As the Obama/Clinton wars drag on, I think of the malign effects of elections. We don't have a pure participatory democracy, such as once obtained in Athens, no doubt for good reasons of practicality. We have a so-called representative democracy, which requires that we elect our leaders by something like popular vote. This requires those things dignified by the word "election": money-driven, ad hominem, gotcha-loving, manipulative, mindfucking, demeaning, grotesque, corrupt, vicious, boring, fake, and so on. The candidates have to persuade the electorate to vote for them, and from this simple fact all the evils flow (combined with a full-blown capitalist-media complex). Imagine having to make yourself popular with everyone in order to be promoted in your job! I would never have got anywhere. I rather despise popularity, seeing it as the sure mark of a lack of integrity. Democracy is bad enough, but to combine it with the hunger for mass popularity is ten times worse. Down with elections!
The pope came and went. Two aspects of his proclamations stood out: on the one hand, his call for more authority and obedience, especially when it comes to the demands of the Catholic church; on the other hand, his condemnation of the sexual abuse inflicted by his priests. Did he not notice a tension between these two sentiments? He's supposed to be logically astute, but it's pretty obvious that the latter thing followed quite smoothly from the former: unquestioning obedience to the authority of the representatives of the church, i.e. priests, is what made possible the sexual abuse they so easily and revoltingly practiced on their "parishioners". You would have thought the pope's message might have been "Don't blindly do what priests tell you!". But then contradictions have never been much of an impediment to the skilled theologian (problem of evil and all that).
In order for democracy to be acceptable, it needs to be combined with legal protections for the rights of minorities (gays, atheists, et al), or else there will be a tyranny of majority rule. But these protections cannot be made subject to the will of the majority or they lose their point and force. So, they must stay in place even if the majority opposes them--which is undemocratic. Therefore, democarcy is acceptable only if it is not absolute. A tolerable form of democracy cannot be consistently democratic. The problem is that democracy and individual rights are at odds with each other.
Now that really is a taboo word. You must never call anyone stupid! But aren't some people just plain stupid? And isn't stupidity the source of much of the world's misery? I'd like to see a "Stupidity Science" movement in which the phenomenon is studied and taxonomized and explained--and remedied. I am certainly not a relativist about stupidity; I think stupidity is an objective trait. Maybe we all all stupid sometimes--but some people are stupid a lot of the time. Stupidity, as I mean it here, refers especially to the opinions and utterances of people who should know better. As the old saying goes: "It would only take a minute's thought...but thought is a difficult thing and a minute is a long time." In the end, of course, stupidity is about character, not IQ.
I was surprised the other day to discover that the "Founding Fathers" (silly phrase), especially John Adams, were quite opposed to democratic government, deeming it mob rule. The Constitution was mainly designed to protect individual rights from any form of tyranny, including majority rule. The reason was the stupidity and selfishness of the average person. This set me to wondering how much of the present state of politics and culture in the USA is the result of misguided democracy. Successful democracy depends upon an adequately educated electorate, unprejudiced and altruistic: but these conditions are not always satisfied by the voters out there. In fact, there is no requirement in the US political system for a president to have even a minimum of education, or even to be able to read and write. Maybe if recognized experts, unelected, were given some political power, the current ills might be mitigated.
What I really think about religion is that the less said about it the better. I'd rather discuss almost any other topic. Debating it always leaves me feeling faintly nauseated. However, religious belief does connect with a topic that does interest me: psychological manipulation. As it happens, I have a new book (very short) coming out on it next month, called--wait for it--Mindfucking. In it I analyze this concept, just as we analytic philosophers are supposed to. People I mention it to think I must be being funny or provocative, but it is actually quite a serious work, with many a ponderous formulation. I'm interested in how our minds can be manipulated--by other people, the media, governments, whole disciplines. Perhaps one's main intellectual responsibility is to ensure that one's mind has not been fucked by outside forces intent on manipulation and control. Let me invite my esteemed commentators here to enter their thoughts on the topic of mindfucking--a healthier subject than the one lately occupying this digital location.
Another breath of fresh air emanates from my recent tennis life. I now have two coaches, David and Claudio. David often counsels me to "hit the ball with love" and he can't stand sloppy footwork. Claudio advocates "more power" and works with me on precise details of the stroke. David is Latin American, Claudio is German. Both are fine tennis players, and superb coaches (and very nice guys). Under their joint, and complementary, influence, my game has been improving dramatically--especially my backhand topspin. This is an example of human cooperation at its best. I've also been employing a new method of practicing: in bed at night I go through my strokes in my imagination, dwelling on the details, trying to install the technique in my mind and body. And it works. For anyone wanting to learn to play properly, here's a bit of advice: work on the stroke with someone who knows how to play without even hitting a ball, in your front room or back yard. Get it right before you venture onto a court; then you won't have laods of bad habits you need to eradicate.
I well remember that sunny morning a few years ago when Jonathan Miller came to my apartment in New York to discuss the non-existence of God. We had been friends for a number of years, and had discussed a great many topics, but we had never, except glancingly, ever spoken about religion. We knew about our shared atheism, but the subject didn’t seem to warrant much attention; in the Miller-McGinn world it was a non-existent topic. So our conversation that morning, which went on for a good two hours, was fresh material. It was a smooth and easy conversation, with much humor and mutual understanding. And yet we were attacking the foundations of what billions of people find essential to living happily (or that’s what they think). In earlier centuries, or in other places, we would have been gruesomely executed for having such a congenial chat.
It is often forgotten that atheism of the kind shared by Jonathan and me (and Dawkins and Hitchens et al) has an ethical motive. Or rather two ethical motives: one is ethical repugnance at the cruelty, tyranny and oppression of organized religion over the course of human history; the other concerns the ethics of rational belief—how we are obliged to form our beliefs about the world. The first motive is familiar and needs no commentary from me. The second is less widely appreciated, but for some of us it is crucial to the whole discussion. We believe, as an ethical principle, that beliefs about what reality contains should always be formed on the basis of evidence or rational argument—so that “faith” is inherently an unethical way to form your beliefs. To believe “on faith” is to believe that the world is a certain way (contains a god etc) without the support of either empirical or logical justification. This violates the ethics of belief—how you ought to arrive at your convictions. That, for us, is the original sin of theism; and from this sin the other sorts of sin arise—religious intolerance, persecution, violence.
In the Atheism Tapes you will see this ethical perspective amply displayed. Atheists through the ages have been moved by a moral imperative: to uphold the rationality of belief. Wishes can never replace justification as a ground of conviction. Contrary to the popular myth, atheists are not people who have abandoned the idea of the moral good; they are people with a particularly clear sense of what moral goodness requires. From our point of view, the typical theist has already done something morally wrong simply in being a theist.
I just wrote a review of Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson for the Wall Street Journal. It's an interesting and provocative book, arguing that American culture is far too obsessed with happiness and not respectful enough of misery. The author admits to his melancholic tendencies, but celebrates them, rather than lamenting them. The general point is that gloom produces insight, creativity and depth, while happiness is bland and static. It raises the question in my mind of whether utilitarianism might have neglected the fact that melancholy can sometimes be a good thing--both instrumentally and intrinsically. Instrumentally, because it can lead to wisdom, creativity etc; but also intrinsically, in that a certain sort of melancholy might be good in itself. What do people think?
Let "weak ethical egoism" be the doctrine that it is wrong to count other people's interests as having more weight than your own like interests, i.e. acting like a "martyr". Let "strong ethical egoism" be the doctrine that it is wrong to count other people's interests as having ANY weight in a case of conflict with your own like interests. Weak EE proceeds from a principle of impartiality in which your interests are not subordinated to the (like) interests of others, and it looks like plain common sense. But strong EE violates such an impartiality principle, and thus is plainly immoral.
I'm teaching Kripke's "Naming and Necessity" as part of my Mind and Language class this semester. In reviewing it, I was struck by footnote 2, in which Kripke acknowledges some of his influences. He writes: "[Rogers] Albritton called the problems of necessity and a prioricity in natural kinds to my attention, by raising the question whether we could discover that lemons were not fruits. I also recall the influence of early conversations with Albritton and with Peter Geach on the essentiality of origins." This is quite a strong acknowledgment to Albritton, especially given the centrality of these ideas to some characteristically "Kripkean" doctrines; indeed, the question about lemons contains the key idea of the Kripkean view of natural kinds. I mention this not to take anything away from Kripke but only to note the important role of Albritton, which I haven't seen duly noted. Since Albritton published so little in his life, despite his philosophical fertility, I thought this footnote to him worth mentioning. And he was a friend of mine when I was visiting at UCLA. I wonder how much of this stuff he had figured out without ever publishing on it...
Perhaps this “dispute” between Honderich and me has gone on too long already—has any worthwhile philosophy emerged from it?—but one thing stood out for me in the generally sensible and fair article by Patricia Cohen. Namely: Honderich speculates that the editors at the Philosophical Review might have been motivated to publish my review by their political opposition to his “moral defense of Palestinian terrorism against neo-Zionism”.
This strikes me as so far into the land of paranoid fantasy as to defy belief, unless it is merely a cynically insincere attempt to discredit the editors. As the chief editor points out, for one thing they didn’t even know about his political views on this subject. He might also have added that such a thing would be political blacklisting and hence against all standards of moral and intellectual decency. It is plainly ludicrous, as well as grossly insulting. But it is actually not much more ludicrous than Honderich’s strange attributions of ulterior motives to me (the business about the ex-girlfriend, for instance, is utter rubbish: for one thing, the woman in question was rather good looking). What also strikes me is that Honderich doesn’t try to accuse me of the same political motive that he so recklessly ventures in respect of the Philosophical Review editors. Why would he suggest such a thing for them and not for me?
The question is worth pondering (in so far anything in this “dispute” is worth pondering). I could wish the newspapers of the world would find other philosophical matters more newsworthy.
Speaking of value, I've just finished my book about the value of sport. Instead of giving my view here, I invite others to submit their answers to this question.
I also invite opinions on who is your favorite reviewer of philosophy books (I've recently had occasion to think about the art of book reviewing).
I noticed on Brian Leiter's blog that Carlin Romano was excoriated for his ignorant article about analytical philosophy and Rorty. Just by chance he reviewed my recent book on Shakespeare and showed a comparable lack of knowledge. Why is it that people who know nothing about philosophy are regularly asked to comment on it?
Where is consciousness headed in 2008? Will people start to lose interest in it, once the lack of progress becomes even more evident?
Will Roger Federer continue to dominate tennis?
It has been generally supposed that certain self-ascriptions, such as "I am in pain", are infallible. This seems right. However, it is clear enough that the self-ascriptive thought is not identical to the state ascribed: the pain isn't the same as the thought about it. This means that these are "distinct existences", in the Humean sense. But if they are distinct existences, they can be conceived apart, which implies that they are contingently connected. So there must be worlds in which the ascription occurs without the state ascribed--which would make the ascription false. So the ascription is fallible. How then can we maintain infallibility while accepting that distinct existences are contingently connected? This is the puzzle of infallibility. How can the metaphysics (distinct existences) be made to fit with the epistemology (infallibility)?
Is something valuable because we value it or do we recognize value in something that it has independently of being valued? (Compare: is something good because the gods say it's good or is goodness something that the gods in their wisdom recognize?) One way to answer this question is to ask if there can be mistakes of value--this suggesting that value is logically independent of valuing. Consider a tribe that eats both carrots and broccoli. Both nourish them and taste equally good. They have value. However, the religion of the tribe decrees (for no good reason) that carrots are the godlier vegetable and dedicates a good deal of reverence and ritual to the act of carrot eating. They regard carrots as of far more value than broccoli. Aren't they simply wrong about this? Carrots and broccoli have equal value, in fact ("objectively"), but they are mistaken about this; they have been misled by their religious ideology. (Compare the value placed on chastity in our religious tradition.) Thus, value is not determined by valuing.
It is often held that something has value only in virtue of being valued by some evaluative being: value is conferred on something by the attitude of valuing. This is supposed to be true even of pleasure. But is the act of valuing itself something that has value? If not, it is hard to see how it could confer value on other things. But if it does have value, then it must do so in virtue of some further act of valuing. Then that valuing in turn must either lack value or have it in virtue of a further act of valuing. An infinite regress results from the latter horn of the dilemma. Therefore, not all value can be had in virtue of acts or attitudes of valuing. Pleasure, for example, is valuable in itself, irrespective of whether anyone regards it as valuable.
Some superpowerful aliens arrive one day and offer to ship us off to their galaxy if we'd like. It's really nice there, they assure us, and they have the photographs to prove it. Our standard of living will go up at least 20% and we can all live at the beach. But if we accept they will have to destroy planet earth (something about an intergalactic highway they're building)--the choice is ours. We can take all the animals with us, if we prefer; transportation isn't a problem. We decide to take them up on their offer. As we leave earth in their spacious space ship we watch as a planet-sized jet of flame incinerates earth behind us. The oceans instantly evaporate, the atmosphere blows away, all traces of life are destroyed; what remains is a smoking expanse of melted rubble. And it will stay like this for all eternity. Wouldn't you feel bad about about this act of cosmic vandalism? Wouldn't you feel you had done something wrong? Something of great value had been destroyed--something of beauty, interest, and fecundity (see my Climate Change entry). This shows that the earth is valuable for reasons that transcend its instrumental value to us.
If physics needs an interpretation, in rather the way a formal language does, if it is to be meaningful, doesn't that show that metaphysics is indispensable? Physical knowledge can't be all the knowledge there is, because the formulas of physics stand in need of interpretation. Are electrons continuant particulars or are they just sequences of events? Are there categorical properties lurking behind the dispositions to motion we observe? Are particles really nothing but fields? Is consciousness present even at the most fundamental level? Physics itself doesn't answer these questions, so that complete knowledge of the physical world requires metaphysical knowledge in addition to physical knowledge in the strict sense. You can't know the nature of the physical world by knowing physics alone.
I'm about to go to Chicago for a conference on global warming and like environmental issues (part of the Chicago Festival of the Humanities). I'm appearing with Peter Singer and Chris Stone, with Dale Jamieson as chair. For me there will be some local cooling--going from Miami to Chicago. My thesis will be that the earth is intrinsically valuable, not merely valuable because it houses us. Therefore the earth can be harmed and its value compromised--say, by rendering it barren. I think the value of the earth depends upon three main factors: its physical beauty, seen from up close or from a distance; its ability to support life in all its forms; and its inherent interestingness (much more so than the moon, say). When we damage the earth we run the risk of destroying its value-conferring properties. So climate change is potentially bad not merely because it threatens the well-being of future humans but also because it right now offends against the earth's intrinsic value.
I like W.D. Ross's mixed deontology of irreducible prima facie duties, like keeping promises and repaying debts and exercising beneficence. Ross takes these duties to be self-evident and known with certainty, while he acknowledges that we can have no more than "probable opinion" about the rightness of a particular action. He also accepts that the several duties can conflict with each other and that we have no recourse except to use our "judgment" in such cases, with no overarching criterion of rightness to resolve such conflicts. Critics have found these to be weaknesses in his position. I, on the contrary, find them to be strengths. It really is true that the right act is often the fortunate act, and that ascriptions of absolute rightness are hostage to unforseen consequences. Also, it is a philosopher's illusion to think that there can be any escape from conflicts of principle: moral directives don't always harmonize and decisions will require the use of context-bound judgment. How can we weigh the wrongness of telling a lie against the potential benefits of lying? There's no litmus test.
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