Kant’s Categorical Imperative to the Rescue?

At the top of my reading pile is a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which Prof. Paula Marantz Cohen argues for Kant’s Categorical Imperative in “easing the civility crisis.” The first imperative of the German Enlightenment philosopher “suggests that how you want to be treated should be generalized for everyone.” The problem with this rule is that right and left have their “own concept of moral righteousness and no ability to find common ground.” For this reason we’re asked to focus on the second imperative, of treating others with respect. As stated by Kant:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

Prof. Cohen favors Kant’s pedagogical system, which she explains, could be utilized as easily by agnostics as by theists. Contrary to the educational assumptions of the 1960s, which focused on the freedom and autonomy of the self, “Kant’s moral theory centers on the freedom of others.” It begins with “negative” (yet necessary) proscriptions – knowing when to tell a very young child “no” without attempting to prematurely, and rather futility, reason things out. It is important for the child to know that “there is an authority beyond the self.” This is the foundation for the “positive” education of later years when people are taught to apply moral and rational analysis to real life situations.

The article summarizes the benefits of civility as a way to conduct a less vituperative dialogue over tough issues. The problem with the ideological approach is that it demonizes opponents and makes us assume the worst about others. Hence we violate Kant’s stricture of not treating people as “subjects” but merely as “objects,” or means to an end. To that way of thinking, if people can help us get what we want, great; and if they don’t, they must be silenced or pushed aside.

I think no decent person could disagree with this analysis, though perhaps left to itself the reasoning is circular. Without some higher, transcendent sanction (e.g. God), there is actually no imperative to follow Kant’s rules. Well-meaning attempts to patch up the crumbling Enlightenment cultural framework appear lacking. The post-modern debacle ultimately came about because we neglected some very important pre-modern truths. That said, unless we adopt a measure of good will, as Prof. Cohen proposes, we may never get a chance to politely discuss what those truths are.

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Posted in Philosophy

A Liberal Confession

The self-examination in question is that of historian David Wooten, an avowed liberal, writing in History Today. The article, “What’s Wrong with Liberalism,” offers what I think is a fair assessment of the ambitions, and pitfalls, of modern liberalism going back to its origins in John Stuart Mill and 19th century Utilitarianism.

First, Wooten admits that the great challenge for liberals, both in Mill’s day and our own, is that “utilitarianism,” or the idea of maximizing pleasure, “cannot enable us to make sense of our lives or give us a purpose for living.” The difficulty? It makes “no distinction between pleasure and happiness.” We see plenty of people, with access to all sorts of toys and distractions, who nevertheless manage to be quite miserable.

Second, liberalism is identified with the idea of continual “progress.” However Wooten cautions that “change is difficult and unsettling. Even where there are benefits, there are usually unfortunate, often unintended, consequences.” The irony is that resistance to change (conservatism in its most basic sense) is not exclusively “right-wing.”

Consider how often trade unions and leftist politicians try to prevent development in the economic realm when it seems overly disruptive to certain classes of workers, or what about cases where Communist hardline leaders are referred to as “conservatives” in their resistance to reform? It seems to me that this gets to the heart of the matter – one’s idea of “change” is subjective. In a more civil setting people might come to the conclusion that “liberal” and “conservative” points of view (shorn of their ideological baggage) are not absolutist positions and that, within the pre-utilitarian tradition, they would complement one other.

Finally, the author addresses an aspect of post-modern culture which is rife with contradiction… the current mania for “diversity.”

Here lies the central paradox of liberal praise of diversity: as our cities become more ‘diverse’, they become more alike: there are McDonald’s restaurants in more than 100 countries. Increasing diversity goes hand in hand with increasing homogenisation. Liberalism is full of such paradoxes: affirmative action, for example, requires treating people according to categories (race, sex, gender, social background) which at the same time it insists it wants to erode, even eliminate…. Every effort to create a more liberal society seems to create problems as fast as it solves them: unintended consequences are an inescapable feature of planned social change.

Wooten acknowledges the potential for “moral failure” on the part of liberal leaders. This famously occurred on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 (and one might add, throughout the West’s dealings with Soviet Russia). It is not that all liberals are guilty of this. Contemporary examples of courageous intellectuals like Jonathan Haidt and Sam Harris come to mind. But unfortunately a growing segment of people identifying as liberal are supporting very illiberal and totalitarian agendas. Like their predecessors in Germany and Eastern Europe, they might not regret their complacency until it is too late.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Politics

Old Resolutions are Best

“Lay down from this moment a certain character and pattern of behaviour for yourself, which you are to preserve both when you’re alone and when you’re with others.”—Epictetus (Handbook, 33)

The famous Stoic writer sets forth the traditional program of self-restraint: being mindful of what we do and who we spend time with. Such maxims aren’t profound or novel, but they bear repeating.

In another passage Epictetus says, “Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you’ll have a calm and happy life” (Handbook, 8). That is a tough precept. Resignation does not come easily, nor is it the same thing as apathy.

There are thinkers who exaggerate the role of free will or deny it altogether—maintaining that “self-help” doesn’t require help from anyone else, or that life is aimless, or that we are victims of some predestined fate, etc. Epictetus famously stated that “some things are within in our power, while others are not” (Handbook, 1). Knowing the difference is the path to real wisdom.

It is hard to strike the balance. But to quote another great moral writer, St. Francis de Sales: “When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.”

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism

A Necessary Luxury

“Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries….”—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

A colleague recently told me that her job is the most important thing in her life. I think I scandalized her when I said that the main reason I work is to pay the bills. For me,  employment is a means to an end. It enables me to pursue my intellectual interests, among other things. Literature is not my only luxury, but it is certainly an avocation that I guard jealously outside of work hours.

The narrator of Poe’s tale (which I am reading at the moment) is describing the brilliant but eccentric and impoverished Auguste Dupin, who turns to amateur detection:

[H]e managed, by means of a rigorous economy, to procure the necessaries of life, without troubling himself about its superfluities. Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries, and in Paris these are easily obtained.

Our first meeting was at an obscure library in the Rue Montmartre, where the accident of our both being in search of the same very rare and very remarkable volume, brought us into closer communion. We saw each other again and again.

It is a charming prologue to the more somber topic of the murders which Dupin ends up solving. But it also reminds me that, like Poe’s narrator, most of my enduring friendships have revolved around a shared interest in books.

Posted in Fiction, Literature

Mystery for the Holidays

“I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season. He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled morning papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”

The above quote is admittedly a flimsy pretense for introducing one of my favorite topics. The fact is that I’d felt the need to return to some of the well-thumbed mystery volumes on my shelves, including those featuring the famous Baker Street sleuth.

Msgr. Ronald Knox, in Literary Distractions (Sheed & Ward, 1958) credits Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex with being the first model of a detective story. The truth of Laius’ murder is revealed “to the actors in the drama one by one according to their various grade of intelligence.” But mystery writing, he notes, remained in a sort of suspended animation  until the works of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) and Emile Gaboriau (1832-73). “The true detective story,” says Knox, “seems to have sprung into being independently in France and in America. To Poe belongs the distinction, probably unique, of having written up a real crime in America as if it were an imaginary crime in France, and having solved the mystery, and, as it subsequently proved, having solved it right.” He is referring to “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.”

I agree with Knox that detective fiction is best when it does not attempt to be something else: competing with ordinary novel writing by padding out the tale with tangential melodrama. But I think he exaggerates a bit when he opines that the emergence of “novels which were all character and no plot created a demand for novels which were all plot and no character” — although the superb forensic mysteries of R. Austin Freeman come very close to it.

Knox had penchant for reading (and writing) highly intricate puzzle-plot stories in which the narrative is a kind of game in which the author tries to keep the reader guessing until the end. By contrast, he complains that any intelligent reader could quickly unravel most of Conan Doyle’s tales. This seems a very narrow, and highly recondite, view of what makes a good whodunnit.  For my part, I prefer Conan Doyle as a mystery writer to Knox (just as I prefer the latter on spiritual topics!) simply because he does have an eye for atmosphere and intriguing cast members who elicit our sympathy or loathing. That said, I agree with the English cleric that “all imaginative literature is an escape from real life…. But this, you see, is not all the escape we demand…. We can only do that by escaping to problems still more baffling, which nevertheless have an answer; and these are supplied by the detective story.”

For related commentary see: All the Comforts of Holmes and More English Mysteries

Posted in Fiction, Literature

Weinbaum’s Tour of the Solar System

The holidays are always a great time to pick up some light reading. In this post I want to pay tribute to the short-lived but brilliant career of science fiction writer Stanley Weinbaum (1902-35). I was first introduced to Weinbaum’s tale, “Martian Odyssey,” in Isaac Asimov’s collection, Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s (1975). For a long time, however, that was as far it went. I must credit my recently acquired Kindle with providing access to the rest of Weinbaum’s works. Now I can tour the solar system through his creative lens, visiting arid Mars, tropical Venus, Saturn’s frigid moon Titan, and even Pluto.

Weinbaum was a pioneer in depicting alien lifeforms that were imaginatively non-human in appearance and mindset. He provided one of the earliest examples of a friendly alien – the ostrich-like “Tweel” of Mars – though many of the creatures that populate his solar system are decidedly vicious and omnivorous. Perhaps the best example of inscrutable intelligence is the “Lotus Eaters” – impassive and virtually immobile plant creatures who inhabit the “dark side” of Venus. They are preyed on by the ferocious humanoid three-eyed Trioptes who constantly dog the explorations of a husband and wife scientific team. The sentient vegetables possess a vast collective brain and can even predict the future, yet they can do nothing to save themselves and are completely apathetic to their fate.

There are some interesting allegorical aspects to Weinbaum’s stories. Consider the telepathic “dream-beast,” a tentacled Martian desert creature that lures its prey by projecting tantalizing mirages. As one of the earth explorers tells his comrades, the creature appeals not only to the “good impulses” of potential victims, “but also every nasty little wish, every vicious desire.” It is a false “paradise” that conceals a hellish reality and death.

Along those lines I’m reminded of a sobering adage from another old space novel that I perused recently, Philip Latham’s Missing Men of Saturn (1953):

No matter what happens in this world the one thing that never changes is human nature…. Everybody was so sure life would be bigger and better and more wonderful when we had conquered space…. But the fact remains that most people in the world are still primarily interested in their own little daily lives.

Many of Weinbaum’s tales are also written in a lighter vein and old-fashioned romantic comedy is prominent throughout. In closing, I highly recommend these intriguing page-turners.

Posted in Fiction

Imlac’s Political Advice

The advice in question comes not from my blogging alter-ego, but from the original Imlac of Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas. As the elderly sage says to the young prince in the story: “no form of government has been yet discovered, by which [oppression] can be wholly prevented. Subordination supposes power on one part and subjection on the other; and if power be in the hands of men, it will sometimes be abused. The vigilance of the supreme magistrate may do much, but much will still remain undone. He can never know all the crimes that are committed, and can seldom punish all that he knows.”

The point that Johnson is making is what James Schall, S.J., has termed the “limits of politics,” based as it is on a more empirical (Aristotelian) versus idealistic (Platonic) view of human government. If, on the other hand, you believe that evils can be radically eliminated through ideological zeal and regulation then it only makes sense to give politicians all the power they want. Raymond Aron explains the perils of this approach:

The bigger the area covered by the State, the less likely is it to be a democratic State, that is a framework for peaceful competition between relatively autonomous groups. The day when society as a whole becomes comparable to a single gigantic enterprise must surely bring an irresistible temptation for the men at the top to be totally indifferent to the approval or disapproval of the masses below.

The world of practical politics is admittedly uninspiring. But for those of us who see government as secondary to personal non-political ends—secured by a measure of order and justice—it is preferred, being far less prone to abuse than the utopian fallacies of totalitarianism and anarchy. Hoping too much from politics can be as bad as hoping for too little. The cure is worse than the disease. The only reason for placing unlimited faith in grandiose civic activities is that many people don’t place it in anything else, a point brought out further in the “Christian skepticism” of Rasselas and in Johnson’s other writings.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Samuel Johnson

A Meditation on Idleness

While indulging in some much needed holiday down time I felt as though I were reliving an epoch when being offline was the norm. There has been at least some push-back against the incessantly plugged-in lifestyle, mainly as it pertains to social media and work email on smartphones. A recent column in the Wall Street Journal offers a note of sanity: “Always-on is weird. It’s not how humans thrive. It’s not how productive people break through. We have to dismantle it before it dismantles us…. Modern culture now acts upon us so constantly that we start reacting to it rather than acting for ourselves.”

I call to mind some of the reading I undertook in recent days, including Samuel Johnson’s meditation on “idleness” (Rambler, No. 134). In this essay he dissects the dangers of procrastination, a weakness to which he was himself much prey to. “The folly of allowing ourselves to delay what we know cannot be finally escaped is one of the general weaknesses which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or lesser degree in every mind…” Johnson speaks of resolutions carefully formulated and just as thoroughly postponed; and of the anxiety which curiously afflicts those who avoid responsibility. “Idleness,” he warns, “never can secure tranquillity.”

The challenge is to avoid psychological inertia – either not knowing how to slow down when extremely active and stressed, or else lapsing into a purely sedentary existence when the pressure is off. While the London sage ably diagnoses the temptations of sloth, there are nevertheless times when doing absolutely nothing is necessary therapy. After all, on another occasion Johnson said: “No man is obliged to do as much as he can do. A man is to have part of his life to himself.” For more of Johnson’s insights on this subject, see The Love of Retirement.

Posted in Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

Euthyphro’s Dilemma

Continuing my commentary on Greek philosophy is a look at Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, which explores the ideas of piety and justice. They are concepts central to many of Plato’s works, including the Republic. The narrative commences with Socrates waiting outside the Athenian high court where he encounters Euthyphro. The younger man is bringing charges against his father for the negligent death of a slave. But his guilt is mitigated by the fact that the slave in question had in fact murdered another servant. Euthyphro’s father bound the culprit and left him in a ditch where he died before the magistrates could pronounce sentence.

When Euthyphro is asked what justification he has for putting his father on trial, he responds that it is being done out of piety. He defines this rather subjectively as “what is pleasing to the gods.” When pressed further by Socrates, he adds “What all the gods love is pious, and what they all hate is impious.” This leads to an obvious dilemma, which the older man raises, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

There is additional dramatic irony at work in the dialogue, which would have been obvious to contemporaries, since it takes place just a few weeks before Socrates’ own trial and death sentence for “impiety” on very tenuous grounds. This fact as well as Euthyphro’s  demeanor make it clear from the outset that the older man has the advantage in the ensuing argument.

Socrates challenges Euthypro’s haphazard reasoning. (His motives are also suspect, since he is likely to gain materially from his father’s conviction.) The philosopher criticizes the belief that the gods could act or dictate to humanity in ways that we find ethically objectionable. He also disapproves of popular mythology, which depicts the deities as capricious beings. The dialogue ends inconclusively, though it is clear that Euthyphro’s original position is no longer tenable. Students are often asked to find a solution to the apparent contradiction between what is “beloved by the gods” and what is truly “pious.” With that in mind it seems possible to venture an answer in keeping with Platonic concepts.

The ruling Nous (“Mind”) of the universe cannot contradict itself by demanding injustice simply by virtue of its omnipotence. The cosmos (the Greek word for ordered existence) is reflective of a higher purpose, with human conduct having an important place in that metaphysical arrangement. Justice, therefore, can be seen as the logical outcome of this order – a view also held by Socrates’ predecessors Xenophanes, Anaximander, and Heraclitus. Hence, piety could be defined as performing one’s duties in accordance with this overarching cosmic sanction rather than following the arbitrary dictates of an anthropomorphic deity.

The above commentary is inspired by Prof. Susan Meyer’s lectures on Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors. For related discussion, see Ethics and Utility.

Posted in Philosophy

The Paradoxes of Heraclitus

In this post I want to venture briefly into the tantalizing origins of critical thought as presented in the class Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors, offered by the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera. Of the earliest Greek philosophers, referred to as the “Pre-Socratics,” we possess only fragments or paraphrases of now lost writings that were preserved in the works of later scholars like Aristotle.

One of these early sages was Heraclitus (c. 500 B.C.) who lived in the Ionian Greek city of Ephesus on the west coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The philosopher was famous for his epigrammatic and often paradoxical sayings which proclaimed the unity of opposites: “The road up and the road down are the same,” and “The track of writing is both straight and crooked.”

Heraclitus is often credited with saying “you can never step into the same river twice.” An alternate translation renders it as: “Upon those who step into the same rivers different and again different waters flow.” Admittedly, the first (more popular) phrasing strikes one as simply precocious and contrarian. It implies that there is no underlying unity to the river, whereas Heraclitus always emphasizes the deeper reality beneath the seeming multiplicity and variety of appearances.

In the second (more precise) translation we get a better sense of the Heraclitean paradox, “changing, it rests.” The river, he says, has a consistent existence and identity while being fed by a multiplicity of flowing waters. If that were not the case it would cease being a river and would instead be an empty gully. He provides a similar example with posset – an ancient drink consisting of wine, barley, cheese and herbs – where the suspended mixture is maintained by stirring. Heraclitus says that it is only with the constant motion that the “posset stands still.” If it ceased being stirred it would no longer be posset but merely the individual ingredients separated out.

Posted in History, Philosophy