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“It’s the Thought that Counts”: Part II, Truth, its Consequences and the Good

Since I last posted on the question of whether what we think makes us good or bad people, my thoughts keep returning to how difficult this question is.  To reiterate, when I say, what we think might make us good or bad people, I don’t mean whether we think about doing what we might  generally acknowledge to be bad things — that you think about how to hurt someone might set you on the path to being a bad person, or that you think hateful thoughts toward someone is likely to make you hurt them, or you think it is good to get ahead by taking advantage of other people.  I think the value of those kinds of thoughts is less controversial.  What I am considering is whether the ways you think about what is–what we call ontological claims–makes you a good or bad person.

I used the example of essentialism before–the notion that certain persons have certain essences that dictate their actions.  This idea has led to pernicious subjection of different people pretty much constantly through history, women and Africans who became American slaves being easy examples to recall, though neither of those examples have faded from history since people continue to make claims about what women are capable of or what they are like and assumptions, often without even recognizing it, of what Black American men and women are like and what they are therefore capable of doing or not doing.  In our history, Americans have also made essentialist claims about American Indians, and then argue that it is just in fun, as in the defense of the name of Washington, D.C.’s football team.  And about Asian Americans, who, often labeled “the model minority,” have argued that ‘positive’ essentialist claims are oppressive in their own right.


So we can see how essences have had a deleterious effect on certain groups and have been used to subjugate some groups to others.  I was just perusing Beauvoir’s Introduction to The Second Sex this morning and struck again by her concern that essences seem to restrict those who are deemed to have them  while the very essence of those who do the restricting is to be capable of transcending any such restrictions, as when men say, “You think that because you are a woman”:

Woman has ovaries and a uterus; such are the particular conditions that lock her in her subjectivity; some even say she thinks with her hormones.  Man vainly forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles.  He grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he apprehends in all objectivity, whereas he considers woman’s body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that particularizes it. (Borde and Malovany-Chevallier trans. 5)

Similar positions are staked between the white person and the person of color, the colonizer and the colonized, the capitalist and the worker, the native and the immigrant (well, unless the immigrant is the European colonizer).  Charles W. Mills argues in “But What Are you Really? The Metaphysics of Race” that while race has been shown biologically to have no basis in reality, it is in treating it as if it is real that it has the pernicious consequences that it does.  Thus the problem is in mistaking for real what is constructed.  Essence when it comes to human beings seems to have put to rest in part because there are have been conclusive arguments that there is no such thing, in gender and in race (though arguments remain in the realm of sex and even sexuality).  Such investigations have been pursued in large part because essences are deemed restrictive and oppressive.

But is the problem with essences that it leads to these consequences?  Are essences untrue, unreal, because of their consequences?  This concern opens onto some larger questions: is the world the way it is because we think it is that way?  What is the relationship between the way things are, our phenomenological experience, and our claims or ideas about the way things are?  It’s always been easier for me to think that the way we think forms the world (the constructivist account) than that we need to just try to get to the real way that the world is (the realist account).  I inherit part of that from a youth where we see that if you think God is a certain way, you will live as such and form your life according to that view and thus create that world.  But there’s also a realist element to that account, because the good way of living is to understand how God really is so that you can live in freedom and grace.  And critics of the church I grew up in are saying exactly that about it, that it has the wrong conception of God.

Contemporary arguments between fundamentalists and scientists over science and its capacity to describe the world as it is and has been have created a desire for more of a realist account, an account that we can affirm and defend and say, this is the way it is!  Such an effort is behind Quentin Meillossoux’s argument in After Finitude against correlationist theories of truth (where the correlation is the fit or match between the knowing subject and the known object), which Meillossoux argues opens us up to the fideism of Creationist six-day theories of the origins of the earth.  I see that concern but wonder about the “will to truth” that stands behind it, the desire to assert the power claim that the scientist of today is considered to have what she can claim scientifically is the truth making all other claims  at a distance from the truth.  There is the danger on the one side of judging something to be false or unreal because one does not like what follows in how people live if something is taken to be the case and the danger on the other side of permitting anything to be said because reality is constructed so construct it as you wish — change the construction and you change the reality (yeah yeah, it’s hard to do alone because it’s more culturally then subjectively constructed, but nonetheless, the problem remains).

Plato has Socrates make up a lie which Socrates explains is a lie, a lie of essences that keeps people in their place in his Republic.  People often take this to mean that Plato condoned such a lie, but I wonder if Plato is showing how lies about the way the world is can lead us to live in the world in a certain way.  Is Plato’s story about the well-ordered soul and a true ideal world just that: a story meant to propel us to live ordered lives concerned with wisdom about which we know only that we do not have it?

This issue about noble lies leads me to another kind of claim that has ethical consequences but seems to be a value-free claim, one that leads people to judge the people who hold it as unethical.  This is the claim of Leo Strauss and his followers that certain historical texts have a public or common reading–the exoteric reading–and a private or privileged reading for those who get it–the esoteric reading.  Those properly initiated and prepared to understand a text must protect the esoteric readings from those who can’t deal with the implications of the text.  This is not to say that there are not sympathetic and interesting analyses of Strauss’ hermeneutic strategy as for example in Leora Banitzky’s entry on Strauss for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  But the assumptions behind this view are that there are people who cannot learn the reality of things and so need to be given another story so that they will live better according to what they can handle.

Someone might say, but it’s true!  Some people won’t care about the good unless they think there are eternal consequences for being bad.  We want people to be good and the world to be just, so we need to accept the reality of the way that people are.  This has always been my concern with pragmatism, which seems to accept claims as true if they have outcomes ‘that work.’  The pragmatist then doesn’t seem to have an argument against the ‘noble lies’ or a standard for what it means ‘to work.’  But then on the other hand, that criticism of pragmatism raises another concern which is that the world does seem to kick back, to have its way of being that we must accommodate ourselves to.  Claims of the reality of what people are like are a little easier to refute than claims about the need to talk about the way that the world is, the way that things are, ie. being.  We can always say that people don’t care about the good because they haven’t been educated or habituated to care and thus different cultivations can change people.  Since we are inclined to distinguish between human beings who can be nurtured in better or worse ways and nature which seems to remain the same, it’s the claims about nature that give us pause, that make us think it must have a way it really is regardless of how we think of it.  Though it is certainly not without ethical implications: if you think that nature was created for human beings, you might be less inclined to care well for it than if you think that we are equally a part of nature as all other parts.

All this to ask: Are there pure ontological ideas, pure claims about the world that are free of any ethical implication?  Nietzsche calls such kinds of claims, claims about metaphysics, into question when he argues that the desire for abstraction and purity of knowledge, like the apparently abstract argument that there is a will, belies a desire to control and manipulate the world.  Such abstraction and epistemological distance itself has effects in the world for how we live and how we treat one another.

Plato argues that the Good, which he places beyond being, is the source of knowing and the source of what is.  I’ve always found it so startling and strange that Plato makes the ethical absolute the source of knowing.  In this move, he seems to locate the need for the good at the heart of our effort to know.  My friend John Bova over at Metalogic Metaethics has been arguing for some time that Plato productively divides and unites in dividing the ontological and the ethical by making the Good beyond being in a way that Aristotle, who appears to unite the ontological and the ethical by making the Good immanent, cannot.  Setting the second part of this claim aside, I think the insight of Bova’s claim is that the ontological is shown to need the Good, and thus the ethical, but it cannot deduce the good from itself, but rather needs the good in order to make the claim about what is, and for this reason the dialectic dual effort to speak of what is and what is good remains a striving movement toward what is beyond Being.

I like to think I’m not inclined to make judgments about whether people are good or bad, but to be honest, I raise my eyebrows when someone tells me she is an esssentialist or a Straussian.  I raise my eyebrows even higher, though, when someone tells me that they are not interested in ethics, but just in establishing a true metaphysics or ontology — philosophical speak for saying the way things really are.  Perhaps it isn’t merely in what you think that makes you good or bad but in the status you give to the claims you make about reality (and thus, the status you give to yourself in the world) that leads you to live in the world in more or less just ways.  Such a claim, of course, would lead us to a conversation about the politics of the discipline of philosophy and I’m not sure I have the heart for that.  Yet.

NB: I’ll be posting in the future in this series on thought police, philosophy and philosophers’ power and Aristotle’s answer to whether how you think about the world makes you good or bad.

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