Some time back I realized that I’d left the marked trail and was heading off the map. Some of the thoughts that most engaged me were ones I was only just learning how to articulate, and ones I was having a hard time finding precedents for.
When the thing that engages you has a name, a school, a history — you can call on that tradition to help you describe yourself and what you’re thinking about, and you have a ready-made shortcut for telling people what you’re up to. “I collect early 20th Century tobacco cards.” “I’m a zionist.” “I’m a fiscal conservative.” “I’m challenging traditional gender roles in television.” Whatever.
I’m having a hard time defining or even describing This Thing that’s engaging me these days. So I’ve been working overtime trying to find somebody who’s beat me to it so I can say, “I’m a So-and-soian” or “I believe in Such-and-suchism.” So far, no such luck. So today I’m going to ramble on for a bit about what sorts of thoughts are churning in my brain these days. Maybe you can come up with a name that encapsulates them — email me with your ideas!
It’s not that I’m a marvelously original thinker — there’s precedent for most of the elements of This Thing, just not the combination of them (or if there is, I haven’t found it yet). Some of the themes of my thinking lately:
- The importance of getting your personal ethical ducks in a row, in order to strengthen your foundation, to test your principles against reality, to testify wholeheartedly for those principles, and to cast a vote with your whole conscience for the kind of world you want to live in.
In this I find some harmony with the existentialists, or with any number of philosophers who explained that to find out what you believe, how you act is a better demonstration than what you say. I also see parallels to Thoreau, when he said hopefully: “It is not so important that many should be good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump.”
And I’m encouraged by stories like the one told in Against All Odds from ’s Mother Jones magazine, which shows that appeals to conscience from dedicated individuals can occasionally be strong enough to conquer gargantuan institutionalized evil:
[P]icture the world as it existed in . Well over three-quarters of the people on earth are in bondage of one kind or another. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumber free people. African slaves are also scattered widely through much of the Islamic world. Slavery is routine in most of Africa itself. In India and other parts of Asia, some people are outright slaves, others in debt bondage that ties them to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave to a Southern plantation owner. In Russia the majority of the population are serfs. Nowhere is slavery more firmly rooted than in Britain’s overseas empire, where some half-million slaves are being systematically worked to an early death growing West Indian sugar. Caribbean slave-plantation fortunes underlie many a powerful dynasty.… One of the most prosperous sugar plantations on Barbados is owned by the Church of England. Furthermore, Britain’s ships dominate the slave trade, delivering tens of thousands of chained captives each year to French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies as well as to its own.
If you had proposed, in the London of , to change all of this, nine out of ten people would have laughed you off as a crackpot.… Looking back, however, what is even more surprising than slavery’s scope is how swiftly it died. By , slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad and the Emancipation Proclamation. But our self-centered textbooks often skip over the fact that in the superpower of the time slavery ended a full quarter-century earlier.…
[T]he British anti-slavery movement leaves us an extraordinary legacy. Every day activists use the tools it helped pioneer: consumer boycotts, newsletters, petitions, political posters and buttons, national campaigns with local committees, and much more. But far more important is the boldness of its vision. Look at the problems that confront the world today: global warming; the vast gap between rich and poor nations; the relentless spread of nuclear weapons; the poisoning of the earth’s soil, air, and water; the habit of war. To solve almost any one of these, a realist might say, is surely the work of centuries; to think otherwise is naive. But many a hardheaded realist could — and did — say exactly the same thing to those who first proposed to end slavery. After all, was it not in one form or another woven into the economy of most of the world? Had it not existed for millennia? Was it not older, even, than money and the written word? Surely anyone expecting to change all of that was a dreamer. But the realists turned out to be wrong. “Never doubt,” said Margaret Mead, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
- A skepticism of large-scale abstract ethical algorithms (utilitarian or Kantian for instance)
I’m not much up on ethical philosophy, but apparently there’s a new up-and-comer that’s trying to defend some territory of its own on the field where the Kantians and utilitarians have been battling it out. This newer ethics (it’s not really new — it actually predates both utilitarianism and Kantiansm but is now having a revival) goes by the name of “virtue ethics.”
In Kantian or utilitarian ethics, you are supposed to be a precise and astute person, who sizes up the situations you are confronted with and either a) puts them in categories that you can match with preselected, universal, rational principles so you can choose your best response accordingly, or b) calculates the results of different possible responses so as to pick the best one based on these predicted results.
In virtue ethics, the goal is not to be precise and astute and then to apply a guiding framework based on the data you retrieve. The goal instead is to be virtuous, to be a good person. You are encouraged to practice being virtuous, since it is a skill learned through practice and not simply the result of applied theory. When you are confronted with a situation where you need to make a choice, ask “what choice would a virtuous person make?” (For instance, “What Would Jesus Do?” if you’re a Christian).
I’ve taken some inspiration from the mythical Disumbrationist League:
If the theory of the Disumbrationists differs from other well-known forms of anarchism substantially it is in their advocacy of “nobility.” The knights-of-the-round-table language sometimes used in Disumbrationist propaganda has led some to smell therein a suspicious odor of monarchism. But this is not the nobility of the European courts, but more the nobility of Lord Buckley, who appropriated his title on the basis of being noble rather than inheriting it on the basis of his ancestry or acquiring it as a reward from political elites. Perhaps “honor” is a more appropriate word to describe what the Disumbrationists are getting at, but there is some deliberate effort on their part to play off of the ideas of romantic Arthurian knights, so “nobility” it is. The noble order here resembles less the royal court and more Jack Black’s “Johnson Family” — nobody joins the Johnson Family, and there’s no set of commandments to follow, but if you aim to do right by people, you’ll come to be known as “a Johnson.”
I’m a little discouraged at how fuzzy this sort of ethical guidance is, but I’m also pretty much convinced that fuzzy ethical guidance is about the best we can hope for. There’s no God to hand down commandments, and the best human attempts to make up for this absence have all been disappointing.
But more to the point, I think that a horror like the holocaust wasn’t caused because not enough people knew “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or because Kant wasn’t taught at the university (hell, even Eichmann called himself a Kantian). Which brings me to the next point:
- I’m concerned about the willingness of people to pretend to abdicate their responsibility for their chosen actions for the most threadbare of reasons.
This has been what has had me digging through Hannah Arendt, Jonathan Glover, and Stanley Milgram’s experiment. It also brings me back around to existentialist philosophy, where these excuses for denying choice and agency are exposed as “bad faith.”
Here I found a kindred spirit in tax resister Juanita Nelson:
It is, as far as I can see, an unpleasant fact that we cannot avoid decision-making. We are not absolved by following the dictates of a mentor or of a majority. For we then have made the decision to do that — have concluded because of belief or of fear or of apathy that this is the thing which we should do or cannot avoid doing. And then we share in the consequences of any such action.… [I]t still appears to me that, while the seat of government is in Washington, the seat of conscience is in me. It cannot be voted out of office by one or a million others.
Which leads me to reevaluate the nature of this “government.”
- “The government” is a kind of a mythical creature, like “Zeus” or “Fate” or “the wheels of history.” It’s a piece of shorthand, a literary device, but not an actual agent in the world we live in. It’s also the “bad faith” excuse behind much of the worst parts of .
I’ve done a casual read-through of the literature about the theory of government, and about anarchism, and I’ve had a hard time finding anything that seems to look at it from this point of view. Closest thing I got, sad to say, was from the mouth of the character Bernardo de la Paz in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. He called himself a “rational anarchist:”
A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame… as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else.
I hesitate to claim to be in a philosophical lineage founded by a character in a utopian science fiction novel, so I looked into a libertarian by the name of Robert LeFevre who was the real-life character Heinlein based his de la Paz on. Alas, I think I’m closer to the Moon’s crazy libertarian than the one that actually lived on Earth.
- Because this “government” is really only the sum of the actions of the people who use it as an excuse, solving the problems of “government” means not to tilt at a windmill and call it “government” but to address people directly, as people.
This is humbling in its scope (there are a lot more people in the world than there are governments). It is also democratic in its spirit — not in the voting/elections sense of democratic, but in the sense of the power really residing in the people, not in some empowered minority or institution.
And maybe it’s just as quixotic as the alternative of setting your lance against the spinning arms of “government.” But the tale of the abolitionists I mentioned earlier gives me hope that through appeals to conscience and individual assertions of conscience people can change the world.