In Defense of Bourgeois Values

“The term “bourgeois” has almost always been — been one of contempt. Yet it is precisely the — the bourgeoisie which is responsible for — well, for nearly everything good which has happened in our civilization over the past four centuries.” Charlie Black — Metropolitan

Nothing is more important to living a good life than which values you choose. By this I don’t necessarily mean the values you profess; those may be utterly distinct from the values you live by whether through hypocrisy or an inability to adequately describe your working values. In a recent essay, David Egan captures some of why values are so important and hits on what I think may be the most intellectually challenging aspect of choosing values in the modern world — deciding how skeptical we need to be.

Given the seductive nature of our material possessions, it’s not necessarily easy to pull yourself away from the constant desire to get more stuff. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there. Honestly, I want my share, too. That’s an emotional challenge, though, not an intellectual one. It’s not hard at all to realize intellectually that there ought to be more to a good life than getting and having lots of good stuff. But if you are rightly suspicious of a culture so invested in winning materially, how much should you discount the rest of that culture’s ideas about non-material values?

Modern philosophers — at least in the analytic tradition — have been fairly sanguine about those values. Working very much in a practical virtue tradition that dates to Aristotle, they tend to think that a good life is built around things that are pretty obvious: strong relationships, raising good children, investing your time in interesting and useful projects, having friends, helping the community, etc., etc. This kind of stuff is so well understood and so much like Dad & Mom’s advice that it can be hard to take it seriously. These values may not be material things, but they are comfortable, straightforward and oh so obvious. Of course, Aristotle and his modern followers aren’t pulling these things out of their hat. When you look around at the people you like and admire, whose life you might want to have, these are the kinds of things they seem to do.

Yet Egan thinks modern analytic philosophy is too willing to settle for these obvious kinds of non-material value. Not only are these easy answers (after all, just about everyone thinks they’re true), they are safe and comfortable. They de-risk value selection and they banish the metaphysical pain that comes from doubting whether your life is meaningful.

Egan rightly notes that most analytic philosophers writing in this vein are hostile to the sense of metaphysical trouble, doubt and despair that often seem to dominate continental philosophy. There is a definite air of exasperation and a sense of “get over it” in what they write. Honestly, I share a lot of sympathy with that exasperation at existential concerns. Is it really that big a mystery what makes a good life? And do we truly need some certainty about objective value not to drown in existential worry? I don’t think so.

Still, I’m sympathetic to Egan’s concern. Criticizing Susan Wolf’s “Moral Saints”, Egan puts it this way:

“There’s a question that just doesn’t seem to occur to Wolf, but which occurs to pretty much everyone who’s grappled seriously with the problem of meaning in life, from Job to Sartre: what if everything I think my life is about turns out to be wrong?”

Egan suggests it’s that exact concern that has driven many of the most remarkable people to extremes of behavior and value that go beyond our traditional lives. In what I think is probably the most important passage in the essay, he puts it this way:

“Existential anxiety isn’t about announcing that life is meaningless or counselling despair. It’s about holding oneself open to the exquisite vulnerability of our lives to sliding into meaninglessness or despair. Life is precious and life is precarious; life is precious in no small part because it’s precarious. Existential anxiety is like a modern memento mori, holding that precariousness before us in spite of a strong temptation to look away.”

If that’s true, perhaps it’s a mistake to endorse the too easy answers. If we give ready to assent to those answers, we may discourage truly remarkable lives or even a sufficient awareness of the precarious beauty in the mostly unremarkable lives we are living.

After all, a lot of what we value from the past four centuries didn’t start with people embracing bourgeois values of this kind. They often come from people who aren’t satisfied with those things and build lives that are altogether different.

Admittedly, those truly remarkable lives often have big drawbacks regardless of what such a person ends up valuing. Egan echoes Wolf in his consideration of Gandhi and the good and bad of sainthood. On the good side, Gandhi changed the world. Not always but often for the better. His life was big, interesting, unusual, and important. Yet there is a creepy, annoying and unappealing side to him as well. A saint is just a fancy word for a moral monomaniac with a talent for justification. Not only don’t most of want to be Gandhi, most of us don’t want to be around Gandhi either, and we certainly don’t want him sleeping with our naked daughters so that he can test his moral powers.

Of course, morality isn’t the only answer people have decided on as the bedrock of value. There have been people whose distrust of bourgeois values has led them to think that art, power, sex, or even philosophy is the ultimate and sole source of value. We may think all those people are at least somewhat wrong, but we surely want a world with at least some of those people.

Egan is worried that if we just sign-off on bourgeois values, we give people permission to think the “less interesting thought”.

“What I’ve been calling bourgeois philosophy seems to me to exhibit that tendency to occupy the “safe” middle ground. It takes our everyday intuitions — or more precisely, the everyday intuitions of fairly comfortable middle-class people in rich and stable countries — and uses them as the reliable base from which to gaze out upon the more abstract questions about what matters and why. “

But while I’m in full agreement that we should value people unwilling to pursue the normal stuff of a good life, it’s easy to go too far in rejecting bourgeois values. Egan suggests that metaphysical distrust or existential angst is the primary driver of those choices, but that seems unlikely to me except in a narrow range of cases. Lots of exceptional people pursue exceptional values because they have contempt for bourgeois people and bourgeois values. Even those caught in legitimate existential angst often seem as driven by their refusal to be average or mediocre as by any profound intellectual concern. Narcissism and exceptionalism seem, to me at least, psychologically more potent drivers of alternative values than existential angst. And while those who chose to invest their monomania in sex or power or art don’t generally go out of their way to suggest that other people are wrong to value what they do, those whose monomania tends toward ideas are often keen to suggest that what other people value isn’t valuable at all.

And it’s here that I really must part company with existential angst.

Partly that’s because this evangelical urge to spread your angst from door to door is annoying and insufferable. The struggle to find meaning is a good struggle to have. As Egan suggests, whatever comes easy and doesn’t feel precarious might not be the right thing. I’m not against reminding people that there is work to be done.

Like most things, though, bourgeois values are a lot harder to live up to than to recognize. Many of the people most scornful of the “easiness” of bourgeois values are notable failures at actually creating them. It’s not as easy to be a good parent, partner or boss as such people seem to think. At the most fundamental level, evangelical angst becomes a mistake when it targets the virtues and values in others that have created and continue to create good lives. It embodies an assumption that what isn’t valuable to you personally, isn’t valuable. It’s narrow minded in the worst possible way.

That doesn’t mean many — even most — of us aren’t often mistaken. Egan is probably right that a too ready embrace of bourgeois values can be limiting. In academic philosophy, perhaps that sometimes results in the less interesting thought (though I’m skeptical of that as it presumes a kind of correlation between value and perspective that may not hold true). But for most of us, making our own decisions, a too ready commitment to bourgeois values often does result in a less interesting life. Like most people who live their life largely by bourgeois values, I sometimes find myself wishing that I had chosen — not less conventionally — but more aspirationally. Most of us can benefit from that bit of existential angst (or psychological exceptionalism) that drives us to try and live a little more ambitiously.

But when people insist that the best answers admirable people have given to the question of meaning are all just wrong, then a heavy skepticism is in order. If raising good children isn’t valuable to you, get your own kind of immortality. And if you’re immortality delivers worthwhile art, music, literature, or philosophy…that’s great. But to suggest that value only comes from whatever you decide gives you meaning is just the kind of foolishness we expect from monomania. Because no matter how great your stamp collection is, it’s just one way to live.

Metropolitan’s Charlie Black isn’t wrong about the bourgeoisie, and he isn’t wrong about bourgeois values. They are the values and the things that have proven most likely, for most people, to create a good life. That doesn’t mean you — specifically you — can’t do better. It also doesn’t mean you should be too sure about how those values will go for you. But I read Susan Wells and most good analytic philosophers not as defending only bourgeois values, but as defending those values from their critics who are eager to write them off simply because they are widely held.

So, I’ll give a little less than two cheers for existential angst and a little more than 2 cheers for bourgeois values. I don’t think analytic philosophers are settling for the less interesting thought when they share bourgeois values. I think they simply hold the same things valuable that most people who have thought about life and lived admirable lives have thought before them. There may be an infinite number of ways to have a good life. The fact that some ways are much more popular than others isn’t a strike against them.

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