Posts Tagged ‘Work’

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1: The Hobbit

December 27, 2014

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1:  The Hobbit


Tolkien confessed that, if he had been writing an allegory of the modern world, he would have been compelled to make the hellish consequences of war much worse than they are in The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied.”

—from The Gospel According to Tolkien



Having completed a short study of Tolkien’s work and thought, I now look back and consider how his theology stacks up to the popular theological currents today. It is true that Tolkien was not a professional theologian was not really even “doing theology;” but then, neither are many of the most influential theologians in the U.S. today. In fact, modern American religious history, from William Miller to Billy Sunday to Bill Bright, has often shown the untrained theologian to be more influential than the “scholar;” and why not? Scholars tend to write for other scholars; at best, they teach somebody (a pastor or teacher or judge or whatever) who eventually goes on to translate the esoteric intellectualizing into some sort of life-philosophy or public policy. What is rare, though, is to find an “amateur” (in the true sense: one who practices an art for the love of it rather than for money) who has the insight Tolkien. As I look forward to the release of the final Hobbit movie, and as I anticipate the convening of a new Congress, I am struck by the contrasting theological themes that play out in Middle Earth and The Political Landscape. In brief, The Lord of the Rings can be fruitfully seen as a critique of Christian Zionism, and The Hobbit as a critique of the Prosperity Gospel; and together, they offer a valuable comparison to the dominant strains of The Religious Right.

Tolkien was not an ascetic. All the biographical discussions I have read affirm that. However, he does not equate money with virtue, or see comfort as automatically indicative of divine favor. Today, many (not all) of the largest churches are non-denominational megachurches preaching some variation of The Prosperity Gospel: if you tithe, and follow the pastor’s directions on social-political issues such as gay marriage, you will become wealthy and happy; if you are not wealthy and happy, you are sinning, and need to give more money, be more socially judgmental and more stridently anti-intellectual. There is a direct cause-effect taught in many of these megachurches; and this theology is spreading beyond the U.S. to Africa. Tolkien’s heroes, by contrast, know better. Bilbo is not a monk; he enjoys his six meals a day, his pipe and beer and comfortable home and nice clothes. And when we meet him, he probably does believe he “deserves” all that he has, since he has always been a good society man and never done anything unusual. But when he leaves his home, his views on wealth moderate. He becomes like Luke’s “Unjust Steward,” who uses his wealth not to make more wealth, but to make friends. He gives away all of the treasure he has rightfully earned from the dragon’s hoard; and when he is pressed to accept some reward, consents only to take as much as he can easily transport home. It is hard to tell whether he is really wealthier after plundering Smaug or not; he gives away all the troll hoard and spends much of the dragon treasure buying back his own belongings from his “heirs” after he has returned home only to find he has been declared dead. What has changed is that he holds his property more loosely; or rather, it holds him more loosely.

Tolkien’s characters show that some wealth is useful and contributes to happiness; but too much is perhaps worse than not enough. The Master of Lake-Town ends up dying alone in the wilderness with the dragon-gold he has stolen from the town. Thorin too ends up dead as a result of his greed. Smaug has literally absorbed much of his treasure, his skin embedded with countless gems; and in the end they lie with his carcass under the lake, considered cursed by those who know of them. The dragon hoard brings death to those who covet it most; but still, it proves to be a blessing to those who hold it lightly and pass it on freely. It is through trade, not theft or conquest, that prosperity returns to Dale.

Tolkien does not demonize wealth. He does not say that those who have comfortable lives are automatically “oppressors” who need to be overthrown. In fact, he points to the goblins’ hatred of the “prosperous” as one of their many unsavory qualities.[1] He shows none of the Marxist-inspired disdain for wealth and authority, which we commonly see in liberation theology; and he shows little of the Neo-platonic asceticism that appears in much Christian mysticism and monasticism. Pleasure is good, in moderation. His heroes often do renounce wealth, sometimes for many years (as did Aragorn when he became a Ranger); but when they do it is as a means to an end, and when that end is achieved they can enjoy the good things in this life again. What he does reject is the idolization of wealth. And here is where so much of today’s theology leaves the path of wisdom, which Tolkien has marked for us. The central, simple message of the Prosperity Gospel is that if you give up some money, God will give you more money. God becomes little more than a banker who pays extravagant interest on whatever you loan him. You are giving up something in this world, in order to gain something in this world. That’s not faith; that’s trading. When wealth is the primary motivation for worshipping God, the primary means by which you worship God (through tithing), and the primary or sole expression of God’s good will and the state of one’s God-relationship, wealth has in fact become God. This deification of wealth is what The Hobbit warns us against. To that extent, I would say the movies are a loss over the book; the book does not have so many side-plots or exciting fight scenes to obscure this point. Thorin’s lust for the Arkenstone echoes the acquisitiveness of this kin and forbearers who dug so deep that they claimed the fabulous heart of the mountain for themselves. Tolkien suggests that this was the event that drew the dragon to them. Too much wealth and too much adoration of their own wealth summoned the incarnation of Greed, which is what Smaug represents. Lust for his hoard destroys some, nearly destroys others, and is only truly a blessing for those who seem to desire it least. The wise and the good show themselves by surrendering their wealth when it is appropriate. In a material sense, Bilbo’s condition is little changed at the end of the book. While the Prosperity Gospel says that the righteous tither will grow more wealthy, Bilbo takes great risk, suffers great deprivation, and gives up most of his legitimate reward to help others, and in the end is right back where he started: in his own hobbit-hole, smoking a pipe and enjoying the company of Gandalf and one of the thirteen dwarves. Whatever he gained from his adventure, if it is measured in prosperity it was a very bad bargain; so much effort for so little gain! The famous Prosperity Gospel preacher Rev. Fredrick Price said in an interview that God wants us to be prosperous, and that if anyone believes in God and is not wealthy then he or she is “missing the mark.”[2] This is a fascinating phrase, since “missing the mark” is the literal translation of the Greek word “harmatia,” which is the word most translators of the Greek original tests of the New Testament translate as “sin.” Price is saying, essentially, that if you are poor then you are a sinner; that is the essence of the Prosperity Gospel. To be without money shows that you are without God, and to be with God is to be with money. It is this easy equation of God and Money that The Hobbit warns us against, not by thundering sermons against greed but by gently telling us a child’s fairy tale, and in the process showing us how one ought, and ought not, to be oriented towards the material goods of this world.


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill.”

[2] Interviewed by Dr. Randal Balmer, in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: a journey into the evangelical subculture of America; pt. 3, “Coming of Age”. Isis Productions, Chicago; 1993

Work and Philosophy: Psychological Interlude Chapter Two: Development (pt. ii)

December 3, 2012

Work and Philosophy:  Psychological Interlude

Chapter Two:  Development (pt. ii)



As people approach retirement, they enter the stage of Integrity vs. Despair.  We would expect that people would be concerned with the practicalities of retirement, such as pension and long-term health care.  However, Erikson says that the deeper need is to feel that one’s life was worthwhile.  The person who successfully resolves this stage has successfully resolved them all (even if retroactively) and will be content; the person who has not will be haunted by regrets, disgust, or possibly the desire to turn back the clock and somehow redo what was not done right before.   It would not be surprising then if many older workers, or managers, would want to return to the youth they let slip away too fast, or never really had.  No wonder that there should be a booming market for testosterone boosters and plastic surgery!  In the U.S.A. where the employer is often also the health care provider, this is a workplace issue.  Will employers provide health insurance that covers various varieties of medical rejuvenation?  Will older workers seeking to replay their Intimacy vs. Isolation battle side with younger workers dealing with Generativity vs. Stagnation, or will they seek to deny contraception coverage to them in order to fund their own Viagra?

Developmental theory suggests that what people want from work will change with time, and that people at different stages of life will have very different views of what is just or necessary.  This may lead different generations to clash over moral obligations of society and of employers, particularly if one or both sides of the conflict have failed to positively resolve some developmental crisis.  Erikson confirms that the younger, Stage 6 workers may well be sexually needy and promiscuous, or isolated and alienated, depending on how they failed to achieve real intimacy; and older workers or employers may see all young adults as examples of the maladaptation of some.  Likewise, some older workers can be greedy and cynical, self-important and dogmatic, or just bitter; and younger workers (or perhaps younger employers or managers) may come to see all older workers through that same lens.

Even leaving aside these potential generational conflicts, and dealing only with relatively well-adjusted people, the worker’s needs change with time, and his or her attitudes towards work will change.  The job that once seemed wonderful because of all the exciting, happy coworkers may come to seem dead-end or just trivial.  The job that was once prized for its opportunities may fail at delivering long-term security.  The stereotypical “good job” once implied you worked your whole life for one employer, retired with a pension and health benefits, and in between you were satisfied to get a good paycheck and fair raises for continued good work and loyalty to the company.  That has largely broken down.  Once one might be “married to the job;” but now most Americans change jobs and spouses pretty freely, and have even less faith in their employers than they do in their marriage partners.  Throughout the 1980’s until today, we have seen repeated, spectacular examples of companies driven into bankruptcy by the poor decisions, greed and sometimes utter criminality of their executives; and always, it is the workers who lose their pensions and health care while the executives bail out with golden parachutes.  For every one who goes to jail for a few years, hundreds go from prosperity to prosperity at new companies while their former employees are left in the rubble of the old ones.  Losing faith in the free market and employers to provide adequately for them regardless of their own efforts, many fight to preserve their Medicare and Social Security, while simultaneously attacking those who still have jobs and are demanding wage and health security for themselves.  Anyone who listened to the health care debates in 2009 will remember that while the pundits and demagogues framed their objections in terms of “individual liberty,” the loudest, most passionate and most repeated cries were, “Leave my Medicare alone!”

What has happened is that whereas health care was part of the worker-employer contract for many years, now more and more employers are finding ways to break that contract, or are just failing to honor it by failing to survive through the greed and folly of those at the top.  Consequently, over the years workers have sought to use government as part of the labor institution.  It would be the guarantor of last resort for pensions and health benefits, the arbiter in disputes of worker safety and fairness, and so on.  Younger workers, who often valued autonomy more than security, did not care for this and were happy enough with jobs that offered immediate paychecks and little else; older workers often cared only about preserving the benefits they relied on.  And the majority, in that Generativity vs. Stagnation, have conflicting priorities.  Some may want a more creative job; others a more flexible one that allows them to pursue non-work creativity and particularly family; others may want chances for advancement in exchange for their labor; and others, having fallen into the trap of self-absorption, cared only for immediate profits no matter the expense to others.

My point is, the notion of a “free market” hermetically sealed off from “government” is artificial.  Not only does the government intervene in the market for its own ends; those in the market need government to intervene, both to protect individuals from exploitation by others and to take up the slack when workers’ needs are not matched by their work opportunities.  Social Security and Medicare are interventions in the market, as Ayn Rand said; but before government intervened to provide them it was negotiated between employers and employees.  And by “negotiated,” of course, I mean workers in unsafe conditions receiving starvation wages; workers striking to try to force employers to pay a living wage; employers hiring thugs to beat up strikers; strikers fighting back, attacking scabs, rioting; and the government finally intervening in the form of police joining the strikebreakers.  And when unions are outlawed, as they often were, then only outlaws have unions; no wonder the Mafia took them over!

In the intersection between law, developmental psychology and work, the law and employers do intervene to regulate the Intimacy vs. Isolation activities of workers—-generally in favor of Isolation.  The company picnics and office parties that used to encourage non-business interaction between coworkers have largely vanished, partly due to legal liabilities.   The employer who can keep the worker as busy and tied to the job as possible will see profits; whether that satisfies the worker’s psychological needs is the worker’s problem.  The Generativity vs. Isolation crisis was traditionally resolved by having the father work and seek career advancement, while the mother took care of the family side of generativity.  Employers, for their parts, knew they had to pay the man enough to support his family on one paycheck.  Now, employers know they can effectively get the same worker for half the price, since workers accept that both spouses will work; what was once a choice or luxury for many is now the social default.  In addition, most marriages end in divorce, and most parents will end up as either both employees and primary caregivers of children, or paying child support.  For younger workers (Stage 6) this may be seen as a future problem only; and for older ones (Stage 8) it is the past.  Will either be willing to give up some potential wages or benefits for someone else’s problem?  Will they be willing to pay taxes to help Stage 7 workers meet their workplace needs?  When workers have needs the marketplace won’t meet, they will seek other means to meet those needs, which very often means appealing to government.  And in addition to class and gender differences, generational and developmental differences may place working citizens in conflict with one another, turning the marketplace and the political sphere into a single continuous battlefield.

Work and Philosophy: Psychological Interlude Chapter Two: Development (pt. i)

November 26, 2012

Work and Philosophy:  Psychological Interlude

Chapter Two:  Development



Like gender, developmental psychology is a topic philosophy has tended to downplay.  Most philosophers, before the 19th Century at least, have tended to look for the essential human nature, or the nature of “personhood.”  If developmental realities were accommodated at all, it was to ask when personhood emerged and whether it could be lost; so there was one normative human state, and other stages of life were measured relative to these.  Within adulthood, personhood tended to be seen as fairly static; one either is or is not a person.  Aristotle has some notion of what we might call “stages of life,” when he identifies middle age as the only truly good life.[1]  Before the age of 30, a man lacks the maturity and steadiness of emotion to be truly happy; after 40, he begins to lose the autonomy necessary, and becomes old and bitter in life (and if he’s not a man, or is poor, he also lacks autonomy and cannot live the truly good life).

Medical psychology has dealt with developmental theory since Freud devised his theory of the psychosexual stages of life:  oral, anal and genital.  These biological theories have been elaborated and adjusted by generations of Freudian theorists since, most remarkably by Carol Gilligan, who shifted away from Freud’s male-normative theory to a more gynocentric understanding of human nature.  More universally influential, and more useful for my purposes is the theory of Erik Erikson, and the psychosocial eight stages of life.[2]  Rather than exclusively discuss the biological and sexual maturity of the individual, Erikson focused primarily on the social life and history of the individual.  Essentially, he identified eight stages of social development that every person must go through, each with its particular crisis.  The person who positively resolves the challenges of that stage is better equipped to move on to the next one; the person who doesn’t, is handicapped and possibly trapped in a state of arrested development.  It is possible to revisit past stages, to try to set right what went wrong.  Also, the stages are not rigid; the six-year old might be working through Stage 3 or 4, or transitioning between both at the same time, so two people of the same age might have different psychological agendas.  However, the broader reality is that our human nature changes as we age, and what we seek from life will vary.

For my purposes (examining the intersection of philosophy and psychology in understanding the concept of work) the most relevant are the stages that encompass a typical working life:  stages 6-8.  From 18-40, approximately, the young adult is typically working out the crisis of Intimacy vs. Isolation.  Having moved out of the family home, one is trying to establish an identity as an independent adult, establishing new peer relationships, looking for love, and so on.  When this goes right, one meets a love partner with whom one can form a family, setting the stage for the next phase of life.  When it is not navigated successfully, one can end up isolated, lonely, alienated and/or socially withdrawn.

From about 30-50, the adult is dealing with the conflict between Generativity and Stagnation.  Here, one is trying to achieve, to be creative, to be successful.  One of the primary areas of concern is also the most primal:  reproduction and parenthood.  However, there are other areas of creativity with which one can become concerned as well, such as satisfaction and achievement at work; and these can come into conflict with each other.  The essential point is not just physical reproduction, but the wider move beyond self-interest into unconditional giving, contributing to the world and the society that has nurtured one up to this point.

Somewhere after the age of 50, one enters into the stage of Integrity vs. Despair.  One begins to face up to one’s mortality, and starts to look back on life.  The positive individual will integrate the life that he or she has led, and be able to accept and celebrate it overall and leave it in relative peace; the negative will be filled with regrets and resentments.  As parents, one would be seeing one’s children leave home (perhaps), become adults, begin careers and families of their own.  One might see how one’s life will continue on in the future, through the energy passed on to one’s descendents.

The vocational counseling I have received (and as a former candidate of the Presbyterian ministry, I have undergone a veritable battery of screening and counseling sessions) has not dealt much with gender or developmental issues, and with some reason.  To say to someone, “Your developmental stage is not right for this job,” would be like saying, “Your gender is not right.”  It is not right, and in some cases it is legally forbidden to tell a person that he or she is the wrong age or wrong gender for a specific job.  On the other hand, it is important and worthwhile to take one’s own psychological needs into account, and to realize how the needs of others will affect what they see as “fair and just” in the workplace.  Erikson’s theories suggest that as young adults enter the workplace, they should have resolved most of their identity crises already.  If they have not, they are liable to “maladjustment” or even neurosis.  They may still be fighting what should have been old battles, and they can in fact still win them; others may be stuck reliving lost battles from high school for the rest of their lives.  But for the “normal” ones who are “on schedule,” the young adults are most likely to see the workplace as one more arena for social interaction with peers.  Before one can firmly deal with the notion of building a career, one needs to finish building one’s self identity; and that is done by positively resolving the Intimacy vs. Isolation conflict.  The person who voluntarily or involuntarily sacrifices all social life for work risks later feelings of isolation and worthlessness.  As Ecclesiastes puts it:  “Again, I saw vanity under the sun:  the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. “[3]  If one is to avoid seeing one’s own life as “vanity and an unhappy business,” one must have more than just work; one must have friends, and hopefully love and family.  The person who builds Stage Seven on a broken Stage Six will pay for it later with stagnation and regret.  But if younger workers are seeking social opportunities, workplaces are increasingly worried about the effects of failed relationships; so they may seek to limit worker interactions.  Some companies forbid coworkers from dating; others require them to sign a “dating contract” with the company to basically establish that the company will not be liable for any negative fallout.  And more broadly, my wife’s former boss (and this was a religious institution!) told employees they were not allowed to socialize outside the workplace—not just “no dating” but no meeting outside the workplace at all.  Assuming this were enforceable, it would be unfair to any worker, but really deadly to younger ones who are just now working to establish peer relationships.  By contrast, a workplace that seeks to give workers what they need might want to find ways to allow safe, controlled but still autonomous worker-to-worker interactions—-because workers will find ways to interact, and the employer who unreasonably attempts to squelch a basic human need of the employees will simply be ignored and circumvented.  If employers want to be kept in that particular loop, they need to recognize its validity for employees.

The bulk of one’s working life will be spent in Stage Seven.  This is the age of parenthood for many, of midlife crises for some, of concern for career advancement and recognition.  It is the time of “giving back.”  Andrew Carnegie said that the first half of one’s life should be spent in making money, and the second half in giving it away.  Erikson would see the sense in that.  Now that one has one’s love, one’s friends, one’s family, Erikson says one should stop worrying about oneself and start focusing on the others in one’s life.  And once one has given oneself to them as much as they require, one should start unconditional giving back to the world.  The person who has failed to positively resolve this crisis, Erikson says, falls into “stagnation” or “self-absorption.”  As writer Alan Chapman put it;


Stagnation is an extension of intimacy which turns inward in the form of self-interest and self-absorption. It’s the disposition that represents feelings of selfishness, self-indulgence, greed, lack of interest in young people and future generations, and the wider world.



Interestingly, that seems to be the primary conflict in our political discourse today.  Some argue “it takes a village to raise a child,” that we have to look at how what we do will affect “the least of these,” and how our actions affect the wider world and the future.  Others argue that “greed is good,” that taxing them to help others is “punishing me for my success,” and that worrying about the future (global warming, educating the next generation, etc.) would hurt today’s prosperity and chance to immediately enjoy life.  More specifically, in the workplace we can see that worker satisfaction is going to be tied up with opportunities to positively express and resolve the needs of generativity, and that conflicts will occur as people are drawn into greed, selfishness and immediate self-indulgence.  For many, the need for generativity will mean opportunities for career advancement; for others, it will mean opportunities for parenthood and family.  And many will want a workplace that allows for both, rather than setting family and career in conflict.  This is the age where one wants to work and one wants one’s work to have positive results, both for oneself and for the wider world.  On the other hand, those who are not successfully resolving the question of generativity are likely to be moved by selfishness alone, so many will be pushed by greed and self-absorption.  The workplace will have to accommodate them too, either by allowing their self-absorption, harnessing and manipulating it (the stereotypical “capitalist” position), or by creating opportunities to more positively resolve the generativity issue.

To be continued….

[1] Susan Haslip, “Aristotle’s Theory of the Good Life:  A Consideration of the Role of Luck in the Good Life and the Concept of Self-Sufficiency;”  Quodlibet Journal volume 5, number 1, 2003 (

[2] For a short summary, see “Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Crisis Life Cycle Model:  the eight stages of human development; ( accessed October 11, 2012.

[3] Ecclesiastes 4:7-8

Work and Philosophy: Psychological Interlude Chapter One: Gender (pt. ii)

November 19, 2012

Work and Philosophy:  Psychological Interlude

Chapter One:  Gender (pt. ii)

     Today, legal thinking and philosophical ethics are still wrestling with how to deal with gender differences.  On the one side  are the “difference feminists,” like Will Kymlicka and Iris Marion Young, who assert that it is necessary to act to insure equal opportunities and rights, which might mean taking legitimate differences into account.    For example, it is a biological fact that reproduction is more time-consuming for women than it is for men.  In the traditionally male-dominated workplace, it makes perfect sense to everybody making the rules (that is, the men) that pregnancy and maternity leave should be covered by sick-leave and vacation time.  Why should women get time off to make a baby, when I can’t get time off to write a novel?  Aren’t we both being creative?  The fact that this means that women had to choose between parenthood and career while men could reproduce and work without having to sacrifice either just didn’t seem like a problem.  Any woman who wants to be treated like a man can simply give up having children, and the problem is solved—except that reproduction is a fundamental human right and need, as is vocation, and a system that demands one person choose while another doesn’t is unjust.  Kymlicka points out that if women had made the rules, we wouldn’t have such notions as “reproduction is a luxury so pregnancy is either an illness or a vacation.” We probably wouldn’t allow companies to require high-level executives to work eighty hours a week, and we’d probably accommodate children in the workplace.  But where the rules are made by one group which has power, the rules tend to reflect the interests of that group.[1]  Once the rules are in place, there is no need for “arbitrary discrimination;” just treating everyone “the same” will be sufficient to keep women in second-class status.  In some cases, it may be that neither the women nor the men really even see an injustice, since everyone is treated “the same” and no one has asked whether the rules themselves might be skewed.  But when the rules are questioned, it may lead to changes.  Some years ago, Publix Supermarkets had a policy of hiring women as cashiers and men as stockers.[2]  This seems like a chain of common-sense assumptions with little deliberate malice:  women are more personable so make them cashiers, men have the upper body strength so make them stockboys, stockboys get to know what makes the store run, its merchandise, so they are the logical choice for management.  The fact that this meant that women could work for years and see grocery bagboys get promoted to become their bosses again and again just seemed like a natural reality, I suppose.  But the women saw it as un unfair system, and eventually the EOC and Publix settled with Publix paying damages and agreeing to change its management recruitment policies to be more gender-neutral in fact, not just in word.
In sexual harassment law, principles are even more confused.  The standard position, championed by such legal authorities as Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, is the “reasonable person” principle:  an act is sexual harassment if a “reasonable person” would consider it to be so.  But who is a “reasonable person”?  In the court case Ellison v. Brady, 924 F. 2d 872 – Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit 1991, the Court applied what has become known as the “reasonable woman” standard:  what would a reasonable womanconsider harassment?  Is the complainant being rational from her own perspective?  I can best illustrate this from a television drama:  A woman, wishing to reconcile with an ex-boyfriend, uses her key to come into his apartment, light candles, and strip naked to wait for him.  It turns into a fiasco when he comes home with another woman.  Later, she and another woman are discussing the incident, and one points out that if a man did such a thing he’d be arrested for sexual assault.  What is for a man perhaps flattering or perhaps embarrassing can be, for a reasonable woman, a mortal threat.

The contrary argument is that people are people, and that, as Richard A Wasserstrom put it, gender should be no more relevant than eye color.[3]  His basic argument is fairly simple and plausible, and is essentially the same one behind the Brown v. Board of Education ruling:  “separate” means “unequal.”  Once you start distinguishing between groups and declaring one to need special treatment, you designate some as inherently less capable than others.  If past attempts at psychological monism have led to a tendency to treat males as more “human” than females, that is not so much a refutation of monism as it is a refutation of an overly narrow and sexist vision of “human nature.”  Similarly, some racists define the ability to visibly blush as an essentially human trait, so that darker-skinned people are not human; it’s insane, but the alternative isn’t to just give up trying to find a definition of “human nature” that transcends race.  Likewise, we should find a conception of human nature that doesn’t set gender-related characteristics in the center, but rather one that recognizes them and marginalizes them appropriately so we can focus on a true and full understanding of what it is to be human.  This is the logic behind much of the current law concerning sexual harassment law.  Jurists such as Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg favor the “reasonable person” standard, whereby gender policy is judged according to what a hypothetical “reasonable person” of any gender would consider acceptable.  To do otherwise, it is argued, would create two legal standards for “person,” and rob the law of its objectivity and universality.

The difference feminists argue that this sort of “assimilationist” model perpetuates sexism rather than preventing it; and they have an ally in Darwinian psychology.  For example, Robert Wright has argued that evolution has shaped female and male brains differently, and given them different needs, desires and capabilities to fit the requirements of survival in the savannahs where humans originated.[4]  This leads males to be less selective sexually, since quantity of mating opportunities is a better strategy for the gender that does not have primary responsibility for nurturing the unborn and newly-born young.  This in turn leads males to have different attitudes towards sexual harassment, suggesting that legal protections should take gender into account; and it raises many issues concerning maternity leave and worker’s rights regarding on-site childcare, for example.  Males have testosterone, the hormone most associated with competitiveness; this suggests that some of the reason men tend to rise to the top of organizations is because men are driven to do so while women are content to stop.  Wright thus argues that the equity feminists have it all wrong; male and female minds are in fact different, and any ideology that ignores this essential human reality will fail.  Wright has more sympathy for the “radical feminists” like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who at least admit the existence of essential psychological differences based on gender.  Equity feminists have resisted Darwinian arguments, fearing that evolutionary theory could be used to justify all manner of oppression of women.  The classic example is the argument that men are inherently unfaithful so women should just accept it, while women are inherently monogamous so one who cheats is not only wicked but unnatural.  Less blatantly self-serving, the argument can be made that since women don’t compete for high-ranking executive jobs, we should just accept that men will run society.  But Wright argues that this is a mistake.  First, it is possible that women’s different psychology can be beneficial to society, and it should be encouraged.  Second, this is a variation of the naturalistic fallacy.  The fact that women don’t tend to promote themselves as vigorously as men says nothing about whether companies should accept that fact, or actively combat it by proactively seeking to recruit women to management positions.  Saying women and men have “different’ brains does not say one should be considered inferior.  It doesn’t really say anything at all about public policy.  What we do with the insights science provides is a matter of value judgment and moral priorities.  Essentially, Wright argues in favor of the “difference” approach:  laws and social policies should recognize the different needs and contributions of the two genders, and seek to provide equal opportunities for individuals to pursue their needs and offer their contributions, even where providing equal opportunities might mean taking gender differences into account.

Scientifically, there is too much evidence that male and female brains/minds differ to deny it.  The argument rather is how much they differ, and whether these differences are significant enough to require legal recognition and accommodation.  And partly because the science itself is unresolved, and partly because it is resisted by some and distorted by others, it is unlikely that we will resolve the legal and moral questions anytime soon.  Certainly, gender and changing gender roles has affected how Americans view work as much or more than any other force.  At this country’s inception, gender roles were largely accepted.  It was even seen as pointless, by men and by many women, to allow women to vote, since their husbands or fathers would handle that for them.  Women ruled the home and men the rest of the world, and both were considered essentially unsuitable for the other’s role.  In law and in the minds of most Americans, it was assumed that there were two human natures.  That began to change with the suffrage movement  in the 19th Century, with women finally gaining the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920.  In the Second World War, women flooded the workplace as men left for war overseas; and in the 1950’s a second wave of feminism was born as women sought to hold onto the rights that labor and economic independence had given them.  Today, the once “common sense” differences between men and women in the workplace are being renegotiated and relitigated  daily.  Do men and women have essentially different natures, and essentially different agendas at work?  Is the “glass ceiling” a result of male oppression or female choice?  How far should the law go to enforce equality?  What is the difference between sexual harassment and natural interaction between males and females?  How far should the law, or employers go to prevent harassment?  Should all dating and sexual interaction between coworkers be banned?  Should employees be allowed to socialize and keep their private lives private?  Can employers be held liable for the results of relationships between coworkers that go bad?  Can females sue employers for not promoting enough females? Can males sue employers if they feel they were passed over just to maintain a balanced number of male and female promotees?  Should women get special treatment, such as extended maternity leave and leave for sick child care while still being eligible for promotion, while men continue to work 60+ hours a week to earn promotion?    Or should men, too, be allowed extended paternity leave at employer expense, exactly the same as the women who actually did give birth and actually may be nursing?

From my perspective, I want to ask:  how does the possibility of psychological pluralism and gender difference affect our understanding of work?  Does it say anything about the essential rights of workers, or essential needs?  Does it say anything about our attitudes towards work?  Are there “male” workers and “female” workers, or are there “workers” who happen to be male and female—-that is, which is most important to deciding workplace justice and the philosophical understanding of work:  gender or economic activity?

[1] Will Kymlicka, “Sexual Equality and Discrimination:  Difference vs. Dominance;” in Morality and Moral Controversies:, pp. 572-75

[2]  Ellen Foreman, “Publix Suit At Head Of Class:  Sex Discrimination Case Is Largest Class Action In U.s. History”, Sun March 17, 1996 (

[3] Richard A. Wasserstrom, “On Racism and Sexism:  Realities and Ideals;” in Morality and Moral Controversies:  pp. 576-81

[4] Robert Wright, “The Evolution of the Female Mind:  Feminists, Meet Mr. Darwin;” originally published in The New Republic, 28, November 1994

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 26, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)



            The anti-intellectualism that is so rampant today also makes sense when seen as an anxiety reaction.  Logically, you would think that anxious and fearful people would long for a smart person to come along with all the answers.  However, the true thinker is anathema to anxiety, because the true thinker challenges others to think.  The anxious person does not want to think; reflection only increases anxiety.  The individual thinker is a challenge to the others, presenting them with the possibility that maybe they too could wrestle with the big issues.  On the other hand, the small-minded blowhard gives everything and asks nothing.  The one who has no ideas or only bad ones does not make me feel inferior or lazy for not thinking about the world; he gives me easy answers and then reassures me that I am smart and important because I was smart enough to hand over all my thinking to him and important enough to submerge myself in a herd.  That, more than anything else, is why college dropouts with histories of drug abuse can become national heroes, and Nobel Prize winners are laughed at.  Limbaugh and Beck tell me that I don’t have to be an individual; they’ve thought it out for me, and they didn’t get a formal education either.  I can tell myself how smart I am simply because I am afraid of who they tell me to fear.  Authority takes away responsibility, fear and conspiracy theories allow me to trade in my anxiety for easily managed fears, and anti-intellectualism allows me to feel smarter than those people who challenge me to think and make me feel more anxious.  The miracle isn’t that Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh are national authorities despite manifest and documented lack of expertise in everything; the miracle is that there is anyone who will take up the challenge of being a single, reflective individual in such a fluid and anxiety-inducing age as this one.  Really, it is no wonder that Chu is laughed at when he proposes simple and reasonable solutions to combat global warming; he only has a Nobel Prize in Physics, while his critics have the sense to know that offering a solution to a problem means admitting there is a problem, which means the world has changed from before when the climate was fine.  Chu offers us anxiety and thinking and the call to solve problems; the clever self-promoter offers us self-delusion and thus the security of believing that all is as it always was and can never be different.

Anyone who finds it paradoxical that the hard-working lower-middle class people vilify the poor and idolize (I use the word deliberately) the wealthy, simply does not understand anxiety.  Logically, it makes the most sense to apply Rawls’ “veil of ignorance:” If you did not know whether you would be rich, poor or somewhere in the middle, would you choose this nation as it is or would you change things?  If you would, it is fair and just; if not, that implies it is unfair.  Today, it is increasingly difficult to move up the economic ladder, increasingly easy to fall into poverty, and increasingly improbable that any rich person will fail to get richer from the sheer inertia of interest payments.  Clearly, this is not what Rawls would call a “fair” society.  But to even take up the challenge of thinking in those terms is to admit the very real possibility of becoming poor.  On the other hand, if one holds fast to the delusion that hard work is always rewarded, one can calm one’s feeling of loss of control.  To the anxious person, the poor are a threat the same way a chasm is a threat; the best way to avoid dizziness is to not look at how far you might fall but to keep moving forward.  So we find it easier to blame the poor for being lazier or stupider than we are, rather than admit that they may be smarter and more industrious than many of the wealthy who control our economic world.  And we would rather believe that the rich are rich because they deserve to be, since then we can believe that if we too deserve to be rich it will happen.  Anxiety cannot bear to hear what reality shouts at us every day:  that wealth in America has more to do with the luck of having rich parents than with anything else.[1]  Falsely idolizing the supposed merits of the wealthy and falsely demonizing the supposed vices of the poor both allow me to reassure myself that I am powerful and in control, that my anxiety is false, and that all I have to do is work harder and everything will be fine.  To see the poor as human would awaken the possibility that I might become one.

I think that every crazy thing we see in politics today can fruitfully be understood as the fruits of anxiety.  We seek false fears that we can then conquer.  We seek false security and a false sense of power, rather than risk confronting our anxiety.  Today the news is full of the Congressman who claimed that rape victims can’t get pregnant.  What a comforting myth that is!  “We need not fear the rapist; he cannot impregnate our daughters or wives unless they themselves wish it, which of course is impossible.  And we can be sure that those who do get pregnant wanted it and enjoyed it, in which case they deserve whatever happens.  So we can be assured that our easy answers have no moral collateral damage, and we can be sure that the true horror of this evil cannot touch us or the good people we love.  Forcing women to have babies born of rape and incest is therefore just hunky-dory, since the pregnant women must have chosen to be pregnant and such a thing will never, never happen to the good women we care about.”  By embracing this myth, Akin and the many who agree with him can quiet the anxiety stemming from a lack of control over our world, and the anxiety over oneself and whether the “good” one champions is really so good after all.  What good is science, when it just makes me question my settled moral assertions?  How can I possibly get on with the important work of reforming the world, if I am constantly examining myself?

Just try looking at every irrational, self-defeating stance adopted by the American people, and try understanding it as a reaction to anxiety; I think you’ll find that while you may still be dismayed, you won’t be mystified anymore.

[1] “If a man has $100 and makes ten more, that’s work; if he has $100 million and makes ten million, that’s inevitable.”    From The Barefoot Contessa

A quote on the relationship between work and wealth

June 25, 2012

To make a hundred dollars into a hundred and ten dollars – this is work. To make a hundred million into a hundred and ten million, this is inevitable.

—-Joseph L. Mankiewicz, The Barefoot Contessa

Henry David Thoreau on the Division of Labor

June 18, 2012

Henry David Thoreau on the Division of Labor

“Where is this division of labor to end?  No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.”

—-Henry David Thoreau

Originally I wrote this as part of my “Work and Philosophy” series; but since I am rewriting that section and still think the original has some merit as it is, I am preserving it here as a separate fragment.

Thoreau lived at the beginning of the worldwide Industrial Revolution.  The division of labor, the harnessing of machines and the mass production of commodities had given the English a growing middle class with the highest standard of living in the world.  They drank tea from India, smoked pipes with American tobacco and wore cotton grown in the United States, they ate from porcelain made from China (called “china” even today), and used a wide variety of clothes, cutlery, and other luxury goods the generation earlier would have found amazing.  They even had commemorative cups and saucers, coins and other goods, like the sort of things we buy today from late-night television commercials.  Industrialization led to mass production, which in turn gave rise to consumerism.  Today, we might call this “The American Way;” but in the mid-nineteenth century, it was the English way—-and Thoreau was not impressed.[6]

Thoreau had three primary complaints against the division of labor and “the English way” of providing goods.  One was that the division of labor alienates one from the conditions of one’s own life, and from life itself.[7]  When one works to provide one’s own food and shelter, one is part of life; when one works to buy them, one is part of something else, of an institution perhaps or a system.  Our spirits do not sing.  We are not like songbirds who sing while they build their own nests or feed their own families; we are like cuckoos who rely on others to do the work, divorcing us from our very selves, leaving us unpoetic and unproductive souls.  Next, this division of labor separates the individual from the need, encouraging the individual to become fixated on the shallow and useless rather than the vitally necessary.[8]  “I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.”[9]  Thoreau argued that one’s work should meet the needs of one’s own life, and the realities of the world.[10]  Thus, for example, he argued that college students would do well to build their own shelters instead of renting dormitory apartments, that the one who wishes to learn metallurgy should try digging and smelting his own ore, and that the poor student would do better to learn personal economy than to study Adam Smith for four years while bankrupting his parents.  “To my astonishment,” he writes, “I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!—why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it.”[11]  The division of labor means that workers are (to use another man’s terms) alienated from their products, and from themselves and their own needs.  What one does is not an expression of one’s own personality or ability at all, and it does not connect one to the world.  That was the whole point of Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment:  to see what he could do without, and thus to see what was truly important and what was mere chaff.  As he puts it, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”[12]

Because we forget what is truly essential, we are attracted to style over substance, fashion over functionality, cornice over foundation.  When we have provided for our needs, we fulfill our desires; and when we have fulfilled those, we fill the desires we are told to have by our neighbors and the businesses that want our money.  As Thoreau says, the purpose of the “English” style of industrial mass production is not that people should have the best goods, but that corporations should be enriched.[13]  Then as now, the makers of consumer goods invested a great deal of effort in shaping tastes and fashions, so that people would be obliged to continue buying new things to remain respectable in the eyes of their neighbors.  And this division of labor makes it possible for many to continually change their wardrobes, redecorate their houses and even buy the most fashionable books to display on their coffee tables, though they have no time to read—-they divide the labor, and let reviewers do that for them.  But what of the people who produce this bounty?  “The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another.”[14]  The whole purpose of the division of labor is, after all, to eliminate personal effort and to eliminate skill, so that as much as possible can be done by unskilled, cheap and expendable workers.  For every one noble buried beneath a pyramid, there were dozens of architects and artists to design it, living in much more modest circumstances, and below them thousands laboring in anonymous squalor.  Today, we might look at the cornucopia of goods we Americans enjoy, and contrast it with the drudgery of the sweatshop and the tomato field.

The final result of this division of labor, Thoreau argues, is the destruction of the individual and the nation.  “It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow.”[15]  To show that we are as good as anyone, we want to display our wealth by having nice things to show off.  What were once the baubles of the rich and bored become the ornaments and, eventually, the necessities of the industrious, how we prove to each other that we are worthwhile and industrious.  Over time, we become soft and weak and cannot survive without these former luxuries.  He repeatedly compares the physical endurance and strength of the non-industrialized peoples (Laplanders, nomadic Arabs, native Americans or natives of Terra del Fuego) with the weakness and lack of ingenuity shown by “civilized” people.  Ultimately, this weakness of body also becomes weakness of character, and the weakness of the individual becomes the weakness family lines, and finally of the civilization itself.[16]

To be continued…..

[6] Henry David Thoreau, Walden; from The Viking Portable Library:  Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode (New York:  The Viking Press, 1975)Walden pp. 281-82

[7] Walden, pp. 300-01

[8] Walden, pp. 276-80, 301-02

[9] Walden, p. 277

[10] Walden, pp. 304-06

[11] Walden, p. 306

[12] Walden p. 343

[13] Walden, p. 282

[14] Walden, p. 289

[15] Walden, p. 291

[16] Walden, p. 270

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today? (pt. 2: The Looters)

January 4, 2012

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today?

            The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  No, no, a thousand times, no!

The still longer and fuller answer:  that will take awhile.

The Looters

“If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing.  Such looters are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man.”  Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Rand is celebrated today for her denunciations of the “moochers and the leeches,” the poor who demand to be supported by the rich.  Less often repeated are her denunciations of “the looters and the thugs,” those who steal not through the welfare state but through criminality, or crooked laws, defrauding those who work to become rich off the labors of others.  Of course, Rand is no Marxist; she celebrates the entrepreneur and capitalist who take risks with their own talents or their own resources, and bear the costs of their own failures.  These are the responsible, productive individuals.  They deserve whatever their intelligence and industry brings them.  They choose not to be victims of others, and not to victimize others either.  Rand says that either is a denial of one’s true humanity, which is to say one’s rational nature.  To victimize others is not to survive as man qua man, since it is to live not as a human being but as a parasite.  To be human is to be rational and productive.  These are the traits that lead to survival of the human individual and species.  The looter, like a tapeworm, survives only because there is a productive being it can sap life from; as long as it kills its host slowly enough, it can live.  But the looters are ultimately destroying humanity.  One tick may not kill a dog, but a dog with enough ticks will bleed to death; and when the last dog is gone the ticks will die too.

For this reason, the rationally selfish person chooses to live by trade, not by looting.  Trade is the honest and open exchange of goods, services, talents and knowledge.  It strengthens the human race, and in doing so it strengthens every individual who participates in it.  As Rand puts it, the purpose of ethics is one’s own life and happiness; but the standard of ethics is human life.  What does not preserve and promote human life—-not just my life, but man qua man—-is not ethical.  So the moral person lives by trade and not by looting because this is what preserves human life, the life and continued existence of humanity.  That is the standard of what is ethical.  My own purpose may be my own preservation, but the measure of whether the means I would choose are proper is human life.  Rand thus starts from an egoistic purpose, it seems, but ends up sounding very much like Kant:  “The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—-and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”  (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet Press, 1964:  p. 30).

Rand would approve of the one-percenter who earned his or her wealth and now resists giving it away to support the lazy leech.  The rich one has every right to give his or her wealth away voluntarily, but must resist being forced; not to resist is to betray one’s own human nature.  But “the principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.  It is the principle of justice…..  A trader … does not switch to others the burden of his failures….” (pp. 34-35).  From the savings and loans crisis of the Reagan era (which cost 3.2% of our GDP) to ENRON to the TARP bailout (which is estimated to have cost us 1% of our GDP) and the other bailouts, it is clear that business in the USA is not being carried out under Rand’s principles of trade.  It is being carried out by the looters, under laws made by the looters and for the looters.  And whenever some regulation is proposed to prevent these CEOs and CFOs from gambling with other people’s money and keeping the winnings while sharing the losses, the lobbyists and the SuperPACs come out and make sure nothing comes of it.  Today, virtually every major banking institution suckles from the taxpayer’s teat.  By threatening to crash the entire world global economic system, rich banks and rich bankers have set themselves up with a sweet deal.  Today, the big banks borrow from the Fed at no interest, and then loan that money back to the government at interest.  The taxpayer’s money, that was supposed to allow banks to start lending again so the taxpayer could start borrowing and entrepreneurs could start investing and inventing and producing, is instead being recycled to pay huge bonuses to bankers.  It’s not the 1%, but the 0.1% that are pulling this scam.  Cut them off, and we go into a Second Great Depression.  Regulate them, says the GOP, and we’ll be squelching the “productive” class.  But when the GOP and FOX whines about the leeches draining the poor productive class, who are they defending?  Not the traders.  The SuperPAC money from the banking industry is raised from the looters, to pay for laws to protect the looters.  The fact is that at this point, the banking industry is funded and supported by the taxpayer.  They are both looters and leeches.   And the GOP has made itself the party that defends the anti-competitive monopoly in its efforts to squelch the small entrepreneur who tries to start a small business, the multinational corporation that dumps its wastes in drinking water and expects someone else to pay to clean it up, and the big manufacturer that accepts shipments from small businesses and then refuses to pay them for months at a time so it can use small businessmen as its own no-interest bank.  In short, the GOP is the party of the looters.  (The Dems take their share of money from looters, too, but they haven’t made defending the looters part of their stated party platform.)

From the Regan-Bush bailout of the S&Ls to the Bush bailout of the banks, the GOP has chosen to be the party of deregulation, not in the name of free markets but in the cause of crony capitalism and kleptocracy.  When the financial industry has been deregulated and allowed to take greater risks, the profits were raked in by the top executives while the risks were assumed by the taxpayers.  When polluters are deregulated, the profits go to the 0.1% while the costs in health and cleanup go to taxpayers.  Even Ron Paul has said that libertarian principles do not mean polluters can use their neighbors as mere means to their own ends.

Rand wrote that we should have real capitalism.  She would have defended Bush’s decision to let Lehman Brothers go under; the executives and the stockholders who hired them should go bankrupt for their own follies.  But this also nearly destroyed the nation’s economy, so the decision was made not to allow any more major financial institutions to fail.*  Fine:  I’m not looking forward to a Second Great Depression either.  But would Rand really demand that we allow a few reckless, foolish looters to destroy the wealth of millions of rational, productive individuals?

* Instead FOX News defended paying the executives big bonuses, with taxpayer dollars, because it is necessary to attract “top talent.”  Talent for what?

Work and Philosophy, pt. 2: Marx (iii)

December 21, 2011

Work and Philosophy, pt. 2:  Marx (conclusion)

When I was in college, my roommate was a Libertarian activist.  The biggest jerk on campus was an avowed Communist.   Once they got into a public debate that boiled down to this exchange:  “Communism is the only fair system.”  “But Robert, it doesn’t work!”  “But it’s fair!”  And that’s really all the Marxists have:  it doesn’t work, we know it doesn’t work, but it’s fair.  Why doesn’t it work?  And are those our only two choices:  unfair, exploitive efficiency or a striving for fairness that is ineffective at best, and utterly destructive at worst?  Do we have to choose between the Gilded Age and Great Depression, versus famines and cultural revolutions?

As to the second question, those do not appear to be our only two choices.  In the 1930’s we found a way to integrate elements of fairness into the overall structure of capitalist democracy, and have for eighty years avoided both the Communist revolution and the Fascist coup that so many confidently predicted in the 1930’s.  But to more fully understand this, we should look at the first question:  why doesn’t Marxism work?

I would say that the problem with Marxism can be traced to the different implications Marx and I draw from Darwinism.  Marx was an atheist materialist; in the early nineteenth century this was a difficult position to maintain.  If there is no God, then where did all the different animals and plants come from?  While biology and geology were beginning to undermine the literal account of Genesis, there was no really persuasive alternative account of the origins of life.  Darwin, of course, changed that equation.  With Darwin (and a few tweaks from his successors), the materialists had the more consistent and inclusive theory.  Given Marx’s conviction that religion is nothing more than a fraud made up by the oppressor class to keep the workers working, it was almost inevitable that he would embrace Darwinism early and enthusiastically.

But while Marx appreciated Darwinism’s scientific approach and materialist foundation, he doesn’t seem to have let it affect his epistemology much at all.  His view of human knowledge, and human nature, owes more to Hegel than to Darwin.  Hegel taught that human spirit (or mind) evolves historically over time, unfolding according to logical principles.  Marx demystified Hegel’s historical dialectic by understanding it as driven by material, economic principles instead of intellectual or spiritual ones.  As the material conditions of the human being change, the intellectual structures through which the individual thinks are changed, since these intellectual structures are born from this economic substructure.  The feudal European mind was the product of the feudal world, which was in turn the product of the technology and economic system of feudalism.  The individual never did, and never does simply encounter the world; rather, the individual filters and interprets experience through the mental structures of his or her age.  In perceiving the world, the individual creates the world at the same time, organizing sense perceptions using the categories and values given by the age.  Change the social environment, the economic substructure of the individual’s reality, and you change the individual’s very spirit itself.

As a theist and an empiricist, I take very different lessons from Darwin.  First, like millions of Christians, I accept Darwin’s basic scientific explanation.  This is said to be apostasy, but a simple historical lesson will show otherwise.  A thousand years ago, the idea of a scientific explanation for rainbows was considered blasphemous.  After all, the book of Genesis clearly states that God created the rainbow as a special sign of His promise to never again destroy the world by a flood.  Before Noah’s flood, there were no rainbows; now, God places one in the sky when it rains to remind us of His promise.  So when Arab scientists invented the new science of optics, and showed how humans could break light apart to create rainbows and how even natural rainbows could have a materialist explanation, many Christians (and I imagine, other believers as well) were offended.  But John Calvin simply replied, I don’t care   how God creates the rainbow; I accept that God, who created everything including the laws of physics, creates rainbows as the scientist says they are created.  We should never fear truth, Calvinists say, since all truth glorifies God; for God is truth.  So Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians can all agree that life arose and is shaped by the principles Darwin describes; how God creates life is one thing, that God creates life is quite a different claim.  What to Marx was a refutation of religion is, to the theistic Darwinian, only a refutation of narrow-minded folly and superstition.

In fact, though, Darwinian theory does reinforce one Biblical teaching:  from dust were we made.  Darwinism says that we humans are the products of the same substance and forces that govern the rest of the universe.  Even our minds, our brains, are shaped by the forces of evolution.  We are the children of four-million year old bipedal apes wandering the plains of Africa.  We have senses that are the products of even more ancient ancestry; our eyes, ears, our other senses and the brain that organizes and interprets this sense data all evolved over time from simpler forms.  Creatures whose eyes saw reality more clearly survived and reproduced; creatures whose senses were less effective were destroyed by the facts they did not perceive.  Knowledge starts with the senses.  Do our senses have limits, make mistakes, and only perceive some fraction of the reality around us?  Undoubtedly, and in that sense the transcendental idealists like Kant and Hegel are right.  We don’t perceive perfectly and we do construct our world in perceiving it.  But how we construct it is itself a product of that same world.  Our senses, our brains, our hormonal responses, everything that gives rise to our minds, our spirits, our selves, our personalities is part of the world; and if our minds were truly cut off from the real world it would have destroyed us long ago.  And these senses and these minds were created slowly, over millions of years.  They are continuing to evolve; but they do not change overnight.

This, I think, explains why Marxism fails.  To the Marxist, knowledge is the result of the encounter with the world as perceived by the intellectual categories which are themselves the products of the economic substructure.  Change the economic reality in which the person lives, and you literally change his or her mind.  The acquisitiveness upon which capitalism is based is itself the creation of capitalism; put the individual in an environment where no one owns property and no one needs to since the community will provide whatever one needs, and people will change from the greedy, lazy and selfish creatures we are now into spontaneously creative, industrious and generous beings of the future.

A more pragmatic, empirical and thoroughly Darwinian view of human nature would say that we are what millions of years have made us.  Sure, we can change our behavior according to new realities.  Put us in a civilized environment, and we will mostly stop killing each other over water holes or fruit trees.  But even the most “modern” person has a brain and body that evolved on the plains of Africa two million years ago.  That essential nature will not go away just because our economic realities change; it will only manifest itself in different ways.  Nature has shaped us to want to enjoy the fruits of our own work, and to resent it when someone takes from us, just as the chimp resents being robbed of his banana by a larger rival and will scheme to try to hide what he cannot hold by force alone.  At the same time, just as chimpanzees do cooperate for the good of the group, so too we humans are able to put aside some of our self-assertion for a higher goal.  Humans seem to function best when they have at least some control over their work and can enjoy and control at least some of the products of their labors.  Just like many other social mammals, humans will put up with a lot if they perceive it as being fair, and if they perceive that it will lead to a desired goal.  And just like other social mammals, we resent having everything we produce taken from us to be distributed by the Alpha Male or the State or Collective or any other entity.  And just like other animals, if our needs are met we will pursue pleasure, or sleep, or possibly do a host of other things that are unlikely to serve the community.  Necessity is the mother of industry as well as invention.

My First-Hand Experience with the TEA Party

October 31, 2011

My First-Hand Experience with the TEA Party (with comments)

            I’ve been grading some of my student papers.  I teach community college:  my students don’t generally have the leisure of a full-time retreat from the world of work and wages.  And they don’t take the leisure of just working and ignoring all that hard thinking stuff, either.  They are generally working hard at low-paying jobs, and then working hard in my classes as well.  They are learning to think critically, to examine their own beliefs and those of others, to apply abstract principles and philosophical theories to real-world life experiences and to the social/political debates that rile the news cycle.  They are health workers, they are soldiers, they are law enforcement, they are victims of violence and domestic battery, they are every sort of person.

One thing that struck me this semester is how diverse they are politically.  This is nothing new; but this year, while the political debates have been so cutthroat and virulent, it was the politically conservative papers that struck me.  My students simply do not vote their “class interests.”  They are poor to middle class and swimming for shore with all their might as the economic tides recede.  If anyone should be out occupying Wall Street, it is them.  Instead, I read time and again how they live, working sometimes two jobs while attending classes just to stay off welfare while taking care of their children.  Others may be accepting food stamps or other aid, but still they are working as hard as they can to get to the day when they can support themselves and those who depend on them.  But if they express any frustration, it isn’t for the hedge fund managers and investment bankers who make billions of dollars while millions of little people lose their jobs and their savings.  The only impatience they express is for those who are lazy, and particularly the lazy people who live in government housing that is better than what they can rent on their own, who buy food with food stamps so they can afford cigarettes and beer, and who seem to have the time to just hang around on their taxpayer-subsidized front porch.

Marx would say my students have been co-opted:  they have bought the lie that if they just work hard, they too can be rich, so they accept the system instead of seeking to change it.  In other words, the Left would say my students are selfish but deluded; they act against their own selfish interests unintentionally, while meaning to be just as selfish as any corporate raider, inside trader or war profiteer.  I wonder, though, how many of the people who would say that have read student papers like the ones I read?  I wonder how many of them actually know any real working stiffs?

I think this is why so many have so much trouble understanding the TEA Party movement.  The assumption is that people will act in their own interests, as best they can understand them; so they must simply be deceived by corporate masters and billionaire-funded propaganda.  Once they are informed of the facts and see that the rich are getting richer, that this “grass-roots” movement is funded by the rich, and so on, they will all throw off their Uncle Sam costumes and go join the protestors in Zuccotti Park.  But instead, the many people who call themselves “tea party” seem strangely immune to “facts” and appeals to self-interest.

Could it be, perhaps, that the so-called deluded, co-opted masses are not immune to facts, but are instead deaf to arguments based on selfishness?  I have three friends in particular who identify themselves with the TEA party in one way or another.  Now, I have seen the video footage and news reports, and I have read the e-mails people have sent me touting the TEA line.  I have seen plenty to reinforce the stereotype of TEA partiers as paranoids, ignoramuses, xenophobes, and so on.  But I have to say, my first-hand experience has not backed that up, generally.  None of them are stupid people; I know what jobs they hold and I’ve seen them engaged in mental activities.  They are not greedy weasels who would cheer the death of some poor schmuck if it saved them a few dollars; they are generous, at times to a fault.

They are patriotic and conservative Christians, which I don’t think comes as any great surprise.  But they are not “co-opted” or otherwise stupid.  If there is any one quality they share, and which explains their immunity to appeals to class interest, it is this:  they are all hard workers.  They do not work just because they have to; they go beyond the minimum required.  They want to work, they want to work well, they want to overcome and achieve and accomplish and fulfill whatever is there for them to overcome and fulfill.  They want to feel that they are contributing to their world and they are supporting themselves.  When they hear the typical argument “Let’s tax the rich, redistribute the wealth and close the wealth gap,” they are first of all offended that anyone thinks they would succumb to this bribery.  Next, they assume that anyone who would try to appeal to their laziness and selfishness in this way must be lazy and selfish.  By contrast, when they hear about “job creators” and “it’s unjust to rob those who worked hard to earn great wealth,” this has great appeal.  They are being asked to give up easy advantages they have not earned, and to sacrifice for the sake of justice.  It is precisely the call to take on the extra burden in a just cause that appeals to them.

As long the TEA party hears that they are dupes, that they are astro-turf instead of grassroots, or that they are racists or selfish, they simply become defensive.  And why not?  The TEA partiers I know are not racists or selfish, and they are sincere in their allegiance to their cause.  If the TEA party will call them to sacrifice and strive for the good of their nation and to earn whatever rewards they can honestly, they will answer that call.  And if they believe the Left wants them to take from others what they themselves have not earned, they will reject that easy way with scorn.  They want work worthy of themselves.  Some know the past, and perhaps Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War; some may know the future as depicted in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; some may know the eternal truths as described in Plato’s Republic.  These all agree on one basic principle:  democracy is destroyed if the people believe they can simply vote for whatever they want, and get it without sweat or blood or tears.  The conservatives that I know believe that they have earned what they have, or perhaps more accurately, that they have worked for what they have.  They want to work; they want to be challenged.  They believe that this is how they preserve society.  And this is how they know they are alive, how they feel the life that was given them as a gift, but which they renew by their efforts.