Thoughts on Dreher’s Benedict Option

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

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

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

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

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

1) Freedom, Authenticity, Modernity and Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Children and Exiting Benedictine Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Legality, Social Authority and Liberal Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Modes of Criticism of Technological Mastery

Within the popular imagination technological progress is typically viewed as a defining mark of the value of North American and Western European civilization. However, there are many vocal critics of the project of limitless technological progress and so called technological mastery. Some of these critics are deeply religious and motivated by their faith, while others are motivated by a more secular set of concerns. The objection that all of these critics have in common is not that we should not develop technology to help deal with certain problems, but that there is something problematic about a way of life that is dominated by forms of technological power that allows us to create or achieve anything that we desire. I want to look at two tradition that are critical of technological mastery. One is a rule based approach, and the other is virtue centred approach. I will argue that the latter is superior as it better captures our intuitions and is able to give a stronger account of what makes technological mastery problematic.

The rule based tradition lays out a whole catalogue of prohibitions against use of technology in certain areas of life, and in that sense can be said to provide a relatively comprehensive account of how technology ought to be used and developed. For example, within certain Christian circles this rule based approach dominates especially in the area of sexual and reproductive ethics. A whole set of rules are set out regarding which forms of procreation and sex are legitimate and which are not. For example, for some, reproduction using artificial means like artificial insemination, IVF and surrogacy are prohibited forms of reproduction. However, these rules are often just asserted as the word of God, or in the case of non-religious varieties of this approach, the voice of Reason or Nature. No account is given of why following these rules would help us to lead better lives. Furthermore, sometimes the argument is made within this tradition that we should not use unnatural or artificial techniques to achieve certain ends. But this account too does not justify itself, because in this context people are typically working with a teleological, or at least normative, conception of nature, which states that are certain ways of being in the world that are not justifiable because they are contrary to nature. However, this raises the question of why this conception of nature accurately captures our essence and how we ought to live, so until this question is answered the rule remains as an empty prohibition. So, this account does not really explain why technological mastery is problematic; it merely asserts it.

On the other hand, there is a virtue centred critique of technological mastery. The main thrust of this approach is that the problem with technological mastery is that it can inhibit the development of particular virtues such as temperance, moderation, patience and justice, among others. If our technological power allows us to get whatever we want by relatively effortlessly deploying some kind of instrument or technique then we are able to get more of what we want without having to engage in certain practises that are instrumental to and constitutive of the development of virtue. For example, imagine I can take a pill that gives me the body that I have always wanted; this pill requires no exercise or changes in diets for its results. Ordinarily, in order to develop the body that I want, I would have required discipline, patience, prudence and moderation so that I can properly alter my life to ensure that I exercise often enough and eat properly. Furthermore, perhaps even at the end I may have not gotten the body that I wanted, as it turned out to be an unachievable phantasm, in which case this development would help me to learn the virtue of acceptance of what is not in my control. While, this is but one example, it shows how if we have the technological power to get whatever we desire we are tempted into not engaging in practises that develop particular virtues. In essence, under conditions of technological mastery we are tempted to become beings dominated by will and desire who can get whatever they want. While getting whatever we want may seem attractive if this is done at the expense of development of virtue we become vacuous shells who simply will, desire and consume, and part of the dignity of humanity is that he is not merely a willing, desiring, consuming being, but a being who can develop certain qualities in himself such as courage, patience, generosity and compassion. Would humans be that valuable if we just willed, desired, and consumed, and never showed courage, generosity or love? Consequently, the project of technological mastery can threaten the development of virtue if we are tempted to pursue all of our goals through merely technological means that effortlessly allow us to get what we want, rather than practises that not only instrumentally develop virtues, but also form part of a way of life that is constitutive of a life of virtue.

What I mean by practises is recognizably influenced by the work of MacIntyre in After Virtue, although different from it, and can be best clarified if we look at something like a sport. Often people who play sports do so to win, and for the recognition, and honour they will achieve for winning, but sports require certain virtues in order to be played well whose point is not to win, but to play the game excellently. A good hockey player is not just one that scores lots of goals, but one that is a team player, is responsible in all parts of the game, and works hard under every circumstance. This is why a lot of people frown upon Phil Kessel, as while he scores many goals he does not exemplify the teamwork, defensive responsibility and industriousness that is constitutive of what it means to be a good hockey player. Many of the practises that ordinarily we engage in not only instrumentally help us to achieve certain admirable qualities (virtues), but constitute a part of a form of life that is valuable, at least in part, because it involves the practise of those virtues. Consequently, because virtues can only be realized through their practised, if practises that develop and involve the presence of particular virtues are replaced with an effortless technological solution that do not require these virtues we are in danger of losing the element of a good life that is constituted by the practise of virtue.

We can now see that what makes this virtue centred approach better than the rule based approach as it provides us with an image of what it means to be a well-developed person, and shows the way in which technology can threaten this. It does not just say this technological practise is bad, it points to the way in which it can harm our development and lives.

However, some followers of the rule based approach might point out that their rules imply a conception of virtue and that conception of virtue is what underlies the rules. Thus, the rules are only guides for how to become virtuous, they are not a replacement for a conception of virtue. While this is a coherent and intelligible response, it is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it makes rules derivative of virtue, and thus accepts the case that virtue is what is most fundamental in the critique of technological mastery. Furthermore this argument most would not support the conclusions that most followers of the rule based approach want to pursue, as typically they want quite specific rules about how to use technology, rather than an overarching approach of how to ensure that we avoid being tempted into not engaging in practises that develop and constitute the practise of the virtues. For example, those who have a moral prohibition against IVF, artificial insemination, and commercial surrogacy often do not have a problem with many other technologies that make our lives much more effortless and tend to eliminate other valuable practises. Their approach is thus inherently moralistic and code oriented. For them the evil is the use of technology itself in a certain area of life, not that the advent of technological solutions can threaten the existence of certain valuable practises.

Consequently, it seems that the virtue centred approach offers a much more compelling critique of technological mastery as it shows what goods are threatened by technological mastery, and how technological mastery threatens these good.

Inside Out as Aristotleian Critique

Yesterday afternoon, I saw Inside Out with my boyfriend, as we had heard that it was one of the best Pixar films that has been released over the last while. The film is very entertaining and I certainly recommend it, but one thing that struck me about it is that the film presents an Aristotleian critique of a certain contemporary mode of thought. In contrast to the contemporary mode of thought stresses that our ultimate goal should be to be happy, with happiness understood as a subjective state of joy or satisfaction, “Inside Out” teaches the audience that it is a sign of a disordered spirit to try to always feel joy or satisfaction. Instead we have to recognize that in response to certain situations feeling sadness or anger is appropriate and the sign of a properly developed character. Furthermore, given that Inside Out is a film targeted at children it serves as a form of ethical education directed at helping the young to better understand how they ought to relate to the world and their emotions. There will be spoilers from Inside Out in the remainder of this post, so if you want to avoid these read on at your own risk.

The premise of Inside Out is that within each person’s mind (or soul to the more spiritually inclined) there are five different beings who embody and constitute different sorts of emotional responses. These five beings are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. These beings control the emotional response of the agent they reside within, and these responses then create memories which are coloured by the being that generates them. For example if something frustrating occurs Anger will take the reins in the control panel and give rise to an emotional response of anger and then the memory of this even will be one that is coloured by anger. Furthermore, there are a select set of core memories that are coloured by the emotional response related to the memory that constitute the personality of the agent. While the world that Inside Out builds has additional complexity for the sake of brevity I think this should give the reader sufficient detail to understand my point.

Most of the film takes place in the mind of Riley, a young girl from Minnesota, whose family has just moved to a dingy home in San Francisco. During her first day at school in San Francisco, Riley is asked to tell her new class a little about herself and where she is from. While initially she seems quite happy and tells the class about her previous life in Minnesota eventually she becomes very sad as she realizes that she has lost that previous life. Internally we see the cause of this is that Sadness is touching a core memory and so colouring the memory as a sad one, when it was initially a joyous one. This upsets Joy as she sees Sadness as a being who is detracting from her mission of ensuring that Riley is happy.

Consequently, a quarrel breaks out between Sadness and Joy and as a result of the collateral damage of this quarrel does to the physical infrastructure of the headquarters of the mind, Sadness and Joy are sucked out of headquarters and find themselves in other areas of the mind such as `long term memory.` Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the headquarters of the mind however, because without them the only things that Riley can feel are fear, disgust, and anger.

Over the course of this journey back to headquarters Joy ends up separated from Sadness, and in a pit in which all of Riley`s forgotten memories lie. At one point Joy realizes that she will likely never get out of this pit, and consequently Riley will never feel happiness again. At this point Joy begins to cry as she looks at a core memory; this memory is of the day on which Riley`s hockey team lost in the final and Riley missed the shot for the game winning goal. This memory had been coloured by happiness as Riley`s parents and team had supported her through her distress but it was nonetheless imbued with sadness. At this point Joy realizes that she misunderstood her role in Riley`s mind. She had striven to dominate Riley`s mind so that she was always happy, but to strive to always make Riley happy would be to respond inappropriately to many situations that present themselves. If were one to respond to losing a final game in a sport that you care about and missing an opportunity to win the game with joy this would be perverse; someone who reacted in this way could be said to have an improperly developed character. So, in essence, at this moment Joy learns that one emotion should not dominate the mind of an agent, but instead our emotional responses should be appropriate to the event that has been encountered.

Through a miraculous feat Joy and Sadness are both able to get back to the headquarters of the mind, and at the end of the film we see that Joy now understands that Sadness can be an appropriate reaction to events and that her role is not to try to make Riley as happy as possible, but to ensure Riley reacts joyfully in appropriate situations. This is made evident as memories, including core memories, are now revealed to be imbued with numerous emotional responses, whereas in the past Joy had been hell bent on ensuring that as many as memories as possible were purely happy.

Interestingly, in The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes a similar, if not the same, point in his discussion of the doctrine of the mean. Aristotle notes that the mean, which is the proper path, take places between an excess and a deficiency; in the case of pride, the excess is vanity, and the deficiency is undue humility, and likewise with anger the excess is irascibility and the deficiency is unirascibility. (32-34, 1107b-1108b) Consequently for Aristotle the point is not to avoid negative emotions like pride, and anger, but to feel them in the appropriate way and to the appropriate degree. The person who becomes extremely angry because someone does not turn on their signal light in traffic experiences anger excessively and is dominated by anger, while the person who does not feel angry when his friend is insulted or harmed has a deficiency of anger, and is disordered as they fail to feel anger where it is due. Similarly, someone who believes in the equal dignity of human beings, but does not feel indignation towards practises of human trafficking is in some sense improperly developed as they do not feel indignant about practises that stand in opposition to their beliefs about the dignity of human beings. As a result, it seems that the point made in “Inside Out“ echoes the Aristotleian doctrine of the mean.

Furthermore, as much as the point that both Inside Out and Aristotle makes seem like common sense, there are certain contemporary modes of thought that stand in stark opposition to it. For example, we are often told to whatever it takes to be happy, with happiness understood as a subjective state of joy or satisfaction, and that the best kind of life is one which is filled with as much happiness as possible. But if we are convinced by the doctrine of the mean and the teaching of Inside Out this does not seem to be an adequate conception of how to live well. For example, imagine a person who is able to feel joy in every situation they encounter and avoid all negative emotions, such as sadness, fear, anger and disgust. This person might have a life with the largest quantity of happiness, but yet their life and character seems impoverished. A person who is able to avoid negative emotions and only feel joy in every circumstance is necessarily narcissistic as they fail to feel sadness, anger at injustice and suffering.

Furthermore, at a more general level this type of person is enslaved to a particular emotional response, and while slavery to the emotional response of joy may be more pleasant than slavery to the emotion of sadness, neither is constitutive of the best mode of being. Based on the doctrine of the mean we may say that the best mode of being for a human is to have the capacity to react appropriately with a wide range of emotions to the multiplicity of situations that one encounters. In this situation no one emotion, or the whole range of emotions, dominates you, but yet you are still able to participate in emotionally reacting appropriately to the events that you encounter. To be fully human requires that we not only find a way to create joy in our lives, but also that we know how to properly react with sadness to lost, and indignation to injustice. Thus, in conclusion, it seems that Inside Out presents a critique of the hedonistic conception of what it means to live well that argues that the best life is the one with the greatest volume of happiness. Furthermore, in presenting this critique to children Inside Out serves as a form of ethical education that helps children to better understand how they ought to relate to their emotions and the world as a whole.

Works Cited

Inside Out. Director Pete Docter, Ronald Del Carmen. Perf.Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black. Pixar, 2015. Film.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. David Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

2015 Alberta Election: Citizenship, Community and Economic Interests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pathology of Market Care Substitution: “High Touch Service” and “The Girlfriend Experience”

Many businesses pride themselves on offering so called “high touch service.” With high touch service the client not only pays for a particular product or service; she is treated in a personable manner in which her server not only provides her with a needed good or service, but appears as someone who genuinely cares about the client, rather than someone who is merely providing a good or service in exchange for payment. The service provider in this context thus appears as more of a friend or associate than a stranger. In this sense a corollary of the “high touch service” is the notion of “the girlfriend experience” in the sex trade. Like high touch service a client pays a sex trade worker to appear as if she cares about her client and is in a mutually committed relation with him. What unites both high touch service, and the girlfriend experience is that the client pays for a substitution of a pure market relation in which one provides goods or services in exchange for payment, for the appearance of a relationship that transcends market relations in which the client and service provider encounter one another in a relationship of mutual affection and concern.

For the sake of simplicity I will refer to this behaviour of substituting a relation of buyer and seller for the appearance of a relation of affect and care as “market care substitution.” I know this neologism does not have the same pleasant ring as “high touch service,” but it should suffice for this piece of writing. In what follows I will try to at least partially set out what the relevance of market-care substitution is.

One thing that the presence of market care substitution reveals is the way in which market-driven societies encourage a distorted understanding of the good and are based on a distorted relation to the good. Market care substitution seems to arise in any market driven culture as we can see from the way in which both the food and financial service industry operate in North America. Focus is always placed on making the client feel as if they were deeply cared for, rather than just as a source of revenue that must be provided with certain things. Consequently market care substitution seems to be quite prevalent in market-driven societies.

Now that it is clear that market care substitution seems to arise in market-driven societies we can turn to how this affects the agent participating in these relations. When I participate in a relation of market-care substitution as buyer or consumer I must separate myself into two distinct elements. One element is the buying self who decides that it wants to pay for the appearance of a relation of care and affect. The other element of the self is that which enjoys the appearance that has been bought. In this sense we must separate the economically rational “I“ that pursue what it wants from the “I“ that enjoys the appearance. This occurs as in order for the self to enjoy the appearance of the caring relation it must suspend its relation with the enjoying element, so the enjoying element can enjoy the appearance in ignorance of the fact that this appearance is a mere appearance. For if the self remained as a single entity, it would know that the relation was merely apparent and this would sully the enjoyment of the apparently caring relation.

In itself this separation of the economically rational “I“ from the enjoying “I“ may not seem like a particularly large problem, but on further reflection there is a certain perversity about this mode of operation that encourages a distorted understanding of the good. If we ask ourselves what a good life is we don’t think that it is one with lots of pleasant experiences of the appearance of affection or care, rather we tend to think that the actual development of relations of care and affection that mutually enrich and develop the interlocutor’s lives constitutes a central aspect of the good life. Some might disagree with me that most have this understanding of the good life, but I question this because when a friend betrays us we are upset with them not because they have failed to keep up an appearance of care and concern, but because they have shown that they actually do not care in the way we thought he or she did. This shows that what is actually valued and enriches the lives of friends is not the simple appearance of affection and care, but the presence of an actually constituted relation of affection and care.

From the preceding we can see that the practise of market care substitution seems not to fit with this understanding of the good life as through market care substitution what is sought is the mere appearance of affection and care, rather than its genuine presence. Thus, given that market-driven societies seem to encourage market care substitution it also encourages a distorted understanding of the good as participation in these kinds of relations will reinforce the tendency to see the good as the appearance of relations of affection and care rather than their genuine presence. If our economic lives are spent pursuing the appearance of caring relations this will only make us more vulnerable to viewing the good life as consisting in the presence of relations that appear to be genuinely imbued with the spirit of mutual concern and affection, and this is clearly a distortion.

In addition, market care substitution leads to a distorted understanding of the good because it encourages us to see the good as a separate object that we as subjects come to possess just as we hold a pen in our hands. This is an erroneous understanding of the good as we long to become one with the good through our participate in it. To explain when, as with market care substitution, we have a self or “I“ that reasons and decides standing in opposition to the self or “I“ that enjoy we have a situation in which the good always remains separate from me. The enjoying self may momentarily possess the good and ravish and enjoy it, but the good always remains as an object separate from myself that I have in my possession. On the other hand in actually constituted friendships I do not possess the good as an object, instead I, in some sense, become one with the good through my participation in it. The good of friendship is not an object for me and an object for my friend, rather it is something that we mutually share and participate in. Furthermore, this participation partially constitutes our relationship as a friendship.

Now this raises the question of what our actual relation to the good is as I have only shown that friendship does not fit the model of the good as something we possess. Nonetheless I think that the understanding described in terms of friendship more adequately represents our relation to the good as beyond the relationships we have to others many other goods are best described as things that we participate in, rather than things we possess. For example let us look at virtues like courage, generosity and justice as these on most accounts can be considered to be genuine goods. The courageous person is not a person who exists independently who happens to have the skill to be courageous, but a person whose identity is partially constituted by their courageous spirit. In a sense this person participates in the essence of courage through their very identity as courage is a quality shared by them and many others both living, dead and to be born. If a person merely had the skill to be courageous as something separate from their identity they would not necessarily have the virtue of courage as they could choose not to deploy that skill. So thus our relation to virtue goods is not one of possession, but of something that constitutes our identity and that we participate in. As a result it seems to me that it is quite plausible and convincing to view our relation to the good not as that of possessor to object, but rather as something that we participate in and to some extent become one with. Therefore, the activity of market care substitution is based on a distortion of our actual relation to the good, as it always places the good as an object that stands at a distance from us that we need to possess, rather than as something that we can commune with and participate in. In addition as was noted earlier participation in relations of market care substitution will reinforce a distorted understanding of the good, as when we participate in these relations we tend to reinforce the vision of the good as an object separate from us that we possess.

Do you agree with the basic thrust of this essay?

Is our relation to goods distinct from our relation to the good?

Are there any other important aspects of market care substitution that have been ignored and should be recognized?

Thanks for reading and please respond to the questions if you wish to.