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Wednesday, September 5, 2018


Despite the best efforts of the Columbia bureaucracy, the first meeting of the course was a rave success.  This is going to be fun.  The only problem is that with both Todd and me there, the students are going to have to be ruthless to get a word in edgewise.  But the entire expedition was exhausting.  At eighty-four, the mean streets of Manhattan are no cakewalk for me.


s. wallerstein said...

I'm glad to hear that the first meeting of the course went well.

Anonymous said...

> "the first meeting of the course was a rave success."


DDA said...

Pamper yourself.

s. wallerstein said...

An off topic suggestion:

A question came up in the Tea Leaves thread as to whether there are good capitalists or not. Many of us are to some extent capitalists insofar as we have pension funds which invest in the stock market or mutual funds, so the real question seems to be how to live a good life under an unjust system, that of capitalism.

I have never seen that question discussed in academic ethical philosophy, which seems to concern itself with trolleys.

Few of us are Che Guevara (and I'm not sure that that's a sane alternative in 2018) or Eugene Debs. Few of us are Robert Paul Wolff, that is, a philosophy professor who has specialized in Marx and earns a living teaching about him, which seems a sane and ethically positive alternative to me. Many of us end up working in jobs which promote products or causes which we don't believe in and which further capitalist exploitation. For several years I translated speeches and papers of an important political figure in Chile into English and they were full of lies justifying an unjust government (no, not Pinochet, I wouldn't have been complicit in that). I knew that they were full of lies, but it paid well. So where is the line between having to earn a living in a capitalist system and becoming morally complicit in injustice. Just asking: I don't have the answer.

So where is the line

Anonymous said...

Rartional altruism?

s. wallerstein said...

Do you mean "effective altruism"?

Dean said...

The question of how to live a good life under capitalism puts me in mind of Glenn Greenwald, whose advocacy for animals and against livestock farms realistically recognizes that wholesale conversion to vegetarianism or veganism can be extremely difficult for most habituated meat eaters (of which I am one). He writes, "I absolutely favor encouraging and advocating incrementalism in behavioral and dietary changes."

How might this translate to capitalism? Bank with a local credit union or bank, don't acquire goods from Amazon and the steps. When it comes to employment, we can't all be Edward Snowden.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean "effective altruism"?


s. wallerstein said...

I guess no one on the left would criticize Engels who used the profits from his family's textile factories to support Marx: that is truly effective altruism.

MS said...

(M.S., Part One)

Since I was one of the principal participants in the blog thread that s. wallerstein is referring to, I feel obliged to offer my opinion – not, as a previous commenter has accused, to impose my “wisdom” on this blog’s readers, but to provide an alternative view, to which I have given some thought.

I submit that it is error to apply moral judgments to people based on the economic regimen to which they subscribe, or in which they participate. A person’s moral character should be judged, I believe, by his/her actions, or lack thereof, not his/her allegiance to a particular economic system. Certainly, the nature of those actions may be influenced by the nature of the economic system in which the individual participates, but that participation should not, in my view, per se constitute a mark of Cain on an evaluation of the individual’s moral character. There are, I am sure, capitalists of “good” character, despite the wealth they may have amassed, as well as avowed Marxists/Communists whom no one would describe as a “good” person, e.g., Stalin. And the moral character of supposedly devout people can be subject to question – Christopher Hitchens was particularly scathing in his examination of Mother Therese’s work, essentially calling her a hypocrite. And, as I alluded to in a previous comment, Bertrand Russell, the eminent philosopher, logician, and peace activist, who did not just talk the talk, but actively walked the walk, participating in numerous public protests against nuclear proliferation, but who reportedly slept with his son’s wife. Moral judgmentalizing (apparently, again, an invented word) can be a dodgy business.

What conduct deserves the modifier “good” vs. “bad” has been the subject of innumerable philosophical treatises over several centuries, and is not going to be settled here. Some believe that it is sufficient to be regarded as having lived a good life simply by avoiding causing others physical or mental pain, not criticizing others, etc., in short, by the absence of objectionable conduct. So, is the Buddhist monk who devotes his life to meditation, but does not engage society, a “good” person? In Judaism and Christianty (and I assume Islam), one does not deserve the appellation a “good” person merely by avoiding bad behavior; rather, one must affirmatively engage in good works as well to deserve that compliment.

MS said...

(M.S., Part Two)

Likewise, what constitutes one as being a “capitalist” encompasses a broad range of conduct. Yes, it applies to Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, etc. Balzac is credited with the maxim, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” But what about the small shop owner, the corner druggist, the construction contractor. Does it also apply to their employees, none of whom enjoy the luxuries of a huge fortune, but who have bank accounts, participate, modestly perhaps, in the stock market, and support capitalism in their voting habits as what they regard as the only moral economic system, and who consider Marxism an atheistic, morally bankrupt philosophy that penalizes industry and ambition and rewards slothfulness. Does their support of, and participation in, the capitalist system mean they start the assessment of their moral character with a mark against them, for which they must atone? I, personally, do not believe so. Rather, I would prefer to judge them by their acts aside from their devotion to capitalism.

s. wallerstein mentions Engels and asks whether his use of profits from his father’s textile mill to subsidize Karl Marx’s scholarship and writing mean that he was a “good” capitalist. Rather than this question, I would want to know how the employees in that mill were treated – were they paid an adequate wage, was their safety endangered, were they treated with derision, and, if so, what did Engels do to remedy it? And if he did little or nothing to remedy them (assuming these injustices existed at the mill and he knew about them, about which I have no information), in terms of the net “goodness” on the planet, has publication of the economic analysis contained in Das Kapital increased that net “goodness” more than remedying the injustices at the mill would have done, although the relief to those mill workers may not have had the long-lasting impact on world thought that Das Kapital has had?

Can a capitalist, s. wallerstein asks, lead a good life, notwithstanding participating in what he regards as an unjust system? I have absolutely no reservation in answering, yes, of course. The capitalist, at the same time that s/he invests in the stock market and buys unnecessary consumer goods – in moderation - to gratify his/her vanity, can donate old clothes to charity; can visit soup kitchens and serve meals; can donate blood at a blood bank; can be a good friend to a neighbor and offer help when the neighbor needs it; can console others who are grieving the loss of a loved one, etc. etc., There are innumerable ways to live a “good” life at the same time that one takes advantage of the monetary advantages reaped through participation in a capitalist society. And this is also true of the Russian living in Putin’s autocratic state; and the Iranian living in that theistic state.

MS said...

(M.S. Part Three)

I would like, in closing, to relate a story about a question that once arose at Cambridge relating to ethics. It is the subject of a book I have previously referred to, “Wittgenstein’s Poker.” On the evening of October 25, 1946, Karl Popper, who was at that time professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics, was present at the Cambridge Moral Science Club to give a guest lecture, reading a paper titled “Are There Philosophical Problems?” A member of that Club was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Karl Popper’s philosophical expertise was in the areas of political philosophy and ethics, subjects for which Wittgenstein had unmitigated disdain. Attending the lecture in addition to Wittgenstein, were some of the most eminent philosophers of the day, and in years to come – among them Bertrand Russell, John Wisdom, Richard Braithwaite, Stephen Toulmin, and Elizabeth Anscombe. (Also present was a young student named Michael Wolff, whose relationship, if any, to Prof. Wolff I do not know.) For Popper, there did exist genuine philosophical problems, worthy of analysis and elucidation. For Wittgentstein, there were no genuine philosophical problems, just linguistic puzzles that philosophers mistook for meaningful problems. In the course of the lecture, Popper proposed examples of what he regarded as legitimate philosophical problems; all of which Wittgenstein dismissed. As Popper was speaking, Wittgenstein had picked up a poker from the fireplace in the room, and was shaking it about. In the course of the lecture, the status of ethics as a legitimate subject of philosophical inquiry came up. Wittgenstein asked Popper to give an example of a moral rule. There is some dispute among the witnesses to this exchange regarding what exactly occurred. According to Popper, Wittgenstein was pointing the poker at him in a threatening manner. To Wittgenstein’s question, Popper replied, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.” At that point, Wittgenstein reportedly threw the poker on the floor and left the room in a rage. (There is a lot more in the book about the lives and contrasting philosophies of Wittgenstein and Popper, the role of Judaism in their lives, the Vienna Circle, and the state of philosophical thought in Europe in the 1930s-1950s. For those interested in such subjects, I recommend it.)

Anonymous said...

Brevity used to be the soul of wit. Since, as I recall, "Wittgenstein's Poker"--a not very memorable book about an incident well known before that book was written--was mentioned at some length by the same person not so long ago, could we not at least have been spared Part Three?

decessero said...

anonymity is not a valid cloak for rudeness

s. wallerstein said...


Professor Charles Pigden, who is a recognized Bertrand Russell scholar, corrected your affirmation a few threads ago that Russell had slept with his daughter-in-law. Professor Pigden said that there is little of evidence of that. I can find the thread if you insist.

So there is no need to repeat the same unfounded rumor.

s. wallerstein said...

I think that the problem here is that many well-intentioned people participate actively in the capitalist system and through their participation reproduce it. It is difficult to affirm that those well-intentioned people are doing something immoral when they participate in and reproduce the capitalist system, yet the system in itself seems immoral to many of us.

Of course there may be a certain conscious hypocrisy in those seemingly well-intentioned people who actively participate in and reproduce the capitalist system or they may have convenient psychological mechanisms which allow them to deny what they see, that is, that the system is immoral.

Nothing in conventional ethics that I know of helps us to understand this dilemma. Theodor Adorno comments in Minima Moralia that "wrong life cannot be lived rightly" and maybe he's on to something.

Anonymous said...

S. Wallenstein
I'm a different anonymous from the one above. I much appreciated your question about drawing lines (or the line) in politics. I don't know the answer, either. But for what it's worth, I'll offer only the following resigned view: I don’t think that capitalism is going away any time soon; it’s been a long time in the making, and it’s too pervasive in modern life to be exorcised out of it, or even to be avoided. Perhaps the most we can do (morally) is to humanize it, to make it more humane, which is something that might be feasible through politics. Also, it seems to me often the case that many of the urgent problems that people on the Left ascribe to capitalism aren’t really directly attributable to it anyway. These have more to do with what various people who have a lot of money do with that money to immiserate large numbers of other people. That the Koch brothers are rich capitalists is one fact about them. What they do with their money is another thing—and is the real problem with them. Yes, I know, there were doubtless a lot of other nasty problems along the way to their current wealth—it’s immiseration all the way down (but not only that: there were certainly jobs and other social benefits spun out along the way). But that’s just the same problem: money and the power that goes with it put to harmful uses, what R. H. Tawney saw as the “deification of the life of snatching to hoard, and hoarding to snatch” run amok. Calling for the humanization of capitalism may seem like weak tea to some of those on the Left, but I don’t know what a realistic alternative might be. The world has never been more rationalized than it is today—more shot through with human thought and will. And maybe that means that there are, historically, more shrew vested interests working to keep the balance of things the way they are; but capitalism and technology are linked together, and if we want the latter we’re going to have to live with the former, if and until it contradicts itself out of existence—which just isn’t going to be any time soon. I think we shouldn’t worry about being “complicit” with reality. At least in this country we have the luxury of not having to worry about joining the Disappeared if we exhibit political views that the Right contemns. Agitate, lobby, vote, and kick the bums out that way.

MS said...

(M.S., Part One – Yes I am submitting this comment in multiple parts in response to two prior comments. While, as a previous commenter has noted, brevity is the soul of wit, more substantive analyses, not intended merely to be witty, require more space.)

s. wallerstein,

Based on your comment, since I knew that Prof. Pigden has been a commenter on this blog, and had not seen any comment by him correcting my account, as reported by the authors of "Wittgentstein's Poker" and attributed to Russell’s granddaughter, I went back this morning to the (very long) thread to Prof. Wolff’s posting “A Few Words” in which I first raised the accusation and found that, yes, Prof. Pigden on Aug. 30 submitted a comment taking issue with my account, which I had reported three days earlier on Aug. 27. It has not been my practice to return to postings days after they have been issued to determine if additional comments have been added, so I missed it. Let me add, that in my original comment, I stated, “Now, the accusation was made by Russell’s granddaughter, and on that account, may be apocryphal. But, if true, and I have not read anything that contradicts it (and I have looked) ...”

According to Prof. Pigden, the accusation was made by Susan, the daughter–in-law in question and presumably repeated by her to her daughter. Prof. Pigden characterizes Susan as an unreliable witness, indicates that there is no other evidence that Russell felt any affection for her, and points out that she was otherwise promiscuous and abandoned her children, raising questions about her character and thereby casting doubt on truthfulness. If this were a court of law, which, obviously, it is not, I would have the opportunity to see Susan testify under oath, to evaluate her demeanor, subject her to cross-examination, etc., to better evaluate whether she was being truthful. In the absence of that opportunity, I will defer to Prof. Pigden’s assessment, since he, not I, am the Russell expert, and not repeat the story.

However, your assertion that the story is an “unfounded rumor” is incorrect. It is not a “rumor.” It is based on, as Prof. Pigden’s acknowledges, Susan’s accusation. That makes the story disputed, not unfounded. I take issue, moreover, with your suggestion that I have been insisting on repeating what you regard as an “unfounded” rumor with disregard of the truth, thereby besmirching Bertrand Russell’s reputation. I have been, frankly, a great admirer of Russell and am pleased to learn that the report by the granddaughter is questionable, because it restores part of my lost respect for Russell based on the story.

MS said...

(M.S. Part Two)

My only point in raising the accusation regarding Russell was, in rebuttal to you and other commentators to this blog who have demonstrated a tendency to make moralistic judgments about people, to emphasize that even great people who engage in highly commendable ethical conduct in one aspect of their life, can also have committed ethically objectionable conduct in another aspect of their life, so that making an assessment of whether a person is morally "good" or "bad" is complicated and should not be made simplistic by arbitrary, disjunctive thinking. And while evidence suggests that the claim about Russell’s alleged affair with his daughter-in-law is false, there is no shortage of examples that one can cite to make the same point, that human beings are complicated and can frequently display moral conduct in one of aspect of their life, and questionable or immoral conduct in another aspect. George Gordon Lord Byron, for example, who, notwithstanding his heroic efforts in support of attaining freedom for the Greek people from Turkish tyranny, reportedly had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. And please don’t refer me to some Byron expert who will tell me this is an unfounded rumor – even if this story is subject to criticism, it is undisputed that Byron, in his personal life, was self-centered, a rather indifferent father to his daughter Ada, was notoriously unfaithful to his wife Annabella, had an illegitimate child with the step-sister of Mary Shelly, and, was described by Caroline Lamb as, “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Given the entire profile of Byron’s life – the freedom fighter and moral profligate - I would be reluctant to characterize Byron as a morally “good” or “bad” person.

Which brings me to your second responsive comment. You indicate that many regard capitalism as an immoral system, and that well- intentioned people who participate in it, thereby reaffirming its immorality, may be guilty of a certain “conscious hypocrisy.” There you go again (to appropriate Ronald Reagan’s debate line - although not one of my heroes), making moralistic judgments about people. First, regardless of whether capitalism is immoral or otherwise, most people do not have a choice as to participating in the dominant economic system into which they are born. Emigration to a more moral system is not always a practical option and, moreover, there are not many alternatives to choose from on this planet. As you yourself admit in your comment above, you engaged in what some might regard in immoral behavior by translating the speeches and papers of a political leader which you deemed were full of lies. I would not judge you as immoral or hypocritical for doing so. We all do what we need to do to survive on this planet– as Candide says, we must cultivate our own gardens in this imperfect best of all possible worlds.

Anonymous said...

S. Wallenstein

Your question about drawing lines reminded me of Nietzsche’s mordant advice in section 149 of his early, not so well-known book “Daybreak” (or “Dawn,” depending on whose translation one is reading). He is talking more about conforming to custom, I suppose, than about taking political sides here, but the general point he’s making has some relevance to political line drawing. (He also introduces the formulation “intellectual conscience” in this passage, an idea he returned to and developed more fully in his next book, a year later.) The aphorism is entitled “The need for little deviant acts”; it’s worth spending a minute or two to read, I think, and is any case amusing. Since it can be tricky to dig up online, I’ll paste in a copy of the passage here, exclamation marks unfortunately included: “The need for little deviant acts. Sometimes to act against one's better judgment when it comes to questions of custom; to give way in practice while keeping one's reservations to oneself; to do as everyone does and thus to show them consideration as it were in compensation for our deviant opinions: many tolerably freeminded people regard this, not merely as unobjectionable, but as 'honest', 'humane', 'tolerant', 'not being pedantic', and whatever else those pretty words may be with which the intellectual conscience is lulled to sleep: and thus this person takes his child for Christian baptism though he is an atheist; and that person serves in the army as all the world does, however much he may execrate hatred between nations; and a third marries his wife in church because her relatives are pious and is not ashamed to repeat vows before a priest. 'It doesn't really matter if people like us also do what everyone does and always has done'—this is the thoughtless prejudice! The thoughtless error! For nothing matters more than that an already mighty, anciently established and irrationally recognized custom should be once more confirmed by a person recognized as rational: it thereby acquires in the eyes of all who come to hear of it the sanction of rationality itself! All respect to your opinions! But little deviant acts are worth more!”

MS said...

(M.S., Part Three)

However, many would take issue with your premise that, in terms of feasible forms of societal organization, capitalism is an immoral system. They would not dispute that there are many inequities in its implementation, but argue that, like human beings generally, there are also meritorious aspects that defy categorizing the entire system as being immoral. And they would question whether, given human nature, a better, more equitable system is humanly achievable. They would acknowledge that, from a theoretical perspective, Marxism would be a more just and equitable system. They would dispute, however, that such a system is realistically feasible, and would point to historical events to buttress their position. They would argue, for example, that there has never been a successful realization of the Marxist philosophy on a national state level. The only successful examples have been on a small scale, and have generally been short lived experiments – for example, the small scale kibbutzim in Israel; and Robert Owens’ experiments in New Harmony, Indiana, and others in Ohio and New York, which, despite their limited local scale, failed. The only examples of efforts to realize a Marxist economy on a national scale – in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba – have resulted in corruption at the top levels of executive privilege, persecution of political dissidents, and desecration of individual liberties. A current example of this is occurring in Nicaragua, where the Sandanista champion of human rights, Daniel Ortega, is now accused of betraying the revolutionary values he once espoused and trouncing on the civil rights of Nicaragua’s citizens.

Based on these historical precedents, some might argue that, perhaps, human nature is such that an egalitarian Marxist society, one that achieves both economic prosperity for everyone and also protects individual human rights, is not humanly feasible on a national scale; that the best we can hope for to maximize both human economic potential and respect for individual rights is a democratic, capitalistic society, with all of its flaws, and that we should work within that system to ameliorate its functioning and minimize its flaws, rather than condemn the system as immoral altogether.. Now, I don’t have a dog in this dispute. I hope that aspirations for a more fair, more just Marxist society can eventually be realized. But given the validity of the questions the dispute raises, I would be reluctant to label someone who participates in the capitalist system as engaging in “conscious hypocrisy” or adopting “convenient psychological mechanisms which allow them to deny what they see[.]” Perhaps they see a reality that you refuse to see.

s. wallerstein said...


No doubt back in the good old days of slavery there were apologists for slavery who admitted that being enslaved has its inequities, but that given human nature, without the whip the "lower orders" of society just wouldn't work, so that slavery is the best possible social system that functions.

All the societies which you mention above, Russia, China, Cuba, etc., had socialism imposed by a minority or vanguard party at a stage of relative poverty and underdevelopment of the means of production. Marx makes it clear that the transition to socialism can only take place when the productive forces of capitalism are fully developed, which was not the case in the societies which you mention. However, let me note that Nicaragua, even in the golden days of Sandinismo in the 80's (I was there) never claimed to be a socialist society and that in Latin America Cuba still has a remarkably efficient healthcare system and basic educational system, and many say that if you going to be born poor in Latin America, you're better off in Cuba than in many other nations of that area of the world.

Given the experiences of the Soviet Union, etc., I and many others believe that socialism will only function well and democratically if first of all, it comes about in a highly developed nation and second, if it is the result of either an electoral process or ratified by democratic electoral processes after a revolution.

University of Chicago Professor Brian Leiter explains all of that much better than I can in this dialogue with Professor Daniel Kaufman.

Anonymous said...

MS: The "wit" of which brevity is the soul is not the "wit" of wittiness. It is the quality of a keen intellect.

MS said...


If the "wit" in "Brevity is the soul of wit" refers to a keen intellect, as you put it, rather than a humorous one, tell that Immanuel Kant, Leo Tolstoy, .....

(I hope that this is sufficiently brief for your keen intellect to understand.)