I chaired a session on practical reasoning at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association last month. The session was great. The presenter, Ting Cho Lau, was a very sharp graduate student from Notre Dame. His paper was entitled “Tough Choices, Reasons, and Practical Reasoning,” and his argument was that none of the dominant theories of why “tough choices” are tough either adequately explains the phenomenon of toughness or holds out much promise of providing agents with guidance for making such choices.
I won’t go into Lau’s specific criticisms of each of the dominant theories. What will be of interest to Kierkegaard scholars is that Lau argues none of those theories adequately acknowledges that tough choices, such as what career to choose, often involve the shaping of a person’s identity and so among the many considerations that must be looked at is what kind of person it is possible for one to become. Not everyone can, for example, become a great opera star. Even those who are excellent singers by most standards may have to accept at some point that their talents will likely limit them to more minor roles. That kind of self-examination is very difficult and that does indeed go a long way to explaining why at least some tough choices are so tough.
Lau’s paper was clearly presented and well argued. It was also ambitious, though, in that he proposed not simply to give a more adequate account of why tough choices were tough, but also to provide agents with guidance for making them less tough. It seems to me, however, that knowing that a choice is so “tough” because it involves figuring out just who exactly one is and who one is capable of becoming isn’t necessarily going to make the choice any less difficult. It seems entirely possible, in fact, that it might make the choice even more difficult.
The situation is even more complex, I would argue, than Lau presented it as being because the issue is not simply that of determining what kind of person one is capable of becoming, but also of determining what kind of person one wants to become. Usually, we are pulled in various directions with respect to that issue. As difficult as it may be to acknowledge that we may want to become someone (a famous opera singer, for example) that we simply don’t have the talent to become, it is even harder, Kierkegaard would argue, to determine who we really want to become. We want to become good people, people pleasing to God (or, if we are not religious, at least pleasing to our neighbors, or to those in our culture more generally), and yet, and yet, we are also drawn toward decisions that would make us into quite another sort of person.
There is, as Kant would say, a corruption in the subjective determining ground of our will. Or, as Kierkegaard would put it, we are “double-minded.” Arguably, that is the real reason why at least some choices are so “tough.” It isn’t all that difficult, generally, to decide on a career, or on whom to marry. Many people, in fact, would describe these choices as having been made for them, in a sense, by inclinations that were so strong they didn’t really seem like choices. Other sorts of choice, however, are not so easy. Deciding, for example, whether to stick up for a colleague who is being bullied and harassed when doing so might expose one to the same treatment––now that can be difficult!
The session was great, though, and Lau’s paper is a work-in-progress that even in light of the above criticism is better than many a paper I’ve seen published in peer-reviewed journals. The commentator, Susan Vineberg, from Wayne State University was also excellent, and the session as a whole was exceptionally well run. I’m not tooting my own horn there. I was only one of three chairs for three separate papers and actually the weakest link in that chain in that I mistakenly assumed the respondent had the same length of time to present her remarks as had the presenter. Each presenter got twenty minutes and each respondent got ten, so even though the entire session was three hours long, it went by in a stimulating flash.
My favorite session, however, was one of two sessions put on by The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. The topic of the session was love and “attachment.” Each of the three speakers was good. The highlight of the session for me, however, was the last speaker, Monique Wonderly of Princeton. Her paper was entitled “Love, Caring, and the Value of Attachment.” Wonderly argued, in terms such as I had used in the speech I gave at my father’s memorial service, that “[a]ttachment figures help to shape our senses of self, imbue us with self-confidence, and can serve as a source of emotional regulation and support even in their absence.”
I am really happy to have discovered The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. I knew about its existence before, of course, but for some reason I had assumed it was more about sex than it was about love, or that when it treated love that it was only sexual, or romantic love. I was wrong. The session was wonderful and would have been of enormous interest to Kierkegaard scholars.
There was one session on Kierkegaard. It was sort of a stealth session because Kierkegaard was not mentioned in the title of the session. The title was simply “Political Theology Group.” All the papers were on Kierkegaard, though. Unfortunately, the session was not well run. There were four speakers and a respondent for a two-hour session! It wasn’t clear how much time had been allotted to each speaker or whether any of them ran over that time. There was no time for questions, however, none. Hence there was no discussion whatever and there really should have been because some of the presenters appeared to be laboring under the erroneous view that Kierkegaard was generally contemptuous of the plight of the poor and the downtrodden and that there really wasn’t much in Kierkegaard that would provide a foundation for a positive political philosophy. I won’t rehash that tired argument or my response to it here. Go back and look at the earlier posts on this blog relating to Daphne Hampson’s book and Peter Gordon’s review of it for my comments on that view. Actually, one kind reader of this blog sent me a long list of quotations from Kierkegaard’s works that support his concern for the poor and downtrodden. I am going to use that list in a future post––with proper attribution, of course.
Just as an aside, I should alert readers to the fact that there is going to be a session at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in November the theme of which will be “Truth is Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and Political Theology. A Symposium in Honor of Robert Perkins.” I know some of the speakers already and I can tell you that it promises to be a very good session indeed. Bob Perkins, about whom I will write more later, deserves nothing less. He was a true giant in Kierkegaard scholarship and he will be sorely missed.
There were lots of other great sessions at the Pacific APA meeting, including Onora O’Neill’s Berggruen Prize lecture that included comments from Andrew Chignell of Princeton and Eric Watkins of U.C. San Diego. Yes, that’s right, Andrew Chignell appears to have moved already from Penn to Princeton. And I was so happy and excited to have him here in Philly. That guy is really smart, and, as I learned from that session, a fantastic speaker.