Thoughts on Dreher’s Benedict Option

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

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

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

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

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

1) Freedom, Authenticity, Modernity and Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Children and Exiting Benedictine Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Esteem, Authenticity and the Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics and Rational Self-Interest

One key element of the modern political tradition that we, as members of post-industrial liberal democracies, have inherited is the notion that a political order can be grounded on the foundation of the rational pursuit of self-interest. This strand in the modern tradition supposes that institutions could be constructed that would channel the rational pursuit of self-interest, such that citizens did not need to be virtuous to secure the common good. As with Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand, the forces of the society could be arranged such that by each pursuing what he or she wanted, all would benefit. The individuals in this society may not be great or noble, but all would be better off because these institutions accord public benefits through the pursuit of naked self-interest.

This was a radical innovation in the tradition of political and ethical thought. For Aristotle and Plato, and for Medieval political thought, the bonds of society were based on obligations between members of different classes, and what held together were these shared duties and goals that all had to pursue in order have a prospering, healthy state. For this tradition, a minimally just state could not be based on each individual rationally pursuing what he or she wanted. The reason for this is quite simple. Societies demand sacrifices from their members in order to secure the common good, and a state will not be able to protect itself from internal corruption and external enemies, if each individual sees the state as a mere convenient way to get what they want. These self-interested individuals will just abandon the society when things are not going well, and therefore such a society will always be in danger of collapse and tyranny.

The notion of grounding of social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest is a powerful notion, and in many cases, it is simpler to rely on people’s self interest to create positive consequences rather than relying on some notion of what we owe to others or the common good. However, I think this notion ultimately fails as a grounding of political society, because it cannot provide an adequate account of what we understand to be good statesmanship and good citizenship. I think it also fails in the realm of economics, but its failure is more contested in that area, so I will focus on the political realm. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the notion of grounding social order in the pursuit of rational self-interest as the “enlightened self-interest tradition.”

Firstly, for the enlightened self-interest tradition there is no reason in principle why anyone, including a leader, needs to value the pursuit of the common good intrinsically, rather than as a means to career prosperity, enhanced reputation or some other extrinsic good. For this tradition self-interest is not what we ought to be interested in so that our lives go well, but instead whatever we happen to value; it’s conception of self-interest is that of the economist. As a result unless the statesman happens to value the common good as part of is own good, the pursuit of the common good will simply be one means among many to pursue whatever his apparent self-interest consists in. Furthermore, there is no reason in principle to think that the enlightened self-interest statesman will value the pursuit of the common good as an aspect of his own good; perhaps some leaders see their own good as bound up with that of their community, but there is no evident reason to suppose that this is in fact the case. Consequently, there is no necessary reason why the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest would pursue the common good.

Now, rightly, in response to this, someone might say the argument just elaborated does not show that institutions cannot direct the statesman guided by enlightened self-interest to pursue the common good, because it is actually in their long term self-interest to pursue the common good. In light of this, we must turn to the question of whether institutions can put cleverness in support of the common good.

Institutions are very powerful tools to direct the energies of people towards particular goals. As an example, the fact that donations to charities are a tax deduction surely makes people more likely to give to charity as their taxable income will be lower if they give to charity. In this way, a person’s interest in keeping more of their gross income supports increased revenue for charities. However, the fact that institutions have this result, in particular cases, does not mean that institutions provide a stable safeguard to ensure that individuals pursue the common good. This is so, for a few reasons.

Firstly, the rules of institutions always admit of interpretation, and consequently even institutions that direct avarice towards public beneficence can be corrupted, if those making decisions are shamelessly self-interested. As an example of this we might consider John Yoo who co-authored legal opinions that made “enhanced interrogation techniques” legal, in the context of the USA, by narrowly defining torture, so that practises that would be commonly viewed as torture could be framed as something else entirely. In this case, reasonable and considered judgment is required in applying the rules of any institutions, whether these rules are formal laws, or internal procedures or policies of a governmental organization. Rules by their nature are general and cannot anticipate all particulars, and so good judgment in applying rules must exist in order for proper statesmanship to be possible. Quite simply, institutions that direct the pursuit of self-interest towards justice are insufficient for justice because judicious interpretation and sound judgment is required when dealing with novel cases and new situations.

But statesmanship is more than application of the rules or procedures of an institution. Instead, legislation is fundamental to the activity of statesmanship. Now, it is often argued that in representative democracies it is in politician’s self interest to rule in a way that aims at the common good, because otherwise they will not be reelected. As delegates of the people, the politician, or statesman, must do what the people see as the common good in order to be reelected. The initial problem here is that what citizens want may not be the common good, especially where long term and short term interests are in conflict. Climate change gives a great example of this phenomena, as politicians often do not want to take significant measures on climate change because while most citizens recognize the problem, many significant changes that are called for would at least have some negative consequences on economic prosperity in the short term. As an example, those who are dependent on high-carbon emission industries for their employment will likely be in a more precarious situation if aggressive measures are made to cut emissions. Selling a short term loss for a long term gain is a difficult task, and made all the more difficult in a situation like the one in post-industrial liberal democracies in which instant gratification is the order of life. In this way public opinion in such societies has a tendency to be excessively conservative and aims at the status quo as people tend to discount long term interests in favour of securing short term ones. As a result even if politicians act as delegates for the people and do what they want, often much of what politicians will legislate will be contrary to what they ought to rationally do if they were considering the overall significance of long term and short-term goals. And if leaders of a society take this path of least resistance and simply focus on being reelected how can it be said that the common good can be secured in this context by the rational pursuit of self-interest in conjunction with institutions of electoral representation? Clearly, the common good will be sacrificed for satiating short term interests.

Now some might argue that the example just mentioned is a case where the failure is one of people being adequately rationally self-interested. From this perspective if people really were rational they would not discount long-term interests for short term interests of lesser severity. However, this argument contains the seeds of its own destruction. Firstly, if humans often fail to effectively pursue their rational self-interest because they do not adequately consider long-term interests, than rational self-interest is an equally imperious foundation for social order to virtue or decency. Part of the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account is that it can take human being as they are and create a just society, rather than having to transform human beings into citizens. But if humans often fail to pursue rational self-interest, the creation of the rationally self-interested agent is a matter of convention, rather than nature. So by accepting the failure of people to be adequately rational as a part of humanity the appeal of the enlightened self-interest account loses one of its largest advantages, which is being able to create a just society without having to transform human nature.

The other reason why this rebuttal fails is that long-term interests include both interests that we need to secure within our own finite lives, but also interests we are pursuing for the sake of future generations and that we will not see the fruits of within our own lives. Even if a state has citizens that are very judicious about ensuring that good things happen within their lives, there is no reason to think that this will mean that they will leave a good community for those who inherit the community after they die. Therefore, the pursuit of rational self-interest even at its most enlightened fails to ensure that we provide future generations with a community that is sustainable and that future generations can adequately care for. But to paraphrase Arendt, politics, citizenship and statesmanship are deeply bound to the fact that we are born into a community that existed before us and others will inherit that community after we die. In this light good citizenship and statesmanship cannot be bound to securing interests within the biological life of a particular person or generation, but instead have to preserve the good community for future inhabitants.

In this way, the best statesman cannot simply try to do what will get him an election victory or make him popular, but will have to act as a caretaker to best ensure the equity, prosperity and freedom of the society he is taking care of for his generation and for future generations. Likewise, being a good citizen does not merely mean participating in politics and voicing one’s opinions. Instead it means reflecting on what is best for the society as a whole, taking into account future generations, and taking action on that basis. Consequently, the idea of founding society based on self-interest fails because it cannot grasp the specifically political aspect of our existence that is incarnated in citizenship and statesmanship.

Boredom, Finitude and Transcendence

Boredom is an odd phenomena. At a superficial level boredom seems to be quite self-transparent in that boredom emerges when we are unable to find something interesting to do. On this naive view of boredom, boredom disappears once we find something interesting to engage in. Boredom just signifies our momentary failure to find a worthwhile activity. But, this account of boredom seems all too simple. Contrastingly, it seems that boredom emerges because we tacitly find our own lives wanting in some regard. Boredom is then the emergence of the rejection of our present state of life and the apparent desire for “something more.”

This contrasting account of boredom I have provided seems plausible because when we are bored the things that normally would engage or interest us fail to do so; normally we might want to read a book or listen to an album, but these activities fail to excite us. Boredom therefore involves a change in perspective, as opposed to a lack of stimulation. In boredom, the self condemns its present interests as somehow wanting, and reaches out for something else.

But “the what” that the self reaches out for is typically undefined in boredom. When we are bored we are not longing to perform a particular concrete activity, we just know that the activities that present themselves as possibilities fail to call us forth or interest us. What we long for is “something more” or “something other”. Consequently, boredom is a state of anxiety and restlessness as much as one of quiet. In boredom we feel as though we should be occupied with something, but nonetheless fail to find anything compelling to be occupied with. We are anxious to find that something, but ultimately frozen in our ability to find that something, and understand what that something is.

In light of this understanding of boredom how should the bored person interpret their emotional state? On one account even if boredom represents a desire for something other, this desire is a merely a pathology. To want “something more”, but be unable to understand what that something more means, is irrational, as rational desire must have a concrete object in the world, as opposed to some amorphous object that can be neither understood or communicated. On this view boredom is to be interpreted as a pathological emotional state that we need to recognize in ourselves but maintain a distance from, because the desire underlying boredom is not something we cannot take any concrete steps towards satiating, precisely because we do not know what it is we long for. Let us call this the therapeutic view.

On a different account we should interpret boredom as a call for us to reflect on our lives and come to a better understanding of what we should pursue. The rationale behind this is that if we were truly satisfied with our lives we would not experience boredom, as boredom denotes anxiety and dissatisfaction. Thus, while it is true that the object of the desire for “something more” that lies behind boredom is ill defined, the fact that this object is ill defined does not negate that boredom provides a signal that are lives are somehow being improperly lived. Let us call this the philosophic view.

I find the philosophic view far more compelling than the therapeutic. While the therapeutic view rightly points out that the desire underlying boredom has no definite object it seems odds to say that a pursuit that has no definite object is irrational or pathological. It may be much more difficult to deal with a desire with an ill-defined object because there is no simple way of satiating it, but that does not mean that it is not worth pursuing.

Often our pursuits do not have a definite object, and it is often through these aimless pursuits that new aspects of our spiritual condition and life are revealed to us. For example, I am an amateur musician, but when I am at my most inspired in writing music I do not have the creation of a specific type of musical object in mind. Instead I am fully wrapped up in playing my instrument and it is through this engaged experimentation that a musical idea presents itself to me. It is only at that point that the musical object that I want to create becomes concrete in any substantial sense.

Similarly, when we reflect upon how we want to live and what we need to do to make our lives more rich and fulfilling, we engage in ponderous meditative thinking as opposed to thinking that simply designates and schedules means to a concretely defined end. We let our minds move freely and jump from thought to another, unconstrained by a goal dictated ahead of time. Any attempt to control this reflection and turn it into thinking that just selects means towards a given end fails to be reflection and becomes mere administration, or personal project management. If we are lucky after engaging in this meditative thinking we come to an understanding of what might be missing in our lives. It is only at this moment that the object that was once the merely transcendent, infinite or “something more” becomes concrete, comprehensible and something we can pursue in concrete terms.

Put slightly differently, when we become bored and reflect upon wanting something more, and try to understand what that something more could possibly mean, we are trying to better understand our own finitude and immanence by relating to the infinite or transcendent. In the play of meditative reflection we encounter the infinite and transcendent because we stop being subjects pursuing a definite object by giving up control of our thoughts and letting them go where they must go; at that point we become one with and inseparable from all other things. Sometimes after letting our thoughts go we are gifted with a revelation, but other times we are not, but giving up on this pursuit is to give up trying to properly understand and live with our own finitude, as the only way we have to understand our finitude is through relating it to its fundamental complement, the infinite, or transcendent. Consequently, it seems that the philosophic reading of boredom is superior to the therapeutic as the therapeutic involves giving up on trying to best understand and live with our finitude. In this way while the therapeutic might be a good strategy to avoid disappointment, it discourages us from living the best lives possible.

Commodification and Amusement: Postman on Television and Print Media

Recently, I finished reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. While this work was published in the 1980s and focuses on analyzing the effects of the rise television as the dominant mode of communication on public discourse, it still raise many insightful points. Postman’s central argument is that the typographic age of the 18th century (the age of the printed word) was able to foster rational argument, and a healthy democratic discourse while the age of television fails in this regard as we are bombarded with incoherent mixed messages, information for information’s sake and even when television tries to be serious it fails, because even the most serious program must be entertaining. Television as a medium cannot escape from the fact that it is a vehicle for amusement or entertainment. All of these points seem to me to be more or less valid, but Postman fails markedly in describing the way that print media and television both are connected to the logic of commodification. Thus his analysis is insufficiently historical as it takes two points in history and connects them without fully establishing the relation of these historical eras to one another.

Postman does provide a historical explanation of sorts, as he points to telegraphy and photography as forerunners that began the march towards television. Telegraphy conquered space and allowed messages to be shared across far distances very quickly and easily, while photography moved the focus away from the printed word and onto the image. But unfortunately this is merely a technological explanation; it just shows that there were other technologies that arose before television that made the way for it, but it does not show why the general technological trend towards conquering space and the image themselves replaced the printed word. This would be analogous to explaining the rise of automobile merely by reference to the horsedrawn carriage, but without asking why human beings have desired to have vehicles that move them from one place to another as quickly as possible. Consequently, while he gestures towards a historical explanation he does not go into enough detail in showing the relation between the rise of print media and the rise of television.

One important factor that unites the development of print media and television that Postman does not discuss is the logic of commodification. The logic of commodification renders all things whether tangible or intangible into objects that can be bought and sold on the market. This logic seems to be built into capitalism itself as more and more objects, ideas and practises are transformed into something that can be sold at a profit. The idea of selling bodily fluids would be unheard of in the 18th century for numerous reasons while today this is a common practise in the USA. The rise of the commodification of bodily matter cannot be disconnected from the rise of print media and television as a dominant mode of communication, as both are linked to an overarching trend in which all relations must be modeled on the relationship between commodities and buyers and sellers.

One way in which Postman fails to identify the link between the logic of commodification and the emergence of television is that Postman compares the typographic medium with television as if they were polar opposites, rather than seeing that the development of the medium of print is a forerunner to the development of television in that television serves to further entrench the logic of commodification that print itself had already served to entrench.  This can be seen in the way that Postman unequivocally praises print media for its rationality while decrying all television as a mere tool for amusement; he clearly does not identify any link between the two in terms of their relation to commodification, but sees them in an almost binary fashion. However, the link between the two forms of media are quite evident as while print media in the 18th century may have had a seriousness that much television does not have, it was still a commodity. Before print, mass copies of communications could not be created and so the idea of selling communication products as a commodity to the masses made no sense. It was only after the emergence of the printing press, and written communications could be produced on a mass scale that the idea of selling communications about the events of the day as a commodity began to make sense. Before the printing press the clergy largely was occupied with maintaining knowledge through the activities of scribes and others. These groups would maintain collections, but these collections were merely a store of wisdom for the limited few with access to them, rather than a source of information to sell to people. In this sense while there are many qualitative differences between print media and television there is a deep connection between the two because they both are part of an overall development in capitalist society towards the ever growing reach of commodification.

Furthermore, if we compare television to typographic media we see the way in which television further entrenched what print media had begun to entrench. As we just noted typographic media like any other can be bought and sold, and it was bought and sold during the 18th century when it was at its peak, but because typographic media was still rooted to a particular place because of the absence of technologies like the telegraph it was not a fully mass produced commodity. In the 18th century the news in Pennsylvania covered events relating to life in that area, and in this sense information about the context of life in Pennsylvania was bought and sold, but information about life in this area was not sold to those in Copenhagen as a commodity, as there was no simple means of getting the information to Copenhagen quickly. Consequently, the sale of the information was geographically limited. Postman notes the way in which news was confined to a context of life in the typographic age, but he does not note that the decontextualization of news so that it can be sent anywhere on the world is part of the overall logic of commodification that extends from the initial step of commodifying information for sale. The movement to wider distribution of news as commodity was made possible by the telegraph, but the reason the telegraph and television caught on as an important technology for distributing news was because of the already existing historical trend towards commodification of information that the printing press had served to establish. It is somewhat doubtful that the news of the day would have become the commodity for global consumption that it has become today if print media had not already transformed information into a commodity for sale to a mass audience. Consequently, the telegraph and television merely took the logic of commodification in communications to a further limit.

Despite all that I have said above, I still think Postman’s book is worth a read, but I wish he would have spent more time discussing the way in which typographic media and television are part of the same historical trend, rather than fixating merely on the ways in which they are different. By taking this step he would have been better able to show the roots that underlie both developments.

Legality, Social Authority and Liberal Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Logos, Drinks and Justice

Evelyn Femier, Robert Dittleby and Kelly Theosyn sit in a crowded pub near the Liberal Arts college they attend. They share a few pitchers of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, much to the chagrin of Robert who is upset that Sierra Nevada is three dollars more than the pale ale that is made by the owner of this pub, which in his opinion is at least as good.

After having finished a pint Evelyn asserts “the entire concept of a distinction between higher and lower ways of life is but an excuse for the privileged to oppress those who are below them, by labeling them as somehow lower whether in character, culture or moral purity.”

“If and when we achieve true justice we would have no need for a concept that some modes of life are higher and some are lower, as long as all are equally able to pursue their own way of life there is no reason to even speak of better and worse modes of life. The concept of the better and worse way of life is just a tool used to shame and marginalize the disadvantaged!”

Robert’s cheeks become red from a combination of righteous indignation, the beer and the additional Jager bomb that he had just had. He takes a second to collect himself for fear of coming across as unreasonable and begins “this is typical Social Justice Warrior claptrap; the fact that some people think and say that certain modes of life are better than others does not oppress anyone. These opinions are just projections of the fact that certain people are attracted to certain ways of life, and do not like other modes of life. People need to be less sensitive and realize that the terms higher and lower just signal that the person saying them has a preference for the item they attach the signifier “better” to. To try to prevent people from using these terms would be to prevent from stating their preferences, which is in itself a direct rejection of the right of individuals to express themselves.”

Evelyn responds “that is a strawman. I never said the fact that people have such opinions about ways of life constitutes oppression, but that typically these opinions are used to perpetuate oppression, and that if we are all truly equal these opinions would be unnecessary. These opinions about the superiority of certain ways of life would not be necessary as all would just do what they wanted and leave others to themselves.”

Kelly rolls his eyes and sits there looking at his beer and his glass of Tullamore Dew with a look that at once signals boredom and mild annoyance. He says “can we just talk about something else? Why do you two always have to bicker over this sort of thing. I came here to relax and have a good conversation, not to try to definitely determine the requirements of social justice.”

Kelly then finishes his Tullamore Dew and the rest of his pint and looks off towards the other side of room.

Robert replies “that is a pretty terrible argument Kelly. Are you suggesting that discussing the requirements of social justice is not important?”

“That is not it at all. Discussion of that topic is certainly important, it is just that you two never have an interest in actually talking to each other. You just continue to assert your position unthinkingly as if by mere repetition you would knock down the other.”

With a confused look on her face, in response, Evelyn says “but how would we avoid talking past each other when we fundamentally disagree about the requirements of social justice? Certainly it is because of this disagreement that we cannot argue in a calm fashion and we end up in a situation of stalemate. Which just proves my point that rational argument cannot overcome this stalemate, as it is only when we all have identical interests and thus no reason to have opposing views that these kind of stalemates will be overcome. And when we have achieved this we will have justice and all will have no need to argue because we will all be able to equally pursue our interests.”

“Yeah. I cannot believe I am saying this, but Evelyn is right. Rational argument between those who disagree will always remain in a state of stalemate and when these disagreements are resolved it is not because of linguistic reason, but because of some other aspect of the situation changes such as demographics or technology. This is why the market and majority vote are the best way of adjudicating claims because the market simply gives the object to the highest bidder, and the majority vote just requires us to count up how many support a particular position. Either way we avoid the need to get into messy, intractable arguments.,” Robert adds.

Kelly sighs and says “you two miss the point again. It is true that argument between those who disagree, even when done in good faith, tends to continue in stalemate. But this tendency does not mean that argument cannot establish agreement between those who formerly disagree, which is what both of you have asserted. Haven’t we all had a point in our life where we realized that we were wrong about something after another has corrected us and shown us to be holding a position that we ourselves could not accept?”

The waiter comes over and interrupts “another pitcher, another Jager bomb for you, and another Tullamore Dew for you?”

“Yes, sure” the trio reply, and immediately after the waiter walks way

“Based on what I was saying before I was interrupted doesn’t it seem possible for speech to allow us to come to agreement even where we deeply disagree?”

“I guess so, but it is rare, so it might not be the most reliable method to adjudicate conflict” says Robert.

“That certainly may be the case, but that just means that reasoned speech may not be the most reliable method to build social institutions on and that other mechanisms will likely be necessary, not that reasoned speech somehow cannot resolve such conflict,” Kelly notes.

Evelyn adds “the point you made about reasoned speech may be true, but we can confidently say that actually existing reasoned speech is constitutive of existing relations of power. Therefore we never encounter a situation of reasoned speech between equals in the absence of power relations, but between oppressors and oppressed. In which case reasoned speech is just a mere weapon to either fight the oppressed or continue oppression, rather than a mechanism used to come an agreement about the nature of something. “

Kelly notes “I appreciate your candor Evelyn and your position certainly has a certain consistency to it, but do you really believe this? Let us return to the concept of higher and lower ways of life that began this discussion. Surely as someone who rejects discourse that invokes concepts of higher and lower ways of life. You do not use these concepts.”

“Well, that is not entirely accurate I am willing to use them strategically to unmask existing forms of power and strategically support just causes,’ replies Evelyn.

Kelly looks down again at the table and says “but Evelyn when you utter these arguments to unmask existing forms of power and strategically support just causes, these statements are presented to the one to whom you are speaking as sincere arguments no? You don’t go around qualifying that your argument is just a rhetorical weapon for fighting injustice?”

“No, that would be stupid,” replies Evelyn. “In order for a strategic argument to be effective it must be presented as a sincere argument rather than just an instrument for change.”

“So, you agree that when this argument is presented to the other it needs to take on the appearance of sincerity and thus in the space of appearance of a given conversation the argument must present itself as an argument sincerely saying certain ways of life are better than others. But if this is so than the power of this argument can only be adjudicated based on its insight. The only way this argument will in effect convince people is if it reveals an insight to them, and whether this is insight is contrived for political effect or sincere is really irrelevant.”

“What are you getting at?” Evelyn questions.

Kelly stops drinking from his beer and replies “when you make an argument on any topic including the nature of which ways of life are better and which are worse once the words in the argument have left your lips they do not bear any necessary connection to your intention. The fact that an argument is insincere and just intended to win, does not mean that the argument will not reveal something important to the audience to whom it is presented. And in, and through this revealing while the argument may have been attempted as mere casuistry it actually becomes a revealer of the truth and thus something that can allow those who disagree to come to agreement.”

Evelyn further inquires “sure, but why does this matter?”

Kelly then looked straight at Evelyn and says “It matters because if you admit this than you admit that reasoned speech can lead to the truth even when the reasoned speech is attempted as a mere political vehicle for change. This shows that while there is an aspect of reasoned speech that is vulnerable to being made subordinate to oppression and power, even when someone tries to subordinate reasoned speech to political ends, speech has the capacity to reveal truth. This shows that reasoned speech cannot be reduced to a mere object under the control of human beings, but is rather something that we interact with and which allows us to come to a better understanding even when our desire for certain ends pushes to make disingenuous arguments. If this is the case then even when reasoned speech is involved in existing relations of power and oppression, it contains within it the capacity to subvert the very oppressors that using it to dominate the vulnerable. In which case reasoned speech is not just an instrument of a power, but also a revealer of truths and insight.”

Evelyn glares at Kelly and angrily replies “this is the kind of nonsense metaphysics that merely serves to prevent the oppressed from being liberated. We should not be focusing on who is right, but how to make people’s lives better.”

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.

Inside Out as Aristotleian Critique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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