How does the good become good?

Bike with square wheelsTwo disparate analogies to help us begin thinking about how the process works. A drug company tests its latest concoctions—e.g. statins—to see what effects they have. Discovering something one of these concoctions can do—lower high LDL cholesterol—the company engages its public relations and advertising arms in trumpeting the value of doing this thing. Lowering LDL cholesterol becomes something essential to prolonging human life. (And this in a time when, for example, obesity and poverty are much more life-threatening than LDL cholesterol, and when the prolonging of human life beyond a certain age may be more in the interest of the health-care industry than of, say, the elderly.)

The second analogy is to how we parents and our loyal friends and family, in finding ways to compliment our children, elevate what our child is most capable of into a great value. “He’s so considerate!” “Her drawings are so interesting!” Consideration of others or interestingness in art may not have been particular values for us until it seemed that a child to whom we were attached was particularly considerate or drew interesting drawings.

So now, on our way to Marx, we stop off at Sartre:

It is not after reflecting on moral values that members of the bourgeoisie came to call themselves respectable; rather, as the bourgeoisie took its place in the world, people of this emerging class found themselves caught up in ‘respectable’ behaviors. And thus respectability came into existence, and it makes no sense to call its values into question.

This is to say that the new value and the high regard in which it is held is an outgrowth of a change within the society, in its structure and capacities. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness” is one of the key phrases that has come to us from Marx’s Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (The Critique of Political Economy). From this perspective, the work of ethicists (and priests), like that of the drug companies’ pr firms, becomes to help people feel there is some larger justification for embracing the values and behaviors that the mechanisms of their particular society urge upon them. (This piece would be one example of this, with the larger justification here being evolving technology and social relations.)

Ethicists and priests help people feel there is some larger justification for embracing the values that the mechanisms of their society urge upon them.

Another analogy. Because bras, et al., cost money, women have been rather easily convinced (sold on) the value (if not quite sanctity) of wearing bras, removing their pubic hair, painting their nails, dying the hairs of their heads. But, because as yet no ways have been found to make equal amounts of money from bra-lessness or retaining one’s pubic hair, such comportments can have few defenders, and this notwithstanding how for millennia going bra-less and unshaven seemed unquestionably normal and respectable. There was a time, a very long time, when few or no American men would be caught dead scenting their skin, and now we believe in deodorant and cologne is making increasing sense.


I returned to Sartre’s and Marx’s sentences after reading my Zeteo colleague Sue Ellen Christian’s discussion of the quality of digital journalism. (This piece being, in its turn, a reflection on Michael Massing’s New York Review of Books piece “Digital Journalism: How Good is It?”) Underlying the discussion is an idea of there being enduring values regarding what good journalism is. And so the question could be asked: Has the Internet, et al, produced or contributed to journalistic pieces that live up to these values?

But Sartre and Marx can help us see that the emergence of the Internet and of digital journalism will—must—change what we consider good journalism to be. And, indeed, it will turn out that our ideas of what journalism should be will conform to what the new technology and business models demand or facilitate.

Our enthusiasm is linked to wild hopes that in a world of new things the terms of existence (e.g. mortality) might become obsolete.

bike on telegraph wiresI would propose, further, that there’s a two-stage process. At first a change—e.g. the arrival of cellphones or factories or equal legal rights for women—disconcerts us, seeming at once, or to different people, various degrees of threatening and exciting. Our enthusiasm is linked to wild hopes—that young products and systems convey youth to their users, and that in a world of new things the terms of existence—e.g. mortality, and with it anxiety, disappointment, confusion—might become obsolete. Our resistance is linked to the violation of our previous values, to which some of us may then become morbidly attached. E.g. to what friendship and romance were before they were electrified and monetized by Facebook and, et al.

In the second stage these old ideas of friendship and romance (or of communications, labor or gender roles) are confined to the history books, which themselves come to be written from the new perspective of a society based, for example, in electronic relationships. In the first stage, a new form of journalism may well seem to fall short of the old values, but, with a little patience, we will find that we can no longer remember those old values.

He wondered vaguely whether in the abolished past it had been a normal experience to lie in bed like this, in the cool of a summer evening, a man and a woman with no clothes on, making love when they chose, talking of what they chose, not feeling any compulsion to get up, simply lying there and listening to peaceful sounds outside. Surely there could never have been a time when that seemed ordinary? (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four)


Our idea of progress also “progresses” or evolves in response to our changing social relations (their underlying technology included). One result of this is that human civilization can be seen as continuing to make progress simply because its idea of progress changes, inevitably and automatically, with the changing technology, business models, social relations, methods of warfare. Were we to judge contemporary society by the values of the putative Dark Ages, our times might seem as dark. Or our attention would be called to the fact that this whole idea of progress and of darkness versus light (or versus The Enlightenment) were part of the values (and propaganda) of the social classes that came to power in the Modern age.

Marx (and Engels):

For each new class that puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, put in an ideal form; it will give its ideas the form of universality and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.

We find what we can grab and then we develop goals to trumpet this achievement.

Recasting this in more dispassionate language: It is not that we achieve some pre-established goals (e.g. for our civilization). We shift our goals to match our achievements—or, better, let’s just call them our actions. We have an idea that goals are something we reach toward, but in fact first we reach or flail. We find what we can grab and then we develop goals to trumpet this achievement.

I am reminded of Thoreau’s comment about the telegraph. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Thoreau, I am proposing, was here revealing how doubly out of step he was. It was because we could construct the telegraph and charge people money for using it that we began to be told about and to see the importance of telegraphic communications. Similarly we now rush all sorts of things by express mail, and we may even exclaim about what a great thing it is that papers and other stuff can be expressed around the globe, without realizing that the world might function just as well, if not better, were papers and stuff to travel at former, slower speeds. But, again, such a realization would be doubly out of step with the times because it would not only ignore how high a value is currently placed on having bits of information before one’s competitors or enemies; it would also ignore that it is our capacity to move information rapidly that has raised this value to its present height. (In a previous era, we might imagine, advance information was also valued, but not so highly, say, as physical strength or as an ability to keep one’s head and not run when faced with someone who wanted to kill you.)


When I began work on this post, I thought it would simply be in dialogue with Sartre, but I see now that it has, or has also, been speaking to me of something quite different: of how I first became interested in philosophy. This was when a young professor, Mitchell Miller, best known now as a scholar of one of Plato’s most challenging texts, the Parmenides, taught a class on Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology and Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. It is past time that I returned, though hardly for the first time, to reading these great works.

In explaining and focusing the work of Zeteo, I often refer to Baudelaire’s description of the role of the artist or critic “de tirer l’éternel du transitoire”—to find the eternal in the evanescent. In the same historical period, the young Marx set for himself and his successors a similar if more political and less poetic goal:

The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.


— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Editor


samuel_morse_telegraphCredits & Links

How does the good become good? pdf

Images of square-wheeled bicycle and of cyclist on telegraph wire are from the International Mobility Museum website’s collection of “post-petroleum landscapes.”

Samuel Morse telegraph receiver, shown at right, was used to receive in Washington, D.C., from Baltimore the message, “What hath God wrought?” Demonstration of the telegraph to Congress, May 24, 18441. Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The sentences from Jean-Paul Sartre are a gloss of mine from L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). The context and a more literal translation may be found at Sartre’s Partridges.

The quotations from Marx and Engels are from these translations:

  • The Critique of Political Economy. In another lifetime, perhaps, I will make the bridge from Marx’s observation about our social being determining our consciousness to Wittgenstein’s comment in Philosophical Investigations (§241) that, fundamentally, it is not our opinions that are in agreement but our form of life.
  • The German Ideology (“For each new class . . . ”)
  • Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge, of September 1843 (first published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher). The underscoring in my extract are italics in the online translation.

Sue Ellen Christian, What’s Holding Digital News Back? Zeteo is Reading, June 2, 2015.

Michael Massing, Digital Journalism: How Good is It? New York Review of Books, June 4, 2015.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. I note that, like a lot of Americans of his generation, my son (born in the year 2000) does not like to read books that were written more than about a decade before he was born. He has pointed out that one great exception to this rule in his case is Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Chapter 1.

Mitchell Miller, Dexter Ferry Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Vassar College has written, inter alia, Plato’s Parmenides: The Conversion of the Soul.

Charles Baudelaire, Le peintre de la vie moderne, 1863.

May I also take this opportunity to call attention to another piece of somewhat Marxist analysis: NRALGBTQ, from

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