I’m a fan of classic horror flicks. In particular, I’m a fan of the gimmicky films of William Castle. For those who don’t know, William Castle brought to us some of the most fantastic schlock (said in a complelely good way) films of the late 50s and early 60s ever brought to the theater house or drive-in. Castle’s films include The Tingler, Macabre, 13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus, Zotz!, Rosemary’s Baby, and my personal favorite, The House on Haunted Hill relased in 1958. If one is inclined to simply watch movies and not have to think beyond the urge to take the occasional pee break, William Castle’s movies totally satisfy that need for a fix. The cool thing is, is that beyond providing mindless entertainment, William Castle’s movies often have an undercurrent of something philosophical. And since so much of the horror genre deals with evil-doing, much of the subtext in Castle’s films is ethical. The House on Haunted Hill is no exception. The plot of the movie is pretty simple, there’s this awfully rich fellow named Frederick Loren (played by Vincent Price — you can’t go wrong there!). Loren invites a group of not-so-rich guests to his house for a haunted house party. The five individuals that are told that, if they can spend a night in Loren’s haunted house, he will give them $10, 000. The trick, Loren knows, is that his guests’ chances for success are fairly slim, given that the house is abound with kiler ghosts. Each of Loren’s guests accept his invitation because each needs the $10,000. So, as the film opens, Loren’s guests make their way to the haunted mansion on the hill. The ethical question here is obvious. Loren’s intentions are clearly in the wrong. not only is he exploiting the needs of his guests, but inaddition, he plans to kill his wife. At first glance it seems that Loren is a moral criminal, not to mention a would-be murderer. But, is that so clear once we look a little closer at the situation? First. let’s throw out the Loren wanting to murder his wife bit. Murder, even if your wife is a total b, is always wrong. Even if we all think the dame deserves to die ( Loren’s wife is, afterall, carrying on an affair with some dude named Trent) we can’t justify killing her. But, that leaves Loren’s challenge to his guests. If they spend a night in the house, they get money. Sounds like a fairly even exchange. We enter into this same type of exchange all the time. Some people work for pay, kids do chores for money, we pay for overpriced tickets to see our favorite band in concert, etc. Most of the time, the exchange of money for services rendered is non-exploitive. Morally, this is absolutely OK. Kant’s Categorical Imperative (which I will refer to as C.I.) includes two principles by which we should (or is it must?) judge the rightness of our actions. Kant’s first principle states that we act only on a maxim that we at the same time can make universal. That is, before we act, we ask, should everyone do this? For instance, if I wanted to steal an unguarded iphone sitting on a desk, I should ask, would I want everyone to do this? Would I have for a moral rule “if an iphone is unguarded, it is morally right to steal it”? The answer in this case is obviously no. I wouldn’t want that for a maxim to be obeyed by everyone. Kant’s second principle holds that we must treat other people as ends in themselves, not as mere means to our own ends. According to Kant’s second principle, I cannot use others to further my own goals. So, if I decided to take philosophy classes because, no wait, bad example. If I make friends with Dante’s mom because she has lots of spare cash floating around, and I really don’t like her, but I enjoy the perks of her “friendship”, then , according to Kant, I am morally wrong because I am using someone to further my own ends — namely the fact that someone is spending their money to satisfy my wants. Kant’s categorical imperative deals with absolute moral obligations (as opposed to hypothetical imperatives, which are binding on a person so long as that person desires to fuflil some result or end. For instance, if I want to lose weight, I have to diet and exercise. I’m only bound to diet and exercise so long as my end). As I noted, in the case of Frederick Loren, the situation seems to smack of exploitation. The people Loren invites need the $10,000, and they will do anything, including risking their own lives, to get it. But that’s just it. Both sides are in it to get something. Loren’s guests want Loren’s money just as much as Loren may be inclined to exploit them. They are willing to do anything, even risk their own lives to get it. So here’s my question: what does Kant say about mutually exploitive acts? Every one of Loren’s guests wanted something (and that Trent guy wanted Loren’s wife as well). They went to Loren’s haunted house party knowing that there was a chance that they might not make the night. So let’s look at Loren’s “party” according to Kant’s first principle of the C.I. Let’s say that Loren constructs his maxim as such: “If you want to invite a group of people to your haunted house, be sure to offer them a large sum of money as to compensate them (or their heirs, if necessary) if anything bad should happen to them”. That sounds fair. If Loren constructs his maxim that way, it seems that it has a whiff of fairness to it. I don’t think anyone would be offended by this maxim. But, Loren thinks about his maxim. There’s something wrong with it. It’s not quite complete. So he reformulates it by adding a clause to protect him from those who accuse his maxim of exploitation. Loren adds: “If you want to invite a group of people to your haunted house, be sure that they are well-informed that the house is haunted and that the ghosts are dangerous, and be sure to offer them a large sum of money as to compensate them (or their heirs, if necessary) if anything bad should happen to them”. I think, that, if Loren use this as his maxim, he’s in the moral clear. Loren adds, they are getiting something from me as well, so it’s not just me who is benefitting in this situation. With Loren in the clear on principle one, let’s move on to the second principle. Kant’s second principle states that we cannot use others as a mere means to our own ends. This means we cannot use others by way of coersion, manipulation, exploitation, force, etc. Kant’s C.I. requires that we respect the dignity and autonomy of an individual to make rational moral choices for himself. If we are to make autonomous moral choices, we must enter into our decisions well-informed and free of coersion or manipulation. If we do not, then our choices were not rendered autonomously. It seems that Loren’s guests entered into the agreement (an overnight stay for money) freely and knowingly. Loren’s guests know that the house they will spend the night in is haunted. They know that they will get $10,000 if they spend an entire night there. They accepted Loren’s invite and intend to leave the mansion $10,000 richer. So, Loren may say, so what if they all need the money, they all agreed to be here. If I, Frederick Loren, was to say anything about the matter, I’d say that they agreed to be exploited! So, Loren has thrown his opinion into the ring, and said that his guests agreed to be exploited. So now we ask, can a person agree to be exploited? Kant would say no. In this situation (and others similar to it — like when a woman who works as a “dancer” says that she’s not doing degrading work, but at least “gets paid” — that’s what Dante’s mom says, anyway), the fact that both parties agree to the act doesn’t make the act morally right. As the old saying goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right”. And this is what Kant thinks as well. Even if Loren says that his guests agreed to spend the night in his house, the situation still stinks of exploitation. Loren argues that his guests were getting paid for their stay — but the fact is, is that Loren invited people who needed the money, not merely wanted it. They were willing to engage in a extreme act that they most likely would not have done if their situations were not so dire. In a sense, they were not free to do otherwise. The fact that their acceptances to Loren’s challenge was made out of desperation, meant that their decision was not a truly autonomous decision. The offering of money was a form of coersion. But, wait, Loren cries — they could have freely left the house at any time. They weren’t forced to spend the entire night! True, but, we can say that the lure of money was so great (not to mention not seeming like a wuss) that they could not leave. Loren knew that, once he suggested that his guests were total wusses if they left, no one would leave. So he’s still in the moral wrong. Loren can’t say that this situation was excusable because his guests decided to attend his party. Kant’s C.I. wants us to seek out moral rules that are universal. The categorical imperative requires that we consider all in our moral sphere, not merely the five people that we invite to our haunted house party. In this situation, Loren’s guests may benefit, but we (collectively) lose. So, it seems that Loren’s maxim wasn’t universalizable, no matter how many clauses we add, we can’t morally justify exploitation — even if the exploitation is mutual. Our moral universe requires that we create rules that aren’t just useful for throwing haunted slumber parties, but useful for everyone who is affected by our actions. For Kant, that “everyone” isn’t limited to the people that we know, but covers everyone at all times in all places (including planets where soul-sucking botanists dwell). If we deny someone the right to do otherwise, even if we inform themof all the risks, we aren’t respecting their ability to make rational moral choices — which is exactly what Frederick Loren did in The House on Haunted Hill. In picking people who needed the money, no matter how well informed his guests were, no matter if they didn’t leave after he informed them that they could, Loren used them as a means to his own ends, and deprived them of the respect that being a morally autonomous being requires. And because of that, Frederick Loren violates the principles of Kant’s categorical imperative. And, let’s not forget, the guy wanted to kill his wife!
They say that you can tell a person’s personality by what kind of music they listen to. In reality, telling a person’s personality by way of their musical preferences is intended to be one of those “tests” that people think up to screen out people that they think are beneath them. To give an example, if you’re into Phillip Glass and the Kronos Quartet and someone you meet at a gathering of mutual friends gushes on and on about how cool Toby Keith is — well, you get the idea. I had heard of this so-called personality test during a conversation with a “baby boomer”, that is those individuals born roughly between 1945 and 1964. The people who turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, and are still convinced that everything they said and did was pop cultural gold. I think what he really was trying to do was convince me that any music that he liked was cool, therefore suggesting his superiority, and that my liking the FooFighters was somehow akin to primitiveness. I was a knuckledragger. Although I recall he liked the song with the video that’s like those Mentos commercials. It was “inventive” he said, kind of like A Hard Day’s Night. I remember, before I completely lost interest in his going on about how cool the 60s was, ( although I swear he was a teenager in the 70s), he was yammering about how bands today had lost their sense of humor, and how the art was missing from modern music, and that it’s all about making money nowadays… He was suggesting that the music of the 60s, with its emphasis on art and making the listener feel something, not only provided the soundtrack by which to pick up chicks to, but also influenced the way that people thought about life and themselves — how we interact with the world and how we feel connected to everyone around us. This was something, he said, that today’s music simply does not do. You could tell a man by his music, he claimed. If the baby boomers are right, and no good music was made after 1969 ( which may be true in the case of Wham!), and if there is a definitive link between personality and music preference,then there is no better personality test than the question which Beatles do you like? For those who would answer the question, ” I like all of the Beatles music”, shame on you. Liking the Beatles is not merely a matter of liking their music generally, it is a gauge on how you see the world. Which era you like tells the world what kind of person you are. There a two basic ways of gauging personality type according to the Beatles: 1) early vs. late Beatles 2) Lennon or Mc Cartney If you say that you prefer to listen to “early” Beatles, roughly covering the years from 1962 to 1966 (when they stopped performing in public, unless you discount their “rooftop” performance), then your personality is described as follows: you’re conventional. You like things to be clear, simple and easy to understand (like many early Beatles lyrics). You’re likely conservative, and most importantly, you don’t readily accept change. You like the Beatles who wore the matching suits and didn’t sing about revolutions and posed naked on album covers with their girlfriends — and you like the world to be that way, too. If, by chance, you dig the late Beatles, then you’re open and progressive. You may be slightly militant, or at least you talk as if you are (but more than likely you’re “out, in”). You’ve probably referred to authority on at least one occasion as “the Man”. You like confusion, chaos, and of course, smoking weed. Your mind is a changing place, and according to you, like your mind, that’s the way the world is. The test is similar with whether you prefer the lyrics of John Lennon or Paul Mc Cartney. If you like Paul, then you’re a romantic. You like silly little love songs, and there’s absolutely no problem with that according to your world view. Love for you is between you and the gender of your choice. And, you don’t have a problem with making money. If you prefer Lennon, you’re the edgy rebel. You speak your mind and you’re not afraid of pissing people off. Love isn’t just between you and your girfriend that nobody else seems to like, but is something that involves the whole world. And not just love, but peace, too. You have a seious problem with those people who sold out ( but we all know that you’ve got a little tucked away in your pocket as well). Funny, no one ever says what kind of personality you have if you like George. The idea is, is that this “test” isn’t supposed to be just an icebreaker or a topic of conversation that is meant to take up time but not teach us anything. It’s supposed to be a way to gain insight into who we are — as any music that we listen to is supposed to reflect who we are. Sometimes this assumption is right. For instance, I know that gloomy people tend to listen to gloomy music. Usually someone who describes themself as a philistine wouldn’t listen to Mozart or something supposedly “refined” or high class. Yeah, I get that but, if you ask me, this question — and I mean this question gauging a personality (and by extension a worldview) by what “era” of Beatles a person likes — is a prime example of philosophic overthinking. Now that I’m writing this, I don’t not suspect that some philosophy student thought up this question. It reeks of philosophy. And leave it to a philosopher to overthink a preference. If you don’t believe that this actually happens, overthinking preferences that is, there is a book currently on the shelves of any number of local bookstores called The Beatles and Philosophy. It sets itself apart from all of the other (hundreds) of books about the Beatles, in that its authors have somehow found a way to overthink meaning into the Beatles’ (generally thought of as ) pop songs. The book, in all of it’s philosophic significantness is not so much a homage to a seminal pop band as it is a monument to the power of overthinking. I would give an example or two, but since I endowed my own The Beatles and Philosophy book to the logic lab (big clue) and since I am way too lazy to google anything, I can’t give you an idea of how philosophic overthinking goes hideously wrong. But, let me preempt myself here — I’m not saying that the Beatles weren’t saying anything, sure they did! Afterall, that’s what the 60s was about (so they say anyway). And I am not, repeat, NOT trying to say that philosophers shouldn’t look for the deeper or hidden meanings behind otherwise seemingly unphilosophic things. But I really don’t think that they were going for something that deep. I think that what they were trying to do is make money and, eventually, get high. Paul Mc Cartney said that what drove he and John Lennon to songwriting is their mutual desire to write tunes for Frank Sinatra. Sometimes, even with things that have meaning, we read more into it than there is. I recall hearing that Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Well, sometimes a song is just a song. I think that when you’ve taken to finding the Leibnizian view of God and the universe as articulated by George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” or the Humean subtext of “Hello, Goodbye”, you’re going a little too far ( I don’t know if there are Humean subtexts to any of the songs on Magical Mystery Tour or if there is any Leibniz to be found on Sgt. Pepper. I made those examples up). What’s funny about finding the deeper philosophy in Beatles lyrics is that it ignores the fact that there are even funnier “meanings” to be found in the songs without consulting Spinoza or Nietzsche. Ask yourself these questions: Are they really singing “everybody smoke pot” during the coda of “I am the Walrus”? or, how was everybody snowed by John Lennon’s obvious lie about what “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was really about (which is kind of like how people back in the 70s had no clue that the Village People were gay. They sang songs about macho men and hanging at the Y! Hello?!?), or how is it that Charles Manson really did get what the song “Blackbird” was about? It’s these questions that remain unanswered and need to be. By the way, if no one has noticed that the tenor of this post has drifedway into the hypocritical, I’m more clever than I thought. So clever, in fact that … And for the record, I prefer late Beatles (White Album specifically) to early and I’m a fan of the songs of George Harrison, especially “Only a Northern Song” from Yellow Submarine. The movie sucked eggs, but the song is cool.
Chuck Klosterman wrote that science fiction is philosophy for stupid people. I don’t disagree. I heard somewhere or from someone that philosophy is all about probing and nuance — the philosopher seeks to find the meaning behind the meaning. I guess if that’s the case, then the clobber you over the head style of Star Trek really doesn’t leave room for guesswork. I’m not slamming Star Trek. Hey, I’m a fan. But sometimes it really — well… ok, you’ve got a multiethnic, multiracial, intergalactic cast (did we hit all of the bases, here?), top it all off with TV’s first interracial kiss (despite the fact that Kirk and Uhura were forced to do it), and a Russian guy who pronounces his ‘v’s like ‘w’s — well, do we have to look too hard to see where this is all going? * you want to know how unsubtle Star Trek is? There’s an episode where there are these dudes that have black on one side of their faces and white on the other. They are having this big conflict with people who have white on one side of their faces and black on the other. That’s symbolic of… well, can you guess? By the way, the Russian alphabet has a ‘v’ in it. I know. I endured two years of that blasted language in high school. My point is, is that, even as a philosopher, I kind of like my thinking to go easy. I don’t like subtle or nuanced. I like in your face, I like flashpots, and fireworks, and subtitles! I like movies with full frontal nudity for absolutely no reason whatsoever that show violence in slow motion (wow, I drifted a little into Dennis Leary-land there). I used to sit in class and try to find ways to explain the most complex philosophical theory in one sentence of less. Because, I realized, I’m really a stupid person. What’s worse is that I’m a stupid person who realizes how stupid I am, yet maintains the delusion that I am smarter than other people. I guess, now that I’m thinking the word isn’t so much smarter than cleverer. Afterall, I managed to snare a philosophy degree, didn’t I? But then, if I were clever at all, I would have pursued something a little more marketable than a career in philosophy, wouldn’t I? No, no, this won’t do. I’ve got to lay off the negativity. It really is counterproductive. Now I know what all of those yahoos on Jerry Springer are going through! You know, the guy on the panel who is married to the woman who is sleeping around with his dad, his brother and half of the guys in (insert derogatory redneck term here) who insists that he still loves “his woman”? That’s me. I’ve gotten nothing but pain from philosophy. She sleeps around and makes other little theories that I don’t like and don’t want to take care of with other people, makes me feel intellectually inadequate and humiliates me in public, but I love her. I’ll stick with her even if she takes me on national TV and parades every guy with no teeth and hockey hair that she’s slept with in front of my face. I’m smitten. I’m the faithful idiot. I’m not even a useful idiot! Wait a minute. Where is all of this going? I think that, besides going absolutely nowhere with this, what I want to say all of this is working up to what I am about to confess right here and now: I once accused someone that I know (and that’s “know” in the sense that I more know of him than know him) on several occasions of being a “fence rider”. It all has to do with my objections to agnosticism and my position that someone who wants to profess any sort of belief in God should pick a side. Either go full-on atheist or pick a religion. Since I have picked a side (also condemning myself to eternal hellfire and damnation), I, for the life of me, can’t figure out why someone would ever claim being an agnostic. But that’s just a personal problem. Apparently others can handle ‘we can’t really be sure if there’s a God, so I’m not going to make a guess’ better than I. Well, I confess. As someone who had the gall ( I would have written ‘balls”, but that would have been a little crude) to say that I’m a “secular christian” I admit that I am the biggest fence rider of all — the atheist who claims that they still have “christian” values. Besides being a bit of a contradiction, it’s just plain stupid. But then, I don’t deny being that, either. Oh wait, I think that Star Trek:TNG might be coming on Spike right now. Gotta go. Enter the banjos!
I’ve said before that ethics is the only philosophy that matters. And I still think that’s true. It is. But that has nothing to do with the fact that studying ethics is so damn boring! There’s really not much to it. There are what? maybe a half dozen or so ethical theories out there that we deal with. There’s Utilitarianism, Egoism, Kantianism, Relativism, Virtue Ethics, and Divine Command theory. Sure, there are different versions — strong/weak, rule/act — but there’s pretty much nothing much to do after you’ve learned the various moral theories. Which makes it pretty easy when you think of it. Unlike all those ‘nobody’s ever really going to know for sure, so what we’re really trying to find is the most plausible answer’ business, ethics is pretty much on the ground. Real solutions for real people. No one really knows whether God exists or not, or if we live in a world of appearances or things-in-themselves (ugh!), but we all know the choice between whether we should cheat on our wife or tell the “dancer” that we really don’t want that table dance (but then, are lapdances really cheating?) or whether or not we should beat the shit out of that neighbor kid who won’t turn down his car stereo at three in the morning (or beat the tarnation out of the guy at the library with the most obnoxious ringtone ever). Look, if we see a drowning guy and we’re the only guy who can save him, and our options are to jump in and save him, or keep the $38 New Balance shoes that we just bought (for a good price) at Big 5 dry, we wouldn’t be surprised if everyone thought were a douche for not wanting to get our shoes wet. And ethics goes just about like this all the time: situation pops up, ethical dilemma, refer to handbook, apply applicable ethical theory, and volia! problem solved. Works even quicker on sitcoms. And that’s the way it’s worked for centuries. Centuries. Oh sure, every so often they’ll trot out something new like Rawl’s “veil of ignorance”, but really, any utilitarian can get you similar results without having to forget what race you are or how much money you have. It’s all fine and dandy how it works, but it’s just so damn boring!!!! Which brings me to a class I had some time ago. It was a class on intutionism. If you’re not familiar, like all of ethics, intuitionism asks ‘what is good?’. Here’s my attempt to nutshell something that is impossibly unnutshellable: G.E. Moore argued that the term ‘good’ meaning moral good, is undefinable. So, if we try to say that good (in the ethical sense) means something or is equal to a quality like ‘pleasure’, then our problem is, is that what is pleasuarble is not always good. Doing heroin is certainly pleasurable, but most people would agree that it is not ‘good’. Pleasure is a quality that is not common to all ‘good’ things. Moore likened the attempt to define good to an attempt to define the color yellow. To describe yellow, most of us would name yellow things such as bananas or taxicabs, or point to something yellow like a person with Hepatitis C. According to Moore, we can’t define what yellow is. We know ‘yellow’ intuitively. The same goes for what is ‘good’. I’m not bringing this up in order to discuss the merits of the theory, other than to say that this theory is just about the easiest thing to understand without having any ability whatsoever to explain how I do. And that doesn’t make for a very exciting theory. What I did learn that quarter, however, is exactly how to make an otherwise boring topic like ethics interesting… Alcohol. Yep. Get liquored up before class. I remember that, on one occasion, I had partaken a bit of the liqiud happiness before class (the one on intuitionism I mentioned before), and the class was marvelous! I can’t really remember what we discussed, or what I may have said (except for the fact that I thought that everything everyone said was funny), but I remember that, at least for that moment, intuitionism was the most interesting topic on the planet, and that everyone should be so lucky to have the opportunity to discuss something so fascinating. So, whenever I watch COPS, I think (now) that it’s not that these poor drunken bar brawlers are the stupid hicks that everyone thinks that they are. In fact, one could argue that they’re learned philosophers (and not just in the way that every drunk guy becomes an instant philosopher). It’s that they’ve figured out how to make moral conflicts, like bar brawling much more interesting! Morality is better (or at least funner) when you’re under the influence! No wonder so many thought experiments have to do with using drugs.
To rid myself of that Murray Head song “One Night In Bangkok”, I decided that I would do a little bit of TV watchin’. I was in a kind-of 1980s, Cold War-era flicks mood, so I started the night by watching a little bit of Red Dawn. I breezed through Wargames, and was lamenting the fact that I didn’t have Gotcha! on DVD. I was listening to “99 Luft Balloons” and was trying to remember which 80s compilation CD had “Der Kommissar” on it, when I glanced over at my DVD shelf and spotted ET. ET: the Extra-Terrestrial is perhaps the film of my generation. Who could not like the story of the lovable, non-threatening little alien from a billion light years away? And given the fact that the year ET was released, 1982, saw the release of a decidedly un-friendly alien movie, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, it’s easy to see why people flocked to see the cuddlier alien movie. For what it’s worth, I like The Thing. I’m assuming that everyone with eyes that see and ears that hear has either seen or heard about this movie. But, if you haven’t: a well-meaning, adorable, intergalactic horticulturist gets so caught up in looking at the local earth fauna that his ride home ditches him. The newly homeless fellow stumbles upon a nice suburban family (who are neither afraid of falling victim to a face-hugger nor worried about their new alien friend subjecting them to the time-honored alien tradition of probing), he squats for awhile with the middle child of the family, a boy named Elliott. Eventually the celestial traveler and his young companion jimmy up a subspace communication device and ET’s peeps swing back ’round to pick him up. All’s well that ends well. Some people see a heart-warming tale of the power of love and friendship. Others see a parable (or is it allegory?) of the story of Christ. Me, I see one of the worst moral offenders in film history. Assuming that the ethics of 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant apply to visiting aliens, this little bundle of interstellar joy has some explaining to do about his behavior. Kant’s moral philosophy is primarily concerned with two objectives: 1) moral principles that have universal applicability, and 2) our acts are performed from obligation — no matter the consequences. The first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative states that we undertake no act that cannot at the same time be made universal law (or something like that). The way I see it, this one isn’t really a problem. Well, not yet. It’s Kant’s second formulation that has my finger pointing at this so-called friend to all children. Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative holds that we are to treat others as ends in themselves, that is, we are not to use others are a mere means to our own ends. So, say I want to rob a bank. I don’t have a car, but you do. I ask you to drive me over to the bank while I step in to go take care of some “things”. While I’m in the bank, I knock over the joint. I didn’t tell you why I was going or what I was going to do once I got there. I merely used you for your car. So, according to Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative, I have used you as a mere means to my ends. And that’s morally wrong. And that, using Elliott as a mere means to his ends, is precisely what that alien did. A test for whether we are being used as someone else’s means to their ends is whether we have entered into an agreement with that person freely and knowingly (meaning we weren’t coerced or forced). Now I know, you say that it was Elliott who pursued ET. This is true. He did lure ET into his house with Reece’s Pieces. And Elliott did assume responsibility for the alien. But, I think that Elliott did this unaware of what assuming responsibility for ET fully meant. What ET did, was not allowing Elliott to take care of him — he literally bonded his life to Elliott’s! Maybe there’s another version of the movie where ET sits Elliott down and explains what “taking responsibility” means where he comes from; but I doubt that, in Elliott’s mind, that “responsibility” meant feeling hunger when ET was hungry, or feeling sleepy when ET was sleepy. Nor do I think that Elliott signed on to experience drunkenness when ET decided to go on a bender, or to sexually assault a female classmate under ET’s mind control. Worse yet, ET’s life bonding nearly killed Elliott when ET decided that I was better to die than to live in earth (real subtle, Spielberg!). Not to mention, that Elliott was, what? Twelve at the most? Could a child of that age really have made a competent decision to endanger the lives of himself and his family and have his house ransacked by the feds all in an effort to make a phone call?!? I think not! I think that even Kant had a point where a kid is too young to make decisions that no only affect him, but the universe as a whole. And while we’re at it, I don’t think that back on ET’s planet that they would have welcomed such an interruption of their lives. I don’t think that almost getting a kid shot by an FBI guy (yes, I’m using the original theatrical release) is something that we want to say is universalable. Some people watch ET and see a movie that they want to share with their childern and their grandchildren. I see a movie I’d only show to a kid that I didn’t like (which reminds me, I think that I’ll invite that Dante over for popcorn and some DVDs).
Last Christmas, as a part of my holiday reading, I read the Warren Commission Report. That’s because there’s nothing that says season’s greetings quite like reading about the Kennedy Assassination. Although it pretty much kills the joy of Christmas, it’s utterly fascinating to read about how Oswald single-handedly planned and executed the murder of our 35th president. Maybe execute is a wrong choice of words. Now, I was reading the Warren Commission Report, not only because I thought it would make for interesting reading ( it did), but also because I’m also a conspiracy theory nut. All the while I was reading, I was thinking about the various theories (some more plausible than others) about the Kennedy Assassination. There are a couple of problems, though. I think that with a few of them, the plots to kill the president are so expansive that a person would discover that every American who was living at the time played a part in the assassination. It made me feel sorry for the President. It’s like everyone else was in on a joke and didn’t tell him. One hell of a punchline, though. Since I’ve vowed that I will never pay for anything that I can see for free on the internet, I was watching one of our more popular 9/11 conspiracy theory flicks. I’m not going to say exactly what the movie was, only that to say that the title sounded a little like Loose Change. I was watching, and really trying (hard) to believe what they were saying. But somehow, the philosopher inside me got the better of me and I started thinking “Ockham’s Razor”. I started thinking all sorts of crazy thoughts like ‘this really seems a little far-fetched’ and ‘wow, if this goes as deep as they say, I think that I might be an Illuminati!’. This not the way to think when you’re being told that World Trade 7 ws brought down by way of controlled demolition (I’m not saying that it wasn’t). But when your list of conspiritors includes the Tri-Lateral Commission, Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, Bohemian Grove, half the cast from The Real World season 5, and the Jolly Green Giant, your conspiracies tend to get a little… top heavy. William of Ockham, for which Ockham’s Razor is named, stated that, when we are to choose between competing theories (to explain scientific or philosophical claims or theories), that the simplier of the two theories is the one to be preferred. The point of Ockham’s sentiment is that we need not, when we are in the business of explaining a given phenomena, cast our nets too broadly and pull in more theories or entities than we need. (Those who agree with Quine’s need for “desert landscapes” most certainly appreciate this sentiment). And conspiracy theories are literally a slum (to use Quine again) of any manifestation and/or conjunction of evildoers than anyone with an active imagination can think of. Although Ockham’s Razor is more a rule of thumb than a hard metaphysical claim (it merely suggests that we consider the simplest solution first, and does not rule out the possibility that a more complex theory may be the answer), it is important to know that there is such a thing as a theory becoming so complex that it collapses under its own weight. Unfortunately, those who peddle conspiracies tend to neglect this point. There is such a thing as a conspiracy becoming too big. When your conspiracy about events that happened 7 and a half years ago involve things that happened seven hundred years ago (and involves nearly as many people), it might be time to (at least) tidy up your theory. Which brings me to another point. While I’m slamming conspiracy theories (and I’m not saying that they don’t happen), I realized that there is a particular tactic that conspiracy theorists use to “win” arguments. This is one that I learned in poly sci: argumentum ad ignorantiam. This is how you play this one: I tell you that there was no plane that hit the Pentagon. You disagree. I say prove that there wasn’t . You say there’s a big hole in the side of the building– you’re guessing plane-sized. I say, so? where’s the plane parts — don’t see ’em, do ya? You say, well, no. Ah-ha! I proclaim. I won. You’re stupid and a puppet of the New World Order! What did I just do? Obviously I didn’t actually win any argument. I didn’t need to. The fact that you couldn’t conjure up any evidence to prove me wrong meant that I was right. Argumentum ad ignorantiam. It’s like saying that aliens bulit the pyramids. I ask you to prove that I’m wrong. Can you? Exactamundo! I know that, by saying this, that I’m probably not going to be asked to guest on Coast to Coast anytime soon, but to satisfy the screaming philosopher in my head, I had to say something. I guess I’ll go turn in my foil hat now.
With the exception of the films of Coleman Francis, I’m willing to watch just about anything , and usually I’ll find something worth liking about them — whether it’s the fact that Hugh Jackman is nearly always entertaining, or a wacky title sequence. There’s always something. Did I forget to mention that I usually find something worth liking? I know that there are movies that everyone else is supposed to like, and then there are films that only certain people are supposed to like ( supposedly the difference is that everyone else watches “movies” and only certain people watch films or worse yet, the cinema). So I was watching this movie called Pi. It’s directed (and written, I think), by Darren Aronofsky, who is currently enjoying some fame for his Oscar nominated movie The Wrestler. Since I had already seen his other movie, the heart-warming Requiem for a Dream, I decided that I must see more films by this guy! And that was Pi. I guess, for those who haven’t seen it, Pi is about this dude who’s really good at math who decides that he wants to figure out the math behind the stock market. Eventually, as all smart math guys do, he goes a little nuts, and ends up drilling himself in the head. Really, that’s the plot. I thought that, since I’m into philosophy n’ all, that I would like it. Two reasons: 1) it’s in black and white (and black and white automatically means quality), and 2) because it looked like a movie that people who are into philosophy would like. There’s a list, you know. There really is. It’s a list of things that philosophy people are supposed to be “into”. We’re supposed to like Woody Allen movies (except for Antz that’s a no-go for me), Monty Python flicks ( you’re supposed to be able to recite dialogue from these), Coen Brothers movies, jazz music, and “fair trade” coffee. I also think that any movie written by Steve Martin (except for The Jerk) is supposed to be somewhere on that list. They’re supposed to be stuff that are infused with all sorts of deep meaning and philosophic subtexts. Which is why pedestrian level philosophers like Star Trek. In Gene Roddenberry’s universe there isno such thing as subtlety. It’s all whack you over the head with a crowbar — and the point of philosophy is that not everyone gets this stuff. Which, I guess is where the philosophic rubber hits the road. At least that’s what the assholes believe, anyway. But the cold, harsh reality is, is that movies like Pi are damned hard to watch. It’s not that I didn’t get it, either. Oh I got it. Look, Being John Malkovich isn’t so much difficult to understand than it is hard to pay attention to if you have anything resembling a sense of boredom. And by the way, would Catherine Keener please stop playing the smart-talking, intellectually superior ( to you), chick?!? The plain truth is, is that Super Troopers is not only more entertaining than most “philosophic” movies — but it also probably is philosophically better for you. I swear that there is a difference between a movie that is just on its own smart (like the social commentary in the original Night of the Living Dead), and a movie that comes off like it is some sort of philosophy lesson (like Vanilla Sky). I’m not going to say exactly where I think this movie fits,but even now I keep thinking that I really should have liked Pi. While I’m writing this, I’m really thinking, wondering if there actually is some sort of philosopher profile that, once I join the ranks of THEM, I will automatically assume? Are there traits (or qualities, if that’s the way you roll) that I must necessarily have as a philosopher? If so what are they? A tendency to rattle on about things that no one else cares about? The ability to talk for ten straight minutes without ever answering the question that I was asked? Will I lose my ability to talk to normal people?!?!? Of course, half of what I’m saying is in jest (well, except for the not liking the movie Pi no matter how hard I’ve tried to). But, I think that there’s something more going on than this all being about a matter of taste. Without going into some sort of really overcomplicated postmodern take on high and low culture, there is a perception that there are things that everybody else likes and other things that only 0ther people like. That’s kind of messed up.
Kant opens the first section of his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals with the statement: “Nothing in the world — indeed nothing even beyond the world — can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a GOOD WILL“. Kant says that there are qualities that may be good and desirable (intelligence, courage, resoluteness, etc.), but these qualities can be bad if they are not accompanied by a good will. A good will, according to Kant, corrects the influences on the mind. Kant states that the will is good, not because of what effects follow from having a good will, but because the good is intrinsically good or good in itself. For Kant, all moral decisions are emanate from a sense of duty, and our sense of duty contains good will. I know that this question might seem like it has an obvious answer, and I used to think so myself, but what is a bad will? I know that what I just asked is one of those questions that scream out “duh”, like asking someone who steps into the room soaking wet, shaking off an umbrella if it’s raining outside. Or hearing the dude next to you stomach growl, and asking him,”hungry, eh?”. It’s pretty easy when someone’s intent is fairly obvious, like when some dude carrying a pike, covered in blood, wearing an “I H8 Philosophy Professors” T-shirt asks where the philosophy department is. It dosen’t take a stroke of genius to figure out the the guy’s intent is to do some harm — especially when it’s nowhere near April Fool’s Day and it’s not Halloween. There is the bad will that we can see — the murderer, the thief, the starlet intent on launching a music career. But some will is what we might call ambiguous. What do we do when the intent of the will is not so clear? I thought of sticking a personal situation in right here about something that I did that I’m still not sure as to whether my will in this situation was good or bad. (Take your guesses everybody) But since I’ve thought it over, I decided that I would save myself the embarassment ( not to mention any possible bridge burning) and grab an example from my collection of DVDs. About a year ago, I was made familiar with a website called selectsmart. The point of this website is to spend hours taking surveys to figure out what kind of whatever you are. They should call this website hours from your life. So, instead of studying philosophy, I was taking this survey on which horror movie protagonist I’m most like. Much to my delight, I’m like the character Dr. Herbert West from the movie Re-Animator, which just happens to be my favorite horror movie. Talk about serendipity. To those who are not familiar with the Stuart Gordon classic Re-Animator, here’s the plot in a nutshell: a couple of med students at Miskatonic University discover the secret for re-animating dead people. They decide to see if it works by testing it on a cat named Rufus and then on the cadavers in the pathology ward. All hell breaks loose when one of the students beheads a professor, reanimates the professor’s head and body, and eventually lands himself in a fantastic battle royale with the professor’s intestines. Now that I’m done with the plot. In the film, Herbert West discovers the key to reanimation, which, in and of itself, isn’t bad. You might say that someone who makes such a discovery is motivated by good will. If we can cheat death, think of all that land we’d be saving from becoming cemetaries. We could put WalMarts up everywhere! Ok, and a few Trader Joes. And it seems that, at first, Herbert is intent on making genuine medical progress. But, somewhere that same intent loses it’s good-willish patina and takes a turn for the bad. We know that when Herbert kills Dr. Hill, he is motivated by a bad will. He wants to kill Hill because Dr. Hill is in his way. That’s easy. And when the bodies start piling up, including the dean of the university and Dan’s girlfriend Meg, we need not consult the utlitarian calculus to figure out that Herbert’s quest to revive the dead was bad. But there it goes again. We can say that what Herbert West did was inherently bad, but how was it so? At what point did West’s intent turn from good to bad? Since Kant tells us we cannot rely on consequences, we cannot point to the pile of dead bodies as evidence of Herbert’s bad will. But we know that, perhaps on some intuitive level, Herbert’s intent had changed — although it stayed the same. I realize that what I’m saying might sound like a little bit of goobledygook here. And there’s a reason for that. It’s because there are times when someone’s intent may be the same, but somehow the intent may seem to be aimed at doing more harm than good. What makes things worse, is the fact that, in addition to not being able to pin down how a good intent can become bad, we may not be aware that our own will is bad. We may be operating under the supposition (delusion) that our own intentions are good. But how do we know what a bad will is, or when our own will is bad? The question is not so much what constitutes a bad will than how do we know what a bad will is? Perhaps the issue of whether a person’s will is good or bad is as much an epistemic question than an ethical consideration. And that’s where I land my open-ended question. I’d like to know what the answer is, because honestly I have no idea.
POLICE SERGEANT HOWIE flies off to a remote Scottish isle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. During his investigation, he finds that the natives of the quiet Scottish hamlet are a bit more than odd — they’re pagans! What follows during the next 90 minutes is public group sex, people spontaneously breaking out into song, nude women crying in grave yards, schoolchildren singing odes to phallic symbols, naked flashdancing, foreskins in jars — ultimately culminating in Sgt. Howie being roasted alive in a giant rattan action figure (so the crops will grow).
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is The Wicker Man.
This gem from 1973, starring Edward Woodward, bears the rare distinction of being the only movie in film history that Rod Stewart tried to get banned — and not because it’s a bad movie. It all has to do with Britt Ekland and some dancing….
Anyway, Sgt. Howie, played by Woodward, is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. When Sgt. Howie arrives, he is met by several locals who, besides being confoundedly stupid, insist that the girl is not a resident of the island. They’ve never heard of her, they say. But Howie is as nosy as he is persistent, and he continues to search for young Rowan, despite the fact that everyone on the island, including the woman who is Rowan’s alleged mother, claims that they do not know the girl.
As Howie searches for the missing girl, he finds that the residents of Summerisle are pagans who worship the old gods and reject Christianity (this fact offends Howie, who is a Christian). Howie begins to suspect that the island’s May Day ritual may be more than mere re-enactment, but a full-scale human sacrifice made to appease the gods. Howie suspects that Rowan is not missing, but intended to be the isle’s offering.
After a game of cat and mouse (I really hate that cliche), Howie finds that it is he who is the intended sacrifice, and he is given up to the gods — burned alive inside the Wicker Man.
The Film’s protagonist, Sgt. Howie, is a Christian. Howie, as a modern man thrown into the strange world of paganism, is intended to represent the audience. The audience, meaning us, and Howie are products of Christendom. We’ve been raised with, whether we’ve accepted Christianity or not, Christian morality. Our collective Christian sensibilities tell us that paganism, in particular, pagan practices that call for blood sacrifices, is not only a useless practice, but morally reprehensible as well.
The audience, as well as Sgt. Howie would regard the practices on Summerisle as heathen and blasphemous according to our Christian perspective. Our God, the Christian God, as Howie proclaims, is the “true God”. Howie calls the religion of Summerisle “fake”, and demands to know why the children have “never heard of Jesus”. As people raised with (or at least in the presence of ) the Christian faith, we can understand Howie’s outrage. And we also share Howie’s disgust when he discovers that the Summerislanders intend to perform ritual human sacrifice.
But, the residents of Summerisle have a different point of view. When Sgt. Howie meets Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee ( the first man I usually think of when I think of a Scotsman), Summerisle explains to Howie that his grandfather, in an attempt to rekindle the spirit of the people living on the island and cure them of their apathy, brought back the old gods.
The people, along with the local flora, flourished. The ethic, Lord Summerisle tells Howie, is to love and fear nature, to rely on it, and to “please it when necessary”. Summerisle tells Howie that the Christian God is not worshipped on his island because the Christian God failed to help the people. “He’s dead,” Summerisle says. He had his chance and blew it. When Howie, furious at Summerisle’s unrepentant paganism proclaims that Summerisle is a pagan, Summerisle responds, ” A heathen conceivably, but not I hope an unenlightened one”.
But Howie sees Summerisle and his people as just that — unenlightened.
Unenlightened people do stuff like this:
And things like this:
The people of Summerisle, Howie thinks, are backwards, savage, and barbaric.
I guess it’s a lot like spending a night in any city in Nevada outside of Las Vegas.
Howie knows that Summerisle knows that bringing back the old gods did not make his island prosperous, but correctly using the island’s volcanic soil to raise crops that would grow in that environment saved the island and its people. If Summerisle is not an unenlightened pagan, Howie knows, then certainly the people of Summerisle are, as they believe that sacrifice will please the gods and renew their harvests.
As he is being led off to his date with the Wicker Man, Howie tells the islanders that burning him will not bring back their failed crops. He says that, if the crops fail again, that no sacrifice other than the Lord Summerisle himself will appease their gods. As Howie burns in the Wicker Man, he sings the Psalm of David ( Psalm 23), while the people of Summerisle, led by Summerisle, sing a triumphant pagan ‘let’s roast a cop in the fire’ song.
This song in particular:
By the way, there really is a Summerisle located off the coast of Scotland. I’m not sure if the events depicted in the film are representative of events that actually go on there, but rest assured I’m not going there any time soon to find out.*
This brings us to a very important question: what are we to do when we are confronted with competing moral theories? In particular, how do we decide moral rightness when each side claims that their side is morally correct? What do we do if we have, as in this case, competing religious claims?
Ok, let’s take out the fact that Lord Summerisle knows that paganism is wacked. Let’s say that he, and the people of the island, truly believe that performing human sacrifices will bring back their failed crops. Their gods, they believe, demand that they do. If they do not obey, they believe, the gods will get angry with them and kill their crops, causing the deaths of hundreds of people. So, let’s stick Sgt. Howie in the mix. And, like the people of Summerisle, Howie believes that his religion prohibits human sacrifice. His religion, he believes, will punish those who unlawfully shed the blood of an innocent.
Each claims that their religion is morally correct. Each operates from a mandate from God or their gods — including potential punishment if each does not obey. How are we to solve the ethical dilemma? How are we to determine which side is morally correct? Is doing so possible? If there is, which ethical system can/should we appeal to to settle the difference?
Usually, when we are faced with ethical dilemmas, even when we pull out the old thought experiment, we consider ethical dilemmas one theory at a time. So, for instance, if everyone in this situation were Kantians, we could easily draw some conclusion as to which side is morally correct. we might say that ritual human sacrifice is murder and that the pagans have no right, morally speaking, to perform their evil deed. Moreover, Sgt. Howie is an unwilling participant, and to sacrifice him is using him as a mere means to their end.
Problem solved. We wipe off our hands, and pat ourselves on the back after winning the ethics bowl round.
But we can make such an easy decision here. Each side says that it is their moral imperative to act as they do. So now what do we do? Let’s look at another theory. Let’s say that this time, everyone is a utilitarian. The utilitarian says that we must only act in such a way that will bring the greatest good for the greatest number.
Ok. We’ve got Sgt. Howie on one side saying that the sacrifice won’t work. The crops are going to fail, no matter what, and if they fail next year, no sacrifice other than Lord Summerisle himself will do. So, according to Howie, performing the sacrifice will be pretty bad for everyone. So, let’s give benefits a plus five, and the negatives a minus twenty.
So, after hearing Howie trying to worm out of doing something beneficial for his island, Lord Summerisle says that, if they commit the sacrifice the crops will grow, and the people will prosper. And, Summerisle explains, Howie will benefit as well.
Summerisle tells Howie that he will join with the forces of the universe and sit at the right hand of the gods. And even from Howie’s Christian perspective, Summerisle says, Howie benefits from having a martyr’s death. So Summerisle says the benefits are all plusses — plus twenty, plus twenty, and plus fifty for Howie.
Fear not, Sgt. Howie. Pain is only temporary. Heaven is forever.
Well, this isn’t working. Somehow it seems that Summerisle beats Howie. In fact, Summerisle claims that, if Howie participates, he benefits more than everyone else. Now, the obvious problem here, is these claims, like any utilitarian claim, remain speculative (at best). We don’t know whose god (or God or gods) is/are right. There’s a chance that Summerisle’s gods are the “real” gods. In that case, if we follow Howie’s advice, we’ve done more harm than good. So, is there anything out there that can help us?
We might want to abandon, at least for now, any ethical system that takes a definitive stand on rightness or wrongness. So let’s try moral relativism.
According to the relativist, different cultures have different standards of right and wrong (cultural relativism). From that fact we conclude — since every culture has a different standard for right and wrong, there exists no universal standard of right and wrong. Therefore, we cannot objectively measure the rightness or wrongness of a given act. Or something like that.
Sorry. Nicholas Cage popped up again.
Man, he’s everywhere, isn’t he?
Well, this gets us absolutely nowhere. All a relativist can say is that Sgt. Howie has one set of morals and the people of Summerisle have another. They’re both right. But unfortunately for Howie, he can’t both be burned in the Wicker Man and as far away from that damned island as possible at the same time. So we’re back at square one. The natives are lighting their torches and we’ve got to make a decision, quick. How do we decide which is morally right?
Luckily for us in this case, there actually is a way to solve the dilemma. I mentioned before that we should forget that Summerisle knew that paganism is a load of poo. Well, that’s our cheat. And even though we are secretly rooting for the pagans, (let’s face it, Howie was rude and nosy and he deserved to die) but we know that Howie is dying for nothing. What makes matters worse is the fact that Howie himself knows this as well.
And then this happens…..
We know what the people of Summerisle do not know. We know that Summerisle knows the real reason why his grandfather brought back the old gods. And because of this, we know that sacrificing Howie is wrong. It’s wrong because Summerisle is not only using Howie to further his own ends, but he is also using the people of Summerisle for his own benefit. He is relying on their ignorance ot maintain control over them. Although Summerisle claims that he loves his people, we can see that this may not be the case. He loves ruling over them. He enjoys manipulating Sgt. Howie into falling prey to his plan to use him as a sacrifice ( notice that he did not use one of the island’s natives but a mainlander). In this case, unlike so many we see in the real world, it is easy to tell. The sacrifice is wrong. Thankfully the pagan gods of Sumerisle and screenwriters make it all so easy to figure it out.
If only real philosophy were that easy……