What is the chief end of man?

A few months ago, my friend Anthony Paul Smith posted a couple tweets that I have continued to mull over. Responding to some online discourse worrying about the declining birthrate in the US, he wrote:

There’s something deeply, ontologically creepy about birth rate discourse and how so much is tied to the Ponzi scheme we’ve set up as a society that requires unlimited population growth to support unlimited creation of wealth, unmoored from ecological connections.

Also I think we’ve reached a stage in human development where most people don’t know what the point of the future of the human race is. Make iPhones by oppressing a majority of the world? Helping Elon Musk send a bunch of corpses to Mars for his own ego? Unlimited breadsticks?

I think the same about returning to “normal” after the pandemic. I have certainly longed for normality, but now that it’s becoming more of a reality, I’m reminded of all the annoying and boring and mildly humiliating things that we accepted as “normal.” Why were we in such a hurry to get back to this? And why — despite all the early-pandemic articles speculating that this massive disruption could be a social reset allowing us to clarify our goals and values — does there seem to be no alternative to the binary of pandemic misery or everyday normal misery?

Something similar seems to be going on with climate change. In popular discourse, the only alternative to our current “normal” seems to be a decline in living standards and possibilities: no more air conditioning, no more cars, no more air travel, don’t have kids… I continually rail against the rhetoric that blames “all of us” or “human nature” in general for a crisis caused by very specific political and economic systems that benefit very specific people. But given the alternatives that seem to be on offer, it’s perhaps not surprising that most people have not made the turn from “somebody should really do something about that” to mass mobilization. What’s the point in sacrificing now? If future deprivation is inevitable, why not choose the path that allows us to enjoy a little more “normality,” for just a little while longer? What difference does it really make?

Whenever I bring this up in conversation — and, me being the fun guy I am, this happens fairly frequently — people naturally ask me what I think the point of continuing is. And my answer is always the same: artistic creativity, cultural development, an increase in knowledge and understanding. In other words, I am “being the change” to the extent possible, living my life for the purposes that I think the human race should embrace. It’s worth noting that all these pursuits are, in principle, not very carbon-intensive, nor do they require a lot of resources otherwise. As I like to put it in defending the humanities from budget-cutting admins, at the end of the day all we need is a white board and some Penguin Classics. More important, these pursuits are open-ended and intrinsically satisfying, meaning that they are something that you can happily devote a life or a generation or an entire civilization to.

I could also see other types of activities — like athletic achievement, or playing certain types of games, or finding ways to experience new flavors and sounds and bodily sensations — filling that role for other kinds of people. Let a thousand flowers bloom! But not all possible flowers. What I definitely don’t want to live for is creating and sustaining hierarchies. I don’t want to live my life so that the wealthy can become even wealthier, unsurpassably wealthy. I don’t want to live my life so that the white race can continue to hold sway over all other human groups, or so that men can collectively own women, or straight people can bask in their supposed superiority queer people.

If the chief end of man is the libido dominandi, the lust for domination, then I am happy for humanity to end — no one will miss it. And that is, in fact, what the human race is living for right now. I like to think that my work in the university system is advancing the limits of human knowledge and aesthetic appreciation, but materially speaking it is mostly advancing the cause of status hierarchies and equipping my students with the credentials they will need to compete for a coveted slot in the most elite and exclusive group that creates the most wealth for the already wealthy. Everything that should be an end in itself — everything that a person could actually live for and still be able to live with themself — is subordinated to this competition for status and power, a competition that will never end.

In previous eras of capitalism, we were promised that competition and growth would lead to a higher standard of living, but late-stage neoliberalism has stopped even paying lip service to such goals. The competition is an end in itself. Agamben has been wrong about a lot of things lately, but he is right to say that life in an endless economy is life in hell — a hell that we accept because the only alternative we are given the tools to imagine is an even worse hell. People are definitely 100% correct when they point out that we can never tackle climate change while maintaining the capitalist fantasy of eternal economic growth. But I would add that we can never truly want to tackle climate change until we can imagine a life not in service to the infernal machine we call the economy. Work and prodution will surely be necessary as long as we are finite material beings, but we must find a way to subordinate them to real human needs and desires — which means, as Agamben again rightly points out, that we need to be able to imagine a horizon beyond sheer survival, or safety, or normality.

The lack of such a horizon is what has made our response to the pandemic so anxious and incoherent. For instance, although I admit that I may be speaking out of turn as someone who is childless, I think it might make sense to risk a chance of illness for some small number of students for the sake of education in the real sense — teaching them to think, teaching them to question, teaching them to live together, teaching them to enjoy the good things in life. But it is harder to make the case for taking that risk to provide state-funded daycare so that parents can risk their own health making rich people richer, much less so that the students themselves can be equipped with the skills to one day make rich people richer as well. To choose a less contentious example, it might be worth the risk of opening cinemas and theaters and concert halls for the sake of a shared aesthetic experience that cannot be replicated through the solitary viewing of a screen — but definitely not for the sake of helping those outlets pay their rent or providing good returns on Disney’s investment in Marvel’s intellectual property. (Thus I have gone to a live symphony concert but not to the movies, since Disney’s shareholder value seems to be all that is on offer at the cinema nowadays.)

We can’t talk about what we should do if we don’t know what our goal is. And we can’t build a life worth living if our only goal is to avoid having things taken away from us by a social order that does nothing but take things away from us even in the best of times. If our only goal is survival or safety or normality, that makes us easy targets for those who know exactly what they want — to ruthlessly exploit and dominate us, world without end.

3 thoughts on “What is the chief end of man?

  1. Should we ever consider how fearful people are? Even, or especially, our oppressors? This is not “human nature” perhaps, but is certainly a current feature. Jesus brings it up often. But it rarely figures in any discussions, philosophical, theological or otherwise.


  2. This essay resonates with my understanding of where we are. I feel a bit less lonely. I read Nancy’s latest DOING in hopes of some insight into where we go from here. Instead, it is largely an account of how we got to where we are. It deserves more attention than I have given it.
    Your account of where we are led me to wonder if maybe this is what it always feels like at the end of a long historical epoch. Western Civilization is giving way to its contradictions.
    Nancy has not abandoned the possibilities of the Open. But I cannot yet find a vision there of a likely future. As always, what we need is leadership. Maybe there is some over there somewhere….

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