D. Des Chene (goclenius) wrote,
D. Des Chene

Impressions of Pittsburgh

I’ve just been to Pittsburgh to give a talk at the Center for Philosophy of Science (courtesy of an invitation by James Lennox). I was struck by how much bigger Pittsburgh seems than Saint Louis. The populations are comparable: the metro areas differ by 300,000 in favor of Saint Louis, the cities themselves only by a few thousand. The difference seems to be that Pittsburgh, bounded by the two rivers, is in hill country. On the south bank of the Monongahela and the north bank of the Allegheny there are steep unbuildable cliffs. Land is at a premium compared with relatively flat Saint Louis, which has spread west and east without effort. In Pittsburgh, as in Manhattan and San Francisco, it seems that building up, not out, made economic sense.
The area around the Universities (Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon) is called Oakland. It was once the cultural center, built away from the congested, dirty downtown area in the twenties and thirties. Since then the symphony and the opera have moved downtown, but the buildings remain (the link is to an informative essay by Walter Kidney). Looking up from halfway down the ridge, one imagines that a century ago planners might have envisioned an Acropolis. As it is the intrusion of mostly undistinguished modern buildings gives the area the jumbled look of most American cities.
Like buildings of the same era in Saint Louis, those in Pittsburgh express civic pride and civic memory. They impress upon you the permanence of the institutions they housed; they display, in forms sanctified by tradition, the wealth of those who funded them. We had a better class of rich folks then, who, having gathered their filthy lucre, regarded it as their duty, and no doubt as in their interest also, to improve the lot of the “worker” or the “masses”. Regional centers like Saint Louis and Pittsburgh, with their local magnates, their boosters, were confident of their importance. The city center was the material sign of that confidence. Seventy-five or a hundred years on, we still benefit from their largesse (during his career as a philanthropist, Carnegie gave away about $380 million dollars, which would be roughly $8 billion now).
Does good fortune by itself confer upon those who are fortunate an obligation to philanthropize? No-one but God is truly self-made. Everyone has benefited along the way, if not by specific instances of aid, then at least by living in something other than the state of nature. Each of us begins from a material and intellectual culture made by many. Now suppose you have an income of $5 million (which would be the return on an “endowment” of $100 million, taken at the typical rate of 5%). You have left the FDIC maximum far behind; your insurance is paid for with one or two percent of your income; and since it’s likely much of your income is from investments, which in the reign of Bush II are being taxed less and less, most of that $5 million is yours to spend.
You spend a generous $1 million to maintain your household (you can pay two or three executive assistants handsomely to tend to all the details and still have plenty left over). You probably own your house outright or will soon, unless there’s an advantage in not owning it. The same goes for your car and all the other items most people buy on installment. There is $4 million left over. I suppose someone with that kind of money can find ways to spend it (save a while and buy a Picasso? buy yourself a Senate seat? gamble your millions away like Bill Bennett?).
Some might argue that there can be no obligation not to attempt to satisfy desires whose satisfaction does not harm anyone else. But framing the issue in terms of the curtailment of acting on desire may be a mistake. Kant would say that, insofar as you are rational, you will that certain benevolent ends be fulfilled. That may entail that some of your “pathological” desires go unsatisfied; but being rational you recognize that those desires are for things of no real worth. Hence although you may have those desires (‘you undergo them’ would be a better way to put it from Kant’s point of view) you have no will that they be satisfied. Kant, and Hume too, hold that the rational agent will only restrain certain of his or her desires but also acquire or reinforce others—in particular, benevolence.
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