The Mechanical and Symbolic Aspects of Law

The laws of any political community seem to have two aspects. One aspect is mechanical while the other is symbolic. However too often when we think about law we either focus on the mechanical aspect of law at the expense of the symbolic or vice versa. Below I will describe how any adequate understanding of law requires a synthesis of both the mechanical and symbolic aspects of law.

On one hand law is mechanical in that part of the purpose of the existence of a law is to prevent certain kinds of acts from occurring and to create certain outcomes when a transgression of a law has occurred. The law against theft is thus both a technical means to retroactively punish people who have committed theft, and also a technical means by which the presence of theft can be prevented within the community. In this aspect law is just an instrument that is used to prevent certain kinds of acts from occurring, and ensuring that all instances of an act are punished.

But if we think of law only in its mechanical aspect we are left with a great deal of confusion. For example, the argument that the prohibition of drugs by law is a bad idea because people will still find a way to use, purchase and sell drugs and many people are not punished for use or trafficking of narcotics is based on seeing law only in its mechanical aspect. If the purpose of law is to prevent certain acts from occurring and ensuring punishment is doled out, but a law has been historically shown to be unable to perform these functions, than from a mechanical perspective the law seems ludicrous. But while many people may find this argument about the prohibition of drugs convincing it cannot stand on its own because this argument would equally apply to acts such as assault, murder and theft. The fact that we have laws prohibiting assault, murder and theft does not prevent these acts from occurring, as people who want to commit these acts strongly enough and think they can get away with it will still commit these acts. Furthermore, many people who commit these acts are able to get away with it and so law is not able to dole out punishments for all of the instances of the crime that are committed. So one could analogously say that laws against murder, theft, and assault should be repealed because the laws in this case do not effectively proactively prevent the occurrence of the crime or ensure that every instance of the crime is punished. However, such an argument would seem to be absurd as it leads to the conclusion that unless a law is completely, or near completely, efficacious in preventing certain acts from occurring and doling out punishments it should be repealed. And for the foreseeable future at least law in general does not seem to even have the potential to have this level of efficacy.

The preceding thus shows how the mechanical account of law is insufficient, as the mechanical account cannot explain why laws should be retained if they are not efficacious in preventing criminal acts from occurring. So, therefore law must be more than an instrument to proactively prevent people from performing certain acts and to dole out punishments to all who have committed certain acts.

The symbolic aspect of law however complements law’s mechanical aspect as law is not just a means to prevent people from committing acts but a way of a community setting down what it disapproves of, and what people may be legitimately punished for doing. If we take this symbolic aspect of law into account we can distinguish between the case of murder and prohibition of drugs because while both sets of laws may not be efficacious in preventing transgressions of the law from occurring and punishing instances of the crime, the case of laws against murder and drugs differ in their symbolic aspect as the ground for disapproval of murder and the grounds for disapproval of drug use differ significantly. The disapproval of murder typically stems from some notion that one citizen of a community does not have the right to take the life of another, because that other citizen merits respect and must be allowed to live their life. This is thus a case in which we have an interaction between citizens in which one citizen is quite clearly harmed by having their existence negated. Whereas in the case of drug use and drug trafficking it is hard to see how the decision to use drugs is any different from other choices that individuals make about their private lives. People may disapprove of drug use just as they disapprove of other’s religious or cultural practises, but it is hard to see how drug use damages any vital interests of an individual other than the drug user. Similarly, purchasing and selling of drugs seems to be hardly distinct from the purchasing and selling of other unhealthy food items, or legal drugs such as alcohol. So what is doing the work in the argument that prohibition of certain drugs is unwise is not just that the laws are not efficacious, but that also these laws police behaviour that is analogous to behaviour that in other contexts we see no reason to punish through the law. Consequently these laws are arbitrary and unjustifiable, as it seems inconsistent and hypocritical to allow individual to make the choice to consume unhealthy food, while also prohibiting the ingestion of unhealthy narcotics. Therefore, the symbolic aspect of law helps us to better understand law as a whole, and we cannot understand law merely in its mechanical aspect, as the symbolic helps us understand what grounds our disapproval of an act, and whether this is in line with our fundamental values.

Of course there would be those who would argue that the sale and purchase of drugs and their use should be outlawed because they damage the environment in which we raise citizens, as making something legal tends to mandate social approval of what has been made legal. This is a legitimate position for those who think that drug use represents a unique evil that merits state mandated punishment as it threatens to corrupt the youth and lead them down an unproductive path. But this kind of approach raises the further question of what kind of evils that merit punishment does it make sense to regulate through law?

Most people would say that when one person in a committed relationship cheats on another they have committed an evil that merits punishment as they have violated the trust of their partner, and they have revealed that they are not worthy of trust or respect. Yet, very few people would call for a law against adultery because law does not seem like the kind of thing that should regulate these types of acts. The coercive force of law is clumsy and is not the most effective way of helping people to overcome their tendency to commit infidelity. Thus, even though adultery is arguably a social evil, it is not the kind of social evil that it makes sense to regulate through the coercive apparatus of state law. And to bring this issue back to the original subject of drugs, perhaps drug use is analogous to adultery, in that while drug use may be worthy of disapproval and punishment it is not something that should be dealt with through coercive law as coercive law does not help people to deal with the challenge of drug addiction, but just punishes them unthinkingly for engaging in drug use. In this case we see that talking only about the symbolic aspect of law, whether we disapprove of it, and think it should be worthy of punishment, is not enough to determine what law is and ought to be, but instead we need to complement the symbolic aspect of law with the mechanical. If we take account of both the mechanical and symbolic we see that part of assessing the validity of a law involves assessing whether the outcomes that law creates are an effective way of dealing with the problem with the illegal act. It makes sense to address murder through the retroactive application of law as the murderer is a threat to others in the community and thus putting them in prison is a good way of ensuring security. On the other hand the user of illegal drugs is more of a threat to himself than of the community so it is hard to see how fining him or putting him in prison helps the problem that drug use poses as the drug addict poses more of a threat to themselves, than to others.

Thinking this way involves both the symbolic and mechanical as we are both examining what merits disapproval and what kind of society we ought to have, and the mechanical way that different social institutions operate. Unless we can synthesize these somewhat opposed aspects of law our understanding of it will be impoverished.

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Cultural Practises: Beyond the Opposition between Local and Universal

Countries with an avowedly multicultural identity, like Canada, face an interesting question in terms of how they can reconcile respect for the equal dignity of individuals with respect for the diversity of cultures. Some cultural practises seem to violate the equal dignity of individuals and yet are an integral part of certain cultures. For example, clitoridectomy stands out as one such practise as it seems to be harmful to girls and women, and yet is certainly an integral part of certain cultures.

Within this multicultural context, members of particular cultures may say that they should be allowed to continue to engage in a practise that is illegal because this practise is part of their culture. Some, call them multiculturalists, are quite receptive to this sort of exemption for certain cultural practises as they think this is required to respect the diversity of cultures within a state. On the other hand, liberal universalists are critical of this claim and say that if a practise violates laws that are meant to defend the rights and well-being of equal citizens than it really does not matter if the practise is a part of your culture. According to this latter perspective it is not enough to justify the validity of a practise, and its eligibility for exemption from an existing law, to point to the fact that it is a part of your particular cultural tradition. In this debate I tend to be far more supportive of the latter position, than the former, but for the sake of this piece I do not want to focus on the specifics of whether policy should provide exemptions for cultural practises that violate existing law, but rather look at what these kinds of exchanges tell us about the nature of value and its relation to culture. It seems to me that cultural traditions are inexorably linked to universal values, rather than being opposed to them, and consequently we should not speak as if there was such a fundamental opposition. Universal value is an aspect of culture, rather than oppositional to culture.

When someone says that they should be able to engage in a practise because it is part of their culture, or their religion for that matter, what are they saying? On the most literal reading of their statement they are saying that as far as possible people should be able to engage in practises that are part of their heritage, and should not be impeded from doing so by existing law. Liberal universalists tend to take this interpretation of the defenders of multicultural policies of exemption, and as a result quite rightly point out that if this is what multiculturalists mean they are quite simply defending a quite repugnant form of cultural relativism. If a practise causes harm to children or significantly reduces their opportunities in life, but is a part of a culture’s practises it seems quite cruel to say that the practise should continue merely because it is part of a group’s culture. This would be like saying women should continue to be the predominant caregivers of children because they have been in our culture in the past. I gave the example of children as the way that a culture treats children is particularly important because children, unlike adults, do not have the ability to leave their culture if they decide they do not like it until they have reached adulthood, and so they are particular vulnerable to being unjustly harmed by cultural practises.

However, I don’t think all multiculturalists are arguing for this kind of vacuous relativism, and I think there is more sophisticated defense. For example, to defend a cultural practise by saying that it is part of one’s culture can plausible be viewed as suggesting that this practise should be exempted from existing law because it constitutes a unique and significant value, such that by preventing the practise the lives of those who practise the culture would be diminished. On this account culture is not just a mere set of practises that we inherit from the past that has no universal value, but rather culture gives an insightful account of our place in the world and its practises constitute a valuable mode of operation. The value of culture in this sense is not just that the members of the culture happen to like to practise it, but that in a real sense it enhances the lives of its members and allows them to understand what is most significant. Different cultures represent differing notions of what is valuable, but they all purport to answer the question of what is significant. Now, from a policy angle the mere fact that a cultural practise that is illegal can be shown to have significant value is not enough to justify an exemption for it as the law could be protecting a value that is more fundamental. But this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument is not insensitive to the interests and lives of the members of the culture. Consequently it is not open to the liberal universalist charge of uncaring cultural relativism.

Yet, this latter interpretation of the multiculturalist argument would completely change the way we talk about multiculturalism. If cultural practises that are currently illegal should be exempted for members of a particular culture because they provide significant value to the lives of the members of the culture, than why shouldn’t the law forbidding in general be repealed? Once we begin to justify cultural practises in terms of their value to the lives of their members, the practises are not merely valuable for a particular culture, but for citizens in general as there value is universal and not conditional upon cultural membership. In this case, all other things being equal, if a significantly valuable cultural practise is made illegal through existing law than why wouldn’t we just legalize this practise in general? By only allowing members of a certain culture to engage in this practise through an exemption we would be preventing others from accessing a valuable option, and thus denying the principle of equality. Consequently, upon this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument the argument is not about whether a culture should be free to engage in a particular practise that others within the society are not free to engage in, but whether a currently illegal practise should be made legal because it is valuable. Of course, there are some cases where exemption makes sense as a matter of prudence, but these are not the norm.

What the preceding faintly shows is that the defense of cultural practises need not be framed in terms of the opposition between the defense of local cultural practises on the basis that they are part of a tradition and the defense of universal human values. But liberal universalists and multiculturalists themselves are far too often willing to frame their arguments in terms of this opposition. Liberal universalists tend to suggest they are standing up for universal human values, against the particular parochial practises of traditional cultures. We can see this in the debate on the headscarf in France. Liberal universalists justified the banning of the headscarf in public schools based on the fact that they were defending the universal value of equality, as the headscarf symbolizes the subordination of women. On the other hand, the critics of the ban tended to see this as a case of the French majority trying to impose their values on an already oppressed cultural minority who merely want to retain their traditions.

Now, through framing these issues in terms of universal values and local traditions, something deeply important is missed about the relation of culture and value. Cultures are always related to the particular, but value is always mediated and made most present through the particular. Fairness is an example of this. In an abstract sense what fairness requires is very hard to understand. Surely, it is fair to make a decision by flipping a coin, as no party has a significantly better chance of guessing correctly, but it would be odd to say that a fair way of organizing society would be by flipping coins to decide who did what and who had power in that society. Thus, the value of fairness can only be understood in particular contexts. A fair way to decide who should get the last slice of cake after each has had one piece might be through a random selection, whereas in an artistic competition fairness in judging the winner is based on fidelity to criteria that are integral to the nature of artistic competition that is occuring. Likewise, for Christians, what piety requires is very different from civic nationalists, or Muslims, but both are concerned with the same core object of piety.

Cultures are thus not particular traditions that are opposed to universal values. Rather each culture’s practises are a mediation of a related set of values that can plausibly apply to anyone; thus cultures do not simply represent the particular, but rather the mediation of universal values in a particularistic form. Now, some cultures may have a better mediation of one value than another, culture or contain values that we deem are more or less important. Surely, the contemporary culture of Canada has done a better job to mediate the value of compassion than the culture of Ancient Sparta. But this does not change the fact that particular cultures are not opposed to universal values, but an attempt to bring together and mediate a set of universal values in a form of life.

Thus, when we are talking about a culture’s practise and debating its value we should not be framing the issue in terms of the defense of a particular culture retaining its tradition, absent of any claim of universal value, against a claim of the defense of universal human values. Instead, when we are talking about cultural practises, we are talking about mediations of universal values that have their value precisely in the fact that they are not just a local custom, but instead a way of thinking and living life that can reveal what is significant to anyone. Engaging with other cultures is not a matter of respecting their diversity, but of trying to grasp them and see if they reveal something valuable about how we should live.

What is wrong with cultural appropriation?

We typically hear that cultural appropriation is deeply problematic, and that we should refrain from it because it causes real damage to the oppressed and perpetuates the dominance of male, white, heterosexual culture. Typically the critics of cultural appropriation point out that when someone takes the object of a subaltern culture and use it against that culture or in a way that disrespects the meaning of the object inherent in that culture. One of the most common examples of cultural appropriation that is brought up is when whites in North America wear aboriginal feathered headdresses to music festivals or other festivities. This disrespects aboriginals because the headdress has a very specific meaning within the aboriginal cultures that make use of them, and this meaning is not honoured when it is worn at a music festival or while tailgating before a football game. Furthermore, wearing these headdresses in a relatively trivial context can be plausibly seen to harm the cause of aboriginal rights, by trivializing sacred elements of their culture. While I sympathize with this critique I find the concept of cultural appropriation deeply problematic as it misunderstands what makes culture valuable, and in so doing is demeaning of the very cultures that it seeks to defend.

It should be noted that critics of cultural appropriation do not think that members of a dominant culture should not make any use of objects from other cultures. For example, I have never heard someone say that members of the dominant white culture should not cook or eat dishes from other cultures. Their critique is rooted in the power relations between members of the dominant and the subordinate culture. It is not that they object to members of one culture making use of objects from an oppressed culture. What they object to is when members of a dominant culture see the objects or symbols of another culture as mere commodities that can be used without any understanding or respect for their original meaning. In this respect, I agree with the critic of cultural appropriation in that there is something quite problematic about seeing a culture as a virtual shopping mall where I can pick up objects and use them however I see fit.

While we may agree in seeing the objects of culture as something not to be used in any way whatsoever, my disagreement with the critics of cultural appropriation seems to be grounded in our understanding of what it means to respect a culture. For the critic of cultural appropriation any use of the objects of an oppressed culture that is out of step with the meaning of that object within that culture is to be avoided. We can see this as the speech of the critics of cultural appropriation tends to be more interested in telling people to stop engaging in and supporting cultural appropriation than anything else. The critique of cultural appropriation is purely negative, and amounts to the commandment “thou shalt not commit cultural appropriation.”

In contrast to this I think that members of a dominant culture can make use of the objects of an oppressed culture in a way that is out of step with the meaning the object has in the oppressed culture if the members of the dominant culture engage in a particular way. For example, say that I research about the object of a particular oppressed culture and speak with members of the culture about its meaning, and through so doing I grow to appreciate this object. While this object speaks to me and seems to reveal something true about the world, it speaks to me in a very different way than it speaks to an indigenous member of the culture, as our background understandings of the world are different, and the meaning of a single cultural object does not inhere in the object, but in the relation to the other meanings and objects to which it relates. The meaning of the cross in Christianity for example cannot be understood without the figure of Jesus or Abraham or Adam and Eve for that matter. Consequently, this object takes on a distinct yet valuable meaning that reveals something important to me. As a result of this I then make use of this cultural object in my own life in a way that while related to the meaning held by the culture that originated the object is distinct from it. This example shows the way in which we can relate to subordinate cultures that allows us to use their objects in a way that is distinct from their original meaning, and yet still shows respect for them and their culture. Thus, from my perspective, respecting a subordinate culture concerns how we relate to its objects and does not prohibit all uses of it by a member of a dominant culture. If the approach that I have laid out still constitutes cultural appropriation then I would say that cultural appropriation isn’t always bad, as this mode of relating to the other best fits with a proper understanding of what culture is and what makes it valuable.

It seems to me that what makes culture valuable is not that it belong to my culture, your culture, a dominant culture or an oppressed culture, but that cultures constitute different ways of understanding the world that have developed over time and held power over peoples. Cultures thus can be plausibly construed as containing the received wisdom of particular ages and peoples. Consequently, what makes a culture valuable is that it is a source outside of ourselves that can serve as a resource of wisdom that can better teach us how to live through revealing truths we would have never thought of on our own.

If culture is valuable because it is a resource of wisdom from various ages and peoples, what is the nature of culture? I think we can understand what culture is if we think about how we relate to cultures and how they develop. For example, I, as a member of my culture, find myself in dialogue not only with the beliefs of my culture and members of my own culture, but those of other cultures as well. Charles Taylor refers to this as always finding ourselves in webs of articulation, and my account is very influenced by Taylor here. It is only through this dialogue between historical and contemporary viewpoints within a particular culture, and other cultures, that this particular culture renews its meaning, and rearticulate its sense of value. This suggests that cultures are not some static set of beliefs, rites and objects, but that cultures are always already evolving through their relation to both internal and external factors. The culture of a people is not just the views that the leaders of that culture hold at this point, but rather it is an ongoing conversation between present, past, and the very cultures that this culture defines itself in contrast to.

As a result of the preceding it does violence to what culture is and what makes it valuable to speak of it as if it belonged strictly to the members of that culture. But this is just what the critics of cultural appropriation do when they suggest that it is always problematic to make use of a cultural object in a way that is out of step with the meaning of that object within the originating culture. The only way to make sense of the view that only members of a culture can reinterpret the meaning of a cultural object is to suggest that the culture somehow owns the object and thus only they have a right to alter its meaning. Ironically, while most critics of cultural appropriation are of the progressive left, their conception of justice relies on a concept of property that is distinctly capitalist. Consequently, the critics of cultural appropriation demean culture, by not seeing it as a source of wisdom that anyone could learn something from, but as the possession of a specific group of people.

Furthermore, they demean the specific cultures they seek to defend because if the oppressed culture is not valuable because of the wisdom or insight it contains, but because it is the possession of a particular group of people, the culture itself has no intrinsic value, but is just a historical accident that a certain group of people happen to be attached to. In which case this raises the question of why the oppressed group should remain attached to their culture? Surely, if we are to remain attached to a culture we should be so for more of a reason than the fact that it is ours, and our ancestors practised it. As a result there is something deeply problematic about the contemporary critique of cultural appropriation as it fails to take proper account of the fact that culture is primarily valuable because of the wisdom it contains and its capacity to reveal truths to anyone who confronts it.

A Polemic on Modern Liberal Democratic Politics

It seems fairly obvious that a political system in a society needs to have a way of guaranteeing that the long term interests of the society, including the interests of future generations are taken care of and respected (intergenerational justice.) This seems to simply flow from the recognition that all other things equal we want a society to develop to the fullest of its potential, and to be structured so that future generations are not sacrificed for the present desires of existing generations.  According to some, like Burke, one way of ensuring this is through the presence of an aristocratic land-owning class. This class is tied to their estate and has a long term interest in the well-being and health of their state as they want to pass on a fine legacy to their descendants.

However, nothing like this class exists in modern liberal democracies, so what methods do liberal democracies have to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice? One method is through trying to create institutions that serve to ensure that these long term interests are safeguarded. However, I will argue that in themselves institutions are not enough to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice whether in an aristocracy, mixed constitution or a democracy. Instead, a particular kind of culture and public ethic needs to exist that actively condemns sacrificing genuine long term interests to immediate self-interest. As such a culture will help to ensure the long term good of the society is actively maintained.

To serve long term interest and the justice of future generations some modern liberal democratic states have tried to create certain institutions to secure these goods. One such example of this is the US Senate.  In contrast to the House of Representatives in which Representatives have a two year term US Senators have a term of six years. Part of the justification of having these two bodies separate is that the House of Representatives would tend to be more dominated by the needs of political expediency as members of this body have to be extremely concerned with how they vote as their term is so short that they are likely to be punished in an election if they vote against their constituent’s avowed interests. Consequently, members of this legislative body would be more likely to simply vote in a way that got them re-elected rather than in a way that necessary served the long term interest of the community. Contrastingly according to this justification due to the fact that senators have a six year term they are more free to vote according to their best judgment about the interests of the community as their term is long enough that the senator can show their constituents that while their constituents may have initially disagreed with the senator’s actions, his or her actions are actually supportive of their interests, and the long term interest of the state.

While this justification of the US Senate is somewhat plausible, given the current state of US politics it seems that this institutional structure is not enough to secure intergenerational justice and long term interests.  Currently, in the US, at all levels of government including the Senate political expedience seems to dominate over genuine deliberation concerning long term interests. The deliberations within both the lower and upper house have become but theatrical precursors to an election in which senators strut before voters and make sure that their actions translate into electability rather than ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice.

If the example provided by the US Senate is at all typical then it seems that institutions structured in a particular way are not enough to ensure some semblance of intergenerational justice and the safeguarding of long term interests. Even when these institutions are present we tend to see politics in modern liberal democracies dominated by political game playing that serves to ensure an official is re-elected rather than that long term interests are taken care of.

One element that can ameliorate this problem in modern liberal democracies is a culture and public ethic that condemns political activity that puts immediate self-interest ahead of the pursuit of long term interests and intergenerational justice. The trouble with modern liberal democracies is not just that institutions are not perfectly setup but that as a whole we have come to accept the unabashed pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law as legitimate. Just as we do not condemn someone for leaving a company at a challenging time for that company because they have received a tempting job offer, so to in politics we do not condemn voters, or politicians for pursuing their immediate self-interest at the expense of long term interests and intergenerational justice. There is a mild distaste for the crass pursuit of self-interest by politicians, but by and large we do not condemn them and view these agents as having violated some important principle. Instead we see it as the norm for politicians to act this way, and while this norm may bother us we are resigned to accept it as natural.

However, if a culture condemns political activity that pursues immediate self-interest at the expense of all other goods and positively affirms the value of defending long term interests and intergenerational justice, then this would help to ensure that long term interests and intergenerational justice were taken care of.  In this kind of culture all will be more likely to recognize the value of the goods of long term societal interests and intergenerational justice, and act from these principles as the culture affirms them, and consequently people would be honoured for ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice, and dishonoured for sacrificing these goods before the goddess of immediate self-interest. Therefore, a certain kind of culture and public ethic would help to ensure that politics in a liberal democracy serves long term interests and intergenerational justice.

Similarly, this point does not merely apply to liberal democracies, but to other forms of government as well. What ensures that long term interests are served in an aristocracy is not the presence of a landed gentry itself,  but rather the presence of a landed gentry that recognizes that as powerful members of their community they have the responsibility to ensure the long term interests of their state by taking care of their estate and subjects. If an aristocrat in an aristocracy were to act based on crass self-interest they would not ensure long term interest and intergenerational justice as there is no reason inherent in being a member of the landed gentry that determines that one will take care of one’s estate and subject and pass on a fine legacy to one’s descendent and future subjects. What ensures that the landed gentry secure long term interests and intergenerational justice is the culture and public ethic that they act from, not the institution of the landed gentry itself.

However, in putting forward an argument for this kind of political culture that condemns sacrificing long term interests for immediate self-interest we are faced with a huge challenge on three fronts. The first and most obvious challenge is how such a culture comes into being while respecting the independence and freedom of persons. Many historical attempts by states to make a certain kind of culture have been utterly disastrous and cruel such as the Terror in the French Revolution and attempts to assimilate groups like Canadian First Nations. This should make us very cautious about how state policy is used to try to purposefully shape a culture.

The second challenge is that acts that pursue the long term interest and intergenerational justice are not immediately transparent. It is fairly easy for a politician, voter or activist to do something that only furthers their immediate self-interest and yet present it as something that furthers long term interests; in the case of a politician they just need to espouse an argument that shows how their actions will serve long term interests even if this argument is particularly facile or weak. Consequently, it is not always easy to determine when we are dealing with overt acts of immediate self-interest versus at the expense of long term interests and acts that are meant to pursue the overall good of the community including its long term interests and intergenerational justice.

The other challenge is more particular to modern liberal democracy, and that is that these societies carry a heavy mark of consumerism, and consumerism is dominated by the pursuit of immediate self-interest and instant gratification. This raises the question of if the kind of political culture that I am gesturing towards is compatible with our current consumerist economic way of life as there is something quite schizophrenic about rejecting the uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law within the economic sphere, while rejecting it in the political sphere.  Unfortunately, if it turns out that these two modes of activity are incompatible then we will have to choose between a politics that can help us secure intergenerational justice as well as long term interests and the maintenance of our current economic practises.

On the Ideologue

It seems to me that one of the most troubling elements of the politics of post-industrial societies is the centrality of the ideologue. In this entry I want to discuss what makes the ideologue distinctive, highlight one reason why they seem to be central to the politics of post-industrial societies and show why the centrality of the ideologue is problematic. In addition it seems that while there are things that can be done to diminish the centrality of the ideologue, these actions may threaten other important goods that we deeply value.

What does it mean to be an ideologue? At a superficial level it seems to simply be someone who follows a particular ideology, but being an ideologue is far more than this. The ideologue not only has strong commitments and systematic beliefs, rather they view their beliefs as somehow sacred and inviolable. Consequently, anyone who denies a facet of their beliefs is deemed impure and unworthy of dialogue. The ideologue does not wish to discuss with those who oppose them. They wish to negate this opponent as the ideologue’s set of beliefs represent a higher truth. For example, many activists of all political stripes have this kind of attitude. Many activists’ concern is not with hearing out those who have opposing beliefs to see if they have any valid concerns, but with tactically ensuring that those who oppose them have no influence on society.

The ideologue seems to be a central figure within politics of post-industrial societies. Within these societies political parties are ideologically oriented and other features of political life including the media, lobbying and activism all seem to reflect ideological divides. Our political life is not one in which equal citizens confront each other to figure out what is in the interest of all, but instead is one in which people enter the sphere as bearers of ideology who must fight and negate those who oppose them.

The preceding raises the questions of why the ideologue is so central to our political life. There are numerous factors that affect this including capitalism and technological development but I want to highlight one other factor, and that factor is desire for societal purity.

Within post-industrial societies people must live together who have very different understandings of what matters; Christians, Secularists, Wiccans all must live together according to the same rules. In these societies the overall societal structure is not meant to reflect the commitments or beliefs of any particular group, but rather be something that is mutually agreeable to all of the groups within society. For example, the formal structure of the state of the United States or Canada is not supposed to reflect the beliefs of Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus, but rather supposed to reflect a form of government that any reasonable person could agree to.  The tendency for citizens to become ideologues in this environment is intense as people have deep commitments and beliefs and see elements of society that offend against, or violate these beliefs. In reaction to these elements of society that offend against their beliefs many in post-industrial societies will come to desire to see society reflect their image of the good so that the society they live in more accurately corresponds with their most fundamental beliefs and values. Underlying this push to have society reflect one’s deepest commitments is the desire for societal purity. In itself there is nothing wrong with this desire as it is the very same desire that draws us closer to the good, and commands us to try to make our society more just, humane and fair, as part of the reason that we want to do these things to ensure that we build a more pure and consequently better society. But this desire can also direct us to merely wish to transform without due consideration of whether we have the right to make society in the image of our understanding of the good, and if we have something to learn from others about the nature of the good. Consequently, the desire for societal purity seems to form a significant part of the reason for the centrality of the ideologue within the political life of post-industrial societies.

One reason why the centrality of the ideologue to politics in post-industrial societies is deeply problematic is because it prevents the political community from becoming or maintaining its status as a community of respect. A community of respect is one in which people see others as participants in a project to create a just community. These others must be worked with, rather than being defeated and must be seen as being worth listening to. Or to put this slightly differently, the form of respect that is central to a community of respect extends beyond the respect required for someone to refrain from coercing, or manipulating another, but rather requires a more positive affirmation of the other as a collaborative participant who one can possibly learn from.

The ideologue as a central element of political life negates this community of respect because when we see those who oppose our beliefs as merely enemies to be overcome then we will not try to hear them out and consequently not fully respect them. In such a situation, those with opposing views merely become impediments to our will that must be combatted with. We may not want to physically harm these interlocutors or opponents, but nonetheless we do not see them as contributive members of a collaborative project. Consequently, the ideologue is a problem for post-industrial societies as their influence makes it that much more difficult for societies to transform themselves into communities of respect.

It seems to me that the problem with the ideologue is a matter of character, more than of particular beliefs. The ideologue is arrogant and self-satisfied. They are arrogant and self-satisfied in that they think they hold the fundamental truth, and do not even think it is possible that people with opposing beliefs could be right. It is these qualities of arrogance and self-satisfaction that drives the ideologue to deal with opposing perspectives in the way that they do. If you are arrogant and self-satisfied than it becomes nearly impossible to see those who oppose you as contributing participants in a common project who must be collaborated with and listened to as you clearly know the truth and what needs to be done.

If the problem with the ideologue is a matter of character this creates a quite troubling problem for post-industrial societies. On one hand it means that the answer to the problem of the ideologue is to ensure that citizens do not become arrogant or self-satisfied. But the question is how does the state do this without infringing on the ability of individuals to be self-determining? Using state policies to encourage certain traits and discourage other traits may be justifiable, but it also concentrates power in the hands of the state and seems to limit individuals of their ability to develop themselves according to their own vision of the good. Can such limitations of individual development be justified because these limitations are necessary for the creation of a community of respect? While I lean towards saying yes to this question, as I think there are forms of policy that can help to discourage self-satisfaction and arrogance without significantly limiting individual development (ie compulsory civil service, participation in juries), there is a danger with any such attempt to have the state inculcate certain traits of endangering the freedom of individuals to develop themselves.

Please feel free to respond with your own answers to any, or all of, the following questions.

  • How do you understand the ideologue?
  • Why do you think the ideologue is a central element of post industrial societies? Is this problematic? Why?
  • Are the ideologue’s beliefs or character what drives his or her problematic actions?
  • How would you deal with the problem of the ideologue? Is it a problem that should be addressed through governmental policy?

 

Stoicism, Providence and Modern Unbelief

The philosophy of Stoicism argues that humans ought to only concern themselves with things that are under their control. In the Stoic tradition the things that are considered to be under our control are actions, dispositions, and feelings. Similarly, for the Stoic, what makes human beings distinct from other animals, and somewhat like God is their ability to control their actions, dispositions and feelings. Consequently, for the Stoic , the good life is not one that is comfortable or pleasant, but one in which the agent takes care to properly order his feelings, dispositions and actions.

While Stoicism can seem rather antiquated as its greatest defenders were either Ancient Greeks or Romans (ie Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), Stoicism remains attractive to many inhabitants of modernity; in fact I find myself attracted to Stoicism.  Similarly, Stoicism has been deeply influential on Kant and Descartes, has had a significant influence on modern psychological therapeutic techniques.

Part of the attraction of Stoicism seems to at least partially lie in the fact that it enables us to insulate our lives from the terrible things that happen that are outside of our control. Reading the Stoics can help us to recognize that worrying about what others think about us or other things that are outside of our control is pointless as it is not in our power to control these sorts of things.

While Stoicism remains attractive in many ways in the modern era there is at least one set of issues that make it difficult for modern nonbelievers, in particular, to buy into this philosophy.  This set of issues is our fundamental attitude towards the events that occur in the universe. The Stoics believed in a providential God that ensured that events unfolded as they ought to. This belief in providence is deeply related to their ability to be indifferent towards things not under their control, whereas the tendency of modern unbelievers to see events as the result of mere mechanical causation makes it far more difficult to just accept the flows of events, especially as humanity seems to possess more and more technological power over nature. Consequently, while Stoicism may remain attractive to modern unbelievers a different reason other than providence will have to be found to show why we ought to accept the flow of events rather than trying to conquer or control them. I will examine the human relationship to death and aging to highlight the difference in outlook between the Stoics and modern unbelievers and suggest that while we can learn from the Stoics the Stoics seem simply wrong to suggest that the only good worth pursuing is the good of proper self-control.

From the Stoic perspective aging and death are just natural elements of life that need not be resisted. The key is to respond to aging and death not by being distraught by the inevitability of death and aging, but by accepting that these are two elements of life that we cannot escape and must just accept. For example in discussing his process of aging Seneca notes that

“Only my vices and their accessories have decayed: the spirit is full of life and delighted to only having limited dealings with the body. It has thrown off a great part of its burden. It’s full of vigour and carrying on an argument with me on the subject of old age, maintaining that these are its finest years. Let’s accept what it says and make the most of its blessings…Moving to one’s end through nature’s own gentle process of dissolution—is there a better way of leaving life than that? Not because there is anything wrong with a sudden, violent departure but because this gradual withdrawal is an easy route.” (Letter XXVI)

Here Seneca notes the inevitability of aging and death and the fact that it must be accepted, rather than something that we ought to try to escape.

On the contrary within the world of modern unbelief it seems as though we are attempting to at least prolong the inevitability of death and aging, if not trying to escape from these seeming inevitabilities entirely. This is made evident by the amount of energy and resources that are allocated to prevent death and disease and to ensure that people are able to look and “feel” younger for longer.  A large part of this resistance to aging and death lies in the fact that we have uncovered that we have the ability to prolong life and delay aging, in conjunction with the fact that we fetishize youth, and bodily goods, but it is beyond the scope of this entry to fully uncover all that underlies the modern tendency to see aging and death as a mere curse.

To return to the topic at hand, if, as modern unbelievers, we do not believe in providence why would we believe that we ought to accept death and aging and not to try to resist them with all of our might? One possible reason why we might think that there is something contemptible about the person who tries to transcend their biological limits. In relation to this we might say that part of what being a good human being means is that one recognizes that one is not a God, and as a result one should accept one’s impermanence with quiet dignity.

This picture of the good is perfectly coherent, but it is not clear why modern unbelievers ought to accept it. Given that we praise people who have overcome their limitations to do great things it seems odd to say that good human beings ought to not transcend their biological limits.  Furthermore, if we accept that our biological constitution is just a brute fact, rather than something that sets out limits for our action it seems that there is little reason to see our constitution as something that sets normative limits for us in general.

Consequently, it seems that while modern unbelievers can learn from the Stoic tradition there is a large, and perhaps, unbridgeable gap between the outlook of the Stoics and between modern unbelievers. When providence is dropped from the picture and the development of technology and science has allowed us to more adeptly conquer nature it is hard to see why we ought to see goodness as lying in only properly ordering one’s feelings, dispositions and actions, rather than trying to control nature to ensure that more people encounter more goods.

Of course a defender of Stoicism might say that appeals to providence are not necessary to justify as Stoicism as external goods like wealth, health and prosperity are not really goods and thus we should only focus on ordering our feelings, dispositions, and actions, rather than trying to pursue external goods. But the Stoic reasoning behind this has never been convincing to me. While wealth, health and prosperity may be less important goods than character or integrity it seems odd to say that a life of a fortunate affluent citizen of good character is no better than the life of an impoverished slave with equally good character.  External goods cannot be the foundation of a good life, but they can augment it, and it seems downright bizarre to say that a life of good character that involves luxurious aesthetic appreciation is no better than a life with equally good character that is barred from all aesthetic appreciation. The fallout of taking this position is that fortune will play a role in determining the goodness of lives, such that goodness is not simply the responsibility of the agent, but this seems to be a worthwhile cost to pay for a clearer picture of the nature of goodness.

Works Cited

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Some thoughts on the Socratic critique of poetry

In this entry I want to discuss the Socratic critique of poetry and how we might want to respond to it. It should be noted that for Socrates poetry includes music, and plays, so poetry has a much wider ambit for Socrates than what we mean by the term. For the sake of simplicity I will use the Socratic meaning of poetry in this entry.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates critiques the poets for being craftsmen of a kind who merely imitate appearances, rather than capturing the fundamental nature of reality. As a result of the imitative nature of poetry Socrates views the influence of poetry as pernicious as it teaches people to value the wrong things and encourages poor dispositions and character.

The Socratic criticism of poetry would be quite powerful if it was correct and it would force us to reassess the role of poetry in our lives. As a result, the question becomes do we have reasons to reject Socrates criticism of poetry. While poetry might have been a purely imitative art during the time in which Socrates was alive, today to refer to poetry as something that imitates appearances would seem to be an odd characterization of it. With the advent of the Romantic, and Modern traditions of the fine arts, creativity has become a central element of poetry.  The good poet is not one who seeks to imitate appearances in the world, but rather to innovate and express something that has never been said before. It would be hard to say how something like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come was a mere imitation of an appearance, as these two creations seems to be forms of art that break through being an imitation of some appearance and have brought to life something entirely new that has not been seen or heard in the world before. Similarly, one might argue many of the Greek tragedies were such an invention, rather than an imitation of an appearance, although this case seems to be harder to make. Consequently, it does not seem to be the case that poetry as a whole can be characterized as purely imitative so it seems that the Socratic characterization of poetry is not wholly accurate. For the sake of simplicity I will refer to poetry that is not purely imitative as creative poetry.

Now, one way of viewing creative instances of poetry which say something that has not been said before is that these are acts of creation that do not reflect or express something but simply create something new. The act of creation is thus not an instance of trying to reflect some deeper truth, but rather to say something novel. This reading of creative poetry seem vulnerable to a revised Socratic critique as creative poetry on this reading does not capture anything essential about reality; it just creates a novel thing. So, from a Socratic perspective if this reading of creative poetry is correct, creative poetry is equally pernicious to imitative of poetry as creative poetry too fails to capture the genuine features of reality.

One other reading of creative poetry is to see it as the expression of some aspect of reality that has not been seen before, such that creative poetry is a vehicle that allows us to uncover hidden truths. On this reading, creative poetry becomes far less vulnerable to a revised Socratic criticism as creative poetry becomes something that helps us better understand reality in which seems to serve the very purpose that Socrates is most committed to. I am drawn to this reading of creative poetry myself as I very much find that both poetry and philosophy help us understand reality, and tend to see them as complementary, rather than opposed arts. For example, I have learned as much from reading Antigone as I have from Hobbes or Locke. As a result this reading of creative poetry seems promising as it is able to recognize the seeming complementary relationship that exists between philosophy and poetry in helping us understand the world. Consequently, this reading of creative poetry seems to provide us with a fairly compelling response to the Socratic criticism of poetry.

 

 

 

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.

Brave New World, Cruelty and Liberalism

Judith Shklar argued that the foundation of liberalism ought not to be seen in a metaphysical concept of human dignity, but in the sense that cruelty is the worst thing that humans do to one another. She called this reading of liberalism the “Liberalism of Fear.” On this reading of liberalism we allow each individual as much freedom as is compatible with like freedom for others due to the fact that this is the best way to avoid cruelty. Furthermore, there are others who have picked up this reading of liberalism such as Richard Rorty. This reading of liberalism is particularly attractiveness because it seems to lays liberalism on a seemingly uncontroversial foundation, rather than speculative metaphysical abstractions. This uncontroversial notion is that cruelty is one kind of evil that we cannot accept. Surely, any person who did not accept this notion would seem to be deeply confused. But, Huxley’s Brave New World gives us reason doubt Shklar’s attempt to rest liberalism on the foundation of the prevention and avoidance of cruelty, as cruelty has been abolished in the futuristic society presented in Brave New World, and yet for many liberal people, like myself, the society presented in Brave New World is deeply disturbing.

The society presented in Brave New World is a non-democratic one in which humans no longer reproduce naturally, but rather are developed in test tubes by a central governmental body. This body creates a variety of types of humans (Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, Epsilons) to perform different tasks within the social body. The differing varieties of humans are produced through technological means such as conditioning, and chemical treatment. For example, the lower castes, such as the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, are made to be physically, and mentally less than Alphas and Betas through chemical treatments that are deployed early in the development of the embryo. Similarly, this governmental body conditions members of each caste to enjoy living as a part of their caste within this society. This conditioning process is presented as broadly effective with a few minor exceptions. So, people are generally very happy with their place within society and with the work they perform.

Similarly, people’s free time is easygoing, effortless and pleasant. Sex has been completely detached from reproduction such that within this society it is viewed as moral to enjoy sex with others, and a wide variety of others at that. Developing a singular passion for only one other person would tend to lead to unhappiness for when people care deeply for a single other, the loss of that other can destroy them, but if sex is just as impersonal as the transaction between me and the grocer, then the loss of that other has little effect on me. People merely enjoy the momentary sensations of sex, but without any real attachment to the person they are having sex with. In fact, the society has the motto “everyone belongs to everyone else.”

Furthermore, the happiness of this society is enhanced by a drug called “Soma.” The use of this drug is encouraged as it allows people to take a momentary holiday, but without any of the ill effects of alcohol. If anyone begins to feel a genuine emotion of sadness, anger, anxiety or longing they merely take a few grams of Soma to escape from these feelings.

The society that is presented in Brave New World seems to be contemptible for its superficiality, inequality, and easy going hedonism, but it would be hard to say that this society is cruel. On the typical understanding of cruelty, cruelty involves the infliction of pain or suffering (whether physical or emotional) on another person or sentient being, and yet if anything the society presented within Brave New World is less cruel than the one that we members of liberal democratic societies live in. In fact the entire society of Brave New World is set up so as to discourage the possibility of people being cruel to one another. So the Liberalism of Fear has little recourse to a critique of the seemingly troubled and problematic society of Brave New World, as this society has done a fine job of preventing cruelty even though this society is illiberal in many ways. Thus, the Liberalism of Fear does not seem to provide us with a set of theoretical resources that enables us to critique every society that we find disturbing and contemptible, and consequently we have reason to doubt this reading of liberalism.

Given the preceding what reasons do liberals have to find the society presented in Brave New World problematic? There are a couple of different sets of reasons within the liberal tradition that come to mind as resources for criticism of the society of Brave New World. The first is the notion that persons ought to be respected because they have some inherent dignity. While we do socialize children to have particular values, it seems very disrespectful, of the future adult that a child will become, to manufacture a child such that they will grow up to be an adult of a certain kind with particular likes and dislikes. Respecting human beings requires us to treat children in a way that allows them to become free, autonomous human beings, rather than treating children in a way that will determine that they will become a plumber, or an engineer. Similarly, another set of reasons suggests that humans have a certain set of capacities and repressing these capacities is wrong, because humans are fully developed when these capacities are actualized, and stunted when these capacities are repressed. The issue with the society in Brave New World is that it actively represses some capacities of humans that are necessary for full development such as the capacity for self-restraint, autonomy, and meaningful romantic love. Unlike, the liberalism of fear both sets of reasons offer grounds for criticism of the society of Brave New World. Furthermore, while these reasons may seem more dubious because they appeal to abstract metaphysical notions that may give rise to controversy and skepticism it seems necessary to speak in these terms in order to critique everything that we find deeply disturbing, such as the society of Brave New World.

It should be noted that the analysis posited above does not suggest that the Liberalism of Fear is not without insight. It is clear that any decent liberal society will be committed to preventing cruelty, and thus the Liberalism of Fear is surely right to think that cruelty is terrible, but what consideration of Brave New World teaches us is that cruelty is not the only evil that liberals ought to be concerned with.

Melancholy, Angst and Music

I, like many others, am very attracted to angst ridden, melancholic music. But what is it that draws me and others to this kind of music? It would seem that this music would be unattractive as it seems to glorify suffering, loss and pain, and it seems bizarre that a seemingly normal person would be drawn to an art form that is devoted to displays of misery. Furthermore, why would anybody want to listen to such a form of music, as how could such an art form be anything but depressing? In answer to the preceding questions I can think of two sources of the attraction that many have to melancholic, angst ridden music. For the sake of brevity I will refer to music that is either angst ridden, melancholic or depressive as “dark music”. The first source is the more obvious fact that dark music can help people who are dealing with certain feelings to recognize that they are not alone in having these feelings, and in so doing help them to deal with those emotions. The less obvious source of the attraction of dark music is the sense that dark music discloses a significant truth about human life that is ignored by society and most other forms of art. It should be noted that I am not arguing that these are the only two sources of the attraction of dark music; rather the argument is being made that these sources contribute to our attraction to dark music.

When a person is melancholic or angst ridden their melancholy or angst is not some additional feeling added on top of their regular feelings and way of operating in the world. Rather, both angst and melancholy shift our entire way of seeing the world. For example, angst makes us see life and the world as void of meaning. For the angst ridden nothing seems worth doing, but when angst ridden people are confronted by music that objectifies their angst this has the therapeutic quality of making that angst ridden person realize that there are others who see the difficulty of seeing anything as worth doing, and this can help people deal with their angst. Recognizing that others deal with angst shows us that there is nothing peculiar about feeling this way, and thus allows us to recognize that angst is a typical human feeling, and one that we need to deal with. Similarly, in the case of melancholy, any person who has been mourning a loss and then listens to a captivating song that represents this loss in an interesting way will know that through listening to this piece of music one will feel that one’s melancholia has been alleviated to some extent, such that it is easier to continue living one’s life. Consequently, it seems that the first source of the attraction of dark music lies in its ability to perform the therapeutic function of helping us to deal with our angst, melancholia or depression. In a way, this is simply a restatement of conventional wisdom, but that fact should not prevent us from recognizing it as a source, as it seems to fit with our experience.

The second source is not recognized as commonly as the first. This source is the fact that dark music reveals some truth that most of art and most of society does not want to speak about or acknowledge. There are many unpleasant truths that are revealed through dark music. They range from the truth that the only thing we can be certain of is death and that we are born and die alone, to the less melodramatic idea that the cosmos is utterly meaningless. Whether these “truths” are actually true is an open question, but for many who are attracted to dark music, one of its most attractive qualities is that it confronts these truths head on rather than trying to avoid speaking about them. Put slightly differently, dark music does not try to comfort its audience by telling them pleasant stories about life, rather it says to them “as much as you do not want to hear this, life is miserable in many regards.” Music with this sort of meaning is attractive because it is not deceptive; instead, it is deeply authentic as it will not shy away from saying things that are horrifying, unsettling or upsetting. People are attracted to this authenticity as it means that the music that they listen to is more than a commodity, because even though the music is a commodity it is also something more in that it speaks honestly about the world.

There are surely other sources of the attraction that many have to dark music, but the two sources elucidated above surely help explain why so many seemingly normal people find themselves drawn to music that seems committed to glorifying loss, misery, pain and dread.