Attend the graduation of a college senior, and the commencement speech is likely to include a few themes: Do something big. Make a name for yourself. Change the world.
My guest is not a fan of this advice, and says that rather than focusing on solving large-scale problems, we ought to concentrate on making things better in our own backyards.
Brandon Warmke is a professor of philosophy and the co-author of Why It’s OK to Mind Your Own Business. Today on the show, Brandon explains why what he calls “commencement speech morality” distorts our moral vision by emphasizing one version of the good and valuable life, at the expense of the value and good of a life marked by “ordinary morality.” Brandon first unpacks the dangers of intervening in other people’s business, including becoming a moralizer and a busybody. He then makes a case for the benefits of minding your own business and putting down roots, creating a good home, and living in solitude, and for how a smaller, quieter life can still be generous, important, and noble.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Brandon’s previous appearance on the show: Episode #734 — How Moral Grandstanding Is Ruining Our Public Discourse
- Sunday Firesides: Blessed Are the Trail Maintainers
- AoM Article: How John Stuart Mill Got Over His Existential Crisis, and You Can Too!
- AoM Podcast #910: Thick Desires, Political Atheism, and Living an Anti-Mimetic Life
- AoM #881: A Kantian Guide to Life
- AoM Article: The Spiritual Disciplines — Solitude and Silence
- The Virtues of Limits by David McPherson
- The Need for Roots by Simone Weil
Connect With Brandon Warmke
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Attend the graduation of a college senior, the commencement speech is likely to include a few themes, “Do something big, make a name for yourself, change the world.”
My guest is not a fan of this advice, and says that rather than on solving large-scale problems, we ought to concentrate on making things better in our own backyards.
Brandon Warmke is a professor of philosophy and the co-author of, Why It’s Okay to Mind Your Own Business. Today on the show, Brandon explains why what he calls “commencement speech morality” distorts our moral vision by emphasizing one version of the good and valuable life, at the expense of the value and good of a life marked by ordinary morality.
Brandon first unpacks the dangers of intervening in other people’s business, including becoming a moralizer and a busybody. He then makes the case for the benefits of minding your own business and putting down roots, creating a good home and living in solitude, and for how a smaller quieter life can still be generous, important and noble.
After the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/ordinarymorality.
All right. Brandon Warmke. Welcome back to the show.
Brandon Warmke: Thanks for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So we had you on a few years ago to talk about your book, moral Grandstanding. You got a new book out called, Why It’s Okay to Mind Your Own Business. And this is really interesting. It’s about minding your business morally.
What’s interesting is you’re a moral philosopher. So you wouldn’t think a moral philosopher would say, “Hey, just mind your own business,” but you make the counter-intuitive case that to make the world a better place, you might start just minding your own business and just focusing on your inner circle that you have in your life.
And you start off the book talking about that there’s two types of morality that you see out there. You call one type commencement speech morality, and the other, ordinary morality. What are the differences between the two?
Brandon Warmke: So commencement speech morality, if anyone’s ever been to a commencement speech, when I talk about this sort of outlook, they almost immediately know what I mean.
So it’s an outlook that has certain values and priorities and judgments that commencement speakers, usually pulled from the social elite, tell young graduates.
And they’ll say something like, “The world is full of injustices that need address. The world is full of people who need help. It’s clear what needs to be done, but all of us old people, we don’t care enough to do it, but you care. You have the spark in your hearts, and so get out there and make a name for yourself, solve the biggest problems you can, and make the world a better place for everyone.”
And that’s the kind of message that most college graduates get. Now, this kind of message you don’t just get it at commencement speeches, you can hear it all kinds of places in society, but it says moral life is simple, the world is your business, the world is a kind of buffet of problems to solve.
And in fact, what gives your life meaning is solving these problems, and the bigger problems that you can solve, the better. The bigger that you can make a name for yourself. And what makes all the difference is your good intentions.
And that’s a message that a lot of young people here, not just at graduation, but through high school and college. And it’s the view of life from the podium, when we’re high-minded and when speakers have an audience.
What we write here in the book though, is that the problem with commencement speech morality is that it distorts our moral vision. It focuses on only one kind of valuable life, which you might think of as like political engagement or saving the world, but in the book, we offer a different kind of outlook, and we call it, for lack of a better term, we call it “ordinary morality”.
It’s not the view from the podium, but it’s the view from your backyard garden, your local library, and it takes a much wider view about what’s important in life.
It says, life isn’t just about shaping the revolutions of your time or solving the world’s biggest problems, life is also about reading to your kids and coaching Tee-Ball and mowing your yard, and volunteering at your local library.
And so that’s an alternative outlook to commencement speech morality that we give in the book, and it’s one we defend.
Brett McKay: Has commencement speech morality always existed, or is it a relatively new cultural development?
Brandon Warmke: This is a nice question. I suspect that the tradition of giving young people, especially young people, advice to accomplish big things and do big things with their lives, I suspect that’s nothing new.
I think that what makes this modern moral advice somewhat novel is that it requires a certain kind of cultural background that didn’t exist until fairly recently. And even now probably only exists in some parts of the globe.
So think about what has to be true for a society’s social elite to tell young people to get out there and solve the world’s biggest problems and make a name for yourself.
One thing that sort of has to be true is you have to have a society that’s affluent. To be able to spend your life working in a non-profit or like going to order to our canvassing for your favorite political party, you have to have a society that’s pretty affluent. It’s hard to imagine people giving advice to lots of young people like this in the 1500s or something.
And I think you also have to have a global culture. I mean, to see the world as a repository of problems to solve and people to help requires having access to far-flung parts of the globe.
So if you listen to NPR, that’s the sort of information you have to have access to. It’s hard to imagine even just 200 years ago, young people being told to get out there on the globe and solve inequality in the farthest flung places.
So I do think, look, young people have been getting advice about how to live their life for a long time, but this particular brand of commencement speech morality is probably fairly recent.
Brett McKay: And you also talk about the book that utilitarianism could be seen as an ancestor of this commencement speech morality. Because commencement speech morality is all about doing big things and affecting as many people as possible, and utilitarianism, one of its mantras is, the greatest good for the greatest number of people. You wanna try to do things that will have the biggest effect on people.
Brandon Warmke: That’s right. So utilitarianism typically says, if there’s one most important value and depending on who you ask, it’s something like happiness or pleasure or well-being.
And what morality tells us is that you need to be doing the most good that you can do, or at least a lot of good. You gotta be out there doing a lot of good in the world.
And so you can see why there’s some overlap with utilitarianism and commencement speech morality, even though you will rarely, if ever, hear in a speech, Bill Gates say utilitarianism is true, you gotta go maximize the pleasure in the world.
But there is this overlap in the following sense that, there’s this kind of single-minded focus on being useful and making the world a better place. And I think those things are important, it’s important to be useful, obviously it’s important to do good in the world, but the question is, is that the most important thing? Does that dominate all other concerns?
And one of the things we argue in the book is that’s a very distorted moral vision.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Because it ignores just the small day-to-day things. It ignores spending time with a parent who is aging and has dementia, and you’re watching The Price is Right with them for the 10th time this week or something like that.
Utilitarianism will be like, “Well, you’re doing some good, but you could be doing more good if you had spent time on some other project or group that’s doing more good for more people.”
Brandon Warmke: That’s right.
Brett McKay: So the first half of the book is about the dangers of minding other people’s business, and the second half is about the merits of minding your own. And one of the dangers of not minding your own business is that it can turn you into a moralizer.
There are different forms of moralizing that exist, but you concentrate on a particular type in this book. What type is that?
Brandon Warmke: So the kind of moralizing that we focus in the book involves over-stepping boundaries when it comes to enforcing morality. And to see what I mean, so just think about what we do when we enforce morality.
So morality is important, it’s important for people to do good things and avoid doing bad things. And sometimes we enforce morality, we’re like morality cops. We intervene into other people’s lives, we tell them how to behave or what to do, or we blame them when we think they do something wrong. We say, “Shame on you,” or, “You shouldn’t have done that.” We might withdraw friendly relations or censure them some way.
And moral enforcement is good. It’s useful when it’s used properly. But one of the ways that we can improperly enforce morality is when we overstep certain boundaries.
So the idea is that, look, just because, even if you’re right that someone has done something wrong, that doesn’t mean you always have a right to enforce morality. Our rights to enforce morality are limited.
Sometimes they’re limited just because the thing isn’t that important. So suppose you hear someone at the park lying on the phone about their present whereabouts, they say they’re at work, but they’re actually at the park. That’s just not your business.
There’s just not sufficient reason for you to walk up to that guy and give him a lecture about lying to his wife or whatever about where he is. You just don’t have a right to intervene. It’s just not that important.
Sometimes we don’t have a right to intervene and enforce morality because we don’t know enough. We don’t often have enough information about the nuances of a situation or a relationship or the histories of the people involved.
Other times the issues are just too complex or unclear to warrant inserting ourselves into other people’s lives and telling them what to do or blaming them.
Other times we don’t have standing, social standing to intervene in people’s lives. Sometimes it’s because we’re hypocrites, so a chain smoker with no intention of giving up his bad habit, doesn’t really have the right to lecture people about the harm they’re doing to themselves by smoking.
Sometimes we just don’t have the proper social role. So Brett, like you might not be doing your dishes, you’re the dish guy at home, and maybe your wife, it would be appropriate for her to sort of blame you or call you out on this. It would be totally inappropriate for me to do it.
That’s not my business. I shouldn’t enforce morality. Even though it’s true that you need be picking up the slack at home, it’s just not my call to make.
And so for all these reasons, and probably many more, our right to enforce morality is very limited. And what the moralizer does is they enforce morality anyway.
So the question isn’t so much here does morality belong here? The question is, do I belong here? Do I belong in someone else’s business as an enforcer of morality? And often the answer is no, but what the moralizer does is intervene anyway.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you see a lot of this kind of moralizing online. People jump into social media discussions to tell strangers, “Hey, you shouldn’t eat that diet, or you shouldn’t set up your family life that way, you shouldn’t make that joke.” There’s just a lot of policing of comments and discussions among strangers who probably don’t have the standing to do so.
And then related to this idea of online discussion and moralizing, something else you talk about that moralizers do is they inject morality into everything. And as a consequence, they’re just constantly morally outraged.
But the thing is, if you’re constantly morally outraged, that can get in the way of actually doing things to help make the world a better place.
Brandon Warmke: Yeah. So another problem with moralizing is it actually is self-undermining. So if you really care about morality, you’ll use your moral enforcement, and outrage is one of these tools that we use to enforce morality; anger, disgust.
But enforcing morality is a bit like, it’s like watering a cactus. I’ve killed a lot of cactuses in my day because I’m just too nurturing, Brett. I just care about them so much and I think, “Well, it’s been two weeks since they’ve had water. Of course they need more water,” and I end up killing these poor cacti.
The point is, look, you don’t get better results just by doing more of something. Cacti need water, but you don’t care for the cactus, you don’t get better results just by giving them more water. You have to respect the limits.
And outrage and moral enforcement, they operate under a similar logic. So if you wanna retain the power of outrage and moral enforcement, you have to use them sparingly and appropriately. And the more we moralize, the more we undermine the utility of moral enforcement itself.
So in a way it’s a bit paradoxical. If you really care about morality you will pick your spots, you will keep your powder dry and enforce morality when it really can do good.
Brett McKay: So moralizers, their big problem is they over-extend limits when it comes to enforcing morality. They might expand the scope of what is a moral issue, or they might extend their standing as moral enforcers.
The question is, how do you know what those limits are? How do you know when you should intervene with somebody and say, “Hey, you’re doing something wrong here.”? How do you figure that out?
Brandon Warmke: Yeah, this is a really difficult question. And I think any moral philosopher who gives you a very specific test is probably lying to you. [chuckle] I don’t think there’s really…
Morality is just really messy, and Aristotle pointed this out in Book 1 of Nicomachean Ethics. Morality is just very complex and difficult. What I usually do is I, there’s a kind of moralizing self-inventory.
So the idea is not that you ask yourself these questions when you think you’re about to enforce morality, but the idea is to sort of become the kind of person who is reticent to intervene.
So you can ask yourself questions like, is this really important? Is this a morally complex situation? Am I sure I’m seeing the moral answer clearly? Would I be a hypocrite, like the chain smoker, for involving myself? Do I have the right social standing, so is there someone better suited to intervene than me? Maybe, look, I shouldn’t be calling you out on your dish duty, maybe that’s your wife’s concern.
Brett McKay: Okay, so one of the dangers of commencement speech morality is it can turn us into moralizers. Illicit moralizers where we over-extend our boundary.
Another potential problem of commencement speech morality is it can turn us into busybodies. What’s a busybody? I think we all kinda know what a busybody is, but how do you define it as a moral philosopher?
Brandon Warmke: Yeah, so a busybody, so whereas a moralizer oversteps the boundaries in enforcing morality, a busybody is someone who over-steps boundaries in trying to help people. Busybodies stick their noses in other people’s business and try to solve their problems for them, or try to help them.
So you might go around the gym and help people correct their weightlifting form. That’s like a busybody.
Brett McKay: No one likes that guy.
Brandon Warmke: Right. No one likes that guy. Or you might interrupt a conversation in a coffee shop and explain why these people don’t understand the economics of minimum wage law.
Imagine a group of Yale undergrads traveling to a poor, remote, traditional village and explaining to them how they should set up their society to conform to gender egalitarian ideals.
So a busybody basically goes beyond the proper limits of helping, and our view is that just like moralizing, being a busybody, being a meddler in other people’s affairs, is a way of not minding your own business.
Brett McKay: What’s interesting about the busybody is ancient philosophers even talked about this guy.
Brandon Warmke: Yeah.
Brett McKay: What did ancient philosophers think of busybodies?
Brandon Warmke: Yeah, it’s interesting, if you read Plato in The Republic says, “Doing your own business and not being a busybody is justice.” The author of Hebrews, actually, I don’t know if we actually know who the author of Hebrews is, but the author of Hebrews in the New Testament tells his readers not to be busybodies. Epictetus, Theophrastus.
A lot of these ancient philosophers really had this conviction that before you go around trying to solve other people’s problems, you should have a pretty good handle on your own.
There was something about the idea of trying to help people, often when you don’t know enough, when you don’t have standing. Maybe you’re doing it because you have a need, a pathological need to help or be useful or be seen as a messiah. I know people like this, I’m sure you and many of your listeners do. They have a need to be seen as extremely compassionate and helpful.
This type of character really bothered a lot of ancient philosophers, and I think it’s a part of the history of moral thinking that we have lost in a lot of Western society.
Look, everyone agrees helping is good. It’s good to help people. But I think a lot of people find it counterintuitive that you could actually do something inappropriate by trying to help people.
Brett McKay: What would be an example of you helping someone, but it ends up being inappropriate because you just didn’t know context?
Brandon Warmke: You can imagine you overhear a couple at the park having a dispute, maybe they’re an old married couple. And you read one book on like relationship therapy or something, like couples therapy.
You can imagine walking up and say, “Hey, I heard you guys were having a dispute. I hope you don’t mind. I have a few thoughts about how to handle this and come to a resolution.”
I think everybody would think, “This is none of your business.” I know you’re trying to help. So it’s not moralizing, they’re not blaming, they’re not calling out, they’re not enforcing morality, they are literally trying to help.
There’s something about this that is inappropriate. And this is a pretty small scale, fairly innocuous, it’s annoying or a source of maybe minor conflict. You might tell them, “Hey. Hey man, get lost.”
But the problem is that you can also be a busybody and meddle in other people’s affairs on a larger scale. So when you think about certain kinds of disastrous military actions, there’s a lot of failed public policy of what the government tries to do when they’re trying to help.
And even a lot of counter-productive humanitarian intervention. It’s coming to light now that a lot of traditional charity just lines the pockets of warlords and corrupt dictators and so on.
And so just because someone’s heart is in the right place, they, for all kinds of reasons involving the world being extremely complex, they might end up doing more harm than good.
Brett McKay: This made me think of one of Immanuel Kant’s ideas. Kant said you had to balance respect and love in your interactions with people. Sometimes when you show love, you have to show a lack of respect.
So maybe you see someone who’s having a hard time because maybe they have a disability and they’re having a hard time getting up some steps. The love part will be like, “Well, I need to go help this person,” but when you’re doing that, you’re putting that person in an inferior position, like they need to be helped and I am the helper.
Brandon Warmke: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And Kant would say, well, maybe they don’t want your help because that would be a lack of respect. So maybe that’s an example, another example of busybody. They emphasize the love part and they don’t think about the respect part, like how would this make this person feel as an individual?
Maybe they don’t want my help ’cause they have a sense of dignity they wanna keep, and they don’t wanna be put in a helped position.
Brandon Warmke: Right. Yeah. Good. So the Kantian idea, as you rightly point out, has to do with, it’s like autonomy, like fully functional, mature moral adults. You sort of have to give them, within wide limits, a lot of freedom to rule themselves. So that’s what autonomy means is self-rule.
And often what that means, and I think most good parents realize this, is you have to let children and adolescents self-rule often in ways that are hurtful to themselves.
Because what you’re teaching them is something like how to make wise decisions, how to take responsibility for their actions. And there’s something inappropriate, and as you point out, condescending about intervening in other people’s lives, always trying to help them.
Like Epictetus says like, who put you in charge? Like who put you? Are you the queen bee of the hive? Are you the bull of the herd? Who put you in charge of these people’s lives?
And so yeah, I think in that respect, Kant was onto something. Sometimes you just have to… You have to mind your own business and let people make their own decisions.
Brett McKay: So again, the question that this raises is like, when do you intervene?
Brandon Warmke: I think one of the lessons from this discussion of busybodies is thinking about, well what are the kinds of moral virtues that can only be exercised with people close to us?
A friend of mine, David McPherson has an excellent book called, The Virtues of Limits. I highly recommend it. And one of the things he says is, “Look, morality requires sometimes treating people close to you differently than others.”
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be compassionate in ways that are appropriate to people across the globe, but it does require often treating your neighbor, your friend, the stranger at the grocery in special ways as well.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word form our sponsors.
And now back to the show.
Okay, so we talked about some of the potential dangers of not minding your own business, of this commencement speech morality. It can turn you into a moralizer and that can just make things unpleasant for people. And all your energy can be siphoned off into just constant moral outrage, rather than being channeled into something, doing something concretely good.
It can also turn you to a busybody where you spend a lot of time investing in politics, big social programs, large-scale public policy. And these things aren’t necessarily bad, but they can also unintentionally cause harm. People can mean well with these things, but end up causing a lot of damage with their do-gooding.
And you say that we’re much more likely to be able to do real good on a smaller scale, and you make it a case that for why you should just mind your own business and maybe stick to your own inner circle; your home, your garden, your spot in the world.
So you make the case that people should instead of trying to change the world on a large scale, spend their time and energy establishing roots in their community. I really like this idea of rootedness. What do you mean by rootedness?
Brandon Warmke: Rootedness is an idea of a lot of people in my line of work talk about, but it was a key concern of an early 20th century philosopher named Simone Weil. She actually went insane and starved herself at age 34.
But before that, she wrote a book that after her death was published and called, The Need For Roots, and what she argues is that being rooted as one of the crucial needs of the soul.
The problem is she doesn’t say much at all about what it means to be rooted, and so what we do in this chapter is try to explain what it means, what does it mean to be rooted.
And we take the metaphor of a plant having roots very seriously. So if you think about a plant, the roots attach it to a place, the roots allow the plant to receive benefits from the soil, nutrients and so on, but the roots also give back. What farmers know is that roots, if you leave plants in your field, it helps prevent soil erosion, it helps prevent things from being destroyed.
And the idea is that for a human to be rooted is very similar. So rooted people are attached to a place, they feel at home there, they have affection for the place, they’re loyal to it, they know it and love it, and they miss it when they’re away from it. There’s an entire literature and psychology on place attachment.
But rooted people are attached to a place and they also receive benefits from that place. So being rooted gives you a sense of security, it helps you feel at home in the world. It provides an anchor and sense of stability through the trials and tribulations of life and all the changes that you can go through.
But finally, rooted people also give back to the place where they live. So it’s not just a sort of selfish taking from the land, rooted people give back by preserving it. So people who are rooted try to preserve the habitats and the institutions that have been created by others and have been passed down to them.
So libraries, parks, public schools, Kiwanis club, Tee-Ball, these are all institutions and things that have been given to us by our ancestors, and rooted people are very anxious to preserve our habitats and our institutions so that they can be maintained.
A lot of people, they get real excited about being innovators and founders of charities, political parties, but the world also needs maintainers. People provide an incredibly valuable service to mankind simply by taking care of and preserving the good things around them.
And this is like if I had one message to tell young people or like stay-at-home moms who feel like they’re not making as much of their lives that they could, or someone who just likes being at home, you can do an incredibly valuable thing for the world by preserving the good things around you.
Because they’re not gonna preserve themselves. Things erode, things get destroyed, things fall prey to entropy. And it takes people to maintain and preserve the good things around us.
You’re not gonna make a name for yourself, you’re not gonna get famous by being a maintainer. And this is the problem with commencement speech morality, is it tells people, “Get out there, make a name for yourself, make a big splash,” but we need people who are committed to preserving the good things around them that make life tolerable and enjoyable in the first place.
And so rooted people do a lot of good for the world, even when they’re not out there making a splash.
Brett McKay: And I think the other benefit of rootedness, it allows you to solve problems more effectively. ‘Cause you’re close to them.
Brandon Warmke: That’s right.
Brett McKay: So for example, I’m a leader in our churches and I lead the young men, they’re like teenage boys. And a lot of these boys, I’ve known them since they were like 3-years-old.
And so I know their history, I know their family situation, I know their unique personalities, their interest, etcetera. And so when a problem does come up and I’m trying to figure out how I can help them, I have a pretty good grasp on the situation, compared to some, maybe some person in a non-profit in another state coming in like, “Hey, we got this program we’re gonna do.”
It wouldn’t be as effective ’cause it doesn’t take in account the unique histories and personalities of these boys.
Brandon Warmke: Yeah, that’s an incredibly important point. You have a kind of expert knowledge of that group of guys that probably no one else has, and you certainly don’t have a similar group of guys across the globe. And so you have a kind of insight and expertise that you wouldn’t have if you were trying to help people elsewhere.
The other interesting thing about doing these sort of small preservation rootedness projects is you have to pay the cost if things go bad.
Brett McKay: Yes, right.
Brandon Warmke: One thing that drives me nuts about a lot of political experimentation and people who love radical politics and revolutions is that often, they impose these schemes on people besides themselves. They’re not gonna have to pay the cost.
And so if you wanna introduce a radical risky scheme to your local community, you have skin in the game and you will probably be more risk-averse and more cautious about radical change, and instead be more interested in preserving the good things around you. As imperfect as they are, it’s better than destroying everything.
Brett McKay: Right. And so, yeah, volunteering to be the Tee-Ball coach, volunteering for Big Brothers Big Sisters in your area, that stuff, you might not think it has a big impact, but it does. It really does.
And I’m sure all of us listening know of a teacher we had in elementary school or high school, or mentor we had, or sports coach, that had a big impact on our life. And they weren’t doing the commencement speech morality, they’re just trying to help this one kid and that’s all they were thinking about.
Brandon Warmke: That’s right.
Brett McKay: But their little efforts had rippling effects across time.
Brandon Warmke: Huge effects. You just never know. So I’ll be transparent with you, when I was writing part of this chapter for this book, I felt really guilty because I didn’t feel like I was practicing what I preached.
And so, this is a true story, I signed up for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and so I’ve been meeting with this young man now, he’s 15, for about two years.
And when I first met him, so it’s a mentor relationship, we do fun stuff, helping with his homework and so on, he didn’t know how to shake someone’s hand, he didn’t know how to look someone in the eye and have a conversation, he didn’t know how to order at a restaurant, and these are all things that he knows how to do now.
And it’s one of those things that’s like a lot of people take it for granted because they grew up in great homes with loving two parents, and not everyone has that situation.
And so this kid, hopefully, is gonna have his life totally changed, not because I made some massive sacrifice, but because he was the student that just happened to be around who I could help.
That sounds self-indulgent, by the way. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: No.
Brandon Warmke: It sounds a little braggy. But it really depresses me when people think that they have to do something big to be helpful, and it’s just so many smaller things in life that need our attention.
Brett McKay: Besides rootedness, you make the case that enriching our home life can help us make the world a better place. So what’s the argument there?
Brandon Warmke: Yeah. So we define in that chapter, a good home is just a safe, peaceful and welcoming one. It provides physical and emotional safety, it’s peaceful, it’s not chaotic. And it’s welcoming, it’s a place where people can come in and be shown hospitality.
And one of the things we argue in that chapter is the benefits of creating a good home, one is that it provides a refuge, allows us to escape stresses and work in politics, show emotions that would be out of place at work, say.
It provides a setting to show hospitality. And what hospitality does above all, is turn strangers into friends, and it provides a unique kind of social situation where you can’t argue with politics. You’re not supposed to anyway. You’re not supposed to harangue your guests about their politics or morality. It has to be, to be a good host you have to show hospitality.
And a good home also lays the foundation for a physically and psychologically healthy child. Peace, peaceful and safe, orderly, loving homes are incredibly important for kids.
And homes are often taken for granted, but as I’m sure you and many of your listeners know, many homes are bad, very bad. And the world would be much better if more people grew up in good ones. Good homes.
And so again, it’s one of these things that like, it would be bizarre and to hear a commencement speaker get up there and say, “Hey, and also be sure that you create peaceful, loving, caring homes. And if you have children, make sure you’re bringing them up in a way that’s loving and teach them virtue.”
That’s not something you’d ever hear in a commencement speech. But if you want bang for your buck, creating a good home is one of your best investments.
Brett McKay: And I’ve heard the idea that your family or home, it’s like a laboratory where you get to practice what it means to be a good citizen. You get to practice what it means to show regard for other people, it’s where you get to practice how you can show love in appropriate ways.
And focus on your family life and your home life can allow you to develop those social skills, those virtue skills to help you go out into the wider world and be a good person and an effective person out there.
Brandon Warmke: Yeah, that’s right.
Brett McKay: You also talk about the idea of being alone. Just minding your business, being alone, can also make the world a better place. People might be hearing that like, “Well, that sounds selfish.” Make the case for being alone?
Brandon Warmke: Yeah. So the way the second half of the book works is we kind of shrink the circle of minding your own business. So there’s like rootedness, which is like your local community, and your home, which is your house, and then solitude.
So we actually defend, not spending all of your time in solitude, but spending a considerable amount of time in solitude. Maybe more than many people spend.
It’s tempting to think that we only make the world better by being useful, that we are really only morally above board when we’re solving problems in the world or using politics to address injustice.
And of course, as I said earlier, it’s important to be useful, but being useful is not the sole purpose of our lives. And it’s a harmful distortion of morality to think that if you aren’t trying to solve other people’s problems, you’re somehow a moral failure.
And so in this chapter, we argue that one way to mind your own business is to spend time in solitude, and we go through several of the benefits of solitude.
One is just rest. And rest, the benefit of rest is not just so that you can get back out there and change the world more. You don’t go home and take a nap and find rest and relaxation and leisure, just so that you can do more canvassing for your favorite politician. The idea is that rest itself is important. It’s important all on its own to have a healthy mind and body.
We also argue one of the benefits of solitude is a kind of intellectual freedom. So 19th century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, thought it was really important to be able to keep a critical distance from your society.
So if you’re constantly imbibing social messages from social media, from friends, from work, culture, entertainment, if you’re constantly bombarded with the watchful eye and social censure and expectations, you will basically become an un-thinking, uncritical, walking sort of automaton that mimics the norms and expectations of your culture.
And he thought it’s actually, no it’s good to step back and take a critical eye towards your society, and he thought solitude is the best place to do this. To have time to read and to think and to actually critically assess your society.
And the last benefit is just being in solitude allows you to appreciate things and to achieve things that you can’t achieve in society. So in solitude we’re able to appreciate things like natural beauty, going for a hike, for example, or going fishing by yourself.
It’s also probably the best setting to develop your talents and create beauty. So just practicing piano, painting, becoming a better swimmer, prayer, cultivating virtue, these are all things that are important to do by yourself.
What’s important to see is not that these things are valuable just so that you can be more effective at solving other people’s problems, these things are important in their own right.
Roger Scruton, who is a, passed away a few years ago, is a philosopher I really admire. He says, “Look, humans are not here merely to be useful, you are here to be lovable.”
And what we argue in the book and how we conclude is that solitude is one way for us to become people for whom love and appreciation are fitting responses. We’re not here just to be tools and to be useful, we’re here to be lovable.
Brett McKay: It’s interesting you mention John Stuart Mill. And he was a utilitarian, right?
Brandon Warmke: He was.
Brett McKay: He was raised to be a utilitarian Übermensch. His dad raised him from like since he was a kid, to become the ultimate utilitarian. And so John Stuart Mill, his whole young life was dedicated to these big projects.
He fought for women’s suffrage, end slavery, etcetera, alleviating poverty. His whole identity was wrapped up in this idea of being a moral reformer and trying to make the world a better place.
But then in his 20s, he had an existential crisis and he got depressed. And the thing that put him in the funk was he thought, “What if suddenly all these things I’m trying to fight for, they were realized? All the changes in institutions and opinions that I’m looking forward to, they were immediately solved the way I wanted.” And he asked, “Would this be a great joy to me?”
And he said, “The answer would have been no, ’cause I would have nothing to work for. ‘Cause I’ve tied up my identity and my happiness in all these things.”
And so it put him in an existential funk, he contemplated suicide, and the thing that saved him was what you were talking about, like finding things to do for their own sake.
So he got really into poetry. That was his thing. He just spent time alone reading and appreciating poetry, just for the sake of reading and appreciating poetry.
Brandon Warmke: Yeah, that’s a nice little background story to Mill. I think it illustrates two things. One is the dilemma of the activist and moral reformer, is that when you derive most or all of your identity from accomplishing social or political ends, what are you left with when you’re done?
And I think a lot of people do have a crisis of identity when they accomplish their goals. They have to find new ones or invent new problems to solve.
I think the other thing that his life shows is it’s a kind of concession to many of our critics. So a lot of our critics are gonna be utilitarians or social reformers, people who think it’s really important to be out there on social media and having discussions. These are all things that are right up Mills alley.
However, in spite of all that, he also recognized the importance of these other kinds of goods in life. Life is not just about being politically active and solving social problems, you also, for example, have to spend time in solitude.
And so that’s a kind of like, even if you disagree with a lot of this book, I think his example shows that commencement speech morality cannot be your entire outlook.
Brett McKay: Well Brandon, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Brandon Warmke: Well, the book is on Amazon and most online book sellers, and so that’s where you can find it. You can also just google me. And that’s about it. That sounds like enough information.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Brandon Warmke, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Brandon Warmke: Thanks so much, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Brandon Warmke, the co-author of the book, Why It’s Okay to Mind Your Own Business. It’s available on amazon.com. Check out our show notes at aom.is/ordinarymorality, where you’ll find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Make sure to check on our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of.
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