This is the second part of a two-part series by Nicholas Joll. The first part was published last month and can be found here.
4. Everything you do is morally wrong (Adorno)
Here are some things you may have noticed: Almost half the world lives in extreme poverty. Exploitation, alienation, and oppression abound. So too does stupid, conformist, and hateful thinking. You will also be aware of climate change and environmental disaster. What you might not know—if you have not read Adorno, the German philosopher, polymath, and miserabilist—is that all this badness forecloses right living. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly,” as Adorno put it.
That is: things are so pervasively, systemically wrong that deep complicity is inevitable, such that just about everything anyone ever does is morally wrong.
To see the force of the idea, consider, first, consumption and specifically the following. It seems hard to deny that the life of many a consumer good—its development, production, distribution, marketing, and sale—often involves one or more of the following bad things: exploitative labor practices; anticompetitive behavior (monopolies, market-rigging and the like and/or aggressive lobbying); pollution and despoliation. Hence, buying things is wrong (or, to put the point with more nuance: buying many thing is wrong insofar as it makes one complicit in one or more bad practices). Next—and indeed I have broached this already—consider employment. Some types of jobs are: unjustly got ones; pointless ones; soul-destroying ones; people-destroying ones; environmentally damaging ones. Think also of tax-dodging employers—and don’t ask where the pension fund is invested. In such ways, employment is morally compromised. Next, consider what we might call dwelling (in German, wohnen; Heidegger made much of this, and there is some interesting overlap between Adorno’s and Heidegger’s thoughts on dwelling). According to Adorno, people obtain houses either via their immoral employment or via undeserved privilege; and home-ownership, and even renting, encourages consumerism, together with a domestic preoccupation that is a kind of apathy (because the revolution won’t take place in IKEA). Dwelling, then, is tainted.
Note also that we calm our consciences by defending these houses and jobs and purchases. We are apologists as well as accomplices. We perpetrate what we might call an ideology, where that word has its Marxist sense, i.e. means one or more falsehoods that serve the status quo. Is anyone blameless? Well, it seems hard to blame the people at the bottom, those more sinned against than sinning. And a few people work tirelessly for justice. These victims and saints—for such is what they are, more or less—may not be living morally wrongly. True; but can they really be said to be living? The crusader will wear herself down with her selfless work. The downtrodden are… downtrodden. Inference: one escapes living wrongly only at the cost of not really living at all—not living in any full or emphatic sense. Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.
It could be worse. Wrong life cannot be lived rightly, but one can “live less wrongly” (as Fabian Freyenhagen puts it). One can do so by such means as cultivating a critical attitude, being compassionate, avoiding direct participation in really bad things, and, above all, trying to prevent total disasters such as fascism.
5. Love can cross worlds (Sinhababu, via Lewis)
The world could have been different. (That is so even if by “the world” we mean just the Earth as against the rest of the universe.) For instance, there might not have been any humans on our planet. Or the Earth could have been very like our actual Earth , except that, say, tigers don’t have stripes and Nicholas Joll is not a philosopher but a vicar. Or, again, the world could have been much nicer, in various ways, than it is. Now, philosophers like to speak of such possible scenarios as “possible worlds.” A possible world is a way that the world could have been. Our actual world won the lottery amongst the possible worlds, so to speak. It is the one that made it into reality. It is the possible world that was actualized.
So, possible worlds are ways the world might have been. But let us be more precise. Philosophers’ possible worlds are logically possible worlds: they concern possibilities left open by logic rather than by physics or biology or psychology or whatever. Let me explain: Perhaps tiger biology is such that tigers need their stripes. Perhaps I couldn’t have been a vicar because I lack the vicaring gene or the religious temperament. Perhaps the laws of economics mean the world couldn’t have been much nicer (though I doubt it). Yet, whether those things are—as we might put it—physically possible, logical possibilities they certainly are. Contrast square circles, or it being the case that simultaneously I exist and I do not exist. Such things are not logically possible; no logically possible world contains them. But it is only contradiction that logic prohibits. Logic is permissive, and logically possible worlds legion. Any state of affairs that you can conceive, so long as it is not actually contradictory, is, or is part of, a logically possible world.
The twentieth-century American philosopher David Lewis raised the stakes on all this. He did so by holding that all logically possible worlds are real. What we call the “actual world,” Lewis argued, is merely the world we inhabit. The other logically possible worlds all exist as well, complete with unstriped tigers and the Reverend Nick Joll. This view is called “modal realism”: modal because possibility is at issue, and realism because Lewis asserts that logical worlds (all of them) are real. We are to believe, it seems, that merely possible roads are made of concrete just as real as the concrete we drive on, and that possible people are just as real as those people in the real world who live in different places or times to us.
Modal realism seems fantastical. Yet, there are at least two reasons to believe it.
1) There are benefits for philosophical theory. As Lewis puts it, “We ought to believe in other possible worlds and individuals” because “systematic philosophy goes more smoothly in many ways if we do.”  Here is one such benefit. The idea of possible worlds helps make sense of our otherwise mysterious modal notions because it allows the following useful analyses: What it is for something to be possible, is for it to obtain in some but not all possible worlds; and something is necessary if it obtains in all possible worlds. The rub here is that we can help ourselves to these analyses only if we accept the reality of possible worlds. Or so Lewis argues.
2) Refuting modal realism is hard. Lewis reported getting a lot of “incredulous stares”; but a stare is no argument, and, when objections were formulated, Lewis had answers. For instance, Lewis has been charged with being ontologically profligate. All these worlds! His reply is that he is profligate only in a certain way: he does multiply worlds; but he has not increased the number of kinds of entity to which we are committed. After all, our world is a logically possible world, and no one denies that it exists. So we believe in possible worlds anyway, already.
There is a paper called “Possible Girls” by Neil Sinhababu. It argues as follows: Surely it is logically possible that there is a girl who is absolutely perfect for you and who loves you utterly. (Sinhababu means a young woman; but the idea applies more widely—very widely, as we shall see.) Now, if Lewis is right, then this perfect person actually exists—even if your specification for the person that you want is rather demanding or unusual. Your “trans-world belovèd“ could be seven feet tall, a fetching shade of blue, and desperately keen not only on you but also on, say, newts—if that’s what you want. As long as your specification isn’t contradictory, you’re all good; the space of logical possibility is that big. Of course, meeting up is a problem. If your ideal person doesn’t exist in the actual world, i.e., in our logically possible world, then you won’t be able to meet her or him, because our world contains no way of getting to another possible world. But, still, you can know that our partner exists and loves you. That’s something, Sinhababu says. Further, “There is a way to get love letters from your possible girlfriend“. Here is how—it's a bit mind-bending, but it makes sense within the possible-worlds framework. You cannot receive a piece of paper, or an e-mail or SMS, from her. However,
…you can know what she’s writing to you. The way to do this is to include an extra stipulation when you choose your possible girlfriend. Stipulate that you want a girl who will write to you exactly those words that you write in a particular notebook. Then, when you want to hear from her, use the notebook to write the words that you want to hear from her.
So much for receiving letters from your crush. Can you send letters? Yes! Sinhababu has created the mechanism for this already, having reasoned as follows. In order to find a possible girl who wants you and not someone else, you must include, within the specification of your desired girl, this: she is interested only in your world. (That way, she won't be in interested in your “trans-world counterparts“, i.e., in versions of you that exist in possible worlds other than our actual world.) To that end, she’ll need to be able to pick out your world from others. So she’ll need knowledge of your world. In fact she’ll need to know every feature of your world—or every way it departs from hers. (Without this attractive godlike ability, she won’t be able to tell you from you counterparts.) But, if she has that knowledge, then, “When you write responses to her, she’ll get them—she has knowledge of every feature of your world that is absent from hers, and hence knows what you wrote”.
For those wishing to pursue these matters, Sinhababu’s paper is entertaining on the further subject of “impossible girls” (sic!).
I confess: I do not actually believe any of the propositions. (Or at least I am not going to admit to you that I do.) More: I may have indulged in a spot of sophistry, by insinuating the occasional non sequitur and by overlooking more charitable readings of my philosophers. Such shenanigans are justifiable in this context, I think. For thereby I hope to have made the ideas at issue more engaging.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, Verso, 1974, translated by E. F. N. Jephcott, p. 39. (“Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen.”)
 Fabian Freyenhagen, Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly, Cambridge UP, 2013, passim. My account herein of Adorno draws heavily on Freyenhagen's book.
 Robert Stalnaker, “David Lewis (1941–2001),” A Companion to Analytic Philosophy, Blackwell, 2001, edited by A. P. Martinich and D. Sosa, p. 481.
 Lewis, quoted in Stalnaker, op. cit., p. 480.
 Lewis uses the term “ersatz modal realism” for attempts to get possible worlds on the cheap, i.e., to use them in analysis without endorsing their existence. Lewis opposes such thrift as a false economy: trying to construe possible worlds as “some kind of linguistic object” won’t work (Stalnaker, op. cit., p. 482). Lewis argues also that modal realism—of the full sort—can provide a satisfactory (and nominalist) account of the nature of properties (idem, p. 484).
 Sinhababu does not actually accept modal realism. See Neil Sinhababu, “Possible Girls,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 89 (2008) 254–60, pp. 259–60.
 Sinhababu, “Possible Girls,” p. 257.
 "Possible Girls,” pp. 257f.
Nicholas Joll is a British philosopher. He is the author of several papers and a previous piece (on Adorno and ideas to do with “being subjective”) for the Partially Examined Life. He edited the book Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.