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May 20, 2008

why join a cause?

I have been involved in a lot of causes--mostly rather modest or marginal affairs, but ones that have mattered to me: public journalism, campaign finance reform, deliberative democracy, civilian national service, civic education, media reform, and service-learning, among others. The standard way to evaluate such causes and decide whether to join the movements that support them is to ask about their goals and their prospects of success. To be fully rational, one compares the costs and benefits of each movement's objectives with those of other movements, adjusting for the probability and difficulty of success. A rationally altruistic person joins the movement that has the best chance of achieving the most public good, based on its "cause" and its strategies.

To use an overly-technical term, this is a "teleological" way of thinking. We evaluate each movement's telos, or fundamental and permanent purpose. Friedrich Nietzsche was a great critic of teleological thought. He saw it everywhere. In a monotheistic universe, everything seems to exist for a purpose that lies in its future but was already understood in the past. Nietzsche wished to raise deep doubts about such thinking:

the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous "meaning" and "purpose" are necessarily obscured or even obliterated. However well one has understood the utility of any physiological organ (or of a legal institution, a social custom, a political usage, a form in art or in a religious cult), this means nothing regarding its origin ... [On the Genealogy of Morals, Walter Kaufmann's translation.]

I think that Nietzsche exaggerated. In his zeal to say that purposes do not explain everything, he claimed that they explain nothing. In the human or social world, some things do come into being for explicit purposes and then continue to serve those very purposes for the rest of their histories. But to achieve that kind of fidelity to an original conception takes discipline, in all its forms: rules, accountability measures, procedures for expelling deviant members, frequent exhortations to recall the founding mission. The kinds of movements that attract me have no such discipline. Thus they wander from their founding "causes"--naturally and inevitably.

As a result, when I consider whether to participate, I am less interested in what distinctive promise or argument the movement makes. I am more interested in what potential it has, based on the people whom it has attracted, the way they work together, and their place in the broader society. I would not say, for example, that service-learning is a better cause or objective than other educational ideas, such as deliberation, or media-creation, or studying literature. I would say that the people who gather under the banner of "service-learning" are a good group--idealistic, committed, cohesive, but also diverse. Loyalty to such a movement seems to me a reasonable basis for continuing to participate.

May 20, 2008 8:30 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


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