An interview with Seth Segall on his new book, The House We Live In

November 18, 2023

On 6 November 2023, SBN interviewed Seth Zuihō Segall about his new book, The House We Live in: Virtue, Wisdom, and Pluralism. Seth's talk on Engaged Buddhism: vision, hopes, and cautions, presented on 12 October for an online course on secular Buddhism and socially engaged Buddhism, can be found here.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Secular Buddhist Network: We have here today, Seth Zuihō Segall, who is a Zen Buddhist priest with Pamsula Zen of Westchester, New York. Seth has just put out a book called The House We Live In: Virtue, Wisdom, and Pluralism, which just came out in late September. Seth is also the author of Buddhism and Human Flourishing: A Modern Western Perspective, which came out in 2020. He's had chapters in the Rutledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation, and the Handbook of Positive Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, which came out in 2022. Seth is a contributing editor to Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, a review editor for the Humanist Psychologist, and the science writer for the Mindfulness Research Monthly.

I wonder if you could give people a sense of why you wrote this new book, what motivated you to talk about the relationship of Aristotle, Buddha, and Confucius, which is a  central theme in the book?

Seth Segall:  Well, there are really two sources for this book. One is my shock and dismay after the 2016 election. I've always been a progressive liberal, a critic of American policies; I was a participant in the civil rights movement of the 60s and the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the anti-Iraq War movement, and so forth. So, I've always been sensitive to the imperfections in American society. But I never thought things were as bad as they were. I think that the election of Donald Trump and the voices that kind of came out of the woodwork, so to speak at that point - I mean, there have always been ultra conservative voices, whether the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society - but there was a sense that the country really could stop being a democracy. I had read a book a number of years ago by Mary Beard on the history of Rome, called SPQR, which talked about how Rome lost its Republic, how Julius Caesar took over. And she described basically that it was the letting go of one little norm after another, it was a step-by-step erosion of democratic institutions that eventually led to its fall. And I was just applying it to what was happening here. I realized, for the first time in my life, in 75 years, that it was possible that we could stop being a democracy, we could become something else. So, I wanted to write a book that would say what are the foundations of democracy. What enables a democracy to flourish? And especially in a multicultural and multisectarian democracy like we have, a pluralistic democracy, where you have many different people believing many different things and many different visions of the good life. How do we negotiate those differences so that we don't basically kill each other, so that we find some way to accommodate each other and get along?

So that was one impetus to the book. And the other impetus is, as you had mentioned, I'd written a previous book on Buddhism and Human Flourishing that compared Aristotle and the Buddha. And as a Zen priest, I've been learning Chinese and reading a lot of Chinese texts - the Confucian, Daoist, and Legalist texts - all the different Chinese philosophies. And as I began to read these texts, I began to realize how much the Confucian tradition had in common with the Buddhist tradition and the Aristotelian tradition. And so, I wanted to say something about that, not that all three of them have all the answers to everything. But that all three are contributions by three very separate civilizations with different histories. And they come to somewhat similar conclusions about things. And maybe as we tried to think of the kind of ethics that enabled democracy to survive today, we can borrow from them, we can see what they have in common, and see how we can carry some of those ideas forward into modernity. So, that was the impetus for the book.

SBN: Another important intellectual and political perspective that you see as important in developing an ethics that we need in our contemporary life is John Dewey and the pragmatic tradition. How do you see that connecting with the more ancient philosophies of Aristotle, the Buddha and Confucius?

SS: Well, I think pragmatism, and I'm thinking specifically about Dewey's pragmatism, although it's also true to some degree with Peirce and James as well. It's just a way of looking at things non-metaphysically. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Aristotelianism all have their metaphysical groundings, and I don't think we necessarily want to carry those forward today. But maybe we don't need those metaphysical groundings, maybe we can just look at the way that people have always interacted with each other over time and what things lead to constructive ends and we can be empirical about it. And I think that part of what I get out of Dewey is that kind of empirical approach to solving problems. That ideas are not truths but they're tools. And they're tools that either get us somewhere or don't, in terms of trying to better our lives and engaging in those kinds of projects. And that we judge whether the tools were effective in retrospect, based on whether they seem to work or not. So that's the way I look at ethics as well; it's not that they're handed down by God or decreed by nature, or part of karma or the  structure of the universe, but they're just ways that we have learned that we need to do these things if we're going to get along together.

SBN:  I think that's very consistent with the approach you took with your book on Buddhism and Human Flourishing. You're really trying to move away from what I would call an absolutist set of standards about wisdom and ethics to one that is more grounded and recognizes human limitations. But that also recognizes the potential that human beings have to make changes for the better.

SS: And there are other aspects about Dewey's approach to life that just are temperamentally very similar to my own, so that he has a real appreciation for aesthetics. He has an appreciation for the value of democracy as a unique contribution to human culture. He has a holistic view of organisms in interaction with their environments and their cultures, as opposed to kind of an individualistic view of life. And as a human being, he was kind of on the right side of most issues. He was a founder of the NAACP, and he was a founder of the ACLU, and so forth. So, he was a major contributor to progressivism in the United States, to progressive education. So, there are a lot of positive things to recommend him.

SBN: And an active member of the American Federation of Teachers, he was a strong supporter of teacher unionism.... One of the important objectives in the book is looking at the set of virtues that Aristotle, Buddha, and Confucius identified as being important to a flourishing life. You're attempting to integrate or create a synthesis of the virtues that you think are important for our modern world and for hopefully creating a more tolerant democracy. So, can you say a little bit about why you chose the particular virtues you did among the various virtues that each of those thinkers discuss?

SS: Well, first of all, one of the things I say in the book is there's no such thing as a definitive list of the virtues. I could make a list up and you could always say, well, that doesn't really belong there. Or how can we leave that one out? And when I looked at the three of them, and also compared them with modern moral foundations theory, I could find all kinds of virtues that everyone lists that I don't include. So, the reason I picked the ones that I did was out of a theory about what makes a virtue a virtue. And the theory was that virtues had to have certain commonalities. They had to be, first of all, self-regarding and lead to one's personal well-being. Second of all, they had to be other-regarding; they had to take other people's needs and perspectives into account. It couldn't just be all about me. And the third is they genuinely had to lead to some vision of flourishing. So, it's essential to understand what flourishing is, and it's not until the end of the book that I talk about my particular vision of flourishing. Also, in a kind of Deweyan sense, being clear that by flourishing as a human I don't mean flourishing for every culture in all ages. But I mean flourishing in modern liberal democracies today as opposed to flourishing in honor societies or warrior societies or other kinds of cultures.

So, I list seven virtues, including truthfulness, courage, conscientiousness, equanimity, and justice. I think that you can see what they contribute to a kind of personal well-being; they are instrumental in that way. If I'm courageous, for example, it means that I'm willing to stand up for what I believe in and express myself, I'm willing to set boundaries when other people are going to impede me, and you can see how those things can lead to one's own well-being. That means that when I want to try something new and I'm afraid that it might fail, I have the courage to persist in it. So, courage is intimately related to our ability to live our lives and not shrink, to kind of expand ourselves into our full lives. But it's also necessary for society to flourish; you need soldiers and policemen to be courageous and firemen to be courageous and so forth. It’s necessary for social functioning as well. And if you're truthful, it means first of all, you're truthful about yourself with yourself. If you understand what you really want and how you really feel and what you really mean and what your real intentions are, and so forth, you're much more likely to accomplish your goals than if you're lying to yourself about those things. And if you're truthful to other people, other people trust you more; they're more willing to engage in mutual projects with you.

And the same thing: if you're fair in your interactions with people, people want to collaborate with you. And so, you're building a life together with other people that's a meaningful life, not only for you, but for them as well. And we depend on the fairness of everyone in business transactions and marital transactions and court transactions and so forth. Fairness is absolutely crucial for society to function, for people to be able to trust each other.

But more than it being instrumental, these virtues are also partly constitutive of what flourishing is. When we talk about what a flourishing person is like, we think about them as being, for example, honest and compassionate and standing up for what they believe in. These are all parts of what we mean by being an excellent human being. So, you see the same thing in the Buddhist tradition - that, for example, being compassionate is not just a way to get to be a Buddha. But once you're a Buddha, what is a Buddha? It's someone who's compassionate. There's a way in which the path is a foretaste of the end state you're trying to achieve.

SBN: You are part of a Buddhist tradition; you're a Zen Buddhist priest. How do you see your continuing involvement in Zen Buddhism? How do other Zen Buddhists relate to your take on virtues and your take on flourishing? Do you find Zen Buddhists evolving in the direction you've moved to? Or is your perspective kind of unique within the Zen Buddhist community?

SS: I don't think it's unique, but I wouldn't want to speak for all Zen Buddhists either. I mean, within the Buddhist tradition there is a kind of a bifurcation. There are two approaches to Buddhism. One is a developmental one, in which we see ourselves as building certain virtues. This is the traditional Eightfold Path and so forth. And so, we're practicing equanimity. We're practicing loving kindness, we're practicing mindfulness, and over many lifetimes we'll become Buddhas. And then there's that other approach in Buddhism, which says we already are Buddhas, and all we have to do is uncover our true nature of just who we are. So, there's really a tension or a conflict between those two approaches. And you see that in Zen as well as other forms of Buddhism.

The first thing that you do to become a Zen Buddhist is you take the precepts; there are 16 ethical precepts. And in the Soto Zen catechism that was created during the Meiji Restoration, the heart of Buddhism is vow and atonement. In other words, it's about vowing to accomplish certain things and achieving certain virtues and then falling short and atoning for it. And we begin our Zen sessions with the gatha of atonement. You know, we failed what we're trying to do and we end with the new vows again. So, there's a moral quality built into it. But then there's also a tendency for Zen to ignore all that and say, well, we should just act naturally and there's no need to develop these virtues. And there was a lot of tension between that Buddhist view and the Confucian view; Confucianism is all about cultivation of virtue.

So, you see a whole spectrum within the Zen community about these sorts of things. I know that there are certainly people who have read my books in the Zen community who agree with them and there are probably others who are probably offended by them in a number of  ways.

I guess I think of myself more and more as being a kind of a cosmopolitan. And that the Zen path isn't the main or only path of cultivation; I'm borrowing from many other traditions as well. I don't see why we need to be limited to one. And in fact, if you read the koan collections, for example, the Blue Cliff Record, the commentaries that were written during the Song Dynasty of the 11th century, the commentators read all this stuff. They quote from Confucius, they quote from the Daoist tradition, they know the Chinese poets and The Book of Odes, they're very well read. And they're borrowing from all these traditions as they're creating their new Zen tradition at that point. So, I think there's a way that Zen has always been somewhat cosmopolitan but we deny that.

SBN: I think that's a really important point. And I think it's true within other trends within Buddhism that there is the recognition that we need to incorporate a variety of perspectives to help understand what a flourishing life is, what it means to live together in society in a peaceful and just way. And that, assuming that one perspective will have all the answers is mistaken and not helpful in terms of us being able to live in this world. So, I'd like you to talk a little bit more about the connection of Buddhism and these other perspectives. In your book, Buddhism and Human Flourishing, you discussed how Aristotle's theory of flourishing and of human ends and the Buddha's notion of enlightenment could be integrated into something you called eudaimonic enlightenment. How would you describe the difference between what Buddhists typically understand as being the end goal of their practice and what you understand to be a more expansive vision of a flourishing?

SS: I think they differ in two main ways. First of all, when you talk about a Buddhist end goal, the idea that there's an end that you reach and you're done, is already very different from my view of things. I believe we're always growing, always enlarging our vision of what's possible, always creating new visions of ourselves that enlarge us in some kind of way. And I don't think there's an end to the road. And sometimes in the Buddhist tradition, you see acknowledgement of that. So, there's talk about going beyond Buddha, for example. Dogen writes, when a bird flies in the sky, there's no end to the sky. I think we have to understand that we're all coming from our own limited perspectives, both as a kind of biological being, as a product of evolution, and as someone inhabiting a culture, that we see things only from a very limited way; and whatever vision we have, however large it is, that's only just one perspective on things. So, I think that's one way it differs. There's no final end in my vision, there's just constant growth.

Another way it differs is in view of what perfection might be. Buddhism has a belief of somehow transcending - at least in some forms of Buddhism - one's humanity, and reaching some perfect state like Nirvana in which one is perfectly equanimous and perfectly compassionate and perfectly wise and all knowing; and that just doesn't appeal to me, that kind of vision. I don't think human beings are capable of it. I believe in what Immanuel Kant said that ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ I'm kind of Augustinian in some ways in my view of human nature, I don't believe that human beings are basically good. I believe we have the potential for good and evil. And that what we end up being is what we cultivate over time.

And there are elements of the Buddhist vision of well-being that are subtractive, that you have to give up things, give up things, give up things. You give up desire, give up attachment, etc. And I don't think the key to a good life is giving up desire and attachment; it's wise desire and attachment. The attachments we have to people, for example are some of the most important parts of a flourishing life for most of us. And many desires we have are good ones - a desire to be a better parent, to be a better husband, to be better citizen, to make a living for one's family and not starve. These are all positive desires; I don't see them as negative things. And I think we set goals and we work towards them. But it's important that we find the right goals, the ones that really make us and other people happy, and not ones that don't provide that. So many of us are pursuing illusionary goals. Once you achieve them, you say, ‘Is that all there is?’ So, I think we often have the wrong goals set up for ourselves. And then we have to understand that sometimes our goals can't be reached; we have to be able to adjust them and accept that we're not going to get them. And where the Buddhists are right is that we have to accept an awful lot in life that we don't want, including old age, sickness and death, as well as dissension and conflict. I mean, that's part of everyone's life. And the idea that we can somehow transcend and go beyond that is ridiculous. The question is: Can we deal with it in a kind of way that's wise?

SBN: Thank you. Your approach differs from at least certain versions of traditional Buddhism, and I would be tempted to say that you sound very much like a secular Buddhist, although you have made clear that your approach is more of what you would describe as kind of a naturalistic Buddhism, right? Can you just say a few words about how you see the difference between a naturalistic Buddhism versus secular Buddhism?

SS: When you're saying you're a secular Buddhist, as many people do, including yourself, Mike, I think you're creating a boundary at that point between secularism and non-secularity. I don't feel like I need to set that kind of boundary and say that a secular approach is the right approach. That these other approaches in Buddhism that are more cosmological or mythological, or involve some degrees of supernaturalism, or some degree of mind-body dualism - I don't want to say that they're wrong. I have no idea what the ultimate nature of reality is, they might be right for all I know. I'm happy to let you continue to believe the things that make sense for you; the proof of the pudding in the end is the eating - do we feel that these practices are enlarging us or helping us grow?

The other thing is that when I was working as a chaplain at a hospital, I was working with people from all religions. I wasn't just working with Buddhists; in fact, I was very rarely working with Buddhists in my neck of the woods. And I found that as I was talking with people about their beliefs - about the Christ within them or their Hindu beliefs or their Jewish beliefs, whatever beliefs they're expressing - I found ways I could relate to what they were saying, that I could translate their experience into my own experience. And, while I wouldn't put their experience in that way, and they might object to the way I might reconstruct it, there are commonalities that I could recognize. And I didn't want to exclude those commonalities.

And then there are the third and fourth things. I've had my own experiences, which as a naturalist, I don't know how to quite understand, but they have something to do with what Albert Schweitzer calls a reverence for life, or what Dewey calls natural piety. This has to do with some kind of sense of the sacred within ordinary life that I would loathe to give up. And then last of all, I just happen to like ritual. I find ritual very helpful in all sorts of ways. Zen is full of rituals, all the bowing and bells, I love them. Incense, I love all of that. So, I'm reluctant to give that up.

SBN: You know, I actually find myself in agreement with you that we don't want to create a kind of rigid boundary between a secular Buddhist approach and other approaches. I myself am agnostic about some of the bigger ontological and metaphysical questions, and I certainly don't feel that a secular Buddhist approach is THE right approach. But I see it as being one legitimate and important way of bringing Buddhist insights into the contemporary world. So, I think that we share an awful lot in terms of sensibilities. We may self-identify in slightly different ways, but I think this is just part of the continuing conversation we have as we try to figure out these issues.

SS: Let me say one other thing. I know that on the Secular Buddhist Network website that Winton Higgins and I've had a couple of go-arounds discussing this issue. But I just I just read one of Winton's books and reviewed it for my blog, and while I found myself agreeing with a lot of things in the book, there are certain areas that just rubbed me the wrong way. And one is - and he shares this Stephen Batchelor who is someone I really love and appreciate - he believes he can go back and excavate an early form of Buddhism that was pure, before all these evil monastics came along and layered on all the superstition and cosmology. And then surprisingly, this Buddha that we discover as we do this excavation looks very much like us; he could be the Deweyan Buddha or whatever, I don't know. I just doubt that. Why not say, okay, the Buddha lived in a different time and a different culture? And maybe not everything he believed was true. Mount Meru may not be the center of the universe and so forth. He was wrong about a lot of things, just like Plato was wrong about a lot of things. And just like Confucius was wrong about a lot of things. And just like Wittgenstein was wrong about a lot of things; you know, nobody gets everything right. But on the other hand, he lays out a path, which is an historical path, which is very, very rich and has 2500 years of history behind it and can be very informative for us today. But we don't have to say that he was really just like us. That's the other thing I object to. I don't think you can find the real Buddha any more than you can find the real Jesus or the real Moses or the real Laozi.

SBN: There, I actually  agree with you. I think a better way of saying it is not that there are certain aspects of early Buddhism that are pure or the kernel of the truth and we're just sort of scraping away cultural accretions of that time. I think it's just that when we look back, and as we do with other important figures in Greek philosophy or in literature, we find that people in different cultures in the past, in responding to their challenges, have sometimes developed ways of thinking that have an enduring impact and value for people in the future. That we then take on and integrate into our own sensibilities and perspectives. So, I think I would agree that the formulation sometimes presented by Stephen Batchelor and Winton in that respect is not particularly helpful. I would agree with you there.

SBN: So Seth, I want to finish up here with the ending of your book, where you attempt to apply your understanding of the virtues which are extremely valuable not only for our own individual self-development but for society as well, and your notion of flourishing. And how that approach can be helpful in us responding more wisely to the many problems that we have today. For example, in the beginning of our discussion, one of them you mentioned was the rise of Trump, and in the United States context, the seeming power of an anti-democratic, racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic perspective which seems to be as strong now as it was back in 2016. How do we respond to that? How do we try to create a society that is pluralistic, tolerant, empathetic, and compassionate? Can you say a little bit about that part of the book and what you were trying to accomplish in discussing these current issues?

SS: Let me back up a bit. So, I described flourishing as living a life that's emotionally satisfying, that's psychologically rich, that's meaningful, and that's attentive to the moral and aesthetic potentialities within each moment. So, we want to create that kind of life for ourselves. That's what we aspire to in our lives, that's what we want for our children. And this means we want to create a culture in which more people can live those kinds of lives.

We want as many people to be able to fulfill those potentials as is possible within a culture. And at the same time, we acknowledge pluralism, the idea that people will have come from different perspectives, different cultures, different religions, different backgrounds. And they have different needs, different abilities, different talents, and they have different perspectives on what the good life is going to be like for them. So, a liberal society is one in which as much as possible, you allow people to fulfill the kind of lives the way that makes sense to them.

And obviously, they're going to be conflicts in those kinds of cases. Not everyone is going to agree on what the good life is going to be. And those get negotiated out. They get negotiated in the media, they get negotiated out in political movements, and so forth. We can talk about that as the normal mechanism for resolving conflicts. And we can talk about some conflicts as being tolerable. Those people are different from us, but that's okay; they don't have to be just like us even though we don't like them very much when they do this. And then other ones become intolerable for us. Owning slaves is a non-starter for us. We can't allow that to continue.

And the question is, what's tolerable and intolerable? And that's a psychological question. It's not an ethical question really.  What can you tolerate? You try to tolerate as much as you can. You try to compromise as much as you can. And then sometimes there's no way to compromise and you end up with real conflict, as we did during the U.S. Civil War, for example. So, that becomes a practical kind of question: What kinds of things are soluble through compromise and through trying to reach out to the humanity of other people and just accept the fact that we're different and yet we can have different ways of living; and which are unacceptable. And we see this work out in all kinds of ways in the culture.

The Mormons in Utah had this problem when they had to give up plural marriage in order to become part of the U.S.  Some people never did, you know. So plural marriages still exist somewhere on the margins in some Mormon communities and somehow the world has gone on despite that. We talk about the Amish and how they don't believe in driving motorcars and so forth, but they find their own place to live. They don't insist that everyone else give up motorcars and they find a way to live in American society as Amish. Or you can talk about the Hassidic Jews who want to continue on their own way. They don't want to go on the internet, et cetera, et cetera. And there are conflicts at times over schools and what the schools have to teach and what kind of money goes to aid schools that don't teach secular subjects. They are conflicts that we negotiate out politically and sometimes they're pretty hot, but we don't kill each other over it for the most part. We can talk about Jehovah's Witnesses not wanting their kids to have blood transfusions. When we come across these conflicts all the time, we try to negotiate them as best we can. Can Native Americans use peyote in its ceremonies? We negotiate these things out one way or another and most of the time we avoid bloodshed.

So, the question is, how much pluralism can we allow in the United States, given that there are Christian groups in this country who often self-identify as evangelicals, for example, who believe that America ought to be a Christian country. And by Christian, they mean, following those rules in the Bible that they themselves follow. They don't follow all of them, but they select certain ones as being the key ones. And they say: Well, everyone ought to follow that, say, rules about abortion and so forth. There's a real conflict about those, how do you settle those? In the past, we've settled it with a kind of ecumenism, a kind of denominationalism. That we can have all these different denominations; you can be a Catholic and I can be a Protestant and you can be a Unitarian and you can be a Hindu. In the 1950s, we said: just go to the church or synagogue of your choice, but we're all good citizens.

What's different now is that this new Christian movement is insisting that it be the sole basis for everybody in society. That that's a non-starter, you can't do that in a pluralistic society. But you also have to give them the right maybe to live their own lives as they see fit, and not intrude too much on them. So, there's a balance to be found. And where is that balance to be found? There's no final resting place. It's always a shifting balance. Things that are hot issues now, 50 years from now won't be hot issues anymore; people have moved on to other issues that are hot issues.

But the other thing I want to put in context is that the rate of change in society right now is enormous. And it's very hard for people to keep up with this rate of change. Marx wrote in the 1800s that ‘everything that’s solid melts into air.’ And that's even more true today. As technological innovation advances, society has to adjust to it. A society where everyone's weapon was a front-loaded, single shot musket could have a Second Amendment that made sense. Everyone could own a gun; you lived on the frontier and you needed a gun to hunt muskrats. But nowadays, when you have automatic weapons, maybe it doesn't make sense anymore.

Certain kinds of sexual morality make sense before the advent of the birth control pill, but now that we have the birth control pill, mores change. So, technological advances really change society in enormous ways.

And things that used to be the common understanding of almost everyone in society are now not anymore. So, when this country began it was founded as a colonial project that didn't include slaves or Native Americans. It saw itself as a Northern European-descent Protestant country. And writers at the time marveled at that. How is it that Swedes and Germans and Brits and Dutch can all get along and become Americans, right? And then you have a play that's produced at the turn of the 20th century called The Melting Pot - that's where we get the term from. The play points out that even Jews and Italians can come into America and all these Europeans, everyone from Europe can come in, and we can all get along. And again, they don't include blacks or Native Americans, they don't include Asians, none of them get included.

But there is constant struggle as new groups come in to enlarge that vision of America. So, in the 1850s, we have the Know Nothing Party in the U.S. who didn’t want the Irish Catholics coming in. And we begin to restrict immigration at the beginning of the 20th century, when there were too many Jews and Italians coming in. And now who is coming in? We have a lot of Central and Latin Americans coming in, we have a lot of East Asians and South Asians coming in, we're beginning to have a lot of Africans coming aboard now. So, the demography is changing. And people who used to be the group that thought of themselves as kind of archetypal, you know, the ‘real’ Americans, are not that anymore. And so, the nation isn't a Christian nation anymore; we're going to reach a point when 50% of the nation isn't Christian but is Hindu or Buddhist or Islamic or spiritual but not religious, or atheist or agnostic. We're going to hit that point pretty soon. English-speaking white is not going to be the modal experience anymore in this country.

Certainly, as our views about homosexuality and transsexuality are changing, we're admitting more and more voices into what it means to be an American, a “normal” American, a “healthy” American. And I can see people who used to be in another position finding it very hard to adjust to all this change, it feels very disorienting. And then we blame them for feeling privileged and say: How dare you hold on to your privilege? Well, they're holding on to what's been their status as far as they can see for hundreds of years. And, they're frightened about losing status, about what their role is going to be in this new culture. It's not the culture they grew up in. I think as much as we want to hold on to a kind of universalism and pluralism, I think we can also understand where their distress is coming from, and that this world is moving very fast and I think we owe them some charity in some ways. 

So, I guess that's what I'm thinking about. As we negotiate all these difficulties, we have to find some way to connect with each other not as enemies but as people who disagree very strongly on things, that are very anxious about things, but we are all still human beings who are concerned about our families and our well-being. We are still decent people in many, many aspects. None of us are decent people in every aspect. None of us are perfect. There are all kinds of views that we hold that 100 years from now, people will say: “How could they think that?” We ought to have that same kind of charity for other people who are kind of feeling like they're losing their place and status. So, the question is how to negotiate those things, it's very difficult. You have to be able to have these conversations with people not about ‘this is why you're wrong and I'm right,’ but ‘this is why I see things differently than you.’ And let's try on thinking like each other's view and let's discuss it. Let's see if it's possible to find some area where we agree not to kill each other, which is the bottom line. Can we keep democracy, which I think is so precious, can we keep this idea that we all have to kind of reach some kind of consensus and not everyone will agree with in the end? But we have to agree in the end that the majority will have some say, not that the majority is always right and gets to do whatever it wants, but that it matters if you get 51% of the vote.

SBN: That was very helpful. As part of your perspective, I think you can also say that where there is an inevitable sort of conflict to try to engage in that conflict in a way which is peaceful, without demonizing the other side, but also standing up strongly for what we believe is right and is helpful in terms of social change.

SS: And then there are few other layers to this. I mean, I've put a very simplistic picture on it, but I also want to suggest that the whole way that we've kind of organized our meritocracy excludes an awful lot of people that used to be thought of as privileged in the society; they're not privileged anymore. There was an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago about the cost of college and whether it is worth it. And basically, it said that unless you're going into a STEM field or unless you go into an elite college, the amount of debt you're going accumulate by going to school is not going to be worth it for most people. And now 50% of parents don't want their kids to go to college. And given that college is still the sole ticket to entering the meritocracy, you are closing a lot of people out of feeling valued and worthwhile. That feeds into Trumpism, as much as anything else does.

And also, I talk in my book about how in every era, there has been some elite intellectual group that's trying to improve the morality of the masses. Whenever that happens, there's always resentment because the masses don't want to be improved. For example, you can talk about the American temperance movement trying to get men to stop drinking in the 1800s, or the Protestant Reformation wanting Germans to be more sober and hardworking people. Or the Catholic Church, way back when, wanting people to go to Mass more than once a year, not just on Easter. There’s always resentment against these movements to improve people. And we’re seeing some of that now. And I think we have to be sensitive to the kind of resentment that these movements breed. People for the most part just want to be left alone, to live their lives the way they’ve always lived it, the way it’s been “since time immemorial.” It's not that's these reform movements don’t succeed. I mean, people drink a lot less now than they did during the 1800s. And the Germans are a more sober and hardworking people than they were before the Protestant Reformation. But this is the project of civilization. It's a long-term project and it breeds a lot of resentment along the way. Don't be surprised.

SBN: Well, thank you so much for being with us and giving, giving us a sense of the key themes of your new book. it was great talking with you.

SS: It's always fun talking with you, Mike. Thanks for inviting me.



One Reply to “An interview with Seth Segall on his new book, The House We Live In”

Lance Hilt

This is an excellent interview. I have enjoyed Seth’s blog for some time now. He has a knack for cutting through obscurity with clarity. I am happy to see he is addressing Confucianism, which has been much overlooked as an influence on Zen, the emphasis on Taoism garnering most, if not all, of the attention.

My only quibble is with this statement:

“Can we keep democracy, which I think is so precious, can we keep this idea that we all have to kind of reach some kind of consensus and not everyone will agree with in the end? But we have to agree in the end that the majority will have some say, not that the majority is always right and gets to do whatever it wants, but that it matters if you get 51% of the vote.”

Consensus is the exact opposite of 51% majority rule and is designed to avoid such outcomes. It is the main form of arriving at decisions in most hunter-gatherer societies where keeping a cohesive social group together is highly valued. Win-lose situations create stressful conditions for such cohesion and harmony. The framers of the constitution, in their efforts to prevent democracy, which they equated with “mob rule,” could hardly have created a more divisive, polarizing system than the one in place. Add in political parties to a winner-take-all system, which they all denounced but joined once formed out of a perceived necessity, and the huge disparity in wealth and power unchecked capitalism creates, and the inevitable result is the fractious, contentious condition we now experience, with only two viable parties as declared enemies, unwilling to compromise. A “jen” destroying system — Confucius would be appalled!

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