To everything there is a reason

Associate Professor of Philosophy Jay Gupta discusses the shortcomings of our emotive culture and the need for rational thinking in order to build a happier and more just society.

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By Linda Schmidt

A conversation on politics, emotion, and virtue with Professor Jay Gupta

A native New Yorker, Jay Gupta was “messed up emotionally” by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He had just completed his PhD dissertation on Hegel’s critique of modern subjectivity at the University of Toronto. In his attempt to make sense of 9/11, he began to focus his attention more on the ethical and political branches of philosophy. “9/11 pushed me, as a philosopher, to think more deeply about what it takes for us to live together in an often senselessly violent world.”

He explored these ideas further, both personally and academically, during four years of teaching at the American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University. Gupta admits to starting that assignment with some trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised to find a cosmopolitan society where, he says with a laugh, “there weren’t masked agents of Hezbollah waiting to kidnap me while buying cheese at the market. It’s just a place like any other, with people kind of muddling through and trying to get along.”

Since coming to Mills in 2007, Gupta has continued to engage with philosophy not as an intellectual ivory-tower discipline, but as a practical way of informing our sense of what it means to live a good and meaningful life, both as individuals and as a society. Part of his engagement has been as an editorial associate with the journal Telos and regular presenter at conferences of the Telos–Paul Piccone Institute, which brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to address intersecting issues of democracy and authoritarianism, cross-cultural conflict, religion, economics, technology, and science. 

Gupta also sees philosophy as a field essentially suited to building the critical thinking skills that are indispensable for those who are interested in questioning assumptions and truly examining the status quo. It’s an approach his students have taken to heart.

“Professor Gupta takes an exploratory approach in his teaching,” says Maja Sidzinska ’12, who earned her Mills degree in PLEA and is now completing a master’s in philosophy at San Francisco State. “He invites students along on a path of discovery with him. He gave me confidence and validated my ideas by his very interest in them. At the same time, he wouldn’t entertain just any old ideas. In pushing back against certain trains of thought, he helped me learn how to evaluate ideas and how to judge which of my own ideas were worthwhile.”

Nikka Tahan’15, who recently completed a master’s degree in comparative public policy at the University of Edinburgh, notes that many of the theories in her work on participatory democracy pull from philosophical concepts of society and social interaction as well as political ethics. “Public policy is the field I chose to better the world, but it would be for nothing if not for my study of philosophy,” she says. “Understanding the world begins with understanding yourself, unpacking your experiences, and questioning the structures around you. The beauty of the discipline, as Gupta presents it, is that it teaches you how to ask the right questions, and how to never stop doing so.”

We spoke with Jay Gupta, who holds the Edward Hohfeld Professorship in Philosophy, in his office in the Vera Long Building.

How did you choose philosophy as your field of study?

My fifth-grade teacher had me pegged as a scientist, and I wanted to be an eye surgeon for a long time. But I took some philosophy courses in high school, and learning about Nietzsche really got me hooked. In college, I considered studying psychology or English, but all roads kept pointing to philosophy because, quite simply, I didn’t get what I wanted out of the other disciplines. I was looking for a higher level of questioning that pushed beyond the preconceptions of any particular field.

If you like to think about foundations, assumptions, and principles, philosophy is the place to be. Many disciplines often start from certain assumptions that help us understand, for example, how persons relate in certain economic, cultural, or political contexts. Philosophy rather asks: What is a person? Philosophy asks you to consider what assumptions about persons guide your economic, cultural, or political reasoning. And philosophy, as a discipline, for as long as it’s existed, has been determined to remind people of the importance of reason, of taking a really deliberate, thoughtful attitude towards these questions and about the world. At the broadest level, philosophy has consistently advocated for reason over mere reaction.

And you believe that reason is less and less the basis for how people think about issues these days?

We live in a culture right now, and have for a while, that has devalued reason and valorized emotional reaction, or “feelings.” Politically, there’s been a massive failure of a deliberate, rational approach to thinking about important issues; instead, citizens have acted on powerful, emotionally motivated reactionary tendencies.

Feelings are important, of course, but they are not what should drive political discussion and thought. Everyone feels differently depending on how they’re treated, their place in society, whether they’re rich or poor, etc. Unexamined feelings tend to splinter any sense of unity and push us towards a general sense of alienation; there has to be a way, at the political level, that unexamined feelings can be put aside in favor of a more genuinely inclusive kind of deliberation about the common political good.

How does philosophy inform this concern?

Let’s start with Aristotle: he describes politics as a common deliberation by all members of the political association on what’s good for all of us who live here, together. For that to really work, people have to be capable and willing to join in a good faith dialogue about what’s in our common interest.

Right now, many people rightfully feel frustrated about job prospects, the economy, their general quality of life. They feel impotent and alienated in the face of an anonymous mass bureaucracy that they believe does not have their best interests in view and, therefore, they see government as a great evil. And I’ll volunteer my own political views about Trump: he has been a master at igniting fear and exploiting our divisions—which motivates reactionary politics. One of the horrors of the presidential campaign was the way people were able to overlook Trump’s bigoted language. One interpretation was we’re a nation of bigots. But really it seems that people who aren’t necessarily extremely bigoted were able to overlook this aspect of his discourse precisely because of the volatility of their reactionary emotions and their extreme antipathy to government bureaucracy.

“Unexamined feelings tend to splinter any sense of unity and push us towards a general sense of alienation; there has to be a way, at the political level, that unexamined feelings can be put aside in favor of a more genuinely inclusive kind of deliberation about the common good.”

The emphasis on emotion leads to what you call “values discourse.” What do you mean?

I argue that what I call “values discourse” is the discourse of a modern emotive culture, and it is pervasive in our society. We hear about family values, personal values, cultural values, universal values, spiritual values. We hear it from politicians and corporations, from self-help gurus, social scientists, and the media. But what are “values”, and what do we mean when we talk about them?

Think about how we use the term in ordinary discourse. Values are grounded in feelings and are understood to be something subjective. They’re not understood to be candidates for being defended or supported with reasons. There is a standard dogma out there that people simply have their values, and that’s that. “Values” tend to be emotionally driven; “strong values” tend to express strong feelings.

We think that other people may hold values similar to our own—or not. There is no presumed normative mechanism or framework on that view where we may all aspire to achieve some common good.

Further, the modern “values” perspective promotes a sense of cultural relativism, that in some sense all value perspectives and cultural norms are created equal. There is a tendency in our culture to believe that it’s unfair to judge what we take to be different values and norms, so any point of view can be considered valid. This is an unfortunate tendency in the otherwise noble enterprise of promoting inclusivity.

How do your students react when you assert that all values aren’t equal?

This disturbs everybody!

But some evaluations actually are better. If you think about certain values, in some cases you will find that they are linked to harmful practices. An easy if controversial way to get the conversation started is to talk about the culturally authorized practice of female genital mutilation: you could say that this is just a different value perspective and practice than what we know in our culture. But if you move a step further, you have to question how anyone anywhere should regard this overtly harmful practice.

One usually undetected irony in all this is that the very idea of values can tend towards divisiveness. This simply follows from there being different values—there are, for example, “conservative” values and “liberal” values, and these two views areare strongly at odds. However, as standardly employed in talk of inclusivity, this feature of values discourse goes unnoticed. Students are disturbed to see Nietzsche, the 19th-century innovator of values discourse, point to values that enable entire peoples to enjoy venting their cruelty on the “other” with a clean conscience. “Wait a second!” they say. “Values aren’t supposed to do that!”

I think the pervasiveness of values discourse, and the general character of our emotive culture, has an impoverishing effect on political discourse. One part of us tends to think that reason doesn’t have a place. But, on the other hand, virtually every class in the college catalog says that it cultivates critical reasoning.

You seem unconvinced of that claim.

One unfortunate tendency I see, both in the culture and in higher education, is that a kind of “rhetoric of reason” has replaced actual insight into what reason is and how it should function. What I see going on in some disciplines is a kind of almost ideological training, in something like social justice, for example. Because of the values you hold, you’ve decided in advance what your position is—you’re in favor of “social justice”. But what is that exactly? Have you thought deeply about the good reasons that might in fact support your view? The skill of giving reasons for one’s position has not been cultivated.

So how do you get past the adherence to values?

That’s the question. When I teach ethics class, we start with a discussion about whether ethical reasoning is even possible. We use the example of Theresa Ann Campo Pearson, known as “Baby Theresa”, as a case study of how reasons can stand in support of moral judgments. Theresa was a terminally ill baby; her parents hoped that harvesting her organs would allow other babies to live, but the courts ordered Theresa to be kept alive until her organs failed—by which time they were no longer viable. Who was right in this scenario, and for what reasons?

One of my students said this all has to do with justice, but it comes down to whose justice. One way of taking that statement is that justice comes down to what different parties say it is, according to their different “values” and interests. But that’s not what justice is. Justice is a preeminent virtue, so to speak, an intrinsic good that applies to everybody in principle and that is in everybody’s interest.

The idea that justice is just another form of value judgment coming from a particular perspective that advocates for a particular ideology is really the cultural reflex of our age. As an educator, I see how that reflex short circuits discussion.

For example, there is a set of values that forms a rhetoric of social justice, and everybody thinks they’re out to create social justice. But the only way to get a coherent sense of what that could possibly mean is to approach it with a traditional, rational method of thinking: There are competing notions of justice. How do you determine whose justice is right? And why is it right? It can’t be simply a matter of who shouts louder and is more impassioned in their convictions.

When we make moral judgments, we think we can talk with others about what’s meaningful and important and persuade them to our point of view. But that’s a different pattern of thought involving different normative assumptions, assumptions that arguably involve what classical philosophers called “virtue.”

“Philosophers have thought of our ability to inquire and to question as a basic species competence… To make a decision about whether something is or is not true or whether one ought to do something requires some thinking, some deliberation, some assessment of reasons.”

How do you define virtue, and why is it a better concept than values?

Virtues are ethical qualities that we can all in principle agree are good, that help us in the day-to-day effort of living well and doing well. They are the qualities that help us function well together. There can be disagreement about what counts as virtuous in particular contexts, of course. But it is in the very idea of a virtue that we can intelligibly discuss the different scenarios that call for courage, generosity, moderation, and so forth. In this framework, ethical universality is not an afterthought; all of us can and should aspire to be virtuous people, which is simply to say good people. But such a thought can’t even be had from a committed values perspective, because there is a multiverse of values. Values are inherently variable based on individual and cultural experience, perspective, and feeling. There is no built-in communicative tendency towards inclusion and agreement about what we may commonly regard as good or just, despite what such values rhetoric would suggest.

Virtues are the sorts of things that can be rationally supported. It is reason that allows us to get past emotional volatility and variability. Reason is a capacity to deliberate that allows us to take a thoughtful step back from powerful emotions, from value perspectives that we think are incorrigible and permanent and can’t be revised.

Can you explain that further?

The idea of speaking the language of virtue—or, more to the point, practicing it—has to do with an implicit agreement that mutual understanding at some level is possible, and that our ways of evaluating the world ought to be oriented to mutual understanding.

Virtues in the classical sense—let’s call them the civic virtues, the main human virtues of people living together in a society—are what activates that capacity we all have to think together about what’s important and good, what’s in our common interest to help us understand each other and be understood.

Young children are great examples of pre-virtuous people. They are ruled by emotions, and in the very young you can see what decision-making based on pure emotion is like. We may well all want what we want when we want it. But if one has acquired a virtuous, deliberate disposition, one can more effectively consider, for example: Is it actually fair for me just to grab all the chocolate?

From Aristotle to Marx, philosophers have thought of our ability to inquire and to question as a basic species competence: “Why should I believe that? Is what you’re saying true? Should I do this rather than that?” To make a decision about whether something is or is not true or whether one ought to do something requires some thinking, some deliberation, some assessment of reasons. Virtue, in a sense, involves a certain kind of maturation, the maturation of the deliberate and deliberative part of ourselves.

Are you suggesting it can feel better to not eat all the chocolate?

Yes, I am saying that, actually! That question comes up again and again in Plato’s dialogues. Aren’t the happiest people the ones who can get most of what they want when they want it at will? And Socrates’s response again and again is, No, those are the most miserable people. That person is kind of an addict who is ruled by powerful, unregulated appetites that must be assuaged. And when they’re not—and sometimes even a tyrant can’t get all their appetites and needs met—they’re furious. Rather than being totally sated and happy, they become murderous and insane. Those are the extreme emotions of a tyrant.

What’s good for the individual has to include what’s good for all of us, together. It might be episodically satisfying for John to get all the chocolates, but that leaves Sally miserable, and the rest see that such action is unjust and unfair. Virtue is something that has to be spread around, in order to avoid a politics of dysfunction.

Certainly if we are going to live together.

Yes, and we do, of necessity. We have to.