Check your privilege: A philosophical critique

The notion of privilege is becoming very mainstream in our culture, one can even take a quiz to determine how much privilege they have.

Privilege (for anyone that doesn’t know) is a concept that gives one group or person social advantages over another group or person.

This definition has some issues, which I will address shortly, but overall is easily identifiable. For example, it would be hard to question that I (as a white male, living in 21st century America) have some privileges that an African slave, living in early19th century Europe did not. This seems like a legitimate statement to make. However, what is at root here is not so much the idea of privilege, but the implications and expected action that may come from accepting such a term. First let’s deconstruct the term itself.

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What exactly is a social advantage? This seems like a non-sequitur at first, but if we examine the idea, it may become less clear. For example, it seems that in our current time, owning a car is considered a social advantage, but this is only true if one accepts that “being able to go more places, at a quicker pace” has some sort of positive value to it. I think I would accept something similar to that, but perhaps another statement, “being healthy always trumps convenience” would negate this first premise. Ah, we must go deeper down the rabbit hole.

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What is Value? How do we measure value? Are values objective or preferential? Is there a set hierarchy to values?
All these questions ought to be answered before we can actually say that “owning a car is a social advantage.” If value is “worth or usefulness” it can be said that this is going to be different for different people, which then gives an affirmative to the question “is value preferential?” Well, if value is preferential, is there one inherent way to measure it? This may also may make the question “is there a hierarchy to value” relative or contextual. This brings up an even more fundamental question. Deeper we must go.

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How to make our ideas clear. This is the name of a great essay by Charles Saunders Peirce, which deals with a question that still hangs on the mantles of most philosophers. Peirce defines a clear idea as “one which is so apprehended that it will be recognized wherever it is met with, and so that no other will be mistaken for it.” Ideas that are not clear, are obscure or vague. I would venture to say, that more ideas, more words, phrases, idioms, and sentences are vague, than they are clear. This is an unfortunate, yet obvious place we must start from. So, when dealing with privilege, we must be aware of the vague. As Peirce concludes his brief work, he points out that we are not yet to a level of scientific logic. “How to give birth to those vital and procreative ideas which multiply into a thousand forms and diffuse themselves everywhere, advancing civilization and making the dignity of man, is an art not yet reduced to rules…” We can’t say that it is easy or simple, but there appears to be a reducible clear distinction to our words and ideas.

An idea may be vague when there are border cases (that is, when there are instances where the word falls into obscurity, because an example appears to both be defined by the word, and yet not satisfied fully by the word).

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What makes Privilege vague is that it holds an indeterminate amount of subtleties and nuances that come with the subject of the privilege, mainly in how that person determines value. What is valuable to me, may not be valuable to me in 15 years, and may never be valuable to another person. So, there are aspects to privilege that are not hard and fast.

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Thus, the problem of political justice. Justice is not a word that escapes vagueness either. There are multiple theories of justice; there are some thinkers that have accepted the terms that others have set for something to be called “just”, but don’t see it as important to political legitimacy or even counter to such a thing. The bifurcation may very well end here. If one accepts a form of Kantian ethics, one where a categorical imperative can be reached, then we can set axioms and rules by which to govern our concept of justice. If we instead accept an Aristotelian Virtue based ethics, we can accept a more case by case, person by person, view (more can be said about this is full detail, but I’ll reserve that for another post).

An example of just one tool that is often employed by Deontologist,  is that of an original position (or starting from behind a veil of ignorance, or a state of nature). If we can start with a basic point, one where our outcomes, privileges, and differences are not yet determined, there may be some universal (or categorical) rules that seem irrational not to accept. This is where equality, fairness, liberty, and other ideas are often accepted.
Privilege makes sense, from this perspective, but if one does not accept this view of ethics, the very notion starts to dissolve into absurdity.

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Values are virtue. Those things that which each individual chooses to invest their energy and passion into, are not hard and fast, there isn’t a categorical imperative for taste and preference. But if one cannot accept that there must be certain hard rules about value, then what sort of implications can come from the idea of privilege? We can’t say that there is not a hard rule about privilege, but then also say that certain things ought to be done. So, yes, accept the idea of privilege as a concept of virtue based ethics, but then what?

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To conclude, I am not offering much of a solution, but pointing to the fact that modern liberalism often times blurs value with virtue,  justice with morality, and acceptance with necessity for action. This makes things vague, when we ought to be striving for clarity.* I also point out that this vagueness makes it difficult to reason coherently about what then ought to be done with certain things we identify (such as privilege). I suppose there is probably a way to clean all of this up, without being fallacious or jumping too many assumptive gaps, but I side with Peirce that we have yet to get there.

* I recognize that this is a fine example of assuming a sort of categorical imperative or moral axiom in dealing with language or philosophy, where one may not actually exist.

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Why am I so Eh: culture wars

There is this sense from both those entrenched in the secular and the religious that they are winning a battle over the hearts and minds of our society. They are both right, in that they are at battle with one another, but neither is winning.

I am flooded with an emotional response that produces despair and apathy. Nihilism can come from both ends, the meaninglessness that comes from materialism, can often be felt as the church vilifies culture* (and it seems that most people, who hold either view, will find consolation in accepting one of these assumptions as an end to their endeavors). I don’t plan to offer any real solutions, but, like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, I hope to be dynamite to the stagnancy of both “conservation” and “progress,” two wheels stuck in a tar pit, digging in opposite directions.

First, let’s look at the Atheist, and see the dead-end they must face:

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“God is dead.”

This phrase is often misunderstood and repeated ad nauseam in both secular calls towards humanism, and (sometimes) in a resurgence of faith in the church. For any student of philosophy, this is an important statement to understand as it was intended by Nietzsche.

Simply put, modernity has killed the concept of God, we have thrown off the shackles of religion through the advancements of science and reason. To Nietzsche this is half a solution, but creates a full problem. We cannot take out two legs of a table, and expect it to stand (and we still need the table). God cannot just be killed, then not replaced with anything of lasting value, or society will wander aimlessly from the wilderness into an infinite field. Consider this short passage from Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins:

The madman’s audience, his contemporaries, who pride themselves on having renounced religious superstition, are out of touch with the brewing crisis. They do not imagine that they have lost anything by arranging their lives around entirely secular goals. They do not notice, in part because they have maintained the habits of faith. They have replaced faith in God with faith in science [and, I might add, faith in humanism].

This new faith, Nietzsche thinks, is no improvement over the old. Nietzsche couples his statement that “God is dead” with a critique of modern faith in scientific materialism. Intellectuals imagine that they have replaced fables with facts, but Nietzsche sees the dominance of scientific accounts as substituting one self-denigrating myth for another. If anything, the scientific myth is worse. Faith in God eroded confidence in our own human powers, but at least encouraged belief that we had dignity as creations of God whom God took seriously. The myth of science, by contrast, posits that our existence is an accident and that we are organisms on an obscure planet on the periphery of a universe of mostly dead matter. This vision builds on and reinforces the sense of worthlessness that grew from our projection of our powers onto God…Unless we seek meaning from a different source, science is only going to promote nihilism, the sense that our world lacks value. (What Nietzsche Really Said)

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The Godless are left with a faith in valueless progress, but progress is a form of value; thus, there is this ambivalence that is self-defeating. One cannot be consistently excited with the rise of secularism and the loss of meaning. This cognitive dissonance was recognized by Nietzsche and the only real response has been “more science!” What I find all the more appalling than the blissful ignorance, is the constant attack on christian values, and a moral framework that is rising, without any room for grace. It seems that the morality that is coming** (one I can’t be so sure Nietzsche would appreciate), will expect more from human interaction with the natural world, but will not leave much room for mistake. What is the typical human to do (especially when so much of our maturity comes from honestly assessing our mistakes)? My best guess is that many people will become overwhelmed and say “Fuck it!” Then we are back to an “All things are permissible” model, which will inevitably cause a pendulum swing back towards a conservative moral framework. So, again, this is self-defeating. Killing God begets a resurgence in a God (and perhaps an even more primitive one).

And this resurgence in God is not one that Christians ought to rejoice. Turn to Kierkegaard:

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“I would rather gamble carouse, fornicate, steal, murder, than take part in making a fool of God…”

Kierkegaard saw the end goals of Christendom as being inauthentic to Christianity. This mirrors Nietzsche’s attack on Christianity in that it turns into a selfish endeavor for self-worth, attacking others, holding contempt for the sinner, but shrouded in a false clothe of piety, and righteousness. Kierkegaard continues by stating that “I would rather make a fool of God bluntly…rather than make a fool of Him by solemnly representing that I am holy, that my life is sheer zeal and ardor for Christianity…” (Attack upon Christendom)

Much of the modern rejection of culture (for example, the raising of the church flag over the US flag) is in response to secular action. As the supreme court has ruled gay marriage the law of the land, and as Christians feel that their beliefs are coming under attack, the church is divided and most Christians feel a necessity to take sides in the culture war. They will either feel the need to go along with culture and create a modern God, or push against culture, and see these as “signs of the end times.” To Kierkegaard, these are both inauthentic responses. Consider Stephen Evans:

The paradox must be the historical event that is discontinuous with human experience and expectations. The surprising thing is that Christians have been bothered by the fact that Christianity contradicts immanent speculation and have even tried to alter their faith to make it more palatable—this is the heart of Climacus’ polemic [Kierkegaard’s polemic through proxy] against modernism and liberalism in theology. (From Kierkegaard vs. Nietzsche: Discerning the Nature of True Christian Faith)

So Christendom inevitably herds the people back into the wilderness, even if it is at a different entrance point. This is not a valid response, and will inevitably cause disdain and contempt for the Christian, either pushing them aside altogether, or making their message indistinguishable from the modern secularist.

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In the end the only things that can be said with certainty, are things of preference (e.g. both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were handsome men). But Perhaps it is in that (which Kierkegaard accepted as the highest aim of personal religious devotion) where an answer may lie.

As a Christian it is not my job to change culture, whether for conservative or liberal aims. It is important to stand aside and not be moved by culture, but that doesn’t entail any sort of reactionary response. The fruits of the spirit do not change with culture, and if we focus on these rather than the sins of the day, we will remain relevant without dragging people backwords. As an Atheist, one might feel like the only relevant advances they can make are to change culture by ridding it of dogmatic superstitions, but this is simply herding people out of the wilderness and leaving them in the infinite field, where they will wander back into the woods. Perhaps, they could be honest with the need for value, and try and contemplate a secular value that does not require dogmatism, but doesn’t leave the table of culture wobbly. This tug of war between prophets is exhausting and is digging our heels in a location overshadowed by wilderness and engulfed in dry plains ahead.

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This is hopeless.

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What if the Secular and the Christian compromised? What if we accept the progress of science and reason in a framework of moral autonomy and faith in good fruits? What if we find a convergence that allows us to cut down the trees of superstition and utilize the infinite landscape to build a home where we can all flourish? If the Christian is confident in the spirit (as I am), then the Atheist will come around to the power of God; Love will prevail. If the Atheist is confident in science (as I also am), then the religious will look to the forest and find trees that both can agree to cut down; Reason will prevail. And if we can all be confident in the better angels of our nature (as I am skeptical of at the moment), then we can set aside the ridiculous culture wars for something more authentic and long-lasting; humanity could prevail.

I don’t know if this is possible, or if it would work, but it’s better than what we have right now. Let’s hope for a triumph in faith over despair!

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*I am not arguing that a Christian liberalism will heal this, because I feel a sense of defeat there as well.

** I have seen evidence of this in comments by people that are largely secular but consider certain things (such as rape) to be punishable by death, or reprehensible and without any form of moral rehabilitation.