Email exchange started by Nicole Morgan with additions from Ruben Nelson and Steven Kurtz all CACOR members.
Nation-states came late to history, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they won’t make it to the end of the century.
Trump’s tweet was set against the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer, one year earlier, of asylum for Syrians. The subsequent movement of people across Europe – EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparked a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But 1.2 million people is a trickle compared to what’s coming. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and notoriously broad, but according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century. If the EU struggles to control its borders when 1.2 million people move, what would happen if 200 million do? The lesson of history – real, long-lens human history – is that people move, and when they do, it’s hard to stop.
This is the crux of the problem: nation-states rely on control. If they can’t control information, crime, businesses, borders or the money supply, then they will cease to deliver what citizens demand of them. In the end, nation-states are nothing but agreed-upon myths: we give up certain freedoms in order to secure others. But if that transaction no longer works, and we stop agreeing on the myth, it ceases to have power over us.
So what might replace it?
Utilitarism started much before Stuart Mill. It started indeed with the modern in a western world in search of defining the common good and the good away from religion. This is the argument I presented at UNESCO
BIRTH OF THE MARKET
Internal markets and a growing international trade had led to the creation of “City-States whose trade role was progressively escaping from feudal control which, as we recall, had for centuries reposed upon the peasantry. In Italy, this development had started from the 12th century onwards, leading to the establishment of the first “republics”. In France, the existence of the “merchant” class as a distinct social category became fully apparent in the 13th century: it was the great fairs of the Champagne region which created the appropriate environment for its emergence.
The first commercial companies came into existence, and so initiated a gradual evolution away from unquestioning acceptance of the divine law of a “debt” owed to one’s feudal master and towards a hope of profit – shared among partners – derived from trading in markets and from overseas expeditions. Such merchant trading thereby introduced a “neutral” and at once “egalitarian” element, which caused particular disturbance to the medieval order, be it of Church or State. By “neutral element”, must be understood an element which “had no place of belonging” which was “itinerant”, which was grounded in the abstract par excellence: the calculation of commercial opportunity which “perhaps even more than deductive reasoning is assuredly what dominated that extra-religious culture[”. “A new world was forming, a society was restructuring itself within the ambit of high finance, with profit as its primary goal.
UTOPIA AS THE BLUE PRINT OF UTILITARISM
Truth is utility
In fact, every intelligent person understands this, and his earthly representative, the Utopian, has the precious tool of reason at his disposal. It should be made clear though that we are not talking here of a Logos measured on the scale of Ideas or of a transcendental reason which allows us to contemplate some higher principle of morality. Utopian reason is instrumental in nature, a tool for assessing probabilities which functions at the level of practicality not those of contemplation or revelation. In the Utopian world, the texts of the ancients, whether philosophical or religious, lose their status as foundations of authority and pass to the secondary role of providing complementarily or pleasure. They are drawn on for whatever is useful. From religions is retained notably their most positive aspects, like that of the immortality of the soul. A pleasant idea after all (for there is nothing more difficult than facing the idea of finitude) which is most useful should there be a need to strengthen the moral order of society.
It should be noted that a plurality of religions was entertained, not a single religion which might become dominant and so strip away the pleasure principle. The Utopians are free to choose their religion, and furthermore, the door is open to others. If travellers mooring their ships in Utopia’s ports succeed in introducing a cult which is compatible with the praxis, the local inhabitants may be converted to it without hindrance.
For the Utopians exhibit a remarkable predatory habit towards all that is practical. They borrow for themselves any technique, product or thought that adds to both common and individual wealth and pleasure. In this sense, Thomas More’s Utopia is not a utopia in the tradition of Plato’s Republic, or the utopias of the 19th and 20th centuries, which fixed their models in time, which is the major enemy of those who believe they have found an eternal ideal. Even Marx, whose concept is embedded in time, the progression of which it is governed by, stops time once the conditions for human happiness are achieved.
Good is efficiency
This predation is not however one driven by the imperative of growth in the modern sense, but a practical policy which never loses sight of the need for maintaining the stability of the common weal. In Utopia, growth is never for growth’s sake. Rather, things are assimilated and managed in such a way that everyone works to the best of their ability and for the contentment of each and every one. Considering the Epicurean premises from which Hythlodaeus started out, this choice seems self-evident, given that the over-accumulation of goods and capital could be regarded as an excess of unnatural and unnecessary pleasures which are likely to bring about many social ills. In reality, one of the greatest transgressions against oneself and others is unproductivity. Thomas More, through the mouth of Hythlodaeus, does not cease to lambaste “good-for-nothings”, “idlers”, the “slothful” and “parasites” among whom are numbered indolent property-holders, over-fed monks, false beggars, malingerers, litigious lawyers, philosophers and women who see in marriage the excuse for laziness. Nor will there be found anywhere in the island places of leisure which encourage sloth and indulgence, such as taverns, cabarets and brothels.
Such indeed is the importance of productivity that it accords the Utopians the right to annex any lands they need which they judged to be poorly exploited. Not without some astonishment one reads this text which lays down the contemporary right for the take-over of enterprises: “any people, explains Hythlodaeus [which] holds a piece of ground void and vacant to no good or profitable use, [keeps] others from the use and possession of it who [….] ought thereof to be nourished and relieved.” (Utopia, Oxford 1895, p. 155)
We are close to the modern era and its multi-national businesses when Thomas More opens the doors of Utopia Corporation to the most capable and competent of foreigners, who are made fully participating members. As for less wealthy foreigners, they are granted more or less the status of migrant workers, as they will work for a period on probation and not for lesser wages but for a longer number of hours.
For the comparison with modern business stops there. In Utopia wages do not exist, nor does a currency, judged unnecessary since the pleasure of participating in the creation of the common.
AND HERE IT GOES FOR FIVE HUNDRED YEARS. WE ARE AT THE END OF THIS CYCLE. A NEW MAGNA CARTA OR UTOPIA HAS TO BE REWRITTEN.
- The irony is that More, just like Stuart Mill knew the limits of what he was saying. He was the most playful of a first class political philosopher. He was after all the Chancellor of England and knew power.
On Sat, Jun 9, 2018 at 2:10 PM, Ruben Nelson wrote:
Yes, thank you. The role and place of Utilitarianism in our culture is very important.
If we take at face value Mill’s recognition of the value of personal experiences that are not reducible to pleasure or pain, then he has just blown up the case for Utilitarianism. His recognition of the value of experiences that do not fit his model may speak well of him as a person, but they do nothing to make the case he is trying to make for his essentially tidy hedonic calculus.
As so much that was written in the 19th Century, all this makes sense in the context of intellectuals who also had a vested interest in legitimizing power and money and their access to it. Britain was then a society that was pushing the limits of essentially mechanical metaphors in the service of giving comfort to the ruling class. (Of course, they were not alone in this; only better at this game than most.) It is comforting to know that reality itself justifies hierarchy, their rank, their own humanity and their insensitivity to the deep humanity of others. Given that this is the game, Utilitarianism is brilliant. It masquerades as a moral philosophy while giving comfort to those with money and power. It is interesting that Mill never gave 10 seconds thought to a meta-reflection that would question the game he is playing. But then, he lived before meta-reflections were recognized as a necessary capacity of serious observers of our species.
Consider the presuppositions of the language of F.H. Bradley’s, “My Station and It’s Duties.” Or this line form a 1903 Methodist hymns: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God created both of them, and ordered their estate.”
This is no small matter. Today, cost-benefit analysis is so deeply ingrained in our culture that no elected or appointed official gives its legitimacy a moment’s thought. Rather, they just call for more such studies and use the conclusions to override every non-trivial human and environmental value. Those who use it do not recognize that such studies are just another form of the logic and methods Mill legitimized for us. Personally, we may be sinners, but as a social order, all is right with the world. We need not allow unpleasant thoughts about the need to re-order it to disturb our sleep. A more current version of this same false-comfort is this: “They are not poor because we are rich.”
Not a serious perceiver and thinker of personal-to civilizational systems in the bunch. But then, in the 19th Century, this is too much to expect. Sadly, in the 21st Century, our survival requires this new capacity. Our progress towards it is presently too slow to make the kind of differences in time to save our species and many others.
I conclude that we are in way more trouble than as a species and as cultures than we know. The thought expressed here, and by others, that the very way we in cultures that are exemplars of the Modern/Industrial form of civilization experience the world – imagine it, see it, think it through and live in it — is itself already mismatched with reality, is not a thought that gains much traction among those who rule us be they the G7 crowd or university presidents.
We face an abyss into which we do not even want to look, much less explore and respond to with a fresh imagination and courage.
From: Steven Kurtz
Sent: June 8, 2018 4:44 AM
Thanks for posting this, Nicole. I subscribe to Aeon posts, but hadn’t caught up to this one yet. Indeed, the downs abet the ups; and mysteries, music, and poetry, along with nature and companionship are among things that make life worth living…at least for me.
On Thursday, June 7, 2018 at 11:05:36 AM UTC-4, Nicole Morgan wrote:
John Stuart Mill is not only a pleasure to read but was, it seems one of the (rare) philosophers I would have liked to meet. He was a kind and generous man. What does it have anything to do with his philosophy which is based on severe calculations and is the foundation of our modern ideology?
A lot. Like Thomas More or Bachelard he has been able to deal not with absolute Truth (that is for the fanatics) but with paradoxical ideas, which are essential to philosophy.
The following article does him justice. (I will add that Mill was a precursor of feminism in the right sense of the term which is not surprising).
Mill tries philosophically to resolve the paradox of suffering by arguing that higher goods such as love and literature are ultimately more satisfying than basic forms of pleasure. In some sense, that’s true. But the terms of this satisfaction are no longer utilitarian; they have more to do with adventure, beauty, even holiness. As the political philosopher Michael Sandel puts it in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2009): ‘Mill saves utilitarianism from the charge that it reduces everything to a crude calculus of pleasure and pain, but only by invoking a moral ideal of human dignity and personality independent of utility itself.’
We should be wary of the Religion of Humanity, because subordinating our lives to utility hollows them out. But we have lots to learn from Mill’s fierce desire to add poetry to progress. Let’s rediscover the paradox that George Herbert – one of those poets excluded from Mill’s education – deftly expressed in 1633:
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.
Without goods that explode utilitarianism and open us to the mystery of suffering, even the happiest life is miserable.