On Hans Jonas’ Environmental Philosophy

A couple of months ago I was reading a book called ‘Hans Jonas’ Ethic of Responsibility’ by Theresa Morris. I was not initially familiar with the work of Jonas but I came to find that Jonas was a highly influential figure in Germany and had the unique distinction of being an intellectual who had public significance.

 

When I was reading through the work I was thinking of objections and issues with Jonas’ overall thesis; Morris wrote the book in a very neat way that anticipated a lot of criticisms, such as the is-ought distinction (I was not convinced of the response but that’s another issue), and the fact that Jonas builds on previous philosophies such as Kant and Spinoza as well as the problems that they had.

 

When I think about Jonas’s overall thesis I find it forgettable. There’s a sense in which it is basically a hodgepodge of Kant and Phenomenology; Spinozist monism and moral responsibility. I understand the project that there is a need for a convincing set of ideas to frame our sense of responsibility towards the fact that consumption of various products given the developed world’s standard of living cannot be sustained for the current population if it were rolled out for everyone, or our infrastructures from using the internet to having a power grid releases a byproduct that does have an harmful impact on the planet.

 

I felt that the book hardly gave what we call in ethics a motivational reason. I think also that it may not be within our internal motivational set to be convinced of the ethics of say, using a car or eating meat. I wonder if these factors are motivationally external, that being, non-internal to our motivational set.

 

I also wonder on another front, when reading the book and reflecting on it, whether it is the assumptions that we make as everyday moral agents that perpetuate an attitude that maintains the ecological status quo. For example, if it is our sense of looking at the individual as our moral agency, instead of say, groups of people, humanity-at-large, or our governments. One discussion that was quite poignant was who counts as responsible in this ecological issue. Jonas seemed to be at the view that it was solely humanity. While I am inclined to agree, I may temper the warning that denying the agency or ethical commitment to non-persons is part of the problem that creates the status quo. We eat animals that we do not consider as people, we disregard our similarities of say, producing offspring or mating because they do not have communicable speech or technology.

 

There was an extent to which Jonas’s philosophy didn’t seem relevant when the starting point was in the western philosophical tradition. Even as someone whose starting point is the western philosophical tradition, I cannot find it easy to be convinced why say, plane travel is immoral, if we start off from moralistic or metaphysical first principles. It’s just not convincing, even if the ‘arguments’ are sound. In a sense I give a concession to the rhetorical politician who often argues from motivating reasons and the kneejerk reactions of our gut feeling as a basis for moral decision making.

 

I thought about this book as a parallel with various conversations I’ve had with recent friend, Dave Darby, who poised the question to me of how people are not shocked that they are eating and consuming their way into oblivion and are doing nothing about it. My answer to that was: they aren’t convinced by your narrative and until they are they won’t act. In that sense, the problem  with Jonas’s environmental philosophy is not particularly a unique one

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Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (4): ‘Sonority’

In Adorno’s two essays ‘Sonority’ and ‘Colour’; Sonority pertains to the significance of Wagner’s chromaticism and the harmonic choices applied in his operatic works; Colour relates to the effective application of instrumentation in Wagner’s score-writing. I will focus on the subject of ‘Sonority’ and Adorno’s reading that Wagner uses Chromaticism as a form of emotional regression, which in turn is an analogue for social regresion.

 

Sonority 

 

Regress 

 

Adorno points out the regressive tendencies of Wagner, even comparing it to the pre-historic alludings of the later composer Stravinski (Adorno 2009, p.51). Within the theme of historical and cultural regression to a previous time, The social subject can find himself within Wagner’s regression (Ibid, p. 52)

 

What is the significance of Regression? The significance is that in the regressive mentality, the subject sacrifices sovereignty to the totality of the music. Regression is in a dictionary sense, the antonym of progress. However, we may establish the equivocation of that term in a similar way. Namely, Adorno’s reading of an emotional and cultural regression of the subject enjoying the Wagnerian work, surrenders a capacity for critical thought or reflection upon the possibility of any alternative to the status quo beyond the options provided in the text, namely, present day, or regress.

 

Perhaps one way of illustrating the power of regression is through the recent Del Toro film ‘Pacific Rim’. There is a scene where a character, Mako, is placed in a machine where (for complicated reasons) she is suddenly stuck immersed into re-living a childhood memory. This memory was so powerful and tragic to Mako that she was unable to pull out of it and return to the present. Mako’s present was a situation in which she was vital and required her agency to effect change. Mako’s disposition to give her past trauma so much power became a hindrance to moving forward. Perhaps this might be a way of trying to illuminate Adorno’s wariness regarding the idea of regress.

 

Regress as a musical notion 

 

Musically speaking, Wagner’s rich harmonies fill the physical space of a venue and emotionally give an otherworldly feel. Adorno describes this other-wordliness specifically as non-temporal. The choices of harmonic decisions in Wagner’s composing are compared to the Impressionists of decades later. The impressionists in Adorno’s view percieved their reality and abstracted from it, and the result was their work of art. Musically speaking, this otehr-worldiness can have very powerful effects. The dreamy nature of Debussy in his most famous piano pieces (such as Clare de Lune) gives an otherworldy nature of perhaps introspection, natural beauty. The celesta in ‘The Hut of Baba Yaga’ of Korsakov’s ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’ has an otherworldly quality of fantasy worlds that do not exist but in the world of paintings and human imagination.

 

I want it to be clear that other-worldy can mean very many things. However for Adorno, Wagner’s other-worldliness, his sonority, is specifically about a specific mental state of introspective regress. Music as a medium is distinctly non-representational, however the medium of Opera, which is also a dramatic and visual medium, gives the audience a specific leaning towards the meaning of the harmony.

 

Adorno says (p. 54) that Romanticism made Chromaticism a thing of progress, but Wagner turned it bland. Adorno puts forward a notion of Romanticism where suffering is expressed through chromaticism (p. 56), and chromaticism shows the poles of suffering and sweetness are blurred. Wagner presents pain in a pleasant way.

 

Wagner’s use of enharmonics as a way of transitioning in a way that alludes to the ‘old’ and original chord (p. 58-9):

 

But, by a strange reversal of the norm, these devices come to occupy the centre of the musical process and this endows them with an unprecedented power. They become fully comprehensible only in the light of a comparison with the most advanced material of contemporary music from which the inexorable presence of the Wagnerian transition has been eliminated (p. 59)

 

Sonority and regression – coda 

Why is this issue important? This issue reminds me of what is at the heart of a concept that I’ve been establishing in my mind that I may call Musical Conservatism. Musical conservatism is the notion that preserving aspects of past music in new music is a good. Musical conservatism is also by such a definition, resistant to innovation and emerging new idioms.

Regression is one aspect of musical conservatism, and I see conservatism everywhere in much current music. As a genre becomes established, new deities are made. Metallica, Slayer or Black Sabbath are deified in metal circles. In Black Metal, it is abit of a cliche to hear lots of underground bands referring to themselves as ‘true black metal’ or ‘raw black metal’ or ‘kvelt’, and despite the originally dire and revolutionary tendencies of the aesthetics of the bands of 20+ years ago in the early black metal scenes, what these ‘raw’ and ‘kvelt’ bands do are simply valorising the now-old Gods, and adding to their mythos by replicating their sound and aesthetic.

Regression is everywhere, even in the revolutionary mindset. The most dangerous aspect and the biggest threat to authenticity of revolutionary movement, political and aesthetic, is a fan base that valorises. Adorno’s discussion of Sonority is far more widespread than Wagner’s romanticism. Such regressive aesthetics permeate within any movement. What is particularly notable is that the forward thinking of the Romantic aesthetic eventually subverted through Wagner, into the repressive.

Michael

On opposition to Gay Marriage (and a Kantian thought)

It’s 8am, I’m very tired at the start of the day. I am still recovering from the two prongs of having worked late and went to sleep later. I got up only to check emails on my phone. I saw a message following an ongoing email discussion about the recent news of the legalisation of Gay Marriage and I suddenly had a surge of intellectual thought. I shouted out “AUGUSTINE!” and then thought to myself: this is a victory for Kantian philosophy. Okay, so many that bit most people won’t understand, I don’t think most people understand the things I shout out in public anyway. However, I thought I’d venture to explain myself further. A single word expresses about 1600 years of literature.

The orientation of my thoughts are around a certain story of current affairs, namely, the legalisation of same-partner marriage in England and Wales (but not Northern Ireland, and not yet Scotland). I find several things objectionable all at once, and I thought I’d go through them systematically.

Bad arguments

I think one of the things that I thought notable was the television coverage summarising the issue. One view was an old Conservative MP whose background of edcuational and cultural priviledge gave him the wisdom of the following proclamation: marriage is between a man and a woman, it has been so historically for years and should continue to be so.

That’s not really a reason, or an argument. It’s an old man stating his view in the guise of a discussion of implementing a legal measure. I think that’s what Aristotle called demos kratos. I found an interesting piece from the New Humanist from Jason Wakefield effectively debunking what are thinly veiled layers of anti-gay bigotry. Arguing from the premise of tradition or the status quo is bad for democracy, is bad for rational argument and insulting to the idea of progress. I do think however, there has been a good rational case following the likes of Mark Vernon to be wary about imputing the historic standards of marriage as an institution to what is effectively a newly emerging acceptance of wider sexual difference. Of course acceptance of difference (overcoming bisexual erasure, transgender issues and non-monogamy) is a battle of many fronts, of which same-sex marriage is one particular front.

For the purposes of this post I shall not go into those issues in particular. Instead, I shall consider some of the appeals of the kinds of attitudes that would be inclined to reject homosexual marriage and I shall take these into more philosophical consideration.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – essentialism

I hold this claim to be an essentialist appeal to the meaning of the term. By essentialist I would take it to mean a broadly Kripkean view that there is a certain ‘this-ness’, or natural kind appeal. This kind of appeal would assert that there is a point at which the object of marriage has been (excuse the pun) Christened in a brute way, as say me pointing to a glass of water and saying: THIS is water.

There are two kinds of ways of replying to this essentialist appeal. The first way is through permutation, and the second is to reject that it is essentialist. Let’s consider permutation. If we followed the thought experiment that christening some object and claiming some ‘this-ness’ to the criterial nature of the thing, as if we just point to something and say: THIS is marriage (like say, pointing to a couple arguing; buying furniture at Ikea on a saturday afternoon; appearing as a legally recognised couple in the eyes of the law etc). We can say that the ‘this-ness’ of what it means to be a couple (or coupledom) will still hold even in different conditions.

Permutation of a condition like, say, the recognised gender of either party in a marriage may still preserve many of the aspects of putative coupledom. Perhaps the essence of a marriage is in something else than its gendered membership: things like having arguments about what colour to paint the spare room; whether to take on parental responsibilities; buying furniture from sofa-world or being in love with each other. We can turn this case on its head and say, if we look at putative cases of opposite-sex marriages and find some element missing (like say: a married couple not having parental commitments/buying furniture together/being in love), would we still essentially call it a marriage? I will leave that question open. The kripkean essentialist account, as I understand it, can reasonably account for permutation. The seeds of a watermelon grown on mars that tastes salty and takes a square shape, is still a watermelon according to this essentialist view. Absurd maybe, but I don’t think the argument against same-sex marriage can take essentialist appeals as a rational option.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – social construction

An alternative view to the thesis that marriage is traditionally supposed to be between a man and a woman is to look at social construction, essentially (excuse the pun) a contrasting ontological perspective. Namely that of social construction. There is an overwhelmingly good case to consider the historicities of institution of marriage. To see marriage as a tradition is correct, but to quote Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America, it is also tradition that times must, and do change, my friend. To canonise history is a mistake, to canonise tradition as fixed is also an insult to our understanding of social construction, and perhaps to make an embarrassing ontological mistake. This is a bad reason to make an appeal against gay marriage, not least because it raises more questions than it would purport to answering an issue.

Historical reflections I: Natural Law (Thomism)

Some Catholics may be familiar with this kind of view. Natural law is the basis of many Catechistic principles. Natural law is a notion which has a large basis in Aquinas that through Reason we can see the work of God, and through His nature we can see his will, which in turn informs our moral understanding.

This issue is important from a perspective of faith, because there are many ethical issues that are not addressed in Scripture, and so another recourse is needed to create a religious persepctive. Natural Law appeals to lookings at purported facts of nature and imputing that seeing the teleology (or design/intention) of the natural world suggests God’s will. Perhaps a neat caricature of this view is the Flanders and Swann line: “If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, he wouldn’t have made us of meat!”.

Natural law has an interesting set of applications, this is not to speak of whether it is agreeable or disagreeable. Natural law has a philosophical utility in the kinds of conclusions it makes under the assumption of telos: for example: because humans and other animals have incisors, we are supposed to eat meat. Because of the female reproductive system, only procreation between a man and a woman is permitted. However this kind of view is so strong it would be against a whole lot of things: cybernetic implants and other post-humanist implantations to extend human ability and human life; vegetarianism is immoral. Not least a whole gamut of other philosophical problems: the naturalistic fallacy (which is a whole big issue in itself); the problem of interpreting God’s nature correctly (another big theology issue); the role of socialisation being undermined as ‘human nature’ is overemphasised, and perhaps most intuitively, the desiderata of an ordinary moral theory is to preserve certain things like: murder is wrong or the wrongness of sexual violence. . Natural law would seemingly have the same kinds of problems that sociobiology would have in taking an ambivalent acceptance to the these cases of nature. Not least to say that same sex relations actually happen in non-human mammals as part of a social ritual. Wouldn’t it then be considered natural? (or within nature’s repetoire?). Let’s go back to natural theology later.

Historical reflections II – Separate but Equal

The appeal of separate but equal has been a justification for a variety of contexts. When I googled the phrase earlier, it referenced a misquotation to the attitudes of the Jim Crow era in the USA. The rationality is that many hold there already to be an institution (the civil partnership) for same sex couples, which fulfills the function of marriage. However, it is the point it doesn’t, and to introduce a tier system which essentially is on the basis of sexuality is to establish a level of segregation that forms a barrier to equality.

I think that this rational strategy could be established more, and this may pose an interesting avenue for non-homophobic opposition to gay marriage. However, there is something prima facie suspicious when we introduce an idea of tiers about legally recognised relationships, and the fear that civil partnerships (which heterosexual couples are legally allowed to have) reflect both an aysmmetry (thus suggesting a tiered aspect) or a perception among some of the public that civil partnerships are marriage-lite’’. Which is essentially the fear that Mark Vernon expressed.

Historical reflections III – biblical references

Ah, now if we are taking a Christian perspective, we could appeal to the scriptures. Particularly 1 Timothy, and Romans. These are the writings of St. Paul, who is generally accepted as a scriptural ground for opposition to homosexuality. Then of course there is Leviticus 18 in the ‘Old Testament’/Jewish Scriptures. But then again, if we read into it, Leviticus also forbids tattoos! I do wonder sometimes when I watch the God channel on freeview digital television if some of these cool looking evangelicals who hold to the literalness of scripture know about Leviticus.

Without even taking to account the fact that in a secular environment, this statement of belief is not admissible in a public discussion on the level of Government. We could challenge the canon of the Bible itself. To do this we must consider the historical organisation of the library that is the Bible. Why are the synoptic gospels canonical over others, or do we have any reason to doubt their historicity?

Closing: The victory of Kant’s moral religion

I consider the issue of gay marriage a victory for the broadly Kantian project, of elminating the cultus from religion, from separating ritual from value. The Kantian perspective on religion (which has lots of details) was deeply influential in beginning the historical Jesus project of research, commonly associated with what is called liberal theology.

One way we can see the issue of gay marriage in England and Wales, is to see it as undermining aspects of doctrinal Christianity. Slowly and slowly we are finding moral communion and consensus towards the acceptance of same-sex partnerships through a non-religious and public conversation. We are moving away from the likes of scriptural justification for the basis of our ethical values and moving towards public reason – perhaps.

Lately I have been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s ‘Jesus, Interrupted’, we might review this book at a later time, but one of the overarching theses of the book is the point that there are good grounds to doubt the literalness of the way that the books of the New Testament have been established. The organisation of the books of the Bible are a result of disputes in Early Christianity during the late-antique period, and following Kant’s perspective on philosophical anthropology (an issue I based my MA dissertation on), there are grounds on which we can sympathise with other moralities from different cultural origins, on the basis of their historical basis. Strip away culture and historicities, and we can find a better basis of our ethical values.

How about, say, the formula of humanity: to perceive rational beings as ends in themselves. Human agency as the basis of our respect towards others by virtue of being human, or by virtue of being a moral agent (I take these two to be interchangeable for now). I think its fair to say that those who may be opposed to their views are entitled to practice their cultural heritage within reason, and this measure should not be seen as an affront to their beliefs. I also think that this kind of discussion is the kind of thing that is another feather to the bow of liberal theology, and the subsequent way in which it undermines many of the precepts of fundamentalist and literalist belief.

In closing. I thought it was odd that I didn’t have a philosophical opinion about this issue, but then I realised I did have a dog in this fight. Trust me to show the relevance of Kantian philosophy in any social issue.

Michael (in conversation with Destre)

“Aristotle transition”: from moral psychology to political critique

Lately I’ve thought about a collection of vaguely related things which I’m now trying to put together in my thoughts in this post. My favourite stories include the three great Epics that look at the heroes of the Trojan war. Homer’s Iliad is a catalogue of the destruction and violence in the conflict shown mainly from the Greek side, it was (so apochypha says) one of the first times that Hellenes came together for an alliance. I’m reminded of the line from the intro script of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith which says ‘there are heroes on both sides’ (which in the case of the Clone Wars, wasn’t really the case, its more that there were villains on both sides and it was the same person).

The Odyssey is slightly more a human story about the after effects of war. Particularly including the female plight of Penelope, and the pathos of Odysseus who wishes simply to return home. Many stories tell of those who still face a battle of other sorts after their war has finished. The Aeneid takes an interesting Roman take on the legend; where the perspective of the losers of the war gives a greater understanding of the human condition. Compare Achilleus who is a man at his best in the winning side of a war, against say Aeneas (or even Odysseus), the latter of which are men although great, show fatigue and signs of wear. The world for them is far from perfect but they must show eminence in some way. I’ve always romanticised of the Greek way of thinking (in philosophy, culture, history) to have reflected this kind of masculinity. Perhaps it is the philosophers Plato (himself a wrestler) and Aristotle (by an unrelated coincidence a tutor to one of the greatest real-life military leaders) who try to capture that Homeric heroism. In putting Homeric heroes into this philosophic context, I pose a general question: is a person great in spite of their situation, or because of it?

Aristotle’s ethics of excellence

Aristotle writes his ethical works in a wider systematic context that from moral psychology, we then transition to a discussion of politics. That is to say, from the individual’s constitution and his nature, we may then go on to understand the behaviour of individuals in a community. This is the nature of politics and the state for Aristotle. Let’s start off with considering some aspects of Aristotle’s normative notions about ethics, Aristotle considers what thing there is as an intention or an object of endeavour that is to be pursued not for any reason but itself, this would be happiness. It seems that for Aristotle, there are many different ways for people to pursue that happiness and many people would not have the same route to it. As part of Aristotle’s wider teleological view of the world, a person is best when they perform the function that they are best at. Excellence (arete) is associated with happiness. To be the best you can be is to fulfill your highest good. For Achilleus that means being the greatest of warriors and for Odysseus it means to have great cunning to see you through many dangers.

Aristotle differs from Plato in that the latter places a high emphasis on knowledge, and basing virtue as knowledge. To be a virtuous person is to know what virtue is, and to know what virtue is seems sufficient for virtue as a person’s state of being. This sound very intellectual and invites its own sorts of issues (and it’s probably an overstatement of an early Plato). Aristotle bases his notion of human well being on action. In the vein of numerous 80s movies: money walks and bullshit talks; you can talk the talk but can you walk the walk? The practical ethic of my life is that words mean nothing (sorry readers), words mean nothing without real action. My personal ethic is that the great measures of a person involve the things not said.

Aristotle perhaps even more than Kant, chimes into my everyday sensibility about living. For Aristotle there are different kinds of skilled persons, there is the intellectual whose aim is knowledge, the communal person whose aim is the wellbeing of the communion of people in the state, and there are those who aim for eminence in a specific skill or craft (and I’d add anachronistically, their ‘art’). These people strive for the good in their own ways it seems. Although I cannot speak much more for my understanding of how Aristotle understands the intellectual type specifically, it seems that he has a general statement about how wellbeing is achieved for all three of these kinds of individuals.

Virtue is achieved by being great at whatever lot your life is in; whether a good politician, a good scientist or a good carpenter. Skills in these domains involve a degree of action as well as theoretical knowledge. Aristotle says how theoretical knowledge of virtue is a comfort in one sense, and a hindrance in another. It’s like when you give someone encouragement and the words alone make them feel better, but if you tell them to follow that encouragement through (or perhaps more colloquially put: get off your arse and get on with it), motivation seems a bit less. Words are comforting exactly because they are not action, it is not enough to know what is good or virtuous but to act on it. I think this is the essence of the common phrase: ‘easier said than done’. I’m reminded of this Aesop fable:

 

A pair of Oxen were drawing a heavily loaded wagon along a miry country road. They had to use all their strength to pull the wagon, but they did not complain.

The Wheels of the wagon were of a different sort. Though the task they had to do was very light compared with that of the Oxen, they creaked and groaned at every turn. The poor Oxen, pulling with all their might to draw the wagon through the deep mud, had their ears filled with the loud complaining of the Wheels. And this, you may well know, made their work so much the harder to endure.

“Silence!” the Oxen cried at last, out of patience. “What have you Wheels to complain about so loudly? We are drawing all the weight, not you, and we are keeping still about it besides.”

They complain most who suffer least.

From Ethics to Politics

Aristotle makes a systematic shift from human psychology to political (or social) thinking. This is a shift that is replicated in many philosophers and thinkers after him, the Social Contract theoriest make this shift from an account of human nature to an (implicit) judgment of how best to deal with human nature in the political community and rule of law. Kant makes this shift and it seems in a sense very obvious to judge politics, or even economics on what our presumption of Human nature is. Perhaps the most obvious candidate of this is Karl Marx. Marx wrote about the value of labour and the value that work gives in people’s lives, that is to say, in his earlier works. Work and activity can indeed make one fulfilled in life, but where Marx gets critical is in identifying conditions of working where oppression and exploitation subvert the value of work as fulfillment to work as misery. In this light, we may see Marx as following a long tradition of philosophical reasoning as following political thinking from human nature. I remember Alain de Botton stating in an interview not long ago that he believed governments should be more ‘paternalistic’ and tell people more how to behave, or better stated, encourage people to achieve wellbeing. There are some of initiatives to encourage policy to integrate with the aim of encouraging wellbeing today in various thinktanks such as the New Economics Foundation or the Transition Town movement.

Aristotle did something amazing in his time for a philosopher, he commented on his contemporary political situation. In the Politics, Aristotle compares the different contemporamous and historical forms of governance and weighed up their advantages and disadvantages. Keeping wellbeing in his mind, Aristotle critically considered the citystates of Carthage and Sparta in relation to how wellbeing is achieved among their people. Aristotle also had considerations about the structure of society in relation to how it fulfilled the ‘telos’ of collective wellbeing. The state had a role as the institutions of family and commerce in the life of the fulfilled (or unfulfilled) person, it almost reminds me of Althusser. George McCarthy’s ‘Dreams in Exile’ (which I’m still reading) makes a point that we should consider Aristotle as a sociological thinker, and indeed he is. Consider especially one of his surviving works, the ‘Athenian Constitution’ (well it’s probably not actually his writings but it would have had his blessing), which is seen now as a work of history, an understanding of the political history of Athens also involves an understanding of the implications of the changes, civil instabilities and policies which affected the life of the Athenian. Aristotle compares favourably to a sociologist today, but perhaps sociologists should be more philosophical.

The Case of Priam

“I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before. I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”

Consider the importance of human wellbeing. Can we achieve wellbeing on our own, or can some situations make wellbeing impossible? This very question invites social critique and critique of the political economy of today. There are many historical contingencies that form our present, but beneath the contingent and changeable conditions, is a general human nature. Aristotle gives the example of how Priam, the Trojan King who loses everything, yet remains a great man, is robbed of wellbeing. Great men and women are blighted by many situations outside of their control, from war, economy, to natural disasters; experience perhaps shows contrary to that old adege of Plato that ‘the good man cannot be harmed’.

Wellbeing is far more than simply egoism and the individualistic search for happiness. Wellbeing involves a social and economic system. Wellbeing involves the dynamics of inequalities and social injustices. As a methodological point, Aristotle starts from his notion of human nature to create the critique of politics that he makes. Aristotle made the point of how the profit motive is not conducive to happiness and we should not suppose that profit and gain is unlimited, much like our resources.

It is also fair to say that the economic system in 3rdC Athens is much different today, how different exactly I’m not fine grained enough to say, but I suppose we can consider how industries such as technology and manufacturing, energy and entertainment take such predominance and influence today in a way I am not sure is comparable to the ancient world. However is the world so different that Aristotle’s ‘transition’ from ethics to political critique is not relevant? I should rather change it to another question: is it possible that famine, social inequalities and war are able to be a light on people’s happiness, irrespective of how virtuous they are as people? If the answer is yes, then Aristotle’s methodological transition has a lot of potential for sociological method.

Michael

Questions of human intervention

Preamble: Star Trek’s Prime Directive

This post doesn’t venture to make assertions, but raise questions. Most of these thoughts raised from (of course) numerous episodes of Star Trek series (Enterprise, in particular). As some of you readers may know, in the Star Trek Universe; as well as horrific violations of laws of physics; part of the Federation’s way of operation is avoid intervention with life forms which have not reached a certain degree of social and technological advancement. This may involve respecting the laws of civilisations which we may consider abhorrent, or prematurely introducing technologies that are too advanced for the civilisation to deal with safely.

There have been occaisions of course, when certain Federation citizens (usually/infamously Captain Kirk as well as the lesser known Captain Archer) have intervened, which leads to unintended consequences, some of which, negative. The notion of non-intervention seems to time and again justify itself by instances when it is not observed. I’d like to consider in this post, instances and issues of intervention.

1. Intervention with ecosystems

There are many well established issues of intervention within the natural world. Human intervention and the pursuit of resources and industrial production has destroyed faunae and florae on a specii level probably back from the time human’s learned how to sail ships and forge bronze weapons.

The issue of intervention, or nonintervention has varied dimensions: consider the following:

a. “Due to human impact, some species will become extinct”

Statement a. is one which many people would consider to attempt to save species on largely sentimental grounds. It is certainly true that many faunae and florae species have come to extinction as a result of human impact. To acknowledge it is one thing, but to attempt to save such species as a moral imperative seems very curious. What reasons can we, and should we offer to attempt to attempt preservation of such species? Are there good reasons and bad reasons? Furthermore, shouldn’t there be an internal discussion between the proponents of preservationists so as to establish the proper reasons?
 
An example of a bad reason would be – “x is a cute species, we should save it”, what about the uglier species? Partiality is exactly the reason that caused extinction (namely, partiality to human preservation and flourishing viz industrial society

b. “Due to human intervention, some species will be saved from extinction”

What if homo erectus was saved from extinction and then homo sapiens was never allowed to flourish? It is the nature of species and system survival, that some species live on and adapt; while others do not survive. The notion of preservation may be an intervention into the development of species. Perhaps homo sapiens is too ambitious to think it plays dominion over other species not only in its action of eradicating species (albeit unintentionally); but in its explicitly intentional efforts to preserve species.

it may be pernicious to the future development of species to allow some to artificially stay on in an ecosystem when it lacks the capacity to survive. Perhaps its extinction was inevitable. To preserve a species may be the cruel option. If we are to preserve a species, I would ask, ‘who are we preserving it for?’ Ourselves? our smug sense of sentimentality? or the wellbeing of the species and the wider biosphere? Either way, preservation or not; we have no option of nonintervention here.

c. “Human intervention as it is, is inevitable and natural”

Perhaps theories of natural selection may advance if we come across other living forms beyond earth. Perhaps they have naturally eradicated most of the species that they could not use either domestically or that they didn’t care enough to preserve. The issue of intervention with other life forms on earth has become complicated in relation to the notion of how biological systems face natural selection. It is like the complication of the observer in social research recognising that she is herself a member of the social phenomenon, and her intervention diminishes the findings of the research. Homo sapiens is a result of natural selection, and what happens next with other species, will be part of the narrative of how natural selection develops when one species has such influence over other species and systems that their very mortality lay in humanity’s balance.

2. Intervention with microbial level life

This is a slightly different, but related question. Most people did not have any moral compunctions towards eradicating smallpox, and I’m certain that many people would like to destroy the common cold, or HIV/AIDS. Human intervention seems inevitable on such microbes as they pose a great threat to many people. While adaptation occurs, modern medicine has found ways to counteract the waiting process of a thousand or so years to develop immunities. Is modern medicine a nuanced form of genocide toward these viruses and microbial level species?

One might ask, why is it that its bad to put the Panda near extinction but no one considers smallpox? How far does one go in a justified degree of intervention?

Sinistre

Evil (the concept) considered

The first of a serial post by Chris over at Only a Game has led me to think about the concept of Evil. Over at Chris’ blog, his first post on the subject addresses two issues:

1. Whether to accept the contribution of religious and spiritual traditions on the subject of evil (the answer is yes)
2. Whether 1. entails a committment to the supernatural elements of said traditions (his answer is ‘not really’)

In this post I’d like to consider something slightly different, but prolegomena questions on the issue of evil. Here’s me setting my terms.

Issue 1: Should Evil be considered the systematic partner of the ‘Good’?/the Kantian example of ugliness
Issue 2: Resources of wisdom on Evil beyond religion: Culture
Issue 3: The analytical utility of evil. A ‘Lewisian’ style consideration

Issue 1: Evil and systematic ethics

It has been said by a few Kant scholars (Wenzel et al), that Kant’s analysis of the judgment of beauty or aesthetic judgment proper, can also apply to other aesthetic responses. When Kant describes the judgment of the beautiful; he elicits certain features about aesthetic judgment in general; we engage in an ‘as if’ universal language when we communicate something like ‘that second act was the most beautiful of the whole opera’. We also impute that others must agree, or if they disagree, attempt to enlighten us on the failure of our aesthetic judgement.

Kant made much effort to analyse the psychology of judgments of aesthetic merit. Some ask, what about aesthetic demerit, or disgust? Those also answer that Kant’s systematic approach can also be used to elicit features of aesthetic demerit. Although the literature on ‘disgust’ and ‘terror’ has taken a furn of its own in the continental literature.

Can such a systematic isomorphism take place between the ethical appraisal of the good, and evil? I’d like to think so. To consider Evil as something else from the Good; makes the world of ethics and metaethics a little more broad. Broader still would be to consider phenomena such as moral character, moral dispositions and moral reactions within the domain of ethics proper, but that’s an argument for another day.

To make the claim that Evil may be treated in isomorphic fashion to the Good raises the question of what properties there are that can be mapped on to evil that can also describe the good? Here is where a more meta ethical approach may ensue. When we talk of the good, we may consider issues of how knowledge of morality may arise. Do we for instance, percieve something as immoral viz some sentimentalist and non rational response? Or perhaps do our moral responses (and thus moral appraisals) come about in a wider framework of propositional beliefs; motivations (whether internal or external to belief); dispositions and justifications. To speak of evil philosophically is to address the whole domain of ethics and metaethics; similarly we might say the same of the good. What matters is the import of our underlying understanding of what it is to believe in, act toward, or establish moral judgments.

Issue 2: Evil in culture

I have always maintained that substantive moral issues can be informed by cultural phenomena. Learning through the likes of Shakespeare or DC Comics can give us a picture into insights about people. Evil is no different. Assuming that we wish to enter the talk about Evil into our philsophical vocabulary, we can gain as a great resource the annals of popular culture or our historical past figures who have written on evil.

Nietzsche and philosophers influenced by him, often have interesting things to say about good and evil. Characters we may understand as archetypes, such as the Joker, or Ozymandias (Watchmen) may give us greater nuances, toward systematic and typified conceptions of evil. One most amusing (and insightful) construal of evil comes from the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system. Normally we consider good and evil as two poles. But what if it were more complicated, and the distinction also included our adherence to law and order. So, someone could be good, but lawless (e.g. Batman), or evil and lawful (oil companies?).

Navigating through pop culture apocrypha and religious traditions will inevitably lead to contradictions and blind alleys in our understanding of evil. Its up to us as systematisers to demerit some perspectives over others in the name of truth an analysis. Navigating through cultural relics can also help enlighten us on evil as a notion.

Issue 3: The analytical utility of evil. A ‘Lewisian’ style consideration

I can certainly imagine a world where the term ‘evil’ may not have any meaning in a logically close world. However, despite this, we can consider evil to be a useful term in our understanding of the world. Here’s a list

Social Science: Change the definition of evil, or give it an operationalisation. Criminology is the study of evil. At the edges of crime we might ask certain questions that are outside official criminal definitions. Why is it that industrial accidents in some cases have no criminal definition? Why is it that environmental damage (an evil) is not taken to be enough of a criminal matter? Consider egalitarian matters and social justice in terms of evils; within the framework of operationalising and research questions, the salience of ‘evil’ as a concept can be worked out through a great many questions about society. Some are about solid issues that are definately empirical (rates for reported crime); some are questioning of our current discourse (redefining crimes into non-crimes, or vice versa). Some are critical of our dominant powers (corporate and white collar crime, whether governments should be accounable for breaking international laws or economic damages).  I’d go out on a limb here and say it is the essence of social improvement to operationalise questions and topics of research, as well as the following findings and theoretical musings that follow from them, to be in the remit of social and overall humanitarian betterment.

Psychology: Here’s perhaps where evil gets questioned the most. Case studies into psychopathies tend to lean toward giving exceptions to moral culpability in severe trauma cases (Patricia Churchland likes to consider these kinds of cases for instance). Can we understand evil in terms of deviance? What if we understand evil as a fundamental privation? What if, we may sum up a variety of phenomena to parsimoniously be considered in terms of evil. I think this issue is a moot one, and psychology may trump evil out of our ontologies. I still maintain, despite this, that operationalising one’s terms and research questions comes to the fore in defining conditions for success of a piece of research, as well as its criterion of success at answering the respective question.

Culture/Religion: Culturally speaking, Evil is a term that has been used for so long, we can make a language and set of cultural totems toward it. There might be another X-men remake with Magneto or other such villains, but they make sense presuming that there are ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and ‘people in between’. It’s been part of our thinking for so long that we might as well use it as a term. In terms of religious traditions, and in my experience in interfaith groups; Evil is the one thing that unites even the atheists with the religious. Statements of opposition towards evil, or unified condemnation brings unity to groups that are often emphasised for their difference or disagreement. Having common terms helps communicate the same thing.

I’m not certain whether Evil should be part of our vocabulary, but to bring it in, allows possibilities of asking and answering questions. One question that I’ve still considered without an answer for a couple of years was raised by a seminar I was in; of whether the fulfilled person may be amoral or immoral.

Here ends my post.
Michael

Two pessimistic thoughts

I have been delving a little into some 19thC literature of late in leisurely pursuits, and I thought I would come to bring up these two insights:

1. Freud, in an essay on death; wrote that the very thought of our own death in some respect is inconceivable. For every thought that we have presumes at least a third personal perspective, as ourselves being the author of those thoughts. Yet, with the event of death, it is the thought that the self is absent in a way that the living self cannot conceive of without presuming the third-personal perspective of the living thinker.

This strikes me as being both a Wittgensteinian thought, and a Kantian one. It reminds me of a passage towards the end of the Tractatus (I think) where almost the very same notion is addressed, namely, the inconceivability of death. Wittenstein, by constrast, appeals to the inconceivability of death by means of a zeno paradox, as well as the notion that a finite thing cannot conceive of its end. Both of these thoughts would either be prima facie false, or reveal some paradoxical (dialetheia) truth.

The Kantian thought is that Freud’s assertion seems to resemble the appeal of Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception, namely, the notion that there is no thought without the presumption of an “I think”, or agent who has the capacity of such a thought.

2. From Schopenhauer’s ‘On Suffering’; suffering is the privation of pleasure. I am surprised to take a liking to the philosophy of Schopenhauer. There are distinct ethical dimensions to his psychological insights. Schopenhauer’s writings are ethics in the most sincere sense of the word, that is, a guide on how to live well.

schopenhauer turns the Augustinian thought that evil is nonexistent on its head. Pleasure is ultimately a frivolous thing because it is transient, and the only immortal thing about pleasant experiences or fond moments, are the recollection; or shared recollection of them. It is also the sign of a wretched old life if one is always reminiscing a past that has long gone.

Schopenhauer’s philosophical pessimism is surprising. Not least for the appeal to eastern philosophy, but the extent in which I find it a life-affirming way of approaching life. If a fond experience, like a first kiss or the birth of a child will inevitably end, it also has the immortal quality of being in one’s memory and summoned any time that the memory is recalled. Pessimism as a way of life seems to be the precept, or starting point. Once you accept it, you get on with one’s life, and contemplation becomes less effort in terms of whether the notion of pleasure or the good life are arguable issues. In cruder terms; Accept life is shit, and get on with it. It might be more fun once we accept that.

Sinistre