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Posts Tagged ‘morality’

The Philosopher and the Wolf with Alan Saunders

In animals, audio, ethics, humanities, interview, philosophy on December 9, 2013 at 20:03

From: The Philosopher and the Wolf with Alan Saunders, The Philosopher’s Zone, ABC Radio National, http://www.abc.net.au

Alan Saunders: Hi, I’m Alan Saunders, and this week on The Philosopher’s Zone we’re going to the Sydney Writers’ Festival for a conversation with Mark Rowlands, Welsh-born and now a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami.

As a philosopher, he’s concerned with the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, with applied ethics, and with bringing philosophy to a wider audience.

Well he certainly reached a wide audience with his book The Philosopher and the Wolf, an account of the 11 years he spent with Brenin, the wolf, whom he bought when he was an Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama and Brenin was an exuberant, destructive puppy.

Brenin went everywhere with Mark. He had to, because it wasn’t good for the furniture if he were left alone at home. And he travelled in the US, Ireland, England and France.

And what lessons did the philosopher learn from the wolf? Well, many, but one was this: that wolves, unlike us, live without hope. And what is most important in us, is what is left when time has taken our hope from us.

Mark Rowlands: We do spend a lot of our time obsessing about the future and obsessing about the past in the way that no other animal does. The drawback is I think, that we have a hard time making sense of our lives once we’re hooked into time in that sort of way. I think that is one of the drawbacks at least.

Alan Saunders: But we have a hard time making sense of our lives, but on the other hand we do have a project, which involves making sense of our lives. Brenin, the wolf, didn’t have any trouble with making sense of his life, because he just carried on being a wolf.

Mark Rowlands: Yes, because we’re what philosophers call temporal creatures, we experience time in a certain way, as a line stretching from the past into the future. We face a problem. And the problem is we know that there’s going to be an end to this line. And so then we have a fundamental choice to make: what is our stance going to be to the fact that there is an end to the line of our lives? And it seems to me we have two fundamental choices: either we tell stories to the effect that there isn’t in fact an end, that what we think of as the end is not in fact the end, there is something else; we can do that. Or we can live our lives in the acknowledgement that there will be an end.

Part of what I wanted to do certainly in the latter half of the book, was to try and show the ways in which making up stories about there not being an end, about death not being the end, doesn’t allow us to be what we are capable of being.

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Reposted with permission from: ABC Radio National

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On Incest by Avi Garelick

In biology, philosophy, psychology, religion, sexuality, society on September 24, 2013 at 00:17

From: On Incest: Its Whys and Why Nots by Avi Garelick, The Hypocrite Reader, http://www.hypocritereader.com

Academically, we are obviously all morally opposed to incest and rightfully so. At the same time, there is an argument to be made in the Swiss case to let go what goes on privately in bedrooms. (Matthew Galluzzo)

Is it wrong to wonder what’s wrong with incest? Will it sit still as an object of reasoned inquiry? If you offer an explanation for the rational underpinning of the taboo, will that satisfy the deep feeling of disgust that surrounds it? There is something about the question what is wrong with incest that suggests the more transgressive question is something wrong with incest. Aren’t we naturally averse to incest, anyway? If so, the pertinent question is not so much why is incest wrong as why is it prohibited?

For Freud, incestuous urges are at the beginning of human experience. This is famously expressed in his concept of the Oedipus Complex—love your mother, kill your father. The basic Freudian notion of sex and incest is this: A human being’s sexual character is as old as he or she is. Sexual character does not arrive unprecedented at the onset of puberty, ready to attach itself to a previously non-sexual subject. Rather, the formation of adult sexuality patterns itself on the circuits of pleasures and prohibitions established in the subject’s early years. This is an immanent account. If you begin your life suckling at your mother’s breast, achieving pleasure and nourishment simultaneously, that is your first erotic enjoyment. All later enjoyments are in some sense a variation on that first one. Pleasure is fundamentally incestuous, and without a denial of these initial pleasures it might remain so. This denial is provided by the exclusive daddy-mommy pairing; the child is pushed away from the parent he loves by the other’s rights. This prohibition is the point of departure for all prohibition; it is internalized in the subject’s development of a sense of shame and repression around sex. The incest taboo thus has its origin in the strength of paternal prohibition. It is this prohibitive character that motivates the displacement of sexuality into an arena of strangers. But in Freud, the original incestuous urge never dissolves. It is merely redirected towards an acceptable object.

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Reposted with permission from: The Hypocrite Reader

Do Elephants Have Souls? by Caitrin Nicol

In Africa, animals, biology, ecology, ethics, philosophy, science on July 3, 2013 at 19:06

From: Do Elephants Have Souls? by Caitrin Nicol, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

The taboo against anthropomorphism exists for three basic reasons. First of all, we as human beings are prone to mistake the thoughts and feelings of each other, even the people we are closest to — how much more so is this a risk in speculating about members of another species?

Even supposing that the elephants were our equals in intelligence, their life differs from ours so fundamentally that trying to infer their perspective from our own experience is bound to miss the mark in many ways. For one thing, as a rule elephants have poor vision — but their sense of smell is exquisite, revealing a whole olfactory landscape that we are contentedly closed off to. Also, they do not fall romantically in love (that we know of; that their behavior indicates). Think how many other aspects of our lives are profoundly influenced by good sight and deep eros, and ask yourself what might loom equally large iStockphoto in an elephant’s world that we ourselves would have very little grasp of. And of course there are a variety of other differences — where they live, how they live, the fact that from birth to death a female (unless something has gone wrong) will never be alone and after a certain point a male mostly will. How might these things shape a psyche?

For real sentient beings, though, the truth is more complex. They are not us, but to look into their eyes is to know that someone is in there. Imposing our own specific thoughts and feelings on that someone is in one sense too imaginative, in presuming he could receive the world in the way we do, and in another not imaginative enough, in not opening our minds to the full possibilities of his difference. The philosopher and theologian Martin Buber called this “the immense otherness of the Other,” reflecting on his relationship with a family horse as a child. As he stroked the mane, “it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin” — “something that was not I,” he notes, but was “elementally” in relation to him. There was an existential connection between them in their improbable blessing of breathing, beating life. And not only life, but the particularity of sentient individuals, as the horse “very gently raised his massive head, ears flicking, then snorted quietly, as a conspirator gives a signal meant to be recognizable only by his fellow conspirator: and I was approved.”

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Reposted with permission from: The New Atlantis

Moral Sentiment and the Politics of Human Rights by Sharon Krause

In human rights, philosophy, politics, theory on May 29, 2013 at 22:26

From: Moral Sentiment and the Politics of Human Rights by Sharon Krause, The Art of Theory: Conversations in Political Philosophy, http://www.artoftheory.com

Why do we have human rights and why are we obligated to respect them? This question provokes a certain amount of anxiety among theorists of human rights today. The difficulties of justifying human rights in the context of what one commentator has called “a world of difference” have helped to motivate the field’s turn to the political in recent years.1 Whereas philosophers and political theorists once treated human rights as applied universal ideals grounded in comprehensive moral doctrines, the dominant discourse now regards them as “political not metaphysical.”2

The political approach aims to avoid resting human rights claims on controversial moral foundations, and it (not unreasonably) sees the task of justifying human rights as intrinsically linked to such foundations. Because of this link, efforts to justify human rights frequently run up against charges of cultural imperialism.3 Yet while it is surely a good idea to refrain from exercising cultural imperialism, we cannot entirely avoid the matter of justification in human rights discourse. For we will never be able to agree on difficult questions of application if we cannot articulate why we have human rights and why we are bound to respect them. What we need is an account of the grounds of human rights that can stand firm in our world of difference.

Moral sentiment theory – the theory of judgment and deliberation found in a range of 18th-century thinkers but articulated most powerfully by David Hume – offers some valuable resources in this regard. It can be developed to suggest a non-foundationalist basis for international human rights today, one that justifies human rights with reference to the faculty of empathy and the fact of interdependence.

On the moral sentiment view I develop here, there is one fundamental and fully universal human right, the right to have one’s concerns count with others’, to be recognized as a moral equal whose interests and perspective are owed inclusion in the generalized standpoint of moral sentiment. Whatever more specific slate(s) of human rights may reasonably be derived from this basic right will reflect the deliberative engagements – and the moral sentiments – of those subject to them. And because this justification of human rights is rooted in common human sentiments rather than independent moral principles, it builds in motivational efficacy. It shows respect for human rights to be consonant with our own common concerns rather than something that threatens our interests and so demands altruism. Moral sentiment theory thus helps us to address two important challenges of human rights today: justification and compliance. In what follows, I begin with a brief account of moral sentiment theory as it was developed by Hume. I then sketch – again, very briefly – how the theory of moral sentiment might be extended to help us justify and motivate human rights today.

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Reposted with permission from: The Art of Theory

Against Prison by Thomas Rodham

In ethics, philosophy, politics, society on May 13, 2013 at 21:51

From: Against Prison by Thomas Rodham, New English Review, http://www.newenglishreview.org

Prison time is a very severe punishment. JS Mill likened it to being consigned to a living tomb.* Any society that employs it should do so with care and restraint. Yet we do not. Partly because we think that prison is a humane punishment, it is drastically over-used in many countries, to the point of cruelty. Aside from failing in humanity, prison does not even perform well at the specific functions of a criminal justice system, namely, deterrence, retribution, security, and rehabilitation. We need to reconsider our over-reliance on prison, and reconsider whether other types of punishment, even capital and corporal punishment, may sometimes be more effective and more humane.

We should recognize the failures of our moral imagination that lead us to overuse prison time as a punishment. Because prison is such a severe punishment, excessive use of it is unjust. Millions of people are serving unjustifiably long sentences in living tombs as a result of our inability to take prison seriously. Our criminal justice systems should be much more restrained in their use of prison as punishment, and much more insulated from popular demands for excessive sentences. Society at large has a responsibility to think harder about how very severe a punishment prison is, and to support such reforms. A more generous and rigorous approach to rehabilitation, perhaps incorporating forms of restorative justice, seems particularly important for a society that wants to call itself civilized.

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Reposted with permission from: New English Review

Moral Enhancement by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson

In anthropology, ecology, ethics, nature, philosophy, psychology, society, technology on March 16, 2013 at 15:44

From: Moral Enhancement by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, Philosophy Now, http://philosophynow.org

For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.

But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?

With great power comes great responsibility. However, evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates. Our political and economic systems only exacerbate this. Industrialisation and mechanisation have enabled us to exploit natural resources so efficiently that we have over-stressed two-thirds of the most important eco-systems.

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Reposted with permission from: Philosophy Now

Welcome to the “Spiritual Kingdom of Animals” by Slavoj Žižek

In Asia, documentary, economics, ethics, film, North America, philosophy, society on January 1, 2013 at 19:31

From: Welcome to the “Spiritual Kingdom of Animals” by Slavoj Žižek, ODBOR, http://www.odbor.org

In other words, self-interested egotism is not the brutal fact of our societies but its ideology – the ideology philosophically articulated in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit towards the end of the chapter on Reason, under the name of “das geistige Tierreich” – the “spiritual kingdom of animals,” Hegel’s name for the modern civil society in which human animals are caught in self-interested interaction. As Hegel put it, the achievement of modernity was to allow “the principle of subjectivity to attain fulfillment in the self-sufficient extreme of personal particularity.”[3] This reign of this principle makes possible civil society as the domain of in which autonomous human individuals associate with each other through the institutions of free-market economy in order to satisfy their private needs: all communal ends are subordinated to private interests of individuals, they are consciously posited and calculated with the goal of maximizing the satisfaction of these interests. What matters for Hegel here is the opposition of private and common perceived by those on whom Hegel relies (Mandeville, Smith) as well as by Marx: individuals perceive the common domain as something that should serve their private interests (like a liberal who thing of state as a protector of private freedom and safety), while individuals, in pursuing their narrow goals, effectively serve the communal interest. The properly dialectical tension emerges here when we become aware that, the more individuals act egotistically, the more they contribute to the common wealth. The paradox is that when individuals want to sacrifice their narrow private interests and directly work for the common good, the one which suffers is the common good itself – Hegel loves to tell historical anecdotes about a good king or prince whose very dedication to the common good brought his country to ruins. The properly philosophical novelty of Hegel was to further determine this “contradiction” along the lines of the tension between the “animal” and the “spiritual”: the universal spiritual substance, the “work of all and everyone,” emerges as the result of the “mechanical” interaction of individuals. What this means is that the very “animality” of the self-interested “human animal” (the individual participating in the complex network of civil society) is the result of the long historical process of the transformation of medieval hierarchic society into modern bourgeois society. It is thus the very fulfillment of the principle of subjectivity – the radical opposite of animality – which brings about the reversal of subjectivity into animality.

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Reposted according to “friendly” copyright notice from: ODBOR

Cormac McCarthy’s Paradox of Choice by Scott Esposito

In aesthetics, books, literature, North America, philosophy, society, writers on December 8, 2012 at 21:50

From: Cormac McCarthy’s Paradox of Choice: One Writer, Ten Novels, and a Career-Long Obsession by Scott Esposito, The Quarterly Conversation, http://quarterlyconversation.com

McCarthy has given new shades to the English language, and that should be enough. Were he a painter or a composer, or perhaps even a poet, it probably would be, but Cormac McCarthy is a fiction writer, and fiction is generally construed to carry burdens above and beyond anything so frivolous as mere style. Stories must mean something. They must appear to argue for or against moral systems—or at least interrogate them. They must be a little less inconstant than dreams.

It is strange to charge McCarthy with not caring about anything more than surfaces, as his single most famous public utterance indicates otherwise. This is the author who declared “I don’t understand [Proust and Henry James]. To me, that’s not literature” because real literature “deals with issues of life and death.”

Here McCarthy reveals his great interest in the choices his characters make. True, he may not realize that, to Proust and James, Swann’s choice to court Odette or Isabel Archer’s choice to marry Osmond are issues just as “life and death” as any murder or tryst found in McCarthy, but the quote still flatly contradicts the claim that McCarthy is a pure formalist. And does McCarthy’s work itself back up his claim? Yes. In fact, in each of his ten novels McCarthy has showed an obsession with the rare, crucial moments when people make the decisions that will define their lives forever.

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Reposted with permission from: The Quarterly Conversation

Philosophy And The Two-Sided Brain by Carol Nicholson

In books, humanities, philosophy, science on October 29, 2012 at 22:15

From: Philosophy And The Two-Sided Brain by Carol Nicholson, Philosophy Now, philosophynow.org

In two New York Times columns, ‘Does Philosophy Matter?’ (1 August 2011) and a week later ‘Does Philosophy Matter? (Part Two)’, Stanley Fish argued that philosophy does not matter to people’s everyday lives. He claimed that most people don’t have philosophical convictions, and for those who do have them, it is what he calls ‘the theory mistake’ to think that their philosophical views have any effect on the way they act outside of the classroom. He writes, “Philosophy is fun; it can be a good mental workout; its formulations sometimes display an aesthetically pleasing elegance. I’m just denying… that its conclusions dictate or generate non-philosophical behavior.” Hundreds of readers posted comments in disagreement with Fish, pointing out examples of ways in which philosophy has influenced the course of history and continues to make a difference to people’s ways of life.

It seems to me that there is truth on both sides of the argument. This is possible because Fish and his critics are operating with different definitions of philosophy. Fish is using a very narrow definition, according to which the function of philosophy is exclusively the analysis of abstract issues, such as whether there are absolute moral truths. In this thinking, the discipline of philosophy is not related to religion, ethics, politics, science, history, literature, art, or any other aspect of human experience. This severely limited view of the role of philosophy was dominant in English-speaking countries during the latter half of the twentieth century, but few philosophers today hold such an extreme position. The medieval view that philosophy is ‘the Queen of the Sciences’ is no longer widely held, but most philosophers think that studying their discipline can make a difference to one’s life outside the seminar room, although they may disagree about exactly what kind of difference. Many would argue against Fish that even if philosophy cannot give access to truths that are somehow more ultimate than scientific or historical facts, it can offer self-knowledge about the most basic assumptions and values that govern our thinking and action, and a clearer understanding of what we are doing that can help us to do it better. This links with a tradition going back to the ancient Greeks and which gives philosophy its name, meaning ‘the love of wisdom’. It’s Plato’s phrase, and he meant by it curiosity about all aspects of knowledge and experience. According to this more expansive definition, philosophy aims to understand ultimate truths about the universe and human nature (metaphysics), the extent and limits of knowledge (epistemology), and the principles that can give guidance in how to live a good life (ethics).

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Reposted with permission from: Philosophy Now

Fiction books give a boost to the brain, says Stanford professor by Corrie Goldman

In books, humanities, literature, psychology, writers on September 17, 2012 at 01:28

From: Fiction books give a boost to the brain, says Stanford professor by Corrie Goldman, Phys.org, http://phys.org

Readers of literary works by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Stéphane Mallarmé and Geoffrey Chaucer are getting lots of exercise from these personal trainers for the brain. New research by Stanford’s Joshua Landy, associate professor of French and Italian, illustrates how authors throughout the ages have sought to improve mental skills like rational thinking and abstract thought by leading their readers through a gantlet of mental gymnastics. In contrast to the common practice of mining fictional works for moral messages and information, Landy’s theory of fiction, outlined in his new book, “How to Do Things with Fictions,” presents a new reason for reading in an age when the patience to tackle challenging pieces of writing has dwindled tremendously. Reading fiction “does not make us better people in the moral sense, whether by teaching us lessons, making us more empathetic or training us to handle morally complex situations,” said Landy. However, for those interested in fine-tuning their intellectual capacities, Landy said literary works of fiction can offer “a new set of methods for becoming a better maker of arguments, a better redeemer of one’s own existence, a person of stronger faith or a person with a quieter mind.”

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Reposted according to copyright notice from Phys.org website

The Architecture of Evil by Roger Forsgren

In architecture, ethics, Europe, government, history, society, war on September 13, 2012 at 18:43

From: The Architecture of Evil by Roger Forsgren, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

For the commission to do a great building, I would have sold my soul like Faust. Now I had found my Mephistopheles. He seemed no less engaging than Goethe’s.

—Albert Speer

Someone designed the furnaces of the Nazi death camps. Someone measured the size and weight of a human corpse to determine how many could be stacked and efficiently incinerated within a crematorium. Someone sketched out on a drafting table the decontamination showers, complete with the fake hot-water spigots used to lull and deceive doomed prisoners. Someone, very well educated, designed the rooftop openings and considered their optimum placement for the cyanide pellets to be dropped among the naked, helpless men, women, and children below. This person was an engineer, an architect, or a technician. This person went home at night, perhaps laughed and played with his children, went to church on Sunday, and kissed his wife goodbye each morning.

The technical professions occupy a unique place in modern society. Engineers and architects possess skills most others lack — skills that allow them to transform dreams of design into reality. Engineers can convert a dry, infertile valley into farmland by constructing a dam to provide irrigation; they have made man fly; and architects have constructed buildings that reach thousands of feet into the sky. But these same technical gifts alone, in the absence of a sense of morality and a capacity for critical thought and judgment, can also make reality of nightmares. Ferdinand Porsche, the engineer who designed the Volkswagen — an automobile that revolutionized personal travel for the common man — also designed a terrifying battle tank that helped kill millions of Russians on the Eastern Front. Wernher von Braun, who would later design the Saturn V rocket that brought American astronauts to the Moon, designed the V-2 rockets with which the Nazis terrorized Antwerp and London in the waning months of the Second World War.

Few men better exemplify this danger than Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s chief architect. From bold, looming edifices, to giant swastika banners, to the intimidating searchlights of the “cathedral of light” piercing the night sky around one of the Nazi Party rallies at Nuremberg, Speer’s designs became icons of Nazi megalomania. He shared with the dictator a vision of a redesigned Berlin that, when the Third Reich conquered the world, would be a lasting monument to its power for ages to come. “Your husband is going to erect buildings for me such as have not been created for four thousand years,” Hitler told Speer’s wife, reflecting both the scale of their shared ambition and the shared admiration and peculiar friendship that developed between the two men over the course of the war.

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Reposted with permission from: The New Atlantis

Wilde Christianity by Simon Critchley

In books, ethics, humanities, philosophy, politics, religion, society, writers on September 1, 2012 at 17:38

 

From: Wilde Christianity by Simon Critchley, The Montréal Review, http://www.themontrealreview.com

I think this idea of a faith of the faithless is helpful in addressing the dilemma of politics and belief. On the one hand, unbelievers still seem to require an experience of belief; on the other hand, this cannot-for reasons I will explore below-be the idea that belief has to be underpinned by a traditional conception of religion defined by an experience or maybe just a postulate of transcendent fullness, namely the God of metaphysics or what Heidegger calls “onto-theo-logy.” The political question-which will be my constant concern in the experiments that follow-is how such a faith of the faithless might be able to bind together a confraternity, a consorority or, to use Rousseau’s key term, an association. If political life is to arrest a slide into demotivated cynicism, then it would seem to require a motivating and authorizing faith which, while not reducible to a specific context, might be capable of forming solidarity in a locality, a site, a region-in Wilde’s case a prison cell.

This faith of the faithless cannot have for its object anything external to the self or subject, any external, divine command, any transcendent reality. As Wilde says: “But whether it be faith or agnosticism, it must be nothing external to me. Its symbols must be of my own creating.”

We appear to be facing a paradox. On the one hand, to be true everything must become a religion, otherwise belief lacks (literally) credibility or authority. Yet, on the other hand, we are and have to be the authors of that authority. The faith of the faithless must be a work of collective self-creation where I am the smithy of my own soul and where we must all become soul-smiths, as it were.

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Reposted with permission from: The Montréal Review

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