Sunday, June 01, 2008

Ideas Man's First Annual Open Discussion Forum

Something over on Dr. J.'s blog recently got me thinking once again about one of my favorite philosophical questions: the meaning and value of the future (those are, of course, two different questions, even if they are often confused).

As I said there, I agree with Dr. J. that the issue of celebrity adoptions is a troubling one and one which ought to stir up ambivalent feelings in anyone concerned about (understanding or ameliorating) relations between the first and third worlds. And I also agree with the comments that followed. But while accepting the substance of these claims, I nonetheless found myself a little disconcerted. Now, maybe that's just because I'm a melancholy person. But if it is, it's a melancholia that often unsettles me when I engage in discussions with people who share my progressive politics: faith that we can properly understand the way in which our actions are oriented towards the future (readers of this blog familiar with contemporary continental philosophy will note that what I'm voicing here is a suspicion of any form of messianism --- weak or strong). Bentham addresses this problem by making the certainty of a pleasure as well as its proximity to the present elements in his hedonistic calculus. That's all well and good assuming that we can quantify certainty and proximity; and sometimes we really can. Global warming is a good example; another is disease prevention. But note that both of these are primarily scientific problems where social conditions present an impediment to their solution. Genuinely social problems pose a much thornier problem. Because when it comes to the future, such quantifiability is just the tip of the (quickly melting) iceberg. And when Mill suggests a qualitative corrective to Bentham's utilitarianism, it utterly leaves out the uncertainty of the future.

One of my favorite quotes is from Milan Kundera:
"Once upon a time, I too thought that the future was the only competent judge of our works and actions. Later on I understood that chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty. For the future is always mightier than the present. It will pass judgment on us, of course. And without any competence."

In an article that I wrote about him, I argued that a good deal of his work can be understood as responding to the trauma that the future delivers to us (I might call my earlier melancholia anticipatory melancholia). Elsewhere, I argued that there are in fact two forms of futurity that philosophers often conflate: the futurity of our anticipation (an extension of what Husserl call's protention; or in a Heideggerian vein, the future of our projects) and the futurity that we cannot anticipate but that will nonetheless happen (my extreme nominalism is entirely compatible with this realist claim ....) It's a conflation that is, I think, politically dangerous, and it's a conflation to which progressives are just as prone as reactionaries. It's also one of the reasons that I am much more sympathetic to ameliorative politics than to revolutionary politics.

But to keep things friendly, I'll give an example that we all can agree on (it's a very far-fetched example).

Let's say that there emerges a leader in Iraq who is genuinely capable of bringing peace and stability to the country and (let's be really imaginative here) of reconciling the different ethnicities and factions within the country. And let's say that a future U.S. president isn't so dumb as to get in the way of this leader bringing about this reconciliation. Democracy blooms in the Middle East and the wet dream of the neo-cons comes true...

Let's say that if S. Hussein were still in power he would have been able to keep this leader from emerging.

In this outside possibility, would the neo-cons original rationale for invasion be justified? (We might pose this question to the decidedly liberal George Packer, who supported the invasion on humanitarian grounds but later said he was wrong --- essentially because of the results of how things unfolded).

We all know that the answer to this question is no, but the only way that we can justify this answer is by asserting that the present (even a bad present, an untenable present) has some claim on any possible future no matter how wonderful that future would be.

To come back to reality, although we all know that things are going terribly in Iraq and are not going to get any better, we also hope that things will get better. If things get better before November, John McCain will probably win the election because the very same majority of people who claim that the war is a mistake will revert to their initial position of supporting the war and McCain will say he was right all along.

Those of us who know this is a fallacy will insist that even if things are going better now it doesn't justify the horrors and atrocities that we've (Americans and Iraqis) already committed and endured. But we will lose that argument.

I have lots more to say about this subject, but Ideas Girl wants me to play with her now. So back to the original purpose of this post:

In my First Annual Open Discussion Forum, I invite the tens of readers of this blog to respond to the following question:

"How can we have a progressive politics without presuming that we know the future and without ignoring the value of (even a shitty) present?"


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

One clarification: I'm not saying that we shouldn't hope for a speedy resolution to the war in Iraq b/c it would gaurantee a McCain presidency. My point is that a speedy resolution to the war would make lots of people think the war had been fine all along.

DOCTOR J said...

Okay, so I've really thought about this and tried to work it out myself... but I'm going to ask anyway--

I don't see the connection between this post and the celebrity colonialism/adoptions one. I'm sure it's probably obvious, but I can't see it.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

There are two things to say:

1) It's entirely possible that there is little to no connection. Reading your post (and the ensuing comments) did leave me with a certain melancholia, but that might be because I'm inclined to melancholia anyway. From there, I'll admit that my mind moved in Chris Matthews like ways over to the thing it most likes to think about: what we in academia sometimes refer to as "my project" and to which we try to refer all other discussions.

2) The connection that I was thinking of goes something like this: your post and the ensuing comments struck me as an interesting example of the aporia between responsibility to the individual and to the collective or group. In particular, I got to thinking about a slight shift b/w your original post and one of the commenter's replies. If I understood you correctly, you had juxtaposed the utilitarian benefit of celebrity colonialism (a destitute kid gets the life of a super-star) to the deontological problem (the "will" behind the act is paternalistic at best and colonialist at worst). Your commenter in contrast, (if I understood him correctly) had juxtaposed what I suspect he would not call but what I would call the deontological "good" (a privileged person wants to share their privileged life with a destitute child --- leaving aside the objections to those intentions that he raises later) with the utilitarian evil (the cost of that sharing would help a hell of a lot more people if used in a different way).

How, I started wondering could the same ambivalence be expressed in such starkly different philosophical terms.

Which got me thinking about utilitarianism and futurity.

Etc. Etc.