Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 1)

June 11, 2019

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

—–Kellyanne Conway




Secretary of State Pompeo of the Trump administration recently announced its intention to offer “fresh thinking” on the nation’s commitment to human rights by launching a new panel to investigate how to base our conception of human rights on “natural law.”[i] This has raised concerns with many in the LGBTQ community in particular, who have interpreted it as a weakening of the commitment of the United States to gay and lesbian rights (and possibly others). Are these concerns justified? Just what does these terms mean, anyway? Is this, as its proponents contend, a desirable effort to put the concept of “human rights” on a solid foundation? In this paper, I shall attempt to explore the public claims on behalf of this attempt to redefine our national policy in terms of natural law, “natural law” has historically meant and what it more generally means, and what a claim to commitment to natural law means in an era of alternative facts.

For any non-philosophers who may stumble across this, let’s start with the basics: what is “natural law”? In philosophy, it refers to the idea that morality should be deduced from facts of nature, and specifically human nature. In its most common form, Catholic moral teaching, it has its roots in Aristotle’s ethical thought. Aristotle argued that a human is a rational social animal. That is, the human soul, or Form, or essence has a vegetative part, which is to say it is alive like any plant or animal. Humans are also sensitive, like any other animal; they feel and sense their surroundings, and react to it to gain food or whatever else they desire, and to escape what is harmful. They are social; a single human cannot gain everything he or she wants alone, but needs to live in a community with others. And what makes humans unique is that they are rational; they can guide their actions by reason, and can enjoy simply thinking and understanding philosophy, history, science and other general areas of knowledge. Therefore, a fulfilled human life is one that includes not only the essential bodily needs and some comforts, but also includes a life guided by reason and in community with other likewise rational people. As St. Thomas Aquinas took over Aristotle’s philosophy and sought to reconcile it with Christian theology, he argued that this understanding of human nature revealed a natural law, alongside the divine law revealed by God through Moses and the other prophets, and finally through Jesus. While revealed law is of course only knowable to those to whom it has been revealed, natural law is understood through immanent knowledge, through understanding nature, which is something any rational and observant person can do. Part of the point of distinguishing “natural law” from “divine law” is to say that natural law is accessible to, and thus also binding on all human beings.

Legally, the idea of “natural law” is that legal regulations should not be based on some more or less arbitrary social convention or social contract, but on philosophically and (at least generally understood as) universally knowable moral principles. Laws should not discourage actions that are morally fulfilling for humans to pursue, and should discourage those that are unnatural or harmful in some way. If we want to say, for example, that people should be punished for driving faster than 45 miles on this particular road, it is not enough that a majority of people think it’s a good idea; we need to show that driving faster than that is somehow good for people (such as preserving life) and that it does not unduly restrict their natural freedom (as banning all cars might, since people have a right to own and use property within reason, including cars). Thus this sort of thinking is radically opposed to Hobbesian social contract thought, which says that all laws are ultimately “good” simply because the government says they are good and the rest of society obeys them because living according to the social contract is better than living as an outlaw or solitary exile.

To be continued…

[i] Nahal Toosi, “State Department to Launch New Human Rights Panel Stressing ‘Natural Law;” Politico 5/30/2019 (

Article on Humility

March 15, 2019

Article on Humility


St. Augustine said that pride was the first sin; in his book Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre identifies this identification of pride as the deadly sin and humility as the cardinal virtue as distinguishing characteristics of the Augustinian moral tradition.

Much later, Kierkegaard made humility a central concept in his epistemology and ethics also.

Later still, Diogenes Allen identified humility as the cardinal virtue, and again linked its epistemic and ethical aspects.

Sadly, we don’t live in an era where humility is treated with respect.  Instead, as Harry Frankfurt points out, we live in an era of bullshit, where arrogance is admired and the greatest, most respected leaders and pundits are the ones who neither lie nor speak truth, but who simply make noise, without regard or often even knowledge of whether what they say is true or false, simply to get noticed and have influence:  the very apotheosis of arrogance.

In his article, “Vices of the Mind,” Quassim Cassam offers his reaction to the book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.  In this work author Thomas E. Ricks discusses the planning (and lack thereof) of the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration.  Repeatedly the political leaders were advised by career military officers with experience and expertise that hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary to establish order once the Ba’athist regime was overthrown; but not only was this advice ignored, the generals who dared speak truth to power were belittled and undermined by Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz in particular. Having had successful political careers, they were self-assured to the point of arrogance; and lacking the relevant military knowledge, they were incapable of raising any questions themselves.  Ricks concludes that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz were “‘arrogant’, ‘impervious to evidence’, and ‘unable to deal with mistakes’.”

For Cassam, what this points to is the dangerousness of intellectual vices.  These four men in particular combined power with pride. Their career success proved to them that they knew more than the experts, and didn’t need to listen to anyone else.  They were simply so smart in their own eyes that they didn’t feel any need to check their own assumptions.  When the generals who were experts proved right, their political bosses couldn’t process the clear evidence and change course quickly enough.  The vices of these individuals led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the misery of millions, creating two failed nation-states and a terrorist caliphate that makes us long for the days when Ba’athism and al Qaeda were the worst we had to worry about.

This article is a powerful example of why philosophy matters.  The supposedly dusty and obscure writings of Aristotle on vice and epistemology, and the esoteric research of psychologists like Dunning and Kruger, explain one of the greatest foreign policy blunders of our nation and the one that took the promising end of the 20th Century and turned it into the clusterfuck of Republican administrations in the 21st:  an international economic collapse we are still recovering from, increasing environmental disasters that continue to surprise everyone except those who paid attention to “An Inconvenient Truth,” humanitarian nightmares in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and elsewhere, international terrorism by white nationalists, all while the government of the most powerful nation on the planet fixates on whether late-night comedy and Twitter parody sites should be censored.  The common thread is that in all these cases, expertise and ethics are rejected, while unfounded confidence and will-to-power are allowed to run unchecked, causing chaos and decay while demanding veneration.  Intellectual humility is treated as uncertainty and weakness, because we have long since ceased teaching our children and future leaders to recognize virtue and vice.  We need to learn to embrace the intellectual virtues that will allow us collectively to recognize and value truth, for without it we cannot hope to find successful solutions to the many dangers we face.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Addendum

August 21, 2018

As I was replying (in my usual verbose way) to Nemo, I got to thinking about an event in popular culture that maybe helps make a point about civility and humor.

The event is the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner and Roast, and the Republican reaction to it.  In this, the host, Michelle Wolf, made a comment about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying she burns facts and uses the ashes to make the eye shadow for her “smokey eye” look.  “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies,” Wolf said, in a parody of the classic “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” slogan.

The first thing I would say is that settings matter.  It was a roast.  That means that people are expected to use humor to mock others who are “big enough to take it.”  Traditionally, groups like The Friars Club used it as a form of honor between comedians.  Comedians are not eulogists; they are expected to mock others.  Wolf mocked her hosts, the assembled press, as well as political leaders.  That’s her job and her social function.  Anyone so thin-skinned that they can’t take this yearly ritual should get out of public life.  It’s like going to church and announcing publicly that you’re a worthless sinner in need of forgiveness; if you’re too self-centered to accept the idea that maybe you’re not perfect already, you shouldn’t go to church.  In Roman times, whenever a person achieved real greatness, he would be honored with a parade, called a “triumph,” with marching troops, musicians and all sorts of grandeur; but riding in the chariot beside him was a slave who would whisper repeatedly, “Remember you are mortal.”  THAT’S what a comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to do:  remind those in the press, in government and others, all who would walk with the gods and receive admiration and authority above all others, that they are mere mortals.

Second, the point of the attack was to accuse Sanders of routinely and casually lying.  Since her job is to speak for the President of the United States, it is deeply self-contradictory that she often makes statements that are provably false.  Her ostensible job is to keep people informed; in fact, she misinforms.  The joke was that she was “burning truths,” not that she wears too much make-up; the “smokey eye” reference turned her signature style into a metaphor for her misdeeds, a true incarnation for her sin against truth.

Third, Republicans immediately denounced what they said was an attack on Sanders’ looks.  Given that their leader routinely goes on Twitter to attack “Sloppy Steve” or “Little Marco,” the outrage seems even less than hollow.  More importantly, it misses the point, either deliberately or stupidly.  Some undoubtedly want to deflect attention away from the fact that Sanders’ relationship to the truth is like a Trump marriage:  fleeting, unfaithful and mostly centered around money.  But others may have been genuinely offended at making fun of Sarah’s looks, and thought that was mean-spirited.  To that I would say, again, it’s a roast.  You attack the ones you love, or at least the ones who are big enough to take it.  More to the point, that wasn’t the point.  People who were offended by the joke probably didn’t get the joke, so they’re attacking what they don’t understand by focussing on something tangential.

When Michelle Wolf said Sanders was a liar, she went after someone who is in a prominent social position and who has nothing to lose by such mockery.  When Rush Limbaugh, a prominent, powerful and rich person, attacked a private citizen and called her a “slut,” that was simple bullying.  It was also stupid and false, since his mockery revealed nothing deeper than the fact that he doesn’t know how contraception works or he’d have known that a woman has to take the pill every month regardless of how much sex she has, so a person in a committed relationship spends just as much money as one who isn’t.  It isn’t, like the condoms Limbaugh used in his trip to enjoy the prostitutes of the Dominican Republic, something that you spend more money on the more debauched you are—and I can only hope Rush did indeed use condoms in that well-publicized trip, since I’d hate to think of those poor sex workers catching STDs from him.  After all, many of them are children with their whole lives ahead of them.

See, that’s how it’s done.  You don’t beat up on people smaller than you, like Rush does and Trump does; you beat up on people who are big enough to take it, preferably whose egos are also puffed up even larger than their natural size.

“Civility” does matter.  What is “civility”?  Presumably, it is behaving in a civilized manner, as a member of a civilization.  And a civilization means there is some sort of a hierarchy, with division of labor, differing social functions and so on.  It’s one thing when a comedian makes jokes about the assembled guests at a roast; it’s another thing when a politician uses insults and deceits to dehumanize and belittle critics.  One is to entertain and, at times, to speak truth to power; the other is an aggressive self-defense, speaking power to truth to prevent legitimate critique.

And perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing socially destructive about a comedian telling jokes.  That’s what comedians do.  It doesn’t overturn the social order, at least not when it’s done in its own settings such as late-night television or a comedy club, or a roast.  But when the President of the United States abandons the dignity of that civilized office to become just another internet troll, it is as socially destructive as when Emperor Commodus took on the role of a slave to fight as a gladiator in the Arena of Rome.  It undermines the dignity of the office more thoroughly than anything any jester could possibly do.  Nietzsche said that anarchists are no threat to monarchs; if anything, the crown sits more securely on their heads due to the occasional bullet shot at them.  Likewise, authority is not threatened when a comedian lobs a couple jokes at elected leaders.  There was nothing “uncivil” about Michelle Wolf’s behavior; in a civilized society, a professional comedian telling jokes at a roast is not surprising.

From the authoritarian perspective, subordinates like us owe respect to our betters; authoritarian conservatives thus are more inclined to be offended at the disrespect of a person in authority than they are at the borderline sadism of a powerful, rich public figure tormenting and belittling a private citizen.  An authoritarian is more inclined to think that the strong person has a natural right to slap down others in order to defend the status quo.  That’s at least what psychologists like Steven Pinker have discovered:  conservatives tend to react much more negatively to jokes made at the expense of people they regard as authority figures.  It is said that conservatives have five “moral colors” with which they paint their moral landscape:  Harm, Fairness, Community, Authority and Purity.  These are instinctive moral values, coloring how an individual reacts to the social world.  They are facts of existence, and thus you cannot really say someone is “wrong” for thinking this way.  But the other fact is that liberals seem to only have three of those principles.  They agree with conservatives that it is wrong, generally, to harm others, that it is important to be fair, and that communal life and harmony are valuable; but they don’t care very much if at all about Authority or Purity.  Those values, the desire to maintain the status quo and to maintain firm boundaries between “insider” and “outsider” lest the outsider contaminate us insiders in some way, are inherent to the conservative mindset.  To liberals, the conservatives seem to be narrow-minded bigots; to conservatives, the liberal seem to be anarchists who threaten the very group (nation, family etc.) that sustains them.  But the fact is that some people see things one way and some the other; some get upset at challenging or mocking an authority figure and feel it is immoral, while others feel no discomfort so long at the mockery seems “fair” and does no real harm.  There is little sense in denying these facts.  However, it is reasonable to ask for consistency and perspective.  The people who are furious about Smokey-Eyegate are likely the same ones who laughed when Obama was President and elected Republican officials passed around e-mails with pictures of the White House garden planted with watermelons, or who agreed when an elected GOP officeholder said Michelle Obama looked like an ape in heels, because they didn’t regard the President they didn’t like as an “authority” and thus their automatic defenses against assaults on authority figures weren’t triggered.  Liberals, on the other hand, are psychologically less likely to divide the world into “outsider” and “insider” and thus were more outraged at the racism, and if anything more rather than less outraged that the racist humor was coming from elected authorities.  You can’t necessarily demand that others feel the way you feel about jokes about “your” President; but you can at least demand fairness, and say that if it was acceptable for them to laugh at your authorities then you get to do the same to theirs.  Thus, psychology tells us that what one person feels is “uncivil” may feel perfectly civil to another, and perhaps both are being honest in their judgments.  In that case, both have to also recognize that the other has a different take, and resist the temptation to see themselves as the only righteous ones.

To wrap up this already prolix essay:  Civility is, and is not in the eye of the beholder.  Often what one finds “offensive” will not offend another, sometimes simply because one respects the target of the “incivility” in one case but not the other.  But that is not what matters in the cultural debate over civility.  It matters a lot more whether the alleged incivility is a violation of social norms.  As Confucius would point out, the noble person should behave nobly, the authority figure should behave with dignity and humaneness, and the person with responsibility should behave responsibly.  This is the source of moral te.  Kierkegaard would add that the responsible person also deserves to be treated with the respect due to a responsible person—no more, but certainly no less.  If a politician holds a town hall meeting in our society, those attending have a right to speak out and air their grievances.  They don’t have a moral right to refuse to let the politician speak at all.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, there was a lot of incivility, and many people who objected refused to even listen to their representatives; they counted shouting him or her down as a victory.  It is no surprise that incivility has continued to spread.  And, having attended a Bush rally in the 1980s near my college, I can attest that liberals were equally disruptive and uncivil towards conservatives trying to speak their minds.  These are bad and disruptive to our political order; communication and understanding are essential in a democratic society, and you can’t have communication and understanding without basic civility.  But these are not as disruptive to our society as when authorities, who expect others to treat them with the dignity due to their office or their social status, will not themselves behave like civilized men and women, but instead turn from civilized humans into trolls.

As to Michelle Wolf:  a comedian doing her job is not disruptive to the political climate or social cohesion; if anything, she or he reinforces it.  Besides, it was a damned funny joke.


Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

August 20, 2018

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 1)

August 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard



…(I)f individuals relate to an idea merely en masse (consequently without the individual separation of inwardness), we get violence, anarchy, riotousness; but if there is no idea for the individuals en masse and no individually separating essential inwardness, either, the we have crudeness.


—-Søren Kierkegaard



The stereotypical “existentialist” is supposed to be deliberately rude, partly to challenge human conventions and the falsity of most social discourse and partly out of pretension. However, this “existentialist” is a lot rarer than those thinkers who are often called “existentialists.” Kierkegaard is often called an “existentialist” or perhaps “the grandfather of existentialism,” but he himself never used the term. He referred to himself as an “existential thinker:” one who thinks deeply about existence, particularly his (or her) own existence and what it reveals about the nature of human existence as such. It is therefore not surprising that his view is not the same as that expressed by either Diogenes or Confucius. His actual views on civility need to be teased out from his writings on more focused topics, as well as his personal practice, for he is an existential thinker, and they seek to express their thoughts in their own personal existence.

It is said that today’s culture, and particularly its political culture, is increasingly crude. What is “crudeness”?[1] For Kierkegaard, it means something quite particular. The ideal human relationship, he claims, is when people relate to each other while passionately related to an idea. Again, because of the differences of time, language and Kierkegaard’s own unique perspective, we are apt to misunderstand. We are inclined to think that being “passionate” means to be swept away by emotion, so that a rioting mob of sports fans would be “passionate.” For Kierkegaard, “passion” includes emotion, but goes deeper than passing feelings, no matter how strong. A passion reaches to the core of one’s being. As a young man, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that he sought “a cause I can live and die for.” That is a “passionate relation to an idea.” It includes heart and mind, and it defines and orients one through time. The ultimate “passionate relationship to an idea” would be faith, an ongoing relationship to God, in which the idea of one’s personal, individual presence in the sight of God was allowed to penetrate all of one’s other relationships and values. Such a passion does not swallow up one’s sense of individuality, as does the “passion” of a mob; it defines and reinforces one’s individuality, giving the individual an orienting goal, a telos, beyond his or her natural self-centeredness.

The “passion” of the mob is that where people relate to the idea en masse. In this case, people are drawn together, but without any personal appropriation of the idea that unites them; so they are swallowed up in the collective consciousness of the mob. In the French Revolution, an entire nation, and to some extent all of Europe was caught up in its relationship to the idea of liberté, egalité et fraternité. The wider culture was asking, what does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean for me to be a citizen? What is the proper relationship between Church and State, God and Nation, ruler and ruled? What should I do in this time? Hegel, looking out his window in Germany and seeing a victorious Napoleon ride into the city with his army behind him, wrote, “I have just seen Absolute Spirit ride into town on a white horse.” The whole of human history, of human development, of human spirit was represented in the spirit of the Revolution, and in the man who had become its head. In the early days of the Revolution, people were talking and writing and reading and thinking about the ideas of the recent American rebellion and the gathering clouds in France, and each had to think about how he or she stood in relation to those ideas and to their neighbors. In The Terror, that individual relationship to the Idea vanished, and people were caught up in the mob mentality; they still lived in the light or shadow of the idea, but without the sense of individual responsibility. But in the complacent modernity of Kierkegaard’s own time, any passionate relationship to any idea had largely faded, and now there was only crudeness. “Individuals do not in inwardness turn away from each other, do not turn outward in unanimity for an idea, but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity.”[2] Unable to build themselves up by relating their lives to something larger than themselves, they settle instead for tearing down their neighbors or anyone who seems to represent a higher spiritual existence. They are too close to each other, Kierkegaard says; they have no sense of self, no core to their personality, and so are swept along by whatever social currents swirl around them; but those currents in turn have no steering power but simply swirl each into the other like leaves in the street, chasing each other around in a circle briefly and then falling to the ground again to await the next breeze.

Civility would be to relate to the other with “decorum,” one individual to another. Each would have his or her own inward core, and treat the other as an individual as well. Because each individual has his or her own inwardness, there is a psychological distance that preserves the sense of self, and one relates to the other in terms of that inwardness. Lose the inwardness but keep the passion, and civility will falter as people get swept up in the anonymous emotion of the mob. Lose even the passion as well as the inwardness, and you get general crudeness, a breakdown of interpersonal relations. If the mob passion is like being swept down the street by a crowd, perhaps without even realizing where we’re all going but either unable to resist or too involved to think about it, then crudeness is like being caught in a crowd that is going nowhere, has no purpose, no goal, just a stifling atmosphere and frustration. A mob can at least be joyful and friendly among itself; if you want to see human nature at its worst, look for a crowd that is just stuck, waiting for some sign of movement. The only ones you’ll find in there with any shred of joy or civility are those who have something else to think about, some inward value or idea.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a literary review; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp, 62ff

[2] Two Ages p. 63

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Confucius

July 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Confucius


The Master said, Yen P’ing Chung is a good example of what one’s intercourse with one’s fellow-men should be. However long he has known anyone he always maintains the same scrupulous courtesy.

—–Confucius, Analects Book V, #16



It would seem there could not be more difference between Cynicism and Confucianism. The Greek Cynics, like the Taoist philosophers in China, embraced the natural and unsophisticated. Good manners, social status, rituals—-all of these the Cynics mocked.[1] Confucius taught in opposition both to the Taoist drop-outs and the unscrupulous, often brutal rulers and politicians of his day. Little regarded in his lifetime, his philosophy became the moral foundation for the Chinese empire that stood supreme for two thousand years, and still provides much of the ethical philosophy for East Asia.

While Taoism treated the natural order and the social order as different and in a sense opposed, for Confucius the social order, moral order and cosmic order were all part of the Tao, the Way, Goodness itself. Goodness inheres in right relationships, and right relationships are expressed through right rituals. In the family, each member has duties and responsibilities to the others depending on their place: the parents are to provide for and teach their children, the children are to respect and obey when they are young, to care for their parents when they are old, and to properly mourn them when they pass away. The rituals that guide the family relationships can include wearing certain clothes when mourning the dead, giving a proper greeting upon entering a room, or much of what we might call “common courtesy.” Other rituals cover the respectful way to approach a social superior or ruler, or how a social leader is to interact with the spirits, and so on; so “rituals” can include things like the equivalent of saying “God bless you” after a sneeze all the way up to the nation’s leader laying a wreath at the tomb honoring the nation’s war dead. The Chinese did not distinguish between “religious” and “secular” rituals; they didn’t even have a word to distinguish “religion” from other rituals until European missionaries started arriving and asking them to describe their “religion.” Spiritual, social and familial rituals were all part of the Way, or Tao, and all had real power to affect the world.

The first and most obvious function of these rituals was to show respect for the other. To speak with appropriate politeness to a guest, parent or teacher, or to someone on the street, was to show respect for the dignity of that person and that person’s particular relationship to you. It is written that once a man came to Confucius and complained that the traditional three years of mourning for a dead father was too much; he couldn’t pursue normal career activities during that time and he thought it was too great a handicap. Confucius told him that if he thought he’d shown proper respect for this father, then fine; but after the young man left Confucius remarked on how ungrateful he was. After all, he said, for three years he had been the apple of his parents’ eye; the least he could do was mourn for that same period. But Confucius also knew that ritual should express and guide the true feelings of the heart; it should be more than just going through the motions. If we have the humaneness that a good person should have, we will want to express it by treating others well and not offending their dignity; so we will diligently fulfill the proper social rituals and courtesies.

Ritual also structures and limits how the powerful should act, and thus gives some distance between leader and led, some protection for the powerless. Confucius stresses that the “gentleman,” the noble person fit for public service in the government, should praise and support those with less status. “The demands that a gentleman makes are upon himself; those that a small man makes are upon others.” (Book XV #20) A good person will criticize his (or her) own faults, but look for the good in others; a small-minded person will look for the failings of others. (Book XII #16) “To demand much from oneself and little from others is the way (for a ruler) to banish discontent.” (Book XV #14) Or to say it in more detail:


            Jan Jung asked about Goodness. The Master said, Behave when away from home as though you were in the presence of an important guest. Deal with the common people as though you were officiating at an important sacrifice. Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no feelings of opposition to you, whether it is in the affairs of a State that you are handling or the affairs of a Family. (Analects book XII, #2


So strict adherence to courtesy and other ritual is important when dealing with someone of higher rank or power, but also in dealing with the “common people.” Even in this highly hierarchical society, the most important thing is to treat others, all others, as you would wish to be treated. Ritual is there to govern the expression of this goodwill towards others, and the teachings of Confucius are primarily addressed to those who have the power (or seek the power) to lead others; we are not merely to show respect for those in authority over us, but to all people.

This passage points to a third important element in Confucian thought: that strict observance of ritual by those at the top of society will have “moral force,” and this moral force is a much more stable and effective method of leadership than is physical force and fear. If people have trust in their leaders and see that their leaders strive to fulfill all their ritual responsibilities, they themselves will be moved to obey. When leaders rely on moral force, the commoners will spontaneously love their country; but if they rely on threats and punishments, the people will think only of how to evade them. (Book IV, #11) When the leader loves and strictly follows ritual, Confucius says, the State will be well-ordered even if he issues no orders; people will see him, know that he loves the nation and people, and be moved by his adherence to his duty to in turn love the nation and work for its welfare. Or contrariwise, if the people see their leaders care more for themselves than for others, more for pointing out their own glory and the faults of others, and show contempt for others and for the nation by neglecting rituals, the rest of society will follow this bad example and become disordered, resentful and selfish, distrustful of their leaders and with no strong loyalty to the nation.

Diogenes and Confucius do seem to agree on some points. Both think our actions should reflect our hearts; showing “courtesy” without real human concern is pointless and hollow. Confucius says, for example, that some would say a good son makes sure his elderly parents are fed and sheltered, but we do that much for a dog; if care is given without respect, he asks, of what value is it? The difference between them is that the Cynic, or the Taoist philosopher, would say that getting rid of rituals would make for more natural human relationships and a more natural, and thus morally better society. For Confucius, the moral world is created, structured and sustained by rituals. To be “civil” towards others is to live in and to help sustain an ordered universe. And Confucius supports a hierarchical society, where duties to others are defined by their relationships and status.[2] Presumptuousness is frowned upon; Confucius even goes so far as to say that those who are not part of government should keep quiet about political affairs. Clearly this is inconsistent with a democratic society, although it seems not too alien to some of our leaders today in our supposedly democratic republic.

To put things in today’s words, to the Confucian, civility matters a lot. The people should be civil towards each other, to show they respect one another as human beings. They should be civil towards those in authority, to express respect for that authority, for the institutions and for the knowledge of those above them. But more important, the leaders must, absolutely must show civility in all they do. When the leaders speak and act with civility, the people will themselves imitate this; they will respect their leaders and from that learn to love their society and thus their neighbors as well. But when the leaders fail to show civility, the people will feel the same contempt for their leaders that the leaders show for the institutions and traditions of the nation. In that circumstance, demanding civility from your underlings while refusing to demand it of yourself is simply to weaponize it, to turn what should have been an engine for moral force into a mere exercise in power; and when the people are governed by power, they naturally resist and rebel.


To be continued….

[1] and Chuang Tzu was not much more impressed even if he was a bit more light-hearted about it

[2] I had an experience as a teen that suggests that this notion is present, to a lesser degree perhaps, in Western culture as well. In France I made the mistake of using “vous” when talking to a child; the French seemed to find this hilarious. I had been taught it was the “polite” form, but not that the adult-child relationship requires “tu” even when being “polite.”

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

June 30, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics


Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?

—–Diogenes of Sinope



There has been much thought and more said about the need for civility and the deplorable lack of it today. There has been much outrage over the lack of common decency between strangers and between rivals, so much outrage that it would seem mathematically inevitable that some small portion of it must actually be sincere. But there has been little discussion as to what it is, why we need it, whether we can manage without it or whether we should. Part of a philosopher’s job is to discuss things everyone else thinks they know (or says they know) but really don’t, to clarify concepts, to untangle knotted thoughts. This seems like a good time for some of that. This is the first in a series of essays looking at some thoughts from philosophers who had different views on manners and civility, to see if the wisdom of the past can help us clean up some of the present follies.

There are many stories about the Greek philosopher known today as Diogenes the Cynic. Sometimes he seems more like a shock comic than a teacher of wisdom, as if Mel Brooks’ blurring of the distinction with his character of the “stand-up philosopher” had come to life mixed with some Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. And this is fitting, since “Cynic” is from the Greek word for “dog.” So here’s an anecdote: One day Diogenes was invited to the house of a rich man. He wasn’t used to polite company, and his public behavior was notoriously boorish. His host therefore sternly instructed him not to spit on anything, as he often did: not the nice furnishings, expensive tapestries, or even the elegant floor. Diogenes instead spit in the man’s face, saying everything else looked so nice he didn’t know where else to spit.

Cynicism is not, as commonly supposed, just not giving a fu—- oops, almost got a little too much like my subject! In fact, it was and is a very serious and challenging philosophy of life. Diogenes said that dogs live more natural and better lives than people; people are phonies, liars, cheats, fools, flatterers, chasing after money and status, while dogs just do what comes naturally. Diogenes famously walked around Athens in broad daylight with a lit lantern. When asked why, he said he was looking for an honest man, and not having much luck. So now he’s not only an insult comic, he’s a prop comedian. As Mark Twain, put it, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”[1] Centuries earlier, Diogenes had taken that lesson and pushed it beyond all bounds. For him, the natural was the real and true, and dogs and other animals better role-models than any people. Dogs don’t care if you see them mating or licking their genitals, and Diogenes thought this shamelessness was a lesson for people too; nothing is wrong in public if it isn’t wrong in private. Dogs don’t love you more if you wear fancy clothes or if you’re famous; if you feed them and scratch their heads you’ve probably made a new friend for life.[2] This is actually a very hard way for a human to live, however. Cynicism teaches that first each person has to be honest with himself or herself. It has no tolerance for hypocrisy. It embraces poverty as a virtue and is utterly indifferent to social status, since materialism and social climbing drag one away from the pursuit of Truth. There are several versions of this story; here’s the one that seems right to me. The philosopher Aristippus had sucked up to powerful people and won himself a place in the court of the ruler. He saw Diogenes cooking a bowl of lentils for his dinner. He said, “You know, Diogenes, if you’d just be a little more polite and tell the dictator what he wants to hear, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” He replied, “And if you would live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant.” THAT’s cynicism in a nutshell! Live life honestly; don’t compromise just to get ahead or win a popularity contest. Phony etiquette and politeness just block honest conversation between real people.

The most famous American philosopher who comes closest to Greek cynicism is Henry David Thoreau. Although Thoreau is more commonly known as a Transendentalist, in his personal ethics he shows many of the traits of cynicism: belief that voluntary poverty is a virtue, social climbing a vice, honesty matters above all. The Greek cynics lived shocking lives by a human perspective, but did so in the name of a deeper devotion to God. Thoreau too lived his life in opposition to what he saw as false human values, even going so far as to break the law (he invented “civil disobedience”), largely because he put his moral principles and spiritual beliefs ahead of the expectations of society. He was not as deliberately offensive as Diogenes had been, but he did reject the common rules of etiquette that we use to avoid actual human contact. In his day as in ours, people would say “How are you doing?” and the expected response was a perfunctory “fine” or something like that. Thoreau was notorious for taking that sort of question seriously; if you asked him how things were going, you were likely to get a half-hour summation.[3] While Diogenes had a reputation as a misanthrope, Thoreau was more sociable; but he was similarly inclined to ignore the social rituals of civility and cut straight to an honest response in his devotion to his principles.

This is certainly one way of thinking about civility, and it reappears in persons and cultures as different as Diogenes in ancient Greece, Chuang Tzu in ancient China or Thoreau in 19th century America.  Honest dialogue between human beings is valuable, maybe the only thing that is; adherence to good manners over honesty is not respect, but simple fraud. If someone is being a jerk, a fool or a villain, you do that person a service if you point this out to him or her; if you smile and compliment out of politeness, you cheat the other of the chance to learn and improve himself or herself.

To be continued…

[1] What would Twain say about this current president* who famously hates dogs, the first inhabitant of the White House in generations to have no dog or any other pet?

[2] Trump’s first wife had a dog that hated him.

[3] I’ve tried answering the “How’re you doing?” question honestly, and it often unsettles people if they listen at all; some just respond to “Kinda sick, actually,” with a mindless “That’s nice,” which seems to prove the claim that this politeness blocks actual communication.

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (pt. 1)

May 29, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol


Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”  But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord,  and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 

1 Samuel 8:4-9


The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes was largely responsible for much of our political language today. He said that all men (he was pretty sexist, so I’ll suspect the language wasn’t an oversight) were created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights. These ideas got picked up later by John Locke, then passed through him to Jefferson and other Founding Fathers (and mothers) of our Revolution, and thence into common use today. HOWEVER, Hobbes differs from some of these others in that he does not think this “equality” is all that good a thing. In fact, this equality of people primarily means that we are all equally selfish, fearful, irrational, and absolutely dangerous to one another. When everyone is equal, everyone has equal rights to have his desires satisfied, no matter how harmful to anyone else. He says this equality breeds conflict, and that without a strong force to keep us all in line, our lives would be war of each against all, and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” All this equality is so terrible, Hobbes said, that the only sensible thing to do is to join together in societies. In a society, or “commonwealth” to use his word, we all tacitly choose one person, or a small group, to be better than the rest of us, to be above the law, and to be the law for the rest. He preferred a single king, but a small group like the Roman senate would be okay too, so long as there was some person or persons in charge. In his view, the State is thus an “artificial person,” created when a group of us actual people agree to give up most of our rights in exchange for protection of our lives, freedom from torture and imprisonment, and some other minimal rights. Hobbes calls this ruling power the “sovereign,” and states that the sovereign is not bound by the law; it creates the law, designates what will count as “good” or “evil,” hands out rewards and punishments, and does whatever is required to establish order. Without a strong hand with a big stick, Hobbes said, none of us could sleep peacefully; but since we all know our neighbors fear the government, we can at least trust our neighbors not to murder us in our beds. Because this sovereign must be above the law, be the lawgiver for the nation, providing for the security and prosperity of the rest of us, Hobbes refers to it as “that earthly god, or Leviathan,” which the Creator put in place to manage human affairs. He thought God was not going to rule over us directly, so we need to select someone or some group among us to take over the role of deity pro tempore.

Hobbes and Samuel don’t seem to agree on much, but they do seem to agree that the strong worldly leader is an alternative to trusting in God alone. Hobbes would probably point us toward the book of Judges, and its mournful refrain: There was no king in Israel in those days, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. The lack of a king, Hobbes would say, had led Israel to anarchy and brutality; only a strong government would impose order. But this thing displeased Samuel. He seems to have taken it personally; he was, after all, one of those judges, those leaders appointed directly by God as prophet and leader. Samuel would probably have said that when Israel lived faithfully with God, they had peace and prosperity; but when the judge died and the people ceased following the LORD, that was when they ran into trouble. The period of the judges was chaotic, but it also is depicted as somewhat democratic for its day. The judge was called by God, but then had to go out and convince the people. Gideon, Deborah, and less famous judges ruled only with the consent of the people; they had to rally the people to follow and obey them. When they died, their successors were appointed by God and accepted by the people for their leadership, not because they were of royal blood. When Samuel became old, the people wanted a strong, stable, authoritarian government like the nations around them; since Samuel’s sons were not up to the job of succeeding their father, the people wanted an official monarchy with a clear, perpetual line of succession, like all the other nations had. God said, don’t take it personally, Samuel. They aren’t rejecting you. They are rejecting me, their God. They want visible power, a royal family that will hold authority over them, rather than the uncertainty of relying on the invisible power of the LORD to choose their leaders from among them. They are idolaters at heart, whether they are seeking a golden calf or a king. So explain to them carefully and honestly what it is they are choosing; and then, if that is what they want, let them have their king.

To be continued…

“God of the Gaps”?

February 27, 2018

In the 17th century (the Scientific Revolution) there was a rise in attempts to prove God’s existence.  Until that time, most “natural philosophers” (early scientists by our standards) were also religious persons, seeking to understand the world as God’s handiwork; but in the 1600s there was a rise in concern over atheism.  (How much of that was due to the rise of science, and how much due to disillusionment after a century of religious warfare, is hard to say.)  These efforts to prove the existence of God often relied on showing that God provided the foundation for science and answered unanswered questions:  the so-called “God of the Gaps.”  If Saturn and Jupiter seemed to be changing speeds, for example, God must be causing it.  The problem with a God of the Gaps is that as science improves and answers those questions, the gaps close, and God gets squeezed out.  You can see how that could lead scientists towards atheism.   A century later, the mathematician LaPlace was presenting his latest astronomical calculations to Napoleon, who asked him what part God played in his book.  LaPlace replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”   When God is reduced to a tool, or hypothesis in the system, then God is liable to be laid aside like any other tool that is no longer required.

Dr. Diogenes Allen writes in Finding Our Father:

     To study nature as a scientist, if it is done humbly, with the desire to understand it as a focus of value in its own right and not just for its utility, is a religious act.  It is to participate (whether knowingly or not) to some degree in the kind of love God bestows on his creation…  The more we are able to recognize other things as irreducible particulars, worthy of regard for their own sakes, and free of our own orbit, the more we can understand God’s creation as an act of perfect love, and participate in bestowing that kind of love ourselves. (Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father, {Atlanta, GA:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1974}, p. 56

He explains further:

     According to the religious world view we have presented, our study of the workings of nature (as we briefly mentioned earlier) is a God-given task.  Scientific investigation deals with realities which as such are worthy of attention and understanding.  The universe is not a stage for a drama of salvation to be played out, as it has so often been portrayed in theology, but our very investigation of nature—the desire to see it as it really is—is a moral and religious task.  The study of nature is not an extra tacked onto the real business of being religious; it is integral to the religious task.  We are to seek to perceive clearly the realities of the natural world.  Our very moral growth, our sanctification, takes place in this endeavor.  (Allen, pp. 71-2)

The “religious task,” as Allen sees it, is to learn to see reality as it truly is:  completely independent from myself, beautiful and valuable regardless of whether it is useful to me or not, beyond my control and outside my orbit.  We may perceive reality as orbiting around ourselves, defining others as good or bad based on whether they are friend, foe or stranger, or valuing nature only insofar as it provides us with resources; but in fact, that which is, is worthy of existence, simply because it does in fact already exist.  We cannot usually experience this reality, even though we know rationally that we are each just momentary atoms in a vast cosmos; in practice, we are naturally psychological solipsists, experiencing everything as it pertains to us, and ourselves as the center of the universe.

Allen would say that the “God of the Gaps” is something different than we usually understand the phrase.  God is.  We are too full of ourselves to experience God, or God’s creation, as anything other than extensions of our own interests.  We need to open gaps in our self-centeredness, to experience that which is independent of ourselves and beyond our control, to let God into our lives and our consciousness.  Science can do this, by showing us a world that is beautiful, glorious in itself, and totally independent of us.  Science shows us that we are not the center of the world, be we are part of a beautiful world.   This view of the world teaches humility, the essential moral and epistemological virtue, which can allow us to experience perfect love (even if in this life we experience it imperfectly, fleetingly).


Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 8)

February 12, 2018

I have tried to show here that the stereotypical Christian position on ecology is not the only one, or the oldest, or even the majority opinion. It is a rather recent innovation, which has become prominent in recent years because of a well-orchestrated campaign heavily funded by business interests and driven by social-political concerns, that is, “The Culture Wars.” It is a position that owes more to John Locke than to the Biblical heritage, interpreting Scripture through the lens of Locke’s views on property and a libertarian version of Christian Dominionism. Because it is well-funded, it has a loud voice, and is currently very politically influential. However, it is not the only Christian voice. The other voice I have sought to call attention to is much older, and more widely influential. It begins with St. Augustine of Hippo, and thus is foundational for much of Western Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. While it originated in the conversation between Neoplatonism and the Christian Biblical tradition, its moral and epistemological concerns reach beyond that metaphysical framework. It is a theological vision that sees love as the fulfillment of human life, humility as the cardinal virtue to live the life of perfect love, and pride as the deadly sin that turns us away from the live of love which should be our destiny. This tradition is often drowned out today in the press, but it is not silenced; it continues to speak through Christian thinkers directly or indirectly influenced by Augustine’s insights. This theology offers Christians the best resources to contribute helpfully to facing the ecological crisis brought on by human abuse of our environment, abuse at times abetted by Christianity itself and by the same heritage of John Locke which gave us our Revolution.