Monday, 16 April 2018

'Evil': A Brief Search for Understanding

In medieval times, evil ws often personified in not-quite human forms

Posted by Keith Tidman

Plato may have been right in asserting that “There must always be something antagonistic to good.” Yet pause a moment, and wonder exactly why? And also what is it about ‘evil’ that means it can be understood and defined equally from both religious and secularist viewpoints? I would argue that fundamental to an exploration of both these questions is the notion that for something to be evil, there must be an essential component: moral agency. And as to this critical point, it might help to begin with a case where moral agency and evil arguably have converged.

The case in question is repeated uses of chemical weapons in Syria, made all too real recently. Graphic images of gassed children, women, and men, gasping for air and writhing in pain, have circulated globally and shocked people’s sense of humanity. The efficacy of chemical weapons against populations lies not only in the weapons’ lethality but — just as distressingly and perhaps more to the weapons’ purpose — in the resulting terror, shock, and panic, among civilians and combatants alike. Such use of chemical weapons does not take place, however, without someone, indeed many people, making a deliberate, freely made decision to engage in the practice. Here is, the intentionality of deed that infuses human moral agency and, in turn, gives rise to a shared perception that such behaviour aligns with ‘evil’.

One wonders what the calculus was among the instigators (who they are need not concern us, much as it matters from the poltiical standpoint) to begin and sustain the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. And what were the considerations as to whom to 'sacrifice' (the question of presumed human dispensability) in the name of an ideology or quest for simple self-survival? Were the choices viewed and the decisions made on ‘utilitarian’ grounds? That is, was the intent to maim and kill in such shocking ways to demoralise and dissuade insurgency’s continuation (short-term consequences), perhaps in expectation that the conflict will end quicker (longer-term consequences)? Was it part of some larger gopolitical messaging between Russia and the United States? (Some even claim the attacks were orchestrated by the latter to discredit the former...)

Whatever the political scenario, it seems that the ‘deontological’ judgement of the act — the use of chemical weapons — has been lost. This, after all, can only make the use utterly immoral irrespective of consequences. Meanwhile, world hesitancy or confusion — fails to stop another atrocity against humanity, and the hesitancy itself has its own pernicious effects. The 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill underscored this point, observing that:
“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
Keeping the preceding scenario in Syria in mind, let’s further explore the dimensions of rational moral agency and evil. Although  the label ‘evil’ is most familiar when used to qualify the affairs of human beings it can be used more widely, for example in relation to natural phenomena. Yet, I focus here on people because although, for example, predatory animals can and do cause serious harm, even death, I would argue that the behaviour of animals more fittingly falls under the rubric of ‘natural phenomena’ and that only humans are truly capable of evil.

As one distinction, people can readily anticipate — project and understand — the potential for harm, on an existential level; other species probably cannot (with research continuing). As for differentiating between, say, wrongdoing and full-on evil, context is critical. Another instantiation of evil is history’s many impositions of colonial rule, as having been practiced in all parts of the world. It not uncommonly oppressed its victims, in all manner of scarring ways, by sowing fear, injustice, stripping away of human rights, physical and emotional pain, and destruction of indigenous traditions.

This tipping point from wrongdoing, from say, someone under-reporting taxable income or skipping out on paying a restaurant bill, into full-on evil is made evident in these additional examples. These are deeds that range the gamut: serial murder that preys on communities, terrorist attacks on subway trains, genocide aimed at helpless minority groups, massacres, enslavement of people, torture, abuses of civilians during conflicts, summary executions, and mutilation, as well as child abuse, rape, racism, and environmental destruction. Such atrocities happen because people arrive at freely made choices: deliberateness, leading to causation.

These incidences, and their perpetrators (society condemns both doer and deed) aren’t just ‘wrong’, or ‘bad’, or even ‘contemptible’, they’re evil. Even though context matters and can add valuable explanation — circumstances that mitigate or extenuate deeds, including instigators’ motives — rendering judgements about evil is still possible, even if occasionally tenuously. So, for example, mitigation might include being unaware of the harmful consequences of one's actions, well-meaning intent that unpredictably goes awry, pernicious effects of a corrupting childhood, or lack of empathy of a psychopath. Under these conditions, blame and culpability hardly seem appropriate. Extenuation, on the other hand, might be deliberate, cruel infliction of pain and the pleasure derived from it, such as might occur during the venal kidnapping of a woman or child.

As for a religious dimension to moral agency, such agency might be viewed as applying to a god, in the capacity as creator of the universe. In this model of creation, such a god is seen as serving as the moral agent behind what I referred to above as ‘natural evil’ — from hurricanes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, and droughts to illnesses, famine, pain, and grief. They of course often have destructive, even deadly, consequences. Importantly, that such evil occurs in the realm of nature doesn’t award it exceptional status. This, despite occasional claims to the contrary, such as the overly reductionist, but commonplace, assertion of the ancient Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius:
 “Nothing is evil which is according to nature.”
In the case of natural events, evil may be seen as stemming less from intentions and only from the consequences of such phenomena — starvation, precarious subsistence, homelessness, broken-up families, desolation, widespread chronic diseases, rampant infant mortality, breakdown of social systems, malaise, mass exoduses of desperate migrants escaping violence, and gnawing hopelessness.

Such things have prompted faith-based debates over evil in the world. Specifically, if, as commonly assumed by religious adherents, there is a god that’s all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent, then why is there evil, including our examples above of natural evil? In one familiar take on theodicy, the 4th-century philosopher Saint Augustine offered a partial explanation, averring that:
 “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.” 
 Other philosophers have asserted that the absence of evil, where people could only act for the good (as well as a god’s supposed fore-knowledge of people’s choices) would a priori render free will unnecessary and, of note, choices being predetermined.

Yet, the Gordian knot remains untied: our preceding definition of a god that is all-powerful and all-benevolent would rationally include being able to, as well as wanting to, eliminate evil and the suffering stemming from it. Especially, and surely, in the framework of that god’s own moral agency and unfettered free will. Since, however, evil and suffering are present — ubiquitously and incessantly — a reasonable inquiry is whether a god therefore exists. If one were to conclude that a god does exist, then recurring natural evil might suggest that the god did not create the universe expressly, or at least not entirely, for the benefit of humankind. That is, that humankind isn’t, perhaps, central or exceptional, but rather is incidental, to the universe’s existence. Accordingly, one might presuppose an ontological demotion.

Human moral agency remains core even when it is institutions — for example, governments and organisations of various kinds — that formalise actions. Here, again, the pitiless use of chemical weapons in Syria presents us with a case in point to better understand institutional behaviour. Importantly, however, even at the institutional level, human beings inescapably remain fundamental and essential to decisions and deeds, while institutions serve as tools to leverage those decisions and deeds. National governments around the world routinely suppress and brutalise minority populations, often with little or no provocation. Put another way, it is the people, as they course through the corridors of institutions, who serve as the central actors. They make, and bear responsibility for policies.

It is through institutions that people’s decisions and deeds become externalised — ideas instantiated in the form of policies, plans, regulations, acts, and programs. In this model of individual and collective human behaviour, institutions have the capacity for evil, even in cases when bad outcomes are unintended. Which affirms, one might note in addressing institutional behaviour, that the 20th-century French novelist and philosopher, Albert Camus, was perhaps right in observing:
“Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
So, to the point: an institution’s ostensibly well-intended policy — for example, freeing up corporate enterprise to create jobs and boost national productivity — may nonetheless unintentionally cause suffering — for example, increased toxins in the soil, water, and air, affecting the health of communities. Hence again is a way in which effects, not only intentions, express bad outcomes.

But at other times, the moral agency behind decisions and deeds perpetrated by institutions’ human occupants may intentionally aim toward evil. Cases range the breadth of actions: launching wars overtly with plunder or hegemonism in mind; instigating pogroms or death fields; materially disadvantaging people based on identities like race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin (harsh treatment of migrants being a recent example); ignoring the dehumanising and stunting effects of child labour; showing policy disregard as society’s poorest elderly live in squalor; allowing industries to seep toxins into the environment for monetary gain — there are myriad examples. Institutions aren’t, therefore, simply bricks and mortar. They have a pulse, comprising the vision, philosophy, and mission of the people who design and implement their policies, benign or malign.

Evil, then, involves more than what Saint Augustine saw as the ‘privation’ of good — privation of virtuousness, equality, empathy, responsible social stewardship, health, compassion, peace, and so forth. In reality, evil is far less passive than Saint Augustine’s vision. Rather, evil arises from the deliberate, freely making of life’s decisions and one's choice to act on them, in clear contravention to humanity’s well-being. Evil is distinguished from the mere absence of good, and is much more than Plato’s insight that there must always be something ‘antagonistic’ to good. In many instances, evil is flagrant, such as in our example of the use of chemical weapons in Syria; in other instances, evil is more insidious and sometimes veiled, such as in the corruption of government plutocrats invidiously dipping into national coffers at the expense of the populace's quality of life. In either case, it is evident that evil, whether in its manmade or in its natural variant, exists in its own right and thus can be parsed and understood from both the religious and the secular vantage point.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Turkey, Nuclear Energy and the Remarkable Power of Money

All friends again. Recep Erdogan and Vladimir Putin at the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant ground-breaking ceremony this month
By Martin Cohen

This week saw Turkey officially 'launching' it's first nuclear reactor, Russian-designed, with specailly invited guest, that country's president, Mr Putin. Which in itself is quite a turn-around since it was only on the 24 November 2015 that a Turkish combat aircraft shot down a Russian jet on the Turkish-Syrian border. After this incident, President Putin spoke of  'a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists' and warned that it would have 'significant consequences including for relations between Russia and Turkey. And yet, and yet...  two and a bit years on all is smiles and sunshine again in the relationship.

What could have created such harmony from discord? And the answer, as ever in international and domestic politics alike, is money. For the Russians, the rapprochment has other strategic benefits too, yet for Turkey, the nuclear deal looks at first glance odd. But I wrote a book* a few years back about nuclear energy and in the process of researching it, I realised that with nuclear power nothing is as it seems.

And in Turkey, nuclear politics is really about money. Or perhaps we should say the lack of it. Because Turkey has made four attempts to start a nuclear power program, beginning in the 1960s, and still is nowhere near to generating any nuclear electricity.

The problem is not about the political will - Turkish governments whether civilian led or military-led have long hankered after the idea of being a 'nuclear power', and it certainly is not due to any respect for safety or the environment. The complete deafness to safety considerations is shown very clearly by the fact that the signed and sealed plan for Turkey's first nuclear reactor at Akkuyu Bay on the Mediterranean coast is located smack bang in the middle of an earthquake danger zone. If the plant is built (see below) and if it ever starts operating, then it is highly likely to be the first one destroyed by an earthquake.

Should the Turkish government care? Yet environmental factors have always counted for little in that country's drive for hydro-electric power.. Thus, the massive Ilisu dam project on the Tigris river, was after an international outcry over the flooding of the ancient city of Hasankeyf and yet the Ilisu dam is dwarfed by the Beyhan project on the Euphrates, also in the Kurdish south-east, where fears of the forced evacuation of the local population evoke particularly bitter memories. Here an energy project is in reality part of amore sinster destruction of that much-oppressed stateless people.

No, the big questionmark and problem that dogs the nuclear industry in Turkey is simply that (behind the smokescreen) both the reactors and the electricity produced are very, very expensive. Thus the only way the Turkish government can afford nuclear plants is to get outside countries to pay for them - and then let the foreign investors charge premium prices to the power consumers for years to come. A similar foolish contract has recently been entered into by the British in order to persuade someone to fund a new nuclear reactor for the UK.

The UK had great difficulty persuading anyone to sink money into nuclear - but got around the doubts by making the taxpayers ultimately liable for all the risks. Alas, from the perspective of the nuclear industry, Turkey does not provide what the professionals like to call 'a secure environment' for risky, multi-billion dollar, investment. Inflation is high, the economy is in deficit each year, about half of it due to energy imports, and the country's debt is well over $100 billion. 

In Western countries governments change, but contracts once signed are sacrosanct. However, in Turkey, political change is more violent. There is the history of military coups d'état in recent years - in 1960, 1971, and 1980 - while the forced resignation of Necmettin Erbakan in 1997 did not do much to reassure investors either. On the other hand, the Turkish electricity sector is effectively a state monopoly,  and  the possibility of Turkey being allowed to join the European Union, remote though it ever seemed, barely threatens that these days, even over a timescale of 40 years which is the time-scale necessary for the moneymen who fund nuclear plants to feel confident they can make their profits.

All of which is to say again that Turkey's nuclear program is about cash, not to say wheeling and dealing. The energy minister, Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan's son-in-law, just fancy that! called the start of work on Akkuyu the realisation of a national dream. Not to say that the vast sums of money involved in unuclear projects tend to stick to the hands of all those involved.

Turkey is located at the centre of transport routes between the vast oil and gas reserves of the Middle East and Central Asia, and the markets of Europe. Logically speaking then, it would seem that the country would is in a unique position to benefit from low-cost fossil fuels, without even mentioning its own hydroelectric, fossil, and renewable energy resources. Yet somehow Turkey has ended up being dependent on cheap gas imports from Russia and Iran, the arrangements with whom (in the manner of all bargain basement deals) have in recent years proved 'unreliable'. At one point Turkey even broke off one contract with Russia, its biggest gas supplier. If the plant is ever built, Turkey will be dependent on Russian support to fuel and run it.

At least there seems to be no real sense that Turkey is still working towards a nuclear bomb. Indeed, there is the strange historic role of Turkey as a conduit of nuclear secrets from the US to Pakistan and - of all people - Israel, a country which the government regularly rails against for having driven the proverbial truck through the principles of non-proliferation. Commenting on this, one CIA operative told the London newspaper, The Sunday Times:
"We have no indication that Turkey has its own nuclear ambitions. But the Turks are traders. To my knowledge they became big players in the late 1990s,"
More 'wheeling and dealing' has resulted in several cases of highly toxic nuclear waste turning up in Turkish industrial zones, apparently brought in surreptitiously in return for corrupt payments.

Over the years, Turkish nuclear power projects (as with nuclear projects in many countries) have come and gone, announced with a fanfare only to disappear without trace. Yet it looks like things are more serious now. Russia’s President has promised to back the project with more than $20 billion, while Turkey’s prime minister planned to borrow another $2.5 billion on the financial markets.

How can such extraordinary sums be repaid? The project represents a ball and chain being tied to the Turkish economy, a burden on the many that likewise will make the governing clique fantastically wealthy.

The Turkish public are apprehensive about nuclear, looking warily over their shoulders at the plants run in Armenia and Bulgaria which are generally thought of as dangerous. And Turkey is the one of the countries which was affected by the disaster of Chernobyl, even if the accident has always been kept out of the public debate about energy policy. Instead, the discussion has been focussed on the economic arguments. But here too, nuclear power has a lot of explaining to do.

* The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World's Most Dangerous Fuel

Monday, 2 April 2018

Picture Post #34: An Omission in Addition

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Havana, Cuba 2018    Picture credit: Patrizia Ducci

As your eye enters this image, it moves between characters, names and signs that we recognise and do not recognise. We have some knowledge of some but not of others, and so, along our limited acknowledgment we move forth, leaping over the unknown parts.

Above a closed entrance on a building, seemingly in disuse, is written the word ‘circus’. Kirkos or krikos in ancient Greek, meaning something curved, something that is happening all around. In Latin, circus means circle. The idea of ‘something’ happening in a circle is whispered to us by the letters of   an alphabet that we happen to read.

What of the two portraits painted? One on each side of the entrance. They seem to enhance the bricks that should keep the outside from the inside. Yet these depictions do not seem to deal with whatever was the forgotten function of the building - if the word circus has, or once had, anything to do with the building at all.

Visible is a form of what is called decay, a melancholic deterioration that somehow relates the images and characters to ‘their’ past. And when a stranger sprouts in their midst, he does not seem to belong  with either the portraits or the building, far less with a circus.

And yet, the presence of the stranger completes this image in which past time is always present time. In this way, the stranger hands us the possibility of revisiting what we think to recognise, what we think we know, and rediscover it as more mysterious.

Monday, 26 March 2018

On Classism and Inequality

Posted by Keith Tidman

In various forms, and to many degrees, classism, meaning prejudice against people belonging to a particular social class, and social inequality are pervasive, pernicious, and persistent. And they are unbreakably bound: classism and inequality engage one another in a symbiotic, mutually reinforcing relationship. The two phenomena are therefore best explored together.

The casualties of classism, predominantly poorer, less educated, working-class people, not uncommonly internalise the discrimination, resenting and yet accepting censure at the same time. The victims may find it difficult to dismiss the opprobrium as unjust  they might, in resignation, wrongly see it as fitting to their station in life. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to rationalise why, dismissively stating that: 
 “The order of castes is merely the ratification of an order of nature.
At the same time, class has appeared hard-wired across generations within families. For many, there are no or few available strategies to exit the cycle theyre caught up in. Measures of influence, power, wealth, job status, and knowledge — along with verdicts about decency, heritage, behaviours, habits, and who deserves what — are the filters through which stereotypes and biases pass. Identity, labels, entitlement, and rationalisation are among the tools instigators use to perpetuate classism. Their claim to merited privilege becomes the normative standard. That standard, however, can run into the immorality of social and economic inequality that’s arbitrary, often non-merit based, and stems from self-indulgence.

Appropriately, the 18th-century Scottish social philosopher Adam Smith pushed back against Nietzsches dismissiveness, laconically offering the optimistic, affirmative view that:
 “... the  difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of.” 
A notion that all people, of all classes, can build on. 

Yet classism and inequality aren’t figments; they are real social constructs that bear concretely on citizens’ lives. Certain groups, believing their economic and sociopolitical advantages endow them with higher class rankings, enjoy yet another consequential privilege: they get to pull the levers on how government, the law, institutions, entitlements, and cultural foundations are designed and operate, and whom those levers favor. This instrumentalist perspective serves as a means to acquire additional benefits. The privileged are adept at influencing the running of nations and leveraging the hand they get to play. They project their influence on society in ways that primarily attend to self-interests, with modest resources to be shared among the rest.
The effect of those residual resources doesn’t make inequalities right, or more bearable or fixable; the effect is duplicitous. In a paradoxical way, the privileged exert a powerful, dominant grip, while dexterously advancing their interests. The exercise of power often happens veiled — though it needn’t always do so, as out-in-the-open brazenness is no barrier to political manipulation. An offshoot among the privileged is increased self-determination and sovereignty over choice — their own and their nation’s. Distrust of the financially oiled powerbrokers — among those who feel disenfranchised and denied fairness and opportunity — emboldens disunity and strident polarisation. Sometimes the outcome is the rise of extreme factions on both the left and right of politics, clashing over matters of both policy and heart-felt beliefs.

The underprivileged classes see that, in an increasingly and perhaps irresistibly and irreversibly globalised world, there’s merely a larger platform on which those already holding capital, and the levers of influence that accompany it, extend their gains all the more. The so-called common good isn’t always seen as an enlarging, sharable pot — where zero-sum resources go only so far and are seen to be acquired at the expense of other groups. The less-advantaged members of society might question whether equality and merit really matter, as opposed to an unfair 'legacy' grip on claims to influence, wealth, and power. 

Liberal economics promises the opportunity to rise among the ranks, though serving as more an aspirational, albeit elusive, brass ring. Identity — such as race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, language, and history — is integral. Identity serves as a means to decide how to share access to rights, choice, fairness, justice, goods, safety, and well-being — and ultimately recognition and legitimacy in the marketplace of ideas — according to the governing arrangement. Yet inequality endangers these benefits.

As an ideal, the observation by the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is still highly relevant to the debate  duplicated around much of the world  over class, inequality, the public good, sociopolitical advantage, and nations responsibility to rectify egregious imbalances:
It is therefore one of the most important functions of government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor.
Yet, the reality — whether in liberal democracies or in patriarchal autocracies, and most systems of governance and social philosophies in-between — has seldom worked out that way. Classism and inequality continue to march conspicuously in unison and without remedy, their rhythms bound irremediably together, each still used to justify and harden the shape of the other.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Rehabilitating Joad

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
“Poor Joad,” said the journalist John Guest, summing up the life of the late British philosopher on the BBC. The hapless C.E.M. Joad, who gained immense popularity on radio and TV, fell finally into disrepute and obscurity.
The Times of London, in its obituary, seemed to seal his final fate: “He had no interesting contribution to make as a philosopher.” Today, the dictionaries of philosophy would seem to confirm it. It is a rare dictionary in which we find his name.

Personally, I think that Joad was badly overlooked – perhaps because his very popularity detracted from his reputation as a serious thinker. Popularity was indeed, in a sense, what he wanted – not merely for popularity’s sake, but because his interest was to reach the “common man”.

Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad had two great and timely insights, writing at a time where philosophy was parting ways with ethics through the creeping effects of Hume's fact-value distinction, and above all, through logical positivism. The recession of religion provided fertile ground for the same.

Firstly, he recognised that the problem of the time was the loss of ethics. Above all, he saw that philosophy had lost ethics, and would be impotent until it reclaimed it. In The Plight of Civilisation *, written in 1941, Joad set out the problem like this:
“To an age governed by the stomach-and-pocket view of life and accustomed to demand of every activity proffered for its approval that it shall deliver the goods, understanding seems no doubt an inadequate object of pursuit. Yet something is, it is obvious, grievously wrong with our civilisation, and it is high time we set about the business of trying to understand what it is. Science has won for us powers fit for the gods, yet we bring to their use the mentality of schoolboys or savages.”
In his verdict, society was “grievously wrong”.  In spite of “powers fit for the gods”, men and women had lost their moral compass. Many people agreed with him then, and many surely still would today. Because, in every major area where it matters, it seems that we are in serious crisis: personal, political, social, and environmental.

With this in mind, Joad developed a unique approach to ethics – but it seems to have all but disappeared today. I needed to search far on the Internet to find what I had once read in books. Eventually, I found some of his texts in the Delhi University Library, but they were fragmented through erratic optical character recognition.

A widespread view of moral epistemology is that morality cannot be rationally grounded. Not only is it impossible to proceed from an “is” to an “ought” as Hume originally said. If we ask after the reasons why we do things – and the reasons which lie behind those reasons – ultimately we find that there is nothing there at all.

Not so, said Joad. Rather than finding nothing, we find everything. Joad innovatively turned the argument on its head. I read this first in his Guide To The Philosophy Of Morals And Politics of 1938 – however it runs through various of his works. Supposing, he said, that I take quinine for a fever:
“Quinine helps, in other words, to reduce fever; but why reduce fever? Because fever is a disease. But why not be diseased? Because health is better than disease. Why is health better than disease? At this point we may refuse to answer; we just see, we may say, that health is better than disease, and that is all there is to say about it. But in saying ‘we just see’ health to be better than disease, we are absolving ourselves from the necessity of saying why we see it to be so.”
It is at this point, he writes, that “we cease to give reasons and fall back upon the assertion ‘we just see’.” That is, when we ask after our motives, we may keep on pushing back the question, yet inevitably we reach a point where we throw up our hands and laugh. But now, he says, we are passing a judgment of “absolute, ultimate, and unique value.”

Yet we do not discover a void. Rather we discover the true axioms of ethics. On condition, that is, that we sift ultimate from penultimate axioms – over which Joad himself took great care.

This view seems to me to be unique. It seems to me to meld reason and value, scepticism and realism. It differs from ethical intuitionism, empiricism, rationalism, pragmatism, and various other views – and for its perspicacity would seem to make Joad deserving of a place on the philosophical map. I believe that he identified and addressed the most profound philosophical issues of his and our day, and did so originally and creditably.

* Correction: this quote is taken from Philosophy For Our Times. The author mistakenly cited the section heading, and not the title of the book.

For further reading:
Return to Philosophy (1935)
Guide to the Philosophy of Morals and Politics (1938)

Monday, 12 March 2018

Disabling Self-Service

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
The idea that gaining power, maintaining power, maximizing power, and wielding power are central to restructuring the functions of a democratic society is a dangerous one to swallow. It does not cure the disease of oppressive and unjust government, but endorses it. With this in mind, I survey both the ideal and the reality of political power.
The ideal of political power is deliberately misconstrued. It is not the ability to control people, but the ability to instill in them the practice of altruism. By altruism I refer to the person who is motivated by the power of putting the needs of others ahead of their own happiness—I shall call this their moral purpose. Ironically, as they do, people seek to differentiate themselves from others—thus the same moral purpose is uncommon to all, and selfishness becomes common.

The reality of political power, in most nations, is that politicians are self-serving—not because of pressure from a corrupt populace within, or corrupt governments without, but by their own, false moral purpose. Tragically, the world over, as political power promotes the practice of selfishness—and thereby favours the selfish—it becomes a vehicle to deliver the product of despondency, as many in society are cast aside by the selfishness of others. While there are some who have a more altruistic view of power, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

The reality of political power attracts corruption as a flame attracts moths. This bears evidence to the famous words of Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘Politics have no relation to morals’. Yet not only does political power instill in people the practice of selfishness. Political power is itself selfish, to a point that the moral purpose of many politicians has resulted in patronage and corruption as the norm. A preeminent example is the South African ‘State’ which is deemed to have been captured for the benefit of a wealthy family for the personal enrichment of all involved.

In such an unbalanced society, is it possible then to overcome a self-serving tendency—as people, and as politicians? Yes, it is, through a different moral purpose, and through excellence. The moral purpose I speak of is, in philosophical terms, moral realism and moral motivation—a moral purpose which is grounded in the nature of things. The excellence I speak of is service to the people with no exceptions to venality and patronage. In other words, we have a wellspring of virtue within us, but we may permit it to be poisoned by external influence.

People easily fall to the weakness of taking care of themselves before the other, yet through altruism, which is the ideal of political power, that tendency can change. One can disable the intent to self-serve—which is the tendency to take care of oneself first—and one can change those false values instilled in society by politicians, which only serve the interest of those who identify with that political ideology. Certainly, it would be a miracle for the whole world to reach this point, yet many people believe that the miracle is possible—if not through philosophy, then through their religious conviction, which deeply believes not in human nature, but in the unseen.

If morality and excellence had triumphed in the ‘State’ of my birth country, South Africa, the State would not have been ‘captured’. We would have had leaders with integrity—leaders who could reflect on the nature of human community and government, and the relations between the collective and the individual, and could cast off the habits of exploitation and colonialism. It is hard to be in power and to act with a different moral purpose to that of selfishness, but it is possible.

What is needed is that politicians act only from benevolence and a sense of obligation. The reason to overcome the tendency to self-serve is simple. Doing what is right for the right reasons brings positive progress in society. The definition of political power, I said, is deliberately misconstrued. It is not the ability to control people. It is the ability to instill in them the practice of altruism. I now conclude that the reality of political power which is self-serving, when it is transformed and renewed, becomes the ability to instill right values in society, through the right values it holds itself.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Picture Post #34: Watching the Tide

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Photo credit: students of  A Mundzuku Ka Hina, communications workshop. Mozambique

From the plastic on the lower right corner, moving to the left, arise a man and woman, both with one hand touching their face and each with one arm posing on their leg, the diagonal movement flows into the blankets behind them out of the picture. This ‘line’ creates a certain ‘zone’ in which we seem to stand in front of a threshold.

Our eyes may enter ‘the gate’ ‘guarded’ between the two seated persons and the boy standing on the right, to look into a ‘dark’ space where people gather in a circle and diagonally expand to the left into another lateral diagonal line. The composition is as if we are introduced carefully in a gathering, ‘a zone’ we cannot truly enter, we glance at something that is far from us, almost secret.

The picture invites us to regard it from a distant point of view where, at first sight, a kind of picnic, a déjeuner sur l’herbe, slowly changes into something that is far more remote. And yet, this is how some people survive, these rubbish dumps are their home and their daily reality -- along with intoxication and poverty and helplessness as the other side of the coin.

And yet, there is something inspiring about the picture in the posture of the two person’s in the foreground and the boy: the impression is that of creating a ‘gate’ in which the ambiguity of contraries, that in ancient times was certainly seen as an essential element in speaking truth, yields to a logic of the inevitable raising problems that come with more recent social, industrial and political conditions, one in which words have to search for an adaption between truth and oblivion.

Thus as with many such terrible events that happen in the world, we hear about them, we see images, but it is not our skin. The observer, the spectator has a very protected stance

Last week in il Bairro di Hulene, which is the neighborhood of shanty homes raised around the lixeira (dump), seventeen people died under a mass of refuse that detached itself and slid down from the dump pile. Six houses and seven shacks were destroyed including a small ‘press’ that was there to crush the plastic and cans.

Monday, 26 February 2018

About The Shootings

With acknowledgement to the Chuck Gallery.
By Thomas Scarborough
About the tragic shootings in the USA, a few things are clear. Firstly, they have been possible because the weapons were accessible. Secondly, they have happened, by and large, in educational institutions. Thirdly, the shooters have targeted institutions, not individuals.
I have had the privilege of studying theology in the USA. I have studied, too, in other parts of the world. Yet what I experienced in the USA seemed unlike anything else. There was a rising feeling within me of being violated. Thankfully I never had any thoughts of harming anyone—yet the thought crossed my mind: could there be any relation to the massacres?

Beyond that sense of violation, in many cases, students may struggle to know what they are experiencing. In my own case, the situation was unusually transparent. It was not difficult to connect my feelings with the ideology which aroused them.

In theology, there has been a growing tide in the USA, which has its origins in the philosophy of Europe in the mid 20th century—more exactly, in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The theologian R.L. Sturch describes it like this, in the New Dictionary of Theology: ‘In terms derived from Wittgenstein, religion may be seen as a ‘form of life’ or ‘language-game’. Debate within the ‘form of life’ is legitimate, but about the form itself there can be none; either it is adopted or it is not.’ Without so much as entering into theological niceties, we may note some strong language: a form of life ‘is adopted, or it is not’, while debate is ‘legitimate’ only within a given life form. 

Take an instance of such theology, which calls itself a Theology of Communal Practice. Theologians Nancey Murphy and Brad Kallenburg state, ‘What has to be accepted, the given, is—so one could say—forms of life ... The viability of a historical community depends on the ongoing felicity of its communications. Thus, for the society to be viable, most of this communication has to be ‘true’ most of the time.’ Again, without so much as doing any theological analysis, we may simply note the strong language: forms of life ‘have to be accepted’, they are ‘given’, and they ‘have to be true’.

While this hardly serves to prove a point, such ‘compulsive’ thinking is all-pervasive in theological seminaries in the USA—while it is its application that creates the stress.

How should one guarantee ‘felicity of communications’? How should one preserve ‘legitimate' debate? How should one press ‘acceptance’? It need not be through open confrontation—in fact it may more often than not be through the violence of silence. ‘Illegitimate’ debate is greeted with silent stares—or it is channeled, rerouted, deflected. It stacks reading lists, it sustains and manages felicitous communications, it promotes methodological exercises which skirt around the content. In short, it defeats the student. This is the violation.

Is this felt in other educational institutions in the USA? While I do not have direct experience of it, the answer is yes. The psychologist Peter Gray, in Psychology Today, surveyed the ‘seven sins’ of US education. One of the items on his list was ‘Inhibition of critical thinking.’ There is a ‘powerful force’, he wrote, ‘against honest debate’. Yet the force is not merely theoretical. There are students who feel it. Forensic psychologist Stephen Diamond puts the violence down to this: ‘We are prone to feeling hurt’—and in some cases, pathologically.

Seung Hui Cho was a killer who issued a manifesto. On page one, he wrote, ‘Ask yourself what you did to me.’ His entire manifesto, while on the one hand an inscrutable rant, on the other hand reveals a sense of being violated. ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,’ he wrote. Is this the reaction to the ‘powerful force against honest debate’?

A brief post such as this cannot hope to answer this question—yet it is surely a question which needs to be asked, and answered. As much as one needs to control access to weapons, one may equally need to overhaul the educational system—and its philosophy.

Huston Smith, a popular writer on religion, considered, ‘Our humanness flourishes to the extent that we steep ourselves in [ultimate] questions—ponder them, circle them, obsess over them, and in the end allow the obsession to consume us.’ There is little humanness in excluding or marginalising issues—in speaking the language of the ‘given’, the ‘legitimate’, and so on—whether it be in seminaries or elsewhere. One needs the marketplace of ideas—together with the freedom, transparency, bravery, and skill that its negotiation requires.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Fermi's Paradox . . . But What If?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Seven decades ago, the physicist-of-atomic-bomb-fame, Enrico Fermi, pondered with his lunchtime companions at Los Alamos whether other intelligent life forms populate planets around the Milky Way, and if so, why we have no evidence of them? He purportedly asked, “Where are they?”, meaning, of course, the alien beings. Because if other complex, intelligent, technology-clever life forms have even a fraction of humankind’s proclivity toward curiosity and, let’s say, colonization, then why is there no evidence of them having acted on these instincts throughout our galaxy? From that conundrum, Fermi’s Paradox emerged.

The American astrophysicist, Frank Drake, later thought about which factors might be necessary to address Fermi’s question and, in particular, how many technological civilizations, emitting electromagnetic signals, might exist among the stars of just our galaxy alone. These became known as Drake’s Equation, and offer a way to calculate the number of civilizations in the Milky Way based on seven variables.* Although scientists can’t yet insert firm numbers for the variables, I think Drake’s effort remains a worthy first attempt at eventually quantifying an answer to Fermi’s question. Especially given that the physical laws of evolution could well differ among far-flung, unfamiliarly diverse chemical, biological, and physical conditions and constraints, yielding singularly different intelligent species.

Many ‘what if’ hypotheses exist by way of possible answers to Fermi’s deceptively simple question. For example, perhaps technology-based civilizations and species with sophisticated intelligence are too far separated by space and time, measured even in thousands of light-years to reveal any presence. Or perhaps, because of the finely grained conditions necessary for life with high intelligence to evolve (the ‘anthropic principle’), civilizations are so rare and scattered that it’s difficult to find each other. Certainly it seems that our own sending-receiving (and space-faring) technologies are too primitive to matter much yet in the sophisticated game of cosmic outreach. Or just perhaps other civilizations have spotted us, but regard humankind as too biologically and intellectually primitive a species to bother with whom to show their hand. Or perhaps they regard humankind as a prototypically warring species, never-endingly engaged in small-minded, lethal belligerence over territory, resources, and power. Perhaps all intelligent species tend toward self-isolating wariness that outweighs curiosity about ‘the other’. Perhaps Thucydides’ thesis that established and rising powers are compelled to go to war applies even on the interplanetary scale.

All that said, should there eventually be confirmation of alien intelligent species that are endowed with far higher levels of consciousness and intelligence than humankind — qualities having evolved over histories hundreds of thousands or millions of years older than ours — then the consequence would be culturally tectonic shifting. As a species, perhaps lulled by so easily triumphing over so many of our Earthly competitors, we’re prone to indulging in flights of ‘exceptionalism’. We’re predisposed to looking at our reflection in life’s mirror and — more often looking down, not up — seeing only reasons to preen over our capacity for rationality, creativity, and imagination. To be unseated, with a thud, by an alien species’ cognitive prowess — and the benefits to its civilization — could prove unsettling for humankind’s indulgences in unchallenged exceptionalism.

At the very least, discovery of our sudden non-uniqueness might compel reexamination of basic principles. It might lead to fundamentally questioning religious texts, customs, tenets, rituals, codes of morality, ‘spirituality’, and dicta. If so, the result may be to rethink and rewrite the underlying explanations and descriptions, widening out the aperture of religious philosophy and theology to take into account the new realities of not being alone in the galaxy and in larger cosmos. At the heart of such teleological investigation and reinvention might be questions, which never go away, about humankind’s purpose: about why we are here.

The stunning space-time topography of this universe isn’t hubristically ours alone. I venture it’s a matter of when, not whether, the ‘code’ to Fermi’s Paradox will be cracked.

*Drake’s equation, as in our image, is typically shown as follows:

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L,

Here N is the number of civilizations in the Milky Way whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable; R* is the rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life; fp is the fraction of those stars with planetary systems; ne is the number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life (the habitable, ‘Goldilocks’ zones around their suns); fl is the fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears; fi is the fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges; fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space; and L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.