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.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Anarchist Utopia, And Why We Don’t Need It

As an occasional anarchist – and inveterate contrarian – I often, in long political arguments, hear the cry: well, what’s your alternative?  Let’s accept that the State is coercive and downright evil, let’s accept that most of the atrocities of the past century are due to nationalism and capitalism; but what else have we got?  Do you think we can really live in peaceful, idyllic communes?  Would you prefer Somalia?  By this point the argument is usually thrashing about on its way to rigor mortis, but I think the point’s worth addressing. Does anarchism provide a utopia in the way that, say, liberal democracy and socialism do?  I’m going to argue that while some anarchists try, it’s ultimately impossible – and probably not worth doing anyway.
The typical anarchist paradise is a communal society where everyone willingly pitches in to help each other.  However, by definition, it involves no coercion or imposition of power.  This means no justice system (at least as we currently understand it).  Such a society only works while everyone plays by the rules.  Any cheaters would prosper, accruing power to themselves with ease.
In our current technological climate, the stable - and therefore inevitable - situation is some kind of capitalist state like we have now.  While it makes war, throws millions of its own people in horrific, abuse-prone jails, and transfers billions of dollars to rich corporations, there's no real other option.  Violent revolution would merely institute a brief and unhappy transition period before the State gets re-established. 
If we can’t change anything, of what political use is anarchism?  Well, some anarchists don’t argue that we ought to destroy government and institute a new system, but – where possible – shrink government and limit its power so that it can't kill as many people overseas or prosecute the godawful War On Drugs.  I’m fairly sceptical about whether these goals can be achieved but, unlike an anarchist utopia, they’re at least possible.  In practice, this approach might more accurately come under the label of ‘minarchism’.
Anarchism can still critique totalitarian theories in the same way that Marxism can mount an effective political critique.  Sure, a communist utopia is impossible (for much the same reasons as an anarchist one) but that doesn’t mean Marx was any less wrong when he tore apart capitalism.  Anarchist thought can highlight the places where subtle coercion occurs – places which would slip under the radar if nobody was looking for them.  (For an example of this, see Crispin Sartwell’s wonderful notion of ‘squishy totalitarianism'.)

For an anarchist alternative to the State to be possible, our culture and ideas would have to have undergone fundamental change in a lot of ways.  Until then, there is no permanent alternative. So let’s look for impermanent ones! Personally, I like Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zones as a practical anarchist utopia.  They don’t have to involve a lot of people and can last for a few hours – perfect for boring afternoons.  

Perhaps more seriously, we could apply anarchist principles socially and avoid coercion in our personal relationships.  So many awful behaviours, from casual racism and sexism to straight-up violence, rely upon subtle mechanisms of control.   We anarchists will never get the State to stop oppressing people – but we might just manage to stop ourselves.