Archive for January, 2008

January 26, 2008

alain badiou on evil

I like what Alain Badiou says in this interview about evil not being something that can be derived from nature, but i wonder about his solution, making it all a mater of subjective perspective. His book on the subject (which i havent read yet) is Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Amazon). From the interview:

that the natural state of the human animal has nothing to do with Good or Evil. And I maintain that the kind of formal moral obligation described in Kant’s categorical imperative does not actually exist. Take the example of torture. In a civilization as sophisticated as the Roman Empire, not only is torture not considered an Evil, it is actually appreciated as a spectacle. In arenas, people are devoured by tigers; they are burned alive; the audience rejoices to see combatants cut each other’s throats. How, then, could we think that torture is Evil for every human animal? Aren’t we the same animal as Sencea or Marcus Aurelius? I should add that the armed forces of my country, France, with the approval of the governments of the era and the majority of public opinion, tortured all the prisoners during the Algerian War. The refusal of torture is a historical and cultural phenomenon, not at all a natural one. In a general way, the human animal knows cruelty as well as it knows pity; the one is just as natural as the other, and neither one has anything to do with Good or Evil. One knows of crucial situations where cruelty is necessary and useful, and of other situations where pity is nothing but a form of contempt for others. You won’t find anything in the structure of the human animal on which to base the concept of Evil, nor, moreover, that of the Good.

But the formal solution isn’t any better. Indeed, the obligation to be a subject doesn’t have any meaning, for the following reason: The possibility of becoming a subject does not depend on us, but on that which occurs in circumstances that are always singular. The distinction between Good and Evil already supposes a subject, and thus can’t apply to it. It’s always for a subject, not a pre-subjectivized human animal, that Evil is possible. For example, if, during the occupation of France by the Nazis, I join the Resistance, I become a subject of History in the making. From the inside of this subjectivization, I can tell what is Evil (to betray my comrades, to collaborate with the Nazis, etc.). I can also decide what is Good outside of the habitual norms. Thus the writer Marguerite Duras has recounted how, for reasons tied to the resistance to the Nazis, she participated in acts of torture against traitors. The whole distinction between Good and Evil arises from inside a becoming-subject, and varies with this becoming (which I myself call philosophy, the becoming of a Truth). To summarize: There is no natural definition of Evil; Evil is always that which, in a particular situation, tends to weaken or destroy a subject. And the conception of Evil is thus entirely dependent on the events from which a subject constitutes itself. It is the subject who prescribes what Evil is, not a natural idea of Evil that defines what a “moral” subject is. There is also no formal imperative from which to define Evil, even negatively. In fact, all imperatives presume that the subject of the imperative is already constituted, and in specific circumstances. And thus there can be no imperative to become a subject, except as an absolutely vacuous statement. That is also why there is no general form of Evil, because Evil does not exist except as a judgment made, by a subject, on a situation, and on the consequences of his own actions in this situation. So the same act (to kill, for example) may be Evil in a certain subjective context, and a necessity of the Good in another.

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January 24, 2008

Jim Wallis on the new christianity

Jim Wallis (wikipedia), a non-right-wing intelligent evangelical christian (no joke), was on the Daily Show (video) talking about how (his) religion needs to refocus on the environment, peace (Darfur) and ethics.  Refreshing. From the Friendly Atheist.

January 21, 2008

Kant, Hume and the evolution of morality

There is a long post on the Illusive Mind blog defending an evolutionary morality against Kant. I do not particularly want to defend Kant, but i do want to raise a very sizable caveat: whatever “morality” evolution has given us isn’t by any means necessarily the “right” one!

Here is the synopsis of the article/post:

In this essay I will outline what I regard as the most successful attempt to explain the evolution of altruism. I will then illustrate some of the effects that an evolutionary account of moral behaviour has on cognitivist and noncognitivist theories of ethics. I will argue that evolutionary theory does not undermine Hume’s noncognitivism but supports it and casts doubt on Kantianism.

Where things go horribly wrong is when morality is reduced to “a question of desire” because we then have nothing to ‘get behind desires’ and assess them morally (unless you posit some kind of coherence theory, but that is no the case in this article):

The question of retaining moral judgements then is reduced to a question of desire. Do we want to utilise judgements whose agenda is the ongoing survival of the species (at the level of the gene) through a system of rewarding co-operation and punishing cheating?

In effect the morality we have inherited through evolution is taken to be ‘valid’ – except when we don’t like it. The exception is, in my opinion, befuddled; the first part of the above sentence is, however, very dangerous, committing something akin to an is/ought or natural fallacy.

The only alternative on offer is a purely rational ethics à la Kant, but even this is undercut by more primary evolutionary forces:

The only way to be objectively moral and avoid ‘evolutionary baggage’ from tainting our moral judgements seems to be to devote oneself completely to reason in a Kantian fashion. However, it is not a forgone conclusion that reason is above evolutionary pressures. In The Evolution of Reason, William Cooper argues, “the laws of logic emerge naturally as corollaries of the evolutionary laws” (2003, p.5).

In the end, one gets the impression that we are enslaved to the morality evolution thought up for us and are incapable of stepping out of it to evaluate our own moral intuitions.

Admittedly, evaluating our moral intuitions is no easy task. But what is often forgotten is that we are not alone working at that task. It might be impossibly solipsistic for me to want to morally evaluate my own moral intuitions (where would i stand in order to do so?); but it certainly is not very difficult for someone else, actually many other people, to do so.

The solution will likely be neither Humean nor Kantian. We must both use some moral intuitions to assess other ones but also reason through our moral intuitions and find instances where the intuitions clearly go wrong.

January 18, 2008

being friendly to yourself

From Godwin Samararatne, Talks on Buddhist Meditation:

I think it is difficult to be friendly to others unless you are friendly to yourself.

For one, its good practice. For another, though its a state of mind, which must be acquired and its easiest to start at home.

January 14, 2008

“the evolutionary aspects of non-reproducing humans”

standing on E. O. Wilson’s broad shoulders, Brandon Keim wonders if, like the bees and the ants, humans aren’t a eusocial species, with homosexuality being the pinnacle of our other-oriented (ie non-reproducing) evolution:

So with all necessary caveats against reductionism and misappropriation, we can ask: should human societies conceive of themselves in terms of  group-level selection? Have we already developed aspects of eusociality? And — just to make matters really interesting — could non-reproducing humans, such as (most) gays and lesbians, as well as heterosexuals who choose not to have kids, actually be a manifestation of this emergent eusociality?

from wired.

January 11, 2008

what is left of Kant?

I have stumbled across a most interesting set of mini (blog-post-length) interviews with prominent Kant Scholars about Kant. Three questions were asked:

1. In your opinion, which of Kants ideas have universal value?

2. What, in your opinion, was Kant’s main mistake.

3. Do we understand Kant better than 100 years ago. 

(Note: i’m linking to the Google cache because the actual files are not properly formatted HTML files and don’t display.)

I’ve only made it through the first question. The very best, and at the same time most representative, answer is probably the last, that of Alan Wood:

Allen Wood: Kant’s two most valuable and enduring ideas were these: First, that rational nature in human beings is an end in itself, and the foundation of all value. Even the value of human happiness is grounded on this. Second, that it is important to understand the contribution of our free activity as theorizers to the structure of scientific knowledge. This is the basic correction to empiricism that is needed to prevent empiricist prejudices from distorting our view of science.

read more »

January 10, 2008

jason bourne’s ethics

I just finished re-watching the third and conclusive episode of the Jason Bourne films last night. I was struck at the end by the ethical/religious positions the film takes.

In 2007, in Hollywood, fundamental Christian ethics still rules: Despite what we learn about all the evil that Jason Bourne had done during his career at the C.I.A. and despite the fact that we learn that he knowingly agreed to it, we forgive him because he repented.

It should however be noted that the repentance and forgiveness work very well without either a concept of sin or of god, let alone of someone dying on a cross. In this case a fundamental religious concept is very well translated into secular language. Habermas would be proud.

January 9, 2008

why religion is indispensable (transforming people)

UPDATE 2008/1/10: Dave rightly points out in the comments that this post was VERY BAD and i apologize for that. I’ve now cut down the argument to what i had unknowingly already pointed to in my note (*), namely that tradition and a community are very good tools to effect radical moral change in a given individual. It is now patently obvious to me that the tradition and community need not be religious. Original, edited post follows.

Only religion can transform a person completely, because to do so requires both thanks to a deep tradition able to inform that transformation and also a strong community to effect and nurture it.

Religious transformation is a reshaping of someone’s moral, psychological and behavioral self that is both complete and permanent. It produces a new person, someone whose identity has been re-established and fundamentally improved.

Of course, there have been many great people who had little if anything to do with religion. But i would argue that though they were perhaps geniuses who contributed greatly to humanity, they had not been themselves transformed. To produce a Mother Theresa*, a Gandhi, or a Jesus and a Gautama Buddha requires religion and a lot of it. Furthermore, to produce those people able to help others strive towards this complete transformation also requires a strong religion tradition and community. The following text, taken from the last paragraph of Thich Nhat Hanh‘s book The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching, derives its power precisely because it is so thoroughly informed by a specific religious tradition and because its authors in completely immersed in a buddhist community:

The heart of the Buddha has been touched by our being wonderfully together. Please practice as an individual, a family, a city, a nation, and a worldwide community. Please take good care of the happiness of everyone around you. Enjoy your breathing, your smiling, your shining the light of mindfulness on each thing you do. Please practice transformation at the base through deep looking and deep touching. The teachings of the Buddha on transformation and healing are very deep. They are not theoretical. They can be practiced every day. Please practice them and realize them. Have courage. I am confident that you can do it.

And to successfully put such suggestions into practice also requires immersing oneself in this religious tradition and belonging to its community. Without that your good-will would quickly wane, i should think.

*I know that Mother Theresa didn’t believe in God, but my argument never refers to god, only to tradition and community.

January 8, 2008

manga bibles!

there are a whole bunch of manga bibles out there! Amazon doesn’t have any “Search Inside” ones, but here is a YouTube ad:

Somehow this seems horribly wrong, but so inevitable. I guess it was predestined to happen…

January 8, 2008

weird google ad “Wittgenstein explained”

This probably belongs in the Why Oh Why Can’t We Have Better Religions category. My Gmail offered me the following ad just now:

Wittgenstein explained:

– Interpretation of Feelings – Scientific Pragmatism

which i naturally clicked on (the AdWords overloard knows me so well). First i wondered why someone would pay google to be able to explain Wittgenstein to me. Then you realize the link has nothing to do with the Austrian philosopher but is actually advertising a free book on philosophy by one Jon Hellevig, lover of Putin.

The only people paying to give out free books are usually religious as far as my experience goes. This guy seems to be advertising a philosophy though. I guess he is investing in possible future fame, whether or not he hopes to become wealthy as a result.

I don’t know about you, but i get the impression that we are in a time of searching for meaning … any meaning.

From the site:

Now I also announce my book (August 2007): All is Art. (inquiries and orders can be placed by clicking here, further information here).

All is Art is a book in two sections: On Social Practices and Interpretation of Feelings, and On Democratic Competition.
The first section of the book launches social practices and individual interpretation of feelings and language in which they are manifested as the new philosophical paradigm, the framework for all cognition. The book is devastatingly critical to the modern conception of science and instead shows how all is art, even science being but a form of art. – The presentation owes a lot to Marcel Proust’s treaties on the human nature telling how philosophy and life itself is a search for lost time, back to the roots of humanity, and that at the end of the search there is time regained, and the future.

The second section of the book discusses the essence of democracy from the point of view of this new philosophy of social practices.

more. Somehow this guy reminds me of Gregers Werle in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.