The smile on my face is because...

....I’m enjoying a song sent to me by Kevin Denton of the band The Crooners. He wrote it while struggling with grief over a friend and bandmate's death, and after reading my article about happiness on the Arts and Letters website (but originally in Philosophy Now). You can hear so many things in it …. I'll let the connections speak for themselves. The band has a really great sound too which you'll discover if you listen here.


Yesterday, you should have seen,
offer that was made for me to get in this machine.
A little man he promised me that I would have the chance to be
as happy as can be, oh c'est la vie.

I looked at him with trepidation,
's science and illumination checked out ok.
All he'd do is say the word and I'd be up, free as a bird
in my own mind, yeah some of the time.

Meditation and medication,
this transcendental education has come to pass.
There's come to be a disconnect where love and mem'ry intersect.
You've vanished like two ships in the night.

Oh Happiness isn't all I guess it's cracked up to be,
Life is Bittersweet.
And oh, I've come to find its hard all the time.

Here I am in hot pursuit, though I know the point is moot,
There's nothing can be done.
Up and down it comes and goes, oh happiness yeah no one knows
how to pin you down, or to keep you around.

This old man that I heard mumble,
"just try to steer and try not to stumble" got me thinkin' hard.
God's not here and I don't miss em, where was he when you went missing?
I don't believe he's looking out for me.

Oh Happiness isn't all I guess it's cracked up to be,
Life is Bittersweet.
And oh, I've come to find its hard all the time.

I'm still smiling.


Rats are people too

I saw the movie Ratatouille over the weekend and loved it. I think it's my favorite cartoon of the last 10 years...though Ice Age was really good too. The movie could be seen as making a serious point about animal rights. No, I don't think it means to, but it reminds me of something the late philosopher James Rachels says.

It's really downright irrational to respond to an animal by saying "it's just a rat" or "it's just an animal," Rachels points out. Surely, the important thing is what the animal is actually like. For example, he says, what if a very unusual chimpanzee was smart enough to go to Harvard. Wouldn't it be ridiculous for the entrance committee to reject him just because he's a chimpanzee, not a human being?

Ditto, in the movie. A highly unusual rat happens to be a great chef and finds himself excelling in the kitchen of a Paris restaurant. (Just how I won't explain...it's very funny.) Nobody knows he's the head chef. When the kitchen staff finds out about him they all quit in disgust. Eww! A rat! Soon everyone comes around and realizes that the important thing is that the "little chef" is a great cook, not what his species happens to be.

The message of the movie, taken very literally, is "rats are people too"...and of course that's nonsense. In children's movies, all animals are people too, and in fact they're all the same animal. The ants in Ant Bully are just like the rats in Ratatouille, which are just like the fish in Finding Nemo. This, in my humble and oh-so-serious opinion is Not Good. Would it hurt if children learned a little more about what animals are really like?

In any case, rats are not people too, but why dismiss them as "just rats"? My assignment for the month of July (and I gave it to myself, so I can't complain) is to explore the perennial question about whether animals are different from humans in kind or in degree. Do they just have less of some of the things humans pride themselves in? I'm working on a book about animals and this is something I need to have a view about (but don't, yet).

I've read about how animals build things (Animal Architects by Gould and Gould) and how they have something approaching morality (Primates and Philosophers by de Waal). Now I'm reading another book about morality (The Origins of Virtue by Ridley). There's a book about how animals have something a little like religion that tempts me (can't remember the name, but it's by Barbara King). So little time, so much to read!


10 Secrets of a Better Life

I have a guilty pleasure to confess. OK, it’s not that embarrassing. It’s just that I like to read self-help books. It’s exciting (and funny, and unbelievable) when an author thinks he has the keys to greater happiness, or weight loss, or getting rich.

At various points in history, it’s been the job of philosophers to write such things. See ancient philosophy especially, and read the handbook of the stoic philosopher Epictetus, if you haven’t already. It’s a list of tips for good living—53 in all. It could have been called 53 Secrets of a Better Life, if only Epictetus had had a good editor.

My new book The Weight of Things is about what it is to live a good life. I look at this as a philosophical question, exploring all sorts of possible answers. There’s no advice in the book. But when you think about it, if you say a good life is X, that can be translated into advice. If a good life is X, then there are things you should and shouldn’t do. If Epictetus could offer 53 bits of advice, couldn’t I have come up with 10…and called my book 10 Secrets of a Better Life? And made lots and lots of money?

The primary secret in Epictetus is that we tend to obsess about outer things, when it's really inner things--virtue, in a word--that both matters and can be controlled. Most of the other 52 tips proceed from that starting point. It's no wonder Epictetus is still read today. This is a comforting idea. If you buy it, you'll get an increased sense of being able to control your own destiny.

Is there a comforting central idea in my book? If there is, it's the idea that there are many necessities, things we must aim for to live good lives. Gee, that sounds bewildering, not comforting. The comfort in it (if there is any) is that if you find yourself unwilling to put all your eggs in one basket, that's as it should be. Whatever one thing you are focussed on, there really are other things worthy of your attention and effort.

The charm of Epictetus is that he uses philosophical ideas to help people with everyday problems--how should you react if your slave spills the precious oil, or breaks your favorite pot? To achieve the same effect, I'd have to help people with today's aggravations. What should you do if your husband spends too much time online? Should you miss an important work meeting to go to your child's soccer game?

The problem with coming up with 10 secrets or 53 secrets is that I think the pleasure of philosophy is that it lives in a space of uncertainty, where considerations point in this direction, but on further reflection, they point in that direction. A list of secrets is missing the electricity of argument and counterargument. For all that self-help books are fun and Epictetus is charming, I can't follow their lead.

So much for 10 Secrets of a Better Life.


The Philosopher's Magazine

It was nice receiving The Philosopher's Magazine in the mail today, for two reasons. First, I admit, because my article "The Mommy Wars" is in it. Second, because the issue includes an interesting forum called "Becoming a Philosopher." There are lots of good essays (and I haven't finished reading them all), but the Alain de Botton essay calls for comment.

But first, "The Mommy Wars." The essay is about making the choice to stay home with children, a choice lots of mothers (and a few fathers) make and that I made for a time when my kids were born ten years ago. I know a lot of people think that's as it should be because they think a woman's place is in the home... Groan.

But there are also people who think staying home is a terrible choice. People keep writing alarming books about "opting out"--worrying a lot about how often women stay home, and why they do it, just refusing to see that it might be a reasonable choice for some people. My essay is mainly a response to this crowd.

I use ideas about what the good life is and isn't, ideas much more fully developed in my new book, The Weight of Things, to argue that a turn homeward can be a turn for a better life. I also make the (um, not too surprising) observation that kids do grow up. For many women, the way home is a joy and a relief, but before too long they need a way back to work. Finding that way is often difficult, though I do tell a nice story about a friend of mine who got just the assistance she needed.


Alain De Botton's essay is about how academics look at so-called popular philosophy. A better term is "readable philosophy" --by contrast with academic philosophy, which may have a thousand virtues, but is not readable. DeBotton is a very successful guy who actually seems to make good money at his writing. He is a very, very good writer. But is he a good philosopher? Maybe he doesn't exactly claim to be. He is an essayist who deals with topics of everyday concern, not a professional philosopher. Academics can't stand him, and he's got great examples of snubs and nasty reviews to prove it.

One thing is clearly true: most academic philosophers have contempt for most readable philosophy. Is this just because they're academics, and all academics have contempt for readable books in their fields? I don't think so. I just can't quite believe all the geography people hold Jared Diamond in contempt, and all the religious studies people hold Elaine Pagels in contempt.

Philosophers have a particular problem with books that are accessible because philosophy is supposed to be "hard." That's part of the fun. I've had a lot of this kind of fun in my life. I've read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit for not one but two classes. (Oh God...don't make me think about it.) I wound up specializing in "hard" areas of analytic philosophy. So hard is good, and people who write readable philosophy try to make philosophy feel unhard.

Very, very obviously, a book doesn't have to be hard to be smart. Some of the things that make for readability also make a book just plain good. An author thinking about a general audience has to ask interesting questions, not just questions that are fashionable in some little neck of the academic woods. Readability requires making connections in an interdisciplinary way, going where the subject goes, instead of where colleagues expect you to go. Readability can also force books to be shallow...sometimes depth requires difficulty. But I certainly do share Alain DeBotton's irritation with the way "popular philosophy" is viewed by the powers that be in the field.


Eggers and Mistry

I just finished A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, and read What is the What, by Dave Eggers just a few months ago--two books that visit the most sickening scenes of human cruelty that can be imagined. My response to them was quite different.

With all the detail of fiction, What is the What tells the true life story of Valentino Achak Deng, who was violently separated from his family as a boy of seven, miraculously walked 200 miles out of Sudan, and spent the next thirteen years in refugee camps. Unimaginably awful things happen along the way, and then more terrible things happen when Valentino comes to Atlanta.

One of the themes touched on very early in the book is the way that Americans react to all of these horrors. Some of us aren’t sufficiently interested in far away places like Sudan to find out about people like Valentino—that, interestingly, is the attitude of many in the black community, or so the novel suggests.

Others are earnest do-gooders, dying to know all the details, almost thrilled by the depths of our horror and compassion. Valentino is ever so grateful for these people, but finds them a bit hard to fathom. Why do they get involved with a helpless bunch of orphans who can’t do much of anything to reciprocate?

The portrait of the do-gooders is intriguing, but no deterrent. I imagine there are very few people who read this book and go on to do nothing for the many Lost Boys who now live in this country, and nothing in response to the present tragedy in Darfur (western Sudan). For something to do about Darfur, see the links section on this page.

Anyhow—I loved this book. As painful as it was, it was not unbearable. And now that I’ve read A Fine Balance, I think I see why. For one, it’s about a real person, and so you can’t possibly resent the author for piling such an amazing number of misfortunes on one ever-so-nice person. It happened!

Another thing that keeps the reader from flinging the book down is that Valentino is the book’s narrator. As a result, we know through all the horrors that things will end at least reasonably well for the one person in the book we really get to know. No matter what happens, his path will lead to this amazing partnership with the virtuoso writer Dave Eggers.

The book also shifts back and forth between a present that is awful, and a past that’s much worse. I think Eggers has lots of reasons for this structure, but I’m betting one is that he actually wants to help the reader. The time-shifts give the reader a bit of relief so he can bear to press on and hear what happened next in Sudan.

A Fine Balance is set in India during the 1970s and follows the arc of four lives that are hemmed in by caste and class and disrupted by the Emergency measures of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This is a book about how very bad things happen to good people, and how some but not all of them remain good, or even become better; and about how bad people can be unbearably bad, and completely get away with it. It is periodically heartwarming and funny, but abysmally dark from beginning to end.

I can’t imagine anyone getting to the end of A Fine Balance and feeling any attraction to cultural relativist apologetics. Yes, yes, caste is deeply a part of Hindu culture and religion, but that doesn’t place it beyond moral doubt. In fact, what’s undoubtable is that it’s one of the worst ideas any culture has ever come up with.

Anyhow, as much as I think Rohinton Mistry is a fine novelist, I was intermittently angry with him throughout the book. While Eggers actually tried to stop his reader from feeling tortured by Valentino’s story, I felt like Mistry tried to maximize his reader’s torment.

In this book, the narrator’s voice provides no assurance that anything will turn out OK for anybody, because the narrator is not one of the characters. The pile up of horrors in Egger’s book is astonishing but it’s just the truth; in Mistry’s book, by contrast, the pile up is a work of art. The timing of certain tragedies (which will go nameless—no spoilers ahead) is designed for effect.

The impression I get is of a novelist whose rage against the social ills of India, and the government of Indira Gandhi, has been transmogrified into the misfortunes of his characters, and hence into the pain and indignation of thousands of readers.

As I came to the end of the novel—impressed, moved, pained, inspired—I was pissed off at Mistry, but then had quite a surprise. I listened to most of the book on my ipod (unabridged) but then picked up a copy on my parents’ bookshelves over 4th of July vacation and read the rest. I only had a hundred pages to go (and what a grueling hundred pages it was) when I saw the epigraph at the front of the book—it’s inexplicably missing from the audiocast. A quote from Le Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac, it says:

Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.

I like the fact that Mistry anticipated my reaction. I’m still thinking about whether his countercharge is fair or correct. Is Mistry cruel to his readers, or are the things he portrays—and those types of things are real enough—just cruel? Was I annoyed with him because of my own insensitivity?

Both of these books raise lots of interesting questions—about culture, rights, the way we in the west respond to “exotic” far away problems, the responsibilities we have, or don’t have, the responsibilities of authors. Great books for my dream ethics class--the one in which students are willing to read both a lot of philosophy and a couple of 600 page novels. :-)


That's disgusting!

Last night I watched the movie Fast Food Nation. The book was great, but the movie is not. In any case....a memorable bit of both is the allegation that workers at fast food restaurants like to add a mouthful of spit to a burger from time to time. Yecchhh.

There's a huge amount of information in the book that could put you off fast food restaurants, but the saliva tidbit is especially effective. It triggers immediate disgust, and every time it's remembered it triggers more disgust. Eric Schlosser makes use of disgust a lot in his book. One big theme is how excrement gets into the meat at slaughterhouses. Very unappetizing.

I find emotions like disgust and horror helpful when I'm trying to motivate myself. A couple of years ago I found myself caring less about animal issues, so I deliberately cultivated greater concern by reading the latest book (at the time) about the abuse of animals--Matthew Scully's book Dominion. The book is not just upsetting but extremely informative, and I can't say enough good things about it. The strategy worked and I felt more committed partly because Scully so effectively evokes horror and disgust.

I recently read the book What is the What, by Dave Eggers and got involved in the Dolls for Darfur campaign at Temple Emanu-El (Dallas) as a result. There's a certain amount of boring drudge work involved, but it helps me keep going if I call to mind the horrifying treatment of a young boy that's depicted in that book. (And what a book...!)

So I'm not in any position to dismiss emotions, and the emotions of horror and disgust in particular. But there's such a thing as honoring them too much. I've become sort of a fan of the psychologist Jonathan Haidt lately--I disagree with him a lot (as I say here), but find him likeable and interesting. I highly recommend his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He's got thought-provoking articles on his website (The Emotional Dog, for example) and there's an interesting interview with him in this month's Believer (the interviewer asks some great questions.) Haidt is a great fan of the moral emotions.

There's a passage in Haidt's book where he talks about the emotional world of a Hindu Brahmin. Now, I don't fully understand the culture of India, and I have no idea how well he represents upper caste Indians of today, but what he says is that Brahmins are attuned to pollution and purity in a way that we in the west are not. Members of lower castes, and especially "untouchables" are polluted, in their minds. The Ganges is pure. The way in which the Brahmin's thoughts mesh with his feelings; and his thoughts and feelings fit into his social milieu are positively celebrated in one chapter of Haidt's book. All this coherence makes the Brahmin's life especially meaningful, Haidt says.

The personal passages of Haidt's book make me feel like I know him, so I will just say: Jon, what are you thinking? What about the impact on the real people who supposedly elicit such disgust? And even: what about the impact on the Brahmin if he dips himself into the Ganges and it isn't pure?

Our emotions have an impact on other people, ourselves, animals, the planet, and so we can't just indulge them uncritically. But the examples I started with make me think disgust and horror have some role to play.

Disgust and horror are signs that something is very wrong. They are noisy and hard to ignore--which is their point. If we don't have time to investigate, the safest thing to do is to take them seriously. But they do sometimes steer us wrong. The Ganges is polluted, not pure. "Untouchables" are exactly like everyone else, not polluted. Emotions change over time under the influence of information and debate...and should.

The issue Haidt discusses in his Believer interview is gay marriage. He bends over backwards to respect conservatives who find sex between two men repugnant, even though as a liberal he has no problem with it. He thinks conservatives have more of that pollution-purity sensibility than liberals do. But really, even among conservatives those feelings are on the way out. A little reflection in this area goes a long way.

For example, you might have noticed (as I have) that straight men have just a bit of a thing about lesbians, despite the not uncommon disgust with gay sex. it just cannot be that lesbians are OK and gay men are not. This is the kind of inconsistency that might make a reflective man see his repulsion as something superficial. And from there he might start thinking the whole thing through and shifting his position. These kinds of changes of attitude are possible, common, and all to the good.

Just exactly how we should manage our emotions--when we should listen, when we shouldn't-- is a complex matter. What if you find X disgusting and nothing will dissuade you? Should you trust your disgust or not? As much as I think we should be open to reflection and change, I'm personally inclined to trust emotions that I just can't change. No hamburgers with saliva for me, thank you (not even if the saliva is healthy, and not even if its mine.)

Does that make me irrational and too deferential to disgust? Interesting question.