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What Guile Is This?
Edmund Spenser (1552–1599)
What guile is this, that those her golden tresses
She doth attire under a net of gold;
And with sly skill so cunningly them dresses,
That which is gold or hair may scarce be told?
Is it that men’s frail eyes, which gaze too bold,
She may entangle in that golden snare;
And, being caught, may craftily enfold
Their weaker hearts, which are not well aware?
Take heed, therefore, mine eyes, how ye do stare
Henceforth too rashly on that guileful net,
In which, if ever ye entrappèd are,
Out of her bands ye by no means shall get.
Fondness it were for any, being free,
To covet fetters, though they golden be.
First, Spenser writes about a psychological fact: images that present a puzzle draw us in. A golden net on golden hair makes us ask where the net leaves off and the hair begins. The psychological fact is the basis of an intuition: this lady is dangerous. He recommends that hearts be well aware; we'd call that now "critical thinking." Here's a new unit for critical thinking studies: infatuation and analysis.
(A new experiment; I'll try posting this poem as an mp3 file,Download file.)
The French philosopher, social activist, and mystic, Simone Weil, died on August 24, 1943 of malnutrition and tuberculosis, having exhausted herself writing The Need for Roots, a plan for the reconstruction of France in a way that preserved the dignity, maturity, and sanity of French industrial workers and farmers. She feared that the love of money, and the ethic of counting and comparing and amassing that goes with that love, would wreck the souls of working people and make them rootless, without attachment to workplace or land or cultural heritage. If ever there was a project worth using up one's life for, Weil's attempt to save her country qualifies.
I am inclined to say that she was afraid of a disease that has become so pervasive that hardly anyone sees it as a disease anymore. Rootlessness is the baseline of health -- a portable sanity, a portable psychology.
We should be talking about these ideas.
Friends want me to switch my buying club membership from one major retailer to another because, they say, the second has better employment practices: it pays closer to a living wage, provides better benefits.
My switching has no practical effect on the low wage retailer. That’s not the idea. I should vote with my checkbook. But what am I voting for? Am I saying to the world: “I want businesses that pay living wages to succeed and businesses that don’t pay such wages to fail.” Maybe. But if that retailer goes away, what fills the void? A larger, fairer competitor? Another low-wage retailer? Nothing?
One might say: “There will always be better and worse places to work. People will try to get hired at the better places and, if they fail, they will apply at the worse places. Eventually, some of them will move up to the better places. The worse places to work will pay as little as they can get away with paying. The floor is set by legal constraints. To change the system, change the floor – the minimum wage rules, the rules about insurance and benefits, the enforcement of these laws. Don’t protest against what is going to happen; it’s a waste of scarce breath.”
One might say: “To shop at a store that gives you a slight advantage in price because it pays its people less than they need to live is to profit from an unjust system and to implicitly endorse that system. You are doing the same injustice to the employees that their employer is doing to them.”
The employees at the store with the lower wages will, oddly, want you to continue buying products there. Their jobs will go away if business slacks off, and the higher wage retailers aren’t hiring.
I understand actions that have an effect in the world, and I sort of understand actions that are undertaken on the off chance that they will have an effect in the world. But, with symbolic actions, and with group actions, I am ethically at sea.
There’s hardly an ethics class that begins with “Good is to be pursued and evil avoided” or “One should do what one takes to be, all things considered, the best thing to do.” We rightly recognize those statements as empty. Any attempt to object to them is properly answered by a clarification of the terms involved. One might propose that it is appropriate to enter a house of prostitution to rescue one’s wayward sister, thus apparently not avoiding evil, but the right response is just: well, one’s pursuit of chastity for one's sister is certainly good and one’s overall effort is to avoid the evil of her degradation, even with such an odd project. Similarly, one might propose that people should act spontaneously sometimes, rather than always working out what the best thing is to do – but that turns out to be yet another thought about “the best thing to do, all things considered.” These statements introduce a vocabulary without employing that vocabulary, and their whole charm consists of the invitation to use these words to make sense of one’s life.
The statement, “Faced with two possible actions, one should do the one that has the best consequences, all things considered” is often taken to the starting point for a whole school of ethical thought, opposing another school that teaches, “A decent person does actions he or she can recommend to others.” But I suspect that both of these formulae are empty also, that any apparent objection to either calls forth a clarification of terms. Once one has decided to ask what one should do, or how to live a decent life, one has implicitly declared one’s allegiance to claims like this. For lots of people, the game of ethics consists of trying to formulate claims with real content that are still very close to these claims: “One should produce as much of some non-moral value as one can, in one’s actions” or “A decent person acts in a way he or she could recommend to everybody.” But when people move to these content-richer formulations, all sorts of counter-examples and problems arise. A claim that is just a small variant on an obvious claim is anything but obvious. One doesn’t make something close to the truth by tweaking a true statement.
I think there may be a deep strategic problem here, someplace near the root of how people do philosophic ethics.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
I keep returning to a mantra: "progressive radio." Progressive news is always bad. The progressive picture is always bleak. At the level of policies, decisions are mostly suicidal. But most of those hearing the news have no access to policy, without giving up their lives, and maybe still - no access to policy. So progressive news builds up in its hearers a pressure of anger, frustration and grief -- which the hearers also feel obliged to let build up, as the price of knowing the truth. I can't think that it is good for the children of Niger or the citizens of Baghdad that their most natural allies and advocates are poisoned and blistered in this way. It seems to be part of the story about why terrible conditions persist, this bit about the build-up of impotent rage and frustration.
What's needed is a different way of telling the truth, a way that starts people out in the morning with a connection to life.
My uncle who farmed in North Dakota used to listen to the radio in his barn early every morning. The show started out with "The Mockingbird Hill," went on to the farm price reports, interspersed some local news. It told him where he was: in a beautiful place, doing important work, part of a wider world. He could have made sense of more reality than he got. Nevertheless, the idea of that radio show was the right idea.
Radio gives us the conception we start from in the morning. It is our counterpart to the monastic "Matins." We have to find a way to do this better.
...you don't have to eat the whole apple. That's very important to the moral empiricist, who wants to say that it is possible to judge that a life of drunken lecherous debauchery is inferior to a life of quiet homely pleasures without taking a 30 year sojourn into DLD. Yet if one captures a drunk, debauching lecher and ties him down in a chair to eat little bits of camembert while sipping mango juice and reading Proust, one is not likely to accomplish a quick conversion. The Proust booster would say: it takes time to learn to appreciate quiet evenings with Remembrance and mango juice. The debauchee would respond that it takes time to come to learn to wallow in depravity.
If the only fair test of a way of life is a test so long it doesn't leave time for another way of life, then the moral empiricist position is uninteresting. And I don't know why a short test is enough, for any sort of life, or for some sorts of lives, but not others.