On non-heterosexuality, religious absurdity, heteronormativity, human dignity, love, and freedom

A friend of mine—in reaction to Oklahoma Federal Judge Kern’s overturning a ban on non-heterosexual marriage—recently authored a blog outlining his condemnation of homosexuality and disapproval of the current trajectory of Western marriage culture. Ordinarily I would just shake my head and move on, but this particular instantiation of dogmatic heteronormative religious anti-queer ideology is so utterly rife with contradictions, non-sequiturs, equivocations, conflations, hypocrisy, platitudes, and empty distinctions unconvincingly presented as redeeming or reconciliatory that I simply cannot stomach remaining silent.

His post begins with an especially empty and confused distinction: “We should not disapprove of people as a class. […] We must always make a distinction between the person and their actions. We disapprove of the actions, not the people.”

This distinction is nonsense. Of course there is an obvious difference between a person and her or his actions—the former is a performer and the latter is a performance—but with regard to the regulatory goals of anti-queer rights advocates, the actor and action are inseparable. Action does not exist in a void. Action presupposes an actor, so to condemn an action concurrently and necessarily condemns the actor. We do not oppress or socio-legally imprison actions, but the people who act. Actions do not have inherent rights to freedom and self-determination, people do. It is not the freedom of an action that anti-queer advocates aim to curtail, but the freedom and agency of, not just one class of people—the queer community is not monolithic—but numerous classes of people; all classes of people except heterosexuals, in fact. There is no practical difference between regulating the action and regulating the actor in this case. You cannot criminalize a person’s natural mode of being and expression of agency without criminalizing the person.

Also, as a writing teacher I feel compelled to point out the lack of grammatical agreement between the singular “the person” and the plural “their actions” in the aforementioned quotation.

The author goes on to say that his disapproval of homosexual actions actually comes from love, and that we “must always love and accept people [original emphasis]. In fact,” he continues, “in order to truly love someone, we have to disapprove of things that hurt them as people. Homosexual actions are contrary to the dignity of the human person and thus we must always disapprove of such actions.”

Contradictions and mistakes abound. Let’s deconstruct each of the three premises individually:

Premise 1: “We must always love and accept people [original emphasis].”

Counter-argument 1: If you “love and accept people,” then you must love and accept them for who they are, not who you want them to be. Otherwise you’re not accepting, but rejecting their identities. And non-heterosexual identity is precisely that: identity. Non-heterosexuality is fundamentally intertwined in the selfhood of non-heterosexuals. You cannot separate the two and purport to love and accept one but not the other. To think otherwise is an error.

Premise 2: “In order to truly love someone, we have to disapprove of things that hurt them as people.” (Note again the lack of grammatical agreement between the singular “someone” and the plural “them as people”).

Counter-argument 2: To begin, the notion of “truly lov[ing] someone” is a loaded and problematic one. By who’s truth should “true” love be judged? Who’s to determine whether one person’s love is more or less true than another’s? Is love even the kind of thing that can be “true” or “false”? False love—should such a thing exist—it seems to me, would not be love at all, but deception. The author suggests that “true love” is contingent upon disapproval of harmful things; in other words, disapproval of harm or hurt is the criterion he proposes for distinguishing “true love.” This is a specious, capricious, and arbitrary criterion. To what measure of hurt does he refer? In what sense is non-heterosexuality hurtful? In no way apparent to me does non-heterosexuality cause harm to individuals or society. If anything it’s the opposite. For non-heterosexuals, non-heterosexuality is not hurtful, but a means of flourishing. Non-heterosexuality and non-heterosexual love are equally natural, beautiful, admirable, defensible, and commendable expressions of the human condition as heterosexuality and heterosexual love. Only in context of intolerant dogmatic archaic religious ideology is this equality contestable. And only in said context is non-heterosexual socio-legal equity contested. The argument that “in order to truly love someone, we have to approve of things that enrich or fulfill them as people” is made just as easily—and I think more convincingly. If anything, the denial of such enrichment or fulfillment constitutes harm or hurt, in which case, by the author’s own logic and criterion, if we truly love all people, then we must disapprove of those who disapprove of non-heterosexuality.

Premise 3: “Homosexual actions are contrary to the dignity of the human person and thus we must always disapprove of such actions.”

Counter-argument 3: I agree that we ought disapprove of actions contrary to human dignity, but homosexuality (& other forms of non-heterosexuality) and homosexual (& non-heterosexual) actions are not contrary to human dignity. Non-heterosexuality may be contrary to fundamentalist Christian doctrine or other anachronistic universalist religious dogma, but it is not contrary to human dignity. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Denying freedom, self-determination, and social equality to human beings because of antiquated mythological religious ideology is contrary to human dignity. Human dignity means being free to live and express one’s natural identity without oppression or discrimination insofar as said lifestyle and expression brings no harm or socio-legal imprisonment to others. The liberty and expression of non-heterosexuality has nothing to say about religion and does nothing to limit the freedom of religious zealots, but the socio-legal institutionalization of uncompromising anti-queer fanaticism moves precisely to limit the freedom of non-heterosexuals. By Mill’s Harm Principle, the former is obviously permissible, and the latter is both impermissible and ethically repugnant.

The author next attempts to hedge or mask his distasteful condemnation of non-heterosexuality by saying that “We need to always treat homosexuals, regardless of their life choices, with charity and love, WITHOUT [original caps] condescension, patronization, or moral arrogance.”

This rhetorical attempt to placate the queer-community and its allies is socially intolerant hypocrisy at its finest. There are several problematic components of the above claim. First, the author makes a category mistake in asserting that being homosexual (and presumable anything other than heterosexual) is the kind of thing about which one chooses. Non-heterosexuality is not a choice, but one of countless natural dimensions of the human condition. Non-heterosexuality is not a “life choice,” it is simply life. Furthermore, to treat non-heterosexuals as pariahs, reject their natural identities, and support the prevention, revocation, or demolition of non-heterosexual socio-legal equality is, in no way, to treat non-heterosexuals with charity or love. And what, on grounds of ancient religious dogma, is advocation for non-heterosexual socio-legal inequality if not moral arrogance? Is it not moral arrogance to arbitrarily claim that non-heterosexuality is contrary to human dignity? Is it not moral arrogance to inexplicably argue that non-heterosexual actions are hurtful or harmful and that, in effect, the religious community knows what’s best for all people—especially non-heterosexuals? Moreover, to reject non-heterosexuality, deny non-heterosexuals socio-legal equality, espouse oppressive, exclusionary, and discriminatory religious myth as if it were simple fact and then call it love is both offensive and antithetical to the very idea of love and smacks with precisely the condescension and patronization which the author argues the anti-queer cause should avoid.

The author then—referencing Judge Kern’s reasoning that the sanctity of marriage and the encouragement of procreation are not valid or logical reasons to ban same-sex marriage—in a profound non-sequitur moves to argue that the rejection of non-heterosexuality somehow entails a narrow teleological prescription about heterosexual marriage; namely, that the purpose of marriage is to have children and that he “would be in favor of limiting marriage to couples who have to say on record that they are at least open [original emphasis] to having children.” This is an absurd—remarkably inane—line of reasoning. What of love? What of commitment? What of legal rights of access and decision-making power that come with marriage? What of inheritance and the social securities that marriage entails? Are these not valid reasons to marry? What of the infertile or the elderly or those uninterested in having children of their own? What of couples who would prefer to raise adopted children while in wedlock? The author now not only wants to preclude the socio-legal equality of non-heterosexuals, but to limit the freedom of all people who do not share his precise ideology. “The stability of our society” depends on it, he argues.”Just a suggestion, America.” I can think of no more appropriate term for this than fascism; for as Sinclair Lewis so aptly stated, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

Marriage is a human institution, not a Christian one. It is a social and civil right of all citizens of age and sound mind, not a privilege of heterosexuals, the devout, or those bent on reproduction. Marriage is a natural human freedom to take the long walk with someone for whom you care deeply and with whom you wish to build a life of mutual devising, together. Freedom is essential to American prosperity, not its curtailment or the institutionalization of discrimination, inequality, inequity, exclusion, and oppression on the basis of outrageous dogmatic ideology rooted in ancient religious mythology. Love, sex, commitment, shared experience, partnership, cooperation, and companionship—these are among the aspects of being human that make life worth living, and in no way are they—nor should they be—reserved for the close-minded, the bigoted, the hyper-religious, or the heteronormative. Life is an opportunity to live together with the people important to us, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, fertility, or religion. That is what’s worth protecting—worth fighting for—and that is what the stability of our society depends upon. Of this I have never been more sure.

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Congress’ assault on knowledge

Last month, half of Congress decided that political science isn’t worth NSF funding unless it advances economic development or national security. Imagine, politicians making it more difficult to study politics. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the 72 other senators who voted for the bill seem to have forgotten that knowledge is the foundation of the economy and the root of our security. But the congressional assault on knowledge does not stop at political science. Science itself is now the target.

Under the guise of impartial austerity, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has drafted a bill—ironically named the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA)—to replace the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process with an arbitrary value-latent euphemistic circumlocution of funding criteria. Instead of peer reviewing the broader impacts and intellectual merit of scientific research to decide what projects deserve funding, Smith would rather cut the NSF budget and micromanage.

Jeffrey Mervis of Scientific Insider reports:

(FTA): “Specifically, the HQRA draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) ‘…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) … the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) …not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the ‘intellectual merit’ of a proposed research project as well as its ‘broader impacts’ on the scientific community and society.”

Regarding HQRA’s first criterion: Is there a nefarious ploy playing out within the scientific community to stagnate national health, prosperity, welfare, or security? Progress in science is a bulwark for national security, so shouldn’t we increase NSF’s budget and make funding more, rather than less, available? Innovation takes freedom. So unless Smith (et al.) can clearly identify other-regarding harm that stems from NSF research, national policymakers should not further limit, i.e. regulate, innovators freedom to innovate. If anything, HQRA would stifle innovative liberty.

To the second criterion: Not all science can or should be “groundbreaking.” Scientific advance is piecemeal. Some research is groundwork for groundbreaking discovery. Think of outwardly banal research like infrastructure: the state must invest in roads before sports cars can cruise. Roads might not be flashy, but they are necessary—and their construction is actually profound when studied in any depth. The seemingly insignificant of today is the foundation for tomorrow’s profundity.

To the third criterion: Duplication is essential to the very nature of science. “Groundbreaking” results should be duplicable. Scientific redundancy hedges against fraud. If results are neither duplicable nor duplicated, how can we tell what research is trustworthy? Precluding scientific duplication de jure strikes me as creating a quack haven. Unless HQRA sponsors intend to protect quackery, stipulating non-duplication is nonsense. More cynically, HQRA’s non-duplication clause would shrink publicly funded competition for “science” advanced by wealthy private political interest groups—re: Oreskes, Conway, & Fox’s concerns about climate change deniers and frackademia.

HQRA smacks of big government—and given its Republican sponsors, libertarian hypocrisy. Congress should not decide what science is worth doing. Natural demand generated within the scientific community should guide research priorities—the invisible hand of the scientific marketplace, in a sense. If Congress shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in business, why should it in science? Scientists, not Congress, should be the authority on what science is worth doing.

HQRA constitutes an arbitrary imposition of its sponsors’ beliefs pertaining to the value of science—the value of knowledge—in society and policymaking. If HQRA sponsors want to debate the value or proper role of science in society and policymaking, then we should explicitly talk about those values and beliefs. We should discuss the principles underlying the policy. Smith (et al.) should not pretend their motivation is financial. To frame HQRA as a fiscal issue insults public intelligence.

We’re talking about an annual NSF budget of less than 7 billion dollars, people ($6.9B appropriated in FY2013—cut down from the full $7B in FY2012). The US spends $7 billion on defense every three days. Not that defense spending isn’t money well spent, but let’s keep things in perspective when discussing national financial expenditure—and might I reiterate the importance of scientific progress to national defense. NSF’s budget is not the source of US financial woes. In fact, scientific research is among the safest of investments.

Science policy should build roads and get out of the way—unless there are obvious risks of harm related to experimentation, which by rule of the harm principle, can and should be regulated. Scientific innovators do their best work when free to experiment, free to fail without accost, and free to prune the mysteries of the mundane. Of course, freedom means funding. But we, the people, provide that funding via taxes—NSF funded scientists included. We deserve sound public investment with high rates of return. Science satisfies both.

Congress is constitutionally empowered to appropriate the national budget, but to do so on the basis of arbitrary values and beliefs disguised as objective financial necessity is morally questionable at best. Congress is not a group of generous feudal benefactors with absolute prerogative over we peasantry as it seems to have forgotten. Our representatives must be held accountable and to a higher standard of moral sense, which this recent assault on science—on knowledge—offends.

Science is iconic of American idealism: exploration, new frontiers, adventure, accomplishment, mystery, unexpected wealth, innovation, freedom and progress. Unless Congress is in the business of curtailing freedom and progress, the Coburn and Smith policies are a mistake. For all our sakes, Coburn’s anti-political science amendment should be rejected in the House and Smith’s anti-science policy should never see the congressional floor. But only time will tell. Progress in science may be a fact, but progress in ethics is often phantasmal.

jmk

Non-arbitrary v. arbitrary – axiologically speaking

I was asked for an explanation of what I mean by “arbitrary,” so I’ll make the distinction again below. I’ve also touched on this distinction in The problems of society, The roots of oppression, and Is electricity a non-arbitrary need?

Here’s another quick explanation:

When we confront and answer the normative question (what should we do?) we make a value judgment about what’s worth doing. To put it another way, we judge what end is good enough to be worth our time. Some of those judgments are arbitrary, some of them are non-arbitrary. Non-arbitrary value judgments are rooted in human ontology, which, to me, means that if the good you decide to pursue is necessary to survive or to fulfill a biological precondition, then the value of that good is non-arbitrary. An “arbitrary” value judgment, on the other hand, is made when the value of a good you decide to pursue is nonessential to survival or fulfilling biological precondition. “Arbitrary” is a sort of catch-all for values that don’t pertain to necessity — an “everything other than, until proven otherwise” set. For example, the judgment that decorating is good and the subsequent decision to decorate in a particular way are arbitrary. You would be perfectly fine if you did otherwise, so decorating is arbitrarily valuable. If you could prove that decorating in a particular way is ontologically necessary, then perhaps it could be considered non-arbitrary, but I think decorating is a good example because it’s so heavily based on personal preference. On the other hand, the judgment that eating is good and the subsequent decision to eat are non-arbitrary. Eventually you’ll die if you decide otherwise, so eating is non-arbitrarily valuable. I would also argue that the life-enabling environmental conditions of the Earth are non-arbitrarily valuable.

JMK

When ideals lead to no deals

In a sentence, when US policy actors frame environmental debates in terms of ideology, empirical questions with serious implications for society and nature become intractable. The political stagnancy that has resulted from dogmatic, uncompromising ideology harms everyone in the long run, even those who temporarily benefit from a de facto preservation of the status quo. Arguments about climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and sea level rise, when made in ideological terms, often become irresolvable due to the incompatibilities of competing value systems, ethics, and teleologies, and thus we have so far failed to substantively address the non-arbitrary environmental problems that we face today. We become so entrenched in promoting our visions of what should be that we lose sight of what is.

I am not exempt from this critique. I have my own habit of expressing myself pontifically about the problems of American anthropocentricism, materialism, and neoliberalism, and how the existential and normative questions these value systems attempt to address would be better satiated through ecocentricism, minimalism, and existential contentment of a Taoist sort. But I recognize that these are merely my value judgments, not shared by all or even many, and so I strive to distance myself from ideological dogmatism, particularly from any shade of “ecofascism,” by humbly, yet confidently, grounding my positions in the empirical and in logic, cognizant primarily of the non-arbitrary biological preconditions necessary for life as we know it, while being especially cautious to avoid verging on the realm of arbitrary value judgments, for current norms about such arbitrary values demand (perhaps paradoxically so) strict pluralistic relativism.

But I resist the idea that politically prioritizing the ecosphere is categorically ideological, for where ideology can be irreconcilably divisive, the ecosphere fundamentally unifies human interests through our inherent organismic connectivity. To what extent this principle can or should be applied in terms of political priorities, however, is not a simple question, and when taken beyond protecting basic biological necessities, it becomes an ideological one. Such is the value latent project taken on by progressives, human rights activists, neoliberals, deep ecologists, radical environmentalists, industrialists, and the rest; each group relies on its own peculiar value hierarchy to arrive at a sense of purpose, of meaning, of belonging, and of proper social order, and it is precisely the propensity of these values to become irreconcilable that tempers my desire to join the ideological debate or pick a side.

Ideology is a strange thing – while the myriad of beliefs and value systems often give rise to conflict, it remains that humans have the common tendency to be ideological in the first place; we are the kinds of creatures that create ideologies to begin with. To which ideology one ascribes is ultimately a mere variable, for in the end we are unified by the very practice of ascription. The problem with ideology arises when we forget our underlying unification in being ideological beings. US policy actors must move beyond ideology in the environmental public sphere and attend to the empirical and the non-arbitrary, or at least embrace ideological coexistence rather than continuing to talk past each other’s value assumptions in pursuit of being exclusively “right,” for meanwhile, amidst our arguing, the oceans continue to acidify, climate continues to change, forests and biodiversity continue to disappear, and the capacity of the US government to mitigate these problems become progressively less suited for the task.

However, we should not be totally stricken with despair or frustration. The Rio+20 international commitments to sustainable energy are heartening, for at the core of our non-arbitrary environmental problems rests the human demand for energy, and so hope springs eternal. What remains to be seen is the transition from commitment to accomplishment, a process that always proves to be, at the very least, interesting. I am confident, because circumstances demand their own morality, that as ecological crises become more apparent, our value systems will naturally evolve to accommodate them. But I’m concerned that positive feedback cycles in the Earth systems will outpace our ideological reformation, and that, simply put, things will get worse before they get better. That, perhaps more than anything, is the problem with ideology.

JM Kincaid

The problems of society – Part two: The paradox of progress

The problem cluster of interest to me is environmental degradation. The problematic behavior causing environmental degradation is the repeated prioritization of progress and material improvement over environmental prudence. This behavior is prevalent in the West (Europe, Russia, the United States and Canada) much of Asia (China, Japan, India, and South Korea), Central America, and the global South. The arbitrary value judgment underlying this environmentally destructive behavior is that “progress” is good; particularly, progress defined as advances in science, technology, and social organization intended toward overcoming the limits of the human condition and improving material luxury. The pervasiveness of this paradigm is made most obvious by our dichotomizing the world in terms of developed and developing nations. The global norm seems to be to believe that the purpose of human life is to rapaciously improve our material luxury, even well beyond our biological necessities. With a continually increasing population and an unparalleled prioritization of progress and industrialization, it’s easy to see why this value judgment has yielded a litany of environmental problems. But progress, generally speaking, is not a new value. So to understand it contextually, we must trace the idea through the history of philosophy.

The modern idea of progress goes back to European Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and so on. The influences of these philosophers’ ideas are seen in the foundations of many modern societies and institutions: Locke and Smith in the US, Kant in Germany and the UN, Marx in Russia and China, etc.

But from where did these Enlightenment thinkers inherit their value judgment? For they were not philosophizing in the state of nature. The utopian character of many Enlightenment political philosophies is a secularization of Christian millenarianism.  The Enlightenment project was one aimed at creating heaven on Earth through progressive improvements in science, technology, and social organization.

Yet again, Christian millenarian philosophers were not original in their thinking either. Indeed, Albert Camus, with his 1936 thesis Neo-platonism and Christian Thought, illustrates the common thread that runs from ancient Greek philosophy to medieval and early modern Christianity. The Enlightenment, consistent largely of philosophers educated in dogmatically Christian states, inherited their style of reasoning from Aquinas, Augustine, Plotinus and other Neo-Platonists, who, as Camus shows us and the name implies, were inspired by Plato. Particularly, Plato’s distinctions between the world, the realm of the forms, and the form of the Good. The value of life, the truth of it all, for Plato, is not here in the world, but in the heavenly forms and the form of the Good.

So now it is important to contextualize Plato’s thinking. Plato lived in Homeric Greece where, traditionally, human life was seen to be governed by chance, luck and fate, personified by the many gods. The journey of living was, like other animals, just to make the best of one’s circumstances until death. But Plato rejected this as the human condition. He thrashed against the idea of our cosmic insignificance, pining for humans to be special. So he came up with an idea that elevated our status from that of other animals: Rationality connects human consciousness to the transcendental realm of the forms and the form of the Good. By knowing the form of the Good we can take command of and improve our condition to escape the struggles of Homeric fatalism. Thus the foundation of the modern faith in progress was laid.

Plato’s famous tripartite distinction between the empirical world, the realm of the forms, and the form of the Good was easily adapted to Christian thinking. Augustine, in particular, saw Plato as describing the Earthly realm, Heaven and God, further even unto the Holy Trinity. Then, through the utopian rationalism of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment these philosophical constructions were secularized by new thinkers, whose ideas were then looked to for the political foundations of much of the modern world.

Since Plato, the idea that there is some ultimate good has been steadfast. What form in particular the form of the Good takes, however, has changed. It has been reinterpreted and recast by countless scholars and social leaders. In any case, the particular form of the form of the Good is an arbitrary value judgment. It is the seed of society. Today, we judge scientific, technological, and governmental progress to be good. We believe that the resulting materially luxurious lifestyle is synonymous with human well-being. It is from this root valuation that our behavior and thus our problems emerge.

Therefore we must question the goodness of progress. Given the extent of environmental damage the world over and the fact that other problems like social equity, economic disproportionalities, and political stagnation and insolvency are so grave, it should be clear that progress as our root value is problematic. In many cases, our progress has actually exacerbated the problems it aimed to solve. As if in a disturbing screenplay, we see that consequences are looming. Yet we value progress so much that we are unable to deprioritize it. Even at the risk of rendering the Earth uninhabitable.

So progress as our root value has its issues. But we don’t want to cut down the whole tree because revolutions are messy. Besides, there’s nothing inherently wrong with people trying to improve the human condition. This pursuit is a natural human desire served historically by western monotheistic fundamentalism and currently by secular liberal humanism. The drive for progress is going nowhere. So it’s just what we think constitutes progress and the extent to which we prioritize that pursuit over other values that is problematic. It is paradoxical to prioritize progress so much so that it undermines the resources that enable our progress to begin with. Not to mention the inherent irrationality of the idea that we can achieve infinite improvements in material wealth from a finite set of resources.

So, what can be done? How can we fix the tree without completely uprooting it? My suggestion is by no means to do away with progress as a value altogether. That would be unrealistic and undesirable by any account. A return to primitive living would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to sell. And I am a beneficiary of the progress of the anteriority like any other and thus cannot wholeheartedly complain. But if the industrial pursuit of material luxury leads to extensive environmental degradation, and environmental degradation undermines progress’ enabling resources, then we must, if we want to keep progressing, either moderate our rapaciousness or make our consumption environmentally sustainable. Yet our relentless dedication to progress and industrialization, not to mention the heavy entrenchment of the fossil fuels industry in the American political system, prevents either from happening. Progress is so high a priority that it will eventually prevent us from progressing. Hence, the paradox of progress. But the effects of the paradox are not yet at their climax. There is still time to mitigate the damage that has been done and prevent further exacerbation. So, to enable our deprioritization of progress and material improvement when necessary, say, when its pursuit begins interfering with our biological, non-arbitrary needs, then our idea of what constitutes progress must be tweaked. This subtle change is as simple as remembering that human well-being is not necessarily synonymous with constant improvements in material luxury. We must learn to be content. If we cannot, then the paradox of progress will overwhelm our societies.

At its core, this redefinition of progress is a Taoist project. The virtue of contentment as acclaimed by Taoist philosophy, is antithetical to the insatiable pursuit of material improvement. Contentment cannot be attained through the pursuit and fulfillment of desire, but through relinquishing desire itself. For desire and discontent are a funny thing when they work together. They feed into one another. One desires because she or he is discontent, and is discontent because he or she so desires. But utter control of one’s circumstances cannot be seized. Discontentment cannot be quelled in this manner. It can only be overcome by tempering desire itself. Such was Plato’s struggle.

Through Socrates, Plato argues that the soul is just when desire is ruled by rationality. But if he had truly held himself to this standard, then his Republic would have considered the origin of a city, rather than the origin of a luxurious city. Plato’s rationality, and thus the justness of the Kallipolis, fundamentally gives way to the appetitive desire for material improvement when Socrates concedes to Glaucon that the city will not be the “true” and “healthy” city, as described from 372a – d, but one “with a fever.” This concession literally constitutes the historical textual embodiment of the philosophic foundation of the value judgment prioritizing progress over environmental prudence.

However, the Republic may be a sort of proof by contradiction – a sneaky critique of luxurious society. That the luxurious city becomes one of pragmatically impossible social organization may be Plato’s way of subtly suggesting that the true utopia is actually the healthy city. If this is not the case that the Republic is a proof by contradiction, then the contentment argument certainly applies. But if it is the case, then Plato’s true utopia, the healthy city, is consistent with the virtue of contentment. To diminish desire itself is the way to contentment. If one is content with existence, then the answer to the normative question, the appropriate action, is to not act. If we temper our desire for material luxury, we can reduce our environmentally degrading behavior at its source. This is my vision for applying the virtue of contentment to the modern conception of progress. Though this tweak to the idea of progress should not be taken to the Taoist extreme. To argue against action of any kind beyond the fulfillment of non-arbitrary purpose is just silly. A compromise – a middle way – between the two virtues is preferable.

Thus, the overarching question, to which the entirety of this thought process is ultimately devoted is, can the environmental effects of the paradox of progress be mitigated by reconciling the virtue of progress with the virtue of contentment?

JM Kincaid

The problems of society – Part one: The normative question

The state of nature, for lack of historical evidence, is really just a thought experiment. But it’s still useful. I’m thinking about the period of human existence before any complicated society had come about. There must have been a time when the human way of life was still similar to our primate next of kin, at least for a little while; something along the lines of Rousseau’s natural man.

Suppose, for the sake of metaphor, that the state of nature is a simple hill.

As the human brain, and in turn, consciousness, memory, and symbolic communication, developed over the course of evolution, human beings must have, at some point, begun to ask the fundamental normative question that emerges with complex self-awareness. I imagine the first human ancestors to stumble upon the normative question experienced something like this: I realize now that I am conscious, and I have the sense that I can choose to act. So…what should I do?

Generally speaking, asking what should be done amounts to asking what is worth doing. The normative question projects the expectation that there exists a purpose with some intrinsic or consequential value that makes it worth taking on. Positing should therefore presupposes value, for it’s only by the presupposition of worth that normativity is possible. The question doesn’t assume a particular value, however. It can only assume that value, as an abstract possibility, exists. If the normative question were to assume a particular value, then that would mean that a judgment has already been made, as particular value is inherently a question of judgment. But the normative question is supposed to be prejudgment. So the question can only assume that value judgment itself is possible. It puts an “insert value judgment here” into the normative equation.

The mind can answer the normative question in two ways. It can conclude that there is no purpose worth its effort, and no action would occur. Or it can be motivated to act by the particular value of some purpose, and action ensues. What purpose in particular someone decides is worth pursuing is really just a variable. It is a subjective, arbitrary value judgment. So it could be anything. What’s important is that conscious action, when it occurs, is motivated by some purpose, the end of which has some perceived intrinsic or consequential value.

But this is only an account of conscious acts. A conscious act is an action consciously motivated by a subjective value judgment. Some things, of course, we just do with no real conscious involvement. These actions are unconsciously driven. An unconscious act is an action motivated by the value of fulfilling an objective condition. They are acts including foraging for food and drink, searching for mates, and sleeping. Like conscious acts, these also fulfill certain purposes and carry normative force. But these purposes are not based on arbitrary value judgments. They are based on non-arbitrary value, as they address our objective biological necessities. Unconscious acts are motivated by non-arbitrary purpose with non-arbitrary value. This non-arbitrariness is why it is so shocking when people make it their objective to not fulfill these purposes, like hunger strikes, vows of celibacy, or staying awake indefinitely.

Engaging with non-arbitrary purpose accounts for much of the human experience. Like any other animal, biological necessities are the main motivation for behavior and constitute the majority of our daily cycle. But in between birth, foraging for nourishment, searching for mates, sleeping and death, there are pockets of time that we restlessly seek to fill with purposive, and thus meaningful, activity. This restlessness stems from the nagging existential nature of the normative question; we long for meaning and significance. It is in these pockets of time that we create purposes for ourselves based on subjective, arbitrary value judgments that make our lives feel meaningful.

So, let’s return in our minds to the image of the simple hill. Prehistoric human social life likely originated around the collective fulfillment of non-arbitrary purposes, and in the process of securing those objective biological needs, they developed common arbitrary values and behavior. There is no way to really determine how that process played out, but the end result is that people live in proximity to one another, have common arbitrary values and exhibit similar behavior based on collective social norms.

These common arbitrary values are like philosophical seeds planted in the simple hill. Eventually, the seeds sprout roots and, through the proximate habitation of people and the collective evolution of arbitrary values, become established social norms. These constructions then grow into a complex trees, which branches off into different aspects of society that we call social, political, and economic life. However, because humans aren’t perfect, the various trees and branches will have their imperfections. These imperfections are the problems of society. They are problems like social inequality, political insolvency, vast wealth gaps, violent conflict, and ecological destruction. Such ecological destruction includes but is not limited to diminished biodiversity, global climate change, habitat destruction, extensive air and water pollution, deforestation, and the anthropogenic overwhelming of several of the Earth’s elemental cycles (Carbon, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, etc). Because environmental quality is intimately linked to the fulfillment of objective biological necessities, ecological degradation, in particular, is a problem of the highest fundamental importance and priority. To not prioritize overcoming the ecologically destructive trends of human society is a case where the pursuit of an arbitrary purpose and value obstructs the fulfillment of non-arbitrary purpose and value.

Most often, people try to solve the problems of society by tending to the branches themselves, pruning the immediate problems that are plainly in view. This is a worthwhile strategy. But, frequently we reveal that the policy solution to one problem has ripple effects that cause other problems which must then be addressed with polices that themselves have ripple effects that cause problems, and this continues indefinitely. This Sisyphean phenomenon is not necessarily a fault, it’s just one of the conditions we have to think about. Our lives are just too short for the extent to which we can manipulate our environment. We don’t live long enough to see the ripples of our actions touch the shore, so often we act with a false sense of impunity. The long-term effects of a generation’s decisions aren’t felt until latter generations, after all. The pruning method, however, is not the only option.

There are two routes that can be taken toward solving the problems of society, and they should both be used. It’s just difficult for one person to do everything at once, so one chooses. We can prune the problematic branches we can see, or, trace the problems of interest to their common, less visible root value. In the latter option, the strategy is to apply a subtle change to the root and use the ripple effects to help ameliorate a cluster of problems at once. I am partial to this strategy, in particular, to solve the cluster of problems referred to collectively as environmental degradation.

We cannot forget that the real commonality between all of these environmental problems is human activity. But we can’t help being human. Certainly none of us asked to exist. It just happened. We can’t change what we are, or that we feel internally compelled to behave in some way. So the environmental problems that arise from our behavior must be addressed through paradigm and behavioral shift. A reversion to primitive living or asceticism are not a realistic solutions. A less radical change is the appropriate response.

Problematic conscious actions are motivated by some conception of purpose with an underlying arbitrary value, so if changing paradigm and behavior is the solution, the solution can be attained by changing the motivating root value. But the root is below the surface. It hides as an unconscious assumption beneath a vast majority of our conscious actions, making it difficult to identify, much less change. With time and attention, however, one notices common threads and can identify the root value of the problem cluster of interest. The method is as such: first, identify the target problem cluster. Next, find the common paradigmatic and behavioral link between the various problems. Then, identify the common value motivating the problematic activity. Once the common value is known, the question becomes how we should tweak it to improve the problem cluster. This requires understanding the value in the context of its evolution. Given the proper context,  the appropriate tweak reveals itself.

Continue to Part two: The paradox of progress…