Philosophy Feed

Reason for Being

Reason for Being: A Meditation on EcclesiastesReason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes by Jacques Ellul
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"In the midst of a crisis, a person finds himself undetermined in such a way that his freedom can function."

Ellul the humanist explores this most philosophical of biblical books finding in it important messages for twentieth century human life. Here is a good summary of some main points:

"But the first step in wisdom consists of recognizing wisdom's vanity, acknowledging its limitations. We must live, work, and find joy within this understanding to which Qohelet invites us: no wisdom can enlighten us, or enable us to organize things so as to understand the world and history. No wisdom can establish a scale of moral values . . . . True, no wisdom or meaning exists; all the same, we will live; all the same, we will act; all the same, we will be capable of happiness and hope. The only true wisdom we can aspire to consists of the perception that no wisdom is possible. On that basis we must construct our lives, beginning at that negative point."

There is much to commend itself in this book, particularly in the midst of our current global crisis. But I thought the book could have used some serious editing. A more concise presentation of its points would have been a better read.

View all my reviews

The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World

The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided WorldThe Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World by Michael Ignatieff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish I could rush into an ethics classroom and teach this book. It is excellent. I devoured it quickly.

Ignatieff, both an academic and political leader, explores the impact that human rights have had upon the globe, shaping the moral order. A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism.

He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, LA, Rio, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa. In these places he dialogues with poor women living in shanties and prominent public officials. He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes. A brilliant model for how to do academic work in our time.

What he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share. Trust, tolerance, and resilience are among them. And key to promoting these virtues are well run public institutions and civil society. Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society. He writes, "The whole point of a liberal society is to create laws and institutions that make virtue ordinary."

The most brilliant chapter is that on Fukushima, and I would recommend it as reading right now in our moment of global pandemic. He writes that the triple disaster in Japan--earthquake, tsunami, meltdown--was the unimaginable and that we moderns are not well prepared for the unimaginable to happen. Yet, the unimaginable has consistently been occurring the last twenty years eroding our trust in our institutions which keep failing us and eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. He writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management." This breakdown has made humans more individualistic in their resilience strategies.

Here is the final paragraph of that brilliant chapter, where he discusses hope:

The hope I am talking about is an ordinary virtue: it is free of hubris, and so it takes for granted, that we will not always be able to avoid the worst. At the same time, it is not misanthropic: it prepares for the worst but does not think the worst of human beings. It is anti-utopian: while it believes that over time we get better at learning from our mistakes, it does not have any faith that we can fundamentally change; it is rationalist but questions that History, with a capital H, is knowable. It draws faith from the past, from the memory of the samurai, but it also knows that sometimes all you can do is to keep moving, keep going toward the future, no matter how uncertain the destination. But resilience has an unshakeable, physical element of faith. It affirms that we do learn and that we are not condemned to endless repetition of our folly. This complex hope is, I believe, what underpins human resilience, more than an attitude of responsibility toward others. It is also a metaphysical commitment, deep inside, usually left unspoken, to the future continuity of human life itself, no matter what, a commitment best expressed by the belief that we will not only survive but prevail.

View all my reviews

The City and Man

The City and ManThe City and Man by Leo Strauss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A congregant who was a retired political science professor died last year and because he and I had engaged in various philosophical discussions over the years, I was able to select some books from his library. He was a student of Strauss, so there were a handful of Strauss' books to choose from.

This volume is made up of three long essays--one on Aristotle's Politics, one on Plato's Republic, and one on Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. In each essay there are some interesting insights, but overall I found Strauss to be a most infelicitous writer. The final essay was by far the best and the most interesting, making me want to read Thucydides in full (I've only ever read excerpts).

An overarching theme seems to be doing what is practical and realistic in politics.

View all my reviews

More Philosophy: The Just & the Right

Following up on my philosophical follow ups of yesterday, later last night I read Judith Butler's piece on the pandemic.  She criticizes that situation because we have previously failed to create a more just health care system that would have handled this better.  Because of this systemic failure,

Social and economic inequality will make sure that the virus discriminates. The virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do, formed and animated as we are by the interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and capitalism. It seems likely that we will come to see in the next year a painful scenario in which some human creatures assert their rights to live at the expense of others, re-inscribing the spurious distinction between grievable and ungrievable lives, that is, those who should be protected against death at all costs and those whose lives are considered not worth safeguarding against illness and death.

Alex Broadbent in his pieces has been making the point that we have to do the hard thinking to determine what criteria make these choices.  Nor is it consoling to point out that doctors make these choices all the time.  Of course Butler is also correct that we should have a better system to begin with.  I think that's also inherent in Agamben's criticisms of the response.  My own thoughts a few weeks ago were, "Why aren't we doing what South Korea did which is obviously better?"  Only to eventually realize we weren't prepared to do that.  We've inflicted social harm (and hopefully not longterm harm on the institutions of the republic) because of that.

It is the role of philosophers to conceptualize and criticize and imagine how to do better and right.  Broadbent has been insisting that there are relevant data and criteria that do not seem to be factored in to decision making.  Agamben is insisting that the decisions be broadly more and not focused solely on survival (a fair point, though I feel Agamben is functioning in some sort of fantasy).

Yesterday I was reading Leo Strauss's essay on Plato's Republic.  A most infelicitous writer Strauss.  But in that essay he makes Plato's point that the just city is impossible.  Which raises the question, what is the most just city that is possible then?  Or, given our failures to create a better system to begin with and our failures to be adequately prepared (and surprisingly so since this virus is nowhere near as fatal as Ebola or SARS and as one friend said, "this is our practice run" for the really bad pandemic) what then is right, good, and just?  Fair debate to be had there, but also not to lose site of the fact that being cornered by the failures into a series of bad choices.

While I was reading Strauss, Sebastian was re-watching Frozen 2 where Queen Elsa is told to do "the next right thing."  Sounds like sage advice.  In this moment, maybe that's all that can be settled for.  But the next right thing is often not clear and rather narrows our vision of the moral.


Philosophical Follow Ups

A couple of new links to follow-up on previous posts about the pandemic and philosophy.

Last Sunday I posted Alex Broadbent's article "Thinking Rationally About Coronavirus COVID-19," which generated some vigorous discussion on my Facebook timeline.  He's out with two more articles, becoming something of an indispensable voice in this crisis (he is a "philosopher of epidemiology").  The article "Why a one-size-fits-all approach to COVID-19 could have lethal consequences" discusses why the measures taken in other parts of the world might have a higher mortality rate than the virus if they were taken in Africa. 

His other new post in a broader article at Daily Nous entitled "The Role of Philosophy & Philosophers In The Coronavirus Pandemic."  I particularly liked the final paragraph labeled as "Call to arms:"

The skill of philosophers, and the value in philosophy, does not lie in our knowledge of debates that we have had with each other. It lies in our ability to think fruitfully about the unfamiliar, the disturbing, the challenging, and even the abhorrent. The coronavirus pandemic is all these things. Let’s get stuck in.

One of the commentors, a Tom Cochrane, writes about how aesthetics intersects with the pandemic:

Aesthetics won’t help to combat the disease, but it will point out that there is considerable final value to be found in simply observing what is happening, for its own sake. Whatever else it is, the coronavirus is incredibly interesting. A great big rock has been dropped into the pool of human society and we are witnessing a million different effects that even the best fiction writers would have found hard to anticipate (who would have anticipated the creative response of putting different song lyrics to hand-washing instructions? and also how this is now *so* last week?)

So all I’m saying is that, like everything else, there is intense drama, and beauty, and sublimity and tragedy and comedy in this event. And it will no doubt stimulate the creative responses of human beings for years to come. And perhaps in recognizing- and embracing this, we can be less fearful or depressed.


At Home: "It is Moral"

“'Marguerite Derrida has just left us, a whole world is leaving,' announced the Institute of Advanced Studies in Psychoanalysis (IHEP) in a press release dated March 21, 2020." The widow of the acclaimed French philosopher has died of COVID-19.  

In Italy the moral, social, and human cost of no funerals is mounting.

A criticism of Giorgio Agamben published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (unfortunately behind a paywall) rightly points out that writings on the pandemic have focused on the moral crisis:

Agamben correctly observes that the question of the proportionality of the response is not a scientific one; it is moral. And the answer is not obvious. Here, at least, Agamben arrives at a serious question. This is exactly the kind of question we had hoped the humanist could help us answer.

Note, if you've missed the discussion of Agamben, I've been tracking it in my recent blog posts on the pandemic.

This author zeroes in on some appropriate criticisms, but I feel as if her essay is just the beginning of a response.  I was left wanting more from the final section.  Also wanting her to grapple more fully with the story out of Italy about lack of funerals, for instance.

The intellectual response is growing this week.  Here at The Point, one can read plague journals from around the world, including a shortened version of that Chronicle of Higher Education article not behind a paywall.

And this evening I listened to a good podcast interview with the always interesting Anne Applebaum about authoritarian opportunism during the crisis and how the USA should learn from this to modernize its bureaucracy.  

Yesterday I encountered the Philosophers on Medicine podcast, which has yet to grapple fully with this crisis, but they do address some of the concerns that it raises.

An interesting Midlands Voice in our local paper wondered if the luck of the Boomers has finally come to an end as they now face their biggest challenge as a generation.

My long planned sermon theme for this coming Sunday is "To Be More . . . Hopeful."  What seemed like a serious challenge at the start of the week quickly took shape, as I will be exploring some of the things I've preached about hope before and testing them against the current crisis.

And just because this post lacked any cute Sebastian photos, here is a previously unshared one from a few days ago.

In a tree


At Home: Difficult Night

I confess last night and this morning were rough for me.  I believe I can safely say I'm depressed.  This situation is so contrary to all my normal ways of operating and many of my normal coping mechanisms for difficult situations don't seem well-suited to this one.  I do think it would be easier if I could be at a cabin by the lake with my husband and son and we had nothing to do.  I vacation where you are completely disengaged is something many of us long for, but this situation is not that, obviously.  I'm envious of those who can be home with family reading and getting bored.  

Last night I started reading W. S. Merwin's Garden Time, one of his last volumes of poetry, with reflections on aging and growing limitations.  There is a darkness to it that seemed fitting.  This poem stood out the most to me:

Living with the News

Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records
this is not the world that I remember
then comes the day when I open the box
that I remember packing with such care
and there is the face that I had known well
in little pieces staring up at me
it is not mentioned on the front pages
but somewhere far back near the real estate
among the things that happen every day
to someone who now happens to be me
and what can I do and who can tell me
then there is what the doctor comes to say
endless patience will never be enough
the only hope is to be the daylight.

I haven't seen much yet written by America's leading philosophers (where you Martha Nussbaum?) but there's quite a lot happening in Europe.  In Sweden philosophers have helped design the ethical protocols for triaging care.  While a great debate has been stirred in Italy about the response to the virus taken there.  The European Journal of Pscyhoanalysis invited some leading thinker to respond to what Michel Foucault had previously written about the rise of the disciplinary state in the midst of plague.  You can read there contributions here.  Giorgio Agamben has, in particular, generated much controversy and response with what he has written about it.  Here is his latest.  And an Arendtian response to these European thinkers that I wish were longer can be found here.  A different perspective from a quarantined Italian philosopher is shared here.  Slavoj Zizek seems to have taken very different positions, here in an early writing and here in a more recent oneHis most controversial claim is that he thinks the crisis will result in a return to communism.

Altar

I think our worship live stream yesterday went reasonably well.  As of this morning we've had 370 views.  Yesterday we also had Zoom Sunday School and will be rolling out some other digital services this week.

Sebastian and I continue our study of the planets.  Yesterday we papier mached two balloons for the model solar system we are building.  Sebastian didn't want to touch the paste and was ready for a break after two.  I think when these (Neptune and Saturn) dry, we'll paint them so he can see finished product.  

Papier mache planets

He really enjoys his new book The Girl Who Named Pluto and has requested that we read it every night.  So this morning for our school time we watched a video about the New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet.  That occurred in 2015 when he was a newborn.  At the time the mission thrilled me--the idea that we as a species had the ability to design a spaceship that would travel that far and send back pictures, the reality that Pluto was so beautiful and sat there unobserved until that moment, the ideas that we as a species are capable of great things and that the universe is filled with beauty.  At the time I talked often to newborn Sebastian about the mission and showed him the photos NASA released.  His high chair became the "rocket chair" and as we traveled from the kitchen to the dining room we'd pass the various (newly named by humans) features of the planet such as the Sputnik Planum and the Norgay Montes.  Watching the video together this morning brought back all those lovely memories and helped my mood.

I recommend this article that I read yesterday entitled "Against Productivity in a Pandemic."


Good eulogy for Sir Roger Scruton

The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton died earlier this year.  I hadn't yet read a good eulogy for him, but this one in the NYTimes, that I had previously missed does a fine job of explaining what kind of conservative he was.  An excerpt:

Moreover, he recognized that the most important things people build, even more important than the cathedrals and great works of art and music he so loved, are not primarily the result of planning. They develop organically over time, with trial and error, as the work of many hands (an example is the common law of England). Recognizing this, conservatives should, he argued, seek to protect these things against those who would tear them down out of a misguided zeal for what they saw as the demands of liberty, equality, social justice or even the free market.

The conservative can cheer moderate reforms (organic things do grow and therefore change), but the conservative’s fundamental goal is to conserve. That spirit, by the way, made Roger an ardent, but old-fashioned and therefore moderate, conservationist — a kind of Green Tory who believed responsible stewardship of the natural order crucial. He thought that good stewardship begins with regard for the local landscape and architecture.


A couple of philosophical responses

Finally had some time this morning to catch up on philosophical reading.  Among the philosophers responding to COVID-19, I thought these two article were interesting..

This one is somewhat predictable--Peter Singer encouraging ending forever "wet markets" like the one that passed this disease (and others to humans). Read his arguments here.

And this article by Alex Broadbent lays out the various principles and ideas involved in a rational, cost-benefit analysis of the virus and responses to it.  Most interesting are these two considerations (two of a handful he includes):

Identification of losers and winners, and weighing of their rights. Older people and those with pulmonary conditions are at greater risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19 infection. The protection of these groups must be weighed against the good of the whole. Closing schools, for example, will surely reduce rates of infection; but it may harm the children’s education, to which they arguably have an important right, for the probable benefit of their grandparents. Such trade-offs are generally considered permissible, as in taxation to pay for a public service, but not unrestrictedly so. I am not commenting on any particular measure here; school closure is merely an example and may in fact benefit children significantly. I am merely trying to structure the cost-benefit analysis by pointing out that those who suffer most from the measures may not always be those who benefit the most, and their respective rights and interests must be weighed.

 Assessment of quantity of life. Delicate though it may be, the public health response needs to take seriously the extent to which those who die are sick and elderly. This is not because their lives matter less, intrinsically. It is because they have less life left. We may imagine that if COVID-19 had not killed someone this week, they would have died of some other ailment next week, or even on the same day. Such imaginary cases are the subject of study by philosophers who think about causation, but in this case they have an evaluative import. Life is a quantity rather than a binary variable, and disease reduces its quantity, both for individuals and populations. The quantity of this reduction is less for people who are going to die sooner: the sick and elderly, in other words. If the cost of a disease to a population is the quantity of life that it takes, then this can only be measured in time, because all life is a quantity of time.

Some of us have more life left than others. Thus the cost of COVID-19 to population health is not simply a function of how many it kills, but whom. This is surely not the only factor in assessing the cost of a disease or benefit of a public health measure, but, given that life comes in a finite quantity, the quantitative effect must be taken into account in assessing the benefit offered by a public health measure against the cost of the disease.