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It has taken me longer than expected to get to reviewing Seth Zuihō Segall’s thoughtful and engaging The House We Live In: Virtue, Wisdom and Pluralism. Most of the reasons for that are personal, but some have to do with the book itself: the book is short (less than 200 pages) and in admirably simple prose, but I spent a long time reading it because of the number of times it made me stop and provoked my thinking. It’s provoked me enough that my review and response to it will stretch over four different posts; the other thing that took a long time was organizing all the many things I had to say about the book. (I had even more to say than those four posts, but decided to restrain myself to the most important.)

The book is an ambitious attempt to set out Seth’s own constructive philosophy. (I went back and forth on first vs. last name – although when reviewing a book it’s conventional to use a last name, since Segall is an active contributor to Love of All Wisdom’s comments on a first-name basis, I prefer that friendlier usage.) I’m broadly sympathetic with this attempt, since like my own philosophy it is broadly eudaimonistic (and naturalistic). We agree on an ethical account that focuses on human virtue and flourishing.

Specifically, the book is Seth’s philosophical account of two things: the good modern human life, in an ethical and psychological sense, and a political direction for modern societies, especially the USA. (It does not attempt to probe other philosophical areas, such as metaphysics – possibly to its detriment, as we’ll see later.) The ethical account of the good life is relatively strong; the political account, somewhat less so. At its best it provides an admirable political vision to aspire to. The biggest problem with the book is its papering over of the major differences among traditions. I am going to spend more time on the criticism of that latter point than the praise of the former, just because I think there’s typically more to be learned in disagreement than in agreement. (And indeed, the importance of difference and disagreement will be at the heart of my critique.) I want to be clear that I think the book is well worth the read, at least its middle ethical chapters, and that’s a big reason I am engaging with it at length. For a long time, virtue ethics of any kind was so underrepresented in philosophy that we virtue ethicists all had to stick together against our Kantian and utilitarian foes. I think it’s a sign of major progress that books like Seth’s are now out there – in a way that allows us to turn our attention to our differences.

Those middle chapters, on virtue and flourishing, are powerful and subtle, especially when addressing practical wisdom and relationships. The book really excels in addressing the details of the good modern life. It is among the best guides I know to phronēsis – practical wisdom – in a modern context, reminding us of the various complexities in a good life. Kant and utilitarians make the disastrous move of reducing goodness to a single principle; virtue ethicists have done a good job of pointing out that life is more complex than that, but the harder part is teasing out the various strands of that complexity. That latter part is what Seth does extremely well – exploring the rich texture of modern life and what it means to live that life well in its complexity. That task is difficult to do at this level of philosophical generality, and Seth succeeds at it: his long experience as a therapist really shines through here, providing him with a remarkable range of psychological insights.

These chapters of the book are wonderful for helping an already sympathetic audience (like myself) understand the textures of ethical life with deeper subtlety. What they wouldn’t do is convince a skeptical audience. They draw good ideas from Aristotle, Confucius and some Buddhist texts, but not in a way that addresses the disagreements even among those thinkers, let alone the disagreements one might have beyond them. That’s not the point of those chapters, but it does lead Seth to some problems, which come out perhaps most clearly in the political chapters. I do appreciate his overall vision of dealing with political difference:

We can promote interactions that renew our bonds of common humanity. I may not be able to change your mind, but I can listen to your beliefs and explain why I believe mine. The goal of encounter is not a changing of minds, but mutual understanding. We can grow to respect that we each have convincing (for us) reasons why we believe as we do. (152)

I applaud him for raising this olive branch, particularly because it is deeply controversial at present: as he notes, such a stance “infuriates some progressives” (154). A polarized era seeks all too easily to demonize its opponents, and of course some of those opponents can act in bad faith – but not all of them do, and mutual understanding of sincere people on the other side is something more important today than ever.

This mutual understanding is harder than it sounds, and unfortunately I don’t think Seth lives up to it. In practice, it turns out that he disparages genuine political difference – characterizing his political opponents in a way that does not treat their difference as in any way enriching, nor finds a basis in mutual understanding. It’s hard to see any attempt of mutual understanding going on, for example, when Seth characterizes “Western Civilization” and “the War Against Christmas” as “code words”, and claims that even these words’ use by “mainstream right-wing groups” is

to signal that non-whites and non-Christians need to know their place and assimilate to normative European-descent Christian culture—a kind of American dhimmitude in which ethnic, racial, and religious and sexual minorities may dwell on American soil with second-class rights. (5)

The term “code words” – like its nastier, dehumanizing cousin “dogwhistle” – is a way of claiming that these people are not actually saying what they mean; it is to approach them from a position of suspicion, which is an unfortunately poor fit with Seth’s plea for mutual understanding. And I think relatively few – if any – of the right-wingers who use the phrases in question would recognize their viewpoint in this characterization. Similarly in his preface Seth proclaims “There are forces that do not want America to continue developing as a liberal, pluralistic, multicultural democracy in which different religions and forms of unbelief compete within a largely secular sphere…” (xiv) Here, not only we not hear from his opponents in their own words, he does not even speak of them as people but as “forces”. You don’t have mutual understanding with a “force”.

I agree with Seth that if you are my political opponent, it is good when possible to “listen to your beliefs and explain why I believe mine”. So why does he not model this approach in the book – and listen to the beliefs of his own opponents, by reading and quoting their ideas, letting them speak in their own words? (As far as I can tell the only such quote is a couple individual sentences from different Republicans, none in their context, on p5.) I think that question points to a deeper problem in Seth’s philosophical approach, which I will turn to in future posts.