The Machinery of Moral Progress: An Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

2011 Humanist of the Year Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s latest book, Plato at the Googleplex, is audacious in conception, intellectually stimulating, and an altogether fascinating read. In it, Goldstein ushers the ancient philosopher into the twenty-first century, breathing new life into the man and his work. The book develops a unique interpretation of the project of Western philosophy and affords new insight into humanism’s intellectual foundations. It will challenge and delight anyone who likes to think.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein at the 2011 AHA Annual Conference. Photo by Leslie A. Zukor.
The Humanist: What inspired you to write Plato at the Googleplex? Is there something about our time that necessitates a fresh look at Plato? Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: I’m concerned that many who speak in the name of reason are, unreasonably, selling reason short by failing to recognize the vital role of philosophy. By bringing Plato into the modern age and reinterpreting the discipline he invented, I aim to show the role philosophy has played, and continues to play, in the project of reason. Philosophy shouldn’t be seen as being in competition with science in describing the natural world. Rather, philosophy is focused on increasing our coherence, seeing the implications of beliefs and attitudes we hold, and reconciling them with one another. Philosophical dialogue unmasks the presumptions that hide our inconsistencies, including our moral inconsistencies, compelling us to expand the circle of moral concern. It’s a real driver of moral progress, and we need to understand both why this is and how it works. The Humanist: You imagine Plato questioning a scraggly Google employee about the Internet and then discussing parenting with two self-styled “experts” on raising exceptional children. Then, you have him tangle with a talk-radio blowhard about fame, money, and power. How did you arrive at these colorful characters and topics? Goldstein: I wanted to explore how the questions Plato first posed continue to play out in our private and public concerns. Each of the scenarios I come up with is grounded in the preceding expository chapter in the book, trying to give the genesis of the questions in the times and the thinking of Plato. In Plato’s day, too, at the very dawn of philosophy, there were plenty of people denying its usefulness, often claiming that religion or politics or some other form of accepted ideology answers the questions he was posing.  As often as I could, without making the dialogues sound too contrived, I wove passages from Plato’s own writings into our own contemporary discussions. The Humanist: Why did you use the dialogue form to explore Plato’s ideas? Goldstein: Plato believed that philosophy is best pursued in living conversation; he wrote with misgivings, as he tells us in the Phaedrus. I believe he worried that philosophy itself had the potential to harden into ideology. And he was right to worry because over the course of its history, philosophy  has, at various times, become ideological. It’s a sad irony that Plato’s ideas have been used to shore up ideologies of both the religious and secular varieties. But philosophy, to be true to itself, is the struggle against ideologies, both personal and collective. Because an accepted ideology becomes the very means by which one thinks, it tends to go unnoticed and so unexamined. And as we know, the unexamined life is not worth living. That’s why lived dialogue—many different points of view clashing together, challenging each other’s assumptions and intuitions—is so essential. Lived dialogue alone can do justice to the vision that Plato had of the field, and his choice of the written dialogue is the compromise he came up with. So I tried to do justice to Plato’s own choice in my writing. And, of course, since I also write novels, I’ve had plenty of experience with writing dialogue. The Humanist: Can you say more about how philosophy benefits humanity? Goldstein: We’re adept at masking inconsistencies from ourselves, most especially moral inconsistencies, since they make it easier for us to act in ways that we want to. At its best, philosophy exposes presumptions that we’re not aware we harbor—presumptions that nonetheless influence our judgments and actions. It examines whether these presumptions are justifiable and consistent with other beliefs and attitudes we’ve committed ourselves to. The Humanist: Unmasking moral inconsistencies: this is where your notion of “mattering” comes in, correct? Goldstein: Yes. At the heart of our moral inconsistencies lie attitudes and judgments about mattering: about what matters and, even more importantly, about who matters. We are unthinkingly committed to our own lives mattering, as well as the lives of those we care about. But the egoistic privileging of “me” and the tribal privileging of “us” both lead to moral incoherence. The very notion of a person entails certain facts about mattering. Philosophy, in insisting that attitudes and beliefs be grounded, forces the recognition that any reason I can give for why I must be treated as mattering is also a reason others can give for why they must be treated as mattering. The facts about mattering apply not just to me but also to you, not just to us but also to them, not just to affluent, straight, white, adult males but also to women, children, the poor, the enslaved, the colonized, the imprisoned, the LGBT community, and so on. Wittgenstein argued that there can be no such thing as a private language. I’d argue analogously that there can be no such thing as private mattering. (I’m indebted to [Suffolk University law professor] Jeff Lipshaw for putting the point this way to me.) The Humanist: So philosophy imparts a kind of impartiality. But reasoning, identifying inconsistencies, revising our judgments—how does any of this touch our moral sensibilities? Aren’t our attitudes and behaviors driven by feeling rather than thinking? Both the Scottish philosopher David Hume and the contemporary psychologist Jonathan Haidt have argued that reason does little to moralize us. Goldstein: What Hume said is that reason in itself is perfectly inert; and he was right. Without such moral emotions as empathy, sympathy, indignation, and outrage, reason couldn’t gain any purchase on us. But that doesn’t mean reason is irrelevant. This isn’t an either/or situation. Here’s an analogy: Kant famously said that concepts without percepts [the object of perception] are empty, and percepts without concepts are blind. Adapting the adage, I’d say moral reasoning without moral emotions are empty, and moral emotions without moral reasoning are blind. Moral emotions can’t make progress on their own. They aren’t self-correcting. The mere fact of moral progress reveals the hidden hand of reason. A view like Haidt’s denies the possibility of progress; it collapses into a relativism inconsistent with humanism. The Humanist: So the fruits of philosophical inquiry are gradually incorporated into our points of view, where they become largely invisible to us. Is this why we largely fail to appreciate philosophy’s contributions? Goldstein: Exactly. Judgments about who matters bear directly on our feelings. It’s only once we believe that a group matters that we feel their situation, identifying and empathizing. Then their rights just appear to us as intuitively obvious, and the tracks of the arguments—always seeking to increase our coherence—get covered over. The Humanist: You’ve suggested that the “will to matter” is a fundamental driver of human behavior and, more specifically, of religious ideation. Can you say more about this? How does this concept help us understand the religious impulse? Goldstein: The German philosopher Karl Jaspers pointed out that all the religious traditions that have survived into our own day originated in roughly the same period, 800-200 BCE.  Interestingly, this was the period that also saw the birth of Greek philosophy. From the Far East of China to India and Persia, westward all around the Mediterranean (including north to the Judean Hills and into Europe by way of the ancient Greeks), there was an explosion of normative thinking—thinking about how we ought to live our lives. Jaspers called this period the Axial Age, because it gave rise to traditions that extend outward into our own time like the spokes of a wheel. Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and the Abrahamic religions all have their roots in the period, along with the secular approach initiated by the Greeks. The Buddha, Confucius, Ezekiel, and Pythagoras were contemporaries of one another. All of us, whether secular or religious, locate ourselves in normative frameworks that derived from that time. I like to call the Axial Age the “normative explosion,” comparing it to the Cambrian explosion in evolutionary biology. The latter produced an extraordinary radiation of body types, containing almost all modern animal phyla; the former produced a comparable radiation of normative systems. I theorize in the book that this explosion was precipitated by certain sociological-political-economic changes that brought a great many people a level of stability and security that allowed them to think beyond the basic will to survive and into a conscious, if inchoate, “will to matter.” What, if anything, can one do to ensure that one’s life matters? The Humanist: And like the Axial religions, was Greek philosophy animated by this will to matter? Goldstein: Despite their culture being drenched in religious rituals, the Greeks didn’t approach the major existential preoccupation of the Axial Age in religious terms. Even their pre-philosophical approach, going back all the way to the Homeric Age, was secular. Even pre-philosophically, they didn’t want the attention of their gods to prove that they mattered; they wanted the attention of one another. They strove to do something extraordinary so that their feats would be sung, and in this way they would achieve a purely secular immortality. This is what I dub the “ethos of the extraordinary.” By approaching the question of mattering in this secular way, the Greeks created the preconditions for philosophy. Socrates and Plato bought into the ethos of the extraordinary, but with major revisions. The Humanist: So what makes the secular, philosophical approach to mattering different? Is there any reason to prefer it to religious approaches to scratching the mattering itch? Goldstein: Of all the frameworks that were forged during the normative explosion, only the Greek approach is responsive to reason and evidence. It alone cares about the kind of internal consistency of which we were just speaking. As a result, it’s the only one that’s managed over the millennia to make progress. The mere fact that we can now look back at Plato and see how much he got wrong, which is something I’m concerned with doing in Plato at the Googleplex, is a testament to the superiority of the approach he pioneered. All philosophy most assuredly does not consist of a series of footnotes to Plato, unless by “Plato” we mean the method of self-critical reason. Now, you could say that religion too, at least in the West, has made progress. For example, it now condemns scripture-approved slavery. But its progress wasn’t self-generating, since, just like the moral emotions, it doesn’t have a self-correcting mechanism. The progress it has made was forced on it from outside. Religion was reformed—enlightened—by secular philosophical reasoning. The Humanist: You argue that the conviction that only extraordinary lives are worth living animated Greek culture and prompted Plato to invent philosophy. Centuries of philosophical inquiry, though, eventually led Enlightenment thinkers to the contrary conclusion: that we all matter, whether or not we make a splash. On this account, philosophy has been working to free us from the very “ethos of the extraordinary” that first animated it. If this is true, might not philosophy someday render itself obsolete? If we overcome the ethos of the extraordinary, won’t the motivation to philosophize wane? Could it diminish our drive to excel in any endeavor? Goldstein: We’re speaking about “mattering” on two different levels here. First, there’s moral mattering, where we think about the rights and dignity that human beings are owed simply by virtue of being human. Here, we work to undo the inconsistencies that permit some lives to be dismissed as not mattering—inconsistencies that deny people the autonomy and right to flourish in a recognizably human life. For example, in parts of the world women are denied education, involuntarily married off as mere girls, or murdered in so-called honor killings. Such practices are inconsistent with the view that, morally speaking, all people matter equally. These parts of the world are in desperate need of normative inquiry—inquiry that dismantles inhumane preconceptions and propels moral progress. And I don’t mean to give our own culture a free pass here. Thanks to the kind of process initiated by the Greeks, we may be far ahead of other cultures in terms of recognizing the equal mattering of all people, but we’ve hardly achieved full moral coherence. At another level, quite different from this realm of moral mattering, are the kinds of issues people have regarding their own personal mattering. Here, personal goals and talents, interests and ambitions enter the picture. So, for example, given my own location on the “mattering map,” it may be important to me that I matter as a writer, and I may be aggrieved if this mattering doesn’t come to me. But though I may whine about it, I can’t mount a moral protest on behalf of my right to matter as a writer. The universality of mattering in the moral sense leaves ego and ambition and our own individually variable mattering maps very much intact. We want recognition for the personal traits and achievements that matter to us, and no amount of moral philosophy will ever change that. [Interviewer’s note: Goldstein’s novel The Mind-Body Problem introduced the notion of a “mattering map”—which has been picked up and put to good use by psychologists and behavioral economists.] The Humanist: I’ve found your concept of mattering useful for illuminating humanism. If you look at core humanist principles—universal human rights, naturalism, freedom of inquiry, the celebration of doubt, well-being in this life—you can’t help but notice that they all function to inoculate us against the temptations of ideological and delusional mattering. In effect, humanism is the attempt to define a shared, reality-based mattering map. I like to frame humanism in a positive light: we’re not so much against religion as we are for honest, responsible, evidence-based mattering. Religious mattering maps are problematic because they are intellectually dishonest and, in the end, morally disorienting. We humanists want to build a world in which dishonest and delusional mattering has no appeal because real, honest-to-goodness mattering is available to all. Goldstein: And to return to the preoccupation that drives the book, all these issues you’ve just enumerated not only belong to the sphere of mattering but also to the sphere of philosophy. The kind of progress to which we can lay claim in endorsing these humanist values is progress secured for us by the kind of reasoning initiated by the Greeks. Stephen Jay Gould argued that we should divide up our human intellectual terrain into “facts” and “values,” giving the last word about facts to science and the last word about values to religion. Now this idea of his, referred to as the non-overlapping magisteria, is, on many levels, absurd (though it’s the kind of absurdity to which you’re driven if you’re tone-deaf to philosophy). But perhaps we can modify Gould and divide our intellectual terrain up into facts about being—and here it’s science that most reliably informs us—and facts about mattering, about which philosophy most reliably informs us. The resources of reason are capacious enough to include both, which is lucky for us and, hopefully, for our species’ continued progress. Tags: