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‘I weep for you’, the Walrus said…

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

Shiny happy TED and the shadow of suffering

To make up for my cynical anti-TED postings of the last week or two, here is an awesome TED talk from this year’s event, about the American prison system’s race prejudices. It’s also about identity, and the need for TED not just to focus on technology, design, entertainment, and successful happy rich people, but also to recognise suffering, poverty and injustice, and incorporate them into its identity and worldview. Couldn’t agree more. The speech is also a masterclass in rhetoric – setting out your stall, focusing on personal stories, challenging the audience but also taking them with you, connecting the end of the speech to the beginning. Brilliant work.

PoW: Friday round-up of philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being

I’ve been busy the last couple of weeks, moving house, and working on a new AHRC-funded project, The Philosophy Hub, which will launch in May. It will be a network and map of philosophy groups around the world. I need your help with it: if you come across philosophy groups around the world, get in touch and I’ll add them to the map. This will be the first global survey of the grassroots philosophy movement, so it’s a fun project to be working on, and hopefully will help the movement grow.

Here’s a couple of stories to show how international the politics of well-being is becoming. First, in South Korea, a piece looking at how all the main candidates in the presidential election have pledged to improve the happiness and well-being of the country’s citizens. As the journalist notes, however, 68% of South Koreans said in a recent poll that the main cause of misfortune in the country is…politicians.

Meanwhile, over in the US, Rick Santorum, the back-to-basics Republican candidate, shows how much of the politics of well-being depends on your definition of happiness. In a recent speech, he discussed the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase about the right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’. He suggests that happiness actually had a different definition “way back at the time of our founders…Go back and look it up. You’ll see one of the principle definitions of happiness is ‘to do the morally right thing.’ God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.” Um…wasn’t Thomas Jefferson, the author of that phrase, an Epicurean? Not sure he would have defined happiness as the freedom to do God’s will – although other Founding Fathers may have.

While politicians may make more and more grand speeches about improving our well-being and happiness, the fact is, western governments are broke, and that’s playing out in mental health services.

Here are two stories about that: the first from the US, where a military psychiatry unit is being investigated for allegedly urging Army doctors to think of the cost to the tax-payer before diagnosing soldiers with PTSD. Such a diagnosis apparently means $1.5 million in benefit payments over a soldier’s lifetime. With 20% of soldiers coming back from Afghanistan with PTSD, no wonder the Army is spending big on its preventative resilience-training course.

Secondly, here is a story from the UK, looking at how the British government is protecting funding for its new Cognitive Behavioural Therapy service, while cutting funding for longer-term psychotherapy services. What that means is patients with serious mental health problems are being passed to CBT units who aren’t trained to treat them. I spoke to one cognitive therapist recently who was handed over a patient with manic depression, who then killed herself. It’s not fair on anyone to expect cognitive therapists to shoulder the nation’s entire mental health problems.

Another way governments are trying to improve mental well-being without spending too much, by the by, is using new technology and apps, like this new ‘Buddy app‘ which the NHS is using to connect patients with online therapists.

Jonah Lehrer, the Wired and WSJ columnist, is one of my heroes. He has a book out on creativity in April, which I think is going to be excellent. Here’s a recent New Yorker piece he wrote, based on the book, on why brainstorming often doesn’t work, why the expression ‘there’s no such thing as a bad idea’ is wrong, and why groups whose members criticise each other are more creative.

Two pieces on my blog that have been getting a lot of hits. The first looks at an interview by BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis, another of my heroes, on why he left academia and why cultural trash is important to the history of ideas. The second is something I wrote on self-help, and how it uses techniques from ancient philosophy in the service not of God but of capitalism (financial success, corporate promotion, closing the deal etc), making it something akin to a ‘religion for capitalists‘.

Two good pieces on the history of emotions and behaviour, which show how a historical perspective can add value to discussions on well-being. The first, from the BBC’s website, challenges the idea that we must have eight hours consecutive sleep, by looking at different sleeping patterns through history, when it was accepted to sleep for a bit, wake up and do stuff in the middle of the night, then have another sleep. That’s pretty much how I sleep now. The second article, by a historian from George Mason University, looks at the history of happiness.

Here’s a documentary / interview from 1988 that Ernst Gombrich did with Sir Karl Popper, one of the most important post-war philosophers.

The New Statesman has a new issue packed full of philosophy, including an interview with Charles Taylor, a review of Simon Critchley’s new book on the religion of political ideology, and a piece by Alain de Botton reviewing James Miller’s new book on philosophy outside of academia.

The Economist has a piece on an interesting debate going on now on whether dolphins and whales are ‘persons’, and therefore have rights.

Finally, I’ve been loving the American TV show Friday Night Lights, about a football coach and a high-school football team. Coach Taylor is a great example of the figure of the sports coach as a moral leader or ‘moulder of men’. The show, despite or perhaps because of its old school morality, has proved a hit with liberals, including this lesbian feminist academic, who imagines Coach Taylor as her PhD supervisor. Here’s one of her creations, to celebrate the birthday of feminist philosopher Judith Butler.

See you next week,


Aldous Huxley on the politics of well-being

The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored enquiries into what the politicians and the participating scientists will call “the problem of happiness” — in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude.’

From his 1947 foreword to the second edition of Brave New World

Liberalism and social anxiety

Secular liberalism, which was born in Athens in the fifth century BC, replaced the Olympian gods with the god of Public Opinion. According to the fifth century philosopher Protagoras, who is perhaps the father of liberal philosophy, what drives us to obey the law and fit in with the manners of civilisation is not fear of divine punishment but rather our natural sense of shame and justice. These are the sentiments that enable us to live together in cities. Shame and the desire for public approval are the bedrock of liberal civilisation.

What really matters to humans, according to Protagoras, is not what the gods think of us (who knows if the gods really exist or not) but what other people think of us. ‘Man is the measure of all things’, he claimed, therefore the measure of our true worth is our public standing. This radical idea, which is the kernel of liberalism, introduces a new volatility and insecurity into public life. The old caste divisions are less certain, more fluid. To rise to the top of society, all one needs are the rhetorical and PR skills to win the attention and the approval of the public, and to avoid their censure. One’s ascent could be swift, but so could one’s fall.

Cicero, for example, manages to rise into the senate class of the Roman Republic on the wind of his rhetorical ability, and his ability to network, win friends and influence people. He is the archetypal liberal, deeply driven by the desire for public approval, and at the same time, wracked with the fear of making a fool of himself in front of the public (we hear a description of how Cicero suffered what sounds like a panic attack once when giving a major speech, and he says in De Oratore that the better the orator, the more terrified he is of public speaking).

It is interesting, in this respect, that the first recorded instance of social anxiety is during the Athenian enlightenment, at the birth of liberalism, at the very moment when the public is being deified into an all-powerful god. We read in Hippocrates of a man who ‘through bashfulness, suspicion, and timorousness, will not be seen abroad; loves darkness as life and cannot endure the light or to sit in lightsome places; his hat still in his eyes, he will neither see, nor be seen by his good will. He dare not come in company for fear he should be misused, disgraced, overshoot himself in gesture or speeches, or be sick; he thinks every man observes him’.

There is, I suggest, a profound connection between liberalism’s deification of public opinion and this terror of making a fool of oneself in public.

Later theorists of liberalism built their ethics on the same natural foundation of our desire for status and our fear of shame and humiliation. Adam Smith, in particular, built his Theory of Moral Sentiments on this idea that humans’ over-riding drive is to look good to others, and to avoid looking bad. We imagine how our actions look to an ‘impartial spectator’, we internalise this spectator, and conduct our lives permanently in its gaze – and that’s what keeps us honest, polite and industrious. We constantly perform to an audience – in fact, his ethics are full of examples taken from the theatre. When pondering the morality of an action, Smith often asks himself what looks good on the stage, what wins applause. Morality becomes a theatrical performance.

It’s a similar ethics as one finds in Joseph Addison’s Spectator and Tatler essays, where Addison imagines a ‘court of honour‘ that judges the behaviour of various urbanites: this person snubbed me in the street, that person behaved abominably in the coffee-house, and so on. The All-Seeing God is replaced by the thousand-eyed Argus of the Public, which spies into every part of your behaviour, judges you, and then gossips. Unsurprising, then, that Mr Spectator himself should be a shy, self-conscious, retiring character – we long to observe the foibles of others, yet are frightened of our own foibles being found out.

This liberal, Whiggish ethics celebrates the city, because the city is where we are most watched, most commented upon, and therefore where we are most moral. The city makes us polite (from the Greek polis) and urbane (from the Latin urbs). It polishes off our rustic edges and makes us well-mannered. Liberal ethics also celebrates commerce and finance, for the same reason. The man of business must carefully protect their reputation, because his financial standing, his credit, depends on the opinion others have of him. Therefore, commerce makes us behave ourselves. This theory, popular in the 18th century, is tied to the development of the international credit markets – governments have to behave themselves now because they need to maintain the approval of investors (this is well-explored in Hirschman’s The Passion and the Interests).

We can still see this liberal ethics of status and shame today, particularly in the neo-liberalism of the last few decades. It was believed that countries and companies are kept honest by ‘market discipline’ – by the gaze of shareholders and investors. If a finance minister or a CEO behaves badly or shamefully, if they fail to govern themselves or to apply fiscal discipline, they will be punished by the market. Likewise, our culture is ever-more dedicated to seeking the approval of that god, Public Opinion, whose attention we seek through blogs, tweets, YouTube videos, reality TV shows, through any publicity stunt we can keep up. The greater your public following, the greater your power.

Yet, right at the very birth of liberalism in the fifth century BC, a critique of it arose, also based on shame.

Plato insisted that liberal democratic societies had produced a false morality, a morality of spectacle. We only care about looking good to others, rather than actually being good. He illustrated this with the myth of the ring of Gyges, which makes its wearers invisible. If we had that ring, and were protected from the gaze of others, would we still behave ourselves, or would we let ourselves commit every crime imaginable? If all that is keeping us honest is the gaze of other people, then what really matters is keeping your sins hidden from the public.

Civilisation, Plato suggested, had made us alienated, which literally means ‘sold into slavery’. We have become slaves to Public Opinion, before which we cringe and tremble like a servant afraid of being beaten. We contort ourselves to fit the Public’s expectations, no matter how much internal suffering and misery it causes us. It’s far more important to look good to the Public than to actually be happy and at peace within. So we put all our energy into tending our civilised masks, our brands, our shop-fronts, while our inner selves go rotten.

One finds a similar critique in the Cynics and the Stoics, both of whom lambast their contemporaries for being pathetic slaves to public opinion, who tremble at the prospect of advancement or being snubbed. A man of virtue, the Stoics and Cynics insist, cares only for whether they are doing the right thing, they don’t care how that looks to the public, how it plays on the evening news. Against the spin and sophistry of liberalism, the Stoics and Cynics emphasise the steadiness and self-reliance of virtue.

The Cynic takes the revolt against liberal morality to an extreme. It’s a hypocritical morality, the Cynic insists, that divides our public from our private selves, and which makes us hide behaviour that is in fact perfectly natural. The Cynic breaks down the wall between the public and the private self. Anything which one is happy to do in private – such as defecation, say, or farting, or masturbation – one should be equally happy to do in public. Cynics trained themselves to de-sensitise themselves to public ridicule, not just for the hell of it, but so that they could move from a false ethics based on looking good to others, to a true ethics based on obedience to one’s own ethical principles.

Today, perhaps, we are more than ever obsessed with our public standing, and terrified of public ridicule. As Theodore Zeldin wrote: ‘Creating a false impression is the modern nightmare. Reputation is the modern purgatory.’ We live, as Rousseau put it, ever outside of ourselves, in the opinions of others (this, in fact, is the meaning of paranoia – existing outside of oneself). This desperate need for public approval, and terror of shame or obscurity, is, I would suggest, at the heart of many of the discontents of liberal civilisation – social anxiety, depression, narcissism.

Yet we don’t have to accept these discontents as an inevitable part of civilisation, as Sigmund Freud or Norbert Elias argued. We can in fact modulate shame. We can reprogramme shame by reprogramming the attitudes and beliefs which direct it. As Plato, the Stoics and the Cynics suggested, we can challenge the values that give so much importance to status and reputation, and learn to embrace new values, which focus less on public opinion, and more on being true to our own principles. Many of the Greeks’ techniques for cognitive change are found in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy today – including a technique specifically designed to help people overcome a crippling sense of shame or self-consciousness. It’s called ‘shame-attacking‘, and involves intentionally drawing attention and ridicule to yourself in order to de-sensitise yourself to the experience, just as the Cynics did 2400 years ago.