing sacred elements of their culture. While I sympathize with this critique I find the concept of cultural appropriation deeply problematic as it misunderstands what makes culture valuable, and in so doing is demeaning of the very cultures that it seeks to defend.

It should be noted that critics of cultural appropriation do not think that members of a dominant culture should not make any use of objects from other cultures. For example, I have never heard someone say that members of the dominant white culture should not cook or eat dishes from other cultures. Their critique is rooted in the power relations between members of the dominant and the subordinate culture. It is not that they object to members of one culture making use of objects from an oppressed culture. What they object to is when members of a dominant culture see the objects or symbols of another culture as mere commodities that can be used without any understanding or respect for their original meaning. In this respect, I agree with the critic of cultural appropriation in that there is something quite problematic about seeing a culture as a virtual shopping mall where I can pick up objects and use them however I see fit.

While we may agree in seeing the objects of culture as something not to be used in any way whatsoever, my disagreement with the critics of cultural appropriation seems to be grounded in our understanding of what it means to respect a culture. For the critic of cultural appropriation any use of the objects of an oppressed culture that is out of step with the meaning of that object within that culture is to be avoided. We can see this as the speech of the critics of cultural appropriation tends to be more interested in telling people to stop engaging in and supporting cultural appropriation than anything else. The critique of cultural appropriation is purely negative, and amounts to the commandment “thou shalt not commit cultural appropriation.”

In contrast to this I think that members of a dominant culture can make use of the objects of an oppressed culture in a way that is out of step with the meaning the object has in the oppressed culture if the members of the dominant culture engage in a particular way. For example, say that I research about the object of a particular oppressed culture and speak with members of the culture about its meaning, and through so doing I grow to appreciate this object. While this object speaks to me and seems to reveal something true about the world, it speaks to me in a very different way than it speaks to an indigenous member of the culture, as our background understandings of the world are different, and the meaning of a single cultural object does not inhere in the object, but in the relation to the other meanings and objects to which it relates. The meaning of the cross in Christianity for example cannot be understood without the figure of Jesus or Abraham or Adam and Eve for that matter. Consequently, this object takes on a distinct yet valuable meaning that reveals something important to me. As a result of this I then make use of this cultural object in my own life in a way that while related to the meaning held by the culture that originated the object is distinct from it. This example shows the way in which we can relate to subordinate cultures that allows us to use their objects in a way that is distinct from their original meaning, and yet still shows respect for them and their culture. Thus, from my perspective, respecting a subordinate culture concerns how we relate to its objects and does not prohibit all uses of it by a member of a dominant culture. If the approach that I have laid out still constitutes cultural appropriation then I would say that cultural appropriation isn’t always bad, as this mode of relating to the other best fits with a proper understanding of what culture is and what makes it valuable.

It seems to me that what makes culture valuable is not that it belong to my culture, your culture, a dominant culture or an oppressed culture, but that cultures constitute different ways of understanding the world that have developed over time and held power over peoples. Cultures thus can be plausibly construed as containing the received wisdom of particular ages and peoples. Consequently, what makes a culture valuable is that it is a source outside of ourselves that can serve as a resource of wisdom that can better teach us how to live through revealing truths we would have never thought of on our own.

If culture is valuable because it is a resource of wisdom from various ages and peoples, what is the nature of culture? I think we can understand what culture is if we think about how we relate to cultures and how they develop. For example, I, as a member of my culture, find myself in dialogue not only with the beliefs of my culture and members of my own culture, but those of other cultures as well. Charles Taylor refers to this as always finding ourselves in webs of articulation, and my account is very influenced by Taylor here. It is only through this dialogue between historical and contemporary viewpoints within a particular culture, and other cultures, that this particular culture renews its meaning, and rearticulate its sense of value. This suggests that cultures are not some static set of beliefs, rites and objects, but that cultures are always already evolving through their relation to both internal and external factors. The culture of a people is not just the views that the leaders of that culture hold at this point, but rather it is an ongoing conversation between present, past, and the very cultures that this culture defines itself in contrast to.

As a result of the preceding it does violence to what culture is and what makes it valuable to speak of it as if it belonged strictly to the members of that culture. But this is just what the critics of cultural appropriation do when they suggest that it is always problematic to make use of a cultural object in a way that is out of step with the meaning of that object within the originating culture. The only way to make sense of the view that only members of a culture can reinterpret the meaning of a cultural object is to suggest that the culture somehow owns the object and thus only they have a right to alter its meaning. Ironically, while most critics of cultural appropriation are of the progressive left, their conception of justice relies on a concept of property that is distinctly capitalist. Consequently, the critics of cultural appropriation demean culture, by not seeing it as a source of wisdom that anyone could learn something from, but as the possession of a specific group of people.

Furthermore, they demean the specific cultures they seek to defend because if the oppressed culture is not valuable because of the wisdom or insight it contains, but because it is the possession of a particular group of people, the culture itself has no intrinsic value, but is just a historical accident that a certain group of people happen to be attached to. In which case this raises the question of why the oppressed group should remain attached to their culture? Surely, if we are to remain attached to a culture we should be so for more of a reason than the fact that it is ours, and our ancestors practised it. As a result there is something deeply problematic about the contemporary critique of cultural appropriation as it fails to take proper account of the fact that culture is primarily valuable because of the wisdom it contains and its capacity to reveal truths to anyone who confronts it.