Monthly Archives: August 2015

on the proper use of moral clichés

In Joseph Roth’s finely wrought novel The Redetsky March (1932), a simple and good-hearted peasant orderly tries to make a huge financial sacrifice to help his boss, Lieutenant Trotta. The feckless Trotta is badly in debt, and the orderly, Onufrij, has buried some savings under a willow tree. Onufrij has already appeared in the novel many times by this point, but always as a cipher. Now suddenly we see things from his perspective as he walks home (fearfully and yet excitedly), tried to remember which one is his left hand so that he can identify the location where he buried his money, digs it up, and uses it as collateral to obtain a loan from the local Jewish lender.

Apparently, cheap novels that were popular among Austro-Hungarian officers in Trotta’s day “teamed with poignant orderlies, peasant boys with hearts of gold.” Because his actual servant is acting like a literary cliché, Trotta disbelieves and callously rejects the help. He tells Onufrij that it is forbidden to accept a loan from a subordinate and dismisses him curtly. Trotta “had no literary taste, and whenever he heard the word literature he could think of nothing but Theodor Körner’s drama Zriny and that was all, but he had always felt a dull resentment toward the melancholy gentleness of those booklets and their golden characters.” Thus he understands the offer from Onufrij as a fake episode from an unbelievable book. Trotta “wasn’t experienced enough to know that uncouth peasant boys with noble hearts exist in real life and that a lot of truths about the living world are recorded in bad books; they are just badly written.”

Trotta can be compared to two other characters who have problematic relationships with clichés. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Francesca da Rimini utters a speech that consists almost entirely of slightly garbled quotations from popular medieval romantic literature. She justifies her actions with these clichés and avoids any mention of her own sin. It becomes evident that she never really loved her lover, Paolo, but was only in love with the cliché of being a doomed adulteress. Like The Redetsky March, the Inferno is a beautiful and original construction in which clichés have a deliberate place.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (living more than five centuries after Francesca) also quotes incessantly from popular romantic literature and thereby avoids having to see things from the perspective of her victims, notably her husband and children. Flaubert italicizes her clichés to draw attention to them. He uses his own brilliant and acidly original prose to describe a person who can only think in clichés.

Even though Francesca and Emma Bovary quote statements that are literally true, they rely on stock phrases instead of seriously thinking for themselves. They love what they would call “literature,” but they reduce it to a string of clichés.

Trotta is in some ways their opposite and in some ways similar. He despises “literature” but knows some clichés that popular books contain and uses them to avoid reality. His method of avoidance is to doubt anything that is a literary cliché, whereas Emma Bovary and Francesca da Rimini believe them all.

Although Dante and Flaubert were making different points from Roth about clichés, I think both perspectives have some value. Certain cultural movements—notably, the Romanticism of ca. 1800 and the High Modernism of ca. 1900—have prized originality and have scorned cliché as one of the worst aesthetic failings. Indeed, they have defined “literature” as writing free of cliché at the level of style, plot and character, or theme. These movements have enriched our store of ideals, but they have been overly dismissive of the wisdom embodied in tradition. If you respect the accumulated experience of people who have come before you, you may reasonably assume that many truths are clichés and that many clichés are true. To scorn cliché can mean treating one’s own aesthetic originality as more important than the pursuit of moral truth.

Thus I would not try to delete statements from my list of moral beliefs because they have been made many times before or have been expressed in a simple and unoriginal fashion. I would even be inclined to consider our culture’s store of moral clichés as a set of likely truths. Roth was right: “a lot of truths about the living world are … just badly written.” Situations repeat, and what needs to be said has often been said many times before.

But the risk is that a stock phrase can prevent a person from grasping the concrete reality of the situation at hand. I’d propose two remedies for that problem. First, it is worth recognizing which of our moral commitments, even if they are fully persuasive and valid, are also clichés in the sense that they are standardized and prefabricated phrases. Those commitments deserve special scrutiny.

Second, it is worth attending to the ways that all of our various moral commitments fit together. Each cliché may be true, but when it is juxtaposed with other general statements, it always turns out to be only partly true. Life is full of tradeoffs and tensions. Even if the components of my overall worldview are mostly clichés, the whole structure of moral ideas that emerges from my best thinking about my own circumstances is original–just because I am my own person.

Sources: Joseph Roth, The Radetsky March, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Part II, chapter 17; my article “Why Dante Damned Francesca da Rimini,” Philosophy & Literature, vol. 23 (October, 1999), pp. 334-350. See also on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about it; and on the moral dangers of cliché.

liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution

Reverence for our written Constitution is a highly unusual feature of the political culture of the USA, sometimes verging on a civic religion. Teaching students to hold the Constitution in high regard is also an unusually prominent purpose of civic education in this country. And of course, our Constitution is the oldest in the world and (to the best of my knowledge) the one least subject to change, which means that it has run as a cord through our whole history since 1788.

According to a 2011 Time/Abt SRBI poll, which is the most recent survey I have found, 64% of Americans believe that the Constitution has “held up well” and doesn’t need change.

That is a majority, but not an overwhelming one, and opinions differ by ideology. According to the same poll, 62% of Republicans are “strict constructionists,” believing that the constitution should be interpreted according to the framers’ original intent. In contrast, 67% of Democrats favor “flexibility.” And Democrats are more open to the idea of a new constitutional convention to change the document.

I would challenge the presumption that conservatives do (or should) like the Constitution more than liberals do. One could argue that everyone reads the document selectively, with some favorite parts and other sections that we would rather delete if we could. Conservatives are enamored of the list of enumerated powers, the Second Amendment, and the Tenth Amendment (among other passages). Liberals are more excited about the Necessary and Proper Clause, the First Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Many liberals have acknowledged that they would get rid of the Second Amendment if they could. But some strong conservatives would like to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment (allowing the income tax) or even the Seventeenth (direct election of US Senators). Candidates Trump, Paul, Santorum, Graham, Christie, Carson, and Jindal, and (less consistently) Kasich and Walker have said that they would end the birthright to citizenship that is central to the Fourteenth Amendment. That hardly reflects reverence for the document as it is today.

At the same time, I would criticize the bipartisan tendency to constitutional piety and the way that it restricts our constitutional imaginations. There are many reasons to think the document is flawed. Just to name one, the separate election of presidents and congresses is a recipe for gridlock or even for constitutional crises, averted so far mostly because our parties didn’t polarize ideologically until the end of the 20th century.

James Madison made sure to study the experience of as many republics as he could before he traveled to Philadelphia to begin writing the Constitution. No one who undertook a similar study nearly 250 years later would design a constitution with a powerful, separately elected president; and actual new democracies never copy our design nowadays.

Another flaw is a set of massive omissions. The real political system of the 21st century is characterized by corporations, political parties, permanent military and security agencies, and a very large administrative/regulatory state. The Constitution is silent on all of those institutions. The Citizens United decision did not–contrary to received opinion on the liberal side–define corporations as people, but it did treat them as regular associations under the First Amendment. Parties and unions also get lumped together as associations because they are not otherwise recognized in the text of the Constitution. And since the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, and the regulatory state are missing, courts struggle to understand these entities as creatures of the legislature that are lodged within the executive instead of branches of government with their own powers, perils, and limitations.

If you are a libertarian constitutional originalist, you have a clear and simple solution to these omissions. Get rid of the regulatory state, which isn’t an enumerated power of Congress and which unconstitutionally delegates legislative power to unelected executive branch staff. Once the federal government is unable to regulate, corporate political power will become unimportant because there will be little to lobby on. That is a consistent view, and it reinforces enthusiasm for the text of the Constitution, which becomes the basis for a radical reform movement. But no one has ever seen a globalized corporate economy without a regulatory state. I am not sure it is possible; I certainly doubt that it would be desirable or popular.

Assuming, then, that we will continue to have people like party leaders, lobbyists, spies, and regulators, their powers and limitations should be addressed in the Constitution.

More generally, to imagine improvements to a society’s constitutional order seems an important form of citizenship. Even for children, it is interesting and valuable to debate changes in the Constitution or whole alternative documents. Adolescent and adult activists should be free actually to pursue such changes. Our constitutional piety has advantages (reinforcing the stability of our system, restraining certain kinds of populist excess, and providing a superior alternative to ethnic nationalism), but it badly restrains acts of constitutional imagination that should be part of active and creative citizenship.

See also constitutional piety, is our constitutional order doomed?, are we seeing the fatal flaw of a presidential constitution?, on government versus governance, or the rule of law versus pragmatism; and the visionary fire of Roberto Mangabeira Unger.

latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare

When we stand to affect another person or animal, at least four moral considerations seem potentially relevant:

  1. The creature’s suffering or distress versus its happiness, contentment, or satisfaction.
  2. The creature’s sense of meaning, purpose, and agency.
  3. The creature’s ability to live in its natural way or to be itself. And …
  4. The impact on other creatures that know and care about the creature that we are directly affecting.

The first consideration is relevant to all sentient beings in proportion to their capacity for sensation and experience. Perhaps a clam cannot suffer appreciably. But there is no reason to think that we human beings are the most sensitive of all creatures–or at least, not by much. And since the first consideration applies to most other animals, it is wrong to reduce their happiness or increase their suffering.

A more difficult question is whether a sudden and painless death reduces happiness. On one account, the net of a creature’s happiness accumulates like a running tally over the life-course. In that case, a painless death freezes the score permanently in place, which can make the total higher than it would have been if the future would have been less happy than the past was. A different views is that a creature has no happiness or suffering at all after death, and therefore death has no impact on happiness. In Epicurus’ phrase, “Death is nothing to us.” I am dissatisfied with both views but not sure that I have a better proposal. Certainly, happiness has a temporal aspect, because suffering on one day lingers on the next. But I struggle to say what impact ending a life has on the creature’s happiness.

The second consideration depends on an ability to make meaning or sense of one’s life and to make consequential choices according to one’s sense of purpose: in a word, “agency.” I am not committed to the premise that agency is a capacity of human beings alone, but we certainly have a very advanced version of it. Note that this capacity is temporal: we make meaning by putting our present state and our current choices in a longer narrative that includes a past and a future. One reason that killing a human being is badly wrong is that it ends the narrative that the person is constructing and thereby destroys her agency. I don’t think the same argument applies to the instantaneous and painless termination of the life of a chicken.

The third consideration–naturalness–seems to apply most to creatures that are not human beings. If possible, a bear should be left alone to live as a bear. Our family dog would not be better off if he were left in the woods to fend for himself like coyote, but he should be able to live the life natural to a domesticated dog, with activities like walks and cuddles. And as for a cow–I am inclined to think that its natural state must include time grazing in a field and nursing a calf. I am not sure that suddenly being slaughtered violates its ability to live a natural life. That means that factory farming is unacceptable but family farming may be consistent with respecting the natural states of farm animals.

As for human beings, we are also natural creatures in the sense that we are an evolved species with many innate limitations and tendencies. But we are capable of reflecting on the whole range of our inherited traits and distinguish the better from the worse. We have a natural proclivity to altruism but also to aggression, even to rape and murder. For us to live according to nature is not nearly good enough. We build institutions and norms to change our inherited natures for the better. That forfeits a right to live naturally and makes the third consideration irrelevant to us.

The fourth consideration applies to any animal that cares for another. In the old Disney cartoon, the death of Bambi’s mother deeply hurt Bambi. Although the cartoon anthropomorphized its animal characters, Bambi’s emotional reaction seems plausible enough for a deer. Still, people may be unique in that our relationships with other people are mediated by language and other forms of communication. We can suffer–or have our sense of purpose and agency frustrated–by learning of the death of someone we have never even met. In contrast, if Bambi had not directly experienced his mother’s death, he wouldn’t have suffered from it.

Freedom is certainly a moral consideration as well, but for human beings, it has a lot to do with #2 (purpose and agency), whereas for animals, it is related to #4 (naturalness). For a person, to be free is to be able to live according to her own sense of purpose. But a bear is free if it’s left alone to be a bear.

What all this means: Intentionally causing the suffering of another creature is always wrong, albeit a wrong that should be balanced against other considerations. Reducing the ability of a non-human creature to live naturally is also a wrong, at least ceteris paribus. But that is a complex question when it comes to farm animals. Killing a person is a special evil because it not only causes suffering but it ruins the purpose and agency that came from that person’s ability to plan and foresee the future. Furthermore, the impact on other human beings of killing a given person is particularly deep and widespread. This is one reason that it is badly wrong to kill even a human being who does not have much agency, such as a neonate. Killing an advanced animal painlessly and suddenly (beyond the sight of its kin) does not necessarily violate considerations #3 or #4. It may violate #1, depending on how we understand the temporal dimension of happiness and suffering. And it may violate #2, but only to the degree that other advanced species have capacities for long-term planning.

See also my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfare.