Tag Archives: humanism

Cary Wolfe on “Another Moral Vocabulary”


Friday on the stoop.

This is from Natasha Lennard’s 2017 interview with Cary Wolfe in The Stone:

On the one hand, rights discourse is Exhibit A for the problems with philosophical humanism. Many of us, including myself, would agree that many of the ethical aspirations of humanism are quite admirable and we should continue to pursue them. For example, most of us would probably agree that treating animals cruelly, and justifying that treatment on the basis of their designation as “animal” rather than human, is a bad thing to do.

But the problem with how rights discourse addresses this problem — in animal rights philosophy, for example — is that animals end up having some kind of moral standing insofar as they are diminished versions of us: that is to say, insofar as they are possessed of various characteristics such as the capacity to experience suffering — and not just brute physical suffering but emotional duress as well — that we human beings possess more fully. And so we end up reinstating a normative form of the moral-subject-as-human that we wanted to move beyond in the first place.

So on the other hand, what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness. An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”

Having said all that, there are many, many contexts in which rights discourse is the coin of the realm when you’re engaged in these arguments — and that’s not surprising, given that nearly all of our political and legal institutions are inherited from the brief historical period (ecologically speaking) in which humanism flourished and consolidated its domain. If you’re talking to a state legislature about strengthening laws for animal abuse cases, let’s say, instead of addressing a room full of people at a conference on deconstruction and philosophy about the various problematic assumptions built into rights discourse, then you better be able to use a different vocabulary and different rhetorical tools if you want to make good on your ethical commitments. That’s true even though those commitments and how you think about them might well be informed by a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the problem than would be available to those legislators. In other words, it’s only partly a philosophical question. It’s also a strategic question, one of location, context and audience, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we can move more quickly in the realm of academic philosophical discourse on these questions than we can in the realm of legal and political institutions.

A Mark I Once Made

I’ve owned this old paperback copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra since the late 1970s. Ever since then, it has been my constant companion.

It was this very book that first awakened me to the pleasures of reading philosophy and the possibilities of doing philosophy, when I was still innocent of all serious philosophy.

I do not know why I first bought the book — it was not exactly recommended reading in the public high school I attended — but I seem to remember that I first read Zarathustra on a hiking trip in the Black Mountains. I know that it was night and there was a fire burning.

Was it The Stillest Hour? I would like to think so. I was reading by candlelight, when the words of Zarathustra’s Prologue leapt out at me. I’d never read anything like this! Whose words were these? In an uncanny way they seemed to be mine — or at least I wanted them to be mine. I couldn’t say I understood them fully but knew those words to be true and I wanted to live their truth.

So I dripped wax on the page, to mark it.


I left my mark in wax — as if I could make these words my secret, as if sealing a letter with wax. A letter, but to whom? To Nietzsche? More likely to myself, promising I would return.

It was just the first, not the last time that the beauty, the passion, the madness and the truth of Nietzsche’s writing in Zarathustra struck me, stopped me in my tracks, overcame me. But I believe it was at that moment that I began to tell a new story about myself and about the world, or at least it was one of the first times I understood that I might have a story to tell. I was 17 years old.

Now, I have little claim on Nietzsche. I am not a professional philosopher and I am not a Nietzsche scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I once wrote a few words about Untimely Meditations in a review of a book by Bernard Williams; and when, in the 90s, I included Nietzsche in my Western Civilization courses I usually taught The Birth of Tragedy or The Genealogy of Morals. But curiously enough, I never taught Zarathustra or wrote about Zarathustra, which of all Nietzsche’s writings has arguably — no, undeniably — had the strongest claim on my life and my imagination. The book has done its quiet, subtle work in my life for nearly thirty five years.

“The dew,” Nietzsche writes, “falls upon the grass when the night is most silent.”

Another Postscript on Innovation- Where I’m Going With This "Orientation" Thing

In my last couple of posts I started to make a case for what I admitted might seem like a far-fetched idea: that research into the human condition and the social world could be as deserving of credit and support as scientific and technical research, especially if the goal of supporting “research” with the R & D tax credit is to deliver “public benefits.”

At the very least, non-scientific modes of inquiry – the study of people and society, languages and culture — deserve more credit than currently given (which is, when it comes to the definition of “research” in the R & D tax code, none), because, I suggested, they provide critical balance to innovation, the very thing R & D is supposed to spur. They provide orientation.

I want to talk a little more about the work I want that word to do. I used orientation just to rough out an idea at first, but I’ve come to like it, not in spite of but because of its association with geography, maps, directions, coordinates and a sense of place. Orientation, in the sense I’m using it, is like having an internal compass — a deep sense of where you are, where you ought to go, and the best way to get there.

To take this a little further, orientation requires and stems from a profound sense of place, of the here and now, in all its complexity and connectedness to other places and to what has come before and what is likely to come after. Knowing where you really are is not just local knowledge; it’s knowledge of how you are situated, connected and not connected, where there are continuities and where you can expect discontinuities. For decision-makers, that contextual knowledge is critical to planning and strategy as well as business judgment (and therefore good governance).

Why? Because orientation helps you appreciate and respect limits, providing a much-needed sense of human scale, without which you cannot make innovation meaningful or growth sustainable. Innovation is the spur, orientation, the reins. A good rider needs both. The events of the past few years should make that tolerably clear.

Or, to use the shorthand I’ve been using since my last post: innovation produces wares; orientation creates awareness. I’m not entirely sure of this formulation, because the play on words here disguises as much if not more than it reveals. Wares can take the form of software, hardware, housewares, or other goods and services; I heard someone the other day use the barbarism “thoughtware.” Our word ware comes from an Old English word meaning “goods” – waru. Awareness, on the other hand, would seem to have nothing to do with commodity exchange. We think of it almost as a synonym for consciousness. It derives from the same root as our word guard; to be aware is to keep watch.

But tellingly both words ultimately derive from the same Indo-European root: wer. This particular “wer cluster”

has to do with watching, seeing, and guarding, but the sense of direction is often there—as in guarding (warding) or looking in a certain direction. From this root we get aware and wary, ward (from weard, keeper) and warden, as well as award and reward and wares (things that are guarded or watched).

It’s a good question whether wares need watching because they are valuable or are made valuable by being watched. Likely both, in some measure. Wares – the products of innovation — are the goods awareness watches and keeps, holds and esteems, prizes and guards, the things entrusted to its direction.

Balancing Innovation with Orientation – An Airport Postscript

Today I was at a business conference in Las Vegas where Bill Clinton and George W. Bush appeared, together, for a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion about the economy, regulation, taxes and education. At one point in the conversation, the two former presidents were asked to talk about how America can do more to encourage innovation. Clinton and W. both agreed that making the research and experimentation tax credit permanent would be a good first step.

This wasn’t terribly surprising, since both presidents had tried (but failed) to make the credit permanent; nor was it surprising that a business audience would greet their comments on this subject with polite applause. I, too, managed to put my hands together and restrained myself from jumping to my feet and exclaiming to the assembly that before we start giving tax credits for research, we need to revisit the idea of “research” embedded in the tax code.

So I did not end up having to explain to the secret service detail or my hosts that I had been agitated on this subject ever since I read Amar Bhidé’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and had just yesterday published a blog post on this very subject, where I wondered whether research into the human condition and the social world might not also deserve credit, provide much-needed checks and balances to the scientific and technical research the credit already covers, and yield new ideas of what constitutes true prosperity, real wealth, or sustainable growth.

Now, at the airport, waiting for a redeye back to New York, I am still in the grip of this idea, which, as I admitted in my previous post, probably sounds a little far-fetched. But there is a line of inquiry here I don’t want to lose: that research into culture and society, into language and history, into how people learn and how things change, will balance innovation with – I guess this is the word I would use – orientation: a sense of the right direction, an understanding of limits and where propriety and restraint should be shown, of where judgment needs to be exercised or informed choices need to be made.

Think, to take just a small example, of the concern within business organizations around social media. This goes far beyond the fact that many organizations don’t know what to do about Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn; that barely scratches the itch.

The conversation has turned from the occasional remark on the role of business in society to anxious chatter about the transformational role that society, or the social, can play in business. There is a growing realization that the social matters enormously to the way people collaborate, the way organizations develop and change, the way business goes to market, and to the bottom line. If, as I might put it, every enterprise is already a social enterprise, why would organizations be reluctant to devote some small portion of their R & D dollars to original research into how peering works, or how social networks function, or how individuals surrender, or refuse to surrender, autonomy in exchange for belonging, or how trust is built or won.

Still sound far-fetched? Maybe. I realize I am talking here in very broad terms, off the top of my head, and I’m also aware that some organizations are already taking these matters seriously, even if they don’t, or can’t officially consider them R & D. Still, it’s fair to say the vast majority are not dedicating resources or sufficient resources to these topics, primarily because, unlike scientific and technical research, they don’t promise to yield new wares, and because they seem soft, mushy, hard to define and pin down.

I realize, too, that the broad trend I am describing here may be a manifestation of a much greater anxiety. It may be that we are trying to harness the constructive power of the social now only because we sense a loss, a lack of social cohesion, the demise of traditional social values and the disintegration of traditional human groups, the atomization of social life and the erosion of trust.

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that how seriously organizations deal with these issues will bear on their performance, on their ability to innovate – broadly, as Bhidé would say — and to orient themselves in an increasingly disorienting world.

Boorish And Natasha

My dear friend and mentor Claudia von Canon used to tell a story about a memorial service she attended for a university colleague where someone — I can’t remember exactly who — had the bad manners and poor form to begin her eulogy for the dearly departed with the pronoun “I,” and continued in this first-person vein, telling stories about herself in which the great man figured only as a minor character.

I was reminded of this story this morning just as I was on the verge of committing the same clumsy, self-serving move: I was going to write, by way of introduction, I never knew Natasha Richardson. I saw her and heard her speak only once, at a fundraiser last year for Amfar, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Her father, Tony Richardson, had died of AIDS in 1991, and Ms. Richardson had dedicated herself to raising money for research. She was a member of Amfar’s board.

Nearly everybody at this gala event seemed to be either rich or a celebrity of one kind or another. These were the days before the Lehman collapse and before Bernard Madoff absconded with half the fortune of half the Upper East side, or at least before half the Upper East Side knew he had. There was still lots of money floating around New York, so the event drew a good crowd; and later in the evening, during the fundraising auction, I watched people make bids of fifteen-, twenty-, and thirty- thousand dollars in the same carefree, casual manner you or I might bid fifteen or twenty or thirty dollars. For this crowd, it was good fun for a good cause.

I’d been invited as a courtesy. Natasha Richardson’s brief talk preceded and introduced a short film I’d made — a promotional film about Amfar’s work fighting HIV/AIDS around the world. But I was clearly out of my element. I don’t usually party with the rich at black tie events, and I am woefully (or, to be honest, happily) ignorant of celebrity culture. I don’t recognize celebrities when I see them on TV or in magazines or on the street here in New York, and even when I recognize a celebrity’s name, I usually can’t put a face to it. I’m not sure I would have recognized the celebrity of Natasha Richardson or any of the other stars and starlets who were at the Amfar benefit that night if the paparazzi had not gathered around them.

For instance, I saw one especially unhappy looking teenage girl, who seemed to be bored with the speeches and the entertainment in the way teenagers are bored with everything; and I felt a little sorry for her, a rich kid dragged by her parents, I assumed, to this fancy adult occasion, until I was told that she was one of the Olsen Twins. That made me look at her in a different light. But to this day, I must confess, I still don’t really know who the Olsen Twins are. They are either on a television program or they play music. Or maybe both – or neither. I haven’t bothered to find out.

My ignorance of celebrity names and faces and my impatience with television make it difficult for me to participate in certain conversations, but I would rather suffer the handicap than the remedy. It’s especially difficult for me to participate in the kind of conversation the major media are now having about Natasha Richardson – the prying news about her family’s grief, the solemn-faced tributes by news anchors, the variations ad nauseam on her tragic, accidental death. I just don’t feel connected. Princess Di left me cold as well.

I wonder at the feelings people attach or bring to these events; I tell myself that mourning over the great and rich and famous is really a way of mourning for other things, other losses – the way life can end suddenly, just by accident, the passing of goodness from the world; sic transit gloria mundi. Or maybe people feel they really know these celebrities who flicker at them from the television screen in the living room.

I realize, of course, that to someone of Claudia’s refined sensibilities, sitting down to write in the first person about my indifference to the passing of a celebrity, or my ignorance of celebrity on the occasion of a celebrity’s death, would probably appear boorish. And to get at the point in this roundabout way – telling the story she would rather have me not tell by telling the story of how she would rather not have me tell it – would no doubt appear worse than boorish. And I understand that most people will agree with that view, or write me off as hopelessly self-involved or insensitive and uncaring.

But I take some refuge in the observation that sitting down to write about Natasha Richardson in the first person brought Claudia’s story of bad form at the MIT memorial back to me, and helped me remember her. I never really had a chance to mourn her when she died, in 2002, after a long bout with cancer. (Nothing accidental about that.) I never wrote a eulogy for her. Her daughter Susanna organized a memorial service, in Massachusetts, a few months after she died. On the day, torrential rains flooded out I-95, and I was persuaded to turn back: we probably wouldn’t have made it to Cambridge in time for the service anyway.

It strikes me that Claudia would have agreed, in any case, with St. Augustine, who advanced the opinion (in The City of God and On the Care to be Given for the Dead ) that funerals are for the living, not the dead. For the latter, God has already provided. The question, in my reading of Augustine, really becomes what we, the living, do in this secular world to honor the dead or to remember them.

Mourning, in this view, can be a political or politically fraught act. When goodness passes from the world, there is always more goodness to be done in the name of the goodness that is gone.

So a good way, maybe the best way to honor Natasha Richardson is probably not to weep in front of the television as a soft-focus montage plays, but to make a donation to Amfar. It seems especially urgent to support research and a scientific approach to HIV/AIDS at a moment when Pope Benedict XVI is advancing the view that condom distribution is not an effective way to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.

If you want to have some fun with it, make your contribution not in your own name, but on behalf of a third person: Joseph Ratzinger. After all, it’s not exactly good form to claim, or pride oneself on, one’s own charitable deeds.

What Can Make You Soft?

A short while ago the bright lights at McKinsey and Co. announced that they had been thinking seriously about the role of business in society, and were prepared to go beyond the usual bromides about corporate social responsibility. An article by Ian Davis in The McKinsey Quarterly focused on the need for CEOs and other executives to wield “soft power” — which Harvard’s Joseph Nye describes as “the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals.”

With carrots and sticks you can coerce people to do what you want; but carrots can get expensive and people resent too much stick. The soft leader takes a different and more subtle tack, entering into controversy to set or re-set an agenda, to frame the discussion, to gain credibility on an issue, and, above all, to lead by persuasion.

For Nye, whose book deals mainly with the exercise of American political power, soft is the road not taken by the Bush administration after 9/11 and in the war on terror. (If anything he is far too soft in his criticism on this point, but maybe he is just practicing what he preaches, persuading gently rather than berating and bashing.)

For Davis, soft power may not be the be all and end all of contemporary business leadership, but it’s an important ingredient. Though business leaders have been historically reluctant to enter into social and political discussions for fear of being compromised or caught up in controversy, Davis writes, they “are particularly well positioned” to exercise soft power on local, national and global issues.

Why? Partly because CEOs and other business leaders are used to dealing with “complex trade offs”; surely, Davis reasons, they can readily apply those skills to the “big social issues from climate change to health care to poverty. Business, particularly big business, has a vital role in resolving these immense challenges.” Not to mention a vital interest in directing the outcome of public debate.

You’d think that lobbying Congress, investing in some feel-good PR, and pulling the honeywagon up Capitol Hill would be enough. But it’s not. In an article in the Economist magazine, Davis makes the exercise of soft power out to be the fulfillment of a Rousseauist social compact; but it’s less a social obligation than a prudent calculation, to be involved in real world issues, risking some public controversy, perhaps, but in the long run putting oneself in a better position to manage risk.

The thinking here is that by directing social and political change, or at least having a hand in it, you will be better positioned to anticipate it, exploit it, profit from it, turn it to your advantage. That all sounds very compelling — as long as you don’t worry too much about the tendency of history to take unexpected turns. Still, it’s worth considering how many times an unforeseen twist, or an unintended or unanticipated consequence, has undone even the best generals, politicians, diplomats, revolutionaries, dictators, bosses, organizers and televangelists.

Enter at your own risk. My main concern is this: how do you learn to wield soft power? Where do you learn how to exercise it? Who teaches soft skills? For the ancient world, there were schools of rhetoric to teach the art of soft power or persuasion. In the early modern and modern worlds, there were schools of liberal arts. But where do you learn those arts now?

Certainly the business schools are ill-equipped to teach rhetorical prowess and the practice of soft power in any real way; language and constructive use of language (in dialogue, in persuasion), the ability to translate, literally and figuratively, among different languages or different ways of seeing the world, the ability to parse a conversation or to frame a conversation at the outset, to place events and people and positions in historical context so as to better understand them — all this requires a kind of patience and diligence that has not exactly been institutionalized in our MBA programs.

So what about the liberal arts? What about the humanities? Can they make softer leaders? Maybe. If the deliberate and careful study of language, history and language arts has an important social and civic function, it surely must be something like this.

But it’s the rare CEO who has spent much time studying the humanities, except to fulfill a set of requirements or to play at business ethics; and, what’s worse, it’s the rare humanities program or humanities curriculum which thinks that its business is to teach anything practicable in the practical world. Teaching “critical thinking,” as many humanities programs claim to do, may be a start, but when thinking is captive to a particular cultural and political agenda, as it too often is, it ceases to be critical; and learning to use theoretical jargon is no substitute for learning how to parse a sentence in Latin or Russian or French — or English, for that matter. Grammar always trumps theory.

Peter Drucker was aware of this deficit in our educational system. In Managing in the Next Society, Drucker saw the need for a third way — a way in between the mix of practical education and new age sophistry of the business schools on the one hand and the narcissism, self-destructiveness, and ethical irresponsibility of liberal arts programs on the other. In the meantime, those who want to soften themselves up to lead in the real world will have to be autodidacts, or — more likely — flush with money to hire people who know how to institute softness. And that is the rarest kind of business consultant. It’s a hard world out there.