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Exploring Two Paths to Productive Citizenship

I recently told a Concurrent reader that the goal of the columns is to be a mixture between an academic seminar and a book club.

It does this through drawing on principles in social science research across numerous disciplines but also through citing themes in books that I’ve read or are currently reading. An occupational hazard of commuting to Tampa to teach means I listen to a lot of audiobooks.

The book I just finished and the new one I just started have nearly opposite messages regarding the same subject: how to do your part to be a productive citizen. On this Fourth of July weekend, could any question be more important?

Take a moment to consider it for yourself. What traits do you think a model citizen possesses?

The book I just finished was the follow up to a previously mentioned one by Mark Manson called the “Subtle Art of Not Giving a [well, you can finish it]” and his sequel was equally as explicit titled “Everything Is F-ed: A Book About Hope.”

Manson’s conclusion was that hope is a dangerous part of human nature because it is always trailing an idea of the way something should be rather than recognizing satisfaction with the way things are. If you are in a constant state of chase, then you will inevitably commit atrocities to get to the place that you hope for regardless of if it makes life better for others or you more personally happy.

The most egregious of offenses, Manson suggests quoting Immanuel Kant, is to treat people as a means rather than as an end. Seek a new job? You might suck up to someone who can get you that interview or win you that account. That would be treating that person as a means to the professional goal you hope to achieve in the end.

Past Concurrent columns compared Kant’s philosophies to Batman, but Manson breaks it down in a better analogy worth briefly explaining. He said if we know there’s ice cream in the freezer that we’re told not to eat - we might go through three phases of maturity in deciding whether or not we should take it.

The first phase is the toddler phase which says that ice cream is good, it is available, and therefore the goodness should be eaten. Most toddlers outgrow this after a swift parental reprimand. That moves them into the next phase of adolescence.

The adolescent might want the ice cream and recognize its goodness but not take it because his mother yelling at him for doing so like she did when he was a toddler feels worse than the good (but temporary) feeling he gets from the ice cream.

This might not seem problematic at first, but it is from a motivational standpoint. The adolescent is using his mother as a means to an end - the end result of not feeling bad. The true mature adult doesn’t take the ice cream because he values principles that keep him from doing so such as good health or not stealing. This internal motivation removes the mother’s input from the equation.

This is an important part of Manson’s take on Kant’s categorical imperatives. Never expect anything from anyone. Love people regardless of if they like you, do good deeds without thinking they will happen to you down the line and forgive transgressions against you even if the grudge is held against you from someone else’s side.

Making ourselves the best individuals we can be, Manson argued, is the only way we can change the world. In a rare moment of profound insight in an otherwise profane prose, Manson wrote, “We should not hope for better but rather to be better in this moment and the next and the next and the next.”

This is in contrast to Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s controversial book published in 2000 called Bowling Alone which I just started. Putnam argued early in the book that favor swapping is a big part of building social capital and that the strength of American society is dependent on this constant exchange from others.

Whereas Manson loathed transactional relationships, Putnam can’t imagine a world without them.

These topics will surface again in the upcoming week as further reflection on the Chronicle forum occurs and Friday’s Chamber of Commerce forum happens. These two organizations are highly transactional in their relationships, yet I consider myself more along the lines of Manson’s mentality, and it is these diverging approaches that deserve more discussion.


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