After Virtue

We are in a moral crisis. The unending arguments over abortion, health care, and gun control are symptoms of the flaws of modernity according to the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre. Modernity is a fragmented version of Aristotelian ethics; it demands an individualist worldview, despite the fact that our culture and vocabulary reflect a communitarian heritage. What this means is that our endless arguments stem from the fact that we lack a shared conception of the good; in other words, our moral systems are incommensurable. For instance, the central conflict between Kantianism and Utilitarianism is not that either is logically inconsistent; rather, it stems from the fact that each theory has a different conception of the good.

Both theories, in their best versions, follow logically from their stated premises; the problem is that these premises are merely stated. After realizing the heterogeneity of pleasures, the great utilitarian Henry Sidgwick concluded that moral beliefs couldn’t be argued and must be merely accepted —just trust your intuitions! Immanuel Kant argued that a rational agent is logically committed to the rules of morality in virtue of their rationality; in order to practice reason, one must possess the freedom and well being necessary for rational agency. This led Kant to the conclusion that one is entitled to such freedom and well being. Although it is logically necessary to possess such freedom and well being to practice reason, it does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that one is entitled to them. This is merely asserted by Kant. According to MacIntyre, Utilitarianism and Kantianism’s fundamental premises are merely stated in this way. This is why the arguments between the two are endless: they are fundamentally incommensurable.

After Virtue is primarily a diagnosis of this moral crisis. It analyzes various aspects of our culture, language, and society to demonstrate that modernity is indeed a fragmented version of Aristotelian ethics; furthermore, it argues that the inventions of modernity such as emotivism and individualism are the root causes of our moral predicament. One of the most striking features of the book is its analysis of modern social roles. The defining character of modernity is that of a bureaucratic manager. A manager pretends to be effective and morally neutral; a manager adjusts the means to ends in the most economically efficient manner. Plus, managerial expertise requires a set of law-like generalizations to justify the manager. Unsurprisingly, one can easily spot the manager: Liberalism pretends to be effective and morally neutral, Liberalism privileges economic methodologies and conceptions, and the Enlightenment fetishizes law-like generalizations. The most interesting aspect of the manager, in my opinion, is McIntyre’s discussion on the fetishization of law-like generalizations.

This fetish is particularly apparent in the social sciences; they present themselves as providing law-like generalizations, despite the lack of evidence and predictability that is characteristic of those fields. Unlike most scientists who follow the Enlightenment, McIntyre contends that the worth of a scientific discipline is not determined by its predictive power. He believes that this is the wrong criterion by which to judge the success of the social sciences, because their subject is vastly more complicated and unpredictable: language, groups of persons, entire nations, and the global market. They cannot make predictions and generalizations that are nearly as strong as those made by Physics or Biology; even the strongest arguments have counter-examples.

For example, two of the most famous studies in sociology do not follow the Popperian model of falsification. First, James C. Davies’s famous thesis in 1962 generalizes Tocqueville’s observation that the French Revolution occurred when a period of rising and, to some degree, gratified expectations was followed by a period of set-back when expectations continued to rise and were sharply disappointed.  Second, Rosalind and Ivo Feierabend (1966) generalized that the most and least modernized societies are the most stable and least violent, whereas those at midpoint in the approach to modernity are most liable to instability and political violence. There exist many counter-examples to both: Russian and Chinese Revolutions to Davies, and Political Violence in Latin America to Feierabend’s. Nonetheless, such counter-examples do not refute their status as salient generalizations in Sociology. There exist no counter-factuals that ultimately refute a generalization.

This is not a fact that cheapens these disciplines. It merely reflects just how complicated human beings are. We are intentional beings that can choose one act over another. Choice creates unpredictability. All of this is then further complicated by the fact that we are social and linguistic beings. We have to figure out how complex beings interact with each other unpredictably in complex structures like the market, the state, and language. It would be impudent of Social Scientists to expect the law-like generalizations one encounters in Science. This is why McIntyre argues that it is wrong to expect law-like generalizations regarding sociology, politics, and so on.

Why is it then that we fetishize such law-like generalizations? As I briefly mentioned above, it is tied to the philosophical framework assumed by modernity; that is, modernity’s attachment to the ideal of the bureaucratic manager. Under the bureaucracy of modernity, moral beliefs are treated as inconvenient features of persons that function far better when they are managed by an “efficient” and “economically practical” bureaucracy. The manager justifies their position by insisting that they have law-like generalizations regarding human nature and social institutions; furthermore, they boast that they can provide an efficient governing of a pluralist society without privileging one good over another. However, modernity does, in fact, assume a set of goods that are disguised as morally neutral; the philosopher Michael Sandel lays out a number of such goods in his great book, What Money Can’t Buy.

Modernity cannot make law-like generalizations, yet we obey its tenets without much argument; we argue within the confines of modernity that were designed to be endless. McIntyre suggests that we look to the past for answers to our problems. Across several chapters, McIntyre sketches the moral framework of past societies ranging from the Greeks to Medieval Christians. What they all had in common was a shared conception of the good. Such goods like prudence, justice, and courage were achieved through the virtues that are human qualities acquired through practice. Furthermore, they recognized that a person is embedded in a social context: I am a son, a citizen, and a musician. Personal identity is a narrative that unifies one’s life from past to present, and my narrative is embedded in other narrative such as family, school, and friendship.

The problem of modernity is not only that it brings about endless arguments, but also that it is incompatible with our ordinary intuitions. We come from a past, in which our obligations and personal identity are constituted by the social context to which we belong. My community consumes most of my actions and thoughts; I act and think as a student and a family member, rather than a rational agent with his or her individual interests. When we judge a person’s character, we judge them by, more or less, a table of virtues, rather than whether they follow the categorical imperative or whether they pass the utilitarian calculus. The project of modernity is doomed to fail, because it cannot dissipate our communitarian past with its endless arguments and managerial fetish.

After Virtue turned out to be far more damning in its criticism than I anticipated. For the numerous Kantians and Utilitarians out there, this will be a group of pointed criticisms; one will not only find attacks on Kant and Sidgwick, but also criticisms of Rawls and Nozick. Indeed, this book is highly political; it analyzes Marx and Weber within the framework of the book’s communitarian argument. For my Marxist friends, this is not an easy read. Despite McIntyre’s admiration of Marx, he believes that Marx and his followers ultimately fall under the same moral framework that he takes down in this book. This is very much true in my own experience. Marxists have great criticisms of the managerial and bureaucratic aspects of Capitalism and Liberalism; yet, their solutions to Capitalism always end up Kantian or Utilitarian. It is either to follow an abstract principle of universality, or “to achieve communism by any means necessary.” What this suggests is that the faults of Capitalism and Liberalism are not merely economic and political: the error is modernity itself. By rejecting the Aristotelian system of virtues, any project is destined to fail no matter what social or economic structure they adopt. Undoubtedly, this is McIntyre’s deadliest gesture, because it indicates a deep pessimism about the project of modernity as a whole. As he discusses Trotsky’s later writings and his pessimism towards a communist future, McIntyre asks us to not fall into pessimism —it does not logically follow that we have no way out! But, the reader comes away with a dreadful feeling that we might never resolve the moral crisis; Aristotle has been dead for thousands of years.

 

Trump and the Crisis of Identity

Donald Trump will be our president. Despite the looming dangers of a Trump presidency, I think we have learned a valuable lesson: Identity is central to politics. Trump garnered support by appealing to the sentiment that our country is being taken over by them. Sanders rallied his supporters by pointing out the fact that they —Wall Street, moneyed interests, etc. — have been taking over our country. Like I said, identity is central to politics.

On both sides, we wanted someone who did not compromise and fought for the values we actually believe in. Why? Because politics as usual has never delivered to us the policies that affirm our identity and values. Identity is not a good that we can compromise. For example, I can share a loaf of bread with others, but I cannot as easily compromise my religion or feminism. So what would be the solution to bridging such irreconcilable differences?

The philosopher Michael Sandel identified this same problem decades ago. He criticized liberalism for its pretension of neutrality by privileging the right over the good, because, he believed, it caused a dissonance with our actual moral temperament. In other words, we do not, as politicians often say, “disagree but respect the right to have a different opinion.” We want to change the other person or destroy them. His solution was communitarianism — the idea that politics needs to be organized based on small, self-governing communities. Such communities will share the same space, community, and, ultimately, values.

I find this idea appealing but ultimately insufficient. First, it is unlikely to see large behemoths like the US or China dissolving into tiny self-governing communities. Second, we are pluralistic. This might sound confusing, since Sandel is suggesting communitarianism as a remedy to the conflicts of plural values in a given society. Sandel is right. Our society is pluralistic. My point is that so are we. We are not simply tribal creatures who conform only to what is preached to us by our communities. We are also cosmopolitan. We recognize universal duties and values. Furthermore, we operate under multiple modes of ethics. We are sometimes utilitarian, sometimes Kantian, and sometimes virtue ethicists. The conflicts between such modes and, manifestly, between the cosmopolitan and the communitarian are often irreconcilable. This means that even small, self-governing communities need to deal with irreconcilable differences.

Sandel was aware of the first criticism that transitioning to small, self-governing communities is not happening anytime soon. So he proposed a temporary solution: we should recognize the art of a democratic debate as a good. A democratic debate, conducted in a virtuous manner, bids one to attentively listen and respond to the other person. This is different from respecting rights, since respecting rights often entails disengagement. One does not need to engage another person’s belief in a virtuous manner if all one is concerned with is respecting that person’s right to have such beliefs. On the contrary, engaging in a democratic debate entails engagement. The benefits of engagement would not only mean a healthier dialogue but also a development of camaraderie. There is a Korean television show called 썰전where pundits discuss politics. There are two pundits from opposite sides of the political spectrum who discuss various topics. This sounds like an awful time, but the reality is quite the opposite. Despite irreconcilable differences, they have come to respect each other’s company. Through their debates, they have come to respect each other’s values, candor, and honesty.

However, I think there is a problem even with this approach. It takes a person of a particular disposition to engage in such a manner. There are multiple modes of ethics under which we operate and the preference of one over the other is determined by our personal dispositions. If someone is an absolutist Kantian about religious doctrines, then it is more difficult for that person to fruitfully engage another person who believes in everything they see as vile and sinister. The same is true of someone who absolutely hates everything about Trump because of his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Furthermore, people tend to favor debates with flowery rhetoric rather than the one espoused by Sandel. Encouraging people to favor one type of debate over the other might spell trouble, since it is obvious that not everyone has the appropriate personal disposition to engage in a democratic debate. I don’t subscribe to the optimistic view that humans are capable of being rational if they had a good education and so on. Take a look at debates between the most educated persons and there is always more rhetoric and spite than curiosity and temperance.

There seems to be no way out of this conflict. A few days ago, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek endorsed Donald Trump, arguing that his presidency will cause instability in the political establishment —which would carve up space for leftist reforms. I think it will be the exact opposite. Trump’s supporters are currently the most enthusiastic and angry group in American politics. The Supreme Court, the House, the Senate, and the White House are all Republican. They will use this instability to push their agenda forward. Progressives like Jill Stein won just 1% of the vote; however, Gary Johnson won 3%. This country, despite its politics having shifted more and more to the right throughout the 20th century, wants to go further to the right. This might have something to do with the fact that the average American feels like the country is liberal. Take a look at the sheer number of celebrities who endorsed Hillary Clinton. Mainstream media outlets like the New York Times endorsed Hillary Clinton. College professors are predominantly in the left. For many, entertainment, the news, and universities impact how they see their identity more than policies. They feel isolated. Their leaders tell them that minorities are taking away their jobs, and that Muslims are trying to install Sharia Law. They feel like the country is being taken over by others. Right-wing politics took away their savings and gave them to the wealthy. One can only imagine their anger.

Nonetheless, I cannot bring myself to compromise on immigration, abortion, wealth inequality, or healthcare. Such a move would be equivalent to supporting racism, misogyny, classism, neoliberalism, and bigotry. This, I believe, is how many liberals feel; this is also, I suspect, how many conservatives feel. Our differences are irreconcilable. We are angrier than ever. I can only envision a bloody clash between those with irreconcilable differences. There is no better figure to incite a civil war of culture than Donald Trump. If such a war is inevitable, then we must be prepared to fight and organize; to protect and safeguard immigrants and refugees; and, hopefully, discover a peaceful alternative.

BBC’s the Global Philosopher and Brietbart

So Breitbart just criticized the show I was on. It spews nonsense like Climate Change is not an urgent issue and that the Maldives are fine. I don’t think I need to say anything about the former. Let’s move onto the latter point about the Maldives. So the Guardian wrote a piece on the Maldives and it reported that “not only is the tide of sea level lapping at the shallow islands, but sea temperatures are rising as is the acidity of the ocean: both kill the corals.” This is not the description of a place that’s doing “just fine.”

Also, the author of this article makes fun of the quasi-hippie claim of one of the participants. Sure, it’s not dressed up fancily. It can be interpreted as a hippie comment if taken out of context. But if you actually watched the show, you will realize that her worry over our relationship with nature is a philosophical one. Professor Michael Sandel, whom this article ridiculed, is one of the leading political philosophers of our time. He challenged in his works and even on this show the utilitarian and capitalistic solutions to climate change. I think his criticism of capitalistic values is sound. We do give capitalistic solutions to such problems unassumingly –without realizing that by doing so we are replacing ordinary morality with market values. If you think he’s wrong, you have to offer arguments rather than mock a man who is far more qualified to speak on the nature of such values than you are.

He also challenged the utilitarian imperative to primarily care about the survival of sentient beings and whether that ignored certain values such as our relationship with nature that are just as important. I happen to disagree with Michael on this. I believe an improved relationship with nature would be a good but I do not think this is a good that supersedes the good of protecting the species and other sentient beings. Nonetheless, I would not mock his views the way this author did, because he helped me re-examine my views and this was manifestly the purpose of this show. Of course, Breitbart doesn’t mention any of this. Instead, it labels this show as leftist and sneers at a man whose philosophical depth makes a laughing stock out of the dull-minded trash they call journalism.

P.S. It’s funny how they label anything that challenges capitalism as leftist. Sandel is coming from the neo-Aristotelian tradition when he criticizes market values. He is not criticizing them as a traditional leftist would –workers need to own the means to production. He is criticizing them as a neo-Aristotelian: it corrodes goods such as our relationship with nature or our relationship with education. These are not leftist values. These are communitarian values. I doubt these philosophically illiterate barbarians know the difference.

Breitbart’s article

The Global Philosopher’s episode on Climate Change

New Year’s day; Last day in Paris

Today’s my last day in Paris. It’s been a good trip. Lots of food, reading, wine, and critical examinations. I’ll be spending most of my time airborne on New Years day, so I’d like to quickly commemorate my personal heroes and the goals of my future before my internet dissipates into thin air. Furthermore, in order to help myself become prudent, it’s helpful to celebrate it through a ritual called “my blog”. As Ellen Dissanayake once said, “making special” is an instinct with evolutionary merits, and the chief instinct behind our affinity towards creativity and Art. I’d like to encourage others who admire prudence and the arts to partake in this activity as well.

For the upcoming year, I’d like to finish the books I have not yet finished to expand my knowledge and broaden my horizons. These books are:

1) The Better Angles of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker http://www.amazon.com/The-Better-Angels-Our-Nature/dp/1491518243 (This book has helped me understand the merits of the Enlightenment, and the sociological/psychological/biological/anthropological/historical evidence for the decline of violence. A splendid book. Should be required to read in schools.)

2) Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter http://www.amazon.com/Gödel-Escher-Bach-Eternal-Golden/dp/0465026567 (This book allows me to understand Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and its implications better, as well as presenting an interesting explanation for consciousness.)

3) Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont http://www.amazon.com/Fashionable-Nonsense-Postmodern-Intellectuals-Science/dp/0312204078 (The title explains it all. This must be a required read for all universities.)

4) People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2767.A_People_s_History_of_the_United_States (A must read. It should be essential for students to imagine history from the perspective of the minorities as early as grade school.)

5) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett http://www.amazon.com/DARWINS-DANGEROUS-IDEA-EVOLUTION-MEANINGS/dp/068482471X (Recommended for any philosophers who deny the potency and importance of Darwin’s contributions to practically all fields of knowledge.)

6) The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker http://www.amazon.com/The-Blank-Slate-Modern-Denial/dp/0142003344 (An excellent book that dispels any Tabula rasa nonsense.)

7) Liberalism and the limits of Justice by Michael Sandel. http://www.cambridge.org/fr/academic/subjects/philosophy/political-philosophy/liberalism-and-limits-justice-2nd-edition (An astounding criticism of Rawls’ view of personhood from a communitarian standpoint.)

8) Merchants of Doubt by by Naomi Oreskes http://www.amazon.com/Merchants-Doubt-Handful-Scientists-Obscured/dp/1608193942 (This is a book not only for students but the rest of humanity has to read. It is obliged as citizens and as victims of the merchants of doubts to read about those who’ve destroyed the climate with lies and propaganda.)

On top of finishing these books, I’m going to read a collection of poems by Yeats and Baudelaire to further my poetic knowledge and skill. I wish I could read Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust and Touching a nerve, as well as Dawkins’ Selfish Gene. When it comes to music, it’s essential for me to practice piano, and study jazz harmony to improve my chops. I must check up on how to better use DAW’s and production programs as well. Wait. There’s also my senior paper in French…

Now that I’ve established my upcoming plans, I’d like talk about my heroes. These are individuals who’ve deeply influenced my life, and it’s appropriate for me to honor their contributions to my life. Furthermore, I’ll be able to see where I stand intellectually and artistically to better analyze my works.

1) Serge Gainsbourg. His witty lyrics, extravagant wordplay, poetic prowess, and unrelenting spirit as a provocateur have deeply influenced my works. In fact, I’m writing my senior paper on his oeuvre and artistry. He is the reason I’m in Paris, and my interest in poetry. His rebellious spirit and controversial attitude have shaped my outlook of the arts, distancing myself from candy pop. I live to emulate Serge.

2) Noam Chomsky. Although I’ve recently renounced my affiliation with anarchism, I cannot bring myself to call Libertarian socialism an idiotic belief. Some of it is founded on assumptions of Human Nature that I do not find Darwinian (Chomsky is cited for describing creativity as a phenomenon somewhat independent from natural selection, whereas I believe it is highly related to natural selection), but its goals are neither selfish nor savage like its Libertarian counterpart in the Right. I could not denounce Chomsky’s character and relentless activism shown throughout his long career. I’ve personally been highly influenced by his politics. He guided me through my upbringing as a political thinker and a philosopher. Although we’ve parted ways concerning human nature and certain political stances, our view of morality and the role of an intellectual match better than ever.

3) Steven Pinker. Pinker has deeply influenced my view of violence and the Enlightenment with his ground-breaking book I’ve mentioned above. He has helped me venture into my newfound interest in cognitive science with clarity and encouragement. His clear prose and abundant knowledge astounds me every day.

4) John Rawls. No one has ever triumphed in moral philosophy in the way, I believe, John Rawls has in the last century. He has provided a philosophical basis for the Welfare state, and a formidable counter-argument against Libertarian /Laissez-faire ideologies. He is one of my heaviest moral influences.

5) Michael Sandel. Even before I’ve known any of the aforementioned heroes, Michael Sandel has guided me through the obscurity of ignorance with a luminance of knowledge and curiosity. He was the first person who exposed me to Philosophy, prompting me to read the works of Kant and Rawls. His thoughts still rest as foundational to my moral outlooks, due to the brilliance of his communitarian criticism of Rawls. I recently gave my girlfriend a copy of his newest book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets”

6) Patricia Churchland. Possibly one of the most exciting living philosophers I know. I’ve never met anyone so nifty and knowledgeable in two dense fields, Philosophy and Neuroscience. She has clarified my stance on physicalism, morality, Free Will many times. It’s incredible how she continues to research and postulate philosophical foundations of Philosophy of mind. Her works should be read by more young students.

7) Hong Suk Chun (홍석천). The only openly gay celebrity in South Korea. He’s been through unspeakable trials, yet he uses his fame and influence to help out other sexual minorities to fair better. His radiant presence on screen despite the prejudices of his society is praiseworthy.

8) Peter Singer. He’s changed my repulsive habit of indulgence and lack of moral deliverance. Singer has allowed me to not only think about morality, but also take it into action. I plan to donate to charities more regularly, though I’ve been doing it sparsely for awhile. I also give birthday presents to some close ones with a donation under their name, saving dozens of lives. Singer has shown me the cogency of utilitarianism by actively decreasing suffering.

9) Brooksley Born. The former chairperson of CFTC. She was the only person who tried to save our economy by fighting against the likes of Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Alan Greesnpan. Her legacy and bravery depicted in the Inside Job lasts with me to this very day, sharpening my criticism against Wall Street and Laissez-faire savagery.

10) Albert Camus. He was a rare flower in a garden of weeds, surrounded by Maoist scums like Sartre. His earnest and moving book, La Peste, has left a profound impression on my views towards solidarity and collectivism. His innocent and exemplary adoption of pacifism allows me to divorce him from the existential nonsense he wet his feet in. Camus is a radiant beam of pacifism and solidarity in the literary world.

It’s nice to see my heroes and their accomplishments laid out in front of me. It gives me hope for humanity. I’m sure I’ve left out some heroes I could’ve included. If I think of more, I’ll either comment on this post or create another post. I hope I could push myself to enjoy this miraculous rarity called life to the fullest.  It’s been a good year.