Last week my wife and I re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – the original Chuck Jones cartoon, not the later remakes. As we talked about it, I realized that that Christmas special, and the original book, are a great depiction of eudaimonism – perhaps even in a Confucian form.Continue reading
One of the more pressing questions in political philosophy is how to prevent the arbitrary use of power. I think Thomas Hobbes and Xunzi were sadly right to diagnose an abiding darkness in human nature: left to our own devices, human beings can easily degenerate into disastrous crimes. Primatology suggests a confirmation: among our closest (or nearly closest) living relatives, the chimpanzees, a jockeying for power and status can lead to vicious rivalries and even murder – even in the idyllic situation where all their material needs are provided for. The evidence of existing human history does nothing to suggest that language or other human capacities have made us better than that.
But Hobbes, as far as I can tell, offers the worst possible solution to this problem: to concentrate power in a single sovereign person. Then that one person becomes able to tyrannize everyone else in a way completely unrestrained, just as he pleases. (It is rarely a she.) The twentieth century gives us too many chilling examples of mass murder and terror from a sovereign given arbitrary power.
A more reasonable approach to the problem asks how we can contain the dark impulses of all people – and of the sovereign leader most of all. It is likely no mystery why I’m asking this question living in 2020 in the United States.Continue reading
A few years ago I discussed why the debate between intellectualist and voluntarist conceptions of God (is God an intellect or a will?) was so important in the medieval Western world. (The West here includes medieval Muslims, who not only started the debate, but were often further west than the Christians – in what is now Spain and Morocco rather than France and Italy.) I followed up by speaking of the modern practical implications of this debate: how it shows up in modern conceptions of law, and democracy. I think there are also some interesting things to say about the ethical implications of the debate in its own context.
Above all, if God is taken as a supremely good being, then our conception of him is inextricable from our conceptions of goodness and morality as such – and for that matter, of how we can tell what is good. This was the context for the debates that raged in early Muslim ethics, perhaps best chronicled by George Hourani. Muslims of the time agreed that the good life should be thought of in terms of law (shari’a): the prohibitions and obligations set out by God. But how do we know what God’s law is, exactly? It depends on what God is.Continue reading
As mindfulness meditation practices become ever more popular and widespread, their claim to be a “non-sectarian technique” takes on progressively greater importance, just as it does with yoga. By claiming their practices to be secular techniques, teachers not only can promote the practices to adherents of Abrahamic traditions; they can also aim to avoid the legal restrictions placed on “religion” –though they can then also be taxed, and even treated as a competitive sport.
But that’s not the only problem. Continue reading
In response to my discussion a while ago of the problems between Buddhism and qualitative individualism, Patrick O’Donnell suggested that J. David Velleman’s Self to Self offered a possibility of bridging the gap between the two. My reaction was skeptical, since Velleman explicitly situates himself as a Kantian, and I have taken Kant as exactly the opposite kind of individualist, a quantitative individualist. I said as much in response, claiming that for Kant “ethically most significant about human beings are those characteristics we all share, not our differences – the right way for one person to act in a given context is broadly the right way for any other person to act in the same context.”
Patrick’s response was where the discussion got really interesting. For this is the first time I’ve seen someone question the very distinction between qualitative and quantitative individualism. Continue reading
When we study non-Western cultures it is difficult to separate out the study of “philosophy” from the study of “religion”. Those of us who study the brilliant arguments of élite men are often told we should pay more attention to the lived culture, to what people there actually say and do. There are advantages and disadvantages to studying other cultures this way. But one of the things we often don’t do is turn that same gaze on our own.
What if, as philosophers in the West, we paid more attention to the ideas that actually underlie our everyday lives and cultures and arguments rather than to prestigious theories? As “religious studies” scholars do, in ways that do not and should not depend on the concept of “religion”? I think that if we approached contemporary Western philosophical culture in this way, we would discover how much of our ethical life is animated by an important ethical ideal that has not had a defender as philosophically rigorous and articulate as a Kant or a Rawls. Continue reading
It was sixteen years ago, in 2000, that I wrote this week’s post. It was a short paper submitted for Francis Fiorenza‘s class on hermeneutics, on the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Hans-Georg Gadamer. I post it (unedited) because it was something of an intellectual milestone for me, moving away from the more radical Marxist-influenced view I had been holding up until that time. I was surprised as I wrote the paper that I found Gadamer’s more traditionalist view more persuasive than Habermas’s quasi-Marxist social-scientific rationalism.
Since it was written for a professor who knows both Habermas and Gadamer well, it assumes some knowledge of the two thinkers (as well as of Hegel, on whom they both draw) and may be tricky for someone unfamiliar with them. References are to articles by Habermas and Gadamer in Gayle Ormiston and Alan Schrift’s anthology The Hermeneutic Tradition (HT), and to the second revised English edition of Gadamer’s Truth and Method (TM).
My sympathies in this debate certainly lie primarily with Habermas. I also find that in many respects Habermas and Gadamer are very close to each other. Nevertheless, overall I find Gadamer’s position the more compelling of the two, because I am convinced by his argument that we cannot ultimately reject tradition.
Authority, tradition, prejudice are certainly unappealing words — although more so, I think, in English than in German, especially in the case of prejudice. (Vorurteil has at least some positive connotations.) Gadamer’s attempt to rehabilitate them feels quite unwelcome to me. Prejudices say that interracial children like me should not exist; authority keeps women in unhappy relationships and out of the workplace; tradition frowns on unconventional sexuality, or in some cases any sexuality at all. What could there be to rehabilitate here?
Gadamer’s answer, of course, is plenty. Continue reading
In the previous discussion of why intellectualism and voluntarism are important, I left out what I think may be the most important aspect of all, one which leaves its mark on our thought today in the modern West. Namely: whether God is an intellect or a will bears directly on the way we think of morality – at least when we understand morality in terms of law, as the Abrahamic traditions all have to some degree.
If God is a will, then that will makes morality: morality is whatever God’s will commands. Continue reading
We have seen over the past few posts that while the idea of individual rights is not just a modern invention, it also is far from a universal one. Rights are not obvious or commonsensical. Contra the American Declaration of Independence, they are not self-evident.
Rather, rights need reasons. If one wants to get to the truth of the matter (and not merely to achieve an expedient political deal), it is never good enough to say something should be done for, or not done to, a person “because he has a right to it”. The right itself requires a justification. Sometimes one’s interlocutor already agrees that the person has this right, but in many cases – the most important cases – they do not in fact agree.
This point is easy to lose sight of, perhaps especially in the contemporary United States where the opposing political sides rarely speak to each other. Each side insists it is defending rights: the employee’s right to contraception, Hobby Lobby‘s right to refuse to provide contraception on religious grounds, the fetus’s right to life, the woman’s right to an abortion. But what is in question here – assuming we acknowledge the existence of rights in the first place – is who has which rights. And then we need to provide reasons.
On Leif Wenar’s modern definition, a right is an entitlement. Historically, when William of Ockham articulated a concept of rights that would get increasingly taken up in the years following, it was a potesta licitas: a legal power, a power of licence. Key to a right is an entitlement or licence that implies an obligation of others to respect it.
But who grants the licence, the entitlement, the permission? Continue reading
Last time I began exploring the history of the concept of rights (as in human or civil rights), through the works of Michel Villey and Brian Tierney. I noted that the concept as we now understand it has its roots in Latin ius, which had a meaning more like law and one’s proper share than like rights. How did this concept become the concept of individual rights that we now have today?
Villey lays the blame (and for him it is blame) on one key thinker, William of Ockham (or Occam). Continue reading