Dear Iris,

I’ve just returned from a wonderful month of holidays. I lived slowly and spontaneously, paying close attention to the people and the world around me. Now I dread returning to my everyday life, which is lived by to-do lists. It seems less of a good life. It seems less true too; it seems we fool ourselves when we treat life and ourselves as if they submit to planning, to management, to our wills essentially. Yet I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my responsibilities and still thrive without to-do lists and the like. Dear Iris, I know receptivity and attention are important to you and also that you lead a productive life. Enlighten me: can receptivity and productivity be reconciled, or only lived in turns?

all the best to you,


Philosopher's reply

13 January 2020

Dear Annemarie

Thank you for your message. Like you, I am know returning from a few weeks holiday. You asked me about how two ways of living, or being minded, might relate to eachother: one is the expression of our planning or means-end rationality; the other is what you (&Iris) speak of as ‘loving attention’. I take the latter to be a kind of rationality, too – but that’s a bigger and more controversial question I’ll leave aside here. Your question is more practical: whether the two kinds of mindedness can only take turns with each other, or whether they can be fully integrated. I am inclined to think that they can only take turns, but also that we can strive towards greater integration. Perhaps Kant can help here, when he formulated the basic moral principle as a command never to treat persons as mere means (to our own ends). We are the means to one another’s ends all the time; but even in those moments we can try harder & harder to really get it that here is another person, not a thing. Iris endorses this from Kant, stressing that this understanding comes in degrees. It’s something we ought to try to perfect, & probably the best opportunity for doing so is in our planning-minded lives.

Yours M. Merritt

Philosopher's profile

Melissa Merritt

University of New South Wales, Australia

The Sovereignty of Good is, quite simply, one of the best works in ethics in the 20th century. It is dense and rigorously argued, but also funny and inventive, with its jabs at the 'Kantian man-god' who is 'forever capable of "stepping back"'. Read closely, she is not actually dismissing Kant, but rather what Kantian ethics had become; suffice it to say, her criticisms remain apt.

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