About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On commitment

I hear a lot of talk about commitment these days, and I’m not just referring to when the topic comes up in the context of the fact that I’ve been married more than once… For example, since I moved from Long Island to Brooklyn (which is an experience pretty close to entering a different universe), some of my colleagues at Stony Brook University have been mumbling along the lines that I am not sufficiently “committed” to the department or the university. That got me thinking. Of course, the obvious response is that if you wish to be committed to an institution you should enter an insane asylum, not a university, but I do want to consider this whole issue of commitment just a bit more seriously than that. Here, then, is Massimo’s (reverse) classification of types of commitment, from the most ludicrous to the most defensible.

Commitment to a symbol. This is the stupidest form of commitment ever invented by human beings. I’m referring to people who “pledge allegiance” to flags, or who worship religious symbols of torture, such as crosses. It seems to me that nationalism and religion in particular are among the worst causes of human misery, and that more generally it is profoundly irrational and highly immoral to “commit” to a symbol for the symbol’s sake. Flag burning, or making sculptures of crucified frogs, while not acts I have ever actually engaged in, ought to be protected and even encouraged forms of free speech. If you are offended by the latter sentence, get over yourself, as comedian Bill Maher used to say.

Commitment to an institution. As in the above mentioned case of a university, or -- more generally -- a place of employment or even one’s nation state. This makes only slightly more sense than committing to a symbol, for our relationship to institutions should be one of mutual agreement, and that mutual agreement can be revoked at any moment, depending on the other party’s behavior. My employer can fire me if I engage, say, in sexually inappropriate behavior with a student, or if I plagiarize my papers, and so it should be. By the same token, however, it should also be understood that I provide my services to my employer under certain conditions, and if those conditions are significantly altered (e.g., my health care plan gets cut, my retirement fund is curtailed, or I get a better offer from somewhere else) I have the right to terminate my employment and move on -- no guilt trips necessary. Some of the same colleagues of mine who have complained about my alleged lack of commitment to Stony Brook University have since left the place because they got a better offer somewhere else. Good for them, but please let’s drop the hypocrisy. Similarly, and much more importantly, with nation states: the government under which we live can revoke some of our rights (for instance, personal freedom) if we do not fulfill our part of the social contract (like, we don’t pay taxes). For our part, however, we have a right -- indeed a moral obligation -- to fight a state that is abusive of its citizens, or that squanders common resources unconscionably or to the advantage of a few privileged individuals (needless to say, pretty much all these things have been done consistently by the Bush administration). “My country right and wrong” is one of the most asinine and dangerous propositions I’ve ever heard.

Commitment to people. We are now getting into areas where commitment makes increasingly more sense, although even here it should be understood as conditional and provisional. It is generally good, for instance, to be committed to your spouse, your children, your friends or people who depend on you (such as your co-workers, especially if in a subordinate position). Nonetheless, if your spouse cheats on you, your son goes on a killing rampage, your friends turn out to be unreliable, or your coworkers stab you in the back, you would be silly not to withdraw your commitment. The idea here is that trust and support should be deserved and earned, and that if the conditions change significantly enough, it is perfectly fair to alter one’s behavior toward others accordingly.

Finally, we get to commitment to ideas. Within limits, I think this is actually the most important and rational type of commitment one can make. Ideas like democracy, education, fairness, justice, and so on are actually much more durable than either institutions or individuals. If an idea is good, it remains good under a wide range of circumstances, and it accordingly deserves our steady commitment. Even here, however, commitment should not be absolute and unconditional. I’m sure, for instance, that millions of people really thought that the idea of communism was a very good one, with a genuine potential to reengineer human society for the better. That turned out not to be the case, not just because every instantiation of that idea during the 20th century ended up generating a brutal dictatorship, but because communism makes some assumptions about what it means to be human that turn out to be fundamentally wrong. We may just now begin to see the same fate befalling unbridled capitalism, by the way.

So, to go back to my example of what sort of commitment I have to my profession: none to the symbol of my university (I don’t go around with lapel pins broadcasting my employer’s name); very little to the university itself or its branches, like my department; quite a bit to my colleagues and especially my graduate students; and a hell of a lot to those broad ideas on which I embarked upon my career intially: the positive value of knowledge for and education of humanity. Rationally speaking, that makes a lot of sense.


  1. Massimo, I disagree with your claim that millions were wrong about communism being a better way to organise society and social activity, because of a fundamentally flawed idea of human nature. Especially when taken with your next sentence that we are now beginning to see the similar results of capitalism's assumptions of human nature. On both counts, I submit, the record is different. Interestingly, Engels presented his defence of communism exactly in terms of a critique of the assumptions of human nature as implied in capitalism, and noted that co-operation played a larger role than competition (he did not banish competition from human nature).

    The very point of Marx and Engel's writings (which I admit I am not a scholar of) was to point out that human nature is multi-faceted and it is the arrangement of relationships that emphasise or de-emphasise different aspects of human nature. Does this imply that they had a tabula rasa foundation? No more than behavioural psychology corresponds to the carricatures of Pinker! And less so, perhaps.

  2. ravi,

    I don't want to enter into a discussion of communism vs. capitalism, perhaps good for a separate post. But communism does make the wrong assumption about human nature because it puts too much emphasis on cooperation.

    (Unbridled) Capitalism makes the opposite mistake, too much emphasis on individual self-interest. That's why neither system works.

  3. Education is more or less an admirable thing to chase after, M, but it just simply will never replace being loved totally and unconditionally by someone. Some how your arrangement of thoughts makes it sound like it could.

    Many people, I think, try to either totally rule the world and take on tasks from a position of being hurt and abused, or they love others like forever and no matter what because they understand that anything that is worth something is going to really cost you.

    Commitment is only literal "commitment" when one is REALLY committed come what may. Half committed explanations, really don't quite do.

    On that, I think that a lot of people would surprised at what in what incredible gains (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually) that they'll achieve when committing to cooperate over something that is truly difficult. If we tend bail out too early when stuff gets weird, we'll never understand that.

    I'm certain that youll do MUCH better with your new wife, M. You know so many more things now. And it's the best possible THING that you won't give your whole life to the university. Your marriage has a chance then. That university "commitment" just isn't going to love you back when your like 90!;)


  4. I disagree with your remark about unbridled Capitalism. We are not starting to see a failure of Capitalism; we are seeing the failure of interventionism. There has not been a purely capitalist society since the Great Depression. For starters, fiat currency, government sponsored mega-institutions that privatize profits while socializing risk on over half of the real-estate loans made in the U.S., and an incompetent Fed chairman are not the hallmarks of "unbridled" capitalism.

  5. James,

    I'd rather discuss the main point of this post rather than an example given in passing.

    Still, your argument is that a largely unbridled capitalism (what we have had increasingly since Reagan) isn't a good example of failure because it wasn't unbridled enough. Hmm...

  6. I apologize, this will be my last off-topic post.

    The past 20 years have not unbridled capitalism. I am not a fan of Reagan and I find it curious that people automatically assume that a fan of capitalism must also be a fan of Reagan. He talked the talk and early on he walked the walk. But note that his huge tax cut in '81 was almost undone the following year by the 2nd largest tax increase in American history (Dept. of the Treasury, OTA paper 81). Never mind that tax-cuts without concomitant reductions in spending are meaningless. His endorsement of fiat currency and the-Fed-knows-all politics resulted in more boom-bust nonsense, and his budget was joke by the end of his term. Furthermore, despite the popular impression that he, H.W. Bush and Clinton were deregulators, the number of regulations in real-estate financing and accounting practices more than doubled under their watches. My point is that what is heralded today as "capitalism" is usually interventionism/socialism followed closely by a capitalist whipping boy.

    With that I'll stop cluttering up the place with more off topic posts.


  7. I agree with this wholeheartedly, particularly in relation to commitment to a nation. While I believe that the USA has become something of a popular target for reasons that have nothing to do with its government's actions, it is also absurd to suggest that someone should simply ignore the last ten years of its history and pledge their undying allegiance to the flag or the president.

  8. I'm having a somewhat hard time seeing the real difference between the first level (commitment to symbols) and the last (commitment to ideas)!

    I noticed you qualified it there, "it is profoundly irrational and highly immoral to “commit” to a symbol for the symbol’s sake". But is there such a thing as committing to a symbol solely for its sake? Isn't a symbol always the embodiment of an idea? There is no symbol without an idea behind it, is there?

    It sounded more to me, and I might be misinterpreting you here, that the difference between the first and the last ones are that there are bad ideas and good ones, and you separated them. And it happens that the bad ones have symbols attached to them, while the good ones don't? Although, thinking again, good ideas like justice can have symbolic representations too... (but we never see anyone worshiping those symbols, curiously enough).

    Of course, I suppose there might be some crazy exceptions of people committing to a symbol without having any clue what's behind it, but does not sound likely...

    (haha, the CAPTCHA for this post was, brace yourself, "bless"; priceless)

  9. It's true that a symbol has to have something 'behind' it (in my opinion, anyway), but I think it's possible to worship a symbol with little or no regard for what it stands for. If you asked most rabid nationalists in my country what the flag stood for, you'd probably get a vague 'Well, the country...' at best. And yet they'd go ballistic if you were to set that same flag on fire in front of them.

  10. J,

    "Although, thinking again, good ideas like justice can have symbolic representations too... (but we never see anyone worshiping those symbols, curiously enough)."

    Right, notice your parenthetical statement. That captures the difference I was trying to get at.

  11. [Off topic]

    How about a commitment to announcing on your blog when you're going to have an event at Stony Brook? I missed your Expelled-fest last night because I didn't catch the announcement until 8:30 pm. I would have really liked to have been there.

    I see it was called "Impact of Evolution in America II." Are there going to be any more?

  12. John,

    sorry, I usually announce events of that sort on my philosophy meetup group (though that one didn't actually make it on the calendar, because it was taking place outside of New York).

    Anyway, no more events of that type this year, but mark your calendar for February 13th, when Jeff Levinton and I will host the annual Darwin Day celebrations at Stony Brook. That evening's speaker will be Steve Stearns from Yale.

  13. J

    On why people commit to the leftist ideology and symbolism:


    "The symbol" of the left is fist in the air at God. I've seen it so long, I know that's exactly what it is and what it looks like.

    Symbols DO stand for some important thing and mean SOMETHING, Massimo.

  14. I agree with J: commitment to a symbol usually means commitment to an underlying idea or set of ideas. For example, to Christians, the cross symbolizes love, redemption, justice, etc. Sacred symbols like the cross are typically the focus of ritual and worship. Note that the English word worship relates to ideas of worthiness and respect, which is, I think, a big part of what religious expression is about.

    J goes on to point out that some ideas have associated symbols, "but we never see anyone worshiping those symbols, curiously enough". Perhaps, but consider the idea of materialism, which is widely admired. Its symbols could be said to be the logos of consumer brands, like Mercedes-Benz, Starbucks, Chanel, ... the list is endless.

    When people walk around bedecked in corporate logos, perhaps they are expressing a form of worship of materialism.

  15. Nick,

    I still think there is an important distinction to be made here. Christians, or patriots, get really worked up about their symbols, threatening violence or passing legislation in their defense. The symbol seems to transcend the idea.

    When was the last time you saw a capitalist getting upset about a broken McDonald's sign?

  16. This is off-topic, but is that article on worldnetdaily.com actually serious?

  17. Yes, its true that we don't see capitalists (or those who conceive of themselves as capitalists) throwing tantrums if they see a broken McDonald's sign (though there is always Giuliani & Co with their borrowed theories of "broken windows"). Capitalists are a lot more methodical with their violence!

    In fact, I think you are right about symbols for the same reason that "capitalists" (libertarians and so on) are wrong about their beliefs. Their symbols (or in the case of capitalists, their assumptions) are assumed to be axiomatically true or inviolable, serving as an end in itself. Unlike Adam Smith (and more serious contemporary political philosophers) who argue for capitalism or laissez faire as the best available method to achieve an agreed upon goal (say, the "common good"), these totemists have forsaken the goal (knowledge, representation, common good, moral norms, and so on).

    Seems like the exact opposite of mathematical formalism ;-). Wittgenstein would have a laugh!

  18. Ravi - There are plenty of symbols of capitalism. Gold, the dollar, the Declaration of Independence, etc. How can you equate the meaningless symbols mentioned in the original post with the "assumptions" (ie: the ideas) behind the philosophy of laissez faire capitalism? This is nothing but a cheap (and lazy) smear.

    Furthermore, capitalism is primarily the beliefs in private ownership (vs. government ownership) of the means of production, and that real wages can only rise through capital investment. Your shotgun-style post asserts a lot of things that may or may not be related to capitalism but above all, the economic reasoning behind the philosophy of capitalism is based on historical empiricism and logic. No real capitalist asserts that its symbols are "axiomatically" true. That said, every philosophy has its poseurs.

    Symbols arise as representations of an idea or set of ideas. People who are committed to those ideas can then properly pledge commitment to their symbols. However, a problem arises when symbols are hijacked so actions contrary to the ideas behind them can be carried out in the name of those ideas. The American flag, for instance, has represented a number of different and often opposite ideas, and today represents contradictory ideas to different people. If you haven't noticed, I believe in the ideas behind laissez faire capitalism, but I am reluctant to commit to the flag, historically a great symbol of capitalism and free enterprise. Moreover, I believe many people who pledge commitment to the flag cannot even name one idea that they believe it represents (maybe a vague "freedom" without further definition). I agree with Dr. Pigliucci that it is irrational and dangerous to commit to symbols for their own sake. However, I believe that it is moral and proper to pledge commitment to a symbol when one has an understanding of, and agrees with, the ideas that symbol represents. It is also proper to defend that symbol when it is used to represent something contrary to the ideas it embodies, and to abandon it if it no longer symbolizes ideas that one agrees with.

  19. James,

    "It is also proper to defend that symbol when it is used to represent something contrary to the ideas it embodies."

    I have to disagree here. Let's take for example the symbol of humanism, a stylized human with his/her arms raised. I sometimes wear that symbol on a lapel pin, but I would never, ever, "defend" the symbol. If someone wishes to buy a bunch of humanist pins, melt them, and turn them into christian crosses, I frankly couldn't care less.

    The *idea* of secular humanism, on the other hand, that I will defend fiercely.

  20. Massimo, I don't know how familiar you are with Emerson or the Pragmatist tradition, but what you are saying here very clearly reflects the central idea to Emersonian Pragmatism. If what you are saying (and I believe you are)is that one must have commitments where these commitments are reciprocated and earned, and not feel threatened or fear abdicating those commitments when they prove to be unrequited or now inappropriate then I agree completely. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Few know what that quote is actually referring to, and even fewer remember the second half. Foolish consistencies, I think do well to be represented by your first two types of commitment, symbols and institutions. I think this is a pertinent argument in the idea of race identity, and racism. We see every day the little statesman makes his policies based on both his "writ in stone" commitments to ideas which are borne from a commitment to a symbol of what a nation is supposed to be committed to. It is a slippery slope. Of course, Emerson said one must be committed to himself - Emerson probably did not say "committed," but that is language semantics.

  21. James,

    you may consider it shotgun style but that's all that's possible in the tiny box that Blogger provides for comments. Nevertheless, I have provided ample pointers (IMHO) for further edification. Here they are, along with some comments in response to yours:

    a) I used the term "capitalists" (not capitalism) and qualified it paranthetically to indicate which types I am speaking of, in particular libertarians.

    b) I offered examples or made reference of/to more serious proponents (including Adam Smith), and pointed out the difference between their approach and the more fetishistic attitude prevalent among those who parrot some received bill of goods.

    c) I reject the idea that the Declaration of Independence (or the Bill of Rights or the US Constitution) are the result of capitalism. It would take more than this tiny box to trace the history and sources of these documents, so I am content to leave it at that.

    I offered additional pointers to how these ideas are relevant to an interpretation of Massimo's original post: symbols vs ideas. Hence my reference to mathematical formalism in reverse.

  22. M "Christians, or patriots, get really worked up about their symbols, threatening violence or passing legislation in their defense. The symbol seems to transcend the idea."

    There's a valid reason for many people to get unhappy when there are moves all over the country to change things that have defined us and our cultural identities for ages. In Las Cruses, for instance, some regular, even nonreligious people certainly are not pleased that the ACLU or another civlib group are apparently very offended by the city being referred to as "The Crosses".

    And so I'm thinking, who's' getting worked up here? I'm not Catholic any longer, but it's just as good for me if they keep that name. That has been the name of the city for so long, why should they have to give it up? What is a fair fight over something like this supposed to look like, Massimo? Up to this point, Las Cruses has been one of the better places to live in NM. (unemployment is low, etc) Are the people who care about their communities and traditions just supposed to roll over and die?

    I mean. really.

  23. And then there is Silver City,(NM) just full of symbols of religion and churchs of all kinds everywhere, but with all that comes this very bizarre, unhinged sense of tolerance. It is definitely one of the weirder, restless, spiritually speaking, places on the earth.

    The first time I walked into Silver City, I knew (inside) that the religious or christian symbols had long since been rendered entirely meaningless. If you really want to know what it feels like to live in that kind of atmosphere go there, you will.

    It's feels just like concentrated , suffocating, dead, stale air. The underlying spiritual atmosphere feels like most of the citizens of the community are already... (I'd like to tell you what I saw, but I can't. It's too devastating. No one will believe it or understand it. )

    Symbols and symbolism, Massimo, just are a component and or tool of language, & in their own right I don't think that they are or can be evil. Evil is evil. Evil lives in the hearts of people who intend to do evil.

  24. Christians, or patriots, get really worked up about their symbols, threatening violence or passing legislation in their defense. The symbol seems to transcend the idea.

    Interestingly, this issue comes up in religion itself. The idea of idolatry is at least partly about confusion between symbols (images, objects) and ideas (about the divine). Differing ideas about the proper treatment of symbols have contributed to the divisions between branches of Christianity.

    And consider that although we today use the term iconoclast to mean someone who attacks conventional ideas, originally it meant someone who destroyed religious symbols (art in particular).

    Semiotics, anyone?

  25. Massimo, I've been running around doing my things over the weekend but constantly thinking about what you wrote and, like some of the others, I can not help but think that I disagree. The particular thing I disagree with, however, is one that hasn't got much mention thus far, i.e. commitment to people. I have a four year old daughter. I was ill when she was born and could not be in hospital but my wife called me soon after. As we started to speak I heard a cry in the background and felt a massive rush of love towards the source of that cry overwhelm me. That love has stayed with me - complete, unreserved and unconditional. As I have told my daughter on several occasions - there is nothing she can do that would make me or my wife stop loving her. Our commitment is total. Of course we are sometimes critical and sometimes disappointed. If she were to do something truly awful we would be shattered, however, we would keep loving her. I do not know if this is what you meant by 'commitment' but that is definitely what I feel and, what-is-more, feel is valuable. It is great to know that someone will always love you no matter how badly you stuff up your life or those of others around you.

    Generalising the view, I think I would disagree about whether it is more important to be committed to people or to ideas. Indeed, I think that the problem with many ideological communists was that they were more more committed to the ideas than to people. That's what allowed some of them to commit atrocities in the name of the common good. To slightly misquote a certain philosopher, it is our ideas that should die in our stead not we that should die for them.

    I expect that this wasn't exactly what you meant but, then, what did you mean?

    Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

  26. Konrad,

    thanks for the thoughtful comment, as usual.

    First off, I agree that people should not die for ideas, at least not as easily as it has been the case throughout most of human history. (Some ideas are, I think, worth defending with one's life.)

    That said, what I meant to say is that ideas transcend individual human beings. Your love for your daughter (and mine for my daughter) stems out of a biological instinct, and it is both natural and (often) good. But I would not support my daughter -- as painful as that would be -- if she turned out, say, to be a mass murderer. She would not deserve my love, despite the fact that such an outcome would be the most painful thing I can imagine in my life.

    Also note that we tend to be "parochial" in our support of people (i.e., we focus on people we know and/or are related to us), which easily brings about injustice by generating ingroup/outgroup dynamics, as history surely teaches us.

    As for commitment to ideas, please note that I was careful to say that even that cannot be absolute, precisely because I had in mind situations like communism. Of course, ideas should be supported conditionally, just like people. If an idea turns out to be bad, the rational thing to do is to drop it, despite the "intellectual pain" that may cause.

    I hope this makes more sense now...

  27. Konrad,

    one more way to look at the distinction I have been trying to make is to reconsider the example of a father-daughter relationship and recast it this way: we as fathers may be unable to stop loving our daughters no matter what they end up doing in life; but we can withdraw our support from them if they do horrible things that we think are fundamentally wrong. There is a distinction between love (which is emotionally rooted, and over which one has very little control) and commitment (which at least in part is a conscious decision that should be subject to revision given the circumstances).

  28. journal "This is off-topic, but is that article on worldnetdaily.com actually serious?"

    Worldnet does some commentary and topic headings that certainly do tip towards the sensational, but there are times that they will also write on things no one else will. It is possible that some people could be stirred towards being fearful or freaked out by reading it..AND some things might actually be written to thoroughly irritate people on the other "fringe".

    But sometimes its just funny.

    for instance..

    "How we became nation of whiners, crybabies
    Author says solution just might be a good spanking"

    (lol! sure..why not?)


  29. Massimo,

    I wonder what you would say regarding the general importance of family. Withdrawing commitment to your father, for instance, could influence your relationship with your entire family, creating a larger impact.


  30. Michael,

    as you know the issue of what to do with one's father touches me closely, and it is a hard one. Like all human relations, my take would be that one needs to evaluate the specific situation carefully, accounting for one's own feelings (which can easily be conflicting), as well as, as you point out, the potential fall out with the rest of one's family.

    However, the often heard simplistic comment "he's your father, you have the same blood" is a no-starter. There certainly are deep instinctual bonds between parents and offspring, but those bonds cannot and should not be all-determining.

    When my own father died a few years ago I wept uncontrollably (to my own surprise). But that doesn't change the fact that we had a horrible relationship, that we hardly talked for months at a time and, frankly, that he was an all-around jerk. I just hope I haven't inherited too many of his genes... :)

  31. "But that doesn't change the fact that we had a horrible relationship, that we hardly talked for months at a time and, frankly, that he was an all-around jerk. I just hope I haven't inherited too many of his genes... :)"

    That's a shame. Really and I mean it sincerely. Men have it harder in many respects. And because they have it more difficult, without some good resource on what to do with deep sadness and anger, many will do totally the wrong thing. (especially as their families are concerned) Men who are perpetually angry, are just fearful. Fearful that they can't control their own selves much less anyone else.

    I did not have to live with my dad who use to be rather a murderous type of person like you did. He had such serious anger he nearly killed someone on several occasions. Or maybe he did. But because I was always a little bit afraid of him, (he’s huge guy) I probably married someone somewhat for protection who was a pretty close second in powerfulness and aggression. Fortunately, for all of us tho, my husband has changed A LOT. And if he can, anyone can. :) People from his past are often just totally blown away at what different person he is today. He has spent the last several years asking forgiveness from our kids for various things from the past.

    So life can be better in the future, Massimo. Thankfully we all still have the choice to be different if set our mind to it.

    But most importantly,I believe in love. Sincere love gives us the "want to" to change and not repeat offending behavior from the past.

  32. This is an old thread and maybe only Massimo will see this. But a friend sent me something pertinent this week about a particularly popular "symbol" here, and I thought it was interesting:

    The Un-American Pledge of Allegiance

    It kind of expresses the diffuse feeling I had towards the pledge (we usually only focus on the "under god" junk), but more elegantly and with facts and... stuff. I didn't know the American pledge of allegiance had been written by a Socialist. I wonder what Fox News would say about that little piece of information (I'm assuming it's true).

    I guess not many people think of it from that angle.


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