Requiem for A Tarman

When Thinking of ethics, there’s always a problem that comes up, namely, given all the theories out there, how are we to decide what to do? Do we think of intentions or consequences, or what God wants us to do or duties, ourselves? There’s this book out there called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. The point of the book is that we shouldn’t get so wrapped up in the trivial stuff that ultimately means nothing that we miss the real important things in life. Unfortunately for many of us, our lives don’t get beyond the small stuff. This is why, I think, philosophers think up so many strange thought experiments. We get to think up big stuff and bounce it around. But thinking up thought experiments and setting up all the parameters can be quite time consuming. Besides, when you do, there’s always some joker that wants to dispute the circumstances of your thought experiment. Fortunately for most of us, we don’t have to think up anything. That’s what movies are for. There are plenty of philosophers who poo-poo the idea of using popular entertainment as a philosophical tool. The thought is is that nothing of any use comes out of the popular culture. This is simply not true. Whether we watch Disney movies, a buddy road-trip flick, or a romantic comedy, or we spend an evening with Truffaut, movies give us an ample glimpse of how philosophic theories work. Take, for instance, the movie The Terminator. At first glance, you’ve got an action/sci-fi flick. But if you look a little deeper, there’s questions of artificial intelligence, determinism, time and time travel, existential questions concerning the nature of Sarah Connor’s personality (she goes from wimp to tough chick, or is that who she was all along, since Kyle Reece tells her that she’s a fighter?). There’s really alot there — plus, it’s fun to watch. Which can’t be said about watching most philosophy professors giving their lectures. The late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, wife of Star Trek creator, the late Gene Roddenberry, said that, back in the 1960s, network censorship was so tight that, in order to get his ideas across, her husband had to be subversive. Barrett-Roddenberry said, “censorship was so bad in those days, that if he could take things and switch them around a little bit, and maybe paint somebody green… he could get some of his ideas across”. I’m not saying or even suggesting that philosophers be or are being subversive ( lord knows what that would be like), but by looking at one situation/question/moral dilemma in one context or medium, we can see how it would work in another. That is to say, that watching a movie in which a certain situation takes place, we may be able to apply that fictional situation to real life. Although they are easily dismissed as cinematic schlock, zombie flicks are especially useful in the area of ethics. For instance, we may consider life and death — what does it mean to be “alive”? , what is death?. By seeing how the undead are treated, we might be able to see how we treat those in our own world who are not quite dead or not quite living (people on life-sustaining machines, for instance). We can see how we treat those who are afflicted with certain brain disorders (that may produce mania or violent behavior) by looking at zombies. I was watching this movie called Automaton Transfusion a few days ago. While I was watching, I thought about how people treat the undead and how would we have to treat them if there were a real zombie plague in our world. After spending some time thinking about the question, I came to the answer that how we treat them depends on what kind of zombie we are dealing with. I thought that I would, for the sake of making the whole experiment worth considering in the first place, consider the zombies of George Romero and Dan O’Bannon. First, I agreed (with myself) that I would consider zombies people. This is important, because it may determine whether zombies are morally considerable at all. If a zombie ceases to be a person and is simply nothing more than a rotting trash heap, that ends the experiment pretty much right there. I don’t think that there are too many philosophers that would argue that we have a moral obligation to a pile of garbage. When I startign thinking about it, I almost immediately thought of Peter Singer ( I’m not sure exactly why). Singer takes Jeremy Bentham’s view that the capacity to suffer makes one morally considerable. Bentham writes, ” the question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”Although we know that the dead cannot be reasoned with ( as there are also many living humans that cannot be reasoned with), and that, with a few cinematic exceptions, none talk. But we haven’t made it our habit to determine if they suffer. According to Singer, this capacity is a prerequisite for having interests at all. If, Singer states, an object lacks the capacity for suffering, we need not include it in our consideration. Singer writes, “it would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare”. If we look at George Romero’s quintology of his “dead” films, we see that zombies are no more than moving meat. They do not feel physically or otherwise. They are nothing more than self-propelled rocks. Using Bentham/Singer’s criteria, we need not consider their welfare. This is in line with Singer’s approach to individuals who are brain-dead or in a persistive vegetative state. People with those conditions are no more than individuals who have no conscious quality of life (oops! let’s clarify things before we go slumming towards Hitlerville). Like a person who has no higher brain function (without any hope of recovery), a zombie does not experience life. If we “kill” either, what “life” are we depriving either of? In this case it may be argued that to kill either would be a better good. We would speak of ending their “suffering”, but the suffering we’re referring to is primarily metaphorical or our own. But what if a zombie could suffer? What do we do then? Do our obligations to them change? Perhaps they might. Dan O’Bannon’s zombies in Return of the Living Dead are not the shambling moving meat of Romero’s films, but zombies who exhibit Robert Fletcher’s “indications of humanhood” (which are self-awareness, self-control, sense of the future, a sense of the past, the capacity to relate to others [if only to eat them], concern for others, communication and curiosity). O’Bannon’s zombies speak, plot, and retain their personality enough to remind their girlfriend that if she loved him that she’d let hime eat her brain. O’Bannon’s zombies, unlike Romero’s, experience pain. In one sequence, a female zombie reveals that there is pain in death. She explains that eating the brains of the living is the only way to end the suffering of death. The secen takes place in a funeral home between Ernie, the mortician, and the female zombie who is strapped to an embalmbing table: Ernie: you eat people. zombie: not people, brains. Ernie: brains only? zombie: yes. Ernie: why? zombie: the pain. Ernie: what about the pain? zombie: the pain of being dead. Ernie: it hurts to be dead. zombie: I can feel myself rot. Ernie: eating brains, how does that make you feel? zombie: it makes the pain go away. For starters, that scene is just plain creepy. Second, it really makes me nervous about dying, because what if that zombie is right and it is painful being dead? But more importantly, does the fact that they suffer now demand that we include their needs among our own? If feeling one’s own flesh rotting is painful (as one may well imagine), then we may be obligated to end that suffering. But wait, the only way to do that is to feed brains to zombies (this is the only way to end their suffering). That spells trouble for us. If we were good utilitarians, and we have as a prerequisite for moral inclusion the capacity to suffer, how do we deal with the needs od a brain-eating zombie? Is this a case where our uttilitarian ethics runs amuck? If logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and we may assume that (at least in some locales) the dead outnumber the living, then we might find ourselves, for the sake of consistency, handing our brains over to the undead. But this already doesn’t sound right. I think back to my ethics class. We had an assignment to find a True Moral Theory. We had as a guide, several “desired” features which included: the theory must not have implausible implications, it must place realistic motivational demands on the agent, and it can’r be self-defeating. When we consider the matter utilitarianally, we find prima facie that we may have to indulge the needs of the zombie. But if we apply our desired features, we find that giving our brians to flesheaters is not only inplausible, there is absolutely no reason for giving up our brains that motivates us to do so. Lastly, by giving the brains of the living to the dead, eventually, the dead (because the dead is an ever-increasing number) will outstrip their food supply. Therefore, doing so is eventually self-defeating. Next, feeding our brains to zombies butts up against something called the sadistic pleasures objection. It goes something like this: a group cannnot achieve its excellence at the expense of another group (especially if that group is smaller). So, let’s say that the main purpose of a zombie is to eat flesh. This, according to Aristotle, is its(a zombie’s) excellence (characteristic function). If we give living brains to the dead, so they can flourish, and since the net pain of the dead outweighs the net pain of the living (remember, the dead outnumber the living), we would be achieving one group’s excellence at the expense of the smaller group. A utilitarian does not ignore the needs of the smaller group, they figure into the greater good as well. This is especially relevant in the fact that a zombie does not need to eat brains to survive. Eating brains merely relieves a bothersome condition. A person zombie can “exist” with pain. A living human, however, cannot live without his brain. Of course, it’s easy to see that living people shouldn’t give up their brains so that zombies can feel better. But in the case of organ transplants or biotechnology the lines may not be so clear. If a good friend need a kidney to survive and I am a match, am I obligated to give my kidney? At what point am I obligated to give up a part of myself to help or save others? Am I obligated at all? Food for thought.

The Trouble With Democrats

President Obama is supposed to address the nation tonight about “health care reform”. I cannot say quickly enough that I do not care. I used to be all jazzed up for the prez. I used to be for the Democrats in general, as I was and still am an unapologetic Liberal. I started to not care right around the time that Al Franken was finally seated as the senator from Minnesota. I think if I hadn’t been in a state of I-don’t-care-dom, I would have been more upset when Senator Kennedy passed away (you know what’s kind of odd? Kennedy was in the senate longer than any of his brothers had lived. Food for thought). The Dems have the White House (which has made watching Glenn Beck all the more interesting), and both houses of congress. They say that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans nationwide. So why do I feel like I’m part of a loser party? I’ve noticed that even when the Republicans lose, they win. Even when they’ve been soundly trounced, they absolutely will not admit defeat. It’s kind of like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He’s there, with his arms and legs cut off, but he’s still talkin’ smack to Arthur. He won’t admit that he’s been defeated, even when it’s clear that he can’t fight. He believes that he can win — and in a way, he does. The idea being that so long as you don’t admit that you’ve lost, you haven’t. Kind of like our strategy in Afghanistan. The strategy of non-admission is also a Repbllican strategy — and an effective one at that. The idea to being successful, politically, even when you’re on the losing end of the debate, is to “frame” the argument. You may have the lousiest argumen, but as long as it’s taken up on your terms, you’re halfway to winning the debate. Framing sets the tone. It says what language that we’re going to use and how. Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, (and author of Propaganda!, Crystalizing Public Opinion, and The Engineering of Consent), said, “You have to know your public and figure out how to make it respond”. Everything, Bernays and his brethren believed, is a matter of public relations, whether the poor folk out there know it or not. Bernays and his PR buddies invented the miracle of spin. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, used his uncle’s methods of psychoanalysis (that all human action was governed by unconscious desires) to sway the public’s tastes and opinions. Here’s a little on how Bernays thought: He believed that the public was a “herd to be led”, and that “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power in our country”. Bernays believed that the crowd (that’s you and me) isn’t ruled by reason, but by the spinal cord. People, Bernays believed, are moved by appeals to the emotions, and not by rational arguments. Bernays believed that people were like herds of animals and therefore most responsive to leadership (that leadership, of course, that specializes in manipulation of the people’s emotions). A perfect example of Bernaysian thinking is “The Mindmaker Song” from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. No Kidding. Of course, the most successful spin artist never admits that he is spinning (which is why Bill O’Reilly calls his show a “No spin zone”). A true bullshitter calls himself a straight-talker, who is going to tell it like it is, because he knows that his audience will stand for nothing less than the truth. The Republicans have become especially good at pulling this off. Strangely, the Democrats have not. Democrats, unfortunately, seem to come off as a bunch of Barton Finks when they attempt this strategy. That is, they come off as fakers. Although Obama won the election and the Democrats have both houses, when polled, this country tends to trend to the center, if not towards the Right. We’re a fairly conservative people. They say that Reagan appealed to Democrats during the 1980 presidential campaign by appealing to values instead of issues. That is, Reagan used appeals to the spinal cord rather than to the intellect to win against Jimmy Carter. Reagan appealed to the hard-workin’ everyman, the blue-collar workers and the regular housewives of America. These people were the “silent majority” that Nixon courted when he was president. The majority of Americans who were plain folk who believed in down-home values and the simple life. They weren’t a part of the, as the Conservative Club for Growth said of Howard Dean in 2004, “tax-hiking, government expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show”. Reagan’s Democrats were the people forced to accept Affirmative Action giving their jobs away. They were forced to pay for welfare queens, and to support gay rights, and white, heterosexual, male-hating feminists who wanted to promote abortion and an anti-Christian agenda. They were forced to accept God-hating atheists, tree huggers, bleeding-heart liberals, freedom-hating socialists of all stripes, activist judges, bureaucrats, overpaid government workers, illegal aliens, and unions. See how I framed that? How can you possibly carry on a sensible debate with anyone who says you’re a man-hating anti-American socialist, who wants to open the borders and let anyone from anywhere come in and destroy this great land, what’s left of America? It doesn’t matter if you have a sensible plan for actually solving any problem ( a weak economy, rising crime, illiteracy, etc), if you lack the proper values, your argument is dead in the water. Values matter most. Reagan, and every Republican since, is a warrior in the “culture war”. It’s those who love God and country against all who wish to destroy this great union. They must defend family values (which are never quite defined — I suppose for fear that many Republicans will be descovered as having violated them) against the culture-destroying influences of multiculturalism, diversity, and political correctness. The issues don’t matter because no matter the issue, people who lack American values will always undermine liberty and democracy. Try as they might to stick to the issues, Democrats will always lose out. First, these issues are boring when you discuss them in terms of numbers and formal, logically sound arguments. Second, Republicans are not at all squeemish about wringing the arms of anyone who strays from the party line. They will betray their own. The Democrats, because they do things like thinking, are often subject to things like forgiveness and the ‘let’s give the guy a chance’ way of thinking (which explains why Dems have been so nice about Joe Libermann).To get a good hear of what I mean, listen to Democracy Now!, then listen to Laura Ingraham. It won’t take long to tell the difference. It seems that the Democrats have perfected a losing strategy. And this is the strategy: Democrats try to give reasons for what and why they believe. By reasons, I mean they attempt to give legitimate, rational, perhaps logically valid reasons for taking up or rejecting any position or point of view. This fatal flaw is rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Back in the 18th century or so, some dudes thought it would be really nifty to drop all that medieval thinking and actually use reason to discover things like truth and such. Kant said that the motto of the age should be “dare to know”. This is the beginning of the problem — knowing things, and encouraging other people to “know” things. All that knowing requires (all the epistemologists speak up) Truth. Truth is a necessary condition for knowledge. This is what the Dems do, they appeal to truth. The idea is, that given the right education (information or methodology for finding knowledge), a person would “arrive” at truth. They will decide wisely because they are thinking rationally. This is where they screwed up major. Allow me to demonstrate: the enlightened Liberal comes up with an argument somewhat like this: there are some premises, one of which will say something like, ” people are reasonable”. This will lead to a conclusion which will say something like, “therefore, people will make good judgments”. But there’s something wrong with this argument. Run the reductio! The problem premise is the mone I just named, that is, the assumption that people are reasonable. People aren’t. In fact,people tend to be highly irrational (it’s true, I looked it up). People often rationalize what they are doing, but are often highly irrational in what they do. By running the reductio, we’re supposed to find the bad premise that forces us to doubt, if not throw out whether our argument is true. The bad premise leads us to conclude something that isn’t true. But the Republicans don’t even go that far. They don’t bother with the argument at all. That’s why the Republicans win. They know that relying on something like reason is impossible, so they go straight for the emotions. They know that if they scare the bejezus out of you (like telling you that your African-born president wants to indoctrinate your children to do his bidding) , that you will react in a certain way. You can construct all the pretty arguments you want, they’d say, but as Freud observed, anatomy is destiny. Preying on the public’s psychological disposition will always yield the more sure-fire result. So what are the Democrats to do, ’cause what they’ve been doing isn’t working. I’m sure that Obama will lay out some very good reasons for supporting whatever plan he lays out. But as long as he’s competing with an opposition that merely yell “death panels” to win their side of the argument, he will never win. And winning is the point, isn’t it? So what should they do? Whenever the Dems try to act like Republicans, they come off wrong. It always backfires. When they’re sincere, they’re bullshitting, and when they lie, it just makes things worse. Actually, I do have a solution. But to reveal it would peg me as an operative of the New World Order. No, I’m joking about that. Here’s what I think, the Democrats should be doing. They should use the Republicans’ favorite guy against them. If the Reps love capitalism so much, then we Dems should get into using their favorite dude, Adam Smith. Smith said in Wealth of Nations, ” he will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor, and show them that it is for his own advantage to do for him what he requires of them… it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages”.