Thursday, October 28, 2010

Letter to the editor

Here's a draft of a letter I'm thinking of sending to our local newspaper:
Joy Masoff’s book Our Virginia: Past and Present, published by Five Ponds Press, a book for fourth-graders in Virginia, falsely claims that thousands of African-Americans fought for the South in the Civil War. Of course some did. Slaves don’t have much say in such things. But what Masoff has written is not true. That her book should contain such errors ought not to be surprising, since she is not a trained historian and made her claim on the basis of something she found on the internet. Fortunately this book was not given to children in Rockbridge County [where I live] as far as I know. But it is an issue that should still concern us here. It certainly concerns our Governor, who has ordered a review of Virginia’s textbook adoption system.

Some people are calling this a great opportunity for children to learn not to believe everything they read. But how are children to learn if they question everything their teachers say? Or everything they read in state-approved textbooks? Are fourth-graders supposed to fact-check the material we ask them to read? If so, how exactly are they supposed to do it? If they learn anything from this sorry episode it should be not to trust material they find on the internet, where anyone can post anything.

So should we take them to the libraries at VMI or Washington and Lee [the two local colleges] so they can do their own research? I think they might be a little young for that.

This is not a learning opportunity or “teachable moment” for our children. It is a wake-up call for parents and anyone else who cares about the education of young Virginians. We need to get amateurishness and propaganda (where do you think Masoff got her ‘information’ from?) out of the classroom. And it is important too that our children learn that there is such a thing as truth, that one source is not just as good as another, and that there are facts, not just different opinions. It would be nice if the people in Richmond realized this too and chose a textbook written by a real expert next time.

Any suggestions for improvement will be gratefully received.

UPDATE: the letter was published and several people have said they liked it. Tomorrow (Wednesday) I'll find out whether anyone has responded.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What's bad about pain?

Here's an odd exchange from The God Dialogues:
Eva: The argument can be stated concisely, if we let "evil" stand for things having negative moral value.
Gene: What does that mean?
Eva: The clearest examples are pain and suffering. Those things are morally bad. I mean: it's better if there's less of them, other things being equal.
Gene: So evil is pain or suffering?
Eva: Again, those are clear examples. But there might be other evils, such as the sort of loss that death can imply.
Theo: Hold on, Eva. "Evil" doesn't mean "pain, suffering, or death." Paper cuts cause pain but rarely involve evil.
Eva: Right, I know. I just need a term for negative moral value.
Gene: Hey, I just thought of one that's less misleading than "evil."
Eva: Do tell.
Gene: How about, "negative moral value"?
Eva: Cute. Look, I'll just use "evil." Sue me later if you want.

I have to say I'm with Theo and Gene here, and don't know how or why the authors let Eva get away with this. My fear is that they did because it is common to do so in philosophical circles. If that is the case then no doubt there are objections to doing so, and it is perhaps these to which Eva pays lip service in this dialogue. Against Eva, and anyone else who talks or thinks this way, though: How does pain have negative moral value?

What I want to say is this: Inflicting pain is morally bad, other things being equal, but pain itself is not morally anything. Its badness is subjective, i.e. it feels bad.

But pain's feeling bad is analytic, isn't it? Wikipedia defines pain as: "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage." Quoting Wikipedia isn't always impressive, I know, but the article gets its definition from this source: "International Association for the Study of Pain | Pain Definitions". Retrieved 12 October 2010. Derived from
Bonica, JJ (1979). "The need of a taxonomy". Pain 6 (3): 247–252. doi: 10.1016/0304-3959(79)90046-0. ISSN 0304-3959. PMID 460931.

And that sounds pretty respectable to me. The definition itself also strikes me as perfectly reasonable, and I am a competent speaker of English.

So there is something weird about saying that pain feels bad, or is bad in a subjective (i.e. 'feely') way. It's the kind of tautology that I can imagine Wittgenstein calling nonsense. But at least it's the kind of nonsense--if it is nonsense at all--that is closer to obvious truth than obvious falsehood.

The idea that pain is "morally bad," on the other hand, sounds very confused. Can a state even have moral value at all? G. E. Moore argued that “by far the most valuable things…are certain states of consciousness, which may roughly be described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects” (Principia Ethica). I don't know what is meant a "state of consciousness," but perhaps pain would count as one. If so, perhaps Moore's work is the origin of the idea that pain is not merely bad but morally bad.

(I say I don't know what a state of consciousness is, by the way, because I don't know whether such a state is supposed to be able to exist without, say, the beautiful objects referred to. That is, is it something that can be artificially produced, or is the context essential to it? Is one supposed to be able, if only in theory, to have the pleasures of human intercourse without the human intercourse itself? Is it something in the head?)

But what do I mean by "morally bad"? What kinds of badness can there be other than the subjective kind? Lots, I would think. But doesn't there have to be a moral agent involved for there to be moral badness or goodness? It seems to me that morality has to do with agency, so that only an agent or an act can have moral qualities.

Hmm. Before I started typing this seemed to have all sorts of connections to Anscombe and problems in Moore and the problem of evil and so on and so on. Now I think maybe I've just found a bad passage in a textbook. Oh well.

Nothing to show

Peter Hacker:
Philosophy does not contribute to our knowledge of the world we live in after the manner of any of the natural sciences. You can ask any scientist to show you the achievements of science over the past millennium, and they have much to show: libraries full of well-established facts and well-confirmed theories. If you ask a philosopher to produce a handbook of well-established and unchallengeable philosophical truths, there’s nothing to show. I think that is because philosophy is not a quest for knowledge about the world, but rather a quest for understanding the conceptual scheme in terms of which we conceive of the knowledge we achieve about the world. One of the rewards of doing philosophy is a clearer understanding of the way we think about ourselves and about the world we live in, not fresh facts about reality.

(See OLP & Literary Studies Online for more.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Life and Times of Michael K

I think this is the best of Coetzee's novels that I've read. For a review (the best I've seen online, not that I've looked at many) see here. I find it hard to believe that The Road was not inspired at least partly by this story, which features a sort-of Christlike man on a journey through a land made hellish by war. He is Christlike in a very unpreachy way, though, and perhaps not obviously Christlike at all. I'm thinking of Nietzsche's understanding of true Christianity, the naive acceptance of whatever comes (which isn't quite how Michael K is, but it's close), or Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which I think inspired Nietzsche. He's also Schopenhauerian, being selfless and loving the world, compassionate toward others. Like the man in The Road, he carries something of great value. But what matters is his having it, not whether it gets successfully passed on to others. At times it seems clear that it will not be passed on, but that this is not something that concerns him. And his lack of concern comes to seem (to me) right. Then again it seems that it always was going to be passed on, because how could something so important or powerful just die out? This, as I see it, is the point of the passage with the doctor near the end, the part of the book that Cynthia Ozick regards as "superfluous." He sort of gets it and sort of doesn't, so that if Michael K has disciples they are almost bound to distort his "message." Perhaps just by understanding it as a message.

A striking, and odd, feature of the book is its references to Kafka, which come so often that I wasn't sure whether I was imagining some of them. Are we meant to think of "Metamorphosis" when K (who is subject to the power of people from "the Castle") is likened to an insect? Presumably we are. But then what is the point of hitting the reader over the head with these references? Is it to show that Kafka's world can be anywhere, even outside, even in the future or today, even in Africa? Is it to show that it is indeed everywhere, that we now live in an inescapably Kafkaesque world? Is it to downplay the influence of Kafka by making a joke out of it? Or is it to show that one can be literary at the very same time as being political and religious and philosophical? Or is it just how Coetzee thinks, sees things, and writes? Or again, is Coetzee a kind of disciple of Kafka who recognizes and confesses that he cannot be Kafka and so must follow without following, like the child he imagines in the interview with Peter Sacks who follows Bach's experimental steps ("try this") at the piano, until Bach takes off in a way that is beyond the child? I doubt there is a simple answer to these questions.

It's a great book though, and one I should just urge you to read rather than talking about it any more. One final note: the copy I read was from a library and had been written on quite a bit by someone with a red pen. Much of this writing referred to Kafka. So my interpretation of the novel might have been coloured by this.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Being offended

The paradigmatic letter to the editor in England is signed "Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells." Hence The Anti-Nowhere League's calling themselves the band that disgusted Tunbridge Wells. Since I used to live there, I like to think of myself as something of an expert on disgust and being disgusted. People get it wrong all the time.

The Kenneth Howell case is back in the news again. On p. 14 of the report we read:
Offensiveness. From the foregoing it should be clear that students have no right not to be offended; indeed, students deeply committed to some economic, political, religious, or philosophical teachings may be profoundly offended by having to engage with faculty criticism of those teachings—the more serious and thoughtful the criticism, the greater the likelihood of offense. We could not do our job, which is to instill the habits of a critical mind, if we had to be chary of giving offense. Accordingly, Professor Howell’s observations on homosexuality, relevant to the subject of moral natural law and its relationship to utilitarianism, should not be held to account because a student took offense. But they can be faulted on grounds having nothing to do with hostile student reaction; that is, as the Committee reads it, for being unlearned and jejune.
But surely students do have a right not to be offended. What they don't have is a right not to feel offended or to take offense. Professors should not insult their students, nor be offensive in other ways. A commenter at complains of being offended by political correctness. But this is not offensive. At worst it is ridiculous, but it insults no one. A professor who casually uses "the N word," on the other hand, is being offensive. Howell's email was borderline, I think (I haven't re-read it very carefully, but a quick scan didn't reveal any obvious horrors). It's more a bit stupid and insensitive than anything else.

It seems to me that Howell is pretty muddled about natural law ethics, but it's what he says about utilitarianism that has got the most attention. The report says this:
Though Howell connected utilitarian analysis to the role of individual consent, utilitarianism does not; utilitarianism takes a purely consequential approach to moral reasoning irrespective of individual consent. Further, according to McKim, Howell’s account of how a utilitarian would assess a decision of whether to engage in homosexual activity misstates how a utilitarian would assess the full range of interests at stake.
Utilitarianism is standardly understood as being purely consequentialist, but Anscombe invented the word 'consequentialism' in order to distinguish a new kind of theory from utilitarianism. So it seems reasonable to me to treat utilitarianism as not taking a purely consequentialist approach. Consent then could come into it, but it isn't clear how it does so. Not in Howell's simple way, I'm pretty sure.

How a utilitarian would assess a decision of whether to engage in homosexual activity is an interesting question. The fact that the views and prejudices of others might figure so much in the decision is a sign that utilitarianism is wrong. Again, anyway, Howell gets this wrong too.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The God Dialogues

I think I'm going to be using this book in my Philosophy of Religion course next semester. Here's the product description from amazon:
The God Dialogues is an intriguing and extensive philosophical debate about the existence of God. Engaging and accessible, it covers all the main arguments for and against God's existence, from traditional philosophical "proofs" to arguments that involve the latest developments in biology and physics. Three main characters represent the principal views: Theodore Logan, the theist; Eva Lucien, the atheist; and Gene Sesquois, the agnostic. Their debate takes place during a post-college cross-country road trip during which Gene expresses dismay over his future. He wants to do something meaningful with his life but is at a loss as to how to proceed, despite having just earned a degree in engineering. Gene's quandary precipitates a discussion of the meaning of life and its connection to God's existence. This in turn leads to vigorous debates about morality and theism, evidence for and against God's existence, probability and the rationality of belief, and the relationship between faith and reason. The strongest arguments from all three perspectives are fairly represented. An annotated list of suggested readings directs readers to relevant and helpful primary sources.

Assuming no background knowledge, The God Dialogues is ideal for courses in the philosophy of religion, an excellent supplement for introduction to philosophy courses, and a compelling introduction for anyone with an interest in the subject.
And here's Clayton Littlejohn's review from the same site (he gives it five stars):
This book does a number of things very well. It serves as an introduction to the philosophy of religion that covers a significant amount of territory while at the same time dealing with issues in some depth. While it does introduce the reader to issues and arguments, it is challenging without being impenetrable and accessible without insulting the reader's intelligence. If you work through this book (something that is easy to do, by the way, because the dialogues are fun to read), you come to see how things look from very different perspectives. If you want to know why reasonable and thoughtful people come to believe that God exists, this book shows that it is not just by some "leap of faith" that you can end up a believer. There are rational arguments for God's existence. Are they successful? It is hard to say. The atheists and agnostics get to offer their responses and the reader can decide who has the upper hand in this debate. The authors show that there is a difference between atheism and "new atheism". If you want to know why some reasonable and thoughtful people believe there is no God, you can see that there are actual reasons that could lead someone to conclude that there is no God. It's nice to see atheism get a fair hearing and atheistic arguments offered that show that there is more to the atheist's perspective than is captured in Hitchens or Harris. There is also a nice discussion of the significance of religious belief (or lack thereof) in a person's life.

While this book is written by philosophers, I imagine that non-philosophers will really enjoy this book. It would make an excellent gift for the literate theist, atheist, or agnostic in your life.

I find this slightly strange. Of course you want atheism to get a fair hearing in a book like this, but is it at all surprising? Littlejohn doesn't say it is, but I read his review as implying this. I also don't think it would make a good gift for a literate theist that you don't want to annoy.

Anyway, it's basically a good book, but here are my complaints:

1. The characters are not really characters at all but two-dimensional representatives of their respective positions (a theist named Theo--ho ho--an agnostic, and an atheist). They all lapse as often as possible into generic philosopher-speak: "One would hardly endorse the third premise of that argument in light of our previous discussion," etc. This is not a real quotation, but I'm confident there are even worse examples in the book.

2. The book is meant to be light-hearted, but the humour is all of the same kind. I think the word for it is nerdy, and it's probably as likely to put readers off as it is to lure them on into the book.

3. Ethics is treated in a way that I find odd. Pain is described as morally bad, because doing things that cause pain is (other things being equal) morally bad. Causing pain to people or animals is certainly bad (ceteris paribus), but this seems like a somewhat crude conception of what evil might be, showing no concern for aesthetic value or the importance of reality (as in the experience machine case--is this "ontological value"?).

4. Experience is also treated a little oddly, I think. People are supposed to evaluate their experiences in a sort of Humean way, so that if you have what you take to be a religious experience you should reconsider and think "What are the odds?" Sometimes this makes sense. But I'm not sure that it always does. It is characteristic of religious experiences that they present themselves as very important. How easy, or even possible, is it to give up a belief that is important to you? It can be done, but not always, and not without cost. This is not explored in the book.

5. The final chapter addresses the idea that belief in God might be a kind of metaphor. It is then criticized on the grounds that people ought to say what they mean and avoid metaphors that are potentially misleading or dangerous. But one of the origins of this idea is Wittgenstein's work, and he explicitly says that religious uses of language, although metaphor-like, are not actually metaphorical, precisely because they cannot be expressed in any other way. This might be problematic in various ways, but, once again, it isn't addressed in the book.

So the book seems to have a kind of empiricist bias and would not, I think, be enjoyed by many theists. It could be a good introduction to the subject, though, especially if followed by something more sophisticated and with a different bias. Stephen Mulhall's book might be good, but it seems to be out of print, and it's not easy reading.

Friday, October 15, 2010

An orgy of hate

This is a fascinating essay by Werner Herzog. It starts unpromisingly, with a fake quotation from Pascal which Herzog claims could not have been improved by Pascal himself. He goes on to compare his work with that of Dante, Bosch, and Goya. But it gets much, much better, bringing Survivor and Peruvian Indians into Wittgenstein-and-(especially)-Heidegger territory.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Total nonsense

Mary Warnock picks five books on morality without religion. One is Anscombe's Collected Papers on ethics, religion, and politics. Obviously thinking of "Modern Moral Philosophy," Warnock says:
There is one essay in this book in which she says that if you don’t believe in the commands of God then you have no business as a moralist to talk about duties or what people must or must not do. There can’t be any commands except the commands of God. I think that is total nonsense, but it is extraordinarily powerfully argued and one must respect the kind of relentless logic with which she argues that the concept of duty cannot exist without the authority of God who commands it.
This is not true.

Simon Blackburn gets Anscombe's wrong in a similar way, which I criticized in an earlier draft of my forthcoming book on Anscombe's ethics. Since I have cut this part of the book out, I think it's OK for me to publish it here:

In his review of Human Life, Action and Ethics for the Times Literary Supplement, Simon Blackburn objects strongly to the suggestion that we should abandon the notion of moral obligation. He gives an example of professional irresponsibility and his imagined disapproving reaction to it. Such disapproval, Blackburn insists, is moral even without the “supernatural prop” of belief in divine authority. He seems to think that this shows Anscombe’s most famous thesis about ethics to be “poppycock.” However, an examiner who, in an example that Blackburn develops, accepts bribes in return for favorable grades is hardly different from an example that Anscombe develops in which one person bilks another. She explicitly has no objection at all to saying that “a man should not bilk.” This is not, as she sees it, a use of the “ordinary (and quite indispensable) terms ‘should’, ‘needs’, ‘ought’,” or ‘must’” in the special sense to which she objects. There are all sorts of reasons why examiners should not take bribes and these are just as evident to Anscombe as they are to Blackburn. His disapproval would only be moral in the sense to which she objects if he meant to imply some sort of verdict on the action, a verdict that was wholly moral, not legal or concerned with violations of professional codes of conduct or expectations. If he meant, perhaps we can say, that the action was sinful. If he means something else, then Anscombe has no objection.

Why then all the fuss about the word “moral”? Why does Anscombe insist that people who do not believe in divine law cannot talk of moral wrong, moral obligation, and so on, as Blackburn implies? In truth, she does not. What she claims is that if non-believers take from the Christian tradition a use of words that implies a judge and a law, a use of words that implies a verdict, “with a characteristically solemn emphasis,” and yet deny that any such judge or law exists, then the use of those words has a psychological effect but not the desired, original meaning. Like Blackburn, Anscombe does not object to any particular words. It is a particular use of a related set of words that she complains about. Anscombe’s complaint is much milder than Blackburn implies. There is no laying down the law on what people may or may not say. What Anscombe objects to is not any words but “the notion ‘morally ought’,” as I have described it, and what she says about the use of this notion is that, “It would be most reasonable to drop it” because “It has no reasonable sense outside a law conception of ethics” and “you can do ethics without it.” Blackburn writes of the words “morally wrong” that “I may choose to avoid the words, if I wish, but that is by itself of no interest, and if I feel I must avoid them because I have been told that they are the private preserve of people who believe in divine law, then I have been hoodwinked and robbed.” Anscombe, though, claims no such thing, and so can be guilty of no such hoodwinking or robbery. And the fact that Blackburn could avoid those words if he wanted supports Anscombe’s claim that you can do ethics without them. More to the point, as Anscombe implies, unless we are relying on the mesmeric effect she describes, we will do moral philosophy better if we avoid these words. We can be much more specific, for instance by calling an act untruthful or unjust rather than simply wrong, and, when we are so, it will sometimes be clear immediately that the act in question is wrong. This is the basis of her claim that the concepts of moral obligation and moral duty ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible because they are unnecessary and harmful outside the context of belief in divine law.
Now back to Warnock. Anscombe quite explicitly says that it is all right, quite possibly even necessary, for us to use the words "must" and "ought." It is obvious also that there can be duties and commands that do not come from God. What Anscombe objects to is a notion of duty and obligation that is not ordinary but rather moral in some way that is meant to be both special and yet utterly secular.

It might help to keep in mind two things. One is that Anscombe was very concerned indeed with the badness of deliberately targeting innocent civilians in war (with the wrongness, I think it's fair to say, of terrorism). The other is that she rejected as incoherent G. E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy, according to which: "if [a man] confuses "good," which is not in the same sense a natural object, with any natural object whatever, then there is a reason for calling that a naturalistic fallacy." Described this way committing the fallacy seems really insane. If someone thinks that "good" names an object then surely they are reasoning badly. So why did Anscombe disagree with Moore? Perhaps she thought this was too great a mistake for it to count as a fallacy.

But there is another possibility. The naturalistic fallacy is closely linked to Moore's open question argument, according to which we can see that "good" does not denote anything like the pleasant or the divinely commanded, because it is always an open question (i.e. it always makes sense to ask) whether such things are good. And it might be this idea that Anscombe rejected. Moore says we might think that "good" means something like "conducive to well-being," but (he says) we can see that this is wrong because it makes sense to ask whether it is good to be conducive to well-being, whereas it makes no sense to ask whether what is conducive to well-being is conducive to well-being (or, if that does make sense, it is at least a different question, one with a much more obvious answer). (There seems to be some confusion in Moore's thinking here involving a mix-up of sense and reference, but I'll leave that aside.)

Moore apparently thinks that it always makes sense to ask, "Yes, but is x good?" Presumably the same would go for "bad." So someone might say that doing such-and-such would bring about world peace, and Moore would think it OK to say, "Yes, but is bringing about world peace good?" Or you might point out that if I explode this device it will kill all those orphans, and then Moore might say, "Yes, but would it be bad?" Anscombe's doesn't say what is incoherent about the naturalistic fallacy (or the idea that there is such a fallacy), but she certainly would not like questions such as these. Of course world peace is good and killing orphans is bad.

Similarly, what she objects to primarily about the idea of "moral obligation" is that people say such things as: "Murdering the thousands of people in that city would be unjust, but would it be morally wrong (or 'contrary to duty' or 'impermissible' or etc.)?" She thinks that it makes sense to ask questions like this if you believe in God, because God can command unjust acts (see the story of Abraham and Isaac, for instance). If you don't believe in anything beyond the world that could possibly justify injustice then your question does not make sense. That is, it cannot be an essentially similar but God-free version of the theist's question.

It might mean anything you like, but any such meaning is unlikely to be wholesome. "Yes it's unjust, but will it be fun?" makes sense but is depraved, for instance. And if you are really talking about fun, then you should use the word 'fun,' not 'morally wrong' or whatever. So talk about moral obligation, moral duty, and the rest is either nonsense, unclear, or corrupt. Regular talk about obligation, duty, etc. is fine.

Or so Anscombe says.

An idea of a university

There has been quite a bit of discussion about the place of the humanities in higher education lately (for instance, here and here). It's tempting to jump in with my own defence, but I don't see much point in that. The problem seems to be a cultural one, and you don't change a culture with argument. Instead, let me just say what I think the problem is and then get to the real point of this post: to fantasize about a core curriculum.

The problem shows itself in the closing of departments of philosophy and languages (e.g. French) that are not especially important for business or the military. It also shows up in attempts to make higher education more vocational--supposedly we should be teaching business, nursing, and law enforcement in college, not literature, language, or philosophy. One cause of this might be the high number of people who are now going into higher education. It's possible that a lot of these people would be better off getting job training rather than higher education. Another cause, though, is surely ignorance about the nature of the subjects being demoted. Hence the amazing success that Sam Harris and other "professional atheists" (is that a Jon Stewart term?) can have selling amateur philosophy--no one (except philosophers, who are ignored) seems to realize that this is philosophy. Nobody would close an English department because nobody wants college graduates who can't spell, even though English departments do not teach spelling. Given what they do teach, it makes little sense to value them but not French or German departments. There is composition, of course, but that's not what English departments see as the reason for their existence. Perhaps they should. I don't know.

What I do know is that this is what I would like to see all students study, along with a roughly equal number of courses in i) their major, ii) subjects related to their major, and iii) electives:

1. Critical Thinking (to be taught by philosophers, who tend to be better with the logic involved than others)
2. Contemporary Moral Issues (also taught by philosophers)
3. World Religions (taught by religion professors)
4. World History (a single course going over both the outline of world history and various ideas about why history has gone as it has, e.g. Marxist ideas, Guns, Germs, and Steel, etc.--taught by historians, of course)
5. Modern Economic History (taught by economists or historians, focusing on what has actually happened and why rather than the possibly too pure theory of a typical Econ 101 course)
6. Scientific Origins (looking at the origins of science itself, but also the origins of the universe, of life, and of species--team taught by physicists and biologists?)
7. Uses and Abuses of Statistics (could be taught by mathematicians or probably any competent social scientists)
8. The Essay (taught by English professors)

This might be too ambitious, but the idea is that this is the stuff that informed citizens ought to know about: evolution, abortion, Islam, real-world economics, what good writing looks like, how not to be fooled by politicians and advertisers, etc. This wouldn't do modern languages much good, but if this were the kind of core curriculum typical of most colleges, it's hard to imagine them closing their philosophy departments. And it does seem like a good model to me (although, of course, I'm biased).

Oh well. Back to work.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Unconditional love

This post over at Practical Ethics brought to mind a few ideas that have been loitering without much intent in my mind lately. One is that there is something to be said for G. K. Chesterton's idea of cosmic patriotism, which I think is very similar to an idea of Nietzsche's. The other is that quite a bit of conservative thinking (or talking or bumper stickers) can be understood best if one thinks of it as an expression of a kind of love. This is often the jingoism of "my country right or wrong," but it is sometimes narrower than that, being limited to a region or demographic (the South, the military, Christians, etc.).

There are two dangers that go with this kind of love. One is that it will have the wrong focus (white people, e.g.). The other is that it is too extreme, too indiscriminate, too unconditional. At least some partial love has to be all right, I think, since it's very difficult to love without specificity. How can it be wrong to love my family more than others? If I cannot love my wife more than other women, then I cannot really love my wife at all. "Love" means different things in "I love my wife" and "I love all people." I suppose this isn't quite the same thing, but love of one's home town and/or country seems like a good thing to me. What kind of person doesn't love their home? But this love needs to be free of any contaminating hatred or contempt for others. It has no place for comparison. It is love of this, not love of this but not that or this as opposed to that. So it's OK (and even good) to love this place or these people, but not qua these-people-rather-than-those.

What about unconditional love, love of my country right or wrong? This too can be OK, I think, depending on what exactly is meant. Marriage vows talk about loving through thick and thin but not, as far as I can remember, with get-out clauses in case of serious wrong-doing. And it would be weird to want to insert such clauses. There should be more optimism and trust going in to a marriage than that. In that sense, love should be unconditional: there should be no need felt for reservations. If I were a lawyer I would disagree, but as a believer in marriage (whether same-sex or other-sex) I would say there should be no pre-nups. It's maybe slightly weird to think of love of one's children as unconditional, but that's surely better than being conscious of its conditionality. As I understand it, love involves a certain kind of commitment, similar to the commitment one might have to, or feel for, some moral principles, such as never framing an innocent person, never torturing someone, etc.

Must such commitment be unconditional in fact, objectively rather than subjectively, so to speak? No. It's important that we not frame innocent people. It's important that we feel absolutely committed to this principle. Is it conceivable that there might be a situation in which framing someone was the least bad thing one could do? Yes it is. Just as it is conceivable that the next cute baby you see might grow up to be a serial killer. But it does no good to conceive of this possibility and it is probably unhealthy to do so. Absent reason to think that you might need to change your attitude, your attitude should be one of unconditional, unreserved commitment to and love of what is good (this person, that place, that principle).

It's this same kind of health that's involved in the Nietzschean/Chestertonian love of the world. This love is not rational, since we can never evaluate the world objectively, but a patriotic, loving attitude is surely more conducive to well-being and good behavior than a jaundiced view.

But what if there is reason to think you might need to change your attitude? Well, then it's time for a re-think.
But if someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration—I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind. (G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy, 1958, p. 17)
This is easy to misunderstand. What Anscombe means, I take it, is that some things are rightly out of the question for decent people. Framing someone in a capital case would be one such thing. Not loving one's child might be another (this is my example, not hers). But even these things can come into the question in the right (i.e. very bad) circumstances. That is not to say that they should ever be done, only to recognize that they might have to be considered if things got bad enough. What's wrong with bad forms of right-wing politics (the forms based on love anyway) is that they either love in the wrong, contrastive way, or else they love in a way that is willfully blind to some bad aspects of reality (or both, of course). This is the difference that Wittgenstein refers to in part II of the Philosophical Investigations (on p. 236 of the new edition) when he contrasts shutting one's eyes in the face of doubt (bad) with having them closed (OK). Love is blind, that's why I see this as an issue, but sometimes to be stubbornly blind is a crime. Determining when those times are, though, is certainly tricky.

Perhaps what I mean is that love of good principles and good places and good people should be unconditional, but not unconditionally unconditional. This sounds ridiculous, but the part about "absent reason to think otherwise" is important. Do I doubt the ground outside my building? No. And to do so would be crazy. In saying this, though, am I denying that people make mistakes, that natural disasters can happen, etc? No. But to have doubts constantly about such things would be insane. So in normal circumstances such doubts are out of the question. They only come into question when we do philosophy (or when an earthquake strikes, e.g.).

And I want to turn this into a sort of conservative principle: if it ain't disastrous, don't doubt it. Combined with a healthy primal loyalty to the world, this gives us something like an account of why McMahan is wrong. But perhaps we've had enough and better of those already.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Starting from scratch

So, for what's it's worth, what is a good life?

I think Nozick's experience machine thought experiment shows that a good life will not be purely passive. Like Aristotle, I think it must be characterized by some activity or activities. For a good life, these should be good activities. For the good life, they should be the best activities, if there are such things. And these activities must be done successfully.

What is a good activity? It should be sane. It should probably produce a net gain in well-being for oneself or others. The idea of the sanest activity, though, doesn't seem to make much sense (unless we accept an enormous tie for first place). And it's hard to say what well-being is, let alone to see how it could be quantified. Generally Aristotle seems to be in the right ballpark (wisdom is good, public service is good, too much pain is bad, lots of things are worth having even if they aren't the most important things, etc.). But this doesn't really get you very far.

Hume says you should be the kind of person you would want your child to marry, and the worst thing of all is the kind of ingratitude involved in murdering a parent. The first, positive part of this sounds about right. The second I'm less sure about, although ingratitude is certainly bad.

Nietzsche says that one thing is needful: to give style to one's character. You are like a piece of land that can be changed in some ways, but not in others. The task is to turn this land into a garden. This sounds like a sort of cross between Reinhold Niebuhr and Stuart Smalley. There is more to Nietzsche than this, thankfully, but he's much clearer on what he's against than what he's for.

Marx says that creative labor is our basic need, which sounds about right, although he would probably be the first to admit that food and shelter are pretty basic needs too.

Kant says we should be rational in the triple sense of acting on principles (that's one) that are sanely (two) universalizable (three). It is very hard to say what these principles are though. He thinks the worst thing you can do is stuff like watering your lawn when there's a water shortage, failing to execute murderers, and making lying promises: acting as if there is one rule for some and another for everybody else. As with Nietzsche, he's better than I'm making him sound. But the theory he presents (so far as it is a theory) seems pretty hopeless.

Bentham says we should maximize pleasure, but has a hopelessly crude idea of what pleasure is.

Mill recognizes this problem, but struggles to come up with a viable alternative.

Schopenhauer says we should be compassionate, and that the kind of disregard for others involved in (non-consensual, casual) cannibalism is the worst thing there is. This sounds about right, but misses Marx's insight (which is also somewhat Nietzschean). Schopenhauer also thinks of the world as will-or-music, which expresses itself in a tremendous variety of forms, each of which has its own aesthetic value even if none has any ultimate point really.

And that's about it. I suppose there is a small chance that these nutshell versions of great philosophers distort their views badly, and that other people have had some good ideas too. But, that aside, there doesn't appear to have been much progress since Aristotle (unless you count Wittgenstein's and Heidegger's apparent belief that ethics cannot usefully be discussed). The best thing since Aristotle's attempt to provide a target for us to aim at (the ideal life) seems to have been a recognition of the value of creative expression, both our own and nature's. And the best philosophy (the kind that I like the most) is itself a work of such expression. (Which is, incidentally, how I think Kant's moral philosophy is best understood.)

So I should really be writing poetry rather than blogging. But that's hard.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Make it real

David Sosa does a nice job of explaining at least one reason why happiness is not pleasure (involving Nozick's experience machine, etc.). But what exactly is the difference between merely feeling that you are having desirable experiences and actually having them? The unreal experience is not really bad. It's just not very significant, as Sosa points out. Happiness, he seems to think, has a significance that comes from reality. So dreams and drug-induced feelings might be pleasant, but they don't make someone happy. And that sounds about right.

It would be nice to be able to give an account, though, of why this is so. What exactly is significance? What exactly is its connection with reality? And how much, or what kind of, difference does it make if we manipulate reality to make it provide the kind of experiences we want to have?

Examples might help make clearer what I have in mind. The pleasure of winning a race seems real, and better (not necessarily more pleasurable) than the pleasure of 'winning' a virtual race on a computer. The same would go for winning fairly rather than winning by bribing a referee to disqualify a rival. But what about winning because of steroid (ab)use? Shooting fish in a barrel has go to be less of an accomplishment than catching a fish the normal way, even if the shooter is unconcerned and gets great pleasure from shooting fish. A friendship with a real person seems much more valuable than a 'friendship' with a robot companion that has been trained to be friendly.

But a) is what seems to be better really better in all these cases, b) how can we know (Mill's test of asking those who appreciate both pleasures?), c) why is the better one better? I don't think the answer to that is only that the inferior pleasure is gained immorally or by cheating. Reality is at stake as well as ethics.

Somehow it seems to me that reality itself has a kind of value, and this relates to what I was trying to get at here. It also relates (if only in my imagination) to something wrong with McMahan's expressed desire to radically re-design reality.

Slightly relevant but ridiculous video:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ethics, facts, and God

One of the hardest things to teach in philosophy of religion, I find, is the connection between ethics and religion, and specifically the question of whether ethics somehow depends on God. What some people want to believe is that God is a kind of kidnapper who insists that we follow his rules or else get burned. But, of course, this is not ethics. Any other account of God's relation to ethics is going to be mysterious, because God as anything but Simone Weil's policeman in the sky (i.e. God as God) is mysterious. So God does nothing to remove mystery from ethics.

But then what do ethics depend on? How can there be objective right and wrong without an object (e.g. the crude conception of God) dictating what is right and what is wrong? Well, what do we mean by 'objective,' 'right,' and 'wrong'? Those are hard questions that few people want to think about.

Jean Kazez says that:
If there's one thing that makes people think religion is indispensable, and atheists untrustworthy, it's the idea that morality depends on religion. You can't just reject that--you need to say what morality does depend on, if not on religion.
But I don't think morality does depend on anything. At least not in any kind of foundational sense. Here she discusses the idea that "It's a fact that torturing babies for fun is wrong." But if we're going to discuss this idea seriously, we need to say what we mean by a fact (especially if we're going to talk about moral facts and whether they are or are not the same kind of thing as scientific facts), and by the word wrong. But this is early analytic philosophy territory, and that's difficult stuff. Also, historically, rather unproductive. So I'm less excited about Sam Harris's new book (which apparently argues that moral facts can be "determined" by science) than Kazez seems to be.

(Note: Kazez is talking charitably about Harris here, explaining why his strategy makes sense, etc. The only thing I really disagree with her about on all this is how much to look forward to reading Harris's book. I'm certainly not suggesting that she is failing to do any philosophical work that needs doing.)

Karl Marx is often quoted as saying that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce. I wonder whether the history of thinking about ethics repeats itself first as farce, second as tragedy. If serious-but-unsuccessful philosophy is repeated as missing-the-point popular "science" (Dawkins, Hawking, Harris, and co.), then I suspect the next step is likely to be a tragic loss, whether of a certain sense of religion, or of ethics, or carnivorous species, or whatever. Maybe that's melodramatic, but I don't see how this trend can be good.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Sacrifice

Tarkovsky's last film is not quite as good as some of his others, but still worth seeing. This review does a pretty good job of explaining why. I can't really say more without spoiling the story, so consider yourself warned.

The review ends with these words:
At the end of The Sacrifice, the young boy sits beneath his now departed father's tree and breaks his silence with damning effect; "In the beginning there was the word" he says. "Why is that, Papa?".

In the face of such an argument, perhaps it is easy to see why it can be difficult to write about Tarkovsky.
But this isn't an argument, and it's meaning is not clear to me at all. I agree that Tarkovsky does a lot with pictures (light and time) rather than words, which makes it hard to get at what's good about his work in words, but when he brings references to Nietzsche into the script, don't you have to think there is something not purely visual going on? There is saying as well as showing. But what is being said is hard to make out, I find.

Is the idea at the end that children need their parents (to explain things to them, etc.) and so should not be abandoned? In that case the man's sacrifice was a bad idea. It is presented as being both altruistic (he is saving the world, after all) and selfish (he asks God to rid him of his unbearable fear). What he gives up is not his own life but everything that matters to him, which includes the boy. That seems wrong to me, unless he does not literally mean the boy's life. And then when he sleeps with a witch, isn't that something that would normally count as a sin? It would be interesting if he were damning his soul in order to save the world, but it is far from clear that that is what is going on. It isn't clear whether he has dreamed the whole thing, or God has answered his prayers, or the witch's magic has saved the world. Nor is it clear whether what happened (whatever it was) is good or bad. All we really know is that the man loses his world, and the world goes on otherwise as normal.

That and the fact that the boy is still tending the seemingly dead tree at the end, a very Cormac McCarthy-ish image (keeping hope/faith alive from one (male) generation to the next, despite the evident grounds for despair). Perhaps the idea is that we cannot know or understand, but can only hope. Faith might somehow save the world or be a form of insanity. It's a Kierkegaardian risk.

Beautiful, but not very satisfying.


UPDATE: if you're interested , you might want to read this essay, which tries to make sense of the film.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Is religion avoidable?

It's hard to say what religion is, but there's no more orthodox account of world religions than Huston Smith's The World's Religions, and Smith identifies six aspects of religion: authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, grace, and mystery. I don't think we can really learn anything much without accepting for the most part the authority of people such as our parents and teachers. Everyone has rituals of some kind, standard ways of doing things, if only to do with disposing of dead bodies. Perhaps we could get rid of rituals, but it would certainly (uncontroversially) be bad to do so. By 'speculation' I think Smith means something like metaphysics--the Buddha and Confucius were not big fans of metaphysical speculation, but they did seem to have metaphysical beliefs (e.g. in reincarnation or in heaven). It's hard to avoid both metaphysical belief and metaphysical speculation (what happens when we die?, is there a God?, are possible worlds real?, etc.). There are always traditions, whether we like them all or not. Some can be changed, but not all at once. Mystery is hard to avoid too. No one (not even Daniel Dennett, who has explained consciousness) claims to have all the answers.

That's too quick to be proof, of course, but I also think it's mostly too obvious to be worth spending more time on. The aspect that interests me is what Smith calls "grace." Grace is "the belief ... that Reality is ultimately on our side." I wonder whether something like this isn't inevitable. Of course it's possible to be unhappy, but there are limits. The truth of Silenus (that it is best never to have been born, and second best to die quickly) is a joke. It's a thought that is literally unbelievable except in the act of suicide. So life has to seem more good than bad.

Or is that right? Could you really wish you were dead but lack the will to die? Maybe, but I think it would be sort of crippling--would you take lots of drugs?, join the army and hope to be blown up?, just mope about all day? Lots of people wish their lives were better, but it's hard to imagine that many, if any, really want to be dead. Not that the limits of my imagination are much of an argument.

Aristotle has a kind of argument that life has to be believed to have a purpose or goal. In Book I chapter 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics he writes that:
If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.
Is he just assuming that our desire is not all empty and vain? Maybe he is, but this seems at least reasonable if not necessary for life.

So, however rough this sketch might be, it looks to me as though most people (perhaps everyone) is going to (perhaps necessarily) think that life is basically good and/or have some purpose to it, a goal that is not merely instrumental. Many people deny knowing what this goal is, of course, but then there's your mystery along with your grace. If only in Smith's sense, then, everyone not actively committing suicide is (or seems likely to be) religious. This means they think that the world is on their side, is fundamentally good.

And to think that the world is basically good is to think (isn't it?) that the world is basically good as it is. Which is a presumption against any argument that wholesale changes would be good. Which is something like a hint of an argument in favour of a kind of humble conservatism.

Or not an argument, I suppose. An argument against McMahan would more obviously lead to a belief of the form: if you do that things will be worse. My idea is more along the lines of: you literally cannot believe that. It would be an accusation of bad faith.

So, is this a (very) rough sketch of an idea with some promise, or what G. K. Chesterton called "a bewildering welter of fallacies"?