Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, May 25, 2012

TOCQUEVILLE: The Power of the Majority (Unlimited Power…)

This reading is taken from Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America (parts of chapters 15 and 16).  Even today it’s about the best analysis of American society we have available.  What makes this book not just a good one, but a great one?  It’s great because of the questions it raises; it’s clear and powerful language; and the logical way it unfolds.  What are some of the questions Tocqueville deals with?  In this section he looks at the power, whether for good or bad, of majority rule.  There are both strengths and weaknesses to letting the majority decide political questions.  Tocqueville doesn’t try to pre-judge whether it’s better to have a democracy or a king.  He just tells it like he sees it: the moral authority of the majority is partly based upon the notion that there is more intelligence and more wisdom in a great number of men collected together than in a single individual… Here’s a question that philosophers have been debating right from the start: Can a group of people generally make better political decisions than one person can do alone?  Some philosophers (such as Rousseau) claim that the only legitimate source of power is “the People.”  Even if the People sometimes make mistakes they will soon learn to correct them.  Other philosophers (such as Plato) say it depends on who the people are.  Plato believes that only “the best” should rule society and there may be only a small group of people or even only one man (or one woman) fit to rule.  So where are we most likely to find wisdom: in a large group (democracy), a small group (aristocracy) or one person (monarchy)?  This is a hard question.  Tocqueville doesn’t pretend to have the answer.  But he does help clarify the problem of majority rule when he asks: if it be admitted that a man, possessing absolute power, may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach? In other words, if your argument against kings is that a king might misuse his power; why do you think you’ll be able to trust a whole group of people with the same kind of power?  As Tocqueville points out: men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with the consciousness of their strength.  He seems to think that majorities can be corrupted by power just as much as individuals can be corrupted by power.  Whether this is true or not is left to the reader to decide.  But Tocqueville can be powerfully persuasive himself just by the language that he uses.  Here’s how he describes the chilling effect that a majority holds over people who disagree with the majority viewpoint: You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow-citizens if you solicit their suffrages, and they will affect to scorn you if you solicit their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being, and those who are most persuaded of your innocence will abandon you too, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence in comparably worse than death.  This is great prose.  Tocqueville describes what happens to people who wander outside the boundaries of majority group-think.  In other places and times you might be executed for thinking too differently or too boldly.  This is what happened to Socrates.  In America that will never happen.  You won’t be executed but will be handed an even worse fate: you’ll be considered a little strange and then probably ignored completely.  Tocqueville doesn’t just describe how this might happen; he shows you what it would be like, what it would sound like.  This is a great book because it deals with substantial philosophical issues.  It’s a great book because Tocqueville writes in noble and uplifting language.  And it’s great because it proceeds logically to talk about the power of majorities to do both good and bad.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

HUME: Of Justice and Injustice Section II (Of the Origin of Justice and Property)

David Hume wants us to think hard about the meaning of justice within our society.  Hume believes that the first (basic) principle of human society… is the natural appetite between the sexes, which brings them together and keeps them together as a two-person society until their concern for their offspring binds them together in a new way.  In his view the sexual attraction of a man and a woman is the whole starting point of civilization.  They want to spend time together so they form a little two-person society.  Then once they have children their little society expands and they stay together in a new way: as a family.  Karl Marx doesn’t care for this starting point.  Marx says Let us not begin our explanation, as does the economist, from a legendary primordial condition.  Such a primordial condition does not explain anything; it merely removes the question into a grey and nebulous distance.  But another writer, Rousseau, agrees with Hume.  Rousseau wrote that the most ancient of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of the family.  And Rousseau goes on to explain that children remain bound to the father only as long as they need him for self-preservation.  As soon as this need ceases the natural bond dissolves.  It’s true that most children leave home when they’re capable of taking care of themselves.  The question now becomes: what holds a society together if these little families which make up society keep dissolving every eighteen years or so?  Hume’s answer: property.  Why property?  Because human beings are frail.  According to Hume Man seems at first sight to have been treated more cruelly by nature than any of the other species of animal on this planet, because of the countless wants and necessities with which she has loaded him and the slender means she has given him for getting what he needs.  We need many things in order to survive: food, shelter and clothing for starters.  Hume notes that in other creatures, these two particulars (the needs and the means to satisfy them) generally match each other… The fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the creatures in the forests have everything they need in order to survive: gills and fins, wings and beaks, fur and claws.  The case of man is different: to observe a total mismatch we must look to the case of man. The food he needs for survival either runs away from him or requires his labor to be produced, and he has to have clothes and lodging to protect him from being harmed by the weather; and… he doesn’t have the weapons or the strength or any other natural abilities that match up to his enormous needs.  So how can such a weak and frail creature survive?  We survive best in a society with other human beings.  And for society to survive it must protect the concept of private property: this belongs to me, that belongs to you.  It may seem unfair sometimes that some people have so much and other people have so little.  But Hume thinks this is a good trade-off overall: Property must be stable, and must be fixed by general rules. Even if in one instance the public is a sufferer, this momentary ill is more than made up for by the peace and order that are established in society by steady adherence to the rule. This may sound like a defense of the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and needy.  But Hume believes everyone comes out better under this arrangement: every individual person must find himself a gainer, on balance, because without justice society would immediately dissolve,  driving everyone into the savage and solitary condition that is infinitely worse than the worst situation that can possibly be imagined in society.  This verdict may sound extreme.  Is the savage and solitary condition really worse than the worst situation can possibly be in society?  Yes, says Hume.  You don’t want to be out there in nature all by yourself.  Hume agrees with another English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who writes that outside of society life would soon become solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  And for Hume this is what life would be like if we didn’t in some way make private property the foundation of our concept of justice.

Friday, May 11, 2012

HUME: Of Justice and Injustice Section I

Shakespeare’s Othello brings up some tough questions concerning the nature of justice.  Othello and Iago both killed their wives but for very different reasons.  So even though they committed the same crime it doesn’t seem right for them to receive the same punishment.  But if society doesn’t hand out the same punishment then two questions come to mind: first, what kind of measuring stick do we use to determine what justice is?  And second, who gets to decide?  Maybe the English philosopher David Hume can help shed some light on these questions.  It’s not like Hume is the first philosopher to weigh in on the question of justice.  Some of our recent readings also talked about justice.  For example, if we ask who gets to decide, one clear answer is: let’s take a vote; majority rules.  But can justice be decided by whoever gets the most votes?  Actually Rousseau seems to say yes.  Justice is the General Will of the people.  It’s up to “the people” to decide what it is.  If you don’t agree with the General Will then you’re just mistaken in your view about justice.  On the other hand, Plato says definitely not, justice is never decided by taking a vote.  That’s not justice, that’s just mob rule.  Do you call what happened to Socrates justice?  Hume invites us to step back and reconsider what justice is.  Where does it come from?  What is its purpose?  Hume is a master at making us look at simple things, especially everyday obvious things, in a whole new way.  For example, Hume observes that we blame a father for neglecting his child.  Then he asks a very simple question: why?  What do you mean why?  That’s a dumb question.  Parents don’t neglect their children.  That’s why.  But Hume’s dumb question should begin to make us feel a little uneasy.  Think like a philosopher instead of a parent.  Let “father” be A and “child” be B.  Why do we assign blame to A for neglecting B?  What business is it of ours what A does?  And why should we care about B anyway?  Hume answers his own question: Because it shows a want of natural affection which is the duty of every parent.  This is a good answer, just the kind of argument most of us would make.  Parents should have “natural affection” for their own children.  Fine.  But what does all this have to do with justice?  Justice seems to have something to do with duty and obligation.  Hume has another example, a better one: suppose a man to have lent me a sum of money on condition that it be restored in a few days; and also suppose that after the expiration of the term agreed on he demands the money.  I ask: What reason or motive do I have to restore the money?  This is a classic Hume strategy: someone lends me money.  Why should I pay it back?  Hello, because it was a LOAN.  They didn’t just give you money to keep.  But Hume has already put the reader on the defensive with such a blunt question.  Why should I pay it back?  There are several good answers but Hume is more interested in examining reasons why (maybe) he shouldn’t pay the money back.  And he comes up with several good reasons: What if he’s my enemy and has given me just cause to hate him?  What if he’s a vicious man and deserves the hatred of all mankind?  What if he’s a miser and can make no use of the money I would deprive him of?  What if he’s a profligate debauchee and would receive harm (from the money)?  What if I be in necessity and have urgent motives to acquire something for my family?  We came to Hume looking for justice.  Now it seems like he’s destroying the foundations of justice itself.  But there’s a method to Hume’s madness.  Assume our original motive for repaying the loan is simply because it’s the right thing to do.  Hume says that in all these cases (stated above) the original motive to justice would fail, and consequently justice itself, along with all property, right, and obligation…  And he’s right.  If our motive for paying back money is just because “it’s the right thing to do” then Hume just gave five good reasons why paying back the money is NOT the right thing to do.  If we’re going to play philosophy we better have our thinking caps on.  We started out trying to answer the question: what is justice?  Hume wants us to think up a better answer.

Friday, May 04, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 5

As the curtain closes on Othello we’re left with unresolved issues still hanging.  That’s not because Shakespeare is a hack writer who doesn’t know how to successfully wrap up his plays with all the loose ends tied neatly together.  He could do that if he wanted to.  But then he really would be a hack writer.  Life rarely ties all its loose ends together like a Christmas present waiting for us underneath a tree.  We may believe that all questions have answers and all problems have solutions.  They do not.  In this play Iago destroys innocent people.  Why?  His answer: Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.   This is not the answer we want to hear but it’s the only answer we’re going to get from Iago.  What we know, we know.  No more, no less.  We’re left to struggle on our own with the ancient question of evil and its twin sister: Why do bad things happen to good people?  No one has ever fully explained why innocent people suffer.  They don’t deserve their fate but nevertheless they’re usually done in by one of two things: either by circumstance or by sheer evil.  “Circumstance” is when forces beyond human control take charge.  No one plotted against Oedipus, for example.  It was prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  That’s exactly what happened.  There was nothing Oedipus could do to prevent it.  There was nothing anyone could do to prevent it.  It was going to happen, period.  This is what the ancient Greeks called Fate.  Innocent people may suffer from a tornado or a car wreck or if they just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Fate (or circumstance) is simply against them.  There’s nothing we can do.  Evil, on the other hand, is the direct result of human interaction.  Then innocent people suffer at the hands of other people.  Iago is one of those other people.  He’s just plain evil.  (Another character like him is Claggert in Melville’s Billy Budd.)   Why do they take pleasure persecuting or destroying good and innocent people?  All Iago will tell us is What you know, you know.  He may not even know himself.  Of course there are some cases where innocent people destroy other innocent people.  Take Othello.  He honestly doesn’t know what he’s doing.  He loves Desdemona but believes he must kill her.  Does this make sense?  Not to us.  But it makes sense to Othello.  Iago makes Othello believe (unjustly) that Desdemona deserves to die.  In his own mind Othello is merely administering justice.  It’s a stern justice to be sure but Othello firmly BELIEVES that he’s doing the right thing.  This is in stark contrast to Iago who KNOWS he’s doing wrong.  So here’s a good test case: take two people.  Imagine they both commit the same crime.  Defendant A committed the crime but thought he was doing the right thing at the time.  Defendant B also committed the same crime but knew he was doing wrong.  Here’s the question: should they both receive the same punishment?   They both committed the same crime; it seems fair that they receive the same punishment.  But consider the case of Iago and Othello.  They both committed murder.  Given the context is it fair they both be punished in the same way?  We have two concepts going on here.  One is fairness; the other is justice.  Ok, so what is justice?  Here’s a start: some people believe the law should apply equally and fairly to everyone.  It should be the same whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, man or woman.  This makes sense and seems fair.  But other people might say: look, every situation is different.  Do you honestly think Iago and Othello both deserve the same punishment?   Justice should be tailored to fit the individual case.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.  That view seems reasonable too.  Some questions have no good answer.  But here we’ve found more than one answer; they just don’t agree.  We seem to be stuck somewhere between fairness and justice.  Now what?  Shakespeare knows life doesn’t come neatly packaged with easy answers.  So if you want a good play, read Shakespeare.  If you want to talk about justice and injustice, go read philosophy.  Up next: David Hume, philosopher.   

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 4

There’s an old bar joke that goes like this.  A man walks up to a well-dressed woman and says: would you sleep with me for $10,000?  The woman is a little taken aback but says: I’m not really… $10,000?... ok, sure.  Then the man says: will you do it for free?  And she replies: certainly not, what kind of woman do you think I am?  And the guy responds: we’ve already established that, now we’re just haggling over the price.  It’s an old joke.  It’s corny; it’s sexist; it’s bawdy.  Shakespeare would have loved it.  This kind of stuff is right down his alley.  The end of Act 4 of Othello has a masterpiece of a conversation specifically on this theme.  Desdemona and Emilia are discussing a song about infidelity.  Desdemona starts off the discussion like this: Oh, these men, these men!  Dost thou in conscience think (tell me, Emilia) That there be women do abuse their husbands…?  There’s a “translation” called No Fear Shakespeare that puts the question in modern language: Do you honestly think (tell me, Emilia) there are women who cheat on their husbands…?  Emilia informs her that there are indeed women in the world who cheat on their husbands.  Desdemona puts their little talk on more personal terms and asks: would you do it for all the world?  Emilia replies I wouldn’t do it for a nice ring, or fine linen, or pretty gowns or petticoats or hats. But for the whole world? Who wouldn’t cheat on her husband to make him king? I’d risk my soul for that.  Emilia is kind of like the woman in the old bar joke, but also not like her.  Emilia can be bought off but she’s not just haggling over price.  She actually has a fairly sophisticated philosophical argument that justifies infidelity.  In modern translation: a bad action is just wrong in this world, but when you’ve won the whole world, it’s a wrong in your own world, so you can make it right then.  In other words, who makes the rules about right and wrong?  Or put another way: what makes something right or wrong in the first place?  If I’m in charge do I get to decide for everyone?  These are all questions for philosophy and we’ll touch on this topic in our next reading by the philosopher David Hume (Of Justice and Injustice).  But within the context of this play infidelity is not a philosophical problem.  It’s a human dilemma.  And it’s filled with interesting speculations on sex, violence and money; topics which still thrill audiences all over the world.  In this play Emilia is the one who gets to do the speculating about why a woman might be unfaithful to her husband: For instance, our husbands may stop sleeping with us and give it out to other women instead. Or they may get insanely jealous and keep us from going anywhere. Or let’s say they hit us or cut back on the money they give us out of spite. This is the kind of talk that would get Chaucer’s Wife of Bath churning.  You can almost hear her wanting to jump in: Let me tell you about my five husbands!  Why, honey…  But Shakespeare isn’t Chaucer and Emilia isn’t the Wife of Bath.  Emilia doesn’t use such blunt language.  And besides, Emilia is more interested in the refined psychology of relationships between men and women.  The Wife of Bath has one goal: she wants to be in charge of her marriage.  Oh, and she wants lots of sex too.  Emilia has a much more modest goal.  She says: We (women) have feelings. We may be able to forgive our husbands but we want to get back at them too. Husbands need to know that their wives are human beings too.  Emilia may feel this way simply because she’s married to a man like Iago.  We can only imagine how the Wife of Bath and Iago would work things out if they were married.  You can almost hear her saying: give me back that handkerchief or I’ll kick you where you won’t be able to have sex for a month.  Or something even more blunt.  In short, the Wife of Bath knows what she wants from a man and she knows how to get it.  Emilia also knows what makes men tick: Why do they replace us with other women? Do they do it for fun? I think they do. Is it out of lust? I think so. Is it a weakness? It is.  Emilia and the Wife of Bath have been around the block once or twice.  Not so Desdemona.  She’s innocent as Eve in the Garden.  Like Eden, this story may not end well.