Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Notes from the Margins: 1. What's the Value of a Communist?

As a sufficiently non-wealthy university student, I tend to purchase a lot of used books, primarily through Amazon, though also on occasion from Half Price Books and other venues. Often the books I acquire will come with little bonuses in the form of notes scrawled in the margins of the pages by a previous reader. These not only provide some fuel for essay topics and further research every now and then, but I think they add a bit of extra charm to the book, too. Perhaps my enjoyment is partly because I don't do margin notes myself, and so they contrast curiously with my usual habit of note-taking electronically or on separate sheets of paper.

Not all notes in the margins are charming, of course. Some are illegible, some are messy, some merely state the obvious, and some are only there to mark sections or passages for reference. I suppose the sign of a good note is that it typically sparks thought and makes you want to have a conversation with the note-taker, yet there are some instances where the opposite is true. You read the scratches of a prior owner and think: '...what.' It's not unusual for face-palms, sighs, or frowns to follow thereafter.

Consider this the first entry in a likely series of posts discussing some of the Notes from the Margins I have encountered in my reading. At the risk of belaboring the gag, they are marginal in more than one sense.


Susan Wolf's Meaning in Life and Why It Matters is a brief little book that lays out the UNC philosopher's view on what constitutes a meaningful life. Taken from some of her lectures, the book primarily distinguishes meaningfulness from morality and happiness, and suggests that an important component of a meaningful life involves activities or ends that are objectively valuable. She mostly addresses the latter issue in the second chapter, where she discusses intersubjectivity, the metaphysics of value, and so forth. 

To give a very simplified summary of her view, Wolf believes that a meaningful life must be about more than just personal fulfillment, it should be about loving the kinds of things that are worthy of love. The paradigm example of Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill for eternity is not made any better if we suppose the gods bestowed him with a deep and lasting sense of fulfillment in his task. What he does is still pointless on the whole. The only time fulfillment can really give meaning to our lives is when it is aimed at certain worthwhile pursuits, and here "worthwhile" means objectively valuable.

In the middle of chapter two, Wolf considers whether intersubjectivity and Ideal Observer Theory (though not called by that name) contribute to an adequate understanding of objective value. Both are inadequate, she argues, and in fact there is no reasonably complete and defensible account of objective value. It is an unsolved problem at present. This should give us pause about to what kinds of things we attribute worthiness. She writes,

My own inclination is to be generous in my assumptions about what is valuable in the sense required to qualify as a potential contributor to meaning. I expect that almost anything that a significant number of people have taken to be valuable over a long span of time is valuable. If people find an object or activity or project engaging, there is apt to be something about it that makes it so - perhaps the activity is challenging, the object beautiful, the project morally important. (p. 47)

Next to this passage in my copy, a note is scrawled in red ink:

So she judges value based on majority view, which is not a philosophical way to think about it, but rather a communist? blind follower's way to think about it.

Underlining, punctuation, and capitalization (Das Kapital?) here are original to the note.

Having just studied Marxism in a recent Political Philosophy course, it's amusing to see Communism here distinguished from philosophical thinking. Apparently this reader sees it less as a political philosophy and more as a "blind follower's way," tied in with majority opinion. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that the lowercase 'c' denotes something more like communalism, as in allegiance to a specific community. But whether it is communalism or Communism we're talking about, I'm not sure why exactly one can't be a reflective, thoughtful participant. It would seem that both call for some level of philosophical and sociological consideration in distinguishing themselves as their own social identities. Then again, that could just be the indoctrination talking.

What's more interesting is how this reader pulls something so foreign out of Wolf's text that it should alarm their presumably conservative American economic sensibilities. Right after the author says in the very same paragraph that the unsolved problem of objective value gives us "all the more reason to be tentative in our judgments," this reader concludes that she has passed value judgments based on majority view. Rather, what Wolf is doing is expressing a willingness not to dismissively judge the ethical intuitions of others. This is pretty much the total opposite of being a blind follower, it is having the awareness, humility, and courtesy to recognize that we aren't the only ones with ideas about value. The author's support of objective value is maintained not out of majority opinion, but by those objects or activities having "something about [them]" - perhaps intrinsic to them - that makes them valuable.

In the very next paragraph, Wolf observes that there are plenty of things that remind us that people also waste their time on frivolous pursuits. From the context, it looks fairly clear she is not endorsing the idea of 'majority rules' or anything of the sort. She is simply sharing the complexities involved with the kind of view that she articulates. Indeed, it strikes me that there often are many concerns people have with moral realist accounts, especially that they may trample the rights and values of the less fortunate. Several other margin notes in the book suggest that this reader had quite similar concerns. Yet in their urgency to find fault with Wolf's position, they missed her actual point, which was in fact lending some credence to their own reservations.

A great deal of philosophy may be about questioning received wisdom, but it's equally important to make sure you understand what is being claimed in the first place. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, Marx criticized Capitalism not out of ignorance or a blind belief in Communism, but from an informed position, which is discernible in his writings from his engagement with the work of Adam Smith. It is also the received 'wisdom' of a certain group of people in American culture that Communist thought (or communalist thought) isn't really thought at all, but a blind faith ideology based on laziness and entitlement. Might these influences and factors upon our thinking be just the sort of reasons for which Wolf advises that we be reluctant to make strong, explicit declarations of value?

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