May 29, 2020


Philosophy in Troublous Times: a review of This Life by Martin Hägglund  (Knox Peden, September 2019, Sydney Review of Books)

 As with many publishing coups, the ebullient response to This Life makes manifest a desire it seems to have met. Not coincidentally, correctly identifying desires in order to think about the ways they might be met is central to the book's vision.

Literally central. Midway through This Life, in a chapter devoted to the difference between natural and spiritual freedom, Hägglund is emphatic that the question, what should I do with my time, is 'the question that underlies all normative considerations.'

For any norm to matter to me, it has to matter to me what I do with my time. Furthermore, what I do with my time can matter to me only because I grasp my life as finite. If I believed that I had an infinite time to live, the urgency of doing anything would be unintelligible and no normative obligation could have any grip on me.

A number of philosophical theses are compressed in these assertions. Likewise, a number of surprising judgments follow, some of which are expressed elsewhere in the book. For example, early Christian martyrs ought not to be thought of as martyrs exactly, since they believed that they were living on past the destruction of their mortal bodies. And if they believed that they were going to live on, should we really revere them or fear them (whatever response seems appropriate) for their actions? True martyrdom is when someone gives their life for a cause and truly gives it - ends it, terminated. Anything else is delusional or bad faith.

'Bad faith' is a notion associated with Jean-Paul Sartre but also implicit in Martin Heidegger's existentialism, one of the pillars of Hägglund's effort. It names instances of inauthenticity in life, those moments when you disavow your choices as choices, treating them instead as consequences of necessities beyond your control. In Sartre's hands, sincerity as a social grace becomes one of his key examples of acting in bad faith. For there is nothing less authentically sincere than desiring to be sincere; if you were actually sincere you wouldn't have to try. The paradox of bad faith in this case is that, to avoid it, you have to affirm that the run of events could be otherwise, while at the same time denying that you yourself could do anything differently. The moral of the existentialist tradition to which This Life belongs is that one ought to avoid doing anything in bad faith. [...]

There is a lot of talk in This Life about what matters, but there's no account of what mattering means, a subject dear to contemporary consequentialism. Still, what Hägglund shares with this body of work is the notion that reason is the arbiter of what matters. One might think this is simply the definition of the philosopher - one for whom reason decides, and in the case of the moral philosopher, decides which desires are to be permitted and possibly fulfilled. But there are various pictures of this idea, and Hägglund's portrait is one in which reason does a fair bit of boundary work. The only potentially viable justification one can offer for one's acts is one that provides reasons that would be universally recognised as reasons, reasons that partake in Reason. This is why justifications that involve appeals to divine authority (such as those based on the sanctity of life) are inadmissible on their own terms. And if they are admitted, it's only so they can be re-described in such a way as to disclose their truth content in rationalist terms. Reason has its rules, and those rules are constitutively common. Reason is what's given, what is to be accessed and expressed by all. 

Pretty much the entirety of moral wisdom is that we ought not be authentic, precisely because it consists of nothing but indulging one's desires. It is selfishness dressed up as a virtue. This self-indulgence is what joins the transsexual and Donald Trump, unconstrained id.  The claim of authenticity is always and only an excuse for morally repellent actions and beliefs.  Thus the typical formulation, "I disagree with him/her about that but at least he/she is authentic!"

On the other hand, to behave gracefully, in this context, is indeed to act in "bad" faith: it is the submission of individual desire to objective moral constraint.

Masculinity As Radical Selfishness: Rebecca Solnit on the Maskless Men of the Pandemic (Rebecca Solnit, May 29, 202, LitHub)

I grew up with the old axiom "my right to swing my arm ends where your nose begins," which is about balancing personal freedom with the rights of others and one's own obligation to watch out for those rights. The maliciously gendered rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, the incels and pick-up artist subcultures, Trumpism, and a lot else have proposed, in recent years, that actually their right to swing their arms doesn't end and my nose and your nose are not their problem or are just in the way and need to move. Wearing masks, it turns out, is not manly, when the definition of manly is not having to do f[***]-all out of concern for others.

There are a lot of other things that turn out not to be manly, including caring about climate change and environmental problems, and even according to some studies recycling (and others, handwashing). Taking care of things is not manly. Four of the worst-hit countries in this pandemic are also afflicted with heads of state preoccupied with meeting the terms of machismo--Bolsanaro, Putin, Boris J., Trump--in ways that conflict with recognizing the gravity of the Covid-19 crisis and responding adequately.

This is a definition of masculinity as radical selfishness, and just as it's taken a huge toll in American lives by demanding and utilizing deregulation of access to semiautomatic weapons and other implements of mass death, so it's taken a huge toll by insisting that we don't have to respond to the pandemic because the "we" that is not responding imagines itself as invulnerable and full of unlimited arm-swinging rights. 

Posted by at May 29, 2020 8:04 AM