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.

Esteem, Authenticity and the Good

Often it is said that those who are driven by the desire for esteem of others are superficial in that they focus on what others think of them, rather than what they think of themselves. Alternatively, it is sometimes suggested that being driven by this force is psychologically unhealthy as it reflects a problematic dependence of the agent’s sense of self-esteem on the opinion of others. While I think there is some truth lurking behind these thoughts, I will argue that under many conditions the drive to be esteemed and recognized by others is not a defect, but rather an aspect of and reflection of, the quest to authentically develop one’s self.

It should be noted that for the purpose of this blog when I refer to self-esteem and recognition I am focusing on the dynamic by which we understand ourselves to be more or less admirable, excellent or good. I am not focusing on the dynamic by which we get a basic sense of ourselves as agents worthy of decent treatment and respect. This is why I use the language of esteem, rather than respect. To be respected by others merely means that others treat me decently; I am treated humanely. But to be esteemed means that others see my particular character and life as admirable or good in some fundamental area. One can have negative self-esteem and still have self-respect in the sense of a sense of my value as an agent who because of his humanity demands a particular form of treatment. In this sense esteem is a matter of more or less and focuses on the particular aspects of an agent such as their character, whereas respect focuses on the universal aspects of humanity like rational agency, or ability to suffer. I have made the decision to bracket off the issue of respect because it is clear that if one needs the validation of others to feel that one is worthy of humane treatment than this is a severe problem as it means you thinks you are fundamentally worthless unless you are in actuality respected by others.

The rationale behind the negative perception of the drive for esteem reflects the proper intuition that one should not desire to be admired by the others, if this means doing things that are degrading or contemptible in your own eyes. Engaging in such actions would mean that you care more about the admiring gaze of the other than you do about how you see your concrete actions. In which case you are analogous to the shameless greedy person who will do anything for money. The only difference is that your object is the esteem of others rather than money.

However, this critique assumes that the drive for esteem is necessarily and always in contradiction with the dictates of integrity and conscience. Whereas in fact this critique only shows that the desire for esteem from others should not be pursued if that means engaging in activities that you find reprehensible. But the desire for esteem also plays a large role in the activities we pursue that are connected with our sense of what it means to a live meaningful, just or good life. An author who produces a work of fiction does so, of course, as an act of self-expression, but this act of self-expression is typically an attempt to create something that is valued by the community of authors and readers who the author respects. The exercise of publishing cannot be disentangled from the fact that an object is being presented to an audience for their judgment, and that at least a part of the point of the activity is directed at getting respect and recognition for the value of your work from those you admire. Now, it is true that publishing is heavily tied to the context of judgment of the value of a work by a creator. And therefore, this example might be problematic as a representative example of the harmless, if not salutary, role of the desire for esteem in human activities. However, I think most other activities can be interpreted as necessarily related to the desire for the esteem of a specific audience. The reason for this is that our pursuits are always related to social forms and practises with socially identified conceptions of excellence. We can reject elements of these conceptions of excellence, in order to innovate and come up with something novel, but the novel conception that emerges is an outgrowth of the already constituted social form, and therefore reflects a desire to measure up to aspects of the already existing conception of excellence. If it didn’t it would be an utterly unintelligible act. As a result the desire for esteem seems to be built into the relation of individual agency and participation in social forms. Before moving on to the completion of my piece I would like to say a bit more about the audience of esteem.

On the standard view, the desire for esteem is undifferentiated. The person who wants to be esteemed just wants people in general to admire or appreciate them. The agent does not care if those who esteem them are admirable or respectable esteem they just want their admiration as if it were a commodity. But this is an inaccurate description of human activity and the human desire for esteem. To begin the desire for esteem is typically the desire to be seen positively by a particular group of others who the agent admires or respects. The desire for esteem in this sense is about proving your value within a specific area, art or practise to those whom you admire. This audience may be an actually existing community of agents, or an internalized representation of the admirable audience in the mind of the agent. A committed Catholic is not just driven by the esteem of the currently existing Catholics and others whom he or she respects, but also by an internalized other that represents the collection of values, judgments and characteristics the agent admires. This internalized other is something that the agent is trying to live up to. The other defines the horizon of what is worthwhile or admirable.

It should be noted that at this point in the argument I have added the assertion that the drive for esteem can be bound up with an internalized other as opposed to an actually existing historical community of others. Some might say that I am stretching the concept of esteem here because if it is an internalized other that I am trying to measure up to, then isn’t it better to frame this as trying to live up to my own self-image with integrity as opposed to a drive for esteem by an other.

In response to this I would argue that the description of trying to live up to my own self-image is an accurate one in a sense, but it conceals elements that the description that I am trying to provide of gaining esteem from an internalized other reveals. It is certainly true that the internalized other is part of who I am, but to posit that this internalized other is my self-image conceals the way in which the internalized other is not just my self-image but an image I am forever trying to measure up to. The concept of self-image is far too broad in this regard as it once consists of how I think about myself as I actually am currently, and the being that I desire to develop into and measure up to. Therefore, the concept of self-image fails to capture the dynamic of trying to measure up to something that is at once part of who I am, but not simply identical with myself.

On the conception of the drive for esteem I’ve elaborated the drive for esteem is not necessarily a negative trait that reflects an other-directed need to be admired by anyone and everyone. Instead, it reflects the fact that we admire particular values, characteristics and people and want to measure up to them. This fact about our ethical psychology and inherent spiritual situation is what allows us to develop ourselves fully and authentically, as it is this desire to achieve the heights set by the other that embodies our aspirations that directs us to strive towards the goal of self-development. Thus, while the desire for esteem can be perverted and be directed against conscience and integrity it is also a reflection of an agent’s authentic quest to fully develop him or herself.

In this light, the typical opposition drawn between the drive for esteem via an external locus, and the desire for self-esteem is overly simplistic. These two aspects can be opposed, but they also coincide in a healthy desire for authentic self-development. Put slightly differently, to have self-esteem is not merely to value yourself and your particularity, but rather having positive self-esteem is constituted by progressing towards measuring up to those things you admire. A person who had strong self-esteem but had no sense of measuring up to anything that they valued would be a pathological narcissist. So, we cannot disentangle the desire for self-esteem with the desire to fully develop one’s self. The consequence of this is that the expectation that all people will have high self-esteem is ludicrous as many are not successful in measuring up the values and goals that they aspire to. Making space for authentic self-development means making space for failure in that development.

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.

Social Justice Warriors, Misrecognition and Homogeneity

Over the past few years there has been a lot of chatter, on the internet and social media in particular, about the rise of so-called SJWs or Social Justice Warriors and Political Correctness within particular intellectual and social communities. SJWs are decried by many people for being illiberal and opposed to freedom of expression, while many others see them as people working towards a better society. However, it seems to me that the phenomenon of the so-called SJW is neither merely something that is illiberal, nor something that is simply working towards a better society. Rather, instead the SJW responds to a real problem in our shared world, but offers a solution that lacks humility and for this reason prevents the fullest development of individuals and communities.

While many would think it would be good to be a Social Justice Warrior, the term is used as a derogatory term to refer to people concerned with the marginalization of vulnerable social minorities who display particular attitudes and make use of particular tactics. In particular, SJWs are concerned with the presentation and visibility of social minorities in popular media and positions of authority, cultural appropriation, safe spaces, trigger warnings and microagressions. In this, sense the SJW differs quite a bit from the traditional activist/critic of capitalist liberal democracy. Rather than being focused on issues of social class inequality and the exploitation of workers by capital, their focus tends to be on identity groups, whether, racial, sexual, cultural or otherwise, and the way in which society disadvantages them through misrecognition of their particular identities. The contemporary SJW as a social agent tends to be more outraged by “white-washing” in cinema and TV than global inequality of wealth. For them, respect for the unique identity of each person is the basis of justice, rather than some notion of equality of opportunity, equality of resources or impartial fairness.

It should be noted that when I use the term SJW for the remainder of this piece I do not mean anyone who supports identity politics, but the specific phenomena described above.

This notion of justice as respect for identity seems to require not only respect for a person as an abstract human subject deserving of the same rights and liberties as others, but esteem for their particular identity. This is why while the political right is often vocal in its critique of SJWs, many on the liberal left, like myself are ill at ease with them, as they not only demand that we respect the right of each to be respected as a free and equal human being and citizen, but to be valued by others in their particular identity whether they are a pious Christian or trans man of colour. The difference between being respected, as a human being and citizen, and this more particularized form of respect can be understood if we look at the difference between tolerance and recognition.

The old ideal of tolerance merely demands that we respect each other as free and equal, even if we find another’s beliefs, way of life or sexuality contemptible. I may find the twisted way in which people pursue career ambition contemptible, but in so far as they are not breaking any laws or acting unjustly I need to tolerate them as free and equal members of society, and cannot use the force of the state to prevent them from living as they please. The old adage of live and let live is an adage of tolerance.

Recognition on the other hand demands more. To recognize someone is to re-cognize someone. That is to see them in a certain way. Consequently, to re-cognize a gay person is not simply to tolerate their sexuality even if you find it disordered, but to respect their particularity as a gay person. This implies some sense in which we see their sexuality as a valuable form of individual expression, rather than something that someone might respect them in spite of.

Once we bring in this more particularistic form of recognition there becomes a possibility for misrecognition. Misrecognition occurs when an individual is bombarded with demeaning or degrading images of a part of their own identity. For example, in a culture where homosexuality is legal, but in which the public images of homosexuality are of degrading stereotypes, homosexual people will internalize these images. This internalization in turn damages their self-respect and self-esteem as Charles Taylor points out in his landmark essay “The Politics of Recognition.” The popular sentiments around an aspect of identity then can be damaging to the ability of individuals whose identity is viewed as less than, shameful or barbaric. In this sense, the danger to the full development of individuals is not merely present in overt legal discrimination, but also in much looser elements of culture and mores. I call the phenomena in which a particular identity is broadly demeaned misrecognition because the culture broadly sees a group in a light that is either overtly negative or out of line with how this group sees themselves.

Now, many people are convinced by this account of the damage of misrecognition, but there are also those who are unconvinced by it. We have all heard that people today are too sensitive today, and need to toughen up so that they are not damaged by non-physical affronts to their dignity. We might see this type of view as the adult version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” A defender of this position could say that part of the full development of person’s character involves learning to value yourself rather than being dependent on the impression that the world at large or particular others have of aspects of your identity that you deem central to who you are.

This is a valid point in that it is surely indicative of a more developed person that they are not entirely dependent for their self-esteem on being valued by others. But this misses the point that an individual’s self-esteem has at its starting point the broader values and norms in which the individual is immersed, so an individual’s self-esteem cannot be independent of their social context. Our image of what is admirable and contemptuous begins with the broad mores of the society we develop in and it is only from this starting point that we can reflect on these mores, and work out the contradictions or tensions within them to develop our own understanding of what is worthwhile. In this sense to imagine a being with no dependency for its self-worth on social norms is to imagine an omnipotent god, rather than a human being, as an omnipotent god is self-sufficient and has no society. So the risk of misrecognition cannot be simply be dismissed by telling people to toughen up and have a thicker skin.

An example of the way in which misrecognition constitutes itself can be seen if we consider an example where I am a person of aboriginal ancestry and I grow up within a society in which the standard image of an aboriginal person is a negative one in which the aboriginal is a drunk and a mooch. As a result of these images and mores my perception of what is means to be an aboriginal will carry with it the idea that my aboriginalness is merely a burden and something I need to overcome, rather than something that could be a mark of pride. Frantz Fanon made this point quite rightly when he pointed out how colonized groups internalize the norms of their colonizers and begin to see traits associated with their group as lesser, and traits associated with the colonizer as positive and admirable. This damages the self-esteem of members of colonized groups in that a core aspect of their identity becomes a source of shame. This is a clear example of the phenomena of misrecognition that was discussed earlier, and we can see how this would threaten the full development of persons. Seeing a core aspect of your identity as a source of shame is paralyzing and makes projects of self development seem even more difficult and less worth doing. If I am just a worthless X than why should I try to develop myself, as I will always just be a worthless X.

The challenge is that law is not the most effective or appropriate mechanism to deal with the threat of misrecognition. Certainly, overt forms of discrimination against particular identity groups contribute to misrecognition of these groups, but even if discrimination on the basis of a particular identity is made illegal, there is still a possibility that misrecognition of particular groups will constitute itself. This is evidently the case as misrecognition does not simply constitute itself via individual acts of discrimination, but wider norms and values that are constituted by the rhetoric, arts and images of the society. In Canada, for example, First Nations do have legal equality, but the rhetoric, norms and artistic representations that relate to First Nations typically paint them in a demeaning light. Being First Nations in Canada carries with it the certainty of being broadly seen in a particular way which will inevitably put at risk your capacity for individual development. But to try to use the force of law to prevent the rhetoric and artistic representations around this group from reinforcing misrecognition seems somewhat authoritarian, as this would involve the government dictating what people’s views need to be. While Canadian law allows for government acts to outlaw hate speech and other forms of speech that put others at risk of violence, it cannot simply dictate the values and artistic images presented because of the rights of freedom of expression that each Canadian possess. An example of a form of speech that may reinforce misrecognition, but at the same time does not put groups at risk of disproportionate rates of violence would be a citizen writing an editorial about the fact that the way of life of a particular First Nations group was less civilized and less fully developed than an industrial or post-industrial one. This obviously implies that a specific First Nations’ culture may be less than modern occidental culture and so reinforces the view of the aboriginal as less than the colonizing European, but it would be quite a stretch to say this is an infringement on the dignity or rights of First Nations’ peoples.

The reason I say this is a stretch is that every society and person possesses a sense of what is more admirable and valuable and less admirable or valuable; this sense is basic to the way that the individual or society experiences reality. When I see someone so wrapped up in career ambition that they do not make time for their family or friends I do not experience them first as a person who puts a lot of value on their career, and then separately judge them as being shallow or ignorant in some respect. My experience of them as a person who will sacrifice their family or friends for career prospects is itself deeply normative, and reflects my authentic view of how people ought to live.

As a result of the proceeding as long as individuals and societies disagree about what is most admirable, there is a risk that groups will experience misrecognition. To explain, misrecognition constitutes itself through demeaning, or negative images, and other representations of particular groups. Furthermore, these images and representations develop as a result of the association of particular traits or values with a particular minority group; for example the idea that women are emotional, or gay men are effeminate. For example, if I happen to live in a society where religious faith is viewed as a symptom of disorder of the mind and I am a faithful Christian I am at risk of being misrecognized as my identity as a faithful believer will likely be broadly seen as a lower form of human development than more avowedly non-religious or secular identities because of the negative view the society holds about faith. Consequently, all that is required for minorities to be at risk of misrecognition is that society at large has a negative view about some value or belief that a minority group holds, and the society associates with a particular group. As a result as long as there is genuine diversity about the proper way to live is, there will be a risk of misrecognition. As a result, only a society that is utterly homogeneous with regard to the question of how it is best to live will be free from the risk of misrecognition be possible. And while misrecognition is certainly an evil, it is quite simply absurd to try to wish for this diversity to be eliminated as much of the richness of life emerges from the fact that we live among people whose understanding of what is most valuable is very different from ours.

Now that we have elaborated the concept of misrecognition itself, and the conditions of possibility of its existence and elimination, we can return to the our initial discussion of SJWs. SJWs in their desire for a more just, egalitarian society take action to eliminate or cast shame on worldviews they view as toxic because of the way in which these views put marginalized groups at risk of misrecognition. For example, trying to eliminate the view of men as unable to constrain their sexual desire, and women as mere agency-less objects of desire for the male gaze. In this sense, the SJW is responding to a genuine evil and should not be criticized for being critical of a particular worldview.

However, the problem occurs with the tendency among the SJW community to fail to engage with those who disagree with them. SJWs have formed concepts like safe spaces, and trigger warnings to explain their opposition to the expression of particular kind of views or topics in particular contexts. While these concepts differ, they, and the phenomena of the SJW share the common feature that they do not want particular worldviews to be discussed or engaged with. In this sense, the perspective of the SJW is a reified ideology that is used to bludgeon their opponents into silence, rather than as a critical perspective on what they see as a dangerous, problematic perspective. The view that monogamy may be more worthwhile than polyamory for the SJW is not a belief about the best way to live, but just a tactic to shame those who are not meant for monogamy that needs to be eliminated. We do not need to engage with this perspective; it is clearly just a form of oppression of the marginalized.

But, what is wrong with this bludgeoning? SJWs generally do not encourage the use of state power to enforce a particular culture, but rely on legal acts of expression within the public sphere. Isn’t this the same kind of action that any activist would take to get their point across?

It is true that SJWs merely act in the way that other activists do by using legal acts of free expression to support their goals. However, the problem with that, and forms of activism that follow the same model is that they display a lack of humility, which does not allow us to fully develop ourselves as individuals and a community. The lack of humility exists in that they are so confident that they have something figured out that they refuse to engage the other side, as it is impossible that someone who disagrees with them on this issue, could have any insight that they have missed.

Furthermore, this lack of humility harms the political community as we are strongest when we are willing and open to learn from others. When we are willing to fully engage with those we disagree with and hear them out, the community as a whole and the individuals who make it up are able to develop themselves by integrating the insights of others they are engaging with into their own lives.

Relatedly, when people actually engage with the other side rather than trying to bludgeon it into submission, it provides more of a genuine opportunity to change the minds of those you disagree with. If we disagree and I try to prevent your perspective from being given a hearing because it is linked to risks of misrecognition to vulnerable groups, all I am doing is preventing that other from speaking up. I do not attempt to change their mind or heart, and have done little to change the mind of those who contribute to the risk of misrecognition in this particular case. But if we engage with this other than we fully open ourselves to be changed by insights that the other has and we give ourselves fully to trying to convince the others of what we see as wrong with their perspective. This is superior as it opens us to improving our own perspective, and improving the perspective of the other.

As a result, SJWs represent an attempt to respond to the real social problem of misrecognition that is present in any society where the members disagree about how best to live. This attempt while noble in orientation is not the appropriate response to the presence of perspectives, values and images that threaten some with the risk of misrecognition. Instead, we must make the attempt to change the minds of the other and in turn open ourselves up to hearing what the other side has to say.

Politics and Rational Self-Interest

One key element of the modern political tradition that we, as members of post-industrial liberal democracies, have inherited is the notion that a political order can be grounded on the foundation of the rational pursuit of self-interest. This strand in the modern tradition supposes that institutions could be constructed that would channel the rational pursuit of self-interest, such that citizens did not need to be virtuous to secure the common good. As with Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand, the forces of the society could be arranged such that by each pursuing what he or she wanted, all would benefit. The individuals in this society may not be great or noble, but all would be better off because these institutions accord public benefits through the pursuit of naked self-interest.

This was a radical innovation in the tradition of political and ethical thought. For Aristotle and Plato, and for Medieval political thought, the bonds of society were based on obligations between members of different classes, and what held together were these shared duties and goals that all had to pursue in order have a prospering, healthy state. For this tradition, a minimally just state could not be based on each individual rationally pursuing what he or she wanted. The reason for this is quite simple. Societies demand sacrifices from their members in order to secure the common good, and a state will not be able to protect itself from internal corruption and external enemies, if each individual sees the state as a mere convenient way to get what they want. These self-interested individuals will just abandon the society when things are not going well, and therefore such a society will always be in danger of collapse and tyranny.

The notion of grounding of social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest is a powerful notion, and in many cases, it is simpler to rely on people’s self interest to create positive consequences rather than relying on some notion of what we owe to others or the common good. However, I think this notion ultimately fails as a grounding of political society, because it cannot provide an adequate account of what we understand to be good statesmanship and good citizenship. I think it also fails in the realm of economics, but its failure is more contested in that area, so I will focus on the political realm. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the notion of grounding social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest as the “enlightened self-interest tradition.”

Firstly, for the enlightened self-interest tradition there is no reason in principle why anyone, including a leader, needs to value the pursuit of the common good intrinsically, rather than as a means to career prosperity, enhanced reputation or some other extrinsic good. For this tradition self-interest is not what we ought to be interested in so that our lives go well, but instead whatever we happen to value; it’s conception of self-interest is that of the economist. As a result unless the statesman happens to value the common good as part of is own good, the pursuit of the common good will simply be one means among many to pursue whatever his apparent self-interest consists in. Furthermore, there is no reason in principle to think that the enlightened self-interest statesman will value the pursuit of the common good as an aspect of his own good; perhaps some leaders see their own good as bound up with that of their community, but there is no evident reason to suppose that this is in fact the case. Consequently, there is no necessary reason why the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest would pursue the common good.

Now, rightly, in response to this, someone might say the argument just elaborated does not show that institutions cannot direct the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest to pursue the common good, because it is actually in their long term self-interest to pursue the common good. In light of this, we must turn to the question of whether institutions can put cleverness in support of the common good.

Institutions are very powerful tools to direct the energies of people towards particular goals. As an example, the fact that donations to charities are a tax deduction surely makes people more likely to give to charity as their taxable income will be lower if they give to charity. In this way, a person’s interest in keeping more of their gross income supports increased revenue for charities. However, the fact that institutions have this result, in particular cases, does not mean that institutions provide a stable safeguard to ensure that individuals pursue the common good. This is so, for a few reasons.

Firstly, the rules of institutions always admit of interpretation, and consequently even institutions that direct avarice towards public beneficence can be corrupted, if those making decisions are shamelessly self-interested. As an example of this we might consider John Yoo who co-authored legal opinions that made “enhanced interrogation techniques” legal, in the context of the USA, by narrowly defining torture, so that practises that would be commonly viewed as torture could be framed as something else entirely. In this case, reasonable and considered judgment is required in applying the rules of any institutions, whether these rules are formal laws, or internal procedures or policies of a governmental organization. Rules by their nature are general and cannot anticipate all particulars, and so good judgment in applying rules must exist in order for proper statesmanship to be possible. Quite simply, institutions that direct the pursuit of self-interest towards justice are insufficient for justice because judicious interpretation and sound judgment is required when dealing with novel cases and new situations.

But statesmanship is more than application of the rules or procedures of an institution. Instead, legislation is fundamental to the activity of statesmanship. Now, it is often argued that in representative democracies it is in politician’s self interest to rule in a way that aims at the common good, because otherwise they will not be reelected. As delegates of the people, the politician, or statesman, must do what the people see as the common good in order to be reelected. The initial problem here is that what citizens want may not be the common good, especially where long term and short term interests are in conflict. Climate change gives a great example of this phenomena, as politicians often do not want to take significant measures on climate change because while most citizens recognize the problem, many significant changes that are called for would at least have some negative consequences on economic prosperity in the short term. As an example, those who are dependent on high-carbon emission industries for their employment will likely be in a more precarious situation if aggressive measures are made to cut emissions. Selling a short term loss for a long term gain is a difficult task, and made all the more difficult in a situation like the one in post-industrial liberal democracies in which instant gratification is the order of life. In this way public opinion in such societies has a tendency to be excessively conservative and aims at the status quo as people tend to discount long term interests in favour of securing short term ones. As a result even if politicians act as delegates for the people and do what they want, often much of what politicians will legislate will be contrary to what they ought to rationally do if they were considering the overall significance of long term and short-term goals. And if leaders of a society take this path of least resistance and simply focus on being reelected how can it be said that the common good can be secured in this context by the rational pursuit of self-interest in conjunction with institutions of electoral representation? Clearly, the common good will be sacrificed for satiating short term interests.

Now some might argue that the example just mentioned is a case where the failure is one of people being adequately rationally self-interested. From this perspective if people really were rational they would not discount long-term interests for short term interests of lesser severity. However, this argument contains the seeds of its own destruction. Firstly, if humans often fail to effectively pursue their rational self-interest because they do not adequately consider long-term interests, than rational self-interest is an equally imperious foundation for social order to virtue or decency. Part of the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account is that it can take human being as they are and create a just society, rather than having to transform human beings into citizens. But if humans often fail to pursue rational self-interest, the creation of the rationally self-interested agent is a matter of convention, rather than nature. So by accepting the failure of people to be adequately rational as a part of humanity the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account loses one of its largest advantages, which is being able to create a just society without having to transform human nature.

The other reason why this rebuttal fails is that long-term interests include both interests that we need to secure within our own finite lives, but also interests we are pursuing for the sake of future generations and that we will not see the fruits of within our own lives. Even if a state has citizens that are very judicious about ensuring that good things happen within their lives, there is no reason to think that this will mean that they will leave a good community for those who inherit the community after they die. Therefore, the pursuit of rational self-interest even at its most enlightened fails to ensure that we provide future generations with a community that is sustainable and that future generations can adequately care for. But to paraphrase Arendt, politics, citizenship and statesmanship are deeply bound to the fact that we are born into a community that existed before us and others will inherit that community after we die. In this light good citizenship and statesmanship cannot be bound to securing interests within the biological life of a particular person or generation, but instead have to preserve the good community for future inhabitants.

In this way, the best statesman cannot simply try to do what will get him an election victory or make him popular, but will have to act as a caretaker to best ensure the equity, prosperity and freedom of the society he is taking care of for his generation and for future generations. Likewise, being a good citizen does not merely mean participating in politics and voicing one’s opinions. Instead it means reflecting on what is best for the society as a whole, taking into account future generations, and taking action on that basis. Consequently, the idea of founding society based on self-interest fails because it cannot grasp the specifically political aspect of our existence that is incarnated in citizenship and statesmanship.

Boredom, Finitude and Transcendence

Boredom is an odd phenomena. At a superficial level boredom seems to be quite self-transparent in that boredom emerges when we are unable to find something interesting to do. On this naive view of boredom, boredom disappears once we find something interesting to engage in. Boredom just signifies our momentary failure to find a worthwhile activity. But, this account of boredom seems all too simple. Contrastingly, it seems that boredom emerges because we tacitly find our own lives wanting in some regard. Boredom is then the emergence of the rejection of our present state of life and the apparent desire for “something more.”

This contrasting account of boredom I have provided seems plausible because when we are bored the things that normally would engage or interest us fail to do so; normally we might want to read a book or listen to an album, but these activities fail to excite us. Boredom therefore involves a change in perspective, as opposed to a lack of stimulation. In boredom, the self condemns its present interests as somehow wanting, and reaches out for something else.

But “the what” that the self reaches out for is typically undefined in boredom. When we are bored we are not longing to perform a particular concrete activity, we just know that the activities that present themselves as possibilities fail to call us forth or interest us. What we long for is “something more” or “something other”. Consequently, boredom is a state of anxiety and restlessness as much as one of quiet. In boredom we feel as though we should be occupied with something, but nonetheless fail to find anything compelling to be occupied with. We are anxious to find that something, but ultimately frozen in our ability to find that something, and understand what that something is.

In light of this understanding of boredom how should the bored person interpret their emotional state? On one account even if boredom represents a desire for something other, this desire is a merely a pathology. To want “something more”, but be unable to understand what that something more means, is irrational, as rational desire must have a concrete object in the world, as opposed to some amorphous object that can be neither understood or communicated. On this view boredom is to be interpreted as a pathological emotional state that we need to recognize in ourselves but maintain a distance from, because the desire underlying boredom is not something we cannot take any concrete steps towards satiating, precisely because we do not know what it is we long for. Let us call this the therapeutic view.

On a different account we should interpret boredom as a call for us to reflect on our lives and come to a better understanding of what we should pursue. The rationale behind this is that if we were truly satisfied with our lives we would not experience boredom, as boredom denotes anxiety and dissatisfaction. Thus, while it is true that the object of the desire for “something more” that lies behind boredom is ill defined, the fact that this object is ill defined does not negate that boredom provides a signal that are lives are somehow being improperly lived. Let us call this the philosophic view.

I find the philosophic view far more compelling than the therapeutic. While the therapeutic view rightly points out that the desire underlying boredom has no definite object it seems odds to say that a pursuit that has no definite object is irrational or pathological. It may be much more difficult to deal with a desire with an ill-defined object because there is no simple way of satiating it, but that does not mean that it is not worth pursuing.

Often our pursuits do not have a definite object, and it is often through these aimless pursuits that new aspects of our spiritual condition and life are revealed to us. For example, I am an amateur musician, but when I am at my most inspired in writing music I do not have the creation of a specific type of musical object in mind. Instead I am fully wrapped up in playing my instrument and it is through this engaged experimentation that a musical idea presents itself to me. It is only at that point that the musical object that I want to create becomes concrete in any substantial sense.

Similarly, when we reflect upon how we want to live and what we need to do to make our lives more rich and fulfilling, we engage in ponderous meditative thinking as opposed to thinking that simply designates and schedules means to a concretely defined end. We let our minds move freely and jump from thought to another, unconstrained by a goal dictated ahead of time. Any attempt to control this reflection and turn it into thinking that just selects means towards a given end fails to be reflection and becomes mere administration, or personal project management. If we are lucky after engaging in this meditative thinking we come to an understanding of what might be missing in our lives. It is only at this moment that the object that was once the merely transcendent, infinite or “something more” becomes concrete, comprehensible and something we can pursue in concrete terms.

Put slightly differently, when we become bored and reflect upon wanting something more, and try to understand what that something more could possibly mean, we are trying to better understand our own finitude and immanence by relating to the infinite or transcendent. In the play of meditative reflection we encounter the infinite and transcendent because we stop being subjects pursuing a definite object by giving up control of our thoughts and letting them go where they must go; at that point we become one with and inseparable from all other things. Sometimes after letting our thoughts go we are gifted with a revelation, but other times we are not, but giving up on this pursuit is to give up trying to properly understand and live with our own finitude, as the only way we have to understand our finitude is through relating it to its fundamental complement, the infinite, or transcendent. Consequently, it seems that the philosophic reading of boredom is superior to the therapeutic as the therapeutic involves giving up on trying to best understand and live with our finitude. In this way while the therapeutic might be a good strategy to avoid disappointment, it discourages us from living the best lives possible.

Trump and American Mythology

As a Canadian, I am at once horrified and bewildered by the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the presidential nominee for the Republican Party. While, I find the Republican Party’s policy problematic, and in some cases deplorable, I find the prospect of Donald Trump leading the USA to be disturbing, frightening and unfathomable.

This leads me to ask the question of how to understand Donald Trump against the background of American mythology. In particular I want to highlight the fact that Donald Trump embodies the mere negation of the humanistic elements of the mythology of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream. By humanistic in this entry I mean the attitude that all humans have dignity and are entitled to respect. Trump, consequently represents the negation of the elements of American mythology that are compatible with equal freedom for all human beings.

While Trump’s politics, as far as they can be rationally understood, are more broadly aligned with the American right than the left, in that they focus on America’s greatness in the world and defending jobs for real Americans, rather than those of a darker hue, his politics are radically distinct from the jingoistic neoliberal imperialism of the Republican Party since Reagan. While George W. Bush is hated for his ill thought out and highly interventionist foreign policy and was often associated with authoritarian nationalism, George W. Bush was continuing a tradition in American foreign policy of beneficent imperialism. For Bush, American power served American interests, but his rhetoric also focused on the fact that American power was something that served to free people from backwards authoritarian tyranny. Consequently, American power for Bush was a strategic instrument for the defense of American interest, but also a means of spreading good. Reagan’s stance towards the Soviet Union was quite similar to Bush’s towards Iraq and Afghanistan. Now one can argue that Bush and Reagan were simply masking the pursuit of American interests behind moralistic rhetoric about America as a force for good, but as a political phenomena the rhetoric that politicians use is important to understanding them, even if that rhetoric is inauthentic or deceptive. Trump on the other hand has no pretensions that America is a force for good in the world, American foreign policy instead is a force for regaining American greatness and supremacy. On the world stage America should be acting like a business. It should maximize its interest and focus on winning, rather than worrying about improving the state of the world as a whole.

It is important to note Trump’s focus on greatness as opposed to goodness. Greatness in contrast to goodness is something that in the history of the Occidental world is associated with the pre-Christian martial and political virtue of Rome, Athens and Sparta. The great are manly, courageous warriors and politicians who defend their homeland and its interests, rather than generous spirits helping the vulnerable and marginalized. Arendt has noted how greatness is related to immortality, in being remembered and immortalized and thereby overcoming the fate of death that all biological creatures face, whereas goodness by its very nature cannot be concerned with remembrance. Christ, the supreme emblem of goodness, is only Christ because his actions were motivated by love, or more specifically agape, rather than to excel before his peers and be immortalized. Christ like Socrates is concerned with being, rather than appearance. Whereas for Trump appearance, rather than being is what is fundamental. Appearance is what determines the course of events in the world, as people act on perceived interest, goods and risk, rather than actual interests, goods and risks. In this kind of world, for Trump, and his supporters, we need a “clever man” who will annihilate the existing traditions that are leading to atrophy in USA and build its strength anew based on his effective business acumen.

This is all the more ironic because Trump’s supporters and Trump himself praise the fact that Trump calls it how he sees it, rather than worrying about appearances. But his entire claim to effectiveness as a businessman depends on the ability to effectively make use of appearances. The Trump brand of off colour, xenophobic authenticity is one of the most effective appearances to make alienated voters feel like he is unlike other politicians. Nothing is sacred to Trump, not even his deplorable authenticity. The only thing that matters is coming out on top. This deeply colours his foreign policy, as far as he has one.

In this sense Trump has negated the humanistic element of the myth of American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism has often been used to argue that ethical requirements that apply to other countries do not apply to America, because America is a country founded on reason, rather tradition, and is a unique force for good that cannot be chained to the requirements of international law. Trump still sees America as exceptional, but it is exceptional because it has the capability of dominating the rest of the world, and staying on top rather than because it is a force for good premised on dictates of reason that are self-evident to all human beings. America is not the Socratic shepherd who has authority over his flock because he has knowledge and will take care of their well-being, but rather the Thrasymachean shepherd who has authority because he is stronger and will take advantage of his flock where it profits him to do so. Trump therefore negates the element of American Exceptionalism which is bound up with respect for the dignity of all. Expediency in Trump’s world determines where respecting human dignity is called for.

In regard to the American Dream, Trump has famously said that this dream is dead, but his campaign “to make America great again,” is an attempt to restore that dream by restoring America’s economic status and providing jobs to real Americans. But the circumscription of the American Dream to real Americans, as opposed to Muslims and Mexicans, is an inherent contradiction of the fundamental egalitarianism of the myth of the American Dream. The dignity of the American Dream is that it sees all people who come to America to build a better life as equally capable and entitled to do so. The dream never was actual, but it is part of the horizon of what America means. America is constantly working towards the end of the actualization of the myth of the American Dream. Therefore, the transformation of the American Dream as the pursuit of a better life to anyone who seeks it, to the pursuit of a better life to a specific subgroup therefore constitutes the negation of notion of human dignity encapsulated in the American Dream. It means that this dream can be systematically excluded to people without any pretense or masking of this tactic as a legitimate exclusion. The exclusion is justified based on the mere otherness of a particular group of people.

Similarly, while the myth of the American Dream is typically related to economic well-being it is also related to spiritual, moral and intellectual health. The better life that America holds is not just that there are good jobs and more money, but that people are able to pursue their own good in their own way without being oppressed for being different. Similarly, due to the fact that America represents the coming together of diverse peoples and cultures, America has developed a uniquely rich cultural landscape that is a significant good to Americans at large. Again, modern America fails to live up to this myth, but this myth is present as a distinct ideal of the culture.

Trump on the other hand ultimately associates the failure of the American Dream with the decline in the American economy, rather than the emergence of poverty, misery, social hatred, ennui and anomie among the populace. This reveals another facet of the negation of the humanistic element of the myth of the American Dream in that the American Dream is reduced to a matter of returning America to the top of the economic ladder and ensuring “real” Americans are able to get a steady paycheck, rather than building an inclusive society where all can build a fulfilling life.

As a result, Trump’s place in American politics is to remove any pretense for a concern with human freedom, dignity and equality, with a concern for worldly success and domination. In this sense, his politics have more in common with authoritarian nationalism than they do with the traditional American conservatism which is deeply related to notions of freedom, equality, and human dignity, no matter how flawed.

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.

Commodification and Amusement: Postman on Television and Print Media

Recently, I finished reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. While this work was published in the 1980s and focuses on analyzing the effects of the rise television as the dominant mode of communication on public discourse, it still raise many insightful points. Postman’s central argument is that the typographic age of the 18th century (the age of the printed word) was able to foster rational argument, and a healthy democratic discourse while the age of television fails in this regard as we are bombarded with incoherent mixed messages, information for information’s sake and even when television tries to be serious it fails, because even the most serious program must be entertaining. Television as a medium cannot escape from the fact that it is a vehicle for amusement or entertainment. All of these points seem to me to be more or less valid, but Postman fails markedly in describing the way that print media and television both are connected to the logic of commodification. Thus his analysis is insufficiently historical as it takes two points in history and connects them without fully establishing the relation of these historical eras to one another.

Postman does provide a historical explanation of sorts, as he points to telegraphy and photography as forerunners that began the march towards television. Telegraphy conquered space and allowed messages to be shared across far distances very quickly and easily, while photography moved the focus away from the printed word and onto the image. But unfortunately this is merely a technological explanation; it just shows that there were other technologies that arose before television that made the way for it, but it does not show why the general technological trend towards conquering space and the image themselves replaced the printed word. This would be analogous to explaining the rise of automobile merely by reference to the horsedrawn carriage, but without asking why human beings have desired to have vehicles that move them from one place to another as quickly as possible. Consequently, while he gestures towards a historical explanation he does not go into enough detail in showing the relation between the rise of print media and the rise of television.

One important factor that unites the development of print media and television that Postman does not discuss is the logic of commodification. The logic of commodification renders all things whether tangible or intangible into objects that can be bought and sold on the market. This logic seems to be built into capitalism itself as more and more objects, ideas and practises are transformed into something that can be sold at a profit. The idea of selling bodily fluids would be unheard of in the 18th century for numerous reasons while today this is a common practise in the USA. The rise of the commodification of bodily matter cannot be disconnected from the rise of print media and television as a dominant mode of communication, as both are linked to an overarching trend in which all relations must be modeled on the relationship between commodities and buyers and sellers.

One way in which Postman fails to identify the link between the logic of commodification and the emergence of television is that Postman compares the typographic medium with television as if they were polar opposites, rather than seeing that the development of the medium of print is a forerunner to the development of television in that television serves to further entrench the logic of commodification that print itself had already served to entrench.  This can be seen in the way that Postman unequivocally praises print media for its rationality while decrying all television as a mere tool for amusement; he clearly does not identify any link between the two in terms of their relation to commodification, but sees them in an almost binary fashion. However, the link between the two forms of media are quite evident as while print media in the 18th century may have had a seriousness that much television does not have, it was still a commodity. Before print, mass copies of communications could not be created and so the idea of selling communication products as a commodity to the masses made no sense. It was only after the emergence of the printing press, and written communications could be produced on a mass scale that the idea of selling communications about the events of the day as a commodity began to make sense. Before the printing press the clergy largely was occupied with maintaining knowledge through the activities of scribes and others. These groups would maintain collections, but these collections were merely a store of wisdom for the limited few with access to them, rather than a source of information to sell to people. In this sense while there are many qualitative differences between print media and television there is a deep connection between the two because they both are part of an overall development in capitalist society towards the ever growing reach of commodification.

Furthermore, if we compare television to typographic media we see the way in which television further entrenched what print media had begun to entrench. As we just noted typographic media like any other can be bought and sold, and it was bought and sold during the 18th century when it was at its peak, but because typographic media was still rooted to a particular place because of the absence of technologies like the telegraph it was not a fully mass produced commodity. In the 18th century the news in Pennsylvania covered events relating to life in that area, and in this sense information about the context of life in Pennsylvania was bought and sold, but information about life in this area was not sold to those in Copenhagen as a commodity, as there was no simple means of getting the information to Copenhagen quickly. Consequently, the sale of the information was geographically limited. Postman notes the way in which news was confined to a context of life in the typographic age, but he does not note that the decontextualization of news so that it can be sent anywhere on the world is part of the overall logic of commodification that extends from the initial step of commodifying information for sale. The movement to wider distribution of news as commodity was made possible by the telegraph, but the reason the telegraph and television caught on as an important technology for distributing news was because of the already existing historical trend towards commodification of information that the printing press had served to establish. It is somewhat doubtful that the news of the day would have become the commodity for global consumption that it has become today if print media had not already transformed information into a commodity for sale to a mass audience. Consequently, the telegraph and television merely took the logic of commodification in communications to a further limit.

Despite all that I have said above, I still think Postman’s book is worth a read, but I wish he would have spent more time discussing the way in which typographic media and television are part of the same historical trend, rather than fixating merely on the ways in which they are different. By taking this step he would have been better able to show the roots that underlie both developments.