Posts Tagged ‘Robert Solomon’


November 4, 2009

Our chapter on this large theme  starts slow but then delivers a solid point too often neglected by partisans of free-market democracy: “In a good society, there will be something more than prosperity; there will also be justice.”

Dr. King’s dream is a step closer, segregation is no longer defended by “respectable” people, there’s a Caucasian-African-American in the Oval Office… but bigotry and ugly race-hatred still frustrate the full flourishing of a genuinely Good Society, a Kantian Kingdom of Ends, a republic of virtue, a land of liberty and justice for all.

“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’… I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

Philosopher Cornel West is one of our more charismatic and energetic dream-keepers today, a “drum major for justice” in books like Race Matters and in pop culture venues (like musical recordings and film) where academics rarely tread.  It’s his tireless theme (check all the references to justice in the Cornel West Reader, for instance.) “Who wants to be well-adjusted to injustice? What kind of human being do you want to be?”

Here he is, in a snippet from the film “Examined Life,” talking about philosophy, democracy, and some of the reigning impediments to justice in our time.

“From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” The Marxist conception of justice, so summarized, sounds eminently fair. But perhaps fairness doesn’t unleash the incentives required by those who will work only for more than they need.  Do the industriously rich sometimes deserve it, earn it by the sweat of their brows and the cleverness of their entrepreneurial or inventive skills? No question, there have been benefactors  as well as malefactors of great wealth– sometimes wrapped up in the same skin– from Carnegie and Rockefeller to Gates and Buffett.

BlindJusticeArtJohn Rawls‘ 1971 classic A Theory of Justice, a modern version of the old social contract approach to political philosophy, explores fairness behind a “veil of ignorance,” the “original position” we should supposedly want rational contractarians  to occupy when deliberating principles of justice. (This is not quite the traditional sense in which justice is supposed to be blind, but it’s related.) It asks: what principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent?

Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) fundamental  individual equality, allowing (2) only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.

Rawlsian procedural justice raises this challenge: can we be motivated to think constructively about justice, or anything else, if we’re supposed to be ignorant of the most pertinent details of our personal identities (vocation, income, party allegiance, et al)? Would we still be capable of mustering a King- or West-like passion for justice, behind Rawls’ veil? Robert Solomon is among those who’ve raised this worry, rightly I think. Rawls was more concerned with securing the dispassion, the detachment necessary to unleash our full commitment to the common good undistracted by private self-interest.

There must be a connection between this question and the vexing issue of psychological continuity and personal identity that I’m trying to be lucid about by Saturday. Possibly it’s something to do with the forward-looking , prospective nature of both the contractarian approach to justice and the continuity of persons.

In a word, might it be our vision of the future that both impels the march for justice and unifies the self?


in pursuit

September 17, 2009

(HAP class: we’re not meeting today.)

Chapter Five of Happiness Hypothesis is pivotal. Jon Haidt considers the Buddhist/Stoic hypothesis that happiness must come only from within, and throws a surprise left hook with some strong words against emotional detachment. “Surrender all attachments,” rise above pleasure and pain? Don’t “seek to have events happen as you want them to”? He’s not so sure. Me neither. Our next read, Matthieu Ricard, will bring a different perspective on this.

But first: he cites Lyubomirsky et al’s research bearing on a distinction between conditions and activities.

Conditions of life include the relatively fixed (race, sex, age, disability) and the semi-fixed, but sometimes fluid  (wealth, marital status, where you live) facts of your life. Conditions are more-or-less constant; it is usually the path of least resistance to build your life around them and focus instead on activities. But, see below.*

Volunatary activities– including exercise, meditation, vacationing, and learning a new skill– are said to be more elective and malleable. Because you choose them, they’re more likely to stay in the foreground of your day-to-day awareness and you’ll not “adapt” to them in ways that rob you of their potential pleasures. They “offer much greater promise for increasing happiness and avoiding adaptation effects.”  In the case of habitual regular exercise, one of my voluntary activities, I can second that statement. I have not “adapted,” daily walks (and gym visits, when the weather’s hostile) always give me a boost. “But that’s not happiness,” you say? Coulda fooled me.

H = S + C + V. That’s the equation we’ve already considered: Happiness equals your biological Set Point plus your life conditions plus your voluntary activities. Positive psychologists are challenged to substantiate this form with data, but meanwhile each of us can accept the challenge of seeing just how much leverage we’ve got in this game.

* “It turns out there really are some external conditions (C) that matter… changing an institution’s environment to increase the sense of control among its workers, students, patients [etc.] was one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of engagement, energy, and happiness.”

So I wonder, fellow institutional inmates here at the nation’s 57th best public university (and the state’s best, according to Forbes): can you think of any changes in the environment here on the ground at Enormous State University that would raise our collective, or your personal, Happiness Quotient? I fear that we’ll lose our happiness edge if we start naming deficiencies. We might do better to just count our blessings. You think?

But then again, I didn’t know that Charlotte Bronte was a pragmatist: “It is vain to say that human beings ought to satisfied with tranquility: they must have action…”  I welcome her to the cause. Action begins with the recognition of a deficit state or a problematic situation. Blessing-counting may not be active enough.

Flow redux. Csikszentmihalyi (my mnemonic for the first syllable was always “chick,” Haidt’s is “cheek”– I like mine better) distinguishes pleasures from gratifications. If pleasure’s your thing, you might as well hop on into the Happiness Box (Experience Machine). Trouble with that is, hedonists tend to overdose. My college roommate wore out Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” for me, to my continuing regret. AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” on the other hand, was non-gratifying from the start. Different strokes. The message here is to try and make an Epicurean of your elephant. Wisdom is gratified by “not the greatest quantity of food [or music, or other sensual indulgence] but the most tasty.”

“Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. Stop wasting your money on  conspicuous consumption. Work less, earn less, accumulate less, and ‘consume’ more family time, vacations” etc. Okay, then.

We noted the Dalai Lama’s exceptional status as a world-class spiritual leader who actively promotes the  scientific investigation of human life and consciousness (including the nuts and bolts of meditation). He wrote  “Our Faith in Science,” for instance, for the Times op-ed page. “After all, if practices from my own tradition can be brought together with scientific methods, then we may be able to take another small step toward alleviating human suffering.” (More Dalai Lama news)

He also stands out as a spiritual leader who actively discourages proselytizing and evangelism. Buddhism is not for everyone. Follow us if you can and you must, he seems to say. But there are other paths to happiness, the art of which he’s also written about for western readers. And The Universe in a Single Atom: the convergence of science and spirituality explores our theme too. Still looking for the London appearance with John Cleese in attendance. This is not it, but it’s still a warm and colorful occasion.

Heard a Freemason on the radio yesterday, by the way. Dan Brown’s pulled back the veil, it seems. The spokesman said their only stipulation is that one must believe in some God or other, details irrelevant, to belong. That’s fine, but Buddhists go them one better on the God question. They’re right up with the Unitarians on that front.

Haidt’s objection to Stoics: “When life is unpredictable and dangerous (as it was for Stoic philosophers, living under capricious Roman emperors), it might be foolish to seek happiness by controlling one’s external world. But now it is not… to cut off all attachments, to shun the pleasures of sensuality and triumph in an effort to escape the pains of  loss and defeat” is an overreaction.

Pointed harsh words for Buddhists and Stoics alike, inspired by Robert Solomon: The life of cerebral reflection and emotional indifference  (apatheia) advocated by many Greek and Roman philosophers and that of calm nonstriving advocated by Buddha are lives designed to avoid passion, and a life without passion is not a human life. Yes, attachments bring pain, but they also bring our greatest joys.

Cue the drum and sitar: happiness is within you and without you.

(I know, the Beatles’ lyrics don’t say exactly what Haidt does. But the song’s been in my head ever since I started typing, gotta get it out.)