empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice

I’d posit the following definitions:

  • Empathy: Feeling a similar emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state. Your friend is mad at her boss because he treated her unfairly. That makes you mad at her boss. Your anger is probably different in texture and intensity from hers, but it’s the same in kind, an imperfect reproduction of her mental state.
  • Sympathy: Feeling a supportive emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state that is not the same as that person’s original emotion. She is mad at her boss, so you become sorry for her, or committed to fairness, or sad about the state of the world, or nostalgic for better times–but not angry at her boss. Then you are sympathetic. (NB You can be both sympathetic and empathetic if you feel several emotions.)
  • Compassion: A species of the genus sympathy. Another person’s negative emotion causes you to have a specific supportive feeling that is not the same as her emotion: you sincerely wish that her distress would end without blaming her for it.
  • Justice: A situation or decision characterized by fairness, goodness, rightness, etc. (These are contestable ideas and may be in tension with each other.) The English word “just”–like dikaios in classical Greek–can be applied either to a situation or to a person who cares and aims for justice.

There is an old and rich debate about which character traits and subjective states are best suited to pursuing justice. One answer is that you should be a just person, one who tries to decide what is fair or best for all (all things considered), who desires that outcome, and who works to pursue it. A different response is that we are not well suited to defining and pursuing justice itself. It’s better to cultivate other emotions, such as empathy, sympathy, compassion–or loyalty, aversion to harm, or commitment to specific rules–in order to deliver more just outcomes, all things considered.

I haven’t yet read Paul Bloom’s new book, Against Empathy, but based on this interview and other secondary material, I take it to be an empirically-based contribution to this debate. Bloom marshals evidence that empathy is a highly unreliable guide to justice, probably more likely to mislead than to inform. We should cultivate justice itself, not settle for a substitute, and certainly not the poor substitute of empathy.

For instance, Donald Trump can make people feel empathy for a small number of individuals whose families were allegedly victimized by undocumented aliens, and then use that emotion to build support for deporting millions of people who have harmed no one. A famous example is Edmund Burke’s outrage at the mistreatment of Marie Antoinette, which obscured any concern for the countless people tortured, executed, or “disappeared” by the ancien regime that she represented. (By the way, I happen to respect Burke a lot–and I don’t think it was fair or smart to execute the Queen–but this passage is still a good example of misplaced empathy.)

Empathy can also substitute for justice, as I argued on a visit to Israel in 2013. You congratulate yourself for feeling some version of a suffering person’s emotion and excuse yourself from fixing the problem.

Compassion may be better than empathy. Instead of feeling the same emotion as the other person, you feel a combination of beneficence and equanimity that may be a more reliable guide to acting well. But it’s possible that compassion only clears the deck for reasoning about what you should actually do.

For its part, justice can be emotional. You can feel a powerful urge to make the world more just. That is helpful insofar as the feeling motivates you and insofar as people obtain genuine insights from our emotions; but it is dangerous because the emotion of desiring justice can be misplaced. You can feel great about improving the world when you are actually harming it.

Justice is also necessarily discursive. You must put into words–at least inside your own head–what is good or fair, and why, and make yourself accountable for that position. Therefore, much hinges on whether we human beings can reason explicitly about justice in ways that improve upon our strictly affective reactions to particular situations.

See also: empathy: good or bad?the limits of putting yourself in their shoes and looking with their eyes; an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; structured moral pluralism (a proposal); and how to save the Enlightenment Ideal.

the right to strike

Yesterday, Alexander Gourevitch from Brown University spoke on “The Right to Strike.” I won’t try to summarize (or scoop) the argument of his forthcoming paper, except to say that Gourevitch uses an account of oppression to give a strong defense of the right to strike, and he squarely addresses the hard issue. Successful strikes often require a degree of coercion in the form of picket lines, sit-ins, work-stoppages that close the firm, strong moral pressure on potential scabs, etc. Many liberal political theorists, American jurists, and European social democrats defend unions and acknowledge the right to strike but are squeamish about the coercive aspect. They either deny that coercion occurs or argue that strikes are only acceptable when free of all coercion. Gourevitch defends the coercive aspect of strikes–although not as an absolute right.

I would reach the same destination from a different starting point. I would begin with the premise that human beings have the right to create, design, and govern groups. Among the many types of groups that we design are governments (at all levels and scales), companies (privately held or publicly traded), and unions. Any of these three can allow or prevent an individual from working in a particular job. The government can regulate or legislate against the job or a category of workers, the firm can refuse to hire or fire an employee (or close the whole shop), and the union can strike. I begin with no assumption that any of these acts is more–or less–legitimate than the others. Governments, companies, and unions can be good or bad. They can do the right or the wrong thing. It all depends on the details.

In particular, it depends on how they are organized internally and what effects they have on outsiders (including natural systems as well as people). Assessing their internal structures and their consequences is controversial because it raises all the basic questions of justice.

For example, it you are a participatory democrat, you will value institutions just to the degree that they are internal democracies. Companies seem the least promising candidates, although democratic firms do exist. Both unions and governments range from highly democratic to highly authoritarian. Before you acknowledge the justice of a coercive strike, you will ask whether the union is democratic (and whether it is more or less democratic than the state that seeks to police it). You may embed in the definition of “democratic” some openness to outsiders, such as workers who are not already members of the union.

If, on the other hand, you are libertarian, you will value institutions just to the degree that the reflect individual, voluntary choice. Governments are the least promising, because very few citizens literally and actively consent to be governed. Governments are only legitimate to the degree that they create space for private agreements. Companies and unions are both potentially legitimate, but unions may be less so, to the extent that they coerce. Hayek claimed that unions “are the one institution where government has signally failed in its first task, that of preventing coercion of men by other men–and by coercion I do not mean primarily the coercion of employers but the coercion of workers by their fellow workers.”

For my own part, I am deeply pluralist. I believe in the value of maintaining a diverse set of institutional arrangements as checks against each other and as manifestations of human plurality and creativity. I am happy to see non-democratic institutions (e.g., the Catholic Church), strongly democratic ones, and many other forms. But I am not a relativist. I think that some organizations are better than others, and some combinations are more desirable than others. It’s just that an account of what makes organizations good must be nuanced and pluralist. One size doesn’t fit all.

On these grounds, I would defend unions as human creations that contribute to a pluralist public sphere. And I would accept that they will act coercively–within appropriate limits–when they strike. I am not positively enthusiastic about coercion, but I’d stress that states and companies also coerce. If you want (or need) to work, and a union has closed your workplace, then you have a complaint; but you also have a complaint if the company fires you arbitrarily or the state throws you in jail. Stronger unions make the second two forms of pervasive injustice less likely. A world with states, companies, and unions is more just than a world with just the first two.

See also my “The Legitimacy of Labor Unions” (2001), which is too moderate, China teaches the value of political pluralism, and should all institutions be democratic?

system, organism, person, organization, institution: some definitions

If you want real expertise on this kind of question, you should attend “Social Ontology 2018, the 11th Biennial Collective Intentionality Conference” from August 22-25, 2018 at Tufts. But in case you want some light musing on the subject …

A system is an assemblage of interacting parts that persists over time. It can change, but a parsimonious description applies over its whole history. (“My Mac could run SPSS once I installed the new software, but it’s still the same system.”)

An organism is a system that no one designed. Instead, it results from the reproduction of similar organisms.

A biological organism is an organism that exhibits the properties of life. This definition implies that there may or could be non-biological organisms.

A sentient organism is one to which we can accurately attribute mental states, such as pain, pleasure, aversion, desire.

A person is a system whose mental states include memory, planning, and decision. Thus the person’s development over time is partly her responsibility, not solely the result of accident and force. Not all persons are organisms. Entities that meet the definition of persons include human beings but also God, angels, devils, space aliens, perhaps other advanced mammals, perhaps some future AI, and organizations–see below.

A human person is a person that is also an organism of the species homo sapiens. A human person is capable of certain specific mental states that are not necessary conditions of personhood in general, e.g., love and suffering.

An institution is a system composed of at least two persons, plus any number of other components (e.g., buildings, legal rights). A market, for example, is an institution that combines many buyers and sellers, their goods, their rights, rules, and so on. Note that a market is not a person because it doesn’t have mental states.

An organization is an institution to which we can attribute memory, planning, and decision. Such attributions are not metaphorical but use exactly the same logic that we apply to human persons. (“I can tell that Tufts intends to educate students from the fact that it expresses this intention on its website and then actually educates.” Tufts doesn’t love, but Tufts does intend and plan. As such, it is a person.)

By these definitions, a social organization is a person; it is simply not a human person. It lacks the rights of a human being. Human beings gain rights not from the mere fact that we are complex systems capable of remembering, planning, and deciding–so are organizations–but from something else. I would attribute our rights to the fact that in addition to being able to remember, plan, and decide, we can also love and suffer.

(I was led to these thoughts by the discussion of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and their eclectic readings of Daniel Dennett, John Dewey, Douglas North, and others, as summarized in Vlad Tarko, Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography, pp. 137-43. See also: against methodological individualismwhy social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; and the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School.)

from I to we: an outline of a theory

These are the main ideas that I’ve defended (or plan to develop) in my theoretical scholarship. They are organized from micro to macro and from ethics to politics. As always, I put this draft online to welcome critical feedback.

  1. Each individual holds a changing set of opinions about moral and political matters. These ideas are connected by various kinds of logical relationships (e.g., inference, causation, or resemblance). Thus each person’s moral opinions at a given moment can be modeled as a network composed of ideas, plus links. In a conference paper, Nick Beauchamp, Sarah Shugars and I have derived network diagrams for 100 individuals and provide evidence that these are valid models of their reasoning about healthcare, abortion, and child-rearing. This approach challenges theories that depict moral reasoning as implicit, unconscious, and unreflective.
  2. A culture, religion, or ideology is best modeled as a cluster of roughly similar idea-networks held by many individuals. Human beings are not divided into groups that are defined by foundational beliefs that imply all their other beliefs. Rather each person holds a unique and often flat and loose network of ideas that overlaps in part with others’ networks. This model avoids radical cultural relativism, as I already argued in my Nietzsche book (1995).
  3. This model of culture also challenges John Rawls’ argument for liberalism as tolerance and neutrality. Rawls presumes that most citizens hold incompatible but highly organized and consistent “comprehensive doctrines.” As a result, they must largely leave one another alone to live according to their various conceptions of the good. If, instead, we understand worldviews as loose and dynamic idea-networks, we find support for a liberalism of mutual interaction instead of distant toleration.
  4. We are not morally responsible for the ideas that we happen to learn as we grow up. That is a matter of luck. But we are responsible for interacting with other people who hold different opinions from ours. Such dialogues can be modeled as the interactions of people who hold different idea-networks. As they disclose and revise ideas and make connections, the discussants produce a shared network. In a paper now being revised and resubmitted, David Williamson Shaffer, Brendan Eagan, and I model Tufts students’ discussions of controversial issues as dynamic idea-networks.
  5. A person can organize her beliefs in ways that either enable or block dialogue. For instance, an individual whose network is centralized around one nonnegotiable idea cannot deliberate; neither can a person whose ideas are disconnected. Thus discursive virtues can be defined in network terms, deliberations can be evaluated using network metrics, and we can strive to organize our own ideas in ways that facilitate discussion.
  6. If people talk, it implies that they were willing to sacrifice time and attention to a conversation. If they have something significant to talk about, they must hold a good in common that they can control or influence. Thus we cannot have the kinds of discussions that improve our own values unless we are organized into functional groups. But creating and sustaining groups requires more than talk. Groups also need rules and practices that coordinate individuals’ action, as well as relationships marked by trust, loyalty, and other interpersonal virtues. In short, civic life depends on a combination of deliberation, collaboration (solving collective action problems), and relationships.
  7. To enable deliberation, collaboration, and relationships requires favorable institutions, such as appropriate legal rights, widespread education in these virtues, and a robust civil society composed of associations that offer opportunities for self-governance. Since these institutions are inadequate in the USA, we need reform.
  8. To change constitutional rights, school systems, and other large institutions, political actors must employ leverage. They must move strangers and impersonal organizations at a distance. Making effective use of leverage is an ethical obligation but also a threat to the relational values implied by points 1-7 (above), which are prized by certain political theorists, such as John Dewey and Hannah Arendt. We must understand how to use impersonal leverage at large scales without undermining or displacing relational politics.

notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King

Gandhi offers a fully developed metaphysics and epistemology–original even though it is grounded in classical Indian thought. For Martin Luther King, Protestant theology provides a core theory of human nature, but King navigates his way through debates in modern Protestantism and offers his own synthesis and draws political implications. Even for non-Hindus and non-Protestants, some premises that both of these authors share may be persuasive.

For Gandhi, there are truths–for example, about the good life and the just society–but they exceed any individual’s comprehension. Almost everyone (perhaps literally everyone[1]) contributes valuable insights by observing the world from her own limited and fallible perspective.

The golden rule of conduct, therefore, is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we  shall see Truth in fragment and from different angles of vision. Conscience is not the same thing for all. Whilst, therefore, it is a good guide for individual conduct, imposition of that conduct upon all will be an insufferable interference with everybody’s freedom of conscience.
Q. With regard to your Satyagraha doctrine, so far as I understand it, it involves the pursuit of Truth and in  that pursuit you invite suffering on yourself and do not cause violence to anybody else.
A. Yes, sir.
Q. However honestly a man may strive in his search for Truth, his notions of Truth may be different from the notions of others. Who then is to determine the Truth?
A. The individual himself would determine that.
Q. Different individuals would have different views as to Truth. Would that not lead to confusion? …
A. That is why the non-violence part was a necessary corollary. Without that there would be confusion and  worse.[2]

According to Bhikhu Parek, Gandhi believes that “rational discussion and persuasion” are the “best way to resolve conflict.”[3] However, these methods depend on well-motivated reasoners who are able to overcome our species’ deep cognitive and ethical limitations. Under ordinary circumstances, reasoning is likely to fail, because we are mired in our own interests and not rational enough to be persuaded by arguments. Violence is therefore tempting but intrinsically problematic. The violent actor assumes that she is right, even though we are all inevitably wrong. Violence also threatens to erase the insights of the target by silencing or even eliminating her, or it may force her to do something without being sincere. On the other hand, voluntary sacrifice can touch the other person’s heart without negating her freedom.

Gandhi also believes that we ought to perform actions that are intrinsically meritorious without being concerned about their outcomes, which lie beyond our control. As Krishna teaches in the Baghavad Gita, “Motive should never be in the fruits of action.” Actions must be sincere in order to have value, and sincerity requires commitment by the heart and mind together. Unlike a typical action that is taken to achieve an end beyond the direct control of the actor, sacrifice remains connected to the person who sacrifices. For example, if I choose not to eat, that remains my will until the end of my fast. If my refusal to eat causes you to change your behavior, that may be good (assuming that my cause was right), but I am responsible only for forgoing the food, not for your behavior. I thus escape the pitfall of attaching my happiness and meaning to an end beyond my control.

Like Gandhi, King holds that violence “is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. … It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.” Nonviolence is “the ultimate form of persuasion,” where the word “ultimate” means both the most powerful form and the one to try last, after arguments have failed.[4] King also shares with Gandhi a theory of the human soul as both rational and affective, a recognition of the limitations of human understanding, and the ideal of a transcendent truth that we can only approach together. He says that he found in Hegel the idea that “truth is the whole,” which is roughly analogous to Gandhi’s remarks about Brahman, the universal soul.[5]

However, King’s framework is Protestant rather than classically Indian, so his metaphysics is somewhat different. Human beings are made in God’s image and are granted freedom, but we are also fallen. God is personal, an actual character who loves us and can work with us. King says that personalism “is my basic philosophy,” the foundation of his faith in an active personal God and “the metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.” People have dignity and worth not because they are good but because of divine grace. King says that he agrees with Reinhold Niebuhr about “the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence,” contrary to a “great segment of Protestant liberalism” that is too optimistic about human nature. “While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well.” King ultimately came to believe that Niebuhr had “overemphasized the corruption of human nature” because he had “overlooked” the power of divine grace to work with communities of people; yet King retained a sharp awareness of sin and evil.[6]

Agape–disinterested love–is the answer for King. It serves to explain the nature and will of God, our relationship to God, and our obligation to other people. It is not “sentimental” and it does not ignore sin. Instead, King defines nonviolent resistance as “a very stern love that would organize itself into collective action to right a wrong by taking on suffering.”[7] The combination of organization and collective action, love, and nonviolent sacrifice is essential.

These philosophical and theological positions cannot both be completely right, because they conflict at points. For instance, King’s God is personal whereas Gandhi’s divine is abstract. Gandhi acknowledges that God is love but attributes that view to Christianity and endorses it in the context of saying that “the human mind is a limited thing and you have to labour under limitations when you think of a being or entity who is beyond the power of man to grasp.”[8] Christians contribute the partial insight that God is love; for Gandhi himself, God is Truth.

Nevertheless, the overlapping premises of these two philosophies seem plausible even in secular contexts and are compatible with behavioral science.[9] People really are cognitively and ethically limited when we think and act alone, but we are capable of reasoning better when we come together in groups that are organized to bring out the best in us. We really do make better decisions when we preserve alternative views instead of violently suppressing them. Yet we cannot expect the best conclusions to emerge from deliberation alone; change aso requires organized sacrifice.

[1] That is Parek’s reading.  Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 54.
[2] These quotations come from several articles in the newspaper Young India, but they were combined by Nirmal Kumar Bose in his Selections from Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1948), pp, 66-67, which carries a very strong endorsement from Gandhi. Thus I treat them as a coherent argument that Gandhi approved.
[3] Parek, p. 51
[4] King, Stride Toward Freedom, Kindle locations 2850 and 2892.
[5] King, location 1355; cf. Nicholas F. Gier, The Virtue of Nonviolence: From Gautama to Gandhi (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004), pp. 40-1
[6] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1355, 1327
[7] King, “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” originally published in Ebony magazine,1959, in Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream: Writing and Speeches that Changed the World, edited by James M. Washington, (Glenview, IL, Harper Collins, 1992), p. 44.
[8] Bose, 4.
[9] Christopher Beem relates Niebuhr’s theological commitment to human limitations to the findings of modern psychology and draws political implications in Democratic Humility: Reinhold Niebuhr, Neuroscience, and America’s Political Crisis (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).

See also the relationship between justice and peace; the central role of sacrifice in social movements; how the Montgomery Bus Boycott used and created social capital; prophesy as a form of political rhetoric; and the need to consider evil in politics.

the moral significance of instinct, with special reference to having a dog

When dogs and their human owners look into each others’ eyes, oxytocin, a hormone involved in the maternal bond, rises in both creatures. When dogs are given oxytocin via a nasal spray, they want to look in their humans’ eyes (source). I find this result interesting, but equally interesting is my reaction to it. Why is this scientific finding heart-warming? Is it evidence of something good?

As members of an evolved natural species, we human beings have instincts. Maternal bonding is an example. Domesticating dogs may be one as well.

Instincts are not universal, nor are they necessarily desirable. For example, we presumably developed an instinct for violence against people outside our own kin groups. Yet many individuals never exhibit that instinct, it is generally bad, and we can create contexts in which it becomes marginal. To say that humans have an instinct for violence is a little like saying that bees sting. It’s true even though most bees never actually sting. It’s not a statistical generalization but a claim about the way we were designed through the process of natural selection. It’s about what’s “built in” to us, for better or worse.

One pitfall is to replace moral evaluation with such talk of instincts. To say that anything we are hard-wired to do is right to do is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. It excuses, for example, violence, exploitation, and dominance.

Another error is to romanticize the human species by defining only the good drives as our authentic instincts. An example would be claiming that we are naturally peaceful and made violent only by civilization. This seems implausible if it’s a testable claim; and if it’s meant to be true by definition, it’s an instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

A third error is to ignore the natural characteristics of the species entirely when making moral judgments. Perhaps ethics is species-independent, and we can first define the good (in general) and then use it to assess the actual behavior of human beings. What is right for us would also be right for angels, elves, Klingons, God.

One problem with this approach is that it’s unrealistic. A deeper problem is that it fails to demonstrate love for the species. To love an oak tree is to appreciate it for what it naturally does. And to love humankind is to appreciate us as the evolved natural species that we happen to be. To wonder whether we would be better without sex would be like wondering whether oak trees would be better off without acorns. (But then we shouldn’t wish that we had no proclivity for violence, because violence, too, is part of being human.)

Again, this doesn’t mean that there is a list of characteristics that are innate because of natural selection, and everyone should (or does) demonstrate those characteristics. Sex, for example, is an instinct that admits of great variation: some people want it and some don’t; various people want different kinds of it; and it can be good or bad for the people affected. Still, sex is not just a desire that some people happen to have, and it is not merely good if the net benefit happens to be positive. Sex is intrinsic to the species and is something we should encompass when we value human beings.

Back to dogs and people: It appears that these two species co-evolved very early, each taking its modern form under the influence of the other. I’ve even wondered whether guard dogs allowed our distant ancestors to sleep deeply; and deep sleep permitted cognitive development. Dogs certainly allowed us to spread into vast regions that had been dominated by big mammals with teeth. It’s not clear that we could have become who we are without dogs–or vice versa.

To say “Because having a dog is natural, it must be good” would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy. We can live without dogs. Some people much prefer to. Some communities bar them. And maybe those are the right decisions. Whether or not to have a dog is an ethical question. The rights and welfare of all affected people–and the dog–should be considered.

But it would also be a mistake to interpret (some) people’s bond with dogs as just another preference, a choice that happens to have hedonic value for them and that should be weighed against other desires and interests. Loving a dog is an instinct that influences human perceptions (we are good at interpreting dogs’ behavior) and even our hormones. That means that if you happen to love a dog, I think you are justified in believing that you are acting naturally. And if you happen not to like dogs, you should still recognize the impulse in others as a human capability. Like other capabilities, it is something that people should be able to choose to exercise so long as that is compatible with other important goods.

See also: latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare; my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfareKorsgaard on animals and ethics; and introducing the Capabilities Approach.

sorting out human welfare, equity and mobility

Here are three distinct goals that you might pursue if you see education as a means to improve a society. All three are plausible, but they can conflict, and I think we should sort out where we stand on them.

  1. Improving lives. What constitutes a better life is contested, as is the question of how a population’s welfare should be aggregated to produce a score for a whole society. The Human Development Index includes such components as mean life expectancy at birth and “mean of years of schooling for adults.” You might think that what counts is not these averages but the minima: how much life, education, safety, health (etc.) does the worst-off stratum get? Their circumstances can improve with balanced and humane economic development. Arguably, the worst-off 20 percent of Americans are better off than Queen Elizabeth I was in 1600, because you’d rather have clean running water in your house than any number of smelly and disease-carrying servants. But our minimum is still not very good, since some Americans sleep on grates or are warehoused in pretrial detention facilities because they can’t afford bail.
  2. Equity. By this I just mean the difference between the top and the bottom, e.g., the GINI coefficient, although one might consider more factors besides income. Algeria and Sweden have almost identical levels of equity (GINI coefficients of 27.2 and 27.6, respectively), but Sweden is much wealthier, with 3.3 times as much GNP per capita as Algeria has.
  3. Mobility. This means the chance that someone born at a relatively low level in the socioeconomic distribution will rise to a relatively high level. By definition, that means that someone else must fall. (Or one person could fall halfway as far, and a second person could fall the other half way, to make room for the person who rises all the way up.) By definition, mobility is zero-sum, being measured as the odds of moving up or down percentile ranks. If everyone moves up, that’s #1 (an increase in aggregate welfare), not a sign of mobility.

These three goals can come apart. For example, equity coincides with very poor human development when everyone is starving together. Sweden has high human development and high equity but not much mobility: Swedish families who had noble surnames in the 17th century still predominate among the top income percentiles. It’s just that it doesn’t matter as much that you’re at the bottom in Sweden, because the least off do OK there.

To be sure, the best-off countries in the world tend to be more equitable and prosperous, and there’s a long list of very poor countries that are also highly unequal and (I guess) have little mobility. That pattern could suggest that the path to higher development requires equity. But that’s a contingent, empirical hypothesis, unlikely to be true across the board, and the goals are not the same.

For proponents and analysts of education, the difference matters. Presume that you are concerned with improving human lives. One way to do that is to expand the availability of education. More people reach higher levels of education today than did in 1930–and more people lead safer, longer, lives. This strategy won’t produce equity, however. As educational attainment has risen in the United States, the most educated people have increased the wage gap.

Another way to enhance human welfare is to yield outputs that benefit everyone: skillful doctors and engineers who have great new technologies, medicines, training, etc. To get the best results, it might be smart to concentrate resources at very high-status institutions. The universities that produce the most scientific advances tend to be highly competitive institutions in inequitable systems like the US.

Presume that you want to promote mobility. Then you must reduce the correlation between parents’ and children’s educational attainment. That means admitting and advancing more students whose parents were disadvantaged. It also means, by definition, admitting fewer students from advantaged homes. Increasing the number of total slots is an inefficient way to enhance mobility. Mobility requires competitiveness: when people can compete better, newcomers can more easily knock off incumbents. When individuals are protected against failure, mobility is hampered.

Mobility also operates at the level of communities. In a system of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” Detroit can fall while Phoenix rises. European countries intervene much more effectively than we do to protect their deindustrializing cities. That is better for human flourishing, but it may also hamper mobility.

Finally, presume that you really want to improve equity. One way to do that would be to improve the education of the least advantaged while holding the top constant. Another way would be to lower the quality and value of the education received by the top tier. Very few people would support doing that, even if it improved equity. That’s because most people think that welfare and mobility are at least as important as equity. (I leave aside liberty, although that is also a valid and important principle.)

Hybrid goals are possible. Perhaps what we want is to maximize the welfare of the least advantaged while not allowing inequality to get out of hand or mobility to vanish. That’s arguably the outcome in Denmark and Sweden. The US may under-perform regardless of how you weigh the three goals. We have vast inequality, limited mobility, and not much safety or health for a large swath of our people. But even if we can make progress on all three fronts at once, they are still different directions.

See also: to what extent can colleges promote upward mobility?when social advantage persists for millennia, and the Nordic model

a college class on equality

This is an outline of a class discussion that seemed to work pretty well this morning. The reading is T.M. Scanlon’s “When Does Equality Matter?” Scanlon offers five reasons that a given difference among people may be unjust, and I add a sixth:

  1. The difference reflects suffering by the less advantaged–suffering that could be remedied.
  2. It is humiliating, conveying disrespect.
  3. It allows, or reflects, “dominance”: one person’s being able to control the other without giving reasons or being accountable.
  4. It shows that people lack equal opportunity.
  5. An institution is violating an implicit or explicit promise to treat its members alike.
  6. The difference reflects a past injustice that must be remedied.

For each of the following differences among people, debate: 1) Is it an injustice? 2) If so, for which of the six reasons listed above, or for other reasons? 3) What is unequal? (For instance, a measured outcome, a good, a right?) Who or what is responsible for remedying the injustice?

  • Men in the US live 37 years longer than men in Malawi (from Scanlon).
  • White men in the healthiest US counties live 15 years longer longer than African American men in the least healthy counties (from Scanlon).
  • American CEOs are paid 341 times more than average workers (Scanlon example; updated stats).
  • Kids from households in the 99th income percentile have a 94% chance of completing college. Kids in the lowest percentile have a 22% chance (Raj Chetty).
  • Amish kids are much less likely to go to college (from Scanlon).
  • Tufts faculty are 2.7% African American; 12.1% of the US population are Black.
  • Ninety percent of Tufts students come from the USA. Four percent of the world population is American.
  • A (hypothetical) teacher treats one of his students better than others.
  • A (hypothetical) teacher treats all of his students better than people not in his class.
  • In a doctor’s office, everyone calls the physician “doctor”; the nurses are called by their first names.
  • Among young Americans, roughly 75% of those with BAs vote, versus 25% of those without high school diplomas (CIRCLE).
  • One in four Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss “important matters” (GSS). They are lonelier than the other 75% of Americans.
  • There aren’t enough good jobs for all the people. Today 62.7% of Americans are in the labor force (BLS); that could fall with automation and AI.

Loyalty, Research, and Prison Education

I’m in Dallas, Texas for the the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. Today I’ll be presenting a paper from a larger project on loyalty and social science research methods which draws on an argument I first encountered in Peter Levine’s work. Here’s a link to the PowerPoint of my talk.

It is fairly typical for those who work in college prison education to have arrived at this work through exposure to extraordinary classes of incarcerated students. That’s certainly the case for me: the students in my first class six years ago were so inspiring that I’ve kept doing it ever since. In that sense, we are motivated by loyalty. This may make us good teachers, organizers, and activists. But there’s some question whether it makes us good researchers.

When we publish we are sometimes asked to fill out a conflict of interest form. A typical conflict of interest disclosure for social science journals will ask for potentially biasing obligations we may have incurred through financial incentives, but also about potential bias from non-financial relationship, including personal relationships with students and programs we have helped to build:

The authors whose names are listed immediately below certify that they have NO affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest (such as honoraria; educational grants; participation in speakers’ bureaus; membership, employment, consultancies, stock ownership, or other equity interest; and expert testimony or patent-licensing arrangements), or non-financial interest (such as personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge or beliefs) in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

This Elsevier form is a typical one. It’s quite short compared to similar disclosure forms that people in​ government are asked to fill out. In addition to the obvious sorts of things–such as climate change skepticism funded by a coal mining company–the form asks us to share our “personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge, or beliefs.” There are, I think, two kinds of implications for such disclosures:

  1. Mere knowledge of my “conflicts” is sufficient to warn the reader that my research may be biased.
  2. The sources of conflict go well beyond my paycheck, to encompass my friendships, my preexisting beliefs, and ultimately my loyalties.

The evidence seems to clearly suggest that (1) is false: we are not very good at discounting the assertions of experts even when we know they may be biased. (For instance, we do not sufficiently doubt a mechanic when we know that he may prefer an expensive fix partly because he stands to profit from it.)

But we think the implications of (2) are important for social scientists to consider.  Our affiliations, friendships, and loyalties ultimately dictate the choices we make as researchers, our commitments and priors as we approach evidence, and provide something like a “stopping rule,” whereby we keep researching until we find evidence to fit these preferences. (See literature on motivated reasoning & skepticism, and perhaps also cultural cognition.) Thus we are potentially “conflicted” or “biased” by the very relationships that motivate our scholarship

Consider what this can mean:

  • Education researchers usually enter the field with various preferred policy outcomes (perhaps related to race, gender, poverty, and unionization, but sometimes also preferred teaching environment). They know their work will be used by activists on both sides of various policy questions, and insofar as they continue to work in these areas they tend to want that to happen, whether it’s to promote universal pre-K programs, charter schools and vouchers, or protect collective bargaining and teacher tenure.
  • Medical researchers typically have culturally-specific loyalties to fitness and health–which can cause them to overstate the risks of overweight and obese bodies, as well as overstating the prospects for weight-loss.
  • Political scientists are usually well aware of the prospects for partisan bias–while ignoring their deeper affiliations to their own nation-state’s constitutional norms, such as judicial independence or bicameral legislature. Meanwhile political theorists often have a fundamental political orientation that guides them, like liberalism, conservatism, or even participatory–rather than merely representative–democracy.

I don’t think this kind of loyalty is biasing, though I’m happy to report it when required. In fact, I think it’s a kind of methodological superpower. Peter Levine expanded on this theme in a recent blog post, “Loyalty in Intellectual Work:”

“I’ve noticed that sometimes people expect me to endorse the underlying “theory of change” of a given field very strongly and are disappointed when I won’t. I usually cannot say that a given strategy or premise is the best one available, because I don’t really believe that. Instead, I think that a field or movement turns into what people make of it. So I see myself as a member who wants to make the movement as good as it can be, not as an independent scholar who has judged the movement and found it superior to others.”

Levine is a member in good standing of at least nine different scholarly communities and social movements, and as far as I can tell he has produced and disseminated useful scholarship in each. Yet he claims to have little attachment to the specific accounts of the world to which those communities seem to cling. This is only possibly because he rejects the cognitivist view of the joint endeavor: his loyalty is to the people, not the ideas.

On this approach, any active scholarly endeavor that is attached to, or feeds into, a political project on behalf of a group of people needs to hold its middle range theories relatively lightly. Our loyalties are to communities of practice and inquiry rather than to the reigning theory of etiology and efficacy that the community holds.

To me, this feels familiar. Prison education has a reigning theory of efficacy: the decreased recidivism rates of our incarcerated students. But there’s good reason to hold this view a bit lightly: our loyalty to incarcerated students themselves. If a particular theory of the efficacy of prison education is disproven, I don’t suddenly lose interest in working with prisoners. Indeed, I hope this happens frequently and rapidly in any field I participate in, because theories imply methods, and using the wrong method means we’re being ineffective.

Therefore, even though the body of evidence for prison education looks quite strong, it is not unassailable. We should anticipate that some of the most famous causal claims will come under fire, and we shouldn’t worry: we should seek new theories and work to clarify the old ones. Our loyalty is to the national community of incarcerated student scholars, not to the particular vision of education spelled out in the Three-State Recidivism Study or the RAND Study. I’d even willingly rethink the claims that Daniel Levine and I made in our own contribution to this literature given the right kind of evidence. Nor is our loyalty to particular students: the project of improving prison education nationally and ending mass incarceration has to take precedence over our loyalty to the men and women who are currently benefiting from the Second Chance Pell experiment, since this small group can make or break the program for the country.

Yet this is still a bias of sorts: we’ll always going to be looking for research that humanizes prisoners (thankfully, they are in fact our fellow human beings, so we’re unlikely to be in error there) and reduces our reliance on incarceration. If a strategy doesn’t work, we’re more likely to ask whether it can be tweaked or fixed than to abandon it.

And there’s good evidence that this is an important feature of social science research. One can evince a generic loyalty to a community of people affected by an overarching problem, but who are presented with conflicting narratives for resolving that problem. The researcher can then help adjudicate these explanations and theories of change. For instance, Kristie Dotson’s paper, “How is this paper philosophy?” proposes that disciplinary norms in philosophy departments and journals be altered to make room for work like hers by and in service of diverse practitioners. And in explaining her work, she celebrates the communities to which she belongs for inspiring it:

“I use philosophy to help support, generate and defend research, advocacy and activism that might change the current plight of Black people in the US, particularly promoting better conditions for Black cis- and trans* women, girls and gender non-conforming people. In other words, I am a Black feminist professional philosopher working in the service of Black feminist agendas.” (Philosop-her interview)

Loyalty to a community is not loyalty to a specific theory of change or efficacy, and in fact loyalty can motivate dissent from reigning theories in favor of alternatives. In prison education in particular, I think we need to worry about the sheepskin effect and the signaling theory of education: most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than bit-by-bit along the way. That’s surprising: most skills are learned incrementally, and are beneficial in that incremental way. College, it seems, is all or nothing. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course makes a big difference.

Our anxiety should be that college seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. The difference between someone who has a bachelor’s degree and someone who has 117 credits is quite small, in terms of knowledge. But the person who is unable or unwilling to finish his degree must have some incapacity or impediment. The degree is a signal that those elements are missing. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

In this sense, then, we have to worry that prison education will, like education outside of prison, create a meritocratic hierarchy among prisoners. Rather than humanizing those behind the fence, it may sometimes have the effect of selecting a chosen few, “the exceptions.” So we should be willing to hold the various theories of education lightly.

  • Perhaps prison education is valuable because it enhances signals of employability, reducing the stigma of incarceration.
  • Perhaps prison education works to connect high status faculty with low status prisoners, and that association passes along cultural capital.
  • Perhaps prison education works by identifying and raising the profile of certain organic intellectuals among people who are incarcerated. Or perhaps it simply allows the Du Bois’s Talented Tenth to rise.
  • Perhaps education is a human right and we should ignore efficacy evidence for prison education.
  • Perhaps prison education in the humanities and liberal arts teaches students important self-regulation and conflict resolution skills.
  • Perhaps prison education provides important opportunities for deliberation over fundamental values which can lead to effective reprobation and rehabilitation of the moral injuries of a crime.
  • Perhaps prison education is a part of a larger process of reframing people who are incarcerated through the lens of deficits to seeing them as assets to their community.
  • Perhaps the soul knows no bars, and prison education is an important corrective to our overly punitive system of mass incarceration.

Loyalty requires to keep exploring these alternatives rather than rest easy with the RAND study. We’re better researchers because of it.

Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life

I read Kieran Setiya’s Midlife (Princeton, 2017) not only because I have that condition and am sometimes troubled by its complaints, but also because I appreciate the style of thought that Pierre Hadot named “philosophy as a way of life.” Practitioners of this style acknowledge that it is important to develop and test arguments. The philosophical life is one of critical reason. However, arguments should have a purpose: to improve a life. And we must remember that people are habitual and affective creatures. Therefore, arguments—no matter how valid and rigorous—will not change us. We also need practices or mental disciplines to accompany our arguments. But a mental habit or practice can lead us away from the findings of our critical reason. We may train ourselves to be foolish or selfish. So we need habits that are at least consistent with the best arguments, and, ideally, habits that actually include argumentation.

That is exactly the combination offered by the Hellenistic Schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism) and by the classical Indian traditions. It has been relatively weak in the modern West. Setiya shows that it can be practiced today.

He is a professional philosopher in the Anglophone, analytic tradition. A clue that he is trying something different in Midlife is the book’s grammar. Setiya often writes in the second-person singular: “You should …” (as in “You should not prefer to rewind time, erase your son, and try again.”) He also sometimes uses the first-person singular or plural: “I wish …”; “We think …” Midlife reads like a conversation that reports Setiya’s real efforts to combat his ennui in order to improve your life, too.

Midlife is almost free of jargon. But one person’s jargon is another’s helpful terminology, and Setiya makes occasional use of specialized words. His distinctive stylistic move is not his informal vocabulary but his shift to the second-person, which implies a stringent test that can be applied to each sentence and chapter: would an actual “you” find this text useful?

Another clue that Setiya is working in the tradition of philosophy as a way of life is that he recommends repeated practices, habits, or meditative exercises at the conclusion of each chapter. These are meant to turn the arguments of the chapter into therapies that might change our mental habits.

Many of Setiya’s recommendations are drawn from the history of ethics, not original to Midlife. Of course, that is fine; it is useful to review and revive others’ points. But some of his arguments are novel, and I will mention two.

Living in the Moment

First, Setiya offers a helpful way to think about “living in the moment.” His argument rests on a distinction between telic activities, which we conduct in order to accomplish them, and atelic activities, which we do for their own sake. “Cook[ing] dinner for your kids, help[ing] them finish their homework, and put[ting] them to bed” are “telic activities through and through”: aimed at their accomplishment. On the other hand, “parenting is complete at every instant; it is a process not a project.” You can be doing both at once.

Some people recommend spending more time on purely atelic activities. Retire as soon as you can and play golf. Until then, take time for meditation or a weekly walk in the woods. Such advice is not necessarily practical—or valuable, if it encourages you to lead a life that’s less valuable to the world.

Other texts recommend viewing every activity as purely atelic. Notably, that is what Krishna teaches in the Baghavad Gita: “Motive should never be in the fruits of action, / nor should you cling to inaction. … / Let go of clinging, and let fulfillment / and frustration be the same.” The problem with that advice is that we should aim for good outcomes. It matters what we do, not only our stance toward it.

Setiya’s advice is to combine the telic with the atelic. Strive to get the kids to bed (and do that as well as you can), but also think of yourself as parenting. Attend meetings, write emails, and perform calculations all day, but also see yourself as leading a worthy life. This is an example of a meditative practice that incorporates argument, because it requires redescribing what we are doing in new terms. It may, to quote Wordsworth, have “the power to make / Our noisy years seem moments in the being / Of the eternal Silence.”

Midlife as a Universal Human Circumstance

Second, Setiya disagrees that “midlife” is a stage that we encounter between the ages of (say) 40 and 60—probably most frequently in affluent societies, where some people have the luxury of dreaming of sports cars. Rather, “midlife” is any moment on the journey of our lives when we have already made consequential and irreversible choices, but when we also face a substantial stretch ahead. In that condition, we encounter specific temptations and troubles, such as regretting paths not taken or fearing that the future will basically be more of the same for a long time to come. These could be the thoughts of people who are 12 or 90, living anywhere in the world, at any level of wealth and freedom. They just tend to be more prominent for people in the middle decades of life who have ascended some way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Midlife is a universal circumstance, but its special discontents may not be the most salient for some people at some times.

Setiya argues that midlife’s challenges have been underplayed in the history of philosophy, because the main questions have been “What should I do?” (as in Kant) or “What constitutes a good whole human life?” (as in Aristotle). “Neither the prospective question of what to do nor the external, retrospective question of the good human life captures the predicament of midlife” when you must confront a “meaningful past and a meaningful future,” when “the question is not simply what to do, but what you have done and what you have not done, what to feel and how to think of yourself.”

The Problem of Midlife in Joyce’s “The Dead”

It would take a longer argument and more evidence to make this point, but I believe that James Joyce’s story “The Dead” is a reflection on midlife in just the form that Setiya describes. It is about a character in midlife and also about an art form—the written fictional narrative—that faces a midlife crisis of its own. It’s safe to say “The Dead” is a greater work than Setiya’s Midlife. But there are ways in which I prefer the latter.

Starting with Joyce’s own brother, Stanislaus, many readers have remarked that “The Dead” reads like a ghost story, conveying an uncanny sense that the characters are literally dead already. When the protagonist, Gabriel, first speaks, it’s to note that his wife “takes three mortal hours to dress herself,” and his aunts reply that “she must be perished alive.” He’s already lightly coated with the snow that will bury everything. Language of death or living death echoes throughout.

An exception might be the vivacious nationalist teacher Molly Ivors, who leaves the Christmas party without any explanation and seems to have an unpredictable life still ahead of her. She could be fleeing a party of the undead.

Instead of reading “The Dead” as a ghost story, I’d suggest that its characters have come to see their lives as complete. That is a frame of mind that any adult can adopt while entirely alive, but it is a deathly one. Right at the beginning of Midlife, Setiya quotes the article that coined that word, Elliott Jaques’ “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis” (1965): “Now suddenly I have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight—far enough away it’s true—but there is death observably present at the end.”

In “The Dead,” the monks of Mount Melleray sleep in their coffins, Aunt Mary Jane explains, “to remind them of their last end.” All the other characters, too, have lives that can be summarized and declared complete. Aunt Julia had a great voice three decades before but no great career, in part because of gender discrimination in the church. Gabriel reflects, “Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade. … He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. [She never took the path of marriage herself—surely a regret.] Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died.”

Gabriel is called a “young man,” but midlife can happen at any age. In fact, Joyce was also young when he wrote “The Dead.” James Ellman writes, “That Joyce at the age of twenty-five and -six should have written this story should not seem odd. Young writers reach their greatest eloquence in dwelling upon the horrors of middle age and what follows it” (James Joyce, p. 253).

Certainly, Gabriel is dissatisfied with who he is, regretful of certain paths not taken (particularly paths involving Molly), yet skeptical that he can become anything different. These are pitfalls of midlife.

Gabriel does look a little way forward: specifically, to a night in a hotel room with his wife after the party, free from their children. He explicitly and lustfully imagines that immediate future. But his foresight is flawed. Gretta is simultaneously lamenting the story that her life might have taken, had not her youthful suitor Michael Furey tragically died before she met and settled for Gabriel. In this combination of a man who thinks his life is all but done and a woman who mourns for a different existence—neither one understanding the other—we have a dark picture of midlife in just the form that Setiya analyzes it.

Joyce and the Midlife Crisis of Literature

“The Dead” is a fitting coda to the collection of Dubliners, whose stories are arranged in a rough sequence from childhood to the end of life. The story is also an apt conclusion to a whole tradition of English literature, which Joyce sees as complete and without a future–except that it is possible to reflect beautifully on what literature has been, which is a task of Ulysses. In short, “The Dead” is a story about lives seen from the perspective of their ends, and it’s also a story about the end of stories.

One might certainly disagree that literature ended around 1900—haven’t some good books been written since then?—but Modernists thought it was dying, and several Modernists (in addition to Joyce) tried to make art about its conclusion.

For instance, Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Storyteller” (1936, translated by Harry Zohn], “The art of storytelling is reaching its end.” Developments of the modern era, Benjamin thought, have “quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time [made] it possible to see new beauty in what is vanishing” [iv]. “The Dead” finds a new kind of beauty in the passing world that it describes and in the literary tradition that it culminates.

Benjamin distinguishes between a traditional “story” (oral, concise, meant to inform and motivate a live audience) and a “novel,” which is a fictional world created in polished writing by an individual author for a solitary reader. One difference is that a story invites the listeners to continue it, to invent a sequel or to reply with another episode, as we might by imagining what happens to Ms. Ivors. In that sense, she is a character in what Benjamin would call a “story” (and she must leave the novelistic space of “The Dead.”) A novel, in contrast, is closed because it depends entirely on the author’s imagination. The novelist is the master of the whole text.

Benjamin writes, “there is no story for which the question how it continued would not be legitimate. The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing ‘Finis'” (xiv). Joyce doesn’t literally write “The End” on the last page of Dubliners, but the last sentence couldn’t be much more conclusive: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Gabriel has left instructions to be awakened at eight, so his story will continue. Once the porter knocks, he will have to face a new day with Gretta and then many more days as a teacher, writer, and parent, probably extending well into the twentieth century. But Joyce’s story ends where it should; to resume after this crisis would be an aesthetic mistake. As a fictional character, Gabriel is done.

Gabriel envies Michael Furey, whose life ended neatly, if sadly, with his early death. “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Gabriel will have to wither, but we have no interest in following that process. In contrast, it might be interesting to learn how Ms. Ivors fares as Ireland becomes free and women gain opportunity.

Although Benjamin never mentions Joyce or ”The Dead” in this essay, he offers a way of reading the story. “Not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life—and this is the stuff that stories are made of–first assumes transmissible form at the moment of death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end—unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered himself without being aware of it—suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.” (x).

Gabriel doesn’t die—he doesn’t receive that mercy—but he does experience a “sequence of images” that fully summarize the whole story of his life and so concludes it as a meaningful narrative.

Benjamin sees consolation in such a story. “The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by some virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we will never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about” [xv].

That is a way of describing the cold consolation of “The Dead,” which gains its power from the author’s awareness of the impasse that confronts his characters, his genre, and himself. Kieran Setiya is a much more cheerful writer and he aims to give assistance. By his own admission, he doesn’t solve anything for us, but he is a helpful companion. Above all, his voice is conversational, while Joyce’s is magisterial. Setiya is trying to make the future go a bit better for you and me; Joyce offers pure elegy.

Philosophy with Other People

As Benjamin noted, novels are written by solitary authors for solitary readers. We do better when we also have peers to share our experience with. Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoeceus” includes a formal argument that we should not fear death. Death is a lack of sensation, so we will feel nothing bad once we’re dead. To have a distressing feeling of fear now, when we are not yet dead, is irrational. The famous conclusion (although Setiya finds it weak) seems to me to follow logically enough: “Death is nothing to us.”

But Epicurus knows that even the best arguments will not alone counteract the ingrained mental habit of fearing death. So he ends his letter by advising Menoeceus “to practice the thought of this and similar things day and night, both alone and with someone who is like you.” The main verb here could be translated as “exercise,” “practice,” or “meditate on.” It is a mental practice that anyone can employ, regardless of her other beliefs and assumptions. Importantly, it should be pursued both singly and as part of a community. Unlike most professional philosophers of the modern era, Setiya writes like a fellow member of “your” community. He is someone who is “like you,” reaching out with some suggestions based on his own experience and reflections, and inviting your response.

In Walden, Thoreau observes, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” He explains, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates. … It is to solve some of the problems of live, not only theoretically, but practically.” Setiya has taken a courageous step in that direction.

[See also: twenty-five years of itthe aspiration curve from youth to old ageto whom it may concern (a midlife poem), on philosophy as a way of life; and my notes on Philip Larkin’s AubadeDonald Justice’s Men at Forty; and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall.]