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
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.