Activist Leftist Discourses – Opacity and Moralism

I would both consider myself something of a leftist and a liberal. The two terms are not interchangeable as there are leftists who decry liberalism, and liberals who identify with the political right. An example of the former would be a left wing Catholic like Pope Francis who sees liberalism as something of a failed experiment in unfettered individualism. While an example of the latter is easily identified by the ubiquitous attitude of the person cares much for the equal freedom of people and the flourishing of the market but sees no role for the state in regulating culture and morality; this is the person who is “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” The Economist magazine may be the most obvious example of this kind of outlook.

I give this autobiographical note not because I think it is important to express my political identity, but to position myself as more of an internal critic of certain trends in left wing politics that I find troubling and problematic. From my perspective, left wing political discourse in the last ten years has at once been too moralistic and too opaque and removed from the concrete understandings of ordinary people. In what follows I will explain the rationale behind these judgments and the negative effects of the political left’s dominant modes of rhetoric.

It should be noted that none of this is too suggest that right wing discourse has been more enlightened than left wing discourse and is without flaw. Instead I am just focusing on what I see as the shortcomings of the rhetoric of the political left. Ironically, being of the left makes me somewhat more critical of left wing political discourses, because I expect more from it than I do from the right.

To begin I find the discourse of left wing politics too academic because of its failure to explain its ideas to those that are not already part of the activist community. This failure to explain its idea is made most evident by invocations of racism and sexism without context or explanation. Racism and sexism have very particular meanings when they are invoked in left wing political discourse, but this meaning is quite distinct from the everyday meaning of the term that most citizens of post-industrial liberal democracies hear when the terms are invoked.

Most ordinary people think of sexism as explicit discrimination against people based on sex or race, or a personal attitude that claims that people belonging to a certain group are inherently less than those of other groups. However, typically in left wing discourse these terms refer to forms of oppression that systemically disadvantage women and non-whites. These forms of oppression are not simply based on intentional acts or negative attitudes, but on unconscious prejudices, the cultural association of value with norms of masculinity and whiteness and the historical residue of previous attempts to intentionally disadvantage these groups. A clear example of this invocation of systemic sexism occurs when activists raise the point that that American society pays women approximately 70 cents for every dollar men make constitutes a form of sexism in itself. What has lead to this inequality is often unexplained by activists, instead the point is brought up as if it speaks for itself. This makes it very easy for people to rightly point that the stat itself is a bit misleading. While men working in the same job as women typically make more than women, this stat does not compare the pay of men and those who are women in the same professions, but rather men and women as a whole. In this case, what accounts for the stark difference are not just inequalities in pay in the same profession, but also that work that is associated with women, and where women constitute the majority tend to be paid significantly less than professions associated with men. Now, this stat gestures towards the insightful point that “masculine” professions are more highly valued than “feminine” professions, but this stat is rarely brought up with this additional context and explanation. Instead, the stat becomes a talking point whose meaning should be evident and transparent to all. In which case, it is hardly surprising that when people hear the stat and are told that it reveals the inherent sexism of our society that they automatically get defensive and think that they are being told they themselves have sexist attitudes. This does not logically follow from the use of this stat without explanation, but it is a common and deeply understandable psychological response based on the audience’s understanding of sexism.

To explain further, when the term sexism is thrown at someone without an explanation of the concept of sexism being invoked people are going to default to their own understanding of what it means to be sexist. Consequently, given that most people understand sexism as a personal attitude rather than a systemic concept of oppression, they are not going to be convinced when they are told that our society is inherently sexist, as they do not think less of people based on their sex or gender, and know few people who think less of people based on their sex or gender. Furthermore, they are likely to see the invocation of sexism as a hyperbolic personal attack. While this is only one example of a miscommunication occurring between activists on the left and others that are not part of that community, I think it is plausible to posit that this form of communication has become far more common due to the changing nature of media. This change will be adumbrated below.

I think it is fair to say that over the course of twentieth century forms of media have gradually begin to focus more on soundbites, talking points and slogans as opposed to lengthy arguments. Our political dialogue must be digestible in small chunks because we do not have the time to focus our attention on a complex issue amongst the business of contemporary. I refer to this change in media as the soundbitification of media. While it would take an entire book or more to document the nature of this change and its causes, the prima facie experiential evidence for this change is made quite clear when we consider two aspects of our political discourse: social media and televised political punditry.

In the case of social media, Twitter is particularly illuminating. Due to the inherent character limits on Twitter, political talk on Twitter tends to revolve around cheerleading for a cause, insults and sloganeering rather than the exchange of ideas. I cannot make a good argument about why I like the idea of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) in 140 characters, but I can create a tweet that others sympathetic to this policy will spread. Furthermore, while Facebook posts have no inherent character limit the norms of usage surrounding this platform mean that political talk on Facebook is more about garnering “likes” as opposed to the exchange of ideas. Once again political talk does not focus on exchanging ideas but on signaling one’s allegiance and rallying for the cause. In this soundbitified media context we are likely to hear a lot about rape culture and white supremacy in the public sphere, but little about what these concepts actually mean.

Televised political punditry more obviously encourages sloganeering, as pundits are given just 30 seconds, if they are lucky, to explain their perspective on a complex issue. The result is obviously that issues are dumbed down and that there are few genuine exchanges of ideas. Instead people are more worried about shutting down their opponents and identifying themselves as authentic fighters for their particular political cause.

It should be emphasized that activists don’t just engage in soundbites to get media attention, although that is certainly one reason for it. Instead, the forms of communication through which social activism occurs, and is organized, such as social media and street protest encourage a heavily sloganized and soundbite oriented politics. In this context politics becomes a very tribal activity where though my clever use of buzzwords and slogans I signal to others that I am one of the true believers fighting for good, against the evils of the world. Explaining my points to people who disagrees and persuading them is not the point. Winning the war is. And it is in this aspect of our modes of political communication that we also see why left wing discourse has not just become opaque to those outside of the group, but also excessively moralistic.

Moralism as a concept may seem to refer to someone concerned with morals, in which case those of us who care about ethics would rightly praise moralism. But on my understanding moralism is a mode of thought that condemns actions, individuals or agencies by expressing indignation towards anything that does not agree with them, as uncompromisingly evil. In this sense moralism is linked to fanaticism and zealotry. For moralists there is only the light and the darkness. Capitalist moralists cannot see anything in socialism that is redeeming, and likewise socialist moralists can only see capitalism as a Satanic presence. As a result socialist moralists are peculiarly theoretically opposed to Marxists who recognize capitalism’s failings, but also see the gains it has made over feudal and explicitly aristocratic modes of social and economic organization.

Now, in what sense is left wing discourse moralistic? It is moralistic precisely because its modes of communication are meant to signal virtue and that one is a righteous warrior, but it is also moralistic because of the way that it denigrates aspects of the culture without thinking about how this denigration will be seen by those outside of the activist community. For this latter aspect let us look at a contemporary example. This example is the characterization of corporations and banks in popular activist left wing discourse. This characterizations sees corporations as an insipid evil with leaders that only care about profit. It is important here that the critique is not that these groups have illegitimate power and therefore are at risk of increasing inequality and injustice. Instead, the critique is that bankers, CEOs and shareholders are greedy, mean and unfeeling and put profits before people. Our economy is critiqued not for being unjust or unfair, but rather for being without compassion. While there is some merit to this critique of the character of the powerful it will be seen by many as mere resentful moralism for good reason.

The public mores of our society put a very large weight on the importance of economic success to a fully successful life. Our culture admires those who are successful in private industry because we do not see pursuing self-interest ambitiously as a vice; rather we see it as in some sense admirable and integral to the freedom and prosperity of our society, but at the same time as something that can be taken too far and destroy other valuable elements of life such as friendship, family and romantic love. This belief in the value of career ambition may be mistaken, and I think the value of it is at the very least deeply overstated, but it is a significant aspect of our culture. Therefore, many ordinary people who are not deeply committed to an ideology will tend to see people criticizing successful business people as resentful individuals who just weren’t able to be successful in their own lives, and therefore need to knock the powerful down a few pegs. And even those who do not have this strong of a reaction may find the characterization unfair as they have likely worked in a private industry and known business owners who seemed to be kind, admirable people. Therefore, the characterization will strike them as simply untrue and overtly judgmental and narrow-minded. While their boss may have pursued profit they are not the moral monster that a particular kind of activist is depicting. As a result many of those outside the activist community will have missed the valid point that activists are gesturing towards. This point is that our economy should not be structured just to generate growth, but instead should be structured to ensure equitable outcomes and a decent life for all, and the current role of corporations prevents the creation of this kind of economy.

The key forward for left wing discourse is to get away from simply communicating to organize the faithful and moving to genuinely persuading others. This require us to actually think about why we believe what we do, rather than communicating in ways that assumes that we all already agree and have the same understanding of what is wrong with our society.

Boredom, Finitude and Transcendence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commodification and Amusement: Postman on Television and Print Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Modes of Criticism of Technological Mastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Critical Thinking and Instrumental Thought

Critical thinking is often praised as a valuable asset in modern liberal democratic societies. While this may be true the admiration that follows critical thinking raises the question of what actually constitutes critical thinking proper. It seems to me that when people refer to thinking they mean either one of two things, but neither of these understandings of critical thought captures the meaning of critical thought if we take the idea to its logical limit. In fact, when critical thinking is taken to its logical limit it can be plausibly construed as calling into question the notion that thought is valuable merely because of its ability to produce benefits in the world. Consequently, critical thinking involves more than questioning means or particular goals, but rather questioning the whole notion of thought as a tool to produce positive results in the world.

Often, when people talk about critical thinking, they refer to the process of being able to come with a creative solution to achieve a predefined end goal. For example, on this understanding of critical thought, the politician who is able to discover the set of policies that produces the greatest amount of economic growth for a nation is a critical thinker and consequently displays critical thinking abilities as he is able to reflectively examine the policy alternatives available and figure out which one will best achieve the end of maximizing economic growth. I call this meaning of critical thinking, “instrumental critical thinking.”

On the other hand others understand critical thinking as the process of not only reflectively evaluating means to a given end, but reflectively evaluating which particular ends or values ought to be pursued. Consequently, the activist who questions the politician’s pursuit of the maximization of economic growth because of its deleterious effects on equality and ecological preservation exhibits this understanding of critical thought, as he is not only reflecting on means, but what ends ought to be pursued. I refer to this understanding of critical thinking as “evaluative critical thinking.”

While the two conceptions of critical thinking elucidated above are opposed in that one focuses on means, while the other focuses on means and ends, they are alike in that in both cases what is taken for granted is that the point of critical thinking is to produce some kind of benefit in the world. In the case of instrumental critical thinking, critical thought helps us to efficiently pursue the ends that we already accept. Similarly, evaluative critical thinking helps us to produce value in the world by ensuring that we are pursuing the proper goals or values. In both cases thought is a means to some further end beyond itself.

It seems that the essence of critical thinking is questioning as both understandings of critical thought explained above put forth a form of thought that questions something that is given, whether it is a given set of means or a given set of ends. Consequently, if we take this questioning, which forms the core of critical thought, to its furthest limit we are driven to not only question means and ends, but, also to question the notion that the point of thought is to produce some tangible benefit in the world, whether this benefit is more efficiently growing our economy, recognizing the values that we ought to pursue, or providing us with a better understanding of the world.

But some might say how could thought not simply be a tool to some end? We think so that we can solve problems don’t we? If thought is not meant to be a tool to produce benefits then what would be the point of it? We do think to solve practical problems and create benefits in the world and there is nothing wrong with this form of thinking, but this is not the only form of thought, and more importantly, form of critical thought that is possible. Sometimes we begin to reflect on a topic like justice and while initially we are trying to solve the problem of what the meaning of justice is, as we think, the wave of thought carries us and we spontaneously jump from one stream of thought to another without any sense of direction towards a particular end. While initially we set before ourselves a task in the process of thinking we lose our sense of this task and our driven as if possessed by a demon of thought from one stream of thought to the next. But in this moment we do not merely lose a sense of our task instead we lose a sense of ourselves as subjects trying to know a particular object, at that moment I am not a subject thinking about the object, instead I am thinking constituting itself. This appearance of thinking in this world is not a means to an end, but thought as something making itself present through its constitution in us, where the “I” and “we” disappear into thinking itself. This suggests that thought cannot simply be understood as a means to producing some benefit in the world. Thought makes its appearance as a tool to be used by humans, but thought also makes it appearance in a way in which it is not subordinate to human will.

Consequently, given that there seems to be a form thought does not aim at producing benefits in the world it seems that critical thinking would not lead us to merely question means or ends, but rather to question the entire enterprise of thinking of thought as merely a tool to be used by humans for their benefit. This form of critical thought that questions thought understood as a tool, may not prove to be particularly immediately beneficial for societies, or the individuals who are constituted by it, but it does represent the result of taking critical thought to its furthest limit. So those of us who are committed to the practise of critical thought must necessarily question the vision of thought as a tool to produce further ends.

This entry is indebted to David Loy’s great book Nonduality – A study in Comparative Philosophy as my description of this kind of thought is deeply influenced by his thoughts on nondual thinking and I am also indebted to bloggingisaresponsibility for writing about David Loy’s book as this introduced me to it.

The Intergalactic Chronicles of Kesarp

Dear Pisely,

I have been travelling around the universe for far too long. As a result I feel compelled to reach out to you even if it is only to share some of the findings from my missions.

My last mission was to explore the city on Earth called “Toronto.” It was quite a voyage from the other side of the Milky Way, but it was certainly worth it to observe the forms of life that inhabit this city. The squirrels, coyotes and rabbits were all interesting, but the most interesting creatures that I witnessed were those who had built Toronto, and other cities on Earth, the humans.

Unlike other creatures their bodies were soft and fleshy, and did not seem to be suited to survival, but these creatures had clearly figured out a way to maintain their dominance over the seemingly more formidable forces of nature that inhabit the Earth. It is not of interest to me how they came to achieve their dominance, but one thing that does deeply interest me is the relationship humans have to machines.

Within Toronto many human beings packed themselves into capsules that transport them from one end of the city to the other, but generally the human does not see the presence of others within these capsules as an opportunity for interaction with those others. They merely pass each other in silence, avoid eye contact and seem to see the corporeal presence of other humans as a physical obstacle that they must get around. Once in a while one of them will move their flappy food holes and say something in the presence of others, but this is not the norm. It is hard to say whether they are at ease with the presence of others, or too afraid to interact with others when they are on these capsules.

However, one object that did solicit a vast amount of attention from humans when they gathered on these high-speed capsules were little rectangular boxes that humans carry presumably to contact one another, and access information. These boxes appear to be the center of each human’s world when they are in those high speed cramped capsules areas. At regular periodic intervals they will check the box like an attentive mother hen watching over her chicks. It is as if something disastrous will happen if they do not interact with their box. Also, their boxes seem to deeply impact the emotions that the human experiences. Their box will burble or make another odd sound, and they will peer at it, and giggle, smile, frown or cry. The only explanation I can see for the deep attachment that humans have to their boxes is that the box constitutes one of the most significant elements of their lives, as they seem to be far more affected by it, then by the presence of others right in front of them.

Perhaps humans have an internal adaptive function that allows them to be unaffected by the presence of other human beings in crowded spaces in order to better pursue their peculiar goals. But this is only conjecture, and I have no way to prove it, as we are banned by the bureaucrats on Lixillika from dissecting any creature on another planet, no matter how fascinating, and must make due with scanning through anal probing which only gives us modest information. Sometimes I wonder if these bureaucrats fail to understand what would be gained if researchers like us had greater authority. Surely, if we were able to dissect humans then we would uncover the secrets that lie behind the human’s relationship to the box.

But to return to the topic at hand, one other peculiar thing about these boxes that I just must share with you is that these boxes seem to be indispensable, and yet utterly replaceable. There are piles of them throughout cities, and if a human finds himself without one he does not grieve, as he would the loss of a child, but nonetheless he must necessarily get a new box as soon as possible. How can something be so fundamental to a life, but yet be so replaceable? I still feel like I am missing something in understanding the human’s relation to these boxes, but one thing I am certain of, Pisely, is that fully understanding these boxes is necessary to fully understanding these strange creatures.

I hope you are well, and the desk work you are engaged in is not too repetitive for a seasoned field researcher like you.

I hope to see you soon.

Yours truly,


The deGrasse Tyson Philosophy vs. Science Debate: The Authority of Science, Instrumentalism and Technology

Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson made some comments questioning the value of philosophy. Massimo Pigliucci who writes on the blog Scientia Salon has addressed his comments directly in a recent article, but the whole debate on the value of philosophy as opposed to the value of science raises some interesting questions and concerns that I would like to consider.

Often, critics of philosophy, condemn philosophy as a useless practise because it does not seem to lead to any tangible benefit for society. This was not deGrasse Tyson’s exact criticism, but this critique is so prevalent within society that it has become a banal commonplace that philosophy is a useless endeavour that does not benefit mankind in any way. Interestingly, this is the same critique that Francis Bacon made of the Scholastics within the New Organon, and the critique that Marx makes of previous philosophers within the Theses on Feuerbach; apparently the philosophers will never learn to just get in line already and devote themselves to improving the world. However the fact that this critique of philosophy is prevalent reveals that the popular conception of value within postindustrial societies is one that is fundamentally instrumental. Or to put this more clearly, it is a conception of value that sees something valuable if it can help us efficiently pursue desirable ends. This instrumental conception of value is theoretically problematic, as it cannot explain some of the most basic experience of value that appear within everyday life. Furthermore, the prevalence of this conception of value is problematic as it reinforces the idea that science’s authority derives from its ability to contribute to the development of technology. Consequently, this conception of value distorts our understanding of authority of science itself.

Our everyday experience of value attests to the fact that activities can be valuable for instrumental reasons, but it also attests to the fact that activities can be intrinsic valuable (be valuable on their own account). For example, even though it is true that we might say that a dishwasher is only valuable because it allows us spending less time washing dishes, and consequently only valuable for instrumental reasons, it does not make sense to say that friendship is valuable only for instrumental reasons. Friendships might be valuable because they open doors for people, but the main value of friendships seems to be an intrinsic one as opposed to an instrumental one, as what we value about friendship is not some end-state that friendship produces, but rather the fact that we are in a position of sharing our lives with another being who we respect or admire. The value of such a state cannot be made sense of from an instrumental perspective, so from a purely theoretical angle it seems that a purely instrumental conception of value is fairly implausible, as it is not able to adequately explain the everyday experience we have of value.

The prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value which not only condemns philosophy, but also the arts, is not only problematic because it does not stand up to criticism at a theoretical level, rather it has a pernicious influence on the way that people understand the authority of science. People tend to see science as an authority within postindustrial societies and associate science with the development of technology. As a result of this people tend to think that what gives science its claim to authority is that science has lead to the development of extensive technology and technological systems. This is quite clearly not a logical deduction, but if you ask non-scientists why we should listen to science they will ordinarily point to its ability to produce various forms of technology and technological solutions. The awe that surrounds science has less to do with the fact that people find that science explains the world, and more to do with the fact that people think that science has led to the great technological progress that society has experienced. Furthermore, a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science’s claim to authority derives from its ability to facilitate technological progress, as a purely instrumental conception of value can only see value in the ability of science to contribute to the production of particular ends like technology, not in the ability of science to develop theories that adequately explain the world. Consequently, the prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science gets its authority because of its ability to facilitate technological progress.

The notion that science gets its authority from the production of technological progress is deeply troubling because this neglects the fact that science ought to have authority in society, over mere conjecture, not simply because it makes our lives more convenient, but because science give us reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. Science is not only a machine from which great technological gifts are bestowed upon the faithful, rather it represents the human attempt to understand. Consequently, while a purely instrumental conception of value seems to justify the value of science while rejecting the value of philosophy and the arts, in so doing it encourages the vulgarization of the value of science within the public, as science begins to be seen as an assembly-line for society rather than as a spirited attempt to understand the world. Interestingly enough then a conception of value that can recognize the intrinsic value of truth is better placed to provide the public with a proper appreciation of the authority of science than a purely instrumental conception of value, as the former conception of value can recognize that science has its authority because it provides s with a reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. In this way it seems that in order to truly appreciate the value of science we must move past thinking of value in purely instrumental terms.

The Problems of a Just Society: The Importance of Goods Beyond Justice

The question I want to examine is whether there are societal problems that need to be overcome that nonetheless could not be referred to as injustices? For the sake of simplicity I will say that a just society is one in which all persons are treated with equal respect. While this is a very abstract definition of justice it should suffice for the purposes of this entry. My answer to this question is that there are societal problems that cannot be made sense of as injustices, and that while justice is an exceedingly important societal value, we need to be attentive to societal goods that cannot be construed as an elements of a just society.

Given the definition of justice that I established above it would seem that there are certainly problems that can arise in a just society that nonetheless cannot be construed as injustices. For example, the absence of a rich culture of the arts, the absence of a rich culture of athletic competition, and the presence of a broadly, ill-informed, and apathetic citizenry are all societal problems in that they are problems that relate to the common life of a society. But nonetheless none of these problems can be adequately construed as an injustice. No person is treated with disrespect by not having access to a rich culture of the arts, even if this is an opportunity that would be beneficial to human flourishing.

Someone might say that even if the absence of access to a rich culture of the arts is not an injustice, a society still needs to provide each individual with enough opportunities so they can truly be an autonomous author of their own life. This is true, but having enough opportunities need not necessarily mean having the particular opportunity to access a rich, artistic culture, so all that this point suggests is that justice requires individuals to have a certain set of life opportunities available to them, but on the face of it, it does not specify which ones are to be available. Furthermore, any one particular opportunity does not seem to be required for justice. For example, if a society does not engage in the arts and one is born into that society, does the absence of access to the arts constitute an injustice? I would say no, as one still has many other opportunities and can still live autonomously. So, it seems that there are societal problems that can arise in a just society, that cannot be construed as injustices.

I also specified that these societal problems are something that must be overcome. My argument for this is that while justice is extremely important, many of the goods that are not secured by justice, are not simply an optional extra, but are rather a part of society that we have some sort of obligation to establish. For example, let us imagine a just society that experiences the three societal problems that I pointed out above. The failure of a society to overcome these problems would leave the society impoverished in a civilizational sense, and while our obligation to realize these goods beyond justice is likely less pressing than our duty to overcome injustice, it still seems that we do have an obligation of some kind to establish these goods within society. We have such an obligation as the life of a society that experienced all three of these societal problems while just, would also be mundane, and banal, and the goods of a rich, artistic culture, athletics, and an informed and engaged citizenry enrich the lives of all.

Now the question might come up of why the aforementioned is important. One reason why this set of issues is important is that there is a tendency among politically informed, and engaged people within postindustrial societies to focus their attention on eradicating injustice and ending oppression, and while these are exceedingly important goals, sometimes the politically informed and engaged become quite silent about the decay of the culture of the arts, athletics and the tendency of apathy among the citizenry. The problem with this silence is that certain imperative of postindustrial societies are working against these goods beyond justice, while justice itself is much more unaffected by these imperatives. I am largely thinking of the imperatives of technological progress, capitalist accumulation and commodification. These imperatives tends to distract people from public life through the development of entertaining technologies, and the way in which these entertaining technologies encourage a flight to the private sphere. Furthermore, these imperatives tend to commodify the arts and athletics, and thus discourage a rich culture of the arts and athletics, as people worry less about the inherent excellences of the arts and athletics and more about their marketability. The result of this is that the culture of the arts and athletics that is produced is one of marketability, rather than one that is committed to the particular excellences that the arts and athletics realize. Consequently, politically informed and engaged people in postindustrial societies need to begin thinking and speaking about these issues to a greater degree, not at the expense of issues of justice, but in addition to, as some of the most dominant imperatives of postindustrial societies threaten these goods that are left unsecured by the presence of justice.

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.

Why do we have the friends we do?

Often when considering why we are friends with someone we invoke the admirable qualities the person possesses or shared interests of some kind; however, neither of these is sufficient to explain why we have made the friends we have. There must be some other factor, or factors, that explain why we have the friends that we have.

When I consider those I am friends with I realize that I share interests with all of them, and all of them possess some qualities that I find admirable whether it be generosity, kindness, honesty, a sense of humour, or wisdom; however, I know many other people who equally possess these traits and share interests with myself who are not my friends. I have tried to become friends with many of these people, but the friendships have not formed or have not fully formed nonetheless. Consequently, if my case can be generalized, it seems that the formation of friendship cannot be explained in terms of shared interests, or the fact that the prospective friends find each other’s traits admirable, as there are people who I have tried to become friends with, who have these traits, but who have not become my friends.

In a sense, this is unsurprising as we do not choose our friends as if we were shopping for a guitar. We do not meet people and size them according to our desired specifications for a friend to figure out if we will decide to be friends with them. In fact we do not really choose our friends in the sense that we choose to wear a particular tie to work, rather we meet people and find them attractive in some regard and consequently naturally desire to spend more time with them and get to know them better. After spending time with this person we realize that we either have become friends with them or we have not, but at no point do we explicitly agree to be friends. Accordingly, at most we can try to forge a friendship with someone and choose to end a friendship.

Given the preceding, how do we best account for the formation of friendships? It seems plausible to think that the formation of friendship depends on how the persons relate to one another. In a sense this is obvious, but at the same time too often we think about our friends in terms of shared interests or admirable qualities but forget about how we relate to one another which is in reality the centrality of the friendship.

It is very difficult to conceptualize what it is about a particular person that will enable them to relate to oneself in such a way that a friendship can form. When I first met many of my closest friends there was no way I could tell that they would relate to me in such a way that an enriching friendship was possible between the two of us. As a result, I am skeptical of the idea that an adequate means exists to tell if someone who shares your interests and whose character you find admirable or attractive in some way will relate to you in such a way that an enriching friendship can form. Thus, it seems that the only way to tell if a prospective friend will work with you as a friend is to try to forge a friendship with them. Furthermore, if the preceding is accurate this means that the qualities of a prospective friend can only be understood through the practise of attempting to form a friendship, rather than assessing the prospective friend from some distanced or detached perspective.

At this point someone might nod and say I agree with what you are writing, but this seems fairly obvious and pedestrian. I would agree that to some degree the observations I have made are not particularly ground breaking, but the language of consumer choice has so infected our lexicon that many of us have begun to think about romantic relationships and friendship in terms of consumer choice. Therefore, the observations above stand as an articulation of the practise of forming friendship that displays the distance that lies between how we consume goods and form friendships. This is necessary so that we do not forget that when we are trying to forge friendships with others we are not trying to search for the best product, but rather get to know another to reveal the possible relationships that we might have.