The Disappointment of Today’s Philosophers


Alain de Botton is a UK-based philosopher who recently published a book entitled ‘Religion For Atheists’. I’ve read a few of his previous works such as The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, and Status Anxiety, and found them to be enjoyable. He’s an excellent writer who has probably made philosophy, in its broadest sense, more appealing to some and is about as popular as any philosopher could realistically expect to be in modern society. In recent years his ideas have been receiving increasing exposure through the liberal-end of the mainstream media and he now contributes articles somewhat regularly to the BBC.

This week de Botton released what he calls his ‘Ten Virtues For The Modern Age’, as part of his Virtues Project, which according to him “comes as a response to the wave of discussion and feedback that followed the publication of my book, and a growing sense that being virtuous has become a strange and depressing notion, while wickedness and evil bask in a peculiar kind of glamour.”

Here is the Manifesto for Atheists: Ten Virtues For The Modern Age.

1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; remembering that human nature is, in the end, tough. Not frightening others with your fears.

2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person. The courage to become someone else and look back at yourself with honesty.

3. Patience. We lose our temper because we believe that things should be perfect. We’ve grown so good in some areas (putting men on the moon etc.), we’re ever less able to deal with things that still insist on going wrong; like traffic, government, other people… We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

4. Sacrifice. We’re hardwired to seek our own advantage but also have a miraculous ability, very occasionally, to forego our own satisfactions in the name of someone or something else. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

5. Politeness. Politeness has a bad name. We often assume it’s about being ‘fake‘ (which is meant to be bad) as opposed to ‘really ourselves’ (which is meant to be good). However, given what we’re really like deep down, we should spare others too much exposure to our deeper selves. We need to learn manners, which aren’t evil – they are the necessary internal rules of civilisation. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

6. Humour. Seeing the funny sides of situations and of oneself doesn’t sound very serious, but it is integral to wisdom, because it’s a sign that one is able to put a benevolent finger on the gap between what we want to happen and what life can actually provide; what we dream of being and what we actually are, what we hope other people will be like and what they are actually like. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled. It’s one of the best things we can do with our sadness.

7. Self-awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.

8. Forgiveness. Forgiveness means a long memory of all the times when we wouldn’t have got through life without someone cutting us some slack. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

9. Hope. The way the world is now is only a pale shadow of what it could one day be. We’re still only at the beginning of history. As you get older, despair becomes far easier, almost reflex (whereas in adolescence, it was still cool and adventurous). Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10. Confidence. The greatest projects and schemes die for no grander reasons than that we don’t dare. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

I was quite encouraged when I heard of Alain de Botton’s manifesto for virtue, but as it turns out it’s all rather timid. He’s produced a reasonable list of  do’s, but there’s a conspicuous absence of don’t’s, i.e. ethics, which is odd because all religions, which he claims he wants to emulate the best bits of, start by explicitly telling you what you shouldn’t do. Ethics are more important than virtues because they prescribe the minimum requirements to be a good person, whereas virtues are ideals to strive for. You can still be moral even if you don’t exhibit any of the virtues listed on Alain de Botton’s manifesto as long as you don’t use violence against others and don’t steal. Overall I think the manifesto is a good one in the sense that any individual striving to achieve the qualities it describes would be worth befriending. There is one item in the list, however, which is problematic, and I will elaborate on this in a moment. I do think calling it ‘virtues for the modern age’ is rather redundant because it’s hard to see why these qualities wouldn’t have been admired or respected as much in a medieval man, say, as much as they might be in a modern man. Most of these virtues are timeless which is another indicator that they are sound ones because virtues are derived from ethics and (rational) ethics are principles of behavior that apply every where and every when.

I will now discuss the problematic item in the list of virtues. There is one item in the list that one could argue strongly isn’t a valid virtue and instead is a corollary of socialism, which is the dominant ideology of the post-world war era that continues to shape the western world.

Alain de Botton claims that sacrifice is necessary in order to be able to love someone, raise a family or save the planet. In short, that sacrifice is necessary to be human and for humanity to even survive. But can this be true? Well, philosopher Ayn Rand, for one, would certainly disagree. She defines love as follows:

“When you are in love, it means that the person you love is of great personal, selfish importance to you and to your life. If you were selfless, it would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you. I don’t have to point out to you that no one would be flattered by, nor would accept, a concept of that kind. Love is not self-sacrifice, but the most profound assertion of your own needs and values. It is for your own happiness that you need the person you love, and that is the greatest compliment, the greatest tribute you can pay to that person.”

So we have one philosopher who claims that sacrifice is necessary in order to love and another who claims that love is only possible in the absence of the notion of self-sacrifice. Perhaps we could retreat into relativism, as is the modern way, and declare that love is whatever you define it as, but I think the late Ayn Rand would object to this and argue that her definition of love is the most conceptually coherent, the most rational – i.e. it doesn’t contain contradictions. Rationality was integral to Ayn Rand’s brilliant philosophical works of several decades ago – the profundity of which is yet to be realised by the world at large.

The notion of sacrifice being an essential component of love, morality and virtue can be traced in a straight line through socialism and back into religions likes Christianity and Catholicism. Sacrifice is defined as the act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy. This idea sits at the very heart of socialism. Ayn Rand, once again, understood and described the nature of socialism better than most:

“Socialism is the doctrine that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that his life and his work do not belong to him, but belong to society, that the only justification of his existence is his service to society, and that society may dispose of him in any way it pleases for the sake of whatever it deems to be its own tribal, collective good.

“The essential characteristic of socialism is the denial of individual property rights; under socialism, the right to property (which is the right of use and disposal) is vested in “society as a whole,” i.e., in the collective, with production and distribution controlled by the state, i.e., by the government.

“Socialism may be established by force, as in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—or by vote, as in Nazi (National Socialist) Germany. The degree of socialization may be total, as in Russia—or partial, as in England. Theoretically, the differences are superficial; practically, they are only a matter of time. The basic principle, in all cases, is the same.

The alleged goals of socialism were: the abolition of poverty, the achievement of general prosperity, progress, peace and human brotherhood. The results have been a terrifying failure—terrifying, that is, if one’s motive is men’s welfare.

Instead of prosperity, socialism has brought economic paralysis and/or collapse to every country that tried it. The degree of socialization has been the degree of disaster. The consequences have varied accordingly.”

The idea of sacrifice also sits at the heart of most, if not all, religions; you just replace ‘society as a whole’ with a God or Gods and government with a priestly caste. The resemblance between socialism and religion is quite uncanny when you think about it; and when you think about it even more, you realise it’s not coincidental either. They are both, fundamentally, ways to control people’s behavior in accordance with the supposed desires or needs of a more worthy fictional entity, be it ‘society as a whole’ or God. An individual will offer no resistance nor argue that their desires or needs are more important than ‘society as a whole’ or God, as long as they believe that these things exist as entities that have needs, desires and preferences which are represented by some group of people.

It appears that Alain de Botton, like many others, believes that the planet needs ‘saving’, which isn’t surprising because this manufactured moral crusade strongly reinforces the notion of sacrifice being a necessary virtue for all men; which aids the rationalisation of socialism, which in turn apparently justifies governments’ coercive powers over people and their property.

Modern philosophers rarely stray away from the realms of aesthetics and culture and never dare to entice or provoke people to question the moral legitimacy of government like Ayn Rand did. Rand is most famous (or infamous) for exposing the irrationality of the supposed morality of democracy and socialism, and for advocating libertarianism; which is something it saddens me to say that I don’t think we’ll ever see Alain de Botton do given his apparent belief in the virtue of government. This belief is evidenced by articles such as ‘In Defence of the nanny state’ in which he asserts that “a truly libertarian state would have no advertising at all, remaining entirely neutral.” This reveals he has a very confused notion of libertarianism, which is baffling because libertarian ethics are simple to understand, and most worrying for a philosopher that has begun to wade into the realm of ethics, morality and virtue.

Libertarianism is defined as: “A political philosophy maintaining that all persons are the absolute owners of their own lives, and should be free to do whatever they wish with their persons or property, provided they allow others the same liberty.

Such a society implies either no government or a small government whose only role is to protect individuals from violence and to resolve conflicts. This society couldn’t possibly result in no advertising at all because the government wouldn’t have the necessary institutionalised power to use force against people in order to manifest such an outcome. He seems to assume that the vast array of regulatory, legislative and economic powers that government has today would remain in a libertarian society. Such an error could only be committed by someone who lacks even the most basic understanding of libertarianism.

In the same article he says: “We don’t currently live in a “free” society in the true sense of the term. Every day, our minds are assaulted by commercial messages that reach us from all sides. The whole billion-pound-a-year advertising industry runs counter to any assertion that we’re currently free and un-nudged as it stands.” He seems to entirely mis-comprehend the libertarian notion of individual liberty, which again is perplexing because it’s not complicated and Alain de Botton clearly doesn’t lack intelligence.

There are two basic ways in which humans can interact: by force or voluntarily. Trade is always voluntary. Government is always by force. Advertising falls into the category of trade because it is voluntary. Advertisers do not hold guns to the heads of people and force them to view their adverts or buy their wares. Taxation, on the other hand, falls into the category of force because it’s involuntary. If you refuse to pay your taxes you will go to prison. If you resist arrest you can be killed. So, de Botton is right that we do not currently live in a free society in the true sense of the term, but he’s right for the wrong reasons. He’s clearly wrong to assert that our lack of freedom is the result of the advertising industry, the existence of which is evidence of its value to society, our lack of freedom is the result of government actions such as taxation. Consumers and producers value advertising, which is why it’s profitable, so it’s nonsensical to suggest that advertising is somehow undesired by and being inflicted upon society. Profit is only possible when you are providing some one or many people with some thing or service that they desire or need. That’s the beauty of trade, it’s always a win-win situation. With government action, it’s always a win-lose situation. In order for government action to benefit someone it must first harm someone else. This is because government only has other people’s money to throw around. It can never produce more wealth, it can only redistribute existing wealth.

In other recent articles for the BBC Alain de Botton has suggested that the tax office “should send thank-you notes”, and that we should “rebrand tax as charity.”  Only someone who refuses to see or cannot comprehend the difference between the voluntary act of charity and the forceful act of taxation would suggest such an unprincipled and dishonest idea. Sadly, it is evident that Alain de Botton is not only incapable of or refuses to correctly comprehend libertarianism, but also lacks a basic understanding of economics. This is most disappointing and a great shame. With his writing ability he could have been a truly great philosopher, on a par with Ayn Rand, but alas it is not to be. Rand could have chosen to ignore the false moral premises of democracy and socialism and instead produced philosophical works sympathetic to these doctrines that would have earned her much more money and made her much more popular, but she didn’t. She remained committed to objective truth, to serving humanity, and as a result maintained her integrity as a philosopher, but was attacked by those who didn’t like the truth she revealed to them, which was many.

Perhaps it’s best that Alain de Botton sticks to writing about travel, architecture and other harmless subjects. His list of virtues for the modern age is harmless enough, but his thinking on libertarianism, liberty, and government is irrational and unprincipled. Fundamentally he appears to have little or no regard for the concept of individual liberty and sees no ethical or economic problem with giving a group of people in society the power over people’s property and even their minds. This is the most disappointing thing of all.

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