The Mechanical and Symbolic Aspects of Law

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

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

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 So one could analogously say that laws against murder, theft, and assault should be repealed because the laws in this case do not effectively proactively prevent the occurrence of the crime or ensure that every instance of the crime is punished.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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Problematizing the Pursuit of Career Success: Vice, Virtue and Post-Industrial Culture

The term “career success” brings to mind conflicting images. For many, career success means climbing the professional ladder so that one can get the best and most prestigious job possible. While, for some career success is more analogous to finding a career that is one’s calling. In an earlier entry, I criticized this latter conception of a career. In this entry I will critique the former conception. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the former conception of career success as “worldly career success.”

Worldly career success is valued extremely highly within post-industrial societies. For example, nearly every parent within these societies seems to want their child to have worldly career success, and children tend to internalize the desire for worldly career success and want to get an education and experience which will allow them to climb the corporate ladder and consequently achieve worldly career success. Furthermore, those who do not succeed in climbing the ladder of their profession and consequently do not achieve worldly career success are often called “losers” or “bums.” Thus, it seems that the culture of post-industrial societies puts a lot of value on worldly career success. Yet, I will contend that we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because in many contexts within post-industrial societies devotion to worldly career success will encourage the development of vices, as opposed to virtues.

On some level it seems that striving for worldly career success would reinforce virtues such as determination, and reliability, because in order to be successful within the work place one must ensure that one performs one’s assigned tasks, and does so, even if there are roadblocks to the completion of these tasks. Yet, at the same time striving for worldly career success often requires servility, and inauthenticity. Servility and inauthenticity are often required for worldly career success because in many institutions and firms it is necessary to be sycophantic and dishonest about how one feels and what one thinks in order to climb the professional ladder. For example, if I know that my boss has a stupid idea about something, but I also know that my boss is very sensitive to any criticism from people below him in the corporate chain, then if I am committed to worldly career success I will likely be dishonest and not say anything about my bosses’ idea just to ensure my chances of a promotion. So, it seems that in many contexts commitment to worldly career success could lead us to develop vices, because as we begin to act in a servile, inauthentic fashion within our working life to achieve worldly career success we will become habituated in acting in these ways and begin to become genuinely servile and inauthentic in the other areas of our lives. In such a situation one’s commitment to worldly career success has degraded one’s spirit and brought out the baser elements of one’s self. Consequently, we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because even if worldly career success has intrinsic value (which I doubt), it is still not something that we want to pursue at all costs, as an unconditional commitment to this value can to the development of particularly problematic vices.

Now it is true that post-industrial society does not explicitly tell people to be unconditionally committed to worldly career success, yet because the culture values worldly career success so highly it implicitly suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing this value as an ultimate end. If those who do not achieve worldly career success are “losers,” then clearly there is something wrong with not achieving worldly career success, and if this is the case then it is reasonable to think that it is legitimate to pursue worldly career success without qualification. Thus, the culture of post-industrial societies does encourage people to pursue worldly career success without qualification, even if no one is explicitly telling people to do so. As a result, it seems that the way that the culture of post-industrial societies values worldly career success is deeply problematic as it encourages people to pursue worldly career success in a way that may lead to the development of vices that any free, self-respecting person would want to avoid at any cost. Therefore, it is necessary to try to change this culture, and the first step towards changing it is to begin truly reflecting on how we value worldly career success, so we can revise our valuation where this is necessary.

The Relationship Between Leisure and Entertainment

When one asks the question of what place entertainment should have in our lives most inhabitants of industrialized nations would respond that it is perfectly legitimate to spend one’s leisure time being entertained. In this blog, I would like to show the problematic nature of the aforementioned opinion.

Entertainment at its very core seems to be something that must be enjoyed through immediate consumption, rather than something that has durability and requires time to fully appreciate. For example, the quintessential entertainment activity might be watching a sitcom. At the time, the sitcom is pleasant, but it does not require reflective analysis, or a rich set of capabilities to appreciate. It is something that is immediately consumed. Just like eating a chocolate bar, we immediately consume a sitcom and enjoy that moment. Furthermore, entertainment does not teach us anything or stick with us; it provides us with a short pleasant experience, and once the experience is over we move on with our lives as though nothing has happened. When we watch a sitcom, we do not think that this episode really counts in the overall structure of our lives. It is a mere pleasurable experience with no further meaning attached. Entertainment is thus quite fairly characterized as a pleasant distraction.

Now it should be noted that I am not suggesting that sitcoms are inherently incapable of sticking with us and engaging reflective analysis. Part of what makes entertainment what it is, is the subject matter, but, the other side of what makes entertainment what it is, is how it can be appreciated, and how it tends to be appreciated within a particular context. In principle, there may be sitcoms that can engage reflective analysis and stick with us, but very few of us appreciate them in this way, and they can be enjoyed as merely pleasant experiences.

It is problematic to say that it is legitimate to spend one’s leisure time being entertained, because while entertainment is certainly a valid practise, if being entertained is the sole, or primary, purpose of our leisure time it will distract us from being reflective, and of discerning what kind of life we truly want to live. Entertainment temporarily abates the answering of difficult questions, and this is both its vice and its virtue. It is its virtue in that it allows us to temporarily get away from our problems and difficulties and face them anew. It is its vice because it is very easy to become addicted and overly preoccupied with being entertained, such that answering the question of how one ought to live ceases to be interesting and desirable.  It seems to me that one of the most admirable qualities of humans is that they have the capability to reflect on what kind of life is the best and most admirable. If we are overly focused on entertaining ourselves our capability for reflection atrophies and we are left living a life where we work so that we can be entertained during our leisure time. This sort of life does not seem that admirable and while it is certainly not the worst, the focus on entertainment within our culture threatens to destroy some of our most admirable capacities. Consequently, while there is nothing wrong with spending some of our leisure time being entertained, we should be ever vigilant that we do not let these pleasant distractions, distract us from other more important matters, such as answering the question of how it is best to live.




Problematizing Authenticity as a Vocational Ideal

The notion of authenticity is a central element of modern western culture. This idea supposes that persons ought to be true to themselves. When the notion is applied to the entire life of a person it is difficult to argue with as almost no one would argue with the idea that people ought to be true to themselves and live a life that reflects their particularity or uniqueness. But when the notion of authenticity is transformed into a vocational ideal it becomes problematic. Authenticity as a vocational ideal is the notion that a person’s career should be something that expresses their particular nature and thus something that the person finds deeply meaningful and fulfilling. With this notion of authenticity, a successful career would be doing something that reflects your particularity and that you find great fulfillment in. I will refer to this notion of authenticity as “careerist authenticity”, while I will refer to the more general notion of authenticity, as authenticity simpliciter.

The problem with careerist authenticity can be seen from two sides: from the perspective of people trying to choose a career, and for employers who are hiring people. I will look at each side in turn, and note that from the side of the person trying to develop a career, careerist authenticity often fosters anxiety and malaise as people realize that a career that would be authentic from the standpoint of careerist authenticity would not be one they would be willing to pursue because it would involve endangering their survival, stability or comfort. From the perspective of the employer, careerist authenticity becomes problematic, precisely because many people end up choosing comfort, stability and survival over careerist authenticity. Thus, employers who buy into careerist authenticity screen out people who are willing to work, because they feel that if a person is choosing a job for wealth, stability or comfort, they will do a poor job. This itself creates an additional problem in which people are encouraged to present themselves as someone who will find fulfillment in their career, even when they will not, as many employers want employees who view their career in terms of careerist authenticity.

I noted earlier that for those choosing a career the notion of careerist authenticity can foster anxiety, and a certain malaise. The notion of careerist authenticity has this effect because if someone buys into this concept than unless one is very lucky and finds a job that pays reasonably well that embodies one’s calling and allows one to find fulfillment in it, one will be very disappointed and anxious because of the fact that achieving survival and comfort will mean choosing less meaningful work. Let us take a look at an example. Someone realizes that their most authentic calling is writing music. This person would write music if they could for a living, but they realize that they have little chance of being able to support themselves through writing music as a career, and thus they realize they must find a job to ensure their survival and comfort. Or they could try to pursue writing music as a career, understanding that they may fail and be impoverished because of it. A plausible reaction to this situation is anxiety over the fact that one will not be able to do what one finds most meaningful to survive, but rather will have to do something one is less drawn towards. Some may view this anxiety as childish, but I think this construal fails to account for the problem. These people want to contribute to society through pursuing a career that is an expression of their authentic calling; they are not simply people who do not want to work in the “real world.” Rather, the “real world” makes it impossible for them to devote themselves fully to their authentic calling without endangering their comfort and survival.

This anxiety however is reinforced and made more intense, by the tendency for parents and educators to stress the careerist authenticity view of life. As a result of this many youths tend to unwittingly adopt the careerist authenticity view because that is how they have been taught to understand their career and their life. Furthermore this anxiety is also intensified by the affluence of western societies. Much western youth never experience impoverishment, and thus they tend to forget that the primary purpose of work is to achieve survival and enough wealth for comfort. Similarly, one additional thing that intensifies this anxiety is the fact that the modern age is founded upon the conquest of nature. Consequently people have a sense of hubris and feel that humans are perfectly entitled to remake the world to suit their pleasure. Therefore, the fact that the world fails to allow people to fully devote themselves to their most authentic calling, is much more upsetting than it would be for someone with a more premodern understanding of society in which society reflects nature, and society cannot be constructed in whatever way to suit whatever human desire. Although the notion of a career itself a modern invention, so this comparison itself is perhaps not that adept.

On the side of the employer looking to hire someone, if the employer understands careers in the terms of careerist authenticity they will only look to hire people who fit with a particular position in terms of careerist authenticity. That is they will only look to hire people whose authentic calling is to work in a particular position. This is problematic from the standpoint of modern standards of business efficiency itself, because many people who would be good workers are screened out because of factors that are completely arbitrary with regard to business efficiency itself. It is true that if someone has a career that fits with careerist authenticity they will likely do their job better than someone who has a career that does not because they find their vocation deeply fulfilling, but still there are still many people who would do a good job in a particular position, even if the career is not an ideal position for them according to careerist authenticity. So, from the standpoint of business efficiency itself careerist authenticity is problematic. Furthermore, this attitude is problematic for employers to have because it encourages dishonesty in workers as they must sell themselves not simply as people who will do their job well, but who will find meaning in their job and people who are “passionate” about their job. This encouragement of dishonesty can develop into a habit and corrupt people, because habituation in vice encourages further vice, as habituation in virtue develops virtue. Not to mention the fact that this need to play the role of the passionate worker further alienates the worker.

So, given all this criticism of the notion of careerist authenticity, what is the best way to counteract this problem? The answer is unclear to me. There are many possible ways to radically alter the economy such that meaningful work can be separated from the pursuit of the means to life and people do not have to face the agonistic choice between meaningful work and survival through work that is understood by the worker as a mere means to survival. However, I do not have the space, nor do I have the expertise to get into this issue.

One other possible solution is accepting that the advantages of a bourgeois commercial society of jobholders, have certain costs, and one of those costs is that we will have to face the agonistic choice. Related to this solution is trying to encourage a shift in the modern culture away from understanding careers in the warm fuzzy terms of careerist authenticity, and ensuring that employees and employers understand that the careerist authenticity is problematic, and that it is better to be honest that careers are primarily a means to survival and comfort, rather than something that represents one’s authentic vocation or calling.

However, the solution that I have just proposed is problematic as careerist authenticity itself is reinforced by the imperatives of capitalism, in that firms and employers wish to sell themselves to possible employees as firms that will provide people with careers that fit with the terms of careerist authenticity itself. This is not to suggest some orthodox Marxist notion that the relations of production determine ideas and culture, but rather more modestly that productive relations will reinforce certain ideas and certain cultural forms. Consequently, it seems that careerist authenticity is here to stay, at least for the mean time, and will remain a part of the culture of the modern west, until some fundamental changes occur.