Saturday, 28 September 2013

A Perfectly Viable Story, of a Minor Kind

A Review of J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year

Coetzee is one of those excellent novelists of whom I have not read nearly enough. I bought Diary of a Bad Year as a present for myself after my undergraduate degree and hadn't gotten around to it until now. I'm glad I finally did read it, though I think I'm better equipped to read it now rather than after my undergrad.

If unconventional novels aren't your cup of tea, then you might not enjoy Diary quite so much as I did. It has three sections that run parallel to one another: the base of the book is a set of essays, called Strong Opinions, by the protagonist, an elderly author and professor who may or may not be a fictionalized version of Coetzee himself; the next section is a set of reflections by the protagonist on his relationship with his typist, Anya, a shockingly attractive Filipina woman who lives in his apartment complex; the third section is Anya's account of the essays, her relationship with the author, who she calls Senior C, and her live-in partner Alan, a ruthless businessman. The trick is that each page is literally divided between these three sections; the essays run along the top, the author's reflections run along the middle, and Anya's reflections run along the bottom.

Plot is minimal. Anya and Senior C gradually figure out their working relationship, but still fail to understand one another; Alan becomes jealous of the time Anya spends with Senior C; it slowly becomes clear that Alan has hatched some kind of scheme regarding Senior C. That's about all that happens. The main interest in the novel (for me) comes from two things.

First, I enjoyed the essays themselves--mainly political, occasionally aesthetic or mathematico-philosophical--and the place they held in the novel. At first, anyway, they are clever and acute (if sometimes tremendously wrong) but still seem a bit oblivious; since the reader also encounters Anya's commentary on the essays, there's something undefended, exposed, unawares about them. Toward the end of the novel, the character of the essays change; they become more reflective, less bold, more...human, perhaps? Perhaps I enjoyed them because I am (or at any rate was) an academic; even in their error, I feel a sort of affinity with their project, and I enjoyed seeing them soften, seeing them shaped by the characters' lives, seeing their concerns shape the characters' lives.

Second, I enjoyed the degree to which the characters failed to understand one another. All three principle characters had different ideas about what their relationships with one another were; all three characters also failed to understand the other characters ideas. This was ultimately enjoyable, but at times horribly frustrating, because as much as Senior C might be wrong about some things (he is usually wrong when he talks about mathematics), Alan's critiques of Senior C's essays are even worse; he badly misunderstands philosophy, making category errors all of the place. To an extent, this is an academic's nightmare and dream: the reader proves the necessity of the academic's work by failing to understand these ideas, but at the same time and by the same token proves the futility of the academic's work, as well. The character who, by the end, became perhaps Senior C's best reader, to my surprise and joy, was Anya, the pragmatic under-educated typist who proved to be smarter than she seemed (or, very possibly, became smarter in her time with Senior C).
And it's unclear whether Anya or Alan understood Senior C's personal motives at all; Alan seemed to think that there was a love-triangle going on, which is possible but so incredibly boring, while Anya thought that there was something sexual but much more innocent going on, which is also possible, but we don't get many clues from Senior C regarding his attitude toward Anya by the end of the novel.

I don't want to say much more because I'm afraid of spoiling--this isn't a novel that can easily be spoiled, since none of its effects rely much on surprise, but there are a few things which maybe ought to be discovered alone. However, I'll note that there some ideas in his essays that might stand to be discussed, and I may do that on this blog. He certainly has produced some interesting ideas. In the meantime, I'll drop two quotations from the essays for your consideration:
So Nietzsche's dictum needs to be amended: While it may be so that only the higher animals are capable of boredom, man proves himself highest of all by domesticating boredom, giving it a home.
These are pages I have read innumerable times before, yet instead of becoming inured to their force I find myself more and more vulnerable before them.
Alas, I don't think Diary of a Bad Year will be quite pass that last test.

EDIT: I should note that the title of this post is a quotation from the novel, describing a story Senior C contemplates writing but ultimately doesn't write.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Some Things For New Visitors

If you're here from the Turing Test, and you're trying to get a very quick sense of who I am and how I think, you might find the following posts useful:

"Are You Taking the Right Test?", or, The Non-Participating Participant; How I Did the Ideological Turing Test All Wrong
"Finding Linguist Tells," which is about assessing Turing Test entries based on phrasing or vocabulary use. I don't think it's a very good method, but I propose a study that could allow us to use linguistic tells more effectively.
"An Enemy of Utopia For Utopia's Sake," in which I talk about Marxism. The bit about being unable to predict what society will look like after radical change is related to why I don't think we can tell, from our present position, what legalized and public polygamy would look like in a Western, generally secular, increasingly feminist society.
"Marriage as Genus, Marriage as Genre," in which I talk about how I think about marriage.
"What Genres Mean," an index post which will connect you with the posts which generated prompt #3 in this year's Turing Test. (See, in particular, the Other People's [Insert Genre]s Series.)
"Envy for Sisyphus," which some people might point to as the post that most defines my thinking at the moment. Benefits from prior knowledge of Camus.

"To Exist is to Differ, Part One" and "Part Two," which I would point to as the posts that most define my thinking at the moment.
"Notes on Depression Index," which is a directory of my writing on (in) depression.
"A Christian Lit Nerd Reads the Bible," which isn't even on my blog; it's a guest post on Unequally Yoked, from years back. It does a decent job of describing (if not defending) how I read the Bible. This might be of interest to Turing Test readers in particular.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Are You Taking the Right Test?

or, The Non-Participating Participant; How I Did the Ideological Turing Test All Wrong

Note: I wrote this a while ago, sometime in August. On the 19th I touched it up a bit but made no substantial changes, and scheduled it to post on the 20th.

I participated in this year's Ideological Turing Test at Unequally Yoked, or at any rate I made a submission. I am not so sure now that I truly participated.

As usual, the ideological positions were Christian and atheist (though activity in the comments made it seem as though the real lines were between Christian and non-Christian rather than atheist and non-atheist), but the topics were euthanasia and polygamy. In comments someone said that he did not think Christians and atheists would differ on the issue of polygamy: both groups would oppose it. As a Christian who supports at least the legalization of polygamy, if not its unqualified practice, I was a bit amused and intended to disagree with him, but because I wanted to write a submission I thought I should disguise the grounds for my disagreement so I wouldn't give myself away. Thus I replied that even if Christians and atheists wound up on the same side of the issue, what would be interesting is the reasons they gave for their conclusion. Indeed, it might be even harder to argue for the same conclusion with different reasons because your own reasons for that opinion would cloud your judgement. Even though this was a disguise for my actual reasons for disagreeing, I did think it was true. (Update 19 September 2013: Most atheist entries have supported polygamy while most Christian entries have opposed it.)

I'm no longer so sure it is true after all.

In writing my entries, I did what I did last year: I wrote a Christian entry that I largely agreed with, but I was conscious of adding more Christian-culture stuff than I normally would (in other words, I pretended it was something I wrote for fellowship and added more Bible stuff); and I wrote an atheist entry that was mostly what I think I would believe if I were an atheist. This last means that I write mainly my own opinion with all of the Jesus stuff excised and some stuff I stole from my atheist friends to paper over the gaps. I'm sufficiently used to doing something like the latter anyway when writing academic papers. Most of the influence Christianity has on my thinking is what I would call a deep Gospel mentality: I don't really back things up with Scripture and theology, at least aloud, so much as try to inhabit Gospel-based values enough that my reasoning and actions will be consistent with Christ's teachings. You can disagree with this method on whatever grounds, but at any rate it's where I am and that's all that matters for this post, because it means that I can generally converse on an abstract or practical level with non-Christians and the difference between my Christianity and their non-Christianity only shows rarely.

If this is what I'm doing--fiddling what I think anyway around so that it sounds atheist, or anyway doesn't sound Christian--am I really participating in a Turing Test? Whether or not it is a sound strategy for winning this particular game is something time alone can tell (I suspect it isn't, because I know perfectly well that the kind of atheist I would be does not look much like the kinds of atheists that populate Leah's blog any more than the kind of Christian I am does not resemble the kinds of Christians that populate Leah's blog) but I still wonder whether my tactics achieve the ends that the Turing Test is supposed to promote. The goal, as I understand it, is to prove that you really do understand your ideological opposition's reasoning. That's all well and good...but are atheists really my ideological opposition? I don't think reality is anything so tidy. I agree with many of my atheist friends on a lot of matters, and I disagree with many of my Christian friends on the same matters. I might also say that social conservatives are the ideological opposition to my progressive beliefs more than any religious distinction, but I don't really think "conservative" and "progressive" are coherent groups. Other, idiosyncratic distinctions are even more important to me: tentativeness/certainty, for instance, or altruism/self-interest, or capitalism/anti-capitalism.

So if I were to really participate in this Turing Test, I might be forced to write an atheist entry that opposes at least polyamory, and maybe euthanasia. That exercise would force me to really understand both social conservatism and atheisms other than the one with which I'm familiar. However, since neither winning nor discovering whether I can fake atheism is motivating me to participate, I'm not going to change my entry now. (Reasons they don't motivate me: I'm not very competitive and I don't think this test is a terribly good indicator of whether I understand atheism. What is motivating me: I think writing games are fun, and I want to make sure there are some interesting entries in the Turing Test. There always are interesting entries, but I feel like I can contribute something that many of the entrants can't/won't contribute, namely a humanities-educated leftist Protestant Christianity.)

Or perhaps I would have to write an entry that still supported euthanasia and polygamy but from strongly rational materialist and maybe probablistic grounds; I would want to use arguments from Less Wrong and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I could participate in a Turing Test by pretending to be the kind of atheist I wouldn't be were I an atheist.

And this makes me wonder what other kinds of Ideological Turing Test could be run. In the context of Leah's blog, Catholic Christian/non-Catholic Christian comes to mind (but would that be Protestant or Orthodox?), as does conservative Christian/progressive Christian and transhumanist/non-transhumanist. Other lines that might interest me would be, say, liturgical Protestant/non-liturgical Protestant, or anti-capitalist/capitalist, or environmentalist/industrialist, or what have you. I guess I just don't think that the existence or non-existence of God or the divinity of Christ or what have you is really the place where the most publicly salient differences lie, and I'm using that to cheat my way through Leah's Turing Test (to whatever degree of success).

On the topic of cheating, I must also confess that I did put a bit of effort into making the atheist entry sound less like me than normal (at which I might have failed, but I hope not, since I think the entry sounds a bit brisque) and a bit more effort into making the Christian entry sound especially like me (at which I almost certainly succeeded). Given the fact that Leah's entries in the first iteration of the Turing Test were very clearly written in her own voice and included many of her public preoccupations, yet she passed the Turing Test with flying colours, I probably don't need to worry overmuch about whether or not my efforts to disguise or reveal myself will have an effect on the outcome. tl;dr: I don't think many people will recognize me anyway.

Update 15 August 2013

My entries having now been posted and the voters having commented on them, I should say that making the atheist entry sound less like me, or at least the way I went about making it sound less like me, was a mistake. Many people note that the voice sounds forced, and while I'm not entirely sure that's true (I don't think most people have a sufficient sense of just how idiosyncratic other people's language is, or at least their understanding doesn't reflect how idiosyncratic my language is, an issue which compromised people's assessments in the Ideological Turing Tests before), I will happily concede that the more particular complaints were likely valid. Some folks noted that the forcefulness of my piece's voice was at marked odds with how a person who held these opinions would probably write, and that's probably fair. I made the voice more confident because I thought that the recent tentativism kerfuffle would alert perceptive readers that ambiguity and tentativeness are kind of my trademark. While one person (Martha O'Keefe) does seem to have figured out that the Christian entry was mine along these lines, I was probably wholely wrong in this prediction otherwise; some voters say they have been using overconfidence as an indication that an entry is fake, which has the opposite effect as I'd been worried about. In other words, I'd have been better off risking recognition and keeping an uncertain voice, because recognition isn't much of a risk. (My narcissism cripples me again.)

More generally, I think that there was a problem with trying to strip an entry of my own voice entirely, in that it then lacks any coherent voice to hold it together. If I want to sound like not-me, I should have created an entire non-me persona to hold it together. I failed to do this, which likely explains a lot of the specific complaints people made. For instance, someone pointed out that it wasn't clear where my persona stood w/r/t libertarianism, anarchism, and liberalism. That complaint reflects a difficulty in my method: I stole the basics of the pro-euthanasia argument from my more anarchist friends, but I built those basics out in a way that is more appealing to me, a person sitting on the fence between anarchism and socialism (though I don't think the two are nearly as incompatible as most people think, and the anarchist friend of mine I know best would likely agree). And for an argument against the sanctity of life I stole and inverted an argument from some pro-life Catholics who were trying to convince conservative Catholics that pro-life theology entails more than anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia politics. What I didn't do is try to work out how this corresponded with the general persona I was(n't) constructing. So it's true that I didn't think through a persona who would hold these views, and as a result the presentation was likely sloppy. Of course, it's also possible that I'd have failed anyway; if the last Turing Test is any indication, the atheists at Unequally Yoked are not bad at all at sorting the real from the fake. It's hard to see how they might be so good based on last year's individual comments, which seem to me to have very faulty methods. But they did well, so either a) my skepticism in their methods might be misplaced, or b) the things that they say influence their decisions are post-hoc rationalizations of pre-conscious criteria which are very accurate, or c) the voters who commented do not accurately represent all voters, or d) a combination of a, b, and c, or e) something I haven't thought of yet.

This being said, I'm open to the possibility that I did a bad job at the Turing Test above and beyond making a poor choice regarding the piece's voice. I remember wishing I had a proof-reader before I submitted the entries, since I'd fussed with them for so long that I was no longer able to see whether they said what I wanted them to say. There are a couple of places where having a proof-reader would really have helped, I think, since particular passages are bivalent in ways I hadn't anticipated.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Satanism's Ethics (Are Kind of Boring)

Today's post will be my six-hundred and sixty-sixth, according to Blogger (this may be untrue in that I think Blogger counts unpublished posts, and I have a half dozen or so unpublished posts). In light of this, I will write about Satanism.

I can't recall the first time I realized that Satanists were 1) real and 2) people, though it was probably around my fourth year of undergraduate. I recall hearing a very touching story that a human resources worker at Queen's University told to my Christian fellowship about a student who was complaining about the struggles of undergraduate university; when the student said that she thought she was losing her faith, the HR worker asked what faith that was, and the student answered, "Satanism." The HR worker then proceeded to treat her with sympathy and compassion, despite knowing that this student prescribed to a worldview deliberately built in opposition to the HR worker's own beliefs. Somehow this story went a long way to normalizing Satanism for me.

That being said, at the same time Satanism seems really weird to me, because it embraces the metaphysics it opposes; unlike atheism, its vehement rejection is a kind of affirmation in that, although it flips all of the moral values, it nonetheless maintains the cosmological beliefs. (Also, it is amply and inaccurately represented in movies, especially in the 90s and early 00s.) So when I made myself a course-reader style package of miscellaneous materials one summer, I include some readings about Satanism from a Religious Studies/Anthropology anthology I got out of the library. I thought this religion-of-conflict might have yield some interesting insights into religion and/or culture. And what I learned is this: Satanism is actually kind of boring.

I'll be more specific, because I suppose certain aspects of Satanism are not so boring, and I'm sure there are Satanisms, so maybe certain varieties of Satanism are more intellectually robust. What I find to be so boring about Satanism, as described and examined in Edward J. Moody's "Urban Witches,"  is its core ethical system. Moody writes that Satanist virtues are simultaneously defined as 1) that which Christianity considers a sin and 2) natural human motivations:
The seven deadly sins of Christian teaching--greed, pride, envy, anger, gluttony, lust, and sloth--are depicted as Satanic virtues. Envy and greed are, in the Satanic theology, natural in man and the motivating forces behind ambition. Lust is necessary for the preservation of the species and not a Satanic sin. Anger is the force of self-preservation. Instead of denying natural instincts the Satanist learns to glory in them and turn them into power.1
Because of its emphasis on desires that are "natural" to some universal "man," these Satanic ethics remind me of what I call the Polonius virtue, the idea that acting authentically (or true to yourself) is a moral good. I've never found the Polonius virtue convincing because 1) it is not something I intuitively feel, 2) I've never encountered a justification of it, let alone a persuasive one, and 3) I do not believe in a coherent or stable self to which one might be obliged (and this last one's pretty lethal to any chances I might have of adopting the Polonius virtue).

The most interesting move that the Satanists make regarding morality is linking definitions 1 and 2 and explaining why what Christians call sins are actually virtues:
Satanic novices are taught that early church fathers deliberately picked on those aspects of human desire that were most natural and made them sins, in order to use the inevitable transgressions as a means of controlling the populace, promising them salvation in returning for obedience.
Were it not for this explanation, it would seem mighty convenient that everything Christians condemn is actually praise-worthy. The explanation itself is actually a not too different from things Christopher Marlowe was (probably falsely) accused of having said in the early modern period.2

I don't know why I was expecting something more interesting than this. I guess I thought that if anyone had a really wild and unexpected morality, it would be Satanism, but it turns out that it fits right in there with genetic determinism, pop-psychoanalysis, and what Walter Truett Anderson calls neo-romanticism (think hippies and New Agers), movements with an emphasis on the interior self as the source of morality and truth. It also has some things in common with existentialism, but it reminds me more of genetic determinism and pop-psychoanalysis. I presume more conservative Christian writers would say that it's boring because everything that's not the truth limits God, Creation, and humanity, or because anything that derives morality from the self cannot be as rich as something that derives morality from an institution/tradition/wellspring of all Being. But I'm not going that route: certainly there are lots of belief systems I consider to be factual wrong but still well-worked out and internally compelling (for instance, Nietzsche's immoralism). Satanism isn't that.

I suppose it's as pertinent to ask why I think this is boring as it is to ask why it is boring. I think it's boring because it has no room for growth or improvement. It's static and non-dynamic. The Christian vision (or, anyway, my Christian vision) of ethics involves a person striving to better themselves through action; it's not just that my past actions become increasingly more ethical, but that I change as a result of my actions. That self to which Polonius ethicists would say that I am obliged is shifting; how do I authentically act out a shifting self? Or how do I act out an internally conflicted self? Satanists seem to want to locate authenticity in desires and impulses, but these are not always consistent: I have impulses of charity as much as I have impulses of greed, and what of my desires to inhibit other desires? Authenticity to a certain self seems doomed or nonsense unless that self to which I am authentic is a deliberate self, that is, the self that I want or will rather than the self that I have. This kind of authenticity is not just more interesting but also quite simply possible, which can't be said for regular-old Polonius ethicism. I think there's still a lot of debate concerning what kind of self I ought to cultivate, though. Christians are already on top of this idea, but I'm sure Satanists could construct a more intellectually rigorous ethics on this model as well (if some haven't already constructed it); in order to do so, however, they could not appeal either to a dubious historical account of Christianity or to inherent desire any more, which means that they'd have to build a whole new set of justifications for the sort of authenticity to desire that they've been espousing. (Nietzsche would likely make a decent starting point for that kind of work.)

EDIT: I'm also kind of surprised that the justification given for lust is reproduction. That sounds, well, exactly like Christian doctrine about sexual attraction: it's good if it leads to reproduction. The Satanists aren't adding the corollary (it's bad if it doesn't), but even so, this similarity is striking. In other words, if Satanists define "lust" simply as "those feelings which are necessary for reproduction," then they have a really tame idea of what lust is, and don't seem to understand how the churches are using the word.

1  Of course, since this and one other article are the sources of my understanding of Satanism, and these articles are old enough, what I'm writing here may not apply to Satanism generally, or to the Satanism of any particular individual you (reader) may know. All of what I say applies only to Satanism as I, through Moody, describe it.
2  It's actually possible that Marlowe did say a number of the things that the Baines Note accused him of saying, but at the time he did so he was a spy for the English government, acting out the role of traitor and conspirator in order to gain information. So, in a sense, the government was condemning him for doing what it was paying him for doing. Little wonder if Marlowe did become seditious.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Kinds of Abandon in The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker.
Helene Wecker's debut novel The Golem and the Jinni is a lovely novel, even if it does read a little like the first novel it is (there's too much coincidence). As the back of the book explains, it is about Chava, a golem, and Ahmad, a jinni, arriving in New York City in 1899. Chava's master-husband wakes her for the first time minutes before his unsuspected death; when Chava arrives in New York, she is masterless. Ahmad has been trapped in a flask for centuries, and when he is released by a Syrian tinsmith in Manhattan he is still trapped in the human form given to him by the same Bedouin wizard who put him in the bottle. Assorted plotlines unfurl and characters develop, including members of both the Syrian and Jewish immigrant communities and including Yehudah Schaalman, a deadly Kabbalist sorcerer. In a sense it is a book about immigrants in America (Wecker says so explicitly), as the Golem and the Jinni are immigrants in immigrant communities, but the eponymous protagonists are also immigrants to a parody humanity, both trying to act human despite the ways in which their natures rebel against human constraints.

Chava and Ahmad become friends of a sort (though their first meeting is late in the novel, more than a third of the way through), bound by the fact that each of them is a mythical creature pretending to be human for fear that the humans around them, compared to whom both Chava and Ahmad are incredibly powerful, would quickly destroy them in fear and distrust. But they make poor, quarrelsome friends most of the time, because as much as both of their natures resist the humanity they are forced to take on, they resist in very different ways. Chava is a golem, a creature made to serve; without a master, she is aimless, and a quirk of the magic which bound her to her master now allows her (compels her) to feel the desires of everyone she encounters, and when she feels those desires she has an impulse to serve them. (With one exception: she was made to be sexually faithful to her husband.) Chava also fears running amok; whenever a golem gets a taste for violence, it is said, that golem will never stop. Ahmad, on the other hand, is a powerful jinni, a fire spirit once able to enter dreams, fly, and change his shape at will. He roamed the deserts and acted on his whims and desires without thought to consequence. While he retains some of his power, he is bound to human form and certain human vulnerabilities (and worse). And so while both struggle with being human, their desires are radically different: Chava hates the freedom of being human, while Ahmad hates the constraints of being human. Let me excerpt a passage for you (I admit it's a little long):
She shook her head. "You misunderstand me. Each golem is built to serve a master. When I woke, I was already bound to mine. To his will. I heard every thing, and I obeyed with no hesitation."
"That's terrible," the Jinni said.
"To you, perhaps. To me it felt like the way things were meant to be. And when he died--when that connection left me--I no longer had a clear purpose. Now I'm bound to everyone, if only a little. I have to fight against it, I can't be solving everyone's wishes. But sometimes, at the bakery where I work, I'll give someone a loaf of bread--and it answers a need. For a moment, that person is my master. And in that moment, I'm content. If I were as independent as you wish you were, I'd feel I had no purpose at all"
He frowned. "Were you so happy, to be ruled by another."
"Happy is not the word," she said. "It felt right."
"All right, then let me ask you this. If by some chance or magic you could have your master back again, would you wish it?"
It was an obvious question, but one that she had never quite asked herself. But then, couldn't she guess? What sort of man would take a golem for a wife, the way a delivery man might purchase a new cart?
But oh, to be returned to that certainty! The memory of it rose up, sharp and beguiling. And she wouldn't feel as though she was being used. One choice, one decision--and then, nothing.
"I don't know," she said at last. "Maybe I would. Though in a way, I think it would be like dying. But perhaps it would be for the best. I make so many mistakes, on my own."
She'd half decided to turn back toward Broadway; but then he said, "Do you remember what I told you before? That I was captured, but have no memory of it?"
"Yes, of course I remember."
"I have no idea," he said, "how long I was that man's servant. His slave. I don't know what he made me do. I might have killed my own kind." There was a tight edge in his voice, painful to hear. "But even worse would be if I did it all gladly. If he robbed me of my will, and turned me against myself. Given a choice, I'd sooner extinguish myself in the ocean."
"But if all those terrible things did happen, then it was the wizard's fault, not yours," she said.
Again, that not-quite laugh. "Do you have colleagues at this bakery where you work?"
"Of course," she said. "Moe and Thea Radzin, and Anna Blumberg."
He said, "Imagine that your precious master returns to you, and you give yourself to him, as you said you perhaps would. Because you make so many mistakes. And he says, 'Please, my dear golem, kill those good people at the bakery, the Radzins and Anna Blumberg. Rip them limb from limb."
"But why--"
"Oh, for whatever reason! They insult him, or make threats against him, or he simply develops a whim. Imagine it. And then tell me what comfort it gives to think it wasn't your own fault."
This was a possibility she'd never considered. And now she couldn't help but picture it: grabbing Moe Radzin by the wrist and pulling until his arm came free. She had the strength. She could do it. And all the while, that peace and certainty.
To be honest, I am more sympathetic to Chava's plight than to Ahmad's. Ahmad's desire is freedom, and his growth as a character is to move from moral nihilism to greater responsibility; his attendant fear is simply that he will lose his freedom. Chava's desire is to be servant to a master which will grant her certainty in her decisions, but her fear is more than just that she'll remain aimless; her fear becomes the dark parody of what she desires, that she will be servant to someone who would cause her to hurt others. And, indeed, this is precisely what the threat of running amok is to her: she would be servant to her own darkest impulse, the golem's buried but ever-present taste for violence. It's not just that I recognize both Chava's fears and her desires more than I recognize Ahmad's; I find the fact that what she fears is the logical extension of what she desires to be more interesting than Ahmad's simplicity.

But what interests me most is how both of them desire a kind of abandonment. Ahmad wants to abandon himself to his own desires, be they good or bad; he wants to abandon himself to freedom. Chava wants to abandon herself to her master's desires; she wants to abandon herself to service. If each of them got what they wished, they would lose themselves. Chava explicitly acknowledges this--"I think it would be like dying"--but even Ahmad would dissolve into a sort of formlessness, being a shape-shifter and perpetual wanderer. He would not be recongizable. (To an extent this is a writer's trick; he would probably have a continued sense of identity, but his jinni name is kept from us because it's supposedly inarticulable by humans, and in the flashbacks to his time as a free jinni he did not appear, at least to me, to be quite as fully developed a character as when he was human; at any rate, it wasn't until he starts following humans and investigating them that he starts to differentiate from other jinn. I think this was deliberate on Wecker's part.) As much as Chava's nature and Ahmad's nature rebel against their current human condition, it is exactly that condition--not free of conscience or consequence, but free to make decisions nonetheless--which makes them characters. They gain identity by their humanity.

While The Golem and the Jinni is no allegory, the point is pretty plain. Chava and Ahmad are different in origin and different in ability than humans, but otherwise they are hardly different at all. This sense that being human is horribly uncomfortable, either because we rebel against the limitations our humanity gives us or because we rebel against the freedom our humanity gives us. Some people prefer one rebellion to another, but each fails. From what I can tell Wecker is not particularly religious, but I think that between Chava and Ahmad (but more Chava) some of the particular struggles and griefs of religious life are well represented. I saw much of my own fears and concerns in Chava, and while I do not feel that The Golem and the Jinni provided much way forward as far as those struggles go, I nonetheless found it an enormously satisfying read, not least because character-driven fantasy novels are so hard to come by.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Morality of Aliens, Dragons, and Dead Philosophers

or, Disorganized Thoughts on Moral Foundations Theory

A Moral Foundations Theory post

In this post I'm just catching together the topics that I want to bring up but don't have a coherent through-theme which might hold them together.

1. If moral intuitions can be wrong (which is a truism these days), should we even be talking about Moral Foundations Theory? Shouldn't we be talking instead about deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, moral nihilism, immoralism, divine command theory, or other logical bases for morality? Aren't moral sentiments (for that's what the Moral Foundations are), well, sentimental?

On the one hand, yes. Moral Foundations are moral sentiments/intuitions, and since people disagree about them (that's the whole idea behind Moral Foundations Theory), they must sometimes be wrong for some people. Probably a rigorous and consistent moral philosophy would be better. But...

On the other hand, no. We can talk about morality not as moralists or moral philosophers but as psychologists and anthropologists and culture critics. I can take as my object of study not what I should do, but how people try to work out what they should do. An anthropology of morality is valuable. But I also think that Moral Foundations Theory, or anyway the sorts of things we might figure out when thinking about Moral Foundations Theory, can help in asking the moralist's questions. I cannot act morally without investments (see this post; as usual, Beck is my touchstone for all questions about the psychology of morality). It is good to consider what those investments are and how they operate. Moreover, my response to other people's morality is itself governed by morality; Moral Foundations are then data for my moral decision making.

2. The Moral Foundations tests I took (I took a few) all had a question which asked whether a person's mathematical ability might influence your moral decision. I'm curious about that question. I assume it's a question to determine whether a person is answering randomly; anyone who says that they do think a person's moral worth is linked to their mathematical prowess must either be answering randomly, lying, misunderstanding the questions, or morally alien. But that got me thinking: could there be a morality--an alien, orange-and-blue morality to be sure--that does value math in this way? Some sort of technocratic or narrowly meritocratic society? Actually, now that I write this out, it doesn't seem so absurd; fantasy novels assure me that some people (and cultures) assign a moral value to physical strength. Perhaps another person or culture could assign moral value to mathematical ability?

3. On the topic of orange-and-blue moralities, is such a thing possible? What would a truly alien morality look like? How could one identify it? Would we be able to even tell that it is a morality? (I suppose this might not be too far fetched; for a long time, existentialism struck me as really alien and Nietzsche's immoralism still does.)

4. I wonder how (and if) Moral Foundations Theory meshes with the classic Dungeons and Dragons' alignment system. This is the first time I realized it, but I suppose it would be best to think of Good/Evil as being moral and Lawful/Chaotic as being political; I've always thought of both axes as different ways of measuring morality, but perhaps they are the different branches of axiology. So are the Moral Foundations all subsumed under Good/Evil? This seems unlikely: freedom/oppression and authority/respect look like Lawful/Chaotic--that is, political--virtues as much as Good/Evil--that is, moral--virtues. As far as gameplay goes, it might make sense to replace the moral alignment chart with a simplified version of Moral Foundations Theory, but I suspect we would be even better served to overlay them. You could work out your alignment, and then work out your Moral Foundations. After all, "Evil" doesn't exist in the Moral Foundations; if you are an Evil character, perhaps the Moral Foundations you hold are the principles you fight against? How does acrasia (when people act against their own better judgement) fit into all of this? I'm at times tempted to dismiss the Good/Evil alignment axis on same grounds that Plato would: we cannot will evil. But at other times I know better: I do what I do not will, and I do not do what I will, and sometimes it seems that I do not will what I will, either.

5. And while we're talking about ancient Greeks and moral philosophy, I want to talk about the Euthyphro dilemma. The only reason I scored as highly as I did in the purity/sanctity measure is that I said that what God wills is good. They asked if whether God's feelings about my behaviour influences how moral that behaviour is, and I said yes. But I said yes because God wills what is good; I was not agreeing that what God wills is good simply because God wills it. So the creators of the quiz embedded the Euthyphro dilemma into this quiz: is the Good good because the gods admire it, or do the gods admire the Good because it is good?
But more simply, I think the question is misleading; God's will is not clearly accessible to us, so all we have to work it out is our morality anyway. The question isn't going to illuminate that reasoning at all. (I suspect. But there are tests you can do to see whether a question in a questionnaire contributes to the measure for which it is designed, so maybe I should reserve judgement until those tests are done.)

Purity Disgusts Me

or, Are My Results the Right Ones?

A Moral Foundations Theory post

After I took the Moral Foundations Theory test and got my results, I was tempted to feel pretty smug about those results. Of course I scored the way I did; the Moral Foundations I prefer are the better ones. (Confession: I succumbed to that temptation for a while.) As much as I talk about listening to conservative viewpoints openly, I admit that I have a very hard time practicing what I preach. Most conservatism strikes me as misguided (say, conservative economic policy) and some of it strikes me as horrible (anti-homosexuality rhetoric and policy). It takes a lot of effort to think about conservatism more charitably, but I can do it: I remind myself that I was once more conservative than I am, and I look to conservative thinkers who I respect (Eve Tushnet, for instance, whose opinions on homosexuality I would find pretty repellent were she not homosexual herself). Opposing same-sex marriage isn't always evil, I can convince myself to recognize; it's just misguided and uncharitable. Given my emotional investment in being leftist, seeing that my results were a slight exaggeration of the typical liberal results was something of a triumph for me; I had been worried that my conservative roots might show.

Eventually I remembered to try to think about the Moral Foundations from a conservative point of view. (In general, trying to think from another point of view is a skill/virture I want to develop.) And what struck me is this: conservative-me would argue that liberals were in the wrong here because all of the Moral Foundations are important. Morality is best understood as the maximization of all of the Foundations (or virtues, we'd be well off to call them). Unless you develop, follow, cherish all six of them, you have a stunted morality. Conservative-me doesn't hold purity higher than freedom or care, after all; conservative-me holds purity alongside freedom and care. Moreover, I talked in the last post of this series about how the different Foundations might shape each other or influence how we interpret the other Foundations. So conservative-me would say that conservative-me understands freedom, and understands care, and understands fairness, better than a liberal/socialist-me, because conservative-me interprets those concepts in light of purity, loyalty, and respect. Freedom can only be truly achieved if purity is achieved as well, and vice-versa.

Now, I think Beck's posts at Experimental Theology about disgust show how concerns about purity warp the other concerns rather than inform them: when we are working with disgust (and disgust is the engine that drives purity), we can't think straight about the rest of it. We infrahumanize those we associate with disgust, and once we do that, we stop applying all of those other virtues to them. Disgust is something we need to fight against in ourselves, and we cannot wage that particular battle if we value purity. However, listening to conservative-me's little soapbox sermon did give me pause: am I missing out on something? Should I value loyalty more? Should I value respect/authority more? Is it possible that there's something to this purity thing which deserves my attention?

The trouble is that my response to purity (as a Moral Foundation) is disgust. I sometimes catching myself curl my lip when I read anti-homosexuality rhetoric; racism is awful anyway, but when it's tinged with concerns about purity, I start to feel revulsion towards that racism. (Lovecraft's fiction is a good example of racism that is preoccupied with purity. cf "The Shadow Over Innsmouth.") So it's really hard for me to think straight about this topic. However, Beck's research seems pretty spot-on from what I can tell, so I'm not too worried that my dismissal of purity as a Moral Foundation is unfounded (heh heh). That said, I cannot dismiss loyalty or respect/authority so easily. I wonder how you might resolve this problem: I'm back at meta-ethics again.

Building Your (Axiological) Foundation on Sand

or, Are These Really the Foundations After All?

A Moral Foundations Theory post

In my first post of this series, "The Polonius Virtue," I wrote, "Freedom--whether articulated as liberation, choice, agency, or anarchy--is a pretty common trope for political speeches and actions, everything from liberation theology to pro-choice advocacy to justifications of foreign and domestic military violence." I don't suppose it will be controversial to say that freedom, as a buzzword, is taken up by most sides of each issue. In the same post, I also outline ways that I thought the moral foundation authenticity/artificiality operates in such different discourses as existentialism, Daoism, neo-romanticism, and genetic determinism. In the second post, "Unnatural Acts and Unnatural Ingredients," I suggest that sexual purity (eg. homophobia, pro-chastity) and biological purity (eg. anti-GMOs, environmentalism, organic food movement) are "one moral foundation (purity/disgust) mobilized in different realms (sexual, ritual, environmental, dietary)." So, I ask, if one moral foundation can be mobilized in different realms--freedom in both communism and capitalism, authenticity in existentialism and genetic determinism, purity in homophobia and environmentalism--how foundational are they? What else is involved that allows (or compels) these foundations to wind up producing such varied philosophies? Would that something else be foundational, instead?

I also notice how some of these concepts bleed into one another. In existentialism, freedom/oppression cannot be fully untangled from authenticity/artificiality; indeed, the same can be said of Daoism, though it formulates the relationship between the two moral foundations differently. In certain strains of environmentalism, natural authenticity is virtually synonymous with natural purity...and, I suspect, you could dig up some Internet pundit who equates sexual purity with sexual authenticity, as well. So it isn't just that individual moral foundations start to splinter; separate moral foundations start to fuse (or, anyway, are found to be fused).

I haven't any idea how to find a definitive answer, but I have some ideas about where we could start loving the question.

1. Maybe the use of the word "freedom" is cynical when it is used to support foreign military violence. Its speakers would not actually score very highly on the freedom/oppression scale if they took the Moral Foundations test. But they know (anecdotally, probably not experimental-psychologically) that other people value freedom highly, and so when they preach war, they marshal "freedom" for support. This cynicism might be conscious, unconscious, semi-conscious, doublethink, or whatever.
While I think this would go a very long way explaining the freedom example, I don't think it adequately addresses the purity/sanctity or authenticity/artificiality examples; I think that at least some of the time, people do genuinely (ie. non-cynically) use the same foundations to support different philosophies, and recent evidence supports me on that.

2. Maybe freedom does matter to warmongers, but their decision to monger war is made without reference to this particular moral foundation (or, anyway, this moral foundation lost out to the other factors in the decision-making process). Instead, they were swayed by some other motive--desire for public favour, xenophobia, love of Empire, American civil religion, whatever--and they use "freedom" as a post-hoc rationalization for their decision. As with post-hoc rationalizations generally, they really do believe that this moral foundation is motivating them. This is very much like #1, but without the cynicism.
There's pretty good evidence that people rationalize non-rational decisions rather a lot, so to me it feels like post-hoc rationalization is a good answer. But I don't like it for a few other reasons: I suspect that, at least in the biological purity examples, it would be hard to construct ulterior motives that were more plausible than disgust. Disgust is very strong, and the evidence to support disgust as a motivator is solid. Again, this story works better for freedom than for purity.

3. Maybe cultural expectation, social pressures, upbringing, and so on matter more than moral foundations. These other forces might shape moral foundations, but not all people in a family, community, etc. have the same foundations. However, they might wind up holding the same opinions because these social pressures shape the foundations in assorted ways. Mom is harm/care-oriented and Dad is authority/respect-oriented, but both wind up opposing the de-criminalization of polygamy (say). This isn't so much post-hoc rationalization as a pressure to interpret those foundations in different ways. The foundations are polysemic; they contain several (though limited) possible meanings (or, if you prefer, applications or expressions). So the moral foundations are still the tools by which people formulate moral opinions, but there is nothing inevitable about what opinion people will use those foundations to formulate. Or, if it is inevitable, something other than the moral foundations determines which opinions people will hold.
However, the trouble here is that foundations still don't seem to matter much; in order to explain how "freedom" can found such radically different philosophies, you'd have to say that social pressures exert overwhelming influence...and then Moral Foundation Theory is all but useless. The evidence that I know of suggests that the Moral Foundation Theory does describe some bit of reality rather well, so something in this story is wrong.

4. You can repeat #3 for pressures other than the ones described: personality, fear, whatnot. Same story, and same problems.

5. Perhaps the different ways freedom can be mobilized has something to do with how this foundation interacts with the other foundations. We already see that they are intertwined; maybe the forces exerting pressure on a moral foundation are the other foundations. We interpret freedom differently depending on how heavily we value freedom compared to care, or purity, or loyalty. Maybe, with a higher loyalty score, we start to value our country's freedom more than another country's.

6. Perhaps the difference is something so simple as a disagreement about the facts about the world. We have different data, so when we apply a standard axiology, we get different results.

Ultimately, my guess is that there isn't one answer for this problem. I would suggest that one person's case might resemble #1 most while another person's case resembles #4 most. I've got no real answers. I think, though, the problem lies either 1) in how Moral Foundation Theory articulates and explains the moral personality traits it measures or 2) in how I understand that articulation and explanation, because the data suggests that Moral Foundation Theory is measuring a valid feature of human moral reasoning. The data makes sense; it correlates with other measures, it show internal consistency, the studies are replicable. So there's something to this theory. But are those somethings foundations? What role do they play in moral reasoning? I don't know. (Maybe that's just because I haven't read the research. I'm firmly seated in my philosophy armchair.)

Blog Widget by LinkWithin