Unspeakable Authority: Platonic Dialogue and the Common Good


Wm. Travis Coblentz and Joel A. Schwartz

EPS Presentation – November 21, 2013

The common good is a popular term today in discussions concerning politics. The common good is held up as the ideal for which we should strive, and is often framed in ways of saying that if we all focused on the common good, then the political system would be so much better, so much more would get done, and conveniently, it would look a lot like I think it should. Instead of saying that it is a good thing for people not to starve, we think that our particular solution to that problem is the common good. However, while our particular solution may work in particular situations, it is very unlikely that the solution will best apply to all situations, and may actually be detrimental in certain situations. While we want to admit that the common good has authority, we also want to admit the complexity of the common good, particularly with regard to the situation we’re in. In this paper, we will offer, not so much an account of the common good, as much as an account of how we work toward the common good, looking at the role of dialogue in coming to understand the common good.

The authority of the common good is not something that is easily discovered. Karol Wojtyla frames an important part of the experience of being a human in terms of being a we.[1] A we is a collection of individuals striving toward the common good in a similar way. In order to discuss the common good, we have to look into the we, as each we is going to have a different common good depending on the composition of the we.

Two important factors about any formulation of the common good: 1) the common good never is achieved at the cost of the individual telos of a member of the we, 2) the common good is not merely a matter of the collection of goods of the individual members of the we. It is worth explaining these in more detail. Sometimes in discussions of the common good, we get so focused on a conception of the common good that we become willing to sacrifice particular individuals (or all individuals) in order to achieve that common good. We start to see individuals as interchangeable pieces of bringing about the common good. To appeal to the sci-fi fans out there, the Borg in Star Trek is a great example of this kind of picture. Each individual is not really concerned about his/her well-being, but only about the well-being of the collective. Additionally, Ray Kurzweil’s understanding of the Singularity is another picture of this misconception of the we. The common good will respect the good of each individual that makes up the we, refusing to require any single individual to sacrifice his/her own good for the sake of the whole.

As a side bar, it is worth noting that an individual may willingly make sacrifices for the common good. However, these sacrifices are not contrary to one’s own good, nor are they necessarily forced by the common good in the sense that one is begrudgingly forced to do them. Rather, if one is committed to the common good, one may be willing to make sacrifices, but it is not because one is forced, but that one sees that this common good is intimately connected with his/her own good, and is acting in a fitting way.

The second factor is one that seems common sensical, but is often how we think of the common good, particularly in a liberal democratic society, like the United States. We think that if everyone is enabled to achieve their own individual good, then something like the common good has been achieved. However, this is not what is going on with the common good, although it is a part of it. The problem with this picture is that it ignores the reality of the connectedness of individuals in order to reach their own goods. To think that as long as I am achieving my good and so are you the common good is reached misses that part of being human is not the reluctant need I have of others to get what I want, but the essential inclusion of others in the fulfillment of who I am as a person, and not just their inclusion, but the fulfillment of their good as well. Reducing the common good to the good of separate individuals is incorrect as well. We need to understand that we are meaningfully connected to one another, and that we want the we’s of which we are a part to grow and reach their fulfillment as wholes as well as individuals, as the we is more than just the sum or the individuals in the we, yet it does not come at the reduction of any of the individuals of the we.

So the common good must recognize that the we is both a collection of individuals, but these individuals have meaningful connections to one another, as they are working together to bring about this common good that is related to them. The most basic example of a we is the family, as the members of the family are all committed to the good of the family which cannot be reduced to each member reaching his/her own good unless that good is connected to the good of each other. This connected good does not look like a focus on any particular good, but the good of the whole, as everyone is working for the good of everyone else.

In this sense, the common good is not merely concerned with correct action at the end of the day, but about forming people in a way that helps them develop toward their good. While it is possible to get people to do all the right actions, this may seem like a good, but if people are not being formed in a way that moves them toward their good, it is possibly detrimental to them actually becoming good.

When parents are raising children, they have a picture of the common good from which they are working. The goal of this parenting is not to merely produce right action, but to help the children see and understand the good themselves so that they can act in accordance with that good toward the fulfillment of that good. The question is two fold: 1) Is the common good of the family something the parents can dictate to their children, or is it something that the parents are also seeking to understand? 2) How do parents help their children understand the good?

These questions do not merely apply the parent/child relationship but to any relationship of a we when it comes to understanding the common good. In many we relationships, there appear to be certain people who are likely to have a better understanding of the common good than others.  When talking about the common good, is it something that can be dictated to others or are all continually seeking to understand it? If it is something that we are all continually seeking to understand, then no one stands in the position to have complete understanding of the common good. This does not mean that some do not have better understanding of the common good than others. For instance, we would claim that more often than not, parents are in a better position to understand the common good of the family more than children are. This does not mean that the parents have complete understanding of the common good, rather, that they are able to move toward that good more easily because they have a fuller understanding of it. However, they cannot have the complete and final say of that common good because the good of the children and of the entire family must be factored into any decisions about the common good. The parents must carefully consider the complex relation of the good of the whole, the good of each parent and the good of each child in moving toward that good.

Many children are incapable of such a complex approach to the world and are usually able to focus, at least initially, on only one of those goods, often the good of themselves. The parents must have all those goods in mind, while also acknowledging that the individuals within the we are all developing and growing such that the specific responses to the good will vary over time, such that there is no way to conclusively articulate what that good is. The common good is guiding them in their understanding, such that they cannot stand above the common good and dictate it to the children, rather, they work with the children, leading the way.

So if parents are unable to conclusively speak to the good of the we, how can we expect children to learn the common good for themselves? An explanation of the common good may be a starting point, but the explanation is that which is incapable of complete explanation. Using the idea of perceiving the good, we can talk about sharing perceptions of the good, even if we cannot articulate precisely what that is. Instead, we must learn to see what the other sees when perceiving the common good. We must learn to shape our perceptions so that we not just see the common good in the same way, but see it correctly together.

In that sense, those with a better understanding may be able to offer others ways of acting toward their own good, but the good is found in the other actually seeing the good as good for themselves and acting accordingly. In the family, the parents could decide what the good of the family is going to be without consideration of the children, but that would fail to be the common good because it would not be concerned with the good for each individual in that we, but would be concerned with how the parents wanted the we to look. It is possible that those could line up, but very unlikely, as each member’s own good must play a role in the discussion of the good of the we. Additionally, there is something about the common good that is beyond any individual’s good, and so reducing it to what any individual human wants is difficult for it to be an actual good and one that is truly beyond any individual’s good.

How can we shape our perceptions in this way? How can I come to see what you are seeing? Recently, there has been a renewed discussion of the moral psychology at work in our understanding of the good, from thinkers like Anscombe and Murdoch to Wojtyla and Brewer. However, we can go back much further and see this moral psychology at work. Many of Plato’s dialogues are asking these questions just beneath the surface. Let us now consider how Plato explains the way we come to see that which cannot be said together.

Plato is not one to go on long rants about the common good, though we see questions of justice and virtue as holding a central position in his works.  In fact, we see entire works, such as Laws, Crito, Republic, and so forth that are dedicated to questions about the good of society, and so also the good of the individual in relation to society.  But we are not looking to Plato for an answer to what the common good is.  Primarily, because that would involve a pretty serious inconsistency with the first half of this paper, but also, only slightly less importantly, because this, as we will argue, is inconsistent with Plato’s goals in his works.

In this part of the paper, we will be attempting to show first that Plato is less concerned about passing on doctrine than he is about passing on the desire and activity of philosophy.  And, second, we will be attempting to flesh out the nature of this philosophical activity that Plato desires to show us.  Then, we will show how Plato’s pursuit of philosophy, that is, Plato’s dialectic, relates to the pursuit of the common good.

So, first, Plato did not want to convince us of a set of doctrines, but rather is encouraging us to become philosophers.  Likely, most would respond that this disjunction is not exclusive, but inclusive.  I believe Plato sees it as exclusive.

Let us get some throat-clearing out of the way.  The classical approach to dating Plato’s texts as early, middle, and late has been an important corollary to discerning a Platonic doctrine.  But the attempts at dating Plato’s dialogues has found strong, I think even fatal, criticism in a variety of works, most notably the article by Jacob Howland entitled “Re-reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology.”[2]  Dating Plato’s works has allowed interpreters to take the dialogues that end in aporia, that is an awareness of one’s ignorance, and move them to the early, still kind of naïve, Plato.  And then move the more constructive works, like the Republic, Timaeus, Laws, etc., and move them to the late-middle and late works.  But since the process of dating is essentially circular, we find that we are looking back down the well of history of philosophy and seeing our own reflection.

It may be that Plato saw all of his works as integral pieces of a whole.  How then shall we interpret them?  There have been a variety of approaches, the most intriguing perhaps being that of Catherine Zuckert,[3] which involves reading them in their dramatic order, which ironically takes the Laws, which according to the general view has been considered the latest, and makes it the first.

But no matter our approach, we cannot simply write off the aporetic dialogues as a kind of prolegomena, clearing out the trash before Plato gives us all the right answers.  Rather, given that aporia appears throughout the time line and even throughout the various dialogues in a multitude of ways, we should be perhaps see the experience of aporia as a key part of Plato’s goal in his writings.

We will not cover the whole gamut of Plato’s works.  Others have made similar arguments for a variety of Plato’s works, including Francisco Gonzalez,[4] Anne-Marie Schultz,[5] Drew Hyland,[6] as well as Howland, Zuckert, and others.  For this paper, we will be focusing in on one dialogue, the Meno, in order to better show what is taking place in the interaction.

The Meno is a dialogue about virtue.  It begins with Meno asking Socrates is virtue can be taught.  It ends with the conclusion that virtue is not knowledge, it seems to lack the warrant piece of knowledge, and so is simply right opinion.  And teachableness and warrant seem to be in a bi-conditional relationship.  Being virtuous is a gift of change or of the gods.  Of course, immediately after coming to this conclusion, Socrates says essentially the following, “But if someone could teach virtue…”  Casting us into aporia right at the end.  Is this really the correct conclusion?

Though the beginning and end of the dialogue relate to the teachableness of virtue, a good portion of the dialogue deals with the nature of virtue itself.  True to his form, Socrates demands to know from Meno what virtue itself is—the (in)famous Socrates question: “What is X?”.  And true to the form of most of Plato’s dialogues, Meno haughtily sets forth his erudite answers and Socrates handily exposes their failure.

But a couple situations arise that are of particular note.  The first is that Socrates gives us the kind of answer he wants to the “What is X?” question.  Socrates does not give us this proper kind of answer to the virtue question but to the question: “What is shape?”  Socrates prefaces this by talking about how we might answer someone who asks us what shape is.  We might say “roundness is shape.”  And our interlocutor would likely respond, “Is roundness shape or a  shape?”  We’d say “a shape” and our interlocutor would sagely declare that we have not said what shape itself is.  This whole discussion is, of course, a criticism of how Meno was answering Socrates’ “What is virtue?” question.

So, Socrates says what shape itself is in 75b: “[S]hape is that which alone of existing things always follows color.”[7]  He immediately follows this with “I should be satisfied if you defined virtue in this way.”

Meno is quick to criticize Socrates’ answer, and rightfully so it seems.  Socrates is not defining what shape itself is.  He is describing an attribute of shape, if I may torture language a bit, he is simply saying what shape does, not what it is in itself.[8]  Meno’s criticism though is slightly less to the point.  He calls the answer foolish and says, “Well then, if someone were to say that he did not know what color is, but that he had the same difficulty as he had about shape, what do you think your answer would be?” (75c).

Socrates’ answer is telling.  He says, perhaps ironically at first

A true one, surely, and if my questioner was one of those clever and disputatious debaters, I would say to him: ‘I have given my answer; if it is wrong, it is your job to refute it.’  Then, if they are friends as you and I are, and want to discuss with each other, they must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion.  By this I mean that the answers must not only be true, but in terms admittedly known to the questioner.  I too will try to speak in these terms (75c-d).

Socrates suggests first that Meno is speaking like a “disputatious debater” and that they should speak in terms admittedly known to one another.  Meno asking what color is is the act of a debater, not someone seeking knowledge.  But this is a strange thing for Socrates to say.  For, though Meno does not sound particularly intelligent in his critique of Socrates, his question is beginning to get to the idea that Socrates has not really answered the “What is shape?” question.  For whatever shape is, it must be something beyond or beneath these secondary properties.  And if anything is a secondary property, it is color.

Socrates gives a second answer to what shape is, which does not really fare much better.  Meno allows him this second answer and moves on to ask Socrates what color is.  And Socrates offers him an answer that is more to his taste: “[c]olor is an effluvium from shapes which fits the sight and is perceived” (76d).  Meno praises this answer, and Socrates responds: “It is a theatrical answer so it pleases you, Meno, more than that about shape…It is not better,…but I am convinced that the other is.”

But clearly, depending on how you define “effluvium,” this definition of color is far superior to that of the definition of shape.  Primarily, because it seems to be describing what color itself is.  It answers the “What is color?” question.

Why, then, does Socrates offer his answer about shape as the better way to answer the “What is X?” question?  Perhaps because his goal is to show that the “What is X?” question cannot be answered propositionally.  It is something one must perceive in some way that cannot be described wholly in language.  And in reading the definition of shape and that of color, we can envision what he means when he talks about shape, but the definition of color is less a recognition of color itself, and more a recognition of fancy words that make one feel particularly smart in hearing them.  But the goal is not to recognize words, but to recognize the thing itself.

Evidence abounds in the dialogues that gives warrant for this interpretation.  But we will look at this second episode of note in the Meno to see if there is evidence: the famous interaction between Socrates and the slave boy.  This scene is famous for serving as evidence of the doctrine of recollection.  But there is an important failure in this discussion that shows that perhaps the “What is X?” question is unanswerable in language, but must involve some sort of perception.  Socrates begins by asking the boy the length of the side of a square that is double the area of a two by two square.  The boy immediately gives what seems the most rational answer: Four.  This is shown to be wrong.  Having reached a state of mild aporia, he then answers in the only rational way he can think of: Three.  Socrates once again shows this to be the wrong answer.  The boy has reached full aporia.  Socrates asks Meno: “Have we done him any harm by making him perplexed and numb as the torpedo fish does?” (84b).  Meno agrees in this case that aporia is not a bad thing.

Socrates then helps the slave to “remember” the answer, the slave gets the answer right, and, voila, we have proof of recollection.  Kind of.  The primary problem with this is that the slave never answers the question.  In fact, he really cannot answer the question.  Because, as Socrates and Plato would have well known, the answer is an irrational number: the square root of eight.[9]  It is a number that cannot be reduced to a fraction, a number that is a non-repeating infinite decimal.  “Square root of eight” is a shortcut.  But the slave does not even give that answer.  He simply recognizes which line is the right line.  All the rational, sayable answers end in failure, in aporia.  But the goal is recognition.

If the “What is X?” question concerning the most important matters of life, like the Good, the Beautiful, the Noble, the Virtuous, even the common good, cannot be answered propositionally, but only recognized, then we can have no knowledge of these things.  At our best, we have true belief, and these things cannot be taught.

But, just as Socrates hints at the end of the Meno that perhaps someone can teach it, so we are not left in perpetual aporia.  What must take place is that first our clear, rational answers must be shown to be insufficient, like the answers of Meno and of his slave.  Then, because those rational signs have been moved away, we can come to recognize what really is.  This approach by no means suggests a kind of deconstructionism, for we always see Socrates praising rational dialogue, and warning against becoming haters of rational argument.[10]

Application to the Common Good

So, the characteristics of the method of philosophy as carried out by Socrates, as an example of Platonic dialectic, has at its core the non-propositional, and therefore unknowable, nature of ultimate reality.  In Plato’s case, the forms, and the form of forms, the Good/Beautiful.  Two practical implications arise out of this:

First, because no one can grasp what the Good is through propositions, one is always left in the position of pursuing it.  Since no definition is ever sufficient to what the Good is, so no one can settle and feel as if they have finished the pursuit of this question.  One can always learn, and arguably this takes place primarily through critical, yet friendly, dialogue, in which the goal is not to win but to learn.  And the reason we can always learn from essentially anyone is because our propositions are never sufficient to what we are talking about.

The second practical implication relates to teaching.  One can become enamored with erudite definitions and for that very reason become incapable of recognizing the Good.  The goal in interaction with anyone is arguably an attempt to develop a shared conception of some good that undergirds any definition we can form.

When we come together with the purpose of recollecting together about that which everyone, even the lowliest, uneducated slave, is capable of recognizing, then we have set ourselves up for real dialogue.  We can only pursue the common good, the good of the we, through this kind of dialogue.  We must do this as friends, with the recognition that we are all seeking some good, no matter how confused we might be.  This beginning assumption of friendship arises by granting the benefit of the doubt to others—specifically, to grant to even those who seem utterly evil that they have the capacity to recognize good when they see it.  Like the slave, they simply have grasped after what seem to be rational answers.  So, too, we when we grasp after what seem to be sufficient answers blind ourselves to the common good and so write off those who disagree as malicious and/or hopelessly evil.  It is possible that this is the case, but that is something that must be discovered, not assumed due to disagreement.

The common good is modified in accordance with the modification of the we.  And the we will always be changing.  Further, it includes the goods of each individual in harmony with one another and the whole.  Thus, pursuit of the common good requires dialogue, the necessary conditions for which we have outlined, but which can be summed up in a single commandment: We must speak with one another as if we are all under the authority of the good, and never its master.


[1] The following brief summary of Wojytla’s understanding of the we is developed largely from The Acting Person, (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), and these articles: “Thomistic Personalism,” in Person and Community: Selected Essays.  Vol. 4 of Catholic Thought from Lublin, edited by Andrew N. Woznicki, (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 165–175; “Participation or Alienation?” in Person and Community, 197-207; “The Dignity of the Human Person,” in Person and Community, 176-180; and “Subjectivity and the Irreducable in the Human Being,” in Person and Community, 209-217.

[2] Howland, Jacob. “Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology.” Phoenix 45, no. 3 (October 1, 1991): 189–214.  See also Catherine H. Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues, 1st ed. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2009), 3-5.

[3] Catherine H. Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues, 1st ed. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2009)

[4] Francisco J. Gonzalez, Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998).

[5] Anne-Marie Schultz, Plato’s Socrates as Narrator: A Philosophical Muse (New York: Lexington Books, 2013).

[6] Drew A. Hyland, Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995).

[7] All quotations from Plato come from Plato, Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).

[8] Francisco Gonzalez shows clearly the failure of Socrates’ answers about shape to answer the kind of question he asked of Meno about virtue.  Specifically, Socrates asked Meno not to speak about virtue in terms of its attributes, but to tell him exactly what it is, and yet Socrates’ example of the right kind of answer does not answer what shape is, but rather only says something about how it appears.  See Francisco J. Gonzalez, Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry, 159ff.

[9] 2.828427247461900976033774484194…

[10] See, for example, Phaedo 89c-e and Meno 86b-c.

Lanier and Shirky: Bringing Together the Posts

Here is an easy spot to find the links to all of my posts on Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.

Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget

Chapter 1: Missing Persons

Chapter 2: An Apocalypse of Self-Abdication

Chapter 3: The Noosphere Is Just Another Name for Everyone’s Inner Troll

Chapter 4: Digital Peasant Chic

Chapter 5: The City Is Built to Music

Chapter 6: The Lords of the Clouds Renounce Free Will to Become Infinitely Lucky

Chapter 7: The Prospects for Humanistic Cloud Economics

Chapter 8: Three Possible Future Directions

Chapters 9 and 10: Retropolis and Digital Creativity Eludes Flat Places

Chapter 11: All Hail the Membrane

Chapters 12 and 13: I Am a Contrarian Loop and One Story of How Semantics Might Have Evolved

Chapter 14: Home at Last/Future Humors

Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody

Chapter 1: It Takes a Village to Find a Phone

Chapter 2: Sharing Anchors Community

Chapter 3: Everyone Is a Media Outlet

Chapter 4: Publish, Then Filter

Chapter 5: Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production

Chapter 6: Collective Action and Institutional Challenges

Chapters 7 and 8: Faster and Faster Solving Social Dilemmas

Chapters 9 and 10: Fitting Our Tools to a Small World and Failure for Free

Chapter 11: Promise, Tool, Bargain

Privacy’s Threat to the Self

In “Privacy and the Threat to the Self,” this past weekend’s New York Times Opinionator piece, Michael P. Lynch discusses the importance of privacy in one coming to be an autonomous self. After briefly discussing his view, I want to offer a counterpoint that highlights the danger of privacy to the self.

Lynch explains his view of the autonomous person:

[T]o be an autonomous person is to be capable of having privileged access…to information about your psychological profile — your hopes, dreams, beliefs and fears. A capacity for privacy is a necessary condition for your autonomous personhood.

While he offers some concerns about the loss of privacy and the threat to political freedom, I want to focus on his discussion of how the loss of privacy threatens the self in a moral sense. He offers a thought experiment where I know all of your thoughts telepathically whether you consent or not. He says:

From my perspective, the perspective of the knower — your existence as a distinct person would begin to shrink. Our relationship would be so lopsided that there might cease to be, at least to me, anything subjective about you. As I learn what reactions you will have to stimuli, why you do what you do, you will become like any other object to be manipulated. You would be, as we say, dehumanized.

I understand what Lynch is attempting to do in offering this warning. If it were possible for someone to share your subjective experience of the world totally and completely, that person would have significant control over you. While I don’t find that assumption to be an actual possibility (at least at a level where those things could be known conclusively), there are people in our lives who do have substantial knowledge about the reactions we have to stimuli and why we do what we do. For instance, my wife knows me very well and has knowledge of my psychological workings, sometimes with insight beyond what I realize about myself. Yet, she doesn’t manipulatively use this knowledge against me to her selfish advantage (at least not to my knowledge). What is keeping her from doing this? Is it the fact that I have similar knowledge and insight about her and we live at a truce to prevent mutual destruction? Or is there something more going on here?
I think the difference between Lynch’s manipulative omnipotent person and my wife is that my wife loves me and wants what is best for me. Because she has insight about me that I may fail to have about myself, she is able to understand what I need in order to be fulfilled as a person. If left to myself, I would miss this insight and understanding when trying to reach for my fulfillment, leading me somewhere other than to my own true good. This additional knowledge held by someone who loves me allows me to be directed toward my own true good. If I were to strive to live in the level of privacy that would prevent anyone from having that kind of knowledge about me, I would be striving for something less than my own true good.
Being a new parent has started to drive this home for me. Now that I have a son, I find myself thinking about how to be an effective parent. As I watch him grow, I’ve started to realize certain things about him, things that he likes, dislikes, how he responds to certain situations, etc. I understand my dad telling me how when I was a child, he was able to accurately predict what I would do because he knew me and had figured out what I was thinking. My dad could have used that to manipulate me in a dehumanizing way, but instead, he used that knowledge to help me become a better person.
Karol Wojtyla speaks of participatory relationships to help us understand our selves better as well as helping the other in the development of his/herself. As we share life with one another, we are able to start to understand what it means for that other person to be who he/she is. This also includes understanding how the other person sees us, giving us insight into our selves that we may naturally overlook without that perspective. Yet, if we are intentional about only revealing the parts of us we want to be known, it will be difficult for others to be able to help us form our selves in the way they need to be formed.
While I agree with Lynch that there is danger in someone having a level of knowledge about you that involves a loss of privacy, I offer a danger in not having someone in your life with that level of knowledge about you. In Lynch’s case, the danger is found in the person not looking out for your best interests, as that can lead to dehumanizing thoughts or actions caused by the other person. From my perspective, the danger is found in being left to yourself to actualize your true good. Without people in your life who may see and understand how you work as well or better than you do yourself, you may be left to strive for something far less than you should.
We need people in our life who help us strive for our fulfillment as persons. If we are focused on privacy as a moral good, we’ll miss the fullness of our persons in community and friendship with others. When it comes at the loss of true friendship and community, knowing and being truly known, privacy is truly a threat to the self.

Don’t call it a comeback. Seriously, don’t. Because it probably isn’t.

In an ideal world, this post would be the beginning of a comeback. Not only would I be telling you exactly what I will be posting on in the upcoming weeks and months, but I would actually do it. After one semester of being a full time faculty member, I have realized that making such a post would likely be one of hasty and blind optimism.

Having completed my first semester as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Berry College, I have a deepened respect for my professors, especially during my experience at Bethel. Teaching 4 intro level classes is exhausting, but fulfilling. I constantly felt like I was drowning in grading and/or lesson prep, but I loved nearly every minute of it. I realized just how much work being a professor at a small liberal arts college can be, and how freely my professors at Bethel gave of their time that helped make me the man that I am today. I have offered apologies for unscheduled office visits and lengthy conversations, albeit 10 years after the fact. Because of the way I have been shaped as a person, I can think of no better way of repaying them by trying to do the same with my students.

I do have plans to return to the Privacy series in the spring, although it will probably be more in the way of discussing specific ideas rather than as a cohesive series. I will also be teaching an Intro to Christian Ethics course on the Seven Deadly Sins, which I anticipate will generate a few posts as well. I’ve also been doing some more thinking on what role, if any, human rights can play in shaping us into more moral people. Hopefully some of those thoughts will make it on here as well. I also hope to offer some thoughts on different media, both as a review and critique. Lastly, with the coming of our first child this spring, there may start to be some posts about parental responsibilities, trying to start to figure out this whole parenting thing, even if from a theoretical, philosophical perspective, searching for what it means to be wise as a parent. (Of course, this too may lead to the end of the blog with his birth.)

For now, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

“Private Eyes Are Watching You” – Part Five

In the last post, I demonstrated that when forced to choose, it seems like many people prefer the feeling of privacy over privacy itself.  In this post I will consider what the benefits of privacy are, as well as the benefits of feeling that one has privacy.

Privacy has benefits in many areas of our lives.  As individuals, privacy allows us the freedom to act without influence of an audience that might change the way we act.  In relationships, privacy allows us to express intimate details and parts of our lives to others such that only the intended audience is part of the exchange, a sharing that is natural and arguably essential to the growing and development of a relationship.  At the heart of nearly every benefit of privacy is the idea of knowledge and experiences being shared with only intended participants, excluding the unintended from being a part of the knowledge or experience. There is a sense of appropriateness in the benefits of privacy, for only the appropriate parties are privied to the experience or knowledge.

When discussing these benefits, I am thinking of situations where these benefits are used toward the betterment of the individuals or relationships.  However, as the benefits are presently stated, they can also be used to the detriment of the individual or relationship.  In a relationship, claiming privacy in a relationship keeps others from intruding in on the relationship in a way that could prevent the development of the relationship, for the presence of those without a commitment to the relationship might prevent intimacy from occurring between the members of the relationship.  However, the claim of privacy may also be used to prevent others from seeing the detrimental activity of a relationship.  For instance, two friends could claim privacy in order to prevent others from finding out about their nefarious scheme.  It is true that scheming together may increase the intimacy and connection the two friends share, yet, it seems that this is not a healthy intimacy and connection to be shared between two individuals.

We can imagine the similar problems claiming privacy can cause for a single individual.  While privacy allows an individual the freedom to develop without concern of the opinions and input of others, it also allows the freedom to act in ways detrimental to one’s well being.  I can claim privacy and alleviate my concern of being observed by others which allows me to scheme in a way that leads to me to doing something detrimental to my well being, when I may not even be aware of the negative effects it is having on my well being.

It seems that the same things that lead to benefits in privacy can also lead to negative consequences.  The freedom to act and develop can be used for good and for bad.  One must ask if there is a way that we can cling to the benefits of privacy without opening ourselves up to the negative consequences.  (Again, remember that I am speaking of privacy in a moral sense, not a legal sense.)  I will address this possibility in the next post.

“Private Eyes Are Watching You” – Part Four

In the past two posts, I put forth two situations, and you have to choose one of them.  In the first situation, you are always observed intimately, but remain unaffected by the observation and never learn about the observation.  In the second situation, you think you are always observed intimately, but in reality, no one is watching you at all.  In this post I’m exploring why someone would pick one option over the other.

Before exploring this, I’ll admit that the situation is asking you to remove yourself from your situation and make a decision for yourself that requires the you for whom you are making the decision to be unaware of the truth of the situation.  There is something to this that seems a bit weird, for you can’t actually remove yourself from the situation.  While this may be problematic for the thought experiment (in a way that is similar to the problematic nature of the Rawlsian original position), please continue to play along.

I’ve presented this dilemma to nearly 100 students and over 95 of them have picked the first option, that is, the option where they’re spied upon but have no idea that it is happening.

The small handful of people who have chosen the second option claim that they would eventually get used to having cameras around all the time and would eventually be able to live their lives without concern.  It is interesting to note that these students were performance majors of some sort.  Those who spend more time performing are less bothered by the idea of being watched (even when in actuality they are not being watched).

However, the most popular answer was that people would prefer to be unknowingly observed.  When asked why, the consensus seems to be that when forced, people would rather give up their privacy than give up their feeling of privacy.  Now we can imagine other or compatible reasons why people would choose this option, but at the heart of it, nearly every reason has the desire to feel like one has privacy being more important than having privacy itself.

Why do people want to feel like they have privacy?  Why is this feeling more prized than the privacy itself?  Is the desire to feel like one has privacy a good thing?  In the future posts, I will be arguing that there are good reasons to desire the feeling of privacy (and privacy itself) as well as bad reasons.

“Private Eyes Are Watching You” – Part Three

In the previous part of this series, I laid out the first situation of a thought experiment, where you are being constantly observed throughout your entire life, but are completely unaware and unaffected by this observation.

Now I want to lay out the second situation of the thought experiment.

Imagine you live in a controlled environment, like a biodome.  Due to some horrific situation, you are unable to ever leave the biodome, but it is a huge technological marvel that is the size of a small planet, so it doesn’t feel like you’re confined to a limited space at all.  Now imagine that everywhere you look, you see cameras capturing every angle, and on each camera, the little red light is on, letting you know that is recording.  Additionally, there are small, highly sensitive microphones everywhere you go, that can capture every sound made, even the sound of your breathing.  However, unbeknownst to you, the cameras are not actually recording, the microphones are not plugged in, there is no video feed going anywhere.  The cameras and microphones are simply props, made to look like they’re working, when in reality, they’re not doing anything at all.

The big question worth considering is if this situation is a violation of one’s privacy.  I will admit that to the person living there, it would definitely feel like privacy is violated.  However, the situation is clear that no one is actually seeing anything that is happening through the cameras and microphones.

In response to this question, some of my students responded that one’s mental well-being is violated by the constant feeling of being observed, and part of privacy is one’s mental well-being.  So privacy is being violated.  However, if one’s mental well-being is a part of privacy, we run into a problem when we consider the paranoid man.  A paranoid man may live his life in a state of constant concern that he’s being observed.  One may argue that the paranoid man does not have reason to think he’s being constantly observed while those in the biodome do.  Yet, if we asked the paranoid man, he would be able to give us good reasons (at least to him) as to why he thinks he’s being observed all the time.

This would likely lead to a discussion of what counts as a good reason for holding a belief.  One could argue that the paranoid man’s reasons are false, even if he finds them to be good reasons.  The same critique could be leveled against those in the biodome, as it is not the presence of the cameras and microphones themselves that lead one to be paranoid, but the belief that they are recording one’s actions and words.

Looking at this situation, it seems difficult to argue that one’s privacy is actually being violated.  It may feel that one’s privacy is violated, but I don’t see how it can be argued that it is actually violated.  Is there something I’m overlooking here?

In the next part, I’ll complete the thought experiment by examining which of the two situations we are more likely to choose for ourselves if forced to choose.

“Private Eyes Are Watching You” – Part Two

In the previous part, I set up some basic parameters to discussions of the right to privacy, particularly that I’m discussing the moral right to privacy that is independent legal concerns. (If you missed it, go back and read it.  Even if you read it, the music video posted makes another visit worthwhile.)

In this part, I’m giving the first part of a thought experiment.  (To the non-philosophers, thought experiments involve hypothetical situations that are intended to show us a problem or inconsistency with one’s stated view.) Taken together with the next part of the series, these situations are intended to make us evaluate what we mean by privacy and what we want when we say we want privacy.

In this first situation, someone has managed to put you under constant surveillance, such that everything you do is seen by this person, everything you say is heard by this person, and this person can see/hear all of your communication with others.  The good, the bad, the public, the intimate, this person sees and hears all.  This person has devoted his life to watching your every move.  This person is an extremely gifted spy and is never detected, nor does he do anything to raise even the slightest suspicion that he is watching you.  However, this person has no malicious intent in the constant surveillance; he just enjoys watching your life.  He never exposes anything discovered about you, nor does he use your identity for any purpose at all.  He doesn’t do anything to influence any of your actions; he just watches.  You never know that you’re being watched, from birth to death, and when you die, this person moves on to do something else with his life, never indicating that he’s spent the last however many years just watching your life.

It seems that this situation is an obvious abuse of one’s right to privacy, even though one never knows that one’s right is being abused.  I think we can all agree that one doesn’t have to know that one’s rights are being abused in order for them to be abused.  Remember, we’re talking about moral rights, not legal rights.  If legal rights cannot be enforced, there is reason to question if they actually exist.  However, with moral rights, a lack of recognition or enforcement does not mean they fail to exist.

Any other thoughts on why this is an abuse of rights is welcome.

In the next part, I’ll present the second situation of this thought experiment.

“Private Eyes Are Watching You” – Part One

This past semester I taught a class on the ethics of human rights.  One of the more interesting discussions took place concerning the right to privacy.  Today I’m starting a series of  weekly(?) posts that will discuss what exactly is meant by the right to privacy, in part, by looking at a set of thought experiments, which will be discussed in following posts.

Yes, the title of this series comes from the classic Hall and Oates song, “Private Eyes”.  (Make sure you get the hand claps correct as you watch this classic from the 80s.)

A couple words to help clarify what I mean by human rights in these posts.  I am referring to moral human rights, that is, rights that are held by all people whether or not there is a legal recognition of these rights.  These rights should play some role in how we treat one another in interpersonal relationships, as individuals and groups of individuals. The focus is not on whether or not these rights can be put into legislation or what it would look like if they were put into legislation.  These rights are independent of any legal rights and do not require any kind of legal recognition in order for humans to have these rights.

While typically a good philosopher would define terms upfront, in these posts, I’m going to intentionally hold off on defining “privacy”, in part, because the forthcoming thought experiments will help us to be clear on what privacy does and does not entail.  (One may also infer that I am not defining the terms because I am not a good philosopher.  However, I will leave that up to the reader to decide.)

Lastly, these posts will be more interesting the more people comment on them, so please engage in the discussion.  These thought experiments have generated significant discussion with every group I’ve presented them to, and I hope they do the same with you guys.

Some Reflections on a Recently Defended Dissertation

Yesterday was a day I had anticipated for many years.  I successfully defended my dissertation, Toward a Richer Account of Human Rights in Christian Moral Theory: From Wolterstorff and Hauerwas to Wojtyla.

This process has led to some reflection on the path to here.  Jim Stump told me as a freshman that I wrote like a philosopher and should consider a philosophy major.  (Granted, he tells that to about 90% of his students, but that’s beside the point.)  That day I started down a long path, and yesterday was an important milestone on that path.

That path has led through Mishawaka, Indiana (Bethel College), Athens, Ohio (Ohio University), and Waco, Texas (Baylor University).  While I don’t know where the next step will be, I don’t regret being on this path, through the ups and downs.

While many things are the same as they were at the beginning of the dissertation process, many have changed.  When I started the project, I was a clean shaven man with passable eyesight.  At the completion, I am a bearded man with glasses.  However, many philosophers I respect have facial hair and glasses, so I think I’m in good company.  When I started the project, my wife was employed at Baylor.  At the completion, she’s completed a master’s degree in speech language pathology and is within weeks of being licensed.

I feel like I’m in the midst of some kind of grieving with this project finally coming to its completion.  The past three years have been ordered around the dissertation (and all the various redirections that have taken place).  While I am rejoicing in the completion of the project, there is a sense of uncertainty, as I will be relearning what it is like to live without a dissertation.  It is something I’m looking forward to relearning.

In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be presenting at a couple conferences and plan to return to the blog with some of the ideas in the dissertation, the ideas discussed in those conference papers, moments in teaching, and some initial thoughts I have on the application of some themes within my dissertation.

However, those posts will not start today.  Today is a day of celebration, of celebrating the completion of significant accomplishments and future possibilities!