Agnes Callard on Meaning, the Human Quest, and the Aims of Education
Nov 14 2022

humanity-276x300.jpg Suppose all of humanity was infected by a virus that left us all infertile--no one will come along after us. How would you react to such a world? Agnes Callard of the University of Chicago says she would be filled with despair. But why does this seem worse than our own inevitable deaths? Callard speaks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the meaning of life, and what exactly about the end of humanity is so demoralizing. The conversation concludes with a discussion of whether humanity is making progress.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Nov 14 2022 at 9:04am

As John Gardner said in his book “No Easy Victories”: “The mind has an enormous capacity for error, self-deception, sloppiness, silliness, and confusion, all of which tends to be diminished by training, and that of course is the function of education”.

Tony Mercurio
Nov 14 2022 at 2:35pm

Please tell me if I am parsing this correctly. I’ve inferred from this episode two postulations on whether human life has meaning. The first is that no, human life does not have meaning.

John Gray, an atheist, reportedly points out that many atheists do not live in accordance with their worldview. To Gray, they buy into the ideas of progress and redemption, which he argues are “Judeo-Christian” in origin and are not consistent with the naturalistic worldview. Without the concept of progress, Drs. Agnes and Russ seem to indicate that life would be meaningless, though they leave room for disagreement on what exactly constitutes this notion of progress.

My second inference is that yes, life does have meaning, if we in part ignore truth, preferring small myths or illusions (apparently found in religion?) in order to create meaning through things like progress. Though my crude paraphrase, I think this is what Dr. Agnes was saying. Curiously, she went on to question whether John Gray lives consistent with his worldview.

So, there’s this dichotomy here between accepting reality and concluding there’s no meaning to life, and suppressing just a little truth in order to create our own meaning. I can’t tell in what way Dr. Agnes is actually disagreeing with Dr. Gray. The first option is depressing, while the second is self-deceiving (perhaps also self-medicating).

A third option seems to have been left off the table. It was alluded to. Humankind was created in the image of Yahweh, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis). This places exogenous value on human life. I’ll leave it at this unless anyone wants to further engage, or help clarify some of what was said.

One final comment though – Russ asked rhetorically “what is a life well lived?” I would say that’s easy to answer – it’s Jesus.

Shalom Freedman
Nov 15 2022 at 3:38am

This a very rich conversation which touches on important life questions. It however begins strangely with a hypothetical question about whether life would still have meaning, if we knew humanity would shortly die out because human reproduction no longer possible and we would thus be its last generation. It seems to me that if one wants to worry about how life might lose its meaning, should we know there will be a last of us all, we do not need to look at strange hypotheticals. So many of the best and brightest inform us that humanity is doomed in the long term for numerous of reasons that one could address a whole variety of possible future scenarios, from no successors at all, to AI successors, to various gone to various parts of the universe to never return successors. I would think a more important question is how we might think life meaningful when we are so uncertain now as to what the future might be. But my guess is here too this kind of ‘big question’ is of far less or even of no importance to most people who find meaning in life in the nitty-gritty of their own daily life struggle.

At another point of the conversation Russ raises the question of whether there is human Progress citing a learned negative answer from a previous conversation with philosopher John Gray. I appreciated Agnes Callard’s enthusiasm and idealism in arguing for humanity making real progress, and perhaps above all encouraging a kind of education which allows the individual to decide how to best make use of their time and choose the way right for themselves. But of course, the issue is too complex for a one-dimensional answer and there is much strong evidence for both sides of the argument. I could not however help thinking about the present geopolitical situation with China Russia and Iran working their human rights wonders and threatening a kind of global domination by the totalitarians. A new Dark Age I do not think would be Progress and its doubtful Socrates would be central on the curricula of its higher institutions of learning,

Tom Gregorich
Nov 15 2022 at 7:52am

Great conversation, I’m going to have to listen another time to pick up all the details as it goes pretty deep and jumps around a bit.

One question I have that I was hoping a listener (or even Russ Roberts perhaps!) could answer. Agnes Callard says that in terms of figuring out meaning in life “I want a different solution from Kieran’s or Stoppard’s or Nietzsche’s”. Does she explain why Kieran Setiya’s answer in particular is unsatisfying? Because I loved that episode from a few weeks ago and found his reasoning very satisfying personally. It would be great to hear her critique of that approach, or perhaps it’s stated somewhere in this conversation but I missed it or it just went over my head.

Thanks again, I love these types of episodes of econtalk.

João Ferreira
Nov 15 2022 at 9:14am

Though it was presented as a thought experience, similar situations have been lived quite often through time.

A native Brazilian, known as “the man of the hole” (o homem do buraco), recently died as the last of his people. He lived by himself most of his life, in his ancestors lifestyle. He did not kill himself. He did not invent a new life. He just lived on, knowing that he was the last on earth and that all his history and knowledge would die with him.
My bet is that most humans would behave as he did, simply living day by day until an end that cannot be predicted.

Nov 15 2022 at 7:41pm

I was thinking of him as well during the first half of the podcast episode. The wikipedia page states that he appeared to have prepared for death in some manner so perhaps we would carry on our traditions as well. Still, it makes me very sad to think about being in his situation, especially given his particular circumstances.

Kevin Ryan
Nov 21 2022 at 6:09am

I was thinking along the same lines as yourself.  Not everyone would be obsessed by sophisticated lines of thinking such as the meaning of life or ruminating about the last sunset that any human might see.

I think most, but not all, would make the best of it and carry on.

I suspect that, for most people, practical considerations would increasingly dominate.  Our modern world can support a large population of non-working old people because there is always a flow of new young workers emerging from education establishments (or immigration).  But under this scenario the ratio of workers to the old will start to worsen (say in 18 years time) and eventually there will be essentially no workers to support them – no food, no utilities, no hospitals (as Russ points out), and no Care.  Avoiding the disintegration of society would become the priority.  Robots would be seen as critical, and in need of accelerated development.  And Cloning would indeed be pursued in the sterilisation scenario

Luke J
Nov 15 2022 at 4:14pm

What is the “Quest of How to Live?”


Future humans will deem us monstrous, and
It is impossible to evaluate what it means to be a good person with good actions today verses a good person with good actions 1000 years ago

Then progress is subjective – or relative – and there is no actual quest. The quest itself is a myth or a vanity.

Is this not confirmed when the Callard double-downed on external relative changes in human behavior when Russ was asking about the progress of character in an individual?

Nov 19 2022 at 8:02am

The thought experiment chosen by Russ and employed by Agnes, that humans could no longer reproduce, forced me to think on a different level than other conversations. And not so much about whether humans have progressed (in my view our technology has, the biological human has not) but how humans would face such an issue societally. (As with most speculation about the future, science fiction writers have confronted this issue and other dystopian/utopian questions. Russ might think about reading and discussing a science fiction classic if only for how effectively that genre can reflect on the human condition.) But although the conversation was “for the curious” and interesting, I think the zero-sum aspects of that world received scant attention and would be one of its most noteworthy elements. A much-inflamed zero-sum world like this (I’m guessing) would dramatically increase the sanction of death and magnify “us-them” tribalism, thus internecine strife and nation-state war. In a world where the last generation lives, how they live relative to others would become even more polarizing. Murder would hold greater coercive leverage and lead to greater punishment and internal control. Territorial disputes and ideological disagreement (e.g., authoritarian vs representative) would become more urgent to settle. In short, I believe you’ve described a hellish accelerant to and demonstration of man’s (still existing) darker nature. It would, ironically, reveal that we have only progressed to the extent that our killing machines would be more efficient when directed by the humans who, it might turn out, haven’t actually progressed very far. As E. O. Wilson noted, man’s essential problem is “Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” Hard to argue with that, other than by observing that institutions may have very little to do with it. He could have left it at the Paleolithic emotions and god-like technology and have accomplished his purpose.

Doc Martin
Dec 5 2022 at 3:31pm

Sorry I’m a little fussed that you let the author slip slide between non-interchange, and what are in fact fundamentally distinct categories: brain, mind, subjective experience and agency, without any challenge. A philosophical mess and it undermined the author’s message and made a real mess of the interview.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: October 19, 2022.]

Russ Roberts: Today is October 19th, 2022, and my guest is philosopher Agnes Callard of the University of Chicago. This is her fourth appearance on EconTalk. She was last here in May of 2021 talking about anger.

Our topic for today is the modest question on the meaning of life. More or less. We'll get into a lot of other things. Agnes, welcome back to EconTalk.

Agnes Callard: Thank you.


Russ Roberts: We're basing this conversation on your recent address to incoming freshman at the University of Chicago. Address is called the 'Aims of Education,' and we'll link to the video of your talk.

Now, you start with the claim in that presentation that we care about the future. Why? Why do we care about the future?

Agnes Callard: Well, there's a lot of different senses in which we care about the future. So, we care about our own futures--right?--the rest of our lives. We care about our children's futures, the kinds of lives they're going to get to live. But I was specifically interested in the future that we won't participate in. So, if this address had had a title, which they don't have because it's just called the 'Aims of Education Address,' it would have been titled: 'The Years 2200 to 5000.' And I picked those times because, you know, by 2200, anyone I know, anyone I've really interacted with or kind of directly influenced will be dead. And, 5000 is about as far as I can think into the future and still feel like I'm thinking about people I could recognize. I think that's probably a function of the fact that the people that I work on in the past are about 2,500 years ago.

So, if I can say, 'Okay, think about people as far ahead in the future as Socrates was for me in the past,' if I try to go further than that, I'm not sure I'm actually thinking about the people. I think I might be just saying a number to myself.

So, that's the future that I'm interested in talking about, which is a future that even our grandchildren won't get to see. And, I think we care about that future. And that's a harder claim to make than the claim that we care about our personal future or the futures of our children.

Russ Roberts: So, you make a stronger claim, actually, that when I think about 2200, roughly 180 years from now, I might not have any children or grandchildren. I happen to have one grandchild. But, you're interested in the possibility that not only will I not know the people of 2200 and beyond, but I may have no biological connection to them. Correct?

Agnes Callard: That's right. I think that your interest in them isn't contingent on your biological connection to them. That is, even if somehow you knew that your grandchildren weren't going to have children, you'd still have an interest in these people.

Russ Roberts: What is that interest? Now, you have a thought-experiment that you use in this talk. Let's lay that out, because it is a fascinating thought experiment that you take from, is it Scheffler?

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, I didn't come up with this. I'm borrowing it from Sam Scheffler, his book--

Russ Roberts: He didn't come up with it either.

Agnes Callard: What we owe the future, right? I think, in a way, he came up with it as a thought experiment. Though as a scenario in fiction, it predates him. So, the idea is, suppose that we found out that there was just a virus--like, in addition to COVID, there was another virus that had been infecting all of us, everyone around the whole world, over the past few months. And, by the time we find out that this virus has infected literally everyone, only then do we learn that it makes you sterile. So, what we learn is that there just won't be any more human beings after us. That is like, the youngest baby that was just born, that's the last human. And, that's it.

So, what we are facing, then, is human extinction, but in a form that's not very violent and doesn't in and of itself bring with it of great suffering. So, it's not like a comet hits the Earth, it's not like a disease that is going to cause lots of pain. It's just that it's going to stop. And, the question that Scheffler wants you to ask yourself is: how do you feel about that? How would you feel if you learned that the last humans had just been born? That's the thought experiment.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I have a three-month-old granddaughter, so she wouldn't be the last one but she'd be one of the last ones.

Agnes Callard: That's great.

Russ Roberts: I think you said there's a book and a movie with this scenario in it. We're going to talk about it a little bit differently, right?

Agnes Callard: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And, Scheffler makes reference to them. So, there's a book by P.D. James, Children of Men, and then there's a great movie from 2006 with Clive Owen by Alfonso Cuarón called Children of Men that's a movie version of the book, though it changes many things in the book. They're both really good. Scheffler and Cuarón and P.D. James each have slightly different ways of presenting what the world turns into once everybody knows that the last humans have been born.

But, something they have in common is the sort of conceit that it would cause a widespread despair, apathy, and kind of erosion of all social institutions--of trust, of any sense that life had a meaning, that there's a reason to do anything, that there's a reason to behave morally and respectfully towards one another. All three of those people--that is both the philosopher, the filmmaker, and the novelist--seem to agree that this knowledge would be devastating to us, even though it wouldn't be a knowledge that you're going to die any sooner than you would've and it wouldn't be a knowledge that anyone you know is going to experience great suffering. So, it's surprising that this knowledge would be so devastating.

Russ Roberts: I find it's a deeply provocative idea. I have not seen the movie or read the book. The first thought that comes to my mind is the 104-year-old woman who is the last living human being. Now, she might not literally know that she's literally the last one, but she might be worried about it or aware of it or wonder about it. She's getting up every morning and she is making breakfast alone, but alone in a way that is--I mean it gives me goosebumps just to think about it. It's so poignant. At one point, she's going to get sick. There's no hospital to go to. She might die quietly in her sleep. She might have a heart attack or a stroke, but she's watching the last sunsets that any human being on earth will see. At least that would be the story.


Russ Roberts: I guess my first thought would be--and this is part of the thought experiment--that if we thought we were all sterile, we might move really briskly towards some form of cloning, artificial life, and so on to overcome this. And, why that is? Something we're going to talk about. But, let's just start with this dystopian theme that institutions would break down badly. Now, novelists and filmmakers, they like drama and excitement. Do you agree with that? I understand for the narrative, you might want that, but Scheffler also thinks that, and do you think that?

Agnes Callard: I'm not sure I feel confident about it as a prediction of what would actually happen. But, I think it's better maybe not to think of it as a prediction, but to think of it as a way of dramatizing and making visual the surprising feeling of panic that we feel at the thought of, 'What if I'm the last generation?'

So, what would actually happen? Well, I mean maybe we would turn to cloning and we would throw so much effort into cloning that even if we never achieved cloning, that would motivate us. Right? Maybe we would invent some kind of drug, and that we'd all just take a lot of drugs, and pass the time in this kind of drugged state, and be, in some sense, actually more ready to be dependent on social institutions and not try to overthrow them. So, I actually think there's probably a wide variety of possibilities.

But, the thing that seems very real to me, that all three of these authors capture, is that there really is this feeling of despair or the pit of your stomach falling at the thought of: There's no more humans. I love the version of it that you just gave, of the last old woman. I mean according to say, Cuarón and James, it wouldn't be like an old woman because people wouldn't even reach old age at that point because there'd be so much--the old people would, in some sense--the social situations wouldn't conduce to longevity for anyone. But, the loneliness of that last person trying to go through any emotions of life, I think that's in a way as good an image as the society falling apart that you get in the novel and the movie of what this despair is.

Russ Roberts: And, if you were that person, or thought you were, would you make your bed the night before you died? I mean you might decide to end your life if the despair was dark enough, and knowing that and that you were the last one, would you try to make the world attractive in case someone came along after us? Rather than going to a dystopian future, would you rather not possibly--wouldn't it be possible that people would move toward a preservation future, that museums would be created to preserve what we had achieved as a species and to prepare the possibility of, say, an arrival of aliens or life recreating itself over whatever millions of years it would take? I don't know.

Agnes Callard: So, I think the two really plausible, in some sense, lines of response to the thought of things would totally fall apart is--you've given both of them--one of them is cloning. At a social level or a group level, we would try to fight this, but that would require coordinated effort, and at certain point, that would become clearly impossible. And, then the other thing is preservation and the thought that like, 'Well, there's likely to be life out there that's not human life.' There might be ways we can take reasonable steps towards the preservation of some of our most important cultural artifacts.

Those are some actions that might still make sense to you. Not sure what else would still make sense to a person. Even Scheffler give this list, and one of them is even something--obviously it wouldn't make sense to be looking for the cure to cancer, but even something like reading Catcher in the Rye, it's one of his examples. He's like, 'Would you sit there and read Catcher in the Rye? Would it feel meaningful to you to read a novel? I don't know the answer, but I'm sort of inclined to find it somewhat plausible that it wouldn't.

Russ Roberts: I don't know about that. I mean, the reason that is such a powerful example--and it's your insight--it's not that different than now, when there's no virus, right? I mean why does anyone read The Catcher in the Rye now? You're going to die; the world's going to go on without you, very possibly with or without your own children, I mean very possibly without your own children or grandchildren. There's no reason, even if you have children, to be confident that their continuation will be preserved 180, 280, 580, 1,080 years from now.

So, the reason it's a good question and the reason it gets at what I whimsically called the meaning of life is that: Why do anything right now? Is it really that different? Right? What's different? Scheffler has an answer and you have an answer, so you could either respond to my Catcher in the Rye remark or you could move on if you want.

Agnes Callard: Okay. I'm inclined to respond by thinking about an observation that I made. Like, when I was in grad school, I noticed that at a certain point of grad school, people start to feel this itch to get out of grad school. At least part of it is, they're just sick of being a wheel turning nothing. And, in a certain way, grad school is the best time of your life, especially if you have lots of funding and don't have to teach, and you can just read books, and learn and profit from all the intellectual fruits that are present at a university. I spent 10 years in grad school, and if I hadn't been pushed, I might have just spent longer there. I loved it. But, I had a kid in grad school, and I think that helped, feeling like I wasn't a wheel turning nothing. I think that they might--it's like you can just sit and read Shakespeare, but do you want to?

There's a way in which these, let's say, certain recreational intellectual pursuits might make sense to us within the context of a life that is anchored in a bigger story. It might make less sense once we sort of decouple it from that. There's a lot of pressure to make your own meaning as a grad student. I think that that's genuinely hard. And, that's, in a way, what it will be. It would be more like being that grad student with tons of funding than it would be like being me now.


Russ Roberts: Well, I'm thinking about Kieran Setiya's example from his book Midlife that we talked about, telic and atelic activities. Telic meaning having a goal--getting out, writing your book, making your contribution to Shakespeare's scholarship. Or atelic--doesn't have a goal. And, for me, since I'm not a Catcher in the Rye scholar, a Salinger scholar, reading Catcher in the Rye, which would not be in my top 100 books I'd read if I thought the world was coming to an end, but okay, we'll take it as an example: That would be atelic. It would just be the same reason I'll be listening to a beautiful symphony or a great rock song or a poem I love or watching a 90-second video that makes me tear up. All those things are pretty atelic and I still do them even though I know my life is finite.

Agnes Callard: So, Kieran's getting that--I read his book, too--he's getting that distinction from Aristotle. But, Aristotle would not call those activities atelic.

So, this is like Aristotle's distinction between an energeia, which is an activity, versus a kinesis, which is a movement that arrives at an end. Something like an energeia--he gives an example of seeing. Seeing is an energeia, but also enjoying something, pleasures, whatever. They're completed at every moment. So, it's not that they don't have an end. It's just that they achieve the end at every moment that you're doing them. And so, you don't have to wait awhile and then get the end. You're getting it all along the way. Right?

An, that's important, because some things are just pointless. And, those would be atelic, right? They would have no end at all. They would have no goal, no value. Aristotle certainly thinks that these activities, energeia, have a goal. It's just the goal is in themselves rather than external to them.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's nice to say.

Agnes Callard: But, Aristotle also observes in this very discussion of energeia--in which he's explaining this fact about energeia, somewhere in the context of it--he talks about how, often if you're trying to do one activity, one energeia, it gets in the way of doing another. These can compete. Right? And, he says people who eat candies and things at the theater, those people are clearly not really enjoying the theater because it's like they're trying to do two competing activities at the same time. Right?

So, the question is not: Would reading Catcher in the Rye be an energeia? But, would it be an energeia for you under these circumstances? That is: Would you be so distracted? In some sense, what are the background conditions that are required for you to engage in an activity and have it be completed every moment? And it's just not obvious to me that the background conditions would be there for many of us to be reading novels under these circumstances.


Russ Roberts: Okay. I'm going to try to challenge that, and then we'll move on. Let's say I'm the last guy, whatever age I'm at, and I decide that--let's be even realistic[?]--as you point out, it's my thought-experiment, so I can make it silly. I can say whatever I want.

Agnes Callard: Exactly.

Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to assume I'm going to die on my 90th birthday. I was going to say, I'm going to kill myself. I don't like even to say that. It's just not my thing. So, let's just say that I know in advance what is my last night on earth, and I decide that I'm going to go to Yosemite. I'm going to rent the last--rent--take the last car, the last gallon of gas, 12 gallons, whatever is. Or I'm going to bicycle to Glacier Point in Yosemite. I'm going to look over Half Dome, and I'm going to see the last sunset that anyone will ever see on Earth. And I'm going to do it in the most beautiful place I can imagine. It might be there; I'd be over here at the Western Wall overlooking the Temple Mount. You pick your place.

Do you think that evening, that hour, that golden hour where the sunlight changes its color for the last time for human perception, you'd be distracted thinking about that the world was going to end? I think you would weep. You would weep. It would be unbelievably moving. It would be greater than any theater you've ever seen.

Agnes Callard: I think that might be right if you knew you only had to do it for maybe an hour.

Russ Roberts: There you go. Good point.

Agnes Callard: Part of what James and Cuarón are exploring is, like, what about the years--the months and the years--of this knowledge weighing on you? There's almost a sense in which you can put it on pause for an hour, I think. So, yeah, I think that's somewhat plausible to me. But, that doesn't mean you wouldn't feel that despair. It just means maybe you could set it aside to watch the sunset.

Russ Roberts: Okay, I disagree with that. That's a great point, but I disagree. I'll say why. But, I think it's a good excuse for us to dig deeper. The reason is that I may not live to 90, but I know it's finite and that knowledge doesn't make it harder for me to enjoy the sunset. It makes it easier.

Agnes Callard: Right. So, in a way, the whole thrust of Scheffler's book is: Our own deaths don't have this effect on us. They don't induce in us this sense of despair over the meaninglessness of everything that we're doing. And yet, if he's right about future generations, the deaths of people--not the deaths, the non-births of people that we'll never meet do induce that in us. So, part of Scheffler's theory about this is that human life has, like, a natural shape: that we have an understanding of it as having certain stages, in effect. Right? And, we are reconciled to and accept it as that.

And, part of what it is to having meaning--this is something I don't discuss in the talk--but part of what it is for things to have meaning for us is for them to be situated in that framework. So, we have, like, a framework for understanding our lives, and it includes death.

But, part of our framework for understanding our lives and the meaning of the things in those death-bounded lives is the idea that future generations are going to continue. So, for him, in a way, his starting point is that there is this asymmetry between finding meaning within your own life, given death, and finding meaning within your own life, given non-births of future people.

Russ Roberts: So, give his answer for meaning and then why you disagree with it. Go ahead.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, his answer is just that many of our meaning-creating activities are conditional on their being continued or developed in the future.

So, I'm, in effect, counting on future people for the meaning of my life. The future people need to be involved in projects like mine.

And, on the assumption that they are, then the things I'm doing retain their value.

The analogy he uses that I find useful is that, like, we think of it as a party that we had to leave early. And, as long as the party keeps going, we're okay with the fact that we had to leave early. But we're not okay with the party ending.

Russ Roberts: But, you don't agree with him.

Agnes Callard: Right.

So, I think that--I mean, what Scheffler is basically saying is that, it's just a kind of brute fact that you can only get meaning from doing something if you think that there are future people who are going to, in some sense, continue that broader project.

And, I think the problem with that is that it would make human meaning into a pyramid scheme.

Like, the meaning of my life will depend on the meaning of the future generations, but their lives wouldn't have meaning unless there were yet further future generations. And, that will just keep going forever. But it can't keep going forever because we know there won't always be future generations.

So, that's a kind of cosmic fact, right? Similar to the fact that we ourselves are going to die, life will eventually end. All life, not just human life.

And so, it better not be the case that for any given generation, the meaning of their lives depends on the existence of future generations. Because then, in effect, by just a chain of backwards reasoning, no matter how long this chain is, we can learn our lives actually don't have meaning.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. This is Alan Lightman's point--we talked about in a previous episode, the metaphor he uses, the ant colony that somehow manages to learn how to create, write music, and write literature. But then a big flood comes and wipes it out, and it's over. And, was that meaningful?

And, you're writing philosophy; I'm doing podcasting, whatever I'm doing; and I love the idea that, yes, I'm part of this great chain of activity, but if the chain is going to end, and it's not inherently meaningful: What's the point? That would be your critique of Scheffler's argument, correct?

Agnes Callard: Right. As I see it, there are two possible ways to go, at that point.

One would be to say, 'Look, the ant colony activity is just inherently meaningful, and so we can get meaning from our lives.' This is like your sunset example. It's also Kieran's approach. Right? Which is just: We can have the meaning now.

And I think that's, to some extent, true. I think there's something to be said for that response. That's the response that Scheffler is trying to resist. He's trying to introduce a level of dependence on the future generations. Right? That wouldn't be the case if you say we can have the meaning now.

So, I think we can have some of the meaning now, but I do think that there is some dependence. And, I think that if you think there is some dependence, then you have to, in effect--we can put it in terms of Kieran's distinction--you had better think this process is telic and not atelic. That is atelic in the bad sense, in the sense of having no goal at all. You better think we're going somewhere, and we will--there's such a thing as having gotten there.

So, I think to the extent that Scheffler is right that we're dependent upon future generations, that will be because there's a project that we've done part of that we want them to continue.

Russ Roberts: And that's very strange, I mean, for a lot of reasons. The fact that it's finite--by the way, this is where I'll mention that if you're a believer in God, there's a different story here--that, the whole mystery of human existence, the idea that the universe would end is very different if you think there might be a divine force in the universe that you, of course, cannot understand with your puny intelligence. And of course, many people get their meaning from the divine, from the service of the divine, and many other things that would push aside some of this. So, we're putting that to the side for the sake of this particular conversation.

Agnes Callard: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I mean, really? You really think that it's important to you if you're an opera singer, that there'll be future opera singers you don't know? I mean, what's going on there? What's the claim?

Agnes Callard: So, the first thing is, maybe to frame it in terms of--I think the question of how would religion fit into this is a great question actually and--

Russ Roberts: We can dig [?] on some of that if you'd like.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. Well, it reminds me of something, which is, like: someone like Socrates, he was not very worried about this future generation's problem. It doesn't show up. But, he believed in reincarnation, which would be sort of similar; and he believed that you could continue doing your projects in the afterlife. Right? So, if you, in effect, don't--there are ways to avoid some of these physical constraints; and then you have new, argumentative, new avenues for development. So, if you can be reincarnated and if you can continue doing your project--which for Socrates was inquiry--after your death, in the underworld, then you less depend on future generations. Right?

So, I think that that's really right. In a way, a lot of different kind of religious theories are grappling with this question--of how can our lives have meaning in the face not only of our own deaths, but in the face of perhaps the death of our way of life, or of our people, of our group, and then it could be of all humanity. These are all different stages. Right?

So, I think it's sort of right to situate it in that broader framework and say: Scheffler is approaching this question that a lot of religions have approached with all of their metaphysical resources without sort of saying, 'Suppose we didn't have any of those resources. Then, how could we think about it?'

But, I think the opera singer--so I have musicians in my family, and they are very depressed by the decline of the interest in classical music among young people. It really matters to them that people in the future be listening to, going to music. They want the people that show up at concerts--like, they really care that young people show up at concerts. That's a thing they genuinely care about. Where I first find that, I'm like, 'Well, who cares who shows up to your concerts?' No, because they're invested in this thing and they want it to continue. They don't just want it to die out. So, I suspect that would be true of the opera singer, too.

Russ Roberts: Sure, you're right.

Agnes Callard: But, my thought was slightly broader, which is to say, if we think of all the stuff we're doing, including opera, as experiments in living--we're trying to figure out good ways to live--and we think we have come up with some. Like, presumably, opera singer thinks opera's one of them, classical music. But, we're also coming up with more of them. And we want that project to continue. And, it may well be that the opera singer can't quite foresee what opera could turn into. In some ways, some of what the energy behind opera turned into things like musicals and pop music, and that's been a way in which we developed certain kinds of--like, certain kinds of new artistic forms would come to be born out of old artistic forms. And, I think that's still pretty satisfying.

Russ Roberts: I can't decide whether it would be a tragedy that Beethoven's Ninth was--forget all the things we're talking about. Suppose you just said, 'By the way, let's imagine a world where Beethoven's Ninth will never be performed again.' There's something sad about that. I'm not exactly sure why. And, as you point out, Beethoven is immortal for reasons way beyond the performance of his literal works of art. He influenced classic music forever, and then influenced pop music and other things forever, in all kinds of ways.

So, maybe it's just a misperception that it feels like a tragedy, but at the same time I think there's something really powerful about the idea that a human being created something that was never here before and it was lost, or never enjoyed again by other people.

Agnes Callard: I agree. But, also, like, I think it's interesting which examples we pick for that. That is, I think it would sort of be a tragedy if--like, take The Beatles song "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," which is a song I like a lot. And I'm like, if that were never played again, would that be a tragedy? In a way, yeah, it would be a loss, but I don't have that immediate feeling as I do about Beethoven's Ninth. And, I'm not sure it's because I think Beethoven's Ninth is so much better than that song. It probably is better. But, I think it's also that Beethoven is held up as--he is, himself, a kind of romantic ideal that symbolizes what we want to preserve from the past. Shakespeare would be another example, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Agnes Callard: And, this is actually part of how we hold onto culture, is that we have symbols of culture itself, and Beethoven is one of those symbols.

So, it makes sense that we don't have this visceral emotional response. Right?

But, I do think we've lost a ton of stuff from the past. We lost so many Socratic dialogues of people written other than Plato. We've lost Greek Tragedy. We've lost bits of Aristotle. We should be crying all the time of all--those are just the famous people we lost. What about the people who we don't even know about that existed? We've lost a ton of great stuff that we don't know about. And, yes, there's reason to be sad about that, but I think the reason to be sad about non-continuation is, like, one level deeper than that.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm going to read a quote from Tom Stoppard's play, Arcadia, which I don't think I've ever mentioned before on EconTalk. It's my favorite play by a living author. I've seen it three times, and each time, it's overwhelming. It's a magnificent work of art.

Here's what he says in there, or one of his characters [Septimus--Econlib Ed.]:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

That's basically the anti-Scheffler, or the Scheffler in a different version, which is: We're consoled by the fact that the march goes on and that things will be discovered, or recreated. Right?

Agnes Callard: So, you know what that reminds me of? Nietzsche's theory of eternal recurrence.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Agnes Callard: So, he's not--it's [?] that, like, everything that's happened is just going to happen again in an infinite number of times, and you should, in some sense, pick your life under that conceit. Right? Like: Live the life you'd be willing to live infinity times into the future because that thought of the stuff from the past is just coming back.

I think that's a different answer--like, if we thought that. In some sense, maybe you could even think of Nietzche's theory of eternal recurrence as his solution to this problem--which I hadn't thought about it that way before. So, you're right that that is an alternative.

And, I think that it's a version of Kieran's answer. I mean it's a version of the energeia--completed in and of itself answer--which is to say that, you know, like, all the stuff in the past is coming back.

But, the important point is that at any given moment, the process of picking up and putting down has its own internal completeness, because there's nothing outside of it. There's nothing outside the procession, seems to me the really important line in that quote.

So, that is one of the answers. And you could maybe give support to that answer, that kind of, like, energeia, internally complete sort of answer, through the idea of eternal recurrence.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It doesn't grab me, but it's interesting.


Russ Roberts: Let's look at your idea--which I loved, and it really spoke to me very deeply--of why this whole thing is so troubling. Because, you reject Scheffler's argument that we get our meaning from the future generations continuing what we're doing because eventually they will presumably die off and the whole thing's an illusion. You called it a pyramid scheme or it could be a Ponzi scheme or an illusion, whatever you want to call it.

Agnes Callard: Yeah, yeah.

Russ Roberts: You make a distinction, which I thought was very powerful, between the general fear of death and the fear of early death. And, I think that's--it really gets at some of what at least is binding for you.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So I, basically, want a different solution from Scheffler's because I think his solution has the pyramid scheme problem and I want a different solution from Kieran's or Stoppard's or Nietzsche's, which is the kind of internally complete solution.

And, for me, the kind of first step is just to notice that the feeling that I have about humanity ending, it doesn't feel like me thinking about my death. It feels like me thinking about my premature death. That is, when I think about my death, I'm like, 'Okay, eventually I'm going to die. I'm sort of okay with that.' But, when I think about dying before I get certain things done that I want to get done, that feels sort of terrifying to me. It has a distinctive form of terror, a distinctive form of existential panic. Like, I need to get those things done, they're really important.

And, they might be think like--what those things are, will depend on where you catch me at a given day or year because there's different projects I'm involved in. So, in the talk that I gave, I said, for example, giving this talk, I wouldn't want to die before I got to give it. But now I've given it, so there we go: close that book. Right?

But, watching my kids grow up and helping them grow up, that's important to me. I don't want to die before I can do that. I'm writing a book right now; I want to finish it. And, when I think about dying before I finish those things, then I feel this kind of panic.

So my thought is, what if that's the same panic we're feeling on behalf of humanity: that we don't want humanity to die before we've finished our project?

Russ Roberts: It's a really beautiful idea. I will confess--I'm confessing as I think it's irrational--I will often share the latest version of a manuscript with my brother before I take a flight. If I love that manuscript and I'm worried it won't make it to the light or day, I want to make sure that if I don't make it and for some reason my computer doesn't get opened or there's so many files, my kids would just throw the whole thing in the trash, I want it to come out. So, that's a real thing. The irrational--

Agnes Callard: It doesn't seem irrational to me--

Russ Roberts: Well, the irrational part is, I should probably do it before I walk to work, also, because that's probably more dangerous--crossing Jerusalem street corners--than flying. But, it doesn't deal[?feel?] that way.

Agnes Callard: Fair enough.

Russ Roberts: I send out the manuscript sometimes. If it's a manuscript that I cherish--I don't send out a blog post I'm working on; that's not a big deal. But if it's that book, your book, you should make sure that somebody you know, trust, and love has the latest version, because God forbid, whatever. Okay.

Agnes Callard: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: So, what do you do with that? What does that tell you, this idea, the premature part?

Agnes Callard: Yeah, so that's the point at which in the talk I kind of have to take a bunch of steps back. Because I want to tell you what this project is that we're involved in, but it's a little bit hard to tell people what the project is because it's almost like that informational slot has been overridden by false information.

The project is just to figure out, like, how to live human life and what we're doing. And, I think we can't really get through a day without thinking we already know the answer to that question.

So, the sort of examples that I use in the talk are the two examples that I use to try to motivate the intuition that we don't know what we're doing. One of them is just, like, you have an hour free and you could do whatever--like, there's something you specifically have to, it[?] doesn't mean anyone's going to yell at you for not doing in that hour.

The question is, whatever it is you choose to do--whether it's reading a book, going on Twitter or calling your mom--whatever it is that you choose to do, at the end of that hour, will you feel like you did the right thing? Will you feel like that was what I should have done?

Many of us will feel like, 'Okay,' and we're kind of going to move on past that question, not reflect on it too much, not examine too much the issue of, like, 'Actually, I'm just not sure.' And, for me, this actually broadens a bit because, as an academic, something I've just been surprised by is: I feel more and more uncertainty about what I should be doing. Like, what books should I be reading? What kinds of things should I be writing? Who should I be talking to? How should I be spending my time? It's incredibly bewildering.

And, I would think that at this point in my life I would have some pretty good--I don't know--some kind of system work out where it's, like, in the mornings I do this. And I don't have a system. In fact, I feel I get further and further from a system because I'm more and more impressed by the thought I have no idea what I'm doing, and there's no basis on which I could erect any kind of system.

So, that's just this kind of overwhelming awareness. And, I think that's because I have tenure, right? So I have a lot of freedom; and it's just very hard to know how to use your freedom.

And, that is an illustration of how little you know--the fact that you don't know how to use your freedom. So, that's the first example.

Russ Roberts: And, as you point out, it's not just one hour because it's hour after hour, and that's a life.

Agnes Callard: Exactly. Right? It's sort of like, I kind of lure you in by just reflecting on one hour, but then in effect, that's your whole life.

And, the thing you tell yourself a lot, which is like, 'Well, there's something I have to do during this hour,' or, you know, that's a bit of a dodge. Right? That is, we put ourselves in situations. Like, I might have said, as I did this morning, 'Oh, I got to go, I have to do this podcast with Russ.' I have to. Right? Yeah, okay, I have to; but that's because I agreed with you to do it. I created that constraint myself. We create a lot of our own constraints, and then we imagine as though those constraints were externally imposed. Right?

So, that's the one thing: is we have this freedom where we don't know how to use it.

The other thing is just that we can actually see--another place where not knowing how to use it becomes visible. I think really visible for me is Twitter. I mean, it's probably going to be social media in general. I'm just not on other kinds of social media.

So, I just watch people behaving in ways that are, to me, like, wildly inappropriate. They're just being mean. And, I was shocked when I first joined Twitter. Because, when I look at the people around me, physically around me, not just my family, like, people aren't actually really mean. That's not how most people are. People mostly are pretty nice to each other and know how to interact. And, then you throw them on Twitter and it's like they don't know how to interact at all. It's like we're suddenly in, like, a Wild West. Right?

And, that's I think exactly the situation. That is, we're in a context where the social norms haven't yet been established--to say we have a lot of freedom. And so, Twitter illustrates the fact that we don't know how to use our freedom, because you throw us in a situation where there aren't a whole bunch of norms regulating us and we don't know how to behave. And, actually, a lot of what happens on Twitter is people observing that other people don't know how to behave. So, much of the content on Twitter is outrage over other people not knowing how to behave. And, then me looking at that being, like, 'Hey, don't you know how to behave? You shouldn't express this outrage this way.' Which is me doing the exact same thing, right?


Russ Roberts: So, I think you said it in your talk, I heard it recently in a different context. But: We come into this world, and when we come into this world, we're very needy and life's very simple actually. It's mainly food. I mean, there's diapers, too, but that's food, just a different part of it.

Agnes Callard: Yeah, exactly. Sleep.

Russ Roberts: And, sleep.

Agnes Callard: I would say food and sleep.

Russ Roberts: Food and sleep because you got to recharge. And, you don't have--you have no freedom. Everything is done to you. You cannot move. You can wiggle your fingers a little bit. You can wail, and that's it.

And, then all of a sudden, you pass a certain place where, now you do lots of things, and no one--other than imitating what everybody else does, which is what most of us do--we don't really have much of a clue.

And, I would suggest, as I did talking to the incoming first years here at Shalem this morning, influenced by your talk--part of life, part of college, if it's a good college, and part of life, maybe a lot of life--is figuring out what you should do.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. Sometimes I think of it as, you show up and people are playing a board game. You show up at the table, and at the beginning, you're not really allowed to play, and then slowly they allow you to play, but nobody ever tells you the rules. You just kind of have to infer the rules from what people do. And, not only do you not know the rules, but you don't actually know, like, is this a board game where people are just playing for fun or do these pieces control something out in the outside world? Is something happening because we're moving these pieces? And nobody tells you that, either. You just have to draw conclusions. And then people have actually--it becomes clear people around the table have wildly different views about what the significance of moving these pieces is and what they think they're moving in the space outside the room, right? Which is sort of, like, different religious views, is a way to think about that.

And so, yeah, like, something that I often reflect on is that, like, much as people are--vocally--seem to be against conformity, it's not obvious we have another option besides: what are you going to do? You show up at this table--what are you going to do besides do what the people around you are doing?

So, that's, like, our basic program. Maybe the thing humans are, like, really especially good at is learning how to conform to one another, learning how to conform to really actually pretty complicated patterns of what other people are doing.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. My three-month-old granddaughter, she's got one really valuable skill outside the ones we've discussed: smiling.

Agnes Callard: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: So, I smile at her and she works real--it's a major achievement sometimes. Sometimes it's not. But often, you can see her working at it and she's going to conform, she's going to copy. And, copying is powerful. It's a really great starting place. Not a good ending place, but a good starting place.

Agnes Callard: Right. And I think that--it makes sense to me the speech that you gave. I mean, I also was giving my speech to people of roughly that age. It's sort of in your late teenage years that you're sort of left to play the game, actually allowed to play. And, that's when it sort of hits you, like, 'Wait a minute, is everybody just copying everybody else? I was assuming there was somebody here who knew what they were doing.' At some point in life, that person has to become you: you have to come to have some kind of a sense of what you're doing.

And, that's a big part of what we see college as being about, is giving students a kind of exploratory space for figuring that out.

But, I think that that's a really big project. That is, it's bigger than one human life. And, you know, not all conformity is equal. That is, we learn different conventions and different norms, and some work better than others, and we are doing it, I think, exploratory work, with respect to social norms. An event, like--as I say in my talk, for me, in some sense, the really number one big human advance is the idea of human rights: the idea that human beings have a certain kind of dignity that constrains how you can treat them, that they deserve respect. And, that's an idea--that's a thousands-of-year project to figure out what's at the bottom of that idea and what the constraints are. We are still working on it. And, that really is a set of norms, right? A set of modes of conformity or rules of the game.

And so, not all rules are equal and not all of the exploratory investigative work is done at the individual level.


Russ Roberts: Yeah, I was kind of shocked when you said that, actually, about human rights. It's not a very new innovation. I think of it as being about 3,500 years old, right? When in the Book of Genesis it says that human beings are created in the image of God. Which is--that's a radical idea of its time.

Now, I'll grant you the fact that applying that to a wider array of classes has taken a long time, and so for sure, there's some innovation going on in application of that idea. And, just a footnote, our first years[?] are about 25 years old. They've spent three years in the Israeli army where they had very little freedom. Their freedom was to be able to go home for a weekend, if they're lucky, if they're not in the Air Force, which doesn't let you go home very often.

But, that question--you called, 'the quest,' very beautifully--the quest of how to live, the quest of the life well lived, you actually imply in your talk, to my surprise, that we can make progress on that. So, talk about that.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, I think, in fact, we have--

Russ Roberts: As a fan of Socrates--which you confess in the talk and you've said so many times elsewhere.

Agnes Callard: Yes, yes. Yes. Actually, yesterday in a class I'm teaching on--I'm teaching this sort of intensive Plato class where we read tons of Plato--and we were doing the beginning of the Gorgias yesterday. And, the final question of the class--there was, like, two minutes left of class--I'm, like, 'Any final questions?' And, somebody was brave enough, I think, because there was just two minutes to be, like, 'So, how much of this do you actually believe?'

And, I was, like, 'A lot more than you might think.' But, I listed some of--there's Socrates, there's some claims of Socrates with which I disagree. And then I listed some of them, and then I ranked some of his theories in terms of how committed I am to them, and stuff. But, anyway, I thought it was a kind of brave thing to ask.

So, you want to say human rights, like, dates to--man is made in the image of God. In a way, I agree with that. That is, look, any idea, but it's that big, it's going to have seeds that are very early. Right? But, when you see just the prevalence of slavery in human societies--

Russ Roberts: True--

Agnes Callard: Right? And, this is true of the ancient Greeks--it's true of Aristotle explaining how slavery is morally required, basically, in the politics--that some people are better off enslaved. It's not--like, I don't actually think--the way that I think about it is not--if I think about what's happening in the part of the ancient world that I know well--so, like, say, Socrates's Athens, and, say, in Aristotle's Ethics or something, I don't think of it as, like: Well, there's some privileged population where it was understood that those people have something like human rights. And, what took time was the spreading of that to everybody. I think really the idea wasn't there. There were sort of versions of it, right? That there's something divine about human beings--that, you can see.

But, the idea that that place is, like, a normative constraint of a particular kind and that we can then reason about which normative constraints that place is--and, you know, even just, like,--I don't know, a high-water mark for me of this thought is like the beginning of Kant's essay, "What Is Enlightenment?" where he says that enlightenment is this release--emergence from our self-imposed nonage--where nonage is, you can't use your understanding except with another person's guidance. Right? And so, the thought is, he sees humanity, in his period, struggling to break out of this idea that the use of your reason is something that other people control. And, that's a huge part for him of what would be meant by the idea of human dignity.

So, I think that really is kind of a new idea that's getting worked out and articulated even though its seeds are there quite a bit earlier. And, I, in fact, think we're still working on it. We don't have that yet.

And so, my point is: that's what I mean by progress.

But, there are other, in a way, maybe more obvious versions of progress. Just the very existence of language, of human language. The existence of literacy and the spread of literacy. Right? So, the idea that literacy is not the preserve of a tiny elite. The way in which the Internet has spread literacy--in the sense that a lot of the valuable texts are now just really available.

So, I see these as progress. So, yeah, I think that we have made really significant forms of progress and I think we will continue to make them.

It's a little bit hard--it's a little bit shocking--to think about those forms of progress because it's shocking to imagine ourselves in relation to future humans in the kind of benighted condition that we imagine the humans before literacy, even before language in relation to us.

Russ Roberts: Spartans?

Agnes Callard: Spartans, yeah. Yeah, I know. When you watch, like, 300, or, you know, right. So you might think that there were these, you know, terribly repressive societies where, like, they really didn't know how to value human life. And, will people look back at us and think we made mistakes like that? I think yes, probably. And, that's kind of shocking. But in a way, it's optimistic. That is, I think we still have a lot of room for improvement.


Russ Roberts: I interviewed John Gray a long time ago, the philosopher, and the audio quality of that interview is disappointing. I think he was on his cell phone. So, we'll link to it, but I asked the forbearance of listeners that it wasn't a higher quality.

But he would say: All those ideas about progress, those are just Judeo-Christian myths in disguise. They are the desire--the whole idea of progress is a religious idea. The whole idea that the world will be redeemed is a religious idea out of Judeo-Christian heritage or history, culture. And, there's a whole interesting question, which we probably won't want to talk about, but I want to raise it: That, if religion fell away, the way it has been falling away in the last 20 to 50 years, that that cultural legacy would maybe disappear also.

But, let's just start with John Gray's claim that progress is an illusion. And, John Gray is a really hardcore atheist. But he argues that most atheists are living under the illusion of a religious fantasy--just, without God, because they are in the culture. And, the idea that we've made progress--yeah, okay, human rights are good; holocaust, bad; gulag, bad; death of freedom of speech, which we're seem to be the middle of, bad. Democracy may take a bad turn soon, seems to be on that way. Do you want to argue that the quest is making progress? Technologically, absolutely. But, for the inner human life that we really care about, not so sure. Defend it.

Agnes Callard: Yeah. So, first let me say something about the idea that it's a Judeo-Christian idea and that it's myths and that it's religion. I don't necessarily disagree with that part. I mean, Socrates uses a lot of myths, too. When he talked about his reincarnation theory and the afterlife, he talked about myths. So, myths are a very important part of the human experience and how we understand ourselves. And, religion is another really important part of the human experience. And, I agree with John Gray, that we're more religious than we think we are.

Now, what he also wants to add is that's all an illusion--it's all a lie, or whatever. And, even there, I'm sort of sympathetic, if the thought is: it isn't a completely accurate picture of the way things exactly are right now.

So, we've talked about my book, Aspiration, and I think one characteristic of aspirational situations is that the self-understanding of the aspirant is going to be imperfect. It's going to involve little myths and illusions and whatever. But, that doesn't mean they would be better off with the accurate picture that will not allow them to progress. Right? So, I know I don't think they're just lies, but I do think they have an aspirational character. They're like the kind of claws by which we're clawing forward into the future.

And, it's important to keep in mind that the way that I've introduced this idea, there's a philosophical pressure on you to accept it regardless of what you think about religion. That is, what I'm saying is: here's a problem that Scheffler presents to us, which is if you agree that our lives will be meaningless in the absence of future generations, then you agree that the Kieran Setiya/Arcadia/Nietzsche internalist solution doesn't work. You need another solution. I'm offering you another solution, which is progress.

It's fine to say, 'I don't like that solution,' but then John Gray owes me a different one. Right? Because it's a problem; you got to solve it somehow.

So, I'm not just claiming--I'm not just making a bare claim. I'm sort of saying: Here's what would need to be the case in order for the problem to be solvable. And, that's a way of arguing that, in effect, the conceit of progress is part of what's driving us and what's driving the meaning of our own lives.

Maybe he's just willing to bite that bullet and be, like, 'Human life is meaningless.' And then--I do think that that is one possible response. If he really thought life was meaningless, I would expect him to live in accordance with that idea. So, I would expect his life to take a certain kind of shape. And, if it doesn't, then I might just not believe him, that he really thinks that. I might think now you're operating under the same religious ideas of the rest of--that you accuse everyone else of having.

Does the Holocaust and the current threats to free speech indicate that there's no moral progress? I think the outrage over those things indicates the existence of progress.

Russ Roberts: That's nice. I like that.

Agnes Callard: That is, like, there were lots of, like, massacres in human history, and some of those are just kind of trumpeted in ancient texts, as like, 'Yay, we achieved something.' When the Greeks and the Trojans in the Iliad say to each other, 'I don't just want to win this war: I want to wipe out even the memory that your people ever existed,' that isn't met with horror by anyone. So, yes, I think that we have achieved real moral progress, but it's a thousands-of-years thing, not hundreds-of-years thing.

And, I think laws are improving, but there's lots of setbacks and there's lots of moments when we realize that we haven't made as much progress as we thought we had.

And so, I think the free speech thing is a great example. I think we do not know what we mean by free speech. We don't know what we want. All we can do is, like, feel very sure that it's being threatened under certain circumstances. But, I've been working on this question: I've been giving a talk on free speech and talking to audiences about it. And, like, people are quick to outrage over specific examples but really struggle to give a general theory.

And, you go back to Mill, you go back to the idea of the marketplace of ideas, you go back to the ideas of debate, and these things don't quite hold up as grounds of free speech. So, I think that's something we're still working on--as my kids' teachers would say, 'an emerging skill'--to figure out what it is that we want out of free speech.


Russ Roberts: Let's go back to the individual level. A lot of what you've referred to, I would call public policy, culture, norms, etc. It's interesting to speculate whether those are, quote, "better." Chuck Klosterman's book, But What If We're Wrong? is a great wake-up call for thinking, as you mentioned earlier, that maybe as self-righteous as we might feel about ourselves, we may be looked at very differently by future generations.

At the individual level, thinking about--you have children. They may not listen to you, but you might want to give them some advice. And, certainly, you gave advice to the students at Chicago. I gave my advice to my students here at Shalem College, where I said this is something to struggle with.

But I also said at the same time, it's a question without an answer. A question of how to live; a question of how to spend that hour. I don't think it will ever have an answer.

And, part of education--for me--is getting comfortable with that: comfortable with the mystery of how we should live, comfortable with the fact that the landscape is dark and only illuminated occasionally by flashes of light. Do you think we could do better than that? Do you think we've made progress in the question of how to live at the individual level?

Agnes Callard: Yes, I really do think we have. So I think, if you, by 'we,' you mean human beings, I think language is progress. And literacy is progress. Education, having children learn to read, that's progress.

The thought that we ought to treat each other with respect--that we ought to treat children with a certain kind of respect--that seems like progress to me.

Certain kinds of restrictions on our visceral impulses towards, kind of, like, tribalism and group bonding--that is, the sense that we have to try to restrain that about ourselves--that seems like progress to me.

But, if I go back to your thought of--like, you said I was giving my students advice, and that you gave your students advice--I wouldn't describe what I was doing as giving them advice. So, let me, like, use--maybe I'm saying the same thing in a different way. But I think that I'm trying to inspire them. Or trying to motivate them. And, I think that what I'm doing, what it is to be trying to inspire or motivate them is, there's a quest that I have and I want them to have it, too. And, I'm trying to give it to them. I'm saying: 'Here is my quest. It's your quest, too.'

And so, I'm handing something down. So, like, tradition: you're handing something down.

I think it's not the same thing as advice because I'm not telling them where they have to take it. Because the whole point of handing it to them is that now it's their turn to figure out where to take it.

But, to me, that's not the same thing as saying there's no answers. It's the same thing as saying, 'I'm not going to give you answers,' because the entire point of my handing this to you is for you to do some work and come up with some answers. Right?

And, if I were to give you those answers, then it would just be almost a sort of Schefflerian handing-off where it's like, we've just got to continue doing the thing. And I think we're going somewhere, and that means I can't tell you where to go. And so, I would distinguish between something like advice and something like inspiration.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I shouldn't have called it advice. To me, it's more--that's not what I did, either. I didn't give my students advice this morning. I gave them a framework to how to think about their college experience, which is exactly what you were doing. And, they[?] could take it or leave it, obviously.

Agnes Callard: Right.

Russ Roberts: I think I would concede some of those examples of progress that you gave. But, I'm talking about the individual level. I'm talking about here I am, I'm 68 years old, I'm not sure what to do with the rest of my life. I made a leap. I decided to come to Israel and be a president of a college. Was that a good decision? I have no idea. My 25-year-old students--they also have a couple gap years where they have freedom, by the way, so that's why they're 25. They're not in the army that long, necessarily. But, the question of how to live your life, that extra hour, that's what I'm asking you. Have we made any progress on that?

Agnes Callard: Okay. Sorry, I think I misunderstood you because I thought you were talking about humanity.

Russ Roberts: You did, but that's okay.

Agnes Callard: You were talking about individuals--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, but you gave a great answer. It's a great answer.

Agnes Callard: Individual human beings.

Russ Roberts: We're not going to cut that out.

Agnes Callard: Yeah, yeah.

Russ Roberts: I loved what you said. Keep going.

Agnes Callard: So, I think the question, 'Does an individual human being make progress on their life?' is not something that I, if I'm not identical to that human being, am well-placed to answer. Have you made progress on your life? Well, I'd have to talk to you, and we could come to some shared understanding about that.

Russ Roberts: No, I mean compared to somebody 300 years ago, 500 years ago, 300 years in the future. I don't mean my own arc, which is complicated.

Agnes Callard: Oh, I see.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Agnes Callard: Okay. So, you mean--

Russ Roberts: I'm talking about the quest. I'm saying what does Agnes Callard contribute to the quest and the Agnes Callards of the future and the Socrateses of the past? Have we made any progress on answering the question: What is a life well lived?

Agnes Callard: Yes. I think we've made progress on that question. I mean I guess I think all those things I cited are progress on that question.

But, you're sort of right that the things I cited are a bit negative. They're sort of constraints more than they are telling you what you should do. So, they don't tell you how to spend that hour. They might under certain circumstances, right? That is, under a circumstance where in order to fulfill your agreements with other people--your just agreements with them--there are certain things you have to do during that hour, then I think that we have made that progress to tell you what to do during that hour. And, Socrates says something of that kind: that you ought to fulfill your just agreements because those agreements are the best we've got. That's the furthest we've come. And, we can have better agreements and then our lives are better, we're spending them better.

But, maybe the thing that you're noticing in saying that we haven't made any progress is just that we still feel pretty lost and we still don't have the answers. And, I think that that's true.

So, maybe a way to think about this is, when you encounter someone who has a kind of scientific expertise in really any area, and you talk to them about that, you quickly come to the kind of very, very refined sense they have about how much we don't know about this thing. You think of them as knowing so much; you think they have so many answers; but in some way, what their expertise is, is an understanding of where all the holes are and of just how far we are from actually knowing.

I was talking to someone who was a statistician and her understanding of where we are in statistics. And I think of statistics as, like, they've probably pretty much figured it out. And, she's like, 'No, what I'm mainly doing is showing my students how lost we are about this and how to think in a sophisticated way about how little we know about how to systematically pull together information into knowledge--or something like that.' One way to think about that would be, like: Are we any better off with respect to statistics than we were a few thousand years ago? In some sense, her answer will be, 'No, we are still lost.' Right? But in another sense, clearly we've made progress.

So, maybe that's just something we need to learn, is that one of the ways that progress shows up to us is in making really vivid the degree to which we still don't have what we want.


Russ Roberts: I'm thinking of parenting, for example. I've revealed on this program that I didn't hit my kids when they were younger. I didn't strike them. There's no corporal punishment in my family. I wanted probably at times to hit them, and my wife and I came to an agreement--an understanding--early in our marriage, long before we had children, that we would not hit our kids. And, I had mixed feelings about it because my dad hit me now and then, not in a harmful--never hurt me--painful way but never hurt me, never abused me. And I thought--well, occasionally I thought that was worthy, I was worthy of being potched, as we would say in Yiddish. But I decided--I agreed with my wife; I accepted my wife's preference. And I'm really glad. And, I think that was progress. And, you could argue that corporal punish is an example of human progress.

But I would never, ever claim that I'm a better father than my father.

And, there's no book on it--just like there's no book on how to live other than, you could argue, the Bible, or you could argue Nicomachean Ethics. There's some attempts at guide books. But I don't think we've learned better anything more about how to be a good father. Corporal punishment, okay, nice; but it's not like that's the first step in--or how to be a good husband or good spouse. These problems aren't solvable. I don't think we make any progress on them. They're inevitably part of the human condition. Do you disagree?

Agnes Callard: Yes. I do.

Russ Roberts: Okay.

Agnes Callard: I think we do make progress on them.

So, one thing I think is that people in the past, including parents in the past, were trying to be human and to be parents under conditions that were much more difficult than our conditions. So, like, it's a lot easier for me to be a parent than for my parents who were parenting me. As immigrants, they were very poor. They were in a country where they didn't speak the language. And, they did a lot of good for me by moving to this country, but there were ways that I have of communicating and interacting with my kids that sort of were not available to them, because of that choice. We didn't speak the same--I mean we spoke Hungarian at home, but I came to be part of a different culture than the culture that they were from. Right? And, that's like parenting on hard mode, let's say.

So, I wouldn't say I'm a better parent than my mom was, but she was parenting on harder mode than I am. And, part of progress is to go lower, towards easier modes, so that people can do things better.

And that doesn't mean we deserve all this credit. Right? That's what feels wrong about saying I'm a better mom. It's like: She had to make incredible sacrifices and more, greater sacrifices than I make for my kids. It was harder for her than it is for me. But, there is a rationale behind wanting to make it the case that parents don't have to make those sacrifices in order to have kids: that they are able to communicate with their kids. So, the rationale we have for that is in fact our thinking that that mode is better without feeling free to make the judgment that those people are better.

Russ Roberts: Well, your situation may be unusual. I think most parents today--I'll say most grandparents--look at their children raising their grandchildren and say, 'I'm so glad I'm not a parent today. I wouldn't know what to do.' Now, there's a lot of reasons that's a misleading statement, obviously. But, violence against children, the internet, cell phones--I think a lot of people think it's so much harder to be a parent today.

But those are all external. I'm just talking about how to be a good person. I think it's just really hard. That's part of what I'm saying. Maybe we've made some progress on it. I like your optimism.

Agnes Callard: I mean, I think that, like, there's a way in which how to be a good person is always going to be relative to your circumstances. You have to be a good person in the world that you're in. And, that's why it's just really hard to say, 'Well, am I doing a better job being a good person in the world that I'm in than Socrates was doing a job, being a good person in the world that he was in?' I think that one thing is, we have a sense that, over the course of human history, to have been certain extraordinary individuals, and we admire them and look up to them. For me, Socrates is one of them. MLK [Martin Luther King], who I'm reading in my class next week, is one of them.

And, maybe we feel a little bit comfortable saying those people are better than us. I feel a bit comfortable saying that. But those are people who, in some sense, transcended the constraints of their environment in a way that is sort of glorious and beautiful and noble. And, most of us don't do that.

But, I think that part of why it's hard to say: 'Well, human beings are just getting better over time,' is that circumstances are changing over time; and what it is to be good is relative to those circumstances.

Russ Roberts: Well, let's close--I'm not sure I agree, but interesting.


Russ Roberts: Let's close with the aims of education, which is the formal charge you were trying to answer in your talk. What does all of this have to do with education? How does--you made a statement about college--a lot of people would disagree with it--they would say college is where you learn a skill to make a good living, and--period.

And, I know you don't agree with that. It's not the modus operandi of the University of Chicago, a place very close to my heart, for many, many reasons. And, it's not true at Shalem College, where I work.

But, I don't believe that my students or yours are being abandoned to some intellectual life with no ability to make money. I think our students make a great living. They get great jobs.

But, the purpose of the educational experience, the purpose of the classroom, is clearly different--in a few institutions. What should be the aims of education? What does education have to do with the quest that you feel we're on to make the world a better place? to make human beings of the future better?

Agnes Callard: Yes. So, I mean maybe--I've gone to a lot of these Aims-of-Education addresses over the time that I've been a faculty member. I'm a fan of the whole institution. And so, something that I would say is maybe a bit distinctive about mine, is how little I talk about the aims of education.

That is, I talk about this problem, you know, about what makes human life meaningful in the face of the potential--why are future generations important to us? And, I try and talk to these students to care about the distant future.

And, what I'm trying to do in a way is say, like: The problem of education is the problem of human life writ, like, writ small, or something: that, what we're doing in the four years that you're at University of Chicago, it's not job training. I think that that's right. We're really not training them for--so very few students would come out of they're saying, 'Oh, I was trained in the particular skills of the job I ended up doing.' It's just not true. But we're also not--it's also not even true of me, and I ended up a professor.

But, it's also not like a four-year vacation or something, where you get to indulge in having some fun ideas that you will then set aside. It isn't, like, just letting yourself be lost in that sunset on the last hour, but doing that for four years, I mean, and being like, 'Oh, look at these beautiful works of literature, moving on to the rest of my life.'

So, we want--I'm trying to propose to them that they take neither of those points of view on their education. But, that the education is something like--that their arrival at the University of Chicago is like the first day of the rest of your life. And: Here you are, you have this life, you have all these hours, you can choose how to live them. And, probably, in the back of your head, you have noticed that a lot of what's happening around you is people conforming to other people, conforming to other people, and so on. And, this is, like, a moment where you can take a step a little bit back and reflect on that. You have the opportunity to reflect. You're not just pulled by the sort of like magnetic force of, 'I have to play the game, I have to play the game.' So, there is a bit of freedom there. But that freedom is not a vacation. It's, like, space for reflection.

And, that the ideal is going to be that, if you have that four-year space for reflection about your life, that you can then live the rest of your life more in the light of an understanding that you do have that freedom, and that it is your job to try to figure out how to live. That's, in a way, what we're trying to give them: is it's just that taking a little bit more of a step back for a little while from your life to be able to reflect on it and to be given some of the great thinkers and great ideas that human beings have come up with, right?

So, all the progress, one big kind of progress is just, we have a bunch of amazing stuff. Right? So, like, before Shakespeare, they didn't have Shakespeare. Before Socrates and Plato, they didn't have Plato to read. Now we have all those things.

And so, we want you to be the beneficiaries of all this great progress we've made. But also of course in science, in economics, right? And, to make use of that, to actually use the human progress to guide your life, not just let it sit there on the side while you go and live the life that isn't informed by all this progress.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Agnes Callard. Agnes, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Agnes Callard: It was great. Thank you for having me.

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