Monday, February 25, 2008

3 Sins of Modernism (the Redefinitions of Happiness, Reason and Virtue) and the Art of Selfish Consumption

I was driving to work on a cold winter's morning when I heard Will Wilkinson's radio commentary arguing that over-consumption in the west makes people happier and, consequently, overconsumption must be a good thing. Wilkinson stands in a long line of modern thinkers that think that pursuing wants is indistinguishable from persuing needs as the defining aspect of happiness is subjective satisfaction. Indeed, in most forms of the modern discipline of economics, wants and needs are indistinguishable as the consequence of redefining rationality from the classical view (the ability to think and reason) to acting in such a fashion as to achieve one's goals. This way of thinking goes back at least as far as Machiavelli who redefined virtue as the ability to achieve one's own goals rather than the classical view that virtue was an objective characteristic illustrating how close to what one ought to be one was.

The crux of Wilkonson's commentary is that no single individual has the right to determine the distinction between wants and needs for any other individual. Having already played up the anecdote where the classical philosopher Diogenes smashed his single material possession (a wooden bowl) after seeing a young, poor child drink from cupped hands, Wilkinson concludes with the following.

Of course, moralizers of all stripes, from officious environmentalists to religious fundamentalists, have strong ideas about what we really need. But the fact that you think you know what's best for me doesn't mean I don't really need my nose hair trimmer or my stuffed armadillo. I have my reasons.

If this wild assortment of stuff was really crushing our souls, then maybe we ought to smash our flatscreens like Diogenes smashed his bowl. But the evidence is clear: People are most likely to be happy, healthy, well-educated and long-lived in places where people consume the most [Wilkinson, Will. Too much consumption? Let me decide. Marketplace Morning Report. 20-Feb-2008. American Public Media.].
Let's politely ignore the fact that Wilkinson is committing the fallacy of the excluded middle and ignore the fact that Wilkinson does not explore if it might not be the case that most people might actually agree that wants have limits. Rather than nitpicking, let's focus on the real assertion that underlies Wilkinson's case, that happiness is something subjective rather than objective.

One of the oldest definitions of happiness is that of Aristotle. He argued that happiness is an ``activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete'' [Nicomachean Ethics, 1098]. This definition ought to be placed in Aristotle's teleological view of the cosmos. Human existence, according to Aristotle, has meaning. Part of being human is be a certain kind of being and when a particular person becomes the sort of being that a human being ought to be, that person is living a flourishing life, that person is happy. Most importantly to this discussion is the observation that, to some extent, what it means to live a flourishing life is objective. Just as a diseased and shriveled oak tree cannot reach the full potential of what it means to be an oak tree, there are quite a few ways that a particular human being can be perverse, diseased or otherwise distressed and be said to objectively lack a full and abundant life. If this were not the case, so many people wouldn't be seeking a cure for various diseases, fighting to reduce world hunger or apply various moral codes.

One of the most powerful objections to this is offered by Machiavelli who essentially argued that virtue, rationality and happiness are not objective states but subjective ones. Virtue, in this view, isn't something objective and available to all men. Rather, virtue is held to be competence in achieving one's own goals. Likewise, rationality is held to be acting in accordance with one's own interests and desires. Happiness, in this view, is the satisfaction that comes from achieving one's goals. We find here the echo of not only Wilkinson but also of almost every modern economics text book in the western world. Happiness is no longer an objective state of goodness, but the pleasure and satisfaction derived from reaching subjective goals. Rationality is no longer the ability to think and to reason, but to act in a self-interested fashion. Virtue is no longer acting in proper manner but acting competently.

If Machiavelli is correct, then I certainly have no moral standing to condemn Wilkinson and his love of expensive nose hair trimmers and stuffed armadillos as being petty, selfish or excessive. Nor does anyone else. But what if Machiavelli isn't correct? What if there is happiness that is an objective mode of being rather than something subjective? It seems to me that, if this is the case, that unless by some quirk of fate the objective state of being that is happiness consists in the acquisition of nose hair clippers and stuffed armadillos, Wilkinson is doomed to not know happiness. Yet, to be fair, his doom would seem to consist at least in part of something of a blissful ignorance. Wilkinson may not ever know what true happiness, but he'll apparently have a good time being wrong.

And that, to me, is one of the most difficult parts of pursuing the meaning of happiness. On the one hand, it does seem to me that most people will readily agree that happiness is something of an objective state. Not many people would argue that certain objective things aren't part of being happy: a certain amount of freedom, being in good health, being of sufficient means, having good friends. But on the other hand, it also seems fairly intuitive that having a good time is also a part of happiness. I'm not the sort that would argue that the intuitive answer can't be the wrong answer. (No one who has studied logic, statistics or economics is likely to ever make that claim.) But it also seems to me that a rather clear argument is required to reject intuition on most matters. (For two great arguments on this topic, read Aristotle's Nichomachian Ethics and The first book of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae. As much as I'd love to take the time to actually put forward their arguments, doing so is outside of the scope of the present essay.) After all, can we really say that it is possible for a human being to objectively flourish at the same time as that particular human being is subjectively miserable? If the person in question is mentally defective, I suppose the answer would be `yes.' But what if the person is merely mistaken? I think that in the end I could accept that, that one can enjoy oneself and still not reach the fullness of human existence.

And, for some, that condescension is likely to be good enough. Like Machiavelli and Wilkinson these people who are mistaken about happiness will probably not care that they might fall short of what they might possibly be so long as being more fully human isn't within the realm of their respective desires. And, to directly address Wilkinson's point, what right do others have to place limits on Wilkinson's mistakenness? In some cases, where Wilkinson's behaviors directly or indirectly affect others, a case can certainly be made Wilkinson should be reined in. If Wilkinson's stuffed armadillo collection does indeed unambiguously cause climate change in Africa, it isn't so far fetched that Wilkinson has some amount of moral obligation to reduce his expenditures on the acquisition of stuffed armadillos. Wilkinson's presentation is, in fact, a bit disingenuous. Recall that his is committing the fallacy of the excluded middle by holding out the Diogeneses of the world as if they were the only example of the limitation of consumption as if the only choices one has are between having no possessions at all and living like a dog or gratifying every possible want at one's whim. In truth, the most widely accepted theory of society itself, the social contract, is based on the very premise that people willingly give up the ability to pursue some wants in exchange for the stability and comforts that come with the technical division of labor that arises from even a moderately sized city. It doesn't seem to me to be all that far fetched that society can (and perhaps should) place a good deal of restrictions on the pursuit of wants by individuals so that the society as a whole can prosper.

That argument isn't really restricted to any one theory of morality. But it is contradicted by modernism in its most raw form. If one were to take the reasoning that Wilkinson argues underlies his freedom of consumption seriously and apply it to one's entire manner of living, the end result would a way of life that most people think is morally perverse. While it is true that many people have to tried to build entire philosophies on this modernism (e.g. Ayn Rand) and others have spent enormous amounts of time and energy promoting its application to the economic sphere (e.g. Milton Friedman), it seems to me that relatively few people really embrace this line of reasoning. Being a relatively unpopular theory, of course, doesn't prima facie mean that a theory is wrong. But I am loathe to hold to a theory that is so unintuitive that most few people who consider it, take it up without a strong demonstration of that theory's truth. Wilkinson didn't offer that justification. He just raised his fist to yell ``What right have YOU to take away MY nose hair clippers and stuffed armadillos?'' That doesn't sound happy to me. That sounds ignorant and pathetic.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Secularization of the American Religious Right

In a recent essay, Rules of War and Victory in the War on Terror, I pointed out that because Mitt Romney argues that the right to exist is the primary political right, he is essentially a Hobbesian thinker. More recently, I was wondering if perhaps his Mormonism informed his position. Not that I would ever argue that Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints holds to Hobbesian political philosophy as an official doctrine. But rather I'm wondering if the Mormon experience of being driven out of one state after the other during its early history and the subsequent need to adopt a `kill or be killed' strategy for several decades hasn't significantly shaped Romney's thinking with regards to the duties of the state. Perhaps the experience of his particular faith community with regards to persecution and being persecuted has led Romney down the path of thinking that the state, above all, must warrant the self-preservation of its citizens.

But this mode of thinking hasn't been limited to Mormonism in the present US political arena. Many different conservative groups and politicians (and some liberal ones!) within the US political sphere have advocated this Hobbesian view. Surprisingly, to me, many of the conservative groups advocating this position are groups that are usually considered to be part of the religious right. While it is true that many of these groups, like the Latter Day Saints, have been persecuted early in their history, that portion of the history of many of these groups is, more often than not, hundreds of years removed from the present day. This leads me to suspect that if Mormonism shares the cause for the adoption of a Hobbesian political philosophy, that this shared cause must lie at least somewhat outside a common experience of persecution.

It isn't so obvious, at first, just what a Hobbesian political philosophy has to do with secularization. But we must bear in mind that one of the key premises of Hobbes is that strict materialism is the case and the notion that preservation of the body is the primary right of the individual comes follows from this supposition. If it is the case that the human soul survives the death of the body, as Christianity and many other faith communities argue, then there is no longer a good case for Hobbes' assertion that the primary civil right is the right to self-preservation with regards to the body. In fact, if the single most important question to the individual is the question of where the soul will spend eternity, it seems fairly clear that preservation of the body becomes a secondary issue. To those who believe in heaven and hell, then, freedom of the conscience must always triumph over the right to self-preservation if for no other reason that freedom of the conscience is actually a higher form of self-preservation. Religious conservatism, then, by nature stands in opposition to the Hobbesian materialism and the primacy of the right to self-preservation over all other rights.

So from whence does this implicit materialism come? While I'm not about to argue against the contention that it may very well be the case that this implicit materialism comes from a multitude of sources just as it exists in a multitude of the factions of the religious right, I do think that an argument can be made that with regards to the religious right much of the implicit materialism can be traced to the secularization of various faith communities. By this I mean that various faith communities have adopted the positions, culture and mores of the larger society in which those faith communities exist in ways that favor the positions, culture and mores of that larger society where those positions, culture and mores being adopted by the faith community contradict at some of the beliefs of that faith community. In other words, I'm saying that the secularization of a faith community is the process by which that particular faith community begins to lose that which makes it different from the larger society in which it exists.

(Do note that I'm not speaking here of those situations where a faith community effects a change upon the society in which the faith community exists. Rather than being the process of secularization of the faith community, that would be the process of the evangelization of the larger community.)

This process of secularization can be seen at work in a large number of Christian movements within North America. Aside from adoption of the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, this secularization plays out in the field of doctrine in other areas. The most obvious example would be the movement labeled liberation theology that came out of Mexican and Central American Catholicism. Another example would be the ideological Biblical criticism being taught at the universities of various Christian denominations. But it also plays out at a practical level. The most obvious matter of practice, perhaps, is the so called `mega-church' phenomenon ongoing in some Evangelical Christian circles where the Church has become a combination shopping mall, community center, and concert hall. Another example is the direction of the Roman Catholic mass in North America since the second Vatican Council. Both of these latter examples make the same categorical error. The reasoning seems to be that `if X is good, then it follows that X should be brought into the liturgy.' Rather than taking elements of the liturgy out into the world, these faith communities are bringing the world into the liturgy.

I would be amiss if I didn't concede that, at least in some cases, this secularization has brought about needed reform. A great example of this would be the change in doctrine by the Latter Day Saints in the seventies that they were wrong about black people having no chance of salvation due to bearing the mark of Cain. Another example would be the move by the Roman Catholic Church to reverse itself on its policy that the liturgy can only be said in one of three languages (Latin, Greek or Hebrew). Admittedly, there were other languages for the liturgies of `eastern rite' Catholics in communion with Rome, but these groups were exceptions. The Vatican made the explicit decision to `condescend' to `human weakness' in order to promote unity. In contrast, when many Eastern Orthodox Churches within the US decided to begin holding the greater part of their liturgies in English rather than in the native tongue of the first generation immigrants who founded the parishes in question, this was not an example of secularization because these groups never had a doctrine against this practice.

Some positive results aside, I would contend that in most cases this secularization is a destructive process. While it may increase the number of converts into various religious communities as the barrier to entry is no longer so high, it does so at the price of destroying those things essential to the identity of that community. While in a few cases this process does reform the communities in question to the better, more often it changes the faith community for the worst by depriving it of that which makes it a distinct community within the larger society. Only those who are adamantly opposed to the very existence of faith communities at all will see this secularization as a good thing. For given enough time, if this secularization is unchecked, the faith community being secularized will become entirely indistinguishable in both belief and practice from the rest of society.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Conversations with Truth: Socrates, Bullshit and Jesus

During the 2004-2005 academic year, I was among a dozen seniors at Xavier University working on their senior theses for their baccalaureate in Philosophy. Perhaps the most interesting idea for a thesis within that group belonged to my classmate Brandon. He wanted to use Plato's Apology and Aristophanes' Clouds as vehicles to compare and contrast the form of the fictional narrative with philosophy as methods for arriving at truth. At the time, I was certainly leaning towards his view that the trial and conviction of Socrates in Plato's Apology suggests that the negative portrait of Socrates in Aristophanes' Clouds convinced more people of the `truth' of Socrates' poor character did than any of the philosophy that Socrates put forth in his own defense.

But I recently attended a lecture by Malcolm Schofield of Cambridge that changed my mind. (Let's ignore for a moment the fact that I've also been working on translating Xenophon's Apology which starts out with the observation that Socrates' defense makes little sense if one does not understand that he wanted to be put to death rather than to face the slow failings of old age.) The suggestion Schofield put forth is that, to Socrates, to engage in philosophy was to engage in conversation. This separate Socrates from those who had gone before who made elaborate systems and put down much in writing and constructed various arguments about the cosmos, about nature, and about the nature of truth. Unlike those who had gone before, Socrates did not write anything down, thereby refusing to firmly place himself in history for future generations, did not create any formal system, denied he knew anything meaningful about anything, and engaged in conversation with just about anyone who approached him without regard for wealth, social status, or political clout.

These aspects of the Socratic dialogue puts Socrates at odds with not only those who came before but also those who came after. Specifically, a good argument can be made that Socrates would very much at odds with his pupil Plato whose pedagogic method involved writing, establishing a formal school, holding himself up as an expert and holding himself aloof from those who were not `philosophers.' The Socratic tool of philosophical conversation is probably much more like the picture that Harry Frankfurt presents in his essay On Bullshit.
What is distinctive about the sort of informal discussion among males that constitutes a bull session is, it seems to me, something like this: while the discussion may be intense and significant, it is in a certain respect not ``for real.''

The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life--for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say: it is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. [Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2005, pp. 36-38]
If I am understanding Schofield's point about the invention of philosophical conversation correctly, he's arguing essentially that Socrates used his alleged state of not knowing anything as a device to engage in bullshitting. While it may be that Socrates really thought that he knew nothing, it seems to me that it is more likely that it is more likely that this was an artificial device such that he ``might not be taken too seriously'' and to allow for those involved in the conversation ``to try out various thoughts and attitudes.''

If I'm correct in that Schofield is essentially arguing that the great innovation Socrates made was in being a bullshitter of the highest order (and that this is a good thing!), then I am compelled to bring forth the observation that bull sessions require a multiplicity of participants in the conversation. One cannot bullshit alone. To bullshit requires multiple persons in an act of communion. Without speaking and hearing on both sides of the conversation, there is no communion and without communion there is no growth; the hearer and the speaker both leave the conversation just as they had come to the conversation, without change. Without this change, without this meeting of minds, there is no conversation but only an exchange of words.

To philosophize, then, in this view is to engage in communion with another person. Truth, rather than being an abstraction to approach or a set of facts to systematize, is something personal. Perhaps this personal view of truth is why some early Christians such as Saint Justin the Martyr argued that Socrates was a proto-Christian, a Christian before Christ. Perhaps it wasn't simply Socrates death in pursuit of truth that attracted these early men of faith, but Socrates pursuit of truth by means of communion with another person. For in the Christian faith, truth itself is considered to be a person, the Logos, Jesus Christ who is God enfleshed.

This view of truth, truth as communion, is also why the Incarnation of Christ is so essential to Christianity. It is the Incarnation that allows for communion to happen. The mystery of the dual natures of Christ makes possible what was not possible before, communion with God as a person. God, by definition, is immutable, unchangeable. Without God becoming man, true communion could never happen. The conversation would be a one way street, a lecture rather than a dialog. Rather than being participants in conversation with God, would would be passive hearers of God's message. But because of the second Adam, the God-man Jesus Christ, it becomes possible to have a conversation with deity itself. And in this communion, this philosophical conversation with truth itself, we can discover both God and our ourselves.