Considerations on The Diminishment of Humanity

As I am riding in public transit, wading through a crowd to get on the elevators or watching a group of strangers get drunk at a pub I often find myself feeling deeply contemptuous and nauseated by what humanity has become. No particular act by any agent triggers this sense of contempt, rather it seems to arise when I encounter a group of strangers acting in some banal, coarse or ordinary way. Furthermore, this feeling is not unique to me, but rather seems to be an element of industrial and post-industrial life. Many people speak of the way in which humans have become a herd, or sheep. Furthermore, we can see in the philosophy of Nietzsche and Tocquevelle as well as the literature of Dostoevsky and Lawrence a sense in which modern civilization has dwarfed humanity. For example, in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover Connie states the following when she encounters life in contemporary England:

“Tevershall! That was Tevershall Merrie England! Shakespeare’s England! No, but the England of today, as Connie had realized since she had come to live in it. It was producing a new race of mankind, over-conscious in the money and social and political side, on the spontaneous, intuitive side dead,-but dead. Half-corpses all of them: but with a terrible insistent consciousness in the other half. There was something uncanny and underground about it all. It was an underworld. And quite incalculable. How shall we understand the reactions in half-corpses? When Connie saw the great lorries full of steel-workers from Sheffield, weird, distorted, smallish beings like men, off for an excursion to Matlock, her bowels fainted and she thought: Ah, God, what has man done to man? What have the leaders of men been doing to their fellow-men? They have reduced them to less than humanness and now there can be no fellowship anymore! It is just a nightmare.” (Lawrence,  181-182)

The particular vitalist tact on diminishment that Lawrence takes is of no interest to me here, but what is important is the sense that we get from Connie that man has been diminished and dwarfed as industrial civilization has progressed. Lawrence’s writing reinforces the presence of the experience of a sense of diminishment of humanity as a significant element of industrial and post-industrial life.

It is easy to dismiss this sense of the diminishment of mankind as navel gazing nostalgia for a different age, but whether or not this sense of the diminishment of mankind represents a valid critique of modern civilization we find ourselves encountered by this feeling. Thus we need to understand where this sense of diminishment originates and what underlies it. I will argue that this sense of diminishment of humanity is brought upon both by a valid judgment that certain forms of greatness have been banished from the world as we have moved towards industrial, liberal democratic societies, and by the experience of humanity as a mass of strangers. Furthermore, I will argue that it seems that this sense of diminishment gives us a false impression of the value of humanity, because through engagement with particular others we discover that while perhaps certain virtues have been banished from the world of man, mankind still has admirable qualities worth cherishing.

On one hand the sense of the diminishment of mankind does represent a valid judgment and longing for previous forms of excellence, greatness or virtue. For example, the ethic of the warrior that was central to the feudal aristocracy has generally been purged from our society, as the more egalitarian social forms of industrial or post-industrial liberal democracy would be endangered by these traits. The ethic of the warrior which allows one to face death head on and use violence to punish any foes that stand in the way of oneself or one’s cause would surely make somebody a threat to public order, a deeply unsavory employee and a citizen who could not be worked with. Consequently, for those who are drawn to admire the greatness of the warrior ethic the inhabitants of industrial and post-industrial societies will be diminished because of their feminine passivity and inability to use their physical strength and capabilities to assert their status. Furthermore, other virtues have also been purged from our world to greater and lesser degrees including ascetic ways of life, Roman or Athenian forms of civic devotion, magnanimity, and aristocratic generosity. Those who are drawn to admire any of these virtues cannot help but see modern humanity as diminished because it lacks these qualities. Thus, it seems that at least part of the experience of the diminishment of mankind represents the valid judgment that an admirable and desirable virtue or quality has been purged from industrial society and because of that human beings have been reduced in their dignity.

Contrastingly, another source of our sense of the diminishment of mankind is the experience of human beings as a mass of strangers. A central facet of life in industrial and post-industrial society is we often find ourselves confronted by masses of strangers. For example, when we take public transit we often are surrounded by a mass of humans that we do not have any pre-existing relation with. This also occurs when we go to register our vehicles, go to buy groceries and do many other common things. In this experience of the mass of strangers we see the acts of these strangers, but from the outside. We do not see why this person is taking public transit and why they push in front of us, or passively let everyone ahead before they enter. Furthermore, when encountering the mass of strangers we tend to see people engaging in actions that are completely ordinary, banal or mundane. None of the actions that tend to occur in spaces where we encounter the mass seems to stand out as extraordinary, excellent or great. I cannot think of a time in which I have encountered the mass of strangers and have been impressed by the greatness of some act. Most of the acts that occur in this context are not bad, but they are completely ordinary and unimpressive. Consequently, because of the ordinariness of actions that occur when encountering the mass, and the fact that we have no access to the internal, possibly impressive, motivations of the others within the mass, the value of humanity is not revealed through encounters with this mass of strangers. Thus, this experience of humanity of a mass of strangers tends to give rise to a diminished image of mankind as we tend to witness only ordinary actions in this context, and we do not see the possibly praiseworthy motivations of individual agents for their ordinary actions.

The experience of the mass of strangers does us a disservice as it makes us think that human beings are far more diminished than they in fact are. As was noted above when we encounter the mass of strangers we see humanity in a context in which any of humanity’s redeeming qualities are not immediately visible. One context in which the valuable qualities of humanity become far more apparent is through our engagement with concrete others. Typically when we engage with particular others we are not nauseated by their minute stature and diminishment. Rather, as we develop a deeper understanding of the person through conversing with them and getting to know them their valuable qualities reveal themselves. Even if we never become friends with this other we still will typically begin to find certain qualities that we can admire with them whether it is their confidence, courage, generosity, sense of humour, sensitivity, compassion, determination or integrity. It is through these small ordinary human engagements and conversations that we realize that the sense of diminishment we feel towards humanity may be correct in noting that certain virtues are no longer possible, or prevalent, but that this sense of diminishment does not mean that human beings are now something to be looked on with contempt. Put slightly differently, these engagements reveal that the valuable qualities of currently existing humans and through so doing show that while certain values may seem lost, value has not been eradicated from humanity.

Works Cited
Lawrence, D. H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 1st ed. New York: Chatham River Press, 1984. Print.

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The Multiculturalism Festival in Canada

Multiculturalism is a policy that is not only enshrined in law in Canada, but also an element of our national identity. It is said that, unlike the US which insists on trying to build a singular homogeneous national culture based on the differing historical cultures of its inhabitants, Canada will have a permanently heterogeneous national culture which celebrates cultural diversity, rather than trying to overcome it. Furthermore, it is noted that Canada is a cultural mosaic, with each culture making up a different part of the Canadian whole. This approach to national identity certainly has the strength of rendering Canada more inclusive and respectful of other’s cultures, but certain elements of the practise of this are less about inclusiveness and generating respect and understanding of other cultures, and more about consumerism, and commodification. One such element of the practise of multiculturalism that is more concerned with consumerism and commodification than anything else is the multicultural festival.

Multicultural festivals are held across Canada, and go by various names such as Heritage Days or Carassauga, but their essential substance is the same. There are pavilions for each culture interesting in creating one, and at these pavilions the general public can try food from the culture, or see the culture’s traditional dress, or dances. Purportedly these festivals provide an opportunity to celebrate Canada’s diversity, but while these festivals offer an opportunity for members of a culture to display elements of their culture which is certainly positive they do not facilitate deep understanding of, or respect for other cultures among the wider population. Most of the attendees at these festivals go to try the food of cultures that they are unfamiliar with and see their traditional dances, dresses or artifacts, but the attendees are not given context to understand the food, dress, or dances of the culture. Rather, people line up and give their money and order their food, or sit or stand politely and enjoy the entertainment provided by the traditional dances, songs and dress of the people. But does this kind of mode of interaction with members of another culture generate understanding of, or respect for another culture? It does not seem to be the case that it does. By purchasing food from a cultural pavilion I merely realize that a culture makes a certain kind of dish, but I have no understanding of what role this food plays in their culture, or what role food in general does. Likewise, if I see a traditional dance, song or dress of the culture I do not learn what the traditional dance or song celebrates or honours, or what purpose is served by the traditional dress. In this way the attendees of the multicultural festival may at most learn a set of facts about another culture (ie what food they eat, what their traditional dress looks like etc), but cultures cannot be understood by learning unrelated facts about that culture. Rather, understanding a culture requires a more overarching understanding of the meanings of the society and how those meanings are embodied in a set of practises. Consequently it does not seem to be the case that the multicultural festival generates understanding of, and respect for other cultures.

Now, it might not be a problem that the multicultural festival does not generate understanding of, and respect for other cultures if this festival was merely regarded as an opportunity to see some exotic dances, songs, and clothing as well as try some interesting, unique food. But shouldn’t part of a festival that honours diversity be a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue, and understanding, rather than reducing cultures to producers of good food, and pleasant entertainment for the consumer? It does seem that honouring cultural diversity would require a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue and understanding, because we only come to appreciate, understand and respect other cultures if we understand the. Furthermore we can only appreciate cultural diversity itself when we come to recognize the value that others cultures have, and this also requires a genuine understanding of the meanings embodied in the practises that constitute a culture. Consequently, the multiculturalism festival fails to adequately meet the end that it avowedly tries to secure, the celebration of diversity, as it reduces cultures to producers of commodities (good food and entertaining dances and songs) for a mass of consumers, and thus it is more of an exercise in consumerism and commodification than it is in the celebration of cultural diversity. We can see that consumerism and commodification are the guiding principles of the multiculturalism festival through the analysis provided earlier, as we see attendees of the festival consuming food and entertainment provided by the culture, rather than engaging in a dialogue with members of that other culture to understand their practises. This is surely a case of consumerism and commodification if anything is.

One further reason why it is problematic that the multiculturalism festival does not meets it avowed aim of celebrating diversity is because this encourages people to see celebrating diversity as enjoying commodities from other cultures. If we are told that by going to a multicultural festival we are celebrating diversity then we will tend to think that celebrating diversity just means being a consumer who is open to enjoying the products of other cultures. Therefore, the multiculturalism festival not only fails to meet the end that it aims at, but rather also encourages people to have the mistaken understanding that celebrating diversity is a matter of being a consumer who does not prejudge commodities based on their cultural origin. But, for the reasons pointed out above, this commodified view of celebrating diversity has little to do with generating the intercultural dialogue required to genuinely celebrate diversity.

It should be noted that nothing in what I have written above means to suggest that the Canada’s multicultural policy is bad, rather I have merely tried to highlight some of the shortcomings of the multicultural festival as an element of Canada’s overall multiculturalism policy.

The Meritocracy of Desertolia

The simple, hardworking people of Desertolia had constructed their political institutions in the most ingenious way; all elements of society were structured around the single divine purpose of rewarding each for his or her merit. Those who worked hard got the finest homes and were honored publicly, while those who did not lived in squalor and were rightly condemned through public ceremony. Unlike those societies based on a confusing mix of goals Desertolia was truly unified around its fundamental purpose.

With a judicious eye to fairness the people of Desertolia ensured that children were not unduly punished for the sins of their parents or unduly rewarded for the virtues of the parents. As a result the residents of Desertolia had no need for the warm sentimentality of blood ties and had abolished the family in favour of a form of raising children that truly fulfilled the need to reward all for their merit. If parents were to raise their biological children this would reward the children of the excellent and punish the children of the mediocre as the children of the mediocre would be habituated to act in mediocre ways, while the excellent would be habituated to act in excellent ways. A child born to a mediocre set of parents should not be punished for having been born to mediocre parents, as the child’s future should not be sullied by the status of its biological originators.

Instead of having romantic couples form and raise their biological children the Desertolians had yearly breeding ceremonies in which breeding matches would were chosen by the ruling council in accordance with merit. Those who had properly done their duty and lived excellent lives were rewarded with likewise fine, attractive mates, while those who were mediocre or corrupt were made to breed with others who were mediocre or corrupt. The Desertolians understand that it would be a travesty to the sacredness of merit to have the excellent breed with the mediocre or corrupt. After the children were born to their biological mother, the child would be taken to the Kinderecclesia, a set of public grounds that served to raise children. In the Kinderecclesia each child was cared for according to its merit from the time of its birth to the age of 17. The commitment to rewarding children according to merit within the Kinderecclesia was both admirable and thoroughgoing. Infants who cried too much and misbehaved were justly disciplined, while those who were quiet and pleasant were given fine rewards. Likewise, older teenagers who could recite the Seven Sacred Principles of Merit of Desertolia were allowed to engage in conjugal relationships with one another, while those who could not were barred from engaging in romantic relations of any kind. In Desertolia, the right to pursue erotic love was not something that was accessible to anybody, but only to those who had met an appropriate standard of merit.

The Desertolians rejected both socialism and capitalism as neither properly rewarded each according to his merit. Capitalism displayed injustice because it allowed inheritance and unduly rewarded many who had not worked hard. Socialism was impious because it provided according to need rather than according to what people merited. Instead of capitalist or socialist forms of economic organization, in Desertolia, all goods were distributed by the Economic Commission of Desertolia according to the merit of the recipients. Those who had worked hard and lead morally upright lives were given much, while libertines and slovenly scoundrels were given little. In the past small scale trade had occurred between people in Desertolia, but these practises were rightly recognized as heretical to the principles of merit. If people were allowed to buy goods from one another than the mediocre or corrupt could end up with something that they did not merit, and this would violate everything that the Desertolians held dear. Surely, nothing could be worse.

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 deGrasse Tyson Philosophy vs. Science Debate: The Authority of Science, Instrumentalism and Technology

Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson made some comments questioning the value of philosophy. Massimo Pigliucci who writes on the blog Scientia Salon has addressed his comments directly in a recent article, but the whole debate on the value of philosophy as opposed to the value of science raises some interesting questions and concerns that I would like to consider.

Often, critics of philosophy, condemn philosophy as a useless practise because it does not seem to lead to any tangible benefit for society. This was not deGrasse Tyson’s exact criticism, but this critique is so prevalent within society that it has become a banal commonplace that philosophy is a useless endeavour that does not benefit mankind in any way. Interestingly, this is the same critique that Francis Bacon made of the Scholastics within the New Organon, and the critique that Marx makes of previous philosophers within the Theses on Feuerbach; apparently the philosophers will never learn to just get in line already and devote themselves to improving the world. However the fact that this critique of philosophy is prevalent reveals that the popular conception of value within postindustrial societies is one that is fundamentally instrumental. Or to put this more clearly, it is a conception of value that sees something valuable if it can help us efficiently pursue desirable ends. This instrumental conception of value is theoretically problematic, as it cannot explain some of the most basic experience of value that appear within everyday life. Furthermore, the prevalence of this conception of value is problematic as it reinforces the idea that science’s authority derives from its ability to contribute to the development of technology. Consequently, this conception of value distorts our understanding of authority of science itself.

Our everyday experience of value attests to the fact that activities can be valuable for instrumental reasons, but it also attests to the fact that activities can be intrinsic valuable (be valuable on their own account). For example, even though it is true that we might say that a dishwasher is only valuable because it allows us spending less time washing dishes, and consequently only valuable for instrumental reasons, it does not make sense to say that friendship is valuable only for instrumental reasons. Friendships might be valuable because they open doors for people, but the main value of friendships seems to be an intrinsic one as opposed to an instrumental one, as what we value about friendship is not some end-state that friendship produces, but rather the fact that we are in a position of sharing our lives with another being who we respect or admire. The value of such a state cannot be made sense of from an instrumental perspective, so from a purely theoretical angle it seems that a purely instrumental conception of value is fairly implausible, as it is not able to adequately explain the everyday experience we have of value.

The prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value which not only condemns philosophy, but also the arts, is not only problematic because it does not stand up to criticism at a theoretical level, rather it has a pernicious influence on the way that people understand the authority of science. People tend to see science as an authority within postindustrial societies and associate science with the development of technology. As a result of this people tend to think that what gives science its claim to authority is that science has lead to the development of extensive technology and technological systems. This is quite clearly not a logical deduction, but if you ask non-scientists why we should listen to science they will ordinarily point to its ability to produce various forms of technology and technological solutions. The awe that surrounds science has less to do with the fact that people find that science explains the world, and more to do with the fact that people think that science has led to the great technological progress that society has experienced. Furthermore, a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science’s claim to authority derives from its ability to facilitate technological progress, as a purely instrumental conception of value can only see value in the ability of science to contribute to the production of particular ends like technology, not in the ability of science to develop theories that adequately explain the world. Consequently, the prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science gets its authority because of its ability to facilitate technological progress.

The notion that science gets its authority from the production of technological progress is deeply troubling because this neglects the fact that science ought to have authority in society, over mere conjecture, not simply because it makes our lives more convenient, but because science give us reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. Science is not only a machine from which great technological gifts are bestowed upon the faithful, rather it represents the human attempt to understand. Consequently, while a purely instrumental conception of value seems to justify the value of science while rejecting the value of philosophy and the arts, in so doing it encourages the vulgarization of the value of science within the public, as science begins to be seen as an assembly-line for society rather than as a spirited attempt to understand the world. Interestingly enough then a conception of value that can recognize the intrinsic value of truth is better placed to provide the public with a proper appreciation of the authority of science than a purely instrumental conception of value, as the former conception of value can recognize that science has its authority because it provides s with a reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. In this way it seems that in order to truly appreciate the value of science we must move past thinking of value in purely instrumental terms.

Facebook’s Newsfeed, Recognition and Friendship

On Facebook’s newsfeed people often post everything from pictures of themselves and their food, to news articles and videos, to facts about their daily lives and seemingly profound quotes. In this sense the newsfeed on Facebook serves as medium of self-disclosure wherein people choose to share facts about their lives, their thoughts on politics or simply their taste in cuisine. The question that this raises is what drives people to disclose themselves in this way through the medium of Facebook’s newsfeed? It seems that one reason for these forms of activity is that people desire to be valued by others. The desire to be valued by others, or put differently the desire to be recognized as valuable is not inherently problematic, but posting to Facebook’s newsfeed because of this desire is problematic as it constitutes a form of disrespect for others.

Typically on Facebook, people have many contacts which range from close friends to relatives to distant acquaintances. Generally, the vast majority of ones “friends” on Facebook are merely acquaintances with which one shares very little connection. Anything one posts to one’s newsfeed will show up in all of one’s “friend’s” newsfeeds. As a result of this fact when one posts to the newsfeed one is sharing not only with one’s actual friends, but with the broad range of contacts that one has collected as Facebook “friends.” Consequently, it seems that, in some cases, a legitimate explanation for why people disclose themselves through posts to their newsfeed is so that they are seen by others in a particular light and in turn valued by them. For example, there is little difference between talking about your recent breakup on Facebook’s newsfeed, and talking with a cashier who you are acquainted with about your breakup. In the latter case we would say that the person needed someone to hear them out in order so that they felt valued by others. So, in the former case (Facebook’s newsfeed) it seems that we should also think that the person is searching for valuation by others. Consequently, I think it is plausible to think that in many cases posting to Facebook’s newsfeed indicates a desire to be valued by others; in such cases we expose ourselves to others in hopes that they see the post and come to recognize our value.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the recognition that we look for while posting on Facebook’s newsfeed is not the desire to be recognized as a human being with dignity, because someone can accord this to another, without valuing any particular features of the individual. Consequently, we can recognize another as having equal human dignity if we think that all individuals should be treated with respect, even if we do not value the particular nature of certain human beings. This is clearly not the kind of recognition we seek through posting on Facebook’s newsfeed. Rather, the recognition we seek in the context of Facebook’s newsfeed is to be seen as valuable not as a human being in general, but as a particular human being with particular features. For example, we may want to be recognized because of our profound intellect or our exquisite taste in music, or some other particular feature. For the rest of this post when I refer to recognition I mean this latter form of recognition of particularistic value.

The problem with posting to Facebook’s newsfeed in order to achieve recognition is that this act seeks to achieve recognition without any interest in forming a deeper relationship with the others who are being asked for recognition. When one is forming a friendship one discloses oneself to others in hopes that they will recognize the particular value that you have, but you also have an interest in forming a relationship with that person and sharing in their life in some way. When we post to Facebook’s newsfeed in order to gain recognition on the other hand we do so to get as much recognition as we can, but without actually taking an interest in developing deeper relationships with those who we are asking for recognition from. In this case, there is a tendency to see the others that we are asking for recognition from as a source of “likes,” rather than as other particular individuals. We want these others to affirm our value, but we have little interest in forming a consequential relationship with them, whether it be a friendship, or simply a spirited sharing of interests. Seeing others as mere sources of “likes” or recognition in this way is deeply problematic as it objectifies the person who is being asked for recognition, and consequently disrespects them.  Now it is true that objectification is a large part of most elements of contemporary society. We are objectified in our work place as we are “resources” rather than persons. We are objectified by the store owner who merely sees us a source of money, but nonetheless we need to take a critical eye to all forms of objectification, if only to better understand if it is a necessary element of all developed societies, or if it is something that we can overcome.

 

Edit: April 20 – 5:43 MST

Fight Club, Material Goods and Freedom

In the film Fight Club, Tyler Durden, a character who is a representation of the rejection of feminized mass consumer corporate culture, says that “the things you own end up owning you.” At first glance this line seems perplexing as it seems to suggest that freedom and owning a vast set of material possessions are in conflict. While, I don’t think that this comment is true in all circumstances it seems to be true in a particular sense within the context of societies in which nearly all of the residents are expected to have jobs and work for a living. Let us call these jobholding societies. Within this entry I will show in what sense Tyler Durden`s statement is true and furthermore, I wlll argue that the lack of freedom of the accumulator of material goods within jobholding societies is characterized by the problematic marginalization of leisure and a life which cycles between work and amusement.

Within a jobholding society if one has a set of material possessions one must then put labour into the upkeep of those possessions in order so that they retain their value. Furthermore, the more possessions that one has the more time one has to put into their upkeep as a whole. Of course one could merely buy the things and then refrain from putting any time into their upkeep, but this seems irrational as the point of buying something is so that one can capitalize on the value that it provides. For example, if one has a sparsely furnished single bedroom condominium one will have to spend far less time on the upkeep of this set of possessions than a large home that is ostentatiously furnished. Consequently, it seems that the more things one owns the more one will be required to spend one`s time maintaining those goods. Thus, there seems to be an insight to Tyler Durden`s comment as the person who owns many things within a jobholding society must now become devoted to maintaining those things. This is something that is dictated by the very logic of the purchase of commodities itself.

It should be noted that the possessions that an aristocrat owns would not have a negative impact on his or her freedom, because they have servants, or possibly slaves to deal with the maintenance of these objects, and that is why I say that Durden`s line is not true under all circumstances. There are other circumstances under which Durden`s statement would also cease to be true, but for the sake of brevity I will not consider those situations.

Furthermore, within jobholding societies there are ways out of this dilemma for the owner of a large set of material goods and that is to hire others to maintain one`s goods for you, but this option is only effectively open to those with exorbitant wealth. Even if those within the middle classes can hire someone to clean their home once every two weeks, they are still left with a large degree of upkeep on their home and other possessions. So for those who are not extremely wealthy the accumulation of possessions is a mixed blessing. We are at once are drawn to the accumulation of material goods in order to make our lives more comfortable, but these material possessions end up taking our time away as we struggle to maintain the value of the possessions that we have purchased.

Similarly, the danger that the ownership of a large extent of material possessions is not some minor threat to our freedom, as it encourages us to live within a problematic cycle of work and amusement or entertainment. Due to the fact that we spend a large part of our lives working at our jobs, and working to maintain our material possessions, when we are not working we tend to slide into activities that we enjoy merely as a visceral source of entertainment that allows us to momentarily unwind. What this cycle leaves out is leisure. Leisure is not rest, but rather time that one has where one is free to do what one finds valuable. When we engage in an activity under conditions of leisure we do so because we find that activity valuable, not because we have to engage in the activity to pursue some other end. Furthermore, leisure is distinct from entertainment or amusement, as we amuse ourselves so that we are able to reenergize so that we can return to work, whereas leisure has no aim beyond itself. Leisure is significant because if flourishing is to mean anything more than pursuing instrumental goods (work), or merely being entertained (amusement), then leisure will have to be central to flourishing. And surely there is more to the value of human life than work or amusement. This is evident as subsuming the value of friendship, romantic love, the life of the mind, musical composition and athletic achievement under the category of something that is merely instrumentally valuable, or something that is merely entertaining denigrates these goods. These are all goods which can only be fully realized under the conditions of leisure, because if they are pursued as instrumental goods, or as mere sources of entertainment their value is inadequately recognized and appreciated. Consequently, the ownership of a large set of material possessions with a jobholding society damages the freedom and life of the possessor by encouraging them to fall into life which cycles between work and amusement, rather than a life in which a space is given to leisure and all of the goods associated with it.

Therefore, Tyler Durden`s statement reveals a deep problem with jobholding societies in that while these societies may seem to allow individuals to be free to accumulate the goods that make themselves most comfortable, the cost of this practise of accumulation is the marginalization of leisure and all of the good associated with it from the lives of those who accumulate large sets of material goods. Thus, while it may seem paradoxical that the jobholder with a large set of material possessions is less free in one sense than the jobholder with fewer possessions, there seems to be a very real sense in which the preceding is true.

Another important element that we can draw from the preceding is that the danger to human freedom that capitalist holds occurs both on the side of production and consumption.. We are well aware of how we are unfree within a capitalist society in that we have to either work or starve, and we are exploited by the extraction of surplus value, but sometimes we are not aware of enough of the ways in which our very activities of consumption and accumulation make our lives less free. Here it should be pointed out that jobholding society is a distinct concept from capitalist society. All capitalist societies are jobholding societies, but socialist societies are also jobholding societies.

Kant on Citizenship, Civil Independence and Enfranchisement

In the “Metaphysics of Morals” Kant claims that while subjects of the state must be treated in accords with natural laws of freedom of equality, in order for individuals to qualify to be full citizens of the state, and consequently have the right to vote they must possess “an independent position among the people.” (Kant 139) The consequence of this argument is that servants, women, minors and some kinds of tradespeople are not eligible for citizenship. The rationale behind Kant’s argument is that in order to meet the ideal of citizenship one must not depend for one’s existence and sustenance on the “arbitrary will of anyone,” but rather one must only “one’s existence and sustenance to his own rights and powers as a member of the commonwealth.” (Kant 139) Kant calls this civil independence. This argument seems plausible and intuitive, but unfortunately its consequence is that nearly all members of modern liberal democratic societies are unqualified for full citizenship as any person who is dependent on an income for survival is necessarily dependent on the arbitrary will of others. Consequently, we must take Kant’s argument very seriously because it shows the tension between being a citizen and being a jobholder within the economic structure of modern liberal democratic societies. It may be possible to rethink citizenship in such a way that the qualifications for citizenship are compatible with the economic structure of modern liberal democratic societies, but if it is not then perhaps the economic structure of modern liberal democratic society needs to be overcome before the ideal of citizenship for all can be fully realized.

Kant reasoning as to why servants (including domestic tutors), certain tradespeople, women and minors are not eligible for full citizenship and the right to vote is that these people are dependent on the will of others because “they have to receive orders or protection from other individuals, so they do not possess civil independence.” (Kant 140) Now while Kant does not take his argument any further within the text, it seems plausible to think one reason why Kant is worried about giving full citizenship to those who do not possess civil independence is that because these individuals are dependent on others, they are in some way beholden to them, so they will easily be corrupted into voting for laws that do not represent the common interest, but rather that support the interests of those they are dependent upon. Furthermore, because individuals who do not possess civil independence are in positions in which they take orders from others, they will not have fully developed the capacity for free and independent thought, and thus they may not fully reflect when they are voting because they have not fully developed this capacity. Consequently, it seems that Kant’s argument is intuitive and plausible as those who do not possess civil independence do seem to be in danger of being ineffective, if not corrupt, citizens.

However, one issue with Kant’s argument is that he argues that academics, and carpenters both possess civil independence, but on reflection it seems that individuals in these professions would not possess civil independence. The academic does not possess civil independence as his employment and consequently his income depends on the funding of the university, and him retaining his standing within a profession, that like any profession, is full of trends, and in which positions accrue to those academics who are viewed by other academics in a positive light. Thus, academics are clearly dependent on the arbitrary will of others as their income depends on their retaining good standing within the eyes of others, and of the continued funding of post-secondary institutions. They are not dependent on any one individual’s arbitrary will, but they are dependent on the collection of arbitrary wills of the group, and the arbitrary will of the group as a whole.

Likewise, a carpenter is dependent on the arbitrary will of others for his income because in order to support himself he must sell his works, and to sell his works he must create something that will sell at a high enough price relative to the effort put in to make the work. And what will sell at this price is dependent on the arbitrary will and preference of the buying public. Kant seems to want to say that those who have no direct superior are in some way more dependent on the arbitrary will of others, than those who must sell their expertise as an independent contractor, but who do not have a direct superior, but this does not seem to be the case, because the carpenter is dependent on the arbitrary will of the buying public, just as the domestic servant is dependent on the arbitrary will of the family that he works for. However, this does not show that Kant’s argument that possession of civil independence is a qualification for citizenship is problematic, it only means that he drew erroneous conclusions from that argument.

In light of the preceding it seems that nearly all adults within modern liberal democratic societies will fail to possess civil independence as they are all dependent on the arbitrary will of individuals in that they must sell their labour either directly to the buying public, or to a company, or the state, in order to ensure the income required to sustain their own lives. Consequently, they are dependent on the arbitrary wills involved in particular companies or the state, or the buying public at large. Only the very rich who have enough capital not to be dependent on an income for their sustenance, and the farmer who grows his own food and consequently does not need to deal with the arbitrary will of the buying public possess civil independence. So according to Kant’s argument about civil independence it seems that nearly all members of modern liberal democratic societies will not possess civil independence and consequently not be eligible for citizenship.

The fact that Kant’s argument concerning civil independence suggests that nearly all citizens of modern liberal democratic society are unqualified for citizenship does not mean that Kant’s argument is implausible. However, it does demand a response from those who believe that modern liberal democratic societies can realize the ideal of citizenship for all, as it challenges the very idea that a society based on an economy of jobholders could ever realize this ideal. I am torn on the question of whether it makes sense to think that the ideal of citizenship for all could be realized in modern liberal democratic society. On one hand certain institutions such as the secret ballot make it so that even if we are dependent in our economic lives on the arbitrary will of others, we have no reason to think that we should vote for their interests, as our vote does not need to be disclosed, so it seems that in some cases at least economic dependence on the arbitrary will of others does not prevent effective citizenship. On the other hand, the economic structure of modern liberal democratic societies does not encourage people to become effective citizens. Most of our energies are put into excelling at our jobs to ensure an income for ourselves and our families. Consequently, our dependence on the arbitrary will of others for our income encourages us to be more focused on our private, professional lives, and less on the common public life we share, and thus it is not clear to me that Kant’s argument is wrong. I am not sure, but the ideal of citizenship for all may require a different societal form than the one that currently exists in the form of modern liberal democracy. Contrastingly, it may be possible to conceptualize the insights that Kant presents such that citizenship for all is compatible with modern liberal democracy. However, I do not have the answer to these questions, but by raising the questions at least we will begin to recognize that the economic bases of modern liberal democratic society is in tension with certain elements of the ideal of citizenship.

Works Cited
Kant, Immanuel. “The Metaphysics of Morals.” Political Writings. Ed. H.S Reiss. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 131-176.

Problematizing the Pursuit of Career Success: Vice, Virtue and Post-Industrial Culture

The term “career success” brings to mind conflicting images. For many, career success means climbing the professional ladder so that one can get the best and most prestigious job possible. While, for some career success is more analogous to finding a career that is one’s calling. In an earlier entry, I criticized this latter conception of a career. In this entry I will critique the former conception. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the former conception of career success as “worldly career success.”

Worldly career success is valued extremely highly within post-industrial societies. For example, nearly every parent within these societies seems to want their child to have worldly career success, and children tend to internalize the desire for worldly career success and want to get an education and experience which will allow them to climb the corporate ladder and consequently achieve worldly career success. Furthermore, those who do not succeed in climbing the ladder of their profession and consequently do not achieve worldly career success are often called “losers” or “bums.” Thus, it seems that the culture of post-industrial societies puts a lot of value on worldly career success. Yet, I will contend that we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because in many contexts within post-industrial societies devotion to worldly career success will encourage the development of vices, as opposed to virtues.

On some level it seems that striving for worldly career success would reinforce virtues such as determination, and reliability, because in order to be successful within the work place one must ensure that one performs one’s assigned tasks, and does so, even if there are roadblocks to the completion of these tasks. Yet, at the same time striving for worldly career success often requires servility, and inauthenticity. Servility and inauthenticity are often required for worldly career success because in many institutions and firms it is necessary to be sycophantic and dishonest about how one feels and what one thinks in order to climb the professional ladder. For example, if I know that my boss has a stupid idea about something, but I also know that my boss is very sensitive to any criticism from people below him in the corporate chain, then if I am committed to worldly career success I will likely be dishonest and not say anything about my bosses’ idea just to ensure my chances of a promotion. So, it seems that in many contexts commitment to worldly career success could lead us to develop vices, because as we begin to act in a servile, inauthentic fashion within our working life to achieve worldly career success we will become habituated in acting in these ways and begin to become genuinely servile and inauthentic in the other areas of our lives. In such a situation one’s commitment to worldly career success has degraded one’s spirit and brought out the baser elements of one’s self. Consequently, we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because even if worldly career success has intrinsic value (which I doubt), it is still not something that we want to pursue at all costs, as an unconditional commitment to this value can to the development of particularly problematic vices.

Now it is true that post-industrial society does not explicitly tell people to be unconditionally committed to worldly career success, yet because the culture values worldly career success so highly it implicitly suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing this value as an ultimate end. If those who do not achieve worldly career success are “losers,” then clearly there is something wrong with not achieving worldly career success, and if this is the case then it is reasonable to think that it is legitimate to pursue worldly career success without qualification. Thus, the culture of post-industrial societies does encourage people to pursue worldly career success without qualification, even if no one is explicitly telling people to do so. As a result, it seems that the way that the culture of post-industrial societies values worldly career success is deeply problematic as it encourages people to pursue worldly career success in a way that may lead to the development of vices that any free, self-respecting person would want to avoid at any cost. Therefore, it is necessary to try to change this culture, and the first step towards changing it is to begin truly reflecting on how we value worldly career success, so we can revise our valuation where this is necessary.

Reason, providence, inspiration and value conflict: Is reason able to reconcile value conflict?

Many people within developed western nations believe that if reason is applied consistently we will be able to create the most perfect society imaginable. I call this idea providential rationalism. From the standpoint of providential rationalism it is through rational speech that we are able to overcome conflict between seemingly opposed values and it is through the application of reason that we will be able develop technology that will enable us to truly be masters of our destiny. For the purposes of this entry I will examine the former facet of providential rationalism, while not considering the latter in detail. In particular, I will show that this facet of providential rationalism, let us call it dialogical providential rationalism, is implausible unless one assumes some form of providence. Furthermore, I will argue that that the alternative view that reason is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the overcoming of value conflict is more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Dialogical providential rationalism rightly points out that when conflicts between seemingly opposed values are overcome, this occurs through the medium of rational speech. Through an exchange of arguments , we come to either see that the conflict between values was really illusory, or that one value is more important on reflection and consequently should take precedence when the two conflict. For example, it might seem that the value of the family is threatened by having the state intervene in family life where this is necessary to ensure a decent level of well-being for the child, as the family is necessarily based on paternal authority, rather than state authority. But on reflection this conflict is only illusory as it seems more plausible to think that the people, through the state, entrust parents with authority over their children on the conditions that the parents adequately provide for their children. However, if the parents break the element of the social contract that requires parents to adequately provide for their children, then the state may intervene because the entire point of parental authority is to secure the proper development of children. Consequently, while there seemed to be a conflict between the family and the rights of children, this conflict is not really a conflict at all. I am not expecting everyone to buy into this particular interpretation of the conflict between the family and the rights of children, rather it is just an example to show how seeming value conflict can be overcome.

However, the problem with dialogical providential rationalism is that it suggests that reason is sufficient to overcome all conflict between values. This seems implausible as there are many conflicts that do not seem to be reconcilable no matter how much we argue about these values. It seems plausible to think that if some reasonable person committed to the belief that equal freedom is the fundamental end of the state, and a reasonable person who believes that happiness is the ultimate end of the state would never come to an agreement about the ultimate end of the state. It is possible that they will be able to convince one another, or come up with an imaginative solution to reconcile their conflict, but it does not seem to be true that if they spoke for long enough they would overcome this conflict. What makes conflict between values so difficult to overcome is that the only way the conflict can be overcome is if the subjects to the disagreement are persuaded by some solution to the conflict. If one party provides a solution to the value conflict, but the other is not persuaded by the solution, then the conflict has not been overcome.

In consideration of the preceding, it seems to only make sense to think that if two reasonable agents reason for long enough about a value conflict, they will be able to overcome the conflict, if we assume that nature or God has structured reason and humanity in such a way that all conflicts can be reconciled with the application of enough rational speech. Furthermore, what is the belief that God or nature has made it so that reason can overcome all value conflicts, but a belief in a providential universe? Consequently, it seems that dialogical providential rationalism depends on the assumption of providence. Of course it is true that when we look back at history we see that seemingly opposed conflicts between values have been overcome, but this only suggests that reason has overcome some value conflicts, not that reason can overcome all value conflicts. Thus, this fact does nothing to damage the argument I have put forth. It should be noted that I am not arguing that providence is an implausible belief, but that dialogical providential rationalism assumes that we live in a providential universe.

The alternative that I would put forth to dialogical providential rationalism is that reason aids humans in overcome conflict between values, but that reason is a necessary as opposed to a sufficient condition for the overcoming of such conflict. But if reason is only a necessary condition for the overcoming of conflict between values, then some other element is necessary to overcome conflict between values. The other element is inspiration or imagination. This is made clear because in order to overcome conflict one must be possessed by something like, artistic inspiration, or imagination, in that the agents engaged in dialogue must imaginatively go beyond their current understanding of the values to reconcile the conflict. If the agents just reiterate arguments in favour of one value within the conflict, it is highly unlikely that the conflict will be overcome. But, if they are inspired and imaginatively reconcile the insights behind the conflicting values, then the value conflict may be overcome.

In many ways the overcoming of value conflict is like the creation of music, rather than the building of a house according to a blueprint. In creating music one cannot just decide that at 3:00PM one will write a piece of music, rather inspiration strikes and you are able to create something beautiful and unique. And when inspiration strikes is a matter of fortune rather than human control. Likewise, with value conflict simple rational argument is not sufficient to overcome the conflict, rather the agents must be struck by some kind of inspiration that enables them to see beyond their current understanding of the values to an understanding that is deeply convincing to all subjects of the disagreement, but yet overcomes the conflict. Furthermore, like with musical inspiration the imagination required to overcome value conflict is something that one is struck by, rather than something that one controls. Consequently, reason is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition for the reconciliation of value conflict, and over and above reason what enables value conflict to be reconciled is being struck by inspiration. The alternative that I have put forth seems plausible as it recognizes that reason is the only tool that humans are in control of that can assist them in overcoming value conflict, but it also recognizes the limits of reason in facilitating the reconciliation of value conflict. Therefore, the alternative I have put forth seems to be more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Reason is an amazing capacity of human beings, and it has great value. For example, it can help us to better understand others and learn from them. But we need to clearly understand its limits so that we do not turn reason into an idol that can solve all of our problems. Reason may be a less dangerous idol, than others, but when it is transformed into an idol, it still poses great dangers.