The Problems of a Just Society: The Importance of Goods Beyond Justice

The question I want to examine is whether there are societal problems that need to be overcome that nonetheless could not be referred to as injustices? For the sake of simplicity I will say that a just society is one in which all persons are treated with equal respect. While this is a very abstract definition of justice it should suffice for the purposes of this entry. My answer to this question is that there are societal problems that cannot be made sense of as injustices, and that while justice is an exceedingly important societal value, we need to be attentive to societal goods that cannot be construed as an elements of a just society.

Given the definition of justice that I established above it would seem that there are certainly problems that can arise in a just society that nonetheless cannot be construed as injustices. For example, the absence of a rich culture of the arts, the absence of a rich culture of athletic competition, and the presence of a broadly, ill-informed, and apathetic citizenry are all societal problems in that they are problems that relate to the common life of a society. But nonetheless none of these problems can be adequately construed as an injustice. No person is treated with disrespect by not having access to a rich culture of the arts, even if this is an opportunity that would be beneficial to human flourishing.

Someone might say that even if the absence of access to a rich culture of the arts is not an injustice, a society still needs to provide each individual with enough opportunities so they can truly be an autonomous author of their own life. This is true, but having enough opportunities need not necessarily mean having the particular opportunity to access a rich, artistic culture, so all that this point suggests is that justice requires individuals to have a certain set of life opportunities available to them, but on the face of it, it does not specify which ones are to be available. Furthermore, any one particular opportunity does not seem to be required for justice. For example, if a society does not engage in the arts and one is born into that society, does the absence of access to the arts constitute an injustice? I would say no, as one still has many other opportunities and can still live autonomously. So, it seems that there are societal problems that can arise in a just society, that cannot be construed as injustices.

I also specified that these societal problems are something that must be overcome. My argument for this is that while justice is extremely important, many of the goods that are not secured by justice, are not simply an optional extra, but are rather a part of society that we have some sort of obligation to establish. For example, let us imagine a just society that experiences the three societal problems that I pointed out above. The failure of a society to overcome these problems would leave the society impoverished in a civilizational sense, and while our obligation to realize these goods beyond justice is likely less pressing than our duty to overcome injustice, it still seems that we do have an obligation of some kind to establish these goods within society. We have such an obligation as the life of a society that experienced all three of these societal problems while just, would also be mundane, and banal, and the goods of a rich, artistic culture, athletics, and an informed and engaged citizenry enrich the lives of all.

Now the question might come up of why the aforementioned is important. One reason why this set of issues is important is that there is a tendency among politically informed, and engaged people within postindustrial societies to focus their attention on eradicating injustice and ending oppression, and while these are exceedingly important goals, sometimes the politically informed and engaged become quite silent about the decay of the culture of the arts, athletics and the tendency of apathy among the citizenry. The problem with this silence is that certain imperative of postindustrial societies are working against these goods beyond justice, while justice itself is much more unaffected by these imperatives. I am largely thinking of the imperatives of technological progress, capitalist accumulation and commodification. These imperatives tends to distract people from public life through the development of entertaining technologies, and the way in which these entertaining technologies encourage a flight to the private sphere. Furthermore, these imperatives tend to commodify the arts and athletics, and thus discourage a rich culture of the arts and athletics, as people worry less about the inherent excellences of the arts and athletics and more about their marketability. The result of this is that the culture of the arts and athletics that is produced is one of marketability, rather than one that is committed to the particular excellences that the arts and athletics realize. Consequently, politically informed and engaged people in postindustrial societies need to begin thinking and speaking about these issues to a greater degree, not at the expense of issues of justice, but in addition to, as some of the most dominant imperatives of postindustrial societies threaten these goods that are left unsecured by the presence of justice.

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How can we understand music? What role should it play in our lives?

For many in postindustrial societies the enjoyment of music is a central element of a well-lived life. We speak of music in different ways. In one moment we see it as a release. In another, we see it as a pleasure. In another we see it as something to be understood. It is to the issue of understanding music that I wish to turn. Furthermore, I would like to examine music without lyrical content and ask if there is any meaningful sense in which such pieces of music can be grasped or understood. It may seem obvious that music can be understood, but on further thought understanding music gives rise to difficulties that do not arise in other forms of art such as painting or poetry. Music, on its own, is divorced from the medium of language, and because thought requires language it becomes difficult to think of how a sequence of melodies or harmonies can have any inherent linguistic meaning. Furthermore, unlike painting, music is divorced from visual representation, and while visual representation itself may not have any inherent relation to language, the visual representation of object seems to more easily align itself to linguistic meaning than sound. For example, if I see a picture of a person sitting in a chair with their dog, I automatically think that at least at a superficial level, the painting is about the pleasant relation of people to their pets, and perhaps this meaning relates to the human desire for domestic comfort. However, when I listen to “Claire de Lune” by Debussy I can only sense sadness, beauty, and fragility, but these terms themselves seem to conflict so what is the overall meaning of the piece? Is there an overall meaning of the piece? If the piece has no meaning, what does it mean to have an understanding of the piece? In this entry, I will try to reveal what it means to understand a piece of music.

When I listen to a piece of music in order to get an understanding of it, of any kind, I have to clear my mind of other thoughts. If I am occupied with thoughts, even thoughts about the music, I will hear the sound, but I will not be aware of it and how it fits into the whole. This means that to understand a piece of music I cannot analyse it as I am listening to it; I must fully engage myself with the music.

While I must fully engage myself with the music to get any understanding of its meaning, there is a danger in engaging in a way in which the self is utterly lost in the experience. This occurs when we listen to a piece of music and after the piece is over we have a very incomplete sense of all of the parts of the piece, but nonetheless we have found the piece enthralling or beautiful. This may be an extraordinarily pleasant experience, but it does not allow us to understand the music, as the subject is not fully consciously aware of the musical piece as a whole.

After listening to a piece of music and avoiding the dangers that were mentioned above we may get a vague sense of the meaning of the music. We might say that the piece is melancholic, dark and there is a sense of grief in the music, but it is difficult to see how we might be able to penetrate to a more articulate core of the meaning of the music. Consequently, it seems that the meaning of a piece of non-lyrical music at most can be disclosed to the listener in general terms that do not pertain to a particular problem or issue like the angst we experience regarding the inevitability of death. Further, while a musical piece may become associated with this particular meaning in a listener, there is nothing in the musical experience that renders this particular meaning as the only legitimate meaning of the piece. For another the piece may disclose the meaning of the grieving process.

As a result of the preceding the meaning of piece of music can only be articulated in general adjectives, rather than as something that discloses a particular issue, or a particular problem. We can understand the specific meaning the piece of music has to a particular subject, whether the subject is the composer or a listener, but if divorced from its relation to any particular subject, the meaning of the piece of music is only describable in terms of basic adjectives. In this sense, music does not disclose any particular thought, although it may bring to consciousness the particular concerns of the listener.

At this point, someone may be asking why this is an important topic at all? The reason this is an important topic is that many people see music as essential to their lives, and because of this we need to understand what these people are devoting their time to.

It seems to me there are three ways of listening to music. We can listen to understand the music. We can listen and lose ourselves in the music. Or we can listen to music while analysing it. The first option allows us to understand the meaning of a piece of music, and may encourage reflection upon our own lives as we relate the feelings that a piece of music evokes in us with particular experiences or issues. The second option provides us with a pleasant experience. The third option fails to disclose the meaning of music, but exercises our capacity for analysis.

When I reflect upon how I ordinarily listen to music I realize I tend to listen through the second method, or the first. I think most others will have similar tendencies, and if this is the case we have to question how much time we spend listening to music through the second method, because while pleasure has value, the pleasurable experience of losing oneself in a piece of music, does not create lasting fulfillment or enable us to live worthwhile lives. The visceral experience of the second method is like eating chocolate; it is an immediately pleasurable experience, but not one that would realize any substantial good in one’s life. So, we need to be sure not to build our lives upon listening to music through the second method.

The Preoccupation with Novelty in the Arts

Within the culture of industrialized liberal democratic societies people tend to be more interested and preoccupied with new music, new literature, rather than forms of art that have flourished  in earlier eras. For example, music aficionados tend to be driven to explore newly released music rather than exploring earlier forms of music. Likewise, connoisseurs of literature tend to be on the lookout for the next great book series, rather than being preoccupied with some earlier literary tradition. Of course I am not suggesting that there are no people who are enamored with older forms of the arts, but there is a general tendency towards the new and novel and against older forms. Now this is not something unique to modern liberal democratic societies, but it is peculiar in that unlike in many other previous societies it is fairly easy for a member of a modern liberal democratic society to experience arts that have flourished in previous eras because of the growth of technology and the ease with which art can be shared. A member of the learned class of Renaissance Florence may have been interested in the poetry of Ancient China, but it was relatively difficulty for him to access that poetry, whereas we today can access it through a simple search on the internet.

This excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts is problematic as it prevents us from learning from the vast intellectual wisdom of the past and prevents us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Now towards the end of this entry I will go into more detail as to why I think this excessive preoccupation with novelty is problematic, but in the meantime I want to try to give a basic sketch of why we have this excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts in our society.

One plausible cause of the preoccupation is the societal prejudice that dismisses the relevance of the wisdom of early ages. Any person who has studied the canonical texts of Western Philosophy knows that for many, most of these texts within this tradition can only be of antiquarian, academic interest.  For such people there is nothing we can learn from Aristotle, as his teachings are irrelevant to our present situation, and they represent a backwards past. In sum, this idea suggests that we should be more interested in newer art forms as they speak more to our present predicament whereas earlier art forms do not speak to the issues that arise within our live.  This idea tends to lead people to be dismissive of earlier art, as it does not relate to their particular experiences, and to be preoccupied with novelty in the arts. Nonetheless, there is a grain of truth within this idea in that while I may appreciate Moliere it is difficult for me to fully understand all the dimensions of his work, as it was developed against the background of an entirely different context than the one that I now inhabit. However, the problem is that art often speaks to what is shared across all human lives, rather than what is particular to a given time within a given society, so even if newer arts speak more to our current predicament, older art forms can speak equally well to the general human predicament as it is experienced across varying historical eras.  So we have little reason to be preoccupied with newer art, as there is no reason to think that we cannot learn something about the human predicament from older art forms.

 

The second cause reinforces the preceding cause. This second cause is our desire to share our appreciation of arts with others.  If others are preoccupied with novel forms of the arts we will tend to follow suit, because sharing our appreciation of the arts with others is much better than enjoying them on one’s own. I may love the works of Mahler, but I find myself less drawn to being preoccupied with his work then newer composers, as I have not found a friend yet who I can discuss and appreciate his music with. We don’t simply want to enjoy the art on our own we want to discuss the art with others and share our appreciation with others. This is a perfectly valid desire, and I have no criticism for it, but unfortunately it has the problematic consequence of reinforcing conformity as people are drawn to forms of art that are widely appreciated within a particular social context.

Earlier, I laid out a couple of reasons as to why the preoccupation with novel arts is problematic. The first was that is prevents us from learning from the wisdom of earlier ages. This is problematic, because novel arts tend to simply reinforce our existing prejudices, whereas earlier art forms often present us with wisdom which can supplement and critique our current beliefs. For example, after reading  Moliere’s the Misanthrope I may have a new appreciation of the importance of politeness and tact, and the danger of always being completely authentic and honest. Furthermore, this new appreciation would cut against the tendency of modern thought to extol the virtues of brutal honesty and authenticity.    Thus, earlier forms of art often provide us with unique resources to supplement and correct our understanding, by confronting us with alternative perspectives, which allow us to properly assess our own beliefs.  But if we are preoccupied with novel arts we do not encounter this wisdom and thus our growth is inhibited.

The second reason was that an occupation with novel arts can impoverish our lives by preventing us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms. No matter how many great pop songs one hears, one’s life is richer if one has also experienced a great classical symphony. The forms of beauty of the pop song and the classical symphony are distinct, and are lives are enriched as we are exposed to a wider variety of beautiful forms. A focus on novel arts tends to limit us to a more narrow selection of beautiful forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Furthermore, one additional benefit to experiencing earlier art forms is that we also begin to see certain flaws in novel arts as we are exposed to other earlier art forms and see what they do well, and what is missing from novel arts, and this helps us to develop a more refined appreciation of the arts.  Consequently,  our preoccupation with novel arts is something that we should try to overcome.