Thoughts on Dreher’s Benedict Option

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

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

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

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

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

1) Freedom, Authenticity, Modernity and Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Children and Exiting Benedictine Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esteem, Authenticity and the Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Negative Theology and the “True Self”

It is a commonplace of modern culture to refer to the notion of the “true self.” We often claim that we must be true to ourselves and that we need to work to express our true inner self, rather than trying to repress it. But while we talk in this way often, if we look at the notion of having a true self, it seems odd and quite implausible as the notion of the “true self” seems to suggest that there is a fundamental unified essence waiting to be fully expressed within each human being, and this seems to very out of step with the conception of what a human being is that we get from an understanding of modern biology. Modern biology tells us that humans are not true selves trying to express themselves through a bodily vessel, but beings whose core identity can be identified in the arrangement of matter that constitutes them; or put more simply our true nature is that we are bodies made up of constituent parts like brains, lungs and bones. So, there seems to be an incompatibility between the way we talk about ourselves and how we must live authentic lives, and the way we understand our identity as physical biological beings. I think we can explain this tension between our vision of the “true self” and a biological conception of humanity if we stop thinking of the self as a static object of empirical enquiry and instead think of it as Negative Theology thinks of God, and I will explain why in the argument that follows.

If I look deep within, it is hard for me to seriously suggest that I see a clear being, a “true self” waiting to be expressed. But what I can see is that I would like to develop this quality, and that quality, and that I do not want to develop other qualities. However, none of these qualities I long to have, taken independently, or in combination with the others, seems to exhaust the nature of my “true self”. My “true self” somehow seems to be indescribable in the categories of ordinary speech. In this sense, we might say that our approach should be analogous to the approach to God known as Negative Theology. Negative Theology posits awe towards God, but refuses to claim that God has specific qualities like benovelence. According to this approach we can understand what God is not, but not what God is. God can be seen to transcend any categories that can be applied to him.

Likewise we might say that the “true self” within us is not a physical object or even a collection of qualities and desires that we can point to and describe, but rather something that is beyond all linguistic description. This seems to be plausible as the notion of a “true self” is always aspirational in that when we speak of our “true self” we do not refer to an accurate description of the current state of our identity, but a sense of something admirable that we can develop into. Furthermore, this admirable thing we can develop into that is somehow “inside of us” is not something that can be grasped as a collection of properties or a single unifying property. Whenever, we develop our “true self” and think we have fully developed our self we realize that there is something that is missed in our development and our description of that development. I may have developed my capacity for courage, but something about the mode of action, is not simply courage or any other category, but something beyond, unspeakable, that I am drawn towards. We do not stand at the ready with a perfect image and description of our “true self” ready to replicate that self in life as if we were a craftsmen building a replica of an existing model. Rather the “true self” calls us to express it while at the same time all of our categories fail to fully account for what this “true self” is.

Consequently, while there seems to be cognitive dissonance between the image of ourselves as at our core biological creatures with the notion of the “true self”, a Negative Theology of the self, like the one I have loosely sketched above tends to show that this tension is not so irreconcilable. There is a sense in which human beings are physical beings with particular biological characteristics, but what applying the model of Negative Theology to the self, shows us is that any categorization of humanity, whether it is biological like that of science or normative like the categories that I have pointed to in my discussion of the self, fails to fully capture what we mean when we talk about the “true self”. In this sense the “true self” like the God of Negative Theology is something that cannot be fully grasped at once through a set of categories. Furthermore, the “true self”, in particular, is something that comes from within us and demands expression, but eludes full understanding.

I am not sure if Negative Theology is the right approach to thinking about the self, and while I am attracted to certain elements of it, I also am drawn towards the notion that a system of categories can exhaust and fully disclose the reality of something. I find a part of me whispers if we can never fully capture reality through language in some meaningful sense what is the point of thought? But one thing that is certain is that a mode of thought modeled on Negative Theology provides us with an interesting way of thinking about the self that gets at the intuition that while it may be true in some sense to say human beings are matter in motion or social, amicable being, or whatever description we find compelling, none of these descriptions fully uncovers what we are. Further, this mode of though helps us capture how at ease we are at accepting two seemingly contradictory descriptions of humanity, because if all description fail to fully describe the “true self” then there is no reason why two seemingly contradictory modes of thought could not both reveal an aspect of the truth. If this is the case we have no reason to be uneasy that two descriptions of humanity we adhere to seem incompatible or opposed.

Louis CK’s SNL Monologue: Pedophilia and Passions

Last Saturday, Louis CK hosted SNL, and over the course of his opening monologue he ran with a bit about pedophiles. While I found this bit humorous, there have been some who have been outspoken in their criticism of Louis CK for the line of jokes that he ran with concerning pedophilia and suggested that he overstepped and went too far in joking about this topic. The idea being that there are some matters that you cannot joke about because they are so associated with cruelty, depravity and sin that any joking about them somehow legitimizes the activity and makes light of its seriousness. However, it seems to me that Louis CK that the reason why his jokes about pedophilia have offended some and made them feel uncomfortable is because he actually tries to genuinely portray what it is to be a pedophile. In so doing CK has shown that a certain popular image of humanity, which sees the fundamental value of human existence in pursuing one’s passions, is fundamentally flawed. This revealing is upsetting to people because it reveals that pedophiles like other human beings are vulnerable to being dominated by passions and thus they are not just automatons doing terrible things rather, they share a certain fundamental characteristic with the rest of humanity.

During his monologue Louis CK points out that given the consequences of being caught as a child molester one can only guess that the molester really enjoys their pursuit as they are willing to risk a lot of valuable things such as freedom and respect in order so that they can commit acts of pedophilia. CK flippantly says that he loves the chocolate bar “Mounds” (as a Canadian I am unaware of this chocolate bar, but I have been told it is somewhat like Almond Joy), but if he would have to go to prison for eating a “Mounds” then he would stop eating them. As much as CK loves “Mounds” they are not worth risking freedom and respect for.

But what is Louis CK trying to get at by noting that he would not risk his freedom for the delicious taste of Mounds, while the child molester is willing to risk freedom and respect to engage in pedophilia? I think what he is getting at is the difference between a desire and a passion. Thus far I have used these terms interchangeably but I think there is a difference between them. A desire simply is a want of some object, whereas a passion is a want for some object but its relation to its holder is such that not pursuing this object is unthinkable to them. In this sense then a passion is a desire that tends to dominate the agent, it does not merely occur and then go away if it is not satiated. Instead, it persists until it is satiated. Consequently, for CK the child molester is driven by a passion rather than a mere desire. The image that Louis CK paints of the child molester is more like the image of a drug addict that will do anything to get high, or similarly an artist committed to creation of beauty at all costs.

If the image that Louis CK portrays of the child molester is at all accurate than the understanding of the ultimate value of human existence as lying in pursuing one’s passion seems to be deeply problematic, as it would endorse a way of life that causes great damage to persons as pedophiles too seem to be creatures who are driven by their passions. This understanding of pursuing one’s passion as a fundamental value in human existence is quite common as we are often told that what ultimately matters in figuring out how to best live one’s life is to finding and pursuing one’s passion. I cannot count the amount of times that I have been told this myself, or heard this uttered by others. Consequently, what Louis’ humour shows is that pursuing one’s passion is not a necessary, nor a sufficient condition, to live well. Pursuing a passion can be valuable, but only if this passion genuinely matters and its pursuit is not cruel or inhumane. Being dominated by the passion to see justice done, or to be a committed friend is perfectly legitimate, but it is legitimate not because a passion is being pursued but because the passion that is being pursued is something that fundamentally matters. Louis’ point is upsetting to people as it contradicts the notion that if I am pursuing my passion I am living well. It forces to go back to the question of what passions are ultimately worth pursuing and that is a far more difficult task to undertake, then simply pursuing whatever passion I happen to feel the strongest at a given moment.

In addition it makes us recognize that while pedophiles commit evil acts they are not mere monsters who are different from other humans in all but appearance. Instead, Louis shows that while pedophiles are terrible people they too are driven by their passions and in this sense they are not as distant from ordinary human beings who also struggle with being driven by their passions, as most of us would like to think. Their passions are for more destructive than a typical human being’s but they share in the fact that they are vulnerable to being completely dominated by their passions.

The Competing Claims of Politeness and Authenticity

Politeness is a large part of the social fabric of most societies. While the forms that politeness takes are different in differing societal contexts typically communities adopt some forms of etiquette to ease social interaction. I would like to address politeness within the context of post-industrial English speaking countries. Within this context certain aspects of politeness seem to be at odds with a popular interpretation of authenticity. This popular interpretation of authenticity, let us call it “popular authenticity” posits that the authentic person has the integrity to be honest about who he or she is and what he or she thinks. However, the nature of the conflict between the good of politeness and the good of popular authenticity is not one of opposing values with equivalent spheres of application; rather these goods are most compelling in a distinct set of spheres within a community. Yet it should be noted that one sphere in which these goods have similar claims and consequently virulently oppose each other is the political sphere.

Investigating an example will help us better understand why certain elements of politeness are at odds with popular authenticity. For example, if I am at work and am invited out for drinks, or to go to supper with my colleagues it is impolite to say “No, I don’t want to go because I don’t particularly like you.” This statement may be true, but it is certainly impolite. The polite response would either be to say “no, thanks” without further elaboration, or to come up with a tactful excuse for why you cannot attend if you are prodded as to why you cannot attend. Thus, it seems politeness requires us to refrain from saying things that may be true and that we may want to say. Consequently, politeness seems to be at odds with popular authenticity, as according to this notion, the authentic person will not hide what he or she thinks, but politeness seems to require us to hide what we think.

While the preceding may causes us alarm, the conflict between popular authenticity and politeness does not require us to either support politeness exclusively or popular authenticity exclusively. While there is conflict between popular authenticity and politeness this conflict need not raise its head all the time as theses goods are most compelling within different spheres of the community. The value of politeness within post-industrial English speaking countries is a good that operates most dominantly within the sphere of the broader society and economy, as opposed to the narrower spheres of the family, romantic relationships and friendship. Within the spheres of economy and society we must deal with people we do not know, may not like and may not trust, and politeness helps all of us to operate within that social world by minimizing conflict. When dealing with others who we know little about politeness seems prudent as it allows us to get along and avoids unnecessary conflict. Here, it should be noted that I am making use of certain elements of Kingwell’s analysis of politeness or “civility” as a political virtue which he outlines within “A Civil Tongue,” although my point is different, as I am speaking about non-political social interaction. On the other hand, popular authenticity seems most compelling within the sphere of deep private relationships. In the context of these deep private relationships there is no need to use politeness to minimize conflict as affection and open communication can play this role. Furthermore, popular authenticity is most compelling within this narrower sphere of deep private relationships as these relationships are marked by a degree of intimacy that requires us to disclose ourselves authentically to one another. It may seem impolite to do something that offends a friend, but part of friendship is disclosing oneself to the other even if this initially causes offense. It is a sign that a friendship is not fully developed that the friends hide things from one another in order to ease social interaction. Therefore, it seems that politeness and popular authenticity are most compelling within different spheres of the community.

It should be noted that while I have said that politeness is most compelling within the economy and broader society, and popular authenticity is most compelling within deep private relationships, these goods are still operative in other spheres; it is just that the claims of popular authenticity are more compelling in the sphere of deep, private relationships than economy or society, and likewise the claims of politeness are stronger in the economy and society than in the sphere of deep, private relationships.

The one sphere that I did not discuss was the political sphere, and it seems to me that this is a sphere in which politeness and popular authenticity have similar claims. In politics citizens need to be encouraged to voice their thoughts and frustrations authentically so that the discussions that occur actually consider the genuine concerns of the citizenry, and so that citizens feel secure in disclosing their opinions. On the other hand there may be times where the authentic disclosure of political opinions will cause conflict that will make a workable compromise impossible, and thus there may be a pragmatic need for politeness within the political sphere in order to come up with solutions that serve the public good. In this sphere we simply have to accept that the conflict between politeness and popular authenticity runs deep and that it is something that we must live with.

The points elaborated above are not likely to help us better resolve the conflicts between politeness and popular authenticity that occur, but they do help us better understand the claims popular authenticity and politeness make on us. This will prevent us from seeing these goods as placing unconditional commands upon us, and rather see that each one of these goods is but one among many, within its own peculiar character and claims.

Tragedy as an Element of Authenticity

I once had a professor mention that the task of trying to find one’s individual path in life according to the notion of authenticity was a Sisyphean task. While I do not agree with this professor, it seems that the task of finding of one’s authentic path in life is far more complicated, and problematic than the way that authenticity is ordinarily understood suggests.

Typically, the notion of authenticity is understand to suggest that the key to living a good life is turning inward and figuring out what you want to do with your life. After one has done this one can then take actions to pursue what one wants to do with one’s life. Consequently, according to this interpretation of the notion of authenticity, the task of finding one’s authentic path is fairly simple and unproblematic.

Furthermore, it is interesting that this popular notion of authenticity tend to gloss over the fact that finding what one wants to do with one’s life need not admit to a singular answer. For example, in my life as I have turned inwards I have realized that I am drawn to activities of artistic creation, activities of philosophical, spiritual and political reflection, and activities of civic/political involvement. But at the same time I recognize that engaging in these activities well requires a large degree of time and devotion, such that I cannot fully commit to all three with the amount of time that I have within my life. In my case thus I have had to make an agonistic choice to primarily commit to one form of activity at the expense of the others. Furthermore, we have little reason to think that my example is particularly peculiar as many people are deeply conflicted regarding the kinds of activities that they want to build their lives around. Consequently, it seems that the task of finding of what one wants to do with one’s life does not admit of a simple, singular answer. When we turn inwards sometimes we realize that there are multiple activities that we want to build our lives around, and that we cannot adequately make time to pursue all of these activities in a way that gives all of them their due. In such a situation we will have to make the choice to devote ourselves to a certain set of these activities at the expense of others that we still find very attractive and valuable.

As a result of the preceding, the turn inwards that is required to figure out what one wants out of life requires us to confront a possibly tragic choice. I call this choice tragic, in reference to the fact that there may be an insoluble conflict between the alternative life paths that one may take. This concept of tragedy is influenced by Sophocles, as a large element of the Sophoclean conception of tragedy has to do with the conflict between incompatible priorities or values. For example, in Sophocles’ Antigone we have the obligations to the city conflicting with the obligations that a daughter has towards her brother. Just as Antigone has to choose to give priority to one set of claims that she finds valid, over another, those who make the inward turn of authenticity sometimes will have to choose between giving priority to one form of activity they find attractive over another that they find attractive. Consequently, the inward turn of authenticity always contains within it the possible experience of tragedy in this Sophoclean sense.

Now, it should be noted that I am not rejecting the notion of authenticity; rather, my issue is that we tend to speak about authenticity as though finding what one wants to do with one’s life will give us a simple, singular answer that we will then be able to efficiently pursue. Within popular culture we tend to speak of the inward turn of authenticity as something that is quite easy to deal with and move on from. However, as I have noted above the inward turn that is required to understand what one wants to do with one’s life can put us in the position of having to make a tragic choice, and there is always the possibility that we will deeply regret our decisions. So, it seems that the inward turn of authenticity is not as simple or as easy to deal with as the popular conception of it suggests, and by stating that it is simple and easy we are deceiving ourselves and ill-preparing ourselves for what we may have to deal with in their lives. For this reason we need to recognize the courage that it requires to make the inward turn and make the commitment to a particular set of priorities over another. Making this choice and facing it requires courage because one has to face the real possibility that one will make the wrong choice, and pursue a life that is meaningless or superficial. Furthermore, another upshot of this is that any person, who after taking the inward turn is confronted by a tragic choice between alternatives and makes the choice for one of these alternatives over the other, may experience a deep sense of loss over what could have been. This sense of loss is not an unhealthy manifestation of a disordered mind, but rather the reflection that a person has made the choice to forgo developing an element of themselves that they would have developed under different conditions.

The Problem with Self-Satisfaction: Moral Development, Character and Authenticity

In many situations in which I have pointed out a flaw within myself people have told me that I should just accept that what I have perceived as a flaw is an inherent part of myself that should be valued, rather than denigrated. This attitude is common in post-industrial societies in which people are often told to be happy with who they are, and where people are mocked for feeling guilty about particular vices. While there is a grain of truth in this attitude it is deeply problematic as it encourages a great degree of self-satisfaction, and self-satisfaction discourages people from overcoming their vices. For the rest of this blog I will refer to the attitude suggest that we should value all elements of ourselves as the perspective of self-satisfaction.

The element of truth that the perspective of self-satisfaction expresses is that people must feel that they have worth and moral standing, regardless of their particular vices. In essence the perspective of self-satisfaction seems correct in so far as it recognize the necessity of self-respect for a well lived life. I cannot live a well lived life if I think I am worthless, and do not need to be respected by others, that is if I have no self-respect. But while self-respect requires one to see oneself as an object of value, it does not require one to see all of one’s traits as valuable. Consequently, we can be very cognizant of the importance of self-respect, while also being suspicious of self-satisfaction. For example, I see myself as a person who needs to be treated with respect, but nonetheless I still think that I suffer from the vice of timidity, and when I feel shame for having acted excessively timidly this shame is not a sign that I do see myself as having worth, but rather is a result of my failure to completely fulfill my goal of overcoming my timidity. Now, it should be noted I am not suggesting that timidity is a particularly terrible vice, but nonetheless it stands in the way of moral development by preventing a person from properly asserting themselves and pursuing their goals.

The problem with the perspective of self-satisfaction is that it discourages people from overcoming their vices or flaws. If I should be happy with who I am, then it seems that this means that I should be happy with any vices that are part of my character. Now, if I can convince myself to be happy with my vices, than I will certainly cease feeling ashamed of these vices. In this sense, the perspective of self-satisfaction may help us to alleviate our guilt and shame, but the cost of this alleviation of guilt and shame is that we do not overcome our vices. The perspective of self-satisfaction discourages us from overcoming our vices because if we become happy with the traits that were formerly regarded as vices, then we will do nothing to try to correct these vices and fully develop ourselves. Consequently, the perspective of self-satisfaction is problematic, for while it offers the promise of alleviating our guilt through putting at ease with our flaws, in so doing it will prevent us from developing and moving towards our own vision of what an admirable person is. This is particularly problematic because part of what gives humans their worth is that they can develop themselves and move towards a more admirable state of character. If humans lost their ability to develop themselves by moving towards their vision of what it means to be an excellent person, humanity would lose some of its value.

It seems that the perspective of self – satisfaction has gained its foothold within the culture of post-industrial societies because of its link to the notion of authenticity. Authenticity is simply the idea that we should be true to ourselves and pursue lives that we deem worth living and it is fundamental to the worldview of post-industrial societies. However, there are many pathologies of authenticity, and the perspective of self-satisfaction is one of them. The link between the perspective of self-satisfaction and lies in the fact that people interpret being to true oneself, as not trying to change oneself and just accepting all of one’s flaws. Consequently, they see striving to overcome vice as an inauthentic act that represents someone failing to be true to themselves. However, this viewpoint seems misguided as the person who recognizes a vice in themselves and acts to try to overcome is being true to themselves as they are acting from their own authentic judgment that they would be a better, more developed person if they overcame this vice. So, the person who overcomes a vice does not necessarily act inauthentically, and it is likely that in most cases they act authentically.

The perspective of self-satisfaction is particularly problematic, because it is attractive in its promise of helping us to escape guilt and shame. But the cost of this alleviation of guilt is the drastic diminishment of our standing, as people lose sight of the importance of overcoming vice to pursue excellence of character.

Elitism and Music

Tyler Cornwall`s life revolved around his love of Techno. He spent most of his free time listening to Techno and could easily classify any Techno track within its appropriate subgenre including Post Early 2000s Berlin Minimal Housey Techno. Whenever he encountered people whose music taste revolved around what they heard on the radio he would feel superior as he had done the work to dig through all sorts of music to discover the most beautiful music in the world, Techno.  Consequently, in Tyler`s daily life he took every opportunity he could to display the beauty of Techno and would try to illuminate and re-educate those who did not see its shining beauty.  

Kyle Cassian had the same characteristics as Tyler, except in his case his love was for Extreme Metal, rather than Techno.  On one occasion Kyle had even skipped work in order to respond to a poster on an internet discussion board who had disparaged extreme metal, as something that lacked musical ability and all sounded the same. With his post Kyle had fulfilled his raison dètre as he had overwhelmed the naysayer with a post revealing the distinction between different genres of Extreme Metal, and explained why Extreme Metal takes a great degree of talent to perform. There was no way this naysayer would ever go around badmouthing Extreme Metal again.

By happenstance Tyler and Kyle ended up posting on the same internet discussion board. Kyle had bad mouthed Techno and referred to it as something `that any talentless idiot with a decent computer could make.“ This drew Tyler`s immediate attention and soon after he responded to Kyle. Tyler`s response clarified the history of Techno and how much talent was required to take simple, seemingly dull, rhythms and make something infectious with them.  Furthermore, he posted several examples of what he considered to be quality Techno. This did not convince Kyle however. In fact Kyle was offended by the fact that somebody could take Techno so seriously. Extreme Metal was a truly majestic art form, but Techno was trite and any person with the least sense of the true meaning of what good music was, could not consider Techno to be good.  

Soon after this exchange of posts occurred two other people posted additional responses to Kyle and Tyler. The first of these, Harvey Johnston, was upset with the fact that these two people were trying to prove that a particular genre was good. His response argued that there no way to distinguish between good music and bad music, and that music was merely a matter of preference. For Harvey, just as some people like Olives and others do not, some people will like Techno and others won`t.                                   

 However, the other poster, Anthony Martin, took a different tact. He saw the great passion for the beauty of music that both Kyle and Tyler had, and because he shared that passion for beauty, he wanted to expose them to his favourite forms of music, Classical and Jazz. He did not try to illuminate their minds or convert them to being avid listeners of Jazz and Classical; he merely suggested some artists they might like given Tyler`s love for Techno and Kyle`s love of Extreme Metal.  In this way Anthony just wanted to share the love that he had developed. While Anthony did think that his music taste was more elevated than Tyler`s or Kyle`s, and this elevation signified his ability to grasp a more nuanced conception of beauty, he was motivated by a simple desire to spread his love of music.  He merely wanted to encourage the growth of a love in others that had enriched his own life.

Authentic Desires and Excellence

Often within contemporary liberal democracies it is suggested that people should be authentic and only pursue goals that they endorse and they should also avoid refraining from satiating a desire, because society views that desire negatively.  The preceding is a popularly held conception of authenticity at its most basic level.  This conception of authenticity does not seem to be a problematic ideal, as it encourages integrity rather than gravelling servility, but the difficulty is that this conception of authenticity also tends to encourage self-satisfaction and can push people away from striving for excellence and developing their own potential as much as it can push people to develop their capabilities.

The difficulty is that some people may have a desire to excel, but they refrain from acting on this desire, because it would involve giving up the satiation of some other desire. In this case both desires are authentic desires in that they both are desires of the person, and they are not desires that the person wants to be rid of,  like the desire for alcohol that a recovering alcoholic has.  For example, I may feel a desire to excel by volunteering to promote literacy within my community, but due to the fact that I also have the desire to experience as much material comfort as possible I forgo the volunteer opportunity because it conflicts with the other desire, as volunteering involves giving up time that I could use to watch TV, play video games, or eat fine food.  In this case, both volunteering and experiencing material comfort are authentic decisions in that they are responses to authentic desires, but it seems like we would think less of the person who chooses to satiate the desire for material comfort over the one who pursues the desire to volunteer to promote literacy. We think that the person who pursues the desire to volunteer to promote literacy is somehow a more admirable person, because they correspond more strongly with the type of person that we aspire to become, than the person who chooses material comfort over volunteering to promote literacy. The one who chooses material comfort is certainly not a bad person; they may be perfectly humorous, genuine and nice, but they seem to have failed because they have chosen a fleeting experience of comfort over developing their character.

This example conveys two related yet distinct sets of desires. On one hand we have a desire for excellence.  That is we have a desire to become a certain sort of admirable person. On the other hand we have authentic desires to have certain kinds of experiences. These two elements are not unrelated as my character may influence the kinds of experiences I choose to pursue, but nonetheless they are distinct as the desire to see a concert is qualitatively distinct from my desire to be more courageous, generous or wise.

To get back to the preceding example we might say that we think less of those who let their desire for experiences of certain kinds prevent them from acting on their desire to excel, that is their desire to become a more excellent person. The reason for this is not an empty moralistic judgment that is the leftover of puritanical religions. Rather, the reason for this judgment is that ultimately people have to live with the fact that they have made certain choices to develop their character in particular ways, whereas the experiences that a person has are far less important. I may be upset that I have never got to see a band that I love perform, but if I pursue the authentic desire for notoriety at the expense of my authentic desire to be a good friend I have engaged in a much larger failing. Such an act reveals that I am weak-willed and have deeply problematic priorities and the same can be said of the person who lets their desire for material comfort prevent them from promoting literacy.

To get back to the issue of authenticity we have two sets of authentic desires. We have authentic desires for certain kinds of experiences, and authentic desires to excel, or put differently to become the kind of person we find most admirable. Ultimately, if we let our desire for certain kinds of experiences get in the way of our desire to excel we have failed in the task of living a fully developed human life. Those human lives that we esteem are admirable not because those who lived them had wonderful experiences, but because these people had admirable traits that lead them to do excellent things. Consequently, we need to prioritize the authentic desires we experience that are most important, and avoid letting trivial, but authentic, desires get in the way of fully developing our potential for excellence.

 

 

 

Love and Recognition

Steven Kruppe and Jasmine Walker were a couple deeply in love with one another.  They were similar in all relevant ways, yet their energies and personalities complemented each other to create a perfect whole. The most peculiar, yet admirable trait, that they held in common was that each did not care what any other thought of them. Neither person was bothered by negative reputation, nor did they feel shame if they did something that “society” deemed inappropriate. Jasmine was known to fart loudly in elevators rather than hold it in, as she was unconcerned with what others thought of her, and Steven would reveal any detail of his personal life at the drop of a hat if he felt so inclined. He once shared the details of his genital warts with a cashier that was ringing up his groceries. The cashier felt deeply uncomfortable, but in Steven’s mind he was just trying to warn the youngster about the dangers of unprotected sex.

Further, the fact that Jasmine and Steven did not care about what others thought of them was not confined to strangers; rather Steven and Jasmine had agreed that within their relationship, they should not do things that they did not enjoy just to please the other. Consequently, Steven would wash the dishes, not because Jasmine would appreciate such an act, but because washing the dishes was an activity that was truly fulfilling to Steven. The same principle applied to all of Jasmine’s activities; Jasmine cleaned the toilets twice a week, not because Steven was obsessed with cleanliness and she wanted to please him, but because her authentic calling in this area of her relationship was to clean toilets. In fact she only felt whole if she cleaned toilets.

One day Steven received a diagnosis that he had terminal cancer, and that he had only a couple of months to live. Unexpectedly this diagnosis was shocking and upsetting for Steven. At first Steven just thought about all the things that he would not be able to do in his life, but then he began to have a new concern, and a concern that he had not experienced in a long time; he began to worry about how he would be remembered by Jasmine. He now had an intense desire for Jasmine to remember him as a loving, honest, courageous man who deeply cared for her.

When Steven told Jasmine the news she was devastated. After finding her soul mate she was now bound to lose him; “how could she find somebody like Steven again?” However, she was perplexed by certain changes that began to occur in Steven’s behaviour. Steven began to do things that he did not enjoy doing, that Jasmine appreciated having done. At first she saw this as a betrayal of her and Steven’s philosophy. She thought to herself that “this diagnosis must be driving Steven insane as he has betrayed the very element of his lifestyle that formed a bond between us.” But over time she began to see that Steven’s “insane” acts were enhancing their bond, and she began doing things that she did not enjoy to in order to please Steven.