The good life and sustaining life: Early reflections on my fall course at Kaos Pilots

With special reference to the neighborhood dugnad


The subject of my fall course at Kaos Pilots is the connection between the good life and sustaining (or bare) life. Logically and chronologically, the question of the good life must come before that of sustaining life. It is not the case, I shall be arguing, that human beings first seek to secure their basic needs in whatever way this is possible, and then build up an account of their reason for living. Nor is perdurance identical with flourishing. Quite the contrary, human beings must begin with some kind of a conception of the good or of the good life and then seek to secure the goods required for their survival in the light of this conception. Of particular relevance to our time is the ‘thematization’ or ‘making explicit’ of this question:  in what way do I have most reason to live and, by implication, what sort of economic models would be not only consonant with but also an enhancement of this way? I doubt that this question would have so easily fascinated so many in other ages. In the modern age, the question spellbinds us.

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On layaways, one-click drunk shopping, and being an idiot

Philosophers are idiots. Evidence for this claim abounds. First off, we’re easily confused. Because of this, we spend much of our days asking for explanations concerning the most elementary truths. Second off, we don’t readily understand topics that everyone else immediately gets, so we’re always asking people to slow down and show us again how they got to where they got. Third off, we can’t seem to remember very much. As a result, we need to be reminded of the meanings of words and then reminded once more after we’ve forgotten them again. Third off, we can’t seem to get a handle on technical terms. Only after having heard them parsed in laymen’s terms might we have a sporting chance of making some sense of them. Fourth off, we can’t manage to get our minds wrapped around complex topics. Whatever is complex, we seem to think, must be made simple before it can be looked at and held in mind–that is to say, before it can be lost again. In conclusion, since the dawn of time, we’ve been idiots.

(Come and knock on my door? I’ve been waiting for you?)

So attractive is this picture of the philosophical life that I can’t help but ask: Would you care to be an idiot with me, if only for a morning? Let’s be idiots together and have a look at a few things the smart people are saying about wealth and buying.

Last night I read the New Yorker column titled “Delayed Gratification,” a column on economics written about once a month by the journalist James Surowiecki. Surowiecki points out that the idea of layaways is making a return, in some cases replacing the idea of buying large items with credit. As I understand it (dimly, very dimly), a person who wants to purchase, say, a washer and drier agrees to pay the store in regular installments until the item is paid for in full. Once it’s paid off, the washer and drier is delivered to his home. Hence delayed gratification: want now, work to secure it, and get it later.

My first thought: I like that! There’s something here about being committed to what you want and about remaining committed to making it your own. My second thought, a deduction: I can imagine that the individual buying something on layaway must have already determined that, among the set of possible items she could purchase, this is the one she thinks is best to work toward the having. Hurray for her.

My third thought: Confusion sets in. The idiot in me can’t make out how this picture of prudent homo economicus differs in any crucial respects from the spendthrift, debt-ridden homo economicus. Both want the same things (i.e., they strive for the same final ends). It’s just that they use different means (techne). The difference is that the first one shows restraint (sophrosyne) whereas the second one chucked his out the door.

My fourth thought: Why are we talking all the time about self-control, self-restraint, etc. etc.? Why aren’t we talking instead about whether our desires are really worth having? Whether these desires are essential? (Do you really need a big screen TV with the plasma thingie?) Whether these items really factor into leading a fulfilling and meaningful life? The idiot in me, the idiot I am remains stumped. If only we inventoried our set of ownmost desires, he thinks, and found that many of them weren’t essential, then wouldn’t the self-control talk be beside the point? Moot. Wouldn’t the need for self-restraint many times go away?

My fifth thought: A note to self: Replace “delayed gratification” with “completeness here and now.” As I say, I’m confused by complexity and don’t get what other people get.

(Assuming you’re still reading…) I opened yesterday’s New York Times to the Business Section (now, there’s common sense all over the place!) and read the front page story, “Online Merchants Home in On Imbibing Consumers.” Wow, what a title! “Imbibing” seems like a fancy pants word for getting drunk  and “home in on” for “attract” or “allure.” So: People who’ve got stuff to sell are trying to attract the kinda drunk people to buy the stuff they’re selling.

What explains the increasing prevalence of drunk buying? Too many Rieslings and lots of Smart Phones. With the Smart Phone (my phone, which was not so smart, went bye-bye, by the by), an individual can buy stuff with one-click shopping. When they’re at home after a long day of work. After the bars close on the weekends. Can buy all kinds of shit right there at their fingertips. So to speak.

Perhaps it’s time to consult the expert. Shall we? Quoting:

“In a shopping context, alcohol would lift people’s moods and make them feel more relaxed,” said Nancy Puccinelli, an associate fellow at the Oxford’s Saïd Business School who studies consumer behavior. “If we see a product and we feel good, we will evaluate the product more positively.”

I’m not quite with it, but I vaguely get the sense that the expert above has said something sorta commonsensical and also sorta obvious. (The expert is training to be an idiot, though she doesn’t know it yet.)

Call me stupid, but why have we have construed leisure time in terms of consumption? Why would we want to live in a world in which we spend our free time drinking wine next to our laptops, then buying crap on our laptops or Smart Phones, then regretting some of these purchases once we’ve sobered up? (No, the answer is not self-control. See above.)

I don’t see how the “delayed gratification” story is all that different from the “buy now Zinfandel” story.

In conclusion: One of my goals in life is to keep being an idiot. This shouldn’t be that difficult.