Machiavelli to Fricker (and Speth)

My ancient firewood man came around with a rick last night, just in time. It’s 45 degrees this morning. And I know, a wood fire is considered environmentally incorrect by many. Alright, then, I’ll just go to hell. I still love my Earth Stove.

Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, and Fricker are on tap today, in CoPhi. Some of them sound like cricketers, but they all have a sharp point of view worth considering.

Fricker’s probably the one you’ve not heard of. She’s our contemporary, and she has possibly the most constructive observation of any of our philosophers du jour: we too frequently fail to listen to one another, for entirely unexamined and indefensible reasons. We write one another off, for falling into one or another stereotyped identity. We don’t take one another seriously, just because we think we’ve found the right pigeon-holes to place one another into. Whites and blacks, theists and atheists, Republicans and Democrats… we all commit “testimonial injustice.”

This is a new term, a new way of indicting our ancient ancestral blindness. I’ll admit, the topic doesn’t quite spring to life in Fricker’s accounting. But read William James’s “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” then give her another listen. She’s definitely onto something, a perennial weakness in our species. We need to open our eyes to these prejudices, and close our minds to them.

Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli and Hobbes knew it. Maybe if they’d heard Fricker’s podcast they’d have written different books and articulated kinder, gentler philosophies.

And maybe if she’d lived in 16th century Italy or 17th century England, she’d have committed more  “testimonial injustice” too.

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says.

A new detective mystery starring Nicco has just been published, btw, and was featured on NPR the other day. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of Fortune.

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, he lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say humans were once “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel, why do you lock your doors? Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it?

I for one do not agree that it’s better to be feared than loved. And as I place an even greater premium on being listened to, and understood, I owe it to others to really listen to what they’re saying too. It’s when we write one another off, isn’t it, that suspicions arise and conflict ensues?

Rene Descartes, not at all a drunken fart, simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?

Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong.

I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me. I do try to write things worth reading, do things worth writing, and not lie down with dogs more often than I have to.

In EEA, we begin James (Gus) Speth’s Bridge at the Edge of the World.

Speth was Jimmy Carter’s environment guy in the White House, the one who put up the solar panels Ronald Reagan made such a show of removing. Talk about a symbol of our subsequent decline!

He’s now a mild-mannered Yale Dean, but his recently-blasted two part Orion manifesto “America the possible” is anything but reticent.

To our great shame, America now has

• the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
• the greatest inequality of incomes;
• the lowest social mobility;
• the lowest score on the UN’s index of “material well-being of children”;
• the worst score on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index;
• the highest expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, yet all this money accompanied by the highest infant mortality rate, the highest prevalence of mental health problems, the highest obesity rate, the highest percentage of people going without health care due to cost, the highest consumption of antidepressants per capita, and the shortest life expectancy at birth;
• the next-to-lowest score for student performance in math and middling performance in science and reading;
• the highest homicide rate;
• the largest prison population in absolute terms and per capita;
• the highest carbon dioxide emissions and the highest water consumption per capita;
• the lowest score on Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (except for Belgium) and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Denmark);
• the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of national income (except for Japan and Italy);
• the highest military spending both in total and as a percentage of GDP; and
• the largest international arms sales.

Our politicians are constantly invoking America’s superiority and exceptionalism. True, the data is piling up to confirm that we’re Number One, but in exactly the way we don’t want to be—at the bottom.

But… it gets better. Speth’s target is indicated in his subtitle: From decline to rebirth. Same for the Bridge, which contemplates crossing from crisis to sustainability.

One of our EEA classmates posted a sobering assessment of Speth’s thesis last night:

…while the salvation of humanity is still a achievable, the world as we know it, the biodiversity that has colored our perception of the Earth, the lifestyles, cultures, plants, and animals that make up our reality have already suffered an irreversible damage, and will not be available for future generations.

…we will NOT be able to sustain, or save, the world, atleast not for anything remotely similar to the lives we live; and therefore, should be more  worried about…say, leaving behind to tell others how it use to be. A reminder of what it was like before, similar to what the Mayans or Egyptians did.

Ouch. But since I’m supposed to be the voice of optimism, in our group, I reply thusly:

You’re right: if “saving the world” means anything like “business as usual,” that’s just not possible anymore. And yet, maybe we can leave more behind than a message in a bottle. But what might that be? I’m not generally faith-oriented, but I do kinda think our generation’s challenge is to sustain a form of hopefulness so that generations to follow will have an opportunity to innovate in ways we can’t now imagine. Isn’t that what you transhumanists think, too? [Communist transhumanists, I’m less sure of.]

“We aim to deeply influence a new generation of thinkers who dare to envision humanity’s next steps.” As Michael Chabon was saying, we really have no alternative.

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One Response to “Machiavelli to Fricker (and Speth)”

  1. Edrell (13) Says:

    If the way we think dictates our actions then what we feed our mind is going to have a major role in how we view ourselves and others. I personally believe that the media controls most of Americas’ minds. The people with the most advertisement get the highest profits, and the bad things on the news override the good thats done. Once we see it done enough, we start to associate everyone with criminal stereotypes.

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