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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why Knowledge Matters

Ancient Greek philosophers posed one of the greatest questions in history: "How can someone know what is good and act otherwise?" Perhaps in its most famous incarnation, this problem passed from Socrates to Plato and Aristotle, providing the foundation for a theory of virtue and necessarily linking knowledge, ethics, science, and politics. This question is great not because of the philosophical ground it covers, and not because of its greatest proponents and navigators. This question is great because it places the demands of knowing and acting at the core of society.

Through simple observation, one finds that humans frequently act in ways that are contrary to their better judgment. Perhaps our desire for pleasure overpowers our sense of what is good for us, or our appetites get the best of our minds. From that extra slice of pizza to that verbal slight, perhaps our most prevalent ethical experience is one of feeling that we acted against our knowledge of what is good.

The problem of akrasia -- that someone knows what is good and acts otherwise -- places the demands of knowing and acting at the core of society by linking our actions to our educations, upbringings, classes, etc. While the decisions we make may be our own, we can only act as well as our societies allow. If our goal is to act well to achieve excellence -- or virtue, we need to live in circumstances that allow us to learn what is good, form habits that help us enact what is good, and situate our character to goodness. If we are deprived of education, our ability to know what is good will be impaired; if we are deprived of nutritious choices, our ability to form good appetites will be impaired; if we are overburdened with our labor, we will have fewer opportunities to strengthen our character with good habits. Within these circumstances, we can still act, but our conditions of action will keep us from achieving and maintaining excellence.

The debate about the impact of a community on an individual is extremely obscured in American politics. Faced with the idea of pure individual responsibility on one hand, or a constellation of determined circumstances on the other, Americans are immediately deprived of a clear understanding of how they are linked to one another and how they depend on one another. Interdependence does not predetermine our actions or disposition, just as individual will is not completely culpable in our actions or dispositions. We cannot simply will it to be so and place the burden of ethical responsibility on our shoulders; we cannot simply allow our neighbors, communities, and government to guide us and provide for us. As Americans, we are only offered two choices of determination, which are both false.

The greatest impediment to achieving virtue in American life is the assumption of individuality and the relation of the individual to society. We are assumed to be individuals that entered into society to protect our holdings and our interests, gaining the strength in concert to establish, protect, and sort through our rights (which are simply our claims to our own interests and holdings). Here, we find no organic link to our communities outside of the understanding that we're all mutually afforded the ability to make claims in favor of our interests. Our strongest social bond afforded by American politics is the ability to know that our interests are protected and that together we can ensure that we can make claims on behalf of our interests.

In this type of contract between individuals, knowledge is cheapened to a basic function that allows us to know our rights and be aware of our ability to defend our rights. Goodness is entirely absent from this equation, for knowing what is good is hardly required to protect our interests. We "know" what is good by knowing that we can protect our interests through society; working to achieve excellence, form good habits through good actions, and secure good character through these good actions and knowledge is entirely unnecessary in American life. This is what it means when someone pats you on the back and says you're a good guy in America -- you know that you can protect your interests, but you don't step on my claims, and you act in a way that ensures security of our interests. You can be a "good guy" in America even if you have rampant desires, unchecked appetites, and mediocre actions, so long as you do not overstep the bounds of others' claims while securing your own.

Knowledge, in this case, simply coheres with institutional and contractual arrangements. All that we need to know is what we can control or acquire through our own claims, holdings, and interests, and there is no basic requirement for knowledge beyond the basic contract. (This is why it is beneficial to American politicians to lie; it is their goal to protect interests and the ability to make claims about those interests, which has absolutely no requirement to cohere to any good).

This is the fatal mistake of American politics; there is no need for society to recognize that our interactions and relations and actions with one another develop our character, our ability to know, and our ability to do good things because such collaboration is beyond the scope of society. "Sure, it'd be great if we could accomplish that," one might say, "but it's a fantasy because individuals simply don't work together that way." Placing individual interests at the center of American society, and securing those interests through our social arrangements, renders excellence entirely superfluous to society. It's a bonus, not a necessity.

Yet, our appetites are linked to what we know and what we can learn, and our desires to act in specific ways will be linked to our appetites and our knowledge. It doesn't matter if WE say "we're simply individuals linked in concert to secure our interests and protect our rights," we're interconnected at every level of society. This does not mean that we are determined; it's simply a reality to human politics. We misunderstand this because we no longer understand ourselves as political animals, necessarily linked through our very being. We understand ourselves as individuals, first and foremost abstracted from society.

By placing individuals at the core of politics, we remove the need to know what is good in order to act well; acting well in our society merely needs to relate to securing holdings and staying out of the way of others' claims to their holdings. We remove the need to form good appetites or desires, because our appetites and desires simply need to correspond to our ability to secure our interests. As a result, when we act, when we work in society, we completely remove the conditions for goodness from our actions, and we completely remove what is good from our actions and desires. This, of course, makes us akratic -- no matter how well we protect our interests, no matter how well we ensure our rights, we have removed ourselves from excellence. It is no wonder that our political debates so sorely misunderstand our very own relationships to one another and our society.