Philosophy of Devotion: The Longing for Invulnerable Ideals

Oxford: Oxford University Press (2022)
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Abstract

Why do people persist in commitments that threaten their happiness, security, and comfort? Why do some of our most central, identity-defining commitments resist the effects of reasoning and critical reflection? Drawing on real-life examples, empirical psychology, and philosophical reflection, this book argues that these commitments involve an ethical stance called devotion, which plays a pervasive—but often hidden—role in human life. Devotion typically involves sacralizing certain values, goals, or relationships. To sacralize a value is to treat it as inviolable (trade-offs with ordinary values are forbidden), incontestable (even contemplating such trade-offs is prohibited), and dialectically invulnerable (no rational considerations can disrupt the agent’s commitment to the value). Philosophy of Devotion offers a detailed philosophical account and defense of these features. Devotion and the sacralization of values can be reasonable; indeed, a life involving meaningful, sustained commitment depends on these stances. Without devotion, we risk an existential condition called normative dissipation, in which all of our commitments become etiolated. Yet devotion can easily go wrong, deforming into the individual and group fanaticism that have become pervasive features of modern social life. The book provides an alternative to fanaticism, investigating the way in which we can express non-pathological forms of devotion. We can be devoted through affirmation and through what is termed the deepening move, which treats the agent’s central commitments as systematically inchoate. Each stance enables a wholehearted form of devotion that nevertheless preserves flexibility and openness, avoiding the dangers of fanaticism on the one hand and normative dissipation on the other. (The attached file contains the introductory chapter.)

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Paul Katsafanas
Boston University

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