How Are You Being Read?

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Blank red book on white.

Prior to his death in 2009, G.A. Cohen was a philosopher and distinguished professor at All Souls College in Oxford. After his death, The Guardian referred to Cohen as the “leading political philosopher of the left.”[1] Raised in a radically Marxist and “militantly antireligious home” that no doubt influenced his scholarship, he argued for a classless society, material equality, and other structures typically commensurate with socialism.[2]

After publishing his popular 2000 book: “If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?”—he participated in an interview discussing the practical policies and actions arising from the text. During this time, the interviewer, Nigel Warburton, asked Cohen if individuals with great wealth have a responsibility to give it away to those who have less. Cohen says “yes”—suggesting that one can either give voluntarily or through government systems of taxation. This leads to a puzzling exchange between the two.

After pointing out that Cohen exists in a plush, protected environment where he is effectively taken care of by servants who cater to his every need, Warburton effectively asks: “If you wrote this book, and you are an egalitarian yourself—then why are you so rich?” With no sense of irony, Cohen responds: “[T]he explanation is that I am a less good person than I would be if I were as good as I could be. You know, I just think that I am not a morally exemplary person. That’s all. That’s the reconciliation.”[3]

I describe the exchange as “puzzling” because we might expect that a normative argument (what we “should” do) be followed by associated action. Thus it is curious that Cohen so transparently admits that he is, simply put, “not a morally exemplary person.” The exchange is consistent with the findings of Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, who found that those who teach ethics were not necessarily more ethical. Unfortunately, for Cohen, like Schwitzgebel’s ethics teachers, knowledge—even values—translate poorly to performance.

Yet before we cast judgment on those who do not necessarily practice the values they teach—we should remind ourselves that there is nothing new under the sun. Take, for instance, the Apostle Peter. Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. Not because he actually didn’t betray Jesus in his darkest hour. He did. Rather, he gets a bad rap because he is often singled out as the lone betrayer. He wasn’t.

In the 26th chapter of Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus tells his faithful flock that when the time comes, they will all abandon him and flee. Incredulous, Peter offers his famous rebuttal: “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you; Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (v. 33; 35).

We frown upon Peter’s reckless declaration because—as the story unfolds—it was one he could not live up to. Yet we forget that the very next verse reads, “And so said all the disciples.” Moreover, when Jesus was arrested, we are told that “all the disciples deserted him and fled” (v. 56).

Of course, this does not absolve Peter from his actions. It simply means he was not alone. In fact, we might say that the disciples are not alone. Throughout human history, men and women have revealed a remarkably consistent pattern of spiritual dissonance. You might say we are consistently inconsistent. Specifically, our actions often fail to match our words.   This pattern has conceived one of the more ubiquitous accusations lobbed between persons and groups today: “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” This phrase and its meaning are easily recognizable. Don’t tell me, show me. Practice what you preach. Do as I say, not as I do. Actions speak louder than words, etc.

It is a good reminder: what we do can “speak.” It was the Irish evangelist Gypsy Smith who famously remarked: “There are five gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Christian. And most people will never read the first four.” This begs the question: How are we being “read”? Do our actions consistently flow from our beliefs? Are we being consistent—or are we consistently inconsistent?

The ideas we propose will always carry more weight when they are backed up by a life lived well. Thus, as we enter our various places of work, it is important to ask ourselves: How are we being read?

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/aug/10/ga-cohen-obituary

[2] Cohen writes “not just areligious, or nonreligious, but antireligious” (Page 20; Italics His). See Cohen, G. A. If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re so Rich? Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. Print

[3] See http://philosophybites.com/2007/12/ga-cohen-on-ine.html

Image attribution: Ingram Publishing / Thinkstock

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Dr. Kevin Brown is an Assistant Professor with the Howard Dayton School of Business at Asbury University. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, he spent the past four years teaching Business at Anderson University in Central Indiana. Prior to that, he worked for nearly a decade at Wells Fargo Bank, spending the last four years there as a branch president.

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