Pope Francis’ Laudato Si: Human and Non-Human Nature

Over the past few days I have been reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical “Laudato si”. This work presents a radical critique of modernity. While I deeply disagree with Francis in some respects, this work should be read by anyone interested in politics, history or philosophy because it challenges some of the most basic presuppositions that many modern people take for granted. I cannot discuss all of “Laudato si”, but in particular, I want to focus on how humans relate to non-human nature. Francis discusses this topic in depth in “Laudato si” and contrasts the Christian relation to non-human nature with that of modernity. It seems to me that both the relation of nature encapsulated within the so-called modern tradition and Francis’ approach are modes of thought are problematic as they fail to fully appreciate the relation of the good of humanity to the good of non-human nature.

The modern tradition that Francis decries sees non-human nature as something that possesses no inherent value. According to this approach, man simply needs to figure out how to use the formless mass that is the Earth to serve his purposes; our relation to non-human nature is like a craftsman working with raw matter with no ethical significance. Francis critiques this perspective on numerous grounds including that it encourage ecological devastation, fails to respect the inherent goodness of nature, and encourages man to see himself as a God like being who only has to figure out he want to use nature, instead of asking how God intended nature to be used. In addition Francis points out that this view of non-human nature cannot help but affect the way we relate to other human beings and encourages us to see other humans too as objects to be exploited. Consequently our relation to non-human nature cannot be completely isolated from our relation to humanity.

Contrastingly, Francis puts forward a view of the way we should relate to non-human nature that sees nature as intrinsically valuable, and a reflection of God’s glory. Furthermore, he notes that it is man’s task to be a steward over the Earth and care for it. This is not only because the Earth is a common home for humanity, but because God has entrusted the care of Earth to mankind not only as a home for humans, but as a creation that needs to be cherished for its intrinsic worth. Man may have dominion over the animals, but he must take care of creation, rather than ruling over without due consideration for its worth. For Francis this requires not only changing law and behaviour, but fundamentally altering our understanding of the way we relate to non-human nature, such that we see it as God’s creation that must be cared for, rather than as something to be simply used for our convenience.

The modern perspective that Francis critiques is quite clearly problematic, and for those of us who are non-Christian, like myself, do not need to reference scripture to notice its shortcomings. At the most basic level all we need to do is recognize that non-human lives can go well or poorly, and these non-human lives matter in some sense. I think this is a plausible belief to hold because when we reflect, even if we believe that it is justifiable to slaughter animals for the resources they can provide, it does not seem justifiable to treat them in whatever way suits our ends at that given moment. For example, if wolf testicles were found to produce an oil that rejuvenated skin and prevented the appearance of aging it still seems horrifying to go around and castrate wolves or start raising wolves in conditions that don’t allow for the activities of the excellence of a wolf display itself, like having them live in small, isolated cages where they are not able to move, play or hunt to access these oils. Consequently, nature puts a claim on us, and I would agree with Francis that we have the responsibility to care for the Earth and other beings, and more specifically, all other things being equal, to try to ensure that we adopt a mode of life, that allows the lives of all beings to go well.

But what does it mean to ensure that the lives of all beings goes well? Is there a natural harmony of interest between the species that occupy the Earth that would allow all species to flourish simultaneously? The first of these questions is quite difficult for me to answer, and I will not get to it here, but to the second question I have to say that the answer tends to be no if we adopt a plausible conception of what makes a life go well. The flourishing of one species and another are not necessarily mutually supporting. The concept of “the ecosystem” sometimes has the hypnotic effect of making us think that there is a natural harmony in the environment such that we imagine nature as if it were the Garden of Eden. But this perspective does not hold up as from a very basic evolutionary perspective the ecosystem has no such harmony over time. If nature is understood in terms of species struggling for their survival, sometimes against other species, who compete with them for food and resources then it seems plausible to think that the flourishing of one species could come at the expense of another. Does this mean that humans should just struggle for their survival at all costs and not care for other beings? No, of course not. We, as beings capable of reflection on nature and value, have a responsibility to care for the Earth and ensure that its intrinsic worth is preserved. But this does not mean that non-human nature poses no threat to us. There is always the possibility that humans could be wiped out, or damaged by another species, whether it is a virus or super intelligent, malevolent Otters. From a historical perspective we have good reason to think that Cro-Magnon overtook Neanderthal man through violence among other means. So, I see little reason to think that non-human nature poses no threat to human flourishing.

Yet Francis does not mention this threat that non-human nature puts to humanity. I think there are two reasons for this. The first likely lies within Francis’ Christian anthropology. If God gave the Earth to humans to care for as Francis thinks, than it seems plausible to think that part of the structure of the universe is that humans will maintain their dominion over non-human nature until the end of time. The other reason however is that Francis’ understanding of goodness is rooted in the Christian notion of love or Agape. For Francis, it seems that the core of living well for a human being is to participate in Agape, God’s love for all creation, by loving and caring for one’s fellow human beings and for creation. According to this understanding human goodness is never at odds with the goodness of other species or nature as a whole, rather Agape unites all of creation and relates it back to God.

Now while Agape is a very powerful notion I have a difficult time seeing it as the fundamental core of goodness. For example, let us consider a person who is kind, courageous, caring and generous. In one set of life circumstances this person is a slave to a wealthy landlord. The wealthy landlord does not physically abuse her, but she lacks the ability to pursue many of her own interests and so while she is always kind, courageous, caring and generous, she is never able to pursue romantic love, or develop her interest in the plastic arts or music. Now, on the other hand imagine this same person lives in a society where she is an equal citizen with access to resources that allow her to pursue romantic love and her artistic interests, and consequently she pursues these activities. From the standpoint of character, in both circumstances this women lives equally excellent lives as in both the woman is kind, courageous, caring and generous. But in another sense the latter life circumstances allow the women to live a better life than the former life circumstances, as in the latter life she not only can develop her ethical character, but also can develop other capabilities such as the expression of romantic love and beauty that seem integral to a good life. This is a point that Aristotle makes in the ethics when he suggests that certain external conditions need to obtain for man to have a life that is good in a fundamental sense such as wealth and health. The slave can exhibit positive character traits, but in not being free certain forms of goodness are closed off to him.

In this sense we might say that there are two forms of goodness that need to be present for the best kind of life: the first is goodness of character, and the other is goodness of circumstance. The former ensures the development of intrinsically worthy qualities of character, while the latter ensures that one lives in a context that allows one to pursue the range of activities necessary for the best kind of life. The modern tradition that Francis critiques focuses exclusively on goodness of circumstance by focusing on transforming raw nature to serve human ends and make human life commodious. Contrastingly, Francis seems to be overly fixated on goodness of charaacter to the degree to which he cannot recognize that non-human nature presents a threat to man. Now Francis does not deny that we should try to develop technology and institutions to support the increase of material prosperity for all, but he seems to think that we can do this without any cost to nature, as nowhere in “Laudato si”, does he ever suggest that human flourishing might come at the expense of the flourishing of God’s creation. But if we return to my earlier point about evolution this seems far from plausible. While we can do our best to care for nature and creation to ensure that it flourishes we sometimes have to face the agonistic choice of the flourishing of our species and the decline of another. Without looking at the specifics of the case it is difficult to say what the right choice is in this case, instead, we need to see that, as humans we bear the responsibility of trying to figure out how to make these painful decisions. In this sense human flourishing and the flourishing of non-human nature can come into conflict and in some cases one good will have to be take priority over another, so I find Francis’ suggestion in “Laudato si” that there is a complete harmony between the good of man, and the good non-human nature implausible.

In response to this someone might say that there is no conflict if we reconceive human flourishing so that it is less focused on material prosperity and more on spiritual health, as the conflict is not between human flourishing per se and the flourishing of other species, but between material prosperity for humans and the flourishing of other species. However, this objection seems misguided as imagine that an insect carries a disease that like Syphilis eventually ends in madness, and we have made no progress in understanding how to cure this disease. It probably makes sense to purge this species of fly from urban areas if possible, as this species not only affects physical health, but spiritual and moral well-being, and so there is a genuine conflict between the good of this fly and the good of humanity.

It is possible that I am misreading Francis, and that we actually agree at the most basic level, but if that is the case than Francis has been too willing to conceal the conflict that exists between humanity and non-human nature, such that he make it seem like there is a natural harmony of interests between the two. One of the most profound difficulties in caring for all beings is that some of these beings may pose a threat to us, and our flourishing. So we need to take note of this difficulty.

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On our treatment of the apparently homeless

If you walk down the urban core of most cities you are bound to encounter someone who appears as homeless. Furthermore, when we talk about the plight of these people there are few people who can be found who do not see the situation of the apparently homeless as a problem that needs to be addressed. Now, while there are many competing social policies that can combat homelessness I will not discuss them here. What I would like to discuss is the way in which our ordinary relations to those who appear as homeless show that while we might feel that they are in a terrible situation and that society needs to help them improve their lot, when given an opportunity we rarely engage with them as human beings or fellow members of a community who have dignity. Through this disrespect for those who appear as homeless we are complicit in worsening their situation as we participate in a practise that tends to make the apparently homeless less capable of living a fully human life.

Also, it should be noted that this entry will only deal with those who appear as homeless. For example, those who look ragged and are dressed in ill-fitting dirty clothes with unkempt hair and dirt all over their faces and hands. There are many homeless people whose homelessness is invisible as they dress and appear just like anyone else, and their situation is certainly worth investigation, but my object here is to focus on those who appear to us as clearly homeless.

Anybody who has lived or worked in the downtown core of a large city has likely had the experience of an apparently homeless person coming up to us or a person we are near and asking for change or some other form of assistance. This person stands out from the rest of their crowd with their dirty, unkempt appearance and often people ignore and do not respond at all to the question raised by the apparently homeless person. Similarly, if someone spots an apparently homeless person they often will either go out of their way to avoid them or say “No” to them before the homeless person has had a chance to speak thereby preventing themselves from being asked a question. Likewise, even when an apparently homeless person is merely interested in chatting with someone on the street many of us are afraid to engage with them, and either ignore them or try to talk to them in the most minimal way possible to get away from them as soon as possible. I say all of these things not in a finger waving way, but because I, and many other seemingly compassionate people that I know, are guilty of this kind of action at one time or another in our lives.

But this raises the question of why seemingly compassionate people react this way when confronted by the apparently homeless? It seems to me that the core of this issue is that we have become deeply ingrained to fundamentally see the apparently homeless as predominantly an unpredictable, and possibly threatening force, rather than as vulnerable human beings looking for assistance. Consequently, when the apparently homeless appear before us our most basic reaction is to avoid engagement with them. After we react in this way to the apparently homeless or during our brief interaction we may have a thought in the back of our minds that this person is just a human like me and is just unfortunate enough to fell into a difficult situation, but our more visceral reaction is to perceive them kind of like a wild, possibly dangerous animal that we do not want to hurt, but we also do not want to engage with. More than once late at night an apparently homeless person has come up to me, and my first reaction is often to avoid interacting with them at all or for any extended period of time. After the fact I feel guilty about not engaging with the person and treating them like I would treat any other person, but treating them as human beings who should be engaged with respectfully when they ask a question is something that I need to work with myself to do against my more fundamental response of fear. What, in fact, has led to this mode of reacting to the apparently homeless is an interesting question, but not one that I have the time to discuss in this entry.

When we interact with the apparently homeless by ignoring their presence or trying to flee from them as quickly as possible because of our fear we are complicit in worsening their situation. The apparently homeless often are in fact homeless and suffer in that they lack shelter and consequently their health and physical prosperity is always at risk. But on top of this the apparently homeless also are faced with being devalued and misrecognized in the social world they inhabit. It is not just that as an apparently homeless person I cannot find shelter from the elements, it is that whenever I try to interact with a person I tend to be either ignored when I merely ask another a question or dismissed as a parasite just trying to get money for myself for drugs, alcohol or some other apparent vice. In being seen in this way the apparently homeless suffer much in the way that persecuted ethnic and other minorities do, in that the gaze of the other, presents a demeaning image of themselves before their eyes, and when this occurs it tends to negates their ability to live a fully human life. This occurs as those who are seen fundamentally in society as lesser will tend to interiorize this image of themselves and as a result become less able to pursue what they see as fundamentally valuable. In this sense one condition of possibility of pursuing what is worthwhile is being seen as having dignity by others and so when we participate in the practise of treating the apparently homeless with fear and disrespect, we are not merely making an innocent choice about how to respond to them, we are complicit in depriving them of the ability to live a fully human life.

2015 Alberta Election: Citizenship, Community and Economic Interests

While I sometimes write about politics on this blog I rarely talk about concrete the political events that occur in my more immediate community, but, Alberta, the province that I live in, is currently in the lead up to a provincial election so I would like to say a little about some events that have transpired. The events of this election have brought to light an interesting question regarding the nature of political community; they have raised the question of whether political communities exist for the sake of economic interests. But, before I turn to this specific issue I would like to give a little bit of background about Alberta.

For those who are unaware Alberta is often thought of as the Texas of Canada in that it is arguably the most conservative province in the country and its economy relies heavily on agriculture, cattle ranching and most of all the extraction of oil and natural gas. The picture of Alberta as a very conservative region is further engrained by the fact that the Progressive Conservative Party, a centre-right party, has ruled Alberta for 44 consecutive years. This shows that Alberta seems to tend to be both ideologically conservative and conservative in its unwillingness to elect other political parties. This image may not be entirely accurate, but it is certainly the overriding image of Alberta within Canadian political culture.

In the upcoming election on May 5th, in somewhat of a shock, the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP) seems to be in the lead in most polls. I say this is somewhat of a shock, rather than a complete shock, because while the NDP have never been particularly strong in Alberta, and have typically been the third most popular party rather than the main opposition, the circumstances in Alberta at the moment have been fortuitous for the Alberta NDP. But these particular circumstances are not relevant for this discussion as in this entry I am not interested in discussing what caused the NDP to gain in popularity, but what the reaction by certain elements of the Alberta community to a possible NDP government illuminates.

In light of the fear of a the election of a NDP government business leaders and pundits have suggested that this will cause businesses to leave Alberta and relocate elsewhere as the NDP have campaigned on reviewing the structure of natural resource (oil) revenue, raising corporate taxes and raising personal income taxes for wealthy Albertans. (Kleiss) It should be noted here that Alberta currently has by far the lowest provincial tax regime within Canada. The sentiment expressed by business leaders and pundits suggests a view of politics as being bound together by nothing more than mutual economic advantage. According to this understanding of politics our membership in a political community is merely something that secures us from crime and violence so that we can maximize our economic prosperity. Consequently, according to this conception of politics when the conditions in one political community stop serving to maximize economic benefit there is nothing problematic about moving to another community that will better serve your economic interests. This view of politics is very prevalent and might be called the Economocentric view of politics because of its focus on economic interests above all else.

While the Economocentric view of politics is quite common when business leaders and pundits express it much of the response from Albertans that I have read on social media and online, and talked to in person is to say “good riddance” to those who were only in Alberta to maximize economic advantage. While this kind of reaction does not explicitly express a view of politics, I think it is plausible to see a view of politics underlying this sentiment that affirms a more robust conception of citizenship than the Economocentric view. According to this view politics is not just something we use to pursue our own economic advantage, but rather being a citizen of a state means being a member of common project to create the best society for all of its members. For this account of politics somebody fails to understand what it means to be a good citizen if they move away from a state merely because they were not making quite as much profit as they used to. On this view thus the Economocentric view of politics fails to grasp that a political community is not just one that exists for economic advantage, but one that tries to create the best possible common life for its members. Now the economic prosperity that individuals experience certainly contributes to the best common life, but the common life is wider than the economy and includes education, health, fine arts, athletics and the practise of self-government itself. This is why Aristotle says

It is a clear that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families, and aggregation families in well –being for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life. (Aristotle, 1280b-1281a, Pg.74)

Initially it should be noted that when Aristotle refers to the state, he does not mean the bureaucratic apparatus of the modern state but the polis or political community. Consequently, Aristotle’s point seems to be that what makes a political community is not the fact that it engages in economic activities under common laws, but over and above this, that it shares in and aims at the best possible common life. As a result citizenship would seem to mean doing one’s part in this common endeavour.

Therefore, we might say that those who say good riddance to business interests who would merely abandon the community at the fear of paying slightly more in tax are emphasizing the Aristotelian notion that our community is not merely one of economic interests, but one in which we share in a life together that transcends mere economic interests, and in which we each must do our part to ensure the success of the whole. This response to those who fail to recognize their obligation to do their part (those who abandon at the fear of slightly decreased profits) is one that suggests that the state would be better off with them, as they fail to understand the basic substance of what being a citizen means. These kind of citizens might create jobs, but they do so at the expense of degrading our common life by making is subordinate to their economic interests and thus we are better off without them.

No doubt anyone who has read this entry, or many of my other entries, can tell that I tend to favour the Aristotelian conception of politics over the Economocentric one, but beyond that the example that has has been discussed is an instance of the general tension between more economic and more civic understandings of politics. I say this is an instance of a general tension as whenever we see the questioning of the rampant pursuit of economic growth at the expense of well-being, health, education and existing traditions we see the conflict between the imperatives of Economocentric conceptions of society and Aristotleian ones. Furthermore, this seems to be one of the most fundamental apparent tensions within developed societies. For example, we are constantly told that good economic management requires a particular set of laws, and yet very few people seem to fully except that we must found our laws simply on the basis of economic interests.

Now, I should say the NDP have never put out a criticism of pursuing economic interests. In fact, one of the pillars of their platform is that they would better serve most Albertan’s economic interests better than other parties. Yet much of the sentiment behind the increased supported for the NDP seems to recognize the importance of economic interests while also recognizing that we should not only focus on pursuing economic growth at the expense of all else.

Works Cited
Aristotle. The Politics and the Constitution of Athens. Trans. B. Jowett. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.
Karen Kleiss. “Businessmen attack NDP’s “amateur” policies.” Edmonton Journal 01 May 2015. Web. 04 May 2015 http://www.edmontonjournal.com/Businessmen+attack+amateur+policies/11022132/story.html

Aristophanes on Reason and Society

Aristophanes was an Athenian comic poet and contemporary of Socrates most famous for lampooning Socrates in his work The Clouds. The representation we see of Socrates in The Clouds is of Socrates as a ridiculous person intent on destroying the traditional customs and way of life of Athens.  This image of Socrates fits quite closely with the charges presented to Socrates for corrupting youth, and not believing in the gods of the city, and in this sense Aristophanes` image of Socrates contrasts quite strongly with the image presented by Plato.  Against the background of The Clouds Aristophanes is often read as a stark traditionalist who opposes the impact of reason and reflection on society. I find this reading plausible in a sense, but if we look at Aristophanes` play The Frogs we are able to develop a clearer understanding of Aristophanes’ understanding and critique of reason.

In The Frogs Dionysus goes to the underworld to bring back the tragedian, Euripides, as the current crop of tragedians is disappointing and fail to meet the quality of tragedy that Dionysus expects.  Once Dionysus reaches the underworld it becomes clear that Aeschylus, an earlier Athenian tragedian, has been deemed to be the best tragedian in the underworld. However, Euripides has challenged Aeschylus for this title. In response to this dilemma Hades asks Dionysus to be the judge in a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus regarding who is the best tragedian.

In this contest Aeschylus represents the traditional martial values, against the more democratic and commercial, and rational impulses of Euripides. For example, in reference to Aeschylus Euripides says “I saw through him years ago, All that rugged grandeur-it`s all so uncultivated and unrestrained. No subtlety whatsoever. Just a torrent of verbiage, stiffened with superlatives and padded out with pretentious polysyllables.”(166, 830) In response to this Aeschylus remarks with regard to Euripides “That`s about the level of criticism one might expect from you, `son of the seed-goddess.` And what are your plays but a concatenation of commonplaces, as threadbare as the ragged beggars who populate them.”(166-167, 840)

From these remarks we can see that  Euripides sees Aeschylus as representing an aristocratic pomposity that fails to say anything subtle or interesting, while Aeschylus sees Euripides as someone who only represents the common sense of rabble and rather than populating his plays with dignified figures, populates them with “cripples and beggars.” (167, 845) To us there may be nothing inherently undignified about being crippled but in the context of Ancient Athens where a man`s ability to fight in battle was a large determinant of his social worth, being crippled reduced one`s status. Consequently, Aeschylus and Euripides are not only in disagreement about the technical skill required to create a good tragedy, but also regarding what kind of characters a tragedy should deal in. Aeschylus focuses on military leaders, gods, and kings, whereas Euripides is more inclusive in the variety of characters he is willing to present as the subject matter of tragedy.

This opposition between the noble, martial Aeschylus and the more democratic, rational Euripides is further reinforced when Euripides says that unlike Aeschylus he “wrote about everyday things, things the audience knew about and could take me up on if necessary.“ (171, 960) As a result of this Euripides notes that he has been able “to teach the audience to use its brains, introduce a bit of logic into the drama. The public have learnt from me how to think, how to run their households, to ask `why is this so? What do we mean by that?“ (171, 970) Thus, Euripides not only is more inclusive in representing a wider variety of characters from different social classes, his art also serves the purpose of encouraging and developing the audience`s capacity for reasoning, cleverness and reflection. While for our culture these are all viewed as necessarily positive things Aeschylus is still critical of Euripides approach as Aeschylus says to Euripides:“And look how you`ve encouraged people to babble. The wresting school are empty. And where have all the young men gone? Off to these notorious establishments where they practise the art of debating – and that`s not all they practise either. These days even the sailors argue with the officers; in my day the only works they knew were `slops` and `heave-ho.` “ (175, 1070) Consequently, we see how Aeschylus defend the martial values associated with physical training through wrestling and respecting the chain of command as being subverted by the Euripidean attempt to teach the audience to think. In contrast to Euripides` standpoint Aeschylus says that poets “have a duty to teach [the audience], what is right and proper,“  and this for Aeschylus seems to mean doing your duty given your station within society, rather than questioning authority through one`s reason. (174, 1050) Therefore, Euripides seems to be on the side of reflection, reason and inclusiveness, whereas Aeschylus is far more hidebound, aristocratic and concerned with defending martial values.

So, in Aristophanes The Frogs we see a battle if you will between reason, cleverness and democratic instincts and martial values, as well as other aristocratic sentiments. But the interesting thing about this is that the battle must take place through a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides. Consequently, there is a degree of irony in the idea of holding a contest between reason and martial values through the medium of reason.

I think what Aristophanes is trying to say by virtue of making use of the debate as the medium of this contest is to draw a distinction between prereflective and reflective cultures. In a prereflective culture people take their position in society and its mores as a given that is unquestioned, whereas in a reflective culture people do reflect and are willing to question their position in society and its mores. What I think Aristophanes is trying to say with the use of rational debate as a way of resolving the question of who is the best tragedian is that since Athens has become a reflective culture as a result of many occurrences including the influence of Socrates, Euripides and the Sophists, questions must be dealt with through the medium of reason.  Once a culture has become reflective the social mores and overall structure of society is no longer a mere given, but must be justified through speech. In this sense as reason comes to influence society and move it in a reflective direction reason must necessarily become the arbiter of conflicts as there is no source of authority that can be taken as an ultimate given or foundation. Now Aristophanes is certainly not celebrating the fact that Athens has become reflective in this way, in fact he seems to decry it some degree but by making use of debate and reason as the medium to determine, he seems to be saying that once a culture is under the influence of reason, reason must be the guide to determining questions; there is no way to simply return to a prereflective culture once a culture has become reflective.

In addition, Aristophanes does not merely point out that once reason has influenced society and pushed it in the reflective direction, reason and talk must become the arbiter of conflict rather than an unquestioned form of social authority, he also questions the ability to take on this task. In order to figure out who is the winner of the contest regarding who is the best tragedian Dionysus does not simply try to judge based on the poets arguments. After he hears their arguments Dionysus is unable to decide which poet to choose. So to try to decide this question an attempt is made to weigh Aeschylus, and Euripides and their poetry on a scale to figure out whose poetry is weightier, and thus better. (185, 1360)  The idea of weighing poetry is very comic, and some might think that Aristophanes is just trying to get a laugh out of it, but the weighing of the poets and their poetry is not ultimately successful in determining whose poetry is better either. The only way Dionysus is able to make this decision is by deciding the contest with regard to which poet has better advice to save Athens. (187, 1420)  It should be noted that Athens was at war with Sparta in the Peloponnesian war at the time in which this play was performed. So, in this play neither rational debate nor the weighing of poetry through some technological artifice are able to determine who is the best tragedian, and the only way to deal with the question is to change it from a question of who is best, to whose advice will best help Athens deal with its situation. The former is an extremely abstract question, while the latter is far more concrete. Consequently, Aristophanes seems to be saying that reason tends to be indeterminate when it is used to answer abstract questions. We can see this as reason, whether through speech, or as embodied in a technological tool ultimately fails to figure out who is the best tragedian. Thus, Aristophanes critique of reason seems to be that it it not always able to provide us with a determinate answer to abstract questions, and consequently, while it  may have a place in society it cannot serve as its ultimate foundation.

Now, as something of a partisan of reason I find Aristophanes` conclusion troubling, and unsettling, but he does provide an interesting challenge as it not obvious that if we argue and think about an issue for long enough that we will find an answer that any reasonable person can accept, and if reason is to serve as an ultimate foundation for society and politics it would have to provide a justification that all reasonable people can accept.

 

Works Cited

Aristophanes. Frogs and Other Plays. Trans. David Barrett. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Trans. Alan H. Sommerstein. London: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Capitalism, Commodification and Social Practises

One very common critique of capitalism is that capitalism encourages problematic forms of commodification that degrade social practises. This degradation of social practises occurs as practises that are supposed to operate according to non-market logic, begin to operate according to the logic of the market. For example, the development of commercial surrogacy indicates this trend as a couple, or an individual, will pay a woman to give birth to a child for them, just as they would pay someone to do their dry cleaning. This degrades the social practise of pregnancy according to some as pregnancy is a form of labour that is uniquely directed at care for one’s own child. To sell or buy this labour as a commodity is to fail to understand that the proper end of the labour of pregnancy is not monetary profit, but care of the child. It is an objectification and commodification of the labour of pregnancy.

Another similar argument points out that the transformation of the vocation of the artist into a job as a result of capitalist development can also cause problematic forms of commodification. The practise of the creation of art is at its ideal when it is directed towards the uncompromising creation of beauty, rather than towards the market logic of gain or profit, but if one is dependent for one’s subsistence on the creation of art than the point of your artistic creation will be infected by the desire for gain. In this case you are not creating for the sake of beauty, but for the sake of survival, and consequently when being an artist becomes a profession and thus one’s source of subsistence it can degrade the practise of artistic creation.  Somerset Maugham put this quite eloquently in Of Human Bondage when he says:

“You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like a cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank, and independent. I pity with all my heart the artist, whether he writes or paints, who is entirely dependent for subsistence upon his art.”

Many may disagree with either or both of my examples and suggest that neither of these forms of activity have a proper end, and that just as there is nothing wrong with practising law to support oneself, there is nothing wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for this reason.

I myself am unsure of whether there is anything inherently wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for the sake of survival or mere gain for that matter, but the expansion of commodification to all practises is problematic, for the alternative reason, that it threatens to destroy the multiplicity of unique goods in the world. As commodification extends more and more practises are transformed into practises that run according to the logic of the market.  The trouble with this kind of social transformation is that it makes practises that operate according to non-market principles more marginal.  By making these non-market practises more marginal the move towards greater commodification hampers elements of the human spirit that find their expression in non-market practises. For example, the commitment to scholarly research is hampered in a market society as research is turned into a deliverable that must be produced to receive an income, rather than as something that tries to better understand the world.

Our nature as humans is multifaceted and complex. We are not just clever beings who can pursue their interest in the market. Instead we are being who have a nature that reaches out towards many objects including truth, friendship, romantic love, beauty and athletic excellence, to mention a few.  Consequently, when our practises become dominated by the singular logic of the market we are rendered less, rather than more free as the practises within our society offer less of an opportunity to express and develop many of our most fundamentally human capacities.  Market mechanism may express certain elements of the human spirit such as rational self-interest, a certain form of inventiveness and discipline, but market practises do not fully reflect our nature, and thus practises that run according to non-market principles are a necessary bulwark of freedom in any capitalist society.  Consequently, while the commodification of practises may not be inherently wrong the general expansion of market principles into nearly all practises is problematic as it hampers certain valuable elements of the human soul.

Of course some may doubt the essentialist conception of human nature I have put forth, but while essentialism is frowned down upon for many historical reasons the idea that humans have a multifaceted nature that reaches out to many distinct and diverse goods seems deeply plausible. This notion seems plausible as in our lives we often find ourselves drawn to different and conflicting forms of value in the world that reflect different parts of ourselves. For example my capacity for human attachment and intimacy draws me to friends and romantic relationship, while my more general concern for others draws my concerns towards the realm of the political.

On the Ideologue

It seems to me that one of the most troubling elements of the politics of post-industrial societies is the centrality of the ideologue. In this entry I want to discuss what makes the ideologue distinctive, highlight one reason why they seem to be central to the politics of post-industrial societies and show why the centrality of the ideologue is problematic. In addition it seems that while there are things that can be done to diminish the centrality of the ideologue, these actions may threaten other important goods that we deeply value.

What does it mean to be an ideologue? At a superficial level it seems to simply be someone who follows a particular ideology, but being an ideologue is far more than this. The ideologue not only has strong commitments and systematic beliefs, rather they view their beliefs as somehow sacred and inviolable. Consequently, anyone who denies a facet of their beliefs is deemed impure and unworthy of dialogue. The ideologue does not wish to discuss with those who oppose them. They wish to negate this opponent as the ideologue’s set of beliefs represent a higher truth. For example, many activists of all political stripes have this kind of attitude. Many activists’ concern is not with hearing out those who have opposing beliefs to see if they have any valid concerns, but with tactically ensuring that those who oppose them have no influence on society.

The ideologue seems to be a central figure within politics of post-industrial societies. Within these societies political parties are ideologically oriented and other features of political life including the media, lobbying and activism all seem to reflect ideological divides. Our political life is not one in which equal citizens confront each other to figure out what is in the interest of all, but instead is one in which people enter the sphere as bearers of ideology who must fight and negate those who oppose them.

The preceding raises the questions of why the ideologue is so central to our political life. There are numerous factors that affect this including capitalism and technological development but I want to highlight one other factor, and that factor is desire for societal purity.

Within post-industrial societies people must live together who have very different understandings of what matters; Christians, Secularists, Wiccans all must live together according to the same rules. In these societies the overall societal structure is not meant to reflect the commitments or beliefs of any particular group, but rather be something that is mutually agreeable to all of the groups within society. For example, the formal structure of the state of the United States or Canada is not supposed to reflect the beliefs of Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus, but rather supposed to reflect a form of government that any reasonable person could agree to.  The tendency for citizens to become ideologues in this environment is intense as people have deep commitments and beliefs and see elements of society that offend against, or violate these beliefs. In reaction to these elements of society that offend against their beliefs many in post-industrial societies will come to desire to see society reflect their image of the good so that the society they live in more accurately corresponds with their most fundamental beliefs and values. Underlying this push to have society reflect one’s deepest commitments is the desire for societal purity. In itself there is nothing wrong with this desire as it is the very same desire that draws us closer to the good, and commands us to try to make our society more just, humane and fair, as part of the reason that we want to do these things to ensure that we build a more pure and consequently better society. But this desire can also direct us to merely wish to transform without due consideration of whether we have the right to make society in the image of our understanding of the good, and if we have something to learn from others about the nature of the good. Consequently, the desire for societal purity seems to form a significant part of the reason for the centrality of the ideologue within the political life of post-industrial societies.

One reason why the centrality of the ideologue to politics in post-industrial societies is deeply problematic is because it prevents the political community from becoming or maintaining its status as a community of respect. A community of respect is one in which people see others as participants in a project to create a just community. These others must be worked with, rather than being defeated and must be seen as being worth listening to. Or to put this slightly differently, the form of respect that is central to a community of respect extends beyond the respect required for someone to refrain from coercing, or manipulating another, but rather requires a more positive affirmation of the other as a collaborative participant who one can possibly learn from.

The ideologue as a central element of political life negates this community of respect because when we see those who oppose our beliefs as merely enemies to be overcome then we will not try to hear them out and consequently not fully respect them. In such a situation, those with opposing views merely become impediments to our will that must be combatted with. We may not want to physically harm these interlocutors or opponents, but nonetheless we do not see them as contributive members of a collaborative project. Consequently, the ideologue is a problem for post-industrial societies as their influence makes it that much more difficult for societies to transform themselves into communities of respect.

It seems to me that the problem with the ideologue is a matter of character, more than of particular beliefs. The ideologue is arrogant and self-satisfied. They are arrogant and self-satisfied in that they think they hold the fundamental truth, and do not even think it is possible that people with opposing beliefs could be right. It is these qualities of arrogance and self-satisfaction that drives the ideologue to deal with opposing perspectives in the way that they do. If you are arrogant and self-satisfied than it becomes nearly impossible to see those who oppose you as contributing participants in a common project who must be collaborated with and listened to as you clearly know the truth and what needs to be done.

If the problem with the ideologue is a matter of character this creates a quite troubling problem for post-industrial societies. On one hand it means that the answer to the problem of the ideologue is to ensure that citizens do not become arrogant or self-satisfied. But the question is how does the state do this without infringing on the ability of individuals to be self-determining? Using state policies to encourage certain traits and discourage other traits may be justifiable, but it also concentrates power in the hands of the state and seems to limit individuals of their ability to develop themselves according to their own vision of the good. Can such limitations of individual development be justified because these limitations are necessary for the creation of a community of respect? While I lean towards saying yes to this question, as I think there are forms of policy that can help to discourage self-satisfaction and arrogance without significantly limiting individual development (ie compulsory civil service, participation in juries), there is a danger with any such attempt to have the state inculcate certain traits of endangering the freedom of individuals to develop themselves.

Please feel free to respond with your own answers to any, or all of, the following questions.

  • How do you understand the ideologue?
  • Why do you think the ideologue is a central element of post industrial societies? Is this problematic? Why?
  • Are the ideologue’s beliefs or character what drives his or her problematic actions?
  • How would you deal with the problem of the ideologue? Is it a problem that should be addressed through governmental policy?

 

Freedom or freedoms?

References to the concept of freedom are ubiquitous throughout contemporary political discourse, and given the way people speak it seems that everyone is in favour of freedom, and yet people disagree deeply about the nature of this concept. Following Isaiah Berlin I think there is more than one concept of freedom, or liberty, but in distinction from Berlin and others who follow him I want to suggest that different concepts of freedom often relate to distinctive subject matters. Such that just as we can speak of freedom of choice, we so too can speak to a free character or freedom as a status of a citizen. These multiple concepts of freedom are not necessarily in competition, but rather represent the way in which a single word can come to have multiple meanings that while related concern different subject matters or areas of life. To further illuminate the proceeding I will examine the concept of freedom as it pertains to choice, character and status.

Arguably the most common way of talking about freedom, especially in North America, is in the context of saying that someone is free if they are able to make choices without coercive interference from another.  For this concept of freedom, the dominant subject matter of freedom is choice, as we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which is in this case is the absence of interference.

Another concept of freedom relates to character. On this account, freedom is part of the character of a person. For example, we might say that a person always strives to excel over others in all competitions, but never finds themselves satisfied is unfree because they are enslaved by their desire to win, when they would be happier and more fulfilled if their character led them to recognize that what truly matters to their happiness is not winning every possible competition, but something else entirely. Consequently what makes this person unfree is not that they make certain choices, but rather that their character is dominated by a desire that should not dominate their character. Thus, this concept of freedom relates to character. Furthermore, unlike the first concept of freedom this concept is positive, as a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree. Furthermore, there does seem to be something about it that resonates with us, because when we think of a free person, we don’t just think of someone who is able to choose freely in absence of external interference, but rather of a person whose psyche is ordered.

An additional concept of freedom and the most overtly political conception relates freedom to a status. To be free, on this account, one must not be subject to arbitrary power by the state or other individuals. Consequently, on this conception of freedom, freedom relates to a status, because one’s status as a citizen of a free state is what provides you with protection from being subject to arbitrary power, and consequently your status as a citizen constitutes your freedom.  Within an academic context this type of approach has been taken up by republican theorists with a particularly Neo – Roman bent such as Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, but it is not merely an academic concept as many people will refer to the way in which groups like gays, women and ethnic minorities are not free, and by this they do not just mean that these individuals are not allowed to make certain choices. Rather, what renders these groups of individuals unfree is that their current formal status as citizens does not adequately protect them from the arbitrary power of others.  Like the first concept of freedom this is a negative concept of freedom as it concerns the absence of something, rather than the presence of something.

These three concepts of freedom show that the distinction between concepts of freedom is perhaps wider than we might think. It is not as if we have multiple concepts of freedom that all have a different interpretation of what constitutes a free choice, instead these concepts of freedom are distinct in that they relate to different areas of life or subject matters. As a result there is no reason to necessarily see these conceptions of freedom as opposed to one another. In fact, I find myself attracted to all three concepts of freedom, and it seems to me we have significant reason to see these concepts as complementary rather than opposed, as they all seem to involve something we deeply esteem.  We deeply admire the person who is not enslaved to certain desires, we value our ability to make choices for ourselves in our own lives, and we value being protected from arbitrary coercion by our equal status as a citizen. It should be noted that none of this suggests that there is no conflict between differing concepts of freedom, but rather that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are not necessarily inherently incompatible with one another.

It could be objected that there is an inherent conflict between these differing concepts of freedom as the person who is free according to the free choice conception need not be the same person who is free on the free character conception. But while this critique is accurate in one sense it misses the point of the argument I am making. Yes, according to the free choice conception a person is free if they are not interfered with in their choices, which is different from the conception of a free person according to the free character conception, but it can be responded that there is no single definitive sense in which we could speak of somebody as a free person, but rather there are different senses in which we can be free that do not necessarily exclude one another, such that we could be free in one sense, while being unfree in another. Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.

In addition, one other thing that we might take away from this subject is the political difficulty that is created by the concept of freedom. Given that there are so many various sense of the term freedom that are used it would seem that in any political discussion when the concept of freedom is invoked we are liable to confusion, misunderstanding and talking past one another. As a result we ought to be careful in invoking a concept of freedom when we engage in dialogue to ensure that our interlocutors understand what we mean by freedom, and that we are not merely talking past them.