False Consciousness, Psychological Freedom, and Pluralism

Some thoughts relevant to general issues about kids raised on isolated compounds by religious fanatics…

There’s nothing wrong with false consciousness explanations, as long as they are actually explanatory. You’ve just got to specify actual mechanisms. Political freedom loses much of its point in the absence of psychological freedom. Rationality and the capacity for moral agency develop. That’s why we do not think children have the same rights and responsibilities as adults: they haven’t developed the requisite capacities. But this development can be retarded, creating adults with little more than a child’s capacities, reinforcing childlike dependency. If you don’t worry about this, then I wonder in what sense you care about human freedom.

It is tyrannical for parents to attempt to reproduce their ideologies and prejudices in their children, especially when this requires social isolation and emotional coercion. Liberals who worry about religious home schooling are not wrong to worry. I defend home schooling not because parents have a moral right to indoctrinate their children. Indeed, parents have a moral obligation not to. They just have a political right to not be stopped, within bounds. Many parents, though they intend the opposite, are in fact guilty of wrongful disregard for the development of their children’s psychological freedom. They deserve condemnation and ostracism, not interference from the state. I defend their political right to potentially behave immorally — to harm their children’s capacity for the full exercise of their rightful freedom — in part because I appreciate how accommodating pluralism reduces social conflict. But, perhaps more importantly, because I think that full-fledged competitive diversity in education will help erode superstitious thick identities, that it will help fosters a sense of contingency in inherited identities that make it easier to slough them off, or at least easier to wear lightly. But, even then, the scope of liberal pluralism has its limits, and it is neither right nor desirable to avoid the conflict inherent in debating and enforcing those limits.

For Leaving the Community Behind

Richard Chappell says, “communitarianism creeps me out.” That makes two of us. More from his excellent post:

I’m so incredibly grateful to be where I am now, to have the opportunity to dedicate my life to the discipline of philosophy; I can’t even begin to imagine being nearly so happy doing anything else. The academic philosophical community is the first to which I’ve felt that I truly belong. But if I had been born a Maori, if my skin were a darker shade, then suddenly I would have been obliged to remain with my ethnic community instead? *shudder*


So, count me in favour of meritocracy and the upward-mobility (though not the crass materialism) of “middleclassness”. Count me in favour of “elitism”, understood as the claim that some ways of life are better than others, tempered by the cosmopolitan insistence that the best forms of life not be closed to anyone merely due to the circumstances of their birth. (Sadly, this demand is yet to be met. Much more still needs to be done to enable humanity. But entrenching class divisions in the name of “solidarity” is not the place to start. We should want as many people as possible to join the creative classes — to vacate the working class and its culture, not hold people there and reinforce it.) Count me in favour of liberalism.

Richard emphasizes that one need not be some kind of egoist or a pinched individualist unable to value a common enterprise to think this. It’s just generally better for people if they do not feel pushed to consider their parents’ culture a cage within which life must be lived.

Patriotism and Monogamy

In the comments below, David Stearns asks:

Is there any room left in the concept of ‘patriotism’ for the deep appreciation of the freedoms and independence of thought that the states are at least supposed to embody, and that they do embody in their finer moments?

I don’t think so. Freedom and independence are general features of a place or people and are valuable wherever they occur. I may love America for it’s freedom, but then I should love Canada for its freedom, too. And I do! To love a place because of its general features implies that love may wane or disappear as the manifestation of those valued qualities change. But Patriotism, the love of country, is particularistic. It is a “monogamous” sentiment. If you claim to be an American, Canadian, Danish, and Japanese patriot all at the same time, because you love qualities all these societies excellently exemplify, people will look at you funny. Patriotism requires that you “pick one,” which implies that it is not about the general features of a place, but about special attachment. (Dual citizens may get away with picking two, but that’s just because there are two attachments, and even this is suspect.)

If you meet a women with all the attributes you claim to love about your wife, only better, and you run off with her because of their excellence, then you never really loved your wife. You loved her attributes. You can rightly claim never to have been unfaithful. Indeed, to stay would have made you untrue — to your values. But to fully love a woman, or a country, is to love some one particular thing. Now, it is surely better to love a woman than to love her qualities. But when it comes to countries, it is better by far to give your heart to freedom, and to love countries themselves incidentally and faithlessly.

How to Be Grotesquely Reductionist and Utilitarian about Human Love and Life

This post by one “Deep Thought” is a brilliant example:

This isn’t rocket science; men with easy access to prostitution or to promiscuous women have little incentive to marry. Suddenly there is nothing to offset their legal and financial obligations as a husband – so why take on the obligation? Women who are promiscuous face disease, pregnancy, and emotional trauma – all of them reduce their ability to be a valuable wife.

This probably helps explain what’s going on with prostitution bans, but is it supposed to be a moral reason to endorse them? Dramatic reconstruction:

Sweetheart… Since I have no easy access to women who sell sex, will you share my life so I can use you for sex? I mean, even if there were a few more easy women around here, I’d have no use for you. Definitely no reason to make a commitment to you. But there aren’t. Oh well. So… I love you? And Oh! Here’s a diamond.

Maybe this tells us something about the great romance of being the mother of Deep Thought’s four children, but for my part, I share my life with Kerry because she is brilliant and exciting and we mesh in so many ways and I love her. As far as I can tell, the existence of Craiglist’s Casual Encounters has no bearing on this, my greatest source of happiness.

It gets even more obsessively biological. This is, sensibly enough I suppose, written by a Catholic guy with a theology degree who attends Latin mass and thinks “the Patriarchy, when controlled by Judeo-Christian morality, is a protector of and advocate for women.” [!!!]:

the future belongs to those who show up. If you don’t have kids, you have no stake in the future. If you have kids, you not only have a stake in the future, you can influence it in ways almost impossible to duplicate without kids.


bans on prostitution exist not just to avoid the exploitation of sex workers; they are in place not just because the majority of world religions declare them immoral; they were passed not solely to fight the spread of disease; they were written with more than the goal of reducing the numbers of poor, fatherless children. No, they are there to protect the future.

Again, I can see the explanatory power here. But to think that this has justificatory power is simply grotesque. This is to reduce individual human beings to tokens of a biological type, to reduce the purpose of an individual human life to a link in a biological chain there is no moral value in forging. Yes, the future belongs to those who show up. But the present belongs to each individual human being. We have lives because a lineage has been perpetuated. But our lives are not for perpetuating lineages. Our lives are for our living. Our duty is to treat one another as free and equal persons, as ends in themselves, which means we are duty-bound not to use people and their lives for purposes not their own. We treat people with the respect they deserve. Whoever shows up, shows up. If you’re interested in that, then breed away. But do leave the rest of us alone.

Happiness and Personality: Indviduality Matters

A recent study by psychologists at the University of Edinburgh tracking 973 pairs of twins shows that the heritable differences in self-reported happiness are entirely accounted for by the genes that determine the Big Five personality traits. That is to say, differences of personality account for all the heritable difference in happiness. In particular, low neuroticism and high extraversion are strongly correlated with higher levels of happiness, high conscientiousness is a bit less strongly correlated, and high agreeableness and openness to experience are positive but not so important. Non-neurotic, conscientious extraverts are the winners in the genetic happiness lottery.

This is important stuff. It tells us that individual variability matters. Individual-level strategies for improving happiness depend a great deal on the art of self-management given the constraints of personality. For example, I am very low in neuroticism and mildly extraverted, which bodes very well for my baseline level of happiness, but I am also extremely low in conscientiousness (not unlike a lot of homeless people and inmates), which ends up creating a lot of internal struggle and anxiety. For me, the key to higher levels of happiness is the conscious development of the habits of self-discipline and time management that don’t come naturally. The highly introverted or neurotic face challenges unique to their types. I look forward to future work that pushes deeper into happiness strategies for various combinations of personality traits.

And at a more general theoretical level, it is crucial to understand there are differences in the degree to which people revert to their baseline levels of happiness after good or bad changes in circumstances, and in difference in the rate of reversion. That will prevent us from making silly, sweeping generalizations about the insignificance of new cars or a lost limbs. When there is a lot of non-random variation, averages can lie. Regarding my previous post, I think it is important to recognize that not everyone compares themselves strongly to other people. Much of Robert Frank’s body of work is based, I think, on assuming a false uniformity in people’s disposition to compare themselves to others. We can avoid that kind of mistake if we attend more closely to the way individual happiness is mediated by personality.

Communitarian Aestheticism

I am not alone:

… I know and do not regret the major role that aesthetic considerations play in human life, even apart from erotic desire, and even though in an often unrecognized manner, it is certainly possible to distinguish between kinds of aestheticism. As Emerson suggests in “The Poet,” bad poetry (so to speak) is part of the fabric of ordinary—that is unreflective—life. In every society, ordinary life is full of bad displacements and condensations, of unintentional metaphorization and shadowy symbolism. Worse, some kinds of socially exaggerated aestheticism are hideous in their perverse beauty. I find that communitarianism is often an encouragement to bad poetry, to a heightened conventional aestheticism that in modern circumstances can be satisfied only with mischievous or even pernicious results.

— George Kateb, “Individualism, Communitarianism, and Docility” in The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture

This is a great essay. Speaking of which, here is Emerson:

The inwardness, and mystery, of this attachment, drive men of every class to the use of emblems. The schools of poets, and philosophers, are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace with theirs. In our political parties, compute the power of badges and emblems. See the huge wooden ball rolled by successive ardent crowds from Baltimore to Bunker hill! In the political processions, Lowell goes in a loom, and Lynn in a shoe, and Salem in a ship.’ Witness the cider-barrel, the log-cabin, the hickory-stick, the palmetto, and all the cognizances of party. See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!

I do not trust that tingle. And I would like to know more about this “huge wooden ball”!

The Idealism of Jackets and Ties

A Day at Cinderella Castle

David Brooks is one of America’s most successful thinkers in much the same way that Thomas Kinkade, painter of light, is one of America’s most successful artists. And Brooks’s column on Teddy K’s endorsement of Obama is artful in much the way “A Day at the Cinderella Castle” is artful.

The respect for institutions that was prevalent during the early ’60s is prevalent with the young again today. The earnest industriousness that was common then is back today. The awareness that we are not self-made individualists, free to be you and me, but emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities; that awareness is back again today.

Sept. 11th really did leave a residue — an unconsummated desire for sacrifice and service.

Got that? The “residue” of 9/11 is not the bitter recognition of how a surge of panic and nationalism can lead to unjust failed wars. The residue is David Brooks’s unconsummated desire for further nationalistic sacrifice, as if all those corpses in Iraq were not, are not, enough. He believes that America’s young, like him, long for a day at the Cinderella castle, which, it should be emphasized, has a dungeon in the basement.

Do you think Kinkade thinks clouds really look like that? Maybe he does. Do you think Brooks really thinks that we are “free to be you and me” only if we are unsocialized atoms? Well, maybe he does, because the way he puts it, we aren’t individuals at all. We — you and me — “emerge as parts of networks, webs and communities.” What you are is a mere part of a larger, grander whole. And if that whole demands your time, your money, your life–demands to consumate its desire for sacrifice and service — who are you to say no? Well, nothing, really. At least not anything distinct, with purposes, plans, and a value of its own. You are it.

The truth is that we emerge from networks, webs, and communities as individuals with a heavily socialized set of ideas and desires. Individualism is an idea about the locus of agency, worth and respect, about how responsible we are, or can be, for our decisions. It is an idea about the uniqueness of individuals, about self-discovery, self-creation and self-expression. These ideas can become embodied in the norms that govern our networks, webs, and communities. A culture can be individualistic. The evidence is that people in individualistic cultures thrive. But for Brooks it is nihilistic, vain, anti-social, empty self-indulgence or the marching “idealism of jackets and ties,” idealism for conformists — for conformist men.