on civic friendship
Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Sibyl A Schwarzenbach plumbs the depths of the philosophy of civic friendship. She’s always brooding on Rawls and was one of the first to contest readings that made him out to be an abstract individualist and thinks an Hegelian reading necessary. She knows that the growing inequality in the US and the world point to flawed thinking and systems. She asks fundamental questions about Locke and feminism, civic friendship, the way metaphysics underdetermines a thinker’s practical position in ethics and politics, about Aristotle, paradigms of labour and activity, Marx’s understanding of social labour and the emotions, about how relations between nations might better be conceived, about women’s roles, why Kantian dignity is not enough and about sexism in academic philosophy. Rockin’!
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Has it been what you hoped it to be so far?
Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach: I often think I would not have become a philosopher had my older brother not been killed one night in a car accident when I was eleven. It turns out that many writers and thinkers have a death somewhere in their childhoods. Before that I had been passionate about sports, piano, and the great outdoors, but I quit all these and moved inwards, was forced to reevaluate things. Death certainly makes one stop and think. Of course, it was also the 1960s and not only my own family, but the entire world was convulsing around me. The U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, women’s liberation, drugs, sex, rock & roll. It was a heady time and I tried to participate as best I could, but when I later enrolled in my first philosophy course in college, I took to it like a fish to water. Here were others who doubted the existence of God and pondered suicide (the Existentialists), and there was this one guy (Descartes) who actually questioned whether the external world existed — just like me! I fell in love with one philosopher after another: Plato and the ancient Greeks, Marx, Kant, Wittgenstein.
With regard to my becoming a professional philosopher, it both has and has not turned out to be what I hoped. There were few women studying philosophy in the 1970s. I had no female philosophy professors during my entire undergraduate years and the only one I had in graduate school (Martha Nussbaum) was fired while I was there. Naturally, I was concerned whether I could make a living in such a male-dominated field. In some ways, this part turned out better than I expected. After a few rather unpleasant episodes, I managed to secure a tenured position in the middle of Manhattan with wonderful students and some great colleagues.
But academia can be frustrating, there is no doubt about it — and it is not just the deep sexism that pervades the field. There is also a certain pusillanimous character to the life of the academic mind –at least in recent decades and in the U.S. Perhaps it is because academic philosophizing today so often refers to and feeds upon itself instead of on the outside world. Far too much effort and thought is directed towards a small circle of initiatives who are meant to further one’s career, and so forth. There is indeed much brilliance within the university but much is also wasted on self-promotion, pandering and trivial matters, while outside its walls all sorts of important projects lack intelligent guidance. This is particularly painful for a political philosopher nurtured in the fervent and socially aware 60s and 70s.
3:AM: You contextualise your work on Rawls and communitarianism by drawing attention to the influence of Hegel. You argued then that you were hoping to revive that Hegelian influence. Perhaps a way of seeing why what you are up to is important is to point up the contrast between readings of Rawls that see him as a Kantian. So what’s the difference between the Hegelian Rawls and the Kantian one?
SAS: By now the Hegelian influence on Rawls’s thought has pretty much been revived and even explicitly acknowledged by the later Rawls himself. But at the time of my 1991 article comparing Rawls and Hegel, communitarians such as MacIntrye, Sandel and C. Taylor were criticizing Rawls ad nauseum for being a Kantian “abstract individualist,” and they interpreted his original position as articulating an ahistorical, absolute vantage point sub specie aeternitatis and so on. In the article I tried to show that this misreading was due to the fact that few bothered to understand or even to read Parts II & III of A Theory of Justice. The confusion may be compared to reading only Part I of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and concluding that the great communal thinker Hegel was really only an abstract individualist; it couldn’t be further from the truth. If one considers the whole of A Theory of Justice, however, not only the book’s tri-partite structure but Rawls’s debt to the holist methodology of the German Idealists emerges (see the book’s last pages), and one realizes that his construction of the original position is grounded in a specific set of modern social and historical institutions. This is all clarified in Rawls’s later works, of course, but it is already present in A Theory of Justice if one reads it closely enough.
To answer the second part of your question: perhaps the most important insight Rawls takes from Hegel is the central role of the “basic structure” in his theory. With this term Rawls refers to the way a society’s major social, economic, and political institutions hang together in one scheme, and it is to this set of background institutions that justice as fairness applies in the first instance. This emphasis, comparable to Hegel’s Sittlichkeit and absent in in Kant’s moral and political philosophy, is of critical importance, for it is only by reference to some set of background institutions and cultural ways of life – the basic rules of the game, as it were — that one can adequately understand and evaluate the significance of individual actions, say, or the nature of individual rights (not only how these rights are secured but how they are delineated and constituted in the first place). To use a well-known analogy, one can’t understand what a ‘knight’ is or ‘check mate’ in the game of chess, if one hasn’t a clue regarding the rules and goal of the game in the first place. Many don’t realize the extent to which Rawls was also influenced by the thought of the later Wittgenstein…
3:AM: Why do you argue that this Hegelian perspective is more satisfactory?
SAS: I actually don’t think it is more satisfactory, only that it is necessary. The degree to which we should focus upon and emphasize the basic structure of society (or Sittlichkeit) is an issue still up for grabs, but one must at least be aware of its critical role and importance. Libertarians, for instance, characteristically have no conception of the basic structure in their theories and it is why their analyses are so misleading and (in my view) superficial.
Still, the emphasis on background social, political and economic institutions (what I am calling the Hegelian insight) is developed to such an extent in Rawls’s later work– particularly in his The Law of Peoples — that I think he goes too far. The late Rawls risks loosing the original insight with which his greatest work A Theory of Justice begins: the inviolability of the individual from the perspective of justice. As a committed feminist, I shudder whenever Rawls writes of a “decent consultation hierarchy” in non-western cultures, for we all know that such a hierarchy refers to a group of men ensconced in power. I don’t believe for one minute that the appeal to the dignity of each individual is just some bourgeois, western imperialist notion being imposed upon the rest of the world. On the contrary, western nations such as the U.S. violate this dignity all too frequently when the “individual” happens to be of another race, gender, or religion.
I therefore find myself in growing sympathy once again with that great individualist Kant and at a time when the current mood (on the left) appears to have swung in the opposite — more communal and culturally relativist – direction. In the end, the only thing that bleeds is an individual.
3:AM: Rawls is probably the greatest political theorist of liberalism since Locke. But he’s closer to a socialist worldview than a Lockean conception of liberalism isn’t he? How would you place Rawls now? Is his brand of liberalism dead in the USA and more relevant in, say, Europe?
SAS: Oh dear, let’s hope his brand of social democratic liberalism isn’t dead in the United States, for then we are all in big trouble. Again, Rawls did us a great service in the 1970s by focusing our attention on the basic structure of our society. If one ignores this underlying set of background institutions and how they interact, one observes only the most superficial results of far deeper processes at work.
Consider, for instance, the growing inequality in the United States today (and in the world generally). This development can’t possibly be explained by the fact that ‘some individuals are talented and work hard, while others lack capabilities and drive’ – as libertarians and neo-liberals are wants to claim. On the contrary, it is important to see that our present set of U.S. institution is deeply flawed. The system permits a handful of persons to inherit billions at birth due to rather arbitrary property, tax, and inheritance laws, together with a crumbling public educational system, etc., while other individuals inherit a crack addiction in utero, are born into dire poverty and a racist culture. How could fairness ever emerge from such unequal — and thoroughly undeserved — starting points? A few individuals may indeed buck the odds of their birth circumstances and claw their way to the top, but statistically speaking these individuals are pretty insignificant. In fact, recent studies have revealed that social and economic mobility — and the chances of individual advancement due to his or her talent — is far greater today in ‘socialist’ Europe than in the U.S.
3:AM: You have engaged with feminist readings of John Locke. Locke’s not a feminist but he did have the idea of ‘no fault divorce’, equal education for the sexes and thought women were as smart as men, had no problem with women in political power and so according to Shanley and Butler his thinking contained the ‘seeds of feminism.’ But there’s stuff that works against that thesis as well. So was Locke a proto-feminist or not?
SAS: One can find ‘seeds of feminism’ all over the map and in the most unlikely places; so, I don’t put too much emphasis on the proto-feminist side of Locke. Plato claims in the Republic that unless women as a group are freed from the burdens of child care, they will never become philosopher-queens — a seed of feminism which is having difficulty sprouting even today — but then he goes on to depict any actual ruler as a man.
The situation is similar with Locke. Despite the various progressive elements you mention, there are other deeper tendencies that work against the collective liberation of women. Remember, Locke still explicitly claimed the “natural superiority” of men over women in his Second Treatise, and he was a member of the early modern medical establishment that was wrestling health care and reproductive control out of the hands of women and midwives and into those of men. (Sociologists have shown that the dominant class of persons burned as ‘witches’ in the 16th and 17th centuries were lower-class midwives.) So too Locke is probably best known for his defense of the modern institution of private property, which has bewitched us all.
With regard to this last point, Locke famously proclaimed that man originally ‘owns’ that with which he has ‘mixed his labor’ and he argued further that the aim of private property is perhaps the greatest incentive to productive laboring activity. This powerful metaphor certainly seems to apply to free agricultural labor, to craftwork, and even still to private wage-labor in a factory. But where does this new grounding of property in individual labor leave the vast majority of women who, whatever else they did, were also “mixing their labor” with their children and family members, satisfying the needs of the household and larger community? Since persons could no longer be privately owned (for the most part) in the 17th century, Locke’s labor theory gave a clever new grounding for the gendered status quo: women’s traditional labor and activity quite naturally generates no property rights. Not only was this the case in Locke’s time, but it still remains so for much of the world today. In my own view, for any genuine society-wide liberation of women to take place, we must dethrone Locke’s powerful mixing metaphor — and the productive model of (market) labor — from the dominant place it still holds in our thinking and practice, and move on to an ethical reproductive model: to a model of ethical labor and praxis where reproducing our human (and animal) relationships in the best way possible — what I call friendship — becomes the goal. On this alternative model, one analyzes not just how to care for another properly or feed them well, but how to educate, further another’s abilities, perceive and alleviate their pain, as well as how to maintain long term equal relations with them in the midst of change, as well as simply enjoy and appreciate them.
3:AM: You’re well known for your work on the notion of civic friendship. Now this is really cool. To get a grip on what it is, it might be best to contrast it with well-known rivals. Masculine fraternity and Marxist solidarity are two chief rivals. Can you say something about these two and why they don’t work?
SAS: I’m pleased that you think the notion of civic friendship is “cool”. Our modern concept of friendship has become so privatized (as with many of our other public goods) that the idea of a public friendship between citizens strikes most, especially most Americans, as a contradiction in terms.
Let me contrast the idea of civic friendship first with some of its rivals. The political theorist Jane Mansbridge revealed years ago that when democratic theorists appeal to “fraternity” they primarily have relations between men in mind: a feeling of camaraderie, the recognition of equality among productive citizens, of shared economic interests or common male pursuits. So one problem with the notion of “fraternity” is (as you mention) that it is thoroughly masculine: women and their historical ethical reproductive activities become afterthoughts to a fundamentally male conception of citizenship. But so too, fraternity or the appeal to ‘the spirit of brotherhood’ has frequently been used in the name of dubious and partial ends: in the ancient world, it referred primarily to relations between upper-class male citizens, and more recently to those among the Nazi elite or the KKK. Justice is hardly built into the notion.
A similar difficulty taints Marxist notions of solidarity — at least on my reading. The term originally meant ‘being solid,’ ‘a standing together,’ and in Roman Law it designated a ‘shared responsibility,’ but for what end is not yet specified. By the 19th century, solidarity takes on the meaning of working class unification against capitalist exploitation, and in the 20th it comes to connote the collective liberation of Third World peoples from European colonial rule. This is all good. But in all these cases, we should note that the model of ‘liberation’ is still that of traditionally male forms of activity and labor even if women participate and try to adapt: marching off to war or meeting the enemy at the barricades (military activity), organizing trade unions and labor strikes in factories (confrontational economic production) or ideological battle (philosophy as activity between men). So too, as with the term fraternity, the appeal to solidarity historically has been exercised in the name of gross injustices, e.g. among Stalinist party members. This is not to say that recent solidarity theorists aren’t trying to make good on this ethical lacuna within the notion, and elaborating new conceptions of moral or civic solidarity between groups and peoples.
But here, I believe, the concept of civic friendship has distinct advantages. For one, it has a good deal less male historical baggage than the other notions, if only because the idea is still rare when applied to contemporary circumstances. Far more importantly, however, the work of genuine friendship is furthered by activities of ethical reproductive praxis and labor, and not by either economic production or aggressive martial action, no matter how communal. On my reading, the aim of ethical praxis is the initiation and reproduction of flourishing human (and animal) relations for their own sake, whether personal or civic. So the idea of a civic friendship necessarily includes — and even focuses upon — the vast repertoire of ethical reproductive activity and praxis that women have traditionally performed, instead on any characteristically male behavior. Unlike fraternity, therefore, the work and relations between women are central to the modern notion of civic friendship, while in contrast to the notion of solidarity, the stress is on a different type of action and labor; the emphasis is neither on military nor productive activity, but on that which creates and maintains genuine friendships.
With the idea of a civic friendship, moreover, not only do women and their activities become central but the notion necessarily now applies to all citizens, and thus no longer to only a particular group, class or elite; the injustices historically perpetuated in the name of fraternity or solidarity by individuals or classes actually become impossible. Of course, as mentioned, solidarity theorists are beginning to speak of a “civic solidarity” as well. But my sense is that not only will it be difficult for the term solidarity to shake off its masculine heritage, but beyond entailing a negative freedom from (slavery, exploitation) it tells us little more. It does not tell us for which positive end we are ‘standing together’. By contrast, the idea of civic friendship is far more explicit about the goal: the reproduction of political relations analogous to friendship among all citizens.
Allow me to clarify this last point a bit further, for I am frequently misunderstood here. In claiming that a just society must embody a significant degree of civic friendship (and an unjust one necessarily a lack), I do not mean that all citizens must be personal friends with one another (which is impossible). Nor do I mean that there must be some fuzzy warm feeling all citizens have for one another, or the like. Rather, my claim is that at least three essential traits of all friendship – a reciprocal awareness of equality, reciprocal good will and practical doing — must now be evidenced and operate publicly, at least to a certain degree, in a society’s laws, its social and economic institutions, as well as expressed in the everyday habits and practices of citizens. Thus, for instance, a reciprocal civic awareness of citizen equality may be evidenced in what citizens know of and can expect from each other, in what rights they grant each other and are guaranteed by their constitution (both the content of the rights and whether they are upheld in practice). Here, of course, the state plays an indispensible role in mediating and regulating information and the press, or in mandating requirements for its schools.
Similarly, the trait of a practical doing may be revealed by the actual duties citizens are willing to perform for one another simply as such (these can range anywhere from not begrudging the paying of one’s fair share of taxes, to helping fellow citizens in emergencies, to performing mandatory civil service, etc.). Finally, traits of friendship may be embodied in a society’s economic institutions, whereby the extremes of rich and poor will not be tolerated, just as friends help each other out in this area. Civic friendship must always be kept distinct from personal friendship, however; in fact, the former requires that I often surmount the partiality I feel for personal friends or enemies when it comes to treating fellow citizens fairly. I may thus personally know and even dislike Peter, but I can still remain his civic friend: this means only that I will treat him in ways a citizen of this society ought to be treated. Another way of understanding the phenomenon of civic friendship is by realizing that the traits of all friendship – reciprocal awareness, reciprocal good will and practical doing – may apply to and become embodied in the basic structure of a society, to use the language of Rawls. Or a society can express their lack.
3:AM: So your idea of civic friendship is supposed to replace these ideas. You take the idea from Aristotle’s notion of philia and find this egalitarian and reciprocal. You go with Aristotle in some detail, so you agree with his notion of the three-part soul don’t you? Can you say some more about this and whether it’s a straight lift from Aristotle – making him a feminist I guess – or whether it has been tweaked? And does the idea of philia survive if Aristotelian metaphysics doesn’t?
SAS: You have asked me a good deal here. I’ll begin with your last question. I am of the school that believes much ‘metaphysics’ simply underdetermines a thinker’s practical position in ethics or politics; the latter spheres are at the very least semi-autonomous. Hobbes was a metaphysical materialist, after all, and Hegel an idealist but both supported political monarchy in practice. Practical reason is not some mere ‘application’ of our theoretical reason (the reigning view) but has its own subject matter — on this point I am a thorough Kantian. Per Kant, whereas theoretical reason deals with objects known, practical reason deals with how we produce objects or act in the world. Understanding our own ethical reasoning and human practice is practical reason’s proper subject matter, and thus it has a different structure from theoretical reason (which can be about anything). I therefore have no difficulty in carving out a position, which respects a number of Aristotle’s substantive ethical arguments and insights, while simultaneously jettisoning many (or even most) of his metaphysical claims. Strictly speaking, the former don’t derive from the latter anyway.
That having been said, I begin with Aristotle for a number of reasons. First, he views the political state or polis as grounded in an entirely different set of activities (in ethical praxis and action) than do the vast majority of moderns. Today the primary justification for the state, especially in the U.S., tends to be viewed still in terms of providing security (military protection) and the regulation of property and the economy (production). Second, I develop what I take to be Aristotle’s basic insight here: that civic friendship is a necessary condition for genuine justice in any state. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this claim is by way of considering its opposite. Without the expression of a minimal and reciprocal good will, recognition and practical doing between citizens — in a general atmosphere of hostility or ill-will, that is, or in one of widespread indifference — the rich and powerful in a society will characteristically pursue their own interests and bend the rules to their liking, while the poor and dispossessed will avoid, whenever and wherever possible, the laws being imposed on them. Without a minimal civic friendship embodied in society’s basic structure of institutions, that is, only force and cunning will reign, and genuine justice becomes impossible.
Clearly Aristotle’s notion of political friendship (politike philia) is being tweaked. Not merely because I zero in on, and include, the traditional activities of women, but also because my examination is now of our modern society’s basic structure and not that of the ancient polis. In my view, any modern (post-Reformation) notion of political friendship must operate via a doctrine of universal individual rights and this I now label ‘civic’ (in contrast to political) friendship. On this point, political liberalism strikes me as correct. In today’s pluralistic societies, it is the height of dogmatism for the state to try to impose one comprehensive conception of the good life on all citizens. Nonetheless, the state may still reasonably require a minimal civic friendship between all citizens as a precondition of justice.
Aristotle’s notion of philia is also clearly being tweaked. I wish to retain the original broad reference of the Greek term philia, whereby it refers to the best relations between parents and children, or between siblings, husbands and wives, lovers and even fellow citizens. In all these best-case scenarios, one finds the three essential traits of friendship mentioned above: a reciprocal awareness of the other as a moral equal, goodwill and practical doing over an extended period of time. Our contemporary English notion of ‘friendship’ by contrast, has grown narrower and narrower over the centuries such that today all familial, sexual, and civic relations are held up in opposition to friendship relations strictly speaking — no matter the quality of these other relations. This I find perverse, and it is a trend I am trying to reverse, for the important reason that such conceptual narrowness obscures and even excludes from view, all those best-case, qualitative traits (or their lack), which these otherwise diverse relations (of family, siblings, lovers, citizens) may hold in common. Focusing on their commonalities gets us to focus on their quality. It is a different way of dividing up our social world.
Still, it was Aristotle’s himself who began to narrow the notion of friendship down to what I call ‘the equal fraternal model.’ That is, beginning with an astute analysis of the broad notion of philia, Aristotle ends by proposing his more limited ideal of the best friendship relations: the reciprocal awareness, good will, and doing between two similar and similarly situated men of roughly equal age, class, endowment and virtue. In Aristotle’s ideal of friendship the equality and similarity between the friends is presupposed from the start.
My own work, by contrast, tries to develop an alternative, but equally important, conception. In many cases of genuine friendship, for instance, equality (of age, class, gender, or race, etc.) need hardly be there from the start, but only the aim of a rough reciprocal equality over a complete life. Certainly many women’s friendships have been far more flexible than Aristotle’s ideal. Women have spent much of their lives with each other, raising their own and each other’s children (of both sexes), have helped and educated and enjoyed time with them, supported in-laws and the old, even neighbors, etc. The best of these relationships surely produce genuine life long friendships only now these relations stretch across generations, genders, difference in circumstances, and evolve in the midst of a diverse and developing (or declining sets) of individual abilities. In the best instances of such relations, no actual equality but only the aim of a rough equality between the two friends, need be maintained. Once a (good) child has reached independence, for instance, they often help the aged parent in turn. The same may be said of (good) pupils and teachers, or between peoples from different cultures and classes and so forth. Particularly today, there are many genuine ethical friendships but they develop in the midst of a far greater diversity in age, class, circumstance and ability. An alternative and largely still submerged model of ‘difference friendship’ is at work.
Finally, in regard to Aristotle’s analysis of ‘the reproductive soul’ (at least someone is theorizing reproduction!), I begin from his analysis in the De Anima and ethical writings, but hardly end there. Aristotle never explicitly distinguishes a biological from an ethical reading of the reproductive soul (the threptikon): that part of all living creatures by which we nourish and reproduce ourselves. In his ethical writings, however, he clearly provides a normative account of nourishment. How we decide which type of food to eat, the right amounts, when, etc. is of critical concern to the human good life, and hitting the virtuous mean here entails not merely right habit and educated pathos, but right reason as well. Indeed, one could say that I attempt something similar in distinguishing ethical from biological reproduction. I am less interested in the reproduction of biological processes (in menstruation, how egg meets sperm, etc.) and more in developing an ethical account of how we – as creatures of reason, moral awareness and foresight – ought to reproduce ourselves, not simply individually each day or with a family, but as a civic society and even as a species: with whom should we live, ought we reproduce biologically, what should the nature of our civic society be, and how to conceive our duties to our fellow citizens and the next generation. As in the proper study of good nourishment, the way humans reproduce themselves and their civic relations is not a mere ‘natural’ process (despite what many may think) but ought to be done consciously with reason, foresight and a universal concern for the whole, and even other, species. But it so rarely is!
3:AM: You say, ‘For the construction of a plausible modern conception of a civic friendship between citizens, the vast repertoire of particular moral convictions hitherto relegated to the ‘private,’ the ‘personal,’ and the pre-political ‘merely social’ realm can no longer be excluded from the original data pool from which a political reflective equilibrium begins. On the contrary, it is precisely from this sphere of close personal and social relations — the traditional home of women — that one of the most powerful resources for a renewed conception of civic friendship is to be found.’ You want to get theorists to start reflecting on what makes women’s traditional activities work and see that this is a better notion of civic communitarianism that the alternatives. Is that right?
SAS: Yes, along with many other feminists, I would like philosophers to begin serious reflection upon a different paradigm of human labor and activity — one we share and which happens every day all around us. However, I have never advocated stopping there and accepting present practices of reproduction, whether individual or civic. On the contrary, not only have women been disproportionately burdened by such labor, but they have performed it under conditions akin to slavery and in ideological thrall to woman’s ‘true nature.’ In the above quote, I ask only that we allow the diverse insights and moral intuitions of ethical reproductive praxis back into the balancing act of a political reflective equilibrium, at which point such insights will necessarily be refined, developed, and transformed. If we begin, by contrast, from the “tradition of moral philosophy” or from “our public political sphere” – Rawls’s starting points — the slight of hand of the conjuring trick has already been committed — women have been excluded from these areas for thousands of year and largely still are. One can’t help but then go on to develop a one-sided, partial, and distorted picture of the human community, including of the modern democratic state.
3:AM: You’re interesting in your criticism of Marx. You think Marx‘s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 were a working of Aristotle’s De Anima and that Marx was trying to revive both praxis and philia. But you say he lacked a sense of social labour and didn’t understand the structure of emotions right. Is this right? Can you say more about why Marx was off?
SAS. Yes, that’s pretty close. We know Marx was translating Aristotle’s De Anima from the Greek into German (sections are still extant) while he was writing the 1844 Manuscripts. Much of the discussion regarding human capacities for nourishment, sensation/perception and universal intellect, uses the language of the De Anima. Marx also quotes directly from Aristotle’s Politics but there is no evidence to my knowledge that he was influenced in any significant way by Aristotle’s ethical writings (perhaps some Marx scholar can set me straight here). It is in these ethical works, however, that Aristotle gives his account of the emotions and their critical importance for the exercise of practical wisdom, for correctly apprehending the concrete particulars among which action always takes place, and for hitting the mean not only in individual action, but in just political rule. So it is not exactly the case that Marx didn’t get the structure of our emotions right – Marx hardly discusses the emotions at all.
This being the case, both his theory of revolution and his account of the transition to socialism lack a few key elements. How, for instance, is the modern egoistic individual (including the wage-laborer), educated for and competing upon the capitalist market place, suddenly meant to rise up and collectively throw off, not merely the exploitative capitalists rulers, but his or her own egoistic tendencies? What are the conditions under which this still selfish individual will not merely cooperate and work with others to produce (indirect social labor) but actually work for others directly, seek the satisfaction of the other’s needs and even (sometimes) enjoy it? The latter may be called directly social or other-directed labor, but there is no account of it in any of Marx’s writings. The possibility of a genuine socialist revolution strikes me as far more plausible, however, if one begins from the immense amount of other-directed praxis that has been performed over the centuries primarily (but not exclusively) by women, even if much of this work remained un-free and in the private sphere.
3:AM: Part of what you seem to be arguing is that emotional illiteracy is what hampers civic friendship. Political theorists are too buttoned up and male. Is this right?
SAS: Not quite. Emotional illiteracy is part of the problem, but many of our theoretical self-understandings –the metaphors and models bequeathed to us and by which we recognize ourselves — also hamper and perpetuate the lacuna of civic friendship in our societies. If one is repeatedly told, and thus also ends up holding the self-conception, that human beings are in general egotistical, greedy, hell bent on domination and the accumulation of money and power, then the chances are pretty good that one is going to act in these ways as well. Much of what feminists (and others) are trying to do today is to whittle away at such narrow and dogmatic self-conceptions. They are dangerous because they help reproduce in reality what they at first proclaimed only in thought.
Think again of Locke’s powerful ‘mixing’ metaphor discussed earlier. This metaphor not only focuses our attention on so-called ‘productive labor’ and the incentive of private property, but it simultaneously gets us to look away from and neglect other types of work and social incentives that motivate people in actual fact: when they are serving their communities or building common places of worship, when engaged in music or the theatre for its own sake, when beautifying towns, helping save animal species on the brink of extinction, fighting for another’s rights or trying to end world poverty and suffering, not to mention all the activities entailed in maintaining good relations with their friends and families. On the reigning production model of labor aimed at private property (and consumption), it becomes difficult to imagine how people could ever act in these far more social and other-directed ways — and yet they do.
Finally, I believe our emotional illiteracy and our narrow self-understandings may both be traced back to dominant institutions and social practices: to the modern capitalist market where insecurity and egoism are nurtured and greed rewarded, where more money, consumption, and economic ‘growth’ are considered leading individual and collective goals, and where a maze of illogical and historically haphazard property laws exist privileging the wealthy, etc. In the U.S. there has also been a striking lack of concern for educating the whole of the next generation (ethical civic reproduction) and this neglect goes back to our Constitution and even earlier. My point is thus not so much that males are emotionally dead or buttoned up – female corporate executives on Wall Street can be just as bad or worse — but that we must in addition to educating the emotions also consciously re-work reigning conceptions of ourselves that allow us to see only part of the story. This in turn would help alter our practice and our social institutions accordingly.
3:AM: You also worry that feminist theories of ‘care’ haven’t the scope to achieve full justice for all that your idea of civic friendship has. What’s the problem with ‘care’?
SAS: Yes, some feminists are trying to develop entire theories based on the concept of care and some consider care ethics an entirely new approach to ethics. It just won’t work in my opinion — much like Christian ‘love’ didn’t work — for the concept of care is neither structured nor differentiated enough, and one can’t get blood from a turnip. By now, of course, there have been many good general criticisms of care ethics, among the most important being that the whole movement of the last thirty years remains far too closely tied to mothering (or parenting) practices and to specific and un-free bourgeois mothering practices at that; care theory remains parochial and partial. But to be a bit more specific, the concept of care strikes me as particularly unhelpful at best and profoundly misguided at worst, when it comes to modeling the normative relation between the ideal of democratic citizens. Here again, the concept of friendship has distinct advantages.
To begin with, not everyone wants to be nor should become ‘a parent,’ whereas nearly everyone, but for the odd hermit, seeks genuine friendships (no one wants merely apparent ones). Friendship is the more universal and comprehensive category, and it typically incorporates the concept of care but the reverse is not the case. Secondly, a one way or unequal caring relationship is not only possible, but appears to have been the historical norm: the feudal lord ‘cared’ for his serfs, the slave-owner for his property, and the nurse for her dying patient. In all these instances of care, there is little reciprocity, no equality, and no real autonomy of the other.
By contrast, a one-way friendship is strictly speaking impossible; it is no friendship at all. Precisely when a friendship becomes one-sided or domineering, we consider it an unhealthy one and near its end. Friendship — unlike care – by definition requires reciprocity, the autonomy of the other and (as I argued above) at least the aim of a reciprocal equality. And for such reasons friendship emerges as the more appropriate ideal for modeling the future democratic citizen relation. This is not to say that how we, as a society, organize our child and sick and elderly care is not of crucial importance. It is only to say that for political purposes, to assert care as the central relation between citizens, or as the citizen’s leading characteristic entails far too much paternalism, dependency, and even intimacy between citizens than appears healthy or appropriate.
Of course, I am also not denying that one may construct a concept of ‘genuine’ care in which a minimal reciprocity, autonomy, and even equality between persons or citizens is simply stipulated. Historically, it can be argued, much care was one-sided and unequal, but we need not stick with this limited historical meaning…. In response to the care theorist here, I would argue; this is all fine and well, but by building equality and reciprocity into the very concept of care, what you are actually doing is moving further and further into the territory of the concept of friendship and leaving that of care behind. Finally, we mustn’t forget that care ethics can be, and has been, utilized for reactionary purposes. Various U.S. court decisions, and even presidents of famous universities (c.f. the scandal over Lawrence Summers’ remarks at Harvard) have argued that it is ‘not unfair’ that women continue to be disproportionally under-represented in society’s most prestigious jobs and fields (whether airline pilot or physics professor) and for the reason that women seem to prefer more caring jobs.
For all these reasons, the ideal of friendship and not care seems the superior normative model for the future democratic civic relation (I might mention, the deep connection between the idea of democracy and that of friendship was already noted by Aristotle). The desire for friendship is near universal, it includes everyone (men as well!) and by definition it entails a minimal reciprocal awareness and good will of the other’s autonomy, as well as a practical doing and the aim of maintaining equality. Grounding a civic friendship in our alternative model of difference friendship, moreover, only mirrors the norms and requirements of the ever-growing pluralism of modern (in contrast to ancient) democratic societies. This alternative civic ideal now rejects Aristotle’s equal fraternal model. It is an ideal of democratic citizens who are highly complex and diverse but who nonetheless recognize the autonomy of each (secured by modern doctrines of individual rights) in the midst of change, who willingly cooperate in educating the next generation to a civic good will, and who endeavor to aim at and maintain a rough equality of background material conditions and opportunities for all. Finally, these citizens will seek to resolve disagreements and conflicts — not through caring for or loving one another, but also not through guns, exploitation, deception or wile — but rather through expanding political procedures of dialogue and discussion, a more inclusive listening to one another other and, finally, by transforming such talk into a practical doing as a recognized civic duty – as if between friends.
3:AM: Rawls plays a key role in your theory doesn’t he? How does he help get your civic friendship into place?
SAS: Yes, Rawls’s thought has been critical for me. Rawls not only placed the emphasis (like Hegel) on society’s basic structure once again, but he went further and called for the embodiment of the value of fraternity in that basic structure. Rawls considers his difference principle, remember, to be a political interpretation of fraternity. It states that any systematic inequalities allowed in society’s basic structure must be tied to bettering the position of the worst off as well; no group is to be left behind. I would even claim that articulating this difference principle is the real substantive contribution that Rawls makes to the history of political liberalism, but it is a move that has been pretty much buried of late (not least of all by the later Rawls himself.) One could say, I am trying to reawaken Rawls’s original concern with interpreting fraternity politically and seeing the value embodied in our economic institutions too. It is one of the great failures of Rawls’s later work, in my view, that he never went on to elaborate, refine, and defend the fundamental substantive insight embodied in his second principle of justice: that individual parties may rightfully have and own more but only if they contribute to a fair structure that helps everyone — including the worst off. No exceptions.
3:AM: You see a role for this approach not just in changing internal political settlement but also as redefining relations between nations. How would that work?
SAS: Yes, again, our attitudes, emotional stance and our self-conceptions — how we conceive ourselves as individuals (whether as egotistical, competitive, going it alone or as cooperative, good willed, fun loving, etc.) – is crucial to how we end up acting in the world, always taking the possibility of various self-deceptions into account. Much the same is true with regard to our dominant collective self-understandings whether those of the state, peoples or nations. International Relations theory (IR) — the reigning theory of our day — continues to conceive of states as independent, self-sufficient and in constant competition with other states; any “friendships” we might hold with other states are either knee-jerk and unquestioning (e.g. US friendships with England or Israel) or else they are reduced to the instrumental use of other nations in the furtherance of our own national self-interest à la Carl Schmidt (here Saudi Arabia is a good example). In actual fact, however, states are hardly independent and self-sufficient any longer, if they ever were. Particularly since WWII, the doctrine and practice of universal human rights and the development of international law are restricting the political sovereignty of nation states, and their economic independence is being undermined daily due to increased global trade, climate change and so forth. Hence, the international realm too needs new and richer collective self-conceptions to replace old inadequate models and to help us better understand ourselves, whether as a nation or a global people in the future. We certainly need guidance on how we might all get along peaceably on a crowded planet with ever diminishing resources….
3:AM: You argue that the values of philia are rooted originally in traditional women roles. Many women reject those roles. So is it your view that it’s a model that is no longer feminist in a sense, that it’s a historical accident that it has been found in women’s traditional social realities but nevertheless this is something that has universal appeal? And if that’s right, why isn’t something like Kantian dignity just as good?
SAS: No, no, no. I think my long answer above should at least partly answer your questions here. Some version of philia (friendship taken broadly) I believe has universal appeal and is not found merely in women’s roles or their social reality; it is crucial for men as well (cf. Aristotle’s discussion) and found all over the world. But I do think analyzing traditional women’s activities and their friendships in our societies today adds something important to the historical and cross-cultural debate, and allows us to dislodge the equal fraternal model.
In our advanced capitalist society (particularly in our American rugged-individualist one) our public economic, social, and political institutions are revealing ever fewer traits of a civic friendship: from the extreme material inequalities so blithely allowed, to the dearth of corporate social responsibility, to our crumbling public school systems, we are all to often abandoning the poor to their lot (including the global poor). Recent neo-liberal and libertarian thought appears to believe that we can do without any fellow-feeling, any other directed ethical praxis in our public political life, or in our economic institutions and even in our social theory and policy (witness the dismantling of many welfare and unemployment policies in recent decades). But neo-liberal policies have only proven once again that such privatization leaves vast swaths of the population behind and fortifies primarily those at the top. So one last concentrated (secular) place one still finds philia (and use value) today is, yes, in traditional women’s activities of taking care of the household as well as in individual friendships, although again, I do not advocate maintaining this privatized care in the home, nor its glorification.
The reason the Kantian notion of dignity is not enough, I believe, is that genuine human (or even animal) dignity needs support. Just like that of a young child, the dignity of self and others needs to be acknowledged and cultivated; the absolute value of dignity cannot merely be proclaimed in the abstract (a weak point in Kant’s theory) but must be nurtured, educated, and reinforced in individual, social, and institutional practice. But all this takes thought and work: a special kind of work. I don’t believe one can recognize and reinforce the dignity of another human being, at the same time as one is trying to sell them coke-a-cola or some other worthless item.
3:AM: A question troubling philosophers in the academy is the place of women. Although better than it was the situation is still pretty dire. As a top philosopher what are your thoughts about the state of sexism in academic philosophy. Is civic friendship precisely what is needed? And you have written pretty harshly about certain ‘feminist’ theories of psychoanalysis and philosophy that strike you as being misguided on many levels. Is this a symptom or a cause of some of the problems?
SAS: Ah, yes, the question of sexism in philosophy. Gaining any sort of recognition in this field is a constant and tiring struggle for women. If I had to sum up in a nutshell why sexism is particularly bad in philosophy (unlike in, say, the fields of literature or psychology or history), I would probably say because male philosophers can’t stomach the thought of not being the torch bearers of “reason”– at least over and against women. This sense of self and entitlement runs deep. For at least two thousand years, one of the oldest pursuits — philosophy – pretty much by definition was an activity done by and between men only: like smoking cigars or going to war. And, as my generation in particular has discovered, things change slowly.
If by a greater civic friendship playing a role in ending sexism you mean merely a generalized sympathy and sentimental feeling towards women, such good will is clearly not enough. Many a colleague is well intentioned and sympathetic, but they come down hard the minute their male prerogatives are even slightly questioned. If, however, one takes civic friendship as the attempt to transform the basic structure of society such that developing mature, lasting relations between adult equals might become more important and fulfilling than gaining a larger piece of the pie, greater status, making loads of money or being ‘on top,’ then yes, greater incorporation of this value into the background rules of the game would help women as a group. I have no doubt.
3:AM: Have there been any books, films, music that have inspired you outside of philosophy?
SAS: Oh, many. As I grow older and the practical problems of finding a good job, publishing, obtaining tenure, etc. all recede into the distance, I find myself turning ever more frequently to areas outside philosophy for inspiration, insight, and simple delight. I have always loved literature and poetry — from Charlotte’s Web (earth shattering at age 10) to the Greek tragedies, to Hölderlin, Thomas Mann, Emily Dickenson and Arundhati Roy. At the moment I am translating from the German some of the literary and journalistic essays of a Swiss cousin who wrote on and photographed the U.S. during the Great Depression (Annemarie Schwarzenbach, 1908-1942). I love being immersed in poetic language again, and photography has always been a special love of mine. But there were many other books and films that were crucial to me earlier, a number of which I don’t know if anyone reads anymore: for instance, R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self comes to mind or Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism which altered my development in the 1970s, and films such as Children of Paradise, Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, Bertollucci’s The Conformist or those by Fellini and Bergman (the latter, of course, still well known). I’m also a big opera fan — especially Verdi and Wagner– and the Ring Cycle is something I go to hear and see over and again. There are many things in heaven and on earth about which philosophy has little to add.
3:AM: And for the civic friendship buffs here at 3am, are there five books (other than your own which of course we’ll be reading straight after this) that you’d recommend so we get a better handle of what philia is all about?
SAS: I can’t even think of five books on the topic of civic friendship or philia at the moment. There is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, of course, and all the secondary literature on it. I was influenced in particular by John Cooper’s and Martha Nussbaum’s readings of Aristotle. Oh, I suppose I should mention that a number of us have started a new international journal (on-line, for the moment) called Amity: The Journal of Friendship Studies (eds. Preston King and Heather Devere) that anyone interested in the subject might enjoy (the first volume is ready and should be out soon). But at least as important as reading anything more on the topic (beyond my own book, of course, hee hee) is for people honestly to assess the role friendship has played in their lives and to consider not only which traits genuine friendship exhibits, but which might be important to develop politically.
Finally, working to deepen and strengthen our good relations, not just personally but with our fellow citizens and other nations, entails consciously foregoing enticements of power and the ideology of production: of being ‘the best’, winning ever more prizes (I always think of Plato’s cave), seeking higher status and more things, but also aiming to produce ever more books, articles or children — for none of these activities will help stop the earth from overrun or future catastrophes, whether with respect to war, starvation or dangerous climate change. To enjoy the actual relations we have, both human and animal, to conceive and build better ones, and to learn to live in the world modestly with all the other diverse peoples and animal species as if they were our friends — that is the great political task of the future, in my view, and one that it would serve us well to learn quickly.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 24th, 2013.