Hell Is Reality Television People

I was thumbing through my copy of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs a few days ago. To start off, I envy people, any person who can write and make a living off of it. Second, I wanted to re-read the chapter on Mr. Klosterman’s friend’s encounter with a serial killer. I have no idea why. There’s, in this chapter, a bit about serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Mr, Klosterman ( I feel like, since I don’t know him, I shouldn’t call him “Chuck”), wrote about the fame that serial killers achieve as compared to real celebrities. In his book, he used Cameron Diaz. That started me thinking. For awhile, you had to do something like kill a whole bunch of people or blow the president in order to get noticed by the media. But now, it seems like this has totally changed. I noticed that there are a lot of people out there who, I cannot for the life of me, tell anyone why they are famous. I don’t think that they killed anyone, since they’re not in prison. And I don’t think that many of them interned at the White House during the Clinton Administration. But they’re there. I know who these people are and why they’re important to my life. What really struck me about reading Mr. Klosterman’s book, is that, although it was written in 2003 (yeah, eons ago), something he wrote hit me philosophically. It was that he said that he disagreed with the “accuracy of those comparisons” between the fame of celebrities and the fame of serial killers. Mr. Klosterman wrote, ” there was nothing inherently special about Cameron Diaz; until she made a movie. She was just an attractive person. At some point, she became Cameron Diaz. But Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t become Jeffrey Dahmer the first time he killed somebody. That’s always who he was” ( pg. 192. emphasis in original).The fame of the serial killer, he said, is more authentic. Authentic. Now that’s a philosophical word. In a way, Mr. Klosterman is correct. A serial killer just does what he is inclined to do. To quote (the fictitious) Mickey Knox, a serial murderer is a “natural born killer”. A famous person is mostly known for playing someone else. It would be a little odd to assume that, because David Caruso plays the ultra smooth Horatio Caine on CSI:Miami, that that is the way he truly is. Although he pretty much played the same guy in that movie Jade… Ok. Maybe he was a bad example. The point is, is that celebrities spend their careers playing people who do not exist. They are professional inauthentic players. That is, until the human race was beset upon by the authentic celebrity — the reality TV show personality. I was listening to the Billy Bush show a while ago. If you don’t know, Billy Bush is this dude from Access Hollywood, a show specializing in teling us that, in order to have meaningful lives, the American public must know intimate details about the lives of its famous people. I hate myself for knowing that 1) there is such a thing as a Billy Bush, and 2) I’ve seen Access Hollywood. Anyway, Billy was interviewing Kim Kardashian. I was torn for a moment. My crap-o-meter had told me to immediately change the channel. But, something was compelling me to listen. I struggled against myself to change the station. *Note* for those who live under rocks and have no idea who this woman is, is recommend Googling her. Have fun, and bring a box of Kleenex.* Now, we, as a culture, tend to dismiss celebrities like Kim Kardashian and her ilk. These are people that we say have no good resaon to be famous (as if there actuall is a good reason), and therefore, are underving of our attention. In particular, we feel that people like Ms. Kardashian and Paris Hilton are of an even less deserving class of famous people. To most of us, they’re cartoons. They appear to be caricature of what a person, even of what a real celebrity is supposed to be. we often use the words “fake” or “plastic” when we describe them. They are people who seem to have no real to them at all. They are inauthentic. But before we go label crazy, it’s important to explain what we mean. I’ve already trotted out the word “authentic” and attached philosophic significance to it. So what do I mean when I say “authentic”? Authenticity, according to the Existentialists, is ( as uncomplicted as possible) living one’s life unaccording to the expectations of others. That is, an individual lives life, not according to some supposedly pre-determined set of innate characteristics, but according to the terms that he sets out for himself. According to the Existentialist, we are the masters of our own being. We are our own creations. We are not born naturally shy or hot-tempered, or even naturally inclined to act masculine or feminine. The personalities we assume are assumed by ourselves. For the Existentialist, existence preceedes essence. We exist before we become who we are. Now, I recall that I had mentioned reality TV. Television is, according to some experts, a postmodern medium. There’s no need to get into postmodernism other than to say that postmodernism rejects the existentialist’s notion of authenticity. For the postmodernist, there is no such thing as “the real”. We are, at best, a mix of influences that we assume into what we call our identity. And TV seems to reflect that point of view. Just think of the gritty NYPD: Blue like cop show that is also a murder mystery in the tradition of Murder She Wrote, with a twist of My Three Sons, as a single police detective, who also writes mystery novels tries to raise his three sons, including the adorably precocious 7 year-old Billy, as a single father in the rough streets of Claremont, California. But, somewhere in the postmodern mix, someone decided that it was time for people to stop being polite and start being real. I know that they say that the first reality show was PBS’s An American Family, and that the first reality TV star was the late Lance Loud, who appeared on the show. It seems that between the mid 70s and the early 90s, the need to see people being real wasn’t big on America’s to-do list. But, I remember the first time I saw The Real World. Debuting in 1992 on MTV, The Real World opened up a big can of feculent TMI for all of America to see. It brought what they said could not be brought to television: REALITY. For awhile, the only reality on TV, if one was looking for it, was only on the local news. Car chases, police shoot-outs, the local riot… all for the audience to enjoy with real people in real time. But, reality TV brought something new. The people were people that you wnated to see. They weren’t just some hillbilly whose house just got blown away by a tornado. Reality TV brought people that I could identify with — they were real. When Dominic from Real World: Venice Beach got drunk and passed out on the beach, I totally identified with what he was going through! When Ruthie from Real World: Hawaii totally got drunk, like, every episode, I was so there! There were no scripts, there were no rules. This was life as it unfolded. The camera just sat there and recorded whatever happened. So when Irene got socked in the face when she left Real World: Seattle, the camera showed us what was really going on. NO holds barred. Of course, we all know as they say, what you see isn’t what really happened. Let me say something a little bit about TV. What we see on television is not all that goes on to get the show to our eyes. TV shows are a team effort. They require the services of writers, directors, producers, casting directors, and personalities to make it to air. Even a show that calls itself a reality show required a team of producers to cast it and bring it to air. Some shows these days even let us in on this process (American Idol), or let us participate in which cast members stay of leave ( Dancing With the Stars, American Idol, Big Brother, etc). Any reality show producer will tell us that, in order to condense a week’s worth of going’s on into an hour of television, alot of editing takes place. And as was revealed during the Real World: Reunion show, what took place didn’t always happen in the order of actual occurance. Events are arranged for dramatic effect, not in order of how they really happen. Postmodernist writer Jean Baudrillard writes, “the attempt to increase the feel of reality are themselves simulations. Their authenticity is a special effect”. Baudrillard states that “images preceed the real”. But this doesn’t seem right when we think of TV that is supposed to be “real”. The notion that images preceed the real violates the idea that reality TV tells us is behind its being. Reality TV is supposed to reflect reality, how things really are. When we look at a show like The Real World or The Simple Life, we believe that we are seeing what really happened. Which brings us back to the idea of authenticity. What is authentic? I thought about this question for at least a good five minutes before I answered, for some famous people, they really do seem to be the real deal. When I look at Kim Kardashian, she seems to be one of these people. She’s famous for having a big ass. Nothing more. And she doesn’t seem to be inclined to convince us of anything more than that. But when I see someone like Paris Hilton, I see the postmodernist at work. One week, she’s a singer, the next, she’s a philanthropist, the nest, she’s staring in a really crappy movie (see Repo: the Musical, The Hottie and the Nottie, or House of Wax). You can’t put a finger on what Paris Hilton is because she doesn’t seem to be anything. I’m not saying this about her as a person, since I do not know her, but as something that is marketed as “real”, ther appears to be nothing “real” there. Perhaps then, Kim Kardashian is something like Jeffrey Dahmer. She is what she is, rather, she is what her ass is. Paris Hilton, on the other hand, is a Cameron Diaz. The funny thing is, is that, despite what view, existentialist of postmodern, each ultimately concludes that there is no purpose or meaning behind reality, and I guess this covers the world of reality TV as well. You know, Sartre called reality absurd. Exactly.

Monsieur Descartes, My Clocks Usually Don’t Bleed: On the Moral Status of Animals

I was listening to a radio show some time ago. The topic was anything in general, but somehow drifted specifically to the subject of animal rights. The host talked to a caller who is dedicated to preventing the mistreatment of dogs in New york (in New York because that’s where she lived). The host spoke some time about PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Now, I like animals, I own one. He’s cute and I like him. And I generally try to treat (most) of my fellow living beings, human and not-so-human, with some degree of respect, but I CANNOT STAND PETA! I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with any organization that seems to like animals more than they like people. I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly. There are some animals that are totally more likable than some people. But, whenever I hear one of their non-celebrity spokespeople speaking (speaking would make one a apokesperson, wouldn’t it?), I get the creeps. These people are hiding something. Some really unpleasant agenda that entails breeding more jackrabbits and breeding less people. Which brings me to why I’m writing this in the first place. Despite the fact that I have this blog, I don’t do much in the way of web surfing. Only recently was I made aware that the frontman for my favorite band did some bit for my least favorite animal-crazy organization (that organization being the aformentioned People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). It seems that there is some sort of market for the wearing of animal furs out there. Since wearing the hides of chinchillas or mink or Siberian white tigers is not so PC — as this activity tends to cause animals to go extinct — the fur marketeers, instead of not selling fur, simply moved on to a more available source of fur — namely cats and dogs. I was totally not aware of this. So, I was trolling the web, and Icame upon this very topic (using cats and dogs for fur) when I was looking for info about the latest nine inch nails cd, The Slip (an outstanding cd, I might add). It seems that Trent Reznor did this thing for PETA about the use of cats and dogs for fur. The first thing I thought wasn’t, ‘wow, this guy is really cool and super compassionate. he cares about our furry friends’. No, it wasn’t at all like that. My immediate reaction was something like, ‘et tu Brute?’. I mean really, don’t you just hate it when someone you dig does something so not diggable? I like his band, and I think he’s hot (I am such a girl), but I SIMPLY CANNOT STAND PETA!!! And really, think about it: if there’s any group of animals that, if we should wear fur, it should be cats and dogs. I can say right now that there are approximately four dogs and an infinte number of stray cats currently running around my neighborhood at this time and all would make fine coats. Especially that mottled cat that has taken to shitting all over my front lawn. Now, let me get one thing straight. I don’t think that people, unless you live somewhere near the North or South Poles, should be in the habit of wearing fur. And, I definitely think that animals shouldn’t have to endure what could only be described as “torture” to get their fur off of their bodies so I can look good ( as if that were possible). But, I confess, I eat meat, I think cows are pretty much useless, and I have at least one pair of shoes with genuine leather uppers, so I realize that I’m not entirely off the hook. And I’m not so dumb to not realize that there’s a slight hypocrisy in saying that wearing animal fur is bad, yet enjoying the taste of said animal’s flesh with cheese and thousand island dressing. Worse yet, I’m not immune from “cuddly animals syndrome” — the tendency of humans to not care one lick about animals who aren’t cute and adorable (but then, we treat people the same way, which explains alot about why I am here writing this post, and not out doing something with other people). The way that I feel — about fur, about my dog, about animals in general, has to do with the way that I feel about whether they do or do not fit into our moral sphere. The question of fur simply put is a question of moral status. When we consider moral status, for humans and animals, we are asking , among many questions, who counts morally and why and who should be included and what justifies the inclusion? So, looking at something close to home, when I think of my dog, I think that he is a being that is worthy of my concern and care. I try to make sure that he is well cared for and that he lives his life as pain free as possible. Why? Why do I feel morally obligated to care for him? First off, he’s not human. Second, he is unable to care for me (at least in a way beyond barking whenever he feels that there is a “danger” — which includes barking at the wind, at birds chirping too loudly outside, at the neighbors getting it and out of their cars…). But, I still care for him. I more than care, I feel that if I did not, I would be in the wrong. Somehow, my dog fits in with all of whom I feel morally obligated to care for. He’s in my moral sphere despite the fact that he is not human. The fact that he is a mere dog is not a difference significant enough to count against him. I see what I’m busy doing here: when I think of why my dog is morally includable, I automatically shoot through a list of criteria for inclusion. I see at the top of my list is the question ‘ is it human?’ . For some, this has been and is a deciding factor for inclusion or exclusion in the moral sphere. So, when I consider my dog, I have in my mind a set of criteria that he must meet for moral inclusion. These criteria include his similarity to humans, whether he can speak or reason, etc. These, when considered, make up a list of morally relevant characteristics. These are the characteristics I will consider when I decide whether another being will or will not be included in my moral sphere. Wait, I’m beginning to jumble my words as well as my thoughts. I’m trying to think up too much at one time. Let me try to write this a little more scholarly. When we consider any being, be it animal or human, we look for any morally relevant characteristics that we’ll consider when we determine whether that being will be included in our moral sphere. These characteristics are morally significant — in that they make or break a being’s inclusion. Historically, the fact that other animals were not human was more than enough for moral exclusion. The Bible (well, actually it was God) gives man dominion of all the animals. The book of Genesis states: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds if the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth (Genesis 1:26). The ancient Greeks pretty much held the same view: In his Politics, Aristotle stated that man’s rationality (as opposed to the biblical view that man’s superiority over animals rested in the fact that he was created in God’s image) placed him above all other creatures. Aristotle states, ” all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man”. Asistotle reasoned that animals were passionate and governed by their urges. An animal that is subject to the whim of his passions cannot, by nature, rule himself and therefore, must be ruled. Since man (and he did mean MAN) was governed by his intellect, he was naturally fit to rule. Aristotle wrote, “the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild… for food and the provision of clothing and various instruments”. Man was supreme, and all other animals (and a fair number of other people) existed merely to serve the needs of Man. The birth of modern philosophy, starting with Descartes, didn’t do much to change the classic attitude. Descartes claimed that animals are (get this) machines. Although animals communicate with people, Descartes wrote, the fact that they lack the capacity for “real speech” indicated that they lacked the intellect that qualified them for inclusion among sentient beings. According to Descartes, the fact that animals lacked the capacity for speech indicated that animals lacked the capacities for “pure thought” and that speech was the only indicator that we could be certain that a creature possesses the capacity for rational thought. Like the ancients, Descartes also believed that animals lack the ability to control of their “natural impulse”. So, for Descartes, the mere machines we call animals were fit for whatever use we saw fit — including nailing them to walls and disecting them. The sounds of their wailing in pain, Descartes claimed, was no different from the twangs and pings made by a clock as one dismantles it. So ignore the shrieking and blood, Rene says. It’s just makes that noise when you unscrew its parts. I’m not kidding. Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection challenged the old ideas of man on top ( I could insert a dirty joke here — I just did), and apart from nature, in favor of a view of man as a part of nature. According to Darwin, man’s intellect made him better at some things (better than animals) but in other capacities, say the capacity for flight, non-human beings had the advantage. For Darwin, “better” did not automatically infer superior (at least in the sense that one animal is superior to all others in all capabilities). Better, according to Darwin, was a matter of successful adaptation to one’s environment, rather than an innate superiority to others beings. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin intends to show that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties”. As for the “lower” animals, Darwin states that the they “like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery”. Darwin writes, “Terror acts in the same manner on them as on us, causing the muscles to tremble, the heart to palpitate, the sphincters to be relaxed, and the hair to stand on end”. Darwin, breaking with the traditional view, further states, ” the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not one of kind… the various emotions and faculties… of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient animal, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals”. I suppose this is where someone would say Descartes can shove it. According to the Darwinian view, the fact that man possessed speech or even reason gave us no reason to assume, based on those qualities, that man was naturally superior to all other animals. Our ability to speak may be, in the evolutionary sense, a mere result of homo sapiens adaptation to his environment. The fact that other animals lack speech isn’t a sign of inherent inferiority so much as it reflects the possibility that other species did not need speech to successfully adapt to their environment. Our differences are manifestations of adaptations from which we cannot confer moral biological or moral superiority. This, the Darwinian view, is how we look at many animals — that is, for most of us, mere biological differences bear little or no moral significance when we decide who counts for us morally. Wait, that’s not exactly true. We, as humans, tend to be inpressed by the visual. We tend to cast our moral nets over those who seem most like us. We would be less likely to exclude a gorilla who “speaks” using American sign language from our moral sphere than would exclude a honey badger or a totally un-cute animal like a shrew. We still count what can tell us “ow!’. If I step on my dog’s foot, he yipes in pain. If I slam a 6 foot python around, it doesn’t make a sound. And besides, my dog is cuter than a python. My dog can learn to do tricks and has a bit of a personality. From his body language, I can tell when he is hungry (which is all the time), when he needs to go outside and do his business, when he’s upset, or scared… but the python just lies there. I can’t tell anything about him — even if he’s living or not. So, I find myself applying a bit of Cartesian morality when I think of snakes. The snake, from my point of view, cannot articulate anything to me. It lacks any capacity to communicate at all to me. This is a problem. How do we include something that doesn’t seem to interact with us at all? I think that someone would have to be an absolute weirdo to deny the fact that many humans see themselves as something different or apart from other animals. Even though many of us care about animals, we still hold on to the notion that humans (generally) hold a place apart from other beings, and the fact that other animals are not human plays (whether we like it or not) a part in our moral attitudes and practices. Human are special, and that’s that. Enter moral consideration. Peter Singer suggests that we approach our moral attitudes from the view that we consider the needs of other animals when we behave in a manner that will affect other non-human species. The only thing is that we consider their needs equally. Singer’s approach isn’t a claim for equal rights, but a claim for equal moral consideration. In Animal Liberation Singer writes, ” Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights”. Even if we consider how other animals will be affected by our actions (say, for instance, we’re planning to cut down a section of Brazillian rainforest to raise beef for McDonalds), we might decide that our needs outweigh those of the animal. If we planned to slaughter millions of potentially life-saving tropical plants and animals in order to feed overweight Americans juicy BigMacs, we may, after considering the needs of the rainforest’s flora and fauna, decide that we should get to slashing and burning right away. The point is that we considered the needs of the animals before we killed them and destroyed their home. BigMacs aren’t really all that juicy, come to think of it. Singer says the fact that we (humans) are physically different from other animals gives is no moral justification for simply dismissing the needs and interests of other species. Singer parallels our moral attitudes towards animals to the way that we once thought about race and gender. At one time, one’s gender or race dictated one’s opportunities or treatment. If, for instance, a person were born a woman, she was considered property of her familt and then, if she married, the property of her husband. Her needs and interests were not up for discussion. But, as we’ve become more enlightened, we’ve seen that the lack of a penis does not make one’s status less than an individual who just so happens to have been born with one. And more importantly, it shouldn’t count for unequal moral consideration. Women, like men, feel anger, happiness, fear, pain and suffering equally. And as Darwin (and Bentham) noted, animals also possess the capacity to feel these emotions as well. Bentham says that the capacity to suffer is a vital characteristic for moral consideration. The ability to feel happiness or pain transcends the capacity for language or the ability to perform complex operations like mathematics (thank god for that!). I step on my dog’s foot, and he cries out in pain. Likewise, if I drop Clorox into the eyes of a rabbit, it will probably make some sort of “that hurts” noise. If someone belts me a good one, I’m probably going to tell them that it hurt a little. If someone decides to wrap a guy’s head in towels and pour water on their face to simulate drowning, they’ll probably describe the experience as painful or unpleasant. In all of these situations, each animal, human and non-human experienced pain and indicated it. The fact that If an animal can suffer, Bentham says, means that we cannot ignore the fact that it does. Singer also uses the capacity to suffer as a morally relevant characteristic. Singer states, “if a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that into consideration”. But wait, someone says. If I have to consider whether some animal is going to suffer every time I do anything, I won’t do anything because I’ll be too worried about inflicting pain on some gnat or something. This is a concern especially from those who care about the suffering of animals but still want to eat the occasional chicken sandwich. The fear is that we’ll be so worried about doing anything harmful, that everyone will become a vegan, and no one will ever find the cure for cancer. But Singer himself says that suffering isn’t the same as killing. We should remember that equal consideration doesn’t mean equal treatment. For instance, we understand that children lack the same capacity for reason than adults. Let’s say that a 6 year old child had killed his best friend while playing with his mother’s Ginzu knife set. We know that a child does not operate on the same intellectual level as an adult. We may think that he did not fully understand the possibility that plunging a butcher’s knife into the heart of his BFF would result in his friend’s immediate and irreversable death. The fact that the child lacks the capacity for reason does not mean that we throw the kid out to the wolves. In fact, we feel an even greater moral obligation to him because he does not know what he did. We feel that the child deserves the same fair trial and protection under the law as we would extend to any adult. When we decided to charge the little tyke as an adult, we considered the fact that he’s just six year’s old. But, after w considered that fact, we decided that the demonseed needed to fry anyway. Which is where, I think, Singer was going when he said that inflicting suffering on a being isn’t the same as killing it. If there was no other way to cure a certain disease beyond performing animal research, then, in the interest of saving human lives, we might go ahead and do the research. We know that there are speedy and virtually painless ways to slaughter animals ( that is, unless you consider death itself a harm, but that’s a different issue for another philosopher). There are some situations, Singer admits, that we cannot treat animals equally. I appreciate the fact that this is the way that I’m supposed to feel about animals. And if I were a real philosopher who was concerned about appearing to be enlightened, I would probably feel more inclined to travel along the same lines as Singer. But I’m not. I admit that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot divorce myself from the feeling that being human carries more moral weight than some of us believe it does. I reject the idea the humanness is not a morally relevant characteristic — and that different (in the Darwinian sense) does not mean better. The fact that I cannot say what makes humans different does not mean that there is no thing that does. And, because I totally reject the notion of my being a philosopher, I will leave my opinion at that. I got some music I gotta go listen to.

On the Subject of Punishment

I was watching One Life to Live a few days ago. I thought that my neighborhood was rough! These people are absolutely amazing! First of all, I think that Llanview has the lowest per capita rate of obesity. I think this is due, in part to the fact that that town must have the highest murder rate in the nation. I think that people don’t eat alot because it’s difficult to run from a building that is about to blow up on a full stomach. The last time I watched, which was well over a year ago, I think that Tod was in jail. When I watched againa few days ago, he was in the poke again. I don’t think he’d always been there. I think that maybe they released him and he tried to kill someone else this time. Either way, I was awe-struck by how often the people of this one town seem to commit crimes. I shouldn’t say crimes. People in this town don’t jaywalk, they commit murder. It must pay in that place to be a prison guard. Which got me thinking about the whole prison system here. I live in California. And, since our state is in the hole for more money than God can think of, the subject of prisons and whose going (or who gets released) comes up quite often. Recently, former Manson girl (I guess she’s a little old to call her a “girl”), Susan Atkins, requested compassionate release due to the fact that she is sufffering from terminal brain cancer. The idea is, is that given her condition, she’s no longer a threat to the people of the state of California. Needless to say, she was denied. At least I think she was. Anyway, the question is, though, is there a point when a person is no longer a threat? That, and the idea the a person has been punished enough, which is what some who argued for Atkins’ release suggested. I was listening to the DVD commentary for the movie Pink Flamingos, and John Waters was talking about the Manson gang, who had, in part, influenced his earlier work. He said that it had been many years since the members who committed the murders, and that some had managed to realize what they had done and (and I’m making some conjecture here) were capable of living among normal people again. Waters asked how long is long enough? That is, is there a point where a person has been punished enough for their crimes? I think that John Waters’ questionis a good one. But I’ll add this: Is there a point when punishment becomes counterproductive? Our idea of putting people in prison is fundamentally connected to the idea of justice. It is just not only that a person be punished for what they’ve done, but also that they realize themselves . the harm that their actions caused to others. Oops, We’ve already hit our first wall. Justice has some degree of subjectivity, especially when it comes to the degree of remorse on the part of the perpetrator. Well, assuming that we can somehow figure out someone’s motivation or thought processes, let’s continue to look at the matter. First things first: We might ask what’s the purpose for the law? What’s the nature of the crime? And what amount of punishment is proportional to the crime and what the law allows? Also, we need to consider the motivation of the agent, as motivation often detrmines the degree of punishment. Ok, we’ve got some preliminary questions to juggle around. But, we need to remind ourselves that the idea of justice isn’t just punishment (unless you’re a fan of Thrasymachus, then it’s perfectly fine), but to remedy injury and to make the victim and agent whole. It’s to set things right morally as well as placing the bad guy in a time out with bars. So, given that the aim isn’t to inflict harm on those who do harm, we realize that we cannot exclude others from the moral universe on the grounds that they hurt other people. We are still morally obligated to them, and we, even when we are punishing them, owe them equal moral consideration. So, what then is the right punishment? And, more importantly, when are we inflicting moral harm on those we punish? But first, a brief history lesson on punishment in California. During the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson enacted his “Great Society”, which was meant to improve the lives of the underclasses of society. In addition to civil rights legislation, care was to be taken to see that the lives of America’s underpriviledged would not end up… well… lousy and poor and enevitably in prison. The focus of the criminal justice system was rehabilitation. But, by the early1970s, many Americans began to think that Johnson’s”Great Society” had failed to deliver on its promises. Crime rates rose and the people demanded that the government do something to stem the rising tide of crime. The 1970s began the reverse of the policies stressing rehabilitation in favor of tougher sentencing for criminals. The goal was to keep criminals away from the publc for as long as possible, so the public began to demand longer prison sentences for offenders. In 1977, CA passed the Determinate Sentence Law, which instituted mandatory sentencing and increased the state’s prison population. The demand for toughter sentencing came to a fever pitch in the 1990s as the public saw the state unable or unwilling to get tough on violent crime. The public saw the state’s prison system as a “revolving door” through which violent “career” criminals were simply passed through and released to commit more crimes. Examples of laws passed during the 1990’s include Proposition 184, the “3 strikes and you’re out” law, which passed with an overwhelming 72% of the vote, and Megan’s Law, which aimed to keep sexual predators away from children (by the way, in the wake of Prop 184 and Megan’s law, California’s crime rate dropped by 44%). That’s my poly sci degree right there! So the aim of incarceration is twofold: 1) the punishment of criminals 2) protection of society Ok, but at what point can we say that those aims have been achieved? At what point does a punishment no longer fit the crime? At what point is punishment counterproductive? Under the rehabilitation model of punishment, the main objective of incarceration was that the prisoner learn 1) that their crime was “bad”, and 2) they should not only feel remorse, but learn from their crime(s). The prisoner is to be penitent for what he has done ( hence calling prisons “penitentiaries” or “reformatories”). The prisoner is releasable if he acknowledges his crime and shows (genuine) remorse for what he has done. He must be willing to change (reform) himself and lead a good, crime-free life as a moral, productive citizen. Nost of us would say that this is still a goal. We appreciate the fact when people own up to what they’ve done and acknowledge the harms that they have committed against their fellow citizens. The second aim of punishment, to protect the people from wrongdoers, especially those who are prone to recidivism, is important in that we cannot, even if a person says they are sorry for what they’ve done, continues to commit or shows a tendency to commit more crimes. But what about prisoners who are no longer a threat? What about a murderer who, because of an inoperable brain tumor, can no longer physically threaten (let alone carry out) a murder or other crimes? Is it fair to keep an elderly or infirm prisoner incarcerated even if we know that they are incapable of harming any other people? Perhaps it is not morally right for us to do so. Immanuel Kant, who is a fan of retributive justice including the death penalty, says that there is a poit when a punishment stops being fair (in proportion to the crime committed, of course). Punishment is to be just that. A punishment. If we say that we keep a prisoner behind bars because of some possible harm that he may do (or worse yet, we keep him past the point of being a danger to anyone), we have stopped punishing the criminal and slipped into a paternalistic view of the prisoner. In acting as a paernt, we are denying him his full ability to act as a free and rational (assuming that he is rational) moral agent. When we act paternalistically, we are denying the prisoner’s autonomy — his ability to act according to his own choices. He should be free to chose how he chooses to act, and deal with the consequences. If he is autonomous, he is free to exercise actions for which he is morally culpable. If we deny him of his autonomy, we use him as a mere means to our own ends, and deny him the opportunity to achieve his own ( this one isn’t that so far-fetched to many Californians, who often suspect that the reason why so many prisoners are denied their parole is to serve the ends of the prisons — which is a well-stocked prison is a great ws to generate a lot of $$$$). If we consider this from a more utilitarian view, we can easily see that the moral costs of keeping someone incarcerated beyond the point of usefulness is not only morally damaging, but psychologically harmful for the prisoner as well. Humans are social animals. In order for a human to properly function in society, he must have many and positive social contacts with other people. It doesn’t take a great deal of training to figure out that a prison isn’t the most psychologically enhancing environment for an individual to live. The longer a person spends in a psychologically damaging environment, the more psychologically damaged a person will be. If a person who spends too many years in prison is released, how well do you think that person will be psychologically? It seems that the less time that we can feasably sentence a person would be best. Second, it’s a fact that incarcerating people costs money. Prevention programs are often cheaper to manage and quite successful (that is, if they’re not suddenly underfunded due to budget cuts). Looking into alternative programs may be a good way to both save a buck and keep one less potentially damaged person from spending too much time in prison. Lastly, if we take a Rawlsian view of the matter, we can see where slipping behind Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” comes into play. Rawls says that, when we are thinking about what kind of system we should live under, we should forget what we know about ourselves. That is, we should forget our race, gender, economic status, etc. If we don’t know who we are, Rawls suggests, we are more likely to set up a social system (craeting a system that is just) that is beneficial to as many people as possible. Rawls says the aim is to extend as much freedom and opportunity to as many people as possible. According to this view, we should not want to keep prisoners incarcerated longer than is necessary on the grounds that we may, when the veil is lifted, be prisoners ourselves. Second, Rawls’ justice requires that we attempt to benefit the least among us. It’s difficult to argue that prisoners are not amoge the least among us. We should, instead of laying on the excessive punishments, extend the benefit of the doubt to the incarcerated, and give them many opportunities to gain a better footing in our society. Long, drawn-out, exesssive sentences are counter to a prisoner gaining any benefit in society. Maybe in Llanview, where jail cells do seem to be equipped with a revolving door, keeping Tod behind bars might be a good thing. But, I know that, if he’s not out by now, he’ll be out next week. Everyone will have forgotten that he’s a murder/rapist/all-around shady guy, and will welcome him back into the good graces of Llanview’s well-to-do. Maybe we should take a cue from the beautiful people, and give Susan a chance.

Rage With the Machines

First off, even though I’m a fan of the band (Rage Against the Machine), I still don’t quite get what the name means. I know that there’s “THE MAN” out there, and that I’m supposed to fight against him and his endeavor to bring on the New World Order, but …. wait, is that it? Anyway… I, being the fan of truly hideous entertainment, purchased season 1 of Knight Rider some weeks ago. It sat on my shelf looking at me looking at it, until I finally had some time to take it down and watch. Now, I used to really dig that show when I was a kid, but somehow all of my childhood memories paint things as being so much better than they really were. This show sucks ass! It’s not for the fact that the whole show is built around some dude who drives a talking car– it’s not for the fact that watching David Hasselfoff’s acting is something like getting kneed to the groin or having to eat your dog’s feces. It’s the wardrobe! Really, so far as the 80s went, clothes-wise, well… you know how when you’re talking to someone and they have this totally huge zit on their forehead and no matter how hard you try to pay attention to what they’re saying, you know it just won’t happen? Well, the clothes are like that. Big pimples. Especially “The Hoff”s” eighties poodle -doo. I was so distracted, unfortunately, that I almost missed the point — that is, a major philosophical point — in the show. Which brings me to the whole idea of machines. Former cop, Michael Knight, oops, Michael Long, is transformed into Michael Knight after being shot and left for dead by some shady underworld types. Because Long took a shot to the kisser, he is given a new face (it seems that the didn’t make sure that the original owner of that face was dead, but then, if they did it wouldn’t have allowed Hasselhoff to play his evil doppleganger Garth Knight), and is persuaded by the Knight Foundation to serve their purposes, which is, good for Long, fighting injustice. And more importantly, he’s given the keys to the sweetest, kick-ass black Trans-Am this side of My Mother the Car , the Knight Industries 2000, better known as KITT. The bitchin’ thing about KITT is the fact that he speaks! Yes, Michael Knight’s new “partner” is a talking car. But KITT is no ordinary car, mind you. He’s super fast, he’s a super computer, and he can jump without even so much as making the slightest skid mark upon landing. He’s a super car. KITT (with the voice of William “Mr. Feeney” Daniels), spares no opportunity to remind Michael that, despite his human-like qualities (his ability to converse rationally, his accidental sense of humor, the fact that he’s a smart-ass), that he’s not human. KITT is a car and he knows it. We know that he is a car. Yet, Michael and we, the audience, care for KITT. We worry when he is in danger, and we enjoy his company. To us and to Michael as well, KITT is more than a mere machine. He’s a trusted friend, a part of the family. But, this attitude seems a little odd. Sure, we have no problem including non-humans into our moral sphere — we do it with our pets and our so-workers and classmates, but we often draw a line when it comes to things that are really not human, like machines. But, we still feel a sense of moral attachment to things like KITT. KITT is no ordinary machine. He interacts with us, he seems to care about us, and in turn, we care about him. On more than one occasion, Michael endangers his own life to save his car. Let me repeat that he endangers his own life to save his car. To some viewers, Michael’s act seems a little, well, strange. Afterall, KITT is a car. If he is destroyed, he can be rebuilt. Michael Knight, however, is not rebuildable. If He dies, he stays dead forever. Which begs (in the colloquial, not philosophic sense) us to ask, is treating a machine like KITT, that is is the inclusion of a machine into our moral sphere (to the extent that we are willing to lay our lives on the line for a machine), extending to inclusion of non-humans into our moral sphere too far? Would we be including machines to our own peril? For most of the history of western philosophy, humans sat squarely at the top of all creation. From the Bible to Aristotle’s hierarchy, mankind’s (and more specifically males) natural place was that of ruler. According to Aristotle, animals were mere tools to serve man’s needs. A donkey was there to pull carts, a dog to keep watch over property, and so on. Man was to administer over the lower animals, and animals were to serve man’s will. According to Aristotle, this was because man (and he did mean man) was endowed with a rational mind. Man’s rational mind enabled him to control his lower, animal inpulses and desires (this is also why Aristotle thought that women were not naturally superior to men. Apparently, women have some sort of wandering uterus problem that makes them all crazy-like and unable in any way to control themselves or anything else. Anyone else have the feeling that Aristotle didn’t date much?). Anyway, where was I? Was I anywhere? Oh, yes, modern philospophy (and I mean modern as in 20th century) challenged the old notions of human superiority and brought in the animals. Starting with Darwin and his tehory of natural selection, modern thinkers rethought the idea that the natural order included mankind at its top. Philosophers such as Peter Singer suggested that we expand our moral sphere to include animals, due to the fact that animals, like humans, possess the capacity for suffering. So, my dog may be a mere machine, in the eyes of Descartes, but it is a machine that has the capacity to suffer. So, according to Singer and all the other animal rights loonies, he’s in. But, that’s it. Descartes saw animals such as dogs and cats as mere machines. They serve us just as any artifact that a man creates with his own hands serves his needs. According to Aristotle, artifacts such as art and technology fall outside of nature and are mere tools meant to serve man’s needs. We can see why modern philosophers include animals — they fear, they feel pain, they bleed and suffer as any human. But, KITT is a machine. He knows that he is a machine. But, we see that KITT has something that other machines do not — an ability to interact with humans on a human level. I was watching an episode of Star Trek: TNG not too long ago. The episode had to do with whether Data was a person. In the episode, Captain Picard argued that the argument that Data was not a person because he is a mere machine falls apart in light of the fact that humans, if you look at ourselves from the biological level, are also mere machines. We are machines, just of a different type, Picard says. Instead of wires, we have veins and arteries. Instead of oil and lubricant, we have blood. But if you lay out the systems side by side, they are more the same than different. What made Data human, Picard argued, was not hois physicality, but his psychology. Data was self aware, intelligent, and (perhaps) possessed consciousness. According to Picard, Data was a sentient being who, despite being a machine, had what we would, in any other circumstance, humanity. I think that, if we look at KITT, we might say the same. KITT, like Data, is self aware. He refers to himself as “I”, and is aware of his place in the environment. He is intelligent (more so than any human). As the show progressed, KITT’s character became even more human-like, expressing complex emotions such as anger, sorrow and compassion. KITT, in some instances, is more human than some humans. It is worth noting here that this is also a point expressed by Singer and others. The idea that animals should not be included in our moral sphere because they lack human qualities such as complex human emotions, includes some animals such as chimpanzees (and some dogs and cats), and excludes some people, such as the mentally handicapped persons. This gets us to a very nagging and really hard question: what makes humans unique? The essence of the question is what makes us human? Back in the day, computers were just mere computing machines. They did exactly as their programmers wanted them to do. Unfortunately for us, many modern computers already perform functions that human brains can do. Computers can solve complex problems, and learn, as when in May 1997, the computer Big Blue formulated a winning chess strategy to beat champion chess player, Gary Kasparov. Anyone who has played a video game knows that the computer can be a formidable enemy — especially when you are aware of the fact that, as you play, the computer is learning from your playing style ( and figuring out how to defeat you). The fear that underlies this fact is what Captain Picard asked Dr. Maddox to consider in that episode of Star Trek, which is the possibility that a computer may become conscious of its own existence. Nevermind mere Datas of even a C-3PO, our fear is Wargames‘ “Joshua” or The Terminator’s Skynet — the computer that becomes self aware, figures out what the problem is (read:us), and immediately sets out a plan for total and permanent human destruction. Ok, let’s not go quite that far, but let’s consider the computer that becomes conscious. If it does, then what is it? I think that we can no longer call it a “mere” machine. We often think of ourselves as evolving, namely because we gain knowledge and wisdom as we grow. This idea is often connected to the idea that our conscious minds possess more than our mere physicality. Our minds, being self-aware, possess something transcendent — a soul. Is it possible for a computer to gain a soul? Still, let’s not go there. We can’t even figure out if humans, let alone any car or android has a soul. Think of this as food for thought. Or at worst, a warning of a grim future. But let’s get back to KITT. KITT, although he insists that he does not, has emotions. And for many, the ability to possess and exhibit emotions is enough for inclusion into our moral sphere ( this is why we often give human qualities to our pets). The ability to express even rudimentary emotions is enough for inclusion. But still, for many people, even those who support animal rights, animals are just that — animals. Not human. Although we don’t want animals to suffer, they aren’t us. That is, they aren’t humans. Many humans feel that there is something unique about humans that (still) place us apart (if even only slightly) from other animals. Perhaps what lurks behind our need to separate ourselves from animals (and I’m assuming talking cars) is some sort of Nietzschean fear of losing ourselves morally. It goes, I think, like this: Nietzsche spoke of the degradation of Man by the overtaking of master morality by slave morality. This takeover upsets the natural order and plunges humanity into the abyss (culturally, morally, etc.). Naturally, man lords over animals and machines ( master morality). Our machines are our slaves. The fear is that, if we elevate machines to our level, we lose our place — our place becomes meaningless. If all is equal, then all loses its value! Men are no more than machines. Lowly, crappy machines to be discarded when they lose their usefulness. Worse to come is the venerated machine that gets to dictate the fates of men. It’s like being bossed around by your dog or wife. Totally unnatural! Which reminds me of a scene in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There’s the scene where C-3PO is in the droid factory. He sees the machines making other machines and is disgusted by what he sees. He calls the whole scene “perverse”. 3PO’s attitude reflects the classic philosophical view of the roles of man and machines. Machines are mere tools to be used by me to create, not as devices of creation themselves. A machine who creates, according to this view, would be considered unnatural. If we enter a day when machines have evolved to the point that they are indistinguishable from people, we would have something to worry about — the ursurpation of man’s role. I’m not exactly talking about armies of T-2000s walking around, but there is a fear that, if a machine can do the work faster and more efficiently than any human, then it may be the human who becomes obsolete. As of now, a machine need a human for its creation. Cars may be built by robots in a factory, but if you trace back the line of creation, you’ll run into a human in there somewhere. Many people say that our ability to create is what sets us apart from other animals. A monkey can draw on a canvas or a robot can put a Toyota together at the factory, but real creativity is born in the mind of a human. That’s true right now, but if a machine gains consciousness, we may very well see feeling, creative machines, who create art, not because they downloaded a pattern or calculated what would be aesthetically pleasing, but created a truly inspired piece of art as any human would create. If machines can do everything people do, the real question is what purpose will we serve? This makes me think about that movie Maximum Overdrive. If you haven’t seen this movie, consider yourself lucky. But, long story short, the story involves a machine takeover. The machines literally rise up and turn on their masters. Theres a scene in the movie when this woman is screaming at the big rigs parked outside of a diner “We made You!”. She, I think, expresses the sentiment than many humans would feel towards even the smartest, most human machine. A machine is a product of man. Anything beyond the world of man as creator disturbs the natural order of things. It may “feel” or “create”, it may speak in the very erudite voice of William Daniels, and look like Cherry 2000, but all in all, it’s a machine. It is a tool and should remain so. And this may be fine so long as the most advanced computer still needs a human creator or operator, or if Data or KITT remain anomalies. Throughout the run of Knight Rider, the only other talking car was KARR, the other car that was built by Knight Industries that belonged to that Garth guy that I mentioned earlier. And throughout the run of Star Trek :TNG, there was only Data, his “brother” Lore, his “daughter” Lal (who malfunctioned and had to be dismantled), and Dr. Soong’s ladyfriend who had no idea that she was an android. I forgot her name. Anyway, as Captain Picard said to Maddox, our real problem comes when the smart machine stops being the anomaly. Picard asks Maddox, what if there are a thousand Datas? a million? A million KITTs could be as easily a curse as a blessing. If machines can create, humans may not only end up fighting obsolescence, but also searching for justification. So, in the future, the big question may be answering why we are here. And this may not be too far off. But, perhaps what we should fear isn’t replacement with machines or even searching for justification for the human race. The future may not be one of moral inclusion as merging with machines. Futurist Ray Kurzweil says that there may come a day when computers will surpass us in intelligence and “irrevocably alter what it means to be human” (Rolling Stone issue 1072, “When Man and Machine Merge” by David Kushner). Kurzweil says that superintelligent nanotechnology will eventually merge with people, getting rid of diseases, making us smarter, and storing our memories as well. Kurzweil says that it totally possible that humanity will become obsolete, as people interact and become dependent more and more on machines. If you don’t think we’ve already started, some futurists say, think look at your cell phone, your ipod, pace makers and your dog’s implant meant to identify him if he gets lost. According to some, the merge between man and machine, what they call “The Singularity”, has already begun. However, Kurzweil says that we need not worry about becoming obsolete (although he says it’s not beyond the realm of possibility). Kurzweil says that the future will be ” a human-machine civilization… we’re not obsolescing ourselves — we’re extending ourselves”. There are detractors, however, who believe that “The Singularity” is more science fiction as science probability. Biologist Thomas Ray says that it is unlikely that computers will advance enough to meet the point of “The Singularity”. Philosopher John Searle says (and I love this), “I think the Singularity is demonstrably bullshit… but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s very thrilling”. So what do we think? What does thnking about KITT or Data or my cell phone’s ring tones mean for us morally? What it means it that we, humans will face a future that will call us to alter the way that we think about life and what it means for something to count as a fellow living being, entitled to all the rights that we feel that we and other beings are entitled to. As the human race evolves, so to does our moral sphere. To many of us, KITT is considerable for inclusion, at the very least. For a few more, he is not only considerable, but fully included as we would include any being that we care about or for whom we feel lorally obligated. The Singularity may be a festering pile of bullshit, but then, when has that ever stopped a thought experiment? Possible worlds, anyone?

My Name Doesn’t Have An "S" In It

Every year, I read George Orwell’s 1984. Not because it’s a good book (although it is), but for the fact that I am paranoid as hell about everything and everyone. Which brings me to “Room 101”. In the book, there’s this thing called Room 101. Inside Room 101 is your worst fear, what really scares you. For our protagonist, Winston Smith, it was a rat-filled cage to the head (which was, if I remember correctly, what they did to some guy in that Missing In Action movie). Anyway, while contemplating how Winston Smith totally sold-out Julia, I started thinking about what would be in my Room 101. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. I thought, almost immediately, about something that I saw when I was a kid. It was a TV commercial. Back around 1982, the gore/slasher flick was king. Since drive-ins were still around, there was plenty od screen space for movies with nubile, oversexed teens, played by people who were so obviously over the age of 37, to be sliced and diced for the transgression of wantin’ to get it on in the woods. The commercial that traumatized me was the advertisement for the movie The Beast Within. I’m not going to go into details about the ad, except to say that it scared the beejezus out of me. To be totally honest, all these years later, I still haven’t seen the movie — even though you can easily score it in the 5 buck bin at just about any DVD store. I’m not sure if it’s philosophically correct to say so, but that commercial really scared the shit out of me. So, if I were 8 years old (hell, even now) my Room 101 would be that same commercial played on a loop. That commercial, on a loop, on a hi-def TV. The funny thing is, is that I had developed, over the ensuing years, not just an irrational fear of TV commercials for horror flicks, but a fear of TV commercials in general. I knew then and now, that my fear was irrational. It was, not just because my fear was generated at a time when I wasn’t fully capable of reasonable thought, but primarily beacuse having a fear of a TV commercial served no purpose. The other day, it was sunny out, so I decided to be a good, energy-conserving Californian, and hang my laundry out to dry. I was hanging up my Morrissey tee when a bee buzzed me. Naturally I freaked out. I have what any reasonable person might call an insane fear of bees. More to the point, I have an insane fear of being stung by Africanized Killer Bees (blame Mutual of Omaha for that one). I decided that the best course of action would not be to simply let the bee fly off, but to start shouting and waving my hands about in a frenzied semifore that, I suppose signaled to the bee the words (translated into bee language) “go away”. I hoped that the bee would be so stunned by the sight of a five foot tall human shouting and waving her hands in the air for no discernable reason, that it would freak out and leave. Which it did — but before I had even commenced to my anti-bee dance. Once I had stopped my impersonation of Chicken Little, and was safely locked behind a sliding glass door, I, regaining my sense of composure and reason, asked myself, ‘why the hell was I so afraid of that bee?’. My fear of a creature that is less than an inch long is like my fear of that movie commercial — completely and totally irrational. I have no good reason to be afraid of that or any single bee. It was epistemology all over again. And amazingly enough, a question that had been on my mind in that class came to mind again: is it possible to rationally hold irrational beliefs? Meaning, can we justify holding a belief that is a tad on the unreasonable side? In particular, can we reasonably hold an irrational belief if that belief, however irrational, enables us to make rational choices? Usually the answer is not only is it not possible to generate rational beliefs from irrational beliefs, but a straight-up no. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure that the no’s have it. For the record, in addition to bees, I’m also afraid of clowns, inflated balloons, crickets (or any hopping insect generally), and touching other people’s electronic equipment (computers, laptops, digital cameras, anything that has batteries or plugs in). Really. I have a phobia about touching other people’s electronic stuff. I have absolutely no idea where that one came from. Now, my other fears may serve no purpose (being afraid of clowns or balloons), but being afraid of bees may serve a purpose. A person may have a good reason to fear bees, as in the case of a person with a bee allergy. Their life may depend on their fear. So, if I had a bee allergy, my thoughts (or beliefs if we’re being technical) may include: I am allergic to bees. Bees sting. Bee stings cause an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to them. I should not get stung by bees, and so on. Those are completely legitimate reasons for fearing bees. One who is allergic and believes these things is thought of as reasonable. Ok,so say I am not allergic to bees, which I am not. But my beliefs go something like this: Bees have stingers. Stingers will pierce your skin. That hurts. I am a total wuss when it comes to pain. I don’t want pain, etc. My life may not depend on it, but my wussoutedness when it comes to pain I believe gives me reason to fear bees just the same. Even if someone says that getting stung by a bee in nothing compared with the pain of something like childbirth. Apples and oranges, people. Nonetheless, avoidance of pain is not irrational. But someone might say my clothesline dancing was. But that brings in something that we haven’t until this point considered: the difference between irrational beliefs and irrational acts. The belief, according to the philosopher, to be justifiably true must not be based on emotion. That is, our beliefs ( those that are justifiable, anyway) are the product of a reasonable thought process. Emotions, as Mr. Spock will tell you, are not reasonable. But, I will say that what I do is, to some degree, emotionally driven. For example, I conclude, after some thought, that I will take a philosophy of language class. I have a whole host of reasons for doing so. Let’s say that some go along the lines of: taking this class is beneficial for a person studying philosophy, blah, blah, blah. I haven’t dragged in the fact that I find the whole pursuit useless, and on top of that, the professor is a little longwinded and boring. Pushing emotions aside, I take the class. Now, I take the class, which was the result of reasoned argumentation. The enthusiasm with which I participate in the class, however, is determined by other factors — many of which are emotional. I have plenty of “rational”reasons for taking the class, but I do it half-assed because I just can’t stand the class itself. What I am experiencing is a conflict between my reason and my emotion. This leads me to a question — which is actually irrational, the emotion or the belief that is inextricably tied to that emotion? How do our emotions interplay with our beliefs? Is an irrational belief such as a phobia only understandable as a psychological phenomena or can they be accounted for philosophically? It seems that, no matter how hard I try, my beliefs about clowns, bees, or movie trailers are bound to emotions. These emotions influence my beliefs and my actions that re based on those beliefs. I ask here, which takes precedence — my emotion, my belief, or my action that is influenced by one or most likely both — what I am asking, is which one is the irrational one? Try as I might to prevent such a thing from happening, my emotions (however irrational they may be) inform my beliefs and influence the decisions that I make, even the decisions that I claim are rendered in a rational manner. Our biggest problem is that we have difficulty defining words like “irrationality” and “rationality”. We are, in our everyday discourse, not always entirely sure if we are using our words in the same way that others are using them. We may imbue our words (and meanings) with poetic or religious sensibility. We are often ambiguious or vague with our language or we may be misusing our words (as in the case when we use words that we believe are synonymous, but are not). Our words often have colloquial or social contexts when we use them. When I say that I am “rational”, I am suggesting some sort of justification for why I believe as I do. This may not be the case for others, and is not alway the case for myself. As of this moment, I say that my thoughts are reasonable. But there is a problem here. All of my assertions are primed on one BIG assumption: I am rational. This presupposes that my beliefs are rational, as would be required to undertake any account of my rationality. So, what I am saying is that I am rationally holding rational beliefs, based on the idea that I had to be rational in order to hold my beliefs in the first place. That is, i have to be ina reasonable frame of mind to conjure reasonable beliefs. This is all, unfortunately, some rotten sort of question-begging. Sorry, but it seems that it is, alas, unavoidable. So let’s just forget all about it, shall we? So, to say that I have an irrational belief implies that there is some sort of irrationality in my ability to process my beliefs ( you may call this emotion, if you like). But, if I am being strict about the role emotion should play in my belief processes, then I would say that that irrationality is more likely to give me false beliefs, and that there is, therfore, no chance that I would ever get a rational belief from an irrational one. This leads me, once again, to asking, am I right on my terminology? Is the problem that I’m not thinking straight semantically? It is important to figure out what we are saying or what we mean (or “mean”) when we say that we believe anything. The justification of our beliefs depends on the clarity of our language ( that is, to paraphrase Orwell, if we don’t have our words straight, we can’t have our thoughts straight, since how we think is necessarily in words). Being clear is vitally important. So, maybe my problem isn’t so much epistemic as it is semantic. The problem is that I am dealing with an extraordinarily muddled language that forces me to think in ways that aren’t correct (worse than that, ways that can’t get correct). I’m not so smug to deny that I’m saying anything new here, but in philosophy, we deal with a very (often annoyingly) specific, technical nomenclature. Unfortunately, we live in a world where those same very specific, technical words are jointly used by ordinary people, who use words like “belief” and “thought” and “idea” interchangably. In the ordinary world, we use philosophical words like “argument”, “valid”, or “intuition” in ways that are nowhere near as precise as the philosopher demands. And as my words are imprecise, moreso are my emotions — which tend to be tossed aside by the philosopher completely. I can think (or at least attempt to think) my thoughts as clearly and succinctly in my head, but as soon as I attempt to articulate them, I lose something… clarity, meaning. And, something is added — what I FEEL. It is strange that, given that we philosophers hate emotions so, that it is our emotions that have the clarity and purity that often our rational thoughts and or words do not. My emotions are immediate and so strong, that oftentimes, they do not need words. I ran from the bee because I had to. That, perhaps, is its own justification. But, I must remind myself that the clarity of an emotion is not always so clear, and as the philosopher reminds me, my emotions can lead me to many false beliefs, including the belief that clowns are malevolent beings sent up from the deep trenches of hell to frighten the ever-loving poop out of people. So, as I look at my irrational beliefs, I ask, what have I? Where do I go from here? If I fear that my language fails me, then I must turn to my sentiments. But, my sentiments are often irrational and wrong. Which gets me right bact to where I started. Hmmm.

Only A Sith Deals in Absolutes: On Anakin Skywalker and the Ambigiuty of Evil

I’ve been on something of a kick lately. Actually, it started around 1977. I just can’t stop watching those damned Star Wars movies! To make matters worse, all that philosophy I’ve been studying has somehow crept it’s way into my watching what should be — as described by its creator, George Lucas, a series of kid’s movies. Damn the man. In addition to being filmically stuck on George Lucas’ space opera, I’m simultaneously stuck on the problem of evil. It’s not that my stuckness on the problem of evil is limited to all that guesswork about how a all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good God allows evil — I’ve been thinking about the “problem” in a more general manner — that is, (and more specifically) how we use “evil” to describe the actions and psychological dispositions of individuals. I think that before I get into my topic at hand, it might do us a little good to understand the fantasy of Star Wars. George Lucas says, when taken in total, his movies are really the story of Anakin Skywalker (or Darth Vader if you prefer), who is modeled after the classic Greek tragic heroes. Plucked from obscurity, young slave boy, Anakin Skywalker is destined by the Gods (or by midichlorians) to become the greatest of all the Jedi. Our hero rises, but is done in by a tragic flaw. He eventually finds redemption and joins the gods (or in this case, becomes one with the Force). Lucas said he used classic archetypes as his templates (for more on these archetypes, read Jung or Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces). People of my generation, however, didn’t care about subtext or the references to Greek tragedy. All we cared about is the fact that lightsabers were cool. And Wookies were cooler. For the record, Ewoks are not cool. Still, even if we had never heard of Joseph Campbell, or had ever heard of the mythology behind the saga, we understood that Star Wars was a classic story of the good guys versus the bad guys, and as always, the good guys won. The second trilogy ( although chronologically filmed first), which includes the newly retitled A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, the good and the bad were clear– bad guys = Empire, good guys = Rebel Alliance. Led by the flaxen-haired Luke Skywalker, the good guys destroyed the Death Star not once, but twice and saved the galaxy from the Nazi-esque Empire led by the Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine. In a true, awsomely Jesus-like goodness move Luke resisted Vader’s temptation to join him (even after Vader cuts off his hand!), and likewise resists Emperor Palpatine’s temptation to kill his own father and stand at the Emperor’s side. Luke is good and pure-hearted way beyond golly gee. Even the roguish scoundrel Han Solo is reformed. The Empire, on the other hand, exudes nothing but evil. Grand Moff Tarkin orders the destruction of Leia’s homeworld of Alderaan. Vader ( check this out) chokes his subordinates (killing the unfortunate Admiral Ozzel and Captain Needa), tortures his own daughter (although he didn’t know at the time, but it probably wouldn’t have made any difference), cuts off his son’s hand, backtracks on his deal with Lando Calrissian (quite possibly the only black, Armenian character in film history), tortures Han Solo and orders him encased in carbonite, just to name a few evil deeds. The only thing that I can think of that comes close to that kind of evil on the side of the Rebels is if you count the fact that Luke made out with his sister — but he didn’t know that she was when he did ( although I don’t think that if he did it would have made a difference). But, so far as episodes I, II, and III go, things are simple. Good and evil are very clearly defined ( I lifted those exact three words from a song). But, in 1999, George Lucas, probably in the desperate quest for more money (because he needs it), had to go and mess things up. Royally. Lucas decided that he needed to tell the backstory of Vader. Hello Phantom Menace! As we see young Vader, played by Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen (respectively), we see that Vader wasn’t always evil, but a guy with a couple of emotional issues who took a wrong step and wound up the personification of evil throughout the Galactic Empire. Hey, it could happen to anybody. We see that Anakin, like many of us, wasn’t born naturally bad. We see that, when we look closely, that Vader isn’t a bad guy. Vader is a guy who, like so many of us, stepped into a deep stinky puddle of moral ambiguity and got stuck. Vader’s fall wasn’t motivated by malevolence, but by (surprisingly) the want to do good. Vader was motivated by GOOD. This is what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. Evil, according to Arendt, isn’t carried out, for the most part, by evil people who want to infilct pain on everyone. In her summation of Nazi atrocities, Arendt suggested that “evil” like the Nazis (or in this case the Empire) is a matter of people who believe that what they are doing is right. They see their actions as normal. ( Call it cognitive dissonance or whatever you like, but even in our own lives we see people who do incredibly bad things who will insist that their goal was some ultimate good). If, in the case of the actions of Vader, he believed that what he was doing was good, and if that is indeed the case, we may ask ourselves what is evil? In the philosophy of religion, there is much talk of evil. The discussion deals, in large part, with the problem of evil as it pertains to our arguments for and against the existence of God. We ask how can a loving, powerful God permit evil? But as we ask this question, we enevitably ask ourselves ‘what is evil?’. When we attempt to answer the question, we tend to divide evil into two types: 1) natural evils, which include earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, disease, and general pain, like the pain I am feling in my hip as I am sitting in this very uncomfortable chair writing this post, and 2) moral evils, which we believ requires some sort of deliberate thought or action. Moral evils would include murder, rape, ill will, or odd-numbered Star Trek films. Looking at Vader, we ask, if Vader’s actions are good in his mind, but in the “real” world evil and hurtful to others, does an act of evil require an additional intentionality on the part of the agent? That is, in order for an act to be truly evil, does it require an evil mind as well? Evil mindedness in the Empire is best typified by Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine is guided by the Sith Code which states the following: Peace is a lie. There is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory my chains are broken. (From Star Wars: Darth Bane: Path of Destruction. 2006. by Drew Karpyshyn. Del Rey Books. pg. 79). The Sith ‘Rule of Two’ states that among the Sith there is “One to embody the power, the other to crave it” (pg. 259). The Sith value treachery, betrayal and naked unrelenting ambition. These are qualities that are, according to most of us, more than a little evil. But, even among the evil-minded Sith, there is a goal behind their outer evil — one that, in their minds, brings some good. Let’s get back to the Germans for a second. Ok, for starters, we’ll admit that Palpatne is evil. Just as it is undeniable that many of Hitler’s henchmen were in no way motivated by any sort of good whatsoever. Ok. But what about the rank and file soldiers and citizens who believed in Hitler’s vision of a thousand-year Reich? What about those people who believed that what they were doing served an ultimate good? If every German pulled out their utilitarian calculus and weighed the pain that some (and assuming a relatively few) would experience in order to get to a prosperous, peaceful German Reich, they might have, with all good intentions, thought that what they were doing or allowing to happen was good. I believe this is where Anakin’s evil lies. He is not only not evil, but not even maliciously oriented. Although the purists may kill me where I stand for saying this, I hold that Episode III, Revenge of the Sith is the lynchpin of the saga. If you can bear Hayden Christensen’s “acting” (really it’s not just him in this one), you can see that Vader isn’t evil, or at least he is in Arendt’s sense of banal evil. *There’s the scene where Mace Windu is poised to kill Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Anakin walks in on the battle. Windu insists that, to preserve the good, that Palpatine must be destroyed. But, little does Windu know, if Palpatine is destroyed, then Anakin will lose his wife Padme in childbirth. Palpatine is the only one who can help him. Anakin intervenes, but on the side of Palpatine. Windu is chucked out the window, plummeting to his death. * Anakin kills Windu because he wants to save the life of his wife and unborn child (obviously a pro-lifer. He’ll kill the adult to save the baby). This is a genuinely good thing to want to do. So let’s say this is Anakin’s primary motivation — he wants to save his family. This is good. This is something that we all would do if we knew that our loved ones were in danger. If we were in the same situation, and we genuinely believed that our actions are good (they may even be good), we ask again, is the act evil? This question, of course, has implications not only in asking questions about the nature of evil, but also in our determination of there is any evil at all. We may conclude that very few actions that appear to be evil are in fact evil. Ok, I see the guy in the corner frantically waving his hands in the air. He’s saying that there is evil, and in fact Anakin is evil for what he has done. A miscalculation doesn’t absolve us from moral responsibility. If we can’t see that our actions are evil, then we are doubly at fault. First for our actions and second, for our stupidity. So noted. But I say that, despite the fact that the acts are prima facie evil, that Anakin’s acgtions are not evil in the true sense of malevolent motivation. His actions are, at best, ambiguously evil. That is, we can still say that his actions, however painful to others, were not intentionally so, and were motivated by good. Where did I get this answer? From George Lucas himself. Lucas says that, despite all of his misdeeds, Anakin is still the “Chosen One”. Lucas, like Luke and Padme, insist that deep, down inside of Vader, there is good. He is not as “twisted and evil” as Obi-wan Kenobi claims. Lucas says that, had he stopped his story at Episode IV, Vader would have remained a personification of evil. But, he says it was his goal to show us that Vader was as much of a victim as a villain. In the long run it seems that Vader is the victim of his own rationalization. According to Lucas, Vader’s entire motivation for everything he does is that he will not betray the Republic. Lucas says, ” Nobody evil thinks of themselves as evil. They always believe that they’re doing good…” ( Lucas explains this point of view on the Revenge of the Sith bonus disk feature “The Chosen One”). Lucas explains that people thought of Vader as pure evil, but according to Lucas he is not. Lucas says that Vader is not a heartless machine but a guy who has “lost everything”. Vader, Lucas says, is motivated by the loss of his mother, by the fact that he is going to lose his wife, at his frustration at being denied — not exactly evil emotions. Actor Hayden Christensen says (and he should know), Vader still believes that he is the “Chosen One”. He’s committing evil not knowing that his actions are hurting other beings ( we can assume that in believing that he is the “Chosen One” Vader believes that he does no wrong). Christensen says that Vader’s inability to see his acts as anything but good may be due to the fact that Anakin is naive. That’s exactly the point. It may be naivete, or rationalization or plain bullshiting — it complicates judging an act. Our actions are not simple matters of yes/no or black/ white, but are complicated and infused with all sorts of reasoning and emotions that cloud motivations — even to ourselves that we cannot simply brand one act “evil” and another “good”. Palpatine tells Anakin that good is a point of view — not an objective certain fact ( amazingly, Ben Kenobi tells Luke this same sentiment in Return of the Jedi. Strange words to hear from such a principled Jedi Master). We see (later in the film) Anakin tell Obi-wan that, from his point of view, the Jedi are evil. How can we be certain what is truly good or evil, especially when we can reduce it to a point of view or an intention, or relies on the outcome of some expected result? This may lead us to a frightening possibility: there may be no such thing as “evil”. Throughout history, theologians, philosophers and laymen alike has wrestled with the question of evil assuming that not only is evil a clear-cut morally wrong action, but also that evil actually exists. Michael Hardt of Duke University says, ” Human nature is changable. Human nature isn’t good or evil”. Evil is a thing of which we are all capable. Evil, if we call any act as such, in its most common form, isn’t Nazis, or Darth Vader or even Dick Cheney. It’s the garden variety little scheming that we all do to ever-so-gently undermine a co-worker, or sabotage a good friend’s budding relationship with someone you despise, or giving yourself a leg-up on the competition. We may say (and we may be right) that any and all or these banal evils we commit are in their own painful way, good — not just for us, but for everyone. They may be more in the way of moral mistakes than moral evils. Ewan McGreggor, who plays Obi-wan Kenobi in Trilogy 1, says of Vader, “His [Anakin’s] slide to the Dark Side… comes from very human things– that he’s in love, and he’s going to be a father, and he’s jealous… we’ve all done it. Messed up things because we’re young and naive, and not able to step back and go ‘oh no, it’s ok'” (From the Star Wars Trilogy bonus disk feature “The Return of Darth Vader”). Then again, George Lucas said that there’s a tendency in some people who watch movies like Star Wars to dismiss them as mindless entertainment. There are others, he says who take the opposite track and read too much into it. Which is what I, and every other philosopher does when we write things like this.