For Snead, American public bioethics already does have an anthropology, one it pretends not to have: expressive individualism. Drawing upon a host of twentieth-century social theorists — Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Sandel — Snead tries to make less familiar expressive individualism’s account of what it means to be human, allowing us to see it afresh as what it really is: one historically contingent vision among others.
At the heart of expressive individualism is the unencumbered self, the atomized individual, shorn of social ties, long on rights but short on duties, always operating at the height of his or her cognitive powers. One’s flourishing consists “in the expression of one’s innermost identity through freely choosing and configuring life in accordance with his or her own distinctive core intuitions, feelings, and preferences.” By privileging the will, this anthropology is forgetful of the body. By extension, it is forgetful of the “lived realities of vulnerability, mutual dependence, and finitude.”
Snead’s sketch of expressive individualism is good and necessary, but it is when he turns detective, when he sets out to unearth where that atomistic anthropology is at work in American case law, that the book really comes into its own. Most of the book is structured around this work, with one chapter showing how this anthropology manifests in court rulings on abortion, one chapter on assisted reproduction, and one chapter on end-of-life questions such as assisted suicide and when to carry out life-saving measures.
A more nuanced view would suggest that the problem originates in how the current elite made its money: largely in either finance or Silicon Valley. Indeed, Farrell suggests as much, lamenting the financialization of the economy and tax policies that allow the rich to keep an increasingly large share of their income (though Farrell notably does not explore issues outside of tax policy, such as the link between monetary policy and the inflation of financial asset values). These industries typically don’t have to deal with large, working-class labor forces, and physical capital investments in specific localities are of relatively little importance to their business models.
For these and other reasons, in contemporary American society the working class and the elite no longer mix. Mid-twentieth-century America was much less class-segregated; people used to mix at church or through the other “little platoons” of civil society, like the Rotary Club or the Lions Club. In most parts of America today, however, those days are gone. As a number of prominent studies have observed, contemporary American society is increasingly isolated and segmented, the social capital that used to bind communities together is depleted, and the population is atomized even within their respective social classes.26 Without any real cross-class social interaction, the rich are less likely to develop a sense of empathy toward the middle and working classes. It is possible that they simply do not understand these people.
Our current elite’s lack of true community also explains, in part, their default posture in favor of globalism: they are placeless. History and geography mean much less to them than they do to the Wyoming rancher whose family has lived on and worked the same tract of land for four generations. Many of the wealthy profiled by Farrell are the products of elite enclaves in “global cities” on the East or West Coasts; in Jackson Hole they seem to be searching for some lost sense of community, but in a haphazard way.
The elite aren’t just disconnected from the working class, community, and geography; they are disconnected from tradition. Elites interviewed by Farrell often expressed a sort of pantheism—or even neopaganism—seeking “spirituality” in the mountains as an ersatz substitute for traditional religious belief.27 One woman profiled expressed the vague and noncommittal faith of her class: “I think religion here is probably more like ‘I’m going to go climb a mountain today, that’s my religion, spirituality, we come here for that.’ You know, to each his own.”28 Similarly, a wealthy medical executive from the East Coast, who says he had previously lacked faith altogether, claims to have become more religious in the Tetons and to have found a new house of worship: “my cathedral is the mountains.”29
This religious devotion to the natural world colors how Jackson Hole’s residents view their time and money—and where they spend it. Elites routinely confessed to Farrell a sense of guilt over the wealth they have accumulated and the long hours they have spent in their careers. To make recompense, they speak of “giving back”—but to nature, rather than to God or neighbor. They give back to the earth on their own terms: by spending time in the outdoors, or being involved in environmental nonprofits.
Traditionally, Confucianism taught that harmony in society required the maintenance of the “five relationships,” and that realizing the moral nature of mankind, following the Dao, meant acting well in the roles dictated by those relationships: between friend and friend, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife, parent and child, ruler and ruled. Bell and Wang’s book provides an updated version of the five relations, showing how modern hierarchies can be justified through a generous interpretation of Confucian morality. They defend just hierarchies among intimates and members of a household, among citizens, among states, among animal species, and between human beings and machines. They engage critically with those in the West who use egalitarian premises to advocate the abolition of traditional households and to defend large-scale electoral democracy, global governance, equal rights for animals and children, and political systems that allow large private corporations to control powerful technologies. A China reformed along Confucian lines, a China that rejected its totalitarian/Legalist past, a China led by humane, well-educated, and public-spirited individuals with unencumbered power, would be able to reject all these Western pathologies.
Among conservatives in the West the most controversial part of this program is likely to be the proposal for a “vertical political hierarchy,” first advocated in Bell’s well-known 2015 book The China Model.12 The proposal resolves the traditional tension or opposition between meritocracy and democracy by establishing democratic institutions only at the local, municipal level. At higher levels of government—provincial and national—rule is meritocratic. Entry to and political rank within the meritocratic hierarchy should be determined by performance on civil service examinations and a proven track record of effective and compassionate government in the interests of the whole community.
The sticky issue here for political Confucians has always been legitimacy. Bell and Wang argue that one-man, one-vote democratic elections, taken in the West to be the gold standard of legitimacy, are an inadequate basis for legitimacy in the case of a large, powerful state rooted in an ancient civilization. Even with universal suffrage, democratic voters do not, for instance, represent well the interests of past and future generations—for example, when the current electorate destroys the cultural heritage left to us by our ancestors or saddles future generations with unpayable debts. Democratic electors, focused on their own present interests, also have difficulty recognizing the moral claims of resident aliens and foreign peoples who may be affected by the decisions of their states. Not all democratic political values can apply to large states run meritocratically. Transparency, for example. Bell and Wang argue that secrecy in certain functions of government—particularly the selection of officials—is legitimate. A number of Confucian political theorists have recently argued that an autocratic command structure in a state—a decision-making process that ultimately rests on the will of a single person—is always in practice restrained by informal “constitutional” limits on a ruler’s power, and rightly so. The Confucian tradition of imperial China is rich in debates about precisely this issue. Bell and Wang argue that practices can be adopted, or in some cases already exist, that limit the corrupt exercise of arbitrary power. A “first among equals” ethic of power at the highest levels, a system of recommendation that holds the patron responsible for the failures of his clients, the practice of regular consultation with the people via local democratic assemblies, and, above all, widespread education in Confucian values such as compassionate care for the people—all these means, taken together, can make an autocratic state humane and attract the love and loyalty of its citizens.
Reader, I know what you’re thinking. This must be cherry picked from the pages of that scandal-ridden anarchist magazine. (It is actually a straightforward summary of a popular article.) Let’s look at what other proponents of abolishing the family have to say in their own words. “We know that the nuclear private household is where the overwhelming majority of abuse can happen. And then there’s the whole question of what it is for: training us up to be workers, training us to be inhabitants of a binary-gendered and racially stratified system, training us not to be queer,” says Sophie Lewis. For her among the most important steps is to “denaturalize the mother-child bond… the idea that babies belong to anyone — the idea that the product of gestational labor gets transferred as property to a set of people.” Children — excuse me, the “products of labor” — being attached to the women who gave birth to them and being raised by them along with their fathers? Whoever thought of such a ridiculous idea.
Lewis’s notion that “children should belong to no one but themselves” seems like a particularly dark and troubling road to go down. Every sexual taboo imaginable has disappeared in recent years with the sole exception of that which surrounds pedophilia. The only thing that keeps it intact is the sacrosanct notion that children cannot make decisions for themselves. “Liberating” children from their parents, legally, morally, and culturally, would break the very last and final line of defense the besieged family has left.
Lewis goes on to offer more practical advice. “States should immediately meet gestational workers’ [i.e., pregnant women’s] demands for more control over their obstetrics, higher pay, and the right to remain involved, if they wish, with client families,” she says, and “implement a sense that it is normal for us to think about babies as made by many people.” Lewis claims to draw upon the influence of black feminists. “Family doesn’t mean what it means in the bourgeois settler imaginary [sic] when you’re talking about black life.”
In the Eighties, the wealth gap that opened up between the educated and less educated due to offshoring and the decline in opportunities for the working class is considered one of the primary causes of family break-ups by sociologists such as Andrew Cherlin, the author of Love’s Labour Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class Family in America. While the working-class family suffered under these economic conditions, family stability increased among the educated. This disparity has in turn exacerbated the wealth gap further. The many demonstrable positive benefits of growing up with two parents are among the many evils of the past from which the working class and the less educated appear to have been liberated.
An abundance of research tells us that the negative effects of family break-ups include emotional and behavioural problems for children, the increased likelihood of mental illness (including depression) later in life, receiving less education, earning less money, holding fewer assets, an increased chance of getting divorced in turn. Children in such situations receive less affection from either parent. They are likelier to trust neither and to have similar feelings toward their future spouses, to be less optimistic about their own marriages, to have a more negative view of people in general. They are forty times more likely to be physically or sexually abused and fifty times more likely to be killed by the step-parents or male partners who are not their fathers. Most, indeed all of these things are absent in many traditional families, but the general statistical trends are undeniable. These are the actual results of the policies that are being pushed by those unlikely ever to experience them upon those who have been lucky enough to have avoided them so far.
Manent ably establishes that Montaigne does indeed have an authority to which he defers. That authority “is life itself in its ordinary tenor, in the variation of humors and the irregularity of its accidents.” Life, however, in Manent’s formulation “needs to be brought to life and, if I can put it in this way, installed in a light that causes its fullness to appear, while preserving its imperfection.” This is Montaigne’s great revolutionary aim. Manent’s brilliant book throws light on a paradox of the highest order in connection with that aim. Montaigne’s account of the new model man appears eminently human and humane, but in truth it is unthinkable and unlivable. This is because “life without law” strips humanity of true self-knowledge and the accompanying capacity for reasonable moral and political choice, and also moral reformation. Moreover, as Blaise Pascal complained in his Pensées, published in 1670, eight years after his death, Montaigne talked far too much about himself, the only authority he treated as genuinely authoritative. In the end, there is something deeply solipsistic and unnaturally antinomian about Montaigne’s new model of the moral life.
Pascal admired Montaigne’s Essays and constantly cited or appropriated passages from them,even as Montaigne’s replacement of the soul with the self genuinely horrified him. Following Pascal, Manent notes Montaigne’s radical rejection—in the great essay “On Repentance” from Book III of the Essays—of repentance and of the need to prepare oneself for a truly Christian death. Accepting one’s “master-form,” and rejecting repentance as of dubious “sincerity,” leads Montaigne to the conclusion that neither he, nor any other man or woman, can really do better. We are, in effect, destined to navigate within the parameters of our own unique “master-form.” Reform, repentance, or conversion are not sincere or authentic human possibilities. Quietly but firmly, Montaigne ends “by expelling from human life every rule, every principle, capable of guiding it, every criterion of the better.”
But in an important respect, Manent does not believe Montaigne’s claim. Montaigne calls himself “an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher” since his self, even though it points toward “so many philosophical examples and reasons,” remains closed to all wisdom outside itself. Manent asks, can it truly be the case that Montaigne “was never internally divided by a law that he was to obey nor guided by a teaching he was convinced he ought to follow, nor even moved by a model to which he ought to conform”? Was Montaigne miraculously free from the drama of good and evil that is constitutive of every human soul? Was he so self-contained that “he simply developed according to nature, which is to say his nature”? Montaigne’s account of the self, his self, is, strictly speaking, unbelievable. But it has become the default position of those who affirm the primacy of the self, freed from any connection to ends and purposes outside the immediate self that point to a life well lived in accordance with goodness and truth. Through this lens, Montaigne’s alluring humanism seems far less humane than it does at an initial glance.
Manifesto! Episode 21: Phil is out today, so Jake talks with Michael Lind about his book, The New Class War, as well as Auden's The Fall of Rome
It is this identity in repetition that is at the core of aesthetic experience of pop music at least since the 1930s, and that, compounded by the power of wireless radio transmission, so strongly reinforces the impression of pop music’s transcendental power to preserve the harmonic order of the world, and that enables us to identify our place within that order.
And what is that place? Here we come to the third peculiarity of rock-and-roll aesthetics: the rigorous historical contingency of it all. It seems evident that nostalgia, again, is grounded in our evolution and our neurology. Yet it seems equally evident that nostalgia could not be experienced in the same way in a material culture in which technology, and styles dependent on technology, remain more or less the same over the course of a single life. An elderly medieval peasant might have a bittersweet memory of falling in love two years after the great locust swarm came and ruined the crops; he might also have held onto some farming tools from that period. But the tools, even if they look old, will not look outdated, and nothing about the memory of the world as it was in former times will have the quality of being “vintage” or “retro” or “cheesy”. It is impossible that he should conceive it as having happened in another “decade” (as late as the eighteenth century, the great majority of people did not know they were inhabitants of the eighteenth century). Even bracketing the fact that there was no technology for recording songs and transmitting them from the past to the present, there was in any case no possibility of wincing at the terrible music one used to like in one’s youth, since music remained more or less the same from one generation to the next.
What is nostalgia like, under such historical conditions? I fear any attempt at answering such a question, today, will necessarily come up short. Today this is how we experience nostalgia: we become anchored to an era, and when it dies, when it is subducted under the ground of time, and we are reminded of that every day in the way other people around us are now dressing and talking and being themselves, in some important sense we die too, and live out our days as ghosts.
Monogamy did not immediately become the norm, even within the world of the Bible. But many of its most famous stories, about the tension between Sarah and Hagar, or Leah and Rachel and their children, or David and Bathsheba, or Solomon’s many wives, are all critiques that point the way to monogamy.
And there is a deep connection between monotheism and monogamy, just as there is, in the opposite direction, between idolatry and adultery. Monotheism and monogamy are about the all-embracing relationship between I and Thou, myself and one other, be it a human or the divine Other.
What makes the emergence of monogamy unusual is that it is normally the case that the values of a society are those imposed on it by the ruling class. And the ruling class in any hierarchical society stands to gain from promiscuity and polygamy, both of which multiply the chances of its genes being handed on to the next generation. From monogamy the rich and powerful lose and the poor and powerless gain. So the return of monogamy goes against the normal grain of social change and is a real triumph for the equal dignity of all. Every bride and every groom are royalty, every home a palace when furnished with love.
No longer shackled by the bright-line division between perceivers and perceived, Berkeley’s late neo-Platonism accommodated a realist outlook about unperceived sensibles much more easily than his earlier thought. As Gabriel Moked has argued trenchantly, the Berkeley of the Siris has even come to endorse a “corpuscularian” philosophy of his own, which is happily realist about the existence of microscopic particles. So, Berkeley writes of “the extreme minuteness, mobility, and momentum of [mercury’s] parts,” and even supposes, with Newton, that light has a corpuscular structure.
These particles are not, of course, imperceptible in the sense of being unknowable, nor do even they exist unperceived. However, their existence as sensibles is no longer carefully hedged about with the counter-factual disclaimers and speculations about temporal discontinuity that the young Berkeley’s inner Bertrand Russell was constantly whispering in his ear. Rather, the physical world—even its microscopic constituents—subsists in being known and willed by the LORD, and it lies within the domain of the intelligible which is the “space of reasons.” As Moked puts it, “In the view of the author of Siris, both the primary and secondary qualities are real (because equally perceived by an infinite Observer, and equally perceivable by all finite observers) and mind-dependent.”
The late Berkeley’s most striking deviation from his early immaterialism is his rehabilitation of the concept of “matter” itself. Having read more widely and sympathetically, he seems to have outgrown his youthful conflation of the Lockean corpuscular real essence with Platonist-Aristotelian “prima materia.” Now, he recognizes, “Neither Plato nor Aristotle by matter, hylē, understood corporeal substance, whatever the moderns understand by that word. To them certainly it signified no positive actual being,” but rather “only a pura potentia, a mere possibility.” “That matter is actually nothing, but potentially all things,” he notes, “is the doctrine of Aristotle, Theophrastus, and all the ancient Peripatetics.”
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