On the Question of So-Called Superchimps, Their Place in our Moral Universe, and What Their Inclusion Means For the Average Idiot

I have a dog. I care about my dog. I care about my dog’s well being. I want him to be safe from moving cars or tainted dog food. I want others to be nice to my dog and respect my dog’s “right” to live a full, fun-filled dog life. My sentiment is not uncommon or even discouraged among pet owners. If asked, most pet owners would say that they care for their pets. They care about whether their pets have enough food to eat, or whether they are kept warm at night or safe from harm. But why is this so? Why do we value our pets so dearly?

The answer is because we include our pets in our moral sphere, that is, our pets are morally considerable. But, if we say that our pets are morally considerable, what do we mean when we say that something counts morally? What criteria do we use to determine who is in and who is out of our moral universe?

We say that something has “moral status” if that thing ( or being ) counts for us morally. That is, we owe certain moral obligations to certain, other beings. Status is most often defined in terms of  moral agents and moral patients. Individuals who possess rational autonomy and are self-legislating are moral agents. Moral patients are those individuals who lack, either by age, physical or mental condition, etc, the ability to self-legislate or rational autonomy are moral patients. For example, a year-old child lacks the ability to engage in rational, self-legislating behavior. The child is a moral patient. The child’s parent, if the parent is autonomous and self-legislating, is the moral agent who must act to the benefit of the child. An individual is in our moral sphere only if we grant the individual moral consider ability.

But, the act of considering an individual’s moral status relies on an important supposition: The act of considering the effects of our actions upon others indicates that those individuals that we take into account are already included  in our moral sphere. So, if moral considerability indicates that others are in our moral sphere, then we must ask, how do we include others in our sphere? That is, what are the criteria for the inclusion of other beings?

The West’s traditional view of moral status is grounded in the biblical texts of the Old Testament and Aristotle‘s hierarchy concerning nature and the natural order. The book of Genesis clearly states the relationship between man and animals:

Then God said, “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 of the

air , and over the cattle, and all over the earth, and over every creeping

thing that creeps upon the earth”. (Genesis 1:26. Emphasis added).

The traditional biblical view holds that man, as a being created in God’s image, is given the earth to rule as he sees fit. The fact that animals are not made in God’s image  discharges any human from any moral obligation to the welfare of animals. According to the biblical view, the lack of any ability to morally wrong any animal means that animals are not morally considerable.  Aristotle brought the hierarchy to nature (and the natural order of things) which placed humans, more specifically free human males, at the top of the “natural” hierarchy. Aristotle wrote that man’s power of reasoning endowed him with natural superiority (and a soul). The way of nature, in Aristotle’s view, naturally places superior beings in positions of authority over inferior beings. In other words, if a rational soul is a superior trait, then it is the way of nature for animals who possess this trait to rule over animals that do not possess the same superior trait. Aristotle stated that animals, by contrast, are governed by their passions or instincts. Aristotle wrote that man’s rational soul ruled over his passions, and that this trait indicates that man’s natural place is to rule over animals. Aristotle reflects the traditional view in that inferior animals are “natural slaves” that are benefited by serving the interests of superior animals. Aristotle writes,

“…the other animals exist for the sake of man, and tame for use and food, the wild, if not all, at least the greater part of them for food…”

Descartes continued the traditional view of moral status. Descartes wrote that animals are mere “machines” meant to serve the need of their human masters. Although Descartes maintains the traditional view that man’s intellect confers superior status, Descartes gives an additional criteria for man’s moral superiority to animals. For Descartes, the capacity for speech is indicative of an individual’s intellectual capacity. The fact that animals possess no capacity for speech (at least no speech that humans can understand), animals cannot “… use speech… as we do when placing our thoughts on record for the benefit of others.”

It is important to stop at this point to clear up an immediate objection to Descartes’ speech criteria.  If Descartes means to state that any being that lacks the capacity to express their thoughts in speech also lacks the capacity to think, one might put forth that Descartes is excluding humans who are mentally or physically challenged from the moral sphere. Humans who cannot speak due to physical or mental impairments, if Descartes’ criteria is used to define moral status, may be reduced to the status of “brutes” or animals.  Descartes, however, explains that his speech criteria does not exclude the mentally or physically disabled, on the grounds that individuals who lack verbal speech often find other ways to communicate their thoughts to others. For instance,  person who is born mute may learn to communicate through sign language. A person who is mentally handicapped may learn to express themselves, despite the fact that they lack the ability to communicate verbally. Descartes states that a disabled individual may have a diminished intellectual capacity, but is not excluded from the moral sphere due to the fact that humans who are intellectually “inferior“  possess some capacity for self expression. An animal, on the other hand, not only lacks a minimal capacity for rational thought, but lacks any capacity for rationality at all.
Although Descartes explains that his speech criteria will not exclude humans (including the mentally and physically disabled) from the moral sphere, Descartes’ explanation fails to recognize the fact the speech criteria may indeed reduce some humans to the status of mere “brutes”. Some humans do lack any capacity for speech, such as profoundly retarded individuals or the comatose. In addition, some animals have acquired the capacity to express their thoughts through non-verbal human languages such as American sign language. And, if the traditional hierarchical view places a rational soul at the top of the natural order, the fact that some animals possess a capacity for rational thought leads us to question whether an animal that possesses the capacity for rational thought may assume a higher position in the natural hierarchy. An animal that possesses a rational soul may disrupt man’s assumed position at the top of the natural hierarchy. A human who lacks the capacity for rational thought, such as the mentally challenged or the comatose, may be relegated to the status of animals and excluded from the moral sphere.

As humans, we feel reluctant (intuitively) to exclude people who we feel not only merit moral consideration, but also fit into the moral sphere. We feel that it is wrong to exclude any human from moral consideration on the basis that a person lacks the capacity to articulate their thoughts. We feel that despite their physical or mental handicap, a human mentally or physically disabled human is still a human, and that their humanness demands moral considerability and inclusion in the moral sphere. But, what about an animal who, despite a mere physical or mental difference from other rational beings, possesses human-like qualities, such as rationality and the ability to articulate its thoughts through language?  Is there a criteria for moral status that will allow us to include both rational animals and marginal cases? I believe that the answer is yes. I hold that Kant’s criteria for moral status allows us to include rational animals, but more importantly, Kant’s moral status criteria allows us to preserve marginal cases for moral consideration in the moral sphere.

It is  possible that nature may produce a chimpanzee with cognitive abilities that exceed the capacities of the average human. The fact that this “super chimp” ( let’s call him “Arthur Crackpot”), surpasses the intellectual capacity of the average human cannot be ignored, nor can it be dismissed as a mere aberration. It would not be difficult to imagine that Arthur Crackpot or any chimpanzee that possesses a high capacity for rational thought would not hesitate to articulate its thoughts or express what it considered to be its own interests. We can be most certain that Arthur Crackpot and any other “super chimp” would demand immediate inclusion into our moral sphere. The fact that the animal can do so forces us to deal with it in a manner that does not conform to the traditional biblical, natural hierarchy, nor can we treat the animal as a mere machine that is fit to serve man’s needs. So, if the difference between man and animals — primates in particular — is trivial, and a naturally occurring “super chimp’ is not outside the realm of possibility, then the mere fact that man and animal are different species is not a morally relevant difference to account for the exclusion of animals from the moral consideration or the moral sphere.

If we grant moral consideration of smarter animals, and we include Arthur Crackpot and other “super chimps” in our moral sphere because they rank higher on the hierarchical scale, then, if we are to be consistent, we must exclude certain marginal case humans who possess intellectual capacities far below the capacities of other animals. But, as I said before, this sounds intuitively wrong. We should not exclude humans simply because they lack the ability to articulate their thoughts or the capacity for rational thought. So, what perspective allows us to include both “super chimps” and marginal cases? I believe that the Kantian approach to moral agency allows us to  not only extend moral consideration  and inclusion of animals such as Arthur Crackpot, but the Kantian approach also allows us to keep marginal case humans in the moral sphere.

Kant states that rational beings must be treated as ends in themselves. That is, beings that possess the ability for rational thought cannot be used as a mere means to another person’s ends. Rational beings, according to Kant, are self-legislating and autonomous. The fact that rational beings possess an autonomous and self-legislating will grants them moral agency. Moral agents are not only morally accountable for their own actions, but are also morally obligated to moral patients. For Kant, rationality is not a matter of degree, but a characteristic that is all-or-nothing. Beings are either rational or they are not rational. Although Kant’s criteria seems to push us once again towards the hierarchy, the concept of moral patients pushes us away from excluding rational animals and irrational people.

Kant states that man’s duty to animals is indirect, in that our duties to animals are limited to treating them in a non-abusive manner, but Kant also states that our treatment of animals reflects how we are likely to treat other humans. Although we consider our treatment of animals from the Kantian perspective, we only consider their welfare from our own perspective — we do not want to cultivate abusive personalities in people who might harm their fellow man. This approach gets us away from the hierarchy it seems, but perhaps not very far. But, let us remember, Kant states that his criteria for our moral obligation is rationality.  More importantly, Kant does not specify a degree of rationality that qualifies a being for admission in our moral sphere. For Kant, rationality is all or nothing. So, from this perspective, an animal that possesses a minimal degree of rationality is included in the moral sphere. So, one might say this criteria requires that a “super chimp” like Arthur Crackpot, who possesses a level of rationality rival to that of a human must also be regarded as a human moral agent.

If Arthur commit’s a moral transgression, he must be held accountable for his actions. So, for instance, if Arthur kills a human, he could be held accountable for his actions not only morally but legally as well. But this is not correct. For Kant, having moral agency does not necessarily follow from having rationality. There are minimally rational people who cannot be moral agents. These individuals are moral patients. Moral patients are included in the moral sphere insofar as their interests are the subject of moral consideration, but are excluded, in a sense, from a moral obligation to other moral agents. On the other hand, moral agents are morally obligated to moral patients.  It is clear that the concept of holding a trial for a chimpanzee is ridiculous (not to mention next to impossible to find a jury of Arthur’s peers). A chimpanzee, no matter how rational it may be, should not be held accountable for his actions in the same way that a human is held accountable for her actions. Like a child, an animal that possesses a minimal degree of rationality may  be incapable of comprehending the moral ramifications of his actions. If an animal is like a child or an other moral patient, we are obligated to consider the welfare of that being. Likewise, if a human possesses a minimal degree of rationality, we are obligated to consider the welfare of that person. And, the fact that we have taken these individuals into our moral consideration signifies that both some animals and marginal case humans possess moral status in our moral universe.

The traditional, biblical, and Cartesian perspectives on moral status and moral considerability fail to enable to include animals who should be granted moral status. Even more detrimental to these perspectives is the fact that adherence to these perspectives forces us to remove humans as well.  Kant’s rationality criteria allows us to include rational animals like “Arthur Crackpot” in the moral sphere without excluding human marginal cases. The concept of moral patients and moral agency allows us to include individuals that may not be fully rational in the sense that they are capable of moral responsibility, but rational to the degree that they count in the moral sphere. Kant’s approach — though it is not perfect — is the best perspective we have to determine moral considerability, moral status and the inclusion of human marginal cases in the moral sphere.

Fight Club, Kelly Clarkson, and a thousand other ways to get Nietzsche totally wrong

Sometimes I hate Chuck Palahniuk. It’s not because of anything personal — I don’t personally know the man. I’m certain that he’s probably a pleasure to be with. I hate Chuck Palahniuk because of these two words: Fight Club.

Yeah, I know. I’m playing with fire here. I know by even daring to utter a remotely negative word about either Chuck Palahniuk or Tyler Durden I’m inviting the wrath of Project Mayhem.

Right now I’m certain that I’ve just booked myself a Raymond K. Hessel moment.

Let me get to brass tacks here. Even though the movie Fight Club is older than most of its current fanbase, every so often the authorities bust up some group of high school kids who, after watching the movie, decide that beating the shit out of each other is a fine way to pass time after school.

This is what every Fight Club fan wants to do for a living

Anyone who has either spent a little bit of time in an intro philosophy class or watched television any knows that the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club is an example of nihilism in literature. Philosophically speaking, Nihilism is defined as:

  • total rejection of social mores: the general rejection of established social conventions and beliefs, especially of morality and religion
  • belief that nothing is worthwhile: a belief that life is pointless and human values are worthless
  • disbelief in objective truth: the belief that there is no objective basis for truth

Although the history of nihilism can be traced back to the ancient Greek skeptics, the philosopher most associated with nihilism is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

A lot of Fight Club fans also claim to like Friedrich Nietzsche.

This is where the trouble begins.

Even if you’ve never personally read a single word Nietzsche wrote, if you have eyes or ears, you’ve certainly been exposed to the words of Friedrich Nietzsche. Our cluture is saturated with Nietzsche’s philosophy. See if any of this sounds familiar to you:

  • There are no facts, only interpretations.
  • What does not kill me makes me stronger (This should ring a bell with Kelly Clarkson fans)
  • Master-slave morality
  • Ubermensch
  • God is dead

All of these ideas appeal to Fight Club fans. They believe that they are the unwanted “middle children of history”, and that God has not only abandoned them, but in all likelihood, he probably hates them. Fight Club fans believe that Fight Club makes them stronger, society needs to be torn down and rebulit with a whole new set of values, and that beating each other to kingdom come will release their inner ubermensches.

If anyone knows how to do that umlaut thing let me know.

His name is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Ok… Uh… there’s really no way to say this delicately… but… well, if any Fight Club-oholic tells you that he’s fulfilling Nietzsche’s nihilistic vision of a transvaluation of values, that Fight Club fan is an idiot. Ok, not an idiot. Calling someone an idiot is a pretty strong accusation. What I will say is this: If you watched (or read) Fight Club and you thought that Tyler Durden and his Project Mayhem are what happens when men realize their inner Nietzschean superman, you’ve got Nietzsche all wrong.

I know, I know, how can I say that Tyler Durden isn’t exactly what Nietzsche was talking about?

Nietzsche wanted society to throw off the old non-life affirming  values that force otherwise strong men into lives of lifeless submission and I know that’s exactly what Tyler Durden was up to. Like Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of Europe’s decadent and nihilistic culture, Tyler Durden wanted his space monkeys to throw off our soul corrupting popular culture; to be not what society tells them to be (Calvin Klein pretty boy-looking, Ikea catalogue browsing consumer drones), but to be who they are supposed to be. Like Nietzsche, Tyler Durden wants a (what Nietzsche would call) a transvaluation of values and to bring back the long lost ancient strongmen like Caesar, Napoleon, and the Sophists. Friedrich Nietzsche envisions a world where the masters rise above the slavish herd morality; a world that Tyler Durden says men will stalk elk in the ruins of Rockefeller Center and climb the vines that circle the Sears Tower.

So you say, if Tyler and Fred seem to be in complete agreement, how is it that thinking that they are is getting Nietzsche “all wrong”?

The answer is this: Nietzsche wants to transvalue society, but guys like Tyler Durden aren’t the ones who are supposed to do the transvaluating. In the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden says this:

The people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us.

That sentiment is all fine and dandy, and I’m pretty sure that statements like that are what makes Tyler Durden so appealing. The problem with Tyler Durden’s sentiment and why he’s totally off his Nietzsche is because Tyler Durden’s Project Mayhem is exactly the kind of slave morality that Nietzsche is talking about! Tyler’s space monkeys are busboys, cooks, waiters, garage mechanics, garbage men, and office drones — exactly the kind of low hanging fruit that Nietzsche says is filled with resentment and create “slave” moralities (like Christianity) to overthrow and oppress the master class.

You see, even though Tyler Durden feels very much oppressed by a culture that tells him that the ideal man is one who looks like he just stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad, Tyler Durden is precisely where he is supposed to be. Tyler Durden and his fellow low paid, wage earning pals are not the masters who must reclaim the reins of society but the inferior classes who are to be dominated and exploited by the Ubermensch.

This is why Project Mayhem is enevitably doomed to fail.

We know this because Tyler Knows this.

Now how ’bout some Kelly Clarkson?

 

 

A brief philosophical treatise courtesy of the Loki Appreciation Society

I watched The Avengers a few weeks back. You know, when it comes to thinking about things philosophically, especially anything pop culture-wise, superheroes are pretty much the easiest way to go. You got the good guys (Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Batman sort-of) on one side, and you got some bad guys on the other. In the realm of the superhero separating the good guys from the bad (except maybe for Batman) and deciding moral rights and wrongs is pretty danged easy.

The Avengers was no exception.

Here’s the tip-off to finding the good guys: The Avengers, collectively speaking, are better looking.

So, while I was watching this movie, I started to think about something: I know that Captain America, Thor and whatever the hell that character Scarlett Johansson played was named, are the good guys. They’ve got loads of muscles and they’re blond, and they’re all fairly easy on the eyes. But, while I was watching the CGI enhanced cinematic spectacle that is The Avengers, I found myself not rooting for the heroes, but rooting for Loki. I asked myself why am I rooting for Loki? Loki is the bad guy. We’re not supposed to like the bad guy. And if we’re thinking about The Avengers philosophically, we’re in no way supposed to root for a character who is the embodiment of all that is evil (or at the very least anti-good guy).

This is Thor. He is a good guy

This is Loki. He is (obviously) a bad guy.

This is a Loki from another movie. He is also (obviously) a bad guy.

As a philosopher, I know that the love of wisdom also means a love of the Good. According to philosophers, loving the Good means that a philosopher or one who is inclined to think philosophically wants to do what is morally right. A philosophically good life is a life that is not based on things that would contribute to the corruption of one’s character. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato said this about good and bad people:

“Good people do not need laws to tell them how to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”

Good people don’t just obey the laws, they also adhere to them — because they’re good people.

This is Socrates. Believe it or not, he is a good guy (there are exceptions to The Avengers rule).

Aristotle also tells us that good (Aristotle calls moral good “virtue”) is an activity of the soul. This means good isn’t just what we do, it is who we are. Aristotle informs us that we are not born good. We have to work at becoming good (virtuous) people. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes:

The moral virtues, then, are produced in us neither by nature nor against nature. Nature, indeed prepares in us the ground for their reception, but their complete formation is the product of habit…

Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting in a particular way… you become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.

See, the reason why we think (or even know) Loki is the bad guy is because, as Aristotle would say, Loki has a bad soul. The reason why Loki’s soul is bad is this: Loki’s got issues. Daddy issues. Loki’s got this whole being pissed off at Thor because Odin’s not his real dad-thing going on. Loki wants to rule Asgard, the home of the gods, but Odin’s (real) son Thor is next in line to the throne of Asgard. As a consequence, Loki’s heart is filled with malice and vengeance. If you haven’t been on the receiving end of either of these two emotions, I’ll have you know that malice and vengeance are not virtues. Loki spends all of his time being angry and doing bad things that he neither takes the time to perform good acts nor does he engage in activities that will cultivate a good soul.

In short, no matter how snazzy Loki’s outfits are, no matter how slick his jet-black hairdo is, no matter how snappy his dialogue is, Loki is not a good person.

This is the reason why we shouldn’t root for Loki.

(By the way, if you have no plans for the next two weeks and you’re really curious as to why Aristotle says maliciousness and a heart full of vengeance are not considered virtues, read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. if you don’t have time to waste you can read this Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_mean_(philosophy)).

Although we can all agree that the Good is often boring and is often difficult to do (philosophers from Aristotle to Mill agree that being good isn’t easy), if we truly love wisdom, we must not indulge our base natures. When our minds are filled with hate, anger or vengeance, we are distracted from looking towards the attributes that make our lives better; that make us better people.

Being better people is what’s important, right?

You know, now that I’m on the internet, I gonna go see what Aristotle looked like.

I’d bet he was very sexy.

 

I bet Jagger’s never read Swinburne

Have you ever seen the Rolling Stones movie Cocksucker Blues? No? Don’t worry, no one has. The story on the movie goes that the Rolling Stones wanted to make a movie about life on the road, so they hired up a film crew to document (ON FILM) what they saw. Apparently what was filmed was so heinously debaucherous that the Rolling Stones actually went to court to legally prohibit anyone from ever seeing the movie. In a world where many films are marketed as “the movie THEY don’t want you to see” (See: Faces of Death, The Wicker Man (1973), Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom), The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues is truly that movie.

* for more info on Cocksucker Blues see:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cocksucker_Blues

You see, the reason why I bothered to bring up the Rolling Stones movie (don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat the title again) is because there are two kinds of unseen things in the world: the things people don’t want you to see, and the things that people (themselves) don’t see.

What am I getting at, right?

Hold on a minute, I’ll make a point soon enough.

I think that every young philosopher starts off with a mission. The mission is always this: I am going to make philosophy popular.

It’s a pretty noble goal, really. But it’s also a terribly lofty one.

I think we’d all agree (most of us, anyway)  that learning to think critically is important and that people should think about and question everything (I conclude this only because I hear at least once a day someone say that there are too many “stupid” people on the planet), but there’s one big problem with wanting to make philosophy popular and actually making philosophy popular. Namely, is anyone out there actually interested in philosophy — you know the kind with a capital P?

I’m not talking about that small “p” philosophy. You know, the stuff that Oprah talks about or some soul-rattling enlightenment you’d find thumbing through a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s The New Earth. I ain’t talking about that. I’m not talking about anything of the “philosophy” you’ll find in the religion/philosophy section at Walden Books (wait, is that even a chain of bookstores anymore?) or on the New York Times best seller list. I’m talking about Russellian definite descriptions, Hegelian alienation, Sartre’s existentialism, Nietzsche’s master and slave morality, Marx’s class struggle, and  Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. I’m talking about Derrida, Foucault, Kant, Hume, Bacon, Rawls, Plato, Descartes, Chomsky, Carnap, Heidegger, Lao-zi, Pascal, Nozick, Rousseau, Ryle, Turing, and Strawson.

THAT kind of philosophy.

And here’s where philosophy hits the brick wall. Here it goes:

Although philosophers won’t admit this, the reason why philosophy isn’t and ain’t gonna be as popular as Oprah or Snooki from Jersey Shore; the reason why you won’t hear a song about philosophy ever be as popular as that “Call Me, Maybe” song is this: philosophy is not entertaining.

Here’s a short quiz. Which would you rather watch? This:

or this:

I think I’m a fairly entertaining person (I better be or I’ve got serious trouble). I’ve been told by at least a few people who I know that I have a sense of humor. And being funny and entertaining,  I thought that my dynamic sense to entertain, coupled with my sense of well-timed snark could (perhaps) at last bring philosophy to the masses. I envisioned myself the Oprah Winfrey of the Bertrand Russell-reading set. I wanted to make philosophy popular — and I used to think that I could.  The thing I realize now is that there is no way on God’s green earth to make philosophy funny, snarky or entertaining (I would emphasize my point by throwing in an “at all” but that would be too definite).

Wait, before you argue my point, allow me to share a philosophy joke.

You might want to grab a bag… just in case.

Question: How many Kantians does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: Two to change the phenomenal bulb; and one to explain that we might not have actually changed the bulb-an-sich at all.

Did you laugh at all at that? Or are you feeling right about now that you just wasted 48 seconds of your life that you know you’re never getting back? The thing is, philosophers find that joke funny. Now, I know you’re asking, how could someone who laughs at that joke possibly manage to make philosophy entertaining to anyone outside of a lecture hall?

By the way, if you did laugh at that joke, 1) God help you, and 2) you can find more knee-slappers just like that one at: http://consc.net/phil-humor.html.

I know that we really need to think critically, if not philosophically, at the world and our lives in (or is it on?) it. And I know that there is an audience of lovers of wisdom out there (Lord knows that there are countless numbers of Facebook pages dedicated to philosophy, including my own *shameless plug* the Mindless Philosopher), but is it possible to make that audience everybody? Is it possible to make philosophy — capital “P” philosophy — as popular as Oprah or reality shows on MTV?

If not, I’m gonna have to figure out a way to get Alvin Plantinga to snort coke off a groupie’s boobs.

Wait a minute, is there such a thing as a philosophy groupie?

A hickie from Kenickie

I used to be a fan of Dr. Drew Pinsky. I used to listen to him on Loveline. That was back when Adam Corolla was the co-host (or was he the host?). That was years ago. Nowadays, Dr. Drew’ got a TV show. Well, actually he has a few of them. He’s got Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers, which, if I was asked to describe it, I would say that it’s a smash up of an episode of the Jerry Springer Show and a counseling session with a high school guidance counselor. You know, that one. There’s Dr. Drew’s basic cable TV show (I guess that’s for the high-brow, well-informed, politically active demographic… but then it does follow the Nancy Grace show). And then, there’s VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab.

A better name for this “TV show” would have been The Marginally Famous Bottom of the Barrel Variety Hour.

I know, I’m hatin’.

The thing that gets me about this show is the fact that a) it’s on TV, and b) I was under the impression that proper rehabilitation requires, what is that thing called — anonymity. Ok, I realize that famous people need to be famous, even when they are systematically destroying their lives and the lives of their family and friends with their chronic drug use. And the show never said it was an AA meeting. These things are almost forgivable. What’s not forgivable, however, is the fact that no one on the show ever seems to get sober. Former Guns N Roses drummer Steven Adler and famous for being his daughter’s father, also known as Michael Lohan, are series regulars. I looked up Dr. Drew’s celebrity rehab success rate (because I’m curious about stuff like that) and the show’s FAILURE rate is 76%. Worse yet, three celebrity rehabers have died.

Alright, so far, they say that Rodney King (may have) drowned.

That can’t be a good thing.

I know that I posted some time ago about The Bad Girl’s Club and the fact that I could not (I still can’t) find a reason to justify this show existing. But, what Dr. Drew is doing is a worser kind of philosophical crime. You see, he thinks that he means well and that he is performing a public service. If the audience can see how drugs screw up the lives of people who have everything (fame, fortune, etc.), we can see that drugs are bad for everybody.

Jeff Conaway went from looking like this

to this

If this is what Dr. Drew’s intention is, then his intentions are good. But what about the “celebrites” on the show? Their (the “celebrities” on the show) intention (I’m assuming here) is to get sober. If Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab failure rate is above average, then perhaps what his celebrity clients need isn’t to be on TV but to get effective treatment. If we think about Dr. Drew’s show philosophically we have a fairly strong Kantian justification for disapproving of the show — no matter what intention Dr. Drew claims that his show serves.

Television, at its heart, is meant to entertain. And we, the audience enjoy a good show. We enjoy watching the “celebrity” rehabers at their worst. And really, the entertainment happens when they screw up. We eagerly await the relapses. We want these people to fail so we can see them back again next season.

And with Steven Adler that’s almost a 100% guarantee.

But, if we are watching for mere entertainment, aren’t we just using these “celebrities” as mere means to our ends? We want to be entertained; not to help. We aren’t watching to see that drugs are bad; our watching is purely exploitive. We watch to laugh, to ridicule, and for the pleasure of saying “I’m not surprised” when one of them dies.

I realize that the TV is there to entertain, but really, is Dr.Drew’s kind of entertainment really what I (or we) need to see?

 

On Arriving At the Horrible Realization That Philosophy Is Important to No One but Me

A few years ago, I went to a lecture in Claremont (that’s in California) to see Peter Singer. If you don’t know who Peter Singer is (there’s a fairly good chance you don’t), just remember this: Peter Singer is the philosopher who is best known for people thinking that he’s totally into eugenics.

I’m not sure if that’s what Peter Singer’s philosophy is about, and really, it’s not important that he is. You see, I know I saw Peter Singer speak. But for the life of me, I literally have no memory of what he wad talking about.

And that’s the problem with philosophy. Nobody ever remembers what philosophers talk about. Sure, we all know that philosophers talk about complex stuff and about life and whatnot, but do we really remember anything specific about what they say?

I remember lots of things about things that I’ve done: I remember sticking a pair of tweezers in an electrical socket when I was a kid. I remember the first DVD I ever bought (Caddyshack), and I remember shaking former president Clinton’s hand at a political rally. I remember having a conversation years ago with a guy who remembered the time when he and his  girlfriend met the dude from nine inch nails and that his girlfriend totally said to the dude’s face that he was shorter than she expected.

I remember all that, but not what Peter Singer said.

Mind you, I was there. I can even name the people who I was with, and what we did afterwards. But I just can’t remember that lecture.

These are the notes I took during Peter Singer’s lecture

 

 

 

 

 

When I was in high school, I went with a friend to see The Cure in concert. Even though I spent the entire show standing next to two individuals who I can only assume were on the executive board of NORML, I remember the opening act (The Cranes), how much the female lead singer’s voice irritated me, what Robert Smith wore, and that The Cure played the song “Wish” on the encore. I remember there were thousands of people there to see the concert that night. If I had to guess how many people were at that Peter Singer lecture, I’d say the crowd topped out at (maybe) 50 people. I’m not saying that Peter Singer sucks or anything (I guess I would if I believed that he’s totally into eugenics), but philosophy lectures aren’t exactly rock concerts. People aren’t very enthusiastic about seeing philosophers because unless you’re a fan, you won’t hear anything you’ll remember years later

Obviously this has to change. The philosopher Colin McGinn proposes that philosophy undergo a name change. McGinn writes:

“I have a bold proposal: Let us drop the name “philosophy” for the discipline so-called and replace it with a new one. The present name is obsolete, misleading and harmful — long past its expiration date.”

I don’t know if a name change is going to solve the problem. We can call philosophy “hot steamy sex with your left toe”, but so long as philosophers continue to say things that are un-memorable a semantic switcheroo won’t help.

Until we figure out what to do, philosophy is doomed.

I recommend backup dancers and flashpots.

 

NOTES:

  1. Colin McGinn. “Philosophy by Another Name”. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/philosophy-by-another-name/

 

War and the Utilitarian dilemma

Once upon a time, I used to read the Bible. Reading the Bible is neither unusual nor a particularly special or significant act. Millions of people read the Bible.

The reason why I mentioned reading the Bible is this: As anyone who has ever thumbed through the Bible knows the Gospel of Matthew says this:

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matt. 24:6. NIV)

These says, I usually don’t read from, let alone quote from the Bible, except to make a point about something.

I swear this post actually has a point.

It’s been 15 months since the start of the confilct in Syria. The Arab Spring was supposed to bring liberty and democracy to the oppressed citizens of the Middle East, but instead of news stories of people enjoying the benefits of freedom and the lack of government oppression, I read stories about entire villages slaughtered and talk of a proxy war with Russia. This news has even an avowed apatheist like me reading my Bible.

So far, the conflict between Syrian rebels and government forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has taken over 10,000 lives (I’ve seen reports that the number of dead Syrians is over 14, 000), and recently reports have surfaced that children have been murdered, tortured, and used as human shields. Worse yet, there doesn’t seem to be an end to this confilct coming any time soon.

The world community has threatened sanctions against Syria, but is this really going to help? Will sanctions convince President al-Assad that he needs to step down? (Lets remember that Fidel Castro ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2011, and stepped down only when his health began to fail — not because U.S. sanctions forced him out of office. Castro once said,”I’m really happy to reach 80. I never expected it, not least having a neighbor – the greatest power in the world – trying to kill me every day.”) The world comunity has the option of removing the Syrian president by force, but is a military assault on Syria the most humane  or even the best way of removing a tyrannical dictator?

Obviously, something must be done to stop President al-Assad from harming the citizens of his country. But what should we do? Is it morally permissible to interveve in Syria’s conflict, and what, if anything, would be the morally correct thing to do?

What we have here is a utilitarian dilemma.

Utilitarian ethics, most notably associated with the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, is the ethical theory that tells us an act is morally right or permissible if and only if the act produces the greatest happiness (or good) for the greatest number of people. On Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill wrote:

“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.”
When a utilitarian asks whether an act is good or bad (or right or wrong) he is asking, “what consequence will follow from my act?”
So how should the global community bring about the greatest good in Syria?
If we suppose that emposing sanctions against the al-Assad regime will deter the government from engaging in acts against its citizens (thus maximizing the people’s happiness)– lets look at how sanctions have worked in the past. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Pakistan, and Libya have all had economic sanctions imposed in response to violations of human rights.  Iran, North Korea, and Cuba are still ruled by the established “dictatorship” to which the global community was opposed. But wait a minute: we know that Iraq and Libya are no longer under the rule of their dictators (Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi respectively). But neither was removed by way of sanctions. They were removed by force.
In 1993, the U.S. Catholic Conference stated:
“Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”  
The Catholic (and philosophical) doctrine of just war can be traced back to the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who both argued that war is necessary (and morally justified) if the intention is to prevent a greater evil.  It is obvious that the massacre of innocent men, women, and children counts as a great evil. And we would be morally justified in doing something — but is a military intervention in Syria the right thing to do?
This is why the answer might be no.
Anyone who has fiddled around at all with utilitarian ethics (and I’m pretty sure that’s all of us) has discovered that there is one, big problem with grounding the rightness or wrongness of our acts on what we think will happen — namely, we have no idea what will happen in the future. The problem with utilitarian ethics is that it is always speculative. We’ll never be certain of outcomes — no matter how well-intended our intentions are. And speaking of intentions, if the moral permissibility of an act is based on consequences (as opposed to duty or intentions) we can lie, cheat, manipulate, or use coersion so long as what we want is good outcomes. It’s not just that — utilitarian-based morals also allows us to mistreat or even kill other people if killing, torturing, damaging people, or violating human rights if doing so contributes to the happiness of the whole. In fact, philosophers have dozens of thought experiments explaining how utilitarian ethics screws people up.
If this isn’t bad enough, another problem with utilitarian ethics is that we just cannot properly calculate benefits and harms. We’ve all etiher heard of or experienced the effects of the “law of unintended consquences”. I’m certain that the Allies thought they were teaching Germany a lesson with the Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of WWI, but just as the Allies had calculated that punishing Germany was a good thing (i.e. they wanted to maximize the happiness for Europe and the rest of the world), they had also laid the groundwork for WWII. If we act, and the greater happiness (good) of others isn’t the consequence of our act, we’re morally on the hook for what we did.
By the way, did I mention that we’re required to think about everybody? John Stewart Mill wrote:

“The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not…(one’s) own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”

But — how do we know for certain what the happiness of “that of all concerned” is? How do we know if we use force against President al-Assad that we’re not just causing more trouble in the long run? If we’re utilitatians we just cannot know.

Stupid is as unions does

Mitt Romney hates teachers. Ok, that might not be true. I don’t know if Romney personally hates educators. It’s just that I’ve been hearing that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that the President’s jobs plan (that stresses more public sector job growth; including hiring more firefighters, police officers, and teachers) goes against what the American public wants.

Even if Mitt Romney doesn’t hate teachers, there are plenty of people out there that do. Or at least they hate the unions that teachers belong to. It’s not just that people don’t these unions — it’s that teachers unions are inherently bad.

Here’s something you might have heard if you attended the North American Association of Educational Negotiators 38th Annual Conference, March 29, 2006:

“The NEA and AFT have long argued that what is good for America’s teachers is good for America’s children—and by implication, for America itself. As a general statement this is demonstrably false, and the willingness of too many superintendents, school boards, legislators, and governors to act as if it were true has had a pernicious effect on the quality of American schooling.”

The “pernicious effect” of teachers and their unions is often cited as the reason why a growing number of parents have opted to home school their children (in case you were wondering the number of homeschooled American children as of 2009 is 1.5 million). I’ve been on this planet for a few years now, and I like to think that I’m observant enough to know that the problem isn’t just with teachers and their unions. The problem is with education in general. Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?) wrote:

 “Education, n.  That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.”

The diminutive half of the 60’s folk-pop duo Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon, sang:

“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

That’s really what our problem with teachers, teachers unions, and education (in general) is, isn’t it? It’s the fear, that after all the time we spend in school, we will emerge from the academy as fools incapable of rational thought.

Now, if spending one’s days watching television and following the romantic exploits of  the cast of Jersey Shore and Justin Bieber will educate one just as well as spending seven hours a day in a classroom under the tutelage of a member of the NEA, one is left to ponder, exactly what is the purpose of an education, anyway?

Would you believe philosophers have something to say about this?

When philosophers think about education (aka philosophy of education), they sometimes ask questions like this (short list):

  • What does it mean to be “educated”?
  • Who determines educational content?
  • What is the purpose of education?

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates states that not only do children need to be taught in the right manner, but that it is the duty of the state to teach the youth. Socrates (or Plato, if you prefer), argues that the purpose of education is to create the right kind citizens, that is, to create individuals who will be best for the state and to ensure that citizens remain loyal to the city (yes, you are free to think of Huxley’s Brave New World). In Socrates’ ideal city, the right kind of education consisted of gymnastics, music, mathematics, logic, metaphysics, and military training. Ultimately, in Plato’s Republic, an education serves the purpose of social engineering rather than to develop an individual’s talents or abilities. When the state fails to educate children properly, Socrates warns, the result is sophistry  and a lack of wisdom. Worse yet, Socrates says if we are not educated in the right way we develop a love for the beautiful. Like Socrates, Aristotle emphasized education as a means to develop the right kind of person (i.e. a virtuous character) to serve the greater good for society. Aristotle wrote, “the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”

So, if we understand the ancients correctly, the reason why we need an education is to become wise.

Education –> Knowledge –> Wisdom = Ideal Citizen

Although the purpose of an education according to Plato and Aristotle was ultimately to produce philosopher kings (aka people better than any of us), by the 17th century, philosophers started to think that average folks can be educated, too. John Locke wrote that when we are born — you know this one — our minds are a blank slate (tabula rasa) upon which an education can be impressed.

This means any of us can be educated.

By the time of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson advocated public education. Jefferson believed that the right on suffrage was inextricably tied to the right to an education. Jefferson wrote:

“. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”

Once again, as Jefferson states, the purpose of an education is to make people better citizens.

But is this really the reason why we educate people? If we had no say in our government would we feel that an education is useless? I’d guess not. So why do we insist that our children be educated? To maintain the status quo? To produce workers? To produce wise citizens? Or is an education valuable for its own sake? Albert Einstein would say …sort of.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) states that education has two functions:

  1. To educate individual as free individuals. To develop and understand critical thinking skills and to determine Truth for themselves.
  2. To educate individuals to be members of society

The American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) argued that the value of an education is pragmatic. That is, an education is good if it has practical value. According to Dewey, knowledge is the result of practical problem solving and application in the real world. In the real world, Dewey states, we can see the implications of what we have learned and what happens when we put our theories into practice. Real world use, Dewey argues, is more useful that simply learning facts. Dewey states that each student is a unique individual who learns at his own pace, and that teachers ought to be a facilitator of knowledge rather than Platonic knowledge dictators (you see, in Plato’s Republic individuality did not matter since the state is more important than the individual). Knowledge, according to Dewey, is the product of active participation and reflection.

It’s no wonder why Dewey’s view on education is so popular.

So what does this all mean?

I think this means that Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Locke (kind of), Jefferson, Einstein, and Dewey are all correct. Education is not only has extrinsic value (education “leads” to higher-paid workers and well-informed voters) but is also inherently valuable for its own sake. Educated brains heal from trauma faster, age slower, and are less likely to develop senile dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Education should not only teach us how to be wise, but should also consider our individuality as well. I also believe that Plato and Jefferson are correct in holding that a properly educated citizen is beneficial to the state — and, as Socrates/Plato argues, that the state has a responsibility to educate its people.

…And that gets us back to Mitt Romney and his teachers union-hating cohorts (ok, I have no independent knowledge that Mitt Romney and/or his cohorts hate unions). When we think about education, specifically, when we think about why we teach and why think learning is important, our arguments shouldn’t get caught up on bothersome unions, but, wait… no, I forgot. I hate unions.

 

NOTES:

  1. Frederick M. Hess and Martin R. West. “A Better Bargain: Overhauling Teacher Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century”. North American Association of Educational Negotiators 38th Annual Conference. American Enterprise Institute. March 29, 2006. http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/content/quotes-teachers-unions-101
  2. Stats on homeschooled American children: http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=91
  3. “Kodachrome”. Lyrics by Paul Simon. copyright 1973. Universal Music Publishing Group.
  4. Thomas Jefferson quote: http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/winter96/jefferson.html

 

The philosophy of head colds

This morning I woke up with a sore throat. I think it might be a pre-summer cold, but then it might be due to the fact that I tend to sleep with my mouth open. Either way, when I woke up, my throat felt like it was on fire.

My morning illness got me thinking about something. I don’t think in the entire time that I studied philosophy that I ever read anything any philosopher had to say about being sick. After all, the first physicians were philosophers — they must have had something to say about it. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wrote

what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life.

I had figured that thinking about illness and disease is at least as important as thinking about phenomenalism or Fregean truth-functional statements, so I decided to spend a little time trying to find out what philosophers have to say about the state of ill-health.

I wish I looked this good with a sore throat

 

I already knew that Aristotle (and ancient Greek philosophers in general) wrote about matters of health and medicine — Aristotle wrote about (everything) causes, including his theories of the causes of disease. The ancient Greek Philosopher Hippocrates, known as the “Father of Medicine” (and also for the Hippocratic Oath) established medicine as a discipline separate from philosophy. And the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina (also known by the Latin name Avicenna) not only wrote extensive treatises on topics ranging from philosophy to medicine, astronomy, logic, and physics, but also Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine (1025) was the standard text used in Medieval universities. The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) is not only one heck of a political philosopher, but was one of Europe’s most respected physicians… even if he didn’t have a medical degree.

Ok, so what does this mean?

After looking for information about philosophy and medicine for approximately fifteen minutes, I concluded that any one who spends even a minimal amount of time on Google can find the philosophical history of modern medicine. But the history of the study of illness wasn’t really telling me what to think about my sore throat. I was still wondering: what do philosophers have to say about illness and disease?

This is what I found:

When philosophers think about illness, disease, and health, philosophers often ask questions like, “what is health?”, “Are disease-causing entities real?”, and whether a reductionist approach to medicine is correct. While I was reading about ontological and epistemological debates concerning the metaphysical status of “disease-causing entities” I couldn’t help from thinking about what Wittgenstein said about philosophy needing to be about improving our thinking about everyday life. I know that discussing epistemology is all in good fun for philosophers, but is this really helping me get any closer to getting rid of my present malady?

Not really, no.

I think this is why, when we think about illness, disease, suffering, and death, we often look to New Age metaphysicians rather than to philosophical metaphysicians. A philosopher might be good for a debate about “the diminution of complex objects or events to their component parts.”, but if I’m thinking about healing and/or the origin or end of suffering, I might open up a book written by Dr. Wayne Dyer rather than by Aristotle.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that philosophers have missed the mark entirely on matters on medicine (although I will say so about philosophers and philosophy of religion). Philosophers in the field of medical ethics question and debate issues of every day medical and philosophical importance: abortion, euthanasia, organ donations, stem cell research, quality of life, end of life — even the doctor-patient relationship (itself).  I know that when I read Peter Singer’s writings on suffering or on irreversibly brain damaged patients, think about the pros and cons of universal health care, or when I hear the words “death panels”, that someone is making not only a statement about modern medicine, but about medical ethics as well.

All of this still does absolutely nothing for my sore throat.

 

 

Moral questions, ambiguous answers

There’s something funny about morals. Even though we all agree that there is a right and a wrong (at least most of us agree that there is a right and a wrong), no one is really all that sure exactly what right and wrong is. Philosophers have made a good game out of  talking and thinking and thinking some more about matters of morality and ethics, but for all these centuries of talking and thinking even the most learned minds can’t definitively tell us what to do and what not to do.

The lack of a definitive answer has become a problem.

You don’t have to be a student of philosophy to know of or practice a philosophical school of ethics; utilitarianism, deontological ethics, divine command theory, ethical relativism, ethical egoism, and so on. If I had to make a wager, I’d bet that most people are utilitarians. That is, most people, even if they don’t know it, think that our moral choices should have something to do with the common good. I think this is the way that most people are designed; that humans have some sort of innate want to see to it that others are cared for, even if that means that we will do without. Our need to act in the interest of the common good is why we have public schools, welfare, social security, and fire departments. Most people would say these are good things…. most people.

That’s our problem. Even though we’d like to say that utilitarianism is the right moral theory, we can only say that it applies to most people. Followers of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism would certainly object to the utilitarian obligation to increase the happiness of others, and state that the utilitarian Greatest Happiness Principle  is not only morally objectionable but downright evil. Even utilitarians can’t agree on what the common good is. Is every person entitled to free medical care or a minimum wage? Should we tax the rich to pay for the poor? Is that fair? Is it really serving the common good? Is it right to make others suffer to provide for others? What about torture? War? The death penalty?

Ethical relativists, Kantians, and even followers of divine command theory would even agree that facilitating the common good is not always a good thing. Still, every moral theory commands that I do the right thing.

So, what do I do? Should I pursue the common good? Should I pursue my own rational interests as Ayn Rand commands? Should I do only what God tells me to do? I don’t know. But as I see a world full of suffering I realize that cannot spend time thinking about what to do.

And it seems my philosophy hasn’t gotten me any closer to finding an answer.