Life is short – have fun!

I’m heading out to Colorado tomorrow with my little family to get in a little bit of time in the mountains before all the snow melts. The basic plan is to ski/snowboard for a couple of days, and then just hang out for a couple more. No plan, no agenda, just quality time with each other and with friends.

Not everyone can afford to fly to Colorado for a week, of course, but little vacations like this, wherever they take place, are a great reminder of what matters in life. The social causes are great, the activism is wonderful, the critical analysis is essential. But sometimes, you just gotta have some fun.

In that spirit here are some things that I enjoy–things that make my life a little bit more worth living.

– Snowboarding

– Beer

– Good conversations with friends

– Travel

– Being barefoot

– Coffee

– Playing the guitar

– Hot tubbing!

– Reading (anything)

The list is intentionally short. I could keep going for a long time of course, but the point is to make you think of the things you like. When’s the last time you did something on your list? If you did something recently, did you revel in it? Did you savor it? And if you haven’t done anything you love recently, why not? Can you? Soon?

Life is too short to be too serious.

Play.

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Death and the fragility of it all

A mentor of mine recently lost her partner. She died unexpectedly last week from a massive heart attack. Must’ve been in her 50s or 60s. Otherwise in fine health. The memorial service was today.

When I heard the news, I was dumbstruck. I didn’t know what to say. What do you tell someone who’s just lost the love of their life? Of course I sent her a quick note with my condolences, and I was there for the visitation. But there’s nothing really comforting to say.

Death sucks.

Living with both eyes open requires that fundamental acknowledgment. There are lots of ways we try to squint, so that all the horribleness doesn’t overwhelm us. And of course that’s an understandable response. But if we’re going to be adults, we can’t pretend that the unexpected death of a loved one is anything other than dreadful.

It reveals the fragility of existence, of meaning.

Meaning, on a humanist view, is a human achievement. It is not granted to us from outside. Our life does not have a purpose waiting to be realized once we line up our will with the will of the gods, or of the fates. What meaning our life has is the meaning we succeed in crafting from it for ourselves. Or, I suppose, if we are less fortunate, it’s the meaning imposed on us by others.

But whatever we successfully build, it can all be taken away in an instant. Not for any higher purpose. Not because our story will be more beautiful for it. Not because anything.

You’re going to die. But that’s not the terrifying thing. What’s terrifying is the ones you love dying without you. Because you need them. Your life, as you know it, depends on them. But you can’t guarantee they’ll be alive tomorrow. They could die tomorrow. They could die tonight.

I’m not sure what practical difference it makes to stare death in the face. It’s sobering, for sure. But in the morning you have to go on living. And so we make plans, and we go about our business.

Some days, like today, I think we’d all benefit from thinking about the omnipresence and inevitability of death a bit more. Other days, I’m not sure it would make a difference. No matter.

Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

What is economic justice?

I should begin by saying that I don’t think that “justice” is somethingĀ out there, beyond humanity, waiting to be finally grasped and comprehended. Justice, on my view, is just the situation that obtains when everyone’s happy with how the social order is structured (more or less). The devil’s in the details, I know, but the basic point is that economic systems, like governments, like morality, and so on, exist to serve human beings. And they should be evaluated according to how well they do that job. I take it this is fundamentally a humanist perspective.

So to talk about economic justice, we need to talk about different approaches to structuring our economies. I should note, incidentally, that the economy is invariably tied to the legal order, and also has consequences for the values expressed in the culture. It’s all tangled, if you will, so any focus on one piece of the puzzle has a tendency to mask the other pieces. But hopefully you can see how it all hangs together.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to economic justice. Let’s call them (1) the proceduralist approach, and (2) the consequentialist approach. TheĀ proceduralist approach views an economic order asĀ just if the procedures by which goods are allocated meet certain standards. TheĀ consequentialist approach views an economic order asĀ just if the social order produced by that economic order meets certain standards.

Contemporary free-market advocates tend to be proceduralists. That is, they think that what matters for justice is the freedom of economic agents to choose how to spend their money and their time. As long as contracts are entered into freely (that is, without coercion or compulsion), and as long as goods are exchanged freely, the demands of justice have been satisfied. They get quite sophisticated and fancy in fleshing this basic idea out, but I take it that’s the gist of it. If at the end of the day some people end up with lots of wealth and others end up with very little, the proceduralist has nothing to say about the matter as long as everyone played by the rules. If people work at my factory and make me super rich, they can’t complain about my wealth and their (relative) poverty because I haven’t stolen anything from them, and no one forced them to work at my factory. They can quit any time. If they want to be as wealthy as me, they should open their own factory.

The consequentialist is not necessarily anĀ anti-proceduralist. What the consequentialist thinks is that the proceduralist’s notion of “freedom” (and of human agency in general) is abstract and underspecified. If, for instance, the small businesses of a given town are put out of business by the arrival of some big box mega store, is it really fair to say that workers are “free” to work or not work at the big box store? Is it fair to say that shoppers are “free” to shop or not shop at the big box store? Surely, the proceduralist will say, shoppersĀ are free to shop or not shop at the big box store. If they hadn’tĀ wanted to shop at the big box store, it could never have put the local small businesses out of business! Notice however that this reply assumes shoppers are perfectly rational and perfectly informed. The fact of the matter, however, is that we are rarely perfectly rational and perfectly informed. Quite the contrary.

Consider Sue the smoker. Sue is an intelligent human being who picked up an unhealthy habit in college (say). She wants to smoke, but is having trouble quitting. The proceduralist might tell us that, since Sue has in fact continued to smoke, sheĀ really wants to smoke. But most of us would be uncomfortable saying this without qualification. Sometimes we don’t always do what we want to do. One of the ways Sue might help herself quit is by recruiting some help, either in the form of nicotine patches, an accountability partner and co-quitter, or perhaps something else. One way to make behavioral change is to publicize one’s intention to make that change, and then lean on the resulting social pressure to conform to one’s stated intentions. So Sue could start a blog about quitting smoking. Or tell her Facebook friends she intends to quit. Or ask somebody to call her first thing in the morning when she usually has her first cigarette. Whatever. The point is just thatĀ all of these things are manifestations of Sue’s desire to quit.

So also, I submit, governmental regulation, unionization, and other collective exercises of agency can be (though I concede that they are not always) one way of writing our best selves–our truest and best desires–into law. Maybe we find it hard not to shop at Target, or Walmart, or whatever, but in our more reflective moments we realize the harm caused by such corporations (depressed wages, outcompeted local businesses, environmental impact, etc.). We might as a result work against such corporations, by refusing to shop there, by encouraging workers to unionize, by voting not to allow their stores at the city council, etc., etc., etc.

The consequentialist cares about the kind of world produced by an economic system and is therefore willing to tinker with the law to protect important interests, incentivize certain activities and disincentivize others, and so on. We try a certain set of laws, see how they work–if the lives they lead to are truly worth living–and then we adjust accordingly. Proceduralists are wary of this tinkering mindset, and tend to fall back on their intuitions about what “freedom” is, and so on. But this is an insufficiently empirical mindset. If we care about the quality of the lives we lead, we need to take certain risks. Most importantly, if something isn’t working (exhibit A: the U.S. economic system), we need to actively try and fix it, by whatever means necessary.

Just a thought.

Is atheism insufficient?

When people begin to feel the draw of a secular outlook, the social advantages of traditional religion begin to make themselves evident. After all, it’s hard to keep going to church if you “convert” to atheism, but perhaps the bulk of your relationships are through church. What to do? And in fact, it’s not just the relationships that keep people going to church when their conviction falters. They love the music, the sense of transcendence, the progressive politics (you know, if they go to that kind of church), and so on. Compared to all that, atheism looks a little… anemic. Isn’t atheism insufficient? Don’t you need something more?

“Atheism:Ā noun – (1) the doctrine or belief that there is no god; (2) disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings” (dictionary.com).

The dictionary definition says it all. Atheism isĀ not a positive belief system. It is simply disbelief in the existence of God or gods. That’s it. SoĀ yes, of course atheism is insufficient–if what you’re in the market for is a total life philosophy. You could be an atheist and a nihilist; an atheist and an absurdist; an atheist and a Buddhist; an atheist and a pagan; an atheist and a humanist… Atheism in and of itself is not a complex worldview. No one is saying that it is.

Atheism is the moment you have to pass through to get over traditional religion, if that’s your background. I was raised evangelical Protestant. So I had to reject my religion before I felt the need for anything else. Atheism was a part of that rejection. Of course, it’s also a part of the something else, but certainly not the whole of it. That something else, for me, is humanism.

Humanism, as I understand it, is a worldview founded on the belief that meaning, purpose, and value are human constructs. We value things, we create meaning, and we do so because doing so makes us find our lives worth living. That is, we think that the world is ours to create and recreate in our image. We acknowledge no metaphysical overlords, and no legitimacy to human power that isn’t a transparent exercise of competence in the coordination of disparate interests.

Humanists contend that deep satisfaction is to be found in extending our sympathy to all human beings, and even to all sentient beings. We dream of a society in which everyone has a chance to develop deep loving relationships, satisfying interactions with family members, and receive the respect of all, whether stranger, ruler, or what have you. Of course, we’re not all on the same page about how to get there, but we are drawn by the beauty of positive-sum social interaction, by forms of life in which pleasure and joy are shared.

We love music, food and wine, coffee, beer, sex, mountains, oceans, cartwheels, kites, kisses, bare feet, beaches, sunsets, sunrises, astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, hard work, hard play, hammocks, meeting new people, laughing, telling jokes, surprising our loved ones, raising children (if and when we want to), learning foreign languages, meditation, self-overcoming, and every life-enriching experience known to humankind. We say an unequivocal “YES” to life, and to self-determination. We long to sink our teeth into every potential experience yet to be imagined that promises joy, pleasure, and satisfaction. We are committed to enjoying the simple pleasures of our animal life. Eating, sleeping, loving.

And finally we believe in living with both eyes open. This means calling out politicians on their bullshit. It means confronting the comforting falsehoods of dying religions and superstitions. And it means acknowledging the meaningless cruelty of existence, for those unlucky enough to be cursed by the fates. We believe the only harm in suicide is the loss experienced by our loved ones. And we believe it is possible to build a society in which no one is ever driven to suicide by the cruelty or carelessness of others.

Humanism is atheistic through and through, but it is not atheism. Atheism is just not believing in gods. Atheism, by itself, is insufficient if what you’re looking for is a worldview. Of course, if all you’re concerned with for the time being is whether or not a particular religion is true, then atheism is of course quite sufficient. It provides an answer to your question. But if you have more questions than just the one, allow me to commend humanism to you.

For further reading, consider Corliss Lamont’s most excellent The Philosophy of Humanism (available for free here).