It isn’t easy being human. As neither beasts nor gods, we must figure out for ourselves how to live. Socrates describes this challenge, seemingly unique to us—in what must rank among the great understatements of history—as “no small problem.” As if this were not enough, however, two tendencies endemic to the human condition conspire to make our problem larger. One makes trouble by leading us to think that we really are beasts after all, clever animals forever locked in a zero-sum struggle for survival and supremacy. The other tempts us in the opposite direction, seducing us with the lofty thought that we are in fact gods, capable of divining the one and only right way to live. I call these frames of mind realism and righteousness, respectively. Choosing to be human requires resisting both these tendencies, and I can think of no more effective form of such resistance than philosophy.
The significance of philosophy is perhaps most clearly seen in the ways in which realism and righteousness attempt to deny or distort it. Let’s consider the deniers first. These are the people who smugly remind us what life is actually like in the real world. Often acting as though they were performing a vital public service, they take every opportunity to inform us that the real world is a hard, unforgiving and pitiless place, which offers no refuge for the soft-hearted and tender-minded souls who pathetically wish it weren’t so. Such people are the proud ambassadors of a realm in which naked self-interest is lauded as virtue and the voracious appetite for power seeks to monopolize every reward. Winners and losers alone populate the real world and each get exactly what they deserve.
There is more than a passing resemblance between this so-called real world and the state of nature conceived by seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Arguing that our “natural condition” amounts to a war of “every man against every man,” Hobbes contends that, in this situation, the “notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have … no place.” Much the same could be said of the real world. There, too, it makes little sense to speak of “Mine and Thine distinct; but only that to be every mans that he can get; and for so long as he can keep it.” Beneath the similarities, however, lurk meaningful differences.
Writing during the social upheaval of the English Civil War, Hobbes uses the image of the state of nature to show us the sort of strife we should expect when a critical mass of people abandon the moral restraints of civil society and amorally pursue personal gain. Hobbes argues that the “natural equality” of human physical and mental capacities ensures that the resulting conflict is perpetual, thereby condemning us to an existence that is “poore, solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Hobbes insists that the relative peace and security of our social lives is the result of an implicit “contract,” whereby each of us has agreed to lay down our “natural right … to everything; even to one anothers body … and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himselfe.” Only by remaining faithful to this social covenant, and submitting ourselves to its moral authority, can we avoid allowing our lives to devolve into a deadly game of king of the hill.
The apologists for the real world, by contrast, insist that they are showing us life shorn of its illusions. Pulling back the veil, they claim, reveals no evidence of the natural equality Hobbes describes, but rather an emphatic inequality of power and influence and the psychological traits most effective for attaining them. Most significantly, they insist that the real world is inescapable: resistance is futile. In an essay describing the New York that nurtured the current president, for example, Frank Rich writes that it is “a realm where everyone has his (or her) price, and clout is always valued higher than any civic good. All that matters is the next transaction. Since time immemorial, those who find it unsavory are invariably dismissed as naïve.”
Those with great wealth and privilege or without shame live comfortably in this space, but the rest of us do not. In New York—the city I live in, which is very much the realist beachhead that Rich describes—those without clout are left to struggle with grossly inferior schools, criminally negligent social services and a justice system that, far from blind, is disproportionally punitive to the poor and to people of color. And, on top of that, the rents are too damn high. But, as devastating as these inequities are, realism poses an even worse moral peril: succumbing to the cynicism that people who profit from this status quo attempt to instill in those who don’t.
The greatest defeat any soul can suffer is to lose faith in its own capacity to bring about change. It is this voluntary abdication of agency that renders you truly powerless. To believe that there is nothing you can do, that all efforts to improve your circumstances and those of your loved ones are pointless, is to fall victim to the ultimate con: that the way things are is the way things have always been and will always be. We stand to lose everything, therefore, when we begin to believe in the inevitability of the real world.
The real world is a swindle, and we must resist it—and resist the resigned hopelessness that those who peddle it aim to induce. A certain degree of naiveté is precisely what we need, for it is only by retaining our sense of wonder—that innate human capacity to question why—that we stand any chance of escaping the actual. When we insist on asking why the world is the way it is and why people behave as they do, our questions naturally lead to others, and eventually our imaginations summon up the myriad ways that the world and its people might be different. By wondering about the actual we inevitably discover—and invent—the distinctly human space of the possible.
Philosophy as Resistance to Reality
What I am describing may sound simple-minded and childlike, but the process is profound. “Wonder,” Socrates says, “is where philosophy begins and nowhere else.” This is because philosophy is the crucial activity of exploring and charting the possible, “the domain,” as the philosopher W. V. Quine puts it, “of all our plans and conjectures, all our hopes and fears.” The importance of the possible is that we can use it to measure the actual and find it wanting. By entering the sphere of the possible, we become acquainted with the ideals, goals and dreams that will guide our efforts to replace the real world with a better one. That is why cynicism is so dangerous: it tempts us to think that anything better is impossible. The cultivation of philosophy is therefore essential.
If our lives are to be improved and our societies reformed, we must foster in each other—and, most importantly, in our children—the skills, techniques and methods that allow us to critically inspect our convictions, practices and institutions. We must relentlessly ask ourselves whether our society fulfills the functions and serves the needs we too readily assume that it does. That is hard. Philosophy is exercise for the mind, and—as with bodily exercise—it is much easier to do nothing, to just sit back and passively consume reality, as it is dished out to us. To philosophize is to resist this junk reality and the unhealthy—and inhumane—complacency it causes. Yet, choosing to explore the possibilities of being human presents its own challenges, the most significant of which is having to resist the lure of thinking that we can ever get being human right.
Why Righteousness Is Wrong
The righteous, much like the realists, think they know better—not about how the world really is, but about how it ought to be. Hence, they condemn those who question their judgment or methods, not as benighted fools, but as moral failures, too reprobate to be reasoned with, deserving of exile from our continuing discourses about how to live. The righteous mindset moves to deplatform, cancel and otherwise morally censor those it deems mendacious and immoral, routinely issuing indictments against would-be interlocutors for bigotry, bias and insensitivity.
It is important to distinguish between what righteousness is and what it is not. Immeasurable suffering is inflicted on human beings by those who claim that right by virtue of their race, sex, national origin, religion or superior moral clarity. To acknowledge these horrors—and, where possible, atone for them—is our responsibility. Righteousness, however, though frequently justified as the means of rectifying human misery, too often rivals realism in perpetuating it.
The righteous and the realists both wreak havoc—but in revealingly different ways. While the realists generally deny the possibility of human improvement, the righteous aim to dictate its results. Realists from Roy Cohn to Vladimir Putin, from slave owners to gay bashers, either sneer at the discourses that shape our norms or use whatever power and privilege they possess to manipulate or invalidate them. For the righteous, however, “humanity’s ongoing conversation about what to do with itself,” which Richard Rorty dubs “cultural politics” in his book Philosophy as Cultural Politics, is a culture war, which must be fought, as Sohrab Ahmari has recently argued with unsettling earnestness, “with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
Ahmari is an explicitly religious thinker, yet righteousness needn’t be rooted in religious belief. The avowedly secular are just as susceptible to the belief that they have a moral obligation to save society from itself and to police the speech and behavior of others. Nor is religious faith a prerequisite for regarding those who disagree as infidels and construing reasoned criticism as a form of persecution. If faith is a feature of the righteous mind, then it is bad faith, for these attitudes poison the public sphere by recasting as the primary threat those who prefer to reason their way to an agreement about what we owe each other, rather than demeaning and oppressing people as a matter of course. Hence, in the fog of the cultural war zone, many casualties result from friendly fire—people are killed for being insufficiently committed to the righteous cause. It is telling that the object of Ahmari’s ire is David French, an evangelical Christian who has spent much of his career seeking First Amendment protections for the religious, but who believes that this also requires defending the right of public libraries to host drag queen story hour. We can see this same tendency to attack potential allies when concerns about the safety of puberty blockers are met with charges of transphobia, or when skepticism about reparations is branded as racist. Among the more lamentable features of the righteous mindset is that the righteous feel justified in making enemies of those who might help them do good.
The Wisdom of Knowing that You Do Not Know
The good appears under many guises, but is very rarely found among the spoils of war. And yet countless wars—from private conflicts to global conflagrations—are fought in the name of settling once and for all how to live our lives. The combatants believe they have the single correct answer to this question and must impose it on others. With their truth, they aim to set the rest of us free—or, at any rate, set us right.
Being human, however, is not a problem in need of a solution. It is an invitation to create meaningful things: meaningful individual lives, communities and societies. All three of these projects are collaborative. When someone insists that she alone knows how to go about creating meaningfulness, she is attempting to exert control over what should be a collaboration. We ought to resist this—not because including a variety of perspectives will make it easier to discover the truth, but because it will create a social whole that is more representative and responsive to the needs and capabilities of its parts. We do not—and never will—know our own limits. That is what makes our lives worth living. We should resist realism and righteousness, if we want them to stay that way.