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The Scourge of Self-Confidence

photograph of boy cliff-jumping into sea

Our culture is in love with self-confidence — defined by Merriam-Webster as trust “in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities.” A Google search of the term yields top results with titles such as “Practical Ways to Improve Your Confidence (and Why You Should)” (The New York Times), “What is Self-Confidence? + 9 Ways to Increase It” (positivepsychology.com), and “How to Be More Confident” (verywellmind.com). Apparently, self-confidence is an especially valued trait in a romantic partner: a Google search for “self-confidence attractive” comes back with titles like “Why Confidence Is So Attractive” (medium.com), “4 Reasons Self-Confidence is Crazy Sexy” (meetmindful.com), and “6 Reasons Why Confidence Is The Most Attractive Quality A Person Can Possess” (elitedaily.com).

I will argue that self-confidence is vastly, perhaps even criminally, overrated. But first, a concession: clearly, some degree of self-confidence is required to think or act effectively. If a person has no faith in her ability to make judgments, she won’t make many of them. And without judgments, thinking and reasoning is hard to imagine, since judgments are the materials of thought. Similarly, if a person has no faith in her ability to take decisions, she won’t take many of them. And since decisions are necessary for much intentional action, such a person will often be paralyzed into inaction.

Nevertheless, the value that we place on self-confidence is entirely inappropriate. The first thing to note is that behavioral psychologists have gathered a mountain of evidence showing that people are significantly overconfident about their ability to make correct judgments or take good decisions. Representative of the scholarly consensus around this finding is a statement in a frequently-cited 2004 article published in the Journal of Research in Personality: “It has been consistently observed that people are generally overconfident when assessing their performance.” Or take this statement, from a 2006 article in the Journal of Marketing Research: “The phenomenon of overconfidence is one of the more robust findings in the decision and judgment literature.”

Furthermore, overconfidence is not a harmless trait: it has real-world effects, many of them decidedly negative. For example, a 2013 study found “strong statistical support” for the presence of overconfidence bias among investors in developed and emerging stock markets, which “contribut[ed] to the exceptional financial instability that erupted in 2008.” A 2015 paper suggested that overconfidence is a “substantively and statistically important predictor” of “ideological extremeness” and “partisan identification.” And in Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions, published at the start of the second Iraq War, the Oxford political scientist Dominic Johnson argued that political leaders’ overconfidence in their own virtue and ability to predict and control the future significantly contributed to the disasters of World War I and the Vietnam War. And of course, the sages of both Athens and Jerusalem have long warned us about the dangers of pride.

To be sure, there is a difference between self-confidence and overconfidence. Drawing on the classical Aristotelian model of virtue, we might conceive of “self-confidence” as a sort of “golden mean” between the extremes of overconfidence and underconfidence. According to this model, self-confidence is warranted trust in one’s own powers and abilities, while overconfidence is an unwarranted excess of such trust. So why should the well-documented and baneful ubiquity of overconfidence make us think we overvalue self-confidence?

The answer is that valuing self-confidence to the extent that we do encourages overconfidence. The enormous cultural pressure to be and act more self-confident to achieve at work, attract a mate, or make friends is bound to lead to genuine overestimations of ability and more instances of people acting more self-confidently than they really are. Both outcomes risk bringing forth the rotten fruits of overconfidence.

At least in part because we value self-confidence so much, we have condemned ourselves to suffer the consequences of pervasive overconfidence. As I’ve already suggested, my proposed solution to this problem is not a Nietzschean “transvaluation” of self-confidence, a negative inversion of our current attitude. Instead, it’s a more classical call for moderation: our attitude towards self-confidence should still be one of approval, but approval tempered by an appreciation of the danger of encouraging overconfidence.

That being said, we know that we tend to err on the side of overconfidence, not underconfidence. Given this tendency, and assuming, as Aristotle claimed, that virtue is a mean “relative to us” — meaning that it varies according to a particular individual’s circumstances and dispositions — it follows that we probably ought to value what looks a lot like underconfidence to us. In this way, we can hope to encourage people to develop a proper degree of self-confidence — but no more than that.

In Defense of Motions and Gestures

photograph of heart tattoo being done

Behold. One day of the year. They all grin and greet each other when every other day they walk by with their faces in their collars. You know, it makes me very sad to see all the lies that come as surely as the snow at this time of year. How many “Merry Christmases” are meant and how many are lies? To pretend on one day of the year that the human beast is not the human beast. That it is possible we can all be transformed. But if it were so… if it were possible for so many mortals to look at the calendar and transform from wolf to lamb, then why not every day? Instead of one day good, the rest bad, why not have everyone grinning at each other all year and have one day in the year when we’re all beasts and we pass each other by? Why not turn it around?                             

-Scrooge from Steven Knight’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol

Forgive me. I promise I know which holiday we’re celebrating and what month it reads on the calendar. It’s just that this very same “Humbug!” sentiment has been steadily creeping further and further into winter and appears dead set on choking out hope, smothering all joy, sapping the color from the world, and turning everything a pallid, lifeless gray. (Or maybe that’s just COVID and the inability to taste or smell.)

Regardless, I refuse to accept that it’s only rubes and suckers naive enough to willingly celebrate the occasion. I don’t mean to be an apologist for the harm the commercialization and serialization of Valentine’s Day brings. There are a great many reasons to loathe this Hallmark Holiday (as our own Madalyn Sailors has just pointed out). But at least some of the animus feels undeserved, misdirected, and ill-conceived. Surely a bit of heart is in the right place.

No small part of the hate aimed at this day of love seems to be the product of deep and intractable cynicism – what the School of Life paints as “a near-hysterical fragility around the idea of expecting anything which turns out to be less impressive than they’d hoped.” Having been chronically underwhelmed, we’ve hardened our hearts to the torment of eager anticipation consummated by utter disappointment. Once bitten, twice shy. We won’t get fooled again.

Now, hard-won experience grants us the power to see past the ruse. Aren’t we all just frauds and phonies for confining to a single day all love’s labors – a single day to declare our undying adoration, pledge our unwavering fidelity, and stage the grandest of grand gestures – only to wait until this precise moment next year to enact the exact pantomime all over again? Are we not simply admitting that things could be different if we could just find our resolve a dozen more times each year? Does this day not make fools and liars of us all?

If right, upstanding, moral action is to be found in moderation between extremes – neither cowardly nor capricious, neither despondent nor devout, neither guarded nor gullible – then we should resist the allure of this dead-eyed cynicism that hollows out sentiment and replaces passion and optimism with contempt and scorn. Mind the golden mean.

What’s more, we have plenty of good old selfish reasons for resisting this siren song of sour grapes. It will come as no great surprise to anyone that thinking the worst of others proves detrimental to one’s health. As Isaac Asimov cautioned, these psychological defenses pose a serious threat to our mental well-being:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable of enjoying the good things.

It all comes down to a habit of mind; perception is reality. By deadening our insides and numbing ourselves to the inevitable injustices this world will bring, we insulate ourselves from hurt and disappointment. But we also forgo the experience of hope and the opportunity to dream. Our coping mechanism becomes all-encompassing.

So, act as if. Mark a big, bright ‘X’ on your calendar. Make the space. Find the time. Schedule it. Perform it. Embrace the ritual. Because making the effort matters, even if it’s forced. At the very least, you owe it to yourself. And who knows, it’s always possible people might surprise you.

Wrapping Christmas Presents: Some Lessons from Ancient Philosophy

photograph of presents wrapped in gold before a Christmas tree

So here’s a question: why do we spend time and effort nicely wrapping Christmas presents? Sure the surprise factor created by wrapping is cool, but there are much easier ways to conceal the present until the moment of unveiling.

Now, I’m not actually interested in the real explanation for why we wrap presents. No doubt most people wrap presents because it is traditional, or as a way to show off, or because it provided a nice excuse to procrastinate on dissertation work after an annoyingly long semester (though now that I think about it… that last one might be a bit parochial). Instead, what I want to know is whether there is anything good about wrapping gifts. I’m interested in the goodness of gift-wrap, because it is a particular instance of a more general moral question: what is the importance of outward appearance?

There is profound truth in the banal moralisms about not judging by outward appearance. Don’t judge a book by its cover! Which is to say, when dating you should care about the character of a person, not about how attractive they are. Which is to say, when hiring you should care about the quality of a person’s work and not that person’s height or weight. Which is to say, when voting you should care about the content of what a politician says and not the power of the rhetoric with which they say it. I think all of this is right. I can’t help but sound cliché when I make this point, but the point is true nonetheless: what matters is the reality on the inside, not the appearance on the outside. But if that is right, is it shallow to care how presents are wrapped? Is the beautifying of the appearance merely a sop to our vanity?

Here, I want to use some ancient philosophy to defend the wrapping of presents. I think Plato and Aristotle can help us understand the role of wrapping in our lives. Plato will help us understand what exactly outward appearances are, and Aristotle will help us understand why they might be important.

A Platonic Distinction Between Appearances and the Good

In his work The Gorgias — incidentally, my favorite work on ethics — Plato explains the nature of rhetoric by distinguishing the proper good from the apparent good. He starts with the example of food. According to Plato, there is a good proper to food — namely healthfulness — and an art proper to the good of food — namely nutrition science. Our reason, by the use of careful study, is capable of identifying which foods really are good for us. But there is also an apparent good of food, and that is the tastiness of food. We evolved to like foods that are good to eat. We like to eat what tastes good, and so we hope that what is tasty is good for us.

For Plato, when you find one food tastier than another, that itself does not make the food better. Rather, that is the food appearing better to your tongue. When I look at a Müller-Lyer illusion, the fact that one line looks longer does not make the line longer; rather the line appears longer to my eyes. The tastiness of food is an ‘outward appearance’. It is not itself a good of food, rather it is a way for the food to appear good. Sometimes that appearance is accurate (after all, our tastes did evolve so that we would like food that is good for us), but often the appearance is systematically distorted (as it seems to be in our calorically-rich, junk food laden society).

Plato points out that if you had a nutritionist and a pastry chef each cook food for children, the children would reliably think the pastry chef’s food is better. That is because the children are misled by taste, thinking the worse food is in fact the better. Plato argues that in many similar contexts we mistakenly prioritize the appearance of good over the actual good, especially when the actual good is difficult to identify. The good proper to ideas is truth. However, those skilled in rhetoric can package their ideas so that they appear true even when they are false. The good proper to soap is its ability to clean. However, most cleaning companies focus on proper perfuming so that things at least smell clean whether or not they are.

This division between the true good and the apparent good exists, according to Plato, because we are not only rational creatures but are embodied rational creatures. We don’t just have a rational nature which can recognize the good of things, we also have animalistic appetites which cannot track goodness directly and so instead perceive goodness by way of proxies.

Physical attraction is the proxy our animalistic body uses to decide who to marry, even though the correlation between physical attraction and spouse quality is weak at best. Taste is the proxy our animalistic body uses to decide what food is good to eat, even though in our environment the correlation between taste and health is often inverted.

This distinction of Plato’s is, I think, a useful way for thinking about outward appearance. The ‘inward reality’ concerns the actual good of the thing, and the outward appearance describes how that goodness appears to our appetites.

Aristotle’s Insight on the Second Good of Activity

Once you have Plato’s distinction in mind, you might think that wrapping presents is clearly vain. After all, it involves a focus on outward appearances, and even worse, a focus on outward appearances that have nothing to do with the primary good of the gift. You can make food taste better by adding salt, but at least salt is also an important nutrient to human health! If you wrap Christmas presents nicely, it does nothing to improve the actual good of the inner gift. So to understand why wrapping presents might still be valuable, we now need to turn to the insights of Aristotle.

Plato tended to be pretty harsh on our physical bodies. He, at times, wrote as though we are rational selves trapped in a physical body that, for the most part, just gets in the way. It is thus, perhaps, not surprising that he didn’t see value in our animalistic appetites seeing things as good.

Aristotle, however, had a somewhat more balanced view of the integration of body and soul. For Aristotle, it would not only be a mistake to think of ourselves as souls trapped in a body, he would not even think it possible for a soul to be trapped in a body. For Aristotle, the body and soul (or matter and form) are inextricably linked together; they don’t make sense without one another.

This led Aristotle to pay more attention to how we want to integrate our animalistic appetites with the judgment of our reason. For Aristotle, pleasure is not a mere distraction, rather it can perfect other already good activities. And it is this idea of perfecting which will help us understand why it might be good to wrap presents.

To understand Aristotle’s notion of perfection, we need to distinguish between two different goods. The first is the good object of an activity – the good object of eating is healthy food. The second is the good activity itself. Not only is food good, but it is also good to eat food. Not only is a person good, but it is also good to befriend or marry that person. Not only is an idea good (that is true), but it is also good to believe or understand that idea.

Aristotle’s central insight, then, is that the good of outward appearances does nothing for the good of the object. But it does make easier the good of the activity. And the reason it makes that activity easier is because we are not just rational souls, we are also physical bodies, and the outer appearances make it easier for our whole bodies to enter into the activity.

That food is tasty does not make the food better for you, but it certainly makes it easier to eat the food. It allows you to enter into the activity of eating more fully. Similarly, that someone is physically attractive is not a good reason to marry someone. But it is still a good thing if you find your spouse attractive, because it makes it easier to care for and love your spouse. Your animalistic appetites cooperate with, rather than fight with, your reason.

It is this role that Aristotle has in mind when he says that pleasure perfects our activities. I can pursue the good even if I don’t enjoy it, but when I enjoy what I am doing I am able to enter into the activity more fully.

Aristotle’s insight is that, as embodied creatures, the outward appearances which give rise to bodily pleasure help us enter our whole selves (and not just our rational selves) into an activity. Rhetoric can be used to mislead, as it is often used in government propaganda. But it can also be used to help people more deeply appreciate what is true (as is the case in Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

So then, the reason we wrap presents need not be a simple sop to our vanity. Rather, it can be a way to recognize that the person you are giving a gift to is not just a rational soul but a human person — someone who has not just an intellect that can tell what is good about a gift, but someone with eyes which can be drawn in by the beauty of a present. Beautifying the exterior, while it can be vain or deceptive, can also be an appropriate way to help one fully enter into and appreciate the inner good.

Civility, Testimonial Injustice, and Commitment to Philosophy

black-and-white photograph of man and woman yelling into megaphones

The American people are extremely politically polarized. Polling shows that this divide is only increasing, particularly on issues of race and gender. Recent revelations that have come out as a result of whistleblowing about the practices of Facebook confirm what many of us probably already expected based on our own personal experiences — social media makes these chasms even wider by contributing to the spread of false information and creating echo chambers for groups of like-minded extremists to speak to one another at the exclusion of any dissenting voices or disconfirming evidence.

The state of politics today has many people longing for an imaginary past in which those who disagreed did so respectfully. In this utopia, we focus exclusively on the merits of arguments (the good kind) rather than simply attacking people. We recognize that dissent is healthy, and we appreciate the insight of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty when he said,

the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. 

Here, Mill illustrates a certain kind of learning process — one that is employed by Socrates in his conversations with the citizens of Athens. To understand which conclusions we ought to adopt, we ought to listen to the arguments that people make. If we identify an error in reasoning, we can calmly point it out and everyone involved will be the better for it, as it might bring us all that much closer to truth. Perhaps, like Socrates, the finer points of our arguments will be met from even the staunchest dissenter from our position with a “that is undeniable” or “that is perfectly true” for good measure.

So, is it “philosophy to the rescue!”? One way of responding to our current predicament is to insist that everyone needs a strong education in logic and critical thinking. People need to develop the ability not only to recognize the commission of a fallacy when they see it, but also to frequently (and in good faith) reflect on their own body of beliefs and attitudes. We need to collectively get better at checking for cognitive bias and errors in reasoning in both ourselves and others.

On the other hand, we might ask ourselves whether the above account of Plato and Mill is an accurate description of the circumstances in which we are likely to find ourselves. A more compelling insight might be one from 18th century philosopher David Hume who famously said, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Hume makes the argument the reason alone does not and cannot motivate us to act — it is our passions that do that. If this is the case, then if we want to arrive at a common understanding or come together in motivation toward a common cause, we need to understand the complexities of one another’s psychologies; we need to recognize the common forces that might potentially move us to action. We might have arguments for our positions, but is it really those arguments that motivate us to act in the ways that we do?

Moreover, to insist that what’s needed now in contemporary culture is more civil discourse may be to fail to recognize certain obvious facts about the way that the world works. In an ideal world, it might be the case that we could all offer arguments, and expect to be heard and understood. However, the non-ideal world in which we find ourselves is a world characterized by power dynamics and replete with testimonial injustice. Groups with power are more likely to be listened to and believed than groups without it. The claims of the rich, for instance, are often given a considerably larger platform than the claims of the poor. What’s more, those on the desirable side of the power dynamic are more likely to describe themselves and to be described by others as “rational.” Often, these descriptions confuse the category of the “rational” with the category of “positions held by the powerful.”

Philosophers from antiquity have identified the capacity to reason as the essence of a human being, but, just as reliably, the concept of rationality has been weaponized to create “us” and “them” groups which are subsequently called upon to insist on “rights for me but not for thee.” Consider, for instance the Cartesian philosopher Nicolas Malebranche’s description of the way women’s minds work:

…normally they are incapable of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover. Everything abstract is incomprehensible to them. They cannot use their imagination for working out tangled and complex questions. They consider only the surface of things, and their imagination has insufficient strength and insight to pierce it to the heart, comparing all the parts, without being distracted. A trifle is enough to distract them, the slightest cry frightens them, the least motion fascinates them. Finally, the style and not the reality of things suffices to occupy their minds to capacity; because insignificant things produce great motions in the delicate fibers of their brains, and these things necessarily excite great and vivid feelings in their souls, completely occupying it.

Indeed, many figures in the history of philosophy who argue that rationality is the essential human function are also quick to insist that not all human beings participate in this essence. For Aristotle, for example, groups that are not capable of engaging in the kinds of practical deliberations requisite for virtue, namely women and “natural slaves,” are the kinds of beings that are rightly ruled over.

In light of the weaponized history of the very concept of rationality, it is no surprise that there might be barriers to genuine rational discourse and debate — people may not recognize the biases they bring to the discussion and they may not be self-reflective enough to understand that there may be voices to which they are less likely to listen or to treat as credible. If this is the case, we run into another problem for civil discourse. When people have been the recipients of testimonial injustice often enough, they may no longer be calm about it. They may be angry, and that anger may be justified. Demands, then, for “rationality” may just be tone-policing by the group to which people have always listened.

What lessons should lovers of philosophy learn from all of this? Evaluation of arguments is, after all, what we do. Should these considerations encourage us to give up our most deeply-held convictions as philosophers? Probably not. But it should prompt us to be more reflective about the broader social and political landscapes in which we make and, perhaps more importantly, listen to arguments.

The Aristotelian Vulgarity of Billionaires in Space

photograph of Blue Origin shuttle takeoff

On July 11th, billionaire Sir Richard Branson (net worth: ≈$5,400,000,000) made history by becoming the first human to partially self-fund his own trip into space. An investor and entrepreneur who rose to fame after founding Virgin Records, Branson eventually expanded that enterprise into an airline, a passenger rail company, and — possibly in the relatively near future — a space tourism business. With a current price point of about $250,000 (and predictions that the price might nearly double), a ticket to space with Branson’s Virgin Galactic will cost roughly the same amount as the total annual grocery bill for 53 average U.S. families. A host of celebrities, including Tom Hanks (net worth: ≈$400,000,000), Lady Gaga (net worth: ≈$320,000,000), and billionaire Elon Musk (net worth: ≈$168,700,000,000) have already reserved their seats.

Recently, Carlo DaVia argued here that space exploration is, in general, morally impermissible (given the host of terrestrial problems that remain below the stratosphere). In March, Senator Bernie Sanders (net worth: ≈$1,800,000) criticized Musk (whose company is developing a space program of its own and whose personal wealth exceeds the GDP of 159 countries) for prioritizing interstellar tourism at the expense of ignoring needy families, telling the tech mogul that we should instead “focus on Earth.” (Musk’s reply was a textbook example of what DaVia calls the “Insurance” argument.) To make the kind of moral judgment Sanders is invoking, we could weigh the expected utility for “a fun trip to space” against the number of unhoused or uninsured people that the same amount of money could help. Or we could consider the duties we might have to our fellows and prioritize paying two years of tuition for thirty-three students at a community college instead of choosing to experience four minutes of weightlessness.

But Aristotle would say something different: billionaires who spend their money to take themselves to space are simply not good people.

While such a conclusion might sound similar to the other kinds of judgments mentioned above, Aristotle’s concern for human virtue (as opposed to, say, utility-maximization or respect for creaturely dignity) grounds this moral assessment in a fundamentally different, and also more basic, place. Rather than concentrating on the morality of a choice, Aristotle is persistently focused on the character of the person making that choice; insofar as your choices offer a window into your character, Aristotle believes them useful as potential evidence for a more comprehensive assessment, but it is always and only the latter that really matters when making ethical judgments.

Virtues, then, are the kinds of positive character traits that allow a human to live the best kind of life that humans qua humans can live; vices are, more or less, the opposite. Notably, Aristotle identifies that most, if not all, virtues are opposed by two vices: a deficiency and an excess. Just as the story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ demonstrates, it is not only bad to have too little of a good thing, but it can be equally bad to have too much — real virtue, to Aristotle, is a matter of threading the needle to find the “Golden Mean” (or average) between each extreme. Consider a virtue like “courage” — when someone lacks courage, then they demonstrate the vice of “cowardice,” but when they have too much courage, they may possess the vice of “rashness.” On Aristotle’s model, learning how to live an ethical life is a matter of cultivating your habits such that you aptly demonstrate the right amount of each virtuous character trait.

In Book Four of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies at least two virtuous character traits that are relevant for thinking about billionaires in space: what he calls “liberality” and “magnificence.” Both are related to how a good person spends their money, with the first relating “to the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving.” As he explains in NE IV.1, a good/virtuous person is someone who “will give for the sake of the noble, and rightly; for he will give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time, with all the other qualifications that accompany right giving.” Importantly, a good person will not spend their money begrudgingly or reluctantly, but will do so “with pleasure or without pain.” To lack this virtue is to have what Aristotle calls the vice of “meanness” (or caring too much about one’s wealth such that you never spend it, even to pay for things on which it should be spent); to have this virtue in excess is to be what he calls a “prodigal” (or a person who persistently spends more money on things than they rightly deserve).

So, while it might seem like Branson, Musk and others could be exhibiting prodigality insofar as they are spending exorbitant amounts of money on a fleeting, personal experience (or, perhaps, displaying meanness by stubbornly refusing to give that money to others who might need it for more important matters), Aristotle would point out that this might not be the most relevant factor to consider. It is indeed possible for a billionaire to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an orbital trip while also donating large sums of money to charity (Branson, in particular, is well-known for his philanthropic work), thereby complicating a simple “yes/no” judgment about a person’s character on this single metric alone.

But this is precisely where the Aristotelian virtue of magnificence becomes important. While many of the virtues that Aristotle discusses (like courage, patience, and truthfulness) are familiar to contemporary thoughts on positive character traits, others (like wittiness or shame) might sound odd to present-day ears — Aristotelian magnificence is in this second category. According to Aristotle, the virtuous person will not only give their money away in the right manner (thereby demonstrating liberality), but will also specifically spend large sums of money in a way that is artistic and in good taste. This can happen in both public and private contexts (though Aristotle primarily gives examples pertaining to the financing of public festivals in NE IV.2) — what matters is that the virtuous person displays her genuine greatness (as a specimen of humanity) by appropriately displaying her wealth (neither falling prey to the deficiency of “cheapness” or the excess of “vulgarity”). Wealthy people who lack magnificence will spend large sums of money to attract attention to themselves as wealthy people, putting on gaudy displays that are ultimately wasteful and pretentious; virtuous people will spend large sums of money wisely to appropriately benefit others and display the already-true reality of their own virtuousness.

So, when Aristotle describes the “vulgar” person as someone who “where he ought to spend much he spends little and where little, much,” he might well look to Virgin Galactic’s founder and soon-to-be customers as people lacking the kind of good taste relevant to virtuous magnificence. Such outlandish displays of extravagant wealth (such as the would-be tourist who paid a different company the non-refundable sum of $28,000,000 to ride to space, but then canceled their plans, citing “scheduling conflicts”) fail to meet Aristotle’s expectation that the magnificent person “will spend such sums for the sake of the noble” (NE IV.2).

Ultimately, this means that Aristotle can side-step debates over the relative usefulness of space travel versus philanthropy or deductive analyses of the moral obligations relevant for the ultra-wealthy to instead speak simply about how such choices reflect back upon the character of the person making them. For a contrasting example, consider MacKenzie Scott; since divorcing billionaire Jeff Bezos (net worth: $212,400,000,000) in 2019, Scott has donated over $8,500,000,000 to a wide range of charities and non-profit organizations. Asking whether or not Scott was morally required or otherwise obligated to make such donations is, on Aristotle’s view, beside the point: her choice to spend her money in noble ways is instead indicative of a good character.

Meanwhile, Scott’s ex-husband is scheduled to make a space flight of his own tomorrow.

On Some Philosophical Roots of Pixar’s “Soul”

image of "Soul" logo

[SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses several plot details of Disney and Pixar’s new movie “Soul.”]
On December 25th, the 23rd feature film from Pixar Animation Studios was released on the Disney+ streaming platform to great popular acclaim; after nearly a week, “Soul” has steadily retained a 90% score at Rotten Tomatoes with over 2600 audience reviews. Although it has garnered some criticism over at least one of its casting choices, the film’s presentation of a man struggling to come to terms with his life choices (while simultaneously trying to convince a skeptical spirit of life’s value) has resonated with viewers. And, as is often the case with Pixar products, there is plenty of philosophical material to unpack.
Beginning with the death of long-aspiring jazz musician Joe Gardner, much of “Soul” portrays a metaphysical universe that, while cartoonish, might look familiar to anyone who has taken a class on ancient Greek philosophy. According to Plato, something like a spiritual world (the world of the Forms) is more fundamental to reality than the familiar physical world and all human souls exist there before they enter human bodies; Joe Gardner’s discovery of the Great Before, where nascent souls are formed prior to being born on Earth, functions in a similar kind of way to Plato’s sense of a “pre-existence” to life on Earth. However, Plato’s Forms have little to do with a soul “finding their spark” to get their pass to Earth; the character of 22 would need a mentor, in Plato’s perspective, after birth (to be able to remember their innate knowledge of reality, as described in the Meno dialogue), not before it (as in the movie — although Plato does include something similar to “Soul”’s instructors in the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic). “Soul” never explains what happens when a person’s spirit enters the Great Beyond (but its depiction is ominously reminiscent of a bug-zapping lamp), so it’s hard to compare its sense of the afterlife to anything, but at least some Christian traditions (most notably, those stemming from the third century theologian Origen and the 19th century revolutionary Joseph Smith) whole-heartedly embrace a literal sort of pre-existence for human souls.
This sort of dualistic framework (that sees a human being as the composite of two substances: a physical body and nonphysical soul) would go on to powerfully influence Western philosophers and theologians alike; indeed, many contemporary beliefs about human nature bear some form of the ancient Greek stamp (consider, for example, just how many popular stories hinge on some kind of philosophical dualism). “Soul” not only mines this Platonic concept for its setting but for its plot as well when Joe’s spirit accidentally falls into a cat (while 22 temporarily takes over Joe’s body). This kind of event is roughly dependent on what is sometimes called a “simple” view of personal identity (as expressed by, for example, Descartes) whereby what makes a person themselves is simply a matter of their soul (their body is, in a sense, “extra” or “unnecessary” for such calculations).
Many reviews of “Soul”, however, focus less on its metaphysical framework and more on its existentialist message. Granted, existentialist themes — especially those focusing on individuals discovering personal meaning for their lives and “finding their place in the world” — are tropes long trod by Pixar since it released “Toy Story” in 1995 and appear also in films like “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” and “Toy Story 4” (that last one even helped Dictionary.com select “existential” as its 2019 Word of the Year). In a similar way, other releases (like “Finding Nemo,” “Up,” “Coco,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inside Out,” and “Onward”) grapple with the meaning of life specifically within the context of grief, loss, and death. In this way, “Soul” is but the latest in a long line of entertaining animated depictions of philosophical reflections on what it means to be human.
What makes “Soul” unique, however, is that, rather than focusing on what makes individuals special, the film highlights what we all have in common. The climax of the movie comes when Joe Gardner, after accidentally helping 22 find their spark that will allow them to go to Earth, learns that such sparks are not measures or definitions of a soul’s purpose or calling — they are simply an indication that a soul is “ready to live.” Throughout the film, Joe had been operating on the assumption that his spark was “music” because hearing and playing jazz filled him with such passion for life that he felt satisfied and happy in a way far beyond any other experience. Early on, Joe tries, with little luck, to help 22 discover their own passion; it is only after 22 gets an accidental taste of life in Joe’s body that they are truly ready to live — even though 22 never discovers specifically what their “calling” in life might be.
This kind of thinking smells less like Plato than it does his student Aristotle. While Aristotle has a rather different view of the soul than his predecessor (for example: Aristotle denies that a “soul” can sensibly be separated from a “body” like Platonic dualists might allow), Aristotle nevertheless recognizes that something like a soul is a crucial part of our makeup. To Aristotle, your soul is what explains how your body moves and changes, but it isn’t something substantively distinct from it; for example, he draws an analogy to a bronze statue of Hermes: just like how you could not remove the “shape of Hermes” from the bronze without destroying the statue, you could not remove the soul from a body without destroying a person (for more, see his explanation of “hylomorphism”). So, if the soul is something like a power that directs a body to perform different actions, the big question is “what actions should a soul direct a body to perform?” Crucially, Aristotle thinks that the answer to this question is the same for all humans, simply in virtue of being human: we all have the same ergon (“function” or “task”), so what’s “good” for all humans is the same: in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that this amounts to “activity of soul in accordance with virtue.”
So, unlike what he originally assumed, what was ultimately “good” for Joe Gardner was not simply a matter of “playing jazz” — it was a matter of living life in the right way. True happiness (what Aristotle calls “eudaimonia”) is not simply a matter of performing a single task well, but of living all of life, holistically, in a manner that fits with how human lives are meant to be lived. Similarly, whatever sort of passions 22 might discover during their life on Earth, what’s “good” for 22 will also amount to living life in the right way (maple seeds, lollipops, and all). The reason why Jerry (the interdimensional being in charge of the Great Before) explains to Joe that a spark is not a life’s “purpose” is because life itself is the purpose of all souls — empowering beings to live their lives is why souls exist, at least according to Aristotle.
In the scene that sets up the climax of the film, Dorothea Williams tells Joe a story about a dissatisfied fish looking for the ocean, not realizing that he was swimming in it all along; in different ways, both Plato and Aristotle offer their own commentaries on how we can forget (or fail to notice) the sorts of things that give our lives real meaning. Sometimes, it’s nice to have movies like “Soul” to help us remember.

Under Discussion: Aristotelian Temperance and Cultured Meat

photograph of raw steak arranged on butcher block with cleaver and greenery

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat.

On the 19th of December, so-called “cultured meat” was listed for the first time on a restaurant menu when the Singaporean eatery 1880 began offering lab-grown chicken from the American company Eat Just. Unlike its standard counterpart, an ingredient like cultured meat (also sometimes called “in vitro” meat) is not harvested from the dead body of an animal raised for slaughter, but is literally grown in a cultured solution much like a petri dish (hence the name “cultured”). While meat-substitutes of various types have become increasingly popular in recent years, this newly-approved product goes one step further: rather than simply aiming to mimic the flavor and texture of meat with plant-based ingredients, cultured meat is biologically (and, by most reports, experientially) identical to “meat” as typically conceived — it is simply not meat grown in the normal way.

For many, cultured meat offers one of the most economical and practical methods for potentially dismantling the ethical scourge that is the industrial factory farming system (responsible as it is for the annual torture and death of billions of chickens, cows, pigs, and more). If cultured meat can be produced economically at a scale sufficient to satisfy popular demands for meat products, then consumers might well be able to stubbornly maintain their meat-eating habits without requiring the suffering and death of so many creatures each year. From a utilitarian perspective, the moral calculation is clear: to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, we seemingly must pull the switch and convert our societal habits from eating meat to eating cultured meat.

But, this leaves open alternative questions about the ethics of eating cultured meat. For example, even if it’s true that cultured meat could offer a viable method for satisfying culinary desires for meat in a way that requires comparably little animal death, that does little to address the problem of having those desires in the first place.

In a recent article, Raja Halwani argues that the Aristotelian virtue of temperance gives us two ways of thinking about how to consider our meat-eating desires: as a matter of desiring the wrong object or as a matter of desiring the right object in the wrong way. As Aristotle himself explains in the Nicomachean Ethics, the temperate person:

“neither enjoys the things that the self-indulgent man enjoys most—but rather dislikes them—nor in general the things that he should not, nor anything of this sort to excess, nor does he feel pain or craving when they are absent, or does so only to a moderate degree, and not more than he should, nor when he should not, and so on” (emphasis added).

While temperance is often considered primarily as a matter of the latter practice — that is, as a restraint on the uncontrolled pursuit of our desires of taste (as exemplified perhaps most infamously in the American Temperance movement) — Aristotle also points out that the temperate person will lack a taste for things that should not be desired.

That is to say, it is one thing to desire something inappropriate while consciously restraining yourself from acting on that desire, while it is quite another to simply not desire the inappropriate thing at all. Imagine, for example, that Moe is a person who (for some reason) desires to murder a series of innocent people in some horrifically gruesome manner. Although he imagines that he would feel great pleasure at committing murder (and, indeed, takes pleasure simply in his imagination of doing so), Moe knows that acting on those murderous desires would be wrong, so he works hard to suppress them and (thankfully) never actually kills anyone. Calvin, in contrast, lacks the desire to murder anyone and, therefore, never commits murder. While it is true that, on one level, Moe and Calvin are the same — neither of them is a murderer — it is also the case that we could say that Calvin is better than Moe in at least some way.

To Aristotle, Moe’s case evidences a kind of continence insofar as Moe has mastered control of his improper desires (because he desires the wrong thing — namely, murder); as Aristotle says, the continent person “knowing that his appetites are bad, refuses on account of his rational principle to follow them.” This means that Moe also demonstrates a lack of what Nicolas Bommarito has described as a kind of “inner virtue” insofar as Moe’s tendency to feel pleasure at even just imaginary murder manifests “morally important cares or concerns” — in this case, they are “morally important” precisely because they are unethical. So, while it is true that we should also recognize Moe’s conscious restraint as proof of separate moral virtues (assuming that his restraint is borne from more than simple self-preservation or a desire to avoid punishment), it is still the case that Moe’s murderous desires are vicious.

What, then, do we make of cultured meat?

Although Halwani does not specifically discuss in vitro meat, he mentions briefly that it “might even be that the temperate person would not desire fake meat processed to look and taste like common forms of meat, such as the Impossible Burger, given that they imitate the kind of meat produced through a cruel history of suffering and death.” Or, like Rossi argued here at the Prindle Post, if cultured meat continues to encourage popular attitudes or perspectives of animals as “edible,” then it might well be serving to perpetuate a less-than-ideal set of desires, even if there are few direct problems with a tasty meal of ethically-produced in vitro meat. Like Halwani points out, temperate individuals might well be morally required to forego various aesthetic pleasures “when they come at the expense of immoral actions,” but the point is that the truly temperate person would not suffer from desires for immoral objects in the first place.

In effect, cultured meat could be promoting a structural sort of continence for our diets that recognizes the moral harms of our current food production methods and so acts to restrain them without doing anything to dissipate the original problematic desires themselves.

Admittedly, I’m taking for granted here that the currently standard system of raising creatures in captivity and subjecting them to immense pain simply for the purpose of consuming their flesh is a moral abomination, regardless of how tasty that flesh might be. If cultured meat offers the most realistic opportunity to prevent widespread nonhuman animal suffering, then that alone is sufficient reason to explore its viability. But the implications of our diet for our character (and what we care about) is also important to consider, even once creaturely suffering is diminished.

In short: cultured meat might indeed do well to prevent future bloodshed, but it cannot, on its own, establish a robustly virtuous culture that lacks the desire for the products of bloodshed.

Misericordia and Trump’s Illness

photograph of screen displaying Trump's Twitter profile

Is it okay to feel joy or mirth at another person’s misfortune? In most cases, the answer is clearly ‘no.’  But what if that person is Donald Trump? If my Facebook feed is any indicator, many people are having such feelings and expressing them unapologetically. On one approach to normative ethics known as virtue ethics, the main question to ask about this is: what does this response tell us about our character? Is it compatible with good character for someone to express joy over Trump’s illness and possible demise?

For Aristotle, who is one of the originators of this approach to ethics, a virtue is a good quality of a person’s desires, emotions, and thoughts. A person has a virtue, an excellence of character, when their desires, emotions, and thinking reflect the value that the objects of these desires, emotions, and thoughts have in the context of a well-lived human life. If we are intemperate, we overvalue pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex relative to other goods such as knowledge and family; if we are cowardly, we over-value physical safety, placing it above friendship and community. Applying this framework to feeling joy over Trump’s illness, there is a question of whether we are appropriately reacting to that human being’s suffering and misfortune.

The question isn’t settled by the fact that in most cases we would condemn expressions of joy at a rival or opponent’s misfortune. Virtue ethicists favor taking context into account; it really is a matter of whether we are feeling appropriately toward this person in this context. In many cases in which we might feel Schadenfreude, we can recognize that the stakes of our disagreement or competition are simply not comparable to the value of life and freedom from suffering. If I am competing with another person for a job, say, his falling seriously ill before an important interview leading him to miss the interview should not be an occasion for joy. After all, there are other jobs, presumably, but not another life for my rival. For that reason, to display joy at the misfortune reveals a flawed character.

Aristotle, it seems to me, did not quite have what it takes to capture this thought. Although he conceived of the virtues in a powerful way that many to this day take seriously, he did not have a clear label for a virtue that came to be prominent in the Christian tradition that followed him. Thomas Aquinas gives a privileged place to the virtue of charity. For him, this is a virtue that, at least in part, comes from God, a so-called ‘infused’ virtue. Our capacity to love God and our fellow human beings appropriately goes beyond our natural resources and requires an infusion of grace. But one aspect of charity seems not require this infusion, and that is the virtue of mercy or misericordia: a virtue to respond to the suffering of others with sadness that motivates us to works of mercy, among which are enumerated visiting the sick and giving comfort to the afflicted. This is a virtue that stems from our human nature, which is susceptible to disease and injury, and we all have reason to want our disease and injury to be greeted with concern and care rather than indifference or mockery. It seems clear that in most cases, expressing joy at another’s sickness would be a clear indicator of lacking the virtue of mercy, a defect in our capacity to love our fellow human beings as they should be loved.

The case of Trump strikes me as more complex than the case of a rival for a job. After all, he has caused real suffering for many people, including thousands of children locked in detention centers. It seems to me that people inclined to feel joy at Trump’s suffering have felt enormous, and to my mind, appropriate anguish over the impact of Trump’s policies. Further, he has himself created the conditions that have led to the prevalence of the very illness that he has caught.  Hence, his illness may seem a just comeuppance to someone who has at every turn showed himself to be self-serving, oblivious to the impact of his decisions on others, and therefore who himself clearly lacks the virtue of mercy.

And so, does the lack of mercy in someone, including someone whose decisions are so consequential for the well-being of others, justify joy at their suffering, or does that joy indicate a lack of mercy? It seems to me clearly the latter.  It might seem as though I am responding appropriately to the goods at stake in feeling joy at Trump’s illness: I might say that ending the suffering of children in detention centers is reflected in the joy I feel at the illness and possible disablement or death of the person who caused the children’s suffering. Clearly, it would be a joyous occasion if those detention centers were closed, but that isn’t what I am rejoicing over in joy over Trump’s illness. After all, there is no certainty that his demise will bring an end to those detention centers. And so, it is really a desire for revenge: anger and a sense of powerlessness over what he has done occasions the desire to harm the cause of my anger. And so, it might seem that anger is never appropriate, inasmuch as mercy is a virtue, or else there is some inner conflict between the virtues. Yet, this need not be so. For Aquinas, there is appropriate hatred and anger, only it is not directed to the person. Instead, it is directed to acts: we can appropriate hate and feel anger at Trump’s acts and wish them to be counteracted or thwarted, but not in ways that are in conflict with the value of his life. It is, of course, understandable that these feelings get out of our control, all the more so, the more immediately our lives have been touched by what Trump’s opponents take to be his unjust and self-serving acts. Anyone who has lost someone to COVID-19 in the United States can legitimately point to the President’s deeds as a contributing cause of their loved one’s suffering and death. It is difficult to contain our hatred and anger to the acts and not extend them to the person behind the acts. Still, we might wish we did not have such feelings, and recognize that they don’t reflect our deeply considered values. Such, I think, is the right stance to take on expressions of joy over Trump’s illness.

Panic Buying and the Virtue of Compassion

black and white photograph of old and young hands touching

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads around the globe, the prospect of more communities, cities, whole regions and countries going into lockdown is becoming a reality.

As I write this, in Australia mass gatherings are banned, travel restrictions are being introduced and a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone entering from overseas is being instituted. Yet even several weeks ago, before the mass cancellation of events and activities, one of a myriad of ‘effects’ of the epidemic in Australia has been a massive toilet paper shortage.

In many places around the country, especially the major cities, large supermarkets and grocery store shelves have been emptied. It is unclear exactly how this started; but once a view, and a concern, had formed in the community that there would be shortages of toilet paper people began to panic-buy and stockpile it. In so doing those people have created shortages which have in turn led to further panic and rushes on stocks as soon as they are replenished. This kind of panic-buying (a problem encountered also in other countries) has also affected many other grocery items and medical supplies, and concerns have been raised about whether some of the most vulnerable members of the community are missing out on essentials as panic buying and stockpiling continues. In response, as of yesterday, Australian supermarkets have now introduced purchase limits on certain items to prevent stockpiling at the expense of others.

It is often said, and often seen, that times of tragedy and trouble, bring us together, and bring out the best in us. We have witnessed many times (for example in the recent bushfire crisis in Australia) people coming together, cooperating, and helping one another in times of disaster sometimes at great personal risk.

These moments are often thought of as a kind of moral test. Though we do encounter the best of ourselves, and the best – most virtuous – moral reflection of human behaviour in such moments, the opposite can also be true.

A video which appeared on social media and then on mainstream news outlets last week of people fighting in a shopping centre over toilet paper illustrates what it can look like when people think of their struggle as competitive rather than cooperative – when people believe they must struggle against, rather than with, others.

In the video, one person has a large shopping cart piled high with packets of toilet paper and can be seen driving her cart away from an isle whose shelves are completely empty. A second person approaches, asks for one packet from the full trolley, and upon being refused, a physical fight ensues, in which two other parties promptly intervene.

The point of the example is not to show these particular people up, but to point out that this moment, and others like it not filmed and disseminated, represents the antithesis to the virtues of generosity and cooperation that are the markers of our ‘better natures’ and traits that we, as a community and a society, rely upon in times of crisis or trouble.

When we say something like “these are testing times” we mean that we may be tested in all sorts of ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, morally. Perhaps there is a sense here also of that test being able to tell us something about what we, as humans, are really like.

Many of the questions we unpack and debate in moral philosophy concern, at bottom, views about what human nature, essentially, is like: whether, for instance, we are more naturally altruistic or self-interested by nature.

It is clear even to a casual observer of the human condition there is a spectrum – of people, of actions, and contexts – between self-interest and altruism. We also know there are psychologically complex reasons for people to behave in certain ways in particular situations. It is a difficult question to answer – how separate should we should think of moral reasons as being from other sorts of reasons? Even so, the moral test presented by times of crisis and trouble is doubly significant as a test of our societal ethical values and those of our personal character.

Aristotle, in his treatise on ethics, made the cultivation of personal virtues central to the question of what constitutes an ethical life. The virtues are traits that belong to and are exercised by individuals. Importantly, they are acquired by practice in a process Aristotle called ‘habituation’ by which one learns to be virtuous by practicing virtue in a similar way to the learning of a musical instrument by playing it. He thought of the ethical life as a craft: learned and perfected through practice, rather than issuing from a set of rules.

Hoarding and scrapping, as captured on the film, is clearly not the kind of virtuous behavior that will help us to get through times of trouble and help us to emerge as a strong community. Behavior that issues from the self-interested, individualistic realms of human nature has its place in dystopian apocalyptic fiction, but such fiction foreshadows for us a possible reality.

As things currently stand, the public has been notified that essential supplies are not going to run out, therefore stockpiling toilet paper, and other grocery items, is irrational. Yet people are driven by panic and mistrust to continue to hoard. The appropriate moral response requires us to strengthen our character and that of our society against such impulsive behavior and to foster trust and listen to reason. We are rational creatures, and we are better when we use our reason – which suggests that our morality is related in important ways to our capacity for reason.

But there is something else – by which I do not mean something different from reason but something in addition to it – which we need for the moral life. Compassion. We need to cultivate, through a kind of ‘moral imagination’ the ability to see ourselves in the situation of another. We need to not make exceptions of ourselves, but to see in our own plight, that of the other. These capacities are fostered in the practical virtues of generosity and cooperation. Now is a good time to be practicing these virtues. We will need them for what lies ahead.

The Deeper Significance of Women Presidential Candidates

Kamala Harris giving a speech, smiling and speaking into microphones, with people crowded around

Women presidential candidates are appearing in unprecedented numbers for the 2020 election. So far, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard have announced their intentions to run. This surge corresponds to the 2018 midterm elections, which also saw record numbers of women obtaining seats previously held by men. In the wake of the 2016 election, when the presidential confirmation of a Donald Trump won the day over an eminently qualified female candidate, it seems that more women are ready to run and more people are eager to elect them.

 From the stoic prudence of Angela Merkel to the fallen humanitarian Aung San Suu Kyi, it is clear that women are as capable and complex as their male peers in positions of leadership. Women are leaders around the world, though recently they constituted only 6 percent of international leaders compared to male heads of state.  

American voters believe women score equally or higher than men in terms of valued leadership qualities, but women still lag behind men in positions of power, including their most glaring omission in the role of the US presidency.

Reactionary streams in American politics likely bear some role in women’s lagging parity. The most recent iterations include the conservatism of the neo-Nazi movement espoused by Richard Spencer, the unlikely stardom of Jordan Peterson, purveyor of 19th century psycho-social truisms presented as original contrarian theories, and the backlash to the #MeToo movement among Republican leadership exemplified in the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after his histrionic confirmation hearing.

At the same time, these reactions to change suggest that unparalleled changes are occurring. Among them is a redefinition of character norms.  

Our very notion of “virtue,” a core term in philosophical discussions about character, has gendered connotations. The word “virtue” in English derives from the Latin word for “manliness.” While the ancient Greek term for virtue is gender-neutral, i.e. excellence (arete), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics treats personal greatness as the birthright of a very few men. Aristotle speaks of courage and justice, but also liberality and magnanimity, character traits which reflect a superior social standing. Aristotle, like so many of his successors, demarcated virtue and public life as the space for the few males who belonged to an emancipated, land-owning, citizen class. This separation was made possible by setting aside manual and household labor or “economy” – literally, household management, as the province of women, slaves, and the non-citizen class of men. It was this vast majority’s task to create value which would accrue to the men in charge. It is thus no surprise that “magnanimity” or “greatness of soul” (characterized by a sense of entitlement) also figures largely among Aristotle’s virtues.

Because women, slaves, and non-citizen men performed the labors of life, Hellenistic aristocratic men enjoyed leisure or “paideia,” which permitted education and a public life that are essential for political participation. This primary division of labor and leisure justified an oligarchic and patriarchal logic: might equals right. This is the circular logic of power: those who are in power must have managed it by being somehow superior (an argument Aristotle makes in his Politics) or conversely, those who are in power determine the rules because they can enforce them. The latter is put forward by Plato’s Thrasymachus in the Republic (Thrasymachus, incidentally, may be one of the most socially-realist characters in early philosophical literature). This ancient rationalization of “might equals right” has enjoyed a surprisingly long shelf life. America’s founding fathers similarly opted for a “republic” rather than a democracy, ensuring that only a very few, adult, European-descended, property-owning men could vote. Even today, the fundamental logics of white supremacy and extreme capitalism can be parsed in very similar lines.

Given that women, persons of color, and LGTBQ individuals have been running for office in record numbers since Trump, it will be interesting to see the kind of politics that arises from communities that are not accustomed to power and representation as their birthright. Figures like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and the Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggest visions for a more inclusive distribution of power, labor, representation and compensation. In the long, painful stages of late capitalism where a middle class has all but disappeared, and the majority of Americans are carrying most of the burdens of contemporary life while only a very few enjoy its rewards, it seems that voters are ripe for a new kind of politics.

Rethinking Modification of the Natural World

Photograph of people touring glass biospheres

Aristotle famously pointed out that humans stand out from other living beings because humans are rational.  To live a flourishing human life is to live in accordance with the dictates of reason. Much of the philosophical thought about the essence of man going forward was heavily influenced by what Aristotle had to say on this point.  It is hard to deny the importance of rationality for the survival of the human species. Because we can reason, we can use language, make plans, satisfy obligations, know things about the world, and, importantly, we can change the world as we see fit to meet our needs.  It would be an understatement to say that we took full advantage of that last part. It is important that we ask ourselves: Are there any constraints on how far we should take our ability to modify the world around us? Continue reading “Rethinking Modification of the Natural World”