Tag Archives | Ethics

Dialectical Utopianism: Who Said This?

There is no such thing as a pocket utopia.

Consider the French aristocracy before the revolution – well fed, well clothed, well housed, well educated – brilliant lives. One could say they lived in a little utopia of their own. But we don’t say that, because we know their lives rested on a base of human misery, peasants toiling in ignorance and suffering. And we think of the French aristocracy as parasites, brutal, stupid, tyrannical.

But now the world is a single economy. Global village, made in Thailand! And we stand on little islands of luxury, while the rest – great oceans of abject misery, bitter war, endless hunger. We say, But they are none of our affair! We have our island. …

What a cheat utopias are, no wonder people hate them. Engineer some fresh start, an island, a new continent, dispossess them, give them a new planet sure! So they don’t have to deal with our history. Ever since More they’ve been doing it: rupture, clean cut, fresh start.

So the utopias in books are pocket utopias too. Ahistorical, static, why should we read them? They don’t speak to us trapped in this world as we are, we look at them in the same way we look at the pretty inside of a paperweight, snow drifting down, so what? It may be nice but we’re stuck here and no one’s going to give us a fresh start, we have to deal with history as it stands, no freer than a wedge in a crack. …

Must redefine utopia. It isn’t the perfect end-product of our wishes, define it so and it deserves the scorn of those who sneer when they hear the word. No. Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever. … Utopia is when our lives matter. …

I grew up in utopia, I did. California when I was a child was a child’s paradise, I was healthy, well fed, well clothed, well housed, I went to school and there were libraries with all the world in them and after school I played in orange groves and in Little League and in the band and down at the beach and every day was an adventure, and when I came home my mother and father created a home as solid as rock, the world seemed solid! And it comes to this, do you understand me – I grew up in utopia.

But I didn’t. Not really. Because while I was growing up in my sunny seaside home much of the world was in misery, hungry, sick, living in cardboard shacks, killed by soldiers or their own police. I had been on an island. In a pocket utopia. It was the childhood of someone born into the aristocracy, and understanding that I understood the memory of my childhood differently; but still I know what it was like, I lived it and I know! And everyone should get to know that, not in the particulars, of course, but in the general outline, in the blessing of a happy childhood, in the lifelong sense of security and health.

So I am going to work for that. And if – if! if someday the whole world reaches utopia, then that dream California will become a precursor, a sign of things to come, and my childhood is redeemed. I may never know which it will be, it might not be clear until after we’re dead, but the future will judge us! They will look back and judge us, as aristocrats’ refuge or emerging utopia, and I want utopia, I want that redemption and so I’m going to stay here and fight for it, because I was there and I lived it and I know.

Guess the author.

Randians vs. Stoics

[cross-posted at POT and BHL]

Stoicism, particularly in its ethical and political aspects (a defense of individual self-mastery on the one hand and commercial society on the other – for the latter, see, e.g., Cicero’s De Officiis), has been enormously influential throughout western history. During the Roman period it took on something like the character of a mass religious movement; Stoics were also statistically overrepresented among assassins or attempted assassins of Roman emperors. (One third of all Roman emperors died by assassination, so that’s not an insignificant number.) Later on, philosophical thinkers as diverse as Augustine, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Adam Smith, and Kant would draw on Stoic ideas (though always selectively) in crafting their own ethical and political views.

Cato regrets that he will not be at home to entertain Julius Caesar.

It was also common for anti-imperialist, anti-monarchical writers in the 18th century, including many of the American founders (such as New York governor, Anti-federalist campaigner, and later u.s. vice-president George Clinton – not the musician, alas), as well as British radical republicans like Trenchard and Gordon (authors of Cato’s Letters), to sign their anonymous pamphlets with the name of Cato (the Younger), the Stoic who resisted Julius Caesar’s rise to power. George Washington had Joseph Addison’s play about Cato performed at Valley Forge to inspire the troops. (The Cato Institute also takes its name from this tradition.)

Stoicism is undergoing a bit of a renaissance today, both in academic philosophy (partly because it’s seen as a way of mediating between the eudaimonistic, virtue-ethical Aristotelean approach and the deontological Kantian approach; partly because of Foucault’s role, in his later works, of reviving the “care of the self” tradition in ethics) and in works of popular psychology. (There’s also a striking similarity between the Stoic theory of the emotions and that of Sartre, though I’m not aware that anyone besides myself has commented on this.)

The Stoa today, perhaps after a Randian bombing campaign.

Primarily in response to the popular-psychology use of Stoicism, Randian scholar Aaron Smith has an article up today warning against the perilous influence of the Stoa and urging the preferability of the Randian alternative. (CHT Sheldon Richman.)

I find Smith’s piece a bit frustrating. I mean, I’m broadly sympathetic with his criticisms of Stoicism, but Smith makes it sound, e.g., as though the Stoics had nothing to say about how to reconcile free will with determinism, whereas they had a fairly well-worked out and sophisticated theory.

Identifying the details of the theory is admittedly a bit tricky, as there’s no one canonical Stoic text or even author. The problem is that the theoretical foundations of Stoicism were in Greek manuscripts – by e.g. Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes, Poseidonius, Panætius, etc., and above all by the brilliant and prolific Chrysippus (who to all evidence appears to have been a mind in the same league as Plato and Aristotle) – that are mostly lost. We have to reconstruct their views from quotations, reports, etc. in other authors. (Some famous classical scholar – I forget who – once said he would rather recover a single lost page of Heracleitus than all of the purported 700 or so lost works of Chrysippus. For my part, I confess I would rather recover a single page of Chrysippus than all of Heracleitus.) The Stoic texts that survive intact are not foundational texts; they’re popularising works (mostly, though not exclusively, Roman) that focus more on self-help than on philosophical foundations; of this nature (a bit like the pop-psychology Stoicism books today, actually, though rather better written) are the works of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, etc. (and Cicero, when he has his Stoic hat on), though they do occasionally refer helpfully if not extensively to some of the background theoretical material. So reconstructing Stoic doctrine is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle task. Happily, we have a lot of pieces so the task is not intractable.

Chrysippus, on being told that all 700 of his works have gone missing.

In any case, the basic idea is that something is up to you if it can be caused by your act of rational judgment, without any further causal factors needed once your act of rational judgment occurs. The fact that your act of rational judgment itself has deterministic causal antecedents is irrelevant, on their view. For something to be up to you is for its happening or not happening to depend on what rational judgment you form. (In other words, a) the causal chain has to go through your act of rational judgment rather than bypassing it [that’s a standard compatibilist or soft determinist move], and b) [and here comes the distinctive interiorising Stoic move that most compatibilists would not sign on to] the causal chain has to go solely through that act of rational judgment, rather than the outcome’s depending on interaction between internal and external causal chains.)

I don’t think this view (either the (a) part or the (b) part) ultimately works (for some of my problems with views like (a), see this paper), but it’s not something that can be refuted simply by pointing to a few Stoic quotations and saying “look! they say they believe in free will, but they also say they believe in determinism! Contradiction! Guilty!”

It would also have been interesting for Smith to have explored the similarities (sometimes quite strong) and differences (also strong, of course) between Stoic and Randian views about the emotions, the relation between ethics and human nature, etc.

Howard Roark, contemplating what he cannot control.

For example, when Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, says:

“I’m not capable of suffering completely. I never have. It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it’s not really pain.”

– he sounds pretty damn Stoic. (Though so does Dominique, whose quest is nevertheless for an invulnerability subtly but crucially unlike Roark’s, in ways that would be worth teasing out in this context.)

Likewise, when the Roman Stoic Seneca says:

“A living being has an attachment to itself, for there must be a standard by which all other things are judged. … Since I treat my own welfare as the standard for all my actions, I am concerned for myself above everything else. … Every living thing has an initial attachment to its own constitution; but a human being’s constitution is a rational one, and so a human being’s attachment is to himself not qua living being but qua rational being. For he is dear to himself in respect of what makes him human.”

– he sounds pretty damn Randian. Though again there are important differences too.

Make philosophy, not war: A mosaic of Plato’s Academy, from Pompeii.

Really the article exemplifies a recurring problem with Rand’s own approach to philosophy, which too many of her followers have likewise embraced: an emphasis first and foremost on philosophy as war, as a matter of crushing the wrong views, which tends to lead, if not exactly to a “shoot first and ask questions later” approach, then at least an approach of “ask a few questions, and if the answers don’t sound quite right, start shooting without investigating too closely, trying to sort friend from foe, or trying to convert foe to friend.” Philosophy as a battleground, not as a field of potentially fruitful exchange. Thus it’s not philosophia, love of wisdom, so much as philonikia, love of victory. And so this piece passes up any opportunity of the form “let’s try to use Stoic ideas as useful occasions to think and learn about these issues” in favour of jealously guarding the faithful against lapses into heresy. (Of course the same criticisms apply to mainstream academic philosophers’ engagement with Rand.)

In philosophy I generally find a military or policing approach less valuable than a catallactic approach, in Hayek’s sense of the word:

“These terms [e.g., catallactics, catallaxy] are particularly attractive because the classical Greek word from which they stem, katalattein or katalassein, meant not only ‘to exchange’ but also ‘to receive into the community’ and ‘to turn from enemy into friend’, further evidence of the profound insight of the ancient Greeks in such matters ….”

Admittedly, this is an insight that the ancient Greek philosophical schools often lost sight of when they were engaging with one another. But we should strive to imitate their best moments, not their worst ones.

Smashing Fences and Fascists

[cross-posted at BHL and POT]

I’m excited to announce the publication of two new anthologies from C4SS (the Center for a Stateless Society): The Anatomy of Escape: A Defense of the Commons (357 pp.; buy at C4SS [$12 plus shipping] or buy at Amazon) and Fighting Fascism: Anti-fascism, Free Speech and Political Violence (479 pp.; buy at C4SS [$14 plus shipping] or buy at Amazon).

The Anatomy of Escape explores the role of common property in a market anarchist system, while Fighting Fascism features debates over the ethical, political, and strategic/tactical considerations that should inform resistance to fascist movements. (Both books include contributions by me – although my piece in the fascism volume is a bit of an outlier, as it concerns fascism in a somewhat different sense of the term from the one addressed in most of the other pieces.)

From the introduction to The Anatomy of Escape: A Defense of the Commons:

Many market anarchists – especially, though not exclusively, those associated with market anarchism’s “right” wing – tend to envision a fully free market as one in which all resources are privately owned. The essays in this book offer a different perspective: that a stateless free-market society can and should include, alongside private property, a robust role for public property – not, of course, in the sense of governmental property, but rather in the sense of property that is owned by the general community rather than by specific individuals or formally organized groups.

From the introduction to Fighting Fascism: Anti-fascism, Free Speech and Political Violence:

Anarchists are, by definition, anti-fascist. They oppose all forms of fascism just as they oppose all forms of statism, domination, and oppression. What’s left to be settled, however, is what our anti-fascist commitment entails in practice. What should our theoretical debates surrounding the nature and danger of fascist ideas imply for our practical strategies for creating the new, anti-fascist world in the shell of the old, fascist one?

More specifically, we need to understand just what fascism is and how it spreads. We need to know why fascism has any appeal at all and how to stem that appeal. We need to see how concepts like freedom of speech figure into anarchist praxis. We need to discuss what free speech is. We need to explore what constitutes mere speech and assembly and what constitutes intentionality and violence. We need to differentiate between self-defense and aggression. We need to seriously interrogate the morality and efficacy of different kinds of political violence. Most importantly, we need internally consistent ethical and strategic insights into replacing fascist ideas with anarchist ones. Failing to clarify these issues could cost us, not only our souls, but any fighting chance for anarchy left in this fragile world.

You can view the tables of contents at the links above.

And for more LWMA (left-wing market anarchist) books and other swag, check out the C4SS Store.

CFP: Alabama Philosophical Society 2019

This year’s Alabama Philosophical Society meeting will be September 27-28 in Pensacola; submission deadline is August 1st. Note also the undergrad essay contest (Alabama students only), which pays $100 plus one night’s stay at the conference hotel.

More info here.

Vernal Venturings

Two weeks ago I was in New Orleans for the PPE conference. I gave a talk at a panel on self-ownership, and moderated two panels I’d organised, one on anarchist legal theory (with [a subset of] the Molinari/C4SS gang), and one on race and social construction. We discovered a great 24-hour Middle Eastern restaurant, Cleo’s (the new one on Decatur, not the old one-inside-a-grocery on Canal).

Last week, back in Auburn, I attended our department’s 11th annual philosophy conference, this one on explanation and idealisation in science. During Q&A I rode my precisive/non-precisive hobbyhorse as usual.

Right now I’m in San Diego for the WPSA, where I’ll be presenting my Shakespeare/Godwin/Kafka talk. Yesterday I stopped by the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore and bought volumes 6 and 7 in the Expanse series (which I’ll be blogging about in due course; just for now I’ll say: it’s good, read it). Had a delicious farfalle al salmone last night at a sidewalk table at Buon Appetito in Little Italy, and enjoyed an omelette-and-bagel breakfast this morning at Harbor Breakfast to the sound of great jazz songs old and new. (I’ve also been violating the laws of physics, because why not?)

(The day before catching my plane from Atlanta to San Diego, I’d planned to drive up early, go to a bookstore in Atlanta, have a leisurely dinner, and then spend the night at a hotel. But the threat of tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, and two-inch hailstones kept me in Auburn until the evening when the forecast expired, so by the time I got to Atlanta there was time only for a quick bite at the 24-hour Waffle House across from the hotel.)

Next week I’m off to Prague, where I’ll be giving a workshop on praxeology at the CEVRO Institute, and then presenting a slightly revised version of my Čapek/Kafka/Hašek talk (yes, more Kafka!) at the PCPE. (The revision is a very slightly fuller discussion of my suggestion that Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares are intended to be read at two levels – a political level, where they’re condemned, and a theological level, where they’re not. There’ll be a print version eventually, inshallah.)

Free Comic Book Website Day

Heads up: on March 30th, DC Universe, the DC Comics* streaming service, will be free for one day. It features newer DC shows like Titans, Doom Patrol, and the new season of Young Justice, plus a bunch of older movies and tv shows, both live-action and animated, including favourites like Batman: The Animated Series and not-so-favourites like the 1970s Shazam! live-action tv show. There are lots of popular DC offerings it doesn’t have (yet), but if you like comic-book shows at all, you’ll find something to binge on (and March 30th is, happily, on a weekend).

I won’t be bingeing DC on March 30th, because I’ll be hanging out in one of my favourite cities with some of my favourite people. But if you’re not equivalently fortunate, catching up on some DC shows might be an acceptable alternative.




* “DC Comics” stands for “Detective Comics Comics.” Or possibly for rhis rhis koilē.

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