Friday, December 18, 2009

Four Wrong Turns: Four Moral theories and Four Visions of "the Bad Life"

A moral theory tries to tell us what is valuable in life and how we should treat one another. Each moral theory is a project for articulating "the good life," whatever that may be. But the flip side of positive instruction is a negative warning. Each moral theory also threatens a wrong turn - a vision of the bad life - the hell on earth that we could create through either embracing the wrong moral theory or failing to embrace a moral theory all together.

For the first three "hells," I'm not going to re-invent the wheel. If the reader evaluates me on originiality they might judge this post a failure. But I hope to provide a keenly observed, accesible and easily understood articulation of the moral projects of smarter men than myself.

#4, my Facebook dystopia, is more my own invention.




Liberalism is centered around the idea that we can draw a line between our public and private lives. In our private lives we can be religous, irrational, passionate. Behind the walls of our home we can experiment with sexuality and religous devotion in any way we seek.

However, once we step into the public realm, the courthouse and the schoolyard and the town hall meeting, we are expected to check our private baggage at the door. If we are to make an argument in the public sphere, we have to house it in a vocabulary that is public, that other people can accept without having to accept our private religous or moral doctrines.

Because rationality and reason are the only public currency, religon would start to erode over time as citizens began to, inevitably, take their public lessons home with them. As John Tomasi argues, the demand that we use reason would lead us to pull up our moral anchors one by one, until we were completely unanchored. Soon we would find ourselves floating aimlessly in the moral ocean, blown whatever direction by whichever wind carried the day.

This is the sense in which I am conservative and not liberal. The same sense in which friendship is conservative. Where modern liberalism asks us to divorce ourselves from our particularisms, friendship asks us to embrace the familiar shores we've come to love. Rather to stick with the imperfect friends we have than pull up our anchors and sail off into the unknown in search of better ones.

Rationality. Reason. They can only take us so far. Political liberalism purports to be an agnostic, neutral grid that can manage the diversity of a society with different moral views (atheist, Islamic, Christian, ecologist, etc)... But at what point does that neutral grid become its own moral theory. Will the agnostic neutral grid eventually turn all our private moral convictions into mere hobbies?

When the demands of the public sphere bleed over into our private lives, our lives become empty, uncomfortable, petty, calculating, and unheroic.

Richard Breiner compares this vision of the bad life to a room without furniture. He offers this image to illustrate:

DYSTOPIAS #2 and #3


You own yourself. This fundamental argument is at the center of libertarian thought. You have a right to be treated as an end in and of yourself. It is wrong for society to treat you merely as the means to some other end.

To bring an illustration to this point about deserving to be treated like an end and not a means to someone else's end, imagine you are on a lifeboat with ten other people. It would certainly be noble of you to offer your body to the other 9 as food. But could the other 9 justifiably take your body as food by force. Could they kill you and eat you and argue that it was in the name of the greater good?

A liberterian argues that this is an apt metaphor for being taxed under the table to pay for the social welfare of others.

Let's say that the government decides it can take 25% of your earning at the end of the year. We are used to this idea.

But what if you decided to work 25% less every year, could the government coerce you into working more? Is there any moral difference between the government taking 25% of the profits of your labor and the governement forcing you to labor for an extra X number of hours??? What is slavery other than being forced to work for nothing? For those hours for which the wages went to the governement, were you not working for nothing? To be sure you are not a total slave, but are you a partial slave?

In this vision of the bad life, the government either forces you to work, or steals the fruits of your labor from you. There is no hope of working hard and getting ahead. You do not own yourself. The government owns you. And the government will gladly cut you up into little pieces and distribute you to the masses if that will make the public happier as a whole.

As Grover Nordquist said, "I don't want to get rid of government, I just want to starve it down to the size where I can drown it in the bathtub if need be." The liberterians fear a nanny state. The nanny state would decide what was best for you and if you disagree, you get spanked.


What do we get when we abandon social welfare as the end of government? Would a world without taxes be anymore satisfying?

A world where income inequality was enormous and insurmountable. There would be no equality of opportunity. The luck of the draw you experienced at birth would govern your entire life.... The state that is weak enough to be drowned in the bathtub would also be too weak to keep citizens from cheating and harming one another. In cases of racism and prejudice, the state's "hands off" attitude would doom those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to staying on the bottom forever.

Without a robust and effective government, there is not meaningful social mobility. Without meaningful social mobility, there is not hope.

It would be terrible to live in a world where the governement was so weak it could not provide the basic institutions that give every citizen a glimmer of hope in reaching their potential. Liberterians claim they want to give people the ability to improve their condition through work, but in a pure liberterian future, many children would be doomed from birth to a life of poverty and squalor.

The flip side of the libertarians vision of hell is the fact that their utopia might itself be rather hellish. Imagine the anarchy of a purely capitalist state. The police would only protect the interests of the wealthy. There would be an apartheid society based on inherited wealth, with ostentatious displays of wealth and wretched examples of miserable poverty.

Morally, a libertarian utopia would have citizens not connected to each other with the moral ligaments of a dedication to the common good.

This "bad life" is a lawless, anarchic wild west. We live without hope for the future unless we were born with wealth and natural talent. We live in fear of our neighbors unless we are wealthy enough or strong enough.

Where the liberterians fear the nanny state, critics fear the nightwatchman state. This state is too weak to help us overcome the collective action problems which we cannot solve for ourselves. All the public goods we enjoy, roads, streetlights, highways, public schools, police, firefighting, have been privatized.

There is no spirit of the common good to animate our policy deliberations.

We have gained a bankrupt freedom. Not the freedom for every citizen to actualize their potential, but the freedom for the rich to be as selfish as possible.



Is Facebook making ours a morally bankrupt generation? Are people more concerned with crafting their online personas than they are with actual actions and communication? Are we all retreating into ourselves, barricading ourselves up in fortresses of virtual identity.

Facebook and its clones inspire a moral landscape based on surfaces. Each person is nothing but a list of aquaintances and preferences, a collection of images. The very concept of friendship loses all meaning as it is institutionalized into nothing more than an arbirtary line of code linking two virtual profiles.

Facebook is merely the medium for this dystopia, which is a larger confluence of modern evils. Privacy becomes an artifact of a bygone era, as strangers are given access to our most intimate thoughts and experiences.

To illustrate this, I must quote Tyler Cowen's review of the film CLOVERFIELD: "The characters are supposed to be vacuous and annoying... the opening scene is supposed to be obnoxious and superficial. The heroism is supposed to be thin... Most of all this is a movie about how the young'uns have no tools for moral discourse and that all they can do is utter banalities and take endless pictures of each other and record their lives for no apparent purpose."

Is Facebook really optional anymore? Can we avoid the dominance of Facebook anymore than we can avoid Universitites and Corporations?

Is the world of social-networking taking a heavy toll on us? Does it make our identities shallower? Does it rob us of the moral vocabulary to talk to each other about matters of substance?

The medium is the message. The message is the medium. When I first started Facebook it was a channel for my group of friends to post pictures of us fucked up on drugs and having meaningless sex with one another. Facebook not only exhibits but encourages this tendency towards fleeting, intoxicated closeness. Why build sustainable friendships and memorable experiences if we don't need to. Who needs memories when someone will post pictures?

Do grade school kids have facebook now? I'm sure Middle Schoolers do... What does it tell children about who they are as people? Random collections of images and adjectives and codes: erasable and revisable. A Facebook future is not so much immoral as it is ammoral.

I fear for the republic.

Douthat on Post-9/11 Movies

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


"Would you like to donate your change to breast cancer?"

This is what they ask me.
The teenagers. The not so teenaged. The middle aged and beyond.

Retail experiences are strange. At turns arduous and exhilirating: goods given, services rendered, tolls taxed.
They are apt metaphors for our larger experiences in a pocket of the world that is a hub of industrialization and consumption. Like our larger experience as political actors, we are guided by scripts and roles and our tacit roles divide us against one another in the service of the script: either salesman or consumer, enforcer or obeyer. The liberties and privileges the script protects are defined by a the items on the shelf and the money in your pocket.

Retail experiences are bad strange. It reminds me of a dystopian, nightmare future sometimes. That is why I go to the Wal-Mart and shudder. As the Brazils, Russias, Indias, and Chinas emerge in the global economy, and robotics prove that the paradigm that holds laissez-faire conceptions against social welfare spending is going to have to shift or be shifted by massive, violent instability.

To put that another way: unemployment could conceivably rise above 50% and stay there.The jobs that did exist for the great masses of Americans will only grow worse and worse, with more and more fucking Red Wall-Mart vests and less manufacturing jobs. One day a majority of people could find themselves cut out of the production process.

The robot thing sounds crazy. Don't take that as a throw-away line. It has already started to happen and it is crazy not to think that the trend of machines replacing human labor, that began in the industrial revolution, isn't only going to accelerate in the 21st century.

Prison planet.

Retail experiences are funny strange.

They ask me: "Would you like to donate your change to breast cancer?"

I tell them no. Because I am against breast cancer.

But it gets me wondering: why breast cancer?

Of all the things that the retail people, who only have ever given a fuck about getting as much of my cash as possible, or my name and email address, or to tie me to them with cards and memberships and BS.

Of all the things that the salespersons could be required to ask me by the powers that govern them. Breast cancer.

It's obviously noncontroversial.
The store doesnt want you to associate your Pepsi and Doritos with city slickers, crack addiction,or AIDS, or the infrastructure needs of the community.

Breast cancer is an awesome cause. Please dont take this the wrong way. Breast cancer isn't benign or funny. It is monsterous and blind. Women of all races and ages and social classes fight it. But the reason the stores are willing to devote their salespeople to collecting your change for that cause, is that it is good for sales.

It should be obvious. Buisnesses only care about doing good insofar as it causes them to do well. The philanthropy of corporations is much needed, but it is also disingenuous, cynical and kind of scary. The classic is the proverbial company that spends $500,000 dollars on a charitable cause and $10,000,000 telling their customers about it. They want you to associate that store with a warm and fuzzy feeling that, "us humans ultimately have each others backs."

Who knows. Maybe that conviction will make you save less and spend more...

People who have been touched by that cause will feel almost charitably, if not merely warmly, towards that buisness.

I realize this is all sounding like half-baked Marxism. But maybe Marxism isn't dead but ahead of its time. It is the kind of prophetic vision that loses its power without a sense of urgency. If you were as brilliant as Marx, it would be easy to overstate your insight, having experienced the fantastic passions that motivated him to discover some of the truths he did.

In the coming centuries, society will deliver a bill to our current system of production for which this system will be unable to collect the sum from its constituent pieces. Giant problems are emerging that know no borders. Capitalism and sovereignty cannot coordinate the collective sacrifices of the economic interests that threaten stability in the 21st century and beyond.

I fear a day society turns to the propertied, moneyed interests for help. The emmergent truth will be that corporate charity was nothing but theater performed in the interest of profit.

There is no dine and dash on global warming, unless you own a spacecraft I don't know about.

"Bush 2012."
That's what we call this thing. Change is funny like that.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Modernity Unmasked: walking prisons, public genitals and being seen

What does it mean to be modern? What is this modern world we find ourselves in? What does the future hold?

What do we make of seeing a woman in a burka walking down the street of a metropolitan area? The Muslim bee-keeper suit which keeps women from being seen. Those who preach tolerance might tell us that the burka is not a walking prison but a choice. Though many women are forced to conceal themselves by their brothers and fathers, others conceivably choose to wear the get-up.

Some would argue that the burka is no different than the necktie, an article of clothing which bears a meaning for the wearer and the public. This, ostensibly, is protected by the 1st ammendment. Clothing as a means of self expression.

But what if I were to walk naked into the Capitol Building? Could I claim that my certain arrest was a sign of intolerance? Doesn't society need to manage moral diversity by setting some cultural norms with the force of law? Does not the same logic that keeps my cock in my pants, justify laws against burkas?

Modernity? There is the argument that Islamic fundamentalists are just as modern as us, by virtue of living in the twenty-first century. They worship one Ancient text (the Koran) and we follow another (the Declarations of Independence and the Constitution).

But where their text is a superstition - a story - our text is a good faith attempt at reason. Is modernity another word for a technocratic age governed by science and reason? Or are we just updating our delusions, trading our tattered old dogmas in for newer ones.

How are WE modern in a way THEY are not? Only insofar as modernity involves an obsession with evidence.

Where the premodern are satisfied by the claims of authority, myth and superstition, the modern demand evidence. The modern is characterized by a hunger for visibilty. The modern human says "show me!"

The Ku Klux Klan triggered many communities in the US to pass laws that said you could not wear a mask while protesting or otherwise making political demands.

Despite the enormous risks, Iraqi translators working in are military are told not to wear a mask while they work, because we belive that this is inconsistent with the ideal of creating an open society.

Somewhere in the character of democracy is a demand that we take off our masks and allow ourselves to be seen. Modernity asks us to remove our veils, to emerge as individuals from behind traditional group identities. Modernity asks that we liberate ourselves from the cages of religon and family tradition. As suggested by theorists like Jon Laramore, if we can broaden our moral personalities enough to take on some differentiation between our roles as private and public actors, then we can find some way to compartmentalize our different loyalties. Christianity, unitl recently, has been marked by its ability to coexist with republican virtues by its tendency to accept boundaries between the personal and the political. If we fail in doing this, and we fail at persuading our fellow citizens to tolerate our differences, then as John Rawls suggested, the state has legitimate means to keep your privates our of the public. Don't walk by the playground naked or in your burka, at least not in my neighborhood. Cover up your private parts and show us your public parts!

Perhaps I am offering up an ideal of modernity, when in reality there are multiple modernities. Honestly, anyone wearing a burka in 2010 is just as modern as I am. But theirs is part of a troubling new strain of modernity. A backlash to globalization and the visual-reason based modernity I mentioned earlier, this parallel modernity involves fragmented, factional identities. The tribal and the superstitious take on a legitimacy more powerful than that offered by sight and science.

This is a disturbing trend. As a democratic citizen of America and the world, I implore you, take off your masks, look critically on your parent's superstitions. Show your face.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fire and ice: a theory of human modes of self invention

a theory of humans, propelled, paralyzed or somewhere in between by their power to invent themselves, both publicly and within the walls of their minds...


Coolness is so disputed, such a subjective label, that its does not have a single meaning. Often, its usage is most revealing as to the mindset of the person using the word as opposed to the person, place or process that it is applied to.

Coolness literally means some thing warmer than cold but not quite room temperature. It is associated with self-control and composure - a'la "don't lose your cool." The cool girl or guy is such a well oiled machine that they don't overheat a bit when the going gets tough. Perhaps the cool person is almost a little dead. Their embarassing qualities are ice cold corpse organs within them, moderated or muffled by the warm, remaining qualities, within the cool body they share.

Uncool people have hot and cold blood too, they just can't find a balance between the two. I am often hot blooded, boisterous, passionate and reckless. If not, I am cold, apathetic and detached from the sincerity and warmth of the warm.

The warm are those individuals who have found a balance between hot and cold blood, but unlike the cool, they err on the side of warmness. They are the understanding and caring individuals who have lots of hot blooded plans but a cold blooded skepticism and temperamental conservatism that keep them from being too assertive like a hot-blooded individual. A warm person is passionate, sincere and tries to use faith to navigate the world, but often takes the path of least resistance or greatest profit.

The continuum I am putting forward:


The Cold are apathetic, perhaps nihilistic, maybe even sadistic in petty everyday ways, unfeeling, cold. Detached, little affection. They don't have a lot of friends and that is a choice only insofar as being cold is a choice (it often isnt). The cold dont feel sympathy. They can watch other suffering and not sympathize.
The cold white guy sees a black guy suffering and says, "who cares, I'm white!"
The cold white guy sees a white woman suffering and says, "who cares, I'm a man!"
The cold white guy sees a white guy suffering and says, "who cares, I'm not him."


THE COOL are associated with composure and self control. They have barely civilized their cold, soulless selves, but not enough to assert any certain identity or chase a destiny not determined by the opinions of others.
The cool are often highly wanted and desired because [1] their is a possibility of winning the affections if only temporarily, but [2] they are "hard to get." The cool do not commit to their emotions. They are reluctant to take the risk of claiming a particular identity. They are not passionate and if they are it is about something that others will surely look upon with approval. They don't want to pursue their passions if it means breaking a sweat or looking like a nerd.

Cool is often an expression of admiration or approval, but should it be? One might think we should embrace warmer figures, whose passions determined their paths.
Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs, such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political dissents, etc., for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.
Coolness might be a coping mechanism for a world that burns the fearless.


The warm are essentially the nerds of this new menu of human temperaments. They are hot blooded, but in a controlled way.
What is a nerd? It is someone who cares deeply about something, but in a compartmentalized way. Where the hot blooded's passions overflow and engulf the kitchen in their smoke, the Warm's passions simmer on the backburner. Nerds have hobbies. Nerds are hot blooded people who have tamed their passions into miniature pass times they can take out, play with, and then put away when society asks it of them. The warm are the way they are because of distaste for the cold. They know the ache of engagement and the risks that go along with hotness, but they are willing to comit to identities and pursue knowledge and purchase books, because their aversion to what they see as the numb, toxic, distant emptiness of the cold.


The hot blooded people are passionate. They commit to their belifs and identities. They assert themselves without shame or restraint.
The Hot's way of inventing themselves is totally unleashed, and that charges Hot people with danger and potential.

So what are you? What does the world need more of? Are they all just coping in their own ways? What choices do we have as individuals and as a society?