Friday, 30 December 2011

Witticisms Are Still -Isms

From the truly excellent Ivan:

Some religious believers fear that without any religious morality, atheists will take immoral or anarchic actions that could harm society. To them I say, Don’t worry—atheists are just as irrational and inconsistent in their ethics as you are in your religion.

This is a strong contender for one of the funniest things I've read this year.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Non-Human Moral Authority

Adam, of Daylight Atheism fame, argues that since there are no non-human sources of ethics, we must act according to some human-created ethic or other.  Here's the quote he's critiquing, from Peter Hitchens (the late Christopher Hitchens' brother):

"For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself."

And here's Adam's response:

The fatal flaw in this position is that, contrary to your confident presumption, there is no non-human moral authority. Every religious book is written, edited, and printed by humans. All moral opinions, interpretations, and proclamations are human opinions. If there were a huge, glowing set of tablets with commandments engraved on them that descended from the sky accompanied by angels blowing trumpets, and the choice was between following those or making up moral laws on our own, we'd be having a very different debate; but there is no such thing.

I don't know precisely what Hitchens was arguing here, but from the quote itself it appears that Adam's missing the point.  Vested in a non-human source doesn't mean made up by a non-human source.  What does it mean?  Well, we're told: an ethics that's vested in a non-human source is 'beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself'.  Adam thinks the only kind of ethics that falls into this category is divinely-dispensed commandments - but what about, for example, Kant? 

Kantian ethics is based on respect for the rational nature of others, and Kant certainly believed that it could be derived using pure logic.  Rationality could easily be conceived of as a non-human source, beyond the power of humanity to change. Sure, it's a made-up moral law, but it fulfils the criteria that Hitchens set for an effective moral code.  Adam's post could have been quite interesting - can non-theistic philosophy provide an effective non-human basis for morality, and, if so, how - but instead it's a thousand or so words of straw.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Liberate That Bottle Of Malt Liquor

More anarchy set to music, this time by Atom and His Package.  That's some threat, right there - we're gonna drop our trash on you - but unfortunately you need high ground for that.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

A Very Chomsky Christmas

Santa Claus is portrayed as a paternal manifestation of the welfare state which will benevolently give gifts to all without regard. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality the biggest gift getters are corporate executives, getting both outright grants and tax breaks while their employees are lucky to get a lump of coal.  Instead, most people will be shopping at these big chain stores, which make tremendous profit by preferential and illegal exclusionary deals. These stores are supposedly operating in a free market but it's anything but that. Further, the volume of their transactions means that within their organizations, they are a virtual command economy, a totalitarian top-down structure with no democratic input from their workers.

At this time of increasing sales volume, many are staffed by temporary workers, who have no benefits or health insurance and can't afford to get sick. And there's not going to be a good-hearted Scrooge to pay for your operation like he did for Tiny Tim. God bless us, every one. We'll need it.

From here. Merry Christmas, everybody!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

I'm A Better Anarchist Than You

David Rovics, taking a cheap shot at anarchist freegan freight-train-riding black bloc kids.  Honestly, this:

i'll just keep moshing
to rancid and the clash
until there are no differences
in gender, race or class

sounds like pretty good advice to me.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Is It Ethical To Call The Cops?

Here's an interesting idea that I've been wrestling with for a while: is it right to call the cops on somebody?  Let's say your house gets broken into and some of your property stolen.  In response, you call the State's law enforcement apparatus into effect, which hunts down the perpetrators and locks them up for years in terrible conditions (imprisonment, forced labor, prison rape and so on).  This does not seem like a proportionate response to losing a few hundred dollars' worth of belongings.  Would you trace down the burglars yourself and lock them in your basement for a year; or would you consider that a gross moral wrong, much worse than the original burglary?  If you consider that wrong, how can you justify having the State do it for you?

One preliminary point: I'm only talking about minor crimes here, and I'm only talking about cases where your life isn't actually in danger.  (Victims of impending assault, serial killers, or domestic violence have more iron-clad justifications for calling the police.)  Now I'm going to lay out a few counter-arguments that might justify calling the cops to investigate a minor crime, and give a brief rebuttal to them in italics.

Let's start with the strongest: the concept of State justice.  Individuals hunting down criminals and imprisoning them is obviously wrong, but not because imprisonment itself is wrong.  Imprisonment is ethical when it's delivered as fair recompense for a criminal act.  If we let individuals hunt down and punish criminals in any way they wanted, we would not have a fair system.  Therefore it's ethical to call in the State to do terrible things to criminals which you could never do yourself.

But are prisons fair recompense?  If forcing someone to live in current prison conditions counts as a disproportionate response, then it can't be justice.  This argument would work if prison conditions were much better than they are; currently, I don't think it does.

There's also a utilitarian argument for calling the cops that revolves around deterrence.  Locking up a thief in prisons (and prisons are goddamn awful) is clearly a disproportionate response - and it would be unjustifiable if it were done for its own sake.  However, imprisonment deters other crimes and lessens the overall level of suffering in society.  Deterrence works best when everybody knows about it, so the State is far better suited than the individual to punish in a flashy way.

However, do prisons deter crimes?  If we are to believe Foucault, prisons created organized crime (and it's very plausible that locking up petty criminals with worse criminals for months and years is going to create a breed of even worse criminals.)

You could justify calling the police by arguing that criminals forfeit their rights.  On this view, our rights are respected insofar as we respect the rights of others.  Once we disrespect another person's rights, our own rights are forfeit and others are ethically permitted to do what they like with us.  Thus, once a criminal steals your property, it's no longer wrong to lock him up in prison.

On the other hand, it's hard to condemn hunting down a criminal yourself on this view.  Moreover, who hasn't disrespected someone's rights at some point?  Who here would 'scape a whipping?

There's a response to my question - is it ethical to call the cops - that isn't quite a counter-argument.  It goes like this: "prison conditions aren't perfect, but we have to work with what we have.  Let's call the cops, and let the justice system run smoothly, and at the same time work for improved prison conditions."  I'm not going to argue against this at length, but I want to point out that this argument is not going to be much comfort for those who are actually imprisoned.  You could also argue that prison conditions (in Australia at least) aren't as bad as all that.  My research here isn't exactly bulletproof, so I'm prepared to be convinced.  However, if you accept that prisons are terrible, terrible places that nobody deserves to be in, my question stands: if you are burgled, how can you ethically justify calling the cops?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Epistemic Humility

One of the most important philosophical virtues is humility: the drive to reconstruct your opponent's argument in its most convincing form and to limit your own claims to that which your arguments strictly prove.  Philosophy without humility is mere rhetoric.  And there's a kind of philosophical humility that is very useful in everyday conversation, even for non-philosophers.  It ties into the philosophical definition of knowledge as justified true belief - in short, A knows that p if and only if:

1) A believes that p.
2) A is justified in believing that p.
3) p is true

where A is a person and p is a proposition.  Here's what I'm calling epistemic humility: respect for another person's justifications; for the second component of truth.

Often we meet steps 1 and 2 but fail at step 3, which is another way of saying that many reasonable-sounding propositions that are supported by evidence turn out to be false.  This holds for scientific propositions (Ptolemy's cosmology, for instance), mathematical propositions and philosophical propositions.  It's usually impossible to know whether a certain philosophical proposition is true until you've gone down the route of justification.  A common and unfortunate pattern of behaviour is believing that steps 1 and 3 are all that matters - that if you believe in something that turns out to be true, you're 'better at knowledge' than somebody who justifiably believes something false.

Let's take anarchism as an example.  Say you're studying the ethical implications of anarchism - concepts of freedom, property, coercion and all that - and, while you started out fairly anarchist-leaning, you end up after several years at a middle-of-the-road establishment leftist position.  In this instance, you were wrong - and the legions of commenters at places like Balloon Juice were right.  "You took your time coming round," they might sneer, "but I always knew you hadn't really thought your position through."  But this kind of thing is coming from a person who has not thought their own position through themselves!  Are they really 'better at knowledge' than you?

This is where epistemic humility comes in. What the establishment leftists ought to do here is recognize that you had justification for your anarchist position, just as they and the far-righters have justification for theirs.  Unless you're holding a position that's obviously wrong (few positions fall into this category, especially if they've been written on by philosophers at some point or other), you deserve at least an appreciation of why you hold that position.

Be humble in this sense, and don't ridicule people who took a long time to come around to your position. After all, they know that their old position was wrong, while - even if it's true - you just believe it.

(I should mention that the example above is purely hypothetical, and I am still a dyed-in-the-wool bomb-throwing goatee-wearing anarchist.  Smash the state, yo.)

Bombs Or That Sort Of Thing

"Is he really an anarchist, then?" she asked.
"Only in that sense I speak of," replied Syme; "or if you prefer it, in that nonsense."
She drew her broad brows together and said abruptly—
"He wouldn't really use—bombs or that sort of thing?"
Syme broke into a great laugh, that seemed too large for his slight and somewhat dandified figure.
"Good Lord, no!" he said, "that has to be done anonymously."
And at that the corners of her own mouth broke into a smile, and she thought with a simultaneous pleasure of Gregory's absurdity and of his safety.

GK Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday.

Say what you like about his Catholicism, but Chesterton was a very funny writer.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Chesterton's Anarchist

"Well," I said, "if the time ever comes when we all storm those houses, will you tell me one thing? Tell me how we shall do it without authority? Tell me how you will have an army of revolt without discipline?"
From GK Chesterton's essay 'The Anarchist'.

Chesterton was a beautiful prose stylist, and The Man Who Was Thursday is still one of my favourite books ever.  Nevertheless, I sympathized with Lucian Gregory more than Gabriel Syme; and I feel that Chesterton's image of the dapper, theory-obsessed anarchist is less effective than it might be.  It's possible to ridicule any political philosophy - indeed, any philosophy - by setting as its sole defender a man like Chesterton's Anarchist, a man who can speak for hours without mentioning anything of real-world significance.

If Chesterton had met his other anarchist, Gregory, on that park bench, I suspect he would have had a harder job dismissing him.  And regardless, I like to think that today you could reply to Chesterton's question by mentioning Occupy or Tahrir Square (and I'm sure there were equivalents in Chesterton's time.)  An army of revolt is not only possible without discipline, it is impossible with discipline.  A revolution organized by a central authority is a revolution in the literal sense of the word - it goes around and around, without changing anything.

Monday, 12 December 2011

How To Talk To Crazy People

(I'm aware that 'crazy' is pretty loaded language for people with mental disabilities.  I'm using it in the colloquial sense; if that's a problem for anybody, let me know and I'll probably change it.)

It's a reasonable question: how do you talk to people you think are crazy?  I'm not mainly talking about people who disagree about matters of established fact, but people who have a basic preference that you simply can't understand.  Say you're a committed fan of chocolate milk (or Jesus) and you meet somebody who's an equally committed fan of unflavoured soy milk (or Joseph Smith).  If you can't find the slightest shred of common ground, what on earth do you do?

Step 1: Back Away Slowly

If you can't find common ground with this person, then don't!  Go and talk to somebody else about chocolate milk and the Incarnation.  You'll have a better time, and so will they.  It's very unlikely that you'll be able to convince this person of anything, and you need to realize this as soon as possible.  As David Hume said, you can argue about how things are, not how things ought to be.  The instant you start using the magical cancer-curing properties of cocoa beans to argue that your preference for chocolate milk is objectively superior, you're trying to justify the unjustifiable.  Would you like it if they used the excellent prose of Orson Scott Card [1] to convince you that Mormons were right?  Probably not.

Step 2: Ask Questions

So you've tried to get away from this person, but you can't. Maybe they're your significant other's parents; maybe they're your son.  Maybe they're Superman, and they're following you with super-speed!  In any case, you're forced to have a conversation - a conversation you should start by asking questions.  You know that you're not going to convince them of anything, but you can't assume that this soy-milk-drinking Mormon feels the same way.  If you make flat statements about your belief in the love of Christ, it's likely to come off to them as an attack.  Far better to ask them about the health benefits of soy protein and sit back.

Step 3: Keep It Friendly

At some point in the conversation, chances are that either you or them are going to get angry about something and want to argue. This is a terrible idea!  Unless one of you is engaged in some kind of logical contradiction - you believe in the absolute value of limited government, say, but you want abortion to be illegal - there's no possibility of making headway.  It's tempting to assume that the other person is engaged in a contradiction, but don't: if there exists any consistent set of principles (a reflective equilibrium) that could justify their behavior, assume that they hold those principles.  This is a practical point - think how silly you'll look if they turn out to be consistent after all.

These steps are common sense, and I wouldn't have mentioned them at all if these kind of pointless debates didn't happen every day (on the internet and elsewhere).  On the internet, backing away slowly always works, so next time you're tempted to get in a huge fight, go outside instead.  Or read a book.  Or do literally anything else.


[1] This is, of course, a matter of opinion.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Ripple, Ripple

One way to get around the infinite-future problem posed in my last post would be to view consequences as like ripples in a pond: very strong around the point of origin, but getting progressively weaker as time goes on.  If I shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die, the immediate effects are huge - a man dies, his family are adversely affected, I might be arrested and jailed - but the secondary effects are a little smaller. 

Now, if it's true that a 'butterfly effect' occurs, then the secondary effects aren't practically smaller.  In a hundred years' time, the world might be substantially different than if I had not shot a man - but we can work around that as well.  As time passes, even if the ripples don't diffuse, the responsibility does.  Other people make decisions based off my shooting a man; people make decisions off their decisions; and it goes on and on like that. 

A consequentialist might say that I am not responsible for a third-tier decision made by somebody, or at least that they bear the responsibility for the consequences of their actions as much as I do.  On this view, after a hundred years, the number of people who made decisions based off my decision has ballooned to millions, who all bear the responsibility equally.  My responsibility for the state of the world then has broken up into a million fragments - and when near-infinite time passes, my responsibility dwindles to an infinitesimally small value.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Moral Luck and the Infinite Future

In my last posts I talked about Thomas Nagel's 'moral luck' and the problem it posed for consequentialism: if the morality of an action is dependent on the consequences, doesn't that mean that how moral our actions are is determined to some extent by chance?  Let's consider how this works for a moment.  We can control the morality of our actions to the exact same extent that we can predict or control the consequences of those actions.  If we know exactly what will happen when we take a particular action, then we can act in a way that we know is moral, right?  Well, sure, but that's not a situation that occurs in real life.

Most of us can have a pretty good guess at the short-term consequences of our actions. If we are very clever, we can sometimes predict the consequences of our actions over the period of a few years.  Nobody, however, can accurately predict what's going to happen in a few hundred years (outside of some very specific scientific claims,) and the future just keeps on going.  Consider the total consequences of an action, which are infinite or near-infinite, and consider the percentage of those consequences that we can predict.  It's an infinitely small percentage, which means that we have infinite uncertainty as to how moral any action we take is.

Applying moral luck to the infinite future means that consequentialism suddenly becomes much, much less practical.  A simple corollary: not only can we control the morality of our own actions, we can't judge the morality of other people's actions either.  How can a utilitarian say that Stalin's actions were wrong when the full consequences aren't yet clear?  You might pick an arbitrary period - say, fifty years - over which to consider the results of Stalin's actions, but I can see no way of justifying why one might pick fifty years rather than fifty thousand.


(I should mention I'm talking exclusively about 'resultant moral luck'.  Nagel identifies three other kinds of moral luck that are less important.)

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Nagel's Moral Luck

Here's a quick philosophical sketch of a concept that I think is useful when discussing consequentialist theories of ethics (theories where the moral value of an act is determined by its consequences, like utilitarianism).  If I'm missing an important aspect of this, feel free to correct me.

Thomas Nagel's concept of 'moral luck' is exactly what it sounds like: when how moral you are is determined by luck.  Intuitively, we think that we can decide (at least in theory) what the right action is before we act, and if stuff happens that's out of our control, then that's not our fault, right?  Not according to consequentialists: they argue that if the consequences of your action are bad then your action was bad - regardless of what your intentions were.

Here's a fairly uncontroversial example: two smokers are walking at night, each down a different street in a different city.  Both smokers take a last drag and toss their cigarette into someone's front garden - but while the first smoker's cigarette lands in a puddle of water and gets put out, the second smoker's cigarette lands in a spilled puddle of kerosene and sets the whole garden and house alight, killing everyone inside.  We would tend to regard the first smoker's act as an asshole move, but nothing too serious, and certainly not criminal.  The second smoker, though, is the kind of guy who gets used in cheesy anti-tobacco PSAs.  What's the difference between the two?  Just luck.

This, says Nagel, presents a problem for consequentialists. How can they provide an intuitive explanation for not considering both smokers equally?  There are various ways of dealing with this - expected value consequentialism, drawing a distinction between blame and moral responsibility - but I contend that the problem's larger than Nagel makes out.  In my next post I'll explain how.

Why We Thugs

Call me an animal up in the system
But who's the animal that built this prison

Man, prisons are a terrible idea. Or, in other words: "The prison also produces delinquents by imposing violent constraints on its inmates; it is supposed to apply law, and to teach respect for it; but all its functioning operates in the form of an abuse of power. The arbitrary power of the administration."

Is it just me, or is there very little pro-establishment hip-hop?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Je-SUS: An Observation

There exists a certain kind of pastor who consistently pronounces 'Jesus' with the emphasis on both syllables.  'Jesus', like most two-syllable proper nouns, is properly a trochee: Jesus. Robert and Kevin work much the same way.  With the emphasis on both syllables, 'Jesus' becomes a spondee: Je-sus.  This sounds a little odd.

My theory? This kind of pastor sees lack of emphasis as akin to lack of respect, and thinks that by stressing twice the number of syllables as others he expresses twice the amount of piety.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Psychopathic Groups and Moral Individuals

"The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with the all the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behaviour ... As individuals, men believe they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command."

Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society

Let me offer this Niebuhr quote as a piecemeal bit of support for my argument in my previous post.  A glance at Kierkegaard, with his polemics against the 'crowd' and his emphasis on the category of the individual, also confirms my conclusions (if not the way I get to them.) Crispin Sartwell's idea of a 'credibility index' seems related as well.

I suppose I should clarify that I'm arguing for the amorality of groups as opposed to actual people: individuals like you and the people you love.  There's a popular argument - and a documentary? - that says that if corporations are people, they're psychopaths.  Well, I agree, but why stop there?  Governments are no less psychopathic, for the same reasons.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Amoral Impulse of Political Groups

Here's a brief sketch of a philosophical argument for a fairly controversial thesis: that any political group with power that operates by consensus will opt to increase their own power rather than work towards ethical goals, even if that group is composed entirely of ethical individuals.  I don't expect this sketch to be a solid proof, nor do I expect it necessarily to be convincing, but I think there's a solid argument somewhere in here for an individualist ethics.

1) Let's take a pretty simple psychological model for this thought experiment.  Imagine that the people in this group have one main goal: to use the power of the group to achieve a particular ethical outcome.  Let's call the first person in the group P1, and the ethical outcome that they want E1.  Likewise, P2 wants E2, and so on.

2) Now for P1 to achieve E1 most optimally - let's say that E1 is 'increase social justice' - he needs two things: firstly, the group to agree with him, and secondly, the group to have sufficient power to carry out policies that would lead to E1.

3) Since P2 wishes to achieve E2 most optimally - let's say that E2 is 'provide resources to the poor' - he needs two things as well.  He needs the group to assent to E2, and he needs the group to have sufficient power to carry out policies that would lead to E2.

4) So when P1 and P2 get together, they will come into conflict over their particular ethical goals, but be in perfect harmony concerning the subsidiary goal of increasing the group's power.  Therefore, they will increase the power of the group far more easily and efficiently than they will use that power to go after any particular ethical goal.

5) When you add more people to the group, the conflict over the particular ethical goal worsens, but the goal of increasing the group's power will always be shared by all.  Therefore, the larger the group, the less likely it is that an effective compromise will be reached. Groups of very large size would tend to be paralyzed giants: groups with huge political power that do not actually use that power.

So, assuming my simplified psychological model, I've shown that political groups tend to grow in power much more quickly than they move towards ethical goals.


What are the problems with my argument?  

1) Let's start with the obvious: I'm assuming that rational, ethical actors won't be able to compromise.  P1 and P2 might well get together and find policies that work towards both their goals simultaneously.

2) I'm also assuming that the people in the group want to increase their power constantly, rather than wanting to increase it only once a consensus has been reached.

3) Groups can be formed on the basis of a particular ethical goal - to reduce suffering in the Sudan, for instance - and in that case there's no reason to believe the members of the group would be in conflict.

Why do I think my argument's worthwhile, despite those problems?

Well, I think that this is how politics works in the real world: groups with power tend to accrue other powers more reliably than they tend to accomplish any other goal.  This is in line with my anarchism, obviously, and other people are free to disagree.  If I'm right, then there's an argument that can be made along these lines successfully, even if it's not the argument I outlined above.


My thoughts on this matter are still pretty much in their infancy, so I would appreciate any criticism from other sources.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Frank Turner and TS Eliot

This video - Frank Turner's Journey of the Magi - is not my favourite Turner song, but it is my favourite Turner performance.  From the first line he's practically licking the microphone.  The lyrics are haunting, too, but if I were to complain it would be about the ending of each verse (and the entire last verse), which borders on trite.  He sets up the situation of three great mythical travelers - Moses, Odysseus and Balthazar - with care, but concludes with this: in the end / the journeys brought joys / that outweigh the pain.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of simple happiness. Still, the desperation of his psychological portrayal of the travelers is the best part - and I think I know why.  The title, Journey of the Magi, echoes an excellent T.S. Eliot poem of the same name, about the three kings who visited Jesus at his birth.  The third verse of Turner's song stresses the hopelessness of the journey, and so does Eliot's poem.

(As a sidenote, that poem really is excellent.  My three favourite things about it, not in order: the archaic wording of the first line, the incredibly detached description of the moment itself, and the 'old dispensation' in the final verse.)

The second verse of the song is about Odysseus after his long journey home, feeling estranged among surroundings that had lost their familiarity.  Like the third verse, it echoes a poem - this time it's Ulysses by Tennyson, which I think is excellent as well.  The final verse is composed of generic inspirational phrases - be what you believe! - but my issue isn't there.

It's the first verse, the one about Moses, that bothers me.  Like the second and third verses, it's about the despair that accompanies long struggle, but I can't seem to find any poem that it's based off.  And that's a problem: a poem about Moses' despair is a poem that I would dearly enjoy reading.  Am I missing an obvious reference here - is Turner just referring, ah, to Exodus - or what?

Friday, 11 November 2011

So Are They All, All Reasonable Men

Neither the French Revolution, nor Hitler, nor Stalin had ANYTHING to do with Atheism.

You did not hear the French, nor the Germans nor Russians proclaiming "I condemn you to death in the name of nothing in particular."


Again, no one ever killed anyone because they were being too reasonable. 

The above is most of a comment from some guy on Daylight Atheism in response to your standard atheism-is-Stalinism troll, and I was agreeing with it until I got to the last line and thought: is that really true?  Nobody's ever killed anybody from being too reasonable?  Now what the commenter means by 'reasonable' is no doubt some general term of approbation,  but in the sense of 'guided by reason', plenty of people have had good reasons to kill.  In the strictly amoral sense, there are plenty of reasons for a predator to murder if he thinks he can get away with it.  Even if we assume that 'reasonable' includes some kind of 'moral reason' a la bastardized Kant, there have still been plenty of people who murdered for what they thought were good moral reasons.

It would probably do this commenter good - say I, from atop my mighty throne - to read some Koestler.  Darkness at Noon's magnificent Rubashov (and his friend and jailer, Ivanov), outlines the utilitarian logic behind the horrors of Stalin's Russia. Friends must be sacrificed, they say, to achieve a better world; and the genius of Koestler is that we can read of Little Loewy hanging himself or Arlova being executed without immediately wanting to strangle Rubashov.  The mad policies of Stalin, on close examination, are powerfully rational, and it's our own blind spots that cause us to recoil from them.

Maybe I'm being uncharitable; maybe 'reasonable' doesn't strictly mean 'rational'.  Still, 'reasonable' people are prone to a kind of utilitarian logic that can have some very dangerous conclusions.  While atheism by itself doesn't lead to utilitarian atrocities - and of course utilitarianism doesn't equate to Stalinism - those advocating reason as a panacea need to embrace humility in the kind of conclusions they draw.

What You Are Capable Of

There is nothing everyone is so afraid of as being told how vastly much he is capable of. You are capable of - do you want to know? - you are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of standing almost any kind of maltreatment, abuse, etc. But you do not wish to know about it, isn't that so? You would be furious with him who told you so, and only call that person your friend who bolsters you in saying: 'No, this I cannot bear, this is beyond my strength, etc.
Søren Kierkegaard, from the journals

To my mind, this quote is up there with any of his aphorisms (including this), except for that amazing quote that begins pretty much every Kierkegaard journal or quote compilation:

I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth's orbit ——————————— and wanted to shoot myself.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Nuke The Vatican

A comment from a Daylight Atheism post, reproduced in full:

I have so often wondered: if we impose the death penalty on murderers and those sociopaths who are simply too dangerous to allow to continue living, what would be the morality of having all religious people executed? for the good for humanity.

I simply, despite trying, cannot come up with a reason why this should not be done except that it would be an extreme measure and that no human is fit to make such a decision (the giver of the order, that is). Which is, apparently, the main difference between myself and any fundamentalist I've yet to meet: I'm willing to admit that the world would be better off without religious people, but I'm not willing to do what would need to be done to protect humanity.

But -- they are, because they offload the incredible arrogance and and wicked ego-centrism by claiming that an external source (god) declares it to be morally alright.

The ends, the means, and the question of whether the cure is better than the disease. 

Obviously this isn't representative of atheist thought - on the thread itself, the regulars jump down this guy's throat.  Still, he doesn't seem like a troll to me.  This is the sort of thing that leads people to equate atheism with Stalinism - hell, it's the idealized form of such a thing.  Protect humanity?  God help us.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Another Country

Reading James Baldwin's novel Another Country is edifying the hell out of me about race relations.  None of the (admittedly few) academic papers on race I've read have laid out what is going on as clearly or as deeply as Baldwin does, from the moment-by-moment alienation in friendly conversations to the huge sweep of social attitudes.  I'm not going to claim I understand the 'black experience' - I clearly don't - but at least I'm beginning to see how much I don't understand.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Theological Flailing

From the archives of Verbose Stoic:
The Courtier’s Argument is precisely the sort of argument that allows those “neoatheists” to ignore theology and all of the more profound thoughts on religion to instead pick on “folk religion” that’s easier to mock.  And even when they engage, so many of their replies are, in fact, shallow readings that are there just to mock the argument without understanding it.

I've been recently thinking along the same lines, and I've seen Daniel Fincke over at Camels With Hammers make very similar points.  Here's what I think the nub of the issue is: atheism, as discussed by atheists, has shifted over time from a philosophical position to a scientific one.  It used to be the case that calling yourself an atheist meant you had certain epistemological and/or metaphysical commitments about the existence of God - now calling yourself an atheist usually means that you consider the empirical evidence for God insufficient, and have reverted to the null hypothesis of no belief at all.  Why is this? One explanation: it's to do with the creationist movement encroaching into science education, galvanizing atheist scientists in response.

The problem is that New Atheists - and I hate using that term unironically - all too often venture into philosophy or theology to 'attack believers on their own turf'. Unfortunately, understanding science does not automatically qualify you for philosophical debate.

(Why do so many of the commenters on atheist blogs assume that it does?  Maybe it's like physicists butting into other disciplines.  If you think that your area of expertise is the only real route to 'how reality is', I suppose you'd think that those who work in other areas would be grateful you took the time to set them right.)

Saturday, 29 October 2011

What I Saw At Occupy Melbourne, Part 1

In rough chronological order:

A line of relaxed-looking cops in front of the State Library entrance, apparently in case the protesters decided to go in and read.

A man with a blackboard placard, which he erased and re-wrote several times over the course of the march.  His first sign: Evolution is the Solution for this Revolution!

Guy with a red leather jacket arguing that the Labor government obscures class struggle by preaching nationalism.  His friends nod at intervals.

Socialist Alliance people laying banners on the grass, but the wind keeps blowing them away.  Eventually they find pegs from somewhere.

A woman sitting in the shade, sketching a full-lipped female face on the back of a leaflet.  The wind blows it away a few metres, but she doesn't move to pick it up.

Four horseback cops (horse cops?) waiting in a line.  The horses have plastic head-plates, presumably the equine equivalent of riot gear.  They look hard to see through.

A huge van next to the horse cops - is it for horses or protesters?

The cops have an anti-speeding demonstration up at City Square (where Occupy Melbourne camped out before their eviction). Very clever: it makes the cops seem like they're putting the square to better use, and makes any attempt at re-occupation an asshole move.  Cry from the crowd: show us your permit!

The anti-speeding demo is totally deserted.  The few women working at the booths huddle and chat about the passing protesters.


I sort of wonder about passing out pamphlets for political parties during the march - which Socialist Alternative did constantly.  It seems like an attempt to co-opt the movement, but then again I suppose that's the point.  Everyone's co-opting the movement, including me.  That's the point.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Occupy Melbourne

I've written a couple of articles about Occupy Melbourne for my other writing gig, and I thought what the hell, plenty of you anarchist blogonauts out there might be interested, so here:

They're a little out of date, though - people were kicked out of City Square by the cops, circled around the city for a bit, and now it looks like they're ending up at Treasury Gardens.  What will be interesting is Melbourne mayor Robert Doyle's response, since he may well have given orders to automatically evict the protesters wherever they end up. Whatever the outcome, it's certainly not over yet, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the next few days.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Of Tone Trolls and Courtiers

From Ivan at fromwinetowater, who articulates something I've felt for quite some time.

Dawkins and his cronies love to bring out the Courtier’s Reply (if you are unfamiliar with it, you can familiarize yourself here, here, here, and here) at this point. It has plenty of good uses, but it also has limits .. if one is arguing that given the suffering in the world, there cannot be a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, then one must address the particular points of particular theologies ... one cannot pick parts of a theology to attack without listening to the parts of the selfsame theology which answer the attack.

A deep suspicion of the Courtier's Reply and of 'tone trolling' is very common in atheist circles, for good reason.  There are plenty of courtiers and tone trolls around.  However, these arguments should be treated very carefully, since it's very easy to attack a believer on theological grounds and then dismiss their theological response as a Courtier's Reply.  It's very easy for an atheist discussion space (the comments on Pharyngula, for example) to descend into insults and invective, with any movement towards civility - or accuracy, according to the excellent Daniel Fincke - branded as tone trolling and ignored.

Any argument that dismisses the substance of what somebody's saying is a dangerous argument.  This includes picking out 'logical fallacies', as well.  If somebody says that Christ taught love and therefore Falwell/Hitler/Bush wasn't a proper Christian, shouting 'No True Scotsman!' isn't going to be very helpful in working out what they mean by Christianity.

When The System Finally Falls

This track, Common Market's Every Last One, is an obvious crowd-pleaser.  The repeated chorus - "every last one of us!" - sounds on paper to be a little long, but the rhythm is simple enough to make it easy to sing.  There's two anapaests there: every last one of us.  Splitting it into three iambs or trochees would have been confusing; people would trip over their tongues at live shows.

RA Scion's flow is very competent.  Sometimes he's a fraction behind the beat, and something about his voice isn't as crisp - after all, he's no Geologic - but he's very good.  It's funny, actually: Geologic is a little too muted sometimes, too chilled out, while RA Scion isn't relaxed enough.  His lyrics are wonderfully idealistic:

We 'bout to change the mentality
Of old world savagery into a new reality
One where teachers and lawyers will trade salaries
And liquor stores are razed to make way for art galleries

And, on occasion, anarchistic:

When the system finally falls – who people gon' call on to show conduct?
Every Last One of Us!
When the new sun rises and we've all survived – who knows it's not just luck?
Every Last One of Us!
It's a kingdom that we gotta construct – who's ready to build from the ground up?
Every Last One of Us!

I'd go into detail about Sabzi's beat - melodic, airy, satisfyingly electronic - but honestly, I don't think he's ever produced a bad track.  In the Blue Scholars' Evening Chai he samples a conversation from the movie Three Kings (the one between Matt Damon and his haunted-eyed torturer - "what is the problem with Michael Jackson?") and it doesn't distract from the quality of the song.  "Michael Jackson is pop king of sick fucking country", we hear, and we think yes. Now it all fits.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Gnu Anarchists

I've said it before and I'll say it again: any anarchism-sanctioned utopia would be an oxymoron.  To quote Sartwell in Against the State, anarchists want to let people go and see what happens.  But what use is anarchism, then?  What's the point of a religion without a heaven?  Well, like I said, it

1. Sets out the problem with traditional justifications for state power
2. Outlines a path to minarchism

and, most importantly,

3. Helps us to avoid coercion in our personal lives.

For a good example of 3, check out Jack Crow's sidebar about how he hates the English language's use of possessive words to indicate association (my wife, my kids, etc).For an exceptional example of 1, check out Prof. Coldheart's comment from ages ago:

My ultimate point: we are already living in anarchy. We are already living in the world that you predict anarchy would turn into - a world where the biggest gang has grabbed all the guns and cowed everyone they can't shoot. That's the state of affairs right now. Anarchism, as a philosophy, simply exposes that. Anarchism states that the idea of Power Subservient to Justice - a/k/a, a benevolent State - is a myth.

On this view, anarchism is of similar practical use to atheism: neither provide much in the way of positive instruction, but both are very good at puncturing delusions.  Another parallel: think of a-theists as similar to anarchists like the good IOZ, living in a State-dominated world but believing none of it, and anti-theists as more revolution-oriented anarchists.  

We ought to call those folk the New Anarchists, probably - although the first anarchist theorists were revolutionaries, well before them came the peasant, groaning under his burden, who decided that maybe the king wasn't quite the divine leader he was cracked up to be.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Never Trust A Junkie

A few days ago a man approached me late at night, neatly dressed in a jacket and jeans.  I nodded to him, said hi, thinking that he might need directions somewhere.

"Hey mate," he said, open and friendly.  "How's it going?"

I asked what I could do for him, smiling back.

"Couldn't spare a cigarette, could you?"  He looked up at me with the trusting eyes of a child.

I told him I didn't smoke, sorry.

"Oh come on, mate.  Don't be like that."  Still friendly.  When I shook my head and walked away, he called out. "Hey!  Don't fucking walk away from me, you smug fuck!"  I kept walking, hoping he wouldn't come after me, closing my hand around the key in my pocket.  He didn't.

His friendliness was the easy friendliness of an addict, and it turned to rage very quickly.  What must it be like, being on a chain like that, forced to make nice to passers-by in the hope that they might deign to give you some relief?  I'd be angry too.  And finally - perhaps most importantly - I'm a tall, fairly fit guy.  A woman in the same situation would have felt more threatened than me, and with more reason.  How many people have I scared, just by walking nearby on a deserted street?  I don't know.  I can afford not to notice.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Poems I Like #3: This Be The Verse

By Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. 
They may not mean to, but they do. 
They fill you with the faults they had 
And add some extra, just for you. 

But they were fucked up in their turn 
By fools in old-style hats and coats, 
Who half the time were soppy-stern 
And half at one another's throats. 

Man hands on misery to man. 
It deepens like a coastal shelf. 
Get out as early as you can, 
And don't have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin’s verse is accessible. Iambic tetrameter – da dum da dum da dum da dum – is probably the most ‘natural’ metrical form. It’s found in ballads, nursery rhymes, and usually comes up whenever people try to ‘write poetry’. The words used are very simple, too: I count three adjectives in the whole poem, and the only three-syllable words, ‘misery’ and ‘another’, are very workmanlike. Unlike Dirge Without Music and Ulysses, there’s no flowery language or attempt to dazzle the reader. It’s just a stark message, intended to inform rather than impress.

From the first line – they fuck you up, your mum and dad – we get a sense of the voice of this poem. It’s workmanlike and blunt, not afraid to use profanity, and the halting rhythm sounds very verbal. It could come from the end of a bar: an old man, crouched over his drink, growling advice to an amused young man. It corrects itself – they may not mean to – but doesn’t shy away from firm pronouncements. If not for the rhyme, this could very well be actual dialogue.

There’s no impressive poetic trickery, unless you count the regular caesura placement in the first verse or the repeated ‘f’ sound through the poem. The craft here is in the apparent simplicity of the wording, man hands on misery to man, for instance, and the beautiful imagery of coastal shelf. Unfortunately, the poem flags a little in the second verse – fools in old-style hats and coats is a round-about way of saying ‘older people’, and soppy-stern isn’t particularly evocative.

The last verse, though, is one of the most perfect stanzas written. The bitterness is palpable; at this point the old man would be gazing down into his glass. Get out as early as you can is a half-truth, but it’s spoken from a place where that’s the only half that matters.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Friday, 30 September 2011

Big Old City

Like the good Professor Crispy at one point,  I've been listening to a lot of Taylor Swift.  While some of her songs are pretty mediocre (not a huge fan of Picture to Burn, for instance), when she hits it she really hits it - none of that awful obvious autotune or lyrics that perform absurd contortions to fit the beat.  Also: she's practically the only pop artist left who hasn't flirted with dubstep.

Crispy thought it was a male child speaking to an abusive father - at the risk of some armchair psychology, that's probably projection.  The music video tells a different story: a girl in small-town America, weathering bullies and saving up for college; sort of like a mini it-gets-better campaign.  Is the young girl with short hair who applauds at the end a representation of Taylor herself, imagining the joys of city life (seen in the Chicago-esque stage and performance)?  Probably, yes.

Edited to add: after a few more listens, the 'child (of indeterminate gender) speaking to an abusive father' theory is starting to grow on me.  The references to alcohol, ranting in a bar, the probably-singular 'you' all conspire to prove me wrong.  My apologies, Professor.

Anwar Al-Awlaki Dead

Well, this appears to have happened at last.  Some choice quotes from the article:

He was one of the most dangerous men alive, apparently.

He was credited with inspiring or directing at least four plots on US soil in recent years - is that more or less than the FBI?

Now we know that his fingerprints are also all over failed plots to target British and European interests - well, uh, metaphorical fingerprints.  Rhetoric is dangerous!

The US president, Barack Obama, authorised a request to target Awlaki in April last year, making him the first US citizen to be a legal target for assassination in the post-9/11 years.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Trains on Time

Professor Crispy wonders how the media can so consistently fail to understand why people might be suspicious of government.  (There's a parallel here between this and continuously asking 'why do the terrorists hate us?', by the way.)  Well, I imagine for a certain sort of person it is genuinely difficult to conceive of Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia as the same kind of thing as his country. 

If you live with sufficient comforts - police that tend not to harass you, steady employment or reasonable welfare payments, nice houses with nice neighbours - then that's what you associate with government.  The institutions of power can't possibly be killing people overseas; they're so friendly!  I don't believe that the cops unjustly killed that poor man; my uncle is a policeman and he would never do that.

Unfortunately, governments are not people, and the existence of a few good people somewhere in the vast hierarchy of control (Elizabeth Warren, maybe?) no more proves the overall benevolence of government than Oscar Schindler proves that the Nazis were pretty cool guys.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Single Voting Point

I know that I should stop reading the comments on Balloon Juice, but my god are they hilarious.  Some choice cuts:

Quit complaining about how Obama disappointed you and start making it possible for him to impress you. - Loneoak, #21, who is pretty impressive himself.

Fine, call it the fear factor, or hold your noses or any of those other arguments that you have to tell yourself in order to feel like you’ve taken the appropriate Brooksian arguments to their logical conclusion and face the unmitigated truth that the people on the other ticket are just flat out fucking odious and you wouldn’t even trust them to water your plants for a weekend much less watch over the country. - piratedan, #38, who used up his daily comma allowance in the first six words.

This is a process, not a single behavior in a single voting point at a discrete point in space and time. - gwangung, #41, who is missing the point.

And finally, from ABL herself:
there’s absolutely no question that both sides are beholden to corporate interests. the question becomes, which “corporatist” will work to advance progressive goals. the answer to that question is NEVER “a republican one.”

Can't argue with that!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Global Writing Outcomes

Over at Balloon Juice, Freddie deBoer writes a lengthy post about pedagogy.  Apparently the research shows that teaching grammar does not help people, uh, learn it.  As unlikely as that seems (certainly the smidgen of French and Latin grammar I picked up has been useful to me), I'm not going to question the veracity of said research; presumably they scienced their way to some kind of empirical truth.

Let me just point this gem out, though:  

Grammar instruction does not lead to better reading outcomes

This is the worst kind of jargon, especially egregious in a post about improving reading and writing skills.  Where does that word 'outcomes' come from? Whom does it serve? What is the difference between improved 'reading outcomes' and regular 'improved reading'?

Freddie's question isn't terrible - what should a teacher do to help kids with serious grammatical problems when the evidence suggests that direct teaching of grammar is useless? Teaching people is often impossible for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the student's own willingness to learn, and I think that anybody who makes teaching their job is brave (though perhaps a little quixotic). Still, if we want students to improve their, uh, local and global syntactical outcomes, we should probably stick to understandable English ourselves.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Now What I Spit; It's Medicine For The Sick

I had a dream last night that record stores sold poetry instead of music.  The plastic CD cases held little booklets of poems, neatly typed and set out.  Some of the poetry was written by a group of people, collaborating to produce a varied and eclectic collection of verses, while some was written by a single person.  Some of it was fun, upbeat poetry, with bouncing dactyls and light-hearted subject matter.  Some was depressing - ranging from self-pitying glurge to painfully honest expressions of existential angst.

People on the internet - regular people, not academics - had heated discussions about their favourite and least favourite poets, often descending into outright abuse.  The man on the television condemned the latest trend towards trochaic poetry, viewing it as an attack on the iambic foundations of art and civilization.  When a child poet burst onto the scene and captured a younger audience, fans of all kinds of poetry joined together to deride his work as mere doggerel, emblematic of the coarsening of poetic culture today.

Then I woke up.  Imagine if music was treated the way we treat poetry: relegated to the domain of prissy intellectuals and limp-wristed homosexuals, indicative of a weakness of moral character.  Imagine if people listened to and enjoyed music in their youth, but were expected to grow out of it when they became 'serious' adults. Imagine no public music: not in elevators, not in supermarkets, almost never on the radio.  Hip-hop is of course excellent, and I suppose that lyrics are a kind of popular poetry, but it doesn't seem like enough.  Millions of people are growing up without an appreciation of the beauty of language - without a sense that such an appreciation is desirable or even possible. What can we do about it?

Monday, 12 September 2011

Ron Paul Is Not a Libertarian

Or is he? Thanks to Clarissa for the idea - we'll see if it's a formula for guaranteed success.

There's a link up in the sidebar now (or will be soon) to the place where I write reviews about my city.  If you want to read more of my incredible prose style and piercing insights, you're clearly a person of calculated and discerning tastes, and your wait is over.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Growing Up, Nobody Ever Does

Why I would rather live in Seattle, part 86:

Notice the squeal of the beat at 42 seconds to emphasize base, and the kick drum making its entrance an instant later at the words kick drum (of course).  The real hook, though, is at 47 seconds, in the slight pause before bump:

Hot box, let the bass | bump.

I've bolded the accented syllables.  After the initial iamb - hot box - there's a breath over the comma before the anapaest - let the bass.  Two stressed syllables in a row breaks the flow of the line, so there's a second before Macklemore comes in with bump.  Not only does the pause work like a charm, metrically, but it also represents a bump in the rhythm of the line.  There are certainly other ways to flow - look at Aesop Rock, who is always an instant behind the beat and seems very happy to be there.  But you need a near-flawless rhythm to pull off subtleties like this - in a line full of little pauses and jars, a deliberate gap won't stand out - and Macklemore has it.

Perhaps this is a feature of Seattle hip-hop. After all, Geologic (of Seattle outfit Blue Scholars) has a similarly careful style. Unlike Geologic, though, Macklemore's delivery is highly-strung and emotional.  Such a combination of passion and skill is rare and valuable.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Penicillin and Anarchy

Anarchists tend to assume that the utilitarian argument goes their way.  The sheer number of deaths caused by wars between states is viscerally convincing: how, we ask, can anyone think that the modern state fixes more harm than it causes?  There’s a simple response to this.

What about penicillin?

The number of lives that penicillin and associated cheap antibiotics have saved is spectacularly high, especially in Third World countries.  You could mount an argument – not knowing the facts, I’m unsure as to the outcome – that penicillin, in some sort of macabre utilitarian calculus, is somehow worth the Holocaust and Hiroshima combined.

I’m not saying this poses an intractable problem to anarchism – after all, most anarchists don’t base their position on utilitarian grounds.  Autonomy is sacrosanct, a life saved does not outweigh a life taken, etc.  Still, it’s an interesting point, and one that robs the most confronting anarchist argument of some credibility.

Perhaps it’s possible to argue that most of the lives penicillin saves are endangered by state policies in the first place; that our modern state apparatus tends to fix some of its own problems and use that as justification for existing in the first place.  Without armed policemen, who will save us from thugs and bandits?  And so forth.  This seems more tenuous though.  There’s something about a list of the dead that brings out the rebel in all of us, the voice that says ‘this cannot stand’.  It’s harder to bring that rebel out in a debate about economic policy in the Third World.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Frail Deeds

From the excellent Slacktivist: "Every critique does not need to be accompanied by a fully realized alternative. The lack of such an alternative does not render the critique invalid, or insulate the thing critiqued from criticism."

Obviously he wasn't talking about anarchy - Fred Clark remains a lesser-evil supporter of the Democratic Party - but this applies totally to criticisms of anarchy that focus on the impossibility of living without the state.  If you're not going to criticize anything that's inevitable, what are you doing raging against the dying of the light?  If you're not going to criticize the unchangeable, why are you reading stuff like this?

Tuesday, 30 August 2011


There’s a worrying habit among some atheist writers to assume utilitarianism as the only secular ethics worth having.  In his essay The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick (which, despite its dreadful beginning – seriously, it begins with “since time immemorial” – is pretty good) Ebonmuse settles on what he calls “universal utilitarianism”, a combination of positive and negative utilitarianism.  While he at least attempts to justify this position as one among many, there’s a tendency elsewhere (especially in comment threads) to condemn deontologists and virtue ethicists as “less rational”.

I’m not going to pick apart all the problems with Ebonmuse’s essay – it’s too long and I haven’t the time – but let me just point out a few of them in broad strokes.  He goes through several pages on utilitarianism without mentioning preference satisfaction once.  His caricature of deontology relies more on rhetoric than logic, careening from blatant misinterpretation (seriously arguing that the categorical imperative prevents people from having different jobs) to unquestioned appeal to intuition.  Finally, he presents his “universal utilitarianism” as a solution to the problems with act and rule utilitarianism – that is, their lack of support for human rights and justice – without actually demonstrating how his alternative avoids those pitfalls.

The most egregious example of assuming utilitarianism would probably be Sam Harris, who claims that utilitarianism is not only true but backed up by Science (one suspects that he thinks of it with a capital ‘S’).

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them "Adam" and "Eve." Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being.

Why can’t we clearly ask how those two people could respect each others’ wishes most fully?  Or how those two people can make a contract with each other to decide how to live?  It’s ridiculous to argue for utilitarianism by this kind of sleight of hand.

From the comments of Ebonmuse’s post on Sam Harris:

Some people find utilitarian morality unspeakably offensive. I cannot even begin to understand their thinking. After all, what possible basis could there be to evaluate a moral claim if not that?

And from Ebonmuse himself:

Morality is really just the way of figuring out how we can best live together in harmony, of figuring out what ends we should cooperate to support in order to produce the best life for all of us.

This all seems plausible until you actually start to think about what constitutes the “best life” – or, for that matter, “well-being”.  Not only are these sentiments misinformed, they’re actually harmful to the atheist movement.  Assuming utilitarianism ties atheism to the problems with utilitarianism and drives people who reject consequentialist ethics to a more religious perspective. 

The strength of atheism is supposed to be that there’s no single moral framework.  We need more virtue-focused atheists, like Leah of Unequally Yoked,  or deontological atheists.  I’m not rehashing the old saw that scientists ought not to do philosophy (of course they can) – but would it kill them to give a cursory look at the literature they’re contradicting?

Thursday, 25 August 2011

An Atheist’s Favourite Bible Verses: #2

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Jeremiah 17:9
The first time I read this verse I was struck by its simplicity.  It’s written clearly: not prevaricating or making excuses for itself, but putting a fairly extreme claim in as few words as possible.  The meat here is mainly philosophical – aside from the wonderful clarity of expression, there’s little to recommend this verse from an aesthetic standpoint.
Let’s examine the meaning.  The heart, the verse starts, setting a metaphorical tone.  What is the ‘heart’ here?  In my opinion it represents emotion, gut feeling and animal impulse: the Platonian urges that are conquered by Reason.  The heart is deceitful, we hear, which is a little surprising.  The idea that the heart represents a reliable compass, a true guide, is very popular: phrases like ‘follow your heart’ attest to that.  But not only does this verse tell us that the heart is deceitful, it tells us that it’s deceitful above all else.
We know what this means, though.  Hearts are tricky things, not above cajoling or using trickery when simple persuasion fails.  In fact, the extremes of emotion – rage, hatred, fear, passion – are responsible for awful things.  The chilly logic of a utilitarian as he sacrifices lives for the greater good is shocking in its ruthlessness and inhumanity, but for most of us the real ethical challenge is in conquering our knee-jerk fear or anger.  Jeremiah is talking about that animal part of us, what Freud (pronounced ‘fraud) would have called the id.  He judges it to be not just wicked, but desperately wicked – a metaphor that captures the stress that accompanies crimes of passion.  Not for nothing are criminals often called ‘desperate men’.
He finishes with a question – who can know it? – that seems counter-intuitive.  Isn’t the heart the deepest part of ourselves, the part that we know most well?  The heart – that kernel of emotions and passions – is us, insofar as any part of ourselves makes up our identity.  But Jeremiah’s right: what makes our feelings so dangerous is that we too often don’t understand and can’t predict them. 
In a world full of conflict and outside threats, this verse turns the focus inward.  It mocks the kind of person who sits in judgement of other people’s hearts, not understanding his own.  If we can’t set our own house in order, how can we criticize other people?  Perhaps we can’t – but even if we can, we ought to start with ourselves.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

We Intervened in Libya

A common pattern in political discussions is the tendency to use first-person pronouns when talking about the state.  “We put policy X in place, when we ought to have used policy Y,” for instance, or discussing “our invasion of country Z.”  It’s been argued that this kind of thinking forces people to bind their identity up with state actors and thus justify unjustifiable actions – actions that they never would have committed themselves.  (See Butler Shaffer’s article for a good description of this.)  Here’s an explanation for how such identification occurs: first historically, then psychologically.
In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill speaks of pre-democratic societies as containing a fundamental opposition between the rulers and the ruled.  Those in power exerted force on outside threats, true, but they were just as likely to exert their power on their own subjects on a whim.  Even those who accepted such power structures did so pragmatically, viewing their leader as “an animal of prey stronger than [outside threats], commissioned to keep them down.”  Mill’s account is a little simplistic – what about hierarchies of power and existing social power structures?  How did they interact with the single leader Mill talks about?  Regardless, it seems credible in a broad-brush kind of way, and it raises an interesting question: how did the prevailing attitude towards the powerful change from ‘necessary evil’ to ‘special friend’?
Let’s look at a few theories.  First, the benevolent leader theory: that the attitude change simply reflects reality, and that the leaders we have now are significantly kinder and more generous than those in early societies.  If, like me, you lean towards anarchism, then you’ll probably think this theory barely worth considering.  Still, it’s a theory that many people subscribe to.  I won’t recapitulate the many attacks on state power here – if you’re genuinely interested, do a Google or check out the blogs that I link to.  I think this theory can safely be dismissed.
Secondly, the gradual change theory.  This is the one Mill gives: that at the beginning of representative democracy, people were convinced that this new kind of government would actually represent their interests (and maybe it even did, for a time.)  Then they legitimately identified with their rulers.  However, as government power grew and became corrupt (or as the inherently corrupt nature of government power revealed itself, depending on how cynical you are) this attitude remained the same.  Mill doesn’t mention this, but it’s pretty obvious that the rulers would have encouraged this attitude because it led to the removal of blocks on their power.  As he writes, “the nation did not need to be protected against its own will.  There was no fear of it tyrannising itself.”  This theory is plausible, but if you accept it you’ve got to accept Mill’s assumption that in pre-democratic societies leaders were viewed as a ‘necessary evil’.
Finally, here’s my idea:  Stockholm syndrome theory.  Stockholm syndrome occurs when people are subjected to a powerful captor.  Despite the danger, eventually the captives come to interpret their continued existence as a gift of life from their captors.  A similar, although less extreme, situation occurs to anyone born into a powerful state.  The sword of Damocles hangs over every citizen’s head – higher, perhaps, than above a hostage, but still there.  At any moment the state could arrest you, freeze your assets, imprison you, or simply start a war and conscript you into military service.  It’s difficult to live with this; so difficult, in fact, that many people don’t.  None of that could happen, they reassure themselves, because the state is my friend.  In fact, it is me – after all, didn’t I vote?  Rather than discouraging identification, the constant threat of state power is a powerful incentive for people to see themselves in their rulers.  (Feel free to draw your own parallels between this and fleeing existentialist despair into the arms of a loving God.)
My theory is psychological rather than historical, and thus avoids the problems with a historical theory by running afoul of the problems with a psychological one.  If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that both my and Mill’s theories are correct to a certain extent, supporting and reinforcing each other.  Practically, though, it’s hard to correct – or understand – a mistake that’s rooted in history. Using a psychological perspective might be a better way to expunge the last vestiges of state-identification from ourselves.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Poems I Like #2: Ulysses

I would quote the whole of Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, if I thought I could get away with it.  However, since it would probably double the size of my review, I won’t.  The first time I read it I was rendered speechless.  I wanted to run out and show it to everyone I knew, to point and say look – this is how it’s done.  However, if it doesn’t strike you the way it struck me, I can appreciate that.  Not everyone enjoys metrical poetry, and not everyone is moved by Tennyson’s particular brand of it.

For those who don’t already know, ‘Ulysses’ is Odysseus, hero of the appropriately-named Odyssey and lovable trickster in the Iliad.  He conquers and/or flees from great dangers on the way home from the Trojan War and settles back into an idyllic family life in Ithaca.  The aging Tennyson set his poem years later, when the aging Odysseus grows sick of peaceful life and sets out on one last voyage – into the sunset, basically.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

The opening lines of the poem introduce us to Odysseus’ voice: evocative, majestic and harsh.  The unrhymed iambic pentameter lends him a kingly cadence, enhanced by images of ‘barren crags’, a ‘still hearth’ and a ‘savage race’.  The unsettling dismissal of his ‘aged wife’ is offset somewhat by his claim that he is ‘matched with her’; charitably, this means that he, like her, has grown old.   The people he rules are similarly dismissed as a rough group of people, characterized by the desire to hoard, sleep and feed. The five lines are viscerally bitter – from ‘It little profits’ to his condemnation of himself as an ‘idle king’, to the judgement of his wife and people, to the dragged-out double-spondee growl of “...and know not me.”

Odysseus goes on to tell the reader a little about how interesting his life was before he began to stagnate in Ithaca – ‘Much have I seen and known’ and so forth – in a section which contains some of the best images of the poem.  ‘Always roaming with a hungry heart’ is one; ‘Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy’ is another.  While avoiding the letter-perfect pentameter of, say, Alexander Pope, Tennyson’s meter is regular enough to create a soothing effect.  Words pile on words as the booming voice of Odysseus rolls over the reader with his story.  The story ends, and the poem’s tone changes from reflective to inspiring:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end.
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The tone is almost frantic.  Enjambment in lines three to five creates a sense of breathless urgency that fits the meaning, as if Odysseus were falling over himself to explain why he needs to leave.  I cannot exactly explain why the last three lines of this section strike me as so beautiful.  The image of a ‘gray spirit’ plunging like a shooting star over the horizon – perhaps, but that falls short of the poem itself.

Perhaps conscious of the heights of poetic fancy reached thus far, Odysseus falls back for a stanza to describe his son, Telemachus, who will take over the rule of Ithaca.  There’s a fairly Platonian claim that by a slow and prudent rule he’ll improve his rugged subjects.  Odysseus and his son are very different people, the one an adventurer, the other a dutiful citizen, and the last lines of the stanza acknowledge that: ‘he works his work, I mine.’

Let’s move to the final section, which rises to a crescendo of rugged determination:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are---
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I could cite the strengths of this last section; perfect meter, the dash after ‘we are’ letting us take a breath before the end, the series of commas in the final line neatly cordoning off each metrical foot; but knowing these things didn’t increase my enjoyment of the poem.  That, to me, is the purpose of criticism; if any critical article doesn’t make a poem more fun to read, drop it right away. 

If you’re more bemused than bedazzled by my love of this poem, then I guess I can’t really explain it to you.  But if, like me, you’re left with a sense of wonder, then look.  This is how it’s done.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Pigs Started It

I'm just discovering the wonderful Blue Scholars and their second album Bayani.   Sabzi's beats are perfect, low-key and subtle, and rapper Geologic has a consistently smooth and even cadence.  Check it out; the lyrics are powerful and often political.

Some choice selections from this song (50 Thousand Deep, about the Seattle WTO riots):

I admit, had to split when the first gas canisters hit / Felt it burn in my eyes, nose, and lips.
Let's just highlight the emphasized syllables to get the feel of Geologic's flow. I admit, had to split when the first gas canisters hit / Felt it burn in my eyes, nose, and lips.
The 'it' end-rhyme falls regularly on the last syllable of each anapaest in the first line, and what would be a fairly quotidian rhythm is broken up by the addition of a spondee - 'gas canisters' - that emphasizes the violence involved.  The next lines are almost as good: 
They tried to blame it on the anarchists, garbage / I was there, I'll tell you right now the pigs started it.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Radical Individualism: Why Groups Are Evil

I’m going to make, in broad strokes, an argument that’s been bothering me for some time.  To provide some context, it’s relevant to the philosophy or anarchism, and developed as a response to people pointing out all the good that a powerful State can accomplish.  What it ideally shows is that, while individuals – even powerful ones – can act in a manner that’s ethically consistent, groups tend to increase their own power at the expense of ethics.
Let’s take a group of people who’ve just formed a government.  For the sake of argument, they’re all good-intentioned and all of equal power.  They govern by some kind of democracy, only taking action when they’ve achieved a sizeable consensus among themselves.  We’ll call them the People Party (or PP for short).  Let’s make a further assumption that their decisions are only motivated by ethics: that is to say that each person is constantly pushing towards his ideal of what good governance should be.
Since the PP is made of people, not robots, each person is going to have a different concept of good governance.  In a party where the members all passionately believe in their ideals, consensus or compromise is going to be difficult to achieve.  The ethical actions taken by the PP will thus reflect a political pablum: only the most uncontroversial and dull propositions will be approved by the majority of members.  So far all I’ve shown is that the PP is likely to be ineffective.
What every PP member can agree on, however, is that they need the ability to carry out their political ideals – that is to say, they need political power.  After all, they’ve got the best of intentions; why not give themselves the clout to carry them out?  Propositions that increase the power of the PP are much more likely to gather a consensus than propositions aimed at improving wider society.  What we’ve now got is a situation where the PP has a very clear goal of power and a very unclear ethical goal.  Over time, even the most incorruptible of governments will accrue power more efficiently than it improves the society it governs.
Such a government is powerful but impotent – so long as every member is incorruptible and supremely ethical.  It’s a bomb waiting to go off; an untapped reservoir of political power for any unscrupulous politician who manages to enter the PP.  Not only will such rogues be attracted to the PP, once a few gain entry they can and will use their power to benefit themselves and their cronies at the cost of everyone else. 
Thus political parties, over time, tend towards ethically ineffective, powerful, and evil.
What are the problems with this argument?  To me it seems overly simplistic, although I can’t put my finger on where.  Another issue would be that there might exist political parties where everyone is in rough agreement on the moral principles involved, if not the facts.  Despite these issues, I think it’s got potential.