Ivo's Recommended Reads #4/2018

Updated: Aug 3, 2018

Happy Sunday, dear friends!


Here is some tasty food for thought to keep your beautiful neurons fired up on this Sunday afternoon and during the upcoming two weeks:


1) Martha Nussbaum's moral philosophy (Rachel Aviv, New Yorker).

2) Jürgen Habermas' view on political and economic solidarity in Europe (Die Zeit).

3) Pussy Riot's protest during the World Cup final (by Masha Gessen, New Yorker).

4) The probability of life beyond Earth (Liv Boere, Vox)

5) Paul Kalanthi's struggle for life and meaning - or the boundaries of science (Economist).


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1) This month, philosopher Martha Nussbaum released a new book on the power of fear in politics. When reading up on Nussbaum, I came across a vivid and highly-analytical portrait of Nussbaum's work and life written by Rachel Aviv for the New Yorker in 2016:

"Nussbaum went on to extend the work of John Rawls, who developed the most influential contemporary version of the social-contract theory: the idea that rational citizens agree to govern themselves, because they recognise that everyone’s needs are met more effectively through coöperation. Nussbaum argued that Rawls gave an unsatisfactory account of justice for people dependent on others—the disabled, the elderly, and women subservient in their homes. For a society to remain stable and committed to democratic principles, she argued, it needs more than detached moral principles: it has to cultivate certain emotions and teach people to enter empathetically into others’ lives. She believes that the humanities are not just important to a healthy democratic society but decisive, shaping its fate. She proposed an enhanced version of John Stuart Mill’s “aesthetic education”—emotional refinement for all citizens through poetry and music and art. “Respect on its own is cold and inert, insufficient to overcome the bad tendencies that lead human beings to tyrannize over one another,” she wrote. “Public culture cannot be tepid and passionless.”


2) What is the state of solidarity among European states? In the German weekly Die Zeit, Jürgen Habermas criticises the self-image of Germans as good Europeans and advocates for closer economic integration within the EU:

"Solidarity" is a term that describes the mutually trusting relationship between two actors who have become part of a joint political project of their own free will. Solidarity is not charity, and it certainly isn't a form of conditioning for the advantage of one of the actors. Those who engage in solidarity are willing to accept short-term disadvantage in the service of their long-term self-interest and in the knowledge that the other will behave the same way in a similar situation. Reciprocal trust – in our case, trust across national borders – is just as important a variable as long-term self-interest. Trust bridges the time span until a service in return is due, though it is unsure when or if it will ever come due. The compulsory, rigid conditions for so-called solidarity aid clearly exposes the lack of such a foundation of trust – and the hollowness of our self-image as good Europeans."


3) During the World Cup final, four women - dressed as policemen - ran onto the pitch to protest Putin's regime. In the New Yorker, Masha Gessen reflects on the state of authoritarianism in Russia - and beyond:

"In contrast to the Heavenly Policeman [an ideal policeman, a just and ultimate authority], [Pussy Riot's] statement suggested, stands the earthly policeman. “The Heavenly Policeman will protect a baby in her sleep, while the earthly policeman persecutes political prisoners and jails people for sharing and liking posts on social media.... And so Pussy Riot became the only people to make a meaningful statement about Russian politics during the World Cup—and it came on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s triumphant meeting with Donald Trump. They also created, on one of the biggest stages in the world, an image of unjust and arbitrary authority, the sort with which a hundred and forty-five million Russians live day to day."


4) Life itself - not merely life on our planet - may well be in the hands of our species alone. Liv Boeree reports for Vox on the newest insight intro astro-statistics and astro-biology. A fun, clever, and ethically highly relevant read:

"There’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we are the only civilisation in this galaxy and a 39 to 85 percent chance we are the only one in the observable universe....

As Carl Sagan famously said in his 1990 Pale Blue Dot speech: “In all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world

known so far to harbor life. … the Earth is where we make our stand.” He’s not wrong, especially in light of this paper’s findings. If humanity really is the only civilization that may ever exist in this universe, then we shoulder a responsibility on a truly astronomical scale."

5) Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and a philosopher. He passed away two years ago at the age of 37. In his final year, while his body decayed and his daughter was born, he wrote intimate essays on life, death, and meaning. The Economist recommends you read them:

Kalanithi “writes about what science can explain and ‘its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honour, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.’… Most interestingly, he writes about language, about the parts of the brain that control it and its centrality to what makes us human.”


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© 2018 Ivo Nicholas Scherrer