Thursday, 31 January 2013
Tuesday, 29 January 2013
One of the reasons I worry about this sort of thing is because I feel generally underequipped to persuade people that they are holding the wrong values. So far, what training I have in philosophy has done little to help me in this because philosophy rarely talks about values. It talks about philosophical systems.
Monday, 28 January 2013
Note: This is not part of my meta-ethics series. I just decided that I did not want to postpone publishing it until that series is done.
As I indicated before, I have recently seen The Hunger Games (movie, not book). One of the things that I found very surprising about this movie was just how subversive it is. Most supposedly subversive movies are either not very subversive at all (Avatar) or do a terrible, muddled job of subversion (V for Vendetta, oh my goodness). At least on the first viewing, The Hunger Games is much smarter than most of Hollywood's supposedly subversive movies, and it even takes a few potshots at conventional Hollywood storytelling--after all, it is about the use of media to suppress underprivileged populations. One of the most impressive instances was the movie's deliberate indication that the romantic subplot distracts from more important political questions.
(Here be spoilers.)
Combatants in the Hunger Games desperately need sponsors to help outfit them as the event proceeds, so the characters must be very deliberate about their public appearances. During the interviews before the Games themselves, Peeta says that he has a crush on Katniss. Katniss is angry that he would use her to further his own publicity, but their trainer Abernathy tells her that it has helped her publicity as well: it has made her desirable. Besides being a shout-out to Girard, this episode indicates that romantic feelings, whether or not they are genuine, are part of the proceedings. Instead of somehow transcending time and place, like we have pretended since Petrarch, love is subject to the society, culture, and ideology the lovers inhabit. Peeta's admission of love, even if it's true, is also an attempt at survival that is endorsed by the media spectacle and becomes part of the narrative that Flickerman, the interviewer and master of ceremonies, helps create. (Of course, he is probably working from a script, too.)
Abernathy latches onto this narrative device. What I find interesting is that another narrative device--Katniss' voluntary substitution of herself for her younger sister--is eclipsed by the romance narrative, at least as far as the publicity is concerned. I say publicity rather than public for a reason: Katniss' adoption of Rue as a surrogate sister certainly get the attention of Rue's district. What Abernathy knows--and likely what the Capital's propogandists rely on--is the fact that the romance narrative will provide explanations for potentially subversive behaviour, explanations that mitigate the subversiveness of it. So when Katniss and Peeta defy the authorities by attempting double-suicide rather than monomachy (and thereby trying to answer Peeta's question about dying in a way that shows the authorities that they do not own him), Abernathy is quick to use the romantic subplot to explain away this behaviour. He says that the pair "showed them up" and that there would be consequences: "This is serious. And not just for you. They don't take these things lightly." So Katniss and Peeta must act as though their behaviour was not about the power or authority, was not in fact directed at the Capital or about anything that might also concern the people of the poor Districts. In order to prevent the Capital from reinforcing that power with violence, they must act (cynically) like their actions are born of the sort of love that transcends time and place. Frankly, I was not sure whether to be impressed by this realization, or disappointed that Katniss decided to play along with the love narrative which disguised her more subversive motives. How much complicity should characters accept in order to survive long enough to fight that power?
One of the interesting things about seeing this as a movie but not reading the book is that I had no way of gauging the not-especially-expressive Katniss's emotions. I could not tell whether she actually reciprocated Peeta's attraction or romantic feelings. (I understand that in the book it is clear she does reciprocate somewhat, but that's second-hand). In this state of ignorance, the romantic subplot seemed even more surreal, even more a ploy to survive the Capital. Certainly her sacrifices for Peeta were not much different from her sacrifices for Rue, for whom she would feel no romantic love. How the other movies treat her relationship with Peeta is now of almost no consequence: the idea that romantic subplot distract from real political subversion in the Hunger Games, and also The Hunger Games, and also, by extension, if you're willing to think it, most popular culture, is already in place. I cannot be sure how strong this effect would be in first person narration.
I want to clarify a few things: I don't think that genuine, non-cynical romantic subplots (or main plots) are necessarily bad. But I would, for a lot of reasons, like to see much more fiction that treat such relationships with more sophistication and more awareness of the problems they can produce, and I would like to see more fiction that does not treat romantic subplots as particularly important. I think The Hunger Games does a good job of showing some of those problems.
My previous post's discussion was incomplete, and I knew it while writing it. I hope to build out some of what I was missing here.
Part of the reason why I tended to prefer defining a good person by intent and earnest endeavour rather than actual action is not just to avoid saying that anyone who disagrees with me is a bad person. I also wanted to avoid the possibly unhelpful conclusion that no one is a good person. After all, I have never met a saint. No one lives up to their own ethical expectations all of the time. Speaking much more personally, I know I fail on even a minute-to-minute basis to live up to my ethical standards, particular when I'm using public transit and the bus is very busy. (I think very nasty things about strangers in such circumstances.) I am a hypocrite of the first order; what I do does not come close to meeting what I expect. But I hope to be an honest hypocrite: I know I do not practice what I preach, I admit it publicly, I try to close that gap, and I do not expect of others any more than what I do (or, actually, even what I do).
In fact, I would be highly suspicious of anyone who did live up to their own ethical standards. Unless I had it on good evidence that they were a saint, I would conclude that their ethical standards are far too low. Ethics are a challenge! They should be! Ethics require growth. Another possibility is that a person might really believe that they meet their own ethical standards, but in truth they do not. I think of the actor-observer asymmetry, where we attribute our own behaviour to the situation but we attribute other people's behaviour to their personalities. This is a very tempting kind of thing to do. In either case, such people make me nervous.
I can reason with an honest hypocrite. If an honest hypocrite has done something wrong, I can say, "Look, you did Action A. Action A violates Principle Y, which I know you hold." An honest hypocrit will fess up to it, apologize, and try to act differently in future. (Or an honest hypocrit might correct my interpretation of events if I was actually the one in error.) Someone who really believes that they are not a hypocrit, in either of the ways I outlined above, would not be so accomodating. They might not hold Principle Y at all, or they might believe that Action A did not violate Principle Y, even when it clearly does. It is much harder to interact with this kind of behaviour, though evidentally we often have to.
But if I take seriously what I said in my last post, that being incorrect about ethical beliefs does not mean you aren't a good person, is it even reasonable to make such a distinction between honest hypocrits and people who really do not believe that they don't have to be good people? Is believing that ethical imperatives are not actually imperatives the kind of incorrect belief that does not prevent one from being a good person? Can a hedonist be a good person?
Saturday, 26 January 2013
The words right and wrong have two possible senses: they could be equivalent to correct and incorrect or they could be equivalent to moral and immoral. While these are conceptually distinct (the first set of senses pertain to claims while the second set of sense pertain to actions), the way we use these terms becomes confused. For instance, when you are hiring "the right person" for a particular position, what sense of right is meant? It seems that it tends to mean "correct," but it may not always be so. While this semantic confusion is not the subject of this post, I'm generally thinking about the way correctness and morality have been collapsed and I will try to un-collapse them.
(Do people know what I mean when I say "collapsed"? I am not sure if this is an academic/humanities term which has no currency outside of that field.)
I remembered getting into a disagreement with a friend over whether I ought to do a particular kind of action; I thought that it was an unethical kind of thing to do, but she thought that it was perfectly acceptable and probably even advisable. I'm sure I've had this kind of disagreement many times with many people, but what made this time memorable is that we rather quickly got at the heart of the disagreement: I believe that ethical action in that case was based on the altruistic attempt to prevent discomfort and other harm in those around me, while she believes that ethical action is primarily based on supporting fair action and acting fairly yourself. I value making others feel safe; she values equitable action. I was concerned that she thought that I thought that she was unethical, so I assured her that while I disagreed with what she thought was ethical practice, I recognized her as a good and principled person.
In other words, I was saying that I thought she was incorrect about what was ethical, but that, given her error, she was being ethical. (Or, if you like, she was wrong about what was right, but given her wrongness, she was right.) Presumably she would make the same claim about me.
Such a claim can destabilize morality, I quickly realized. How do you assess if someone is a good person?* Is that assessment based on ethical action--that is, the person's actions are typically in conformance with morality--or ethical intent--that is, the person honestly endeavours to adhere to morality? I ask because if such an assessment is based on action, then I would presumably only decide that those who adhered to my sense of morality are ethical people. If such an assessment is based on intent, then I would presumably decide that anyone who acted in accordance with their own sense of morality could be a good person; they may simply be a good person who does not-so-good things. My statement that I believed my friend was a good, ethically-oriented person, despite our disagreement about the best way to think of morality, seems to fit in the second claim.
The obvious trouble with this way of thinking about the goodness of a person is that, under such a rubric, someone like Hitler would be a good person. I do think some people would count as not-so-good people: there are probably quite a few folks who do not honestly attempt to do the right thing, either because they do not bother to define what the right thing is or because they have a strong sense of entitlement (that is, what they expect of other people differs drastically from what they expect of themselves). But there are selfless, well-intentioned monsters, and they count as good people as I seem to be defining it. So is there a way of tweaking this conception without either giving up the capacity to make such judgements or limiting goodness to only the way I understand it?
I have three provisional approaches to this problem:
1. A person might need to be within an acceptable degree of error. Some ethical approaches are more incorrect than others; if we say that radically incorrect kinds of ethics should be obvious in their flaws--that is, that only a person who did not do due diligence in thinking about ethics could subscribe to such a way of thinking of ethics--then we might be able to say that being too incorrect about ethics is itself unethical. Messing up the ratio between fairness and harmony/comfort is not so bad because both are goods and it just the ratio that is in error; advocating for racial purity is pretty bad because racial purity is not a good at all.
2. A person might need to have a particular set of ethical beliefs in order to be considered good; any other error is acceptable so long as this set of beliefs is intact. For instance, my friend and I both believe that compassion and altruism are important as bases for other ethical considerations. So is it possible to list a set of ethical beliefs that are non-negotiable? If so, I would put compassion and an incredible distaste for violence on that list, but I know that there are radical consequentialists who would not. (As Mycroft says to Sherlock, “Caring is not an advantage.")
3. It may be the case that I am reasoning from the interpersonal ethics of friends and small groups to the society-wide ethics of politics. Getting the balance between fairness and comfort honestly incorrect might be acceptable when we're talking about whether you should date two people at once (for example), but it might be absolutely unacceptable to make an error in the ratio of goods when we're talking about economic policy or immigration law.
*I recognize that the legitimacy of making this kind of judgement is in question, and it needs to be. I will talk about this in a later post.
Specifically, I am wondering about what I suppose people call meta-ethics. The truth, uncomfortable or otherwise, is that we must live in societies which contain people who have different moral beliefs than we do. (In fact, you, my reader, are probably such a person to me, and I to you.) How do we manage this? How do I act in respect to your morality? What can I expect of you? What can I expect you to expect of me? These are very hard questions. I am overwhelmed in my attempt to answer them. I am framing this in exactly the way I'm tempted to frame it: is a person who acts according to incorrect moral principles still a good person? Maybe that framing is wrong, and I'm open to any alternatives.
Something else I've been trying to do lately is stop acting like I'm such an expert on things and start admitting when I don't know what I'm talking about. I'm OK with sounding like an idiot, so that's not why I want to hedge my claims; I want to hedge my claims because I want people to react toward what I'm saying as provisional, as a work in progress. I want input, and I'm starting to realize that my style might prevent people from commenting because they are daunted by this veneer of authority I somehow managed to develop. (This is more of an IRL thing, but it might have migrated to my online personas, too.) The funny thing is that asking questions, rather than giving answers, has been my primary internal mode for quite a few years now, so in a sense this will not be so much a case of changing who I am but of changing how I communicate who I am.
And this time I have no fear of giving a table of contents that I will fail to fulfill because I've already written all of the posts and am just rolling them out over time to make reading it less daunting! So here goes:
1. Which Sense of "Right"?
In which I talk about morality and correctness.
2. I Prefer Honest Hypocrites to Deluded Saints
In which I talk about being a hypocrite and being a self-satisfied jerk, and how those differ.
3. What Kind of Character is a Virtue Ethicist?
In which I show off my philosophy education, probably to my embarrassment. In which I also talk about why I haven't yet discussed deontology, consequentialism, et al.
4. Do I Choose My Ethical Beliefs?
In which I think that psychology is at least as important to this conversation as philosophy is.
5. How Much Tolerance Can We Tolerate?
In which I start out talking about a particular meta-ethical question, then find out that it's actually just a reformulation of the whole problem I'm dealing with, and then get really writerly and meta-fictional on top of meta-ethical.
6. Is Judgement Ethical?
In which I question everything I've done so far and then try to summarize it anyway.
I'll link as the posts come up. I might not be terribly timely.
I'll give you some extra resources to help you get a sense of where I am. The first resource is a post that I wrote following a public lecture by Judith Butler. The second point, on left-right politics, and the final point, on community and conflict, bear on my discussion. The second resource is a novella, Three Worlds Collide, that everyone on the Internet seems to link to when they discuss meta-ethics. It is about space-faring humans encountering alien life for the first time, and having a terrible meta-ethical crisis as a result. I've read the piece and I did not find it helpful. I'm linking it as a preemptive strike, and also so I can tell you what kind of story I would find more helpful: the short story I would like might be about conjoined twins that fundamentally disagreed about ethics, were unable to convince each other, and could not opt out of their necessarily cooperative existence. Deciding whether to blow up aliens with whom I have no emotional engagement, with whom I would not have to cooperate if I chose not to, and with whom I have no shared vulnerability, is not the kind of meta-ethics which applies to my life or to my voting. We're all enmeshed with each other, and that's what makes ethics so difficult.
Tuesday, 22 January 2013
The article was written in the 90s, and I think that there has been some progression since then in defining whiteness (or finding the cultural definition on whiteness). For example, Stuff White People Like might be one attempt to constitute whiteness (though a particular kind of whiteness). However, when I say "some progress," I mean "a little tiny bit of progress." While I have a reasonably good idea of some of the ways I perform my maleness or my heterosexuality, I do not know how I perform my whiteness (though obviously I know how to perform my whiteness as I surely succeed in doing so). I might have some theoretical sense of my whiteness, and I try to remember that I am white as often as it comes up so that I am aware of my privilege. But I do not know how I perform whiteness (or how my behaviour, within our culture, partly produces my whiteness).
I am aware, of course, that my racial designation exists without my needing to act it out. Part of my privilege comes from not having to claim it. But I suspect that I have learned to behave in accordance with our culture's unspoken definition of whiteness, and that my behaviour in part helps to constitute the cultural definition of race.
What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that I shall try to be aware of the way I perform my whiteness, but that I don't suppose it will be easy, especially since I do not have many ideas about where to begin. Does anyone else know?
(Of course, it's also worth asking how I perform my economic status, my education, my ability, my language, my religion, my psychology, and so on.)
Saturday, 19 January 2013
One of the things that interests me about the debate surrounding gun control in the United States right now (recalling, of course, that this debate also appears in Canada whenever election time shows up) is that one of the most coherent oppositions to gun control is focused on the citizen's moral agency. Shouldn't the government focus on preventing actually destructive behaviour (murder) rather than preventing the conditions of that behaviour (gun control)? The role of the government is to produce an environment in which citizens are capable of virtuous action, not incapable of destructive action, though destructive action will be addressed, of course, in the criminal justice system.
I am immediately sympathetic to this kind of argument on two counts. The first is that I do really like moral agency; I get excited when people talk about taking responsibility for their actions. The second is that I like the idea of a state which is focused on helping citizens become virtuous agents rather than forcing them to be obedient agents. Lawful behaviour is much nicer when citizens are lawful for the right reasons rather than out of fear of reprisal. So the ways these particular opponents to gun control articulate their position is attractive to me.
However, I ultimately disagree because I subscribe to what I would call psychological realism. While I do intend to be a strong moral agent and to respect other people's agencies, I am at the same time skeptical that anyone's agency is non-compromised. In other words, I believe that people should take responsibility for their actions when they can but that people often will not and sometimes cannot act the way they should, even when they want to act the way they should. For example, I advise that you read this article entitled "Please Take Away My Right to a Gun" (trigger warning for discussion of suicide and the threat of home invasion), in which the author argues that she does not want to be able to get a gun because during periods of her recurring depression she would be tempted to use it on herself. Many commenters say that the author needs to take responsibility for her actions (and I've read some off-site comments saying that her argument is condescending toward the mentally ill), but I think she's just being realistic: she knows that sometimes she cannot trust her own decision-making processes and she knows that the current system will enable her suicide if she ever attempts it. She is compromised, she wants the state to protect her from herself, and I don't think she's wrong in believing this right trumps the rights of gun ownership.
But this debate has made me re-consider my own position on matters: is what I call "psychological realism" compatible with insisting that people's agencies be respected? One of the reasons I tend to shy away from anything resembling paternalism--particularly colonial paternalism--is that I believe it is intrinsically good to respect other folks' agencies (both to help them develop their characters and as an end-in-itself). But can I realistically continue in this outlook if I ultimately believe that we are all psychologically compromised? If the mentally ill are not full moral agents, how can I be one, either?
Tuesday, 15 January 2013
Early in The Hunger Games, Katniss parodies the Hunger Games' official language by mocking, "May the odds be ever in your favor." (Parenthetically, I'm a little weirded out by the way American movies sometimes use English accents and Anglophilia to make characters seem villainous. But that's beside the point.) The interesting thing is that we, the audience, get this parodic treatment before we ever hear the Games officials using that phrase. When we hear the phrase for the first time, not only are we primed to think that it is a mark of oppression, but we are also aware that the characters are willing to undermine their authority (in the safety of remote hills).
This scene reminds me of a passage in Stephen Greenblatt's "Invisible Bullets," which draws connections between Shakespeare's Henry IV (1 & 2) and V and Thomas Harriot's account of English colonization in America. Greenblatt describes how Falstaff's antics parody King Henry IV's rhetoric before the king speaks. Falstaff announces that he is called about at all hours because he is an important man (when it is really because he is a scoundrel); in the next scene, the king is struck with insomnia and laments that great men cannot sleep while small men slumber. Greenblatt writes, "As so often, Falstaff parodies this ideology, or rather--and more significantly--presents it as humbug before it makes its appearance as official truth." The results are perhaps subtler in 2 Henry IV than in The Hunger Games: "Its effect is not (as with more straightforward parodies) to ridicule the claims of high seriousness but rather to mark them as slightly suspect and to encourage guarded skepticism." As a result, the king's rhetoric "reverberates hollowness as well as poignancy." I would say that in The Hunger Games the result is of the more straightforward variety.
In either case, it seems that what Greenblatt calls anticipatory parody is more effective than reactive parody. For those of us who are parodists, that's something to keep in mind. But in thinking about this I have a further question: what do you do when your own project or rhetoric has been parodied in anticipation? How do you speak when your speech has already been mocked? How do you follow an act that already undermines your own?