“First come to grips with your own mediocrity”

If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask “Why?”

An excellent article from Ta-Nehisi Coates. One that reminds me of one of my first teaching experience, teaching political philosophy at an Ivy League school. To a man (and they were all men), my 20 students insisted that Nozick was right about everything. I asked what they would do if born into Nozick’s perfect society, to a family with no food on the table in a society with no state schools, etc etc. “I could do it” was the reply. I followed up, “Ok, you also have no arms and no legs and there is no health care for you.” No change: “I could do it”.

30 thoughts on ““First come to grips with your own mediocrity”

  1. Most of us only learn from personal experience.

    As a university student, I would not have agreed with Nozick, because I’ve always been on the left, but it’s taken me years and years, including some years of economic hardship, years of personal tragedy, years of feeling marginal, to fully understand what some people have to undergo from day one.

  2. There’s some limit to the usefulness or even the intelligibility of inquiries such as “If I were [a slave on an antebellum plantation] [a poor black kid] [etc.], I would think/feel/do X.” There’s no “I” there. (What would I do if I were not I?).

    But I do think there can be some benefit to such declarations, insofar as I think such declarations are often really expressing or signifying something along the lines of “I believe that X would be desirable under those circumstances, and I also believe (or want to believe) that X is at least possible under those circumstances.” And once you realize that, I think it dawns that “No you wouldn’t; get a grip on your own mediocrity” is perhaps not a suitable reply. Not just because such a reply is not responsive to the real meaning of the statement, but also because what is really being expressed is not necessarily something that ought to be discouraged or put down the way Coates does. Understood in this way, I don’t see such declarations as quite so self-aggrandizing as Coates does.

    Another quibble with Coates: “It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask ‘Why?'” I sort of get what he’s after here. But assuming something kind of sucks the wind out of inquiries about “why”. I see it as always coming back around to the fact that the assumed thing is assumed.

  3. I trust the point of your anecdote, with its gratuitious and insulting emphasis on the gender of your students, isn’t that men are generally naive libertarians.

  4. A further thought: Is Coates asserting middle knowledge of counterfactuals of freedom, or merely denying it in others? Someone call Luis de Molina just in case.

  5. It seems to me that the point of Jen’s anecdote is that the men in her first class assumed the opposite of what the article recommends assuming (“you are not extraordinary”), and proceeded from the point of view that they could do something extraordinary, that is, overcome any and every possible difficulty.

    For my part, I did not find it either gratuitous or insulting that Jender pointedly clarified the respondents were men. It is not gratuitous to note the gender of a class on a blog dedicated to feminism, it is not rare for a class in philosophy to be entirely men, and it should be permissible to raise the implication that young men may wrongly assume something about their abilities. Of course I infer that Jender thinks it is a wrong and even bad assumption, but surely we can describe assumptions as wrong and bad without insulting.

  6. I noted the gender just because the phrase “to a man” popped into my head. That’s absolutely all. Sorry if I gave some other impression.

  7. Believing oneself to be capable of extraordinary things (unless they are things one also believes are beyond the potential of most human beings) isn’t quite the same, it seems to me, as believing oneself to be extraordinary.

  8. How can it possibly be interesting to assume something and then ask why it’s true? The answer is “Because I just assumed it to be true.” That’s not much more interesting than drying paint. Actually, the entire hypothetical is just uninteresting. What was your response to your students – “no, you couldn’t”? Why not? Is there really any evidence on which either side of this counterfactual debate could possibly draw?

  9. anon, you might find the sentence makes more sense in the context of the article, so read it all the way through to Coates’ eighth paragraph. She doesn’t mean ‘assume’ in the sense of holding the truth of axiom in logic or geometry. She means assume in the sense of *taking on a different point of view*, which is clearer in context as it comes two paragraphs after someone talks about theater. When an actor assumes the role of a character with particular lines, an actor may then imagine, “WHY might someone say this? What would have to be true for the character to say this? What are the possibilities?”

  10. I should add, in all fairness, that I’m giving Coates’ article a charitable interpretation which it needs precisely because of its aforementioned ambiguities.

  11. I don’t think you’re right, although I might be being particularly *un*charitable. In the above paragraph, Coates talks about “think[ing] more of what [one] might actually do.” Then he says one should assume that they would have done the thing that we now think is wrong. That’s not assuming a role. That’s asking yourself what you would have done, assuming you would have done a certain thing, and then castigating yourself for it (well, at least attempting to draw some sort of lesson out of it).

    Still, if “assume” had been assuming a role, the answer would be the same as what I just said: “I just assumed this role. That’s why I’m doing these horrible things – I’m an actor, and they’re not real.” Or if one were still in character: “I’m doing this because of [the motivations of this character, which are not necessarily my own motivations].”

    Now I do think empathy does teach us a lot about the *other* person and how they may have been being rational. The whole “banality of evil”/quotidian concerns can lead to terrible deeds perspective is very important and can show us that a lot of bad things are done in pursuit of ends that we ourselves deem worthy of pursuit. No argument there. And it teaches us to temper our pursuit of those ends with big-picture moral reflection.

    But I agree with Nemo that this whole “take yourself down a notch” line of argument is both unproductive and inaccessible. It also seems a little bit mean to inflict it on undergraduates, no matter how male or how libertarian.

  12. Actually not absolutely all. I also have an interest in gender rations in philosophy, and I have always found it really shocking that this class was *completely* male. Knowing that many readers of this blog are also interest in gender ratios in philosophy, I mentioned it.

  13. Well, I didn’t intend ‘role’ literally. One can assume a perspective, a point from which to proceed. My point was not that one is an actor. My point was that one can ask, “What if, instead of starting from my usual departure point (working out how I totally know I would have been a hero), I started from a different departure point, and worked out possible reasons I might not have been extraordinarily heroic?” I don’t see anything mean about requiring this of me or my students. On the contrary, in a context in which I or my students might habitually assume we would naturally be heroic and virtuous, what Coates suggests seems rather to encourage more reflective and critical thinking. I do not find this inaccessible, and I have often found it very productive to take on the point of view of a non-ideal actor in non-ideal circumstances.

    It does not seem that you fully appreciate what I meant by a different sense of ‘assume.’ I’m aiming to describe, not question-begging and artificial appropriation of a b.s. axiom, but shifting to the starting point of a different line of reasoning. That is what I meant by taking on, assuming, a different perspective. Instead of thinking, “I assume I would be a blazing hero, and therefore…” I can pursue an alternative; I can assume, “I imagine being someone who would remain a slave-holder; I figure that the following possibilities might be reasons why I would continue to own slaves.”

    I do not understand why this would be seen as unproductive or inaccessible.

  14. The point is that imagining being someone who would remain a slaveholder is *not* the same as realizing that you yourself would have been a slaveholder. I agree that it can be very productive to imagine being someone who would remain a slaveholder. What Coates seems to suggest is that, having imagined being someone who would remain a slaveholder, you now “realize your own mediocrity” or whatever and have realized that you yourself would have been a slaveholder. But by that logic I can imagine anyone and realize that I would have been that person in that situation.

  15. If you can imagine being anyone, then I think Coates would agree with me in saying that that’s an improvement on the *hasty assumption one would be ideal.* Eh, I think we’re just really reading the argument differently; to me it is encouraging the adoption of different possibilities in order to jolt the complacent out of assuming we’d be ideal actors.

    However, I have long agreed with Nemo that there are limits to the sensibility or use of saying that “I” would be someone else. I tend not to do this. I tend to reject arguments about who “I” would be if “I” wasn’t “me.” On the contrary, when a student of mine said, “I could have been me but with different parents,” I was feeling particularly impatient that day and said, “No, you couldn’t! We’re specific embodied individuals in a particular place and time as a result of a particular combination of genomes with all that followed after it.” She told me later that this was a memorable moment in her philosophical education. So on this point, Nemo, anon and I agree!

  16. Actually, Ta-Nehisi is a man.

    I am aware of some discussions in philosophy about personal identity, but is that really going on here?

    I’m puzzled by the problems people are having in getting what the assuming and imagining amount to, though perhaps I’ll discover now I’m the one with the problem.

    It seems to me that many of us engage quite a bit in the practice of putting ourselves in others’ positions. We often want some idea of what the effect on others of our actions will be, and that seems to involve some sort of imagining what it will be like to be our audience, patient, victim, etc. I think we probably vary quite a bit on how well we do, and there’s a whole literature on just how we do it (by simulation or by theory, for example), but many of us do seem to do it. Going to another century is perhaps more taxing, but I don’t see how it is in principle different.

    We also have all sorts of fictional resources that often ask us to put ourselves in another’s shoes. And we tend to spot when we can make sense of a character and when we can’t. Sometimes what we are asked to imagine may cross boundaries that we don’t want to; how many of us want to imagine our parents’ having sex, for example, or what our mother felt like when… .

    Specific moral instruction might also be another arena when we’re asked to imagine something outside the boundaries of our lives. Somehow in my childhood questions about whether it is ever permissible to lie ended up with imagining the Russians were at your door and demanding to know where your father was. And you knew he was hiding in the attic! It was awful! You couldn’t lie, but you could tell them a half-truth.

    Could any of us come up with a story about what might lead a ten year old to sell her father out? And whether that sort of thing would weigh on us now? Or would have when we were ten?

    None of that seems to me really hard. I might not quite know whether I’d choose to save my father over my mother, or over a cat (to take a difficult case), but I can go there, even if perhaps not accurately. But the name of the game here seems pretty clearly not to be accurate about what the ten year old would have done were her cat threatened, but rather to articulate the values of the present person.

    What am I missing?

  17. First, I really like the article, although I find the “come to grips with your own mediocrity” bit kind of preachy, and maybe even a little mean (as Nemo and anon suggest). I didn’t take that to be the main point of the article at all — that we’re all mediocrities.

    I basically agree with profbigk that the ‘assume’ follows from the dramaturgic example, and that Coates is asking us to try on the perspective of a slave, slave-owner, etc., with enough of an actor’s approach that we don’t carry our entire personality along with us into the role. And being able to do this, slipping out of all different sorts of layers and trying to put on others and ask ourselves what things would seem like and what we would do, is extremely important in philosophy (especially in ethics).

    So I agree with Coates that it is much more interesting to assume you would not (free the slaves you owned) and then ask why not. That’s not trivial at all. The answer is definitely not, “because I just assumed it”. You have drifted in imagination over to another possible world (get help from magicalersatz if you need it) and you are wondering why things are happening the way they are happening in that world. You need a within-world explanation, or if you prefer, an explanation within the fiction. (Why did Lydia elope with Wickham? Not: because Jane thought it would make a better story, which would be the answer analogous to “because I just assumed it”.)

    Here’s an easier experiment. Remember when you were deciding whether to go to graduate school. Maybe (like me) you considered law school as an alternative, or something else. Now imagine that you had chosen the other path instead of philosophy graduate school. And having imagined this, ask yourself, “Why did I do that?” Well, we may not know the answer, but it’s easy to come up with plausible ideas: I was worried about the job prospects; I wanted to do something that would have more immediate practical impact; I had my doubts about the isolation of an academic life…
    What Coates is suggesting is that we adopt enough of the slave-owner’s perspective that the real choices they made seem to make some sense to us, to see their influences as reasons, from the inside. This is hard, and it’s uncomfortable (it’s like the ‘imaginative resistance’ interestingly discussed in some recent philosophy). I think it’s valuable. And it’s definitely not trivial or incoherent!

    (I do not think the point about the metaphysical necessity of origin or embodiment is particularly relevant here, by the way. The meaning of “If I were X,…” is interesting and hard to work out but does not, I believe, involve any hard metaphysical questions, or anyway not the metaphysics of the necessity of personal identity.)

  18. Oh, I hadn’t seen Anne’s comment when I sent mine. I don’t *quite* agree with Anne. I think what Coates is asking us to try is harder than Anne seems to think. But the obstacles are psychological, not conceptual.

  19. Jamie, I think our views might be closer than you think. I was really addressing the question of whether there’s an “in principle” problem here, so I was allowing we might do it without being very accurate, whatever we might think accuracy amounts to here. (There seem to me some conditions of accuracy, though this really is another question.)

    It might be very hard to imagine accurately what one would do as a slave during the civil war, with the problem compounded by an assumption that there’s some one answer.

    I am wondering also if my 14 years of RC education, with about an hour a day spent on the evils that can lurk from within, hasn’t left me with an very vivid sense of quite a bit of the range of bad motives that have operated in Western culture. (You can imagine what a lot of history class was spent on.) Of course, some were left out, such as pedophilia, but I’m pretty quick on things like why one wouldn’t free the slaves, if not exactly accurate.

  20. Jamie, I completely agree with you about all of that. Like I said, empathy is good. (And I agree that it’s not easy.) I didn’t mean to suggest that the process of empathizing was trivial. I think we disagree about the centrality of the actor and empathizer to the article and to Jender’s post. To me, the “mediocre” imagining party was the real target of the understanding – “why wouldn’t *I*,” says Coates – and not the within-world character. That’s why, when I included the within-world perspective in #13, I noted that our response to the “why” would delineate that character’s motivations, not our own. We may learn something interesting – we often do – about the ways in which our preferences and values might actually look more like those of a non-ideal actor than those of an ideal actor. But we cannot possibly have learned why we wouldn’t have freed slaves, just like we can’t have learned why we would’ve.

    Picking at nits, maybe, if you don’t think that “you’re mediocre” was a major theme of the article and the post. Coates doesn’t say “first come to grips with your own mediocrity” as a heuristic strategy to make what we’re imagining more interesting, or to get us to look at the non-ideal actor. He says it because he believes this mediocrity is a fact. What I meant to indicate was that there’s an extreme circularity to the process of assuming you would have been a non-ideal actor, trying to look at that non-ideal actor’s motivations under that assumption, and then concluding that you would in fact have been a non-ideal actor. (Note the conclusion: “The answers are out there. But they will not improve your self-esteem.”)

  21. if my 14 years of RC education

    What’s “RC education””? Google brings up a number of options but none of them seem especially plausible.

  22. I’m guessing “race consciousness,” or perhaps “racism consciousness,” but let’s await anne’s answer as I could be way off.

  23. Yes, “Roman Catholic” would make sense in context. Odd that it didn’t show up on google for me, really. Too bad, though. I would have liked it if “red clay” really was what Anne had in mind.

  24. Yes, I see.
    What seems important about imagining in the first person is that it is central to thinking about reasons. (Maybe this is a very substantial philosophical view of mine that not all will share.) And the ‘why’ question is about reasons, not causes. (Not that reasons aren’t causes! I hate that view! I just mean, not *merely* causes.) As Anne said, this is a compelling feature of simulation theory. Trying to make sense of what others do just *is* trying to imagine it making sense, from the inside, to do it.
    And what I meant when I said it’s hard is that it is very disconcerting, not just that we are not likely to get the correct answer. At least for me, when I try to carry out the thought experiment I feel implicated in the evil. The perspective of a slave-owner is supposed to be ‘unthinkable’, and at least sometimes this seems to be a quite literal usage: for me there is no thinking such a thing.

    But I do see the point, anon: if the thought experiment involves my dropping some of my most firmly-held convictions and trying on some utterly repugnant ones, then when the result is that ‘I would do’ the repugnant thing, that in no way implies anything about my own mediocrity, banal evil, or the like.

    Still, Coates has a point. Related to Thomas Nagel’s point about some kinds of moral luck. If I don’t agree entirely with the point, I still can’t shake the very uncomfortable feeling of ‘there but for my moral luck go I’. And I do mean ‘I’.

  25. That all sounds right to me. And I agree I might not have been giving the reasons/causes distinction quite the respect it deserves. In any event if I seemed to be saying simulation is trivial or circular then I apologize, and I certainly don’t deny the existence of a moral luck problem or the fact that counterfactual moral triumphalism is bad. I just don’t think “I’m mediocre” is a great starting or ending point for these sorts of empathetic projects, and it’s certainly not good when it’s both. Again, might have been nitpicky, or a misinterpretation, or an uncharitable interpretation.

  26. Meanwhile, I’m so ticked that I didn’t guess RC = Roman Catholic. This is especially abashing since my first ten years of education were all, yep, Catholic schools! Curses.

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