Meritocracy with decency

A lot of the huffing and puffing from the political right in the U.S. these days has to do with the idea that a progressive income tax “punishes success”. And I suppose I understand why someone might look at it that way. But the rhetoric is way overblown.

Most liberals, myself included, think that what makes sense for the U.S., at this juncture in history, is meritocracy with decency. What is a meritocracy? A meritocracy is a system in which people who work harder are given more. Work twice as hard? Make twice as much money. It’s not a bad idea. A meritocratic system is different from a completely egalitarian system in which some income (say) is guaranteed regardless of how much or little one works. From a meritocratic point of view, the radical egalitarian system disincentivizes effort and success. Why work twice as hard if you aren’t going to get twice as much?

There’s plenty to say about all of this. The first thing that comes to mind is that, for some at least, rewarding work is its own reward. Money, from this perspective, is an external good. People who are really driven by their passion don’t work for external goods–they work for internal goods: the rewards that are intrinsic to whatever it is they happen to be good at.

But forget about that. It seems to me you can keep the basic insight of the meritocratic system (that there should be some way of recognizing the differences in effort and talent between people) without significant harm. The question we need to ask is not whether or not meritocracy is desirable. Let us assume it is. The question we (here, now) should be asking is, is our current economic and social system a meritocracy?

Plainly, it is not. I’m too lazy to troll the internet for precise statistics, but I know that, however hard most CEOs work, it does not justify the pay differential between them and their lowest paid workers. In fact, low paid workers are frequently very hard workers. But their hard work is radically undervalued in our economy. The work of certain others, on the flip side, is radically overvalued. Let’s go hardcore meritocratic and assume some people are ONE HUNDRED times more productive than others. Fine. Let them be paid one hundred times more than the others. But that is not the system we have right now. The system we have right now is a system in which certain individuals, simply in virtue of good luck, good connections, and an ability to work the system, make TENS OF THOUSANDS of times more than hardworking people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

What we have is not a meritocracy. A meritocracy would be huge leap forward. And if we kept the income gap between hardworking, productive, and intelligent people, and lazy, unproductive, stupid people, at a reasonable size… we’d have plenty left over to make sure our meritocracy was decent. So that even the lazy, stupid people didn’t have to starve, or get sick and die.

A meritocracy with decency. Shouldn’t we be able to get on the same page about the desirability of that kind of system?

In our political climate, I suppose, probably not.

Meaning eggs and the meaning basket

You know that saying about not putting all your eggs in the same basket? Well the same goes for meaning.

A common concern for inquiring minds considering atheism/humanism is that of meaning. If there is no God, what is life all about? What is the meaning of life? I understand the concern, of course. When one’s life centers around one idea, when that idea infuses all activity with meaning and purpose (purpose-driven lives, and all that), the idea of giving up that organizing principle seems absurd. Dangerous, even.

But it’s not. I think theists and “life has a Meaning” folks more generally mistakenly assume that their lives are about what they think they’re about. They say they believe in God, or that everything happens for a reason. But if you look closely, they live like their peers, in predictable, human, fragmented ways. I suppose the occasional true believer really does center his or her life on ONE single thing. But that’s rather rare.

It’s more common for people (whether they realize this or not) to draw meaning and purpose from all sorts of activities. From work, from family, from hobbies, and so on. From a humanist perspective, this is all as it should be. My life does not have a singular, overarching “Purpose” (no purpose-driven life for me!). What it has is big and little “purposes” scattered throughout. My meaning eggs aren’t all in the same Meaning basket–if you see what I mean.

I find value in being a philosopher (and occasional blogger!), in being a stay-at-home dad, in being a partner to my wife, a friend to my friends, a brother to my siblings, and so on. I love music, food, politics, sunshine, travel, social justice, running, reading, etc. None of these is the whole of my existence however. And so while the loss of any one of these would be a real loss, none would completely undo me (which is not to say that I value all of these equally, of course–I’ll take being a father to my daughter over sunshine, if push comes to shove).

From a humanist perspective, coming to terms with this less-than-perfectly-unified texture of our lives is part of growing up. Life is a sort of hodge-podge (perhaps more so in these economic times than in previous times, but let’s not overunify the past, either). And that’s ok. Happiness is (among other things) embracing the present, or at least living with it, even if it doesn’t connect perfectly with our remembered past or our anticipated future(s).

Humanists may not have a singular foundation of Meaning. But they’ve got a vast and intricate web of meanings. And that seems like plenty to me.

An Easter meditation

Happy Easter!

Today is the day Christians around the world celebrate the alleged resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The significance with which this miracle is imbued varies from sect to sect, of course, but for most Christians, the “Resurrection” (you gotta capitalize a miracle) is the central miracle of the Bible. It communicates that God is control. That God is stronger than death itself. And it communicates that, somehow, at some point, there’ll be a cosmic Happy Ending (for at least some).

Easter is the holiday of Happy Ending Christianity.

Happy endings are nice, don’t get me wrong. But Happy Ending Christianity is a lie. There is no life after death. There is no evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead, because there is no evidence that he is alive today. Everything in the world has gone on in the world since Jesus’ alleged resurrection as if he hadn’t been raised from the dead. Nothing has changed. The simplest explanation is probably the best: Jesus is still dead.

There are branches of Christianity that flirt with this acknowledgment. Some liberal Christians will claim that finding Jesus’ remains would have no impact on their faith. That the Resurrection isn’t about flesh and blood, but about spiritual realities. And let me say this much–that’s all well and good. But there’s two ways of interpreting such claims. First, you might in fact be on board with the evidence: Jesus is dead, and his death has been interpreted by his followers in certain ways that give them courage to face their own deaths, so that “in Christ”, death is no more. Metaphor, metaphor, metaphor. Everybody still dies. The Earth still goes up in cosmic flames. No Happy Ending. Second, however, you might be trying to hold on to your Happy Ending, but making it an invisible Happy Ending. So Jesus’ body wasn’t raised from the dead; but his soul was.

Of course, there’s no such thing as an immaterial soul, and so your story is just that–a story. When told as truth, it becomes straight up undiluted hogwash (no offense to hogs).

So make a choice: do you want the Happy Ending? And do you want the mythical, make-believe world that goes along with it? Or are you willing to live in the real world? To sacrifice your guaranteed Happy Ending, for the possibility of some happy endings and some not-so-happy endings, here in the realm of mortals?

I’ve made my choice. I’ve come to the conviction that death is the complete cessation of conscious experience; that meaning and significance and joy are ephemeral human achievements, and not “gifts” bestowed upon us by the universe, or by an allegedly benevolent transcendent deity; and that unless I face the finality of my own death, I will in all likelihood fail to live as fully as I can. Having embraced the reality of my smallness, my materialness, my mortality, and my cosmic insignificance, I am now free from the need for Easter.

Jesus died. As we all will. End of story.

And that’s ok.

Thoughts on Good Friday

Today is “Good Friday”–the day Christians all over the world remember the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

I’m an atheist, as you may know. So I have no interest in the metaphysical stories told about Jesus. But I do have an interest in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The notion of the “historical” Jesus is fraught with difficulty, and I know that. But I think those who argue that Jesus never existed (so-called “mythicists”) are on shaky historical ground. The simplest explanation for the data we have is that there was a historical Jesus, and that the stories told about him got blown out of proportion for very understandable, human reasons.

Jesus was not unique. He has come to be seen as unique for a variety of reasons, but the basic trajectory of his life is one that shows up in memorable characters throughout the cultures of the world and of history. I’m a philosopher, for instance, and we philosophers trace philosophy back to one Socrates–a man executed by the state for his alleged atheism (he dared to question the stories told about the gods) and for being, basically, ‘uppity’ (shaming statesmen and other important people by revealing their supposed ‘expertise’ to be mere pretense). In a different religious context, Socrates might’ve been Jesus.

But he wasn’t. Jesus was Jesus. And Jesus of Nazareth was uppity. He railed against the religious and economic authorities of his day. His message was that God didn’t need the centralized Temple system to interact with his people (we might say he was a religious democratizer). His message was that God was against the religious elites, and on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden. He was murdered by the state for inciting class resentment, for hosting an unauthorized protest in the Temple (the religious and economic heart of Jerusalem), and for blasphemy (he claimed to speak for God).

That is what the crucifixion was about. Another revolutionary murdered by the state because he challenged the oppressive status quo. Yes, it was in a religious context, and yes he appealed to his religious traditions (specifically, the prophets) to make his case. But that’s the fundamental picture.

So what are Christians the world over doing? Most of them (with a few exceptions) are feeling sad that their naughtiness (“sin”) ‘required’ (for some reason) divine suicide. That’s it. It’s a pity party. So they’ll congregate and go on and on about how awful they are–try to feel really really guilty about… whatever. The vast majority of them will never connect the dots. They’ll never see that Jesus of Nazareth was anti-authoritarian. They’ll never realize he would have organized Occupy Wall Street, or the Arab Spring. They’ll never imagine that he would have blown up (empty) bank buildings like Tyler Durdin in Fight Club. That he would have been a striker, a Marxist, and a “divider.”

But the only way you can not realize those things is if you’re more preoccupied with your religion than with economic justice; if you’re more preoccupied with genuflecting before tradition than with questioning it; if you’re more preoccupied with your own goddamn “soul” than with the shitty lives forced upon the global poor and the local poor by our societal striving for profit.

So forget Good Friday. Unless what you’re remembering isn’t that Jesus died for your sins so you could go to heaven, but that Jesus died because he had a clearer moral vision and a stronger political will than most of us today.