The Activism of William Marsden – Piety and Partiality

In many ways William Marsden was an average 25 year old man living in Vancouver. He had a girlfriend, a small circle of close friends and worked as an administrator for a non-profit organization that supported the homeless within Vancouver, but while William was charming he had the distinct ability to irritate those who he was close with, while being adored by those who barely knew him.

On March 12th 2014 it was William’s birthday and his friends took him out to a pub on West Broadway. His two closest friends, Zoe and Linus were there, along with his girlfriend Alex. While Linus knew that William became exasperated when he received gifts he had found a classic Rage Against the Machine t-shirt which brought him back to his early teenage years; he and William had bonded while listening to Rage’s Evil Empire.

About an hour after William arrived, Linus cornered William while he was getting a drink and handed him the shirt. William looked down at Linus’ hands in disgust and said “I don’t need more shirts. This money could have been better spent by providing funds to my charity or another good cause.”

Linus explained “I recognize that, but you are an important friend in my life, and I wanted to show that by giving something to you.”

William reluctantly took the shirt and said “I will take the shirt this time, because it means so much to you, but you should really consider how money can best be used when you are spending it.”

Linus had no reply as there was no point in arguing with William on this subject. He was just happy that William had eventually decided to take the shirt.

A little later in that year William was at his weekly Yoga class when he realized that he had to do something drastic in his life in order to meet his image of himself as a person who was devoted to the betterment of mankind.

That night he sat down with Alex and said “I am moving the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because my expertise as an administrator would be of far more value there than it is here in Vancouver. While the homeless in Vancouver are suffering my work would do far more good in the Congo. I want you to come with me so that we can share this enriching experience together.”

Alex knew that activism was important to William`s life but she was dumbstruck that the man she had spent nearly two years with could so nonchalantly ask her to give up her budding career as a lawyer, and leave all her friends to pursue activism in the Congo. She did not know what to say. All that she could manage to get out was “I don`t know what to make of this. I deeply care for you, but you are asking me to sacrifice all of my ties to support your commitment to a very specific cause.`

William responded `I was hoping you would understand, but I am afraid my suspicions were right and you just don`t get how important my going to the Congo is. Clearly you are no wiser than those fools who do not buy their shoes from TOMS. I will go without you if you are not willing to come.“

Alex replied “If you value your purity as an activist more than our relationship than this should have ended long ago.` Alex then stormed out of William`s apartment before he could say anything.

Without a second thought William began packing up his things for the Congo. He wondered where he would live in the Congo, but that was a challenge that he could figure out later. He had avoided the temptation of being distracted from his true quest by a romantic relationship, and for that he was proud.


After reading this story most people would come to have mixed feelings about William. He is clearly very pious and cares about making the world a better place, but these commitments prevent him from being a good friend or romantic partner. What are we to make of this? It seems to me there are a few things that we can take away from this.

One thing that we can take from this is the Berlinian point that the good of general benevolence towards the human race is at odds with the particular goods of romantic love and friendship, as William is unable to secure both goods in life, but ultimately must choose to place priority over one set over the other.

In addition one other point we might take away from this story is that there is something deeply problematic about failing to recognize that there exists numerous goods in the world that place commands on us. William’s action shows that he does not think that romantic relationships or friendships place a command on him, and the only God or good that he must serve is that of doing whatever he can to best help mankind.  This is made clear as William does not see his choice as one between competing and incompatible goods, but as a rather obvious choice. Consequently, William’s vice is that he does not recognize the wide range of goods that exist in the world and that call him. Instead he is so mesmerized by the good of efficient activism that he does not recognize that he is sacrificing all sorts of valuable goods for this one particular good.  One offshoot of this point is that we not only can we bewitched by evil, but we can also be so bewitched by the appeal of particular goods such that we fail to recognize the validity of the claims of other goods.

One further point we might take away from this story is that people who are moral saints like William may not be desirable as friends or lovers, even if in some overall sense they have a positive influence on humanity.  This is similar to the point that Susan Wolf makes in her essay “Moral Saints,” but I do not have a copy of that work on hand and it has been so long since I have read it that I cannot speak to the exact similarities and differences.

Please feel free to answer any or all of the following questions:

Do you agree with my assessment of William?

Do you find William admirable or contemptible?

Is there anything else we can take away from this story?

Lilly and James

Lilly was horrified by the state of the Canada. She thought to herself “it is 2013 and we still are dealing with poverty, homelessness, violence against women and damage to the environment.” It was clear to her that anyone who was sane and had a conscience would realize that it was necessary to devote time and energy to the task of ending these social evils. This is why she spent nearly all of her time outside of her job as a corporate lawyer working with various organizations to end these evils.

Lilly herself had never known poverty, homelessness or violence. She came from an affluent family and had been educated at Princeton. But her lack of experience with these evils did not render her anymore unfit to fight for these causes than anyone else. She saw the evil in the world, and she was merely responding to it.

While Lilly did not have many friends because of the time she invested in her job and activism, she was still very close with a girl she had gone to high school with named Marie. Marie had been trying to set her up on a date with an acquaintance of hers that Marie thought would be compatible with Lilly. At first Lilly was very hesitant to go on this date, as she was preoccupied with working with her causes. But after Marie had put forward the offer several times Lilly began to relent and reluctantly agreed to go.

The man Marie had set her up with was a project manager for a telecommunications company who was apparently quite charming. His name was James.

Lilly spoke on the phone with James and he seemed nice enough, so they decided to meet at Starbucks to have a coffee on Saturday afternoon.

Lilly arrived at the Starbucks a good fifteen minutes before they had been set to meet. So she began to sit down and think about what she was going to get to drink. She really wanted a Caramel Macchiato, but she also was interested in having a non-fat vanilla latte with an extra shot. As she saw the sign that said Starbucks uses fair trade coffee beans she found herself wishing that other stores would be like Starbucks and try to use their wealth to change the world.

When James arrived he introduced himself to Lilly, and stood awkwardly beside Lilly in the line. Within a few minutes they were able to put their order in. James ordered a Venti Chai Latte and Lilly ordered a Venti Caramel Macchiato. James offered to pay for Lilly`s drink; she was okay with this, but made it clear that he did not have to pay.

After they had received their drinks hey then sat down at a quaint table in the corner and began to chat.

The conversation began in a quite facile fashion as James and Lilly discussed their families and occupations. But when the subject turned to personal interests Lilly went on in great deal about all of the organizations she worked with and gave money to, and why this was so important to her. After this Lilly asked James what his interests were outside of work.

“Umm, I like to play video games, watch TV, and watch sports with friends. I don`t seem to be as serious as you about how I spend my spare time.”

Lilly then asked “Do you have any desire to assist with some cause or organization in your spare time? I know I would feel like my existence was hollow if I did not volunteer.”

James responded “I have no problem with people who volunteer and have a deep passion to help change the world, but I have no interest in it. I get way more fulfillment from watching sports and playing video games, then I would from volunteering.”

At this point Lilly knew that she had no future with James. While he seemed to be nice and intelligent how could she date someone who clearly was so apathetic, vapid and without empathy?

With a look of indignation on her face Lilly stated “how can you live with yourselves when you do not spend any time helping to protect those who are most vulnerable? There are people suffering out there while you waste your life playing video games.”

At this point James became furious. “I may not help the needy, but at least I am not a hypocrite. You are a corporate lawyer, the epitome of establishment values, and yet you act as if you were merely a pious soldier fighting against the evils of our social order. More than that, you carry around a Coach purse, wear Dolce & Gabbana glasses and your dress is made by Versace.”

Lilly replied “I don`t see how my job and what I wear makes me a hypocrite. I am entitled to nice things, but I just want everyone else to be able to have them as well because I have empathy and compassion for others. There is no tension between my clothes and job and my activism.”

James snidely remarked “your lack of self-awareness runs so deep you cannot even recognize it when confronted. You clearly don`t want to see an evil person like me again, so I am going leave.”

Lilly exclaimed “you accuse me of lack self-awareness when you are wasting your life on pointless activities but cannot seem to see it? Leave if you want, as you are clearly disgusted by me.”

A young woman named Rebecca was sitting at the table adjacent to James and Lilly. She was wearing a hoodie and some tattered jeans, and had a weathered copy of Beloved in her hands. She felt guilty, as she had been listening to James and Lilly`s entire conversation. But it was just too fascinating, and she could not stop herself from listening.

It was a bizarre, but all too common situation in Rebecca`s mind. James clearly was right about Lilly as Lilly could not see how her job and taste in fashion represented the values that reinforced the very social evils that she seemed to want to eliminate. But Lilly was clearly right about James. He was clearly vacuous, and superficial, as he honestly claimed that watching TV and playing video games brought him great fulfillment. It seemed that both were able to see towards the core of the others, but neither could see themselves.

For Rebecca this reinforced how illusive self-knowledge was. But she also realized how difficult it was to participate in this society while maintaining a genuine commitment to self reflection.

Some Thoughts on Political Idealism and Prudence

There is a tendency for activists and ideologues to try to apply their political ideal to every society, no matter what conditions that society finds itself in. I will claim that it is problematic to apply a political ideal to a society through political action without confirming that this change is sustainable for the society given its culture, customs and the dispositions of its citizens. That this seems to be the case can be accounted for both by an examination of history, as well as through a theoretical examination. From a historical perspective one tends to see that when a political ideal is applied without recourse to the actual conditions of a society the consequences tend to be poor. In the case of the French Revolution the Jacobins tried to apply a political ideal based on popular sovereignty onto a society of peasants who had little experience with political activity and being viewed as a singular collective body that ruled itself. The people recognized that they were in some sense sovereign, but what that sovereignty meant in institutional terms was not clear. The results of the French Revolution (The Terror and the Rise of Napoleon) were terrible in part because revolutionaries had tried to apply a political ideal that was quite unrelated to the experiences, culture, and dispositions of the French state at the time. Thus, this example seems to suggest that there is something problematic about applying a political ideal to a society without ensuring that this society has the resources (culture, virtues and customs) to support this change.  Furthermore, examples of this sort are manifest throughout history.

On a more theoretical level one can see how problematic it is to apply a political ideal to a society without recourse to thinking about the actual conditions of the society by referencing the assumptions underlying this activity. In order for it to be a prudent course of action to apply a political ideal to a society without referencing that society’s ability to make that ideal sustainable all societies would need to be able to support all forms of politics, and all societies would need to be obligated to practise the same form of politics. Or political activity would need to have the capacity to make any political ideal sustainable society within any form of society. The first option seems implausible as differing sets of civic dispositions are necessary to support differing forms of constitutions. A commercial, liberal democracy requires civility, industriousness, and compassion while a martial aristocracy like Sparta required courage and harshness. Trying to make Spartans out of Canadians would certainly be ill-conceived. We might try to encourage Canadians to be more courageous by learning about the courage of the Spartans, but to try to apply the Spartan ideal to Canada would be dangerous and imprudent. The second option seems implausible because it exemplifies a perverse form of hubris. Man is not completely under the sway of fate or providence, but to suggest that any ideal can be applied and sustained in any society seems to put too much faith in the human ability to control nature and society.  

None of this suggests that ideals are bad. We are moved by them, and they give us something by which we can critique the present. But it displays a great lack of mindfulness to apply them without asking if a society can support that ideal and make it sustainable. This lack of mindfulness may be accompanied by a pure heart, but this pure heart does not make the lack of mindfulness any more excusable or legitimate. We certainly should devote our energy to improving society, but this should always be done in a way that tries to ask what future is sustainable for this political community at this particular point in history.