A Valuable Life
The Many Freedoms, How Every Value Needs Every Other Value, the Mental Processes of WCC, and the Practices of CCI
Ethan Nelson is the host and writer behind Becoming Conscious, and I immensely enjoy speaking with him. Every conversation is an engaging exploration into topics that matter, and he always find a way to steer the discussion in the right direction. Recently, I had a chance to join Mr. Nelson for an O.G. Rose Conversation on his pieces, “Expanding Our Notions of Freedom in Society” and “Opening-Sourcing the Transformational Process with Psycho-Tech Protocols,” both of which I highly suggest.
Our conversation centered around the question “What is freedom?” and the following piece will elaborate on points which arose in our talk.
“Freedom” is a word we all know, and we all know “freedom” is important, but what does it mean? From Plato, to Isaiah Berlin, to John Rawls, the topic has been debated and re-debated. To start, Mr. Nelson and I focused on how there are many kinds of freedoms, say “The freedom to go outside,” and “The freedom from being kept inside.” Just because I’m free to go outside (say because there are no locked doors or armed guards), it doesn’t follow that I’ll “be able” to go outside, perhaps because I’m emotionally wrecked and anxious to the point where I don’t feel safe to be out. The reason I’m so anxious is because my parents always tell me about all the bad stuff that happens out there in the world, and yet never do they physically “force” me to stay inside. In this situation, I have “freedom from” direct force, and yet I am not “free to” just stand and walk outside, given all my emotional baggage.
A thousand examples could be made: Just because I’m free to purchase healthcare doesn’t mean I can afford it; just because I’m allowed to visit with friends doesn’t mean I’ll feel free around friends due to not wanting to lose their approval; and so on. A particular point that arose in the discussion was the idea that there is a difference between “legal freedom” and “personal freedom,” which is to say that just because I have the legal freedom to say what I want, it doesn’t mean I’ll personally feel free to speak if my friends consequently won’t talk to me anymore, if I’ll lose my job, and/or if I’ll face social rejection. Legal freedom isn’t the same as personal freedom, but Robert George is right that “law teaches,” and thus we gradually come to be trained to think that “legal freedom” is freedom, as in “the only real kind of freedom.” As a result, we check to see if we have legal freedom, see that we do, and return to our business, cultivating nothing.
Mr. Nelson makes the point in his work to describe freedom as a feeling, a state of being in which we “feel like we can,” per se. I completely agree, which is to say that “feeling freedom” requires us to meet certain conditions, say learning the balance between having the courage to speak but also having the discernment to tell when we should listen, between identifying when we should feel guilt over (say discriminating) and when we shouldn’t feel guilt because that would hinder our development; and so on. To “feel free,” we have to do something, but if we’ve been trained to believe that “legal freedom is the only freedom,” then we will not think there is any work we need to do. As a result, we will not feel free.
“The Blank Canvas” by O.G. Rose discusses how freedom is impossible without restriction: on a “blank canvas” we would be “totally free,” because there would be nothing there, and yet we wouldn’t have anything to be “free with.” We’d need a ball, for example, which would make us “free to throw the ball” up and down, but then we’d no longer be free to play with a jump rope: with the gaining of the actualized possibility, we’d lose potential possibility. It’s an elaborate topic, but basically the point is that freedom and choice are always “trading off” with one another, and yet we tend to associate “the freedom to choose” with a freedom. And yet the moment I exercise “the freedom to choose,” what I can choose is lost, leading to a reduction of freedom. Confusing, yes?
Mr. Nelson and I discussed how the word “freedom” might be used to do too much, which is to say we overfit “it.” If I understand Computer Science correctly, that means we try too hard “to make the map like the territory.” A map which is too precise and too complex is useless, even if it gain technical accuracy: there can be a strange trade-off between “accuracy” and “use.” In the context of freedom, there is indeed “a sense” in which a freedom is at play when I have many options, as a freedom is at play when I am not limited by any “actualized possibility.” But if I use the word in all those contexts, I will confuse myself. This, I believe, is what often happens with the term “freedom.”
There are many freedoms — “freedoms to,” “freedoms from,” “freedoms in experience, “freedoms of choice,” etc. — and very often a situation will have many freedoms at play in a single situation, and gaining the freedom of one will require us to “trade-off” the freedom of the other. Thus, it will not due to simply discuss “gaining freedom” or “freedom being good,” because we have to discuss what kind of freedom. How do we decide which freedoms we should seek and which we shouldn’t? How do we discern the right freedoms over the “less right” freedoms? Excellent questions, all of which suggest for me why the discussion of freedom cannot advance unless it advances into questions of wisdom, discernment, and judgment.
There are many kinds of freedom, and all of them have, at least on the face of it, an equal claim to being focused on. “Buridan’s Donkey” is brought to mind, which is where a donkey is caught between equally sized piles of grain and must decide which to eat. How can the donkey make this decision? There’s no rational possibility, and so the donkey starves to death. It’s a funny story, one I use often, precisely because it highlights many “Rational Impasses” (as I like to call them), and here we can see that at play with freedom. Many freedoms often apply to a given situation, and many of them often seem to have “an equal claim” to being focused on and exercised as well as any other freedom. We are caught between many grain piles of equal size — what should we do?
Well, to start, I think we have to understand that it is not “pure freedom” that helps humans thrive, for as discussed in “The Blank Canvas,” that is a state of nothingness. “Pure freedom” lacks definition and direction, and in that state we tend to be overwhelmed by freedom and mentally exhausted. Arguably, much of “The Meaning Crisis” is due to “too much freedom,” which is to say too much freedom without direction and choice. Of course, no freedom at all isn’t desirable either, because that would be an oppressive regime, so what should we do?
Freedom requires choice to not head toward “pure freedom,” which ironically causes existential anxiety and mental illness. If we gain freedom but don’t at the same time create habits of choice, then freedom will overwhelm us. We won’t have direction, and so we won’t know what to do with our freedom. We will gain infinite possibility, and that will likely just make us feel like we are infinitely failing. The more freedom we gain without a corresponding use of that freedom, the more we might feel guilty for not using our freedom well, the more we might fee like we are “missing out,” and so on. Gaining freedom is not inherently good if we don’t translate that freedom into choice.
I spoke with Mr. Nelson about how in a world with infinite information, it’s paramount we develop habits to “process” that information. Personally, for navigating this, I think we all need writing to manage the stimulation, data, information, and the like which we absorb from information sources around us. Without “practices of processing,” I think it all becomes “noise,” and we will never figure out how to change it into “signals” to figure out what we should do. We also cannot tell what information we should care about, what information we should discard, and so on (Neil Postman in How to Watch TV News is excellent on this topic). Thus, I think writing is utterly critical today if we don’t want to be overwhelmed by information: it is not neutral to absorb information, as it is not neutral to gain freedom. The more we gain, the more we are responsible for processes and practices to handle what we gain. And yet we act as if information is “good to gain,” as freedom is good to gain,” in all circumstances and in every situation, which is to say that information “teaches us what to do with it” as freedom does the same. But this is not true: information and freedom do not train us; we must train them, which will not happen if we sit waiting for information to move first.
As for me writing is a way to process information into something we can use and that doesn’t overwhelm us, so I see choice as processing freedom into something that empowers us versus existentially overwhelm us. Of course, this is not easy, because what if we make the wrong choice? And doesn’t choice limit freedom? Yes, indeed, we can make the wrong choice, as there is a way in which choice limits freedom, as we have to take the time to write at risk of missing out on important new information and at risk of writing a piece that makes a bad argument or one which doesn’t land all its point. Also, writing communicates “seriousness,” so if we write something people might come after us for “really saying something,” and people might also get mad, because “who do we think we are” to write a piece that acts like it has authority? Now, of course, we can write something and keep it private — there are different ways to navigate this — but my point is that “processing” entails risk and difficulties, hence why people don’t do it. But if we don’t do it, there are consequences, existentially, psychologically, and personally. If Mr. Nelson is correct that “freedom is a feeling,” to some degree, then these existential, psychological, and personal consequences might keep us from real freedom.
For freedom to not overwhelm us, we must make choices, but how do we make choices regarding which freedom to seek in a given situation? Didn’t we say all freedoms often have “equal claims” to be chosen? Ah, well, they at least can have that appearance “on the surface,” but even if they do, we can still make a choice. But how? And do note that a situation in which “all choices seem equally good” doesn’t mean “all choices will prove ultimately equal” — that’s a different line of thought. But determining “what will be the case” requires discernment and judgment, two words which I don’t think are often brought up in the discussion regarding freedom and “human flourishing,” but without which it will prove difficult to navigate between “competing freedoms.”
I believe writings train us in judgment and discernment, and it is to those topics we will now transition. I attempted to argue in “Introspection, Empathy, Judgment, and Justice” that we ultimately must make judgments on “what is the good” in order to operate in the world, Classically, “judgment” could be understood as an inescapable and ultimate end of the intellectual journey: if we engaged in philosophy but ultimately didn’t “judge the good as good,” what was the point? Today though, we don’t tend to think of “judgment” as a virtue and necessary step of the intellectual process, but rather conflate “judgment” and “judgmental” and moralize avoiding it, a tendency worsened by our moralization of anything which preserves and maintains freedom (including indecisiveness). Now, don’t get me wrong, there can be a major problem with “judging others,” but “judging what is good for ourselves” is necessary (unless that is we are to be paralyzed with indecision). I understand that “judging for ourselves” and “judging in a way that impacts others” often overlap, but I think we need to keep in mind that “making judgments which impact others” is not the same as “judging others” themselves. We should not judge others, only assess (a case made in “Self-Delusion, the Toward-ness of Evidence, and the Paradox of Judgment”), but we shouldn’t go so far as to think that therefore the intellectual act of judgment is bad. No, judgment is necessary, and without it we cannot organize our freedoms and values. Rather, they will organize us in manners that we do have control over and that we do not understand, or they shall paralyze us into existential anxiety.
In the discussion with Mr. Nelson, I defended the terms “judgment” and “decisiveness,” though while trying to navigate the tension and nervousness those terms can generate. And for good reason: people have been judged as inferior, justifying atrocities, as “decisiveness” has been used to control and oppress. Considering this, we “ought” to be skeptical of “judgment” and “decisiveness,” but I would argue that we should be skeptical of all values, because all values become pathological when used in isolation, outside the concert of all other variables (as we will discuss). The 20th century was characterized by pathological applications of judgment and decisiveness, say by totalitarian regimes and racists, so the pathologies of these values are uniquely “vivid” to us, but we must be careful to throw out the good with the bad. Rather, what we need to do is situate “judgment” and “decisiveness” within a harmony with all other values and virtues, realizing that every virtue and value can become a vice when isolated. It’s poetry, but we could say that demons are isolated virtues.
Often, we fall into “clusters of values” versus harmonies, collections of many values which work together but which are still lacking other values (like “freedom, community, and autonomy,” which is devoid of “selflessness, difference, and patience” — just to offer an example). Clusters are better than nothing — a quartet is closer to a symphony than a solo — but clusters also run the risk of dysfunction and pathology. Why we end up in these clusters can be because expanding to difference always entails existential anxiety and consequences, and we expand into diversity “as much as we can take” before the anxiety overwhelms us and we regress. Thus, we end up in a cluster versus a symphony, and perhaps there are many situations where a “cluster” of values is enough for us to practically thrive and get through the situation. Indeed, but quickly that cluster will become “invisible” to us, like Heidegger’s doorknob, and it won’t be long before we think that we entertain “all the values” when we only entertain a cluster. Then, we can fall back into the mistakes we must avoid: we must think of values as embodied in a person, and we know a person who is “only kind” isn’t virtuous enough, for we also need to be patient. Realizing the values must always be “manifest in a person” can help us avoid isolating values and making them pathological.
Anyway, the point is that what I mean by “judgment” and “decisiveness” could easily be replaced with terms like “weighing,” “choice,” and “commitment” — please do not get too hung up on my terminology. I sometimes think we have gone too far on the side of “freedom” and “openness” that we need strong terms like “judgment,” which connote “taking a risk” and “putting ourselves out there,” but I’m not married to this, and I never want to alienate people simply because my word choice. For this reason, I will mainly use the language of “weigh,” “choose,” and “commit,” though in the discussion with Mr. Nelson I used different terminology.
Alright, this brings us to “the new phase” of this work: “the problem of values needing all values.” Virtues are only virtues to the degree they honor all virtues, but how do we determine if a given expression of a value or virtue honors all the others? Well, this is where discernment, wisdom, and “weighing” are critical: without the ability to weigh and choose, we will be unable to figure out how to work values together and how to exercise them in a manner that honors all the others. Thus, in throwing out judgment for all the right reasons, we have unintentionally thrown out what we need to keep values valuable.
“Buridan’s Donkey” can only escape his predicament by “judging” that it is better to live than starve to death, and thus the donkey decides to deemphasize rationality, set it aside, and instead focus on survival. In this act, the donkey decides that the value of “survival” and “pure freedom” — a choice unaided by rationality — is better than the value of “being rational” (for what will that value gain, in this situation, other than kill the donkey). Now, it could be argued that it’s “truly rational” for the donkey to make a “pure choice” and start eating, because it’s irrational to die because both piles of grain are equally sized, and that’s a fair point, but that act right there is to judge “one kind of rationality” as better than “another kind of rationality,” and that is an act of weighing, choice, and met, which I am going to shorten to “WCC,” seeing it seems to me that those three always accompany one another. It does us no good to weigh if we don’t choose, and a choice is meaningless if we do not commit to it; thus, the three need one another as WCC. (I cannot swear that the WCC is a term I’m going to use throughout my work, but I will use it here).
It is very rare to find ourselves in a situation where only one value applies, say justice or freedom. This is a point which bring Isaiah Berlin to mind, who warned that we mustn’t be Monists in our thinking (which I associate with “monotheism”), which for him would lead to political totalitarianism. If we emphasized freedom in all situations as “the value,” we could contribute to the breakdown of nations, the loss of institutions, and egotism; if we emphasized justice as “the value” noncontingently, then in situations where grace was appropriate, we would not apply it; and so on.¹ Believing it was our only hope to avoid another bloody century. Isaiah Berlin wanted us to be “Pluralists,” individuals who understood that different people should all be rational while reaching difficult conclusions and ideas, precisely because what is rational is relative to what we believe is true and/or in according to different value sets, arrangements, and the like.
Isaiah Berlin hoped that we would stop seeing people who thought different from us as (automatically) irrational, precisely by making it clear that situations require different discernments regarding which values apply and in what order, and how that “breakdown” occurs can vary between people and not prove irrationality. In other words, three different people in the same situation can carry out different WCCs, all reach different conclusions, and so respond differently in kind, and yet everyone still prove rational. This is critical: a single situation can generate many different WCCs based on which values people “weigh” as most important or most “fitting” to emphasize in the situation. And who is to say what is the most “rational way” to carry out WCC, seeing as what is rational is relative to what we believe is true, best, right, and so on? We can’t, and yet it wouldn’t follow that “all WCCs are equally good.” Rationality alone cannot help us determine which WCC we should ascribe to, and yet we cannot say that all WCCs are equal — what should we do? Well, master “nonrational arts” like wisdom, discernment, judgment, conditionality, and the like, but none of that will strike us as necessary if we don’t even realize we ultimately need to carry out a WCC. If all we do is try to maintain freedom, which is “freedom without choice,” then all we will ever need to do is think. And in the realm of thinking, where we never must choose between values because they can all “get alone” in the realm of our minds and “ideal forms,” we will never develop the skills of WCC to learn how to exercise them well and right.
When we try to start a business, we find out quickly how hard it is: to allude to Hegel, when we “negate” the abstract idea of “starting a business” into concrete term, then we encounter the reality.² We can almost go so far as to say that before the “concretion” (the “practicing out”), that the idea was hardly even an idea at all, though that is a point I will not stress. Mainly, the notion is that in the realm of ideas, we don’t have to make tradeoffs, we don’t have to encounter the hard realities which make succeeding at ideas so difficult, and we also don’t have to experience “how” different values and ideas can conflict with one another. The realm of the mind is Platonic, if you will (though I make distinctions between Plato and Platonism), which is to say it “is/seems perfect,” which, though some philosophers view positively, is arguably a weakness of thought. The strength of thought isn’t that it can think perfection; rather, “thinking perfection” is precisely why thought can get us into trouble. If it wasn’t possible for us to think (that we think) perfection, we’d perhaps be less likely to force the world into a utopia that ends up nowhere.
We can think perfection, making it easy for us to (subconsciously) think perfection is possible, and that would include the possibility of implementing a value outside a concert with all other values, which can cause Monism and totalitarianism. Implementing and trying to practice ideas is when they move out of the realm of “mental perfection” to actualization, which we can experience as a “bad thing,” because the perfection is lost, which then gives us rationalization to never choose anything, to never decide anything, and to never practice anything, which is to say we end up stuck in a realm of “pure freedom” that can overwhelm and destroy us. We need to start viewing “the perfection of ideas” as meaningless, which I think Hegel can help with, for if we understand that an idea is “hardly even an idea” until it is made concrete, then we will stop thinking that “we didn’t live up the idea” when it turns out we cannot perfectly realize it, for in a sense there wasn’t even an idea to which we failed to live up. If ideas are not really ideas until they are made concrete, then we never fail to “live up to our (perfect) ideas,” because those ideas were hardly ideas at all. Instead, we should compare “our imperfect ideas” with what is imperfectly and tragically possible, which is to say we start thinking like Isaiah Berlin encouraged.
The fact we can “imagine” virtues and values all working together without any conflict, tradeoffs, or WCC in general is a problem: it does not testify to the greatness of thought. We engage in imagination when we “imagine” the world as a place where all virtues can harmonize (without hard choices) and don’t even realize we engage in our imagination: we think we simply think (it is a problem that imagination and “considering the real” blend so subtly, as it is a problem that we associate imagination with “science fiction” and “fantasy,” obvious expressions of nonreality). Yes, it’s better that we think than not, but the fact we can “think perfection” is a problem as much as it is a benefit. Sure, the fact we can imagine “something better” than what “is” means we can pursue a better world, but it also means we can start thinking about a world that doesn’t exist, or possible condition (where all values harmonize) that doesn’t apply. This makes it easy to slip in “Value Monism,” as we may inherently and naturally desire, precisely because “Value Pluralism” requires after thinking and WCC, both of which our “frenemy brains,” which are in the business of saving energy and avoiding confusion, will not like.
We increasingly understand today that we are not “isolated individuals” who can thrive without others, but we also understand there is a ditch on either side, for when the individual is sacrificed to the collective, there is trouble. We understand that, socially, we need both, but when it comes to values we are still “individualistic,” per se, which is to say we are “isolationists.” We focus on a single value, whether freedom, justice, or equality, and act “as if” that is the only value we need to focus on, when really every value causes pathology and destruction when it operates outside of a concert with all other values. Ultimately, all that matters is the unique WCC of values: no value is any better than it’s ability to fit with other values “in the right way and order,” which is very hard to determine and varies between circumstances. Again, this is why WCC is necessary, and even if we know we need WCC, there is no guarantee we will get “the balance right” in a given circumstance (we’re bound to make mistakes). However, knowing we need to be “Value Pluralists” and WCC is a great first step, one that if we don’t make further progress become unimaginable.
It has been said that the challenge of every nation is to figure out how to make “a one of many,” which is to say how to unify great diversity. Similarly, the great challenge of values is figuring out how to “make a single course of righteous action out of many possible courses,” which is to say that our challenge is to figure out how to weigh, balance, emphasize, and focus on the right balances in the right way at the right time. And even if we properly WCC yesterday, there is no guarantee that we’ll get it right tomorrow: we have to be diligent and active every day, anew.
In our “Platonic” minds, values can harmonize with ease, but once we understand that “ideas are hardly even ideas until they are realized,” we can begin focusing on the practice and implementation of ideas, and in that realm the need for balance, ordering, judgment, weighing, and the like all become clearer. WCC is what brings ideas from the mind to the world, and if we’ve moralized not engaging in WCC, then our ideas are stuck in our heads where they are hardly ideas at all. Perhaps this is why our lives can feel empty? Perhaps this is why nothing feels real?
We become human: we are born an opportunity. Similarly, we gain freedom: we are born only with the choice to pursue it or not. A world without the language of “conditioning” has found it particularly difficult to understand that most of the most important things in life are thanks to realization. Furthermore, we must create and condition our environments to support and incubate them. If we want to “feel free,” we must learn to interact with people in a way that doesn’t cause them to feel nervous, which in turn could make them anxious and prone to make us feel anxious back. We must avoid “the eggshell phenomenon,” for example, which is a situation where people feel like they are “walking on eggshells,” unsure what they can and cannot do. In that environment, we might be “free to do whatever we want” — after all, we aren’t wearing a muzzle — but if we say certain things, our brother might not talk to us for weeks. Are we free in this situation? Perhaps, but only in the most basic of ways.
The idea of a “happy family” perfectly harmonizes in our minds, and in our minds it can seem that all we need to do is “love one another” and things will go well. So why is it that so often relationships end up in conflict and trouble? Well, if we follow Chekov and many of the great writers, a grave problem is that people who love one another are often misunderstand one another. We do x, intending it to express love, only for others to experience it as cold and inconsiderate. In our minds, we don’t have to worry about hermeneutics and the problem of interpretation, and that alone makes it very easy for us to fall into the error of “Platonism,” because we necessarily experience our own thoughts free of the problem of interpretation (for we always know what we mean as we intend it). We do not experience our thoughts as “interpreted” but self-evident, and likewise we don’t experience the desire to have a “happy family together” as requiring the navigation of hermeneutics. It just “is,” whole and entire — obvious for all. We do not experience our desire for “a happy family” as requiring anything but good intention: we do not naturally sense or imagine any other roadblocks or obstacles. And our families tell us often that they love us and love one another, so we should be fine, yes? Everyone has voiced “good intentions,” and we experience our ideas as only needing intentions, for we think thoughts when we intend them, and thus they “in their very medium” and expression suggest that all we need is intention. We do not need to worry about hermeneutics. And yet, the moment we bring ideas into reality (as we must) we bring them into the realm of interpretation. And so, we can be caught off-guard.
A reason it is useful to think that “ideas are not even ideas until made concrete” is because then we will fight our natural tendency to consider ideas as “not needing to be interpreted,” and instead train ourselves to think of ideas as always ultimately having to enter the realm of interpretation and hermeneutics. This will make us think hard and more about “others,” an act of love which will also help clarify the need for WCC.
If ideas must undergo concretion to “really be ideas,” then ideas must enter into hermeneutics, and that means we must take interpretation into account if our ideas are to be implemented well. And the moment we take interpretation seriously, we take “others” seriously, which means we are poised and oriented toward love. In a strange way, though we associate “love” with “perfection,” the natural Platonism of the mind actually hinders and hurts our capability to develop habits of lovingly considering others. There is no love where there are not hermeneutics, but the moment there are hermeneutics, then we cannot talk about “self-evident values”: we must do the work of thinking values through, organizing them, weighing them, and then judging that the order we decide on is the order we should pursue and to which we should commit, proving WCC necessary.
Where there many hermeneutics, we must discern what course of action will operate between “between” the hermeneutics, a determination which will not be located “in” a given interpretational framework. This suggests the right course is likely more “invisible” and not something anyone will naturally suggest, voice, or bring up, which means we have to discern it on our own, without any external aid. Now, what is invisible and not provided by facticity and “the situation” is that which won’t exist unless we bring it into existence, which means we have to commit and act. It must be “sensualized” (to allude to a paper by O.G. Rose), which is to say “made sensible, something that can be sensed,” and to engage in WCC is to take responsibility for carrying out that “sensualization.” This is a “nonrational responsibility,” which is to say that if we don’t own it, nobody can see what we chose not to do, and thus we can “plausibly” get away with not doing it, whereas if we actually do attempt WCC, we can “stand out” and become the focus of criticisms and attacks (perhaps precisely because the best path rests “between” people’s interpretations). Perhaps this suggests, in addition to our natural rejection of choice (limiting freedom) and judgment, why exactly WCC is rare? Hard to say. Also, we can always claim that we “thought we had freedom,” that there was no WCC we needed to take “nonrational responsibility” for, because we can appeal to our “legal freedom,” and thus law can be used for escapism, when rarely is law thought to be a possible source of escape.
Because there are hermeneutics, we must deal with ordering values, each of which can suggest to us in their very nature that it is the only value we need. Freedom presents itself as if “the value” (noncontingently) and without need of balance, as does justice, equality, fairness, love, and so on. This is described in “Belonging Again” on how all values seek to “be,” but really we need to organize values to “become,” which is to say they need to “be” themselves in the context of a concert of values that they are brought into to “be.” This means that we must fight and resist the tendencies of values to (“practically”) establish “Value Monisms” erected upon themselves — an act which will likely feel immoral according to the value we try to bind. All values in themselves make an indirect claim that they are legitimate grounds for an “ethical monotheory” which orbits around them, and this is a claim we will naturally want to give into, seeing as thinking according to a single value is much simpler; furthermore, we will not have to worry about hermeneutical differences. To give into “the temptation” to allow a value to “be” will “feel right,” in an emotional, existential, and even moral sense, and yet we must resist this “escape route” from engaging in WCC (as our cultural bias against judgment and decision would have us avoid).
Freedom is only found where we practice WCC, especially under Pluralism, for WCC is necessary for us to successfully and wisely navigate our environments (given the problem of hermeneutics) so that we create spaces of freedom for ourselves and our relationships. We must order and organize all values, and if we ignore values, there is a very good chance they’ll still pop up, only neurotically and pathologically. If we’re never allowed to “speak what we feel” in a measured and trained way, then we will likely one day “explode” and “speak what we feel” in a shouting match; if we aren’t allow to ever feel equal with the people around us, we might subconsciously seek power so that we can drag people down to the place where we feel they have kept us so that we are “equal”; and so on. It does not seem to be an option to me to simply forget about other values and act like they don’t matter, because if we do that, they will still “come back out” eventually. Even if they do not, complex and important situations cannot be simplified down to simple and obvious metrics, which means if we over-focus on freedom, we will leave out equality and justice; if we over-focus on justice, we will leave out individuation and courage; and the like.
In my opinion, Deconstruction has been right to unveil how values like freedom can be used to oppress, and so Deconstruction has engaged in efforts to deconstruct freedom when so employed. However, it is one thing to deconstruct “autonomous freedom,” and entirely something else to deconstruct freedom (and any value) in every possible context. Every value is problematic outside a concert with all other values, and indeed all values can be shown to lack “fundamental foundation” when examined in isolation. But values are held up from the side by other values: values are horizontally grounded by the presence of all other values. Values are not entities which have “ground” or not, but things which are “harmonized” or not. Where is the “ground” of a piece of music? Hard to say. We could claim it is in the instruments, but really the instruments are simply “necessary” for the music to exist. “Ground” suggests “justification,” and we could say that Beethoven’s 9th is “justified” or “here” when an orchestra successfully plays all the notes at the right time in the right way. When this is done well, we can say “Beethoven’s 9th was here.” Was it “grounded?” Sure, but more importantly it was “here.” Similarly, when all values and virtues are rightly ordered and structured — where freedom honors justice, justice honors freedom; where goodness honors community, community honors goodness; etc. — then we can indeed say, “Value was here.” This is key: values are not things which are “grounded” (Deconstruction is right about that) but rather values are things like music, which is to say they are either “here” or not, and they are only “here” to the degree they are performed well. Values are matters of performance, like music, not “objective grounding.” And we “perform” values ultimately only with WCC.
Is a dance “objectively grounded?” This seems like a bad question to ask, hardly sensible. Dances “are,” and they either “are” well or not. Similarly, if I were to ask about some sheet music, “What is the justification for saying that is ‘good’ music?” — would we not have to answer “the performance?” The performance of Beethoven’s 9th is what justifies the claim, “This is good music,” in the same way that the performance of values is what justifies them as “good values” or not. We do not seek a “ground” for a musical performance, but instead listen closely to “tell” if Beethoven’s 9th was “honored” or not, as in ethics we “honor” Jesus, a saint, a hero, etc. — ethics is often “model comparison,” “act-ing accordingly” more than “grounding in.” Some composers add variations, some notes might be missed — we have to listen closely. But we listen, and then we judge. Perhaps we judge wrongly, but just because our judgment might be off, it does not follow that it would be better not to judge than to judge.
Values justify themselves through harmony, as does music, not some “objective justification” or “ground” that proves that “this performance” is “the real performance.” There are countless performances of Beethoven all the time, and some are better than others, but all of them are “participating in” the same activity. Similarly, all performances of “value” are participating in the same effort to determine and manifest “the good,” which requires a balancing of values in concert with one another. This is very difficult, and varies between situations, and complexity abounds for we are not playing the same “Beethoven’s 9th” in every circumstance. As described in “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose, every situation is its own “Moral Game” (like a “language game” in Wittgenstein), which cannot be known outside the particular situation in which the game is exercised and made possible. Rather, it would be better to say that we always need to judge “what music is appropriate” for what situations, and that music varies: we must judge “the best kind of music” for the situation, and judge if that music was performed well. Similarly we have to judge “what performance of values” is appropriate for this situation, and then judge if that performance was done “well.” Did it actually manifest “the good?” Likewise, did that music actually align and match with the situation? Or didn’t it? We have to judge. We have to make a decision. And if we judge it as good, we should absorb lessons from it so that we can implement it better in future situations. We have to commit to living out what we judged as good so that the good may manifest more.
Values are only good to the degree they are practiced. I am tempted to say that sheet music is only good to the degree it is performed, but I will resist the claim, because some readers of sheet music may enjoy the sheer reading of the text. But I will be bolder regarding mora values: they are only good if they are practiced, and they can only be good when practiced together. Values are not “grounded” so much as they are justified through “harmony,” like music and art. It is the sum of their enactment that gives us reason to say “there.”
Deconstruction has helped show why “autonomous values” are dangerous, which brings to mind the dangerous “autonomous rationality” which Hume admonished. Yes, when we treat a value “as if” the prime and only value, we end up with trouble, oppression, and disfunction, and the work of Derrida helped us realize that problem. However, we should take this truth as a lesson that we need to treat value not as buildings which need solid foundations, but parts of a musical performance which must all be played together, and if they are, “the good” will be “here,” as Beethoven’s 9th is “here” when all the instruments and parts work together to generate a beautiful performance. The reality of “the good” is not found in foundations but from “all sides.” (Yes, I like art metaphors regarding philosophical topics, because I believe the arts are best for “pointing at” the emergent dimensions which define most of our lives and that have been neglected, I feel.)
When it comes to living “the good” though, we are not merely passive consumers: we are more like the conductors and composers. We must listen closely to the music, tell when the notes are flowing together, identify which instruments need to play louder — and then make a call. We must WCC. Otherwise, the symphony will fall apart and the music will fail. Likewise, we are “value conductors” in our lives, and we must make hundreds if not thousands of decisions regularly and constantly on when there should be silence, when the strings should grow, when the tempo should change — but please note that the conductor is not necessarily the writer of the music. We are not saying that “all moral codes” are relative or subjective, for there is in fact a right and wrong. But determining that requires being in the situation, paying close attention, and then guiding ourselves and others relative to what indeed “is best.” Musical composers are not “making everything up as they go,” but instead trying to guide the performers to participate in and realize the music on the sheet music. Likewise, we need to WCC to guide and perform “what is best,” but that requires “reading” the situation. In values, our “sheet music” is the situation itself. It is “written out for us,” yes, but it is not like music. It is situational.
Now, conductors can compose their own music and then conduct it, as conductors can also turn out to be great at improvisation in a jazz group. Different skills, though all related to music and found in the same individual. When it comes to be masters at “living valuably” and finding and feeling free, we must be similar: we need the skills of conducting when it’s right, composing when it’s not clear what is right, and improvising when it’s best. Conducting. Composing. Improvising. We could call this the CCI for short, and in my opinion we will not be able to generate, create, and live according to value unless we master CCI. But identifying which part of the CCI we need to exercise will require WCC, the ability of “weighing, choosing, and committing.” We could say that CCI is the “practical manifestation” of WCC.
The great jazz musicians come to mind, like Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck, who were capable of CCI. Based on the situation, they could bring what they needed to bring to the stage. Yes, when in values we engage in composing improvisation, it will “seem like” we are relativists, but when we encounter situations that it’s not clear what constitutes “the valuable course” of action (perhaps because it involves a new technology the world has never seen before), we must engage in “some creative thinking.” Yes, when we “conduct,” it might “seem like” we are hard moral fundamentalists who just “follow the book,” but really “following the rules” is not always appropriate because sometimes there are no rules, and using prior rules will force us to “overfit” (like forcing a large ball into a small square box), causing trouble. And yes, when we improvise, it might “seem like” we have no idea what we are doing and that we’re just “making it all up,” but I have argued throughout O.G. Rose that instrumentation isn’t relative at all: there is indeed “a right and wrong” in improvisation (see “Labels, Names, and Poems” by O.G. Rose). Improvisation is a middle between composing and conducting, no structure and structure, and it can also involve “reading” and “bouncing off of” other musicians and performers. It is a communal act.
Based on the situation, we must move between CCI: one is not appropriate for all situations, but basically we have mostly ended up like Monists and tried to “always conduct” or “always compose” and found ourselves in trouble. Artists and creatives must wear many different kinds of hats and change what skills they use based on the situation: so it goes with values. Yes, in a sense, there is always some degree of creativity in every form of CCI, for even in “conducting” the composer is engaged in “the act of making music” and always adding flares and changes here and there to shift the piece. Never is the artist “only following” or “only leading” — these categories are too rigid to describe the work of the artist — and so it goes with following and living according to values. We are not “always” composing values, conducting values, or improvising values: even though there is always a degree of creativity involved, because we are always dealing with the problem of hermeneutics and changes, we cannot reduce what we are doing to a single category of action. We must change. We must flow.
What I am describing here is not simple relativism: we really must stare at the artist to understand how he or she operates. Art does not lack standards. There is a logic to what makes a collection of sounds and noise “music”: there is infinite possibility, but not “unbound possibility.” Not all musical notes sound good together, and not all instruments can play at the exact same way at the exact same time: no amount of “creative will” and “creativity” can change the hard and concrete reality that trumpets blasting into a microphone and full-tilt will be unpleasant to the ears. Sure, perhaps this could be done to make “a statement” of some kind, but the hard and concrete experience of the trumpet will probably not be “music” — unless in a situation where such is justified (perhaps an Avant Garde theatre or something). But the composer cannot “creatively will” for this music expression to be acceptable at a normal Concert Hall: even at his or her most creative and “unbound”-state, there is still a context the composer has to acknowledge and work in accordance with; otherwise, he or she will probably not be considered “good.”
My point is to say that creativity is not “anything goes,” and so similarly thinking of values and morals as entirely creativity is not evidence of relativism. No, it is evidence of Conditionalism, Situationalism, and Particularity, all of which requires active thinking. Because of this, we must be masters of all three skills of CCI, and we must be masters at the intellectuals acts of WCC. This is critical, for being good at WCC does not mean we will be good at CCI: we must train both
CCI: What we must skillfully master.
Compose. Conduct. Improvisation.
WCC: What we must epistemologically master.
Weigh. Choose. Commit
Yes, CCI entails thinking as WCC involves action — these categories overlap — but the point is that we need both. It will not matter if we are masters at CCI if we cannot weight when improvisation is best, choose to engage in improvisation, and then commit to seeing it through.³
A few points:
We conduct when we understand our control is limited.
We compose when we have to make something that isn’t “given” to us.
We improvise when we have to figure things out as we go.
Again, this is not relativism: this is Conditionalism. This is a life that takes seriously the need to condition, to be conditioned, and to be aware of conditions. We will make mistakes: many of our compositions and performances will not be good, but we have to try. If we don’t, we will lose: we are “always already” in the middle of life.
Let us review the main steps of this paper by asking, “What is it we need to do?”
1. Realize that many freedoms compete and cancel out.
2. Realize we must choose a freedom and stick to it.
3. Realize that choice requires discernment and judgment.
4. Realize we cannot judge well unless we judge all variables together in concert with one another.
5. Realize that once we make a judgment, we must also judge the best way to go about realizing it.
6. Choose and commit to either conducting, composing, improvising, or a mixture based on how the situation unfolds.
7. Perform well.
It is a problem if people lack “good values,” but often the problem isn’t that people lack values but that they lack wisdom on how they should order their values. Even if values themselves are “self-evidently good,” it is not “self-evident” how the values should relate. The relations of values are not “self-evident,” and that means we must work and actively think. We require WCC, for otherwise we cannot organize and determine the right way to go about CCI. Outside relations, values easily become vices, and yet they will continue to feel like values, causing self-deception, overconfidence, and worse.
If it is fair to say that demons are “autonomous values,” then we need values to fight values, which suggests we need music to fight noise. We need concerts to fight solos. We need harmonies to fight the domination of a single instrument. We need instruments to avoid becoming an instrument of an ideology. Values lack value outside a concert with all other values; isolated values become vices.
Freedom is a feeling, and I think we could say that freedom is a way of experiencing time. Does time feel precious or something we want to kill? Is time something we want more of, not out of anxiety, but out of reverence? Do we love having time? A good life loves time. A good life is a life of value and virtue. Thus, if we are to avoid regret, we must learn the ways of WCC and CCI.
Regret threatens our love of time. Freedom is to feel like we overcame the necessitates of life to enjoy being itself. Perhaps we could say we overcame “the necessitates of space” to indulge in the joys of time? I’m not sure, but the point is that we have no hope of avoiding regret if we never transition from “the freedom to choose” to “the freedom to fully experience.” If we are to avoid regret, we must make a choice which we will feel like costs us our freedom and hence is immoral. To overcome that feeling, knowing we need WCC and CCI can help. If we don’t rise to the challenge, “The Meaning Crisis” will only worsen.
I know I discuss the arts extensively, but I also associate “the work of art” with those who truly dedicate themselves to a sport. Sports, arts, entrepreneurship — all of these are undertakings which demand the courage and creativity of the human spirit. For the topics of this paper, a quote from the great Vince Lombardi comes to mind:
‘I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is the moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle, victorious.’
Did we rise to the occasion of what life threw at us? Did we bend to necessity and orbit our lives around it? Or did we take on necessity, discern what we needed to do to thrive, and did we make something good, beautiful, and true out of what life threw at us? It doesn’t matter if we were famous (fame often doesn’t matter much to the famous and can torture them); what matters is that we loved life. Did we love time? No, this isn’t to say that everyone is responsible if they love life, for many people are victims of war, horrible domestic circumstances — there are terrors in this life which victimize, and that should not be overlooked. But those situations considered, the question we all must ask ourselves is this, “Am I doing the best I can to love time?” “Am I working to make myself free?” Only we can know. No one can judge us. We must judge ourselves. Morning is free.
¹For more on Isaiah Berlin, please see my conversation series with Davood Gozli and John David.
²See “Phenomenological Pragmaticism” by O.G. Rose for more.
³That is, until there is strong and good reason to think we need to pivot into conducting (which determining requires the entire “art of thinking” (as described throughout The True Isn’t the Rational), so even this is a deep and complex point.
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