Thursday, July 17, 2014

In Praise of Failure

Costica Bradatan
The New York Times, December 15, 2013

Costica Bradatan is an associate professor in the Honors College at Texas Tech University and the religion and comparative studies editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the author of the forthcoming Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers.”

If there was ever a time to think seriously about failure, it is now.

We are firmly in an era of accelerated progress. We are witness to advancements in science, the arts, technology, medicine and nearly all forms of human achievement at a rate never seen before. We know more about the workings of the human brain and of distant galaxies than our ancestors could imagine. The design of a superior kind of human being – healthier, stronger, smarter, more handsome, more enduring – seems to be in the works. Even immortality may now appear feasible, a possible outcome of better and better biological engineering.

Certainly the promise of continual human progress and improvement is alluring. But there is a danger there, too — that in this more perfect future, failure will become obsolete.

Why should we care? And more specifically, why should philosophy care about failure? Doesn’t it have better things to do? The answer is simple: Philosophy is in the best position to address failure because it knows it intimately. The history of Western philosophy at least is nothing but a long succession of failures, if productive and fascinating ones. Any major philosopher typically asserts herself by addressing the “failures,” “errors,” “fallacies” or “naiveties” of other philosophers, only to be, in turn, dismissed by others as yet another failure. Every new philosophical generation takes it as its duty to point out the failures of the previous one; it is as though, no matter what it does, philosophy is doomed to fail. Yet from failure to failure, it has thrived over the centuries. As Emmanuel Levinas memorably put it (in an interview with Richard Kearney), “the best thing about philosophy is that it fails.” Failure, it seems, is what philosophy feeds on, what keeps it alive. As it were, philosophy succeeds only in so far as it fails.

So, allow me to make a case for the importance of failure.

Failure is significant for several reasons. I’d like to discuss three of them.

Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition.

Whenever it occurs, failure reveals just how close our existence is to its opposite. Out of our survival instinct, or plain sightlessness, we tend to see the world as a solid, reliable, even indestructible place. And we find it extremely difficult to conceive of that world existing without us. “It is entirely impossible for a thinking being to think of its own non-existence, of the termination of its thinking and life,” observed Goethe. Self-deceived as we are, we forget how close to not being we always are. The failure of, say, a plane engine could be more than enough to put an end to everything; even a falling rock or a car’s faulty brakes can do the job. And while it may not be always fatal, failure always carries with it a certain degree of existential threat.

Failure is the sudden irruption of nothingness into the midst of existence. To experience failure is to start seeing the cracks in the fabric of being, and that’s precisely the moment when, properly digested, failure turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For it is this lurking, constant threat that should make us aware of the extraordinariness of our being: the miracle that we exist at all when there is no reason that we should. Knowing that gives us some dignity.

In this role, failure also possesses a distinct therapeutic function. Most of us (the most self-aware or enlightened excepted) suffer chronically from a poor adjustment to existence; we compulsively fancy ourselves much more important than we are and behave as though the world exists only for our sake; in our worst moments, we place ourselves like infants at the center of everything and expect the rest of the universe to be always at our service. We insatiably devour other species, denude the planet of life and fill it with trash. Failure could be a medicine against such arrogance and hubris, as it often brings humility.

Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are.

We need to preserve, cultivate, even treasure this capacity. It is crucial that we remain fundamentally imperfect, incomplete, erring creatures; in other words, that there is always a gap left between what we are and what we can be. Whatever human accomplishments there have been in history, they have been possible precisely because of this empty space. It is within this interval that people, individuals as well as communities, can accomplish anything. Not that we’ve turned suddenly into something better; we remain the same weak, faulty material. But the spectacle of our shortcomings can be so unbearable that sometimes it shames us into doing a little good. Ironically, it is the struggle with our own failings that may bring the best in us.

The gap between what we are and what we can be is also the space in which utopias are conceived. Utopian literature, at its best, may document in detail our struggle with personal and societal failure. While often constructed in worlds of excess and plenitude, utopias are a reaction to the deficits and precariousness of existence; they are the best expression of what we lack most. Thomas More’s book is not so much about some imaginary island, but about the England of his time. Utopias may look like celebrations of human perfection, but read in reverse they are just spectacular admissions of failure, imperfection and embarrassment.

And yet it is crucial that we keep dreaming and weaving utopias. If it weren’t for some dreamers, we would live in a much uglier world today. But above all, without dreams and utopias we would dry out as a species. Suppose one day science solves all our problems: We will be perfectly healthy, live indefinitely, and our brains, thanks to some enhancement, will work like a computer. On that day we may be something very interesting, but I am not sure we will have what to live for. We will be virtually perfect and essentially dead.

Ultimately, our capacity to fail makes us what we are; our being as essentially failing creatures lies at the root of any aspiration. Failure, fear of it and learning how to avoid it in the future are all part of a process through which the shape and destiny of humanity are decided. That’s why, as I hinted earlier, the capacity to fail is something that we should absolutely preserve, no matter what the professional optimists say. Such a thing is worth treasuring, even more so than artistic masterpieces, monuments or other accomplishments. For, in a sense, the capacity to fail is much more important than any individual human achievements: It is that which makes them possible.

We are designed to fail.

No matter how successful our lives turn out to be, how smart, industrious or diligent we are, the same end awaits us all: “biological failure.” The “existential threat” of that failure has been with us all along, though in order to survive in a state of relative contentment, most of us have pretended not to see it. Our pretense, however, has never stopped us from moving toward our destination; faster and faster, “in inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death,” as Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich expertly describes the process. Yet Tolstoy’s character is not of much help here. The more essential question is rather how to approach the grand failure, how to face it and embrace it and own it — something poor Ivan fails to do.

A better model may be Ingmar Bergman’s Antonius Block, from the film “The Seventh Seal.” A knight returning from the Crusades and plunged into crisis of faith, Block is faced with the grand failure in the form of a man. He does not hesitate to engage Death head-on. He doesn’t flee, doesn’t beg for mercy — he just challenges him to a game of chess. Needless to say, he cannot succeed in such a game — no one can — but victory is not the point. You play against the grand, final failure not to win, but to learn how to fail.

Bergman the philosopher teaches us a great lesson here. We will all end in failure, but that’s not the most important thing. What really matters is how we fail and what we gain in the process. During the brief time of his game with Death, Antonius Block must have experienced more than he did all his life; without that game he would have lived for nothing. In the end, of course, he loses, but accomplishes something rare. He not only turns failure into an art, but manages to make the art of failing an intimate part of the art of living.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Dictionary of the Social Sciences, Edited by Craig Calhoun, Oxford University Press

Refers (especially following Max Weber) to action conceived as a means to a separate and distinct end, as opposed to action conceived as an end in itself. The difference between instrumental and noninstrumental action has been a recurring subject of philosophical interest and debate since Aristotle, who recognized it as fundamental to considerations of human action. It has consequently been defined and redefined in a number of ways, and enlisted in a variety of competing and sometimes incompatible contexts. In the twentieth century, the term itself is strongly associated with the pragmatism of John Dewey, who argued that ideas should be judged not on the basis of truth and falsehood, but rather in terms of the ends they serve. Even where Dewey is concerned, however, certain kinds of ideas escape instrumental reasoning—quintessentially art, the noninstrumental object par excellence of the Western philosophical tradition since Immanuel Kant. Certain activities straddle the instrumental–noninstrumental divide; Hannah Arendt's defense of the intrinsic value of democratic action over the various specific ends that it serves is a prominent example.

As an approach to science, instrumentalism contrasts with theories of knowledge that regard objects as possessing a true or intrinsic nature that science can qualify and categorize. Other users of the term, however, strongly associate it with the scientific and technical mastery of the world rooted in subject–object relations. Instrumentalism, in this context, is deeply embedded in the Western idea of self. The dominance of instrumental reason has consequently been a subject of profound concern for the critical theorists of the Frankfurt school and other critics of Western modernity, such as Martin Heidegger. Here, instrumental reason appears not as a liberatory alternative to static or metaphysical conceptions of truth, but as a pervasive logic of existence, linked to capitalism, the marketplace, and technology, which destroys other sources and forms of value.


A Dictionary of Human Geography, Noel Castree, Rob Kitchin, and Alisdair Rogers, Oxford University Press

An approach to any relationship, practice, or object that prioritizes ends over means. Instrumentalists will use whatever methods or resources are expedient in order to realize their goals. At best, they are pragmatists able to adapt to the opportunities and constraints of a situation. At worst, however, they can act immorally or with impunity to achieve their ends—hence the critics’ motto ‘The ends can never justify the means’. In human geography and many other social sciences, for example, modern capitalist society has been criticized for using nature as a mere means to the end of amassing more wealth and improving standards of living. The result has been both a failure to treat the non-human world as an end in itself and to respect its needs or rights.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?

Emrys Westacott
Department of Philosophy, Alfred University in Western New York

Philosophy Now, Issue 79, June/July 2010

Imagine that right after briefing Adam about which fruit was allowed and which forbidden, God had installed a closed-circuit television camera in the garden of Eden, trained on the tree of knowledge. Think how this might have changed things for the better. The serpent sidles up to Eve and urges her to try the forbidden fruit. Eve reaches her hand out – in paradise the fruit is always conveniently within reach – but at the last second she notices the CCTV and thinks better of it. Result: no sin, no Fall, no expulsion from paradise. We don’t have to toil among thorns and thistles for the rest of our lives, earning our bread by the sweat of our brows; childbirth is painless; and we feel no need to wear clothes.

So why didn’t God do that and save everyone a lot of grief? True, surveillance technology was in its infancy back then, but He could have managed it, and it wouldn’t have undermined Eve’s free will. She still has a choice to make; but once she sees the camera she’s more likely to make the right choice. The most likely explanation would be that God doesn’t just want Adam and Eve to make the right choices; he wants them to make the right choices for the right reasons. Not eating the forbidden fruit because you’re afraid you’ll be caught doesn’t earn you moral credit. After all, you’re only acting out of self-interest. If paradise suffered a power cut and the surveillance was temporarily down, you’d be in there straight away with the other looters.

So what would be the right reason for not eating the fruit? Well, God is really no different than any other parent. All he wants is absolute, unquestioning obedience (which, by an amazing coincidence, also happens to be exactly what every child wants from their parents.) But God wants this obedience to be voluntary. And, very importantly, He wants it to flow from the right motive. He wants right actions to be driven not by fear, but by love for Him and reverence for what is right. (Okay, He did say to Adam, “If you eat from the tree of knowledge you will die” – which can sound a little like a threat – but grant me some literary license here.)

Moral philosophers will find themselves on familiar ground here. On this interpretation, God is a follower of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. (This would, of course, come as no surprise to Kant.) According to Kant, our actions are right when they conform to the moral rules dictated to us by our reason, and they have moral worth insofar as they are motivated by respect for that moral law. In other words, my actions have moral worth if I do what is right because I want to do the right thing. If I don’t steal someone’s iPod (just another kind of Apple, really) because I think it would be wrong to do so, then I get a moral pat on the back and am entitled to polish my halo. If I don’t steal the iPod because I’m afraid of getting caught, then I may be doing the right thing, and I may be applauded for being prudent, but I shouldn’t be given any moral credit.

Highway Star

These musings are intended to frame a set of questions: What is the likely impact of ubiquitous surveillance on our moral personalities? How might the advent of the surveillance society affect a person’s moral education and development? How does it alter the opportunities for moral growth? Does it render obsolete the Kantian emphasis on acting from a sense of duty as opposed to acting out of self-interest? Such questions fall under the rubric of a new field of research called Surveillance Impact Assessment.

Here is one way of thinking: surveillance edifies – that is, it builds moral character – by bringing duty and self-interest closer together. This outlook would probably be favoured by philosophers such as Plato and Thomas Hobbes. The reasoning is fairly simple: the better the surveillance, the more likely it is that moral transgressions will be detected and punished. Knowing this, people are less inclined to break the rules, and over time they form ingrained rule-abiding habits. The result is fewer instances of moral failure, and patterns of behaviour conducive to social harmony. A brief history of traffic surveillance illustrates the idea nicely:

Stage One (‘the state of nature’): Do whatever you please – it’s a free for all. Drive as fast as you want, in whatever condition you happen to be in. Try to avoid head-on collisions. Life is fast, fun and short.

Stage Two: The government introduces speed limits, but since they are not enforced they’re widely ignored.

Stage Three: Cops start patrolling the highways to enforce the speed limits. This inhibits a few would-be tearaways, but if you’re clever you can still beat the rap; for instance, by knowing where the police hang out, by tailing some other speedster, or by souping up your car so the fuzz can’t catch you.

Stage Four: More cops patrol the highways, and now they have radar technology. Speeding becomes decidedly imprudent, especially on holiday weekends or if you’re driving past small rural villages that need to raise revenue.

At this point you can respond in one of three ways:

A) Fight fire with fire: equip your car with fuzz-busting anti-surveillance technology, and revert to your criminal ways.

B) Buy a car with cruise control and effortlessly avoid transgression;

C) Carry on as before, monitoring your speed continually and keeping an eye out at all times for likely police hiding spots. Those who choose this option are less likely than the cruise controllers to doze off, but they’ll find driving more stressful.

Stage Five: To outflank the fuzz-busters, police use cameras, and eventually satellite monitors, which become increasingly hard to evade. Detection and prosecution become automated, so speeding becomes just stupid. The majority now obey the law and drive more safely.

Stage Six: Cars are equipped by law with devices that read the speed limit on any stretch of road they’re on. The car’s computer then acts as a governor, preventing the car from exceeding the limit. Now virtually every driver is an upstanding law-abiding citizen. If you want to speed you have to really go out of your way and tamper with the mechanism – an action analogous to what Kant would call ‘radical evil’, which is where a person positively desires to do wrong.

It’s easy to see the advantages of each successive stage in this evolution of traffic surveillance. At the end of the process, there are no more tearaways or drunk drivers endangering innocent road users. Driving is more relaxing. There are fewer accidents, less pain, less grief, less guilt, reduced demands on the health care system, lower insurance premiums, fewer days lost at work, a surging stock market, and so on. A similar story could be told with respect to drunk driving, with breathalyzers performing the same function as speed radar, and the ideal conclusion being a world in which virtually every car is fitted with a lock that shuts the engine off if the driver’s blood alcohol concentration is above a certain limit. With technology taking over, surveillance becomes cheaper, and the police are freed up to catch crooked politicians and bankers running dubious schemes. Lawbreaking moves from being risky, to being foolish, to being almost inconceivable.

But there is another perspective – the one informed by Kantian ethics. On this view, increased surveillance may carry certain utilitarian benefits, but the price we pay is a diminution of our moral character. Yes, we do the wrong thing less often; in that sense, surveillance might seem to make us better. But it also stunts our growth as moral individuals.

From this point of view, moral growth involves moving closer to the saintly ideal of being someone who only ever wants to do what is right. Kant describes such an individual as having (or being) a ‘holy will’, suggesting thereby that this condition is not attainable for ordinary human beings. For us, the obligation to be moral always feels like a burden. Wordsworth captures this well when he describes moral duty as the “stern daughter of the voice of God.” Why morality feels like a burden is no mystery: there is always something we (or at least some part of us) would sooner be doing than being virtuous. We always have inclinations that conflict with what we know our duty to be. But the saintly ideal is still something we can and should aim at. Ubiquitous surveillance is like a magnetic force that changes the trajectory of our moral aspiration. We give up pursuing the holy grail of Kant’s ideal, and settle for a functional but uninspiring pewter mug. Since we rarely have to choose between what’s right and what’s in our self-interest, our moral selves become not so much worse as smaller, withered from lack of exercise. Our moral development is arrested, and we end up on moral autopilot.

Purity vs Pragmatism?

Now I expect many people’s response to this sort of anxiety about moral growth will be scathing. Here are four possible reasons for not losing sleep over it:

1) It is a merely abstract academic concern. Surely, no matter how extensive and intrusive surveillance becomes, everyday life will still yield plenty of occasions when we experience growth-promoting moral tension: for instance, in the choices we have to make over how to treat family, friends, and acquaintances.

2) The worry is perfectly foolish – analogous to Nietzsche’s complaint that long periods of peace and prosperity shrink the soul since they offer few opportunities for battlefield heroics and sacrifice. Our ideal should be a world in which people live pleasanter lives, and where the discomfort of moral tension is largely a thing of the past. We might draw an analogy with the religious experience of sinfulness. The sense of sin may have once helped deepen human self-awareness, but that doesn’t mean we should try to keep it alive today. The sense of sin has passed its sell-by date; and the same can be said of the saintly ideal.

3) The saintly ideal is and always was misguided anyway. What matters is not what people desire, but what they do. Excessive concern for people’s appetites and desires is a puritan hangover. Surveillance improves behaviour, period. That is all we need to concern ourselves with.

4) Kantians should welcome surveillance, since ultimately it leads to the achievement of the very ideal they posit: the more complete the surveillance, the more duty and self-interest coincide. Surveillance technology replaces the idea of an all-seeing God who doles out just rewards and punishments, and it is more effective, since its presence, and the bad consequences of ignoring it, are much more tangibly evident. Consequently, it fosters good habits, and these habits are internalized to the point where wrongdoing becomes almost inconceivable.

That is surely just what parents and teachers aim for much of the time. As I send my kids out into the world, I don’t say to myself, ‘I do hope they remember they have a duty not to kill, kidnap, rape, steal, torture animals or mug old ladies.’ I assume that for them, as for the great majority in a stable, prosperous society, such wrongdoings are inconceivable: they simply don’t appear on the horizon of possible actions; and that is what I want. This inconceivability of most kinds of wrongdoing is a platform we want to be able to take for granted, and surveillance is a legitimate and effective means of building it. So, far from undermining the saintly ideal, surveillance offers a fast track to it.

Scrutiny vs Probity?

This would be a nice place to end. A trend is identified, an anxiety is articulated, but in the end the doubts are convincingly put to rest. Hobbes and Kant link arms and head off to the bar to drink a toast to their newly-discovered common ground.

But matters are not that simple. Wittgenstein warns philosophers against feeding on a diet of one-sided examples, and we need to be wary of that danger here. Indeed, I think that some other examples indicate not just that Kant may have a point, but that most of us implicitly recognize this point.

For instance, imagine you are visiting two colleges. At Scrutiny College, the guide proudly points out that each examination room is equipped with several cameras, all linked to a central monitoring station. Electronic jammers can be activated to prevent examinees from using cell phones or Blackberries. The IT department writes its own cutting-edge plagiarism-detection software. And there is zero tolerance for academic dishonesty: one strike and you’re out on your ear. As a result, says the guide, there is less cheating at Scrutiny than on any other campus in the country. Students quickly see that cheating is a mug’s game, and after a while no-one even considers it.

By contrast, Probity College operates on a straightforward honour system. Students sign an integrity pledge at the beginning of each academic year. At Probity, professors commonly assign take-home exams, and leave rooms full of test takers unproctored. Nor does anyone bother with plagiarism-detecting software such as The default assumption is that students can be trusted not to cheat.

Which college would you prefer to attend? Which would you recommend to your own kids?

Or compare two workplaces. At Scrutiny Inc., all computer activity is monitored, with regular random audits to detect and discourage any inappropriate use of company time and equipment, such as playing games, emailing friends, listening to music, or visiting internet sites that cause blood to flow rapidly from the brain to other parts of the body. At Probity Inc., on the other hand, employees are simply trusted to get their work done. Scrutiny Inc. claims to have the lowest rate of time-theft and the highest productivity of any company in its field. But where would you choose to work?

One last example. In the age of cell phones and GPS technology, it is possible for a parent to monitor their child’s whereabouts at all times. They have cogent reasons for doing so. It slightly reduces certain kinds of risk to the teenager, and significantly reduces parental anxiety. It doesn’t scar the youngster’s psyche – after all, they were probably first placed under electronic surveillance in their crib when they were five days old! Most pertinently, it keeps them on the straight and narrow. If they go somewhere other than where they’ve said they’ll go, or if they lie afterwards about where they’ve been, they’ll be found out, and suffer the penalties – like, their cell phone plan will be downgraded from platinum to regular (assuming they have real hard-ass parents). But how many parents really think that this sort of surveillance of their teenage kids is a good idea?

Surveillance Suggestions

What do these examples tell us? I think they suggest a number of things.

First, the Kantian ideal still resonates with us. If we regarded the development of moral character as completely empty, misguided or irrelevant, we would be less troubled by the practices of Scrutiny College or Mom and Pop Surveillance.

Second, the fear that surveillance can actually become so extensive as to threaten an individual’s healthy moral development is reasonable, for the growth of surveillance is not confined to small, minor or contained areas of our lives: it seems to be irresistibly spreading everywhere, percolating into the nooks and crannies of everyday existence, which is where much of a person’s moral education occurs.

Third, our attitude to surveillance is obviously different in different settings, and this tells us something important about our hopes, fears, expectations and ideals regarding the relationship between scrutinizer and scrutinizee. The four relationships we have discussed are: state and citizen; employer and employee; teacher and student, and parent and child. In the first two cases, we don’t worry much about the psychological effect of surveillance. For instance, I expect most of us would readily support improved surveillance of income in order to reduce tax evasion. But we generally assume that government, like employers, should stay out of the moral edification business.

It is possible to regard colleges in the same way. On this view, college is essentially a place where students expand their knowledge and develop certain skills. As in the workplace, surveillance levels should be determined according to what best promotes these institutional goals. However, many people see colleges as having a broader mission – as not just a place to acquire some technical training and a diploma. This broader mission includes helping students achieve personal growth, a central part of which is moral development. Edification is then seen not just as a happy side-effect of the college experience, but as one of its important and legitimate purposes. This, I think, is the deeper reason why we are perturbed by the resemblance between Scrutiny College and a prison. Our concern is not just that learning will suffer in an atmosphere of distrust: it is also that the educational mission of the college has become disappointingly narrow.

Finally, most of us agree that the moral education of children is and should be one of the goods a family secures. If not there, then where? So one good reason for parents not to install a camera over the cookie jar is that children need to experience the struggle between obligation and inclination. They even need to experience what it feels like to break the rules and get away with it; to break the rules and get caught; to break the rules, lie about it and not get caught; and so on. To reference Wordsworth again, in his autobiographical poem ‘The Prelude’, the emergence of the young boy’s moral awareness is connected to an incident when Wordsworth stole a rowing boat one evening to go for the eighteenth century equivalent of a joy ride. No-one catches him, but he becomes aware that his choices have a moral dimension.

This is not the only reason to avoid cluttering up the house with disobedience detectors, of course. Another purpose served by the family is to establish mutually-satisfying loving relationships. Moreover, the family is not simply a means to this end; the goal is internal to the practice of family life. Healthy relationships are grounded on trust, yet surveillance often signifies a lack of trust. For this reason, its effect on any relationship is corrosive. And the closer the relationship, the more objectionable we find it. Imagine how you’d feel if your spouse wanted to monitor your every coming and going.

These two objections to surveillance within the family – it inhibits moral development, and it signifies distrust – are connected, since the network of reasonably healthy relationships provided by a reasonably functional family is a primary setting for most people’s moral education. The positive experience of trusting relationships, in which the default expectation is that everyone will fulfill their obligations to one another, is in itself edifying. It is surely more effective at fostering the internalization of cherished values than intimidation through surveillance. Everyone who strives to create such relationships within their family shows by their practice that they believe this to be so.


The upshot of these reflections is that the relation between surveillance and moral edification is complicated. In some contexts, surveillance helps keep us on track and thereby reinforces good habits that become second nature. In other contexts, it can hinder moral development by steering us away from or obscuring the saintly ideal of genuinely disinterested action. And that ideal is worth keeping alive.

Some will object that the saintly ideal is utopian. And it is. But utopian ideals are valuable. It’s true that they do not help us deal with specific, concrete, short-term problems, such as how to keep drunk drivers off the road, or how to ensure that people pay their taxes. Rather, like a distant star, they provide a fixed point that we can use to navigate by. Ideals help us to take stock every so often of where we are, of where we’re going, and of whether we really want to head further in that direction.

Ultimately, the ideal college is one in which every student is genuinely interested in learning and needs neither extrinsic motivators to encourage study, nor surveillance to deter cheating. Ultimately, the ideal society is one in which, if taxes are necessary, everyone pays them as freely and cheerfully as they pay their dues to some club of which they are devoted members – where citizen and state can trust each other perfectly. We know our present society is a long way from such ideals, yet we should be wary of practices that take us ever further from them. One of the goals of moral education is to cultivate a conscience – the little voice inside telling us that we should do what is right because it is right. As surveillance becomes increasingly ubiquitous, however, the chances are reduced that conscience will ever be anything more than the little voice inside telling us that someone, somewhere, may be watching.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Egoism and Altruism

Jan Narveson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics (Second Edition) 2012, Pages 51–55

Egoism and altruism come in two forms: psychological and normative – theories about what we do and what we ought to do. Psychological egoism succumbs to the distinction between interests in ourselves, strictly, and interests that are ours but not directed at ourselves. The first, egoism proper, is clearly false. The second allows altruism. Ethical egoism falls before the familiar observation that exclusive devotion to ourselves does not make us as happy as a life of love and involvement. Moral egoism is irrational, asking us to sanction actions by others that are strongly against our own interests.

Psychological versus Ethical Egoism

Egoism and altruism are subject even more than usual in philosophy to crucial ambiguities that must be sorted out before one can say anything helpful. There are two types of egoism – psychological and ethical. The first is a theory about human motivations: What makes us tick? According to egoism, we are actuated entirely by self-interest, even when it appears to be otherwise. Altruism, of course, denies this. However, the second is a normative theory – a theory about what we should do. It says that we should, or ought to, act only in our own interest. How these are related is perhaps the central question for the subject.

Substantive versus Tautological Psychological Egoism

Just what is self-interest? Here, the groundbreaking work of Joseph Butler (1692–1752) paves the way for us. Does ‘self-interest’ mean interests in ourselves or only interests of ourselves? Everything hangs on that one-word difference.

Interests in ourselves are interests that one’s own self have certain things, held to be good by the agent – things that can be identified and had independently of the goods of others. For example, hunger is a desire for food in one’s own stomach; desires for physical comfort, for optimal temperature, or for the absence of pain in one’s own body are further examples. The desire to feel pleasure and avoid pain is the most widely held candidate for the status of fundamental motivator of all action. Interests in others, by contrast, would be such desires as love or hatred, where we are essentially directing our actions toward the production of certain states of other people. The kind of psychological egoism holding that we are exclusively motivated by the first kind of interests may be called strict or substantive.

Interests of ourselves, on the other hand, simply refer to whose interests they are but not at all to what the interests are taken in – what they are aimed at affecting, either in or outside of ourselves. As Butler pointed out, it is trivial to say that all action is motivated by interests or desires of the agent – that is what makes them the agent’s actions at all. We might call this tautologous psychological egoism. By contrast, it is not at all trivial to say that the object of our actions is only to produce certain conditions of ourselves. Of course, the situation is complicated by the fact that we can get pleasure, for example, from our perception of the condition of certain other people, or even of all other people. When we do so, are we motivated by the prospect of pleasure from our relations to those people? If so, is that to be accounted egoism, despite the fact that the source of our pleasure in these cases is the pleasures – or perhaps the pains – of others? On the face of it, we need yet another distinction. This would be between theories that deny that we even get pleasure from other-regarding acts and theories that accept this but insist that it is only because of the pleasure we get from them that we perform them.

Superficial versus Deep Theories

The question whether psychological egoism may be true becomes very difficult, however, when we distinguish between what we may call superficial or, in the terminology of contemporary philosophers of mind, folk-psychological versions of the theory and what we may call deep theories.

At the superficial level, psychological egoism is, as Butler also pointed out, overwhelmingly implausible. People make huge sacrifices for those they love, including sacrifice of their very lives. Moreover, they sometimes go out of their way to do evils to other people even at the cost of ruining their own lives in the process.

Deep theories are quite another matter. No one can claim to have refuted the view that there is some variable within the soul – or the nervous system – such that all actions really do maximize it, regardless of all else in the environment. To make this work, of course, it would have to be noted that other factors in the environment would certainly interact with that variable, whatever it is.

The most popular candidate for what we may be trying to maximize, no doubt, is net pleasure: the quantity, pleasure minus pain, or more plausibly, of positive affect minus negative affect (or plus negative affect if we think of the latter as a negative quantity). Perhaps the man who falls on the grenade to save his comrades reckons that he could not live with himself if he did not do it. Perhaps, as Kant supposed, our self-interested motivations are hidden from our own view so that despite our pretentions to altruism, we are really always acting in our own interest after all. However, once the common-sense idea that pleasure and pain are things we are aware of is abandoned, the situation changes radically. We then need a good theory explaining just what the quantity in question is really supposed to be – electrical magnitudes in brain cells, perhaps? We would need to explain how the theory is to be assessed in empirical terms. Clearly, appraising any such view will be very difficult. In this article, we will not further discuss such possibilities. Regarding commonsense distinctions, psychological egoism may surely be dismissed as simply wrong and based entirely on the confusion between egoism as a substantive view and egoism in its tautological form.

Varieties of Motivation

A major complication in the discussion of this issue is just how we are to count certain human motivations in relation to the egoism versus altruism categories. There are many cases in which someone acts without obviously intending to promote his or her own pleasure but also without obviously intending to benefit anyone else. Suppose that Henry conceives a passion for building a replica of the Great Pyramid in his backyard. He labors mightily and for years, often with considerable pain, and it damages his health considerably in the process. Is he here pursuing pleasure? If we say so, then the notion of pleasure has become very broad. Is he doing it for anyone else’s benefit? Not obviously, at least.

For the purposes of this article, we account motivations that seem to be for the pursuit of states of affairs having no evident connection with either the agent’s or anyone else’s benefit as being, nevertheless, for the agent’s benefit inasmuch as they are attempts to attain something that he or she wants, or at least feels impelled, to do. If this is not very much like satisfying hunger or sex, that is the point. The category of the self-interested is hugely broad so that the explanatory value of appeals to self-interest is rather low.

Altruism – Psychological Version

If psychological egoism has its difficulties, psychological altruism is also problematic. Again, discussion requires more care with definitions. Altruism may be understood as concern with others – but how much, and which others? At the opposite extreme from egoism is the view that we only act for the sake of others, and we do so for the sake of all others. To the author’s knowledge, no one has ever seriously advocated such a theory. The English philosopher David Hume (1711–76) hypothesized that some altruism is to be found in every human – a general feeling for all other humans, at the least. Taken as a superficial-level generalization about people, this is fairly plausible, and it would be even more so if we said that nearly everyone is at least slightly altruistic regarding most other humans. But it is, of course, not very precise, and how to describe it more accurately, and account for it, is an interesting question. Interaction with one’s mother in infancy, for example, and later with peers, may play a role in the genesis of such dispositions.

Ethical Incompatibility with Psychological Egoism

We now turn to the ethical versions of egoism. Here, we do well to begin by recognizing that for ethical egoism to be meaningful at all, strict psychological egoism, at least in its superficial forms, must be false. If Jones is unable to seek anyone’s well-being but his own, then there is obviously no point in telling him that he ought to be seeking someone else’s. Ought, as philosophers state, implies can. (Even here, the distinction of shallow from deep theories is essential because it is by no means clear that ethics is incompatible with deep self-interest. Possibly, totally altruistic behavior is best for oneself, and the truly selfish person is the saint or the hero who devotes his or her life to helping others.)

Ethical versus Moral Egoism

For the purposes of this article, we are assuming the plain or superficial level of discussion, which we all understand fairly well, and ask whether ethical egoism is plausible in those terms. However, now we must make still another distinction, and again a crucial one – this time with the word ‘ethical.’ By ethical, do we refer to the general theory of how to live? Or do we mean, much more narrowly, rules for the group? Egoism will look very different in these two very different contexts. If the question is, should I aim to live the best life I can? it is extremely difficult to answer in the negative. Each one of us should, surely, try to live the best life we can – the most satisfying, most rewarding, most pleasant, etc., life we can manage. Of course, this leads to the very large question of what the ultimate values of life are and how to maximize them – what sort of life will do that. For example, as already noted, it is quite possible that a life of self-sacrifice is nevertheless the most fulfilling or rewarding. Perhaps it is even the most pleasant, although this seems to strain the idea. Furthermore, perhaps there are other values more important than pleasure.

Egoism Not Necessarily Selfish

As the previous discussion suggests, egoism as a theory of life may be very different from what the word at first suggests. When we think of egoists, we think, first, of people who are highly self-centered, who tend to ignore others and their needs, even their rights. Another word for this is egotism, which is a personality trait rather than a theory. At the extreme, we think of the psychopath, who will kill, rape, steal, lie, and cheat without compunction in order to achieve certain narrow ends for himself – usually the increment of his monetary income, but by no means always. However, does the psychopath live a good life? Would someone setting out to live the happiest, most rewarding life he or she can become psychopathic? That is extremely implausible. The wisdom of philosophers through the millennia has been uniform on this point: If you want to be happy yourself, then you need friends, loved ones, and associates, and you need to treat all these people with respect, most of them with kindness as well, and some of them with real love.

This last discussion shows the difficulty of contrasting egoism and altruism at this level. Should we literally sacrifice our own overall happiness or well-being for others? Which others? And especially, of course, why? To suggest that one should do such a thing – if it is possible – seems to be to suggest that those other persons are somehow superior to you. Why should we believe any such thing?

Notice that as a universal theory, this last would run into logical difficulties. Whatever ‘worthy’ means, if A is more worthy than B, then B is less worthy than A, by definition. Thus, it is impossible for everyone to be more worthy than everyone else.

Egoism and Morality

At this point, let us turn to the other member of the distinction I have made – morality. To talk about morality is to talk of what should be the rules governing the general behavior of the group. One question this immediately raises is, which group? Without getting too involved in the question of cultural relativism, let us supply two answers to this question: (1) the group in question – that is, the group of which the persons we are addressing are members, with whom they interact, fairly frequently; and (2) the group consisting of literally everybody – all humans. Again, most classic philosophers assumed the latter, and the assumption is certainly not an unrealistic one.

What matters, however, is that we are now addressing the question not simply what to do in life generally but what to do in relation to our fellows: How do we carry on our dealings with them, our interactions? It is when we address this question that egoism, in any sense of that word in which it is meaningful, becomes enormously implausible. For if we think of the egoist as the one who pursues only his or her own interest, regardless of others, so that our image is of near-psychopathic behavior, then to recommend that as the rule for a group seems completely absurd, even unintelligible. Egoism, again speaking at the superficial level, must address the question of conflicts of interest. If A’s interests are incompatible with B’s – meaning, simply, that if A achieves what he is after, then B is frustrated in his pursuit of what he is after – then a rule addressed to the two of them, telling them both to ignore the other and go for it, is silly. If both try to follow it, at least one will fail. In fact, most likely both of them will, especially if we take into account any aspects of their values that extend beyond the narrow one that was the subject of conflict. For example, if the two come to blows, then at least one and probably both will suffer injuries that they would prefer not to have inflicted on them. A rule for a group, if it is to be even remotely plausible, will have to do better than that. When there are conflicts, it is going to have to tell us who is in the right and who is in the wrong – who gets to go ahead and who has to back down.

Trying to incorporate real egoism, of the first kind identified at the outset, into the very matter of moral rules is an invitation to conceptual disaster. That Jones ought to do x and Smith ought to do y, even though Jones’s doing x entails Smith’s not doing y, is rightly regarded as a nonsense rule. Two boxers in the ring ought both, of course, to try to win, but to say that both ought to win is nonsense because by definition that is impossible. A morality for all, therefore, cannot look like directions to the cheering section for one of the fighters but, rather, like the rule book for boxing, which tells both of them that they have only so many minutes between breaks, that they may not hit below the belt, and so forth. Morality in our second and narrower sense of the term consists of the rules for large, natural groups – that is, groups of people who happen, for whatever reason, to come in contact with each other rather than groups that come together intentionally for specific purposes. For such groups, the rules are going to have to be impartial rather than loaded in favor of one person or set of persons as against another. Thus, such rules simply cannot be egoistic.

Altruism and Morality

Can they be altruistic? That gets us to our last question. Should the rules for groups tell everyone to love everyone else, as fully as if everyone were one’s dear sibling or spouse? The answer to this is surely in the negative, as Nietzsche pointed out. One or at most a very few lovers or loved ones is all any of us can handle. Truly to love someone, we must elevate that person well above the crowd, pay more attention to him or her than to others – not merely an equal amount – and so on. Altruism construed as the general love of humankind, therefore, simply cannot be using the term ‘love’ in its full normal sense. A doctrine of general altruism must retreat very far from that. Indeed, it is clear that general altruism has exactly the same problem as general egoism: Both are shipwrecked as soon as we see the inevitable asymmetries and partialities necessarily involved in love, whether of oneself or anyone else.

How far, then, do we retreat? Here, a variety of answers have been given, and we need to make one last distinction – between two departments or branches of morals. One branch is stern, and associated with justice, rules that are to be enforced by such heavy-duty procedures as punishments; the other is associated with commendations and praise, warm sentiments, and so forth. Following Kant, we may call these respectively the theory of justice and the theory of virtue or, in a slightly different vein, justice and charity. One is, in short, the morality of the stick, whereas the other is the morality of the carrot. That is, it is appropriate to reinforce the rules of justice by such methods as punishment, including incarceration, or even death. However, the other is to be encouraged – we cheer for those who do well but we do not resort to punishment for lesser performance of those actions that are merely virtuous rather than downright required.

Now, our question may be put thus: Is altruism to be regarded as figuring prominently in, or perhaps even constituting the basis of, either of these, both, or neither of these?

Again, it is highly plausible to deny altruism any significant role in the first. If you and I are enemies, it is pretty pointless to tell us to love each other, but it is not at all pointless to tell us to draw some lines and then stay on our side of them. For example, we are to refrain from killing, stealing from, lying to, cheating, maiming, or otherwise damaging even if we hate each other. We shall all do better if we simply rule out such actions. This is negative morality, the morality of thou shalt not, and it applies between absolutely everyone and absolutely everyone else, be they friends or enemies or strangers, with the sole qualification being that those who themselves are guilty of transgressing one of those restrictions may be eligible for punishment. It is absurd to point to love as the basis of such rules. Rather, it is our interests, considered in relation to how things are and how other people are, that undergird these vital rules of social life.

On the other hand, when it comes to helping those in need, showing kindness to people, being thoughtful, helpful, supportive, and so on – in short, of being, in the words of Hume, agreeable and useful to others – it is more plausible to ascribe this to sentiment – to some degree of altruism. Even so, it is by no means clear that it is necessary because in being nice to others, we inspire them to be nice to us, and so even considerations of self-interest fairly narrowly construed will teach us the value of these other-regarding virtues. However, it is also plausible to suggest that we admire and praise people who go well beyond the minimum in these respects: We put the Mother Theresas of the world, the heroic life-savers, those who go the extra mile and then some, on pedestals, and rightly so. As Hume conjectures, it seems implausible to confine those tendencies to self-interest in any narrow sense of that word.


To get a clear view of this long-discussed subject, we need to make several important distinctions. First, we must distinguish the normative or ethical from the psychological version of egoism. Second, in both cases, we need to distinguish between egoism in the narrow sense in which it entails an interest exclusively in the self, defined as independent of all others, and the much broader – really vacuous – sense in which it essentially means that one acts only on one’s own desires, whatever their objects. Third, we must distinguish shallow or superficial from deep versions. Finally, we must distinguish ethics in the very broad sense of one’s general view of life from morality, in the much narrower sense of a canon or set of rules for the conduct of everyone in society. It is then seen that ethical egoism says essentially nothing, whereas moral egoism proposes what is obviously unacceptable. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Dictatorship of a Faceless Economy

Pope Francis
Clementine Hall, Thursday, 16 May 2013


Your Excellencies,

I am pleased to receive you for the presentation of the Letters accrediting you as Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Holy See on the part of your respective countries: Kyrgyzstan, Antigua and Barbuda, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and Botswana. The gracious words which you have addressed to me, for which I thank you heartily, have testified that the Heads of State of your countries are concerned to develop relations of respect and cooperation with the Holy See. I would ask you kindly to convey to them my sentiments of gratitude and esteem, together with the assurance of my prayers for them and their fellow citizens.

Ladies and Gentlemen, our human family is presently experiencing something of a turning point in its own history, if we consider the advances made in various areas. We can only praise the positive achievements which contribute to the authentic welfare of mankind, in fields such as those of health, education and communications. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences. Certain pathologies are increasing, with their psychological consequences; fear and desperation grip the hearts of many people, even in the so-called rich countries; the joy of life is diminishing; indecency and violence are on the rise; poverty is becoming more and more evident. People have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way. One cause of this situation, in my opinion, is in our relationship with money, and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society. Consequently the financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in a profound human crisis. In the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.

The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have started a throw-away culture. This tendency is seen on the level of individuals and whole societies; and it is being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules. Moreover, indebtedness and credit distance countries from their real economy and citizens from their real buying power. Added to this, as if it were needed, is widespread corruption and selfish fiscal evasion which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The will to power and of possession has become limitless.

Concealed behind this attitude is a rejection of ethics, a rejection of God. Ethics, like solidarity, is a nuisance! It is regarded as counterproductive: as something too human, because it relativizes money and power; as a threat, because it rejects manipulation and subjection of people: because ethics leads to God, who is situated outside the categories of the market. God is thought to be unmanageable by these financiers, economists and politicians, God is unmanageable, even dangerous, because he calls man to his full realization and to independence from any kind of slavery. Ethics – naturally, not the ethics of ideology – makes it possible, in my view, to create a balanced social order that is more humane. In this sense, I encourage the financial experts and the political leaders of your countries to consider the words of Saint John Chrysostom: "Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs" (Homily on Lazarus, 1:6 – PG 48, 992D).

Dear Ambassadors, there is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. This would nevertheless require a courageous change of attitude on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and farsightedness, taking account, naturally, of their particular situations. Money has to serve, not to rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but the Pope has the duty, in Christ’s name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them. The Pope appeals for disinterested solidarity and for a return to person-centred ethics in the world of finance and economics.

For her part, the Church always works for the integral development of every person. In this sense, she reiterates that the common good should not be simply an extra, simply a conceptual scheme of inferior quality tacked onto political programmes. The Church encourages those in power to be truly at the service of the common good of their peoples. She urges financial leaders to take account of ethics and solidarity. And why should they not turn to God to draw inspiration from his designs? In this way, a new political and economic mindset would arise that would help to transform the absolute dichotomy between the economic and social spheres into a healthy symbiosis.

Finally, through you, I greet with affection the Pastors and the faithful of the Catholic communities present in your countries. I urge them to continue their courageous and joyful witness of faith and fraternal love in accordance with Christ’s teaching. Let them not be afraid to offer their contribution to the development of their countries, through initiatives and attitudes inspired by the Sacred Scriptures! And as you inaugurate your mission, I extend to you, dear Ambassadors, my very best wishes, assuring you of the assistance of the Roman Curia for the fulfilment of your duties. To this end, upon you and your families, and also upon your Embassy staff, I willingly invoke abundant divine blessings. Thank you.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Democracy and philosophy

Richard Rorty (1931-2007)
First published in Kritika&Kontext 33 (2007)

This article is the text of a lecture given by Richard Rorty in April 2004 at the Centre for Cultural Studies in Tehran. The lecture was presented in the series of lectures by Western intellectuals in Tehran, organized by Ramin Jahanbegloo. Besides Rorty, speakers included Jürgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky, Ágnes Heller, Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Ignatieff, Adam Michnik, and Paul Ricoeur. Ramin Jahanbegloo was arrested on 30 March 2006 by Iranian Police and held in custody despite international outcry. After five months of investigation he was released from custody in August 2006. This happened after he admitted under duress that he had cooperated with western diplomats in plotting a "velvet revolution" in Iran that would overthrow the current regime and replace it with a western-type democracy.

Philosophy is a ladder that Western political thinking climbed up, and then shoved aside. Starting in the seventeenth century, philosophy played an important role in clearing the way for the establishment of democratic institutions in the West. It did so by secularizing political thinking – substituting questions about how human beings could lead happier lives for questions about how God's will might be done. Philosophers suggested that people should just put religious revelation to one side, at least for political purposes, and act as if human beings were on their own – free to shape their own laws and their own institutions to suit their felt needs, free to make a fresh start.

In the eighteenth century, during the European Enlightenment, differences between political institutions, and movements of political opinion, reflected different philosophical views. Those sympathetic to the old regime were less likely to be materialistic atheists than were the people who wanted revolutionary social change. But now that Enlightenment values are pretty much taken for granted throughout the West, this is no longer the case. Nowadays politics leads the way, and philosophy tags along behind. One first decides on a political outlook and then, if one has a taste for that sort of thing, looks for philosophical backup. But such a taste is optional, and rather uncommon. Most Western intellectuals know little about philosophy, and care still less. In their eyes, thinking that political proposals reflect philosophical convictions is like thinking that the tail wags the dog.

I shall be developing this theme of the irrelevance of philosophy to democracy in my remarks. Most of what I shall say will be about the situation in my own country, but I think that most of it applies equally well to the European democracies. In those countries, as in the US, the word "democracy" has gradually come to have two distinct meanings. In its narrower, minimalist meaning it refers to a system of government in which power is in the hands of freely elected officials. I shall call democracy in this sense "constitutionalism". In its wider sense, it refers to a social ideal, that of equality of opportunity. In this second sense, a democracy is a society in which all children have the same chances in life, and in which nobody suffers from being born poor, or being the descendant of slaves, or being female, or being homosexual. I shall call democracy in this sense "egalitarianism".

Suppose that, at the time of the US presidential election of 2004, you had asked voters who were wholeheartedly in favour of re-electing President Bush whether they believed in democracy. They would have been astonished by the question, and have replied that of course they did. But all they would have meant by this is that they believe in constitutional government. Because of this belief, they were prepared to accept the outcome of the election, whatever it turned out to be. If John Kerry had won, they would be angry and disgusted. But they would not have dreamt of trying to prevent his taking office by going out into the streets. They would have been utterly horrified by the suggestion that the generals in the Pentagon should mount a military coup in order to keep Bush in the White House.

The voters who in 2004 regarded Bush as the worst American president of modern times, and who desperately hoped for Kerry's success, were also constitutionalists. When Kerry lost, they were sick at heart. But they did not dream of fomenting a revolution. Leftwing Democrats are as committed to preserving the US constitution as are rightwing Republicans.

But if, instead of asking these two groups whether they believe in democracy, you had asked them what they mean by the term "democracy", you might have received different replies. The Bush voters will usually be content to define democracy simply as government by freely elected officials. But many of the Kerry voters – and especially the intellectuals – will say that America – despite centuries of free elections and the gradual expansion of the franchise to include all adult citizens – is not yet a full-fledged democracy. Their point is that although it obviously is a democracy in the constitutional sense, it is not yet a democracy in the egalitarian sense. For equality of opportunity has not yet been attained. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening rather than narrowing. Power is becoming more concentrated in the hands of the few.

These leftwing Democrats will remind you that of the likely fate of the children of badly educated Americans, both black and white, raised in a home in which the full-time labour of both mother and father brings in only about $40 000 a year. This sounds like a lot of money, but in America children of parents at that income level are deprived of many advantages, will probably be unable to go to college, and will be unlikely to get a good job. For Americans who think of themselves as on the political Left, these inequalities are outrageous. They demonstrate that even though America has a democratically elected government, it still does not have a democratic society.

Ever since Walt Whitman wrote his essay "Democratic Vistas" in the middle of the nineteenth century, a substantial sector of educated public opinion in the US has used "democracy" to mean "social egalitarianism" rather than simply "representative government". Using the term in this way became common in the Progressive Era and still more common under the New Deal. That usage permitted the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, the feminist movement, and the gay and lesbian rights movement to portray themselves as successive attempts to "realize the promise of American democracy".

So far I have said nothing about the relation of religion to American democracy. But for an understanding of the ongoing context between constitutionalist and egalitarian understandings of democracy it is important to realize that Americans on the political Left tend to be less religiously committed and religiously active than people on the political Right. The leftists who are religious believers do not try very hard to bring their religious convictions and their political preferences together. They treat religion as a private matter, endorse the Jeffersonian tradition of religious tolerance, and are emphatic in their preference for the strict separation of church and state.

On the political Right, however, religious and political convictions are often interwoven. The hardcore Bush voters are not only considerably more likely to go to church than the hardcore Kerry voters, but are considerably more likely to sympathize with Bush's insistence on the need to elect officials who take God seriously. They often describe the United States of America as a nation especially blessed by the Christian God. They like to say that theirs is "a Christian country", and not to realize that this phrase is offensive to their Jewish and Muslim fellow citizens. They tend to see America's emergence as the only superpower left standing not just as an accident of history, but as evidence of divine favour.

Because of this different stance toward religious belief, one might be tempted to think of the opposition between the political Right and the political Left as reflecting a difference between those who think of democracy as built upon religious foundations and those who think of it as built upon philosophical foundations. But, as I have already suggested, that would be misleading. Except for a few professors of theology and philosophy, neither rightist nor leftist American intellectuals think of democracy in the sense of constitutionalism as having either sort of foundation.

If asked to justify their preference for constitutional government, both sides would be more likely to appeal to historical experience rather than to either religious or philosophical principles. Both would be likely to endorse Winston Churchill's much-quoted remark that "Democracy is the worst form of government imaginable, except for all the others that have been tried so far." Both agree that a free press, a free judiciary, and free elections are the best safeguard against the abuse of governmental power characteristic of the old European monarchies, and of fascist and communist regimes.

The arguments between leftists and rightists about the need for egalitarian social legislation are also matters neither of opposing religious beliefs nor of opposing philosophical principles. The disagreement between those who think of a commitment to democracy as a commitment to an egalitarian society and those who have no use for the welfare state and for government regulations designed to ensure equality of opportunity is not fought out on either philosophical or religious grounds. Even the most fanatic fundamentalists do not try to argue that the Christian scriptures provide reasons why the American government should not redistribute wealth by using taxpayers' money to send the children of the poor to college. Their leftist opponents do not claim that the need to use taxpayer's money for this purpose is somehow dictated by what Kant called "the tribunal of pure reason".

Typically the arguments between the two camps are much more pragmatic. The Right claims that imposing high taxes in order to benefit the poor will lead to "big government", rule by bureaucrats, and a sluggish economy. The Left concedes that there is a danger of over-bureaucratization and of over-centralized government. But, they argue, these dangers are outweighed by the need to make up for the injustices built into a capitalist economy – a system that can throw thousands of people out of work overnight and make it impossible for them to feed, much less educate, their children. The Right argues that the Left is too much inclined to imposing its own tastes on society as a whole. The Left replies that what the right calls a "matter of taste" is really a matter of justice.

Such arguments proceed not by appeals to universally valid moral obligations but by appeals to historical experience – the experience of over-regulation and over-taxation on the one hand and the experience of poverty and humiliation on the other. The rightists accuse the leftists of being sentimental fools – bleeding-heart liberals – who do not understand the need to keep government small so that individual freedom can flourish. The leftists accuse the rightists of heartlessness – of being unable or unwilling to imagine themselves in the situation of a parent who cannot make enough money to clothe his daughter as well as her schoolmates are clothed. Such polemical exchanges are pursued at a pragmatic level, and no theological or philosophical sophistication is required to conduct them. Nor would such sophistication do much to strengthen either side.

So far I have been talking about the form that contemporary American political disagreements take, and emphasizing the irrelevance of philosophy to such disputes. I have been arguing that neither the agreement between Left and Right on the wisdom of retaining constitutional government nor the disagreement between them about what laws to pass has much to do with either religious conviction or philosophical opinion. You can be a very intelligent and useful participant in political discussion in contemporary democratic societies such as the US even though you have no interest whatever in either religion or philosophy.

Despite this fact, one still occasionally comes across debates among philosophers about whether democracy has "philosophical foundations", and about what these might be. I do not regard these debates as very useful. To understand why they are still conducted, it helps to remember the point I made at the outset: that when the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century broke out, the quarrel between religion and philosophy had an importance it now lacks. For those revolutions were not able to appeal to the past. They could not point to the successes enjoyed by democratic and secularist regimes. For few such regimes had ever existed, and those that had had not always fared well. So their only recourse was to justify themselves by reference to principle, philosophical principle. Reason, they said, had revealed the existence of universal human rights, so a revolution was required to put society on a rational basis.

"Reason" in the eighteenth century was supposed to be what the anti-clericalists had to compensate for their lack of what the clergy called "faith". For the revolutionaries of those times were necessarily anti-clerical. One of their chief complaints was the assistance that the clergy had rendered to feudal and monarchical institutions. Diderot, for example, famously looked forward to seeing the last king strangled with the entrails of the last priest. In that period, the work of secularist philosophers such as Spinoza and Kant was very important in creating an intellectual climate conducive to revolutionary political activity. Kant argued that even the words of Christ must be evaluated by reference to the dictates of universally shared human reason. For Enlightenment thinkers such as Jefferson, it was important to argue that reason is a sufficient basis for moral and political deliberation, and that revelation is unnecessary.

The author of both the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and of the American Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a typical leftist intellectual of his time. He read a lot of philosophy and took it very seriously indeed. He wrote in the Declaration that "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". As a good Enlightenment rationalist, he agreed with Kant that reason was the source of such truths, and that reason was sufficient to provide moral and political guidance.

Many contemporary Western intellectuals (among them Juergen Habermas, the most influential and distinguished living philosopher) think that there was something importantly right about Enlightenment rationalism. Habermas believes that philosophical reflection can indeed provide moral and political guidance, for it can disclose principles that have what he calls "universal validity". Foundationalist philosophers like Habermas see philosophy as playing the same role in culture that Kant and Jefferson assigned to it. Simply taking thought will reveal what Habermas calls "presuppositions of rational communication", and thereby provide criteria which can guide moral and political choice.

Many leftist intellectuals in America and in the West generally would agree that democracy has such a foundation. They too think that certain central moral and political truths are, if not exactly self-evident, nonetheless transcultural and ahistorical – the product of human reason as such, not simply of a certain sequence of historical events. They are annoyed and disturbed by the writings of anti-foundationalist philosophers like myself who argue that there is no such thing as "human reason".

We anti-foundationalists, however, regard Enlightenment rationalism as an unfortunate attempt to beat religion at religion's own game – the game of pretending that there is something above and beyond human history that can sit in judgment on that history. We argue that although some cultures are better than others, there are no transcultural criteria of "betterness" that we can appeal to when we say that modern democratic societies are better than feudal societies, or that egalitarian societies are better than racist or sexist ones. We are sure that rule by officials freely elected by literate and well-educated voters is better than rule by priests and kings, but we would not try to demonstrate the truth of this claim to a proponent of theocracy or of monarchy. We suspect that if the study of history cannot convince such a proponent of the falsity of his views, nothing else can do so.

Anti-foundationalist philosophy professors like myself do not think that philosophy is as important as Plato and Kant thought it. This is because we do not think that the moral world has a structure that can be discerned by philosophical reflection. We are historicists because we agree with Hegel's thesis that "philosophy is its time, held in thought". What Hegel meant, I take it, was that human social practices in general, and political institutions in particular, are the product of concrete historical situations, and that they have to be judged by reference to the needs created by those situations. There is no way to step outside of human history and look at things under the aspect of eternity.

Philosophy, on this view, is ancillary to historiography. The history of philosophy should be studied in the context of the social situations that created philosophical doctrines and systems, in the same way that we study the history of art and literature. Philosophy is not, and never will be, a science – in the sense of a progressive accumulation of enduring truths.

Most philosophers in the West prior to the time of Hegel were universalist and foundationalist. As Isaiah Berlin has put it, before the end of the eighteenth century Western thinkers viewed human life as the attempt to solve a jigsaw puzzle. Berlin describes what I have designated as their hope for universal philosophical foundations for culture as follows:

There must be some way of putting the pieces together. The all-wise being, the omniscient being, whether God or an omniscient earthly creature – whichever way you like to conceive of it – is in principle capable of fitting all the pieces together into one coherent pattern. Anyone who does this will know what the world is like: what things are, what they have been, what they will be, what the laws are that govern them, what man is, what the relation of man is to things, and therefore what man needs, what he desires, and how to obtain it.[1]

The idea that the intellectual world, including the moral world, is like a jigsaw puzzle, and that philosophers are the people charged with getting all the pieces to fit together presupposes that history does not really matter: that there has never been anything new under the sun. That assumption was weakened by three events. The first was the spate of democratic revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, especially those in America and in France. The second was the Romantic Movement in literature and the arts – a movement that suggested that the poet, rather than the philosopher, was the figure who had most to contribute to social progress. The third, which came along a little later, was the general acceptance of Darwin's evolutionary account of the origin of the human species.

One of the effects of these three events was the emergence of anti-foundationalist philosophy – of philosophers who challenge the jigsaw puzzle view of things. The Western philosophical tradition, these philosophers say, was wrong to think that the enduring and stable was preferable to the novel and contingent. Plato, in particular, was wrong to take mathematics as a model for knowledge.

On this view, there is no such thing as human nature, for human beings make themselves up as they go along. They create themselves, as poets create poems. There is no such thing as the nature of the state or the nature of society to be understood – there is only an historical sequence of relatively successful and relatively unsuccessful attempts to achieve some combination of order and justice.

To further illustrate the difference between foundationalists and non-foundationalists, let me return to Jefferson's claim that the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident. Foundationalists urge that the existence of such rights is a universal truth, one that has nothing in particular to do with Europe rather than Asia or Africa, or with modern history rather than ancient history. The existence of such rights, they say, is like the existence of irrational numbers such as the square root of two – something that anybody who thinks hard about the topic can be brought to recognize. Such philosophers agree with Kant's claim that "the common moral consciousness" is not an historical product but part of the structure of human rationality. Kant's categorical imperative, dictating that we must not use other human beings as mere means – must not treat them as mere things – is translated into concrete political terms by Jefferson and by the authors of the Helsinki Declaration of Human Rights. Such translations simply reformulate moral convictions that should have seemed as self-evidently true in the days of Plato and Alexander as they are now. It is the business of philosophy to remind us of what, somehow, deep in our hearts, we have always known to be true. Plato was, in this sense, right when he said that moral knowledge is a matter of recollection – an a priori matter, not a result of empirical experimentation.

In contrast, anti-foundationalists like myself agree with Hegel that Kant's categorical imperative is an empty abstraction until it is filled up with the sort of concrete detail that only historical experience can provide. We say the same about Jefferson's claim about self-evident human rights. On our view, moral principles are never more than ways of summing up a certain body of experience. To call them "a priori" or "self-evident" is to persist in using Plato's utterly misleading analogy between moral certainty and mathematical certainty. No statements can both have revolutionary political implications and be self-evidently true.

To say that a statement is self-evident is, we anti-foundationalists believe, merely an empty rhetorical gesture. The existence of the rights that the revolutionaries of the eighteenth century claimed for all human beings had not been evident to most European thinkers in the previous thousand years. That their existence seems self-evident to Americans and Europeans two hundred-odd years after they were first asserted is to be explained by culture-specific indoctrination rather than by a sort of connaturality between the human mind and moral truth.

To make our case, we anti-foundationalists point to unpleasant historical facts such as the following: The words of the Declaration were taken, by the supposedly democratic government of the US, to apply only to people of European origin. The American Founding Fathers applied them only to the immigrants who had come across the Atlantic to escape from the monarchical governments of Europe. The idea that native Americans – the Indian tribes who were the aboriginal inhabitants – had such rights was rarely taken seriously. Recalcitrant Indians were massacred.

Again, it was only a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence that the citizenry of the US began to take women's rights seriously – began to ask themselves whether American females were being given the same opportunities for the pursuit of happiness as were American males. It took almost a hundred years, and an enormously costly and cruel civil war, before black Americans were given the right not to be held as slaves. It took another hundred years before black Americans began to be treated as full-fledged citizens, entitled to all the same opportunities as whites.

These facts of the history of my country are sometimes cited to show that America is an utterly hypocritical nation, and that it has never taken seriously its own protestations about human rights. But I think that this dismissal of the US is unfair and misleading. One reason it became a much better, fairer, more decent, more generous country in the course of two centuries was that democratic freedoms – in particular freedom of the press and freedom of speech – made it possible for public opinion to force the white males of European ancestry to consider what they had done, and were doing to the Indians, the women, and the blacks.

The role of public opinion in the gradual expansion of the scope of human rights in the Western democracies is, to my mind, the best reason for preferring democracy to other systems of government that one could possibly offer. The history of the US illustrates the way in which a society that concerned itself largely with the happiness of property-owning white males could gradually and peacefully change itself into one in which impoverished black females have become senators, cabinet officers, and judges of the higher courts. Jefferson and Kant would have been bewildered at the changes that have taken place in the Western democracies in the last two hundred years. For they did not think of equal treatment for blacks and whites, or of female suffrage, as deducible from the philosophical principles they enunciated. Their hypothetical astonishment illustrates the anti-foundationalist point that moral insight is not, like mathematics, a product of rational reflection. It is instead a matter of imagining a better future, and observing the results of attempts to bring that future into existence. Moral knowledge, like scientific knowledge, is mostly the result of making experiments and seeing how they work out. Female suffrage, for example, has worked well. Centralized control of a country's economy, on the other hand, has not.

The history of moral progress since the Enlightenment illustrates the fact that the important thing about democracy is as much a matter of freedom of speech and of the press as about the ability of angry citizens to replace bad elected officials with better elected officials. A country can have democratic elections but make no moral progress if those who are being mistreated have no chance to make their sufferings known. In theory, a country could remain a constitutional democracy even if its government never instituted any measures to increase equality of opportunity. In practice, the freedom to debate political issues and to put forward political candidates will ensure that democracy in the sense of egalitarianism will be a natural consequence of democracy as constitutional government.

The moral of the anti-foundationalist sermon I have been preaching to you is that for countries that have not undergone the secularization that was the most important effect of the European Enlightenment, or that are only now seeing the emergence of constitutional government, the history of Western philosophy is not a particularly profitable area of study. The history of the successes and failures of various social experiments in various countries is much more profitable. If we anti-foundationalists are right, the attempt to place society on a philosophical foundation should be replaced by the attempt to learn from the historical record.

[1] Isaiah Berlin, Roots of Romanticism, 23.