Moral theologian Jean Porter (University of Notre Dame) will give the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public. Registration is required.
Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today. I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11. During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger. These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example. I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety. In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.
This post was written after a visit to ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago, at the Alphawood Gallery, 2014 North Halsted Street, Chicago. The show runs through April 2, 2017.
It is hard to enter the space of the ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago exhibit without experiencing outrage. The massive human tragedy caused by years of governmental and mainstream social indifference toward a disease that wiped out an entire generation of young men here and abroad, as well as women and children, and that still rages on today, draws comparison to the callous use of soldiers as machine gun fodder by the decrepit British generals of the First World War, or the stubborn insistence by the Johnson and Nixon administrations that teenaged boys by the truckload be shipped off to die in Vietnam. In 1980, 31 people had died of what would later come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Ten years later, the death toll in the U.S. alone was 18,447, and continued to rise throughout the 1990s. People living with and dying of AIDS included all sorts of people–gay men, male and female IV needle users, straight and gay women, hemophiliacs, and children born to HIV-positive mothers. Still, the disease was perceived as particular to gay men, and as a result of the stigma associated with them, the U.S. government failed to respond quickly to the crisis.
Artists responded to the crisis by making overtly activist and political art. Many works in this show foreground issues of exclusion, stigma, and injustice. Entering the exhibit, one is immediately confronted by Nayland Black’s 1991 “Every 12 Minutes,” a clock on the wall with STOP IT! written in the middle, its face divided into 5 equal sections by the words “ONE AIDS DEATH.” The clock exhorts us to stop these deaths, but it also commands us to stop all the other behaviors contributing to the crisis, from spreading misinformation to having unsafe sex to stigmatizing people with the disease.
Turning from the clock, visitors can see a shimmering bluish beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Water), 1995, that stretches across a wide entryway, separating the entryway from the room beyond. Yet through the clear and bluish beads this next room is also gauzily visible, glowing and beckoning from beyond a veil.
In a small, adjacent room Native American symbols speak to both stigma and loss. David Wojnarowicz’s gelatin silver print “Untitled” (Buffalo), 1988-89 is a photograph of a diorama of the Native American hunting practice of herding buffalo off a cliff, suggesting the intentional killing of people with AIDS not only through indifference, but through active hostility and homophobia. Ronald Lockett’s “Facing Extinction,” 1994, made of chalk, metal, and wood, shows a ghostly buffalo, a recurring symbol for Lockett of hunted creatures. It stands on a too-solid three-dimensional cliff, gazing into our space as its body begins to disappear into the background. “More Time Expected,” 2002, by Sicangu Lakota artist Thomas Haukaas, shows figures riding singly and in pairs surrounding a riderless horse, symbolizing those felled by the disease.
“More Time Expected,” 2002. Thomas Haukaas. Photo by Jaime Hovey.
Part Gonzalez-Torres’s beaded glass curtain and enter a large open space with soaring ceilings. On one wall, a recreation of ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury’s 1987 video and neon installation “Let the Record Show” shines like a dark window, dominating the room. At the top a neon pink triangle glows steadily over white letters spelling out the famous ACT-UP logo, “Silence = Death.” The projection of an arched crescent and decorative columns around the outside of the logo gives it an architectural quality, like a temple or a church nave, beneath which long panels stretch down like stained-glass. Here photographs of six people from the Reagan era are superimposed on an old photograph of the Nuremburg Trials depicting Nazi war criminals seated in a courtroom guarded by Allied soldiers. An electronic panel with running titles in red shows AIDS statistics and epidemic facts. The superimposed photographs light up and go dark, alternately revealing the faces of Senator Jessie Helms, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., Cory Servaas of the Presidential AIDS Commission, an anonymous surgeon, and President Ronald Reagan. These are the war criminals of the AIDS crisis. Underneath each face is an offensive quote made by each one about disease victims, such as Buckley’s infamous assertion that people with AIDS should be “tattooed on the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals,” or the surgeon’s quip that AIDS provided a better reason to “hate faggots.” To underscore the work’s declaration that silence equals death, there is no quote from Reagan, who famously said nothing even as the worst health epidemic in centuries raged around him.
Other mixed-media and video works include a bank of screens with headphones and seating for projects such as T. Kim Trang Tran’s “kore,” 1994, which swoops in and away from grainy black and white moving images of Asian men relaxing at the beach or walking through cities, zooming out every so often to show these figures, distanced from us by time, being watched by other men and boys on hand-held screens and scrolls. The gaze created here suggests that cruising after AIDS cannot be dispassionate; the look of curiosity, appreciation, and desire for Asian men created in and by these images is now tinged with melancholy, memory, and loss.
Still from “kore,” 1994. T. Kim Trang Tran. Photo by Jaime Hovey
In what is thought to be the first AIDS painting, Izhar Patkin creates in his “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” a surface of erupting skin lesions fashioned out of rubber paste, latex, and ink. Moved by the symptoms he saw in patients at his dermatology office, he documented their wounds a year before there was any public announcement about the disease or its victims. Here the sores break open the skin of the painting to ooze and glisten in the light, pushing through from underneath as if something monstrous is housed inside. The painting is shocking, but it also forces the viewer to confront the disease at the level of skin, pain, and the body.
The cumulative effect of these works is to move viewers from outrage at homophobic and indifferent responses to the epidemic to admiration at the courage and resilience of AIDS artists, activists, allies, and survivors. In these works we see creative, political, and deeply moral reactions to the absence of justice, to the withholding of compassion, and to the celebration of love in America at a time when huge numbers of people were suffering and dying.
Religious imagery shapes many of the works, speaking to the gulf between the moral response of the queer community–which involved projects such as public safe sex education and meals on wheels for the homebound–and the judgmental condemnation and indifference of government officials and mainstream religious groups, which shuttered bathhouses and gay clubs in a misguided effort to stop gay sex from happening. In “AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” Ann P. Meredith documents a set of billboards she saw in Louisiana as she traveled to photograph women living with AIDS. Her print shows the harsh messages of the billboards as undercut by a graffiti tagger who writes “Love” and “Peace,” and slyly quotes from Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” a verse that when it appears in the Bible is followed by the words, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.”
Keith Haring’s gleaming silver “Altar Piece,” the last work he completed before he died, shows a weeping Mary with a shining heart and multiple arms holding the infant Jesus under a cross in the center panel of a triptych. Here the Trinity is reimagined to include her, and below her crowds raise their hands in anger and supplication as angels fly and fall.
Echoing the theme of Icarian angels, Daniel Goldstein’s “Icarian I Incline,” fashions a Shroud of Turin from the leather cover of a weight bench that once belonged to the Castro gym Muscle System, nicknamed Muscle Sisters by patrons. Stained with the sweat of a thousand gay men, many of whom have since died, the cover bears the ghostly image of their bodies, framed here as a relic memorializing the exuberant communities that flew too close to the sun, flourished before AIDS, and came together to support each other during and after the crisis.
Martin Wong’s 1988 “I.C.U.” shows an eye in a triangle floating over a brick building. Echoing the pink triangle in the nearby “Let the Record Show,” the eye above the building here resembles the eye on a dollar bill, but appears amidst constellations, like the eye of God. A pun on “I see you,” the letters are also the common abbreviation for Intensive Care Unit, the place in hospitals where so many gay men lay dying during the epidemic. In this work, most of the brick building is dark, and only the wing with fire escapes is lit and accessible. The eye of providence seems not to know or care about what is inside; in any case, here God is only potentially available upon exit.
This is not to suggest that the show is tragic; indeed, the entire exhibit is a triumph of creativity, defiance, and love. Artists pay tribute to the fallen in painting, video, textiles, and sculpture, remember those who were there, and call out those who refused to be present. Charles LeDrey’s teddy bear in a box from 1991 suggests both mourning and the end of innocence. In Rosalind Solomon’s gelatin silver print “Silence Equals Death, Washington, DC,” 1987-90, a young man covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions confronts the camera wearing full protest regalia, including ACT-UP buttons, a straw hat, and a paper Star of David. Frank Moore’s “Patient,” 1997-1998, shows an empty hospital bed painted with leaves and snowflakes, where environmental devastation and AIDS are emergencies that require equally urgent care.
Kia LaBeija’s glossy technicolor photographs, such as “Eleven, October 2015,” and “Kia and Mommy” (below) document her dignity living with hospitals and doctor visits, and celebrate fashion and makeup as creative gestures that make everyday life beautiful.
The pieces gathered here span three-and-a-half decades and include work by people still living, as well as cataloging the talent of too many who died too soon. Their project is a deeply moral one: to remind viewers that sick people are human, that no one deserves to suffer, that death comes for all of us, and that the proper response to tragedy is always—must be—art, compassion, and action.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
At least, that was the impression given by the 45th President of the United States when he praised Douglass at a recent Black History Month event, saying: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” TheAtlantic, Feb 1 2017.
Douglass, one of the most important figures in the anti-slavery movement and one of the greatest orators America has ever produced, died February 20, 1895, and the widespread public amusement at Donald Trump’s remarks about him came from a sense that the President had almost no idea who Douglass was. However, if Mr. Trump read one of Douglass’s Reconstruction-era speeches on virtue and political change, he might almost be forgiven for believing that the greatest Black American leader of the 19th century still walks among us.
April 16, 1885 was the 23rd anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. President Grover Cleveland reviewed a parade of over 5,000 people marching near the White House, and that evening, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “We are Confronted by a New Administration,” at the Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church.
The occasion of Douglass’s speech was ominous. The Republican party had lost power after 25 years of running a post-Civil War government the emancipated slaves had come to rely on. Faced with the prospect of diminished freedoms and the great work of Reconstruction left undone, Douglass spoke of the election as a bitter defeat: “We do not stand where we stood one year ago. We are confronted by a new administration. The term of steady, unbroken successful Republican rule, is ended. The great Republican party that carried the country safely through the late war against the rebellion, emancipated the slave, saved the Union, reconstructed the government of the southern states, enfranchised the freedmen, raised the national credit, improved the currency, decreased the national debt, and did more for the honor, prosperity and glory of the American people, than was ever done before in the same length of time by any party in any country, under similar circumstances, has been defeated, humiliated, and driven from place and power.”
For Douglass, this election is not just the defeat of a good cause, but the triumph of those opposed to justice: “For the first time since the chains fell from the limbs of the slaves of the District of Columbia; for the first time since slaves were raised from chattels to men; for the first time since they were clothed with the dignity of American citizenship, they find themselves under the rule of a political party which steadily opposed their every step from bondage to freedom; and this may well give a peculiar coloring to the thoughts and feelings with which this anniversary of emancipation is celebrated.”
He acknowledges that slavery and racial oppression do not exist apart from the social structures that justify and maintain them, “Like any other embodiment of social and material interest peculiar to a given community, slavery generated its own sentiments, its own morals, manners, and religion, and begot a character in all around it in favor of its own existence.”
Such attitudes are not those of a morally strong and healthy nation; Douglass praises the wisdom in the rejection of a two-nation system, one slave and one free, “hostile civilizations side by side, with a chafing bloody border between them,” in favor of “one country, one citizenship, and one liberty for all the people.”
Insisting that the divisions that led to the Civil War were moral, he suggests the solution to the unfinished business of Reconstruction lies in the cultivation of virtue: “There never was any physical reason for the dissolution of the Union. The geographical and topographical conditions of the country all serve to unite rather than to divide the two sections. It was moral, not physical dynamite that blew the two sections asunder.”
Douglass explains that: “Twelve hundred more colored votes in the state of New York would have saved that party from defeat,” and suspects these votes were lost because the campaign did not address moral issues: “Little was said, thought, or felt, about national integrity, the importance of maintaining good faith with the freedman or the Indian, or the protection of the Constitutional rights of American citizens, except where such rights were in no danger . . . No nation, no party, no man, can live long and flourish, on falsehood, deceit, injustice, and broken pledges.”
“On the other hand,” he notes, “where good faith is maintained, where justice is upheld, where truth and right prevail, the government will be like the wise man’s house, in scripture: the winds may blow, the rains may descend, the flood may come and beat upon it, but it will stand, because it is founded upon the solid rock of principle. I speak this, not only for the Republican party, but for all parties.”
Attempting to find common ground with Democrats, he appeals to democratic ideals of citizenship, “We boast of our riches, power, and glory, as a nation, and we have reason to do so. But what is prosperity, what is power, what is national glory, when national honor, national good faith, and national protection to the rights of our citizens are denied?”
Warning that the social unrest of the European under classes could just as easily happen in American, Douglass urges politicians not to abandon oppressed peoples, writing: “Who could blame the negro if, when he is driven from the ballot box, the jury box, and from the school house, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators, compelled to live in rags and wretchedness, and his wages kept back by fraud, he shall imitate the example of other oppressed classes, and invoke some terrible explosive power as a means of bringing his oppressors to their senses, and making them respect the claims of justice.” To this typed passage Douglass has added, in script, “denied a fair trial when accused of crime,” and, “This would be madness, but oppression will make even wise men mad.” Although he hastens to assure his audience that he does not hope for or approve violent means, his edits suggest he believes that repeated injustices inevitably produce violent outcomes.
Yet Douglass seems to sense that he is standing on the eve of a terrible era. One of the speech’s most chilling passages concerns the “recent” Supreme Court decision that Douglass says “came upon the country like a clap of thunder from a clear sky . . . a surprise to enemies, and a bitter disappointment to friends.” Douglass is referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in The Civil Rights cases of 1883, a decision that would usher in 80 years of Jim Crow racial segregation and pave the way for the infamous “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Fergusen (1896), as well as widespread lynching and other forms of racist terrorism. TheCivil Rights cases of 1883 laid the groundwork for Plessy by ruling that public accommodations were not reached by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that Congress and the courts could not stop hotels, clubs, and restaurants from discriminating on the basis of race. Justice John M. Harlan was the sole dissenting voice, and Douglass praises him for being a “grand representative of American Justice standing alone.” Harlan’s famous dissent in the Civil Rights cases would someday serve as the basis for civil rights jurisprudence—but not until after World War II.
Despite his sense that the lives of Black Americans were about to get much worse, Douglass speaks to the “soul of the nation” and its virtues, the “spiritual side of Humanity” that cannot be burnt or drowned so long as it holds fast to its moral ideals, declaring: “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous, for upon these conditions depends the life [o]f its life.” He talks about the great Chicago fire as one that left the city in ashes, yet could not eradicate the ideals of its inhabitants because they were possessed of civic virtue: “[T]here remained the invisible soul of a great people, full of energy, enterprise, and faith, and hence, out of the ashes and hollow desolation, a grander Chicago than the one destroyed, arose as if by magic.”
Douglass’s speech concludes with an appeal to civic virtue and civic involvement as crucial to surviving political change, not just as because civic virtue cultivates the self, but because it helps form a democratic community of brave and just citizens. As we celebrate Black History Month, we might take to heart his sense that a morally virtuous citizenry is the bedrock of a flourishing democracy. Quoting a poem by Sir William Jones that asks, “What constitutes a state?” Douglass answers with lines emphasizing courage and justice as virtues that carry the nation even in its most turbulent eras: “Men who their duties know,/ But know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain.”
For the full text of Douglass’ speech, visit “Speech on the 23rd Anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia,” also known as “We are Confronted by a New Administration” here.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Recently, I have touted the benefits of self-transcendence (ST) in several publications (e.g., Wong, 2016a, b). Since all things exist in polarity (Wong, 2016c, d), naturally, ST also has its downside. This essay will explore the dark side of ST and suggest ways to prevent it.
Examples of Negative Self-Transcendence
An estimated 21,500 civilians have been killed in East Aleppo, more than 400,000 refugees have fled Aleppo, and over four million citizens have left Syria. Yet, Syrian President al-Assad, in an interview with the French media, asserted that all the bombings and killings of innocent people were necessary for the noble cause of liberating them! (BBC, 2017).
Similarly, suicide-bombers and other terrorists justify their atrocities in the name of a holy war against infidels. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) firmly believe that it is necessary to sacrifice millions of lives in order to achieve the noble cause of “religious cleansing” and establishing an Islamic State (Erimtan, 2015).
During the second world war, Adolf Hitler was responsible for the termination of more than six million Jews. He too justified the Holocaust with the perverse ideology of ethnic cleansing and creating the Third Reich—the third glorious age.
History abounds with atrocities and genocides in service of some causes greater than personal interests, such as redressing current injustice, revenging past wounds, restoring past glories, and creating a strong homeland.
The troubling question is: Why are so many rational people prepared to commit such evils for the sake of some cause? How can people use their intellect and twisted logic to justify unimaginable evils against other human beings?
Justification for Negative Self-Transcendence
Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain terrorism and wars. Moghaddam’s (2005) hypothesis in “The Staircase to Terrorism” proposed that the terrorist act represents the final step of a narrowing staircase for those who feel deprived and treated unfairly without a voice in society. When they are recruited by terrorist organizations, they are given a legitimate reason to attack the privileged out-group members as being evil.
In a similar vein, Kruglanski (2006) suggested that terrorists could use terrorism as a tool to achieve the “greater good” of justice or a better future for their people. Recently, Friedman (2016) expounded on a similar view regarding terrorism and the ISIS movement.
From a different perspective, Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenburg’s (2004) terror management theory (TMT) argues that culture worldview (CWV) serves the function of buffering our existential anxieties; therefore, we often become hostile towards those endorsing different beliefs, which threaten our own sense of security. Some extremists may resort to terrorism to protect their beliefs.
In an interview with Jason Tucker and Jason VandenBuekel (2016), Jordan Peterson recognized that “in a sophisticated religious system, there is a positive and negative polarity. Ideologies simplify that polarity and, in doing so, demonize and oversimplify.”
Peterson’s (1999) book and course entitled Maps of Meaning was designed to teach these ideas. In that interview, he also said: “I was particularly interested in what led people to commit atrocities in service of their belief. … One of the things that I’m trying to convince my students of is that if they had been in Germany in the 1930s, they would have been Nazis. Everyone thinks ‘Not me,’ and that’s not right. It was mostly ordinary people who committed the atrocities that characterized Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union” (Tucker & VandenBeukel, 2016).
That is really scary—ordinary people could be indoctrinated to commit atrocities! What can be done to counteract the insidious process of radicalization?
In sum, there are two justifications for the bad kind of ST: (1) Sacrificing innocent people is needed to achieve some goals greater than oneself; and (2) violence against others is justified in order to protect our own beliefs and values.
Both justifications raise serious questions of ethics and values. First, no civil society can long survive if any social agent is allowed to employ violent means to achieve whatever one considers as a good cause; there have to be more rational and ethical ways to accomplish the common good.
Second, democracy is possible only when all people are of equal value; there is no legal or ethical justification to sacrifice some individuals or some groups of people for the benefits of any special group of individuals.
Third, ultimately, human life must be valued as sacred; it cannot be demonized or reduced to something that can be easily terminated in the service of one’s beliefs. Thus, one way to counteract radicalization and terrorism is to educate people regarding the value and sanctity of human life.
Is There a Solution?
I propose that Viktor Frankl’s theory of good ST (Wong, 2016e) will reduce the likelihood of negative ST. Because of his own harrowing experience in the hands of Hitler and Nazism, Frankl took great pains to emphasize the need for treating others with ethnical responsibility.
Thus, ST by definition is based on the values of benevolence and universalism (Schwartz, 1992, 1994), according to the best lights of one’s conscience and the highest standard of enduring values (Frankl, 1985). ST represents a loving and virtuous way of relating to ourselves and others according to the better angels of our nature (Pinker, 2011).
There are always two options—a staircase to spirituality (Haidt, 2012) and a staircase to terrorism (Moghaddam, 2005). When we keep the values of love and life at the forefront of our consciousness, one will choose the positive types of ST; when we value hate and revenge, one will be attracted to the negative type of ST. Education in ST is needed to enhance human adaptability and reduce global terrorism.
I want to conclude by quoting from my earlier publication:
The present self-transcendence hypothesis states that all purposes are not equal. Misguided life purposes, such as pursuing pleasure and power with total disregard for ethical and legal issues, eventually will result in self-destruction. However, when we strive to serve a higher purpose and greater good, then each step of the journey is rewarding and inspiring, even when we do not receive recognition or reward. (Wong, 2016e)
Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Psychology, 25(1), 1-65. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60281-6
Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19-45. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1994.tb01196.x
“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from new generations.”
So wrote Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in his monumental The Gulag Archipelago, detailing the history and horrors of the Soviet labor camps, published 43 years ago this week. The book was met with instant international acclaim; one review in the New York Timescalled its subject “the other great holocaust of our century.” In the wake of its publication Solzhenitsyn became something of a pop-culture cold war hero in the U.S., where interest in militarism and interventionist policies had been fading in the aftermath of Vietnam. Solzenitsyn’s belief that Russia should turn away from international military involvement and embrace the Church and its own rich cultural history was favorably received by conservatives, as was his view that the U.S. had capitulated too quickly in Vietnam. Liberals embraced him as a dissident and rebel, though he was criticized for his insistence that Lenin was as culpable as Stalin for the monstrous atrocities of Soviet totalitarianism, and that the political state is often its own end regardless of its founding ideology.
Solzhenitsyn’s unstinting criticism of Western materialism often made him a difficult figure. He spent nearly two decades in the U.S., yet never stopped railing against what he saw as its moral complacency and spiritual emptiness. In 1978 he shocked many with his commencement address at Harvard University, where he was given an honorary doctorate in literature. In it, he urged his audience to look beyond the material satisfactions of U.S. culture:
“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.” Link
Critics often shrugged off Solzhenitsyn’s social commentary while acknowledging the truth of the horrors he wrote about; one anecdote in his New York Times obituary recounts Susan Sontag’s conversation with Russian poet Joseph Brodsky:
“We were laughing and agreeing about how we thought Solzhenitsyn’s views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest were deeply wrong, and on and on,” she said. “And then Joseph said: But you know, Susan, everything Solzhenitsyn says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers—60 million victims—it’s all true.”
Also included in the Times obituary is the story of how Solzhenitsyn managed to smuggle out writing under the harshest conditions of Soviet internment. Banished under Stalin to Ekibastuz, a camp where writing was routinely confiscated and which would become the source of his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Solzhenistyn used a special rosary fashioned for him by Lithuanian Catholic prisoners to commit 12,000 lines of prose to memory, using one bead for each passage.
Such conditions are almost impossible to fathom for Americans living today in a world of relative material comforts and freedom of the press. Yet his critique of our shallow moral standards and sense of entitlement is at least as relevant now as it was in 1978. Should we elect political leaders based on our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with our salaries, or the price of gas? Or should we also have a higher purpose in mind, a vision of somehow making the world a better place?
Solzhenitsyn was prescient about the effect materialism would have on the political landscape, seeming to forecast the yearning for what Ronald Reagan would articulate a couple years later as “morning in America,” the vision that rejected the economic and political uncertainty of the Carter years in favor of a nation characterized by plentiful goods, free enterprise, and military might. Now it appears we are in another 1978 moment, a moment characterized much as it was then, by economic fear, fear of international terrorism, and lack of faith in political leadership. In The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House, Douglas Brinkley describes the moment of Carter’s loss as one that seems on the surface very unlike our own, yet at bottom contains the same underlying fear and malaise. Carter’s era culminated in “inflation in the double digits, oil prices triple what they had been, unemployment above 7 percent, interest rates topping 20 percent, fifty-two American hostages still held captive in Iran, and unsettling memories of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Link
In contrast, the U.S. economy this October, just before the 2016 election, saw the biggest economic growth in two years, increased exports, and a shrinking unemployment rate, yet the economic insecurity of 2008 continues to linger eight years later, much as the effects of recession lingered throughout the 1970s. U.S. growth in October of this year was historically slow compared to historic measures, and our “gig economy,” where people drive their own cars for companies like Uber and Lyft, means that millions of workers are filling temp jobs because they can’t find stable, well-paying work. Link
Thus while we are not nearly as precarious economically as we were in 1980, we feel as precarious as we did in 1980. On the one hand, it is right to take note of economic conditions that leave too many people living in poverty, whether from the unavailability of any work or the availability of only the lowest-paying kind of work, and as a result choose to vote for better opportunities for everyone. On the other hand, faced with having too little, or thinking we have less than we should, or fearing we will lose what we have, some of us vote to have more, no matter the cost.
We find it hard to ask, whether in asking for more than we have, or more than we think we can get, if we are in fact asking for the right things. In the wake of a 2016 election defined for many by the fear of “falling behind,” of losing the material security promised by the American Dream, we need to think about how we define the contents of that dream and examine the entitlement behind the notion of “falling behind.” We now know that many more voters were galvanized this year by appeals to fear and entitlement than were moved by visions of social justice and equality. We need to address the appeal of fear and entitlement before we can go on to articulate a larger vision of a just society where there is opportunity for everyone.
Appeals to morality rarely win elections. We now know that “the unlimited availability of gasoline,” for example, while making certain economic sense, is not the best thing to ask for when electing public officials, especially given the devastating effects of carbon emissions on the global environment. Yet the virtue of self-restraint—temperance, really—called for by Solzhenitsyn in his Harvard commencement address is no more popular now than it was in 1978, when many Americans rejected it in favor of a 1950s-style domestic prosperity characterized by plenty of cheap gas and consumer goods.
President Carter, a famously moral person who spoke openly against violence and advocated daily prayer, was unable to effectively sell his vision that U.S. voters should cultivate temperate, self-transcendent characters. Solzhenitsyn’s warning in this era that human life must consist of more than “the search for the best ways to obtain material goods” vanished in a country weary of recession and fearful of international terrorism, and is similarly lost today in a nation where people fear slipping into poverty at home as a result of stagnant wages and vanishing jobs, and see only an unstable and violent world abroad. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s warning that Americans—humans—are prone to self-interest and self-indulgence is one we should still heed. His insistence that the human tendency to keep one’s head down in the presence of injustice proliferates injustice is especially urgent in our moment, when the temptation to retreat into private life can seem so seductive. In this dangerous world, getting involved is a necessary self-transcendence, “the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty,” a call to witness, and a call to action.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
Our second summer seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-transcendence” is June 18 – 23, 2017 at the University of Chicago and features renown teachers in philosophy, psychology, and religious studies.
Our Seminar is intended for outstanding middle- and advanced-level graduate students and early career researchers in the areas of Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology/Religious Studies. Our aim is to involve participants in our innovative and collaborative research framework within these three fields, and to provide an engaged environment to deepen and enliven their own research.
Fr. Stephen L. Brockis Professor of Medieval Philosophy, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. Brock writes widely on Thomas Aquinas and action theory, ethics, and metaphysics. He is the author of The Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. A Sketch (Wipf & Stock, 2015) and Action & Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action (T&T Clark, 1998).
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at UofSC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts. She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.
Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University. A personality and life-span developmental psychologist, Professor McAdams has explored the role of life narrative in human development, and how themes of agency, redemption, and generativity shape American biography, politics, society, and culture. He is the author most recently of The Art and Science of Personality Development (Guilford Press, 2015) and The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford University Press, 2006/2013).
Candace Vogleris the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a principal investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas. Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.
For more information on the seminar, the sessions, and to apply, click here.
Neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicists, unlike Aristotle himself, seem willing to agree that significant moral change – a change wherein, for instance, a vicious individual becomes virtuous or vice versa – is possible. They unanimously insist, however, that if and when such a change occurs, it can only occur over a prolonged period of time. A single experience or a sudden insight might lead to a desire or even a decision to change, but change itself is a slow and torturous process. Ebeneezer Scrooge is a favorite example of those who make this claim. Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors, scholars argue, might have inspired remorse and a desire to change, but (or so they insist) the Scrooge who wakes on Christmas morning is still – as far as his moral character is concerned – a mean and miserly man, and he will continue to be such for a long period of time, until his good actions gradually eat away at his vices and eventually replace them with virtues. Two related reasons are often given for this claim. First, it is said that experience is a pre-requisite of virtue: Scrooge’s character cannot change except via the experience of attempting to be kind or generous. Second, it is said that someone like Scrooge can have no hope of cultivating virtue unless his old vicious habits are lost. Since both cultivating virtues and eradicating vices are lengthy and time-consuming processes, it follows that Scrooge’s character can only change after a considerable space of time and a great deal of concerted effort.
While conceding that Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors might have brought about a conversion experience and a desire to change, scholars insist that Scrooge’s character itself could not have changed overnight; not, indeed, for a significant space of time afterwards. Why? Consider the following claims about why Scrooge (or someone like him) could not undergo a sudden change in character. Julia Annas says that Scrooge may well have recognized the value of virtue on Christmas Eve, but that he could not have changed, because “Coming to see that being loyal or brave is a worthwhile way to live is just the first step. Becoming virtuous requires habituation and experience…We need experience to understand what it is to be loyal or brave”. Linda Zagzebski, similarly, argues that Scrooge may have had a “sudden insight or abrupt change of mind” but that he could not have undergone a sudden change in character. Such changes are impossible, Zagzebski argues, because virtue presupposes a special form of moral knowledge, a knowledge that enables one “to know the right thing to do in a way that cannot be predicted in advance…an insight into particulars that may not be fully captured by any general rule.” Such insight, Zagzebski argues, can only arise through experience. Though Rosalind Hursthouse does not appeal specifically to Scrooge, she makes a similar claim about the space of time needed for moral change to occur, saying that an individual who decides to change nonetheless “has a lot to learn about people and about life before he acquires the sensitivity, perception, and imagination necessary for being thoroughly virtuous…one who has hitherto ruthlessly pursued money and power and now sees them as dross is not in the best position to deal with people of modest ambition as he should.”
In all of the instances cited above, the argument for the necessity of experience does not center on virtue itself. The claim, rather, is that virtue presupposes a kind of moral understanding. One might well wish to be kind (say) without any real understanding of what kindness is, but one cannot actually be kind without that understanding. What is kind will vary dramatically depending on the context and the person involved, yet genuinely kind people have no difficulty navigating these dramatically different contexts. Indeed, one’s ability to exercise the same virtue in dramatically different contexts is a mark of having it: kind people simply seem to “get” what kindness is. The same can be said of other virtues as well. It is this – the understanding that virtue presupposes – that is asserted to be connected to experience.
If a kind of moral understanding is essential to virtue, an analogous kind of moral understanding seems equally essential to vice. The popular book (now an HBO series) Game of Thrones has a character, Ramsay Bolton, who is renowned for his cruelty. Ramsay is no mere bully. He delights in inflicting pain and enjoys devising ever more complicated and creative tortures. In fact, part of what makes him so despicable is the creativity of his cruelty. One of his favorite games is to allow his captives to think they have found a way of escaping, let them escape, and then recapture them just when they think their attempt has succeeded. In the season 6 finale, Ramsay has captured Rickon, the little brother of the protagonist Jon Snow. When Jon arrives with his army, Ramsay brings Rickon outside, tells him to run toward his brother, and begins shooting arrows at him. As Jon (of course) gallops to save his brother, Ramsay continues to shoot arrows, each time narrowly (and deliberately) missing Rickon. Only at the very last moment, as Jon is reaching down to sweep his brother up onto his horse, when escape seems imminent, does Ramsay allow his arrow to find its mark. Rickon dies, and Jon is forced to endure not merely the pain of losing his brother, but the additional pain of narrowly failing to save him. Mad with grief, Jon does exactly what Ramsay intended him to do all along: he orders his hopelessly outnumbered army to attack.
The example of Ramsay Bolton indicates that a kind of moral understanding is just as essential to Ramsay’s cruelty as it is to a virtuous person’s kindness. Ramsay is able to be extraordinarily cruel only because he has developed a thoroughgoing understanding of cruelty. His cruelty is creative, and his creativity stems precisely from his understanding of what will cause his victims the most pain. Among other things, he understands that if he allows his victims a hope of defeating or escaping him, it will make their inevitable failure all the more painful. Much as he enjoys inflicting physical pain, he also understands that one tortures more effectively by crushing spirits than by inflicting physical pain. He has enough insight, imagination and sensitivity to see that Jon cannot help but ride to save his brother and that he will blame himself for his failure to do so, however inevitable his failure might have been. Someone who lacked Ramsay’s understanding of cruelty could never be as cruel or as loathsome as he manages to be.
Cases like Ramsay’s indicate that moral understanding can play as much a role in vice as in virtue. It certainly does seem to be the case that virtuous action presupposes an ability to comprehend the morally relevant features of a situation. This comprehension may mean understanding what the actual practice of a given virtue involves, or it may mean exhibiting a kind of moral sensitivity or imagination. But a similar understanding is evident in vices like cruelty. The cruelest people manifest a deep level of understanding of how to inflict the most pain, and come up with tortures that others might never even conceive of. This very ability implies the possession of a sensitivity and imagination analogous to that possessed by the virtuous person. The thoroughly cruel individual is acutely good at understanding what will hurt his victims the most. For the remainder of our discussion, then, I will assume that vice involves a moral understanding analogous to that of virtue.
Is the moral understanding of virtue retained, even when one cultivates a vice? It is plausible to think that it is. In the first place, just as the virtuous man can put his understanding of his old vices to the service of his virtue, so too can the vicious man put his understanding of how virtuous people think to the service of his vice. In the second place, if we agree that conversions like Scrooge’s are at all plausible, then moral understanding must not be entirely lost. Scrooge’s conversion is made possible because he is reminded of how he used to see the world, and of how his old self compares to the new. Even if the reminder is not achieved by ghostly apparitions, I suspect most of us find it plausible that conversions can be achieved in this way. But this presupposes that the individual in need of conversion can comprehend those old emotions. If Scrooge had entirely lost the moral understanding he possessed as a child or a young man, his conversion would be impossible. He would be unmoved by the sight of his sister or his former self or the woman he loved. The fact that he can be moved, however, would seem to indicate that the understanding is still there, albeit buried under the weight of his vices.
I think that considerations like these make it plausible to think that moral understanding is not lost in the transition from virtue to vice any more than the understanding of a skill is lost when one ceases to use it. One might still argue, however, that the loss of a virtue or vice is importantly different from the loss of a skill, and that that difference means that the relevant understanding must be lost. I will conclude by considering some of these objections.
One difference between the typical case of the loss of skill and the loss of virtue is that ceasing to practice a skill might seem compatible with retaining understanding in the way that the loss of virtue does not. Suppose, having been a karate master, I stop practicing my art and become a maintenance man. My job as a maintenance man might well mean that I don’t think about my old skill and don’t practice it, but it is not antithetical to karate. I just now do something different. Consider, however, a rather different situation. The basketball great Charles Barkley was at one time a good golfer. Like many professional athletes, Barkley did not play golf often – so it would not be correct to say he had the “skill” of golf in the sense we have been using the term – but when he did play, he played well. But one day, Barkley developed what is known in golf as a “case of the yips”. The more he tried to fix his golf swing, the worse it became. Barkley is now spectacularly bad at golf, his swing the butt of jokes.
Barkley, of course, never developed the understanding of golf that a truly skilled golfer possesses. It’s not clear that it would even be possible, for instance, for Barkley to become spectacularly bad at basketball – a sport he does have the requisite understanding of – in the way he is bad at golf. But I raise the case of Barkley because one might argue that the loss that occurs in a significant moral change is more akin to the radical change that occurred in Barkley’s golf swing than it is to the loss that occurs when one simply ceases to practice a skill. That is to say, maybe the very process of becoming vicious necessarily drives out or eliminates one’s virtuous moral understanding in a way that merely ceasing to practice a skill does not. Maybe the very process of becoming cruel means that kindness must become incomprehensible to me; maybe an inability to understand generosity is part and parcel of what it means to be greedy.
All that is required for significant moral change, however, is that the reasons characteristic of one’s former good habits cease to function as reasons, not that those reasons become incomprehensible. As Ebeneezer Scrooge became attached to money, his goals changed. In the light of his new goals, he came to view love as a frivolity and Christmas as an attempt to part him from his money. He created new habits and developed new ways of acting. The cultivation of those habits is, to be sure, incompatible with the actions characteristic of his old self. It is incompatible with Scrooge becoming a miser, for instance, that he regularly have generous or empathetic or loving thoughts or that he be moved by concern for others. On a daily basis, it even seems that empathy has become altogether incomprehensible to Scrooge: he tells the men who come to collect for charity that it would be better if the poor were to starve, and there is every indication that he means it. But that Scrooge acts in this way does not necessarily imply that his former moral comprehension has been irretrievably lost. It only means that it is not now action-guiding for him. Yet at the same time, the very fact that Scrooge can be moved by the sight of his former self and by the reminder of the sister who he loved indicates that his former moral understanding, however deeply buried, is still there. It is simply not an understanding that he has made use of. Scrooge’s conversion occurs not because his nocturnal visitors give him new reasons or a new perspective, but because they successfully re-awaken a moral comprehension that has long been dormant.
If virtues and vices are states of character that are permanent and difficult to change, shouldn’t what I am proposing already be ruled out? Isn’t the very notion of permanence incompatible with a relatively quick transition from virtue to vice? Not necessarily. On my account, an old vice or virtue is relatively easily resumed once the moral shift has been made. The now virtuous former philanderer can resume his old ways relatively easily if for some reason he is moved to reject his 30 year practice of chastity. Scrooge can resume the loving and generous practices of his youth if for some reason he comes to see his lifetime of greed as gravely misguided. Virtue and vice are stable states of character because the constant practice of them makes such moral changes deeply improbable. The more our former philanderer practices chastity, the better chastity appears to him, the more rewarding he finds the practice of it, the more difficult it will become for him to see his former life as appealing. Similarly, the more deeply the lust for money takes hold of Scrooge, the harder it will be for him to see the reasons that moved his former self as good reasons. In the end, it is the conversion experience itself that deeply ingrained habits render unlikely, and it is this that gives them their stability.
 Anton 2006; Bondeson 1974; Di Muzo 2000; Sielger 1968