Throughout Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, Robert Pirsig finds concrete examples to showcase how his Metaphysics of Quality can provide a foundation for other fields of study. Given my profession and background, I was predominantly fascinated by what he had to say about the social sciences & humanities. Here are some of my observations and thoughts.
I found myself thinking about the questions “Does capitalism have Quality? Does socialism have Quality?” He places political organization under the intellectual moral order and I believe economics would fall under the social moral order since it is not a philosophy, but a realm of human action. However, the science and philosophy concerning economics is primarily political, and therefore, intellectual. It is an important distinction to make that Pirsig does not seem to make. He would probably have termed the two: economics and economology.
Pirsig answers the original questions by saying that “from a static point of view socialism is more moral than capitalism” (p.253) since it proposes a way for intellectual morals to guide society. However, capitalism includes the free market, “a Dynamic institution”, since it allows people to attach value to what they buy and sell. Socialism closes the door on Dynamic Quality, while capitalism effectively responds to Dynamic Quality.
What I believe Pirsig takes issue with in the capitalist system is when the rich appropriate the language of the free market to suit their own interests and contrive to manipulate the market towards artificial (read static) ends (i.e. mercantilism, crony capitalism). As soon as the market ceases to be organic and complex in its parallel patterns of value, it can no longer be labeled as “free”. I think this sufficiently addresses Pirsig’s concerns, since a truly free market disperses benefits to both the poor and the rich.
Pirsig posits that the ultimate goal for the intellectual order is “to obtain static and Dynamic Quality simultaneously”. As a concrete example, we can see why modern day democracies are the best examples of both at work: a constitution or monarch to preserve static Quality; and a parliament or congress to act as a Dynamic force – both as a creator of Dynamic Quality and destroyer of static Quality in the making of laws – what Pirsig calls a “Dynamic eraser”. According to Pirsig, such a system prohibits degeneracy from destroying the evolutionary gains made by a Dynamic institution or law or force of progress.
Instead of blaming capitalism for the evils of colonialism, Pirsig blames the static set of value patterns perpetuated by the Victorian social order. As such, “inferior societies” were a threat to such patterns. Justification for the slaughter and exploitation of aboriginal peoples was made on moral grounds, not necessarily on economic ones. Under the social moral order, one society can find justification for destroying or exploiting another to preserve itself.
The free market is also part of the social moral order, but arguably stands on a higher moral ground than the morals espoused by colonialism. The free market seeks to benefit both sides because both sides attach value to the seller & the buyer, what is bought and what is sold – and therefore there is mutual respect between the two parties for the preservation of exchange to achieve mutual benefits. Where unfair trades are made, the free market ceases to exist because both parties have engaged in an unfair exchange and the reason for the breakage can be attributed to inferior social moral values (i.e. imperialism; racism; sexism). Voluntary labour is higher on the scale of the social moral order than slavery because the individual freely chooses and finds dignity in work, whereas slavery strips the individual of the dignity and benefits of work.
What of the exchange of European alcohol for aboriginal goods? Was this capitalist enterprise not harmful to aboriginal societies? Again, this is a conflict between the social and the intellectual moral orders. The aboriginals only attached value to mass amounts of alcohol because they were losing everything in the inferior social order of colonialism, the subjugation of one society to another. Such subjugation would have happened with or without alcohol, but alcohol certainly made the subjugation of aboriginal groups easier. The intellectual moral order condemns subjugation, but can make no comment on the sale of alcohol – only the social moral can and in its eyes, the act of the sale of alcohol is not morally wrong in and of itself. It is more pertinent to examine the reasons why aboriginal groups felt the need to turn to drink. To ask any question about the capitalist enterprise misses the fundamental point of examining the inferior set of social morals that is imperialism.
There are whole lists of moral dilemmas that can be questioned here, but one has only to think of them in the context of Pirsig’s hierarchy of moral orders to make sense of them. It is sufficient to say that the colonialist enterprise was not guided by intellectual patterns of value and required Dynamic Quality to overthrow its static social patterns of value.
Pirsig makes an important distinct between philosophy, the act of thinking, and “philosophology”, the study of philosophers. According to him, the “best way to examine the contents of various [philosophers] is first to figure out what you believe and then see what philosophers agree with you (p. 372). In this way, you’ve already done your creative thinking and are not limited by any “dead-ends” in the philosopher’s thought. You are able to critically assess what the value of the philosopher’s words means to you and your world view.
He goes on to add that “real science and real philosophy are not guided by preconceptions of what subjects are important to consider” (p.375). As humans, we each attach value to the study of different subjects and objects as we please. When you think about it, it’s the only way that the study has any meaning and why progress in all fields is driven forward by individuals passionate about the subject, no matter how objective they say they are. We study philosophers because we care about philosophy, we care about having correct (for lack of a better word) perceptions of knowledge, reality and morality. We philosophize because we care about getting this body of knowledge straight before pursuing all the other forms of thought and fields of study.
That is perhaps the fundamental thing left out of education, after years of seeing fellow students not care about reading Plato or Aristotle or Machiavelli or Hobbes. Students have failed to find their world view in these particular philosophers. I have read these philosophers because I care about being cultured, about expanding my mind with their ideas and perhaps to find the perfect system of socio-political organization for the human race. Where other people may find him tiresome, I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books because I see a reflection of what the world could be like, irrespective of the physical differences between my world and Middle Earth. If you do not attach care to what you are learning, how can you be expected to learn anything at all? How can you expect to be enlightened?
Western society is so hell-bent on making sure our students are creative independent thinkers. Yet the education system, so static and cumbersome, does anything but foster that creativity. We are shown how to copy equations and they say we are “doing arithmetic”, we are told to copy chemical experiments and they tell us we are “scientists”, we are told what books to read and then told we are “cultured” and “literate”. What absurdity!
However, I do think there is one limitation on Pirsig’s view because sometimes you need to teach someone the basics before they can start delving into the complexities of quantum physics or what have you. But I do understand how you can pursue “education” so far and then get mired into the same dead-ends as your predecessors and get nowhere with the theories and problems of the day.