17 Comments
Jun 3Liked by Samuel Kimbriel

One thing that is starting to really irritate me about the way this debate plays out on your platform is that you don’t have any representation of — and you sometimes seem to have very little courtesy towards— the spectrum of non-theistic, non-nihilist answers to these questions. Damir is, if I understand correctly, the only nonreligious member of your main crew, and he doesn’t defend any form of nonreligious morality. Existentialism, semi-subjectivism, simple moral realism, and everything in between are largely either dismissed or outright ignored. This creates a serious gap in your ability to engage philosophers like Nussbaum and Lefebvre.

Lefebvre did a better job than Nussbaum in engaging with this lack on your part. I think this is because his work was already closer to the topics you wanted to discuss, whereas Nussbaum was dealing with an abrupt change of subject compared to the book she was discussing and had more of a sudden gear shift to try (and somewhat fail) to execute.

I hope you will send future guests to this post before talking to them. That way, they will at least know what to expect and can prepare somewhat.

If you happen to have any atheist/agnostic but not nihilist candidates that you were considering bringing on board, then that might also help you to better engage your guests. But you may be able to get away with simply being aware of this gap in your bench and trying to allow for it.

In any case, good luck with this project you’re outlining. Notwithstanding my recent frustrations with the execution, I think the underlying idea is thoroughly worthwhile.

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This is smart and I v much appreciate the argument here. Two responses:

1. I don't think that either religious or secular participants in this debate have much of an edge on one another at the moment—both strike me as equally weak.

2. this is exactly the point I'm hoping to drive in the above case. We have to get clear about the terms of the debate. Whoever is able to face up to the erosion of fundamental theories of the good, and offer a compelling constructive view will, I think, be able to build a majority culture around it. But you can only get to the point where we are producing quality work if we start to face that question directly.

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Thanks for this thoughtful critique. Are there any present-day writers or thinkers you'd like to see on Wisdom of Crowds?

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Jun 3Liked by Samuel Kimbriel

Okay, well, now you’ve put me on the spot! Which is totally fair, but it does make me realise how theistic a lot of my reading on these topics is, at the moment. (This may say something about the zeitgeist, in itself).

There are non-theist thinkers in the public eye, of course. Will MacAskill is one of the more respectable rationalists out there (Effective Altruist scandals notwithstanding). Amia Srinivasan is a thoughtful intersectional feminist who isn’t afraid to consider dangerous ideas. Libertarians like Tyler Cowen and Conor Friedersdorf punch above their weight.

I can also see any one of these people missing the mark, though. MacAskill mostly eschews politics in favour of individual contributions to human wellbeing. Srinivasan has some thoughtful things to say about places where different largely-woke values might come into conflict, but she often seems to take the basic idea of caring for marginalised people as a given. Libertarians are often ideologically committed to persuasion, which is nice, but the underlying ideology is still quite frequently taken as a starting point rather than defended directly.

If any one of the people I’ve named were to look at this post and say “yes, I’m all in on this particular topic” then I would be super interested, but I don’t know that I could guarantee that any of them would address it off-the-cuff in a useful way.

I wonder if someone like Damon Linker might fare better, in part because he’d share the political science plus social commentary background. He’s got a series of posts in praise of the tragic style in mid century liberalism, starting here: https://open.substack.com/pub/damonlinker/p/when-liberalism-was-at-its-best1.

I think there’s a tricky aspect of the problem you’re tackling, which is that you’re on the intersection between public and private morality. So you’re dealing simultaneously with “Where does an individual’s personal morality/motivation come from?” and with “How should a society co-ordinate morality and motivation amongst its members?” Either question is big, but putting them together makes the problem even bigger. I applaud the ambition, but it’s a lot to ask any single guest to address!

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just to say thanks for all of this, and do send us writing you like anytime you find it! We're always looking to draw in as many lively interlocutors as possible.

(And your last graf is very clear articulation of exactly what I think we need. Here's my attempt from last year to argue for that idea https://wisdomofcrowds.live/p/thinking-is-risky)

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Jun 4Liked by Samuel Kimbriel

Can anyone convincingly answer the essential philosophical question—why is it good for anything to exist at all?

It seems like this is well trod ground in the history of Western philosophy, going all the way back to the Greeks, no? It seems like what we have now is a teleological crisis - the remains of western Christendom have largely lost their sense of the good. Liberals inhabited this world where there was such a deeply implicit sense of the Good that they could chip away at its foundations.

A pure materialism has no telos, so of course it isn’t able to articulate any sense of the good. And there can’t be any true and stable happiness without a telos, so everything will appear to be harmful and bad.

For the Greek thinkers the telos was eudaomonia. They would have really scratched their heads at the idea that it were better not to exist, and I question the seriousness of anyone who espouses that view - after all, if it’s true, then why have you not sloughed off your mortal form and taken your blissful rest in self-annihilation?

It seems like eudaimonia is about as good as it gets without some higher abstraction -

To just throw up your hands and say none of it matters is the easiest thing to do. It requires no moral courage. Just the opposite. Nobody fights to be unhappy. Nobody longs to be in pain. That’s the easiest thing in the world. It’s our natural state. It’s a maniacal lack of appreciation for the fact of existence.

Yeah, life hurts and the universe doesn’t care about you. That’s the first lesson. Nobody is denying that. But to then never rise above the despair of that fact? That’s just blindness, weakness, and fear.

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v much agree on both the substance and history here. I also like the way that your framing makes it clear that the neo-Nietszcheans are dodging (probably in contrast to FN himself). Too often arguing that everything is power is a way of sidestepping the actual difficulty of the problem.

But I'd then ask, how do you keep an idea like "eudaemonia" from collapsing toward simple preference (I happen to like doing it this way, but so what?)

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A more serious answer is that “the good life” isn’t just “this is what I like.” It’s not hedonism. It’s an all-encompassing vision of collective and individual human flourishing. That necessitates some shared abstractions, and negotiating those shared abstractions is the realm of politics (or perhaps war…). There’s no one path to human flourishing, because the world isn’t static.

But we can know what it is by what it isn’t. It can’t be any kind of misanthropy. It can’t be nihilism - because if nothing matters then neither matters human flourishing. You can’t have eudaemonia without civic virtue, and you won’t experience it without personal virtue. An un-virtuous person will experience a virtuous society as unjust - I been wronged! cries the cheat as he’s thrown into prison.

Preference plays a role here too, but less of one. I remember writing a paper in my college ethics class. I think it was about Rawls but I don’t recall. Where I argued that it’s more unjust to take from someone what they didn’t choose than what they did. Nobody claims a civil rights violation if their bowling alley is shut down.

I think Eudaemonia also opposes both individualism and moral cosmopolitanism, requiring subsidiarity, and can only exist as far as there is solidarity. Without a sense that “there exists a we and I am part of it,” I can’t participate in the justice of that society. There will always be hierarchies as long as there are humans, so a moral society will respect the micro-societies created by those hierarchies.

This is where the Nietzscheans got it wrong. They viewed “slave morality” as bad, not recognizing that it’s the only thing that allows society to exist and flourish in all its complexity. Without it, the elite just declare independence from the rest, there’s no solidarity, and society is destroyed. Which in turn harms human flourishing.

How does all this get built? Well that’s for philosophers to figure out.

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that’s the hard work of agreement on what “living well” entails. but it can’t mean “not living.”

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Great monday note :) On the subject of why we should exist over not I refer to Christopher Hitchens on the question of free will "We have to assume free will even if we don't possess it". To me, the answer of why existing at all is better than not falls under the same category. We have to assume existence is a good in itself to begin to contemplate how to make it better. If we revert to a brand of nihilism then it feels very much like a Sisyphean effort to get past the first square of the board. This I guess is very 'realistic' but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

It strikes me that part of the problem we have is a lack of time. This relates all the way back to your post on why thinking is risky Sam. We seem to be in a simultaneous deluge of philosophy but nothing or very little really advancing past what we already have. Our commitments to certain ideals seems grounded and cemented in a way that when reading the intellectual history of Europe feels a little pre-enlightenment. Almost as if history has kind of stopped in its tracks and its failing to move forward.

Our priors seem to be locked in. I was listening to philosophers present their research for a job yesterday and all of them were kind of hinting at the same type of research. It was greater democratisation, greater inclusivity and greater ecological sustainability. None of it was 'paradigm shifting' but merely adding more layers to what we already know. I'm not denying the value of it, there is value in it evidently given they were the applicants for the roles, but none of it made me think we were moving forward or really justifying what we currently have and why. They were all skipping a step as were the demand for commitments for certain ideological positions which were just assumed as being necessary and good.

In part this is because I think for now at least Fukuyama's primary idea that we have nothing beyond liberal democracy is correct. If you look at post-liberal thinkers trying to move beyond our current system it either reverts back to previous traditional arrangements or a mere reactionary stance against what has come. This is not to say there won't be an enlightenment 2.0 when the scaffolds of our current societies start to really fail. I think there will be, although probably not in my lifetime, as the state and society will find ways to keep maintaining an increasingly fragile and suspect status quo.

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Great Monday note/challenge. We have to understand the problem to address it. Tough love!

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Jun 3·edited Jun 3

To your final question I am immediately drawn to Genesis 1, (particularly the Message translation) it does a great job of giving me the answer. The litmus test for philosophy is how it responds to questions by created beings about a creator. Nietzsche captured great emotion around our position in the world, but he missed the mark sorely. It's 'fun' to watch a new cohort try the same tired ideas.

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My process to understanding and accepting my life is continuing to apply the principles of neodarwinian natural selection to the fact that I am member of a tribal primate species, which is why I practice the philosophy of stoicism. Marcus Aurelius pretty much got it right. A pragmatic approach.

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If nothing else, political and/or religious convictions provide alternatives to boredom. For all their faults, they're much more constructive alternatives than the nihilistic kind that can lead to mass shootings and all sorts of addictions (apart from addiction to political and/or religious outrage).

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The thing is, we all already didn't exist... What good did not existing do to stop a life from being imposed? The experiment has been ran for billions of years, billions and billions of times... The evidence (science) shows, that not existing is absolutely worthless at stopping a life from being imposed. So, had you never been born, how would have your lack of existing been able to stop some other life from being the one from doing the "imposition"?

If you imagine a universe with only one life in it, then that's the life being imposed... There'd be no way to stop that life from being the one imposed, because you don't exist in order to stop it from being imposed... The *only* way to stop that life from being imposed, is for you to exist. So: if it isn't one life it's another.

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