Saturday, March 31, 2007

I Wouldn't Want to Join an Anthropological Study Sample That Would Have Me as a Member

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I just got back from the gym.  Since the headphone jack for the sound on the TVs on the machine I like to use doesn't work, I usually grab one of the magazines on the rack for diversion purposes.  WhileHarpers_208x86 usually I would prefer the ones that assess the ten best and ten worst Oscar night gowns (this year I voted for Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett, but then every year I vote for Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett), for some reason I took the January 2007 edition of Harper's.

What caught my attention was an essay entitled "Army of Altruists: On the alienated rDgraeberight to do good" by David Graeber, a Yale anthropology associate professor (left).  Right off the bat, I liked the non-extreme and nuanced view that neither egoism nor altruism is somehow inherent in human nature.  Says Graeber, "very few of our actions could be said to be motivated by anything so simple as untrammeled greed or utterly selfless generosity."  Nevertheless, we manage to set egoism and altruism in opposition to each.  From there, Graeber develops the following propositions:

1.    The coalition of economic libertarians and fundamental religionists that is the political Right tries to enhance the division between egoism and altruism and thus to appeal to the extreme views on each.  The left seeks to efface the distinction by holding that you can do good and make good at the same time (using the Kennedy family as the paragon of this).

2.  "The real problem of the American left is that although it does try in certain ways to efface the division between egoism and altruism, it largely does so for its own children.  This has allowed the right, paradoxically, to represent itself as the champion of the working class."  Here the thesis is that the working class views it as difficult but not impossible to become rich, but impossible to join the intelligentsia.  The child of a working person has a shot at being a corporate executive, but almost no chance of being "an international human-rights lawyer or a drama critic for the New York Times."

3.  The avenue by which the children of the working class can achieve the nobility of altruism is by joining the military.  On the other hand, the campus radicals of the 1960s became the academicians of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  They had "set out to create a new society that destroyed the distinction between egoism and altruism, value and values.  It did not work out, but they were, effectively, offered a kind of compensation:  the privilege to use the university system to create lives that did so, in their own little way, to be supported in one's material needs while pursuing virtue, truth, and beauty, and, above all, to pass that privilege on to their own children."

Now, despite my initial good feeling about the nuance in Graeber's interesting and lively essay, I realized that I had been sucked into an anthropological view of the relationship between culture and moral choice.  Intuitively, I react badly to the idea that I am not a moral free agent, regardless of my potty-training or academic pedigree, but, of course, it's entirely possible that I have this intuition because of my potty-training and academic pedigree.  But I also juxtapose Graeber's anthropological observations on the academy with two views that have circulated in the academic blogosphere recently (neither of which I necessarily endorse, but both of which now give me pause):  (a) Jeff Harrison's view over at MoneyLaw and elsewhere that "being a law professor is a privilege largely enjoyed by children of privilege who have developed a sense of entitlement," and (b) Kaimi Wenger's post at Concurring Opinions, but especially the comments to it, in which it seems to be common knowledge, as though it were something you checked off in the questionnaire for inclusion in the AALS directory, who on a faculty (at least at Harvard and Stanford) is a Republican, a Democrat, a liberal, a libertarian, or a conservative.

But now that I am a law professor (and I've even filled out the AALS questionnaire), I guess I'm part of this anthropological sample, and it has me just a little bit worried.  I'd be a poor (or at least unhappy) politician for the same reason that I was an unhappy litigator:  I wanted everybody to love me.  But I know I didn't come from the elite (unless you view me from the standpoint of an unrepentant anti-Semite, in which case I come by it honestly).  And while I don't see myself as being invited onto the Harvard or Stanford faculties any time soon, at least as a thought experiment, we can consider it, and the question is:  does somebody know better than I do whether I am a Republican, Democrat, liberal, libertarian or conservative?

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