Dear Professor Wolff,
A few months ago Brian Leiter started a thread on ?What would your biggest regret be if this were the last day of your life?? Unlike some others I took the question seriously, hoping to start a political discussion. I?m reposting it here because it?s kind of a propos.
Regrets, I?ve had a few but then again, not too few to mention ?
1) For fourteen years (1989-2003) I devoted a great deal of my time and energy to political activism, combatting the rise of the New Right in New Zealand, my adopted country. We achieved some successes, but it was a great deal of work for some very Pyrrhic victories. I did not neglect my students and I worked, at least, a forty-hour week at my official job. But it is difficult to be a high-achieving research philosopher if you only work the traditional forty hours. So during those years of political activism, my research career slowed, if not to a crawl, then to a very sedate walk. Between 1996 and 2006 I published no journal articles whatsoever (though I did publish an annotated collection of Bertrand Russell?s writings on ethics plus a couple of book chapters on the same theme). Since 2003 when I effectively resigned from my party (which had imploded because our leader preferred power to principle) I have published 50% more papers than I did in the preceding nineteen years. The result of all those years of activism is that I find myself in my middle fifties scrambling to do all the things that I have always wanted to do in philosophy before I run out of time, talent and energy. (So in a way, I DO regret the time I did not spend at the office.) I am also (though this doesn?t matter to me so much) a lot less rich than I might otherwise have been, since a lower research output led to slower promotion. I regret all the time that I devoted to politics at the expense of philosophy - or, at least, I regret the situation that made it seem necessary.
2) I regret that, along with the rest of my generation on the broad Left, I have done such a dismal job of defending the institutions of the social democratic state which handed us so many golden opportunities on a platter. New Zealand, the US, the UK and (I think) Australia are less equal now than they were thirty or forty years ago, with less equality of opportunity and less social mobility. Of course, the New Right is principally to blame, and some of us fought against it, but its stunning success in making the world a worse place must have something to do with our stupidity, cowardice, inaction and incompetence and the relentless way in which we have persistently barked up the wrong trees. We have failed not only as citizens and activists but also as thinkers, since we have not managed to articulate an intellectually effective opposition to the New Right?s ideas (one that resonates with the wider public). This is not the world that our mothers and fathers fought to create when they defeated fascism and voted for social democracy. And the fact that it isn?t, is at least partly our fault.
?3) I regret that in so far I have been politically active, I have devoted most of my political energies to what is really a side-show. By far the most important issue facing the world today is not the rise of the New Right per se but the threat of Global Warming. (Of course, the rise of the New Right has contributed to Global Warming and has helped to stifle attempts to do something about it, so there is some connection.) Global Warming is likely to bring about the deaths of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people over the next century, partly because of desertification and partly because of the drowning of populous and productive deltas. It might even lead to the collapse our civilization. And all I have ever done about this is write a few articles in the local paper and make a Quixotic gesture at the 2008 meeting of the AAP. It?s not enough, and if I believed in God I would dread his judgment at my combination of complicity and inaction.
As you can see my regrets don?t form a consistent set. I regret BOTH doing certain things and NOT doing them more (or more effectively). You might say that I don?t really regret my period as an activist but the political situation which I felt called upon to deal with. And perhaps you would be right (though I have certainly been a lot happier at the personal level since I gave up on my party). But it?s the second two regrets that are really important. For if you are roughly my age and of roughly my political persuasion, and if you DON?T, to some extent, share in my second two regrets, then the chances are that you are deceiving to yourself somewhere along the line. As a generation of intellectuals, we haven't done a great job. We have a great deal to be sorry for.
T-T-Talkin? ?bout my g-g-generation. Hard to do it without some shame.