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Sunday, November 28, 2010


The latest issue of the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS has an interesting piece by Mark Lilla on Glenn Beck, taking off from a review of five books by or about Beck. Lilla spends some time on the speech Beck gave at the rally he organized in Washington, pointing out some surprising passages in it. Here is the url.

The piece is enjoyable, full of shrewd and snarky comments, just the sort of stuff someone on the left would want to read about the terrible Beck. But then I began thinking: Suppose someone offered me the opportunity to address a big crowd on the Washington mall, and asked me to state, simply and clearly, what I believe -- not what I think is wrong with Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or Sharon Angle or Mitch McConnell or any of the other Republican horrors, but positively, affirmatively, to say Credo -- this I believe. Could I do it? Or would I almost immediately descend into particular criticisms of this or that governmental policy? Would I be reduced to offering a laundry list of bills I want the next Congress to pass? What, in fact, do those of us on the left actually believe?

It doesn't have to be original. Indeed, it would be much better if it were not. After all, as Kant responded when it was pointed out that the Categorical Imperative was little more than the Golden Rule, How could you possibly expect originality in the fundamental principle of morality?

So, after turning the question over in my mind for a day or two, here is my first attempt at a statement of what I believe. It is short [uncharacteristic for me, I know], and has not a word in it that can be called original. But it really is what I believe. Whether anyone else in American believes it I leave to others to ascertain.

We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species.

All of us eat grain we have not grown, fruit we have not planted, meat we have not killed or dressed. We wear clothes made of wool we have not combed and carded, spun or woven. We live in houses we have not built, take medicines we neither discovered nor produced, read books we have not written, sing songs we did not compose. Each of us is completely dependent on the inherited knowledge, skill, labor, and memory of all who have gone before us, and all who share the earth with us now.

We have a choice. We can acknowledge our interdependence, embracing it as the true human condition; or we can deny it, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are related to one another only as parties to a bargain entered into in a marketplace. We can recognize that we need one another, and owe to one another duties of generosity and loyalty. Or we can pretend to need no one save through the intermediation of the cash nexus.

I choose to embrace our interdependence. I choose to acknowledge that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the house in which I live are all collective human products, and that when any one of us has no food or clothing or shelter, I am diminished by that lack.

There are two images alive in America, competing for our allegiance. The first is the image of the lone horseman who rides across an empty plain, pausing only fleetingly when he comes to a settlement, a man apparently having no need of others, self-sufficient [so long as someone makes the shells he needs for his rifle or the cloth he needs for his blanket], refusing to acknowledge that he owes anything at all to the human race of which he is, nonetheless, a part.

The other is the image of the community that comes together for a barn-raising, working as a group on a task that no one man can do by himself, eating a communal meal when the day is done, returning to their homes knowing that the next time one of their number needs help, they will all turn out to provide it.

These images are simple, iconic, even primitive, but the choice they present us with remains today, when no one rides the plains any more, and only the Amish have barn-raisings. Today, as I write, there are tens of millions of Americans who cannot put a decent meal on the table in the evening for their families, scores of millions threatened with the loss of their homes. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands lavishing unneeded wealth on themselves, heedless of the suffering of their fellow Americans, on whose productivity, inventiveness, and labor they depend for the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the homes they live in, and also for the luxuries they clutch to their breasts.

The foundation of my politics is the recognition of our collective interdependence. In the complex world that we have inherited from our forebears, it is often difficult to see just how to translate that fundamental interdependence into laws or public policies, but we must always begin from the acknowledgement that we are a community of men and women who must care for one another, work with one another, and treat the needs of each as the concern of all.

If all of this must be rendered in a single expression, let it be: From each of us according to his or her ability; to each of us according to his or her need.


Maciek said...

Dear Mr. Professor, I wonder if Your credo represents rather pessimistic or rather optimistic View of Human Condition? On the one hand, we like to think about ourselves as free and independent beings (“self-made men”), but on the other, we like to think about ourselves as a part of a bigger whole. I am afraid, a beautiful (??) dream about self-made men isn’t true. But I hope we are free enough to bear responsibility for our acts.
Best regards after long break,

GTChristie said...

Absolutely eloquent, evocative and noble, both as essay and as belief.

Mike said...

It's all very poetic, but what does it mean? Suppose we were self-made horsemen on the plains. Would we then have no moral obligations to each other? Could we be justifiably indifferent to each other's needs?

Suppose one such self-made horseman offered another his services in exchange for water. Would he thereby acquire not only the obligation to perform the service in question but also an obligation to attend to water-provider's needs, whatever they may be?

Now assume interdependence, and suppose that, because of his infirmities, Craig contributes nothing to our community. It would seem to follow on your view that we would owe him nothing, as we have obligations only to those upon whom we depend.

In all, while I found your speech passionate and poetic, I just don't see how the mere fact of interdependence gets you anything like the kind of morality you're after (or any kind of morality, for that matter).

Chris said...

Hume's is-ought problem perhaps Mike?

Mike said...


Yes, there's that. But even setting Hume aside I don't see how you get the kind of morality Wolff is after, where each person has an obligation to every other person, merely out of interdependence. After all, we depend on some people more than we do on others, and some people don't provide us with anything upon which we depend. The most you'll get out of Wolff's system, I think, is a kind of tribalism wherein you have moral obligations only to those upon whom you depend. You don't get a universal prescription like "from each according to his ability to each according his need."

To put it differently, the fundamental problem with Wolff's credo is not a gap between fact and value. Rather, it's that the wrong fact is being highlighted. If Bill desperately needs my help, and I am in a position to help him, I ought to do so. But if we ask why I ought to do so, I don't think the best answer is that I depend on Bill in some way. After all, whether I depend on him is a contingent matter. I may or may not do so. And even if I did, why should that matter?

NotHobbes said...

I simply love your modernisation of that classic statement Professor
"According to his or her needs"..beautiful! Regardless of input to society(through infirmity etc)then we still ought to provide. But for the grace of god(who existence is not yet proven) go I

Scott said...

But you're not advocating market abolitionism are you? That's just throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

What in God's name is market abolitionism?

Scott said...

I already mentioned it before on this blog but I'll explain it again. Market abolitionism is the idea that all market functions should be replaced by planning. The most famous proponent of this view is Michael Albert and you can read him here:

I think that a marketless world based entirely on planning would turn society into a Brazil-type dungeon of bureaucracy and oppression. This is why I keep asking people on the left what exactly their views are of the marketplace. Seeing as how I generally hear nothing but hostility towards them can I really unreasonably assume that the logical conclusion of their views would be supplanting all market functions with planning?

Richard said...

@Mike. I don't see how a 'self-made horseman' is remotely possible in the real world - that's the crux when one comes down from the ivory tower of thought experiments. Horses have been bred from wild ancestors by countless generations of horse-breeders; they need training and breaking in - skills that have been honed by the same nameless generations; not to mention the riding skills that the 'self-made' horseman was unlikely to learn all by himself. It is these kinds of unspoken and unacknowledged communal foundations of individuality and individual achievement that Wolff is pointing to I believe. As even J S Mill put it (I think) - 'no one is autonomous autonomously'.

Michael said...

Perhaps the most inspiring piece I have read this year.

And indeed, recognition that the work you set out cannot be completed in any one person's lifetime should not detract from the collective effort to move forward. "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it" (Avot 2:21) attributed to Mishnaic sage רבי טרפון‎ (70-135 CE).