Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Cultivation and the small life

 When I was a teenager, my mom sang in our parish choir. One night each week they practiced. I think I remember that it was Wednesday after the evening mass. I would go to mass and then stay in church reading or doing homework during their practice—sometimes, I would take a long walk around town. As much as I sing, I have never been much good, so there was little temptation for me to join in.

When practice was over, a small group of choir members, mostly somewhere in age between my parents and grandparents, would go to the local Dairy Queen for burgers or ice cream and an hour or two of gossip. I usually went along. I was a strange child and adolescent.

The Dairy Queen was usually pretty busy on those nights, mostly with people who had been at other weeknight meetings at other churches around my small hometown. 

There was one couple I remember almost always being there when we’d arrive. They were almost always there when we left, too. They were an older married couple, in their fifties or sixties. That is, they seemed older to me then. I really can’t remember whether they were formally married, but they had been together for decades, so it was as good as if they were. He was part of the custodial staff at the junior high I’d attended. I don’t know whether she worked or not. They were both a little “slow”, as people said at the time. They were probably a little poorer than we were: being an assistant janitor for decades didn’t pay all that well. Like my grandmother’s family, they were Appalachian. 

They would sit in a booth across from each other, each with a cup of coffee. It seems to me that they rarely had much else (but memories fade and reformulate over more than three decades). They were always dressed up, though not well. He would always wear a tie and often a jacket. She would be in a long skirt or a dress, her hair in two braids on the side. Their clothes were old and worn, but they clearly made an effort on their appearance. They’d almost certainly come from some church or other. 

Between them, they would have a stack of several piano exercise books. They weren’t particularly advanced books, certainly nothing beyond what I had gotten to in the years I had taken lessons. One of the books would be open and they would be studying it intently. They would pore over the pieces and talk to one another about the tune and notes and how to play it. They rarely, if ever, spoke to anyone else beyond exchanging greetings. They were engrossed in the sheets in front of them.

I don’t know what made me think of them this week. Maybe it was because I was talking about the meaning of life in one of my classes. Whatever the reason, there’s something instructive in that little bit of their lives that I know about and that I’ve recounted here. 

They were, by every normal worldly measure, people who did not matter very much. In most ways they were on the edge of society even in a place as out of the way and insignificant as my hometown. They were dedicating their evenings to something that neither one of them was ever going to become very good at. I don’t even know that they had a piano at home to play, and they weren’t looking at difficult pieces. That activity, as little as it mattered to anyone else, mattered to them. They had a real artistic interest and they showed a real dedication to it and to getting better at it, to understanding the playing of music. 

They were cultivating themselves. That cultivation seems to have created a beauty and sweetness in their lives, even if no one else could share in it or benefit from it. From the outside, it certainly seemed that they were leading small lives, but small lives can be flourishing ones as much as great lives can be. Sometimes, it may just be enough to tend one’s one garden and tend it well. 

Saturday, July 02, 2022

The justification of the state

 The state is a form of organized violence or the threat of such violence. This is among its essential and defining features. I can imagine a community or a society that didn’t have the power to punish or to fight against enemies—there are pacifist communities, after all—but I can’t imagine such a state. I don’t think that’s just a failure of imagination on my part. At least in one long political tradition, police and defensive powers are definitive of the state; I’m thinking of Plato’s auxiliaries, the power to punish in Aquinas, the role of the Sovereign in Hobbes, the magistrate and the powers
he’s been given in Locke, …. What is law without the power of compulsion? 

Other than those pacifists, most people hold that, at least in some cases, violence can be justified. There aren’t many people who would deny the right to violence in self-defense. I hold the view that self-defense isn’t sufficient to justify taking a life. From conversations with students and my husband, I know that this is not a very common view—it might even seem outlandish—but even I think mere self-defense justifies some lesser forms of violence. (For what it’s worth, I think other-defense alone can justify taking a life.)

So, if violence can, in some cases, be justified, the most important question about the state in general or any particular state or particular state action—in ethics and politics, it is really the particular and concrete rather than the general and abstract that matters—is whether it is justified in this case, here and now. That is the most important question, the question of moral status. Whether it’s justified or not is not, of course, the only question: it is often prudentially advisable to comply when threatened with violence, even if that violence isn’t justified, maybe especially then.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Some thoughts inspired by the end of another semester

 After such a long time out of the regular face-to-face classroom—here’s hoping it wasn’t just an interlude before a return to Zoom—it was regenerating to be back in the classroom with real people with real bodies, even if I couldn’t quite see their faces. Maybe because I was a bit out of practice or just because I was as tired at the end of the semester as all my students so obviously were, the last day in most of my classes was just a here-have-some-cookies-I-baked-and-let’s-chat-about-the-exam day. Students had few questions about the exam but in all of my classes a large proportion of those who came that last day stayed until the end of class time. I like to tell myself that they liked my company enough that they wanted a bit more of it. It’s much more likely that they liked the company of their fellows or that they just didn’t have anything else to do until the next period began.

One of my classes turned into an AMA. I used to take the approach that I would, under almost no circumstances, let students know my own views on anything, the better to appear evenhanded. As I’ve gotten older and had more years in the classroom, I’ve changed approaches. Now, I am more likely to let students know what views I think are most plausible or implausible. I still do my best to give the strongest arguments for those views that I think are wrong; in fact, I often give more charity to those I’m least sympathetic to and am more critical of those I find appealing. It’s best to trust the students to evaluate my presentation of different views with the background information of where I stand or which way I lean. Anyway, that’s what I’ve come to believe. This change was partly motivated by a student of probably close to a decade ago who asked me in class what I professed, since I was, after all, a professor. Of course, I’m not a professor, but merely an instructor, if I’ve got my current title right, but the point was a good one nonetheless.

So, I was answering questions ranging from what my favorite movie is to what ethical theory I think is closest to right to whether I believe in God or not. Answers to that last one probably disappointed half the class and surprised the other. I don’t know whether it’s because of the way faculty are presented in the contemporary media or because of dross like those God Is Not Dead movies, but students have very clear expectations for what sort of beliefs and ethical and political commitments their professors, especially those in the social sciences, liberal arts, and humanities, are likely to have. As with so much else of our contemporary culture, those commitments are, it seems, supposed to be derived from a very particular party political identity. 

There’s something sad in this, I think, as there is in all pigeonholing. Assumptions about what other people must certainly believe make it harder to connect with them or to learn from them. It flattens others and removes from them their very reasonableness. It’s hard—and maybe harder than before—to see the person in one another, but we have to.  

Sunday, August 02, 2020

On political loyalty

During political campaigns, you see the expression of party loyalties. The way we live our lives online these days, even more during the slow, devastating burn of the pandemic, means that we publish those loyalties more broadly than the short-lived yard sign or the too-long-lived bumper sticker. And, in this era, campaign season is the only season. 

Maybe because of the ubiquity of this political signaling, it seems we identify ourselves to ourselves and others in terms of party loyalty more than we used to. I don’t have proof that this is so, but when I was a young Hoosier, there was something slightly shameful about being heavily invested in a party. I remember my mom deriding another relative for being a “red-hot Republican” with the emphasis on “red-hot”. My grandma used to tell a story about a couple playing cards with (I think) her aunt and uncle during the Great Depression. Her uncle joked that someone ought to “take care” of Roosevelt. The other couple reported him to the government; that led to a fruitless, though frightening, investigation. The point of the story was that it was embarrassing to be more deeply committed to a party than to your friends and neighbors. Loyalty was due to your loved ones and your community and even your country, but not to something like a party. 

There is something suspect and confused in the very idea of party loyalty. I want to be clear that there is nothing wrong with commitment to values and principles and political goals; this is often—depending on the valued and principle and goals—admirable and good. But, values and principles and goals are only incidentally and contingently embodied in political parties. I think that Simone Weil was largely right in On the Abolition of Political Parties to identify the entire purpose of political parties as the gaining and maintenance of power. This means that a party may, at some points, include as a part of its platform some laudatory goal, like prison reform or support for families or the expansion of voting rights or some other policy that you think is right and good. They include it because doing so will mean power. Perhaps this is cynicism, or perhaps it is realistic. 

The history of political parties—not just in this country—is one of changing positions, including central ones. How do you go from the Lost Cause politics of Woodrow Wilson through the Dixiecrats to the embracing of civil rights legislation  among the Democrats? How do you go from the drive to preserve the union through federal power and unease about slavery to Reconstruction to the adoption of the “southern strategy” and the (selective) states’ rights and libertarian positions of the Republicans?  How do parties flip on foreign intervention or trade? How do you get the fluid positions on same-sex marriage or abortion or guns that then calcify into partisan orthodoxies? You might claim that each party has come to realize through time what position its core commitments logically entailed. While there might be a few core beliefs that stand relatively firm, overall that’s too optimistic. 

Party leaders are interested in building coalitions that give them power. This means adopting positions that will allow them to raise money and win elections. They adopt positions that allow them to build coalitions and some of those positions mean shedding other parts of their former coalitions. Partisan politicians mostly follow the trends they predict from the zeitgeist; rarely do they lead. Of course, there are crusading political reformers, but they are usually outside of the mainstream of their parties, if they identify themselves with one at all. Leading is left to others: activists, community leaders, the occasional thinker. The logic of a political party is Darwinian, as read by Nietzsche. That is, the party wants to survive and have power. There’s nothing more.

This is why there is something wrong with the idea of being loyal to a party. Since we’re stuck with parties, we should view them in terms of their utility. Because a party wants to survive, we can try to push it to adopt the positions that we take to be the morally and politically correct ones and, when one will work for more of those than the other, it makes sense to support that party. When it no longer does, it makes sense not to support it. 

Our attitude to a political party ought to mirror a party’s attitude towards its members. That is, we ought to be mercenary: use it when it serves our interest and can be bent to our ends, but abandon when it no longer does. We absolutely ought not to feel a sense of loyalty to it, nor—and this is a more serious problem, perhaps—should we derive our belief about ends from a party. I ought never to believe anything “as a Republican” or “as a Democrat” or “as a Green” or “as a Democratic Socialist”, though it makes a good deal of sense to believe things as a republican or democrat or socialist or communalist or someone who cares about the environment. The latter are identities from which it makes sense to draw substantive conclusions precisely because they are tied up with substantive commitments about the good and ends, but the former are little more than team names. It’s sad when people feel loyal to a team that would gladly abandon their city for more lucrative pastures somewhere else and uses that fact to squeeze concessions from taxpayers. It’s say when people feel loyal to a party that would abandon their interests if it meant more votes. 

Loyalty should be saved for things that have inherent, rather than merely instrumental value: friendships, loving relationships, the communities that nourish us. 

Friday, June 05, 2020


Memorials to slavery are in the news again as protestors tear them down and redecorate them with graffiti. We are seeing the old defenses of them as monuments to those who died for the Confederacy and to Southern history and culture, as we always do. Of course, the raison d’ĂȘtre of the Confederacy was the preservation of slavery: one need only read the instruments of secession. The Southern history and culture being celebrated is the history and culture of the defense of slavery. That is, they are just memorials to slavery. In the same way that we don’t and shouldn’t raise memorials to the architects of genocide, there is nothing right or appropriate in raising—or allowing to stand—memorials to the genocidal project of American slavery.
It’s easy, though, to think of this as a primarily Southern problem. It’s not—not even remotely. On the four sides of the county courthouse in my hometown in northern Indiana when I was growing up, there were plaques honoring prominent local citizens. After he was elected when I was in high school, two of those honored Dan Quayle, as a local son become Vice President. On the other two sides were plaques honoring a prominent local attorney of the mid- to late-nineteenth century named Lambdin P Milligan. He was honored for his part in Ex parte Milligan, in which it was decided that military commissions had no authority in areas where the civilian courts were still operating. 
What wasn’t mentioned on the plaque was why he had been arrested and tried in the first place. As a member of the Order of the American Knights, he had called for open rebellion against Lincoln’s government and had been involved in a plot to liberate Confederate prisoners-of-war.
After the war, appeal and release from military prison, he returned to my hometown where he was received as a hero and had a successful, lucrative career as a lawyer. More than a century later, we were still honoring him. It wasn’t even the only monument to him. There was also, inexplicably and without context, a preserved part of his original property: a small stone hut that he had used to hold—or, so went the story—runaway slaves to be returned to the South. This was never presented as a blight on his name or the town, but just an interesting fact about both. 
The hut, I’m told by my mom, has now been removed. This last year the current mayor had it dismantled in the night. Otherwise, I’m sure, there would have been protests to preserve the town’s (pro-slavery) heritage. 

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Which came first: the me or the we?

Crises bring into relief tensions easy to ignore in more normal times. Any thoughtful person recognizes that the individualism that is not just taken as a given but celebrated and even raised to a virtue in contemporary liberal capitalistic societies lives in an unstable relation with the idea that we have positive moral obligations to others. In normal circumstances, however, when we aren’t asked to do too much for one another, when the pursuit of our individual interests has no negative effect on others, and when Mandeville’s praise of private vice as contributing to public good seems just about right, the relation is more or less peaceful and of only theoretical interest. These are not normal circumstances.

So, I am asked to stay home in order that the curve of the pandemic might be flattened. Businesses and parks are closed. Churches don’t meet. We’re dissuaded even from being outside much, unless it is in our own yards. Those of us who have no yards are to stay indoors as much as possible. 

Already in week four (where I am) people are starting to bristle at the not-very-stringent conditions under which we are living. Some of this is a desire to see people again and to return to routine. I feel the same things. I want to joke around at the gym, I want to go out dancing, and I even want to go to a bar. One of those I would normally do daily, one only once or twice a year now, and the last almost never since I stopped tending bar myself.

Some of it, too, comes from a different place. People are saying that they’re willing to risk it, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to gather or party or open their businesses or patronize those of others? Those who are most at risk can opt to stay at home. Beyond the assumption that we can know who is most likely to become infected or whom is most likely to be seriously affected, this is the voice of the individual. We can, it says, each look out for ourselves and, really, that is the only responsibility we have. I’m not saying I’m immune to this voice, either.

The response to this individualism is to talk of our obligations to the community, but such talk is dissonant to our ears. I think this is so because of the way we have resolved the tension between the individual and community through a peculiar metaphysics of community.

At least since Locke in the English-speaking world—maybe it’s Hobbes in his state of nature—we’ve taken society or the community to be metaphysically and conceptually posterior to the individual. Individuals exist first and then they come together voluntarily to make up societies and communities and states. Those groupings have whatever value they do only because of the service they are able to offer the individuals who make them up. So, the metaphysical priority leads to an ethical one. Even Locke’s account of the rights of parents and obligations of children makes it appear that the family exists for the production of more individuals.

That the causal and historical direction goes from community to individual is obvious. There was a different we before there could be an I. We’re born into and raised by communities. They form us, for better or worse. They sustain us. Whatever some survivalists and perpetual adolescents may think, we are not the kinds of beings that can survive without communities. Of course, we leave some kinds of communities behind us, too. Our actions profoundly affect what those communities are like, so that we are  at least causally responsible for them.

Those facts lead some to reverse the metaphysical, conceptual, and ethical priorities. There can be no individuals without communities in which they come to be, they say,. Individuals inherit all the good that exists within their communities and leave traces in the communities they inhabit. It is the community that is most important; it is the community that transcends. So, communities have rights to which individual rights are subsidiary.

That latter approach is so foreign to our way of thinking to appear self-evidently wrong. I don’t put much weight on what is self-evident, but I do think the solution lies somewhere else.

The individualistic observation that communities are made up of individuals and must be evaluated in terms of the good they do to individuals is correct. This is why we can talk of bad and good societies, of nourishing and toxic communities and groups. The communitarian insight that there are no individuals without communities and that individuals benefit from them and owe something for that benefit and to the community that will succeed them is as correct. This is why we can see people as ungrateful and why we excoriate the anti-social.

There is no priority, but only mutuality. The individual and the community are together in their birth, the individual is an individual only within a community and the community exists only because of the individuals who make it up. The community owed nourishment and nurturing and support to the individual and the individual owes concern and respect and effort and even resources to the community, both conceived as a collection of individuals and something that transcends those particular individuals. A community is something for which it makes sense to sacrifice, but only if that communities feeds and makes possible the flourishing of the individual. 

It’s this lack of metaphysical, conceptual, and ethical priority that makes so difficult questions about what I owe to my community in times of crisis and what is owed to me. As this crisis deepens, those questions are only going to become more difficult, but recognizing the tension as necessary—unable to be definitively resolved in either direction—is essential to arriving at the right answers and right balance. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020


Economists are our astrologers. Like the astrologers of old, they prognosticate with reference to undoubtedly real phenomena: exchange and markets and production for them and the motion of stars and planets for the other. Sometimes their investigations increase our knowledge. Astronomy grew because of the astrologers’ need for accurate maps of the heavens and economists occasionally teach us new things, though it seems many economic discoveries are discoveries in the same sense as were Columbus’s travels. Like the astrologers of old, they are trusted by the rulers of this world whose decisions are rarely taken without their advice and approval. Like the astrologers of old they are held to be sages with access to esoteric knowledge. Like the astrologers of old, their pronouncements have the power to radically alter our lives. More and more it seems like the astrologers of old, they have no idea what they’re talking about.