Saturday, February 2, 2013

An ultimate hypothetical

As an ideas-merchant I try to keep well-attuned to how an audience responds to framing.  Example: I propose the idea of a perfectivist utopia characterized at root by people maximally exercising their intellects.  The response may well be characterized by disbelief, incomprehension, cynicism, defensive cognitive bias or outright evasion, or who the hell knows what.  (Hard to predict, see, just in how many ways people can fail to recognize a good idea for what it is.  The best I can hope to do is to figure out ways to cut them off at the pass, do an end-around, be as dialectically comprehensive as I know how to be, set up as many safeguards 'twixt cup and lip . . . and then maybe there will be some success at getting the idea across.)  One problem in framing the issue in terms of an intellectualist perfectivist utopia is the sheer unfamiliar-ness of the idea to so many.  How can it possibly be concretized in their minds to their satisfaction given their limited context of knowledge?  Concretes do help a lot, after all.

So the concrete I'll use for framing is one Thomas Jefferson.  He's the guy that drafted the United States Declaration of Independence in 1976.  He's more well-known, more visible to the average citizen, than the author of the Nicomachean Ethics.  (In other words: If you polled the American citizenry and asked who authored the D of I, half of them might actually give the right answer.  Ask them who authored the Nicomachean Ethics, you might be lucky to get one in five answering correctly.  So the idea of presenting the latter as a basis for the cognitive revolution we so desperately need has a considerably greater chance of fuck-up on the transmission line.)  Another concrete to pair Mr. Jefferson with might well be that guy whose face shows up on the $100 bill, but probably not that guy who authored The Rights of Man and Common Sense (notwithstanding how well-known and influential as that guy was among the early Americans).  Perhaps the term "polymath" would draw blank stares, serving to throw the audience off the scent.  Perhaps "excellence in all endeavors" would convey the (Aristotelian) idea to more populist effect.  Jefferson and that guy on the $100 bill were polymaths strove for excellence in all endeavors.

How some guy ends up on the $100 bill, might very well intrigue a few in the audience.  Perhaps that could lead in some interesting directions.

It so happens that these two comprehensive-excellence-pursuers were either founder or president of the American Philosophical Society.  But so as not to distract the average citizen, one might want to avoid saying something like "if everyone lived the way the great philosophers did, . . . " because that would lead those who easily miss a point to wonder who would then do all those vitally important things like engineering, running businesses, conducting scientific research and development, raising kids, hitting home runs, cooking restaurant meals, growing the cannabis (oops, distraction) brewing the beer, directing the movies, balancing the books, performing open-heart surgery, etc. etc. etc. etc. - all those things "the philosophers don't do."

So we have to reframe this in terms of something like: constantly striving for improvement, which takes continuous learning, growth, intellectual curiosity and insatiability, development of talents, health-conscious lifestyles, cultivation of social relationships, seeing things from others' point of view rather than merely through one's own cognitive biases or filters, recognition and respect for human dignity and freedom, and other things listed on that hierarchy of needs thingy by that one psychologist guy.

Now, as it happens, carrying out these things successfully requires a love of wisdom, no question.  That doesn't require that one sit atop the rock like that thinker statue whatamacallit with the chin resting upon hand all of the time - just some of the time at very least -  and even that requires a good developmental environment from an early age, which includes decent nutrition, decent parenting, decent educational opportunities, and so forth.  A decent community would do whatever is within reason to ensure that its young members have as much of a good developmental environment as possible.  (Does this create a chicken-and-egg problem?  How do the not-young people figure out how to be so, um - is "virtuous" the appropriate term here? - kind and decent in intention and efficacious in action so as to foster such developmental excellence for the young'uns?  How do they do that, while also holding down a job and coming home tired, etc.?  Well?  Am I supposed to have all the answers?)

So, anyway, with that preamble out of the way, here's the hypothetical:

Say that the American People came to a broad minimal consensus: If we emulate (too distracting a word?) follow the example of behavior set by the greatest of the nation's Founding Fathers, especially TJ and the $100 bill guy - that is, if we sought to secure for ourselves and our family, friends, neighbors, and other community members the most optimal conditions for our flourishing (yeah, I think that is a good term to use - that mad-as-hell guy in Network uses it, too), that is to say, if we as a people sought to cultivate and foster the conditions under which people could flourish the way these gentlemen did in numerous endeavors be they science, philosophy, arts and letters, community and civic participation, statesmanship, business and entrepreneurship, education of one's fellow Americans, ethical and moral excellence, spiritual fulfillment, and so forth, then what kind of society might we come to inhabit?

(There's that pesky, distracting matter of their having owned slaves.  We shouldn't follow their example in that regard, of course.  Surely we can set aside that tree for the sake of the forest?)

Imagine our having a hypothetical conversation with these two men, asking their advice on how to improve the state of affairs in this country.  Assume if you possibly can that in our hypothetical conversation these men have some 200 years of hindsight that they did not actually possess in their time, but which they would have if they were alive today.  What would they think about what has become of the nation since their time - but more importantly, what advice would they offer for improvement?  Might they appeal to various historical figures for inspiration?  For example, Jefferson in some of his letters touted some ancient guys with names like Epictetus and Epicurus as deliverers of moral and practical wisdom.  Also, while Jefferson didn't believe in the traditional God of theism, he did believe in a Creator who set the world in motion (a view popular at the time, known as deism), and also praised as a genius one Jesus of Nazareth; as framing for the average American citizen goes, that's some pretty good stuff, but Jefferson would (of course) urge us to seek wisdom from all kinds of sources (hence his knowledge of those ancient Epi-something guys, among many others).

I do believe Mr. J would lament the polling data pointing to unacceptable levels of ignorance among the citizenry, but he would also be pro-active about solutions.  Beginning with the ignorance of the very political system he and his buddies founded, he might ask such things as: Why are the people this ignorant?  Is it because they're just intellectually lazy, or has their political system gotten to where they are apathetic or too discouraged about participating in the political process?  If we can devise a fix whereby they become genuinely interested in the political goings-on around them, their knowledge of such things will naturally expand.  Were I interested in the fate of the Green Bay Packers, I'd know quite a bit about them.  And while there's no obvious reason why every citizen ought to be interested in the Packers given their limited time and priorities, it's a plausible proposition that every citizen ought to be interested in our political system and ought to be able to pass a basic science literacy test even years after being a fifth grader.  (That unbelievably awful show would have no place in a Jeffersonian culture.)

Now, in presenting such a hypothetical one might well encounter stubborn cynicism:

"People are just the way they are, hardwired and stuff, or Original Sin, you can't expect them to improve." (UP: Speak for yourself!  Also, what about what that Harvard psychology guy has been saying about the decline in levels of violence over human history?  I can dig up the reference if you're curious.  Or how about slavery no longer being a societal norm?  And, to cite this one 20th century author lady, if we have free will as the proponents of the Original Sin idea nevertheless say we do, then why couldn't the idea of Original Virtue make just as much sense?)

"IQ's will always be centered around 100, how do you expect people to get smarter?" (UP: Aren't literacy rates a lot higher these days than in the Dark Ages?  Same basic genetic structure, yet better outcomes.)

"Those are great men, how do you expect ordinary people to live up to such lofty standards?" (UP: Who said anything about everyone becoming a Jefferson or $100 bill guy?  Let's start with a more realistic idea: a considerably greater number of people of their caliber than at present - in effect, a shifting of the cultural bell curve.  Besides, we're talking in essence about excellence of character.)

"You're trying to sneak in the idea of a Utopia under the guise of widely-implemented Jeffersonianism.  But people - even reasonable, intelligent and thoughtful people - will always disagree among one another about various things.  In a Utopia there isn't supposed to be such disagreement, since everyone is supposed to be 'perfect'."  (UP: Call it what you will - Utopia, Jeffersonianism, Nicomachean Ethics-ism - what you're talking about is a strawman.  This societal ideal need only meet certain minimum requirements, like nonviolence, stable social unions, a rule of law.  Now, to get to such an ideal would take some amount of time and, in short, education.  There's a good reason to think that in order to get to those minimum requirements just stated, the necessary process of education would lead to widespread improvement in moral character, which turns this society into not simply a "liberal, freedom-respecting" one, but also a highly virtue-encouraging one as "communitarian" theorists argue for.  A nice integration/synthesis reconciliation of these seemingly competing ideals, isn't it?  And if some people even in such a social order somehow find it to their advantage to be among a criminal element, that's what the rule of law is still there for.  But most likely by then those who comprise the society would have discovered much better ways of preventing and responding to criminal behavior than they do now.  That's what you'd expect in a society in which intellectual curiosity and insatiable learning are a cultural norm rather than an exception.)

At this point, I'd have to leave it up to the hardcore cynic to come up with objections that even I have not yet anticipated.  (I mean, shit, if they're that persistent and that creative at coming up with objections, how does that not just reinforce the perfectivist Jeffersonian point that humans can get pretty good at things if they set their minds to it?  Now, is that an ultimate flanking of the potential opposition, or what?  You can't refute Jeffersonianism. :-)

"Checkmate, unimaginitive naysayers."
Now: What would America end up looking like if it went wholeheartedly back to its Jeffersonian roots, i.e., to what made the country's founding and the country's greatness possible in the first place?  What might America look like?  If the American people can't even so much as entertain this thought experiment, then they might very well be fucked doomed.  But what, in principle, is there to stop them from entertaining it and going on to act accordingly, besides nothing?

ADDENDUM: Oh, by the way, for those of you not out of your element: is that one scene near the end of the pretty good story that the Stranger unfolded, that scene with the nihilists, is that about overcoming nihilism accompanied by a diminution of the Appetitive Soul?  And what about that goldbricker pretending to be a millionaire?  What does he symbolize?  There's a vanity theme there to be sure.  And how about the slut nympho that poor woman, or, for that matter, the known pornographer whom she's been banging?  And what about the strongly vaginal artist, and the video artist with a cleft asshole?  And how about the Stranger?  Is he a daimon of sorts?  A lot of strands to keep in my head, man.  A lot of strands in UP's head.