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A while ago, we started an RFNE book club, which we fully intend to continue into 2019. Along the way, Jeremy sent in a terrific piece on virtue ethics and what makes for good living. In this piece below, Jeremy uses Brooks’s Road to Character as a starting point for a review of several essential philosophers and their take on what it means to live a good life – something well worth pondering as we enter a New Year ready for resolutions and striving towards being better humans.
Commentary on The Road To Character – J. Long
David Brooks offers a compelling and accessible introduction to the values that should form our moral lives. In this brief discussion of the text I would like to highlight what happiness is not, define virtue in accordance with the perennial philosophy, make fun of utilitarian ethical systems, all while supporting Brook’s petition to return to moral realism.
Beginning on page 15 of his book, we find David Brooks state that “the central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam One realm can produce deep satisfaction.” This understanding of what happiness does not consist of is foundational to the text and to ethics in general. Accordingly, let’s take a brief but deeper look at what happiness is not and what happiness is. We find that happiness, upon even the quickest of examinations, is that which is never sought as a means but only as an end. In other words, I don’t pursue happiness for something else; I pursue something else for the end of happiness. Now of the myriad things we can pursue as means towards the end of happiness are wealth, power, fame, etc. and each of these that fall under the general category of created being fail to deliver us sustained happiness. This may seem laughable to some, but to the greatest of philosophers, there is no laughing matter at all here.
When we consider something like wealth as synonymous with happiness we are obliged to state that happiness, as man’s final end, consists of all that wealth entails. Now consider what wealth necessarily entails: the fear of losing it. Consequently, if wealth were happiness happiness necessarily entails fear…and that’s absurd. Still others would posit something like pleasure as happiness, yet pleasure, as the temporary satisfaction of bodily desire, loses its merits to be the final end of happiness because A. the end of pleasure tends to leave when the mean does, and more importantly, B. we are not merely bodies. The latter is a conclusion that space does not allow to fully explain, yet it is a conclusion that deserves and requires some explanation…for now, I will limit myself to the following points: Man is a rational animal.
According to this, Man has a higher activity/power than sensitive animals and rocks. Consequently, man cannot be fully satisfied (happy), or perfect, if his highest capacity is frustrated. This highest capacity is the immaterial intellect and in so cannot be satisfied by material body. Now, of course, one may quickly remark to this brief sketch that the dogma of science has established man as completely material with a de facto material intellect. Yet if this were true than such physical science could identify the abstraction of universals, or intentionality, in the brain; and this has not and cannot be done (show me what my thought of tree is intended toward via material brain states) as such is unquantifiable.
Further, as the proofs for the immaterial intellect laid out by Aristotle and Aquinas have yet to be refuted, any interlocutor has the burden of proving such premises false and not simply asserting against the conclusion. This argument regarding the immateriality of the intellect, coupled with the principle agere sequitur esse, action follows being, expresses that an immaterial power cannot be brought forth by a completely material being. As something cannot give what it does not have (I cannot give you ten dollars if I only have one dollar), the action of a being must be compatible with the being itself. Consequently, the soul is demonstrated to be immaterial as well. Of course, any of the arguments here cannot properly be laid out in a few sentences, but these points are crucial to understand why happiness cannot be achieved simply via material means.
Yet still all of this is too much to develop here, and in my failing attempt to be brief about the book Road to Character it is perhaps best that I get back to the book seeing as I haven’t technically made it past page fifteen (in my defense David Brooks does bring up the above topic on page 54)… It is interesting to note that the theologians, poets, and philosophers, all concluded that the materialistic and selfish pursuit of happiness is a fool’s errand, all by different means: one by revelation, one by an appeal to the heart, and another via the course of reason alone. In this we can conclude, in whatever manner you see fit, that the infinite desire which we all express cannot be satisfied by finite things. There we are, on to page sixteen!
When we consider virtue as a whole the moral realism has identified such as “good habit.” This is beneficial to us for a few reasons. First, one virtuous activity becomes clearly insufficient to render our character virtuous, and secondly, one non-virtuous act is demonstrated insufficient to render our character as evil. Consequently, the precise recitations of Frances Perkins (we are on page 28!) can be seen necessary to the development of good character, as character is a semi-permanent form or disposition that is etched deeper into the individual upon successive qualifying actions (qualifying actions would be moral actions: voluntary, known to both the intellect and the will). As a result, acts of virtue serve to make one virtuous, and acts of non-virtue serve to form one’s character as non-virtuous. In this discussion of virtuous acts clarification of the term is necessary else we risk talking on a rather shallow level.
To Aristotle, virtue is a mean. We read in the text that “every virtue can come with its own accompanying vice.” This is a remark that allows us to further elaborate on such an ethics. Vice is best defined in virtue ethics as an excess or a defect, and accordingly, virtue is the mean between the two. To Aristotle and the perennial philosophy, this is the golden mean. Accompanying this, virtue must be noted to not be simply a static state. As one can glean from a brief example, it would be courageous to run into a burning house to save one’s spouse, but it would be foolish to run into a burning house to save the fire tongs. Further, something like guilt is not always a vice as there are objective situations in which we should feel guilty. Guilt thus becomes a vice when we feel such in an excessive or deficient manner, deemed so by the objective circumstance.
This is a point David Brooks attempts to establish on page sixty-nine and is better defended with additional objectively garnered principles. Consequently, virtue as a mean is known to us by adjusting our subjective world to the objective world via reason and the act of conscience. This is not a motionless state between two inert poles but rather is a rational and balanced response to the specific demands of a circumstance. This is important, virtue is not subjective (accordingly ethics is not, remember agere sequitur esse?), rather the philosophical science of ethics whose material object is human action is founded upon objective fact. This is where David Brooks and his use of the term “moral imagination,” as found on page 262, is ambiguous and risks lending itself to a morally subjective banner. We need to get back to the proper understanding of conscience.
We discover in the perennial philosophy’s science of ethics the golden rule. We all know what it is, do good and avoid evil. Now this is much more than a golden rule, it is the first principle of ethics. First principles are what sciences are founded upon, such first principles as the law of non-contradiction and the principle of the excluded middle are the fundamental starting points of all science. What this aims to help show is that the first principle “good is to be done and evil is to be avoided” is not simply a code of conduct established in Matthew Five, or a subjective hippy ethics. This first principle of ethics is objectively a natural law of man, as we can only ever will what we think of as good. This is important because if we can only ever will what we think is good, we need to know what is actually good, and that’s the point of knowing ethics, putting it into practice. This is also the point of moral realism, we really can know what is morally good. Now some philosophers since the time of David Hume have held that we actually cannot derive what something ought to do based on what it is. In this manner of thinking, a fish that doesn’t know how to swim can still be considered a good fish, and a person that boils babies alive can still be considered a good person, simply because we don’t know what a person ought to do based on what it is. Now there are plenty of refutations to this, yet space does not allow for such and in so the absurdity of the situation will suffice for now.
Back from another sidetrack and returning to the point of first principles, there is another important principle of ethics that flows from the first principle of good is to be done and evil is to be avoided. If good is to be done and evil is to be avoided, it follows that we cannot do evil for good. Some will debate this point but ethics is not established, and actions are not evaluated, on an economic criterion. Consequently, despite what the utilitarian might tell you, it is not a good action to boil a baby alive so that the war in Yemen stops, for such is doing an evil for a good, and in order for an action to be good it needs to be good in all of its parts. We wouldn’t say that a glass is completely full of water if its parts contained juice, likewise we wouldn’t call an act completely good if its parts contained evil. Consequently, for something like an act to be good, it actually needs to be good.
Now of course, all of this cannot be adequately defended in a few lines, and all of this has already taken a direction which my original jotted outline regarding The Road to Character did not intend, and in the process of it all I forgot to introduce myself: I am Jeremy, I tend to ramble on.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what RFNE is and what I want it to be. It’s been through many iterations in the past 6 years – from interviews and commentary, to just commentary, to guest contributors, back to interviews, and then to a music show.
This thinking started because after having between 15-60 listens for my first seven shows, Episode 8 had four. Four. The problem with that, especially, is that I thought it was a great episode! (Check it out – be number
5 9) The music was good, I made well-researched connections, it was certainly not mailed in. Am I Wolfman Jack or Howard Stern? Absolutely not, but for me, it was one of the better shows. I struggled to figure out what went wrong.
What I gather when I hear from people who listen is that RFNE means different things to each of you. Some prefer the commentary and the philosophical waxing of the audio essays while others like the “selection of music I wouldn’t otherwise listen to.” Still others value it for the artist and song stories – something increasingly rare on radio and almost unheard of in the world of streaming.
To me, RFNE has been all of these things and more. It’s a way for me to explore passions long dormant in my day job, where triage rather than exploration is the dominant theme. Still, I’m weary of the all-things-to-everyone model because it frequently means being unsatisfying to everyone. I could, as I’ve essentially done slowly over the years, let it adapt to my current interests and time constraints.
One thing I’ve done, with a little shame, is to agonize over how to build followers and optimize. That’s meant trying the social media thing, reading pro radio blogs, etc. I have found that neither productive nor “me.” At this time, you can expect that the little social media presence RFNE has had will be going away. Just like some people don’t buy from non-union places, or others from right-wing bakers, I will not continue to even tacitly support Facebook’s algorithms and other platform’s dominance of conversation, the public square, and creator’s minds. I hate listicles, and I bet you do, too. But, I also bet you, like me, have wasted time reading some and working your way through a stream built by someone whose only real goal is to keep you streaming on, not edifying you, or even genuinely entertaining you. I’m not alone in thinking this. Countless articles have been written about social media’s built-in addiction machine and eyes-on end game.
The Future of RFNE
At the end of the day, if four or 4000 people listen to an episode, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve enjoyed making it and the thing to be valued is the community built around shared interests – whether that’s a small or large community is insignificant.
On that basis, from now on, I’m simplifying my RFNE presence. No more chasing followers. I want a digital home – it’s rfne.org – that’s it. Like we do in our physical homes, rfne.org will continue to reflect me – my tastes, what I’m reading, listening to, thinking about right now. Just like we can show our tastes in palette choices, furniture, what books or albums we leave around, you can expect that RFNE will have a smattering of things – links, audio, and video, written blogs/essays, and more.
The web, in the early days of blogging, and into the 2000s, was more conversational, more thoughtful and deeper. People had their own sites. People weren’t writing for google or facebook likes, they were writing for each other and their followers. The same is true of early podcasts. People grabbed mics, did shows and connected with their communities.
Most of what got me started with digital media – blogging and podcasting, both – was this thoughtful, conversational approach. Podcasts like Late Night Live out of Australia, with a thoughtful host who interviews a variety of people and talks about a really wide variety of thoughtful things from science and history to a big picture view of world events. His guests include scientists, politicians, PhDs and journalists, including Bruce Shapiro of the Nation (click here for his author page).
And, of course, as far as written blogging is concerned, who better than Andrew Sullivan and his gang over at The Dish? I’m sure most of you have read Andrew Sullivan. If you haven’t, click the Dish link above. It’s an archive of his former site. Though he stopped his “24/7” blog, he still writes for New York Magazine and is generally a blogger-about-town on news programs, podcasts, and the like.
That’s, truly, what I’ve always been after – an engaged community where we can think together, share ideas, music, articles, and more together. So, here’s how we’ll do this:
- No more Facebook, etc. It’s too much to keep up, and I do it poorly. I’m not built for social media.
- Instead, my online home is rfne.org. I’ll post my music shows, podcasts, and blog entries there. It’s best if you bookmark the site, add it to an rss feed, or follow it via email.
- Since many of you also follow via my email newsletter, that option remains open, too. Newsletters, also, feel more like blogs than Facebook and Twitter. They’re personal, they go to your inbox, and unless you’re still scrolling through emails, it’s distraction free and algorithm free. You can add your email address by clicking here if you want to follow what I’m doing that way.
I want – need – your participation.
Remember how cool it felt to sit around with friends and share ideas – books, essays, great songs? Maybe you had this experience in high school or college, maybe you’re lucky enough to still have it now. RFNE can work like that, too.
So, instead of asking you to post or comment in thirty-million places, let’s simplify: email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you want your voice on the podcast, you get two choices – record a voice memo and email it or call (207) 536-8997 and leave your ideas as a voicemail.
Let’s face it: the world is at a turning point. The United States is putting up with at best, a strange and erratic political scene led by an inept administration, or at worst, a power-hungry megalomaniac who wants to upend politics and replace it with a model more like the Apprentice where he calls all the shots.
Around the world, from Turkey to Russia, from the Alt-Right to ISIS, an anti-democratic mood is on the rise amongst insurgents and the establishment alike.
At times like these, the world would do well to remember Edmund Burke’s admonition from long ago: that evil succeeds when good people do nothing. Those of us who love democracy, love America, love political freedom need to stand up and present the world with a rallying cry. Those who have had little time for politics in the past, now is the time for you to join us to protect what we’ve come to take for granted.
In the coming weeks and months, Radio Free New England will experiment with blogging and podcasting a democratic* revival. I’ll be writing about concepts like individual dignity and human rights, talking with people about the ways they take responsibility in their communities, and featuring inspirational speeches, addresses, essays, and more from some of history’s greatest champions of democracy.
*In my mind, democracy looks like the following: people taking responsibility for their individual lives and communities, and supporting their neighbors (broadly defined) in pursuit of our common goals – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness (but also health, meaning and morality). Democracy is this sense is “small d.” If you don’t know it already, you will surely figure out that I am a liberal in many ways. To me, that doesn’t matter much in this project. I think liberals and conservatives have a shared interest in preserving our democracy and extending those universal values to as many people as we can. We can save our disagreements over specific policies for the debate in the democratic process itself.
I think liberals and conservatives have a shared interest in preserving our democracy and extending those universal values to as many people as we can. We can save our disagreements over specific policies for the debate in the democratic process itself.
But, to do this, we as Americans, and people at large, need to be tolerant of losing some of those policy battles. One of the main problems with our current political climate is that people on all sides think that if the Other wins even just one battle, Armageddon will come. We’re so entrenched, that it is unlikely any side will be satisfied with any leader other than a Trump-style politician who leans their way. As Patrick Moynihan once put it, that kind of politicking is nothing more than “boob bait.” It applies equally to all sides, and it is a political tone that needs to stop if we’re to preserve our democratic heritage.
RFNE’s purpose, then, is to elevate the beautiful voices of democracy – people like Locke and Burke, Jefferson and Adams, Douglass and Lincoln, JFK and MLK, Havel and Walesa, Tutu and Mandela, and many others who once, and still can, rouse people to return to the “better angels of their nature” (Lincoln) and defend this ideal, this experiment that has lit the world with passion. Let’s not be the generation that lets democracy burn out because we failed to feed the flames.
As an avid fan of To Kill a Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I put off reading Go Set a Watchman for quite some time. This was, of course, after pre-ordering the book before the reviews came in. In those early days, I was full of excitement over where the story might lead – Atticus once again leading with quiet dignity and ideals as the South burned with competing passions for and against integration.
In today’s episode we brush off our green thumbs and talk gardening.
A week ago, New Hampshire’s voters gave Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders impressive victories. I won’t dwell on what it means, because many news outlets have already done that here, here, and here. With one caucus and one primary under our collective belts, and a slew to come, this seems like a good time to pause and reflect on just what’s happening in 2016. On the one hand, voters have rarely faced such stark contrasts in vision within each primary in the same year. On the Democratic side, voters have a choice between a socialist progressive and a pragmatic progressive. On the Republican side, there’s a libertarian tea party candidate, a neoconservative, and a bombastic, policy-agnostic, personality-driven strong man.
If you’re around 30 or if you have a child who is that age, you probably remember the elementary school experience with D.A.R.E. or a similar drug awareness program. We were all told that if we wanted to talk about someone, but didn’t want to reveal confidences, we should say “I know someone who.” Since that practice has fallen out of favor, and using “I know someone who” doesn’t exactly flow across the page, I’m going to talk about an experience a friend had by calling the friend Bud. The antagonists in this tale are Joe Yoga and Mindful Mary, but you can call them Joe and Mary for short.
A number of items this week all point to a common theme: data is not to be pursued for its own sake, nor just to make a profit. If data is just about data, or about money, then it is dangerous and destructive.
From the 1/15/2012 episode of Radio Free New England: Martin Luther King’s boyhood and its impact on his life and ours.