“Bright Eyes” and La Dolce Vita

Although I finished my PhD years ago, I have the good fortune to continue to be welcome at the weekly lab meetings for my advisor, Gerard Saucier, where he talks with his grad students about the many interesting things he’s working on and thinking about. Today’s meeting covered what he described as a “smorgasbord” of topics, among them cultural differences in value hierarchies, or more simply put, what people believe is important.

Several philosophers have proposed their own hierarchies of values, like Francis Hutcheson and Jeremy Bentham. In general, at the very top of the hierarchies are more universal values: the well-being of everyone. Next comes the well-being of one’s own family and friends, then more abstract good things like art and science, then one’s own interests that don’t cause harm to others, and at the bottom, more selfish gratifications that may involve treating others poorly. In other words, if your highest principles are the public good, you could use this ranking to decide how to prioritize things you might be interested in doing.

But in his research, Gerard has learned something interesting, which caught my attention in the past, and which he mentioned today also – there’s another familiar value ordering that’s different from the philosophers’ hierarchies. It goes like this: At the very top, we have success – not necessarily money or material goods or with a disregard for others, but pursuing one’s ambitions with regard for intelligence, wisdom, family security, and self-respect. After that comes true friendship, enjoying life, being responsible, honest, and broad-minded, in a “world of peace.” After that comes loyalty, equality, justice, spirituality, creativity, and a “world of beauty.” Less important but still relevant are values related to duty, such as honoring one’s parents and concerns with national security; social recognition also ranks at this level. And at the very bottom we have social power – dominance or control over others.

I sum up this value hierarchy as a “La Dolce Vita” worldview – the good life. A great many of us have this relatively self-contained focus. This doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the public good too, it just means that we can treat the worlds of politics and social causes as something separate and optional. We can even ignore them altogether if we’re so fortunate as to have enough of our basic needs met that we can devote our time to our own pursuits and these worlds of true friendship and beauty.

If I remember correctly, Gerard’s data found that this mentality was especially common in modern France. That would be ironic, since when Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the early 1800s, he was concerned at how prevalent this worldview was here. (Sorry, that’s just from memory – I should look it up!)

Relatedly, it’s interesting to reflect that before women were given the vote and recognized as participants in the political world, they were clearly expected to devote themselves instead to this value hierarchy – family, wisdom, self-respect, true friendship, and so forth, and to creating a domestic sphere where the men could enjoy these worlds of peace and beauty as an escape from the public and commercial spheres.

ritaThat’s where you’d have found my mom, hosting “pasta parties” for her Italian conversation class friends and spending her leisure hours tending her garden or immersed in archaeology magazines and cozy mysteries set in the English countryside. Certainly she cast her ballot on election day, but that world didn’t interest her; she thrived at home.

Today is my mom’s Remembrance Day, the first of many, as she passed away on this date last year. So, rather than working on my book, I’ve spent the last hour writing this reflection. I hope someday to have the time to pursue these ideas further with Gerard – I can see a bunch of notes we exchanged about it back in 2016, but then I set it aside.

Meanwhile, when my partner mentioned that his online book club will be reading Watership Down this month, he also mentioned that it would be one of their Discord group’s weekly movies. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the movie – what I remember best about it is the Art Garfunkel song, “Bright Eyes,” when our hero, the rabbit Hazel, has been shot and is lingering between life and death. After humming the song for hours, I remembered that one of the last gifts my mom gave me was a rabbit pin, and that we both liked rabbits, and so I think this song is for her too.

And then, to close the circle, I’ll just remark that Watership Down (by Richard Adams) is an extraordinary novel, essentially a fictional exploration of the anthropology of politics – with rabbits. (Here’s one philosopher’s summary.) Hazel and his community would like nothing better than to find a new home where they can live the good life, after their original warrens were destroyed for human housing, but it takes work. Unless we’re insulated entirely, the political world does matter.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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