A Conversation With James Croft About Philosophy, Humanism, and Ethics

A Conversation With James Croft About Philosophy, Humanism, and Ethics June 15, 2012

James Croft is a candidate for an Ed.D in Human Development and Education at theHarvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), and a vice-chair of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard. He works alongside Greg Epstein and the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, trying to create a true Humanist fellowship in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He blogs at Temple of the Future. The interview below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: What are your primary philosophical interests? What are you writing your dissertation on? And how in the world are you able to write a dissertation while doing all this activism and community building work and touring the world giving speeches?

James Croft: My interest in philosophy began when I started, as a high school student, to question how I was being taught. I was very interested from my teens in questions of pedagogy and power and hierarchy in schools, and that led me early to philosophers of education and psychologists like John Holt and Carl Rogers. When I decided to study education (and Drama) at Cambridge I was able to expand my philosophical interests, delving deeply into Pragmatism (Dewey is a seminal philosopher of education) and Existentialism (Sartre is quite significant in my personal Humanist philosophy), as well as more sociological philosophers like Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. Then I spent two years teaching high school, and a lot of the radical deschooling philosophy I had been enamoured with at Cambridge revealed itself to be very challenging to pull off in practice, if not totally wrong. And so when I went for my Masters in Arts in Education at Harvard I refocused my philosophical interests, read more conservative figures and older voices (like Newman), and rethought things a lot.

But the main influence on my current work was taking a class on the philosophy of Nelson Goodman, whose Epistemology and Aesthetics totally rocked my world. I loved his approach to symbol and reference, his clarity of thought but also breadth of vision. So I started thinking in very Goodmanian terms (it helps that my current adviser is Catherine Elgin, a student and collaborator of Goodman’s). So now I am working on my dissertation on Free Thinking (the development of intellectual autonomy) and have just completed a chapter on Rigor (a descriptive definition to bring clarity to the term). Although my philosophical interest are very broad – I conceive of the philosophy of education as pretty much central, since it addresses questions of human flourishing, questions of value, questions of ethics, questions of power.

And how do I do all the activism? I don’t sleep much. And I try to weave the work together so that the talks feed into my philosophy. I probably don’t write as many papers as I should!

Daniel Fincke: Very interesting. Is there a way you could boil down a couple key concepts of Goodman for unfamiliar, non-philosopher readers to get an idea of what he’s about?

James Croft: Yeah – Goodman was a logician, an epistemologist and a philosopher of aesthetics, basically. I think the best way to understand the influence of Goodman on my thinking is to say he was very interested in creating a theory of symbolic communication, in finding a way to talk about how we communicate with each other symbolically. And in the work I know the best, ‘Languages of Art’, Goodman attempts to show how art actually functions to achieve the effects it has on us, and argues that art functions cognitively using symbolic mechanisms similar to those of the sciences. So, in works of literature, “experiments” are carried out in fictional spaces which can further our understanding of social relationships, rather like scientists isolate certain physical variables to learn about relationships between them.

So he tries to link science and art and say that they both have epistemic value for some of the same reasons. And this is very significant for educational thought, because it really challenges how we tend to view art and science. They are not distinct or competing, for Goodman, but all part of the epistemic enterprise (which, for him and his followers Elgin, Scheffler and others, is about generating “understanding”, not really “truth”).

This affects my educational philosophy in lots of ways, because I think a grounding in the arts and how they function is essential to being a free thinker. And this is partly what informs my interest in the role of the arts, music, ritual, ceremony in Humanism – my belief that these are epistemically valuable as well as emotionally compelling ways to generate understanding. Which obviously puts me at odds with many in the community!

Daniel Fincke: Is that conceiving of thought experiments as literal experiments then? Problem is in art we can make up how they go, no? Isn’t that decisively different than science?

James Croft: Yes, there’s that very significant difference, in the sense that in the sciences there are much more strictly defined ‘rulesets’, as it were. But to create a believable work of literature you also have to take account of certain ‘rulesets’ and, if you stray too far from them, you will create terrible art. So, for instance, Jane Austen once said that “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on”, and what I think she meant by that (and this is a point Elgin makes) is that by isolating a certain set of social variables and trying to play out how they go in a believable manner you can create interesting and valuable understanding of social life. In a sense it is sort of an ‘experiment’.

And, you mention thought experiments – these are essential to the progress of science. These are literally fictions which have vast potential to enhance understanding. So think of Einstein sitting on a light beam or, even better, the ideal gas law (another example from Elgin). The ideal gas law is strictly speaking a fiction – there can never be an ideal gas. It does not describe a ‘truth’ in the way we normally use the term. But we couldn’t do thermodynamics without it.

And i think that is a crystallization of a broader point, which is that our scientific models are, strictly speaking, all false. They are all inaccurate, and known to be inaccurate. They are models, narratives which fit the data (but never perfectly). And in this sense they are a little like fictions.

Daniel Fincke: Hmm, so as not to derail us, I will just register that I have objected to you on this point before and let readers follow that line if they are interested. So, I hear that in addition to being a philosophy doctoral candidate you are also a cult leader. Care to comment on that allegation?

James Croft: It is absolutely true: my grand design, hitherto unrevealed (and how you worked it out is beyond me) is to fuse Humanism with Scientology to create a cult of personality around myself. Fair cop.

I always kind of laugh and facepalm at the same time when people say I’m interested in starting a cult, because cults are absolutely antithetical to my worldview and to my ethics. I actually detest them. They fill me with a powerful rage, and that level of anger is very rare for me. I am generally very emotionally upbeat, but cults make me MAD. I am writing my dissertation of Free Thinking precisely because I think intellectual autonomy, freedom of the mind, is a primary value, a sine que non of the good life. And cults directly traduce that value, they besmirch it, and I truly hate them for it. Honestly, cults are one of the few things I thoroughly and utterly detest.

I am the sort of person who has stood for HOURS on the sidewalk arguing with and protesting Scientologists. As far as I know I am actually responsible for getting the Scientologists out of Harvard Square. And there is this Korean cult called Dahn Yoga also in Harvard which I have protested before. I actually got the mayor of Cambridge to stop declaring a certain day “Brain Education Day” in honor of this cult because I hate it so much. I called the mayor’s office and made sure they stopped doing that. And now Harvard won’t let them do events in our buildings.

So I hate cults, I hate what they stand for. I think the attempt to control another person’s mind is on of the few things I would call truly evil.

What I do want to do is create an emotionally compelling, morally intense Humanism. And I think you can do that without remotely becoming a cult. I think a lot of religious communities are emotionally compelling and morally intense without being cultish. But I do recognize, and this is why those comments sting a little, that some forms of social pressure are on a spectrum, and at one end you have the sort of atomized individual and at the other you have the cult member. And I want to push a model of Humanism which is a bit to close to the cult side for some people’s liking (though still very far away). But I understand and respect that concern. I just wish the people who say that would give some consideration to what is actually being proposed instead of jumping to wild conclusions.

Daniel Fincke: So what you’re saying is you proactively shut down the competing cults to make room for your own. You learned from the Scientologists, with their lawsuits. I get it now.

James Croft: Yes, correct. I want to clear the market so mine will be more successful. It’s a strategic move. And if anyone wants to take issue with that, my lawyers are watching closely.

Daniel Fincke: But seriously, how do we protect against authoritarianism? When you say morally intense, people are going to ask, whose values? Emotions are dangerous. Every one of the rotten institutions that plague us today started out with noble intentions and beautiful words about the “brain education” or loving thy neighbor.

So how are you going to build something that does not follow the logic of power and emotion and manipulation to corruption?

James Croft: Yes emotions are dangerous. But so is reason unmoored from compassion. I think we have to recognize that reason is one foundational value of Humanism, but only one. And we have to find a way to engage Humanists in the great moral issues of our time. The fact is secular people are simply less engaged in society: they give less money, volunteer less time, donate less blood, vote less often, run for office less (in America, at least). And that has severe political consequences when it comes to gay rights, reproductive rights, trans rights, economic issues. The religious right out-organizes and outspends progressives all the time. And part of the reason, I believe, is that they have a clearer set of values and a more emotionally compelling narrative, alongside local community groups (churches basically) which serve as hubs for organization and spurs to action.

So you ask “whose values”, I say the time-honored values of reason, compassion and hope which Humanists have been committed to since Humanist Manifesto 1. Seriously, if you can’t get on board with those basic ideas – that reason is the best way to solve human problems, that all human beings should be afforded equal dignity and considered as having equal moral worth, and that we can work together for a better future for our species – then you have no business calling yourself a Humanist. Those values should be non-controversial within the Humanist community.

Then, how to guard against authoritarianism? You investigate religious (and other) communities to see what they do right and wrong. You research cults to see what not to do. You research social psychology and developmental psychology to get an understanding of how people work in groups and alone. And then you design the community with intentional safeguards against authoritarianism.

I think you can never be sure that any organization won’t become corrupt. But the response which says “because of the possibility this community might degenerate we should never try to build it” is a defeatist one. I mean, it’s a hopeless stance. It will lead to more of the same of what we’ve got now – energized, organized, right wing religious communities repeatedly defeating a disorganized progressive secular ‘movement’ which will not ‘move’ anywhere. And we have, in my firm conviction, a moral imperative not to let that happen, particularly at a time of great disenchantment with the church – this is exactly the time to strike!

Daniel Fincke: Do you think that all atheists–all people even–if they reason properly about ethics and other philosophical matters should become humanists? Do you think they have a wrong ethics or sense of the world if they do not?

James Croft: That is really a very challenging question. I do think, for sure, that atheism is the only reasonable stance regarding the theism question. And I think perhaps that is one reason why the freethinking community perhaps fixates on that question, because in many ways it is a much easier one to answer than the ethical questions which Humanism (as distinct from atheism) has always been interested in.

Do I think that any truly reasonable person would come to value Compassion, as I term it? Come to hold the belief that every person should be afforded equal moral worth and dignity?

Let me put it like this: I think it is the best of the available options. I think that all other positions must by definition draw moral distinctions between persons. And to draw such distinctions reasonably you have to give justifications for why you are doing it. And I tend to think that such justifications fail – they are based on objectively false considerations (as ‘scientific racism’ was) or they are internally inconsistent (i.e. they demand a certain level of moral concern for the person putting forward the argument, but deny that level of moral concern for others who do not seem to differ from them in salient ways).

But I honestly believe that the task of constructing a defensible naturalistic ethics is the greatest challenge of Humanist philosophers. NOT to say for a SECOND that theistic views fare better – they absolutely do not. They are totally incoherent, usually. But the question of Oughts is, I think, the most challenging one for me philosophically speaking.

Sometimes, when I am challenged by a very sophisticated theologian or apologist regarding this question, I feel unsure of myself here, and I wonder if any argument would ever shift my view that all people should be treated as if they have moral value. And I think that’s a deep philosophical question. Some Ethical Culturists refer to the belief in human dignity as their “faith”. And despite our community’s abhorrence of that word, I sort of understand what they mean.

I am being brutally honest here

Daniel Fincke: Well, this is Nietzsche’s concern, right? The idea that historically moral philosophers have been the shield bearers of moralities rather than critical investigators. And he has talked about all the ways that moral judgments are a “sign language of the emotions”. And his goal was to ask dangerously open-ended questions about the foundations of value and about particular value judgments. And this was scary because if you open up morality and values to genuinely critical reasoning, and abandon faith, then you subject yourself to the possibility of upsetting discoveries that was is really good is not what you want to believe is really good.

Now atheists were the hardheaded “honest” ones about this for a long time. Alongside moralist atheists who were also around in the 19th Century and earlier.

It seems to me as though the more morally subjectivistic and nihilistic exisentialists were successful in defining the mythical atheist of contemporary intellectuals and religious laypeople alike.

The New Atheists are wise to eschew that and claim moral high ground. But few New Atheists have a coherent justified rational ground for their ethics. So maybe, looked at that way, it is valid to say that personally they may be holding their ethics in a faith-based way. But then the question is whether it is rational to trust the values that one has received from a flourishing culture and which one has good reasons to believe are intrinsic to that flourishing. I don’t know if you need a thorough account of goodness to be rationally competent at spotting it, at figuring out what creates it and what destroys it.

That sort of competence at identifying certain values may be a functionally rational position, not at all a leap of faith.

But for philosophers, we add to that substantive claims about the meaning and justification of the concepts. And that’s where you have to ask whether the philosophical account you’re propounding is one that is rationally grounded or just an articulation of prejudices about grounding ethical realities, based on a hasty overread of what your competent judgments imply on more fundamental levels.

I don’t know if that makes total sense. I am saying, in a nutshell, making express philosophical inferences makes what you’re doing more like faith if you don’t really rationally ground them but root them in your heart. Whereas, on a competence level, not making any further claims, I think you can be said to be rational if you are effective at actually picking out what is truly valuable, even if you cannot theorize it.

James Croft: I think that does make sense – it is a valuable perspective. In some ways, if I am interpreting you correctly, it is quite similar to pragmatist approaches to ethics, which attempt to recognize human flourishing and investigate what produces it. But I still think theologians will think they have a winning question in “Yes, but what MAKES it good that X…?” [Portentous look]

Daniel Fincke: Yes, I have an account of that that satisfies me. But effectively that metaethical problem does not change the fact of rational decisions and judgments in ways where good is clearly recognizable, even if what exactly makes it good is not. I can recognize water even if I don’t know what it is scientifically. We can figure out goodness too.

James Croft: Of course someone like Felix Adler (the guy who founded Ethical Culture and a philosopher for whom I have great respect – I actually hope to be more involved in Ethical Culture in the future) resolved all this by being a Kantian idealist and saying that basically moral truths exist independently of this natural world. And while I don’t accept that view I have to say sometimes it appeals for its simplicity and clarity!

Yes your response seems quite satisfactory. I like it! I’ve learned something from this.

Daniel Fincke: Me too. I just came up with that.

James Croft: And so early in the morning – bravo!

Daniel Fincke: 24 hours and 11 minutes after I started conversations which have not ceased that whole time.

I still think a rationalistic metaethics is really important. But I don’t think we need to concede that people who lack one act by faith and not by reason, because they don’t.

James Croft: Yes well perhaps we can work together on it. One approach I have been investigating is essentially to say that moral values are not free-floating but have to have ends-in-view (this is very Deweyan). I.e. it makes as little to sense to ask “Why is X good?” as to ask “What is the best route from here?” – you have to have an end-in-view to answer the question. So, you have to ask “Is X good to achieve Y end?” instead. And I think that moves us some way. Further, I think Andy Norman’s work on burden of proof shifts is important. At some point it may be unreasonable to doubt moral axioms without good reasons to question them. We have to be able to end the game of reasons at some point, and shifting the burden of proof onto the doubter seems like a reasonable move to avoid infinite epistemic regress.

Daniel Fincke: Yes. I’m not sure if you’ve read my posts on goodness as effectiveness but essentially I argue that all goodness in the objective, naturalistic sense is effectiveness.

But I stop the infinite regress by arguing that not only can x be effective for creating y, but y can then be effective at being y.

This is the Aristotelian notion that some actions are for their own sake. We can say that this is effectively what it is. Not just that it is effective at creating something else.

So our good, qua humans, is to be as effectively human as possible. To realize the human powers as effectively as we can.
That is an intrinsic good for us. That is thriving and flourishing. And insofar as people are rationally competent at working that out they live by reason, not in any meaningful way by MERE faith. Even if they don’t have my metaethical conceptualization of it.

James Croft: Yes I like that approach as well. If I understand you, it is to say that some things have inherent value, that to claim they don’t have value is to fail to make sense. I like to say that it is meaningless to question the value of human flourishing – to understand the term is to value it.

Daniel Fincke: You mean because flourishing inherently is a value term?

James Croft: I suppose so. I think that’s what I mean. I have to admit that I have not been able to pull together all my thoughts on this topic into a coherent whole. If I were to write a book about my Humanist philosophy in toto, this would be the most unsatisfactory chapter so far.

Daniel Fincke: I would love it if you read through my stuff on this. I can even send you my dissertation to look at. In the meantime I will send you links to the blog posts where I have refined it since there. But some of the framework is only there. And the background in Nietzsche’s philosophy is the bulk of the dissertation. Not that you’d read all of it.

James Croft: But this is ok, I think. One of my favorite quotes is from Stephen Fry, speaking at the Humanist Community of Harvard when we awarded him our annual award in Cultural Humanism: “I have my own beliefs…A belief in the eternal adventure of trying to discover moral truth in the world.” I think it is an adventure, and I am willing to be unsure about these issues. But until I am given a VERY good reason to do so I am unwilling to give up my commitment to the worth and dignity of every person.

I would love to read your writing on this, including your dissertation!

Daniel Fincke: Great, I’ll send stuff over when we’re done. Which should probably be now as this is already getting massively long. Any final thoughts?

James Croft: I suppose just this: I truly appreciate the chance to explore in a reasonable and lighthearted way some of the greatest questions facing humankind. Felix Adler said “the custom of meeting together in public assembly for the consideration of the most serious, the most exalted topics of human interest is too vitally precious to be lost”, and while we have transported much of the public meetings onto the internet I think discussions like this are vital to keep our community healthily investigating its own core commitments. So, thank you, deeply, for this!

And, finally, I would ask your readers, if they have had bad impressions of the Humanist Community at Harvard for any reason (including things of mine they’ve read or missteps we’ve made in the past), please take another look (you can visit harvardhumanist.org). We are on your side. We are members of the Secular community, and we want what’s best for all of us. We sometimes express ourselves differently and have a slightly different vision. But there’s no reason not to be allies in the quest for a more reasonable, compassionate and hopeful world.

Daniel Fincke: Thank you, James. It’s always a pleasure.

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