Like every good commencement speech, Justin Tosi’s and Brandon Warmke’s accessible new book, Why It’s OK To Mind Your Own Business, starts with a bang. But there’s a twist. Because what grabs your attention in the first pages of the newest release in Routledge’s “Why It’s OK” series isn’t a memorable line from a notable commencement speech but the compelling case the authors begin to make for rejecting what they call Commencement Speech Morality (CSM).

According to Tosi and Warmke, CSM teaches that a morally good life is characterized by minding others people’s business—either by moralizing, by becoming a busybody, or by living with a pure heart, i.e., by believing that good intentions can save the world. Contrary to CSM, Tosi and Warmke commend a life of Ordinary Morality (OM), which teaches that it’s possible to mind your own business and live a morally good life.

In the first half of the book, Tosi and Warmke deconstruct CSM and explain the three kinds of people CSM produces. First, CSM produces moralizers. Although the authors concede that people use the term “moralizing” differently, they liken the moralizer to “the salesperson who refuses to stop pitching,” (Ibid., 15), or to the person who is unbothered by “overstepping important boundaries” to enforce their moral code (Ibid., 16). It may seem like the more effort we put into promoting morality, the better the moral outcomes will be. That’s untrue and simply a different version of the same mistake many make by overwatering their cactuses.

Second, CSM produces busybodies. Busybodies make a habit not of vocal moral criticism (like moralizers) but of “stick[ing] their noses into other people’s business” (Ibid., 39). They’re meddlers who engage in inappropriate helping behavior, always on the lookout for ways to make somebody else’s problems their own. Tosi and Warmke concede that helping others isn’t always bad; but because “compassion is a scarce resource,” we can’t focus all our energy on helping others “without spreading ourselves too thin” (Ibid., 56).

Lastly, CSM creates a culture of pureheartedness, in which people begin to believe that the solution to big problems—especially when moralizing or meddling don’t work—is better intentions, that caring more is the secret to achieving good results. Think again, argue Tosi and Warmke. First, well-meaning people often make matters worse. Consider mandatory seatbelt laws, which some researchers have concluded are ineffective, and perhaps even detrimental, to driver safety (Ibid., 70-71). Second, a lot of people do a lot of good without caring one bit. Simply put, “meaning well is not as powerful a force as many might hope” (Ibid., 80).

But that is only half the story. The back half of the book is constructive. There, Tosi and Warmke expound on OM, arguing that it entails more than not minding others’ business. It also means minding your own business, which (at least) consists of (1) putting down roots, (2) devoting time and resources to your home life, and (3) making time for solitude.

To be rooted to a place means to be attached to it; to benefit from it; and to responsibly tend to its habitat and institutions (see Ibid. chap. 5). To devote time and resources to your home life means to enjoy your home as a refuge from the world; as a “middle space for social interaction” (Ibid., 109); and as a place to welcome guests and make them feel at home (see Ibid., chapter 6). In chapter 7, Tosi and Warmke commend solitude, which they define as “the experience of social disengagement” (Ibid., 124). In a world in which there are so many problems to solve, solitude plays an important role in helping us remember that life consists of more than finding and righting wrongs. Time spent resting and recharging has moral value too.

Although there’s more to Why It’s OK To Mind Your Own Business than this, Tosi and Warmke ultimately make one big claim: you’ve got a choice to make. Either you can live based on CSM, and be drawn into a life of “simplistic activism,” working hard to “act[] out your good intentions to to make big changes in the world” (Ibid. 5), or you can accept, as OM does, that life isn’t that simple, and “the best we can do is consider what matters in our circumstances and try to choose wisely” (Ibid., 9).

But for all the book’s good—and there’s a lot to love in this little volume—the project proves to be its own worst enemy.

Self-identified value pluralists, Tosi and Warmke ultimately defeat their own cause, cabined by a priori commitments to conclude little more than this: that although minding your own business is morally important, it’s just one morally important thing amongst many (Ibid., 11). Which means that despite whatever they may tell you, whether you decide to mind your own business, or get out there and mind someone else’s is, well, your business.

There’s a lot of things I could say as I close, but the point I want to emphasize is this. There’s an irony that runs from cover to cover that cannot be ignored, namely: that as value pluralists, the authors’ defense of the rooted life is weakened by the fact that, as such, they can only say that one lifestyle choice is as good as another. That’s strange because at the outset it seemed as if Tosi and Warmke were preparing readers for an out-and-out defense of living the rooted life rather than the activist life. But that’s not what they delivered..

Although I concede that there are allusions to this—”[t]his book is a defense of minding your own business” (ibid., 10), the book’s epilogue implies that this project wasn’t really born of conviction but duty. It’s as if the authors sign off by confessing that they penned this little volume not because they had something they had to say but because professional philosophy, along with its “central expectation . . . that philosophers should defend the unexpected and unconventional rather than what is banal and commonplace,” obliged them to (Ibid., 141).

And I just can’t get over that. Perhaps I misunderstood the thrust of the argument, but I don’t think so. You see, I wanted to like this book. Because as someone who has written about the bonds we have with the places we live and work, of the importance of the ordinary, and of how quickly moral criticism can turn from virtue to vice, I appreciate so much of what Tosi and Warmke critique (CSM) and commend (OM).

But in the end, my reading was haunted by a scene from the 2018 adaptation of A Star is Born, in which Jackson Maine tells Ally Campana that there’s a big difference between having talent and having something to say. I don’t remember the conversation verbatim; but essentially, Jack says to Ally, a struggling singer-songwriter, that although everyone is talented at one thing or another, only a few people have something to say and a way to say it so that people listen.

That’s how this book makes you feel—like the authors, though undoubtedly very talented, are too afraid to speak with conviction such that readers end up not having to listen. Even though they could have—and, in my humble opinion, should have—come out and said that the rooted life is better than the activist life, Tosi and Warmke refused. Instead, they hedge and qualify their way through 150 pages, leaving readers with little more than “minding your own business is more important than you might expect” (Ibid., 11). So much for having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it.

Image Credit: Claude Monet, “Poppy Fields Near Argenteuil” (1875) via Flikr

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