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.)