Friday, March 24, 2017

Passages from "Democracy in America"

Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Viscount de Tocqueville (29 July 1805 – 16 April 1859)

"Americans are taught from birth that they must overcome life's woes and impediments on their own. Social authority makes them mistrustful and anxious, and they rely upon its power only when they cannot do without it. This first becomes apparent in the schools, where children play by their own rules and punish infractions they define themselves. One encounters the same spirit in all aspects of social life. An obstruction blocks a public road, interrupting the flow of traffic. The neighbors immediately set up a deliberative body. Out of this improvised assembly comes an executive power that will remedy the ill before it occurs to anyone to appeal to an authority..." (p. 215)

"The United States has no capital. Enlightenment, like power, is disseminated throughout this vast country. Hence the beams of human intelligence do not all emanate from a common center but crisscross in every direction. Nowhere have the Americans established any central direction over their thinking, any more than they have established any central direction over affairs of state." (p. 210)

"Nothing makes me admire the common sense and practical intelligence of the Americans more than the way in which they avoid the countless difficulties arising from their federal constitution. Seldom have I met an ordinary American who could not distinguish with surprising ease between obligations stemming from laws passed by Congress and obligations originating in the laws of his state..." (p. 187)

"In the United States, the majority takes it upon itself to provide individuals with a range of ready-made opinions and thus relieves them of the obligation to form their own." (p. 491)

"Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation. An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex." (p. 186)

"What can be foreseen right now is that if the Americans did abandon the republic, they would move quickly to despotism without tarrying for long in monarchy. Montesquieu said that there is nothing more absolute than the authority of a prince who succeeds a republic, because the indefinite powers once fearlessly entrusted to elected officials would then be placed in the hands of a hereditary leader. This is true in general, but particularly true of a democratic republic. In the United States, officials are not elected by a particular class of citizens but by the majority of the nation; they directly represent the passions of the multitude and are entirely dependent on its will. They therefore inspire neither hatred nor fear. Thus, as I noted earlier, little care has been taken to limit their power by circumscribing their action, and the range of arbitrary discretion left to them is vast. The habits fostered by this way of ordering things could outlast it. American officials could keep their indefinite power yet cease to be answerable to anyone, and it is impossible to say where tyranny would then end.

There are some among us who expect to see an aristocracy arise in America and who are already predicting exactly when it will seize power." (p. 460)

"Among the droves of men with political ambitions in the United States, I found very few with that virile candor, that manly independence of thought, that often distinguished Americans in earlier times and that is invariably the preeminent trait of great characters wherever it exists." (p. 297)

"While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to banish distinguished men from power, an instinct no less powerful leads distinguished men to shun careers in politics, in which it is so very difficult to remain entirely true to oneself or to advance without self-abasement." (p. 227)

"I therefore believe that the kind of oppression that threatens democratic peoples is unlike any the world has seen before. Our contemporaries will find no image of it in their memories. I search in vain for an expression that exactly reproduces my idea of it and captures it fully. The old words "despotism" and "tyranny" will not do. The thing is new, hence I must try to define it, since I cannot give it a name.

I am trying to imagine what new features despotism might have in today's world: I see an innumerable host of men, all alike and equal, endlessly hastening after petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is virtually a stranger to the fate of all the others. For him, his children and personal friends comprise the entire human race. As for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he lives alongside them but does not see them. He touches them but does not feel them. He exists only in himself and for himself, and if he still has a family, he no longer has a country.

Over these men stands an immense tutelary power, which assumes sole responsibility for securing their pleasure and watching over their fate. It is absolute, meticulous, regular, provident, and mild. It would resemble paternal authority if only its purpose were the same, namely, to prepare men for manhood. But on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them in childhood irrevocably. It likes citizens to rejoice, provided they think only of rejoicing. It works willingly for their happiness. It provides for their security, foresees and takes care of their needs, facilitates their pleasures, manages their most important affairs, directs their industry, regulates their successions, and divides their inheritances. Why not relieve them entirely of the trouble of thinking and the difficulty of living?

Every day it thus makes man's use of his free will rarer and more futile. It circumscribes the action of the will more narrowly, and little by little robs each citizen of the use of his own faculties. (p. 818)

"The sovereign, after taking individuals one by one in his powerful hands and kneading them to his liking, reaches out to embrace society as a whole. Over it he spreads a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules, through which not even the most original minds and most vigorous souls can poke their heads above the crowd. He does not break men's wills but softens, bends, and guides them. He seldom forces anyone to act but consistently opposes action. He does not destroy things but prevents them from coming into being. Rather than tyrannize, he inhibits, represses, saps, stifles, and stultifies, and in the end he reduces each nation to nothing but a flock of timid and industrious animals, with the government as its shepherd." (p. 819)

"In absolute governments, the high nobles who surround the throne flatter the passions of the master and voluntarily bend to his whims. But the masses of the nation are not inclined toward servitude; often they submit out of weakness, habit, or ignorance, and occasionally out of love for royalty or the king. It is not unknown for a people to take pleasure and pride of a sort of sacrificing their will to that of the prince, thereby marking a kind of independence of soul in the very act of obedience. In such nations degradation is far less common than misery. There is a great difference, moreover, between doing what one does not approve of and pretending to approve of what one does: one is the attitude of a man who is weak, the other a habit that only a lackey would acquire." (p. 296)

"As the first people to face the redoubtable alternative I have just described, the Anglo-Americans were fortunate enough to escape from absolute power. Their circumstances, background, enlightenment, and, most of all, mores enabled them to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people." (p. 61)

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. New York, NY: Library of America, 2004.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Greek Concept of Virtue

Sally Haslanger
Sally Haslanger is the Ford Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and holds the 2015 Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.

Let us begin by looking in a general way at the ancient Greek conception of virtue and morality. Although the various authors we will consider differ considerably in their views about morality, there are a number of core assumptions which they all shared, and within which their views evolved. Many of the assumptions and the debates will be familiar to us; they concern the foundations of moral motivation (why be moral?), the basis for moral obligation (by what authority does morality make demands on us?), and moral epistemology (how do we know what is right or wrong? Can virtue be taught?).

The Greek word for virtue is 'ARETE'. For the Greeks, the notion of virtue is tied to the notion of function (ERGON). The virtues of something are what enable it to perform excellently its proper function. Virtue (or arete) extends beyond the realm of morality; it concerns the excellent performance of any function.  For example the function of a paring knife is to cut fruits and vegetables. A paring knife "has virtues" relative to that function, eg., a good paring knife has the virtue of being sharp, strong, etc. From this it appears that our own broad idea of virtue retains the Greek suggestion that virtue is excellence in performing one's proper function.

In keeping with this broad conception of virtue, human virtue is that which enables a human being to perform well or excellently the proper function of a human being.  We may find it odd to speak of the proper goal or function of a human being; what is the function of human beings? The function of something is linked to what it can do especially well, or what only it can do. For humans, to put the point broadly, this is to live a human life.  So the function of a human being is to live well or excellently the life that we have.  Since to live well is to be happy, one's virtue is what enables one to lead a happy life.

So, on the Greek conception of virtue, a virtuous person is one who has the ability to live excellently, ie., to live a full, productive, and happy human life.  Moral goodness is a kind of functional goodness: goodness relative to our proper purpose or function.  This is only a schematic model and must be filled in by further discussion of what constitutes a distinctively human life, and distinctively human excellence.

Happiness is not only the product of well-living, but it is also what we naturally pursue.  We have as our function a well-lived life, and we are naturally motivated to pursue such a life; this is a life of happiness. In short, happiness is our TELOS, ie., our goal or aim.  On the Greek approach to ethics what is morally right for an agent must contribute to the agent's happiness, for the moral goodness of our actions is necessarily connected to living well.  On this view, one can always characterize what is morally right in a way which reveals it as conducive to the agent's good, or self-interest. (This need not mean that all morality is narrowly self-centered, for it may be essential to my happiness and the goodness of my life that I am able to care for others.)

During Socrates' lifetime, it was usually assumed that there are five cardinal virtues: wisdom, moderation/temperance, bravery, justice, piety.  Popular belief had it that one could have one of these virtues without having the rest.  Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle believed, however, that the virtues are inseparable; if you have one you have them all.

The point of these virtues is that each enables one to perform well in a particular sphere of life, and the virtues together enable one to live a good life as a whole.  Bravery enables one to perform well in situations of danger; justice enables one to carry out successfully one's dealings with the others in a community; having all of the virtues enables one to perform excellently in all aspects of life. Truly living well requires that one have all of the virtues; complete virtue is the key to happiness (EUDAIMONIA).

There are two problems we shall have to address in coming to understand this conception of virtue:

1. Morality requires that we be just. To be just is to honor the claims of others in considering potential conflicts. In some cases, honoring the claims of others will clearly be against one's self-interest. How do we reconcile the claim that justice is a virtue and so (necessarily) leads to my happiness, with the seemingly undeniable fact that sometimes the unjust person who does not treat others fairly ends up happier? (Eg., won't an unjust person who gets more than a fair share of the pie be happier than they would be if the pie were divided fairly?)

2. If all morality is in our self-interest (because morality necessarily promotes our happiness), and we are naturally motivated to act in our own self-interest, why is it that sometimes we perform actions we know to be morally wrong? In other words, how is possible that sometimes we know the right thing to do, and yet go ahead and do the wrong thing? This is known as the problem of AKRASIA or "weakness of will".

Ancient philosophy, Fall 2004, lecture notes

Friday, March 3, 2017

In Praise of Philosophy

By: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961)
If we have recalled these words of Bergson, not all of which are in his books, it is because they make us feel that there is a tension in the relation of the philosopher with other persons or with life, and that this uneasiness is essential to philosophy. We have forgotten this a little. The modern philosopher is frequently a functionary, always a writer, and the freedom allowed him in his books admits an opposite view. What he says enters first of all into an academic world where the choices of life are deadened and the occasions for thought are cut off. Without books a certain speed of communication would be impossible, and there is nothing to say against them. But in the end, they are only words expressed a bit more coherently. The philosophy placed in books has ceased to challenge men. What is unusual and almost insupportable in it is hidden in the respectable life of the great philosophical systems. In order to understand the total function of the philosopher, we must remember that even the philosophical writers whom we read and who we are have never ceased to recognize as their patron a man who never wrote, who never taught, at least in any official chair, who talked with anyone he met on the street, and who had certain difficulties with public opinion and with the public powers. We must remember Socrates. 

The life and the death of Socrates record the difficult relations which the philosopher maintains – when he is not protected by the immunity of books – with the gods of the City; that is to say with other men, and with the fixed absolute whose image they extend to him. If the philosopher were a rebel, it would be less shocking. For in the last analysis each one of us knows for his own part that the world as it is, is unacceptable. We like to have this written down for the honor of humanity, though we may forget it when we return to our affairs. Hence rebellion is not displeasing. But with Socrates it is something different. He teaches that religion is true, and he offered sacrifices to the gods. He teaches that one ought to obey the City, and he obeys it from the very beginning to the end. He is reproached not so much for what he does as for his way of doing it, his motive. In the Apology, there is a saying which explains it all, when Socrates says to his judges: Athenians, I believe as none of those who accuse me. Revealing words! He believes more than they, but also he believes in another way, and in a different sense. True religion for Socrates is religion in which the gods are not in conflict, where the omens remain ambiguous – since, in the last analysis, says the Socrates of Xenophon, it is the gods, not the birds, who foresee the future – where the divine reveals itself, like the daimon of Socrates, only by a silent warning and a reminder to man of his ignorance. Religion is, therefore, true, but true in a sense that is does not know – true as Socrates thinks it, not as it thinks.

And in the same way when he justifies the City, it is for his own reasons, not for raisons d’Etat.  He does not run away. He appears before the tribunal. But there is little respect in the reasons he gives for this. First of all, he says, at my age that lust for life is not in place; furthermore, one would not put up with me much better elsewhere; finally, I have always lived here. There remains the celebrated argument for the authority of the laws. But we need to examine it more closely. Xenophon makes Socrates say that one may obey the laws in wishing for them to change, as one fights a war in wishing for peace. Thus, it is not that the laws are good but that they pertain to order, and one needs order in order to change it. When Socrates refuses to flee, it is not that he recognizes the tribunal. It is that he may be in a better position to challenge it. By fleeing, that is, he would become an enemy of Athens and would make the sentence against him true. By remaining, he has won, whether he be acquitted or condemned, for he will prove his philosophy either in leading his judges to accept it, or in his own acceptance of the sentence.

Aristotle, seventy-five years later, will say, in leaving the city of his own accord, that there is no sense in allowing the Athenians to commit a new crime against philosophy. Socrates, on the other hand, works out for himself another idea of philosophy. It does not exist as a sort of idol of which he would be the guardian and which he must defend. It exists rather in its living relevance to the Athenians, in its absent presence, in its obedience without respect. Socrates has a way of obeying which is a way of resisting, while Aristotle disobeys in seemliness and dignity. Everything that Socrates does is ordered around the secret principle that one is annoyed if he does not comprehend. Always to blame by excess or default, always more simple and yet less abstract than the others, more flexible and less accommodating, he makes them ill at ease, and inflicts upon them the unpardonable offense of making them doubt themselves. He is there in life, at the assembly of the people, and before the tribunal, but in such a way that one can make nothing of him. He gives them no eloquence, no prepared rhetoric. By entering into the game of respect, he would only justify the calumny against him. But even less any show of defiance! This would be to forget that in a certain sense the others can hardly judge otherwise than they do. The same philosophy obliges him to appear before the judges and also makes him different from them. The same freedom which brings him among them frees him from their prejudices. The very same principle makes him both universal and singular. There is a part of him by which he is the kinsman of them all. It is called reason and is invisible to them. For them, as Aristophanes says, it is cloudy, empty chattering. The commentators sometimes say it is all a misunderstanding. Socrates believes in religion and the city, in spirit and in truth. They believe in them to the letter. He and his judges are not on the same ground. If only he had been better understood, one would have seen clearly that he was neither seeking for new gods, nor neglecting the gods of Athens. He was only trying to give them a sense; he was interpreting them.

The trouble is that this operation is not so innocent. It is in the world of the philosopher that one saves the gods and the laws by understanding them, and to make room on earth for the life of philosophy, it is precisely philosophers like Socrates who are required. Religion interpreted – this is for the others religion supressed. And the charge of impiety – this is the point of view of the others towards him. He gives reason for obeying the laws. But it is already too much to have reasons for obeying, since over against all reasons other reasons can be opposed, and the respect disappears. What one expects of him – this is exactly what he is not able to give – is assent to the thing itself, without restriction. He, on the contrary, comes before the judges, yes, but it is to explain to them what the City is. As if they did not know! As if they were not the City! He does not plead for himself. He pleads the cause of a city which would accept philosophy. He reverses the roles and says to them: it is not myself I am defending; it is you. In the last analysis, the City is in him and they are the enemies of the laws. It is they who are being judges, and he who is judging them – an inevitable reversal in the philosopher, since he justifies what is outside by values which come from within.

What can one do if he neither pleads his cause nor challenges to combat? One can speak in such a way as to make freedom show itself in and through the various respects and considerations, and to unlock hate by a smile – a lesson for our philosophy which has lost both its smile and its sense of tragedy. This is what is called irony. The irony of Socrates is a distant but true relation with others. It expresses the fundamental fact that each of us is only himself inescapably, and nevertheless recognizes himself in the other. It is an attempt to open up both of us for freedom. As is true of tragedy, both the adversaries are justified, and true irony uses a double-meaning which is founded on these facts. There is therefore no self-conceit. It is irony on the self no less than on the others. As Hegel well says, it is naïve. The irony of Socrates is not to say less in order to win an advantage in showing great mental power, or in suggesting some esoteric knowledge. “Whenever I convince anyone of his ignorance,” the Apology says with melancholy, “my listeners imagine that I know everything that he does not know,” Socrates does not know any more than they know. He knows only that there is no absolute knowledge, and that it is by this absence that we are open to the truth.

To this good Irony Hegel opposes a romantic irony which is equivocal, tricky, and self-conceited. It relies on the power which we can use, if we wish, to give any kind of meaning to anything whatsoever. It levels the things down; it plays with them and permits anything. The irony of Socrates is not this kind of madness. Or at least if there are traces of bad irony in it, it is Socrates himself who teaches us to correct Socrates. When he says: I make them dislike me and this is proof that what I say is true, he is wrong on the basis of his own principles. All sound reasoning is offensive, but all that offends us is not true. At another time, when he says to his judges: I will not philosophizing even if I must die many times, he taunts them and tempts their cruelty. Sometimes it is clear that he yields to the giddiness of insolence and spitefulness, to self-magnification and the aristocratic spirit. He was left with no other resource than himself. As Hegel says again, he appeared “at the time of the decadence of the Athenian democracy; he drew away from the externally existent and retired into himself to seek there for the just and the good.” But in the last analysis it was precisely this that he was self-prohibited from doing, since he thought that one cannot be just all alone and, indeed, that in being just all alone one ceases to be just. If it is true the City that he is defending, it is not merely the City in him but that actual City existing around him. The five hundred men who gathered together to judge him were neither all important people nor all fools. Two hundred and twenty-one among them thought he was innocent, and a change of thirty votes would have saved Athens from the dishonor. It was also a question of those after Socrates who would run the same danger. He was perhaps free to bring down the anger of the fools upon himself, to pardon them with a certain contempt, and then to pass beyond his life. But this would not absolve him in advance from the evil he might bring on their lives. It was therefore necessary to give to the tribunal its chance of understanding. In so far as we live with others, no judgement we make on them is possible which leaves us out, and which places then at a distance. All is vain, or all is evil, as likewise all is well, which are hard to distinguish, do not come from philosophy.