On Justifying Anger as a Way of Life (Philosophically)

I think I watch too much cable network news.

It’s not just because I have a thing for Rachel Maddow.

I read somewhere that people who watch a lot of cable news tend to see the world as much more dangerous and threatening than it really is. I also read that regular cable news viewers tend to be fairly angry people.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ll confess I’m a fairly angry person.

That just might be a case of the chicken and the egg.

I mean, I might be an angry person without Fox News.

Most days I feel like this guy. Even when I‘m not watching TV.

Most days I feel like this guy. Even when I‘m not watching TV.

Aside from the hypertension and occasional tension headache, being an angry person isn’t as bad as some tell me that it should be. In fact, I’d say so far as being a philosopher goes, being an angry person is a positive boon.

Schopenhauer seems like a pretty angry person.

Hegel probably wasn’t a ball of glad tidings, either.

And Nietzsche if he wasn’t an angry guy did a pretty good job of writing like one.

Yeah. This definitely looks like a guy who suffers from a persistent choleric disposition.

Yeah. This definitely looks like a guy who suffers from a persistent choleric disposition.

Being angry often gets a bad rap. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (3-65 CE) called anger “the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions”. We’re often told that anger isn’t a good thing. Anger is unproductive, even dangerous. Anger is frequently associated with irrationality and an inability to maintain self-control (and if you’re an irate driver who throws some lady’s bichon frisee into oncoming traffic, anger is the cause of “road rage”). We’re told that to feel anger is irrational and leads to rash actions and bad behavior.

And if you ask Master Yoda, hate and suffering.

So much of philosophy favors the intellect over emotions. There’s a good reason why this is so. Namely, when we feel intense emotions like anger, we tend to suspend our logical decision making. It’s not that philosophers think emotions are wrong or that we shouldn’t feel them (even Master Yoda doesn’t say that), philosophers believe that we should trust our rational judgment. When we trust our rational decision-making processes, philosophers say, we are more likely to act in a way that is productive and beneficial to everybody.

I think everyone will agree that using logic and reason is a good thing. But, sometimes rational judgments fail to give us the oomph we need to get something done. We can lay out all the rational arguments in the world but logic often leaves us without motivation.

If history is any kind of teacher, we know that two emotions get people going: fear and anger. Fear often works out pretty swell, but sometimes fear has unintended consequences.

Fear can be paralyzing.

Fearful people retreat.

Fearful people sometimes pick flight instead of fight.

Sometimes being angry is a good thing.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote anger is “inherent in our very frame and constitution.”

Being angry is just as natural as dandelions and Shetland ponies.

There’s plenty to get angry about: the media, politicians, TV political pundits, people who pollute the environment, corporate CEOs who give themselves pay raises while their companies go out of business (yes, Hostess, I‘m talking about you), conservatives, liberals, reality television., terrorists, broken shoe laces, anyone who drives a Toyota Prius, people who are famous because they’re famous…

So don’t feel bad for wanting to bludgeon that guy driving the silver Toyota Prius who cut you off on the freeway this morning. You were only fulfilling your inherent nature.

No, wait put down the baseball bat.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that everybody should be angry at everything, or that uncontrolled and indiscriminate anger is a good thing. I’m not advocating rage. Rage is destructive.

No one wants you to get so angry that you end up here.

No one wants you to get so angry that you end up here.

I am suggesting, however, that Seneca is incorrect. Anger is neither “hideous” nor “frenzied”, nor is angry people insane or consumed by a blinding emotion.

It’s possible to be reasonably angry.

Anger, if properly exercised, can be a constructive motivator to action.

Anger not only gets people riled up

anger motivates people to do things.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that anger isn’t a bad thing. According to Aristotle, anger is the mean between two extremes.



(for info on Aristote’s Golden Mean: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_mean_(philosophy))

If one lacks anger, he is apathetic. If an individual is too angry, one is filled with rage. Not enough anger, you’re “The Dude”; too much you’re the Incredible Hulk. The key to being properly angry Aristotle says is knowing when and why to get angry. Aristotle writes:

He then who is angry on the right occasions and with the right persons, and also in the right manner, and at the right season, and for the right length of time…

Aristotle is no stoic. He doesn’t believe that angry people are crazy. Aristotle says, “Those who are not angered by what ought to anger them seem to be foolish.”

Well, then. If Aristotle is right, there are a lot of no-too-foolish people out there.

Our problem isn’t that we’re angry; it’s that we haven’t channeled our anger into the desire to change things for the better; to master anger getting angry at the things we should be angry about; to get angry at the right things for the right reason to master the art of Aristotelian anger.

If you’re wondering what Aristotelian anger looks like, here’s something to get you started:


But hey, if I’m wrong. Don’t get angry at me.



Seneca thought angry people are insane. As a stoic philosopher, Seneca believed that any worry, fear, or anger we feel over situations beyond our control (e.g. someone else’s driving) is ultimately unproductive and disruptive to our philosophical well being. Stoics believed that life’s troubles (in particular) should be met with calmed indifference. Given this point of view, anyone who is angered over a seemingly trivial matter would seem out of one’s mind.

At this time, I am developing a theory of Angryism. Angryism is a theory based on the belief not only that most people spend a significant amount of time being angry, but that anger can be a proper basis of behavior.


1. David Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature. 2000, 2005 [1739]. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Bk. 3. Pt. 3. Sec. 7

2. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2004. Trans. F.H. Peters, MA. NY: Barnes and Noble Books. 86-7.



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.

…For They Know Not What They Do

I was watching season three of The Family Guy last weekend. As I am philosopher, I’ve trained my eyes to find the philosophic significance of any and all that I see on television. Now, initially, I enjoyed the episode “Petarded”, because it was politically incorrect, and because. it’s fun to mock the afflicted. But when I watched last weekend, I realized that there was more there than meets the eye. Lurking behind the juvenile “retarded” jokes was the age-old question dealing with moral inclusion — namely, the question dealing with the culpability of mentally challenged people. In this episone, Peter is diagnosed as mentally disabled (he says retarded, because saying that is funnier than saying he’s disabled or challenged). Peter, realizing that he’s now mentally feeble, uses his challenged state to his advantage. He starts a Bible fight in church, he opens the occupied stalls in the ladies’ bathroom — all the while excusing himself by announcing that he’s “retarded”. Normally, we would say that Peter’s behavior is inexcusable. if a “normal” person took a peek at us while we were in a public bathroom, that person would probably have an asskicking headed his way. (This is exactly what Sasha Baron Cohen does with his character Borat. By pretending to be ignorant and a little stupid, he gets away with things that we wouldn’t tolerate from someone who we thought was normal. There is much more at work with the character, but I won’t go it to that here). But, if someone is in a position that he is unable to control himself (or unable to understand what he’s doing) we tend to treat those people differently. They do not share the same level of moral culpability as someone who is considered fully functional and rational. So what do we do with people who are not rational? Are they (can they be) responsible for what they do? The emphasis on rationality is one of the drawbacks when we consider human behavior philosophically, especially when we look at the behavior of people who clearly are not rational. There are those who are mentally handicapped — born with or by way of accident — who are not able to control or understand their actions (morally, consequences, etc). This is why we do not punish children as we punish adults (except in extreme circumstances) in the legal system. Children do not understand the full extent of their actions. Likewise, we treat people who are mentally handicapped in a manner tha is different than we treat “normal” people. But Peter isn’t organically damaged, he merely believes that he’s “retarded”. What if someone isn’t mentally challenged but believes that they are? They say that hanging around crazy people can make a person crazy. And certainly there is alot of anecdotal evidence to prove this to be the case. I don’t remember what the name of the movie was, but there is this movie about this dude who wasn’t mentally disabled, but was raised in an institution his entire life before someone figured out that he was normal. All I remember is that it was made in the 70s and it had Frederic Forrest in it (I should probably IMDB it someday). So, if someone said that you were mentally disabled (but yoy weren’t) are you still responsible for what you do — assuming that you are actually rational? Are rational people who think irrationally still responsible for what they do? We know that in Peter’s case, even though he seems to take his diagnosis seriously, he’s still morally on the hook for what he does (and CPS seems to think this as well, as they threaten to take his children away from him). But what about people who really are mentally disabled? Our attitude tends to be “it depends”. When we see, for instance, a mentally challenged person who is accused of committing a crime, our first inclination is to ask how mentally challenged that individual is. If a person is merely “slow”, we tend to show less sympathy for their condition than if a person were fully incapable of understanding their actions. If a mentally disabled person were accused of murder, we would ask if he demonstrated signs of knowledge of what he had done. We would ask if he ran from the scene of the crime or if he showed remorse for what he did. If he does, we would say that he understands that what he did was wrong, and that he should be punished. But then we ask, to what extent is to be the proper punishment? When Bill Clinton was runnig for president in 1992, he went back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally challenged man who was condemned for committing a murder. Clinton’s decision to uphold the death sentence was blasted by those who felt that the condemned man lacked the mental capacity to understand what he had done. They felt that the punishment was excessive considerning the fact that the man was mentally handicapped. Questions of dimished capacity also arise when we think of the treament of children in the justice system. When a 6 and an 11 year old perpetrated a massacre of their classmates in Jonesboro, the question of whether a child as young as six can understand the implications of his actions came to national prominance. If a child that young can conceive of shooting and killing his classmates with high-powered firearms, does he have the mental capacity understand his actions and be held responsible for what he’s done? If the child is not mentally disabled (meaning that besides his young age, he’s normal), and we agree that all humans have the capacity for rational thought, then at what point is the child rational enought to be held accountable for what he does? Kant says that we should treat people as if they are rational, free moral agents (this avoids the urge to be paternalistic, which would, according to Kant violate an individual’s autonomy).But if we treat all people as if they are rational, are we not treating people in a manner that they are not? The appeal of Kant’s theory is that it is cut and dry. There is no room for ambiguity. But in real life, there is more ambiguity than we know what to do with. We’re often left to wonder how rational a person is. A person may be able to function in society (even function without anyone else helping them), but they aren’t fully rational people. I think of the character Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Lenny has the capacity to function in society. He’s capable of holding a job, and does it well. But mentally, he like a child. When Lenny kills Curley’s wife, the act is unintentional. He was trying to feel her hair, but he panicked when she began to scream. Nonetheless, Lenny murdered the woman. He knew he had done wrong, but also seemed incapable of controlling himself when he did it. (Much like how a child acts). What would Kant have to say about Lenny? When the men on the ranch learned that Lenny killed Curley’s wife, they gathered a lynch mob to kill him. When we read this, it seems like their punishment for Lenny is unfair –it’s not fitting considering that Lenny lacked the mental capacity to fully understand his actions. But, when Lenny’s BFF George kills him, somehow when George kills Lenny, we aren’t as offended. We understand that George didn not kill Lenny out of revenge, but for the need to protect Lenny from the gang (and maybe to protect Lenny from himself). When George kills Lenny, another ranch hand, Slim, tells George,” Never you mind… A guy got to sometimes”. There are those who say that this is why they see no wrong in executing prisoners with dimished capacity. It’s the “rabid dog” defense. They reason that it is inhumane to allow a rabid dog to go around potentially hurting other people. We don’t kill the dog because it is cruel or because we necessarily want to kill the dog, but because we are saving others from an animal that cannot control itself. To put a mentally challenged man behind bars for the rest of his life, they argue is wrong because he may not understand why he is being held (the reasoning being if he doesn’t understand that what he did was wrong, how could he understand that he needs to spend the rest of his life in prison for it?). We worry about punishing mentally challenged people excessively, but we know that we cannot simply let them go either.

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.


Arguably the best line ever delivered in the history of modern cinema was said in 1968 in George A. Romero’s classic tale of the undead, Night of the Living Dead. When asked by a local reporter if the dead are slow moving, Chief McClellan answers, “They’re dead. They’re all messed up”.

The chief’s response is the perfect meeting of a great line and a great delivery. That line had always stood out of the movie for me, even when I wasn’t in the habit of looking at things philosophically. But now since I’ve been bit by the philosophic bug, that line has lead me to ask myself a few questions: 1) What’s so messed up about death? 2) Is it messed up that you die? 3) Is there something inherent to death that, once someone dies they become messed up? 4) Are they messed up because they’re dead? 5) Is death itself a state of being messed up?

It really started to bother me.

Chief McClellan seems to think that the messed-upness about death is the fact that one is dead. Being dead, as evidenced by the chief’s sentiment and the ruthlessnes with which they “kill” the undead, robs an individual of his humanness.

Once a person dies (and in particular, if one reanimates) a person ceases to be morally considerable as anything other than something that must be destroyed.

Perhaps then, being messed up has something to do with the idea that a person lacks humanness.

So, I’m assuming that it goes something like this: person + dead = messed up, messed up = not human.

This seems to be the sentiment that not only runs through Romero’s movies, but throughout other zombie flicks as well ( I think a funnier description of the messed up state of dead people is said by the character “Rhodes” in George Romero’s Day of the Dead. Rhodes calls the undead “fuckin’ lunatics”. I say this because Rhodes may have been onto something and not known that he was).

This assessment, of course only leads us to more questions. I ask, if one can lose his humanness, what is humanness?

Does the fact that we die mean that we have to lose what makes us human (or at least morally considerable)? Also, I ask, when do we stop being human (this is important in the real world when we consider those who are only mostly dead, like someone who is in a persistent vegetative state or is “brain dead”)?

Does death mean we stop being human? Or is the sum of our humanity more than the sum of our (living) parts?

In the average zombie film, it seems that there is an inextricable connection between being human and being alive. This is exemplified by how the dead are described in the various films of the genre — “things”, “them”, “ghouls”, “stenches”, zombies”, “undead”, “deadites”, etc. They are called anything but “human” or “people”. If these movies reflect how we actually feel about the dead, then being a human (and thus morally considerable) is being something that is a body imbued with life.

It would take up too much time to get into the various views on what exactly life is, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that a thing that lives is something that breathes, has a discernible heartbeat, has a body temperature roughly around 98.6 degrees Farenheit, and neither rots nor attempts to eat the flesh of the living.

So, if life (as defined here) is a qualification for human classification, why do we worry about how the dead? Why do we worry about how dead bodies are treated (like why necrophilia is illegal in most states. I think that there are still a couple where you can have sex with any dead person that you want to get it on with), or why are we strongly discouraged from speaking ill of the dead?

Afterall, they’re not there to see us do anything to or speak ill about them.

Why do we keep promises to dead people? Seems like a waste of time to hold a promise made to a dead guy over our heads.

Perhaps our concern has more to do with our fear of ghosts, or visits from restless spirits, or divine retribution. Speaking of, I hope that Thomas Jefferson was haunted by the spirit of a dead friend whom he promised to use the friend’s money to buy the freedom of slaves when he died.

Jefferson didn’t.

But the question remains. If a zombie is messed up and morally unconsiderable, can we somehow cause harm to a zombie or other unliving person?

Since it’s so much fun, let’s look at zombies.

A zombie, according to Random House College Dictionary (def. 1), is

“the body of a dead person given semblance of life by a supernatural force”.

So, by definition, a zombie is someone who has the outward appearance of something that is living but is not: A zombie moves (or shambles), makes noise in the form of moaning, and in the case of Re-Animator’s Dr. Hill, it will perform oral sex on you.

(it’s a visual pun).

Zombies are put through various abuses throughout the pantheon of film: In George Romero’s Land of the Dead, zombies are made to fight each other over food (the “food” is a live person thrown into a cage with two zombies). In the 2004 re-make of Dawn of the Dead, the heroes play a shooting game where they shoot zombies who resemble celebrities. In Shaun of the Dead, zombies are used as contestants on a game show. In Tom Savini’s 1990 re-make of Night of the Living Dead and in Romero’s Diary of the Dead, zombies are used as target practice by local hillbillies.

In movies, zombies are killed, or re-killed in ways that we would never imagine treating a living person. This is because they’re “all messed up” — that is, not human.

There is a body but no one to offend. Since they’re dead already, you’re not killing anyone. “Killing” a zombie is no different than playing the latest RPG video game. But for some of us, this sentiment doesn’t sound right. Zombies look like us — they used to be regular people. It seems counterintuitive to treat someone who is dead in any way that we please. Being messed up doesn’t completely disqualify someone as morally considerable.

We do take care not to offend the dead, either by words or by deeds. In Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead, Barbara (who survives this time around) says about the zombies, ” They’re us. We’re them, and they’re us”. Barbara says this when she sees the local yahoos having their way with zombies. In Barbara’s view, a zombie is still a person. They’re more than their physicality. They don’t lose their personhood or humanness upon death. We’re still capable of committing violence against them. Their violence against us doesn’t seem to warrant mistreatment by the living.

There is a common thread that runs through the zombie films of Georre Romero that sets his films apart from other films in the genre. Namely, that Romero’s films may be entertaining, but they are also meant for us to think. This is a good thing.

The question (and the finer point) that runs through Romero’s zombie films is “who are the monsters?”. There is an obvious answer and there is the one that makes us a little uncomfortable.

Barbara discovered the answer when she saw the townies abusing the zombies.

When we think of an individual doing another person harm, there are two individuals that come to mind — the victim and the perpetrator.

We consider the act, but we also consider the intent of the person who committed the harm. This is where (I think it was) Kant was going when he suggested that it is wrong to break a promise to a dead man.

The moral transgression isn’t in that we harmed the dead person, so much in that it speaks to what kind of person we are morally. We evaluate the intent of the agent.

If I promise to buy the freedom of slaves with the money of my friend’s estate after he dies, and I do not, the moral harm is that I have shown myself to be untrustworthy, that I do not honor my own promises.

It does not matter who I made the promise to — I gave my word and I should honor my obligations to keep my word.

It’s funny that there is a reason [one might say excuse] as to why Jefferson acted as dastardly as he did. Jefferson wrote, ” The Earth belongs… to the living. The dead have neither power nor rights over it”.

Jefferson was kind of an Asshole.

Even Alexander Hamilton knew that.

A better example to use with zombies is how we treat animals or people with diminished capacity.

As Rhodes observed, zombies operate much like “lunatics”. That is, a zombie, as we are reminded in zombie flick after zombie flick, cannot be reasoned with. Likewise, people who have no control over their actions (perhaps because of mental illness) are not rational. It is incumbent on us, the rational ones, that we care for those who cannot control or care for themselves.

So perhaps we should think of zombies (or those who are mostly dead) more like we think of the mentally ill, or people who suffer from an addiction or compulsion. Since they cannot be but what they are, we should treat them sympathetically.

But not paternalistic.

Kant says that’s wrong.

For instance, my dog does not understand that there is a legitimate reason why he is not allowed to poop in the house. If I attempt to demonstrate my very well thought-out reason he shouldn’t, he won’t understand my reasoning. I cannot treat him as if he should understand. Nor would I hold him to the same rational standard that I would another rational adult human.

Therefore, when my dog leaves an “accident” indoors, I cannot punish him in the same way that I would if he were a grown (rational) man who had crapped on my livingroom floor. If I did, I would be out of line for doing so. If I do (which would entail some asskicking, if he were a rational human), then I am in the moral wrong for my behavior. My willingness to overpunish my dog reflects on me as a rational moral agent.

My moral aptitude is demonstrated by my actions.

So, if I string a zombie up and poke it with sticks for shits and giggles, it says much more about what kind of person I am than about how dangerous the zombie is.

And that’s precisely what Barbara saw.

It wasn’t the zombies who had lost their humanity, but the living.

The living had ceased to act like humans.

Their intent was to cause harm — it just so happens that their targets were people that they could get away with treating so badly.

Like the man who makes a promise to his dying friend and then breaks it, they treated the zombies harshly because they knew that they would get away with doing so. To them, a zombie is nothing more than a thing. It is not a person. It deserves no moral consideration. It deserves no respect.

An interesting side note is that we can see this attitude (maybe not to such a degree) in our electronic world. Websites such as Second Life enable people to enter a “reality” where they can act and do what they choose. A person can indulge any and every desire. The idea is, is that if there is no real person, then there is no moral transgression. There is no living being to offend.

This is the same idea that is behind the idea of virtual child pornography. Since the child in question is the product of a computer and there is no real child who corresponds with the virtual image, then there is no moral wrong with having (virual) sex or viewing sexually explicit images of children who do not exist. But, we know that even if there is no actual being being molested, but there is an actual someone in the real world who is having sex with virtual children.

If one doubts that there is a problem here, all one needs to do is ask this question: would you feel comfortable alone, camping in the woods with someone who you discovered enjoyed rape/murder fantacies in a virtual world? Would it matter if nothing actually happened to anyone who actually existed (that they only did it with/to a virtual person, an automaton, or god forbid, a zombie), or would the fact that that person even entertained those sorts of intentions cause you to turn down the invite to go camping this weekend?

My guess is you’d suddenly have to wash your hair and take the cat to the vet that weekend.

What matters isn’t that the victim is dead and “all messed up”, but that, like Romero suggests, the monsters — the MORAL monsters — are us.

The end scene in Diary of the Dead is the perfect example of this point of view:

The final scene of the film depicts a couple of gunsmen who have rigged up zombies for target practice. Their last target is a female zombie who has been strung up from a tree by her hair. One of the gunsmen shoots, blasting her body away from her head. As her body drops, the top half of her head and her hair remain rigged to the tree. And as her head dangles, a single blood tear streams from the corner of her eye.

This final scene, the zombie’s single tear, suggests that despite her condition, she still retained some bit of her humanity.

Perhaps she wasn’t as messed up as Chief McClellan has believed. Somehow she, despite being dead, still feels.

The body my die and whither away, but there is some part of us that remains.

There’s a “something else” (the soul, perhaps — if your theology goes that way) is what is harmed by the actions of the living.

It seems that many people, when they think of people who died, tend to treat the dead according to this view.

But of course, any atheist (or strict materialist) would object to notions of souls existing past death.

Spoil sports.

We’ll grant them that.

(primarily because that’s what I believe myself).

So, in real life, the dead do not a gamble around and eat the living, and godless materialists may not believe in souls, but we do have, in our own minds, memories of those who have passed.

We can or should respect that.

There’s an old cliche — that a person isn’t truly dead so long as we keep them in our hearts. This may be why we are offended by the idea of treating a dead person improperly — why the idea of necrophilia or cannibalism (unless we happen to be stranded in the Andes mountains with our soccer team), or procuring organs without the original owner’s consent, are abhorent to us.

The body is material and will eventually rot and turn to dust. But the body is also symbolic of the person who once was. And to that, we feel have a deep moral obligation.

Until we are completely forgotten and lost to history, we may argue, when we die, we become more than the sum of our parts. At least as long as those who remember us are living, our existence, our humanity, becomes transcendent.

More importantly, how we regard the dead reflects on who we are — that we  are honorable, moral people.

So, it is indeed possible to harm the dead, because when we harm the dead, we harm ourselves.

Treating the dead harshly takes away from our own moral standing — we become less human when we do so.

The short of it is, is that when we die we don’t lose our humanness. And being dead isn’t so messed up.

Well, it’s either that, or we really are afraid of visits from good old Jacob Marley and his rattling chains.

….. or even worse, that kid from The Ring.

More From the Realm of Bad Analogies: On the Role of Faith In Our Belief in God

I get frustrated at the fact that so many philosophers seem to ignore the obvious. That is, they want things like theories that are consistent or arguments where conclusions logically follow from the premises. They like things like precision. But they ignore the fact that life, and especially life as it is lived by humans, just doesn’t give us the consistent, logically correct conclusions that we’d like to get from life. Life just ain’t that way. but still, they try and try, and push themselves further and further away from what or how people actually think and feel. There. I just said it. Philosophers push themselves away from how people feel. Emotions are somewhat akin to dirty words in philosophy. They’re not supposed to be mentioned among educated company. Emotions are irrational. Emotions live in the realm of wishful thinking and contradictory beliefs. We can’t use them. At least, no philosopher would ever trot out a “I think that because I just feel that it’s right” during an argument. Although sometimes, I secretly begged that one would. But they don’t. They can’t. It wouldn’t be philosophic. Which, by the way, all that clinging to all things orderly and philosophic has always bothered me when I hear philosophers discuss matters of God and religion. It seems that, with all of their finely-tuned arguments that philosophers kinda miss the point. They know what they need to say, but they can’t say it. God is meant to be felt. But our philosophic arguments for believing in God won’t allow us to say that exact reason why any of us ever accepts God, or Jesus, or whatever in the first place. Jesus is a better high than any drug. And not only does God love us, but we love him. And you can’t argue for or against that. I had a constant question that I kept asking in my philosophy of religion class: who was all of that reilgious philosophy written for? I mean, I may knock Alvin Plantinga or Peter van Inwagen or whomever, not just because it’s fun to take shots at people who are more intelligent that I can possibly become, but because I wanted these guys to lay their feelings (yes, feelings) out on the line. I wanted to hear some philosopher say, “look buddy, this is what I believe. And no, wise guy, I don’t have a legitimate reason for doing so. It’s all about what I feel when I’m in church, or when I know that God is with me”. This is the way that most believers speak about their beliefs. They say, look, if you don’t appreciate what I believe, then you can take your non-believing, condemned ass out somewhere and take a hike. I was waiting for the moment when I would read one of these guys say, “you don’t believe, then that’s too bad. I’m dusting off my feet, now”. But nope. All I read was arguments. All of those premises, and inferences, and conclusions, possibility and probability and all those possible worlds… The funny thing is, is that when you get down to the wire, arguing for the existence of God is like explaining to someone who doesn’t like chocolate that chocolate tastes good. You can’t say exactly what makes chocolate good other than saying that you feel the goodness when you put it in your mouth. When you eat chocolate, your mouth goes, “yeah”. If you don’t experience the “yeah” you never will. You can put up the most logically correct argument, and the world will look at you, and philosophers will adore you, and tell you that your proof for the existence of God is elegant and wonderful. But the plain truth is, is that no matter how wonderful, there will always be some asshole (most likely me) that shrugs and says, “nah, I ain’t buying it”. No matter if your argument pushes the existence of God from possible to probable (and if you’re reading the Bible, from probable to certain), so long as any person can say they ain’t convinced, your wonderful, logically correct theory is just another example of overthinking on a rather simple thing. And the lesson is this: No matter what anyone, philosopher or otherwise, will tell you, God is more than the sum of our arguments. We cannot ignore the fact that what we feel, call it faith if you want, is at the heart of our belief in God. There isn’t an argument that any man can construct that can sway, crush, or create faith in the hearts of men. And that is a capital T truth. But then, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. I think that I like this one from the Book of Luke: The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, “here it is”, or “there it is”, because the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:20-21) ’nuff said.

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.