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Interview With a Philosopher: Lou Marinoff -- Part Two

Posted: 07/22/11 04:07 PM ET

Today I'm continuing a conversation with Lou Marinoff, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at The City College of New York, and founding President of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. He's also the internationally bestselling author of Plato Not Prozac, among other books, and an advisor to world leaders.

Tom: Lou, welcome back. In the first part of our conversation, we've been discussing our nation's current economic and political problems, and your views about the direction we need for positive change.

We've already talked about the need for a resurgence of positive values in America, at every level, with a renewed reticence to depend on big government solutions to all the problems we face. What other kinds of things do you think we need to safeguard and preserve in our culture to help us re-unite as a nation and to keep us strong?

Lou: Two of my favorites are: the Bill of Rights, and NASA.

Tom: Well, those are two very different things to mention in the same breath!

Lou: Yes, and each vitally important in its own way. The American Constitution and its first ten amendments are among the most brilliant political documents ever crafted. They provide us with our foundation. And I've always admired the US space program. In fact, I have enough air miles to get to the moon, but NASA won't accept them. I once tried to convince an Admiral friend, who ran one of NASA's labs, to get me on a Shuttle mission. He said, "We do take up civilian scientists, who do experiments. But you're a philosopher. What would you do up there?" "That's easy," I told him, "thought-experiments."

Tom: Very funny. What a shame you couldn't go, especially since most people think of us philosophers as space cadets anyway. But don't despair. Remember how one emperor of Rome exiled all the philosophers and saw his approval ratings go up. We could still end up being shot into space some day.

Lou: Good point. And at least we've made this far -- into cyberspace!

Tom: Your mention of NASA possibly circles back to your earlier remark about our need for something, some commitment, bigger than our selves and our problems to unite us all, I would imagine. The book of Proverbs says, "Without a vision, people perish." And we've had no big vision for our nation for a while now. As a result, in various ways, people perish. And NASA has historically been involved in the Big Vision business. So I understand your mention of them in this regard. In our reticence to rely on big government for all things, this vision thing, as George H. W. Bush once called it, could perhaps be particularly aided by the great adventures that NASA in principle could be pursuing.

Lou: Precisely. Neil Armstrong took that historic step not only for all Americans, but for all mankind. NASA greatly expanded our outer horizons, just as philosophy expands our inner ones.

Tom: And, of course, the Constitution and Bill of Rights are utterly distinctive and foundational for us as a nation. But haven't many divisive cultural disputes recently centered on various elements in the Bill of Rights? Consider for example the Second Amendment and the gun issues we face in our all-too-violent culture.

I understand that you know Gabrielle Giffords, and that you were deeply saddened by what happened not long ago in Tucson. What's your connection with her?

Lou: I was heartbroken by the Tucson shooting. You recall Tanis Salant, formerly at the University of Arizona? She directed a program for senior civil and public servants - The Southwest Leadership and Governance Program - at the Institute for Local Government.

Tom: Yes, I remember Tanis well. Some of my Morris Institute philosophers served her in that program, and shared my very high opinion of what she was accomplishing.

Lou: Tanis was a visionary. I conducted an ethics workshop in her program, for about five years running. And of the hundreds of participants I worked with, Gabrielle Giffords was the most outstanding. She was still in the State legislature back then, and aspiring to Congress. Gabrielle really impressed me with her energy, clarity, and commitment (even though I don't necessarily share her political views). So when the news broke from Tucson, it inflicted emotional wounds on all who know and admire her, including this professor. Not to mention the tragedy of the innocents who were slain. That heinous shooting made the nation unite, but in all the wrong ways: in sorrow, grief, and lamentation.

Tom: Yes, it was a horrific and a scarring incident, which many suggest raises again some important Second Amendment issues.

Lou: If we could reliably screen out sociopaths before giving them gun permits, we should. But I don't think we can. Even though I myself do not own a gun, on balance I support the Second Amendment. It derives from our natural right to self-defense and self-preservation -- individually as well as collectively. What happened in Tucson has less to do with the Second Amendment, in my view, and more to do with two other factors: our traditional presumption of innocence (a good thing), and our culture's moral degeneracy (a bad thing).

In a free and open society, such as ours, citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, that leaves room for a lot of future criminals and blossoming psychopaths to cross the line without prior intervention or restraint. In a police state that closely monitors people's daily words, deeds and even thoughts, all citizens are presumed guilty. Many innocent people will suffer arrest, imprisonment and even execution, in order that one guilty party does not escape the net. The American ideal is the other way around: We would rather allow many guilty people, or people about to become guilty, to walk around freely than imprison one innocent citizen unjustly. It's a very noble ideal, but you can see that it unfortunately allows sociopaths to abuse the liberties we all cherish - including freedom of peaceable assembly, and the right to bear arms.

Tom: So you're suggesting that gun violence in the US is something like a "transaction cost" of liberty?

Lou: For our particular brand of liberty, yes. Every country has crime, including police states. But in totalitarian regimes, the country is run by the biggest criminals, who monopolize violent crime and merge it with government. In police states, the Timothy McVeighs, the Dylan Klebolds, and the Jared Lee Loughners would have been locked up under suspicion, long before they had any chance to wreak their havoc. But in places like that, you and I would also be locked up, merely for speaking our minds.

Tom: I've always had a warm spot for the presumption of innocence! Although some very good philosophy has been done in jail - consider Socrates and Boethius as prime examples - I do prefer thinking out in the fresh air, and particularly on the beach.

But let's also touch on the other factor you mentioned. Can what you've called our nation's moral degeneracy be reversed?

Lou: I believe so, and this is what you and I are striving to accomplish in our daily work, with a little help from some great thinkers in the past. By "moral degeneracy" I mean many things, such as the epidemic of avarice that inflated the recent economic bubble.

Tom: And that unfettered greed seems essentially connected with the underlying ethos of our consumerist and celebrity culture, where status is most often sought by the purchase, ownership, and display of more and more expensive baubles and luxuries. Value, honor, and respect are correspondingly conflated with power, which is in turn all too often measured by either money or attention. Our rapid descent from the values that made possible our nation, and our preponderant prosperity up until now, involves quite a mix of factors that are not normally even on the radar for what people think of as morality.

Of course, in this, we aren't unique. I'm sure that if TV had existed in Plato's time, they could have done a series on "The Real Housewives of Athens, Greece" completely in tune with what BRAVO is showing today. It's just that we seem to be maxing out the effects of counterfeit values like never before.

Lou: Absolutely. And in connection with Gabrielle's shooting, moral degeneracy means the constant celebration and relentless glorification on TV of murderous crime, violent death, and depraved indifference, much of it involving firearms and explosives. In the process of mythologizing dangerously aberrant personality types on TV, whether in imaginary cop dramas or "reality" shows, the culture that produces and consumes this violent excitement and what almost becomes death-worship - a species of necrophilia - also encourages, educates, and produces the sociopathic murderers themselves.

Tom: I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit that I enjoy some of those shows! There's the excitement factor, and suspense, an element of almost primal catharsis, and of course the philosophical questions that can be raised. But as a steady diet, there does seem to be this cumulative effect that you're worried about. And of course Plato worried about it long ago. As the Bible, among many other wisdom sources, teaches: we reap what we sow.

So, a thought experiment: if we somehow mythologized more virtuous characters in the mass media, would we promote more virtuous citizenship in the culture?

Lou: Yes, without fail. And we would create fewer violent sociopaths.

Tom: Well that's food for thought. Especially considering that there's arguably a huge imbalance of vice over virtue on TV, in cyberspace, and in mass-culture.

Lou: And sometimes that seems to be true in business, too. When many American CEOs want to know whether their plans are ethical or not, they summon a lawyer! Such leaders seem to have dim conception of right or wrong, or else no inclination to observe this distinction, but appear to care only about what they can get away with legally (or not!). When people see this kind of behavior at the top, and witness how lavishly it's rewarded, they are inclined to lean in the same direction - unless they feel a countervailing force. That's where ethics and values come in, when they're invited.

Tom: And that accounts for why you and I are so busy with our work. There' a chronic shortage of ethical awareness in many strata of our nation, and many parts of the world, to be sure. The truth is that people can become amazingly happy and fulfilled - and prosperous - once they start exercising virtues instead of vices.

Lou: You know I'm bound to agree with you there. You're preaching to the choir, Tom!

Tom: So we're back to the setting for bibles, a book that seems to keep coming up in our conversations. Speaking of which, have you written any new books lately?

Lou: As a matter of fact, yes. I just finished one. It's called "The Power of Tao." It shows people how to apply Chinese philosophy to good effect in their daily lives.

Tom: That's great. There is a lot of deep wisdom in the Tao Te Ching, and it certainly seems to be working for China!

Lou: I agree. China didn't become the world's second-largest economy by accident. Global economists are joking that the French are trying to figure out how to work a 35-hour week, while the Chinese are trying to figure out how to work a 35-hour day. Chinese philosophy is profound yet practical at the same time. Americans would do well to learn some of the virtues that have helped Chinese civilization endure good times and bad for so many centuries, and that now conduce to her growing prosperity.

Tom: Sounds like we Americans need some homework on Chinese philosophy, professor! I wish we had time to follow through with all these things today! It's been great catching up with you, and I look forward to hearing more from you. Thanks a lot for joining us.

Lou: You're more than welcome, Tom! It's a privilege to dialogue with you and your readers, and I look forward to our next encounter.

 
 
 

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