Valuing with Samuel Scheffler – Conversations with History

– [Narrator] This
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new programs every week. (upbeat music) – Welcome to a Conversation with History. I’m Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Our guest today is Samuel Scheffler who is university professor and professor of philosophy
and law at New York University. He is the 2012 Tanner Lecturer at the University of
California at Berkeley. Sam, welcome back to Berkeley. – Thank you very much. I spent many happy years here, and it’s wonderful to be back. – What can philosophy
contribute to public discourse? I know that in your work
you focus on public issues. What contribution do you
think philosophy makes in that regard? – It’s always a very hard question to answer about philosophy, what kind of contribution it makes. And I find that it generally works best if you don’t worry too much about it. Philosophy to me is in part
sort of a way of wondering about the world, the way of
being curious about the world. And issues of public concern,
which have interested me, though they’ve not been
my exclusive interests, raise questions that
are deep and fascinating and elicit sort of natural
philosophical curiosity. And so when philosophers
turn their attention to issues of public concern, they contribute something,
a way of reflecting to public discourse. And there’s no telling what
effects it will have or when, and I think that the demand
that philosophy delivers some specifiable results in the short term is probably misplaced and unrealistic. I like to think that it enriches
the public conversation, but its effects are
gonna be unpredictable. – And part of what this is about is really clarifying the issues, sort of mapping the terrain
to help people think? – That’s right. Philosophers are sensitive
to conceptual distinctions, to structures of argument as a matter of sort of professional disposition. These are sorts of things that we worry about and are attuned to. And I think in the modern age now more than ever with sound bites and media, food fights and a level of public discourse that
is often not very edifying it’s especially useful to have someone or some group of people
who wanna take the time to contribute conceptual clarification and demand some rigger
in the way arguments are presented and so on, though that’s, of course,
not all that philosophers do. – And central to this is
really about framing issues. Let’s take a problem and look at it and see what the dimensions
of a problem are. – That’s right. Often public issues in
particular someone will, a politician or some media figure will frame an issue for
purposes of public debate in a certain way. And a lot is driven by the
way it’s initially framed. And if the way it’s initially framed is not especially helpful or illuminating or it’s possibly even
misleading in certain respects that can exert an unfortunate influence on the way the subsequent
conversation goes. – And what are the difficulties
of this process of framing? If you have an issue
that is controversial, what is the process like in laying out the discourse in a way that reflects the kinda insights of philosophy? – Well, I think that a central
fact to be reckoned with both in philosophy and in public life is that the issues are
often extremely complicated. Philosophers, in their
professional conversations with one another, have
the luxury of taking that complexity seriously. And so philosophical
debates amongst philosophers often strike outsiders
as being extremely dense and complicated and so on
and inaccessible often. When it comes to issues
of public concern, though, there’s in a way the opposite problem; that is, the issues are just as complex, what to do about problems
of climate change or about the economic problems, so on. The issues are extremely complicated, but our public culture
demands simple formulations. And politicians or other
people who have a stake in some policy orientation will often rush to frame the issue in
a way that they think will be to their advantage. Inevitably, they both
oversimplify the issues and often conceal the
interests that lie behind that particular way of
oversimplifying the issues. So occasionally it can be useful for I don’t wanna oversell
the virtues of philosophy. Occasionally it can be useful
to have someone come along, it doesn’t have to be a philosopher. It could be any thoughtful person really. And simply call attention to the fact that the issues are being oversimplified, to the ways they are being oversimplified, and to try to persuade
people to see things in a slightly different way. – I like to ask my guests what skills they think are involved in the work that they do. So what is ideal training for somebody who wants to do philosophy
and has to develop a set of skills and what are those skills? – Well, some of the skills are
fairly readily identifiable. Philosophy is a discipline that
demands a certain competence in argument, in sensitivity
to structures of reasoning, in understanding what
counts as a reasoning and what counts as a valid
argument and what doesn’t. So an ability to engage in
critical thought more generally and analytic thought is certainly
central to philosophical training in all its forms. There’s also philosophy is
a subject with a history, a very long history. And many of its problems have histories. And it’s important for
people who want to come to understand philosophy
or to study it deeply to learn something of its history. Questions can be framed for
the first time in the presence but often they’re
illuminated by understanding the ways they’ve emerged and
the traditions of thought that have grown up around them over time. So that’s another important dimension of philosophical thought. There’s also a role,
though it’s somewhat less frequently commented upon, for the imagination in philosophy. Sometimes being a good philosopher requires seeing things in different ways. And it’s not just a matter
of analyzing an argument or finding, detecting a
fallacy or remembering what some great philosopher said and thinking about what he
or she might have meant. But it’s a matter of
inviting people to see things in a different way, and that requires certain
kinds of imaginative skills, which are less easily taught. – So in philosophy is creativity, are there some features of
creativity in philosophy that are distinctive or
is it the general problem of creativity in all fields? – Well, it’s a certain kind of creativity. It’s not the kind of creativity that a painter displays or a musician. But it certainly is creativity. And it’s very difficult
to teach creativity. So some of the problems
or questions that arise about the creative process certainly apply to the best work in philosophy, the most original work,
which often involves insight and imagination,
creating formulations and ideas in ways of seeing things that haven’t occurred to others before. – What about a temperament? Are there qualities to the temperament of a philosopher that are very important? – Philosophers have as much variation with respect to their temperaments as any other group of people. There are some who are cool and reflective and there are some who are sort of much more impetuous and intuitive. I think all philosophers have some respect for the complexity of the issues
that they’re dealing with. And if there’s a common temperament really it’s a temperament, it’s the
trait of being fascinated by and responsive to the complexity
of philosophical issues. And a willingness to tolerate the fact that philosophical questions
don’t get answered decisively on the whole, the deepest questions don’t, in the way that a question in the natural or social sciences might do. – So it sounds like there can
be a great deal of frustration in the process of unraveling
philosophical puzzles? – Absolutely. And certainly philosophy
is not a field for people who want quick answers and
to make quick progress. Philosophers are still
arguing about things that the Greeks were arguing
about thousands of years ago. – Talk a little about what
leads a philosopher like you to particular problems. Is it your education,
your background, or what that leads you to focus on some subset of problems in philosophy? – Well, that’s an
interesting question, Harry. In a way, this is one
of the hardest things that one has to learn as one goes on and becomes an academic
probably in any field, but certainly in philosophy. When you first encounter
a subject like philosophy as a student at the university typically your teachers tell you
what the questions are. They give you assignments. They tell you paper topics
or set you exam questions. And so you don’t have to worry about what the questions or topics
are or what’s interesting. Somebody tells you what’s interesting. And then one day you get a
PhD and you’re turned loose on the world as a professional philosopher if you’re fortunate
enough to find employment. And then suddenly there’s
nobody telling you what the questions are anymore. You have to decide for
yourself what’s interesting and what’s worth thinking about. Sometimes the ongoing discourse
among philosophers itself will simply generate
questions that naturally exert a fascination for you, given the things you’ve been interested as a student, been interested as a student and so on. So there’s a kind of
momentum that develops. One thing leads to another and so on. But increasingly as you go on, it’s always a question,
what the next new topic is going to be for you. You get tired of thinking about exactly the same things all the time. And it’s not a field like science in which the field itself or at least this is a
non-scientist’s perspective, the field itself exerts
sufficient momentum that’s pretty clear to
people what the next set of issues might be in a given field that you want to explore. Philosophers, again, there’s an element of serendipity to it. Sometimes something
just pops into your head as something that seems
curious or interesting or fascinating and worth pursuing. And philosophers then have the luxury of being able to follow their
ideas wherever they may lead. So it’s a mix, I think,
of professional agendas that exert their own weight and an element of
imaginative and serendipitous circumstance that leads one to
select a particular question. And then sometimes there are
issues in the wider culture that simply suggest questions that haven’t loomed as salient before and philosophers or some
philosophers will take those up. – One of the topics that you have focused on and that emerges in some
of the pieces that I read your Tanner lectures and some
of the essays in your book Equality and Tradition
is the notion of valuing. Just out of curiosity,
how does that example fit in to what you describe
as to how you wound up- how did you wind up focusing
on that particular problem? – Well, over the years it seemed to me that questions about the nature of value, but also questions about
what it is for a person to value something kept cropping up as I was thinking about other things. I was thinking, for example, about issues to do with the kinds of obligations that are generated by participation in a personal relationship. On the one hand, most of us think that we should treat all people decently and that moral norms apply to our treatment of people in general, strangers especially, was
well as people we know. But on the other hand, we feel we have special responsibilities to close family members,
friends, and so on. And so there’s a kind of a tension between the norms that tell
us how to treat all people and the norms that tell us we have special things we should do for
people we’re close to. And this tension manifests
itself in our personal lives and it also manifests itself politically. Tension between more
universalist and cosmopolitan strands and political
thought on the one hand, and then more identity
based and community based and nation based ways of
thinking on the other hand. And the more I thought about
those sorts of questions, which I did for a number of years, the more I was led to ask to think that a lot of
what seems to be the source of our special responsibilities toward family members
and friends and so on seem to have to do with
the kind of significance those relationships had for us and the ways in which we valued then and what it meant to value
those personal relationships. So I began to wonder, and
that’s just one example, but several different problems led me in a similar sort of way to wonder a bit about what exactly it
was to value something. I think in our culture now
there’s a certain amount of skepticism about valuing. People are skeptical about values. They’re suspicious of values. People are more comfortable talking about just desires and wants and so on. It’s a discourse that our culture seems more comfortable with. But I think valuing is very
central human attitude. I think we would be very different and unrecognizable creatures
if we didn’t value things in addition to just wanting things. – In the essay that I read, you said about clarifying
the importance of this by identifying the features
of what one values. Talk a little about that. Because you’re telling us that there are several features and in understanding them
you can really understand better this problem of valuing. – Yeah. It’s hard to clarify
the notion of valuing. And there’s a tendency, one natural thought is to
think that to value something is just to want it a lot, to have a very strong desire for it or to have a desire of
a certain kind for it. But that didn’t seem to me quite right. Sometimes we strongly desire something that we don’t especially value. Another thought is that,
well, maybe valuing something is just thinking it’s a valuable thing. So if you think like some
painting is very valuable, maybe that means you value it. But that didn’t seem quite right either because it seemed possible to recognize that something is valuable without, in another sense,
valuing it yourself. So I was, in the end, led to the idea that valuing is actually a kind of complex syndrome of attitudes. It partly involves the belief that whatever it is you value is valuable. But it also partly involves being somehow emotionally
invested in the thing, such that if something bad
happens to it you’re upset or if it flourishes you
are pleased and so on. The emotions in question will vary, depending on what it is that you value, whether it’s an institution
or a relationship with a particular person
or an artifact and so on. Also the things we value generate reasons for us to act in certain ways. If I claim to value, say,
my friendship with you but I’m never led to do
anything on that basis, if you call me up and say
you need help with something, I said, well, sorry, not interested, and if I keep doing that over time you would begin to think
that I wasn’t being honest or very self-aware if I claim
to value the friendship. If you value something,
then it gives you reasons to act in a certain way. So I take valuing to be a
complex set of attitudes involving beliefs about the
items, that it’s valuable or worthy or worthwhile. Dispositions to feel certain emotions depending on how things
go with the valued item, and also a tendency to see the valued item as a source of reasons for
me to act in a certain way. – And this syndrome, these features, together really clarify, as you just said, everything
from your relations to your colleagues to
your family, to a cause that you might find very important. And I guess that in a modern society the complexity of what we value really multiplies. – Yes, absolutely. And the first step toward
making some progress in this area is to recognize
that we do value things. The language of economics and
the language of the market and the language of
marketing sometimes lead us to believe that everything’s
just another want to which you can attach a price tag. And it’s important to remember
and to recover our sense that certain things in life
are not things we just want, they’re things that matter to us, that are important to us, that we value or care deeply about. And understanding that we
have a stake in some things as opposed to others. And once you have that insight, then you begin to see that
our values are actually quite complicated and they
pull us in different directions and that they need to be understood. – As I thought about your essay on this and what you’re saying
in some of the essays we’ll discuss in a minute, I was struck by really
one of the characteristics of political conflict
today is there’s so much disagreement about what
different groups value. In other words, they value
things very strongly, but as a political society
we’re having difficulty reconciling the different
groups to each other with regard to what they value. – Absolutely. For a liberal society in particular in a way the central
contemporary predicament is the fact that such societies
are always pluralistic with respect to values. People differ with respect
to their evaluative ideas and commitments, their
moral, their philosophical, their religious outlooks and values. And that kind of disagreement
is not gonna go away in a free society. The only way it can go
away or seem to go away is through the autocratic
use of state power. John Rawls, great late 20th
Century political philosopher, said that what he called the
fact of reasonable pluralism was the fundamental fact
that liberal thinkers had to come to terms
with in thinking about how social institutions
should be structured. And it’s obvious just from
five minutes’ attention to the newspaper that conflicts of value and differences of value are a central and enduring feature of our society. And if we wanna have a flourishing society we somehow have to figure out how to go on and how to function together despite those enduring disagreements. And the further complication, of course, is that any decision about
how we’re gonna go on is itself gonna have to
be based in some values. But since we disagree about values it’s quite difficult
to see how we can forge a unified basis for
structuring our disagreements and allowing one another
to pursue and respect the different values that we have. – And that’s really what
toleration is all about. – [Samuel] Indeed it is. – Learning to respect
the values of others. – Yes, toleration is itself a rich concept and it’s sometimes understood
exclusively as it were as a kind of remedial value. We’ve got two warring sects and after a few hundred
years of doing battle and killing each other they finally decide that
it’s just too costly and they might as well live and let live. And sort of better to get
along and to stop shooting than to keep fighting forever. And so we tolerate one another
in a thin or a minimal sense just when we decide not to fight. But toleration can also be
understood as a richer value, a value which sees some affirmative worth to constructing a society on the basis that we’re going to actually accommodate and encourage people to
lead lives in accordance with the values and norms
that seem authoritative to them so far as it’s possible to accommodate them all jointly and that it’s actually a
good way of living together and not just a way of catching our breaths in between battles. – It’s interesting because I was reading in this morning’s paper
about the Koran burning in Afghanistan, and that is a case where two different peoples
are coming at each other with different traditions
and find it very difficult to comprehend the values of the other. And there seems to be
no organizing structure to create the kind of
tolerance we’re talking about as you might have in a place like the United States itself. – Right, and certainly
the context of a war a war involving countries and groups from very different religious and national and cultural backgrounds is
not a very promising breeding ground for breeding
structures of toleration, which generally take a
very long time to emerge and are somewhat precarious even under the best of circumstances. But it’s also interesting
in those kind of cases those kind of cases,
unfortunate as they are, remind us how important
values are in people’s lives. You might think that what
people would get most inflamed about were
conflicts over territory or resources or something. But the things that really seem to provoke the greatest fury and be
the hardest to control or to manage or to get beyond are things that outrage the values and sensibilities that
offend against things that a particular group holds dearest. – And interestingly enough, in thinking about the Koran burning, as I did after I had read your essay, that really all the
elements come into play, namely something is valuable because of the tradition. There are strong emotions. And then people act on it in ways that the other might feel is unreasonable but those people feel
that it’s very reasonable. – Sure. And people who commit
outrages like Koran burning give tacit testimony or recognition to the importance of values because they know that the way to really insult and
offend and outrage someone is to attack what they value most deeply. And so they don’t just thwart a significant desire that people have, they attack the things that
really matter to people. – I read two of your essays, one on immigration and one on terrorism. It really struck me when
I put them in the context of your lectures and this
discussion of valuing that both were at heart really about that, different context, so that for you in this essay immigration really is about learning to adjust what you value, give it a new context. And here we’re talking
about national identity and the identity of the immigrant. Talk a little about that because it’s coming to terms with that, which is very important politically in the discussions that we’re having now. – Yes, questions about
immigration are controversial for many different reasons. But one of the reasons
they are controversial is that depending on the
particular kind of immigration that we’re talking about
where people are coming from and where they’re heading, they often appear to involve bringing into close proximity people who previously
weren’t in close proximity and who have very different traditions, values, attitudes, customs,
ways of life, and so on. And they do that under circumstances where there’s a lot of
often economic pressure. And so the stakes are
high, tensions are raised, and what looks to be
happening is that you get a conflict between different cultures, the culture of the host county, the culture of the
immigrant groups and so on. And those kinds of conflicts can be very difficult and
dangerous to negotiate. One of the aims in the
essay that you referred to was to enter a dissenting
note about the way in which these issues
are sometimes framed. This is a case in which, to go back to the issue you
raised at the very beginning, it seemed to me that some of the ways in which the discourse about immigration and conflicts about
immigration have been framed have not been especially helpful. – And in a way it’s the
interest groups on both sides, that is the people in the homeland and then the people who have come here. They fix on aspects of the problem that really intensify the conflict. So for example you have in that essay a very interesting discussion
of the multiple identities of a Jewish person from Eastern Europe who came to the United States and really his identity
is much more complex as a result of who he was
back in his home country, what he becomes as a
result of immigrating, and what he becomes as
a result of settling in the United States. – Yeah, one of the things
that seems to me misleading about a lot of the
discourse about immigration on all on all sides of the issue, is that people frame it as a conflict between the culture of the immigrants and the culture of the host society in a way that suggests that
everybody has a culture. You’ve got your culture,
I’ve got my culture. And then if I migrate from
my country to your country we’ve got a problem
because I’ve got my culture but I’m in your county
and you’ve to your culture and what are we gonna do now? You’re used to just having
your culture in your country. And this whole way of talking and thinking seems very natural. But it overlooks the fact that culture is a kind of protean notion. People belong to many different groups and have many different
kinds of allegiances, regional, geographic, racial,
sexual, ethnic, professional, identifications based on
their interests and so on. And different of these identifications and different forms of group
affiliation are salient for people in different contexts. If one person is from Mississippi and another person is from New York and they visit their respective states, each may feel sort of culturally alien in the other person’s state. But if the two of them
meet in India or in Africa they may feel like
they’re cultural brothers. And that’s just a way of saying
which culture you belong to isn’t a question that always
has a unique privileged answer. And that the recognition of that fact is crucial to, I think,
seeing how we might solve not only problems of
immigration or some of them, but also other problems of
living in a diverse society. It’s important to
remember that human beings are socially extremely sophisticated and we lead extremely complicated lives. We move in many different
circles and many different things and many different kinds
of people are important to us in different contexts. We don’t just have fixed cultures that we acquire like a set
of luggage at a certain age and then carry with us through life. We’re always moving
around the social world acquiring new affiliations, and some of them are more salient in some contexts than in others. – And really as you explicate
this problem in this way when the reader sees really
the dangers of politicization of these issues because the political discourse
often wants to fixate on and make block and cement, so to speak, the one identity as opposed to the– But really what it’s all about is learning to adjust your
values in these new contexts. – That’s exactly right. That is the difficulty with the discourse that I was alluding to
is that once you insist on labeling people as belonging to a certain culture and
that’s their culture, then it locks them and
you into certain fixed sorts of relationships. Whereas it’s essential to being
a member of a free society that one of the things you do is that you acquire new identifications, and some you deepen and
some you perhaps shed as you go through life. In circumstances of immigration where people are uprooted from one place and put down in another place it’s gonna have effects on everybody. Nobody’s culture is
gonna remain unchanged. It’s a new experience for
the person who’s migrating and it’s a new experience for the person in the host society that
receives the migrant. Each now is going to have to come to terms with a new situation. And that doesn’t mean on the one hand that either side has to completely abandon all of its previous
values, customs, and so on. That’s preposterous. On the other hand, it does mean that each of them is gonna
have to make some adjustments. And no sensible solution
to problems of immigration can proceed on the basis which
denies those fairly obvious and banal observations. And yet a lot of the discourse
would suggest otherwise. It would suggest that what we
have is some group of others who come with their culture and we’ve got our culture,
as if we were all the same and belong to the same culture suddenly. Never mind that before the immigrants came we were locked in a culture
war within our own country. So there’s a vast oversimplification, and its effects are almost
exclusively pernicious. – Another essay that I read, and again, what I’m trying to
do is just walk the audience through just a few of the essays of the many publications that you have in order to reveal your way of thinking and a philosopher’s way of thinking. And I was interested in
your article on terrorism because really in the end
that was identifying a goal of terrorists that in
essence is about undermining and destabilizing what we value basically. So in a way it’s the same kind of problem. So what are terrorists up to and what are the implications
of that for society and the social support for what we value? – Well, this is another case in which the framing discourse, it seems to me, oversimplifies the issues in ways that obscure rather than
illuminate what’s at stake. The very definition of
terrorism is itself now a politically contested issue. Some people, the governments and states that are subject to
attack by insurgent groups of one kind or another often
want to define terrorism in such a way that it
applies to those groups and only those groups
and others like them. On the other hand,
advocates for those groups sometimes wanna say
that no, the terrorists are the governments that
they’re fighting against. And so pretty soon the term “terrorism” just becomes a political football and we lose any sense of what might be distinctive about terrorism. It struck me that when people respond with horror and
outrage to terrorism or to what they call terrorism there is a certain kind
of central class of cases at any rate at which something, there is something morally
distinctive going on that so-called terrorist
activity is different from other forms of even
quite horrible violence. Terrorist acts have
something special about them, at least certain kinds of terrorist acts. So without trying to
enter into the questions of what the best way
to define terrorism is or to decide who
ultimately terrorists are, I wanted to try to unearth this phenomenon that we often, if not
uniformly, label with the term. And what seemed to me to be peculiar to at least this class of
cases of terrorist activity was that they tend to involve the use of violence against civilians with the aim of causing fear
in lots of other people. The secondary targets, if you like. The primary targets might be
the victims of the violence, the bomb attack or the
shooting or whatever it is. The secondary victims are
all the rest of the people in the surrounding society
who become frightened or alarmed by the terrorism. And a further aim of the terrorist is that that fear should itself serve to destabilize or to erode
the stability or security of the society itself in
ways that will make it harder for people to live the
lives that they wanna lead, to erode their capacity
to lead valuable lives or to pursue the things that they value in a secure situation. So there’s this moral cascade in these kinds of cases, which
I call the standard cases. The terrorist uses violence
against one set of people to create fear in another set of people with the aim of eroding or destabilizing the structures of society more broadly. – Two things about this essay, well, three things struck me. One is the clarity of laying
out this very controversial problem which had been,
discourse had really been corrupted by the way the
Bush administration tried to frame the issues. But one was the reference to Thomas Hobbes and the philosophical tradition. And you quote from him about the eroding destabilizing effect of fear. And I had forgotten the Leviathan and it really was an amazing- So this is a case where
going back to the philosophy discipline and its leading
writers from the past really explicates the problem. – That’s right. Hobbes was, of all the great
writers of the tradition, he’s the one who most clearly emphasized the potentially destabilizing
character of fear and its capacity to unravel
an individual’s personality and to unravel the social order. And in a way, Hobbes made
the desire to avoid fear central to his whole political philosophy. And it seemed to me that in that sense, terrorists of the kind I’m talking about, at any rate, are Hobbesians. That is to say, they, too,
appreciate the power of fear and they try to turn
it to their advantage. Incidentally, it’s not only
terrorists who do that. Totalitarian governments also try to exploit the power of fear. But they have, in a way, the
opposite purpose in mind. They wanna stabilize a kind
of corrupted social order. They want people to be afraid so that they won’t step out of line. And so fear is a very
potent political weapon. And it’s used in different ways, both to destabilize certain
kinds of social orders and to try to stabilize them. – And that was my other point, which is that from the essay emerges a very clear
picture of the difference between terrorism and state terrorism. And in the public discourse these terms are used very loosely. So one side says to the other, oh, no, the state is using terrorism and the state of course,
but this sort of clarifies what the differences are. One is trying to undermine the order, whereas the state is trying
to preserve the order. – Yeah, that’s right, with
one small qualification. I don’t want to deny that states, too, can engage in terrorism in my sense. They may foment terrorist
activity in other countries, for example, particularly cynical and machiavellian government might actually sponsor
terrorism in its own society as a way of inviting, in a way of creating a demand for them to crack down. But the distinction I drew was between what I call terrorism and state terror as a different phenomenon. The phenomenon of using fear, which states can also do, to try to stabilize the
order that they control. – Let’s talk briefly about
your Tanner lectures. It’s a very provocative, insightful cut into the problem of valuing actually. What in your lectures do you
mean by the afterlife, please? – Well, the title of the
lectures is The Afterlife. But that’s, of course, a bit of a tease. Because I’m not really
talking about the afterlife as people traditionally think of it. I’m not talking about the idea that you or I might survive
our own deaths in some form. That idea’s, of course,
central to many religious and philosophical traditions. But I was interested in a different idea and I chose the term “afterlife” partly just to be provocative but partly also to try to explore the relative significance to us of the traditional notion of the afterlife and this other idea of mine. The idea of the afterlife
I was concerned with is the idea that other people
will live on after I die. So even if I don’t
believe that I personally am going to heaven after life, I do normally take it for granted that other people are
gonna live on after I die. I rarely reflect seriously about it. It’s not something that it occurs to me to question very often. I just, of course, take it for granted that others will live on. The lecture, however, the lectures that I’ve
been giving this week invite us to reflect a little bit on the significance of
this assumption we make that other people will
live on after we die, but that there will be what I call a collective afterlife in that sense. Because I believe that it’s
actually quite important to us surprisingly perhaps, it
plays a very significant role in our lives even though
we don’t recognize it or reflect about it very often. That if we didn’t think
anyone was gonna live on after we lived it would have great effects on how we live now, and in particular, it would make us lose confidence in the value of many of the activities whose value we now take for granted. So in some sense, it’s
extremely important to us that life should go
on, the lives of others should go on after we die if we are to lead lives of value now. Or at any rate, that’s
the aim of the lecture is to try to persuade
the audience of that. – And what I found fascinating is the lectures, in addition
to offering insight about the basis for what we value, is also indicative of a line of inquiry in philosophical thinking. So that in posing this
counter-factual hopefully, is it counter-factual? – For now. – One, you really promote thinking about the broader context
of which we value things. – That’s right. I must say that one of the
central counter-factuals that I organized the lectures around is not original to me. It was taken from this
wonderful novel by P.D. James called “Children of Men.” Some people might’ve read
the novel or seen the film that was made in 2006 based on the novel, though it’s rather
different from the novel. But James asks us to imagine a world in which human beings
suddenly become infertile or by the time the novel begins they’ve been infertile for 25 years. So the thought is, although without giving any plot spoilers I won’t say more, but eventually
things change in the novel. But the expectation at
the beginning of the novel is people are gonna die out. There are no new people being born. None have been born in 25 years. And the question is how
does that affect people now? And although she doesn’t
put it in quite this way her speculation seemed to be that it had a demoralizing
effect on people. That people just found it difficult to be enthusiastic about
doing many of the things that they’ve previously
valued most deeply. Many of the activities that seemed to them most important, most worthwhile now seemed somehow pointless, so they just lost confidence
in the value of pursuing them. And that seemed to me an
extremely striking idea. And I wanted to pursue it a little further and to try to think about, first of all, how far reaching those effects might be. And second of all, what does that say about us and our values? Isn’t it an interesting
fact, if it is a fact, that we would lose confidence in the value of things we’re now doing in our lives if we thought that they weren’t going to be any people in the future? One thing that’s interesting about that, a couple of things are
quite striking about it. One is that we don’t
seem to lose confidence in the value of our
activities just because we know that we’re gonna die. People know that they’re gonna die but they mind dying
partly because they have so many things that they value doing and they wanna keep doing them. They don’t think, gee, I’m
gonna die so nothing matters. They think, oh, how terrible
it is I’m gonna die, among other reasons, because
there are all these things that matter to me that
I’d like to be able to do or to see through to completion or so on. So it’s interesting to think that the prospect that
human beings might die out even after one died oneself, could have a demoralizing
effect on one’s capacity to pursue one’s values in this life. The other thing that’s
interesting about this is that these effects are produced on us not because of our personal attachment to any of these as yet unborn people. They’re unborn. We don’t know who they are. They have no identities. And yet the fact that they
might not come into existence seems to have a more profound effect on us and our values than does the fact that we ourselves are gonna die or even the people we care most deeply about, the
fact that they’re gonna die. None of those things seem to prevent us from maintaining our
confidence in the value of the activities that
seem valuable to us. But the thought that
unborn people in the future might never come into existence, that would strike us as
devastating and catastrophic. That seemed to me quite
an interesting insight. – And it’s fascinating because
generally we think about, if we’re addressing the
problem of climate change, for example, we say, oh, we wanna the future generations
are dependent on us, and therefore we wanna do
something about climate change. But the insight that you discover is that in a way we are dependent on them, which is the reverse of
what we normally think. – That’s right. The prevailing discourse
certainly within philosophy, but I think also in the wider culture when it comes to thinking
about future generations and the effects on future
generations of our behavior now, whether it’s with
respect to global warming or having other destructive
effects on the environment the prevailing discourse
is to think roughly there’s this class of people who are gonna exist in the future. They have no power to
speak for themselves, but they’re very vulnerable to us. If we do stuff, we’re gonna
make their lives miserable. We really ought to pay more
attention to that fact, that somehow we have an
obligation to protect this vulnerable class of people, the as yet nonexistent
people who will come into existence in the future. And that makes it seem as if
this is a moral burden on us. It’s something we should do, as it were, one more set of moral obligations. And it’s sort of kind of like we’ve got to eat our spinach and do right by future generations, which doesn’t seem very
successful, by the way, in motivating most
people most of the time. But it seemed to me that
that discourse really obscured in some ways
the most salient feature of our relations to future generations. Of course, they are dependent on us in certain obvious ways,
causally dependent. If we pollute the water,
they’ll have to deal with it. If we make the environment toxic, that will have terrible effects on them. But a relation at least as important or more important that runs
in the opposite direction. If they don’t exist, then what we’re doing now
doesn’t seem worthwhile. And so in a way we depend on them. And that’s a very different kind of reason for wanting to protect
them and their interests. Our capacity now to lead lives that we see as valuable
depends on our confidence that there will be people in the future. And so if we act in ways that give us reason to
lose that confidence, then among other things we’re undermining our own ability to lead valuable lives now. – Now superficially one might think that what I value is related
to my property, for example, and so therefore it’s
a very individualistic, egoistic kind of thing. But you’re saying really
that what we value really depends around not
only the people around us but the people in the future. And so at the base of
valuing is recognizing that what we value is
part of an ongoing history which then allows us to value that thing. So it’s not selfish and egoistic in a way. – Well, I think in a
way that this is a place where the language of egoism and altruism doesn’t help us very much. It’s one of those dichotomies that tends to oversimplify a complex reality. In terms of the content
of their current values, people differ considerably. Some people have values that are in one recognizable
sense sort of egoistic. They’re focused on themselves and their own satisfactions
and gratification. Other people have values that are in the similar sense more social or they’re more oriented toward helping people or helping society. So human beings vary in these respects. But what’s interesting is that what I take what I call
the afterlife conjecture to suggest the fact that people would lose confidence in their values
under those circumstances to suggest that even people whose values strike us as in one sense fairly egoistic would suddenly find if they thought that human beings were about to die out, that a lot of stuff that seemed to them obviously worth doing no
longer seemed as worth doing. Would you really want to
build a real estate empire as people were gradually fading out? (chuckle) Would venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, would they continue to feel as motivated to do what they were doing if they thought that human life were going to about to come to an end, for example? So there are lots of different kinds of projects and activities that seem to me to be threatened in the sense that they would no longer
seem to make as much sense. I discuss everything
from a scientist trying to cure cancer, people trying to work to improve seismic safety in the Bay area, to creative artists or novelists who are writing, to the
work of philosophers. Would I really feel
motivated to get up and write my next article if I
thought that human beings were about to disappear from the planet? Not at all clear that I would. So that it’s not just altruists in one sense of the term, but people across a broad array of values who suddenly find that the things that mattered most to
them no longer seemed quite as significant. And that suggests that even though some of us are more and
some of us are less egoistic in one sense, we’re all
rather less egoistic than we might have
thought in another sense; namely that we’re much more dependent on and vulnerable to
catastrophe befalling others or befalling humanity as a whole than we are even to
our own personal debts. Because again, none of
the people in question would lose confidence in the value of what they’re doing
just because they know that their mortal. We all know that we’re mortal, but we think it’s important
to do what we’re doing. But if we thought that the human race were about to die out, then even the egoists among us might find that they no longer saw much point in what they were doing. And to the extent that that’s true, it suggests that they, too, are more vulnerable
and dependent on others than we might have thought. And one thing I take away from that is that the language
of egoism and altruism doesn’t describe very well the nature of the ways that human beings are intertwined with one another. – One final question, and that relates to students who might be watching the program. Do you have any suggestions or advice about how they should
prepare for the future if they wanna follow a similar or a comparable intellectual journey and engage in philosophical inquiring? – Well, I don’t think that
I have any very original or novel advice. It think for someone
who’s entering the subject the best thing to do is simply to follow the time-honored path of trying to learn about the
philosophical tradition, to study its great works, to familiarize oneself
with the habits of thought and to try to enter into
those habits of thought as best one can with an
eye toward eventually being able to pursue the
philosophical questions that matter most to one. The one thing I would say and any philosopher would say this is that philosophical education
can’t be just passive. The description I just gave
might’ve made it sound that way. Go read the great philosophers,
study the great works. But from the earliest phase
of philosophical study, philosophical education has to be active. You have to be reading these
things and learning about them, but part of the way you learn about them is by thinking about them, by talking about them with other people, by trying yourself to address
the philosophical questions to use your own intellectual resources as best you can to try to work out what you think about certain questions. And of course over time your answers will become more
sophisticated and refined. It’s not that on your first day you’re gonna produce a
publishable piece of work, but rather, that really
the way to appreciate philosophical issues and their complexity is not only to read what
others have said about them or to familiarize yourself
with the tradition, but it’s also a matter of yourself trying to work it out so that
you run into the dead ends and you see the difficulties that have led the great philosophers to go this way rather than that way or you see how the choice points that have divided great philosophers loom up and why people have
divided over certain issues. That’s really crucial
to eventually becoming an independent philosopher yourself. – Well, on that note,
Sam, thank you very much for coming back to Berkeley,
delivering the Tanner lectures, and being a guest on our program. This was a very insightful and revealing interview, thank you. – Thank you very much,
Harry, it’s been a pleasure. – And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History. (upbeat music)

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  • @Godd Many core arguments of philosophy are the same ones the accents battled over. Vaguely over the essence of meaning and value. How and why have it. But much more in depth then that. What the afterlife is, is there one? What is consciousness, experience, the self? What is it to be moral, just, how do we define these terms. And how do we great a society, functioning government to best support these if we can. All of these things and more are still "hot" or gray topics for philosophers much like the ancients. Though many gave there ideas and solutions a philosopher is never satisfied.

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