Nicholas Kristof is correct to say that we should not dismiss the humanities. By his reasoning, we live in a digital age, so we are tempted to ignore the great ideas. Doing so imperils our ability to think clearly.
I have often opined on this topic and agree with Kristof on the basics. And yet, he errs when he makes digitality the culprit.
The real problem lies with the humanists, teachers in major universities who no longer have any use for great ideas or great thinkers. They have not wanted to learn from the canon, so they have deconstructed it. In the academic world they have largely succeeded.
To be fair, Kristof himself rarely grapples with big ideas. He is a natural-born reporter. He offers up facts. Beyond reporting news, he has taken to expressing moral outrage in his column.
Perhaps we should feel grateful that he does not pretend to be a thinker. That would turn him into a David Brooks, and one of those suffices.
Since Kristof excels at moral outrage, two of the three great modern thinkers he chooses are John Rawls and Peter Singer. Both of them, he says, teach us to feel more empathy.
Rawls wrote an important book on justice. In it, Kristof explains, he wants to teach us all how to have more empathy for the disadvantaged among us.
Singer is a bioethicist who wants us to have more empathy for the feelings of animals. He believes that we should feel guilty for murdering these near-humans for our own nourishment. Following his thought would apparently cause us to become vegans.
Singer is a very controversial figure, but Kristof does not mention it. Among other things Singer has found ways to justify acts of infanticide.
Both Rawls and Singer find inequality to be unacceptable, and their arguments certainly have an influence on the larger public debate on these issues.
For example, Kristof summarizes an argument from Rawls:
Rawls suggests imagining that we all gather to agree on a social contract, but from an “original position” so that we don’t know if we will be rich or poor, smart or dumb, diligent or lazy, American or Bangladeshi. If we don’t know whether we’ll be born in a wealthy suburban family or to a single mom in an inner city, we’ll be more inclined to favor measures that protect those at the bottom.
Or, in the context of today’s news, we may be less likely to deport Honduran children back to the desolate conditions from which they have fled.
We still will allow for inequality to create incentives for economic growth, but Rawls suggests that, from an original position, we will choose structures that allow inequality only when the least advantaged members of society also benefit.
Based on Rawls’ narrative fiction of an “original position,” one that never has or will exist, people can be persuaded, for example, to denounce white privilege, or any other inherited privilege.
And they can also be persuaded that human societies must embody the idea of justice, though, we recall, Plato said it first.
Kristof adds that, if we accept this reasoning, America must accept all immigrant children who are fleeing poverty in their home countries.
As for Singer, he believes that since we are wealthy and since others are poor, we are morally obligated to share the wealth.
Of course, none of these great minds has noted that when you share the wealth, through welfare, you end up with less wealth for everyone.
It’s easy enough to critique these theories, and yet, to be fair and balanced, conservative thinkers are not on very good terms with big ideas either.
Almost by definition, their thinking is more pragmatic, and their focus is limited for the most part to politics, economics and the law… with some social criticism thrown in.
Conservatives never really engage with the debates over deconstruction, critical theory or psychoanalysis… debates that animate the teaching of the humanities in today’s universities.
Since Kristof mentions Isaiah Berlin, it is worth considering that Berlin is responsible for making an important distinction between two concepts of freedom: freedom from responsibility and freedom for responsibility.
After all, free will means that you are responsible for your actions. See the story of Adam and Eve.
And yet, as libertarianism is becoming more popular, how many libertarians make the distinction between freedom from and freedom for? How many of them know enough about formulating a concept to know that they need to deal with the distinction?
If you are making the case for freedom, especially for free market solutions, you will need to have a very good conceptual grasp on the concept of freedom.
Surely, no one seriously believes that the free market is a free-for-all, though some libertarians seem to lean toward that definition. And, no one believes that a free market economy should be giving people things for free.
One appreciates the political value in allowing people to think what they want to think about freedom. And yet, those who march under freedom’s banner should be able to grasp the concept on a deeper level.
Otherwise they will not be prepared to sustain the intellectual argument against their critics.