Self-Interest

I recall reading years ago a book in ethics that built an entire ethical system out of the notion of self-interest. This was not simply ego-centricity, not raw selfishness. It was self-interest properly understood: enlightened self-interest. If I ask not “what do I want here and now,” but “what will I want in a few day’s time” I begin to see what is in my true self-interest. I will denote the difference by putting caps on the notion of Self Interest properly understood.

On a mundane level, Self Interest translates into “I will scratch your back because there may come a time when I need you to scratch my back.” Thus, if your car breaks down and you need a ride to the garage I will take you there in spite of the fact that I was on my way to the Mall to buy the item I really wanted because it is on special this week and the sale ends today. I really want to go to the Mall, but I realize that it is in my Self Interest to help you out, because there may come a time when I need you to help me out. Conscience may enter into it, or it may not. It may simply be a matter of calculation. But the end result is that I do the right thing. Similarly, if you make me really angry and I want to smack you upside the head, I realize that if I walk away you will still be my friend and we can continue to have fun together. It’s in my Self Interest to swallow my anger and simply walk away and cool off.

A good citizen who is calculating his or her Self Interest will realize that they need to vet each candidate carefully, get out and vote, and continue to keep an eye on the voting habits of the candidates of choice in order to determine whether they deserve to be reelected. He or she will pay taxes because they realize that they will benefit the schools (whether they have kids in the schools or not) and help the state pay for road repair, support fire and police salaries, and keep up the public parks — all of which benefit me in the long run. (Even someone else’s kids will vote and act wisely in the future if they are well schooled, presumably.)  In a word, Self Interest requires taking the long view, considering the consequences of actions and asking the question: what will benefit me in the long term.

The owner of a factory who knows he can save big bucks by neglecting to put scrubbers on his factory’s chimneys takes the view of Self Interest and spends the money for the scrubbers because he realizes that this will improve air quality that benefits the health of those around him, including his employees, and himself and his family as well. Short-term profits are sacrificed for long-term benefits to a great many more people. And, in the end, these are the people that will continue to work for him and will buy his products. The long term always involves a sense that each of us is in a boat with others. It’s not just about me or you: it’s about all of us. What is good for each is good for all. It’s not rocket science, but it takes a bit of imagination and patience and a willingness to think before acting.

At the highest levels, of course, ethics demands that those who make the major decisions that indirectly affect us all require the perspective of Self Interest. It may be in my self-interest (small case) to cheat on my taxes and save a few bucks, put pressure on my political cronies to get them to vote my way, cut health care because it will benefit those few who support my candidacy, fail to fill vacant federal judgeships that stand in the way of my political objectives, or eliminate regulatory agencies because they interfere with profits. But if I step back and take the perspective of Self Interest I realize that paying my taxes, cooperating with my political cronies (whether I like them or not), promoting universal health care, promoting a strong and healthy judiciary, and funding regulatory agencies that protect us all are in my Self Interest: they are in the best interest of all and therefore of myself as well. When we all benefit each of us as individuals benefits as well.

This system is not the be-all and end-all of ethics, but anyone who seeks to follow the path will find that he or she ends up doing the right thing most of the time. It takes imagination and a willingness to ignore short-term desires for long-term benefits. But if each of us followed that path our democracy would be a stronger and healthier political system that does, in the end, help to promote  the Common  Good — which was always the goal of a republican system of government.

Rights Of Man

Back in the day when folks used the word “man” to denote all humans and before the rad-fems got their collective drawers in a bunch because they were convinced that the term was another sign of male dominance in their world, there was talk about the “Rights of Man.”  The doctrine was decidedly an Enlightenment concept and could be found in declarations from the French after their revolution in 1789 and was later to be found in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book that attempted to encapsulate the rationale behind the American Revolution and the subsequent attempt to ratify a Constitution. It did not, of course, talk about the rights of the males of the human species. Rather, it spoke about the rights of all human beings — French or American, or anything else.

The recent movements the world over toward a new Nationalism is disturbing  on many levels, but most disturbing of all is its tendency to fly in the face of the notion that lies behind the declarations of the rights of all humans; namely, the notion that all humans regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference have the same rights. We see this in the recent decision of Great Britain to go it alone and separate itself from the rest of Europe and in the recent movement in this country to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall between the United States and Mexico and refusing sanctuary to those who have been displaced and are homeless. These attempts to isolate the countries reinforce the notion that England or the United States are somehow different from the rest of the world and, clearly, superior in that there is a thinly disguised jingoism hiding behind the movements. We don’t need you: stay away; we can go it alone.

This is absurd on its face, of course, because the economy of any single country these days is dependent on the rest of the world; but more important than that is the “hidden agenda” of jingoistic nonsense that denies the fundamental Enlightenment notion that all human beings have the same rights and while we are not the same in any other respect we are none the less the same in our right to be (as Kant would have it)  respected as “ends in ourselves.” Kant regarded this as the cornerstone of his ethical system: all persons are ends in themselves and ought never be treated merely as a means. That is, regardless of who we are we are not to be used or to use others “merely as a means” to our own ends. This undermines slavery, obviously, but it also undermines what has come to be called “discrimination” of any sort.

I have always thought Kant’s ethical system to be the strongest of any I have studied even though it places huge responsibilities on all of us to acknowledge the fact that other humans are basically the same as ourselves. It’s a truly Christian notion, of course, though Kant doesn’t couch his theory in the language of the New Testament. There is no talk about loving our neighbors. Still, he would insist that we must acknowledge our neighbor’s rights because they are the same as our own. The notion that we should build walls to keep them out, or that we should send people away because they practice another religion or seem to pose a distant threat because others who look like them pose a threat, is in direct contradiction to the fact that all humans have the same rights.  This is so despite the fact that we show ourselves ready at a moment’s notice to de-humanize other people by gearing up the propaganda machine and inventing pejorative names for the “enemy.”  After all, if they are the enemy then they are not really human and they are to be destroyed. War propaganda is a terrible thing, but in its way the movement toward Nationalism is a step in the same direction. It makes us out to be better than “them” no matter who “them” happens to be.

I am not naive and I do realize that others do not always recognize our rights and there are those in this world who would just as soon that we not exist and would love to make that happen. But we should never lose sight of the moral high ground and insist that any violence toward other people, in the form of walls or the nightmare of another war, should never be an option until all else has been shown to fail. There is no moral defense of war. When it happens it is always a matter of expedience and neither side is right if it is willing and able to kill those who wear a different uniform or have a darker skin, or practice a different religion. All humans have the same rights and we have a responsibility to recognize those rights until it has been demonstrated that they refuse to recognize ours. Even then, if he must, the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart because he knows that what he does is wrong. And, in a small way, this is true of those who build walls.

It is one world and we are all in this together, like it or not. And we must always keep in mind that all humans have the same rights and no one has any sort of claim to be superior in any legitimate sense of that term to any one else.

In Defense of the Classics

One of the charges laid at the feet of people like myself who have read and taught the “Great Books” of Western Civilization is that they are “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” What this means, I suppose, is that they were written by and for those few “effete” intellectuals who can explore the hidden treasures that remain opaque to the rest of humankind. I have always had a problem with this charge and as one who has actually taught many of those books to so-called “marginal students” I can attest to the fact that most of the so-called “classics” can be read and understood by anyone who gives them a chance.

I recall going into a liquor store a few years ago (for a friend, of course!) and running into one of my former students who mentioned that she had thoroughly enjoyed reading Boethius in my class and thanked me for assigning it. She was talking about Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which I required in one of my Humanities courses. We also read a couple of Plato’s Dialogues, several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Inferno, and portions of Homer’s Iliad, among other great books. To be honest, we seldom read entire works (except the short ones like Boethius and  More’s Utopia), but it was certainly the case that those students could have read complete works had they chosen to do so. And some have gone on to do just that. My goal was to give them a taste and get their minds stirring.

Then there is the testimony of people like Irving Howe who noted that:

“There were the Labor night schools in England bringing to industrial workers elements of the English cultural past; there was the once-famous Rand School of New York City; there were the reading circles that Jewish workers, in both Eastern Europe and American cities, formed to acquaint themselves with Tolstoy, Heine, and Zola. And in Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine we have the poignant account of an underground cell in Rome during the Mussolini years that read literary works as a way of holding itself together.”

I also read about an experiment in a New York prison involving a dozen inmates who read and discussed “classics” in philosophy and political theory and were excited about the books and thoroughly involved in the discussions. The notion that these books are “elitist” is absurd. I know that and so did James Seaton whose book, Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism I have referred to previously. In that book Seaton lays to rest, once and for all, the myth that these books are elitist or undemocratic, though he is primarily interested in works or art and literature and the rejection of those standards that would allow us to evaluate great works. I will quote a portion of Seaton’s book at some length because he puts his case very well:

“The notion that the affirmation of standards in art and culture . . . is intrinsically undemocratic depends on the mistaken assumption that the same standards should be applied to both politics and art. The unexceptionable idea that it is possible to arrive at generally acceptable but always debatable criteria for distinguishing between better our worse works of art and literature is confused with the truly undemocratic notion that it is possible to distinguish between those who are fit to command and those who are only fit to obey on the basis of such criteria as race, sex, class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political opinions, or indeed any criteria at all. . . .

It is true that the cultural prestige of the twentieth century avant-garde has lent itself to the notion that those comparatively few capable of appreciating avant-garde art constitute an elite, culturally, spiritually, and even morally superior to the rest of the population. Although this kind of elitism does not have the disastrous consequences associated with elitisms based on race, politics, or religion, for example, it is nevertheless based on false premises. As Henry James demonstrates in discussing Flaubert, it is quire possible to appreciate artistic achievements of modernism without condemning those, the great majority of the population, who are either less appreciative or simply uninterested. On the other hand, the notion that there are a certain number of literary or artistic works whose greatness has been firmly established over many generations is not elitist in any pejorative sense of the word. The so-called ‘canon’ [of Great Books] is established, evaluated, expanded, and re-established in a continuing process by the accumulated judgments of the ‘common reader’ . . .. Ralph Ellison’s thesis that the cultural implications of American democracy include a willingness to recognize artistic excellence wherever and whenever it appears provides a specifically American version of the traditional humanistic literary criticism that art and literature should be judged first of all by artistic standards for which criteria based on class, race, religion, or politics are irrelevant.”

Now it is true that Seaton is primarily concerned about literature and art, but his argument applies to all of those works in the “canon” that are said to be great and which have been swept aside by those who are convinced that they are the root cause of  injustice and human suffering the world over. The works of “dead, white, European, males” are rejected out of hand (by many who have never read them, I strongly suspect) on the grounds that they are elitist despite the fact that they were written or created for ordinary folks and are accessible to all if they are literate and willing to make the effort. The notion that they can be called “great” is rejected out of hand as well because the idea of “greatness” is also said to be determined by an elite group of intellectuals. As Seaton shows, this is false on its face.

The fact of the matter is that there are some works that have stood the “test of time”and remain relevant today. They aid us in understanding the human condition, ourselves and the other members of our human community, in ways that science cannot. In addition, they make it possible for us to appreciate sudden insights and beautifully written prose or poetry and to admire the art that reveals to all of us aspects of our world that would otherwise go unnoticed — especially in an age in which so many of us have our noses buried in our electronic toys.

If you are asking yourself how on earth this is relevant to your world, recall that these deniers are the ones who have brought us “alternative facts” and “political correctness,” among other modern horrors. The rejection of standards of excellence is simply one more sign that most people would prefer not to take the time or the trouble to think and would insist that “it’s all a matter of opinion.” It’s certainly the path of least resistance and we do like to take that.

Rewards And Such

As one who did time in academe — hard time in fact — I have always wondered why those in charge are so reluctant to give out awards and rewards for exceptional work. Those of us who taught, for example, knew who the hard workers and good teachers were. Everybody knew. But those folks were seldom, if ever, acknowledged in any way  — except by the students who tended to turn the whole thing into a popularity contest. I worked very hard, for example, and when I retired I received a framed certificate signed by the governor of Minnesota (or one of his toadies) thanking me for 37 years of loyal service. It was the same certificate that was handed out to all of us who retired at the same time throughout the state system, including one of my colleagues who taught the same courses with the same syllabi for years — only in the mornings, so he could spend the afternoons in his office downtown making real money. Eventually it occurred to me that this is because a reward draws attention to those few who are rewarded and is resented by those who might feel slighted.

That is to say, in fear that someone will take umbrage at the fact that they were passed by, those who deserve to be noticed are ignored. The sentiment here is clear and in some ways admirable: we should do nothing that makes a person feel bad. I suppose this is why so many who teach are reluctant to fail their students — though a friend of mine who taught in our small school in my town once told me he passed poor students along because he didn’t want to have to teach them again! In any event, the outstanding students and teachers who deserve to be noticed are ignored out of a somewhat distorted sense of justice that leads many to the conclusion that it is a form of discrimination.

But let’s give this a moment’s thought. Discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. We discriminate all the time when we choose the red wine over the white, or the steak over the hamburger, the Rembrandt over the Rockwell, Joseph Conrad over the latest pot-boiler. Discrimination used to be a sign of a well-educated, “discriminating” person. That person can choose good books, music, and art and avoid things that might have little or no real value, things that will surely rot his brain. It was supposed to be a good thing. But now, in our postmodern age, we insist that there is no such thing as a “good” book or a “good” paining or composition. There are just things that are written, painted, and played, things people like. It’s all relative. With the absence of standards and the push to greater equality, including the refusal to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color (or ability), we live in a world awash with confusion about what is and what is not to be selected as worthy of our attention and effort. Anything goes. Words like “great” and “excellent” are no longer allowed in the name of political correctness which insists that it’s all a matter of opinion.

Interestingly enough, this hasn’t happened in athletics. Though there is a push among those connected with youth athletics to avoid keeping score and to give every participant a trophy at the end of the season (!), by and large those few who stand out in sports are recognizes and praised for a job well done. Perhaps this explains the craziness of those in our culture when it comes to collegiate and professional sports. At last, they seem to think, we can point out the outstanding athletes and discuss over a beer (or three) who were the GREAT ones! We don’t have to worry about political correctness, because everyone knows that some athletes are better than others. There are winners and there are losers and in sports we side with the winners and stand by the losers hoping that they will soon become winners — or because they are our sons and daughters.

My point, of course, is that we have a double standard. We are willing to recognize and talk about greatness on sports — and even allow that losing may teach vital lessons — but we refuse to do so in every other walk of life because we might hurt someone’s feelings. It never seems to occur to us that the “hurt” may become a motivator to push the one who fails to be recognized to work harder in order to become recognized sometime later. Losers who hope to become winners, if you will. It applies in sports, and it most assuredly applies in life as well.

Adam Smith Revisited

The usual take on Adam Smith is that he was the father of modern capitalism, an apologist for man’s greed and ambition, inventor of the notion of the “invisible hand” that would lead to prosperity and happiness for one and all in a capitalistic economy — trickle down, as it were. The fact is that he was much more famous in his day for his moral philosophy as author of  The of Moral Sentiments in which he insisted that human beings were born with a natural sympathy for one another that would temper their dealings and — in the case of capitalism — keep them from gouging one another and making huge profits at the cost of exploiting their workers and screwing one another.  As he said in Moral Sentiments:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render this happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Smith’s reference here to the supposed selfishness of human beings is a direct reference to the cynical Bernard Mandeville who insisted that thinkers like Lord Shaftesbury and Adam Smith were all wet to insist that men were naturally virtuous because, in fact, they are selfish and self-seeking. Mandeville’s infamous little book The Fable of the Bees, which develops this theme at length, was severely attacked by an eighteenth century English audience led by thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Bishop Butler, Francis Hutchinson, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith who agreed that Mandeville was all wet. The group even included such skeptical thinkers as David Hume, though he was not as vociferous a proponent of the moral sense theory as the others. And these thinkers were supported by John Wesley and his Methodistic followers who were very active, especially among the very poor.  In any event, these  folks were all great minds that comprised what came to be called the Scottish “moral sense” school of philosophy, insisting that humans are born with a natural sensitivity to others, that we all exhibit the “social virtues” of sympathy, benevolence, compassion, and fellow-feeling. As Smith notes, sympathy cannot be a disguised form of self-interest or we could not explain how a man could sympathize with a woman feeling the pains of childbirth. Sympathy is primal; it is not self-interest posing as something else.

The theme was presupposed when he later wrote Wealth of Nations. Very few have read the 900 page book, but they have perused the pages and picked out passages that reinforce their own particular views of the nature of capitalism and the desirability of the capitalistic enterprise to guarantee human happiness. It is not necessary to repeat here what I have written before of Smith’s reservations about raw capitalism, nor to repeat the excellent comments on my blog by Jerry Stark, except to note that Smith had serious concerns about the deleterious effects of the profit motive on human beings.

To be sure, there is no question but that capitalism has improved the lot of most people in this society. We live in a country where the average person has so many things that would have made kings jealous in Smith’s day, we live longer, and we are healthier. But what is noticeably lacking today is the social virtue that Smith presupposed in his treatise. And without moral sensibility, the “fellow-feeling” of which Smith speaks, capitalism is reduced to fierce competition among people who are all reaching for the same goals of fabulous wealth, status, power, and prestige. Somewhere along the line the social virtues that Smith simply assumed were prevalent in humankind have all but disappeared, and the ugly qualities that are accompany capitalism are left unrestrained by the gentler, human sympathies.

The fact is that the eighteenth-century thinkers who founded this nation, who wrote the “Declaration of Independence” and the “Constitution,” all presupposed the very same social virtues that Smith speaks of. They assumed, as James Madison says quite clearly in a number of the Federalist Papers, that virtuous people would elect wise and virtuous leaders who would promote the common good. This was axiomatic in English and American political and moral thought at that time, and was regarded as the sine qua non of a republican government. And yet we look around and fail to see much virtue at all; it has been replaced by the greed and avarice that capitalism breeds when it is not tempered, as Smith simply assumed it would be, by the social virtues. Recall Madison’s comment in Federalist Paper #55:

“Were the pictures which have been drawn of the political jealousies by some among us [Mandeville?] faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

I have spoken before about the transition of the word “virtue” into “value,” and the consequent reduction of virtues to feelings that are not in the least bit shared by all, but are purely subjective and personal. You like what you like and you value what you value; I like and value what I like and value. And that’s an end to it. But this seemingly innocent alteration in the way we look at things and speak about things reflects a deeper attitude toward our fellow human beings, a lack of sympathy and fellow-feeling accompanied by a conviction that there is nothing that is valuable or true, and that human happiness can be bought and paid for by grubbing about in the market place, trading stocks, exploiting our fellow humans, accumulating as much stuff as possible, climbing the political and social ladder, and ignoring our responsibilities to one another.

We have come a long way, baby, in the name of “progress.” What is not so clear is that we are any the happier or that what we have thrown away was not more valuable than what we have kept.

Culture Studies

I have made passing reference from time to time of the postmodern trend in the academy away from traditional coursework in the standard academic disciplines and toward something that has come to be called “Culture Studies.” These studies are an attempt to replace those traditional disciplines that are regarded by a growing number of academics as irrelevant or even “a part of the problem” in an attempt to radically change the climate not only within the universities but also in society at large. As literature professor James Seaton tells us in Literary Criticism From Plato to Postmodernism:

“In the twenty-first century, the academic study of popular culture has become a part of culture studies, a transdisciplinary approach whose attraction derives in  large part from its implicit promise that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline.”

I have discussed in previous posts the birth from this movement of New History that insists that historians simply express their own particular view of events — without footnotes or corroboration of facts — because, they say, the traditional view of how to write history is based on the absurd notion that there are such things as facts and even a thing called “truth.” In the end, the movement of postmodernism in general agrees in rejecting such “absurd” notions and in the process  moves on toward a more radical manner of viewing one’s world and the things that go on in that world. I have noted the tendency of this movement within the academy to morph into movements outside the academy in society at large — in the form, most recently, of “alternative facts.” In a word, the repercussions of what growing numbers of academics do within the hallowed halls of academe have an effect on the way people think both within and without the academy. Most interesting in Seaton’s remarks above is the notion that culture studies — which is his special concern in his book — are an attempt to replace traditional academic disciplines, especially in literature, history, and philosophy, and transform them into something that loosely resembles sociology, badly done.

To what end, one might ask? The answer is to the end of radically transforming the world. Revolutionaizing the world, if you will. The three editors of an anthology titled Culture Studies and published in 1992 put is quite explicitly:

“. . .a continuing preoccupation within culture studies is the notion of radical social and cultural transformation . . . in virtually all traditions of culture studies, its practitioners see culture studies not simply as a chronicle of cultural change but as an intervention in it, and see themselves not simply as scholars providing an account but as politically engaged participants.”

Thus we should not be surprised that on many college campuses across the land militant faculties and students are turning away prospective speakers with whom they disagree and are steamrolling their political agendas through committee meetings, commandeering professional journals, and turning the curriculum into a homogeneous series of studies in like-minded writers that will indoctrinate students into their way of thinking. This unanimity of opinion is regarded by this group as essential to the ends they have in view, namely “a commitment to education as a tool for progressivist politics.” This has disturbed even a few of those who regard themselves as liberal members of the faculty. As one recently noted (and please note that this person is not a reactionary conservative):

“. . .by putting politics outside of discussion, and insisting that intellectual work proceed within an a priori view of proper leftist belief — conveyed between the lines, parenthetically, or with knowing glances and smiles — all sorts of intellectual alliances have been foreclosed at the outset.”

When he says that “politics[ is] outside of discussion” what he means, of course is that political issues have already been decided: America is a corrupt imperialistic country, our democracy is irremediably damaged, racism and sexism are rampant, and corruption is the order of the day. These things may or may not be true, but they are not to be discussed. The matter has been settled, “foreclosed at the outset.” Their success, which has been surprising, has been due to simple tactics: intimidation and guilt. Much of what they say is true, or at least half-true, but it is all beyond discussion.

Folks like this writer, and a diminishing number of other relics, following in the footsteps of the brilliant Black historian W.E.B. DuBois, attempt to defend what was once called “High Culture” and is now regarded as “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” Such folks are regarded as past their must-sell-by-date, not worth a moment’s reflection or worry on the way toward the transformation of the university  from a place where ideas are freely exchanged and discussion is open-ended and hopefully leads to something we can agree is true or factual (or at least plausible) to an institution where future leaders of shared radical views of society are bred and raised in a comforting and comfortable atmosphere of inflated grades where they will find only support and agreement.

The agenda in “higher” education has changed radically: it is no longer about putting young people in possession of their own minds. It is now about making sure they see that the only way to transform society and eliminate injustice is to read and discuss those who agree with the program that has been carefully laid out for them by growing numbers of faculty who see themselves as having arrived at a place where disagreement can no longer be tolerated if it is likely to lead students away from what they regard as the truth — despite the fact, of course, that they insist that there is no such thing as “truth.”

This may help us to understand why at the moment 45% of America’s college graduates think the sitting president is doing a good job. A figure that surprises many but which makes perfect sense to those who see this man as the embodiment of radical change — and who have not been taught how to think, only what to think.

Levelling Down

In 1962 Gabriel Marcel wrote in Man Against Mass Society that as the world trends toward “mass man” (i.e. a homogeneous human population resulting from a growing tendency to be alike) human minds would tend toward mediocrity. There would be a leveling down, not up. The “A” grade would no longer connote excellence, it would be the norm — as indeed it has. Excellence becomes average and average is supposed to represent excellence. Indeed, excellence will no longer be recognized and even despised, as will “greatness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this coming, in America at least, when he visited in 1831 and listened to what people had to say and what sorts of things they thought were important. He concluded that:

“I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they would seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

Poets like Shelly also saw this happening around him and fought to maintain his individuality — and others, following his example, became individuals just like Shelly.

But, more to the point, the “freedom” that Tocqueville mentions here is identical with the freedom sought by so many Americans today, namely a freedom from constraints, a freedom from those who would be “in your face.”  But a freedom from constraints is not freedom, it is chaos (by definition). Real freedom requires constraints — as John Locke pointed out long ago and anyone who ever tried to get on a crowded tow-lift at a ski slope can attest.

What Tocqueville is speaking about, of course, is the American tendency to keep up with the Joneses, as we say. If they buy a camper, we must buy one as well — perhaps even one slightly larger than theirs. But the tendency to seek out others who think like ourselves is a part of what Tocqueville is concerned about as well. We avoid reading or listening to those whose opinion differs from our own so we hear only those things that want to hear, those things that reinforce our own preconceptions and make us feel wiser. This is happening on our college campuses, as I have mentioned in previous posts, and it is very worrisome indeed. We fear difference and we find comfort in sameness. Even those who should be champions of difference in the name of cultural diversity.

But the thing about the leveling down of the human mind that is most distressing is that comes at a time when keen minds are absolutely necessary to deal with the many problems of a global nature that humanity faces in our day and age. And the fact that we have a mediocre mind in the White House who has attracted a plethora of mediocre minds around him who all deny such things and global warning, beat their collective chest in the face of international threats, and cut into the budgets of social programs to further develop the military and build walls the keep different people out — all of this is very disturbing indeed.

A democracy, especially, requires open minds  meeting together to seek and try to find the best solution to complex problems. All sides of every issue need to be heard and taken seriously — and not dismissed with a wave of the hand and a sneer. As John Stewart Mill told us years ago, we don’t know anything about an issue until we have heard from those who disagree with us as well as those who agree with us.

But all this is the result of the leveling down of our minds in a mass culture that relies on the entertainment industry to tell us what to like and dislike — and what to buy. In a commodified culture, like ours, the trend toward a leveling down is even more pronounced than it might be otherwise, because the messages drummed into our heads hourly all tell us to be like everyone else. “Buy this coat: it’s very popular.” Be “liked” on Facebook — or else. It does not encourage difference and individuality and while those who seek to be different are at times over the line, they are to be admired — even if they do so in much the same way.

A Woman’s Place

In this post I want to play the devil’s advocate, to see if any sense whatever can be made of the conservative position regarding women that would keep them in the home rather than have them compete in a man’s world (as it has come to be called). I repeat: I am playing the devil’s advocate here: I am not committed to this point of view, though I do not find it silly or frivolous — especially when those on this side of the issue can enlist the likes of George Eliot. It is an issue that requires careful and dispassionate thought, not knee-jerk reactions and name-calling.

In her influential book, The Female Eunich, first appearing in  1970, Germaine Greer told the world that:

“Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”

Many have taken this to mean that women should become more like men, aggressive, assertive, even vulgar. But there was another feminist voice that directed the conversation toward a broader interpretation of the preferred role of women while, at the same time, insisting that women should be accorded the same rights as men. That was the voice of the psychologist Carol Gilligan who in 1982 insisted in her book In A Different Voice that women should not seek to imitate men and their ethics of duty and responsibility but, rather, follow their feelings toward an ethics of care, which is more natural to women and allows them to carve out for themselves a healthier and more embracing ethics, a more positive ethics than one based on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, for example. Gilligan stresses the fact that women naturally feel a sympathy for other humans and should build their ethical system around that. As Gilligan herself put it:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

Thus we have conflicting views within the feminist camp. On the one hand, Greer stresses the need for women to grasp and hold some of the territory men have always claimed for themselves, while Gilligan stresses the differences between men and women and the need to develop a feminine ethics of care. But are these two points of view really so much in conflict? I think not, because each stresses in her own way the need for women to acknowledge their differences while, at the same time, refusing to accept an inferior social role. The problem is in determining what that “inferior” role might be.

For many feminists that inferior role is in the home raising children. Thus, in order to achieve autonomy they must go off to work each day leaving their kids (if they have any) in Day Care and hoping that television doesn’t do too much damage to their children’s psyches. The assumption here is that self-worth is predicated on having a job that pays less than a living wage and fighting against the glass ceiling each day in the hope that at some point women will be paid what they are worth. This is an assumption that will not withstand scrutiny.

People like Lord Acton, a self-proclaimed “Liberal Catholic,” argued against women’s suffrage in Victorian England on the grounds that “in the interest of humanity” taking their place in the hurly-burly of the world outside the home would destroy their essential nature and eliminate the much-needed influence of the woman at home with the children teaching them right from wrong and helping them to grow into responsible adults. This view was echoed in many of Joseph Conrad’s novels as well, since that author regarded women as somehow too “pure” to mix in the world of men without losing their feminine nature entirely — a nature that society as a whole requires in order to achieve and maintain some sort of moral perspective. In Heart of Darkness, for example, Marlowe is reluctant to tell Kurtz’s “intended” how the man deteriorated and became bestial toward the end of his ongoing orgy in Africa for fear that it would disillusion her and make her cynical and hard, like a man.

This is not to say that women are the “weaker sex.” On the contrary, it suggests that they are the stronger sex because the role they play is more basic, and at times more difficult, than the role of provider that is played by the male in the traditional view. Strength is not a matter of what we do but how we do it. Men tend to be aggressive and bellicose and bring those qualities to the competitive job arena; the role of women is to temper that aggression and bring calm to a masculine world — behind the scenes, as it were. But both Conrad and Acton would insist that this role is essential to a healthy society. Surprisingly, George Eliot would agree with Conrad and Acton. In opposing John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 which would have enfranchised women she noted that:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

In saying this, Eliot sided with such other notable women as Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale.  Note that this view doesn’t fly in the face of what Greer and Gilligan are insisting upon, either. Not really. There is no real conflict between the claim, on the one hand, that women should assert themselves as women, demand their rights, and insist that they be recognized as essential to a complex society, and the claim, on the other hand, that if they have children their basic role is in the household (with a room their own as Virginia Woolf would have it) raising those children and helping them achieve adulthood in the face of the undue pressures of a commodified culture, the entertainment industry, and their peers. If the goal is to achieve autonomy, the issue is not what women do, it is what women think of themselves. As Greer herself said, twenty years after the publication her book:

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood.”

Autonomy is inner freedom and does not require that women (or men) play specific roles.  The fact that in our society self-worth is predicated on what we do (rather than how we do it) is a mere accident of our capitalistic ethos and should not be the driving force behind basic social choices.

Is it possible (I ask, somewhat facetiously) that the movement to demand that women and men play the same roles in society not only ignores important differences but has weakened the fabric of society and eliminated almost entirely that essential, if often ignored, effect women traditionally had raising the children and taking charge of the household — again, assuming that they have children? To even ask this question in this day and age seems like heresy, but it is worth pondering if we are to penetrate to the causes of the current American malaise: the fact that our society increasingly shows signs of social unrest, political deterioration, and the absence of a moral compass.

At the very least, we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma, devil or no devil.

Desensitized?

I have blogged previously about the fundamental difference between film as art and film as entertainment. For the most part we, as a culture, have abandoned any attempt to present film as art in an effort to set records at the box office. In a word: art doesn’t sell, entertainment does. The most recent example is the record $532 million that the “ridiculous” action film “The Fate of the Furious” recently made (in the first weekend) — worldwide. The word “ridiculous” is not mine, but that of a critic who could see no redeeming value whatever in the film which was, apparently, one explosion after another. I saw only the trailer, but I think I get the idea and that I have enough of a sense of what the film is all about to make a comment: a thin plot, little dialogue by second-tier actors, a touch of sex, and more than a little mayhem and graphic violence. The special effects people have taken over American movie-making.  A cinematic tour de force? Hardly. More like a cinematic comic book.

I have noted before that films that achieve the level of art require an effort on the part of the spectator, an effort of the mind and the emotions. The viewer must become fully engaged in what is happening on the screen and must use his or her imagination to make connections and follow the sometimes complex plot and action. When film is presented as mere entertainment, no effort of required: the film does all the work and the spectator merely needs to sit back and “let it happen.” The imagination withers from lack of exercise.

But the problem goes deeper than merely a lack of imagination and effort required to view most recent films, especially of the “action” variety. It suggests to those of us who care about such things not only a lack of imaginative effort, but also a growing desensitization to the suffering and pain of others. The more we see cars exploding and blood pouring out of open wounds the less it impacts on us. This is not unlike the desensitization of police officers and surgeons who see pain and suffering on a regular basis and are able to “shut it off” somehow. I gather in their case it is a defense mechanism as those who must work in the midst of pain and suffering must obviously figure out a way to cope. Otherwise they would have to find another line of work. This is the idea behind the British comedy “Doc Martin” in which the main character who is a successful vascular surgeon suddenly develops a blood phobia because one day he realizes that his patients are real people and has to leave the operating room for a GP’s life in a small village in Cornwall.

The point of all this is that desensitization is sometimes a good thing, but when it becomes commonplace, even global, it becomes worrisome. If we simply “shut off” the natural human reaction to seeing another person in pain or upon hearing about the suffering of those who are displaced by a war they never wanted in the first place, what does that say about us as human beings? Fellow-feeling, as the Scots told us about in the eighteenth century, is a basic trait of the human species. We see someone suffering and we naturally feel their pain — it’s called “empathy,” and some are more empathetic than others. But we were told at the time that it is a trait we all share to one degree or another and whether we agree with that thesis (and there are those who do not) it attests to the fact that there is a common reaction to the pain of others that ordinarily surfaces and keeps the “average” person from wanting to inflict pain or even to witness it in others. Fellow-feeling may not be universal, but it is certainly not uncommon — though it threatens to become so.

In a word, the possibility that a film has received a huge payout despite the fact (because of the fact) that it is merely violent entertainment that wallows in the pain and suffering of others on the screen, and that this film has become the record-holder for all films for all time, does make us pause. What does this say about us as human beings? Not just in this culture, but around the world where people are lining up to see the latest action film that has no redeeming value whatever.

Tyranny of the Majority

One of the more captivating notions to come out of de Tocqueville’s truly remarkable book Democracy In America was the notion of the tyranny of the majority. Coincidentally, John Stuart Mill arrived at pretty much the same notion at about the same time and the two men became close friends and mutual admirers. The exceptional Lord Acton — whose name (are you ready for this because it will be on the Mid-Term?) was John Edward Emerich Dalberg Acton — agreed with de Tocqueville and Mill about the tyranny of the majority, though he thought they were both all wrong about the strengths and weaknesses of Democracy. More about that below.

de Tocqueville convinced the French government to fund his trip to the United States in 1831 ostensibly to examine our prison system. Instead he examined our system of democracy because he was convinced this was the direction that all Western nations were headed and he wanted to be in a position to shout warnings if necessary and to help the process along if possible. But after visiting a number of New England town meetings he came away with a distrust of the majority rule — and with good reason. He said, among other things:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not changes their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

This is, surely, one of the most eloquent statements ever set down regarding the weaknesses of majority rule — which can indeed become tyrannical just as much as a single powerful King, perhaps even more so. But de Tocqueville didn’t stop there; he made an attempt to explain the psychology behind the tyranny of majority opinion:

“. . . as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. . . .I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and free discussion as in America.”

We do not often find ourselves in decision-making groups where the majority votes on large issues. Not as a rule, certainly. But we can recall the discussion and vote in our Congress not long ago over the question of the invasion of Iraq in which the wave of emotion swept the floor and the yeas had their day and the nays were derided as “unpatriotic” if not “cowards” or “treasonous.” We might call it “peer pressure” these days, but the force of the will of the majority can be powerful indeed; it is not always enlightened or even reasonable, and the voice of dissent is often silenced and refused a hearing when the majority is in full voice.

I mentioned Lord Acton above, and he tended to agree with de Tocqueville and Mill about what Acton called the “despotism of democracy.” In fact, he noted that:

“It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.”

This devout Catholic witnessed first-hand the tyranny of the majority when in 1870 he fought unsuccessfully the attempts of Pope Pius IX to institute the doctrine of papal Infallibility. As pressure from Rome increased one after another minority Bishop succumbed to the “latent power” of majority opinion until the doctrine was approved. Earlier, in discussing the American Civil War, he analyzed the despotism of democracy noted above. Like many Englishmen, especially among the wealthy classes, his sympathies were on the side of the South. He was convinced that the Northern states were not so much interested in the emancipation of the slaves as in subjecting all of the South to the authority of the national government and reducing the population to a single, undifferentiated mass. He was convinced that a plurality of nations within a single civil state was to be preferred to a homogeneous group of people who all looked, dressed, and thought alike.

Just as majority opinion tends to silence dissent, the movement toward Nationalism, toward a single (isolated?) geographical and political unit, as Acton saw it, was a movement toward homogeneity, toward like-mindedness; he fought it in the name of pluralism. As he noted:

“A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races condemns itself; a State that labors to neutralize to absorb or to expel [different races] destroys its own vitality; a State which does not include [different races] is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.”

In a word, the tendency to silence dissent, to follow the “latent power” of the majority opinion to a single point of view — thereby silencing the minority, the attempt to build walls and send certain peoples away from this country, are all insidious and in direct opposition to the open and free discussion of ideas and the freedom of opinion that are the warp and woof of this nation. Without this sort of freedom there can be no real freedom whatever. And this appears to be where we are headed at the present moment. It is time to call “foul” and consider where we are headed.