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.

Advertisements

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.

Stoicism, Providence and Modern Unbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Agalloch, Romanticism, Wonder and Nature

One of my favourite bands is Agalloch; they are a metal band from Portland, although their music has progressive and folk elements. One interesting element of their music is that many of their albums have a significant pagan element, which expresses a strong sense of wonder towards the natural world. This sense of wonder towards the natural world can be found in much romantic art and literature. For this entry I would like to examine some of Agalloch’s lyrics to try to outline the nature of the wonder we experience towards nature. Furthermore, I will argue that the reason why we experience this wonder towards nature is that our phenomenological experience of nature is something that resists our sense of the universe as disenchanted, and because we are “porous selves” who are vulnerable to being controlled by external forces, including elements of nature.

The Agalloch piece that I will examine is “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion.” In this song the lyrics state:

“Through vast valleys I wander
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
’til the lost forsaken endless
This is where I choose to tread”

It should be noted that in these lyrics the search for God is not something that is done through dialogue with other human beings about the natural world. Rather God is something that as isolated individuals we search out for in the natural world. Our connection to God is not mediated by our social role, or membership in a society. Rather, our relation to God is one that stands apart from society.

Furthermore, the lyrics state:

“Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God
Then God is not dead”

It should be noted that the suggestion being put forth here is that the revealing of God is something that can occur through a vision of the panorama of nature itself. Furthermore, the allusion to Nietzsche’s notion that “God is dead” suggests that while God may seem dead as we live our everyday lives in society, that our sense of wonder towards the natural world reveals something beyond. Consequently, according to Agalloch it seems that our sense of wonder towards nature is something that consists in seeing something powerful, majestic and transcendent in nature that tends not to reveal itself through our lives within society.

While I may not believe that God exists in nature in the way that some of these lyrics suggest, I do a feel a deep sense of wonder and transcendence as I encounter certain elements of the natural world. I remember standing at the top of Mt.Pilatus in Switzerland and feeling a deep sense of wonder towards the view. I could not clearly articulate what this sense of wonder meant in terms of propositional belief, but I certainly felt something resonate deeply within me, and this sense of resonance is not something that I tend to experience as I navigate society. Consequently, Agalloch’s lyrics in this song seem to present an accurate and compelling picture of the sense of wonder that we experience towards nature.

The preceding may have clarified the nature of the sense of wonder we experience towards nature, but it has not clarified why we feel this sense of wonder towards nature. So for the remainder of this entry I will address that question. While I do believe that humans have always felt a sense of wonder towards nature, I think that for members of post-industrial societies this sense of wonder is intensified by the fact that most members of post-industrial societies, whether they believe in God or not, believe in a disenchanted universe. This belief in disenchantment states that the universe is purposeless, in and of itself, and can be best understood in terms of efficient causation. In this sense, the universe is best understood in analogy with a machine. However, while the phenomenological experience of post-industrial society reinforces this mechanistic view of the universe as everything within society seems to operate in terms of efficient causation, the phenomenological experience of nature does not. There is something mysterious and powerful about the phenomenological experience of nature that does not seem to be rendered intelligible by translation into strict efficient causation. The natural world seems to be a living place with its own meanings, rather than just an extremely complex arrangement of matter reacting in particular ways. Consequently, it seems plausible to think that one reason why contemporary people have experiences of wonder towards nature is because our experience of nature is one which suggests to us that the natural world cannot be fit into the simple disenchanted worldview that we have. Nature then appears as something that transcends the disenchanted universe and consequently we feel wonder at this seeming transcendence. It should be noted that I am not suggesting that the natural world cannot be made sense of in terms of a disenchanted view of the universe, only that our phenomenological experience of nature seems to suggest that it cannot.

One other reason for the wonder we experience towards the natural world is the fact that the natural world has a power over us such that we come to feel wonder for it without choosing to do so, or looking to nature for inspiration. Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way in which modern people see their self as invulnerable to being acted upon by the external world; this idea is encapsulated by the idea that if we try we can avoid having things get to us if we are disciplined enough. Taylor contrasts this with the notion of the “porous self” which he suggests would have been common during the middle ages in Latin Christendom, in which the self was vulnerable to being acted upon by meanings that were outside of itself; things that were a part of nature or emanations from God or Satan. These meanings could take control of us, and guide our actions for significant portions of time. To some degree our phenomenological experience of nature is one in which our nature as porous selves is revealed. My sense of the power and majesty of the mountain acts on me and I feel a sense of wonder for it. I do not choose to feel a sense of wonder towards the mountain, rather I am acted on by the mountain and come to feel a sense of awe or wonder, and there is nothing I can do about this fact. Thus, it seems plausible to think that our sense of wonder towards the natural world might be a function of the fact that, despite the self-image we possess, we are porous selves to some extent and are vulnerable to being acted upon by nature.

While there is no specific political, ethical or spiritual point that I am trying to make through this entry beyond what I have specified above, it should be noted that if we better understand our sense of wonder towards nature then we are better able to understand our spiritual predicament. And one way to best ensure that we adequately respond to this predicament is through gaining the deepest possible understanding of the situation as we can achieve.

Now listen to some Agalloch because they are absolutely wonderful.

Inclusion and Public Dialogue: Moving Beyond the Choice Between Tolerance and Identity Politics

A lot of ink has been spilled over the last 50 years concerning the question of how to deal with the problem of how a deeply diverse society can be made fully inclusive for all members of the society. There are two primary approaches to this problem and both of them are implausible because of the deep shortcomings that they possess. The first approach is the tolerance approach and it argues that in order to ensure inclusion within a diverse society we should respect the rights of individuals to pursue diverse practises as long as these practises do not violate the rights of others. The second approach is the identity politics approach which argues that we need to positively value the unique identities of all people in order to ensure society is fully inclusive. To show the shortcomings of each of these approaches I will look at how this approach deals with the question of how we ought to treat others within the context of public dialogue to ensure that society is inclusive. By public dialogue I mean the diverse set of dialogues that occur concerning how we ought to live together. Furthermore, I will sketch out an alternative that, at least at the level of public dialogue, overcomes the shortcomings of both the tolerance approach and the identity politics approach.

Within the context of public dialogue the tolerance approach merely suggests that we ought not violate the rights of others and allow them to espouse their opinions. In and of itself it does not require us to listen to others and try to learn from them in order to facilitate inclusion. It is a merely negative ethic in that it prohibits us from violating the rights of others, or inciting people to violate the rights of others. The problem with this is that members of groups can still be deeply marginalized if no one listens to them within public dialogue, even if their rights are not violated. So, this approach fails to ensure a robust enough form of inclusion to address the problem of inclusion within a deeply diverse society.

Contrastingly, the identity politics approach suggests that in the context of public dialogue we should recognize the value of all diverse perspectives and intently listen to all perspectives as they all provide a distinct value to the public dialogue of a political community. Surely, this would ensure a great degree of inclusion by ensuring that within the context of public dialogue there is real engagement with all perspectives, but the problem with it is that within the context of deeply diverse society it can only ensure this degree of inclusion at the expense of disrespecting people by asking them to say things that they do not necessarily believe. For example, if I believe that Christianity holds more wisdom than other religions and perspectives, it is disrespectful to me to suggest that I ought to affirm the value of other religions and perspectives, as I may not actually value these other religions or perspectives. Consequently, the attitude that the identity politics approach asks people to take within public dialogue may seem effective at ensuring inclusion, but the identity politics approach is disrespectful because it attitude may require me to espouse beliefs that I reject, and thus this approach seems deeply problematic.

Some defenders of identity politics suggest that it is bigoted or prejudiced to think that the perspective of one culture or religion is superior to another and consequently there should be no place in public dialogue for perspectives that adopt such an attitude, but this seems to me to conflate disrespecting a person’s perspective and disrespecting the person. I disrespect a person’s perspective if I say their perspective is inferior to mine, but I disrespect the person if I say they should adopt my values because I think my values are superior. It is absurd that we should avoid disrespecting people’s perspectives, because some perspectives merit disrespect (ie perspectives in favour of footbinding or honor killing) and disrespecting beliefs does not constitute disrespect for persons. Thus, there does seem to be a place in public dialogue for perspectives that say that one perspective is superior to another.

The key to inclusion is not to artificially try to affirm the value of all perspectives, but to develop a citizenry that is reflective enough to recognize that they may not have all of the answers to all questions and can learn from the wisdom of others. Such a reflective citizenry would facilitate inclusion through public dialogue because they would see others as possible sources of insight and consequently listen to them. This would facilitate inclusion as it would ensure that the voices of all members of society were heard and engaged with. Furthermore, it would not require anyone to say or do anything that violates their integrity or any reasonable belief that they hold. Consequently, we should endorse this approach over the tolerance approach and the identity politics approach on the question of how to make society inclusive at the level of public dialogue. Of course the development of such a reflective citizenry is not something that is easy to achieve nor something that we should hope to achieve anytime soon, but by better understanding the kind of citizenry and culture required for full inclusion, we are better equipped to begin making steps towards this goal, and understanding the shortcomings of our current state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economics, Politics and Self-Interest

It is quite commonplace within the political culture of liberal democratic societies to view politics and politicians in an exceedingly negative light. Many people will often speak of how all politicians are “crooks”. Furthermore, we often hear people using the term “politics” to refer to any situation involving illegitimate bias, partisanship or unfairness. For example, when people refer to a workplace as “political,” they tend to mean that people are not rewarded by their merit, but because of other factors including manipulation and deceit. Consequently, it seems that “politics” as a subject occupies a particularly negative place in the popular imagination of liberal democratic society. However, the trouble with this attitude towards politics is that while it rightly condemns the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest within politics, it cannot explain why politics should not operate according to self-interest, when the broader economy largely operates according to this logic.

Within liberal democratic culture it is seen as perfectly legitimate to try to secure the best possible job for yourself as long as you do not violate the rights of others. To a large extent this has become the dominant maxim of public morality within liberal democratic culture. But while letting the relatively uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest dominate within the broader economy may be acceptable, it leads to a deep problem at the level of politics. For example, when politicians are motivated by the need for re-election they will pass legislation that ensures their re-election, rather than legislation that best serves the interests of all. Furthermore, the person who switches his views at a financial institution to get a promotion or to keep his job, is viewed is prudent, but a politician who takes a different position to ensure re-election is viewed negatively. This disconnect between politics and the broader economy show that the morality of the broader economy is inadequate to govern politics in that we think that there is something wrong with a politician putting career self-interest before the common good, whereas it is legitimate for a person working within the broader economy to do this. Consequently, politics seems to require a more robust morality than the mutual pursuit of self-interest. Rather, in order for politics to reach its moral potential it must operate according to some kind of commitment to the common interest to ensure that legislation is passed that actually serves the common interest.

The trouble is that within liberal democratic culture there seems to be very few voices who speak of the importance of being committed to the common interest, rather at one moment we seem to view politics as just another job that should operate according to the same logic as others, but at the same time we seem to hold politicians to a higher standard, but without being able to explain why they should be held to a higher standard. Consequently, we need to recover the distinction between the morality governing the broader economy, and the morality governing politics so that we adequately grasp the differences between these two realms. If we fail to grasp the difference between these two realms then our criticism of politics will seem incoherent, as we will be criticizing politics and politicians for engaging in actions that are perfectly legitimate outside of politics, without being able to explain why politicians should not engage in these actions while they are involved in the practise of politics.

The Freedom of the Public Sphere and Duck Dynasty: Social Opinion and Capitalism

In the last week or so there has been a lot of controversy over, Ducky Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comment to GQ that homosexuality is sinful. These comments suggested that homosexuality was similar to promiscuity and bestiality, and that homosexuality is essentially rooted in anal sexuality which is “not logical.” As a result of these comments A & E indefinitely suspended Phil Robertson. Robertson also made some remarks about the segregated south that suggested that blacks were not mistreated and were happy in this pre-welfare/pre-civil rights condition.

There has been outrage among Christian Conservatives suggesting that Phil Robertson is being unfairly punished for simply expressing his authentic Christian beliefs. On the other side of the political spectrum many on the left have suggested that there is nothing wrong with the suspension of Phil Robertson as he expressed hatred towards gays and therefore, while he has freedom of speech, he has to deal with the fallout that has arisen because of his comments.

I am gay and I want to firstly say that I find Robertson’s comments problematic, but not because they express hatred, but because the reveal an ill-thought out perspective on homosexuality. I am not sure if Robertson is genuinely hateful, as I have no view into his inner thoughts, but I am confident that his comments on race and homosexuality are moronic. That said, the controversy over this issue reveal a couple of problems within North American culture. The first problem is the way in which disagreements are cast in terms of hatred. The second problem which is related to, but bigger than the first, is the way that capitalism is eroding a genuine public sphere in which alternative perspectives can be engaged dialogically, rather than silenced.

In this controversy people have tried to silence Phil Robertson because he has made comments that were deemed to be hateful. The tricky issue with this is that to label someone as expressing hatred is to mark them as not worthy to be reasoned with. The person who expresses hatred can be simply silenced; they are not simply offering an alternative perspective. Rather, they are merely denigrating a group and inciting mistreatment of that group. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to know what the difference between hatred and objection is. If someone says homosexuality is sinful to my mind this may express hatred, but it could simply express the belief that homosexual desire is an affliction, just like other forms of sinful desire. And this does not necessarily mean that person hates homosexuality or wants to encourage mistreatment of homosexuals. On the other hand if someone says gays are a cancer spreading disease, they are quite clearly expressing hatred, rather than objection. Robertson’s comments fell somewhere between an objection to homosexuality and hatred of homosexuality.

So in this case it does strike me as somewhat problematic that people are saying that he has expressed hatred and on that ground he can fairly be punished with a suspension. Robertson has expressed hatred towards gays in the past, but in this case his comments while mind numbingly ignorant were not necessarily hateful. The problem with labelling people who express unpopular attitudes as haters or as “unpatriotic” as the right often does, is that it symbolically marks the person expressing the belief as someone who does not have to be argued with, and part of having a public culture that is invigorated with a love of freedom is that we confront those we disagree with, with dialogue and debate, rather than trying to silence them. There is something very unfree and authoritarian about a culture that silences those who express unpopular attitudes. Mill referred to such a culture as a tyranny of social opinion, and noted that it stifled individuality and self-development as people conformed to the dominant social opinion for conformity’s sake, rather than because they found the dominant social opinion compelling and accurate. If we silence those we disagree with, rather than confronting them with dialogue and debate we risk moving towards a tyranny of social opinion in which it is only acceptable to publicly disclose a particular set of attitudes and any other contrary attitudes are silenced. This is clearly an undesirable prospect as it would mean losing an element of our freedom. As part of what makes a society free is that disagreement is engaged with, rather than silenced.

The second problem concerns the way in which capitalism stifles free debate within the public sphere. From A&E’s perspective as a business it surely made sense to suspend Phil Robertson as they would have faced severe backlash from advertisers and others who market themselves as gay friendly. Consequently, had they not suspended Robertson they would have likely seen a drop in their revenue. The issue here is that when the public sphere is dominated by corporations and other kinds of business, these businesses often act in way that are detrimental to free debate in the public sphere, but are in the economic best interests of the company. For example, if actors know that they cannot express their beliefs in public they will either choose to pay lip service to the dominant opinion, or not express their beliefs in public and this does not help support free debate within a society. While the adoration of celebrity is problematic in certain ways, when celebrities voice their opinions freely they help to support a more vital and free debate across the public sphere, than if actors do not speak freely because they feel that their career prospects will be jeopardized by speaking freely. Likewise, due to the fact that controversy and spectacle sells much better than mundane debate, media institutions often choose to cover stories in such a way that free public debate is not supported. For example, by covering elections as if they were sporting competitions the media certainly gains revenue by making their coverage more exciting, but they fail to support free public debate by failing to look in detail at the differences between candidates and what is at stake within an election.

The value of a free public sphere that is characterized by vigorous dialogue is extraordinarily fragile. It can be eroded both by the common desire of citizens to silence those who disagree with them, and by the encroachment of capitalism into the public sphere. The current controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments help to reveal the way in which North American society is failing to address both of these problems, as Robertson has not been debated with, but rather labelled and silenced, and A&E took actions that while economically rational did a disservice to the value of a free public sphere. If we fail to address these problems the remnants of a free public sphere that we have today could be further marginalized.

Experience, Value, Fortune and Mastery

On the planet of Rinsk lived a diligent, simple set of beings known as the Farfallan. The Farfallan resembled human beings of Earth, and shared many of their aspirations. They desired friendship, love, community and beauty and held a great disdain for cruelty and malice. However, in distinction of humans the Farfallan had a mystical connection with Quotsi, a gem that was mined across Rinsk. If the Farfallan inhaled the vapour that was produced through heating Quotsi over a fire they were able to have any experience that they desired. The Farfallan would simply think of the experience they wanted to have and that experience would transpire. The Farfallan would sometimes use the Quotsi to experience sexual ecstasy, while at other times they would use Quotsi to experience beautiful music, or familial affection. Quotsi enabled the Farfallan to truly have control over the experiences they had. Before the discovery of the potentialties of Quotsi the Farfallan were victims of chance and fortune, now that they had a ready supply of Quotsi they were truly masters of their own lives.

One day two interstellar explorers from Earth, came upon Rinsk, and made contact with the Farfallan. The explorer’s names were Annette and Laura, and both of them were scientists who were sent to other galaxies to investigate the forms of life that existed in other places, to try to assist with solving the problems that human kind faced in the year 2300 AD.

When encountered with the Farfallan, Annette was amazed by them. There was little conflict among the Farfallan. Not only were murders, and thefts unheard of, but also domestic conflict was exceedingly rare. The Farfallan would go to work each day, to make enough money to buy what was required to physically sustain them, and to purchase Quotsi, then they would go back to their humble homes and heat up some Quotsi to make their evening more enjoyable. They were not concerned with honour or glory and did not feel the need to excel over and above others. This of course meant that there were very few artists and athletes among the Farfallan, but that did not matter as the Farfallan had Quotsi, and if you can control the experiences that you have why do you need artists and athletes?

What Annette saw with the Farfallan was a truly harmonious society, and if humankind could develop a way to control their experiences in the way that the Farfallan could with Quotsi, humankind would be better off in every respect. There would be less violence and cruelty in society and people would be much more satisfied with life as any experience that they wanted would be right at their fingertips.

Laura shared much of Annette’s admiration for the harmoniousness of the Farfallan’s society, but as Laura continued to investigate their way of life she became more and more uneasy with certain elements of their lives. She had spoken with several Farfallen during her investigation about the importance of many subjects. However, the Farfallan tended to relate the value of all things to the sensual experience of that thing. They tended to explain their valuation of love purely in terms of the phenomenological experience of sexual ecstasy and emotional closeness. This irked Laura as while she saw these phenomenological elements as indispensable elements of romantic love, she also saw the value of romantic love in terms of the emotional intimacy that develops between persons and their commitment to one another.

Furthermore, it was not merely in the area of romantic love that Laura found the Farfallan’s explanation of the value of things to be troubling. The Farfallan had little appreciation for the value of the creative activity of artists and tended to see little value in the person who could write a beautiful melody, or create a beautiful sculpture. One male Farfallan named Lorkel had rather bluntly said to her “Quotsi allows me to experience beauty. I have no need for artists.”

Laura and Annette had to jointly write a report about what could be learned from the Farfallan. As expected Annette wanted to suggest that humankind invest in technology that would mimic the effects of vaporized Quotsi on the Farfallan so that humans too had all desirable experiences available to them. However, while Laura recognized the harmoniousness of the way of life of the Farfallan, she could not go along with Annette’s recommendation. Laura’s only piece of advice for learning from the Farfallan was the warning that if we follow the example of the Farfallan we may lose our ability to value anything that is not an experience.

The Careerist Model of Parenting

In many ways Hugh and Jenny Schuman were typical Canadian parents. They both had steady white collar professions and worked as hard as they could to provide their children with everything they required. They had three children: Joseph, Kirk and Annette. Furthermore, the Schuman’s lived in a beautiful manicured home on the outskirts of Ottawa.                                                                                       

Hugh and Jenny both came from backgrounds that emphasized morality; Hugh came from a family with roots in the Social Gospel movement, while Jenny‘s family were non-religious liberal humanists who tended to work with NGO’s.  Both Jenny and Hugh still felt some attraction to the high ideals of their families, but the experience of their lives had made them realize that a concern with these ideals would not ensure the stability of their careers and thus their family.  

While in many ways the Schumans were typical, one thing that made Hugh and Jenny slightly peculiar was their model of parenting.  For example, Hugh and Jenny encouraged their children to take minutes for all conversations that they had, so that they could prove that a certain conversation had transpired. Furthermore the children had to get sign off from their parents on a plan before they could build forts, play with Lego, or play dress – up. These plans had to speak to the purpose of the activity that the child was interested in pursuing.

The motivation that Hugh and Jenny had for this model of parenting was their concern for their children’s future. They believed that in order for their children to have stable careers they must learn to adapt to the norms of working life in the 21st century. In this world “litigiosity” is more important than religiosity and so rather than encouraging their children to learn about the religions of the world, they made sure that their children knew how to create documentation to prevent possible lawsuits.  It was not important for their children to be aware of the teachings of Confucius, Christ, or Buddha; however, it was of paramount importance that the children learned to start covering their bases in their activities to avoid possible legal action by others.

Jenny and Hugh saw other parents as deeply irrational and inefficient in that they spent their time encouraging their children to read for the mere enjoyment of it, appreciate athletics and develop friendships with others. For Jenny and Hugh while this approach to parenting might encourage an attachment to literature, athletics and friends it would not help their children be effective in their careers when they reached adulthood, and consequently this approach was deeply misguided. For the Schumans, anyone who truly cared about their children would adopt their model of parenting, as it clearly ensured that the most important aspect of a child’s life, their future career, was taken care of.

Jenny and Hugh’s love for their children ran deep, and their model of parenting would ensure that their children were effective 21st century workers, and what more could any person want to be.