Showing the single result
Mr. Benjamin appears to be drawing a contrast between Bob Dylan’s lyrics about hatred and Maimonidies’ teaching about anger, but the contrast is not evident in the article. Are these things different? If so, how? Is one a kind of derivative of the other?
Hatred (mentioned by Dylan) and anger (mentioned by Maimonidies) are not even the same thing. They are much related but not identical. It would be helpful if Mr. Benjamin fleshed out what he is after in this comparison.
There is no doubt that budgeting needs to be reconsidered as an expression of the actual aims of government, rather than just some boring exercise in bean counting or whatever.
But is participatory budgeting really the solution? Has it even lasted in Porto Alegre, Brazil?
The introduction of participatory budgeting might or might not get more citizens involved in the budgetary process, but that can lead to inaction more easily than action. Just imagine tens of thousands of cooks in the kitchen, so to speak.
It also seems like a plausible way for government officials to shirk responsibility. If a policy fails, they can blame it on the “people”. One more way for leaders to avoid leading.
Participatory budgeting does continue in Porto Alegre.
There are many criticisms of it and it does not exist any longer in its original or intended form. But it does still exist there, at least in name.
The “Trolley Problem” reveals more about the weakness of our moral convictions than it presents an actual moral dillemna.
In moral terms, the solutions to the problem are quite clear. In the version proposed by Philippa Foot, obviously you should steer the train to kill one person rather than five. And in the later version proposed by Judith Jarvis Thompson, obviously you should sacrifice the fat man to save the greater number of people.
These are the right, or moral, choices to make in the given situations. They might not feel easy or pleasant to do, but if that gives us pause, it only means that we lack the strength of our convictions, not that the right choice is hard to determine. It probably also means that we prefer ease and pleasantness to right behavior, or that we expect/demand that moral action should be easy and pleasant.
One can criticize this thinking on the grounds that it prefers the “utilititarian” position, but that is unfair because the thought experiment is set up so that the only possible right choice is utilitarian. We don’t know who the people are on the tracks; the five guys might be child abusers and the one guy might volunteer at soup kitchens in his off-time. We are only given their numbers, without any other substantive information. As such, we can only make a choice based on numbers.
Similiarly, in the case of the fat man, we know nothing about him (other than that he is fat) or the people that might be saved by pushing him onto the tracks. If he were a friend or relative of ours, for example, both our feelings and the character of the moral choice before us might justifiably be changed. I wouldn’t kill my buddy, fat or not, for the sake of five perfect strangers.
Again, when the only information given is numerical, the choice can only be made on the basis of numbers. And the right choice isn’t difficult to determine. It might be difficult to act upon, but that would be because our moral judgments – down to our gut feelings – have been cast into doubt. We don’t trust our guts anymore.
I agree with your fine critical analysis of the Trolley Problem, Charlie.
That said, I think that your arguments make the article’s point even stronger when it comes to the matter of self-driving cars. It would be relatively simple to program such cars to make moral choices on the basis of numbers. But numbers won’t suffice.
As you basically point out, what if the one person your car chooses to kill, in order to spare five other people, happens to be your mother? Morality is ever so much more complex than the Trolley Problem makes it out to be.
This would seem to be why the author, Mr. Wall, says that refining one’s moral intuitions into principles will fail to take into account new stituations. I would argue that moral principles don’t just fail new stituations, they distort morality as such. Morality is concerned with people, not principles.
I’d also like to add the following wrinkles.
Clearly, self-driving cars will never be able to make sound moral decisions. But how consistently do human drivers make sound moral decisions? Self-driving cars would at least be more reliable than we are when it comes to just driving. No more drunk drivers!
Also, suppose that we were to pass laws against the development or use of self-driving cars because they will never be able to make sound moral decisions. Then suppose that some other countries don’t do the same. Are we prepared to be the only country left behind?
Don’t know what to make of Jay’s point about some countries adopting self driving cars and others not doing so. Must be about international competition. But the idea that human drivers make bad moral and technical decisions all the time is great. It’d be awesome to see a study comparing numbers of fatalities caused by human drivers to the same caused by self driving cars. And then we could compare the moral aspects too. Drunk drivers alone probably make us humans less “moral” than the alternative.
Why does the guy have to be fat? Maybe he’s just big. Maybe he’s a power lifter. Why does he have to be fat?
Alex Wall hates fat people.
How many fat men have been killed in thought because of Thompson’s version of the Trolley Problem?
I know this is probably a joke, but it’s still a fascinating snapshot of how much society has changed since the 70s.
When the thought experiment was invented, the example of the fat man was probably seen as totally unobjectionable. Now, it’s practically like saying imagine there are 5 people on the tracks, and 1 gay man next to you. Or, depending on your view of fat people, 1 criminal. The debate around obesity has become so charged, it’s impossible not to see some moral element to the fat man.
Just look at the recent fracas on reddit. First of all, there was a webpage, a popular webpage, devoted to hating fat people. Then this webpage got taken down, because the administrators wanted the site it was part of to become a safe space, and that meant getting rid of any discrimination against the obese. Can you imagine trying to explain any of that to someone from the 70s. Or the fat acceptance movement?
I couldn’t explain any of that to a person from the 70s. But there’s an awful lot that I doubt that a person from the 70s could explain to me… starting with leisure suits.
The guy could be fat or skinny, but if he were wearing a leisure suit, I’d toss him onto the tracks just for commiting a fashion faux pas. I wouldn’t even care if it saved lives or not.
Very fun article!
I wonder if any of the “expert witnesses” called upon by the Court in this case sought to apply Aristotelian definitions to the term, “natural person”.
Is “John Doe” capable of reason? Is he political? Could he be called a “political animal”?!?
Does the firm of Farr & Beyond represent space aliens? I would like to read about some of the issues regarding jurisdiction when it comes to space aliens. Can earth courts even try them?
I think that the Belgians repealed their “law of universal jurisdiction” in 2003. Too bad. That might have done the trick for scofflaw space aliens.
Nowadays I think the space alien would have to be a Belgian citizen or present in Belgium for the relevant laws to apply. If there were such a thing as a Belgian astronaut, I guess a space alien could just kill him with impunity. Kind of takes the teeth out of justice.
Space aliens would be fine, but I would like Farr & Beyond to get involved in Plato’s Apology. Would the firm’s attorneys be willing to either prosecute or defend Socrates’ daimon?
When can we expect the continuation of this article?
I’m interested in Mr. Mazer’s second recommendation – that there should be more truth in budgeting. That would be nice, but how to achieve it?
Mr. Mazer puts things delicately here, in my opinion. It is the “political class” which needs to stop misleading “the public about what is affordable”. It is “public officials” who need to be discouraged from “promising to both cut taxes and improve services”. And it is “elected officials” who must stop running away from “the language and the concept of taxation”. What about the people themselves? What is their responsibility in this? How can one develop an electorate which prefers fiscal honesty to political promises? Or an electorate that doesn’t want BOTH lower taxes AND improved services?
I agree with Mr. Mazer that it would be desirable for elected officials to act in the manner he describes. I don’t know how it could be brought about, however, and I’d like to hear some concrete recommendations on that point. I also think that elected officials are only half the battle, or less. The other part is the people who elect them – what can be done about that?
What is meant by the claim that there are “little martyrs” inside of each us? And why did Leonard Cohen have to be dragged into this? Does the author mean that there is no difference between a Joan of Arc and murderous wretch like Kabil Ahmed?
How would you differentitate between Joan of Arc and Kabil Ahmed, Elron88, other than by attesting to the truth of one or the other’s revealed mission?
I had thought that Mr. Clitus meant that the potential to be a martyr is a human potential. The kinds of concerns and questions relevant to martyrs are, therefore, relevant on some level to us all.
Cohen is appropriate here.
From “Story of Isaac”:
“You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
your hatchets blunt and bloody,
you were not there before,
when I lay upon a mountain
and my father’s hand was trembling
with the beauty of the word.”
Your Obamaism article is unique and provocative. Feed me more!
If Obama were to define terrorism as “that-which-no-god-condones”, it would be somewhat analogous to Aristotle’s definition of murder as (roughly) “that-which-is-always-wrong”. It is still hard to imagine Obama using such definitional hijinks to permit “violent and unilateral” action against unspecified targets.
Of course, in keeping with the spirit of the article, it is less difficult to imagine a bunch of neo-cons being persuaded that something of the sort would be a good idea.
It is interesting… on the one hand, Mr. Benjamin claims that consideration of the hold exerted by Israel (the people? the nation? the state? all of the above?) over the moral imagination of mankind offers us access to permanent human concerns and problems. Perhaps this is so. On the other hand, though, in his introductory paragraph, the author writes that, “though every nation wishes eternity for itself, none attains it”. Israel, no less than other nations and perhaps more, longs for eternity. It also claims that it has achieved it. Does Mr. Benjamin mean to deny at the outset the truth of Israel’s claim? Moreover, what can be meant by “permanent” human problems in a context where eternity is unattainable?
I think that I take your point, Maker’sMark72, but the claim that no nation achieves eternity is not contradicted by the view that some human problems are permanent.
Mr. Benjamin did not state or argue that there is nothing permanent or eternal, nor that human beings as individuals or even nations can have access to such things. He only claimed that nations cannot be eternal… that is, eventually they fall or disappear.
I do think that this would also apply to the case of Israel.
Excellent article. I was thinking the same when I read the decision.
As someone said in the reddit thread, the SDP stuff the way Kennedy wrote it was sloppy. Roberts wouldn’t have been able to go through his lochner rant if Kennedy had brought up strict scrutiny and had actually done the work to go through the framework.
Indeed. Kennedy gave the dissenters every opportunity to seem brilliant. And that is no small feat when Roberts and Thomas are among them.
Yeah, but Kennedy would have had to also actually go through the “deeply rooted in our history and tradition” analysis or give a reasonably comprehensible explanation of what now counts as a fundamental right (with some real reason to turn aside Glucksberg besides “cuz”) in order to prevent the Roberts dissent.
I agree, but if you kinda sorta squint one eye and read into what he’s saying, I think you could argue that by citing Turner, Zablocki, and Loving he was defining the right in a more general sense than a pure Glucksberg application might require.
Thus, some of his flowery language about the importance of marriage would serve to show the “deeply rooted” prong. Technically I believe the level of abstraction at which a fundamental right should be defined was still up in the air between all of the justices (can’t remember the last case where they argued over it, but I know we read it in law school.)
But even if that’s where he was going, I agree that he needed to be more explicit about what exactly he was doing with Glucksberg.
On June 26th, in an article in the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin summarized his take on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges as follows:
“Ultimately, though, the case is pretty simple.
The government confers a bundle of rights on individuals who choose to marry. The constitution’s guarantee of equal protection forbids any state from withholding those rights from the class of people who happen to be gay. End of story.
As it turns out, this argument is difficult to refute.”
Except that it is not nearly so simple. Nor is it so difficult to refute.
The government does indeed confer certain rights to those who choose to marry. It does not, however, confer those rights to individuals who do not choose to marry. As Amar Khoday points out, in this excellent article on the judgement, that is already an exercise in inequality.
As it is put in this article, a “question that remains relevant… is whether it’s fair for so much to turn on marital status”. Taking the same issue in a different direction, the dissenters in the case, to whom Toobin gives short, very short shrift, reminded us that answering the question also requires some definition of marriage, which is not for the Court to assert.
The question was, ultimately, whether gay people can marry each other (for they could always and often did marry heterosexuals) or whether the states can prohibit them from doing so. It was not, as Toobin put it, whether those rights can be withheld from the class of people who happen to be gay.
Jeffrey Toobin makes a lot out of the case of Loving v. Virginia, presumably in order to make the reader feel like laws against gay marriage are as obviously appalling as laws against interracial marriage. And maybe they are, but that just isn’t the point. The analogy between the cases is terribly misleading for the following reason: Loving v. Virginia did not require any change to the definition of marriage as a union between man and woman.
Personally, I take the general view of the dissenters here, to the extent that this matter should have been left to the legislative branch and not to the Court. It is disturbing to me that the Constitution, the very body of laws which establish that Court, should have been so ignored by the majority in this case.
Mr. Khoday thinks that the Court did not go far enough, I think that it went far too far. Still, I am grateful for this article – the author’s appraisal of the decision is intelligent and clear – and he does not try to oversimplify a difficult problem. Whether our primary concern here is that more needs to be done for LGBT rights in the United States or that the integrity of the rule of law must be defended, we need to understand the actual challenges at hand.
I think that b_cardozo incorrectly attributed the quotation of Robert Leckey to Amar Khoday, the author of this article. A minor point.
It is absolutely unfair that so much should rely on marital status. What has been won by this decision is the right for the majority of gay people to be discriminated against equally along with all the other people in the United States who are not married.
Why do you say that the majority “ignored” the constitution? Read through Mr. Khoday’s article again. Do you not think that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment are part of the constitution?
You might argue that the judgement was not reasonably derived from these clauses, but you would have to make that argument. Either way, the constitution was not ignored here.
Obergefell, the Freedom Bell
Is tolling now for thee –
Instead of having just one spouse,
You’ll soon be bound to three.
I pretty much agree. Writing was on the wall that the Court was going to legalize gay marriage, but I was wondering if they would take the next step to make it a suspect or quasi-suspect class.
Kennedy did leave a breadcrumb in the opinion when said being gay was an immutable characteristic.
What do you make of that?
Well, there’s one big problem with using “immutable” as a standard. Namely, that sexual orientation does sometimes change.
For example, some people find themselves originally attracted to men, then later change to be attracted to women:
So it isn’t an immutable characteristic in the sense of something that never changes? But it also doesn’t seem possible to change via external intervention (“pray the gay away” type quackery). Is “only changes on its own” the equivalent of “immutable”?
I’m sure there’s an interesting philosophical debate to be had on that point. But legally speaking, immutable characteristics aren’t simply things you can’t change. E.g. religion–people can convert to new religions, but it’s still considered an immutable characteristic.
Sexual orientation seems a lot more immutable than religion, so I think Kennedy is right on the money with that line.
Surely sexual orientation is a great deal more fluid than either conservatives or liberals want to acknowledge at this point. There are probably many people, gay or straight, for whom it is fixed, but there are many others for whom it changes over time. I would also argue that the number of cases which seem fixed would diminish significantly under varying circumstances. Just one such set of circumstances is a highly permissive society. This is to say nothing of experimentation and mistakes. Half or more of heterosexual marriages are mistakes, if we are to take our bearing from divorce statistics.
Regardless, if marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be denied to people based on sexual orientation, then why can’t sexuality just be taken out of the question entirely? I live with my grandfather and take care of him – why can’t we receive the same rights as other couples?
Wildbill76 is mistakenly erasing bisexuals which is a much better description of his hypothetical “fluidity” group that he claims we will discover in the future. Bisexuals are certainly more likely to re-label their sexuality when the marry or enter into long term relationships (almost always heterosexual) but this does not mean they underlying oreintation changes.
I didn’t say anything about discovering a group in the future. I said that I believed sexuality now to be more fluid than people generally admit or even realize. And I think it’s always been that way.
The study cited showed that the vast majority of “changes” in sexual orientation went from heterosexual to bisexual/homosexual or bisexual to homosexual, although there were a few cases in women of bisexual to heterosexual. The phrasing of your statement that “some people find themselves originally attracted to men then later attracted to women”is misleading because it implies that your generic category of people included gay/bi men who later became attracted to women. However, that study and virtually every high quality quantitative study show that the movement of any such “changes” is almost exclusively in one direction – towards homosexuality. While it is impossible to be certain in these large quantitative surveys (these are anonymous and there was no follow up for further clarification), the obvious answer is that many men come out later in life for various reasons but rarely ever does he describe it as a “shift” in underlying sexual orientation but that he knew from an early age and was closeted. Of course, these surveys are documenting generations in flux as public attitudes towards sexuality have changed drastically. In the future, I would expect much fewer gay men marrying and staying in the closet and these purported “shifts” later in life will become a rarer phenomenon. Finally, the mygenes.co.nz website is run by a notorious fundamentalist christian reparative therapistm who has no credibility.
The author of this article seems to have only a superficial understanding of ASoIaF, as well as a complete lack of awareness of trends in fantasy over the las ten to twenty years. Hyberbolic article is hyperbolic.
Hi M Todd,
Thanks for the comment. Could you say how my understanding of ASOIAF is superficial? Could you also mention which trends in fantasy over the last ten to twenty years you have in mind? I’d appreciate it.
Interesting, I have always thought that the opposite is true. Martin is revitalizing the whole concept of magic by shedding some of the more burdensome clichés. By marginalizing magic he restores meaning and a sense of mystery. Magic is now something eldritch and invaluable, no longer simply a MacGuffin or a consumable good.
You could even say he is returning to the roots of fantasy, in as much as it is possible to do in a meaningful way, without turning it into pastiche. You don’t see Gandalf spamming magic missiles, either. Less is more.
I think you make an excellent point, Trevor.
There is an extent to which magic regains some of it’s former “mystery” when it is marginalized. On the other hand, when the thing in question (magic) is a mysterious thing by definition, I believe that there is a problem when it needs to be marginalized in order for it’s true character to be appreciated.
Is magic any less mysterious when it occurs at the center of a fantasy novel? Or are we as readers somehow less ready than we have been to accept a mysterious thing in such plain view?
I also agree with you that in The Lord of the Rings, for example, magic isn’t happening every second or on every page. Gandalf isnt “spamming magic missiles”, as you put it!
Still, LOTR strikes me as magical to its very core – it is the tale of a magical little creature (a hobbit) as he goes on a quest to destroy a magical ring in order to thwart the designs of a dark lord of magic (who is practically immortal). The politics of Middle Earth are relatively marginal to the main story and the moral outcomes are very clear.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, it is magic that is relatively marginal and politics (a struggle to rule) that are central. And, of course, moral outcomes are often ambiguous at best.
“No more magic,” cried Georgie Martin,
“Let’s make our fantasy true to life –
The knights will whore and eat and be fartin’,
Instead of having eternity to wife”.
Alex, this is a very well written article, and I can tell that it has taken you some time to do. I commend you on a job well done. I do, however, have some concerns with what you have posted.
1. With respect to there only being two viable options
I believe that there are more than 2 options that were available. When Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress earlier this year, he spoke of a “better deal” – a deal that would see other aspects of Iran’s network of worldwide terror being suppressed; a deal that would account for Iran’s warmongering tone toward Israel and the West; a deal that would seriously hinder Iran’s ability to make a bomb. None of these points were ever addressed in the deal. Why is it that Kerry and the Obama administration appear to be negotiating from a position of weakness? Iran’s economy was, prior to this deal, in a very weak position. There was a large chance that the Iranian people would have taken some steps to overthrow their government had the years of sanctions only been upheld, rather than what appears to be a total capitulation by the West.
Another additional option would have been to maintain the status quo or increase sanctions on Iran. While those things seem to not have worked, they were taking a toll and could have resulted in an internal struggle for the Islamic regime, and thus, an overthrow by a group that could have been more friendly to the West. While there are some concerns with this, such as a power vacuum being filled by terrorists, one has to beg the question – would that be worse than the current regime?
2. Why a better deal, through either protracted negotiation or increased sanctions, would have been better
A better deal, though not immediate, would have been to everyone’s advantage. The West is now faced with a surely nuclear Iran. It might not be today, next month or next year. But by making this deal, the current administration has passed the buck to another generation to deal with. In 10 years, we will be faced with a stronger Iran, buoyed by acceptance by the West and flooded with cash to buy weapons. We know that Israel is threatened. Israel will arm and will prepare to defend itself – either by committing a preemptive strike (which we know they have done in the past – the 6 Day War or Osirak), or by waiting and perfecting their second strike ability (i.e., nuclear submarines). But what about the Sunni powers in the region that obviously feel threatened by a stronger and nuclear Iran – Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the Gulf States. The Gulf States are awash with cash. The Saudis are too. I doubt that they will sit idly by. I fully expect that this deal will lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. That is not a neighborhood where we need a nuclear arm’s race – especially with ISIS and other fanatical groups often popping out of nowhere and capturing swaths of territory and weaponry.
3. You state the agreement allows Iran to become part of the respectable group of nations if it does not cheat
Unfortunately, the deal allows Iran to get away with so much (continued enrichment and development; limited inspections; some weird side deal with IAEA) that it does not need to cheat to continue on its course to development of a nuclear arsenal, at the same time as rearming and purchasing new weapons and defense systems from the Chinese and Russians. Iran will be seen as “respectable” without having to do anything to contravene the agreement. Then, once the agreement is over, they will be able to turn on the “Great Satan” with all of their new found might and power.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. In my article I tried to make “the best case for the Iran nuclear deal,” as indicated by the title. There are indeed good arguments to be made against the deal, such as the risk we will not detect cheating and the dangers associated with allowing Iran to access so much cash in the meantime. Perhaps the greatest risk (at least to the United States) emanating from the Middle East is the potential for a nuclear arms race in the region. You allude to this possibility in your second set of comments, but it is not clear to me that the Iran deal actually increases this risk. I think a good argument can be made that the deal decreases the risk.
As an initial matter, I think it is highly improbable at this time that the Sunni powers would attempt to actually produce a nuclear weapon. Doing so would be extremely dangerous and damaging for any of those countries. They should realize that the United States would turn from friend to foe. A more realistic scenario is that these countries begin to develop a nuclear knowledge base, and attempt to maintain parity with Iran in nuclear technology—hedging for the potential of a dark future. But in this scenario, the deal actually decreases the level of technology development required to maintain parity. Doing nothing, in hopes of more leverage for a better deal or a regime change, would allow Iran to augment its nuclear capabilities and, I think, increase the risk of regional nuclear proliferation.
I have a few other brief thoughts on your comments. First, I think Mr. Netanyahu’s “better deal” that you describe is fantasy. Linking a nuclear agreement to Iran’s support of Hezbollah and connections to terror, and its tone toward Israel would only ensure that a deal would not be reached. These are fundamental aspects of Iran’s regime that will not easily change. I do not think it is prudent to wait for the conditions in which such change is possible before addressing the nuclear threat posed by Iran.
Second, I see little evidence that fundamental regime change is coming in Iran that would lead to a chance for the “better deal” addressed above. I think you paint an extraordinarily optimistic view by describing the potential for such change as “a large chance.”
Finally, you say that when the agreement is over, Iran “will be able to turn on the ‘Great Satan’ with all of their new found might and power.” If the world, led by the United States, must again confront Iran over its nuclear program after the agreement ends, Iran surely will be more capable than it is today. But even with its “new found power and might,” its capabilities will still pale in comparison to those of the United States. In other words, I am not concerned that any realistic potential increase in Iran’s conventional capabilities over the next decade will prove a significant deterrent to the United States taking military action if the need arises.
The self driving trolley will have far more information than a human to make these decisions. It will use face recognition to know the people it is driving into, it could use their profiles to decide based on their medical records and how long they have to live, their potential to improve or degrade the world, the amount of life insurance they will leave their survivors, how much their social network cares about them, etc. Big data will ultimately make the right choice. Although probably not as good as a human driver who is drunk
Do you really have that kind of faith in “Big Data”? Could it possibly have an accurate assessment of each person’s potential to improve or degrade the world? How on earth would that be ascertained? How would it even begin to capture any individual human being’s capacity for change?
Saul of Tarsus spent the first part of his life persecuting Christians. Had his “data” been collected at that point, what basis would there be for regarding him as Paul the Apostle, who would later repent for his misdeeds and go on to be one of the most important figures in the formation of Christianity?
In the comments to his original article, Pennycock responds to some of the criticisms raised here by saying the following: “Worth noting that bullshit that is found to be meaningful is still bullshit”. That statement should be subjected to his “study” too. Hilarious.
Right. Actually, when the guy is pressed on the difference between “intent” and “content”, he is compelled to narrow his definition of “bullshit” considerably.
When it comes to distinguishing “bullshit” from “truth”, for example, he says this, “When Frankfurt used “truth” when defining bullshit, he wasn’t referring to absolute (capital ’T’) Truth. He simply meant “truth as understood by the agent in question”. This is the way we are using it as well”.
Did he expect the reader of his article to have this notion of “truth” in mind as they began to read? It’s a completely disingenuous article. For it to mean anything it all, it would require that he begin by explaining that what he is studying and calling “bullshit” is actually a technical term with a very specific meaning, not at all what people generally mean when they use the term, “bullshit”.
But the appeal of his article, such as it is, the sense of what he says in it, and the alleged relevance of his study, all rely upon the common sense of “bullshit”, rather than his technical sense of it (which only comes out in the comments).
Important points, lucidly made. But I’m not against introducing philosophy or Socrates to 2nd graders. Children need to learn to question authority and convention, although they also need to cultivate a Middle Way between rebellion and conformity. Equally important, they need to be given what Michael Parenti calls “real history,” instead of the patriotic mush that passes for history in our schools. Divorced from the modern history of (Western) imperialism, philosophy — at whatever level — cannot hope to cultivate educated and virtuous citizens.
Stefan, could you say how teaching the history of imperialism, western or otherwise, would help to create “virtuous citizens”?
I can appreciate that some of what 2nd graders are currently taught would seem like what you call “patriotic mush” to adults, but we are talking about 7 year olds here. Would beginning their educations with a critique of their entire civilization really be something they can understand, or something that would have any effect other than making them feel unhappy and ultimately contemptuous of their own regime?
Part of what this article draws our attention to, in my opinion, is that there is a great difference between the virtues of a citizen and the virtues of a philosopher. You seem to regard them as identical. Is that the case, or have I misunderstood you?
Norman Mailer noted the moral contradiction at the heart of America’s schizophrenic culture: lip-service to the Prince of Peace while actually worshiping money. Richard Rorty is one of the few philosophers to address this issue — with courage, wisdom, and lucidity. Now, there’s a valid place for specialization in the history and continuance of philosophy. As Whitehead observed, singularity of depth has application to making broad and important connections. Alas, all too much philosophy is so specialized as to remain irrelevant to the catastrophic issues with which we are confronted; and so remains mostly just an academic exercise in intellectual masturbation. Rorty was right to urge philosophy to become a form of “cultural politics;” and to do so effectively, it must include what Michael Parenti calls “real history,” challenging the patriotic mush that dominates education at all levels and permeates the mainstream media. Let’s face it: the primary function of American education is to ignorate, all too often becoming an instrument in the power elite’s Weapons of Mass Dysfunction: deception, distortion, and distraction. Philosophy’s apparent irrelevance to modern American culture is partly a function of philosophy’s own refusal to be authentically informed, daring, and Socratic, yet mostly a function of the mainstream news media’s successful banishment of philosophic discourse from the marketplace of ideas. There is a philosophy embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and academic and social philosophers desperately need to address the long history of its betrayal. Otherwise, the tattered remnants of our democracy will evaporate in a vortex of corporate, political and religious neo-fascism. America is the most hated country in the world; and for its citizens to become authentically virtuous, they need to understand why. Philosophers could play a vital role in that enlightenment; but they would first need to comprehend, then explain, why Kant was right: “We live in an age enlightenment, but we do not yet live in an enlightened age.”
“Let’s face it: the primary function of American education is to ignorate, all too often becoming an instrument in the power elite’s Weapons of Mass Dysfunction: deception, distortion, and distraction. ”
This is fairly easy to say, but impossible to substantiate. The very fact that the conspiracy, as you express it, becomes an exercise in alliteration (“dysfunction, deception, distortion, and distraction”) suggests that you are having a flight of fancy more than offering a valid point about American education.
Was George W. Bush a flight of fancy? Was Ronald Reagan and his sophistic, criminal, New-Deal-breaking policies? Is the Republican dominated Congress? Was Newt Gingrich, as House Speaker and author of the GOPAC pamphlet on using language to smear political opponents regardless of truth — over and over until the lies are believed? Are the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, with their “fundamentalist” and lunatic views? Deception, distortion, and distraction remain the mainstream corporate, political, and media weapons for keeping American citizens in Plato’s cave. In my last 30 years of teaching, I’ve had shockingly numerous students who have never heard a critical word about Ronald Reagan, and none who could name 9/11/ 73 in Chile as the first 9/11. In a sports obsessed, advertising drenched society such as ours, is it any wonder that Americans are among the most historically illiterate of any so-called “advanced” society? I suppose we could start the process of awakening from the nightmare of history by informing students and adults alike that the U.S. has vetoed more U.N. resolutions than any other country, and that the five permanent members of the U.N “Security” Council, whose primary function is to maintain world peace, are the world’s largest arms dealers. Even a cursory look at modern history will substantiate the fact that the primary function of the U.S. military is to make the world safe for the Fortune 500. “Blowback” is not a flight of fancy. Nor is the Christian Coalition’s scapegoating of Muslims for the terror required to support the American empire, make the rich richer, the poor poorer, and turn the biosphere into a Wasteland. The facts speak for themselves. My alliteration, far from being (by definition?) a “flight of fancy,” is simply a poetic (and hopefully memorable) way pointing to the most important and disturbing truths about why our society is so dysfunctional, and why America — with 800 military bases scattered across the globe — is the most hated nation in the world.
With due respect to Norman Mailer, I don’t believe that any education exists without contradictions of some kind, especially at the grade school level. That would look more like indoctrination than education. Don’t you think so, Stefan?
Moreover, as regards the “Prince of Peace”, I would say that there has been some kind of contradiction between Christian teachings and more worldly commitments in each and every place where there has been a part of education that was Christian. But that is not necessarily a critique of the matter. It is part of the function of Christian thought to pose a challenge to worldly commitments, especially to avarice, which you identify here as the worship of money.
Indoctrination is already the primary problem, and not just at the grade school level. Meanwhile, you are quite right to note that there have been many Christian peace-makers (Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton and Matthew Fox come to mind), and that they forcefully argue for egalitarianism as well as peace. Sadly, until the advent of the current pope, most of them — including the Latin American Liberation Theologians, siding with the poor and the oppressed — were condemned by the Church. The awesome failure of America’s institutionalized religions to morally educate their congregations is evidenced by the ethical infantilism of most of our political leaders and the citizens who vote for them. Things would certainly be a lot different if the brightest lights of the Sixties – JFK, MLK, RFK — had not been assassinated.
I agree with much of what you say, Stefan, although I’m not entirely sure what you mean here by “indoctrination”. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is such a thing going on to some degree… I’m just not sure what you are referring to by it.
I would disagree with you, most respectfully, about advocacy for peace and egalitarianism being things that have really only been pronounced in Christian thought and practice since the advent of the most recent pope. There are, to be sure, many other things that Christians have advocated over time, both clergy and laity, but peace and equality (if not flat-out egalitarianism) have frequently been prominent causes. Machiavelli observed in The Prince, around 1513, that Christianity had the tendency to incline it’s adherents to peace, whereas political necessities required a more warlike countenance. In Machiavelli’s case, of course, the identification of the promotion of peace by Christian thought was a complaint. And no less than Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, identifies Christianity as a major cause (perhaps even the chief cause) of the marked tendency toward equality in Western and democratic nations.
I certainly agree with you that things would have been much different, had JFK, MLK, and RFK not been assassinated.
The pathetic indoctrination of grade schoolers (and beyond!) needs to be counter-balanced by some truth. I am not advocating a blanket condemnation of the American democratic experiment. On the contrary. I applaud the ideals upon which this nation was founded, and students at all levels ought rightly to be versed in The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution and its amendments. I’m merely saying that students (and citizens generally) need to be well educated on the long history of the violation of those ideals, if they are to have any adequate understanding of the world in which we live, and any viable competence in responding to the challenges we face. Much progress has been made since the days of slavery. But contemporary “wage slavery” is a pernicious fact, both here and abroad. The U.S. maintains 800 military bases across the globe. Their primary function is to make the world safe for the Fortune 500. The American empire — the largest in world history — is itself a pernicious fact, silently overlooked in most American education; a nefarious economic drain on precious resources need for domestic improvement; and the primary reason America is the most hated nation in the world. Western “civilization’ has offered the world a lot in terms of progress, and also a lot in terms of tragedy. The stock market crash of 1929 was, perhaps, the single most contributing factor to World War 2, as it had devastating consequences not only here but also, and most importantly, in a Germany already reeling from the consequences of World War 1, and German citizens turned to Hitler because he promised them dignity and food. So, with regard to tragedy, and post-war Western imperialism (the British in India, for example), let’s recall a poignant moment in the life of Mahatma Gandhi. He was asked by a reporter: “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?” Gandhi replied: “I think it would be a good idea.” One small example: the “Vietnam War” is a euphemism for America’s Indochina Holocaust (as if the genocidal bombing and destruction of Laos and Cambodia never occurred). As for your final and excellent question: No, I do not distinguish between the virtues of a philosopher and the virtues of a citizen. I here side with Socrates, Sartre, Camus, Russell, and Rorty. Philosophers need to bring their critical thinking skills to the marketplace of ideas; and to enhance their contribution therein by a perpetual, socio-political, historical self-education. If philosophers fail — as so many do — to commit themselves to the advancement of peace and justice, confining themselves instead, in their ivory (puzzle-palace) towers, to debating mostly among themselves, then we shall find ourselves entranced by what Hesse called “Glass Bead Games” until the society around us crumbles and we are thrust, too late, into the nightmare of history. I thank you for your stimulating “post,” and I hope this reply is adequately provocative and modestly satisfying.
You make a lot of interesting points. I’m not sure, for my part, that I’d put Socrates in with those other fellows, though. There are surely differences amongst the others as well (Sartre, Camus, Russell, and Rorty), but all of them embraced, to a considerable degree, the role of public intellectual. Indeed, each of them seemed to embrace some version of the idea that the role of philosophy is essentially public. Socrates seems to me profoundly different in this respect. His teaching appears to be that philosophy is a private undertaking. Now, it is obviously true that he was up to something in the marketplace, in the public sphere, but what? Mostly, it looks like he is trolling for a few other philosophic, or potentially philosophic individuals. Sometimes, frankly, it seems like he’s just goofing around. But, regardless, there really appears to be a pronounced difference between his private and public activities.
And this returns us to my last question, about the difference between the respective virtues of a citizen and a philosopher. Thank you for the kindness and candor in your response, by the way. It does seem to me like there is at least one respect in which the virtues of the two (citizen and philosopher) cannot be identical – that is, the virtue of a citizen must be relative, relative to the regime of which they are a citizen, whereas the virtue of a philosopher must be absolute, consisting above all in the possession of wisdom. Put in another way, a good citizen is a patriot, and a patriot gives his or her assent to the authoritative element(s) of the state or country or nation to which he or she is devoted. A philosopher need not give assent to such things. Indeed, a philosopher requires constant questioning, rather than assent to political principles.
Perhaps this problem could be partially resolved by placing the philosopher in a purely philosophic society. But the practical as well as the theoretical problems with that seem insurmountable to me. And even if it were possible, it would not really solve the problem. For there would still be other regimes, or other regimes possible, each of which would have their own good citizens, good according to the ideals which are authoritative within them. And so, even the philosopher in a philosophic city-state, whatever that might be, would only be a good citizen insofar as the city needs him not, nor makes any demands of him.
If I am right about this, then philosophy would truly be a problem for inclusion in the education of our young.
In an attempt to be even more succinct in making my point here, Stefan, to which I would, of course, be interested in reading your reply:
To say that the virtues of a citizen are identical to the virtues of a philosopher would, I believe, be the same as saying, in Socratic terms, that the noble is identical to the good.
Can that really be possible?
One of the most intriguing lines in Plato’s ” Republic” is where Socrates, in arguing for a Philosopher King (or Queen, or Council) to have absolute, monarchical authority in a “just” society, nevertheless notes that only in a democracy (where free speech is allowed and encouraged) can philosophy itself — as the dialogical pursuit of wisdom — actually flourish. Also, he’s quite wrong to assert (while in prison), in Plato’s “Crito,” that citizens must obey “the law” even if the law is unjust. Citizens are not obliged to obey social authority if social authority is immoral and perverse; on the contrary, in such a situation they have a democratic duty, as Jefferson said, to rebel. Meanwhile, Socrates is indeed occasionally goofy, even to the point of being sophistical while railing against the sophists. Yet his main concern was always virtue, which is why Plato identified Truth (and Beauty) with The Good. Since, as Socrates notes in Plato’s “Apology,” humans are not gods, hence perpetually troubled and imperfect, the pursuit of wisdom, hence virtue, is a perpetual task. George Allan offers a Socratic definition: “Virtue is the pursuit of virtue.” My point is that wisdom and virtue cannot be separated. Philosophy is — or ought to be — the journey from the love of wisdom to the wisdom of love. I suspect that Buddha, Jesus, Kant, Marx, and Jefferson would agree. James, Dewey,and Rorty too, in their pragmatic way. All argued forcefully against militaristic and economic imperialism. Yes, students and citizens need to obey rules and laws; but they also need to perpetually question authority and convention. So, yes, I would say that “the noble is identical to the good,” and all citizens are capable of being noble in that virtuous (Socratic and Judeo-Christian-Buddhist) sense. The most enlightened character in “War and Peace” is an illiterate peasant named Platon Karatayev. Tolstoy’s play on words is astute. To be good — virtuous, kind, generous, empathic, compassionate — is the ultimate path to, and expression of, wisdom. In sum, the meaning of life is learning and service. And only when citizens embody that ideal will a noble society be possible. We may never achieve the classless society inherent in the notion of The Peaceable Kingdom, but we should never cease to pursue it, perpetually shrinking the gap between rich and poor, protesting militarism and war, and, as Rorty said, “widening our circle of compassion.” There is, and ought to be, room for philosophy as a specialized, “academic” discipline, open to those who are temperamentally inclined in that direction. Meanwhile, philosophy as the love of wisdom manifest in the wisdom of love is a noble and necessary occupation for all — the foundation for a just society in which vocations and the arts of all sorts flourish. I thank you for your lucid and provocative questions, and the humility and kindness with which you express them. And while there are certainly important and profound differences between the “philosophers” that I mention, I string them together with the intention of referring to them when, as it were, they were at their best.
Very helpful remarks, again, thank you.
I do think, however, that wisdom must be separable from virtue, at least to some extent. That is, wisdom would appear to be a kind of virtue, not simply virtue itself. It might even be the highest virtue, which gives direction and order to all other virtues, but that would still not make it the same as virtue. For example, courage is a virtue too. But courage is not wisdom. Wisdom might require courage to attain it, and courage might require wisdom, lest it become mere recklessness. But they are not the same and they are both virtues.
I am still unclear as to how you think the kind of education (broadly speaking) that you are describing here would produce good citizens, or be appropriate for 2nd grade classrooms. This last seems important, at least to the extent that it was the concern of the original article above. Like you, I think, I lament the intellectual and spiritual condition of so many young people who are the products of the existing educational system. But I agree with the article, as I understand it, in thinking that the attempt to turn seven year old children into little philosophers, much less Socratic philosophers, would be a terrible mistake.
I do understand better now why you were stringing together the people you mentioned in the manner you did. Thank you for clarifying that.
Just one more thing on this (and you’ll excuse me, I hope, but I’m always at least trying to make things clear for myself):
You say that the noble and the good are identical. Isn’t that idea explicitly attacked by Socrates in the Apology, where he mocks his accusers for thinking that the education they provide for their children (usually by Sophists) will make them both “noble and good”?
Asked otherwise – doesn’t nobility require some measure or type of sacrifice, usually of one’s own good, out of devotion to a cause or principle higher than oneself? It seems to me that goodness makes no such requirement.
I should have mentioned Emerson (and Lao Tzu) too. Meanwhile, here’s a relevant quote from Socrates in Plato’s “Crito” — “Whoever harms another harms himself.” Accordingly, I think it’s fair to say that Socrates does indeed offer a definition of virtue (and, by extension, wisdom). And isn’t that what all parents and teachers need to teach — and citizens, stockholders, CEOs, and politicians embody by example?
Without getting too deeply into the Crito here, I will say that Socrates furnishes abundant reasons in that dialogue to suspect that the teaching you mention is far from his final position on the matter.
But, regardless, the idea that a crime is it’s own punishment, or, put somewhat differently, that in harming someone else you are also harming yourself, is a problematic view in so many ways. I will mention just a few.
In the first place, it presents itself as a statement of fact, rather than a normative statement, or a moral imperative. If it were true, then it would simply be the case. And we would see a lot less injustice, because the people harming others would be suffering for it themselves and would be disinclined to act in the ways they had previously.
It also takes the bite out of our criticisms of unjust people, doesn’t it? For example, if we suggest, as I think you did, that citizens, stockholders, CEOs, and politicians sometimes or often act in ways that are harmful to the rest of us, then we can rest assured that the primary harm they have caused is to themselves.
I suspect that not only are some of these people doing more harm to us than themselves, but that, in fact, they are aggrandizing themselves by acting as they do, and not harming themselves at all. That would appear to be at least one of the major incentives to them for continuing to pursue their particular ways of life.
None of this is to say that I don’t think something like the maxim you offer about self harm would be out of place in the education of our young. A version of it would probably be quite salutary and helpful. I do wonder, though, if a reaffirmation of it’s related Jewish and Christian variants might not do the trick. What do you think? In those versions, it does indeed sound more like a moral command. The versions I have in mind are Hillel’s teaching that, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow…”, or Christ’s later alteration of it, “Do to others what you want them to do to you”.
Plato argues that justice is a synthesis of courage, wisdom, and temperance. His proposal applies existentially and socially, insofar as “society is man writ large.” If microcosm mirrors macrocosm, then the reverse is also true. The individual psyche is a set of forces, and so is any social group (however small or large), and they “reflect” and influence each other in profound and crucial ways. Thus Jung and Buddha, and Lao Tzu, with Judeo-Christian variants: There will be no social peace, and no world peace, without inner peace. But where is “virtue” in Plato’s formula? Is it the same as “justice”? Merely implicit therein? Spread across the tripartite synthesis? These remarks and questions are a roundabout way saying: You are correct; I agree with you. There are many kinds of virtue, and many kinds of nobility, just as there are many kinds of justice, and many kinds of more or less adequate, pragmatic, viable education. You consistently raise excellent questions, and concisely so, with both charity and sincerity, as befits an authentic, “Socratic” philosopher. Your elenctic provocations require me to admit that simple formulas hide deep and complex issues inviting honest and sophisticated scrutiny. Accordingly, teaching philosophy to grade schoolers would indeed be challenging, and raises a host of important questions regarding both method and content, with the aim, hopefully, at increasing levels, of teaching them to be “critical thinkers” and responsible and self-educating citizens. Second: Hegel notes that brutality brutalizes the brute, not merely the victim. In this he echoes Socrates, Jesus, and Buddha. Third: You are quite right that in daily experience, brutes too often get away with all kinds of violence, seemingly with no harm to themselves, and often with profit and power as their rewards. Hence, for the law of karma (“As you sow, so will you reap.”) to make any viable sense — at least in the long run, beyond the more immediate and pragmatic point that kind people are generally far happier than people prone to violence, and honest people tend to be more content than those prone to habitual deceit — one would have to embrace the Pythagorean and Buddhist notion of reincarnation. This is a notion difficult for Western folk to embrace, mainly due to social conditioning, religious dogmatism, and a more or less consistent refusal to meditatively plunge into the deeper depths of the psyche (where Platonic “recollection” is catalyzed by a yinful quieting of what “The Lotus Sutra” calls “monkey mind”). Seeking satisfaction in the outer carnival, we miss the inner festival (where moral and karmic lessons become increasingly clear). We need to teach grade schoolers how to meditate (becoming zenfully centered and peaceful) at least as much as we need to teach them to be “critical thinkers.” This is the “Socratic turn” (zenfully inward) too often missing in discussions of teaching children (future citizens) to be Socratic, philosophic, thoughtful, logical, questioning, “critical,” and “virtuous” (insofar as that term implies both ethics and what Plato says of Socrates: sophrosyne, for which the Buddhist term is upeksha, and both of which mirror Eckhart’s Gelassenheit and what Taoists call wu-wei). I think there are profound “Jewish and Christian variants” of the Buddhist worldview (moral and karmic), and this is indeed one of the most important and fruitful dialogues in the world today. So: Bravo to you! It’s a pleasure to be questioned by a kindred soul. … PS: Arnold Toynbee, when he was asked what future historians would say was the most important event of the 20th century, replied: “The introduction of Buddhism to the West.” This was around the same time that Einstein declared that of all the world’s religions — i.e., as a worldview and way of life — Buddhism holds the most promise of putting us, collectively, on the track toward world peace. Toynbee and Einstein understood our cataclysmic trajectory. Their hope was not that Buddhism would introduce us to a new way of thinking and behaving; rather, they hoped (as I do) that it would return us — in all our activities and institutions — to the moral heart of the Torah, the main message of Jesus, and, I dare say, the simplicity, courage, and pursuit of virtue embodied by Socrates. Note, too, that Plato was right to assert, in “The Republic,” that the only hope for a “just society,” however tenuous and precarious, was to separate money from politics, the fusion of which is the curse of the postmodern world, haunting and undermining us now, just as it has throughout what Hegel called “the slaughter-bench of history.” It seems increasingly clear that our only hope for survival is, in Chogyam Trungpa’s words, to “reclaim the sanity we were born with.” This requires what I have herein called “the Socratic turn,” and which Toynbee and Einstein understood as precisely that which Buddhism offers, and which, at its best, returns us to the “Jewish and Christian variants” of “the two wings” of Buddhism: wisdom and compassion (prajna and karuna).
I confess that I am not very familiar with Buddhist thought. So I thank you for drawing my attention to some of these things and I’ll spend some time considering them. I have enjoyed our exchange here immensely.
I will mention just one point in your most recent comment, one which is actually a recurring point there, that I find difficult to understand, and that pertains to the matter of the “Socratic turn”.
To my knowledge, the “Socratic turn” refers to that time in Socrates’ life when he reoriented both himself and his general manner of inquiry into the nature of things. He turned from his concern with physics (or natural science) to an examination of speeches.
Of course, to understand what is at stake in this “turn”, a great deal more would have to be said. But in your comment, you indicate that the “Socratic turn” is to be identified with Zen meditation, in one instance, and a recovery of sanity, in another. With regard to the former, it is very difficult for me to see how the examination of accounts is akin to mediation. You might well have some particular linkage in mind, and it might be an important one, but it is not apparent to me what it is. With regard to the latter, I think we probably agree – the “Socratic turn” is analogous, in an important way, to a restoration of sanity. I am not sure that sanity as Socrates is held it is quite the same as what Chogyam Trungpa’s version of it, but I am unfamiliar with the second and will have to look into it.
Thank you again for a rewarding discussion.
As always, I find your discourse pleasantly provocative and illuminating. As Plato says: “Discourse is the highest form of philosophy.” That’s clearly a main reason why his writings (except for The Letters and The Laws) are dialogical. That plus the fact that he abandoned plans for a political career, turning instead to philosophy, as a result of his stimulating conversations with Socrates. I’ll comment on The Socratic Turn in a moment. First, though, kindly allow me to recommend “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” by Thich Nhat Hanh; “Seth Speaks,” by Jane Roberts (skipping all the obtrusive interruptions, while keeping a really open mind, and recalling that Blake said “the paranormal is normal”), and Janwillem van de Wetering’s “AfterZen” (out of print, but good copies available cheaply on Amazon). Hanh’s book shows that Jesus and Buddha were, as it were, Soul Brothers. “Seth Speaks” is the best book I have ever read in 50 years of philosophizing: the most philosophically and psychologically illuminating, and confirming much of my own experience. Van de Wetering’s book is an earthy, lucid, humorous, autobiographical, story-telling introduction to Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. You have my email address; let me know if you want more suggestions, or wish to continue our conversation. Now, The Socratic Turn is indeed double-pronged. Abandoning his (“scientific”) investigations of nature, he turns, on the one hand, as you note, to language, speeches, rhetoric, “giving accounts.” On the other hand, he turns inward, toward the psyche: its depths, mysteries, complexities, intuitions, voices, revelations, and wisdom. In a sense, then, The Socratic Turn is dialectical. He goes from outward to inward investigation, then back toward a Middle Way: with a focus on language, logic, and virtue. Indeed, The Socratic Turn might best be described as tripartite: psychological, linguistic, and ethical. Also, it propels him existentially: toward an emphasis on self-actualization. Maybe Jung was right: “Trinity seeks completion in quaternity.” So perhaps the most adequate way of thinking about The Socratic Turn is to view it as having, simultaneously, four vectors: psychological, linguistic, ethical, and existential. Hope this helps. And thanks again for stimulating my own qualifying clarifications. … PS: Note that Socrates says in “The Phaedrus” (and elsewhere) that he pays acute and fruitful attention to his dreams, his inner voice, and the whisperings of nature. And when he famously goes into occasional trance, standing still and silent for hours, it’s worth wondering if he’s not confirming for himself the Heraclitean dictum: “No matter how far you travel, you never reach the end of psyche.” Such silent self-exploration, and self-revelation, is also what occurs in Zen meditation, especially at its deepest levels; and this is both augmented and expedited in Tantric yoga, and experientially confirmed by those who have the courage and persistence to cultivate “lucid dreaming.”
Thanks again… I will certainly look into some of the books and thinkers that you have mentioned.
I must add that I am somewhat concerned with a number of the things that you attribute to Socrates. You are, of course, correct that Plato presents Socrates as occasionally standing still, as if in deep contemplation, and that Socrates says all sorts of things about listening to nature (although he says that nature is too far beyond him), listening to his inner voice (although that voice appears mostly just to counsel him to observe his own interest), and even speaking to a “daimon” and following the gods (although these things often seem quite ironic).
It is hard to impart more to these characterizations of Socrates than is actually there. Neither Plato nor Socrates mention meditation and, although they do discuss contemplation, that seems like a different sort of thing to me. Socrates also does not seem genuinely pious. And even his “daimon” does not appear to give him moral counsel.
I am not necessarily in disagreement with you here, and what you have to say is very helpful to me. I am only concerned that we do not impart to Plato’s description of the life of philosophy things that do not properly belong to it.
It might well be the case that something like the things you describe is implied by omission in the portrait of Socrates, but I’m not sure about that – so many things could be implied by omission. It might also be that there are inadecquacies in Socratic philosophy that necessitate the addition of Buddhism in general, or Zen in particular. That is something I will have to think much more about. I promise I will do so!
My comment on Rinn is that he prefers appeasement rather than taking out the cancer. The nuclear threat is real and if we wait long enough for the white cloud it will come from North Korea before the mullahs arthritic fingers press the button.
confusing that you refer to ‘power’, as an abstract force but consider ‘honor’ and ‘justice’ as concrete motivations. seems like you are reifying certain concepts and making a point that to do so with others is incorrect.
An interesting point.
But the distinction made, I think, was between things that people (and the characters in the books) actually long for, or desire, on the one hand, and categories that purport to reduce all of these things to one underlying force, on the other.
Honor and justice describe a distinctive aspect of things that people actually want, in a wide variety of cases. Power usually refers to some behind-the-scenes force which ignores or abstracts from the distinctive aspects of various desires.
Surely, honor and justice are not “concrete” in the sense of some mutton and a flagon of blackberry wine. But they are nonetheless objects of desire.
One could say that “justice” and “honor” generalize amongst various particular such objects. And that is fair enough. When one man is wrongly accused of a crime, for instance, he wants justice in a form different than, say, someone who wants to help the underprivileged. But this is true of any generalization – when a man wants an apple from his fridge, he wants a particular apple, more so than apples as such.
We can still speak of wanting apples, or wanting honor. We can probably still speak of wanting power too. But expressing all or most human political longing in terms of longing for power tends to distort the character of the actual longings, be they tangible, like food, or intangible, like honor.
One of the things GRRMartin has stated is he wants to display humans endeavors in relation to an unfeeling uncaring NATURE represented by the Others & Winter Arriving in which ALL semantics of political philosophical debate mean nothing if not used to combat or come to terms with it in harmony or victory. Our dealing with Climate Change danger to our survival due to our very behavior and actions on the planet that are POLITICAL and based on philosophies/beliefs that ignore our detrimental behaviors.
Thanks for the comment, Megan.
I agree that Man vs. Nature is one of the underlying themes of the series. I’d also like to see further articles or comments fleshing the matter out here at Political Animal.
That said, I’d make a couple observations:
1) It is not clear to me that the Others fall into the category of “unfeeling uncaring nature” so much as into the category of contemptuous and murderous super-nature. The Others do seem to care, at least for destroying human life. They have intent. And while one might say that in GRRM’s world they are part of nature, this would have the consequence that nature there cannot be understood as simply uncaring and unfeeling. If they are to be understood as supernatural, on the other hand, then we’ll have different problems, which I’ll touch upon in the next point.
2) The gods of GRRM’s world in ASOIAF seem to me very much active and concerned to some degree with the affairs of humanity. Perhaps nature there is still indifferent to humanity (particularly in the example you mention of the impending long winter), but this then points us to the following question: is nature more powerful than the gods, or are the gods more powerful than nature? If we answer positively to the first part of the question (and we might), then the issue ultimately has very little to do with human action or cooperation, for nature will always overwhelm those things, as it will overwhelm even the gods. If we answer positively to the second part of the question, however, then the meaningful response to threats posed by opposing nature still seems unlikely to consist in human action or cooperation – it would more likely consist in pious living and appeals to the gods.
Isn’t this largely true of our own world? The view that the dangers posed to us by nature can be overcome by human action and cooperation generally amounts to a conquest of nature, even though nature is always bigger than us. I don’t mean to say, of course, that there aren’t more and less responsible ways to live in regard to nature, but one does have to keep these things in perspective. And we also have to make decisions about the power of gods, or the absence thereof.
One further note – I’m not sure that the prospect of overwhelming nature renders all human “philosophies/beliefs” and “semantics of political philosophical debate” futile. After all, nature threatens to obliterate other animal life as surely as it threatens to do so to humanity. Should all the foxes then just lie down in the forest and wait to die, as opposed to continuing to do the things that foxes do to fulfill themselves as foxes, despite the fact that these activities will never consist in a mastery of nature?
If human beings are political (and/or somehow philosophic) by nature, then perhaps the best thing we can do is continue our political and philosophical activities in the time that we’ve got. GRRM seems, in my opinion, to regard human beings as highly political, and although he presents forces beyond them that threaten them with harm and destruction, I’m less certain that he means to say that their natural activities thereby “mean nothing”. He spends an awful lot of ink and energy describing those activities for such to be the case.
Thanks again for your post, and I hope to read more on the subject.
An analytical approach: The riddle consists of two parts that constitute power in coming together. On the one hand, we have an multitudinal approach to power. This idea implies that power rests in the actions of the people. Talking about sellswords could also imply that in Varys’ sense power rests in a male, martial group of society, but in my point of view Varys could as well mean all the members of a society in this context. On the other hand, power in this riddle is executed by the agents that give people reasons to choose specific actions. Yet, what Varys leaves open (or where he is maybe even misleading Tyrion) is the question, whether these agents (kings, priests, merchants) totally control the room of reasons or whether the sellsword can do some reasoning himself. Which means: whether the sellsword could come to the conclusion to kill all three agents that tried to manipulate him for their cause.
The reasons the rulers give shall be motives for the people to act, which connects the two parts of the definition of power. But, here again, we have no clue which motives are rooted so deeply in a society that they will be convincing; we could try to figure out by an in-depth analysis of Westerosi society. Still, I guess, it isn’t the point of the riddle to find out which argument will convince the sellsword.
The three agents relate to three fundamental dimensions of every society: a system of norms (law), which regulate social interactions, a system of ideology (religion), which defines goals in lifetime and maybe even beyond, and a system of material reproduction (market), which at least should deliver the goods necessary to live.
Usually, these three dimensions are thought of being complementary to each other to constitute a well-ordered society. In traditional societies there is a strong connection of these three dimensions so that life is regulated in every detail and every agent knows in any situation how to act. Obviously, when these spheres of action come to contest each other, people suddenly have options and have to decide for some reason to act in a specific way. These reasons at least can be constructive, but finally they become destructive when these spheres come to fight for a hegemony of their own currency of power (maybe like honor, piety, money), like in this case where the powerful ignore their dependency on the other spheres.
Since there are reasons given to destroy other parts of the order of society, and it is totally undeterminable for which side men will take up arms, people will end up in a civil war. Of course, someday in some way order is restored: either by a new balance of the spheres that are all fundamental to a societal life – or by sword. This could also lead to a democratic revolution, when people realize that any agent “in power” actually depends on their decisions.
What Varys wants to point out with the shadow-metaphor is that on the one hand the question of power only comes to be asked when relations and decisions lose their natural, traditional character but become questioned; when there is space for interpretation. On the other hand, power still can be executed by those agents in power as long as people don’t question their authority; which means as long as people do not realize that they do not depend on the reasons seemingly powerful people give the actions of common people (of course, they still depend on some contingent form of organisation), but that these kings, priests, merchants depend on their decisions. People then come to act as if power didn’t reside in their hands and follow the instructions.
I largely agree on the Machiavellian-Beast-Thesis. Yet, I have a different approach to the riddle than prisoners dilemma. It is rather an analytical approach to the question of power:
The riddle consists of two parts that constitute power in coming together. On the one hand, we have an multitudinal approach to power (for political theorists: look up Spinoza). This idea implies roughly spoken that power rests in the actions of the People. Talking about sellswords could also imply that in Varys’ sense power rests in a male, martial, command-executing group of society, but in my point of view Varys could as well mean all the members of a society in this context. On the other hand, power in this riddle is executed by the agents that give people commands, which become reasons to choose specific actions when these imperatives differ. Yet, what Varys leaves open (or where he is maybe even misleading Tyrion) is the question, whether these agents (kings, priests, merchants) totally control the room of reasons or whether the sellsword can do some reasoning himself. Which leads to another option: The sellsword could come to the conclusion to kill all three agents that tried to manipulate him for their cause.
The reasons the rulers give shall be motives for the people to act, which connects the two parts of the definition of power. But, here again, we have no clue which motives are rooted so deeply in a society that they will be convincing; we could try to figure out by an in-depth analysis of Westerosi society; e.g. if religion plays a dominant role in society and has a hierarchy over other contexts, the sellsword will probably choose to side with the priest. Still, I guess, it isn’t the point of the riddle to find out which argument will convince the sellsword.
The three agents relate to three fundamental dimensions of every society: a system of norms (law), which regulate social interactions; a system of ideology (religion), which defines goals in lifetime and maybe even beyond; and a system of material reproduction (market), which at least should deliver the goods necessary to live.
Usually, these three dimensions are thought of being complementary to each other to constitute a well-ordered society. In traditional societies there is a strong connection of these three dimensions so that life is regulated in every detail and every agent knows in any situation how to act; the spheres where the systems have power are clearly divided. Obviously, when these spheres of action come to contest each other, people suddenly have options and have to decide for some reason to act in a specific way. These reasons at least can be constructive (work hard, live in piety, be loyal to the crown), but finally they become destructive when these spheres come to fight for a hegemony of their own currency of power (like honor, piety, money), like it is the case in the riddle. The first conclusion therefore is: The powerful ignore their dependency on the other spheres.
Since there are reasons given to destroy other parts of the order of society, and it is hard to determine for which side men will take up arms, people will end up in a civil war. Of course, someday in some way order is restored: either by a new balance of the spheres that are all fundamental to societal life – or by sword. This scenario could also lead to a democratic revolution, when people realize that any agent “in power” actually depends on their decisions.
In my opinion, what Varys wants to point out with the shadow-metaphor is that on the one hand the question of power only comes to be asked when relations and decisions lose their natural, traditional character but become questioned; when there is space for interpretation. On the other hand, power still can be executed by those agents in power as long as people don’t question their authority; which means as long as people do not realize that they do not depend on the reasons seemingly powerful people give the actions of common people (of course, they still depend on some contingent form of organisation), but that these kings, priests, merchants depend on their decisions. People then come to act as if power didn’t reside in their hands. They see a shadow rather than the person that has actually no more power than they have.
I think your approach is very interesting, kev. I wonder, though, what the common man in the riddle would be if he killed all three of the great ones. What is a man with no god, no state, and no money? Is he a perfectly free being, whole and complete unto himself? Or is he something far less? I am reminded of Aristotle’s saying in The Politics, “Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”.
If he kills all 3, then the sellsword is Varys himself and he has accomplished his ultimate goal. To turn Westeros into the Free City of Braavos. So Westeros could become financially rich, and prosperous. A land with fair anf equal rights, the greatest banking system to ever be!! A free land with no entitlements based of your name. A land of democracy, with elected officials. Varys goal, a new aged world of capitalism and democracy, where a man or women can become their worth regardless of names and titles.
The Song of Fire and Ice is Varys story of how he turned Westeros into the Free and United Citys Westeros. The UCW ( United City’s of Westeros).
Well that’s at least my opinion…… Lol. Let me know what you guys think…
Sounds funny, but I see no textual basis for it whatsoever. Can you point to one instance in the books (or even the show, for that matter), where Varys acts or speaks on behalf of a “a new aged world of capitalism and democracy”?
That s not to limit such an ancient pantheon, of course. But it does seem as though the ancient cultures of the First Men shared a similar or same set of gods, long before the children imposed their own.
I need to to thank you for this very good read!! I certainly loved every little bit of it. I have you book marked to look at new things you post…
I agree that we ought not “impart to Plato’s description of the life of philosophy things that do not properly belong to it.” Still, Plato’s philosophy, in its various modes and in its evolution, is more suggestive than doctrinaire; more a set of questions than a rigorous system, as Whitehead notes. Authentic Socratizing is philosophy as ongoing conversation, not dogma. I feel that our discourse happily meets that description. Now, four points might help. First, you are correct to note that Socrates (in Plato’s dialogues) does not evidence much interest in nature as such; after rejecting the speculations of Anaxagoras, he launches upon his “second sailing,” which I call the “Socratic turn” toward psychology and ethics. Second, I have my own experiential version of the Socratic voice, which guides me in ways far more explicit that merely saying No to a possible misstep. I have been much rewarded by its wisdom; and have all too often paid dearly for not heeding its guidance. I do not pretend to understand the full dynamics of this phenomenon, but I am also not completely in the dark, thanks largely to the Seth and Castaneda books, and those by Alice Bailey. (Maybe we could talk more privately about this, if you wish. My email is stefanschindler@comcast,net.) Third: About three years ago I was speaking to a philosophic colleague about the parallels between Buddhism and quantum physics, and he exclaimed: “They’re not even talking about the same thing!” Alas, he knows little about Buddhism, and has never attempted meditation. His response still strikes me as all too typically Western, Cartesian, dualistic, dogmatic. I suggest, instead, that deep voyaging in the psyche may well produce insights into the (quantum-holistic) nature of reality. Even without meditation, a study of certain basic Buddhist ideas, like “emptiness” (shunyata — absence of any independent, self-sustaining selfhood or “substance”) and “interbeing” (pratitya-samutpada — “dependent co-origination”), shows remarkable parallels to quantum physics. Which is to say: Buddha had a lot to say about the nature of appearances (partly expressed in the difference between samsara and nirvana, and in Nagarjuna’s distinction between “provisional” and “ultimate” reality). See, for example, Graham Smetham’s “Quantum Buddhism,” as a long, provocative, superb preliminary to the study of Buddhist sutras with an eye to modern scientific parallels. Or, to put it another way: Dualism is the fatal flaw of Western culture. There is, currently, a philosophic and scientific backlash against books like “The Tao of Physics,” but I take this to be the all too typical onto-epistemological Ostrich sticking its head back in the sand. Fourth, and this is likely the most important point: Modernity needs interiority. Without that inner (meditative) anchor, we are, collectively, racing toward our doom in an endless frenzy of competition and consumerism. Buddha’s lesson for today? “Beware the Samsaric Uroboros. The profit-driven Zeitgeist consumes itself.” I put these last two sentences in quotes because they are taken from an article I am writing (for Political Animal Magazine) on “Buddha’s Political Philosophy.” I was invited to write this article by the editors of this on-line journal; and they extended that invitation after reading the extensive discourse you and I have been fruitfully engaged in. So I thank you again for your stimulating questions and always humble and courteous Socratizing. Kindly forgive my long delay in responding to your comments immediately above, as I have been busy with multiple drafts of the upcoming article (which should appear in the next month or two).
The “Howl” that begins this column contains an excellent question: “Is philosophy really good at creating a civil society?” I think it should be, but the actual answer is: Not necessarily. The question reminds of the 1970s and ’80s when John Silber was president of Boston University. Silber was an academic, “professional” philosopher down in Texas, brought to Boston to preside over BU. But instead of helping BU become a model of a “civil society,” Silber was an arrogant, condescending, power-hungry ego maniac who instilled at BU an atmosphere of what one journalist called “fear and loathing.” He insulted students, hated Howard Zinn, called Noam Chomsky a liar to his face on national television, treated BU’s clerical, janitorial, and food service staff as peasants unworthy of a living wage, and generally thought of himself as a “philosopher king” in the Platonic mold while violating the spirit of that Platonic ideal by enriching himself at the expense of BUs faculty, staff, and students. He was more like Dick Cheney than Socrates, committed more to power and wealth than virtue and service. I was teaching philosophy at the time (at Berklee College of Music), and I was embarrassed by Silber’s arrogance, greed, and neo-fascist interpretation of Plato’s philosopher king. So becoming a “professional” philosopher in no way guarantees becoming a decent human being and a model for a civil society.
The “Howl” correctly asserts that schools should do more to enhance critical thinking skills and to provide students with “exposure to serious issues.” Certainly one of the more serious issues to be rectified is historical illiteracy. This country has betrayed every ideal it ever pretended to stand for; and without understanding that basic fact, students will not have the critical thinking skills necessary for intelligent voting. Philosophy as such may be too sophisticated for grade schoolers, but from junior high school forward, they ought, at the very least, be exposed to the writings of people like Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Lewis Lapham, William Blum, Norman Mailer, Richard Rorty, and the activism and moral philosophy of Mother Jones, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, Helen Keller, Molly Ivins, Barbara Erenreich, and others in the authentically progressive and liberal movement. In short, critical thinking skills without honest history is like Kantian concepts without relevant percepts.
Too many academic philosophers fail to instill in students a sense of relevant social history and immediate applicability. A few years ago I was listening to a set of lectures by a brilliant philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania who paused to admit that 9/11 came as a total shock. It never occurred to him that the USA might be hated for good reason; and it was obvious that he had no comprehension of why the CIA, decades ago, invented the term “blowback” as a cautionary warning against the inevitable consequences and dangers of American imperialism.
The morality tale relevant here is Herman Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game.” Philosophy is too often merely an exercise in intellectual masturbation. It ought, rather, to be a vital stimulant in the marketplace of ideas; and that means firmly tethering the love of wisdom to the ongoing challenge of creating a sane and humble society rooted in civil justice.
In my modest list of historians, journalists, and social philosophers, I should have included John Pilger, whose articles, books and videos are admirably lucid and heart-breakingly illuminating. I do, however, mention him in my book AMERICA’S INDOCHINA HOLOCAUST: THE HISTORY AND GLOBAL MATRIX OF THE VIETNAM WAR. Meanwhile, although it’s true that too many professional philosophers remain woefully ignorant of America’s imperial machinations (a euphemism for war crimes), it’s also true that philosophers’ attempts to be more active in the marketplace of ideas are perpetually thwarted by the mainstream media, especially if those attempts are leftist in leaning. (This is less true in Europe, as evidenced by France’s refusal to participate in the Bush-Cheney invasions of the Middle East, and where Germany’s participation was reluctant and nominal at best.) Not even Nixon prepared us for the criminality of the Reagan administration; and not even Reagan prepared us for the moral, military, and financial obscenity (not to mention strategic lunacy) of Bush-Cheney. With mainstream media complicity, Reagan turned “liberal” into a dirty word, and the phrase “liberal media” is one of the most popular and pernicious lies still in currency. If America’s marketplace of ideas and mainstream news media were authentically liberal, Reagan would never — could never — have become president. Now, given that Bush, Cheney and cohorts lied about about almost everything else (as recommended and institutionalized by Newt Gingrich, the living definition of Sophist and proud of it), it’s astonishing how many people — including philosophers too ignorant, mesmerized, or cowardly to engage in actually critical scrutiny — still believe the Bush-Cheney version of 9/11. Or rather, it’s not astonishing, given that the mainstream news media is a government lapdog, having long ago betrayed its democratic mission as watchdog. So, yes, American democracy is now more in peril than ever; and, yes, OK: That’s my howl of the day.
What if you were equally fat and standing beside the fat man? Would it still be ethical to push him?
It is an interesting question in terms of the self-driving car, though rather than If/Then logic branches, I imagine the approach would be something fuzzier like machine learning where you teach it with examples (recall the recent google ‘dreaming’ AI images), and it could be refined over time to make the relatively more “correct” choice in most cases, certainly more often correct than humans in a split-second decision.
Anaud raises the horror of relative worth weighting where a busload of degenerates would be sacrificed to save a single Nobel prize winner (or wealthy banker, or the author of the software!). Linked would be the relative worth of the occupants of the car themselves, and so whether they would actually trust the car to do what is in their best interest. On the other hand, it could level the field for pedestrians and cyclists in situations where a human driver would typically act for self-preservation (ie. it would actually ENFORCE the correct trolley choice!).
Practically speaking, when a significant percentage of cars are self driving and the technology has matured, I would assume traffic deaths would plummet dramatically and there will be fewer trolley moments overall since the computer is an expert driver and was not speeding, texting, drunk, angry, sleeping, running a red, having a heart attack, tailgating, etc.
In that case, the most important self-driving trolley problem is not within an individual automobile, but rather the overall moral choice for our society whether we continue to allow human driven cars. If we steer our trolley onto the computer track, then we could save a significant fraction of 1.25 million annual auto deaths worldwide.
I think this person’s perspective isn’t practical. Not only can you not know whether the clinician may have experienced something similar to what a patient has disclosed and therefore been triggered (in the true sense of the term), but to be so fixated on the use of this word detracts from understanding what someone is trying to communicate.
Perhaps a clinician finds a patient hard to work with or unlikable because the person has characteristics or interpersonal patterns that are the same as a difficult person in their personal life. In that sense while not a PTSD severity trauma, the term is referencing the person’s own difficult experience from their past that the patient is resurfacing. None the less I think it’s not a practical positron, it’s focusing on the misuse of the term instead of truly trying to understand what’s trying to be communicated.
Do you think that the widespread misuse of terms related to mental health should just be ignored in case not every incident is actually a misuse? Would that be a more practical position?
A clinician is a professional. A professional who is trained to work with the mentally challenged and the mentally ill. If a professional cannot use the correct terminology to described their feelings and or their experience with a patient, then this raises a concern.
A professional is also supposed to be unbiased and not allow their personal feelings to get in the way of giving professional help and guidance to a patient.
If a professional misuses a word, then how can we be certain they are not misdiagnosing patients based on their biases and/or based on their “triggered” feelings.
I have a sister who is bi-polar paranoid schizophrenic, it would be heart-breaking to learn a “triggered” professional clinician misdiagnosed her because of their lack of professionalism.
I’m enjoying both the format (looking at each aspect of Varys’ character through one passage from one philosopher) as well as the content itself. But I’m wondering about what Machiavelli would make of Varys’ castration, and I’d like to hear a bit more than what is said in the final paragraph.
“On the one hand, it makes Varys less in need of mastering sexual desire. On the other hand, it gives him even greater obstacles to rise above. Most people who are castrated as children won’t go the way of Varys. It is a serious and crippling harm that has been done to them, with innumerable physical and psychological consequences. It is a violence that can destroy most human beings. In that sense, Varys has had to work even harder to get to the top.”
What kind of prince is Varys? A new one, surely, and one who has risen and maintains his power by his own arms. But as the author notes in the closing paragraph, his castration is a kind of asset to Varys. And perhaps this is what the author was thinking in this piece—in Machiavelli’s economy of virtu, adversities are in the long run goods for certain human types, precisely because they give him the opportunity to rise above them. Is Varys’ castration the gift of fortune, as the enslavement of Israel was the gift of fortune to Moses or the fragmentation of the Athenians the gift of fortune to Theseus?
[I have assumed we should refer to Varys as a prince, but perhaps the relation and distinction between prince and counselor should be discussed.]
More broadly: part of Machiavelli’s training of the prince involves his de-eroticization. This begins even in the Epistle Dedicatory, where Machiavelli denigrates and departs from the usual praise of beautiful objects and proffers instead something useful. Waller Newell’s “Tyranny” expands upon this theme greatly—eros, ontology, and their relation to tyranny—in discussing Machiavelli and his ancient predecessors. I think his analysis there fits quite well with Varys’ apparently devotion to the Realm; the unerotic tyrant is less distracted by the pitfalls of, say, the tyrant of Republic 8.
Finally, it would be interesting to compare Varys’ lack of eros with Baelish’s. Baelish might present an even more impressive case of the ambitious mastery of eros: he is still equipped to gratify it; he is surrounded with opportunities to do so, but (as far as we can tell, or I can remember) doesn’t; and despite initial appearances with respect to Catelyn and Sansa, he is not even distracted by a higher eros that is drawn to beauty and those who are worthy of love, and even seems able to deploy it when it suits him. But that would require another conversation.
Leonidas – I did indeed mean to suggest that Varys’s castration might be understood as a gift of fortune, in the Machiavellian sense.
I am not sure that Varys can be understood as a new prince – he is not a founder, after all, or at least not so far. Perhaps if he succeeds in reestablishing the Targaryens (if that is in fact his design) as rulers of Westeros, he will somehow also re-found or modify the regime in such a way that he might be considered a new prince. If you think I’m wrong about this, please explain.
I am also not convinced that the distinction between prince and counselor is ultimately a very fine one in Machiavelli’s work. A prince is the effectual ruler, if I understand Machiavelli correctly, and whether he is a prince in name or a counselor in name or even an author of books, what matters is the effectual truth – the names and titles are of far less concern. Again, if you think I’m wrong about this or you had something else in mind, please let me know.
Your suggestion that there be a sustained comparison between Varys and Baelish, especially regarding their lack of eros, is a terrific one. I will certainly think about it more, but by all means let me know if you would be interested in developing the idea further here yourself.
An excerpt from the article.
“At the core of Buddha’s political philosophy is the notion that “human life is precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity.” The preciousness of life is Kantian “dignity,” manifest in what Martin Buber calls “I-Thou” relations. For Buddha: All is sacred; the only ‘profane’ is not to know that.”
I would argue that human life certainly has the potential to become precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity. But this is highly abstract. In reality, human life is not treated as precious. Nor is there freedom and opportunity. At the core of Buddhism is nirvana which transcends the human life world — a world beyond (pārāyaṇa). As Buddhist scripture tells us, all that the Buddha teaches is for the sake of final nirvana or unconditionedness; which cannot be understood by beings who cling tenaciously to the conditioned. In the final analysis the Buddha was not a political animal trying to make an ideal, conditioned world. He wanted us to look within so we might discover the presence of the unconditioned (nirvana). This is certainly at odds with the modern world that works on the outside as if new buildings, roads, washing machines, smart phones and potable water will cause significant change in the human heart. It’s not working.
Is politics reducible to the kind of things you mention here (“new buildings, roads, washing machines, smart phones and potable water”), Dhammakayaram, or is politics more a matter of the human desire for justice?
I agree with much of what you say, and I think your suggestion is good that there is a problem with regarding “all” as sacred. If “all” is sacred, then what need would there be for change or improvement?
Still, I think the article at hand does much, or strives nobly, to flesh out some of the political implications of Buddha’s thought. Buddha might have wanted us to turn inward, but inward to what? That is to say, if we turn inward, won’t we find a soul that loves other people, that longs for justice, and that has moral commitments?Further, an inward turn surely has consequences to political life – what are they?
Fascinating article, Dr. Schindler! I will be reading it through carefully and paying special attention to the comparisons that you make to Plato’s thought.
Sullivan’s article is directed at Democrats who may complacently underestimate Trump’s appeal and anticipate his crushing defeat in November. Sullivan is absolutely correct in bringing out the very cunning and psychologically resourceful elements in Trump’s personality, which are fully on display in his campaign.
The article was by no means exclusively directed at “Democrats who may complacently underestimate Trump”. In fact, it appears to have had a rather broad intended audience.
Having said that, Sullivan does offer what seems to me to be some pretty good advice to Democrats in general and to Clinton and her supporters in particular. No one who objects to a Trump presidency should underestimate him at this point, and Clinton, if she wants to succeed, needs to own her strengths (moderation and experience are among the strengths that Sullivan mentions) as the strengths they are, rather than shirking from them as weaknesses.
I think, by the way, that while Sullivan’s article was very good, it tended to be dismissive of Bernie Sanders and his campaign to the detriment of its broader argument. Like Trump, Sanders is an anti-establishment demagogue (one who relies entirely on the establishment that he condemns) who marshals the wholly irrational passions of an ignorant and intolerant base of supporters and seeks to equate himself with some collective political dream (“Not Me, Us” has been one of his slogans). Both Sanders and Trump are symptoms of the weakening of liberal democracy in America that Sullivan identifies, but Trump is no more Hitler than Sanders is Stalin.
What a bunch of mush-brained liberal nonsense. Garibaldi’s characterization of Bernie Sanders and his supporters shows an amazing ignorance both of the very definition of the word demagogue and of the people who believe in his platform.
Bernie “relies entirely on the establishment he condemns.” What does that gibberish even mean?
For crying out loud, Garibaldi: every political campaign has a slogan that attempts to embody a collective political dream. “Hope”, “Fighting for Us”, “Make America Great Again”, “Morning in America”. That’s what campaign are about!
I meant precisely what Sullivan did in the article, when he wrote the following :
“And in this presidential cycle, the breakout candidates of both parties have soared without financial support from the elites. Sanders, who is sustaining his campaign all the way to California on the backs of small donors and large crowds, is, to put it bluntly, a walking refutation of his own argument.”.
The reference to Sanders’ campaign slogan was merely a small illustration. It was not meant to be a comprehensive account of his campaign. But it was certainly appropriate in this case – it does not refer to a collective dream, as do the other examples you give, it seeks to equate the individual candidate with the collective mass of his supporters.
If you think that I have misunderstood the “very definition” of the word demagogue, please explain how.
It makes me wonder. I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions, however. The author seems to rule out the possibility that a poet who so enshrined the ‘desire to know’ as her highest virtue, and seemed to cherish voice and vision could ever want to choose silence. But she described the ‘desire to know’ as unpleasant, and liberty does not always refer to freedom from political or social oppression. The ‘long night of the soul’ is very real, and many people who follow an intellectual or academic path on account of a will to truth eventually find themselves lamenting what that knowledge has brought them. That’s what I saw in the Primero Sueno – as Byron said, “Sorrow is knowledge, those who know the most must mourn the deepest, the tree of knowledge is not the tree of life.”
I think you make a good point. Still, it does seem to me that the author of the article leaves room for the possibility that Sor Juana came to silence on her own. And I agree that the Primero Sueno is at least suggestive of that as well. But it is hard to ignore the actions of the Church, as well as the sudden cessation of activity from such a prolific writer which followed so quickly upon them. Could that really be coincidence?
The Church worked to control her voice, and at one level she appeared to acquiesce to this. Her “Respuesta” or “Answer” to earlier pressure to back off makes me think that her silence was intended to be provocative or prophetic, but her mental state and attitude are matters for speculation only. But *one* definite possibility is that she indeed “repented” of her voice, so to speak, and chose to stop pushing. Certainly this narrative was well-established in her culture–the narrative of repentance and reform. Would she have “changed her mind” again and started writing again? She died abruptly and fairly young. More time may have led to more words. It’s a puzzle.
Fascinating observation: “she described the ‘desire to know’ as unpleasant.” This is indeed how I often read her–as one who experiences her gift as a burden, at least some of the time. Her silence may have been a temporary “space” away from her burdensome gift, and her premature death may have prevented her possible return. Again, this is impossible to recover. But your point is well taken. The intensity of her “desire to know” may have been too much, and perhaps the excused silence was a relief.
You are not understanding Grant at all and drawing a false parallel between him and Trump. Grant’s order regarding Jews was all about economics and warfare. He issued similar orders regarding his own father. He felt plagued by all of the cross border smuggling going on at that time, most importantly cotton. He was certain it was hurting the war effort. When he used the word “Jews” he was, of course, repeating the cultural norm of that time. “Jews” meant shysters and swindlers of various types. He knew little or nothing of Jewishness. He was not a fascist, quite the contrary. He was a general, a warrior, fighting a desperate war with every tool he could command. The analogy with Trump is wrong. I have no idea what Trump might do as President but to make a comparison in any way with Grant does not hold any historical merit.
The article agrees with you that Grant was not at all a fascist.
I thank the three readers above for posting their comments. Kindly forgive my slight delay in responding. I shall now address, briefly, some of the issues raised.
Dhammakayaram — You have a lovely name. Kindly let me know what it means. “Dhamma” of course is Pali for the Sanskrit “dharma;” and “kaya” means “body;” but I’m not sure about “ram,” nor about how the three linked together translate. Something, I assume, to the effect of: Respect 1) the body of truth, 2) the body of Buddha’s teachings, and 3) your own embodied life (intrinsically “precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity”). Which brings me to my first point. It is helpful, in understanding Buddhism, to know how Buddha defines human life, human society, and the cosmic matrix in which we live and move and have our being. (I suppose this is true for any religion or philosophy — or, for that matter, politics; such that one may speak of a religious, philosophic, or political “worldview.”) I fail to see how defining human life as “precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity” is, as you say, “highly abstract.” Seems pretty straightforward to me. We have freedoms and opportunities not available to rocks, plants, and animals (and Buddha even says the human realm is better than that of the gods, because we have a better opportunity for nirvanic awakening). We are innately “precious” because we are instantiations of the truth, beauty, and goodness of Dharma itself (understood as “ultimate” reality), and this was a major part of Gautama’s enlightenment during the long night of his vigil beneath the bodhi tree. And of course this realization has ethical and social implications. Hence Buddhism’s emphasis on kindness and compassion (metta and karuna). But, you say, “in reality, human life is not treated as precious. Nor is there freedom and opportunity.” I wonder, though: Don’t you consider your own life (and that of others) as precious? Don’t you have the freedom to make your own choices and to pursue opportunities (like studying and practicing Buddhism) which you find most fulfilling? The entire Buddhist doctrine of karma would make no sense if we weren’t free to make our own choices and also responsible for our actions. And isn’t the point of karma to teach us to be kind and compassionate? Freedom, of course, always occurs within limits. Indeed, without limits, there would be no freedom. Freedom, as the existentialists rightly say, is always “situated” — biologically, historically, socially, politically, economically, environmentally. Not even the Buddha can make you yourself enlightened; at best, he can show the way. Now this, as said, is indeed somewhat abstract (but language generally and philosophy in particular, not to mention science, necessarily employ abstractions). More concretely, I take your point (as I understand it): Too many people in the world are deprived of the freedoms and opportunities they ought rightly to have, because people in power too often abuse that power (at other people’s expense). Well, on this point, you and I and Gautama totally agree. Which is why so much of Gautama’s teachings are ethically oriented. An ethical, sane, peaceful, egalitarian society maximizes people’s opportunities for awakening and service. Buddha agrees with Aristotle that humans are social animals; he even says, at various points in Theravada scripture, that “spiritual friendship is the whole of the Dharma.” I suggest, then, that there is a dialectic here, ethics and nirvana being two sides of the same coin. Even the 8-Fold Path shows that there is no achieving nirvana without “right” (i.e., ethical, i.e, virtuous) action (“in body, speech, and mind”). In sum, then, yes, Buddha teaches that nirvana is the goal; but he also teaches that ethical action is the path to the goal (as well as its result!). And insofar as he emphasizes ethics over metaphysics, one might well say that he is indeed a “political animal.” You are right to stress Buddha’s emphasis on “the inward turn.” Lack of true self-knowledge — i.e., a failure to realize that life is indeed precious — creates immense and unnecessary suffering in the world. So, as Jeff Bloom notes in his reply to your comments, the inward turn has outward implications, toward creating a just society. Finally, I would add a caution about being too mesmerized by the term “unconditioned.” Long and deep meditation on that term might be philosophically fruitful and quite surprising. Buddha points to nirvana, Dharma, the “unconditioned” — but he tends to speak modestly about such “absolutes,” and, being the bodhisattva and pragmatist that he was, prefers to draw our attention to the overcoming of suffering through meditation coupled with ethics (right thinking, speaking, intention, action, vocation, effort, mindfulness). And while I might quibble about the wording of your final point, I bow to what I take to be its essential insight: Western science has given us the tools to destroy the world; Asian “meditative wisdom” offers a sane, pragmatic, healthy alternative (if you will, an inner science) to militaristic and imperial folly on the one hand, and profit-driven megalomania and consumer frenzy on the other.
Jeff — It’s precisely because “all is sacred” that “we” need to change and improve our mode of being-in-the-world. To say that “all is sacred” is not say that everything is fine (or perfect). It’s a way of reminding people of the vast difference between the way “we” act and the way “we” ought to act. Ignorance of the sanctity of life (and the biosphere) is the root of harm. Does that help to clarify what I meant? I have a feeling that we actually agree, if we can just get beyond the confusion of words. 🙂
Kevin — As always, a pleasure to hear from you. In the article, I could only point to some Platonic-Buddhist parallels. Much work can and should be done to flesh them out. Still, I hope you found the pointers helpful, and that you found the essay as a whole to be an edifying introduction to the Buddhist worldview.
The editors have linked my article to other websites (having mostly to do with philosophy, religion, history, and politics), and some readers have posted comments there. Allow me to share (here) three points that seem worthy of response, relating to Marx, quantum physics, and the soul.
1) One reader was shocked and dismayed to discover that the opening quote leading to the concluding section (on “Buddha’s Political Philosophy”) was by that communist atheist Karl Marx. Actually, though, when you set aside all the differences, Buddha, Plato and Marx exhibit a common underlying theme: our task is to free ourselves from what Erich Fromm calls “chains of illusion.” Marx was a profound ethicist, with an egalitarian vision of a just and peaceful society; the same is true of Buddha. While they disagree about the existence of the gods, their fundamental aim was the same: to diminish suffering, and to do so with acute attention to the causes of suffering. The reader who was aghast at my Marx quote said I should take a hard look at Russia, China, and North Korea, meanwhile failing to note that these societies are absurd and perverse caricatures of what Marx actually taught through his writings — much in same way, for example, that American politicians too often undermine (with their legislative policies) the “family values” and “Christian ethics” they so boastfully claim to embody and support.
2) One reader (possibly the same) found it equally disturbing that I would parallel Buddha’s philosophy of interbeing with the holistic vision (of universal quantum interdependence) now hypothesized by postmodern physicists. All I can say is that the reader is still stuck in Cartesian dualism; and that if he would actually do what Buddha did — dive DEEPLY into the psyche — he might find some surprising insights about the cosmos. For myself, I wouldn’t hesitate to call Buddha a quantum philosopher, with a keen appreciation for the holistic quality of reality as such (which he called Dharmakaya).
3) Perhaps the most controversial claim in my essay is that Buddha does not deny the existence of the soul, let alone existential individuality — both of which seem to me to be necessary to make sense of karma and reincarnation. I suppose I should have made it more clear that I use the term “soul” as a kind of “connecting thread” linking multiple lifetimes into a coherent pattern (of what is normally pedagogical progress). One reader was appalled at my lack of faithfulness to Buddha’s famous and oft-proclaimed doctrine of anatta (or anatman — “no self” or “no soul”). But when Buddha’s challenges the Hindu notion of Atman (“true self” or “true soul,” identified with Brahman, the ultimate and unifying deity or cosmic force and womb), he is saying that the “soul” is not eternal, unchanging, unconditioned, but, rather, more like an evolutionary, educational, creative project (if you will, a consciously quantum dynamic), not to be reified into an unchanging (Hindu, Aristotelian, Cartesian) “substance.” I’d like to remind the reader that Gautama was wary of dogma, and ceaselessly encouraged aspirants on the path of knowledge to “find out for yourself.”
Though the sample is small, I’m shocked at how many readers find my essay shocking. I’m hoping that further readers will be less inclined to jump to disagreement (and even disparagement), and more inclined to see it as Socratic stimulation for creative thinking.
I think that your remarks have indeed provided some clarification on the matter. If I understand you correctly now, your claim (which you present as consistent with the principles of Buddhist thought) is not that all life is sacred simply, but that all life is sacred in some respect. This would be similar, I believe, to saying that all life has some intrinsic value or that all life possesses some fundamental measure of dignity. Surely, not all life acts in a manner consistent with that sacred grain within it, or within others, but the task of Buddhism would be to bring other respects into harmony with this one. Is that a fair restatement of your view?
I have another question for you, this one pertaining to the political dimension of your article. You have said, and I have agreed with you on this point, that Buddhism turns one inward and that this inward turn has outward implications. In other words, Buddhist political teachings operate indirectly upon the outside world. Do you think that is correct? Is Buddhism’s effect on political life primarily indirect? Or is it conceivable that there could be a positive Buddhist political program (the founding or development of a Buddhist regime, for example)?
Greetings, Jeff. Yes, I feel that your first paragraph is “a fair restatement” of my view, and nicely done, too! It resonates with my admiration for the teachings of Matthew Fox, Robert Thurman, and Rupert Sheldrake.
As for your second paragraph: We agree that the inward turn has outward implications, but I would say those implications are both indirect AND direct. Regarding the latter, and your last sentence-question: India was primarily a Buddhist nation from around 250 BCE to 1000 CE; so Buddhism had a direct effect on its political and social reality (destroyed by the apocalyptic Muslim invasions from 1000 to 1200). Meanwhile, Buddhism was taking root in Tibet. It took about a thousand years — from the 7th century to the 17th — for Tibet itself to become a total Dharma nation (even more than India). In the only instance in Buddhist history (2500 years), Tibetan rulers said to the lamas (and of course I paraphrase): “Here, you take control of the nation. When we try to rule, there is inevitable in-fighting, but you yourselves embody peace and harmony, and that is what we would like for our country.” Prior to the importation of Buddhism (in the 7th and 8th centuries), Tibet was a very successful warrior nation, which conquered just about every region in central and northeast Asia (including Mongolia and China). But the Tibetans would never stay, always returning to the high Himalayan plateau with less oxygen and less humidity (to which they were naturally suited), and the conquered regions would have to pay tribute (which they did). Once Tibetans disarmed and became a Dharma nation, governed, for example, by a Dalai Lama, they became the most enlightened society on the planet (until the Chinese invasion and holocaust beginning about 1950). So “a positive Buddhist political program” — and the founding and development of a Buddhist regime — is not only “conceivable,” it actually occurred twice in history: polymorphously in India (with other religions present, including Hindus and Jains), and quite completely in Tibet for about 300 years (1650 to 1950). Does that answer your question?
Meanwhile, I should mention that not all “Buddhists” have to meditate. That is to say, while the inward turn is potent and profound, and highly recommended, many bodhisattvas are simply (and deeply) engaged in a life of service, committing to kindness and compassion (metta and karuna) in all they do (including, importantly, peaceful political protest). Hope this helps answer your question. Thanks for asking.
Also, and finally: As Tenzin Gyatso (the current and 14th Dalai Lama) often says: What Buddhism offers the world, and wants for the world, is “a common religion of kindness.” Conversion to Buddhism is not the point. The point is “awakening” — to the wisdom of love (individually, socially, politically). Again: Buddhism is not so much a religion as a pedagogy for enlightened evolution (and planetary survival!).
You are (like Kevin) a delightful and illuminating Socratic discourse partner! 🙂
This is a remarkably cogent and effective argument. However, I detect a rather peculiar use of commas. I was unaware that Judge Posner also dabbles in philosophy.
Interesting piece, but perhaps a little quick to draw bold conclusions. While I am certain there are countless times I have deemed an argument irrational because I disagree with its content, I am reluctant to let go of an objective standard of reasoning altogether.
Agreed that some of the conclusions are perhaps too quickly and boldly drawn. Also agreed that one wouldn’t want to dispense with rationality altogether. If I have followed the author’s reasoning sufficiently well, however, he means to critique Posner’s view of rationality, rather than rationality as such. I would have liked to hear more about this difference – that between a poor rational argument (in the Posnerian sense of rational) and a good argument (be it reasonable or rational in the full senses of these things). Still, a very interesting read.
Are the grounds of morality rational in the first place? It seems to me that they are not. Morality is based in the passions and, although both Posner and this author seem to want to dismiss the possibility, in inspiration or revelation. And, yet, if we can’t reason about them or engage in rational discourse about them, what are we other than slaves to whim and caprice?
I find it funny that people sometimes admire how we handled the 2008 crisis when it’s precisely an excellent example of how Social Democracy is fundamentally liberal and pro-capitalist.
I don’t think that’s the point. The article seems to use the Icelandic example to counter the general apathy toward political corruption that exists in the United States. It’s not a discussion of economic models as much of political activism vs. political apathy.
“We ought to ask ourselves: Is it possible to practice liberal-democracy within a capitalist system?”
•Useless question. Most liberal values are socialist in nature, and in fact I’d go as far as to say that liberals are just socialists in denial
“However, if we wish to endorse a more robust conception of democracy that fosters a free community of equals, the social relations resulting from capital appear to be a massive hindrance. If we determine that democracy is in fact something we value, surely we must ask the question: can this be achieved within a capitalist mode of production?”
•The answer is no. Source: Karl Marx.
Surely your assumption is overbroad and incorrect Mr. Marx. Depending on how one interprets the state of man, if we allow for the assumption that man can be rational, than we must know that capitalism and democracy (and the values of equality it endorses) are not mutually exclusive.
Let me explain. There was a time in which the rich among us did not boastfully spend their money – in fact, the money was an ends as well as a means. They were considered akin to fiduciaries who had the responsibility to take in the excess capital of society and adequately reinvest it in a way that is beneficial for the community. They did not buy expensive cars or a London flat for $20,000,000. They were conduits of economic stimulus.
With that said, clearly the gluttony of the top class in the first world has become uncontrollable. Similarly, this, of course, was the downfall of Soviet Russia – that greed got in the way of rational thought. This can be solved, but it requires a philosophical understanding between the working laborers and the capitalists and landlords that each plays a crucial role in capitalism, and if one fails in that role (i.e. a laborer not working or a capitalist hoarding their profits for personal utility) then the entire system fails along with it.
“liberal values are socialist in nature”
I’m gonna press you on that one. Liberalism as a political philosophy is born out of the enlightenment and manifests itself through freedom speech, representative democracy, and private property. Liberalism is Adam Smith, John Locke, and Rousseau.
“I’d go as far as to say that liberals are just socialists in denial”
I’d go far as to say you know nothing of what liberalism actually entails, other than a buzzword used in contemporary political debate.
Yes I did exaggerate.
Although liberalism’s defense of individual rights over collective equality is quite similar to socialism, in that the application of standardized rules to unequal situations or people, creates inequality as well.
While the means differ, the ends are the same.
I’d like to think that most people are seeking a more complex answer than: ” because Marx said so”.
Neither socialism nor liberalism identify the reality that you cannot prescribe standardized measures/laws and hope to achieve equality.
Marx identified this fact when he wrote the following:
“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
yeah.. i’m not sure who you are arguing with. quoting Marx is one of my pastimes too but the onus is on us to extend his arguments and insights to the contemporary moment
I wasn’t aware of any contemporary elements to the article. If there is some question concerning contemporary society I have yet to read it.
Well first: “Another very important (and more contemporary) example of scholarly inquiry into the relationship of institutional reality to our values can be found in the work of Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers in On Democracy.” which is then analysed.
But more importantly, the point that I think you’re missing is not that we marginals should be concerned that liberal values are disappearing, but that liberals should be more cognizant of the effects of capitalism on there values instead of churning out a priori theories.
“free community of equals”
This is an incoherent and contradictory concept. Equality cannot occur in a free community. In fact it cannot occur at all, but it’s made worse by violating rights in an attempt to do so, although this is always the excuse posited for the violation.
Moreover democracy itself is unfree by definition and has never resulted in equality, and there’s no reason to suspect it ever was intended to do so. People promoting democracy intend to be on the winning team. The 51% do not intend ‘equality’ with the 49%:D
True, When they are on the losing team they may suddenly decide they would prefer a free society, or more free. Few people really want a free society, they always hope to regain power over their fellow man at a later date.
The “market” is a liberal value. It was certainly not invented by conservatives:) Conservatives wanted their monopolies, their Corn Laws, and control over their land laborers, so they couldn’t flee to the dirty factories which they preferred to the hard agricultural labor they were put to by the land lords and then the enclosure movement.
Opposing monopoly is a liberal value. Or it used to be, now monopolies are the ‘liberals’ bread and butter.
The ‘market’ is just letting people be. Letting them buy, sell, produce, labor, employ, without licenses (which are another name for monopoly). If what exists in western countries is ‘capitalism’ then that has nothing to do with the market. Historically the economic system we labor under was called progressive or or mercantile or fascist. The merger of state and corporate power.
The economic rationale against freedom is ‘natural monopoly’ which is a fairy tail. We live in a world of real monopoly, and there is not a single example of a natural monopoly. People will substitute if allowed. People will compete if allowed. Real monopoly is not allowing.
Lastly even if it was possible, real equality would have us all worse off, no division of labor could exist. Fewer humans could be supported. (which often seems to be the goal)
The useful and ethical equality is being equally free from having rights violated. In fact that’s the extent of equality logically possible. Any other ‘equality’ requires the violation of rights. If the definition of ‘equality’ incorporates an unequal violation of rights, I have no interest in that equality. I have no interest in violating anyone’s rights, and certainly have no interest in mine being violated.
“On June 23rd, Britons voted that the UK should leave the European Union. This is a momentous decision. But the lead up to it was as remarkable for a lack of moment than it was for anything else.
There had been no preceding crisis, economic or otherwise.”
Yeah, except the great recession, and the failure of the EU to minimize it. And the horrible way Greece was dealt with. And the failure in Ukraine. And the very recent crisis with the hordes of migrants in East europe. But hey, beside, that, it was all hunky dory.
None of which affected UK. (The economic crisis does not count because UK is out of the Euro)
They certainly influence the UK, though sometimes indirectly (sometimes not – the refugee crisis brought to the deal with turkey and its higher chance to join the EU, something UK is strongly opposed). Beside, it certainlly gives a VERY bad impression of the EU, enough to strenghten UK’s desire to leave. …..beside, there have been crisis, that was my point.
Thank you for your very thoughtful article. I am not in a position to claim any better or alternative interpretation of Locke than you have set forth. On your own terms, however, I question whether “a robust system of redistributive, progressive taxation” is “mandated by classical liberalism” as you seem to suggest. According to the terms of progressive liberalism as you have articulated them, the consensual system required by classical liberalism must further be “acceptable to every ‘rational and reasonable’ member of that society,” including the least advantaged. You also suggest such “rational and reasonable” people are those who pursue their own true interests and affirm the right others to do the same.
On these terms, while it seems possible that every rational and reasonable person could decide to direct the wealth of its society to such robust redistribution policies in the name of “the universal good” as you have proposed, it does not strike me that such a decision is mandated by classical liberalism. Presumably “universal consent” requires the consent not just of the least advantaged, but also the most advantaged in a society. It seems to me that redistribution that eradicates advantage would not be universally supported.
More importantly, it seems to me that there is a good to be found in a society that allows and even encourages one to attempt to prosper compared to his or her peers. Isn’t it possible that rational and reasonable people would consent to a level of inequality, wherein one is allowed to pursue one’s own personal interest at some expense to the universal interest, as long as the ability to pursue such personal interest is actually available to everyone? In this scenario, rather than mandating robust redistribution, classical liberalism would instruct that there should be a ceiling on the inequality tolerated by a society and ensure that the pursuit of such personal interest is actually available to everyone. Where the ceiling is placed is up to the society. I do not see that robust redistribution generally, or the particular programs you mention, are mandated by classical liberalism.
Thank you, Alex, for your own very thoughtful comments.
I am not sure we disagree in essentials. I wrote that such redistributive programs would be mandated “to the extent” that a reasonable case could be made that the least advantaged (thinking rationally and reasonably) would not consent to the system otherwise. Whether or not such a case can be made, and with respect to what specific programs, are debatable questions.
The more important point of the article, though, is that such programs are not precluded by the natural rights tradition of classical liberalism (as libertarians, for instance, maintain). Thus, if we as a society should wish to enact such programs we are well within our rights to do so.
Beyond this, I do believe a strong case can be made that, as you suggest, a ceiling on inequality (together with a robust safety net) would indeed be mandated.
Thanks again for your comment.
“… such programs are not precluded by the natural rights tradition of classical liberalism (as libertarians, for instance, maintain). Thus, if we as a society should wish to enact such programs we are well within our rights to do so.”
But who do you mean by “we as a society”, in this instance? A few people making laws? The minority that actually goes out to vote and then elects them? The laws and policies that you recommend would, if passed, alter or substantially impact the rights and lives of all citizens, including rights that are regarded as fundamental in a classical liberal regime.
If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that since classical liberalism requires consent, implicit or explicit, on the part of citizens, those citizens are therefore empowered to to a great extent to determine the shape of their society and, indeed, even to do away with liberal principles as such. Perhaps that is even the case. But it does not make a non-liberal regime, like, for example, a communist regime, into a a liberal one, nor does it mean that such a non-liberal regime is somehow the fulfillment of liberal principles. It merely means that liberal regimes can cease to be liberal – they can even elect to cease being liberal, as in the case of the end of the Weimar Republic.
Thank you for your comment, S. Rogers. No, I am certainly not saying that a liberal society would have the right to “cease being liberal.” My argument is that liberal principles themselves support the right of citizens to implement “progressive” programs. This is an argument concerning the meaning of the natural right to property. Expressed briefly, my argument is that the natural right to property allows for only a limited accumulation of property, and that beyond such natural limits the distribution of property is (rightly, on liberal principles) subject to the principle of consent. My argument is not at all that a liberal society has the right to make itself illiberal, but that liberal principles themselves allow for, and in some cases may even mandate, “progressive” programs.
Thanks for your response, I believe I understand the argument better now.
I agree with you that there are limits placed upon the acquisition of property, both natural limits and then (rightly, as you say) conventional limits. And I think that your argument is indeed a much needed correction to many of the errors in libertarian thinking. That said, the view of liberal principles that the libertarians espouse is one that was, in reality, deflated within a few moments of the American Founding, if not before. There were already, at that time, any number of conventional limits placed on the acquisition of property.
I am less certain of what you say regarding Rawls. While it might be right to say that the people are within their rights to enact something like the “difference principle”, it is obviously far from saying that it would be wise or desirable to do so. It is also not the same as saying that it the “difference principle” is consistent with the letter or the spirit of classical liberal principles. It only means, I think, that it would be permissible in a liberal state, as would be so many other things that might be radically opposed to something like the “difference principle”.
Thanks again for your comments, S. Rogers, and for your nice words about my argument.
I do think, though, that a strong case for the difference principle (or something like it) can indeed be made.
As far as I know, Rawls never explicitly appeals to natural rights in developing his views, but to the more general liberal notion that all people are to be regarded as “free and equal.” From this he derives his original position procedure, and from that the difference principle. Basically, he argues that the difference principle would have to be adopted by any (rational and reasonable) group of founders negotiating the basic structure of society from the original position. That is a controversial claim around which there has been much debate (as you suggest).
My argument dovetails with Rawls’ in many ways, but differs from it subtly, in that it explicitly appeals to the principle of universal consent. I think this appeal makes the case for the difference principle stronger.
The question I ask is: What system of property distribution (beyond natural limits) could reasonably be expected to receive universal consent? To answer this question we must primarily consider the consent of the least advantaged, since, given their circumstances, they are the ones whose consent would be most in question. I think we can say in a general way that any system that the least advantaged (thinking rationally and reasonably) would not consent to would violate classical liberal principles. So the system must be acceptable to the least advantaged. That, in effect, gives us the difference principle.
But perhaps now we can take this a step further. We might ask: how do we determine what the least advantaged would consent to? Rather than imagine ourselves in Rawls’ original position we might imagine ourselves in an impoverished position and ask ourselves what degree of poverty we ourselves could accept. Would we consent to a system that might leave us homeless if it were WE who had to suffer such homelessness? Would we consent to a system that might deprive our children of health care if it were OUR children who would be so deprived?
My point is that, on this argument, many progressive programs would turn out to be mandated by classical liberalism itself. This would support (for instance) the claim Ted Kennedy used to make that universal health care is a right – and not just a nice thing for the rich to provide the poor out of compassion. It is a right mandated by the fundamental principle of “government by consent of the governed,” upon which our nation is founded.
Thanks again for your thoughts!
If Locke were alive today, he would be The Bern.
And, in any event, a significant group of disadvantaged persons in this country are clamoring for Trump. I think they are wrong to be doing so, but according to the arguments in this article, they have run no further afoul of Lockean principles than those who supported Sanders.
Do Trump’s views run afoul of Locke’s? An interesting question. We would have to analyze each of his explicitly stated policy positions to answer this question specifically, but I would say that the xenophobia and scapegoating he traffics in most certainly runs afoul of the spirit of Lockeanism – and that should be of grave concern to any who believe Lockean principles important.
Really interesting and potentially useful distinction between prog/development. Would have liked to hear more about Marcuse’s views, but still a very interesting and intelligible article.
I think an evolutionary standpoint offers a much simpler and easier to explain counterpoint to this. If we accept the author’s distinction between progress and development as the former having a “good” connotation, then apply good at the fundamental level of life itself, we could say that good in that sense is survival of a species. Development still maintains it’s meaning in this point I’m making.
With that said, humanity is still here, and has therefore progressed by definition in our development.
The fluid, ever changing nature of evolution through natural selection refutes a claim that the survival of a species is stagnant.
The author is looking for a judgment progress/development of society, so I don’t think an evolutionary standpoint would be of much use, since the society would always be in progress if it still existed, right?
Right, but of what “use” is evolution?
I wasn’t trying to refute what the author was arguing. To accept what he’s proposing you have to make a lot of concessions, like agreeing with his differentiation between progress and development, dismissal of vulgar relativism, and definition of “good” (to name a few).
The point I was making was questioning this fundamental concept of “judging” progress of society through arbitrary parameters of goodness.
I know my argument is useless in a judicial sense, but this is a philosophy forum right?
judging progress by our continual existence means that any time we have the capacity to judge (ie. we exist) we are “progressing” . That seems like a useless notion. I think the point here is to find a more useful framework
Oh I agree, it’s absolutely useless.
then i’m not sure what point you’re trying to make
My point was to free the idea of progress from both universalism and relativism, but in a simpler, more more fundamental way. You said my comment seemed like a useless notion, which I still agree with.
Your argument is clear, concise and compelling. Thank you.
I enjoyed this article but I think it missed (or avoided) one important magical theme that runs through every culture group in A Song of Ice & Fire: religions. The politics & magical prophesies that motivate much of the action in this story are connected to the competing religions in GRR Martin’s world. Martin allows his readers to discover for themselves how the religions of Essos & Westeros, like those of our own world, have manipulated characters, influenced events & altered the history of this world without challenging a reader’s own personal, supernatural beliefs. The questions isn’t how much magic makes a good story, but whether humans can ever accept that magic simply doesn’t exist.
The children of the 60s are, in large part, the establishment today. And the progressive left today is not the same as it was almost 50 years ago. Perhaps Ali’s attitude toward the establishment changed over time, but the establishment itself changed even more.
Roughly speaking, the children of the ’60s divide into two camps: those who participated in the peace and justice movement for a more sane and egalitarian world, and those who didn’t. The former got the headlines — and the teargas and head-bashing, while their leaders (JFK, MLK, RFK, John Lennon, etc.) were systematically killed — while the latter largely jumped aboard the Reagan counterrevolution and became today’s establishment. You quite rightly note that the progressive left is not the same as it was 50 years ago. It’s now a scattered, fractured, mostly underground movement, occasionally achieving popular voice through, for example, the Occupy protest against Wall St., and the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, I’d argue that the establishment — far from having “changed even more” — is pretty much the same old national security state we inherited from Truman, but now with an even more frightening consolidation of power, conjoined to an ever more Faustian subservience to corporate influence.
I really liked this article and Marqusee’s book sounds worth reading. I appreciated the attempt to actually evaluate what became of Ali in terms of what he had stood for earlier in his life. I think there should be more honest and intelligent treatments of the subject, along the lines of this one. But I did feel a little disappointment when ideologically charged political views were inserted, such as the following: “President Johnson’s holocaust in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, further perpetrated by the war crimes of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger”. It is not that the events in South East Asia which this refers to could not in anyway be regarded as a “holocaust” or that Nixon and Kissinger are necessarily above the accusation that they were war criminals, but those are highly contentious claims, and they weren’t substantiated here. Beyond that, I really liked it.
What you call “ideologically charged political views” might be simple historical facts. There wasn’t room in the article to substantiate the war crimes of Johnson and Nixon, but they are easily verified. For a quick but comprehensive summary, see my book AMERICA’S INDOCHINA HOLOCAUST: THE HISTORY AND GLOBAL MATRIX OF THE VIETNAM WAR.
“It was as if Jehovah’s “irresistible force” had met Allah’s “immovable point.””
Is this really emblematic of the spirit of the 60s? The 60s saw people breaking down traditional modes and orders. Perhaps Islam could have been one of the things used to break them down, but didn’t it represent an even more traditional order than the ones (the author refers to “Judeo-Christian hypocrisy”) that it would have been used to combat?
It makes you wonder what Ali really stood for or understood even at the outset.
I’d say that “what Ali really stood for” was quite simple. He embodied Courage of Conscience, even if he wasn’t always consistent. Meanwhile, you are quite right to imply that Ali did not understand, especially at the outset, the nature of The Nation of Islam, nor the Islamic religion itself (with its multiple and complex facets). And you are equally right to imply that Islam can be just as provincial, traditional, regressive and hypocritical as many so-called practitioners of the Judeo-Christian ethic, even as its more enlightened and progressive voices lend support to interfaith harmony and a more peaceful and egalitarian world community. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali both evolved into the latter, becoming icons for moral common sense and universal brother-sisterhood.
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.
very few people really understand the definition or etymology of the term fascism or justice for that matter. I mention justice because it is an opposite of fascism, but not in the way most people might think. Another opposite of fascism that most people don’t realize is secularism which will be explained towards the end.
when most people think of fascism, they think of an authoritarian tyranny which suppresses its opposition, that is not the definition, those are merely the characteristics of it. Fascism by its purest definition is , the rule of god’s law, essentially religious laws. Many religious laws seem simple enough like “thy shall not commit adultery” for instance but it’s the prescribed punishment like stoning that is viewed negatively because its utterly inhumane. some examples of actual fascism include the Vatican in the dark ages, the noahide laws, and sharia. In our world today fascist countries exist, Iran and Saudi Arabia are textbook examples.
Justice on the other hand is not fairness, but fairness is certainly viewed as an attribute. it is the rule of human law. so next time you are getting a speeding ticket that is textbook justice being served because there is no religious law against going fast in a car, chariot, horse, or camel.
which of course brings me to secularism, the separation of church and state, or the separation of god from law.
Mussolini, Putin… not all fascists are based in religion.
In number 9, Hamilton used the word “faction” with increasing frequency, as if to set the stage for James Madison’s first paper, number 10 , the most widely remembered essay in the collection, and one of the most powerful brief pieces of political theory ever written. I would compare
Doesn’t Plato present the philosopher-king as more than just a bit of an enigma? Such a figure might present a solution to many political problems, but the burden of rule seems problematic for the figure itself. Why would the philosopher want to rule? How would it be in his interest to do so?
Actually, I noticed that a commenter on Facebook (Brent Colman) posted the following, which seems to be along the lines of my own concerns, so I’ll share it here:
” Not to be the stick in the mud, but the entire point of The Republic was 1) you can’t have a philosophically informed citizenry (myth of metals) as not every individual is, by their soul, capable of living a philosophical life and 2) The Philosopher King is a logical contradiction between nomos and physis, in that, a king must rule through the nomos, however, in so ruling through the nomos he violates his philosophical obligation of a life in accordance to physis.
Not saying it’s wrong, The Republic was just not a great basis for said argument…”
Granted that Plato might have been more disparaging of democracy than the American Founders (although, if I remember correctly, they were careful to make a distinction between the sort of representative republic they envisioned and popular rule), but isn’t a major point of this article almost painfully true at present: America needs a better educated electorate!
Thanks for your interesting comment and questions.
Plato’s own answer to why the Philosopher-King would wish to rule is that otherwise he (or she, Plato believed women could be Philosopher-Kings) might be subject to a less enlightened ruler. Thus it is in the Philosopher-Kings own self-interest to rule. And the Philosopher-King, being wise, would understand this.
That’s the explicit reason Plato gives in the Republic. There is, though, an implicit answer as well: The Philosopher-King, having seen and known “the good,” would derive satisfaction from serving it. I say that this is an “implicit” answer because, though Plato never says this in so many words, we see it in the figure of Socrates, who ultimately gives his life in service to “the god,” who (as the Apology tells us) has commanded him to seek to enlighten the citizens of Athens through his philosophical questioning.
And this, I think, gives us the answer to the second point Brent makes. I don’t think Plato believes there is a necessary contradiction between nomos and physis. The job of the Philosopher-King is not to enact an arbitrary ‘nomos,’ but to create laws and conventions in conformity with physis, i.e., “the good,” And, of course, this is just why the king must be a philosopher: Only the philosopher is truly dedicated to an understanding of the universal good.
As for the myth of the metals, I think you are absolutely right. Plato did not believe the average person capable of enlightened rule, which is why he did not believe in democracy. As I try to point out in my piece, Kant (and the Enlightenment in general) had a more hopeful and egalitarian view of human potential.
Was Kant right? Was Plato right? Can a citizenry govern itself in an enlightened manner, as Kant believed, or will democracy ultimately degenerate into tyranny, as Plato thought. I’m afraid we may be about to find out.
The basic point I wished to make, though, is that if democracy is to have any hope of saving itself from tyranny, it will need a philosophically-informed citizenry; by which I mean, a citizenry capable of rising above intensive self-interest to seek an understanding of the common good.
I enjoyed the article and thanks for your answers to my questions.
This is an excellent article!
I just wanted to point out a relevant exchange that I had some months ago in the comment section of a different article here at Political Animal Magazine : http://politicalanimalmagazine.com/socrates-made-tiny-and-cute/.
That exchange (easily one of the best I’ve ever had online) was between myself and Stefan Schindler, who has since written articles for the magazine. It deals in large part with the difference between a “good man” (the philosopher) and a “good citizen” (the patriot). While I learned a great deal from the exchange, I remain unconvinced that the virtues of these two human types coincide with one another. I am skeptical, to say the least, that we can equate what is good with what is noble.
My thoughts are similar after reading the present article. A healthy democracy might require a noble citizenry, or that some significant part of its citizenry be noble, but I’m not at all sure that is the same as a “philosophic” citizenry, or even a somewhat philosophic citizenry. It also seems to me that the kind of education required to produce the former would be very different from the latter. People devoted to the regime are not produced by an education that has philosophy at its heart. That doesn’t mean that their education should consist in mere indoctrination, especially in a democracy, but it is still something other than philosophy.
I’d like to hear more about what is meant by a “value-oriented pedagogy” in the context of this article. Which values? Whose values? The values of philosophy, “broadly” understood? America values? Liberal values? Conservative values? Catholic? Protestant? Jewish? Muslim? Kantian?
Thanks for your important question.
I have two things in mind when I speak of a “value-oriented pedagogy.” First, I am thinking of a pedagogy that engages students in value inquiry. Such a pedagogy does not teach one set of values over another, but has students consider the nature of values, their importance in personal and communal life, and how values might themselves be evaluated. Such value-inquiry, thus, is a philosophical practice.
Next, I would wish for students to specifically consider the values underlying the democratic form. As I say in my piece, there are certain values inherent to democracy as a political form, expressed, for instance, in the belief in universal natural rights.
My basic argument is that if democratic citizens are to preserve their democracy they must understand the values upon which it is based. This requires, first of all, an understanding of the importance and place of values in life in general, and, second of all, a reflection on the specific values that undergird democracy.
I hope that helps answer your question. Thanks again!
Thanks for your thoughts. I’m pleased to hear that you appreciated your exchange with my good friend Stefan!
I’m not altogether sure just what you mean by ‘noble.’ To my mind “noble” implies a dedication, not just to a regime, but to what Plato would call “the good.” Of course it is possible (though dangerous) to be dedicated to the good without having a philosophical understanding of it. In the Republic, the class that might best correspond to this would be the Guardian-auxiliaries – the military class, who serve under the philosophers.
But such nobility of spirit is insufficient for the citizens of a democracy, precisely because it is the citizens who must be, not only dedicated to the regime, but its ultimate rulers. This means that they must not only wish to serve the good, but have some understanding of how to serve it. They must have, not only devotion, but wisdom.
Of course this assumes that there is a ‘good’ to serve, and that an understanding of it can be grasped, or at least approached, through (the right kind of) philosophical examination. I don’t defend that assumption in my piece, but I think the idea of democracy depends upon it.
If the noble can be directed toward the good, doesn’t that simply make it the good, or vice versa?
Plato seems at pains to make distinctions between these two things. The noble involves sacrifice for something outside of oneself or beyond oneself – sacrifice, that is, of ones own interest or good. This is the same difference as that between what is “right” (in the moral sense) and what is “good”.
The guardians of the city might be noble indeed, but their virtues are not the same as those of the philosopher. And the philosopher, at least as exemplified by Socrates, would appear to be concerned chiefly with what is good for him, not with some noble cause on behalf of the city.
That is my understanding of the matter, or a very brief version of it. And thank you so much for your reply. I will think about it more, and it was kind of you to make.
Thanks Kevin, for your response to my response.
Let’s pursue this a bit further. I’m not sure you’re quite grasping the character of Socrates as Plato presents him. Plato’s fullest statement about the character and mission of Socrates (who, for Plato, is the ideal philosopher) can be found in the Apology, where Socrates says:
“Men of Athens, I honor and love you, but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this? And if the person with whom I am arguing says: Yes, but I do care; I do not depart or let him go at once; I interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. And this I should say to everyone whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For this is the command of God, as I would have you know; and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God.”
These don’t sound like the words of someone concerned only with his own private good. Plato sees “the good” as a universal form. Its concrete application in the political sphere is “justice.” The true philosopher, as such, is dedicated to understanding “the good.” The *true* king, as such, is dedicated to implementing it politically. Plato’s point is that in order for a king to implement the good he or she must understand it. Hence, the true king must also be a true philosopher.
It is possible to have what we might call a “nobility of spirit” – i.e., a desire to serve the good, even a willingness to sacrifice oneself in service to the good – without understanding very well what the nature of the good is.
In the Republic Plato likens such people to guard dogs. The noble guard dog is selflessly devoted to his master, assuming (so to speak) the master to be worthy of such devotion. But, of course, the guard dog can be wrong about this. Plato takes such nobility of spirit to be the essential character-trait of the military person, who is selflessly dedicated to the regime, assuming it to be good (whether it is or not).
But if the society is to be well-governed the military person must be under the rule of the philosophical person. The (true) philosopher also has a nobility of spirit, but his/her allegiance is to the development of an understanding of the good itself, not to this or that regime.
Plato’s point, again, is that only the true philosopher can be a true king. My point is that in a democracy, since everyone must be (so to speak) ‘king,’ everyone must be trained in (the right kind of) philosophy as well.
To bring this down to earth a bit – among the frightening things going on as I write, is that we have a major candidate for President who does not seem to understand the democratic form itself. Should he be elected we can be fairly sure he will do it great damage. Such a thing is only possible in a country where a good part of the electorate doesn’t understand this form. You can’t maintain a democracy where a large segment of the people – the ‘demos’ – don’t understand what democracy is and entails. Other kinds of regimes do not depend on an enlightened citizenry, because the citizens don’t run the regime. But a democracy full of citizens who don’t understand democracy will inevitably cease to be a democracy. That’s the danger we face.
But, Mr. Oxenberg, isn’t the speech that you cite from The Apology as clear an example of Socratic Irony as there ever was?
Never mind that Socrates is there found addressing the city as a whole (or at least its representative citizens in the Assembly) – something that he has avoided doing during the whole course of his long life until that point, because his manner of speech and way of life is emphatically and explicitly unsuited to public affairs – but just consider what he actually says about piety and love of the city (patriotism).
The “God” that he refers to, and whose commands have been made known to him through the Oracle at Delphi, has given him a mission which amounts to little (or nothing) other than going around and TESTING what the God has said, according to the powers of Socrates’ own reason. And Socrates “daimon”, the other manifestation of the divne, or semi-divine, in the dialogue, is a voice in his head that basically counsels him continuously AGAINST involvement in public affairs and politics, for the sake of his own good.
I think the speech is amazing, and hilarious, but I think it problematizes the relationship between the noble and the good, in a radical way.
There is also the problem of what good we are talking about. Or, rather, who’s good. Unless the good of the regime is identical to the good of a given individual, there will be conflicts between them. This is were nobility comes into play – it is exhibited in individuals who are prepared to sacrifice their own good for the good of some larger whole. Socrates seems entirely disinclined from making such sacrifices, although not because he seeks to harm the city for his own interest. He seems quite gentle for the most part, and generally inclined to do his own thing, as it were, but he is not willing to put the interests of the city over his own.
Now I agree with you that there is a problem when it comes to democracies – citizens must somehow be both devoted to the regime and not so devoted at once. This is a grave difficulty, and it seems like the attachment to the permissiveness and licentiousness of democracies will often trump (no pun intended) the felt need for enlightenment amongst the citizens. So I agree with you too that some kind of education is required, a difficult and always unstable education, which breeds citizens devoted to liberal ideals. We must have Americans who both love America and who are capable to a rather high degree of being critical to America. But liberalism is politics, not philosophy, and political enlightenment seeks the widespread rationalization of men, not to cultivate the philosophic life amongst them.
I agree with you yet again that we face grave dangers. But these are not summed up by an unsavory presidential candidate that shall here remain (mostly) nameless. These dangers are pervasive in our society, they extend to the foundations of our regime, its principles, people, and government. The dangers do not just express themselves in various particular administrations, candidates, or movements, and they are, ironically, I suppose, given oft-heard demands for bi-partisanship, very much just that – bi-partisan.
Kevin – it seems we have a different interpretation of this passage, and of Plato’s presentation of Socrates. No, I don’t think this speech is at all intended as irony, though Plato, great writer that he is, often embellishes even his serious points with an ironic twist.
The god sets Socrates out on a mission to try to discover wisdom in Athens (this is what Socrates’ testing of the god’s pronouncement amounts to). If we recall Plato’s overall epistemology, this is just how wisdom is achieved, through dis-covery (anamnesis). So Socrates’ effort to dis-cover (uncover) wisdom among the Athenian citizens is, at the same time, an effort to impart it.
I think Socrates understands that this is what he is doing, and understands as well that he is doing it for benefit of the citizens and in service to the god of wisdom ( who is, himself, in service to “the good.”) For Socrates and Plato there is a devotional element to the philosophic life. It is not a mere exercise in intellectual amusement.
Socrates cannot engage in political life in Athens, not because he doesn’t care about the good of the society, but because, given its current state of corruption, he would not be able to survive in public life. But Plato would not have written the Republic – nor, later, the Laws – if he did not consider it important for philosopher’s to contribute in the political sphere.
But we are agreed that our society faces grave dangers. Whether I would agree that these dangers “extend to the foundation of our regime, its principles, people, and government,” would depend on just what you mean by this. I don’t think the problem lies in constitutional democracy as such, nor in the principle of natural rights on which it is founded. But it does lie in a paradox that I try to express in my piece – that in order for democracy to work the individual, qua individual, must come to regard some degree of devotion to the common good as essential to his or her own individual happiness. That’s the only way for freedom and morality to coincide. That’s what is required for the Kantian “Kingdom of Ends.” And that convergence of individual and universal good is something (I’m convinced) Plato believed the *true* philosopher understands and strives to lives by.
How do you define ‘reason?’
How do you ask a question?
I can give you what I would consider to be Plato’s definition: reason is that faculty through which we acquire an understanding of the good order of things (ourselves and the world).
Of course there is much more to say than that, including that the human rational faculty is imperfect, and that we must employ reason to understand reason itself, which complicates things.
But that definition might serve as a beginning.
Because the correct result is so obvious, one is tempted to speculate that the majority has purposefully taken the contrary position to create the circuit split regarding the legality of same-sex marriage that could prompt a grant of certiorari by the Supreme Court and an end to the uncertainty of status and the interstate chaos that the current discrepancy in state laws threatens.
This is the best written and most informative summary of social democracy in America, the forces that obstruct it, and the prospects for egalitarian justice, that I ever read. It is so lucid, so succinct, and so historically informative that it deserves a very wide audience indeed. Thank you for writing it, and thank you Political Animal for publishing it. I will share it with all my friends, and I’ll encourage them to share it as well.
I should have mentioned that, at one point, perhaps half-drunk, responding to a plea for political activism, and speaking of Vietnam, Dylan said: “How do you know I’m not FOR the war?” Disappointing indeed. Joan Baez was far more conscientious, courageous, active and consistent in her opposition to American imperialism, racism, and economic apartheid. Meanwhile, in 2011, defying a movement for Palestinian rights and an urgent plea for boycotting performing in Israel, Dylan nevertheless performed there, thus lending the weight of his celebrity to Israeli war crimes. I do think Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I doubt that his acceptance speech will echo the anti-establishment brilliance of his earliest “protest” lyrics in songs like “Master of War,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “A Hard Rains a Gonna Fall,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I’m reminded of the incandescent tragicomic quip: “Satire died the day they gave the Nobel Peace Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger.”
Your article is a nice tribute to Dylan and I agree that he richly deserves the award. But you seem to keep running into the problem that although Dylan is brilliant, worldly, full of understanding, and a man of remarkable conscience and courage, he just doesn’t agree with you about much when it comes to politics. Perhaps that ought to shake your sense of certainty in your own moral convictions.
And perhaps, if you think that the “rights” and “wrongs” of the Israeli-Arab conflict are so self-evident, you should address yourself to Dylan’s own view of the subject, set out in his 1983 song, ‘Neighborhood Bully’:
Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighborhood bully.
The neighborhood bully he just lives to survive
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in
He’s the neighborhood bully.
The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully.
Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized
Old women condemned him, said he should apologize
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad
The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad
He’s the neighborhood bully.
Well, the chances are against it, and the odds are slim
That he’ll live by the rules that the world makes for him
‘Cause there’s a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac
He’s the neighborhood bully.
Well, he got no allies to really speak of
What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love
He buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side
He’s the neighborhood bully.
Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease
Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep
He’s the neighborhood bully.
Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon
He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand
In bed with nobody, under no one’s command
He’s the neighborhood bully.
Now his holiest books have been trampled upon
No contract that he signed was worth that what it was written on
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health
He’s the neighborhood bully.
What’s anybody indebted to him for?
Nothing, they say. He just likes to cause war
Pride and prejudice and superstition indeed
They wait for this bully like a dog waits for feed
He’s the neighborhood bully.
What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers? Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill
Running out the clock, time standing still
Thanks for your comments, Walter; and thanks too for the lyrics. Tangentially, and almost needless to say, in my post-article “comment”, “Master of War” should have read “Masters of War.” (Proved again: An author is his own worst proof-reader.) Meanwhile, yes, the Israeli-Arab conflict is a tangled web indeed. There are rights and wrongs on both sides; but, apparently unlike Dylan, I side with the peacemakers, not the American-Israeli war machine. That said, you’re right to caution against taking moral convictions as absolute certainties. But, as Camus said, “It is necessary not to side with the executioners.”
I misread that as “Sartre died the day they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger.” While not literally factual, I think there’s some truth there as well.
Sometimes good judgment can compel us to act illegally. Should a self-driving vehicle get to make that same decision?
For an interesting and enlightening variation on your essay and Klosterman’s book, kindly allow me to suggest Richard Rorty’s PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIAL HOPE, and in particular Chapter 18: “Looking Backwards From the Year 2096.” You might also want to look at Michael Parenti’s AGAINST EMPIRE and THE TERRORISM TRAP; and Lewis Lampham’s PRETENSIONS TO EMPIRE, and his newest book, just released: AGE OF FOLLY. Then, to continue your self-education, you might want to read JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE (by James Douglass, inspired throughout by Thomas Merton); THE DEVIL’S CHESSBOARD (by David Talbot); THE NEW RULERS OF THE WORLD (by John Pilger); and THE NEW PEARL HARBOR REVISITED (by David Ray Griffin). Meanwhile, check out THE PEACE ABBEY FOUNDATION website; and another website: ENGAGING PEACE. Many thanks for your honest, courageous, insightful, provocative essay.
This article was extremely helpful to me in terms of understanding financial derivatives. Thanks
By “repurposing financial devices” do the authors mean establishing something more like a centrally controlled economy?
Very informative and interesting. A great read
Thanks John. Very thourough unbiased summary.
Excellent article! I discovered so much about the French Revolution and the power of women (which, of course, I’ve never questioned.). Bravo, Elizabeth!
Excellent! I Learned a lot!
Fantastic… I didn’t know all that. We hear about the french revolution but I had no idea it was started by women! Thanks for this great article.
What a really interesting article. I too was unaware of the role played by women in the revolution. The parallels between those events and what is happening now were cogently argued and extremely compelling. An intelligent and well written feature.
An intelligent and well written article. The parallels between the events of the French Revolution and what is happening now are undoubtedly chilling.
A fantastic article by someone who is obviously moved and passionate about women’s rights and universal justice. Brilliant – keep up the fine work and DON’T STOP WRITING!!
Many thanks, Richard, for your timely, astute and lucid article on The Pledge. I have two qualifying comments. First: I completely disagree with adding “under God” to The Pledge (which occurred under the Eisenhower administration, if I remember correctly). The founding fathers knew that 1) doing so would undermine the separation of church and state; 2) in time, as in the present, use of the word “God” would be abused by fundamentalists; and 3) it alienates [excludes? betrays? insults?] secular humanists. Second: Given that we now live in a “global village,” we can no longer afford to pledge allegiance to flag and nation; doing so reeks of dualism and exclusivism. Rather, we desperately need to start pledging allegiance to the planet and to the whole of the human family. You say toward the end of your essay that this is implicit in the words “liberty and justice for all” — but really, Richard, how many Americans do you think actually comprehend that, let alone intend it? I think we can agree: not many (or not nearly enough). So, although I love your article in the main — its simplicity, profundity, and heartfelt intent — I suggest we replace the existing pledge to flag and nation with something more like the following (if we are to survive as a species on this increasingly imperiled planet):
I pledge allegiance to the planet / and to all the people and creatures on her. / One ecosystem, universally sacred / with nourishment and beauty for all.
“Allegiance to the planet”?
Is your idea then that the “planet” will govern itself? Or that all the people on the planet will govern themselves like a magical collective unit?
Should all the ideals and institutions of the state be dismantled? Or is this “allegiance to the planet” just puff and nonsense?
Not sure why it escapes you, Bobby, or maybe you’re just playing devil’s advocate, but most people understand that by pledging allegiance to the planet I simply mean committing to treating the biosphere and its inhabitants with respect. As we increasingly and collectively careen toward ecological apocalypse, it is well to remember Chief’s Seattle’s comment (even if the words were only later and perhaps falsely attributed to him): “What we do to the planet we do to ourselves.” My innovative “pledge” very simply seeks to synthesize the global civil rights movement, environmental movement, and animal rights movement. Don’t know what you mean by the planet governing itself; sounds like a hollow phrase whose sole intention is to be provocative. Nor do I expect people to magically unite in universal brother-sisterhood. Nor do I anywhere, as you must surely know, advocate that “all the ideals and institutions of the state be dismantled.” I do suggest ecological pragmatism and ethical common sense. Frankly, “puff and nonsense” sounds more like your questioning critique than that against which it is directed. It might be well to remember that there is an intellectual courtesy called “charity,” which requires a reader to try to comprehend the sense in which something might be true (the author’s intent) before launching into the many ways in which it might be construed as false and foolish. In any case, you provide me with an opportunity to qualify my remarks about the founding fathers, who did of course use the word God in the nation’s founding documents, as Dr. Oxenberg rightly notes and interprets. The Pledge was created first in 1887 by a Civil War general, then revised to its more or less current form in 1892 by a Christian socialist minister. Having now introduced some necessary historical accuracy, I still stand by my remarks. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Hopefully together we may dream of a far saner and humanitarian society, and commit to acting on behalf of its realization.
Thank you, Stefan, for your kind words about my piece, and for your thoughtful critique.
A few thoughts –
First, I think that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge, understood rightly, does not violate the principle of separation of Church and State. It refers here (as it does in the Declaration of Independence) to the ontological ground of moral truth, however we may conceive of it. Our democracy demands acknowledgment of some such moral ground, for otherwise there would be no basis upon which to assert the ‘rights’ to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” upon which democracy rests.
I agree with you that there can be danger in using such language, in that it can be misconstrued and used to support the narrow, parochial, views of a particular religion. But rather than cede the idea of God to those who would use it for such ends, I think it better to try to elevate our understanding of it. That’s one of the things my commentary hopes to achieve.
I would say something similar concerning your second point. There are narrow ways of understanding allegiance to nation – where one devotes oneself to one’s own nation’s interests above all, and in disregard of the rightful interests of other nations and the planet as a whole – but a more enlightened understanding of national allegiance would, I believe, involve a recognition that it must entail an allegiance to international justice and planetary responsibility. I believe that the Pledge can, and should, be understood in this more enlightened way – which is a main reason I wrote this piece.
So I would say that the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance – understood rightly – is not at odds with your pledge of allegiance to the planet. But one has a special responsibility to one’s own nation – to help guide it toward what is good. And this, to me, is what the Pledge of Allegiance should be understood to mean.
Well said, Richard, and right on target! Thanks kindly for your edifying commentary on my critique. I hope that your article is widely read, as it is very timely and astute. The editors of Political Animal also deserve praise for making it available. I hope the article finds its way into classrooms around the country and stimulates some much needed discussion (and enlightenment!). Meanwhile, you might want to google the pledge and learn more about its origins and revisions. Written first by a Civil War general, then revised by a socialist minister who thought it could be used by any country anywhere; then revised again to make it more explicitly “American;” and finally revised again by the Eisenhower administration, which received congressional approval to insert the words “under God.” I greatly admire your linguistic and philosophic acumen, and I applaud your patriotic (and planetary!) idealism. Not sure why you resist the phrase “universal brother-sisterhood,” but if that is what you intend by “God,” then we really have no disagreement. My hope is that your article, however modestly, will help move the nation and the globe from what is to what ought to be. And hasn’t that always been the most important, pragmatic task of “lovers of wisdom,” otherwise known as philosophers, but equally applicable to peacemakers in all times and all places? So I say again: Bravo!
I always thought is was obvious. The rich man, the powerful man and the priest all walk away, discontent, while the sellsword breathes his last – steel having not having given him the power over life and death he thought it did. The sellsword, in this case, is Westros itself.
(Note: only halfway through the second book, I may yet be proven wrong)
Support our new President Trump! God bless Donald Trump! All hail God Emperor Trump! We love you! http://www.GodTrump.blogspot.com
It has been worthy reading, but can this Buddhism be practical to a lot of people, or it is more of the self? if it is more of the self, is it not possible that the self awakening can be of different meanings thus creating a chaos in the world? does it have rules and regulations that members have to follow in order to reach awakened world? if yes, would that be self awakening or following the awakening of the one who earlier did so in our case the prince who abandoned his princely world.
The prince “who abandoned his princely world” spent 45 years founding the Sangha, advising kings, becoming a pragmatic social reformer, whose legacy was the transformation of India into The Jewel of the Orient and thus a model for the world. Buddhism is a path to both self-awakening and social awakening, and as a Middle Way is flexible and adaptable, both culturally and across time. Today’s “Engaged Buddhism” speaks to your questions, and I recommend the recent Political Animal article “A People’s Buddhism?”
I work in a service that repeatedly uses this term, “triggered”, and then offers its comforts to people in crisis looking for a hook to hang their excuses on. This may sound cynical, but I’m completely serious. For example, Someone with a borderline personality disorder is asked, are you triggered by the way that person smells like alcohol? of course the client is going to say yes, it offers them immediate sympathy and a way out of future responsibility. I agree with this order, the loose abuse of language triggers an avalanche.
It would be helpful if you inserted date of online publication above or below the author’s name for each article.
That’s a good idea, Mushim. Thanks for the suggestion.
Bravo, Daniel. A lucid, astute, enlightening, thought provoking, inspirational article. I’m sharing it with many (around the country and the globe). Acts as a pragmatic complement to the Political Animal article “Buddha’s Political Philosophy,” and is an important supplement to Terry Gibbs’ book “Why the Dalai Lama is a Socialist.”
Thanks, Stefan! Your articles are wonderful.
Kindred souls indeed! Thanks for your compliment on my “articles” (plural noticed!). Our shared politics are invisibly implicit in my youtube version of the Ox Herding pictograph Zen story. For your aesthetic enjoyment, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ox+herding+searching
I saw the following comment on a Reddit thread about this article and thought it was really on point, so I’m putting it here:
“It is difficult to see how these two proposals are much different from the special interest groups we already have.
The first proposal suggests that states that have successful policies should sell those solutions to other states, but we already have that for free (and it’s unclear how they would even enforce the intellectual property as that data is typically public knowledge). Interest groups aggregate that data and present those solutions to politicians either as a fee-based lobbying firm or a non-profit. Similarly in the private sector you can higher consultants and firms for fostering a certain ‘culture’ in the workplace.
As for the second proposal of connecting like-minded people for business, again this already happens with businesses donating to certain causes and taking stances on political/social issues. These businesses often use this as a selling point when recruiting. Generally these causes tend to be non-controversial (donating to poor kids) but there are some with clear opposition (serving gay partners, refusing contraception, transgender, etc.) If you want to hire like-minded employees (though the societal benefit of this is unclear as with the filter-bubble polarization we are experiencing), I’m sure many interest groups would also be open to posting job offerings if you’re a big/regular donor.
I do agree that we need to counteract dehumanization and commodification in the market but I fail to see how commodifying culture would accomplish that, as the author seems to be suggesting.”
“how different would society be if racists had economic incentives to embrace human rights, and the average citizen found it profitable to foster democracy?”
Is this the same as asking, ‘can’t we just PAY people to stop being racist and to support “democracy”‘?
Regarding the comments to my article, that I read above, let me clarify some points. Thank you both, in any case.
To Kurt W.: I find the reference to intellectual property misleading, to the extent that the values traded, according to my proposal, would not be the outcome of a technical process or innovation. The application of values, while open and public, would just require to be assessed on the basis of some commonly agreed indicators, such as, in the case of inequality, the Gini index. There would not be the creation of a new product, of new goods or services. Values are motivational resources, not the outcome of a production process.
The reference to interest groups (lobbies or non-profits) is also not strictly accurate to comment on my first proposal, as the “seller” of values (or, more precisely. of documents describing the importance of some values) should have directly experienced and applied principles such as social justice (for States), learning by doing and innovation (in the case of companies), flexibility (in the case of individuals). On the other hand, interest groups typically advocate measures and interventions that are instrumental to their own interest (as the name says). These groups are not aimed at spreading values (i.e. criteria for judging reality, changing it or keeping unchanged), but simply at making professional activities and social roles more profitable, whereas values and activities have to be found on two different, distinct levels.
My proposal is also different from a mere attempt to spread a certain “culture” in a workplace. What I propose has the potential to provide an alternative to work as the only, standardized and often alienating way to receive an income; and, in any case, it has the potential to let people consider values as an element able to inspire a change in one’s personal and professional activities. If we remain in the mindset of considering values as part of “culture” of a given place or environment, then we remain in the area of heteronomy, for which beliefs are only the consequence of a social role (and, therefore, society is only a contract signed by individuals on the basis of “private”, instrumental values). Exactly the opposite of what I suggest.
As for my second proposal, I am aware that some forms of cooperation already exist, between employers and employess or among companies, aimed at fostering some causes. But this is not relevant to assess my scheme, that is based on the creation of networks and communities that share some projects, on the subsequent assessment of the comparative advantage that these causes provide, and on the extension of the networks and communities, on the basis of economic and political incentives. Your examples are randomly selected, whereas I suggest an alternative or at least complementary, but systemic new form of social interaction (comparable with peer-to-peer communities).
As for the idea that my proposals would “commodify culture”, this is quite surprising, at least if we have read authors such as Theodor Adorno. Since almost one century, philosophers have kept telling us that a culture industry and a mass society are endagering real freedom and democracy. I cannot really see, then, where the scandal would be, in a world where almost everything is a commodity, if individuals and companies could simply buy and sell documents describing personal experiences. The point is not if I sell or if I give a present. The point is: are we giving something that has an intrinsic value or that is purely instrumental to the social fabric?
To Delphi79: “paying” and “giving economic incentives” are not the same thing. Paying is just giving money, presumably with the hope that some behaviors will be changed, but without any interest in the actual application of values such as tolerance. The economic inventives that would be provided through my schemes, on the other hand, would require individuals to be actively involved in initiatives that are aligned with some given values. Adopting values would be a form of investment, as well as a form of self-expression through a precise moral and cultural identity.
Thank you again.
Thanks for responding! I saw this further response to your latest remarks on Reddit, so I brought it over here, like I did with the original comment:
“Ah, a reply directly from the author, fantastic! If you don’t mind, your proposal is still a bit confusing to me and I would appreciate some clarification on some or all of these points:
1. If this ‘experience document’ is not intellectual property, how can a state expect to make money off of selling it? And how is this different from what think tanks and other NGOs already put out for free?
2. In several parts of the article you seem to suggest that “values” can be used as a means of exchange. Again, without intellectual property or some ownership of the material, why someone would give up a good, service, or currency to obtain such a document? Perhaps if it were a consultancy fee or some kind of training to foster a value (as values/behaviors/motivations cannot be instantly adopted and must be continuously worked on), but you are suggesting simply a document describing experiences can have a high market price?
3. I’m having trouble understanding how your second proposal reduces alienation. Do you believe that it is less alienating to do work when you know that your boss has similar political/moral beliefs as you? Unless the business as a whole actually acts in a manner that I agree with, how my boss thinks won’t reduce alienation except insofar as we have improved compassion with each other as a result (and this interhuman compassion can happen with people who believe differently from you). If this proposal does relate to company-wide missions, how does your proposal differ from job applicants seeking out companies with a reputation for goodwill/sustainability or are known for doing charitable work in their preferred cause?
4. Probably the main source of my confusion is the idea that it is possible to “buy” values. For the most part, values are something ingrained in people from socialization and experiences. If one consciously desires to change certain values within themselves, one must put in a sustained effort over time to make that change. Someone selling me a document of their “experiences” doesn’t make me instantly adopt their values at an unconscious level even if that’s what I consciously want to do — our brains aren’t designed to make sudden changes in personality like that. Unless I’m missing something; how do you envision the actual adoption of values to work after receiving an “experiences” document?
Thank you for your response. You describe problems that I am interested in solving, but I can’t quite wrap my head around your solution.
thank you for the further very important questions raised by Vladimir. They help me to clarify some aspects of my proposals. I am also available for further clarification (my Twitter contact is indicated at the end of the article). Coming to the questions:
1. As regards the role of the State in exchanging the documents that I referred to (and that indeed we could call experience descriptors), it would not be substantially different from the role of private operators (companies and individuals): States, companies or individuals would purchase these documents, analyze them in terms of feasibility of the policies and initiatives that they describe, and sell (or exchange with other documents) them after widening – through applying the values – the lists of experiences. The price of each document would be the sum of the prices of the relevant experiences referred to a given value, that would be determined by demand and supply on the market. Therefore, each holder of a document could sell it at a price higher than purchase cost, because of two factors: on one hand, a possible increase in the demand –and, therefore, price – of relevant experiences referred to that value; on the other, the circumstance of adding new experiences to the document, through the exercise of one’s autonomy. The State could also regulate the market for values, in the sense of deciding, for instance, which values would be exchanged for a certain period of time. In the current juncture, spreading environmental values should clearly be a priority.
On the role of think tanks and NGOs, I totally agree that they provide an important contribution to spreading some values. In my scheme, the different element would consist in giving an economic incentive (i.e. the increase in the price of the document) to adopt some values also to companies and individuals that operate in another sector, not related with those values, or that constantly stood against them.
2. According to my proposal, as described in my book “Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times”, each value (e.g. environmentalism) could be exchanged with other values (e.g. social justice), or with goods and services. This latter possibility would make of values a means of exchange complementary to money. The reason for this consists in giving an economic incentive to apply the values, without practicing mere speculation on the price of the documents. This is also why values should not be exchanged directly with money. While ideally values should only be exchanged with each other, and such transactions should only have the purpose of adopting values independent from one’s social role (what I call functional autonomy), the idea of making of values a means of exchange complementary to money would also be consistent with considering them as a form of capital, that can be used to inspire professional and personal activities. Again, in general the economic incentive to buy something is not the level of its market price, but the expected change in this price. And the adoption of values strongly requested by the market, the addition of several experiences to the document, or, most likely, both circumstances, would ensure the profitability of the investment represented by the purchase of a given value.
3. On the issue of alienation, I do believe that a worker can perceive a job as more fulfilling, as the literature confirms, in an environment that shares his core values. But, in the case of my proposal, workers would not only know that their boss or coworkers support their ideals: they would also know that, through the cooperation on common objectives, some values would have a chance to have a real impact, an economic viability and, therefore, a likelihood to be spread to other companies and organizations, or parts of society. I fully agree that there are already many situations in which job applicants seek out companies with reputation for some values, and this is a very important development of our times. However, those values are, in most cases, instrumental to a different, or at least wider corporate mission and, in a nutshell, profit. My proposal would make of values an end in itself, to be pursued through forms of cooperation mostly at the local level. Another difference consists in the fact that these forms of cooperation would be able to generate spillovers to the rest of the regions involved, through economic and political incentives.
4. The idea of buying and selling values can be considered, if you will, a provocation aimed at highlighting how our beliefs and criteria for judging reality, while apparently free, are actually strongly influenced by our social role of consumers, workers, producers. A relatively little share of the population can freely choose what job to do, based on general principles such as social justice, environmentalism and so on. But my proposal is much more than a provocation. It’s the attempt to give a formal, economic, legal role to those inner motivations (values and, as I argue in my book Exchanging Autonomy, metavalues) on which a rational, public discourse is totally absent. Now, purchasing a document that contains relevant experiences of a given value would not mean to change one’s personality or to renounce one’s ideals. It would simply be an opportunity for an individual to invest part of his resources in a different, new form of activity, and concretely apply his beliefs as well as widen them. I want to stress that the relevant experiences would be certified on the basis of commonly agreed indicators (for instance, in the case of environmental values, the percentage of investment devoted to renewables), and, therefore, adopting values would not imply an abstract, simply existential change: it would mean changing the way in which businesses, workers and consumers operate. If you will, by “values” I mean “modalities to perform certain activities, and the aims of these activities”.
I think my clarifications have been quite detailed, and consistent with what argued in my book “Exchanging Autonomy” and in other articles.
Thank you again,
“On an optimistic note, Grant’s example offers some reason to hope that a President Trump, should he be elected, may not be as bigoted as Candidate Trump has been.”
Comparisons with Grant aside, how’s that working out for you?
(Silly comment, I know, but I stumbled on this essay and couldn’t resist.
My view is that philosophy needs to be ingrained in law making to some extent, however, maybe we should not rely on the masses to get up to speed in being able to philosophize.
I think a rather good solution to this would be to create a section of government that resembles Plato’s philosopher kings. This would require more voter initiatives like California. It would work by the voters voting on a law they have proposed, and, if passed, then the philosophy section of the government would hyper-analyze the law.
The philosophy section of the government could hyper-analyze the law and ensure that it would not hinder anyone’s freedoms and that it upheld good morality, depending on what morality the philosophy section has prescribed to.
This may be an attack on democracy, as not all laws that the majority voted for would come to fruition, however, it may lead to more fair laws, and better laws for society.
Right… so you want to dismantle the Republic and set up some kind of aristocracy?
This is a simple riddle the person who lives is the person who has favor, of the power(sellsword).
This is a simple riddle the person who lives is the person who has favor, of the power(sellsword). The person he gives his power to lives. Power is given, like life and death is given. His power will be given based off his values and morals.
Really well written. I appreciate the level of care taken to write something like this.
This article is excellent. Well written and thought provoking. Especially appreciate the parallel to Roth’s The Plot Against America and the connection of “reality TV” to authoritarianism.
Very invective and original analysis
Phenomenal work, bud. Keep it up. Some parts I don’t know about, was there really a peaceable kingdom? Not Ashoka, who was covered in blood first, but later? The essence though is gold. When was this written?
The article was first published here in April of 2016.
Then there’s the Tibet as the most enlightened society … really? I mean, really, not just in some romantic archetypical fantasy? Still feudal, landowners and lamas with most of the wealth, most of the peasantry dirt poor. I haven’t looked much, but I don’t know about that. Is that essential to your essay? That there be evidence we can get there? But you only cite potential myths and legends, no facts, no explanation of how those were dharmic societies, how they differed from before and after, what they did, how the people lived and so on. I don’t know if you’re right and it’s just my Buddhist supremacy radar going off or what.
Tibet has a turbulent history indeed, and fluctuating degrees of economic feudalism informed that history. But from the 17th century to 1950, Tibet was in fact a Dharma-nation, hence a model for enlightened living, with an emphasis on the enlightenment adventure. Tibet, empirically and historically, is not to be confused with Shambhala: the invisible kingdom of perfect peace, wisdom, and joy (perhaps existing on what we might call the astral level). For a detailed history of Tibet that speaks more fully to your question(s), read Robert Thurman’s 40-page “Introduction” to his book ESSENTIAL TIBETAN BUDDHISM.
will try to reply soon
I’ll meet you in the Middle Way. Watch Robert Thurman’s DVD entitled TIBET. Also his hilarious DVD called GOD AND BUDDHA, in conversation with Deepok Chopra. Either or both possibly offered on youtube. Then let me know, and I’ll respond in modest detail to your comments and questions.
The email you posted is invalid.
Just fixed the link. Thanks for pointing that out!
Good stuff. An additional point: owning property requires the existence of a society that roughly agrees that you own it. In this sense, property has always been a society-wide decision. One cannot go out into the wilderness and acquire property while alone. This refutes the idea of property as something created by the idividual.
Does having a son require that other people agree that I have one?
I disagree with your premise. How are you defining “property” such that a lone man on a deserted island can’t own anything?
Exactly, PJ. This is what I mean when I say in the article that property (as distinct from possession) is a legal concept. To say that we have property in something is to say that we have certain rights in respect to it. Rights only have meaning in a social context.
Thanks for your comment.
Nozick rejected the Lockean proviso in “Anarchy, State and Utopia.” The Lockean proviso actually provides more questions than answers, and would seem to make appropriation of land impossible, eliminating exclusionary property. That’s the shortest response to this essay needed.
Might also be worth pointing out that libertarians are not the “radical right.” Libertarians are anti-government types. The radical right is authoritarian and opposed to the free market.
Also, there is a distinction in libertarianism between “negative” (i.e. natural) and “positive” rights. There can be no “natural right to have access to the property needed for a decent life.” Why? Because this “right” requires the labor or beneficience of others; something which might not necessarily exist. It’s absurd to argue one has a “natural right” to anothers’ labor.
Thanks for your response, William.
I don’t exactly see how pointing out that Nozick rejected the Lockean Proviso constitutes a sufficient refutation of my argument. That’s granting Nozick’s thought a degree of authority I’m not sure I’m willing to grant.
On another note, strictly speaking, the natural right to have access to property is a right pertaining to the state of nature. Indeed, that’s where the Proviso comes in. It’s not a right to another’s labor but to another’s refraining from acquiring so much property that others will no longer have the ability to acquire property for themselves. That’s the gist of the Proviso.
The question becomes: how do you translate that to a societal system in which all the property is already owned.
The answer, as I see it, can only be that property acquired beyond a certain limit must be recognized as subject to general distribution so as to ensure its availability to those without sufficient property.
If you don’t want the property you labor for to be subject to such distribution, don’t acquire it. No one – and no group of people – has a right to acquire so much property as to make it impossible for others to acquire the property they need to live.
That would be a right to tyranny, not liberty.
Nice article, Richard. Beautifully written, well argued, timely, and potent. And, in good Socratic fashion, thought-provoking! Your article exhibits what I call heart-centered rationality; in this case, a philosophic argument for virtue-centered egalitarian social democracy.. So, bravo, bro. Keep up the good work. Implicitly yet profoundly, your “critique” offers a cogent hermeneutic of Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Thanks for the kind words, Stefan!
There is an assumption in the assertion that “all property is already owned”, and therefore those who own the property will be forever in control, that the value of all property never changes. One can surely accrue wealth without increasing ownership of property, if the value of property increases. Or wealth decreases as the value of the property decreases. This is the assumption that inequality remains constant and that there is no economic mobility, and economic mobility is not even possible. History, facts, statistics make it extremely obvious that this assertion is false.
Thanks for your thoughts, Greg.
I don’t quite see how this is a false assumption. Where in the U.S., for instance, can you acquire land without acquiring it from someone who owns it or in some way has rights over it? I don’t believe you can. The days of going out west and staking a claim are long over.
All material property comes from the earth. This means that all material goods (of any significance, discounting trash) are currently owned by someone. The only way for someone without property to acquire it, then, is to get it from someone else.
Of course it’s possible to expand property that you already own without the help of others (grow food on your own land, for instance) but the property that you so expand must have originally come from someone else.
We are all born naked into the world. In our current system, the only way to get clothes, or the material with which to make clothes, is to get it from someone else.
Even ignoring unreclaimed assets like the fish on the sea, the unexplored land, their inheritance from their family or others, people are not born propertyless: they own their own body and therefore their labor. With this only property, wouldn’t you say your argument is invalid? They can access the labor market, earn money, and access the property market. At no point they are at mercy of others, unless you believe getting a work is a right; which really isn’t a common believe in the libertarian doctrine, so it wouldn’t be a “libertarian error”.
But Fernando, a worker cannot access the labor market unless somebody hires him. His willingness to labor must be met by the willingness of property owners to hire him and pay for his labor. Without that, he will starve, however much he may be willing to labor. So he is indeed at the mercy of others.
Suppose property owners should decide that a certain class of people – say people whose first names begin with F – should either not be employed at all or be employed only at slave wages. According to libertarian principles that would be perfectly acceptable – given that property owners have an absolute right to decide what to do with their property.
But that would be unjust, would it not? In such a society you would starve, or be forced into near slavery. Surely this is not a prescription for liberty. It follows that one’s right to do as one pleases with one’s property cannot be absolute.
Thanks for your comment!
This is splendid: exhilarating in its coherence and compelling in it’s immediacy. Suddenly we live in dilemmas that gave us Socrates’ reflections and we seem headed for the uncertainty of Hobbes’ era.
We’re seeing the travails of governance and participation in a time of polarisation, weaponized narrative, fake news and the rapid retreat from reason on a global scale. Technologism and consumerism have produced a symbiotic attention economy that further erodes opportunity for public reasoning.
The author demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of what machine learning is, of current findings in neuroscience and also managed to contradict his own logic while trying to attack his own strawman. Bravo!
Can you please elaborate? I’m interested in getting a better understanding and am wondering if you could (a) provide a source that clearly and simply explains what machine learning is, (b) expand on what these “current findings in neuroscience” might be (source or study?j, and (c) explicitly identify where the author’s argument contradicts itself.
I agree, and not only current findings in neuroscience, the basic structure of how our brain works is not understood by him leading him to make erroneous statements and implications.
“When I make a decision as to what I am going to do I generally do it in some such manner as this: I envision alternate possible futures, think about which actions will lead to which futures, and then choose my action on the basis of the future I want to actualize. Does application X-Y do anything of the kind? Well, we know for a fact that it doesn’t. Application X-Y simply does, at any given moment, the next thing it is programmed to do based upon the electronic conditions prevalent at that moment. It does not envision possible futures, it does not consider alternative actions, and it does not choose on the basis of its desire. ”
In a certain sense people are just following the cultural and biological programming they are made of. All decisions have a reason for why they were made. This reason was by definition why that choice was made instead of any other. We determine value from a societal or biological perspective and act on what will lead us to that value. We may confuse ourselves because we are very complex and believe we are going after one goal when really it is another we are after but nonetheless all actions are done because of a pull from some goal.
It is not hard to imagine a process where a computer looks at an array of decisions and based on which one gets the process to its valued goal, executes that decisions. Chess A I does something of the sort. It can change direction based on changing environments.
Maybe your X-Y computer can’t change course at the level of complexity you imagine it at but don’t believe your model is exhaustive.
“Computers are not like the human mind, because the former are not intelligent, and the latter is.”
Your definition of intelligence is conflated with consciousness. Your subjective knowledge of your decision making process is not itself a sign of intelligence. You can be consciously aware of things that have no connection to your brain’s decision making process (see Gazzaniga’s split brain experiments) and in neuroscience it’s reasonably well established that your conscious experiences are for the most part generated *after* unconscious processes reach decisions. “Intelligence”, having knowledge of the world and being able to act on that knowledge toward a goal, probably has nothing at all to do with consciousness. Once you correctly define intelligence as being potentially unconscious then you can do away with your concerns with argument B and once you recognize that you will also see that machine learning *algorithms* (go read about q-learning) can act in an intelligent manner without any human intervention. Even the q-learning algorithm is discoverable by random mutation over time (genetic algorithm machine learning), which takes the human out of the system entirely. Your anthropocentric argument for intelligence is, in short, outdated.
Well you seem to have forgotten what your professors have told you when you joined your first programming course.
“You cannot program a computer to solve a problem that you do not know how to solve by yourself”.
In the end, machine learning algorithms are inherently deterministic. The computer switches it’s state based on the inputs received, a cost function that is intended to reflect how far am I from my goal, and ironically a random component, which if you truly understand cs know that is not so random after all. All this combined gives you an idea of intelligence, however, anything the program does is exactly what the programmer intended it to do. In the end, all its changes of state can be anticipated by any humans with enough spare time.
The Turing test intends to identify true AI(artificial intelligence), by virtue of its apparent similarity to BI(biological intelligence). But might it unintentionally reveal that BI isn’t sufficiently conscious (aware enough), to differentiate between non-sentient AI robots and pseudo-sentient homo sapiens? Put another way: Might the device doing the determination be of such a standard, that any device being evaluated by it doesn’t have to achieve that much?
The authors first argument is much like Paley’s arguments for a cosmic designer in Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, that any intelligence is proof of a greater intelligence which must have created it. (possiblyunsurprising given their education). Failing to understand that computer intelligences may not function like ours, and even for current neural nets only at low levels humans can understand the processes, but cannot necessarily specify how the net “made its decision”.
This is also much like we understand how the neurons in our brains work, understand how the synaptic feedbacks are changed by various hormones, but have no real clue how consciousness works, currently staking it up to an emergent effect of a sufficiently complex network.
I suspect this article is the result of someone having no expertise in neuro-biology, nor machine learning, having instead a PhD in comparative religion. I mean, for a real world example, just look at the recent achievements of OpenAI, not only perfectly learning human techniques for games and applying them at such a high level that champions stand no chance, but also developing entirely novel techniques for said games that the top human players are struggling to learn.
Another point to be made is : Does consciousness really matter? Most recent studies show that humans make a decision, begin to act upon it, become aware of this, and then rationalise it, in that order. Machines are currently at stage 2 of that process, they may never need stage 3 and 4 as in reality the action is what is important.
TL;DR The author is mistaking consciousness for intelligence.
It seems recent studies involving electrodes implanted in human brain shows humans have the ability to control and regulate their neural activity volitionally. Quantum science says mind can influence the outcome of a process. Unlike computers we are self aware of our thoughts and actions. Self awareness create choices .Recent scientific studies shows physical and social environments can make a difference in the neural flexibility.
I concur with the majority of comments here, especially the ones stating that the author is conflating intelligence with consciousness.
In Cognitive Psychology, we find something called The Computational Paradox, which asserts: “The more we discover that the brain is like a computer, the more we discover that the brain is not like a computer.” I think this paradox leans toward affirming Oxenberg’s argument.
Let me thank everyone for your comments. I might note that the article is not intended to be a discussion of recent developments in artificial intelligence or recent discoveries in neuroscience.
The argument of the article comes down to something very simple: human intelligence, as we experience it from “within,” is self-aware and teleological, whereas computer operations, as we have ourselves designed them, are deterministic and without self-knowledge. Hence computers are not ‘intelligent,’ where human intelligence serves as the standard for what is meant by “intelligence.”
Of course this is not to say that computers cannot mimic and exceed human calculative abilities. They certainly can and will no doubt continue to progress in their ability to do so. But this is not “intelligence” as it has been traditionally understood.
For instance, when we ask if we will one day discover intelligent life on another planet we don’t mean to ask whether we will one day discover very sophisticated calculating machines. We are asking whether we will one day encounter self-aware, rational, teleologically ordered, decision-making beings.
I think we dehumanize ourselves when we suppose that we are nothing more than computers and/or that computers are nothing less than we. In order not to do so we should remain mindful that *artificial* intelligence is not actual intelligence.
Bravo, Richard. A simple, astute, succinct response; richly textured. A fusion of Ockham’s razor and Promethean torch; recollecting Kierkegaard observation: “You’ll never find consciousness at the other end of a microscope.”
Thanks, Stefan. That Kierkegaardian quote about sums it up.
And now the momentum swings to the left, even more than it did before, and in the land a new king will arise who doesn’t remember the former times, except for the fake history he finds in books. When the One who forgives returns, however, not even Donald Trump will be able to change what has been written. What has been spoken will not be changed and like both love and faith, hope will remain forever.
(1st Cor. 13:13).
1. Would it make a difference if C16 was changed to read ““Refusing to refer to a person either by their self-identified name, or by the proper [preferred] personal pronoun constitutes gender-based harassment.”?
2. Doesn’t C16 offer the incoherent policy as an optional policy that universities may elect to adopt, pursuant to their individual governance systems? My understanding– which might be in error — is that this would be an incoherent policy that mandates or coerces speech which can be voluntarily adopted by universities. That context would appear to affect the way in which the contradictory premises in the bill would entail any other conclusion — e.g., only in cases in which a university has elected, via its governance procedures, to adopt the policy.
Would contradictory law or policy set at the university level necessarily entail any conclusion in other civil domains, or only at universities subject to the legislation? Or only those that voluntarily adopt it?
3. Are there no examples of other incoherent laws that have introduced contradictory laws into the body politic? C16 may be an Aegean, rather than a Trojan Horse.
Thanks, Nicholas Ravnikar, for your thoughtful questions (though I count 5, not 3). Here are my replies.
1. I think your rewrite of C16 as a disjunction would be helpful, since a disjunction (when understood as an inclusive-or statement) is true when at least one of its disjuncts is true. This would allow for those who disagree with the ideology lurking behind preferred pronouns not to be compelled to use such pronouns, and this would allow for those who want to be referred by preferred pronouns or actual name to be called by their actual name. Interestingly, however, in the context of interpretation of C16 (as I point out in my above article) this option is given and also negated. For more on this see 21:55 – 25:20 of the May 17, 2017, Senate Hearing on Bill C16: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnIAAkSNtqo .
2. I’m pretty sure that C16 is law for all Canadians (it’s an addition to the categories to which Canada’s hate-crime laws apply) and to be understood federally (for all Canadians) in terms of the context of interpretation constituted by the policies of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), as was indicated clearly by a link at the website of Canada’s Department of Justice when C16 was set out. (Perhaps the Canadian government is back-pedaling on this now, because the link explaining the interpretive procedure via OHRC policies was surreptitiously removed.) If a university has freedom via its governance procedures not to adopt the policy, that would be great—and would limit legally the otherwise anything-goes consequences of logically contradictory claims at the heart of C16 (when interpreted via OHRC policies).
3. I don’t know of other examples of laws logically incoherent at their core (of course, I may be lacking knowledge here). If there are such laws, then they are problematic logically and can thereby serve as “grounds” for any new and weird piece of legislation. The fact remains that reasoning from what is at its foundation a contradiction anything follows logically/ deductively validly (which may explain some of the present confusion surrounding C16).
Thanks again for your thoughtful questions. I hope my replies are helpful. Best wishes for 2018!
Hendrik van der Breggen – I appreciate you taking time to clarify these points. I’ve been looking more at C-16 and Peterson’s critique thereof. I’m wholly on board with your assertions in response, here. I do think that I would amplify your response in #3 above, insofar as my intuition is that it’s more likely that some precedent flaw has allowed for C-16 than that C-16 is the novel incoherence. I you’ve had a great start to your year! Looking forward to reading more of your stuff.
“illustrates Tel Aviv’s continuing diplomatic offensive”
*Jerusalem’s continuing diplomatic offensive
Fix this error.
The clinician’s response was totally unprofessional. You don’t talk about a patient or their accompanying relatives behind their back, like someone was rolling over last’s night’s football scores around the snack table or coffee machine with their co-workers. No offense meant, MOTIMT, but you should’ve said something, especially if this ‘clinician’ saw you as an equal.
If I had any idea that a health care worker I interacted with frequently thought that way about me or mine, I’d find another one. I realize that someone can’t just button up feelings they have, strong or not, being just as human as anybody else, but that is not the way to be talking about someone’s patients or behind their back.
“Who were the people in Charlottesville if not radical statists, blackshirts in waiting, the foot soldiers of the establishment ”
Yes you leftist moron, the people who the state and city government attempted to shut down, the police attacked and corralled, the media villified and the corporations then de-platformed are the foot soldiers of the establishment.
In reality it’s you and those like you who serve the interests of the establishment, you support their open borders globalist agenda 100%, and help silence the few willing to oppose it.
Marvelous writing! One of the best pieces I’ve ever read decrying the voluminous mortal sins of Trump and company.
“It’s like OMG: you start saying it as a joke but quickly find yourself using it for real.”
Yes, how you practice is how you play.
Thank you for the link to your essay, Stefan. It is the most perfect brief overview of Buddhism’s history and philosophy I have read!
I have only one question that I was hoping you might want to cast some light on: it is the issue of what happens to a bodhisattva’s conduct after enlightenment.
My understanding is that nirvana is akin to a “paradigm shift,” i.e. it is a profound new way of seeing which is beyond experience itself, beyond subject and object, and the world.
You seem to regard this as a kind of escape, but I wonder if it is not simply a stage on the journey? As in the Zen ox-herding tale, it occurs somewhere near the end, but according to the tale, the true “end” is the return to the marketplace with open hands, ready to be of service. So far, so good, and I am in agreement with your interpretation.
However, those who claim to have awakened – which the Buddha did not hesitate to do, after his initial doubts – suggest that the new vision which comes into view is beyond individual consciousness, beyond the world, outside time and space, and without the sorts of qualities which we associate with “spiritual” success such as bliss, all-encompassing compassion, equanimity, humility, etc.
This does not, however, mean – as far as I can grasp this – that one discontinues this life or the pursuit of an ethically impeccable lifestyle. The ox-herder returns, but he returns having been purged of all former illusions, in particular separate selfhood.
So this is where my question comes in: If nirvana is such a paradigm shift, can we make any assumptions about the conduct of the bodhisattva after awakening? It could be the case that, as you claim, s/he remains ethically pure, but it seems to me that this may not necessarily be so. It is my understanding that a paradigm shift can’t be “seen” until it has happened; it can’t be described beforehand. All one can know, for now, are the anomalies presented by the present paradigm.
I have debated this issue with many over the years, and nobody has ever agreed with me, and I am the one who disagrees with myself most, but somehow this issue will not go away. So that is why I am appealing for some help.
The reason is that it seems logical to me (and maybe this matter is beyond logic, but for the sake of this discussion I will stick with logic, as I understand it) that if a paradigm shift has occurred within consciousness and it is realized that the personalized self is gone, time and space are gone, the entire cosmos is no more; then will there be any cleaving to what is conventionally regarded as “ethical conduct”?
Could it not become the case that after awakening, that a particular body-mind (I put it like that to emphasize the impersonal nature of the awakened being), is now in full service to humankind (which is a concept, but now, from the awakened perspective, it is accepted as merely that and no longer regarded as a reality), conducts itself in only in ways which help other deluded being to awaken, and that this does not necessitate conventional “ethical” conduct? It may well take the form of becoming a negative “prod”, as it were, say in the form of a thief, a rapist, a murderous dictator,etc.?
I suggest this in order that we might regard the negative persons in our lives in a light which is different from the one in which we see them now, which tends towards condemnation and the wish to reform them. I often ask myself, what if I saw such people as prodding me towards the understanding that the world is not necessarily as I insist on seeing it?
As you can see by now, I am heading towards something like a perspective which lies beyond good and evil, because our world is so heavily predicated upon these concepts, and the result seems to be an endless path of reformation. When you look at the news – which you say you don’t, but which you must surely become aware of from time to time, unless you avoid all conversations about the world – it is replete with just that: good and evil, and endless speculation about remedies which might ensure that we keep the good and dispense with the bad.
And when we look at human history – what we know of it – it seems to be an ongoing struggle with evil and striving for better. Really. Endless. All 6000-odd recorded years of it. And looking less likely to improve every day. Yet we insist on seeing the world in this way and we persist with remedial actions and new projects for reformation which end up seemingly like drops in the ocean. This view strikes me as truly tragic and I hope I might have shown that it is possibly also misguided.
If it is true, then it seems to me we have little if any hope. However, it is misguided, then we may have cause for hope.
So this is why I put the question: could it not be that at least some of the evil people in our lives are bodhisattvas in disguise? Maybe they are serving humankind in the best way possible to free us from our suffering?
How is this possible? Well, I can only speculate, but it seems to me that if I can begin to see the “divine” nature of all people – and in particular people I dislike or judge negatively – I am beginning to give up my investment in a particular configuration of the world and its people before I can allow myself to be happy. Are we not very heavily reliant on the conduct of others for our happiness? And if we are, are we not enslaved to them? And when they “misbehave” and we judge them as less than ourselves are we not perpetuating the personal self because we see them as self-driven, i.e. as separate “selves” who are behaving unacceptably?
So that seems to be the crux of my question: if we are to realize anatta (no-self, or not-self, depending on one’s theoretical preference) are we not being asked by the Buddha to become willing to see the “emptiness” of all beings, including ourselves, and are the “wrongdoers” not possibly our greatest helpers along the way? If we can “empty” them of selfhood, by stopping this very old blame-game unilaterally, will we not also begin to confirm our own emptiness, and realize the impersonal nature of “our” suffering?
Please don’t infer from this that I am proposing an end to ethical concerns. Unawakened beings are obviously required to follow ethical guidelines by the Buddha. I am merely concerned with opening up a debate about post-awakening conduct by suggesting that maybe we don’t know how we will act when we have awakened because by all accounts that “new earth” will be so radically different from the one we believe we know now.
Thank you for reading this very, very long question. I can only hope that you and maybe others will find it of interest and can help me with my question. And please forgive my rather complicated style; I don’t have any formal schooling in the elegant art of philosophical debate, hence the many hyphenated and bracketed sections.
And, lastly, all of this is predicated on the assumption that you do not claim to be awakened; at least not in so many words. If, however, you do, then I take it all back and I happily bow to your wisdom.
I make no claim to enlightenment. I’m simply a pilgrim on the path. Imperfect and flawed in all too many ways, but trying to maintain equanimity and balance. Call it the middle way; or, as I sometimes prefer, “existential zen.” As mentioned in our personal correspondence, I doubt that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do any kind of wrong. All Buddhas are Bodhisattvas, and all Bodhisattvas are committed to compassion, healing, inspiration, service. But, as also mentioned, perhaps an angelic guide (bodhisattva in disguise) presses upon the thought-form you inquire about in order to spur you to cultivate healing and dispersing mantras in response, as well as to cultivate the art of lucid dreaming in order to more quickly answer your own question. Best of luck. Om Shanti.
This is an excellent article with persuasive points. I’d like to know more, however, about how this discussion of religious scriptures pointing to a transcendent One accounts for a second function of nearly all religious texts: the realization and maintenance of religious experience in concrete, historically specific communities. Transcendence is a noble concept and accurately describes an important aspect of religious experience. On the other hand, though, religious experiences of a universal One tend to channel themselves into specific communal allegiances and practices. A great deal of the biblical literature, for example, deals more with managing community (legal material, historical narrative reinforcing identity, etc.) than with trying to identify the nature of the One. These practices depend on the experience of the One and might even be seen as practices (rituals) meant to clarify or access the transcendent One. But these communities also name the One, make specific and sometimes exclusive claims about the One, define themselves in opposition to other communities seeking the One. So how do you envision the relationship (maybe the tension) between the transcendent One and concrete instances of religious practice? Very few religious communities exist around a nebulous concept of transcendence, but rather identify specific ways that this One enters into human history. Religious texts are about the One, granted, but they are often at least as concerned with how those who more or less share a common concept of the One form communities. Thanks for a great article, and I hope to learn more.
Rich, you are now the teacher of your old teacher, and that is a joy, a gift received with soulful gratitude.
Thank you Jack!
Thank you for a very provocative question, Rich (and sorry for my rather long delay in responding – I haven’t been monitoring the comments and I just saw this.)
I write in my article that “I see the Bible as pointing to a fundamental Oneness of reality as a whole, underlying the diversity of ordinary, worldly, experience – a Oneness that we are to recognize, commune with, devote ourselves to, and, finally, rest in.”
I think that this statement is true in essence, but I would also say that, as an account of what the Bible is as a whole, it is not complete. The Bible, as scholars note, is the work of many hands, an interweaving of multiple texts, many of which are themselves rooted in oral traditions that doubtlessly underwent many transformations before being fixed in written form. So the God who appears in the Bible is a multi-faceted and multi-layered figure, which, as I say, “points to” the “fundamental Oneness” of which I speak, but is also an imperfect reflection of such Oneness. This is why I say that we must adopt a principle of biblical fallibility in reading the Bible. We cannot assume that every passage of the Bible is a perfect, or even true, reflection of divine Oneness.
My own view is that the biblical authors are (for the most part) inspired by some vision or intuition of this Oneness and its significance, but that this inspiration is never pure. As Paul writes, “we see through a glass darkly.” That dark glass is our own, less than fully sanctified, nature.
I think you make a good point when you say, “A great deal of the biblical literature, for example, deals more with managing community (legal material, historical narrative reinforcing identity, etc.) than with trying to identify the nature of the One.” That’s very true.
And yet at the heart of the Torah is the command: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” It is in the context of this overarching command that the other commands are issued.
What is being said here (as I read it) is that Israel in particular, and, later, through Christ, the whole of humanity, is to live in a manner that reflects the Oneness of God (and, by implication, the unity of the creation and the solidarity of human beings). Love and justice are the spiritual and moral expressions of this Oneness. The specific commandments – at least ideally – are intended as means to the end of establishing a loving and just society.
But again (as the Bible also documents) human beings regularly fall short of this ideal, and the Bible itself, as a text, falls short of this ideal. That is why we are ever called on to do the hermeneutical-theological work of wrestling with the text, and with the order of the communities formed around the text, in order to make both better reflect the ideal.
I hope that is helpful as a response to your very rich question. And thanks again for your comment!
Thank you, Richard, I appreciate your reply. I recently had the chance to lead a conversation on some of the wisdom literature contained in (various versions of) the Bible, and noted in the group (as others have) that the wisdom literature in particular is primarily directed at individuals rather than communities. This part of the biblical literature may be more relevant to the *existential* concerns of any reflections that take Heidegger as seriously as your article and book do. In other words, among the concerns of the individual (existential concerns) would be the ability to access and experience the transcendent One, whereas for the community (the religious community) the ability to gather around a common understanding of the One might take precedence. In any case, thanks for your thoughts!
Our current federal Liberal government claim to run on science-base decision-making. On abortion it’s obvious they run on ideology-base decision-making.
All that may be correct in theory, but in practice a woman may need to terminate a pregnancy…
Making abortion illegal doesn’t make the need for it go away, it just makes it more dangerous for the mother.
Pregnancy takes a toll on a woman’s body… I guess you can’t expect a male professor to know that.
Also, what do you propose we do with the unwanted babies produced by forcing women to bear the child to term? Put them in the foster system to be mistreated and end up homeless or in jail?
Thanks for your comment, Sarah Howell. You set out several different points, so I will reply to each of them individually.
Re: “All that may be correct in theory, but in practice a woman may need to terminate a pregnancy…”
I’m glad you agree that my pro-life replies to the pro-choice arguments are correct—it’s important to realize that the pro-choice arguments are problematic.
About your claim about practice, I have three responses. First, it’s important to realize that the phrase “terminate a pregnancy” is a euphemism (i.e., words that cloak an unpleasant or ugly reality; birth is also a termination of pregnancy, but doesn’t dismember/ destroy the child as abortion does). Second, if a woman truly needs an abortion—i.e., the continued pregnancy in fact threatens the physical health or life of the mother—I’m pretty sure most pro-life advocates would see that as a legitimate reason for abortion. Third, perspective concerning practice is needed: the vast majority (95%) of abortions are not for the hard cases such as rape, incest, or threat to physical health/ life of mother.
Re: “Making abortion illegal doesn’t make the need for it go away, it just makes it more dangerous for the mother.”
Here I think we can be creative in our law making. Perhaps a law against abortion should (a) criminalize late-term/ gendercide/ disability abortionists only, not women pressured into abortion, plus (b) help the women so pressured (just as Canada’s anti-prostitution law criminalizes pimps and johns, not the women pressured into prostitution, plus helps the women get out of prostitution). Most abortions are due to social problems, whereas abortions for the horrific circumstances of rape, incest, or when a mother’s life is threatened account for a small percentage only. Surely, social problems require social solutions—not the killing of children.
For additional thought on the topic of the alleged dangers of making abortion illegal, see my column “About outlawing abortions.” Link: http://apologiabyhendrikvanderbreggen.blogspot.ca/2016/11/about-outlawing-abortions.html
Re: “Pregnancy takes a toll on a woman’s body… I guess you can’t expect a male professor to know that.”
I think here you are very close to making an ad hominem fallacy (the mistake of attacking the person instead of his/ her arguments). Yes, I am a male and I am a professor. But that is not relevant to any of my arguments. Also, it’s simply false that I can’t/ don’t know how pregnancy affects a woman’s body.
(By the way, my wife and I have two sons and she is more physically fit now than ever before. She runs half marathons and she trains at the gym almost daily.)
Re: “Also, what do you propose we do with the unwanted babies produced by forcing women to bear the child to term? Put them in the foster system to be mistreated and end up homeless or in jail?”
For starters, I think it’s important to realize that killing children isn’t an appropriate “solution” to unwanted children, just as killing homeless people isn’t an appropriate solution to homelessness. Again, social problems require social solutions, not the killing of children.
Also, I think ethicist Charles Camosy makes some good proposals for the handling of the so-called “unwanted babies” in his book Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (2015). Perhaps the following quote from my review of Camosy’s book will be helpful:
“In chapter five Camosy argues that ‘we should consider both prenatal children and their mothers as vulnerable populations,’ but, and significantly, current abortion ‘choice’ favors neither. As mentioned, over 1.2 million pre-natal children are killed annually in the U.S. while only 2% are due to the hard cases. But evidence also shows that large numbers of post-abortive mothers face guilt and increased health problems. Moreover, pregnant women face immense social pressures to ‘choose’ abortion without real options to handle the inconvenience/ burden associated with child-rearing. These pressures arise not only from the boyfriend/ husband, parents, family, and friends, but also from larger social structures. Significantly, Camosy argues, workplaces are geared to treating all employees as men. Here all of us should take note: ‘Our social structures force women to choose between (1) honoring their roles as the procreators and sustainers of the earliest stages of human life and (2) having social and economic equality with men.’ To protect prenatal children and their mothers, Camosy rightly argues, we should protect them from this dilemma.”
“In the last chapter and conclusion, Camosy proposes as a way forward his Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act. This act protects the vast majority of pre-natal children, allowing abortion in the small percentage of hard cases, plus outlines support for women to enable them to keep and raise their babies. Readers from all political stripes, and whether ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life,’ should consider Camosy’s proposal. If the proposal doesn’t end the abortion wars, it may at least reduce the number of casualties.”
(For the rest of my review of Camosy’s book and an Amazon link to the book, see here: http://apologiabyhendrikvanderbreggen.blogspot.ca/2016/08/beyond-abortion-wars-book-review.html )
Thanks again for your comment, Sarah Howell. I hope my replies are helpful.
Correction to my above comment: I’m glad you agree that my pro-life replies to the pro-choice arguments MAY BE correct…
My wife mentioned to me that while running this morning she thought about the claim that pregnancy takes a toll on a woman’s body. Her thought: abortion takes a much greater toll on the baby’s body.
This is a beautiful essay, and one of my all-time favorites. Having discovered it, I then used it in my philosophy courses with great success. Students loved it; and, in some cases, they said it changed their lives. This had partly to do with the opening poem, and even more to do with the lucid and brilliant way in which Oxenberg then “deconstructs” the poem to illuminate Heidegger’s non-traditional worldview. The poem is simple; and yet: so profound. The poem, and Oxenberg’s astute hermeneutic, exhibit a refreshingly Zen quality. The essay not only helped introduce my students to Existentialism in general and Heidegger in particular, it helped them to value what’s important in life, to appreciate the beauty of the simple and the everyday, and to reflect upon the preciousness of life and the worldview they bring to it. Thanks for posting the essay. It’s a real gem, and I hope it is widely read. Certainly one of its virtues is that it is accessible to, and applicable to, philosophizing folk in college, graduate school, and beyond.
There’s empirical truth and then there’s religious truth. One is reliable and of value the othe is speculative and dogmatic and often lethal.
You can defend a good life. A eudemonic life ie a happy life. We make these judgements when we say thd Scandanavians social democracies are the happiest places on Earth. Therefore thd bases of the see societies -cooperation rather than competition caring for people spreading material wealthough evenly are the ways to happiness. This good is empirical as isctgecway to maximise it.
1) Even if English is not your primary language, it would behoove you to spell-check your writing, or have a competent friend do it for you, before posting a comment. It would thus be easier for readers to follow and appreciate your points.
2) It would also behoove you to view the banned TED-talk on youtube by Rupert Sheldrake, entitled “The Science Delusion.” You seem to be well educated and very intelligent, and I think you would find it delightfully edifying.
3) As much as you do, and for the same reasons, I embrace and promote (much like the Dalai Lama) “social democracy” (aka: democratic socialism). And while Scandinavian countries are indeed far more enlightened and egalitarian than capitalist-centered societies like the US.A., so is Bhutan, which combines social democracy with enlightened monarchy. Check it out. You might be glad you did. You would then have the opportunity to discover that a primarily Buddhist nation — in which religious freedom is guaranteed by its Constitution — is not only not dogmatic, it is (being just the opposite of “lethal”) a paradigm for egalitarian economics, ecological sanity, and social enlightenment.
Bravo. This is a beautifully lucid, extremely timely, and deeply perceptive essay. It is absolutely right on target. I would only summarize and paraphrase it thus: Philosophy is the journey from the love of wisdom to the wisdom of love.
PS: The recollective and teleological thrust of your essay has a remarkably Buddhist parallel, easily shown in three quick points.
1) You rightly note that the linguistic roots of the word “philosophy” are the Greek terms “philia” and “sophia” — love and wisdom. Now, the word “Buddha” means “awake” (we might here think of Socrates and Plato), and the two wings of Buddhism are “prajna” and “karuna” — wisdom and compassion.
2) The Sanskrit root of the word “matter” — as both noun AND verb — is echoed in the words “mother” and “matrix.” Thus did Buddha long ago implicitly affirm, embrace, anticipate your (Heideggerian) “call” for an axiological revolution — a Nietzschean “overcoming” of the fact-value split, in which a paradigm shift in our notion of truth recalls us (in Zen-like fashion) to the poetry and art of life itself: the INTERBEING in which “we live and move and have our being.”
3) Socrates and Buddha would thus applaud your essay — its argument and its thesis — as a much needed and long overdue adventure in (a venturing into) Heart Centered Rationality.
Thanks for your comment. I think you make a fascinating observation when you note that the word ‘matter’ is originally derived from a word meaning “mother” (in both Sanskrit and Latin. Indeed, the Latin for mother is ‘mater’).
It’s interesting to speculate how a word meaning “mother” could become the basis for our modern concept of “matter.” It must have something to do with the notion that the world is born from matter as a child is born from a mother. But if this is the derivation, matter must have originally been thought of as the basic stuff of life – not as the dead stuff we tend to think of when we use the word.
The modern world has so accustomed us to think of ourselves as zombies – animated dead stuff – that it seems surprising to realize that, prior to modernity, people in general thought of the cosmos as fundamentally alive.
The paradigm shift that I call for in my article – and that I believe is in the process of taking place – may well reverse this. A hundred years from now we may look back upon the philosophy of metaphysical materialism as a strange aberation in human self-understanding. I can imagine future historians studying our time and puzzling over how human beings in general could have systematically lost sight of what is basic to their own self-experience.
I have to agree with Margie. This article hasn’t aged well. For that matter it wasn’t exactly on point in the first place. Comparing a Grant’s years earlier actions to Trumps current (two years ago) campaign promises. I’m pretty sure Grant didn’t campaign on bigotry. Any updates? Or retractions?
None of above makes sense!!!!!
wonderful funny piece!
Hard to believe it is not true…
Totally Onion worthy!
Lorenzo is the satirist of a generation.
Great job Josh. Always love your musings.
You are listing credit for Image: Caricature by DonkeyHotey
Missing credit: Musing by SirVantes
Putin, Trump, Rocky, all in the same article? Great. But for me the best part is yet to come… the next installment about Billy Joel.
Wow. Nice article. Adriennnnnnnnne!!!
Great essay, Josh! Wish you were running the country instead of DT.
Haven’t seen Creed yet, but this definitely, amusingly, and somewhat tragically works. Off to track that movie down now.
Now I want to see a Rocky movie. Good article, thanks!
A superb choice for satire, perfectly executed. Your best piece yet, Josh!
That is truly a slippery slope! Next how could those midwestern kids outwit the Soviet Army? Where does it end? Love it!
I think it was Jim Morrison who said “no one gets out of here alive.” Meanwhile we can vaccinate our children and read funny stuff about the human condition.
Funny and poignant, Josh. Reminds me of an old Redd Foxx routine in which he ridiculed health nuts: “[They] are going to feel stupid some day, lying in hospitals, dying of nothing!”
Josh, I was bourn in 1925. From that year on and as recently as early August of 2018, I was vaccinated against various diseases. And now you are telling me that years or -most likekely- decades later I will face old age, which could end in death of natural causes?
There’s some book (Brave New World maybe?) where everyone gets a drug in infancy and then they don’t have any illness and stay healthy for the next 70 years or so. At age 70 they go to a “Galloping Senility Ward” where they get all the diseases they would have gotten earlier at once, and they die very quickly. That’s the vaccine I want.
A propos of the wholesale-retail distinction, it was Marx himself who wrote somewhere (was it in the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”?) to the effect that the cheat robs you by charging more than the fair price, while the capitalist robs everyone by creating that price
Well said, mon ami. I doubt Victor would disagree. His book is, after all, subtitled “Ecosocialism” — his bow to Marx when properly understood as having outlined both egalitarian economics and ecological sanity, and their necessary connection. I view the early Marx as an existentialist, because he offers an astute diagnosis of the polymorphously perverse “alienation” which haunts and undermines Western “civilization.”
Bravo, Victor. Another astute and timely article. Profoundly important, beautifully written, and making just the right connections — as always. Thanks for your endlessly edifying inspirations, even if they necessarily force us to face the starkness of our national and global situation, while yet, thankfully, offering guidelines for sane and pragmatic rectification.
“1. Pro-choice argument: Bodily autonomy alone is enough of a reason to keep abortion legal.
Pro-life reply: But there are two bodies.”
Response: And no body should not have the right to force another body to supplement its own survival. To wit, if I lost my kidneys, I would not have the right to force you to donate one to me and vice-versa.
Yes, there is a risk to achieving pregnancy when taking part in heterosexual sex (sometimes, even when using contraception); but regardless of the result of said actions in this regard, an impregnated female has every right to consent to having sex without consenting to becoming pregnant. As for the “gambling at Vegas” analogy, I would argue that losing one’s money in a business transaction is not the same as losing one’s right to decline someone else using their body parasitically (which is a natural process despite the negative effect it has on the host, by the way).
Terminating a pregnancy is not killing a child anymore than declining to be an organ donor makes you responsible for someone dying of organ failure. Having said that, once a female has consented to a state of impregnation, I, for one, can agree that for that state, they have accepted parental responsibility at the very least until they are in a position to hand a viable child over to government care.
I shared your essay on my Facebook timeline, and here’s what I wrote: A PROFOUNDLY IMPORTANT ARTICLE, BY ONE ONE OF THE GREAT SAGES OF OUR TIME. VICTOR WALLIS ON “WHOLESALE CRIMES.” Lucid, astute, succinct — this brief essay outlines the most urgent issues confronting us, both nationally and globally, and offers pragmatic solutions … ecological, economic, and political. To put a spiritual spin on Victor’s secular diagnosis — Jesus was born in a manger for a reason, yet even now the earth is being crucified … by billionaire predators and their enabling political lapdogs. To know the facts is to be awake, and to be awake is to have the power to influence sane and pragmatic change. Our collective survival is at stake, and so is what’s left of our democratic rights.
PS: I’ll fix the “Willis” and change it to “Wallis” on Facebook. Sorry about that. Wish I could change it here. Maybe the editors can. Inadvertently, though, I fused you with Willis Harman, who wrote GLOBAL MIND CHANGE , in which he outlines some of your own most salient points.
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