"What is the Role of Philosophy During a Global Crisis?" Why? Radio Episode with Guest Susan Neiman
11:40PM Apr 15, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
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Hi, I'm jack Russell Weinstein host of why philosophical discussions about everyday life. On today's episode we will be talking with Susan Nieman asking about the role of philosophy during the global crisis. In the future, when people listen to this episode, they're going to know how the COVID-19 pandemic panned out. They're going to be able to number the dead, evaluate the economy and have the hindsight to see how this tragedy could have been prevented, if at all. The world will have a historical record of who behaved badly and who sold out their fellows who lacked competence and who was ignored. And who stood up for those in need. One way or another, this crisis will end but right now, we are in the thick of it. To locate this conversation in time, at the moment I prepare these words, the evening of April 5 2020. There are 1,272,953 documented cases 69,428 people have died. Of course, by the time I finished typing those numbers, long before I even read them aloud, they will have become obsolete. The US has the highest number of cases and deaths than Spain, Italy in Germany. There's no cure or vaccine, and there's a shortage of tests. There are still people who believe it's a hoax or democratic plot or the fault of the Chinese. Only a few are blaming the Jews, but that will probably change it always does. For now though, the brunt of the bigotry is felt by Asians, specifically Asian Americans. People are self medicating their drinking needing to self soothe, and they're using social networks and mass media to pass the time. In the US a pantheon of first time bakers is trying their hand at sourdough bread for the life of bait. I can't figure out why. But no one, not my students, not my Facebook friends, not even my family have asked for a philosophers perspective. Well, that's not true. My friend Bruno did. He suggested this episode and today's guest. He wants to know what the role of philosophy is during a global crisis. I honestly don't know the answer. In some sense, philosophy is a luxury, a pastime for those with leisure and privilege. It requires books and sustained thought, enough freedom to publish one's ideas and a community of interlocutors who reflect, criticize and challenge even the most critical of minds. But in another sense, philosophy is always at the epicenter of a storm. It is justified revolutions and rights. it sheds lights on the invisible people and challenges the strongest of taboos. Sometimes it led to miracles of moral progress. On occasion of justified genocide, philosophy is as nuanced and unpredictable as the humanity that relies upon it. It is a tool, nothing more and nothing less.
For Plato philosophy helped us be virtuous. It gave us moral clarity. For Kant philosophy brought humanity to independence in adulthood. The existentialist wrote that philosophy allowed us to choose life's meanings, but the medieval theologians suggested it brought us closer to God. Some scholars tell us that philosophy helps us understand history, others that it simply provides good stories. But these are all hypotheses for what philosophy offers us normally, in times of pandemic. The rules are different, or so claims through acidities, the classical Greek historian, a contemporary of Socrates facilities describes a great plague that killed 25% of all Athenians, almost 100,000 people in one city. When faced with all this death, he reported no one feared the law anymore. They gave up on their moral ideas. Athenians turned against each other and To base themselves they neglected the sick and let them die alone. His accounts haunts us, because frankly most everyone believes that every science fiction movie every novel, every miniseries tells us that in times of crisis, society collapses and we all become free agents. In such a time, there can be no philosophy because there is no for thought, no moral reasoning and no need for self justification. We are animals again, who fear society masks are brutal reality with just a thin veneer of self delusion. Perhaps it is against my own rules as the host to state my position outright, but I do not accept this picture of humanity. I do not believe lucidity is portrayal of social breakdown. When faced with crisis, people care more rather than less we attend to our own morals more strenuously because they are all we have. Sure, there will always be people who don't and they will get more press. But these are cherry picked stories designed to appease the spirit of lucidity, who hangs on us like the plague he described. But a plague is a sickness, it is an abomination. It is not who we are, it is what we overcome. On today's episode, we will ask about the role of philosophy with a guest whose work has confronted the nature of evil, the search for moral clarity, the artifice of adulthood, and what it means to come to terms with historical atrocities. These are the great themes of the human experience, and they are the unifying quests of our species. But the discussion will be a challenge to her, to me and to all of you. Because we are not in a position to exploit hindsight, we are in the thick of it. In the future. When people listen to this episode, they're going to know how the COVID-19 pandemic panned out. But for right now, we have no such knowledge. What we have is each other and philosophy and humanity has done some amazing work with just these two things. And now our guest Susan Nieman is director of the Einstein forum in Potsdam, Germany. She has been a professor for Last week, Yale and Tel Aviv University and is the author of numerous books, most recently, learning from the Germans race and the memory of evil. Susan, welcome to why.
Thank you, jack. That was a beautiful introduction. We don't know each other. But I could agree automation points be just about everything you said. Perhaps two things strike me as the most important. It's certainly true at this moment in time that philosophy is something of a luxury. And those of us who've been privileged to be educated and to have the time and space to think about these questions are at the moment, not as important in keeping the world going, as the people who pick up our trash or cash out our groceries, and it's been painful to feel this person Louis In these really existential terms, as I have been in the last three or four weeks, it's just very, very clear that my life depends on people who are much less privileged than I am. It's simply that they earn lower wages. Most importantly, they earn less respect from general society. But I think it's crucial that those of us who have had the luxury to take time to think through some of these questions, actually use it in a way that will benefit if not directly benefit the rest of the world. And, you know, that comes to your second point, I thoroughly agree with you about facilities and I hope we can go on to talk about that. One of the things that strikes me as most important is that we not at this point Moment whereas you rightly emphasized, no one knows that we the world has never been so uncertain, I believe as it is. At this moment, no one knows what things are going to look like two months in half a year in a year. But to insist that humanity is going to show itself at its worst, not only do we not have evidence for any of that, I think we have lots of evidence for the contrary. So anyway, it's a pleasure to be able to talk with you about all this.
You've already said about 70 things that I want to follow up on. I would be remiss as a host if I didn't remind the audience that they could comment on the show on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook all that why radio show one word. Email us at ask why you and umd.edu or visit Our archives for free at why Radio show.org? Now, in a minute, I want to ask you, just because I want to make sure you and your cohort are okay. And I want to have a conversation about Germany, where you are right now. But I think you're absolutely right to point out the reversal of importance, right? We're using these terms, essential employees and essential employees are not what people would have imagined before. They are grocery clerks, they are delivery people.
And I guess,
the philosopher who thought about the scenario would describe this as at least inspiring an existential crisis. Do you think it would, it's going to do the same in for our various cultures at large? Do you think that people are going to walk out of this having more of a sense of the importance of the people who so often get disregarded and who lack as you point out privilege that folks like you and I have and much easier and less necessary, perhaps positions.
Good Lord, I hope so. And people are already talking about it to some extent, I have the good fortune to live in Europe, where workers of all kinds are simply treated better than they are in the United States. But even here, people are talking about raising wages, and certainly raising the recognition for those essential workers who are keeping us alive, keeping the world turning. But that is exactly the kind of thing that philosophers not only philosophers can and should be doing at this moment. While we can't do anything, direct to help them in their simple things that we can do, but they're not essential. It's simply taking care of ourselves and Not spreading the virus. But while we have this time, it seems crucial to think about what kind of a society we can contribute to building when this is over.
There's a literature, Naomi Klein, in a book called The Shock Doctrine talks a bit about it. That suggests that economic change happens most effectively after a crisis after an economic shock. She's critical of this to a certain extent because she thinks that neoliberal and neoconservative economists take advantage of it to enforce very stringent market rules. I don't want to get into that particular conversation. But do you think that an instance like this is the right moment to re envision society that a shock like this is the appropriate time to think about experimenting? Or should our goal be to sort of return to normal as quickly as possible and to get back to familiar economic, cultural and interpersonal rhythms.
Look, normal wasn't very good for a large
percentage of people, and the planet itself, as Naomi Klein pointed out, and I think this changes everything. excellent book about the fact that consumer capitalism as we know it, will ruin the earth for our grandchildren and was overwhelmed to use paper rather than plastic. We need much larger changes if we're going to avoid the worst aspects of the climate crisis. So let's just remember that normal was really a problem. And people were feeling it all over the world, even if they don't take the climate crisis as seriously as they should. Income inequality is devastate stated, you have millions of people in the United States who are working two and three jobs to simply support their families. And they think that's normal. What I'd like to do since you asked about Germany, I think sometimes instead of talking in these very abstract terms, it's helpful, especially for American listeners to get a real picture of what life is like somewhere else. And the different ways in which people live,
please. And also, I seem to recall from one of our email exchanges that you have a daughter who's in LA right now. And so you must have at least one eye very prominently on some of the crisis spots in the United States.
Part of my job at one sense for him has been kind of explaining America to
go the good luck
to American. So I run an International Institute. So you know, I always have a lot of my eye on the US and I was born and raised actually in Atlanta, Georgia. So it's kind of my home, although I've lived outside the US for a long time. I'm always back there. But yeah, my one of my daughters is working in the film business in LA. Thank Kevin for what's app. I couldn't convince her to come back here. Germany has a lowest mortality rate of any country in the world so far, where they've been tracking the virus and it's quite well run. I understand that she's been making her life there for the last two years and she is 29. So there's not an awful lot that I can
Oh, but you can try
Maybe I did. But you know, she assures me that she's been very careful in following all the precautions and she can't go out of her house anyway. So all I can do is watch the news with extreme trepidation. She just got annoyed with me actually on the phone. She says she has she's dealing with things by simply doing her work, which is script writing and script reading, and not watching the news. I unfortunately, am reading an awful lot of news. Of course, That only leaves me in the position of you know that I'm sure many, many people who have loved ones in no at the moment Detroit or New Orleans or New York places that are centers of the virus. I'm in a kind of split position. On the one hand, I'm feeling very fortunate for myself I'm very concerned most directly from my own daughter but also for many people. I love brother family in the US. Just extremely A few things that will surprise Americans. I know this because I've seen the reactions or so of course, we have universal health care where universal health care includes Medical prescriptions that cost $5. Doesn't matter what medicine you need, doctor prescribes it for you, you get it for $5. Okay? And a whole bunch of other things that I don't need to emphasize of mental health as well as physical health. Dental, sometimes you have some co pays, but honestly compared to what you're facing in the States, it's not serious. We don't have sickly and when I try and explain to Germans the concept of American sick leave, they are shocked. And what shocks them is not the fact that Americans if they're lucky, have a limited amount of days of sick leave. And millions of people have none. What shocks me is the whole idea because what happens in Germany if you're sick, aside from the fact that of course, you go to the doctor, whoever you want to see, if you're sick for three days, you call up your employer say, Hey, sorry, I'm sick. And that's that if you're sick for more than three days, you go to a doctor, and the doctor writes you sick, as it's called. And Germans gives you a note because of privacy concerns. They don't say what what it is that you're suffering from. They say you need to be out for a week, two weeks, it can be extended as long as you're sick. And when I explained this to Germans that people are lucky if they have a couple of weeks of simply this what what if somebody's sick for longer? That's barbaric. It's a complete difference of perspectives. Here's another little feature of the system. If you have to be hospitalized, you Are your parents if you're under age, pay $10 a day for your food. But if you've been in the hospital for more than 28 days in a calendar year, you don't have to pay anything because the health insurance considers you've had such bad luck to be stuck in the hospital for sounds funny to Americans, but it's it's basically roses idea that a society should do its best to make up for bad luck. That happens to people. Last example and I'll finish with this. Everyone in Germany has four weeks of paid vacation plus 11 federal holidays. That's if you have a not specially Good job. If you have a good job. It's usually more like six weeks.
The first I want to say is you let me know if the Einstein forum is ever hiring. But in addition to that, Your most recent work, you've written a book called Learning from the Germans.
I guess the question that I'm curious about is, to what extent are these things informed by Germany's past? To what extent has Germany learned how they treated people poorly and and not just are making up for it, but that it's that it's changed what they think the fundamental nature of human interactions. There are other countries that have similar situations. And so the Scandinavians don't have the same history, say, as the Germans, but is this a response to their past?
Not directly. Let me just finish my example.
I'm trying to describe a different way of thinking about the world. A few years ago, it was suggested in Parliament that people who had chronic illnesses and were sick for months, that maybe they want to get some of their vacation time docked. And the most business friendly party was shocked. They said, No, those are two different ideas, vacations, vacation sick and sick. It was, you know, an each of them is a right. Each of them as a human right. It was as if somebody said you lose your freedom of travel because you've already used up your freedom of speech for a while. Correct, right? You're absolutely right in in Scandinavia, people usually talk about Scandinavia, and I don't know why they don't mention Germany. I think it's because people still feel uneasy about Germany Even though 75 years after the end of the war. Scandinavia has wonderful features, but they're very small and politically homogenous countries. Germany is the fourth largest economy in the world. We still have capitalism we still have income inequality. But the thing works, okay. And those are the kinds of things that I deeply believe Americans need to know. Because it sounds fantastic. It sounds like utopia. It sounds like something that can't imagine. So look, I happy to talk in a second about what features of German life are a direct effect of thinking about the war. And that's what I wrote my book learning from Germans about, but the idea of a social state. Note, it's not called a welfare state. It's called a social state and a social market economy goes all the way back to Bismarck. But what it really goes back to is the labor movement in the late 19th century. labor movement in Europe, Germany in particular was very strong before the American labor movement was very strong. And basically, and celebrity movement had had different features. But most people were agitating for some form of socialism. The government decided it had better had that one off the past by granting things like in the United States, called Social Security, you know, certain health benefits, certain labor laws, restriction of hours of working, all of the things that were won slowly through the labor movement in the first part of the last century in the United States, and particularly in response to the Great Depression. We have forgotten that Americans have forgotten about their history, but in the 30s and early 40s There's an enormously strong labor movement. And there were strong socialist movements as well, socialism and even communism. Were not words of terror that cause people to shake in their boots and look for their guns. They were simply political options that you might debate about. FDR, of course, in beginning the New Deal. I this is not suggesting that he wasn't a nice guy who didn't care about the welfare of the majority of the country. But he was also responding to pressure from workers to actually go much further than the New Deal. And we lost all of that. After the warning we we had a better situation in many ways after the war. But the Cold War of course made certain kinds of possibilities seem on Americans in terrifying some scary but I truly think to go back to something you raised before, when you mentioned Naomi Klein, that this is a moment, we're going to have an economic recession, depression, we're going to have a tremendous loss of life. It is time for another new deal.
As a philosopher, we have two separate problems here, one of which I've brought up on on the show before, which is, I once heard the ambassador from Pakistan say on a panel discussion, that America is the only country in which the phrase that is history, what they really mean is it's irrelevant. And so you're talking about a part of American history that happened 8090 years ago, 100 years ago, and lots of Americans are just going to brush that off. And one of the big differences I think, between America and Germany is this sense of the connection between history. Germans call it for Golan Heights fry for buyten, which is working off the past And and I know that you've written quite a bit about that. But then there's the second aspect, which is, a lot of these things are actions and responses to political pressure. But then at the same time you talk about communism, you talk about, you mentioned in passing john Rawls, his work and we will talk about Naomi Klein. So the the question want to ask is when when people are both resistant to history, and resistant to I'll call them ideologies or points of philosophical points of view. Is there a place for the philosophical discussion? Or does it all become real politics, it just become social political pressure that you respond to, and then the philosophy justifies it after the fact?
Well, I think ideas matter tremendously. I'm also not so sure that the cliche that Americans don't care about history is right or wrong. I like to Pakistani ambassadors quote, it's true that that phrase, its history. I spent a good year all told, going back to the deep south, when I was working on my book, learning from the Germans, because the point of that book was to look at the ways in which the Germans have responded over the past 75 years, to their guilt, shame, responsibility for World War Two, and to look at what Americans can learn from that, as we're realizing our history was not only a history of triumph, our history had some pretty awful pieces in it. And the things that you bury or repress, tend to come out in some pretty ugly ways. I think we've seen that very clearly in the last three years, but I I don't think I've ever been anywhere that is as conscious of its history as the American South. Now. They get their history wrong. Often, they have a nostalgic and many ways a bit false view of history, but they're obsessed with it. And, you know, if you look at what sells what kinds of books people read, what kinds of movies they watch, the Civil War, not only in the south is hugely interesting biographies of American historical figures. So I think I don't have numbers with me right now. But those are things that we're terribly interested in. So I'm not 100% sure that this is true. I mean, just think about, well, where you are. I have been through North Dakota, I think twice, but I can't say I spent any serious amount of time there. But just think about westerns think about the popularity of westerns. Now, a lot of westerns are problematic, of course, in that they ignored this heroic story of taming the West, that actually there were native peoples who were decimated, and whose rights and feelings weren't taken very seriously. But I mean, it is the classic American genre. It was pressing a version of history that people were looking at. So I I'm not sure that we're not interested in history. Besides the south, I've lived in the in the northeast, I mean, Yankee early Revolutionary War history. People are serious about that. I think there's a problem. There's certainly a problem the way we teach history in the schools, it's usually done in a very boring way. way that turns people off. And there is of course, a problem in the ways that we do this in popular cultural, though, I would say that movies and television series are getting better in showing us interesting historical material for which there's clearly an appetite. So I don't think it's quite as bad as the Pakistani Ambassador sees it.
Where's the line between history and philosophy? Where's the line between being interested in the stories and the fashion and the adventure and the narrative that gets us from there to here? And the moral conclusions that we make the sense of what we can know the epistemological questions what we can know and what we can't. So much of philosophy is history of philosophy. But there are plenty of philosophers who do completely decontextualized so when you talk about the south, in particular, there are moral judgments that come out of that story, just as there are in Germany. Is there a clear demarcation between when we say we're doing history and when we say we're doing philosophy, or can history be a sort of an inroad, a gateway drug? Where's the line between doing history and then doing philosophy and making judgments about history?
It's a great question. I once did a conference together with my late lamented friend Tony Judd, the great fortune of the 20th century. And the conference was about comparing Nazi ism and Stalin ism. And he wanted to do it because he said historians hate talking about philosophy and ethics in particular, is it fluff philosophers hate talking about it? History and you know, let's get together. I mean, I don't know about you, jack, I got into philosophy I fell in love with philosophy. I was 16 because I thought it was a chance to think about everything. And of course, philosophy is history. There's a philosophy of art philosophy of science, philosophy, as I see it is simply thinking critically about, really just about any of the questions that human beings care about. But I know that that's not a standard view. There are philosophers who think that philosophy should still be timeless, and non empirical philosophy should be about abstract discussions of concepts. And that empirical questions like history don't come into the fore. I understand people who think that I do Just think it's rather boring. And I think what's funny is that often moral philosophers who go in that direction construct science fiction examples like the brain in the VAT or trolley problems God helped me
the same way. Thank you for saying that.
See the good television series, which occasionally some Did you see the good place?
Oh, yes, it's I've said it on the show before. First of all, God is the best written pop culture philosopher of all time. And the trolley problem episode is hugely wonderful episode. So let me actually, let me derail you for just a second. There are people who will think that the COVID dilemma that we face now, how to decide who's going to get ventilators and who isn't, is really a trolley problem in disguise because you're choosing between the life of one person over another or the future. versus too many. For those people who don't know, the trolley problem is a long standing debate in philosophy in which you have a trolley going down the track. And it's about to hit a group of people and originally in the 1960s and 70s and 80s when you were allowed to say things like this the trolley program problem was there was a big fat guy that you would throw on on the trail on the tracks and you were kill him, but you would derail it and save other people. Now, the culture has evolved and so we don't use that kind of language. But it's still the basically same question Will you kill actively kill someone or several people to prevent a lot more people dying? Do you think that the trolley problem has prepared us for this question or is it a different question?
Absolutely not. And and and your question is a good one because it shows for those philosophers in the audience the silliness of focusing on questions like the trolley problem. Look the question about COVID-19. And ventilators. This is not an imaginary problem, there are people around the world already thinking about it. Work on medical ethics. Now I have not read a great deal about their deliberations. But I've read enough because it makes it into good general newspapers and magazines. And they're pointing out exactly the ways in which you're not measuring, you know, one abstract person against another there are all of these factors that would go into that decision. Who has better chances of living? Who has more dependents? Who does the society depend on more and if we're talking about medical profession, there's just a whole host of questions that come into those kinds of decisions. That are terrible if a doctor has to decide under pressure and under very, very quick circumstances, but those are the circumstances that we're going to be in. If and, you know, we're we're still talking at a moment where there are things that ordinary people can do to protect other people, first of all, self isolating, secondly wearing masks. Thirdly, trying to put pressure on their representatives, there needs to be national orders about, for example, the War Powers Act about making more than ventilators making more protective equipment. One reason why Germany has again such a low mortality rate so far is that we have a pretty functioning government with Have a functioning media that people trust and take seriously. They have stopped by we have a good health system where we have enough ICU beds, so that we're taking in patients from our neighbors in Italy and France, hopefully, you know that we'll be able to continue the pandemic is what philosophers used to call a natural evil. We don't know enough about how it arose to actually make those calls yet, but it can be exacerbated or hindered by human action. And those human actions are possible this very minute.
Again, I want to sort of pull a thread here, because you use this term evil and and some of your earliest work is dealing with the history of the concept of evil in the way that that does. gushin unifies the history of philosophy. Do you think that using a term like evil in this context helps the conversation? Or do you think that having a purely scientific, quote unquote, objective mathematical model is a more appropriate use? What role does things like the history of evil? Have in the conversation?
That's another good question. Let me give you a little history of philosophy. But it's not just history and philosophy. It's a way of thinking. Up until we've really know when this happened up until about 1765. When people use the word evil, they used it indiscriminately to refer to earthquakes, plagues and murder of one human being by another can Is all of these were terrible holes that cause people pain? And since the view was that everything is ultimately in God's hands. Anyway, there arose a discussion called the problem of evil, which I will readers will know from the book of Job. That's how old it is. Why do terrible things happen to righteous people? I think that's the question with which philosophy begins. The Book of Job doesn't really answer it. There's a long discussion of it that I think was not, in many ways, terribly helpful. CUT TO 1755 Lisbon, Portugal is one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. And it is laid waste by an earthquake, a tsunami, both of which cause fires that kill Thousands and thousands of people and destroy millions of property. And they send a lot of philosophers thinking, because question was people were still kind of assuming if something terrible happens to you, you must have deserved it. It's a very basic human impulse, by the way, where we find it easier to deal with guilt than we do with accident or meaninglessness. And the thing that people said at the time was, gosh, you know, Lisbon may have had it since but it certainly wasn't any worse than London or Paris, which is so why Lisbon. throughout Europe, there was a big debate.
As a result of that debate, there was a division among evil young Jacques Cousteau was the most important person in that debate, and there was a decision to say, look, there are natural evils and their moral evils. Okay. Natural evils are things like earthquakes and plagues. And those are the things that we look to science to fix. And human beings can have these tools, but they don't have any meaning. They're simply things that we should learn to treat and take care of, build better housing, find out sources of disease, and the only thing that we're going to call evil are things that human beings do to each other. That's the modern view. In a nutshell, I wrote a whole book about this called the evil in modern thought, and that's why it sounds very odd to people after the mid 18th century, to describe a plague or an earthquake as evil but after Through the mid 20th century, people began to think a little bit differently about this. And that come moves book the plague, which I gathers become a best seller again, analogy of the Nazi period. And in fact, he was criticized at the time very, very strongly by people like Staffan de Beauvoir for trying to understand a moral and political evil in these medicinal firms. I would also say that the climate crisis is most importantly, a point at which the distinction between natural and moral evils isn't interesting anymore. Because the climate crisis is something that human beings have caused without having any bad intentions. And we have changed nature so that we're now dealing it's there's a question we don't know the answer. yet whether you can also see Coronavirus as something that was affected by the climate crisis. So, the word evil, I think it is possible to abuse words like evil. And we see plenty of people who do that. On the other hand, I am not one who thinks that, you know, we should leave the strongest weapons in our verbal toolbox in the hands of the people who are least equipped to use them carefully. And I think that's often what educated people do. And they said, well, let's not talk about evil that just demonizes things and say, well, but but we do often know what evil is when we see it in the case of the current pandemic, honestly, it's a silent killer that has spread over the entire world in 100 days. And unlike other viruses that are much more gruesome, like Ebola, right, the problem with Ebola, but it is also the virtue of Ebola, if we can talk about that. People know that they have it and they became horribly sick very quickly. Many of us have been spreading the corona virus without having any symptoms. That's a sinister, terrifying possibility. So, I mean, if ever there were a time when it made sense to use the word natural evil, I would vote for the present moment.
So let me pose a hypothesis then, which is that some Republicans in the united states including President Trump, for political reasons, want to call the corona virus, the Wu Han virus or the Chinese virus. isn't part of what they're doing than taking a natural evil and like a pandemic, an act of God or an act of nature or what have you, and making it a moral evil so that it can be used as a political tool doesn't, doesn't, calling something immoral, evil, give us not just the power to respond as character as virtue and to do the right thing. But also, we can use it as a weapon to attack people. You can't do that with a natural evil because there's no way to scapegoat anyone. But is is Does it make sense to suggest that without knowing it, what these republicans are doing are saying, Let's take this natural evil, let's call it a moral evil, so that then we can have it as a weapon in our political arsenal.
I think you're absolutely right that that is what's going on as well. As the, you know, tendency of Unfortunately, many people, it's not only an American impulse to try to blame your troubles on those outsiders, whoever they might be, you know, at the moment, it's not the Muslims or the Latinos, it's the Chinese. But as we've seen, this administration never has taken responsibility for anything. As we've seen the commander in chief say himself, he takes responsibility for nothing, rather than being self critical, rather than looking at things that could have been done or can still be done. Blaming. The other is, unfortunately, a very natural impulse, but it's a very childish impulse.
I'm so glad you said that last thing, because in the back of my head has been your work on adulthood and I really wanted to bring that up.
Let me back up a second. Very often when people talk about major catastrophes, especially something like September 11, in the United States, people talk about a loss of innocence. They say, oh, America lost its innocence on September 11. No, I don't think America was ever innocent. But that's another issue. There's something about the president in particular and his reaction to things that is childish. There was a, a well known community member here last week, who was spotted having a Corona virus party where he had a bunch of people on his driveway at a you know, with a bonfire and they were all laughing at it, this thing very childish about that. So to what extent is this response to a moral evil is taking individual responsibility, also, an attempt to be an adult that we have to take responsibility for ourselves. And so the first question is, does it make sense to think of loss of innocence and childhood at one point and then adulthood than the other. But also, as you point out in a lot of your work, there's a tremendous cultural pressure to critique what it means to be an adult to value youth and irresponsibility, and other such things. So, are we being asked collectively to be adults? And if we are, how does culture work against that and therefore work against our need to take responsibility for ourselves to help resolve the problems of the moral evil?
Oh, boy, you asked a lot of great questions. Thank you. Let me see if I can take them apart for a second. There's no question I agree with you. I don't think America ever was if it did see itself as innocent for quite a long time. Of course, that was leaving out slavery, the age of racial terror and genocide of Native Americans. But it was certainly easy for people to feel innocence. The song with Dylan just released about the assassination of JFK, I think, speaks to that quite well. One of my kids asked me if this was the worst thing that I had ever, and I ever experienced a moment like this. And I said, No, I really haven't. And she said, Well, what about the bomb? Didn't you all grew up with the bomb? I said, Yeah, we all had in my age cohort. We all had nuclear war dreams. I don't know anybody who didn't know as a six or seven year old wake in terror with visions of a bombed out world, but it never happened. Thank God, but I have never ever been in a situation that was again this global and this life changing, at least for the moment? So, I mean, I think we should acknowledge that it's, it really is a big deal. And whoever is throwing Coronavirus parties or going on spring break is behaving like the silliest of children. I mean, honestly, I couldn't exactly feel sorry that Boris Johnson is in the hospital because Prime Minister of England who is responsible for the fact that England was behind every other place in Europe and preparing for the Coronavirus and they downplayed it the whole time. We saw that was a basketball player who was playing with some microphones I forget his name even After which they canceled the NBA because he turned out to have it. Honestly, I don't hope that all of the people who are playing sort of like 14 year old boys got a shot of hormones. I don't hope that they die from it. But they're in danger in themselves in the world. And I think it is a terrible sad comment on again, the US media that
places like Fox News and the politicians who depend on them have been creating such a distrust of standard media that you have people who don't believe basic medical information. There aren't Coronavirus parties in other places. I mean, very, very isolated. You've had enough people getting together, the police breaks them up. They're, you know, empowered to levy fines and things like that. This is not happening to any large degree except in the United States. And that has to do with Fox News. And even though Fox News has now changed its tune, and is trying to pretend that it didn't call virus, a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats. They have created an atmosphere in which it's very hard for millions of people to trust in the media, which is why we need a public media and not one that's dependent on ratings and profits. But that's another subject you want to talk about growing up. I got interested in the question of growing up actually, I was being interviewed for German philosophy magazine and the editor had really done his homework kind of think he'd read everything I ever wrote. And he said, You know, I think all your work is about growing up. I think that's the thread that runs through your work. And I said, Gee, that's a nice thought. And I thought it'd be interesting to pursue the subject. It was at a moment in time when I was about before I turned 60. You know, the time when one does hear voices say your life is over. I mean, cuz the voices that say your life is over at 40. And I know, so far at any rate have only felt stronger, more competent, more short of what I can do and can't do. So far, I've only you know, thank heavens, my health isn't failing, but I've only felt better the older I've gotten. And I started to do some research. It turns out there are social psychologists who have done so Studies of something called a u curve, which shows that people go on getting unhappier, and they traced it by countries up to a certain point, and then they get happier as they get older.
I'm going to draw for just a second to say that we actually have an entire episode on that. We had a guest from MIT, who wrote a book called midlife crisis, a philosophical exploration and we spend quite a bit big chunk of time talking exactly about this. So if any listeners are interested, it's it's just called looking philosophically at the midlife crisis. I think it's in our archives, but please continue.
So I started thinking about that, but at the same time, I had three children, and they were on their 20s. And they were going through a hell in one way or another, you know, not constantly and of course, that made me remember what my life was like in my 20s. And I started asking myself, what is this myth come from the these are the best, best years of your life for between, let's say 18 and 28 b Cause acting, hardest years most people's lives. And they're only made worse. This I can remember from my own life by people saying, enjoy the best years of your life. And then you feel Oh my God, not only am I unsure of who I am, what I want to do and what kind of work I want and whether I'm going to fall in love with the right person, but I'm also wasting the best years of my life being miserable, as well. Why do we have this myth? When it's clearly empirically not true? And you can you know, tell that with these studies, I will look up your podcast, what is the point, this myth that has no or very little basis in reality? And I concluded the answer is to convince us to expect nothing or expect progressively less from our lives to view the world as a One slow slide down and to not make any demands, either on ourselves or of the world, and what you have produced their Bibles of culture, that valorizes rather difficult and silly parts of our lives m describes being grown up as process of successive resignation to the world as it is and yourself as, you know, adventure stops hope, stop ideals stop, just not true. So, so yeah, I wrote a little book called why grow up in which the attempted to present growing up is actually something that's hard, but heroic, if you can pull it off, and it's also a constant struggle. It's not something that you ever get to Because in my view, and this is something that I take from Emmanuel Kant, the great philosopher, in my view, being a real grown up is having one eye on the way the world is, and the other eye on the way the world ought to be. And keeping both of those in balance, and that's really hard, not giving up on either one. But that is the task of a grown up and it's exciting.
And, and I think that's tremendously powerful, and also quite apt for the world right now, because we do have one eye on us the lives the natural evil, but we also have the eye on what we can control. And as we started talking about what we can change in the future to make sure that this doesn't happen again to resolve income inequality to resolve the claims. Climate change. So I want to ask a variation on on the earlier question, but use a different word. And I will say simply without getting too far into it that my friend who suggested this show, he was the first person I ever met who hated the movie Schindler's List. And his argument, among other things, is that it becomes a tale of redemption. And as Daniel gold Haugen writes in his book, who was also a guest on the show, there's no redemption. There's nothing to learn from the Holocaust. And so I guess the question I want to ask is moving slightly off the adulthood curve, but but in this question of redemption, if we get everything right after this, if we figure out justice and figure out health care and the world is a significantly better place, can we should we use the word that the notion of being redeemed of redemption To give meaning to this process, or is looking at tragedies crises, in those terms, is that dangerous and then blames the victim in certain way and also has of course christological consequences and things like that is the language of redemption, which is the flip side of the language of evil, a useful tool in the content in the current context, or does it also lead us astray?
Jackie asked us. Questions. Let me try and untangle them. So I disagree with an awful lot of most of what data gold hug and says, but I do agree that the Holocaust doesn't redeem anything. One of my heroes, writer, philosopher john Murphy, who was an Auschwitz survivor and wrote at the mines limits, which is the most powerful defense of The idea that nothing could possibly be written by the Holocaust. But I actually like Schindler's List contrary to your friend, because I don't think the message of Lou's list is that there's something inventive. I think the message is that heroism is always possible. And that heroism is always complicated. I don't see that, that there's anything redemptive about the movie. It's just I think we, we badly need heroes. We need to, you know, because what heroes do is embody the values that we have, and they show us that real men and women actually lived according to those values. And that's tremendously important. You can be a professional moral philosopher and yet sometimes it's Feel despairing. If you don't feel that real people have done their best to stand up against evil. So, this question actually could be redemptive.
to make a theodicy, it's not to say oh, well, it was good that it happened because something good came out of it that's sort of Hague alien and cases like that. I, I tend more towards dusty ASCII, nothing can redeem the violent death of a child. There's something obscene in using that language. But your question is driving me to sink that maybe just maybe at least if it's the crisis Ah, if it could lead towards a more Just world if people realize that it is in our power to change things, it's in scientists power to change the virus itself. I mean to find vaccines and to fund cures. It's in all of our powers to work towards prevention. But it's also in our powers to think further. I want to just bracket that for a second and ask you a question. I have been noticing first so we're kind of on lockdown in Berlin, it's not as bad as in Italy or France is still allowed to go outside in groups of not more than two people. And you're allowed to go to the grocery store and the pharmacy. Couple of things like that, but people who possibly can All working from home and not using public transportation and things have radically come to a stop. But I still run into people quite a lot. Whether it's the Amazon worker bringing another load of hand sanitizer that you can't buy the store anymore, or somebody at the supermarket or somebody on the street and one of the things that I've noticed is contrary to stories about people fighting over toilet paper, people have gotten unbelievably nicer. Now, I don't know. I've been asking people in Berlin, this seems to be a general truth. I wonder whether you've noticed this, there's a kind of gentleness and consideration and a feeling that we are in this together, and that it's really important to thank the cashier or whoever it is that you mean, have you noticed anything like that?
You know, this is this is very interesting because I had this conversation with my mother. My mother will turn 80. This year, she lives by herself on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. So you can imagine how worried I am for her. She's just on on the verge of being at the highest risk level in one of the most dangerous places in the world. And she says that in New York City, which is where I grew up, which of course the streets are always full, she said, virtually no one is on the streets, there are no cars anywhere. And that when you encounter someone, they step aside and let you pass, and that everyone is tremendously courteous, and tremendously kind and very, very patient in a way to bring back through cities that through cities would never have recognized. She says that New Yorkers for the most part that there are young people who are playing basketball who the cops have to disperse and things like that, but for the most part Everyone is patient, everyone is calm and everyone is at their best. Here in North Dakota. We don't have a shelter in place command yet. And I'm a runner you you talked a bit about getting older being better. A couple years ago, I started training for triathlons as a replacement for antidepressants, which hopefully is going to be a show in a few months. And, and so it's been very, very hard for me they close the pool and all that sort of stuff and I still run and, and here where there is no shelter in place where we're at the tail end of winter, so people are trying to get outside. In the nicest days, people are traveling in clumps and people are a little more inconsiderate. In terms of physical space, everyone's very nice and everyone's very polite in that North Dakota way. And I would suggest just from the little bit of evidence and from what we've been talking about that There is a direct relationship between the standing the sheltering in place and the kindness. I think that North Dakota being, you know, traditionally described as a very red state, very Republican, Trump supporters have an investment in it not being as serious as it is and therefore can afford to act badly. But in places where there's no question that it is as serious as it is, they can't afford to act badly. And I suspect that if we do have a Shelter in Place Order, because of course, we don't have the population density that a lot of the cities have. And we've been about three weeks behind everyone else. And so now only in the last week Have there been a rise in cases in North Dakota and only in about four or five days have there been cases in the county. I suspect that the worse it gets, the nicer and more courteous people are going to Be because that kind of adulthood that seriousness is forced upon people, and they can't turn away from it.
Does that make sense to you? A lot of sense. That's a good explanation. And yeah, but I mean, one of the things that we can take from this and I wouldn't quite call it redemptive. But if we could have an increase in interpersonal kindness, right, because people have realized how connected we all are with each other. That would be a wonderful outcome. And I absolutely possible. But the other thing that I deeply hope and we talked about some of that beginning, I'm hoping that we we can have some serious political changes and realizing how horribly unfair it is to leave people as helpless as the wealthiest country in the world has left. Its most life saving workers. I mean, and whether we're medical workers, or whether they're working in the post office or at Amazon, this is something that could come out of it. One thing I'm thinking about which is it's just a thought I haven't done anything with it. You're the first person I've mentioned, people or some people are talking about applying a special wealth tax to Amazon, which is, of course going to grow by leaps and bounds in in this epidemic. And there is precedent for that during both world wars. One thing that I'm wondering whether ordinary customers who use Amazon might do Is something like a strike simply to demand that Amazon treat its workers better. You probably have read that Amazon workers who are keeping the world going. I mean, it is the largest company that's ever existed. It's all over the world. They're not being protected. They're not even being given time to wash their hands. And that is in keeping with their normal employment practices because as a philosopher Liz Anderson has pointed out, Amazon workers are normally not even given bathroom breaks sufficient to take care of their needs so that they wear adult diapers. Okay. Supposing in thanks to the workers of Amazon, when this is over, I realized we need them now. You know, start striking say, you know, Jeff beezus we're gonna go a week without ordering Anything from your products unless you commit to serious change in your labor practices. Now, I realize it's hard, especially in rural areas to do without, but other places have mail order. You know, Sears started out as a mail order company way back when even I use Amazon more than I think I ought to. But suppose I started a movement to really press for changes in labor relations. You know, those are the kinds of things that I dare say, might even be redemptive, I mean, not redemptive in the sense that it justified any of those Amazon workers dying in order to send us our packages, although some surely will, but redemptive in perhaps a more general sense, and all of those things are possible. All of those things are in our hands.
There's a really deep question inherent in your comments, which is basically to what extent should one think about the future? In a circumstance like this, there's a lot of pressure to be in the moment at the moment to deal with your emotions to deal with your those folks who have mental health issues. There's a lot of pressure to be in the moment. And so what is the role of future thinking? It also occurs to me that I should probably do a show simply called What should we do about Amazon? Elizabeth Anderson was a guest on the show a few years ago, she was excellent. That'd be worth asking her again. I want to put those questions aside. We're running long, although I think the audience will excuse us given the circumstance because there are two questions that I want to ask. The first one is is going to be disconnected from the conversation, but I hope you'll understand why I'm asking it. The final question that I'm going to ask is going to be just to warn you a summary question. Okay. What is what is the role of philosophy in the current circumstance? But the question want to ask that I've been thinking about through much of the conversation is there is a debate as to what to call the virus right. And we talked all about the Coronavirus model and stuff but the basic distinction to call it the COVID-19 versus the Coronavirus. One of the one of the benefits of the COVID-19 term is that it carries with it the fact that there's a history that there's been a COVID-19 presumably and a 17 and a 16 and a 15. Whereas Coronavirus, a little more poetic, a little more literary and in isolation, it seems to me and given the things that you've talked about in the show, that this is the precise This is precisely the kind of question that philosophers can be useful for, which is to what extent does The name help determine how we respond to things. Are we going to respond more seriously to COVID-19 than to Coronavirus? Now, obviously there's a psychological question. But all of the things that you've talked about so far I'm adulthood and the nature of evil and the redemptive aspect and learning from the past and from Germany in particular. Am I right in my instinct, that that that question is really cynic Dokic that that question can be a central place to begin the larger philosophical conversations that you and I have been having together.
I often think that the exact use of words is is important. I am hoping that philosophy can do a great deal more than that. I don't see a reason why the difference between COVID virus is terribly important. I think it's terribly important that we don't call it the Chinese virus or the Wu Han virus, you know, because that's, as you rightly put it that's trying to turn it into a moral evil and it's blaming other people for trying to say we would have been just fine on our own, but I don't see a big difference. That is a COVID-19. Yes, there were a series of Corona viruses. It was SARS was a Coronavirus. We now know Maris was a Coronavirus. We now know the thing about those other Corona viruses is that for an interesting combination of reasons, they did not spread to the degree that this one does. I think there's there is something genuinely new and never experienced anything like this in 65 years of my life. This kind of Global danger. And in fact, I confess I somewhat discounted it for a bit. Because my feeling was Yeah, we heard about SARS and we heard about bird flu and we've heard about swine flu. And we've heard about these various things, and people that have said about them and nothing happened. Well, this time it has. Okay. I guess I basically be in favor of calling Coronavirus and just leaving it there. And somehow I find that more it's more in your face somehow than
an emphasizes the unique the unique nature of the circumstance. So then, to sort of wrap up, if you were able and you may not be able to, but I suspect you are able to summarize the question. What is the role of philosophy in the global crisis? What does does philosophy soothed as a challenge does it does it offer us the opportunity for critical thought? Given your work and all of the various different things that you've looked at, my listeners who are often very, very loyal listeners will want to know what these conversations have to do with the world. They're in what is the role of philosophy in a global crisis?
So, first of all, let me touch back on what you said about being in the moment, you know that people are dealing with enough in the moment is philosophy a luxury and that brings you back to something I said very beginning. It is a privilege to be able to do philosophy. And it's therefore important for those of us who have that privileges. In the name of the Amazon workers and the cashiers and the truck drivers and the farmers who are keeping us alive. It is our responsibility to Use philosophy for something that's useful. Let me let me, let me tell you actually, in Germany, one of the things that they do is interview philosophers regularly about everything. But when I was first asked if I had anything to say, as a philosopher, my first response was, oh my god, I'm as clueless as anybody. Please don't ask me, you know, sort of put off invitations to talk or to write something. Because, of course, I feel the kind of helplessness and, and fear that anybody else does, but I really did sink them and talk myself into a position of saying, look,
you use your privilege
you know, Use the fact that you've given time, not just now but all your life to think read, write, teach about these questions, use it for something worthwhile and the most worthwhile things I think are two. One is, as I was just saying, to think about what whether this is a crisis that can be used to move us as people forward and what concrete steps we can take, to make changes to make a more just world. Those are really important things that we can be doing right now. The other thing
So, well, maybe three things
I like talking to myself.
Three things. So the second would be, I suppose, connected with the first in a way, one of the great things that I think philosophy does for us all is to expand our sense of possibility to make us question or assumptions to realize that the way things are around us, in our little town in our little community, you know, with the experience that we have, that those are not the way the world has to be. And by asking questions, philosophy can do that and once you realize that different things are possible, you can begin to actualize them. That was what I intended to do at the beginning of this presentation by pointing out that other countries are dealing with the Coronavirus very differently and so far, we have the special sticks to show for it. The third thing that philosophy can do, I think is is offer hope that in itself is connected with exploring the possible and realizing that a lot more as possible than what we take for granted. And to go back to what you said at the very beginning about su cities, I think it's very interesting and I should go back and read him and figure out to what extent there was any kind of empirical evidence for his descriptions, but in in all of the work that I've done reading pronouncements on human nature, and it is something that I've written about in my book, moral clarity. What is so absolutely striking is there is no agreement data about what human nature is like before society. So that all of our discussions of human nature are not based on anything we know about how people behave in the world. They're based on ideas of the way we think the world should be. And if we take the view that the world should be kinder, and more connected, after this virus, we can make that true. Or if we take the view that you know it's a world, it's a doggy dog world and people are going to start doing scams and of course there are some scams. People are going to start scamming each other and you know, fighting over toilet paper and god knows what else will contribute to That being actual, it's my hope that philosophy can contribute to making us realize an awful lot more is in our hands right now, then we're often told to believe.
Well, that is both an optimistic and a very powerful way to end the discussion. And the idea that we can make the world that we envision is empowering as well. And so I really, I'm so grateful that you took the time to join us on why there's so much going on in the background. I mean, in a certain sense, we're isolated and we have a lot more time. But of course, the mental bandwidth for all of this, let alone the digital bandwidth is fairly limited. So Susan, thank you so much for joining us on wire radio.
Well, thank you, jack. It's been a pleasure to talk to you and I think you're doing great work with it. So keep up the good work.
Thank you so much. You have been listening to jack Russell Weinstein and Susan Niemann on why philosophical discussions but everyday life I'll be back with a few thoughts right after this.
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You're back with why Philippines ethical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we're talking with Susan Nieman about the role of philosophy in a global crisis. This was a long, wide ranging conversation that touched upon history, psychology, even our personal experiences. This is philosophy at its best, because philosophy is contextual. And philosophy does respond to the world around it. But where does this leave us? And what do we do with it? And I think the thing Susan said at the end was probably the most powerful. If we believe that this can lead to a better, more just world, then we can create that better, more just world. If we believe that this is going to make people dog eat dog, hoarders of all things and enemies of their neighbors, then that too will happen. And that's the great lesson of philosophy. You imagine the possibilities, and then you figure out how to bring them to fruition. Sometimes you can't get there. Sometimes they are imperfect. Sometimes they are different than you envisioned. But philosophy is a kind of agency and a kind of activism that is particular to the human experience. Philosophy allows us to create the blueprint of the future. And we then use all of the rest of our skills to realize that blueprint. Philosophy is a product of the imagination. It's a product of to use 18th century terms human genius. The Coronavirus is not the product of human genius. The Coronavirus is a natural evil. It's a thing that just happened, why couldn't have been prevented. These are questions for the future. These are questions For backward looking folks, we as philosophers use history to inform the future. And we can use this opportunity to investigate ourselves, our needs, our loves, our experiences, our wants, and our values to create out of this crisis, the best of all possible options. That is what Susan Neiman has underscored today. And that is what why radio puts forth before you right now. A sense of hope and optimism in the creative, imaginative genius of human beings. Let's do that together. Let's survive this as best as we can, in all senses of the term. Not just survive well, but survive virtuously. You are listening to jack Russell Weinstein on philosophical discussions about everyday life. Thank you for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
Why is funded by the Institute for philosophy and public life, Prairie Public Broadcasting and the University of North Dakota's College of Arts and Sciences and division of Research and Economic Development. The music is written and performed by Mark Weinstein can be found on his album Louis sold for more of his music is a jazz flute Weinstein comm or myspace.com slash Mark Weinstein. Philosophy is everywhere you make it and we hope we've inspired you with our discussion today. Remember, as we say at the Institute, there is no ivory tower.