Philosopher James Rachels asserted “Philosophy, like morality itself, is first and last an exercise in reason – the ideas that should come out on top are the ones that have the best reasons on their sides.” In this blog, I wish to extol the virtue of certain values. This is not new; truth and justice and wisdom have been enshrined and touted and defended since before Socrates and Confucius and the Code of Hammurabi. The thousands of hours and thousands of dollars expended on reading, thinking, recording, codifying, transcribing, and communicating about ideas is philosophy in action; the quotations and the organization Values of the Wise offers is really evidence for a certain set of values.
“Philosophy, like morality itself, is first and last an exercise in reason – the ideas that should come out on top are the ones that have the best reasons on their sides.”
I repeated that quote because it is so critically important to the spirit of this blog. Rachels is saying that the process of presenting evidence for a certain set of values ought to be based in reason. That is, emotionality and hyperbole and machinations should be assiduously avoided. You can see that in certain motives and actions – that folks believe something, but it doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny. Two examples that come to mind are organized religion (both Christianity and Islam and to a lesser extent Judaism and Buddhism) stand on a foundation of sand; faith is needed to prop it up and prevent its collapse. Emotions are fine when one is listening to music, falling in love, or rooting for a favorite sports team. Faith is not something that should come into play when one’s ideal goal is to assemble evidence for a certain set of values. Reasons are what do the work.
You hear a lot of back and forth about opinions people hold about favorite values, guiding principles, and even programs. Concepts, ideals, and institutions such as faith, capitalism, the ethics of abortion, racial equality, democratic socialism, religion, free market principles, social programs, military might, government, corporatism, affirmative action, patriotism, drugs, welfare, health care, immigration, state power, freedom of the press, constitutionalism, and child-rearing are debated passionately, sometimes stridently. Values such as progressivism, social justice, liberty, peace, education, morality, wealth, fairness, inclusiveness, and solidarity are argued about, fought about, and vilified. It is public philosophy we are talking about.
Yet, as the inimitable George Will said, “Someone who is determined to disbelieve something can manage to disregard an Everest of evidence for it.” For better or worse, we live in a time when societal institutions long-cherished and constitutive institutions and norms are being challenged, eroded, and forced to evolve. The scandals that rock the Catholic Church, the White House, and the Commons (e.g., school shootings, social media giants affecting elections and everyone’s psychological health) are putting society under a significant strain. I imagine that Romans who were educated enough to look back to the time of the Republic, or Agustus and Cicero, and who were experiencing fragmentation, polarization, and distraction (e.g., bread and circuses) felt similarly to a conscientious liberal such as myself or a good-hearted Christian fundamentalist such as many of my neighbors feel today. One need only look to Charlottesville, VA in 2017 to see how many divisions and and how much tumult America is undergoing. Well, has undergone.
Republicans (the rank and file, and those in power) are moving society toward an autocracy, a resurgence of white supremacy, and indebtedness, and progressives are tearing at the fabric of free speech, capitalism, gun rights, and the long-held power structures. Values such as independence vs. community, social welfare vs. individual supremacy, and freedom vs. state compulsion are on the table. How does one decide when thinking, discussing, arguing, or despairing?
My thesis is that if one looks for it, evidence for a certain set of values can certainly be found. Evidence is akin to that which animates the judicial system, or the philosophical enterprise. When I quoted professor Rachels saying “Philosophy, like morality itself, is first and last an exercise in reason – the ideas that should come out on top are the ones that have the best reasons on their sides,” I mean to emphasize that certain values have more reason to believe in them than others do. Similarly, critical thinking, empirical research, and disciplines such as sociology can provide evidence for a certain set of values and will help to clarify the muddy water in which we find ourselves.
What exactly do I mean? Well, take any number of a) values held by citizens or b) norms, institutions, or competing doctrines that are argued about. One easy example is white supremacy vs. pluralism. Obviously, America has stood for both over the centuries. Pluralism might have been our stated ideal, but racism and discrimination were often the actual embodiment of our national character (it pains me to say). Look at the situation of Emmet Till or some of Donald Trump’s moves (“birtherism” or separating immigrants from their children), or Ruby Bridges, the first African-American girl to attend school in the Deep South. Why did every white parent pull their child out of the school Ruby attended? Racism, ignorance, and hatred. The discussions at dinner tables in New Orleans, circa 1960, probably sounded like “I’ll be damned if some government official is going to tell me that my child has to go to school with that nigger!” This Norman Rockwell painting will forever sear white supremacy, Jim Crow, and slavery into the hearts of Americans; it is America’s Holocaust.
The question is, which sides of an argument can marshal the best evidence for a certain set of values? On the table with Ruby Bridges were egalitarianism, love, civil rights, respect, progressivism, courtesy, education, and pluralism VS. white supremacy, racism, prejudice, bigotry, reactionary politics, and hate.
Wouldn’t it be better to just let sleeping dogs lie, be conservative, and move on? Ignore the “great ugliness”, as Southerners used to call societal hot-spots such as (and I’m not joking) the Civil War. Indeed, the Civil War was fought because South Carolina and other states felt that the Northerners were going to cut them off at the knees (politically, economically, culturally) by outlawing slavery. That was a bridge too far. The union was not supreme, individual rights were. Their argument led to secession and war and 600,000 deaths as brother fought brother on foggy battlefields. Our nation was torn asunder over economic, political, and ideological differences of massive proportions. Who was right?
History has shown that there is not sufficient evidence for a certain set of values, and that certain others really were morally right, philosophically sound, and justifiable. The ideas that should come out on top are the ones that have the best reasons on their sides. Reasons such as “We are going to destroy the United States because it is important that we have the right to maintain slavery as an economic and cultural way of life” sounds hollow, pathetic, and wanton nowadays, but some still feel that way (those who fly the Confederate Flag, oftentimes). Despite Trump’s outlandish behavior, some 25% of Americans fully stand behind him, come what may. But we aren’t talking about green vs. yellow, or Coke vs. Pepsi; the ideas that should come out on top are the ones that have the best reasons on their sides. There is no reason why Pepsi is better than Coke; that is just opinion. There are no sufficient and valid reasons why schools should be segregated by law.
Some issues, such as abortion rights, are somewhat arguable. Gun rights has some reasons for and against. Taxation is a matter that most politically-active conservatives will “go to the mattresses” about, and liberals hate the thought of a Steve Bannon or other bigot being granted airtime on college campuses. We all know what hot-button political, religious, social, and cultural topics are because they are on the 24-hour news cycle and on Trump’s Twitter feed. We also have rancorous discussions during holidays, when family comes in from out of town. Whether Christmas is being treated unfairly by the “liberal media” and whether conservatives are ruining national politics are questions that animate countless discussions. Beneath all these issues and debates is the phenomenon, what evidence for a certain set of values can be mustered?
At Charlottesville, VA you heard “One people, one nation, end immigration,” “Jews will not replace us,” “White lives matter,” and “Blood and soil.” At rallies and hangings and schools in the past, whites have also shouted “Die nigger!” Much of this is hate speech, protected but morally very objectionable, and some statements could be considered “fighting words” not protected by the First Amendment. These are verbal quotes. They are meant to validate and provide support for one’s beliefs, dogmas, axioms, principles, and values.
Other quotes of note include “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it within or we find it not” (Emerson) and “I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of; that is all agnosticism means” (Clarence Darrow). Everything that can be imagined has probably been said at one time or another, and much of it has been written down. The oldest quote we know of is from the Akkadian/Sumerian poet Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE). Today, you can hear such remarkable phrases come out of peoples’ mouths as slavery was a choice (source) on the one side, and wonderful or funny quotes on the other (and this is both): “Love is staying awake all night with a sick child – or a very healthy adult!” Words can change the world, the author Thomas Schulman wrote for the movie Dead Poet’s Society, and the values of an individual, community, or culture can certainly do so.
To wrap up my point, certain values are (and this word will not endear me to liberals) better than others. Values of the Wise is based largely on quotations. Quotes are one or more sentences that stand out as being the pithiest, most substantive, most compelling thoughts human beings have on topics that they were passionate about when they wrote or spoke those words. Quotes truly run the gamut, from laudable and beautiful to vile and repugnant. Quotes can be thought of as evidence for a certain set of values. If someone ever asks “What makes you say that?” Or “Why do you believe that?”, they are asking you to provide evidence for your claims. Philosophy is largely dedicated to providing (and refuting) evidence for claims, for claims make up theories, and theories are propositions about how something in the world works.
This all might sound incredible, from the perspective that truth is hard to identify. Both post-modernist liberals and conservative con men tout this perspective. When the President of the United States lies three, four, ten times a day – often in public – it can be very confusing as to what’s what. When the media is portrayed in Orwellian terms, we don’t know if truth can be counted on. Literally, the other day, Rudy Guiliani – a huckster if there ever was one – said, and I quote, “Truth is not truth.”
Truth is not truth! The nerve of that sonofabitch. At the end of the day, discerning truth from falsehood and information from lies is not an easy task, determining what you believe, why, and how to defend it, and when to ease up and accept you are wrong. It is the realm of wisdom. However, the alternative is easier but treacherous in its own right.
Read this blog about telling truth from lies in the modern era.
Robert Nozick made a name for himself with an early defense of libertarian principles in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He states in his book An Examined Life that “The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate, in part because it did not fully knit the humane considerations and joint cooperative activities it left room for more closely into its fabric.” This is his reconsideration of the reasons behind his support for libertarianism as an economic/political philosophy. Thus, now, he and, say, Ron Paul would have sharp disagreements about how libertarianism works in practice in a society such as the United States. The values of liberty, libertarianism, communalism, cooperativeness, progressivism, and solidarity are on the table, here.
Quotes can act as evidence for a certain set of values. I personally am about 30% libertarian and 70% egalitarian-liberal (e.g., “liberal” or progressive). This makes me somewhat of a “left-libertarian” but more of a “welfare statist”. The point is not the label, but which quotes I find useful to describe my belief system, and which values they represent. Nozick goes on to write (p. 287):
“It is all very well, someone might say, to mark human solidarity through official [community or state] action, but we do that through respecting the rights of individuals not to have their peaceful lives interfered with, not to be murdered, etc. and this is sufficient expression of our human respect for our fellow citizens; not only is there no need to interfere any more greatly in citizens’ lives in order to bind them more closely to their fellows, that interference with individual autonomy itself denotes a lack of respect for it.”
That was a quote in favor of libertarianism. Nozick then goes on, however, to point out that “A particular individual might prefer to speak only for himself. But to live in a society and to identify with it necessarily lays you open to being ashamed of things for which you are not personally responsible – wars of oppression or subverting foreign governments, for example – and to being proud of things you yourself have not done. A society sometimes speaks in our names.” This is a point of view that buttresses the idea that we are not a group of individuals who need to protect themselves against government as much as we are a society of persons who have chosen to come together as Americans, and that will bring certain privileges and certain responsibilities. A family is not a group of individuals looking to get an edge and exercise total autonomy as much as it is a family. Folks who want to live as true individuals don’t do all that well in close family units or societies which are integrated and socially coherent.
This little tangent into libertarianism vs. democratic socialism (I suppose) is but one of innumerable ways to think about substantial issues facing us as citizens, community members, persons, and lovers of wisdom. Quotes provide evidence for a certain set of values, and in this case, I call those the values of the wise. That is, values which wise persons seek and cultivate within themselves. Liberty might be a value a wise person cherishes, but they also fully recognize that no man is an island unto himself (John Donne). Scholar Daniel Robinson clarifies this a bit: “On Aristotle’s account, you could not possibly expect a normal psychology to arise within a pathological civic context; you cannot have a bad state and good citizens…; you cannot have bad families and good citizens, because, for the most part…the flourishing and the realized humanity of the individual is a reflection of the polis itself – its laws, its customs, its values.”
There are thousands of inspiring quotations that I think beautifully exemplify and clarify the values of the wise. When you read them, and absorb them, you too will discover a diverse, exciting, and empowering message – a message that will help you understand the power of values and help you put them into action in your life. The positive and hopeful view of Americans or humanity is not something I am completely sanguine about; no less a social critic than Kurt Vonnegut challenges my thinking with: “I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power.”
But in the world of ideas, a David can go up against a Goliath. It is the best reasons that wins, not who has published the greatest number of books or who has more money. There are no vestments and no Maseratis, here. Those who believe in rational, secular, humane, progressive, philosophical, wise, and discoverable set of values have many venerable and remarkable individuals (presently and throughout history) on their side. Values of the Wise is here to help. I have assembled 33,000 quotes that are essentially evidence for a certain set of values. A few of the quotes that are relevant to my search for a group of values which are tried and true, legitimate, or even superior can be seen in the following:
“If wisdom is a certain kind of knowledge or understanding, we are committed then to valuing that kind of knowledge and to saying whether the best or highest life contains at least some of it.” ~ Robert Nozick
“The ideas I stand for are not mine. I borrowed them from Socrates. I swiped them from Chesterfield. I stole them from Jesus. And I put them in a book. If you don’t like their rules, whose would you use?”
Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.
“Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds – justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on.”
“From perplexity grows insight.”
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”
“I want to start taking responsibility for my life. I want to think about my values.”
The more you read, the more you know. The more you know, the smarter you grow. The smarter you grow, the stronger your voice When speaking your mind or making your choice.
“Our brains are belief machines. We are motivated to believe — especially those things that we want to believe. The default mode of human psychology is to arrive at beliefs for largely emotional reasons and then to employ our reason — more to justify those beliefs than to modify or arrive at them.”
“It may be unwise to reject the sources of wisdom that have been traditionally found in history, philosophy, and the arts. These disciplines do not give us mathematical knowledge or knowledge acquired in the laboratory, but to say that for these reasons what they give us is not knowledge in any sense is to disregard the facts and to put the world of knowable things in a dogmatic straitjacket.”
“We must not confuse what we desire with what is the case; we must continue to base our beliefs on the evidence and reasons, to calibrate our degree of belief according to the evidence.”
A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong. Which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.
“Every time I encountered a new definition of wisdom, or some argument from the psychological literature, I found myself considering my own life; my decisions, my values, my shortcomings, my choices in confronting difficult practical and moral dilemmas.”
“…a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable – books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”
“The defense of humane ideals needs every humane thinker down on the playing field, rather than half our comrades off in the hills, building bonfires to celebrate the demise of the Enlightenment and dancing by the light of the moon.”