Friday, July 29, 2011

Into (and out of) the woods

I have wanted to write some kind of review of Tal Brewer's The Retrieval of Ethics, but I can't think of much to say about it except that I like it. If you want a very short summary of it it would be something like this: Aristotle. For a longer account see here. It's certainly a book that anyone interested in virtue ethics should read. The part I liked best comes at the beginning (i.e. the first hundred pages or so). Here he attacks the view of action as necessarily aiming at making the world a certain way and introduces the idea of dialectical activity. If I'm working in a factory then I might know exactly what my actions are intended to bring about (a paper-knife just like all these others, say), but not all activity is like this. If I am writing a novel or painting a picture, or trying to get to know someone through conversation, or living my life the best way I can, for instance, then I don't have a clear view of what I am after going in to the project. If I already knew what I wanted to write, Brewer points out, then all I would have to do is type the novel up. If I already understood you fully then I wouldn't need to have the heart-to-heart conversation that I am now engaged in. What I want is understanding, but I don't yet know what that will consist in, what it will mean. Instead we begin with a dim or sketchy idea and then feel our way forward, correcting ourselves when we take a false step and letting new discoveries guide our progress. But it's not as if we keep stopping and starting. The end is continuously adjusted, as are the means.

I was reminded of this by Kelly Dean Jolley's post on the structure of the Philosophical Investigations and Tractatus. As he writes there:
In TLP and PI, the concentration of metaphilosophical remarks occurs in the dialectical middle (a middle not necessarily the same as its paginal middle): the 4s in the TLP and in 89-133 in PI. Rhetorically, each of the books is a large epanados, a chiasmus. That is, each of the books is organized spatially around a center or middle. Each book has the structure, roughly, of a large ‘x’, with the metaphilosophical remarks stationed at the crux of the ‘x’.  
The 'x' makes me think of cross-stitch, although sewing has a more tangible product than philosophy. But the movement of stitching, going in and out and back and forth, seems apt. Wittgenstein's books are made to be read dialectically. At the very least the meta-philosophical remarks ought to make you want to go back to the beginning and start again, if only to make sure that you haven't misunderstood anything as a result of coming to the book with a different idea of what philosophy is than Wittgenstein's. So you go into the text, then return to the beginning, and then (maybe) read through till the end. Like an h written backwards. But the more you retrace your steps or explore different paths the more your route will resemble an X or a figure 8. You have to find your way around by exploring. Wittgenstein provides sketches of landscapes and you have to go criss-cross through them. This seems to be the kind of activity that Brewer describes as dialectical.

I was also reminded of this by thinking of the song "Accept Yourself" when I was writing about being yourself.  "Others conquered love but I ran. I sat in my room and I drew up a plan," Morrissey sings. Of course, making a plan and then enacting it (the model of action rejected by Brewer) is not the usual way to success in such matters. Indeed, it might well be regarded as a form of evasion. Not all problems are technical, as Morrissey also makes clear in the joke "I need advice, I need advice....nobody ever looks at me twice" (from "Miserable Lie"). (It's a joke because no advice will make him better looking.) What people need is to engage and find their way, however clumsily, not a better plan or sounder advice.

And then there's Dante:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Ah how hard to say what a harsh
thing was that wood savage and rough and hard
that to think about it renews the fear!

Not all activities are dialectical, and not all problems are like this, but the big ones seem to be. And this is surely related to Wittgenstein's idea that the answers to life's problems will not be provided by science or philosophy as traditionally conceived.

Be yourself

What it means to be one's real self is an interesting, if not important, question in itself. It might also shed some light on the meaning of reality more generally. Three quotations come to mind.

The first is from Hawkwind's "Be Yourself" (not a good song, by the way, but simple and repetitive enough to be hard to forget):
Be yourself
See yourself
Try and find
Peace of mind
The lyrics are banal, but, perhaps partly for that very reason, get across a common idea of what it means to be yourself. It means achieving peace of mind.

The second is from The Specials' "Do Nothing" (a better song)
People say to me "just be yourself,
It makes no sense to follow fashion."
How could I be anybody else?
This is a sort of joke, but with some truth in it. Even if you're a stereotype then that is what you are. A phony person is phony. On the other hand, the claim that such a person "doesn't really exist" (a line from the song "Stereotype") has a point too. Someone who just does what everyone else does, mindlessly, lacks something that might be called real existence or a self. Such vacuity might seem like peace of mind, but it is (surely?) closer to despair than the kind of mindlessness that one might aim to achieve through meditation. It is a desperate attempt to fit in, to get along, to conform. (Kelly Dean Jolley's fine distinction between transitive and intransitive silence might be helpful here. Transitive silence involves silencing something, while intransitive silence is simple silence. I hope I'm not cheapening his point by referring to it in this context.)

The third quote is Stephen Colbert's line that reality has a liberal bias. Unless you're attacking "the reality-based community," to call something part of reality is to pay it a certain kind of tribute, to recognize it as having a particular kind of importance. Not everything real is good, and not everything real is non-trivial, but what is real ought not to be denied or contradicted. So most of us believe. To say that something is real is not only to make a normative claim, but it is partly that. And since we don't have an agreed upon method for identifying anyone's real self, claims about such selves are always likely to be (potentially) controversial.

People who focus on the normative aspect of the concept of reality tend, in a crudely relativistic way, to treat such things as empirical facts as belonging to one side of the debate. So a stereotypical journalist will say something like this: "Scientists report that..., but a spokesman for the Republican Party responded that..." Colbert is parodying this kind of relativism along with the neglect of the fact that 'reality' is not a purely normative idea. Not just anything can intelligibly be claimed as part of reality, and not just anything can be denied to be part of reality. (Is that proper English? I hope you know what I mean.) Although what is intelligible does depend on what is sane, what is ridiculous, what is remotely plausible, and so on. And our once-seemingly-shared sense of all this is being attacked by propagandists. Perhaps it always has been. But perhaps it is worse now than before, and perhaps the contrast between the reality-based community and the faith-based community is part of what makes some atheists so angry.

So, what if you only feel like yourself when you've had a couple of drinks, or have taken some drug (legal or illegal, prescribed or self-medicated)? Within limits I see nothing wrong with this, but it seems that this kind of action could only lead to peace of mind by silencing something or other. It isn't the kind that comes from self-understanding or self-acceptance. What if the thing silenced is itself a silencer? For instance, a drug might reduce your inhibitions. Then you might be closer to being your real self with the drug than without it. But I don't see how any chemically-induced state can reasonably be called the real you (even if it is more real than other versions of you). If you have those inhibitions then that is part of who you are, like it or not. And only if you get rid of them with your own internal resources can an uninhibited you be really who you are. But, as I say, I don't think we have agreed standards for such things, so I'm really just expressing my own opinion.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Church and state

Gary Gutting writes in The Stone that:
There is no honest line of argument from what the Bible says to substantive conclusions about the size of the United States government, the need for a free enterprise system, the right to bear arms or the proper interpretation of the Constitution.  Family Leader (and many other religious groups with a conservative political agenda) are disguising partisan political positions as religious convictions. This cripples efforts to have meaningful discussions about their political views.
Proponents of conservative views that require sober argument from empirical facts and generally accepted principles, instead merely assert them with religious fervor.
This sounds very much like what I had in mind when I referred to "the kind of right-of-center political ideology and movement that goes by" the name of Christianity.  It raises the question: what is politics and what is religion?

Are political positions being disguised as religious convictions? If so, how consciously and how cynically? Is a view asserted with religious fervor thereby a religious view? And if political views "require sober argument from empirical facts and generally accepted principles" do religious convictions too? Let me try to answer these questions in turn.

I think it is probably fair to say that some people do quite cynically and consciously disguise political opinions as religious beliefs. But the mixing of the two is so widespread that I find it hard to believe that every religious political conservative who mixes them up is just lying. Indeed, why would anyone bother with the disguise if they didn't expect some people, at least, to be taken in by it? So I think that it might be better, in some cases at least, to talk about a confusion than a disguising. And if we are going to be neutral then we should probably talk of mixing or combining rather than confusing. If there is confusion, then that remains to be shown, it seems to me.

Is a view asserted with religious fervor thereby religious? I suppose this amounts to: is religion a kind of fervor? And although the answer to this is surely No, there is something to it. Assuming that even religions we do not believe still count as religions, so that 'religion' does not mean 'true religion', what is a religion? It seems to be a family resemblance concept with no obvious defining essence, but a connection with fervor is surely an important characteristic. Other common features might be things like moral principles or ideals, rituals, tradition, authority, what Huston Smith (whose account of religion is influencing this list) calls speculation, and so on. Religious political conservatism has most, if not all, of these features. So why not call it a religion, or recognize it as, say, a branch of this or that religion (Christianity in the case Gutting has in mind)? I'll come back to this question in a minute.

Gutting's complaint about sober argument from empirical facts and generally accepted principles is appealing, but what religious belief is based on such argument? Pretty much none, I would think, even if rational argument and empirical facts support faith (I'm not saying that they do, just leaving open that possibility). You don't become God-intoxicated through sober argument.

Gutting says that "there is no objection in principle to religious arguments in political debates" because in such debates the "goal is to reach consensus about conclusions, but not necessarily consensus about the reasons for the conclusions." So why shouldn't rich people who want low taxes for selfish reasons and poorer people who want low taxes because that is what their religion preaches reach a consensus? Others (such as me) might be contemptuous of this consensus, not because they like high taxes but because they consider the reasons for it (i.e., the hypothetical consensus that taxes should be low) to be unethical, stupid, or shallow. But then it would be our part in the political debate to make the case for some other conclusion about taxes.

It's hard to see how there could be much of a debate if neither side engages with its opponents' reasons. This will mean, in the imaginary case at hand, considering whether the Bible really does have the implications for tax policy that some say it does. And this might well involve questioning the honesty of the reasoning given in support of such views. But it isn't debate if we just shout "You lie!" at each other. We would have to engage with the Bible itself. Which further suggests that this is a genuinely religious issue. And at the end of the day at least some people on the obviously wrong side will remain unmoved. This does not prove that they are religious, but it makes it hard to claim to be neutral if one insists that their beliefs are actually merely political.

In short, I think Gutting's position is untenable. Either we exclude religion from political debate (which would surely be hard to do, even if there is nothing else wrong with the idea), or else we accept that this debate must engage with (or simply give up on and ignore) various people who are irrational. I agree with him that "Eschewing this sort of appeal to religious considerations would be a good start toward reducing the acrimony and frustration of our political debates," but I don't see that it amounts to anything more than asking certain people to shut up. And I don't think they will do so any time soon.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Attention to particulars

Nietzsche seems to think that we should say Yes to everything, even the terrible. And this Yes, I take it, is not equivalent to "OK then," but is more like a "Yes!", an enthusiastic embrace, Larkin's enormous yes that falls as love is supposed to. We should love it all, the whole world. But not dishonestly or distortedly. The terrible is to be loved but still recognized as terrible. It's hard to see how this could be done. As Tal Brewer says of The Gay Science section 341: "The problem is that one's life can be marred by tragic events such as the early death of a child, and it would hardly show one to be living well if one would consent gladly to the precise eternal recurrence even of these elements of one's life" (p. 149). You could only embrace the whole of your life (if something like this had happened) or the whole world (where things just like this have happened), it seems to me, if you abstracted away from these things. It would be dishonest to focus instead on some good thing, so the only thing is to not focus on anything. To look into the middle distance or, as it were, to take off one's glasses. But isn't loving a blur like this sentimentality?

The same kind of thing might be said about Schopenhauer when he suggests a choice between seeing the world as nothing and Nirvana as everything or vice versa. I think this is at least roughly what I was trying to get at when I expressed doubts about a generalized reverence for life. But I don't mean that we can or should just write off Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and, while we're at it, perhaps the whole of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions too. What I mean (for what it's worth) is that the only honest, non-sentimental way to love the world (or life, or anything else as general as that) is to do so as these things are incarnated in particulars. Without attention to particulars there is no true love. (Can I get away with a grand claim like that?) And I think that this means there are (speaking broadly) two ways to be un-loving: to pay attention to particulars in the wrong way (e.g. callously or sadistically) and to disregard particulars and focus instead on abstractions or generalizations.

Military crimes tend to be of the former sort, as when they show or embody indifference to the innocent people killed along with the target (in a clumsy drone strike, for instance), or when they deliberately aim at inflicting pain (in the use of torture). Terrorism seems to be of the latter sort. Real targets are attacked, but as symbols, not because of what they actually are. The best example I can think of is the attack on time itself in the form of the Greenwich Observatory in Conrad's The Secret Agent, but the 9/11 attacks come to mind also, given their symbolic date and targets. The recent atrocity in Norway is another example, if the children killed were targeted because of what they were considered to 'represent' (i.e. their political views).

Terrorism can seem to be (and perhaps sometimes is) a combination of symbolic thinking (abstracted from the particular people involved) and consequentialism, breaking a few symbolic eggs in order to make some mythical omelet. But there can be also what I hesitate to call an aesthetic aspect to it too. The goal is to create terror, after all, which is roughly the goal of horror movies (and books and music and whatever else can share that general form). Terrorists want to make nightmares reality, even if this is not their ultimate goal. It wouldn't be surprising if Breivik had seen Battle Royale. But I don't mean that it is necessarily bad to enjoy such films, or shock rock, or scary stories. My point is just to recognize that terrorism is more complicated than I might have suggested if I had left out this aspect of it.

I have some sympathy with the views of Chris Bertram and dsquared here, especially the latter's complaint about "failure to own one's own bullshit." But there is, I feel, a tension in Bertram's worrying about people selecting themselves into groups while criticizing a rather vague range of people he disagrees with (albeit rightly) and throwing out the word 'fascist' (which he then neither applies to these people nor really declines to apply: he explicitly rejects throwing this kind of mud as "not particularly useful," but he puts them all in the vicinity of the mud anyway, perhaps hoping they will fall in without his having to get his hands dirty). It is the thinking in terms of groups that is the real problem, I think. But let me immediately qualify that.

If we're talking about the mass murder of children then that is the real problem. But if we're talking about something more intellectual like an "epistemic environment" then the problem is not hatred of terrorism or "honor killings" or war crimes or imperialism. The problem is failing to distinguish between terrorists and Muslims, or between war criminals and Americans. The problem is thinking in terms of large and ill-defined groups. It is true that this tends to be a problem more on the right than anywhere else these days, at least in the USA, but there is nothing necessary about this truth, and it is dangerous for people not on the right to consider themselves thereby immune to it.

Perhaps philosophy can help here. As Frege said:
The logic books contain warnings against logical mistakes arising from the ambiguity of expressions. I regard as no less pertinent a warning against apparent proper names having no reference. The history of mathematics supplies errors which have arisen in this way. This lends itself to demagogic abuse as easily as ambiguity -- perhaps more easily. 'The will of the people' can serve as an example; for it is easy to establish that there is at any rate no generally accepted reference for this expression. It is therefore by no means unimportant to eliminate the source of these mistakes, at least in science, once and for all.
It might be helpful to challenge on similar grounds references to "the liberal elites," "the gay agenda," perhaps even "Islam," but also "fascists" and perhaps also "elite scribblers of this [right-wing] spectrum." At any rate we should be careful about making such generalizations (even if it is sometimes very hard to avoid using them).

But I doubt that philosophy can do very much to change the world. I'm tempted to think that terrorism will become more a feature of life because people despair of the world being a genuinely democratic place. If it is ruled by multinational corporations and people like Rupert Murdoch, or some combination of money and stupidity, then how can anyone hope to achieve any political objective without using wealth (which we don't all have) or violence (which is much more accessible)? Or so, I imagine, some people think. Really, though, democracy is probably about as alive and well as it has ever been. Terrorism will continue because the means to create terror are widely available and there are a lot of crazy people out there.

It can't hurt to try to create a less hate-filled and more nuanced appreciation of reality though. I think we owe it to the victims of these crimes to do so. And in some sense, although this is probably the wrong language to use, we owe it to ourselves and to reality too. .

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


There's more going on at Kelly Dean Jolley's Quantum Est In Rebus Inane than I can keep up with at the moment (at least if keeping up with it includes commenting intelligently), and now j. is joining in at Practice and History of Philosophy. Recommended.

Thanks to Philosophy, lit, etc. I see that Dave Maier is talking about Errol Morris and Wittgenstein at 3quarksdaily. That's also recommended, even though I haven't read it yet.

Jon Cogburn has drawn my attention to a book by Alain Badiou on Wittgenstein with this post at New APPS. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on it, but the description at amazon doesn't make it seem as though he gets Wittgenstein right ("Addressing the crucial moment where Wittgenstein argues that much has to be passed over in silence—showing what cannot be said, after accepting the limits of language and meaning—Badiou argues that this mystical act reduces logic to rhetoric, truth to an effect of language games, and philosophy to a series of esoteric aphorisms"). Might be very worth reading all the same, of course, and perhaps it will even change my mind about Wittgenstein.

Finally, the 34th International Wittgenstein Symposium is coming up. Has anyone ever been? I'd love to go sometime. Maybe I'll try submitting something next year.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Human rights

The admirable Anat Biletzki discusses human rights at The Stone, just when I was going to say something about the same topic based on what Gaita says about it in The Philosopher's Dog. And now, since it's taken me so long to write this, Matt at The Consternation of Philosophy, has chimed in too. Here's (some of) what Gaita says:
Talk of rights in human affairs has had two functions. The first [...] is theoretical--to explain why certain wrongs are wrongs, and (often) to ground them objectively. The second is moral. It constitutes one of the most noble fictions in our moral thought. Good-hearted people find it intolerable that just treatment of the powerless should depend on the generosity--on the charity, in the old-fashioned sense--of the powerful. Since at least 1789, the refusal to accept it has driven the rhetoric of human rights in a noble attempt to bestow dignity on the powerless by creating the impression that rights are a kind of moral force field, a metaphysical barrier to the indignity of being crushed ruthlessly. "I don't need your charity. I don't need your justice. I stand by my rights and demand that they be acknowledged." That is the spirit of 1789.
It is an illusion.
He goes on to quote Simone Weil on how appeals to justice might move someone but asserting your rights sounds contentious, and how a girl being forced into a brothel would not talk about her rights, since such talk would seem hopelessly inadequate to the injustice that was being done. I agree with Weil, but I think Gaita might be collapsing the second, moral use of the notion of rights into the first, explanatory and grounding one. He might be right about the spirit of 1789. I have some sympathy for Bentham's rejection of that kind of rights-talk (he thought it was dangerous as well as metaphysically unsound, and was arguably right to think so: the French Revolution was no picnic, and it is questionable to think that, say, the right to bear arms might be immutable). But isn't there now a use of rights-talk that pretends neither to explain nor to protect? A use of 'rights' to refer to something close to what Mill called "the essentials of human well-being"?

Thinking of cheaply referring to "the spirit of 1989" I googled "rights 1989" and found the Unicef Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to Unicef:
Every right spelled out in the Convention is inherent to the human dignity and harmonious development of every child. The Convention protects children's rights by setting standards in health care; education; and legal, civil and social services.
By agreeing to undertake the obligations of the Convention (by ratifying or acceding to it), national governments have committed themselves to protecting and ensuring children's rights and they have agreed to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community. States parties to the Convention are obliged to develop and undertake all actions and policies in the light of the best interests of the child. 
The first part of this might sound as though it was written by people who think that children can be protected merely by listing things that shouldn't be done to them, but the rest of it makes it pretty clear, I think, that the protection comes from government action. I see no reason why this kind of Convention could not do any good (nor, of course, any guarantee that it will work), and it is clearly intended to work, not to make or encourage any illusory claims about metaphysical force fields.

For this reason I don't think of rights as metaphysical and don't see much point in the question of what grounds them. More relevant would be the question of how we should decide, and how we might hope to agree on, what belongs on a list of rights. Among other things, Biletzki says that, "Theories of human needs, human interests and human agency provide analytical foundations for the idea of human rights." As long as we don't go overboard with the idea of theories or analytical foundations, this seems about right to me.  Rights should be identified with reference to human needs, interests, and what it means to be a human agent. You don't need to bring God into the conversation, although it might help with some people (even some secular ones). Indeed, a religious ethic might require the violation of human rights if God commands it (not that He usually does), as Biletzki points out. She goes on to say that, "It is a turn to the human, and a (perhaps axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic) posit of human dignity, that turns the engine of human rights, leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning without ever deserting that first posit."  I think that's all the foundation we need: a dogmatic posit of human dignity. What grounds that? The short answer is: who cares? The long answer: read some books (a list would be necessary for this to be a really long answer, but  since it would probably start with Shakespeare and perhaps the Bible I won't spell it out here).

This reference to the Bible might make you wonder just how secular talk of rights can really be, and Matt addresses this kind of consideration. His concern, though, is with whether a secular view such as Biletzki's can provide a foundation for, or theory of, human rights. My view, which I think is close to Biletzki's, is that we don't need any such thing. Matt concludes with these words:

If all we can point to when explaining human rights is our mere humanity, then what sets the ground rules for the discussion? What will determine whether this or that is a human right, or no right at all? Without answers to these questions, we don't have a theory of human rights at all.
I think he's right. But I don't see that we need any such theory.

UPDATE: Biletzki comments interestingly here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Of Gods and Men

A must see, I would say. This film, based on a true story, presents Christianity in a way that is both credible and amazing, sympathetic and appalling. I'm exaggerating a little, but it is based on real events (which helps with its credibility), at least some of the monks (the ones you see enough of to get a sense for) are very sympathetic people, their dedication to their faith and the people they live among is impressive, and it's hard (maybe not impossible) to imagine people with my kind of secular ethics doing the same thing. Certainly I would not have behaved as these monks did.

I've probably mentioned this before, but when I think of Christianity I tend to think first of the kind of right-of-center political ideology and movement that goes by that name. Next I think of my friends who are Christians but who seem to be just like me except that they go to church on Sundays. Of course, they might not be just like me, but they don't seem obviously more moral or more accepting of life's misfortunes or anything like that. Of Gods and Men shows what I am inclined to think is the real thing, the true form of Christianity. (Although, as a non-Christian, I'm not sure I really have any business passing judgment on what constitutes true Christianity.) 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

High Phi

I won't be blogging much, if at all, for the next few days because I'll be involved in the Epic Questions NEH Summer Institute for High School Teachers. My job is to teach high school teachers ethics so that they can then teach it to their students, and to help these teachers design courses and assignments. It's part of Mitch Green's "High Phi" project to get philosophy into high schools. It all seems very worthwhile, and I think it will be fun, but I'm not exactly sure what to expect. I guess I'll find out.

Monday, July 18, 2011


My favorite page of The Philosopher's Dog, at least at the moment, is 214 (if that link doesn't work, search for "Ditto" using amazon's "look inside" feature to see the whole page). Gaita rejects the sharp distinction between the moral and the psychological, as well as "the tendency to think that expressions of moral impossibility are really misleading ways of expressing a sense of obligation" as aspects of "meaning-neglect." A merely psychological impossibility might be something like the inability to draw blood from oneself even when one knows it is necessary for medical reasons. One need not have any sense that it would be morally bad to prick one's finger (although, perhaps like Kant, one could have such a sense). I'm not sure what a good example of a moral impossibility that is in no way psychological would be, but perhaps killing someone with the push of a button. It might be fairly easy to get yourself to push the button (the victim is anonymous and out of sight, let's suppose), but you would never do it because of moral considerations, i.e. it would be murder. Gaita gives examples that he thinks are less clear, but that he would not happily call cases of moral impossibility: a woman's sense that she could not just replace a dead child by having more as, she thinks, Vietnamese women could (is it the racist part that makes this not moral impossibility?); Gaita's own sense that it was impossible for him to shoot rabbits when he went out on a day that had a particular effect on him because of its beauty; Orwell's "not feeling like" shooting at a man who was holding up his trousers as he ran.

Replacing a child is impossible, it seems to me, because of what it is, or means, to have a child. Parents tend to love their children no matter what they are like, but what they love is those particular children. If they die then they cannot be replaced. Nothing that means anything to you (except as a mere means), I would think, can be replaced. Although something else might take its place. That is, you can love one cat and then later love another, but you cannot transfer the love you had for the first cat to the second one. That love either dies or stays with its object. We love individuals, not whatever happens to fall under certain descriptions. We don't love, that is, under a description (even if we would love whoever or whatever happened to fall under the description 'my child', 'my pet', or whatever). (I feel as though I'm failing to state the obvious here, but that's what I'm trying to do.)

Gaita couldn't shoot any rabbits that day, or at that moment on that day, because, to put it perhaps too crudely, the mood was all wrong. He was too happy, too in awe of nature to feel like killing any of its members.

Orwell's mood, too, was wrong for killing, but not morally wrong. He saw the man under the wrong aspect, under the wrong concept (fellow trouser-wearer, fellow man, something like that, rather than Fascist or enemy or threat), in the wrong mood to feel like shooting at him.    

Each of these cases is related to morality, involving love, awe, and empathy respectively. But the last two aren't exactly generalizable or convertible to any principle, and the first one is more like a logical impossibility than a moral one. Although the logic of love is not wholly distinct from our psychology or morals.

Gaita wonders whether these cases of impossibility:
like the impossibility that we should consign our dead to the rubbish collection or that we should routinely number rather than name our children, [...] are impossibilities that structure and are structured by that part of the realm of meaning in which morality is embedded.
The impossible acts are unthinkable, that is to say, in an important way. I've been starting to think in terms of something like ethical hinge-propositions, and what Gaita says here might seem to fit that way of thinking. But it has its dangers, such as the danger of leading us to think of morality as an isolable structure with its own scaffolding or foundation, and the danger of thinking of these foundations as more real than they are. I might explore this idea more though.   

Is meat murder?

Gaita says that some people say that meat is murder, but they don't really believe it. They don't, that is, regard butchers the way they would regard a murderer, or meat-eaters the way they would regard cannibals. (This is one of the ideas in the book that I had thought was mine, but might well come from Cora Diamond. Or maybe it's just obvious.) But what does "meat is murder" mean? Is it something so obviously false? I don't think so.

As far as I know the phrase was coined by Morrissey, who took it from the slogan "meat means murder," which is a song by the punk group Conflict. I don't trust my memory very much, but I believe someone painted "meat means murder" in big letters on a wall in Manchester that I drove by several times. Maybe Morrissey saw the same graffiti. "Meat is murder" is punchier but also more obviously false. How could a substance be an act? I think it's fair to say that we aren't meant to take it literally. How we are supposed to take it ought to be made clear in the words of the song. So here are some of them:
Heifer whines could be human cries
Closer comes the screaming knife
This beautiful creature must die
This beautiful creature must die
A death for no reason
And death for no reason is murder
I'm not sure about the first line: do heifers whine? Nor do I know enough about abattoirs to know whether the "screaming knife" part is accurate. But the idea is clear enough: think of the similarities between animals and humans, think of their beauty, think of the fact that you don't have to eat meat. Now, isn't it terrible that they should be killed for their meat? The word 'murder' is meant to express this (alleged) terribleness. I really don't think that a definition of murder as death for no reason is being seriously proposed. This is propaganda, not conceptual analysis. I'll skip a bit, but the song continues:
Kitchen aromas aren't very homely
It's not comforting, cheery, or kind
It's sizzling blood and the unholy stench of murder.

It's not natural, normal, or kind
The flesh you so fancifully fry
The meat in your mouth
As you savour the flavour of murder
This is a not very subtle attempt at forcing an aspect shift. Kitchen aromas, of course, are homely and normal. The denial of this obvious truth is meant to make us reconsider, to think of them differently. Don't think of them in that way. Think of them as the smell of blood, the smell of flesh. Now, does buying, cooking, and serving meat seem so kind? That's the idea. You can reject it as sentimental, hysterical, or crass (Conflict recorded on Crass Records, so some of these people had a sense of how they were likely to be perceived, I think), but it's a mistake to say simply that it is false, or not really what anyone believes. It isn't meant to be a statement of belief.

Wings off flies

Thanks to encouragement from vh, I have finally got around to reading Rai Gaita's The Philosopher's Dog. (I should really call him Raimond Gaita, but I first heard about him from Cora Diamond and, at least as I remember it, she always called him Rai. So that's how I think of him. I don't mean to sound misleadingly or disrespectfully pally with him.) It's a superb book, one that I would love to be able to assign to students. My students, I fear, lack the maturity, the vocabulary, and the philosophical background to appreciate it though. Maybe I'm wrong. Gaita brings together stories and memories about such things as pets and mountain-climbing with philosophical reflection. Typically the episodes from real life show just how warped are the ideas philosophers come up with when they think without attention to such things. It's very much written in the realistic spirit and makes frequent reference to both Cora Diamond and J. M. Coetzee. So it's right up my street, even to the point of containing ideas that I have had myself. (I wonder whether they come from Diamond originally?) He even talks about her dog Mouse, who (whom?) my wife and I looked after for a week once when we were graduate students. It's another one of those I-can't-believe-I-didn't-read-this-before books. How many more can there be?

Anyway, on p. 126 Gaita writes:
Some people take pleasure in pissing on insects or spiders trapped in urinals. It's a coarse pleasure and betrays a failure of imagination.
I suppose the insects in question are alive but struggling to escape, and the men who piss on them are making a sadistic game of killing them. This is not the same as killing flies with satisfaction, as Gaita's otherwise-very-kind-to-animals father did, but it is close enough to prompt Gaita to wonder about his father's attitude. (At this point in the book I sensed that Gaita thought his father had got flies wrong, but he later points to his father's slaughtering some animals for their meat as evidence that, roughly speaking, there isn't anything wrong with doing that. More on this in another post.) I wonder about my own attitude toward insects too.

One of my least impressive moments came when I was about ten years old (maybe, but surely not?, older). After a walk in the woods I looked down to see a caterpillar crawling on my leg. I screamed. I used to be terrified of creepy crawlies, of the thought of their touching me. One of the things I have discovered as a father is that it is my job to deal with bugs, so fear is not an option. Maybe it's just because I'm older, but I think it's the necessity too that makes me quite unafraid. In our house we have spiders (which, unlike British spiders, bite), earwigs, stink bugs, and, worst of all, what we call spider crickets. These look like big spiders but, being crickets, they jump. Often straight at you. Some of these various bugs can be caught and released, but that often isn't an option. You have to squish them, and they often end up in the toilet, dead, half-dead, or not actually dead at all and ready to jump out.

Does it betray a failure of imagination to treat some or all of these creatures with contempt? A spider in a public urinal (they are always public, I suppose) is one thing. A spider that will bite your children while they sleep is another. To my mind, it's an enemy. If I loved nothing better than finding and killing such things then I think this would reflect badly on me. But if now and then I take some small pleasure in getting rid of a pest, is that so bad?

Well, Gaita isn't saying that it's so bad. But he seems to think it's bad. I'm genuinely not sure. I don't think it's really bad at all, but if that's because of a failure of imagination on my part, how could I judge? I think there is something to be said for a little bit of sadism, for enjoying not just getting a job done successfully, not just winning, but enjoying your opponent's losing. I'm surprising myself by finding that I think this (which might mean it is much less interesting for you reading this than it is for me), but I think I value a bit of killer instinct. Not on utilitarian grounds, although I'm sure it can be useful, but on something like aesthetic grounds. I should emphasize, especially given the title of this post, that I don't mean the kind of sadism that takes the form of pulling wings off flies or killing anything just for the pleasure of it. I mean more things like having a "wicked" sense of humor, wanting certain criminals to be punished, taking some satisfaction in knowing that a rival team has lost, and being able to enjoy violence enough to at least see the point of movies that feature it. (I don't mean those that deliberately revel in sadism although, of course, it's possible to disagree about where the line should be drawn.) And I think that anyone who is nasty in this way will be able to, and sometimes will, take pleasure in killing a creature perceived as an enemy (or, perhaps, as food).

I hope I haven't exaggerated or given the wrong impression. I speak as an almost-pacifist (that's an exaggeration, but I'm no hawk) almost-vegetarian. But maybe I'm not as nice as I like to think I am. And maybe I don't want to be.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Shall we take a trip?

Sam Harris offers some false, but possibly interesting, thoughts about drugs and the meaning of life. He begins by saying this:
Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness.
This is not quite hedonism, although it's surely close, but it is a form of nihilism. The possibility of meaning in life is simply ignored. If you see things this way then it seems you might as well just try to find the best drugs (or consciousness-altering alternatives) that you can. Which is not quite what Harris goes on to recommend, but drugs do come into it.

One thing this sentence reminds me of is playing rugby when I was a kid. I was never very good and rarely very into it, but I did play. I remember sometimes being in two minds about how to approach being on the field. One temptation was to wait for it all to end. With luck I wouldn't get too cold or muddy and would escape unhurt. But this is usually a good way to get bored, cold, and scolded or ridiculed for not joining in. The other option was to throw myself into the game, which turned out to be fun. Mostly I think I was so inept that the game tended to pass me by anyway, but I feel as though I learned something. And that was not to focus too much on your own consciousness but to throw yourself (fairly literally when it comes to making tackles in rugby) into something bigger than that. It could be argued, of course, that the ultimate goal is still very much related to one's own consciousness, but to make that argument is to retreat into the quasi-solipsistic position in which there is no meaning, and you get bored and lonely. I think we all move from self-consciousness (in the sense of focusing on one's own thoughts and feelings) to being caught up in the world and back again, but it seems like a bad idea to get stuck in the self. (I don't know whether getting stuck in the world, never reflecting or paying attention to yourself, would be a good thing. I'm pretty sure it would be impossible, though, at least for me.)

Harris recommends certain drugs partly as a way to escape the bounds of the self, which seems a little odd even though I think I see his point. He ends up saying that:
The power of psychedelics, however, is that they often reveal, in the span of a few hours, depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.
The word 'understanding' seems out of place here. How can hallucinating and chemically manipulating your mind lead to understanding? What he seems to have in mind comes out in this paragraph:
I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could have ever imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of Nature herself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of these deeper possibilities. 
I can't really argue this, but I will say that I think most of this is bull. If you weep in Itchycoo Park because 'it's all too beautiful" have you actually discovered something that art cannot capture and that even nature cannot match? What could it mean to say that "Nature herself is a mere simulacrum" of something, unless you have in mind Heaven or the World of Forms, perhaps, which Harris clearly does not? It might seem that beautiful, but it isn't, and you haven't discovered that it is. You just feel as if you have. What might be true is Harris's last point here, that you can discover "how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be," although, as he admits, there are other ways to reach the same state or make the same discovery.

I'm not saying that everyone should Just Say No. But feeling enlightened and being enlightened are not the same thing. Harris might see that point, but he seems to obscure it at times. He's otherwise quite sensible about the pros and cons of taking drugs, although he might add that their being illegal is a good reason not to encourage your kids to take them. They might end up like David Gilmour's son (whose sentence for a "drink and drug-fuelled rampage" seems harsh to me, but I'm talking about what can happen, not what should happen). Anyway, I won't be encouraging my daughter to take LSD as Harris seems to intend to do.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Debunking myths

Finally, the epilogue to The Myth of Morality. It begins with an interesting account of Bronislaw Malinowski's tripartite classification of narratives. The first class, folk tales, are "not believed for a moment" (p. 232). The second class, historical legends, are taken to be true, even if they are acknowledged to contain some embellishment and exaggeration. The third class is myths, and these are taken by their believers to be true in a higher sense. Being sacred they are certainly true, but they are not at all true in the ordinary, down-to-earth sense.

Joyce doubts whether myths like this should be counted as items of belief. Instead, he suggests, they are (more like) practices (see p. 236). Here, I think, he is closer to Wittgenstein than he is for most of the book. In the penultimate paragraph of the book he writes:
When appealing to myths is a well-defined practice -- as in the Trobriand lili'u, for example [Malinowski's example of narratives of the third class] -- then all participants are aware that they are "special" ("sacred," is Malinowski's preferred term. All parties know that the telling of a lili'u is a serious and distinct kind of appeal, and they are not likely to mistake it for the telling of a fairy tale or for the communication of "ordinary" information. But if a culture diversifies and fragments, or mis-comprehends its own traditions, or for whatever reasons impoverishes its own categories of assent to the extent that the only recognized kind of important positive attitude is belief, then this understanding may be lost. Fictionalism is predicated on the assumption that encouraging a habit of false belief has inevitable deleterious consequences. Its fragility is that a fiction that is presented as being of central practical weight, as something demanding allegiance, is likely to be read by the careless as something demanding belief. (p. 240)
Shades of MacIntyre here. I wonder how much our culture is in the kind of mess suggested here and, if so, how much philosophers are to blame. But I wonder also why Joyce excludes myths from the class of things that can genuinely be believed or, put another way, why he takes such a narrow view of belief. Surely some religious belief lies, as it were, between what he would count as belief and the attitude that Malinowski describes toward myths. That is, some believers in the Day of Judgment insist that they believe this in the ordinary way that I believe that the sun will go down this evening, but others regard that as a misunderstanding (perhaps even a sinful one) of such matters. Of these others, some might say that their beliefs are very much like Malinowski's myths, but others will insist that that too is a mis-characterization. And I think one could say the same, more or less, about ethical judgments. Wittgenstein's distinction in the Lecture on Ethics between relative value (value in the ordinary, down-to-earth sense) and absolute value (value of an ultimately mysterious, other kind) would be accepted by many people, I think. But absolute value is not a myth in the way that an atheist's talk of hell might be. For instance, a non-religious person, i.e. someone who freely accepts that they do not really believe in hell, the sacred, etc., might still find that they want to refer to hell, the sacred, and so on in order to express their beliefs. (Ronald Dworkin talks about the sacred in Life's Dominion, e.g., as does Morrissey in "Suffer Little Children," and I don't think either one of them is religious.) Such people might say that their words are not true in the ordinary sense but do express a higher truth, or something of the sort. This would be at least close to using words in what Wittgenstein calls a secondary sense.

If I say that murder is absolutely wrong, or a non-fundamentalist religious believer says that the Day of Judgment will come, is this the same kind of thing? It seems like a bad idea to lump these two things (ethics and religion) together, and obvious that a believer's use of religious language is not the same as a non-believer's. But it might also be helpful to see some similarities. Ethics and religion are surely pretty well entangled for the believer. And seeing both as lying somewhere between ordinary truth and myth (to each of which, after all, they are connected, I think) might help us avoid an overly literalistic understanding (which might make ethics seem to be mere nonsense) or an overly fictionalist one. 

Reading back over that I think I know what I mean, but suspect it might be all a little too obscure for anyone else. Maybe some examples will help. Let's say I am outraged by someone's behavior and find that the best way I can find to express my attitude is to scream "You will burn in hell for this!" at them. If I am, say, a Christian, then I might well mean this literally (what this means will vary among Christians, but never mind that for now). If I am not a Christian then I certainly won't mean it literally. I might be able to find (or be given) some other form of words that say what I mean just as well, or even better, in which case my reference to hell will have been merely metaphorical. But if no other words will capture my meaning (and I don't mean them literally), then I have used them in a secondary sense which, though not metaphorical, is related to literary uses of language and hence to fiction, myth, "higher" truth, etc. (For more on the concept of secondary sense see MKR's helpful comments here).     

If I am in that position, the position of having no language but that of a religion to which I do not subscribe, then clearly my beliefs and/or attitudes are connected to that religion (whether I like it or not). This hardly means that Christianity is reducible to questions of attitude and language, but it does show that it is related to such questions, perhaps importantly so. It is also connected, of course, to various historical ("ordinary") facts, but this does not show that it is reducible to that kind of thing either. But I'm trying to talk about ethics rather than religion.

What about "slavery is wrong," "genocide is wrong," or "murder is wrong"? Each of these sentences sounds trivially true and hopelessly inadequate to the truth and so inadequate as to be (if only very slightly) funny. They are (at least somewhat) like "eating people is wrong," which (as the title of this novel) is an actual joke. Of course they wouldn't be equally funny in all contexts. Bewildered and despairing at an actual act of genocide, saying "Genocide is ... wrong!" would not be funny at all. But neither would it hit the nail on the head. It is an inarticulate sentence. (Of course inarticulacy is entirely understandable in some situations, and might communicate your emotion or attitude very well. But showing that you are upset by being inarticulate is not saying that you are upset.) Thankfully (is that the word?) there is a lot more that we can say about the evils of genocide, slavery, and murder than this. Some of this might involve secondary uses of language, but much of it need not. So I don't think we need to regard moral discourse as a kind of fiction or pretense (or mistake).

Another thing to say about such evils is that for most of us they are unthinkable in a pretty literal way. They are not options we are capable of taking seriously (which is surely related to the comic aspect of "Eating people is wrong," etc.). And this is not a truth about the words we use but about thoughts that we don't have. Part -- not all -- of the horror of such things is the discovery that we live among beings for whom such things are thinkable. (Hume sort of suggests that this horror is moral disapproval, the feeling we get when we wonder what kind of person could do such a thing. But moral disapproval is a judgment, not a feeling.) This negative and psychological aspect of moral discourse is something that Joyce does not really address. But what we don't say, and why, seems important to me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Moral fictionalism

Why (pretend to) be moral? Joyce thinks that "Hume's answer to a sensible knave" is "roughly correct" (p. 210). That is, bad people don't get to enjoy having a good conscience or the satisfaction of having been good, and they run the risk of being caught, which isn't likely to go down well. (See Survivor for numerous examples of people losing because of perceived untrustworthiness or plain nastiness.) So most people are better off behaving morally.

And they are more likely to do so if they not only know that moral behavior is in their self-interest but tend to think that it is necessary or somehow obligatory. So we should get in the habit of "employing the fiction of morality" (p. 219). Indeed, we should raise our children to believe in morality, and only break it to them later, perhaps when they are old enough to do philosophy, that it is a myth.


Chapter 7 of Joyce's book is called "Fictionalism." It begins like this:
Let us suppose that the main conclusion of the previous chapters is correct: moral discourse consists largely of untrue assertions. Those arguments have primarily targeted deontological notions like obligation and prohibition. (p. 175)
Such notions, Joyce believes, are connected to all normal moral discourse, so that we cannot just get rid of them and carry on with moral discourse as we know it. (This reminds me of the introduction to Tal Brewer's The Retrieval of Ethics, specifically the part where he says that the radical critique of modern moral philosophy presented by Anscombe and MacIntyre has been normalized so that virtue ethics is quite consistent with standard philosophical ideas of how to talk about morality.) "Moral discourse," Joyce writes on p. 177, "is a house of cards, and the card at center bottom has "categorical imperative" written on it." If we use Anscombe's preferred concepts, such as 'unjust,' 'unchaste,' etc., then this doesn't really help, Joyce says, because these concepts include or presuppose the idea that we ought not to be unjust or unchaste or whatever. And these 'oughts' are categorical (says Joyce). He mentions Anscombe's proposal that we jettison the language of categorical imperatives, but does not consider that to be the only option. So he explores fictionalism as another alternative.

What non-moral reason might there be to continue to engage in moral discourse even after we have seen through it? It must be useful. (This is starting to look like a utilitarian defense of talking and thinking like a Kantian. Didn't Hare try something vaguely similar?) The previous discussion of evolution suggests that moral discourse (as Joyce understands it) is useful, and so we might expect him to conclude, as he does, that we should keep using this kind of language.

We should, that is, use it, but not believe it. Indeed, for the most part we should live just as if we do believe it, perhaps even saying (and believing) at times that we believe it, but in reflective moments acknowledging that we know it isn't really right:
what a person believes cannot be simply read off her actions, speech and thought -- rather, the matter is determined by what she will say in a particular kind of context, of which "when doing philosophy" is offered as a familiar setting well towards one end of the continuum. (p. 192)
Which starts to make moral fictionalism seem a little irrelevant. It's something to be ignored more or less all the time except when one is doing philosophy.

It is also important to note that Joyce's fictionalism involves thoughts, just not beliefs (where beliefs are understood as what you defend in a philosophy seminar, not something that informs one's normal behavior). If I engage in the fiction that I am a bear then I will say "I'm a bear" and make what I imagine to be bear noises, rather than "I'm pretending to be a bear. Imagine that I am making bear noises." I might well even think to myself (i.e., roughly, say to myself) that I'm a bear. If I really get into the role perhaps I will believe that I'm a bear. But I won't believe this upon reflection. Similarly, a moral fictionalist will think that slavery is wrong, say that slavery is wrong, act as if slavery is wrong, and possibly sometimes even believe that slavery is wrong. But she will not really believe it.

"Real belief" looks pretty unimportant, but I suppose it matters to philosophers. And one thing that matters in all this is that fictions have to be joint efforts if they are not to be lies. We aren't playing cops and robbers if I'm the only one who knows I'm not a real cop when I tell you you're under arrest. So "there can be no honest 'lone fictionalist'..." (p. 204). So I guess we need to get a group of people to pretend to take morality seriously without doing so immorally. Or something.    

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Morality and evolution

If morality is a myth and ethics an error, how did we go astray? Joyce blames evolution:
Natural selection has provided us with a tendency to invest the world with values that it does not contain, demands which it does not make. (p. 135)
Desires can motivate, he thinks, but they can also be overcome. I want to do more work, but I can't be bothered, for instance. A sense that something is necessary or must be done, on the other hand, is stronger. Similarly, sympathy might make me do things for others, but if I don't do them, all I will feel is regret. Guilt, on the other hand, is stronger than regret. So conscience, thought of as something like an organ of feelings of a particular type, is a powerful tool.

At first sight this doesn't seem to fit the idea in chapter 5 that action depends on desire, but I suppose pro-attitudes generally could take the place of desires. And a belief that something ought to be done would count as a pro-attitude. Anyone who did not have this belief, though, would still have no reason (as Joyce sees it) to do or not do the act in question. So I might desire to save the baby from the dingo, or I might not feel like it but be motivated nonetheless by my sense that it would be wrong to let the infant be carried off. But if I lack both the desire and the moral belief then I have no reason (and there is no reason) for me to save the baby. (At least, I think this is what Joyce is saying. But I have a hard time thinking he can really mean this. And I lack the motivation to go back and read these chapters again.)

Babies who grow up surrounded by rescuers-from-dingoes will be more likely to survive and reproduce than babies who grow up surrounded by dingoes and shoulder-shruggers, and the former class of babies are likely to have rescuer genes, so natural selection is likely to produce people who like saving others (out of sympathy) or, more likely (because it is more likely to motivate rescues), people who believe (falsely, says Joyce) that they must save babies from dingoes. And keep their promises, tell the truth, etc.        


Internal and external reasons

Chapter 5 of Joyce's The Myth of Morality continues his discussion of reasons. He argues that all normative reasons are internal, following Bernard Williams' argument that, in Joyce's words:
An external reason claim is one that is applied to the subject of the ascription regardless of what are his desires; and Williams argues that although we make such claims, they are all false. (p. 108)
They are false because reasons for action must be able to explain the action in question, and to do this the alleged reason must be able to motivate the agent. Joyce accepts the Humean view (without claiming to be able to prove it correct) that actions are motivated by beliefs and desires working together.

There is clearly a difference between the reason why someone did what they did and the reason why they should have done something else. I mean, there is a difference in the sense that these do not have to be the same thing. Perhaps you did something for the money but could have made more money doing something else, in which case both reasons are "for the money." But if you kill someone for the money then the reason why you should have refused is rather different. And it might not match any of your desires at all. It is still a reason why you should not have done it.

Is it a reason that you had not to kill the person? Maybe not. But it was a reason that, so to speak, existed for you not to kill them all the same. What kind of existence do reasons that are not acted on have? How can there be a reason that is not owned by someone, that is not someone's reason? And what is the reason not to kill people for money (if, say, Qaddafi makes you a generous offer)? There isn't much of a reason, in a sense. That is, there isn't much I can think of to say to anyone who seriously asked such a question. Because they are people, is about as good as I can do. But it sounds crazy, or like a joke, to say that there is no reason for people not to slaughter innocent civilians for money if that is what they want to do.  

Philosophy and poetry

My essay "Philosophy and Poetry" is now available online here. It's part of an issue of Essays in Philosophy on "Philosophy's Future: Science or Something Else?" and the whole issue looks worth exploring. Thanks again to everyone here who encouraged me to write it and helped me improve it. 

Friday, July 8, 2011


Kelly Dean Jolley has a (new) blog. And it looks (not surprisingly) good.

If you read Brian Leiter's blog then you already know this, but there are some interesting photographs of and by Wittgenstein here. (Click "view the slideshow" and look to the right for captions on each picture.) Some of these are familiar, others not (to me anyway). And some of the best known were composed by Wittgenstein, which I didn't know. This one is a composite, family resemblance picture he made (with Moritz Nar) of himself and his sisters Gretl, Hermine, and Helene.

Finally, some last thoughts on Clive James. His entry on Sartre is really bad. He lumps all recent well-known French philosophers together and writes them off, along with Heidegger, using some insults and a quotation from Sartre taken out of context. It's the usual "make sense of this if you can; you can't?; then you must agree it's all rubbish" argument. James also shows that he doesn't know what 'scientism' means. On the other hand, he does quote some good stuff from Pedro Henriquez Ureña ("Great art begins where grammar ends") and Paul Valéry ("Sometimes something wants to be said, sometimes a way of saying wants to be used"), which he doesn't connect (but I do). 

Blue Valentine

I finally watched this last night. I wouldn't say it's a great film (it certainly isn't much fun), but it stays with you. True, it's been less than 24 hours since I watched it, but I find I can remember much more of it than I usually do, and it seems to call out for interpretation or analysis. So here goes (with lots of spoilers, although it's not the kind of film that spoilers really spoil).

Here's the basic plot: a likable, romantic slacker* (Dean) falls in love with a pretty student (Cindy). (*He might be meant to be just working class, but he seems like a hipster, and when he applies for a job with a removal company he has no previous experience, coming across as a bit lazy rather than down on his luck.) When she gets pregnant by her stereotypically obnoxious jock boyfriend and can't go through with the abortion, Dean agrees to marry her. Presumably because of getting married and having a baby, Cindy goes from studying to become a doctor to being a nurse, and the family move to the country (near Scranton, PA, apparently) from Brooklyn, where they met. The marriage does not last, and the movie shows it falling apart.

Dean loves his wife and daughter (Frankie), and clearly wants the marriage to continue. Ending it is her idea, and by the end she cannot stand him touching her. So not much love there, and she sort of comes across as the bad guy, although he certainly has his faults too. Most obviously, he gets drunk and starts a literal fight at her work, which gets her fired. But he gets drunk because she repeatedly pushes him away when they're on a date at a motel and then leaves early in the morning without telling him where she is going (she is going to work, and she leaves a note, but it takes him a while to find it). The fight happens because he's drunk and because she refuses to speak to him. So the root of the couple's problem seems to be her changed attitude toward him. Why does she go from loving him to hating him?

Partly because he changes, but he doesn't change much. He goes from moving furniture to painting houses, from hip Brooklyn to the unlovely outskirts of Scranton, and from restless single to contentedly married. All he ever wanted, he discovers, was to be a father and a husband. It's a role he did not seek, but he settles into it happily. He's kind of a slob (but I wasn't sure whether his clothes were meant to be fashionably ironic or not), he smokes and drinks too much, and he is sometimes thoughtless (waking up Cindy when she needs to sleep as part of a game with their daughter, for instance). But she's thoughtless too, or careless, making oatmeal for Frankie badly and letting the dog escape into the road, where it is killed by a car.

It's not so much that he has changed as that their situation has changed. The motel they go to has themed rooms, and the one they end up in is called "the future room," or "the future" for short. It's sort of Star Trek-y and, as Cindy notes right away, it has no windows. So she is trapped in the future with her husband and can see no way out. This might be great if she loved him, but she doesn't. And that is apparently because he lacks ambition and is kind of immature. Being a man does not really appeal to him, which puts Cindy off.

The question of what it means to be a man is a big one in the film. Dean gets violent in the end in response to Cindy's demand that he be a man. What does that mean? A stereotypical man would smash things and hit people. Is that what Cindy wants? So Dean trashes the office and punches a doctor. But, of course, that isn't what she wants. She wants him to grow, to, in some sense, be all that he can be. But she can't really say what this would involve, other than developing his talents in some way. Settled contentment is not an option. Or not one that she can live with.

Another way that gender comes up is near the beginning when Dean says to a co-worker that men are more romantic than women because men marry when they find someone they feel they must marry, whereas women marry when they find a man who has a good job and is willing to take care of them. Dean is certainly willing to take care of Cindy, and he has a job, but he doesn't have a great job. She marries him partly because she feels the need for help in raising the baby she is going to have. Their love seems real enough at first, but she is pushed by other circumstances too. We also find out that she has had a lot of boyfriends (or sexual partners--she's answering questions at a clinic, so the terms are clinical) in her life, and started early. The nurse says this is normal, but we are clearly expected to be a little surprised, if not shocked. Is the idea that real life is not very romantic, or that she is not very romantic? I'm not sure.  

If she isn't it might well be because of her home life. Her parents do not get along, which is illustrated by a scene (uncomfortable but a biclichéd) in which her father refuses to eat the "disgusting" meal her mother has prepared for them. Dean's home life was unhappy, too, his mother leaving her father when he was young. He subsequently did not finish high school. So it's all a bit "man hands on misery to man." There is a sense of inevitable doom, that there is nothing to be done and no hope for anything better.

It would be possible to read the movie as very conservative. A kind of fatalism is traditionally associated with conservatism (hence no point in various progressive reforms--some people are just born bad, the poor are always with us, etc.--the opposite, pretty much, of "Yes we can!"). Dean could be regarded as doing exactly what feminists say men should do--being a nice, supportive guy--with disastrous results for him. And Cindy could be regarded as ungrateful, and her sexual history moralistically held against her.

But that certainly isn't the only way to see the film's story, and I don't think it is what is intended (apart from the sense of tragic determinism). Dean could have been just as supportive while doing something with his musical talents, for instance. And Cindy's relationships with men seem to be the result of her being so attractive (so men are always hitting on her) and her miserable childhood. She wants to be loved, and is perhaps desperate to be so. But that isn't all she wants. Is it that men and women want different things, or just that Dean and Cindy want different things? The film doesn't say.

It does seem to say, though, that love is not all you need, and that we are to a large extent slaves to our upbringing, our economic circumstances, etc. It emphasizes the value of individuality or freedom, the value of not being stifled and not dying (in the sense that giving yourself completely to others might seem to be a kind of death, as no doubt many housewives have found over the years). The couple's song begins with the words "You and me/ You and me/ Nobody baby but you and me." It's a good song, so it sounds good, but the lyrics might also sound dully repetitive and a little claustrophobic. Blue Valentine shows the clash between the romantic ideal of love and various less happy forces, as well as the ideal of autonomy.

Mostly, though, I think it suggests that this relationship was doomed. It's not so much "This Be the Verse" as another of Larkin's poems, "As Bad as a Mile":
          Watching the shied core
          Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
          Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

          Of failure spreading back up the arm
          Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
          The apple unbitten in the palm.

But if you don't see life as being like this, then there is hope after all.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The relativity of reasons

In Chapter 4 Joyce continues to argue that rational agents as such have no particular ends, not even the end of being or remaining rational. It seems to me that this is pretty much insisting on one particular conception of rationality, and a pretty narrow and odd one at that. Perhaps we can call it a technical sense of rationality and reason. In a more normal sense of the word, it is not rational to choose to have a lobotomy (in normal circumstances) or to do something that is predicted to make you insane. Nor is it rational to harm yourself physically or financially. Nor to do things that have no point beyond satisfying some bizarre whim, such as putting all your green books on the roof, to use one of Anscombe's examples. To do something on a whim, I would think, is to do it for no reason. That doesn't make it irrational, if the whim is fairly normal. If I see a flat stone near a pond and try to get it to skip across the surface then I might have little to no reason for doing so, but I'm not being irrational. Here, I think, doing something for no reason and one's reason being a mere desire or whim are pretty much the same thing. We could explain the action either way and get the same point across. But having a sudden urge to walk into traffic or throw myself off a cliff does not in any sense give me a reason to do those things, surely. Not every whim is a reason to act on that whim, and those that are, or that give you a reason to do what you have a whim to do, are only reasons in a weak sense. "I just felt like it" is, at best, not much of a reason for doing anything (and by this I don't mean that it isn't a good reason).  

Near the end of the chapter we get some more food for thought on philosophical uses of Nazis. There is an interesting contrast between Joyce's views and Anscombe's on this too. Anscombe's paradigm of injustice is the judicial killing of people known to be innocent. Another might be the deliberate ordering of the killing of noncombatants in war. Deliberately killing people you know to be innocent is murder, in Anscombe's book, and murder is about as bad as crimes get. So she was no fan of the Nazis. On the other hand, she didn't seem too impressed by the Nuremberg trials, which I think she saw as a bit of victor's justice. At least some of the Nazis put on trial were there, not because they had broken any existing laws, but for what they should have known were crimes against humanity. Joyce, though, treats the 1946 trials as a paradigm case of moral discourse. This discourse, he says (see pp. 98-99), demands that the Nazi leaders be censured in the strongest terms. He adds that they were hanged. He does not say that this was a good or a bad thing to do, but he seems to regard it as an example of the moral discourse that he wants to both critique (when taken literally) and defend (when viewed in a fictionalist light).

He also compares the question "Ought Hitler not to have ordered genocide?" to "Is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony a piece of music?" This suggests to me that he regards Hitler's order as paradigmatically immoral in the way that Beethoven's Fifth is something like the most famous piece of music in the world. We are in the same ballpark as G. E. Moore's "I know that I have two hands." Joyce quotes Gilbert Harman saying that "it sounds odd to say that Hitler should not have ordered the extermination of the Jews," and agrees that it sounds odd, but adds that most people asked whether Hitler ought not to have done so would be perplexed by the question but then answer "Of course!" I think this underestimates the oddity of the question. I find it hard to imagine anyone answering it straight, i.e. without some sarcasm. Many people, I suspect, would not get beyond perplexed questioning about the question. Forced to answer yes or no, of course most people would say yes. But I don't think this proves Joyce's understanding of ordinary moral thought correct. More on this later.

On p. 99 he writes that "the neo-Nazi's moral praise of Hitler is as absolutist as is our condemnation of him." Isn't this false? Don't neo-Nazis typically deny the Holocaust, rather than insisting that it was a good thing? If they say it was good, isn't this generally to insult and annoy the people they don't like, rather than a straightforward report on what they believe? And if anyone really does believe in genocide, do they really do so as absolutely as its opponents oppose it? Does anyone think "Ever again," for instance, in the way that many people think "Never again"? I don't think so. What people believe seems to be getting flattened or reduced in a way that strikes me as similar to the way that what it means to be rational was earlier shrunk to something almost unrecognizable as a conception of rationality.  

In picking on stray thoughts that I find particularly wrong or telling, I'm not giving much of a sense of what Joyce takes himself to be doing. So let me outline his strategy. (Better late than never.) Moral discourse, he thinks, commits us to the idea that we have reasons to behave morally. If you ought to do x then you have a reason to do x. But this reason is supposed to be independent of what we happen to desire, value, or care about, etc. The only reasons like this come from practical rationality, Joyce thinks. That is, the rules of various practices require us to behave in certain ways, but if you don't care about those practices then you have no reason to follow those rules. If you ask "why should I care about practical rationality?", though, then you have undermined yourself. The question itself presupposes that you do care, that you want reasons. So moral reasons could be saved if they turned out to be part of practical rationality. But it turns out they aren't. Practical rationality depends on what each agent happens to value or desire. So it is relative in a way that moral discourse is not meant to be. So moral discourse, with its contradictory requirements, is misconceived.

Or rather, Joyce thinks that it looks that way. He concedes that he has not proved his point, but he thinks the burden of proof lies with those who claim that rational agents as such must have the same normative reasons. And he thinks they have not proved this.