Where we're at and where we're going
This summer I had the distinct pleasure of getting all the way through James Joyce's "Ulysses." Its reputation for being a difficult read is well-earned, but there are also moments of lucidity, like this exchange between the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, and a bar patron:
“‘But it's no use’, says [Bloom]. ‘Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows it's the opposite of that that is really life.’
‘What?’ says Alf.
‘Love,’ says Bloom. ‘I mean the opposite of hatred.’”
Here, Bloom is getting at something I've been thinking about a lot for the last couple of months—the idea that love should be a defining characteristic not just of our interpersonal relationships, but also of our society. Most of us have felt love for a romantic partner or a family member. As I see it, the most important characteristic of such a love is the strong desire for the other person's happiness. Although the brief quote only gives a hint of it, Bloom's dream is that this characteristic should define our relationships in a much broader sense, that we ought to desire happiness for everybody, even those we've never met.
At first blush, it seems that the charge isn’t too great—all we have to do is volunteer at the soup kitchen a little more often, so to speak. But the reality is that adopting this world view has serious implications for our political, social and economic structures. To actually carry out this ideal of love, it’s essential that these structures enshrine and reflect that ideal. As they stand now, however, our social institutions are centered on the rights of the individual as opposed to the cooperation of a collective. This is a useful way of thinking about things, because it recognizes the importance of the person as the basic unit of ethics. But this attitude also obscures the collective nature of ethics—we've taken the fact that we have rights to mean that we can exercise them with little regard for the interests of others.
The result has been an unwarranted faith in free market economics and in property. Now, I'm no Marxist, but I definitely think these concepts have become sacred out of proportion to their usefulness. I’ll go into this in more detail throughout the semester, but suffice it to say that our current institutions aren't yet equipped to represent a society whose members take each other's happiness seriously.
Utilitarianism provides a very natural framework for assessing our progress in these goals. Given a choice between two possible worlds, we choose the one with more happiness. I’m well aware of the numerous problems associated with utilitarianism , but at the very least it provides a philosophically meaningful way of resolving conflicts between interests, something that other ethical frameworks lack. Moreover, the discussion of love fits in very well with this picture, for if we learn to cultivate a general love for others, then it becomes much rarer that one person's happiness comes at the expense of another's. The result is a sort of synergy between everybody's happiness.
Now, the "realistic" reader probably has the objection that the world I envision is naïve and utopian. Admittedly, a world where everybody magically gets along isn't likely to happen anytime soon. It's hard to erase pettiness and prejudice from our emotional vocabulary, and even harder to eliminate it from our institutions. I'm also pretty sure I'll never love a complete stranger as much as I love my parents (I’m not even arguing I ought to). In "Ulysses," Bloom falls occasional prey to unsavory thoughts (he contemplates exacting revenge on his cheating wife, for example), but it's his kindness that defines his character at the end of the day. So let it be the same for us. Maybe we'll never reach utopia, but we could certainly strive for more love and kindness. Even more importantly, we could ask that our platforms for making collective decisions reflect that love and kindness.
So what can you expect from this column throughout the semester? Are We There Yet? is about issues of the collective, understood in the framework of love. We're definitely not "there" yet, and we have a long way to go. It's not even entirely clear what it means to be "there," though I hope I've sketched some of my beliefs on the matter. Throughout the semester, I'll be talking about what I see as the biggest distances we have left to cover. Sometimes I'll cover specific issues, and sometimes I'll challenge prevailing theoretical understandings, but the goal will always be the realization of the ideal of love at the personal, political and economic level. Let that, at least, be the starting point of the adventure.
Eugene Rabinovich is a Trinity senior. This is his first column of the semester.