Personal Choice and Freedom of the “We”

Can an act that affects other people be “my personal choice”? This is an important question today since “personal choice” is regularly invoked, especially on questions related to Covid-19. To wear a mask in public or not to wear a mask in public? It is my personal choice. To be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated? Also, my personal choice. Many say, “I have medical freedom” or “my body, my choice.”

First, let’s define some terms. By “choice” it is understood that there is at least more than one option available to the individual doing the choosing. That is easy enough. “Personal choice” gets a little more difficult because it can be understood in more than one way. One way speaks to personal agency and subjectivity. A person has a range of options from which to choose and has the capacity to view those options and pick what she or he wants. The choice is “personal” because a person freely made it.

That is not the sense I mean here when I ask the question, “Can an act that affects other people be my personal choice?” Here I am not referring to the chooser—the person who chooses—but rather the nature of the choice itself. When made, does any outcome or consequence of the choice remain bound only to the chooser or are other persons involved, especially if unwillingly. For example, it may be my personal choice (in the first sense) to smoke cigarettes in a public venue, like a restaurant; but the fact is my choice is not strictly personal inasmuch as I am not the only one the choice affects.

Not very many years ago here in North Texas, cities around the Dallas area began to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. Most restaurants already did not allow smoking, so the ban mostly affected bars and clubs. I recall the discourse around those bans, mostly from those opposing the bans, who argued that businesses should not be told by government what to do and that if a business allowed smoking and someone didn’t like it, they could go somewhere else. In the name of freedom of choice, a business owner could choose to allow smoking and a non-smoker could choose to go elsewhere. Ironically, if a business voluntarily (even without a state mandate) requires you to be vaccinated or wear a mask, these same people cry foul, claiming that their freedom of choice to go where they choose is being taken from them.

Wisely, in this case, it was understood that this was not an issue of personal choice, but a matter of public health. Someone may make a personal choice to smoke but smoking around others or admonishing them to leave if they do not like it, takes smoking in that context out of the realm of personal choice (in my second sense) to that of the public good. In the smoking example, the personal choice of the smoker strips personal choice away from others. Claiming “my personal choice” here is not valid, I argue.

I think the same applies for requiring masks or vaccines (whether mandated by government or by owners of public spaces). Not doing so affects others in ways that, in the second sense of personal choice, individuals cannot make a personal choice, because the consequences of that choice do not remain in the realm of the personal—i.e., others are affected.

But wait, you say! Why can a business say wear a mask and if you don’t want to, you can go elsewhere, but a business can’t say that about smoking? One reason is simply that it is a false comparison. The focus is misplaced. It is not about the mask or the vaccine. It is about the fact that you cannot rightly or morally subject someone to a deadly virus just because you think that it is your personal choice not to mask or get vaccinated.

The problem is that we have a deeply flawed view of freedom. When you are talking about your personal choice, you are talking about freedom. In a recently published, and excellent, set of essays called  On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Maggie Nelson observes in her introduction:

This book takes it as a given that our entire existence, including our freedoms and unfreedoms, is built upon a ‘we’ instead of an ‘I,’ that we are dependent upon each other, as well as upon nonhuman forces that exceed our understanding or control…. The question is not whether we are enmeshed, but how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment.

Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (pp. 10-11).

I have personal freedom and personal choice. But what am I going to do with it? What values inform my choices? Freedom built upon an “I” focuses only on values of personal gratification. It places the person at the center of the universe of importance. It measures freedom solely in terms of wants of the isolated, autonomous individual.

But as Nelson’s words suggest, the individual is not isolated. We are “enmeshed” and that is not something that can be brushed aside. Thus, any concept and ideal we have of freedom, it must be built upon a “we” and our choices take the “we” into account. So, I have freedom and personal choice. But informed by the “we” means that I use my freedom and make my choices with care, compassion, taking thought of my fellow citizens. In his essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre insisted that “existence precedes essence,” by which he mostly meant that in our freedom, we are responsible. In light of this he wrote:

When we say that man [sic] chooses himself, we mean that every one of us does likewise; but we also mean by that that in making this choice he also chooses all people. In fact, in creating the person we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of humanity as we think it ought to be. To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all.

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”

When it comes to wearing a mask in public or being vaccinated, one cannot say that those are in the realm of “my personal choice” unless that person thinks his freedom to choose is all about himself. The self-centered “my personal choice” represents a rather immature, even childish, temperament. Freedom without obligation, freedom without responsibility, freedom without care and compassion, is anything but the freedom that creates a union.

So, is it your personal choice to not wear a mask or get vaccinated? Yeah, sure. But that kind of personal choice ends at any point your contact with another human being begins. At that point, it is no longer personal. You cannot subject me to a consequence of your choices. Mask and vaccine mandates represent a freedom built on the “we;” where freedom is exercised with regard to those with whom you are enmeshed. Referring back to Sartre, a choice that cannot be good for all, is not good for you.

Bollocks and the Blockchain

Dr. Todd Mei

[A note from David Utsler: I am pleased to welcome Dr. Todd Mei to Discursive Dialectics with a guest post on this timely and interesting topic. Dr. Mei is a public philosopher, business consultant, and podcaster. See the links at the bottom of this post to learn more about him and his work.]

Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash

The word “blockchain” tends to elicit two reactions:

  1. Excitement for those who are keen to see how the putative next phase of the technological revolution will pan out according to a decentralized ledger system (a.k.a. Web 3.0).
  • Bothered Reluctance for those who are tired of hearing about the promises and enthusiasm generated by cryptopunks and cryptocurrencies.

Before you decide where to hang your hat (if you have not already done so), there are a few important things to bear in mind when trying to get a better grip on the promises and pitfalls of blockchain technology.

This blog will cover a few of the essentials in order to provide the reader with a better sense of the current landscape and whether one might want to live one’s present and future lives by embracing the blockchain or just taking a “wait and see” approach.

The Basics of Blockchain

The blockchain is essentially a digital ledger or record of transactions that is permanent, un-alterable, and public. Its public feature includes two noteworthy items.

  • On the one hand, its record is transparent and made available to the public (with certain privacy guards in place).
  • On the other hand, its public nature means that no central authority has governance over it. For example, instead of being stored on servers owned by a corporation, the blockchain is stored on the computers and systems, or nodes, that send, receive, and validate information via the blockchain.

What’s So Good about Blockchain Technology?

As public and un-alterable, any transaction is available to confirm by those interested in doing so. The ledger is essentially a series of connected snapshots (or “blocks”) of activities undertaken by people, much in the same way that cameras might keep a record of what people do in the public sphere. But instead of recording the public lives of people, it records people when they engage in activities that the blockchain facilitates.

What kind of activities might these be? Most of us are familiar with the idea of buying Bitcoin, where someone can send Bitcoin through a digital wallet to another person to the recipient’s public digital address. But there’s more to blockchain than just buying Bitcoin.

Activities can also include those made available through companies or a conglomeration of interested people (e.g. DAOs, or Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) who want to fund certain services and products—anything from financial exchange to pizza! (I’ll come back to pizza in a moment.)

One way of seeing the benefit of this public ledger: businesses and people conducting financial transactions via a blockchain cannot hide what they do. If the blockchain existed in the late 1990s (and was widely used), a company like Enron would not been able to “cook the books” when it manipulated the value of its holdings based on an appraisal system called Mark-to-Market. (Illicit activity that uses the blockchain to fund crime or terrorism is distinct issue.)

One main reason why businesses and people would want to use a blockchain for financial services boils down to what its decentralized structure offers—namely, removing the middleman who makes money from providing such services.

Think of any service you use—Paypal, SWIFT, Zelle (for merhcants), Ebay, and of course banks. Imagine there being no transaction fees when using them. Instead of middleman organizations providing services, financial transactions would be provided via a decentralized platform (such as liquidity pools). This decentralized system is called DeFi (decentralized Finance) where, as Arun Padmanabhan explains, its

platforms are structured to become independent from their developers and backers over time and to ultimately be governed by a community of users whose power comes from holding the protocol’s tokens.

There are DeFi platforms, for example, that allow users to trade currencies without transaction costs. Indeed, one of the rallying cries of DeFi is doing away with monopolistic-like control over products and services in order to allow for a more community-focused and community-run system. Remember the example of buying pizza via the blockchain mentioned above? Consider what the founder of the first blockchain pizza organization stated:

“Bitcoin Pizza is the first decentralized pizza brand uniting our favorite neighborhood pizzerias under one roof to take on Big Pizza.”

But Does this Really Matter to Me?

There are at least three ways of thinking about this question.

1. One is to consider how often your daily life is affected by the transaction fees claimed by middleman services. Many of us have limited exposure to such fees except on occasions when one needs to pay for something where the vendor does not accept more conventional forms of payment. In fact, we tend to think of such fees as natural to how things work. Banks need to make money, and charging fees for their service is one way of doing this. But does it have to be this way? . . . and should it?

2. Enter a second, and perhaps more far-reaching, consideration: Has the overall cost of transactions fees within an economy “artificially” raised the cost of doing our everyday activities?

Ever heard of discount rates, operating fees, and interchange fees? These are the costs that businesses pay to credit card issuers for their services. They add up quickly and substantially; and any business owner will come to see that to prevent such fees from eating into profits, they should be built into the costs of business. At the risk of being repetitive—imagine a DeFi financial system without these costs.

3. Finally, another consideration: If the blockchain can prevent bad financial practice, is that really a benefit to me?

When bad financial practices are widespread or substantial enough, they can influence the economy itself. If the blockchain ledger system were around in 2008, would it have prevented the housing crash? There are good reasons to think it would have. Justin Lacche speculates,

Blockchain, integrated directly into mortgage contract agreements, would have provided the metadata that with the correct, investor-friendly reporting, would have shown folks that these wonderfully-rated, and seemingly can’t miss investments, were based on millions of people who understandably wanted the American dream, but were in no position to make the next monthly payment the second their variable mortgage rates tripled.

But, of course, what blockchain technology promises in terms of decentralized finance may be too good to be true. Before we examine this dilemma, let’s first address a rather large elephant in blockchain technology.

How Do Cryptocurrencies Relate to the Blockchain?

Photo by Executium on Unsplash

The short answer is that when Bitcoin first emerged it was purely a speculative commodity. People were investing in Bitcoin because it was a product of the blockchain, and its limited supply also incentivized its speculative value, much in the same way many pyramid schemes work—get on the pyramid early to sell the goods at a higher return to those trying to get on the pyramid (after you).

However, with the emergence of Ethereum, the relation of cryptocurrencies to the blockchain have reversed. Cryptocurrency influencer, Sebastian Purcell, puts this well:

[Ethereum] was the first platform coin in the world—literally reversing the idea of Bitcoin. Rather than have blockchain power a coin [as with Bitcoin], make the coin power a blockchain. That way, the blockchain is freed up to run other applications on top of it.

Call this the crypto transition.

In other words, buying a cryptocurrency today is largely a way to fund and invest in projects. Ethereum is hoping to realize the promise of a decentralized network that can reach a certain transaction processing benchmark. And there are many more projects (DAOs) of a smaller nature that one can find and consider for investment.

In short, now cryptocurrencies are largely the way to invest in projects using the blockchain. It’s the equivalent of getting involved with a company’ stocks when they have an Initial Public Offering, it’s just that the platform is decentralized and is therefore an Initial Decentralized Offering.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”

There are at least two worries about the blockchain and whether it can be a success.

Execution

In order for a decentralized system to be efficient and workable on a large scale, it needs to have a robust processing speed (transactions per second). Other problems involve security and the impact on the environment, which the standard verification process (i.e. proof of work) notoriously affects. Ethereum, for example, is far off from meeting these goals. Is it even possible? You can read more here.

Takeover

One can imagine governments or corporations finding ways to regulate and control blockchains to the point that its democratic promise of decentralization is co-opted and slowly morphed into more of the same—i.e. big business, monopoly-like control, unethical use of private information.

Or the blockchain project can be made obsolete by virtue of being out-competed by other digital (i.e. non-crytpo) currencies. (Better technology does not always win out.) While a cryptocurrency is digital, a digital currency need not use the blockchain and cryptographic technology. It can instead act as a store of value and as a store of information for a central authority in order to gain better control over markets and individual behavior. Imagine, for example, such an authority tracking your spending behavior or even coding digital currency so that it can only be spent on certain items by a certain deadline.

It brings to mind a new inflection and meaning to the marketing tagline, “What’s in your wallet?”

I think this question will become more prominent in the next five to ten years as questions about the blockchain will be answered.

If you have found this blog helpful, please share and follow me on Quora; or subscribe to my website dedicated to public and applied philosophy at philosophy2u.com.

About Me

Todd Mei is former Associate Professor of Philosophy (University of Kent) who specializes in the philosophy of work, ethics, and classical economic theory. He is now a consultant for businesses and is a podcaster for Living Philosophy, a public series exploring ideas about life and the inspiring second-lives of people.

Barbarism and Savagery or Civil Society? One of the Meanings of January 6, 2021

I am currently working on a post on the idea of national unity. National unity is something that is absent in American life right now. That post, when published, will explain that topic more thoroughly. But, for now, I wish to highlight an important fact that national unity does not mean uniformity. Quite the contrary, the ideal of unity necessarily requires difference.

E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One)

The United States of America is a country that arose in pluralism, as John Courtney Murray observed in his, probably now little known, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960). Unlike European countries and other places had “previously existent” unity disrupted, Courtney notes that “pluralism was the native condition of American society” that needed a solution that would ensure unity in pluralist roots (that solution is The Constitution, by the way). Hence, the national motto, E Pluribus Unum. America is truly one nation that came out of many people. American pluralism was and is represented in many pluralisms: religious, ethnic, ideological, and so forth.

It would be an error to think American unity means abolishing all difference, all the things that make us pluralistic, asking everyone to leave behind everything about themselves and to become something else that we all are supposed to be (determined by whom?). Quite to the contrary, American unity presupposes there is a place for everyone and that in our difference (not in spite of it) we can have a shareable national vision.

No doubt, this is not an easy task. One of the requirements for success is the art of reasonable conversation. Here I offer some more insights of John Courtney Murray, specifically what he writes about the difference between barbarism and civil society. (Hint: America is supposed to be the latter).

(Disclaimer: My use of Murray in this post is not meant to imply complete agreement with Murray’s book. But I do find it fascinating how, writing in 1960, some of his insights speak so truly to our contemporary challenges some 60 years later).

First, it is important always to define terms. Barbarism, Murray reveals, has its definition stretching at least back to Aristotle. Barbarism is “the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.” And “conversation” is defined in its Latin roots as both “living together and talking together.” How apropos of American life. Indeed, we must learn to speak together because we need to live together. And by “living together,” I am going to assume in the “domestic tranquility” spoken of in The Constitution.

Murray goes on:

“Barbarism threatens when men [sic] cease to live together according to reason, embodied in law and custom, and incorporated in a web of institutions that sufficiently reveal rational influences, even though they are not, and cannot be, wholly rational. Society becomes barbarian when men are huddled together under the rule of force and fear; when economic interests assume the primacy over higher values; when material standards of mass and quantity crush out the values of quality and excellence [Murray is remarkably in line here with critical theorists such as Adorno and Marcuse, although it might have troubled him to think so]; when technology assumes an autonomous an existence and embarks on a course of unlimited self-exploitation without purposeful guidance from the higher disciplines of politics and morals….” (Murray 14-15).

Barbarism happens when we cease to live together rationally. And of speaking together:

“Barbarism likewise threatens when men [sic] cease to talk together according to reasonable laws…. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice [it should be understood here that by “passion,” Murray means lacking rationality. He is using the word more in its Aristotelian sense of the non-rational part of the soul. He does not mean, as we often do in common discourse, being “passionate” about something we care about]; when its vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared [much like a former President who thought everyone was always all about him]; when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when parties to the conversation cease to listen to each other, or hear what they want to hear, or see the other’s argument only through the screen of their own categories….” (Murray, 14).

I would like to expand on the meaning of some of the things in the quotation, but for time’s sake, I am going to assume you get the general point.

The entire idea of conversation and learning to live together must absolutely assume difference. If we all already got along and thought the same way about everything, there wouldn’t really be much to talk about, if by talking we mean seeking to avoid barbarism and savagery. In fact, my claim here is that it is the barbaric and the savage that wish, by fear and power, to impose uniformity and to exclude, even by force and violence, those who are not them.

The insurrection at the Capitol one year ago today is just such the kind of barbarism that Murray was writing about.

Donald Trump at his “Save America Rally,” premised on the made-up notion that the election was stolen, said, “We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” When Trump said “country,” he did not mean, I contend, America. Not, at least, if you mean a country that is “out of many, one.” No, Donald Trump’s country and the country of those to whom he was speaking is something else entirely. His country is not the country of The Constitution. He made this clear enough when he told the insurrectionists to go home, that he loved them, they were very special people, and reminded them that the election was stolen. No, it wasn’t antifa or BLM, as he later claimed. He knew they were his people and he spoke directly to them.

I remember watching the Constitutionally mandated certification of the election and seeing Vice President Mike Pence interrupted to be swiftly taken from the building. A few minutes later we all learned, and watched, what was going on outside. Brainwashed thugs, wrapped up in the flag of our country, placed our Capitol under siege. I wrote my thoughts on that horrible event the day after. I think what I wrote then is just as true now. Our country experienced a treasonous insurrection. Whatever else is wrong with America (and there is plenty), we are still a democracy, no matter how imperfectly. Had the insurrection succeeded, I am convinced that today we would not be. I still fear the very real possibility that democracy could be lost. In the long march of history, civilizations have arisen and fallen after existing much longer than our own, relatively, short history.

What we saw on January 6, 2021 was an act of barbarism. It was an act motivated by the desire to rule by fear and power. It was an act by those who do not know how to have conversation, to live together and speak together.

This is not about differences in politics or being right or left. It is true, I do think the right in this country, at least in its most public face, is morally bankrupt and corrupt. I remember a right that used to be intellectual, that had a commitment to real American values. It should be the case, though, that reasonable citizens of various positions can “reason together” about our disagreements or what we think will best serve American ideals. We may have different beliefs about economic theory, or we may have varying political philosophies, but we can recognize one another as fellow-citizens who love our country.

Regardless of the differences among us of whatever nature they may be, the insurrection of our Capitol and the attempt to overthrow our democracy should horrify us all. Just because it was wrapped in flags and with shouts of “America,” there is nothing about that event that was American. What happened one year ago today was hideous and disgraceful. You cannot both love democracy and think that January 6, 2021 was anything other than sedition. May its perpetrators be brought to justice.

The insurrection at the Capitol is representative of the struggle between barbarism—carried out by a savage mob—and civil society.I don’t care if you are conservative, liberal, or any other stripe of political commitments. Let’s stand against sedition and treason together.

Virtue and Freedom of Speech (Don’t Be a Schmeck)

Just because you can do it, does not mean you should do it. This is a most basic moral principle of basic moral principles as can be. This is also wisdom. If I heard it once as a child from my parents, I heard it a thousand times over—there is a place and time for everything. Knowing the right place and time to do or say something is every bit as important, probably more, than the ability to do something. In addition to wisdom, not simply doing something because you can do it but knowing when, where, or whether you should at all, is a sign of maturity.

Alas, we live in a world of increasing numbers of adults who have less wisdom and maturity than developing pre-adolescents.

An anecdotal case in point: I am sure you are now familiar with the fellow from Oregon (Jared Schmeck) who made the news when he took part in a Christmas Eve call with President Joe Biden and First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. At the end of the call, in response to good Christmas wishes from Biden, the man responded with, “Merry Christmas and let’s go, Brandon.” If you are unfamiliar with the phrase—this clever craze that is sweeping the nation—you can read about it here. The short version is that the phrase is code for “fuck Joe Biden.”

As is often the case when someone is called out for such behavior, Schmeck first said he was only joking and has nothing against the President. Even if I take him at his word (which he later gave reasonable people cause not to…more on that in a minute), a Christmas Eve call with the President and First Lady in the presence of your children wherein you say a phrase that means “fuck Joe Biden” is not a very good joke. And that stuff I wrote above about knowing place and time? Yeah, that, too. He also said, “It was merely just an innocent jest to also express my God-given right to express my frustrations in a joking manner.”

Now, to prove it was a joke and he didn’t mean anything by it (sarcasm), he posted a video of the call to YouTube (linked in the NPR story). He also went on Steve Bannon’s podcast in a MAGA hat to say that he believes the election was “100% stolen” and that Donald Trump was his president. Sorry fellow, I think you knew exactly what you were intending by your childish little end of call jab. Yep, you were really owning the libs there, you great big patriot, you. Good sir, while I won’t contest whether you truly felt you were “merely” using an “innocent jest” to express your frustration (it may have well been that, too), you know as well as anyone who watched you do it, that you thought you were being clever, getting one in on Biden. You thought you were super cool to say “let’s go Brandon” (“fuck Joe Biden”) to the man himself. Own it. Man up. Don’t be such a snowflake when people call you out.

Schmeck also claimed he was now “being attacked for utilizing my freedom of speech.” Incorrect. You are being “attacked” for how you chose to utilize your freedom speech, for what you said and how immature and tacky it was, not for exercising that right to free speech as such. Is the art of critical thinking and how to make even basic distinctions even taught anymore? That question was rhetorical, by the way.

Here’s the deal, Schmeck. People are using their right to free speech to voice their “frustrations” or views about what you said. That’s the thing in a social order that protects free speech. If you want to say “fuck Joe Biden” to, well, President Joe Biden, people get to express what they think and feel about it. Free speech means everyone has it, not just you.

But this is where we touch on the real issue, isn’t it? What my rather lengthy anecdote illustrates is that the real question, for those who wish to be wise, is not about free speech, merely. Any freedom, any liberty, any right is never only about that you can do it, but how you exercise it. I have written elsewhere on this blog and over at Philosophy2u.com on rights and liberties. All the same applies to the right to free speech.

The standard scenario is that someone says something foolish, people respond pointing out how foolish what is said is, and then the individual whines that their free speech is being attacked. Imagine if someone gave me a gift (let’s even say it is tax-free) of one million dollars (cue Dr. Evil voice). Then I go spend my one million dollars on lavish fun and excitement and burn through that cash within a few months. You are my friend and say, “David, how could you waste that much money and lose it all so quickly?!” I look at you, feeling hurt and misunderstood, and I respond, “But it was my money and my right to do with it as I please! You are attacking my right to spend my own money!” You would likely say, “Of course it was your right to spend it how you wanted, genius; you were just pretty dumb about it.”

That is, to my mind, a very serious problem in this country. People are fixated on “me, me, me” and their precious rights, but those rights don’t seem so precious that we have serious and honest discussions about things that should accompany the free exercise of rights. Did you exercise it wisely in a way the situation called for? Did you exercise your rights with virtue and character? Did the exercise of your right harm a fellow citizen or family member?

The freedom of speech is precious. People must always be free from fear of government retribution for expressing their views and opinions. To silence language is to silence Being. There is nothing else so unethical, so horrific. But don’t you think if the freedom of speech is so precious as it is that we ought to take more care in how we exercise it?

Don’t misunderstand me. I like good old fashioned political mudslinging (to quote an undergrad history professor) as the next person. Moreover, I think such has its place in a flourishing democracy. But I fear we have become rather neanderthal about it all. The right to express yourself in speech is indeed your right. Co-extensively, it is your responsibility to honor this right by exercising it well.

My parents always said to me, “Think before you speak.” As I stated at the opening of this post, just because you can, does not mean you should. There is a difference. That difference needs to be understood in this country.

Of course, you have the right to free speech. Just don’t be a Schmeck about it.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead: Musings on 2021 and 2022

Betty White did not make it to 2022. That seems almost a crime. I remind myself that, given where she started, she got considerably further than most of us will. Still, Betty White not making it to 2022 and to her approaching 100th birthday, when she was in apparent good health, does make one sad. The thing about people like Betty White, however, is that she will live on in memory and in the good things she gave us by just being the kind of person that she was. If this were not true, the news of her passing would not have hit us so hard.

So, here we are now in 2022 and time moves on despite how we might feel about it. I have some grave concerns about the coming year. While I have hope and will do my part to make it a better year than the last two, it would be naïve to think that potential dangers cannot come into actuality.

The first anniversary of a seditious insurrection is five days away.

(A side note about that: it was not a “protest” over the belief that an election was fraudulent and they had to save the country. This is America. There are laws and there are courts in which to make such challenges. Make no mistake, this was an attempted overthrow of democracy done intentionally on a day enshrined in our Constitution to peacefully transfer power. This was not by any stretch of a sane imagination a protest protected by the Constitution, it was a direct attack on the Constitution. Those involved, especially those who planned, orchestrated, and incited it, should be tried, convicted, and imprisoned. Those in positions of government power who were involved, should not only be removed from office, they should, likewise, be imprisoned).

As January 6 approaches, I can’t help but thinking it was not the last attempt to overthrow democracy. These kinds of human beings do not go away, and they do not give up. They do not stop unless they are stopped.

We still have a deadly virus in our midst and the amount of ignorance over things such as vaccines, the effectiveness of mitigation strategies such as masks and distancing, is mind-boggling. It is like everything that has always been the case with vaccines has somehow been forgotten. I wrote about the faulty premises of vaccine refusal here.

The division, fragmentation, and hostility in our country still grows. Threats to education and the teaching of history in our schools (under the guise of being against Critical Race Theory, which they know nothing about) is pervasive. Banning books from schools and libraries under similar false premises is also pervasive. The rights of LGBTQ persons are constantly under threat, not even to speak of their safety. Roe vs. Wade is in danger of being overturned.

Point being, we live in a dangerous world. What I have listed is just a few of many things that one could list.

As we head out to 2022 and leave 2021, we live in challenging times. Like my friend, Donna Halper, wrote on her blog yesterday, we are “Saying Goodbye (and Good Riddance) to 2021” and hope that 2022 will be brighter. 2021 was a tough year for many. I consider myself very fortunate, individually. I did something in 2021 that I never thought I would do again. I got married. Those who have met my wife wonder, quite rightly, what a woman of her caliber sees in me. She is, in my estimation, way out of my league. I am in good health. I am surrounded by good people I am proud to call friends. Yet, for many reasons and like many people, I am happy to say goodbye to 2021.

As I reflect on the idea of being happy to say “see ya later 2021,” it is much more than just looking back on a trying year. It is also a looking forward with hope that 2022 might be better. There would be little point to a “good riddance” to 2021 if we didn’t think 2022 couldn’t be different. Of course, we don’t know yet what 2022 holds for us. It could be just the same or, Zeus forbid, even worse. But it can also be better.

To make it better, we can all do only those things we individually can do. That being the case, we should do what we can.

What am I going to do?

I will continue to teach. My students inspire me and give me hope for our world. So many of them are extraordinary. But they deserve to get a bit of hope from us. One way I can do that is to teach. Teaching is much more than just transmitting knowledge like so much data, teaching is to exemplify character and virtue. Teaching is about helping your students become the best persons they can be. Teaching is to inspire to reach for the possible and not give up.

I am also just going to endeavor to be a better person. To bring a smile to those I encounter. I want to be the kind of person that, when others encounter me, they leave a little better for having met me. I have certainly been made a better person by knowing the goodness of others. Knowing what others have meant to my character, I feel the obligation to be to others what my exemplars have been to me.

My wife and I have been discussing what we want our 2022 to be and what we can do to realize those aspirations. One thing we have discussed is to volunteer more and find more ways to get involved in our community.

We also cannot be negligent to stand up for the vulnerable and oppressed. I want to find ways within my means to continue to stand against what I see as the continued rise and threat of a kind of authoritarian fascism.

Let us look back on 2021 and assess it and learn from it. Then let us turn to 2022 in the hopes that when December 31, 2022 comes around, we can say, “That was a good year.”

When in doubt what to do or how to be? Just be like Betty White—laugh, make others laugh, love, and don’t take yourself too seriously. WWBD. What Would Betty Do? Not a bad place to start.

A Rainbow of Joy and Hope: Transgender StoryTime, Denton, TX November 20,2021

Photo by Harry Quan on Unsplash

Yesterday, I was privileged to be present at an event that had been at risk of not happening (and that would have been a shame). Yet, the threat against it became a catalyst that caused it to grow from one small library program (among hundreds) to a festive community celebration this year that drew many times over the number of people who would have attended the original event.

The background has now been widely reported, so I will only summarize some key points:

The Denton Public Library (DPL) hosts “Rainbow Storytime” three times a year and, according to the Library, “Its intent is to provide an inviting atmosphere for families to hear stories together featuring books focused on self-acceptance, learning, and friendship.” The DPL event typically coincides with days associated with “‘different’ or marginalized groups.” This time, it was taking place alongside the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a now 22 year-old observance that remembers those who have been (often brutally) murdered because they were transgender.

Due to the efforts of groups inside and outside Denton, the library decided to cancel the event out of concern for the safety of library staff and families (such concerns tend to arise when you receive hostile and threatening phone calls). Don Huffines, candidate for Texas governor, took pride that his efforts resulted in the event being cancelled. Just a few days before, he posted a press release on his website calling for the cancellation of the event and that all city employees who approved the event be fired. Tough talk, big man.

(Side note: Just perusing his website, I can’t help noticing that Huffines has very strong convictions and opinions about many things he understands poorly to not at all).

Another website, which I will not give publicity to, called the cancellation a victory over a “child grooming” event. The group took credit for this “victory.”

Had all of these fine “family values” people actually thought it through, they should have known not to mess with a loving family, especially a mother! Amber Briggle* (mother of a transgender son) immediately began looking for other options. A local Denton coffee house and brewery, Armadillo Ale Works, stepped up after hearing about the cancellation and offered their business as a venue.

So, while Huffines and others were claiming victory and taking credit for shutting down Rainbow Storytime, those on the side of justice, love, care, and compassion were not to be dissuaded. The result was that a simple library event that would have passed quietly by turned into a huge celebration. On the event Facebook page, 151 checked in as of the time of this writing. Being there myself, seeing that Armadillo Ale Works was packed front to back and many people listening in from outside (as a large garage door was open to the patio), I would conservatively estimate at least twice that number turned out overall. The Facebook page had a total of 453 responding (some going, some interested). Assuming the entire world isn’t on Facebook, doesn’t always tell Facebook when they do something, or didn’t switch from “interested” to “attending,” it is reasonable to assume upwards of 400 people were present.

What did I witness? I saw families. I saw children gathered around to hear stories of love and acceptance. I witnessed love and acceptance in action. I witnessed laughter and smiles.

What didn’t I witness? Hatefulness toward anyone (even those protesting across the street—more on that next). Self-righteous pontificating. Anger. I did not witness anyone trying to make children transgender or to “sexualize” them as many claimed this was about.

There were protestors across the street, as I said. I would say roughly about half-dozen. They didn’t really do anything much. They didn’t even really say anything. All I heard the couple of times I was outside before and after the event were pre-recorded prayers playing over a speaker.

Who I did not see was the lady who posted a protest flyer in the comments of a post I made talking about the event a couple of days ahead of it. I also did not see Don Huffines who still, incidentally, has his victory press release on his website about getting the event cancelled. I would like to see Huffines take credit for helping to make Transgender StoryTime a much larger success than the event he interfered with. I can’t say with certainty, but the impression I get is that Huffines doesn’t really care one way or the other, he just used this as a means to play to his base and get some free press.

So, why was I there? Why am I writing about it on my website? Why does a philosopher care?

Why was I there? History. I look back on the history of my country and think on a time when certain people were enslaved for the color of their skin. I think about the fact that just shortly before I was born, black people had to drink from water fountains separate than those of white folk. I think of all the violence and hatred toward homosexual persons our times have witnessed. I think of how, in my very own lifetime, women could not get credit or own homes. Despite all of the advances we have made in these and other areas, ignorance and hatred endures. And, very sadly, transgender persons are among those who are marginalized and who so often have to live in fear. The amount of ignorance I see about what it means to be transgender and the fear and hatred that follow this ignorance astounds me. In short, transgender rights and LBGTQ rights are emblematic of the struggle for the soul of the American vision. Equality. Freedom. Peace. Tranquility.

Whether it is the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, or your gender identification, you have the right to be free of fear and oppression. You have the right to live just as freely as anyone else.

I also attended because I feel it is my responsibility as a philosopher. Sure, philosophy is about clarity of thought and critical thinking and argumentation. Philosophers have much to contribute in terms of ideas and arguments for LGBTQ persons. Philosophy is (or can and should be) a type of activism. But I also needed to be there, to put my philosophy in personal action. Also, although I am a philosopher, that is not all I am. I also just want to be a caring and compassionate human being that can look at someone who lives in fear and tell them I want to help make it okay.

Some fear replacement. “The Jews will not replace us” chanted white supremacists. Or they think those of us who believe that transgender persons have rights to be who they are want to make everyone transgender. Ironically, those who fear being replaced or marginalized are the ones who engage in marginalization. I am a cisgender heterosexual male. I have encountered no LGBTQ person or organization who has the least desire to make me anything else. No one wants to “pray the straight away” in me. They just want to live as I do. I stand with them.

“I knew he was different in his sexuality/I went to his parties as a straight minority/It never seemed a threat to my masculinity/he only introduced me to a wider reality.”

Neil Peart

It is long past time for a wider reality. Transgender StoryTime was a win. It was a win for love. It was a win for the future. It was a win for children. It was a win for families. Among the nearly 400 persons in attendance, every color of the rainbow was represented and stood together as one. Transgender StoryTime was a win for a wider reality. It was a win for joy and hope.

*Full disclosure: While I am acquainted with Amber Briggle, having had the pleasure of meeting her on a couple of occasions, I have known her husband for many years as he is a professor where I completed grad school. The Briggles have not requested that I write anything about yesterday’s event and will likely find out about this post around the same time you, my dear reader, will have seen it.

Some resources:

https://lovetothemax.net/

Transgender kids are just kids after all | Amber Briggle | TEDxTWU – YouTube

Better Questions for People about Their Home Library than the Ones that are usually asked

My library is, in my estimation, not huge. At least I think it is small relative to what I would like it to be. It is smaller than other personal libraries I have seen and certainly not over the top for an academic. Still, I get it. It is bigger than what you will see when you walk into most homes.

That doesn’t mean people without large home libraries don’t read. Many go to these quite remarkable spaces known as “public libraries.” There are more books there than you could read in several lifetimes. What is fascinating about these places is that they will just let you take a fair number of books home. They simply ask that you bring them back in a specified amount of time so others can access them, too. It is really a brilliant concept.

Also, there are these electronic things like “Nooks” or “Kindles” and other such devices. I don’t really understand them. Sure, I get the utility and convenience. It is easier to transport these thin devices from place to place than carry a book, plus you can have several books on a single device. Since the advent of the internet, I have read text on a screen and do so every single day. That part is not alien. I just like the tactile experience of a book and there is something deeply satisfying about turning a page. But, if you read books, I am not going to quibble with the medium. Just read.

I digress. Yes, I have a home library that, let us just say, takes up some space. I have ten shelves that are maybe six and half feet high and thirty inches wide. Then I have some shelves of the same height, but narrower, plus assorted books scattered here and there. On many of the shelves there are books arranged on top. Within the confines of the shelves there are many books not yet properly shelved but stacked in front of the other books in the general area they need to be.

And that is just what I had before I got married a few months back (well, okay, I have added books since then). My wife brought a substantial number of books along for the ride and several shelves of various sizes. Bottom line, we have a lot of books. I would count them, but that cuts into my reading time.

There are two questions I typically get asked. The first I am sure you are familiar with and perhaps have yourself inquired of friends with a lot of books: “Have you read all of these books”? The first thing you need to understand about this question is that it can cause a fair amount of distress and even despair to a booklover. Of course, we haven’t read them all! And we have had to come to grips with the fact that we only have one lifetime, and several lifetimes would not be sufficient time to read all the books we would like to read. Please don’t ask if we have read them all because, well, it is painful.

To the point of this question, Umberto Eco wrote a lovely little essay entitled “How To Justify a Private Library” (this essay is contained in an enormously fun book of short essays entitled How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays). The late Italian philosopher, semiotician, and newspaper columnist was said to have had 30,000 volumes in his personal library. He considered such a library a “working tool” for research rather than a “storage place” for books already read.

Even the ones already read, to me, are books to return to, especially those I need for research. I won’t ever return to all of them, but the possibility that I might need to is reason enough to keep already read books. This brings me to the second question I have been asked: “Have you ever thought of getting rid of some of these books?” The first time I was ever asked something like this, I admit I didn’t understand the question. But the short answer is, no, I have not entertained the idea even once.

Regarding non-fiction books, clearly to have them available for ongoing research is necessary. But fiction, poetry, plays, biographies are all books that on occasion invite me back, even if it is for that one paragraph that impacted me in some important way. I like having them around.

I will add in a bonus third question: “Why do you spend all that time getting book learning when life experience is where the real knowledge is found”? There are numerous problems with this question. First, its unspoken premise is entirely wrong. It seems to place book knowledge and life experience knowledge at odds where you one is to be preferred above the other. The unexamined idea is that “book smarts” is of no genuine value because it is not the “real” world.” My answer to this is simply that even if book knowledge had no utility value, it wouldn’t matter. Some things are okay to do just because you enjoy them. But books expand vocabularies and introduce one to ideas they might not have been exposed to otherwise, among many other benefits.

Another problem with opposing reading to life experience, is that if you limit your knowledge to what you can personally experience, your knowledge is impoverished indeed. It is like saying one should never travel, if they have means, but stay only where they have always been because that is all you need to know (actually, come to think of it, a lot of people do think that way, which is the root of a great deal of damaging and dangerous ignorance we suffer because of in our day). Books are much easier to access than traveling and can introduce you to worlds that exist beyond you that you otherwise would remain ignorant of.

A little secret: where do you think the things people write about come from? Books contain the experiences of others. My world is expanded, and my horizons broadened by reading in ways my own personal experience could not, alone, provide me. The question of book knowledge and “real life” knowledge is not an either/or matter; it is a both/and. It is not as if I have to choose what I learn from only books or only walking out my door. I can do both.

Okay. I don’t want to merely curse the darkness in my objections to the questions I am frequently asked when someone sees my library. I want to light a candle by suggesting some questions that are better asked of people with a lot of books.

Instead of asking me if I have read all of these books, how about asking, “How many of these books have you been able to read so far?” We can go exploring and I can tell you about the books I have read or stories that might be associated with how I came to a particular book. You might discover a book that you want to get yourself (don’t ask me to loan it to you, I confess I am a bit of a jerk about loaning my books. Few have earned that privilege).

I have a few books that are very old. How about asking me how I got hold of a book with a copyright in the 1800’s in such good condition? For example, I have a complete 1st edition set of the Harvard Classics in pristine condition. The story of how I got those is a hoot and a holler.

Ask me if there are any books that I have been compelled to read more than once (even though reading a book twice means one less book in my lifetime that will get read). There are some of those I will show you, and you can ask me why I’ve read them twice (or three times).

Now, not to be a curmudgeon. I know that often when people exclaim “have you read all these books?” that it is just a reaction of awe toward so many tomes. But the question can also come across as having somewhat of a disdain for such home libraries. If I haven’t read them all, why do I have them? If I have read them all, why do I still have them? The underlying assumption seems to be that there is no point to having so many books.

All I can tell you is that I like them. Books surrounding me is one thing that makes me happy and I like having them around. Read or unread.

I look at my unread books and see them as worlds yet to be explored. Unread books are promises and possibilities. But, you say, if you read one of those books and it does not deliver on the promise or possibility, you have wasted your time. What if it is a dud? Yeah, well, you don’t stop going to restaurants just because you go to one you thought would be good that turned out not to be to your liking, do you? Do you stop watching movies because you watched a dud? Why are books any different? And most of the time, it was worth the journey.

As to books I have read, as I have indicated, they are places that I might want to return to one day. Just like a place I have traveled and go back to, I might find things the second time I didn’t experience the first time.

So next time you walk into someone’s home and discover they have a large home library. Try not asking the same questions they have heard a thousand times. Ask more useful questions. You might learn something new.

Those of you who have large personal libraries: what are some questions you would like to be asked?

Escape from Canada!!! (A Tale of Danger and Adventure)

My wife and I were in the pet store the other day. There was one young couple and their little girl just ahead of us and no one behind us. After the couple made their purchase, they spoke rather animatedly with the store employee for some time, of what we really didn’t pick up (social distancing interferes with eavesdropping considerably).

When they moved on and we finally approached the checkout counter, we were informed in a voice of great intensity and seriousness that the couple ahead of us had just “escaped from Canada!!” Yes, that’s right, they had just escaped from our friendly neighbors to the north and finally made it to this vast expanse of freedom known as the Great State of Texas.

My imagination was immediately stirred to visions of harrowing escapes in the dark of the night in dangerous conditions, such as those depicted in certain episodes of the television series based on the book, The Handmaid’s Tale. What horrors did they witness that these folk, young child in tow, would take such risks to flee? And from the account given by the pet store employee, they barely made it out.

(Apparently, they drove down here freely in their SUV and movers brought their stuff, but that hardly makes for a captivating story).

The pet store employee went on to say that these Canadian refugees told her the current state of affairs in their homeland is “horrible,” such that they could no longer remain. My wife and I were intrigued. What the hell is going on in Canada?! One hears about people fleeing to Canada for various reasons, but fleeing from? (I guess because of their healthcare system where basic care is provided to everyone, some have had to journey to America for elective procedures they didn’t want to wait for, such as a nip and tuck, but I don’t think that counts).

So what nightmares did our friendly Canadian refugees escape from?

Per the pet store employee, they said: “You can’t go anywhere unless you are vaccinated.” And by “anywhere,” we were told they said places such as restaurants and nightclubs, that is, places of a social nature. Now, I must honestly say I have not looked into what is going on in Canada in any great detail. As far as mandates enforced by the Canadian government, I know that all federal employees must be vaccinated, and proof of vaccination must be shown for interprovincial travel by plane or train. Stories reporting on this are a dime a dozen. That the Canadian government has mandated vaccines to go to Tim Horton’s is something I have not seen. My hunch is that individual businesses are requiring proof of vaccination because maybe they think that their employees and patrons have the right not to be needlessly exposed to a deadly virus that causes horrid suffering and death. But I honestly do not know.

But, taking this report of our newly minted Texans, formerly of that gulag of a country known as Canada, at their word, I must admit I am shaking my head. Now, we can agree or disagree about the rationality or legality of private businesses requiring proof of vaccination. We can discuss rights versus duties in a civil society. We can discuss the balance of personal medical choices and public health. We can even discuss whether your sacred political right to go to Smoke’s Poutinerie or to the nightclub to dance without a vaccination trumps the health risks posed to your fellow citizens during a time of a planet-wide deadly and highly contagious disease.

But to claim that conditions are “horrible” when those conditions are simply the restaurant you want to go to requires proof of vaccination? Sorry, pal. Not the same. Likewise, when you have both the freedom and the means to pack up and relocate and tell your tale to the lady checking you out at the pet store, you are not oppressed. You were not in danger.

Fans of Letterkenny will get this…

How selfish have we become and how solipsistic, that being inconvenienced is perceived as oppression? How entitled are we when concern for the health and safety of fellow citizens takes a back seat to my jelly-filled Tim Horton’s donut the very moment I want it?

Such a conception of rights seems to me so deeply childish.

Perhaps our Canadian refugees who escaped the horrors of inconvenience will find a home where they think the “I” is absolute and for which the social order exists solely to serve it.

Hope

What is the essence of hope? I will define hope as the conviction that what is not yet realized or possessed is possible. To lose hope is to give up on possibility.

Photo by Mahdi Dastmard on Unsplash

Hope is the belief that the current state of things is never permanent. Even if the current state of things happens to be good, hope knows there is always growth. Obviously, hope is tied to aspiration, as one who has no hope—no conviction of the possibility of what is yet unrealized—cannot aspire.

Hope is not some version of the power of positive thinking wherein such a power on its own can produce a desired end. Hope is surely not wishful thinking. It is not what I would like to happen if I could have things my way. Hope offers no guarantees. Hope does not promise that life or the world will get better. Hope only insists on the possibility.

It also seems to me that hope, true hope, can only aspire to the good. One does not hope or aspire to evil. Hope, in its very idea, is oriented toward something brighter. Hope, one might say, is of a hopeful character! Of course, one can use the word “hope” in a perverted way such as hoping one’s enemy will come to misfortune and pain. But that seems to me to be more of a disordered desire than the kind of thing hoping is.

As much as hope is tied to aspiration, it would seem to be likewise tied to agency. One is no more going to do what one is not convicted is possible no more than one will aspire to it. If you do not act like you have the conviction on the possibility of something, no one is going to believe that you do.

Hope, as a conviction about the possible, is always future-oriented. One does not hope for what one already possesses. Imagine winning a Nobel Prize and, in your speech, saying that you hope you win the Nobel Prize. Yes, that would be absurd. Hope is lived in the space between the there and the not there yet.

Do not think, however, that because hope is oriented to the future, insofar as it is about the possible, that it does not touch the present. In light of what I wrote above about agency, if I hope for the possibility of something in the future then I have cause to act now to bring it about. Hope is a great motivator.

Hope, also noted above, is not a guarantee. Hope offers only possibility. What is hoped for may be or, just as well, may not be. In other words, the possibility that hope is aimed at is contingent. It does not come about on its own. What hope does, however, is to empower me to strive for the possible that I desire. To hope is to cooperate with possibility.

I defined hope as the conviction that what is not yet realized is possible. Characteristic of hope is that it is aimed at that which is good and that, while it is oriented to the future, is what motivates the one who hopes to act in the present. Another important characteristic of hope is the awareness that perfection has not yet arrived and will not, either for each of us as individuals or for our shared political life. There will never be a time when there will not be something good to which to aspire. There is never a time wherein you can say you can’t or don’t need to become a better person or that, collectively, we can say we can’t or don’t need to become a better people.

Another way to say it is that there is never a time when there is no longer possibility.

The idea that there is nothing left that is possible, that all possibility has been realized is, I think, a strange (and sad) idea.

I want to be a person of hope. That is to say, I want to be a better person. I want to believe that there can be a better world for others. Is justice possible? Is peace possible? I think here of Aristotle-esque reasoning. If something is not impossible then we admit of its possibility. No matter how improbable or unlikely you might think achieving these are, it is against reason to say that things like justice or peace are impossible. To say that justice or peace are impossible is to claim that they by necessity cannot be. So, since I cannot logically say that it is necessary that justice and peace cannot be, it must be the case that they are possible.

What is possible I can hope for. So, I will hope. Won’t you join me?

The Right to Your Own Opinion

A very, very long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, during my undergraduate years, I had a professor who asked the class if we agreed that everyone has the right to their own opinion. We had a conversation and by the end he offered an alternate idea. No one, he said, has the right to one’s own opinion, but everyone has the right to seek the truth in her or his own way.

I suppose I better say right away that I think the statement, “you have the right to your opinion” is a true statement. You have that right. I have that right. But I do believe that my professor from yonder years was onto something. Hear (read) me out.

Consider the following ramblings.

If you hold an opinion about something, I assume that you believe your opinion to be the truth. An opinion, even if it misses the target, is aimed at truth. No one of sound mind holds an opinion one believes to be false. Such is contrary to the point of an opinion.

If you hold an opinion with which I disagree, that means I hold the opposite or something else to be true. A conversation might then ensue between us wherein I seek to persuade you of the truth of my opinion and the falsity of yours and vice versa. It could be that one of us is successful in persuading the other. In the interest of truth, the one who is persuaded changes her or his opinion because it is believed there is sufficient reason to do so.

 At least it would be nice if things went that way. I think our aim all too often is not to pursue the truth with one another, but to win the argument.

The point is that one cannot separate “opinion” from the desire and search for truth. There is no point to opinions without reference to truth. When my professor said, “Everyone has the right to seek for the truth in their own way,” he spoke with insight. I might rephrase his words in this way: “Everyone has the right to one’s own opinion and, therefore, the responsibility to seek the truth.”

In Book VI of Plato’s Republic, Glaucon was attempting to get Socrates to state his opinion on a matter of which Socrates said he did not have adequate knowledge. Glaucon pressed him and Socrates said, “Do you think it is right to talk about things one does not know as if one does know them?” Glaucon replied that even if one does not have knowledge, one should still be willing to state an opinion, nonetheless. To this Socrates exclaimed:

“What? Have you observed that opinions divorced from knowledge are ugly things?”

Here we get to the heart of the matter. Whether it is the right to an opinion or any right, we focus on our individual right while conveniently leaving out the corresponding responsibilities that accompany all rights.

Seriously. When was the last time you heard someone proclaiming, “It’s my right!!” who went on to speak of the duties the right carries with it and their commitment to fulfill those duties?

Yeah, me neither.

If our own times serve as any indication, Socrates was correct. Opinions divorced from knowledge are indeed ugly things.

Wisdom and Prudence

To Socrates, I add that opinions divorced from wisdom and prudential judgment are ugly as well. I may have the right to express my opinion, but I must ask myself whether it is wise to do so in any given circumstance. I ought to use good practical judgment whether now is the right time or the right place to exercise my right, or to the right people. In other words, it is good to exercise my right with virtue.

“It is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle…anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give and spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.” 

—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 9.

I’m with Aristotle on this. Anyone can have an opinion. But to have it with goodness is laudable and noble. Otherwise, it is as Socrates said—ugly.

“You have the right to your own opinion” is shorthand for you have the right to think for yourself; you have the right to struggle through a question or issue and form your viewpoint; you have the right not to be forced to think as someone else does. “You have the right to your own opinion” does not mean you should spout off whatever you want, wherever you want, to anyone you want without regard to truth (which is why you want to spend reasonable time seeking knowledge about something before opining a viewpoint about it).

The right to your own opinion also entails the responsibility to exercise it prudently and with a view toward the common good. The idea of rights, your individual rights, presupposes the exercise of said rights within a community. If there was only you, you could do what you wanted and there would be no cause to think about rights, right?

The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says, for example, that citizens have the right to bear arms. Does that mean you can just carry around a gun with no training into a crowd of people and start shooting whoever you like? No, you must exercise your right responsibly and you cannot just injure or kill who you want to. Understand, there is no right that does not carry the weight of responsibility. And reason would dictate that the right to bear arms should be regulated. To what extent is another discussion, but given the harm guns can cause, it is only reasonable to regulate their use.

Now, it is not the case that the right to your own opinion should be regulated by law in the same way that guns should be. No doubt things such as hate speech or using an opinion to incite violence and harm are matters for regulation. Regardless, the principle that rights carry responsibilities still applies no matter to what extent those responsibilities should be regulated by law.

Understood in the light of what I have written here, I think my professor from days gone by was on track. Do you have the right to your own opinion? Sure, you do. Just don’t be foolish about it.

That is my opinion on the matter.