In Defense of Ordinariness

As a youth, I abhorred everything that seemed ordinary. I wanted only things I thought were special: love, nature, mystical experience, revolution, great art, philosophy. Abruptly, when I began to work for a living, I had a complete change of heart, and simultaneously became much more grounded and responsible. It’s not that I didn’t still appreciate the special things, but I came to a much more rounded point of view.

Ordinary life is to be treasured in its own right. I like to get up in the morning and see the sun shine. Nowadays, I even like to go to Costco with my wife — not because I like shopping, but because I love her and enjoy her enjoyment. Does this make me conservative? I don’t think so. Having an expanded capacity to appreciate the little things is a plus all around.

Now I want it all, from the extraordinary to the mundane. One of the reasons I especially like Aristotle and Brandom is that they both combine the lofty reaches with an appreciation of the ordinary. I distrust the contempt for the ordinary promulgated by contemporary figures like Badiou and at least some of the Žižekians. It seems like a strange kind of quasi-existentialist elitism. If you can’t relate to ordinary people and ordinary things, how can you be trusted to tell us how things should be for all of us?

Evil?

Evil has no place in the natural order, and still less in the transcendental. The most admirable forms of traditional “metaphysics” — Platonic and Leibnizian — gave it no place there, either. Yet, alongside much beauty and good, there is undeniably an abundance of empirical evil in the world.

Among the various kinds of bad things, there is pain or misfortune; there is merely unreasonable or selfish human behavior; and there is real evil.

On one level, misfortune is a subjective interpretation based on a particular point of view, but having a particular point of view is intrinsic to the kind of beings we are, and calling misfortune subjective does not make it hurt less. Good is a formative influence spanning both the natural and transcendental orders, but it is not omnipotent, and even if it were, there would still be misfortune from particular points of view.

Unreasonable or selfish behavior comes from a lack of good emotional development. While bad, in itself it is not truly evil.

Malicious lies and hypocrisy, pathological cruelty, and systemic social ills are all things that cannot be adequately explained in terms of immoderate emotion or desire. Unfortunately, these all really occur. They are not illusory, and could never be part of a greater good. These I call truly evil. As with misfortune, real evil is possible because good is not omnipotent.

Deep malice and cruelty belong to individual pathology.

Systemic social ills such as extreme inequality and the oppression of groups belong to a kind of social pathology that may be aided and abetted by individual pathologies or by ordinary selfish or narrow-minded behavior, but social ills as such cannot be blamed only on the bad behavior of individuals. Their sources are wider and deeper than that, extending to the contingent factual structure of historical societies. On Brandomian principles, the whole community shares responsibility for combating things like this, over which no individual has control. (See also Stubborn Refusal; Fragility of the Good.)

Economic Rationality?

So-called economic rationality is a species of mere calculation, not any form of substantive Reason. Reason not only is concerned with meanings, but always potentially puts presumed meanings into question.

The basic principles of economic rationality are that all money is created equal, and that everything has its price. Money putatively becomes a universal calculator, potentially supplying algorithms for all practical questions. From the point of view of Reason, this may result in sheer insanity. Practically, it causes suffering, and potentially the destruction of life on our planet. (See also Freedom from False Freedom.)

Aristotle clearly considered a preoccupation with money and profit over substantive values to be unseemly and incompatible with virtue.

The problem with capitalism is precisely that in the aggregate, corporations and their agents follow economic rationality to the exclusion of other values. It is made worse by the fact that corporations have the legal rights of persons, without most of the corresponding responsibilities. U.S. law actually enshrines the idea that the first responsibility of corporate officers is financial, so that the law actually promotes disregard for negative human and environmental impacts. Economic determinism can certainly be pushed too far, but there is a big boulder of truth in it.

Social ills are in the main the result of the unfolding logic of situations, not the moral badness of people. The blind pursuit of economic rationality requires no conspiracy. Globally, we are faced with an illegitimate and dangerous but pervasive substitution of economic “rationality” for substantive rationality. (See also Rationality; Democracy and Social Justice.)