Monday, December 28, 2015

Some pretty random and disorganized thoughts about wanting what we lack

We consistently fetishize and idealize those things that we lack, that we can't quite achieve. It's as if we recognize our incompleteness—whether we think of this as our fall from grace, our looking for our other half, our alienation, the absurdity of our lives, or any number of other ways it's been conceptualized through the years—and think that if we could just get that one thing everything would be complete. And, since it's a thing we aren't ever going to get, we can be guaranteed never to be complete.
So, many gay men fetishize a particular picture of masculinity. I'm not saying that gay men can't be masculine. Hell, I'm so mascmusc it's painful. But, so many in the gay community long for the "straight-acting" man. Why would you want this unless you think that's not what you are? Unless you think there is something missing in your own masculinity or femininity or wherever you fall?
But this isn't a post about gay men. You see the same thing in political discourse with its strange nostalgia for a time that never was, quite often a fantasy of the 1950s or early 1960s (though only if you are both White and straight) or sometimes a Rousseau-tinged fantasy of the rural life (only ever indulged in by people who do not remember that life), a time that could not possibly be regained—there is no way back there from here. If only we could regain that, if only we could live in that way again, everything would be fine. The world would be perfect; utopia would be achieved.
You see it in religious believers who long for a golden past—the Tridentine Mass, primitive Christianity—or the millennium whatever that is supposed to look like. 
You see it in revolutionaries who long for the utopia to come when everything will be made whole.
You see it in our consumerism, when just one more possession, a new car, a nicer house, that jacket, those kicks, will be the thing that makes everything right, that will finally make me happy.
I see it in myself, in a need to think of people who are merely acquaintances as friends, in a need to feel I belong even to groups that I know I could never belong to. I idealize community and friendship in a way that points to my own inability to feel or find either one very often. That is, I idealize it in the way that one of nature's outsiders is bound to. If only I would belong, if only they would think of me as a friend, then I would be happy. But they won't, so my unhappiness is external.
And, that's the thing about all of these: happiness is conceived of as something I will gain if only I could achieve the unachievable. But this is a kind of nihilism—in the way Camus conceives it in The Rebel—in the way it removes value and happiness to some future state. It also leads us to do things that are wrong (for us) in order to achieve that unachievable or constantly progressing goal. 
I'm not saying that part of happiness isn't finding things outside ourselves. I have to admit that much or most of the happiness in my life relies on the presence of my partner/husband/friend. But, I am saying something that has been noted by thinkers as diverse as Aristotle and RuPaul: love and happiness have to start with a love and happiness in oneself. I have to start by loving my life and my situation as it is in its imperfections. This might well include a realization that it could become better, but it has to have some value as it is. Nothing else can complete me unless I am already complete.
If we can't love the here and now and the person we are, we will never love any there and then or person we can become. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

On thinking about natural law in the shower

I first learned to think and do philosophy as part of a tradition, a fairly conservative Catholic tradition that took both Aristotle and Aquinas seriously. My graduate training was very different, but the effects of that initial training are still in me. I might be a very bad and marginal member of that tradition, but I am still in it in some ways. One way that I remain is in a general respect for virtue theory and—oddly enough for an avowed homosexual—natural law approaches to ethics. I still take Aristotle and Aquinas seriously and I think their approaches to the good life, to flourishing, to what is good for us still speak to us.
If there is something odd about this it is because natural law moralists, in particular, have been at the forefront of objections to the decriminalization of homosexuality and to recognition of same-sex marriages. I'm not interested in debating whether modern advocates of natural law are in the right here. But I do want to note one important thing. Both virtue theory and natural law theory are meant to be empirically grounded theories. They make pronouncements about what is good for beings like us and what would amount to a good life for beings like us based on facts about our biology and psychology.
It is a basic assumption of both sorts of accounts that humans have some immutable nature. I think this is probably right, at least in the medium term; what might happen to that nature over evolutionary time is a different issue. But, many modern proponents of each of these theories seem to assume that our knowledge of this nature is also immutable. What I mean is this: Contemporary natural law theorists operate under the assumption that Aristotle and Aquinas had a complete and completely correct account of human nature, in its biological and psychological aspects. Thus, they believe not only that human nature is immutable, but that we have known all there is to know about it for at least almost a millennium. 
What we have learned about human biology and human psychology and the nature of human interactions since the middle ages is or seems to be of almost no interest to many practitioners of both virtue theory and natural law ethics. You see them quoting Aquinas as authoritative on all such matters.
Now, I think that Aquinas understood quite a bit about human psychology, but I don't think he got it all. And, his biology was pretty bad. Similarly, I think Aristotle understood human motivation and psychological development and society pretty well, but he was missing out on some pretty important pieces, pieces which have partially been supplied by further exploration in the ensuing years. 
Mostly, I think that Aquinas and Aristotle and others in this tradition were right to base an ethic on what we are like and what will lead to happy and fulfilling and flourishing lives for creatures like us. They were also right to think that is largely an empirical question. But this empirical question is an empirical one, not an a priori one or one that was settled in the high middle ages. If we discover new things about ourselves—say about sexuality or human interaction or the family—then our theory has to respond to that.
If virtue theory or natural law is just a constant rehashing of what people thought 900 or 2300 years ago, it isn't philosophy, it isn't even virtue theory or natural law, it's just a dead orthodoxy. And, that's exactly how it should be treated: as dead and irrelevant. 
(I should mention one exception to the immutability of the theory here: Almost all such theorists have discovered that lending at interest is morally acceptable; that we learned something about economics that Aquinas wouldn't have known, since he roundly condemned this practice as usury and a violation of the natural law. This exception may be self-serving or might be a realization that the theory needs to evolve.)