Saturday, July 08, 2017

Some passing thoughts on Nietzsche, velvet ropes, and marriage

Ressentiment is a characteristic of all “slave moralities,” according to Nietzsche’s picture in Genealogy of Morals. Roughly, ressentiment is an emotion of imagined revenge felt and nurtured by the underclass against those who do or are felt to oppress them. Because part of what it is to be in the underclass is to be powerless, those at the bottom of society have no real way to lash out  at those above them and so they imagine a punishment, whether that is the inevitable revolution or karma or the punishments of hell. “Though we may be downtrodden now, you will get yours in the days or world to come,” the oppressed mutter under their breath and it makes them feel better, even as it poisons the world for them.
Nietzsche gathers many examples of ressentiment in action, but one that has always stuck with me is drawn from Aquinas. In the Supplement to the Summa (question 94), Aquinas considers the ways in which those in Heaven will rejoice in their knowledge that others will be damned. Nietzsche is, perhaps, too harsh on this passage—Christianity is his bĂȘte noire—and Aquinas does say that the saved will not rejoice in the punishment of others as such, but only in knowing what could have happened to them but did not and in seeing Divine justice done.
That is, at least from the modern perspective, fairly dark stuff and Nietzsche uses it to argue that the religion of Love is actually a religion of Hate. I’m not endorsing dear Friedrich’s conclusions, but he points out something interesting here about traditional Christian conceptions of Hell and Heaven. Part of the joy of Heaven consists—even if it is indirectly so—in the fact that there are others in Hell, others who did not get in and have to suffer. You see this even today among those conservative Christians—I know mostly of Catholics—who get extremely angry when one of their co-religionists suggests that Hell will be not empty but very sparsely populated.
I think of this as a the velvet-rope theory of Heaven: it’s really only valuable if others can’t have it. If you take away its exclusivity, it isn't worth much. (Someone of a more biblical or theological bent might want to think through this is in the context of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.)
What, you might ask, has me thinking about this? Debates about marriage, I might reply.
It seems quite likely to me that same-sex marriage has a short future in the United States, at least in any sense stronger than just a license with no attendant rights or responsibilities. There are many arguments against state recognition of same-sex marriage and they come from different backgrounds. Some are full-throated religious arguments. Some rely heavily on tradition. Some rely on old-fashioned natural law. Many rely on the weird hybrid theory that is the new natural law. But many of them have as at least part of their content, a claim that the recognition—in civil law alone—is a harm to the institution of marriage and their own marriages. (See, for instance, link, but there are many more examples.)
Some of these last sort of arguments are worth thinking through even if we disagree with them, but very many of them amount to little more than a velvet-rope theory of marriage: if you let those people in, it will cheapen mine. We saw a version of this, of course, in arguments against miscegenation. Even if some opponents are right that same-sex marriage decreases the attractiveness of traditional marriage, it’s important to ask why that is.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

One quick thought about atomistic moral minimalism

Americans at least tend to elide the distinction between the law and ethics. Students, I find, often have a hard time maintaining the distinction and, when questioned about the morality of some action or practice, will respond by asking what the law says about it. Of course, there are important connections between the law and morality. Murder and theft and battery are all illegal and they are immoral.
But, this elision leads to a common problem in our moral thinking. Quite rightly, our laws are premised on negative rights. That is, I have a (legal) right to life and this means that ceteris paribus you may not kill me. I have a legal right to property and this means that ceteris paribus you may not take my property away from me. These rights give me no legal claim for your assistance in my living nor in the acquisition or maintenance of my property. I have relatively few positive (legal) rights.
If you take that as the basis of your moral thinking—if you can't distinguish between legal and moral thinking—you end up with an extremely atomistic account of morality. You end up with a moral minimalism that is indistinguishable from ethical egoism. You end up thinking that my only obligation to another person is to keep out of their way and that there is no deeper connection between us except that requirement.
I fear that's where we've gotten as a society. I think this prevents any real kind of human flourishing. I think it vastly underestimates our intrinsic sociality and the obligations we have to the society through which we have come to be. To put it in the word of a now-prominent figure, I think it is: "Sad!"

Friday, December 16, 2016

Remembering some things about the real America

We’ve heard a lot recently about the real America and how it has been overlooked and forgotten recently. Pundits tell us we misunderstand it and sleight it at our own risk. Most of those pundits have never spent more than a week in any one part of it and know nothing of it, by the way. Nonetheless, they are writing a mythology of that magical place.
I’m from that real America. I grew up in the same area that (part of) my family had been in for just over 140 years at my birth. Granted, some of the rest of my family were incomers, but all from other parts of that great real America, all of them having settled somewhere in middle America—if we include Appalachia—well before the Civil War and many before the Revolution.
My hometown was a great place to grow up, with some important caveats and for only some groups. But there’s a tendency now to talk about places like Huntington as if they are citadels of virtue to be contrasted with the Babylons and Sodoms of the big cities and the coasts. That’s just not the case. I’ve been thinking about just some of what went on in my town. Here, I give a partial list:

  • The son of my first grade teacher got into an argument outside a drug store with another boy from the high school. He was beaten so badly that, though he continued to age, he returned to the mentality of a mere child.
  • My elementary school had a fourth-grade teacher who regularly had male students sit on his lap. Everybody knew about it. Everybody talked about it. Everyone warned their boys about it. No one did anything about it.
  • When I was in elementary school or junior high, a man killed his father after his father “looked at him wrong.” They were cutting wood at the time. So, he hacked him to death.
  • When I was in high school, three boys went to the home of an eccentric and probably gay businessman, ostensibly to rob him. Well, maybe two of them thought it was a robbery or they were going to settle some dispute the third of them had had with the man. In fact, that man also ended up being axed to death by the third boy.
  • Also, when I was in high school, there was a rash—I mean it seemed like an epidemic if such things could be catching—of men being found hanged at one of our local reservoirs. They had hanged themselves in the pursuit of the perfect orgasm through autoerotic asphyxiation. They, of course, were not the only ones pursuing release at the reservoirs.
  • There was another fellow who was arrested numerous times for criminal trespass. It seems he couldn’t resist the wiles of a group of llamas living on another person’s farm.
  • Another man recruited men for his surgery hobby. How this was possible in the days before Craigslist, I don’t quite know. Anyway, he offered them amateur castrations., effected with everyday tools. Several men took him up on this. He kept the fruits of his labors in jars. He was only caught and jailed when the girlfriend of a recruit found out what he was offering.

That’s not all, but it’s enough to get to my point. What’s my point? There’s no real America. There’s no idyllic place where everything is perfect and virtue still reigns. That’s not because everything is horrible. And, it’s not a denial that there are or might be better and worse places, but humans are everywhere and the evils of human life and the goods of human are everywhere where humans are. Seeing one part of the country as either the only real one or a cesspool is not only unhelpful, it’s a reflection of an unwillingness to think much about anything, especially the political.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A quick thought about a liberal arts education

Before the very idea of a liberal arts education becomes entirely subsumed in concerns about marketability and utility and the the equally horrid buzzwords of twenty-first century pedagogy, it's important to remember something that was distinctive about it once upon a time. 
Its goal was never the same thing as that of professional education. If you study business, you are doing so in order to go into business. And, that's right and good. 
But, that's not what studying literature or philosophy is in the first instance. Sure, lots of people get degrees in philosophy and then go on to study more philosophy in graduate school. That's fine. And, it satisfies to some small degree that hated and hateful question: "What are you going to do with a degree in that?"
No, the point of a liberal arts education, once upon a time, was the education of a person, a person who could go on to do a lot of different things. That person was a person who was going to be able to think liberally and philosophically and humanistically (and mathematically and logically and ...). (Such a person would be an intellectual in the best sense, not that we have any value for intellectuals these days.) That education involved a specialization, but as Oakeshott argued, that specialization was itself a training in the ability to delve into a subject, to explore more deeply, to dedicate oneself. It wasn't, or didn't have to be, a commitment to do this thing professionally or for the rest of one's life.
I don't know how many people recognize this as valuable anymore or how many realize the importance of leisure and non-utilitarian, non-box-checking approaches to the world to this pursuit, but I think we are paying a price and will continue paying a price in the polis for the loss of this idea of education.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Some Thanksgiving thoughts about perspectives and the search for truth

I've been reading Scruton's, How to Be a Conservative, both because I find a certain kind of conservative theory interesting and because it's important to read people and ideas with which you don't necessarily agree. In his consideration of multiculturalism ("The Truth in Multiculturalism"), Scruton faults this approach as turning into a kind of cultural relativism. He finds the philosophical grounding of relativism in the perspectivism of Nietzsche and its adoption by "postmodern" thinkers. 
Elsewhere, he has praise for some of Nietzsche's thought, but the belief that there are no truths and only perspectives he calls both self-refuting—"What then is this, a truth or not?" he asks—and the basis of our inability to stand up for or against any cultural practice. I think the claim that dear Friedrich has unwittingly contradicted himself is too quick, but what is more interesting to me is a common understanding that Nietzsche is introducing his denial of TRUTH ex nihilo. 
This isn't the way he seems to understand himself, nor is it the right way to understand the genesis of his approach. He sees himself as showing the endpoint of philosophy and, most especially, Christianity. To paraphrase: Christ tells us the truth will set us free and, at the end of the day, it sets us free of itself. He's taking things to what he thinks are their logical conclusions. He might be showing his reader the way forward or he might be providing a reductio, but he doesn't think of himself as fully breaking with the tradition he's critiquing.
I don't know whether that full historical path can be fairly traced, but perspectivism and its denial of truth can be seen as having its roots in Kant and his distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal. If that's right—I so rarely am—then we have Hume to blame for awakening Kant from his dogmatic slumbers. Hume's own skeptical project only makes sense in the context of the search for absolute certainty with which RenĂ© Descartes begins modern philosophy. Descartes—for all his smuggling of philosophical method and terminology—does see himself as a rupture with the philosophy that went before.
So, my point? It's become a commonplace to criticize relativism and postmodernism and to locate their genesis in Nietzsche; but, if you want to find the error, you have to go back further. Once you go down the certainty-seeking skeptical rabbit-hole with Descartes, you're going to end up at either solipsism or perspectivism. 

Also, Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, September 30, 2016


The house settles,
Cracks appear
Each returns;
to the void that bore us,

Monday, July 25, 2016

Washing our hands in the abortion debate

It’s one of those periods when lots of people are talking about abortion in the United States. With one political convention over and the other just beginning, pundits and even some real people are thinking about the positions of the two major parties—one absolutely abolitionist, the other nigh on celebratory—and the four candidates. All of this had me thinking a little bit in the gym about not abortion, but the two main positions: Pro-life/anti-abortion and pro-choice/pro-abortion, to give them both their preferred and disdained names.

I don’t want to argue about the ethics of abortion here. I’ve done that before and probably will do so again. I don't want to argue about whether men should have opinions on abortion. I don’t even want to argue about the politics of abortion or what the law should be. My views on all of those questions would be upsetting to almost anyone.

What I want to point out is something I have noticed about many of the most ardent proponents of both views. Now, of course, this doesn’t apply to you necessarily, so you don’t need to explain to me why I am wrong about some or even most of the people who hold whatever view you have. What I have noticed is that there is often a kind of washing-of-the-hands that goes along with both positions.

There are, of course, many people who are opposed to abortion and who work either to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies or to share and alleviate the burden that comes with bearing and raising those children. Whatever your view on abortion, these people show a commitment to their beliefs. 

There is another—I fear, more common—opponent of abortion. There are many exemplars of this sort in the political class. This opponent is adamantly opposed to abortion, but isn’t invested in changing social structures either to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies or do anything for those women who would have to bear the costs of bearing and raising children. They won’t support the kinds of safety nets, whether governmental or private, that would make having children part of a flourishing life. In a real way, they wash their hands of these women who are not their concern. Their opposition to abortion is easy and morally lazy, because it makes no actual demands on them. For them, the right-to-life is merely a negative right that places no positive moral responsibility on the rest of us. 

I think this moral laziness occurs on the other side, too. Of course, people who are in favor of abortion access tend to vote for progressive policies, so they will at least tend to support a social safety net at the governmental level and such things as wider access to childcare. Many of these people also work to help those women who decide to keep their children to thrive. Whatever your opinion on abortion, you should praise such efforts. 

I say that such people will tend to support such policies, but there are also many libertarians who support access to abortion without supporting any of the policies that make it easier for women to keep and maintain their children. There are also supporters of abortion access who are quite happy to see the social safety net shrink; the age of welfare reform in the nineties was also one of demonization of single mothers by conservatives and liberals. That kind of demonization is related to my point. Support for abortion rights can easily bleed into an attitude, if not a belief, that the woman who chooses to keep a baby—even or especially when that decision will impact her life negatively or she can’t quite afford to raise it as well as she or we would like or that child is going to require extra help—should be fully responsible for the consequences of that decision. After all, if she couldn’t raise the child, she shouldn’t have had it. This is an attitude that also washes its hands of these women and their children. (And, it’s an attitude I’ve heard expressed sneeringly by good liberals.) For those in this camp, the right-to-choose is a fully individual right with material support only for one possible choice. It is in this camp, too, that you find the slightest unease with abortion equated with misogyny.

This tendency to let people fend for themselves may be the true American character of individualism: no one's decisions make any personal demands on us.