Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: So, we’re in different cities again, but at least reported one conversation outro the same place. But now you’ve you flitted off to California.
Micah Saul: I had to get to a wedding. I’ll be back tomorrow.
Anderson: And I’ll be gone tomorrow. But In the meantime, Lawrence Torcello, a philosophy professor from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Do you want to tell everyone how we found him?
Saul: Sure. So, when we were first conceptualizing the project, we came up with a bunch of thinkers that we wanted to talk to. But we also came up with a bunch of themes that we wanted to try and find someone to address. And one of those who was rethinking marriage. Turns out we found an essay by Lawrence Torcello which definitely rethinks the idea of marriage. He was sort of fed up with the rhetoric used by those against gay marriage, and he decided to give them, in his mind, to the one reasonable argument that you could use against gay marriage which, eventually ends up being the state shouldn’t sanction any marriage at all—
Anderson: Right, a contractual thing that’s done socially in any number of ways. And he knew that by offering that, he’d give opponents of gay marriage a solution that they absolutely hated, even more than gay marriage.
Anderson: So, it was a nice little observation to point out their logical hypocrisy. And while that idea led us to him, it actually isn’t going to come up in this conversation much at all. And there are a lot of reasons for this. One is that Lawrence has been listening to this entire project. So this conversation really is very different than any others you’ve heard in The Conversation thus far.
Saul: Yeah, this is really the first meta conversation in this project. He’s intimately aware of where the conversation will go. He knows the structure. And so he anticipates that. And we get to those really interesting parts far earlier than we have in others.
Anderson: Yeah, and this actually made for a really challenging editorial job, because there’s so much content in here. We talked for about two and a half or three hours and addressed tons of different individual conversations. Now, when I sat back down to edit it, I could have given you a very sprawling conversation that went kind of interviewee by interviewee, addressing different themes, but there was one central idea that Lawrence brought up which I decided to focus this edit down on. So we’re going to be talking mostly about liberalism, and what that means.
Saul: We should also note that well, he’s a professor. He started the conversation with laying out the groundwork. And a good portion of that groundwork was talking about John Rawls. Much of that has been edited out or edited down. But if you are interested, it might be worth going to look up John Rawls on the internet to see a little bit of of where where Torcello is jumping off from in terms of his philosophy.
Anderson: A lot of this does begin Rawls, but it moves into Tortorello’s own ideas. I was really present in this conversation, but I’ve largely edited myself out just because I was asking sort of prompting questions, and you don’t need me there. It’s dense. It’s hard. You may have to listen to it twice. I’ve listened to it many times, and I think I’m starting to get my head around it.
And then we move into, how do you bring all these different voices, the very sorts of people we’ve heard in this project, how do you bring them together in a really practical way? Like, what do you need to do to have a conversation there? And that’s where he feels that liberalism is really important, but also that you cannot delve into the dangerous realms of moral relativism. So we end up with sort of grappling with this philosophical problem of, how do you embrace pluralism, all of these different people, all of these different view, and yet how do you still put your foot down and say, “Some things are wrong?” So—
Saul: We’re going to shut up now, and give you Lawrence Torcello.
Anderson: Yes we are.
Lawrence Torcello: A lot of what I work on is liberal theory. And one of the things I’m really interested in is how do you defend liberalism? And what I mean by liberalism is the philosophical notion of liberalism. In other words, here’s a political philosophy that we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment, and it’s a political philosophy that could best be defined very simply as a philosophy that emphasizes individual rights above and beyond any notion of the good.
Liberalism in general then, is a philosophy that really allows for a lot of notions of the good. Rawls decides that he’s going to offer a version of the social contract that’s abstract enough to survive traditional attacks against it. So he begins with a hypothetical experiment,a thought experiment. What kind of society would you want to live in if you won’t know where you’re going to be in that society?
One of the things Rawls wants to address is what he calls a natural lottery and what he calls a social lottery. I have certain physical traits. I might have certain aptitudes; maybe I’m good at mathematics. That helps me to do well in society; I’ve won the natural lottery. I’m healthy, perhaps; I’ve won the natural lottery. I’ve been born into a poor family, I have a lot of struggling ahead of me; I’ve lost the social lottery. Now, that’s not a moral call, to say you’ve lost the social lottery, it’s just a recognition of the whimsy of fate, right.
So Rawls is taking seriously fate, in a way that I’m not sure philosophers have taken seriously since the ancient Roman times. And the idea is that the social contract is meant to protect us from all sorts of things. It ought to protect us against the whims of fate, and fortune, too. So, if you had to choose, what kind of society would you choose?
You want to have a society that is going to protect you wherever you fall. So choose as if you’ve lost the lotteries. So, what kind of society do you want? You want a society that treats you as free and equal. Regardless of your race, regardless of your sex, regardless of your sexual orientation. That’s the liberty principle, he calls it.
But what does the liberty principle really mean? You’re free. So what? So, what do you need to be in a society where you really are free? Well, the second thing you want, to the degree that there is inequality in society, that inequality has to be part of a system structured so that there’s upward mobility in the society. He’s offering this robust defense from a very abstract point of view of a liberal democracy where everyone is free and equal, everyone has equal opportunity. It’s woven into the system and safeguarded and protected. In theory if you lose the natural lottery, you have a chance to make the most of your talents. And that’s something that is important to Rawls.
Now, Rawls admits, then, that this is what he calls a comprehensive doctrine of liberalism. What’s a comprehensive doctrine? A comprehensive doctrine is any value system that purports to explain the world. So Catholicism is a comprehensive doctrine. We’re going to come up with all sorts of different belief systems. That’s just the way life is. Your conversations are the best example of this. So, you’ve talked to Reverend Fife, Max More…all these people that have very different value systems. And that’s exactly how it’s always going to be as long as people are free to discuss and think.
Whenever you make an assertion, it’s just an assertion. If you try to defend your assertions, your justification demands another justification. How do you get out of that? You get dogmatic. And at some point, you put your foot down, you dig your heels into the ground, and you say, “I’m not gonna question this anymore. This is what I believe.” And then you begin to construct a system on that belief.
But what’s wrong with that system? It’s completely circular. It’s predicated upon assumptions that have never been defended. If we can’t solve our ethical differences, we need to figure out how to do this politically. But that begs the question, why isn’t our political doctrine circular, too, right? So this is the problem that keeps me up at night. This is what I wrestle with. But this is what Rawls was wrestling with, too.
His argument is important in that it makes a distinction between rationality and reason. And very often, we use those two words interchangeably. But it’s important, I think, to keep them separated. Rationality is content-ful. In other words, you start with a certain assumption, maybe it’s a religious assumption maybe it’s a secular metaphysical philosophical assumption, and you build a system based upon it. All the parts of the system makes sense, in a comprehensive way, and it’s fully rational. I may begin with a different assumption, and I build another system, and it’s fully rational. And perhaps we disagree with each other. Comprehensive of doctrines are often equally rational, and also equally incommensurable. They they won’t come back together. We can’t mesh them. We’re always going to be at loggerheads.
What is the reason, then? For Rawls, reason comes in when you become savvy to all of those epistemological limitations that you suffer from as a human being and it occurs to you that you can be wrong. The person who’s not reasonable is the person who is convinced that they’re right, can’t imagine that they could be wrong. Well, they might be extremely rational, but they’re not being reasonable.
Okay, so in political liberalism, how do we bring this all together? Rational comprehensive doctrines that are reasonable, Rawls wants to argue, will come to an overlapping consensus on the principle of equal liberty. He then wants to argue that they’ll come to an overlapping consensus on what it takes to make that principle of liberty meaningful. And because we have to live together among all these different doctrines, a very important part of political liberalism in this Rawlsian view that I work so much from is the idea of public reason.
When we’re discussing in the public sphere, the questions of basic justice: marriage. Questions of the structure of society: how do we vote? These things we have to approach by making arguments that those who are in opposing moral camps, if they don’t agree with them they’ll still understand them.
So let’s go back to the issue of marriage. If I was against same-sex marriage, I couldn’t make an argument that quotes from the book of Leviticus. Because no one’s going to take me seriously who doesn’t share my commitment to the book of Leviticus. That’s a non-starter in a society marked by liberal pluralism. So I have to learn to bracket those. I could admit that I believe the book of Leviticus tells us that this is wrong. I could be honest about that. But I can’t expect anyone to legislate from that, right. So I have to then make some other argument. I have to say, “Well, perhaps the state ought not to be in the business of defining and sanctioning a particular definition of marriage.” That would be an argument from public reason.
To bring this again back to the Conversation because it keeps coming up in all of your conversations, right: definitions of the good. What is the good?
Torcello: And you’re always asking this pointed question in a very good way. “Well, what is the good? Why is that good?” And people try to explain in various ways. And they fail. And it’s not their fault, right, because this is just the nature of of rational argument.
Anderson: You mean that you always do bottom out at some belief.
Torcello: Yes. The non-rational belief at the heart of your your system is always there.
Anderson: Right. We certainly crunched into that very early with Max More.
Torcello: Exactly. Now, some people will argue you can’t be a liberal and still be a moral pluralist. Why? Well, because in being a liberal you’re putting forward a content-ful comprehensive doctrine: liberalism. You embrace the values of the liberal. You might say, “But this is inclusive. It allows for pluralism.” But you’re missing something. You’re making a hidden assumption in your argument as a liberal. And the assumption is that coercion demands justification. And assuming that coercion demands justification is a moral principle that needs to be defended.
So, this is the problem of modern liberal theory. How do you defend liberalism, and also take into account pluralism? Now, someone might ask why do you want to defend liberalism. Given that we don’t have the luxury of living on an island with only people who agree with us, and given that we have to be able to legislate in a diverse pluralistic society, what we do? The reason you want to defend liberalism, the reason I want to defend liberalism, is because it’s the system that allows for pluralism. And that’s important because that’s what we’re stuck with.
That’s all…I say all of this to give you an example of the problem here. This is where I depart from Rawls, but still very much inspired by his work. My answer to this idea that well, isn’t that still assuming that coercion demands justification? Isn’t that still comprehensive, right? And what I want to say that that is yes, it is. And we have to. That’s the implicit moral position that’s part of philosophy itself. In other words, insofar as we decide that we’re going to have a philosophical conversation, we’ve implicitly agreed that we’re not going to fight it out physically if we have differences, we’re going to reason together. Coercion does demand justification. And if we can’t find that justification, I can’t force you to do anything, you can’t force me to do anything, we’ll have to work it out some way.
Now, is it arational assumption? I suppose you can call it arational. But I want to say that when the alternative is sheer “nature red in tooth and claw” sort of violence, and maybe you might think this is splitting hairs, but rather than saying that that’s just arational, you say, “No, that’s the transcendental foundation of rationality itself. That’s the assumption we have to make to get off the ground there.” But it’s the most minimal assumption that we can make.
Now, that doesn’t mean that just having the conversation solves everything. But it’s a start. And we can get pretty far just recognizing that we have limits. Where do we go from there? Why isn’t that relativism? Why isn’t it just admitting that well, you don’t have any answers, I don’t have any answers, let’s talk about it, but in the end who really cares?
Anderson: And we could play that scenario out to a lot of scary conclusions.
Torcello: Yes. So, here’s the big difference that I think’s worth pointing out that I really want emphasize a lot, and it’s that moral pluralism is a natural outcome of freedom of intellectual pursuits. But it’s not relativism. As a moral pluralist, I can’t categorically defend any one moral position in a way that would compel you to have to, by the sheer rationality of my argument, go along with it. But I can condemn, unequivocally, various actions, various belief systems. And I think we really need an example here.
Richard Rorty is a good example of a contemporary philosopher that everyone picks on as being a relativist, and I think they’re right to do so. He has this liberal hope, right. This very progressive side, but he also will say that there’s no way to judge between kindness or cruelty. It’s maddening.
Here’s why I think he’s wrong. If we start with this assumption coercion does demand justification, the only way that cruelty could ever be justified is if you can provide some rational argument as to why it’s necessary. And the thing about cruelty is that it’s never necessary. When we see somebody being cruel to another person, we know that that’s something that they can’t rationally justify in a way that would even possibly be able to be entertained by the person who’s having this cruel act put upon them. And because of that failure to be able to justify your actions, that action is condemnable morally. You’ve removed yourself from the realm of philosophical discourse, and you’re now in the realm of might makes right. And again, you might say that, “Well, so you’re still being circular because you’re assuming that philosophy and rational conversation, that that’s the way to go,” and so I say, “Well, make your argument against it.”
And you can’t. If you challenge me on this point, how do you challenge me? Well, you either throw some furniture at me. That doesn’t seem to be a convincing argument by any means. I may be bloodied, but then I think I win that argument. Or you engage in an attempt to convince me that I’m wrong. But in doing that, you’ve already accepted my premise that coercion demands justification. So, I can’t categorically justify any particular ethical doctrine, but there are all sorts of things that I can condemn. Murder…all of our standard things that we want to condemn in civil society.
We can get really far, ethically speaking, through critique alone—
Anderson: This is really great. We’ve gone through— We’ve built the clock in terms of what liberalism is, and reasons that pluralism is sort of inevitable. But we’re talking about a discourse that is to some extent based in reason with people actually want to have a dialogue, right.
Anderson: And it seems like the big flaw on this is that, in reality we have a lot of groups who won’t actually recognize that pluralism is inevitable. And they’re playing a metaphysical game, and they’re playing to win.
Anderson: …and just cannot accept the idea that they would ever need to really talk to these other groups of people.
Anderson: And so if you have groups like that as part of your pluralism, is there any hope of of even having a reasoned conversation?
Torcello: Well, right. So that’s a great question. It’s a question I struggle with. How could you not struggle with this question as an ethicist? Because I’m a pluralist, I see that there’s a certain limit to how far we can go in terms of persuading with each other. Perhaps we can share at least some, some, conceptions about the need to talk, the need to communicate.
Now, the question you raise is how do we communicate with each other when you have people who are so adamant that they’re right? How do we talk to them? There’s really no good answer to that. Nevertheless, we ought to try. This brings back the question of education, I think, perhaps.
Anderson: Actually, that’s where I wanted to go, because it seems like if you can’t persuade them, then I have to ask what is the difference in terms of these ways of thought that are open to persuasion or not open to persuasion?
Torcello: This is a problem that our generation isn’t going to necessarily solve, because you have to start very early with people. Which isn’t to say you have to program them. But if you teach children early to think critically; to value reason; to understand the importance of back and forth; considering the other in a way that allows you to see what you have in common with one another; to recognize each other as being part of the same very very broad, cosmopolitan, global moral community, even though you might have a separate individual pockets of more tight pluralistic communities, it really does go back to education.
Now, Andrew Keen would say, “Ha ha, you admit you don’t have a good answer. And here’s what you’re saying. You’re saying education.” Guilty, but I’m right. Because that really is the key. It’s education. And so what’s the best way to get over xenophobia? Eradicate the “xeno” portion of it, and then the “phobia” part will evaporate. You have to learn about the other. You have to make them not the other anymore. It’s education. We have to be exposed to each other. And not so that we could all be paper copies of one another, but so that we learn to appreciate the diversity in the world.
Anderson: And is brokering this sort of understanding… You know, I like to ask people, “If you were to name one,” and of course this is so simplistic, “what is the crisis of the present?”
Torcello: Stupidity. The crisis of the present in stupidity.
Anderson: [laughing] That’s great.
Torcello: It leads to every other crisis. You know, I’m so tempted to say climate change. And I think that how it’s manifesting. But bottom line is that we have a great potential as a species that we squander, right. We don’t take education seriously. Okay, so in the United States, the wealthiest nation on the planet. We have the largest economy. We’re the most powerful. But we bounce between thirty-five and forty percent of the population even acknowledges that climate changes is something that’s happening. Fifty percent of people don’t recognize that evolution is reality.
When you have that much ignorance, how is it that we’re going to solve problems? It comes down to learning how to think. We don’t learn how to think… I almost said in this country. I don’t know that we learn how to think early on anywhere.
Anderson: I wonder, is it something where, to articulate why you need the humanities you almost need an audience that is at least well-versed enough in the humanities to be persuadable?
Torcello: Yes. And—
Anderson: That’s terrifying.
Torcello: Yeah, it is terrifying, because… So, we have to begin with education, right. We have to incorporate the humanities. We really have to start inculcating a culture of education where we take facts seriously. That we understand how to think scientifically, how to think critically. We understand that in certain certain questions it’s not enough to split the difference and just have opposing views. In the world of science, for instance, we don’t settle anything by debate, we settled it by research. And you have to learn to appreciate that early in life. That’s a necessary thing to equip us to live in a world as adults.
I am really big supporter of a classical education when it comes right down to it. The more we try to teach to tests, the more we try to embrace this rhetoric that teachers are somehow to blame, that teachers have failed in other ways which is why they teach… It doesn’t matter what sort of computers that we have, what sort of computers we put in our our heads, alright? Bring the transhumanism thing into this. No matter how geared up we are, so what if we can’t think? Access to information isn’t the same as being able to think. And that’s the problem, right. That we don’t value thought.
Anderson: And that leads to a huge number of problems. We’ve talked a lot about the idea of conversation being good. If that doesn’t happen, if we continue on with the status quo and we’re not talking about these ideas with each other, where does that take us?
Torcello: The worst-case scenario would be that the sort of problems that are on the horizon that we can see full well just continue to get worse. And I’m not convinced that the human race is going to disappear. Other people on The Conversation have pointed this out, that we’ll survive in some way. It’s going to be tough going through it. But as I say that, I really want to bring back this point that I think is still important that hasn’t been talked about on The Conversation enough. It’s that it’s easy for me to speculate on problems in the future, in the United States. I’m doing okay. Throughout this conversation, a lot of people I’ve been hearing…very optimistic about the future, very convinced that technology is making us all so well off. But seemingly unaware that 80% of the world gets by on less than ten dollars a day. The approximately twenty thousand children die of poverty daily.
So, these are very…what I would say industriocentric sort of views about the industrialized world and how we’re benefiting from all these things, while ignoring those on the other ide of the wall. The worst-case scenario, we need to just leave the borders of our nation. And another thing that hasn’t… So here’s my point—
Anderson: It’s just you and Cameron Whitten.
Torcello: Squeeze in all the things that haven’t come into The Conversation. It is also other species. We should carve out some space for them in he Conversation, too. In many ways, I’m not optimistic. Because I know this is something you often ask, too. “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?”
Anderson: Yeah, and I mean, you’ve heard throughout this project people generally are optimists.
Torcello: I’m terribly pessimistic. Really. But, I love Don Quixote. And I take a perverse pleasure in sort of…tilting at windmills. Perhaps this is a character flaw, or maybe I’m just being self-indulgent. But the more bleak I think it is when I ruminate on these things, the more almost…the ridiculous joy I get from trying to combat it. So maybe that’s what you need you need. You need pessimism tempered with a little madness. Which is far better than naïve optimism, I suppose, or a religious sort of hope in technology, or anything like that. Yeah. So.
Anderson: This conversation has taken some really interesting steps. We sort of started by defining a liberal pluralistic good. It’s almost like we got the endgame first. And then we went back and talked about the crisis of stupidity, and in a way that… I think this is fascinating and this is actually something that I’m surprised hasn’t been in this project more, but something that has certainly been on my mind a lot. What you’re kind of driving towards is, in a way, an ability to agree that there is a real. There is something that is actually real out there. Which seems like an absurd thing to have to overcome. And that we can talk about it without killing each other.
Torcello: Yeah. So, I want to call for an adult conversation. Yeah so, that’s right. And even though I’m an incredible pessimist tempered with this quixotic madness, as I said before, I’m a champion of the Enlightenment. And so to get back to this question, is this an important point, a tipping point?
The last three thousand years have been an important point in human history, probably going back farther. I’m very fond of…I can’t remember the exact quote, but this is a very close paraphrase from from Goethe. “If one can’t reach back over at least three thousand years, one’s merely living hand to mouth.” The problems that we’re dealing with now in terms of learning how to reason together, how to overcome our differences… Again, this is at the beginning of moral philosophy in the West with Socrates and his antagonism against the Sophists.
And we’re still having that conversation. It’s still playing out. Sophists are still alive and well. They’re not just historical figures. And we’re still battling it out. It’s rhetoric versus love of wisdom, which is philosophy. Which isn’t to say that you have any it but that you take it seriously enough to want to pursue it. It’s not to say that you know what the truth is, but there is a truth and you care about it. And you understand that you could be very wrong about it, just like everyone else could be wrong about it, and that’s…fun. It’s fun because it’s an occasion to come together to talk about it and have the Conversation, have the discourse. That’s the good. It’s a transcendental good, the conversation.
Aengus Anderson: It’s the great Socratic versus the Sophists battle.
Micah Saul: Yes. Of which apparently we are warriors.
Anderson: [laughs] Oh, we didn’t know we’d waded into this three thousand year conflict, did we.
Saul: No, we certainly didn’t.
Anderson: There’s so much to talk about in this conversation.
Saul: There is.
Anderson: Let’s start with a really big distinction, that between rationality and reason.
Saul: Yeah, I think that’s the best place to start. Because I think in some ways it’s the most relevant to us, and the most relevant to this project. We’ve been talking a lot about, here’s this group of people who seem like they’re just completely not able to talk to each other.
Saul: And Torcello sort of makes this argument that you can be perfectly rational, and yet unreasonable, and I think that might be his argument. That many of these people we talk to our unreasonable. They are so set in their ideas that they can’t challenge them.
Anderson: And at the same time— So, that gets us on one hand to the sort of arational assumptions we’ve been finding everywhere, and it also gets us to the very logical step by step conversations that have grown out of them—
Anderson: —that seem so…well seem and are, rational. And yet cannot talk to each other.
Anderson: So who is reasonable. You know, it seems like he gives us a definition of reasonable which sounds very reasonable. People who are essentially willing to doubt themselves, and in embracing their own uncertainty in a way, can come to more of a common ground. And can say to other people, “Look, this is probably the common language that we can use. These are arguments that I know will resonate with you. To some extent we’re both going to have to suck it up to get our common political goals accomplished.” Is that even possible, though? I mean, is that very definition of “reasonable” just the definition of someone who is sort of an Enlightenment-style liberal?
Saul: Right. I think that was one of my big concerns here, is… To use the example he gives, right. He says to say that gay marriage is wrong, you can’t use Leviticus; that’s a non-starter. Well, that’s only a non-starter if you’re more of a liberal than you are a Biblical literalist, right?
Anderson: That’s tricky, right? So, for any any person from any sort of ideological background, if you’re going to be reasonable, ultimately it seems like you have to be more of a liberal than you have to be of whatever that other thing that you are is.
Saul: Because by the very nature of questioning the tenets of that thing, you are in some ways challenging your membership in that thing.
Anderson: And this is it. Maybe if you have any true belief, there’s no way to be reasonable on some issues.
Anderson: There’d be no way to keep them as what they are and have them be reasonable by his definition.
Saul: Mm hm.
Anderson: So, does that get us back to the very problem he described that he was wrestling with? Is liberalism just another comprehensive philosophy? And I think he would probably argue that it’s more fruitful to accept the transcendental idea that coercion requires justification.
Saul: Right, because if you don’t, you throw a chair at him.
Anderson: Because we’re stuck with that pluralism of ideas, and no one’s going to win, right. And I think that’s another really important assumption that actually I wish we’d gotten into a little bit more. Because if you accept that we’re always going to have a pluralistic world with free thought, then yes that transcendental idea does make sense. But, if you don’t accept that, and you throw the chair at him because you think you’re going to win the argument that way… Well… He says if you throw the chair at him you’ve lost the argument. Do you buy that?
Saul: You’ve lost his argument. But you’ve won something else because you just hit somebody with a chair. I mean… Yes—
Anderson: I do love that we get to talk about throwing chairs at people in this heavily philosophical conversation. It’s like, what do you get when you get all this philosophy? You just start throwing chairs at people.
Saul: The places we go in this this project are just…they never cease to amaze me. But no, so I think the the question of who wins that argument depends on how you define the debate. If you and I are having a discussion and you say that coercion requires justification, and I say, “Well, convince me of that.” Okay, then like he says, I’ve entered into your frame of reference. If I throw a chair at you, I’ve lost your philosophical debate. There’s no question there, because you’ve defined how one wins or loses that debate. I, however, won my debate because I just hit you with a chair, and I define how one wins my debate.
Anderson: When we were talking about that and I was listening to in retrospect I was thinking, “Boy, the big issue here is the awful platitude that history is written by the winners.” And I think a lot of the winners are the ones throwing chairs. And if you are in the community of philosophical discourse and you’ve agreed to operate without unjustified coercion, and then you have some guy coming in throwing chairs at you, it only takes one guy to do that. And if you get bludgeoned by enough chairs at some point you’re going to want to pick up a chair yourself and go back and hit him.
Saul: And so that brings up a question. If anyone in the world is willing to throw a chair (and I think there’s always going to be a chair-thrower out there) is this entire Enlightenment project that he’s defined…is it attainable?
Anderson: At the end of th— I mean— I don’t know. Maybe this is just my own bias, but it feels like there is part of me that goes, “Well, might kinda does make right, sometimes.”
Saul: Inasmuch as might often forces the potential other right to just shut up, go away, die, or—
Anderson: Or turn to might itself.
Saul: Or turn to might itself.
Anderson: Yeah, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I’ve been going through editing this conversation. It just feels…so idyllic. And maybe that’s why he is so…pessimistic. I mean, there’s part of him that’s so idealistic. And I mean, that’s part of the Enlightenment project, right? There really is this belief in us being a reasonable and good and sensible. And yet maybe by sending out a vision of how we could be that’s so good, that doesn’t seem to conform to any historical record anywhere, maybe you end up inevitably disenchanted, or pessimistic.
Saul: And he even says, you know, “What is the crisis facing us right now? It’s stupidity, and non-reason.” He does make the argument that we can we can solve that with education. Improving education, helping people become more reasonable.
Anderson: God, that was a fabulous beatdown of Andrew Keen, wasn’t it?
Saul: Oh, that was…yes. That was great.
Anderson: I have been waiting months for that to happen, and I was just thrilled that it finally did. And he did it so eloquently. That’s getting sidetracked, though. When you’re talking about education and stupidity, there is a nice sense— And I really like this because it still gives people agency, right. When you say education is a possibility, we can do it better, you’re holding out hope that somehow we can get to a more sensible, reasonable, humane, state of things.
Anderson: Hell, he says it so well himself when he says it’s the pessimism mixed with the madness, right? It’s both. He feels both ways about it. And I do, too. It feels sometimes like God, the Conversation is just an utter impossibility. And yet here we are pursuing this project.
Saul: We’ve both felt that at various times and probably increasingly so over the course of the project, and yet here we are still continuing it, planning on going several more months on this. Because…well, the Ragnarök idea. Here it is again.
Saul: You just have to try.
Anderson: Right. Who wants to say, “Well, biology has condemned us to a world where we’re just kind of awful barbarians and we really can’t do it any better.” I mean, that’s a level of of fatalism that’s kind of…well, suffocating. And it gets you nowhere.
Saul: Turns out I don’t want to hit people with a chair. I like thinking that we can talk to them. I may be completely wrong. but, damnit it I’m gonna keep talking to them. And if I get hit with a chair, maybe I’ll rethink it. But you just have to believe that conversation gets you somewhere.
Anderson: I guess so, man. I’ve always been more the type to really just want to beat people with chairs. [laughs] I don’t really know why I’m doing this project.
Saul: Yeah, seriously it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier just to stock up on some cactus and throw it at people.
Anderson: You know too much about my childhood.
Saul: I do, indeed.
Anderson: Well, let’s wrap this up here. There were a million other parts of this conversation that were amazing and just didn’t fit into this edit. I think I’m going to go through and maybe post one or two MP3s on the site for you. Boy, this is one I wish we could have done more justice to, but it’s just a fabulous addition to the project and I’m thrilled to have Lawrence in here. And also, because he is listening right now, I know he’s going to write in a smart and eloquent response telling us why our synopsis was just barbaric and we didn’t get it at all. We missed all the nuances.
Saul: And I’m really looking forward to getting that. So, Lawrence, if you are listening, please do tell us how we screwed up.
Anderson: Because already know that we did. We just want the details.
Saul: And anybody else that’s listening. We’d love to hear how you think we screwed up, too.
Anderson: And that doesn’t go just for this episode, that goes for all of them. Alright, I hear you’ve got a dinner to head off to, so let’s close this thing out.
Saul: Sounds good.
Anderson: I will catch you at some point on some coast.
Saul: Excellent. Vaya con Dios.
Anderson: That was Lawrence Torcello, interviewed August 25, 2012 in Hammondsport, New York.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.