Legal cases can be divided into three categories, corresponding to the way that law engages with the underlying claim of being-pained:

1.     Cases in which the underlying pain is both legally cognizable and legally remediable;

2.     Cases in which the underlying pain is not legally cognizable;

3.     Cases in which the underlying pain is cognizable but whose remedy is preempted by an overriding legal interest;

(1), the most straightforward of the three, is the category of case that courts most commonly see. The majority of claims for relief are cognizable; and most remedies are uncontroversial as a matter of form, if not of substance. This does mean that the majority of legal claims are successful. It means only that most claims are comprehensible to law, and that their constitutive questions—has a legal violation occurred, and if so, how should it be rectified?—can be resolved by applying the usual tools of legal reason.

(2) and (3) are theoretically richer than (1), for the simple reason that they represent exceptional cases. Cases in category (2) are interesting because they exist at the margins of law’s purview and, therefore, demarcate the boundaries of law. Finding that a claim is not legally cognizable, the Court does not necessarily denigrate its underlying pain. The pain exists; it was felt. The question, however, is whether this pain, though undeniably alive and actual in the plaintiff’s life-world, is also alive and actual in the law. Cases of the category (2) are responsible for maintaining the interface between law and the larger social world. Many rulings in this category could therefore be called “procedural,” because they concern the elements necessary to bring a legal claim in the first place.

Cases from category (3) are interesting for the same overarching reason as cases from category (2)—both set the bounds of law vis-à-vis the larger social world—but categories (2) and (3) nevertheless operate differently. Where cases from category (2) determine if the law can countenance a plaintiff’s pain in the first place, cases from category (3) determine if a plaintiff’s pain can be relieved. For the purposes of category (3), the legal status of the pain in question is unambiguous; the pain can be cognized and parsed. The question, therefore, is what law can do about the pain, and the answer is that law is barred from issuing a remedy. This happens for a variety reasons, including including constitutional preemption (the suit is barred by a constitutional provision), and estoppel by immunity (the defendant or defendants are judgment-proof). 

Cases from category (3) paint with a finer brush than their category (2) counterparts. Category (3) cases are often modest, and usually involve technical holdings, sagged with legalese. Nevertheless, they unsettle us—or should unsettle us—much more stirringly than category (2) cases. There is something quite simply unsatisfying about category (3) cases, as they seem to underscore an inexcusable, but nevertheless unfailing, limitation of law. When it comes to category (2), we realize that law cannot countenance all forms of pain. Although profound dispute exists as to what pain law should countenance, we forgive law, I think, for setting aside certain forms of pain aside as non-cognizable. Standing and jurisdiction are acceptable limitations to court access. What is harder to forgive is law’s inability to provide an obviously-harmed plaintiff with relief. To the extent that law attends to individual experiences of pain, it has an obligation, one might reasonably think, to fashion a remedy for such pain. In fact, study reveals that no such obligation exists. (A particularly egregious example is documented here.) This raises a quandary, embodied in the gap between law’s practical capacity and what we feel ought to be its capacity. And the quandary is this: What do we make of a legal system that can countenance an underlying existence of harm, and can recognize that, as a threshold matter, the plaintiff deserves to be made whole, but that nevertheless refuses to furnish the plaintiff with the relief he seeks? Is this a legal codification of mature and virtuous compromise? Or is it simply cowardice dressed up as moderation?
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The maxim of legal conservatism is: In theory, the power of law to right wrongs is unlimited, but in practice, fallible men are only capable of righting wrongs to a limited degree. This will remain so, no matter how we rewrite the laws or rearrange the incentives.

Having recognized this problem, men have set limits on their own attempts to right wrongs within the law. In the American system, nonsense words like standing and justiciability and cognizability mark those limits without verbal felicity, but lawyers know where the real limits are in spite of that. These limits, when effective, produce the tragedy described by Brennan-Marquez in Category Three:

Cases in which the underlying pain is cognizable but whose remedy is preempted by an overriding legal interest.

Such cases are not cases of legal interest warring with cognizable pain, but rather cases of present, cognizable pain warring with future, imaginable pain. The judge imagines a future in which another judge – perhaps, a power-soaked version of himself – oversteps prudential limits and uses the law to do evil. That evil future provides a good reason to limit his own exercise of power in the present.

The Court’s statement that it is ‘tempting’ to acknowledge the authoritativeness of tradition in order to curb the discretion of federal judges is, of course, rhetoric rather than reality; no government official is ‘tempted’ to place restraints upon his own freedom of action, which is why Lord Acton did not say ‘Power tends to purify.’

Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992) (Scalia, J., dissenting)

Category Three cases therefore depend, for their adjudication, on a vision of political science which reduces to the maxim with which I began. Brennan-Marquez embraces this maxim, which both shocking and altogether pleasant; and he embraces the maxim, indeed envelops it, to such a degree that the accuracy of his description falls without it.

If you take Descartes' ontological argument as an argument, this shirt is an effective rejoinder.

Descartes’ ontological argument appears to be much simpler than Anselm’s. Reading it is like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat, toss the rabbit into the air and shoot it

  1. Whatever I can clearly and distinctly conceive of something is true of that thing.
  2. I clearly and distinctly conceive of a supremely perfect being.
  3. God exists.

This reads more like a punchline than a proof. I think that Descartes has offered something in between. Let me try to save what can be saved.

First, what does “clearly and distinctly perceived” mean? (Epistemology with adverbs! Ed.) It does not mean “imagine without apparent contradiction,” in a Humean spirit. As a counterexample, Descartes cites a winged horse; we can all imagine a winged horse, but it does not follow that there is a winged horse. But contrast a winged horse, says Descartes, with an existent God. Surely we can imagine a wingless horse. Can we imagine a nonexistent God? No! We can no more easily imagine a nonexistent God than we can a mountain without a valley.

Objection: Even if we cannot imagine a nonexistent God, it does not follow that God exists.

Descartes’ reply: “And as regards God, if my mind were not pre-occupied with prejudices, and if my thought did not find itself on all hands diverted by the continual pressure of sensible things, there would be nothing which I could know more immediately and more easily than Him. For is there anything more manifest than that there is a God, that is to say, a Supreme Being, to whose essence alone existence pertains?”

Is this just banging the table? Not quite. It is one thing to add exclamation points to the sentence, “God exists.” It is another thing to assert that God’s existence is hidden from us by philosophical prejudice and sensuous confusion. It is neither the usual apologetic syllogism, I have seen, and so I believe, nor is it the credo ut intellegam of Anselm, nor again the “blessed are those who believe without seeing” of Jesus Christ.  Descartes professed to believe not because he saw, nor again in order to understand, nor again without seeing, but rather to spite everything he saw and heard. There is a nobility, an almost Nietzschean resistance, in that.

The right way to understand Descartes’ “proof,” in my view, is that he was not trying to prove the existence of God according to the usual scholastic mode, but rather trying to bring about the clear and distinct perception of God in the minds of his readers. Having done that, on the terms of his argument – and Anselm’s – further proof is hardly necessary.

Both Descartes’s argument and Anselm’s argument posit a specific metaphysical relationship between ontological perfection—“being perfect”—and existence. Specifically, both arguments maintain the following: Existence is among the dimensions of meaning that allow human observers to determine ontological perfection, and to be perfect as to existence is to exist rather than not exist. I don’t think this metaphysical relationship can be justified. But before examining it in detail, let’s zoom out, momentarily, to the argument’s form.

What does it mean to call X perfect? I think it means that, in the observer’s view, X is perfect along every dimension that matters to perfectibility. Perfection is, in this sense, a superlative category. If any dimension of X is not perfect, then X is imperfect—by definition. So, for example, if I claim that the Mona Lisa is a perfect painting, I am making a composite claim: I am claiming that along dimension A—say, “expressiveness”—the Mona Lisa could not be improved upon; I am also and simultaneously claiming that along dimension B—say, “artistic skill”—the Mona Lisa could not improved upon; I am also and simultaneously claiming that along dimension C—say, “sacral power”—the Mona Lisa could not be improved on. And so on. If I am wrong about any of these dimensions, my claim fails. If the Mona Lisa is perfect with respect to its expressiveness, and perfect with respect to its artistic skill, but not perfect with respect to its sacral power, then the Mona Lisa is imperfect.

I’ve just made up these dimensions of meaning on the fly. The list is neither comprehensive nor, necessarily, cogent. We could debate which characteristic comprise the meaningful dimensions of art. There are undoubtedly legions of sallow Ph. D’s, in universities across the globe, who spend their days doing precisely that. My point, however, is more formal. I mean to call attention to the triple-maneuver of claims about perfection. To claim that X is perfect is (a) to generate a (tacit) theory about what dimensions of meaning are relevant to perfection, (b) to posit, for each dimension of meaning, what it is to be perfect along that dimension, and finally (c) to argue that X, as a matter of fact, meets the criteria of perfection for each dimension of meaning.

Descartes and Anselm both describe God as a “perfect being.” This proposition is not argued for; it is axiomized. Supposing—arguendo, as Montana likes to say—that “perfect being” is the proper appellation for God, the question is what it means to be perfect. Of what dimensions of meaning does a claim about ontological perfection consist? And along each dimension, what does it mean to be perfect rather than imperfect?

Per the foregoing analysis, we can disperse ontological perfection into many discrete dimensions of perfection. The force of the ontological argument rises and falls on its claim that existence is one such dimension. Having stipulating this, the ontological argument proceeds by arguing that to be perfect along the dimension of “existence” is to exist rather than not exist. In this sense, the ontological argument involves the same kind of triple-maneuver as my claim about the Mona Lisa.

(1)   “Existence” is a meaningful dimension of ontological perfectibility

(2)    To be perfect along the dimension of existence is to exist

(3)   God meets the criteria, as a matter of fact, of perfection along the dimension of existence—that is, God exists.[1]

The fallible points in this argument are maneuvers one and two. The burden lies with ontological argument enthusiasts to prove their cogency. I regard that task as a fool’s errand, because I don’t think any arguments can be offered, one way or the other. Which is to say, propositions (1) and (2) are not wrong; they are simply without evidence to their cause. They are articles of faith.

Let’s start with (1). Suppose a friend, Tommy, says to me, “Describe the perfect romantic partner for you.” And I do. She has {X, Y, Z, …} qualities. Then Tommy says, “You didn’t list ‘existence’ in that set of qualities.” Tommy continues, “So, in fact, there is a more perfect partner for you; she would have all those qualities and she would exist.” What do I say to this? Three responses come to mind.

The first response is that Tommy’s intuition about perfection being related to existence is wrong. The partner I described is perfect for me. Whether she actually exists in the world is simply a different question. If she did exist, she would be no more perfect; she would just be present.

The second response also pertains to Tommy’s intuition about perfection’s relationship to existence, but more radically. Namely, Tommy is right that my partner does not exist, and he is right that existence is related to perfection, but his view is exactly backwards: she is perfect insofar as she doesn’t exist. The first response denies the basic coherence of adding “she exists” to {X, Y, Z, …}. This response is different. I can countenance the addition of “she exists” to {X, Y, Z, …}, but I deliberately wouldn’t make that addition. In fact, then, I should apologize to Tommy for being imprecise; I should have included “she does not exist” in my initial list.

The final response is that Tommy’s diagnosis of my partner’s non-existence is wrong. Even if I haven’t met this partner, and even if I never meet her, she still exists—precisely as an ideal. She is a formal entity, like one of Plato’s famous “forms,” and that formality is constitutive of her existence.[2]

I find all three responses coherent. (1) and (3) can be synthesized, and so can (2) and (3), if we draw a distinction between ideal existence and material existence. The (2)-(3) synthesis is the best approximation of my own view. I like response (2) because I think it captures the anxious dialectic of presence and absence that makes human experience rich and worthwhile. When we speak colloquially of “the grass being greener,” we gesture at metaphysical depths that far outstrip the laziness of the speech act. Experientially, absence is often constitutive of perfection, and presence of imperfection, in ways that have the capacity to drive us crazy, but also to maintain the social force-field of eros. It is entirely unclear to me why one would expect a relationship with God, in particular, to be metaphysically distinct from other relationships between beings. Religiosity, like love, is an erotic affair.

Of course, there is also a fourth response to Tommy. I could agree with him. I could say that he’s right, if she were perfect, she would exist. And from there, I could sulk about her apparent non-existence. I could try, even, to develop a proof that she does exist, by dint of my ability to conceptualize her existing.

This fourth view, too, is coherent. All four views are coherent. But how, then, would the proponent of one persuade the proponent of another? This question goes nowhere, and cannot be made to go anywhere. We can try to persuade others—if such persuasion seems important—by appealing to experience. That is all. And that’s what I’ve tried, in brief form, to do. I believe, if one reflects on the social experience of cathexis—the ways in which beings invest themselves, mentally and emotionally, in other beings—one must conclude that perfection is confined to the realm of the un-instantiated; that to become too fully integrated into the world is to be rendered imperfect by association; that only the detached being—and perhaps even the infinitely distanced being—can be truly blessed.

But that is a reflection, quite baldly, of my experience. There are other possible accounts, based on other possible experiences, of what it is for beings to interrelate, and how those relationships condition perfection. My point is simply that there are no independent criteria for determining the link between perfection and existence. We can only introspect. And because we can only introspect, we ought to remain neutral about the way different people understand that link.[3]

In that spirit, I am entirely neutral toward Montana’s view of the relationship between perfection and existence, just as I am neutral, more fundamentally, to Montana’s experience of what it is for beings to interrelate. But I would caution him against thinking that he is doing more than reporting on that experience.


[1] In Anselm’s version—and maybe Descartes, I can’t really tell, as he seems to make no argument—(3) is related to (1) and (2) by a reductio, not a deductive, argument. This procedural difference is immaterial to my point.

[2] Never having bothered with such distinctions, I can’t say for sure, but I think this is the view of most “idealists.”

[3] This might raise alarm bells, as it is often difficult, for moral and political reasons, to stay neutral about other peoples’ experiences. But the fact that we can—and should—object to other peoples’ moral views doesn’t mean that we should object to their ontological views. This distinct is often overlooked, to the detriment of much adult conversation. Alas.

This is not the right way to look at it.

Let’s play a game to show why traditional political alignments are arbitrary. Here’s the game: I want to advance the controversial point that liberals should speak of military spending in the same breath as food stamps and Section 8 Housing. It is not hard to see, given a few assumptions, why this is a plausible thesis – at least plausible enough that, in a world where Republicans were still isolationists and Democrats were more Wilsonian, the argument would be in the air.

Here are my assumptions, which I cannot defend here but are in my view true.

  1. The world is a dangerous place, and nothing but the maintenance of arms will reduce its danger.
  2. The United States is in a precarious geopolitical position, but remains, at least militarily, overwhelmingly powerful.
  3. Unipolar distributions of power are not perfectly safe, but they are much less likely to lead to general warfare than multipolar distributions.
  4. General warfare would be the worst thing possible for the poor in this world.
  5. There is a positive return on U.S. military spending, in terms of power .

From which follows:

  1. Every dollar spent preserving unipolarity is a dollar spent making the United States more powerful, which makes general warfare less likely, which is good for the poor insofar as it reduces the chance of cataclysmic suffering.

Many objections may be advanced here. Let me offer a few, and my answers; but I will be interested to hear Brennan-Marquez’s own thoughts and those of our loyal reader(s), too.

Objection: Military spending leads to war, not peace.

Response: We just don’t share assumption (1). Perhaps I’m wrong.

Objection:  Libya, Iraq II, Afghanistan, Iraq I, Kosovo. All of these wars were unnecessary. The United States chose to participate in all of them. Are you really arguing that, in the aggregate, these reduced the suffering of the poor in the world?

Response: Yes.

Objection: Even if I accept your plainly goofy argument, it doesn’t follow that military spending is the best marginal use of U.S. money. We should spend more on hiring better foreign service personnel and, perhaps, more on bribing foreigners.

Response: I agree with you. I just want you to think of military spending in the same category. For what it’s worth, my view is that the best return for the poor on our effort would be to gently chloroform  Congressmen from the Midwest every time the question of farm subsidies comes up for a vote.

Objection: Even if I accept every last goofy part of your goofy argument, it doesn’t follow that military spending is the best marginal use of U.S. money even in terms of military power. In the long term, power comes not from soldiers and hardware, but from economic strength and culture. Shouldn’t we spend money on those instead?

Response: Maybe. Again, my objective is to show that, with respect to the poor, military spending offers trade-offs rather than simply regressive effects. If you want to spend money on the Kennedy Center honors in order to keep the peace, please do.

 

Montana’s general claim—that “military spending offers trade-offs rather than simply regressive effects”—seems uncontroversial. Nearly everything offers trade-offs. What I hope to show is that accepting Montana’s view commits us, as many formal arguments do, to absolutely nothing about concrete decision-making.

Let’s see what happens when we tweak the substance of Montana’s argument while leaving intact its form.

  1. The earth is perpetually at risk of being colonized by an extraterrestrial military, and nothing but anti-alien ballistics research will reduce this risk.
  2. Anti-alien ballistics research cannot guarantee our safety, but the earth’s safety is much more likely if we do spend on anti-alien ballistics research than if we don’t.
  3. Alien colonization would be the worst thing possible for the poor in this world (or at least it would be disproportionately very bad for the poor).

From which it follows…

  1. Every dollar spent on anti-alien ballistics research will make alien colonization less likely, which is good for the poor insofar as it reduces the likelihood of inter-planetary cataclysm.

Montana’s argument will probably strike the reader as more reasonable than mine. But further reflection should quash this discrepancy. In fact, our arguments are equally reasonable. Once you accept Disaster Scenario in question as “really bad for poor people,” you must conclude that the spending in question—defense spending, on the one hand, and anti-alien ballistics, on the other—yields a contingent benefit for the poor. (“Contingent,” because the benefit is a hedge against Disaster Scenarios that may or may not transpire.) And once you accept the (contingent) reality of this benefit, the types of spending in question become by definition “trade-offs,” notwithstanding their more overtly regressive effects. Because the existence of a trade-off is all that you are supposed to be convinced of, the arguments do not turn, whatsoever, on the likelihood of the Disaster Scenario. They turn only on (a) the effect of the Disaster Scenario on poor people (bad!), and (b) the mitigating effect of the particular type of defense spending on the particular Disaster Scenario.

Now, for the important question. Does my argument convince you that progressives should be happy dedicating resources to anti-alien ballistics? I hope not, but not because that’s necessarily a bad things for progressives to advocate. I hope not because my argument doesn’t address the question of practical policy at all. My argument, like Montana’s argument, was aimed only to help you appreciate the extent to which progressive people’s community of concern—the poor—contingently benefits from an outwardly non-progressive type of spending. This tells you exactly nothing, though, about whether that type of spending is the one that we should actually pursue.

Here’s how I imagine Montana responding to this: “Brennan-Marquez has missed the point of my argument. Progressives tend to see military spending as categorically regressive. My point was simply to show that, even if military spending is regressive on balance, it is not categorically regressive.” This is a reasonable response.[1] But I’m still left wondering what Montana’s argument accomplishes, if its aim is, in fact, so modest. Is it supposed to steer progressives more in favor of military spending as a practical matter? I don’t think so, because, once again, the argument entails nothing about spending in a practical sense. All government spending takes place in a matrix of trade-offs. To point out that the matrix exists does not tell us how to actually spend money.

Another hypothesis—Is the argument supposed to make progressives feel better when they read statistics about defense spending? Perhaps, but it doesn’t seem to accomplish that either. If I’m morally opposed to the primary effect of Policy X, it’s unlikely to assuage me that Policy X has some marginally beneficial secondary effect. Suppose I said: Conservatives shouldn’t be as upset as they are about federal dollars being spent on abortion. That policy looks categorically progressive, but it isn’t, because every time federal dollars contribute to the termination of a fetus that would have grown up to be on welfare, a conservative agenda—less welfare, smaller government—is marginally advanced! And sure, the advancement is contingent, but that shouldn’t worry us: all I mean to show is that federal spending on abortion is a trade-off for conservatives, not a categorically bad thing.

This argument is the same, in form, as Montana’s. I am merely intending persuade my interlocutor that increased funding for abortions is not absolutely opposed to conservative values; that it is, in fact, a trade-off with respect to conservative values. At this point, my interlocutor, if she is thoughtful, will object that the trade-off, even if accepted as true, doesn’t matter; she still opposes the policy. To which I parry: No, you are missing the point, I simply want you to admit of the trade-off! To which she reposts: No, you are missing the point. I have already, comfortably, admitted of the trade-off. It changes nothing. The policy is still heinous.


[1] Congratulations are due to Montana for being reasonable when I write his rebuttals for him.

He prefers anonymity, too.

A dialogue to analyze:

X: I plan to publish an argument in favor of view Ω on my personal blog.

Y: View Ω is very far outside the mainstream—to many, it will be offensive. I suggest you refrain from publishing it. You never know who is reading your personal blog. And likewise, you never know when your expression of view Ω may come back to haunt you.

Suppose that Y is correct in his assessment of view Ω as aberrant. I am curious what Y’s advice says about the state of our world.

To begin with, there seem to me two ways to construe Y’s advice. The first is that Y believes X’s commitment to view Ω will change over time; the second is that Y believes that it will not. If Y believes that X’s commitment will change, then I take Y’s advice to mean that X should be wary of having controversial viewpoints attach to X’s person, because although X’s actual viewpoint might change, other people’s perception of X’s viewpoint may not. X therefore stands to suffer—opprobrium, shame, or whatever else the penalty may be—for a viewpoint that he does not even maintain. On the other hand, if Y believes that X’s commitment will not change, I take Y’s advice somewhat differently. I take it to mean that X should be careful about broadcasting controversial viewpoints, even if they are indeed viewpoints that X is committed to, for risk of upsetting others.

Both of these forms of counsel carry the same force. They hedge against other people’s thoughtlessness. Y’s concern—whether it is that X will be unduly associated with a particular viewpoint in future, or that X’s genuine viewpoint will be negatively construed—is, fundamentally, concern about the ability of future interlocutors to think about what X’s argument in favor of view Ω means. What does it mean? Well, it certainly does not mean that X will necessarily remain committed to view Ω in the future. In fact, X’s argument in favor of view Ω does not even mean that X necessarily believes that view Ω is true at present. X’s argument (assumed to be sincere) simply means that X believes that view Ω follows from X’s premises. It means, in other words, that X believes his argument internally sound.

However, internal soundness is not the same thing as having positive truth-value. The truth-value of an argument turns, in addition to an argument’s internal soundness, on the viability of an argument’s premises. To illustrate, suppose I say: People are virtuous in every circumstance, so a dictatorship is an acceptable form of government. Is this argument internally consistent? The argument is too threadbare to say for sure, but let’s suppose it is. Granting that supposition, next question: Is the conclusion, that dictatorship is acceptable, wrong? No. If an interlocutor responded to me by saying—Your conclusion is wrong, because dictatorships are unacceptable!—we would understand, probably, what was meant. But this response is not precisely correct. The conclusion of my argument is right; that’s what it means for an argument to be internally consistent. But the premise is suspect. Which is to say, it is unlikely that the actual world—the world we in fact inhabit—instantiates the conditions evoked by my premise. There might be a world—ideally speaking—in which people are virtuous in every circumstance, and, therefore, dictatorship is acceptable. But this can be true, propositionally, without that ideal world actually being coterminous with the world we live in.

My point is not to harp on this particular argument. My point is that distinctions like these are subtle. They take time to think through. And, not surprisingly, they tend to evaporate in our low-attention span culture. Y, being attentive to this reality, admonishes X to take into account the way his argument will be received under conditions of deflated attention to argument. Y fears—perhaps very cogently—that X’s future interlocutors will lack the time, the brainpower, or the care to evaluate X’s argument as an argument. Instead, Y fears that X’s interlocutors will take X’s argument as some kind of reflection of X’s person, or even as a personal affront to their own views. Whatever the reaction, it will not be generous; and it may end up adversely affecting X’s standing in the world.

Y may well be right. But I would nevertheless come to the defense of X’s audacity. Because even if Y is right, the world he is trying to help X flourish in—a world of dilapidated thought—isn’t a world much worth inhabiting. X’s publishing his argument in favor of view Ω might in effect preclude X from running for political office, or from securing certain jobs. But that is because the world of high-powered employment—and even more so the world of politics—is a notoriously thought-less place. In those worlds, custom and convention rule the day, and thought, though thrust upon with frequent overtures of praise, is used only to varnish conventional wisdom with a coat of intellectual acceptability. When it becomes nothing more than a vanguard of the status quo, or, worse, a source of sheer cultural capital, thought quite simply dies. By publishing arguments forthrightly, X is not necessarily helping to keep thought alive. But neither is he assisting in its shallow burial.

It is amusing that Brennan-Marquez uses pseudonymous symbols in an essay about the dangers of anonymity. Let me personify matters, dear reader. Brennan-Marquez is the brash X, I am the temporizing Y, and at various points in our friendship, Brennan-Marquez has expressed many distressing views, which I suppose he would refer to as {Ω1, Ω2… Ωn}. His delightful, utterly placid inability to feel the social impulses which guide most people most of the time – in short, his independence – is something more than Σ[Ω1, Ω2… Ωn], but Ω and its many brothers are both the symptoms of his lack of sympathy and the glories of his mind.

Brennan-Marquez’ essay examines what my advice to him says about the state of the world. Needless to say, he criticizes my advice and I will defend it.

The heart of his criticism is here:

Montana may well be right. But I would nevertheless come to the defense of my audacity. Because even if Montana is right, the world he is trying to help Brennan-Marquez flourish in—a world of dilapidated thought—isn’t a world much worth inhabiting. […] By publishing arguments forthrightly, Brennan-Marquez is not necessarily helping to keep thought alive. But neither is he assisting in its shallow burial.

This strikes me as an unduly pessimistic description. Brennan-Marquez is right that the world of ambition is, at least superficially, a thoughtless place, but it is still worth inhabiting. Many people who are fully committed to the cursus honorum are also good people. On Brennan-Marquez’ view they overvalue ambition, but that does not destroy their thoughtfulness. Brennan-Marquez should walk among them and preach the gospel of thoughtfulness, if that is indeed the gospel to which he adheres. Like the Jesuits who learned the strange ways of the Japanese in order to preach there, Brennan-Marquez should listen to his colleagues, to say nothing of his friends and family, in order to converse with them with greater sympathy; and perhaps persuade them.

Brennan-Marquez should also consider his future self. He may someday change his mind about the relative importance of pure thought, which he presently considers of intrinsic, aesthetic value, and social cohesion, which he now thinks a purely instrumental good. He may also come to see other people primarily as objects of love rather than persuasion. I hope that he does. If he does, he may be embarrassed by the fury of his younger days, and want to blot it from the books. I know from experience that he will not be able to do so.


I don't like you because you're dangerous. That's right, Ice... man. I am dangerous!

To a Friend – Not Brennan-Marquez –

Who Wishes There Were More Privacy in Locker Rooms

Dear Theophilus,

Let’s take a famous line from the Book of Job which tells us something true: We are all naked beneath our pretenses: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither.” What does Job say next? “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” There is great serenity and wisdom in those words. Let’s ditch all that and paraphrase them philosophically:

  1. Man begins naked.
  2. Man ends naked.
  3. Often, between the beginning and the end, Man is not naked.
  4. God gives Man clothing after the beginning.
  5. God takes from Man the clothing before the end.
  6. Blessed be the Lord.

Another way of putting this is: We are equal at the beginning, and we are equal at the end. In between, we are not equal, or at least we do not even pretend to treat one another as equals. How do we express our lust for superiority? At least partially through clothing. We wear our membership in powerful tribes; we wear our own wealth in costly and fragile materials; we wear, in the cut of clothing, either the fat of prosperity or the toughness of youthful health.

I do not deny that all of this vanity is necessary, at least if we are to live together. As you know, I am a fan of hierarchy, and signaling mechanisms make hierarchy more efficient.

But isn’t it good to put aside vanity, just occasionally, when circumstances make it convenient? It is impossible to look around the locker room at other men and not realize that they are other men; it is, sadly, possible, to look straight through the tattered sweatshirt of a homeless man, to see the homelessness without the man. We should not hold fast to hierarchy at the cost of humanity.

When we look around the locker room, what do we see? We see both beautiful bodies and ugly bodies. What does each sort have to offer us?

Beautiful bodies are good qua beauty. Why say any more about that?

Now to the less pleasant subject of ugliness. I take it that you do not enjoy looking at ugly naked men. I do not enjoy it myself. Why do we shudder at ugliness? Ugliness reminds us of decay, weakness and death, which we hate in proportion to our fear:

Boswell: “But is not the fear of death natural to man?”

Johnson: “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.”

Should we avoid the sight of death just as we “keep away the thoughts of it”? Surely not. We are not happy when we confront reminders of death, but we ought to welcome reminders, as they come unwished, of our own inevitable decay. Our decay will come unwished, too.

You may take my arguments for sophistry. How can beauty be good qua beauty, and ugliness be good qua ugliness? I answer that both beauty and ugliness are true views of man. Nakedness is a miraculously reliable, everyday way to see both of these terrifying aspects of life.

When we see our fellow men, we see both splendor and decrepitude, both life and death in the embodied forms of friends and strangers. We see other men, and realize what we had already known – that no man can be like a man’s own wife – and yet learn, also, that all men can be like us. In all of these ways, we see the truth in one another; and I urge you, as my friend and as a serious man, not to turn your face away.

Yours in friendship,

Montana

 

Lamentably, my Marxist fangs have retracted somewhat since graduating from college. Montana’s remarks on equality offer a propitious opportunity to bare them once again.

Among the reasons that Marxism threatens other currents of modern thought is its suspicion of form. One of Marxism’s central intuitions is that social forms—customs, laws, cultural productions—do not necessarily reflect the reality of social life. To understand the reality of social life, the Marxist will tell you, one must examine the substance of social relations. Forget the rights that poor people formally enjoy; forget the pageantries of bourgeois culture that purport to capture the life of “everyone.” We must look at how the people are actually living! Marxism famously pairs this intuition with the intuition that the people’s actual, lived lives are substantively constituted by mechanisms of economic production. These two intuitions are distinct but not unrelated. For the Marxist, once we slough off the distractions of form and do start examining the substance of people’s everyday lives, it quickly becomes apparent that for most people, most of waking life spent producing things for their masters.

I call the first intuition is threatening because, from the perspective of the political systems we deem acceptable today, it plainly is. Liberalism is explicitly built on a formal structure of rights. Communitarian ideologies—religious and otherwise—are built on equally formal structures of ritual. Marxism is suspicious of both these starting points, and for a particular reason. It is suspicious of formal promises of liberty, equality, justice, and community, not because Marxism rejects these ideals, but because Marxism posits that realizing these ideals in a partial, formal way actively stops them from being realized substantively. To grant people “formal freedom”—say, before the law—is to grant them an inadequate substitute for the actual thing. Marxism lusts quixotically after the actual thing. For this, it may or may not be forgiven.

So, what of Montana’s remarks? He writes, eloquently and agreeably: “We should not hold fast to hierarchy at the cost of humanity.” Of course I share this sentiment. Who wouldn’t? Formally, it’s completely uncontroversial. As usual, though, the rub lies in the substance. Let’s consider Montana’s solution to the hierarchy v. humanity problem. Being a self-styled “fan of hierarchy”—which I’m sure comes to the reader as an enormous shock—Montana believes we should keep hierarchy in place at all socially relevant times, but that we should momentarily liberate ourselves from hierarchy under extremely particular spatial-temporal conditions, and for a finite (indeed, very finite) amount of time: in the locker room, surrounding by naked men. This solution is the very essence of a formal solution. It is formal emancipation from hierarchy, and it underscores exactly why Marxists think formal emancipation is simply false emancipation. The momentary respite from hierarchy that Montana describes—seeing a naked man, realizing he and I are equal in some fundamental way—does not call the surrounding social hierarchy into question. To the contrary, it bolsters that hierarchy. The respite from hierarchy—the fleeting experience of equality—simply allows me to feel better situated, more at home, within hierarchy. It is a partial release that quickly circles back to the rejuvenated status quo. Not only is Montana’s vision of respite not part of the solution to the problem of letting hierarchy get the best of our humanity; it is part of the process by which humanity’s best is gotten.

Montana has written off Marxism, as so many have, because of the second intuition described above: its relentless historical materialism. This is a shame, because the first intuition—that we all should all learn to identify the lurid stench of too much form—is far more penetrating. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration, in my view, to say that only by bearing this first intuition in mind can philosophy remain meaningful. Why? Because philosophy, if it is to be worthwhile at all, must resonate with the actuality of social conditions. Only by doing so may philosophy describe, transform, and console the actual lived life of people. Otherwise, what’s the point? What is philosophy if not the scalpel by which substance is cut loose from form, allowing us to carefully determine what matters and what does not?