All posts filed under: Philosophy

Our Search for Meaning and the Dangers of Possession

“There is no such thing as not worshipping,” wrote novelist David Foster Wallace. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” G. Jung would have wholeheartedly agreed. He posited that psychic life is motivated by a religious instinct as fundamental as any other, and that this instinct causes us to seek meaning. “The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not?” Jung wrote in his autobiography. “That is the telling question of his life.”1 There is empirical evidence that backs up Jung’s idea of a religious instinct. Researchers have found that the less religious people are, the more likely they are to believe in UFOs. “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active,” writes psychology professor Clay Routledge, in The New York Times. He notes that belief in aliens and UFOs appears to be associated with a need to find meaning. Jung felt that traditional religions could provide an adequate means of relating to the infinite where the believer …

Liberalism Can Succeed

[This is Part II of a two-part review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. You can read Part I here] If we’re already at the point where liberal citizens cannot remember what our regime is supposed to protect — the individual and her natural rights to self-determination — what do we do? Answer: remind them what it is to be one, and why the individual is the pearl of greatest price. If we want to stand athwart the march toward illiberalism, moreover, and are so bold as to try to reverse its course, restoring confidence in the justice and wisdom of liberal practices and philosophy, what do we do? Answer: respond to liberalism’s critics, whether Deneen, the postmodernists, or the illiberal regimes abroad. After all, our preference for Western liberalism over these rivals is not enough to exonerate it from their critiques. We must respond to them, urgently, so that thoughtful Westerners who have lost confidence in the project, or at least its coherence, may find it once again. In a pair of essays on this …

Has Liberalism Failed?

Fascism failed. Communism failed. The last of the three major political philosophies that clashed through the twentieth century—Liberalism—still stands. It won, whether by force of arms or argument, but is now in retreat. Regimes once liberal have recently become authoritarian; more ominously, Americans have become impatient with liberal procedures and compromises. Many of its proponents argue that these setbacks are temporary, problems to be solved by certain adjustments of policy, rhetoric, or leadership. In Why Liberalism Failed, however, Patrick Deneen argues forcefully that the problems are congenital. Liberalism was bound to fail in the end as a politics because it was doomed from the beginning by its philosophy. In this dire judgment he agrees with a whole host of present critics. Notable among them are resurgent global rivals to liberalism’s postwar world-order: Xi Jinping’s China, Putin’s Russia, Khameini’s Iran. But the critics are also domestic. In universities sustained by liberal values, ironically, postmodernists have been declaring liberalism a failure since at least 1968—sometimes for the same reasons as the foreign rivals. Deneen agrees with their …

The Discomforts of Being a Utilitarian

I recently answered the nine questions that make up The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. My result: “You are very utilitarian! You might be Peter Singer.” This provoked a complacent smile followed by a quick look around to ensure that nobody else had seen this result on my monitor. After all, outright utilitarians still risk being thought of as profoundly disturbed, or at least deeply misguided. It’s easy to see why: according to my answers, there are at least some (highly unusual) circumstances where I would support the torture of an innocent person or the mass deployment of political oppression. Choosing the most utilitarian responses to these scenarios involves great discomfort. It is like being placed on a debating team and asked to defend a position you abhor. The idea of actually torturing individuals or oppressing dissent evokes a sense of disgust in me – and yet the scenarios in these dilemmas compel me not only to say such acts are permissible, they’re obligatory. Biting bullets is almost always uncomfortable, which goes a long way in explaining …

Becoming What One Is

The predicament of the individual living in a modern Western society is a strange one. Events that transpire around the world and large-scale societal changes seem to be far beyond the control of any single person. This leaves the individual in a situation where he, because he is unable to affect the course of current events, is left wondering what is happening to the society he lives in. I am one of those individuals. I live in the small country of Finland. Finland has traditionally been resistant to changes in the outside world, which tend to reach us much later compared to our Western neighbors, and with diminished strength. There are exceptions, however. Thanks to the wonderful powers of the Internet, events that transpire thousands of miles away can sweep across national borders and oceans in no time at all. The #MeToo movement is a good example. It is also an example of how strange the world has become thanks to the power of social media, not just socially and politically, but psychologically as well. …

The Ethical Case for Conservation

The conservation of nature is an ethical imperative. Every sentient being’s welfare – human or non-human – should be taken into account in our moral considerations. As a young conservationist enthralled by the natural world throughout my life, it is thrilling to see these ideas becoming commonplace. It is now easy to hear them voiced in one form or another in almost every discussion regarding the use of natural resources, deforestation, meat consumption, trophy hunting, or any other topic that touches animal welfare or environmental issues. In spite of the immense challenges conservation still faces, this development is evidence of a positive cultural revolution, and heralds the moral advancement of our global society. However, part of the reason these ideas spread so quickly is that they proliferate like memes. That means that while they run fast, they often run shallow. When asked if a given forest should become a reserve, or if we ought to gather resources to aid an endangered species, many people fall back on assertions about the intrinsic value of the entity …

The Failed Hero’s Journey

There is no more quintessential a model of the failed hero than Elliot Rodger. Rodger, a young man who was promised the world, turned against it when it failed to provide him with eros, love, and romance. His open hand reaching for the future became a fist clenched in opposition, an inversion of the successful hero story. Consumed with jealousy, resentment, and a rejection of the very notion of a healthy human being, Rodger indiscriminately murdered three men in his apartment, and three women at a sorority house. At twenty-two years old, he had chosen to end his life in bitter disappointment, choosing malevolent violence and suicide over the hope of continual and incremental improvement. Carl Jung understood that those who ultimately reject life itself have failed to experience the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’. To Jung, every single young person who leaves their parents’ home and forages into the world has taken the path of the hero, whether they know it or not. A hero’s journey is simply the departure from comfort, warring against the chaos …

Freedom of Expression and the Flight from Reason

The last few years have seen acrimonious public clashes about the value of free speech, with activists both on the Left and the Right accusing the other side of trying to silence them. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are, admittedly, not particularly informative terms, since there are significant differences within each camp. But each is concerned that the other is trying to silence it, whether by means of censorship or intimidation. It is hard to be sure of the true extent of this hostility to free speech, since much of the evidence is anecdotal and, of course, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘compelling data.’ For example, much of the conflict about free speech is focused on university campuses. I have taught thousands of students in the UK, including, more recently, American students studying in London, and I have rarely encountered petulant ‘snowflakes’ crying out to be protected from offence. Nevertheless, there is plenty of credible evidence that my experience is not wholly representative. There is reason to believe that an increasing number of young people regard …

Immanuel Kant Against Elitism

Now a year has passed since Kelly Anne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts,’ everyone is familiar with the ‘post-truth era.’ But pinning down exactly what this means is difficult. There is consensus that facts (particularly statistics) now have less influence on public debates. Most agree that social media is a key factor. Everyone accepts that fake news is real and litters the internet, though the question of who the litterbugs are is highly contentious. It has recently been argued that the supposed epistemic crisis is of such severity that even if it is proved that Russia used fake news to get Donald Trump into the White House, it might not make any difference. We are now so far beyond truth that even incontrovertible evidence has lost its power. Most of those grieving for the pre-2016 era claim that post-truth means emotive reactions supplanting rational argumentation. The Oxford definition points to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion.” Helen Pluckrose, the co-author of ‘A Manifesto Against the …

On the Benefits of Philosophical Instruction

The average scores of philosophy majors on the LSAT and other standardized tests are regularly presented as reasons for university students to major in philosophy.  In an age of increasing pressure to compete for student enrollments, data of this sort are important for the discipline of professional philosophy. Tenure lines are partly justified on the basis of student enrollments, and students are encouraged to enroll in philosophy partly on the basis of the impact that philosophical instruction has on cognitive ability, these claims are part of the mechanism by which academic philosophers hope to secure university funding for their departments.  Given these institutional arrangements, the profession of academic philosophy has an interest in determining whether these statements about the beneficial cognitive impact of the study of philosophy are justified. In an essay published at Quillette in July of last year, Neven Sesardić critically examined the evidence for these statements and found them wanting. He wrote: In reality, however, there is no justification for such claims. Getting higher test scores after studying philosophy does not show …