Ben Shapiro: Telos, Responsibility and Cultivation
I think, personal responsibility and virtue that I try to espouse. I’m also working on a book that I’m really interested in right now about the roots of Western civilization. What is that makes for a happier and more fulfilled Western civilization? What generates purpose for a civilization and for individuals?
And why it is that we seem to have lost purpose. Because my general theory is that the reason that we’re trying to murder each other politically and the reason that we hate each other so much is that there is a purpose-shaped hole in our heart that we are now filling with anger, a tribal anger at each other.
And I’m trying to trace back, kind of backtrack, and say okay, where did where did we go wrong? Where was purpose at, sort of, its high-water mark and why are we now at low ebb? Okay, one of the things that I’ve found in the discussions that I’ve had over the last year, especially the public discussions, public lectures, let’s say, is that it seems perfectly possible to make a room go silent by speaking to, especially if it’s a room full of young men, by speaking to them about responsibility and truth.
This has really staggered me because those are not obviously saleable messages. You know, especially for someone who’s rather cynical about the fundamental nature of human beings. I’m not saying that I am, but if you launched a business plan to the typical observers and said, “Well, I’m going to base a public movement on the adoption of excess responsibility and the requirement to speak the truth, and that’s going to become hyper popular,” the probability that people would agree that that’s a possibility is pretty much zero.
So I’ve been thinking that we’ve spoken about rights for so long and spoken about freedoms for so long, let’s say since the early 60s, just essentially speaking, that we’ve actually left a conceptual hole in our culture.
Well, I think that what you’re talking about is exactly right. People in the West have seemed to pose rights in direct opposition to duties. So the American founding, particularly, was obsessed with this idea of rights and individual rights.
But there was also this corresponding idea of duties that’s very clear in founding thinking. George Washington talks about duty. Benjamin Franklin talks about duty. The idea was that duty was to be socially generated, not by government, but by society itself.
Now it’s just all about the rights and not about the duty. And what’s happened is that that’s collapsed in on itself because the society of only rights and no duties ends up generating duties masquerading as rights. Positive rights that are actually not rights at all, that are actually me imposing a duty on you in order to further my own perception of my rights.
And that’s I think where we’ve been going and it’s a dark place. And it creates an enormous amount of opposition. When you say, Jordan, when you talk about the fact that people would not have thought of building a movement on notions of truth and responsibility, that’s because, I think, for a long time, people just took it for granted that we all agreed on these things.
It’s socially defined. We can make it up as we go along. There’s no telos. I talk a lot in the new book about a teleological way of thinking. This idea that you actually have a purpose for which you were created.
And that it’s your job to fulfill that purpose. And that’s completely been left by the wayside, so there’s no truth. There’s no capacity, even the scientific materialist worldview actually robs you of the capacity to even change yourself.
The studies that I’ve seen suggest that if you believe in a certain form of determinism, if you believe in hard determinism, you’re less likely to go out and actually change your life and make it better because you buy into your own philosophy.
And I think that as a society, we’ve sort of bought into that, that we’re all victims of our own biology, victims of our own race, victims of our own ethnicity or our situation, and there’s no way for us to get out of that. And so we may as well throw up our hands or at least give the power to the only thing that can change things, which is this massive collective that comes in and is the boot stomping on the human face forever.
But I think the least metaphysical claim that you can make about rights is that if I have a right, then that brings with it a parallel responsibility, not only to myself, to act in a manner that is in accordance with that right, whatever that happens to be, but I also have a responsibility, if the right is universal, to act in a certain manner towards you.
I don’t want to talk about that. But it doesn’t seem to me to be logically tenable to have an infinite conversation about rights without having a parallel conversation about responsibility. So there’s a logical flaw in it that leaves that gap that needs to be filled.
I think I could make that claim without even making it metaphysical, although I don’t mind the metaphysical addition to it It seems to me that almost all the things that people find meaningful in life that aren’t merely impulsive pleasures, which, of course, create their own entanglements, have to do with the voluntary adoption of responsibility.
Which seems to be the pattern. All the bad stuff from Europe hits Europe about 50 to 100 years before it hits here, and now it comes here. I think that what happened here is that the enlightenment mentality was built on certain fundamental premises, including the use of human reason, the capacity for free will.
And all of that in turn rested on assumptions about the universe including the idea that the universe has a discoverable design that we can actually find and pursue and that in doing so we will find happiness.
There is always this idea of a higher purpose that you were seeking and I think what happened is that the enlightenment project, which started off in an attempt really in the 13th century by people like Aquinas and Maimonides to unite religion and science, fell apart when they started to divide the two.
We’re seeking the same thing. Religion and science are both seeking universal truths that can be applicable to our own lives and make us more fulfilled. The project of science became to destroy one pole, to destroy religion. And then by doing that, science almost turned in on itself. Reason almost ate itself.
So I think reason basically turned into, okay, we’re going to follow to the logical end point all of the non-religious bases of human thought. And once you do that, it’s very difficult not to fall into a sort of self-refuting trap about human thought.
Does that carry with it any sort of moral responsibility? You don’t have the capacity to choose. If you don’t have the capacity to choose, how do you have moral responsibility? I debated Sam Harris on particularly, this issue, and I thought that actually the most telling point of the debate and discussion was not anything the two of us said.
“You can’t make any… see, there’s no choice other than TO, right? You will have to do this, “just driven by your biology and environment. But I have a five year old son, what do you want– “What should I say to him?” and Sam basically said, “Lie.” Right? He basically said, “Well, tell him that he’s capable of making a choice and that that’s the truth about civilization.”
Either you believe that’s a lie and you’re actively engaging in plato’s good lie, basically, or you have to believe in free will. And I don’t think the capacity to choose in the capacity to self better is a lie. I think that people do have the capacity to do that.
I think even Sam believes that, but he refuses to acknowledge it because otherwise I don’t think it would be in the educational position that he is, right? He spends his life trying to people, so that it’s all weird. I mean, I actually said in the in the discussion, “Why are we all in this auditorium? We were just sort of predestined by the universe to be in this auditorium at a certain time?
“Do you bring the feel fulfilled by that? If so, you really have no choice in the matter.” Well one of the things that’s always bothered me about the new atheist types and the hyper-rationalists is that, as far as I can tell, their conduct is full of performative contradictions
They say they believe certain things, but they don’t act that way. And in my sense because I’m an existentialist at heart, is that what you believe is what you act out. What you say might be in accordance with that and it might not.
But there’s no reason to assume that your beliefs are transparent to yourself, regardless of your claims. And so I also don’t see any evidence whatsoever that a society can exist that functions over any reasonable period of time, in any reasonable manner, without predicating itself on the belief that people are both capable of free will and that they’re responsible.
And so, the fact that it seems to be impossible to build a functioning society, or even functioning dyadic relationships for that matter, in the absence of the presupposition of free will and the capacity for voluntary change, indicates to me some evidence for the existence of those capacities.
I think it’s a weak claim. I don’t think that–it’s also not the rock upon which you want to found your culture. So one of the things that struck me about the mythological stories that I’ve immersed myself in, is that there’s always three, there’s always three prime characters in a mythological story.
There’s culture, right? So that’s the Great Father, let’s say, in his many mythological guises. And there’s nature. That’s the Great Mother. And so you could say that that’s the biology and society of the modern scientists.
But then there’s the independent individual as a causal force, who has a nature that enables choice and free will and all of those things. And that independent third factor is something like the Logos that gives rise to being at the beginning of time, right?
Yeah, I totally agree with that. And, of course, I enjoy Maps of Meaning, so I’m pretty familiar with the terminology that you use, because I’ve read your book. But I think that you know there’s this idea that you can find meaning in a meaningless universe. That we’re just meatballs wandering through space with a little bit of sentience.
Understanding that we’re meatballs wandering through space. I have a hard time building any sort of system on that. And the refusal of the new atheist to even recognize that the morality that they promulgate, right, the rip that they have on religion typically is that religion is barbaric and backwards and promulgates all sorts of horrible moral values with which they disagree.
And what they refuse to acknowledge is that their moral values are predicated within that system. For the vast majority of human time, the values that they are espousing are not only not universal, they’re not even minority values. They didn’t exist for the vast majority of human time.
They are absolute creations of a Judeo-Christian system that is combined with Greek reason to come up with what we have today. And this is essentially the theory that I have come up with, is that, and this is the thesis of the book that I’m writing right now, which is that in order for in order for a society or an individual to feel fulfilled, you basically have to have four things.
You have to have an individual purpose, you have to feel like you have a purpose in the world. You personally have a purpose in the world. You have to feel like you have an individual capacity. You have to feel like you are capable of pursuing that with alacrity. You have to have a communal purpose. You have to feel like you along with others are pursuing a higher goal that means something.
And we have torn away at all the roots of those things because of all of those things that, I think the apotheosis of–I think the apex of modern thought was basically the unfulfilled but universal theories of the the American Founding Fathers.
I think it’s about as good as it got in terms governmental theory. I don’t think it’s gotten better since then. I think that it’s been extended more broadly. I think the Universalism that they were implying has now been applied in many ways, and that’s a great thing, right?
The founders, obviously, still held slaves, many of them. But their principles were not in favor of slavery. So the principles that they espoused were based on, again, these two competing poles that are constantly in tension with one another in this sort of Leo Strauss-ian tension with one another.
Between reason and revelation, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Greek tradition of reason. And the tug and back and forth is what allows you to have one foot in right and one foot in duties. So it’d be really good to have a lengthy conversation about this at some point, because there’s some things in here that really have to be dealt in deeply.
The “you have to find your own purpose” argument was one that was put forth very strongly by Nietzsche after he announced the death of God. He said that people would have to revalue good and evil and to come up with their own definitions of what constituted morality.
The Nietzschian criticism of Christianity is about as deep as it got, with the possible exception of Dostoyevsky. But there’s one of the things I really liked about Carl Jung, and that’s really struck me as irrefutable, is
Jung’s fundamental response to Nietzsche was that, well, let’s take the argument of the death of God to its logical conclusion. And then let’s investigate the idea that human beings have to be the creators of their own systems of meaning. Jung’s idea, and this was also the case for the other psychoanalysts, was that’s just palpably false
Because it turns out that you’re not the sort of creature that can create your own meaning. You’re the sort of creature that has to discover the meaning that already exists encoded within you. And part of that is that you’re not your own slave. And so it’s a critique, not only of the idea that you can will your own destiny in its entirety, while completely ignoring the fact that you have a nature.
But it’s also a profound critique of the socialist utopian ideas that human beings can be molded in any way that they see fit. And so Jung’s objection was something like, well, try to generate a meaning on your own, out of nothing.
And then try to force yourself to follow it and see how far you get. What you’ll find is that you rebel. Your own nature rebels in every possible way against the arbitrary imposition of a certain–of just any old moral framework on the manner in which you’re going to conduct yourself.
Yeah, I think this is such a deep critique. And I think that it’s so telling because what we’ve come up with is, the substitute for what you’re talking about, which is this acknowledgement that there is a universal purpose that we ought to be aspiring to discover.
That it’s actually out there. There’s a purpose out there, and it’s our job to uncover it, as opposed to self creating it. Then that is a really deep divide in America, I think in the West generally, because what people have said is, okay, we finally realized that we do need this thing called purpose, right?
We can’t just be hedonists all the time. Drugs and sex aren’t going to cut it. We’re actually gonna need to come up with some purpose… Yeah, they’re hydrous. Right, but we’re not going to be able to, but at the same time we don’t want a government or a society or a church or a community forcing down its universal perception of values on us.
Well that is always going to just evolve into this pathetic sort of solipsism that can never be escaped from and doesn’t provide happiness anyway. I mean, the people who quote-unquote define their own meaning are some of the least happy people that you will ever meet, because they don’t believe that they’re in consonance with anything larger.
If you’re looking into your self, your self is not that big. There’s not that much there, right? There has to be something beyond you, whether you find it in God or whether you find it in a community or in nature.
There has to be something that speaks to you beyond the guts that exist inside you, or you’re just examining your own intestines. I think too that you can make a strong scientific case, and this is something I never got to in my discussions with Sam Harris, is you could make a strong scientific case for the reality of meaning as an…
Because as far as I can tell, and there’s good neurological evidence for this, your brain is adapted to two modes of being. And one mode of being is that mode that obtains when you’re where you know what you’re doing and you know what’s going on.
So you could call that explored territory, let’s say. And there’s another mode of being that is that which obtains when you don’t know what’s going on. When you’re in unexplored territory. You can say, well, animals since the beginning of time have adapted to some combination of exploring an unexplored territory.
And that’s roughly akin to known and unknown, which I think is what’s symbolized in the yin-yang symbols. And as far as I can tell, the sense of meaning that people experience that’s spontaneous and deep is an indication that they’re functioning well in exploring territory, but simultaneously Increasing their capacity to deal with unexplored territory.
But also where you’re expanding the capacity of things to go well for you simultaneously. And then you can add to that the fact that that’s not going to be solipsistic. Because we live in a social world.
If I’m pursuing something that’s deeply meaningful, then what if things are constructed fortunately? Then I’m going to be pursuing something that’s very good for me now and me later and me deep in the future at the same time I’m pursuing something that’s good for you now, and you later and you deep into the future.
And I believe that sense of deep engagement that envelops people in fortunate periods of their lives is actually a neurological signal that the layers of being are stacked on top of one another properly and that you’re oriented properly within them and that it’s…
And it seems to me that the sense of meaning that I’m talking about here, that’s associated with this sense of ultimate responsibility is an antidote to pain and therefore is something that’s most real. I don’t see anything- you can make a metaphysical claim about that and that’s perfectly reasonable.
And I think that you referencing the flow state, that’s something that the… where we are happiest, right, from from scientific research, is in that flow state. And that flow state Is exactly what we’re talking about now. This feeling that you have mastery over your capacity to explore the unexplored.
And that the unexplored is worth is worth exploring, right? I mean, that’s the other thing, is that what drives you to to explore the unexplored? It’s not just that you get up in the morning and you feel like wandering outside into the forest.
And the binary nature, I think, of human beings, particularly men, is that men, because I have a little boy who’s a year and a half old, and he’s either he’s either building a stack of blocks or he’s destroying the stack of blocks. There is no in-between and so if you’re exploring unexplored territory,
They’re only two ways to deal with that one is to actually take a fire and set it in the unexplored territory or the other Is to cultivate that unexplored territory and adding that moral layer of it’s your job to forge out into the universe and make that cultivated territory, to bring that into the known that adding that moral dimension is I think what both the Greeks and
Judeo-Christian tradition are about and I think it’s more Christian but the idea that there is a God worth exploring and that God has reached down to man and uplifted him is is I think relevant to Judeo-Christian religion And is really the essence of Judeo-Christian religion. Iif you look at polytheism
That notion that you’re out there to try and understand God It doesn’t it doesn’t exist in polytheistic religion the notion that you’re supposed to look beyond Your you’re supposed to look beyond yourself to a broader understanding of the universe No
You were subject to forces in the universe right and those were represented by the different gods not this idea that there’s a universal system That’s that’s at least partially knowable that if you spend your life trying to investigate and live in consonance with you will be happier That’s a lot closer to the Greek system
Which is why you ends up with this common idea of the Logos that you talk about being in the book of John. But also really springing from from Greek thought. I mean that’s that’s that’s the idea there. Right, right. Yes an unbelievably brilliant synthesis. No you-you-you touched on the idea of cultivation
So I wanted to ask you about that I’m going to Amsterdam to talk to you this event at this event sponsored by a group called the Dutch lion And that’s going to happen January 19th and we’ve got about 2,000 people attending this event and it’s going to be a national discussion about
Dutch and European identity and immigration and So in principle it could be a big deal and one of the things I’ve been meditating on is what it is that Western civilization got right and so the first thing I think is that we got the idea of the Logos right that’s a big deal the sovereignty of the individual and the sovereignty and the necessity for respect of the capacity of the
Exploring individual to conquer new territory and make it habitable. We got that right and so and I mean fundamentally right, but then That seems also to me to tie interestingly into the idea of property rights because the fundamental Marxist claim There’s a number of them but one of the most fundamental claims is that property is in some sense theft and so that might even mean the property that you accrued as a consequence of being successful and I think it might be worth giving the devil his due and say well are there conditions under which my occupation of a space to the exclusion of you isn’t merely theft and the idea of cultivation I think is exactly the right
Answer to that Is that the point is for each of us to allow the other to occupy a particular place and time In the hopes that we’ll each take care of it for our own benefit and for the benefit of others And then what happens is that everyone wins
Yeah, and this is a very obviously Lockean idea, right? This is this is Locke’s idea of what makes property worthwhile and property rights worth well as you mix your labor with the land and You cultivated it Which is why Locke specifically talks about the notion of adverse possession right if I own a piece of property?
And I just decided to leave it trashed Somewhere and then someone comes in and cultivates the property even though I own the property I should have a good legal case to actually make against that owner because I’m not cultivating the property the idea being that
Cultivation and use of the land is actually your individual duty. It’s your individual duty There’s also your communal duty So I think the moral legitimacy of property rights is you know in in Locke’s thought particularly is very much tied to Cultivation and your personal stake in what you’ve done with with the property that you own again
It’s exactly your point that there’s a mix of rights to these property rights our linkage of duties. It’s not just props go be owned Okay, so maybe we can close with this You know the the idea of a garden is very interesting to me and of course the natural Environment of the human being is the garden according to Genesis right it’s the Garden of Eden
And I’ve thought for a long time, “Well, Why is it a garden?” And the answer to that is that a garden is the optimal Juxtaposition of nature and culture. Right, so a garden is nature Blooming of its own accord, but tended very carefully and so then the rule would be something like you’re allowed
You’re allowed to own something you have the right to own something you have the privilege to own something if what you’re doing is Transforming it into a bountiful garden Right I think it’s true, and I think that’s true in every area of a successful life
It’s true with how you raise your children Yeah, you lose the right to raise your children properly if you’re raising your children improperly I think it’s true of marriage marriages break down when you don’t cultivate cultivation is the the ultimate human need is cultivation and When we cultivate whether it’s in the realm of knowledge or science or whether it’s in the realm of religion and relationships then we are happier and when we don’t cultivate and we and when we deprive ourselves of the capacity and
Both the capacity and the purpose of cultivation, then everything falls into anarchy, then then just through entropy everything will fall apart, I think. Ok, ok, so the right objection to “privilege” is cultivation. It’s like. I’m not privileged. I’m cultivating I like that. I like that a lot. Yeah well
It’s necessary to take it to grip these things by the neck you know and so ok, that’s good well look Thanks very much for talking to me I hope we get a chance to talk again in the relatively near future because there’s some things we could really sort out I think That’d be great. I’d really appreciate it and big fan of your work obviously