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.

Capitalism, Commodification and Social Practises

One very common critique of capitalism is that capitalism encourages problematic forms of commodification that degrade social practises. This degradation of social practises occurs as practises that are supposed to operate according to non-market logic, begin to operate according to the logic of the market. For example, the development of commercial surrogacy indicates this trend as a couple, or an individual, will pay a woman to give birth to a child for them, just as they would pay someone to do their dry cleaning. This degrades the social practise of pregnancy according to some as pregnancy is a form of labour that is uniquely directed at care for one’s own child. To sell or buy this labour as a commodity is to fail to understand that the proper end of the labour of pregnancy is not monetary profit, but care of the child. It is an objectification and commodification of the labour of pregnancy.

Another similar argument points out that the transformation of the vocation of the artist into a job as a result of capitalist development can also cause problematic forms of commodification. The practise of the creation of art is at its ideal when it is directed towards the uncompromising creation of beauty, rather than towards the market logic of gain or profit, but if one is dependent for one’s subsistence on the creation of art than the point of your artistic creation will be infected by the desire for gain. In this case you are not creating for the sake of beauty, but for the sake of survival, and consequently when being an artist becomes a profession and thus one’s source of subsistence it can degrade the practise of artistic creation.  Somerset Maugham put this quite eloquently in Of Human Bondage when he says:

“You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like a cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank, and independent. I pity with all my heart the artist, whether he writes or paints, who is entirely dependent for subsistence upon his art.”

Many may disagree with either or both of my examples and suggest that neither of these forms of activity have a proper end, and that just as there is nothing wrong with practising law to support oneself, there is nothing wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for this reason.

I myself am unsure of whether there is anything inherently wrong with selling one’s reproductive capacities or one’s artistic capacities for the sake of survival or mere gain for that matter, but the expansion of commodification to all practises is problematic, for the alternative reason, that it threatens to destroy the multiplicity of unique goods in the world. As commodification extends more and more practises are transformed into practises that run according to the logic of the market.  The trouble with this kind of social transformation is that it makes practises that operate according to non-market principles more marginal.  By making these non-market practises more marginal the move towards greater commodification hampers elements of the human spirit that find their expression in non-market practises. For example, the commitment to scholarly research is hampered in a market society as research is turned into a deliverable that must be produced to receive an income, rather than as something that tries to better understand the world.

Our nature as humans is multifaceted and complex. We are not just clever beings who can pursue their interest in the market. Instead we are being who have a nature that reaches out towards many objects including truth, friendship, romantic love, beauty and athletic excellence, to mention a few.  Consequently, when our practises become dominated by the singular logic of the market we are rendered less, rather than more free as the practises within our society offer less of an opportunity to express and develop many of our most fundamentally human capacities.  Market mechanism may express certain elements of the human spirit such as rational self-interest, a certain form of inventiveness and discipline, but market practises do not fully reflect our nature, and thus practises that run according to non-market principles are a necessary bulwark of freedom in any capitalist society.  Consequently, while the commodification of practises may not be inherently wrong the general expansion of market principles into nearly all practises is problematic as it hampers certain valuable elements of the human soul.

Of course some may doubt the essentialist conception of human nature I have put forth, but while essentialism is frowned down upon for many historical reasons the idea that humans have a multifaceted nature that reaches out to many distinct and diverse goods seems deeply plausible. This notion seems plausible as in our lives we often find ourselves drawn to different and conflicting forms of value in the world that reflect different parts of ourselves. For example my capacity for human attachment and intimacy draws me to friends and romantic relationship, while my more general concern for others draws my concerns towards the realm of the political.

Preventing Suffering and the Abolition of Predators

The principle that we should always act to prevent suffering seems intuitive as it seems that a world without needless suffering would be far better than one in which suffering occurred regularly. But on reflection there seem to be circumstances when preventing suffering is absurd, if not horrifying, and these cases suggest that preventing suffering is but one good among many, rather than the supreme good.

The example I will examine to reveal the way in which preventing suffering is not the supreme good is the thought that we might abolish predators (ie lions, sharks etc) in order to prevent the suffering that they create in the world. In our current world while predators cause much suffering to their prey, they are necessary as an element of many ecosystems and these ecosystems would fall into tatters without their presence. But if predators became unnecessary then their lives would simply be a source of suffering, without any countervailing value in terms of preserving balance within an ecosystem. Furthermore, it is certainly conceivable that in the future as technology develops we will be able to control the environment in such a way that we no longer need to accept the natural ecosystems of earth as a given; for example we might have the technological power to construct ecosystems that are most beneficial to us and to other living creatures. For example, it is not inconceivable or implausible that at a time in the distant future we could abolish predators, in the literal sense of the term. Through genetic engineering we could turn lions, sharks and other predators into herbivores or scavengers. If this feat of genetic engineering were to arise in conjunction with the ability to control the ecosystem such that we did not need predators as an element of any particular ecosystem, then according to the principle that we should always act to prevent suffering it seems that we should abolish predators. In this case suffering would be dramatically reduced if predators were abolished through genetic engineering, as once predators are transformed into herbivores or even scavengers prey throughout the world would be free of a source of suffering that has typically threatened them. And yet there seems to be something deeply perverse about the proposition that we might abolish predators. This proposal seems to stink of hubris and absurdity, but what lies behind our misgivings towards it?

It is not completely clear what lies behind our misgivings towards the abolition of predators, but I think there are two general concerns that can articulate the reasons behind our uneasiness towards this particular variety of abolitionism. The first concern is the notion that each animal species has a form of goodness that is distinct to them that must be appreciated and respected. For example, we might say that the goodness of a lion is in part defined by being a good hunter and predator, and while we may fear the lion we have to appreciate the goodness expressed in and through its predatory activity. Consequently, on this understanding of the goodness of differing species we are disrespecting the goodness distinct to different species of predators by trying to turn them into creatures that are not predatory. Thus while it is true that it is good for humans to act to end suffering, this principle needs to be balanced against appreciating the value of the goodness of distinct species, including predators. As a result, we see that, according to this perspective, preventing suffering is not the supreme good, but merely one good that needs to be considered and appreciated. This first concern may not be endorsed by everyone who is made uneasy by the proposal to abolish predator, but it certainly articulates a coherent and plausible account of what might be wrong with a proposal to abolish predators.

The second concern that might underlie our uneasiness towards abolishing predators is the notion that somehow the natural order is not simply an instrument to be used towards whatever purpose, no matter how beneficent. On this account while humans and other creatures may use the natural world as an instrument to some degree, the natural world cannot be reduced to a mere instrument that can be transformed in whatever way seems convenient or beneficial; rather we must somehow respect the forms of life that the earth produces. But in abolishing predators humans would clearly be rendering the natural world into a mere instrument, as through such activity we are saying that it is permissible to transform nature in any way provided that it prevents suffering. Thus, the abolition of predators clearly does not respect the natural order. So, this perspective also offers us a reason to reject the idea that predators ought to be abolished in the name of preventing suffering as such abolition will render the natural world into a mere object and consequently disrespect it. Thus, according to this perspective preventing suffering is at most but one good among others, rather than the supreme good. It should be noted that the two perspectives outlined above do not exhaust the possible grounds on which we can oppose the abolition of predators, but they do seem to offer plausible grounds for such opposition.

While it is not clear on what grounds we should reject the proposal to abolish predators in the name of preventing suffering, the abolition of predators example show us that in particular cases the path that prevents the most suffering seems horrifying, troubling and absurd, and there are other values that matter beyond the alleviation of suffering. Consequently, preventing suffering is but one good among many rather than the supreme good; suffering may seem to be one the greatest evils on earth, but we need to be careful not to fall into the illusion of thinking that the only thing that we are called on to do, from an ethical perspective, is to prevent suffering. Suffering is surely an evil, but the abolition of predators shows us that acts that prevent suffering can be nearly as disturbing as the most intense form of suffering.

On the Importance of Caring

Often it is said that the reason behind many of our social ills is that people do not care, and consequently a better society would be one in which people care more. This thought may seem obviously true, but on closer examination it is unclear whether a society would be better if its people cared more. Zealotry and violence tend to go along with caring, and while apathy fosters its own evils, a citizenry that cares more does not necessarily lead to the constitution of a better society. Nonetheless, the notion that people should care more also suggests a call for people to be caring, in distinction from an invocation for them to care more in a general sense, and this call for people to be caring seems to be a valid ideal. Yet, this ideal too has its limitations as it does not do justice to forms of life that we ought to value, and yet are incompatible with the ideal of the caring person.

If we examine the notion of what it means to care more. We can see that this notion is a negation of apathy. The caring person, as opposed to the apathetic person, is concerned and interested in the state of affairs of their society, and the broader world. These states of affairs truly matter to them, and when they go well the caring person is ecstatic, and when they go poorly they are likewise miserable, melancholic or depressed. Yet, the fact that someone cares does not determine their political orientation. The reactionary conservative certainly cares as much as the revolutionary socialist. This means that those who care will often be at odds with one another. For this reason thinkers like Hobbes have been particularly concerned with those who cared. Those with strong attachments to causes are more willing than the apathetic, to use extra-legal means, including violence, to pursue those ends, and this puts social order at the risk of breakdown. A society of people who are very concerned with direction of society and the world is in danger of being one that is rife with zealotry, violence and at worst, civil war. A body of apathetic citizens on the other hand tend to be very easy going and peaceable. The apathetic person who only cares about his narrow private interest may not be admirable, but he poses no more threat to the social order than an indignant zealot. So, while there does seem to be something to the notion that society is improved if people care more it is not simply the case that a society is better off if people care more, and worse off if they are more apathetic, because even though peace, stability and social order are not fundamental values, they surely are of great importance and thus we should always be weary of threats to them. It should be noted that this is not to say that a society is better if people are apathetic.

It seems to me that the notion that we should care more also involves a call for us to be caring, over and above a call for us to care more. Imploring people to be caring is distinct from imploring them to care more. A person who cares more about something merely has a strong attachment to that thing and an interest in it going in a certain direction. For example, the person who directs much of his energy to ensuring that the party he supports wins the election is an example of a person who cares strongly about something. On the other hand, the person who is caring is someone who works to provide love and ease the suffering of concrete others in the world. In this way, the notion of being caring is loaded with the particular values of empathy and compassion. Christ is a particularly significant example of a caring person, as he lived his life giving love to all he met. On the other hand the political ideologue may or may not be a caring person, as even though the political ideologue cares about the direction of events, they may not have any genuine concern for concrete others. The call for us to care more seems to involve an invocation for us to be caring as typically the images that are alluded to when people implore us to care more include images of those who provide love and ease the suffering of others. For example, when people say we should care more they appeal as much to volunteers working with the homeless as to activists devoting their lives to democratic accountability.

The call for us to be caring is not a problematic ideal, in fact, at first glance, it seems self-evident that it is better if people are more altruistic and more compassionate towards their fellows, and devote far more time to easing their suffering. But even this ideal has limitations because while it is true that we would prefer a society of Mother Theresas as opposed to a society of Donald Trumps, it is not clear that we would want to live in a society entirely populated by Mother Theresas if there were no Austens, Dostoevskys, Socrates, Rembrandts, or Coltranes. While we certainly esteem the life of Mother Theresa for her devotion to living through giving and caring for others, we also esteem the lives of philosophers, authors, artists and musicians. The vocations of the philosopher, musician, author, and artist are all incompatible with devoting oneself to being caring as the meaning of the lives of artists, musicians, authors and philosophers involves being devoted to their craft, and this leaves little time to devote one’s energies to healing the sick or feeding the poor. Furthermore, it is the artist’s, author’s, philosopher’s and musician’s utter devotion to mastering an elevated art that makes their life admirable. They are not content to merely float through life and merely be adequate; they instead try to excel in an art that seems central to human life. So, it seems that the issue with the call for us to be caring is that it upholds a single model of human excellence and posits that society would be improved if we all just adopted it, when in fact there are numerous incompatible forms of life that ought to command our esteem. Consequently, the call to be more caring fails to recognize and do justice to other forms of life that enrich our society and our world. As was mentioned earlier while a society of Mother Theresas might seem nice, it would not necessarily offer us adequate opportunities for fulfillment if there were no Austens, Dostoevskys, Socrates, Rembrandts or Coltranes.

The Competing Claims of Politeness and Authenticity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unity and Disunity of the Self : Is a unified self a suppressed self?

In the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle the idea that humans could, and should, become unified selves is strongly defended, yet how plausible is this idea? It seems that while there are some reasons to question whether unity is valuable goal, unity gives us the best possible chance to live rich, fully developed lives.

The idea of a unified self posits that all parts of one’s being are integrated in a harmonious way such that one is not conflicted and being driven in one direction by one element of oneself and in one direction by another element of oneself. The Platonic tripartite division of the soul is the classic statement of the idea of the unified self. For Plato, there are three parts of the soul. There is the rational part of the soul, the spirited part of the soul and the appetitive part of the soul. The rational part of the soul must be in control of the other two parts of the soul, so that one is not driven apart by the different desires associated with the spirited and appetitive parts of the soul. This notion of unity is so attractive, because disunity would mean that one was enslaved to particular parts of one’s soul. Whereas, unity would correspond with self-mastery in that one is ordering one’s own soul through reason. Here, it should be noted that when Plato spoke of a soul he merely was referring to animacy, rather than something like the Christian conception of the soul, so soul is not being opposed to body in this context.

Contrastingly, the ideal of unity is seen to be problematic by many for a couple of reasons. Firstly, very few of us if any seem to be able to achieve unity. It seems likely that we all remain slaves to some degree to particular desires and we are driven willy-nilly by them. Consequently, this unity of the self may be an unachievable ideal. Secondly, unity is seen as problematic because any unity may come at the cost of suppressing something fundamental about being human. On this view, there are various fundamental part of the self, and any unity we achieve will come at the expense of something else. For example, if we unify ourselves through reason we will be suppressing the vitality of our emotional life, and if we put our emotions in control we may be suppressing the rational part of our nature. This is powerful critique of the ideal of unity as it seems intuitive to think that if we put one part of our self in control this would suppress other elements of the self that are vitally important to who we are.

The first criticism of the ideal of unity can quite easily be countered by pointing to the fact that even though most of us fail to achieve unity, we tend to know at least one person who has approached this ideal or met it. It may not be an ideal that all can achieve, but it does not seem to be out of reach of all human beings by any stretch of the imagination.

The second criticism poses a deeper challenge but it can be rebutted. While it may be true that there are a variety of elements of the self that are vitally important our humanity, there is really no attractive way of living that does not involve developing the self into some kind of unity. The alternative to unity would be merely to follow whatever drive catches you at that given moment, and to live in this way is to merely be a slave of whatever drive you happen to be beholden to at a particular time. In this case you are not truly self-directing, or in control of the direction of your life. Consequently, the alternative to unity hardly seems attractive.

Even though the alternative to unity presented above seems unattractive I have still not shown why unity might be more attractive. It is that task that I will handle for the rest of this entry. The danger with unity is that we will suppress something fundamental about ourselves and because of that live a life that is impoverished in a certain regard. However, this danger is an inescapable part of living itself, rather than a danger that is associated with the ideal of unity. No matter how we live we will have to make choices that guide us down certain paths and draw us away from others. For example if I choose to live my life as a political activist, this means foregoing the life of a solitary monk. In some sense by making this choice I am in danger of impoverishing myself, as I may fail to develop a tranquil spirit because of the choice that I have made, but if I had chosen the path of the monk I would equally be in danger of impoverishing my life by missing the opportunity to develop the social virtues necessary to be a good activist. So too with unity, the development of unity of the self may come with the suppression of certain elements of the self. Likewise, if I live my live without any direction towards a unified self than I will equally be in danger of impoverishing myself as there is no reason to think that my drives will direct me towards a fulfilling life. Therefore, it seems that ideal of the unity of the self is defensible, and to some extent the only choice we have, for if we do not try to achieve unity we are putting our fate into the hands of whatever our drives happen to do at any particular time, and there is little reason to think that this will lead us to lead rich, fully developed lives.

It should be noted that my defense of unity above is very different from Plato’s, as Plato thought that any person with a unified soul would live the same kind of life and have the same values, whereas I see unity of the self as consistent with individual leading a plurality of different lives and holding a variety of values. However, my defense of unity like Plato’s seeks to defend unity and show that unity gives us the best chance of living a fully developed life.