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.

Trump and American Mythology

As a Canadian, I am at once horrified and bewildered by the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the presidential nominee for the Republican Party. While, I find the Republican Party’s policy problematic, and in some cases deplorable, I find the prospect of Donald Trump leading the USA to be disturbing, frightening and unfathomable.

This leads me to ask the question of how to understand Donald Trump against the background of American mythology. In particular I want to highlight the fact that Donald Trump embodies the mere negation of the humanistic elements of the mythology of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream. By humanistic in this entry I mean the attitude that all humans have dignity and are entitled to respect. Trump, consequently represents the negation of the elements of American mythology that are compatible with equal freedom for all human beings.

While Trump’s politics, as far as they can be rationally understood, are more broadly aligned with the American right than the left, in that they focus on America’s greatness in the world and defending jobs for real Americans, rather than those of a darker hue, his politics are radically distinct from the jingoistic neoliberal imperialism of the Republican Party since Reagan. While George W. Bush is hated for his ill thought out and highly interventionist foreign policy and was often associated with authoritarian nationalism, George W. Bush was continuing a tradition in American foreign policy of beneficent imperialism. For Bush, American power served American interests, but his rhetoric also focused on the fact that American power was something that served to free people from backwards authoritarian tyranny. Consequently, American power for Bush was a strategic instrument for the defense of American interest, but also a means of spreading good. Reagan’s stance towards the Soviet Union was quite similar to Bush’s towards Iraq and Afghanistan. Now one can argue that Bush and Reagan were simply masking the pursuit of American interests behind moralistic rhetoric about America as a force for good, but as a political phenomena the rhetoric that politicians use is important to understanding them, even if that rhetoric is inauthentic or deceptive. Trump on the other hand has no pretensions that America is a force for good in the world, American foreign policy instead is a force for regaining American greatness and supremacy. On the world stage America should be acting like a business. It should maximize its interest and focus on winning, rather than worrying about improving the state of the world as a whole.

It is important to note Trump’s focus on greatness as opposed to goodness. Greatness in contrast to goodness is something that in the history of the Occidental world is associated with the pre-Christian martial and political virtue of Rome, Athens and Sparta. The great are manly, courageous warriors and politicians who defend their homeland and its interests, rather than generous spirits helping the vulnerable and marginalized. Arendt has noted how greatness is related to immortality, in being remembered and immortalized and thereby overcoming the fate of death that all biological creatures face, whereas goodness by its very nature cannot be concerned with remembrance. Christ, the supreme emblem of goodness, is only Christ because his actions were motivated by love, or more specifically agape, rather than to excel before his peers and be immortalized. Christ like Socrates is concerned with being, rather than appearance. Whereas for Trump appearance, rather than being is what is fundamental. Appearance is what determines the course of events in the world, as people act on perceived interest, goods and risk, rather than actual interests, goods and risks. In this kind of world, for Trump, and his supporters, we need a “clever man” who will annihilate the existing traditions that are leading to atrophy in USA and build its strength anew based on his effective business acumen.

This is all the more ironic because Trump’s supporters and Trump himself praise the fact that Trump calls it how he sees it, rather than worrying about appearances. But his entire claim to effectiveness as a businessman depends on the ability to effectively make use of appearances. The Trump brand of off colour, xenophobic authenticity is one of the most effective appearances to make alienated voters feel like he is unlike other politicians. Nothing is sacred to Trump, not even his deplorable authenticity. The only thing that matters is coming out on top. This deeply colours his foreign policy, as far as he has one.

In this sense Trump has negated the humanistic element of the myth of American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism has often been used to argue that ethical requirements that apply to other countries do not apply to America, because America is a country founded on reason, rather tradition, and is a unique force for good that cannot be chained to the requirements of international law. Trump still sees America as exceptional, but it is exceptional because it has the capability of dominating the rest of the world, and staying on top rather than because it is a force for good premised on dictates of reason that are self-evident to all human beings. America is not the Socratic shepherd who has authority over his flock because he has knowledge and will take care of their well-being, but rather the Thrasymachean shepherd who has authority because he is stronger and will take advantage of his flock where it profits him to do so. Trump therefore negates the element of American Exceptionalism which is bound up with respect for the dignity of all. Expediency in Trump’s world determines where respecting human dignity is called for.

In regard to the American Dream, Trump has famously said that this dream is dead, but his campaign “to make America great again,” is an attempt to restore that dream by restoring America’s economic status and providing jobs to real Americans. But the circumscription of the American Dream to real Americans, as opposed to Muslims and Mexicans, is an inherent contradiction of the fundamental egalitarianism of the myth of the American Dream. The dignity of the American Dream is that it sees all people who come to America to build a better life as equally capable and entitled to do so. The dream never was actual, but it is part of the horizon of what America means. America is constantly working towards the end of the actualization of the myth of the American Dream. Therefore, the transformation of the American Dream as the pursuit of a better life to anyone who seeks it, to the pursuit of a better life to a specific subgroup therefore constitutes the negation of notion of human dignity encapsulated in the American Dream. It means that this dream can be systematically excluded to people without any pretense or masking of this tactic as a legitimate exclusion. The exclusion is justified based on the mere otherness of a particular group of people.

Similarly, while the myth of the American Dream is typically related to economic well-being it is also related to spiritual, moral and intellectual health. The better life that America holds is not just that there are good jobs and more money, but that people are able to pursue their own good in their own way without being oppressed for being different. Similarly, due to the fact that America represents the coming together of diverse peoples and cultures, America has developed a uniquely rich cultural landscape that is a significant good to Americans at large. Again, modern America fails to live up to this myth, but this myth is present as a distinct ideal of the culture.

Trump on the other hand ultimately associates the failure of the American Dream with the decline in the American economy, rather than the emergence of poverty, misery, social hatred, ennui and anomie among the populace. This reveals another facet of the negation of the humanistic element of the myth of the American Dream in that the American Dream is reduced to a matter of returning America to the top of the economic ladder and ensuring “real” Americans are able to get a steady paycheck, rather than building an inclusive society where all can build a fulfilling life.

As a result, Trump’s place in American politics is to remove any pretense for a concern with human freedom, dignity and equality, with a concern for worldly success and domination. In this sense, his politics have more in common with authoritarian nationalism than they do with the traditional American conservatism which is deeply related to notions of freedom, equality, and human dignity, no matter how flawed.

What is wrong with cultural appropriation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Modes of Criticism of Technological Mastery

Within the popular imagination technological progress is typically viewed as a defining mark of the value of North American and Western European civilization. However, there are many vocal critics of the project of limitless technological progress and so called technological mastery. Some of these critics are deeply religious and motivated by their faith, while others are motivated by a more secular set of concerns. The objection that all of these critics have in common is not that we should not develop technology to help deal with certain problems, but that there is something problematic about a way of life that is dominated by forms of technological power that allows us to create or achieve anything that we desire. I want to look at two tradition that are critical of technological mastery. One is a rule based approach, and the other is virtue centred approach. I will argue that the latter is superior as it better captures our intuitions and is able to give a stronger account of what makes technological mastery problematic.

The rule based tradition lays out a whole catalogue of prohibitions against use of technology in certain areas of life, and in that sense can be said to provide a relatively comprehensive account of how technology ought to be used and developed. For example, within certain Christian circles this rule based approach dominates especially in the area of sexual and reproductive ethics. A whole set of rules are set out regarding which forms of procreation and sex are legitimate and which are not. For example, for some, reproduction using artificial means like artificial insemination, IVF and surrogacy are prohibited forms of reproduction. However, these rules are often just asserted as the word of God, or in the case of non-religious varieties of this approach, the voice of Reason or Nature. No account is given of why following these rules would help us to lead better lives. Furthermore, sometimes the argument is made within this tradition that we should not use unnatural or artificial techniques to achieve certain ends. But this account too does not justify itself, because in this context people are typically working with a teleological, or at least normative, conception of nature, which states that are certain ways of being in the world that are not justifiable because they are contrary to nature. However, this raises the question of why this conception of nature accurately captures our essence and how we ought to live, so until this question is answered the rule remains as an empty prohibition. So, this account does not really explain why technological mastery is problematic; it merely asserts it.

On the other hand, there is a virtue centred critique of technological mastery. The main thrust of this approach is that the problem with technological mastery is that it can inhibit the development of particular virtues such as temperance, moderation, patience and justice, among others. If our technological power allows us to get whatever we want by relatively effortlessly deploying some kind of instrument or technique then we are able to get more of what we want without having to engage in certain practises that are instrumental to and constitutive of the development of virtue. For example, imagine I can take a pill that gives me the body that I have always wanted; this pill requires no exercise or changes in diets for its results. Ordinarily, in order to develop the body that I want, I would have required discipline, patience, prudence and moderation so that I can properly alter my life to ensure that I exercise often enough and eat properly. Furthermore, perhaps even at the end I may have not gotten the body that I wanted, as it turned out to be an unachievable phantasm, in which case this development would help me to learn the virtue of acceptance of what is not in my control. While, this is but one example, it shows how if we have the technological power to get whatever we desire we are tempted into not engaging in practises that develop particular virtues. In essence, under conditions of technological mastery we are tempted to become beings dominated by will and desire who can get whatever they want. While getting whatever we want may seem attractive if this is done at the expense of development of virtue we become vacuous shells who simply will, desire and consume, and part of the dignity of humanity is that he is not merely a willing, desiring, consuming being, but a being who can develop certain qualities in himself such as courage, patience, generosity and compassion. Would humans be that valuable if we just willed, desired, and consumed, and never showed courage, generosity or love? Consequently, the project of technological mastery can threaten the development of virtue if we are tempted to pursue all of our goals through merely technological means that effortlessly allow us to get what we want, rather than practises that not only instrumentally develop virtues, but also form part of a way of life that is constitutive of a life of virtue.

What I mean by practises is recognizably influenced by the work of MacIntyre in After Virtue, although different from it, and can be best clarified if we look at something like a sport. Often people who play sports do so to win, and for the recognition, and honour they will achieve for winning, but sports require certain virtues in order to be played well whose point is not to win, but to play the game excellently. A good hockey player is not just one that scores lots of goals, but one that is a team player, is responsible in all parts of the game, and works hard under every circumstance. This is why a lot of people frown upon Phil Kessel, as while he scores many goals he does not exemplify the teamwork, defensive responsibility and industriousness that is constitutive of what it means to be a good hockey player. Many of the practises that ordinarily we engage in not only instrumentally help us to achieve certain admirable qualities (virtues), but constitute a part of a form of life that is valuable, at least in part, because it involves the practise of those virtues. Consequently, because virtues can only be realized through their practised, if practises that develop and involve the presence of particular virtues are replaced with an effortless technological solution that do not require these virtues we are in danger of losing the element of a good life that is constituted by the practise of virtue.

We can now see that what makes this virtue centred approach better than the rule based approach as it provides us with an image of what it means to be a well-developed person, and shows the way in which technology can threaten this. It does not just say this technological practise is bad, it points to the way in which it can harm our development and lives.

However, some followers of the rule based approach might point out that their rules imply a conception of virtue and that conception of virtue is what underlies the rules. Thus, the rules are only guides for how to become virtuous, they are not a replacement for a conception of virtue. While this is a coherent and intelligible response, it is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it makes rules derivative of virtue, and thus accepts the case that virtue is what is most fundamental in the critique of technological mastery. Furthermore this argument most would not support the conclusions that most followers of the rule based approach want to pursue, as typically they want quite specific rules about how to use technology, rather than an overarching approach of how to ensure that we avoid being tempted into not engaging in practises that develop and constitute the practise of the virtues. For example, those who have a moral prohibition against IVF, artificial insemination, and commercial surrogacy often do not have a problem with many other technologies that make our lives much more effortless and tend to eliminate other valuable practises. Their approach is thus inherently moralistic and code oriented. For them the evil is the use of technology itself in a certain area of life, not that the advent of technological solutions can threaten the existence of certain valuable practises.

Consequently, it seems that the virtue centred approach offers a much more compelling critique of technological mastery as it shows what goods are threatened by technological mastery, and how technological mastery threatens these good.

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.

On our treatment of the apparently homeless

If you walk down the urban core of most cities you are bound to encounter someone who appears as homeless. Furthermore, when we talk about the plight of these people there are few people who can be found who do not see the situation of the apparently homeless as a problem that needs to be addressed. Now, while there are many competing social policies that can combat homelessness I will not discuss them here. What I would like to discuss is the way in which our ordinary relations to those who appear as homeless show that while we might feel that they are in a terrible situation and that society needs to help them improve their lot, when given an opportunity we rarely engage with them as human beings or fellow members of a community who have dignity. Through this disrespect for those who appear as homeless we are complicit in worsening their situation as we participate in a practise that tends to make the apparently homeless less capable of living a fully human life.

Also, it should be noted that this entry will only deal with those who appear as homeless. For example, those who look ragged and are dressed in ill-fitting dirty clothes with unkempt hair and dirt all over their faces and hands. There are many homeless people whose homelessness is invisible as they dress and appear just like anyone else, and their situation is certainly worth investigation, but my object here is to focus on those who appear to us as clearly homeless.

Anybody who has lived or worked in the downtown core of a large city has likely had the experience of an apparently homeless person coming up to us or a person we are near and asking for change or some other form of assistance. This person stands out from the rest of their crowd with their dirty, unkempt appearance and often people ignore and do not respond at all to the question raised by the apparently homeless person. Similarly, if someone spots an apparently homeless person they often will either go out of their way to avoid them or say “No” to them before the homeless person has had a chance to speak thereby preventing themselves from being asked a question. Likewise, even when an apparently homeless person is merely interested in chatting with someone on the street many of us are afraid to engage with them, and either ignore them or try to talk to them in the most minimal way possible to get away from them as soon as possible. I say all of these things not in a finger waving way, but because I, and many other seemingly compassionate people that I know, are guilty of this kind of action at one time or another in our lives.

But this raises the question of why seemingly compassionate people react this way when confronted by the apparently homeless? It seems to me that the core of this issue is that we have become deeply ingrained to fundamentally see the apparently homeless as predominantly an unpredictable, and possibly threatening force, rather than as vulnerable human beings looking for assistance. Consequently, when the apparently homeless appear before us our most basic reaction is to avoid engagement with them. After we react in this way to the apparently homeless or during our brief interaction we may have a thought in the back of our minds that this person is just a human like me and is just unfortunate enough to fell into a difficult situation, but our more visceral reaction is to perceive them kind of like a wild, possibly dangerous animal that we do not want to hurt, but we also do not want to engage with. More than once late at night an apparently homeless person has come up to me, and my first reaction is often to avoid interacting with them at all or for any extended period of time. After the fact I feel guilty about not engaging with the person and treating them like I would treat any other person, but treating them as human beings who should be engaged with respectfully when they ask a question is something that I need to work with myself to do against my more fundamental response of fear. What, in fact, has led to this mode of reacting to the apparently homeless is an interesting question, but not one that I have the time to discuss in this entry.

When we interact with the apparently homeless by ignoring their presence or trying to flee from them as quickly as possible because of our fear we are complicit in worsening their situation. The apparently homeless often are in fact homeless and suffer in that they lack shelter and consequently their health and physical prosperity is always at risk. But on top of this the apparently homeless also are faced with being devalued and misrecognized in the social world they inhabit. It is not just that as an apparently homeless person I cannot find shelter from the elements, it is that whenever I try to interact with a person I tend to be either ignored when I merely ask another a question or dismissed as a parasite just trying to get money for myself for drugs, alcohol or some other apparent vice. In being seen in this way the apparently homeless suffer much in the way that persecuted ethnic and other minorities do, in that the gaze of the other, presents a demeaning image of themselves before their eyes, and when this occurs it tends to negates their ability to live a fully human life. This occurs as those who are seen fundamentally in society as lesser will tend to interiorize this image of themselves and as a result become less able to pursue what they see as fundamentally valuable. In this sense one condition of possibility of pursuing what is worthwhile is being seen as having dignity by others and so when we participate in the practise of treating the apparently homeless with fear and disrespect, we are not merely making an innocent choice about how to respond to them, we are complicit in depriving them of the ability to live a fully human life.

Louis CK’s SNL Monologue: Pedophilia and Passions

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

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

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

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

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

The Pathology of Market Care Substitution: “High Touch Service” and “The Girlfriend Experience”

Many businesses pride themselves on offering so called “high touch service.” With high touch service the client not only pays for a particular product or service; she is treated in a personable manner in which her server not only provides her with a needed good or service, but appears as someone who genuinely cares about the client, rather than someone who is merely providing a good or service in exchange for payment. The service provider in this context thus appears as more of a friend or associate than a stranger. In this sense a corollary of the “high touch service” is the notion of “the girlfriend experience” in the sex trade. Like high touch service a client pays a sex trade worker to appear as if she cares about her client and is in a mutually committed relation with him. What unites both high touch service, and the girlfriend experience is that the client pays for a substitution of a pure market relation in which one provides goods or services in exchange for payment, for the appearance of a relationship that transcends market relations in which the client and service provider encounter one another in a relationship of mutual affection and concern.

For the sake of simplicity I will refer to this behaviour of substituting a relation of buyer and seller for the appearance of a relation of affect and care as “market care substitution.” I know this neologism does not have the same pleasant ring as “high touch service,” but it should suffice for this piece of writing. In what follows I will try to at least partially set out what the relevance of market-care substitution is.

One thing that the presence of market care substitution reveals is the way in which market-driven societies encourage a distorted understanding of the good and are based on a distorted relation to the good. Market care substitution seems to arise in any market driven culture as we can see from the way in which both the food and financial service industry operate in North America. Focus is always placed on making the client feel as if they were deeply cared for, rather than just as a source of revenue that must be provided with certain things. Consequently market care substitution seems to be quite prevalent in market-driven societies.

Now that it is clear that market care substitution seems to arise in market-driven societies we can turn to how this affects the agent participating in these relations. When I participate in a relation of market-care substitution as buyer or consumer I must separate myself into two distinct elements. One element is the buying self who decides that it wants to pay for the appearance of a relation of care and affect. The other element of the self is that which enjoys the appearance that has been bought. In this sense we must separate the economically rational “I“ that pursue what it wants from the “I“ that enjoys the appearance. This occurs as in order for the self to enjoy the appearance of the caring relation it must suspend its relation with the enjoying element, so the enjoying element can enjoy the appearance in ignorance of the fact that this appearance is a mere appearance. For if the self remained as a single entity, it would know that the relation was merely apparent and this would sully the enjoyment of the apparently caring relation.

In itself this separation of the economically rational “I“ from the enjoying “I“ may not seem like a particularly large problem, but on further reflection there is a certain perversity about this mode of operation that encourages a distorted understanding of the good. If we ask ourselves what a good life is we don’t think that it is one with lots of pleasant experiences of the appearance of affection or care, rather we tend to think that the actual development of relations of care and affection that mutually enrich and develop the interlocutor’s lives constitutes a central aspect of the good life. Some might disagree with me that most have this understanding of the good life, but I question this because when a friend betrays us we are upset with them not because they have failed to keep up an appearance of care and concern, but because they have shown that they actually do not care in the way we thought he or she did. This shows that what is actually valued and enriches the lives of friends is not the simple appearance of affection and care, but the presence of an actually constituted relation of affection and care.

From the preceding we can see that the practise of market care substitution seems not to fit with this understanding of the good life as through market care substitution what is sought is the mere appearance of affection and care, rather than its genuine presence. Thus, given that market-driven societies seem to encourage market care substitution it also encourages a distorted understanding of the good as participation in these kinds of relations will reinforce the tendency to see the good as the appearance of relations of affection and care rather than their genuine presence. If our economic lives are spent pursuing the appearance of caring relations this will only make us more vulnerable to viewing the good life as consisting in the presence of relations that appear to be genuinely imbued with the spirit of mutual concern and affection, and this is clearly a distortion.

In addition, market care substitution leads to a distorted understanding of the good because it encourages us to see the good as a separate object that we as subjects come to possess just as we hold a pen in our hands. This is an erroneous understanding of the good as we long to become one with the good through our participate in it. To explain when, as with market care substitution, we have a self or “I“ that reasons and decides standing in opposition to the self or “I“ that enjoy we have a situation in which the good always remains separate from me. The enjoying self may momentarily possess the good and ravish and enjoy it, but the good always remains as an object separate from myself that I have in my possession. On the other hand in actually constituted friendships I do not possess the good as an object, instead I, in some sense, become one with the good through my participation in it. The good of friendship is not an object for me and an object for my friend, rather it is something that we mutually share and participate in. Furthermore, this participation partially constitutes our relationship as a friendship.

Now this raises the question of what our actual relation to the good is as I have only shown that friendship does not fit the model of the good as something we possess. Nonetheless I think that the understanding described in terms of friendship more adequately represents our relation to the good as beyond the relationships we have to others many other goods are best described as things that we participate in, rather than things we possess. For example let us look at virtues like courage, generosity and justice as these on most accounts can be considered to be genuine goods. The courageous person is not a person who exists independently who happens to have the skill to be courageous, but a person whose identity is partially constituted by their courageous spirit. In a sense this person participates in the essence of courage through their very identity as courage is a quality shared by them and many others both living, dead and to be born. If a person merely had the skill to be courageous as something separate from their identity they would not necessarily have the virtue of courage as they could choose not to deploy that skill. So thus our relation to virtue goods is not one of possession, but of something that constitutes our identity and that we participate in. As a result it seems to me that it is quite plausible and convincing to view our relation to the good not as that of possessor to object, but rather as something that we participate in and to some extent become one with. Therefore, the activity of market care substitution is based on a distortion of our actual relation to the good, as it always places the good as an object that stands at a distance from us that we need to possess, rather than as something that we can commune with and participate in. In addition as was noted earlier participation in relations of market care substitution will reinforce a distorted understanding of the good, as when we participate in these relations we tend to reinforce the vision of the good as an object separate from us that we possess.

Do you agree with the basic thrust of this essay?

Is our relation to goods distinct from our relation to the good?

Are there any other important aspects of market care substitution that have been ignored and should be recognized?

Thanks for reading and please respond to the questions if you wish to.

The Inability to be at Home in the World: Religion, Salvation and Value Pluralism

It is rare for a human being to be completely at home in the world. No matter how well things go for us we have a sense that our lives are missing something important. As we move about our lives we may have moments of exquisite joy, and we may feel that our lives are going extraordinarily well, and yet it always seems, for me at least, like my life is incomplete as it misses out on some valuable good. In this entry I would like to point out that while traditional religions like Christianity are very good at explaining this incapability of humans to be at home in the world, the Berlinian philosophy of value pluralism is also adept at explaining it. In a sense, this entry is meant to be a response to theorists like Peter Lawler who contrast the attempt to make humans at home in the world through technological and social progress with traditional religion’s acceptance of this anxiety as a necessary part of our worldly condition. For theorists in this tradition of thought the fact that we have not gotten rid of human anxiety and made human beings entirely at home in the world is a testament to the truth of traditional religion, and Christian faith in particular. While this contrast discloses an element of reality, by not making mention of non-religious philosophies that can make room for the human incapability to be at home in the world, it leaves out something very important.

Many traditional religions are adept at explaining our inability to be at home and our perennial sense that there is something more, but for the sake of this entry I will examine Christianity in particular. At its most basic thinkers like Lawler point out that society or nature is not our natural home, and in these places we are still estranged from God no matter how idyllic the environment we inhabit is. We are creatures who have fallen from grace and while we may be able to get closer to God through faith and religious practise, our anxieties will not be abolished as long as we are estranged from him, and we will remain at least somewhat estranged during this life. This explanation is powerful, and while I am not a Christian I cannot help but find it beautiful in a certain way.

On the other hand, we might explain our inability to be at home in the world by looking to the nature of value. According to Berlin, and his many followers, values are incommensurable or incompatible in some basic sense. Thus, while it may be true that life of a monk and the life devoted to artistic creativity are both valuable, these values cannot be simply evaluated according to simple criteria, and further these goods may not be able to be woven into the life of person or the life of a community.

For example, if I commit myself to the pursuit of artistic creativity this necessarily means that I will not be able to fully develop other goods in my life like familial affection, or the life of quiet reflection, as goods must be developed and commitment to one good tends to exclude others. That said, there is no reason to commit to one single good, but even for those of us who try to combine many goods into a single life, there is a limit to which goods can be combined into a single life. For example, I may appreciate the generosity and courage exemplified in the life of the aristocrat who takes care to make sure that his subjects are protected and well cared for, but I could not combine these goods with a life that affirms the legal and political equality of human beings. I cannot be an excellent aristocrat while being an excellent jobholder in a liberal democratic society.

From this understanding of value we might say that the reason why we are unable to feel completely at home in the world in our lives is because our lives always lack a significant array of goods that we recognize as valuable despite their incompatibility with the goods we have built our lives around. These goods that we lack call to us and tell us that there is something more, but yet they cannot be coherently brought into our lives without destroying other goods that we hold dear. So we are never to be completely satisfied or at home with the lives we build as they always remain the cobbling together of many valuable things, but at the expense of others that we never stop longing for. This longing is what underlies our lack of ability to be at home in the world. Consequently, an affirmation of value pluralism can serve as another basis for explaining our perennial anxiety and sense that there is more, and thus traditional religion does not have the monopoly on being able to explain the human inability to be at home in the world. Therefore, the contrast is not simply between technological and social progress directed towards eliminating all anxiety and traditional religion.

On Tragedy: Abrahamic, Ancient Greek and Modern Horizons

The term “tragedy” and “tragic” are bandied about in many contexts, but what exactly is it about a situation that makes it tragic? I want to suggest that the everyday use of the word tragic within developed European and North American societies is deeply out of step with the Shakespearean understanding of tragedy and more in line with the way that tragedy is understood in Ancient Greek drama.  Furthermore, this seems to be the case because there are some deep similarities between our understanding of the universe and the Ancient Greek understanding.

For Shakespeare what makes something tragic is rooted in the notion of hamartia or tragic flaw. For example, Julius Caesar is tragic because the protagonist, Brutus,  is an admirable man in almost every way  and yet he is driven by his hubris to act in ways that not only destroy himself, but also many others.  In this sense Brutus can plausibly be viewed as blameworthy for his actions, and so as someone who is punished for his tragic flaw. What makes this tragic as opposed to just being due punishment is that Brutus is very admirable, and thus we find his punishment both appropriate and regrettable. In this sense Shakespearean tragedy is very much rooted in the notion of a divine or cosmic justice, and this is very central to all Abrahamic faiths.

This conception of tragedy seems to hardly be at play by the way we typically use the term. We typically say that those young people who die in freak accidents or of disease have tragic fates. Consequently, what makes the death of the young by disease or freak accidents tragic is that they experience a great evil through no fault of their own, and consequently are not given an opportunity to live a fully developed life. Their deaths seems senseless as they have had horrible fates that do not seem to be part of any divine plan, as opposed to their deaths being merited, but regrettable.

On the other hand in Ancient Greek drama and, in particular, in the plays of Sophocles, we see a notion of tragedy that is far more like the one we ordinarily use, that that which is present in Shakespeare. For example, in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus eventually realizes that unknowingly and unwilling he has killed his Father, and married and had four children with his Mother.  Once Oedipus realizes the truth about who his parents are, he blinds himself in a fit of psychological distress and is exiled from Thebes and thus is not able to live a fully developed human life, as he is separated from his family, his home and his city, and the general fellowship of others.

Although, it should be noted that some have seen Oedipus as having the tragic flaw of an all consuming desire for knowledge, but even if this could be construed as a flaw, Oedipus’ desire for knowledge does not seem to be unreasonable, or the fundamental reason for his discovery of the truth about his own birth. Oedipus does not pay heed to Teiresias’ warning to not try to discover the reason for the previous King’s death, but he does not pay heed to this warning as it seems like a convenient ruse that would allow Creon, his wife’s brother, to take power. In addition Teiresias does not seem to offer any convincing reason for Oedipus to stop pursuing the truth; instead he just gives warnings of the doom that will come if Oedipus takes this path.  So, Oedipus does not seem to be someone who is blameworthy in any significant sense. Consequently, our conception of tragedy seems closer to the Ancient Greek understanding, as in both cases we think of tragedy as occurring when individuals experience great evils that prevent them living fully developed lives through no fault of their own.

Is it a mere historic accident that our conception of tragedy is more similar to the Ancient Greek conception than to the Shakespearean understanding? I don’t think so. I think it reflects the fact while we are the inheritors of a culture that is deeply rooted in Abrahamic faiths, many of our modes of thought resemble Ancient Greek thought.

Before I go any further I would like to contrast Ancient Greek and Abrahamic religion as this is necessary background for the rest of this discussion. The God of Abrahamic faiths is typically seen as omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. But this conception of God seems out of place in other forms of religion such as Ancient Greek religion. In these religions the Gods are certainly far more powerful than human beings, but they are not the eternal, necessary, morally mandated all powerful rulers of the universe. This can be seen by the fact that the fates that control all destinies are a separate agency from the Olympian Gods and thus can plausibly be seen as not under the authority of Zeus. Similarly, the Olympian Gods were not the initial rulers of the universe, but rather Zeus was able to overthrow his father Cronos through his power and cunning, rather than because he possesses some form of moral superiority.  So, in essence in Abrahamic faiths God is the morally mandated ruler of the universe, whereas in Ancient Greek religion the rulers of cosmos are but successful agencies who have managed to achieve the rule of the cosmos.

The similarity between the Ancient Greek conception of tragedy and our conception of tragedy is no coincidence.  Instead, it reflects the changing background understanding that western societies have of the universe.  Many of our current modes of thought do not reflect a universe in which a benevolent ruler ensures that good will ultimately triumph, but rather see the universe as a collection of forces that just is rather than being something that ought to be.  For example, “the environment” is one such force as it is not something that is amoral and not something fully under our control, and yet it can cause horrible damage to our lives. Likewise, “the market” is another. In our case these forces are impersonal things like “the environment,” “the market”, “the economy,” and “society” among others, whereas for the Ancient Greeks the forces that dominated the universe had the characteristics of persons. But the similarity runs deep as in both cases the universe is not something that operates according to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God’s rational plan, but according to the interplay of forces that are amoral. Against this kind of cultural background it makes sense to say that horrible things can happen to people through no fault of their own, and that these acts form no part of any divine plan, and so are tragic.

This is not to suggest that there are no Abrahamic elements of our culture, as there are many, such as our notion of progress, but instead that our society’s culture also contains quasi Pagan elements, and so our culture is far more than a simple secularization of Abrahamic cultural norms.